Posts Tagged ‘Russian Orthodox Church’

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.

Dimbleby Resigns as BBC Propagandist on Question Time

June 18, 2018

Yesterday, Mike put up a piece commenting on the resignation of former Bullingdon boy David Dimbleby as the host of Question Time. The man Private Eye dubbed ‘Dimblebore’ has been presenting the show for 25 years, and now considers it the right moment to leave. Dimbleby is another BBC presenter, who is very biased towards the Conservatives. Mike’s photograph of him accompanying his piece shows him raising two fingers, with the comment that it’s probably to a Socialist. Mike also cautions against feeling too good about Dimblebore’s resignation, as we don’t know what monster’s going to replace. He wonders whether the secret of human cloning has been found, and whether the next biased presenter of the programme will be Josef Goebbels.

https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/06/17/if-david-dimbleby-is-leaving-the-bbcs-question-time-what-horror-will-replace-him/

Last week Dimblebore was off in Russia, presenting a documentary about the country under Putin ahead of the footie there. He wasn’t the only, or even the first person to go. The comedian Frankie Boyle got there over a week earlier, presenting a two-part show about the country, it’s people and football on Sunday evening. Dimblebore was rather more serious in tone, presenting Russia as a country in the grip of a repressive autocrat, and mired in corruption which was strangling the economy.

Dimbleby first explained that Putin was most popular with young people, the generation that everywhere else is rebelling against autocrats, dictators and tyrants. He puts this down to Russians’ experience of economic collapse under Yeltsin. Yeltsin ended communism and dismembered the economy of the Soviet Union, privatising whatever he could. The result was chaos, and massive employment. At one point it got so bad that some factories were paying their workers in the goods they produced. Putin has restored order and economic stability to the country, and so has the support of the younger generation.

He spoke to a great of young professionals, an advertising branding team who were supporters of Putin, working to promote him through images and slogans. He stated that most of the media was controlled by the Russian president, with a few exceptions. He then went to speak to someone from RT’s Moscow branch. Dimbleby explained that some of the staff were British, and asked one of the Brits there whether he was presenting propaganda. The man denied it, said that there was no one watching over him, telling him what to do, and that his conscience was clear. Dimblebore then gave a knowing smirk into the camera.

He then talked to a female presenter on one of the few dissident broadcasters Putin had allowed to remain open. She said that she had not received any threats, but she knew that she could be killed for what she did. But she was still determined to carry on.

He then talked about how those, who criticised the government were arrested and jailed, interviewing a human rights lawyer, who defended them. When asked what people could be arrested and jailed for, the lawyer explained that it could be criticism of the government, or a non-traditional understanding of the Second World War. The other year Putin passed a law criminalising the view that Stalin was partly responsible for the Nazi invasion of eastern Europe and Russia through the Nazi-Soviet pact. From what I remember, I think you can also be arrested for promoting gay rights.

He then spoke to a woman, who was protesting her treatment by the state. She had already been jailed for criticising Putin, but was determined to do so again. She had not been able to get a permit to organise a protest, and so held her own, one-woman demonstration outside the court. This is permitted under Russian law. If you can’t get a permit for a demonstration, you can still protest, so long as there is only one person involved. As she stood with her placard, she was joined by an increasing number of counter-protesters determined to disrupt her protest, and possibly send her to jail. They moved closer to her, and she moved away, telling them to keep their distance. They kept coming, and their numbers kept increasing. Then the cops turned up, and started filming things as they’d been told foreigners were involved. And someone else from one of the TV companies materialised to film the protest as well. Eventually it all ended, and the police and counter-protesters disappeared.

Dimbleby then did a piece about the police’s brutal suppression of dissent, complete with footage of the cops beating what looked like a feminist protester from Pussy Riot.

He also touched on gender roles. He talked to a hairdresser, while having his haircut, who told him that Russia still had very traditional gender roles, in which women wanted a strong man to provide for them.

Putin has also succeeded in reversing the declining Russian birthrate. Instead of falling, it is now rising, with medals and benefits given to couples who have large families. He showed one woman and her husband, who were being presented a medal by Putin for having ten children.

