Tag Archives: religion

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:

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

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

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.

Global Peace and Unity: only connect

On Saturday night, I was on a Northern Line train heading back to north London. At Charing Cross, a group of Asian youths got on the carriage, five girls and three boys. The girls were all wearing headscarves and trousers, but had full makeup on. The boys were manhandling the girls in a way reminiscent of, well, most horny teenage boys – and were hardly being put off.

I mention this because one of the girls – and manhandlees – was wearing a tshirt that identified her as a warden of the Global Peace and Unity Conference which I happened to be aware was taking place because of this piece on Lib Dem Voice. That debate – essentially over whether the Policy Exchange should be “privately briefing” against the conference and whether Clegg (along with several other senior politicians) was right to attend the conference – has continued raging over the last few days. David T from Harry’s Place has been wading in to criticise Clegg for attending the event, likening it to a White Supremecist rally.

It all sounds rather reminiscent of the debate over the 2003 anti-war demo. Back then I was on opposite sides with Harry. Now I am… erm…

Having looked at the Policy Exchange document (word file here, still not available via main PE website as far as I can see, cheers Alex Hilton Andy Hinton), I agree it is somewhat dodgy. Some of the biographies are tenuous at best and criticising people for selling shahadah headbands on the basis they are associated with Hamas is desperate to say the least. But for all the fluff, there are some genuinely concerning people mentioned on that list.

But you have to weigh that up against the fact that it is a genuine opportunity to engage with tens of thousands of British Muslims. This includes the teenagers I encountered on the tube on Saturday night. If they were hardline Hamas supporters, they had a funny way of showing it. Should we really write off an opportunity to connect with them, show them solidarity, because there are other people on the platform we don’t approve of? Should Clegg really have used his ten minute slot, as David T suggests, to hector the audience about the ne’er-do-wells they may or may not have listened to that day as well? What would that achieve apart from earn Clegg a few brownie points in the blogosphere?

There are no hard and fast principles Clegg should be sticking to here, only rough and messy pragmatism. If politicians are serious about engaging with the Muslim community, they have to go to them; the mountain must come to Mohammed. The potential reward? The opportunity to pull people away from the extremists.

Is it comparable to Clegg (or anyone else) attending the BNP’s annual Red, White and Blue Festival? No, because mainstream white Britons don’t attend it in any significant numbers. The Lib Dems should engage with BNP voters, but the way we do that is on the doorstep.

Back in 2003, we were told off by Harry’s Place and others for participating in the anti-war demo on the basis that it was also attended by Muslim extremists and the far left. As anyone who was there can tell you however, all those groups were drowned out into insignificance by the large numbers of ordinary members of the public. I very much hope that after this latest event and the controversy surrounding it, Clegg, Jack Straw, Dominic Grieve et al are getting together to discuss how they might collectively encourage the GPU event further into the mainstream. But start boycotting it? They’d be insane to.

US court rules God is not omnipresent

A victory for common sense:

A US judge has thrown out a case against God, ruling that because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served.

So, after thousands of years of theology, it comes down to a judge in Nebraska. If he isn’t omnipresent, that rules out pantheism and panentheism and leaves us with deism and of course atheism, which I can live with.

Will Tim Leunig be burnt at the stake in Liverpool city centre tomorrow?

For those of you who missed it this morning, here is a quote from today’s Thought for the Day by The Rt Rev. James Jones:

Tomorrow Daniel enters the Lion’s Den up here in Liverpool. The author of the report that recommends ‘ the rolling up’ of the regeneration strategies of the Northern cities is coming to the Anglican Cathedral to face the music! The Dean’s arranged for him to debate with the city’s leaders and academics. Dr Tim Leunig of the Policy Exchange is an economic historian with radical views. As well as questioning the value of regeneration schemes he proposes a shift of the population ‘encouraging significant numbers of people to move , to London and the South East’

Did I hear a groan from those grid locked in traffic within the M25 doughnut? Well, there’s some serious stuff in this paper, even though some of the conclusions will raise hackles in the south and the north. Reading the report in the light of the last two weeks certainly widens the eyes not least its appeal to market forces as a panacea for our urban problems. Whatever else is going on at the moment it’s surely about the limits of the market to guarantee the common good. And although communities need markets, they also need other interventions that secure the peace and safety of the realm. That’s what these urban initiatives are all about.

Now, I have my criticisms of Tim’s presentational style and fear that the heat generated from the introduction of his Policy Exchange pamphlet obscured the light to be found in the content. But I would baulk at misrepresenting his proposals in this way.

Fundamentally, the idea was to take all the money being spent on regeneration currently and hand it over to local authorities to spend as they see fit. This isn’t even mentioned in Jones’ caricature, for all his stoking the fire with talk about entering the lion’s den. Instead Tim is being held up as an advocate of prescribing “market forces as a panacea for our urban problems” – which is utter bilge. In what way is proposing to spend billions of pounds of regeneration budgets differently count as leaving things to market forces?

Is it too much to ask the Bishop of Liverpool to have read a pamphlet which he then denounces on the radio? Worse, not only is it insinuated that Tim has incurred the wrath of God, but he apparently is flying in the face of St Tracey of Emin (no, I didn’t realise she’d been canonised either).

In other news, a new campaign has been launched to secure the official pardons of the thousands of people who were burnt at the stake for witchcraft by populist religious bigots in the 18th century. Not that there is a connection at all, oh no.

Power, Cable?

While I think making Vince Cable Chancellor of the Exchequor would be an intriguing move, it behoves on James Graham BA(Hons) – Theology and Religious Studies – to point out that “biblical prophets” rarely end up in control of things.

Moses died before the Israelites reached Jerusalem. John the Baptist ended up on a platter. That bloke Jesus didn’t exactly get hold of the levers of power either (unless that’s how he managed to move that bloody big stone in front of his tomb). Prophets rarely profit.

Will another Tory suffer the curse of Quaequam Blog!?

I have to admit that, while I am tempted to offer Conservatives platitudes about reaping what they sow, I really am a bit uncomfortable about the allegations being made against Ray Lewis.

The fact that they are being made by an Anglican Bishop sets alarm bells going off instantly. But the fact that the woman he is alleged to have ripped off remains a personal friend and in his employ makes it even harder to swallow. There are dark mutterings about sexual misconduct, but significantly no actual allegations being made. He has answered all the questions put to him robustly and straightforwardly. It does all look rather like a bit of a smear, compounded by the standard of the Church’s own record keeping.

When you consider the number of paedophiles it lets operate under its radar, it’s amazing how they seem to think they have chapter and verse on Ray Lewis.

A caveat though: a few weeks ago I sprang to the defence of Caroline Spelman. In light of more recent developments however, I rather wish I hadn’t. So, innocent until proven guilty and all that, but I will suspend my judgement.

Throwing their bibles out of their prams

A very honest and perspicacious article by Giles Fraser in the Guardian on Monday about how organised religion has unedifyingly thrown itself out of the temple, or rather registry office. It puts new light on things like Islington’s Registra-Martyr.

It all feels too much like the parable of the prodigal son. You sometimes get the impression that the “great” religions are sorely in need of a big hug. Sadly though, any such attempts normally result in a rather sharp jab in the ribs.

But it also raises the question of why the government was so willing to go along with such blatant silliness. It is almost as if it has been tacitly accepted that organised religion owns the intellectual property of the Bible and religious paraphenalia and that we mere morals only have access to it with the bishops’ permission. There is plenty in the Bible for an atheist or humanist and even (gasp!) homosexuals to find of intellectual and moral value. Does the Church really consider us all so damned that the word of their precious book would be wasted on us? Clearly so.