Archive for the ‘Rome’ Category

The Eugenicist Attitude to the Coronavirus: the Buck Stops with Boris

March 25, 2020

Earlier this week, I got a message from Labour leadership hopeful Lisa Nandy urging everyone to put their political differences,including trade unions and employers, and unite to tackle the current emergency. I’d agree with her, if I had faith in the current government. If I believed that Boris Johnson was a competent Prime Minister, who was also deeply concerned to protect the lives and livelihoods of everyone in this great nation. But I cannot honestly say that he is. And one of the reasons that he isn’t is that he let the government’s policy to the virus outbreak be determined by his pet polecat, Dominic Cummings. 

The Sunday Times astonished the British public last Sunday by revealing that the government’s attitude to the spread of the virus had been decided by Bojob’s favourite polecat, Dominic Cummings. And Cummings had decided that it should be tackled by allowing the British public to develop herd immunity. The virus was to be allowed to spread throughout the population, so that people became naturally immune. Biologists, doctors, and epidemiologists warned instead that this wouldn’t work. It has only ever been achieved using vaccination, and if the virus was allowed to spread, it could result in the deaths of a quarter of million people. Its victims would be chiefly the old and the already sick. Tragically, as we’re seeing now, its victims also include young, previously healthy people in their 20s and 30s. Cummings had told people privately that his chief concern was to protect the economy, and if a few old people died, too bad. It’s a disgusting attitude, and Zelo Street was exactly right in his article about it when he says that it places Cummings’ beyond the pale, and that he has to be removed and a public inquiry held afterwards.

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/03/dominic-cummings-fan-hits-shit.html

Cummings’ attitude is rooted in eugenics. This views humans in very coarse, crudely Darwinian terms. For the race to improve, superior stock must be allowed and encouraged to breed. The inferior are to be weeded out through natural selection – they are either to be allowed to die through disease or their own mental and physical handicaps, or sterilised. In the 19th century, the American corporate elite advanced eugenicist arguments to prevent the government passing what would now be called ‘health and safety’ legislation. It was worse than useless to try to improve the condition of the poor with public welfare. The poor were sick and disabled not through poor working or living conditions, but simply because they were biologically unfit. Any attempt to improve their conditions would only result in the biologically inferior breeding, and so contaminating the rest of the human stock. By the 1920s, about 25 American states had passed legislation providing for the compulsory sterilisation of the disabled. The policy was enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis, who boasted that they were making absolutely no innovations. They took it to its horrific conclusion, however, with the SS’ murder of the insane and mentally handicapped in special clinics. A policy that prepared the way for the Holocaust and the wholesale murder of the Jews with cyanide gas.

And the Tories seem to be permeated through and through with eugenicist attitudes. They were forced to sack Andrew Sabisky as one of Bojob’s aides because he held similar noxious views. Toby Young, the Spectator journalist and media sleaze, lost his job on Tweezer’s board, set up to represent students, after it was revealed he was also a eugenicist. Tobes had attended conferences at University College London on eugenics, where real anti-Semites, racists and Nazis gathered. And Maggie’s mentor, the loathsome Keith Joseph, caused outrage in the 1970s when he declared that unmarried mothers were a threat to ‘our stock’.

This doesn’t mean that the Tories actively want to round up the disabled and long term sick. But it does explain their absolute complacency about 120,000 deaths or so that have occurred through their austerity, including their obstinate refusal to abandon a policy that is killing people. Cummings should not, of course, have ever been allowed to decide that the government should favour the economy at the expense of ordinary people’s lives. But as Mike also pointed out in an article he posted on Monday, the buck ultimately stops with Bojob. It was Bojob who told the British people that many of them would lose loved ones before their time, when he had not then taken the ‘social distancing’ measures he’s now been forced to adopt to slow down the virus – the closure of schools, pubs, clubs, leisure facilities and social gatherings. And so while the media talked about the Polecat’s horrendous attitude, other peeps on Twitter knew where the real culpability lay. And one woman, MrsGee, probably spoke for many when she said Johnson should resign.

Bid to blame Tory coronavirus strategy on Cummings is baloney. The buck stops with Boris

There’s no question that people’s lives should come before the economy. They were debating precisely this kind of situation in the 19th century. The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, even wrote a piece about it. In one of his plays, the leaders of a spa town are faced with a dilemma. The spa is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, but they are unwilling to close the spa down because of the income it provides the community. Perhaps we would be better governed, and our leaders had been truly prepared for this crisis, if sometime during their education they’d actually read Ibsen or seen the play performed.

But I don’t think Johnson is any too interested in modern Continental literature. He’d rather see what the classics have to say about things and compare himself to Caesar and Churchill.

