Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Scientism and fundamentalism (in honour of Jerry Coyne)

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

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. (more…)

Jack Chick and hell

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

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.

Perhaps the vilest of all his works was a comic called “Lisa”, still available on the web, where Chick has become the subject of ironic attention. In this, Henry, a middle-aged, man loses his job, “and my wife had to go to work”, so naturally he turns to porn and starts to abuse his fourteen-year-old daughter. When his neighbour finds out, the girl is shared between them. When the family doctor discovers this, he explains that only God can save Henry. But it turns out this has nothing to do with what Henry has done to his daughter.

“You were going to hell before this ever happened, Henry … You say you’re good, but the Bible tells us that no man is good, no, not one. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
So the doctor gets him to pray and at once “
I feel different, Doctor … I feel clean. God has forgiven a horrible wretch like me. Oh Thank you Lord. You’re such a merciful and wonderful God to clean me up. I’m so grateful.”
After the epiphany he goes home and tells his wife about Jesus. She testifies in turn that she knew all along that he was abusing their daughter because she herself had been abused by her uncle. But Jesus saves her, too. In the last frame, the happy parents summon their daughter, who appears clutching a teddy bear.
“We’ve got wonderful news, Lisa. Your daddy and I will never hurt you again … Really, honey. We love you, and Jesus loves you too.”

Self-righteous and self-pitying, profoundly misgynistic, deaf and blind to the reality of evil and suffering, the Christians in Jack Chick’s little tracts add up to an entirely damning indictment of fundamentalism. Quite possibly, a tract like Lisa strengthened some Appalachian child abuser in his crimes. There is no suggestion anywhere that secular justice might be involved in the process. In the end, even the Chick organisation withdrew the tract from sale, and expunged its memory from the official web site.

The other thing that makes Lisa noteworthy is that it is one of the very few Chick Tracts that deals with anything recognisable as evil. As you read through the rest, it is almost impossible not to start laughing out loud, not just because of the puerility of the drawing and the story lines. There is also something fundamentally absurd and inadequate about the targets he uses to illustrate the depravity of our times. Feminists, evolutionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, players of Dungeons and Dragons, people who celebrate Hallowe’en, Witches, Jews, Rock Musicians, Gay people, Roman Catholics, Liberals – in all this library of paranoiac fantasy there is hardly anything that could worry a normal person, still less frighten them.

On reflection, this may be the secret of the appeal of Chick-type fundamentalism. It’s paranoia as entertainment, since no one could possibly be frightened of most of the things that terrify him. And then there are the sudden awfulnesses where he demonises (literally, of course) the groups that large numbers of American really do hate — Gay people, Muslims, and educated women. That’s when the paranoia stops being funny and you feel like one of his characters, suddenly borne off by an angel and dropped into hell.

A sermon for Terry Pratchett

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Many years ago, I was asked to preach a sermon at Wadham College. I hemmed and hawed a bit, saying this really wasn’t my line of work, but they were pressing. So I wrote something, and spoke it. When Pratchett died I dug it out for a look. Here it is

