The Unbelievers

Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor Lawrence Krauss Organized by the Skeptic Magazine at the Conway Hall on 23  October 2014

The Skeptic Magazine presents Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss live at Conway Hall, to discuss their recent documentary and the state of science and reason in modern times. The Unbelievers documentary follows Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they speak publicly around the world. It includes interviews with Stephen Hawking, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris, Cameron Diaz, Woody Allen and many others.

Good to see an almost packed Conway Hall (a few spare seats in the balconies), an audience size that’s probably bigger than the number of subscribers to the magazine. The filmmakers followed the pair around as they promoted the cause of reason and science, including venues as impressive as Sydney Opera House, to what was billed at the biggest gathering of atheists in human history in a rally in Washington, DC, 2012. When they finally walked onto the more modest stage here, they deservedly got a very warm welcome. They didn’t need any more introduction, although Krauss joked that we could recognize Dawkins — “he’s the one wearing Converse.”

The first question was the tendency of the Supreme Court judges to pick and choose from the Constitution, in the same way that many religious believers pick and choose the bits they like from their holy book. Krauss agreed that some of the judges treat the Constitution like the Bible, and that some decisions were obviously political and justified after the fact. He had a very low opinion of the judges who were also devout Catholics.

In response to the point that the film was one-sided, Krauss said that 120 hours of footage had been shot and that the filmmakers themselves had said:

If you’re making a film about the Beatles, you don’t follow the Rolling Stones.

On the inevitable question about the solace of religion, Dawkins recognized that religion supposedly provides a degree of comfort to some people, but he cares much more about whether or not it’s true, not whether or not there are “good effects” (about which, in any case, he’s naturally sceptical). Evidence is the right approach if you want to get to the truth.

Krauss gets excited about the real universe, and proposes the radical idea that we should base our actions on reality (although see Kurzban 2010). Beliefs in things that are not true are not innocuous. You don’t have to be a scientist to argue for reason and empirical evidence.

In debates, Dawkins acknowledged that it’s not the aim to persuade the religious idiot on the opposing side of the motion but the audience, who can judge for themselves. Krauss added that they prefer to have discussions, not debates, and that we should remember that rational people can also be idiots. One of the beauties of the scientific discipline is that it encourages you to second-guess yourself.

Scientists are a trusting lot, and tend to assume honesty. This is not as naive as it sounds, since fraudsters will eventually get found out. Dawkins pointed out that the scientific ideal is that fiddling data is the worst thing, that there’s no point in doing science if you’re going to cheat.

Krauss added that what determines what’s right is not people but the universe, which means there is no final authority in science, which is why it’s got to be curiosity based.

A brave liberal rabbi was I think the only religious voice heard in the hall, and he began by asserting that if we say we value life, then that is a religious statement.

Both Dawkins and Krauss disagreed with that claim, as did most of the rest of us, judging by the murmurs of disapproval. The rabbi went on to say that he knew there was plenty of nonsense in the Bible, but he ignored all of that and only focused on the good stuff. Dawkins suggested that if you’ve got independent criteria to decide what’s right and wrong, then why not cut out the middle man? [Big applause]

The rabbi persevered, claiming that ancient religion was the science of its day, and although most of it is rubbish it’s a testament to human ingenuity.

Dawkins agreed we can find the historical aspects of religion interesting. For Krauss, the Bible should be read critically, like any other book.

Dawkins thought that religion is in its death throes, at least in Western Europe with Christian. Islam unfortunately is looking more lively.

For Krauss, tackling Islam means that the education of women is very important. The purpose of education is for kids to not believe their parents.

One questioner got big applause for asking, Why aren’t faith-based schools banned?

The biggest applause of the evening, however, was for the final question, asked by a young boy, who began by saying that he really wanted to be a scientist when he grew up. What’s better — he paused while it dawned on us all what was coming next — a physicist or a biologist? Fantastic.

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The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories

The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Correlates, Causes and Consequences

Professor Karen Douglas at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit on 21  October 2014

Was 9/11 an inside job? Is climate change a hoax? Was Princess Diana murdered? Millions of people appear to think so, disbelieving official explanations for significant events in favour of alternative accounts that are often called ‘conspiracy theories’. Little is known about the psychological factors that influence belief in conspiracy theories, and less still is known about their consequences. In this talk, I will outline an ongoing programme of research in which my colleagues and I have attempted to address these gaps in knowledge.

Karen’s research focuses less on cognitive and more on social psychology.

A conspiracy theory is a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal. It involves unjust and unaccountable powers and coverups, and examples are the MMR vaccine, the death of Diana, the Moon landings, 9/11 (which the “truth movement” believes was a false flag event to justify the war on terror), the disappearance of flight MH370, and so on.

The goal of her research is not to establish the truth of any particular conspiracy theory: some are true, some are as yet unproven, and some are outlandish.

Some key questions:

  • Why are they so popular?
  • What psychological factors are associated with belief in conspiracy theories?
  • What are the consequences of such beliefs?

It doesn’t help that information often is withheld by those in power. Conspiracy beliefs have been on the increase in recent years.

