Monday, November 21, 2005

I'm a Celebrant, Get Me Out of Here

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.




Could I remind everyone to watch "Priest Idol" tonight? It's one of those rare T.V programmes which makes you think that John Logie-Baird maybe did the human race a favour after all.

Monday-night is God-night at the moment on terrestrial TV. BBC2 recently completed a re-run of "Battle for Britain's Soul", a history of Christianity in the UK by the remarkable Rev. Peter Owen-Jones. Rev. Jones is to God what David Attenborugh is to copulating tropical fish. His enthusiasm momentarily fools you into thinking that the influence of the Salvation Army on the plight of Victorian match girls or the campaign to allow MPs to Affirm are the most fascinating subjects in the world. He dresses like Tom Baker, in a wide brimmed hat and something which might be a leather coat and might be a cassock. He leaps from concept to concept -- jumping over a fence to show you the very chapel where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were shafted by a Methodist Minister. "There's no need to run" you want to say "It's been there for two hundred years, it's not going anywhere."

The series suffers from Modern Documentary Syndrome. Everything must be visual; everything must be dramatic. Apparently, the young people would not be able to grasp the fact that Isaac Newton was able to reconcile his mechanistic view of the universe with the his belief in God without seeing Rev. Owen-Jones stetting up a Scalectric race track in a church. Without, indeed, seeing Rev Owen-Jones going into a toy-shop and buying the Scalectric set. The car whizzes round and round the track, but someone had to set the track up in the first place - get it?

Rev. Owen-Jones approaches religion from a sociological point of view: he has very little to say about doctrine. In Wesley's time, the church catered mainly to the middle-classes; and many of them disapproved of him preaching to poor people who never came near a church. Methodist chapels were democratic and inclusive; working-class local preachers expounded the Bible to their neighbours. Very probably: but surely Wesley's beliefs differed from those of the established church as well. His "whosoever will may come" inclusiveness was a reaction against the hyper-Calvinists who thought that some people were simply beyond salvation, and that wealth was a sign of divine election. Again, Jones thinks that the modern "Alpha" movement has been successful because of its strong sense of community; but isn't it more to the point that Nicky Gumball offers a straight-forward and fairly coherent explanation of what Christians believe, as compared with the vagueness and evasion of the average Bishop?

Possibly in the name of "balance", when Rev. Jones went away, his slot was filled by Jonathon Miller's "Brief History of Unbelief" -- an equally biased and equally polemical history of atheism. Rev. Jones never quite went so far as to say that Christianity was a Good Thing and the Athiests were Wrong but one rather suspected that this was what he thought. Miller makes no secret of the fact that his series is making out a case for the sceptics being right and the theists being wrong. Miller is, of course, Britain's Top Intellectual. He started out as comedian and ended up producing plays and operas, with a career break in the middle to study brain-surgery.

When he was dealing with ideas and philosophy, the programme was rather excellent. It wheeled on an analytical philosopher to give answers to questions about the nature of "belief" that it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask. (Do you believe in something when you are not thinking about it? Can you say of someone who is asleep or in a coma "He believes such-and-such"?) It then turned to an anthropoligist to show us what all world religions, even the most primitive, had in common. Miller strikingly resisted the idea that religion and science were necessarily in conflict, or that religion had necessarily declined as science had advanced. He pointed out that Galileo, Copernicus and Newton had all remained pious Christians despite their scientific discoveries. Even Darwin's loss of faith had more to do with the death of his daughter than the Galapagos tortoises. (Happy birthday, by the way.) Miller's final conclusion was that "belief" or "disbelief" had as much to do with temperament as anything else: there were ancient Greeks with a totally materialistic world-view; and there are modern-day people who see supernatural forces everywhere. Nevertheless, it is historically inevitable that religious belief will come to an end.

