On holiday, back in a while.
Q1. How would you define “atheism”?
The answer No to the question, Does God exist?
Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
My mother took me to the Anglican Church, and I went to Bible School for a bit. She also got me a set of books with lots of bright pictures which retold the stories of the Old and New Testament for children, now and then quoting the King James. I liked the stories about David best. The Old Testament is a much better read than the New and I’m glad to have that background of knowledge – English literature is steeped in the Bible. I was quite devout aged about eight and lost or possibly mislaid my beliefs when I was a teenager.
Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?
Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?
Studies of the earth, like earthquakes and volcanoes as shown to me in nature programmes. I was born in New Zealand which has a lot of geo-thermal activity and you can feel what a thin crust the surface of the earth is. The soil and vegetation are only the skin over a pulsing, pumping body whose workings you can’t see but can sense. One day the magma under Yellowstone Park may explode and that will be the end of us all.
Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?
Is there such a community? I have plenty of atheist friends but I wouldn’t say we formed a community. The atheist community is like the Muslim “community” – you hear about noisy ones who may be atypical and the others just get on with their lives.
Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?
Whaaaaaat? Christ! God! Oh sorry, I can’t say those words any more can I?
Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
I haven’t got a favourite theistic argument.
Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
I don’t know if this is controversial or nor but I think we do need ceremony in our lives. We have very little in our culture. I am greatly moved by Remembrance Sunday, which is a partly religious ceremony. I would like the Church of England to stay established and to do necessary ceremonies as someone has to do, just so long as the Archbishop of Canterbury would keep quiet about sharia law and everything else. Shut up and intone, I say.
Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
Hitchens is my favourite living writer especially his literary criticism but I didn’t care for God is not Great. He represented the whole history of religion as an untruth exploited by knaves to be a trap for fools. Dawkins I’ve only seen on television where he was unbearably arrogant. I liked Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which is genial in tone and takes the attitude that religion is a large human phenomenon which needs to be inquired into.
It’s not reading those guys that starts pushing me from agnosticism into atheism but idiotic pronouncements by the Archbishop of Canterbury, apologists for Islamism, people like Alain de Botton saying that it is “boring” if religion is true or not, any of those conservative writers who would like everyone to believe in religion as they think it would keep them in order and teach them morals, but who don’t believe in it themselves.
Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
A bloke I know who is an intelligent guy, a pillar of the community but whose devout group of like-minded Christians are always praying for each other. They pray that members of their group will get a flat they have put in an offer for, or wow the panel at a job interview. Nag, nag, nag. I think it is unseemly and I wish they would stop.
In tagging as in many things it’s better to receive than give and I can’t think of anyone else I know on the blog who hasn’t been tagged already. So no tags from me. But thanks to Jean and Paulie for the tag – it was interesting answering these questions. I notice that I have thought more about this subject since I've been reading blogs like Butterflies and Wheels.
I would guess that David Davis has Churchillian dreams of taking the unpopular line (in Churchill’s case, pressing for rearmament against the German threat in the 1930s) that events then make popular. I would guess that Tory politicians do have Churchillian dreams, of being the voice in the wilderness that is ultimately listened to. Davis like Churchill uses romantic rhetoric. Davis appeals to a tradition of rights, Brown, in his Labour style, that everything must be changed for the sake of the new technology.
The modern security challenge is defined by new and unprecedented threats: terrorism;
Terrorism is not “unprecedented”. Time was in the seventies and eighties you would have your bag searched when you went into any public buildings, for fear of the IRA. As usual, Labour thinks that technology will solve all their problems – like handing out laptops to kids will solve illiteracy, and getting teachers to fill in forms will make their pupils better educated.
I am glad that Davis has taken this line and got some debate going about the security of the citizen v the liberty of the citizen- but I would be pretty horrified if he did ultimately become Home Secretary.
Here are some words from E P Thompson, left-wing historian who was much concerned with the liberty of the citizen.
The freeborn Brit was full of self-congratulation, and other nations found him a hypocrite and bore. At home he used to strut about and rant of ‘birth-right’ and of ‘transmitting British liberties to posterity in their pristine purity’. In the eighteenth century, if a gentleman had cause to take issue with the Crown, and had reason to expect arrest, the style was to seat oneself in one’s study and be taken while reading Magna Carta to one’s son. No one has a son or daughter who would put up with that sort of camp now.
Yet, they did, those exhibitionists and hams, have a point of sorts. They stood in a certain position. They had a certain stance towards authority. The stance was that of vigilance; they suspected authority’s every move. They thought that the best state was weak, and that it was under weak central power that consensual order is best maintained.
