THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Art, food and friends

My friends from London invited me along on an artistic excursion yesterday. I picked them up from their hotel (rare use being made of Speranza's +1 seat — there's no +2 when the driver is 6'7" tall) and we headed to the Fondation Maeght gallery in Saint-Paul de Vence. I like art. I have a modest collection of paintings — all modern. I think it's amusing how old some "modern" art now is and wonder how useful a category it really is these days. 

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I loved the Fondation's buildings. They nestle on a steep wooded hill and provide a wonderful exhibition space. The collection is a very mixed bag, which says more about the collectors than the artists. There were many pieces I would give house room to, if I had a roomy enough house. But one piece by the Bulgarian artist Christo dominates much of the gallery during a current exhibition. His "mastaba" made of one thousand one hundred and six brightly painted oil drums stands in a courtyard. That I rather enjoyed, if only for the photographic opportunities presented by the coloured shade it cast. But drawings and models of it — and other versions of it, actual and proposed — took up room after room inside. There are only so many oil drums presented as art that a sane chap can see without giggling. Especially if he's rash enough to read the explanations on the gallery walls.

I love the French language. My only criticism is that it's so musical it makes wicked things sound appealing (e.g. "fiscaliste, impôts, l'État"). It needs some ugly sounds to prevent French people being drawn to ugly concepts. A serious obstacle to the enjoyment of art anywhere is the self-worshipping pomposity of dealers, curators and (sad to say) some artists and when that is compounded by the ferocious up-themselvesness of French intellectuals it's just hilarious.

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After a modest but agreeable lunch at a pavement café we headed off to see what Matisse appparently thought was his greatest work, the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. I beg to differ with his assessment, but it is an attractive and spiritual place, promoting calm reflection. I confess that I am prejudiced against any place that prohibits natural light photography (as non-invasive an activity as could be conceived) so perhaps all the rules raised my hackles and prevented me enjoying it as I should. It's an excellent piece of interior design inside a mediocre piece of architecture, embellished by some wonderful stained glass, delightful drawings and imaginative vestments designed by the great man. 

I dropped my friends off so they could taxi to their next hotel in Juan les Pins. I drove home to Mougins and processed the day's photos. A couple of hours later we met again in Antibes where they introduced me to other friends of theirs; an Irish couple  at whose place in St Tropez they are going to stay on the next leg of their tour of French pleasures. 

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Religion in today's Britain

 

At the O2 Arena last week, popular comedian Micky Flanagan got a roar of approval from most of his capacity audience for the following line;

"I am not religious ... because I AM NOT FUCKING MENTAL."

He went on to make them roll in the aisles (a dangerous pastime on the steep tiers at the O2) by conducting a conversation with an imaginary vicar about 'teabagging' his imaginary gay boyfriend. This to give his audience the comedic pleasure of picturing the discomfiture of the 'homophobic' clergyman. 

I am sure his audience members are more typical of current British public opinion than the Christians among my friends. Religion in general and the faith of our fathers in particular has become little more than a synonym for 'homophobia' in metropolitan circles. If most Londoners met their creator on Hampstead Heath (as an accountant does in one of my favourite jokes) they would not fall to their knees. They would look Him up and down contemptuously and say "Some people are gay, God. Get over it."

I have stated my own views on religion here before. They have not changed much, even after the shock of the late Mrs P.'s conversion to Catholicism. I hope I am no smug, dismissive, arrogant Dawkins-style atheist. I have religious friends. I like them, respect them and am careful not to deploy my weapons-grade argumentation to undermine their faith. When I see a friend in trouble, I envy them the confidence their faith gives them to try to help in the face of implacable fate. 

Every culture in history evolved at least one religion in the course of its development. The utility of religious belief in handling the central problem of being human is obvious. Voltaire said it best. Like most people, I am not so narcissistic or self-important as to worry about my own death. My passing will make no significant ripple in the cosmos and that's fine with me. But every time I lose someone I care about, I would love the comfort of religion. When I look back on some aspects of my life, I also understand the appeal of the Catholic rite of confession. Absolution. What's not to like?

