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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 260: June 2018

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Editorial: After the abortion referendum
The stunning level of the victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the Republic’s referendum on abortion caught almost everyone by surprise; two out of three people who voted (as near as makes no difference) supported the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited abortion. Thus a nearly four decades long debate and battle in Irish civil society and politics has stood the 1983 referendum result on its head. Instead of the expected increased conservatism on the issue as people came towards voting, the reverse was the case – ‘yes’ clearly gained momentum and votes as polling day approached.

The issue of abortion is a difficult one, whatever your stand on the issue, as we explored in the editorial in Nonviolent News 258 – and not least for those who believe in nonviolence and non-killing (when does a foetus become a ‘human being’?). There are no easy answers. Clearly a considerable majority of voters were persuaded of “a woman’s right to choose”. The difficulty of legislating to permit abortion in ‘difficult circumstances’ such as pregnancy due to rape or incest while not permitting wider availability of abortion was one influencing factor; so too clearly was the reality of women voting with their feet to access abortions in Britain or elsewhere, and the availability of abortifacient pills. The fact of handing power to politicians on the issue did not seem to detract greatly from the ‘yes’ vote.

The only age group with an arithmetic majority to reject the proposed repeal were over 65s; an RTE exit poll suggested just under 59% of over 65s voted ‘no’ whereas in the next age cohort, 50-64 years old, nearly 64% voted ‘yes’ – increasing to over 86% of the youngest voters. The same RTE exit poll showed 8% of people ‘made up their minds’ on the issue following the death of Savita Halappanaver whose life might have been saved if action had been taken earlier in her terrible miscarriage and illness, though it also needs to be stated that Ireland is one of the very safest countries in the world to have a baby. The widely shared stories from other women before and during the referendum campaign reinforced the fact there was a problem.

There are a number of issues arising. One is the radical decline in the power of the Catholic Church which strategically played very much a backseat role in this campaign (apart from such things as pastoral letters to the faithful) but, prior to the various abuse scandals of recent decades and increased secularism, was much to the fore on the issue in the 1980s. However it needs to be understood that Protestant churches were also opposed to repeal; while some prominent individual church people did support change (along with many individual Catholic and Protestant voters) the Christian churches as a whole were pretty much united on the issue.

Another issue is what ‘no’ supporters do now. While they may lobby politicians regarding the impending abortion legislation, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin had some sensible advice after the result was announced; the church needed to be pro-life “not just in words and statements and manifestos, but to be pro-life in deeds”. This would imply practical support to women, and families, with crisis pregnancies, and this is clearly the way for anti-abortion activists to go if they want to minimise abortion.

Ensuring easy availability of contraception everywhere, and more education in this area, is another requisite. Others quoted Leo Varadkar’s promise to make abortion ‘rare’ in Ireland and, while this is unlikely, minimising the number of abortions requires adequate supports for pregnant women and for families, including accessible and affordable child care. Clearly there is a huge task to achieve this and it has major policy implications, not least for a centre-right led government which might be somewhat less likely to follow through the economic and policy implications of trying to make abortion ‘rare’.

The referendum vote is a massive sea change in Ireland, and has repercussions for Northern Ireland which will be the only part of the UK or Ireland not to have abortion available (except in the very limited and particular circumstances of a risk to the mother’s life or permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health). The issues were very well debated and explored in the lead up to the referendum in the Republic. The work by the Citizens’ Assembly, a random selection of Irish citizens, explored the issues before handing on to an Oireachtas committee and then the government announced its plans on the issue if repeal took place. Whether you agree with the result or not it was, by general standards, a good exercise in democracy. And the Republic is thus joining the European mainstream on the issue.

One matter arising however concerns the nature of referendums (or referenda if you prefer). A ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ binary choice referendum is a poor, and often abused, way to gauge public opinion and particularly so on any complex issue. If you want to be less simplistic then a multi-option referendum, or preferendum, using something like the Modified Borda Count ( MBC, see ) is a much more sensible way to go. We will explore this further in the next issue of Nonviolent News, No. 261, in the Editorial Essay when we consider Democracy and nonviolence. If you actually want to give the public more of a detailed say on issues then this direction is the way and it gives a much more accurate reading of where the public stand.