Cartoon: Carry on Apprentice

March 14, 2020

Hi, and welcome to another of my cartoons. This is one is a little bit different. I’ve decided to lighten the mood a little bit, and so it’s a bit of a break from satirising the Tory party and its monstrous denizens. This time it’s a mock movie poster for a ‘Carry On’ film of the Beeb’s The Apprentice. It’s because I noticed a certain physical similarity between Alan Sugar and Nick Hewer with Sid James and Kenneth Williams. And I have to say I’d rather watch Joan Sims than Tory shill Karen Brady.

So here it is. The slogan reads ‘There’s no decorum in the boardroom of Alan Nookie PLC’. I’ve also written a number of fake quotes for it like those that appear on movie posters. They are

‘Good rollicking fun’ – The Sun

‘Sheer sexist filth’ – Everyone born after 1980

‘Waugh! Waugh!’ – the late Side James.

I don’t think you could revive the ‘Carry On’ films today, as society has moved on so much from their heyday in the ’60s and ’70s’. The last film, Carry On Columbus, released in 1992 during 50th celebrations of Columbus’ discovery of America, was a flop despite having a cast that included Maureen Lipman, Julian Clary and Alexei Sayle. However, some of that style of humour would still be acceptable. Some of the visual gags in the Austin Powers movies, for example, owe something to the Carry On films and I can’t see some of the other gags causing offence, either. Like the cry of Kenneth Williams’ Julius Caesar in Carry On Cleo as he’s assassinated ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ And then there’s that sequence in Carry On Screaming when Harry H. Corbet’s detective and his sidekick, played by Peter Butterworth, try working out on blackboard what the clues mean.

‘Right – is it fair play, or foul?’ asks Corbet.

‘Oh, foul, Inspector’. Corbet writes ‘foul’ on the blackboard.

‘Right, what makes us think it was foul?’

‘The footprints.’

‘Feet, right’. He writes ‘Feet’ on the board. ‘Anything else?’

‘The smell, Inspector’.

‘The smell!’ He write ‘smell on the blackboard.

‘What else?’

‘They saw something, something horrible’.

‘Something horrible’, he writes this on the board.

Corbet stands back. He asks, ‘And so, looking at the board, what have we got?’

Butterworth reads out ‘Foul feet smell something horrible’.

Okay, it’s schoolboy humour, but I still find it funny. And unlike the attitudes in the movies to sex and women, which are very ’70s, that kind of humour and punning could still be included in movies today without causing offence. Possibly also the double entendres. Julian Clary and others have said that they enjoyed the camp humour of radio shows like Round the Horne, which are similar to those of the Carry On films in that regard. This would require far more care, though.

Anyway, I hope this gives you a laugh. And don’t let the Tories give you nightmares.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cartoon: Dominic Cummings as Goya’s Saturn

February 26, 2020

Hello, and I hope everyone’s having a great day. Here’s another cartoon, which I hope will bring a smile to your lips as well as express my absolute revulsion at the Tories. This time the subject is Boris Johnson’s adviser and pet polecat, Dominic Cummings. The tone is, as you can see, still dark and horrific, but the inspiration comes from great art rather than film. The cartoon shows Cummings, naked except for his woolly hat, eating someone. It’s based on Goya’s famous painting, ‘Saturn Eating his Children’, painted in the artist’s old age on the walls of his house.

Goya is one of the great figures of Romantic art. I think he was a moderate liberal, who hoped for reforms that would give his country great political liberty, as well as education and reason against widespread superstition. He depicted some of these superstitious beliefs and customs in his art, like witches’ sabbaths and the ‘Burial of a Sardine’. But he was left disappointed and bitter by the conservative reaction and then the violence and atrocities of the Napoleonic Invasion, which he also depicted in his sequence ‘The Horrors of War’. These drawings show firings squads, women throwing stones at armed troopers, mutilated corpses. In an age which glorified warfare as noble and heroic, Goya stands out – and still stands out – for showing how horrific it really is. And their titles are truly prophetic and eternal. I believe that the drawing of the firing squad has the title ‘It Will Be the Same Again’. As it has been, in just about every war since, all over the world.

His ‘Saturn Eating His Children’ was one of number of similar paintings, all against a black background. In Graeco-Roman myth, the god Saturn was afraid of being usurped by his children, so he ate them. Jupiter, his son, outwitted him by tricking him into eating a stone instead. Saturn then vomited up the other gods, who united under Jupiter’s leadership, and overthrew their father, fulfilling the prophecy.

Where the Roman myth ends in victory and triumph, Goya’s painting just shows bleakness and horror. Saturn is shown naked except for his long hair, his eyes wide and staring in madness, part way through consuming one of the bodies. I thought it would form a fitting metaphor for the sheer, unrelenting, insane ferocity with which Cummings and the rest of the Tories attack the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and marginalised. They aren’t personally violent, except in a few cases, but the welfare reforms initiated by Dave Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, and carried on by Tweezer and Johnson, have called tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocents. All because they’re greedy and afraid – of the poor and of the working class. The same kind of insane fear and hate that Goya gave his figure of Saturn.

