Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts

Monday, March 07, 2016

Rambling Think-Piece in Precisely Sixteen Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty Six Characters

It depicts a lightsaber and the slogan “Kylo stabbed first”.

Although it contains only three words, someone unfamiliar with the past 40 years of Star Wars culture — let’s call her “Mum” — would not have the faintest idea why the slogan is funny.

To get the joke, you have to know:

1: The original 1977 movie “Star Wars” featured an amoral gunfighter who shot an enemy’s henchmen in cold blood.

2: In 1997, the scene was re-edited so that the gunfighter shot the henchmen in self-defense

3: Fans, who on the whole preferred the original version, expressed their displeasure by making badges and t-shirts with the slogan “Han shot first.”

4: In the new movie, a Very Bad Thing happens to the same character, at the hands of the villain Kylo Ren.

I find this kind of thing funny; but I must admit that I overuse it, to the extent that some people find my writing impenetrable.

I blame the post-modern condition. In the Olden Days everybody shared more or less the same cultural reference points: I could allude to Baby Roo, Moses, James T Kirk, Iago, John Nokes, Fagin, and Tommy Cooper and everyone would know exactly who I was talking about. What with public schools having turned everyone into zombies and everyone having decided that two TV channels just weren't enough, we all have less stuff in common. Oblique signifiers are a nice way of establishing community but they can also be a nasty of excluding people.

Suppose I describe Prof Richard Dawkins as a “whey-faced coxcomb”. Everyone gets that I mean “fool”; nearly everyone gets that I’m using an old-fashioned term for “fool”; and quite a lot of people spot that it’s a quasi-Shakespearian reference. (The bard was good at insults: “Thou base player of football!”) But only a minority — only one of our particular in-group — would spot that I am quoting five times Hugo award loser J.C Wright quoting Shakespeare.

Richard Dawkins is a whey faced coxcomb translates as “Richard Dawkins is a fool, and by the way J.C Wright is a pompous, in the British sense, ass.”

I sometimes wear a “WWTDD” badge because I want people who don’t get it to feel rotten and inferior.


Earlier this year I posted the follow squib/aphorism in response to something I had read on the popular social networking site known as Twitter:

Is there some particular reason why believing in Adam and Eve is incompatible with hosting a TV breakfast show which I may be missing?

This has (to slightly misquote Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide) “made a lot of people very angry, and been widely regarded as a bad move”.

The problem with Twitter is that each tweet is necessarily short. You have to sacrifice all nuances in the name of brevity and condensation.

This is also what makes it fun. There is a haiku-like joy in telling a joke or expressing a political viewpoint in precisely 140 characters

One often finds oneself sacrificing grammar, punctuation and elegance to make what you wanted to say fit exactly into the character limit…

OTOH, the very brevity sometimes creates a kind of poetry of its own, and some people actually think and speak in twitter ideolect hashtag gimmick

I feel sometimes I’m in a double-bind. People treat silly little twitter squibs as if they were my final word on great matters of state… (1)

…But when I direct them to my more substantive essays they throw up their hands and say “Oh I couldn’t possibly read anything that long” (2)

To be fair, the same thing is probably true of the twitter output of Prof Richard Dawkins though probably not the Rev’d Giles Fraser LOL (3)


The very select group of human beings who have traveled in space all tell us how awesome it is to look down on the Earth. I don’t suppose I shall ever travel in space — I am scared of heights — but am happy to take their word for it. I imagine that looking at the earth from space must be very awesome indeed. (We probably take this too much for granted. Before 1959, every illustration of The World or The Planet Earth was an artist’s impression of what it would look like. In retrospect they usually looked too much like geography teachers’ globes.) Indeed, when English astronaut Helen Sharman appeared on The Museum of Curiosity — a rather odd Radio 4 talk show in which people with nothing in common are invited to talk about whatever they feel like — “seeing the world from space” seemed to be one of the main reasons why Space Travel was a good thing.

Once you’ve seen the Earth from orbit, you realize how insignificant you are, and in particular that the borders and differences between countries and nations that we make so much of aren’t really real.

Woo-oh-oh-oh-oh, you may say I’m a dreamer.

Travel broadens the mind. Traveling into space presumably broadens the mind exponentially. Seeing the earth from space changes your outlook. But then, being wrongly accused of a serious crime probably changes your outlook, as does having heart bypass surgery and taking too much Lysergic acid. The question is whether the new outlook is better or worse than the old one. How could we tell? Yes, I fully accept that you “spoke in tongues” at a revival meeting. So what? Did the experience make you a more pious Christian or a nicer human being, or did you just feel excited during some gospel music? Not that there is anything wrong with feeling excited during some gospel music. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking out of porthole and saying “Wow!” either. I am just not quite sure what it proves.

Bristol is very big. The world is even bigger. I am very small relative to Bristol. I am very small indeed relative to the world. I am very big relative to my friend Richard. But the idea that I am insignificant compared with the world only works if you think that big things are in general more significant than small things. In which case I am presumably twelve inches more significant than my friend Richard.

I am currently cutting out snacks and taking more exercise in the hope that it will make me less significant.

Up in space, you can’t see any borders or any countries. Well, no, of course you can’t. No-one ever supposed you could. People used to say that you could see the Great Wall of China from space, but apparently you can’t. I don’t think I ever believed that there was a cosmological distinction between England and Scotland that was obvious from the Moon and would have been even if no-one had invented highland clearances, whisky or irn-bru. I always understood that the difference was mostly cultural — language and history and politics. And climate. You can’t see climate from space; not very easily, but I am still taking a coat if I ever go back to Dundee.

We are only entitled to say “in space, you can see that countries aren’t really real” if we have first agreed that “real things are thing you can see from a long way away”. According to which criteria, history and language and politics, and whether the shops open on a Sunday and what time the pubs close are not real. But they make a real difference to the real lives or real people most of whom have no real chance of really going up in a space rocket, whatever Richard Branson says.

A grown up may say to a child “Stop quarrelling about that toy. It only cost sixpence and a few years from now you won’t even remember it, and a century from now you will both be dead” Yes. But to that child at that moment, the teddy bear or the ball or the small ray-gun that came with the second Cyborg and Muton accessory pack is simply the most important thing in the world. The people of Palestine don’t want to hear that from a sufficiently elevated perspective their struggle isn’t very important and from space you can’t even see the wall. What they want is justice. Which is another of the things you can’t see from space.


