Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Strident atheists

An interesting comment popped up on my Twitter timeline in response to an article in The Guardian originally published on Monday. The Guardian piece argued, not very convincingly, that British fears about Islamists and Saudi fears of atheists are two sides of the same coin. Now this is a fairly typical Guardian Comment is Free piece and displays the lack of rigour in argument typical of the genre. However, I was interested by a comment tweeted in response to the piece by Douglas Murray in which he asked:
Can anyone name an atheist who has carried out a suicide bombing or beheaded someone in Saudi? Anyone?
The journalist David Aaronovitch, an atheist, whose writing I usually respect, wrote:
Sure atheists don't actually behead anyone, but you have to admit they can sometimes be a bit strident. 
Now this is a line that often gets trotted out by Richard Dawkins and his chums. 'Atheists are much less harmful that religious people. We might shout a bit from time to time, be a bit strident, but we don't harm anyone'. Except of course that isn't quite true. If you happen to be a Christian living in the self declared atheist state of North Korea you aren't just treated to a few harsh words, you are more than likely to end up in labour camp or worse. The intellectual western European atheist might argue that it is unfair to link his or her views with North Korea and suggest that those pesky North Koreans aren't really atheists anyway. It's the old Jedi mind trick 'These aren't the atheists you are looking for'. Fair enough but isn't this the same argument used by many religious people who argue that the worst manifestations of those claiming to be of their faith aren't really true believers. Consider, for example, the many Muslims who would denounce and reject the expression of Islam manifested by the IS in Syria and Iraq. Or consider the many Christians who would disown the nonsense regurgitated by the Westboro Baptist Church.

Some atheists are no more than a bit strident, not unlike some religious people. However, some atheists aren't averse to a spot of murder and mayhem, as anyone with even a basic grasp of political history knows, and pretending they weren't or aren't really atheists is frankly disingenuous.

Monday, 24 November 2014

No repsect

Yesterday I put up a post about a mark of respect between two international rugby union teams. Unfortunately over the weekend I also saw several incidents which left me feeling that some sports people have no respect for themselves, for their opponents or for their sport. Watching Match of the Day on Saturday night I was saddened but not surprised to witness several blatant acts of cheating.

First up was the highly lauded Everton and England youngster Ross Barkley. In the match against West Ham, Barklay took a blatant dive and was awarded a free kick much to the astonishment of just about everyone but the referee. Barklay's manager Martinez then defended the youngster by saying he wasn't a diver and 'expected contact' when he went down. If his manager isn't prepared to challenge Barklay's behaviour there is little hope he will cut this cheating out from his approach to the game.

In the same match there was a tussle between Everton's Kevin Mirallas and West Ham's James Tomkins. It ended with Mirallas pushing Tomkins in the chest only for Tomkins to hold his face and collapse as if struck in the face, usually a sending off offence. Here's that particular pathetic incident.

Just two examples of cheating to gain advantage and attempt to get an opponent punished in one match, and there were several other incidents in other Premier League games played the same day. It's hard to have respect for a game if the players can't even respect themselves.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


Occasionally I come across a picture that reminds me of what should lie at the heart of sport and this is one of them. The picture, published in several national newspapers, shows the England and Samoa rugby union players kneeling, linked together following yesterday's hard fought match. The picture speaks of mutual respect and a sense of camaraderie. It is a refreshing change as I have long feared that rugby union has been heading down the same road as football thanks to the impact of money on the game. It was also good to celebrate Ireland's victory over Australia yesterday and the result offers hope that the Boys in Green are on course to do well in the Six Nations and World Cup next year.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Front line hero

It only lasted a few moments each morning but it was one of the most powerful pieces of broadcasting I have heard in a long time. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a daily audio diary by Dr Geraldine O'Hara, working for Medecins San Frontiers in Sierra Leone, at the heart of the Ebola outbreak. The impact of the broadcasts was aided by Dr O'Hara's straightforward style of delivery as she contained her emotions while recounting some heartbreaking situations. She is just one of many clinicians who have been prepared to put themselves on the front line of the battle to confront this terrible disease. I thank God for the courage and compassion of those people like Dr O'Hara who are prepared to risk so much to bring hope and healing amidst the despair in this part of West Africa.

