Thursday, 31 December 2009

Goodbye 2009

Just a quickie. I'm going to follow up on a couple of earlier posts.

But firstly I'd like to thank you, dear reader, for your visits over the last few months. I've had a lot of fun writing, and I hope you'll continue to visit in 2010.

The Supreme Court has dismissed, by a slim five to four majority, an appeal against the ruling that the state-funded Jewish Free School in north London had breached the Race Relations Act with their admissions procedure. A case had been brought by a child who had been deemed admission on the grounds that his convert mother was not considered properly Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.

I originally covered this in Sins of the Mothers.

The judges were clear that the school has not been “racist in the popular sense of the word” and that the Race Relations Act may require amendment for such cases.

Personally, I’d rather that we didn’t contort the Race Relations Act into any kind of inconsistent ideological pretzel to appease a form of bias which, if it were less established, would leap out as obviously unpalatable. Let’s just get on with educating our young in an inclusive way.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association said:
“It puts beyond doubt the position that, even though there may be a religious motivation for doing so, discrimination against children in admissions on racial grounds is illegal under any circumstances … This is not a matter of restricting ‘religious freedom’ or otherwise: that the admissions criteria of a state-funded faith school have been found to be racially discriminatory should be enough impetus to look carefully at the criteria all faith schools use to discriminate in their admissions.”

And for those of you holding your breath for the reply from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, I’m guessing that you have a light touch of rigor-mortis by now. The church proposes that a common sleep disorder is a spiritual problem and offers “services for spiritual cleansing” which will “break any curse”. The original blog is here.

I'm guessing the secretary is off or the typewriter is broken.

A very happy New Year's Eve and 2010 to all.

J x

Thursday, 24 December 2009

My Yule (B)log

So who is thinking about the man who will bring us all a warm and happy feeling of cheer on Christmas Day? No, I don’t mean the man behind the counter at Threshers.

Santa Claus didn’t visit the baby Jesus in the manger, but you’ve probably remembered that bit. So had Reverend Paul Nedergaard, who upset the citizens of Copenhagen in 1958 by reminding them that he was a ‘pagan goblin’.

Rev. Nedergaard may not have had career prospects in diplomacy, but he was right. Santa/Father Christmas is an American/European syncrasy derived ultimately from pagan origins. He started out with a green cozzie, which gives a hint. He seems originally to have been a kind of trickster figure – the Fool, Mischief – a representation of the capricious elements of nature – appropriate, given that he appeared at the most bleak time of year.

The role of the Fool, in folkore as in a court, could be frightening and disobedient. But this danger came with wisdom and a mandate to say that which others daren’t. The Roman winter feast of Saturnalia hinted at the same reversal/conflation of diifferent social roles.

In Holland, Santa is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. He’s often played by a man with a blackened face. I can’t help but see the resemblance. What do you think?

Jacob Grimm thought that the Odin gave out a cry of “ho, ho ho” as he led the Wild Hunt across the European skies, quite often in the spring or autumn, but most often at Yule – the twelve day pagan midwinter feast. The Hunt is preceded by the sound of baying, barking and shouting. Then a rider on a horse erupts onto the scene, thundering through the air followed by a host of strange spirits. The rider is often black, sometimes headless and sometimes (especially in Germany) bears the battle-wounds that would have caused his mortal demise. Fire spurts from the mouths and noses of the phantom horses and hounds which are often only two or three legged. And sometimes, the spirits of the recently dead are seen in the infernal train.

Would you leave mince pies and beer out for such entities?

You should. In folkore, as in life, attempts to mollify the dangerous can start with prezzies. Sheaves of grain were left out for Odin’s mounts. In a tough environment, such a gesture was also a statement of faith that things will get better.

Not breathing fire, but in charge of lugging the Christmas Spirit around, Rudolph was created for the Montgomery Ward group of stores in 1939.

That has been a long-standing concern among Protestants that the non-Christian accoutrements of the festive season would undermine the Christian message of Christmas. The seventeenth century English Puritan government famously banned the pagan elements of Christmas. And when I lived in the US, there were evangelist Protestants still loudly worrying that belief in Santa would help to undermine belief in God. Well, when you finally get to that stage when you are forced to realise that an airborne being won’t grant all your wishes …

Best wishes of the season to you all.

J x

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Campaign for Libel Reform

This morning, a merry band of celebrities, journalists, lawyers, assorted press and bloggers joined representatives of of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science at the Law Society to launch the Campaign for Libel Reform

Their recent ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ has provoked a welcome response from Jack Straw who has set up a group to respond to it. He, like many in the Conservative and Lib-Dem parties, seems to now be amenable to change in English libel laws. Evan Harris MP said:
“There are reasons to be encouraged … there’s a kind of moment around the issue of free speech”. In fact, the timing is crucial.

Journalist Nick Cohen pointed out:
“Across the developed world, money is flowing out of journalism. There isn’t the money to fight libel actions. Newspapers back off all the time”

Perhaps we’re at what A. C. Grayling called a “sewerage moment”, a reference to the mid-nineteenth century ‘great stink’ when Parliament was finally forced to confront a contamination by its arrival at its own front door. As a river running with cloaca precipitated the building of a network of sewers, will super-injunctions be the midwife of fairer libel laws?

It’s not just an esoteric or academic issue. Tracey Brown of Sense About Science reminded us that libel chill in the UK affects many areas including human rights reporting, academic standards and medicinal research: as Edzard Ernst put it: “libel law has the potential to kill”. Nick Ross added: “It’s about bullying … done under a veneer of respectability and decency”.

The campaign has the public support of many, including Stephen Fry, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Jonathan Ross. I spotted Dr. Raymond Tallis, Professor Edzard Ernst, Dr. Simon Singh, Professor Chris French, Professor Richard Wiseman and Professor A. C. Grayling for the academics. Dr. Evan Harris MP, a stalwart of evidence based-policy and major supporter of libel-law reform was there too. Journalists included Roger Highfield, editor of The New Scientist and Observer regular Nick Cohen. Legal types Mark Lewis, Robert Dougans and Jack of Kent joined media folk Robin Ince, Dave Gorman, Nick Ross, Dara O Briain & Alexei Sayle.

Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out.

The ruinous cost of libel in the UK was reiterated. Simon Singh has spent eighteen months in time and £100K in money, and he’s nowhere near finished yet. Dr. Peter Wilmshurst could be ruined if he loses against NMT Medical - although he may not be much better off if he wins, as The Guardian found out when Matthias Rath took issue with an article by Ben Goldacre. They won, but are still out of pocket by £175K

Alexei Sayle, said that he’d once been sued for libel:

“… the thought that I could lose everything for damaging someone’s reputation … it would have been cheaper if I’d stabbed the fucker”

Let’s hope we’re seeing the beginning of a successful campaign. As Mark Lewis, Dr Peter Wilmshurt’s solicitor, put it:
“Libel laws were a more civilised replacement for duelling. There’s something wrong when people say “Maybe duelling wasn’t so bad after all”.”

BBC coverage

Jack of Kent

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Buy This Book

“Not since Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’ has a woman utlised a bus with such skill” said Rebecca Watson, introducing Ariane Sherine to a fully packed Skeptics in the Pub last night.

Sherine is presently doing The-Big-Book-Tour with ‘The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas’ and appears to be covering more ground than Santa in a month of Christmases, so catch her if you can. Her talk about the conception and growth of the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ is extremely funny and I, for one am always delighted by the incongruity of appalling language from such a diminutive and affable person.