"History of Unbelief" was marred by Miller's need to do a small amount of sneering each week. One got the impression that he thought that there was so little atheism on TV that he had better make the most of it. The first episode's philosophical rigor was rounded off by footage of Jonathon and his clever friends laughing at all these stupid religious people and wondering if Jesus and Moses were insane. The final one had some off-hand remarks about "ignorant and stupid" fundamentalists who believe in Creation, without any attempt to talk to an ignorant, stupid fundamentalist and find out how he actually thinks. It was evidently produced on a much lower budget than "Battle for Britian's Soul", and contained some very weird production ideas. At times, we had Miller watching himself on his laptop and commenting on what he had just said. At random moments, we would gets strange grainy - almost subliminal - clips from black and white movies. Some of these were relevant, such as a monochrome shot of priest nailing something to a church door, to indicate we were up to the reformation. Others, less so, such as a shot of a schoolboy taking a test to illustrate the point that "knowing the alphabet" and "believing in god" are in some ways similar and in other ways not. Where Owen-Jones had actors in period costume pretending to be Wesley or William Booth all of Miller's quotes from famous atheists were read out in a sinister voice by Theoden.

The best bit was Miller inducing Richard Dawkins to make a complete arse of himself -- not, admittedly, the hardest of tasks. Miller could understand how having feathers gave one an advantage in the natural selection stakes; but he couldn't see why the most primitive mutation that will eventually become a feather -- a bump in the skin or a pimple -- could make the pimple-bearer more likely to survive. Dawkins opened his mouth without checking to see if his brain was engaged, and found himself irrevocably committed to the sentence "Well, I suppose it comes down to a matter of faith on my part." I know what he meant; I know that faith in the scientific process is not the same as faith in a supernatural being; I know that there are a dozen good answers to Jonathon's good question. But that sentence is so going to come back and haunt him.

In short, Miller's programme on atheism had far more intellectual meat and better ideas; but was ultimately unsatisfying; Rev. Jones programme about religious belief had less rigor but was much livelier and more engaging. I feel a metaphor coming on...

Meanwhile, Channel 4 is running "Priest Idol". Watching this programme is like watching someone in doc martins kick a very small, very cute kitten, repeatedly. I mean that in a good sense. The original idea behind the programme sounds dreadful: on the back of talentless shows like "Pop Idol" and "Fame Academy" someone had the idea of a "reality TV" show about Vicars. The idea was to interview a number of clergyman about possible strategies for turning around a failing parish in Barnsley (average weekly congregation - 9.) The Vicar who came up with the best ideas would move into the parish with a large sum of money and try to put them into practice. It's a protestant Church, so they couldn't call it "Pope Idol"; although strangely, everyone in Barnsley seems to address C of E clergymen as "Father."

In the event, they only got one application for the position, a very well-meaning episcopalian from Pittsburgh U.S.A. He accepted the job, and the TV people decided to drop the game-show metaphor and just do a fly-on-the-wall-of-Jerico documentary about how the Yank coped in a Tough Northern Parish. The sacrificial lamb, Father James McGaskill is endlessly friendly and optimistic. He's the sort of fellow who doesn't just talk about the Shield of Faith, but tells you that it's from Ephesians 6. He only looks a bit embarrassed when people say "fuck" to him, which they do a lot. He hands out thousands of leaflets inviting people to his inaugural service; the pews stay empty. He introduces himself to everyone in the pub and invites them to come to church; they don't. He goes to the supermarket over the road and tells shoppers that the service is starting in a few minutes. It doesn't make any difference. He says that what he really wants to do is get teenagers into his congregation: everyone looks at him as if he is some kind of Martian.

At one point, the off-camera interviewer shows us the crumbling building and the empty pews, and then asks the asks the Vicar's Mum, visiting from the states, if she believes he can turn it around. "No, he can't" she says "But I believe the Lord can." I think that may have been the best moment I've ever seen on TV. An actual bit of spontaneous religious faith; more than you'd get in five years of "Though for the Day."

Depressingly, when a few teenagers do show up in church because their mates are in a "pop choir" which is singing a Christmas carol, the Vicar starts to obsess about whether they are going to disrupt the service. "Give me your word that you will be respectful," he whines. After a few minutes, they get kicked out. This is the only time at which Father James appears to show any sense of despair. "They don't have any respect for anyone, or anything, or any place" he says "I guess because they've never been taught it."

