The Creation Museum

June 8, 2013

Here are a couple of videos about a place I’d love to visit:

Joseph Anton, Islamophobia and the rise of manufactured outrage

October 21, 2012

I have recently finished reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. If you do not know the name, which he used during the years he was in hiding, came from the first names of two of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov respectively. I have a confession to make – I have never read any of read any of his fiction. I was until three years ago more of a non-fiction reader. What’s more I am not sure his style would appeal to me. However after reading this engrossing memoir, I think I will have to try some of his novels.

The book is written in the third person. It begins when Rushdie learns about the fatwa against him. One thing that surprised me was that the government didn’t provide safe houses for the author. He had to pay for them himself. If the security services felt that a house was no longer safe, he would have to leave, therefore losing his deposits. His nadir 7 came in December 1990 when he met up with his accusers to try to find a solution. He even signed a statement affirming his faith in Islam. Despite this, his accusers weren’t placated. Rushdie felt sick with self-contempt, but this low point proved to be a turning-point. He decided that there was no point in trying to appease his opponents. He would never be able to get his detractors to love him. And so he decided to fight back. He travelled around the world giving speeches. He also went back to writing both novels and opinion pieces. He wouldn’t just go away, which is what many people would have liked him to do.

Rushdie has many friends among the literati; Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Harold Pinter and Paul Auster all stood by him. However, there is no doubt that he manages to rub a lot of people up the wrong way. I am a connoisseur of literary feuds and this book is a delight in this respect. Rushdie may have been facing the Ayatollah’s death squads, but he certainly wasn’t going to forget those he felt had done him down.

Rushdie was a man of the left who detested Thatcherism. Indeed, the Iron Lady makes an appearance in The Satanic Verses, subtly disguised as Mrs Torture. This did not go down too well with the Daily Mail, which Rushdie dubs The Daily Insult. The Mail had a long-running campaign about the cost of the author’s protection. Just the other day I came across this headline in the newspaper:

Not an ounce of gratitude: Salman Rushdie is set to make millions from book on his life as a fugitive from the fatwa. Any chance he’ll repay £11m taxpayers spent protecting him? I would have thought that one of the most basic functions of a state is to protect its citizens.

But more dispiriting for Rushdie must have been the attacks from the left, the most notorious coming from John le Carré, Germaine Greer and John Berger. There was an obscene attempt to blame the victim. Rushdie was criticised for not withdrawing the book. This was said to be arrogant. That these critics would so willingly jettison free speech I find quite shocking. There is no doubt that the West has had some pretty catastrophic interventions in the Middle East since the end of WWI, but the rise of Islamism is a catastrophe, especially for those who live under it. We do live in strange times. The right has suddenly developed an interest in gender equality and social progress, while the left ally often themselves with some very reactionary ideologies.

I have already blogged about my take on free speech. The basis of free speech is that you have to defend people you can’t stand. Because free speech is not just free speech for people you respect and agree with. As Rushdie says, you have to defend the Ku Klux Klan as well as Martin Luther King. This is the necessary price we have to pay. If you allow people freedom, there will be times when they abuse it. If you’re going to defend the principle, then you have to defend people who use the principle badly. It’s when people really upset you that you discover if you believe in free speech or not.

We are also witnessing a rise of what Rushdie calls manufactured outrage. There seems to be a right not to be offended. Alongside this we have the exponential growth of phobias. This is, I guess, a product of the psychologisation of society. In today’s Observer we discover that Nick Griffin, leader of the fascist British national end a tweet with Say No to heterophobia! Applying the suffix phobia is a way of closing down debate. Disagreement and dissent become a form of disease. We should counter odious arguments, not try to pathologise them

Islamophobia, which gained currency in the 1990s, is a term which I find problematic; Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity but a set of beliefs and customs. In a free society, you should be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without being classified as suffering from a mental disorder. It is a way of framing the debate in which criticisms of any aspect of Islam are looked upon as racism. It is possible to question the values associated with the religion without attacking the racial status of Muslim people. This blanket term undermines the distinction between criticism of Islam and discrimination against Muslim people. I agree with Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, who has stated that there is “no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”

This is a never-ending story. The latest episode has been with Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic video written and produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile. The protests have led to hundreds of injuries and about 75 deaths. Fatwas have been issued against the video’s participants and a Pakistani minister has offered a bounty for the death of Nakoula. The video sounds rather tawdry, but I think that Obama was wrong to put pressure on YouTube to take it down. Curiously on September 17th of this year, in the wake of this scandal, an Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii reaffirmed the fatwa yet again, raising the bounty from $2.8 million to $3.3 million. Their chilling argument was that Nakoula’s film wouldn’t have been if only Rushdie had been killed after The Satanic Verses. Rushdie believes that the threat has gone from real to rhetorical. Let’s hope he’s right. But I suppose you can never have 100% security and he’s had his fill of living in fear.

