Archive for May, 2013

Benjamin Rush: Quaker Medical Pioneer and American Revolutionary

May 25, 2013

One of the founders of American medicine is the Quaker, Benjamin Rush. A signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Rush was also a major figure in the temperance movement. He also advocated the abolition of public and capital punishment and the education of girls. His educational views also recommended that greater freedom be given to children. He was also a pioneer in American medicine. He was one of the founders of the first American medical school in Philadelphia, and was the first to hold the chair of the Institute of Medicine. He drew attention to focal sepsis, and his descriptions of yellow and Dengue fever are regarded as classics. He became increasingly broad in his denominational views in the later years of his life, but still remained deeply religious. In Rush, America had both a leading physician and an advocate of political freedom and enlightened government.

F.D. Maurice on the Role of the National Church

May 25, 2013

In recent years there have been increased demands by secularists in Britain for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church or a reduction in its constitutional position as the national church. The most recent of these was the suggestion in the pages of the Independent newspaper by Frank Field that the bishops should give up their place in the House of Lords. Field is a Labour politician, who also commands considerable respect amongst Conservatives for his advocacy of further reductions in the welfare state. He is also different from many of those demanding the church’s removal in that he is a Christian, who has written books describing the influence of his faith on his political views and activity. The arguments for the removal of religion from the public sphere have been attacked by the British philosopher, Roger Trigg. The Church of England and its role in political life has also been defended by a number of public figures in the book, Why I Am an Anglican. The contributors to that volume include the British High Court judge, Elizabeth Butler-Schloss, and the editor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye, Ian Hislop.

It’s interesting reading the views of the great 19ith century Anglican churchman, Frederick Denison Maurice. Maurice’s framily were Unitarians, and he seems to have come into contact with almost every religious faith in England at the time before he finally converted to Anglicanism. His faith was therefore the result of a long search for religious truth, rather than the kind of simple acceptance so denounced as brainwashing by atheists like Richard Dawkins. Maurice was deeply concerned with the poverty and squalor created by the industrial revolution. He saw its cause as capitalism and laissez faire competition. He criticised and attacked the Utiilitarians, who he viewed as easing the consciences of the upper and middle classes by claiming that the degradation and appalling living conditions of the working classes were their own fault, rather than due to the very nature of capitalism itself. With Charles Kingsley, the author of the children’s book, the Water Babies, launched the Christian Socialists. The great historian, A.J.P. Taylor in his turn has criticised the Christian Socialists as doing little except soothing the consciences of British country squires. Nevertheless, the Christian Socialists influenced several generations of prominent Anglican clergymen, including Bishop Westcott, F.J.A. Hort, Charles Gore, Henry Scott Holland. Maurice’s views were also influential in the several conferences held in the 1920s debating and protesting against exploitation and poor living conditions of the working class. These included the Conference on Politics, Economics and Citizenship held in Birmingham in 1924, the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work, in Stockholm the following year, and the foundation of the Industrial Christian Fellowship.

Maurice believed that the nation was a divine ordinance and that the state was therefore God’s servant. He strongly argued that a National Church should work to raise and improve the national mind, remind both governors and governed of the ultimate source of their laws and guide them in the pursuit of truth, the only guarantee of political stability. He wrote:

‘A National Church should mean a Church which exists to purify and elevate the mind of a nation; to give those who make and administer and obey its laws a sense of the grandeur of law and of the source whence it proceeds, to tell the rulers of the nation, and all the members of the nation that all false ways are ruinous ways, that truth is the only stability of our time or of any time … This should be the meaning of a National Church; a nation wants a Church for these purposes mainly; a Church is abusing iits trust if it aims at any other or lower purpose’.

These views clearly belong to a past age of deference when both the state, the Church and the authorities commanded far greater respect than they do today. Too many scandals have erupted in all these institutions for them to have the same profound respect they commanded in the 19th century. Yet nevertheless, there is much to recommend the view that there should be a national church to raise the nation’s moral standards and the content of laws and institutions. Much legislation is based and expresses a particular moral view. It therefore needs to be remembered that for Christians, all true moral legislation ultimately has its origins in the Almighty, even when the legislator is not a Christian.