He also went off to talk to a youth organisation, that was set up to get children, including boys of junior school age, interested in the army. The group’s name translates as ‘Net’, and is run by army officers. The children there wear combat uniforms and learn to shoot using air rifles, which they are also taught how to strip down. They were shown blazing away at targets, and competing with each other over who could reassemble a gun while blindfolded the quickest, with Dimblebore cheering the winner. And it wasn’t all boys. One of the youngster there looked like a girl. Dimblebore asked them if they wanted to join the army, to which they gave a very enthusiastic ‘Yes’.

He then went off to speak to a prelate from the Russian Orthodox Church about its support for Putin, where he described Putin as an autocrat attacking human rights and threatening peace in Europe. The prelate responded by saying that there were those, who did not agree with his view. And that was that.

He then went off to discuss the massive corruption in Russia, and how this was undermining the economy as more and more investors and companies left the country because of it. Russia has 144 million people, but it’s economy is 2/3s that of Britain, or about the size of Italy’s, and is declining.

Now all of this is factually true. John Kampfner, in his book Freedom For Sale discusses Russia as another state, where the population has made a deal with its leader. They have absolute power, in return for which they give their people prosperity. Except that, according to Dimbleby, living standards and wages are declining. Putin has passed laws against the promotion of homosexuality, there are massive human rights violations, including the jailing of the type of people, who would have been called dissidents under Communism. Journalists, who haven’t toed the Archiplut’s line have been beaten and killed.

Other aspects of the Russian state, as revealed by this programme, would have been immediately recognisable to the generation raised by Communism. Like the corruption. It was rife under Communism. The Bulgarian journalist, Arkady Vaksberg, wrote a book about it, The Soviet Mafia. And Gogol took a shot at official corruption under the Tsars back in the 19th century in his play, The Government Inspector. So no change there.

As for the Russian Orthodox Church supporting Putin, it was always the state church under the tsars, to which it gave absolute support. The watchword of the tsarist regime was ‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy and the People’. And its support of autocratic leadership didn’t begin under Putin. After the restrictions on religion were lifted in the 1990s, the BBC journalists interviewed some of its clergy on their shows. And the clergy had the same preference for absolute state power and total obedience from the people. Putin made the relationship between the Church and his government closer by granting them a sizable share of Russia’s oil.

The youth groups designed to get children interested in joining the army are also little different from what already went on under the Soviet system. Secondary schoolchildren did ‘military-patriotic training’ to prepare them for national service as part of the school curriculum. It was led by retired army officers, who were often the butt of schoolboy jokes. They were taught to handle weapons, complete with competitions for throwing grenades the furthest.

And let’s face it, it also isn’t much different from what used to go on over here. I’ve known young people, who were in the army and naval cadets. And the public schools used to have the CCF – the Combined Cadet Force – which the Tories would dearly love to bring back. And boys, and some girls, do like playing at ‘War’, so I’ve no doubt that if something like the Russian group was set up in this country, there would be many lads and girls wanting to join it.

Russia has also too been a very masculine society with very traditional ideas about gender and masculinity, despite the fact that most engineers were women, who also worked as construction workers and many other, traditionally masculine areas. One of the complaints of Russian women was that the men didn’t do their fair share of standing in queues waiting to get whatever groceries were in store.

And the medals and rewards to the women, who gave birth to the largest number of children is just another form of the Heroic Mother Awards under the Soviet Union. Putin’s Russia continues many of the same aspects of the country’s society from the age of the tsars and Communism, although Dimblebore said the country was going backward.

I’ve no doubt it is, but the programme annoyed me.

What irritated me was Dimblebore’s knowing smirk to camera when the guy from RT denied that he broadcast propaganda. Now I’m sure that RT does. There’s videos I’ve seen on YouTube from RTUK, which could fairly be described as pro-Russian propaganda.

But what annoyed me was Dimblebore’s hypocrisy about it.

The Beeb and Dimbleby himself has also broadcast it share of propaganda supporting western foreign policy interests, including imperialism. Newsnight has finally got round, after several years, to covering the Fascists running around the Ukraine under the present government. But the Beeb has emphatically not informed the British public how the pro-western regime which was put in power with the Orange Revolution, was created by the US State Department under Obama, and run by Hillary Clinton and Victoria Nuland. Far from being a grassroots movement, the revolution was orchestrated by the National Endowment for Democracy, which has been handling the US state’s foreign coups since they were taken away from the CIA, and one of George Soros’ pro-democracy outfits.

