Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Important Note For Everyone

I was walking home the other day, and a total stranger came up to me and asked if I ever had a the kind of day which just makes me what to go up to someone and hug them. I hadn't, but she had, and so she did.

I then went into a corner shop to purchase a loaf of bread and some semi-skimmed milk, and the man behind the counter, who I had precisely once before, greeted me like a long-lost friend, asked if I had had a nice day at work, and turning to the elderly gentleman who was counting out some loose change rather slowly, added "You take your time, Pops."

I am as pleased as anyone that George W Bush is going to stop being President of Americaland, but the sooner everyone gets back to being miserable and cynical, the better I shall like it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Important Note About Busses

I've been in London. The Tube is festooned with ten foot high photographs of 200 year old stuffed mocking birds, with some reasonably closely worded text pointing out that their tail feathers are slightly different, and that this is what set Mr. Darwin thinking about the idea of Natural Selection. Kings College London had a display of famous alumni outside their premises. Charles Lyell's claim to fame is, apparently, that he proved conclusively that the world is millions of years old.

I don't think that the Evil Christian Hegemony can have been trying very hard this week.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Important Note For Popes

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.

John Lennon did not say "We are bigger than Jesus." What he said was: "We are bigger than Jesus."

He saw dwindling congregations, clergy who spoke gobbledegook or who openly admitted that they didn't believe in God, and made the not very controversial suggestion that religion was declining. He cited the fact that a mere pop group had more influence on youngsters than Jesus did as evidence of this. It wasn't a boast, youthful or otherwise: it was an honest observation. He didn't rate the Beatles that highly. Just a band that made it very, very big.

I think that Paul McCartney went too far in saying that John was cajoling the church, saying "get out there, spread the Good News". True, some sources say that Lennon was converted to evangelical Christianity during the summer of 1977, but he'd given it up by Christmas. A few months later he tried Islam for a day or two.

He wasn't consistently anti-Christian - he made use of Gospel Choirs on some of his records - but he was surely too hostile to structures and organizations of any kind to ever really want the Church to do anything at all.

His remarks about the thick disciples ruining Christianity are, of course, naive: he seems to have been the kind of clever but uneducated person who uncritically accepted the contents of the last book he read.
("It's not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time" as the offending article had it.) Cleverer people than him have been convinced by The Passover Plot; much cleverer people than him have created a figure called "Jesus" in their own image and convinced themselves that it's what lies behind the New Testament. Or else, just used "Jesus" as a place-holder for human goodness.

We are all Jesus. And we are all Hitler. Lennon wasn't the first person to use the world "Jesus" in that way, and he certainly wasn't the last.

He wasn't a Christian, but he was an honest seeker and it's a shame that the-Beatles-are-more-popular-than-Jesus is the only bit anyone remembers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Important Note For the BBC

A policy of appeasement towards the Daily Mail will not work. The Daily Mail is not objecting to one particularly ill-judged radio broadcast: they will use anything as a pretext to attack what they still think of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company. The colour of a newsreaders' tie; an insufficiently groveling news item about the royal family; soap opera story lines which are too depressing; every occurrence of the word "fuck", in any context - nothing is too trivial to be used as ammunition in their war against public service broadcasting.

Why, incidentally, does the
Today programme continue to say things like "he used the F-word"? Whose sensibilities are they trying to protect? Those of the kind of Daily Mail reader who would be traumatized by seeing the word "masturbation" in plain print? When Today ran an item about how some black people have reclaimed the N-word, they were quite happy to actually pronounce it.

Daily Mail thinks that in attacking the BBC, it is striking a blow against the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite. I have no stomach for a class-war: but if it comes to a fight between the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite and the reactionary, ignorant, provincial riff-raff then I know which side I intend to fight on.

I have very little interest in the role-call of minor pop singers and spoiled Hollywood
luvvettes who parade across Jonathan Ross's chat show: but surely any fool can see that he is a consummate master of the medium of live television? He seems to have the capacity to, on the one hand, totally forget, and to make his victims forget, that they are in front of a camera; while at the same time using the camera as a licence to say the kinds of things that you simply wouldn't say in real life. In an era when TV is bigger than Jesus, the man who can do that will naturally command an astronomical salary. I am not especially entertained by a grown man saying "Bum" to an actress that I have never heard of: but I think that "In Search of Steve Ditko" was the single best documentary about comic-books ever made. Ross is the only person who has ever successfully challenged Stan Lee's version of events; only someone with his outrageous interviewing style could have done so. Obviously, someone who is paid for having this persona is going to overstep the mark from time to time.

When the
Daily Mail is looking for an excuse to hang you, it is most unwise to give them any rope. But the idea that sacking a couple of "shock jocks" will silence the Hooray For the Blackshirts brigade is naive in the extreme. Nothing short of the abolition of the licence fee, which they regard as a thievery on a level with droit du seigneur will satisfy them. Do you really think that allowing them to scent blood is going to calm them down? Surely it is a matter of basic human decency to stick up for your naughty kids in public, even if you give them a clip round the ear when you get them home?

