Sunday, 24 July 2011

A person with a belief

It is ironic that the perpetrator of the massacre in Norway tweeted a single quote from the philosopher John Stuart Mill prior to the killing spree, saying: "One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests" as the thoughts and actions of  Anders Behring Breivik would have been deeply abhorrent to John Stuart Mill. At the heart of Mill's humanitarian philosophy lay an acute awareness of and empathy for others, he believed in liberty only insofar as this did not cause harm to others. Mill's championed the cause of women's equality in his essay on "The subjection of women" and promoted the good of the greatest possible number of individuals in a society in his idea of utilitarianism. There is such a disparity between the mindset of a thinker such as Mills and one such as Anders Behring Breivik that one has to wonder whether he was actually tweeting Mills in an ironic sense?  Was he actually saying something along the lines that "Mill's empathy for the many is in direct opposition to my lack of empathy and narcissistic assertion of my own ideologies and emotions to the exclusion of the interests of others" - and would he indeed be capable of this sort of degree of self awareness?

Like Mills, Anders Behring Breivik certainly can be described as having "beliefs". Described as right wing politically, anti- Muslim and a fundamentalist Christian, linked to the Tea Party, and known to comment on several political and religious websites, he clearly had an acute interest in ideology. Nor did he lack emotion. I couldn't help noticing that the paper I got this morning described him as "cold and heartless" in one article, whilst explaining in another that "he would have been in the grip of a slow burning anger" against the world. Well, slow burning anger is certainly an emotion - and has to be compelling to find expression in such an extreme way. What Anders Behring Breivik lacked was not the ability to think or to feel, simpy the ability to feel on behalf of others, to experience empathy. It is very likely that he was at the centre of his universe and may not have recognised other human beings (certainly those who were Muslim or left wing) as anything other than "the other."

I do not want to comment at length on this tragic and horrible event, nor the person behind it. Many aspects leave me deeply uneasy, the way that several newspapers initially reported it as an Al Qaeda massacre seems rather ironic given Anders Behring Breivik's anti-Muslim views, and - so close to the demise of The News of the World - I can't help feeling that grubby recognition that this is a gift for the newspapers and media and that what is simply a colossal pointless waste and utterly needless, meaningless heartbreak for so many can be in danger of being turned into entertainment for all of us. There is a bit of a "wow factor" when someone acts in such an extreme and horrific way and there is a fascination in all of us about the mindset behind it - and isn't that reaction partly what Anders Behring Breivik sought?

I come back to the title of this post - a person with a belief. The events in Norway make me feel that it matters very little what our beliefs actually are;  just that Christ's commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves should override - or underpin - each and every one of them.


  1. In relation to Anders Behring Breivik and his seeming inability to exhibit empathy, I posted the following question a few days ago - before the Norway atrocities:

    Can Psychopaths become Christians?

    This comment has just been left:

    This has proven to be a strikingly prescient question!

    I didn't quite understand what he meant by this to begin with, but now I see that this is almost a 'prophetic' question, given this psychopaths actions and traits and self-profession of Christianity!

  2. There was a strange irony in that yesterday evening my partner and I went to see ‘The Emperor and the Galilean’ at the National; a three hour epic by the Norwegian, Ibsen. There are several themes to the play (which I’d thoroughly recommend seeing). Obviously a major theme is how religion is used as a means to justify authority; and how there is often a gap between the tenets of a religion and its articulation in a society, and by its vehicles of authority. But another theme is the conceit of religion – or the conceit of the individual believer. There is the stark reality that religious belief can become exclusive and all consuming to the point of overriding the rights of others (see:

    It is no coincidence that a theme of Enlightenment philosophers is the difficult task of trying to marry the rights of individual with the needs of society. Our Western society is heavily influenced by such thinking – indeed many of our ideas concerning human rights, liberty, freedom etc. are borne out of this thinking rather than Christianity. Therefore, without wishing to be facetious, the idea of loving one’s neighbour as oneself and love for one’s enemy may have been tenets of Christianity, but it is only through the Enlightenment – and its humanist bias – that there has been anything like an achievement of these ideals in the polity of our society. Hence, as you say, it ironic this monster chose to quote Mills.