It transpires that there is a journalist named Dan Walker. He used to talk about football for the BBC, and now he is going to appear on a breakfast time talk show. (One of the things I find it hardest to get my head around, from a terrestrial or extraterrestrial perspective is that a man may make a living talking about football.) It transpires that Mr Walker is a Christian; and it further transpires that he is a Christian of a fairly conservative flavour. For example, he believes that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden were really really real.

This is pretty much all I know about him. Whether he believes that the Red Sea was actually the Sea of Reeds; whether he thinks that John Mark is the same Mark who wrote the Gospel and how he deals with the prophecy of Daniel being written in Aramaic I couldn’t say. The first I heard of him was a post on the aforementioned Twitter by the aforementioned Prof Richard Dawkins.

Why in the world is BBC hiring a young earth creationist to host BBC Breakfast? Why not someone who accepts reality.” said the very great man.

Is there some particular reason why believing in Adam and Eve is incompatible with hosting a TV show which I’m missing?” said I.

Or does the New Atheist movement think that only people who believe like they do should have jobs and everyone else should be blacklisted?” continued I.

It’s not like they’d be the first” I concluded.

I don’t think my first bit contained any hidden meanings or obscure cultural references. By “believing in Adam and Eve” I meant “believing that Adam and Eve were historical individuals in the same way that George Washington arguably was”. By “incompatible with hosting a TV show” I meant “incompatible with hosting a TV show.” My question was “Why does believing that Adam and Eve were real people — even granted that you and me and Richard Dawkins agrees that they were not — prevent you from asking Brie Larson penetrating questions about her dress or asking Jeremy Corbyn equally penetrating questions about his tie?

I admit that the question was rhetorical and I already knew the answer


"But” asked my Aunt Sally “You would surely agree that at the very least a journalist who believed in Adam and Eve should not be allowed to work on a science programme?”

“You’ve asked me a question” I replied “So let me ask you a question. Would a journalist who didn’t believe in the Christian God be allowed to work on Songs of Praise”

Songs of Praise is a long running British soft-religious TV show. In the olden days they simply put a camera in a church and recorded half an hour of community hymn singing — Anglican, Wesleyan or Salvation Army as the mood took them. They now go to town and chat to local people and ask them to pick hymns that they like.

“I suppose” said Sally “It would depend on what kind of atheist. If he was the kind who shouted ‘oh no there isn’t’ every time the choir started to sing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away…’ then probably not. If he was the kind who thought that even though he didn’t go in for all this God stuff himself, it was his job to line up a shot of the stained glass window and the vicar so it looked as pretty as possible, then of course he could.”

“Well, quite” I retorted. “And you couldn’t have someone who was supposed to be interviewing the local Catholic clergymen and was somehow under the impression that he was Free Presbyterian. Particularly not if he thought it didn’t make any difference because it was all equally a pile of rubbish.”

“The question” said Sally, "Wouldn't be 'Is the journalist an atheist.' It’s much more ‘Is the journalist a dick?’”

“But that” said I “Is, in a very real sense, always the question.”


I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who literally believes in Adam and Eve. It's a fringe belief, in this country at least. Is the literal belief in Adam and Eve, alone among the vast range of spiritual and fringe beliefs in the world — meditation and speaking in tongues and yogic flying and tea leaf reading and Gaia and the journey of the hero and homeopathy — the one which rules you out of presenting TV breakfast shows? And if so, why?  I can see that if the BBC are going to make a prestige 26 part series on dinosaurs and I want to be chief researcher and it turns out that not only do I not believe that any such creatures as dinosaurs ever existed, I actually think that the whole idea of dinosaurs is a myth put about by the Frankfurt Group to make it easier for the communists to take over… Well I probably wouldn’t get the job. I have, how would you say, preconceptions which would make it impossible for me to do it properly. But what's the connection between Breakfast TV and creationism? 

I try to imagine how my interview for the Breakfast time job would pan out in Richard Dawkins' universe: 

“Well: you are obviously a very good TV presenter with lots of excellent contacts. You would fit onto this show very well indeed. But as a matter of pure formality, I have to ask you some questions about your personal beliefs. Do you believe in Adam and Eve?”

“Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘believe’. If you mean ‘were they historical people’ then no, I most certainly don’t believe that they were. But if you mean ‘do they represent important religious truths’ then yes I suppose I do. I think that the story is presented as something which happened a long time ago, but it is really a picture of what’s happening now, inside every human being, all the time. I think that each of us exiles ourself…”

What happens then? Does my interviewer say “Oh, your personal spiritual beliefs are none of my business or anybody else’s. I myself believe in the I-Ching, but naturally I wouldn’t tell you that. I just have to check that you don’t believe that the Garden of Eden was a real place or that God made the world in six days. Anything else is your own problem.”

Or does he say “Oh. So you DO believe in Adam and Eve, or else in something almost as stupid, or else you are using theology to pull the wool over our eyes. We obviously can’t have you, or anyone who believes in anything with the slightest hint of the supernatural working for us. Goodbye.”

Richard Dawkins has form in this area. Back in 2013 he was insinuating that Muslims couldn’t work on financial papers “because they believed in flying horses”. Earlier this year, he was rattling off little squibs asking how it was that people who believed that Jesus turned water into wine could possibly hold down jobs in the modern world. This makes me at least suspect that behind the proposition “Young earth creationists shouldn’t present breakfast TV shows” lurks the parenthesis “…and neither should anyone else who believes in miracles, angels prophecies or any other supernatural aspect of religion” which is only a hop, skip and jump from “you shouldn’t employ Christians or Muslims: you should only employ atheists, like me.”

It would have been better if I hadn’t used the politically loaded term “blacklist”.


I don’t think that you can deduce things about Scottish independence, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or the Brexit referendum by looking at the Earth from space. I don’t think that the book of Genesis is very helpful as an explanation of why the male Kakapo parrot has a mating cry which positively repels the female. I don’t think Darwinism is much use as a religious myth. A friend of mind wrote on Facebook that the black-holes and gravity waves thing meant “Science has proved that God doesn’t exist.” I think he probably said it mainly to annoy me, but I still think it’s nonsense. I don’t think you can draw spiritual and ethical conclusions from material and scientific observations.