You can hear Dr O'Hara's audio diary here.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Every now and again the Christian corner of social media goes into meltdown over the singing of Stuart Townend's In Christ Alone. The line causing so much consternation is 'Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied'. I now have a much bigger problem with the song thanks to a family argument this evening. Over a heated debate about how wrath should be pronounced one of the family said it should be pronounced like Wrath of Khan - the best of the original Star Trek film franchise. So that's the song now ruined for me, I'll never be able to sing it again without thinking of Ricardo Montalban with a mullet haircut shouting:
He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him. I'll chase him round the Moons of Nibia and round Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition's Flames before I give him up!... Prepare to alter course.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

On earth as in the heavens

It seems a reasonable question and of course the answer is yes, there is a chance we could do something about this. The same technology that helps power Philae is readily available here on earth. Nearly every time I go into B&Q or my local garden centre there is a stack of solar powered lights in the discount section being offered at knock down prices, you can't give them away. The issue is not can we do something about the problem but will we do something about it? Are we prepared to invest the same commitment and resources that delivered Philae to 67P to addressing some of the basic needs in our world? Needs like clean water, basic sanitation, health care and renewable energy. Let's face it, it's not rocket science (or rocket surgery as one of the muppets on The Apprentice last night blurted out). 

Here's the link to Solar Aid

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Comet Watch

This afternoon a little spacecraft called Rosetta delivered probe Philae onto the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is an extraordinary scientific endeavour and given the comet is some 300 million miles from earth the precision of the operation is astonishing. Even more astonishing is the fact that all this was accomplished without the presence of Professor Brian Cox telling us how amazing it all is.

However, news has begun to filter through that the two harpoons which were to be fired into the comet on landing in order to secure Philae to its surface haven't deployed. No doubt the boffins are hard at work trying to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution. I have a couple of suggestions.

First of all check that Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz wasn't showing off to an undergraduate somewhere in the space centre. Howard has previous on this score with the Mars Exploration Rover.

Secondly, it may be that Philae detected on landing that 67P isn't really a comet but a Star Whale, hence the reluctance to fire the harpoons. In which case this is a job for Dr Who and let's face it he needs something decent to get his teeth into at the moment.

Anyway, I'm sure the geniuses at the European Space Agency will get things sorted given the brilliant job they've done so far. Now I wait for Nigel Farage to pop up on the BBC to explain how it would all have been so much better and cheaper if we'd done it without the rest of those pesky Europeans.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Watching Migration Watch

Last week a report by University College London's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration was published that suggested the United Kingdom is a net gainer from European immigration. There is a good summary of the report offered by Robert Peston. Of course there are some questions left unanswered by the report and in a later piece Peston identifies them.

What I found both predictable and infuriating is that when the report was published BBC News yet again turned to Migration Watch to comment on the report and spin their all too predictable narrative. Migration Watch's Sir (soon to be Lord thanks to the PM) Andrew Green seems to be on speed dial for BBC producers when it comes to anything to do with immigration. Green is hardly ever challenged but simply consulted as a self-appointed expert on the subject. This was true on the Today programme when they put Green up against one of the report's authors.

So I thought it was time to remind myself of the contribution made by immigrants to this country and here are three people you would be hard pushed to condemn as foreigners sponging off the state. In fact they have made significant contributions to the country which welcomed them and in which they have made their home.

Mr Alp Mehmet MVO Arrived from Cyprus 1956 aged 8. Educated at Parmiter's Grammar School in London's East end and Bristol Polytechnic. Immigration Officer (1970-79); Entry Clearance Officer Lagos (1979-83); Diplomatic Service (1983-2008), serving in Romania, Germany and Iceland (twice). Ambassador to Iceland (2004-2008).

Dr Ahmed Ibrahim Mukhtar DL FRCP Retired consultant paediatrician and former Medical Director of an NHS trust in Northamptonshire. Member of the governing council of the University of Northampton. Associate of the General Medical Council. Member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal. Born in the Sudan and educated Khartoum and Edinburgh Universities. Resident in the UK since 1972.

