Category Archives: Religion

Desert Island Discs

Exclusive to Human Eyes!

desert island discs

I can now reveal the eight records Theresa May has chosen for her appearance on Desert Island Discs. They are:

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – Clash
Go Now – Moody Blues
Sling Your Hook – Jez and Labour
Our Day Has Come (original 1688 mix) – DUPey and the Rome-antis
No Woman No Rights – Bob M’arlene and the Wailers
Unsteady As She Goes – The Saboteurs
Is There Anybody Out There? – Barnier and Juncker
Give Jez a Chance – John and Yo-go

(May was forced into a U-turn on one of her choices when the BBC Record Archive could find no trace of The Laughing Policeman.)

wheat field

Book chosen to take to a desert island: The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, “to bring back those happy memories”.

spadeLuxury item to take: a spade, to bury all her hopes and dreams, and ours, too.

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Curiouser and Uncuriouser

Just after she retired, my wife and I were at a social function. She was asked what she was now doing with her time. She replied that she was doing English Literature as a part-time student with the Open University. The questioner without hesitation responded: “Oh, I can’t think of anything worse!” This, as it turns out, is a great conversation killer! Where on earth can the conversation go from there?

Reflecting on this exchange some time later, I wondered why I felt at the time such huge contempt for her questioner. My conclusion was that the questioner and I are poles apart on one spectrum of human attitude: curiosity. I was appalled by the fact that someone would find offensive the idea of a mature woman gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.

Lifelong Learning

I started to think about the wider ramifications of all this. To start with, we all have some fundamental principles that underpin our outlook on life. Two of mine, relevant to this subject, are these. Firstly, the development of the human brain by the random march of evolution is a thing of wonder and celebration. Secondly, when it comes to the brain, I’m a firm believer in the “use it or lose it” principle.

Alice and the Mad Hatter

Just look around any primary school classroom. Just talk to, or observe, any 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9-year old child as they explore new things about the world. See the joy that comes from each new discovery, and the further quest for knowledge that it inspires.  Sadly, for too many of us, that joy, that quest for learning, withers and fades. But for many – and I like to consider myself as one such – that curiosity survives into old age. The popularity of adult education classes, of institutions such as U3A, of mature students taking degrees are all testimony to that. To quote a tired – but paradoxically energising – old cliché, “You’re never too old to learn!”

Left and Right

I’ve often pondered what underlying characteristics separate politically left-leaning from right-leaning people. It’s part of the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Perhaps it’s something to do with our faith in human nature. The right might take a view that, left to their own devices, people are selfish and can’t be trusted. The left, by contrast, may hold an unshakeable faith in the improvability of human kind. They criticize each other as being bitter, cynical and twisted or being hopelessly naïve and utopian. Such an analysis may explain a lot, but I think it gets us only so far.

argumentI think there’s another dimension, a spectrum which characterises the left-right character differences. And that’s this dimension of curiosity: the preparedness to use one’s own brain to challenge received ideas and think things through for oneself. My observations of human behaviour over nearly seven decades have noticed one thing in particular. Those on the right (politically and socially) seem much more prepared to take at face value the word of authority figures, such as politicians, doctors, priests and anyone in uniform. (Increasingly these days, these also include business leaders and the rich of all types.) The left are more prepared to challenge and seek alternative views on the subject.

This underlying difference has many manifestations. Divine revelation versus the scientific method. Theocracy versus secularism. Royalist versus republican. Tradition versus progress. Order versus creativity. Views on the environment and climate change. Rote teaching of facts versus “learning to learn”. Attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. Nostalgia for a mythical “golden age” versus optimism for the future. The welcome, or otherwise, for different cultures and the immigrants who bring them. Win-lose versus win-win. Daily Mail versus Guardian.

To sum up: “I have nothing to learn from you” versus “I welcome the opportunity to learn from you”.

Sticking Together and Schism

There’s a further point I’d like to make concerning this phenomenon. And that’s to do with political parties. It’s a well-observed fact that parties of the left love to have debates and schisms, factions and splits. It seems naturally easier for left-wing party activists to split and form a new party than split the difference. (Think Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

Sorry, I meant the People’s Front of Judea.