If people continue to say “I have seen the earth from space; and this proves borders and nations don’t exist and Tibet should damn well shut up about it” then a certain number of people are going to be very tempted to say “Well, if that’s what it proves, then I don’t believe you saw it. Probably your trip into space was another trick, like that time O.J went to Mars.” If people continue to say “all living things shared a common ancestor, and therefore culture and morality are not really real” then some people will continue to say “well, if that’s what it proves, then I don’t believe all living things shared a common ancestor.” If people try to bring science round to reductive, misanthropic conclusions, some people are bound to reject science. It’s the only rational thing to do.


So anyway: all those thoughts were kind of bound up in the little tweet I posted from the coffee shop; just like the whole history of Star Wars is bound up in Mike’s little t-shirt. Kylo Slashed First. Is it just believing in Adam and Eve that disqualifies you from breakfast TV, or religious faith in general. That’s the joy of Twitter, although, of course, that’s the trouble with it too.

And the punch line is this: the people who were annoyed by the 140 character tweet will probably never know, because they will probably find a 3,000 word article much too long and dull to bother with. 

On no possible view is it literally true that a kangeroo is my cousin.

Monday, December 21, 2015

On Monday, I placed two apples in the fruit bowl on my desk. 

On Tuesday, I placed two more apples in the same fruit bowl on my desk.

When I went back on Wednesday, I found that there were three apples there. 

“What ho!” I cried “Someone has been eating my apples!”

“Poor Andrew” said my Rational friend. “He thinks that two plus two equals three. And yet he still manages to hold down a job.” 


If I announce that no-one wearing a turban is allowed to join my club; and if the only people who wear turbans are Sikhs and the overwhelming majority of Sikhs are Punjabi and Punjabis have brown skin, then my “no turbans” rule amounts to a “no brown people” rule even though turbans are not a race. 

If the “no turbans” policy met with the widespread and enthusiastic support of people who don't think that foreigners ought to be allowed in the country to start with, and who aren't quite sure whether brown people should be allowed anywhere, my theory that the no-turbans policy is racist would be confirmed.


There is a catastrophically unfunny movie called "Life With Bells On” about an Englishman who travels to America to teach the locals to Morris Dance. The Californian dancers (rather offensively represented as gay) have replaced the wooden sticks used in English country dancing with special carbon fiber rods.

There is very good English folk-song called “My Son John” about a soldier who goes off to fight in the Napoleonic wars and comes back on crutches. (It’s known elsewhere as Mrs McGrath.) Martin Carthy updated the lyrics so that they refer to the Gulf War. The line about the crutches is changed to “up comes John, he’s got no legs, got carbon fiber blades instead.” 

The joke would have been different if the gay American Morris Dancers had been using plastic sticks; the song would have been different if the crippled soldier had had an aluminum prosthesis. A wooden leg would have made him sound like a pirate. Everyone knows that Abu Hamza had a hook, but no-one cares what kind of metal it was made of. So what's the deal about carbon fiber sticks and carbon fiber legs? That’s at least a bit interesting, isn’t it?


We’ve covered this before, but: 

Men, on the whole, care a good deal more about swords, guns, motorbikes and cars than women do; and often (in movies, say, or advertising posters) swords, guns, motorbikes and cars have symbolic value. A big shiny sports car shows that you are a Real Man. It shows other things as well: that you have got good taste, and that you are rich enough and important enough to be able to afford a big red car. But other things show that you are rich and important. A big house is a symbol of wealth, power and status (as well as being somewhere nice to live). So why aren't TV property shows fronted by loud, posturing, macho blokes?

If I remark, in this context, that a big red sports car is a “phallic symbol” or even a “phallus” some wiseguy will invariably say “ha-ha I hope yours isn’t shaped like that ha-ha”. Ten thousand spam e-mails testify that many men do in fact care about the size of their penis; and this seems mostly to be part of a competition with other men. Women don’t care all that much. So to say "the car is phallic" isn't to say "the car is shaped like a penis" so much as "cars and penises are both symbols of particular kind of aggressive, competitive masculinity. 

One of the most common euphemisms for “penis” is of course “manhood”. 

A lightsaber is not simply an old fashioned weapon; it’s a symbol, bound up with fathers and sons and the process of going from boy to man. If I say “when Darth Vader cuts Luke’s lightsaber hand off, it’s symbolic castration” I don’t mean that Lucas really wanted to to write a graphic scene of torture in which Vader physically cut off Luke’s genitalia. I mean that Star Wars is a growing up story and that Empire Strikes Back ends with Vader depriving Luke of the very thing that made him a man.

(There are at least two scenes where James Bond, the ultimate macho man, surrounded by guns, cars, planes and pretty women, is directly and literally threatened with having his penis and testicles destroyed.)

If I were to say that in Space Balls, Mel Brooks makes lightsabers “literally phallic” I think that you would understand what I meant: Dark Helmet and Lonestar position their swords at crotch level and then activate them; getting a childish, crude laugh from the audience when they "grow". I suppose I could have said “explicitly” or “directly” or “unambiguously.” But anyone who is that worried about small points of grammar English usage is literally a dickhead.


In 1963 the music critic of the Times famously described the Beatles song “This Boy” as being “harmonically intriguing, with its chains of pandiatonic clusters”. Paul McCartney, a self taught musician, claimed not to know what this meant. This has often been taken as a terribly funny joke at the critics' expense. The poor booby honestly imagined John and Paul sitting down and saying “Let’s put some pandiatonic clusters into this one, wack.” But it turned out they couldn’t have done so, so they aren’t there, so the critic was wrong, so the whole idea of music criticism and music theory is silly, ha-ha.