The campaign famously started with no more than a whimsical thought in Sherine’s Guardian column, was picked up enthusiastically in the comments section and launched in a small kind of a way after that. The publicity wasn’t grand and the total raised wasn’t huge. It wasn’t ‘til the Telegraph headline ‘Atheists fail to cough up for London Bus Ad’ that a large herd of heathen cats were motivated to try herding and some synchronised sponsoring, all to massive effect.

“I’ll burn in hell for being gay anyway, so what’s £10”, wrote one donor.

The book is a follow-up project edited by Sherine. It has the old favourite science contributors such as Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre and an impressive bunch of media types such as Ed Byrne, Mitch Benn, Lucy Porter and David Baddiel. In total, they number forty-two, to accord with the Cabbalistic Constant from The-Good-Book (‘Hitchhikers Guide’ … surely I didn’t need to say that?) The writers’ profits are going to the Terrence Higgins Trust to somewhat counterbalance that the Pope thinks condoms cause AIDS.

Sherine (and her partner in crime, Richard Dawkins) is presently involved with another campaign, the BHA’s ‘Don’t Label Me’. There was a tiny hitchlet in that the child models (above) turned out to be from an evangelical family, but hey ho. In all, the message seems to have reached many people who didn’t realise that atheism could be so positive. At the very least, as Alexander Armstrong said:
“Being told that god doesn’t exist may make a chap think twice before blowing himself up on the top deck”.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Westminster Skeptics: Christmas Drinks

Just a quickie this time. Enjoyed myself very much at the Skeptics Westminster Christmas drinks last night. The place was stuffed full with bloggers, writers, nerds, political activists and campaigners - great company all.

There was a good atheist turnout despite the Biblical weather conditions. Here are a few pics for those of you who couldn't make it.

Ariane Sherine & Simon Singh

Dr. Ben Goldacre, Dr Evan Harris MP and Tracey Brown of Sense About Science

And remember that Ariane Sherine will be visiting London Skeptics in the Pub at Penderel's Oak on the 7th. See you there!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

‘Raped by Demons’ or ‘The Haunted Cheese Sandwich’

I’ve read my latest free copy of ‘City News’ – have you? It’s a fab free publication by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an international Pentacostal organisation of Brazilian origin.

Reading about other people’s problems to alleviate desperation at your own may not be the most morally sound pastime, but it’s a human constant. My eye was caught by this one:

"This may sound bizarre and unbelievable, but since a long-term relationship break up I have been getting feelings of something having sex with me. I can fell myself being pushed down and this thing on top of me ..."

The reply is as follows:

"I certainly do believe you and trust me when I say that you are not the only one that is going through this problem. Surprisingly, it’s quite common but people are often embarrassed to seek help for it and often, if they do seek help, they do so in the wrong places. The good news is that we have helped thousands of people overcome this problem. As it is a spiritual problem and not a physical one, it must be fought using spiritual weapons. I would like to invite you to participate in our Friday services for spiritual cleansing. You will receive strong prayers against all negativity and to break any curse. A pastor will be able to give you advice on what else you will need to be totally free from these attacks."

I first saw an article of this type by the UCKG in ‘City News’ Nov/Dec 2000:

“Some examples of Spiritual Attacks which include persistent dreams, sexual attacks, the feeling of being choked in dreams and the paralysing attack where one feels as if an overwhelming force comes over him and takes control of his whole body, except his mind. He can see what’s happening around him, but has no strength to react”

The Church again recommended attendance at its ‘Deliverance Services’.

Digging through history, it isn’t hard to find other examples of this phenomenon. Here are a few more:

“I sleep – for a while – two or three hours – then a dream – no – a nightmare seizes me in its grip, I know full well that I am lying down and that I am asleep... I sense it and I know it... and I am also aware that somebody is coming up to me, looking at me, running his fingers over me, climbing on to my bed, kneeling on my chest, taking me by the throat and squeezing... squeezing... with all its might, trying to strangle me. I struggle, but I am tied down by that dreadful feeling of helplessness which paralyzes us in our dreams. I want to cry out – but I can’t. I want to move – I can’t do it. I try, making terrible, strenuous efforts, gasping for breath, to turn on my side, to throw off this creature who is crushing me and choking me – but I can’t! Then, suddenly, I wake up, panic-stricken, covered in sweat. I light a candle. I am alone.”
Guy de Maupassant
'Le Horla' (1887)

“... a difficult respiration, a violent oppression on the breast, and a total privation of bodily motion ... In this agony they sigh, groan, utter indistinct sounds, and remain in the jaws of death, till, by the utmost efforts of nature, or some external assistance, they escape out of that dreadful, torpid state. As soon as they shake off that vast oppression, and are able to move the body, they are affected with strong Palpitation, great Anxiety, Langour, and Uneasiness”.
J Bond
‘An Essay on the Incubus, or Nightmare’ (1753)

“persons suffering an attack suffer an incapability of motion, a torpid sensation in their sleep, a sense of suffocation and oppression, as if from one pressing them down, with inability to cry out, or they utter inarticulate sounds. Some imagine often that they even hear the person who is going to press them down, that he offers lustful violence to them but flies when they attempt to grasp him with their fingers”
Paulus Aegineta
Physic in Roman Alexandria

“ … one passion is almost never absent – that of utter and incomprehensible dread … In every instance, there is a sense of oppression and helplessness … he [the victim – J] can hardly drag one limb after another … his blows are utterly ineffective”
R Macnish
'The Philosophy of Sleep' (1834)

“You are dreaming and you feel as if someone is holding you down. You can do nothing only cry out. People believe that you will die if you are not wakened” and “I remember waking up flat on my back. Paralyzed … Terrified beyond anything I’d ever experienced before … Sensation of pressure on my chest. The terror! The terror was both from being paralyzed and I knew there was something else in the room.”
Quoted by David Hufford
‘The Terror That Comes In The Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assaults’ (1982)

Even Jonathan Harker, seeing Dracula advance upon him says: “ … I would have screamed out, only that I was paralysed”.

And here’s a well-known pic by Henry Fuseli.

At this point, I should declare my competing interests: I get attacked by demons too. Or ‘sleep paralysis’, as we call it in the real world. It’s not that unusual, and there’s really no evidence that it’s caused by demons.

David Hufford (cited above), listed what he felt were the primary features of the experience, which were an impression of wakefulness coupled with immobility and a feeling of fear. In addition, he noted that a person’s actual setting was correctly perceived in contrast to a dream state where their surroundings could be distorted or false.

Common secondary features included the sleeping position – 90 percent of Hufford’s sample were supine. Pretty much every writer on the subject, to my knowledge, has also noted this aspect. He even found some evidence that a disproportionate number of attacks are suffered by people in traction, or people who were doing systematic relaxation training such as yoga.

Other secondary features include a feeling of pressure on the chest and a sensation of threatening intent or evil nature from a supernatural being. Sounds are also often heard, such as the sound of door or ‘footsteps’ – ‘whooshing’ or ‘shuffling’ noises.

Only slightly less frequent was the sensation that the victim would die: “The dread of suffocation, arising from the inability of inflating the lungs, is so great, that the person … generally imagines that he has very narrowly escaped death” Waller wrote in his “A Treatise on the Incubus, or Nightmare” of 1816. In some rare cases, victims reported an odour. There is also often a sexual element.

