An authority on poverty and suffering

In this edition of the Sunday programme, we learn that a book edited by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has been criticized as straying too far into the political arena, by making striking assertions such as:

It’s a fundamental sin to value communities on purely economic output.

The Times columnist Matthew Parris puts the commonly held view that the church is thought to have authority and to speak with authority on poverty and suffering. Might this authority derive in part from the church’s responsibility for creating a great deal of that poverty and suffering? Holy wars have throughout history achieved both goals with remarkable success. Might the church’s allergy to economic value also derive from the fact that priests are parasitic on everyone else’s productive labour?

In The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Angela Bourke (1999:5–6) describes the village of Drangan, County Tipperary, the principal location in her fascinating account of belief in changelings:

By far the most imposing building in Drangan is the chapel, as Catholic churches are usually called in rural Ireland. … In the years following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, “big chapels” like this one steadily replaced the humble buildings in which Catholics had previously worshipped.

And what of those who built the chapels or worked on the land? The labouring class, it seems, enjoyed no such improvement in their living or working conditions (7):

Accounts of their physical appearance reflect the hardships and privations of working-class life in nineteenth-century Ireland…

This is unlikely to be an isolated case. Indeed, Steve Jones argues that the biblical story of the expulsion from Eden is tied to the origin of agriculture, and thus the origin of inequality, since farming allowed huge differences in wealth to appear (see Did God Evolve?):

Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred threescore and six talents of gold; he had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.

In the modern era, the religious can still find it lucrative to appeal to bronze age superstitions, so long as they are careful to avoid sceptical explanations of their apparently supernatural powers. For example, at number 5 on Richard Wiseman’s list of golden moments (see The Golden Age of Paranormal Television) is Sai Baba, the Indian guru with a huge following, and a huge bank balance.

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Materiality and Computer Art

Professor Margaret Boden at the LSE’s Old Theatre on 29 January 2015

Professor Boden will explore philosophical issues about art. Are computer artworks physical objects? Do they really qualify as art?

Imagine Francis Bacon’s studio and a tidy computer desk. In traditional art, pictures and statues are material, physical objects. Conceptual art came along claiming that the whole point is the idea, not the physical object. The idea that there need not be a material object is therefore not new. If your objection to computer art is that there’s no physical object, and you accept conceptual art, then you really can’t object to computer art.

David Hockney is not a computer artist, since it’s Hockney who’s doing everything, using a computer as he might use a brush. What we’re looking for is generative art produced by a computer.

Ernest Edmonds is interested in the logical structure of interaction, enhanced by computers, and in the medium of mathematical possibilities. Evolutionary programs can grow through random mutations. William Latham generates 3D creepy crawlies. Another artist co-opted the US Postal Service to produce a work of art.

For some people, when you tell them that a work has been produced by a computer, even though they may have just been admiring it, they’ll say they’re not interested. It’s an irrational response.


Why bother with a semantic question? There used to be a similar controversy in the world of photography, with computer images not accepted as legitimate. Now that’s all changed.

Harold Cohen’s own program ended up “beating” him in the colour stakes. Cohen thought of himself as a first-class colourist, but his program is a world-class colourist.

Romanticism places the human at the centre of art, and resists the idea that a computer could originate a work of art.

We are a long way from a computer being an artist. Even with evolutionary programs, the ultimate agent is a human being. Evaluative criteria can be programmed in avoid, say, unbalanced compositions.

An expert on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright studied the 40 or so prairie houses and concluded that the “principle of unity is occult.” Computer programmers produced all of the prairie houses and more besides, showing that it was not at all occult.

A programming language has no materiality, it is an abstract mathematical system.

David Cope is a composer and a computer scientist who used a program to generate a score. He was dismayed by the reaction of a critic who refused point blank to even attend the concert because he regarded the score as “computer output” and not a musical composition.

Boden wouldn’t want to say that animals produce art, not even those puffer fish or bower birds that feature so wonderfully on David Attenborough’s documentaries. Even cave paintings are not really art.

A knitting machine could be creative if it could knock off 20 different versions of a Fairisle jumper without having produced any of the designs previously.

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Did God Evolve?

Did God Evolve? An Evolutionist’s Speculation about Religion

Professor Steve Jones Presented by Gresham College at the Museum of London on 28 January 2015

Did God evolve? Ideas and beliefs evolve as much as do bodies and brains and in some ways the two processes are similar. A survey of world religions, both now and in the past, shows some interesting consistencies, with a clear fit between levels of belief and degrees of social inequality.

From the beginning, particular faiths have been — as Darwin showed for bodies — driven by demographic success, and Christianity at least is safe, since its believers reproduce far more effectively than do we atheists.

(A transcript of the lecture is available here.)

Steve Jones has no idea whether or not God evolved, or even whether or not he exists. What he can be more sure about is the evolution of religion, about which a consensus is beginning to appear.