Some predispositions towards conspiracy theories include:

  • low self-esteem
  • low agreeableness
  • schizotopy
  • generalized conspiracy mentality
  • anti-Semitism and collective narcissism

Possible social contributors include:

  • Decreased social capital in Western nations: low interpersonal trust is associated with support for conspiracy theories.
  • Belief in conspiracy theories is perhaps associated with increased social inequality, since in countries like the USA, where there is high inequality, there are also high rates of belief in conspiracy theories.
  • Lack of control: some individuals perceive more patterns in random pictures.
  • Disadvantaged minorities are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories, to blame the system and perceived prejudice.

Are conspiracy theories attempts to regain control? Conspiracists tend to argue against rather than for their own position, while conventionalists do the opposite.

Whether or not an individual believes the world is an unjust place, e.g. do people by and large get what they deserve, or do good deeds often go unnoticed and unrewarded? Conspiracy beliefs are associated with belief that the world is an unjust place. Which comes first? It’s not entirely clear, and one may fuel the other.

Psychological processes are predictive of belief in conspiracy theories:

  • The strongest is the tendency to believe in other conspiracy theories.
  • Hypersensitive agency detection.
  • Uncertainty.
  • Conjunction fallacy (making connections that aren’t there).
  • Belief in the paranormal.
  • Proportionality bias (trivial explanations are not satisfying, e.g. that a drunk driver was responsible for the death of Diana).


Projection gets to work with this final bias (big events demand a big explanation), and when there is a lack information to evaluate conflicting explanations from the media. In uncertain conditions people may rely on projection, which is the process by which one’s own feelings or motivations or action tendencies are attributed to others.

When asking “Did they do it?” people may ask “Would I do it?” If you were a member of the royal family, would you have plotted to kill Diana?

In one study (with suitable controls), participants were primed with the idea that they were a nice, moral person, and then asked if they agreed with the idea that governments are suppressing evidence of the existence of aliens. Also, if you were a government official, would you suppress evidence of the existence of aliens?

Those in the primed condition (they thought of themselves as a moral person) endorsed conspiracy theories less than those not primed, and were less likely to say they would, for example, have Diana killed. Personal willingness to conspire is crucial in explaining the extent to which an individual might endorse a conspiracy theory. Projection is therefore a useful way to explain conspiracy beliefs.

Higher-order belief systems

Monological belief system: if one conspiracy event is likely, then others are likely, giving rise to a self-sustaining network of mutually supported beliefs that, basically, something dodgy is going on. Are all beliefs tied together by a higher-order belief systems?

Are contradictory conspiracy theories, e.g. that Osama bin Laden is both deal and alive, possible? One study presented participants with three conspiracy theories:

  • The vague idea that they’re hiding something.
  • The claim that Osama bin Laden is still alive.
  • The claim that Osama bin Laden was already dead when the raid took place.

Conspiracists are quite likely to believe contradictory beliefs, e.g. that Osama bin Laden is both dead and alive, despite this being an explicit contradiction. This makes more sense if we remember that a distrust of authority can trigger endorsement of multiple, mutually contradictory theories. It doesn’t matter what happened, so long as something dodgy happened.

Consequences of conspiracy beliefs

How influential are conspiracy theories? Attitudes can change without awareness; we lack reliable memories of past attitudes; and we’re not good at noticing changes in attitude. Can conspiracy theories influence people without their awareness?

Another study showed the hidden impact of conspiracy theories. Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases the intention to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint (because they felt powerless and uncertain and disillusioned) and to vaccinate (exposure to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories led to lower intentions to vaccinate because the participants perceived danger in vaccination).

Conspiracy theories are therefore not so trivial and not just a bit of harmless fun. There are political, environmental and health consequences for what people do.

Are conspiracy theories entirely subversive? They tend to challenge authority, are associated with mistrust, undermine confidence in government positions, and are endorsed by minority groups. Perhaps conspiracy theories are functional, allowing people to isolate negative events.

A few bad apples to save the barrel:

  • Subtyping.
  • Black sheep effect.
  • Blaming social problems on a small number of people.
  • Diverts attention from inherent problems in society.

Conspiracy theories seem to appeal more to people when the status quo is threatened. Instead of undermining satisfaction with the status quo, conspiracy theories may allow people to uphold it.


Conspiracy theories may be a response to psychological threat, and conspiracy beliefs are associated with uncertainty, powerlessness, lack of control, disempowerment, and sense making in the face of injustice.

Conspiracy theories are monological, even if they are sometimes contradictory, and result from a range of psychological processes. They can undermine the meaning that people strive for, influence people without their awareness, and reduce faith in government and scientists.

On the plus side, they may help support the status quo, and the idea that the world is essentially OK, apart from those few bad apples.


Climate change conspiracy theories stand out from all the rest.

People on both the far left and on the right wing of politics tend to more often endorse conspiracy theories.

It’s very difficult to argue someone out of a conspiracy theory, but conspiracy theories do die out, or go out of fashion. How this happens could be a study in mimetics, or evolutionary theory applied to ideas.

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The Portrayal of Women as Witches and Virgins

Lunchtime talk by Gayna Pelham at the Sainsbury Wing Theatre on 21 October 2014

The portrayal of women in European art changed dramatically in the 16th century with the onset of the Reformation and the consequent Counter-Reformation. Gayna Pelham will examine the depiction of women as either virtuous virgins or witches and whores.

