Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category
I’m not convinced by this Alain de Botton business. Last week the gossip pages carried boozy pictures of him with his arms around Harry Styles and Jemima Khan. (De Botton: “Reports of the death of culture in the young are much exaggerated; Harry is a real enthusiast of Greek philosophy.”) And this week, de Botton has, to great fanfare, published his very own Ten Commandments.
AC Grayling did a similar thing last year, when he published The Good Book: A secular Bible. My reaction to both of these – as a man who is,as I have mentioned in these pages before, but a couple of drinks off atheism – is threefold. Firstly, I feel instinctively magnetised to this codified form of atheism, as if it will give me the moral certainty I miss in religion. Secondly, I am deeply suspicious of this attraction; living without a religion is supposed to involve thinking for yourself, not cleaving anew to an atheist creed. Thirdly, I feel slightly appalled that any philosopher can so elevate himself as to anoint himself God of the Atheists, without so much as a how’s-your-father.
The thing about God was that he is an omnipotent, unknowable consciousness. The thing about de Botton is that he is a chap. Therein lies the difference. Jahweh, author of the Real Ten Commandments, wouldn’t be seen joshing with Jemima Khan, or telling a book reviewer that “I will hate you till I die“. He’d be too busy doing, well, other things. But de Botton, author of Commandments 2.0, would; it is this that makes his collection of Commandments take on the pong of sanctimony. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Predictably, the Prime Minister’s brouhaha over gay marriage is having a knock-on effect. The fracas between atheist agitators and the Church of England – which had lulled since Christopher Hitchens died and the novelty of Professor Dawkins wore off – has sprung back into newsprint.
Last week, a pair of heavyweight commentators attacked via a pincer movement in the pages of the Guardian and Observer. Polly Toynbee argued that the rows over gay marriage and women bishops revealed a ruling elite that is out of touch with public opinion. “With overwhelming popular support for both,” she wrote, “how can abstruse theology and unpleasant prejudice cause such agitation at Westminster and in the Right-wing press? Politics looks even more out of touch when obscure doctrine holds a disproportionate place in national life.”
Nick Cohen took up her baton, citing various polls and figures to illustrate the decline in religious observance in Britain. The number of people with no religion has risen from 15 per cent to 25 per cent over ten years, he said; the remaining 75 per cent “are not faithful to their creeds, or not in any sense that the believers of the past would have recognised”. Just 11 per cent of Catholics agree with the church on abortion, he added, and four per cent on contraception. Most strikingly of all, just 1.8 per cent of the population regularly attends church.
Against this backdrop, Cohen delineated the influence that the Church has over public life. 26 bishops, with automatic seats in the house of Lords, can “support or oppose any legislation they please”. One-third of schools are run by religious authorities, and Michael Gove is planning to increase this number; these schools practise “religious discrimination” by closing their doors to children from alternative faiths. And on top of this “decaying heap”, he wrote, “sits Elizabeth II: a grumpy priestess-queen, who in theory at least is the state religion’s ‘supreme governor’”. His point, and Toynbee’s, is simple. If religion has been rejected by the majority of the population, how is it possible to justify its role in public life?
Let us be clear. I am not a member of any Church or other religious organisation. I am, perhaps, a couple of drinks away from atheism; what holds me back is an enduring sense of the numinous, to which, I feel, atheism would not do justice. But organised religion? Not for me. I’m with Voltaire: “uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”
Nevertheless, as paradoxical as it sounds, I value the institution of the Church of England, and its place in public life. The reason? Quite simply, I don’t think that pure secularism would be reliable enough as a guiding light. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
If you are an elderly religious leader enjoying iconic cultural status, a girlish giggle goes a long way – especially when you’re on shaky moral ground. This, arguably, is true of the Dalai Lama; and it is certainly true of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
This week the retired Archbishop – undoubtedly with a giggle – pulled out of a leadership summit in Johannesburg because of the presence of Tony Blair. In a statement, his office explained that “Mr Blair’s decision to support the United States’ military invasion of Iraq . . . was morally indefensible. . . it would be inappropriate and untenable for the Archbishop to share a platform with Mr Blair.”
My colleague the Rev Peter Mullen has already drawn attention to the Archbishop’s sanctimony. I’d add that Tutu is displaying hypocrisy of Pharisian proportions. Since March, Tutu has happily been associated with members of Hamas, which has long been regarded by Britain and the USA as a terrorist organisation. The Archbishop is on the Advisory Board for a controversial group called the Global March to Jerusalem (GM2J), which aims to stage civilian marches on Israel’s capital. The group’s advisers also include two members of Hamas, Zaher Birawi and Ahmad Abo Halabiya.
Let’s bring this into sharper relief. In a sermon given at a mosque in Gaza and broadcast live on Palestinian TV, Ahmad Abo Halabiya allegedly said: “Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them . . . and those Americans who are like them, and those who stand by them.” The Archbishop is apparently willing to share a platform with men like these, but not with Tony Blair. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Nine decades ago, on February 2 1922, Ulysses was born. It arrived in a handsome turquoise cover, its face embossed in gold. (At least, it did in Paris. In the UK it remained banned for a further fourteen years, on account of a masturbation scene.)
Over the years, this iconic Modernist text has been written about and written about. But one of its most important lines is not often enough discussed. It occurs in Episode 3, Proteus: “remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world.”