Or am I just too inclined to assume that anyone who named one of their children "Kirby" can't be all-bad?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Important Note For Politicians and Leader Writers

Bad Things happen. Bad Things have always happened. Very probably, Bad Things are going to carry on happening.

Bad Things are not the result of some local and contemporary state of affairs which could, in principle, be changed.

Bad Things would have happened even if the previous administration had not made any errors of judgment; and Bad Things will carry on happening even if you form the next administration. Bad Things are
not the ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name. Bad Things are not proof that we live in a broken society. There were Bad Things before the Second World War; and Bad Things before the nineteen sixties. There were Bad Things before women started to go out to work. Even when we lived in nuclear families and communities and exerted social pressure through each others net curtains, there were still Bad Things.

When a Bad Thing happens, it is
not a pretext for you to say that everything you have been saying about everything for the last few years has been right; and everything the other side has been saying about everything for the last few years has been wrong. It is most unlikely that any particular Bad Thing has been caused by liberals, civil partnerships, easy divorce, rude disc-jockeys, or the paying of income support to disabled people.

When a Bad Thing happens, please resist the temptation to say "We must make sure that such a Bad Thing never happens again." Because it will. Almost certainly, it already has.

Oh: and there is no such
thing as a "pauper's funeral". Even John Doe gets a hearse, a clergyman, and a marked grave.
The Boston Tea Party has a very small supply of that special coffee that's harvested from cat-poo; its suppliers sold it to them at cost price and they are passing it on to their customers, so while it would normally cost a hundred million billion pounds a cup, they have made it available for £2.

It tastes, as the great Dave Sim once remarked, very much like a cup of coffee.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

45 Years Later

"It is emphasized that the "ship" may transport the four characters backwards or forwards, sideways into lesser or greater dimensions or into non-gravitational existence or invisibility etc, but once arrived into the different place and time the four characters have only their intelligence and ingenuity upon which to rely. They cannot produce a "ray gun" to reduce a horde of Picts and Scots, nor can they rely upon specialized drugs to cure a Greek philosopher.

'It is also emphasised that the four characters cannot make history. Advise must not be proffered to Nelson on his battle tactics while approaching the Nile, nor must bon mots be put into the mouth of Oscar Wilde. They are four people plunged into alien surroundings, armed with only their courage and cleverness. "

David Whitaker's guildelines for Doctor Who writers - 16 May 1963

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It would also be interesting to teach more than one theory of creation. The dominant one in this culture happens to be the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian creation myth. There are, of course, lots and lots of others, and perhaps they should all be given equal time (except that wouldn't leave much time for studying anything else). I understand that there are Hindus who believe that the world was created in a cosmic butter churn and Nigerian peoples who believe that the world was created by God from the excrement of ants. Surely these stories have as much right to equal time as the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve.

Richard Dawkins "Is Science a Religion", 1997

I replied that, horribly as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing up the child Catholic in the first place.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 317

It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell. It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse.

Richard Dawkins, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Oct 23rd.

Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards". "I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know," he told More4 News. "I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."


Tuesday, November 11, 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.

Everyone agrees that, sooner or later, preferably much later, children should be told about the facts of life. Nearly everyone agrees that school teachers should be the ones who tell them. It's too embarrassing for children to hear their own parents talking about the birds and the bees.

The job of telling children where babies come from tends to fall on biology teachers in particular. And as long as they are just explaining the mechanics, they are probably very well suited to the job. I have to admit that I couldn't give a remotely coherent account of what happens inside the mummy after she and the daddy have cuddled each other in a very special way. But even if I did have a clear and distinct idea of what a chromosome is and how spermatozoa is spelled, and even if I did have the knack of explaining it to kids without making them giggle, that wouldn't automatically make me the best person to advise them about how to obtain condoms or what steps to take if they think that they might be in certain condition. Neither would it necessarily privilege my opinion about whether the act of congress should happen only in the context of a committed and loving relationship or whether it is such a natural and beautiful thing that free love should be the order of the day. Or about whether homosexuality is a terrible perversion, a slightly tragic quirk, or rather an improvement.

These aren't scientific questions: you can't find the answer by dissecting a frog; drawing a family tree of dominant and recessive genes in pea-plants; or colouring in a diagram of the human eye-ball, useful social accomplishments though these are undoubtedly are. Sexual intercourse isn't only about reproduction. It isn't even, unless you happen to be an Elf or a Roman Catholic, mostly about reproduction. It raises social, pastoral, spiritual and ethical questions. But if you treat sex as a sub-category of science, it's the biology teacher who is going to have to answer them.

I think that this was Mr. Muir's problem. I think that he thought that the theory of evolution raised social, spiritual, pastoral and ethical questions. I think that he thought that as a science teacher he had no special authority to answer those questions. He therefore passed them over to a religious studies teacher who did claim such authority. (That's the charitable explanation. The uncharitable one was that if he had admitted that he thought the whole "God" thing was a load of rubbish, he would have looked an even bigger fool and hypocrite the next morning when - in obedience to laws laid down by the secular state that paid his wages - he led the school in prayers.)

