Category Archives: culture wars

Jo Swinson and The Telegraph: complaints, complaints, complaints

Thanks a lot to everyone for all the positive feedback I’ve had about my article this morning. By happenstance, Alix Mortimer has just asked:

Fucking disgusting. Can we get them on article 1 (accuracy) of the PCC code?

The answer, at least in my view, is yes, which is why I’ve just spent the last couple of hours writing letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC. And I would ask you to do the same.

First off, the Telegraph. You can contact them via this page (under “What does your enquiry relate to?” select “Editorial”). My letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:

“Accuracy

“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 – that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 – furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 – the claim that Jo Swinson is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 – the headline epithet “makeover queen” is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 – the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous “makeovers” – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the “no smoke without fire principle.” Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

The BBC’s contact page is slightly harder to find, but can be accessed here. I wrote them the following:

jo090520bbcI am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8047390.stm#swinson_jo).

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.

Finally, the Guardian are the easiest to contact of all. The Reader’s Editor page is here. I wrote them the following:

Dear Ms Butterworth,

I am writing with regard to your table on page 6 of the Guardian dated 23 May 2009. On this you include a section “cheapest claims – claims that Britain mocked”. The first item you list is “Jo Swinson: Cosmetics included in her receipts. Because she’s worth it.”

In doing so, the Guardian repeats a misleading slur that was published in the Telegraph on Thursday 21 May. On careful reading, the Telegraph article does not accuse Jo Swinson MP of claiming cosmetics on expenses, provides no evidence whatsoever to indicate that she had and the fact that she might have done has been explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself (link). It is therefore a non-story and I have written to the editor of the Telegraph calling for him to retract it (see below).

I note that the Guardian has chosen its words in an equally selective manner, merely saying that the cosmetics were ‘included in her receipts’ not that they were actually claimed for. Unlike the Telegraph however, you do not even allow Jo Swinson a right to reply.

That the Guardian should choose to pilliory a female MP for the crime of purchasing cosmetics is particularly galling. I was under the impression that the Guardian regarded itself as a champion of feminist causes. It is certainly tempting to join in with the anti-politics throng at the moment, but that does not mean accepting every article published by the Telegraph is accurate or free of pursuing a regressive political agenda; it certainly does not mean you have to uncritically go along with explicit misogyny.

I am writing to request that you issue a retraction of this report and an apology to Jo Swinson. If I do not get a response within the next seven days, I will take this matter up with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

While I hope reprinting these letters here will be useful, if you complain please do so in your own words – it will be much more effective that way.

As an aside, the Telegraph appear to have completely lost the plot. Dizzy reports:

Nadine Dorries has seen the blog part of her website instantly taken down after she made allegations against the owners of the Telegraph Group, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay.

Lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, Withers, instructed the takedown to Acidity via mail last night, citing the Acceptable User Policy. The takedown will be bolstered by the Godfrey vs Demon precendent, where an order can be made and it will be done instantly.

This is quite remarkable behaviour. It is one of the few things they could have done to make me feel even a twinge of sympathy for Nadine Dorries. Furthermore, this isn’t just a nasty bit of bullying by a precious publisher to a blogger, but to a high profile (some would argue over-exposed) MP. This is going to be big news tomorrow.

What an utterly stupid act of fuckwittery.

Thought for the day: does Giles Fraser have a point?

The Vicar of Putney writes:

The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of “againstness” would fundamentally alter TftD’s character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD. He told us religious explanations were “childish and self-indulgent”, “infantile regression” and “lazy”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves. But this sort of denunciation is not what TftD is about.

On one level, I have to agree with him. “Atheism” is indeed defined by what it is against. Dawkins’ foray into the Today programme was indeed an attack on religion rather than a positive contribution. If the only thing non-believers could contribute to the slot was “againstness” then I wouldn’t want them doing it either.