Parties of the right tend to keep their differences to themselves. Last year, nearly half of Tory MPs voted Remain. But with literally one or two exceptions, you never hear from them now. There’s a strong cultural pressure to stick together / avoid doing something that is “bad form” / don’t let the side down / support the regiment / rally round the flag / supply your own cliché. (The exceptions, of course, are the extremist right-wing parties like UKIP and the Front National.)

In addition to the huge disparity in funding, this phenomenon hugely disadvantages Labour and the left in UK elections, with our first-past-the-post voting system. To recall an old joke of two men chased by a lion, “I only have to run faster than you, not the lion”.

It Makes Me Cross

One last thing about all this that makes me cross. It’s when religious apologists rage against that non-existent oxymoron, the “militant atheist”. You know, the person who’s going to undermine all moral authority by brainwashing our children into becoming atheists too. All the atheists and humanists I know want nothing of the sort. We just want people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The uncurious just don’t get that bit. So I say, rediscover your inner eight year-old. Try using your brain a little harder and discover something new. Test your opinion against some facts. You might even enjoy it.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. Well, amen to that, I might say!! (Or not.) And, by the way, Alfie, what is it all about?

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A Headful of Ideas

… that are driving me insane

brain overloadIt’s now a year since I started this blog – time for a little reflection.

It started as an act of catharsis following the Tories’ shock win in the general election. But it’s kind of turned into a form of therapy. My wife* mocks the fact that there are very few followers I’ve been able to attract so far. One of my Twitter followers is a cat – and a cat I’ve already met!

In the early days, without much experience on social media, I felt I just needed to find the right topics and, with a bit of effort, I’d begin to get into a dialogue with like-minded people and, more importantly, those who disagreed with me. That way, ideas can be refined and built upon. All very enlightened. It hasn’t really happened yet.

Rightly or wrongly, I try to vary the style: some deadly serious, some attempts at humour or, at least, whimsy. This may attract certain types of folks and put others off – who knows? Sometimes, I have a headful of ideas in draft at the same time – at other times, I dry up.

As a committed non-believer, it’s an easy temptation to mock people of faith as self-deluded – I do try to avoid these thoughts. Humans are the only species on the planet aware of our own mortality. So, simply getting out of bed each day requires a measure of self-delusion too! But the fact that you’re still reading this is your evidence that I too succumb to a measure of self-delusion. In this case, about the impact this blog will have on the world.

So, as you’re still reading, send me a comment, tell me what you think so far; better still, text a friend with the link, whatever!

Still, maybe tomorrow, that next post will go viral…

*(It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor…)

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It Ain’t Necessarily So

What is the “gospel truth”? It’s an expression we use when we assert something is true with absolute certainty. But hang on a minute… This is a piece about mistranslations in the Bible.

Lost in Translation

First, a bit of background. The most familiar version of the Bible in English is the King James edition of 1611. This was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament), from Greek (New Testament) and from Greek and Latin (Apocrypha – rarely reproduced in modern printings).

Ancient Hebrew, in written form, consists only of consonants. The vowels have to be inferred from the context or prior knowledge of the subject area. Consider this: “th cw jmpd vr th mn”. It’s easily recognized as a line from a well-known nursery rhyme. But suppose you came from a culture unfamiliar with the rhyme. Perhaps you’d think the most likely reading of this would be “the cow jumped over the man”. So we have a potential problem here. The chances that all 593,000 words of the Old Testament were correctly translated seem, well, a bit slim to me.

Secondly, it’s often hard to find a word in translation to convey the exact meaning of the original text. Here’s a famous example: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). The Greek original for “word”: λογος (logos) carries a wide range of meanings. Wikipedia devotes a whole page to it. Logos can be translated as “a ground”, “a plea”, “an opinion”, “an expectation”, “word”, “speech”, “account”, “to reason” or “a premise”. In ancient Greek philosophy (from Heraclitus), it is used as meaning “a principle of order or knowledge”. The King James translators hardly do justice to John’s original. This is just one example out of thousands (around 181,000 in the New Testament).