Religion for atheists

September 30, 2012

Communism, psychoanalysis, free market capitalism, nationalism, tourism and consumerism have all been compared to religion. I am sure you will have heard some of these comparisons before. Shopping malls are the new cathedrals. Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise, sang Billy Joel. Tourists are modern-day pilgrims with the souvenirs as relics and the guidebooks devotional aids. We talk about the cult of celebrity. The cult of personality created in North Korea has a population which seems to worship the Kim family as if they were gods. In this post I want to give a brief history of the attempts to import religious practices into secular institutions.

The French Revolution is the archetypal example of the creation of a secular religion. The revolutionaries had banned Catholicism in 1792, but they knew that the people would need to be given an alternative. That is how an atheistic belief system known as The Cult of Reason was born. The Cult had places of worship, fiery sermons and a calendar of festivities, the most important of which was the Festival of Reason of November 1793. Churches across France were renamed “Temples of Reason”. The most famous rebranding was that of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason. Christian statues and paintings were removed and sold off to finance the revolution. The statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by Lady Liberty, also called the Goddess Reason. The statues of the biblical kings of Judah, which the revolutionaries mistakenly thought were French kings, were beheaded. The altar was replaced with a model mountain, on top of which stood a mini Greek temple dedicated “To Philosophy”. Beside it burnt the Torch of Truth.  After a lengthy ceremony Sophie Momoro, wife of the radical printer Antoine-François Momoro*, appeared clad in red, white and blue embodying the Goddess of Reason. The Cult proved to be short-lived, and as the revolution consumed itself, Catholicism gradually asserted itself in France once again.

The Bible has also been subject to secularising intentions. One of my favourites is the Jefferson Bible of 1804. With a pair of scissors and some glue the founding father eliminated all the supernatural aspects of the New Testament. He also got rid of what he saw as incorrect interpretations by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Last year the neo-atheist AC Grayling published his Good Book, a secular bible whose format is the same as the King James Bible. Here is the first chapter of Genesis Grayling style.

1. In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit.

   2. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world.

   3. From it he learns how the tree grows from seed to sapling, from sapling to maturity, at last ready to offer more life;

  4. And from maturity to age and sleep, whence it returns to the elements of things.

  5. The elements in turn feed new births; such is nature’s method, and its parallel with the course of humankind.

  6. It was from the fall of a fruit from such a tree that new inspiration came for inquiry into the nature of things,

  7. When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple,

  8. Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace.

  9. So all things are gathered into one thing: the universe of nature, in which there are many worlds: the orbs of light in an immensity of space and time,

10. And among them their satellites, on one of which is a part of nature that mirrors nature in itself,

11. And can ponder its beauty and significance, and seek to understand it: this is humankind.

12. All other things, in their cycles and rhythms, exist in and of themselves;

13. But in humankind there is experience also, which is what makes good and its opposite,

14. In both of which humankind seeks to grasp the meaning of things.

Today I want to talk about Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, which I read over the summer. I am a De Botton fan. I can recommend titles like The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. His latest work is summed up by a question from his website – even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits? He comes up with a number of ideas, some of them surely tongue-in-cheek, about how secular society could borrow from the world’s great religions, primarily Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism.

In education he feels that university have lost their vocation for improving people. He believes that universities should be about more than just implanting data in our brains.  He also makes the case for more repetition. An idea cannot be assimilated by hearing it just once. Religions are very good at implanting their message by the use of repetition. A more whimsical suggestion is that for their lectures university professors could engage in that kind of call and response style typical of Southern Baptist churches. De Botton thinks that museums have lost their way. The idea that a work of art should be didactic and help us be better people has been lost. He has a novel suggestion for museums; they should organise their works by concepts. There would be separate rooms celebrating love, generosity, the beauty of simplicity or the curative powers of nature. From Judaism he recommends that we institute a day of atonement and from Buddhism he likes the idea of a festival of Tsukimi. In this festival, which honours the autumn moon, you read poems about the moon, the passage of time and the frailty of life.