Putin is also presented as the villainous aggressor in the current war in the Ukraine, and some have compared his annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine to the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland. But Crimea had been a part of Russia before 1951, when Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, gave it to that state. And Putin is not looking to take over the country either. The population of Russia is 144 million. Ukraine’s is a little over a third of that, at 52 million. If Putin really had wanted to annex it, he would have done so by now. And under international law, as I understand it, nations are allowed to intervene in foreign countries militarily to defend members of their ethnic group that are being persecuted. That was the pretext for the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland, and it’s also the reason why Putin’s invaded eastern Ukraine. But it’s legal under international law. And I don’t doubt for a single minute that Russians, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, were being persecuted by the new, pro-Western government.

In his documentary, Dimbleby met a very angry, patriotic Russian, who told him that the British had tried to invade Russia three times in the past three centuries. Once in the 19th century during the Crimean War; then in 1922 during the Russian Civil War. And now we were preparing to do the same. He angrily told us to ‘get out!’. Dimbleby looked shocked, and said to him that he couldn’t really believe we were ready to invade.

This was another continuation of the Soviet paranoia and hostility towards the West dating from the Communist period and before. Russia has always felt itself encircled by its enemies since the tsars. But the man has a point. We did invade Russia in 1922 in an effort to overthrow the Communist regime. Pat Mills has talked about this in his presentation on comics he gave to the SWP a few years ago. He tried to get a story about it in Charlie’s War, the anti-war strip he wrote for Battle. This is another piece of history that we aren’t told about.

And when Gorbachev made the treaty with Clinton pledging the withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, Clinton in turn agreed that these state would not become members of NATO. He broke his promise. They now all are, and NATO’s borders now extend to Russia. At the same time, western generals and NATO leaders have been predicting a war between Russia and NATO. One even wrote a book about it, 2017: War with Russia. Thankfully, 2017 has been and gone and there has, so far, been no war. But with this in view, I can’t say I blame any Russian, who is afraid that the West might invade at any moment, because it does look to me like a possibility.

And there are other matters that the Beeb and the rest of the lamestream news aren’t telling us about. They’re still repeating the lie that the invasion of Iraq was done for humanitarian reasons, whereas the reality was that western corporations and the neocons wanted to get their hands on Iraqi state industries and privatise the economy. And the American and Saudi oil industry wanted to get their mitts on the country’s oil reserves.

The civil war in Syria is also presented in simplistic terms: Assad as evil tyrant, who must be overthrown, and Putin as his bloodthirsty foreign ally. Assad is a tyrant, and one of the causes of the civil war was his oppression of the Sunni majority. But we are constantly being told that the rebels are ‘moderates’, while the fact is that they still have links to Islamists like the al-Nusra Front, the former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and ISIS. Nor have I seen the Beeb tell anyone how the Syrian rebels have also staged false flag chemical weapons attacks against civilians in order to draw the west into the war.

And objective reporting on Israel is hindered by the pro-Israel lobby. Any news item or documentary, which shows Israel’s horrific crimes against Palestinian civilians is immediately greeted with accusations of anti-Semitism from the Israeli state and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I’ll be fair to the Beeb. Some of their presenters have tried to give an objective reporting of events, like Jeremy Bowen and Orla Guerin. But they’ve been accused of anti-Semitism, as was Dimblebore himself when he tried to defend them. In this instance, the bias isn’t just the fault of the Beeb. But it is there, and newsroom staff have said that they were under pressure from senior management to present a pro-Israel slant.

Domestically, the Beeb is very biased. I’ve discussed before how Nick Robinson in his report on a speech by Alex Salmond about Scots devolution carefully edited the SNP’s answer, so it falsely appeared that he had been evasive. In fact, Salmond had given a full, straight answer. Salmond’s reply was whittled down further as the day went on, until finally Robinson claimed on the evening news that he hadn’t answered the question.

And numerous left-wing bloggers and commenters, including myself, have complained about the horrendous bias against the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn in the Beeb’s reporting. Dimblebore himself has shown he has a very right-wing bias on Question Time, allowing right-wing guests and audience members to speak, while silencing those on the left. Not that he’s alone here. Andrew Marr has done exactly the same on his programme on Sundays.

Dimblebore is, quite simply, another right-wing propagandist, with the Beeb backing current western imperialism. His smirk at the RT journalist’s denials of doing the same is just gross hypocrisy.

