The trouble with religion

This was a sermon I was asked to deliver at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. I felt rather sorry for the young woman, presumably full of faith, who had to read out my chosen Old Testament passage.

Sermon for Emmanuel

Since this is armistice day, I want to start with a historical fact. The German army, in the First World War, believed it was fighting for civilisation. In those days, no one thought it necessary to add the prefix “Western”. They thought, before the First World War, that there was only one civilisation. How did they define it? How could they have been so wrong? One hint at an answer is that they gave each soldier two books to remind them what they were fighting for. One was the St John’s Gospel, and the other was a selection of Nietzsche’s writings.

Nietzsche is of course considered the greatest poet of Victorian atheism; the Bible is generally supposed to be on the other side of that dispute. Yet they have something in common. They are both part of the same argument, as Nietzsche very clearly saw; and if you take them together, you have something quite close to the heart of Western civilisation, of the insights, the arguments, and the ways of looking at life which gave us both our values and our self- confidence.

And here they were, working together from the heart of a great civilisation in aid of the most disastrous, cruel, and above all murderous war that the world had known up till then; certainly the war which gave European civilisation a wound from which it has not yet recovered and probably never will. Continue reading

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The economic benefits of heresy

This seems to have been written as a talk. Maybe it was a sermon I gave. I can’t remember; but it’s an idea I worked on for at least a decade, starting when I was trying to analyse everything from an evolutionary perspective, to see when that worked and didn’t. I still think it works here.

In situations where limited resources are being struggled over, it is often advantageous to belong to a team or coalition. Sometimes, team membership becomes more or less essential: consider access to modern healthcare, which is almost entirely supplied by team membership, whether the teams involved are American corporations or European nation states, or even private insurance schemes. Continue reading

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On marching, or at least standing around, against Trump

We cycled down from Kings Cross to Cambridge Circus around five, and reached Trafalgar Square about five thirty. The square was still full but there were open spaces on Whitehall and all the way down to parliament square, which was almost empty. The police were quiet and off to the sides but with no hostility between them and the crowd at all. A line of police horses narrowed the entrance to Whitehall, not closing it off, but ensuring that people could only go through in small groups. One woman in early middle age stood stroking the flank of an unprotesting police horse with a blissed out expression, while the rider tried to look disengaged. Continue reading

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Fire and Fury

The Michael Wolff book about Donald Trump has a great deal more art in it than most reviews would have you believe. It’s written with a deft and elegant touch, and although it is undoubtedly an assault on Trump with both rapier and bludgeon, the crudest blows are dealt by Trump himself. Wolff prefers a rapier, sometimes moving so fast that the blade has been withdrawn before the victim realises they are bleeding. Consider these three sentences, and especially the last one: “But what did Ivanka and Jared really think of their father and father-in-law? ‘There’s great, great, great affection—you see it, you really do,’ replied Kellyanne Conway, somewhat avoiding the question. ‘They’re not fools,’ said Rupert Murdoch when asked the question.” Continue reading

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The TLS gets better

The TLS seems to have got a new philosophy editor, Tim Crane, and his influence on this week’s issue is remarkable. For a start there is his own long, excellent essay on what religion is and isn’t, exposing the inadequacies of treating is as either a mere set of propositions or only a social arrangement. The only thing this gets wrong is the tentative suggestions that Pentecostalism represented a novelty, or that this is what Pentecostal congregations are in search of.
In principle, it is possible for these two things to be separated: people might gather spontaneously, utter words, and perform some kind of ceremony together, even if these things had never been said or done before. (Perhaps Pentecostals’ speaking in tongues is an example of this kind of thing.)
Not only was the Asuza Street revival an entirely self-conscious attempt to return to the condition of the early Church; the services today are as ritualised as post-77 Grateful Dead concert. So for that matter, is an Alpha Course. Everything is done to condition expectations towards the arrival of the Holy Spirit. See also the “Was he slain or was he pushed?” passage of our church book. Continue reading
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Auden as a critic

My mother’s ill, but recovering, so I read to her. In the bookshelf is a WW2 selection from fifteen English poets which one of my parents must have had at Oxford. The range is from Chaucer to Matthew Arnold, and each poet has a prefatory essay. What leaps out at once is the difference between those essays written by professional critics and teachers and those written by other poets. The poets are so much less mannered and more direct. In this collection, there is Auden on Byron, Louis MacNeice on Keats, and C.S. Lewis, a don who thought of himself as a poet, on Spencer. That’s a little unfair to Lewis. I don’t like his poetry but he really subjected himself to its rigours, and came thereby to understand a great deal which leaked into his prose insights.
Auden on Byron is spectacularly good: Continue reading

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uncosy catastrophes

Ever since I finally got round to reading The Death of Grass I have been snacking on the novels of John Christopher (Sam Youd) a British writer of appalling fecundity who was active from the fifties to the Eighties at least. According to his Guardian obit he wrote up to four novels a year and it’s not surprising that there was a certain amount of repetition. Some fraction are being republished — rather as the works of Jack Vance are — in a limited edition, which led me to his other famous adult novel, The World in Winter; and I’ve just finished Pendulum, published in the late Sixties. Continue reading

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Scientism and fundamentalism (in honour of Jerry Coyne)

Below the fold is a piece I wrote for Zia Sardar’s magazine Critical Muslim. It’s rather long, partly because it contains an insertion on Sam Harris and torture. Although younger readers will not remember the new atheists this is a reminder that they could be quite as nasty and silly as traditionalist Catholics. Continue reading

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Statistics from the Mail Online

Mostly for my own amusement, I have written a twitter bot which examines the front page of the Mail Online once every hour and tweets out statistics of interest. You can follow it at the unfortunately named @mailtits account.
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Jack Chick and hell

Jack Chick, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 92, was one of the most extraordinary, industrious and humourless comic artists of the 20th century. He claimed to be the most published author in the world. In an apparently unending series of pocket-sized cartoon tracts he laid out an idiosyncratic fundamentalism in which everyone who was not a Protestant Christian was in imminent danger of death followed by eternal torment.

Ecumenism had no charms for him and bigotry no terrors. He wrote and published tracts like “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” He even published the full length book “Convert … or Die! The Catholic Reign of Terror in Yugoslavia”. Both these, and more, I bought from a Christian bookshop on a trip to Belfast during the troubles. In that setting, they seemed less hilariously funny than when purchased from the Protestant Truth Society in Fleet Street. Continue reading

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