Frans de Waal Goes in Search of Atheist Chimps

May 18, 2013

Looking through Waterstone’s last week, I found in the popular science section Frans de Waal’s latest work, The Atheist Amongst the Bonobos, with a subtitle about Humanism in our nearest relatives. De Waal is a primatologist with an interest in using ape behaviour to try to explain human nature and society. One of his previous books had the title Ape Politics. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that his latest book is about Bonobos, rather than the chimpanzees that usually comprise the subjects of primate research. Unlike chimps, Bonobos are matriarchal, with the females holding considerable social power. They are also very promiscuous with sex used to counteract social tensions and prevent the formation of alliances amongst the male bonobos, which lead to violence in chimpanzees. It seems to reflect the hopes and expectations of ’60s radicalism that if women had more freedom and power, in politics and business and the Judeo-Christian taboos against sex were abolished, society would become much less violent and wars would cease.

Now it may be that if women had more power, there would be less violence and war. There have been numerous feminist movements throughout history that have attempted to end conflict. One of the latest was a group of mother’s in Northern Ireland from both sides of the sectarian divide. They had lost their children to the paramilitary violence, and so were campaigning for its end. On the other hand, the BBC’s veteran reporter, Kate Adie, in her book on women and war, noted that women could be just as belligerent and pro-war as men. She cited the women, who stood on street corners handing out feathers to men, who had not joined up during the First World War. As for the issue of sex and violence, the rise of the permissive society in Europe has effectively removed much of Judeo-Christian morality concerning sex. Sex before marriage appears to have become the norm, and there is more explicit depiction of sex and sexual relations than was usually permitted when society was governed by Judeo-Christian notions of sexual restraint. It’s arguable, however, whether society is less violent. Critics of the view that freer sex would mean less war and violence have pointed out that many of the most violent societies in the ancient world had far more permissive attitudes to sex than in later, Judeo-Christian societies. Babylonian religion, for example, featured fertility cults and sacred prostitution, which were strongly condemned by the Hebrew prophets.

De Waal’s book also seems to partake of a romantic view of primitive life that goes back to ancient Rome, and even found occasional expression in medieval culture. The Romans believed that the people of the Golden Age lived without tools, agriculture and civilisation in a state of paradaisical innocence, free of disease and war. Thte archaeologist, Stephanie Moser, in her book Ancestral Images shows a depiction of a family of hairy wild men from a medieval book illustration. The image of the Wild Man first appears in the 13th century or so. They are shown naked, with a club, and usually represent primitive violence set against European civilisation and chivalry. This particular picture, however, shows a Wild Man, with his wife, a Wild Woman, nursing their baby. An accompanying poem records how they live according to nature, eating wild plants, drinking water – but only when they’re thirsty – and sleeping out on the grass. Each stanza ends with the refrain, ‘And so I have, thank God, enough’. The Wild People of the picture are therefore held up as pursuing a natural, frugal, godly life, free of the luxuries and vices of human civilisation. A similar attitude appears to be behind de Waal’s books.

