Age, it’s a question of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Age used to be one of those things you obsessed over as a child. Either you yearned to grow up and envied those slightly older than you or were desperate to remain a child, the darling of affectionate aunts. Songs have been written in favour of being older, or usually being younger. People go to vast lengths and expend vast sums of money on reducing the appearance of age.

I think we can all broadly agree (the first of many fabulous generalisations contained herein) however there is a certain grace period in which your age no longer really matters. I’m talking about between 18 and 30(…ish, forgive me please if this offends you I am just trying to make a point)

Now, why does it matter? I think it’s because age is so closely linked in to expectations, appearance and to your rights.

As for expectations, you acquire responsibilities. Society places a huge burden on you practically overnight on your 18th birthday. Will you get a job? Move out of your parents home? Go to university? Get married? It’s all suddenly expected of you whilst hours before you were allowed to wake up at midday and didn’t have to worry about taxes. These expectations from society are manifested in almost every way. You can’t act a certain way, you can’t hold the same opinions and you can’t even buy the same clothes. Age is ticking away and you’re expected to cling on to it as some sort of foundation from which to live your life. But… it’s just so hypocritical! Think of the storm of condemnation that flows from the media at the sight of an older woman with a younger man, but yet not at an older man with a younger woman, which receives knowing chuckles and worse, slaps on the back. How dare she think that it’s ok to do that? Why? Because society says so. Society is the infallible arbiter of what is appropriate for your age and you will conform.

You appearance is closely linked to this idea. Think of the derision poured onto people like Simon Cowell when he pulls his jeans up too high. Or when a parent dresses their daughter up in something ‘not fit for children’. Who says so? Should clothes come with a health or age warning? “This t-shirt has the potential to cause serious harm to your child” or “Failing to dress your 7 year old in Calvin Klein jeans will traumatise him for life, sincerely – Society” I heard the dreadful phrase used the other day (about a middle aged woman dressed in trendy but not revealing clothes) ‘oh look, it’s mutton dressed as Sienna Miller’… I must admit I burst out laughing, partially because the remark was quick witted but also for it’s searing cruelty.   Why on earth can I not put on clothes I like? This idea of what is appropriate extends to all corners, from books to music and further.

As for your rights (if you’re a previous reader you’ll know this is a bit of a hot topic for me) they come and go with age. Well they don’t really leave you with age but your ability, realistically, to have them respected and acknowledged diminishes to almost nil after the age of 65 (once again, a staggering generalisation but it’s just for effect). Your right to dignity is like something slowly sapped from you by the sudden condescending tone that your treatment by society takes on. It’s not just for older people, young people have a complex set of rights that gradually phase in during their first 21 years. A veritable mine field of do’s and don’t’s and definitely don’t do that’s! This process of gradual phasing in of rights is completely arbitrary. Who says that at age 17 you are ready to drive a car? What qualifies you as being ready? Have your leg muscles reached their peak potential for brake-pressing? As for the acquisition of civil and political rights, the voting age at 18 is complete nonsense. What is it about the sudden age change from 17 to 18 that means you are aware of the power of your vote and will choose to use it, and wisely?  Should we, heaven forfend (I am deeply, deeply disgusted by this idea), test people for their readiness to exercise this, most sacred and profound, of our rights to expression? Is there a biological switch that gets flipped at the exact moment, 18 years later, that turns on your voting mechanism? Maybe we should introduce a system that means that we are ruled by the decisions of the very intelligent? Paradoxically I would not advocate changing the voting age.  Full stop. There is no age by which every member of our society can be expected to understand their vote and use it well. None. There are plenty of 14 year olds who are far more clued up on politics than people in their 50s. Lowering the voting age is a bizarre idea which doesn’t solve any perceivable problem, raising it the same. Either we reconsider every single situation where we use someone’s age to verify their readiness for something, (drinking alcohol, having consensual sex, donating blood) or we leave things as they are. So we are left with a situation where the status quo seems to be the only real answer. We can’t find a fair or better solution, let’s just leave it and see what happens. Which is interesting in itself, doubtless this problem has occurred to decision makers in the past, perhaps they went through exactly the same though process we did too?