This sense of perspective is also behind his most commented upon proposal the one to build a 46-metre tower in the heart of the City of London. Designed jointly by the architects Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson, the London Temple, will be a huge black obelisk situated among the skyscraper temples of Mammon in the capital’s Square Mile. The monument is a celebration of the entire history of life on Earth. Each centimetre of its height represents one million years of life. At its base, one metre from the ground will be a band of gold 1mm thick representing man’s time on Earth relative to the age of our planet. Inscribed into the exterior will be an interpretation of the human genome sequence. De Botton hopes this monument will give visitors a sense of perspective and act as an antidote for modern egotism and navel-gazing.

The reaction to the book has been varied with De Botton receiving brickbats from believers and atheists alike. Of the former Terry Eagleton gave a very hostile review in The Guardian:

What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. Any book that irritates Mr. Eagleton like that must have something going for it. However the most vitriolic reaction comes from fellow atheists. Richard Dawkins believes that an atheist temple is a contradiction in terms. He suggested that the money be spent on science education.

I did enjoy this quirky book. I found it engaging, a breath of fresh air after the sterile Dawkins v Religion debates of the last few years. Dawkins is a wonderful science writer and when he is writing about the wonder of science it is beautiful. But I think the attacks on religion are counterproductive. Moreover I do think that we non-believers can learn from religions. Many of them have been around for thousands of years. They must be doing something right. However I am not ultimately convinced by De Botton’s ideas.  They are too artificial. They remind me of non-alcoholic beer, decaffeinated coffee or those vegetarian attempts to recreate meat dishes. I tend to agree with the political philosopher John Gray:

Rather than trying to invent another religion surrogate, open-minded atheists should appreciate the genuine religions that exist already. London is full of sites – churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – that are evocative of something beyond the human world. Better spend the money that is being raised for the new temple on religious buildings that are in disrepair than waste it on a monument to a defunct version of unbelief.


*Momoro was the originator of the phrase Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the motto of the French Republic.

Sum: a short story by David Eagleman

February 12, 2012

One of my favourite books of the last few years has to be David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Eagleman a neuroscientist by day has produced a fascinating collection of speculative fiction,  forty short stories which explore a wide variety of possible afterlives.  The title of the book, Sum comes from the Latin for “I am,” as in “Cogito ergo sum.” Here is the first story, which is also called Sum:


In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

The economics of religion

February 5, 2012

It may seem perverse to look for God in supply-and-demand curves, endogenous growth theory and circular-flow diagrams, but that isn’t stopping economists from bringing their own particular way of thinking to religion. I can hear your objections already – they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in our current financial meltdown. But I feel that the dismal science can offer some interesting insights. There are now economists like Larry Iaconne who have specialised in investigating the economics of religion. These economists start from a couple of assumptions. They treat religion as a market in which the religions are like firms.  The producers of religion, be they churches mosques, temples or synagogues, have to compete for by seeking followers. Their other premise is that believers are rational actors – people choose which religion they want to belong to at some level.

One of the lessons taught by economics is the beneficial effects of competition. And in the United States there has been a wonderful experiment in a laissez-faire approach to religion.  It is the ultimate religious marketplace in which faiths compete for followers. The United States is of course an anomaly. In general economic development tends to lead to less religiosity. At least that’s the theory.

Economists also like to examine the role of religion in fostering or hindering economic growth. The seminal work about religion and its role in economic growth is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which first came out in 1905. Weber was definitely on to something. The Calvinist mentality about making money was very different to official Catholic doctrine. The Franciscans in particular seemed to abhor money:

A legend from the Franciscan tradition speaks of a person who, when he entered the church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula to pray, left some money near the cross as an offering. After he had left, one of the Franciscan brothers simply picked it up and threw it on the windowsill. St. Francis found out what the brother had done. The brother seeing that he was found out, hurried to ask .pardon. He cast himself on the ground and asked to be beaten. St Francis rebuked him most severely and commanded him to lift the money with his mouth and place it with his mouth on the ass’ dung that lay outside the walls of the church.

