Monthly Archives: September 2012

Taking a re-evaluation of blogging

I’m going to be taking a break from posting to this blog over October. When I began this blog two years ago, it was very much as an exercise in clarifying my own thinking. I wrote not because I not necessarily wanted to, but because I felt I needed to.

I initially only included book reviews to pad it out, worried that I would not otherwise write enough to maintain any interest on the part of any potential readers. Now, though, they seem to take up the majority of my writing time.

If I write a post with an interesting title, it can get up to 50 hits per day. Otherwise, it averages about 5-15 hits per day. It’s not a superstar blog, but a lot of those seem to be coming from India where people like to search for book reviews of Thomas Hardy’s works.

I’m no longer convinced that my reasons for blogging are the same as when I started. I plan out my blog posts with a schedule, trying to ensure that I can post 2-3 times per week. It has become an exercise for its own sake. During my recent bouts of unemployment, with more time to write, I have ended up writing longer and longer posts, as you may have noticed. I think I need to try to learn to be a better self-editor. If I can keep any posts to less than 800 words, then that will be a marker of success. Sometimes, I’ve split things down into multiple parts, but sometimes I’ve thrown it all together to keep some semblance of continuity. On the whole, I’m not sure that more time has thus far led to increased quality.

I may continue to write during October, even if it means I’m saving up the posts for later publication. Some of this depends on how I feel. For the last week, at least, I’ve not been very well. I think just a change of routine may do me some good. The other day I sat and wrote 1,600 words in pretty much one fell swoop about depression, but I need to change it so that it is still brutally honest but not brutish to those whose actions were the last straw in triggering this latest bout.

I will write one post for The Big Bible blog, due for publication on the 10th of October.

I may still end up commenting on others’ blogs, in which case I will mainly stick to those on my blogroll (if you’re reading this on a pc, you should be able to see the links on the right-hand side).

Book Review: The Aeneid by Virgil

After my dismal failure to get to grips with a particularly arcane translation of The Iliad, I decided to resume my catch-up of classics which I probably ought to have read when I was a lot younger than I am now. Mercifully, this translation is far easier to read for my simpleton tastes, especially as it is not convoluted so as to make every pair of lines a rhyming couplet.

What I didn’t realise before picking it up is that Virgil has written this as a kind of sequel to The Iliad. In some respects, it could be considered a very early piece of fan fiction. The main character, Aeneas, is plucked from the end of The Iliad and sets off in search for what to do next, now that Troy has been sacked.

The story then tracks Aeneas as he sets off to found a new city in Italy. His journey is not exactly straightforward, though, and he gets shipwrecked in Carthage. Book 2 contains the basis for one of the most famous stories of classical mythology, that of the Trojan horse. The rest of the first half of the book traces his activities as he journeys around the Mediterranean, searching for a location to establish the remnant of Troy. This part echoes the style of The Odyssey, with an epic journey involving some fantastical creatures but not as many as in Homer’s world. The Aeneid reaches its highlight in book 6 in a scene that readers familiar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will be familiar with. I was not aware when I read those latter books that it was strongly influenced (some might say plagiarised) from Virgil’s work. Here, his hero descends into the underworld, crossing the river Styx to converse with the dead.

The second half of The Aeneid takes its stylisation from the Iliad. Aeneas and his Trojan warriors have now made their way to Italy but encounter fierce resistance in the form of Turnus and his armies. What follows is then an account of bloodshed. Vastly inferior to the first half of the book, there is battle after battle with gory death after gory death, but all builds up to the final encounter between Aeneas and Turnus.

Comparisons with Homer cannot be avoided. In my opinion, it is not quite as good as The Odyssey but is far better than The Iliad. The translation is excellent, as is the introduction and synopsis of this particular edition.

Some theological/metaphysical musings

Last week, a friend of mine sent me part of a written conversation he’d been having with another friend of his, as they were discussing some big questions of life, the universe and everything. He asked me how I would reply to some of the points and queries. I think this lays out quite well my thinking on a few issues and how I tackle such problems on metaphysics.

I don’t know how that conversation is progressing, but I hope it’s positive. I hope you find this helpful too. The original message is in red and my responses are those in black. Any hyperlinks have been added for this blog post only and were not included in the original correspondence.

Sorry for not getting back sooner. I’ve been a bit busy. No need to apologise for the length of your reply. I’d much rather that than a pithy response. I can appreciate that it must be a difficult question to try and answer.

I have to admit that as I read through your message there were a couple of things that stood out to me as confusing. There first being the notion of “trusting in the unknown”.  I find that a difficult concept to comprehend. For me, it makes much more sense to put trust in things you know. In fact, I would go so far to say that putting trust in the unknowable seems logically paradoxical. But that right there might be where I struggle with understanding a person’s faith. Or rather their leap of faith.

I would rather put it as trust in that which we not 100% sure about. To my thinking, the word “unknowable” means we can’t even start to know anything about it. Rather, I would say that God cannot be completely understood; we can’t give a neat definition of God that encapsulates every idea we have about it and which allows for a dissection. To put trust in God then is not a leap into the dark. It is a step onto ground where we don’t know if the footing is good.

To extend the metaphor (which, by nature is flawed), my view is that God is more like a foreign country to be explored. We may all have started at different points and explored a locality, but no one has had the time to cover all the ground, some of which is smooth, some of which is rocky. So for me, the idea of faith is being willing to poke around in this strange land.

The other bit that stood out to me as a difficult thing to get my head around is this bit, “and feel I know to be true”. I really don’t understand how feeling something is related to knowing it it’s true or not. For me, the only way I can make a judgement on whether something is true or not is by reviewing what evidence is available. Whilst I think that having a feeling, or a hunch or even a belief is important it shouldn’t influence the outcome of whether something is true or not. Again all I might be highlighting here is my inability to accept a leap of faith.

I would agree with you here. Subjective feelings are not the best basis for one’s worldview. It raises an interesting question as to whether someone can believe something that is true for wrong reasons. I would suggest that the answer is ‘yes’ and that this is such an example.

I know people who have been lost their faith because of the way they have been treated by other people in churches. Does the fact they’ve been treated badly show the non-existence of God? I don’t think so. All it shows is that christians can be just as capricious as anyone else. Likewise, someone may believe in God because of a coincidence that saved their life. Some friends of my sister were due for a tour of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 but stayed at the hotel because one of them had a cold. Does that prove God’s existence? No. Not least because it would be an insult to the families of those who died.

For my part, the reasons for my belief have changed in the years since I became a christian. Like you, I favour an evidenced-based approach over a subjective one. For all the clever arguments both for and against the existence of God, as interesting and as persuasive as they may be, I am not convinced that either side has ever given conclusive proof of their point of view. It’s like two people on either side of a brick wall trying to push it over.

While belief in God is a very important question that must be addressed, I am no longer convinced it is the best way to approach the claims of various world religions. Instead, I prefer the historical approach – what can we reasonably know about their origins? So for me, as a christian, I would start not with the idea of the creator God in Genesis, but with the man: Jesus of Nazareth.

Likewise, if you are to look at Islam, I don’t think it’s best to look at the ideas that are (and aren’t!) preached by Muslims, but by looking at Muhammad.

In Jesus, there is a huge swing in the belief that sprung up in his wake. He was raised as a Jew, and lived in a Jewish community under Roman occupation. Yet what he said and did clearly rattled the cages of both the Jewish and Roman authorities at the time. Some of those who followed him thought he was a Messiah – a special kind of prophet who would end the occupation. But he was by no means the only one of that time (c.f. Monty Python: “You are the Messiah. I should know; I’ve followed a few!”).