The use of chimpanzees and other primates as ideal models of basic human cognitive and social traits and behaviour has also been criticised, notable by the neurologist Raymond Tallis and and the BBC science journalist, Jeremy Taylor. Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, and Taylor in Not a Chimp both argue that human culture makes us profoundly different from chimpanzees. Taylor in particular points out that we are not as close to chimpanzees as has been frequently suggested. Instead of the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees being a mere 1 or two per cent, it’s more likely to be four per cent. And this is merely genetic difference. In these different genes lie the whole world of human culture and civilisation. Taylor notes that the last common ancestor between human and chimpanzees was six million years ago. And just as humans have been evolving in those six million years, so have chimpanzees. The total evolutionary difference between people and chimps is therefore 12 million years. Tallis points out that even the most basic, biological activities, like eating and going to the toilet, in humans takes place within a network of thought and symbolic culture that simply is not present in apes. Taylor aos points out that in humans, politics takes place within a network of rights, obligations and responsibilities of which chimpanzees simply aren’t aware. Both Taylor and Tallis find intensely distasteful and factually wrong the attempts to reduce humanity to another type of ape. Taylor is also extremely critical of the accompanying anthropomorphism of chimpanzees into another type of humans. He draws a parallel with the adverts for PG Tips tea which ran for years on British television. These featured a group of costumed chimps in humorous situations, trying to perform human tasks, like moving pianos, before settling down to a nice cup of tea. They were degrading spectacles, which are now mercifully discredited and taken off the air. Yet the attempt to gain specifically human rights for chimps and other apes is also degrading in its anthropomorphism. Rather than attempt to assimilate them legally to us, we should, in Taylor’s view, recognise their difference. Only through properly appreciating and providing for that, can we see that they and other wild animals receive the proper ecological protection they need and deserve.

As for atheism, nearly ten years or so now primatologists noticed chimps gazing into the distance. They suggested that this indicated that chimps also had a vague sense of the transcendance that forms the heart of religious experience. Now this is a long way from claiming that chimps or other primates are religious, but it does indicate that there is a beginning of the ‘sensus divinitatis’ – the sense of the divine in these related primates.

Taken together, bonobos, chimps and the other apes cannot be taken as models for human nature and society. Doing so mistakenly idealises and anthropormises them. Primatology can contribute much to our understanding of these creatures as well as humans, but the differences between apes and humans must also be respected. Between us and our nearest relatives there is a whole world of culture.

The Doctrine of Plenitude and Space as the Abode of Man in 17th Century Theology

May 17, 2013

I’ve blogged before on the doctrine of Plenitude in 17th and 18th century theology. This was the view that God had created the various planets and stars of the cosmos as homes for extraterrestrial, intelligent beings. It was held by theologians and Christian apologists such as Christian Wolf in Germany, as well Fontanelle in France and Thomas Burnet, Charles Blount and Robert Jenkin, the subject of my last blog post. Burnet wrote in his Sacred Theory of the Earth that

‘We must not … admit or imagine, that all nature, and this great universe, was made only for the sake of man, the meanest of all intelligent creatures that we know of; nor that this little planet, when we sojourn for a few day6s, is the only habitable planet of the universe: these are thoughts so groundless and unreasonable in themselves , and also so derogatory to the infinte power, wisdom and goodness of the first cause, that as they are absurd in reason, so they deserve far better to be marked and censured for heresies in religion, than many opinions that have censured for such in former ages.’

Robert Jenkin on Possible Colonisation of Space before the Fall and after the Resurrection

Robert Jenkin believed that the various worlds of the cosmos may have been deliberately created by the Almighty to house humanity before the Fall. After this, he considered that they may have been designed to serve as further homes for humanity after the end of the time and the resurrection. Then they would serve as homes for the righteous, and places of punishment for the wicked. In the present, however, they served to keep the world in its proper place in the universe and maintain the equilibrium of the whole system through their gravitational attraction:

‘I observe, that though it should be granted, that some planets by habitable, it doth not therefore follow, that they must be actually inhabited, or that they ever have been. For they might be designed, if mankind had persisted in innocency, as places for colonies to remove men to, as the world should have increased, either in reward to those that had excelled in virtue and piety, to entertain them with the prospect of new and better worlds; and so by degrees, to advance them in proportion to their deserts, to the height of bliss and glory in heaven; or as a necessary reception for men (who would then have been immortal) after the earth had been full of inhabitants. And since the fall and mortality of mankind, they may be either for mansions of hte righteous, or places of punishment for the wicked, after the resurrection, according as it shall please God, at the end of ht eworld to new modify and transform them. And in the meantime, being placed at their respctive distances, they do by their several motions contribgute to keep the world at a poise, and the several parts of it at an equilibrium in their gravitation upon each other, by Mr. Newton’s principles’.