It is understandable that some writers and musicians should be cynical about critics: why should someone who can’t play an instrument himself get a say about whether my record is any good or not. (Actually, the question can be answered perfectly well on it’s own level: if I want to find the best fish restaurant in town, better ask Cecil, who can’t cook but eats out every night, than Brad, who spends every evening making perfect pastries in the back room of the Tart and Toad.) But the widespread suspicion of the humanities in general -- the doubts about whether literary criticism is a proper subject, the endless press sneering about Media Studies and Sociology are a little harder to account for. Nearly all of us listen to music and read books; and most of us can say which ones we think are good and which ones we think are bad. So it can look as if critics are using big words to tell us stuff we already know; or, worse, are spoiling our enjoyment of much loved classics. I don't know much about art, as the fellow said, but I know what I like. Sometimes, this may be perfectly true -- I have certainly come away from essays and said "you seem to have spent a very long time telling us that Tolkien's view of good and evil is basically the Catholic Church's view of good and evil, which was perfectly to obvious to anyone who has read the book." But very often, the man who says "I don't need an expert to tell me about books, I just want to read them" means "I don't want my preconceptions altered; I'd rather read Faust through 21st century eyes than hear someone telling me the kinds of things that could have been going through Marlowe's mind when he wrote it." 

Oliver Postgate says that when he was animator in residence at an Australian film school, he attended a lecture on the semiotics of film-making. The lecturer argued that film makers deliberately compose their shots in order to create particular atmospheres “impending danger, sexuality and other less definable moods, and infiltrate them subliminally into the unconscious of the viewer.” Postgate says that if any director really thought like that, they could never make anything worthwhile, because “it attempts to use the intellect to do something which is the business of the heart.” 

“I know how I choose the shot I take. I know how all the directors I have worked with choose their shots. They chose them because they looked right.”

He was, of course, absolutely right. He was an autodidact who worked out how to make cartoons from first principles and then discovered that what he was doing had been standard in the industry for decades. Of course he put shots into his cartoon because they looked right. And Paul McCartney, the most brilliant and intuitive song-writer of the last hundred years put notes into his music because they sounded right. The film studies lecturer and the music critic don’t claim to be able to make films or compose songs themselves: they don’t have that gift or that intuition. But they do claim, having looked at thousands of movies and heard tens of thousands of songs, to be able to explain why certain things “look right” and “sound right” and others don't. 

People who are skeptical about criticism never seem to say “Aha — that argument doesn’t work. You claim that in Episode 4 of Ivor the Engine, Oliver Postgate does this and it has that effect. Actually, he does that and the effect it has is more like this.” They always say “what business is it of yours to try to say what he was doing in the first place. What business is it of anyone’s to think seriously about cartoons, or pop songs, or the representation of sports personalities in the media”  

We have seen that Common Sense is the opposite of Political Correctness. Common Sense is whatever I think; the bundle of assumptions that I carry about in my head. Political Correctness is anything which challenges those assumptions. If Political Correctness can be defined as nonsensical then I need never question whatever happens to be going on in my head at the present moment. A sneering dismissal of all writing about the arts and culture has an equally useful effect.

(In fairness, Oliver Postgate was making quite a sophisticated point, much more interesting than Harold Wilson's reflex sneer about pandiatonic clusters. He felt that critical theory is a poor guide to the practice of film making; that film schools show students detailed critical analysis of great shots from classic movies and expect them to retrofit their own films to those ideas, and this doesn’t work. On the other hand, his claim that a director puts a shot into a film because it looks right and this can’t be further analyzed sounds a little bit like someone putting up a wall around his art: you’ve either got it, like me, or you haven’t got it, and if you haven’t got it, it can’t be taught.) 


Lots of women enjoy sport, participate in sport, watch sport. But it would be fair to say that many of the most popular sports — football, rugby, cricket and motor-racing  have a strong macho element to them. They are not merely about people competing to see who is the best at, say, tennis; they are about men competing with other men to see who is the biggest, strongest, gutsiest   who is, in fact, the most male. The most successful sportsmen are represented as being more male than other males, whether we are talking about huge posters on the sides of buildings of David Beckham in his knickers, or George Best surrounded by beer and beautiful women wondering where it all went wrong. One of the "justifications" for the still prevalent hostility to homosexual footballers and homosexual basketball players is that it is an intrinsic part of the game for sportsmen to all get naked together after the match, and a gay man in the showers would alter the macho dynamic. In that kind of a culture, being unsuccessful or weak or merely studious makes you less male or, put another way, more female. It follows that a sportsman who, through injury or some other reason, stops being able to play his sport might be seen as feminized (in the sense we talked about above) castrated. The way in which people talked about Oscar Pistorius was therefore very interesting, because he was a sportsman who had been physically maimed, but who as a result of his prosthetic limbs, was able to compete at the very highest level. His disability made him less male, which is kind of like being castrated; his prosthetic limbs made him a man again, which is kind of like saying they are an artificial penis. In fact, because he became a world-beating athlete, it could be said that his false legs made him even more of a man than he would have been without them. It is therefore interesting that descriptions of his prosthesis always concentrated on what it was made of: they weren’t just false legs or prosthetic legs or metal legs, but always “carbon fiber legs”. One reason for this may be that “carbon fiber” is used to make racing cars, guns, bicycles — the classic “phallic” symbols of male power. 

It is interesting that one of the boys toys classically made of carbon fiber are racing cycles. You sit inside a plane or a car and hold a gun in your hand; but a cycle goes between your legs, making the phallic imagery explicit and unavoidable. Girl's bicycles used to be different from boy's bicycles for just that reason. It would probably be careless of me to say "bikes are literally phallic"; but you would know what I meant. 


I do not know if the culture of “safe spaces” in universities has gone too far. Maybe it has. I haven't been a student for years. Certainly, part of being a college student is, or ought to be, robust debate. Having your paper torn apart by your tutor or other students ought to be part of the process of learning, just as being thrown on the mat is part of the process of learning Judo. On the other hand, there is no excuse for personal or ad hominem attacks, in any debate, ever; and the border line between a strident and forceful argument and browbeating can be a fuzzy one. This is a particular problem when it's a man browbeating a woman. The distinction between "winning the argument by having a louder voice" and "bullying" may also be a bit woolly at times. 

If you are the kind of person who thinks that it is perfectly normal to accuse a fellow academic, completely outside your field, in a public forum, of being an intellectual fraud, and to follow it up with language like "pretentious bilge" and "pretentious bullshit" you are probably not the best person in the world to be advising colleges on their policies about acceptable behavior. 


