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Essay

God’s only excuse

Those who can induce you to believe absurdities can induce you to commit atrocities.

– Voltaire

"HE'S PARTY, I'M sure." My mother was reading the newspaper and drinking her 10th cup of tea
of the morning. Tea was made by dripping hot water from the kettle onto leaves in a strainer. The kettle was always almost boiling, quietly grumbling on the stove, making little bangs
over a minuscule flame. The parsimonious habits of austerity persisted despite our newly
found comfort.

She pointed at the picture of a Hollywood star; it may have been John Garfield. "He's been Party for ages."

I didn't think about it then (I was far too young) that "Party" should have a capital P and lack the definite article. Mr Garfield wasn't just "in the party" – meaning the Communist Party. He was Party: One Of Us.

My father concurred. He and my mother were not often in agreement. Even on the wetness of water or the nature of pink. But knowing who was Party was of the essence.

I was eight. We were living in Vienna not long after the War (another capital word). It was the city of Harry Lime, occupying forces and strange tides of allegiance. We were Working Class but living in a swank apartment near the famous Prater, a glorious park with the Big Wheel and a spectacular fun fair from which vast stretches of woodland and horse-chestnut avenues reached as far as the Old Danube, and with two servants, Gertrude and Trudi, to do our bidding.

Vienna was a city seething with officials from newly placed international organisations. It rivalled Geneva. My parents were in the World Federation of Trade Unions. I knew little about it then and had heard nothing since, until, strangely, I came across a mention of it in John le Carré's latest novel, Absolute Friends. The WFTU was headquartered in a palace in the centre of Vienna. It's remarkable how well Party People

took to palaces. The staircases were marble and the chandeliers enormous, but being Party, it turned out, wasn't a sufficient qualification.

My parents often did a bit of a triage on their comrades. I didn't understand the subtlety of these judgements.

Drinkwater, for example, was definitely Party, but not up to speed. Once at a cocktail do in one of the vast reception areas where archdukes had cavorted, Drinkwater languidly asked me to fetch him a canapé. "You took your time, boy," he remarked on my return, lounging in his couch. I replied: "My father says you're too slow to catch a cold."

It just came out. He stared at me. His companions froze. My mother, nearby, began a qualifying sentence but gave up, for once at a loss. There's a quality of silence, Barry Jones once told me, that you learn to recognise.

At home I wasn't punished, much to my amazement. No beating. The moment was allowed to pass. But I became eternally confused. How could someone be one of us, Party, yet still on the outer. Not really one of us at all! Could I ever cope with the intricacies of being grown up?

And why was "us" important? What about "them"? As I got older I met people I liked who turned out to be them. Sometimes I was made to drop them. This was a pity because they were often more fun than us. Party people were the opposite of what they sounded like. No bells and whistles, silly hats or tangos. Instead, grim-faced, they were always making references to "discipline" and "struggle". Like Presbyterians at a wake. I would picture struggle as a Houdini-like figure wriggling in a straitjacket and forever failing to escape. Not the wellspring of social spontaneity, this Party. Even with its new-found comforts.

 

I WASN'T VERY good at being us. One afternoon I was taken to a Young Pioneer group whose members met in some dark rooms in the basement of a large apartment building along the Danube Canal. The Pioneers were correct-line scouts, campers with agitprop, nurseries for Party. Vast portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin loomed over our small heads. The youth in charge talked for hours about what seemed to be rules and procedures. I was, from the very start, bad at rules, worse at catechism. Especially when handed down in the presence of frowning men with beards (OK, Stalin had only a moustache, but it sat like a wild animal under his nose). I never went back.

How did my parents, decent people of considerable culture, a Welsh miner and an East London linguist, become ensnared as small actors in a le Carré landscape with its codes, certainties and exclusions? The answer is simple: 75 years ago in Europe you chose; you were either for the fascists or against them. There was no in between. Only fools or drunks or the terminally bewildered allowed themselves to sidestep history.

