Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Are rights universal?

Pamela Bone joins the important debate as to whether there exist shared, universal human values or whether some people simply think so differently from the way we think that we have no business in assuming they even want our rights and freedoms.

She is in no doubt. Writing about Iran, she says:

"A society in which young, lightly clothed women and men can sit together at street cafes and discuss the sins of their government is better than a society in which they can be arrested for doing the same; a free and liberal society is better than a society that stones women for having sex outside of marriage and jails gays for existing."

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Emptying Heaven

In a third chapter (see second) of 'From Fantasy to Faith' D Z Phillips turns to consider immortality. He characterizes it as a choice between science and seance. To illustrate the distinction he outlines the respective approaches of Tennyson (particularly In Memoriam) and Wallace Stevens.

Tennyson marries Darwinism and Christian faith by postulating that human development does not cease at death, but continues after it. Eliot saw In Memoriam as a religious poem not so much because of the quality of its faith but of its doubt, a religious kind of despair. In it Tennyson craves a continuance or substitute for the joys of friendship on earth. His desire for immortality is never quite for Eternal Life; his concern is for loss of man rather than for the gain of God. It is in this sense that Tennyson's lines smack more of a seance than spirituality.

Wallace Stevens sees that in an attempt to turn his departed friend into an ethereal being, Tennyson loses sight of him as he really was. In the act of creating a heaven out of our own fears, we lose sight of the earth. But Tennyson's despair is indeed a religious one. He looks to fulfil his religious desires by transcending his doubts. Stevens, however, sees the doubts as liberating us from desires we should not have in the first place. A changeless heaven is a grotesque parody of the earth we love. Coming to be and passing away is the character of human being. 'Death is the mother of beauty.' A human being who could not grow old and die would be as unattractive as an apple which could not ripen and rot. Take away change, take away death, and we take away, at the same time, what is wonderful and terrible in love and life.

For Tennyson, the contingency and finitude of things seems to rob them of their point. For Stevens it is an essential part of their wonder. Stevens is a poet of acceptance. Tennyson is not. He sees life as incomplete, and existence as a riddle. Within Steven's linguistic parameters, the completion, the order, provided by religion is illusory. For him, when we have emptied heaven, our terrors and fears will be exorcised.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Thursday, May 24, 2007


If, as I believe, there are over 1.5 million Muslims in Britain, and a survey published in the Guardian shows that 16% of them regard suicide bombings against civilian targets as justified, a figure that rises to 35% of the under-thirties, it seems complacent in the extreme for the reporter to describe these as pockets of disaffection.

Hundreds of thousands in our small island. Some pockets!

P.S. In an article in today's Guardian, Matt Waldman of Oxfam warns that the international community is in danger of repeating in Afghanistan the mistakes made in Iraq. One of them is evidenced by the one-third of Afghans who think democracy is incompatible with Islamic values. And the other two-thirds?

Funny how we never heard these appeals on behalf of the anti-democratic minority in apartheid South Africa!

Here, there, then, and now, I'm with the majority.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Peanut Envy

Christopher Hitchens reminds us that Jimmy Carter is the man

"who, in his latest book on the Israel-Palestine crisis, has found the elusive key to the problem. The mistake of Israel, he tells us (and tells us that he told the Israeli leadership) is to have moved away from God and the prophets and toward secularism. If you ever feel like a good laugh, just tell yourself that things would improve if only the Israeli government would be more Orthodox. Jimmy Carter will then turn his vacantly pious glare on you, as if to say that you just don't understand what it is to have a personal savior."

He also has this to say about Carter's spiteful and cheap remarks on the retirement of Tony Blair.

"Heap insults on a guest in Washington: a thrice-elected prime minister who was the first and strongest ally of the United States on the most awful day in its recent history. A man who was prepared to risk his own career to be counted as a friend. A man who was warning against the Taliban, against Slobodan Milosevic, and against Saddam Hussein when George Bush was only the governor of Texas. Leaders like that deserve a little respect even when they are wrong—but don't expect any generosity or courtesy from the purse-mouthed preacher man from Plains, who just purely knows he was right all along, and who, when that fails, can always point to the numberless godly victories that he won over the forces of evil."

Peanut envy indeed.