Having said that, the causes of economic growth are complex, and should not be reduced to one factor. Many of the institutions of capitalism were created in renaissance Italy, a Catholic country. Within Europe, Protestant areas did not necessarily grow faster than other areas.Scotland, a centre of Calvinism did less well than England, which had a more moderate brand of Protestantism.

Now the debate is about Islam. According to Wikipedia in 2008, at least $500 billion in assets around the world were managed in accordance with Sharia law, with the sector growing at more than 10% per year. Islamic finance seeks to promote social justice by banning what they call exploitative practices. This results in a set of prohibitions on:

  • charging interest
  • derivatives and options,
  • investments in firms that make pornography or pork

There are some elements of Islam that do not seem conducive to economic growth. The discrimination against women has important economic costs. These were described by David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:

“To deny women is to deprive a country of labour and talent, but even worse – to undermine the drive to achievement of boys and men. One cannot rear young people in such ways that half of them think themselves superior by biology, without dulling ambition and devaluing accomplishment. …But it cannot compete with other societies that ask performance from the pool of talent.”

And there is the famous prohibition on charging interest. However it should be pointed out that there are ways round it. The Islamic economic record is mixed. There has been lots of economic populism.Iranhas been heavily statist with a large public sector. I think these policies are bad in themselves, but I wouldn’t want to put all the blame on religion.Turkey,Malaysia and Indonesia seem to have done much better.

Economists analyse the sacrifices that religions place on their adherents in terms of dress code, eating habits etc. Religious groups face a free-rider problem. They want followers who are committed to the cause. What may seem extreme to an outsider is exactly what promotes commitment. The Hare Krishna movement demands that its followers shave their heads, wear those rather garish orange robes and chant in the streets. This will weed out those who are not serious. What’s more it is easy to check compliance. The strict rules that church members have to follow actually help and strengthen the ties within the group. This conclusion is a bit depressing as it suggests that religions will tend to extremism. Doubt and uncertainty don’t seem to do well in the religious marketplace.

My final topic is sainthood. This has been the subject of an economic study by Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary of Harvard. It’s called Saints Marching In, 1590-2009. The Catholic Church has been making saints for centuries. I should make a clarification here. The church would argue that they don’t “make” saints and neither does the pope. The Church, through the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, recognizes the saints that God has made. Anyway the process typically involves two stages:  beatification and canonization. The academics have produced an extensive data set of the “beatifieds” and saints chosen since 1590. Their conclusion is that the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are outliers, creating blessed persons at a much higher rate than that of their predecessors. Barro and McCleary see it as a response to competition from Protestantism. And this competition has escalated in recent years. They claim Pope John Paul II beatified as many individuals as all of his predecessors combined.

In 1984 the process was speeded up. Under the old system you had to perform two miracles in order to be beatified. And a further two miracles had to be performed in order to qualify for sainthood. These miracles had to be posthumous. In addition you had to wait 50 years before you could nominate somebody to even be considered as venerable, the first stage in this arduous process. That’s been shortened; it’s now only one miracle for each stage and you have to wait just five years after the death of the individual before you can promote them to be venerable and then beatified. Benedict has continued the streamlining process. This may be due to a huge backlog of “beatifieds” created by his predecessor.

This has been my brief survey of the economics of religion. I realise that the economic study of religion doesn’t provide any insights into the transcendent aspects of religion, but I feel it can shed light on the behavioural aspects.

A sceptic’s look at Scientology

September 18, 2011

The Church of Scientology, which is now almost sixty years old, has always been controversial. To its critics it is an evil cult that abuses its members and is only interested in making money. It is famed for its litigiousness and for hounding anyone who dares to criticise it. This ruthlessness and an ability to evolve have allowed it to become a powerful force in the USA.  I have found it impossible to find any reliable figures for the number of practicing Scientologists in the world today, with estimates ranging from 250,000 to 15 million. These numbers may seem inconsequential, but with a fortune in real estate and a host of influential celebrity defenders, they are able to punch well above their weight. I have recently been reading Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman. While the book contains no earth-shattering revelations, I found I learned a lot about the history, doctrines and workings of The Church of Scientology.

I am going to define Scientology as a religion because I feel that words like cult and sect are emotive conjugations. Scientology’s beliefs may appear to be wacky, but wackiness is in the eye of the beholder. Reincarnation, exorcism, rising from the dead, refusal of blood transfusions, the Hindu caste system, the niqab, Tibetan sky burial and food taboos could also be considered strange. So, scientology may be weird. I don’t think that means it should be banned. I think the German attitude to Scientology should be censured. On the other hand, being a religion does not exempt you from criticism. Such criticism should not be considered persecution.

