Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Oh just grow up

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If you think we should all treat each other's beliefs, rituals and religions with respect and sombre gravity, look away now. Everyone else, fill your boots.

[respec' to Jamie]

Better off without God

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The big debate last night in Westminster on the issue of whether we'd be better off without God was packed out (I didn't get in but did give out magazines to the very well heeled looking queue). Our side fielded the big guns - Hitchins, Dawkins and Grayling - God could only muster a decent B-team Scruton, Spivey and Neuberger. On the night the poll went for the motion - 1205 t0 755 - a higher percentage than in the poll before the debate. I haven't seen a transcript or film yet but when I do I'll post here

Humanist in-fighting

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It's all getting rather hot under the non-dog collar of some key humanists. It started with a discussion evolving on the Talking Philosophy blog about the Mori/ipsos poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association, which claimed that 17 million brits were humanists. The way the poll was conducted, the questions and the results were pretty roundly dismissed by, among others, Jeremy "I'm a sociologist not a philosopher" Stangroom, and the editor of The Philosophers' Magazine Julian Baggini (though Julian seemd uncomfortable with some of the strident tone). David Pollock of the BHA (disclosure: also on the board of the RA which publishes New Humanist) came in to respond, and decried the harsh tone of the 'ivory tower' criticisms. Julian in his turn has written back to me (after I posted a link on the NH website) and this is what he says (his opening point is addressed to humanists who he thinks might come in to the debate in defence of the BHA, his last point about the backstabber refers to the fact that I titled the post 'Et Tu Julian'):

Before you begin your onslaught, I should point out that the original post came from Jeremy, not me!I haven't been vicious but I am somewhat dismayed by the highly partisan response to this. Is it really the case that none of my fellow humanists can see and admit that this poll was frankly flaky and there is a real issue here of how much a movement committed to rationality can be prepared to say, "let's not worry too much about the niceties of truth - let's just get campaigning."I say all this and find I am being compared to a famous backstabber. I really thought that humanism was a movement that valued rigorous questioning from within.
Julian Baggini, editor The Philosopher's Magazine

For the record here's my view:

I like Julian and was only teasing with the Brutus reference (honest Julian!). My version of humanism has a sense of humour at it's core I have to admit.

I think it perfectly fair enough that this poll has been scrutinised so carefully, we are rationalists arfter all, but it seems a bit harsh not to acknowledge that the same criticisms could be levelled at many other polls, and as David Pollock argues these polls are, for good or ill, taken seriously by the media (more seriously than ones which may have more qualitative methodological rigour but are from unknown sources). One can be precious about dodgy poll data and over-simplified headlines but grabbing the attention of a highly distracted public (which is what the BHA and NH are about) sometimes requires it (when we ran the story in New Humanist we titled it "We're all humanists now" which, as you'll agree, is not strictly true)

Some of the things said on the TP site were just rude

Debate is healthy, and fun, so let's try not to make it personal ...

and here endeth the lesson for today.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Keep Europe Secular

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No doubt you are all planning your own parties to celebrate the 50th birthday of the EU. But let's not be complacent - there are some out there - like Angela Merkel and the Pope, who are determined to argue that Europe is, and should remain, Christian. Well Donald Sassoon, professor of comparative European history begs to differ (This is the cover story of the current issue of New Humanist, out now)

Hostile Takeover
A powerful coalition is trying to define Europe as Christian. And, warns Donald Sassoon, they must be stopped at once

Last summer the newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from a visit to the Pope, announced that a new constitutional treaty was needed for the European Union. “I think it should be connected to Christianity and God,” she added, “since Christianity has forged Europe in a decisive way.”

Central to her project is the “Berlin Declaration”, which would be drafted not by MEPs but by government representatives. This tactic has so alarmed European secularists that under the leadership of IHEU (the International Humanist and Ethical Union) a new Secular Vision for Europe has been drafted. Its centrepiece is the “Brussels Declaration”, a one-page restatement of common values, stressing equal respect for Europeans of all backgrounds, cultures and traditions.