By the time he scrawled those words, James Joyce had long been working to claim the term “epiphany” on behalf of secular literature. Hitherto, the word had an ancient, and predominantly religious, history. It has its genesis in ancient Greece (ἐpιfάνeιa), where it was used beautifully to refer to the first glimmer of dawn, the first sight of the enemy in battle, or the first vision of a god. It became Judaised in 2 Maccabees, when it was used to describe the God of Israel, and was Christianised in 2 Timothy, where it mainly referred to the Second Coming; thereafter it came to describe the personal realisation that Christ was the Son of God. In AD 361, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus used the word for the first time to refer to a Christian feast (epiphanion). In the centuries that followed it was mainly used in connection to a variety of Christian festivals, which were celebrated differently, and at different times, by the different Churches.
Joyce, however – an atheist with profoundly Catholic roots (which he described as “black magic”) – felt that the term could more usefully be applied in a humanist context. Each of his Dubliners stories is structured around a central epiphany. Moreover, his less widely read autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero, contains an explicit exposition. Epiphany, Joyce writes, means “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” It is for the “man of letters” to “record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”
(Several years prior to writing this passage, Joyce himself had begun to create a group of seventy-one fleeting, disembodied epiphanies, ranging in content from the supoernatural to the mundane. Forty of these survive in manuscript form, and are collected at the American Universities of Cornell and Buffalo; they were reprinted in the early nineties by Faber.)
Last summer, Michael Briguglio, a sociologist and chairman of the Maltese Green party, opened what may be a new chapter in the history of Malta. Angry that his country was one of only two in the world in which divorce is banned – the other being the Philippines – he sent a formal request to all members of parliament to propose legalising it. After a good deal of political wrangling, a national referendum was announced. As this article was going to press, the people of Malta were about to cast their votes.
Briguglio separated from his wife in 2006, and has long been frustrated that he could not get divorced. He could have gone abroad to do it – Malta bans divorce domestically but recognises it internationally – but this, he says, would have been “prohibitively expensive”. So he is filing for annulment, in which the court rules that one or both parties were not in their right minds at the time of marriage. This is complicated, time-consuming (it can take up to eight years) and costly. It is also psychologically brutal – an annulment suggests that your marriage, with all its memories, was never valid in the first place.
Listen to the audio (5 min 17 secs)
“People came in ones and twos until the place was packed. Somebody closed the door to stifle the breeze. Then Father Angelo Seychell — a short, rotund priest in a spotless white robe — glided in, positioned himself beneath the crucifix, and began Mass. The congregation followed the proceedings automatically. But when it came to the sermon, there was an unexpected change . . .” Read the transcript
Four Thought combines big ideas and evocative storytelling in a series of personal viewpoints – speakers take to the stage ready to air their latest thinking on the trends, ideas, interests and passions that affect our culture and society.
Recorded live at the RSA in London, these talks are unscripted, thought-provoking and entertaining, with a personal dimension.
If you’re anything like me, you’re not particularly interested in the royal wedding. Perhaps you have republican leanings, or you can’t bear the mawkishness of it all, or you disapprove of the terrible waste of money. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that this cloud has a silver lining – it has presented the nation with a golden opportunity to have some fun. Let’s face it, an opportunity to have a prank in the glare of the world’s media doesn’t come along very often. And the nation’s satirists and lampooners have been rising to the occasion with gusto.
To begin with, we had the Royal Wedding Sick Bag, available in letterbox scarlet, royal blue and gold (limited edition). This was followed by – to graze just the very tip of the iceberg – a book of irreverent lookalike photographs by Alison Jackson called Kate and Wills up the Aisle, and a report on thespoof.com that the happy couple intend to tie the knot wearing “full nuclear radiation protection” as a gesture of solidarity with the Japanese. And it’s even rumoured that the Little Britain team is planning to stage an alternative ceremony, with Matt Lucas playing Kate Middleton.
But no spoof piqued global interest quite as much as the Jewish Chronicle’s deadpan story which ran on the festival of Purim (where Jews get drunk to commemorate the execution of a malevolent Persian minister, four hundred years before Christ). Kate and Wills, the Chronicle reported, are planning to acknowledge “the multi-cultural nature of modern British society” in their nuptials. While the ceremony will be “completely Anglican in nature,” the happy couple will smear “mehendi” paste on each other in accordance with Muslim tradition, then, following Hindu custom, offer each other a “morsel of food”. Finally, the Chronicle quipped, the prince will “smash a glass with his foot” in a nod to the Jewish tradition.
The response to this nugget of foolishness was extraordinary. News outlets all around the world took it seriously, including Israel’s leading broadsheet, Ha’aretz (who, red-faced, have since removed the report from their website). Meanwhile, the Twitterverse took the ball and ran with it. Wiccans demanded a human sacrifice in Trafalgar Square; Jedis suggested that Charles lop off Wills’ hand with a light sabre; and Pastafarians – devotees of Dawkins’s Flying Spaghetti Monster – began lobbying for a “traditional” pasta-based feast.
All great fun, of course, but for my wife and me the Jewish Chronicle touched a nerve. Read the rest of the article on the New Humanist website
On April 7, Jake Wallis Simons will be speaking at the Royal Society of Arts as part of Radio 4′s exciting new series FOUR THOUGHT. He will be talking, unscripted, for 15 minutes on the subject of “what you didn’t know about Tibetan Buddhism”. Other speakers include Jonathan Sumption QC, the Independent columnist Christina Patterson, and the political scientist Professor Phil Cowley.
There will be a live studio audience. Find out more
It’s not easy being an atheist. Your rational self informs you that God – or Zeus, or the Ju-Ju, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster – does not exist. Your intuition, however, often has other ideas. Despite your best efforts, you can’t rid yourself of the feeling that things happen for a reason; that there exists some benevolent force greater than yourself; that departed relatives are still, in some sense, around. After all, whose brain isn’t prone to breaking the wind of superstition from time to time? And, more importantly: why?