the new ussr illustrated

assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

what can we learn from religion?

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atheists

 

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.

John Locke, ‘A letter concerning toleration’, 1689

In my last post I referred to some aspects of religious belief that I think are worth focusing on if we want to get past the rational/irrational, or even the true/false debates. Alain de Botton created quite a stir recently when he claimed that arguments about the truth/falsity of religion were boring and without much value – or something like that. Typically, I both agree and disagree. There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and endurance. That requires a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of religious belief.

First, I’ve already written of the fact that, for all very young children, adults are supernatural beings. They’ve yet to learn about human mortality and limitations. They certainly learn quickly about their own pain and discomfort, but it comes as a shock when they first observe that all these competent, powerful, protective giants can be hurt, angry and frustrated just like them. These findings should hardly surprise us – children at this stage are entirely dependent on adults for their survival. These adults, they observe, can throw them up in the air and hopefully catch them, they can walk across a room in three seconds flat, they can transport them by car or plane to a completely different world, they’re not afraid of anything, and they miraculously provide all sustenance and succour.

While non-believers mostly understand such basic childhood beliefs, many are highly impatient of those who haven’t, at an appropriate age, abandoned this ‘theory of mind’ and replaced it with a more rational or sophisticated scientific worldview. The response of many psychologists in the field would be that, yes, we do change, but the idea of the supernatural, of transcending the usual limitations, has a long, lingering effect. The popularity of fairies, Harry Potter and Spiderman, which take us through early childhood into adolescence and beyond, attests to this. It’s worth noting that the nerdiest atheists are avid Trekkies and Whovians.

But none of this is really disturbing or unhealthy in the way that religious belief seems to be in the eyes of many non-believers – such as myself. The world’s most secular polities – in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in many European countries, are also the most law-abiding, secure and contented, as countless surveys show. As a regular dipper into history, I can’t help but note that social life in god-obsessed pre-Enlightenment Europe was far more volatile, cruel and corrupt than it is today in the era of democracy, human rights and secularism. Locke’s remarks above, have been throughly refuted by modern experience – though I suspect this is due to having a more regularised legal framework and a functioning police force than to the greater moral virtue of non-believers.

So for many of us, the point is not to understand religion, but to change it. Or rather, to neutralise it by understanding it and then applying that understanding within a more secular framework. For example, one of the themes of the religious is that you can’t be good without god x, y or z. Atheists rarely concede that theists might have a point here. The stock response is a personal one ‘I don’t need a supernatural fantasy-figure to frighten me into being good, I’m good because I have respect for others and for my environment’, etc. Psychological study, however, tells us a different story.

The Lebanese-born social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, points out that many of the gods of small societies have little interest in morality. Instead, ‘being good’ in these small societies is enforced by their very size, and their inescapability. Kin altruism and reciprocity, being the subject of gossip, the fear of ostracism, these are what keep society members on the right track. As numbers increase, though, a sense of anonymity engenders a greater tendency towards cheating and self-serving behaviours. Studies show that even wearing dark glasses, like the Tontons Macoutes, makes it easier to engage in anti-social behaviour. People behave much better when watched, by an audience, by a camera, and even by a large drawing of an eye in the corner of a shop.

The idea that non-believers can be ‘tricked’ into behaving better by the picture of an eye watching them should make us think again, not about gods, but about being watched. And about how we still over-determine for agency in our thinking. Civil libertarians get their backs up about CC-TV cameras on every street corner, but there’s no doubt they’ve been a success in catching robbers and muggers and king-hitters in the act, or just before or after. Even those of us with no urge to steal or who, like me, have left that urge behind long ago, tend to notice when a shop does or doesn’t feature an electronic scanning device, and if they’re like me they’ll wonder about the shop’s vulnerability or otherwise, and the trustworthiness or desperation of the customers around them. As to the painted eye, I presume it doesn’t have the deterrent effect of cameras and scanners, but the fact that it works at all should make us think again about our basic beliefs. Or does it only work on the religious?

That was a joke.

So how do more secular societies utilise the idea that someone knowing if you’ve been bad or good makes for a more moral, or at least law-abiding society? Well, it appears from the statistics that either they’ve already done so, or they’ve found other ways of being good. I suspect it’s been a complex mix of substitute gods, comprehensive education and community expectations. Large scale society has naturally subdivided into smaller groups based on family, business, sport, academic or professional interest and so on, so the age-old stabilisers of kinship, reciprocity and reputation within the group are still there, and these are bolstered by a greater set of ‘watched’ networks. Trade and travel, international relations, the internet, all of these things are always in process of being regulated to reflect community concepts of fairness. We are our own Big Brother (another supernatural agent). Modern liberal education teaches kids from an early age about human rights and environmental responsibility, so much so that they’re often happy to lecture their parents about it. The Freudian concept of the superego is a kind of internalised supernatural parental figure, finger-wagging at us during our weaker moments. The declaration of human rights, accepted by most countries today, though criticised as artificial and without teeth, surely presents a better framework for moral behaviour in the modern world than the often obscure and contradictory stories and proverbs found in the Bible and other religious texts.    In short, there are many ways we’ve worked out for behaving well and generally flourishing in a secular society.

So I’m basically saying there isn’t much we can learn from religion, with respect to moral policing, that we haven’t learned already. But what about community and social bonding? In the USA and in other highly religious societies, the populace seems to be very united in its religion – especially against the irreligious. Some non-believers are concerned to replicate religion’s success in this area, and I’ve heard that there’s an atheist church, or I think they call it an atheist assembly – meeting on Sunday – somewhere in my area. I’m not particularly inclined to attend. Non-believers don’t necessarily have much in common apart from a lack of interest in religion, and I’m wary of in-group thinking anyway. I’m wary of just the kind of bonding above-mentioned, a bonding that might depend upon mutual congratulations and mocking or belittling, or despising, believers.

Non-believers are of course no less community-minded than the religious. Business, sporting, scientific and small-town communities, these attract us as social animals regardless of our views on the supernatural, and I don’t think we need a top-down ‘alternative’ to religious congregations or community spirit as advocated by de Botton.

Many of the religious point out that they’re more involved in charitable works than selfish unbelievers. Where are the atheist alternatives to Centacare and Anglicare, the welfare and social services arms of the Catholic and Anglican denominations? But these organisations have built up their considerable infrastructure and expertise under extremely favourable tax circumstances which have been a part of Australia’s religious history for a couple of centuries, so they’re always more favourably placed to win government and other contracts for social and educational services. I’ve experienced personally the frustrations of humanist organisations trying to attain the same tax-exempt status for charitable purposes. They’re not given a look-in. Nevertheless there are many powerful and effective NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF, and important human rights bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose impetus comes directly from the secular human rights movement.