My parents also saw themselves and their friends as idealists. Unlike fascists, they did not wish to rid the world of a race of humans. Sub-humans. They were nothing like the Nazis about whom Martin Amis ( whose father Kingsley was also Party in the 1940s) agonises in Korba the Dread (Vintage, 2002). Why do we not see supporters of Stalin as so obviously evil and culpable as we see the supporters of Hitler? he asks. Stalin's numbers were as bad. Worse. At that time it was because the left, the ordinary socialists, saw "us" as the grassroots. What my father called the body politicUs was not the men in suits (like Drinkwater) nor the moustachioed generalissimos with their Cro-Magnon-brows and festoons of medallions, enough to make Idi Amin look modest.

My father's heroes were, ultimately, the miners and their families he had grown up with in South Wales and with whom he'd toiled underground from the age of 14. They were the enslaved gold miners of South Africa whom he went to help, quixotically, in the 1950s, with the likes of Mandela. His heroes were not the square-shouldered tyrants reviewing parades of tanks in Red Square. They were the hollow-eyed, near-starved workers without work who somehow kept their communities alive and for whom the word "struggle" was more than a comrade's slogan. Before he died, when I was 18, I saw my father hunched in front of a BBC documentary about Stalin. He was whispering something repeatedly. I crept closer and heard the words, "You ruthless bastard!"

Were us different from them? That is a judgement for history. What is as significant is how close they could have been to merging. The ingredients were there. Harsh social circumstances, the call for absolute discipline to face a common enemy, an elaborate ideology, a dogma, men with beards (or moustaches) laying down the law. "Communism is just fascism with a human face," wrote Susan Sontag. Under such circumstances, ultimately, you can make people do anything.

 

ANYTHING. THAT'S THE incubus of mankind. Beslan, Auschwitz, Kokoda, Culloden, Rwanda, My Lai – no outrage is beyond us. And we can do evil casually, almost without feeling. With banality.

The big question is whether this is an intrinsic quality or whether first we need to be pushed to extremes. Do we behave despicably in ordinary times because we're bored, stupid or just intrinsically nasty? Or does it take crisis to make us evil? Watching the news in the past year it has been easy to assume the first, that we are, according to Harvard professor Richard Wrangham, demonic.

Evolutionary science seems to give some credibility to this, but not quite. It takes a lot of energy and resources to be vicious. Peacefulness costs less. We may need to belong but must this mean that we have to despise those who don't?

A strong commitment to family and friends is obviously vital. Otherwise babies would perish and communities crumble. Even in extremis we persevere altruistically in the cause of us. Anthropologist Colin Turnbull's 1970s contrary example of the Ik tribe of Uganda, who allowed their children to waste away in time of famine, has been vigorously disputed. Most of us go to enormous lengths to care for our own. Similarly, we seem to be enraptured with the landscape. Our Country. Where we belong. Harvard biologist Ed Wilson calls this biophiliaIt makes sense to assume we have a strong feeling for who we are and where we come from.

The trouble arises when populations become larger and wealth accumulates. We need more social glue. By then we can afford priests and shamans to make it for us. Religion is apparently universal among human beings everywhere. Its purpose may be to console for loss and disaster and prepare us for the inevitability of death. Above all, it gives us a badge, a totem, a definition of us. It is a unifier. It is also a powerful means of control.

But religion doesn't necessarily come with an ethical code. Jared Diamond writes of many tribal people, such as those in Papua New Guinea, whose robust religious paraphernalia provides not a whit of Thou Shalt. We do not need magic or messiahs to help us live decently, to provide an ethical code. David Sloane Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press, 2002) sums up the binding role of belief: "Something as elaborate – as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming – as religion would not exist if it didn't have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechanisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside them."

Religions, in those circumstances, are adaptive. Even the scouring, the ritual asceticism, the sacrifice are, paradoxically, reinforcers. Suffering seems a much more likely qualifier for belonging than sweet self-indulgence. Some religions do offer promiscuous sex and sensual massage as part of the deal but they tend not to last as long as those religions demanding celibacy, flagellation and staying mute. They keep us under control.