With that said, you can veritably feel the tremble in Fraser’s writing; the hatred; the bile. It isn’t enough for atheists to define themselves as not believing in God, but then most – including Dawkins – don’t. Fraser might be able to cite a single essay penned for Radio Four, but anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world. Atheism may by definition be negative but you can’t apply the same argument to humanism, rationalism, pantheism or even (despite its inherent silliness) Brightism. By contrast, the same argument does apply to a monotheist (“our god is the one true god”). According to Fraser’s argument then we should restrict Thought for the Day to Hindus and the odd witch.

Is it really true that Thought for the Day contributors don’t denounce? Only yesterday, Richard Harries was tut-tutting the Atheist Bus Campaign (and its religious imitators) for telling people to not worry. At it’s best, Thought for the Day is often about denunciation – I always liked Antonia Swinson’s uncomfortable truths about the excesses of capitalism (perhaps that’s why she was only allowed to record three editions). At its worst, it is often about denunciation as well – I am surely not the only person in the world who has found himself leaping out of bed and shouting at the radio because the TftD presenter has just casually just damned half the population (in their usual polite, measured tones). As much as Giles Fraser might like to think otherwise, you cannot argue for something without implicitly opposing – and thus denouncing – something. This is what happens on Thought for the Day, day after day. Hasn’t he been listening?

It is a shame that Fraser doesn’t even try responding to Sue Blackmore’s points about TftD last month, also published on Comment is Free. The best he can do is denounce Dawkins for being denunciatory and to tell us all to “get a life.” All in all, it is a little lame and condescending.

Aborting common sense

Three examples of the zaniness of anti-abortion campaigners:

First of all, there was the curious case of the abortion doughnuts. I have to admit that when I first heard about “abortion doughnuts” my first thought was that Krispy Kreme had started putting marshmallow foetuses in the jam. However, the reality turns out to be much more prosaic. What happened was that Krispy Kreme issued the following press statement in advance of Barack Obama’s inauguration (emphasis mine):

“Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American’s sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies — just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet ‘free’ can be.”

The reaction of the American Life League was, well, over the top to say the least:

“Celebrating his inauguration with ‘Freedom of Choice’ doughnuts – only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion – is not only extremely tacky, it’s disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy.

“A misconstrued concept of ‘choice’ has killed over 50 million preborn children since Jan. 22, 1973. Does Krispy Kreme really want their free doughnuts to celebrate this ‘freedom.’

“As of Thursday morning, communications director Brian Little could not be reached for comment. We challenge Krispy Kreme doughnuts to reaffirm their commitment to true freedom – to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and to separate themselves and their doughnuts from our great American shame.”

Hat tip: Zoe Margolis, Miami New Times.

However, anti-choice reactionary zeal isn’t limited to the USA sadly. You might think that the Editor of the Catholic Herald would welcome the move by an MP to attempt to outlaw discrimination against Catholics, as Evan Harris is attempting to do. You would be wrong. Indeed, Damian Thompson would like to tell Dr Harris exactly where he can shove his bill:

You know something? Catholics don’t want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the “procedure” can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me… Let’s leave the constitutional bar in place for just a bit longer, shall we? It’s mildly offensive, but Catholics have more important things to worry about. Such as saving late-term unborn babies from the grisly fate that Dr Harris is happy to see inflicted on them.

Hat tip: New Humanist.

And finally, there is this video, which Iain Dale believes “even the most ardent pro-choicers will find some difficulty in countering.”

You know what, Iain? I might take that challenge. It would be tempting to respond with “when’s the Hitler version coming out?” but that would be to miss the point. The weakness of this argument is that it is essentially rooted in the unknowable. What is being argued is that Obama is a good man; Obama would not exist if his foetus had been aborted; therefore abortion is bad. But that argument is entirely contingent on Obama being not merely good, but the best president possible in all possible worlds. I’m all for saying nice things about him, but that is going a little too far Dr Pangloss.

If we’re going to talk about potentiality, let’s at least have an honest discussion and recognise that potentiality lies in everything not just in the decision whether or not to abort a foetus. The decision of a sixteen year old to have an abortion could lead directly to her completing a medical degree and discovering the cure for cancer. The decision of a woman to have an abortion could lead directly to her eventually raising a child in a more protective and loving environment, who subsequently goes on to build a fusion reactor which ushers in a new era of prosperity. And who knows what might have happened if Obama’s mother had aborted the foetus from which he grew? Her decision might have lead to the first black woman president being inaugurated this week – a woman who within her first 100 days solved the Middle East Crisis, global warming and the economic downturn in quick succession.