I would also argue, as a former employee of Centacare (as an educator) and of Anglicare  (as a foster-carer) that one result of their having cornered so much of the education and social services market is that they’ve become more secularised. They no longer require their workers to share their supernatural beliefs, and this has enabled them to reach a wider market which they’ve been able to expand largely by downplaying or eliminating the proselytising. I’ve never heard any god-talk from Centacare or Anglicare employers, and this would surely not have been the case fifty years ago. It’s the same in Catholic schools I suspect, with so many non-Catholics sending their kids there due to doubts about under-funded state schools.

This is all to the good, as too-exclusive Christian or religious communities – as well as non-religious communities – lead to us-them problems. We need to be secure in our position on the supernatural without being dismissive.

So, what in the end do we have to learn from religion? My answer, frankly, is nothing much. We have far more to learn from history and from clear-minded examination of the evidence we uncover about ourselves and our fellow organisms in this shared biosphere.

 

 

 

Written by Stewart Henderson

April 25, 2014 at 8:16 am

uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

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david-moyes1

off with it

I hear this morning that it’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It’s officially celebrated tomorrow (April 23) but the actual date isn’t known – only that he was baptised on April 26, an event that usually occurred within days of birth. People are being asked, on the morning news program, to tweet in their favourite Shakespeare quote. I’m not a tweeter, so I’m suggesting here the quote above, from Henry IV part 2, as a reminder of the grave dangers of mediaeval politics, when the uneasiness was as much about one’s mortality as one’s political standing – in spite of the divine right of kings to rule over the canaille.

Thankfully in our more secular age, that uneasiness is more often reserved for football managers.

Written by Stewart Henderson

April 22, 2014 at 8:09 am

is belief in god irrational? – that is not the question

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forget them - read this!

forget them – read this!

Debates between theists and atheists have become commonplace over the past few years, for better or worse, and the topic has often been vague enough to allow the protagonists plenty of leeway to espouse their views. True or false, rational or irrational, these are the oppositional terms most often used. These debates are often quite arid, with both parties firing from fixed positions and very carefully concealing from observers any palpable hits they’ve received from the other side. Whether they’ve contributed to the continued rise of the nones is hard to say.

I heard another one recently, bearing the title Is belief in God irrational? It was hosted on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, one that I recommend to those interested in the claims of Christianity in particular, as these ‘doubtcasters’ know their Bible pretty well and are well up on Christian politics, particularly in the US. The debaters were Chris Hallquist (atheist) and Randal Rauser (theist), and it was pretty hard to listen to at times, with much squabbling and point-scoring over the definition of rationality, and obscure issues of epistemology. I found the theist in particular to be shrill and often quite unpleasant in his faux-contempt for the other side, but then I’m probably biased.

I found myself, as I very often do, arguing or speculating my way through the topic from a very different standpoint, and here are my always provisional thoughts.

Let me begin by more or less rejecting two of the terms of the debate, ‘God’ and ‘irrational’. I’m not particularly interested in God, that’s to say the Judeo-Christian god, and I strongly object to designating that particular amalgam of Canaanite, Ugaritic and other Semitic deities as capital G God, as if one can, through a piece of semantic legerdemain, magick away the thousands of other deities that people have worshipped and adhered to over the centuries. It’s as if the Apple company chose to name their next Ipad ‘Tablet’, thereby rendering irrelevant all the other tablets produced by competing companies. Of course we have marketing regulations that prevent that sort of manipulation, but not so in religion.

So I will refer henceforth to gods, or supernatural entities and supernatural agency, with all their various and sometimes contradictory qualities, rather than to God, as defined by Aquinas and others. It is supernatural agency of any kind that I call into question.

More important for me, though, is the question of rationality. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve certainly dipped into philosophy many times over the past 40 years or so, and I’ve even been obsessed with it at times. And rationalism has long been a major theme of philosophers, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to define it. In the context of this debate, I would prefer the term ‘reasonable’ to ‘rational’. Being reasonable has a more sociable quality to it, it lacks the hard edge of rationality. So, for my purposes I’ll re-jig the topic to – Is belief in supernatural entities reasonable?

But I want to say more about rationality, to illustrate my difficulties with the term. Hume famously or perhaps notoriously wrote that reason can never be more than the slave of the emotions. This raises the question – what are these emotions that have such primacy and why are they so dominant? I have no doubt that a modern-day Hume – and Hume was always interested in the science of his day – would write differently about the factors that dominate and guide our reason. He would write about evolved instincts as much as about emotions. Above all the survival instinct, which we appear to share with every other living creature. Let me give some examples, which might bring some of our fonder notions of rationality into question.

A large volume of psychometric data in recent years has told us that we generally have a distorted view of ourselves and our competence. In assessing our physical attractiveness, our driving ability, our generosity to others and just about everything else, we take a more flattering view of ourselves than others take of us. What’s more, this is seen as no bad thing. In terms of surviving and thriving in a competitive environment, there’s a pay-off in being over-confident about your attractiveness, as a romantic partner, a business partner, or your nation’s Prime Minister. Of course, if you’re too over-confident, if the distortion between reality and self-perception becomes too great, it will act to your detriment. But does this mean that having a clear-eyed, non-distorted view of your qualities is rational, by that very fact, or irrational, because it puts you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis others? To put it another way, does rationality mean conformity to strict observation and logic, or is it behaviour that contributes to success in terms of well-being and thriving (within the constraints of our profoundly social existence)?

I don’t have any (rational?) answer to that conundrum, but I suppose my preference for the term ‘reasonable’ puts me in the second camp. So my answer to my own question, ‘Is it reasonable to believe in supernatural entities’ is that it depends on the circumstances.

Let’s look at belief in Santa, an eminently supernatural entity. He is, at least on Christmas Eve, endowed with omnipresence, being able to enter hundreds of millions of houses laden with gifts in an impossibly limited time-period. He’s even able to enter all these houses through the chimney in spite of the fact that 99.99% of them don’t have chimneys. What’s more, he’s omniscient, ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good’, according to the sacred hymn ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’, ostensibly written by J F Coots and Haven Gillespie, but they were really just conduits for the Word of Santa. We consider it perfectly reasonable for three- and four-year-olds to believe in Santa, and, apart from some ultra-rationalist atheists and more than a few cultish Christians and adherents of rival deities, we generally encourage the belief. Clearly, we believe it does no harm and might even do some good. An avuncular, convivial figure with a definite fleshly representation, he’s also remote and mysterious with his supernatural powers and his distant home at the North Pole, which to a preschooler might as well be Mars, or Heaven. As an extra parent, he increases the quotient of love, security and belonging. To be watched over like Santa watches over kids might seem a bit creepy as you get older, but three-year-olds would have no such concerns, they’d accept it as their due, and would no doubt find his magical powers as well as his total jollity, knowledge and insight thoroughly inspiring as well as comforting. From a parent’s perspective, it’s all good, pretty much.