Mr Hazhir Teimourian A writer on Middle Eastern history and politics. He was born in 1940 in the Kurdish region of western Iran and came to the UK in 1959 for his higher education. He stayed on and has spent the last 35 years in journalism, mainly with the BBC World Service and The Times newspaper.

As I say, three people, all first generation immigrants, none from an EU country, who  have clearly made admirable contributions to the UK.

There is just one thing that puzzles me. All three are members of Migration Watch's Advisory Council and these brief biogs come from MW's website.  Mehmet was put up by Migration Watch to rebut the UCL report on the BBC News at One which is what led me to find out a little about him. I find it somewhat baffling that people who have both received from and given so much to this country are so committed to preventing others from having the same experience.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Remembering atheists

There is a rather strange article published in The Guardian by Dan Snow in which he claims that a lack of a secular presence at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday means that the occasion could be diminished for many people and that they might stop engaging with it. It is a rather disingenuous article because what Snow is really arguing for is not a secular presence but the removal of a religious presence at the ceremony. In response to his arguments I would make the following observations.

Snow tells us that he first attended the ceremony as a child:
I remember my dad taking me when I was a boy. Pressed against the temporary railings, overwhelmed by the power of the British state’s simplest yet most moving ritual.
The author was 'overwhelmed' by the ritual he observed. So as a child Snow wasn't put off by the religious aspects of the ceremony which he argues are an intrinsic part of what takes place, rather he was captivated by it.

In the next paragraph Snow comments:
The leaders of the political parties stand side by side, their bickering stilled for an hour, the Queen in jet black, alone, bows her head with a mournful gratitude and then the veterans march past, obviously enjoying the chance to meet old friends and grieve for old comrades.
Two of those political leaders laying wreaths are self described atheists. No one steps in and says 'hang on, you ain't C of E you can't lay a wreath during this ceremony, it's religious.' Their presence and participation is a secular presence. As for the figure in jet black, the Queen, well she is Head of State and also Head of the Church of England, so unless she has developed some sort of Nestorian trick, you are going to need to find a new monarch to participate in the ceremony. And when Her Majesty bows her head I would hazard a guess that this might be more than an act of 'mournful gratitude', it might just be that she is praying because, as anyone who has seen her Christmas speeches of late will know, she is a woman of faith and prayer. Following Snow's argument there is no place for the present monarch in his new improved version of Remembrance Sunday.

Snow continues:
Yet for many of us in today’s Britain, this important ceremony is diminished by the dominance of a religion that fewer and fewer people follow. An Anglican bishop presides over a portion of the ceremony. His fellow imams, priests, patriarchs and primates stand by like also-rans and there is no sign of a secular representative.
Who is to be the secular representative, apart from the elected politicians already mentioned, that Snow would like to see at the Cenotaph? Who would command his and other atheists' approval? Richard Dawkins? Ricky Gervais? Polly Toynbee? Andrew Copson, who in case you are wondering is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Society? Someone from the National Secular Society, whose membership is roughly the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society?

And who are the 'many of us' who find the ceremony diminished by the participation of a bishop. Can Snow point to any research to support this claim, or is it based on the chattering of a few of his mates in the pub? Has a poll been conducted to show how the present ceremony is diminished 'for many of us'? As I observed earlier, it does not seem as if Snow's own experience was diminished as a child. Snow acknowledges that the bishop only presides over a portion of the ceremony so is he really saying that he doesn't think that religious leaders should participate, be present or even acknowledged at all? What of the sensibilities of the many people of the different faith communities in our country, including many of the relatives of those who gave their lives, who would then be unrepresented?