    I have posted on this topic on my own blog, but I think there is much more that will come out and I may remove or re-write the piece. All we can do now is be stunned and feel sorrow that a crime so heinous could be committed; moreover that it could be committed using the symbols of civil authority, which young people trusted. This was not a case of an individual ‘snapping’ as occurred in Cumbria last year. This was planned, carefully and with the intention of killing as many people as possible. For that very reason I find it difficult to say anymore.


  3. Wow, Stuart, quite a question! Can psychopaths be Christians if they truly lack a conscience or remorse? Well, dunno - a bit of a facer that. (I find myself saying "dunno" more and more these days:)
    Peter - yes, it is hard to know what to say about the events in Norway. Having said that, I don't think religious belief - or any belief- on its own was the problem here.

  4. I find myself saying "dunno" more and more these days

    You and me both....

  5. No, neither do I and so I’ve taken down my post on this topic. However, David Copeland – the Brick Lane/Admiral Duncan nail bomber wasn’t religious per se, but was certainly influenced by Far Right American Christian websites in the US (on a personal note, as I worked in an office in Soho Sq at the time, I walked past the Admiral Duncan 20 mins before the bomb went off, en route to Piccadilly Station to get the tube to Paddington for a long weekend in Cornwall...).

    Something I have noticed in both my personal and professional life is that there is a disproportionate number of people with mental health issues that draw on Christian imagery, ideas and politics to inform their own thinking. For that very reason I think it is time for some of our conservative Christian brethren to stop posting some of the divisive and accusatory material that they pass off as ‘Christian comment’ when in reality it is just prejudice and hatemongering! It is only a matter of time before another David Copeland or the like comes our way.

    ‘Can psychopaths be Christians?’ theologically the answer is ‘yes’ because they are made in the image of God – no matter how distorted that has become. However with some mental health and learning disability conditions one really wonders whether that is realistic. You may remember the case of the autistic street preacher who won compensation from the police last year ( – this same guy was handing out tracts at the top of the steps of an exit to Oxford Circus tube station a few months ago. He lunged at me, offering me a tract, which I politely declined. But it was an inappropriate place to stand – indeed dangerous, for him and passengers cramming the station. I recognised the guy from a post Peter Ould’s blog. Given that people with high functioning autism lack empathy or comprehension that other people can have different views than themselves, I wondered whether this guy was really suited to street evangelism! But is he a Christian? Well, once you start deciding who is a real Christian and who isn’t, you may as well start building a scaffold, because that is where that kind of talk ends up. We just have to trust that some people, no matter how limited their capacity for comprehension or lacking in the abilities of ‘normal’ people, can be drawn to God.

    Let’s face it, there are enough sh*ts out there who bore us with their claims of Christian fidelity and yet, despite possessing faculties of empathy and the ability to care, spend much of their time doing the very opposite... often in the name of the God they claim to serve! Hence I have come to the conclusion that it is a very dangerous thing to decide who and who isn’t or can’t be a Christian. To do so, is, in reality, to say that we know the mind of God – and the limits of his purpose, work and mercy... And anyone able to do that has to my mind missed the point of the Gospel!


  6. I think that is a good answer. Theologically I think we have to say that nobody is beyond the redemptive power of God and it is not our call anyhow. But it is interesting from a psychological point of view. Most people would say that someone who carries out this type of atrocity cannot truly be close to God, or "saved" (whatever that means anyhow), most would say that such an individual would need to repent before they could receive salvation - but then if that person is INCAPABLE of remorse or conscience? Where does that leave us?
    I don't actually know if psychopaths are entirely devoid of a conscience or of the capacity for remorse anyhow, and, if they are, then there is a case to say that they are not responsible for their lack of regret or compunction in any case and so should not be subject to God's wrath over that inability.