The Church’s founder, Lafayette Ron Hubbard, was a science fiction writer. He certainly had a colourful life, although he did seem to have a certain talent for self-aggrandisement. He also spent much of his life travelling including years at sea as the Commodore of his own private navy.

In 1950 Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Two years later Dianetics was transformed into a religion. Hubbard would lead the Church until his death in 1986.  His successor and the church’s current leader David Miscavige, has been able to give the church somewhat more mainstream appeal. Miscavige, who rose to power when he was just 25, has put a lot of effort into expanding the Church’s physical presence. However, he has also made scientology more rigid and his critics accuse him of creating a climate of fear within the organisation. A number of high-ranking members have left the church. Of course, this is typical in many religions – the Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox split in Christianity or the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam are two obvious examples.

I’m going to look at Scientology’s belief system. This is not easy because of the obsessive secrecy of the church. What’s more Hubbard invented a way of describing the world that is filled with concepts and jargon that are alien to me.  I hope I don’t make too many mistakes. Scientology doesn’t help its case by maintaining many of its beliefs as secrets. They have spent millions of dollars trying to stop former members publishing their secret scriptures on the internet. This seems to be like the Catholic Church having the Virgin Birth of Jesus as a secret known only to a powerful elite.

Scientologists believe that they have lived and will live forever. They apparently sign billion-year contracts in which they commit themselves to the organisation. Scientology has its own creation myth. It involves a galactic ruler named Xenu, who controlled part of the galaxy including our own planet Earth, in those days known as Teegeeack. Faced by massive overpopulation, Xenu decided on a drastic plan. With the help of psychiatrists he called in billions of people for income tax inspections where they were instead given injections of alcohol and glycol that left them paralysed. They were put into space planes that looked exactly like DC8s (except they had rocket motors instead of propellers), and they were sent to Earth. On arrival these paralysed people were dropped into volcanoes. Hydrogen bombs were then detonated and everyone was killed. But that was not the end of the story. Billions of souls, known as thetans, were being blown around by the nuclear winds. They were captured by Xenu’s forces using an electronic ribbon and sucked into vacuum zones around the world. These souls were then packed into boxes and taken to a few huge cinemas, where they were forced to spend 36 days watching special 3D movies. These films implanted what Hubbard called “various misleading data“‘ into the memories of the defenceless thetans. This included all world religions, and Hubbard specifically attributed Roman Catholicism and the image of the Crucifixion to Xenu’s malevolent plan. The thetans were also deprived of their sense of personal identity. They clustered in groups of a few thousand. Now because there were only a few living bodies left they inhabited these bodies. Xenu was eventually overthrown and he is now a prisoner in a mountain and on one of the planets. He is kept in by a force-field powered by an eternal battery.

These body thetans are still around today. Each of us has our own thetan, causing us spiritual and mental harm. Scientologists believe we have a reactive and an analytical mind. The engram (painful memory) is stored in the reactive mind. As a result of the build-up of thousands of these engrams, we experience problems throughout our lives. The purpose of Dianetics is to rid a thetan (person) of their reactive minds. The means to do this is auditing, scientology’s form of spiritual counselling. The auditor’s basic tool is the E-meter, a skin galvanometer, that they claim helps ascertain the problems of the subject. In the sessions the auditor asks questions and takes notes about the participant’s responses. The idea is to consciously re-experience painful or traumatic events from their past in order to free themselves of their negative effects. Sessions are sold in 12-and-a-half-hour blocks, which vary in cost depending on what level you’re working on.

Once you become free of the reactive mind, you have reached Clear, but you still have the secret levels, known as the Bridge to Total Freedom, where you learn the theology and creation myth of the church and understand what it’s all about. You have advanced to a higher state of being, Operating Thetan. It is defined as “knowing and willing cause over life, thought, matter, energy, space and time.”

