Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An appalling question

DPF has commented on the annual EML awards, which has reminded me about the Agenda interview they screened a segment of, in which Lisa Owen repeatedly asks John Key whether he believes in god:

Lisa: Do you believe in God John?

John: That’s an interesting question do I believe in God. I don’t believe in life after death.

Lisa: Do you believe in God?

John: Well I don’t believe in life after death, I don’t know how you'd define it really.

Lisa: Are you agnostic, are you atheist?

This is a simply appalling line of questioning. It's one thing for a politician to go out in public and talk about god, but being asked about it is downright rude. John Key's religious beliefs are between him and his conscience, and no-one else's business at all. To even be asked about them smacks of a US-style religious test for politicians (though given the context, one based on secularism rather than religious belief, which is just as bad). And that is simply not something I want to see established here.


We seem to be disagreeing a bit lately. Clark and Brash have both been asked the same question, and answered it without any fuss. Bill English discussed his understanding of faith happily in the recent Herald profile.

Given the role that the religious right played in the last election, Key's answer is of understandable political interest.

Key himself volunteered to the Shine TV interviewer recently that he lived his life "according to Christian principles".

But - again! - when asked a straightforward question on Agenda, he waffled around and actually said "it depends how you define religion ..."

If he'd just said "that's private to me" that would have been alright, but this seems like another example of his shapelessness.

Posted by Russell Brown : 12/19/2006 02:11:00 PM

I think its one thing to volunteer; its quite another be pressed in that sort of fashion. I agree that the answer does reveal Key's shapelessness - IMHO he should have said "that's none of your damn business" - but that doesn't change the fact that he should never have been asked in the first place.

As for the religious right, it wasn't Brash's religious beliefs that got him into that hole, but his political cynicism. Investigating whether Key shares that cynicism is good journalism; asking him to front up on questions that are nobody's business but his own isn't.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 12/19/2006 02:29:00 PM

I think it is a legitimate public interest question – does this politician base her/his life on scientific evidence and rationalism, or is s/he believe in unprovable things that are beyond the scope of logical argument? The answer certainly changes the way you would approach lobbying that politician around issues of policy. And it seems to give an unfair advantage priests and moralists over scientists and academics if the politician is going to put faith ahead of evidence. I certainly am less inclined to vote for anyone who professes to be a believer. Hmm, maybe I’ve been reading too much Richard Dawkins recently?

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 03:08:00 PM

RB, I don't see the problem with Key saying he lives by Christian principles but on the other hand saying he's not sure whether he believes in God. Many Christian principles are not the sole property of believers.

I think you're being a bit hard on someone who is merely trying to be a bit contemplative about the big questions. I find his mullying over the question a bit more reassuring than some peoples' certainty.

But I agree that there's not much wrong with this line of questioning.

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 03:17:00 PM

If you watch the interview, it's clear that he's not "mulling" - he's stalling.

It was also pretty clear that the answer is "no" - whether or not he has doubts about that answer, it was what he was trying to avoid saying.

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 03:53:00 PM

Stephen: possibly just a bit, yes.

To point out the obvious, Ian Wishart and the Brethren are equally adamant that politicians' marriages and sexual histories are "a legitimate public interest question", and I find that just as unconvincing. Some things are just private, and no business of anybody else, even when politicians are concerned. At the least, it spares us from the gruesome details, which are usually equally embarassing whether it is sex or god that is being pried into.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 12/19/2006 04:14:00 PM

Anon, if Key really was going to all that effort to avoid annoying Christians (I gather that's your implication) then why should he in the very next breath deny the central tenet of the New Testament?

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 06:39:00 PM

More that he was trying to avoid saying anything the least bit contentious than specifically trying not to offend Christians. More trying not to offend anybody. He flailed a bit, as you can see, and then settled on a fairly bizarre compromise (for what he was doing, not in itself).

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 06:52:00 PM

I/S: I agree that this should be something that is up to the individual to divulge. However... I have to say you haven't exactly been fair about politicians that are open about their Christianity, say describing Catholic MPs as pushing their "fundamentalist" agenda.

I wonder how much of your opinon is formed by your belief that religious matters should be a _purely_ private matter.


Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 06:53:00 PM

Anon, no I can't see that exactly.

You might not know this but denying the existance of an afterlife is actually pretty controversial for many people, not just Christians. But it is very very controversial for Christians since Christ sacrificed himself, so the story goes, to save us from death.

Generosity is a Christian princple but you don't have to believe in God to exhibit it.

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 07:07:00 PM

That's why I said it was bizarre. It wasn't really much better than a straight-out answer (either way, or "I don't know", or just "Fuck off, it's none of your business"), but it was a way to end the fumbling without exposing it as stalling. He could have handled it much better.