This counter-declaration echoes the sentiments of the Treaty of Rome, whose fiftieth anniversary is celebrated this year. The Treaty was the achievement of three leaders: Konrad Adenauer (Germany), Maurice Schumann (France) and Alcide De Gasperi (Italy). Although all three were Christian Democrats, they were careful to avoid any mention of religion in any of the Treaty’s 248 articles. They recognised that it would have been a barrier to the goal of uniting an amalgam of nation-states, many of which had been built against religious resistance.

So to insert a reference to religion in a new European Constitution now would go against the original secular spirit of the Union. Moreover, giving it a specifically Christian emphasis would look like a deliberate attempt to alienate Europe’s Muslims, who now make up over 4.3 per cent of the total population.

No one would deny that Europe has a Christian basis. But that basis is one not of unity but of conflict: conflicts among religions, among groups using religion, and then between religion and nations. Eventually, nation-building triumphed. Unlike those parts of the world dominated by strict Islamic dictat, or the United States where powerful fundamentalist groups exercise a disproportionate hold on politicians, Europe can rightly claim that religion has been relegated to the sphere of private life where it belongs. The nation-state, and with it democracy and human rights, has won.

It defends religious rights, for these are human rights too, but it does not allow religion to impose its view of the world on all the citizens. Religious morality may have influenced public morality, but it has little purchase on public policy. And the right of individuals to pursue the religion of their choice is defended in Article 9 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (“freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the freedom to change religion or belief, the freedom of worship and observance”).

This victory of the state over religion came out of centuries of struggle between the two which was essentially political. In the 19th century the main obstacle to nation-building was the Roman Catholic Church: hence the anti-clericalism of liberal nationalists in Spain, France and Italy. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s illustrious predecessor, Bismarck, launched a Kulturkampf (a cultural struggle) against the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s because it was seen as an obstacle to the unity of the country. In France the 1905 anti-clerical laws drastically secularised the educational system partly in retaliation against the Church’s reactionary anti-Semitic stance during the Dreyfus Affair.

In Ireland and Poland, however, nationalism went hand in hand with allegiance to Catholicism against dominant powers (Anglican England, Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia). Similarly, the strength of Orthodoxy in Bulgaria and Romania partly reflected the desire to protect ethnic and national identity against the Ottoman Turks. Post-Westphalia Europe gave considerable powers to dominant religions, for these either were already part of the political establishment or became part of it.

So religious allegiances were often connected to other political and social questions. This is evident in the case of Italy where Pope Pius IX was not only the arch-enemy of Italian unification but also of modernity and democracy. He had asserted in the Syllabus of Errors (1864) that the Church was a true and perfect society, free to exercise its authority without the permission of the civil government, that civil law could not prevail over Church teaching, and that there should be no acceptance of “progress, liberalism and modern civilisation”.

In some instances the clash between nation-builders and religion took violent, even revolutionary forms. In France the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the revolutionary manifesto adopted on August 26, 1789, by the National Assembly, gave equal rights of citizenship to Jews and Protestants. But in Britain, where the change was more gradual, it wasn’t until 1829 that Catholics gained the right to hold political office. Jews had to wait until 1858, when Lionel Rothschild, elected several times to the House of Commons but unable to take his seat because he refused to swear allegiance “as a Christian”, was finally allowed to serve as an MP.

The democratic principle of equality was unacceptable to 19th-century religion because Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Lutheranism had a common prejudice: those who resisted inclusion in the church and submission to its teaching should be subjected to numerous indignities and forms of exclusions. Each religion, of course, accepted the principle of the equality of all before God, as long as it was the “right” God. The history of the clash between religion and secularism thus took the form of a political clash between a civic form of equality and a religious one. Since the principle of civic equality was rejected by the dominant classes, there was a real political and material basis for an alliance between dominant religion and dominant classes.