It’s easy to understand why people have historically regarded it as a supernatural affliction. “If you didn’t have the notion of ‘evil’, you’d have to invent after an encounter like that”, as one audience member put it at a lecture by Chris French on sleep paralysis at Goldsmiths on November 10th this year.

But more mundane causes have been sought since the time of Galen, who thought the affliction due to gastric disturbance – hence the old advice about not eating cheese before bed-time. It appeared as an explanation of nightmare as recently as 1902 in The Chambers Encyclopedia. The theory underwent a minor change at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was wondered if it was the circulation rather than the digestion which was so critically afflicted by sleeping supine, which in turn caused nightmares. Kant had even formulated the idea that nightmare (the word used in its traditional sense) was a beneficial process which alerted a sufferer to the circulatory distress of his heart.

King James in his Daemonologie of 1597 ascribed them to a “naturall sicknesse … a thicke fleume [phlegm – J], falling upon our breast into the heart, while we are sleeping” while others thought it nothing more than too deep a sleep. Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones attributed nightmares down to mental conflict over repressed sexual desires.

In the modern age EEG technology has helped us to understand the different stages of sleep. Sleep paralysis, described broadly, is when your waking and sleeping functions mistime and collide: there is the normal paralysis of a sleeping body in the REM state (or you’d act your dreams out) but a conscious, rather than dreaming, mind; there is the depressed breathing rate of a sleeping body but panic at what may seem to be insufficient breath; there is the correct perception of your environment, but accompanied by dream phenomena such as dream hallucinations.

Sleep paralysis has been a major contributor to the folklore of fear. One day, when I’ve finished my book, you can read about Maras, Hags, Cauchemars, Civatateos and their kin (which probably includes aliens).

Meanwhile, if you have any weird experiences and can’t afford the bus fare to your local UCKG, take comfort from the fact that the attacks are a well-known, well-described phenomenon, are usually sporadic and will probably just go away. The following precautions are sensible, and probably all you’ll ever need:
  • Don’t sleep on your back – sew a cotton reel to the back of your pyjamas, nightdress or leather gimp suit. Folk tales and historical accounts overwhelmingly place the victim on their back when a position is mentioned
  • Try to sleep regular hours and not to get over-tired. Since sleep paralysis is associated with REM sleep colliding with wakefulness, it is more likely to occur when a person goes quickly into deep sleep - when they are exhausted
  • Don’t nap during the day while you’re going through a phase of SP. Although the majority of Hufford’s reported attacks took take place at night, the number during daytime naps was disproportionately large considering the fraction of total sleep hours they represented
  • Ask your sleeping partner to listen for laboured breathing
  • Try gently and calmly to move. Start by moving your eyeballs; they’re not paralysed during sleep. As soon as a person recovers their ability to move, the attack ends
  • Dr. Michael Persinger has worked on the possibility of a link between strong magnetic fields and certain types of brain activity. Try moving objects which produce strong magnetic fields, such as clock-radios, to a distance while you sleep
  • When the hideous hag/demon/alien/Cadbury’s Smash Robot (go on, laugh at my pain!) advances on you, to your best to feel love and acceptance. Sounds weird. It works. They turn into bunnies, kittens … lovely things. The fear is self-begetting and counter-productive
... which is why is bothers me profoundly that people who offer an intervention, do so by encouraging a belief in demons.

The UCKG’s publication is clear in several respects:

“it is a spiritual problem and not a physical one, it must be fought using spiritual weapons”, and the most appropriate service is for “spiritual cleansing” which can “break any curse”.

Although there is a disclaimer in tiny print on the back page that the spiritual advice is “a compliment to scientifically proven treatment you may be receiving”, it neglects to mention that more mundane explanations and interventions for sleep paralysis exist at all.

Perhaps they don’t know.

Well, they will by next week – I’ve written to them. I’ll keep you posted.

Hag created by Cesar Alonso
Demon from

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Westminster Skeptics in the Pub: Evidence-Based Policy or Policy-Based Evidence?

Professor David Nutt, Dr. Evan Harris MP, & Dr. Ben Goldacre
at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub

“This talk has been approved by the Home Office and so may be damaging to your health” started Professor David Nutt last night at a crowded Skeptics Westminster. For such a serious subject, the evening produced a lot of laughs with the Professor, his fellow guest Dr. Evan Harris MP and visitor Dr. Ben Goldacre.

Professor Nutt started by restating the basics of the area: there are different legal classes of drugs (medical etc) and whether their use was restricted. And that the original intent of restricting drug use was to reduce harm by having a system of relative based harm and appropriate penalties.

He spoke specifically about ecstasy and cannabis, reminding us that neither of them was harmless, but that we needed an empirical approach to measure precisely what harm they caused. Both substances seem to be good case studies of how political fervour can trump empirical evidence. Queen Victoria used cannabis for pain during childbirth, and “MDMA only got banned when people started having fun with it”.

Government implementation of drugs policy has changed significantly over the years. In what many people regard as an ideologically driven era, even the Thatcher government of the 80s was in fact more evidence based in this area: it implemented needle programs, for example.

In fact, prior to the issue of cannabis being reclassified, the advice of the ACMD had only been rejected once since 1971. But in modern times, we appear to have other motivators for policy. Two seemed particularly important.

The first is the undoubted power of the tabloid press.

The second is the attitude of the police, which appears to have changed since the ‘90s when they seemed interested in downgrading MDMA (E) and cannabis because of a lack of public disorder consequences. This has changed and it’s not entirely clear why.

In fact, there are other (than health) serious consequences to using drugs, and getting a criminal record is prime among them. Professor Nutt cited an Australian program where cannabis was decriminalised: it apparently improved users’ relationships with the police, made them more able to seek help for substance dependency and (perhaps most importantly of all) improved users’ employment prospects.

Dr. Evan Harris MP started his presentation deeply abashed:
“I never smoked pot. It’s embarrassing … I was never offered it. It wasn’t big in my chess club”

So clearly inexperienced, but with nerd credentials intact (chess?!), Dr Harris continued by describing himself as a “yappy dog around the ankles of, usually, health secretaries”. His forays into evidence-based health policy had started with questioning the two-week referral time for a possible cancer (apparently, the money spent this way doesn’t produce the best outcomes). Since then he has tackled emotive, polarising and tabloid-friendly subjects, such as drug-induced early-stage abortion and prostitution.

With prostitution, for example, the ‘demand for prostitution’ offence in which police target potential clients has been cited as a concern in the NHS (I’m afraid I didn’t catch the specific citation). There is good reason to suspect that legal measures which alienate the women and their profession further will increase their vulnerability.

Dr. Harris freely admits that governments have many, and often good, reasons for certain policies, ideology, public opinion and financial considerations among them. But when these are the real motivations, a government must admit to that, rather than attempting to dictate or discard scientific advice & evidence. Although there are notable exceptions (he cited Dr. Lynne Jones MP, Paul Flynn MP and Charles Clarke MP), he feels that this government doesn’t really understand evidence based policy: do they think a peer review is “A Baroness casting an eye across something”?

His reports of conversations with members of the government sounded frustratingly meandering and circular. And he was clearly appalled at the timing of Professor Nutt’s famous rebuke from Jacqui Smith, the then Home Secretary, which coincided with her expenses scandal. Anybody trying to knock herself off the front pages, by any chance?

As a member of the Science and Technology committee, it is to be hoped that Dr. Harris can help to make a change. Next week, a set of principles for the treatment of independent scientific advice will go to Lord Drayson for his consideration. See Sense About Science for more.