Christianity, even if little-practised now in Britain, is an inseparable part of our culture. Even British atheists are clearly a- the Christian Theos. It informs who we are. Our art and literature are so steeped in it that they make little sense without a basic understanding of The Bible. I feel guilty when a Christian would and am impelled to similar good acts. I feel bad if I am not suitably grateful for the blessings in my life; ludicrously as I have no-one to thank for conferring them. I don't think a Christian neighbour would be able to identify me as an atheist without asking.

I am not in any way against religious belief. I simply don't have it.

At the suggestion of a friend I have been attending weekly viewings of Father Robert Barron's film series, "Catholicism". I asked the organisers if it was ok for an atheist to come along and explained that I wanted to understand what my late wife had signed up to. They have been welcoming and I rather fear becoming their pet heathen. I am certainly now the most prayed-for atheist in Chiswick. They are good, serious, kind people but they are even more hopelessly at odds with the zeitgeist of modern Britain than I am. Like so many in our weirdly fragmented society, they operate in their own social bubble and seem unaware of the rising hostility they face. Their naievety is touching and worrying. I feel as protective of them as they do of me.

The recently retired Chief Rabbi wrote an interesting article suggesting that atheists are failing in an implied obligation to offer an alternative moral structure.

I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other

Most atheists I know are quick to say that the religious have no monopoly on morality. Fair enough. There are many moral atheists. I hope I am one of them. But Rabbi Sacks is right that we offer no common moral basis for society. As the rubble of the old faiths is consigned to the landfill of history, I fear that without common values our behaviours can only be kept within safe bounds by state power. If men fear no gods, they must fear other men.

That's a sobering thought because, while we can mock the violence caused by religion (the conquistadores, the crusaders, the Inquisition, 'the Troubles', Islamic terrorism etc.) the state is an institution with a worse record. Having conceded control of so much of our lives to it, are we now ready to let it define our morals too?


Another ethical dilemma. Maybe I am just confused?

'Circumcision ban makes Ger... JPost - Jewish World - Jewish News.

I am troubled by the German court decision on circumcision (and relieved that the Bundestag is apparently going to over-rule it). Yet I don't really understand why? My libertarian principles certainly don't allow parents a free hand to mutilate their children on any pretext, yet there's something unsettling about prohibiting the practice. The Jewish friend I asked about it didn't help me much. He just said the hygienic reasons for male circumcision were long gone and had sympathy with the court's view. If Jewish men want to be circumcised when they are adult and able to make their own choice, then so be it, but he wasn't sure it was right to impose it in childhood. HIs reaction doesn't seem to be very typical, judging by press reports.

What, gentle readers, is your view?


Free Asia Bibi

freeasiabibi.co.uk - What can I do?.

 

I have made a donation today to the British Pakistani Christian Association to support its campaign to free Asia Bibi, a Christian in Pakistan who is to be hanged for "blasphemy." The alleged crime is described variously as having taken the form of refusing to recant her Christian beliefs or "drinking from a well designated for Muslims only".

I am prepared to match the donation to the first British Muslim organisation which formally joins the campaign. Some of my intellectually sterner readers complain when, despite my own atheism, I sympathise with the religious. This case offers fuel to their views, but also an opportunity for believers of all faiths to prove them wrong.

Two Christian politicians have been murdered in Pakistan for opposing this barbaric blasphemy law and there are threats from Muslim clerics that people will "take the law into their own hands" if Asia Bibi is released. It is disturbing to think that there are people of Pakistani origin living in this country who nurture such hatred in their hearts, but apparently - according to Harry's Place - that is so. Sitting here in my London home I can't say that I have ever read more chilling words than these;

There is evidence that the case against Bibi is being directed, funded and organised from London.