“Eritis sicut deus” are three words from the Vulgate translation of Genesis, chapter 3. It is the serpent’s promise and continues “scientes bonum et malum”:

Ye shall be like gods, knowing good and evil.

Jones holds the conventional view that “science will never tell you about good and evil.” This rooted in a supposed unbridgeable gap between “is” and “ought” (for an alternative view, see Putnam 2002).

Darwin recognized that religion was part of evolution. His cousin, Francis Galton, earned some degree of notoriety when he investigated the statistical efficacy of prayer. He compared the average age at death of several groups, each having the advantage of affluence. The 97 members of the royal family had the shortest lives, despite being prayed for the most. (The episode of Wolf Hall broadcast on the evening of the lecture has Henry asking Cromwell to ask Wolsey to pray for him.)

Various studies show that identical twins share more religious traits than non-identical twins, and that autists are more likely to be atheists or agnostics, and everywhere women are more religious than men.

Hildegard of Bingen, possibly, and Lewis Carroll, definitely, suffered from migraine and as a result experienced scotoma (a zig-zag shape that dominates the visual field). One feature of scotoma is a stretching of figures, and Carroll drew Alice elongated. An example of Lewis Carroll syndrome is the vanishing of the Cheshire cat so that all that’s left is the smile.

For 99% of human history we have been hunter-gatherers. The biblical story of the expulsion from Eden is tied to the origin of agriculture:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.

With the arrival of agriculture we became farmers, which enabled the accumulation of property (less easy for nomadic groups). And once we have property, we have something valuable to fight over, and Cain murders Abel during a quarrel over property.

What is evolution? Darwin himself captured its essence in three words: descent with modification. We can match that with genetics plus time.

On the other side of Eden to Nod, the Tower of Babel was an attempt by humans to enter heaven by the back door. God was the ultimate nimby, and destroyed the cooperative enterprise of the building of the tower by creating mutually incomprehensible languages.

In the 18th century, William Jones, a remarkable linguist from an early age, was startled to find similarities between many languages, which he hypothesized had descended from a common ancestor: Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This was the language of the first farmers, and Anatolia is the home of PIE.

In general, there is a population explosion after the arrival of farming in a region. Göbekli Tepe is possibly the oldest religious site in the world, dating to around 10,000 BCE. Ur of Chaldees was the birthplace of Abraham, and of inequality. Farming allowed huge difference in wealth to appear:

Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred threescore and six talents of gold; he had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.

Even if we can’t believe these numbers, given the dodgy standards of accuracy of Old Testament authors, we can still see that these quantities were meant to be impressive.

While hunter-gatherers probably had superstitious ideas involving gods that caused the rain to fall or the crops to crow, in general these gods were distant figures with no real interest in the behaviour of men and women. But in modern religions, the gods become powerful and punitive. Jealous gods, active moral agents, are more common in pastoralism than in foraging societies, and there is a clear link between them and the rise of inequality.

Punitive religions emerged to keep the lower orders in place: Yama was the Hindu God of Death, Christianity had its own Judgement Day, when sinners are cast into perdition, Buddhism had the Wheel of Life and realms of suffering for those with bad karma.

The Gini Index is an objective measure of inequality. If one person in a million had a £1m, the index would be 1; if it were equally divided, it would be zero. Within Europe, Britain is the most unequal country. There is a striking fit between the Gini Index and religiosity.

The UN “successful societies” score turns largely on Gini and reflects a population’s health, murder rate, life expectancy, proportion in prison, and so on. Out of 17 developed societies, the US is an outlier: it’s the richest country but has the highest Gini. In short, it’s the least successful and the most religious!

There’s been a decline of religion in the UK, and a rise in atheism and irreligion, but before we congratulate ourselves on triggering a new Enlightenment, a word of warning: demography. The religious tend to have more children than the non-religious. The Amish, for example, if they continue to breed as quickly over the next century as they have over the past, their numbers in 2100 will equal the current US population.

Africa has a booming population, and Christianity in particular is booming. Globally, the future is Christianity, and some might argue that what we really need to understand is not more scientists but more theologians!


Africans can become less religious as they migrate to less religious societies, although the opposite is also possible.

New Harmony was set up as a socialist utopia (Robert Owen was one of the key movers), but it didn’t last anywhere near as long as similar communities founded on religious principles. One reason was that it attracted freeloaders who weren’t prepared to contribute their fair share. Another is that it lacked the structure of ritual and belief that perhaps functioned as commitment devices binding individuals together.

It’s silly to try and point to a “religious” part of the brain.

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The Golden Age of Paranormal Television

Professor Richard Wiseman at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit on 27 January 2015

The 80s and 90s saw a surge in paranormal programming, including the likes of Strange But True, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, and Out of this World. Richard Wiseman acted as consultant and onscreen expert to most of these shows, and will present a behind the scenes look at this unusual genre of programming. Includes the world’s worst paranormal television show, psychic testing, ghosts on film, rare archive footage and material that didn’t make the final cut.