It is only relatively recently that the various Christian churches have accepted the idea of liberal democracy and human rights, realising that this guarantees them religious freedom, though everywhere they still insist on special treatment. The original Treaty of Rome and its successive amendments could accommodate fifty years of immigrations from North Africa, Turkey and the rest of Muslim Asia precisely because it did not entrench a religious clause which would, at least symbolically, disbar the new Europeans.

This is the Europe we have now. It is a Europe which makes it possible for all its citizens to be good Europeans without feeling that their religious identity is at stake. And this Europe is due to the efforts of secularists.

To base a new European Constitution on the idea that, somehow, modern liberal Europe is the outcome of Christianity is a travesty of history. It would be more accurate to propose inserting a clause stating that “the principles enshrined in this Constitution are based on the European heritage of secularism and the Enlightenment.”

The underlying reason that both the Pope and Chancellor Angela Merkel are so keen to emphasise the Christian roots of Europe is their alarm at the decline of Christian religious practice, and religious values, in Europe (see right). In Italy, for instance, the Pope has to put up with shrinking congregations in a country which 50 years ago was, at least formally, 99 per cent Catholic. Now there are 920,000 Muslims, 565,000 Orthodox and 400,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are many other indications that religion is waning. For example, the rate of birth in “Catholic” Italy is now down to 1.3 – below reproduction level, which must be a result of the widespread use of contraceptives.

Even so, the separation between Church and State is far from being accomplished in Europe, and particularly in the UK, which still has bishops in the legislature and the monarch “supreme governor” of the Anglican Church.

In Germany the Basic Law of 1949, while stating that “there is no state church”, protects Sundays and religious holidays, prescribes religious education as a regular subject in state schools and collects a church tax from all members in the Catholic and Protestant churches and in Jewish synagogues.

In France, where secularism is, more than elsewhere, a defining feature of the Republican state, the long-term accommodation with religion means that it is perfectly possible to be a practising Catholic and a good citizen since all the state-approved national holidays happen to coincide with Catholic holy days. Minority religions, such as Judaism and Islam, have greater obstacles. Some states, such as the Republic of Ireland, claim to be abiding to the principle of the separation of Church and State but the Irish Constitution invokes “the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions of both men and States must be referred”.

In Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Portugal and even in France, the government provides subsidies to religious schools.

Examining the formal arrangements between church and state, however, is not always a very good index of separation. Four countries in Western Europe with established national churches (Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway) have the most liberal abortion regime. Secular France and the Netherlands – among others – have a more restrictive legislation. In Germany, the opposition to a liberalisation of abortion by the main churches was more vociferous than in either Italy or Britain.

So today’s Europe is an even more complex amalgam of cultures and religions than was the case 50 years ago and with very different approaches to secularisation. Interestingly, the separation of Church and State is stricter in Turkey, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, even than in France. If Turkey were to enter Europe, the Union would acquire a country with a strongly secular constitution and yet one with an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

This would be an opportunity to unite Europe through its humanist roots, rather than using religion to divide it. The insertion of a Christian clause in the Constitution would be seen as another attempt by old Europe to keep Turkey out, and would only serve to alienate the Muslim population. It would also tell the young generation of Muslims, born and bred in Europe, that Europe is not for them – and that could well be exactly what Merkel and the Pope and their supporters really intend.

Sign up for the petition in support of a secular europe here

Donald Sassoon is Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary College, London. His books include 100 Years of Socialism and Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting

Tuesday, 13 March 2007


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I banged on about this book by Steve Tesich a few posts ago - it's truly brilliant.

Here's Michael Bywater's review from our current issue. Track it down it's well worth it..

Touching The Void

Steve Tesich

by Michael Bywater

It is the day after Christmas. Saul Karoo, script doctor, stands in the McNabs’, swish apartment on the seventh floor of the Dakota Building chatting merrily about the fall of the Ceaucescus.
But something has gone wrong with him. He has lost the ability to get drunk. He has no idea why.

“Something had snapped off or screwed off or come undone inside of me... I really didn’t have a clue. All I knew for sure was that getting drunk was gone from my life.”