If so, then shame on those who are doing it. I hope their fellow British muslims will persuade them to see the error of their ways. There should be no place on these islands for such barbarism. The purpose of this blog is to oppose the erosion of liberty in Britain. British citizens baying for the execution of a woman exercising her freedom of thought is - to put it mildly - part of that problem.

h/t Harry's Place


What is marriage?

Dreamstime_l_17430269I am reluctant to join in the current brouhaha about the definition of marriage. Firstly, I regard it all as statist agitprop to trap us into conflicting positions that can only be 'resolved' by the very last thing we need; more state interference. Secondly, I suspect it is a ploy to flush out 'homophobia' so as to give a now entirely redundant 'gay rights' campaign a new lease of life.

There is no good reason for the state to be involved in defining marriage legally. It should not be so much a civil right as a civil rite. It is essentially a personal relationship that can only meaningfully be defined by its participants in the context of their own beliefs and values. The state's current involvement achieves, and its proposed future involvement will achieve, precisely nothing that could not be done better by a combination of civil contract (regulating property relations between the parties) and statute law setting out the responsibilities and rights of parents.

It is particularly amusing that gay people demand redefinition of the current legal institution of marriage under a banner of 'equal rights.' Marriage under English Law is a profoundly unequal institution. If people were as diligent about entering into a marriage contract as they are about buying a house, most men would be advised against and most women would be advised for. Not because the rights of a couple during a marriage are unequal but because of the way the law works on exit.

Be that as it may, as a libertarian I am happy for people to enter into personal relationships of whatever kind they like (and using whatever terminology they like) as long as they take responsibility for their offspring (if applicable) and each other and don't expect others to support their lifestyle choices. If 100 humans want to enter into a mass marriage in whatever combination of sexes and sexual orientations they please, that's fine by me. I only expect them to be able to afford a sufficiently large house and matrimonial bed without recourse to the public purse.

Seriously, I don't care how many are involved. Bigamy would be one of the first crimes my libertarian govenment would repeal. I don't care what sex they are. I don't care what sex they have. My only legal requirement would be that they are of legal age and mental capacity to embark upon their adventure.

Let me hastily pacify shocked social conservatives and people of faith among my readers. I am happy for my religious friends to define marriage their way and for their church to teach that any other way is wicked. Provided, that is, they demand no earthly sanctions for breach of their rules. Given what they believe God has in store for sinners, earthly punishments anyway seem a bit de trop. It is the job of churches and the faithful to evangelise sinners and lead them to the right moral path. The law is (or should be) just there to stop us getting in each others' way. It should certainly not be there to tell us how or what to think.

You may protest (and with good reason) that the law needs to define marriage at present because so many laws discriminate between those married and those not. That problem is simply solved. Neither taxes nor 'benefits' nor legal rights should vary by reference to what is, ultimately, a personal choice. All humans should be equal before the law, regardless of their household arrangements.

So let me answer my own question before turning it over to you gentles to answer it better. Marriage is a personal matter which need not concern me unless it's one in which I am participating. Do what you like. Preach what you like. Accept or don't accept other peoples' definitions of marriage or lifestyle choices. Please take responsibility for your partner's (or partners') well-being and welfare, as well as for that of any children you have with anybody inside or outside your marriage. Please don't expect the rest of us to enforce your view on other - or to refrain from ridiculing yours if it strikes us as amusing.

I am finally old enough to know that the more right I feel I am about something, the more likely I am to be wrong. So please feel free to correct me in the comments.


A peaceful interlude

Last year a very kind reader of this blog (whom I have never met) arranged for mass to be said for the soul of Mrs Paine at an Abbey in Provence. She was a French teacher by profession and a lover of that country. Provence was where we most liked to holiday in later life, so it was very appropriate and I was very touched by such a generous gesture. Yesterday, Navigator and I visited the Abbey. It is a beautiful, peaceful, modern place, only founded about the time that Mrs Paine and I first met. Once again, in my atheism, I found myself envying the faithful.