Since Chris French has seen many of Richard’s talks multiple times, he began with his usual guarantee that this would be wonderful, before issuing a sceptical self-correction when he realized it might not, and that it might, indeed, “be crap.” He needn’t have worried, since it was, as usual, a highly entertaining talk. (For more on some of the stories, e.g. Sai Baba and JT, psychic dog, see Investigating the Impossible.)

Frank Smythe created a fake ghost — the Vicar of Ratcliff Wharf — and then found “witnesses” who claimed they had seen the non-existent ghost. A young Richard Wiseman found was fascinated by this, and by the power of psychological suggestion. One barmaid testified that the ghost “follows the ladies around… was a licentious old devil… comes into the bathroom… this is quite true.”

The BBC show Leap in the Dark was its attempt to do the paranormal, e.g. a woman who could tell the colour of a card simply by touching it.

Albert the “mind manipulator” was also another kind of very effective manipulator: just before the camera rolled on set, he doubled his fee, and there was nothing the producer could do about it. Richard loved what Albert told the angry producer:

I did tell you, I’m a manipulator.

His top 10 TV moments are:

10. World’s worst psychic. There’s no point seeing psychics fail in a controlled test, which makes for bad television, so programme makers tended to give them a lot of freedom and little scrutiny. Even with this latitude, psychics could still fail miserably, as the first clip showed.

9. Lottery PK. The stunt was to influence the numbers of the National Lottery. Camelot wasn’t best pleased, and the reason why became apparent only after the show went ahead. Three of the “willed” numbers actually came up (as expected), which meant that 13 million viewers each collected £10. The total was the biggest payout ever, and nearly bankrupted the Lottery. (After that close call, the rules on such payouts were changed.)

8. Jean Pierre Girard. He was an internationally famous psychic, who’s been doing the same act for years but had never been caught cheating. The skeptic at the table didn’t see the fine wire either — it was the cameraman who spotted it and made sure he caught it on film. The voiceover concluded that it was “ingenious magic certainly, paranormal power, I don’t think so.”

7. JT, the psychic dog. The original footage contained only images of the moments when her owner came home. Richard filmed for several hours, and showed that JT went to the window 13 times — it would have odd if he hadn’t been at the window when she came home.

6. Chris Robinson was a “psychic detective” who dreamed about crimes that hadn’t happened. When put to the test at the University of Hertfordshire, however, he was outperformed by students who claimed no such powers. When challenged, he argued that although it was a trick it could also exist as a real phenomenon, and spun his poor performance at the university into an almost unqualified success.

5. Sai Baba. He was an Indian guru with a huge following (a picture showed crowds gathering in his ashram that makes those in St Peter’s Square at a papal blessing seem like one man and his dog). Richard went to India to investigate, and with the help of a covertly copied videotape caught the guru cheating.

This featured in the Channel 4 documentary Gurubusters, which also filmed the work of Indian rationalists exposing other small-time gurus. Richard showed a clip that never made the final edit, for obvious reasons, as it was distressing to watch. To test the guru’s claim that he could “chase out the poisonous spirit” from a victim of a snake bite, they deliberately had a venomous snake bite a dog and then challenged the guru to heal the dog. The guru did his stuff in front a large crowd, repeating mantras, saying prayers, using a broom to sweep away the poisonous spirit, all to no effect. Eventually, the dog died and the guru admitted defeat, and made a public confession, that although he once thought there was a lot of truth in what he did, he now knew there was nothing to it.

4. The Vertical Plane. The claim that a BBC computer was receiving messages from the 16th century was investigated, with a Cambridge expert on early modern English analysing the text and concluding that it was probably late 20th century.

3. The Seance. This Equinox investigation showed how Victorian methods can still fool modern audiences.

2. The 11 O’clock Show. Ian Lee prowling the roundabouts at Elephant and Castle doing vox pop and concluding that he’s totally convinced that some people have psychic powers, and that “Richard Wiseman is talking out of his arse.”

1. Firewalking. This Tomorrow’s World live special is a classic, and probably wouldn’t be allowed today, given the potential for serious injury to the participants. The paranormal claim was that “a psychic force field” protects the firewalker, but this was only ever for distances of around 10–15 yards. For this distance there’s a perfectly good, naturalistic, non-paranormal, scientific explanation to do with the amount of time the feet are in contact with the coals and amount of energy that can be transferred in this time.

The real test was to see if the firewalkers could manage a longer distance, which should be easy with their protective “force field”. If they managed the feat, they would overturn all the known laws of physics; if they didn’t, they would be badly burned. Either way, it would make great TV.

The presenter asks the key question:

Is it magic or simply science at work?

The first firewalker declared he was in “a state of personal empowerment” and was ready for the test. He managed 10 yards before leaping off the coals. The next firewalker didn’t do any better, and elected to be treated by paramedics and not paranormal medical help.