Religious Attitudes in Russian Biocosmism and Western Transhumanism

A similar attitude survives today in the thinking of the Russian biocosmists. This arose in the late 19th century. Its gaol was the scientific attainment of immortality and the resurrection of the dead. It also advocated the colonisation of space to provide homes for the new, resurrected humanity. The great Soviet rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was a member. Biocosmism wasn’t a specifically Christian movement. It also included elements of theosophy. Nevertheless, it can be seen as a secularisation of the theological attitude expressed by Jenkin. The Communist authorities initally tolerated Biocosmism after the 1917 Revolution before banning and persecuting it in the 1930s as a dangerous, heretical ideology. It re-appeared after the Fall of Communism, and has formed links with western Transhumanism. The similarity between the views of the Biocosmists, Transhumanists and Jenkin’s appears to bear out a remark on their identity of purpose by one of Transhumanism’s founders, the robotics engineer Mark Moravec. Moravec’s wife is a Methodist minister, and he once stated that Christians and Transhumanists wanted the same thing. They just went about it differently.

Moral Perfection and Cosmic Awe in Star Trek and Cosmos

You can also see a certain similarity with Jenkin’s views in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and the vision of human expansion in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, has said in interviews that he believed the show’s popularity lay in its optimism. It envisages a future in which humanity has overcome its social and political problems, survived the horrors of the twentieth century, and gone on to produce an ideal, tolerant society in the Federation. Star Trek is very definitely a secular show, and its attitude to religion is ambivalent. Some episodes have a positive view of it, while others consider it a negative force holding humanity and alien races back from achieving their true potential. Nevertheless it shares with Jenkin a view of the cosmos that sees it as an area for colonisation by a perfected and morally regenerate humanity.

In his TV series and book, Cosmos, the late Carl Sagan expressed a profound awe of the vastness and intricacy of the universe. A Humanist and member of the Sceptics’ group, CSICOP, now the Centre for Scientific Inquiry, Sagan also campaigned for the human colonisation of space and contact with other alien civilisations. Cosmos was a truly inspiring series, and prepared the way for later scientific blockbusters like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Sagan’s attempts to show the universe as an object of literal cosmic awe approaches the religious feeling of the numinous, the sense of awe before the presence of God or the gods. His campaign for spaceflight and extraterrestrial contact therefore partakes of the same religious nature as Jenkin’s view that the other worlds revealed by science, with the difference that Jenkin’s believed that they would only be colonised by a humanity that had attained and been transformed through God’s grace.

Despite the rationalism and secularism of mdoern SF and the movements for space exploration and colonisation, they still contain much of the religious sense of wonder and human destiny expressed by 17th and 18th century theologians like Fontanelle, Burnet, Blount and Jenkin. For them, the heavens not only proclaimed the glory of God, but also offered a future home for humanity and other intelligent beings through God’s providential grace.

Secondary Causation and God’s Purpose in Protestant Aristotelianism

May 17, 2013

In the fifty years between 1610 and 1660 Protestant Scholasticism developed a number of traits that distinguished it from its Roman Catholic counterpart. One of these was the concept of God’s concurrence. This was the idea that the world was shaped through secondary causes, which were nevertheless created and operated through God’s will. The German theologian, J.H. Heidegger, wrote:

‘Concurrence or co-operation is the operation of God by which He co-operates directly with the second causes as depending upon Him alike in their essence as in their operation, so as to urge or move them to action and to operate along iwth them in a manner suitable to a first cause adn adjusted to the nature of second causes’.

Nevertheless, the use of secondary causes did not rule out the possibility and reality of direct intevention by God:

‘Government is direct, when God either does not use second causes or uses them above, beyond and counter to their nature … But he is not said ever to have done anything contrary to universal nature, i.e., the order of the whole universe, to whihc He bound Himself of His own free will. But He frequently operated iwthout means, beyond and counter to them, to show that all things are by Him or His proximate and direct goodness.’

