Burkeman is not God

In this piece, the usually sensible Oliver Burkeman has a pop at the New Atheists for being a bit angry, and for being convinced “that religiosity per se is to blame for outrages such as the Charlie Hebdo attack, or the murders committed by Isis.”  Burkeman goes on:

This is a huge, incredibly complex question that New Atheists bafflingly treat as straightforward on the grounds that the killers themselves claim to be motivated by faith. Terrorists, apparently, are to be treated as entirely trustworthy sources of information on this point.

Although there is no single “New Atheist” position on this, many well-informed atheists (and theists for that matter) would agree with Robert Hinde’s conclusion (2010:216):

Religious differences have also been the source of or justification for an enormous amount of conflict and suffering within societies.

Few  New Atheists make the mistake of asserting that religiosity necessarily causes violence, but there is simply too much historical evidence linking religious beliefs to violent acts to ignore the connection.

To the specific question of whether or not terrorists are trustworthy sources of information about their own motivations, of course introspection is not an infallible source of knowledge, and of course people who are prepared to engage in acts of brutality may have no problem lying about why they do what they do. But it’s also obvious that, since most murderers don’t claim to be motivated by faith, it’s worth taking notice when some do.

During the Crusades, for example, we find wholesale slaughter (including the beheading of Muslim men, women and children) being justified in the name of Christ. Is Burkeman prepared to argue that, despite various popes and bishops and huge swathes of the European knightly class thinking they were being driven by faith, they were all in fact mistaken? Perhaps it is Burkeman who is appealing to the simplistic argument that, because religion is about peace, violence can never be religious. It’s an argument that fails because the premise that religion is about peace is false (see, for example, these articles by Nick Cohen, Tom Holland and Douglas Murray).

The problem with righteousness is that it can make someone think they’re doing good when, by the standards of modern, secular, liberal society, they are committing atrocities. As Justin Watt points out (see Sobbing in disbelief), “nobody wakes up and thinks they are the bad guy.”

Consider also the comment made by Ibrahim Mogra in this edition of Beyond Belief (09.03.15):

If a Muslim says they are a Muslim then they are and God will judge us.

Before God gets round to it, apparently Burkeman will be in there with a bit of judging of his own, sifting the wheat from the chaff, the “true” from the “false” believers. Good luck with that.

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The irony of “believing in something”

Annalisa Barbieri displays a quintessentially Guardian tact in her response to a man concerned that his wife is “hellbent” on teaching their two-year-old about religion (print edition). The balance is excruciating:

…this clearly matters to her. But what you think matters, too.

There is no mention of the “T” word: is the mother making truth claims, and can she back them up with more than “the Bible says so, so it must be true”? Barbieri also evades the moral question of whether it’s right to teach children false beliefs as if they were true, preferring to focus instead on the importance of “culture” — fair enough, although again much of cultural practice — saying prayers before a meal, attending church, and so on — is rooted ultimately in believing that a whole series of propositions about the world are true rather than false.

Barbieri says she does not “buy into” the idea that “believing in something is more important than not believing in something” without realizing that she has just bought into the idea that the religious do, in fact, believe in something while atheists, of course, believe in nothing. She is accepting, entirely uncritically and unreasonably, the religious perspective, which actually has belief back to front: it is the religious who hold fewer true beliefs about the world.

Whenever anyone claims to believe something, it’s taken as read that they believe this something to be true (few people consciously hold onto beliefs they know to be false). So, although there’s no mention of the “T” word, it is implicit.

The reason why a non-believer’s mind is likely to contain more true beliefs about the world is simple: believers acquire at least some of their religious beliefs by the method of pure faith (Carrier 2005:60):

The method of pure faith refers to basing beliefs solely on tradition, hearsay, desire or mere speculation. That is, faith in this sense is trusting what we are told, or just ‘guess’ what we want to be true, without requiring any proof. In other words, believing an ungrounded assertion. Naturalists reject this method… The number of false beliefs always vastly outnumbers the true. It follows that any arbitrary method of selection will be maximally successful at selecting false beliefs. So the probability is always very high that a belief based on mere faith will be false.