The evening was fascinating and funny: did you know that you are statistically more likely to suffer a reaction to peanuts than to MDMA? We were all tickled by the complaints of a Dutch cannabis researcher in the audience who complained bitterly that her subjects had scoffed all her biscuits. And Professor Nutt dispelled some of the softer attitudes to heroin use by reminding us that it is a potent respiratory depressor which causes many inadvertant deaths.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects was the role that the media, especially the tabloids have to play. Both speakers managed to convey a sense of how the government is driven by fear of the tabloids and it is, to a certain extent, understandable. Newspapers clearly have an idea of what they regard as a sexy subject, there being a massive weighting of fatality reports toward the narcotic ‘bete du jour’*.

One the other hand, surveys reveal that the public are often considerably more liberal than those ministers running scared of newspapers. So who buys the news and votes as they’re told? “Who is the constituency for stupid drug laws?”, as one audience member asked.

We were all stumped.

I think that last night’s proceedings managed principally to convey that science mangled to provide a justification for policy dishonours both government and science. As Evan Harris always says to Anne Widdecombe about sex education:

“Never more ignorance”

See also Revolutions & Drugs Policy

And Dave Cole at WSitP

* Alasdair J. M Forsyth ‘A Qualitative Exploration of Drug Fatality Reports in the Popular Press’

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Sins of the Mothers

In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Lancelot tells the Jewish convert to Christianity, Jessica, that there is no mercy for her in heaven as she is the daughter of two Jews. Her only hope is that her mother got her with another man. In Lancelot's worldview, Jessica’s actions in life clearly cannot eradicate her ancestry on one hand, nor her mother’s adultery on the other. She says:

“That were a kind of bastard hope indeed, so the sins of my mother should be visited upon me”

In June this year, the Court of Appeal found that the Jewish Free School in Brent had discriminated against a child on racial grounds. The school has an excellent Ofsted ranking, is constantly oversubscribed and is able, under the present rules, to pick and choose its pupils when there is a surplus of candidates. At the JFS, there always is.

The issue with ‘child M’ is that his father was born Jewish, but his mother is a convert. The Office of the Chief Rabbi does not recognise her conversion as valid, since the ritual was performed under Progressive, rather than Orthodox, auspices. Child M is an observant Jew, as are the members of his immediate family.

So it’s not the practice - it’s the paperwork.

Lord Pannick QC, for the school, which operates under Orthodox rules, argued that the discrimination was not ethnic: “… a faith school is entitled to adopt an oversubcription policy that gives priority to those children who are members of the religious faith as defined by the religious authority of the faith.” And the ‘religious authority of the faith’ here clearly likes to maintain a good degree of control over the validity of conversion rites.

I think this tortured issue is difficult, and even distasteful, to a modern, liberal mind for a few reasons. They revolve around the issue of identity in a modern context.

Firstly, there is the ethnic element – and there undoubtedly is one. Dinah Rose QC, representing child M, has pointed out that the JFS would accept a child of ethnically Jewish atheists but exclude others with non-Jewish mothers even when they were “Jewish by belief and practice”. And it occurs to me that as the OCR normally holds Jewishness to be matrilineal, this problem would presumably not arise with an ‘improperly’ converted father; his ethnicity would be irrelevant in relation to his child’s religious identity. So there are gender equality issues too.

Secondly, I think it jars with the modern trend to individuality, the permission to ‘self-declare’. We would resist being told which football team to support, which way to vote and which clothes to wear. We create our identities by our choices and we expect to be able to choose our religion: “Jesus is my saviour”, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”; it’s unusual, in a modern context, to be excluded from a group after that.

There is an historical tradition of religions as guilds – protected organisations where you were ‘admitted’ rather than where you ‘joined’. Initiation into the Mithraic Mysteries was influenced by your class and profession (and certainly by your gender). Entering a medieval religious house was also encumbered, as you usually needed to bring money with you. Perhaps it’s a sign of demand that a group can afford to be so picky. It isn't a particularly modern model.

Thirdly, there is a modern sense that as an individual, you should pay the price of your own mistakes and benefit from the bounty of your own successes. We aren’t supposed to inherit sins or privilege. Horace’s "For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer" is often sadly true - babies are born with defects from alcoholic mothers, for example. But in a modern context it’s an sometimes admission of regrettable causality, not a mission statement.

For example, there is a class of indentured labourers in modern Pakistan called the haari who have been likened, even by organisations as august as the UN, to slaves. They are landless peasants with debts to pay before they gain their liberty, but these debts are not self-incurred. When a child of a few months has a debt that will take years to pay off, we have a sense that he is a different case than a man who has just blown the equity on his house in a poker game.

The Appeal Court in June appears to have judged that the tradition matrilineal test of Jewishness was by definition discriminatory: whether “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist” this “makes it no less and no more unlawful.” “The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act”.

It pointed out that: “If for theological reasons a fully subscribed Christian faith school refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practising Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin, it is hard to see what answer there could be to a claim for race discrimination.”

The issue has certainly created a great deal of discussion within the Jewish community and there are probably significant splits of opinion between different groups, not least between the liberal and orthodox.

The school went to the Supreme Court to ‘appeal against the appeal’* at the end of last month. We await the final outcome.

But for me, the point of the matter is that in our own times, we expect a person to be defined by their practice rather than their provenance. It seems that the fact of this court action has achieved this in some measure, as the JFS’s new admissions policy gives weight to charitable works and attending the synagogue.

Personally, I support the BHA’s call to phase out religious schools “unless they too can be persuaded to become inclusive and accommodating institutions”. Where tax-payers' money is involved, it seems only fair.

(Jack of Kent – if there’s a proper term for this, do let me know!)

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Revolutions & Drugs Policy

The idea that the sun revolves around the earth went unquestioned for along time, supported, as it was, by an unassailable authority - scripture. The relevant passages (King James) are:

“the world is stablished, that it cannot be moved”
psalm 93:1
“the world shall be established that it shall not be moved”
psalm 96:10
the Lord … “who laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed for ever”
psalm 104:5
“the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved”
1 Chronicles 16:30

Heliocentrism – the new idea that the earth revolves around the sun – was probably considered in Classical times, but the credit for its reintroduction in the early modern era goes to a German/Polish cleric and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. Although he had worked on his theories & calculations for around thirty years, his ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’) was only widely published in 1543, shortly before his death.

The book attra
cted a little controversy: not much and not immediately. In fact, it was dedicated to Pope Paul III. It was another sixtyish years before the book was ‘suspended’ in 1616.

So who threw the frog among the gherkins? One of Copernicus’ champions, an astronomer and philosopher named Galileo, was instructed by the Inquisition not to
hold or broadcast his heliocentric ideas, a request with which he initially complied. When finally invited to publish and comparison between the two models, his work became grounds for his trial for heresy in 1633. He was found guilty and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Which leaves us with a conundrum: why did it take so long for the Church to get its hair-underwear so contorted in its pious crevices? If the issue really was heresy, surely this would have been clear immediately, and actionable upon first appearance?

Galileo’s personality has been cited as a factor, and it’s a valid point. He had explicitly been invited to publish a comparison of the two celestial models, but seems to have made his own viewpoint clear in rather insulting terms. Perhaps he was attempting to trade on his good relationship with Pope Urban VIII, a bond which dissolved under such provocation. Or perhaps he was just a passive-aggressive pillock with autistic-spectrum levels of social intuition.

But I think there may be another factor – timing.