Camels and Needles

camel and needleOne of the most striking of soundbites attributed to Jesus is the one stating that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24 et al). (A similar phrase can be found in the Quran.) I was once told this is a mistranslation and so I did some research.

Here are four main rival theories I found:

  1. Jesus actually said this (in Aramaic of course, his spoken language). Camels were the largest animals native to Palestine. There are accounts of the phrase being used in other cultures, substituting elephants for camels, as a metaphor for something impossible.
  2. The Gate Theory: a story dating from the 15th century (and possibly as early as the 9th) asserts that the “Eye of the Needle” was a small gate or night door in the walls of Jerusalem used only at night after the main gates to the city were closed. There is no evidence such a gate ever existed.
  3. “Camel” is a mistranslation of “rope”: in Aramaic, the word for “rope” and “camel” are the same (roughly transliterated as “gamla”) and the gospel writers mistranslated this into Greek.
  4. “Camel” is a misspelling for “rope”: in this version, it’s all in the Greek. “Kamelos” means camel, “kamilos” means cable.

There’s an even less plausible 5th version involving mistranslation of “knot”.

So, basically, I just don’t know which version is true, but the implications for the theology between version one and the other three are significant. I’ll leave that to the theologians to thrash out.

Add to all the above the fact that, for the first 1400 years, there was no printing press and copies had to be made by hand. Were these always made without error? I doubt that. So, all in all, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible: don’t treat them as gospel!

Oh, and Mary wasn’t a “virgin”. She was a “young woman”. (Think “maid” in English.)

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Disestablish the Church of England Now!

Last month, a report revealed that weekly attendance at Church of England churches has now fallen below one million – just 1.4% of the population. This continues a long period of remorseless decline. The red line on the graph below shows this.

Church and school attendanceSurvey after survey has shown the proportion of British who say they are “religious” in similar decline. Latest figures put this at around half of us. “No religion”, at 42%, now far exceeds the 31% calling themselves Christian. (This is even lower than the 37% who voted Tory at the last election!)

Out of Touch with Opinion

The Church of England has not exactly shown itself in touch with public opinion recently. Justine Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted himself into a corner by convening a meeting of the so-called “Anglican communion”. This is some kind of post-imperial hangover. It arises from the ashes of the former British Empire and its missionary proselytizing – with a dash of inclusiveness arising from post-imperial guilt.

Welby’s desire to keep this mixed bag of Anglicans “united” resulted in the formal punishment of the most enlightened part of the communion: the Episcopal Church in the USA. And yet the Episcopalians are closest to public opinion, even of the Church’s own members! For example, the 2015 Eurobarometer survey found 71% of Britons in favour of same-sex marriage throughout Europe, with 24% against. The subsequent “apology” by Welby for the “hurt” caused to LGBT people merely reinforced how pathetic the whole sorry episode has been.

Faith Schools

Despite the continuing decline in church attendance, the number of school children attending CofE schools has risen slowly. This means that now more schoolchildren attend CofE schools daily than people worship in their churches each week. The blue line on the graph above illustrates this point. As a secularist, I strongly object to the grip that religious authorities, the CofE in particular, still have in 21st century Britain. What makes it worse is the extent to which faith schools break the law in their admissions policies.

But what makes this truly outrageous is the Government’s response to this widespread law-breaking by faith schools. Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, has taken two actions:

  1. She has issued guidance to schools telling them to ignore the adjudicator’s findings: in effect, to carry on breaking the law. As a school governor, I find this deeply disturbing. To be encouraged by a Government Minister to breach her Department’s own rules is a serious assault on the rule of law, a key foundation of democracy.
  2. She also proposes a change in procedures preventing organisations such as the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign from raising objections to the admissions adjudicator. She refers to the BHA/FAC campaign as “vexatious”. And this is after the adjudicator found over 1000 breaches of the code following their detailed campaign!

