Saturday 2 June 2012

On gods and queens: being a republican atheist.

Republicanism and atheism are not inevitable partners but I can't help thinking this morning that in my mind at least, they're linked. Both involve an unwillingness or refusal to bow before a being who we have been told is in some way or another above us, above humanity. When I'm asked if I don't 'believe' in a god or the queen, what do I believe in, I  answer 'us'. Actually, the question is interesting because it suggests that I'm walking around with some kind of lack, some kind of hole inside me where there is a non-ness, a big nothing and that my life is all the poorer for this. No, it's very full. There is no nothingness. There is a necessary belief in 'us', in human beings and that we have nothing else.

This then has several follow-ons: if there is just 'us', then this means that we don't have anyone else or any other being to turn to -  whether that's in times of personal crisis, local crisis or global crisis -  for any kind of solace or solution. The route to everything is through us. The myth about the monarchy and the deity is that both are beyond or above time. They are timeless entities. Clearly, this gives many people a good deal of security because one of the big puzzles about humanity is that though we are as timeless as the monarchy when considered as 'humanity', yet in our daily individual lives, we are on a fuse. We each die. (As does the monarch of course but the reassurance is that the next monarchs are already in place, and therefore, the illusion would have it, the nation is safe, continuity of Britishness is assured - as if the presence of the Windsors of all people secures anything! Indeed, the history of the British monarchy is one of extraordinary non-continuities - look at the rise of the Tudors or the arrival of George I.)

The puzzle about death is that what's it doing there bringing everything to an end when we seem to spend so much of our lives doing things we regard as important and necessary? Why do we do that, when it all comes to an end anyway? I guess I had to confront that more than ever before when Eddie, my son died. What had it all been for?

If you're an atheist, there is no answer to this question, or any other, to be found outside of us. The meaning of everything can only lie in how we shape our lives now. To say this, makes certain things rather pressing. When we say words like 'poverty', or 'war' or for that matter, their opposites: 'wealth' and 'peace', these, like us, are a matter of lifetimes. Though we can see and read of continuities across history of poverty, wealth, war and peace, they can not experienced as continuities beyond our own lifetimes. We only experience them in existential ways, within the confines of a lived life. If you are rich or poor, you only have  your own lifetime to experience it. That's why, if like me, we think that certain kinds of experience are unbearable for the majority of humanity - poverty and war being the worst - there is a pressing need for these to be tackled now. There is no other time they can be dealt with for the people experiencing them.

But, as we know, there are obstacles preventing us from tackling them. We each have our pet view of what these obstacles are. Mine concerns passivity. I think passivity is taught and learned. In many different and subtle ways, anyone outside of the charmed few who are taught that they will rule over and control the lives of others, will learn that they have a 'place'. A long line of command spreads down into our personal lives about what we are each or collectively entitled to do. A century ago, the church in Britain was an instrument for this, telling everyone that the rich man was entitled to his castle and the poor man's place was at his gate.The church is much less powerful today but even so is often called upon to slot into a hierarchical way of enacting things - coronations and royal weddings being obvious examples.  Every country not only has hierarchies but displays them. The monarchy is the most obvious and this is engineered not necessarily by proving that the royal family is made up of extremely worthwhile people - (though, in the case of the queen, this is precisely part of the myth) - but through the repetition of the micro-detail of what they're doing. Their super-worth, their position 'above us' is proved simply by the amount of column inches and TV screen time. Oh look, the media show us, there's Prince Charles walking round a house.

Wealth is another. This is paraded through the iconography of celeb events and celeb TV.  'The Apprentice' and 'Dragon's Den' are elaborate dramas whose repeated point is the hierarchy on display. In the pseudo-democracy and egalitarianism of the poor boy made good, Alan Sugar et al are kings. They are all the more special, apparently, (and the rest of us, not so special) because they managed to flog us paperclips and telephones. Again and again in 'The Apprentice' the camera shows us London from on high, as if this is where Alan Sugar lives, on high, surveying his world. We grub about in the streets below like ants.

Education is structured and threaded through with hierarchies. It's there in the systems of selection and segregation between schools and within schools. It's there in the army-like structure of school staffs  and the  lording over them by inspectors and ultimately the ministry and the minister - who takes it upon himself to utter his thoughts as if he is in some magical way a source of wisdom. After several centuries of mass education, the limit of our imagination in thinking how to run the education and emancipation of the minds of young people is that it can only be done on the basis of fixed hierarchies of teachers and children. To my mind, the main problem with this is not whether this is an unpleasant experience but the fact that we take part in these hierarchies as 'givens', that they are beyond examination. So, right from the very youngest child being taught under the discipline regimes of 'traffic lights' or 'smiley faces',through the streaming of children into fast and slow tables or classes, fast and slow schools, to the rating of certain kinds of study and practice as superior to another, we learn that these are 'how the world is'. That's to say, if the traffic lights or the arrangement of tables tells me every day that I'm not as good as someone else, this not only reinforces me as 'not good enough'. It tells me that being placed as 'not good enough' is beyond discussion. There isn't a lesson called 'Hierarchy' or 'Streams' or 'Discipline' where we discuss how these hierarchies are made, who decides them, where do they come from, could there be another way of running things, if there are differences between us what might be the best ways to negotiate that? Hierarchy itself is beyond discussion, beyond the curriculum. And it is this very 'beyond-ness' which is how the passivity is instilled. If you can't discuss something then it appears to us as inevitable and permanent, god-like, monarch-like. I say 'appears' because it is in fact just the opposite. It is made by humans and enacted by humans. Appearance, though, is all.

And this is how gods and monarchs work. They appear to be inevitable, beyond, permanent and undiscussable. They're not, but they appear to be.

All that said, part of me thinks that the way to be a republican and an atheist is not doing what I've done here  - which is going on about it  - at some length - but to simply be these things, to live them. Being a republican and an atheist are not so much positions that have to be announced every day or even necessarily argued for - though I am doing this here. Rather, they are states of mind which you enact in your life. They are what my mother would describe as 'doing and being' and the only time you can do 'doing and being' is now.

So  that's what I'm doing today.