The idea of heliocentrism took a while to gather both a momentum and a backlash. This period co-incided roughly with the Counter-Reformation (reckoned to have started with the Council of Trent: started 1545) and the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). During this vulnerable period, the Catholic Church protected its magisterium even more vigorously than before. An edifice on the back foot was engaged upon a propaganda war.

It took ‘til 1835 for Copernicus’ and Galileo’s books to be dropped from the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. The episode is seen today as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge. The ‘wisdom’ came before the evidence; the cart was put before the horse.

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has sacked Professor David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In July, Professor Nutt gave a lecture on the assessment of drug harms. This included a drug-harm scale with nine parameters which are:
  • Physical harm (acute, chronic and intravenous)
  • Dependency (intensity of pleasure, psychological dependence, physical dependence)
  • Social harms (intoxication, other social harms and health-care costs).
In this lecture, the Home Secretary claimed, Professor Nutt had crossed the line from science to policy.

But since the contents of Professor Nutt’s lecture could probably have been anticipated since 2007 when his ‘Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harms of Drugs of Potential Misuse’ was published in the Lancet, the Home Secretary’s outrage now is harder to understand.

The controversial aspects of Professor Nutt’s approach seem to be:
  • The inclusion of legal drugs, specifically alcohol and nicotine/smoking, with the illegal ones in the scale. Indeed, the placing of alcohol and smoking shows them to be more potent dangers than their availability would suggest.
  • Disagreeing with the reclassification of cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug
  • Applying statistical comparisons to drug use which illustrates their danger in comparison to other leisure activities. Jacqui Smith was famously upset that he compared horse-riding and ecstasy use.
Alan Johnson has defended his action, saying: “He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”.

But on what is that policy based if not evidence?

Especially when the sole justification for restriction of certain substances is that they cause harm.

Professor Nutt’s sacking has been followed by the resignation of other highly-qualified scientific advisors on the ACMD. Not surprising really: if your academic integrity (therefore reputation and career) must be sacrificed to tow the governmental line, then there will be fewer capable and qualified experts on the payroll.

It’s all the more of a paradox that Professor Nutt has been fired by a government which legislated to allow 24 hour drinking hours. The view of the ACMD’s former chair on alcohol use in general? ‘I believe that dealing with the harms of alcohol is probably the biggest challenge that we have in relation to drug harms today’.

But then the present government changed the licensing laws several years ago in a very different political climate. It is now an edifice on the back foot, engaged upon a propaganda war. Perhaps in the future, we’ll regard Professor Nutt’s dismissal as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge, to put the ‘wisdom’ before the evidence, the cart before the horse.

That’s the marvellous thing about history - it’s all about the present.

Jourdemayne would like to thank one of her familiars for the inspiration for this blog.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Ladders, Webs & Death as Recreation

A primate with severely attenuated ethical capacity,
and an olive baboon, Papio anubis

If a species being non-endangered was sufficient criterion to make it a fair candidate for random slaughter then, let’s face it, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ fans could be in the cross hairs. I have nothing at all against them – I know several nice ones – but you have to admit they’re ubiquitous.

Olive baboons are common in Tanzania, and not at all endangered. So by the ‘Strictly’ model, they’re absolutely fair game for a good blasting. At least A. A. Gill thought so. The reconstructed approach to safari is to take pictures and leave footprints. Many thousands travel to Africa each year, restrict themselves to the photographic approach and yet don’t feel they’ve wasted their airfare.

But A.A. found himself overcome by testosterone in “a truck full of guns and other blokes in hats”. Apparently, you can’t be in this environment long before you get the urge to “do baboon”. So he selected his candidate, raised his rifle, then “a soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out…. Not a bad shot”.

“I know perfectly well there is absolutely no excuse for this” reflected A.A. “Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard. The feeble argument of culling and control is much the same as for foxes: a veil for naughty fun.”

Tee hee.

If any killjoy is worried that there is some unsound psychology behind this, be assured that he only did it to "... get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger".

And in other naughty fun this week, Sandy the Jack Russell puppy (left) had her head fatally flattened in one stamp while wagging her tail at three hoodies in a park in Cambridgeshire.

Sandy wasn’t edible either.

Although I understand that you can only spend so much time in such an environment before it’s inevitable that you’ll get the urge to “do puppy”.

Her horrified owner witnessed the attack and tried to resuscitate Sandy. She is a teenager who had been given a pet to help with her ADHD.

I do hope they find these three young men, since they and A.A. should be Facebook friends. Modern social networks are so strongly characterised by common interests and pursuits.

Recreational deadly assault of sentient mammals must be up there with Salsa dancing and book clubs?

I think there are two issues here: firstly, there is 'moving towards' element, the enjoyment or satisfaction in the act; secondly, there is the 'moving away from' element, a moral impediment sufficient to overcome that enjoyment or satisfaction. A.A. Gill and the puppy stamper experienced a surfeit of the former, and a shortage of the latter in order to perform the actions they did.

Having no idea what would possess anyone to partake of the first (except, perhaps, an inappropriate tumescence at the domination of a creature less well armed than oneself) I'll stick to musings on the second.

I used the word 'sentient' earlier. My Collins dictionary defines it as:

"having the power of sense perception or sensation; conscious"

The term has historically been jealously guarded for human beings. We are the only animals who can self report, after all. (Cogito ergo Sum/I think, therefore I am) The dualistic notion of bodies and souls as separate, necessary for Christian theology and influentially formalised by Descartes, left animals as just bodies since only we have souls. Hence, animal expressions of pain were regarded as a kind of biological clockwork, a mechanistic performance that did not reflect real suffering the way that human being would understand it. This was believed to the degree that live vivisections on unanaesthetised animals were acceptable and not uncommon.

Another concept maintained by a Christian worldview was the Scala Naturae. It means ‘natural ladder’ but we usually know it in English as ‘The Great Chain of Being’. It is a cosmic hierarchy which accommodates every being and object, from God at the top to dirt at the bottom.

Sub-divisions are made on the basis of factors such as spirit/matter. For example, angels (all spirit) are higher than human beings (half matter/half spirit) which are higher than animals (all matter).

Examining other sub-divisions, it’s clear that it’s a highly anthropocentric schema. Animals are split according to the nobility and independence (lions are above goats), insects are split according to their usefulness and niceness (bees are above flies) and earth is split according to its quality (fertile soil is above scrub and sand). Social rungs naturally accommodate kings above peasants.

The Scala Naturae has been used to regard animals lower down the chain as facilities, ‘given’ to us to use for our own ends.

With the growth of science and empiricism, notions like ‘sentience’ and 'consciousness' have become more complicated. We have new conceptual and technological tools to work with. When we consider the ability to conceptualise and deduce, to have an inner life, to plan, to think in abstract terms and to experience things like pain and pleasure, we no longer automatically exclude all animals. We sometimes now look to them as fellow travellers; different, but fellow travellers nonetheless.

The rejection of dualism and the Scala Naturae is a triumph of the Enlightenment legacy. It is a way in which science, and particularly Darwinism, has made us better. We no longer sit majestically astride a conceptual dungheap, shitting on those beneath us. We have a place in a web and have to be careful not to tug our thread so hard that we pull a vital strand loose.

Can someone please tell A.A. Gill?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

It's Question Time

Regular readers will know that I spent a few years in the US. It was the late 80s/early 90s and we had no new media, no internet, no Twitter, and there was still a significant cultural gap between the two countries. Seems strange to say, especially when I could go out and speak my own native tongue and be relatively well understood, but the culture shock was hard.