Here’s the cartoon. I hope you enjoy it, and, as always, don’t have nightmares.

Cartoon: Borigula

February 15, 2020

Here’s another one of my cartoons poking fun at the Tories. Boris Johnson prides himself on his education at Eton and knowledge of the classics. A few years ago he wrote a book and presented a series on the glories of the Roman empire. So the film that inspired this piece of pictorial satire is the grim ’70s epic, Caligula, about one of the maddest and nastiest of the Roman emperors. The face in the top right hand side is a mask of tragedy. The grimacing figure at the bottom is from a pottery model of an actor. As they both depict horror, loathing and disgust, they are very suitable expressions of Boris’ loathsome government.

Enjoy, and don’t have nightmares!

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the Economic, Academic and Social Costs of Brexit

January 16, 2020

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown issued another stinging attack on Brexit in the I yesterday. She sharply criticised the Brexiteers triumphalism, that made them demand the mass celebration of Britain’s departure from the EU with a ‘festival of Brexit’, churches ringing their bells up and down the country, street parties and ‘a big, fat, jingoistic party in Parliament Square on January 31st’. She compared the proposed celebrations with the forced, state-mandated festivities of North Korea, and quoted the Roman satirist Juvenal on how the rich distracted the plebs with bread and circuses while taking away their liberties. She also bitterly complained about the way Remainers were now seen as somehow treacherous for their rejection of this wave of jingoism despite the closeness of the vote in the referendum. But she also made very good points about the immense cost Brexit had already inflicted on our economy, education, and society. She wrote

According to a detailed report by ratings agency S&P, Brexit has already cost the economy £66bn. It calculates that the amount is more than we paid into the European Union for 47 years. The economy is stagnant. The Union  of the four nations may not hold. Migrants and black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons are experiencing more hostility. Complaints are met with increased hostility or disbelief. Universities are panicking about the potential loss of EU grants and the Erasmus+ scheme – a travel bursary for young people which enriched their lives.

Musicians and artists are losing essential EU connections. Care homes cannot get workers because EU citizens are leaving. Too many feel unwelcome or are discouraged by new, costly and unfair immigration rules. NHS workers from elsewhere are becoming disillusioned.

She then describes how an Asian friend, Priti, told her about the increasing racism she was experiencing.

My friend Priti, a nurse who came over from India five years ago, says: “This is not the country I came into. Not the place my parents loved when they studied here. It has become so impolite. Even when I am changing a bandage or putting drops in their eyes, some patients shout at me to go bac. My colleagues are great but I am going – I have a job in Dubai. They need us but don’t behave well.”

We need these foreign nurses and doctors, who do an excellent job caring for our sick. It’s disgusting that they should be treated with such contempt and abuse.

Brexit is wrecking our economy, placing the Union under potentially devastating stress, and impoverishing our education system, our arts and culture, and denying needed expertise and labour to the NHS. But somehow we are meant to celebrate all this as a victory for Britain.

Alibhai-Brown herself says that Remainers should follow Will Hutton’s advice, and light candles on 31st January before going back to Brexit. She says that we must, for the sake of the younger generation and the future of this once-formidable nation.

I don’t think we can reasonable go on opposing Brexit forever without isolating ourselves politically. But I think we should be trying to get the best possible deal with the EU and trying to forge lasting, beneficial links with it.

While pointing out that so far, it is a massive, astronomically expensive failure.

Hypocrite Guido Fawkes Defends Italian Fascists from Jewish Labour MP

January 2, 2020

The Sage of Crewe at Zelo Street has put up a very revealing piece showing exactly where Guido Fawkes real sympathies like when it comes to the question of anti-Semitism. Staines and his far-right crew were as zealous as the rest of the lamestream media in pushing the anti-Semitism smears against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. But this time the mask has slipped. He has sided with a group of Italian football ‘fans’, who made Fascist/Nazi salutes, against the Jewish Labour MP for Warrington North, Charlotte Nicholls. This isn’t the first time Guido’s been responsible for a bit of Jew hatred. The Sage reminds us how, when Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party, one of his underlings, Simon Carr, wrote two anti-Semitic pieces about the Labour leader. Which delighted his employer so much, that he and fellow Fawkes’ employees Harry Cole and Alex Wickham that they embraced Carr on camera.

This time, Fawkes has been greatly indignant that Nicholls should be in favour of the Fascists being given a good kicking. Another one of Staines’ minions, Tom Harwood, has written a piece with the delightful title ‘Labour MP Continues to Endorse Kicking Heads In’. Harwood has apparently written

Festive cheer was somewhat lacking from one Labour MP over Christmas, who took to the BBC to defend her conjecture Italian tourists should have their heads kicked in. Distancing herself from Labour’s pro-EU stance already.

Back in October, Nichols had originally tweeted that fans of the Italian club S.S. Lazio should ‘get their heads kicked in’ as they performed fascist salutes before a football match in Glasgow”.

