Of faith and doubt

Keith Brown took the words right out of my mouth. The Scottish Government’s mandate for a new constitutional referendum exists as a matter of observable, palpable, indisputable fact. It is not a question of belief. It is a reality.

Except if you are a British Nationalist of the breed that has recently evolved in the foetid swamp of Borissian politics. (Thereby is coined a new name for what some have been referring to as ‘England-as-Britain’. Welcome to Borissia! Not to be confused with Borussia, which is the old Roman name for Prussia. Pick-a-Deity forfend that any parallels be drawn there!)

British Nationalists see a different reality. A reality defined, not by anything substantial or measurable, but by faith-based ideology. A better headline might have been ‘Majority of crypto-theocrats deny existence anything that conflicts with their beliefs!’. Although I can well understand why The National went with its own version.

Faith is belief stripped of any rationality. Believing something requires something akin to evidence. Faith demands not only an absence of evidence but an element of contrary evidence. The more contrary evidence there is, the stronger the faith must be. So the faithful actually relish conclusive proof refuting the object/subject of their faith. If they can maintain belief in the face of incontrovertible proof then they get a prize. Generally, the actual presentation of this prize is deferred until after they’re dead. But this small print on the faith agreement seems to bother the faithful at all.

So it is that James Kelly can write the following without embarrassment.

But the poll shows that 95% of them take the opposite view. It’s hard not to conclude that they’ve been inculcated with a near-Trumpian mindset that will always regard the Tory mandate as stronger and more valid than the SNP mandate, regardless of how many more seats or votes the SNP actually win.

Change ‘Tory’ to ‘British’ and, bearing in mind what has been said of faith, and you have a telling comment on British Nationalist faith. Kelly might better have referred to the British mindset that will alwayst regard the thing that is British as superior in every way to the thing that is not British. Another useful term is ‘exceptionalism’ – which can mean either or both that the British are exceptional or/and that everything which is not British may/must be excepted.

One of the reasons the No side of polls on independence has been so stubbornly resistant to the ‘positive case for independence’ is that it conflicts with their faith-position. The British Nationalist views Scotland’s independence campaign as heretical and illogical. If British is always superior, why doesn’t everybody want to be British? Or everybody wants to be British so there must be something wrong with those presumptuous Scots who say they don’t want to be British but would prefer to just be Scottish.

Another and possibly more significant reason the No side isn’t eroding as might reasonably be expected is that it is futile to use reason to argue a person from a position arrived at other than by reason. The rational, evidence-based case for restoring Scotland’s independence cannot impinge on faith-based devotion to the Union any more than the comprehensively verified nature of the mandate can make any impression on the faith-addled mind of the British Nationalist. The strapline for Better Together / Project Fear should have been ‘Bring me your proof, and I will deny it!’.

This has profound implications for the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. To whatever extent my analysis holds, the current form of that campaign is titlting at Union flag-draped windmills. You can’t chop wood with a scalpel. You’re asking for a doing if you take a pillow to a swordfight. In a political contest between reason and faith, the former may always win, but the latter can never lose. Assuming they are equally determined – and equally convinced of the other’s weakness – the forces of reason will become increasingly frustrated and fractious, while the armies of the faithful will grow more resentful and vicious.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, if the matter is to be resolved and the warring cease, then one side is going to have to do something differently. That are going to be obliged to change their tactics. This is a reasoned and reasonable conclusion. So we can immediately rule out the British Nationalists. Remember, they are not amenable to “gentle persuasion”. That’s what got us into this position in the first place. So it has to be the forces of reason which make the adjustment.

Reason wins merely by changing the object/subject of faith. Faith can only win by changing reality. Or by persuading enough others to abandon reason in favour of faith. Which may well amount to the same thing. If absolutely everybody in the world maintained as a matter of faith that it was flat, how would you prove otherwise? Scientific evidence would be worthless in the truest sense of the word; nobody would value it. Newton’s insights concerning celestial mechanics would be the ravings of a madman. If Newton could even exist in a world without science; without reason.

