Simple Things Made Complex: Things go up and down

Obama: up and down in a single man

This is a new series of posts in which I intend to talk about simple things. I will however extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them complicated. I’m not getting paid by the word but it will probably start to feel like that to you. I like writing is the problem. What you people need is a blogger who doesn’t actually like it. Or you could try twitter.

People don’t always know what I mean when I say that religion saturates our culture still. Most of us don’t believe in God or do what the priest says and most of us think we can shag whoever we want and gay is okay now, so where’s the religion?

The idea of ‘free will’ is an example. This was something theologians had to invent to make God’s harsh judgements of us okay. And we still think we have a deep-running facility for choice, that we can pull our actions out of a vacuum. And yes, it’s true, from the inside of our heads we perceive choices, but other religions at other times have spotted this for the illusion it is and it is a legacy of monotheism that we put up so much resistance to breaking the illusion.

As soon as you question the idea of free will people immediately think you are trying to ‘excuse’ people who do bad things. Really all you are saying is that our judging of each other performs a social function rather than referring to some objective moral code. This has always been the case of course, but the objective moral code became so lodged in people’s minds that they had to re-write it as human rights even as religion was fading in the Western world. So now we still have laws for everything and we imagine our free will allows us to obey or disobey them.

It’s not that I deny responsibility for my disobedience. I’m just aware my desires are embedded within complex social and historical structures that lead me to want to disobey policemen. And I do want to disobey them, I do. I just can’t explain it, because no one has the information gathering or processing ability to trace my impulses into my dark/tedious past and the past of everything else too.

This is a long introduction to what I really wanted to talk about: the two positions that many people fall into when regarding their society as a whole. Either they think that things will generally be okay, that the people in charge will more or less keep everything under control and their life will go on as usual, or they think that the world is sliding into some terminal (social, ecological, moral) decline from which it will never emerge.

The vague sense that everything will be okay could be a common-or-garden complacency common to all comfortably-off humans, but there is something more suspicious about it I think. We know that many people think (a) that politicians are in charge and (b) they are some of the least trustworthy humans in existence. On a personal level many people regard politicians with disgust, while acknowledging them as the actors who make our world. So where does this faith that things will be ok come from? We can’t trace it to one cause, but I do know a religion that, despite a stream of thought concerned with social justice, liked to create the mentality that if we put our heads down and do the will of the Lord, everything will be okay in the end. The habit of faith is hard to break it seems.

As for the apocalyptic tendency within Christianity, this barely needs pointing out. Everyone knows the nutty hallucinatory doom-mongering of batty old John. It extends back into the Old Testament too: Judaism pretty much invented the prophet of doom. The apocalyptic prophecy in monotheism is deeply bound up with moral judgement, and not just a moral judgement of individuals either. It relies on passing a moral judgement on the whole of society. Think about that for a while. It’s a fucked up thing to do. It doesn’t make any sense. Peak oil is not a punishment for ‘our’ sins. It is a consequence of certain organisational forms in our society, designed for the benefit of certain people, but here’s the more important point: since it isn’t a punishment, it won’t bring the world to an end. Really. There will be a long tail after the peak, not a sudden apocalypse.

Things aren’t going to be okay. The world isn’t going to end. Instead what is going to happen in the future is that things will go up and down. At the same time. I know this, because this is what has always happened. Some things get better, some things will worse – for who, when, how, we don’t know. But things won’t be okay and the world won’t end.

Having reached that certainty there is one major ambiguity left: the actors in this unsatisfying up and down drama (if you ever watched Heroes you’ll be familiar with the form). Who makes things go up and down? And so we see that my lengthy prevarication on the topic of free will at the beginning was not as self-indulgent as it first appeared but in fact an integral part of this post. HA! I snuck that one up on you!! The notion that it is our leaders who make things happen, that it is the famous names or even the bankers behind the scenes who create our world, seems a bit too simple once we question the idea of free will. For the same reasons it seems too simple to say that ‘we’, the people, make history, as some proponents of ‘the masses’ like to say.

That doesn’t rob us of all power. We are actors in the drama of history if we choose to see ourselves that way. We can still make the choices in our heads, make things happen in the real world, try and work out improvements to what we see in the world and put them into practice. But the reason that things go up and down now becomes apparent: no one is in charge, not even the people in charge. God is dead, you see. Many people think they know that but they’ve just made God fuzzier and hidden him away somewhere. They pretend he doesn’t exist while still he’s everywhere in their minds, making the world ok or sending it to hell.