Scientology is famous for its celebrities. Tom Cruise, John Travolta Isaac Hayes and Kirstie Alley are names that immediately spring to mind. Jerry Seinfeld also dabbled with scientology and Charles Manson took over 150 hours of Scientology courses. The celebrities are part of the strategy of both Hubbard and Miscavige to recruit this kind of high-profile opinion shapers. This has enabled them to gain some respectability. The self-help aspect of the faith seems to go down well with the stars. John Travolta asserted that stars such as Elvis Presley and James Dean wouldn’t have died so young if they had been scientologists.  In fact, one of Elvis’s girlfriends tried to persuade him o join and he went to a scientology centre on Sunset Boulevard. Elvis was not impressed:

Fuck those people! There’s no way I’ll ever get involved with that son-of-a-bitchin’ group. All they want is my money.'”  However, they did recruit both his wife and daughter.

The jewel in the Scientology crown is of course Tom Cruise. He originally kept his religious views to himself, but in recent years he has become vocal in his advocacy. This has helped the church but there have been downsides such as the famous sofa incident on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Another famous Cruise moment was his attack on psychiatry and criticism of Brooke Shields for her use of drugs for postpartum depression. Cruise was very much on message. Scientology’s hatred of psychiatry is long-standing and particularly vitriolic, reflecting the views of Hubbard. They even have a museum on Sunset Boulevard – Psychiatry: an Industry of Death. They certainly make some outlandish claims:

There is no such thing as chemical imbalances in the brain and that the very notion of mental illness is a fraud.


Between 10 and 25 percent of psychiatrists sexually assault their patients, some of them children.


Psychiatrists kill up to 10,000 people a year with their use of electroshock treatment 

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been critical of such things as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM IV documented 374 mental disorders and they see to treat life itself as human life is a form of mental illness. But the scientologists go way beyond that and deny the existence of mental illness. Their own record on mental health leaves a lot to be desired. The e-meter has never been subjected to clinical trials.

And they have their own dark history. Elli Perkins was a professional glass artist a senior auditor at the Church of Scientology in Buffalo, New York. Her son Jeremy was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2001. Following church policy, she rejected psychiatric care preferring to treat him with vitamins. The condition worsened to the point where Jeremy felt that his mother was poisoning him. After a failed suicide attempt, Jeremy eventually murdered her in 2003. Jeremy Perkins was found not responsible by reason of mental disease, but he was assessed as dangerously mentally ill and was committed to a secure facility.  In March 2006, an advertisement in LA Weekly blamed Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology for the murder of Elli Perkins. The ad stated: “Thanks, Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology, for your expert advice on mental health.”

What does the future hold for scientology? There are now third-generation Scientologists. I don’t find their beliefs very convincing. They seem to be a product of time and place. But I have no problem with people holding those beliefs.  However, there are serious questions about the way the Church behaves. They seem to have a strong authoritarian bent. This can be seen in the way Miscavige seems to intimidate the people around him. If you dare to leave the Church, you can expect severe problems. The Scientologists love to sue and harass their critics. They had a term, Fair Game, to describe policies and practices carried out by the Church of Scientology towards its enemies. Basically any tactics could be justified. Hubbard scrapped this policy because of the bad PR, but the Church still seems to be very aggressive in the gives defectors a forum in which to attack it. In the age of Wikileaks they have also been unable to protect their secrets. They face an uncertain future. In their sixty-year history they have proved adept at adapting to meet new demands. It will be fascinating how they cope in the next sixty years.

Benedict in Britain

September 25, 2010

How times have changed. In 1982 Pope John Paul II received a hero’s welcome on his visit to the UK. The previous Pope, whose doctrinal opinions were in fact very similar to Benedict XVI’s, was an international superstar. The current Pope on the other hand seems to court controversy wherever he goes. Of course the world has changed a lot since 1982; September 11th brought the role of religion under suspicion.  The Vatican has not been immune from this trend. In his five-year stint as Pontiff Benedict has managed to offend Muslims, Jews and Anglicans amongst others. His recent visit to the UK was a case in point. Things started badly in April when there was a leak of a spoof Foreign Office memo suggesting that the Pope bless a gay marriage and open an abortion clinic as part of his official program. There were threats of a citizen’s arrest.  For former agony aunt Clare Rayner Benedict was public enemy number one:

In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature

Richard Dawkins also gave a warm welcome:

“Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality, and don’t come back.” 

