Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Show me the money . . .

The people are in debt. Their governments are in deficit. The pension liabilities are practically impossible to pay. The drastic re-skilling of workers needed to make economies competitive is unaffordable. Increasing revenues by raising taxes on a debt-ridden populace battling high unemployment would seem, for any democratic regime, suicidal. This then could be the story of almost any rich country one would care to pick. Given that most conventional methods of reducing deficits seem fraught with risks for these governments, perhaps they should start considering unconventional measures.

The Roman Emperors when faced with an empty imperial treasury would sometimes adopt an interesting remedy. Round up the wealthy citizens of Rome and extort huge sums of money from them. And surely, the prospects of rounding up fat-cat Wall Street bosses in say Guantanamo and lightening them of the burden of their ill-begotten bonuses, would sound like a temptingly just recompense to many. Perhaps similar fat-cats from the “City” can be brought in by means of extraordinary rendition? In any case, as fair as it may seem – this may not be the right thing to do. But the fact remains that huge amounts of wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a few. By some estimates, as of 2004, the top 1% wealthy families in the US owned a staggering 34% of the total wealth in that country! The bottom 40% on the other hand possessed a mere 0.2%.

This problem of highly unequal distribution of wealth – with a few wealthy people amassing immense fortunes – is not easy to resolve. In theory at least, the possibility of amassing such wealth often motivates much innovation and entrepreneurial risk taking. It may not be wise policy to threaten such a powerful motivation. Its also equally regrettable that few amongst the wealthy are prone to philanthropic distribution of wealth a la mode Mr Gates and Mr Buffet! But that could be the trick – is some way could be found for the very wealthy to willingly part with their wealth to fund such initiatives as deficit reduction, poverty reduction, education, basic infrastructure, healthcare, and so on.

Vanity could be the clue. As is natural for high-status individual – rich folk are bound to have a good measure of pride and perhaps vainglory. Could that be used to tap into their wealth? Perhaps it could – because governments through the ages have been vested with the power to confer status by awarding titles. Knights, barons, Counts, Earls, Rajahs, Nabobs, Rai-bahadurs, Amirs and Baigs! I am sure there would be many rich folk who would love to purchase such titles. And the Government could, if it played its cards well, turn in a handsome profit! Titles could be auctioned, elegant ceremonies where these are bestowed on the recipients can be organised, the mystique can be built up to drive up the prices!

In all likelihood – I suspect this already happens on a small to moderate scale. Governments only need to make this a grand spectacle and a great revenue earner!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Gods in the synapses!!

A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation by way of a series of comments & replies on a friend’s Facebook© update. Basically, I got consigned to “burn” for believing in Allah instead of believing in God. I was torn between laughing at the consignor and feeling sorry for the person. But since this was a friend's Facebook page, I restrained myself from making too many more “tongue in cheek” remarks that would have made the discussion more ‘lively’ than it already had gotten. I am still puzzled about what led the aforementioned gentleman to decide that I adhere to that particular set of religious beliefs (or any variety of religious belief for that matter).

But the incident did get me thinking about my personal beliefs in matter of religion. And that, unfortunately is no straightforward matter. For all intents and purposes, I go about my daily activities without much reference to or cognizance of any set of religious beliefs about any variety of ‘great sky-man’ – ooops, apologies, I meant ‘great sky-person’. In other words, religion and Gods are of no consequence for my day to day activities, tasks, likes, dislikes, aspirations, plans, and such like.

Does that make me an atheist? No. I have my grouses with atheists. Firstly, atheists seem to have solved the knotty problem of evil and arrived at the answer – religion. The claim that religion is key cause of evils in human society is at best shallow, at worst facetious, and is not supported by the sort of rigorous evidence that the very ‘science’, which atheists swear by, demands. But the bigger problem with this characterisation is that the purported objective behind ridding the world of religion  – that of bettering the lot of our species – gets shoved into the back seat and religion bashing becomes an end in itself. Pseudospeciation is common and prevalent enough in our species to make many suspect it to be endemic to human nature – religion is just another definition to mark out the ‘in-group’, (along with nationality, language, race and even sexual orientation), and de-humanise the ‘out-group’. In fact, one can argue that religion can tend to ameliorate pseudospeciation by seeking to induct others into the ‘in-group’ by way of conversion!

But that’s not why I am not an atheist. The thing is, just as I do not care to observe any particular religious tenets, I do not particularly care to deny or denounce them either. In short, I don’t just care enough about religious beliefs to denounce them as falsehoods and be an atheist.