UKIP: No Fear in Whitchurch and Hengrove

May 5, 2016

The anti-racist, anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, has a list of the 1,530 extreme Right-wing candidates standing in today’s elections. Some of them are members of the various declining Fascist and Nazi grouplets. The vast majority of UKIP. Three of them are standing in my part of Bristol, Whitchurch and Hengrove.

This has worried me, as I don’t think there’s very much racism locally, and definitely don’t want any. Bristol has always been quite a diverse city. Apart from Black and Asian people, Bristol has also had a large number of citizens from other European countries, including most notably Italy, Poland and Russia. There’s a Russian Orthodox Church in Clifton on the road leading up to Bristol University past the City art gallery and museum. There is also a Polish church elsewhere in the City. And in south Bristol, in Knowle and along the Wells Road, there are shops catering to the new immigrants from eastern Europe, along with the other businesses. And Bristol’s Italian community goes back at least to the 1920s, if not long before. The last thing this city needs is an increase in ethnic and national tensions created through anti-EU tub-thumping, especially as Nigel Farage said a few days ago that the Brexit campaign should concentrate more on the question of immigration.

A few weeks ago we had a leaflet through the door for one of the Kippers standing in our ward. He was amusingly called Fear, a suitably appropriate name for a scare-mongering party. At the last council elections, one of the Kippers in Hengrove apparently did manage to scrape in.

I don’t know, who this particular Kipper was, just that he was not a success. Apparently, once he took his seat in the council, he then failed to vote for just about anything, but presumably just turned up and then collected his allowance at the end of the month. He also managed to alienate his constituents thoroughly. He’s supposed to have bad-mouthed them, before calling on the police to protect him from them.

So you have people with absolutely no interest in representing their constituents, and who treat them with absolute contempt, who are apparently just there in the council to show their hatred of the EU and foreigners. Bristol, and particularly my part of it, deserves far better.

Which is why I hope that after today, the Kipper election campaign will have failed, hope will have triumphed, and there will be No Fear in this part of south Bristol.

Tolstoy’s The Law of Violence and the Law of Love

January 24, 2016

Tolstoy Law Love

(Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, no date)

As well as being one of the great titans of world literature, Leo Tolstoy was a convinced anarchist and pacifist. The British philosopher and writer, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his book, Russian Thinkers, states that Tolstoy’s anarchist beliefs even informed his great work, War and Peace. Instead of portraying world history as being shaped by the ideas and actions of great men, Tolstoy’s epic of the Napoleonic Wars shows instead how it is formed by the actions of millions of individuals.

The writer himself attempted to put his own ideas into practise. He was horrified by the poverty and squalor, both physical and moral, of the new, urban Russia which was arising as the country industrialised, and the degradation of its working and peasant peoples. After serving in the army he retreated to his estate, where he concentrated on writing. He also tried to live out his beliefs, dressing in peasant clothes and teaching himself their skills and crafts, like boot-making, in order to identify with them as the oppressed against the oppressive upper classes.

Tolstoy took his pacifism from a Chechen Sufi nationalist leader, who was finally captured and exiled from his native land by the Russians after a career resisting the Russian invasion. This Islamic mystic realised that military resistance was useless against the greater Russian armed forces. So instead, he preached a message of non-violent resistance and peaceful protest against the Russian imperial regime. Tolstoy had been an officer during the invasion of Chechnya, and had been impressed by its people and their leader’s doctrine of peaceful resistance. Tolstoy turned it into one of the central doctrines of his own evolving anarchist ideology. And he, in turn, influenced Gandhi in his stance of ahimsa – Hindu non-violence – and peaceful campaign against the British occupation of India. Among the book’s appendices is 1910 letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi. I also believe Tolstoy’s doctrine of peaceful resistance also influence Martin Luther King in his confrontation with the American authorities for civil rights for Black Americans.