Posted by Anonymous : 12/19/2006 09:45:00 PM

"Well I don’t believe in life after death"

In itself is a unequivocal "I am not a christian" (if he means it as it sounds) and pretty much rules out most of the other main religions.

It also sounds a bit more contemplative than just saying "no" despite not directly answering the question.

Posted by Genius : 12/19/2006 10:30:00 PM

We seem to be disagreeing a bit lately. Clark and Brash have both been asked the same question, and answered it without any fuss.

Hum... well, to get all Nixonian for a moment, I guess there's levels of plausible fudgability. Because I've heard from various sources that Clark is much more comfortable using the A-word (that's atheist) off the record; and English can fudge with the best about the influence his 'understanding of faith' has on social matters.

OK, I'd love every politician and political aspirant in this country to memorise this dialogue from The West Wing's Arnold Vinick (season six ep. 'In God We Trust'):
I don't see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won't all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I'll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church.

But if that's how you want to play the game, Russell, then perhaps we can explore whether Bill English is guided in his votes - especially on conscience matters - by Catholic canon law, or the pastoral opining of the NZ Catholic Bishop's Conference. I like Bill, but I guess we just have different ideas of what constitutes 'straightforward'.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 12/19/2006 10:43:00 PM

Its one thing for a politician to publicise their own religious belief (though I'm not sure that is necessarily a relevant issue), but I think this is nonsense.

Here in the US, you could not be an agnostic or an atheist & hold office (in spite of the fact that according to the US Constitution all the talk about there being 'no religious test').

I find it ironic that Key, a conservative, couldn't get ANYWHERE in the US making a statement like that! It would destroy his career!

It muddies the waters & one of the more enlightening things about NZ is that religion is not really an issue-- it is a private matter.

Otherwise it becomes all to easy to cynically use 'god' as a selling point for votes & the whole thing has been a disaterous mess here in the US.

But then I live somewhere where people's religious beliefs are CONSTANTLY in the public view-- the contrast is striking.

I'm just saying, collectively speaking, as an American, I've been there, done that, got the t-shirt & believe me, you don't want that corrupting influence of religion in politics in NZ.

~ Josh

Posted by Anonymous : 12/20/2006 07:58:00 AM

Key couldn't lie and that's nice. It's a bit like sport and politics, this politics and God thing. They are not linked eh?
Who here, by the way, could answer that question without a rehersal? Who would? Who has really thought hard about God and come up with an unequivocable answer?
I really think Labour are freaked by Key and English (hint Tax cuts for business, MW for workers), all the Glimmer Twins need to do is play it with a straight bat and 08 is theirs, but will the Mysto-Nat-backers stomach it?

Posted by Unknown : 12/20/2006 08:40:00 AM

I/S, why do you treat questions about religion differently from any other questions about philosophy?

I mean, if I was standing as a politician, I'd be expected to be questioned about my philosophy (actually, I probably wouldn't given the state of contemporary journalism - but I'd hope).

A good journalist would try to determine why I support the policies I support, why I vote for the bills I vote for ... in short, try to cut through the crap & get to my principles.

Any given religion is a philosophy, too. So I'd expect to see someone asked about it ... especially as it relates directly to policy; e.g. English's Catholic pain-worship manifesting itself in his praise of suffering, & voting against voluntary euthanasia.

Anyway, the fact is that Key is spineless. He has steadfastly dodged any question relating to principles, indicating he's going to be a poll-worshipping popularist, rather than a man of principle like Brash.

That he wouldn't give a straight answer to the question on religion is itself indicative of poor leadership qualities, perhaps more damaging in itself than a direct answer in the affirmative would have been.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 12/20/2006 06:16:00 PM

"...English's Catholic pain-worship manifesting itself in his praise of suffering, & voting against voluntary euthanasia."

This is irrational bigotry against Catholicism.

So why is the NZ Hospice Movement against voluntary euthanasia then?




Posted by Anonymous : 12/20/2006 09:34:00 PM


I don't know why the NZ Hospice movement opposes euthanasia; I was talking about the Catholic Church. The fact that other groups oppose it too doesn't alter the (im)morality of the Catholic position.

The Catholic philosophy preaches unearned guilt, and the concept that suffering is moral - consider Mother Teresa's opinion that the suffering of the poor is a beautiful thing that helps the world.

It appears that English himself buys into this myth; when discussing voluntary euthanasia he said:

"Well pain is part of life and watching it is part of our humanity, and many of us have become more human for having watched it, whether we liked it or not."

