Posts Tagged ‘Folklore’

Two Fairy Sightings from 20th Century Britain

June 7, 2021

My last blog post was about a video I found on YouTube from Irish television in 1966. They were covering the attempt by an Irish docker, Tim Hayes, to spend 101 hours buried underground near a fairy fort in order to disprove the existence of the ‘Gentlemen’ or ‘Good People’. The film included a brief interview with a local man, who said he would definitely not want to interfere with the fairy fort, and would be extremely upset if anyone else were to do so or interfere with the field in which it lay. The film testifies to the continuing power of real belief in the fairies, despite the onward march of rationalism.

But it isn’t only in Ireland or the Celtic countries that belief in the fairies still persists. People are also still seeing them in England too. I found these two accounts from the 20th century in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, (London: Reader’s Digest 1973), p. 121.

All dressed in green

‘… When we were on holiday in Cornwall, my daughter and I came down a winding lane, and all of a sudden there was a small green man – all in green with a pointed hood and ears. We both saw him … we were cold with terror and ran for the ferry below.’ A 20th century description by a man from Shropshire.

A fairy guide

‘… It was on the Berkshire Downs, and we’d lost our way, and didn’t know what track to take. When I looked round, there was small man in green standing at my elbow. “You’ll be all right,” he said, “You take that one; you’ll be all right.” Then he didn’t disappear, but he just wasn’t there any more’. Described in 1962 by a Somerset farmer’s wife.

And sightings continue to the present day. I went to a folklore/ paranormal conference a few years ago here in Bristol on the fairies, which included people who very firmly believed in them. And when I was studying for my archaeology Ph.D. at Bristol university, I went to a seminar on fairies presented by the epic Ron Hutton. Hutton opened by singing the theme to the Southern vampire TV series, Tru Blood, before describing a sighting of a fairy one evening by a young man and a women in Glastonbury. Well, where else? The couple saw this strange light bouncing along the ground. One of them asked the other what on earth it could be, and got the reply ‘It’s a fairy. What else could it be?’

Having said that, you have to be careful of jokers. My mother had an old friend from college down in Cornwall. She went down there one year to visit her. They were out on a trip somewhere, and she, the friend, my father and the friend’s mother went on to wherever they were going, leaving the friend’s father behind to have a sit down and rest. When they returned they found that he’d been talking to an American woman. This was at a time when there was a spate of fairy sightings. The American had asked the old fellow if he’d seen any. Oh yes, he replied, he certainly had. They were at the bottom of his garden. That wasn’t remotely true, and when they challenged him on it, he replied, ‘Well, it’s what she wanted to hear.’ Sometimes that smiling old rustic telling you of his supernatural encounters may not be the naive, horny-handed son of toil in touch with the supernatural you believe him to be.

But in the spirit of this post, here’s another video I found on YouTube. It’s the folk-rock band Steeleye Span playing ‘Wee Wee Man’ about a fairy from the 1970s.

Will Race Activists Now Demand that Bristol’s Black Boy Hill Be Renamed?

February 16, 2021

Note I say ‘race activist’ not ‘anti-racist activists’ as I don’t believe that the demands for some monuments to be removed or renamed, in this instance four pubs owned by Greene King, are genuinely anti-racist. Rather they are the result of ignorance and a simmering resentment against a perceived injustice that in this instance doesn’t actually exist. It’s prejudice masquerading as a demand for racial justice.

The Daily Telegraph announced at the weekend that the brewery Greene King were going to rename four of their pubs, called ‘The Black Boy’. This came after the Torygraph had revealed that the brewery’s founder had received government compensation money for slaves he owned following the emancipation of enslaved people throughout the British Empire in 1837. The brewery’s current head made an apology for his ancestor’s participation in slavery and announced that they were going to change the names of those four pubs. Halima Begum, of the anti-racist organisation the Runnymede Trust, declared that the name change was very good news indeed, because BAME people walking past the pub would have been reminded every day of their oppression. The problem with this is that the pubs’ name may not actually refer to slaves. It could come from a racehorse owned by Charles II or the statues of Indians put outside tobacconists.

