The Telegraph’s George Pitcher has written a typically hilarious response to the latest atheist poster campaign and the Times’ Ruth Gledhill has just pointed out that the children pictured on the poster belong to Pentecostal parents.

It’s just funny – that’s all.

Two stories grab the eye today: (a) the rejection by the BBC Trust of a series of complaints about the lack of non-religious contributors to the Radio 4 Today programme’s Thought for the Day and (b) the launch of the new atheist poster campaign.

The BBC Trust said of the former that only allowing religious contributors on the slot did not breach editorial guidelines on impartiality. It did, however, state that the slot must comply with requirements of “due impartiality” and that any future complaints on broadcasts during the slot would be judged on a “case-by-case basis”. This follows 11 complaints about TFTD and a single complaint about BBC editorial policy on non-religious programming. The Trust added that it was a matter for the BBC executive board as to whether the remit of Thought for the Day should remain the same or be changed in the future.

It was the response by Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, that was odd. He said the NSS was “very disappointed” by the decision and would continue to campaign to “open it up” to other groups – understandable and fair enough. But then he stated:

Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs. It says to them that their ‘thoughts’ are not worth hearing and that somehow religious opinions are more worthy of a special, unchallengeable platform. This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. We will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.

Er… so is it the ‘slot’ that is unjustifiable or its unique character? Make up your mind.

I can think of several reasons for some people not liking TFTD, but to see this ruling as a ‘rebuke’ and to speak of ‘abuse’ is just weird. The NSS will continue to huff and puff, but their case might hold more weight if it were presented in a more rational way.

You can’t accuse Ariane Sherine & co of poor presentation. Their new poster campaign continues where the imaginative ‘atheist bus’ adverts left off. The bus campaign was wonderful in that it kept people talking about the probability of God and was at least a funny, clever and engaging way to have a go at religious advertising. The new campaign poster looks like this:

It looks nice and simple, doesn’t it? It sounds perfectly reasonable, too. “Let’s not indoctrinate our children into any particular worldview, but let’s let them grow up to make up their own mind.”

Er… how? On what basis? With what information and experience? Even the statement is based on the assumption that the tabula rasa assumption about the human mind and character is universally and self-evidently ‘true’. Now, that is weird.

If the poster was asking us to bring up our children to be able to think intelligently about human meaning, experience, morality, etc., then I am all for it. But to suggest that you can bring children up with no philosophical input, no pointers, no assumptions about reality, no priorities, no account for the values, beliefs and experiences of their parents and others is just irrational.

Or, to repeat the obvious: to not tell a child that there is a God is not to leave that child philosophically neutral, but to positively indoctinate the child into the assumption that there is no God. Why is that more rational or less bad?

Anyway, I welcome this new poster campaign and hope it will get people talking in the same way as the bus poster. Whatever conclusions we come to.

lbrethertonI spent most of today at Lambeth Palace for a meeting of bishops involved in inter-faith matters. At the end of the afternoon I managed to squeeze in a meeting about Zimbabwe before returning for the superb 2009 Lambeth Inter-Faith Lecture. This year the lecturer was Dr Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer in Theology and Politics at King’s College, London, and his theme was A Post-secular Politics? Inter-faith Relations as a Civic Practice.

His wide-ranging lecture addressed some of the most pressing and pertinent themes of today’s British society and he tackled his task with intellectual rigour, generous articulacy and a penetrating analysis of the role of faith communities in contemporary Britain.

Beginning with a cogent description of the emerging shape of church-state relations (referring to the dawning realisation by government that ‘good governance is not the sole responsibility of the State’), Bretherton observed that there is an urgent need for greater religious literacy on the part of government. Government needs to understand how religion works and that there is no flat ground on which ‘religion’ might be said to occupy a small area; rather, society is multi-layered and religion cannot simply be co-opted or commodified in order to (a) keep society free of social tension or (b) deliver services as a client of the State on terms set by the State.

Bretherton went on to propose inter-faith relations as ‘hospitable politics’ – a way of creating the space in which the stranger can be encountered and in which the concept of ‘neutral ground’ is rejected as a fantasy. Inter-faith relations are integral to the common good because they create the space in which people within communities can relate and find the common ground on which they re-negotiate what counts as ‘home’. He went on to propose ‘three civic practices central to a politics of the common good: (a) cultivating practices of listening; (b) fostering a commitment to place; and (c) building strong institutions.

The thrust of this was to suggest that the totalising tendencies of the State and the Market need to be tempered or inhibited and this is only possible when communities of ‘local’ people take responsibility for themselves and the promotion of their community’s interests. Such action demonstrates to the State that politics and the market need limits – that ‘politics and economics do not have to bear the full weight of human meaning’.