Here we have a clue to how reason might prevail by means of a change of strategy. We know that reason is useless against faith. So don’t use reason in a direct assault on faith. Instead, use emotion to attack the object/subject of that faith. Reason cannot be transferred. It cannot simply be planted in a mind that has been given over to faith, because that mind is fundamentally changed in the process in ways that mean it can no longer accommodate reason – at least, not comfortably.

Faith, on the other hand, can quite readily be transferred. It can be move from one subject/object to another. The person who believes in a flat world can just as easily apply that same faith to the slightly misshapen globe we all know, live and shit all over. Faith may be impervious to reason, but it is vulnerable to doubt, misgiving, mistrust, suspicion and apprehension. But the greatest of these is doubt.

I am, of course, talking in generalities, abstractions and simplifications here. Few people are wholly given over to faith. And fewer still are capable of pure reason. At some point, we must check and see if our model fits in the real world.

In the real world, doubt was what defeated the Yes campaign. Certainly not reason or reasoned argument. The massed forces of the British state disdained to provide reasons for Scotland to remain in the Union. The ‘evidence’ they offered was intended, not to change minds, but to provide those among the faithful who need such things with the means to rationalise their faith position. Minds were not changed by Better Together / Project Fear, they were infected with doubt. That’s what all the questions were about. They weren’t looking for information. They were relying on the human instinctive calculation that says questions imply doubt. And a lot of questions implies a lot of doubt.

If it worked for them, it can work for us. When I say that there was a failure by the Yes side to learn lessons from the 2014 campaign, I mean there was a failure to learn the lessons of the campaign as a whole. There was a great deal of fretting about the Yes campaign and its ‘message’ – little or none of which came to any conclusion untainted by prejudice, preconception and prejudgement. But there was little effort to look at the No campaign to see what might usefully be gleaned from its tactics and methods. Which is surprising given that they won. It was always my position that, if we can learn from our own mistakes then we can surely learn from others’ successes.

Keith Brown is right on the money when he observes that denial of the mandate is an act of faith. I wonder if he took that thought further, as I have attempted to do here.



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19 thoughts on “Of faith and doubt

  1. I would suggest that there are two kinds of BritNat: the “politicals” and the “believers”. The former well realise that they are in an awkward place democratically, because that is the very essence of their predicament; they fear serious loss of income and support for their views in a new Scotland. Not least (but not exclusively) Tories, who would rather have the artificial backing of Big Brother in England than have to stand on their own feet and on their own merits in a new country that would be as much their own as anyone else’s.

    As for the latter, their position has largely been “better the devil you know than the one you don’t”, and this view was the one which Better Together targeted so effectively. As you rightly put it, Peter, the continual public demands in 2014 for “more information” amid a veritable ocean of the stuff (not all true) was a fair indication of the level of doubt. Or as I would put it, it was a public plea for reassurance from sources they could trust. And although there were honourable exceptions, I would say that the “great and good” of civic Scotland did not rise to that occasion. But fear can work both ways, as the Brexit farrago has proven in Scotland, even though the effect may be muted.

    There are two equal devils awaiting our choice now, but we only have a hold on one of them. To my mind, the greatest danger is to permit post-Brexit complacency to set in, because people will forget and the old familiar one will win again.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Have you ever thought, being a thinker as you say, that a “significant reason that the no side isn’t eroding” is because of people like yourself who’s spent so much time trying to undermine SNP politicians and are now turning on other pro-independence bloggers such as Paul Kavanagh and James Kelly?

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    1. You do have a point there. There’s always room for constructive debate, but an excess of “firing sideways” instead of “firing forwards” is unhelpful.

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    2. I don’t think anyone is out to “undermine” SNP politicians, but what is being pointed out, is that the present SNP path to Independence is not working, and if they keep to this path, they, will never take us there.
      I don’t see how making that clear, is such an awful thing.
      It is being realistic.
      A realism, those at top of SNP don’t want to accept, these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very excellent essay. It has provoked me to think.

    The distinction you make between “faith” and “evidence-based reason” nicely cuts through to the nub of the matter. There is nevertheless an ambiguity in the expression “evidence based reason” that I believe can be fruitfully developed.