But what distinguished Jesus from the others was that the movement didn’t die after he did, it erupted. The rapid growth of christianity (as a radically reformed form of Judaism) was unlike any other religious movement, as was the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Comparing to other post-mortem ideas in the cultures of the time, this was a variation on the Jewish idea, but was still markedly different.

So the question then has to be asked: why did this belief arise and why was it so potent? The answer I have come to is that something significant must have happened on that Easter weekend. It is from that conclusion that the rest of my christianity begins.

There are, of course, lots of questions that can be raised about the texts – such as textual criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. Not all of those questions can be answered here, but I’d be happy to expand if you wanted me to.

You said you’d be interested to hear my thoughts, well I’ll try and convey them as best as I can. I have a deep interest and admiration for nature. For reality. It would be fair to say that I am in awe of it. That is why I think of myself as a pantheist as opposed to an atheist. Whilst I have no belief in a supernatural being, I am uncomfortable with the term atheist as I’m really not that interested in things I don’t believe. There are plenty of things I don’t believe in, and therefore I don’t see the point of defining myself by something that I don’t believe in.

As a pantheist, I would suggest that I often find myself thinking about the same big existential questions that people of faith must think. How and why are we here? etc. It also makes me marvel at the undeniable beauty that exists in reality. This is probably the closest thing I have to having a belief. Throughout nature there appears to be an aesthetic that is governed by principles of symmetry, structure and pattern. However, this does not in any way lead me to think of a creator though, but does lead to believe that whatever the process is that has created everything we can observe, at the very least, it is a process that has involved maths.

Take the Fibonacci sequence for example. This simple mathematical formula brings up a sequence of numbers that appears so frequently throughout nature that you could pretty much get rid of any other mathematical formula in history and still have trouble denying that maths has not played a part in creation.

I’ve read a quote before that “God is a mathematician.” Having done a maths degree, I was astonished to see how much of the universe can be described by maths. The “higher” I got in my education, the more physics and maths merged into one, so that even though I was on a maths degree, I still studied subjects such as quantum mechanics, general relativity, electrodynamics and fluid dynamics. Not that I remember much of the detail now, though!

I would be hesitant to say that appearance of design implies a designer. Such was the thinking of William Paley, but I think this was adequately countered by, say, Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker (though, of course, I don’t agree with him on all fronts; you will not be surprised to hear).

The trouble I have with the pantheistic view of appealing to aesthetic and the beauty of nature is that it seems to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. If I have understood you correctly, which I may well not have done, then your statement of pantheism implies that “nature is god” – no need for a supernatural being, because ‘god’ is a label that we use to describe the whole of reality. But then that would entail the violence we see in nature: the sickness, the death, etc. How does the cancer cell, the parasite and the volcano fit in with “the undeniable beauty that exists in reality” – is that ‘god’ too or is that something else? If so, what?

So there are my thoughts on the matter. I’d be interested to find out what your response to it would be? I’m glad you take no offence to me asking you frank questions. My only intention is to have an engaging discussion on the matter. In the past I have found that some theists react in a way that suggests I have offended them by even questioning their faith. A reaction which always frustrates me, especially as I have no intention of offending anyone.

There is no offence taken. How many answers were ever given when no question was ever asked? I think the reason some theists take offence is because they haven’t asked themselves the right questions first. There ought to be no shame in saying “I don’t know,” “Let me look that up,” or “Can I phone a friend?” – in writing this I’ve used the backspace key and rephrased things a few times; something I can’t do when I’m speaking, which is why and many other theists like may say stupid things sometimes. That’s not to say my writing is perfect either…

So back with the faith stuff (and I know I am replying before you managed to have a full ramble, so I hope you don’t mind)…

The first point I would take issue with is that the observation of pattern and order (such as the Fibonacci sequence) in the natural world, does not logically lead to the evidence of a designer or creator. In fact if anything, it is contrary evidence to that claim, as it shows how very simple rules can create massively complex outcomes. In other words, when we observe beauty within subjects through properties of pattern, symmetry and structure, we are simply observing the end result of simple rules repeated over and over again, rather than something that owes it’s aesthetic qualities to a grand plan from a designer or creator. Unless you are attributing this actual process as ‘God’. In which case I would say that this definition of God is more aligned to a Pantheist’s interpretation and has no correlation to a supernatural being.

I would agree with you here. The ‘argument from design’ or teleological argument is certainly interesting, but I wouldn’t like to let my faith live or die by it. A great example of simple rules leading to complexity was demonstrated by John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ – a little computer programme you can download off the web. It uses simple rules to decide if a square on a grid is black or white, depending on the colour of its neighbouring squares. Then, you decide the starting set up and let the programme run. It’s fascinating!

The interesting thing is that the rules still needed to be determined by a computer programmer. The analogy being that God designed the rules of physics, maths, chemistry and biology. Now I would say this reflects how I think God acts in the universe, but I would be hesitant to use it as an argument *for* God. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse.

But it does raise one further interesting point: Which is greater? The God who created the universe in six literal days, fully formed and teeming with life or the God who created the rules which allowed the universe to create itself? I’m not saying I have a definite answer or that either side is a great reflection of different worldviews, but I do think it’s interesting.

I don’t think I have come across Louis Giglio, but I’d certainly be open to seeing any of his videos that you fancy linking me up with. However, the second point I’d like to expand on is (I know I might be accidentally misinterpreting what you meant btw) the misleading response to aspects of scientific knowledge. I got a sense from what you said above that Louis Giglio is referring to bits of science which seems to incredibly ‘lucky’ or ‘unbelievably find tuned’ that it would suggest it must have been specially created. If tiny, minute details had been ever so slightly different then the outcome would mean that we could never exist. Whilst that might be true, it holds no logical ground for defending the existence of a God. If the conditions had been different then the universe would not have been able to spawn creatures of conscience and intelligence. In other words, any being capable of observing the universe is bound to marvel at how finely tuned it appears to be for their existence. If the universe wasn’t like that then they would not be there to observe it. It is more a case of being inevitable rather than incredible chance.

I’m not sure if you’ve read the term, but what you’ve just described is known as the ‘anthropic principle’. In the past I’ve used this as an argument for God, but I don’t anymore. I now think that it’s another appeal to the ‘God of the gaps’ hypothesis.

As I said earlier, there are bad reasons for belief, and I now think this is one of them. What takes care, though, is not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As various ‘proofs of God’ have been put-forward by various well-meaning (and maybe some not so well-meaning) people and have been refuted, to my way of thinking this only shows that that particular reason is faulty, but not the idea of God itself. To do that, I think, would need a more proactive theory on the part of atheists. Will either side ever come up with a convincing argument? I don’t think they will, at least not in my lifetime. But then I believe that on the balance of the evidence I’ve seen so far, but lacking the certainty that comes with mathematical proof; or as I call it, faith.

I hope you’re enjoying this exchange? I certainly am. I enjoy thinking about these things and I am genuinely interested in how a theist interprets the world around them. If you are interested, I would be happy to point you towards some videos that explain some of my views more articulately and in more detail?

It would be unfair for me to refuse to view any videos or read any books, if I am to suggest any to you (as I am about to)! So by all means, send anything my way. I would not suggest Louis Giglio; as interesting as he is, I think some of the arguments he used, not least about a crucifix-shaped protein, are rather lacking in substance. Instead, I would suggest checking out the Veritas Forum. If you’ve come across TED talks, these are in the same vein, but with a more religious/philosophical/metaphysical bent than TED. There are quite a few videos on there, the most of watched are those by NT (Tom) Wright – a former bishop of Durham and an excellent communicator.