Of course, if your darling 23-year-old believes in Santa, that’s a problem. We expect our kids to grow out of this belief, and they rarely disappoint. They don’t need much encouragement. Children are bombarded with TV Santas, department store Santas, skinny Santas, bad Santas, Santas that look just like their Uncle Bill, etc, and they usually go through a period of jollying their parents along before making their big apostate announcement. Santas are human, all too human.

Santa belief is, it would seem, a harmless and perhaps positive massaging of a child’s vivid imagination, but when a child’s ready for school, she’s expected to put away childish things, little by little.

And isn’t that what many atheists say about the deities of the Big Monotheisms? Yes, but too many atheists underestimate the hurdles that need to be overcome. Most of these atheists either already live in highly secularised societies, such as here in Australia, or other English-speaking or European countries. Even the USA has many more atheists in it than the entire population of Australia, if we make the conservative assumption that 10% of its citizens are non-believers. Atheists are learning to club together but the religious have been doing it for centuries, and you’re likely to lose a lot of club benefits if you declare yourself a non-believer in a region of fervent or even routine belief. Or worse – I just read today of a Filipino lad who was murdered by his schoolmates after coming out as an atheist on a networking site. So just from a self-preservation point of view it might be reasonable to at least pretend to believe, in certain circumstances.

But there are many other situations in which it’s surely reasonable to believe – I mean really believe – in the supernatural agent or agents of your culture. The first of these is that supernatural agency explains things more satisfactorily to more people than any other available explanation. This might sound strange coming from a non-believer like myself, but it’s undoubtedly true. Bear in mind that I’m talking about satisfactory explanations, not true ones, and that I’m talking about most, not all, people.

Why was belief in supernatural agency virtually universal in the long ago? I don’t think that’s hard to understand. As human populations grew and became more successful in terms of harnessing of resources and domination of the landscape, they came to realise that they were prey to forces well beyond their control, forces that threatened them more seriously than any earthly predator. Famine, disease, earthquakes, storms, the seemingly arbitrary deaths of new-borns, sudden outbreaks of warfare between once-neighbourly tribes – all of these were unforeseen and demanded an explanation. Thoughts tended to converge on one common theme: someone, some force was out to get them, someone was angry with them, or disapproved somehow. Some unseen, perhaps unseeable agent.

Psychologists have done a lot of work on agency in recent years. They’ve found that we can create convincing agents for ourselves with the most basic computer-generated or pen-and-paper images. Give them some animation, have one chasing another, and we’re ready to attribute all sorts of motives and purposes. Recognising, or just suspecting, agency behind the movement of a bush, the flying through the air of a rock, or an unfamiliar sound in the distance, has been a useful mindset for our ancestors as they sought to survive against the hazards of life. ‘If in doubt, it’s an agent’ might have been humanity’s first slogan, though of course humanity didn’t come up with it, they got it from their own mammalian ancestors. My pet cat’s reaction to thunder and lightning clearly indicates her view that someone’s out to get her.

But what about the supernatural part of supernatural agency? That, too, is very basic to our nature, and it’s another feature of our thinking that has been brought to light by psychologists in recent times. I won’t go into the ingenious experiments they’ve conducted on children here – look up the work of Justin Barrett, Paul Harris and others – but they show conclusively that very young children assume that the adults around them, those towering, confident, competent and purposive figures, are omniscient, omnipotent and immortal, until experience tells them otherwise. As children we think more in terms of absolutes. Good and evil are palpably real to us, as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are some of the first categories we ever learn from the god-like beings, our parents, who protect us and are obsessed with us (if we’re lucky in our choice of parents), and who have created us in their image.

Given all this, we might come to understand the naturalness of religion, and its near-universality. But what about the argument, which some of these psychological findings might support, that religion is a form of childishness that we should grow out of, like belief in Santa? It’a common argument among atheists, which to some degree I share, but I also feel, along with the psychologists who have shed such light on the default thinking of children, that ‘childish’ thinking is something we need to learn from rather than dismissing it with contempt. This kind of thinking is far more ingrained in us than we often like to admit, and it’ll always be more natural to us than the kind of reasoning that produces our scientific theories and technology. Creationism is easy – a supernatural agent did it – but evolution – the theory of natural selection from random variation – is much harder. The idea that we’re the special creation of a supernatural agent who’s obsessed with our welfare is far more comforting than the idea that we’re the product of purposeless selection from variation, existing by apparent chance on one insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy amongst billions of others. In terms of appeal to our most basic needs, for protection, belonging and significance in the scheme of things, religious belief has an awful lot going for it.

So belief in a supernatural being, for whom we are special, is eminently reasonable. And yet… I don’t believe in such a being, and an increasing number of people are abandoning such a belief, especially in ‘the west’, and especially amongst the intelligentsia, which I’ll broadly define as those who make their living through their brainpower, such as scientists, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, writers and artists. New Scientist, in its fascinating recent issue on the Big Questions, features a graph of the world’s religious belief systems. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it claims 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Moslems, 900 million Hindus, and 750 million in the category ‘secular/non-religious/atheist/agnostic’. These are the top four religious categories. I find that fourth figure truly extraordinary, especially considering that it was only really recognised and counted as a category from the mid-twentieth century, or even later. In Australia, where religious belief is counted in the national census every five years, this optional question was first put in 1971. In that year the percentage of people who professed to having no religion was minuscule – about 5%. Since then, the  category of the ‘nones’ has been by far the fastest growing category, and if trends continue, the non-religious will be in the majority by mid-century.

So, while I recognise that religious belief is quite reasonable, it’s clear that, in some parts of the world, a growing number find non-belief more reasonable, and I’m not even going to explore here the reasons why. You can work those out for yourself. It’s clear though that we’re entering a new era with regard to religious belief.

 

 

acupuncture promotion in australia

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I tried to find a picture of the chi energy system online, but guess what, nothing to be found. Here's a chi-reflexology map instead - from the Australian College of Chi-Reflexology, no less!