There are those who pray for such a deliverance; not Saul Karoo. He drinks more and more, without effect. It is a social catastrophe, for Karoo is a drunk. So he pretends to be drunk, rather than “disappoint those who knew me. They expected me to be drunk. I was the contrast by which their sobriety was measured.”

Odd that a masterly exercise in that apparently most Dionysian of forms, the picaresque satirical novel, should begin with such an Apollonian curse as the inability to get drunk. Odd, but entirely appropriate, not least because Karoo is a book haunted by the ghosts of gods.

The story it tells is, superficially, straightforward enough. Saul (“Doc”) Karoo makes his substantial living salvaging other people’s films: a sub-plot cut here, a character inserted there. His marriage has failed but he and his wife meet regularly to have dinner, debate their divorce and hate each other. He is an expert in “evasion of privacy”, picking up a woman at the McNabs’ party to avoid having to spend time alone with his adopted son. His inner life is collapsing, as is his outer: a medical examination for health insurance reveals that he has shrunk downwards and expanded outwards. The tipping-point in Karoo’s trajectory comes when he is asked to doctor a film by the octogenarian master-director, Arthur Houseman, the “Old Man”.

The demonic film producer Jay Cromwell – “a film producer by profession, but he could have been a head of state or some charismatic religious figure with messianic powers... when you sat across a table from him, it was like confronting a warhead with human features. He was the only man I knew personally who was truly evil”– wants Karoo to script-doctor the Old Man’s last film, ostensibly to save Houseman’s reputation. Karoo recognises that it is in reality a perfect masterpiece. But he also recognises in the laugh of a bit-part actress the voice – heard once on the telephone – of the mother of his adopted son, and sets off to Hollywood to rewrite her into the film and into his family.

The consequences are predictably terrible, artistically and emotionally; the Old Man’s masterpiece is figuratively destroyed and lives literally so. But this bare outline does not begin to capture the righteous fury and technical virtuosity with which Tesich tells his story. The calumniating of Hollywood and all its works are unsurprising from one who was himself an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Tesich died of a heart attack, aged 53, shortly after Karoo was published); the broader significance of his denunciations, again, unsurprising in a Serbian who came to America aged fourteen and remained deeply polarized about the USA and its role in the world, accusing its government and culture of being “a virus... worse than Aids” and of “niggerising” the world outside its borders.

Karoo has been compared to Herzog and A Confederacy of Dunces, but it is a more complex text than either of those.

Not only is Karoo, in truth, a tragedy – and distinguishing tragedy from comedy by mere plot delineation is one of the hardest tricks in the critical book – it is also a meta-tragedy: a tragedy about tragedy.

Saul Karoo is himself in many ways the perfect Aristotelian tragic hero, neither “pre-eminent in virtue and justice” nor guilty of “vice and depravity” but, rather, of hubris which in turn leads him to an act of hamartia: a simple mistake, a missing of the target. All the tragic plot-points are there, too: the peripeteia, in which the tide of events which seemed to be bringing the hero home to safety is in fact sweeping him away to desolation; the anagnorisis, the moment of recognition (of the woman’s laugh; of the true sweep of the tide); the monstrously disproportionate nemesis (and if tragedy is about one thing, it is about disproportionality of consequences); and the final katharsis – not a “purging” but a rebalancing of the world.

Digging for intertextualities is always fraught with danger, but there are too many in Karoo for coincidence to be responsible, and no screenwriter could fail to be aware of the structures of tragedy, nor of the tremendous reliance Hollywood places upon Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step boiling-down of the plot of The Odyssey. Tragedy, Ulysses’s journey (and his nostalgia, his terrible yearning for home), the gods who play with us: all are present, both explicitly and implicitly, throughout Karoo.

The title itself is not simply derived from the Khoisan word for “land of thirst” but is also the collective name for the click languages of southern Africa, such as !Xhosha and !Kung. The only time a westerner would have heard them is in the 1980 film called The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which that symbol of America, a Coca-Cola bottle, brings terrible strife to a group of Kalahari bush farmers, is stigmatised as The Evil Thing, and has to be hurled from the edge of the earth. Karoo’s forename, Saul, is fraught with religious signification; his accountant lectures him on the gods.

