Lazy Luddite Log

28.10.09

Elevated Anecdote

Blogging is a fantastic way of recording and sharing personal anecdotes but it has struck me that this is only the case for those events that have happened during the era of blogging. And with that in mind I have decided that I want to draw some old anecdotes from my past and put them here. It will be something I only do from time-to-time but I will start with one particular incident in this entry. And - like this incident - I will try to limit my anecdotes to just those that are somehow distinctive and also to those that involve friends who have been important to me. So here we go...

Back when I was still at uni I spent a lot of weekends with a handful of friends who had met via this one event at the start of our uni lives - the United Nations Youth Associate (UNYA) Tertiary Youth Conference 1991. This story has nothing to do with that week-long con but it is how Us as we called ourselves got together. One of those involved was my longest-term friend to date - Guy - whom I had met at the start of secondary school. Anyway...

One day we were all getting together to go have a picnic by the Bay. And as we were all uni students we carpooled in one or two cars and drove from suburb to suburb collecting passengers. We had come to collect another friend - Sean - who at the time lived on the fourteenth floor of apartments on Nicholson Street in Carlton. So Guy and I took the elevator to go and collect him. As the lift rose we did something kinda stupid.

There was a song in the charts at the time by the teenaged hip-hop duo Kriss Kross called
Jump Jump. It was pretty trashy and we knew it but nonetheless something possessed us both to "jump jump" in unison as the lift moved. How were we to know that two young men jumping was all it would take for an elevator to get stuck between floors?

And the only way of communicating with the outside world was via a buzzer button. Yep - these lifts were too primitive to have an intercom and we were living in the 90s baby - so who had a mobile phone back then? The buzzer seemed to attract the attention of one elderly resident - we knew that because she called to us via the walls and doors. I think from that we established that mechanics were on the way to look at the problem.

All we could do was sit. I had some paper in my backpack and - well - it may surprise you but in those days I was a bit imaginative and a tiny bit melodramatic. So I suggested that we may need to keep the paper to write farewell messages in case we never escaped. Guy - whose scientific knowledge and sarcasm far exceeds mine - assured me that we still had a hour or so of oxygen. He persuaded me to share the paper and play Noughts & Crosses with him.

A bit later the elderly resident called to us to ask "are you still there". Um - yes - yes we were.

Anyway eventually the elevator did move level with a floor and the doors opened. We ran all the way down the stairs to find the others who convinced us to come with them
back into the other elevator to go fetch Sean. I think we spent 45 minutes in that lift. Till that time such an experience was just something from movies. In the end all I lost was some paper but I got a pretty good anecdote from the thing. And I think we enjoyed the picnic later that day too.

Note: I promise to use more commas rather than just all these dashes. I will try.

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5.10.09

Supernatural Moral

I had lunch with a friend recently on the grounds of the Australian National University (ANU). Following lunch I walked past what looked like the start of a public debate. Posters close by told me it was a debate between the local skeptics and evangelical Christians. For a moment that part of my that enjoys arguments (a dwindling part in recent times) wanted to stay and watch the show but I quickly changed my mind and walked on. The topic was presumably over the existence of God which would inevitably have been yet another "coz I say so" kind of exchange. Even the likely tone put me off - skeptics who think they are so clever versus fundamentalists who feel they are so very right. I also think the debate itself is lop-sided.

The objective of the skeptics is to dismiss any and all things supernatural. In contrast the fundamentalists are only interested in asserting the existence of one supernatural thing - a monotheist god. I would rather see a program of two separate debates. In the first of such debates the skeptics would face a mixed panel of anyone who embraces the supernatural (say a Christian and a Hindu and a Shintoist). Seeing such groups interact would be interesting in itself. Only once the matter of the supernatural was debated would there then be a second debate in which the virtues of different religions were discussed.

What kind of decision-making processes are involved in choosing a religion if one thinks that there is such a thing as supernatural agents that expect us to have a relationship with them? For many religious practitioners I suspect context and circumstance direct the decision made. A person decides that monotheism makes sense to them and the society they live in has a predominantly Christian heritage so naturally they become Christian. There is still the matter of which denomination in which to participate but that may be affected by who one knows - family and friends go to a particular church and are happy to provide an invitation to the next gathering.

But what if the prospective religious person decided to make a conscious investigation of the alternatives. A debate between religions would be more focused on morality than on cosmology as different religions vie for adherents. And in introducing morality I am interested in the moral standing of the supernatural agents themselves. So much religion focuses on the actions of mortals but what of immortals?

Is it - for instance - right for a parental figure to allow its wayward children to be tortured forever if it can do anything at all to prevent it. Many parents the world over will have adult children who have done what they consider to be wrong and yet they will still love and accept those children and do anything they can for them. That is the nature of parental love. Should we expect more or less from a supernatural parent? I would think we would expect more. And yet the historical development of religions is such that we assess the conduct of gods on the basis of barbarian monarchs from times in which the concept of compassion lacked any kind of prestige.

An atheist will deny the existence of such monsters of the imagination. But as an agnostic I have to consider the possibility (however remote) that the assertions of the most hateful of fundamentalists may be right. And if they are right what should I do? The pragmatic thing would be to choose the most vengeful of religions and do what it says to the letter. But I have a hunch that resisting intimidation and abuse even if it has a supernatural form is the moral thing to do. It may be a difficult thing to do however once I am shown the instruments of torture.

And those instruments of torture are shown to us even in this day-and-age. There on that street corner on a busy shopping day is the intense stare and the stirring words of an evangelist who rants on-and-on about fire and brimstone and whose placard asks "where will you spend eternity". Such a person may be in a tiny minority compared with those Christians who interpret Hell as the much milder "absence of God". But such a person has the visibility and passion and for many of us is the face of Christianity (which I focus on because of the history of my culture even while I am aware that other world religions have similar problems).

I have sometimes considered asking one of those street corner advocates how they feel peddling terror. I think they may respond that they are warning us of the dangers of Satan rather than of God but for me a protection racket is still a form of assault. Ultimately we work under very different assumptions. For the evangelist goodness is whatever God says it is. For me however 'might is right' is a philosophy we need to consign to the history books.

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