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Today has been a day of ups and downs. And the first of three visist to the Oxford Literary Festival.

Good: CDs arriving in the post from brassyn and gagravarr.
Bad: After ten days of glorious sunshine, the weather decides to turn nasty the day I'm going to Oxford.
Worse: Glastonbury has sold out. Although that may not be a lost cause.
Better: I leave work early and drive to Oxford. As I drive, the weather clears up somewhat.
Very Bad: As I stand outside the Sheldonian waiting for Ollie, a text arrives from Naomi. She's been roped into working in the evening, can't get out of it, and won't make it up to Oxford at all.
Worse: It starts raining. No, seriously. The timing was phenomenal. Sure, it wasn't proper heavy, bleak rain, it was a warm shower, but it was still impressive timing.

After all that, I wasn't sure how the evening would go. The good news is, both events were excellent, and I had a pleasant dinner with Ollie and Rachel afterwards. The bad news is, I kept thinking how much Naomi would have enjoyed herself. Ah, well; there's still friday and saturday.


Philip Pullman is always excellent value for money. I may sometimes think he paints his arguments with slightly too broad a brush, but he has an uncanny knack for getting at the heart of an issue. This evening he was talking about education, and specifically the place of reading and writing in the curriculum. I get the impression he and greengolux have a deal in common in this area; Pullman tore into just about every form of assessment you can think of as inadequate and wasteful. And - I suspect more controversially - he criticised teachers. Oh, it was in the context of criticising the system that discourages the best and the brightest from teaching, but he made no bones about the fact that, in his eyes, the best and the brightest are discouraged and that those who are left, in many cases, are not up to scratch.

He argued for the return of narrative - to teaching in general, not just to the teaching of literature. He described, quite persuasively, the advantages of couching history, music, even science in the form of stories. Hell, he almost had me wanting to be a teacher myself.

I have to say that I was a little apprehensive about the festival; concerned, perhaps, that the atmosphere would be too formal or too highbrow. I'm happy to report that that wasn't the case - not for Pullman, who quite happily stood in the middle of the (disgracefully empty) Sheldonian and took questions, and not for the second author of the evening, Richard Harries, either.

The Bishop of Oxford was discussing his new book, God Outside The Box. Faith and religion are concepts that fascinate and irritate me in nearly equal measure, so the lure of this particular talk was irresistable. It didn't disappoint. There were anecdotes: Apparently, Harries read His Dark Materials and, whilst recognising the anti-church (sub)text of the novels, concluded that Pullman was nonetheless a deeply spiritual man. When he actually met Pullman at a workshop, he tried to say this. The response was left to our imagination; I have this beautiful mental image of Pullman merely sitting there, arms crossed, glowering.

There were scary statistics: Apparently, 88% of the population would describe themselves as 'spiritual'. And then there was the debate itself, during which I kept thinking of SF reference points I wanted to raise: The Sparrow, 'Hell Is The Absence Of God', Life Of Pi, The Second Coming. The last of those I actually did raise during the questions at the end, asking whether the existence of God did not necessarily limit the maturation of humanity. To his credit, I think, Harries' answer basically boiled down to: Well, we have free will and everything but yes, you can look at it that way, which is why the only way to do good for good's sake is, whilst believing in God, to pretend God doesn't exist. He had a much more elegant quotation to back this up, but I just liked the up front-ness of it all: If you're going to practice doublethink, it's nice that you admit that's what you're doing.

At UKP6 or more per event, this week isn't going to be cheap for me; but if the remaining events are even nearly as good as these two, it's going to be value for money.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Given that my own brand of atheistic spirituality is precisely because I fail to see the relevance of God(s) to the question of a person acting for good or ill. I find that if one is in fact an independent rational agent who makes willful decisions, one also has to bear all the responsibility for those decisions ... no gods to excuse one's actions I say.

The flip side of course is that the individual then should receive all the rewards for that decision...that having been said, there are countless good ethical reasons not to be selfish about such bounty. :-)

A bit of a hard-line I suppose, but it has been this basic question that has driven me from God(s) utterly. ;-)

At least I do not deny the existence of Gods, I just find their moral relevance for personal decisions, beyond metaphoric instruction, very limited - or should be. I should probably specify that I take the greatest exception to the omni-Gods ... they are just so unrealistic. ;-)
A bit of a hard-line I suppose, but it has been this basic question that has driven me from God(s) utterly. ;-)

Nah, not really. Sounds like 'sense' to me. More sensical than many a dogmatic and plenty a non-dogmatic relgion, as far as I'm concerned. I'll find my meaning wherever I damn well please, thankyouverymuch :o)

At least I do not deny the existence of Gods, I just find their moral relevance for personal decisions, beyond metaphoric instruction, very limited - or should be. I should probably specify that I take the greatest exception to the omni-Gods ... they are just so unrealistic. ;-)

Being rather the agnostic rationalist, I can't say I deny the existence of God(s), I just won't affirm they do exist. Personally haven't seen anything that would convince me; I prefer to be awed by the vastness and complexity the universe itself has created, and then try to hammer away at it with science. Where possible. Where not possible, I don't feel there's any value in inventing higher beings (which have a whole set 'o' issues, logically, right there), anthropomorphic or otherwise, to explain the unexplained.