Sound silly? Maybe, but under the right set of circumstances all of these hypotheses are possible. And the fact is there are literally millions of people out there whose lives would have not happened or would be substantially worse if their mothers hadn’t had an abortion. Are we to automatically assume that these people’s lives are worth less than the foetuses they have benefited from the destruction of?

That isn’t to make the claim that because of this, abortion is good – that would be an equally fallacious argument. It is however to say that the value of a specific abortion or lack thereof is essentially unknowable both at the time when the decision is made and subsequently. We simply do not know what we do not know. Spending time worrying about what might have been is a shortcut to madness.

Due to the fact that we live in a vastly complex (read: beautiful, wonderful) universe, every time one possibility is closed off an infinite number of other possibilities arise. It doesn’t just apply to the few things that the Pope does or does not approve of. Indeed, CatholicVote give the lie to this by applauding Obama’s achievements despite being raised by a single mother – something that prurient Conservatives and Catholics spend the rest of the time assuring us will inevitably lead to children becoming drug crazed, gun toting thugs. Funny that.

I’m glad Barack Obama is alive but it is a simple fact to observe that if he had never lived, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have known him to care.

Telegraph brands Christians as objectively anti-human

What the hell is Alex Singleton going on about? He has taken Christian Aid to task for using the slogan “We stand for humanity” on the grounds that it doesn’t “fit with the brand name.”

Now, it happens that I’m an atheist-pantheist-rationalist-secularist-humanist-whateverthemoodtakesmeist (I think that just about sums it up), but the last – the last – thing I would ever criticise a Christian group for being is pro-human. Quite the opposite; anything that emphasises the strong humanist thread that can be found throughout the Gospel (as opposed to the bits which get Mel Gibson all excited and quivery over) should be applauded. Without meaning to be patronising, well done chaps, you actually get it (millions don’t). Stick with that brand of Christianity and you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me.

Back to the blog, some eejit has commented: “I think it’s fair to say they have somewhat lost the plot.” I think its fair to say that only someone who doesn’t actually know the plot of the Gospels would actually write that. Who needs Dawkins, Hitchens et al, when you have fellow Christians, eh?

Madeline Bunting has a point SHOCKER!

Madeline Bunting is atheist baiting again. In her Guardian column this week she makes one spectacularly silly point, one mildly silly point and one good point which is a genuine issue for secularists. But it is a problem for the religious as well.

Firstly, the really silly point – worth quoting in full:

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Even reading it again makes me laugh out loud. Apparently it is “patronising” to urge working people on the Number 73 to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” but not for a middle class woman from a privileged background to presume to speak for them, oh no. Worse, we are to believe that this is an affront on their very sense of hope and dignity. So much for faith then, if it can be that easily challenged. And does she really mean to say that only the educated can be atheists? Isn’t that rather close to saying that religion rooted in ignorance?

She then goes on to pontificate how Barack Obama is religious and that his social conscience stems from his faith. On one level, I don’t quibble with that at all. As I’ve said before, I’ve always considered myself more of an ally of religious people of good conscience than secular people of bad conscience. Nor am I blind to the fact that many of the ethical teachings that Obama bases his principles on are the same ethical teachings I value. The Bible is indeed a good book (my only real difference of opinion is that it is no more than a book).

But Bunting over-eggs the pudding. If we are to credit Obama’s religion with his conscience, and not Obama the intellectual, then we should also blame Obama’s religion for his current seeming vaccilation over Guantanamo and Palestine. If Bunting’s logic is to be followed through, she can’t then go on to conveniently (to use her own phrase) “pick and mix.”

I would never dream of making a simplistic argument along the lines that Obama’s moral weakness over Palestine is rooted in his faith; Obama is responsible for Obama’s actions and choices – nothing else. It would appear, in this respect at least, that I pay religion rather more respect than Bunting.