I nevertheless think that his answer was a cop-out. I think that, as a science teacher, he did have the right, and possibly the duty, to say "Well, if Darwin's theory is right – and all the cleverest and wisest people think that it is – then it certainly looks as if the story of creation in the Bible can't be the literal truth. Some wise people have found that this means that they can't believe in any God at all; other equally wise people have found that they can believe in Darwin and also in God."

But what if some over-enthusiastic eight year old had persisted. But Sir, who is right? If you are right about Darwin, does that mean that I should stop going to Sunday School? If I want to carry on going to Sunday School, does that mean that I have to convince myself that you are wrong about Darwin?

Various answers have been proposed.

"I'm sorry. I am not permitted to talk about that. If I do, I shall be exiled to Siberia."

This is called "secularism".

It is much advocated by silly people. It is more or less the situation which prevails in the United States, except the part about Siberia: we can't talk about religion and we can't even talk about the fact that we can't talk about it. (*) People can do whatever they like in the privacy of their own homes (**) but the public sphere must be scrupulously neutral on all question of faith and faithlessness. It's an approach which makes the teaching of history particularly rewarding. Henry VIII had a disagreement with a person in Italy who I'm not allowed to talk about about a thing which I'm not allowed to talk about. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men sort of somehow came into being equal, and were endowed by, well at any rate, they sort of somehow acquired, certain inalienable rights.

"Yes; the theory of evolution absolutely proves that God did not create the world; and since he did not create the world, he does not exist, since creating the world is all that he's there for. So he's a sort of myth invented by wicked people to make you behave yourself, like Father Christmas and Harry Potter, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a kind of child molester, just like the gym teacher."

This called "secularism".

It is sometimes advocated by other silly people. It isn't satisfied with a complete absence of religion: it wants institutions like schools and busses to be actively opposed to religion. Private individuals will, for the time being at any rate, still be permitted to tell their own children about God but it's the job of The State to inform them that they are wrong. This version of secularism also holds that The State has the power to ban certain kinds of hats, certain kinds of jewelery or certain kinds of diets if it suspects that people are eating or wearing them for religious reasons. (***)

"Well, some people think so. Others, not so much. You'll have to decide for yourself. I may or may not have my own opinions about God, but they aren't more likely to be right than anyone else's. In your R.E lesson, you'll be starting to talk about what different clever people down the ages have thought about the subject."

This is called "secularism".

It is often advocated by sensible people. It's the belief that State Institutions like schools should, as far as possible, adopt a pluralist stance towards religion and towards the absence of religion. It isn't for the State to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Nor should the State pretend that the quarrel isn't happening. Rather, it should show children the argument, and allow them to make up their own minds.

Even as we speak, someone is typing a note pointing out to me that since it is physically impossible to put a stair lift into Big Ben, the whole idea of having disabled access to public buildings is absurd; and since a girls school might reasonably not want a male teacher to supervise the girls in the changing rooms, the whole idea of gender equality in employment is obviously crazy. Clearly, if you aren't going to give the creation myths of the Malaysian Frog Worshiping Community parity with Darwin, it's absurd even to admit the existence of the book of Genesis.

But that isn't what the argument is about. The question is not whether literary and mythological accounts of creation should be taught instead of scientific ones in science lessons. The question is about what moral, ethical, spiritual, philosophical and theological questions ought to be asked about that scientific account and whether science teachers should necessarily be the ones to answer them. When Mr. Muir said "All the evidence points to human beings having evolved through a process of natural selection", he was speaking as an expert. Had he added "...and it follows that the whole idea of religious is silly" then he would have been speaking as ill-informed amateur.

It has recently been discovered that as well as sex, evolution, football and the holocaust, all schoolchildren have got to "do" slavery.

A social and cultural history of "slavery" from Ancient Rome to Primark would be an interesting and valid field of study. So, indeed, would the history of washing-up or the history of trades unions or the history toilets: everything on earth is interesting. And those of us who are old fashioned enough to think that some kind of narrative history of the British Isles from, say, King Arthur to, say, Queen Victoria should probably form part of any coherent scheme of British education also agree that the question of slavery, and how it probably wasn't a terribly good thing, ought not be be excluded from any discussion of the age of Empire. But I rather fear that when we talk about compulsory Slavery Studies, we are not talking about an interesting and important branch of history, but some platitudes about how beastly we white people were to you black people in the olden days and how you ought to feel victimized and we ought to feel guilty. I am not quite sure how this helps.

I assume that, when they Do slavery children will be taught that William Wilberforce was an heroic English reformer and all round Good Thing. I wonder how they will deal with the fact that he was also a Creationist?

(*) Source: that movie about the mad kid and the rabbit.

(**) Apart from smoking, smacking, reading poetry about terrorism, letting your children taste your wine, playing kinky games if one of your ancestors was involved in right-wing politics, putting organic waste in wheelie bins, hunting foxes and having the wrong kind of light-bulb. Obviously.

(***) Silly people pretend that they can't see the difference between saying "We have specially invented a rule to prevent you wearing a particular, inoffensive kind of hat because we suspect that it might be religious hat" and "We refuse to waive the already existing anti-hat rule for the benefit of people whose hats are religious". Since everyone else can, it's not a point that we need waste any further time on.