The ‘New Atheist’ Holy Trinity of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens came in for a lot of stick some years ago, with the main criticism seeming to be that they were tone deaf to the real benefits of religion. Their stridency was said to be so one-sided that it could only result in a bleak world of scientific determinism. I have to say that sometimes, in seeking to make a case for atheism (e.g. Dawkins’ The God Delusion) God and religion got very mixed up. One doesn’t necessarily need the other, either way.
But now there is a new New Atheism, populated by religious fifth columnists of a post-modern variety. I heard from one the other day, the ever voluble ‘right on rev’ Giles Fraser, who was on Radio 4’s A History of Ideas: How did everything begin? If I understood him correctly, he does not espouse support for the cosmological justification for the need of God – i.e. a creator – but is happy enough to go along with the idea that God is synonymous with Creation, without beginning or end. I may be paraphrasing somewhat, but I’m sure I heard him say that God is in everything. Always was and always will be, not separate, but everywhere. This, of course, makes the God of the old New Atheists’ ire non-existent, since this God is no longer the God of holy books, but is transmuted into a mere metaphor when needed say, to offer a bit of comfort to those in need of it in this otherwise utterly random and purposeless universe.
This new form of atheism will never be called such, especially in the likes of the Church of England where it is being nurtured at a pace. I trace the roots of this movement back to Martin Luther, who began the task of demolishing the God of the Bible with his 93 theses nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. He it was who exposed the sale of indulgences as a money making scam, who started the Protestant iconoclastic tendency, who had short shrift for the then Christian adherence to magic and astrology. By turning religion into a matter of personal belief and inward reflectiveness there was despite the excesses of Protestantism a humanist reaction against ritualistic, unquestioning faith. That has continued to this day, now to the point where God is, as the song has it, Everywhere and Nowhere, Baby. Job done, problem solved.
Thanks to RT for alerting me to the existence of the UK website Bellingcat, which claims to be ‘the home of online investigation.’ RT reports the Russian Foreign Ministry denouncing a report from Bellingcat which claims to have evidence from a Russian passport database pointing to the two Skripal suspects ‘secret service’ connections. Bellingcat goes so far as to say that their passports had secret markings which identified the true nature of their employment. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that Bellingcat has connections with British secret service sources. Whatever the case, it all makes the question about how the two got UK visas and passed unchallenged through passport control all the more pressing. If Bellingcat had been fed this information in order to bolster the charge that the Russian suspects were indeed GRU secret service agents, then it all boils down to that old question who knew what, when?
The interview on RT with the two Skripal poisoning suspects certainly tips the balance in favour of the government's conspiracy theory that this was a Russian secret service operation. The pair look like they’ve been primed, their body language makes them look ill at ease. Their tourism story sounds preposterous. But is this the conclusive evidence we need to start another round of Russia baiting? Let’s not forget that what we need is evidence that puts their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
It has been suggested that the murder attempt may have had something to do with the Russian mafia, rather than the Russian state, although these two things are often conflated. But all we’ve had from the UK government is the assertion that the would-be assassins worked for the GRU (KGB as was) and must have been ordered on their mission by someone ‘at the very top.’ (Who could that be?) There is another possibility, which I’ve not seen mentioned anywhere, which is that far from being assassins, the two accused were actually delivering the Novichok to Skripal, for uses unknown. Unless we are told more about exactly what Skripal was doing in the UK, with no obvious income but able to buy a nice house without a mortgage, we should not rule out anything. Asking such a question doesn’t let anyone off the hook – it merely means that we should keep an open mind, and not be led down the garden path into what are very murky waters, to mix metaphors.
The Tory plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons, from 650 to 600 members is edging closer. A key element of this is to make constituencies roughly the same size. This means inner city constituencies, which tend to have smaller populations will be enlarged, at the expense of Labour. The party may see around 20 seats disappear. For some Labour MPs I suspect this poses a much greater threat than deselection – in which case their most urgent task should be to do all they can to get a Labour government elected. You would think. Instead, all we hear about is hurt feelings over no-confidence votes. But let’s put that issue to one side for now. What has got me going is the impact of austerity on democracy – that is, the downsizing of democracy.