There is a sense in which we “believe” in, say, political leaders if we are committed to their policies and are excited about voting for them (there wasn’t much of this kind of belief around during the last election). Martin Rowson, for example, dislikes the emphasis New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins place on “belief” in the ontological rather than the political sense (Cartoons and Offence), but he can indulge this distaste because he understands the difference.

Children ought not to be encouraged to think of faith — as a method of acquiring knowledge — as a virtue. It is absolutely a vice. Funnily enough, the mother of the two-year-old would agree — so long as an exception is made for her own religion (she necessarily rejects the faith beliefs of all other religions).

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Cartoons and Offence

Martin Rowson Presented by Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub at the Star and Garter on 1 July 2015

Martin Rowson is an editorial cartoonist and novelist. His genre is political satire and his style is scathing and graphic. He characterizes his work as “visual journalism.” Martin will talk about offence and cartoons.

The brevity of the abstract provided no clue to the length of the talk, which overran by nearly half an hour. This would usually spell disaster, even for a good speaker, but Rowson is well above average, and not many visual artists are so articulate, or appreciate the importance of text within the image, or are so politically engaged. Plus, he also increased the rate of cartoons towards the end, keeping us gripped, and entertained.

Laughter and art are two essential and fundamentally human aspects to his craft. The ethnography of pre-agricultural peoples reveals an egalitarianism, and coalitions of the weak emerging as a check on the powerful. If some might hunter returned was tempted to boast about his kill, the response might be:

Call that a springbok, you wanker!

We’re the only species to use laughter and mockery as a form of social control. Play allows us to experience reality in “safe mode” and we can laugh at just about anything and everything. The magnificent cave paintings at Chauvet show how we can filter reality through our consciousness, and so this ability to represent is the second part of his craft, which is about re-creating and controlling reality.

Ronald Searle was the greatest 20th-century cartoonist, who was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II. He suffered terribly, and reworked tragedy as farce when he was released, finding redemption through laughter (St Trinian’s). Talking of war crimes, here’s a drawing he did of Alistair Campbell on 21 May 2002. He sat there, glowering, in the very small Gay Hussar restaurant. It was not just voodoo but almost shape shifting him, stealing his soul (if he had one), taking control of him — and he was hating it. The resulting portrait was rather more flattering than depicting him as a toilet.

See Cartoons are the best form of satire in this piece, which is pretty much verbatim how he put it:

There’s something about recreating the world around you by filtering it through the machinery of the brain and bringing it out at the end of an arm — whether it’s on a cave wall, newspaper or toilet wall. It’s a kind of sympathetic magic, it’s a kind of voodoo: doing damage at a distance with a sharp object — in this case a pen. You take control of politicians and set them up in a narrative of your own devising.

I discovered this when I had a nice gig running in The Gay Hussar, a Hungarian restaurant in Soho, where the journalistic and political elite have been going to conspire and eat central European stodge for the last 50 years. In the noughties, I drew their celebrity patrons over their lunch. The person who brought home to me what I was actually doing was Alastair Campbell, because everyone else just got on with eating their goulash. He sat there glowering at me, at one point shouting across the restaurant: “You just won’t be able to stop yourself from making me look like a really bad human being!” To which I replied: “Alastair, I draw what I see.” But he understood what was going on. I was more or less stealing his soul; I was taking control of him.

Cartoonists in this country have been fortunate even since press censorship lapsed and there was an explosion of free expression in the 18th century. The age of Enlightenment saw Hogarth produce Gin Lane, a famous image whose purpose was visual journalism. It was created to be reproduced, and satirized blaming the breakdown of law and order on gin rather than the terrible social conditions. It uses humour to a polemical end, and is full of incidental gags. The central gag is that quintessential image of Christianity, the Madonna and Child. In the Dickensian slums that came later, there are tears of hope and the mood is sentimental, while in Hogath there is no hope — the mother is falling down the stairwell, breaking her head and killing the child. Rowson admits he’s used this image of inner city deprivation over and over again.

Depicting the world as a plum pudding undermines the leaders who are carving up the world. A caption that says they’re fighting for a dunghill undermines the noble enterprise. One of his favourite cartoons is the Soft, Strong & Surprisingly Long… New Labour manifesto. (Aptly, in another cartoon, Tony Blair appeared as a skid mark.)