They quote Nicholls Tweeting “You shouldn’t be doing Nazi salutes on the streets of Britain if you don’t want your head kicked in”.   Tim follows her in considering that the Italians were making Nazi, rather than Fascist salutes. In fact, at this time there’s precious little difference between the two. The Fascists adopted the raised right arm, calling it the ‘Roman’ salute in order to evoke the memory of the Roman Empire, which they aimed to restore.  They weren’t originally anti-Semitic, but they followed the Nazis in passing anti-Semitic legislation in 1937. They weren’t as harsh as Nazi legislation, and 80 per cent of Italian Jews managed to survive the War. But Fascism was nevertheless still a brutal, racist dictatorship with laws against Jews and Black Africans, and their army committed atrocities in the Balkans, north Africa and Abyssinia. And contemporary Italian neo-Fascists are still racist and anti-immigrant, as well as hostile to democracy, liberalism, socialism, Communism and anarchism.

Nicholls added to her comment “Of course, right wing rag Guido refers to Lazio fans doing Nazi salutes on the streets of Britain as ‘Italian tourists’. My granddad didn’t risk his life in WW2 to beat fascism ‘in the marketplace of ideas’ and as a Jewish person I’d rather drop dead than apologise to Nazis”.

Absolutely. Presumably Guido is horrified by the Jews, socialists, Communists and trade unionists, who beat the living daylights out of Oswald Mosley and his thugs when the British Union of Fascists were marching up and down the country trying to intimidate them. Many British Jews also had family murdered by the Nazi during the Holocaust, and so, like most people in this country generally, they don’t take kindly to displays of real Fascism. I don’t want to encourage violence against anyone, but you really can’t blame Nicholls for feeling that the Lazio fans deserved a beating for their behaviour.

The Sage also reveals in the post that Staines was also a close friend of Tory MP Aidan Burley, the MP for Cannock, who decided not to seek re-election after the Mail on Sunday revealed that he was part of a Nazi-themed stag party in Val Thorens. Staines was so upset about Burley’s participation, that he went out for a consolation drink with him.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/01/guido-fawkes-backing-nazis-not-jews.html

In fact, Staines seems to have always had a certain sympathy for Fascism. He’s a libertarian, and in the 1980s he was a member of a libertarian faction in the Tory party that invited one of the leaders of a real Fascist death squad from El Salvador to be their guest of honour at their annual dinner. The same outfit also, I believe, feted South African pro-Apartheid politicos. And a decade earlier, in 1975 the Libertarians across the Pond devoted a whole edition of their magazine, Reason, to Holocaust denial. I am not accusing Fawkes of denying the Holocaust. I am simply saying that it very much appears to me that Staines’ own politics have always been little short of real Fascism. And it says much about the moral squalor of the lamestream media that Staines is considered somehow respectable, despite his far right background.

But if Staines carries on with articles like this, perhaps that won’t be for long.

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2019/10/believing-in-not-believing-new-atheists.html if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
KEN RUSSELL’S ‘THE DEVILS’ (1971)
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
DEMOCRITUS
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Lobster Reviews Boris Johnson’s Biography of Churchill

October 9, 2019

There have been a couple of deeply critical reviews of books by leading Tories. Last fortnight Private Eye reviewed and dissected David Cameron’s self-serving tome. In it, Cameron tries persuading the rest of his that his time at No. 10 resulted in us all being more prosperous, with a strong economy and political stability. The satirical magazine trashed this nonsense by showing instead that Cameron comprehensively wrecked Britain by calling the referendum on EU membership.  And last week Lobster added to its number for Winter 2019 a review by John Newsinger of Boris Johnson’s 2014 biography of Churchill.

Newsinger is the professor emeritus of history at one of the universities in Bath. As such, he knows what he’s talking about – and makes it very clear that BoJob, on the other hand, doesn’t. It’s a comprehensive demolition of both Johnson’s book and the aspirations behind it. Newsinger argues that Johnson’s reason for writing this unnecessary piece – there are hundred of others published every year – is not to prevent Churchill from being forgotten, as he claims, but to try to burnish his own reputation through identification with Churchill. And it’s here that Newsinger is also brilliantly critical. He makes it very clear that Churchill was far from the greatest of the great men, who make history, as Johnson seems to believe. He was a deeply flawed man, who enjoyed war for the opportunities it gave him and members of his class for greatness, while viewing those lower down the social scale as mere cannon fodder. The review begins

When this book was first published back in 2014 it did not seem to be worth the trouble reviewing. It was a truly appalling volume that no one except the right-wing press could possibly take seriously; and they only praised it to advance the career of its author. As a supposed biographical study of Winston Churchill it was altogether worthless, even worse than Johnson’s earlier ‘histories’ of the Roman Empire and London and they were pretty dire. And dire books are obviously a reflection of their author. Johnson is a serial liar and casual racist, a homophobe, a sexist and a xenophobe. He is akin to a cross
between Benny Hill and Benito Mussolini: completely without principles, wholly
irresponsible and unfit for any public office. However, as we know, the incredible has happened and a desperate Conservative Party has actually installed him as Prime Minister! Thus, the book is now worth some critical attention – not for anything it has to say about Churchill but, as I have already indicated, for what it tells us about the author.