Pam didn’t walk, because her guardian angel vanished as she stood by the burning coals. Richard wondered what kind of guardian angel this was, who was only there for the good times.

The golden years for these programmes were the 1990s, and there are now very few shows on the main channels. Most Haunted came along in 2002 and was a huge success, catering for people who believed this stuff, and who weren’t particularly interested in the sceptical angle.


One nasty trick some Indian firewalkers use is to throw sugar over the coals after they’ve walked, which makes the next walker’s feet stick to the coals and burn more quickly.

YouTube channels (including his own) featuring science and scepticism attract millions of hits, disproving old-school producers who assert that talking heads on TV never work.

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Heretic and heroine

Last week’s London Thinks event was a good-natured and largely rational discussion. When religion is in the frame, however, there’s always a possibility of things tipping over the edge into irrationality, and that moment came with a comment from someone in the audience who believed the resurrection was both true and not true. Fraser agreed, and so seemed to endorse a logical contradiction. In arguing is why feminists must be logical, Janet Radcliffe Richards (1994:45) also makes the case for why everyone must be logical:

The most fundamental rule is that of non-contradiction. Essentially, whatever is meant when something is said, whether the words are used with their usual meanings or not, if the statement is to mean anything at all it must exclude some possibilities. In other words, to say for instance that something is red all over… is to imply at the same time that it is not all kinds of other things…

She continues (45–46):

Being illogical… is maintaining that incompatible propositions are both true, and in doing so maintaining nothing, since to make an illogical statement is to make no statement at all.

Well, who would have thought — the religious spouting a lot of words while saying nothing of substance!

It’s not very surprising that there’s something about religion that encourages such illogical thinking. Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark and Helen Castor’s book Joan of Arc both deal with a controversial historical figure who has attracted opposing interpretations.

In the Q&A after the play, Helen Castor described Joan as one side’s heretic, another side’s heroine: Joan of Arc was burned by the English in 1431, and revered by the French (who eventually made her a saint). Who was right? Was she really a witch, or did she really receive divine revelation?

This is a tricky one for the religious, since at the time those who prosecuted Joan of Arc were Roman Catholics, and those who defended Joan of Arc were — Roman Catholics. The rational conclusion is that neither side was right: Joan of Arc was neither a witch nor in receipt of divine communication.

A naturalistic explanation, or simply an acceptance that we may never know what caused Joan of Arc to hear voices, is more easily arrived at now than it would have been in the fifteenth century — so long as you’re prepared to forgo the irrationality of embracing contradictions.

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The Lark

By Jean Anouilh Translated by Christopher Fry Directed by Astrid Pons Presented by Defiant Reality at the Rose Playhouse on 25 January 2014

In this gripping fast-paced medieval drama full of wit & humour, Jeanne d’Arc is surrounded by French, English and Spanish Inquisition judges, moments away from being burned at the stake. In a few seconds, she will be nothing but a pile of ashes at the foot of the stake.

But hark! Are we back in Domremy, where Jeanne was born? Is that Chinon & Charles the Dauphin on his throne? As death draws nearer, Jeanne’s life flashes before her eyes – and yours. Join us in reliving the key moments she wishes to witness one last time.

And in so doing, maybe light will be shed on why Jeanne d’Arc has become a positive symbol of faith, feminism and bravery. Here’s how little popular culture knows about her: the heresy she was burned for had nothing to do with her hearing voices.

lark-madlyn-joan-arcA tremendous production of a play about one of the more difficult characters of history, in terms of the distance between her and most of us in the modern world. It was followed by an excellent Q&A with Helen Castor, who’s just published Joan of Arc (2014:1), in which she introduces Joan as “a protean icon: a hero to nationalists, monarchists, liberals, socialists, the right, the left, Catholics, Protestants, traditionalists, feminists, Vichy and the Resistance.” Protean, meaning “readily taking on various shapes or forms”, is a good word for this woman who has been interpreted in so many ways. There is, of course, an absence in this list of admirers: humanists. We’re unlikely to think highly of anyone who converts delusions into public policy, especially when that policy involves going to war (unfortunately, we have our own recent example of a leader who skimped on the evidence and relied on conviction to carry us into a disastrous war).

With this play and this translation, and with this company in this space, however, there was much to admire about Joan of Arc, as played by Maud Madlyn. Against the variability of interpretation she creates a character of terrifying constancy, driven by a single-minded purpose and illuminated by swivel-eyed ecstasy, standing solid in big black boots, grinning, shaking in her white smock, forever fingering her crucifix and twiddling her beads as if they provided continual orgasmic pleasure.

The production opens with her standing on a sliver of tree trunk, to the sound of crackling flames and muffled shouts of “burn the witch” as the rest of the cast circle her in judgement. Then we flip back to the trial and she tells her own story of how she came to lead an army against the English. George Collie plays the Earl of Warwick as a sardonic aristocrat and practical soldier who can’t quite believe he’s wasting his time with such a woman. He recognizes that one day there might be a statue of her in London, but for now she must be burned as a witch. He slumps in his chair, yawning, as Joan remembers the first time she heard a voice, telling her to be a good girl and always go to church.