And now for a funny cartoon to finish us off, this was not made by me.

A cartoon on age.
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Religion – Strengthened or Weakened By Doubt?

I remember being told as a small child that God was in the sky, so I recall looking up, seeing the Sun (it’s hard to miss, you know) and going, “ok, I get it, the Sun is God”.

Imagine the face of the Sunday School teacher when I announced this in her class bright an early one Summer Sunday! She probably thought I was this floppy haired, supposedly good Catholic boy, being brought up in some Sun-God worshipping quasi-Druidic cult. I’m not sure what they expected from me though, dd she really think that small children were able to grasp metaphysical ideas like a God that is in a place in the sky that isn’t somewhere I can visit? At this point I still thought faxes rolled themselves up into very small tubes and threaded themselves down the wire.  It’s hard enough to hold on to your belief in the Easter Bunny (even though that one uses chocolate, not an afterlife, as the reward) at that age, give me a break!

So, when I was about 8 I remember telling myself “No, the Sun is not God, God is up there somewhere but you can’t see him and neither can astronauts when they go into space” and then getting this sinking feeling, a mixture of remorse for being wrong and an unmistakable sense of my faith draining away.

That didn’t stop me from going to Church nigh on every Sunday with my mother for the next 6 years or so. I took communion, said my Our Fathers and Hail Marys, took confession and tried to believe in the letter of the Bible.

But it was hard. I had a lot of questions and after my Sun/God fiasco I was scared to ask for fear of being wrong.

Why did my teachers tell me about the Big Bang if the Bible said everything was made in seven days? Who was right? I knew for sure neither of them was ‘lying’ exactly but it’s not like their versions of events were even remotely similar.

The one that really got to me was the hypocrisy of a omnipotent and benevolent God. If we were his creations, his children, and he loved unconditionally with this limitless capacity for care and attention, then we do we still kill each other and why do earthquakes happen? Why doesn’t he intervene or prevent them in the first place? I know the answer from my priest was ‘he is, imagine how much worse things would be if he didn’t intervene’ so my response was ‘so he’s not omnipotent then, he isn’t capable of preventing these disasters, just reducing them’ … this makes him appear considerably less omnipresent and powerful than he’s made out to be in the Bible. A troublesome concept for the billions of the devout offering him their prayers for help.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still define very much as a Christian. I feel connected and included in the religion and it’s community and, to some extent, I believe. I tend to only go to Church on Easter and Christmas but then I do enjoy the visit, I always found Church very relaxing.

So where does that leave us? I don’t think that my situation is in any way unique.  I am sure there are lots of children out there yearning to ask serious, often unintentionally blasphemous, questions about the religions they grew up with but can’t. When you’re that age you’re so inquisitive, but you’re usually asking where babies come from, not inquiring as to the nature of the divine! So the fear of being wrong couples with a fear of rejection by this community that you’re in. It’s so much easier to keep your head down, say ‘thanks’ instead of ‘amen’ when the priest gives you the wafer (sorry, body of Christ, forgetting my transubstantiation) and gradually lose your faith as a result of unanswered questions.

Often religions shy away from questions. They avoid them under the false pretence that questions will weaken them or damage the faith of their followers by sowing the seeds of doubt. They are categorically wrong. Religion should embrace the doubtful and always seek out and challenge difficult problems in their dogma.  Questions act to reinforce the devotion and understanding people have of their religion. The process of addressing  these questions gives the devout an opportunity to strengthen their belief and to consider possibilities they might not have thought of and to come up with answers to them.

Answers, that’s the crucial word in this story. What was religion first devised for? (If you can agree that it was devised, from an atheist point of view) Religion was a story that was told to give people simple answers to difficult questions and to put their minds at rest. Why do we die? What happens after? What are dreams? Why do we exist? Whether it’s problems raised by science, politics or the media, religions should  be constantly providing an alternative answer to life’s difficult questions. It shouldn’t be ‘because God said so (a terrible answer I received once) but specific and useful. Imagine that, an alternative 6 o’clock news with frank responses from religious figures on the goings on in the world.