Churchill’s reputation for heroic leadership during the War is the product of very careful state propaganda comparable to Stalin’s. He had nothing in common with ordinary people. He didn’t meet them and only once used public transport. As for Churchill’s concern for ordinary people, Johnson believes he found it in the great warleader’s concern for his nanny. Newsinger bitingly observes that only a public schoolboy could think that concern for their nanny equals concern for ordinary people.

Newsinger is also suitably derisive about Johnson’s claim that Churchill resonated with the British public for four reasons. These are 1) our national sense of humour, 2) our massive capacity for booze, 3) our suspicion of people who are unusually thin, and 4) our view of Britain as the homeland of eccentrics. Newsinger comments

Really! It is difficult to know what to make of this moronic garbage. The whole discussion is positively embarrassing. One is shocked that the author of this nonsense is a Member of Parliament, let alone the Prime Minister, and can only hope that the book never falls into the hands of someone studying for their History GCSE.

As for Churchill not being a warmonger, Newsinger acknowledges that Churchill fought bravely in the campaign against the Mahdi in the Sudan, and in the Anglo-South African War. The battle of Omdurman was more of a massacre than a battle. British casualties number only 48, while 16,000 Sudanese were killed, many of them when they were trying to surrender or lying wounded. Newsinger does, however, credit Churchill with opposing the shooting and bayoneting of the wounded. As for Churchill not being a warmonger, Newsinger writes

Quite how he squares this with his account of how Churchill ‘loved’ – yes, loved – war is
difficult to see. On one occasion, Churchill actually told Margot Asquith that war was ‘delicious’ – and this was during the horror that was the First World War. He was ‘excited by war’ and ‘without war he knew there could be no glory – no real chance to emulate Napoleon, Nelson or his ancestor Marlborough’. ‘War sent the adrenalin spurting from his glands’. (pp. 168-169) But while he ‘loved’ war, he did not support wars of aggression. Once again, this is so much nonsense. In 1914 Britain was a satisfied Empire intent on holding on to what it had already conquered but, as soon as the war began, the country’s war aims encompassed the dividing up of enemy colonies with its allies. As Johnson himself admits, the British Empire was in control of 9 per cent more of the world after the War than it had been before. This was not just by chance. This was what the war was really all about, what millions had died for – that and the glorification of men like Churchill.

Johnson admires Churchill’s support for all the reforms brought in while he was a liberal under Asquith, reforms Newsinger notes were opposed by the Tories at the time. He also tries to give Churchill credit for the achievements of Attlee’s government, though objects to the pension age having been lowered from 70 to 65. He states that the government will have to correct this, which, as Newsinger also notes, will leave millions with no pension entitlement.

Johnson also tries to equate Churchill’s own views and policies towards India with that of himself and his relations with the EU. He claims that Churchill largely ignored India, and was chiefly concerned with positioning himself as the successor to Stanley Baldwin. But this ignores the fact that Churchill was determined to maintain the British position in India. He also doesn’t mention the Bengal Famine, which killed three million Indians, which Churchill caused. He does mention it in his previous book on The Spirit of London, which Newsinger also criticises in the review. Johnson gives it two, very critical comments in that book. However, Johnson isn’t alone in ignoring the Famine. And he doesn’t include it because it would cast doubt on his view of Churchill as the great man, and the British Empire as a benevolent institution towards the indigenous peoples.

Newsinger particularly attacks one chapter in Johnson’s book about the great man’s errors and mistakes. These are given ratings for the Churchill Factor and the Fiasco Factor. Newsinger calls it the most stupid part of the book. Gallipolli, which resulted in 55,000 British and imperial troops dead and 123,000 wounded. Johnson gives this debacle a rating of 10 in each category. Newsinger writes

what that actually means is anyone’s guess. While Johnson is attempting to be witty, what he actually displays is an astonishing degree of callous disregard for the immense suffering and enormous loss of life that the battle cost. In many ways, this sums up his own particular version of the Great Man view of History.

He also comments that when Johnson describes how Churchill was regarded with distaste and suspicion by the Conservatives in 1940 as an outsider and ‘rotter’, he’s talking about himself. The difference, however, is that by that time Churchill had considerable experience in government. The promiscuous Johnson also seems somewhat concerned about Churchill’s sexual appetite, or lack of it. He finds this remarkable in a man with such otherwise titanic appetites. As Newsinger says, this tells us nothing about Churchill but much about Johnson. And he concludes

One thing that we can be certain of is that, whatever one thinks of Churchill, there is no way he would ever have let someone like Boris Johnson anywhere near the levers of power.

