Wednesday, March 19, 2008

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.

Miss Scarlet is an unmarried cyclist. Every Sunday, she attends Holy Communion at the Parish Church of St Hilda of Walsingham.

Mrs. White lives next door to her. One morning, she remarks “How can you possibly eat a bowl of Kellogs Crunchy Nut Cornflakes on Sunday mornings? I know that they are widely regarded as being very, very tasty, but surely everyone knows that the first food you eat on the Sabbath should be the Blessed Sacrament.”

“That sounds like a lot of High, Popish codswallop and fiddle-faddle” explains Miss Scarlet.

“I shall tell you what we should do,” ripostes Mrs White. “We should go to Rev. Green who has the holy anointing of a Priest, and, what is more, an M.A in Religious Studies from the Open University, and ask him what he thinks.”

Rev. Green thinks very carefully, and says that Mrs. White is quite right. Miss Scarlet says that since he is the Vicar, he probably knows best about religious things. From that day on, she always skips breakfast on Sunday mornings.

A few weeks later, Col. Mustard visits Miss Scarlet, and asks her to marry him! She is delighted, and asks Rev. Green to conduct the wedding.

But all is not well! Col. Mustard has been married before, and his first wife (Mrs. Col. Mustard, presumably) is still alive. Rev. Green says that he cannot possibly marry a divorced person in church, and Miss Scarlet will have to hold the ceremony in the private function suite of the Fish and Ferret (licensed for the solemnization of marriages.) Miss Scarlet says that since he is the Vicar, he probably knows best about religious things, but that if she can't be married before God, she doesn't want to be married at all.

Col Mustard is so heartbroken that he kills himself, in the billiard room, with the lead piping, which causes a certain amount of confusion further down the line.

One day, it so happens that Mrs. White's young son, Lilly, crawls through a hole in Miss Scarlet's fence in order to retrieve his football, which he has inadvertently kicked into her garden. During this expedition, he treads on one of Miss. Scarlet's begonias, which she had been intending to enter in the annual village flower show.

When Miss Scarlet hears of this, she waxeth exceeding wrath, and goeth round to Mrs. White's house demanding financial compensation to make up for not winning the flower show, which was, she says, a dead cert.

“Don't be silly,” says Mrs White “This isn't criminal damage, just a case of ordinary child-ish hi-jinks.”

“I shall tell you what we shall do,” says Miss Scarlet. “Although this is not strictly a religious thing, Rev. Green is a sensible fellow. He is disinterested in this case, and we both respect him. Let's ask him what he thinks.”

Rev. Green listens very carefully and says that it is in a very real sense a pity about the begonia, but that he feels that in a very real sense in this case a simple apology should be quite adequate. Miss Scarlet reluctantly agrees to this, since it was her idea to go to Rev. Green in the first place. “A bet's a bet.” she exclaims.

“That went rather well,” thinks Rev. Green. The next Sunday, he preaches a very witty sermon, though he says so himself, in which he suggests that when any of the villagers have a quarrel with their neighbours, they should let him sort it out, in accordance with the sixth chapter of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

So, when Mrs. White's son kicks his football right through Mis Scarlet's window, scattering glass in her aspidistra and knocking one of her china poodles off the mantelpiece, she doesn't even knock her neighbour's front door. She walks straight round to the Vicarage, and, after queuing for several hours, tells Rev. Green exactly what has happened. After giving the matter several minutes of considerable thought, Rev. Green phones Mrs. White and tells her that this time she should give her son a clip-round-the-ear.

But just at the precise moment, the Village Bobby arrives, and explains that we don't do that kind of thing any more, on account of the European Convention on Human Rights and political correctness having gone mad.

The Rev. Green says that it is his unshakable moral conviction that whoever spareth the rod hates his, or in this case her, son, and that since we hall have freedom of conscience, Mrs. White should damn well chasteneth him betimes.

The Village Bobby says that he daresay that's as maybe, Sir, but the law's the law.

The Rev. Green says that he doesn't see why some ridiculous law made by Frenchmen, homosexuals and Scottish people can possibly over-ride the book of Proverbs, the thirteenth chapter, commencing to read at verse twenty four.

