Good grief. The debate about foodbanks continues in the UK media, sometimes getting distracted by stuff that misses the point.

OK, the Daily Mail has no alternative but to ridicule the bishops and bang its particular drum. The Times goes a bit weird by suggesting that the bishops are out of touch with their congregations who, according to a poll, are right behind the need for benefits reform. This raises two points: (a) our congregations are also pretty solidly behind reform of banking and tax fraud by the rich, but that is being missed; (b) bishops aren't there to parrot the views of parishioners, but to tell the truth regardless. There is plenty of debate within the church about such matters, but the bishops are not simply the mouthpiece of particular constituencies.

This has always been the vocation of church leaders. As the Germans found out in the 1930s and '40s, church leaders are there to describe reality and not to collude in whatever view the masses are led to believe.

But, this week's golden exclamation mark must go, once again, to the Independent. Are they employing five year olds to write their leader editorials? I had a go at a silly piece some months ago, and here they are again with the same old brain-dead nonsense. To think this stuff is crass, but to publish it as intellectually credible is unbelievable. I obviously wasted my words last time.

Try this from today's anonymous editorial:

If the facts are undeniable, though, the right of the Church to meddle in politics is absolutely not. Not only do religious leaders come by their public podia by dint of a historical influence at odds with modern secular democracy, but their claims of moral authority are also hardly as absolute as they seem. It is difficult for an archbishop’s remonstrances on the subject of the poor and hungry to be anything but the final moral word, and yet they are subject to the same limitations as any other political perspective… But anecdotal evidence metamorphosed into an unassailable moral position via an institution that no longer represents more than a tiny fraction of the population does more harm than good. David Cameron’s assessment is back to front. The bishops’ facts are fine. Their belief in a divine right to be heard is not.

Where to start?

1. Who does have a right to 'meddle in politics'? Unelected newspaper editors? Everyone but bishops? Muslims? Atheists? Every citizen has a right and a duty to meddle in politics. Can the Independent please expose and explain the assumptions (prejudices?) that underlie this repeated nonsense? Who else should be removed from public democratic debate?

2. Bishops do not come by their public podia by dint of historical influence. If the writer wants to bang on about bishops in the House of Lords, then let him/her say so and we can have that debate. But, this latest bash isn't about that and didn't emanate from bishops in Parliament. Does the editor really believe that bishops should simply keep quiet about anything in the public square? What does he/she think a bishop is? And, again, who else should be kept quiet in the public democratic debate? Or does 'secular democracy' really mean that only people with a non-religious world view should be privileged with access to that public square? And who said?

3. Can the writer show us where the bishops made any claim to 'absolute moral authority'? They told a story and argued a case. By all means, knock it down, if it not true or if the story is selective. But, where is the claim to absolute moral authority? This, again, simply amplifies the unarticulated and uncritical prejudice of the writer. A five year old would be embarrassed to still be trotting out this stuff.

4. 'Unassailable moral position'? Which century is the writer living in here?

5. Doesn't a democracy assume that even the tiniest group with the most hesitant voice has a right to be heard, a right to be involved and a right to be thought potentially right? Anyway, bishops do not represent a constituency as an MP represents his or hers. The independent might not like this – and obviously doesn't – but it will have to find a better intellectual ground for its prejudice than this spurious ex cathedra put down.

6. What 'more harm than good' does the writer actually think has happened here? Again, unexplained, unarticulated and worthy of an unelected, morally superior elite who can pass judgement without accountability.

7. When did the bishops assume a 'divine right to be heard'? This is a joke, right? Just journalese gone a bit too far? Surely?

Clearly, more dangerous than bishops telling a story and arguing a case in the public square – on the basis that they can articulate their case effectively (sometimes…) – is a 'neutral' newspaper arrogating to itself everything it will deny of citizens-with-a-religious-world-view. But, really, this is just a joke. The Independent should do better than this. It could start by owning up to its prejudices, subjecting them to informed debate, and identifying who it is who keeps writing this stuff.