This is an article that deserves to be read because it lays bare how Johnson regards himself and Churchill, and exposes some of the myths about Churchill that we’re still taught through the mass media. If you want to read it, it’s at

https://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/free/lobster78/lob78-churchill-factor.pdf

Richard Dawkins Promoting Atheism at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature

October 7, 2019

This week is the Cheltenham festival of literature. It’s an annual event when novelists, poets, illustrators and increasingly TV and radio personalities descend on the town to talk about and try to sell the books they’ve had published. There can be, and often are, some great speakers discussing their work. I used to go to it regularly in the past, but went off it after a few years. Some of the people turn up, year in, year out, and there are only so many times you can see them without getting tired of it.

Dawkins, Atheism and Philosophical Positivism

One of the regular speakers at the Festival is the zoologist, science writer and atheist polemicist, Richard Dawkins. The author of Climbing Mount Improbable, The River Out Of Eden, The Blind Watchmaker and so on is appearing in Cheltenham to promote his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. It sounds like a kind of successor to his earlier anti-religious work, The God Delusion. According to the accompanying pamphlet for the festival, he’s going to be talking to an interviewer about why we should all stop believing in God. There’s no doubt Dawkins deserves his platform at the Festival as much as any other writer. He’s a popular media personality, and writes well. However, his knowledge of philosophy, theology and the history of science, which forms the basis for his attacks on Christianity, is extremely low, and defenders of religion, and even other scientists and historians, who are just interested in defending their particular disciplines from factual mistakes and misinterpretations, have shot great holes in them.

Dawkins is, simply put, a kind of naive Positivist. Positivism was the 19th century philosophy, founded by Auguste Comte, that society moved through a series of three stages in its development. The first stage was the theological, when the dominant ideology was religion. Then came the philosophical stage, before the process ended with science. Religion was a thing of the past, and science would take over its role of explaining the universe and guiding human thought and society. Comte dreamed of the emergence of a ‘religion of humanity’, with its own priesthood and rituals, which would use sociology to lead humanity. Dawkins doesn’t quite go that far, but he does believe that religion and science – and specifically Darwinism – are in conflict, and that the former should give way to the latter. And he’s not alone. I heard that a few years ago, Alice Robert, the forensic archaeologist and science presenter, gave a speech on the same subject at the Cheltenham Festival of Science when she was its guest director, or curator, or whatever they term it. A friend of mine was less than impressed with her talk and the lack of understanding she had of religion. He tweeted ‘This is a girl who thinks she is intelligent.’

War of Science and Religion a Myth

No, or very few historians of science, actually believe that there’s a war between the two. There have been periods of tension, but the idea of a war comes from three 19th century writers. And it’s based on and cites a number of myths. One of these is the idea that the Church was uniformly hostile to science, and prevented any kind of scientific research and development until the Renaissance and the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek texts. It’s a myth I learnt at school, and it’s still told as fact in many popular textbooks. But other historians have pointed out that the Middle Ages was also a period of scientific investigation and development, particularly following the influence of medieval Islamic science and the ancient Greek and Roman texts they had preserved, translated, commented on and improved. Whole books have been written about medieval science, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, and James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers. Hannam is a physicist, who did a doctorate in examining the development of medieval science, showing that, far from retarding or suppressing it, medieval churchmen were intensely interested in it and were active in its research. Medieval science was based very much on Aristotle, but they were well aware of some of the flaws in his natural philosophy, and attempted to modify it in order to make it conform to observed reality. The Humanists of the Renaissance, rather than bringing in freedom of thought and scientific innovation, were actually a threat. They wanted to strip philosophy and literature of its medieval modifications to make it correspond exactly with the ancients’ original views. Which would have meant actually destroying the considerable advances which had been made. Rather than believe that renaissance science was a complete replacement of medieval science, scholars like Hannam show that it was solidly based on the work of their medieval predecessors.

Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution of the 17th century in England also has roots in Christian philosophy and theology. Historians now argue that the Royal Society was the work of Anglican Broadchurchmen, who believed that God had created a rational universe amenable to human reason, and who sought to end the conflict between the different Christian sects through uniting them in the common investigation of God’s creation. See, for example, R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press 1972).

Christian Monotheism and the Unity of Physical Law

It is also Christian monotheist theology that provides one of the fundamental assumptions behind science. Modern science is founded on the belief that the laws of nature amount to a single, non-contradictory whole. That’s the idea behind the ‘theory of everything’, or Grand Unified Theory everyone was talking about back in the 1990s. But this idea goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas said that we must believe that the laws of nature are one, because God is one.  It’s the assumption, founded on Christian theology, the makes science possible.