If you want to follow up with any writers more eloquent than I, I would suggest a book called ‘Belief: readings on the reasons for faith’ – which is a compilation of various writings from well known figures such as C.S. Lewis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc. and some lesser known figures.

You’re more than welcome to borrow my copy if you want – but only if you suggest reading for me!

Book Review: A User’s Guide to the Brain by John Ratey

This was one of my “books of shame” that I started a few years ago but never finished. This is quite unusual for such a category of book, because I know I cannot have lost interest in it; it’s just too fascinating.

As suggested by the title, this is all about how the brain works. What is fascinating about it in particular are the anecdotes showing what happens when things in the brain go wrong. It is well-known to be amongst the complicated creations in the universe. The author opens up with a look at how we develop, before talking about how we perceive things. As is the case throughout the book, much of what we know (which the author admits is still very limited) comes about from examining the “extremities” of human existence. If you were looking for a discussion on anything other human brains, this isn’t the book for you. There is some discussion over our evolutionary roots, but this is minimal.

Moving on, Ratey controversially posits that ‘attention’ and ‘consciousness’ are simply different levels of the same basic phenomenon. This is based on attempts to distinguish the two and the failures of those attempts, with a particularly grey area in between them. He goes on to cover various functions of the brain such as movement, memory, emotion and language. All of this is told in a very straightforward manner, although Ratey doesn’t shy away from the more neurological language which may put off some readers.

Throughout the book, Ratey is keen to stress that there is rarely one area of the brain that is responsible for one thing. Instead, the brain is built of multiple overlapping and interconnected networks which, when the neurons are stimulated in certain patterns, produce effects we can recognise and label.

In his chapter on The Social Brain, which is certainly interesting for me, as a particularly non-social person (some might say antisocial), he touches on altruism, though not in anywhere near as much depth as Richard Dawkins does in The Selfish Gene.

At 380 pages, the book does seem a little longer than it needs to be and towards the end I was just wanting to get it over and done with, as Ratey started to cover ground already well-trodden earlier in the book. The last couple of chapters started ringing a few alarm bells. For example I’m not sure if most embryologists would concur with the statement, “The day an infant is conceived it begins to perceive the natural world, and also becomes aware of its own internal states…” He later goes on to talk about a “Home Brain Gym” which is a concept familiar to readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.

Tips on personal financial management

Seeing as I am once again on an enforced sabbatical, I decided it might be good to use some of my financial experience to come up with some handy tips for you. What follows are only suggestions that I have found work for me. They may not work for you, but I hope they will. Figures are for illustrative purposes only. If you want any spreadsheet templates, let me know by leaving a comment; if you include your email address as you fill in (don’t put in the text of the comment!) then I, as web administrator can see this but no one else can.

I will assume that you get paid monthly. I always work with net income. So regardless of any deductions for tax, national insurance, pension contributions, student loans, etc. always think of your income as the cash you receive. For illustrative purposes, I will assume for the sake of argument that your net pay is £1,500 per month (about the average salary).

What I then do is siphon off some fixed amounts. These are for the regular, monthly payments that are known and fixed. For example, my rent is £750 per month and my council tax is £89 per month. I put that in a physically separate bank account. I do this for 2 reasons: 1) psychologically, it is no longer “spending money” and so I am not tempted to touch it; 2) A separate savings account typically has higher interest than a current account.

After this, I put aside an amount for regular payments that are not monthly and not fixed, but which can be reasonably estimated. My list includes water, gas, electricity, tv license. You may also have other things such as insurance in there. What I do with this is I have a spreadsheet where I input the dates the last bill ran from & to and the amount of the bill. For example, my last electricity bill was £73.60 and ran from 22 May to 22 August. From that, the spreadsheet works out what my average cost per day was (80p) and how long it has been since my last bill. What I then do is multiply the average daily cost by the time since the last bill to give an estimate of what the next bill will be if it were to arrive now. To be cautious, I always add about 5%. If you do this for all of these types of expenses, you can aside an amount each month, so that when the bill does arrive you already have the money ready and you can then start again.

What this does is it means I don’t really get nasty surprises when a bill comes through. It’s not perfect; I recently had to buy new glasses which I hadn’t set any money aside for, so that hurt a fair bit. But when I got my first gas bill for over 2 years, I already had the several hundred pounds needed easily to hand.

Once I’ve deducted my fixed and variable expenses, what is left is what I would deem to be my disposable income. What you do with this is very much a personal choice, though you might want to note that I didn’t take out an amount for food – I pay for this from my disposable income – you might want to do it differently. To help budget, I then divide this amount by the number of days left until the next payday (again, a spreadsheet template is easier than faffing about with a calendar and calculator).

If I set myself a target, then I can easily track if I am above or below that target as I go through the month. Typically, if I am over-spending then I just cut back and if I am under-spending then I transfer the excess into long term savings. Though at this time of year, I tend to put the excess into a fund for Christmas, so when it comes to December I have all the money I need for the family’s presents and for travel expenses.

Fisking Christopher Hitchens

As much as I wanted to read God is Not Great as an insightful and sharp critique of the world’s religions, the whole book is littered with factual errors, unevidenced rhetoric and hyperbole. If it is your desire that Hitchens be praised then I’m afraid you need to look for a review that has chosen to gloss over the book’s many flaws. For those that really jumped off the page at me, I turned the corner of the future reference (which doesn’t include all chapters). By the time I finished, this is what the edge book looked like:

If you think that I am unduly singling this out because it happens to be advocating atheism, then you’d be mistaken. After finishing reading God is Not Great, I began to read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which is equally full of non-sequiturs and which I intend to subject to equally close scrutiny. There are many good and reasonable reasons one may have for being an atheist, just as there for being a christian. My aim here is simply to demonstrate that the reasons Hitchens advocates are not as compelling as he would have liked you to think.

Chapter 1 – Putting it Mildly

P7: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”

The only reasonable conclusion is that Hitchens never read any of Bonhoeffer’s writings, as that conclusion is not borne out by the evidence of reading either of his 2 best known works: The Cost of Discipleship or Letters and Papers from Prison. On page 176, a similar statement is made to the effect of saying that martin Luther King Jr wasn’t really a christian – a sort of strange twist on the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Chapter 2 – Religion Kills

P16/17: “As to the Anglican Church into which I was originally baptized [sic]…..it has a historic responsibility for the Crusades, for persecution of Catholics, Jews, and Dissenters, and for combat against science and reason.”

Errr….come again? Given that the Anglican church was founded by Henry VIII in the 16th century, some 400 years after the Crusades, one can but wonder what timeline Hitchens was working on. As for the other allegations, Hitchens wholly fails to provide any evidence or even so much as a secondary reference.

P20/21: “To be a Serb is to be Christian orthodox. In the 1940s, this meant a Nazi puppet state, set up in Croatia and the patronage of the Vatican, which naturally sought to exterminate all the Jews in the region…”

Naturally?? I know that Catholicism did itself no favours with its complicity during the Second World War, but it goes far too far to suggest that the Vatican shared the Nazis’ anti-Semitic extremism in a desire for mass murder of the Jews.

P27: “I can think of a handful of priests and bishops and rabbis and imams who have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed. History gives us many other such examples, which a going to discuss later on. But this is a compliment to humanism, not to religion.”