Tolstoy considered himself a Christian, though his views are extremely heretical and were officially condemned as such by the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote a number of books expounding his religious views, of which The Law of Violence and the Law of Love is one. One other is The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstoy’s Christianity was basically the rationalised Christianity, formed during the 19th century by writers like David Strauss in Germany and Ernest Renan in France. In their view, Christ was a moral preacher, teaching devotion to a transcendent but non-interfering God, but did not perform any miracles or claim He was divine. It’s similar to the Deist forms of Christianity that appeared in the 18th century in works such as Christianity Not Mysterious. While there are still many Biblical scholars, who believe that Christ Himself did not claim to be divine, such as Geza Vermes, this view has come under increasing attack. Not least because it presents an ahistorical view of Jesus. The Deist conception of Christ was influenced by the classicising rationalism of the 18th century. It’s essentially Jesus recast as a Greek philosopher, like Plato or Socrates. More recent scholarship by Sandmel and Sanders from the 1970’s onwards, in works like the latter’s Jesus the Jew, have shown how much Christ’s life and teaching reflected the Judaism of the First Century, in which miracles and the supernatural were a fundamental part.

In The Law of Violence and the Law of Love, Tolstoy sets out his anarchist, pacifist Christian views. He sees the law of love as very core of Christianity, in much the same way the French Utopian Socialist Saint-Simon saw universal brotherhood as the fundamental teaching of Christianity. Tolstoy attacks the established church for what he sees as their distortion of this original, rational, non-miraculous Christianity, stating that it’s the reason so many working people are losing their faith. Like other religious reformers, he recommends his theological views, arguing that it will lead to a revival of genuine Christianity. At the same time, this renewed, reformed Christianity and the universal love it promotes, will overturn the corrupt and oppressive rule of governments, which are built on violence and the use of force.

Among the other arguments against state violence, Tolstoy discusses those, who have refused or condemned military service. These not only include modern conscientious objectors, such as 19th century radicals and Socialists, but also the Early Church itself. He quotes Christian saints and the Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, who firmly condemned war and military service. For example, Tertullian wrote

It is not fitting to serve the emblem of Christ and the emblem of the devil, the fortress of light and the fortress of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters. And besides, how can one fight without the sword, which the Lord himself has taken away? Is it possible to do sword exercises, when the Lord says that everyone who takes the sword shall perish by the sword? And how can a son of peace take part in a battle.

Some scholars of the Early Church have argued that its opposition to military service was based on opposition to the pagan ceremonies the soldiers would have to attend and perform as part of their duties. As believers in the only God, these were forbidden to Christians. Nevertheless, despite his condemnation, Tertullian admits elsewhere that there were Christians serving in the Roman army.

Other quotations from the Church Fathers make it clear that it was opposition to the bloodshed in war, which caused them to reject military service. Tolstoy cites Cyprian, who stated that

The world goes mad with the mutual shedding of blood, and murder, considered a crime when committed singly, is called a virtue when it is done in the mas. The multiplication of violence secures impunity for the criminals.

Tolstoy also cites a decree of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 proscribing a penance to Christians returning to the Roman army, after they had left it. He states that those, who remained in the army, had to vow never to kill an enemy. If they violated this, then Basil the Great declared that they could not receive communion for three years.

This pacifism was viable when the Church was a small, persecuted minority in the pagan Roman Empire. After Constantine’s conversion, Christians and the Christian church entered government as Christianity became the official religion. The Church’s pacifist stance was rejected as Christians became responsible for the defence of the empire and its peoples, as well as their spiritual wellbeing and secular administration. And as the centuries progressed, Christians became all too used to using force and violence against their enemies, as shown in the countless religious wars fought down through history. It’s a legacy which still understandably colours many people’s views of Christianity, and religion as a whole.

This edition of Tolstoy’s book is published by the Institute of World Culture, whose symbol appears on the front of the book. This appears from the list of other books they publish in the back to be devoted to promoting mysticism. This is mostly Hindu, but also contains some Zoroastrian and Gnostic Christian works, as well as the Zohar, one of the main texts of the Jewish Qabbala.

Pacifism is very much an issue for your personal conscience, though it is, of course, very much a part of the Quaker spirituality. Against this pacifist tradition there’s the ‘Just War’ doctrine articulated and developed over the centuries by St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and Christian philosophers. This examines and defines under which circumstances and for which reasons a war can be fought, and what moral restrictions should be imposed on the way it is fought. For example, combatants should not attack women, children and non-combatants. Despite this, the book is an interesting response to the muscular Christianity preached during the days of the British Empire, and which still survives in the American Right. Many Republicans, particularly the Tea Party, really do see Christianity as not only entirely compatible with gun rights, but as a vital part of it. Bill O’Reilly, one of the anchors on Fox News, has stated that Christ would fully approve of the shooting of violent criminals, even in circumstances others find highly dubious. These include some of the incidents where teh police have shot unarmed Blacks, or where such resistance from the suspect may have been the result of mental illness and the cops themselves were in no danger. In the Law of Violence and the Law of Love, you can read Tolstoy’s opinion of the official use of lethal force, and his condemnation of the capitalist statism O’Reilly and Fox stand for.

