A family who disagree

In this edition of the Sunday programme, Edward Stourton asked:

Can the Church of England live as a family who disagree with one another over homosexuality?

The conservative evangelical group Reform says that it can’t, and pulled out of the Church of England’s “shared conversations” on sexuality (the term itself says much about the nature of the Church: what kind of conversation isn’t shared?). The organization also criticizes the bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, for repeatedly describing conservative evangelicals as homophobic.

Stourton brought Wilson and the director of Reform, Susie Leafe, together and began by asking him if he thought she and “people like her” were homophobic:

No, of course not.

The tone of his denial implied the question was bordering on the absurd, but he then immediately went on to say:

I do encounter homophobia in the church… there is, sadly, an enormous amount of homophobia in the church both from the people who write to me and also, for that matter, in the institution itself — gay people who can’t get other jobs, ordinands who are discriminated against — the sort of stuff that if your local school did it, it would be impossible legally.

He then makes an even more remarkable statement, if that is possible:

Go to your local evangelical church, you will probably find people who are decent, compassionate Christians loving thy neighbour as thyself.

I love that probably, which gives the lie to any claim that Christianity necessarily makes anyone a better person, since we could say of any institution whatsoever — your workplace, the pub on the corner, the golf club — that we would expect to find decent and compassionate people there, the only difference being that they don’t label themselves as Christians. Why sully goodness with supernatural guff?

When she got her chance to speak, Susie Leafe basically accused Wilson of lying:

I have to say that he therefore thinks that I’m homophobic.

Stourton attempted to reconcile their two positions, by pointing out that that he said he didn’t think she was homophobic. She insisted:

He says in his book that I am, in print.

It’s this kind of unedifying spectacle — two adults calling each other names, and quarrelling over an issue the rest of civilized society has long ago put to bed — that is one of the reasons why no sensible person really looks to religion for moral instruction, although a few — e.g. some politicians — may find it expedient to pay men (and occasionally women) in frocks lip service.

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Thou shalt obey biology

In 1922, Dr Herbert Gray, Presbyterian minister and later founder of the National Marriage Guidance Council, wrote the million-selling book Men, Women and God: A Discussion of Sex Questions from the Christian Point of View. The letters he received from suffering spouses revealed a range of marital miseries, and he saw the need for a single organization they could go to for help. Journalist Katharine Whitehorn, who is Herbert Gray’s granddaughter, says he was “a compassionate man, and visionary in that sense” (see Relate: 75 years of marriage guidance):

But he also argued that masturbation was a perversion, homosexuality a sin and couples had a duty to bear children.

Such views were of their time, of course, when Britain could more accurately be called a Christian nation than it can be so described today. Although not exclusively Christian (orthodox Jews have big families and Islamic Iran executes homosexuals), could these be candidate Christian values? If you were asked whether a person who held these views was a Christian or a secular humanist, which would you think more likely?

There’s an irony here, given there have been and continue to be many Christians who either don’t accept evolution at all or else don’t really understand its full implications for our understanding of human nature: while masturbation and homosexuality famously do not lead to pregnancy, bearing children provides our genomes with exactly what they want — vehicles to carry their genes into future generations.

It’s ironic that a way of thinking that is supposedly spiritual is actually so thoroughly rooted in the biological in this respect, and that it is often the materialist humanists who can see through the demands of our genes and promote such technologies as contraception and advocate that we should be having small, sustainable families.

Consider how immoral the religious duty to bear children is, in terms of the suffering it necessarily causes. If this duty were acted upon by every family on the planet, demographic catastrophe would be guaranteed within very few generations. This is one Christian value we should be very pleased to see fade away.

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The Cherry Orchard

By Anton Chekhov In a new English language version by Simon Stephens Directed by Katie Mitchell Presented by the Young Vic on 27 October 2014

Trailblazing director Katie Mitchell returns to the Young Vic with her signature lyricism to direct Anton Chekhov’s last and greatest play. Vigorous and profound, this new version is an anguished and heartbreaking love letter to a society in violent transition.

