Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Christian Vandals

Stephen Tompkins' article "How much Christianity is hidden in British society?" ( for the BBC website's 'News Magazine' section, was written as a reaction to the recent appearance of Richard Dawkins on the today programme.

It is a classic example of BBC conservatism that they publish an article affirming the state doctrine, at a time when it is challenged by Dawkins and his secularists. I don't see an article in their 'Magazine' section, or any other section, making an even vaguely secularist point.

This is not a case of equal time for both views, as the Rev. Giles Fraser gave as good as he got on the Today Programme. This is a case of over-correction.

The problem I have with this article (which is featured prominently in the 'News' section of the website at this hour) is that it confuses Christianity for religion as a whole.

It assumes, for instance, that if a festival has a Christian name, it has a Christian origin. The article explains the British calender of seasons and holidays almost as if there were no time prior to Christianity being forced, by the sword, on the local pagans.

Tomkins writes "Trying to take all the religion out of it (British Culture) would be not so much like taking the raisins out of a fruitcake as like taking the chocolate out of a chocolate cake.

So here are some of the places in British society where Christian heritage can easily be uncovered." (italics added)

The word "religion" does not mean "Christianity" - a distinction he fails to make throughout the article. Taking Christianity out of our culture would be more like stripping the paint off a wall - everything would be exactly the same, but we'd call certain things by different names.

For instance, we'd admit that it's damn stupid to think Caesar would have ordered a census in December, so we'd stop pretending Jesus was born then. Henceforth, we'd call Christmas "The Winter Solstice", a festival that celebrates the birth of hope on the shortest day - hence why it was re-branded "Jesus' birthday" - and hold it four days earlier. Nothing else about it need change.

Instead of the annual confusion as to when exactly Easter is, we'd celebrate the regenerative powers of the Green Man, or John Barleycorn, on May 1st. We could take our pick from a range of different pagan folklore that has a lot more to do with eggs and rabbits than the limp 'stone' excuse Christians try to sell.

Basically, we'd stop pretending that Christianity has anything to do with the formation of our calender.

Christianity is like graffiti over the pagan painting of British culture.

Tomkins doesn't seem to understand this, or else he wouldn't have gaffed so hard with clangers like "Fear of the number 13 may have stemmed from Judas being the 13th member of the Last Supper."

Numerology is not a strong point of mine, but 13 has long been held by many different cultures as being magic in one way or another. That there are 13 cycles of the moon every 3 years or so, and therefore 13 menstrual cycles for the women folk probably has more to do with it than arbitrarily deciding Judas was number 13 at a table one time.

This explanation, from the author of "A Short History of Christianity", cannot be dismissed as merely lazy or uneducated. He must realise he is equivocating with his use of the terms 'religious' and 'Christian', that he is affirming a Christian interpretation of British history and culture; a history and culture that is deeply pagan.

This interpretation feeds from the Christian imperialism of the Middle ages and the renaissance, which sought to co-opt pagan tradition and re-brand it in order to tame and Christianise this country.

Back then, they didn't just burn the witches (doctors), they re-told the story of the year as a Christian fable and gave songs words about Jesus in place of the May Queen. They gave spurious and unbelievable explanations for why black cats and 13 are unlucky.

That the BBC is still paying people to carry out this work makes me sad. That Tomkins' article is so paper-thin in its deception offers scant consolation.

For future reference, please note: the word "Religion" does not refer only to "Christianity".

But you knew that, didn't you?

Monday, 20 February 2012

Climate Change victim of climate change

Today's Guardian contained an article by Science editor, Robin McKie, which is essentially a lament of the power that established businesses have over the public discourse:

In it, he sums up the anguish felt by many that the climate debate has been sidelined, blaming big business interests who want to protect their market share and business model. I want to try to show the method of this madness.

He says "university and government researchers are hounded... Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by right-wing politicians... Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier... to the "hoax" of global warming."

That's here:

It is matter of record that Climate Change was a consensus issue in US politics, with John McCain co-sponsoring carbon-capping legislation that was supported by Alaska's very own Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich getting together with Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on behalf of Al Gore's project to combat global warming. This stuff is all on tape from 2006/2007.

It has moved from this unarguable, apolitical subject into a highly partisan, culture-war issue. The political climate has indeed changed. This seemed to happen under cover of the financial crisis and the tumultuous, world-gripping election of 2008.

Global warming, a subject upon which there is a broad consensus amongst scientists on all but the extent of the damage and how much we can do about it now, is treated as if it is as abstract and subjective as 'rights' or 'religion'.

In '08, McCain had to convince the right-wing that he was one of them by embracing one of their more crazy ideas: that scientists are "elites" who want to grab power by terrifying everyone with global catastrophe. In Robin McKie's thinking, I assume it would be the energy company lobbyists who sold - or, perhaps, bought - him on this issue.