Caricature reduces Mickey Mouse to just three parts, or Hitler to his moustache. He knew that he had a political moustache, and that he was helping cartoonists. Odd as it may seem, he was an admirer of David Low, but he mistook Low’s satire of democrats as a satire of democracy. In any case, Nazis could not abide being laughed at.

Some public figure, such as Anne Widdicombe, teeter between being national treasures and national jokes. Some don’t seem to realize that we’re trying to destroy them, and it’s not just “jolly good fun.” Cartoonists can also impose new realities — he turned Nick Clegg into Pinocchio, and created a freaky, five-arsed pig to satirize the Olympics. Talking of arseholes, Boris Johnson is a dangerous politician, and Steve Jobs was another loathsome man. Idiots objected to his cartoon including the “grief app” but then why worry about people who buy overpriced trinkets?

He subscribes to the H. L. Mencken view of journalism, which should be about afflicting the comfortable. This is why he was critical of the Danish newspaper publishing the Mohammed cartoons — they were targeting the lives of ordinary and powerless Muslims, which then led to an eruption of madness. People took up extreme positions. In his view, it’s mad to want to say whatever you want about whoever — equally preposterous is to insist on the right not to be offended or never to be upset by an image. It’s ridiculous that a cartoonist in Malaysia is facing 43 years in prison for drawing the president’s wife’s hair, or that a cartoonist has got 12 years in jail in Iran for drawing cows and monkeys.

The first man to die on 7 January was not a cartoonist but a building services manager. This was an easy hit, part of a recruiting campaign. The Guardian decided not to run his first cartoon (of Mohammed stroking his cat and cutting his robe — a rather nice story), so he produced a cartoon of the profit. No one who criticized him for cowardice either understood the publishing process or were prepared to draw their own cartoon of the prophet and give up their anonymity.

He wants to outmanoeuvre the Islamophobes (surprising that he used this bullshit word), but he does emphasize that IS is mainly in the business of murdering other Muslims. It’s a pity Blair and Bush didn’t turn the other cheek instead of deciding to become murderers of countless innocent people as well.

He disagreed with Dawkins and out-and-proud campaign. (This is strange, given the power ratio of the religious lobby in the US to the atheists. Rowson has more of a point about objecting to God’s character than his existence — an argument made by Hume — but then he was getting his semantic knickers in a twist over “belief”: Dawkins might “believe” in God if it could be proved God existed, but he would not “believe” in God in the sense of worshipping him.)

In any case, Rowson is deeply offended by lots of things, including bankers demanding to be paid twice as Haitians died in their thousands. Amazingly, the bonuses of Wall St were double the size of all global aid. How else to depict incompetent wankers stealing all the money? Saying “fuck you” to the powerful goes some way to keeping them in their place, and forestalling tyranny. And anyway, what’s wrong with being childish?

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Divided Britain

Divided Britain – The Impact of Rising Inequality

Stewart Lansley at the Conway Hall Ethical Society on 28 June 2015

Poverty in Britain is at post-war highs and – even with economic growth – is set to increase yet further. Food bank queues are growing, levels of severe deprivation have been rising, and increasing numbers of children are left with their most basic needs unmet.

Based on exclusive access to the largest ever survey of poverty in the UK, and its predecessor surveys in the 1980s and 1990s, Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack (in their book Breadline Britain) track changes in deprivation and paint a devastating picture of the reality of poverty today and its causes. Shattering the myth that poverty is the fault of the poor and a generous benefit system, they show that the blame lies with the massive social and economic upheaval that has shifted power from the workforce to corporations and swelled the ranks of the working poor, a group increasingly at the mercy of low-pay, zero-hour contracts and downward social mobility.

In this talk Stewart Lansley will take us through the critical factors that have lead us to this parlous state, with following discussions on possible resolutions.

Inequality is one of the hottest political topics at the moment, with President Obama, Christine Lagarde and the pope all joining in the attack on inequality. Even Michael Gove thought the Conservative Party should become “warriors of the dispossessed” before the last election.