I didn’t know how to buy milk that tasted OK (the fat levels were very different) and I had never before conceived of the need for a whole shop with one hundred different types of pasta (I bought the mushroom flavour and decided it was a winner). I couldn’t find a clothes shop without satin and shoulder pads (although, to be fair, I was trawling through an Italian area in the late 80s) and the TV was nigh-on un-watchable.

Since I pulled off I 95 at Raleigh, North Carolina, the old broomstick never did make it to Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union. Or Alabama, or Kentucky. Which was a shame, because a visit to those states (among many others) would have supplied another culture-shock experience, an anthropological curiosity that I had never encountered in the UK.

‘White trash’ is an American pejorative term which applies to under-educated, under-employed, low social status Caucasians. They exist on the economic margins of society. They don’t share the Puritan, middle-class values of deferred gratification, education and the value of work for its own sake. If the only work available is minimum wage and there’s no way up, why bother? Such a class is maintained on welfare or the lowest-paid work possible. They are socially gauche and a sometimes a cruel source of humour for those higher-up the social and economic ladder.

I, like 7,999,999 other people, watched Nick Griffin on Question Time on Thursday night. The next day’s news stories suggested that Griffin had done badly: he “gave a twitchy performance and described homosexuals as "creepy"” (The Independent*) and he “gave a shaky and erratic performance” (Daily Mail). He was a “smug bigot” (The Sun) and he “left with his tail between his legs” (Kevin Maguire, The Mirror). The racist was routed.

This was not, I have to say, my impression.

Instead, I felt that the program’s whole format had been altered to enable two thirds of its running length to be devoted to direct attacks upon Griffin. And he was bullied directly by David Dimbleby – the putative moderator who drove home points of his own instead of pushing for answers to others’ questions. I suppose the BBC had a delicate line to tread. Having been criticised so heavily for even allowing Griffin a platform, there must have been terrific pressure to make sure he didn’t look good.

It’s no shock to point out that the educated and liberal speak largely to themselves, and in addition, this in particular is an emotive subject where all seek to be conspicuously politically correct. But I thought yesterday that this tendency may actually work in the BNP’s favour … and today, a YouGov poll reveals that twenty percent of people would now consider voting for the BNP.

We were all patting ourselves on the back prematurely. Shouting Griffin down has made him a more sympathetic figure to his constituency. I agree that he made several appalling comments, but he still wasn’t allowed sufficient rope hang himself.

There have been massive changes in the UK in my lifetime. One of them has been the creation of our very own ‘white trash’ underclass – a whole raft of people whom we’re happy to keep chronically unemployed. In the last ten years, they have been squeezed in two critical directions by the appearance of masses of imported unskilled labour, mostly from new EU countries. Housing has been squeezed and the chances of getting an unskilled job for a reasonable wage have gone down. There is now a great deal of competition for both. The benefits system is structured in a way that makes it very difficult to aspire. The abandonment of the 10p tax band was a disaster. Complaints about cheap eastern European labour have been roughly shoved aside as racism. It was necessarily a black Englishman who asked Jack Straw “Have Labour’s immigration policies contributed to increased support of the BNP?”

If you didn’t manage your GCSE in English you may not be as articulate as we’d like for the telly. And as for the rest of us, we who got our qualifications, spell reasonably well and broadcast to each other, we have words like ‘chav’ to make you seem like an inconsequential charicature. In short, the unskilled working classes of this country have been treated with contempt … and now they’re listening to Nick Griffin.

Nick Griffin is odious but he’s not stupid. I’m no expert political commentator, but study of the supernatural leads you read a lot about scapegoating. I believe it to be one of the most fundamental mechanisms of human social behaviour. It’s the search for “… an original cause which (can) be rectified”, “a pertinent cause on the plane of social relationships” as the pioneering anthropologist Evans-Pritchard described it. It’s a potently satisfying relief mechanism and a strong bonding experience for individuals within a group.

Jews in medieval Europe were accused of sacrificing children in blood rites (for example, William of Norwich and Hugh of Lincoln). People have even dug up corpses in order to perform ceremonies intended to halt the plague (email me if you want to read about Pitton de Tournefort’s encounter with the Vampire of Mykonos). Nigeria’s social ills are manifesting as child abuse in the name of witch-hunting. And people have, from time to time, looked askance at their black and brown neighbours. It’s a lot more natural (and significantly easier) than seeking a complex reason for your pain.

My maternal grandmother was hard-up throughout her whole life. She was an economic migrant to London from Newcastle in the 1930s. She wasn’t daft, neither were her seven surviving siblings, but having left school at fourteen, her prospects were poor. She was a career cleaner, in factories and middle-class households. However, she always managed to work (as did her husband) she managed to send two children off to professional training (my mother was nurse, my uncle was an engineer) and she also managed to buy a small flat. Actually buy a flat! Something that many graduate couples can’t do today.

The fact is that nice middle-class people should have been paying more for cleaners, shop workers, nannies and gardeners over the last ten years. There was home-grown labour of all colours, but we wanted it even cheaper. Middle-class jobs and wages haven’t been undermined, theirs have. As a result, a massive group of people have been excluded from our upwardly-mobile society.

Today The Times proposes that ‘History shows that BNP will follow Mosley’s Fascists down the drain’. However, I believe that the Mosley’s demise is not as relevant an example as The Times would like to think. The thing that did for Mosley was not the activists at Cable Street (my paternal grandfather among them), nor an unswervingly fair British moral temperament. It was the war with Hitler.

I don’t think that Griffin’s supporters will ever be in a majority or ever form a government. But you don’t have to be that large to be that troublesome. I was a teenager living in Southall during the riots of 1979. Blair Peach was murdered a little way down the road. I remember all the shops boarded up and an eerie silence at four in the afternoon, prior to expected troubles. No cars, no people, no dogs even. Then we locked ourselves in the house and hoped it wouldn’t get too close to us. To a fourteen year old, it was terrifying.

I’d prefer to never see that again. But I think we may. We have a looming recession, a chronically unemployed class and a man who is happy to tell them that they’re disenfranchised partly because of their black and Asian neighbours. And the best chance anybody had to publicly expose the basic flaws in his thinking was lost in a smug onslaught of preaching to the choir.

* I don’t actually remember that wording – I thought he described seeing two men kiss as ‘creepy’, but I’m quoting.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Jan Moir

It takes a real talent to write entertainingly about things that piss you off, to be articulate and funny without being nasty. Cattiness reduces all the potential observation and irony to the bitterness nursed by an inadequate personality.

Jeremy Clarkson has it. If I met him I’d probably disagree with every other thing he says, including “please pass the sugar”, but he’s a good and funny writer. So does Charlie Brooker, a man with more bottled bile than a Traditional Chinese Medicine Shop.

I’ve just read my first Jan Moir column, and she really doesn’t. She’s received a lot of attention this week for her comments about Stephen Gately’s death in which she observed that our idols sometimes “live a life that is shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice”. Gately’s death also apparently strikes another blow to the “happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships”.

The internet (including the comments section on her own ‘Daily Mail’ page) is awash with people who expressing their outrage at her tramping her size nines inappropriately through a family’s grief at a tragic and natural death, so I don’t need to add to that.

But I did take the time to read the rest of her column. As I result, I’m proposing the theory that she may not be specifically homophobic, but just an equal-opportunities shrew.