The second time, it’s St Michael on the metaphysical telecom, telling her to present herself to the dauphin and save France from destruction. Okaaay. Her father (Philip North with a working-class northern accent) suspects she is meeting someone on the quiet, and reaches for his stick. She is comforted by her mother, until she too flips out at what her is claiming. Both parents thus channel what most of us in the audience must be feeling, and wondering how we would react.

Back to the trial, where it’s made clear to Joan what her position is:

We are your priests, masters, judges.

She then narrates how she came to lead the French army in battle, and while we may be gripped Warwick was snoring, before being roused:

Propaganda is black and white — say something staggering and repeat it often enough and it will catch on.

Anticipating Goebbels is one thing, anticipating Hume’s impressive atheism is another, as Warwick (I think) stresses that what she is doesn’t matter:

It’s her effect on those around her that matters.

Hume would argue that the ontological question of God’s existence is irrelevant: what matters is what believers do (see Blackburn 2008). And so what really matters is what anyone who happens to have an army can do. Warwick is one such man, and he’s impatient to get home, and so wants to rattle through the trial and get her burned.

Joan’s father wonders why God speaks to her, not him. It’s a not unreasonable question, and receiving instructions from angels does not constitute a reasonable answer, even at this period. He doesn’t really fancy the idea of his daughter going off with soldiers. A woman stays at home, and doesn’t lead soldiers on horseback. We can disagree with the first part, while still appreciating the second. His antipathy to Joan mixing it with soldiers is nothing to do with her being unable to take a beating — he is a disciplinarian of the old (medieval) school — and everything to do with protecting his genetic investment in her body. Hence both parents’ interest in her marriage arrangements to a suitable man and their objections to her becoming an army whore.

A Christian justification for belligerence that is not often heard these days is found in Matthew 10:34–35:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. / For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

The irony is that Charles — played brilliantly by Tristan Hyde as a long-haired, petulant youth, obsessively playing at cup and ball — has neither the cash to be a king nor the appetite for war expected of medieval male monarchs. He simpers:

I don’t like fighting.

When Joan eventually arrives at his court, he swaps places with an obliging chap on the front row in order to play a trick on the peasant girl, to fool her into approaching the wrong person. She makes straight for the seated king, which is supposed to be impressive, until we remember that, while exchanging clothes and a crown is easy, transferring status isn’t.

Egged on by her, he raises his voice dismisses his court, who actually leave the room, perhaps more in astonishment than in true dread. Anyway, it’s the first time he’s been obeyed, and he quite likes the feeling.

The French commanders are sceptical, to say the least, of Joan’s plan, even when she promises them that God is on her side:

Do you suppose the English don’t say their prayers? God is with the strongest armies.

Joan thinks God is with the bravest. All they have is this “wretched scrap of France nibbled by the English” and it’s about time they won the whole of France back for the king. She tells him:

Get your fear over first — that‘s the secret.

Joan gets her way and is soon “singing like a lark over the soldiers.” It all ends in tears, for her, and she is stubborn to the end:

My right is to say no and to go on believing…

This time it’s the English leaders who are sceptical:

You alone are divinely inspired? No one believes you…

The heavy guns are wheeled in as the Inquisitor arrives: charity is the theological, and nothing to do with the milk of human kindness. A final softly-softly attempt is made to get her to abjure her position:

We’ve put many to death in defence of the church, you’ve put many to death in defence of your voices.

She does sign the abjuration, with its central admission of “pretending to receive revelation.”

Charles blows hot and cold towards Joan — in the end, just cold, while she is warmed by the flames of Rouen:

Divine help is all very well, except when it isn’t there.

Given his attitude, he’s lucky to get the final scene, which flips back to his coronation: his paper crown for once is replaced with a real one.

Cast: Maud Madlyn (Joan of Arc), George Collie (Earl of Warwick), Pip Gladwin (Pierre Cauchon), Samuel Heagney (Promoter/Boudousse), Victoria Howden(Mother/Queen Yolande), Tristan Hyde (Charles le Dauphin/Capitaine La Hire/Brother Ladvenu), Lawrence Toye (Inquisitor/Archbishop), Phil North (Father/Robert de Beaudricourt/La Tremouille)

Q&A with Helen Castor

Suzanne Marie begins by pointing out a Joan of Arc connection to the Rose Theatre, which premiered the first part of King Henry VI on 3 March 1592, and which put Joan la Pucelle on stage with the lines:

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself…

Helen Castor began by stating an obvious but crucial point: women couldn’t lead soldiers in battle.

It’s unusual for there to be so much documentary information about such a person as Joan. There are extensive records of her 1431 trial, which was a deeply partisan affair: she was one side’s heretic, another side’s heroine.