Cheap cracks aside, this article isn’t entirely worthless. The core of Bunting’s argument is indeed a problem for atheists and secularists, and deserves consideration:

…Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

Now, there are caveats I should add to all this. First of all, while I have deep respect for London Citizens, it is fair to say that despite having been around for a while, it has not exported particularly successfully outside of London. The only place where this model has been exported is Birmingham. I met up with a small group of Birmingham Citizens years ago when I worked in the West Midlands and by all accounts they appear to have a much smaller organisation than any of the London groups (not even having their own website for example). Why is this, when London is no more religious than any other part of the UK (again, I suspect this boils down to individuals being rather more significant than religions)?

Neither is the concept of civic activism uniquely rooted in religion. As a Lib Dem I would want to big up our own record in community politics, but the truth is that all political parties organise within communities in a secular way. Bunting and co might be tempted to argue that political parties only empower the middle classes. All I can say to that is that the places where I have personally seen community politics work best is in some of the most deprived parts of London, Manchester and Leeds. Reading up as I have recently on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, I was particularly struck by how that party’s emphasis (leaving aside the splitters) was on civic-minded republicanism and empowering the working classes at the expense of electoral success. Ultimately more Marxist than Leninist, their view was that the revolution was going to happen anyway and their job was to prepare for it.

But Bunting has a point: it is no good for atheists to harp on about the dreadfulness of religion if they aren’t contributing something positive themselves. We’ve had our little victory with the Atheist Bus, we’ve had our Christmas knees’ up. But it isn’t enough to be better than the worst of religion; isn’t it time to aim higher?

Nor is this about charity, as Bunting makes clear. We’re not talking about some pissing contest about who donates the most (we’ve got Richard Curtis – nyer, nyer, nyer-nyer, nyer). The challenge for the new new atheists is whether it can be a positive force for good in society – not just by campaigning for healthy minds, but full bellies and social justice too. Bunting’s allusion to the religious cleaner on the Hackney bus is patronising in the extreme, but do we really currently have anything to say to a poor working person in that position? Would making an atheist out of her really be a worthwhile victory?

Before we concede too much to Bunting here though, it should be pointed out that the links between civic activism and religion are problematic for religion as well. I’ve come across a lot of avowedly religious people in my time and I have to admit that a lot of them don’t appear, well, that religious. Rather, the religion – more precisely the religious community – is the conduit they use to do good in the world. It’s great that they have found such a conduit, but how many people does religion make into liars by effectively insisting that the good deeds cannot be done without the religious observance? And how many good people end up disempowered because they feel that getting involved in their local church group would make them into hypocrites?

Unless you genuinely believe that having a good conscience is impossible without religion – and I wouldn’t accuse even Madeline Bunting of that – then that is a real problem. Less so in the inner city; much more so in the village where it boils down to a choice between the church hall and sweet f*** all.

The solution for both the secular and the religious – surely – are civic minded institutions that don’t depend on faith as a precursor (either explicitly or implicitly) for involvement. One of those institutions, currently in decline, is party politics but that alone is not likely to be enough. Creating exclusively atheist institutions is likely to be pretty self-defeating as well. What we need are inclusively secular ones.

The good news is that we have plenty of those. Amnesty is one such organisation. Action Aid and Age Concern is another (and that’s just the As). Wouldn’t Madeline Bunting concede that this is ultimately a better way to organise? And shouldn’t atheists, secularists and humanists concede that playing a positive role in society is something that should be encouraged?

Heretical Thinking

Sue Blackmore reports on a pledge which I hadn’t heard of but certainly will comply with, undertaking to write to the BBC and request that they allow atheists, humanists and “brights” (sorry, cannot bring myself to use that term unironically) to speak on Thought for the Day.

The difference between Blackmore’s sensible approach, and the rather more incendiary wording of the pledge itself, is what I’m getting at when I express my wariness about “new” atheism. I’m all for forthright views, but not angry ones. The Atheist Bus Campaign is great because, fundamentally, it is a lighthearted response to something quite genuinely offensive. Blackmore’s emphasis is not on banning Thought for the Day but expanding it – and in the process appraising what it is there to do.