That is one reason for reducing the size of the Commons (not, be it noted, the over-stuffed House of Lords, the world’s second largest legislative assembly, nor the size of the executive). It is also a major factor in the downsizing of many councils. Councillors are increasingly seen as irrelevant, their powers are so circumscribed it hardly seems they have much choice about anything. Within councils new executive structures have concentrated what powers do exist into fewer hands, in the form of the ‘Cabinet.’ Effective scrutiny has been eviscerated. It has to be said that this is not entirely a result of the need for councils to save money. Labour introduced some of the new internal structures for local authorities, all with an eye on making them more ‘business-like.’ Northamptonshire County Council, being Tory-run, one would have thought might have been ‘business-like.’ But it’s being abolished, to be replaced by two unitary authorities. So it looks like those responsible for its downfall will get off scot-free. That’s democratic!
Over in Canada, the latest instalment in King Doug (Ford’s) bid to reduce the size of Toronto City Council, of which his disgraced, late brother Rob used to be mayor has taken a new twist. Ford’s plan, not mentioned in his manifesto seeking to be elected Premier of Ontario in the election last June has been kicked into touch by a judge, mainly because Toronto city elections are already under way. Doug had submitted to the judge his reasoning for his hasty anti-democratic legislation, here is part of it (it relates to a period when Doug Ford himself was a member of Toronto City Council):
“I can tell you that I was there numerous times for a 10-hour debate on getting Mrs. Jones’ cat out of the tree. We would sit there and debate about anything for 10 hours. After 10 hours and thousands of pieces of paper going around, nothing got done. Nothing got done. And guess what. At the end of 10 hours, we all agreed to go get Mrs. Jones’s cat out of the tree. That’s a waste of time ... That is why it is time to reduce the size and cost of municipal government.”
In fact, I suspect that’s the sum of his evidence. I also suspect he’s just settling a few scores, but what do I know. His legislation now has to go back to the provincial parliament. If you are as fascinated by this as I am, see more here on Gordon Prentice’s great blog.
Almost finally in this mish mash of democratic insight, I was encouraged to hear the news that the European Parliament had voted overwhelmingly to pursue investigations into Hungary’s unpleasant regime. Tory MEPs supported Hungary’s apparently anti-semitic leader, Orban, so I expect we’ll hear more about that soon from Jonathan Sacks, who will no doubt be banging on Theresa May’s door demanding an explanation (after appearing on the Today programme, naturally).
But also today, Election Prediction has published the results of a poll which show a majority of the British public favouring a Canadian style trade deal with the E.U. But I’m sure the questions, reproduced below are somewhat leading. It would seem that people don’t want to crash out of the E.U. with no deal, but want some kind of ‘in,’ which just happens to be the only other option which mentions ‘immigration.’ Well, well.
Thinking about Britain leaving the European Union, or "Brexit", and the different ways this might happen. Please can you order these five possible outcomes from your most favoured outcome to your least favoured outcome.
· "No deal" - Britain leaves without a specific deal, and gains full control of immigration, laws and trade, but British exports to the EU are hit by tariffs and other barriers.
· "Canada-style" - a negotiated free-trade agreement between Britain the EU, similar to Canada's deal. The UK has control of its own immigration, laws and trade but has to match EU regulations in some areas, so that many British exports to the EU are ok.
· "Chequers" - the government's current plan. Britain remains in the EU single market for goods and agriculture, but not services. Freedom of movement and some budget payments might remain (depending on negotiations).
· "Norway-style" - membership of the European Economic Area, similar to Norway's deal. Britain remains fully in the EU single market, but outside the Customs Union. Freedom of movement remains, along with EU single-market regulations, and half-rate budget payments to the EU.
· "Customs Union" - Britain remains in both the single market and the Customs Union. Freedom of movement remains, along with EU single-market regulations with large annual payments to the EU budget and Britain cannot sign its own trade deals.
The whole Election Prediction poll report should be on their website soon. This is from an email. I wonder how the options were explained. Perhaps the word immigration just leapt out? How familiar with all these options are You?
Anyone with 17 minutes to spare might take a look at ‘The Corbett Report’ here – it’s a piece called ‘9/11 Suspects: The Dancing Israelis.’ It suggests that the Israeli government knew of the 9/11 attacks before they took place. I confess I hadn’t heard this story before, but the evidence in this short film is fairly compelling, using as it does official reports and footage filmed (amongst others) by Fox News, whom one wouldn’t normally associate with such matters. It should perhaps be emphasised that the report does not depart from the official line that Al Qaeda carried out the attack. It merely begs the question: did the Israelis know about it beforehand and fail to pass their intelligence on to the U.S government? Is that plausible? Benjamin Netanyahu, on film, lends credence to the idea. Of course, viewers of the film might only want to ask for some confirmation that Israel will be held to the same (and not higher) standards than any other democracy.