The gap is not really between bus drivers and brain surgeons but between a small elite class of executives and the rest of us. The top 1% take 15% of national income (the U curve), which is up from 5% in the 1970s. The debate Lansley addresses is about inequality within countries (inequality between countries has actually fallen).

A key driver of the U curve is the jobs market: there’s a falling wage share and a higher share going to profits, and a growing earnings gap. The bottom 15% of people in work are getting a smaller share, and the UK is a leading low-pay economy.

External factors — including globalization, technical changes and immigration — account for about a quarter; internal factors, such as a more market-based economy, account for the rest.

The debate has taken off since the 2008 crash. The slogan “we’re all in this together” is not accurate. Top executive pay has vastly outstripped employee pay. There are lots of new jobs but these are mainly low paid, and there’s been a hollowing out of middle-income jobs. For example, 90% of growth in the US post-crash went to the 1%, reinforcing this trend.

The impact of inequality on poverty and the wider economy: it produces a multispeed society, with the rich getting richer, and the poor not getting richer as quickly. Trends in deprivation poverty are up: our poorest fifth are worse off compared to same fifth in other countries. The Church Action on Poverty poster was controversial because it mimicked the “Labour Isn’t Working” poster: thousands are going hungry because of benefit changes. (Since 60% of the poor are in work, the emphasis should really be on wages not benefits.) There’s also been a hardening of attitudes towards claimants, and poverty denial.

There’s been a weakening of labour, and his controversial argument is that we should correct the imbalance between labour and capital, and reduce the dangerous gap between profits and people. No government has been prepared to do this.

The old orthodoxy is that inequality is a good thing. Economists such as von Mises and Okun believe that there’s a trade-off between equality and efficiency, and prefer to focus on efficiency. How we share the cake — inequality — has been written out of economics. Claims that wealth “trickles down” are empirical and can be measured, and the evidence is that all such claims are rubbish. Various international organizations, e.g. the IMF, OECD and ILL, show that lower inequality is robustly correlated with faster and more durable growth.

The “new orthodoxy” is that inequality is bad economics, because it stifles demand, reduces investment (one reason why productivity is so bad), and it results in economies that become dependent on artificial stimulants, such as personal borrowing.

Where does the money go? 12% of the British economy is held in cash by big business, much of which is about diverting wealth upwards rather than creating new wealth — a significant part of business activity is a zero sum game.

What is to be done?

  • A better balance between labour, capital and the state.
  • Raise the floor and lower the ceiling.
  • Tackle Britain’s wages crisis.
  • Make the tax system more progressive.
  • Encourage more countervailing power.

None of these ideas is on the political agenda.


Neoliberal beliefs have been completely discredited but are still the dominant orthodoxy. Labour has not been interested in a state investment bank.

One questioner was anxious to point out that even the poorest in the UK are among the richest on the planet. This is old debate about absolute poverty that doesn’t apply when looking at conditions within the UK, where poverty depends on the local culture: it does matter if you’re living in a damp house or can’t afford to send your kids on a school trip.

Need to change incentive structures in business, such as shareholder value, which is damaging in the long term for employees and taxpayers.

Low pay is an incentive for firms not to invest. Raising the minimum wage increases demand and forces companies to increase productivity.

He does not believe the norm of powerful capital and inequality — by Thomas Piketty’s thesis is too pessimistic. There are forces for change. Politicians are not very good at designing a fairer society.

The problem in Britain is financial capital, which is driving business decisions. The power of capital derives from the power of banks.

Someone has said that Britain has become the bag carrier for the global super rich — jobs like estate agents and financial advisors and bankers and so on are all servicing the needs of the wealthy.

We should tax housing more heavily, and revise council tax banding. More social housing would help, but there are strong vested financial and other interests.

Why can’t all companies be more like John Lewis? It would be fantastic. We have the highest concentration of private enterprise. Need to encourage alternative business models.

This debate is not about perfect equality, but about a fairer society.

He would love someone like Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the Labour Party, but if he did he probably wouldn’t win an election.

Not nationalization, but socialization, such as social wealth funds. Utilities should be publicly owned.

(A few days later I heard part of a David Cameron speech:

We need to move from a low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare society to a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare society.

Who could disagree with this?)