Very disappointing. This was run straight through, with no interval and coming in at just under a couple of hours. If there had been a break, we both might well have bailed out. Underwhelming, in almost every respect, and virtually humourless. One of the many problems was a lack of projection. While Natalie Klamar as Varya produced a very good stage whisper, Kate Duchêne as Lyubov in particular spoke in an almost ordinary talking voice, which too often approached inaudibility for us in row M (another grouse — £35 tickets and we ended up this far back!). The tone is set when Lyubov, in the nursery, throws herself on the bed and weeps like a child, as the seven other characters on stage stand about awkwardly. It’s an emotionally empty gesture, one that’s repeated as characters swoon and fall to the ground, supposedly overcome with feelings. It’s rarely convincing.

Lyubov takes her boots off and goes about barefoot, despite everyone complaining how cold it is. This may anticipate Alexander’s memory of coming to the house as a child in bare feet, because his family was too poor to afford shoes. Now it’s her turn to experience poverty, although she’s in denial, and has none of the ambition of the young Alexander to find a resolution. While Alexander has gone from rags to riches, she maintains an insufferable sense of entitlement, lording it over everyone even in the trivial matter of when they can retire to bed (Chekhov 2014:11):

I am going to finish my coffee first and then we can all go.

The ancient Firs, hunched over and slow moving, is abject in his servility, and can’t do enough for Lyubov, who is condescending but uncaring, despite her words:

Thank you, Firs. My dear old friend. I’m so happy that you’re still alive.

While she speaks, he’s on all fours on the floor picking something up, almost grovelling at her feet. Meanwhile, throughout a large part of this scene, Dunyasha is standing at the other end of the room, holding a tray with glasses and a heavy champagne bottle, waiting for a sign that she can serve people drinks. Lyubov and Leonid ignore her.

One of the delights of Chekhov is the range of eccentric characters, and in a good production the actors can really get their teeth into the quirks and mannerisms so that we look forward to their next appearance. Here, the characters were more like real-life eccentrics that you’d cross the street or leave the pub to avoid being either assaulted or bored to death. Charlotta is not helped by having to speak lines like this (16):

I’ll give you my cheek you’ll want my breast. I’ll give you my breast you’ll want my badger. You’ll work your way down and nothing’ll stop you.

Badger? Why not beaver? Why use such a word at all?

When she comes back from her swim (“the water’s amazing”) she’s stark naked except for the rifle slung over her shoulder, and walks through the room without the slightest shame, as any decent German nudist would. Another innovation that wasn’t really anchored in the production included Lyubov kissing Peter on the mouth, after we have just seen him turn away when Anya tried to do the same. More in character was Yasha’s hatred of Firs (he kicks the old man’s stick away, which gets a reaction from the audience).

Epitomizing the whole underwhelming nature of the production was Alexander’s response to Lyubov’s question about the auction (56):

Who bought it?

Very quietly, he replies:

I did.

Condensed into two words is the emptiness at the heart of this production, which falls way short of doing justice to this great play.

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The punch in the passage

Alan Johnson’s memoir, This Boy, includes an explanation of the famous (at least for his family) “punch in the passage” incident. His father, Steve, left his mother, Lily, for Elsie, who was soon pregnant with Steve’s child. Steve then left Elsie and returned home to Lily, and Elsie, still pregnant with Steve’s child, went back to Ted. Ted agreed to bring David up as his own son, and Steve agreed to make a financial contribution.

It’s worth pausing to consider this economic arrangement, which at first seems very reasonable despite the taboos over commoditizing human beings and especially infants or children (think of our horror of baby farming). If Elsie were pregnant with Ted’s child, it would be very odd for Steve — or anyone else who was unrelated to either Elsie or Ted — to be expected to make a financial contribution. And yet, in the days before DNA testing, and in the absence of evidence that Elsie was actually carrying Steve’s child, it would be impossible for Ted to tell the difference. When presented with a newborn, why does it matter whose it is?