More recently theologians like Alister McGrath, a former microbiologist, have pointed out that the neither the Bible nor the early Church Fathers never used a particular Greek term for miracle that implied the breakdown or absence of scientific law. For the Gospel writers and the early church, a miracle was not the absence or violation of the laws of nature, but their suspension through the operation of a superior law. Thus in this view, Christians are perfectly free to accept that humanity may have been deliberately created by God through the agency of evolution while also believing in God’s miraculous intervention in ‘special acts of grace’.

Robert Jenkin: Science Demonstrates the Unimaginable Grandeur of God and His Creation

May 15, 2013

Although some Christians in the 17th century felt that the new scientific advances attacked and undermined Christianity, others believed the complete opposite. One of these was Robert Jenkin. In his The Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion, published in London in 1700, Jenkin stated that the new scientific advances not only demonstrated the power and majesty of God through His creation, they also showed how transcendent His works were. The Law of Gravitation seemed to have no rational explanation. It was nevertheless true, and a major scientific advance. It also showed how far beyond human understanding God’s construction and management of the cosmos was. He wrote:

‘Indeed infidelity could never be more inexcusable than in the present age, when so many discoveries have been made in natural philosophy, which would have been thought incredible to former ages, as any thing perhaps that can be imagined, which is not a downright contradiction. That gravitating attractive force, by whihc all bodies act one upon another, at never so great a distance, even through a vacuum of prodigious extent, lately demonstrated by Mr. Newton; the Earth, together with the planets, and the sun and stars being placed at such distances, and disposed of in such order, and in such a manner, as to maintain a perpetual balance and poise throughout the universe, is such a discovery, as nothing less than a demonstration could have gained it any belief. And this system of nature being so lately discovered, and so wonderful, that no account can be given of it by a hypothesis in philosophy, but it must be resolved into the sole power and good pleasure of Almighty God, may be a caution against all attempts of estimating the divine works and dispensations by the measures of human reason. The vastness of the world’s extent is found to be so prodigious, that it would exceed the belief not only of the vulgar, but of the greatest philosopher, if undoubted experiments did not assure us of the truth of it.’

In fact, gravitation only appeared inexplicable because Aristotelian science denied action at a distance. For the Aristotelians, for something to have an effect it had to be in physical contact with whatever it acted upon. This was not the case in Platonic philosophy, which considered that things could operate through a system of similarity and attraction/ repulsion. This, however, was associated with the occult. It was, for example, the explanation for the supposed effect the stars had on the creatures on Earth in astrology. Newton himself was very much aware how his theory contradicted Aristotelian notions of causation, and had indeed drawn his inspiration for the theory from Neoplatonism.

Modern physicists consider that gravitation is caused by sub-atomic particles of force called gravitons. In Star Trek, gravitons are the force used by the space ships’ tractor beams to tow other space ships and other objects. No gravitons have so far been detected. Some cosmologists believe that they are unnecessary to explain gravity. These scientists instead consider that gravity is the effect mass has when it bends the fabric of space-time, as described in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Whatever the precise explanation of gravity may turn out to be, one can agree with Jenkin that although its cause may have a rational explanation, that explanation in its turn demonstrates the wonderful construction of the universe by the Almighty.

Girolamo Fracastoro: The Christian Father of Modern Pathology

May 15, 2013

Until the 19th century the favoured explanation for the origin and spread of disease was the miasma theory. This followed the ancient authors, who believed that disease was caused by bad smells. It’s the reason malaria has its name – mala aria, bad air. The germ theory of disease only became dominant in the 19th century, when medical science was able to confirm that disease was spread by micro-organisms. It is nevertheless a surprising fact that some physicians from the 16th century onwards came very close to a germ theory of disease. One of these was the classical Humanist and polymath Girolamo Fracastoro.