I could go on but want to finish by picking up on this claim by Snow:
There is a great danger that by letting a bishop dominate and refusing to admit a secular presence at the ceremony it will be diminished or even ignored by modern Britons.
Again I ask who has refused a secular presence at the ceremony and what is the evidence to support this great danger that Snow fears? Last year I was chaplain to the Mayor of the City of Chelmsford and as part of my duties I participated in a Service of Remembrance at the war memorial outside the Civic Centre. I was staggered by how many people attended. The streets were packed with representatives from the armed services, veterans and the public. I asked one of the Mayoral party if it was like this each year and was informed that the numbers had been increasing year on year. Perhaps this was because our armed services have been on active duty in recent years or it may be because of the approaching centenary and the renewed focus of attention. One thing is certain, the ceremony hasn't been diminished or ignored. I wonder what would have happened if I and the Vice Dean of the Cathedral had suggested we don't participate because it might put some people off attending? I can visualise the headlines in the local and national press!

This year I will be preaching at our Remembrance Sunday Service at St. Mary's. As in previous years it will be very well attended by many who are not regular church goers and some may even describe themselves as atheists. Representatives from the British Legion will participate. We have been approached for the first time by the Parish Council and asked if they might participate in the service and I welcomed that request. Hardly signs of a diminishing or ignoring of the ceremony.

I confess that I have a certain ambivalence towards Remembrance Sunday. I feel uncomfortable with the way it can slip into an unquestioning glorification of war. I was deeply concerned with the Prime Minister's suggestion that the centenary of the outbreak of World War One be commemorated like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I see this Sunday, like Snow, as an occasion to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives. But unlike Snow, I also see this Sunday as a time of repentance for the sin in our lives and relationships that leads to conflict and destruction. And I see this Sunday as a time to focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, who offers forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and invites us into a new way of peace made possible through his sacrifice on the cross.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

John Lewis' Frankenstein

John Lewis has released this year's Christmas advert, far too early, and again it reminds me of a horror story. 2012's 'The Journey' advert reminded me of Jo Nesbo's 'The Snowman' about a serial killer who leaves snowmen outside the houses of women he's murdered. Read the book and you will never look at a snowman the same way again.

This year's advert features a boy with a penguin. The narrative is that the penguin longs for a partner to love. Now it just so happens that last week while travelling we listened to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. What many people forget is that the reason the monster destroys everything that Frankenstein holds dear is because his creator has refused to make a partner for him to love. I wonder what the John Lewis penguin would have done if he hadn't got his Christmas wish?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Dear Prudence

This week at morning prayer we began to read the book of Daniel. The first half of the book is a fascinating and challenging story about people in exile at the mercy of a capricious despotic ruler. This morning I was struck by a particular verse which has stayed in my mind. To set the scene, in chapter 2 King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and calls for his spiritual advisers, a rather motley crew of charlatans, to tell him what the dream means. To spice things up a bit the king insists that his 'wise men' not only interpret the dream but tell him what the dream is and if they can't then they will be torn limb from limb and their homes reduced to rubble. Of course the advisers can't meet the king's request and so the order goes out for all the wise men in Babylon to be put to death.

Unfortunately the king's decree includes Daniel and his mates. The chief executioner Arioch looks for Daniel and when he meets him this is Daniel's response:
Then Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner, who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon; he asked Arioch, the royal official, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. Dan 2:14
The words that jumped out at me were that Daniel responded 'with prudence and discretion'. Now I don't know what your response would be to being told that you are about to be torn limb from limb on the orders of a murderous tyrant but I don't think mine would be prudence and discretion. I'd have run for my life or failing that ranted and raved at the injustice of it all and probably thrown in a few accusations at God for allowing the situation to arise in the first place.

I think about some of the more irrational, unjust and, at times it seems, malicious decisions which our political leaders make, here's an example in case your wondering what I'm on about, and my gut reaction is to have a good rant about them. Thanks to social media it's quite easy to have a good rant and it's helped by the fact that our rulers don't have the power to order us to be torn limb from limb, though I suspect one or two of our MPs would quite like that option at their disposal. On reflection I find myself pondering whether prudence and discretion isn't the better response. For Daniel it opened up the way into the king's court and a place of influence for the common good.

What does it mean to respond in a prudent and discreet manner on Twitter I wonder?