Nine wishes for 2009 #2: A NEW new atheism

Most of this article was written on Monday but I’ve only just got around to finishing it.

I enjoyed the Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People enormously and 2009 will, by all accounts, be a bit of a party for atheists. Starting in January we have the Atheist Bus Campaign and then throughout the year people will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. And yet, and yet…

If there was one thing that bugged me about the Carol Service, it was the level of reverence that Richard Dawkins was given by some of the performers, most notably Robin Ince. I suppose it would have been impolite to actually criticise the guy while he was waiting in the wings and the truth is he has provided a much needed corrective to the religious narrative over the past decade (and more). But he remains a deeply divisive figure, alienating almost as much as he engages. His call to arms and for agnostics to get off the fence leaves many ducking for cover.

The real problem atheists have is one of taxonomy. Atheism is just what is says on the tin – a lack of belief in God. To try and make it out to be anything more is frankly ludicrous and falls foul of the very naturalistic fallacy that people like Dawkins warn against. Secularism doesn’t help much either, although it still puzzles me why this has become such a swear word with the adherents of organised religion. That leaves rationalism – which is rather cold and too often veers towards positivism – and humanism – which is warm and fuzzy and often suspiciously so. Joining the British Humanist Association is on my to do list. My reason for not having done so already is rooted in me receiving an unsolicited copy of their newsletter a few years ago which had a bizarre article about a “humanist picnic” at which humanist families spent an afternoon bemoaning about how terrible religion is (I can think of more fun ways of passing the day, such as jabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon) and urging me to buy humanist Christmas cards with all the crosses replaced with aitches.

I have been assured that they have come on a lot since then (although asking people to donate money so their Chief Executive can brand herself doesn’t exactly convince – can’t I donate money to prevent her from doing so?), but living caricatures of the humourless “militant atheist” are never that far from the surface. I adore New Humanist magazine for example, but the letters page is full of freaks. Then again, the letters pages of all publications are full of freaks – consisting as they do of blog trolls who lack the wherewithall to find the “on” switch of their PCs – but at least they aren’t always “our” freaks.

In this respect, finding a new voice for atheist comedy – which Robin Ince seems to have taken on as a personal mission – is a positive development. Laughing at ourselves is an absolute must for 2009 – something which, as I noted previously, is often sadly lacking.

One group we could do with hearing a little from is ex-Catholics. It has to be said that it doesn’t say much for a religion that creates so many of its most fervant critics. I mean, when the Pope says something stupid, I’m happy to join in the chorus of disapproval, but much of the anti-Catholic stuff out there borders on The Da Vinci Code in terms of paranoia (not that I’m obsessed with God Trumps, but the Catholicism one is a case in point). I’m always impressed at the way Catholics tend to choose the bits of their religion that they like and ignore the rest, as if it is some metaphysical branch of Woolies (RIP) – my favourites are the Catholics who are fine about having sex before marriage but think it is a sin to use a condom – but profound mass-hypocrisy does rather undermine the claims that it is simultaneously a vast conspiracy against mankind.

Fundamentally, we need a rational, reasonable voice out there to counter the rational, reasonable theist nonsense out there, of which Madeleine Bunting provides us with an excellent example today. Her claim that Darwin has been “hijacked” by atheists on the basis that he was probably agnostic is a crime of intellectual pygmyism, but one which many Guardian readers will have nodded sagely to today. But it is a ludicrous argument, similar to the sneering by Christian groups who thought it was hilarious that the Atheist Bus Campaign uses the less-than-forthright slogan “there’s probably no God” while ignoring the fact that the Alpha Course adverts which inspired it use the even less assertive slogan “if there was a God, what would you ask him?”

Yes, Darwin almost certainly sat on the fence when it came to the question of whether God existed or not, but to the extent that he believed in any God at all he was a deist. In other words, while he might have conceded the possibility of God, he was clear that there was no activist God playing a role in worldly affairs. Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism. Attempts have been made to square the circle – I spent many wasted hours researching panentheism for my undergraduate dissertation – but all of them reduce God to, at best, a “not dead yet” cameo role in the creation.