    It is certainly true that something of what all of us believes is an article of faith, in the sense that it is not based on evidence. It is also true that certain items of belief cannot be demonstrated or established by appeal to evidence alone. There is a real problem involved with demanding that every idea that is not based on evidence must be rejected (such a position is more or less implicit in the ideological scientism of Cummings and his ilk). Some ideas and beliefs are based not on evidence but on reason, and quite a lot of what humanity believes to be reasonable is far removed from any kind of evidence.

    At which point, it seems to me two issues emerge.

    The first is often discussed: what constitutes evidence, who gets to decide how evidence is gathered, why are some kinds of evidence excluded, what social processes and historical powers have been at work in producing what we understand to be evidence? And so forth.

    The second is more subtle and less often mentioned. What is reason actually? This is not an abstract question, but a practical political one. We should be prepared in the name of reason to call out unreason simply on the basis that it is unreason, that it cuts the ground from beneath its own feet, or leads to absurd consequences, or is in some way internally inconsistent, self contradictory. And we should be able to do this without having moronic neo-positivists demanding that any putative position they believe we may be taking be supported by evidence. Being critical, asking questions, demanding good reason for believing something that appears from another place to be blind faith. These are part of reasonable politics and we should not be persuaded otherwise.

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  4. I didn’t know much about Keith Brown till I read the Dinwoodie interview with him in i-Scot magazine a few evenings ago. I’m generally apprehensive about people with a Forces background as most are indoctrinated into the butchers apron, but Keith seems pretty sound.

    Faiths generally have an overarching goodness in their objects. It’s only once they become organised religions that the dogma can become dangerous. The cult of Brexit and the Union are more akin to extremest ideologies than faiths but the points in your article are well made. I hadn’t actively considered using faith-busting tactics for dealing with unionists but it’s a great analogy. Sewing seeds of doubt among the congregation should be easily achieved when Boris is in the pulpit.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I remember a similar article some time ago by Gordon MacIntyre Kemp. He said that half of the Nos are not ‘True Believers’ but ‘Crowd Followers’.
    They are hard to shift but not fundamentally faith-driven, just extremely cautious about changing something that has been a fundamental in their life. A deep existential doubt about the competence of the Union will make even such cautious people open to change. And ‘Brexit guarantees doubt’.

    52% now.

    It’s agonisingly slow, but it’s happening.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “Crowd followers” is a very apposite description, and futher emphasises the need for trusted sources to offer assurances to such folk. A reliable endorsement is worth screeds of pages of well-intended white papers amid the deliberate “white noise” of data effluent expressly intended to disorient and confuse.

    Confidence-building measures backed-up by far greater exposure of the likely increasing risks of a careless England-as-UK, in the light of all the broken promises of 2014.

    Once these people begin to flip, it will truly be all over for the Union. And we only need 5%.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. We do have a big problem with those who are absolute believers in the Union.
    Many of us will know a few folks, who have this undying loyalty to UK.
    Some were totally against leaving EU, but as soon as England voted to leave, they suddenly came on board, Ruth Davidson style!
    Even tho they absolutely hate this tory regime, more than they hate any previous other tory regime, they hate SNP even more.
    Not because SNP Govt is bad, they acknowledge the many benefits, from it, Bus Passes, and the like, but because SNP is /was/used to once upon a time, want Independence.
    If Nicola Sturgeon was in the Libs, or Labour, or suddenly tomorrow, declared SNP was not for Independence,after all, but for standing up for Scotland within the Union, first and foremost, and Independence can happen sometime in the next century, some of those who presently hate SNP would just as suddenly be admiring them, and the First Minister, as our greatest ever politicians!
    But there would be others, still who would always hate SNP, and the First Minister simply because they wanted Independence .Even if they were to say not yet, it is the very fact, they ever wanted it.
    These folks will never,ever be persuaded.