“You think you’re too sensitive, too artistic to put up with such mundane things like health insurance... You ever hear of hubris? This is hubris, Saul. This is fucking hubris up the ass. This is you thumbing your nose at Zeus... I went to Yale. So when I say hubris, I know what I’m talking about, and when I say Zeus, I know who Zeus is.”

The echoes are everywhere, from the reworking of the Oedipus tragedy to Karoo’s abandonment by tragedy’s god, Dionysos and to the final pages where Karoo (“A man like me, incapable of playing the role of a man properly, should not try playing God with the lives of others”) is translated from his own drama to become Ulysses, tragedy’s father, adrift beyond space as his own katharsis approaches.

“There is no up or down. No things that loom on the horizon. No horizon for that matter. There is only the void and a voyager within it.

“There are no corners to turn in this void, or bends to go around that reveal a vision or a vista. Therefore it is not only next to impossible but entirely impossible to convey the manner in which Ulysses suddenly sees God the Creator... The God he sees is a working God... hurling himself from the outermost edge of existence into the nothingness beyond, plowing into that nothingness like a living plowshare and causing more time and space to be born. Over and over again, the Creator hurls, and keeps on hurling Himself, into nothingness... Ulysses sails on after him in the wake of new world being born.”

Satire? Yes; savage indictments (as they say) abound. Funny? Yes, often brilliantly so. More than that, though, Karoo is utterly sui generis. You will indeed laugh out loud. But later, perhaps as you sleep, it will reassemble itself into something darker, something more disturbing; something ancient.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Creationists and dinosaurs

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Why are creationists – those folks who argue that the world is about 6-10,000 years old, as it says in't Bible – so obsessed with dinosaurs? If It was me I'd just try and ignore them, since their skeltons are some of the most obvious evidence that the world is a tinsy winsy bit older than that. But it's like they are unwilling to give up the crowd-pulling lure of the T-Rex so instead creationists like Ken Ham and Kent Horvind constuct special dino theme parks and museum exhibits trying to 'explain' why dino fossils are actually only-thousand-year-old petrified wood, or that vegetarian T-Rex's were actually on Noah's Ark. Its all so wonderfully stupid and maybe it doesn't matter that much, except... except think of all those American kids being led around these exhibits. What are they learning?

Anyway here's some food for thought:

A short film about the creationist dinosaur theme park in Florida
A link to Ken Ham's creation museum blog - so you can see we are not making it up- read about all the exhibits they are planning.

For some, like veteran journalist Chris Hedges, this denial of basic science amounts to a kind of facism, and is linked to the political aspirations of the American Christian right. Perhaps he overstates the case? You decide. Here's his powerful piece from the current issue of New Humanist – out now (subscribe to the online version here)

Dancing With Dinosaurs
Chris Hedges

“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency, more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself”
Hannah Arendt,
The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the middle of the lobby of the 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, tumbles a 20-foot waterfall. Two life-size figures of children with long black hair and in buckskin clothes play in the stream a few feet from two towering Tyrannosaurus Rex models that can move and roar.

The museum, which cost $25 million to build and has a sea of black asphalt parking lots for school buses, has a scale model of Noah’s Ark, which shows how Noah solved the problem of fitting dinosaurs into the three levels of the vessel – he only loaded baby dinosaurs. And on the wooden model, little baby dinosaurs cavort with horses, giraffes, hippopotami, penguins and bears. There is an elaborate display of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve, naked but strategically positioned not to display their nudity, swim in a river as giant dinosaurs and lizards roam the banks.

Before Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, museum visitors are told, all of the dinosaurs were peaceable plant eaters. The evidence is found in Genesis 1:30, where God gives “green herb” to every creature to eat. Adam and Eve, as well as all animals before the fall, were plant eaters. There were no predators. T-Rex has such big teeth, it is explained, so he could open coconuts. Only after Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of paradise did the dinosaurs start to eat flesh. And Adam’s sin is a key component of the belief system, for in the eyes of many Creationists, in order for Jesus’ death to be meaningful it had to atone for Adam’s first sin.