The lecture (to which my summary cannot do justice – but his forthcoming book will amplify these themes) was followed by discussion which then took my mind off in new directions.

II me Congrs inter-religieux AstanaInter-faith events or conversations are often characterised by a burning desire to pretend that all religions are the same or that all religions are basically peaceful. Bretherton would have none of this. He responded to a statement from a Muslim member of the audience by referring to the fact that every religion had its ‘mad aunt in the cupboard‘ who should not be let out. There are extremists in all faiths and this fact should not be ducked in an effort to impose some sort of superficial or escapist niceness. It is only this degree of honesty that allows for genuine relationships to develop.

However, my own mind went off at this point into a bit of speculation. Remarking that the Dawkins/Hitchens phenomenon should really be seen as evidence that there is no neutral space and that the New Atheists are admitting by their frenetic activity that they do not command the space  – that their views are merely one among many – and that we now live in a moment of ferment at every level, Bretherton led my mind back to a conversation about church schools.

Church schools and so-called ‘faith schools’ are often derided in the British media. Any defence of them is seen as partisan approval of indoctrination and social divisiveness. But, last week a friend of mine asked me why we don’t encourage the New Atheists to set up their own schools. We would be interested to know on what basis they would be set up. What value system would underpin the school ethos and from where would this system of values be derived? Or would they merely be assumed? Other questions follow naturally on…

Christians need to be more confident about the ground on which we stand and the space which we create in a society that is feeling rather fragile right now. Rather than counter the arguments of the secularists, perhaps we ought to encourage them to set up their own schools and see how things develop. What ‘space’ would they create and how would they differ from state schools or ‘faith schools’?

I might return to this anon, but for tonight I need to think further about Bretherton’s stimulating presentation and the questions he has raised in my mind about the nature of government in Britain and the role of religion/faith communities in the contemporary polity.

Forgive me for being amused, but it does seem quite funny that people who get so worked up about God in general, religion in particular and Christianity in particular particularity can’t stop talking about it all. They have done a remarkable job in reviving and keeping alive the discourse about God when their deepest desire is to eradicate God and all talk of him.

wilsonLast week’s New Statesman focused on religion (prior to Easter) and brought a number of people into the conversation. The most interesting by far was the interview with AN Wilson who, a couple of decades after having declared himself an atheist, is now back in the theistic and Christian fold. He is not stupid, illiterate, ill-educated or morally weak and in need of some intellectual or emotional crutch with which to limp through life. He is honest and open and has clearly irritated those who can’t comprehend that anyone with half a brain could possibly be a Christian. Instead of arguing, they sneer.

AN Wilson has followed this up with a fuller explanation of his journey back to faith in an intriguing and sharp article in the Mail written last Saturday. In it he points to the embarrassment of being a known to be a Christian – on the grounds that it isn’t ‘sexy’ or cool. I know exactly what he means: try sitting on a train in a clerical collar and watch the eyes…

But Christians can take heart and be confident. Unlike some of the evangelists for atheism, people like AN Wilson are simply telling their story and not imposing it on anyone who doesn’t want to hear it. He does not come over as being evangelistic about his re-found faith, but simply open about it in all its simplicity and complexity.

Perhaps the New Atheists should just relax a bit more. In the meantime, we should thank them that their aggressive evangelism keeps the language of God alive in the street, in offices, in pubs and just about everywhere else. I think they call it the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

I spent a couple of hours on the train this afternoon and it gave me time to catch up with what the newspapers are saying about Jade Goody. The kindness is evident in most of what I read – and the recognition that she wasn’t able to be anything other than ‘in your face’. You could never accuse her of being a hypocrite.

leonard-cohenThis reminded me of some lines in a Leonard Cohen poem from 1996 called Better. He writes:

better than poetry

is my poetry

which refers

to everything

that is beautiful and

dignified, but is

neither of these itself


There are people who shine a (not always welcome) light on the world and place question marks about what we think is ‘normal’. This is the task of the poet. But it is also what I think has happened and is happening through the Jade Goody phenomenon: her transparent imperfection and other people’s treatment of her exposes the snobbery and prejudice we would rather not admit to. Stephen Fry on Twitter called her something like ‘Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks’ and he was right: much of the judgment piled on her during her notoriety phases appears to have been rooted in a sneering looking down the nose at someone ‘not like us’.


Cohen recognises that most of us are imperfect at how we express our lives as well as our art, but it is still the same beauty to which we point.


I just wonder what the atheist commentators actually mean when they say ‘Jade is at peace’. Genuine question.