I tried to find a picture of the chi energy system online, but guess what, nothing to be found. Here’s a chi-reflexology map instead – from the Australian College of Chi-Reflexology, no less!

On the ever-reliable US-based NeuroLogica blog, Steven Novella reports on an interesting case of acupuncture promotion here in Oz, via Rachel Dunlop. As Novella reports, acupuncture has been studied many times before, and Cosmos, our premier science mag, did a story on the procedure a while back, reporting no evidence of any benefits except in the notoriously vague areas of back pain and headaches.

Not surprisingly, lower back pain was one of the conditions that supposedly benefited from acupuncture, according to media hype about the latest study. The trouble is, this study was being reported on before being published and peer reviewed, which, to put it mildly, is highly irregular and raises obvious questions. The Sydney Morning Herald is the offending news outlet, and Dr Michael Ben-Meir the over-enthusiastic researcher. As the article points out, Ben-Meir is already a ‘convert’ to acupuncture, having used it for some time in acute cases at two Melbourne hospitals. That’s fine, if a bit unorthodox, but it doesn’t accord with other findings, and there are therefore bound to be questions about methodology.

One of the obvious difficulties is that acupuncture can hardly be applied to patients without them knowing it. It’s a much more hands-on and ‘invasive’ experience than swallowing a tablet, and this will undoubtedly have a psychological effect. It seems to me, just off the top of my head, that acupuncture, with its associated rituals, its aura of antiquity and its oriental cultural cachet, would carry greater weight as a placebo than, say, a homeopathic pill. But in fact I don’t have to speculate here, as there is much clinical evidence that injections have a greater placebo effect than pills, and big pills have a greater placebo effect than small ones. So it doesn’t greatly surprise me that people will report a lessening, and even a dramatic lessening, of acute pain, after an acupuncture treatment, however illegitimate. I presume there are illegitimate treatments, because the ‘key meridional points’ where the needles are applied are precisely know by legitimate acupuncturists, and they apply their treatments with rigorous accuracy.

Well, actually there’s a big question as to whether or not there are any legitimate acupuncturists, because acupuncture is based on an energy system known as ‘chi’, which supposedly has meridional points at which needles can be inserted quite deeply into the skin, but there’s no evidence whatever that such an energy system exists, let alone about how such a system might function – for example, its mode of energy transmission (whatever ‘energy’ might mean in this case). Considering that we know a great deal about the autoimmune system and the central and peripheral nervous systems, it seems astonishing that this other bodily system has gone undetected by scientists for so long, and especially in recent times, with our ultra-sophisticated monitoring devices. When you look up ‘chi, sometimes spelt ‘qi’ or with other variants, you’ll find nothing more specific than ‘energy’, ‘life force’ or something similar – nothing corpuscular or in any sense measurable by modern medicine. Even so, researchers into acupuncture have come up with an attempt to measure its efficacy by comparing it to ‘sham acupuncture’ in clinical trials. Sham acupuncture uses the ‘wrong’ meridians and the ‘wrong’ depths to which the needle goes.

But herein lies an obvious problem. Sham acupuncturists insert needles only millimetres deep, while real acupuncturists put their needles between one and three or four centimetres deep: ‘Depth of insertion will depend on nature of the condition being treated, the patients’ size, age, and constitution, and upon the acupuncturists’ style or school’, according to an acupuncture site I visited at random. These are rather wide parameters, but the point that interests me is this. If you don’t put your needle in deep enough, you won’t make contact with the chi that needs to be stimulated or other wise modified to heal the patient. So goes the rationale, surely. It’s like, if you don’t put the needle for a standard vaccination in the right place, you’ll miss the vein. But veins are clearly real. If you go dissecting, you’ll find veins and arteries and nerves and muscle and fat and so on. But you won’t find chi. Yet, apparently it does have real existence. It’s between one and four centimetres down, according to real acupuncturists, depending on the above-mentioned variables (and no doubt many others).

So we can’t actually see it, or find it on dissection, but it’s locatable in space, vaguely. Or is it that chi is everywhere in the body but the right kind of chi, the bit that’s causing the pain and needs to be treated with needles at certain precise meridional points, is at a certain distance from the surface of the skin?

It all begins to sound a bit like theology, doesn’t it?

Here’s the ‘take-home’ for me. If you read about treatments that ‘work’ but you get virtually nothing about the mechanism of action, as is the case, for example, with homeopathy and acupuncture, be very skeptical. In the end I’m not impressed with clinical trials that show a ‘real effect’, even a startling one, because I know about regression to the mean, and I particularly know about the placebo effect. I want ‘proof of concept’. In this case proof of the concept of chi and of meridians. I’ve heard homeopaths defend their pills on TV recently by claiming that, ‘whatever the mechanism, clinical trials consistently prove that this treatment works’, and I can’t be bothered chasing up those clinical trials  and testing their legitimacy, I go straight to the concepts and processes behind the treatment – the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals, and don’t forget succussion. These concepts are so intrinsically absurd that we needn’t bother looking at the clinical data. If there are positive results, they haven’t been produced by homeopathy. The fact that homeopaths themselves are largely uninterested in the mechanisms is a dead giveaway. You’d think that the law of infinitesimals and the law of similars would surely have myriad applications far beyond their current ones. They would revolutionise science and technology, if only they were real (and they’d also render obsolete much that we currently know).

The same goes for acupuncture, and chi. If this bodily system were real, and chi could be captured in a test tube, and its constituents examined and isolated under a microscope, how revolutionary that would be. How transformative. Chi pills, chi soap, chi breakfast cereal…

Ah but I’m thinking like one of those limited westerners, so modern, so smug, so lacking in the insight of the ancients…

 

bronchiectasis – the story so far

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bronchiectasis-504x485

I’m sorry I’ve not been as polyphiloprogenitive (yeah) in my posting lately, with health issues both mental and physical, and work commitments having an impact. So, now I’m going to mix the personal and the general in this glimpse into the complexities of public healthcare.

I’ve been trying for some time to get a proper diagnosis on lung and airways problems that have been plaguing me for some 30 years. Today, a young doctor summarising my condition after a blood test, an x-ray, a CT scan, a bronchoscopy, a biopsy, and a series of lung function tests, used (in passing) the term ‘bronchiectasis’, not for the first time. It was first used a few weeks ago, in the radiologist’s report on my CT scan, and that was the first time I’d heard the term.

Anyway, the analyses and the reports are now done with, and the only treatment offered is a three-month course of broad-spectrum antibiotics, a half-tab a day, to try to clear up some current bugs and give me a fighting chance for the future. The antibiotics may also act as anti-inflammatories, slightly and temporarily relieving the problem of my dilated airways, but there’s no permanent solution, no cure.