Pelham began with a clip from All About Eve, a film made in 1950 with three strong female characters, including Bette Davis playing femme fatale Margo Channing, Anne Baxter and a young Marilyn Monroe, who can twist any man around her finger.

During the Counter-Reformation, beginning in the 1560s, how male artists portrayed women from the Old Testament, women who seduce men, changed dramatically. When Peter Paul Rubens came back from Italy, he had come under the influence of the antique, as well as Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and he had absorbed the art of the Counter-Reformation. He painted Samson and Delilah, using the chiaroscuro he’d picked up from Caravaggio. Here is a woman as seductress, who can overpower a man very easily. We can feel the weight of him on her lap, and the uselessness of Samson. Her look and gestures are ambiguous: is she comforting or controlling, feeling warmth or regret? Behind her an old crone holds a candle, and represents what she will one day become. The trajectory from seductress to old hag or witch is well worn. In the background, a glass vessel symbolizes the purity that is absent from the foreground, and statues of Venus and Cupid hint at both erotic and maternal love.

In Caravaggio’s Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist we again have a young and an old woman side by side, this time with a strikingly simplified composition. Both the Rubens and the Caravaggio are in contrast with earlier paintings of similar subjects, such as by Cranach and Mantegna’s Samson and Delilah, which is more like a domestic scene and in which Delilah is not a sexualized object.

Artemisia Gentileschi, herself a victim of rape, painted Judith Slaying Holofernes seven times, representing a woman wreaking revenge on a man, and herself no doubt also wreaking a kind of revenge through the act of painting this graphic depiction of a beheading (unlike other artists, she makes sure Holofernes is awake as his neck is hacked).

Salvator Rosa’s Witches at Their Incantations depicts more old women, unable to have children but more than able to undermine the social order. The old woman is seen by men as no longer having a purpose, and even their social role as midwife or purveyor of medicines was being usurped by physicians.

Pelham cited the horrific statistics concerning the huge numbers of witch trials and executions (see also Vampires, Werewolves and Witches), which totalled, respectively, around 80,000 and 35,000.

Francisco de Goya made extraordinary prints, including one of two witches flying on the same broomstick, the older teaching the younger one how to fly the broom (see Newton’s Cauldron).

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Plato at the Googleplex

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein Presented by the British Humanist Association at Nunn Hall on 20  October 2014

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away refutes the assertion of some that philosophy is dead, and has no intellectual substance or future in this scientific era.  Rebecca offers insight into the significant progress philosophy has made and why it is critical to our lives today and she does so in a witty and imaginative way. Plato is resurrected and into the twenty-first century where he embarks on a speaking tour during which he engages in a debate between a Freudian psychoanalyst and a tiger mother; encounters the host of a right-wing news programme who denies that can be morality without religion; and is made to consider Google and the idea that knowledge can be crowdsourced rather than reasoned out by experts.

Andrew Copson delivered a perfectly judged introduction, with a dash of risqué hyperbole (hearing Goldstein speak in New York was the highlight of his honeymoon) and reassurance for those of us humanists who do not worship at the feet of the great philosopher. He admitted he was one those for whom Plato is a hate figure, but that didn’t stop him enjoying the book, and admiring the broader humanism of Goldstein.

Goldstein herself echoed this sentiment: she has no truck with plenty of Plato, but his main claim to philosophical fame is having asked so many key questions in so many major fields of human inquiry, that it’s impossible to ignore his contribution. Her talk itself was a fascinating mix of autobiography and intellectual adventure, and I think most people in the room were very glad to have her as a champion of secular humanism.

Her big theme is why philosophy matters more than ever before with the decline of theism leaving a normative vacuum. Some might say we should read Anthony Flew and those who think religion is resurgent, but what do they know? (The morning after I listened to the Life Scientific on Margaret Boden, a world authority in the field of AI, and another philosopher who argues very effectively for the importance of philosophy to science, especially in the cognitive sciences.)

She confessed to being homesick, and to the feeling that attending this event — to be with secular humanists — was like coming home.

Why Plato? He’s not her kinda guy, unlike Spinoza, who, according to Bertrand Russell in an unusually emotional comment, is an easy philosopher to love. Plato not so much.

She was brought up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish home, but couldn’t make any much sense of the idea that a good god had created the world and was supposedly looking out for his chosen people, and yet it was clear that we live in a grossly unjust universe.

She realized that some people not only have some very bad ideas, they also act on these ideas. Growing up, she saw some of the victims of these bad ideas (her test for whether someone’s going to be a good friend is to ask, Would you hide us?). She wondered how we can tell the difference between good and bad ideas.

She was brought up exposed to only a certain set of ideas, and she soon became suspicious of such protected ideas: if they’re strong enough, ideas should hold up under examination. Her school was even stricter than home, and was terrible: she hated it. She somehow learned that philosophy was a field devoted to the evaluation of ideas, and she read a basic introduction to philosophy under the covers.