The media have been running a range of variations on a single theme during the last couple of weeks. It is time it was realised that it is a non-story aimed at getting lots of publicity for a marginalised minority. Some people want to be ‘de-baptised’ and the media are lapping it up. Well, by ‘lapping it up’, what I really mean is that they have re-hashed a story put out by the BBC for which I did a half-hour interview resulting in a seven-second broadcast and there is even a marked similarity in the wording in several of the printed or online versions I have read. In other words, a single non-story is turned into a story by one media agent milking another – and so it goes on. Exactly what Nick Davies is questioning in his Flat Earth News.

baby-cryingThe campaign, being promoted mischievously by the National Secular Society, is to put pressure on the Church of England to allow people to be ‘de-baptised’. You can read the details elsewhere, but there are several matters arising from this debate that need a more cogent airing. So, here goes.

1. If an atheist believes baptism is just a load of voodoo and that nothing happens, what is there to ‘de-do’ (if you see what I mean)?

2. One of the criticisms of the Church is that babies or children who are baptised without their consent are somehow being indoctrinated into something sinister and that this infringes their human rights. Apart from the obvious retort that we do lots of things to young children without their consent (like feeding them, dressing them, cutting their hair, making them go to school, telling them off, not letting them play on the motorway, etc), this betrays a pile of dodgy assumptions. For example, it assumes that life is neutral and children are born as blank sheets. Apparently, if you bring up a child in a family shaped by a ‘religious’ world view, you are damaging them psychologically; but if you bring them up in a ‘non-religious’ context, they will grow up free and able to make their own mind up about the meaning and purpose of their life.

What utter nonsense. The atheist assumes a worldview and brings up the child in a non-neutral context in which certain views of the world, meaning and morality are being represented – and into which the child is being indoctrinated. That is to say, the atheist’s world view is not neutral and, therefore, not inherently preferable to that of a theist. Both assume and construct world views and bring up their children within them; but neither is neutral.

So, the atheist does not simply protect the child from something ‘extra’ that is dangerous to an otherwise neutral way of seeing and being, but is shaping that child’s world view according to other assumptions about the way the world is and why it is that way. I fail to understand why people who claim to be ‘rationalists’ become so irrational that they cannot grasp this obvious fact.

3. I am hearing allegations that the EU is protecting the ‘evangelical noises getting louder and louder’ by its legislation and that this is a bad thing. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know (because I was marginally involved in it) that there was a long and protracted attempt by elements in the EU (France in particular) to remove from the putative European Constitution any reference to the Christian history of Europe. How stupidly irrational and illiberal is that?

martin-luther1As I have observed elsewhere, it is impossible to understand the history (and, therefore, the present – to say nothing of the future) of Europe without understanding its Christian history – for both good and ill. Germany – including Hitler, etc. – cannot be understood for one second without an appreciation of the Reformation. I could go on, but I begin to lose the will to type at this point…

So, we need to challenge the so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ – not on privileged religious grounds, but on grounds of intellectual and rational consistency. And theists need to be more confident in seeing off the arrogant assumptions of the campaigning atheists who betray a little more blind faith in their own assumptions than is healthy for their own internal consistency.

I have just recorded an interview with the BBC about elements of the National Secular Society‘s campaigns against religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Then I was sent a copy of the press notice issued by the NSS yesterday in response to the announcement made by Southampton University Hospitals Trust that people will be asked whether they have “any faith needs that can be supported during their stay”.

secularismThe NSS responded thus: “This sounds like the chaplains touting for business. It is a gross misuse of scarce National Health Service resources and an intrusion into the privacy of individuals who are coming to hospital for medical treatment… How on earth have we reached the stage that you can’t even go to hospital for treatment without having religion foisted on you like this?”

Oh dear. Here we go again. I would love to be able to have a rational discussion in rational language with rational people, but this sort of stuff should make any decent secularist despair.

1. The description about ‘chaplains touting for business’ is just cheap and silly as well as ignorant.

2. Who decides what counts as ‘gross misuse’ of resources: the majority of the country’s people who claim some sort of religious belief or the little huddle of the NSS who try to speak for everyone?

3. Since when has asking a question been tantamount to ‘intrusion into privacy’? No one is required to answer and the question itself does not suggest it must be answered affirmatively. It appears from this that the hospital trust is mature enought to allow adults the freedom and dignity to make their own mind up whereas the NSS thinks people are inherently stupid and vulnerable and need to be protected from a question. How liberal/rational is that?

4. Asking this question is, apparently, having ‘religion foisted on you’. Is not having the question asked tantamount to having secularist assumptions foisted on you? Do they really have such little regard for the integrity and intelligence of ordinary people?