Following the Swedish general election, where the far-right Swedish Democrats (SD) increased their vote, comes confirmation that even in the most stable societies populism is still on the rise. With their Nazi history, one would have thought that the advance of the SDs would be yet another warning sign about where the true threat lies to minorities. But no, I am sure we have not heard the last of the ‘existential threat’ that Corbyn’s Labour Party poses to minorities here in the U.K.
Church attendance is in rapid decline. For example, according to the Faith Survey, Roman Catholic attendance dropped from over 2 million in 1980 to less than 700,000 in 2015. Other churches have in the main followed this precipitous pattern, not least the C of E. Students studying religious education (RE) are also no exception, with a nearly 50% reduction in recent years. I picked the last piece of information up on this morning’s BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme which was reporting on the future of RE. It seems clerical types, having recognised they have a problem, think that RE could be saved if it became the study of religions and ‘world views.’ I smell a rat.
It’s taken long enough for some in the religious community to accept that ‘creation theory’ is not equivalent to the fact of evolution. Are we now being asked to accept that some world views based on superstition can be taught in some form of equivalence with views based on science? Don’t get me wrong – I am quite happy for people to believe in fairies and angels, but young people should be allowed to discover what these things mean, along with the whole religious rigmarole as a result of their own personal path to discovery. Given the state established church still carries so much influence in society – undeserved on current trends – I do not trust them with any aspect of formal education even whilst they clutch at secular straws.
I’ve just watched 12 Angry Men again. The key phrase used in the film is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – and unless the jury finds the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt, they must find him not guilty on so serious a charge it could lead to the death penalty. Well, now it seems we have been presented with all the evidence we need that two named Russians carried out the attempted Skripal murder. Putting to one side the fact that government ministers had reached their guilty verdict months before the evidence was found, perhaps there are now sufficient grounds to agree with them. Even though – even though – the evidence remains circumstantial. CCTV footage of two men walking around London or Salisbury is not in itself enough to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. The Guardian mentioned today that ‘traces’ of Novichok had been found in the men’s hotel. If so, that would go quite a long way to removing doubt, though why the alleged perpetrators would fiddle around with the nerve agent’s container in their hotel room does need explaining. Playing the role of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, RT (Russia Today) seeks to question the veracity of the government’s line here.
It would be foolish to say the UK government’s position isn’t feasible, even if in so many other areas what they say is unfeasible (Brexit for example). But there is more explaining to do, and I think we should know more about Skripal’s ongoing work or contacts with MI6 – was he still active and if so, doing what? The British public, in Salisbury at least were exposed to risk and in classic ‘elf’n’safety’ speak, perhaps we ought to be told what risk assessments are made when double agents move in down your street.
Now let’s look at something completely different. Now that the Labour Party has adopted the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, some of the IHRA possible examples need to be examined in the light of recent events. Funnily enough, this includes Russia’s alleged dirty doings. In response to Skripal the UK government has sought tougher sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and other measures. OK, let’s say that that is fair enough, we don’t want to sit back in the face of political assassinations, here or anywhere else. Which begs the question, what sanctions has the government sought against Israel on account of its alleged program of systematic political assassination? Let’s recall that one IHRA example of possible anti-semitism is “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Isn’t it curious that notwithstanding the use of the word ‘democratic’ in this example, we are expecting of Russia a higher standard of behaviour than of Israel – since the UK government has not joined or called for any action to impose sanctions on the latter? Shouldn’t we expect the same standards from any country?
Is there evidence of Israel having a program of targeted political assassination? Judge for yourself here.
It’s a rather long list, starting in 1956, and since double standards can work both ways, it would seem that the UK government’s double standards in this case could well fall foul of the IHRA example, though not for the reasons intended. What makes the whole sanctions issue more laughable are the attempts by some, including the U.S. Congress to make support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement illegal. I am sure that western double standards don’t go unnoticed in the uncivilised rest of the world.
Incidentally, it was the issue of double standards that finally got to the last juror in 12 Angry Men, and made him change his mind to deliver the now unanimous not guilty verdict.
For atheists like myself, BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme often provides abundant ammunition. Both God and religion (the two things are after all separate) are the source of many stories which are tragi-comic, or just plain tragic. The latest slew of child abuse revelations in the Catholic Church in the U.S. (not to mention our very own Ampleforth) takes that ancient institution further into the realm of bankruptcy, morally if not yet financially. According to one of the interviewees on the show, it could be that the priests involved, acknowledging God’s omniscience, excused their depraved behaviour on the grounds that if God knew about it before it even happened then it must have had His blessing. For others, such paedophilic episodes may just have been tests, and of course at the end of the day the only punishment may have been a few Hail Marys and a quiet move to another diocese.
