I recently finished reading Jonathan Meades’ memoir of his early life An Encyclopaedia of Myself.  Some may find his style and vocabulary challenging, but he is always fascinating and often hilarious.  I felt I should share his views on religion, of which the following passage is a useful example.
The majority of Anglican clergy, certainly of Salisbury Cathedral’s clergy, were not susceptible to dilute modernism. The Close was a bastion of unchallenged dogma, ritual, philistinism, unquestioning belief. The manipulator of millions of minds Joseph Goebbels wrote: ‘It is almost immaterial what we believe in so long as we believe in something.’  Time and again, those with this promiscuous capacity for credulousness are shown to be those with the equal capacity to promote and sanction atrocities. We repeatedly witness the migration of believers — ‘spiritual persons’ — from one cult to the next; a religion is merely a heavily armed cult. Believing in something all too evidently means believing in anything. Why should Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims — especially Muslims — be treated with anything other than the contemptuous toleration that is visited on flat-earthers and ufologists? Believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of garden and you are deemed fit for the bin, for the Old Manor. Believe in parthenogenesis and ascension and you are deemed fit to govern the country, run the BBC, command UK Landforces etc.  The notion that these people might be mentally ill is quite overlooked: quis custodiet and all that.

I see that the Austrian parliament has passed reforms to the country’s century-old ‘Law on Islam’.  Amongst other provisions, the new law bans foreign funding for Islamic organisations.  Muslim groups say the ban on foreign funding is unfair as international support is still permitted for the Christian and Jewish faiths.  They are right, but only up to a point.

I find it unacceptable that any religion should be allowed to accept funding from external sources, just as most countries prohibit political funding from outside the jurisdiction.  If such funding is going to be allowed, then at least it should be excluded from the general tax exemption from which most religions benefit.

But where I would absolutely draw the line is where religions or religious lobby groups obtain direct or indirect funding from foreign governments, or foreign-government-sponsored entities.  Clearly in these situations the line between religion and politics has been crossed.  And this is where the Austrians have got it right: Islam is noteworthy for the fact that states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar give generous financial support to Islam (or particular strains of Islam) across the globe.  And unfortunately the type of Islam they are promoting is one where there is no separation between Church and State, and where the dictates of the Koran and the hadiths are considered to be justification for horrific crimes.

I would like to see a law in Ireland which (a) prohibits religions and religious organisations from receiving funding from foreign governments and (b) removes tax-exempt status from funding received from all non-residents, private or governmental.  This would incidentally stop any funding of the Catholic Church or Catholic organisations by the Vatican, as the latter claims to be a State, but this is something with which I could live …..


We have heard a lot in Ireland recently about politicians and their consciences.  Famously, Lucinda Creighton broke with Fine Gael as she wouldn’t follow the party whip and support the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill last year.  She asserted the need to follow her conscience, which apparently was telling her that the Catholic Church’s hard-line position on abortion had to be followed.  Many people’s reaction to stances such as that of Lucinda is to say something like: “I don’t necessarily agree with the views of Mr/Ms X, but I admire him/her for taking a stand on a matter of conscience”.

But this is a superficial analysis.  Because the essence of Lucinda’s stance is to deny all Irish women the very thing she insists on having herself, namely freedom of conscience on the issue of abortion.  And abortion is a matter of conscience.  It’s not like murder or theft or arson, matters on which there is a consensus in all civilised societies, regardless of religious beliefs, and against which we properly (and indeed necessarily) legislate.

Lucinda obviously believes that her conscience must be given greater weight than those of hundreds of thousands of women in Ireland who believe that women should be allowed have an abortion in Ireland, whether because of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, because of a pregnancy arising from rape, or for any other reason that their conscience permits.

As Gene Kerrigan has so aptly written,

It’s possible to have a personal position against abortion – which means you will not have an abortion; you hold that abortion is wrong. And at the same time to have a political position – which is that every woman should have the right to make that choice based on her conscience. Not yours or mine.   Otherwise, you’re saying no one has a right to do anything except what my conscience allows….