Here’s what the USA’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has to say about bronchiectasis:

Bronchiectasis (brong-ke-EK-tah-sis) is a condition in which damage to the airways causes them to widen and become flabby and scarred. The airways are tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. Bronchiectasis often is caused by an infection or other condition that injures the walls of the airways or prevents the airways from clearing mucus. Mucus is a slimy substance. It helps remove inhaled dust, bacteria, and other small particles from the airways. In bronchiectasis, your airways slowly lose their ability to clear out mucus. The mucus builds up, and bacteria begin to grow. This leads to repeated, serious lung infections. Each infection causes more damage to the airways. Over time, the airways can’t properly move air in and out of the lungs. As a result, the body’s vital organs might not get enough oxygen. Bronchiectasis can lead to serious health problems, such as respiratory failure, atelectasis (at-eh-LEK-tah-sis), and heart failure.

This makes for very grim reading. It sounds like a slow, overall decline is inevitable, though I’m not feeling too pessimistic, perhaps because it hasn’t sunk in yet. There’s little point in trying to pinpoint the initial infection or set of infections that set the ball rolling. My latest doctor, at the Adelaide Chest Clinic, suggested a series of infections when very young, most likely in my earliest childhood, set the stage for the present situation, but that surely is the wildest speculation, with no detailed medical history to go on. Or rather, no medical history at all really. I do remember my mother saying she was worried about my health as a young child because I was so skinny, but I don’t recall that I had any lung or airways problems.

This medical journey has been interesting. I don’t really have a regular doctor, and generally avoid regular visits, in my male way, but when I need to go I visit the Hindmarsh Medical Clinic nearby, and take whatever doctor’s available. So when chesty complications arose after I got what I think was a dose of the flu late last year, I took myself to this clinic to get what I usually get when this happens, a dose of antibiotics. It was the first time I’d been to a doctor about this in a few years. I’ve been on a bit of a health and fitness kick, losing a lot of weight and engaging in regular, if low level, exercise. I like to think these efforts have helped me even with my bronchiectasis, because before that I was having to take antibiotics at least once a year for quite a few years. And before that, I would just put up with what I called ‘the wet webs’, which would wax and wane in terms of hampering my life.

However, they always did hamper my life, affecting my self-confidence, increasing my self-consciousness. I’d avoid people and crowds, worried about my breath and my tendency to break into coughing fits, or have my voice caught in the webs mid-sentence, resulting in intense and embarrassing throat-clearing. But I was also worried about the effects on my throat, which would catch at the slightest hint of cigarette smoke, dust or ‘funny air’. My experience with food and drink, too, has sometimes been a problem. Nothing worse than having a cough explode out of you when your mouth is full of lamb korma (spicy food is a ticklish subject) or your host’s best French champagne. Also, any not-quite-right cuisine would give me a ‘furry tongue’ feeling, a tell-tale first sign of a full-blown, phlegmy infection.

Anyhow, it was only after some years of putting up with this that I betook myself to a doctor, on an occasion when the phlegminess wouldn’t clear up by itself and was clearly getting worse. That was my first experience of antibiotics, and they seemed to always do the trick, so I began to rely on them, all the while reflecting on tuberculosis and consumption and marvelling that the modern world of antibiotics had saved me from the fate of Keats, Balzac, the Brontës, Chekhov, Lawrence, Kafka, Orwell and so many others, known and unknown – that of more or less drowning in my own phlegm.

So it was a bit of a surprise when, back in December and January, I found that the little magic pills didn’t work any more. I was prescribed two separate, different batches, both ineffectual. So the doctor organised a blood test and an x-ray. The blood test indicated that I was becoming anaemic, and the x-ray indicated a cloudy, indeterminate patch in my upper right lung. The Hindmarsh doctors were now slightly more animated about my condition. I was questioned closely about my medical history, especially my smoking history. I was a light smoker in my youth and gave up in my mid-twenties, over thirty years ago. The doctor sent me for a CT scan, which, depending on what resulted from it, might be followed by a colonoscopy. He was particularly concerned about the anaemia, which was unlikely to be caused by poor diet.

To over-simplify, there are 3 main types, or causes of, anaemia. First, there’s blood loss, either of the rapid kind (haemorrhaging caused by an accident or major trauma) or the slowly leaking kind, which can have a variety of causes, including cancer. Second, there’s destruction of the red blood cells (hemolysis), which also has many causes, such as bacterial infections. The third is deficient red blood cell production. I now presume my anaemia was of the hemolytic type, but my doctor probably worried about blood loss as a result of bowel or colon cancer, though I didn’t have much in the way of gastrointestinal symptoms.

So I went off for my first ever CT scan, a fascinating experience in itself, and a few days later, once Hindmarsh had received the radiologist’s report, I made an appointment to discuss the findings. When I arrived the receptionist gave me a copy of my CT scan and the radiologist’s report, which I read in the waiting room. It was pretty hard to digest. First it reiterated the finding of the x-ray – ‘ill-defined shadow right upper lobe on recent chest x-ray – pulmonary mass’. Then the radiologist, a Dr Ron Edwards, presented his own findings:

There is extensive abnormality in the right lung more marked in the upper right lung more marked in the upper lobe with dilated, thick walled bronchi consistent with bronchiectasis, evidence of mucus plugging and areas of confluent parenchymal density, the appearance is thought to be that of inflammatory change most probably allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. The left lung is fully expanded and clear. No pleural abnormality is seen on either side. There is no hilar or mediastinal mass or lymphadenopathy. No abnormality is seen in visualised upper abdominal organs.

Conclusion: Extensive abnormality in the right lung particularly the upper lobe consistent with inflammatory change most probably allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis although correlation with history and clinical findings is suggested.

At first I thought this doctor just liked parading his polysyllables, but then I was prepared to give him the benefit. I’d try to tease it all out and look up the key terms on the net when I got home, and meanwhile my Hindmarsh doctor might further enlighten me.

The doctor in this consultation wasn’t my usual one, and his response to the radiologist’s report was ‘eh? I can’t make head nor tell of this’, which was kind of reassuring, but after a few minutes of examining it and looking up other references, he recovered enough to say that the next step was a visit to the Adelaide Chest Clinic for a probable bronchoscopy to try to get clarification or confirmation of the finding. He told me that aspergillosis was a fungal infection which generally required long-term antibiotic, or rather antifungal medication to clear it up. The good thing, though, was that there was no sign of cancer. I asked whether the aspergillosis, if that’s what I had, might be the cause of the anaemia, and he said, ‘oh yes, most definitely’.