Old Timer's Disease

I have Giles Fraser to thank for this. It offers some encouragement to those who are going through a similar experience. My father's last surviving sibling, at the age of 86, has been diagnosed as having Alzheimer's (or as one child called it, Old Timer's) disease. His only daughter is trying her best to do the right thing by him.

"AS THE elderly lady leaves church, she thanks me for the service. I respond by giving her a big squeeze and a kiss. As she totters off, I hear her complaining about the over- familiarity of the vicar. I chuckle: she is my Gran, who has had dementia for years, and no longer knows who I am.

"Back in her care home, she has persuaded fellow residents that she was once a nun from St Joseph's. To complement this new identity, Sister Audrey (as she calls herself) has found a remarkable silver lurex wraparound top. My family has been getting nuttier. The other week, my Mum, who is President of the local Women's Institute, started a Peter Kay "Show me the way to Amarillo" conga in the lighting department in John Lewis in Peterborough. For her, respectability and free-spiritedness battle it out, and a certain middle-English eccentricity usually wins. But for my Gran it's different. Dementia has brought about an Indian summer of happiness in what has been a tough and often unhappy life.

"Those who suffer from senile dementia often lose their worries about what other people think of them. For some, this can mean an unkempt appearance and a broader command of Anglo-Saxon than the blushing relatives ever remembered.

"But those who, like my Gran, have fought against a debilitating sense of social inferiority all their lives, are released from this dreadful burden. We hear a great deal about old people's homes being God's waiting-rooms, reeking of neglect and incontinence. But, for Sister Audrey, it may well be the place where she has finally come into her own.

"Re-clothe us in our rightful mind:' we sing. Yes, but what is our rightful mind? I met Iris Murdoch a couple of times -once after she had just given a lecture on Plato, and, years later, when she was lost and confused in the University Church in Oxford. Surely, it was the mind of the erudite don that was Iris Murdoch's "rightful mind".

"Yet, for my Gran, most of her life was characterised by a crushing nervousness and anxiety. Only now, as she looks after her fellow residents, and starts to experiment with her wardrobe, does she give some indication of the person she might have been, had she been liberated from her demons.

"I wonder: could it be, for some of us, that it's only when our schemes have all gone foggy that we are released to become the people God really wants us to be?"

Waking into the light

There are people on an island of Malaysia called Senoi who have a nonviolent culture. They talk with their children about dreams each morning. They have never had a war. Alice Miller thinks that our culture is so violent because as children we learned not to feel.


I have spent parts of my life as,

an anti-capitalist accountant,

an anti-clerical clergyman,

a pacifist army chaplain,

a vegetarian priest in an agricultural parish,

a prison chaplain against incarceration,

and a pet-hating animal lover.

Is it any wonder that,

from time to time,

I have had 'mental-health' issues?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mary and Joseph

I have usually found that my self-understanding as an adult is deepened by the combination of remembering and imagining that enables me to see the world as experienced by a child. Alice Miller is surprised at the reluctance of Christians to learn from the parents of Jesus.

" . . . no representative of the Church has ever, to my knowledge, admitted to the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminently good sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property?

"It is time to relinquish destructive models and to mistrust the principle of obedience. We have no need of obedient children brainwashed by their upbringing to be the ideal victims for the empty verbiage and the blandishments of terrorists and lunatic ideologists and ready to fall in with their commands, even to the extent of killing others. We need children with open eyes and ears, children prepared to protest against injustice, stupidity and ignorance with arguments and constructive action. Jesus was able to do this when he was twelve years old and the scene in the temple demonstrates eloquently that he could refuse the obedience asked of him by his parents without hurting their feelings.

"With the best will in the world we cannot truly emulate the example of Jesus. To do that we would need to have been through an entirely different kind of personal history. What we can do, as long as we really want to and are not thwarted by external authority, is to learn from the attitude displayed by Joseph and Mary. They did not need their son's obedience and they felt no urge to punish him. Only if we fear the confrontation with our own histories will we need to have power over others, and if we do that we will need more and more of it all the time. Parents want power and obedient children because they feel too weak to be true to themselves and their own feelings, too weak to admit those feelings to their children. But it is precisely this kind of honesty with our children that makes us strong. To tell the truth we do not need to have power over others. Power is something we need to spread lies, to mouth empty words and pretend they are true. It is for this that we require mindless gullibility from our children or from whole nations. And because such power can never be a substitute for the real strength of the truth, the insane logic of such a development is bound to culminate in wars and the dreadful toll of human life they invariably exact.