It matters, of course, for evolutionary reasons. In this situation, Ted has failed to monopolize Elsie’s reproductive capacity, which has been exploited by another man, Steve. As Margo Wilson and Martin Daly argue in their chapter, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel, the danger of cuckoldry lies in the misattribution of parenthood and the squandering of resources on genetically unrelated offspring (Barkow et al. 1992:289). While there is no misattribution here (everyone knows the child is not Ted’s), Ted still faces the unpleasant (in evolutionary terms) business of directing significant parental investment towards a child that isn’t his.

Getting back to Alan Johnson’s childhood home, money from Steve was elusive enough for his own kids when he was at home, and he had made no attempt to send any after he’d cleared off to live with Elsie. Once that relationship ended, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. As Alan Johnson puts it:

When he failed to pay, Ted had come looking for him. The punch probably succeeded only in forcing Steve to prioritize payment to Ted and Elsie over his erratic support for Lily and us.

Although the salient action in this domestic drama is a violent one, the original economic arrangement was actually a civilized solution to the age-old evolutionary problem of bringing up another male’s offspring (at least compared with how some male mammals, e.g. lions, solve the problem: infanticide). In a world where basic resources such as food and shelter are no longer in short supply (although some of the accommodation Alan Johnson grew up in was pretty basic), the human species can be quite creative in finding ways to resist the demands of our genes.

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Richard III

By William Shakespeare Directed by Edward Hall Presented by Propeller at Norwich Theatre Royal on 19 February 2011

Richard III brings the War of the Roses cycle of history plays to a close in bloody fashion. Arguably Shakespeare’s most villainous king, we watch in horror and delight as Richard murders his way to the throne, unable to resist his cruel wit and dark humour. This is a hugely entertaining and diabolical adventure that tells the story of one man’s journey to heaven, then back to hell.

Picture Credit: Manuel Harlan

Picture Credit: Manuel Harlan

In horror films, there is usually only the one serial killer, only one mask-wearing, knife-sharpening, candy-offering psychopath, and most of the rest of the cast are as lambs to the slaughter. In the England of this play, innocence is accidental, either a result of being too young to have “dived into the world’s deceit” (3.1.8) or more likely an oversight, an opportunity for evil lost to circumstance (Buckingham’s “garments are not spotted” (1.3.284) with Lancastrian blood). Conscience has come to the stirring of dregs (1.4), and cannot prevent murder.

(A grim irony is that the characters who are listed as “Murderers” are actually the least adept and capable, and most likely to heed their consciences. That reward in the end eggs them on is no reflection on their low-born status. After all, the so-called nobility are in it for all they can get: Buckingham quickly turns peevish when the “earldom of Hereford and the movables” (4.2.94) are held back by Richard. Later, Forrest, one of the murderers suborned by Tyrrell to kill the princes in the Tower, almost changes his mind on seeing “their alabaster innocent arms” (4.3.11).)

To set the scene, standing on stage as the audience assembled (but could hardly settle) were about a dozen cast members in the white coats of butchers and the white masks of nightmares, each holding some implement of destruction selected from the worryingly large range of saws and drills and knives hanging from scaffolding rails. (A black comic touch: these were old-fashioned tools, grimy with use, the kind you might find in granddad’s shed, not the sterilized high-tech gleaming steel of a modern kitchen.) For butchery on this scale, it seems, it is best to be well prepared.

Jonathan Bate (Bate and Rasmussen 2007:1300) describes Richard III as a star vehicle for Richard Burbage, “the first of the small group of Shakespearean plays that are not ensemble pieces”. All the more credit, therefore, to the Propeller company for the way they populated the stage and performed brilliantly as a group, not letting the “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog” hog all the limelight as he bustles along.

The English flag is lowered, the nation thoroughly exhausted by decades of civil strife. At least the flag is a natural material, one not repulsive to the touch, unlike the plastic abattoir curtain of industrial proportions that cuts laterally across the stage. The design fits the conclusion many of the characters themselves eventually reach: Hastings speaks for many as he describes how his horse stumbled and started as he rode to the Tower, “As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house” (3.4.85). The Tower is the official place of execution, nesting within the larger nation that is itself a more informal killing field. On stage, the Tower is a mobile platform, curtained with more plastic flaps, like an infernal shower cubicle into which characters are stuffed and then dispatched.