So I went home, looked up as much as I could on the net, and waited to hear from the chest clinic. I soon received a letter which gave me an appointment time for six weeks later, and which pointed out that this was a consultation only. I was annoyed at the long delay, especially as my cough and my phlegm problems weren’t getting any better. Yet somehow the idea that I might have a fungal infection (and I now imagined I could feel the spores in there when I sucked air into my lungs) gave me a strange hope, as if shifting this gunk, with whatever difficulty, would solve all my bronchial problems once and for all. I read, too, about bronchiectasis, but preferred to banish it from my mind.

Eventually, consultation day at the chest clinic arrived. The doctor, a brisk young fellow of Asian appearance but with an Aussie accent, immediately asked to see the CT scans I’d brought with me. He pronounced them ‘rather alarming’ and proclaimed that I wouldn’t have been kept waiting for six weeks like this had he seen them before. The doctor’s note hadn’t prepared him for this. He beckoned me over to look at the scans pegged to the screen – ‘no, no, closer, look… This cloudy mass here, most unusual, and only in one lung. See this lung? That’s how a lung should look. But this, this… Mmmm, I don’t know… we’ll have to have some further tests.’

I already knew this, but again I was somehow reassured. If this cloudy stuff could be removed, my lungs, or rather, my lung, might be returned to its pristine state and I’d be cured.

But it seemed to me that he wasn’t aware of the radiologist’s report. I had it with me, and I mentioned the possibility of aspergillosis. To my surprise the doctor waved away the report as I started rummaging in my bag for it. He looked quite disdainful in fact. ‘We can’t tell what it is, that’s why we’ll need to do a bronchoscopy, and take some material out of the lung..’

He then began to question me on my medical history, especially my history of smoking, just as my Hindmarsh doctor had. When he asked me about how long I’d been having these throaty infections, I talked about my term ‘the wet webs’, which I’d been using since the eighties, but he cut me off, seemingly bored or irritated by this flight of fancy. He asked me about exposure to chemicals or any other potentially damaging agents, but I couldn’t enlighten him. In fact, when I began to tell him about a dodgy, salt-damp-ridden flat I’d rented more than 20 years ago, and which I’d since considered might be a factor in my ill-health, he again cut me off as if it was obviously irrelevant. Finally, he took me through the process of a bronchoscopy and a lung function test, scheduled for a week and a fortnight’s time respectively.

At the end I had to ask, ‘so do you have any real idea what this infection or blockage of the lung might be?’ He shrugged, ‘It could be one of many things. It could be aspergillus. It could be cancer – but I don’t think it’s cancer. The biopsy should clear this up for us.’

It wasn’t really until after this consultation was finished that I looked back on it with some irritation. I was particularly annoyed that this doctor had waved away the radiologist’s report. Why? Was there some rivalry between radiologists and chest clinicians as to the reading and interpretation of CT scans? If so, should there be? Surely radiologists look at these scans day in day out, perhaps over many years. Or – who knows? – maybe this report was by a young radiologist keen to impress, and the clinician had seen too many over-ambitious reports that missed the mark completely. In any case, I’d taken the report seriously, enough to familiarise myself a little more with bronchiectasis, aspergillosis, hilar and mediastinal mass, parenchymal density, and lymphadenopathy. And I don’t think these efforts were wasted. Even after a brief perusal of this report, my Hindmarsh doctor was able to assure me that I didn’t have cancer. But the clinician, having dismissed the report sight unseen, had again raised the cancer spectre. Surely this was highly irresponsible – though I was quite confident that cancer was a non-issue.

So next on the agenda was the bronchoscopy, which from my perspective was a non-event. I arrived at the hospital at about 8.30 and was released around midday. This was my first experience as a hospital patient since an ear operation as an eight-year-old, nearly fifty years ago. I’d been told of the risks, of course, which included pneumothorax or a collapsed lung as the worst case scenario, and I was nervous of hospital infections and the like, but all seemed to go well. In fact I was amazed at the magic of modern anaesthesia, because at one instant I was on an operating table with three medicos about me chatting and faffing about with tubes, and in another instant I was back in the ward, coughing and spluttering just as before, and it seemed only half an hour or so had passed. So I’d both lost and recovered consciousness instantaneously, and surely a whole book could be written about the science involved in this, and if one has been written I’d love to read it.

The aftermath was interesting though. I felt quite chirpy on being given the all clear at about midday, and we had a pleasant meal in the hospital canteen, on a balcony overlooking the botanical gardens. But by the time I got home I was feeling quite drained, and I slept on and off for the next 24 hours. I took several days to recover the old circadian rhythm. Nine days later I was back at the hospital’s thoracic unit having a lung function test, and later in the afternoon I had another consultation at the chest clinic. It was another doctor this time, a tall kindly-seeming young man who appeared to be an intern, from his general sense of unease and uncertainty. He clearly knew nothing about my case, and sat staring at some records on his computer while I waited faux-patiently. Finally he excused himself, saying he needed to consult with his boss. He returned, seemingly a little more sure of himself. He told me, as I’ve already related, that I had damaged airways, probably incurred as a very young child, and this has led to me having regular infections over the years. This would likely continue, because bronchiectasis was a difficult, essentially untreatable condition. I pulled him up on the term, saying I’d done some research on it, to which he replied, ‘Well then you’ll understand that there’s nothing more we can really do.’  I asked then about the white cloudiness in my lung, which I’d hoped could be particularly targeted. He just shrugged, as if to say it was just another one of my regular infections. I took from this that there was no sign of aspergillus after all. ‘What we can do, which should help in the short run, is prescribe for you some’ – and here he mentioned a drug of some sort, which I didn’t catch – ‘which you should take at a half-tab a day for the next three months, and that should clear up any existing bugs in your system. I’ll arrange that with your doctor, and you won’t need to come back here again.’

I felt that I’d been politely, if rather awkwardly, dismissed, and I left the consulting room in something of a daze. I took a wrong turning, and after walking down a winding corridor I found myself suddenly at the entrance to the clinic, having by-passed the reception area where I came in. I stepped outside, vaguely wondering if I was supposed to have paid some money or signed some forms, but I had no desire to turn back.