The new new atheism would be self-confident, not too concerned about what people think and far more concerned about how people act (yes, the two are related but no, the two are not causal). It wouldn’t tolerate the sort of argument advanced by Bunting above, but it would at the same time accept that a lack of religion by itself can never be a substitute for an ethical system. Ethical systems needn’t come from religion – indeed at some point I may find time to write about how the much-vaunted “golden rule” predates religion and is in many ways hindered by it. But ethics and morality are a) important and b) not informed by atheism per se. The answers are not easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for them.

Godless carols

On Sunday, the gf and I went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the final performance of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. By coincidence, albeit perhaps not that much of a coincidence given that both being plugged into a lot of the same networks, we hear about a lot of things at around the same time, Will Howells sat almost exactly in front of us.

A good time was had by all. I’m not much of a comedy night person (I did have a phase of going to pub standup before I moved up to Leeds in 2000 but I never got back into the habit), but this was a good example of what I was missing. Add to that a combination of quality musical acts and science writers and it was a splendid evening. The impression given by Robin Ince was that he’d quite like to turn this into an annual event; I sincerely hope he does.

Stand out moments:

  • Robin Ince himself was one of the strongest comedians, but Stewart Lee, Chris Addison and Dara O’Briain more than kept their respective ends up.
  • The musical acts, if I’m brutally honest, were often a bit meh, but St Jarvis of Cocker was fabulous (he did Something’s Changed and I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake – my bid for the Christmas 2009 Number One). And Tim Minchin‘s beat poem about having a drunken row with a New Ager in a dinner party was a sensational way to round off the evening.
  • Sadly, Jennifer Aniston wasn’t available to do the “science bit” but Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre somehow managed to get by without her. Singh’s piece about the Big Bang Theory and Kate Melua was entertaining and Dawkins reminded us why, even if he does on occasion go off the anti-religion deep end, his writing has captured so many people’s imaginations over the years. But it was the passion and sheer moral force of Ben Goldacre which was the standout performance of the three, almost singlehandedly giving the occasion a sense of legitimacy by talking about the peddling of vitamins in South Africa. A normally witty writer, Goldacre didn’t make a single joke but his contribution was stronger for it.

Ricky Gervais, for whom a lot of people apparently turned up (the gf overheard a woman on the way out who was outraged that the event wasn’t merely Ricky Gervais and friends), was a problematic performer. The thing about Gervais is that he isn’t and never has been a standup comedian. He does this character, one not entirely dissimilar to the one in The Office and Extras (and, lamentably, Stardust). If you remember that, then his not particularly funny observations about getting a goat for an African family for Christmas makes a certain amount of sense, and his jokes about rape and paedophilia can, to an extent, be justified. More extreme things can be found in the League of Gentlemen, certainly, where it is clear that the actors are playing characters. The problem is, how many people still see Gervais as a character and how much does Gervais himself still see it as a character? Leaving aside whether you can ever justify rape gags, the simple fact is his skits on Sunday weren’t funny – or original – enough and too reliant on shock value to get a nervous laugh. This is a shame since he is capable of truly excellent standup such as his daddy longlegs skit.

As I said above, I really hope they do make it an annual event. But if they do, here is some advice:

1. If you’re going to use Powerpoint, remember the cheap seats. We weren’t in the cheap seats, merely the inner circle, but even we couldn’t see Simon Singh’s slides. It did occur to me that this may have been some kind of anti-God ploy – on the offchance the Heavenly Host does exist, let’s make watching it slightly annoying for them and see how they like it! hah! – but if it was it was a little counter-productive. It isn’t as bad as when I went to see Phantom of the Opera in the Manchester Opera House many moons ago when the shock entrance of the Phantom was somewhat marred by the fact that from our elevated angle, we cheapies could see him blithely walking on stage 30 seconds before, but that was Andrew Lloyd Webber – what did I expect?