Fracastoro became a student at the University of Padua in 1501, the same year as Copernicus also enrolled at the university. He was interested in a wide range of scientific subjects, pursuing research and writing on medicine, pathology, physics, geology and astronomy. He also had good relations with the Church. In his long poem De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (Concerning the Contagion and Contagious Disease), published in 1546, Fracastoro advanced a modern theory of the spread of epidemics. He believed they were spread by little particles or seeds, and identified three different types of illness.

The first were those spread by person to person contact, such as leprosy, scabies and respiratory tuberculosis. The second were spread by utensils, beclothes and other items, with which infected people had come into contact. These were the vectors – the causes of transmission – of some of the fevers. The third type were diseases such as smallpox, that could travel great distances.

A similar explanation for the spread of disease was later advanced in the 18th century by the French Academy of Science to explain outbreaks of plague. These later physicians considered that it was spread by small spores. In this instance Fracastoro was clearly far ahead of his time.

Apart from his medical writing, he was the first to recognise and describe the magnetic poles, and one of the first to propose the modern origin of fossil beds. He can thus be considered a true Renaissance Christian man of science.

Back in the USSR: Atheism and Pop Music in Soviet Propaganda

May 13, 2013

In the last article, I criticised David Bowie for including blasphemous imagery in his latest pop video. In the West there’s an attitude that somehow atheist or anti-christian popular music is politically, intellectually and spiritually liberating, that somehow you’re a free, independent, person if you listen to or participate in it. This isn’t necessarily the case. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was aggressively atheist. Christians and members of other faiths were persecuted, their churches and places of worship demolished and turned into museums of atheism. In the Soviet Union, atheism was explicitly taught as part of the science curriculum. And pop music was used to try and indoctrinate young people with approved atheist, Communist values. Way back in the 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of programmes on the USSR as it was then, including a programme on Soviet television. This latter was fascinating, as it opened a feature of Soviet society that was unknown to most people in the West. And besides, everyone likes to know what’s on TV, and what the other guy is watching. Soviet television was very mixed. Amongst the shows covered were historical dramas, comedy, a Russian version of Sherlock Holmes in which St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then, stood in for Victorian London, and a spy drama in which the heroic forces of the KGB did battle with the CIA. It also showed a pop video attacking Christianity deliberately broadcast at the time of the Russian Orthodox Christmas Service. The song opened with the statement, addressed to the Lord, that the singer didn’t believe in Him, before attacking Christianity further.

Now atheism is not Communism, although atheism did form part of Communist ideology. And obviously, being an atheist certainly does not automatically mean that one supports tyranny. Needless to say, many atheists genuinely believe and actively support freedom, free speech and conscience. My point here is only that the obvious – that just as atheism does not necessarily stand for tyranny, it also doesn’t necessarily represent or support freedom and independence either. Ironically, pop music in the Soviet Union, like other forms of youth culture, was very heavily monitored and controlled. Much of the music that formed the backdrop to adolescent life in the West was banned, even such apparently innocuous songs as Boney M’s Rasputin. I can remember reading an interview with one Russian lady in which she remenisced how, when she and a group of other teenagers were on a Young Pioneers’ camp in Siberia, they sneaked away into the forest with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder to play a bootleg recording of the above record, and felt very rebellious. Pop music is simply a musical form, or rather, a series of musical forms. Like other art forms, there’s nothing wrong in itself. It just depends on the use to which it is put. It’s status as the music of youthful rebellion, however, means that it frequently is used to spread a particular message, which may be held up as the authentic voice of youth. In the USSR this meant that when it was permitted, it could be used to promote atheism as a deliberate and explicit form of ideological indoctrination. This is in stark contrast to the way anti-Christian pop music is viewed in the West, as somehow anti-establishment, anti-official indoctrination. Paradoxically, this means that in certain part of pop culture, anti-Christianity is pretty much part of the musical and artistic establishment. Music is very much a matter of personal taste, and in free societies people should have the right to listen to the kind of music they want without ideological restrictions. But it also means that people also have the responsibility of listening to the ideological messages in their music, and questioning and criticising them. Even when it includes commonplace attitudes like aggressive atheism and a violent rejection of Christianity.

