Catholic Church 0 Bromage 1 (Catholic og)

POPE FRANCIS, Mother Teresa, Bloody Mary, Cardinal George Pell, the Borgias, Joseph Ratzinger, the Spanish Inquisition, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Virgin Mary, the scary monk played by Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code, the Singing Nun, erm, God, Father Dougal… can you hear me? Father Dougal, your boys took one hell of a beating!

It’s an upset to end all upsets to be sure, but apparently in my last column I successfully managed to bully the Catholic Church – the largest denomination of the largest religion on the planet. Go little ol’ me!

According to David Morson’s letter to the Observer on February 11, my outpourings were “a chilling reminder of the worst form of inflammatory and bullying rants designed to galvanise opposition to minority groups by some 20th Century authoritarian regimes”.

And there I was, thinking I was merely arguing that religious institutions should not indoctrinate children in state-funded schools. In reality, I was coming over all Adolf Hitler. Remember him? The guy whose Roman Catholic upbringing forged his belief that the Jews should be punished for their Christ-killing ways?

What form did this alleged bullying take? Did I give the Pope a wedgie and steal his lunch money? Did I threaten Catholics with eternal torture in the fiery pits of Hell? That would have been out of order.

No, a little light mockery and calling out religious leaders for targeting the ductile minds of children was enough to get me chucked in with the likes of Pol Pot, Josef Stalin and the Kim dynasty.

It takes mere milliseconds these days for certain religious quarters to whip out the victim card in the face of criticism.

Firstly, I’m not apologising for having a dig at religious “fairy tales”. For example, the Catholic tenet of transubstantiation – the belief that wafers and wine literally transform into Christ’s flesh and blood inside your body – is clearly nonsense, should be rightfully mocked and has no place being taught to children as fact even outside of taxpayer-funded schools. If you don’t want your beliefs ridiculed, don’t hold ridiculous beliefs.

That Mr Morson went on to insist that the Catholic ethos is not only compatible with but also beneficial to science is laughable.

Tell that to Giordano Bruno. No, wait, you can’t, he was burnt at the stake by the Catholics for questioning transubstantiation and believing the Earth went round the Sun.

In the case of the Catholic Church, whose record on child welfare has in recent years been shown up to be (understatement alert) a bit iffy, the myth of a war on religion is a diversionary tactic, an example of DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender).

Indeed, there was something peculiarly apt, if rather sobering, about the fact that Mr Morson’s letter was published on the same day the Vatican (possibly still punch-drunk from my withering, bullying attack)  issued guidance to its priests that the clergy were not obliged to report child abuse.

Now THAT’S a chilling reminder – that powerful institutions must be held to account and that people shouting “persecution” where no persecution exists should not make us feel cowed into giving these organisations a free pass.

After all, many religious people have reconciled themselves with the idea that the vast majority of humans will end up suffering for eternity.

To quote the fantastically forthright critic of religion Helen Pluckrose: “If your religion states an intention to do me horrific harm, how dare you claim you are the one being victimised by my verbally expressed disapprobation?

“If I were supporting a regime that intended to round you up and subject you to horrendous brutality for not sharing my worldview, I am sure you would have something to say about this.”

I don’t write my religious-bashing columns for the likes of Mr Morson, in any case. I write them for those who may be wavering in their faith, confused about why the stories they were taught in their childhood don’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. I’ve been there.

I’m not arrogant enough to think I could deconvert anyone, but I hope I can offer some comfort to anyone worried about the consequences of losing their faith. It’s fine. Genuinely. In fact, it’s more than fine. After the initial, short-lived, feeling of embarrassment that you were taken in for so long, it’s great, freeing, and opens up a world of awe and opportunity.

The angry letters in response to my columns, however, replete with logical fallacies, occasional vitriol and repeated irrationality, do more to show up religion as an ill-thought-out human construct  than my writing could ever do.

I’ve spoken to a surprising number of readers about the confused word salads that my columns provoke and one phrase crops up over and over: “That letter was a bit of an own goal, wasn’t it?”

So, please, do keep responding. Here’s another through ball – feel free to boot it into the back of your own net.

Let’s ignore Bremain ‘experts’ and their shameful fact-based scare tactics

(This column was published in the Herts & Essex Observer on May 19, 2016)

PROJECT FEAR! Are you, like me, infuriated by the Bremain campaign’s strategy of trying to scare us into staying in the European Union?