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Review of Richard II

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


Richard II – St Leonard’s Church, London

For the first part of this special production, natural light floods the huge interior of St Leonard’s Church, illuminating both the glorious stained glass east window and the peeling paint. These features serve as fortuitous emblems of the brilliance of Richard’s kingship and the fragility of his tattered kingdom, which at the close of the fourteenth century is leased out like a “pelting farm.” After nearly three hours, darkness has fallen, and, like Lear on the heath, Richard has been humbled, stripped of his pomp and kingly identity, and reduced to a more admirable humanity.

Malachite Theatre has shaped a cast of nearly two dozen actors (seven of whom double up as live musicians) around the central figure of King Richard, played as if he were born to the role by Nick Finegan. He enters in procession down the central aisle, wearing imperial purple and ermine, before sitting on the throne to administer the king’s touch to several ragged paupers (it was widely believed a divinely appointed monarch could cure the sick simply by the laying on of the royal hand). This provides an insight into his hatred of Gaunt, who in effect contradicts this belief: while a king can shorten a subject’s days, `not a minute’ can he add to any life.

Before that confrontation with his uncle, Richard has to arbitrate his cousin Bolingbroke’s “boisterous late appeal” against Mowbray. Both soldiers are prepared for combat and each with a fist encased in a steel gage. Both kneel before the youthful, blond, slight, clean-shaven king, a startling tableau of medieval chivalric status (Richard could be the popinjay so despised by Hotspur in Shakespeare’s sequel). When Richard speaks, however, it is with the confidence of a king who has Shakespeare as a scriptwriter and God as guarantor of his authority. Of all the performances, Finegan makes best use of the acoustics within the vast space. Echoes are a double-edged sword for an actor: the high-volume rapid delivery of some passages tends to become garbled by reverb, while Finegan’s slower enunciation gathers to itself a rich timbre that magnifies the presence of his royal character. His separateness as king is also marked out by some fine verse speaking (“physician” and “incision” are four-syllable rhymes, and Finegan inflects “begun” to rhyme with “your son” in a way that emphasizes this king’s mannered style).

Beneath the pomp and surface glitter, however, is a regal petulance and a carelessness that will cost him dear. His treatment of John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, both before and after the old duke’s death, is emotionally callous and politically disastrous. John McEnery invests Gaunt with dignity and, recumbent in a bathchair, delivers a powerful “Sceptred isle’’ speech, as prelude to dismissing Richard as the mere “Landlord of England.’’

McEnery looks up to the high ceiling above the chancel as he describes England as this “other Eden” and many other lines similarly resonate in this sacred space, as characters call upon heaven to defend or protect them. Richard himself has the strongest sense of divine entitlement, and is the most surprised when abandoned by his god, who, it seems, is no match for a determined Bolingbroke (whose efficiency and pragmatic piety are well played by Martin Prest).

This amazing space is also used in more practical ways, with speeches delivered from balconies and the organ loft, and beautiful solo voices mingling with choral song. The interval bell must be the largest ever used for a theatrical performance, a ton of metal squatting in one corner. Its brooding presence is another lucky accident, as Richard in his prison cell compares his heart to a bell, struck upon to count out his “sighs and tears and groans” until time finally wastes him as he had wasted it. By now, minutes are all the king has left.

Those new to this play may not follow its every twist and turn, and even those more familiar with the text will not catch every line in this sometimes challenging acoustic environment. There is still much to take away from this production of the first of Shakespeare’s monumental cycle of history plays, and from its location in Shoreditch, with its own connections to Shakespeare’s origins as a playwright.

(See also Richard II.)

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Vampires, Werewolves and Witches

Professor Owen Davies Organized by the Centre for Inquiry UK and the Conway Hall Ethical Society at the Conway Hall on 18  October 2014

The persecution of witches in Europe and America – after the witch trials. Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire, has written widely on the social history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine. In this talk he will explore why and how thousands of people, mostly women, were abused and murdered as witches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Contrary to what many people think, the witch craze of 500 years ago was not a medieval phenomenon, but began in the late 15th century and peaked around 1600.

What was a witch? Who were these people? They were thought to practice harmful magic. Magic itself was diverse, and not all kinds were evil. The word “witch” is of obscure Anglo-Saxon origin, used to describe a person believed to have some sort of divinatory power. At the core of witchcraft was an explanation of misfortune. If your child got sick, or your crops failed, these were not thought to be the result of natural processes or random events: more likely it was thought somebody was to blame.

A literal reading of the New Testament and Revelation (an extraordinary document) led to a belief that the world was going to come to an end, and that there might be signs that this was about to happen. There’s an growing concern in the late Middle Ages that the Apocalypse is nigh, and that the devil is increasing his works in the land. In central Europe around 1450 the Inquisition gets busy chasing down heretical sects, and the new printing technology allows accounts to be published and disseminated, so that fear of witchcraft — heralding the Apocalypse — spreads.

In the 16th century, fear was heightened with the rise of Protestantism, itself seen as an assault on Catholicism. Returning the favour, Protestants thought the pope was the antichrist.

As power was centralized under Henry VIII, the role of prophecy in undermining legitimate rule came under scrutiny, and laws against prophecy were passed. The elite began to think that all magic was harmful. Even supposedly good magic could turn a person away from a true Christian life. In 1542 the first law was passed by Henry VIII, and witch trials were cranking up in Europe. By the time Elizabeth came to power, there was some catching up to do in England.