If you want an example of the sort of mind-jarring non-sequiturs that make up a right-wing argument against global warming, it is a target rich environment. Just today, there was this from Rick Santorum's Press Secretary, Alice Stewart, who tied up a whole jumble-sale of bewildering right-wingery in one 40 second blast:

She later said she "misspoke" when calling Obama's sparse environmental achievements "radical Islamic policies". It doesn't matter: what she was saying is devoid of any sense. However, this 'mistake' exposes what language she was speaking: a language of symbol over sense, where words have no meaning other than in relation to 'good' and 'evil'. They are locked in to the world of faith and moral absolutes.

"Islamic", "secular", "environmental", "socialist", "welfarism", "class warfare" all mean exactly the same thing. It didn't matter which order she put the words in, they all refer to 'the evil'. They are all suitable substitutes for one another in this language. While of course it is preferable to match issue to terminology, it is barely a necessity and it wouldn't surprise anyone if this 'slip' was planned.

But, just look at this religious right three-minute-hate on environmentalists:

This video is compiled by a liberal poster, but is still instructive. It is a compilation of speakers who make it seem like all that is right and good in the world is under attack from environmentalists. The first speaker, Cindy Jacobs, listing first and foremost "human prosperity" as being under attack by the "Green Dragon". 'Human' of course is supposed to mean Joe Sixpack, Anywhereville, USA. Disturbingly, it seems to actually mean 'fossil fuel based businesses and their executives'. Well, corporations are people now.

They all, of course, say that the gospel of Jesus Christ is under assault from environmentalism. This is justified by tying environmentalism with humanism, a point I will return to another day.

Who are these guys? Jacobs is a 'pray-away-the-gay, homosexual-exorcist'. The second speaker, Bryan Fisher, is a say-anything madman ("gays are nazis", anyone? No?) and Tony Perkins is head of 'The Family Research Council' who are a powerful lobbying group with strong ties to oil billionaires, the Koch brothers.

The language they use is bald-faced re-education. "Environmentalism is no longer your friend" they say, these party elders, religious leaders, community icons, respected figures of the conservative community, over and over again.

With this sort of unity, the majority of their flock will, quite understandably, begin to agree with them, or at least use these same words. Church going folk are swayed by their pastor - that's his/her job, after all - and party underlings affirm the attitudes of their candidates. These are people who are looked to for spiritual guidance and they are dispensing an anti-environment message under the guise of movement conservatism.

What I am trying to say is not that climate change is the single greatest threat to human civilisation and life on this earth - that's for another venue, I'm not a climatologist. Rather, I wanted to show how the business interests in the US have used faith and the unity of the conservative community to block any serious discussion of this subject.

They have, very effectively, turned an issue on which 77% of Americans agreed in 2006, into a 57% - or partisan - issue in 2009. (

The trick, I feel, is in arguing in faith-based abstracts: Texas is suffering from increasing drought, but Texans are not convinced global warming has anything to do with a gradual upward trend in temperatures in many areas of the globe - including their own. Hell, last year Governor Rick Perry held a state-wide day of prayer for rain. The drought worsened considerably thereafter.

Christian thinking places 'pure' spirit over 'sinful' body, so to get these Texans to ignore the drought and vote for the eco-holocaust, framing it as an issue of spirit raises it above worldly concerns like water and crops.

It is my observation that American Conservatives don't tend to vote their interests - they vote their beliefs.

So long as you can influence the beliefs espoused by leaders in the religious right, you will have a large measure of power in Washington.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Richard Dawkins: Spell-Checker

Richard Dawkins appeared on the Today program on Radio 4 today, in an ill-judged attempt to head-off an imagined Christian power-grab:

He argues that, whilst a majority of people in the UK self-identify as Christians, they are incorrect about the classification of their own beliefs. He is of the opinion that if someone cannot name certain books of the New Testament, or if they do not think that Jesus was the son of God, they cannot really call themselves a 'Christian' at all.

Dawkins' narrow definition of Christianity seems to exclude all but the most fundamentalist zealots, a fact that belies his own atheistic fundamentalism.

He cannot see the vast and plentiful broad-lands of spiritualities and private faiths, or the accommodations for religious sense cosseted within a matrix of reason common in academics and children alike; he cannot see that reverence of a religious tradition can actually breed ignorance of it (think of Latin in Churches) and that apathy about one's spirituality is so widespread it would qualify as the Great British pass-time, if only it passed any time.

He seems to think that you are only a Christian if you kill people for working on the Sabbath, stone people for saying 'Yahweh', would send your own daughters out to be raped rather than see men get buggered and can recite all the Psalms from memory.

Dawkins, as a fundamentalist atheist, has so caricatured 'The Christian' that he will only accept his own fundamentalist version as being the true Christian. To be fair to him, there are plenty such wack-jobs in Americaland and he spends a lot of time over there. But here in Britain these creatures are a far rarer sight, which is why what he's saying is so self-defeating.