5. There is an assumption that human beings are simply a body/mind duality – very platonic, but not how most people see themselves. Is it really the intention of the NSS to deny people the right to be treated as ‘whole’ beings – spirituality included – presumably on the grounds that the NSS knows better than the people concerned what is good for them? Isn’t that what we call ‘patronising’?

I draw attention to this simply because some of us are well up for a good rational debate about all sorts of things: the constitutional place of the C of E, the secular myth of neutrality, the role of bishops in the legislature, etc. But this will require a more rational language from the secularists of the NSS. I know they are a campaigning body, but issuing silly and patronising press notices does nothing to encourage a proper debate.

andrew-marrAndrew Marr, presenter of the BBC’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has raised some of these questions very well in relation to Darwin. His basic point is that some secularists are behaving very religiously/evangelistically in relation to their atheism – and shouldn’t they see what they look like? (See also the interview with Tony Blair on the same subject.)

The debate about the Bible opened up by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has had some interesting responses – not least to my post yesterday (Bible and Motion). One of the amazing things, in my opinion, is the widespread ignorance about how texts work and how literature is to be understood. There are two elements to this in relation to the Bible:

1. The Bible and its stories provide the cultural backdrop to western society and our society cannot be understood any more without the Bible than it could be by ignoring the First World War. This is not an ideological claim and it is a view supported quite rightly by atheists such as Richard Dawkins. This should provide no problem for anyone with a shred of rationality about them. To deny it would be to regard as reasonable the suggestion that western cultural history can be understood without some nod towards the Romans, the Greeks or the Assyrians. In the same way that England cannot be understood without the Elizabethan Settlement or Germany without the Reformation, so Shakespeare cannot be understood without the Bible. This is not an ideological position – after all, I can acknowledge the role of Greek mythology in the formation of the western mind without having to believe that it isn’t a load of nonsense. Equally, I can learn to understand Nazism without having to agree with Mein Kampf.

2. However, the Bible is regarded as the source of truth claims by people of varying religious conviction. Those truth claims must be subject to public scrutiny and questioning. One element of such scrutiny will be its intellectual coherence – another will be the experience of those who claim its truth for themselves or the world. Within the community that regards the text as ‘true’ or ‘authoritative’ there will be endless debates about what ‘truth’ means and how the text itself conveys that truth. For example, the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘factuality’ will need to be explored: a parable can convey truth (about life, the universe and everything) without recording an event that actually happened.

To insist on the importance of the Bible’s role (1) is not to suggest that everybody should be subjected to blind acceptance of its truth claims (2). But here we hit on another problem. The ‘secularists’ (for want of a better category) seem to regard their worldview/understanding of what is ‘true’ about the world as somehow neutral, but see a religious worldview as ‘loaded’ (somewhere up the dangerous/loony scale). Yet, the secularist worlview is not always argued for, bears many assumptions which can neither be falsified nor verified, and arrogates to itself a position of unassailability in the public market place. It is simply assumed to be true for all people and suffers no deviation or qualification.

This is, I suggest, both irrational and absurd.

Andrew Motion’s critique applies to my first observation and it is to that that I applied myself in yesterday’s post. Maybe I should apply myself to the second observation in a future post. That would be the place to say something about how texts work, how they are understood variously in the course of time and how any text is a text in motion. Put briefly, the Bible is partly an account of a people’s growing realisation of who God is, how God is and how we should live together accordingly. Butchery might have seemed justifiable at one point in history, but not after some ‘motion’ a thousand years later after the cost of such butchery had been experienced.

Slavery was abolished in the teeth of Christian biblical opposition. But it was abolished because Christians such as Wilberforce read the Bible differently and compelled the readers of the text to read it differently. Which I realise is a bit embarrassing for those who would prefer it if Wilberforce had been an atheist.

At last – a shaft of light penetrates into the murkiness of much public commentary on Christianity and religious matters. Today’s Guardian newspapercontains two articles about the call by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, to teach our children the Bible. His reasoning? You can’t understand English (or global) cultural or historical heritage – particularly art, literature or theatre – unless you have a basic familiarity with the biblical text.

the-holy-bible1Andrew Motion is an atheist, so he is not banging a theistic drum here. Rather, as an intelligent man with his brain engaged, he is stating the blindingly obvious in the face of a culture that has largely lost its ability to be rational about anything to do with religion, Christianity or the Bible.

john-miltonHis point is simply that successive generations of students are ignorant of the stories that formed the worldview of a couple of thousand years of western people. So, you can’t understand them or their art if you don’t understand to what their art refers. Motion recalls teaching students of the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674) who had no idea there had been a Civil War in England and understood nothing of the references that are integral to Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained (for example). This isn’t about evangelism or indoctrinating children with religious fables; rather, it is about equipping children and young people with the basic tools they need to understand their historical and contemporary culture.