Against this set, again brilliantly designed by Michael Pavelka (black and white compared with the gaudy colours of  Errors), and out of the mouths of these killers (who on stage has
not had a hand in some horror or other?), came the most beautiful English choral music. Jon Trenchard, as well as playing Lady Anne, describes in the programme how he wanted to give the play “the feeling of a Requiem Mass”. The plainsong, madrigals and English folk songs contribute to creating this and more (the two murderers singing a snatch of “Down among the dead men” as they dance by Clarence’s corpse was a fine touch of black humour). Overall, the musical design of this production was magnificent. The contrast between sweet music and hideous depravity is apparent in the euphonious opening speech, with its string of softly assonant vowels — “Now are our brows bound… Our bruisèd arms… Our stern alarums… Our dreadful marches…” all leading to the one similarly syllabled word that is this play’s and this cycle’s crowning theme: “war”.

Richard Clothier brightly menaces as Richard, one consummate actor playing another (Bate also uses this phrase in his introduction), and throughout he displays “that alacrity of spirit” and “cheer of mind” (5.3.76–77) which he loses only at the end, on Bosworth Field.

This production brings forward the first appearance of King Edward, who appears bare chested and bare footed (mention of Mistress Shore was one of many cuts, so this lack of costume does the work of painting the king as debauched). He is barren of authority, and can command only a show of amity between his railing peers (2.1). His brothers are suited and formal, with Richard carrying the extra load of a large leather patch for his hump, a steel prosthetic stump and a caliper to complete the cripple look. Despite these encumbrances, Richard is still nimble enough to drop a powder in Edward’s glass while his face is turned, and he whispers slanders in his ear about their brother, George, reinforcing the wizard’s prophecies. Edward sickens and George is conveyed to the Tower, both brothers helped to an early grave. Richard is already finding his range, and fitting the means of murder to the occasion. Here he is a master of the more subtle poison, both literal and figurative; later he will enjoy the more direct, neck-breaking method as he deals with the murderers he’s employed to do his business.

Richard produces a comedy bunch of plastic red and yellow flowers with which to woo Lady Anne (almost the only colour in the design, apart from the red leather gloves worn by Buckingham and the gallons of blood that variously oozed, dripped and spurted from a wide range of wounds), and offers them over her dead father-in-law’s corpse. He leans in and I’m sure he licked his lips as he promised to wet the grave with his “repentant tears” (1.2.224).

With Lady Anne gone, the corpse is kept on stage a little longer, so that Richard can show just how much he respects the dead as well as the living: once he’s flipped the body bag off the gurney, he can walk up and down and stamp on the “bleeding witness of her hatred” (1.2.243). Most men, having achieved such a conquest, might knock back a beer to celebrate. Richard, as innovative in romance as he is in evil, prefers to desecrate the dead.

He moves smoothly from his beguiling tête-à-tête with Anne to the court, where he is this time in accusatory mood (1.3.51–53):

Cannot a plain man live, and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?

Instead of asking where this plain man might be found, Grey falls into Richard’s verbal trap, and is immediately exposed as one of those “insinuating Jacks”.

This is perhaps the only scene in which Richard’s entry is not the most dramatic. Tony Bell traded in his sparkler for the rather more regal black formalwear of a Victorian dowager queen and surprises the assembled peers with her unauthorized return from exile. Queen Margaret takes a knife and cuts her own hand, bleeding into a bowl, which she carries about the stage, cursing and then flicking blood in the faces of the court.

Royal blood or its absence today excites only a few monarchists, who might fret over Kate’s apparent lack of the appropriate red stuff. It was of course taken very seriously in the fifteenth century, and so it was natural in this production that when the king refers to the apparent reconciliations at the opening of 2.1 as a “pleasing cordial” (2.1.41), this phrase is interpreted literally. At the beginning of the scene, the nobles line up and roll up their right sleeves, in preparation for a little controlled bloodletting by syringe. (Poor Richard has no left hand with which to roll his sleeve, but he manages.) Each noble then has a test tube of his own blood to offer to his erstwhile adversary, who drinks it down in a show of friendship.