Simon Webb of History Debunked has put up a number of videos tackling some of the bad history promoted as truth by Black and anti-racist activists. In the one linked to below, he refutes the assertion that the names have anything to do with slavery. He states that he has a number of books on British history and folklore and none of them make that connection. There are a number of other possible sources for the pub name. One explanation is that it may refer to Charles II himself, as he was so dark complexioned that as a child his mother used to call him ‘the black boy’.

Webb is also massively unimpressed by Begum and her comments. He says scornfully that if BAME people were that upset every time they went past the pub, then why didn’t they change their route? He also believes that, as a foreign immigrant, Begum has no right to tell native Brits what to do, just as he would have no right to tell the people of Bangladesh what to do if he lived in their country.

I don’t agree with these latter comments. The same could be said of the Blacks in Bristol, who were upset by the reminder of their people’s enslavement by Colston’s statue, which they had to pass to go to work each day. It’s too glib just to say that they should change their route so they don’t have to go past offending monuments. However, there is a difference between Colston’s statue and those pubs. Colston was definitely a slaver, while those pubs probably don’t have any connection to the slave trade whatsoever.

As for Begum’s immigrant status disbarring her from having an opinion, it may well be that Begum is second or third generation British. She almost certainly regards herself as British, which is why she is angry at the perceived injustice the pubs’ name represents. I disapprove of her opinion, but she has a right to hold it.

This decision may well affect folks down here in Bristol. One of the streets in my great and noble city is Black Boy Hill, and local folklore has assumed that it comes from the city’s notorious participation in the slave trade. But that well be another piece of bad history. Years ago back in the ’90s the City Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol dealt with it in their ‘Respectable Trade’ exhibition on the city and slavery. This stated that there was no evidence connecting the street’s name to slavery, and that it may well have come from one of Charles II’s racehorses. That should have ended the matter. I certainly haven’t heard of any demands to rename the street, in contrast to those for the removal of Colston’s statue. Unfortunately it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more historically ignorant peeps in Bristol now started demanding it to be renamed following Greene King’s pubs.

Webb says in his video that the connection with slavery may well have come from the American use of ‘boy’ as a demeaning term for Black men during slavery. It’s possible. I got the impression that much anti-racist activism and attitudes are strongly influenced by America despite the differences in history and culture between the two nations. It’s how the Black supremacist Sasha Johnson can posture as a British ‘Black Panther’ and scream that the cops are the Klu Klux Klan. I think the assumption that the name refers to a slave probably comes instead from the fact that wealthy ladies used Black children as page boys during the days of slavery, or simply that enslaved Blacks included children as well as adults.

However, it seems that there really is no connection between the name of these pubs and slavery. In which case, Halima Begum and her friends should actually stop allowing themselves to be guided by their racial prejudices and resentment and actually do some proper historical research of their own, rather than promote fake history. And while I understand that the desire to remove or rename monuments and buildings connected with slavery or celebrating slaveowners is part of a perfectly understandable desire for racial justice, I think it also detracts from the campaign against real, present day slavery. Back in the ’90s it was estimated that around 20 million people were in various forms of slavery around the world. That’s almost certainly grown. I think the figure now is 30 million. There have been slaves found and liberated recently in this country, from women brought here and abused by sex traffickers to immigrant workers on farms. They caught one of the farmers in Gloucestershire, one of the neighbouring counties to Bristol, doing this a few years ago.

I’d have far more respect for Begum and her like if she showed some concern over the victims of modern slavery than spouted bad history about the British slave trade, which ended well over a century and a half ago.