The late and great Irish poet John Montague may have been somewhat premature in his 1963 poem “The siege of Mullingar”, about the Fleadh Cheoil there, in having the chorus –
“Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.”
However he had a point as ‘puritanism’ (defined in a wide and loose sense) was not, and never has been, the only approach in Ireland. But today who can doubt, after the referendum on abortion and the previous referendum on marriage equality, that his words ring true?

- - - - -

Editorial essay: Religion, secularism and nonviolence
This editorial essay is the fourth in a short series looking at feminism, ecology, human rights, religion and secularism, democracy, and radicalism in general, and their relationship to nonviolence.

Belief and unbelief

It is a difficult task to cover the range of religious and secular or atheist beliefs, and relate them to nonviolence, in one essay. It will try to deal with generalities but also some specifics of certain beliefs and approaches as necessary. Since Christianity is the major religion – admittedly with a plethora of different pockets within it – in the country in which this is written, there will be more coverage of that religion than others.
Belief, whether religious or not, is not simple. There are many reasons for belief and unbelief; these may be because of a mixture of conscious choice and unconscious selection of what is true, or feels true. Even in quite religious societies where a particular belief might be assumed, people’s private thoughts may not be shared for fear of criticism or worse, and religious participation may be engaged in because of a fear of being considered ‘different’, or for reasons of survival, or simply to be social. In the words of the Saw Doctors, “You know you'd often wonder / As the years go past / Why you ever bothered / Going to mass / Was it the fear of God / Or to find a wife / Or just buying shares / In the afterlife” (*1)

“À la carte Catholicism” has been a phrase in Ireland for many years but there is a sense in which all religious belief, no matter how doctrinaire it may appear, may be “à la carte” in the individual’s mind; there may be visible adherence to all the tenets of a faith but private dissonance.

Alternatively, in more secular and non-religious societies – which Ireland is becoming – religious belief may be something which some people are reluctant to admit to because it is seen as backward and unfashionable. All of this means that making generalisations is difficult, or statements have to be qualified. And the coherence between the stance taken by leaders of a particular faith group and the real beliefs of its followers may be slight on some matters, or there may be complete accord. Secularism and atheism are also very disparate. We do need to be aware that generalisations are just that.

The Golden Rule
While some people emphasise the difference between religious and atheist/humanist beliefs, there is a common strand to the great majority of both religions and secular philosophies. This is about how we relate to other people and it goes by the label ‘The Golden Rule’ (*2) . There are different formulations of this, some written as a positive (‘Treat others as you would like them to treat you’) and some as negative (‘Don’t treat others as you would not like to be treated’). The positive formulation is obviously more pro-active in encouraging actively treating everyone fairly. A Christian formulation is to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, with ‘neighbour’ being defined as including your perceived enemies.

There is a great example of the commonality of religious views in relating to society and other people which comes from Belfast in 2005 when Tom Ekin became Lord Mayor. It had been decided back in the 1980s that Belfast City Council should have a scripture reading before each Council meeting. The Lord Mayor was tasked to choose the readings, and Tom Ekin did so during his year in office. What only came out some years later was that he chose the readings from a variety of different religions – ‘Christian’ scriptures had been assumed by the instigators of the rule but was not specified. He chose readings which referred to how religious adherents should live their life and which did not refer to personages which would identify the passage as not being Christian – and in the whole year no one noticed. Even if the practice of having such readings was a piece of tokenism to which most councillors might not have paid attention, it is an intriguing example of the commonality of religious messages on how life should be lived.

Science and religion
One fundamental question is whether we accept the learning from scientific enquiry, whether we are religious or non-religious. While science is always evolving, and yesterday’s outlandish claim may be today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s disproven theory, being honestly in harmony with scientific knowledge is a fundamental issue; the best known example of refusal to accept science in the western world is the fundamentalist Christian belief in creationism as opposed to evolution. This may also depend on our view of the relationship between our beliefs and the world; for creationists, a particular interpretation of faith and its scriptures trumps science and the world.

More sensibly the Dalai Lama has spoken clearly that “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (*3) This relates to whether we learn from history, science, anthropology and other disciplines to understand our place in the universe and be able to maximise our positive approach to others, society and the world.