The prosecuting theologians pressed Joan on the nature of her visions, and she was lured into describing them as physical beings with hair and clothes. They were clearly demons, since angels are spiritual beings.

Although described as a shepherdess, this was more romantic label than job description.

We can’t separate misogyny from the religious context. To have a teenage peasant girl rise to such prominence and guide a king was thought of as one possible miraculous way for God to work in the world. Again, for one side this works in her favour, for the other it works against her. Deuteronomy 22.5 declares that a woman in men’s clothes is an abomination.

Maud Madlyn describes how their production has changed from last November, when Joan was more childlike, to this run, where she is moved more by blind faith.

HC At this time, and for everyone, God is real and at work in the world. (Even today, there are many devout people who think along similar lines. For example, one relative of a survivor of the Jewish supermarket killings in Paris said, “Thanks to God she is alive and well.”  The medieval mindset is still parasitizing modern minds.)

It took five centuries for Joan to be made a saint, but she’s a tricky case: she’s the only Catholic saint to have been killed on a judgement of heresy delivered by the Catholic Church. She can hardly be celebrated as a martyr by Christians, since she was killed by Christians.

Just a few weeks after her arrival at court, she was already referring to herself as “Jeanne la Pucelle” or “Joan the Maid” — an extremely important term. In one sense, Joan of Arc is just a stage name.

The story of Joan of Arc continues to fascinate, and remains, sadly, relevant in how it brings into relief attitudes towards female leaders. Only this month, there was another piece of misogynism as female leaders were airbrushed out of history (see The disannouncer). Perhaps Photoshop would have been put to work in the aftermath of Joan’s trial? (Although against this interpretation is the fact that Joan’s story was extensively documented.)

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Woman has baby

This was the headline on the front cover of Private Eye (no. 1345), marking the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in July 2013. There was no picture, just bold black type on a white background, the joke being that a woman having a baby is hardly news. In smaller print underneath: Inside: Some other stuff.

More newsworthy would be women — in large numbers — not having babies. As Shakespeare points out in his eleventh sonnet, if all were minded so, “threescore year would make the world away.”

If having children is perfectly normal, are women who choose not to have children abnormal? That is an uncomfortable conclusion for some, and in this piece on childfree women, Eleanor Tucker challenges her own preconceptions about the role of women as mothers. She talks to Kate Fox, whose comedy show Good Breeding, about a child-free life, played at last year’s Edinburgh Festival:

I come from a long line of unmaternal women — but my mother and grandmother had more pressure on them to procreate.

Later, Tucker quotes Laura Carroll, whose 2012 book examines pronatalism, “the set of social and cultural beliefs that influence how we think about parenthood”:

The reason boils down to pronatalist social and cultural messaging that has exalted the role of parenthood for generations. When we question pronatalist beliefs and see them for what they are — beliefs — we will also see that choosing not to reproduce is just as normal as the choice to reproduce.

Really? Just as normal? This conclusion, together with a complete absence of reference to biology or evolution, illustrates perfectly the prevailing dualism that is “considered the common sense and common decency of our age.” It shows that John Tooby and Leda Cosmides were not wrong when they wrote (Barkow et al. 1992:48):

The single most far-reaching consequence of the Standard Social Science Model has been to intellectually divorce the social sciences from the natural sciences…

An understanding of the purpose of sexual intercourse and of why human beings possess organs of sexual reproduction (to make babies) does not mean that all women must be having children all of the time. This may be the attitude of some extreme religious groups (see, for example, The disannouncer), but for the rest of us there is scope for great diversity in the modern world, and plenty of space for child-free women. We should recognize that not having children is definitely not normal from an evolutionary perspective, but then plenty of things we do aren’t normal in that regard. Why worry if it’s “normal”?

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The disannouncer

Are you a dictator whose closest ally has become a liability? Embarrassed by those pictures showing the two of you watching the march-past in Freedom Square? Why not have him liquidated, and the photographs airbrushed? With the evidence destroyed, it will be just your word against anyone stupid enough to have a good memory, and we all know who will come off best in that contest.

In a world full of cameras, airbrushing your political enemies from history seems not only old school but doomed to failure. It might once have worked in totalitarian societies where most people would be more concerned about getting enough food to eat than owning a camera or holding their leaders to account, and where there was no free press or independent judiciary.

So it was a surprise to come across this story about female world leaders being airbrushed from the Paris march (in January 2015), which was held to show solidarity with the French people in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Less surprising, given the authoritarian tendencies of a certain kind of religious mindset, was that it was done to avoid offending readers of a conservative Jewish newspaper:

Israel’s The Announcer removed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other female leaders from the historic image so as not to offend its highly devout Orthodox readers.

