The Listener: Right Back to Basics ; A New Series of `the Brains Trust' - a Panel of Big Thinkers Discussing Questions Submitted by the Public - Returns to Radio 3 This Week. in This Selection from the Best of BBC Radio, the `Brains' Re-Evaluate Some Fundamental Principles for the 21st Century. Why Do We Divide Time into BC and AD? What Is Hope? and Do the Ten Commandments Need to Be Updated?
1 JOAN BAKEWELL
Broadcaster and presenter
1 THEODORE ZELDIN
Writer and Professor of History at St Anthony's, Oxford
1 ANGELA TILBY
Theologian, writer and ordained priest in the Church of England
1 IAN STEWART
Mathematician, writer and pioneer of bio-mathematics
1 JONATHAN GLOVER
Writer and Professor of Ethics at King's College, London
JOAN BAKEWELL: Good evening and welcome to a new series of The Brains Trust. We're back with a range of questions to test the best brains of our times. The first of tonight's questions comes from Christine Perry. As we stand at the threshold of the second millennium, in retrospect has the division of years into BC and AD been a good or a bad thing? Theodore Zeldin.
THEODORE ZELDIN: The argument against it might be that it devalues what happened before Christ, and does not take into account other religions. But no one has suggested that we should restart in the year 2000. This would not be accepted - just as around the time of the French Revolution they tried to start again with Year One, and it lasted only a little while.
ANGELA TILBY: I was rather struck in the Millennium celebrations to hear the vast choirs of Tonga starting with the Hallelujah Chorus, and almost more than any other moment it made me realise how Christianity, Christian time-counting and Western dominance go hand- in-hand.
And that sets for me a theological teaser: why it is that the early Church should feel that it needed to dominate time, to sanctify time, in the way it did when it made this division? At least for the first few hundred years of the church's existence, it lived in secular time, Roman time.
There's no particular advantage in setting arbitrary divisions. So I'm stuck with that conundrum, because I suspect now in some ways it would enhance the status of Christianity as a religion if it decoupled itself from Western economic and cultural dominance.
JB: Couldn't the scientists do something about this and have a globalisation of time?
IAN STEWART: It wouldn't be a bad idea. We missed a golden opportunity to have a Year Zero in between 1BC and 1AD which has caused all the confusion now. The 1900s would have been the 19th century, and we would now have ploughed into the 20th century, instead of clinging on to the last year of the technical 20th century, with many believing we're into the 21st.
JONATHAN GLOVER: I would have thought that the reason why Christians wanted to use time in this way was because, for them, the arrival of Christ was the most important event in human history. There are many Biblical scholars who think that Christ actually was born in 4BC - but it doesn't matter a jot, of course.
TZ: Angela asked why the church should take this attitude? I'd answer that it's because nothing much happened in the seventh century. If every year had something remarkable about it, you could say that was the year when so-and-so happened - say the explosion of the atom bomb. But if nothing happens, you have to resort to dates that are anonymous.
AT: There was a real religious doubt about the appropriateness of making such a thing of this moment, and I think that doubt is now coming home to roost.
TZ: Is it desirable that we should realise we are 10 million years old?
AT: Yes - but we can't accurately place that, can we? It's 10 million or 2000.
TZ: Now, what was important in 1999?
IS: We could date from 1969, when we landed on the moon, that's quite a milestone. Before Moon, After Moon; Before Apollo, After Apollo.
JB: The next question comes from Martin Oxley in Devon. It's brief but not simple. What is hope?
AT: Hope is what's left when all the evils come out of Pandora's box, isn't it? It's the last shred at the end of all, when all the evils go flying around the world, and it says: Here I am, you need me because everything is so dreadful, otherwise you wouldn't survive.
JG: Hope is a combination of wanting something and expecting it. Wanting isn't enough because you can want things which there is no chance of; you have to expect it to some degree. If you know that it is absolutely impossible, then people say hope is extinguished. Hope is greater when the probability is greater.
TZ: Hope is not just what makes you get out of bed in the morning - that could be fear of losing your job. Hope is something which appears every time someone gets married, every time a child is born, and that seems to be a natural kind of hope. But it doesn't seem to be enough, and so we try to manufacture hope, first of all by religion. We feel that we need an ideology, or something that will console us and make us feel that we are not as awful as we think. So hope is both a natural phenomenon and something artificially created.