How do you know who’s a witch? Helpfully, there were images available that showed what witches looked like, and such images were important when a large section of the population was illiterate. A 1560 woodcut showed three witches in league with the devil. They were all elderly women, hunched over, with big chins and pointy noses, conforming to the archetype of witch.

There is a stereotypical witch, and a logic behind who came most under suspicion: a marginalized woman, past childbearing age, who is spiteful and envious since she can no longer have children; she’s single, solitary, or a widow, who begs from door to door and who therefore can be causally linked to almost any misfortune that happens just after she has been sent away from a house.

Up to 50,000 women were murdered as a result of being thought to be engaged in witchcraft. Although many accusations were against elderly women, arising from family feuds, the situation was also often more complex.

In common law in England someone has to bring a case. On the continent a judge could investigate, and apply torture (which was illegal in this country). Mild torture was allowed in Scotland, and there were many more executions in Scotland. The problem with this procedure is that it is self-confirming. Under torture people name others very easily. In one town in Germany 450 people were executed until the wife of one of the judges was accused, which brought the slaughter to a stop.

The laws against witchcraft were repealed in England, and the last case was in 1712. Why the decline of witch trials? It was not down to the progress of science or the Enlightenment or a general rise in rationalism. There are a number of reasons, but it was more about legal process and the increasing examination of evidence. In 1600, if someone said they flew over a house as a result of witchcraft, this was accepted as testimony. In 1680, it was still believed that this was possible but corroboration was needed: who else saw this happen? It was also expensive to go to court, and since many prosecutions failed, this was a waste of money and time.

Although witch trials came to an end, belief in witchcraft didn’t. If the reality of witches was denied, then this undermines the whole supernatural belief system underpinning the Bible. If we deny witches, the thinking went, then we have to deny miracles, so intellectuals were still confused in the 18th century. The elite line was that witches no longer exist, although they once did, because the Bible was still an authority and the Bible states that witches exist. This was not scepticism.

There’s also the small matter of dismissing the fact that 50,000 women had been killed in the previous couple of centuries by people not unlike yourself. Admitting that witches don’t exist pulls the rug from under your intellectual endeavour — there’s a lot at stake.

In 17th-century Europe there was witchcraft without witch trials taking place. Witchcraft accusations were still being made, and witches were being “swum” in water, which was thought to have baptismal qualities, so if the suspected witch sank, that was a good sign that the holy water had “accepted” this person; floating meant you were guilty.

These were sometimes huge public events: 10,000 people came to watch a witch being swum in England (a woodcut shows Colley and the mob ducking Osborne for reputed witchcraft). The authorities were embarrassed by this sort of carry-on, and occasionally intervened to protect individuals from the mob.

In the 19th century, there was the reverse of witch trials, when a suspected witch would bring a prosecution against the accusers.

Vast numbers of Europeans emigrated to the US, and the large amount of misfortune that necessarily goes along with such movements of people meant that there was a huge number of witch accusations in 19th-century America. Even in 1911 a woman was being stoned for being weird and a vegetarian.

In Somerset sleep paralysis is thought to have given rise to the notion of “hag riding” or of being hag ridden during the night.

New witchcraft traditions developed, e.g. hair balls or gastric accretions became the main form of “proof” of witchcraft in the US. Native Americans “sent” hair and feathers into their enemies, and this notion was adopted by Europeans to form a hybrid belief.

In 1916 a Somerset farmer believed that his neighbour had caused his cattle to die as a result of witchcraft, and so he shot him dead, saying:

I have a lot of worry here. He has bewitched my child and my pony. You don’t believe in witchcraft and the Government don’t, but I do.

What is interesting here is how this individual confronted the state. It’s also a very rare instance (the only one?) of a witch shooting in the UK. In contrast, in the US there are lots of guns and a number of shootings of supposed witches.

Civil war in Spain led to an increase of witchcraft accusations, and in the 1950s in a Germany disrupted by war a society for the Protection against Superstition was formed.

Mrs Irene Ray belonged to a travelling community and was accused of witchcraft in the US. One of things that annoyed her neighbours was that she got a large council house. She also had piercing eyes and a pointy chin. In 1937 she was arrested by the sheriff for vagrancy and slung in jail — all because of her community.

Where are we today? The shooting has largely stopped, but are, in the end, more rational? Davies doesn’t think so, and there are still millions across the globe who believe in witchcraft and occult powers. We don’t need witches at the moment, but they could “quite easily come back.”


Alchemy was part of the religious quest for studying God’s universe.

There are similar patterns between witches and scapegoats, which can be seen with the rise of UKIP: immigrants are seen as being responsible for general misfortune; others are getting more than we do (which relies on the fallacy of limited goods needing balance — if something is bad for me, then it must be good for the witch), getting a house or other benefits. In short, it’s the same old story of looking for a reason why we’re not doing so well, looking for someone to blame.

We encourage our children to believe in witches via magical thinking for the first 10 years of their lives, and then we tell them to forget that any of this stuff is real.

