Monthly Archives: August 2014

Abnormal service will be resumed as soon as possible

A friend contacted me the other day to ask why I was so ‘obsessed’ with institutional abuse.  Had I been a victim of it myself?

Well, no, I haven’t.  But her question gave me pause for thought: why do acts of abuse by people in positions of power make me so indignant?  There is a legion of important causes that I could bollocks on about (and sometimes do), but I expend an arguably disproportionate quantity of my bile upon the corrupt practices of politicians, the authorities and the civil service.

It’s that last word that’s key, I think.  All these people are public servants – my servants.  They are sworn or contracted to serve the collective best interests of the people of the United Kingdom.  If they abuse the power I have entrusted to them then I am complicit in their wrongdoing and have some responsibility to address it.  Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, put it well; “He who allows oppression, shares the crime,”

Of course, it’s all too easy for public servants to forget who they are serving, or even that they are serving at all.  When people rub up against money or the law, some – not all – become corrupted by it.  Politicians fiddle their expenses and award lucrative contracts to their friends and donors; members of the Metropolitan Police’s SDS squad deceived women into sexually exploitive relationships and provoked actions which they then prosecuted.  Institutionally racist, homophobic and classist structures tacitly grant their employees the opportunity to express their prejudices through violence, coercion or neglect.

And power defends its own.  When the very institutions that we have established to impose order and decent values upon our society become corrupted, it can be near impossible to impose the rule of law upon its dishonest agents.  Because, like Judge Dredd, it is the law.

We all fear that the coterie of politicians who abused institutionalised children in the seventies and eighties will never be prosecuted (and MI5 have certainly done what they can to insure that they won’t).  We suspect that the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and other victims of botched police operations won’t ever see policemen prosecuted for murder or even manslaughter because the institutions established to administer justice excuse their own agents from the rules they apply to the rest of us.

But we are not powerless.  We have two mechanisms for addressing those wayward servants and restoring them to their duties and responsibilities.  The first is the ballot box.  It may seem remote from the copper stopping and searching disproportionate numbers of black kids, or the ATOS officer cancelling the disability living allowance of somebody dying of cancer, but our government and local authorities form the wellsprings from which stem the attitudes and behaviour of all public servants.  If you aren’t registered or don’t use your vote, then they’re not your servants to command in the first place.

The second means by which we are able to exert some control over our servants is by challenging wrongdoing.  Politicians are obliged to reply to correspondence.  There are complaints procedures for pretty much every public office.  The court of public opinion through press, media and social media can be very influential.

We have to believe that through our own actions each and every one of us can change the world for the better.  The corrupt and dishonourable servants don’t want us to think that we can.  As a better man than me once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A Position of Responsibility

I hope my friends, off- and online, would agree that I’m not generally aggressive in my atheism.  By-and-large, I keep my beliefs to myself unless challenged or incensed – and that’s rarely.

Purely objectively, that’s less true of people of faith.  There’s an element of evangelism inherent in every major religion because they are all exclusive.  Whatever the contemporary rhetoric, every religion condemns those who hold another faith (or no faith) to damnation at best and at worst, violent death.

Being an atheist I don’t believe in damnation or come to that, in eternal partying in a celestial candyshop.  The accumulated evidence of my own life and of the lives of thinkers I respect suggests that upon death, consciousness winks out of existence and our bodies mulch down in what seems to me to be a fitting and poetic conclusion to life.

Neither do I have any time for religious dogma.  I don’t believe that women are the vessels of sin, or that God expects us to spend a month in every year dehydrated or that we should refuse blood transfusions (this is not to say that I don’t think people should be allowed to follow articles of faith if they choose; just that I find it unhealthy for religious institutions to impose them as the ‘will of God’) .  I don’t believe that it is acceptable to sell my second daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7) or that I have a duty to kill everybody who doesn’t comply with my faith (Quran 2:191-193).  In fact, I believe that everyone else on the planet has as much right to life and dignity as I do.  While the key religious tracts may well hold wisdom, they also contain the redundant dogma of a time long past and have to be read with that historical context in mind.  They are not the word of God, they are the words of people as fallible as you and I.

I don’t believe there is any evidence that a god or gods affect the world.  Good and innocent people live and die subject to painful and arbitrary injustices. Evil people thrive and expire in their beds.  The opposite is true, too.  I see no evidence that leading a godly life results in favour on earth (if anything, there is evidence to the contrary); or that a divine hand intercedes in times of natural or human disaster.  A deity that stood by impassively in the face of misery and injustice would not strike me as a deity worthy of praise.

What atheism does offer me is the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions.  I don’t have any rule book other than the law of the land – which has never bothered me too much, because it has largely been written by bad people for their own advantage – and my conscience, which seems to me to be the one quality above all that defines me as human.

And being guided by conscience is not easy.  It does not have the clarity of a tablet of commandments – quite often, things that seem conscientious from one perspective can become much more occluded from another angle or in the face of additional information.  Some Issues of conscience can be changed by time or geography; and some cannot be changed by any variation in circumstance.  The one and only bottom line is; I must make up my own mind and live with the consequences of my own decisions.

As a consequence, I frequently find myself to be in the wrong.  That strikes me as healthy.  Conscience is a compass rather than a map.  It does not set out a destination and a route: it just indicates a direction of travel.

I’ve never feared death, so I’m unsure whether faith helps people who do.  I’m scared of continued and endemic pain, but oblivion has always seemed to me to be not an unpleasant prospect.  Taoism – the spiritual philosophy for which I have the greatest empathy (and which is equivocal about the existence of a deity) – sees death as a return to the source; the river flowing back into the sea.

I don’t believe that hell is other people, or that hell is within ourselves: I just don’t believe in hell.  Neither do I believe in heaven.  All available evidence leads me to believe we’re here now, gone tomorrow; and that the best thing to do in the face of a dragonfly-short span on earth, is to make the best use of our time we can, according to our consciences.