As touched on above, here we see Hitchens’ twist on the No True Scotsman fallacy. Only in this case, anyone who has been “religious” and done something good cannot have possibly done it because of their religion. Hitchens is desperate to find some other reason for it. Unfortunately, his choice of humanism betrays only his lack of knowledge of humanism’s origins. Long before organisations such the National Humanist Association hijacked the word to try to make it synonymous with atheism (see more here) humanism was a socio-political offshoot of christianity. To cite from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “though humanism gradually became identified with classroom studies of the classics, it more properly embraced any attitude exalting man’s relationship to God, his free will and his superiority over nature. Philosophically, humanism made man the measure of all things.” It then goes on to say, “In recent years [my edition was published in 1976] the term humanism has often been used to refer to value systems that emphasize the personal worth of each individual but that do not include a belief in God.” So the atheistic term is a very late arrival on the humanistic scene. The micropaedia article ends with a quote from christian theologian Karl Barth: “there is no humanism without the Gospel.”

Chapter 3 – A Short Digression on the Pig

P40: “Porcophobia – and porcophilia – thus probably originate in a night-time of human sacrifice and even cannibalism at which the “holy” texts often do more than hint”

Really? Hitchens doesn’t give any examples of hints of cannibalism in the Pentateuch or in the Qur’an. Nor does he provide evidence of “more than [a] hint”. It is an isolated assertion, devoid of meaningful context and vacuous of evidence.

Chapter 4 – A Note on Health

P56: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized [sic] religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”

Possibly one of the most revealing passages in the book, Hitchens gives us a great example of “projecting” onto one’s hate-figure some of the characteristics which one fears to be present in oneself. I’m not saying that Hitchens was necessarily violent (although he did support the illegal war against Iraq), but many of the other attributes embody his attitude towards religion. As shown below, his logic is most certainly irrational and intolerant. His alliance towards his own bigoted brand of atheism makes him tribalistic in his animosity to those who do not share his views and his wilful misreading of texts and failure to engage with the serious scholars of christianity shows he wished to remain ignorant of any viewpoint that would undermine his own argument.

P59/60: “even the stoutest defenders of the Bible story now admit that if Jesus was ever born it wasn’t until at least AD 4.”

This may be a simple typo, as Hitchens is alone in the authors I have read to assert that Jesus was born after AD 1. Most of what I read usually puts his birth at between 4 BC and 6 BC, largely due to the fact that Herod the Great (not to be confused with Herod Antipas) died in 4 BC.

P60: “When the earthquake hits, or the tsunami inundates, or the twin towers ignite, you can see and hear the secret satisfaction of the faithful.”

What an utterly vile comment. It is disgusting to suggest that religious people delight in disaster and the death of others. All of these are tragedies and their victims to be mourned. For 2 of the 3, these are natural disasters; the other stemmed from a gross misunderstanding of Islam.

Chapter 5 – The Metaphysical Claims of Religion

P64: “Muhammad is claimed by his own followers to have thought, as did Jesus, that the desert was pullulating with djinns, or evil spirits.”

I can’t say my knowledge of Islam is broad enough to be able to give an opinion on that side of the assertion, but it is bizarre to suggest that Jesus thought the desert was full of evil spirits. He doesn’t give his references (a common theme throughout the book) so there is no way to know where Hitchens got this idea from.

Chapter 7 – The Nightmare of the “Old” Testament

P100: When criticizing the notion of the 10th commandment Hitchens comments, “If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species.”

Hitchens spectacularly demonstrates a failure to understand the nature of free will. I wouldn’t claim I fully grasp it myself, but there can be many puerile statements made which demonstrate what it is not. This is a prime example of the like.

P104: “Apart from the absurdity of claiming to be meek in such a way as to assert superiority in meekness over all others, we have to remember the commandingly authoritarian and bloody manner in which Moses is described”.

Hitchens makes a mistake which is not unique to him, in mistaking the word “meek” for “weak” – when its meaning, especially in the Hebrew context, is far closer to “power, under control.” To be meek is to be a very strong character. When we use “meek and mild” these are not synonyms; their relationship is more akin to “sweet and sour.”

Chapter 8 – The Evil of the “New” Testament

P115: “The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.”

Here, we see Hitchens’ use of the argument from authority, which he employs when it suits him and condemns when it is used against him. While there are a tiny number of mostly innocuous inconsistencies in the New Testament, they are significant enough to be worthy of attention. Hitchens’ flippant dismissal demonstrates little about the resolution of any inconsistencies and tells us much more about how Hitchens would like to think of christians. Most that I come across are capable of discerning between what is metaphor and what is history, but Hitchens implies that he favours a false dichotomy between the two.

Chapter 9 – The Koran Is Borrowed

P127: “…while there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus, the figure of the prophet Muhammad was by contrast a person in ascertainable history.”

Wow! Simply wow! This is in the same league of historical denialism that is illegal in some European countries.  If he wishes to cast aspersions on the historicity of Jesus, then it would be very interesting to see his thoughts on the likes of Hannibal, Alexander the Great or Octavian.

P129: “But Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion happened to require.”

Hitchens doesn’t provide much evidence to support this rather sweeping generalisation. To do so would require a book in and of itself, carefully researched and cross-referenced. But that needs a lot more work than is needed for a pithy remark.

Chapter 10 – The Tawdriness of the Miraculous

P142: “One of professor Bart Ehrman’s more astonishing findings is that the account of Jesus’s [sic] resurrection in the Gospel of Mark was only added many years later.”

This comes near the start of a paragraph that is worthy of an essay by way of dissection in itself. Hitchens would have done well to familiarise himself with NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God before taking such a blunt analysis to a subject that requires such care. Ehrman is cited uncritically. Unusually, note how Hitchens refers to him as “professor” – something he doesn’t do for most authors he references, even if they are professors. This shows again Hitchens’ devotion to the argument from authority, even though he says just 8 pages later, “The “ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY” [caps original] is the weakest of all arguments.”

P143: “And exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.”

Still on the subject of resurrection, this concludes a demonstration of Hitchens’ failure to engage with christians over the subject of resurrection, as he is under the mistaken impression that christians believe that Jesus didn’t really die. This is sometimes known as the docetist heresy and is rejected by just about all christians. But in this concluding statement, he makes a logical clanger, trotting out the well-worn fallacy that muddles epistemology with ontology. In other words, if something which is an exceptional claim does not have exceptional evidence it must necessarily be false. Wrong! If a claim is extraordinary, but there is insufficient evidence to prove it, then we must make the most reasonable assessment based on what evidence there is, and retain an element of scepticism.

Chapter 11 – Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings

P167: “If anything proves the human manufacture of religion, it is the way that the Mormon elders resolved this difficulty.”

The difficulty referred to is how the Mormon church initially regarded black people as being less than human. The “resolution” relates to an additional revelation in 1978, where it was revealed that black people were human after all. While this does expose an absurdity within Mormonism and demonstrates how the church changed its credo in the face of societal pressures, Hitchens makes an astounding error in logic to suppose that this “proves” that religion is manufactured by humans. Mormonism, yes; but to extrapolate to all religions on the basis of one instance is negligent indeed.

P168: “Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead.”

This is not the same problem as the prior quote. This is about the (very real) problem of how christians might think of the salvation of those who came before Jesus. While it is true that some christians may well have thought along those lines it would be unfair to present this is a panacea agreed upon by all christians. The roots of the idea stem from the apocryphal Gospel of Peter where a talking cross emerges from Jesus’ tomb and a voice from heaven asks, “Have you preached to those that sleep?” to which the cross replies, “Yes.” This is not a text that will be familiar to the majority of christians, nor is there universal agreement as to “where” Jesus went between his death and resurrection. To those who think he went to hell, they have a hard time explaining Luke 23:43, although they will often quote Ephesians 4:8-10 in their favour.