Religion continues to provide “evidence” for satanic evil, e.g. the deeply evangelical Christian culture in the US has been adapted to West African culture.

Misogyny and patriarchy played a role in witch trials, fuelled by a literal reading of Bible, which “explained” why so many women were witches: woman was made in image of Eve, who was the weaker sex and famously tempted by the devil, so, therefore, all women are flawed. Because of this failing, the devil goes for those most likely to give in. Having said that, Davies believes that some gender studies go too far in concocting male conspiracies for the global suppression of women.

Round Table Q&A

One of the first questions referred to the popularity of Harry Potter, and Jessica Monteith revealed that it had been banned at her Catholic school (which simply ensured that they all read it anyway). Deborah Hyde thought that Harry Potter appealed to children because they have no status and haven’t done anything with their lives (that applies to some of us older folks as well) — they are not yet special, so need a little fantasy.

Deborah pointed out that there are “respectable” forms of magic — the kind of stuff the pope does — and then silly forms of magic, but she thinks we’ve benefited more from magic than from religion. Keith Thomas contrasted prayer as a supplication to a deity with magic that was a preliminary attempt at doing science to manipulate the universe. In this sense, magic was not top down to an extent but a kind of experimental process.

Owen Davies thinks that magic is integral to understanding religion, and that “people like Richard Dawkins” are stuck in three-stage magic–religion–science: “that’s rubbish!” He doesn’t buy into the idea of moving away from magic and towards science. He’s got a point, but why have a pop at Dawkins? In any case, Dawkins seems to be in good company, since Davies suggested that Keith Thomas was stuck in that model too.

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One Man, Two Guvnors

By Richard Bean based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni with songs by Grant Olding Directed by Nicholas Hytner Presented by the National Theatre at the Lyttleton Theatre on 18 June 2011

One-Man-Two-Guvnors-NTAnd now for something completely different, except this is not so much Monty Python as the more traditional slapstick British humour rooted in Music Hall variety against which the Pythons were reacting. Anyway, this was amazing. From a bunch of clowns mucking about in the forest last night (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to another bunch of clowns capering in an English drawing room this afternoon. And we got to see this by accident. We were supposed to get day tickets to Rocket to the Moon, but this was on instead. What is the NT up to, apart from cashing in on a surefire success?

Three of the things I can’t stand about theatre are seats in the gods, audience interaction and physical theatre. Day tickets in the front row — the first hurdle crossed. Then I read Cal McCrystal in the programme: “The story-lines were mainly vehicles for the performers to interact with the live studio audience…” Bugger! There was going to be audience interaction. As things turned out, I came within a gnat’s whisker of being chosen. As for the physical stuff, there was plenty, but it was in the name of comedy, not artistic expression, so that was all right then.

We should have got our seats as soon as the doors opened, as there was a skiffle band playing, getting the audience into the swinging sixties mood. They were called The Craze, and — this is how on the ball we are — we finally got the pun about half an hour after the show had finished. By then, we’d had a glimpse of the London underworld, its operations and exile to the exotic location of Brighton (tall Georgian townhouses painted in a kind of impressionistic pointillist style, with beach, blue sky and pier in the far distance), with its English pub, the Cricketers’ Arms (a pub that does food and knows where to put the possessive apostrophe!), and how a seventeenth-century comedy can be updated to 1963, the date of the Beatles’ first LP. There’s no point trying to single out any individual performance, or any aspect of the production or design — I’d run out of superlatives.

Again in the programme, Didi Hopkins and Ninian Kinnier-Wilson write:

Commedia all’Improviso was a literate and visual theatre, speaking the ideas of the Renaissance literary society and using the vulgar visuals of the illiterate lower classes, combining the two to speak to the whole audience.

Well, I read books and attend exhibitions, but like any good British bloke I’m partial to a bit of smut, the kind of groantastic puns that were supposed to have gone out with Benny Hill (did you know “innuendo” was Italian for “suppository”?). Fortunately, the sophisticated connoisseur of acting could rise above this low comedy of tightly sweatered bosoms and red-lipstickered asides to enjoy the black-polo-necked craft of Alan Dangle. Goldoni himself wrote:

The actor must, in our days, possess a soul; and the soul under a mask is like fire under ashes.

Dangle the actor was busy riddling and raking those ashes with as much energy as he had to muster to wriggle out of his too-tight-fitting black leather jacket, earnestly seeking that very soul. (Poor Daniel Rigby, who played the part, and probably had to unlearn everything RADA drilled into him. He wasn’t so much hamming it up as running a slaughterhouse for Danish bacon. Still, one bit of his training that did come in useful was playing his naked chest with slapping palms, which was one of the more bizarre percussion interludes.)

James Corden as Francis Henshall, the man with two guvnors, had his work cut out. (Not at getting laughs. He came on, the minder of the recently deceased Roscoe Crabbe, and took in the room, as the Clenches and the Dangles looked on in anticipation. Dead quiet. He looks up and sees a portrait of the queen. “Who’s that?” Big laugh.) Holding down two jobs, avoiding conflicts of interest, catching a tossed peanut, catching a tossed peanut while falling backwards into a chair that itself tipped backwards, lifting heavy luggage — all grist to his mill. On this last piece of physical theatre, as he inched one end higher degree by degree, I knew what was coming. He’d need a hand. There was no one else on stage. There were lots of people in the front row. Bugger! I was sat directly in front of the stairs down from the stage, by the suitcase. Luckily, looking weedy or too dully dressed or simply unappealing for whatever glorious reason, he picked two chaps next but one down the row. Both called Ian, these two gentlemen friends provided some nice backchat for Corden, who had to remind them who was the funny one. Exit stage right, into a closet of all places, only to be discovered by a disapproving Lloyd Boetang.