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Iphigenia in Tauris

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe English translation by Roy Pascal Directed by Pamela Schermann Presented by the Rose Playhouse on 27 June 2015

“Have only men a right to heroic deeds? Can they alone embrace the impossible?”

Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, is in exile as a priestess in the Temple of Diana, in the land of Tauri (present-day Crimea). Thoas, King of the Taurians, who wishes to marry Iphigenia, has ordered the sacrifice of her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades. Torn between her loyalty to the King and her love for her brother, Iphigenia must find a way to save her brother and bring about peace through her own divine image as a woman and bearer of truth. Iphigenia’s captivating charisma, strength of spirit, and purity of heart shines through Roy Pascal’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris. It is Iphigenia’s powerful female voice that transcends the heavens, as like an Amazon, she heroically empowers herself with her own sword of truth, saves her brother Orestes and courageously breaks the Tantalid family curse forever.

Suzanne Marie as Iphigenia is dressed in the white gown of a priestess, wedded to the service of the goddess Diana, and pacing before the candle-lit altar in the far corner. There is the sound of breaking waves, and the sea shore is provided by the archaeological pool. As usual, the Rose provides an atmospheric setting for this play, although, despite a good cast and clear production, it was quite long enough at 90 minutes. Indeed, this kind of drama can become a relentless round of long speeches with little in the way of character or relatable human nature to break it up. Imagine a conversation with someone who has absolutely no small talk, and no sense of humour or irony — it can get pretty exhausting. When brother and sister finally meet in person, for example, Iphigenia does not reveal her identity straightaway and there’s an incomprehensible delay while Orestes burbles on at great length.

Iphigenia begins plausibly enough, recognizing how the sea divides her from her loved ones. She also recognizes that women suffer from systematic social injustice because of their sex:

I do not seek to rival the gods, but the lot of women is pitiable. … That we can breathe doesn’t make us free.

The pity for us is that the gods have to get in on the act, confusing where the real solutions to equality are to be found.

She tells a terrible tale of slaughter (Suzanne puts a superb emphasis on the “grinning” that Atrius is doing) and she worries about the “welfare of the Greeks” (quite coincidentally on a weekend of crisis for modern Greece).

Meanwhile, her brother, Orestes, is eaten up by an “everlasting jealous envy” as the Furies delight in blowing ashes into his soul. He also seems resigned to the gods’ decree that he will die without offspring. Eventually, the Furies depart and his mood brightens, much to the relief of his friend, Pylades.

However, their escape is now hampered by Iphigenia’s loyalty to King Thoas (played with great presence by James Barnes), whom she regards as a second father. He’s a bit of a stickler for pious protocol, and if the divine image — a holy and sacred thing — has been messed with, then matters must be settled by the sword.

Iphigenia makes a point that no one bothers to count the “desolated tears of women” left behind in war, but happily she prevails and she secures their release.

Not quite sure what the play amounts to, if anything, but I am sure than Germanic interpretations of ancient Greek drama are never going to set my world alight.

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One Arm

By Tennessee Williams Adapted by Moisés Kaufman Directed by Josh Seymour Presented by Alex Turner at the Southwark Playhouse on 27 June 2015

I been all over this country and gotten to know many people. I’ve forgotten most of ‘em but they’ve remembered me.

Exterior. New Orleans. Night. Close up: A beautiful young hustler solicits trade on the streets. He is Ollie Olsen, former light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet.

After a devastating accident ends his boxing career Ollie believes his once-invincible body to be irreparably broken. When his eyes are opened to the market value of his tragic beauty, Ollie turns to selling his final asset in order to survive. Through his encounters with the lonely souls of 1940s America, Ollie discovers an unexpected chance for redemption.

In 1942 Tennessee Williams wrote One Arm, a short story with a striking central character who haunted his imagination for the rest of his life. Williams revisited Ollie’s story 25 years later in a screenplay of the same title — a script too provocative for the studios of 60s Hollywood. Moisés Kaufman, creator of The Laramie Project, fuses these texts into a powerful theatrical work inspired by the movie that was never made, now receiving its UK première here at Southwark Playhouse.