Respect, morality
If we are to treat everyone fairly, then respect is necessary but there is the question of what respect for others means in terms of respect for them and their humanity or respect for their beliefs. Here is Albert Beale’s take on it: “As a nonviolentist, I think it appropriate to try to show respect to and feel human empathy for other people I encounter, and also to show respect for everyone's right to decide their own views and their right to espouse those views (indeed I've frequently demonstrated for people's rights to express views which I personally don't share). However, that in no way implies that I should have any respect whatsoever for those views themselves......... I would go further, and say that this distinguishing between people and their beliefs is one of the key differences between a nonviolent worldview and a militarist one. The idea that you conflate people's ideas with the people holding them is surely what makes people think it right to kill people they disagree with.” (*4)

In relation to this there is the question of whether nonviolence is part of a moral philosophy (with religious or secular underpinnings) or a practical belief. In the former the dominant message is that it is wrong to kill and right to work for justice and peace. In the latter it is that nonviolence and nonviolent struggle works or is more likely to work than violence, in other words that it is more efficient than violence in arriving at a peaceful society. It is of course possible to believe both of these propositions, and since the latter would seem from research to be scientifically provable (*5), it would bolster any morally-based approach to the matter. It is difficult, though not impossible, to support nonviolence without any morally-based underpinning whatsoever.

There are also questions here about our fundamental understanding of the nature of humanity, and whether violence is intrinsic to being human. That human beings can be incredibly violent should be taken as a given. That human beings can be incredibly nonviolent and caring should also be taken as a given. The ‘scientist based’ Seville Declaration (*6) states that violence is not intrinsic to humanity. A brilliant example of living peacefully in Ireland in ancient times is provided by the Céide Fields in north Mayo where 5,000 years ago there was a peaceful, settled, agricultural community without any obvious enemies and it was also, insofar as we can see, an egalitarian society – the houses were all the same size. However more generally while the jury is still out on aspects of this issue of violence and humanity it would, given human experience to date, be impossible to say “violence is the human way”; it may be a way but it has probably never been the only way. And as sentient beings we can create the future we want and need.

Defining ‘religions’ and ‘secularisms’ or ‘atheisms’ is not always as easy as it might seem, in fact it can be quite nuanced and counter-intuitive or confusing. ‘Religion’ may or may not include belief in gods or deities; Buddhism, for example, is an a-theistic religion and others, such as Jainism, might also be considered as such. And while religions can get into fights of one kind or another with other religions, there are many different atheist or humanist approaches (*7) which can also be at loggerheads, at least intellectually.
Religion has been defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” or “a particular system of faith and worship”. The first definition has questions arising, including as mentioned above in relation to Buddhism being a-theistic, and also the extent to which the concept of God/god is ‘controlling’. Wikipedia states clearly “There is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion”, (*8) so we probably need to get on with a common sense understanding.

Secularism is usually defined as the separation of the state from churches or religious bodies and institutions; this is an institutional or societal definition, and in regard to this religious believers can be ‘secularists’ (supporting the division of church and state etc). One understanding of secularism is that it treats religious and secular beliefs as irrelevant to life and work in hand, and steps outside the religious-to-atheist range of views. But the term ‘secularism’ is also used loosely, if perhaps inaccurately, as a catch-all description for ‘those who are not religious’ – they are ‘secularists’.
Atheism is a belief there is no god or gods though some atheists can say that this assumes religion is the default position. Some atheists and humanists would also reject the whole concept of a spiritual world and see the division as being between rationalists and anti-rationalists.

Humanism is a particular secular philosophy; “Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition.” (*9) While humanism would generally be seen as atheistic some religious people who emphasise critical thinking and scientific knowledge may also define themselves as ‘humanist’ (e.g. a ‘Christian humanist’) but this is not the normal or unqualified understanding of the term.

Religion and violence
Whether you see religion as a cause of violence and war, or a cause of peace, or both, depends on your interpretation of history and most likely also your position on the religious-secular spectrum. There is no doubting that religion has been a cause of war, one notable example being the Christian Crusades, of the 11th to 13th centuries CE, when European Christians went to the Middle East and Jerusalem to ‘save’ local Christians who generally did not need saved from Muslim rule. However there are considerable grounds for different interpretations on the topic of violence, war and religion; the three ‘great dictators’ of the twentieth century, each directly responsible for millions of deaths - Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong - were not religious.

Northern Ireland is of course also an example that is used in relation to religion and violence. Religious issues played a small role in the conflict of ‘the Troubles’ for a limited number of people. However the Catholic-Protestant divide was (and is) the general badge of ethnic, cultural and political difference in Northern Ireland, stemming from the Ulster Plantation of the 17th century, so it was not generally a ‘religious’ little war at all. That Catholic-Protestant divide did nevertheless act as a barrier and the role of the Christian churches can be debated; they did oppose paramilitary violence, they did on occasions act for peace both locally and centrally, but it is a matter of interpretation how honourable or effective their response was during the Troubles.