    SNP strategy of trying to convince such folks, is an utterly futile waste of time.
    The aim of trying to be as nice and as polite as possible to try convince all the others, was also not so much a waste of time, but always one doomed to failure.
    In 2014 I was, and still today, am surprised at how timid SNP seemed to be in the face of the UK Establishment Media, and didn’t fight back in kind. That is not so much with fake info, or insults, etc, but with equal aggression.
    And afterwards, the SNP has still kept up with this extreme timidity We saw an example of that, with the First Minister’s speech on Friday.
    We see it House of Commons, when SNP politicians are treated with outrage after outrage, and yet all we get is statements of righteous indignation, one after the other, and nothing ever more than that.
    No walks out. No rocking the boat too much
    All, I think, or seems at any rate, to want to be seen as being “responsible”, and Statesmen like, etc. All in this futile effort to get those who have been unsure, as opposed to those who will never change, to come over to Independence.
    However, supposing we did get over half the population to want Independence, what is the SNP leadership going to do, to help us get there, if they are always and infinitely, going to seek Westminster’s approval for anything?
    As has been well explained, it wouldn’t matter if 98 percent Scots wanted Independence, and we had not a single Unionist elected official left, London would still try to block it.
    If SNP leaders are not going to challenge London rule, they are not truly for Independence, and they need to be honest about that.
    I don’t think they have been as honest as they ought to have been of late.
    For too many have placed their trust in them, faith like almost, the way those who have faith in London rule, explained above, only to be badly let down.
    Faith is a precious, precious gift, and it can be lost. The concern is, here, that some lose the desire for Independence, not because they don’t believe in it, but because those whom they put so much trust in, has made them give up,and they walk away.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I found Robert Altermyer’s (free) book looked at some of these issues quite well.
    You can find it here, the intoroduction page gives a reasonable overview of his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Your definition of faith here is excellent Peter, and I believe is accurate.

    I was going to write (a rambling) something about ‘core beliefs’, so a slightly different slant but exactly the same points as you bring up, so you have saved me time, and saved others from scrolling by one of my long rambles.

    An explanation though: Core beliefs are those beliefs by which we define ourselves – so in the case of extremists, British nationalists, they believe that the union is necessary, part of who they are, for their own view of themselves to remain intact. To try and change this core belief is very difficult and causes some trauma (an ‘identity crisis’) for the person. The vehement anti independence reaction is them protecting an unhealthy core belief (of strongly defining yourself by nationality, but there is no nationality here!), so be gentle when they get upset. Being patronising is fine though 😉

    A separate message: core beliefs can change and you can have any amount. If you have a harmful core belief, e.g ‘I’m useless’, you can be vulnerable to slipping into depression, or develop an anxiety. You should be aware that these illnesses are very treatable, there are a variety of different treatments available – some simply to train yourself with slight changes in thinking or small changes in behaviour. Don’t suffer in silence, and be kind to yourself.

    Be aware of other’s vulnerabilities, and how this can allow them to be more easily affected by any fear message – strengthen the confidence of the people, and weaken the effect of fear-messages.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Peter I agree with most of what you write. You mix up, however, faith and credulity. There is a school of thought that proposes the view that reason (as reasoning) is always based on faith (as ultimate presuppositions, commitments that can not be by scientifically proved or reasoned towards on the basis of something more ultimate). I’m recommending, not trying to impose on you, a book by Christian Philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief. You have the freedom to buy and read it, or not to do so.

    I think Unionists are credulous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I’m mixing up anything. I’d say credulity – more accurately credulousness – is an essential part of faith. Just as there would be no faith without a well-developed capacity for rationalising belief against evidence.

      I am also very aware that it is not possible to have a sensible discussion of faith with someone who is afflicted. In such a discussion faith quickly becomes an infinitely elastic and slippery concept. The only certainty being that the afflicted will insist that faith is not what the faith-free say it is even when the latter agrees with the former.

      Been there! Done that! The T-shirt fits me like my first wedding suit.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Northern Ireland is the example we must look to. The Democratic Unionist Party is being thrown under a bus by the Brexit deal. Whatever way they deal with it will be very instructive.

    Liked by 2 people

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