“Today, several people were killed in a flood in Pakistan” – and the response from The Reverend Dr. Douglass Bailey “Bad things happen in the freedom that comes with the gift of life. When bad things happen to any of God’s children, God is grieved and suffers with us”

Now that’s a much better theological response to a tough question. Embrace it, accept it and allow it to make your faith stronger.

Human Rights and Wrongs – When Human Rights Conflict

To start off with, if any of you are unfamiliar with the exact definition of ‘Human Rights’, that’s fine, they are hard to define, click here http://bit.ly/bELI7l and look at the very concise definition provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So, Human Rights are a bit of paradox. They can seem unrealistic, out-dated or unnecessary. Worse still, some can appear to negate others, reduce their effectiveness or seem out of place.

For example, we all have a right to an education, but do you think if I went to the European Court of Human Rights (undeniably the most effective mechanism to date for the enforcement of human rights, internationally) and demanded that I be given the education of my choice, for free, they would uphold my rights? I don’t think so.

Or another example, we have an inalienable right to property but then we all have a right to the environment, which frequently infringes on someone’s right to own a bit of land and do what they want with it. Go figure.

But we live in a world where we accept that human rights are important and universal and innate… allow me, as I’m sure you will, to briefly digress – I generally believe we do, no nation state is entirely innocent from human rights abuses but almost all of them place the furthering of human rights objectives as part of their foreign policy aims, they are just lying and badly. Plus there are far too many bad people on the planet that operate as non state actors perpetrating human rights abuses (including corporations). So, the point I’m trying to get across is that inevitably we’re going to be in a position where we have to pick sides. We can’t have them all, human rights by their nature as absolute and inalienable,  if they clash with each other both will come out weaker or one will win hands down.

So, what if we do have to decide which rights are most important? I’m not suggesting we rank them (although the obsessive organiser in me wants nothing more than to list them 1,2,3 ad infinitum) but I am suggesting we take a moment to recognise that, whether we like it or not, human rights are not equal.

What does it matter if we have a right to privacy if the state can condemn us to death at will? Who cares about the right to an education if we are deprived of freedom? This sort of exercise is a little extreme but I find it useful to put things in perspective. It is impossible to deny that some rights are essentially more important than others. If only because they provide a basis from which to exercise our other rights. We exercise our right to marry and found a family because we are, just by virtue of being alive, intrinsically, biologically free. There’s nothing the state can do about it, it’s in our nature and sooner or later it’s going to come out.

So, should we be streamlining rights? Or how about only enforcing the ones that matter the most and overlooking infringement of the ‘less important’?

No. Quite simply, establishing a precedent that some rights are to be enforced and some rights are not to be enforced undermines them all. They are interdependent and indivisible.

What we should be doing is searching for something deeper. What do rights have in common? Are they the rights of the individual, such as privacy? Are they group rights like that of the environment? Can we identify something more base about certain rights? As I mentioned earlier, some rights are exercised by the existence of a predecessor. Can we decide therefore that some rights are the foundations of others?

Human Rights flow chart
Human Rights flow chart
Human Rights flow chart

I’ve chosen to drop this image into the mix, I made it (obviously, considering how basic it is) in a few minutes on Word to describe what I mean. It isn’t exhaustive, it doesn’t include all the rights by a long shot and it’s very primitive but I think it does the trick. To elaborate we have the right not to be enslaved and tortured because we are, as human beings, inherently dignified. We can express how we think and feel, and we are entitled to maintain a private life that is no business of the state because we are born free. We have the right to make decisions about our bodies and the right to preserve our own life and expect it to be respected because we have an inalienable right to remain living and breathing and no one is allowed to take that away from us.

This isn’t ranking rights, it’s acknowledging that some are more primal than others and without them the rights that stem from them are meaningless. It’s not quite saying that they are more important, it’s just recognising that without them, we couldn’t expect or demand more specific rights.  We don’t have to give up the interdependence and indivisibility of rights to acknowledge that some come before, literally and figuratively, others.