Russia Persecutes the Jehovah’s Witnesses

December 18, 2015

Religious persecution has returned to Russia again after the collapse of Communism. It was reported a few weeks ago in the I that a judge in a region about 600 miles away from Moscow had decided that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an illegal sect, and sentenced a small group of mainly elderly believers to jail. The leader of this band of dangerous religious zealots was Koptev, a man in his 70s. Putin’s regime, at least in that part of the Russian Federation, has decided that the JWs are a dangerous and subversive organisation. They have put them on a list of such dangers to the post-Soviet state as ISIS, al-Qaeda, the mafia, and Neo-Nazi organisations.

Really! I never knew the Jehovah’s Witnesses were such a danger to life, liberty and property. There I was thinking the only thing wrong with them was that they turned up on your doorstep trying to interest you in joining them and offering copies of The Watchtower.

Most people probably find their religious proselytizing silly, but it’s absurd and monstrous to put them in the same category as genuine threats to life, limb and freedom like organised crime, Fascists and Islamist terrorists. Their prosecution renewed fears that Russia was returning to the bitter anti-religious campaign it pursued under Communism. Religious believers of all faiths, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and shamanists were rounded up and sent to the gulags. Their places of worship were torn down, and the few that survived the campaign were closely monitored. There was some toleration for believers practising their religion, but if you tried to explain the tenets, you would be arrested and tried. Baptists, Pentecostalists and Seventh Day Adventists in particular were heavily persecuted. If you dared to hold a religious service in your own home, you could be arrested and your house torn down. The state also promoted vicious conspiracy theories about the Pentecostalists to work up public sentiment against them. They were accused of becoming rich through taking money secretly smuggled in by an American ship in the Russian far north every year. All Soviet recruits to the army are viciously bullied under the brutal regime of the grandfathers, but the treatment meted out to Pentecostalists was especially harsh. They were beaten particularly savagely, many having to spend weeks recovering in the hospital afterwards as a result.

This looks like a return to those days, though my guess is that it’s now less about atheism than about Russian nationalism and the alliance Putin has struck with the Russian Orthodox Church. Not that this necessarily rules out a militantly atheist component in the persecution. Some of the judges and attitudes are no doubt left over from the officially atheist regime of the Soviet Union, and may see religious organisations generally as a subversive threat, just as the former Soviet state did.

And my guess is that the JWs are being persecuted not just because they’re a foreign religious denomination, but for the same reason the Nazis threw them into the camps: they don’t accept secular messiahs. They were persecuted by the Nazis as they recognised that Hitler was making a claim to be such a figure. The Nazi oath, to be recited in schools, had children swearing allegiance to ‘my Fuehrer sent by God’, and so treated Hitler as he deserved. They rejected him. This saw believers as young as 17 thrown into the concentration camps as a subversive threat to the Nazi state.

First Hitler, now Putin.

I don’t have a lot of time for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t share their religious views. But they aren’t any kind of political threat or menace to society, except to totalitarian despots. Yeah, it’s irritating when they turn up at your house to promote their religion, but that’s all it is. In genuinely free societies, people are at liberty to have and to promote different philosophical, religious and political views, as long as this does not involve force. That means that they are at liberty to knock on doors asking them if they’d like to join them, just as it also means that everyone else has the right to say ‘No’, or argue with them. Or agree, and join them, if they so wish.

This is part of what it means to live in genuinely pluralist, free society. And that’s why Putin’s persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is also part of an attack on everyone’s liberties in Russia.

Putin’s Driving Ban for Pervs and Crims: Would This Man Be Allowed to Drive?

January 12, 2015

Desmond pic

Richard Desmond, porn baron, owner of Express newspapers and Hello!, and former owner of Channel 5. From the cover of Private Eye for 30th April – 13 May 2004, when he switched allegiance from Blair to the Tories.