…There are women who just don’t – for reasons that are not your business or mine – wish to go through with a pregnancy they never wanted.  We may disagree with them, but we do not have a right to speak for their conscience.

Imagine it was the other way around – that people who are in conscience opposed to abortion were required to undergo abortions, because – for instance – the state imposed a policy on the number of children allowable.

Lucinda exiled herself from Fine Gael as she wanted to retain the status quo for our ultra-punitive abortion laws instead of making the marginal relaxation which the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill involved.  Following your conscience cannot be a “get-out clause” for doing bad things or (and this is key) for refusing similar latitude to other people whose reasoned and informed consciences tell them something completely different.

Dr Ryan Walter, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, wrote a fascinating article (“Conscience votes corrupt our political system”) on the relationship between politics and public representatives’ consciences.  It was in the context of proposed same-sex-marriage legislation, but it is relevant in this debate.

“Many politicians appreciate the freedom for debate and personal reflection that comes with conscience votes, but this is exactly why they are so dangerous. For conscience votes have the potential to undermine one of the defining principles of secular liberal democracy: the separation of religion and politics….

…We know from empirical research that politicians will tend to hold a mix of these views [on how best to represent their constituents and to serve the public interest], but the point to underline is that all these visions of politics require the politician to fulfil their public office rather than pursue private interests. This includes personal moral and religious interests. We are perfectly comfortable calling politicians corrupt when they steal from the public purse, but we are inconsistent when we do not decry injecting personal religious belief into legislation that will govern the lives of all Australians, regardless of faith.

…. [Conscience] tells us only to look inside ourselves but not what we’ll find there, which could be all sorts of things: university-student ideologies, religious convictions, moral visions. It is the role of political parties and the ritual of parliamentary process to discipline these private enthusiasms by subjecting them to the duties invested in the public office of a politician.”

Ask your actual or potential public representatives this question: “Do you believe that Ireland should be a secular democracy and that we should separate religion and politics?”  If they say no, well at least you know where they stand, and you should commend their honesty.  If they say yes, then tell them that you expect them to act accordingly when performing their duties as a legislator, and not to vote according to their “conscience” where that conscience is informed by religious views that are not universally accepted.

As Bertrand Russell said, “…the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”


Art vs religion

12 January, 2015

Clive James’s review of John Bayley’s collected book reviews , which was included in “The Revolt of the Pendulum”, has this:-

He just doesn’t think that art and religion make a good match, especially if the religion is an adopted one, as in the case of Waugh – and the case of Graham Greene, by whom he is enthralled even less.  Without precisely calling those two eminent Catholic converts perpetrators of a put-up job, he makes it clear that he thinks their religiosity detracts from their scope of vision rather than adding to it. …..

A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist’s attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved. Bayley is at his very best when he is pushing his insistence that the mundane is sublime enough. (‘Boots and shoes’, ‘the detail and the dailiness’: the phrases keep on coming.) He is surely right. Art, by making bearable sense of the world, is out after religion’s job, which is probably why no religion in its fundamentalist phase has ever liked it. Art is its own ideal state, which is probably why Plato didn’t like it either.

Famously, Islam prohibits the depiction of human and animal forms in art.  The Taliban even went to the trouble of destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But strict Protestantism used to be none too keen on depictions of God and the saints.  I heard a historian claim recently that 99% of all religious artworks were destroyed in England during the Reformation.

I’m just throwing out for your delectation a few links that caught my eye in recent weeks.  The common theme is that they challenge the views of our religious or superstitious (is that tautological?) brethren.

Kim Harris (link here) is entertaining (in a nicely grumpy way) on Astrology:

…when Frasier Crane introduced the aura-sensitive Daphne Moon to his crowd he did it with the following semi-gallantry: “This is Daphne, everybody. She’s psychic and we’ve decided to find it charming”  ……… Just as Philosophy begins where Religion ends, and Chemistry begins where Alchemy ends, so Astronomy begins where Astrology ends. Like Theology, astrology is a sovereign waste of time. It is the purest bobbins. Pants, drivel and mental vom just about sum it up. It is the Piers Morgan of pastimes.