"It is entirely realistic to imagine that if the wisdom of well-informed experts (like Frédéric Leboyer, Michel Odent, Bessem van der Kolk and many others) were to reach a large number of parents and those parents had the support of religious authorities in following the example of Mary and Joseph, the world would be a much more peaceful, honest and rational place for our children than it is today."


The wise one is quoted as saying "Nobody can come up with a good argument for eating animals."

I must say, I've never heard one.

Illusion and Reality

I'm reading again this book by David Smail.

He says in the Preface that it's about the possibility of understanding the 'language' of pain. Such pain (psychological pain, emotional distress) is caused when a person is unable to abandon a fundamentally true insight into the nature of the social world in favour of a convenient illusion. Emotional distress, so understood, far from being an indication that something is wrong with the person, is far more likely to point to something wrong with his/her world.

I do notice that any attempt to attribute autism to environmental factors, to see it as rooted in the social experience of the child, is strongly resisted by the professionals. My own observation is that children on the autistic spectrum often come from peculiarly uncommunicative parents. This is not to say that the parents are to blame, or even responsible, for the child's condition. It may well be that they (the parents) are themselves 'tuning out' of painful experiences of their own.

A Room with a View

This is part of an address I gave during my time as a prison chaplain. It was based on E. M. Forster's book, A Room with a View.

"If I remember rightly the view from Forster's room is of two kinds. For one thing it's a view of the hills of Tuscany, an Italian landscape. At the same time it's another kind of view. It's a view of two people; two people who are not at first able to see what to others is most obvious, that they are falling in love. It's a room with a view.

"There is, not far from this room where you are sitting now, not far from this chapel, in this prison, a room with a view. Stictly speaking it's out of bounds to prisoners, it's off limits. In the bad old days when so-called Catholics had to be separated from so-called non-Catholics it was the Catholic vestry, where Catholic priests put on their robes and prepared to say mass. So it would have been out of bounds for me too.

"Now if you ask John, the chapel orderly, he will tell you that in many ways that old vestry is the best room in the castle, or at least in the prison. John has duties there, so he has to spend time there, though he's not complaining. The room, though small, is light and airy. There is fresh air to breathe, and when the sun shines it pierces the gloom that can so fill your mind when you are on the wrong side of these prison walls. There are moments in there when you can't help but feel more cheerful, and more full of hope.

"And it's a room with a view. Standing or sitting at the window you face east, as you are doing now. You see a picture of Lancaster east of the castle, a townscape which includes the eye catching Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, and many other great buildings besides. So it is truly a room with a view.

"But there is another room in this castle which is also a room with a view. The surprising thing is though, that the room I'm speaking of has no windows. It's a view without windows. It's this room, this chapel, I'm talking about.

"This chapel, this windowless chapel, without an outside wall, is nevertheless a room with a view. Not a view of the outside, of landscape, townscape, buildings, but of the inside, of you and me, and what is inside you and me; who we are, who we really are, and what we could become.

"This chapel, I like to think, is a room with a view. The view is expressed in a message which is delivered here, week in, week out. The message is, You are loved. You are believed in. Your life is worth living, inside and outside. You are of value.

"Sometimes we need to be reminded of this, even if we've heard it before. And if you haven't heard it before, or believed it before, well, there's always a first time!"

Friday, May 18, 2007

Getting personal

Thanks to Lucy for tagging me. Seven random facts about me.

1. As a baby I was left in my pram outside the greengrocer's shop because my sister, who had pushed me there, was so eager to get home with the first bananas on sale since the 1939 war broke out. As she sat with our parents engorging the fruit, mum asked "Where's the baby?"

2. As a four year old I nearly killed my grandmother. She was warming her knees at the open fire when I threw a firework into the grate. It exploded. Grandma's death months later was not, I am assured, connected in any way to this incident.

3. As a favour to my first wife, after we split up I took our dead budgerigar to a taxidermist. I collected the stuffed article two weeks later. I was accompanied on both occasions by the person who was later to become my second wife.

4. In the course of a single week, I found my mother dead from a drug overdose at home, attended her burial, and got married.

