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.