On comes the dead Roscoe (Bean 2011:17):

CHARLIE He’s risen from the dead has he?
FRANCIS Yeah. It only took him two days. That’s one day quicker than the previous world record.

This is typical of the one-liners that pop up all over Richard Bean’s script (and I don’t imagine this joke would have been allowed in Goldoni’s original). Corden got the laugh, but as important as the gag was the feeder line delivered by Fred Ridgeway’s deadpanning Charlie “the Duck” Clench — the  perfect lead in Carry on Godfather, if such a film had ever been made.

[Spoilers ahead!]

Roscoe is actually dead, and his twin sister, Rachel (both played by Jemima Rooper), is impersonating him. Rooper is probably the smallest actor on the stage (certainly compared with Corden), and yet has enough villain swagger to command the stage when in gangster mode.

Rachel wants to elope with her lover, Stanley Stubbers (played by Oliver Chris — Green Wing’s Boyce — as a barely grown-up English public schoolboy, with a hint of menace and a whole lot of humour), who in turn is in hiding, having stabbed Roscoe.

In the middle is Francis, trying to keep Roscoe and Stubbers apart while serving dinner in the Cricketers’ Arms. Alfie is 87 and it’s his first day as a waiter. He has a range of, shall we say, physical impairments that slow down his movements and introduce an unsteadiness. Played for huge laughs by Tom Edden, the first time he falls backwards down the stairs is truly jawdropping, and just as hilarious and astonishing when repeated.

This is one of loads of running gags in the play, including Charlie being unable to comprehend why Rachel and Roscoe cannot be identical twins. At the end we have a rare and marvellous piece of scientific exposition on the two types of twins: a single fertilized egg splits to produce two monozygotic, or identical, twins; and two fertilized eggs are needed to produce dizygotic, or non-identical, twins.

The practicalities of most theatre is that live musicians are often on a balcony, or tucked away in the background, and although always warmly acknowledged by cast and audience they are rarely centre let alone front of stage. Not so The Craze, including songwriter and guitarist Grant Olding, who were upfront with retractable mike stands, and then just to the side whenever they were offstage. It was the actors who provided a supporting act with walk-on percussion or vocal parts: Alan slapped his chest, a one-man rhythm section, Francis wheeled on a xylophone, Stanley came on with a musical contraption and gave us all the horn (it was an instrument made of old-fashioned car horns — boom! boom!), and Rachel, Dolly and Pauline dolled up as a sixties girl group. Fantastic.

A lady in the audience — Christine Patterson — was picked out for participation. At first all she had to do was hold a soup tureen. Then she was brought up on stage while Francis scooped some more food into the bowl, then she had to hide behind a cutout of W. G. Grace, then she had to crawl under the table. By now, I was thinking, she’s an incredibly good sport, and how unusual to be on stage for this length of time, and thank goodness I wasn’t sat at that end of the row, while of course it should have been dawning on me that this was all a setup. Any doubts disappeared as Francis spilled water down her dress and Stanley came on and covered her with foam from a fire extinguisher. Polly Conway still looked shocked, and was acting the part of horrified punter as she was led off the stage by an NT stage manager.

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Halibut good enough for Jehovah

The weathering of religion is far from uniform across the globe. In some countries blasphemy is still taken seriously. In Pakistan, for example, Mohammad Asghar has languished in jail since 2010, accused of blasphemy, and held with little regard for the fact that he is elderly and mentally ill. The latest indignity to be visited upon this British man was to be shot by a prison guard. Amazingly, he survived this brutal attack, which seems to have been entirely religiously motivated, but he is clearly not out of danger. No wonder his family want him back in this country.

The making of The Life of Brian was not entirely without controversy, although I doubt that even as staunch a defender of public morals as Mary Whitehouse would have gone as far as shoot any of the members of Monty Python. That such an action is unthinkable shows how far we’ve come in this country. Contrast with the current situation in Pakistan:

Lawyers who have defended those accused of blasphemy, campaigners who have supported the accused and judges who have acquitted them have all been murdered. In 2011 Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot dead by one of his elite police guards after calling for the laws to be repealed — the guard is currently imprisoned in the same Rawalpindi jail as Asghar. Against such an intimidating background, notes Catherine Higham, an investigator with the anti-death penalty charity, Reprieve, it is extremely hard to secure a fair trial.

One reason a fair trial, or any sort of trial, is difficult is that there “is still no strict definition of blasphemy”; a second reason is that “it can be difficult to give evidence, because even repeating the words that have given rise to the charge is considered blasphemous.”

The stoning scene (widely available on YouTube) illustrates the problem. John Cleese’s high priest character reads from a scroll:

You have been found guilty by the elders of the town of uttering the name of our Lord, and so as a blasphemer you are to be stoned to death.