A great cast of five take on 22 parts. Tom Varey leads the way as Ollie Olsen, whose “mutilation” (he loses his right arm in car wreck) gives the play its title. The other four actors have their work cut out switching between the remaining 21 characters, whose designations (e.g. Sailor, The Stripper, The Girl in the French Quarter, The Middle-Aged Man) are shortcuts to their dramatic significance. (Despite these broad brush strokes, there’s still more in the way of character than in, say, The 39 Steps.)

Tom Varey as Ollie Olsen. Photography by Alex Brenner.

Tom Varey as Ollie Olsen. Photography by Alex Brenner.

Ollie wears a white T shirt pretty much throughout, his right arm bandaged and hanging loose. He’s still athletic, if not quite as powerful as when he was a boxing champion, just before the accident. He’s lost the “lightning right arm” that could win matches, and he seems to have gained an explosive anger, which comes in useful as he drops into an underworld that can be unforgiving. Williams relishes the “salty idioms” of the bars and hotel bedrooms where Ollie plies his trade, successfully, it would seem, given that he receives nearly a thousand letters while in his jail cell, awaiting execution. Ollie is not a typical gay man, which is one reason why he attracts plenty of attention, and why he compels our attention.

An early pointer to the religious and existential themes occurs when one character recalls a priest telling a potential suicide:

Don’t jump! Christ loves you.

Another voice suggests an alternative interpretation:

Christ don’t know you. Jump!

Ollie begins his initiation into the world of male prostitution by learning some of the signals, such as jingling the keys in his pocket. He’s on a steep learning curve, as he slumps on a park bench, joined by an older man who recognizes that he doesn’t “know the score” and tells him:

Honey, four johns are watching you…

Ollie is initiated into the “mysteries of the park” and is wised up to his “commodity value” (very high — at the end of the play he has the “nobility of a broken Apollo”). He baptizes Ollie with some liquor, and sprinkles it over him as a priest would with holy water — a sacrilegious gesture. As for the Hotel Dieu:

I didn’t know he was in the hotel business.

In New York, he has a job with an academic type who wears a hairpiece. On a terrace overlooking Central Park, they’re 37 floors up, and 37 floors down. The client asks:

Do you have impulses of self-destruction?

Despite his capacity for destruction, Ollie is not a risk taker — he was the one who didn’t want his drunk friend driving the car, and only when he failed to get a cab did he make that fateful journey.

On a wealthy film-maker’s yacht, all he has to do, for $200, is “sit still, twist and moan a little.” Georgia Kerr plays the woman who has to perform the unsavoury act. She is sympathetic at first, then a little impatient. She needs the money:

I’m the one that does it to you.

Georgia Kerr and Tom Varey. Photography by Alex Brenner.

Georgia Kerr and Tom Varey. Photography by Alex Brenner.

This contradicts the usual complaint about porn, which is that women are passive creatures to whom sex is done, as if they were mere objects. Here, Williams has created a scene in which it’s the male who has to sit still. She reassures him that she’s not disgusted, and to encourage him she says:

Let’s get it over with.

GBs. Kerr combines compassion and determination, vulnerability and strength, with a remarkable economy of gesture and expression.

This production and Kaufman’s adaptation have restructured the original screenplay into a memory play, so we see Ollie reading letters from men who’ve recognized his face in the papers and remember their encounter with him, and then we see some of these encounters played out before us. As the director reminds us, this was a time when legal and social barriers to the expression of homosexuality were still high, and so these contacts would have been emotional high points in many of their lives. It is poignant that only near the moment of his death does Ollie realize what he has meant to so many people.

Instead of writing a character who appreciates this, who brings some comfort in these final hours, Williams supplies The Warden, who tosses the letters around in disgust and contempt, and The Divinity Student, who is there to try out his own spiritual strength on a conversion job (like the vicars at the end of Alan Bennett’s Bed Among the Lentils). The seminary student saw in the face of Ollie a tender beauty, like that of a juvenile saint (presumably Sebastian), but is told when he turns up at the jail that the “condemned youth refuses the consolation of faith.”

The student is nervous, but still manages to pop the big question:

Are you prepared for eternity?

He explains how this world is a stepping stone, a transitory realm. Ollie’s succinct response is:


The student persists:

I wish you would believe me.