 


God's words

Discussing my last post with a religious friend, I listed various things I would want to say to God were I to find myself mistaken in my atheism. Mostly they were complaints, most prominently to do with my late wife's unecessary suffering. Smiling, she asked me what I thought God might want to say to me at that imagined meeting. I laughed as these three words came to mind;

Get over yourself.

What do you think, if God exists, He might want to say to you?


Let the debate continue

Stephen Fry provides support for my thesis that atheists tend to be "a" a particular "theos." Fry is not just an atheist from the Christian God, but from the Catholic version of Him. He is, like me, a Protestant Atheist.

This speech (from a televised BBC World debate) is a powerful condemnation of Roman Catholicism, but with as many undertones of Protestantism as Atheism, and as much of what might be called modern European "Anything-but-us-ism" as of rational thought. I particularly enjoyed what I hope was the irony of a gay man using the words "This is not natural and normal, ladies and gentlemen" to condemn the way the Catholic Church selects its leaders. I do think devout Catholics should think hard about his final point, however;

"Do you know who would be the last person ever to be accepted as a Prince of the Church? The Galilean carpenter; that Jew. They would kick him out before he tried to cross the threshold. He would be so ill-at-ease in the Church. What would he think of St Peter's; what would he think of the wealth and the power and the self-justification and the wheedling apologies."

Perhaps it is the Protestant Atheist in me that feels if I am wrong and Jesus returns one day to Earth, he will not preach at St Peter's or, for that matter, at St Paul's. He would be far more likely to appear in an eccentric, simple, unadorned church in a poor community.

Yet I can't support Fry when he derives from that the notion that the Church is wrong to accumulate (or, having accumulated, wrong not to give away) wealth and power. Churches, other private institutions and wealthy individuals form an essential counterweight to the most dangerous accumulation of wealth and power in any society; the state. Without such counterweights, we are all at its mercy. The increasing confusion of "society" with "state" in our thinking is precisely because our government's power over our lives is increasing exponentially. Soon, everything outside government will be too trivial and weak to be considered.

Not only is it therefore consistent with a Church's mission to accumulate wealth and power, it is essential. The Catholic Church may have done the bad things Fry condemns, but it also protected dissenters in Soviet Poland, and played a huge part in the fall of Communism. It could have done neither, without wealth and power. The important thing, as with all wealth and power, is that it is deployed for good and not squandered (here comes my inner Puritan Atheist) on the gratification of the Church's leaders. Fancy traditional costumes apart I see no particular reason to suspect that of the Catholic hierarchy. They deploy pomp and ceremony, as do all centres of power, to increase their influence on the thoughtless masses. It would be surprising if they didn't, and even more surprising if the thoughtful were impressed - so where's the harm?

Fry damns the Church by association, talking of the cruelties of Catholic education, as if no other education providers were ever cruel. He uses emotional language, for example renaming "child abuse" as "child rape", very like an effective preacher. He presents himself as living proof that gays are not, per se, "disordered, morally evil" individuals, referring to his loving nature and speaking of his charitable works. As if all who do good are not also (in the Church's terms) sinners. As if no sinners ever thought kind thoughts or did good deeds. It's a good speech, with well-made points. I very much enjoyed it, but in fairness to my Catholic friends, I tried to examine it for the cheats and tricks to which I would have cried "aha" if Fry were my political opponent. As indeed judging by such clues as his demand for the Church to give up its wealth and return its art treasures to the countries it once "raped and violated," I very much suspect he is.

I would be fascinated to know what my readers think.


Law (0) Religion (1) (o.g.)

Will France Ban Scientology? - Page 1 - The Daily Beast.

Cruise If Scientologists commit fraud, then let those individuals be convicted and punished. If that discredits a particularly loopy religion (in a hotly-contested field) then so be it. To ban the religion itself, however, would be a mistake. Religion thrives on oppression. When I first moved to Poland, church attendance was incredibly high. Throughout the Communist era, the church was the only public voice of opposition. Poles credited Pope John Paul II (with the help of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) with the fall of Communism. By the time I left, 11 years later, attendances were falling to "normal" levels and (though Polish national identity is closely tied up with Catholicism) educated young people were becoming as anti-clerical as other modern Europeans.