Hardly a day goes by without us hearing dire warnings from the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, head of the IMF Christine Lagarde, US president Barack Obama and the heads of state of our other allies, former chiefs of Nato, the London School of Economics, MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis, the RSPB, the National Trust and other leading environmental groups, Professor Stephen Hawking and other eminent scientists, top health professionals and researchers, travel firms and airlines… well, the list is endless.

These so-called ‘experts’ indulge in hyperbolic exhortations about how Brexit would have a detrimental, if not downright ruinous, effect on the UK in terms of the economy, the environment, our health, our standing in the world and our security, not to mention peace across the continent in general.

I am appalled at the fearmongering by people whose only right to talk about the subject on which they are pontificating seems to be years of research and study and a so-called ‘expertise’ in these matters.

Well, I’ve never been one to scare easily. I’m more willing to listen to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and Nigel Farage, who dismiss these doomy portents with a haughty exhalation and a dismissive flick of the wrist.

I’ll admit, I’d be more assured if they offered facts to support their rejection of the claims of these so-called ‘experts’ but, as one fellow Brexiteer opined wisely in conversation the other night: “You don’t need facts. It’s just common sense.”

Indeed, did we need facts when Britain owned half the planet? Rarely. The only fact one needed was that the British Empire was bally marvellous. Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! We could have that again, you know, if we weren’t shackled to the anchor that is the EU.

How dare Cameron claim that a Leave vote on June 23 would plunge us immediately into World War III and a catastrophic nuclear holocaust from which the planet would never recover? Or words to that effect. I didn’t hear the speech first hand, merely read the analysis by Leave.EU – and it’s not like them to erect straw-man arguments just so they can tear them down.

Of course, Brexit could precipitate the break-up of the EU, as others decide to follow the UK’s lead. The worst that could happen then is that a bloc of countries – many with increasingly Far Right-leaning governments, with nationalist agendas rather than a co-operative, Europe-wide one – is left in its wake. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing? That type of scenario hasn’t caused an issue in Europe for 98 years (if you discount World War II).

Such tactics won’t put us off. Why should it?

It’s time we stopped being governed by fear. Everywhere you turn, there are signs warning of potential dangers. Our friends, our parents, our teachers and others in authority can’t stop themselves dispensing their cautionary pearls of wisdom, which come with the implication that disaster may follow if such advice is not heeded.  

What we need to do in these situations is seek counsel from elsewhere. From those who tell us everything’s going to be all right. So let’s ignore anti-Brexit, anti-Britain, half-Kenyan Obama. At least Donald Trump is very much in favour of the Leave campaign.

So, too, are Marine Le Pen – leader of Le Front National in France – and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

These are the folk we should be listening to.

I know I’ve always found it useful, when my friends warn me against doing something rash, to turn instead to a cabal of assorted bigots who reaffirm my pre-existing convictions.

If Trump doesn’t become President and the American electorate chooses Hillary Clinton – who agrees with Obama that the US would trade with the EU ahead of an isolated UK – then screw ’em.

We don’t need the USA, either. We’re quite capable of negotiating trade deals with the likes of China and Saudi Arabia. Russia, too, will certainly be more amenable to doing business with us in the event of Brexit. No issues there.
The fact that there is not one reputable study which concludes we will be better off out is irrelevant. But our allies and so-called ‘experts’ advising us against Brexit is troubling.
It goes without saying that the EU is 100 per cent bad. Even the Remain camp admits there are massive flaws with it, which proves the point.
So, what have the naysayers got to gain by us staying in? Far better not to take their consternation at face value and instead believe there is some sinister-yet-nebulous benefit for them that isn’t for the greater good.

It may appear that shouting “Project Fear”, “Scaremongering” or “Boogeymen” every time the Remain campaign raises a seemingly valid concern is merely a diversionary tactic – albeit one as effective as the whistling of a man at a busy urinal trough who remembers all too late that he had asparagus for lunch.
But this climate of trepidation needs to end. Ignore the pessimists and doom merchants.
Drink that one for the road, date that convicted wife beater, put all your chips on black, take out that pay-day loan, eat those prawns with the January use-by date, pet that hungry ocelot, stick that fork in the toaster and live your life.
Vote Brexit without fear. What’s the worst that could happen?

State-sanctioned life support for our dying church

(An edited version of this article was published in the Herts & Essex Observer in January 2016)

I’M always a little suspicious when a church leader is supremely confident about something against all the evidence.I know, I know. I shouldn’t be. This “faith in something being certain despite all available data pointing towards the contrary” is kinda their thang.