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

Silver Monoliths and the Great UFO Ball Invasion

December 30, 2020

I hope everyone’s having a great Christmas, despite the outbreak of an even more virulent strain of the Coronavirus, the consequent lockdown and Boris’ farcical deal with the EU. I haven’t posted anything over the past few days partly because I wanted to enjoy Christmas, and didn’t feel like dealing with all the misery Johnson’s coterie of thugs and entitled bandits and looters, and partly because I simply don’t find much of the news that’s surfaced over the past few days at all inspiring. I was intending only to publish odd, cheerful or uplifting stuff over the holiday period for a change, more in keeping with Christmas as the season of peace and goodwill. Well, that’s gone out the window, as I do intend to blog about serious issues. But for now here’s something far less grim than the faces and policies of BoJob, Gove, Priti Patel, Starmer and Rayner.

Among the serious news there have been reports over the last few weeks of a mysterious silver monolith appearing around the world. It first appeared in America, then disappeared, only to re-emerge in Britain, on the Isle of Wight or somewhere. It disappeared again and then moved to somewhere else in the globe. It’s a pity that some of the urban folklore magazines of the 1990s aren’t still around, as this is the kind of event they loved. Small press magazines like Dear Mr Thoms/ Letter to Ambrose Merton, Folklore Frontiers and the academic Contemporary Legend used to follow similar stories. Like the stolen garden gnomes that went around the world, sending their former owners postcards from whichever new location they turned up in. This is somewhat like that. But it most closely resembles a British UFO hoax from the early 1980s which was covered, I believed, by that venerable journal of the weird, the Fortean Times. I’ve forgotten quite when it all happened, but sometime in the early 1980s or perhaps the late ’70s, a number of silver spheres appeared around Britain making beeping noises. They were designed to appear like alien objects from a UFO. The silver monolith also looks to me like it’s intended to resemble the alien monoliths from Kubrick and Clarke’s classic SF film, 2001, but with the difference that theirs was pitch black. As far as I know, no-one has claimed responsibility for the supposedly alien spheres, although I think it was suggested they were the work of students. I think it’s highly unlikely that either spheres or the recent monolith are the work of aliens. However, latter did appear at the same time as an unexplained signal was received from Proxima Centauri. This is the nearest star to ours, at about four light years away. Scientists were excited about it because Proxima Centauri is believed to have two planets. One is a Jupiter-sized gas giant, but the other is a rocky planet like Earth. So there have been videos on YouTube asking whether what was picked up was another ‘WOW signal’, like the burst of radio noise from Eta Carinae in the 1970s that astonished radio astronomers. It was so close to what they expected a signal from an alien civilisation to be like, that someone wrote ‘Wow’ next to the printout of it. It’s been a matter of debate since whether it really did come from aliens or was natural. The signal was never repeated, like the recent signal from Proxima Centauri, so I think most scientists believe it’s almost certainly natural. I think the Proxima signal will probably prove natural too. But you never know, and we live in hope.

As for hoaxes and stunts like the silver monolith and beeping spheres, while they aren’t remotely the real UFO landing people hope for, they do no harm and keep people amused. And in these grim times, we definitely need everything we can get to keep our spirits up.

Ta-Ha Book on Learning Arabic

November 28, 2020

A.T. Ayyad, Teach Yourself Arabic: Rules of Reading and Writing (London: Ta-Ha Publishers 1982).

This is another book on Arabic that I bought when I was briefly trying to learn the language three decades ago. Ta-Ha are, I think, an Islamic publisher and this book begins with the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran. I think they take their name from two of the syllables that begin various chapters of the Quran, whose meaning according to some Quranic scholars, is known only Allah.

Ayyad was a teacher of Arabic at the Lycee Francaise in Cairo from 1930 to 1953, and says in his introduction that the book is an English version of the methods used to teach the language to Arab students. The book is really a short – 114 pages – introduction to standard Arabic, and includes the alphabet as well as transliterations of the Arabic vocabulary. The book subtitle says it for understanding the rules for reading and writing the language, and it concentrates on grammar rather than vocabulary. It’s probably intended for those wishing to learn Arabic so they can read the Quran, but apart from the quote at the beginning of the book, the sample sentences and exercises aren’t religious. As well as practice exercises, it also includes sample conversations, traditional folktales and proverbs, as well as a section on punctuation, abbreviation and the numerical values of the Arabic alphabet. This seems to be used as a system of numerals rather like the Latin alphabet. There is also a grammatical appendix.