There was a mixture of outrage, incredulity and ridicule last week, when Putin announced his new laws designed to cut down on dangerous driving in Russia. These made it illegal for transgendered people, along with ‘fetishists, voyeurs and exhibitionists’, and ‘compulsive gamblers and thieves’ to drive. Much of this outrage was directed at Putin’s bigoted view that somehow transgender people cannot drive safely. It’s in line with his regime’s continuing clampdown on homosexuality in Russia. The ban on driving for perverts and compulsive gamblers probably comes from a moral crusade to clean up Russia, intended to appeal to Russian Orthodox voters and other people of faith. The ban on thieves also probably stems from a desire to create a further disincentive to crime. The Russian psychiatric association criticised the new laws, pointing out the obvious: that few of these conditions actually affected anyone’s ability to drive. Amidst all the furore over the laws themselves, there is an interesting question: how will it affect great media moguls like Richard Desmond.

Desmond is the owner of a range of porno magazines and the Fantasy X Channel. By definition, the porn industry is full of, and consumed by,’fetishists, voyeurs and exhibitionists’. As for compulsive gamblers, the commercial TV channels after 9 pm or thereabouts are full of adverts for on-line gambling, as well as various forms of Bingo. Desmond also opened his own ‘Health Lottery’, a proportion of the profits of which would go into the NHS. As for thieves, in the past Desmond dealt with one of America’s more notorious mafia clans. They beat and tortured one of his directors after Desmond refused to refund their money after they found out that he had inflated his magazines’ circulation figures. They finally got it after they threatened to put a price on his head.

So Desmond runs a business by and for perverts of all types, as well as promoting gambling and had business dealings with organised crime. Under Putin’s new laws, it seems to me that there is absolutely no chance that he’ll be able to drive anywhere in Russia himself. If he ever goes to the land of Tchaikovsky, Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, it looks like he’s going to spending much of his time walking or getting taxis.

The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: Part 1 – Introduction

June 21, 2013

I’ve blogged a bit before on the great Christian civilisation of medieval Nubia in what is now the Sudan. This civilisation consisted of the three kingdoms of Nobatia, Merkuria and Alwa. Nobatia was situated in the area between the Nile’s first and second cataracts, with its capital at Faras or Pachoras. Makuria stretched from the third cataract to the Butana. Its capital was Old Dongola. It was amalgamated with Nobatia in the seventh century. Alwa was centred on its capital of soba far to the south. Alwa is its Arabic name. The Greeks called it alodia. The remains of extremely small churches and a limited number of burials suggest that there may have been a settled Christian presence in Nobatia in the early sixth century before the possible conversion of the pagan temple of Dendur into a church by the king Eirpanome in 550 AD. The Nobatian church was monophysite, like the modern Egyptian Coptic Church, which believes that Christ only had a single, divine nature. The Makurian church, however, was dyophysite. Like the modern Greek and Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and European Protestant churches, it believed that Christ had two natures. He was both human and divine. Nubia boasted numerous churches. Little is known about Alwa, but the Armenian traveller Abu Salih described it as possessing 400 churches. Archaeological excavations in Soba have uncovered very few buildings that may have been churches, and it is possible that Abu Salih had overestimated their number. One of the very earliest churches in Nubia was in Qasr Ibrim, which was created by the local Christian community in the fifth century through the conversion of the Meroetic temple of King Taharqa, dating from the seventh century B.C.

European and International Exploration and Archaeological Investigation

After its conquest by Islam in the 16th century, medieval Nubia was largely unknown in the West until a series of European explorers and archaeologists visited the area from the early 19th century onwards. One of the first was the great Swiss explorer Jacob Burckhardt, who made two expeditions to Nubia and travelled as far as the third cataract from 1813 to 1815. Burckhardt was the first to describe the Nubians’ way of life, and their faded memories of their ancient Christian past. Two tribes even then still claimed to be descended from the ancient Christian inhabitants. He saqw the remains of two public buildings, which were probably churches at Qasr Ibrim, and came across the remains of a chapel in one of the islands of the Batn el Hajar, lying between the second and third cataract. Later explorers included Count Vidua, Richard Lepsius, the archaeologist, Somers Clarke, and many others. Most of what is known about medieval Nubia comes from the great rescue operations to investigate its archaeology during the construction of the Aswan dam. The first of these was 1899,led by Clarke, and the second, much greater series of excavations in the ‘Save Nubia’ UNESCO campaign from 1960s onwards, caused by the construction of the High Dam and formation of Lake Nasser. These were done by teams of British, American, Polish and Dutch archaeologists.