Atheist Reductionism also a Danger

When The God Delusion Came Out, it was met by a series of books attacking its errors, some of them with titles like The Dawkins Delusion. The philosopher Mary Midgley has also attacked the idea that science can act as a replacement for religion in her books Evolution as a Religion and The Myths We Live By. On page 58 of the latter she attacks the immense damage to humanity atheist reductionism also poses. She writes

Both reductive materialism and reductive idealism have converged to suggest that reductivism is primarily a moral campaign against Christianity. This is a dangerous mistake. Obsession with the churches has distracted attention from reduction employed against notions of human individuality, which is now a much more serious threat. It has also made moral problems look far simplar than they actually are. Indeed, some hopeful humanist reducers still tend to imply that, once Christian structures are cleared away, life in general will be quite all right and philosophy will present no further problems.

In their own times, these anti-clerical reductive campaigns have often been useful. But circumstances change. New menaces, worse than the one that obsesses us, are always appearing, so that what looked like a universal cure for vice and folly becomes simply irrelevant. In politics, twentieth-century atheistical states are not an encouraging omen for the simple secularistic approach to reform. it turns out that the evils that have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of.

Darwin Uninterested in Atheist Campaigning

Later in the book she describes how the Marxist Edward Aveling was disappointed when he tried to get Darwin to join him in a campaign to get the atheist, Bradlaugh, to take his seat as a duly elected MP. At the time, atheists were barred from public office by law. Aveling was impressed by Darwin’s work on evolution, which he believed supported atheism. Darwin was an agnostic, and later in life lost belief in God completely due to the trauma of losing a daughter and the problem of suffering in nature. But Darwin simply wasn’t interested in joining Aveling’s campaign. When Aveling asked him what he was now studying, hoping to hear about another earth-shaking discovery that would disprove religion, Darwin simply replied ‘Earthworms’. The great biologist was fascinated by them. It surprised and shocked Aveling, who hadn’t grasped that Darwin was simply interested in studying creatures for their own sake.

Evolutionists on Evolution Not Necessarily Supporting Atheism

Other evolutionary biologists also concluded that evolution has nothing to say about God, one way or another. Stephen Jay Gould stated that he believed that Darwinism only hinted at atheism, not that it proved it. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who published his own theory of evolution in Zoonomia in 1801, believed on the other hand that the development of creatures from more primitive forebears made the existence of God ‘mathematically certain’.

Frank H.T. Rhodes of the University of Michigan wrote in his book Evolution (New York: Golden Press 1974) on its implications the following, denying that it had any for religion, politics or economics.

Evolution, like any other natural process or scientific theory, is theologically neutral. it describes mechanisms, but not meaning. it is based upon the recognition of order but incorporates no conclusion concerning the origin of that order as either purposeful or purposeless.

Although evolution involves the interpretation of natural events by natural processes, it neither assumes nor provides particular conclusions concerning the ultimate sources or the significance of materials, events or processes.

Evolution provides no obvious conclusions concerning political or economic systems. Evolution no more supports evolutionary politics (whatever they might be) than does the Second Law of Thermodynamics support political disorder or economic chaos. 

(Page 152).

Conclusion

I realise that the book’s nearly 50 years old, and that since that time some scientists have worked extremely hard to show the opposite – that evolution support atheism. But I’ve no doubt other scientists, people most of us have never heard of, believe the opposite. Way back in 1909 or so there was a poll of scientists to show their religious beliefs. The numbers of atheists and people of faith was roughly equal, and 11 per cent of the scientists polled said that they were extremely religious. When the poll was repeated in the 1990s, the pollsters were surprised to find that the proportion of scientists who were still extremely religious had not changed.

Despite what Dawkins tells you, atheism is not necessarily supported by science, and does not disprove it. Other views of the universe, its origin and meaning are available and still valid.

Geoffrey Alderman Accuses Tom Watson of Anti-Semitism for Talking about Christ’s Arrest

July 29, 2019

Geoffrey Alderman, a professor of Jewish history and columnist for the Times and the Jewish Telegraph, has made an official complaint to Jennie Formby accusing the deputy leader of the Labour Party of anti-Semitism. Why? In his Easter message, Watson referred to Christ’s arrest by a squad of Roman soldiers under the direction of the servant of the High Priest. Alderman states that

‘the allegation that Jews were Christ-killers, implicated in if not actually responsible for the death of Jesus, is widely regarded as an anti-Semitic trope’.

He then correctly states that it was condemned by the Pope at Vatican II in the 1970s.

While it’s amusingly ironic to find Watson, who has given so much aid and support to those fabricating false claims of anti-Semitism against decent, anti-racist people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of anti-Semitism himself, the accusation is wrong and should be denied and rebutted.

Firstly, Alderman is absolutely correct that the accusation that Jews are Christ-killers has been responsible for much prejudice and often horrific persecution of Jews down the centuries. However, this does not mean that the description of Christ’s arrest and trial by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea at the time, are fictional and anti-Semitic themselves. Alderman’s accusation is therefore wrong and should be strenuously denied and refuted.