Edward’s “Who spoke of brotherhood?” (2.1.109) reminded me of the moving conclusion to Errors, when the two pairs of brothers are reunited after long separation. Edward sickens again, and leaves the stage, leaving his crown behind. Richard reaches for it, looks up at us, and decides against it. By now the body bag containing Clarence is on stage, and, as is his usual custom, Richard gives it a savage kick. Edward makes one final unscripted appearance for a spectacular death scene. Lying horizontal on the trolley, he vomits a geyser of red blood, and then expires.

Of course, the moment of death is only an instant, and however dramatic and significant it is far better to have some context, and this production was remarkable in its invention. Given the extra-judicial nature of the trials, there isn’t much tension to be found there. Richard’s “Off with his head!” (3.4.75) is all it takes to condemn Hastings, whose depth of insight into human character has only just been made apparent: “I know he loves me well” (3.4.14).

The men in white coats gather round in a circle, sticks in hand, marking the beat of death to the rapidly increasing heartbeat of the miserable Hastings. In a lesser production, an unconvincing melee would have followed as they all fell on the victim, but here, on an instant, they all drop their sticks in anticipation of the death blow.

Sir Richard Ratcliffe, loyal to Richard to the end, is, if anything, more chilling in his three-piece suit and watch chain than are the masked butchers. There is no mistaking their capacity for destruction, but Ratcliffe looks as respectable as a banker in an earlier age (strange to think of 2006 as a time of innocence, when left-wing — left-wing! — politicians could still heap praise upon that profession). Each time an execution takes place, he’s there on the sidelines, in his spectacles, calmly holding his watch out as if he’s monitoring train punctuality. He exudes a respect for efficiency that would be laudable in a factory seeking to cut waste, but is deplorable when used to maximize the number of individuals who can be killed in a gas chamber.

Like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, where the Bruce Willis character escalates his choice of weapon, for Hastings it will be death by chainsaw. Two gobbets of brain were flung up high and stuck to the plastic curtain (how did they do that?) while there was plenty of blood spatter running down the lower flaps. The musical accompaniment to much of the butchery was a very catchy folkish number, a kind of fa-la-fa-la singsong that would normally celebrate more wholesome activities, such as bringing in the harvest.

Richard’s warlike and autocratic nature is epitomized in a single phrase that sets him apart as a dictator: “Talk’st thou to me of ‘ifs’?” (3.4.74). Compare Touchstone’s line (As You Like It, 5.4.77):

Your ‘if’ is the only peacemaker. Much virtue in ‘if’.

This little word “if” as well as igniting the imagination underpins the whole of science. But, as the enemy of all dogma, it is also antithetical to the religious or totalitarian mind, which cannot bear so much curiosity. Imagine asking a Christian, if they had been at the trial of Jesus, in place of Pilate, what would they have done?

After the interval, on the way back down into the stalls, we were all bustling down the stairs when all of a sudden we came upon one of the butchers, standing in a corner with his stick, encouraging us to get back to our seats.

The second half kicked off with a rabble-rousing electric guitar and Tony Bell reprising his evangelical Pinch as a John Bull character leading the London mob.

Catesby is in cahoots with Buckingham to fool the mayor into thinking that Richard is reluctant to be king. See how he prays, how hard it is to “draw him from his holy exercise” (3.7.63)? On the word “holy” he notices and picks up the chainsaw that has been left lying around. After all, you never know when next it might be needed. Buckingham’s speech to the mayor refers to Richard’s “devotion and right Christian zeal” (3.7.102) and I’m sure Richard Clothier fluttered his eyelashes at this point, as if he were a coy Marilyn Munro.

He is finally tempted to venture into the street, persuaded by the enthusiastic Catesby and Buckingham but the people are far from united: on the line — “I am unfit for state and majesty” (3.7.204) — Richard pushes down a man in the crowd who has remained standing while others kneeled before him.