“Pristine purity” makes one wrinkle one’s nose. Yet it does so happen that we are their posterity, and that they did hand something down. And might we not also have some kind of duty – I am sorry to use such a heavy word – to pass on down the line what we have inherited, in the way of rights and rules upon power? If we, with our universal literacy and high technology and great institutes of learning and comfortable homes, should seem to respect ourselves less, as citizens in the face of authority, than seventeenth-century petty gentry and yeomen, than tradesmen and artisans in the 1790s than Clerkenwell bakers or Chartist working women and men – might we note have to wrinkle the nose at ourselves?
(Writing by Candlelight, The State of the Nation; The End of an Episode? p255)
Magna Carta – Gordon Brown is a bit like King John in as much he follows a more charismatic predecessor whose chief interest was in the Middle East. King John was extremely unlucky - he left defeat in his wake.
Gordon Brown occasionally makes these statements about British values that has me smothering the radio in pillows out of sheer embarrassment, with suggestions of introducing a Britain Day. I have an idea – the Magna Carta anniversary falls conveniently in June, a very nice time to have a bank holiday. We could have a ceremony in Runnymede where the Prime Minister of the day is surrounded by three dozen or so citizens and made to tear up the latest repressive piece of legislation. There could be X factor types of contests where the citizens pick the most hated piece of arbitrary meddling.
Leonard Cohen lost his savings and is now having to tour Europe in order to earn some money.
There are over 100 official covers of his song Hallelujah and the unofficial strummers and singers hearing there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord must number in the millions. A friend said he was at an open mic one evening and he heard it covered three times.
It's a yearning, sexy song that I love. You can listen to Cohen intoning it and try my words to it:-
I’ve often heard this cover song
That they all play and get it wrong
You don’t want to play that cover do you?
It goes like this, the fourth the fifth
The minor fall, oh God you missed
The baffled singer botching Hallelujah
Your talent’s weak, we need no proof,
So can’t you musos stay aloof,
From hurting that poor song, what’s it done to you?
Play Manhattan or Suzanne
Play whatever song you can,
But don’t step in that mine field Hallelujah,
The story goes that Frankenstein
Made something that got out of line,
A monster that escaped and then it slew ya
If he was here, how Leonard Cohen
Would tear his hair and scream and groan -
A stumbling and a lurching Hallelujah
The critic’s sitting at the back,
He’s scribbling very hard and black,
I know he is a merciless reviewer,
I’ve seen his face and he will write
How that song has wrecked his night,
Another cold and broken hallelujah
Last post was about seeing an otter, and how much I like watching the natural world going about on its own concerns, treating the man-made environment as another form of forest, or wasteland, or feeding ground. Yesterday morning as I was eating breakfast I could see through the glass door two house sparrows mating - the female shaking her ass so much that her tail, uplifted for the male's convenience, was a blur. The male hopped around behind her but never quite came through, not when I was looking anyway. I hope he didn't turn down her come on -it would be such a humilation for her.
I was at Edinample Falls by Lochearnhead waiting for my mate K. to return from his jog up and down Ben Vorlich. Here is a stone bridge – new as the old one had been swept away by a flood – but in the usual shape, over slabs of rock through which a burn tumbled in cascades and settled in pools, under the birch and Scots pine.There are hundreds of places like this in the Scottish Highlands. However this was a kind of ideal version. The bridge was bright and clean, the slabs of rock where white, silver even, scoured by the water, and shaped into curves, the birches and pines large and old.
After poking about the woods I climbed down onto the rocks. They were limestone, hence the whiteness, the softness which allowed them to be sculpted by the water. Small stalactites had formed under the bridge.
I was standing on a slab above one of the little waterfalls when I saw on a shelf of rock opposite a wet brown beast, long as my arm – quite large – and how was it moving – undulating, trotting, pacing – I can’t recall – but there it was, moving along the shelf to avoid swimming down the waterfall. I pressed my hands to my open mouth, gasped, in astounded shock – thought of my camera – but there was no time as the creature moved along the shelf and dived into the pool below the waterfall. I was utterly shaken. Because it was an otter – I have never seen one before, and they are very rare. It had been moving casually along in its world that suddenly touched mine – which then had been awareness of my aching legs and consciousness of transience, how each of us is a little ripple among the billions of other souls – then appeared this creature from another world. Like Lawrence’s snake, one of the lords of life. A carnivorous wild animal who are all muscle, fur and directed purpose.
I walked on the slabs of rock further down the burn but did not see the otter again.
When K came back I showed him where I had seen the otter. He told me of a friend of his at University whose research had been on otters but he had never seen one – only their spraint.
When I got home I checked pictures to confirm that it was an otter and not a mink – I did not know that otters were so large, as I had imagined them to be a bit bigger than a ferret, but it was an otter.