Chapter 12 – How Religions End

P172: “So the Sabbatau Sevi religion came to an end…..But had its founder been put to death, we should be hearing of it still, and of the elaborate mutual excommunications, stonings, and schisms that its followers would subsequently have engaged in.”

Although the chapter with which Hitchens uses this passage to conclude is mildly interesting, the poor logic is again mildly irritating. Clearly intended as a swipe at christianity, he envisages the second half of the above quote as an inevitable consequence of a religion where the leader was executed. By the same logic, one could look at the Tolpuddle martyrs in isolation and suppose that all trade union movements are destined to end in deportation.

Chapter 13 – Does Religion Make People Behave?

P176: “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was [Dr Martin Luther King jr] a Christian.”

See my comment relating to P7.

P180: “The chance that someone’s secular [italics original] or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small.”

This comes shortly after a mysterious reference to “the whole record” which Hitchens fails to reference, so any reader wanting to investigate this claim will be bereft of the opportunity to do so. Hitchens also seems to imply an inherent link between secularism and freethinking which is again unfounded. Further than that, he seems to assume a mutual exclusivity between this point of view and a religious one, when no reason is given to suppose that they are.

P192: “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.”

This is the non-sequitur which concludes the chapter on “Does religion make people behave.” His case, though, is composed purely of anecdotes which could not determine the case one way or another. More to the point, however, is that it is written in such a way as to indicate that behaviour is one of the primary concerns of religion, which is a dubious assessment to say the least.

Chapter 15 – Religion as an Original Sin

P206: “sacramental guttings and throat-cuttings, particularly of lambs, occur every year in the Christian and Muslim world, either to celebrate Easter or the feast of Eid.”

I can’t speak for Islam, but this is certainly something I have never witnessed in a christian church. Maybe Hitchens was confusing Easter, occurring in spring, with regular livestock farming and the lambing season.

P209: Speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion: “Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans.”

Hitchens here demonstrates that in spite of being familiar with some elements of christianity, he had no understanding of even the basic tenets of it. I know of no christian that would suppose that Jesus’ crucifixion was meant to “impress humans.”

P209: “I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part, and agree that every time I decline this responsibility, or that I sin in word or deed, I am intensifying the agony of it.”

I don’t think there are many christians that subscribe to this view. The crucifixion of Jesus was a stand-alone event in history. It happened, it was not repeated and no subsequent events can affect what happened; such is the linear nature of time. While christians believe that Jesus died for “sin” I think that Hitchens has chosen to take a very literalistic view of some discussions on causality which are still the subject of discussion today.

Chapter 16 – Is Religion Child Abuse?

P227: “Sexual innocence, which can be charming in the young if it is not needlessly protracted, is positively corrosive and repulsive in the mature adult.”

I could dissect this a lot, but I don’t wish to go into much detail. However, it begs the question as to how long he means by “needlessly protracted”. One may also wonder if he went about asking people if they were virgins and choosing to find them “repulsive” if they said yes; this seems to me to be on a par with the sort of feelings exhibited by those who choose to be homophobes – judging someone on the basis of their sexuality.

P228: “we are talking about the systematic rape and torture of children, positively aided and abetted by a hierarchy which knowingly moved the grossest offenders to parishes where they would be safer.”

The much-documented instances of child abuse in the Catholic church are indeed horrific (as are the more recent revelations about those in the Anglican church in Chichester – the nearest diocese to where I live), but to suggest that this is systematic is a wilful misreading of the situation. It imagines that there are meetings taking place about how to perpetuate such atrocities, which is in the realm of the conspiracy theorist.

Chapter 17 – The “Case” Against Secularism

P233: “According to the really extreme religious totalitarians, such as John Calvin, who borrowed his awful doctrine from Augustine, an infinity of punishment can be awaiting you even before you are born.”

Hitchens demonstrates his love of pejorative adjectives, but without backing them up. Though Calvin was an important figure in Reforming christianity, not all of his views have been universally accepted.  The idea of predestination was not originally Calvin’s at all, but Paul’s (see Romans 9:14-24) – Calvin & Augustine merely pointed out and wrote about this view.

P233: “Calvin’s Geneva was a prototypical totalitarian state, and Calvin himself a sadist and torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) while the man was still alive.”

If you read up on Servetus, you will find much more that demonstrates how Hitchens has twisted the truth to suit his own rhetorical purposes. Servetus was a polymath, with a special interest in theology. He did not agree with Calvin on predestination and they entered into mutual (though heated) correspondence, where Calvin once wrote, “I neither hate you, nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you.” That said, Calvin was not exactly outspoken in condemnation of Servetus’ execution and this may well call into question Calvin’s integrity – though Calvin never testified against Servetus nor did he order or carry out the execution.

Chapter 18 – The Resistance of the Rational

P254: “I dare say that there have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise.”

It would be ungracious of me to let this comment pass without saying that I agree with it. Hitchens does get some things right, occasionally, and this is one of those instances. I’ve read various attempts to prove that atheists are more intelligent than christians and vice versa; neither of those two have ever, to the best of my knowledge, come up with a convincing case.

P255: “It does not matter at all to me that we have no certainty that Socrates even existed. The records of his life and his words are secondhand, almost but not quite as much as are the books of the Jewish and Christian Bible and the hadiths of Islam.”

It serves as interesting contrast to the comment made on P115 & P127. It seems that historical attestation can be done away with if it suits your argument. Who knew?!

P260: “In view of the terror imposed by religion on science and scholarship throughout the early Christian centuries (Augustine maintained that the pagan gods did exist, but only as devils, and that the earth was less than six thousand years old)…”

A few points on this one. First of all, the “terror imposed by religion” has little more in favour of it than the Loch Ness Monster. Such rhetoric is the bleating of the desperate, who wants history to show that they have been persecuted in the past. For a more reasonable, well-evidenced look at the history of science and religion, see God’s Philosophers by James Hannam. The parentheses about Augustine are quite out of place within the chapter and the paragraph within which the comment sits; it seems to be an afterthought inserted without much attention. As for the content of it, Hitchens demonstrates that he has read the title of Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis without reading any of its content, as Augustine argues exactly the opposite point which Hitchens portrays.

Responsible social media

“With much power comes much responsibility”

Such is the popular rendering of the conclusion of the parable of the talents.

This week, channel 4 began a new programme, The Audience, in which 50 people follow another person around. Most active people on Twitter have a lot more than 50 followers. Some of those may be spammers, but many are real people. The idea of your social networks being physically present was also exploited in a recent tv advertisement for tea.

Do you think you would change your behaviour online if you could see all the people who follow you on Twitter, are friends with you on Facebook or read your blog? When you see a number on a computer screen, it can be easy to abstractify it – stripping it of the meaning it represents. I know I can be prone to do that, working in finance, since you might have over 1,000 different numbers on a spreadsheet, some of which may be people’s salaries.  They all look similar, but some are the numbers which people rely on to live day by day.

Amongst those that follow you, there will probably be a wide spectrum of people in different situations and with different opinions. Do you often stop and think about the possible reactions you might get? Is anyone going to be offended? Might you be addressing someone who knows a lot more about a subject than you? Have you, as far as reasonable, checked your facts?

Social media and the modern web (at least in the West) allows for a formidable platform for free speech. What we write and say can now be broadcast to the world at the click of a mouse. While your idea to make the world seriously reconsider issues of international importance based on what you tap on your home computer may prove to be futile, you may (if, say, you get retweeted by someone with lots of followers) still be read by a few thousand people.

With such a scope, there is the possibility of saying something stupid and having it echoed back, reverberating in places you would never have imagined. We have seen what can happen when technology is misused this week in two main instances: the film insulting Muhammad and the pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.