Even Germaine Greer got in on the act:

“Catholic art was once the domain of Titian. Now, we get Susan Boyle”

Of course the Vatican came out with its own take-no-prisoners strategy. Just before the visit Cardinal Walter Kasper called Britain a third-world country. Not to be outdone the Pope compared extreme atheism to Nazism. (This is so intellectually lazy. I hate when people try to settle an argument by bringing the Nazis into it. The idea I suppose is to try to spread guilt by association. The Nazis were in favour of smoking bans, building motorways, and keeping fit. The fact that the Nazis supported these policies does not make them either right or wrong.)

When you analyse an organisation, I think that you need to look at the good and the bad. The Catholic Church can boast many positive aspects. There is a real sense of community, which is now missing from much of society.  They do a lot of amazing charity work and the religion gives many of its believers’ lives a powerful sense of meaning. Let me give you some personal background here. I was raised a Catholic but at the age of 15 I stopped believing. I consider myself an agnostic and have never felt the slightest inclination to go back to Catholicism or become a follower of any other religion. I felt a certain hostility in those days but now I have a more balanced perspective. Dawkins seems to lack this sense of balance:

“Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.”  It is wrong to mix up these two things makes no sense to me. Child abuse is an abomination. But to be exposed to ideas is not in any way comparable. We are bombarded with a lot of opinions ideologies etc as we grow up. Many of them are illogical but ultimately we have to decide for ourselves what we believe. I was by no stretch of the imagination abused in any way growing up as a Catholic. We are not empty vessels who simply absorb propaganda. We often reject those ideas as I was able to do.

Having said that does not mean that Catholics are above criticism because they are a religion. There is a worrying tendency for people to portray themselves as victims. I have never been a fan of the word Islamophobia and I get the impression that we will soon have the term Catholicophobia. I do feel that the tone of the criticism used against Pope Benedict would not be used against an Islamic religious figure. But religions must also be subject to scrutiny. However, I would rather engage in specific criticisms than come out with blanket denunciations.  I gave my opinion about gay rights in a previous post; so now I want to look at two other divisive issues.

The child abuse scandal has been a disaster for the Holy See. Maybe some statistics we see in the media are exaggerated – this is an inevitable fact of life. But this abuse has wrecked far too many lives. These scandals were known about in the 1960s. One solution was suggested by the Rev Gerald Fitzgerald, the head of the Servants of the Holy Paraclete, an order based in New Mexico; he proposed buying an island where priests attracted to men and boys could be segregated. He even made a $5,000 down payment on a Caribbean island. Two priests were sent to check out the island of Tortola, is the largest and most populated of the British Virgin Islands. However this plan was vetoed by the Archbishop of Santa Fe. What I cannot accept is the use of the arcane canon law to deal with priests. These were criminal acts. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the man in charge of parallel system of justice for nearly 25 years.  There were cover-ups and many whistleblowers were treated shamefully. It’s a bad sign when you put the blame on homosexuals, Jewish conspiracies etc. The impression one gets is that the Vatican has been more interested in the reputation of the Church than the suffering of the victims. Now finally we are getting heartfelt apologies but the Pope will ultimately be judged by his actions.

The other area controversial area is birth control. I do find it hard to understand the church’s position here. I have never really understood why the rhythm method is good and condoms are bad. I have no problem with abstinence but with the universal human desire to copulate condoms are essential in the fight against AIDS. The policy of the Vatican is wrong but Africa is a complex continent. It is not just a question of Africans blindly obeying Rome’s diktats. (Nor indeed do European Catholics.) There are also Muslim and indigenous traditions that play an important role. Some of the Vatican critics seem to have a view of Africans as blank slates incapable of thinking for themselves. Moreover, the African countries most affected by AIDS have minority Catholic populations.

I think it is really great that we debate these fundamental questions but I feel that the new atheists’ reaction has just become too militant and too aggressive. What is wrong with live and let live?  The reaction to the visit seems a strange way to promote the idea of tolerance. I believe in free speech – I just think there are better ways of expressing disagreement. I don’t think we need this verbal violence – it is counterproductive.

I fear that with this article I will have alienated both atheists and Catholics. But it’s how I see things. I would also like to passionately defend a secular society. It is the glory of such a system that it permits everyone to practise whatever religion they want – or indeed no religion at all. We do not have a Thomas More burning Christians at the stake because they happen to have a bible in English or Catholic priests having to hide in holes because if they are discovered they will be executed.  We now have Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs Buddhists and Scientologists free to practise their respective religions.  We may be having very acrimonious debates but we are living in a golden age of religious tolerance.  That is surely a cause to rejoice.