Another part of the deal is that the leader in tandem with his priest has a special line to the deity. Diamond poses the essential question succinctly: "But how does the chief get the peasants to tolerate what is basically the theft of their food by classes of social parasites?"

His answer: "The solution devised by every known chiefdom and early state society – from ancient Egypt to Polynesian Hawaii to the Inca Empire – was to proclaim an organised religion with the following tenets: the chief or king is related to the gods; he or she can intercede with the gods on behalf of the peasants (eg to send rain or ensure a good harvest). In return for those services, the peasants should feed the chief and his priests and tax collectors. Standardised rituals, carried out at standardised temples, serve to teach these religious tenets to the peasants so that they will obey the chief and his lackeys."

Should the peasants become restless, Diamond might have added, we can stir up some loathing of those folk over the mountain who may look like us but worship Goz instead of Zog. Non-Party. Them. Nothing like an external enemy to pacify the populous. All this was clearly adaptive, in the main, because human societies survived and grew and are now covering the planet. The creative role of conflict is crucial. More on that later.

But religions differ from most human systems of ideas in that they are absolute. Few gods can be sent back, except in ancient Greece, because they've got it wrong. Gods Know. It is we who get things wrong by misinterpreting God's intentions. Or Stalin's. The failure is always ours. Even a sophisticated god, such as the Christian one, cannot be blamed for Auschwitz (and all those other geographical horrors listed above) because it's up to us. We are free to choose concentration camps. And to murder children in Beslan. Or to blow up a school bus shouting "God is great!" Religion flourishes as democracy fades. Religion is in the ascendant in America today. When policies fail, God is invoked. He threatens to overwhelm politics in Africa and Asia.

Back to Wrangham's Demonic Males (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)a book about killer chimpanzees. Are they really wired to attack, mutilate and kill outsiders? Pictures of this being done by our closest relative are as compelling as they are disturbing. Why torture a stranger and his brothers in this way? Is it just how they are? How we are? Is there a biological original sin in our genes that makes us turn into Stalin, Pol Pot or their faithful servants?

Jane Goodall and other ethologists, while recognising the vicious treatment of those outsiders, point to the chaotic and deprived state of the habitat where this is done. Gombe National Park, Tanzania, where she famously studied wild chimpanzees, is being logged and poached. The forest home is disappearing. Chimp society is being subjected to the same upheavals as Rwandan and Bosnian human society was – and is. Under such circumstances us-and-they differences can easily become the basis for genocide.

 

THE REALLY INTERESTING question is whether the contrary applies: will stable, flourishing societies be less vulnerable? There are a few clues. Wars between secular democracies are unknown. Democracies require that we regularly hand over power to them, on the basis, of course, that they will regularly give it back. Democracies, even American ones, also try to keep religion in the cloister. They also welcome outsiders ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddling masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore"... ) – though not as often as they might. Healthy societies, like forests, benefit from biodiversity.

To give a contemporary example from my own experience. When, in 1996, the Howard Government looked at the ABC it saw an institution it didn't like. It was, in the words of one Tory, "our enemies talking to our friends".

A somewhat unsubtle way to tackle this difficulty was to appoint a chum of the prime minister, Donald McDonald, as chairman of the corporation. Then, in 2000, to place another member of the Party, Jonathan Shier (though he was once a leader of the Young Liberals in Victoria, he claimed to be lapsed at the time of his appointment) as managing director. His riding instructions, from the PM's office, I'm told by a senior Liberal Party member, were to "change the culture at the ABC".

Now this is perfectly normal power politics and unsurprising after 13 years on the sidelines during which the conservatives became understandably cross about a number of ABC activities. It is what Shier did to change "the culture" that some of us found shocking.