5. My father worked as the caretaker of a further education college whilst in denial about his near blindness. He managed to perform all the tasks assigned to him, and more, but caused some consternation when he mistook Margaret Thatcher, on an official visit, for one of his cleaning ladies.

6. One of the things I learned from psychotherapy is the importance for me of doing less than my best and being happy with it.

7. I have shared a urinal with a former British Prime Minister - not Margaret Thatcher.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Catholic terror?

Melanie Phillips gives her reasons for thinking it a serious mistake to regard Islamist terrorism as equivalent to that of the IRA.

"The purpose of the IRA was to achieve a united Ireland; it was not to take over Britain and turn it into a Catholic state. But the jihad aims to turn Britain and the west into an Islamic state. IRA terrorism was committed in the name of Irish nationalism; Islamist terrorism is committed in the name of holy war. The Pope and the Catholic priesthood worldwide were not issuing encyclicals or sermons calling on the faithful to destroy unbelievers and install Catholicism as world government; the most influential religious authorities in the Islamic world are instructing their faithful to destroy unbelievers and install Islamic world government."

Scaremongering? Or just scary?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Down the Yellow Brick Road

In the second part of his book (see first) DZP considers the view that, having put religion aside, man must make his own rules unaided.

Religion is now it seems on the defensive. It is no longer respectable to believe in God, for man is the measure of all things. Religious belief is more likely to be equated with superstition than seen as a false hypothesis. Atheism and belief are not simply contradictory. More often, for the atheist, when someone tries to say that God exists, he is not saying something false, but something meaningless.

But how did meaningless beliefs come to have such a hold on people? One popular answer is in terms of primitive man, fearful of nature, seeking influence, by prayer and ritual, over a hostile environment. On this view religion is a childish practice which has been superseded by science. Religious believers have simply never grown up. They are like children who have gone on believing in magic.

The human cry for God is, on this view, like a child's cry in the dark, a desire for comfort from 'somewhere over the rainbow'. Primitive man creates a 'something over the rainbow' to fulfil his unfulfilled wishes - a product of projection (Feuerbach). But we must remember Dorothy's last words in 'The Wizard of Oz', "There's no place like home."

In the story the Wizard himself turns out to be a fraud, the Scarecrow is shown to have a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the lion to have had courage all along. The message appears to be that we must develop our own abilities and not look for supernatural help. Whatever its harsh realities, Kansas is at least real, whereas Oz is pure fantasy.

"There's no place like home" could be the motto of atheistic humanism. Instead of the Yellow Brick Road we must follow the way of human science and philosophy to bring us back to this our one and only world. We must learn to live as Freud's 'honest smallholders', cultivating our plot in such a way that it supports us.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Peckham's Lost

In what he describes as "the most fearless piece of reportage I've heard in a long while", Edward Wickham commends Winifred Robinson of BBC Radio 4 for her report on one of Britain's most deprived areas.

The climax was an interview with Tony, the father of Adrian Thomas, who was last year imprisoned for leading the gang that abducted, tortured, and murdered Mary Ann Lenehan. Adrian is the youngest of Tony's four sons, each of whom has a different mother.

"Why did Tony have Adrian when he had failed his other three boys? Because a woman he had been dating for three weeks asked him for a baby. "Why do some people bring children into the world with less thought than getting a pet?" asked Ms Robinson. Tony was starting to get riled, but she didn't let up. "But you must have known about contraception." These things happen, said Tony blithely. "They don't happen to me," came the retort."

"It was tremendous stuff. So careful are we not to judge (at least publicly) the lifestyle of others - particularly those from non-white, non-middle-class backgrounds - that I half wondered whether Ms Robinson was breaking some kind of broadcasting code. Nor did she let up when describing the kids at the local school drop-out centre as showing symptoms of "arrested development", behaving like toddlers who have not learned how to deal with the disappointment of having their whims frustrated."

"A boy made excuses - "They're not polite to me" - for not respecting his teachers. "Aren't you supposed to be polite to them?" came Auntie Winifred's unanswerable reply."

The Interpretation of Murder

A novel with this title by Jed Rubenfeld won a British Book Award for Best Read 2007.

It's opening lines are worth pondering.

"There is no mystery to happiness.

Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn - or worse, indifference - cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn't look ahead. He lives in the present.