Pity about the people actually experiencing the pain, eh? What an horrific example of determinism (it's all part of the plan), mysticism (it's God's plan) & altruism (nuts to the suffering person, those watching him are benefiting) all rolled into one.

Catholicism is an evil philosophy. That's a provable statement of fact. And yes that is bigotry, if you describe bigotry as intolerance towards values not my own ... because I am extremely intolerant of irrational evil philosophies.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 12/20/2006 11:02:00 PM

"The Catholic philosophy preaches unearned guilt"

Most Christian denominations share that concept, although some wrap it up in flowerier words than others. And the Catholics are by no means the worst, particularly in comparison with those dreadful creatures who believe that children are inherently evil and should regularly have the shit beaten out of them "for their own good".

Posted by Anonymous : 12/20/2006 11:13:00 PM


I think you are being irrational. The Nathaniel Catholic Bioethics Center endorses the Hospice New Zealand Position Statement word for word. If you had read the first link I gave in the previous post you would have seen that.

Thus if you want to criticise Catholicism's view on euthanasia, then you must also logically criticise NZ Hospice's. Since NZ Hospice is based totally on medical, nursing and psychological best practice - what is your problem with it?

As for Blessed Mother Teresa, I would have a whole lot more respect if you had quoted her as a source rather than a known biased critic's polemic against her. And last time I looked, Bill English isn't a Catholic ethicist.

It's always so tragic when ardent "rationalists" are so irrational. It just proves to me how tenuous people's opinions really are.

Now why don't you run along and find the silliest medieval Catholic saint's text on the blessing of suffering and then quote it out of historical, sociological and theological context so that you can pat yourself on the back and remark to yourself how "evil" our religion is. (All the while ignoring the modern Catholic ethics website which endorses palliative care best practice.)

Posted by Muerk : 12/21/2006 04:26:00 PM


The Catholic position on voluntary euthanasia is deeper than the objections raised by secular organisations, & you & I both know it.

This is how the Catholic Church in the UK explains their opposition to voluntary euthanasia:

"The Church's opposition to euthanasia is founded on the principle that all human life is sacred, and no one has the right to take that life ..."

The principle Catholic objection to euthanasia is based on faith. Like those arguing in favour of creationism, opponents of voluntary euthanasia trot out scientific research that validates their position.

This serves to obfuscate the fact that their position is entirely irrational (being based upon revelation, rather than reason).

With respect to Mother Teresa: you're attacking the messenger, not the message. Perhaps if I quoted her directly, you'd be happier?

"I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 12/22/2006 10:42:00 AM

"Like those arguing in favour of creationism, opponents of voluntary euthanasia trot out scientific research that validates their position."

Except that the best scientific/medical research actually _does_ validate the Catholic position in practicality here. Where as we both know that scientific research does not validate creationism. Bit of a difference, no?

I totally agree with you that Catholicism has a faith aspect that holds human life as sacred. Of course, if we didn't you "rationalist" lot would just accuse us of being murderous!

This is why my respect for your argument is so low, you aren't being rational or using any form of scientific method, because those positions both rely on being open to a change of mind when new evidence is presented. Your mind is made up.

I could argue from here to kingdom come and Catholicism is still going to be "evil" to you. That's why your position is irrational and bigoted - there is no evidence I could show you to make you revise your beliefs. Shucks, looks like "faith" even...

For example, Bl Mother Teresa is quoted out of theological context and you regard it as the last word on the issue.

I could go into a detailed explanation of the theology and historical context of her statement in order to explain it to you (and if you are interested I will, but maybe through email so as to not clutter up I/S's comments box).

But a very simple objection is this - if she idolised suffering then why not just leave these dying people where they lay, on the streets in the baking heat and dust of Delhi?

If she desired people to suffer, why did she act to relieve it?

I do not doubt that her palliative care is not up to par with modern medical western practice - I wish it were. As someone who has actually nursed the dying, I truely care about how we treat these people. But don't try to maintain it was "evil" pain-worship. Because objectively and rationaly it was not.

As an aside: when I suffer I am glad that I have an escatological and salvific narrative that I can place myself within to gain a context for my purpose. It's better than my experience being utilitarianly meaningless.

It's the psychological aspect of pain that most affects the dying IME. Pain is something that often has a psycho-social input. Why do mothers rub and kiss their hurt children - to relieve pain. It objectively works and there is a rational reason for it. When you (culturally) tell someone that their dying life is meaningless misery and they should just end it quickly and cheaply, how do _you_ think that affects them?

If euthanasia worked well, wouldn't it be the palliative care nurses who clamour for it?

Posted by Muerk : 12/22/2006 03:16:00 PM