Such an action points up the similarity between totalitarian political regimes and a branch of a religion that is also highly controlling of its membership. For those in authority, the wrong kind of knowledge is dangerous. If you’re a citizen in North Korea, you’re more likely to be told that the South Koreans across the border are living miserable lives oppressed by Western values. If you’re an Orthodox Jewish woman, perhaps enduring your tenth pregnancy, you’re not going to be told — and you’re not going to want to hear — that women elsewhere in the world can aspire to and achieve high office and a life that does not revolve around nappies and the kitchen sink.

The story ends:

Three years ago, Orthodox Jewish paper Di Tzeitung sparked anger in the US by airbrushing then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from a 2011 photo of the White House situation room during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

In the past, The Announcer — known in Hebrew as HaMevaser — has also refused to print the names of female politicians who are members of the Israeli parliament the Knesset.

The newspaper said it had removed Mrs Merkel and other women leaders from this week’s paper for “reasons of modesty” because it is not to refer to or depict women in the media.

Presumably, this is one newspaper that will not be stepping in to the breach if and when The Sun makes up its mind to drop its topless Page 3 models.

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A Scientist, an Atheist Biblical Scholar and a Vicar Walk into an Ethical Society…

Rev Giles Fraser, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou and Dr Adam Rutherford at the Conway Hall Ethical Society on 22  January 2015

This London Thinks event was facilitated by Samira Ahmed.

Religion, science and ethics have always had difficult relationship. From the time of Galileo’s house arrest for heliocentrism during the Roman Inquisition, the Catholic Church’s stance on the use of contraception, religious views on same-sex relationships, among other controversial cases. But are attitudes improving? Scientist — such as Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss — have put forward that a scientific worldview is the right stance for future progress and all religions are irrelevant in the modern world. With the recent abolition of blasphemy law in the UK in 2008, and the Anglican Church’s change in stance on same-sex relationships in 2013, it seems well formed moral and ethical guidance can come from secular as well as religious communities.

Samira Ahmed was an excellent chair, although she got off to a bad start by opposing secularism to religion when the reverse is true (at least of the secularism campaigned for by the NSS).

Francesca Stavrakopoulou also got off to a bad start by distancing herself from the “new atheism” and having a pop at Dawkins, who, according to her, thinks there’s a battle between science and religion and who completely misunderstands religion. This sort of overblown rhetoric might be expected from apologists for religion but it’s disappointing to hear it from an atheist. Actually, it would be pretty dumb from anyone: religion’s not the sort of thing that can either be completely understood or completely misunderstood. (What would she say to a believer who said that cannot understand religion because she’s an atheist and is therefore missing the whole point, which is belief?)

Giles Fraser thought that atheism is too hung up over the truth claims of religion, and over the ontological question of God’s existence. He cited Nietzsche, who couldn’t care less if God exists, but he could have gone further back to Hume (see Was David Hume the First Humanist?). Nietzsche apparently would have still been an atheist even if he discovered that God did indeed exist. Fraser seemed untroubled by the logical absurdity of this, a swivel-eyed calmness that would be on show later in connection with the resurrection. If I discovered that God existed, I would become a theist, but there would still be the question of whether or not to worship this deity. And given the problem of suffering, that would be very unlikely.

Adam Rutherford wasn’t going to defend the new atheism, but he stressed that religion has opposed science:

I couldn’t care less what you believe until you tread on my turf — at that point, there’s a fight on.

GF picked him up on the new atheism being around for 15 years, and gleefully linked this to 9/11. Nobody, however (except SA later on), made the simple point that all that’s new is the willingness on the part of atheists to speak up, publish books, engage in debate, enter the public space, and so on. The arguments may not have changed much, but the constraints against expressing them openly certainly have.

FS was anxious over science presenting itself as having exclusive access to knowledge: there are other ways of understanding the world. Whenever this tired claim is trotted out, I want to ask, Such as?

AR stuck his neck out and declared that the scientific method was the best way of knowing the objective truth.

Incredibly, FS has a problem with both the words objective and truth.

AR stated his materialist position: there’s nothing other than the natural world.

SA then pretty much laid Auschwitz at the door of science, glossing over the long history of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe that has absolutely nothing to do with the quest for scientific knowledge.

AR couldn’t let this comment pass: while eugenics is a negative doctrine today it was actually highly regarded in the early 20th century, with figures such as William Beveridge and Marie Stopes prominent eugenicists.

GF then, bizarrely, accused AR of relativism, but AR was not saying he thought eugenics was right then and wrong now, simply that, historically, it has not always been as reviled as it is now. GF then went on about how religion once thought it was the sole route to truth, and now science thinks it is, failing to see that religion never delivered on the truth, while science has and continues to do so.

FS declared herself, for no apparent reason at this point in the conversation, “pissed off by the privileging of Christianity in this country.”

AR described science as self-correcting, and doubt as the essence of science, and the best way of arriving at empirical knowledge about the world.

FS thought Christianity was malleable, but on the way out.

AR contrasted the tiny proportion of CoE bishops (2 and of 129) who believe in the literal truth of the Virgin Birth with the 50% of their congregations who do believe it.

