Simple, Neat and Wrong
by Paul Walker
One of my favourite quotes comes from H L
Mencken. He said that "For every complex problem there is a solution
that is simple, neat and wrong". Today we seem to be suffering the
consequences of such solutions.
Take the whole complexity of issues in the Middle-East. The question
was asked, "What is to be done about Israel and Palestine, about
over-zealous Muslim radicals attacking the USA on September 11th,
and about Saddam Hussein persecuting the people of Iraq?" The three
were put together, mixed a little - and a simple solution was proposed.
Attack Saddam, impose Western democracy on Iraq, rid the world of
terrorism, and allow Israel to live in safety.
In Europe there are complex problems regarding how to put sovereign
nation states together in a meaningful union. In Britain we have recently
had elections in which one party (the United Kingdom Independence Party)
said that the solution was to leave the European Union altogether.
Simple and neat.
Somehow on such issues we suspect that Mencken was right. Complicated
problems and simple solutions come together in many a bar-room
conversation. It will all be solved by corporal and capital punishment,
less taxation or more taxation, conscription, and stopping immigration.
All of these were suggested in an all-male conversation I was involved in
at my local pub recently. Yet anyone who has ever tried to think about the
issues facing today’s world knows that however much we might wish it
there never are simple solutions and that when they are suggested they are
Simple, neat and wrong.
There can few ways in which this is more demonstrable than in the world
of religion. Faced with questions of existence, many people opt for an
outside Being who understands everything and makes simple demands. Yet
this appears a little too simple and neat. As an answer perhaps it arises
because human beings cannot easily cope with not knowing.
The fact is that we are finding out more and more about how the
universe works and about what an incredible thing life is. We are
discovering that a lot of the simple explanations for existence that were
used throughout history are not adequate.
But at the same time we are no nearer to understanding what brought
life about, what constitutes consciousness and, put simply, what on earth
we’re doing here. It can feel as if we’re as far away from answering
these questions as people than people were even 10 000 years ago.
Existence is still a mystery which defies logical explanation.
Religion at its best acknowledges the paradoxes of existence. It
encourages us to think about the "why" of existence and even to
seek to discern within ourselves a sense of the "other". In
fact, at its best religion is not as simple and neat as materialistic
The problem is that in the past religion offered a complete package of
explanations for everything, rather than only for the "ultimate"
questions. It explained creation and science, psychology and ethics. It
gave the world a paradigm in terms of which everything could be explained.
Today many believe that the function of religion is still to do that -
to explain everything. Hence the growth of "fundamentalism" in
all religions. This kind of simple and neat faith is hailed as the only
kind on offer. And for some it is appealing.
I am convinced that we need to acknowledge our attempts at
over-simplification. If religion in any form is to have a future, we need
to be honest in saying it provides few if any "solutions", that
it raises more questions than it answers.
Having said that, without religion (or spirituality if you prefer), a
whole dimension of our existence is missing.