I felt something like futility, that these past few weeks had taken me nowhere. I had a diagnosis of sorts, but bronchiectasis, I knew, was an often undiagnosed and somewhat neglected condition. There was nothing sexy about it. It wasn’t life-threatening like tuberculosis or pneumonia, though it would probably be the death of me in the long run. It wasn’t of course a disease in itself, rather a facilitator of disease and infection. What frustrated me, as I reflected on the situation over the next few days, was that nobody had been straight enough with me to say ‘you have bronchiectasis, this is your prognosis – within broad parameters – and this is how you might manage your condition in future…’

I’d spoiled myself. I’d been reading one of Oliver Sacks’s recent works, The Mind’s Eye. I’d read Sacks before, and I’d been very impressed with his manner and his reflections on seeing him at Adelaide Writers Week a few years back. But I couldn’t help but notice the difference between his medical practice in good old New York City and my experience in good old Adelaide. It seems that most of Sacks’s patients not only have unusual and trend-setting neurological conditions, they also seem to be overwhelmingly talented musicians, writers, artists or fellow physicians, most of whom seem to end up becoming his BFFs and regular swimming partners. Filthy lucre never gets mentioned, of course, but it’s all a long way from my experience as a nonentity on the national health scheme, where I have to deal with an array of medicos none of whom even know me by name.

Of course I’m lucky that I get to have highly trained doctors anaesthetising me, pulling bits out of my lungs, and using sophisticated machines to light up my chest cavity or to measure my lungs’ functionality, all at very little cost to myself, but in the end there’s a condition I have, barely referred to by my doctors, with is untreatable and largely uninteresting, and I just have to live with it. Of course I should get my flu shots regularly, but no doctor has given me this advice.  The fact is, I’ve learned much more about my condition through the internet than through the medical system, and that suggests my future direction. Go to reliable websites, obtain all my own medical records as far as I’m able, and become as self-reliant as is medically possible.

I’m lucky, too, that I don’t feel sick. I have the occasional coughing fit, and a more or less regular cough, but it isn’t painful and it isn’t getting appreciably worse. My situation seems to have stabilised, and I’m able to go to work regularly and do a reasonable job. I do feel tired more than I would like to, but that might be age, or it might be a psychosomatic reaction to the knowledge that I have some kind of blood-loss (i.e. not iron-deficiency) anaemia. In his book The Heretics, Will Storr summarises recent findings about the placebo effect:

A 1998 study by researchers at the University of Hull found that up to 75% of the effect of brand-name antidepressants such as Prozac might be down to placebo; Professor David Wootton of the University of York has written of one estimate that indicates that ‘a third of the good done by modern medicine is attributable to the placebo effect’; while an acknowledged world expert, the University of Turin’s Professor Fabrizio Benedetti, has gone so far as to say that ‘Placebo is ruining the credibility of medicine’.

To me, this is all more fascinating than disturbing, but it’s obvious to me that these psychological effects work both ways – if you’re told that you’re anaemic, and that physical fatigue is one of the symptoms, you’ll surely slow down more than if your anaemia is unknown to you. What’s more I have no idea how anaemic I currently am, just as I have no idea whether my bronchiectasis is severe or mild.

I saw my original Hindmarsh doctor a few days ago, almost two weeks after my final visit to the chest clinic. He hadn’t received any word from the clinic about antibiotic medication, but he had received some kind of interim report from them. To my surprise, there were signs of mycology in the lung, and it seemed they were still in the process of analysing the data, or at least that’s what my doctor surmised from the lack of communication about treatment. On this occasion I grumbled a bit more than I usually do about the slowness of the process towards treatment, and the lack of clear communication about my condition. I asked about medical records, and the doctor was quite happy to facilitate that, though I sense that I’ll have to keep on about it to make it happen. I also mentioned my anaemia, and whether I could have a blood test to see if it was improving or worsening. I also complained of slightly darker and strong-smelling urine, so blood and urine tests were arranged on site immediately. Interestingly, after the blood was taken (and I was surprised by how much was taken out) I walked home – a 15 minute walk – and immediately conked out, falling asleep at about 4pm and waking up at about 11.30 the same night, which again disrupted my sleeping patterns for a while. Yesterday I received a call from reception at Hindmarsh. Apparently some word has been received from the chest clinic, so at last I’m to have some medication, I hope.

So that’s the story so far. Interesting thoughts on perception and reality, though. Having only recently learned about mycology and aspergillus, I became more or less convinced that I was indeed suffering from a fungal infection. I could feel it in my lung. Hard to describe the sensation, but something cold and vaguely furry, spore-like. Of course I knew that the information about aspergillus was infecting my perception, and yet…

And then, at my final consultation at the chest clinic, I was led to believe that there was no aspergillus. I was to take a broad-spectrum antibiotic, not an anti-fungal, and that might or might not clear up the bugs in my system. So what was I to make of my perceptions?

Enough, though, for now, as this blog post has gone on long enough, and I’ve not posted in a long time. There will be more though on this subject, as I’ve been to the doctor again, and have obtained some interesting medical records, and the mycology question is still unresolved.

 

Written by Stewart Henderson

April 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm

film review: the photograph

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the photographer, the girl and the railway line

The 2007 Indonesian film the photograph definitely has some power in spite of certain manipulations and conventions which I’ll get to later. It boils down to a very simple story, a two-hander essentially, about a relationship between an old and infirm photographer, and a young, struggling single mother, Sita (Shanty), teetering on the abyss. Sita sings in a karaoke bar and is clearly being forced into pleasing the customers in other ways by a hectoring standover figure. She’s separated from her young son Yani who she rings whenever she can, as well as sending money home (she also has an ailing grandmother).

But let’s begin at the beginning. The film opens as we enter the photographer’s dilapidated studio, with old pictures on the wall in old gilt frames. The old man shuffles among these images, regularly contemplates a trunk of photographic and other memorabilia, and spends some of his time burning offerings to his ancestors, or whatever gods he believes in, on an abandoned rail line just outside of town.

The beautiful Sita, having been forced to leave her living quarters, asks the old man if she can rent the room above his studio. The photographer’s responses are always non-committal if not grudging, and he seems to be lost in another world. Sita takes advantage of this to simply move in.

That’s when we turn to Sita’s life as a karaoke singer and spruiker for clients. Her ‘pimp’, if that’s what he is, is presented rather one-dimensionally as a whining, bullying little packet of evil who bangs on the door of the phone booth while she speaks to her son, and cajoles her into a room where three thugs rape and abuse her. He appears also to take all her earnings because she apologizes to the photographer for not being able to pay for her room and begs him to let her stay on. Having been beaten up, she’s unable to work, and so she makes herself useful to him by cleaning his studio and helping with the occasional customers he photographs against painted backdrops of the countryside.