By now, the body count is already quite high, although the heap of dead is low enough for Richard to walk over the bodies (in their body bags). I think he did this while the ensemble processed, singing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, one of the parts of the Requiem mass.

Next in line is his wife. He holds the sickening Anne in a tight embrace, and, after squeezing the last breath of life out of her, he tries to pull the wedding ring from her finger. Having only one hand makes this simple task rather difficult, but we can rely on the resourceful Richard to come up with a solution: he bites off the finger, and, with it still in his mouth and smiling as best he can, he comes forward to the edge of the stage to show us the severed digit.

Given the bloodshed, Richard’s petulant rebuke to Buckingham — “I am not in the vein” (4.2.104) — has a gory, literal resonance: with him around, it is indeed hard for anyone to keep blood in their veins. What he means, of course, is that he’s not in the mood to satisfy Buckingham’s demands, a blunder of catastrophic proportions and quite uncharacteristic of the machiavellian schemer who has so far barely put a foot wrong. Richard Clothier catches this incipient change into childish malevolence wonderfully, sitting twisted on the throne like a little boy in a chair that’s too big for him. As soon as Richard is crowned he begins to lose his devilish intelligence and to experience something altogether new and disastrous: fear.

There are no women in Propeller, and there are no child actors in this production either: the children of Edward and Clarence are represented by puppets, which adds another eerie veneer to the production. This choice allows a particularly macabre piece of stage business, when a large fluid-filled glass jar of the kind that sits on the shelves of museums of medicine is brought to front of stage. Inside are jammed the two heads of the princes, and there it sits, the dead dolls’ open eyes staring out at us. Far more ghastly than any realistic prop or CGI effect.

In the programme notes, Roger Warren (who adapted the text with Edward Hall) describes how Elizabeth, in the long scene 4.4, is “a tougher opponent than Anne had been”. Richard is meeting his match in wit as he will soon meet his match in arms, and he senses that he is losing the plot. Towards the end of their exchange, on the line — “Be the attorney of my love to her” (4.4.425) — he lengthens and draws out the final syllable in a cry of frustration and desperation. Everything rests on a marriage that is looking less and less likely. With the final phrase of the scene — “The rest march on with me” (4.4.555) — Richard, suddenly alone on stage, looks around and sees that there is no one left to follow him. As his powers of persuasion desert him, so too does it become apparent that he has few remaining allies.

We can hardly feel sorry for him, of course, since he is largely responsible for this depopulation. Buckingham faces a gruesome death, with a kind of mini sickle inserted just below his belly button and then lifted up so his intestines are scooped out. This gives Chris Myles the delicate job of carrying his guts on stage when he appears in Richard’s dream, without them slipping through his fingers like a string of slimy sausages.

In contrast to the black dress of Richard (he’s a bad man) and the black dress of the women (widowed by the bad man), Richmond appears dressed in a white suit and piously fondling a cross (he’s the father of the Tudor dynasty, so he must be the goodie). Separated by their dreams, Richard and Richmond sit back to back on the trolley, with the body bags
lined up behind them, ready to open their contents. In sleep, they each come face to face with the murdered ranks, Richard to be discouraged and Richmond encouraged. The battle follows and Richard faces Richmond in life. Already badly injured, he’s exhausted, having killed five Richmonds, and is slumped in a heap, a pathetic end. The real Richmond, holding a cross in one hand and a gun in the other, finishes him off from a distance with a single shot. Stanley’s “Courageous Richmond” (5.3.370) is the first piece of Tudor propaganda. Richmond is hardly heroic, and we have a glimpse of what his rule will entail. On the penultimate line — “Now civil wounds are stopped” (5.3.407) — Richard’s body twitches, the bloody dog is not quite dead, and Richmond has to shoot him a second time.

The smell of gunpowder reached Row B and so ended a magnificent day in the theatre.

(The verse speaking throughout was tremendous and the attention to detail impeccable. One example: although the line — “False to his children and his wife’s allies” (5.1.15) — is not a pure iambic pentameter (the initial foot is reversed to stress the first and most important word), Chris Myles picked up the iambic rhythm from the second foot and took it to the line’s end, stressing “allies” on the second syllable.)