I have not seen either, nor do I wish to. But a quick look on a search engine showed that each was readily available to anyone who wanted. The reactions to these have been marked by differences in tone, but each have expressed an anger at offensive against that which people hold dear.

The apostle Paul wrote,

“’All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.” (1 Cor 10:23,24; NRSV) 

The idea of free speech should not be mistaken for the need to partake in unnecessary offense. Just because we can say and do what we want, doesn’t mean that we should. To do so is to demonstrate a childishly immature attitude.

We need to take responsibility for what we say – and I do not think I am better than anyone else in this respect; I’m sure you can find examples on this blog where I have said stupid things I ought not to have said. I just need to take a little care before I hit the “Publish” button or the like, and I would encourage you to do the same, if you don’t already.

Book Review: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

As you will no doubt be aware, Hitchens sadly died at the end of last year. His death robbed the world of its most caustic critics. In this, arguably his most famous book, the focus of his ire is here turned to “religion”.

Prior to reading this, I had read a couple of reviews including this where Tom Wright talks briefly about the excerpts of the book he was given. Wright points out the existence of, though fails to detail, factual errors which Hitchens makes, particularly with relation to Anglicanism, a subject which Wright is something of an expert on.

Here’s a summary of the book by chapter:

Chapter 1: Putting it Mildly

He wastes little time in building up a head of steam, launching into an opening tirade of immense magnitude. He is keen to instil in the reader the notion that he is not an outsider looking at religion, but rather that he has had a good taster of many faiths, as well as being a regular converser with religious friends. This, of course, is a way of ensuring that the foundation of the book is an appeal to the argument from authority.

Hitchens never attempts to define religion. Instead, he uses sweeping generalisations. The whole opening salvo is based on cherry-picked examples which, though damning, are extrapolated beyond where there is available evidence. So his concluding statement that “religion poisons everything” is revealed as gross hyperbole, when the evidence presented can only go so far as supporting the much more reasonable assertion that “some aspects of some religions poison some things”.

Chapter 2: Religion Kills

Here, Hitchens gives some anecdotal evidence of why he believes religions are inherently violent, though the case he makes is not as strong as the chapter title suggests. It contains a revealing passage, where Hitchens recounts an interview he did with an American broadcaster in 2001, when he was given the following scenario: “I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now – would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?” this question is now reasonably well known; partly because of Hitchens’ witty response where he limited himself to cities beginning with the letter ‘B’ but also because it reveals nothing about the danger posed by people coming from prayer meetings and everything about the prejudices of the person being asked the question.

Chapter 3: A Short Digression on the Pig: or, Why Heaven Hates Ham

This is just a couple of pages focusing, reasonably enough, on Judaism and Islam and their aversion to the pig and products we derive from it. Rather than actually attempt to answer the implied question in the title, the chapter amounts to little more than, “Look at this people. Aren’t they silly?”

Chapter 4: A Note on Health, or Which Religions Can Be Hazardous

One of the better chapters, this looks at instances when “religion” has engendered such a powerful belief in aspects of healthcare as to lead people to wrong understandings of medicine, sometimes with adverse consequences. This is something I, and many christians I know, support; though the portrait painted by Hitchens does emphasize the bad minority with little more than a nod towards the good majority.

Chapter 5: The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False

This is a very short chapter in which the content does little to support the assertion of the chapter title. He states as fact the half-truth that “religion” is necessarily based on a pre-scientific understanding of the world (he contradicts this in a later chapter) and then goes on misuse Ockham’s razor to argue that because scientific philosophy doesn’t need god, that there is no god.

Chapter 6: Arguments from Design

This is a difficult chapter to summarise. On the one hand, Hitchens is reasonably good at pointing out some follies that are held by creationists, though the chapter is suffused with the sense that his understanding is based on a particular Americanised brand of creationism; one that is nowhere near as pervasive in countries with coastlines on less than 2 distinct oceans.  While he attempts to pick a fight with christianity, it is rather an odd imitation of christianity. It’s rather like saying you are going to pick a fight with Muhammad Ali and then wandering into Madame Tussaud’s.

Chapter 7: Revelation: The Nightmare of the “Old” Testament

As might be expected from the title, this is Hitchens taking on the 39 books of the Old Testament (OT), though he suggests it is rather disparaging of christians to refer to it as such. Implicit within it then, this is as much a dig at Judaism as it is at christianity. He mostly focuses on Genesis, but the critique is far too short and narrow in scope to be of any value.

Chapter 8: The “New” Testament Exceeds the Evil of the “Old” One

With the Jewish backdrop to christianity ‘dealt with’ Hitchens then turns his Sauronic eye to his (mis)understanding of christianity. As with the OT, Hitchens’ scope is extremely limited. He fails to engage with most of the New Testament writers or with any countless numbers of theologians who he dismisses contemptuously. But if we are to take to heart the “golden rule” then it must have been Hitchens’ intention for this chapter to be tossed aside just as lightly.

Chapter 9: The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths

After looking at Judaism and christianity, the next natural target would be Islam, and Hitchens duly obliges. In spite of the dubious claims of Islam, in particular surrounding its origins, Hitchens doesn’t make the best case against it here. See, for example, Tom Holland’s recent tv programme for channel 4 on the origins of Islam.

Chapter 10: The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell

Again, the title is misleading, as Hitchens doesn’t really talk about hell. As for miracles, he rightly debunks one but then makes the logical fallacy of supposing that all alleged miracles are as easy to refute. He again resorts to Ockham’s razor but oversteps the mark by taking what should be ‘highly unlikely’ to mean ‘impossible fancy.’

Chapter 11: “The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin”: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings

This should have been one of the best chapters in the book. After all, if you can provide good evidence that Mohammed was the author of the Q’uran rather than its reciter, or if you can demonstrate categorically that Jesus was not resurrected, then the basis of Islam and christianity would be gone. Instead, he mostly looks at Mormonism and attempts to deceive the readers into thinking that all “religions” begin in the same way.

Chapter 12: A Coda: How Religions End

This looks at the end of once sect in particular, rather than any thorough study. The point of this chapter is rather elusive, as is any sense of a well thought-through argument.

Chapter 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better?

The question posed bears little to no resemblance to the contents of the chapter.  Instead, he takes a few “religious” people and points out that they are fallible humans. This would seem quite reasonable to do, except that Hitchens contrives to make this a case against religion. Full of non-sequiturs, it is a wonder that this managed to get published.

Chapter 14: There Is No “Eastern” Solution

Hitchens clearly was aware that the bulk of ire had been directed towards the three Abrahamic monotheisms. But as this was supposed to discredit all religions, though Hitchens still fails to define what he means by the term, it was necessary to include a quick pop at some of those ideas that come from the other side of the Ural Mountains.

Chapter 15: Religion as an Original Sin

Here, Hitchens circles round to have another go at christianity. Clearly, he forgot some points when wrote chapter 8. He demonstrates his failure to even attempt to understand christian theology, as he clearly picks out some elements of the gospel, omitting those that would undermine his case, and state without evidence or reason that it is immoral.

Chapter 16: Is Religion Child Abuse?

Hitchens makes a few cases here, none of which get close to even attempting to answer the question posed by the chapter’s title. He opens with a look some ideas of “hell” – falsely assuming universal agreement on the subject. From here, he denounces circumcision and prohibitions on masturbation, before a surprisingly short few paragraphs on child abuse in the catholic church, though he statement that “we are talking about the systematic rape and torture of children” fails spectacularly to have any sense of proportion. Yes, any instances of abuse are vile and to be condemned, as is any attempt at hiding it, but it is not reasonable to suppose that it was in any way orchestrated abuse dictated from the powers that be to carry out the abuse in the first place.