I am definitely no expert, but my guess is that this book gives a basic grounding in the standard, written language. Where I think it might be improved is by providing a little more information about actually writing the letters. Some books on languages that use a different alphabet actually show how they are written with diagrams of the individual pen strokes. This doesn’t. It simply shows the shape of the letters, leaving the reader to work out for themselves how to write them.

Fighting Racism Means Restoring the Welfare State

July 17, 2020

One of the most important things I learned when I was studying Geography for ‘A’ level nearly forty years ago was that poverty leads to political extremism. Part of the course was on the Third World, although I now gather that term, coined by Gandhi, is now out of favour. It was fascinating. We were taught that the countries of the Developing World varied in their levels of economic development and that many of their problems stemmed from the neocolonial system put in place when the European imperial power granted their independence. In return for their political freedom, the former colonies were required to confine themselves to primary industry – mining and agriculture. They were forced into a relationship with their former masters in which they were to trade their agricultural and mineral products for finished European goods. Punitive tariffs were imposed on industrial goods produced by these nations. They are therefore prevented from developing their own manufacturing industries and diversifying their economies. And as the primary resources they export to the global north are produced by a large number of countries, competition works against them. If one country tries to raise the price of copra, for example, the developed countries can simply find another nation willing to supply it at a lower cost. And so the Developing World is kept poor. And that poverty will drive people to political extremism – Communism and Fascism.

Poverty, Economic and Political Crisis and the Rise of Fascism

The same forces were at work behind the rise of Fascism in Europe. Part of the impetus behind the formation of Italian Fascism and German Nazism was frustration at the international settlement at the end of the First World War. Italy was angered by the great powers’ refusal to grant it the territories it claimed, like the Yugoslavian island of Fiume. Germany was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and the imposition of crippling reparations. The new democratic system in both countries was unstable. The Nazis made their first electoral breakthrough as the champions of the small farmers of Schleswig-Holstein in the 1920s. But arguable what gave them the greatest spur to power was the 1929 Wall Street crash and the massive global recession this caused. Combined with the breakdown of the ruling Weimar coalition between the Catholic Centre Party, the German  Social Democrats – the rough equivalent of the British Labour Party and the two Liberal parties – the crisis boosted Nazism as a mass movement and allowed President Hindenberg, then ruling by decree, to consider giving them a place in power in order to break the political deadlock. He did, and the result was the twelve years of horror of the Third Reich. Faced with rising unemployment, national humiliation and social and political chaos, millions of people were attracted by the Nazis denunciation of international capitalism and Marxist Communism and Socialism, which they blamed on the Jews.

The Collapse of Louisiana Oil Industry and the Witchcraft Scare

Sociologists and folklorists critically examining the witchcraft scare of the 1990s also noticed the role poverty and wealth inequalities have in creating social panics and the persecution of outsider groups. From the ’70s onwards a myth had developed that there existed in society multigenerational Satanic groups practising child abuse and infant sacrifice. A critical investigation by the British government over here – the Fontaine Report – and the FBI over the Pond found absolutely no evidence that these sects ever existed. But large numbers of people uncritically believed in them. As this belief spread, innocent people were accused of membership of such cults and their mythical atrocities. As the American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out, this witch hunt emerged and spread at a time when the gap between rich and poor in America was increasing. One of the places hit by the scare was Louisiana. Louisiana had a strong oil industry, and the state levied a tax on its profits to subsidize local housing. This was fine until the industry went into recession. Suddenly ordinary, hard-working Louisianans found they could no longer afford their mortgages. There were cases where the banks were simply posted the keys to properties as their former owners fled elsewhere. With poverty and insecurity rising, people started looking round for a scapegoat. And they found it in these mythical Satanic conspiracies and in real, New Age neo-Pagan religions, which they identified with them.