David Bowie: Pop Blasphemy and Big Bucks

May 13, 2013

David Bowie was in the news again last week. According to the Independent, the video for his latest track features a gangster-priest and Bowie himself as a messianic figure. The article on it concluded that whatever the reception the song has, pop music will continue to mock Christianity. Now I’m aware that in writing this post I’m playing into Bowie’s and his promoters’ hands. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as the saying goes. And as Oscar Wilde, whose trial was very bad publicity indeed, wrote, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Bowie’s foray into Christian imagery and pop blasphemy nevertheless needs to be critiqued and criticised.

Bowie is an icon of pop ‘cool’. The androgynous look he pioneered in Ziggy Stardust went on to influence Goth and certain forms of Heavy Metal. A veteran of the pop world, it seems that he resurfaces every decade or so to release another album to critical acclaim. He is, or was, the subject of an exhibition at the V&A. Yet in the use of Christian imagery to provoke, amuse or offend, he seems definitely behind the ball. Other pop stars have been doing it for years. Madonna’s more or less built her entire career on it, and it’s part and parcel of various Goth, Industrial and Black Metal bands, like Cradle of Filth. In fact the use of blasphemous or anti-Christian imagery in some pop and rock music is now so much part of the genre, that it’s hardly shocking. Indeed, it’s almost boring. Whatever the dangers of using such images were in the early days of rock’n’roll, it now seems quite safe and calculated to boost sales rather than harm them. The use of imagery from other religions wouldn’t have the same effect. It would either be seen as irrelevant, racist and even dangerous. In the case of Islam, it could result in diplomatic incidents, mass riots and people dead, including the singer. And so it’s easier to pick on Christianity. As countless scandals have shown, a bit of outrage can always be guaranteed to boost sales. And Christianity is a safe target. It might lead to the odd condemnation during a sermon, but that’s about it. You can also count on such anti-Christian images being defended as free artistic expression, or justified comment on an archaic and corrupt institution. The days when such things were really controversial are long gone. Anti-Christian imagery and shock tactics are now pretty much traditional across much of popular culture. In the case of the Heavy Rockers, it’s pretty much a stereotype. Rather than a true revolt against society, it’s now just an empty gesture. It gives the fans the sensation that they’re doing something daring and rebellious, while in fact what they’re doing is simply repeating and rehashing yet another pop cliche. They don’t even have to do something that would genuinely require a little thought and determination, like going on a protest march, joining a political party or activist group, or even standing on the picket lines protesting against the latest library or school closure. Now I’m not saying that Bowie necessarily isn’t politically aware, or that his fans aren’t. I am merely saying that the use of anti-Christian imagery can, and frequently is a substitute for any deeper message. Before Barack Obama’s election galvanised, and continues to polarise, American political opinion, people were increasingly turning away from politics. In Britain membership of the main political parties is in decline, and fewer and fewer people were turning out for elections. Some of this was due to cynicism, a belief that all political parties are the same, and all politicians are self-centred hypocrites and ego-maniacs out to deceive and exploit the electorate. It also has to be said that many people just can’t be bothered to vote. Politics can be boring, as anyone who’s ever attended any kind of committee meeting knows. It can also be highly emotive and confrontational. In addition to this, some of the issues can be arcane and difficult to follow. It’s not for nothing that economics has been ‘the dismal science.’ Why bother being bored and angry, when you can be entertained instead? Just skip the news and watch a pop video instead.