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Working for the common good?

In this edition of the Sunday programme, Clifford Longley was interviewed about his new report commissioned by the think tank Theos. Longley makes the reasonable, if rather obvious, point that money isn’t always a bad thing:

It can be used for good purposes. If money is put into the framework of working for the common good, which is a key phrase from Catholic social teaching, then making money — wealth creation — is to the public benefit.

Alongside an idea that almost no one would take issue with, Longley inserts a much more contentious claim. The idea that religion works for the common good is what religious apologists would like everyone to believe, but it is an assertion that is falsified by countless instances where good is the last thing that has been achieved by the actions of the religious. (Dawkins is right to be sceptical: see The Unbelievers.)

Throughout history, Christians have claimed they were acting “for the common good” by putting vulnerable women on trial for witchcraft (see Vampires, Werewolves and Witches). Not much good it did these women as they hung by their necks, drowned in the local pond, or burned at the stake.

Today, across the Western world and according to this Erasmus blog, religious organizations have fought a hard and mostly successful battle to retain the right to discriminate when choosing their own priests, rabbis and imams. That may seem reasonable enough, but the instinct to discriminate is far from satiated by such exemptions from equality legislation.

In this blog, Ben Jones lists several cases that show how “the continued entanglement of church and state has produced very real discrimination”:

Herald Scotland reported non-Catholic pupils in Falkirk being forced to “use placing requests” to get into Catholic schools, “even if they live in the catchment area”.

Whilst last month a Catholic faith school in East Sussex forced out a successful head teacher because he was not a practising Catholic, despite the fact he had turned the primary school around after it was placed in special measures under the previous head teacher. Shortly after this story, the Catholic news website The Tablet reported that “Catholic head teachers must be offered better support if faith schools are to combat a dramatic fall in the number of people applying for senior roles”.

Furthermore, the National Secular Society recently reported the plight of non-Catholic school children being forced off a school bus in Flintshire, just because the children were not practising Catholics.

For balance, it’s worth noting that Church of England Schools can be just as bad. According to this report, while claiming that it is “genuinely open to all” and no doubt believing that it is working for the common good, Townsend Church of England School insists that religious education is “an integral part of each student’s day” — even if that student is non-religious. The results are distressing:

Jo Hammond, whose 11-year-old daughter Bethany is one of the five affected children, told the NSS: “Not being religious ourselves we think this school is completely inappropriate. We’ve been told we can withdraw our daughter from worship and RE but there’s no alternative provision, and sitting outside a classroom feels like punishment. Why should our daughter be punished for not being religious?”

“This has been a very stressful time for us”, added Ms Hammond.

Katie Harford, another parent who rejected a place at the Christian faith school, said her daughter was “absolutely devastated”.

She told the St. Albans Review: “We are not religious and the school is unsuitable for her. It is wrong on so many levels. The journey would take over an hour and would be done in the dark during winter. I do not want that for my child.”

“The worst thing is my innocent daughter is the one suffering”, said Ms Harford.

Working for the common good? Hardly.

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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.

The chapter on Plato got her so excited that it set her heart racing with the vision of an objective reality out there that was the same for all of us, and which could be accessed by the exercise of reason. Later, she decided to leave physics and return to philosophy. On asking what quantum mechanics really meant, she was given the standard answer: “shut up and calculate.” What is reality? Go to the philosophers, they ask these meaningless questions.

Why Plato? After all he is an annoyance, responsible for banishing poets and novelists. In her writing, she’s always trying to convince him of the philosophical worth of novels, although she recognizes that this might have a depressing effect on the sales of her books.

Philosophy emerged at around the same time as some of the main religions, in 800 BCE. It could be argued that all normative paradigms, including secularism, were forged during this period — the Abrahamic religions, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, etc. It’s been called the Axial Age. What was going on there? Why did the ancient Greeks respond in a secular way to mortality? Why did they keep their gods out it?