I know this is a bit narky, but try substituting any other brand of human being for 'religious' or Archbishop of Canterbury' in the leader article quoted in my last post. For example, 'newspaper editor' – just for fun:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which this newspaper has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither the Editor's motivations nor his capabilities; as a journalist, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities the Editor is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make his newspaper relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at journalism, but such matters are a private affair, and editors – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics.

Silly, I know. But, I am sitting on a train and wondering if I should simply have done this instead of what I actually wrote a couple of days ago.

 

It is rare that a national newspaper editorial exposes its prejudices so clearly. And, tempting though it is to just smile grimly and let it pass, here goes (again).

Here is how the concluding judgements of Friday's Independent editorial on the Archbishop of Canterbury's involvement in politics went:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which his organisation has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither Archbishop Welby’s motivations nor his capabilities; as a former oil executive and a member of the mettlesome Commission on Banking Standards, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities – many of which were on display in yesterday’s gracious, candid response to the Wonga embarrassment – Archbishop Welby is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make the Church relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at religion, but such matters are a private affair, and spiritual leaders – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics. That bishops still sit in the House of Lords is an anachronism that makes a mockery of British democracy. If Archbishop Welby wishes the Church of England to support credit unions, it is his prerogative to act accordingly, but there his legitimacy ends.

The italics are mine. The patronising assumptions about private-public opinions are those of the anonymous author.

First, unlike newspaper editorial writers, the church does have a 'direct involvement' in the issues we bang on about – which is why we bang on about them. We have clergy and people in every community of the country and our intelligence about 'real lives' and the impact of policy on them is rooted and informed. We don't just stand at a distance and pontificate like… er… editorial writers? Since when was child poverty or welfare reform purely a 'political' issue and not a 'human' or 'social' issue? And who else should, on this basis, be kept muted: community leaders, journalists, rabbis, sportsmen, newspaper editors?

Secondly, when I last looked, all the above were unelected. Or is the Independent really suggesting that only elected politicians should have a voice in society and how it is run? Is it really suggesting that there is some neutral ground for a world view that is shared by non-religionists, but not by those who start from a religious world view? How did such nonsense get through the editorial desk? Oh, I see…

Thirdly, yes it is a swipe at religion. Religion is being singled out for silence. And on what basis? That it is a 'private affair'. It beggars belief that this old chestnut still pops up in rational minds. The division into 'private' and 'public' is artificial. On what basis is a politicians dogma to be accepted as relevant, but an Archbishop's as mere opinion? And, even if this were to be seen as remotely valid, why is one opinion to be privileged above another?

The final swipe at the church's involvement in the legislature exposes the real point of the piece – which is not about the validity of the Archbishop of Canterbury's role in using his office to speak about social ills, but about the matter of disestablishment. Well, write a leader comment about that, then, but don't mix it up with nonsense about private opinion, elected voices and ignorance about the church's engagement in the real world of our local communities.

(And I like the Independent. I thought it was a bit brighter than this.)

 

I know I am on holiday and only get internet access if I nip into a local bar, but…

No sooner had Samira Ahmed lamented in the Guardian the decline of German language learning in England's schools, but then Viv Groskop did a similar job in the Independent. She broadens the lament into an exposé of English ineptitude when it comes to the learning of any language. Try this demystification of the art:

In reality, it's not so difficult to acquire a language. You learn a foreign language the same way you learn to speak as a child: it requires constant practice and voluntary humiliation. And you don't have to read Proust. You can just talk to people.

Which, after all, is how Johnny Foreigner manages to acquire an embarrassing facility with English:

… all over the world people speak all kinds of weird but perfectly understandable versions of 'Globish' (English as a second language). They do not beat themselves up for their mistakes nor consider themselves somehow magically gifted.

OK, enough.

But, the Independent also had an example of excellent English in Julian Baggini's opinion piece about the 'right to die' debate. Forget the hysterical shouting of those such as Polly Toynbee, who just curse anyone who is stupid enough to disagree with their root assumptions. In his piece, Julian Baggini questions the very terms of the debate, particularly common assumptions about 'competing personal liberties'. Before patiently, intelligently and unpolemically offering an alternative 'narrative' against which to see the debate, he makes an appeal:

… if it is simply an issue of competing personal liberties, most, if not all, the arguments against [assisted dying] can be dealt with by the provision of appropriate safeguards. The real problem is that we do not employ a rich enough notion of what personal liberty means to see why assisted dying requires very sensitive handling.