But still, we’re not talking about the concept of an ethereal creator controlling the lives of his human puppets here. What’s got my skepti-senses tingling is the Anglican church’s reaction to something for which the evidence against is even more damning: that the Church of England is not dying.

Figures released last month showed that CoE attendances had dipped below one million. Sunday attendances were down to 764,000 (take out the number of district councillors and it’d probably be double digits).

The demographic of church members is hardly rosy, either. The majority are old. Really old. Bruce Forsyth, Duke of Edinburgh, Mumm-Ra from Thundercats old. And a church made up mainly of ancient parishioners does not seem to have much cause for optimism – at least, not here on Earth.

Younger generations, particularly those between 18 and 40, are increasingly irreligious. And this atheism and agnosticism is sticky: A child raised in a non-religious household is far more likely to be non-religious in adulthood than a child raised in a religious family will continue to believe in God once they have grown up.

As the godless heathens breed, so the number of Christians will decrease. In fact, if the current downward spiral continues, UK-born Christians will be extinct by 2067.

Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury is not all doom and gloom. Yes, he admits, one per cent of his congregation dies off every year. Yes, he admits, things will continue to get worse before they improve. But, he claims, they will improve and more people will be drawn to the church in the next few years.

How is he so cocksure of this?

The Most Rev Justin Welby explained: “It is easy to paint a very gloomy picture. In this country, many talk of the post-Christian society but the CoE educates more than a million children in our schools…”

Ah, so this is the plan. Get ’em while they’re young. 

He may as well have said: “We can’t get grown-ups to believe our fairytales any more, so we have to indoctrinate them early.”

For the only adults of whom you hear turning to Christ tend to have been recently either incarcerated, intoxicated or bereaved. The Church does a grand job as a safety net for the vulnerable in society.

And there are none so vulnerable as children, with their pliable, Play-Doh minds. People can’t be forced to go to church but they do have to go to school – and this is increasingly the CoE’s only recourse of survival.

Let’s be blunt: If religious leaders (of all faiths) truly, TRULY believed their god was the right one, they would be confident enough to let children mix with those who thought otherwise.

Teaching children provably false stories (never let me sit through a Nativity play with a QI klaxon) at school is an artificial way of keeping the movement alive – a disingenuous life-support machine.

It was ever thus, of course. But it seems more sinister now, as the country’s population becomes demonstrably less religious, while efforts to inculcate kids double.

It could be seen as a drastic manoeuvre in its death throes – the last whip of the tail of Tolkien’s mortally wounded Balrog.

But, in this Conservative government, the Church has a State perfectly willing to go along with the plot.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, for example, seems to be delighting in her role as a Boudicca-style heroine, fighting off the secularists in their War on Christianity.

Last week, the resilient minister slapped a ban on “vexatious” campaigns aimed at stopping state-funded schools discriminating on religious grounds in their admissions criteria.

Oddly, of the 42 schools the Fair Admissions Campaign took to court, 41 were found to be acting illegally.

Yet rather than reform the system, Morgan wants to prevent these troublemakers from digging up any more dirt so that this educational apartheid can continue.

Full disclosure: My son attends a CoE school. As I discussed in a previous column, this may suggest hypocrisy on my part but also highlights the distinct paucity of provisions for non-believers. We’re lucky our school does not do as St Mary’s Catholic School in Stortford does, and select 100 per cent of pupils on a religious basis.

For St Joseph’s primary, “any other applications” (ie non-religious) is the 12th criterion of a very Catholic-heavy selection process.

Now, I don’t know why a non-religious parent would want to send their child to a school which states “Catholic doctrine and practice permeate every aspect of the school’s activity” (how’s that work for science, by the way? Or PE?). But nevertheless, its discriminatory nature is not becoming of a state-funded organisation.

That’s not to say St Joe’s is acting illegally. Hell no, Morgan wants more of these schools, of different religions, each teaching their faith, their denomination, as correct (with all others therefore wrong).

And the Government wonders why society isn’t as cohesive as it might be.

This isn’t the first time the evangelical Morgan has sided with religion over the wishes of parents and the findings of the courts.

In December, after humanist families won a High Court case, with the Government judged to have acted illegally by excluding non-religious worldviews from the curriculum, the Education Secretary issued guidance to schools in which she doubled down on her position.

High Court, Schmigh Court!