A. Z. Myers and his Pharyngula blog has a Wikipedia entry:

Eventually, Myers summarized his stance by invoking “Blake’s Law“, which he named for the blogger who first codified it. Blake’s Law is an adage that frequent Pharyngula commentator Blake Stacey formulated in 2007, based in concept on Godwin’s Law. The law states:   In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to one.    As has become the tradition with Godwin’s Law, the person who compares the atheist to a religious fundamentalist is considered to have lost the argument.

Myers also featured in the special New Statesman survey where Andrew Zak Williams, having earlier asked various public figures why they believe in God (see here) turned the floor over to well-known atheists to explain why they don’t (see here).   Myers didn’t pull his punches:

Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren’t, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

In the same feature, Richard Dawkins has a go at Cherie Blair, who had contributed to the earlier article:

Equally unconvincing are those who believe because it comforts them (why should truth be consoling?) or because it “feels right”. Cherie Blair may stand for the “feels right” brigade. She bases her belief on “an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true”.  She aspires to be a judge.  M’lud, I cannot provide the evidence you require. My head cannot explain why, but my heart knows it to be true.  Why is religion immune from the critical standards that we apply not just in courts of law, but in every other sphere of life?

From Ambrose Bierce‘s Devil’s Dictionary:

Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. 

Finally, (at least for now), Steven Weinberg addressing the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. (April 1999):

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

Gerard O’Neill writes a very fine blog called “Turbulence Ahead” and his most recent piece dealt with attitudes to religion amongst Irish people of different ages.

His chart caught my eye, not because of the results it portrays, but because of the selection of categories into which the interviewee sample (and thus the overall population which it presumably represents) is divided.

Age bands are given for 15-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54 and lastly “55 +”. To me, selection of bands for statistical analysis implies, not that each band necessarily contains an approximately equal number of members, but that the individual bands are a discrete and meaningful demographic in some way or another. 

The selected bands in this study are not uncommon, but it raises the question as to whether the “55+” band is just a bit large and varied to be a sensible component of the analysis.  For instance, is a 55 year old man or woman in any way comparable (in religious views, political preferences, spending habits etc.) to an 80 year old, who would be of an entirely different generation?

I may be of an age when I am starting to notice insidious age discrimination, but surely it would be more informative if the opinion poll had separate categories for (say) 55-64 and 65+?  Or are the views of older people generally of less import for social commentators and journalists?  (We already know that advertisers, or at least those who create their ads, have a weird and patronising attitude to anybody over 50 – see “Older people want to shop shock” and “The nightmare of selling things to old people”.) 

Incidentally, Central Statistics Office information for Irish population by age (see here for 2006 figures) suggest that the number of people in the 55+ age group is significantly larger than in any of the 15-24, 25-34, 35-44, or 45-54 age groups.  This will become even more true with the passage of time and the “greying” of our population.

My quote of the day comes from John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun:

Mentioning Tennessee brings to mind that they have another moronic legislator attempting to smuggle creationism into the science curriculum under the guise of “teaching the controversy.” You’d think that after the Scopes trial the state would be a little more jealous of the tattered remnants of its reputation. But if they think “teaching the controversy” is such a fine idea, let them dictate that Marxism and Fascism be taught alongside capitalism and democracy.

Reminds me of the The Onion’s unbeatable version of this point:-

Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory…. As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.      

“Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.   Burdett added: “Gravity—which is taught to our children as a law—is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force. Isaac Newton himself said, ‘I suspect that my theories may all depend upon a force for which philosophers have searched all of nature in vain.’ Of course, he is alluding to a higher power.”     

Founded in 1987, the ECFR is the world’s leading institution of evangelical physics, a branch of physics based on literal interpretation of the Bible.