IS: I think hope is related to something that human beings do particularly extensively, which is to be aware of the alternatives, not just the way things are happening, but the way things could happen. Hope is to be aware that there are choices, some of which are made by external agents; it's to have some preference for certain outcomes of these choices and to have some vague feeling that maybe things will come out the way you prefer, or maybe even that you can influence them.
JB: Hope is marvellously exhilarating, though, isn't it? I mean, it may be the last consolation, but we all live on hope to an extent. Are there people whose lives are without hope?
TZ: Yes. We live in an age in which cynicism is much more valued as a way of dealing with life's difficulties. If you are a cynic, you can laugh at hope and say you know that if you hope you will be disappointed - what's the point of it?
JB: Of course, Voltaire lampooned hope in the character of Candide, who simply expected. So hope can be evidence of a kind of simple-mindedness. Where does it cross with reality?
JG: I think that hope which isn't related to evidence about probabilities is a kind of self-deception. I think we ought to be rational, aware of what the chances are of something happening. We can do everything we can to bring something about, but this is only rational when it's based on evidence. When someone is lost at sea and the helicopters are searching, people say: hope is starting to fade. We should go on trying as long as we can, but we shouldn't deceive ourselves about what the probabilities are.
AT: I don't think I agree with that. To me, the opposite of hope is depression and despair. It's curiously physical in the way it affects people - you know, when the sun seems to stop shining, when the colour goes out of the grass, and people speak of this greyness. And very often what signifies healing or restoration is when you begin to notice those things again, when you notice the birds singing, when you notice the sky is blue. And it's a way of belonging to a universe, of thinking there are benign possibilities within it, and that's bigger than just rational hope.
JB: There are many religious sects that had believed that the Millennium would bring about transformation, and they must have hoped with such fervour, and now be living with dashed hopes. What happens to such communities?
AT: It depends how much their hope is part of a sense of hatred against the world they live in. I think there are some hopes which would grow out of very destructive emotions indeed. The hope that everyone will be destroyed, that you alone will be left, that things are going to work out for you and not for anybody else. That's a very real force in some of those cults.
JB: Would you say that was characteristic of Millennial groups?
AT: I think it's a kind of apocalyptic strand which many religions have a streak of, particularly if they've been persecuted or under threat. You work things out in your own eschatology so that your enemies get their comeuppance.
JB: The hope of revenge - that seems rather perverse. Yes, that could be very damaging.
JG: Can I take up the idea that we need hope to keep us going in general? There is some evidence that people in appalling circumstances who despair don't live very long - for example, people in the Nazi concentration camps became fatalistic, and observers noted they didn't live very long. So some minimal degree of hope seems hugely important, just to keep us going.
JB: Apart from personal terms, I would have thought we all share the hope that the world will become a better place. On that assumption, which is broadly held by all international institutions, people do perhaps make it little by little a better place.
JG: I think that it's hugely important that we remain aware of the possibilities of change for the better, because it's only by being aware of those that we can do anything at all.
AT: But if you're right about people needing hope, even a hope that's a deception is going to work. I can think of somebody who died recently of cancer, having had it for 24 years, and she did it by denial, she survived for an extraordinarily long time. In a way she was self-deceived, but that played a part in a very robust survival.
TZ: Joan, you believe we all want a better world. For most of history, people have not wanted a better world, so the world was what it was. And I think many people feel there's not much you can do - that people are evil and the rest of it. And there might have been times when people survived because they had no expectations.
JG: I find it hard to imagine how one would have any motive for keeping going without hope.
JG: Well, I suppose that's a possible alternative.
JB: Our final question comes from Peter Clark of Liverpool. The rules of any religion are the product of the times in which they were formulated. In the 21st century, do we need to make any amendments to the Ten Commandments, or perhaps suggest an 11th?
TZ: The Ten Commandments, I believe, were produced at a time when the Jews were in a defensive mood, and it gives only one part of their ideals, and so there is something to be added to it today. It doesn't talk about knowledge as a necessary part of life. It doesn't say enough about the Sabbath - only about keeping the Sabbath holy. A later development should be that every seventh year should be a year of rest and cancellation of debts. I think this is important for our present day: we should renew ourselves every seventh year.
IS: "Thou shalt not download software from a website of whose trustworthiness thou art uncertain." I think there are many new commandments because of the changing world.
AT: I'm struck by the negativity of the Commandments. Very occasionally, when I celebrate the Eucharist at my parish church, I read out the Commandments, and the fact that you're not supposed to covet comes up with staggering force. It's the ancientness of the words, and the fact that virtue seems to reside in what you don't do, in restraint. There is something rough and grand about it that I appreciate, and the fact that it comes from another age shocks us in some way. The only thing I would add, and it's a personal 11th, is: "Thou shalt not despair."