But there's the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same, To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning - the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life - a man must reinhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them.

For myself, I have always chosen meaning."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Do we need religion?

Or should we by now have put aside such childishness?

From time to time I'd like to share some of the books I am reading or have read. If any reader wishes to respond with comments or criticism I would really welcome that.

I have referred already to the philosopher D. Z. Phillips. In the Introduction to his book "From Fantasy To Faith", to which he gives the title "Marches of Vocabulary", DZP asks us to consider Psalm 139.

"Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well."

What such passages take for granted is the inescapable reality of God. Notice that there is no appeal to the evidence for God's existence; no attempt to prove it. The movement of thought is not from the world to God, but from God to the world. The world is seen from the start as God's world.

But this, observes DZP, is not the world we live in. It's not our world; nor has it been for a long time. Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment religious belief has been looked on as a conjecture, a hypothesis, a case of weighing probabilities, a matter of calculation. Our problem now is not how to escape from God but how to find him.

It may be important simply to recognise the difficulty we have in speaking confidently about religious belief. In our struggle to mediate religious sense what are we to make of religious claims to offer an abiding sense, the same yesterday, today and forever? How is that sense to be related to past, present and future? We are tempted to look for a religious sense which transcends the contingency of the world, its coming to be and passing away, a kind of religious experience which is complete, timeless, immune to any threat from surrounding change. Yet the content of religious belief has to be expressed in a language, and language itself is not static but forever changing. At a time of extremely rapid change, when materialistic optimism has come to a dead-end, what kind of sense does religion have? What might hope, love or faith amount to?

One answer is offered by T. S. Eliot in East Coker "The faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting". But the waiting is not without style. There must be an appreciation of what is at stake. Religious meanings cannot be secured by self-authenticating moments of intuition, immune from their surroundings, however uplifting. Connections have to be shown between the richness of religious tradition and the particularity of the present. Sometimes we can do little more than to hold on to the regularity of religious observance - "we are only undefeated/Because we have gone on trying."(TSE: The Dry Salvages). We have to struggle, in our own day, to find what an authentic religious voice might be. The voice must be our own. "For last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice"

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Right and Wrong

I've always enjoyed talking to children. As a parish priest I preferred the informality of school assembly to preaching in the church.

I remember one day the topic was shouting, and being shouted at. I told the kids how I hate being shouted at myself. Some of them weren't listening, so I raised my voice. Well, sometimes you just have to!

A week earlier I'd been to see Disney's "The Lion King" at the cinema. In it, the one thing above all which signifies the lion-cub's rise to seniority is the sound of his voice. From a rather tame-sounding, high-pitched growl, it grows to a deafening, and terrifying, roar. He achieves full power, full "King of the Jungle" status, by his ability to frighten others, and command attention, through the very loudness of his voice.

As those children knew only too well, grown-ups are nearly always bigger and stronger and cleverer than little ones. And they can shout louder too! Might isn't always right, as we say, but it certainly helps when making yourself heard. So I asked the children, 'Why?'

Why do people shout? Why do grown-ups shout? Why do teachers shout? And, because I saw the head teacher was present, why does your head teacher shout?

Some of the children - the older ones - said that often people shout to make themselves heard, because they are not being listened to. Others, about the same age, with a bit of encouragement from me, used their imaginations and offered such replies as, "Our teacher shouts at us because he's just had a row with his wife", or "because he's got out of bed the wrong side (or late)", or even "because he had to get out of bed at all", or "because he forgot to mark our homework."

In one way and another they were able to see that sometimes at least people raise their voices, express their anger and annoyance, for reasons of their own, because of things that are going on in their lives, for which you and I are not even remotely responsible; things indeed which have nothing to do with us at all.

But there were many children; I would guess most children; indeed I would say all of the youngest children; who spoke with one (loud) voice, and one answer between them. "Why does teacher shout at you?" "Teacher shouts because we're naughty. Teacher shouts because we have done something wrong."

It brought to my mind all those dire warnings of the trouble in store for us if we do not reverse recent liberal trends and give our children clear teaching on the difference between right and wrong. Evidently these children had learned the difference at a very early age. Not only did they know right from wrong, they also knew where they stood, which was mostly in the wrong. If teacher shouts, it must be my fault!

God the Father to resign this week.

This from NewBiscuit.