1990s Prosperity and Positive Challenges to Affirmative Action

It’s a truism that poverty creates social and racial conflict, as different groups fight over scarce resources. There was a period in the 1990s when it looked like racism was well on the wane in America, Britain and Europe. Blacks were still at the bottom of American society, but some Blacks were doing well, and challenging stereotypes and the need for affirmative action. The Financial Times approvingly reported a self-portrait by a Black American artist, in which he pointedly exaggerated his ‘negrotic’ features in order to make the point that these didn’t define him. There were cases of Black college professors turning down promotion to senior, prestigious positions at their seats of learning because they didn’t want people to think that they hadn’t earned them through their own merits. They hated the idea that they were just being given these places because of their colour. Whites further down the social scale were also challenging the need for affirmative action in a different way, which didn’t involve racist abuse and violence. The FT reported that four American firemen had changed their names to Hispanic monickers, as this was the only way they believed they could get promotion under a system designed to give preference to ethnic minorities. Back in Blighty, some TV critics naively applauded the lack of racism in a series of Celebrity Big Brother, before that all shattered as Jade Goody and one of her friends racially bullied Indian supermodel and film star Shilpa Shetty. Sociological studies revealed that people’s accent was more important than their race in terms of social identity and acceptance. And then when Barack Obama won the American election in 2008, the chattering classes around the world hailed this as the inauguration of a new, post-racial America. But wiser voices reminded the world that the terrible racial inequalities remained.

Austerity, Poverty, and the Destruction of the Welfare State Behind Growth in Racism

All this has been shattered with the imposition of austerity following the banking crash, and the increasing impoverishment of working people across the world. The crash has allowed Conservative government to cut spending on welfare programmes, force through even more privatisations and cuts, and freeze and slash workers’ pay. At the same time, the top 1 per cent has become even more incredibly wealth through massively increased profits and tax cuts.

One of the many great speakers at last Saturday’s Arise Festival on Zoom – I think it was Richard Burgon, but I’m not sure – remarked that talking to people in the north, he found that they weren’t racist. They didn’t hate Blacks and ethnic minorities. But they were worried about access to jobs, opportunities and housing. He made the point that we need to restore these, to fight for all working people and not allow the Tories to divide us. He’s right. If you read rags like the Scum, the Heil and the Depress, the line they take is of virtuous Whites being deprived of employment and housing by undeserving immigrants. Who also sponge off the state on benefits, like the White unemployed the Tories also despise. But they’re obviously not going to tell the world that they are responsible for the shortage of jobs, the insecure conditions for those, who are lucky to have them, and that the shortage of affordable housing is due to them selling off the council houses and defining ‘affordable’ in such a way that such homes are still out of the pocket of many ordinary people. Even if enough of them are built by companies eager to serve the wealthy.

Austerity and Black Lives Matter

It’s austerity that has given urgency to the Black Lives Matter movement. Blacks and some other ethnic minorities have been acutely affected by austerity, as they were already at the bottom of society. If prosperity had continued, if the banking crash had not happened and austerity not imposed, I don’t believe that BLM would have received the wave of global support it has. Blacks would still have occupied the lowest rung of the social hierarchy, but conditions would not have been so bad that they have become a crisis.

White Trump Voters Whites Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action

At the same time, some disadvantaged Whites would not have given their votes to Donald Trump. While Trump is a grotty racist himself, who has surrounded himself with White supremacists and members of the Alt Right, some sociologists have counselled against accusing all of his supporters as such. Years ago Democracy Now’s anchorwoman, Amy Goodman, interviewed a female academic who had done a sociological survey of Conservative White Trump supporters. She found that they weren’t racist. But they did feel that they were being denied the jobs and opportunities they deserved through unfair preference given to other ethnic groups. She likened their mentality to people in a queue for something. Waiting at their place in line, they were annoyed by others pushing in ahead of them. And this was made worse when the queue jumpers responded to their complaints by accusing them of racism. I think the sociologist herself was politically liberal, but she stated that the Conservatives Whites she’d studied should not automatically be called racist and it was dangerous to do so.