JG: Bertrand Russell had a grandmother who, in the flyleaf of the family Bible wrote "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil." I've always thought that's a splendid commandment for the modern world. Russell went to jail in protest against the First World War, and in his nineties he went to jail in protest against nuclear weapons. It seems that a lot of the evil that takes place is a matter of doing things because everyone else is, and you think it doesn't make much difference if you do, so no one feels responsible.
JB: Ian, is morality getting more complicated as life gets more complex?
IS: I'm not sure, but the background against which we have to take moral decisions is more complicated, because of the ramifications of any act. For example, if you put something on the Internet, you do not know who is going to read it. You could put something on that was mildly seditious, and for all you know you could cause someone on the far side of the world to murder somebody because they read it.
JB: OK, well, if it hasn't got more complex, it's certainly unhooked itself from many religious beliefs. Morality prevails today for many secular people as strongly as it does for the religious.
IS: I think that's a good thing in many ways. If instead of looking at differences between religions and between what religious people believe and what atheists believe, you look at the similarities between what they believe, you find there's a very strong convergence on the things that most humans accept are the basic prerequisites.
AT: But it does show the universality of the moral instinct, which itself is an argument for our contingency and dependence on something greater than ourselves. I think that's the other side of this: these aren't simply rules. They cross the boundaries of belief and unbelief.
TZ: But we have created this distinction between simplicity and complexity perhaps unnecessarily. "Thou shalt not kill": that is very simple. In modern times we have extended it and included animals, but "Thou shalt not kill" is simple.
JB: But we've also qualified it in the case of the just war, and there's euthanasia - we're busy even adapting something as starkly clear as that.
AT: But I think you must start with grand simplicities. It's like the face of Sinai - you have very basic principles, but the art of living is to tease that out, find out where the exceptions lie.
JG: I want to challenge the idea that the fact that there is a nearly universal set of human values is evidence for our dependence on something outside ourselves, like the Creator. I don't see why that should be true. I doubt if there's one single thing called the moral instinct. We have a gut reaction against the very idea of killing people, but this may have many different explanations. Some may go deep in our biology - and maybe a prohibition on killing is conducive to achieving survival. Others may come out of the need to have a psychology which makes human society work, so we can co- operate and get on with each other. The sources of morality are varied, and I don't think the fact that there's a shared structure of human nature means we are dependent on anything outside ourselves.
AT: I think what I was trying to point to was that there does seem to be a kind of congruence in this argument between the behaviours that we know we should adopt and the way things are given in nature. The problem that I have with a morality based on the unyielding despair of atheism is that I don't know where it comes from. I do not understand why this instinct should have any resonance if it doesn't arrive spontaneously through the kind of creatures we seem to be.
JG: I resist the phrase "the unyielding despair of atheism": I'm quite happy with the idea that morality arises out of the sort of creatures we are, but I want to challenge the idea of morality being based on any kind of religious authority. It seems to me a mistake to think that morality should be based on somebody's order. Take the well-known story in the Bible, when Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering, and was prepared to do this, and then God said, well, actually you don't have to, sacrifice a ram instead. In the Bible we're asked to admire this, but I think this is an appalling story. This century we've heard so many people use the plea "I was only obeying orders" to justify disreputable things. If God ordered me to kill one of my children, it seems to me that a polite refusal is called for.
AT: Abraham wins in the end, and that's what religion and morality are all about - that struggle between an authoritarian view of religion and the kind of intimacy that God requires of humans.
JG: The fact that Abraham wins makes it seem a particularly immoral story. Because he behaves abominably and then does all right in the end.
AT: Abraham doesn't behave abominably, he teases out what's being asked of him and discovers it's not what he thought. That makes him infinitely more humane and sympathetic.
'The Brains Trust' is broadcast on Radio 3 on Saturdays at 10pm…
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Publication information: Article title: The Listener: Right Back to Basics ; A New Series of `the Brains Trust' - a Panel of Big Thinkers Discussing Questions Submitted by the Public - Returns to Radio 3 This Week. in This Selection from the Best of BBC Radio, the `Brains' Re-Evaluate Some Fundamental Principles for the 21st Century. Why Do We Divide Time into BC and AD? What Is Hope? and Do the Ten Commandments Need to Be Updated?. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: January 23, 2000. Page number: 50,51. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.