The Lord God Almighty, perhaps the most important leader in the universe, is expected to announce his resignation later this week according to a statement issued this morning. ‘God the Father will be making a formal announcement regarding his long-term plans on Thursday’ said the office of the omnipotent creator, fuelling widespread speculation that he will be stepping down in July. His successor is widely tipped to be Jesus Christ, the Jewish second-in-command and current next-door neighbour in the Trinity.

God the Father has been a popular figure for many centuries, but in recent years has come under heavy criticism for his inability to stop wars, failure to prevent rampant homophobia among his followers and his old-fashioned dress sense. Many believers now feel a change at the top is the only way to revive Trinitarian monotheism.

‘I think Jesus will do a great job’ said the Father, finally endorsing his successor and long-standing rival. ‘For the last two thousand years he’s being doing important work in soteriology , whatever that is, and I’m sure he’ll get used to handling real power eventually.’

Leading spiritual figures from across the religious spectrum lined up to praise the Father and his legacy. ‘He did some really good stuff,’ said the Devil, ‘particularly in the early years with all that ‘creation from nothing’ business. Speaking as the official Leader of the Opposition, I shall miss our sparring matches. And remember the way he gave me Job to play with while he worked out how to hide the dinosaur bones?’

Jesus is unlikely to face a leadership challenge as the Holy Spirit declared last week he was quite happy to continue influencing people indirectly, though there are rumblings of discontent from the outer reaches of Heaven. ‘Why should we only get three leaders to choose from?’ said Saint Eutychymius, the fourth century Palestinian martyr. ‘There are myriad saints up here with leadership qualities. How about a woman for a change?’ But whether Jesus can raise the Trinity’s popularity back the heady days of the twelfth century levels remains to be seen. ‘You’ll see real changes’ said a spokesman. ‘The son is very much his own man. Except for being one and the same.’

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Not alone

David Smail, a clinical psychologist and writer, has learned from his experience of thousands of clients that:

1. Absolutely everybody wants to be liked.

2. Everyone feels different inside (less confident, less able etc.) from how they infer other people to feel.

3. Few honest and courageous people who have achieved anything of real value in life do not feel a fraud much of the time.

Phew! And I thought it was only me.

Monday, May 07, 2007


In today's Guardian, Madeleine Bunting addresses some of the questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate.

"The durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking, one of Britain's most eminent evolutionary psychologists acknowledged to me recently. Scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms. Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix? Or a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human well being? In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on."

This is not in line with all available research by any means. A study of religiosity and happiness in 2000, using the Francis Scale and the Depression-Happiness Scale, found no significant correlation between the two measures.

But what if the opposite were the case? What if religious belief was shown to be associated with unhappiness, depression and ill-health? It might make an evolutionary explanation of religion more difficult, impossible even. But perhaps that's because faith is not about advantage or explanation. Christian faith embraces a way of the cross, a way of dying to self. It isn't supposed to 'work' or make you happy in the way that the latest therapy might. Nor does it explain the world in the way that many scientists propose.

Job, Jesus, and Simone Weil. Religious geniuses? Yes. Happy bunnies? I don't think so.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Miller's Laws

First Law of Offspring Ingratitude

People who don't understand genetics attribute their personal failings to the inane role models offered by their parents.

Second Law of Offspring Ingratitude

People who do understand genetics attribute their personal failings to the inane mate-choice decisions made by their parents.


Sometimes known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Perform the following experiment:

Go and find a medical practitioner.
Ask how many kids they have seen that they genuinely felt (as opposed to the hundreds whom they will have diagnosed simply to get the parent out of the room) had ADHD from a family which made them take regular outdoor exercise, fed them a healthy diet, insisted on good manners at all times, sent them to bed at a sensible hour, and refused to indulge their every whim.

Now count the fingers on one hand and let me know which number is greater.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A book for men

I recently read 'Father Joe' by Tony Hendra. It was a poignant account of a kind of holy life that touches many people by staying put. I think though that the Washington Post reviewer put his finger rather tellingly on what might be a weakness in the way that the story is told. "It is a book for men who think of themselves as trapped, misunderstood geniuses, so it should sell well."

Charity. Cold or hot?