As part of the wreckage of the original "reality TV" concept, an advertising agency has been brought in to promote the church: we won't find out what their ideas are until part two. Even they think that the idea of making teenagers come to church might be a bit optimistic but they dutifully arrange a focus group with some kids. One of them suggests that the only way he would go inside a church would be "in a box". Another one, more hopefully, says he might consider it if he doesn't have to believe in God. "Does that new Vicar believes in God?" he asks. "I should imagine that he does", says the woman from the agency. Meanwhile, Father James' predecessor, Father David, a camp high church caricature with postcards of the Virgin Mary in his kitchen, sneers from a safe distance. The whole idea of a marketing agency horrifies him. Jesus didn't have an advertising agency, apparently. He just had twelve very ordinary people. "You don't even have that many," one may wish to reply.

Someone has painted "Fuck God" on the back of the church; our dog-collared Pollyana is glad that they didn't paint it on the front. Even the advertising people are shocked by this. They read out the word repeatedly, but Channel 4 thoughtfully bleep it out, and pixellate the letter "U", so that our moral well-being is preserved. But in final five minutes Father James reports that people keep asking him why he came to their town. "I say 'Why not?' and they say 'Because it's shit'. If that's what they think about their own community...." The word "shit" is left un-bleeped. Possibly we are close to the 9PM watershed when all children go to bed. Possibly they think that the word "shit" is purged by passing through these ecclesiastical lips. One can only hope that this holy innocent has something other than a moral victory to look forward to in part 2, and that Father David will end up being thrown to some particularly hungry lions.

15 comments:

  1. There are times, as when my 5 yr old niece announces that of course there is a God, teacher said so, or watching our Great and Good leaders trooping through their various church doors, that being an atheist in this country feels like battling against the tide. And then there are other times when it feels all too easy.

    I suppose I ought to be pleased that the people of Barnsley have turned their back on religion but I doubt that they are basking in the warmth and confidence that secular humanism bestows. No doubt if I watched the programme I would end up cheering for the vicar, especially if he is half as cute (sorry, that should read charismatic of course) as Rev Owen Jones. I shall try to remember to set the video- we are off to see that 80's extravaganza, Chess, tonight.

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  2. Just want to add my rather perplexed endorsement to this program (though I agree that Pope Idol would have been a much better title). I stumbled across the opening episode by accident just as it was starting, was initially transfixed by sheer horror, and then quickly found myself genuinely interested. I'll be watching it again tonight to find out that the marketing agency's "idea" is. I am not optimistic - from what we say of them last week, they are missing the point by an astronomical distance. For my money, the vicar's best bet is to get the comedian to do the sermon one week.

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  3. My Church came up with the same issue: how do we get teen agers to attend church. (Never mind that we have about 50 teen aged attendees.) They came up with the idea of adding drums and electric guitars to the music in the services. After a while they had to change that to only in the late service to avoid losing the older folks.

    Unfortunately churches sometimes resemble nothing so much as a multi-level marketing scheme. The point of church is to get more people to sign up, and eventually if we get enought to sign up...I'm not sure we have gotten to figuring that out.

    I suggested that if we maybe did something else, other than proselytizing, then people might just show up of their own accord. Mayeb Morpheus in the Matrix was so cool becuase he had a vision and he was doing stuff and he was so fierce about it that you just couldn't help getting behind him.

    I bet if the Vicar start to refurbish unusable houses or something like that he might get a lot of support from the community. After a while that support might lead to respect, and the respect might lead to a trickle of church attendence.

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  4. I have had some experience with being a member of a tiny congregation that can't seem to grow, but from a rather different point of view. Despite the fact that they essentially live in a theocracy, most Israeli Jews are strongly secular (in the sense that they celebrate Passover, fast on Yom Kippur, light Hanukka candles, dress up on Purim, and have no idea why they're doing any of this). Decades of abuse of privilege by the country's orthodox religious establishment have eroded any interest secular Israelis might have in their religion. Our tiny Reform congregation, when trying to encourage attendance from the community, ran up against the classic problem - Israelis might not go to synagogue, but the synagogue they don't go to is an orthodox one. We offer everything a secular Israeli would want in their religious services - equal treatment to both genders, a reasoned examination of traditions, discarding those that we find antiquated and unsuited to our lifestyles, and an emphasis on personal choice in adherence to tradition. The result is that most Israelis think of us as pseudo-religious, neither one thing nor the other.