He sacked the ABC senior managers. All of them. He committed executive cleansing. He then set out to do the same with middle management. Stalin's friend Lavrentii Beria would have been proud. The aim, remember, was not to replace a poor leadership with a better one. It was to transform the culture of an institution.

Did it work? Not at all. The culture was unchanged. It simply became more impoverished and resentful. The mission to change them (ABC pinkoes) into us (right-minded professionals) failed for the same reason that the British failed to quash the Irish rebels and the Americans are failing in Iraq. You cannot impose a culture from above. Not for long.

How do you change culture? At the ABC you could do so by hiring bright kids. This is also cheaper (Shier wasted $37 million in his cavalier adventure) and far more insidious. Advertise jobs for young Australians, appoint the best and they automatically (unless you bind and gag them) trash old-fashioned ideas and biases before you can say the word "elite". It's human biodiversity. But replace one lot of suits with another lot and what are you left with? Suits!

"Hire the best people you can find and let them do what they want." That wasn't the New Age rant of a pony-tailed management guru from Byron Bay. That was Bill Gates.

 

ORGANISED RELIGION RELIES on authority in the same way as Jonathan Shier relied on correct-line suits. It is a top-down approach. But it is also an enormously sophisticated psychological exercise, as anthropologist Robin Dunbar has pointed out in his latest book, The Human Story (Faber and Faber, 2004)It is at the fifth, or highest level, of cognition, of intention. After an ability to recognise ourselves, others and others playing tricks on us, all within the capacities of clever animals such as apes and dogs, we humans add our own unique bit of brain power: we can imagine gods. Other worlds. (This may also explain how we can take the other-worldly nature of modern motivational management seriously). This capacity for spiritual belief has served us well in history as a unifying force – though at some considerable cost.

The natural size of us, of our intimate community, according to Dunbar, is 150. Beyond that number we find it hard to cope socially. Your 150 may include several at the end of intercontinental phone lines or email, but it is your "village" – the size of close society your brain capacity is equipped to deal with. Dunbar claims to be able to predict the size of an animal's likely social group from the depth of its cerebral cortex.

Greater populations require a means of social cohesion beyond the capacities we were born with. This could be shared experience of television, music, literature, fashion – what Richard Dawkins calls the "extended phenotype". This is extra-somatic inheritance – it evolves outside our bodies. Religion, with its initially homely gods and limited kit back in the forest, also evolved. Randy gods with whimsical or capricious habits became one mysterious all-powerful god. Anachronisms of faith were quietly abandoned as they became more embarrassing and manifestly absurd. Most modern priests would have been burned as heretics only a few hundred years ago. Religious infrastructure also evolved, sometimes to disastrous levels, as in Easter Island and Central America. And Rome. Church unified us in our separate societies. Sometimes too much. In hard times, those not recognised as Party, the infidels, had to go. Crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, cleansings were required.

Let me ask the question in a purely evolutionary way, as Wrangham might, about demonic males wearing surplices. Could institutional religion have outlived its usefulness? Are the men in beards too disruptive? (I am not against beards, nor religion, in certain circumstances. Beards belong in trad jazz bands, real ale pubs and anywhere with anoraks. Religion, as practised personally and without an inclination to rule the world, is fine, too.) I do believe, the answer is yes in both instances.

Religion has become catastrophically divisive. It magnifies us and them in the same way party did. It demands credulousness and obedience. It is the unforgiving force, with its visions of Armageddon, that drove Ronald Reagan against the Evil Empire. It is the force, allied with an apocalyptic fundamentalist-view history, that drives his successor, George W. Bush, against an "axis of evil". It is the fanatical force that makes the Islamic army in Iraq condemn the "farce of democracy and elections" by calling polling booths "centres of atheism".

 

I WONDER WHETHER my father, who died more than 40 years ago, would have recognised these new antagonisms. He spent his last years muttering against the Stalinists yet loyally, vainly, trying to sell their mouthpiece Soviet Weekly on freezing London street corners. The cold and humiliation killed him.