I have just donated £20 to a charity. The appeal literature informs me that with that amount of money surgeons will be able to repair the cleft lips or palates of two children that would otherwise have blighted their lives forever. I am glad to help, but does this mean that, were I to choose instead to spend £20 on a visit to the theatre, I would be putting my own pleasure before the desperate need of another? Casts a bit of a shadow over what's left of my nightlife!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

That VAT gets everywhere

News from one of my favourite accountancy firms Grant Thornton.

Lap dancers will be required to pay VAT on their earnings after a judge ruled in favour of Spearmint Rhino at the high court.
The self-styled gentlemen's clubs firm was appealing against a VAT tribunal that said Spearmint Rhino should pick up the tab for tax payments on money earned by dancers.
Mr Justice Mann ruled today however that the services on offer were ultimately provided by the dancers and not the club.
"A member of the public pays £8 for admission and on entering goes into an area in which he or she may drink, socialise, eat and watch partially-clad women dancing on a podium," he said.
"At any one time there are between 20 and 140 young women available to provide the entertainment services in issue in these proceedings.
"The judge went on to say it was a "very forced construction of events" that led to lap dancers being considered as contracted agents for the club.
Customers at Spearmint Rhino clubs in Britain can pay up to £250 for an hour-long one-on-one chat with dancers.

An empty bed

I find this by Andrew Sullivan almost unbearably moving.

The decision of any hostile family member to challenge the legal rights of a same-sex partner can be particularly brutal.

I remember a story told by a friend during the plague years. He was visiting a dying friend in hospital and a couple of beds down the ward from his friend, the curtains were drawn around a patient. From behind the curtains, he could hear a man softly singing a show-tune. "Well, at least that guy's keeping his spirits up," my friend remarked. "Actually," his dying friend replied, "the man in that bed died this morning and was taken away by his family. That's his boyfriend. The family won't let him go to the funeral or ever see his spouse's body again. They've kicked him out of their apartment. It wasn't his name on the lease. So he's just sitting there, singing their favorite song to an empty bed. It's the last time he'll get that close to his husband. The nurses didn't have the heart to tell him to leave yet. He's been there for hours.

You want to know why some of us feel so strongly about this? Remember that scene. We will - for ever. Civil marriage rights are indispensable. Gay people are second-class citizens and second-class human beings until we have them.

Good losers

Sometimes things seem important enough to note before thinking them through or considering the implications.
For example:
We are all sooner or later going to lose everything we have and are forever. What life offers us is a never-to-be-repeated chance to become good losers. What we do next, after becoming aware of this, defines our spirituality.
. . . Or so it seems to me.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Going nowhere

I am increasingly suspicious of forms of spirituality that want to take me somewhere, on some kind of journey. Human growth and personal development may have its place but I have the feeling that Ann Faraday is on to something here.

All my thoughts, hopes and fears about the future have changed radically since I fell asleep one night in October 1985 and woke next morning without a self. I don't know what happened to it, but it never returned.

This should have been an occasion for some regret, since I quite liked myself - a self born long ago when I first discovered that other people didn't automatically share my private inner space and couldn't intrude upon it without my permission. Since then I'd worked hard on myself to make it a good one, mainly by praying to God to remove the bad thoughts and feelings surrounding it. I soon came to think in terms of my Higher self and lower self - and hoped that God would always love me and forgive me so long as I at least aspired towards the Higher and abjured the lower. The Higher Self, I decided, was probably my soul which would eventually unite with God and live happily ever after.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise in later life to learn that the Soul is not to be sought in the heavens but in the depths of the psyche, especially in the lower or shadow part which I'd tried to disown. Through psychotherapy and dream-work, I discovered that far from diminishing myself, all those buried fears, guilts and weaknesses brought a welcome softness and subtlety to life. In fact they led me on to even deeper archetypal encounters which expanded the boundaries of self into the greater collective psyche of humankind.

What had begun as a journey of purification had become one of completion or individuation, and I looked forward to attaining what Jung called Wholeness, the Self or God before too long; all I needed, or so I thought, were just a few finishing touches.

In the meantime, in true Human Potential fashion, I was furthering all this growth by 'taking care of' and 'looking after' whichever self I happened to be into at the time. I no longer berated myself for making mistakes and was usually able to say "no" without feeling guilty. All things considered, including many years of meditation practice, I rated myself at around 3.5 on the Transpersonal Ladder of Enlightenment.