Chapter 17: An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism

Here, Hitchens presents a fine counter-argument to some arguments. As noted earlier, he does seem a little muddled about what is atheism and what is secularism, though he does acknowledge at the end of the chapter the existence of secular christians and Jews. The argument that seems to have been put to him is roughly this: “well, if you think religions are so bad, look at non-religious regimes such as Nazism and Communism and the atrocities they committed.” Hitchens rightly notes the complicity of some organised religious institutions in the rise and toleration of Nazism, but he makes a logical flaw by inferring this as being representative of all religion. Apart from that, though, this is a good chapter that makes a good case for secularism, though as with the rest of the book, it is spoiled by over-use of hyperbole.

Chapter 18: A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational

By this point, Hitchens was clearly starting to run out of steam. The chapter looks a little at some philosophers including Spinoza, Kant and Hume. The chapter consists of little more than summaries of their viewpoints with the odd quotation thrown in. Hitchens credits them as the giants upon whose shoulders he perches, before he suddenly remembers he hadn’t criticised Hanukah and Christmas – and duly remedies this.

Chapter 19: In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment

Hitchens’ invective finishes with a plea for a rejection of religion, which he mistakenly conflates with the idea of enlightenment, to be taken out of the realm of lofty philosophy and to be taken up by the masses. While enlightenment, freethinking and sceptical enquiry are, of course, to be encouraged, to imagine that these equate to Hitchens’ own brand of intolerance would be a blunder indeed.

The back cover states that “God Is Not Great makes the ultimate case against religion.” If this really is the ultimate case, then “religion” need have nothing to worry about. The book is a fantastic (or rather, fantastical) example of rhetoric trumping reason. For every assertion made without providing any supporting evidence, Hitchens gives the reader a dazzling turn of phrase, loaded with wit and acerbic humour. As far as presenting a sober, insightful and devastating critique on the many different religions, their various ‘flavours’, nuances, history, beliefs and practices, this book is an unqualified failure.

This should be obvious to any reasonable-minded person, and it would be a sad indictment indeed if anyone were to be brought round to Hitchens’ own intolerant view on the basis of this piece of writing which falls well below the journalistic standard which he lived up to earlier in his career. To give such a verdict on the book, though, should not be seen as an attack upon atheism itself. To do so would be to fall into the very same trap of logical fallacy that Hitchens falls into from almost every conceivable angle. There are many reasons why someone may choose to be an atheist, many of them reasonable, many of them not. Hitchens presents us with a compendium of arguments falling squarely in the latter category.

If you have read thus far, you will have noticed a particular turn of phrase used throughout. This has not been particularly kind or gracious. As such, one may think something along the lines of “[look at this christian. He’s read something that has challenged his faith, and this is reaction to cognitive dissonance.]” I will forgive you if you have thought something like that. When I review books, I want to give you the best possible impression of what it is like to read the book in question. While I disagreed with Hitchens and found him sloppy in his fact-checking and logic, this is but one aspect of the book. So I chose to make my review mirror his turn of phrase with loaded rhetoric in order to make a point. So if you have enjoyed the sharpness of my own tongue in this review then you may well enjoy God Is Not Great. On the other hand, if my harsh phraseology has given you a bad taste in your mouth, then you can only expect more of this if you pick up the book to read it.

What is a faith school really like? Part 3: Sport, standards and legacy

Here, I conclude my look at what life was like in a faith school, where I was educated between the ages of 7 and 16. This doesn’t cover every aspect of school life, but I think it gives a fair impression, often contrary to the portrait painted by those fundamentally opposed to faith schools. For the other posts in this series, please see here:

Sports

The way PE was done might be considered a little odd; in hindsight it probably was. This was largely due to the small size of the school. The boys and girls would have separate lessons, but I can’t really comment on the girls’ lessons since I was never there.

The church had, as an additional ministry to the school, a theological college. Various people from inside and outside the church would come and attend small classes, preparing them for either church leadership or missionary work. It was these ministers-in-training who would lead the PE lessons and they had fairly free reign in what they chose to do. As it happened, at just about the time I moved to the MLC, the 2 ministers-in-training consistent of a former tank driver and a hot-headed Scottish rugby enthusiast (who was also married to the pastor’s daughter!).

Consequently, they introduced rugby to the school, which we had never played before. Previously the autumn/winter sport of choice was football. The rugby was kind of a mixture of league and union, and was semi-contact, rather than full contact. So we had lineouts, mauls and scrums, but not rucks. To tackle someone, you had to get both palms of your hands on someone’s torso or arm, but you weren’t supposed to use excessive force (this rule wasn’t always followed, not least by the PE teachers themselves). The trouble was that the MLC had a spread of ages. I joined the MLC early, at the age of 10, and was playing with boys up to the age of 16. As such, there was a significant physical difference and I did not enjoy myself one little bit.

In the summer term, rugby gave way to volleyball, which I was actually very good at, in spite of my short stature. Occasionally, though, we would do athletics. I had a reasonably good technique on the discus, and I was always better on the long distance runs than the short sprints.

Academic Standards

The school was subject to regular OFSTED inspections just as any other school would be and, as far I know, always came out with a clean bill of health. Being a small school, we were limited in what we could offer. At the time I did my options in year 9, the total number of GCSEs one could sit was 9. I sat all 9. After I went to sixth form college, I met people who had done between 10 and 13 GCSEs, but such extravagance was not afforded to us. I may have been able to do more, but I suppose we will never know.

Of course, the ultimate aim of a school is to educate students. One of the key measures of this is the exam results and you can also trace how their subsequent academic career has panned out.

By the time I left, the school was on the wane. The school regularly outperformed all the other local schools in terms of their GCSE results and the sixth form college that I went onto held the school in extremely high regard as the handful of students it turned out every year were well-rounded, hard-working students with good academic pedigree.

The staff taught multiple subjects, which I think was unusual compared to most schools. The principal, who was qualified to be a chemistry teacher, taught chemistry, one half of the biology syllabus, history and geography. The vice principal, who was qualified to teach maths, taught maths, physics and the other half of the biology syllabus. The one teacher who was qualified to teach history actually taught English language, English literature and also French. The French was interesting, as our regular French teacher left shortly after getting married, but since one foreign language was compulsory, we were in a bit of a rut. So this teacher was actually learning French at evening classes and then teaching us on a lag of about a month. The fact that one-third of her first class (i.e. 2 of us) got a grade A made her quite chuffed. Her husband taught us the first year of IT, with her eldest son teaching us the second year. This was an odd situation, as her other son was in the year below me, so he ended up having his elder brother as his teacher, as well as his mum!

Not everyone lived up to their full potential, probably with no one falling shorter of what they were capable of than myself. In my mock GCSEs I picked up 7 A* and 2 A grades. At this point I became a little arrogant and embarked upon reading the entirety of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, with the bulk of my revision being done with the BBC Bitesize. Now Bitesize was designed for people who would struggle to pass and contained very little to take people from an A grade to an A*. Consequently, I dropped a grade on 8 out of my 9 GCSEs and ended up with a pretty poor showing of 1 A*, 6 A and 2 B grades. Some might say that they were good results. But given that my mock exams had me on 7A*s and 2As, I was pretty gutted.

Legacy

When I left in 2000, the size of the school had dipped to just 38 students (aged between 7 & 16, remember); at times it had been nearly double that. My year, with 6 people in it when we finished year 11, was one of the largest year groups there was. The school closed down a few years after I left. There simply weren’t enough children coming through and so the projected funds weren’t enough to keep it going. I was informed of this during my 1st year at university, though I can’t recall if it shut down mid-way through 2003 or 2004.