On personal, moral values, having any absolute can only be a dangerous thing, and basing life on books written centuries, if not millenia, ago, and holding their contents to be Natural/Divine Truths..well, that way lies badness. Religion, particularly organised, dogmatic religion, is one of the most destructive forces the world has ever known. Not to say it hasn't helped many, but it's definitely not unreservedly a Good Thing.

Right. Must be off to prep my Medical Ethics tutoring for third year students at this Christian University I attend. Oh, the irony...

I just find their moral relevance for personal decisions, beyond metaphoric instruction, very limited

The argument goes that knowledge of or belief in the existence of God necessarily limits the maturation of humanity, because you can never prove you're doing good things for the sake of their being good things - there's always the concept of reward or punishment confusing the issue. Plus, religion has a way of distorting people's focus just by existing. Existence of God, interestingly, doesn't cause a problem, as long as we don't know He exists!
I just find their moral relevance for personal decisions, beyond metaphoric instruction, very limited

The argument goes that knowledge of or belief in the existence of God necessarily limits the maturation of humanity, because you can never prove you're doing good things for the sake of their being good things - there's always the concept of reward or punishment confusing the issue.


This is something many sophisticated religious thinkers have discussed. I can't really talk about other religions, but certainly in the Judeo-Christian tradition the concepts of reward and punishment aren't always fundamental concepts for holding that faith.

Many Christians I've come across don't believe in the heaven/hell idea - there's a whole range of thoughts about what happens after death, and that's just one of them. One idea is that in the afterlife we will be perfectly good and god-like, and our punishment for any wrongdoings in life will simply be the knowledge that we did them, and that we were wrong, and that in doing those wrong things we distanced ourselves from God.

There're loads of other ideas too. A lot of intelligent people are religious, and have wanted to take full and proper responsibility for their lives and actions. Religion can be given as a simplistic set of answers, and can be used an excuse, but that's not everything religion is.
Hm, that was one of the things in the literary festival that looked rather appealing (not least because it was in the Sheldonian) but I was already doing two things and had decided against a third. I'm sure I remember free nights, once upon a time ...

Coming from a family of teachers I do find the blanket condemnation of teachers practiced by certain people (who perhaps like to feel that they built their own genius with no help from anyone) harsh bordering on offensive. Also, for an Oxford Don to merrily claim that all qualifications are irrelevant is a bit like a millionaire saying money doen't matter to them -- in a sense, it's true, but only from *their* perspective.
who perhaps like to feel that they built their own genius with no help from anyone

No, that wasn't really it. It was more a vicious circle argument: If excellent people do go into teaching, they get discouraged by the suckiness of the system, which has meant that less and less excellent people do go into teaching. Meanwhile, those excellent and those good people who are left are constrained by the system.

merrily claim that all qualifications are irrelevant is a bit like a millionaire saying money doen't matter to them

Hmm. Again, no, it wasn't quite that; when questioned he conceeded that in theory qualifications are necessary. It's just that he thinks the existing ones are all useless. I think 'willfully misguided' was the phrase (particularly for arts subjects).

There must be a transcript of this somewhere; it's possible I'm misquoting him somewhat.
Faith and religion are concepts that fascinate and irritate me in nearly equal measure

Me too, though in my case they were originally concepts that mostly baffled me. Hence the three years spent studying theology. They don't baffle me quite as much now, and, surprisingly, I find they irritate me much less too.

Now that I have what I think is a fairly good understanding of at least one religion I find I'm quite protective of the concepts of faith and religion, and get irritated instead when people misunderstand them - either in the case of misunderstandings within religion, leading to things being said and done in the name of religion that ought not to, or in the case of misunderstandings from people outside religion, who don't give religious people/thought/faith the credit they often deserve.

There's still something fundamental about religion that baffles me, however.

Apparently, 88% of the population would describe themselves as 'spiritual'.

It's nebulous terms like 'spiritual' that make me most baffled. When people can explain to me the specific ideas behind their 'spirituality' I can sometimes follow them, but too often I suspect that people don't really know what they mean when they call themselves 'spiritual'.

If it's something that can be explained in other terms, then use those other terms. If it's not explicable, then I'm afraid I have no idea what 'spirituality' is supposed to mean.
It's nebulous terms like 'spiritual' that make me most baffled.

Harries' definition seemed to literally mean 'having spirit'; there didn't seem to be any component to it that was...more than mortal, if I can put it that way. He seemed to define it as having a sense of wonder about the world, and about life.

I don't think that definition is particularly meaningful, myself.