We can only hope Morgan will not follow the same career path as her predecessor into the Ministry of Justice. Following the same logic as in point 2, it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate what a Morgan-led justice system would look like. Presumably, the police would not be allowed to investigate murders without a written complaint from the victims!

Nicky Morgan
Morgan: Looking for Divine Inspiration?

It will come as no surprise to note that Morgan is a committed Christian. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. At a parliamentary event last July, she said she’s in parliament not only for her constituents, but “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.

The admissions code breaches by faith schools include multiple cases of discrimination, including religion and gender. Guess who is currently Minister for Women and Equalities? It’s a certain Nicky Morgan MP, who incidentally voted against the same-sex marriage bill. At best, she’s misunderstood her brief. Worse, she appears to be grossly abusing her position to pursue a particular agenda.

Who says irony is dead?

Established Church

With our famously unwritten constitution, changes take place slowly and in a piecemeal way. In many ways, Britain is a socially progressive liberal democracy. But there’s one hell of a load of what I call “feudal detritus”. One is the continuing existence of the Anglican Church as the established church in England. (Note “England”: there is no established church in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.) The map below shows just how strange we are. The coloured areas show countries with an established religion. The string of officially Muslim countries (in green) across a swathe of North Africa and the Middle East will come as no surprise. More surprising is a tiny handful of officially Protestant countries in Scandinavia. But that’s just about it.

Established religion countries
Established religion countries

Oh, and by the way, there are just two countries with clerics as a formal part of the legislature: the UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For those who, like me, feel this is wrong, sign the petition for Parliament to debate the removal of the 26 bishops from the House of Lords.

Disestablish Now!

Modern, liberal, secular democracies understand the need to keep church and state separate. With less than half of Britons religious and less than a third Anglicans, the privileged position of the Church of England makes no sense at all. It’s frankly insulting to the rest of us. What was done for the political and sexual convenience of a womanizing former king – Henry VIII – has no place in modern times.

So let’s continue to clean up the relics of our feudal past. Replace Nicky Morgan with someone who will not abuse their position as Minister for education and who can fill the shoes of Equalities Minister without irony. And, above all, disestablish the Church of England  – with all that that entails!

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Symbiosis: Kings and Popes

As an atheist, I have often wondered how religions arise and how some, at least, last so long. Durations for the world’s major religions are impressive. The figures are: 4000 years for Hinduism, 3000 for Judaism, 2000 for Christianity and 1400 for Islam, to name the most significant. (Oh, and Jedi – 30 years: 0.7% of people on 2011 census returns cited this as their religion.)

There is now a large collection of books aiming to give an explanation as to why human beings seem to need some sort of spiritual or religious ideas in their lives. Jesse Bering’s The God Instinct, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great are just a few books explaining this phenomenon, from various scientific and rational points of view: evolutionary, psychological and so forth.

In this post, I want to explore one possible contributory reason why religion, in particular Christianity in the West, has lasted so long. This is all about politics and power and the mutual support religion gives to kings and popes.

Kings and Power

Historically, the existence of kings (and they were nearly always men) depended on the use, or threat, of force to retain power. Scheming, plotting, betrayal, violence – including carrying out or commissioning acts of murder – were all part of everyday court life. History books, novels, films and plays down the centuries bear testimony to this truth. With the celebrations last year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the slow journey to modern liberal western democracy has been resisted by those with power at every step, often very violently.

Medaeival crown
Medaeival Crown

Repression of the many by the few takes talent (of a sort), time, a reasonable number of close allies you can trust and, above all, money. Money is needed to bribe key individuals and groups and to pay soldiers who are prepared to fight for your cause. Many a king in history has lost power, battles, wars, influence and land through the lack of means to pay for their protection.