My last row with him, before his six-foot miner's frame collapsed and his George Orwell features eroded forever, was about The Bomb. Back then, I was marching in those first anti-nuclear protests alongside jolly bearded jazzmen and gaunt friendly vicars, frisky girls-who-would and young men who couldn't believe their luck. The all-inclusive melting pot of the sixties was just beginning.

My father seemed to approve of my sudden adolescent politicisation. After all, red flags were plainly seen among the crow's foot peace symbols and the odd Christian cross. But there was a catch. The Soviet bomb, he insisted, was necessary. So was its relentless testing. It was our bomb. Not theirs. Therefore all right.

He argued like a barrack-room lawyer. Like a contorted priest. That was another good Party word. Argue. Never give an inch. No sophistry is too blatant – when repeated forever.

Our last physical fight wasn't about politics but about family. I tried to stop him beating my small brother. My father, Gwynfor Williams, born in 1905, was raised in the shadow of the Welsh Chapel with its unforgiving moral instruction and harsh discipline. His atheism did not erase its Dickensian mores. Gwyn used fists or sticks to keep us in line. It was for our own good. The tyrant's discipline usually is.

He hit my brother. I told him to stop. He turned on me, now a fit rugby-playing youth of some stature. What do you do as a self-styled pacifist disarmer when a self-righteous demonic Party pugilist starts throwing punches? I lifted my arms above my head and allowed him to pummel my flexed abdomen until he gave up, exhausted. He never attacked us again.

Gwyn didn't give up the promised (Party) land. He argued on his deathbed, physically shrunk and stick-like, for "the peoples' democracies". He didn't return, even when in agony, to the comforts of the chapel of his youth. But I did see him sometimes, at ceremonies where believers prayed, courteously mouthing along with the Lord's Prayer. "It's an affirmation of a just, equal society, a socialist tomorrow," he'd say, as if the prayer were a version of the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

"Kingdom come ... on earth as it is in Heaven" was, in real life, translated by Soviet diktat into the Five Year Plan. It didn't work. It is in the ash can of history. As for God, He is becoming the last refuge of the fanatic. Poor God. He was meant to keep us cosy. Is it time He shaved off his beard?

Yes! For two reasons. The first is innovation. Throughout history the main mother of invention has been not a five-year plan but disaster and war. Conflict and catastrophe. The War, as my parents called it, was the seedbed of the modern world: it gave us antibiotics, rockets to the moon, computing, satellites, radar and radio astronomy. Disasters, such as the black death, led to printing, modern science and the Renaissance. Human conflict, in a startling way, was creative. In between nothing much happened.

Now that we cover the earth as a species, we cannot possibly rely on such a disruptive mechanism for creativity any longer. The costs are too gigantic. We must find another driver of innovation. If it is not to be us against them it will have to be something to unite us with our neighbours, the rest of humankind. While Wrangham points to the demonic nature of some animals in some conditions, others, such as Professor Lynn Margulis, show that much of biology also survives by co-operation. Margulis is the co-inventor, with Jim Lovelock, of the Gaia Hypothesis, which sees our planet as a kind of living organism, responding in a unified way to circumstance. She is also famous, and doesn't mind its being mentioned, as Carl Sagan's first wife. She is adamant that altruism is not the last refuge of sentiment but a strong force in nature.

Which brings me to the second reason. We now know that God did not unleash the tsunamis because he was upset. They were unleashed by geology. Nor did God go blind at Auschwitz, Beslan or on Boxing Day 2004. He wasn't there. As Sartre said, quoting Stendhal: "God's only excuse is – He doesn't exist." Now, at last, we are unified by a contemplation of horror and loss. Differences between them and us become ultimately trivial in the wider context we modern humans, alone, can recognise. Mere veneer. The badges of ideology and dogma fade as we contemplate sheer, enormous needs of humanity. That is the future. The alternative is catastrophe.

Perhaps, once you dispense with Party, that's what my poor parents were on about after all. 


From Griffith Review Edition 8: People like Us © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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