Couldn't resist the sublime Siouxsie and the Banshees' version of The Beatles' Dear Prudence.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Filtering - a comment on #cnmac14

I visited Mary Arden's farm just outside Stratford-upon-Avon last week and while I was there listened to a falconer give a talk about owls accompanied by a cute Barn Owl and a rather intimidating Eagle Owl. One of the fascinating pieces of information she shared was that a Barn Owl can hear a mouse's heartbeat from 40 feet away and detect a mouse moving in the grass from 100 feet. Now gathered around the falconer and owl were about forty of us humans with hearts much bigger than a mouse's so the question was asked 'How can an owl detect the mouse with all the other noises around her in the wild?'.  The answer given was that an owl has to filter out all the extraneous sound to focus on her prey otherwise she would be driven crazy by all the other sounds she can detect.

On Saturday I was still on leave but followed a Twitter stream of comments from the Christian New Media Conference #CNMAC14 which I wasn't able to attend. I was also watching a football match while keeping an eye on Facebook and my Twitter timeline. Safari was open with several tabs including various news media outlets and sports feeds along with my blog with its attendant list of posts I follow from other bloggers. I avoided looking at my email in-box which had an 'out of office' message set up. The question I found myself reflecting on as I did all this is what stops us from going mad listening to, or seeing and reading, all this digital noise? The answer has to be filtering.

We filter out all the extraneous noise both consciously and unconsciously. I was following a hashtag Twitter stream which focused my attention on the conference, until the hashtag was hijacked for a while. I selected the digital media outlets I was interested in. My Facebook timeline is limited to a few people who I know personally in comparison to my Twitter timeline with the 873 profiles I follow. Within that timeline I can select lists of particular subjects related to my job and interests. As for the T.V., well for years I've made use of a digital recorder and watch more recorded programmes of interest than material broadcast in 'real' time. The football match I had on T.V. 'live' between Newcastle and Liverpool was boring, so I subconsciously filtered out most of what I was watching and nearly all of the vacuous nonsense being spouted by summariser Robbie Savage.

Filtering and focus are skills humans have always had to develop in order to survive and function in life, just like the Barn Owl, and that is no less true in a multi media digital age. The challenge is what we discipline ourselves to filter out and focus on. If we don't get that right then unlike the owl we'll miss out on the real meat.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Love's Labour's Lost.

Spent a wonderful evening last Tuesday with the family seeing Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost at
the RSC Stratford Upon Avon. The play is not one I was familiar with and is one of the Bard's earlier works with what appears to be a very simple plot. However, the production is a delight. The story focuses on the King of Navarre and three nobles who determine to turn their back on romance for three years to focus on scholarly endeavours. No sooner is the vow made than the Princess of France and three ladies arrive and the men fall in love with them with hilarious consequences.

The director, Christopher Luscombe, places the action in a stately home, based on nearby Charlecote House, at the outbreak of the First World War. The production is like a cross between Downton Abbey and Oh What A Lovely War with a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan added towards the end. The sets are beautifully constructed giving a sense of real substance and history. In the background of the outdoor scenes is a simple broken fence with a few poppies growing, hinting at the more sombre wider context in which the farce takes place. The acting is, as always with the RSC, superb and some of the 'minor' characters almost steal the show, not least Peter McGovern as Moth whose singing is excellent and overall the musical accompaniment is perfectly judged. 

The play finishes on a downbeat note when the Princess receives news of her father's death and tells the King and nobles that they cannot continue their romances for a year. In this production the final scene has the men dressed in uniform saying goodbye to their fiancées, household and locals and then marching off to war. It is not as dramatic as the final moments of Blackadder IV but is almost as powerful.

There is much speculation because of the way the play ends that Shakespeare wrote a sequel to Love's Labour's Lost titled Love's Labour's Won. Of course we all know from Doctor Who that the second play was destroyed when The Doctor vanquished the witches in The Shakespeare Code. Luscombe's answer is to present Much Ado About Nothing as Love's Labour's Won, set back at the stately home at Christmas after the end of the First World War. We didn't see the second play but I can imagine it working very well and Berowne and Rosaline can easily be imagined as Benedick and Beatrice.

The morning after seeing the show we had a tour of the theatre and an added bonus was briefly meeting Christopher Luscombe giving us the opportunity to say how much we had enjoyed his production.