Popes and Politics

According to official sources, there have been 266 popes since the first, St Peter (33-67 CE). Their succession has not always been smooth: 11 were martyred, 6 deposed, 2 murdered, 3 exiled and 3 resigned (including the previous incumbent Joseph Ratzinger). There were periods in the 13th, 14th, 15th and 18th centuries when there was no pope at all. During the “Western Schism” between 1378 and 1417 there were two, and sometimes three, rival popes. At this time, incidentally, England found itself on the opposite side to France (perhaps unsurprisingly), but also to Scotland and Wales.

papal tiara
Papal tiara

For the majority of its 2000 year history, there’s been rivalry, scheming, corruption, riots, popular uprisings and conflict similar to that of the kings. For the first 300 years, as leader of a small but growing cult, the pope had no real power. But from then until around the 18th or 19th century, popes and the Catholic Church played power politics big time, to greater or lesser effect. And, of course, nobody forgets the Spanish Inquisition!

nobody expects the spanish inqisition
Nobody expects…

A Mutual Need

Now, keeping order in an unruly kingdom has always been a problem. A king doing it all by force, i.e. an army or some form of police, is a time-consuming and expensive business. How handy it would be if there was some form of self-regulating mechanism whereby the masses behaved themselves. Aha! The pope has just the thing: an afterlife and the concepts of heaven and hell. Fortunately, these human beings really like the idea of an afterlife: it solves two problems:

  1. It acts as a soothing balm for the recently bereaved;
  2. It offers an outlet for the violent affront to the human ego when trying to imagine one’s own non-existence after death.

Popes (self-evidently) assert the existence of heaven and hell as two alternative destinations for the afterlife (plus the complicating “purification processing factory” called purgatory). Your destination depends on your ability to stick to the rules, as defined by the pope. Just throw in the presence of an all-seeing and judgmental God and – hey presto! – you have your mechanism for social control!

So, kings find popes useful as a means of helping with the social control of the masses, in a cheaper and more benign way than repression by pure force.

So, what’s in it for the popes with this deal? The Roman Catholic Church is an enormously expensive organisation to run. Having the power of the king behind you to encourage the masses to attend church, bide by its rules and drop their coins onto the collection plate is a great advantage.

There are some problems with this arrangement, however. The interests of the king do not always coincide with the interests of the pope. Kings, too, like to make rules, so whose rules must the people obey? Conflicts and power struggles abound down the ages. But, by and large, each needs the other to sustain the system in the long term.

A Symbiosis

pope and king
Pope and King

The kings have the tax raising powers and the greater “firepower” in the use of force, if necessary. But the popes have the “trump card”: kings, too, must either end up in heaven or in hell, and so are subject to the popes’ rules. The interplay between these two “truths” produces a kind of symbiosis which helped preserve the church and monarchy for most of the last 2000 years.

So I find it unsurprising that I’m a republican as well as an atheist!

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Two Castles (part 1)

… but castles built on sand!

This is the first of two posts on the power of the human imagination. The second is on the economic theory I call free market fundamentalism. But this one is on:

Religion

I will look at this through two very different perspectives: architecture and philosophy.

Architecture

I am what some may think is a contradiction. I am a humanist who enjoys walking around churches and cathedrals (well, some* at least). I love a good cathedral: the sense of space, tranquillity, the sun streaming though stained glass, the lofty, vaulted ceiling. All these combine to produce a mixture of joy, wellbeing and a haven of calm secluded from the frenzied pace of 21st century living.

I have sometimes tried to imagine these great buildings at the time of their construction. Whole armies of people – architects, stonemasons, carpenters, artists and more – working to a common plan. Perhaps 4 or 5 generations of these workers spent their entire working lives on these awesome structures, the early generations never living long enough to see the finished design. The buildings themselves would tower over the modest mediaeval dwellings to a greater degree than they do in today’s cities.

Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral

A memorable occasion was a visit to the beautiful Lincoln Cathedral one Saturday afternoon when my wife and I were taking a weekend break in that delightful city. By sheer luck, we entered just as a concert of religious and secular music by a barber-shop quartet a capella was starting in the choir of the cathedral. The acoustics were fabulous and, combined with the inspiring surroundings, the effect was – dare I say? – magical.

These great buildings stand as a proud monument to the skills and imagination of people long since dead and they continue to bring awe, joy and peace of mind today.