But why should we be surprised by these continual revelations? Poor old Pope Francis must be asking himself the same question. Perhaps he should look to the Bible. Remember Abraham and Isaac? Clearly God wasn’t much concerned with the welfare of the child then, who after his ordeal (being tied up and placed on the pyre of firewood his father had made him carry to the supposed sacrificial place) could be excused a good dose of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And then there is the First Commandment:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” (Exodus 20:5)
Pity your poor great-great-great grandchildren! I suppose love comes at a price, which is probably what many of these errant ordained men of God tell themselves.
For more Biblical authority on child abuse, the Salon website has an unpleasant rundown here. It ends in the New Testament with the most singular example of child abuse in the Good Book – Jesus Christ himself. Good ole’ Jehovah, sacrificing his only son.
I have been following an email discussion about climate change which started off with questions about what kind of preparations we should now be making for the calamitous consequences of global warming. Consequences which it seems some people are beginning to wake up to, with e.g. forest fires and drought hitting countries around the world. In other words, as our addiction to fossil fuels seems too hard to kick, how will we learn to adapt? Climate change adaptation will be an expensive business, and for some it will be impossible. Low lying countries, from Bangladesh to Kiribati probably won’t have the resources. Kiribati already plans to decamp elsewhere. Bangladesh is getting a wall (or a fence) courtesy of India – to keep Bangladeshis out of India.
An interesting but I think passé concern raised in the email thread is the question of moral responsibility. As a philosophical question this is fine, but as a practical question it is useless, since it begs for the creation of a just economy. If one believes in the progressive instinct of human kind, that with the application of intelligence and reason our species will eventually overcome hunger, war, disease, inequality, etc., etc. that too is fine – but when will arcadia arrive? When will all peoples occupy the same stage of moral, i.e. just equilibrium?
As things stand, in the context of climate change and as graphs produced by Aubrey Meyer illustrate, the imbalance between debtors and creditors in the climate change economy is practically (if not theoretically) irreconcilable (25% of the population created 75% of the problem). How in practical terms would the beneficiaries of fossil fuelled industrialisation compensate the non-beneficiaries, that is, the ‘creditors?’ Even if we could detect a genuine desire on their part to do so, the remedies currently offered fall hopelessly short. At least Trump is honest enough to say he’s not playing the game. Others pay it lip service but carry on by and large with business as usual. One email correspondent asked when will an emergency be declared? One hopes not to be around when it is.
Another strand to the discussion has, in my view obsessed too much with population growth. As Aubrey’s analysis shows, population growth in itself did not bring about the present crisis. 50% of the CO2 released since 1850 remains in the atmosphere, so the cumulative effect of emissions predates the more recent explosion in population. If (a massive if) future births enjoyed carbon neutral lifestyles, it wouldn’t be a climate change issue (but may well have other resource implications). So to address our current climate change problem through the prism of population growth is a non-starter, and merely exacerbates the sense of injustice felt in poorer countries who see population growth as a component of economic development (c.f. China’s abandonment of the one child policy). Developing countries say ‘You’ve enjoyed development, now it’s our turn.’ This is but a different iteration of the concept of the ‘just’ economy.
So in the meantime, we’d best prepare our defences and wait for Pearl Harbour. On current trends, we won’t be waiting long.
UK government hypocrisy doesn’t get much worse. The killing of 29 children on a school bus in Yemen has failed to win a condemnation from Theresa May and her minions. If the perpetrator had been Russia, instead of Saudi Arabia (and its UK and US allies) we wouldn’t have heard the end of it. At least the BBC news last night did make a point of exposing the government’s absence of scruples, making the point that our arms trade with the Saudis has benefitted since the war in the Yemen began. The last word goes to Tory MP Andrew Mitchell (he of Plebgate) who wrote in the Guardian last June:
The British government finds itself not on the side of innocent families who fear the fire that falls from above, but on the side of the perpetrator who has launched a huge military gamble
Anyone visiting Scarborough cemetery to lay a wreath could walk past the final burying place of Jimmy Saville. In the perverted logic of the Daily Mail, this could be interpreted as paying tribute to the late sex abuser. The scumrag Mail is nevertheless continuing to peddle its story – thoroughly debunked by Skwawkbox – that Jeremy Corbyn, some years ago on a visit to Tunisia, paid tribute to the Munich terrorists who happen to be buried in the same graveyard as some Palestinians, themselves victims of a bombing. To make their story even sicker, the Mail’s frontpage today ‘reveals’ how relatives of the victims of the Munich massacre are upset - as they might well be if the scumrag’s story were true.