That Christian concern with violence is nothing new, however, is well illustrated by Adomnán’s Law (Cáin Adomnáin), also known as the Law of the Innocents, of 697 CE. Adomnán when he was young had been accompanying his mother, Ronnat, and they stumbled upon the terrible aftermath of a battle. Ronnat made Adomnán promise that he would do something about this kind of violence if he ever could. When he became abbot of Iona he summoned the Synod of Birr (in the midlands of Ireland) which enacted an ecclesiastical law offering protection to women, children and non-combatants. It was very much of its time and an attempt to control violence while not condemning warfare as such and those who engaged in it as soldiers – it has sometimes been labelled the ‘Geneva Convention’ of its time. (*10)

Religions, secularism and nonviolence
It would be difficult to argue that all religions are equally in accord with nonviolence. In relation to Islam and its origins, for example, the Prophet Mohammad was a warrior in perhaps ten battles as well as leader of Medina, and Sikhs may wear knives as part of their faith (though it is only intended as a weapon of defence and has a justice connotation). On the other hand, nonviolence is a central precept of Buddhism. How religions interpret their foundational period and scriptures is a fascinating study of the interrelationship between belief, life and real politick. Christianity, which had supported nonviolence in its first couple of centuries, became a statist and often violence-supporting religion, albeit with pockets which stood out for a different approach.

Whatever about the foundational period of a particular religion it is, of course, possible to argue that in the current circumstances and environment in which we live today, each religion should support nonviolence. We live in an interdependent world where the risks from violence since the end of the Second World War are far, far greater than anything that existed before. Annihilation is not impossible, indeed there are historical examples when nuclear weapons, as potentially used by great military powers, threatened to end the way of life that we have known. In relation to Islam, ‘jihad’ can be understood as spiritual struggle rather than military struggle, and the Muslim Peace Fellowship in the USA would believe circumstances today demand a nonviolent approach (*11)

If humanism is taken as a positive, and morally based, atheistic approach then it too can relate closely to nonviolence. If a tenet of nonviolence is ‘complete respect for the human being’ then this is close to humanism’s ethical stance and rationality – there is nothing more irrational in concept, and destructive in its usage, than violence in war. Humanism, per se, is not necessarily pacifist or nonviolent but a considerable number of those identifying as humanists would believe in nonviolence or be in that direction. (*12)

Christianity and nonviolence
The Christian approach to nonviolence is a fascinating one because there was a basic change (‘sell-out’ in a nonviolent understanding) stemming from the time of Constantine early in the fourth century CE. It had previously generally been seen as impossible to be a Christian and a warrior. Gandhi said that the only people who did not see Jesus and his teachings as nonviolent were Christians (*13). There were other radical aspects of the early Christian church; it was, in Rosa Luxembourg’s thinking, communist in consumption if not in production. (*14) While advocates of the change to support violence might say that the early church supported nonviolence because of its millenarian expectation of the end of the world being imminent, it does not follow that a change in this expectation should mean a change in such a basic approach to the world which, in a reading of Jesus’ teaching, was clearly promulgated.

The adoption of Christianity – or a version of it – by the Emperor Constantine (CE 306–337) threw all of that on its head; it gradually became deemed necessary in general terms to be both violence-supporting and state-supporting to be a Christian. Violence came to be qualified in the Christian ‘Just War Theory’, a theory which predates Christianity and had been well outlined by Cicero. (*15). The ‘Just War’ theory sets down certain rules for when a war is justified; a legitimate cause, a declaration of war, a proportional response etc. The Christian ‘Just War’ approach has been parodied by Richard McSorley when he jokingly advocated a ‘Just Adultery Theory’ (*16) as being as much in accord with Christian teaching as a ‘Just War Theory’.

Without going into Christian thinking and teaching too closely, it is intriguing how militarist-supporting Christians can support ‘Loving your neighbour as yourself” with killing people. While it is not impossible to argue that in particular circumstances ‘the greater good’ might justify some violence, it is rather more difficult to argue this as a general rule in terms of armies and weapons of mass destruction. Jesus is reported as saying how blessed or happy are the peacemakers “for they will be called children of God” (*17); there was nothing reported on ‘Blessed are the soldiers and armies”.