Conclusion

It’s clear from all this that if we really want to tackle racism, we need to restore jobs, proper wages, trade union power, real affordable and council housing, and a proper welfare state. These are desperately needed by all members of the working class. I’ve no doubt that they’re most acutely needed by Blacks, but this certainly isn’t confined to them. Restoring prosperity would bring all the different racial groups that make up the working class together, and it would stop the resentment that leads to racial conflict by one group feeling disadvantaged for the benefit of the others.

 

Trailer for Horror Movie ‘Tokoloshe’

November 23, 2019

The tokoloshe is a type of goblin in Black South African folklore. I found this trailer for a horror movie about the spirit on YouTube. The blurb for it simply says its due to be released on View On Demand soon.

This looks like it could be amazing. It appears to be set in South Africa with a mostly Black cast, and as such is a fresh approach to Horror. A little while ago a Black fan complained to the British comics/fantasy writer Neil Gaiman that there was no Black Horror literature. So Gaiman tried to correct that by writing the novel Anansi Boys. This has been adapted for Radio 4, where it starred Jacob Anderson and Lenny Henry. The Hollywood Horror film, Candyman, is based on a figure from modern Black American urban folklore, so Horror has drawn on Black folklore before. I also wonder if an investigation of Black cinema and the films made for Black audiences during segregation, as shown in the documentary That’s Black Entertainment,  and then the Blaxploitation phase of the ’70s, also didn’t have some Horror movies or ghost stories also drawn from the Black experience. It was the ’70s that gave us Blackula, which was parodied a few years ago in a pop video. But it’s true that the vast majority of Horror movies and literature come from within White and now mainstream culture. But this is the only movie I can think of that’s been made starring Black Africans and aimed at a global, mainstream market.

I think there’s an influence from Marvel’s Black Panther movie there as well. Not in the content of the film, but possibly in the fact that it showed that mainstream audiences were willing to accept films with a Black majority cast.

This looks like its going to bring an original, non-western view and material to the Horror genre, and could be really interesting indeed. 

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.

Happy Halloween, Folks!

October 31, 2019

It’s October 31st, Halloween, the day when it was traditionally believed that the dead returned to Earth, and people dressed up as witches, wizards, ghosts and ghouls and went to parties. It was believed that the festival was based on the pagan Irish feast of Samhain. Research by folklorists suggest that it did start in Ireland, but the historian Ron Hutton published a piece in the folklore/ Earth Mysteries magazine Third Stone back in the 1990s disputing the idea that it was based on any pagan Celtic festival.

I had a book of ‘spooky verse’ as a child, which contained all manner of poems about ghosts and witches and so on, some funny, some tragic and some genuinely creepy. One of these was

Hey, ho, for Halloween,

And the witches to be seen.

Some black and some green.

Hey ho for Halloween.

Which is great when your a child, but hardly Ted Hughes.

However, I hope whatever you’re doing tonight, you’ll have a great evening, and best wishes to all. And just rejoice – Boris hasn’t got his way, and we haven’t left Europe!

Dankula and Mates Make Nuisance Call to Black Pastor

October 27, 2019

Well, Halloween is upon us. This is the time of year, according to folklore, when the dead once again return to Earth, and witches and wizards pore over their cauldrons and spell books casting their magic. For most people, it’s simply an opportunity for a party, where people go dressed as witches, ghouls, demons, vampires and so on. Or else they watch a horror film at the flicks or on DVD. Or go and catch The Rocky Horror Show at the theatre, if it’s playing. Many Christians dislike it, as they are afraid it encourages a real interest in the occult with all its dangers. Some churches put on Light Parties instead. I remember as a child going to Halloween parties, where the only magicians were definitely of the stage variety, and everything was at the suitable level of the traditional folktale and children’s fantasy book. This was long before the occult scares and witch panics of the 1980s and ’90s, and the hysteria over ‘Harry Potter’.