Schoolchildren, she asserted, should be taught that Britain is a Christian country, which is becoming something of a desperate mantra among the more fundamentalist members of the Tory party.

It’s a shame that only 1.7 per cent of the population agree with her enough to bother going to church.

And a shame that those of us who don’t believe in God are being told constantly that this nation is not our own.

Dismal December is a doggy delight

(This article was published in the Herts & Essex Observer on December 14, 2015)

DECEMBER is dismal. While the prospect of the fun-filled festive season keeps it ahead of November and January in the rankings, December is still a bland, chewy filling, barely indistinguishable from the bread encasing it in this wintry-month sandwich.Yet in spite of the stress of preparing for Yuletide and the depressing onslaught of dreary weather, I have found solace in the great outdoors.
In Decembers past, I have used temperatures below five degrees Celsius, deep puddles everywhere and the fact my car’s auto headlights stay on until 10am, then come back on by 2pm as excuses to stay huddled indoors.
But with a dog in the family now, this is not an option – so Dotty and I trudge gamely around the muddy fields around our home on a daily basis.
Whether it’s the fresh air, the (admittedly homeopathic) dose of Vitamin D from the milky disc in the sky or the bonkers company of an ever-enthusiastic Labrador, I don’t know, but I find our walks incredibly therapeutic.
Without snow (and don’t get me wrong, I DO NOT want snow), the landscape is overwhelmingly brown – muddy fields flanked by trees with bare branches.
And, yet, to describe this scene as barren or desolate would be a mistake. It just takes a little more time and effort to appreciate the plethora of life that is still at large.
A wren, nearly trampled by my size-11 Wellington, is flushed out of a tussock of grass, hurtling across the path of Dotty, who gamely leaps in a vain attempt to grab it in her jaws.
A clamour of rooks takes off from the adjacent field. I scan the vicinity for the catalyst and note a gigantic buzzard flying low, as if strafing the muddy furrows. That’d do it.
A kestrel sits magisterially on a branch ahead of us, until it deems me and my four-legged loose cannon too much of a risk, its nerve buckles and it soars away from us as we approach – taking up another perch further down the track.
A flock of who-the-hell-knows lifts up too, 30 or so little brown jobs, briefly scuttling this way and that through the air in controlled panic before settling down in the middle of the field, where they vanish like ghosts. Their camouflage is so unsettlingly effective, I wonder whether I have dreamt it.
Next comes the glorious sight of a male bullfinch, its fuchsia belly plump with all the berries it is guzzling.
As we pass a patch of tall grass to our right, Dotty’s presence causes scores of small birds to take wing from their ground-based hiding places. They congregate like fire-drill evacuees on nearby headgerows and shrubs. They are linnets and yellowhammers, birds which – particularly the latter – are on my ticklist of signs that spring is in the air.
That’s clearly not the case here but at least now I know where they go to in the winter, silently waiting for the cold, the wet, the weakness of an Arctic sun to pass before they can once again fill the vernal air with their melodies.
I am content.
Then a plop in a brook ahead alerts Dotty to a potential threat or, more likely in her case, a potential meal.
As I join her on the bridge, I glimpse it all too briefly, hurrying towards its escape tunnel – a water vole! I have rarely felt as lucky to live where we do.
Dotty has added a whole new dimension to my countryside exploration. I’ve seen things I’ve never seen before, taken routes I’ve never even thought about taking before – all thanks to our dog.
As long as I don’t think too much about it being largely down to her following her nose, sampling the aromas of urine left by the other canines in the area, it won’t lose its magic.
So goodbye to dark, dismal, desolate December – this year it’s a doggy delight.

The wit and wisdom of Toby, aged 4

AT the start of 2015, Fran had the smart idea of writing down funny things Toby said and putting them in a jar. Over Christmas, with family all present, we opened it up. What follows is a small selection of the wit, wisdom and quite often downright confusion of our wonderfully amusing, dinosaur-obsessed, nature-exploring four-year-old…

The time Toby gave a cute role play game a subversive twist…

Toby: I’m a doctor. I’ll look after your owie foot, Daddy.
Dave: Thanks, Doctor.
Toby: But I’m only pretending to be a doctor. I’m actually a baby velociraptor.

When he looked into the future…

T: One day, when I’m bones, then maybe a paleontologist will dig ME up.

When dinosaurs were all he thought about…

(Driving past a pub)
Fran: I find that pub quite… what’s the word? Begins with P.
D: Poncey?
F: No.
D: Pretentious?
T (chipping in from back seat): Parasaurolophus?