Once survival is taken care of, existential questions could emerge: Do I matter? What do I have to do? All past humans have just gone, most of them gone without a trace. It’s there in Greek tragedy. Pythagoras, Confucius, Ezekial, Buddha were all contemporaries, and yet only the Hebrews promoted their own god, who had happily chosen them. So, there were two views of two Mediterranean civilizations: the Greeks and the Hebrews. Guess who came to dominate Western civilization?

The Greeks never turned to their gods. The last thing they wanted was the attention of their gods, who were only likely to cause all sorts of trouble. Contrast with those who thought they were made in image of god.

The ancient Greeks thought they mattered in themselves. They had a word for those who spoke a language they couldn’t understand, who went blah-blah-blah, which became bar-bar-bar: barbarians.

Plato pretty much created philosophy despite not being a particularly nice man. Why did secular reason emerge in Greek world? He employed dialogue, which he thought was necessary for a living text. [This reminded me of the drama created by Shakespeare, whose plays are scripts waiting for dramatic interpretation.]

In his 7th letter, he says he never committed his philosophy to writing, but he did write a great deal as well, imbuing his characters with a lyricism. The challenge was to make Plato more lovable and to give him best of the spirit of philosophy.


Peter Atkins was in the front row, fuming at the thought that philosophy was worth bothering with. He wanted to know why it wouldn’t have been better to have stayed a physicist — all this wishy-washy thinking doesn’t get you anywhere!

Goldstein gave a robust defence of philosophy as important to science. Everybody is a philosopher, and has views on what is justified belief and what isn’t and so on. We’re all involved in philosophy and we don’t always get the answer from science. There are two basic kinds of question: what kind of universe is out there, for which the best answers ultimately come from physics, and also what matters, for which we need philosophy. Justice matters, and we’re not going to get that from science, although science is an amazing amalgamation of maths and a priori reasoning and experiment in which nature answers us back when we’re getting it wrong.

Even science as a description of objective reality is a philosophical view (scientific realism, and she is a scientific realist). What would be the greatest is “when I convince you!” It obviously wasn’t the first time she’d encountered Atkins on this topic.

Scientists and philosophers are not in competition — they’re joined at the hip, both committed to reason.

Wilfred Sellars identified the scientific image of man, and her friend Dan Dennett has been very influenced by this view of philosophy. It was also key in her career: philosophy is about how it all hangs together, trying to reconcile the manifest image with the scientific image. Some things can’t go, such as the standards of rationality we use to arrive at the scientific image, and standards of evidence, coherence, consistency and maximum coherence, including moral coherence.

One questioner pointed out that scientists don’t really know anything, and keep changing their minds. They’re good at finding out what isn’t. Science can also determine the consequences of an action, and so is relevant to morality. Science excludes what can’t be right.

Goldstein disagreed: we do know some things about what exists, e.g. genes, fermions, bosons, all as a result of a wonderful methodology.

Another questioner pointed out that the Axial Age is not an unchallenged idea (600 years during which everything ethically important happened is a bit suspicious). Science was not an existential option for an ancient Greek.

“I don’t believe it all” — she wasn’t saying that all the concepts were there, only that they were committed to reasoning it out without bringing the gods into it. Because of this approach, new concepts were able to emerge. She hates to say it but religion did have a lot to do with the rise of individual rights (we’re equal in the eyes of God, at least one kind of god, presumably not the Old Testament version).

She’s a fan of Bohm’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, which didn’t earn her any brownie points when she revealed this to Murray Gell-Man, who wasn’t impressed.

Her daughter was a natural philosopher when she was two years old, and said: “I’m this, I’m not Danielle.” She thinks her daughter didn’t want to be something you could name in the world; she was a subject, not an object in the world.

It doesn’t help that some of our most prominent scientists attack philosophy. [Atkins was sat in front row, probably still glowering.]

Philosophy aspires to the perspective from eternity (Sub specie aeternitatis), a global way of removing the self from that perspective. [Shakespeare therefore achieves something even more remarkable: focusing on the self as manifest in a huge range of human characters, at the same time unveiling universal truths that resonate down the centuries.]

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