Nonviolence was never totally absent from Christianity but its adherents have often been marginal. The Quakers, who emerged in the 17th century, are the best known ‘peace church’ in Europe but there are also in some places Mennonites and other religious groups which disdain violence. Such groups are not ubiquitous and while visible are certainly not the mainstream.

With the Catholic Church the Franciscan tradition is perhaps the best known near equivalent of the Protestant ‘peace church’ tradition. While there have been individuals and groups within Catholicism who have always espoused nonviolence, it is intriguing that the Catholic Church has, under Pope Francis, taken a clear turn in the direction of nonviolence. On weapons of mass destruction he has said “Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession.” (*18) But he has further stated “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” (*19) (*20)

Buddhism and nonviolence
While practice may, and often does, differ from theory, Buddhism has nonviolence as a central precept, indeed as part of the first precept of faith. This can be understood to have a number of different aspects but “the great principle in Buddhism is that we should have solidarity with all forms of life. Implicit in this is that we cannot possibly avoid all harm but we can work on becoming more sensitive to other forms of life by practicing mindfulness and Metta (loving-kindness) – this in turn will enable us to behave more in line with the principle of nonviolence.” (*21)

Means and ends
A question for all who believe in peace or nonviolence is how we ‘break into history’, to change the narrative from violence and war and their terrible consequences and aftermath to constructive engagement with injustice and issues of division. If you found yourself living with the Nazi menace anywhere in Europe coming up to the start of the Second World War you could take the perfectly rational and moral choice to resist militarily. However the Second World War came about as a direct result of the First World War and its aftermath, and the First World War was the consequence of clashing imperialisms in Europe from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It may be hypothetical but if the rug could have been pulled from under those imperialisms then all that followed could have been prevented. So where, and how, should we ‘break into history’ to change the violent narrative?

It should be stated in relation to the above paragraph that nonviolent resistance is possible to something like the Nazi threat to Europe in the 1930s and during the Second World War. (*22) Nonviolent resistance could be, can be, more effective, particularly when violent and brutal retaliation is possible for violent acts. Hidden disobedience is one possibility. There may be situations where both violent and nonviolent resistance to oppression and injustice are extremely difficult. Mohandas Gandhi considered three options in relation to violence and injustice; inaction, violent response, and nonviolent response and they were in his opinion in that order of morality – inaction being the worst option, and nonviolence being the best, but violence being better than inaction. (*23)
The ‘means and ends are one’ approach of nonviolence is a morally based stance, whether that comes from religious or secular belief. Nonviolence is saying ‘the time to break into history is now’, to change the narrative from one of violence, fear and greed. But it cannot avoid being stated that peace without justice is impossible, so the world has got to change. And the implication of the threat of global warming and other ecological threats is that our use of the world’s resources has to be both much less and very different; and this means that the capitalist model of economic growth, the pie getting bigger, has to be changed to a redistribution of wealth and change in the size of the slices.

From a general nonviolent point of view it does not much matter what an individual’s grounding is in terms of religion or philosophy if we are prepared to engage with the issues at hand in a rational and cooperative way. However it would definitely not be appropriate when engaged in nonviolent issues for us to be proselytising for our faith or non-faith belief (which, in action for peace and justice, would indeed be considered ‘bad faith’ whether it was for a religious or atheist viewpoint). There is nothing wrong – and in fact everything right - however, in an appropriate context and discussion mode, with the sharing of individual faith, spiritual or atheist orientations; this is part of getting to know people and what makes us tick, and of understanding the makeup of society.

A variety of groundings for those engaged in nonviolence is positive in many ways, not least in being able to reach out to different kinds of people. There is also space here for groups which have a particular faith or atheist/humanist orientation; Pax Christi as a Catholic peace group would be one such body. (*24) This is particularly appropriate for those whose religious or philosophical beliefs cause a very direct and strong orientation to peace and nonviolence and it means that outreach to people of that faith or belief is much easier. Some religious and philosophical views can, of course, be totally opposed to nonviolence, everything it stands for, and everything it might work for, but people of this orientation are not going to get involved in work for peace and nonviolence.
John Gray, a high profile and at times controversial atheist, tries to examine all traditions critically and states “Wisdom is scattered about in human life. It’s not in one place and it’s not necessarily connected with any single theory or faith or practice. It’s all over the place.” (*25) Even if we believe in our own particular brand of whatever, it is still possible to recognise the learning which can be gained from others. We do not have to be a syncretist to do this (and whether there is anything wrong with syncretism depends on whether, and how, we identify with the belief or beliefs being ‘syncretised’). But we do need respect and recognition of the humanity of the other.
Whatever our beliefs we share a common humanity and thus equality. The fact that we all tend to believe we have more of ‘a’ truth (*26) or ‘the’ truth than others can be used to attempt to demonstrate our moral superiority – or it can be used to say “We have a responsibility here for the good of all humanity”, and act for the good of all. Feelings of superiority are, after all, one cause of violence and injustice.
 - - - - - -
(*1) The Saw Doctors in their song “Same Oul’ Town”, from the album of the same name, 1996.