    Still, we've slowly been gaining in attendance - there are still people interested in connecting with their birthright. One of the differences between our problems and the problems that the CoE vicar on Priest Idol experiences is that Jewish culture is for the most part indistinguishable from Jewish religion. If you want contact with your heritage, you'll find it in religious writing, thought, and tradition, which is one of the reasons, I think, that we're seeing rising attendance. As an agnostic - an atheist, when the wind's north-northwest - it's my reason for remaining observant.

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  5. Hey, I really enjoyed that entry. Afraid I don't have any particularly wise thoughts although I like what you said about the genuine bit of spontaneous faith. I supposed if I sold disinfectant I might advertise it here, but I don't, so have a nice day :)

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  6. Does anybody really believe that a society completely devoid of religious faith would offer its members a better life?

    Psychic mediums relaying stories from the dead have brought many people comfort in the past, but is that any reason not to debunk them as frauds? Religion isn't a social planning tool, it is a statement of purported truth. The majority of people may be less comfortable without religion (although this is far from proven), but then they might have been more comfortable in the knowledge that the sun goes round the earth. I happen to believe (and it is an article of faith on my part) that human beings deserve the truth, not whatever is thought to make them happiest.

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  8. Blue pill. No, red pill. No, blue pill...

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  9. I should never speak to anyone before breakfast; I'm a grumpy sod before my first cup of (decaffeinated) tea. My comments were not intended to be quite so sharp!

    Its a very good question; why is Truth more important than other possible contributors to human existence?

    I think there's a category error that can confuse here. Truth is not like Breakfast or Euphoria or Solving a Difficult Sum; it's not a state of mind or something that puts one in a state of mind. It is the correlation between what you think exists and what actually exists. And if you get that wrong then sooner or later something that you thought was benign is going to turn round and bite you, or you're going to miss out on something good. Delusion is inherently dangerous because it misleads you about the world. And there's no dividing line between the things that you want to be right about, like how long you can keep cooked chicken in the fridge, and the things you think maybe don't matter, like believing that buying lottery tickets is going to make you rich.

    People know that really. When was the last time you heard calls for politicians to tell us more things that would make us happy? What people want is accurate facts, because without them we can't make meaningful decisions for ourselves.

    I'm not really a Utilitarian,as you might have gathered. I doubt that many thinking atheists are. We know it's a dangerous world, that there's no one to call upon to bail us out, that this life is the only one we've got. That's why the truth matters, not because it's some substitute for religion but because we need all the accurate information we can get to make the best go of it that we can. Given that, we would probably reckon that increasing human happiness is a pretty good aim, but trying to do it from a state of ignorance isn't going to work.

    I don't think most people choose religion to make them happy (or unhappy). For instance if research showed that Hindu cultures were on the whole 10% happier than Christian ones I wouldn't expect mass conversions.

    I'm not at all sure that people would on the whole be happier if they were not religious, or that they would think more clearly about any other topic. I just don't like the idea of them being wrong about something so major. Partly it's the cognitive dissonance; why believe in angels but not ghosts, Lazarus but not Uri Geller? If you are prepared to believe the Bible without evidence are you going to swallow New Labour whole? Where are your critical faculties, for heavens sake!

    And that, I grant you, is bordering on dogmatic.

    Which one was the blue pill again?

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  12. I think that it is a misrepresentation of Christianity, and Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism as well for that matter (and probably others too), to say that their purpose is to make people feel comfortable. This may be a function that religion sometimes serves, especially at times of great personal tragedy, but I would argue that religion at it's best is often an uncomfortable thing.

    For an example: I would really like it if my religion told me that my enemies are subhuman heathens that I can justifiably hate, but Christianity tells me to love my enemy. (Luke 6) It tells me that all people were created in the image of God, and are worthy of respect.(Gen 1)

    Another: I would really like to bask in my personal success and wealth, but the Bible warns me that how I treat the hungry, the homeless is how I am actually treating God. (Matt 25)

    Religion can comfort me in times of trouble but religion at it's best will challenge me to behave differently than my instincts. Religion, if taken seriously, is often not an easy or comforting thing.

    I also really don't understand what you mean by believing the Bible wihout evidence.