The museum has a theatre equipped with seats that shake and gadgets that spray mists at the audience as the story of God’s six-day creation of the word unfolds on the screen and the sound system rocks the auditorium. There are thirty-foot-high walls that represent the cliffs of the Grand Canyon, floors that resemble rocks embedded with fossils, and rooms where a “Christian” palaeontologist counters the claims of an “evolutionist” palaeontologist. It has the appearance of a real science museum, complete with a planetarium, a gift shop and plaques on the wall with quotes from Creationist “scientists” who have the title “Doctor” conspicuously before their names. It has charts, timelines and graphs with facts and figures.

It is meant to be interactive, to create, like Universal Studios, a contrived reality with an array of costly animatronic men and women, as well as looming dinosaurs. But however amusing the displays may be to those who believe in truth, facts, science and rigorous intellectual inquiry, the museum is part of a serious assault by the Christian Right on a reality-based world, an assault that sees 54 per cent of Americans now saying they do not believe in evolution.

The wealthiest and most powerful imperium on the planet is being turned over to moral and intellectual pygmies, who peddle to the American public a world of miracles and magic, a world where God has a divine plan for them, where Jesus intervenes on a daily basis in their lives and where angels are real beings who swoop down out of the sky to protect and save believers.

The 80 to 100 million American evangelicals argue through the propagation of Creationism that everyone has a right to an opinion, or, in short, a right to believe anything. But gradually this is giving way to the iron control of an empowered and intolerant totalitarian movement. There is a bill, for example, in the Texas legislature to strip all mention of evolution in Texas school textbooks and institute mandatory Bible classes for all students. Facts, in public schools in states like Kansas and Texas, are becoming worthless. They are discarded according to an ideological litmus test. Lies are becoming true.

Creationism is not about offering an alternative. Its goal is the destruction of the core values of the open society – the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to advocate change and to accept that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable.

This pseudoscience is part of a larger assault on all scientific studies that challenge this world view. There are now Christian scientists who challenge research in the areas of global warming, AIDS and pregnancy prevention. Christian Right organizations, such as the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), whose founder once called for AIDS leper colonies, are lobbying to end all programs by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that deal with research into HIV infection. The Christian Right, positioned inside government agencies, has worked to discredit, or silence, research by public health officials and censored data that conflict with its vision, especially in areas of birth control, where they have made war against all forms of contraception and sought to promote abstinence as the sole method of preventing pregnancy. And the Bush administration has handed these groups hundreds of millions of tax-payer’s dollars.
But why is the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet embracing this fantastic belief system? Why is the United States the only industrialised nation in the world debating the validity of evolution? What does it mean that America could soon be defined as “a Christian nation”?

The answer lies not in the Bible but the disastrous effects of globalisation. The assault on the American working class, with less than 10 per cent of all jobs now in the manufacturing sector, has plunged the American working class into deep personal and economic despair, into a world where they must live on salaries that are half or two-thirds lower than what they received in the manufacturing sector. They no longer receive basic benefits, such as health care or pension plans, and the federal government has ruthlessly cut assistance programs – the latest being one that brought a bag of groceries each week to poor, home-bound elderly.

There are tens of millions of Americans who have lost hope. They believe they and their children no longer have a future. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to these people. And as whole sections of the United States, especially in former manufacturing centres, begin to look like the developing world, as this despair brings with it broken homes, domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addition, the world of miracles and magic begins to look very attractive. These American have found in this fantastic belief system a comforting reassurance to their despair.

They have found a community to replace the one they lost, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the promise that, despite what they see around them, they are protected, loved and worthwhile.

They cling to this fantastic belief system because it is all they have left. They fear being plunged back into the reality-based world where these magical props no longer exist, where they will once again be adrift, abandoned and alone. Creationism becomes not an alternative but part of the vital props that allow believers to remain encased in this mythical world.