I haven’t enjoyed a book so much as The Broken Estate by James Wood since I picked up Unacknowledged Legislators by Christopher Hitchens last year. It has:-
A good short account of Sir Thomas More, “this barrister of Catholic repression is widely envisioned as modernity’s diapason: the clear, strong note of individual conscience, the note of the self, sounding against the authoritarian intolerance of the Early Modern state. Thomas More died in defence of an authoritarian intolerance much more powerful than a mere king’s, however, for he died believing in God and in the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church.”
An essay on Jane Austen and her reflective heroines. There are two proof-reading howlers in this essay. When he’s visiting Mansfield Park this sentence appears:- “Lady Catherine de Burgh enters, and takes up the posture she will maintain for the rest of the book, ‘doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty. . .” Lady Bertram is meant, the epitome of idleness, not Lady Catherine de Burgh, who has bustled in from Pride and Prejudice, and who as a busy micro-manager is the diametric opposite to dozy Lady Bertram,. And back in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth is exclaiming about her sister Jane: “All liveliness and goodness” – not liveliness but loveliness, which is Jane’s chief characteristic.
There's a certain kind of library book reader who loves to write Lady Catherine de Burgh? and Lady Bertram!! in the margin or liveliness?? you mean loveliness!! with the happy indignation of the pedant. None of them had evidently read this copy of The Broken Estate as yet.
An essay on Herman Melville – perhaps one day I’ll get past page 6 of Moby-Dick.
Half-Against Flaubert – about whom I have some reservations. He's a romantic gone rancid. He's Swift snarling because Caelia shits. The opposite to George Eliot. If she had done that scene at the agricultural fair she would have rather rejoiced that a couple could find love among the cows and prizes, and that the peasants could get a pleasure day in their hardworking lives. She would have found romance there as well as beer swilling realism.
Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism – I love the Diaries – shall I try The Waves again? They're such hard work.
T S Eliot’s Christian Anti-Semitism – a fair account and perhaps I’ll re-read some Eliot.
George Steiner’s Unreal Presence – was impressed by him when I was about 20, as you are at that age about grand resounding phrases like the Death of Tragedy. Now realise he’s a pompous windbag.
Iris Murdoch’s Philosophy of Fiction – haven’t read her philosophy and her fiction is dunes of words with monsters lying about half buried in sand.
Martin Amis: The English imprisonment – fortifies my belief that Amis is all prose and no trousers.
Against Paranoia; The case of Don DeLillo – supports my giving up on page 5 of one of his books. (I was trying to get a bit more au fait with modern literature).
Excellent stuff and he’s published another book quite recently, so the library can get that for me.
There's a lot to read in The Broken Estate by James Wood
From Half-Against Flaubert (p51)
the danger of Flaubert’s heavily visual details is that they flatter the visual over the unseen, the external over the interior . . .
The failings of contemporary writers reveals certain weaknesses in Flaubert’s greatness, as an ugly baby forces our reappraisal of its attractive parents. Flaubert, for better or worse, established for us our idea of realism: a pressure of detail, a poised, deliberate chosenness. In Flaubert, the monstrous chosenness of details is revealed through reticence . . It is the idea of paint, of depiction rather than thought or commentary; the very speak of the real precise, observed detail is the food of any decent fiction. But Flaubert surely instituionalized this way of writing, canonized it into orthodoxy. Flaubert made it into a style: ‘A breeze from the window ruffled the cloth on the table, and down in the square the peasant’s women’s big bonnets, lifted up, fluttering like white butterflies’ wings.’ (Madame Bovary). . .
The legacy of Flaubert’s rigour of denials is, nowadays, too often a dumbness, an unthoughtful, undemonstrative literature preening itself on its inability (rather than its unwillingness) to feel, broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life.
But long before the war debate, politics had grown less interesting to him, and he had grown unsure of his approach to many topics. “I definitely sometimes felt difficulty putting it in a way that I thought was what The Nation reader would expect,” he said. “What it really involved was summoning a little more outrage than I really felt. Everyone knows when they’re overstating things. And I was, a little bit—to make up for a slight lack of conviction sometimes.”. . .
Hitchens had always managed to find an outlet for his thoughts on writing. As he drifted away from The Nation, the literary impulse grew more serious. “I had begun to resolve,” he wrote in the 2004 introduction to Love, Poverty and War, “after the end of the cold war and some other wars, to try to withdraw from ‘politics’ as such, and spend more time with the sort of words that hold their value. Proust, Borges, Joyce, Bellow.”
But 9/11 happened, and the invasion of Iraq and he spent his time with words debased by the ruthlessness of Rumsfeld and the muddled fantasies of Bush. With political words, which are meant to cover and obfuscate, not the words of the artist, with their precision and illumination.
Hitchens is a good literary critic. A literary critic is a traveller around the world of books, and that world is one of colour and variety and where human beings are at their best. But he chose instead to report on the monotonous ephemera of politics and repetitions of history.
Some song writing, some verse writing and too much blogging about culture, politics, cycling and gardening.