Christians who believe in the literal truth of Christ's miracles —  not all do —  do not believe that this is how the universe works as a general rule. A person who believes that Jesus literally turned water into wine at Cana does not believe that this is, in general, how wine is made. Even if they did, it is hard to see why this would be a serious handicap in the overwhelming majority of vocations. I think that you could function very well as a plumber, a filing clerk, a computer programmer, a road sweeper, a window cleaner or Chancellor of the Exchequer while still believing that Threshers employs a Jewish man to lay his hands on bottles of water. It would, I grant you, be a drawback if you wanted to work as a vintner. 

I wouldn’t be particularly perturbed by having a doctor who believed that God healed sick people indirectly through the actions of the medical profession. Lots of doctors do believe precisely that. Nor would I be perturbed by one who believed that occasionally, patients who had no chance of getting better scientifically speaking nevertheless recovered miraculously; and that those "miraculous" events were literally acts of God. I certainly wouldn’t be worried about one who believed that two thousand years ago the Son of God cured people of diseases which were, so far as anyone could see, incurable. The only doctor I would be bothered by is the one who thinks that people are only healed through the miraculous actions of God, that prayer for a patient should come before any natural intervention, that medicine and surgery are blasphemous. Vanishingly few people — not even Christian Scientists, I understand — believe that. 

The idea that Christians told the story of the Virgin Birth because they didn’t understand where babies come from is obviously silly. They told the story because they did know exactly where babies came from. That’s what the word “miracle” means. 


The question is not whether or not you agree with me. I have written this very quickly and I may have made some remarks that I will not be able to defend tomorrow morning. 

The question is not even whether you are going to have a look at Hickey-Moody's essay and decide that I am being too generous about that; that it in fact post-modernism really is a load of tosh and I ought not to be coming up with defenses of obscurantism. The question is whether you think it is the kind of thing which is capable of being talked about. 

There is, in the end, very little difference between labeling anyone who disagrees with your as a Social Justice Warrior who Always Lies; and labeling anything outside your field as "theology", "philosophy" and "the humanities" and declaring that that is "not a subject", "not really knowledge", "pretentious bilge" "bullshit" and above all "nonsense". In both cases, you are building a wall around your own beliefs and making discussin of them impossible. You know in advance that anything the other side says is nonsense before they start speaking; you may actually find yourself saying thing like "I don't have to know anything about post-modernism to know that it is nonsense". We can't even discuss whether you are right that cultural studies is nonsense and Social Justice Warriors are liars, because anyone who defends them is lying and talking nonsense by definition... and so on through as many iterations as you please.

Turbans are not a race. Theology is not a subject. There is not possible value in studying culture or the media. My way of looking at things is the right way of looking at things. Your way of looking at things is pretentious bullshit. 

It is increasingly clear that what the New Atheists disbelieve in is not the God of church and religion. It's also feelings and cultural meanings and subjectivity and the humanities and just about anything which isn't cold A = B logic.

If you find this kind of thing interesting then please consider promising to pay me 69p each time I write something. If you'd rather I just shut the hell up, don't bother. I was planning to write up the Star Wars Holiday Special but got distracted.

Friday, August 09, 2013

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: ‘I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.’ Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken. -- The Screwtape Letters

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this.
SK was clearly being mischievous (a thing which has almost never happened before) when he pretended that everyone would immediately see that Arians weren't Christians. This left an obvious opening for Sam to pretend that couldn't see any difference between the two positions. The Dawk, after all, uses Arius vs Athanasius as his main example of meaningless theological debate.

Sam, of course, plays the standard counter-gambit – since the Aristotelian terms "same substance" / "similar substance" sound obscure and strange to us, they can't signify any real disagreement; the two schools must have been arguing about nothing whatsoever; Christians are silly etc etc. If charity were really the order of the day, he might have asked whether it made any difference if you believed that Jesus was the Creator, or merely a sub-ordinate creature. But that would require us to ask "what do we mean by difference"? That chap who did the History of Christianity on the Beeb a couple of years back pointed out that Arian art depicted a realistic, human Jesus who appears to age during his ministry, where Byzantine art of the same period depicts a more distanced, obviously divine figure. But that's a bit of a rarefied distinction. I am quite sure that Sam would be able to quite easily spot an Arian by its behaviour. It would be the one wearing a headscarf, knocking on his front door, and asking him to buy a copy of the Watchtower. Is that the kind of difference we are looking for?

We are of course, not permitted to say that "Well, the positions are different because the people who believe in the two positions believe that they are different" because Sam could then play his "Popular Front of Judea vs Judean Popular Front" card. 

In all seriousness. Christians seem able to disagree with each other about quite big theological questions, and still regard each other as "fellow-Christians", albeit "fellow-Christians who should jolly well stop denying the miracle of the mass / worshipping a biscuit and come back to the true church". But Christians have found that the question of the Trinity is one about which they are unable to agree to differ. It's not a question of poor hard done by Arians saying "But we are Christians, the same as you: please let us back into your church." Trinitarians think that Arians aren't Christians; Arians think that they are the only Christians. They knock on my door early on Saturday mornings and try to convert me, which the Bishop of Rome, to give him his due, has never done.

I don't think that the question about whether the Holy Spirit proceeeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone is a question about nothing; I think I could have a stab at saying what the difference is and why it seemed to be important. But the Pope in Rome regards the Patriarch in ... wherever he lives, do you know, I honestly don't know... not merely as a fellow Christian, but as a fellow Christian who is so near to being a Catholic as practically makes no difference. Even though he's quite sure that he's wrong about filoque.

So why do questions like Arianism not admit of the same kind of compromise?

I understand that from a position outside of any Church, this might look odd; could Sam accept that from a position inside the Church, it seems obvious. (Obvious that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon's aren't Christians, but that Anglicans are simply fellow Christians who've got it badly wrong about infant baptism.) Could he perhaps accept on trust that the person of Christ is what Christianity is about; in fact what Christianity is (in the way that the Koran is what Islam is) and that while there can be very great differences of opinion about baptism, Eucharist and even ethics, you can't mess around with our understanding of who Christ is without changing – or in fact obliterating – our faith.