The film dwells on this awkward relationship, contrasting the spent, secretive old photographer with his face toward the past, and the struggling young woman with a mixture of pragmatic hopes and idealistic dreams for her and her son’s future. The old man is looking to groom a successor, but he needs someone who can carry on the spirit of his ancestors. Sita is half-interested herself in taking on the role, but realises that the tradition-bound old man, in spite of his growing kindness toward her, would find her unsuitable, just as a woman.

Sita hasn’t told the pimp her new address but he soon finds her and starts haranguing her, but is beaten away by the neighbours. Later he returns, and in one of the film’s most unconvincing scenes, chases her out of the town along a railway track, where, conveniently, the old man turns up and somehow the pimp manages to get himself run over by a train, though the impact is not presented and the likelihood of this young man, who’s clearly been living by his wits for years, allowing himself to be hit by a train in this way is just about zero.

Anyway, being freed of this man, she’s able to look more clearly towards the future – she’d love to become a chanteuse on a cruise ship. Meanwhile the photographer is getting more tottery, and while he’s on what might be his deathbed she explores the place further, including a trunk that he’s strictly forbidden her to open. It contains, inter alia, some tattered photos of the mutilated victim or victims of a train accident. The old man, suddenly recovered, catches her snooping, and we get a flashback to his youth, when he was on a train which hit someone on the line. He took photos of various parts of the victim’s body, the photos Sita found in the trunk, and he’s been haunted by the event ever since.

The old man returns to his dying, and he may already be dead when a last photograph is taken, with him propped in a chair and Sita by his side. This is the photo of the film’s title, and it eventually comes into the possession of Yani, Sita’s son, who narrates the final moments of the film, uniting past and future through the power of photography among other things. A pleasant and sometimes moving film, a little marred by some unlikely plot elements, and by a slightly unreal spareness of scene, with little of the bustle you would surely find in urban Indonesia. Film-makers, of course, create their own reality in a film, which is never the ‘real’ reality. At the same time a degree of verisimilitude is essential to evoke the sorts of responses you want to evoke in viewers. This is one of the essential balancing acts in any film, and the hardest thing to manage (and that’s what makes James Bond films such abject failures in my view). The photograph, unfortunately, doesn’t quite succeed in this regard, but the characters, especially Sita, are interesting enough to compensate.

Written by Stewart Henderson

February 22, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Posted in film, film review, Indonesia

spirituality issues, encore

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a mob of didges, right way up

a mob of didges, right way up

To me – and I’ve written about this before – the invocation of the supernatural, the ‘call’ of the supernatural, if you will, is something deeply psychological, and so not to be sniffed at, though sniff at it I often do.

I’m prompted to write about this because of a program I saw recently on Heath Ledger (Australia’s own), an understandably romantic, mildly hagiographic presentation, in which a few film directors and friends fondly remembered him as wise beyond his years, with hidden depths, a kind of inner force, a certain je ne sais quoi, that sort of thing. As both a romantic and a skeptic, I was torn as usual. The word ‘spiritual’ was given an airing, unsurprisingly, though mercifully it wasn’t dwelt on. I once came up with my own definition of spirituality: ‘To be spiritual is to believe there’s more to this world than this world, and to know that by believing this you’re a better person than those who don’t believe it’. This might sound a mite cynical but I didn’t mean it to be, or maybe I did.

Anyway one of Ledger’s associates, a film director I think, told this story of the young Heath. A number of friends were partying in his apartment when he, the director, picked up a didgeridoo, which obviously Ledger had brought with him from Australia, and attempted to play it, but not knowing much about the instrument, held it upside-down. Heath gently took it from him and corrected him, saying ‘no, no, if you hold it that way it will lose its power, the power of the instrument and its maker,’ or some such thing. And the seriousness and respectfulness with which this young actor spoke of his didge impressed the director, who considered this a favourite memory, something which caught an ‘essence’ of Ledger that he wanted to preserve.

I’ve been bothered by this tale, and by my ambivalent response to it, ever since. It would be superfluous, I suppose, to say that I don’t believe that briefly holding a didge upside-down has any permanent effect on its musical power.

It’s quite likely that Ledger didn’t believe this either, though you never know. What I’m fairly sure of, though, was that his respectfulness was genuine, and that there was something very likeable, to me at least, in this.

All of this takes me back to a piece I wrote some years ago, since lost, about big and small religions. I was contrasting the ‘big’ religions, like Catholicism and the two main strands of Islam, with their political power in the big world, often horrific in its impact, with the ‘small’ religions or spiritual belief systems, such as those found among Australian Aboriginal or some African societies, who have no political power in the big world but provide their adherents with identity and a kind of social energy that’s marvelous to contemplate. My piece focused on the art work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose prolific and astonishing oeuvre, with its characteristic energy and vitality, clearly owed so much to the beliefs and practices of her ‘mob’, the so-called Utopian Community in Central Australia, between Alice Springs and Tenant Creek to the north.

Those beliefs and practices include dreaming stories and totemic identifications that many western skeptics, such as myself, might find difficult to swallow, in spite of a certain romantic appeal. The fact is, though, that the Utopian Community has been remarkably successful, in terms of the usual measures of well-being, and particularly in the area of health and mortality, compared to other Aboriginal groups, and its success has been put down to tighter community living, an outdoor outstation life, the use of traditional foods and medicines, and a greater resistance to the more destructive western products, such as alcohol.

This might put a red-blooded but reflective skeptic in something of a quandary, and the response might be something like – ‘well, the downside of their vitality and health, derived from spiritual beliefs which have served them well for thousands of years, is that, in order to preserve it, they must live in this bubble of tribal thinking, unpierced by modern evolutionary or cosmological knowledge, and this bubble must inevitably burst.’ Must it? Is there a pathway from tribalism to modern globalism that isn’t entirely destructive? Is the preservation of tribal spiritual beliefs a good thing in itself? Can we take the statement, that holding a didgery-doo upside-down affects its spirit, as a truth over and above, or alongside, the contrasting truths of physical laws?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, of course. Groping my way through these issues, I would say that we should respect and acknowledge those beliefs that give a people their dignity, and which have served them for so long, but perhaps that’s because we’re feeling the generosity of someone outside that system who’s unlikely to be affected or to feel diminished by it. These are, after all, small religions, from our perspective, not the big, profoundly ambitious religions intent on global domination, with their missionaries and their jihadists and their historical trampling of other belief systems, as in Mexico and South America and Africa and here in Australia.

Of course there’s the question – what if those small religions grew bigger and more ambitious? Highly unlikely – but what if?

Written by Stewart Henderson

February 16, 2014 at 10:22 am

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