This is not a sermon, so if you’ll forgive me, I’ll start without a bad joke.
We’ll have some Terry Pratchett instead.
Pratchett, for those of you who have not met him, is an extremely funny writer who has written a series of mildly improbable books about a flat world which is borne through the universe on the back of a giant turtle. If I were Terry Pratchett I would add a footnote to that description saying that he is sometimes a less funny writer, too; and a footnote to that footnote saying he is very fond of footnotes.
Apart from the turtle and being flat and so on, the Discworld is really very like our own. That is where the comedy comes from. It has folk music, which must be preceded by a long melancholy chord drawn out like a string of snot to give the onlookers time to get way. It has cats and kings and cabbages. Bits of it are like Ancient Greece and bits like ancient Egypt. There is death — a very important character. And there is magic.
Pratchett’s world is full of gods and wizards and magic that works. People are wholly comfortable with this, and atheists can only be identified by carbon dating; you take a handful of the carbon that used to be an atheist and date it. So it’s not very like our world after all.
I like this because it is a completely pragmatic attitude to magic or the supernatural, and in that sense it is rather realistic. Because if there is one thing that people nowadays do to distinguish themselves form people a hundred years ago, it is to play with myths. There are lots of deep cultural explanations, though myself I blame LSD as much as anything. It gives people a kind of provisional attitude to reality which is hard to shake off, and fairly catching.
So people are able to enjoy myths without wondering too much about whether they are true. They work. Some of the more popular myths we play with are ideas of character, or personality, and of soul. None of them are wholly satisfactory: indeed the crisis in the idea of the soul is one of the root causes of the difficulties for religion at the moment. It wouldn’t be a difficulty if we didn’t have souls, or at least something for which soul is the best world. But we do, as a matter of experience, and we can’t work out how they can exist when they are transparently not things.
So this is puzzling. In case you thought that I could untangle the puzzle, I can’t. As far as I can see, I have a mortal soul, and there’s an end to it.
Now Terry Pratchett is not, so far as I know, a Christian, and the religions that feature in his work are either pre-or post Christian. There is a pseudo-aztec religion in some jungle; a bunch of philosophers in the Greek city-state, and a whole load of pyramids somewhere in the desert. There are also some wonderfully tatty new-age witches, whom I am sure I have met at the Aquarian shop in Saffron Walden, browsing the shelves for crystals, and books on homeopathy for cats.
But one of his books does deal directly with religion, and I want to talk about it as a way of looking at what happens to Christianity in a post-Christian age.
Small Gods is a book about belief. The central god is smaller than he wants to be: he has changed into a tortoise, and he can’t get back. In fact, people keep mistaking him for a tortoise. Worse than that, eagles keep mistaking him for a tortoise, and trying to drop him on rocks to see what the insides taste like. The only person who can believe in him is a very stupid and straightforward novice called Brutha. Note that Brutha does not choose to believe in the great god Om (temporarily the small tortoise Om). He hears the voice of the God and he has no choice. Experience comes before belief.
Now Brutha is already part of a religion; and this religion, organised around the worship of Om, is utterly repulsive. It is, I think, a folk-memory of Roman Catholicism as refracted through nineteenth century prejudices and given a heavy top-dressing of Richard Dawkins. There have been a series of prophets, who have gone out into the desert to take dictation from the great god, and come back with ever more ridiculous and inflexible commandments. Its main business is torturing people, and its main office-holder is Vorbis, an exquisitor. Lower ranks do the inquisiting. Vorbis organises and supervises the torture, out of pure curiosity.
The idea of a man who will torture for interest, rather than pleasure, is a more subtle sort of evil than you would expect to find in million-selling fiction.
The great enemy of Vorbis’s repulsive state is a simple, philosophical, peace-loving, democratic (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) bunch of greeks, of whom the shiftiest are the philosophers. After the usual failure of all the best-laid schemes, the evil Vorbis, the saintly Brutha, and the divine tortoise end up wandering in the wilderness together.
There they meet thousands of other gods: disembodied voices twittering in the wilderness for people to believe in them. There is even an anchorite, a hermit who lives very happily up a pole, hallucinating sensual delights while he lives of brackish water and the occasional lizard. This is a book about belief.
Somehow, the simple, trusting Brutha gets them all through the desert, where he has refused to abandon the evil Vorbis; and as soon as safety is in sight,. Vorbis clunks him with a rock and strides back to proclaim hiself the next prophet.
At last we have reached the state where the paragon of evil is at the head of the religion which encapsulates every evil. At this point, God steps in. Om is, as I was saying, a very small god. But he knows he cannot let down the one man who aboslutely believes in him, for without believers, he will himself be annihiliated. So he goes for a walk, until an eagle finds him. But once the eagle has gripped him in his talons and is gaining height looking for a rock to drop him on, he extends his neck from his shell and grabs the bird by the negotiating parts. I think this is a theological novelty. So the eagle drops him not on a rock, but out of a high, clear sky onto Vorbis the high priest, who is preparing to have Brutha burnt alive in front of a huge crowd.
And of course, at this tremendous demonstration of divine power, the crowd is filled with belief. So the tortoise God Om is instantly restored to something worth believing in. He throws a few thunderbolts around and rushes off to Heaven — a place reserved for the superior class of God. Here he headbutts the doorkeeper, thus proving his own ontological superiority and fitness for the place.
At this point something weird happens. Brutha, the man, teaches forgiveness to God. He tells Om at his moment of greatest power that he will not worship him if he is unjust. On Discworld, it works. Om strong-arms the other gods into arranging a lasting peace in the war between Omnia and its neighbours.
Brutha, when he finally dies, finds Vorbis waiting for him in the afterlife, which is a simple desert. You have to walk across it alone. There are no other people, and no gods. Vorbis has waited a hundred years, or a thousand eternities, as you prefer, and is still huddled where he started, unable to bear himself. Brutha picks him up and helps him to start moving.
And that’s the end.
The book of Job it isn’t.

In the climactic scene of the book, Om says
I could destroy you utterly. I could crush you like an egg!
Yes.
You can’t use weakness as a weapon.
Why not? It’s the only one I’ve got.
Why should I yield then?
Not yield, bargain: deal with me in weakness. Or one day you’ll have to bargain with someone in a position of strength. The world changes.
Hah! You want a constitutional religion?
Why not? the other sort did not work.”
This is definitely not the book of Job. In a sense that is why the message of forgiveness, and constitutional deity which it teaches is so interesting. Religious doctrines are largely truths or aspirations about humanity. They are manifestos about our place in the universe. The message of Job about human helplessness may be in the long run more realistic. But I have to say that I like the idea of a constitutional deity. It speaks well for our confused century that someone can come up with it.
The way the world is, our descendants may well look back on books like this and regard them as lightweight or cynical and frivolous. They may even regard them as blasphemous. But I think we should be grateful to have lived in an age when this sort of witty optimism sold in millions.
As I said at the start, Pratchett is not a Christian, and his message is not, so far as I can discern a Christian one. But it may be a post-Christian message. It may be that his style of thinking about large questions and his style of affectionately distancing mythmaking are representative of what will triumph. It’s only a thought, to leave you with. But suppose we are leaving the era of father gods, not for mother gods, but for children gods, or maybe Brutha gods.