No surprise, then, that the ridiculous and irrational National Secular Society spokesman should respond with this enlightened nonsense: “It’s a bit excessive – children already get 45 minutes of religious education a week for 10 years. They also attend compulsory acts of worship which includes reading the Bible. Isn’t that enough?” So says Keith Porteous Wood, executive director and former general secretary of the National Secular Society. It is so silly (and a prime example of missing the point) that it isn’t worth spending any further time on it.

I think Andrew Motion has been able to say what many of us have been saying for years, but without the ‘credibility’ that comes from being an atheist. Motion asserts that study of the great stories (classical, biblical and other religious stories) would form part of a general studies programme – somthing that has long since dropped off the syllabus at many schools because of an obsession with targets, exam preparation and narrow specialising in limited fields.

shakespeare300He says: “I can imagine every teacher in the land saying, ‘not more to do’, because the pressure on the curriculum is so enormously heavy already” … I’m not suggesting this as a ‘bolt-on’, but part of a broader rethinking about what education is meant to be. What is probably required is a more radical conversation about how the curriculum is structured.”

The Guardian article also notes that “aside from the Cross Reference Project, which is supported by the Bible Society, and provides resources to help students to understand how literature has been shaped by the Bible, there is little out there” to help teachers who have also been brought up without the knowledge they need to teach this stuff.

The REM classic from the 1991 Out of Time album proved a turning point in REM’s career. It also became a bit of an anthem for a disillusioned generation of people who didn’t want too much depth, but loved a good tune and a soundbite lyric. I still turn the volume up high in the car and belt it out with Michael Stipe. It is somehow cathartic.

It came to mind again yesterday when I was reading the Independent Magazine. In it Deborah Orr interviews Marcus du Sautoy (now, that is a name you don’t forget) who has just replaced Richard Dawkins as the Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. The chair was created for Dawkins and he held it for thirteen years until he grew less interested in science and apparently only interested in evangelising for atheism.

sautoyDu Sautoy is also an atheist, but is keen to leave the ‘interesting’ debate about science and religion to other people. He is more interested in the promotion of the public understanding of science in general and mathematics in particular. It appears that his decision to concentrate on science has met with huge approval from people who are fed up with the Dawkins crusade.

This is very good news. Not because theists will be glad to have the heat taken off them for a while – or, at least, from this particular direction – but because  the promotion of science is a pressing need. The number of people going into scientific research and teaching is diminishing in the UK and this is both tragic and worrying. I will not be the only theist calling for greater investment in scientific research, better communication of the richness of science and greater encouragement to young people to embark on scientific careers.

However, I suggest that two comments should be introduced to this discussion.

Firstly, I wonder if the diminution in the numbers of those going into science has something to do with the diminution in our ability to evoke wonder and imagination in our children. It is the vastness of the universe and the complexity of life from the micro to the macro that captures the imagination and provokes the serious questions of meaning. But this is where the problem lies in the current debate: science pursues mechanics, but cannot address the questions of meaning. yet the two cannot be separated. The Dawkins obsession with losing the religion in order to leave science unsullied patently doesn’t work.

Secondly, knocking what you don’t like is never very useful for the cause you want to promote. A renewed concentration on science and research needs not to be distracted by artificial and misleading obsessions with false dichotomies. Simply put, religion and science are asking different questions and are not mutually exclusive. The myth of scientific totalitarianism needs to be debunked. But so does the stupid idea that the Bible answers every question in the world.

earth-lightI might add a third observation here. Surely one of the greatest problems in the science-religion debate – centered mainly on the creation-evolution divide – is illiteracy. Without writing a whole book on the matter, I don’t expect poetry to depict scientific factuality. When Isaiah says that ‘the trees of the field will clap their hands’, I don’t throw the Bible in the bin on the grounds that it is nonsense to suggest that trees have hands to clap. Similarly, to treat the Hebrew poetry of Genesis 1-11 as scientific abstract is as absurd (and dangerous) as arboreal hand-spotting.

And this, I suggest, brings the two things together. We need an approach to science that evokes wonder and curiosity and inquisitiveness, but with an openness to mystery and the questions of meaning. And alongside it we need to teach people how to read – especially when it comes to reading religious texts.

Of course, Marcus du Sautoy may lose the religion only to find it appearing more healthily elsewhere. I wish him well in his new job.