*Two counter-examples spring to mind. The first was an overbearing gothic monstrosity in Prague, with walls dripping with artefacts in gold-leaf and marble. The overall effect, I presume, was to intimidate and bully the flock into believing in the church’s teachings. The sense of claustrophobia was oppressive. I came out of there muttering comments about “architectural fascism”. The second, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the obscene excrescence built in the middle of the elegant Great Mosque in Cordoba. I rate this as the worst act of architectural vandalism I have ever encountered. Both are exemplars of what I call “Catholic tat”. I feel truly sorry for anyone impressed by these disgusting shows of wealth and power.

Philosophy

As a non-believer, I continue to be fascinated by the philosophical (and theological) reasoning given by religious apologists for their belief in God. This led me to sign up for a weekend course at Cambridge on the question of “God and evil”. I didn’t know what “theodicy**” meant until recently: I’ve now read quite a few of them, together with their critics’ responses.

Saint Augustine
St Augustine

What has struck me about these theodicies is their sheer complexity and sophistication. The arguments get more and more nit-picking as the meaning of words and concepts are dissected to an ever-finer degree. The CVs and credentials of protagonists on both sides are often highly impressive. These sometimes towering exercises in thought are the metaphysical equivalent of the physical structures of the great churches and cathedrals discussed above.

But the whole enterprise of theodicy has left me with two thoughts. Firstly, building a whole structure of ideas on what I believe to be a false premise reminds me of a parent teaching a child not to lie. Children, having told a little “fib”, usually get found out. On cross-examination by a doubting parent, they have to elaborate a whole pile of further, less and less plausible, lies to maintain consistency in their story. One can see the relief on a child’s face when they finally confess the truth: the sheer effort of lying is much harder than telling the truth in the first place.

This leads me to my second insight. My own conviction that God doesn’t exist essentially comes down to the attraction, for me, of Occam’s Razor. Simplifying slightly, this principle can be stated as follows: given two alternative explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler is to be preferred. This is because it is more likely to be true. Given the choice of explanations for evil between the complexity of any theodicy and the alternative that God does not exist, the latter wins hands down.

**It’s basically a reasoned argument put forward in an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of an all-seeing, all-powerful, perfectly good deity.

Conclusion

What both these examples illustrate is the sheer scale and complexity of the “castles” – physical and intellectual – that can be built by the human imagination, even if their “foundations” are made of sand. (Not literally, of course, in the case of the cathedrals!) Even so, as I have shown, they can bring great benefit and happiness to humankind. But they can bring great misery and suffering, too, as I plan to demonstrate in Two Castles (part 2).

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Don’t Eat That!

For years, I’ve enjoyed a certain wry bemusement from the dietary restrictions imposed by the world’s various religions. It seems obvious to me that the vast majority of such rules were based upon common-sense recommendations for healthy eating from a pre-refrigeration age. Some rules do seem to have passed their “best-before” date: a favourite of mine that few of us obey is the rule that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns (Leviticus 11:9-22).

One such rule I learnt for the first time a day or so ago, as part of reading about the ancient Greek philosophers. It concerns the followers of Pythagoras – he of right-angled triangles fame – and the absolute no-no of eating beans.

Some background may help here. It turns out that Pythagoras was not just a mathematician and geometer but also a leader of a religious and political cult. Followers believed in reincarnation and that some or all living things – animals and plants – have souls. (There seems to be some measure of disagreement among the Pythagoreans whether all animals had souls and they were even less sure about plants, although they all seemed to agree that laurel bushes did.) Strictly interpreted, about all that was safe to eat was milk and honey: that steak or bunch of olives you’re tucking into just might contain the soul of your dearly-departed granny, so best avoided, eh? These rules were frequently broken, but they were all sure about the beans.

The Pythagoreans faded away about 2400 years ago and subsequent generations of Greeks thought the practice odd and speculated wildly on the origins of the “no beans” rule. Suggestions in circulation included:

  • the flatulence beans cause disturbs our sleep and mental tranquillity
  • beans are testicle-shaped
  • they are shaped like the Gates of Hades
  • they are shaped like the universe
  • they are used in allotting political office (Pythagoreans were no democrats)
  • buried in manure, they take on human shape
  • their stems are hollow and so connect directly to the underworld.