Feeling that they've reached a bit of an impasse, they decide to to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury what he thinks. After several seconds of careful thought, it is decided that Rev. Green has a perfect right to run the village in accordance with Christian principles if that's what the villagers want, and that if they don't like it they can jolly well move to the I.T College down the road where fatwahs are being issued according to the terms of reference on of the constitution of the United Federation of Planets (done at the planet Babel, Star Date 0965.)

So everyone had a transformative accommodation and lived happily ever after.


Sam Dodsworth said...


You know, that paper was perfectly comprehensible - and so was the meaning of "transformative accommodation".

I'm going to quote a longish comment from a thread at Crooked Timber (original is here), because anything I wrote myself would basically be a paraphrase. Edited to remove some of the sarcasm (which was only relevant in context):

Some muslim chick, let’s call her Fatima, who’s pretty conservative, meets a conservative muslim guy, let’s call him Ali. They decide to marry [...] So Ali says to Fatima that he wants to model his marriage and family life on Sharia law. Fatima is a conservative woman [...] so she decides it would be nice to give this a go. He introduces her to his mosque etc, and they marry according to his whim and live happily ever after… except that things go wrong and, having intertwined herself with his community, she finds the informal pressure and power of that community is too much for her, and is trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage. For example, soon after having their first child (a girl) she discovers that her husband refuses to leave any of his money (and of course he is working) to the daughter; he refuses to sign any divorce papers, tries to get her family to pressure her into staying with them, refuses to allow her to work in any capacity, refuses to allow her access to any money, etc.

On the other hand, Fatima visits the local Muslims Are Coming! Oh no! arbitration centre and draws up a marriage contract according to their laws. Under this contract her husband is required to give his daughter half the inheritance of his sons, certain types and conditions of work are acceptable, no-fault divorce is possible after “a reasonable attempt at counselling within the mosque”, and so on. Ali considers these conditions to be abhorrent [...] and refuses to sign so Fatima, being a sensible but conservative young woman, tells him to fuck off. Soon after she moves into a lesbian collective in Kent, and lives happily ever after with her 4 girlfriends.

The thing to understand about Rowan William's idea of transformative accommodation is that it's about compromise. Communities get to set their own standards as long as they are compatible with the basic rights guaranteed by the state; the state gets agreement on the basic rights as long as it accepts that it contains diverse communities. I have misgivings about the idea... but I accept that the nature of compromise is that everyone has misgivings.

AndrewSshi said...

Since I'm feeling contentious, I'd like to add a bit of my own thoughts. Suppose that, being an Anglican and all, the Reverend Green does not believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Not only does the reverend disbelieve the incarnation, but he strongly believes that those who proclaim this backwards doctrine should, at best, be allowed to live as second-class citizens, but really, they should probably be forcefully compelled to renounce this foolishness. Now then, supposing that the arch-druid* of Canterbury were to come out and say that really, the Reverend Green's judgments were just hunky-dory, those of us who believe in a dogma that Reverend Green finds deserves to be repressed by force would be a bit upset to see our arch-druid taking the side of the Reverend Green. We might be even more upset if we had read the arch-druid's Tokens of Trust, in which he does proclaim these doctrines that Reverent Green finds abominable.

Andrew Reeves
*"Druid" is perhaps not the best term, since I think that it's more likely that he's a dual-class Prestige Bard/Cleric of the Holy Trinity.

Andrew Rilstone said...


Did you actually read my piece?



Andrew Rilstone said...

"Druid" is perhaps not the best term, since I think that it's more likely that he's a dual-class Prestige Bard/Cleric of the Holy Trinity.

Louise H said...

Compatible with the basic rights guaranteed by the state. Now there's the rub.

Divorce rights, inheritance rights, rights to access to children, compensation rights, rights of children to access to all areas of education; all of these rights are guaranteed by the state. All the religious rules can do is reduce those rights to some degree for one side or the other.

If divorce is made easier, that disadvantages the partner who had a civil right not to be abandoned at a whim. If divorce is made harder, that disadvantages the partner who has a civil right to end the marriage. I will stick out my neck and say that there is no area of civil law where modifications to allow religious rules to prevail don't potentially reduce or remove someone's rights under civil law. Which was Andrew's point.

If you think that civil rules can be opted out of, or compromised, in favour of religious rules then fine, but you can't claim that such religious rules are compatible with civil law.