FS The Alpha Course has adopted scientific rationalism.

Answering a string of rapid-fire questions from AR, GF outlined his “unassailable worldview” that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected (literally). That this came as something of a surprise (it’s pretty basic Christian doctrine) shows how watered down Christianity has become.

FS confessed to having a soft spot for Richard Coles but didn’t like his way of saying that his truth was bigger than anyone else’s.

Oddly, FS and GF were united in both being adamant that they wouldn’t change their minds if presented with evidence to the contrary: this is no surprise for GF, a man of faith, but I was under the impression that FS was a woman of reason.

AR was inclined to be a bit too generous to the Bible. FS stressed its tribal nature: Don’t be a dick to one of your own, but you can be a dick to those people over there.

AS admires the “come out as an atheist” movement, which is especially important in the US, and she admires Andrew Copson, who has a careful line in using the law to call out, say, faith schools that don’t teach evolution or sex education.


GF values how crap his tradition is, its fragile basis, and the importance of doubt (except about things like the resurrection, presumably).

AR tells him he’s just described science (which got a big cheer).

GF said that the cheer was what worried him, but he genuinely didn’t seem to understand that we were cheering for doubt, which he’d just been banging on about as being central to his worldview (whenever the religious claim that doubt is important to them, I suspect this is bullshit: Doubting Thomas is not an aspirational figure in the Gospels). He can’t accept how a scientific worldview might be epistemically “superior” to, say, Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils. AR alluded to Feynman’s famous response to his artist friend, but didn’t make the simple points that Wordsworth’s poem would be less impressive if it referred to red daffodils (empiricism is as important in poetry as in science), and surely not all poets are equal in quality, and so some are “superior” to others. GF seems to have a problem with one thing being “better” than another — a classic liberal “ we’re all winners” distaste for ranking and competition.

The discussion moved to Rosalind Franklin, and AR made the innocuous comment that she was reputed to have been “difficult to work with” (I’ve come across this biographical detail elsewhere). FS and SA were apoplectic: “Adam!” How dare he use the age-old sexist putdown! Neither was concerned that it may have been true in this case. It was a surprising intellectual lapse from two women who supposedly value critical thinking. (Unless they are asserting that no women under any circumstances can ever be difficult to work with — but surely they would not want to be guilty of such chauvinism?) A further annoyance about FS was her tendency to use phrases like “Western constructs” — which smacks of a postmodernism I thought the academy was moving away from (as well as being patronizing towards non-Western cultures that might like to avail themselves of so-called Western practices and ideas).

Then came a bonkers comment from someone who believes the resurrection to be both true and not true. GF thought that this was “completely right” while everyone else on planet earth was uncomprehending.

AR pointed out that something is either true or it isn’t, and SA agreed. GF tried to explain with an example from psychoanalysis, which is like trying to win an argument in cosmology by referencing astrology. He then trotted out the idea that religion is quite good at doing mystery. No one challenged him, but I would argue that religion diminishes mystery because it just doesn’t care enough about the truth or about explanation, and is too quick to play the mystery card (to say nothing of the venal and mercenary motives behind the church’s frequent exploitation of people’s gullibility).

The discussion degenerated into an unedifying knockabout over the nature of ethics, with no one having anything particularly interesting or clear to say. One questioner declared herself a Bayesian, and therefore “subjective” — a bizarre statement.

FS closed with a personal revelation: “my particular discipline pisses me off.”

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Born a Muslim

In this edition of iPM (17.01.15), a Muslim woman reacts to the attacks in Paris and describes her dual life living between the UK and the Middle East. During the interview, Eddie Mair asks how she was introduced to her faith. The answer is simple:

I was born a Muslim.

He asks, with just a hint of scepticism:

Well, were you born a Muslim?

She replies:

Yeah, yeah, cos my parents are Muslim.

This hubristic attitude — the idea that parents can decide for their children what they are going to believe as soon as they emerge into the world — is not confined to Islam (see, for example, Born into it).

Mair then makes a very good humanist point:

Well, you were born a baby, weren’t you?

The interviewee has an infectious giggle, and comes across as decent and likable in many respects, but she evades this question. Mair admits he was thinking of Richard Dawkins, but he fails to make the important point that no one is born believing a religion’s specific propositions, just as no child is born fully signed up to Marxist ideology.

Like Shazia Mirza (So strong), she deplores those who use her religion to justify violence, which piece of hubris implies that she is possessed of the true message, when the reality is that she has simply absorbed more Western, secular values than the Muslims who commit murder in the name of her god.

She sensibly doesn’t like the phrase “Muslim community”:

We’re united in faith but even within our faith it’s just like you have the Catholics and the Protestants and the Methodists, we have different sects within the faith, so we’re not really united as much as the politicians like to think.

It’s disappointing that so few politicians and apologists for Islam (for example, Tariq Ramadan — see This was not Islam) recognize this fact.

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