(*2) See INNATE poster/fact sheet The ‘Golden Rule’ is parodied in the jokey definition “He who has the gold makes the rules”....
While it is a more general exploration of the concept of ‘God’, Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God”, 1993, showed the commonality and crossover between the three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

(*3) Dalai Lama XIV, “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality”.


(*5) by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth.

(*6) See and INNATE poster

(*7) Intriguingly covered in John Gray’s book “Seven Types of Atheism”, Allen Lane, 2018, which both shows the diversity of atheist beliefs and is ‘oclastic’ of any atheist ‘icon’. His provisional definition of atheism, page 2, is that “an atheist is anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world. In this sense atheism does not amount to very much. It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.”



(*10) See “Adomnán at Birr, AD 697: Essays in commemoration of the Law of the Innocents”, ed Thomas O'Loughlin, Four Courts Press, 2001.

(*11) See e.g.

(*12) and See also ‘Nonviolence and Humanism’, by Rob Fairmichael, page 12, ‘Humanism Ireland’, May-June 2014: Asking a humanist meeting in Belfast “....whether Humanism demanded nonviolence and a rejection of military force....The ‘show of fingers’ – a more detailed response than a show of hands! – indicated that people tended towards agreeing with this point of view....”


(*14) Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Socialism and the Churches’, 1905,

(*15) While the Christian version of the ‘Just War Theory’ was promulgated by St Augustine and later Thomas Aquinas, as a general theory the concept of ‘just war’ can be traced back through ancient Rome (Cicero in particular who lived 106 BCE – 43 BCE, mainly in his “De officiis”) , India and Egypt.

(*16) Richard McSorley, “New Testament Basis of Peacemaking”, Herald Press, 1979, page 99.

(*17) Gospel of Matthew 5:3–12.

(*18) “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition”, The Holy See

(*19) World Peace Day statement 1st January 2017

(*20) See resources on Christian nonviolence in Ireland in Nonviolent News, No. 255, December 2017,

(*21) Article by Lisa Patten, ‘Buddhism and Nonviolence’ in the ‘Readings in Nonviolence’ slot in Nonviolent News 258, April 2018.

(*22) Gene Sharp, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, Porter Sargent, 1973, particularly Part Two, “The Methods of Nonviolent Action”.

(*23) Mohandas Gandhi: “My non-violence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach non-violence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes.” Gandhi, Young India, 28 May 1924.

(*24) Pax Christi International In Britain, the Peace Pledge Union is a secular peace organisation The War Resisters’ International (WRI) is one secular international body but it includes some member groups with religious orientation. The International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) is an inter-faith body which would include people of various beliefs.

(*25) The Irish Times, 25th April 2018, in a piece by Patrick Freyne, “Where do atheists get their values?”

(*26) Except in the jokey position of being an ‘ecumaniac’ within Christianity where you hold that every other brand of Christian belief is superior to your own!

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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

We see ourselves as outside nature

We dwell in a mythical landscape composed of narratives about the meaning of life, values and commendable aspirations. Collectively, this is called culture. Culture was not granted to us from on high engraved on stone tablets but is a something we made up. We, generation after generation, imagined culture into existence. Long standing beliefs and practices become traditions, which we revise or forget as suits our changing circumstances and worldview. In the manner we are largely unaware of our breathing and movement of limbs, of the stream of commands from brain to muscle, we are largely unaware of the prism through which we see the world and of the basis on which we make decisions. I mention this because this absence of awareness, our auto-pilot way of living, largely explains environmental problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and the deluge of pollution of all kinds.