Sam Dodsworth said...


It's more that I was trying to cram several weeks of thinking into a single post that I was writing in the last ten minutes of my lunch break. Not a smart idea. It's also that my mental paraphrase of that long quote was a lot more useful than the thing itself. I do think it's relevant if you can read past all the attitude, though.

It's quite likely that I'm misreading you, but I think there are three things you've failed to understand the importance of in your piece. The first is that Rowan Williams was talking (among other things) about multiculturalism. The second is that people don't have a transformative accommodation; it happens between the state and the communities that exist within it. The third is that "communities" in Rowan Williams' terms are social, not geographical.

Let me try to put together an example of my own... apologies if it's not very good:

Mrs Brown is a good Catholic who lives in a town full of protestants. Because there aren't many Catholics in town they all think it's important to stick together and not let the side down. Mrs Brown is married to an unpleasant domineering man who will only let her out of the house to go to church. She can't leave him because she has no resources of her own. She could force him to pay maintenance by getting a divorce, but if she did she'd be committing a sin and she'd be ostracised by all the people she knows.

So instead her priest puts her in contact with the Very Useful Catholic Arbitration Service, which is a comittee of priests and lay people headed by a bishop. They have a meeting and say: "Your husband is clearly failing in his duties as a Catholic. We call on him to mend his ways. If he will not, then you may live apart from him while he contemplates his errors and we will ask the courts to ensure that he provides for you for as long as this is the case." Now she can leave him but still be part of the Catholic community, who may disapprove but have to admit that the bishop said it was all right. Also - obviously but crucially - Mrs Brown can still get a divorce if she wants, as can Mrs Green the atheist next door.

Now, "transformative accommodation" has very little to do with this in a direct way. It's actually the gradual change in relations between the Catholic community and the state that begins with the recognition of the Very Useful Catholic Arbitration Service by the courts. The Catholic community now has less reason to feel threatened by the protestant-dominated state and the state has a new way to find common ground with the Catholic community.

Sam Dodsworth said...


I find your concept of rights a little fuzzy, but I basically agree with you. The problem, however, is that no one is required to claim their rights if they don't want to: that's what makes them rights and not duties.

That being the case, we have a problem of how the state as guarantor of rights relates to a community of people who voluntarily limit the rights that they will exercise.

A. L. Brackett said...

Ultimately all legitimate rights in the governmental sense are property rights. As such, one must be free to dispose of one’s property as one sees fit, as well as retain it. This includes binding agreements involving other persons. However, a “clip-round-the-ear” would generally have to be considered assault, unless all parties consented for some reason.

Sam Dodsworth said...


Ultimately all legitimate rights in the governmental sense are property rights.

I'd say that the only legitimate rights are those that proceed from human needs, and that the idea of 'property' is inherently opposed to them.

But I'd also say that you're looking an awful lot like the less interesting kind of troll. Unless you're about to link this in some way to Rowan Williams' thoughts on the role of communities of faith in a post-Enlightenment society?

A. L. Brackett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. L. Brackett said...

Sam Dodsworth:
"I'd say that the only legitimate rights are those that proceed from human needs, and that the idea of 'property' is inherently opposed to them."

Well, unless you are a more devoted disciple of Sir Paul than Heather Mills aperantly is, you have to admite that many needs are ultamutly phisical. It is thus through the body that such needs are ultamutly felt and met, and it is the body which is the most basic form of property.

NOTE: As a rationalist, I would be the last person to suggest that the needs of the body are in any way comparable to the needs of mind, soul and spirit, but since the proposition “external government” falls fully within the proposition “external reality” its only real purpose is to properly officiate property.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am not sure how "These are some of the things I believe in" is supposed to help us answer the question "How do we run a country in which different people believe different things?"

Tpolg is factually incorrect: parents are (probably) still permitted to strike their children without being accused of assault; but the fact that someone consented to be struck (probably) does not make it legal.

A. L. Brackett said...

I take it (given the “probablies”) that you are referring to particulars that may very from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, I am principally interested in absolutes that transcend such matters (and by which they hopefully can be judged). I do apologies for mistaking the nature of this conversation, my bad of course. Please do allow me to wish you a blessed resurrection day (even if we do have slight disagreement concerning the calendar).