As for Bowie, for all his critical acclaim and adulation, his own heyday was in the ’70s and, to a lesser extent, the ’80’s. I’m not sure what proportion of the public actually buys his records, but my guess is that most of his fans are at least in their 30s or 40s. I doubt he has much impact on the teen market, except as someone held up to them by older connoisseurs as a true icon of pop. And as far as weird and disturbing imagery goes, he faces some extremely stiff competition, like that veteran self-publicist, Lady Gaga. Next to her, Bowie’s anti-Christian posturing looks decidedly old hat. And so once again Christianity is attacked by another publicity-hungry rocker, hoping to make more millions out of album sales.

Robert Owen: Utopian Socialist, Promoter of ‘Rational Religion’

May 12, 2013

The founder of British Socialism was the 19th century Welsh reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler and ironworker who was also the local postmaster, Own moved from Newtown in Wales to take over the mill at New Lanark in Scotland. There he improved the conditions of his workers through paternal management. Unlike other contemporary businesses, he did not employ children under ten, and the children of his workers were educated in the factory school. Owen later went on to denounce the social division, inequality, poverty and crime which he believed had their roots in private property, and advocated instead a series of utopian communities based on co-operation and the sharing of produce. He initially enjoyed the support of many members of the clergy and ruling aristocracy, including dukes and archbishops. He alienated them through his religious scepticism. His lecture on the New Religion given at the Freemason’s Hall in 1830 is essentially an attack on revealed religion. He believed that the revealed religions of the world kept people in ignorance and so prevented them from improving themselves, as well as creating bitter hatreds that served only to divide humanity. He also campaigned against the idea of marriage for life, which he viewed as chaining unhappy couples together permanently and consequently creating vice and crime through broken families that could nevertheless not be dissolved.

The 19th century was an age of social and political upheaval, with groups like the Chartists emerging to demand the extension of the franchise to the working class. The Christian Chartists, who were particularly strong in Scotland, objected to co-operation with the Owenites as they disliked being associated with ‘Socialists and infidels’. In fact, Owen was a Deist, and then later a Spiritualist, and took many of his ideas from the 17th century Quaker, John Bellers, the Moravians, and the Shakers and Rappites in America. He was also a firm advocate of freedom of conscience. Law 12 in his 1840 Manifesto states

‘That all facts yet known to man indicate that there is an external or internal Cause of all existences, by the fact of their existence; that this all-pervading cause of motion and change in the universe, is that Incomprehensible Power, which the nations of the world have called God, Jehovah, Lord, etc., etc.; but that the facts are yet unknown to man which define what that power is.’

He believed that God created human nature at birth, but that the good qualities of humanity could be brought out if developed in accordance with natural, rational laws.

‘Human nature in each individual is created, with its organs, faculties, and propensities, of body and mind, at birth, but the incomprehensible Creating Power of the universe; all of which qualities and powers are necessary for the continuation of the species, and the growth, health, progress, excellence and happiness, of the individual and of society; and these results will always be attained when, in the progress of nature, men shall have acquired sufficient experience to cultivate these powers, physical and mental, in accordance with the natural laws of humanity.’

He was also radical in arguing for complete religious freedom. Law 8 of his Manifesto states that ‘everyone shall have equal and full liberty to express the dictates of his conscience on religious and all other subjects.’ Law 9 laid down that ‘No one shall have any other power than fair and friendly argument to control the opinions or belief of another.’ Law 10 stated that ‘No praise or blame, no merit or demerit, no reward or punishment, shall be awarded for any opinion or beliefs’. Finally, Law 11 stipulated that

‘But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the great Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe; and to worship that power under any form or in any manner agreeable to their consciences – not interfering with others.’

In many ways, Owen’s views are a product of 18th century rationalism. After the Fall of Communism, few would argue that a completely socialised economy can be successfully run. Nevertheless, the success of New Lanark did show 19th century businessmen that working conditions could be improved and the working classes provided for while still making a healthy profit. It also differs from later radical socialism in that, unlike later Communism, it was not atheist and specifically provided for freedom of conscience. Indeed, Owen is interesting for making the belief in God an article of his Manifesto, even if he looked to science, rather than revelation for establishing the Lord’s nature.