The dominant, albeit subliminal view we have of our relationship with nonhuman nature largely derives from the Old Testament in which humans, as represented by Adam and Eve, are commanded by God to: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (The Green Bible, 2008, Genesis 1:28)

This Biblical mandate was acted upon down through the centuries by the Abrahamic religions and reinforced by key thinkers of the scientific revolution namely Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Francis Bacon (1596 -1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). These are people most of us will have come across in our school text books. In essence the view of these thinkers and doers, which pertains today, is that living organisms are machines. Although this mechanistic view of the nonhuman world has been successful in many fields such as medicine and engineering its reductionist approach, dealing with the parts of a subject or problem rather that the whole, has been a disaster for nonhuman nature and in consequence ourselves.

There are two main reasons for this. One is we don’t regard nonhuman nature as having intrinsic value. Rather, we see it existing, as stated in Genesis, for us to use and treat as we wish. It is only relatively recently that we have acknowledged that nonhuman creatures feel fear, experience discomfort and pain and have to some extent taken account of this in legislation. The other reason why the mechanistic view has been a disaster is that it does not see the living world in the round, as a web of relationships, and as a result we give little consideration to the possible negative consequences of how we interact with what we call the natural world.

Even when aware of negative consequences, which scientific research enables us to do, we tend to put private gains before the common good. Forests for example have long been seen as either stands of timber to be cut down and used to build furniture, houses and ships or as impediments to agriculture and burnt to ash. Rarely has our society regarded forests as organisms with intrinsic value, as having a quality of intelligence, as habitat for a rich variety of life and playing a vital role in the regulation of both the local and global climate. (Recommended listening: BBC Radio 4, Is Eating Plants Wrong? 14 May 2018)

As implied by the term nonhuman nature most people’s default view is that humankind is not nature, that what is called the natural world exists outside of us. When for example a person calls another ‘an animal’ they do so out of spite and disgust using what they think is the most demeaning word that can be used to describe a person. This is well imbedded in our culture. Julie Hirschfeld Davis for instance reports in The New York Times, 16 May 2018 that President Donald Trump called “some unauthorized immigrants ‘animals’.” The implicit view is that human beings are not nature but rather exist in an entirely different realm from it. Other commonly used terms that speak of our sense of separation, disconnection and distinction from nonhuman nature are wildernesses, untamed, empty, fierce, savage, wild, conquer, resources, real estate, natural capital, an investment opportunity and waste land. Edward O. Wilson, in Half-Earth, 2016, quotes Crist, E., 2013 who observes that we rename:  “fish “fisheries,” animals “livestock,” trees “timber,” rivers “freshwater,” mountaintops “overburden,” and seacoasts “beachfront,” so as to legitimize conversion, extinction, and commodification “ventures.” ” (p.76)

Until we see ourselves as nature, as an integral part of the evolutionary process, affecting and affected by it, we will likely continue to pollute it, extinguish other species, escalate climate change and render the biosphere unable to support the rich diversity of life, including ourselves, not too long in the future.

The world is dynamic rather than sterile which means that although the mechanistic view of nonhuman nature dominates this need not always be the case. We, the ordinary folk, absorbed in the drama of our personal lives can set the snowball of radical change rolling down the hill; its weight, size and force increasing with every turn. Often all it takes to cause an avalanche is a single loud sound and when the energy of the avalanche is spent it will have changed all about it. As Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct, 2017, writes:
“The number of people required to create that tipping point is surprisingly small, if they’re truly committed to the new paradigm. Political scientists have studied the history of all campaigns across the world since 1900 that led to government overthrow or territorial liberation, and they’ve discovered that no campaign failed once it achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” (p. 439)

I am not advocating government overthrow or territorial liberation but something more profound, a radical change in how we see ourselves. A change from one of dominating nonhuman nature to working with it, which is to say, living in an equitable, ecologically sustainable way. If we do this we will prove ourselves worthy of the name Homo Sapiens, meaning ‘wise human’.


Book review:
Peter Doran - A political economy of attention, mindfulness and consumerism
“A political economy of attention, mindfulness and consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons” by Peter Doran. Publisher: Routledge. 130 pages. ISBN-10: 113801597 ISBN-13: 978-1138015975 (£30 for e-copy).

Reviewed by Stefania Gualberti and Miriam Turley

In this book Peter Doran explains how the mindful commons can be a way for our society to reclaim our attention, time and lives from the forces of capitalization.