2. If people are going to just recycle vaguely relevant old material for the occasion, tell them to not bother. There was an act that did a song about Peter Gabriel on the basis that he was sort of named after the angel, but I sort of stopped paying attention after about 30 seconds. The evening was long enough and didn’t need this sort of filler.

3. A bit less music, a bit more sciencey stuff. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just an evening of jokes about eeeeevil Christians but was a celebration of science. It could have done with a little more.

But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. I had a great evening and look forward to what they cook up for next year.

God Trumps: Bonus Cards

The New Humanists’ God Trumps appears to be becoming a bit of a mini-phenomenon. Catholic Herald editor Damian Thompson has claimed it is Islamophobic because it pointedly refuses to make any Muslim jokes (the satirical point being made is rather lost of Mr Thompson).

Personally I found the feature quite amusing, but a couple of things irked me about it (both of which are common to a lot of what comes out of humanist stables). First of all, the anti-Catholic sentiment was a little over the top. The simple fact is, most Catholics don’t follow every word the Pope utters to the letter. Indeed, one issue that is ripe for mockery is the way Catholicism seems to accomodate that, allowing Tony Blair into the faith despite helping to start a war which the Pope opposed, and letting people off the hook as long as they confess every now and then. Follower Dedication: 9/10? You must be joking!

The second weakness is the failure to see the funny side about the Godless. Agnostics come in for a hard time, which is well and good. But in lumping secularists, atheists and humanists together into a single category, you end up with a lowest common denominator mush. Do the Godless really only have a wealth rating of 1/10? Some of the richest countries in the world have secular constitutions and secularists have control over a lot of the world’s media? Sounds pretty wealthy to me. And there is a broad spectrum of the Godless. If you are going to mock the agnostics, then why not take a few potshots at the Brights and Outs. It seems to me we need some new cards:

BRIGHTS/OUTIES
Age: founded in 2003 – 1/10
Wealth: small, but growing – 1/10
Follower Dedication: try suggesting not all religious people are eeevil to them and see how they react – 7/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, the name ‘brights’? The urge to slavishly copy evangelicals by having their own bumper stickers? Alvin the Chipmunk has a good look? – 8/10
Weapon of Choice: whining – 8/10
Easily Offended? oh yes – 10/10


QUAKERS
Age: 17th century – 4/10
Wealth: Friends’ Meeting Houses and several foundations and trusts set up by Friends’ after spending a lifetime of rotting children’s teeth – 5/10
Follower Dedication: for goodness’ sake, you can even be a Buddhist Quaker – 3/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, that people should experience the Holy Spirit for themselves and not believe in doctrine? – 3/10
Weapon of Choice: chocolate, porridge – 10/10
Easily Offended? haven’t managed to yet – 1/10


CTHULHU WORSHIP
Age: 11/10
Wealth: when you’re going to be eaten, what need for material possessions? 1/10
Follower Dedication: absolute – 10/10
Daffiest Doctrine: there’s nothing daffy about believing God lies sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and will rise up and eat us all. But in this context – 11/10
Weapon of Choice: Great Cthulhu, of course – 11/10
Easily Offended? He has a thick skin – 1/10

Bad Faith Awards: it’s like being asked to choose between my children!

How on Earth is anyone supposed to be able to pick a winner amongst this set on bozos shortlisted in the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards?

It makes you realise quite what a year it has been on the culture wars front. Personally, on reflection, I’ve gone for the governors of St Monica’s School, Prestwich for the simple reason that their decision to deny their pupils access to the cervical cancer vaccination is so transparently mysogynist and so physically harmful that it deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

But New Humanist really ought to consider using a different voting system. As it stands, the high profile nominees are leading by miles while the others simply aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. Do we really need Sarah Palin to win? The good people of the USA have already found her wanting. What does it achieve letting her win, or for that matter someone like Ann Coulter who is just begging for the publicity? And wouldn’t it be better using a system which would better establish the consensus candidate?

Frankly, they should be doing a death match (or, to be more pretentious, the Condorcet method). Fundamentally, it is a shame humanists aren’t using a system which encourages deliberation rather than simple knee-jerk reaction. That’s for the other lot.