To press the analogy in a possibly ignorant direction; I don't think that there has ever been a textually liberal form of Islam – the Koran is either the actual word of God, or it is nothing, and without the Koran there is no Muslim religion. Would orthodox Jews say the same thing about the Torah – that you can't be "a Jew who doesn't follow the Law" because following the Law is what being a Jew means? But I may be wrong about that.

There are certainly clergy who take the view that Jesus was a teacher of ethics; that he preached a radical, revolutionary message; that his death was a political martyrdom; and that the resurrection is to be understood simply in terms of "his followers kept following his political message even after he died." Does Sam genuinely not see that this is different from the mainstream position that god came down from heaven, died on the cross to enable human beings to go to heaven, came back to life after he had been killed, and then went back to heaven? Does he genuinely not see why I, coming from the second perspective, would not be prepared to call the first one "Christian"?

Is the point "I don't think Giles Fraser really takes the liberal – modernist position that your ascribe to him."? (I am perfectly happy to concede that I may have misjudged him.)

Is the point "It doesn't matter if Giles Fraser takes the liberal - modernist position, because the liberal – modernist position is in fact indistinguishable form the traditional – conservative position." (In which case Fraser is equally to blame, since he appears to deny that Catholics and Evangelicals are Christians in any meaningful sense.) 

Or is the point "It couldn't possibly make any difference whether Fraser is a liberal – modernist or a traditional – conservative because all religious positions are equally meaningless? "

I think that Sam, being what C.S Lewis called a naturalist, may find it genuinely difficult to believe that Christians are what C.S Lewis called supernaturalists. I think that he finds the idea that there is Something Else apart from the scientifically observable universe so strange that he thinks that whenever Christians seem to be talking about something supernatural, they must really be talking about something natural. "I know you say that you say that you think that Jesus died so you could get in touch with God, but you can't really mean that: you must really mean 'so that you can form a more just society' or 'so you can overcome your psychological hangups' ".

I don't think that any good Christian has ever quite believed in the parody of the Atonement which Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser abominate. This is sometimes called "Penal Substitution": I prefer to call it the Tom Sawyer theory. (God wants to whip Becky Thatcher; but Tom Sawyer, who is innocent, volunteers to get whipped instead, so Becky Thatcher gets off scot free.) As committed a death-cultist as John Stott points out that it doesn't work because it's not fully Trinitarian: God is in fact both the one doing the punishing and the one getting punished. Mr C.S Lewis starts out his chapter on the Atonement by saying that before he was a Christian, he thought that the whipping boy theory  was the one he had to believe, and that it made no sense to him. He said that once he became a Christian, even the theory of one person getting punished on someone else's behalf seemed less immoral than it had; and if you changed it to "paying a debt" or "standing the racket" then it made more sense; because it's a matter of common experience that one one person has got himself in trouble, it's the innocent person who isn't in trouble who has to get him out of it. He then propounds a rather complicated theory, based on Anselm, about human beings needing to "go back" to God, but not being able to, and Jesus doing the "going back" on our behalf.

Again: I don't quite know whether Sam really doesn't see the difference between an objective Atonement ("The death of God actually changed the relationship that the material universe has to the supernatural realm") and a subjective Atonement ("Jesus' death was a good example of not striking back against evil, however horrible it is") or whether he's pretending not to for tactical reasons. Or if I'm failing to explain it very well, which is most likely. 

If the Tom Sawyer analogy is a poor one, why do people carry on using it? Because it is a very vivid and dramatic way of picturing the idea that Jesus' death made a difference. God was cross with us; Jesus was punished; now God isn't cross with us any more. Darnay was going to be beheaded; Carton  switched places with him; Darnay lived happily ever after. There are other versions: the human race owed God a debt; Jesus paid the debt; now the human race doesn't owe God a debt any more. Many nasty imperialist evangelical tracts ask us to imagine a judge, or more probably a Judge, who imposes a fine on a certain prisoner and then pays it himself. We were too dirty and filthy to go to heaven; we washed ourselves in the blood of Jesus; now we are clean. Jesus went down into hell, fought with the devil and smashed down the gates, so no-one has to stay in hell unless they want to. For the first thousand years of Christian history, the most popular theory involved God playing a trick on the devil to make him exceed his authority, and idea that would be incredibly alien to almost all Christians, but important if you are are going to make sense out of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

The Bible talks about the death of Jesus in terms of "sacrifice". It is absolutely true that the idea of sacrifice is strange to us. But the idea was clearly not strange to the people who wrote the Bible. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is handed over to be executed preparation day ("when the passover must be killed"); he initiates a sort of holy role-play in which passover wine becomes "my blood of the New Covenant". Church of England churches still have a table at the front which they call an "alter"; Giles Fraser has to perform a rite involving phrases like "in memory of thy perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross" and "Hallelujah! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." It is very reasonable indeed for a clergyman to say "We need to find ways of explicating this strange language; we need to be pretty sure we understand what "sacrifice" meant to a good Jew, and, come to that, to a pagan convert at the time of Jesus." But I don't think you can say that the whole idea of sacrifice is abhorrent, and actually anti-Christian. You can only say that if you think that the people who we depend on for our knowledge of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had utterly and completely missed the whole point of every word he had ever said. Possibly you may think that Jesus was all right but the disciples were thick and ordinary, that their twisting it has ruined it for you. Once you've said that, there isn't really anything left called "Christianity" to talk about. 
In Fraser's version, Christianity went off the rails pretty darn early. St Mark pretty definitely has a story about Jesus miraculously stopping a storm. Fraser thinks that miracles of the storm-stopping kind are completely contrary to the whole idea of Christianity. That's sort of a bit of a problem. 