So does that make me irreligious? No again. For while I may not care about religious beliefs, I would not say that I do not care about religion. Belief may be the foundation of faith for a large number of adherents of a religion, it is only one attribute. Religion is a complex phenomenon possessing many layers and attributes rich in meaning and metaphor and in my opinion deeply connected to our very humanness.

This last claim may seem surprising, but it seems very possible that there are distinct biological underpinnings behind the tendency of us humans to be religious. Some studies, for instance, seem to indicate that the tendency to acquire religion (any religion, not a particular one) tends to be somewhat highly heritable. Certain anthropological studies also seem to indicate that religious ideas tend to follow certain templated patterns that may be in some sense ‘pre-programmed’ proclivities. The analogy with the ‘language instinct’ may seem obvious here – mental structures and templates for a ‘natural grammar’ ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain making the ‘tendency to acquire a language’ practically universal in our species. Of course, the ‘religious instinct’- even if we very prematurely call it that – is certainly nowhere as well evolved as the language instinct, and is probably, at this stage, highly conjectural. Nevertheless, religious ideas, at the very least, certainly tend to be highly successful, sticky and durable cultural memes.

The many and various social, cultural, economic, political, ethical, philosophical, anthropological, (and many other social-scientical) dimensions of religion are, on the other hand, are almost blindingly obvious. Turning a blind eye to these and focusing on ‘belief’ is a rather narrowly Abrahmic persuasion. Bracketing off the belief to examine the other facets closely can lead to interesting insights about religions. For example, many have argued that religion is not essential to develop a working moral framework for human society. It is plain that several moral principles are common to most religious traditions. Some observers though, have drawn a very perceptive contrast between these ethical ideas common to many religions and undiluted genetic self interest of the individual.

Consider for example monogamy which most religions tend to encourage as virtuous – and some even try to enforce by prohibiting polygamy as sinful! But what monogamy, in fact tends to achieve is to ensure that as far as possible, every man gets at least one wife and every woman gets one husband. And everyone gets a chance to pass on their genes to the next generation – everyone is happy and human society becomes more harmonious. But is monogamy in the best genetic self-interest of individual humans? May be not. The genetic self-interest of powerful and high-status men would lie in amassing a harem and siring scores of children! And the genetic self-interest of frustrated and desperate low status poor men, deprived of legitimate mates by the rich and the powerful would be to seduce – even rape! And what about the women? Well, who is to argue that a woman who gets one-half (or even one-fourth or one-tenth) of a rich, powerful and high status man is really worse off than a woman who gets one-whole of a poor, low-status man? By choosing to be the third wife of a rich merchant, a woman may be securing the prospects of her progeny far better than by being the sole wife of a peasant! So much for self-interest then – but does social harmony stand a chance in such a scenario? Monogamy then is the more stable option – and religion, as the enforcer of monogamy, brings about social harmony, in this example. This is not a very far-fetched scenario. Religion very likely has indeed played such a stabilising role in human cultural evolution – which, apart from the meme theory, could also explain its durability. Religion then is not just a meme, it quite possibly is a sociobiological construct! I would not be hasty in voting for the eradication of religion, my personal non-belief notwithstanding.

But, given that religion can tend to bring our tendency for pseudospeciation – intolerance and hatred – in sharp focus, it needs tempering. This can be achieved in two inter-linked ways – the global cosmopolitan liberal outlook embodied in the ideals of democratic regimes needs to ensure swift state action against acts of intolerance and hatred, and the very same global cosmopolitan liberal outlook needs to expand by encouraging people to know about (books and education) and interact with (community initiatives, internet) peoples of other religions, nationalities, races and ethnicities. The more I know about other religions, the more adherents of various religions I socialise with, the less likely am I to pseudospeciate – the interaction would lead to a blurring of the sharp divide between in-group and out-group.

But coming back to me. Neither an atheist, not a religious believer – am I bereft of religious persuasion? A fence-sitter? A waffler? A ‘feel-good’ fluff-bunny new-ager who has contrived a cosy religion of convenience? Neither. By birth, upbringing and now by decision – emphatically NOT by faith or belief – I am Hindu. My beliefs or lack thereof is immaterial actually; I am part of an ancient and profound religious tradition that in the richness of its cultural heritage, depth of its philosophical inquiry, prodigious beauty of its artistic, literary and architectural achievement, is second to none. In the tolerant, inclusive and humane openness that at the best of times it is very much capable of, it is probably unique. I owe it to my fathers, who have lived by and sustained this living tradition before me, to belong to and perpetuate it for posterity. This duty enjoined upon me, I cannot deny or refute.