More modern research suggests a more prosaic reason: some people get ill after eating fava beans, which were common in southern Italy where Pythagoras and his cult lived.

What struck me about this story is how easily wild rumours and speculation can gain hold and have some currency – a problem which our modern, digitally connected world can make worse for those who inhabit only those parts of cyberspace populated by like-minded people.

More beans, anyone?

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Joining the Dots

This is a tale of Visions and Signs from God, and of the Tiger Who Came to Tea – eventually.

Jesus?

Throughout history, signs and visions from a God or gods have been reported in all sorts of places: lights and cloud formations in the sky, entrails, tea leaves (in pre-teabag days!) and other natural phenomena. They often lead to amazing acts of bravery or compassion – sometimes even to being burned at the stake.

Here’s a fairly typical example of a miraculous “vision” which made the press a few years ago:

image / likeness / jesus face on a piece of toast item sold on ebay no date available web grab no fee

Yes – it’s a representation of a classic portrait of Jesus – on a slice of toast.

Now look at this picture:

Random dots

It’s just a random set of dots. But, now watch this short video:

We can’t help but “see” moving human figures doing a variety of actions: it’s just moving dots. But our brains are very good at joining the dots. What’s going on? Why do our brains trick us in this way?

Tiger?

In evolutionary timescales, it’s but a blinking of an eye since our hunter-gatherer days.

Imagine a scene from this period. Times are hard for the tribe. Food is scarce. Two hunters are out looking for food to kill. In the middle distance, Hunter A notices a movement in the bushes. The subtle changes of light and dark patterns in the leaves and branches alert him instantly. It’s the tell-tale pattern of movement of a tiger on the prowl. He runs for cover. Hunter B notices nothing and carries on hunting.

Nothing happens. It’s just the wind in the trees.

The same story is repeated for ninety-nine days. Hunter A is hungrier and more tired than his companion, because of all the unnecessary running around. But on the hundredth day, there really is a tiger!

So the moral of this tale is:

  • Hunter A, tired and hungry though he is, goes on to pass on his genes to his children.
  • Hunter B is eaten by the Tiger Who Came to Tea on the hundredth day.

And that, dear reader, is an example of what Charles Darwin first called “natural selection”.

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First Doubts

Her name was Vicky, and I thought she was gorgeous! I was a shy 13 year old; she was the vicar’s daughter.

My sisters sang in the local church choir. We weren’t at all religious as a family – it was more of a social thing: meet up with friends, have a laugh at rehearsals, sing a few hymns, that sort of thing. There was talk in the group about going to confirmation classes. Rumour had it that Vicky was attending.

This is a sad tale of those early pangs of what we, rather drily, call sexual attraction. Those awkward, angst-driven days with strange yearning feelings, but without the social skills or experience to know what to do. Confirmation classes: that sounded tempting. Lots of opportunities to sit in the same room as Vicky – perhaps a glance, a smile, and then what?

There was one problem: this religion business. The school I went to was run on traditional lines: daily assemblies, two hymns, a bible reading. I was beginning to think that this didn’t make sense: that the belief in something or someone “out there” was not for me.

I already had the evidence to bust the two main myths that parents tell children. As an older brother, I was in on the secret that the tooth fairy was really my mum. (Incidentally, she was also the fairy who left sixpences under turned-up eggshells on the kitchen window sill, for no other reason than we’d had boiled egg for tea.) As for Father Christmas, I can still remember the Christmas Eve when, pretending to be asleep, I saw my dad come into the bedroom, torch in hand, to place the stockings and Christmas presents at the foot of the bed.

There was no such evidence proving the non-existence of God, but still I felt uneasy. If I went along with the confirmation classes, I would be doing it for an ulterior motive. Worse, I would be a hypocrite. As you can guess, I didn’t go, and Vicky never found out about my unrequited love.

Or at least, that’s the way I tell myself the story went. Truth to tell, it was probably my shyness that did it for Vicky and me.

But that’s how I can remember exactly how old I was when I first had serious doubts about God.

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