It may be that I misread Fraser. It may be that (like me and St Mark) he thinks that the point of the story of Jesus calming a storm is the final line, where the disciples say "Hang on...only Yahweh is meant to be able to tell the weather off. But that means....."; that he's saying "The point of the story is that Jesus really was Yahweh; the point of the story is not that we don't need to listen to the shipping forecast before going on boat trips from now on." It would have been nicer if he could have framed in as an affirmation of what he does believe, and not as a rant about how horrible we evangelicals are. 
I'm not talking here about whether we think miracle are even possible, or whether we ought to interpret miracle stories literally or metaphorically. I am quite happy to debate with the fellow who thinks that Mark 4: 35-41 is not a news report, but (say) a commentary on the book of Jonah. But when someone says "Mark completely missed the point of what Jesus was on about; but fortunately, I get the point perfectly well" then I smile patronisingly and walk away.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Clever Man Says Interesting Thing, Shock

Earlier this year the New Statesman (a magazine) asked a group of famous people who believed in God why they believed in God. Later on they asked a group of famous people who didn't believe in God why they didn't believe in God. It turned out that the people who believed in God believed in God for all the usual reasons, and the people who didn't believe in God didn't believe in God for all the usual reasons. I give Ben Goodacre points for saying that he thought there should be a word for people who weren't interested one way or the other. The atheists were on the whole shriller than the theists. Richard Dawkins started off sounding calm and reasonable, explaining that he didn't believe in God because he didn't see any reason to believe in God, but ended up saying that "theology" was "the exact equivalent" of reading tea-leaves.

I was a lot more interested in the comments of one Steven Hawking. He was the fella, you remember, who said that when we'd filled in the last bit of physics we would "know the mind of God".

The Dawk is probably right to say that when Hawking says "God" he doesn't actually mean "God": it's just a flowery way of saying "we will know everything." I do wonder if Hawking was deliberately playing up to his own mythology. A very clever man who happens to be severely disabled fits in nicely with Gnostic ideas about Bodies being things that Minds have annoyingly got trapped in, and that we should let those bodies shrivel away so that minds can expand and ascend and get back in touch with the mind of God. That's why the most brilliant fictional scientists (Prof. X, Davros, the Mekon) are always represented as wheelchair users.

Biologists are often accused of "playing God" by people who don't understand biology, or for that matter, God. It's hard to see why "fixing the plumbing" so childless couples can make babies is necessarily more hubristic than, say, giving aspirins to people who God has decided ought to have headaches. But Physicists seem to positively like using the G-word. They pretend that Mr Higgs-Boson is the God Particle or that a grand unified theory is the Mind of God or that Quantum Physics reveals that the Creator is a big fan of Yahtzee. 

Christians have a bad habit of pretending that this means that the scientists in question believed in God even when they obviously didn't. Christians have a bad habit of pretending that all sorts of famous people believed in God when they obviously didn't. Atheists have got an equally bad habit of claiming that famous people didn't believe in God when they obviously did. ("Oh, they may have said that they did, but that was the kind of thing you had to say in the olden days. If they lived today, they would have agreed with me.") Einstein, who was a scientist, didn't believe in God, and said so, although he also said that the didn't think much of atheists and was a big fan of Jesus.

I think that the tendency of some physicists to talk about their science in theological language does imply that they think that their science is the sort of thing which it is worth using theological language to talk about. I think that they use words like "God" because they like to think of themselves as discoverers of some ultimate, or indeed, Ultimate, truth, or indeed Truth. Unlike those poor benighted chemists who just mix things up in their test tubes. I think that they use the G-word because they believe in some kind of Platonic reality – that there are things that are true and would have been true even if there had been no minds to observe them being true. Unlike those people on the other side of the quad who think that everything is contingent, cultural determined, subjective, post-modern, deconstructable.

More recently, Mr Hawking has claimed that the gaps which he perceived when he wrote a Brief History of Time have indeed been filled in: "the scientific account is complete and theology is unnecessary". This works very well if God is primarily an explanation for the bits of the Universe we don't quite understand. When we knew hardly anything, there was lots of stuff for God to do; now we know everything, we can retire him. (I've always felt that this can't be quite right. So little of the Bible and the Koran and the Book of Mormon seem to be involved in saying "Why do elephants have long noses? Because God said so, that's why." So much of it seems to be about temples and taboos and morals and miracles and stuff.)

But the bombshell that Hawking drops on the New Statesman goes like this:

"I am not claiming that there is no God. The scientific account is complete but it does not predict human behaviour because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model which can include free will and God." 

Go back and read that again.

Now go back and read it again.

Now, we know well enough how the rest of this argument pans out. Like a high level chess game, the moves are planned out in advance. Some Christians are, right now, typing that God exists because the most famous scientist of his generation says that God exists, or at any rate, that God doesn't definitely not exist. Some atheists are, right now, typing "Oh, I suppose just because humans are complicated I have to start circumcising lambs on bronze alters, do I?" All the cute little Dawkinistas are typing that by "God", Hawking doesn't mean "God" and even if he does, he's got a diseased mind and can be ignored. Five comments in someone will use the phrase "sky fairy" and the discussion will come to an end.

But it is still very interesting.

Clearly, Hawking hasn't suddenly converted to anything, and isn't even necessarily talking about the "God" of religion. He may not be saying anything more than that "God" can be a useful tool of thought. That was the line taken by Phillip Pullman before he became boring: God doesn't "exist" but she's still worth thinking about, because she allows us to think of things we couldn't think of without her. (There is no such number as the square root of minus one, but calculations involving the square root of minus one have useful real world applications.) It was also the line taken by Terry Pratchett: maybe it is good to teach children to believe in things that don't exist, like the tooth fairy, because they are going to need to believe in other things that don't exist, like "love" and "freedom".

It isn't quite clear what Hawking means by "model". He may mean "It could sometimes be useful to pretend that there is a God in the same way that it is sometimes useful (when you are trying to find your way home without a compass, say) to pretend that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun moves round it." Or he may mean: "When we are talking about the human mind, and how it interacts with the universe, and whether it makes real choices, it is perfectly valid to construct hypothesis which includes God. At some point in the future, we may think of a way of testing those hypotheses." 

He seems, very interestingly, to grok the idea that "God" is not, and never way, primarily a very inefficient way of explaining why elephants have trunks; but is, and always was, a way of thinking about how us minds go about existing and interacting with other minds which also seem to be embodied in this physical universe thing. 

Since he has (so far as I know) no particular religious axe to grind it will not be possible for the atheists to reply "Oh, look at the contortions which these Christians will go to to salvage some part of their nasty barbaric bronze age did I mention Fred Phelps stoning apostates sky fairy sky fairy sky fairy." This doesn't mean that they won't say it. And if he is serious (about not claiming that God does not exist) it will suddenly become awfully hard to maintain the imaginary line between science (which is always atheistic) and faith (which is always anti-scientific.) Which doesn't mean that people won't carry on saying it.