Scientology itself is no more a "fraud" than Catholicism. Indeed, by comparison to the immensely wealthy Catholic Church, Scientology is a raw beginner at the delicate art of parting the credulous from their cash. If there is no God, then asking believers for money to support the infrastructure of any church and to keep the priesthood in parasitic existence on the gullible is "fraud". I mention Catholicism in particular both because this story is about France and because it is a church with a long record of strong opposition to competitors. Banning an heretical sect is quite mild by Catholicism's historical standards.

When believers in old religions mock followers of the new ones, they remind me of smokers and drinkers decrying more modern drugs. Cigarettes and booze are the same thing; they are simply hallowed by age and convention. The first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed were probably regarded with just as much derision as those of L. Ron Hubbard today. Viewed dispassionately, the tenets of the old faiths are no more plausible - and certainly no more verifiable - than Scientology's ludicrous, lucrative tales of space aliens.

Indeed, it seems to be a feature, not a bug, of religions to test "faith" (i.e. the ability to believe without proof) with crazy stories. Having crossed the desert with a caravan of camels, and experienced the hallucinations typically brought on by thirst, starvation and heat, Lawrence of Arabia observed it was no coincidence that the Middle East was where so many religions were founded. Mr Hubbard may have raised the bar on the faith test, but not much.

Ban one religion and, logically, you should ban all. Ironically, since any religion requires that all others be seen as fraud, you would have the support of most religious people if you did it one by one. There would be no point however. If neither the Inquisition nor the KGB could suppress one or all modes of religious belief, then no milder force is likely to succeed. Religious believers simply see repression as yet another test of their faith.

People are entitled to believe, and to persuade others to believe, what they wish. They are entitled to solicit donations or charge fees for religious rites, just as others are entitled to refuse with a laugh or a curse. In the end, the problem with accusing entire religions of "fraud" is that, while some followers may know (or suspect) they are living a lie, most don't. While the cynical may say that all victims of fraud are betrayed by their desire to believe something too good to be true (consider Socialists, for example) it's important that the "victims" here are willing. They could, if we are honest, easily be any of us.

France is making a mistake about Scientology. Her politicians and courts are in danger of accidentally playing the part of Pontius Pilate in converting a cult into a religion. No church that has Tom Cruise and John Travolta as respected "Elders" should be taken so seriously. It is below the dignity of the 
nation of Voltaire and Diderot to do so.

Cranmer on Brown

Cranmer: Cranmer reaches 60,000 unique visitors.

His Grace Archbishop Cranmer is celebrating a milestone in the history of his blog. Why not head on over and offer him congratulations? He is currently working on a sermon that might have been preached to the Prime Minister by his father, were he alive today. Judging by his "trailer", that should be good.

His Grace shall post again later. He is still working hard on the sermon he imagines that the Reverend John Brown might today preach to his son, the Prime Minister, whose ‘Presbyterian conscience’ appears to have been offended. One wonders what kind of conscience it is that can endure 12 years of spinning deception, Damian McBride and Derek Draper, the underselling of the nation's gold reserves, the theft of billions of pounds of pension reserves, the bringing of the nation to the brink of bankruptcy and the unrelenting erosion of our Christian liberties, but is suddenly 'offended' by the relatively trivial abuse of parliamentary allowances.
The Prime Minister's decision to 'do God' over this issue not only shames Presbyterianism, it offends against God and would appal the Reverend John Brown who fully understood what it meant to be Christian.

If Archbishop Cranmer says so, I shall not doubt it. As my readers know, I am even further from being religious than my illustrious namesake, but I always enjoy His Grace's writing. I look forward to this particular sermon as a rare treat.