Monday, 13 February 2012

Prayers in the States

We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. . . . They swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots . . . they are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. (Richard Dawkins)

A man has got as much right to employ in his speech the established and traditional facts of human history as he has to employ any other piece of common human information. And it is as reasonable for a man who knows no French to assume that Villon was a good poet as it would be for a man who has no ear for music to assume that Beethoven was a good musician. Because he himself has no ear for music, that is no reason why he should assume that the human race has no ear for music. (G.K. Chesterton)

Our politicians say them in French at the start of every States sitting, but after a High Court judge ruled prayers at council meetings unlawful, should they be removed from the States chamber too?

Recently I heard on the radio, Dr Reg Le Sueur, a humanist, argue that the prayers should be removed as irrational and irrelevant, as nonsense. He thinks prayers have a place, in Church, but not in a modern secular democracy.

A strange inconsistency is that prayers with mention of God precede the States, but even an expression like "godforsaken", which is quite acceptable in the UK Parliament, is forbidden in States debates, and when last used, brought a stern rebuke by the Bailiff to the offender!

But this is part and parcel of the "keep religion out of politics" - members cannot refer to other members beliefs, even if it is patently obvious, as in debates on abortion or homosexuality, that the hidden reasons stem from those beliefs. As a result, debates on such matters seem curiously lop-sided, as spurious arguments are thrown up in place of real arguments.

But Dr Le Sueur has a very strange idea of what is irrational or irrelevant. It seems to come down to what he thinks is irrational or irrelevant. He is the "rational man", and he can see what is rational and what is not.

Does he celebrate his birthday? If married, does he give her a red rose on Valentine's day? These - like States prayers - are not really rational, but we are human beings, not machines, and we need legacies of the past to remind us of that. Romance is not rational, prayers may not be rational, but neither may be irrelevant. Does Dr Le Sueur ever whistle as he walks, or is he too rational for that?

Mary Midgley in "Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature" argues that we must be very careful in how we understand rationality, and the interplay between reasoning and emotions:

It includes a definite structure of preferences, a priority system based on feeling. Now that kind of structure is not peculiar to the human race, but is also found in the higher animals.

So to say something is "rational" in the way that Dr Le Sueur does is to make value judgements about it, from his own vantage point, and priorities some feelings he has about how the world should be ordered. It is not something that could be derived as a kind of bare mathematical proof, which would be true regardless of who was considering it.

If you read the literature of the 18th century, instead of "rationality", we have "Reason", invariably with a capital "R" and often as the subject of a sentence. "Reason says....". As Midgley remarks:

"Reason" is not the name of a character in a drama. It is a name for organizing oneself. When there is a conflict, one desire must be restrained to make way for the other. It is the process of choosing which that is rightly called reasoning.

And she says the mode of thinking which uses "rationality" or "reason" as an argument is in fact part of a way of thinking and not as transparent or obvious as the user might think. This she says is an "essentially colonial picture"

in which an imported governor, named Reason, imposes order on a chaotic alien tribe of Passions or Instincts. The colonial picture, which is Plato's, was handed down through the Stoics, Descartes and Spinoza, to Kant.

She contrasts that with "Bishop Butler's (and to some extent Aristotle's) picture, to talk of what Butler called 'the whole system, as I may speak, of affections, including rationality, which constitute the Heart.', and argues that we must regard reason as "growing out of and completing a natural balance of parts"

Chesterton, too, talked about the imbalance in reason, and sees this as a a distortion of the natural balance, where the

explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Nevertheless he is wrong.  But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.  Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.  A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world....He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea:  he is sharpened to one painful point.  He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.

Midgley comments that:

Obsessiveness unbalances people's tastes against biological advantage. In no species do instincts form a perfectly balanced, infallible set, a smooth machine, such as human envy supposes animals to have.

and she returns to Bishop Butler:

Reason alone, whatever anyone may wish, is not in reality a sufficient motive of virtue in such a creature as man; but this reason joined with those affections which God has impressed upon his heart.. Neither is affection itself at all a weakness; nor does it argue defect, any otherwise than our senses and appetites do.. Both our senses and our passions are a supply to the imperfections of our nature.. But it is not the supply, but the deficiency, as it is not a remedy, but the disease, which is the imperfection. (Bishop Butler)

Should there be prayers before the States begin? And in French, which may not even be understood by some States members? Seen as part of an irrational continuity with the past, perhaps they could be considered dispensable. But they harm no one, and they can also be seen as part of an emotional continuity with the past, that countless Jerseymen have sat in that Chamber, and heard those words.

We tamper with the fine tapestry of the past at our peril. There may be occasions where it is threadbare, where it actually causes harm, and needs repair with modern work, but at other times, if we pull that tapestry apart, we will never put it together. There will be a loss, not a loss that can be quantified and weighed, any more than one can quantify and weigh a piece of sublime music.

Pride is unlucky. And it was in insolence and contempt that you set yourself to trample on the traditions or the follies of humbler men; so that you have come to trample on a holier thing at last.

Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature. Mary Midgley, 2002
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
The Poet and the Lunatics, G.K. Chesterton
Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel by Joseph Butler

1 comment:

James said...

after a High Court judge ruled prayers at council meetings unlawful

sigh...this is a non-story. Check this out. All it bans is making prayers a compulsory part of Council business - something that the States doesn't do, as far as I know.