All Mathias had said was:

That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.

The assembled crowd (mainly women in beard wigs — the only way they can participate in this judicial function of civil society is to disguise themselves as men) scream out:

Blasphemy! He said it again!

The old man dances a jig — things could hardly be worse:

Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!

Driven to distraction, the priest makes a fatal mistake:

If you say “Jehovah” once more —

The camera pans to two centurions looking on, propped up on their shields, bored and bewildered at the idiocy before them.

This sort of thing is funny in fiction, when the stones are papier maché. It’s no laughing matter when the bullets and knives are for real.

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Poisonous attitudes

Casey Stoney, the Arsenal and England footballer, found revealing her sexuality daunting, even receiving poisonous abuse. In this interview with Jacob Steinberg she says:

Someone sent me some unnecessary mail and kindly didn’t leave their name. Someone sent me a piece out of the Bible. That was a piece explaining how homosexuality is a health hazard and basically telling me I was mentally ill. But that’s kind of a rarity. The positives far outweigh the negatives. For me, that’s people being uneducated. Being gay isn’t a choice. I didn’t wake up one morning and think: “Oh, I’m going to live this way.” My life would probably be a hell of a lot simpler if I was straight. It’s not a choice.

Even if it were a choice, such hatred and intolerance would not be justified under any circumstances. The problem with claiming homosexuality isn’t a choice is that this may rely on a fallacious appeal to nature, which is a mistaken claim that something is good or right because it is natural (or bad or wrong because it is unnatural). Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s right. Just because, say, bonobos engage in homosexual behaviour doesn’t make that behaviour something we should tolerate if we see humans behaving that way. After all, primates also kill and rape, but we don’t think those natural behaviours are good when carried out by humans. (Note also that a fallacious appeal to nature is sometimes confused with the naturalistic fallacy.)

Thank goodness we are moving towards a secular humanist state and away from the kind of theocracy in which a holy book supplies our morals and provides a supposed justification for such attitudes.

She goes on to say:

The male terraces are brutal. Male football terraces are so far behind society, it’s unbelievable in terms of racist abuse, homophobic abuse.

Now, male football fans who are prepared to shout racist and homophobic abuse are about as far removed from churchgoers as can be imagined. Or are they? Perhaps such morons have failed to question the more toxic Christian values — hatred of homosexuality, relegating women to the second division, condoning corporal punishment — that have only recently been challenged by the more compassionate, humanist values of tolerance and empathy? Christians have been in charge for so many centuries, and are so eager to take the credit for all the good things their faith is supposedly responsible for, it’s about time they started taking the blame for some of the bad things in society.

Alistair McBay puts very well a thought I’ve often had myself:

So if we can’t blame religion as a cause of bad deeds, can believers lay claim to it as the cause of good deeds, and good deeds only?

Of course, as Casey Stoney’s experience shows, we can blame religion for contributing to a climate in which some individuals choose to be homophobic. Whether religion can take much credit for doing good in another question entirely. Thanking goodness of the real, human variety makes a whole lot more sense than thanking an imaginary god.

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If it’s true for you

Scientology has been very meaningful in Anne Archer’s life according to this My family values:

It’s taught me a lot of good information. A lot of sanity. It’s a lot about responsibility and it’s very smart stuff that has helped me in my life, and Terry as well. My older son has embraced Scientology but my younger son hasn’t, which is absolutely fine. There is no conflict. It’s only true if it’s true for you.

Now, I have a fairly simple-minded notion of truth, which is to do with the ways things are, with the world as it is, with fact and not fiction. There’s a difference between truth and falsehood, and sometimes this difference matters enormously. I’m with Harry Frankfurt (2007:20–21) in being sceptical of the line of thinking that holds that “the distinctions that we make between what is true and what is false are ultimately guided by nothing more indisputably objective … than our individual points of view.”

Having said that, a recent production of Lady Windermere’s Fan contained a scene in which we can clearly see how different characters can reasonably believe in contradictory versions of the same event. Mrs Erlynne is alone with Lady Windermere in Lord Darlington’s rooms, and she burns a letter that’s addressed to Lady Windermere, who is — justifiably, in the context of the play — highly sceptical:

You took good care to burn it before I had examined it. I cannot trust you.

We’ve just seen Mrs Erlynne steal the letter, so we’re confident that it was the letter (the plot doesn’t call for her to have switched the letter for a blank sheet of paper). From our perspective in the audience, we know that Lady Windermere is mistaken, but that doesn’t mean her scepticism is unfounded. We can see, given what she believes about Mrs Erlynne’s character, that it is reasonable for her to suspect a trick. What is “true” for Lady Windermere differs from what is “true” for Mrs Erlynne, where the truth here concerns the particular piece of paper that has just been destroyed. The scare quotes are to signal that we are not necessarily dealing with the actual truth of the situation, only with the “truth” as it appears to each character. In fact, what is “true” for Lady Windermere is actually false (the letter was her letter) while what is “true” for Mrs Erlynne is actually true.

Theatre allows us to see that both sides of the picture may be reasonable, while only one perspective is actually true.

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