Nubian Courts and Kings Styled on Byzantine Empire

Archaeological finds and inscriptions, including evidence from churches, indicate that Nubia had strong connections with the Byzantine Empire. Often these were stronger than its relationship with the Egyptian Coptic church to the north. Inscriptions found by J.W. Crowfoot in the region of ancient Mekuria in 1927 indicates that the Nubians used Greek and followed the Byzantine liturgy in their worship. Documents discovered and published the following year by F.Ll. Griffiths showed that the Mekurian court was also modelled on that of the Byzantine Empire. There were courtiers and officials with the Byzantine titles of meizoteros (mayor of the palace?), proto-meizoteros (premier super-mayor), domesticus, primacerius and eparchos. A graffito in mangled Greek at St. Simeon’s monastery, dating from 7th April 1322, records that the last Christian king of that part of Nubia, Kudanbes, styled himself ‘president of the Caesars’.

Construction of Nubian Churches

Nubian churches were mostly built of mud brick, which does not survive very well in the archaeological record. Otherwise churches were composed of fired, red brick on stone foundations. These were either of sandstone, or granite from the marginal areas near the desert. The roof, which could be either flat or vaulted, were supported by granite pillars. These were painted or plastered, and occasionally were covered with frescoes. Stone capitals, doorjambs and lintels were carved with a wide variety of motifs and designs which reached their zenith in the eighth century. These included fish, crosses, vine and palm leaves. Granite capitals have been found in Upper Nubia, but they are rare, and were probably robbed out for reuse after the buildings were abandoned. William Adams identified four phases in the evolution of Nubian church architecture from his work in Lower Nubia. In the first, earliest phase churches probably consisted of the Byzantine basilica type. These were rectangular buildings comprising a nave flanked by two aisles. The Byzantine influence on these churches suggest that the dyophysite Christian communities in Nubia were earlier than indicated by the historical sources. The next phase, termed Early Nubian by Adams, lasted from about 650-800. This still roughly followed the form of the classical basilica, but with some slight differences. These may have been the result of changes in the Nubian liturgy, or the deliberate creation of a separate architectural style by the churches’ builders.

The zenith of Nubian church architecture was reached in the next phase, the Classical Nubian, which lasted from roughly 800 to 1150. This was defined through the addition of a passage running across the east side of the church, leading from the baptistry in the south to the vestry on the north side of the church. These were probably constructed to allow the clergy to pass from one side of the church to the other without going through the sanctuary or heikal. In some churches of this type there was a brick wall between the sanctuary and the nave. This indicates that the ceremonies in the sanctuary was becoming more secret and spiritual, and so concealed from the view of the laity.

According to the Polish archaeologist, Wlodiemiercz Godlewski, who excavated Old Dongola, the first three phases also saw changes in the construction of the baptistry. These were usually located south-east of the nave or narthex. These originally possessed large, circular tanks into which the candidates for baptism could walk. These were gradually replaced by square fonts, which were placed on a pedestal or base, similar to those in modern western churches from the eleventh centuries onwards. It appears that there was thus a move away from large, public baptisms towards a smaller, more intimate ceremony.

During the last phase of church construction from around 1150 to 1400, churches became smaller. The earlier large tanks for baptism were not generally built in churches of this period, and the emphasis was now on the sanctuary. This suggests that the church interior was exclusively reserved for the clergy, and that the congregation were deliberately kept outside. It also indicates that baptisms were being conducted in the Nile, rather than in a special space within the architecture of the church. This may well have been produced by changes in the liturgy, or as a result of the position of Christianity in Nubia becoming increasingly endangered from Muslim and desert raider incursions from the north. It is possible that the Nubian church became increasingly orientated towards Byzantium after Muslim raiding and conquest made contact with the Egyptian Coptic church increasingly difficult.

Among the churches that have been excavated are those of West Arminna and the cruciform and granite column churches of Old Dongola. The monasteries that have also been revealed and investigated by archaeologists include those of Ghazali and Qasr el Wizz. I will talk about these in parts two and three of this essay.

Sources

William H.C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1996)

Niall Finneran, The Archaeology of Christianity in Africa (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 2002)