Nevertheless some people do try dabbling with the supernatural. Some of it’s just kids legend tripping. This is the term folklorists use to describe teenagers and young people going to reputedly weird or haunted sites hoping to see something paranormal. Or just wanting to take it as an occasion to have an evening out with booze and their girlfriends. This can have unintended sinister consequences, when the wider community takes the evidence of what they’ve been doing too seriously, and concludes that real, Satanic witchcraft has been going on. This can generate rumours and accusations of child abuse and the torture and sacrifice of animals. When this happens, a full-scale witch hunt erupts with the fear and hatred of its medieval and 17th century predecessors. People can be falsely accused and children separated from their parents and taken into care based on nothing but highly dubious testimony and the righteous beliefs of the witch hunters. The witch panic effectively ended over here with the Fontaine Report in the 1990s that concluded that the multi-generational Satanic groups abusing children haunting the lurid imaginations of the witch hunters didn’t exist. But the people, who pushed the Satanism scare are still about, trying to peddle their views to anyone who will listen, and there’s a real threat it could return.

It’s with this in mind that I came across a video on his channel on YouTube by Mark Meechan, the notorious Count Dankula. He’s the bozo, you remember, who thought it would be jolly japes to train his girlfriend’s pug to make the Nazi salute when he shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘Gas the Jews’. He was therefore prosecuted and convicted of spreading anti-Semitic hate speech. Dankula’s posted a number of videos of himself trying to defend it as a stupid joke, which should have been allowed under freedom of speech. He was also one of the crew of extreme right-wing internet personalities, including Paul Joseph Watson and Carl ‘Sargon of Akkad’ Benjamin, who joined UKIP. This resulted in some of the more liberal members leaving it and the party achieving a mighty 3.3% of the vote at the council elections.

The video I found dated from three years ago, 2016. It was of Dankula’s mates in a forest with a pentagram they had made on the ground out of tree branches. They’d also had some kind of fire, and were scattering the ashes around in order to make their pentagram look even more impressive. One of them also put a candle at one of the figure’s corners. They then phoned up a Black British pastor on a mobile and started swearing at him and trying to trick him with a bogus story about Satanists and human sacrifice.

The pastor was live streaming a Bible study of the Book of Jonah. Dankula’s mates first shouted ‘F**k!’ at him. One of them then put on a fake African accent and pretended to be a man waiting in the forest for Satanists to sacrifice him. The friend then said that there were no Satanists there, and he didn’t think they were going to turn up. But he personally had fought Satan last year on holiday in Spain, when the Devil had taken the form of a lizard. He’d killed the lizard, and roasted it in the ocean. This was accompanied by more swearing and puerile sniggering.

I’m not showing the video here or giving its address because I don’t want to give Dankula the publicity and the views. But it is out there. If you want to see, all you have to do use the search bar on YouTube.

Now Dankula claims not to be racist, and has said that he has Black friends. He may well be right. I also believe that there has been problems with some of the Pentecostal churches, which do promote the belief that witches and a Satanic conspiracy to undermine Christianity and decent society are all too real. It’s perfectly reasonable to criticise the preachers, White or Black, and secular individuals that promote this dangerous nonsense. But there was absolutely none of this here. The video gives no explanation for what they’re doing. It just shows a group of White yobs make a nuisance internet call to a Black pastor and telling a stupid, bogus story about Satanic sacrifice. It just seems to be a case of secular White kids sneering and mocking religious Blacks for their perceived credulity.

This undermines somewhat Dankula’s claim not to be racist. But it’s also an example of some of the pranks others might be making at this time of year. They also might be hoaxing evidence of occult rituals and Satanic practices, simply as a way of winding people up. Be warned, and don’t be taken in.

But whatever your beliefs or lack of them, I hope you have a great time this week. The most horrific thing I can think of is Boris Johnson and Brexit. Don’t have nightmares!