Baggini then addresses the fundamental question of 'the common good' – the social nature of human beings. He observes:

The truth we need to deal with is that the common good is not arrived at simply by adding up individual goods. Rather, the common good is what enables individual lives to be nourished rather than degraded by the society they live in… The argument against assisted suicide on these grounds is not that your doing it directly harms others, but that your having the right to do it requires changing the social ecology in such a way as to diminish the ability of all individuals to thrive in it.

In drawing attention to this Baggini elucidates the fundamentally identical point made by Rowan Williams. He concludes by calling for an intelligent debate that moves away from a shockingly simplistic (and ignorantly lazy) rejection of 'outdated theology' and an equally simplistic deification of 'individual liberty' seen in isolation from the implications of the social nature of human beings.

I was struck by Baggini's article mainly because of the temperate and eirenic use of language to shine a different light into a very contentious debate. Instead of merely accepting the validity of the philosophical or anthropological terms of discussion, he challenges the fundamental assumptions underlying some of the strongly-held views and introduces a vital 'other' element to the discourse.

It is a model of how to argue, respecting the passions of the polemicists, but quietly challenging the terms of the debate. And it is something I am not alone in needing to learn from.

I have been too busy with work to write anything useful or interesting for a week or so. Which means that the Church Mouse beat me to an indignant questioning of journalistic nonsense.

Apart from wondering why the British media are obsessed with looking for any negative story with which to pour cold water on the Olympics – and I am not referring to the debacle that is G4S – my attention was grabbed by the ridiculous stuff about creationists being allowed to become free schools. Just follow this:

The Guardian did a piece on 17 July which ran under this headline:

Creationist groups win Michael Gove’s approval to open free schools

The subtitle then ran: Education secretary backs three schools run by groups with creationist views, raising concerns about levels of scrutiny.

The article goes on a long way before any hint of an acknowledgement that each of the schools they cite has explicitly rejected what the article accuses them of. Inevitably, the British Humanist Association wades in, hitting a phantom, striking down a straw man. The Church Mouse got in quickly and his demolition of the piece – and the story itself – was re-posted on the Guardian website (with a very nice picture).

This morning I read Deborah Ross in the Independent. She is indignant about what she has heard! And she clearly hasn’t bothered to check the story, check the sources or think about reality.

This is what happens. A story gets published with a particular ‘take’ on it. Hysteria ensues as the commentariat pitches in – not on the question at issue, but on the ‘story’… which might or might not relate to reality. This has two consequences: (a) the subjects waste a load of time fighting fires they didn’t start… about stuff they have neither said nor done (which looks defensive), and (b) the commentators move on to the next ‘story’, blessing us with their mere opinions about stuff they clearly don’t know about it.

Am I being snide or defensive? Possibly. But, it has happened to me more than once. And no one is exempt from ‘being held to account’ – not least those who stand in judgement on everybody and everything else.

Still, we live to fight another day…

The end is nigh – the new beginning draws close.

Actually, that isn’t an Easter reflection. I managed to lose any internet connection four or five days ago and have now only popped in to my old office to bring all my official computer equipment from home before we move out of the Croydon house… which we do this coming Wednesday.

In the silence I have managed to miss addressing an absurd example of journalistic ignorance in the Independent (I think I might write do similarly by writing a lengthy and passionate piece about something of which I know little – quantum physics, perhaps), the big ‘Church school admissions’ story, and the whole of Easter. Even Liverpool’s thrashing of Birmingham City fell by the wayside.

This has been a pain for me as the writing (and subsequent commenting/debate) always helps me to think more clearly. I am not sure how much such ruminations will have been missed by readers of this blog. But, the enforced silence has been like enforced fasting – probably good for the health and for getting things in perspective – but it plays havoc with the blog stats.

Anyway, now back to radio silence until the end of this week when we will be settling into our new home in Bradford and getting reconnected with the blogosphere.