The mindful commons is attention as a shared sphere, a collective resource. We don’t just have individual attention, but our society as it currently exists, with mass media, marketing and advertising, design of cities and public spaces, and the current trend in mindfulness means that our individual attention can’t exist in a vacuum, but depends on the state of shared consciousness. Therefore in the same way one landowner or country cannot keep its water courses clean without cooperating with neighbours, the pollution or manipulation of shared attention and consciousness is a shared problem.
This shared resource is in our times becoming subject to enclosure, in the same way common land was enclosed, and this act of enclosure is deliberate, and marks a profound new pattern in the history of humanity. Doran describes how an All Party Parliamentary group in 2015 produced a report describing their take on “Mental Capital”, in the same way social capital and environmental capital have been conceptualised ostensibly to value and protect them, but also to put them to use in the economy. The growth economy, having run out of physical resources to exploit, is turning to the world of the mind to find value to mine and market.

The idea of an attention economy sounds abstract, but the fact that it is crucial in shaping our world is illustrated with some quotes from tech entrepreneurs that “The real business of google isn’t search, or email, or maps, or even advertising, Rather Google is in the attention business.”, and “Consumers (i.e. attention producers/providers) will be linked to marketers in such a way that aggregated attention can be bought or sold”. (Paraphrased)

Doran critiques our consumeristic economic model which proposes an ever increasing growth without considering the limitation of our planet and also creating unwellness through greater stimulation, more speed of information and stronger sensation.

Practice of secular mindfulness and yoga are becoming more and more popular as a self-help technique in a system that creates anxiety, depression and stress. The author identifies the rise of these practices as a symptom of a system which is creating “dis-ease”. Dismissed by some as McMindfuness these coping strategies are giving to the individual the tools to become resilient, productive and happy in the demanding consumeristic model of economy, adapting to neoliberalism and the pain of a suffering planet rather than finding ways to heal and be free.

This could be overcome if those practices are reintroduced in the Zen and Buddhist tradition or within a community of practice, where there is no separation between body and mind and an awareness of the commons. In those practices is then possible for people to deepen their awareness and see the bigger picture and create an alternative system.

Drawing from philosophy, ecology, epistemology as well as from Zen and Buddhist teaching he believes now is the right time for human kind to awaken and see the deeply interconnection of human being with all other being and the planet.

Through the practice of askesis - care of self - as an act of resistance, a transformation of the self will arise and transform an attitude of the mind and consequently change in our comportments to the world, the others and ourselves. (Foucault)

He proposes a model of simple living: a model of community where people can connect with themselves, each other and their surrounding through practice of focus attention to moment to moment physical experience. Through this practice comes the opportunity to make peace with our embodied lives on earth (not escape from it). The practice of focusing attention brings in the opportunity to acknowledge and accept the suffering, and to open the capacity to move from wanting to control to open up to improvisation. (Hershock and siddhata-buddha “middle way”). In this practice we find liberation and freedom. We are not gripping on things and situations but we are able to focus our attention on the direction in which our narrative is moving.

In the model of simple living through the radical act of paying attention there is an invitation to cultivate a deep transformation in individual and collective orientation to self and the world. A new kind of intimacy, care and compassion.
Another interesting concept explored in the idea of slow violence, the acts which create structures and environments which allow violence to happen. Non violence does not just occur at the point of potential interpersonal conflict, but in the planning of a just society. In the chapter on activism Doran explains how the ecological crisis has been brought about by the economy’s need for growth, and, quoting Crutzen, states “In an age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly difficult yet increasingly urgent that we focus on the toll exacted, over time by the slow violence of ecological degradation.”

As the books comes to an end the author moves from the ecology movements and philosophy concepts more and more to the Zen and Buddhist teachings and practices. He introduces the idea of moving from an “ego-system to an eco-system”. He explains concepts like dukkha and nirvana and the prophecy for the new Buddha as a collective. As we stop moving in our world in autopilot mode and pay attention, we liberate ourselves from the narrative and impasse of suffering. Suffering becomes recognised, accepted, embraced and gives us the opportunity to look deeply and gain insight. In a community of practice the suffering is never personal but it is shared. He talks about the practical and living example of an ecologist and Buddhist community of Plum Village in South France which follows the teaching of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. His most simple and profound teaching, he concludes, is finding refuge in the earth, paying attention to every breath and every step we take on earth so that we can connect body and mind to the present moment. Only then can we go back to our true home.

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