    The majority of the really interesting parts of the Bible are philosophical or moral in nature and serve as their own evidence, what evidence can there be for a moral code except the evidence of practice? I accept and use Comte without what you would call evidence. I believe that Rand revealed some truth to us, and organizing an experiment of her theories would be difficult at best. I believe that Engles and Marx revealed some truths too, and every experiment that has been run on their theories has been an abismal failure.

    If you are talking about the Historical parts, then that would take a lot more discussion that I care to get into here. Suffice it to say that much brighter people than you or I are debating that issue from so many angles...I tend to side with David Rohl and Peter Van Der Veen over either the Kenneth Kitchen camp or the German Minimalists. The point is that about 1/3rd of well respected secular archeologists accept the Bible as a pretty good historical record. (Regarding the parts that are supposed to be history, that is.) Though I do find merit in both the Kitchen Maximalist and the Finkelstein/Silberman minimalist views as well.

    Finally, if you mean that the Bible offers no evidence of the meta-physical aspects I would agree with you. When you say 'evidence' I assume you mean 'scientific evidence'. The Bible purports to speak of super-natural or extra-natural issues. By their nature these are issues that Science cannot speak to, because science is the study of nature.

    An Example:
    How was the Universe created? The most prevalent atheistic theory of pre-bang meta-physics is that the Universe arose like a bubble from another Universe and then was broken off. There is by nature no scientific evidence for this, because it is an extra-natural explanation. It speaks to what happened before that collection of phenomena we call 'nature' existed in this universe. What existed in the 'mother universe' might be very different from (must be actually to allow for this theory) what we consider natural. But I tend to believe this theory too, Without evidence. (Though I believe it as a theistic view...demented as that may be.)

    Aside: This theory is called the 'bubble universe theory' of Andrei Linde. You can google it, but don't confuse it with the 'bubble theory' of Alan Guth which is very different.

    Sorry for being so long-winded. I really tried to cut corners a lot here, and my point was not to try to debate you. I really don't want to get into a long-winded debate, because they really don't do any good. A belief in God is useful to me for moral reasons and because it helps me make sense of the stuff that science can't address. Perhaps you have some other method of dealing with the questions that science can't answer, and that is good.

    My real point was that I don't really understand what you mean by "wihtout evidence", but I wanted to explain why I was confused to save time. This way you can hopefully see my thought process and help me understand what you mean. I also wanted to take issue with the idea that Religion is meant as an opiate for the weak. This is a commonly trotted out canard, that I think few people have really thought through.

    Again, sorry for being so long winded on Andrew's blog.

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  13. I don't think you have to be a Utilitarian to believe that there are some ways of living which yield a more satisfying result than others. Where Utilitarians go wrong, if they do, is in attributing that satisfaction to a single state of mind- happiness. As someone who has frequently experienced physiologically based euphoria and depression I am very suspicious of attributing intrinsic value to mood; I'd rather be high than low but I'd far rather be rational than either.

    You're right in saying that Truth is not inherently good. It's a tool, not an ideal. It is however necessary in order to get the best (however one defines that, and that may be different for different people) out of everything else.

    1. Some people believe things which are (we assume) false (ghosts, Geller)
    2. Religious people believe things which a great many people would not believe (angels, Lazarus)
    3. Therefore, religious believers believe things which are false


    I agree that's rubbish too. I think I was starting from a much less flattering point! The point was more that if I see you believing in things which are, to me, obviously false, then I question your ability to doubt other, apparently similar, things which to me are also obviously false, and I see you floundering through the world a prey to any rubbish that comes into view. Religion makes people credulous, and once credulous they are vulnerable.

    This is a particularly supercilious view of believers, I admit, and only borne out by experience to a limited extent.

    I'm afraid I have no comment on the Ethical Humanist society. Their aims don't seem particularly bad ones, though they aren't necessarily ones I'd have chosen for myself. I think it can be reasoned that people are able to be more in control of their lives when they are more in possession of the truth (witness the determination of various countries to control Internet access to their potentially disaffected). Personally I consider that I am happier (in a meaningful sense, rather than a wittering nonsense and dancing in circles for hours sense) when I have more control over my life. I'm therefore satisfied about the link between truth and happiness.

    And I have to agree your points about New Labour and the Bible; bad example!

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  15. Which is I think where I came in. A nicely rounded discussion :-)

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