Lovely weather for humping furniture around…

It must still be the Silly Season in the UK. Apparently a row has broken out (again) about religious dissing (again) on the radio (again). Inevitably, it offers another opportunity to kick the BBC and exercise the anti-PC (‘politically correct’, not ‘police constable’ or ‘personal computer’) muscles.

The Independent reports the story as follows:

The BBC’s Asian Network was at the centre of a fresh race row last night after Sikhs accused the digital radio station of being insensitive towards their religion.BBC bosses were forced to remove a show by the popular Muslim presenter Adil Ray from their website after the morning show DJ received threats from angry Sikh listeners who accused him of denigrating an important religious symbol.

 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has responded in forthright fashion in the same paper and concludes (almost):

Yasmin Alibhai-BrownSome of the best of British broadcasters are on the Asian Network – Nihal, Sonia Deol, Nikki Bedi – their programmes are as full of vitality and erudition as those presented by Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire. Nihal is also on Radio 1 and his shows are exceptional because he pulls in all the strands of his cultural life. On the whole, though, mainstream BBC radio is still too white, even though the brilliant Anita Anand (5 Live, Drive), Ritula Shah ( Radio 4, The World Tonight) and others have proved they can lead on national conversations using their complex identities to great effect.

Ignore the fact that it begins to read a bit like the Monty Python (Life of Brian) ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and look at that last phrase. I would love YA-B to explain what she means by the term “using their complex identities to great effect”.

Life of BrianIt seems to me that every human being has a complex identity, shaped by genetics, nurture, race, and nurtured worldviews (the often/usually unconscious assumptions we are brought up with in looking at the world, human meaning, ethics, etc). I think YA-B is rightly pointing to the fact that British-born Asians bring to their work a unique and interesting mix of assumptions, perceptions and experiences informed by their having lived in several ‘worlds’ at once.

The same can be said of anyone who grows up speaking several languages – I go into primary schools in Croydon that have up to 46 first languages spoken among the 300 or so children. Anyone who speaks more than one language with any degree of proficiency knows that you don’t simply switch between parallel words, but you enter a mental, linguistic, cultural and philosophical framework that has depth and not just some sort of horizontal word equivalence.

But, to get back to the point, YA-B’s case would be strengthened by urging the white people she complains about (“Witnessing this latest spat, you wonder if it was not just a continuation of the divide and rule policies that served Britannia in the days of the Raj. Lock them in a studio, get the natives to fight each other, then they won’t come bothering those of us born to rule the airwaves.”) to accept the complexity of their own make-up and not simply point to those who look or sound a little more exotic. We are all complex and that is what makes living interesting: we can never simply categorise and think we have understood everyone who falls into that particular category.

This also has a bearing on comments added to my post on Stephen Bates’ road to agnosticism from yesterday’s Guardian. Every human story is unique and every individual person complex. There are those who try to categorise and make blanket judgements for all people and all time: we have to do this in order to be able to function as a society. But every time you get close to anyone’s real story/identity, you realise all the contradictions, nuances, peculiarities and complexities.

When I read the New Testament proscriptions on certian types of people or behaviours, I can only conclude that the Church would have no clergy at all as we all are compromised in one  way or another.

I once set up a Facebook page in order to see what all the fuss was about. People started to want to be my ‘friend’ and I started getting emails telling me that someone had ‘written on my wall’. So, I ran in the opposite direction, not knowing what my ‘wall’ was or why anyone would want to write on it. I have not been back into Facebook since that first venture.