He doesn’t advance his theological argument very much by suggesting that Ollie’s “mutilation” could have been the result of him being “in error” (a phrase that is common in Christian Science, and perhaps other sects too).

One reason this play was not produced until after Williams’s death was the several kinds of shock value, including treating “young hustlers and their lonely clients with such dignified compassion” (as Kaufman puts it) — instead of moralizing against their wicked lives. Today, it’s those who are shocked by homosexuality who are the freaks, and we should also not be surprised that amputees have sex lives.

The subsidence of these issues has allowed another theme of the play to rise to the surface: irreligiosity. Ollie does not kneel before The Divinity Student and he openly rejects the message of salvation. Bizarrely, in the year that same-sex marriage has been upheld by the Supreme Court, most Americans in 2015 still regard non-belief as socially unacceptable (although this is changing with the rise of the “nones”). An otherwise admirable President Obama, for example, while reading out the names of those killed in the Charleston church shooting, feels no embarrassment declaring that each had “found grace” — in the theological sense (his singing of Amazing Grace was — setting the meaning aside — was still moving). That such tripe still passes for wisdom all over the world is the most shocking thing of all.

Cast: Peter Hannah, Joe Jameson, Georgia Kerr, James Tucker, Tom Varey

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Sobbing in disbelief

In this Experience, Justin Watt describes an encounter with the enemy:

Once we had made sure the area was safe, it was our duty to provide medical aid to wounded enemy forces as well as to our own. The man I had shot was still alive. I will never forget the way he looked. He was surprised and sobbing a bit in disbelief. I think he must have thought his God was going to protect him and destroy me instead. He died while we were trying to save him. I didn’t find out his name.

At that moment — and this may sound naive — I realised that nobody wakes up and thinks they are the bad guy. The man who had died fighting against me that day would have got up every morning thinking he was the righteous one.

If the unnamed man had lived, like the survivors in the falling lift (see We didn’t experience the worst), he would probably have attributed his success to the god he believed in. There was insufficient time for him to realize the error of his ways and become an atheist in his final moments of consciousness, but perhaps he did wonder whether or not he had been worshipping the wrong god all along?

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Always with different girls

In his review of this production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Howard Loxton expresses a degree of incredulity:

But then, I can’t believe the main plot either.

For me, the main plot — two close male friends fall out and fight over a woman — is all too believable, once the evolutionary logic of gaining access to a scarce resource is understood. To be fair, there are plenty of strange twists that may have had Fletcher and Shakespeare’s contemporaries shaking their heads, as well as baffling a modern theatre audience.

The key to this play is recognizing the overarching desire to reproduce and pass on one’s genes to future generations. Arcite only bewails his own captivity insofar as it will prevent him from having children (2.2.36):

No issue know us…

At the end of the play, the Jailer’s Daughter looks past her present mental instability to a future beginning to hold possibilities once again (5.2.129):

We shall have many children.

The language of nobility and honour may now be archaic but the desire to increase our status certainly hasn’t gone away (Buss 2008:294):

Men who expose themselves to danger in warfare to kill enemies are regarded as brave and courageous and consequently experience an elevation in their status within the group…

What’s the point of having high status? The immediate rewards are often clear, but there’s also the ultimate reward of offspring.

Young men today may not be princes and soldiers like Arcite and Palamon, but they can still see aggression and displays of physical prowess as a direct route to reproductive success. In this case study, we learn that Adam started lifting weights at 16:

“I started getting a lot bigger, working on the doors, and I was getting more attention from girls,” he says. “I liked this lifestyle. I was taking steroids for six months at a time, and not taking any breaks, taking cocaine every weekend, always with different girls.”

All he wanted to do was “be with different women, train and fight”:

“It’s like being back in your teenage years. If you’re arguing with someone it’s a massive thing. You’re infatuated with the girl you’re with. You’re obsessive.”

Infatuation and obsession with Emilia dominate Two Noble Kinsmen and are the emotional motives driving Arcite and Palamon to the play’s conclusion. In the 21st century, these same emotions got Adam into the gym — and into bed — time after time. In our ancestral environment, in the absence of modern contraceptives, this strategy may have resulted in a large number of offspring — a reproductive jackpot by anyone’s standards.