It was at this point in my imagined psycho-spiritual development that I lost myself. To compound the irony, before going to sleep that night in October 1985, I'd actually done a 'self-remembering' exercise for precisely the opposite purpose - to centre my energies in such a firm and clear sense of self that it would continue into the dreaming process instead of getting lost in it, thereby giving me a lucid dream in which I was aware of dreaming. I went off dutifully repeating the words "I am, I am, I am, ...", a la Sri Ramana Maharshi, and was more than a little astonished to awaken some hours later, laughing because the pundits had got it wrong: the truth was much more like "I am not." I was emerging from a state of consciousness without any I or self at all, a state that can only be described as pure consciousness. I can't even say I experienced it, because there was no experiencer and nothing to experience.

And far from being a matter of regret, this loss of self came as a distinct relief. In fact when bits and pieces of my old identity - hopes, fears, goals, memories, spiritual aspirations and all the rest - began to recollect as I awoke, I tried to fight them off, in much the same way, perhaps, as the reluctant survivors of Near-Death Experiences resist the return to life's little boxes. But unlike those survivors, I brought back no blissful sense of divine presence or of a mission to accomplish, nor even intimations of immortality - just a total inner and outer Empty-ness which has remained ever since.

This may not sound like a happy state of affairs to a psychotherapist, who would probably see in it evidence of a mid-life crisis or incipient psychosis. But it is far more interesting than that. I experience this Empty-ness as a boundless arena in which life continually manifests and plays, rising and falling, constantly changing, always changing and therefore ever new. Sometimes I feel I could sit forever, knowing myself as not only a fluid manifestation of life within the arena, but also as the Empty-ness which holds it. If this is psychosis, everyone should have one, and the world would be a far more serene place for it.

. . . as a psychologist, my hopes are something like this:

I would challenge the ancient creed that developing a strong self-sense is essential in rearing children with adequate strength for living. Surely it is possible to encourage them to find a fluid identity within the constantly-changing play of life, not seeking permanence of any kind, particularly that of self. Perhaps we could even teach them to see and enjoy themselves as unique 'nonentities', instead of separate hidebound selves obsessed with survival.

In psychotherapy, I would hope for a radically new approach to those who suffer from inner emptiness. Instead of working towards filling that void with new purpose, direction and meaning, I would aim to assist sufferers to go even deeper into Empty-ness and discover its true nature. I would actively discourage all ideas of inner-journeying towards wholeness or paths to enlightenment. These serve merely to postpone happiness here and now, and they build up the self-illusion.

In the spiritual domain, I would fire all gurus and transpersonal psychologists who use stage-by-stage models of self-development ( explaining experiences like mine as fifth level transient nirvikalpa samadhi - or whatever). And I would like to see the term Self with a capital S: Self-actualisation, Self-realisation, Self-transcendence - expunged from psychological and spiritual literature, reserving the word strictly for the empirical self of everyday life. It is the whole obfuscating concept of self which needs to be transcended, for in my experience there has never really been any self to transform, actualise, realize or transcend.

In good faith

Most press attention has been paid to the fact that two of the July 7th suicide bombers had been under surveillance by MI5 as early as 18 months before the atrocity. My attention was caught even more by the evidence that two of those jailed for life yesterday were recruited to jihadi terrorism in 1999 as a reaction to what they saw and heard of the treatment of Muslims in Kashmir. As this was before 9/11, let alone the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it gives the lie to later attempts to link these events causally to the origin and spread of global terror. Perhaps we shall now be less credulous when we are told that a change of British foreign policy might help to stem the jihadist tide.

There are at present a lot of conflicting demands for more and less surveillance, the sharing and publishing of information on those being watched, or not if they turn out to be perfectly innocent bystanders, the detention of disturbed individuals who might be a danger to themselves and others, but without interfering with the liberties of those who have a right to feel disturbed, depressed or delusional without being locked up. It's all very confusing, and a reminder, when we get it wrong, of the high price we pay for freedom.

A prayer I've often used, was written by Reinhold Niebuhr.

O God, who hast bound us together in this bundle of life, give us grace to understand how our lives depend upon the courage, the industry, the honesty, and the integrity of other people; that we may be mindful of their needs, grateful for their faithfulness, and faithful in our responsibilities to them.