Twitter logo 1I got signed up to Twitter after being persuaded that it was a good way of propagating this blog -and that not to be on Twitter would leave the blog ‘hidden’. So, I signed up, had a few bitty conversations, worked out how it works and then worked out how best to use it. But, now for a quick detour…

In today’s Independent Janet Street-Porter strikes a blow against Twitter and those who use it. Well, actually it is less a blow and more a savaging with a slightly damp flannel. This is what she says:

Since the G20 riots in the City of London and the highly controversial Iranian election, there’s a determined lobby trying to convince us that Twitter represents the ultimate in news gathering. For facts, we’ve traded reactions… But all twittering really delivers is the ultimate in mini-munchie banality. Instead of real emotion, in-depth opinion, considered arguments about why the NHS works, or the many reasons for not eating veal, what we get is breathless trivia…

Twitter works for the middle class, the middle-aged and for work-weary wannabe trendies because it lets them feel they’re part of a big happening club, when in fact all they are doing is exchanging mindlessness. If I want to know whether a show is worth going to at the Edinburgh Festival, or if Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album is worth buying, I certainly don’t want a 140-character Twitter; I want an intelligent review written in real sentences, not some bastard lingo that’s the ugly love-child of texting and abbreviations.

Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, reducing lives and experiences (like childbirth and death) to missives that last even less than the average British male’s attempts at foreplay…

Twittering about the pros and cons of the NHS reduces a complex subject to less than a soundbite or a jingle. Don’t tell me Twitter is brilliantly democratic and lively. It makes me angry that we’re so keen to stop talking in sentences, and are swapping having real conversations for knee-jerk reactions. If this is the future for politics, we’re in trouble.

Surely, if Janet Street-Porter has anything to do with the future of politics, we’re in serious trouble, as she promotes dismissive ignorance in sentences that might have been better left unwritten.

The real value of Twitter is not the boring narcissists who detail their every thought and every move. And Twitter is not the only home to boring narcissists. The real value of Twitter is not even the propagation of instant news at the cost of informed comment (which clearly isn’t what JSP gives us anyway) – yet the facility of instant communication to a wider community clearly has massive advantages in exposing the lies of the ‘powerful’ (look at the Iranian election in which technology could not be used to hide or suppress the truth). The real value of Twitter doesn’t even lie in the speed with which people can bait me for Liverpool’s defeat against Spurs yesterday – anyway, two can play at that game…

The real value of Twitter is that people post links to other sites where people write in proper sentences and give considered attention to things that matter. Twitter is a vehicle for an otherwise disconnected community to pass on sources of information or observation that might otherwise have been missed. The 140 characters are a means, not an end. Is that so hard for JSP to understand?

I would not have read some of the powerful and well-written stuff on blogs about the NHS if I hadn’t been tipped off by Glinner on Twitter. And I wouldn’t have noticed JSP’s silly article had I not been pointed to it on Twitter. (Which, I realise, does suggest a downside to the use of the medium…)

Which is why (I assume) the Independent uses Twitter to propagate its own news and comment – a medium JSP ignorantly thinks is worthless.

33 hours without sleep is too long, but I can never sleep on aircraft. On the delayed second leg from Istanbul to Astana I sat next to a very interesting Kazakh woman who teaches English at Almaty University and we talked for a long time. By the time we got to our hotel the day had begun and I didn’t dare sleep in case I wouldn’t wake up for my meetings.

But I spent the afternoon with a Kazakh friend who stayed with us for two months in Croydon a couple of years ago. We walked miles through Astana – the best way to see any city. But step off the kerb and you take your life in your hands! Traffic is heavy and it isn’t obvious whose rights to move have priority. But the weather was amazing. Because Astana is surrounded by a thousand miles of empty steppe, the horizon is very flat and the sky very big – which means that you can see the bad weather coming hours before it hits.

I have never seen such a sudden storm hit a place. The winds were so strong that fountains were turned off, trees were bent double and we had  along coffee while we watched it pass. Not a great picture (taken through glass), but it gives a bit of an idea:

Astana 2 004

Back at the hotel I wrote my speech for tomorrow on The role of religious leaders in building peace based on tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation (which I will post later tomorrow once I have done it and know what I actually said…).

I then had a (for me, at least) really good interview with Jerome Taylor of the Independent who is here to cover the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. He had done his reading, knew his stuff, set the detail in a broad and informed hinterland and made the conversation at once enjoyable and informative for me. The main point for me was the importance of placing religious questions into the context set by wider geo-political and historico-cultural considerations: discussion of ‘religious’ questions makes no sense in isolation from the rest of the world.

It sounds obvious, but it is easily missed.

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.