    I have just finished reading a book at the moment "The behaviour of Moths" which seems to me to look at the idea of free will and the extent to which we could argue that human beings have less free will than we think and might also (perhaps only in certain cases) be regarded as "bundles of chemicals" - albeit in a more complex way, simply reacting to a combination of their chemical make up and the force of circumstance.
    Food for thought! Life is complicated, but at least that means it does lend itself to thinking!

  7. My Dad had his annual visit to see his prostate cancer consultant last week. He should have been dead three years ago, but has continued passed the five years he was given in 2002. The usual treatment for metastatic prostate cancer these days in hormone treatment – particularly if the patient is treated by an oncologist, rather than a urologist. I discussed my father’s case with one of the oncology consultants at the hospital where I worked and my doctor friend was surprised that my father had opted for the more radical treatment of an orchidectomy - surgical castration. This stops the production of testosterone – the hormone that causes the cancer (all men will get prostate cancer of some kind, if they live long enough!). My consultant friend said that this surgical procedure is quite rare these days – but tends to be the preferred method of treatment by urologists as opposed to oncologists. He asked me an odd question at the end of our discussion: ‘He is a nicer person now?’ And the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. My father is indeed a much nicer person since the operation. He is less aggressive, argumentative and a good deal more fair minded.

    I was watching one of those ‘zoo’ ‘fly on the wall’ (or in this case ‘fly on the pile of elephant dung’) day time problems, a few years ago, while nursing a bad dose of man-flu. The presenter was doing an interview with the elephant keeper. Throughout the interview the elephant in the background kept throwing things at the keeper and then poking him through the bars of the enclosure. The presenter asked why the elephant was being so provocative and the keeper replied that it was a bull elephant and these are rarely kept in zoos because they are so aggressive – this particular bull knew the keeper well and was just trying to annoy him, showing him who was boss but also spoiling for a fight. I thought it interesting that here was another example of the effects of testosterone – and in some ways (and I’m not someone given to anthropomorphisms) the bull elephant was just acting like men behave in pubs and bars up and down the land on a Saturday night – spoiling for a fight to demonstrate his masculine prowess.

    As a person who has suffered one serious bout of depression in my life – I am a person who monitors my mood and just how preoccupied I am with myself. I have noted that an indicator of mental health is how an individual views her/his self: too greater or too little interest in the self and its place within society is a sure indication something isn’t right. Hence if I notice that my view of self is skewing towards pre-occupation and if I am experiencing repetitive negative thoughts, then I go and do something to break the cycle (exercise, visit friends, – even just a break of routine) (yes, I know this is classic CBT). I know that such changes in mood are affected by the chemical factory in my head that is the brain and sometimes ‘spiritualising’ the organic can have unhelpful results. The number of people with mental health problems who used to find their way to the monastery was legion! And a good portion of their talk was about themselves and God and God and themselves – but in the main the bulk of the talk and their concern was themselves. Indeed sometimes religion presents us with a virtuous way to be self-obsessed!

    It is curious how, when it comes to the rest of our bodies, we can happily accept that diet, exercise, environment, rest and leisure can have a profound effect on our well-being. Whereas, when it comes to our minds, there is a tendency, among some at any rate, to see what goes on in our heads as ‘spiritual’ and eschew the idea that the physical and organic can play its part in how we perceive ourselves and the world. But my own experience of depression and the change of personality wrought in my father demonstrate ‘chemicals’ play a much larger part in who we are than we’d like to admit.


  8. We are perhaps just chemical soup! :)
    I may do a post on depression one day!( I had post natal depression, it was grim!) As for testosterone, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once said to me, "it is amazing how many men are psychopaths" - he does deal with a lot of women having counselling after sexual and domestic abuse, so he could be biased I suppose... Would men be nicer without their testosterone? (more food for thought!!:) )

  9. The Mainline Protestant churches are "nice" for the same reason-look at their membership, majority female and the men who are there either older or gay. Congratulating Mainline Protestantism for never being aggressive is like congratulating a eunuch for never committing sexual assault.