Telling someone that they are not what they say they are is calling them 'a liar' or 'stupid' or 'a fake'. People don't react well to these sorts of insults. Dawkins might say, with some justification, that to be a Christian requires some core beliefs and knowledge. To say 'Christians generally believe Jesus is the son of God" is defensible and sensible. It is quite another thing to say, to the man (lets call him 'Syd') who thinks Jesus was a great guy who lived a good life that Syd wishes in some ways to emulate, that he cannot call himself a Christian.

Oh, but he can, Richard. If Syd says "I'm a Christian because I think Jesus' message was a good one, but I don't believe in supernatural powers or an afterlife or God" then Syd's a Christian. Admittedly, Syd's a very difficult Christian to argue against using science, because he's not making truth claims that can be verified or shown to be absurd. Syd's opinion of a man and his teachings is not quantifiable data, not a pillar of the all-American culture war; it is too elusive a target for Dawkins' barbs.

This is a direct result of Dawkins' own literal interpretation of the Bible. He seems to believe that this, or any other, text can be interpreted in one way alone. The ridiculousness of this view is amplified as it is applied to parables - stories that are expressly meant to be open to interpretation.

Dawkins has no background in the philosophy of religion, so I am well used to his re-hashed and mangled arguments against the existence of God from circa-1760, but I didn't know his idea of textual analysis went no further than a spell-check. He is, in that regard, no more sophisticated than the mega-church charlatans he battles in the US.

Please, Richard, tell the Americans that they can keep their culture war. If you want any further reading, look up 'hermeneutics' instead of reading the results of a study you wrote, carried out by an organisation named after you, that just so happens to produce data that backs up your point of view.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Catholic Contraception Kerfuffle - Obama Trolls the Right

How in the world do you make your opponents make themselves look like religious zealots and use massively overblown rhetoric, while making yourself look like the adult in the room? While, I might add, risking nothing?

You need to be an expert in political jujitsu. You need to be able to have control of the narrative all along without showing your puppeteer's hand. You need to pick an issue where there is a 98% consensus behind you, that surrogates can point to, while your opponents rally against you with all the fire and brimstone at their disposal.

This is the recipe Barrack Obama put together in a recent debate over Catholic-backed employers providing contraception through health insurance.

Recap: 98% of Catholic women use or have used contraception. Obama says to Catholic hospitals "pay for contraception" (while, importantly exempting churches from the same rule). Catholic hospitals say "that's against our principles."

Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney et al jump in gleefully screaming "this is an attack on religious freedom, this is an affront to America, this is war on the Catholic Church! And the constitution! And babies! We hate contraception! Obama will take your religion away!" The debate is had - pundits weigh both sides, while right-wing commentators can't believe their luck and join in, screaming "WAR ON RELIGION!".

Three or four days of this follow, with polls broken down and analysed showing slim majority support for Obama, who is cast as standing up for women, albeit politically foolishly.

Then, on Friday, the cake is baked.

Obama comes out and says "OK, this is a complex issue, but here is how everyone can win: women will get free contraceptive coverage on their health insurance through Catholic hospitals/scools/colleges, etc. BUT those institutions won't pay for it. NO. The insurance company will pay for it." Catholics (tending to be independent swing voters) feel they have been listened to, respected and served. Women (53% of voters) will get free contraceptive coverage on their employer's health insurance (and are made aware of this as policy in general). Insurance companies don't mind because the number of women actually at work in Catholic backed institutions in the US is minuscule and the cost of their contraception is not even a rounding error. Thus, a cent on the general cost of insurance will more than cover them.

Meanwhile, there's Obama being the compromiser - the reasonable guy - who the right has been screaming about. Romney et al look like a bunch of zealots who hate contraception (Santorum especially). They look unreasonable, paternalistic and anti-women - as, indeed, they actually are.

The brilliance of this political strategy does not end there. Through raising contraception and seemingly attacking religious freedom, Obama gave no-hoper Rick Santorum a bump in the polls. Conservatives rallied to his anti-contraception message (it's true, he is on record as being against all contraception - 99% of women use contraception - hence 'no-hoper'). He wins three (pretty meaningless)races, putting Romney on the defensive. Romney feels he has to ape Santorum's rhetoric - match his craziness - thus creating more videotape for the general election. Romney looks weaker having lost three states to a nobody, the conservative base have got all wound up for Rick Santorum, and so Romney's march to the right continues apace, with the middle, where general elections are won, a distant memory.

A brilliant piece of trolling by Obama and his team, aided (wittingly or not) by his HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who actually did all the dirty work.

Folks, this is a case of Deus ex machina.

PS So the insurance companies pay, eh? The evil insurance companies, eh? The one's that Obama's base hates and no-one can defend, eh? They pay, do they? How nice.