16 Feb

O Gun, shoot thyself!

Justin Webb opened his remarks on the Florida shooting by saying, “Another day in America and another school shooting. And still nothing is done.” Predictably, it turned out what what he thought should be done is to ban the private ownership of firearms. Justin Webb is a genial chap if rather lightweight. I am going to thank him for his contributions to The Today Programme because these always revive in me the instincts, now a little rusty, alas, fostered by my old philosophy professor: “Look for the non sequitur, the logical solecism.” So here goes…

Dear Justin,

I listened carefully to what you said about guns in American society. You are absolutely correct of course. Guns are extremely dangerous instruments. “Another day, another school shooting,” you say. Dead right. Let us examine what happens in these terrible incidents:

One morning a rifle or an automatic handgun wakes up in its gun cabinet and says to itself, “I fancy going on a massacring spree at the local high school today.” Unfortunately for the gun, he is locked away safely in the cabinet. But his owner doesn’t know that during the night the gun has ingeniously manufactured a key with which he is able to unlock the cabinet from the inside. This he proceeds to do. Then, all by himself, clever Master Gun, catches the tube and makes his way to the school campus. The gun, all unaided, walks into the quadrangle and opens fire as the pupils are gathering for their lessons. Then, if the mood so takes him, the gun ambles nimbly into a classroom and continues his orgy of killing. All this is done without human agency.

It is a pity, Justin that in America guns are so bad-mannered and downright murderous. They should learn better manners from their colleagues in Switzerland.

In Switzerland 90% of the population carry guns wherever they go. Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates of any country in the world and there hasn’t been a war there since a light skirmish between Catholics and Protestants in 1847. This, despite the fact that in Switzerland there are four million guns in a population of only eight million people. Deaths from shootings in Switzerland amount to 0.5 in 100,000. In the USA the figure is ten times that.

Clearly the problem is that American guns are so much more unruly, antisocial and homicidal than the friendly old guns in Switzerland.

You should ask  the BBC, Justin, to send you on a fact-finding trip to Switzerland. there you should talk to the millions of Swiss guns and ask them to make their way to the USA and teach better manners to those pesky Yankee guns.

But Switzerland is a long way from America. You could, Justin, visit Canada instead. And I think Canada is quite near to America. There you would discover that the number of homicides perpetrated by guns – all by themselves and without any help from human beings – is seven times lower than in the neighbouring USA. Happily, figures are available: 8813 murders by guns in the USA as against only 172 murders in Canada.

And you know, Justin, we shouldn’t stop at banning guns. There are other ill-behaved implements such as knives. So ban all knives, eh? Not just axes and brutal hunting knives but breadknives, penknives and butter-knives.

Unfortunately, this won’t eradicate the problem. Other naughty objects and substances kill people too. Just look at the delinquency of bleach. Or at those murderous pillow-cases which leap up out of their blanket chests every morning and embark, all unaided, on wholesale smotherings. In short, we should be extremely ruthless and ban everything

And do be careful, Justin: mind out that BBC microphone doesn’t decide to stuff itself down your throat and choke you.

Yours affectionately


PS (to my old prof): “Will this do, Charlie?”

24 Nov

God makes an American comeback?

On Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln urged the American people to offer, “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

Barak Obama omitted all mention of “God” or “prayer” in his message to the nation.

By contrast, Donald Trump declared America “blessed,” referred to “my prayer” and ended with “God bless you all. God bless America.”

I just wonder if this might be the start of something good, something wholesome and restorative?

“Thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

I could spend all morning quoting biblical texts at you in which the Old Testament prophets admonished an erring and straying people and urged them to return to their God. They added that the people would live in peace and prosperity if they followed God’s Commandments; but that they would inevitably end up in trouble if they did not.

But the Bible was written a long time ago in the days when people actually believed in God. Surely, four hundred years after the Enlightenment, we have outgrown such superstition? Dietrich Bonhoeffer – an Enlightenment man if ever there was one – declared that 20th century people had “come of age.” He neglected to mention the gifts reserved for age: two world wars, the most destructive wars in history. Man come of age perpetrated more slaughter in the Second World War than in all previous wars put together. In the same century, there were the genocides of the pagan Hitler and the atheists Stalin and Mao.

I have noticed modern man’s famous difficulties with belief in God all my life and I am sure that these difficulties arise because modern man first invents a god in his own image – a cartoon god, an unbelievable god – and then rightly and logically this belief. What if, instead of the cartoon god, we were to say something like this:

Unless you hold that there are absolute values by which your conduct is measured, by which you try to live, you are bound to live a morally incoherent life. Enlightenment nostrums and wonderfully progressed discoveries in mathematics, physics and biology will enable you to cure diseases, to live in warm houses, to construct an atom-smasher and even fly to the moon.

But no science, no technology, however advanced can give you guidance how to live.

Life requires absolute values. Relative values which change to accommodate our convenience and our shifting fashions and prejudices are not real values: there needs to be something definite, something absolute by which our lives are measured. The biblical word for this is “judged.”

As the great Enlightenment philosopher himself, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put it: “The starry heavens above and the Moral Law within.”

Personally, I would want to go further than this theologically.

But will it do – for a start?