To characterise the school as a centre for indoctrination would be grossly wrong. An intrinsic part of it being a christian school was that it actively promoted sceptical thinking and free enquiry. While some chose to become christians whilst there or after leaving, others did not. There was no coercion of any kind to force people down one route or another. There were some who chose to become christians while they were at the school, some who made the choice afterwards. There were some who later rejected christianity and some who

Today, I am a christian. But am I a christian because of my decade at a christian school? No. I would say I am a christian despite having spent a decade in a christian school. Over the time I was there, the church became more and more conservative. Some of this leached into the school, although the headmaster was avowed Thatcherite. Having learned to think critically, I rejected this conservatism in favour of a far more sensible worldview that was in closer accordance to the christianity I discovered for myself through reading the bible and conversing with others. This is a process that carried on after I left school, went through sixth form college, university and in my working professional life.

My decade in a faith school made me a life-long learner.

What is a faith school really like? Part 2: Curriculum and teaching

Carrying on my look at what life was like in a faith school, (see here for part 1 – looking at the background of the school), here we come to the curriculum and teaching of the school.

Curriculum

One of the ideas that seems to have some currency is that faith schools are a hotbed for teaching creationism. As popular as this idea is, it is without evidence.

The curriculum conformed to the standards that were required of any school, as laid out in the legislation governing primary and secondary education at the time. When a child was in the ILC, and for the first few years in the MLC, they studied 4 core subjects: Maths, English, Social Studies and Science.

All four were done through self-learning. We never had lessons for these subjects. Each week, you would have a tiny piece of card, on which you would write your targets on a day-by-day basis. You would write down the page numbers that you intended to work through the next day. These would be checked to ensure that you weren’t being too easy on yourself. If you didn’t finish your work by the end of the allotted time, you would have to finish it for homework.

When you had finished a page, you would have to mark it. All students marked the work themselves. You would have to ask permission to go to a “scoring table” which had the books with all the answers in them. You’d check your answers against the model answers and say if you got them right or wrong. You’d then get a monitor (classroom assistant) to double-check that you’d done the scoring correctly.

Maths

Maths was done through a company called Heinemann. Most people started at age on Heinemann primary mathematics group, working through the problems one by one and when you finish one book you move onto the next. I was a slow starter, so I actually started on infant maths, when I was aged 7. However, the self-learning style suited me much better, and I raced through these.

Once I finished all the primary maths books, I moved onto the secondary maths books. These were completed with as much gusto as all the previous ones and before long I was onto uncharted territory: Heinemann 8 and then Heinemann 9. These last 2 were supposed to reflect the year numbers in which you were supposed to do them. However, I finished Heinemann 9 not long after I started year 9, and there were no other textbooks to work through. So for a while, I was at a bit of a loose end, but I managed to accelerate my work in other areas and to do past examples of GCSE maths coursework.

English

This was by far the toughest of the subjects to do. The books we used were called LIFEPACs. I think they were christian, but any references to anything identifiably christian were few and far between. They were much more advanced than students at state schools were used to. This is evidenced by the fact that the grammar which we learned by the age of 10 was that which students found was actually part of their A-level courses when they encountered them 6-8 years later. They were based much more in understanding the material than the rote learning of Social Studies and Science (see below).

Social Studies

This is a mixture of mostly geography and history, with a few random bits thrown in. This was mostly done through the ACE system, an American christian education plan. ACE stands for Accelerated Christian Education. The books were known as PACEs, Pack of Accelerated Christian Education. They were really easy to work through and I confess I made no attempt to use them the way they were ever intended. When you open the book, the left hand page contains text for you to read; the right hand page had individual sentences with one or two words omitted. Your task was to read the text so that you could fill in the words. Most people did this simply by scanning down the left hand page to find the sentence that matched the question they were being asked.

The ACE system wasn’t followed precisely. As it was an American set of books, and social studies included history, there was, inevitably, a few PACEs that focused on American history. What the school did was to omit these PACEs and instead, one of the teachers wrote their own books on British History. There were 2 levels: the yellow book and the green book. This was our first exposure to what I was now call “proper study”. In order to answer the questions, we had to go away and do research. The answers weren’t to be found on the adjacent page, as they were in the PACEs. Instead, you’d have to trawl through 3 or 4 textbooks (these ones weren’t written by our teacher) to piece together an essay-style answer. Nomatter how bright the student was, everybody struggled with British History.

Science

This is pretty much what it says on the tin. Bear in mind that this started from PACE 1, started at the age of 7, though to (I think) PACE 94. I know certainly got to the 90s, but didn’t get through to the 100s. They covered all the basics that you needed for science, though there was a noticeable lack of experimental work. As a consequence, we never set foot in a laboratory until we were doing our GCSEs.

But they laid out the basics. There wasn’t much chemistry at all. What I remember of the biology PACEs mostly revolved around naming bits of a plant, describing how they related to the reproductive process and lots on photosynthesis and various cycles (like the water cycle and the carbon cycle). I was never particularly interested in these; instead, I longed for and savoured the more physics-based PACEs, especially those on astronomy.

Creationism?

Since this seems to be an odd fascination for some people, I thought if you’re likely to skip straight to any particular paragraph, it would be this one. But if you’ve done this, please do take the time to read the wider context.

As stated above, the school did not teach creationism. That said, the headmaster was partial to it and there was about half a dozen issues of Ex Nihilo magazine (which did more to educate me in Latin than in science) in the school library, next to New Scientist. These were never introduced into science lessons.

The church did support creationism and I recall one summer when the evening services ditched the sermons in favour of watching Ken Ham videos.

As part of the biology syllabus for the double-science GCSE, we had to do some basic evolutionary biology. This mostly consisted of genetics, learning about genotypes, phenotypes, inheritance and variations based on mutations. Roughly, this made up about a quarter of the biology syllabus we studied (set by the EdExcel exam board). The only thing that could possibly have been misinterpreted as creationism was a strong emphasis in science to have a sceptical attitude. This included scepticism about what we were being taught. Yes, we had to know lots for our exams, but that should never stop us questioning accepted wisdom. This was not limited to science, and such an enquiring attitude was encouraged throughout the school curriculum.

GCSEs

Mid way through year 9 (i.e. when I was 13) I had to take my ‘options’ – so they were ironically called. This was supposed to mark the end of the self-learning and the start of the classroom work. At this point all the ACE and similar work was left behind. It was a mere educational backdrop; now the work towards the important qualifications began. Classes varied in size depending on how many people were doing each subject and what ‘tier’ they did. For example, if you wanted an A or A* you had to do the upper tier in each subject. If you did a lower tier, then your maximum grade was capped. The largest class would have years 10  & 11 taught together, so for something like IT, we had up to about 14 in the class when I was in year 11. The smallest class was the upper tier maths. There started out with 3 of us in the class, but one found it too tough and dropped down a tier while the other person left the school before finishing their GCSEs. So it ended up being one-on-one tuition.

For most subjects, the bulk of year 10 was spent getting our coursework done. There were some mock exams done at the end of the year, but they were just intended to see how you were getting on. The main mock exams came in January of year 11 before the final run-in towards the real things.

Coming up

In the last part of this mini series, I’ll look at the academic standards of the school as well as the challenges it had which other schools didn’t. Some of that will relate to gaps left above, but I’ve done so for reasons of space. I’ll also look briefly at the school’s legacy and how it has, or hasn’t, helped shape me as a person.