Science has explained everything; but human minds and their apparent ability to make choices are not really part of the "everything" which science has explained. We may need to think of them in some other way. Some way that may include "God". 

Excuse me: but wasn't that exactly the territory over which C.S Lewis and G.E.M Anscombe had their celebrated theological spat in 1948?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Penultimate Thoughts on Richard Dawkins

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.

The Independent has been giving away little booklets called "A Pocket History of the World." The "Classical" section spends 1,500 words dealing with the early history of Christianity:

"...Jesus was an enlightened charismatic who made a virtue out of poverty and lectured on the benefits of non-violence. His message was simple: be peaceful, love your neighbour as yourself; if someone strikes you on one cheek, do not hit back but offer then the other; do not worship false idols such as money or material possessions: and above all be humble, for one day the meek will inherit the earth..."

You couldn't possibly write such a short synthesis of such a big subject without making a couple of debatable points. A hypothetical post-evangelical liberal - let's call him "Andy" might read this paragraph and say "There's more in the New Testament than the Sermon on the Mount, you know. Are you sure you aren't unconsciously assuming that Jesus message must have been peace, love and toleration because, dammit, that's what all great teachers teach?" But he'd probably like the "above all, be humble" part. A hypothetical sceptic - Dickie, for the sake of argument - on the other hand, might assert that Jesus didn't, in fact, teach about peace, love, humility and turning the other cheek: but was a racist who thought that only Jews could go to heaven. The Christians suppressed this Jesus because they're all racist child

It goes on:

"...Jesus followers saw him perform miracles and came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God as prophesied by Isaiah and other in the Jewish Torah. One of the most deeply held Jewish beliefs was that, at the time of the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses, the Israelites were identified as God's chosen people. Yet here was a man whose followers claimed he was King of the Jews and who offered the prospect of eternal salvation to anyone who believed in him, regardless of their colour, race or creed..."

Joey: "Er....wouldn't be a good idea to delete 'colour, race or creed' from your auto-text? I mean, apart from being a cliché, isn't 'If they believed in him...regardless of creed' pretty obviously a contradiction in terms?"

Jakob: "I don't know that Isaiah did prophecy that there would be an earthly incarnation of YHWH. I think that may be after-the-fact Christian exegesis."

Andy: "The phrase 'his followers came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God' sounds like bet-hedging to me - as if the writer thinks, but isn't quite prepared to say, that the Real Jesus was a hippy rabbi and the Son of God stuff was a ret-con by his fans."

Dickie: "I've travelled from one end of this galaxy to the other; seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything that will make be believe in one all powerful force controlling everything. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."

"His body mysteriously disappeared three days after being incarcerated in a tomb and his disciples began to see visions of him. They wrote about these miraculous events, which they called the Resurrection, and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everyone who believed in him might have everlasting life."

Davy: "That's a surprisingly credulous treatment of the Gospels. You seem to regard is as a datum that Jesus' body vanished and that the disciples honestly thought that they had seen him. But Paul knows nothing of the empty tomb, and 'the earliest and most reliable' versions of Mark don't have any Resurrection appearances. What you are doing is getting your allegory and your history muddled up. In fact the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive, and made up the story of the empty tomb years later to explain the idea."

Rowan: "Right, it's an allegory but it has nothing to do with life after death; it's there to demonstrate that it's a bad idea to take your frustrations out on minority groups.."

Andy: "The 'visions' part is something you've brought to the stories, not something you've found in them. In the stories, Jesus goes some way to establish that he is not a vision - he goes out of his way to eat, drink and display physical injuries. (It can hardly be said too often that the disciples already believed in ghosts, and Jesus had to assure them that he was not one.)"

Dickie: "You and your allegories! It's an entirely fictitious story and has no more to do with any historical person called Jesus than the story of the Lady of the Lake has to do with an historical person called Arthur. Sky Fairy! Invisible Jewish Zombie! Leprechauns! Long white beard! Child molestors!"

"Greek thinkers who followed the idea of a universal force of nature first put forward by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle found the concept of a single universal God who was open to all people rather compelling. The biggest problem for them was how to reconcile this all-pervasive divine force with a carpenter's son from Galilee whose followers claimed he was the incarnation of God. The problem wasn't finally settled until after Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire by the Emperor Galerius in 311 CE in a desperate bid to contain the increasing threat the new religion posed to Rome's imperial authority. In the end the idea of the Trinity provided the answer. It combined the Jewish God of the Old Testament as the Father, with the person of Jesus Christ as his Son, and the divine Platonic or nature force pervading all things as the Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity still marks out Christianity as distinct from other religions. This doctrine was finally ratified and codified into an official creed at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE."

Andy: "Some idea of the Trinity must go back way further than 311 - the phrase "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" occurs several times in the New Testament. I like the 'ratified and codified' part, though: if everyone wrote that clearly, than children would be able to grow up in a world free of the horror of Dan Brown."

Rowan: "I wouldn't like to, as it were, set up the mystery of the Trinity as a hurdle that you feel you have, as it were, to get under, in a very real sense."

Davey: "To say that the 'trinity' marks Christianity out from other religions is to say nothing at all. You might as well say that luminous noses mark jumblies out from all other dongs. "

So I guess that's my question: are Andy, Rowan and Dave talking about a null-subject, like the internal organs of unicorns? Would the opinion of a person with more knowledge (about what Jesus said, what the early Christians said about what he said, and what modern Christians say about what they say they said he said) be better placed to have a a valid opinion than someone who thought that the three persons of the Trinity were Tinky Winky, Dipsy and La-La? Are the Indy's remarks about the doctrine of the Atonement and the Trinity ('theological' subjects if every there were two) so dull, so long-winded and technical as to be impenetrable to the general reader? How much does any of this impact on the general question of whether or not there is a God? (If the answer is, as I suspect 'not at all', then why do the Dickies keep referring to it?) Can religion be coherently talked about in the secular sphere? Or is the Independent suffering from an infestation by midichlorians?