As Mike has said in his piece about the accusation, all the Gospels state that Christ was arrested by the Romans under the direction of the High Priest, tried before the Sanhedrin, before being passed in turn to Pontius Pilate for judgment. I realise that many people do regard the Bible as completely fictitious, and that there have been books written against the inclusion of the Jewish authorities in Christ’s arrest and execution in order to counter what many believe to be a source of anti-Semitism. These attempts are based on descriptions of the power of the Sanhedrin in the Talmud, which claim that the Temple authorities could not hold such trials and had no power to issue the death penalty for blasphemy unless the name of God was explicitly pronounced. However, while some of the Oral Law is ancient, dating back to the time Ezra according to scholars of Judaism, the Talmud itself was compiled over a period of centuries from the Second Century AD onwards. Jewish scholars have said that there is difficulty in assessing the truth of the passages about the Sanhedrin, as it is not clear which are historically accurate, and which an idealised picture of how the Jewish sages at the time of Talmud’s composition felt it should have operated.

Christ’s execution is mentioned by the Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion, in a letter that may date from 73 AD. The letter discusses the disasters that befell the Athenians after they executed Socrates, and the Samian after they killed Pythagoras. He asks rhetorically

or what did it avail the Jews to kill their wise king, since their kingdom was taken away from them from this time on?

The ‘wise king’ is believed to be a reference to Christ. See Kevin O’Donnell, Introduction to the New Testament (Hodder and Stoughton 1999) 78.

There is also a garbled reference to Christ’s crucifixion on a charge of sorcery and leading Israel astray in the Talmud, see O’Donnell, above, 78.

Similar events are also recorded by Roman historians. There’s a passage in the Jewish historian, Josephus, I believe, which records how the Sanhedrin brought before the Roman governor a man, who had been prophesying the destruction of the Temple. They demanded the man be executed. Instead, the governor simply had the man flogged and then sent away.

This was an extremely dangerous and politically volatile time. The Temple hierarchy was bitterly resented by many Jews both for the corruption of some of its priests and officials, and their collaboration with Israel’s Greek and then Roman overlords. The books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha records the heroic resistance to Greek rule by Judas Maccabaeus. He and the Jewish people were provoked into rebellion by the attempts of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek general, who ruled the province under Alexander the Great, to stamp out their faith. Mothers were forbidden to circumcise their sons, the teaching of the Law was forbidden and copies burnt and the Temple was turned into a temple to Zeus. Although the Temple was restored and the Jews allowed to practise their faith freely once again, the situation remained tense. There were tensions between the Pharisees, the Jewish sect that stressed absolute obedience to the Law, and which believed in spirits and the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, who did not, and who seem to have been largely aristocratic. Josephus records another Jewish uprising just before the time of Christ, which was crushed with the execution of 19,000 Pharisees.

The Talmud also contains passages, which are believed to date from this time, which rail against the corruption of the Temple clergy and High Priest. One is a heartfelt account by the author of how he was beaten by Boethus, a member of the Temple hierarchy, while other priests and leading officials used their office to extort money from ordinary Jews.

Moreover, it needs to be remembered that Christ and His disciples were almost all Jews. St. Matthew’s is the most Jewish of all the Gospels, and its writer frequently assimilates Christ’s teaching with those of the great Jewish sages. He was therefore part of a Jewish Christian community, which continued to observe the Mosaic Law.

It therefore seems very clear to me that the accounts of Christ’s arrest and trial are historically accurate and reflect the very bloody tensions within 1st century Judaism. And while they have been used to foment anti-Semitism, they are not themselves anti-Semitic. It’s clear reading them that the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate were responsible for Christ’s death, not the Jewish people as a whole.

I went to the same Anglican church school as Mike, and as he says, we were very definitely not taught to hate anyone because they were of a different religion. Indeed, the clergy and Christian laypeople, who taught at the school had a horror of religious violence and bigotry. Mike and his year were taken on visits to a synagogue and mosque. This didn’t happen to my year, but we were taught about Judaism in RE lessons. I also remember going down the stairs just as one of the RE teachers was going up them with a bearded gentleman carrying a menorah and other Jewish sacred objects, presumably to show them to one of the other classes. And some of the older pupils I know were taught about the Holocaust and its horrors.

I also believe that the myth that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ has largely been laid to rest. Many of the Christians I know have very positive attitudes towards Jews and Judaism because of their religion. Where anti-Semitism does exist, I believe it largely comes from other reasons, like all the stupid, murderous conspiracy theories that try to tell you the Jews hate Whites and are importing Blacks to destroy the White race and enslave gentiles. And so, like Mike, I’m left wondering why Professor Alderman has chosen to accuse Tom Watson of anti-Semitism because of this. And so I agree completely with Mike’s conclusion:

Tom Watson is a wrong ‘un, no doubt. But to demonise him by trying to stir up animosity between Jews and Christians is completely unacceptable and I hope everyone of both religions condemns his words.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2019/07/29/this-anti-semitism-complaint-against-tom-watson-should-not-stand-up/