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We didn’t experience the worst

Being caught in a lift that falls to the ground is a good candidate for an urbanite’s worst nightmare. Being caught in a lift that falls to the ground and surviving is guaranteed to make a good story to tell down the pub, but whether it has any bearing on the question of whether or not God exists is another thing altogether.

Nine members of an U-17 football squad were caught in a lift that fell to the ground from the third floor at the Hilton Princess Hotel in San Pedro Sula. Garfield Fuller, head of Jamaica’s delegation, is reported to have said:

The players are pretty scared and frightened and one player mentioned it was like a heart attack because of the pace at which the elevator crashed to the ground. We just give God thanks that we didn’t experience the worst.

This has all the makings of a miracle story, but before we get too carried away we should reflect upon all those lifts that fall to ground, killing their occupants. If they could speak from beyond the grave, they would remind us that they had experienced the worst and it wasn’t very pleasant. We can use our imagination to speak for them, and provide the balance that is missing from Garfield Fuller’s account.

In fact, given that these happy endings are vastly outnumbered by the occasions a supposedly benevolent god does not intervene, this kind of story is evidence for the absence of a deity who cares about our welfare, since it is much better explained on the naturalistic hypothesis that improbable events — such as surviving a falling lift — are bound to happen in a world in which billions of people travel in a lift every year.

Many religious people believe in an afterlife, but have never provided a single shred of evidence that anyone has survived death. Perhaps it’s just as well they don’t hear voices from beyond the grave. If the victims of natural disasters or disease could speak, they might provide powerful personal testimony that their final prayers went unanswered.

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Review of The Two Noble Kinsmen

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


The Two Noble Kinsmen – White Bear Theatre, London

The rear wall of a bare black stage is hung with banners of white cloth daubed with black paint, abstract symbols of the autocratic power of Theseus, duke of Athens. The two noble kinsmen, Palamon and Arcite, are his prisoners, and the best of friends until they see a beautiful young woman in the courtyard below their window. In a blood red gown, Emilia would catch anyone’s attention in this otherwise colourless world but both cousins fall instantly and madly in love with her, and fall out with each other. The suddenness of this rivalry would be comic were it not for its bitterness. Each now swears to spill the other’s blood and claim Emilia for himself. This production’s starkly effective opening is achieved with some judicious cuts, and in a running time of just over two hours reaches a moving climax, with perhaps the last lines Shakespeare ever wrote for the stage.

Cavan Clarke and Richard Blackman are excellent as Arcite and Palamon. Each creates a distinct character, and both are convincing as men who are first bound together in friendship and then sundered by their love for a woman. They go from being buddies to knocking seven bells out of each other in some bruising fight scenes. There’s nothing contradictory here: male psychology is well adapted both to forming coalitions to achieve goals that can be shared and to competing for prizes that cannot be shared.

While the male gaze gets this tragedy underway, it’s soon joined by its female equivalent, with the remarkable and unnamed character of the Jailer’s Daughter, played brilliantly by Amy Tobias. Like Phoebe pining for Orlando [sic — should be Ganymede], she too has fallen for someone hopelessly out of reach. She has no chance of marrying either of the princes, but indulges in the fantasy anyway: ‘It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the difference of men!’ Here is an echo of Goneril and Lady Macbeth, and of all women who discriminate between men in seeking the best possible partner.

Her story of unrequited love is the play’s tragicomic subplot, with echoes of Ophelia and a similar trajectory towards mental breakdown. Unlike Ophelia, the Jailer’s Daughter has several long soliloquies in which she gives voice to her predicament with great wit and insight. She knows that to marry Palamon is ‘hopeless’ and to be his whore ‘witless’ but ‘what a coil he keeps’ in her heart. And again unlike Ophelia, hers is not just a passive role. She takes a great risk and ventures a daring plan to win her man.

This can seem a strange play, with its sudden reversals and archaic setting in a world where Mars and Venus are invoked and sacrifices made before their altar, and where there’s endless talk of nobility and honour. However, human nature doesn’t get much more basic than two men fighting over a woman and a woman choosing between two men, and there is much that is made familiar to a modern audience by this production.

(See also The Two Noble Kinsmen.)

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