The two other pieces this week were both about women. The first target was Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who wore the kind of dress that your Mum used to make you put a nice warm coat over:
“Tara, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you are too old for that look” says Jan, “In fact, everyone is too old for that look, unless you happen to be Timmy the Tranny, the hat-check personage down at the My-Oh-My supper club in Brighton”.

And the second piece is entitled ‘I'm in the mood for spanx pants’ in which she told us that the Nolan comeback tour was a “giant triumph of spirit over depleted oestrogen”. The Nolans’ costumes had “a white panel down the front which gave the illusion of the girls being nipped in at the waist. Or, in some cases, of actually having a waist.”

Didn’t we used to just call those kinds of comments bitchy?

Since Jan Moir has such strong ideas about how women should look, I thought I’d furnish you with a photo. Next to Tara Palmer Tomkinson. People in glass houses shouldn’t eat so many bacon butties.

PS If you want to register a protest about the Stephen Gately article, there's a Facebook page here.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Westminster Skeptics & Simon Singh's Appeal

Hurrah, the inaugural meeting of Westminster Skeptics. By my count, a very near-capacity crowd of a hundred or so gathered at the Barley Mow to hear David Allen Green, Nick Cohen, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh discuss English libel law. And we weren't the only people interested - Newsnight turned up too. We're at 37:33.

The Trafigura case and The Guardian's challenge to a reporting ban on Parliamentary questions has helped to make libel law a higher-profile issue than it would already have been. As David Allen Green reminded us in his opening:
"This is not about protecting Simon Singh, it's about protecting the public who are missing out on news reporting".

Nick Cohen followed and spoke of his impression after his first meeting with Skeptics at Penderel's Oak earlier in the year by saying "I was staggered by the sight of geeks in arms".

Cohen's passion about and knowledge of politcal campaigning is clear and he reminded us that change is actually acheivable. In what sometimes seems to me to be an era of very limp political fervour, he said it was naive, lazy and apathetic to think that there could be no change. The right to vote, rights for women - all of these were at one point ideas which were fought for and finally acheived.

Twitter and blogging have undoubtedly made a difference to the Singh campaign. In the era of electronic publishing, he said "You are all journalists now" to which David Allen Green ominously added "... and the law regards you as publishers"

Ben Goldacre reminded us that very vigourous peer review is an integral part of the scientific process. Hospitals have highly robust meetings, usually once a week, where difficult cases are discussed and all possible options reviewed. Medicine can sometimes do dreadful things with the very best of intentions, and open criticism is the only way that this phenomenon can be effectively managed.

By contrast, libel law is sometimes misused simply to shut people up. It's anti-science.

At the beginning of the Simon Singh case, I remember Jack of Kent writing that a libel action's winnability was not the only factor to take into account: cases can also backfire, bringing loud and counterproductive publicity, something seen in the McLibel case.

Goldacre evoked the phenomenon by saying that although the rich and powerful could serve writs and bring actions, the public could "... make it like chewing on a mouthful of wasps ... people will learn that this is not a good way of managing their reputations".

The BCA didn't heed Jack all that time ago, but must surely have taken this on board by now.

Simon Singh was last to speak. He reiterated that Engish libel law was unlike others: for one thing, English libel cases are one hundred times more expensive than their equivalents on mainland Europe. This means that they are usually ruinous to any target - even if they win!

By now, it is also apparent that English libel laws also lack international credibility. The case of Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author sued in London by a Saudi national, prompted a series of state's laws in the US that has prevented foreign judgements being enforcable in the US if the foreign law did not protect freedom of speech to the same extent as the American version.

Singh's case was highlighted at the recent Liberal-Democrat conference by Richard Dawkins. And Singh told us that he had also spoken to Labout politicians and recently Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for Culture about libel law reform.

As his for appeal hearing tomorrow:
"I did a PhD in particle physics and I find the law, frankly, baffling"

Good luck Simon. And good luck Skeptics Westminster. Great first event.

As I write, the tweets are flocking: apparently Simon Singh has been given leave to appeal. Latest from Crispian Jago. Details and more soon, no doubt, from Jack of Kent. Plus the implications on the original ruling for Article 10 of the Human Rights Act at Tessera

Video with Simon Singh after today's hearing:

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Lost in Translation

For those of you into cosmology, there’s some news this week. It seems that heaven and earth already existed when God came along and separated them into distinct regions. The Hebrew verb ‘bara’, according to Professsor Ellen van Wolde, is used in the Biblical context to mean ‘separate’ rather than ‘create’:
"God was the subject (God created), followed by two or more objects."

Ancient texts suggest that there was already water and monsters to live in it. So God was just responsible for the landscaping and the creation of animals. Including us.
Prof. van Wolde puts her finger on it:
"The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now."

This is not the first shock to the religiously orthodox. In 2000, pseudonymous author Christoph Luxenberg suggested that a misreading of the Quran has led generations of the faithful to think seventy-two virgins awaited them in the afterlife. In the light of his exegesis with the Syriac rather than Arabic language (both sub-groupings of the Semitic family) the virgins turn into ‘white raisins’. Perhaps a bit of a let-down for any non-foodies who might have made the ultimate sacrifice in anticipation of the rewards.

While we’re at it, Matthew and Luke both mention the virgin birth. But both were originally written in Greek and it’s thought they lost the Hebrew ‘alma’ or ‘young woman’ in translation to the Greek ‘parthenos’ or ‘virgin’. Which handily fits Old Testament prophecies that the Messiah will be born of a virgin (Kind of hinted at in Genesis, then said right out in Isiah 7:14)

And the Jewish lecturer and commentator Hyam Maccoby has written an interpretation of the circumcision Moses and Zipporah’s son, in which the circumcision is to be understood as Zipporah's forcing an attenuation of a sacrifice of the first-born, a part of the evolution away from human sacrifice (to which Christianity paradoxically returned). I do have a full explanation of this, but I’m guessing nobody really wants to read it. It centres around different Hebrew words for infant and bridegroom circumcision which have since become cognate, and a reinterpretation of who was the subject and who was the object in a couple of sentences. Did you catch that, by the way? Bridgegroom circumcision. A stag night, a fitting for a tuxedo, arranging a week at a honeymoon suite in Barbados … and knob surgery. How many of you are relieved that has gone the way of the woolly mammoths?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Grow Up, or Die

I remember that it was a boy band member or some such, a youth with a room-temperature IQ and the ill-advised confidence of a blind man break-dancing near a cliff, who tried to engage Bill Bailey in a verbal duel on a episode of 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks'.
"He's a stand-up comedian" squawked Simon Amstell incredulously "you can't possibly win!"

It's a piece of advice that the interviewees for 'Religulous' would have done well to take. The 2008 documentary explores the fundamentalist end of the Abrahamic faiths (henceforth, the BIG3) with an a-priori lack of sympathy and incisive wit of US comedian Bill Maher. Maher's autobiographical asides reveal that he grew up Catholic, going regularly to catechism which he describes as "like Hebrew school for Papists. It was like war - vast stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror". His mother's Jewish heritage didn't figure in the family folklore, and neither did Catholicism after the rigorous teaching on birth control tested Maher's father's devotion too far. As an adult, Maher has become known in the US for his political satire on subjects from abortion to animal rights and, perennially, religion.