Small moment of pleasure

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Yesterday my colleague David Shariatmadari was commissioning a comment from Richard Dawkins. “I’m so glad you’re not the notorious Andrew Brown” said RD and added, eagerly, “Has he been fired?” No: sorry to disappoint you, Richard.

Plugging Marek

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I had to call Marek Kohn the other day, because I was thinking about the Chief Rabbi’s eugenics, and this led me to reread A reason for everything. It really is good. The discussion of Bill Hamilton in particular is extremely subtle and penetrating. All of the faults and confusions are dissected: “for him the hospitals came to represent the inexorable modern menace that others see in immigrants or surveillance cameras”. At the same time, Kohn admires and understands the achievements, and sees all the ways in which Hamilton did in fact function emotionally and socially. This is how pop science ought to be written.

on being told by PZ to fuck off

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

PZ posted a tremendous rant about me and Michael Ruse last week, which concluded with a heartfelt exhortation to both of us to “fuck off” (his emphasis). The cause was a piece I did on the grauniad site about Ruse’s visit to a creation museum in which he experienced, for a moment, “a Kuhnian flash” that it might all be true. Never mind that this was a momentary feeling. It was unmistakable evidence of heresy, or commerce with the devil God which demanded anathematisation and commination, which it duly got.

What follows is a rather long-winded argument that there is no need for me to respond that PZ can go fuck himself. Portions may later appear on the belief site, but at least here I can operate a consistent policy of banning bores and fools so there is some hope of an enjoyable conversation.
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undiscriminating reads

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

on trains in and out of London

Ken MacLeod, the Night Sessions: very good and tightly imagined account of what a war on religion would actually mean; and what a secular Scotland would be like. Written with great sympathy for the villains; also I am extremely glad of the idea that the last best Calvinists in the world turn out to be robots. The best of his I have read to date.

Charlie Stross, Merchant Princes, books one two and three: ought to be really enjoyable fluff, and almost is. But in the end the mashup of chicklit, thriller and Marxism doesn’t work. The heroine is not exactly a Mary Sue, but she is too self-consciously meant as a a figure for readers to identify with. Either that, or the feisty, sexy, divorcee is this century’s answer to the carved white Victorian angel, and every bit as life-like.

Thomas Jackson, Darwin’s Error: very interesting book by an ex-Catholic with the subtitle “the poet who died”. Not about the science at all, but about the philosophy and the prose. I didn’t have room to squeeze it into my “big” New Statesman review,1 but should blog about it next week.

Nick Spencer, Darwin’s God, which, unlike Jackson’s, is actually about religion. A scrupulous account of the development of Darwin’s irreligious opinions.

And, since it is Easter Day, I throw in for free the news that a church in Västerås has, after two years’ work, and the collection of 30,000 white bricks, unveiled their life-size Lego Jesus.

1 I was sent a total of sixteen books, to be reviewed in 1400 words

Sisters, not parent and child

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

An interesting and important point from John Barton’s essay on conceptions of the afterlife in the current TLS (not online):

Jews and Christians do not of course believe the same things, but the structures of the two faiths are much more similar than people think. This is not surprising, since they are siblings (rather than parent and child), both deriving from the religious culture of Israel in the last few centuries BC (the so-called Second Temple period) with influences from the surrounding Greco-Roman world and its philosophies. The impression that the two religions are so vastly different derives partly from the tendency among Christians to think that Judaism is the same as the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, as they call it) – whereas in fact the religion of the Second Temple period had changed markedly from that of the ancient Israelites who are the source of the Hebrew Bible; and among Jews, to think of Christianity as a Greek religion only marginally related to Hebrew culture.

An excellent discovery

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Chris Hedges’ book I don’t believe in atheists. My copy has been pre-owned, as they say (I ordered from Powells, since it isn’t published in this country) by a believer in scientism, whose pencil annotations are most illuminating. The book grew out of a public debate with Hitchens (whom the author, in an an interview with Salon, dismissed as an Ann Coulter of the left) and Sam Harris; and it’s interesting to see the annotations of a true unbeliever who can’t see anything wrong with a faith in progress. I will have to write more, lots more, but this is the first book I have come across which sees the New Atheists as morally outrageous – which of course they are.

Two lovely quotes from the book, one Hedges; the second, apparently, from Ibsen

To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been thing to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic.

and

To live is to war against the trolls.

Make this man a bishop!

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

From the comments received at Third Way magazine on their interview with Peter Akinola.


Archdeacon Dennis Onyekuru Owerri: In all times God provides for Himself a representative, a mouth piece. This is to show the world His sovereignty, that He is ever present, all powerful and so on. The entire world is ever grateful to Archbishop, His Grace Most Rev Peter Akinola for making himself available for this. He is expressing our minds to a decaying world whether they will hear or not the truth it is better said than keeping silent.
Why is this man only an archdeacon, when his talents clearly fit him for a place very close to the archiepiscopal chair, if not immediately beneath it?