This movement is a radical departure from traditional evangelicalism. It seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls, for the first time, on the radical church to take political power. This movement, properly called Dominionism or Christian Reconstructionism, has politicised the faith. It teaches that American Christians have been mandated by God to make America a Christian state. While traditional evangelicalism and fundamentalism shares many of the darker traits of the new movement, including a blind obedience to a male hierarchy that often claims to speak for God, intolerance towards non-believers and a disdain for rational, intellectual inquiry, it never attempted in the past to impose its belief system on the rest of the nation or transform government, as well as all other secular institutions, into an extension of the church.

This is a huge and disastrous mutation. It has helped morph these radical evangelicals and their wealthy right-wing sponsors, who see in this ideology a wonderful vehicle to foist the corporate state on the American public – who needs health insurance if Jesus performs miracles? – into a mass movement. This movement shares many traits with classical fascist movements.
There are some 70 million Evangelicals in the United States – about 25 percent of the population – attending more than 200,000 evangelical churches. Most of those churches are led by pastors who embrace an apocalyptic vision. They preach out of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Book of Revelation. They preach that at the end of history Christians will dominate the earth and all non-believers, including those who are not sufficiently Christian, will be cast into torment and outer darkness.

Apocalyptic visions have throughout history inspired genocidal killers, those who glorify violence as the mechanism that will lead to the end of history. These visions allow believers to feel that nothing in the world is worth saving. They look forward to and rejoice in cataclysmic destruction. They welcome the frightening advance of global warming, the spiralling wars and violence in the Middle East and the poverty and neglect that have blighted American urban and rural landscapes. They see these ills as encouraging signs that the end of the world is close at hand. Believers, of course, clinging to this magical belief, which is a bizarre form of spiritual Darwinism, will be raptured upwards while the rest of us will be tormented with horrors by a warrior Christ and finally extinguished.

This obsession with apocalyptic violence is an obsession with revenge. It is what the world, and we who still believe it is worth saving, deserve. Those who lead the movement also give their followers a moral license to direct this rage and yearning for violence against all those who refuse to submit to the movement, from liberals to “secular humanists” to “nominal Christians” to intellectuals to gays and lesbians to Muslims.

All radical movements need a crisis or a prolonged period of instability to achieve power. And we are not in a period of crisis now. But another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, a series of huge environmental disasters or an economic meltdown will hand to these radicals the opening they seek.

Manipulating our fear and anxiety, promising to make us safe and secure, giving us the assurance that they can vanquish the forces that mean to do us harm, these radicals, many of whom have achieved powerful positions in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as the military, will ask us only to surrender our rights, to pass them the unlimited power they need to battle the forces of darkness.

They will have behind them tens of millions of angry, disenfranchised Americans longing for revenge and yearning for a mythical utopia, Americans who embraced a theology of despair because we, as a nation, offered them nothing else. n

Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and former Pulitzer-Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Guardian Discussion

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I posted a version of the piece below - the response to Stuart Jeffries Faith and unbelief article in the Guardian - on that paper's Comment is Free blog. Its here. It has got more than 100 responses which is a bit suprising... it was a pretty straightforward argument. Just shows how much of an appetite there is for this stuff around. If you have a spare moment go and have a look. The responses say that it was poorly researched, badly argued and wrong are thankfully (just) outnumbered by those who liked it. Just.

Blogging the UN

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My friend Solana is blogging from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She reports, depressingly that...

"It used to be a big media event, but this year only 10 journalists have registered for credentials.

I've been hearing nothing but horror stories all week about forced sex, forced marriages, AIDS, circumcision, discrimination, violence - the sad thing is that the UN hasn't really committed enough resources to doing anything about it. Neither have governments.

Imagine my surprise to see tons of anti-abortion material lying around the event too. Christian right-wing women's organizations are using the meeting as a platform to campaign against family planning and the rights of women to have a safe, legal abortion."