Maher visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky to interview founder Ken Ham and see the wonderfully executed displays (the saddled baby triceratops was my favourite). Evangelist senator Mark Pryor (D: Arkansas) who looks charmingly like Buzz Lightyear with a good tailor, later defended creationism to Maher in an kindly and insipid few sentences littered with malaprops and appeals to the principal of uncertainty. Pryor's tentative manner suggested he may have been speaking with a lack of true conviction or else that he simply isn't very bright:
"It's worrying that people who run the country believe in a talking snake" probed Maher
"You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate though" replied Pryor, smiling before he realised what he'd said. His face fell as slowly and gracefully as an asphyxiating ballerina.

Since homophobia features so strongly in orthodox strains of the Big3, it was also fruitfully (no pun intended) explored in Religulous. We start with the story of Lot (Genesis 19), the virtuous man of Sodom who offered his daughters to a mob to rape, as misusing a couple of visiting angels was apparently too awful to contemplate. We met Pastor John Westcott of Exchange Ministries who explained how he how used to have gay sex but is definitely not actually gay because it doesn't exist.
"Have you ever seen Little Richard?" countered Maher.

Married for fourteen years to a woman who used to do lesbian stuff but is/was not gay either, Westcott now counsels other people who have gay sex and who usually, he admits, go back to their errant ways.
"Because they're gay?" offered Maher.

Visited by angels. But not these ones.

Westcott is either a genuinely nice man or someone who has had better PR coaching than Ken Ham. In any case he's not the nasty advert for homophobia that the maverick Westborough Baptist Church is. Peopled by activists who don't hate faggots (God does), the Church has also been covered elsewhere, and thoroughly by Louis Theroux.

Meeting two muslim gay activists (not words you often see grouped together) at an Amsterdam bar Maher tried to keep it light, but there were noticeably only two gays in the village that evening. "I'm hoping you guys find each other attractive" he said at the lack of crowd. Despite their halting English they manage to convey a history of intimidation and violence which may well have accounted for their being the only people to appear on camera.

Muslim gay Night in Amsterdam

The segue to Islam took us to issues of freedom of speech and dissention. Maher visited the murder site of Theo van Gogh, film-maker of 'Submission' and discussed the Danish cartoon furore. Regrettably his interviewees were not the most hardcore: I suspect that Amsterdam councillor Fatima Elatik is more multidimensional than we see in Religulous. Similarly, his conversation with contraversial muslim rapper Propa Gandhi was a battle of wits with a hopelessly unarmed man. The former drummer of ‘The Southern Death Cult’ (precursor to ‘The Cult’) gibbered at the onslaught, as soft a target as an inflatable dartboard. Geert Wilders gave a better account of himself, but then he's had more practice, I expect.

We visited the ‘Institute for Science & Hallacha’ in Israel to see how a group of Orthodox Jews invent technological items which circumvent the thirty-nine specific types of action forbidden on the Sabbath. What Maher calls “outsmarting God” does look from the outside to be an extremely lawerly sense of observance.

Back in the US, our crew visited 'The Holy Land Experience' in Florida to see just how tawdry and mundane a religious experience can get.

So your kids can play 'stonings and smitings' at home

If you need an ancient Palestinian puppet to accompany your Spanish wine skins and stuffed donkey, here's your gift shop. Jesus was pleasant (I should hope so), although less so than the public relations lady who stormed in having not been told about his interview in advance. Quite right too - she seemed curiously to be the only one among Religulous's interviewees who had the faintest idea of what she was dealing with. Questioning of THLE's attendees revealed ignorance how the key parts of the Christian myth were widespread about the middle-east a couple of millennia ago, although one young man helpfully added Anakin Skywalker to Mithras, Horus and Krishna.

Birds of a Feather

He's got a point. Crowds cheered as a bloodied Jesus was beaten on his way to calvary, accompanied by an emotive number sung in the off-Broadway style by a lady who probably did something really awful in a past life. A plane flying overhead enhanced the ghastly pornographic banality of it all. Vegas without the class - and that's tough to do, even if you mean to.

Evangelism does not come out well. But despite being summarily evicted from the Vatican, Maher seems to have a little more sympathy for Catholicism. Certainly, Catholicism has a long-in-the-tooth sophistry which stops it doing anything really gauche like competing with science on its own terms. Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne dutifully rejected ideas of a young earth or creationism. Evangelism - young, brash and absolutist - is an easy target for satire. Maher encounters may pleasant old priests, men who are probably too aged and educated to believe in the really silly stuff, but who have to keep it up for the congregation. As Father Reginald Foster said "These are all nice stories you know". I'd quote more but his dismissive snorts sounded like a epileptic sound effects sampler and I can't spell that raspberry noise. Really seemed like nice man.

The film had a limited theatrical release in the US and I can't find a record of a general release in the UK, but it has still done very well, so far grossing around USD13M. Wonderful for a USD2.5M production budget. In any case, movies like this live in their DVD sales unless they're made by Michael Moore and even his star is falling since he has moved from docu-activist to patronising polemicist.

Maher has been compared to Dawkins and certainly, he regards moderate religionists as culpable in that they provide a place of safety for nonsense of an extreme variety. But unlike Dawkins, Maher doesn't seem to have issues with God - he has issues with certainty. We may have guffawed at the idea that ‘end of time’ predictions could be self-fulfilling, but with an evangelist as last tenant of the Whitehouse, you have to wonder:

"I believe that God wants everybody to be free ... and that's one part of my foreign policy".
George W. Bush

Indeed, Religulous opens and closes at Megiddo, the Biblical 'Armageddon', venue for the epic battle between Christ and Satan (dates TBA - but soon, according to many authorities). The modern American pairing of religion and nationalism, Maher points out, would have been alien to the founding fathers, many of whom were hardcore atheists. But it's hard to get far in American public life these days without a loudly declared supernatural affiliation of one variety or another, a fact which affects a great many things from the declaring of wars to the teaching of evolution.

Director Larry Charles, who looks like a cross between an orthodox rabbi and a homeless member of ZZ Top, has created a beautifully story-edited movie. The library footage adds greatly to Religulous's impact and the cutting is funny and effective. Pastor Jeremiah Cummings tells of how he implored a young man to direct his passion from a woman to God at which we cut to suicide bombing footage. "Look at more primitive cultures" says Senator Mark Pryor, "and they were constantly at war" and we cut to modern warheads and militia. The choice of music was also inspired: Apollo Braun's classic 'There's a Party in My Pants and Everybody's Coming' accompanied 50s footage of approved Mormon underwear. ‘I Think You’re Crazy’ played as Maher ranted Scientological dogma at Speakers’ Corner. Masterful.

Overall Religulous is hilarious but, as I suppose it must, glides over detailed analysis of where politics and religion meet and overlap. I suspect that for Maher and Charles the distinction would be a red-herring. They manage instead to highlight the ridiculous: indeed, it’s hard to see how the middle east would be in quite this much trouble without the enduring identities afforded by religion. At the Mount of Olives where many faithful Jews try to be buried, there’s a clear view to the Temple Mount, where the Mosque Dome of the Rock now stands. When the Messiah comes, he will raise them from the dead and march them across the valley to the Temple Mount.
“The muslims have walled up the gate” Maher says, “the better to keep out the Jewish Messiah and his kosher zombies”.

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking” he concludes. “Doubt is humble and that is what man needs to be”. Is this likely? I don’t think so, but we can hope. In any case we do have to "grow up or die". So if you want to see a man ask a televangelist whether this is his only two thousand dollar suit or refer to the Cerne Abbas giant’s erection as sizeable "for England", this is the DVD for you. You’ll play it twice a year. I promise.