When words are confusing…
T: Mumma, you know there’s two-gether and there’s four-ever? What’s in between?

When he finally told us something about what goes on at school…

D: Tell me about Adrian. What do you like playing with him?
T: Star Warts.
D: Er, don’t you mean Star Wars?
T: No, no. Star Warts.

When he suspected gender politics were at play…

T: Florence was Star of the Day. I think it’s because she’s a girl.

But he is a feminist really…

T: Some of my cuddlies are male. But the super-cool ones are female.

When he bigged me up…

(Watching Monsters Versus Aliens)
General W.R. Monger: And this is Dr Cockroach. He has the most brilliant mind in all the Universe.
T (shouting at the TV): No he doesn’t! My Dadda has!

But he’s not averse to telling it to me straight…

(Tucking Toby in on the night Fran left for two weeks in Zambia)
T: Remember, Daddy, I’m in charge.

D: Have you missed Dadda, Tobs?
T: Yes.
(long pause)
T: Not really much.

(After waking up Fran in the spare room)
F: How did you know I was in here?
T: That’s where you always are when Dadda’s annoying.

(Playing the geography card game Mapominoes)
D: If I were you Tobs, I’d put Slovakia there.
T: If you were me, you’d put Slovakia there. But if I was I, I’d put Germany here!
(places Germany card with a flourish)

And I’m not the only one who gets it…
T: I can’t sleep. Something is keeping me awake.
F: Oh bubs, what’s keeping you awake?
T: You are, Mumma. Can I PLEASE have some quiet?

T: Have you been making stuff again?
F: No.
T: But you’ve got glitter in your hair.
F: Have I?
T (pulling one grey hair): Yes, this long bit at the front.

T: Ohhh!
F: What’s the matter, Toby?
T: I’m just making another puppet but there’s a problem. I’m trying to do Grandad Colin but I’ve drawn on some hair and Grandad Colin hasn’t got any.

When he had a visitation in his sleep…
T: Daddy, I need to tell you about my dream because God came to visit me three times.
D: Er, what?!
T: He was very friendly to me.
D: Er, what?!
T: And he didn’t want to eat me. But he did try to eat Buzz and Woody.
D: Sorry, Tobs, WHO was in your dream?
T: Scud, the dog from Toy Story.

What he really thinks of religion…

F: What’s your idea of Heaven, Tobs? Who would be there?
T: Dead people?

When his attempts at magic fell flat…

T: This isn’t a real wand. Look. Abracadabra, into a koala.
(points stick at Tiffin the dog, who does not turn into a koala)
T (shrugging): See?

When he invented an eight-day week…
T: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Catday, Sunday…
D: Woah! Hold up – what’s Catday?
T (impatiently): Catday! When all the cats lay their eggs and then the children eat them and then… go to bed.
D: But cats are mammals. They don’t lay eggs.
T: The mummy ones do!

When he was very helpful…
F: Argh! Mumma’s so messy!
T: Did you know, there’s an advert on television that has something you can put in the washing machine that makes things all better and it comes out clean again?

He’s always immersing himself in nature…

(Driving through the countryside)T: Tick… tick… tick, tick, tick, tick, tick-tick, tick-tick-tickticktickticktick…
D: What are you doing, Tobs?
T: I’m ticking off all the things that are green.

D: I was pretending to be a hyena, sneaking up on you to see what scraps you’d left. And Mumma was a vulture, swooping in. I think you were a lion, eating your fill.
T (very confused): Who’s Phil?!

T: When I go to the zoo with a lion and an elephant, I think I will have to wear my ear defenders.

(Playing I-Spy in the car)
D: I spy with my little eye, something beginning with H.
T: Horseshoe worm?

(First-ever go at ‘Guess which animal I am’)
D: Do you have four legs?
T: Yes.
D: Are you a mammal?
T: Yes.
D: Do you have fur?
T: Um, no.
D: Are you extinct?
T: Um… Mummy, are pigs extinct?

(Discussing photosynthesis)
D: And do you know how we produce carbon dioxide? It’s something we do all day, every day.
T: Eating?
D: No.
T: Blinking?
D: No – it’s something you do even when you’re asleep.
T: Spinning around?

(Another game of Guess Which Animal I Am)
F: Do you have two legs?
T: Yes.
F: Are you a herbivore?
T: Yes.
(Lots more questions)
T: I’ll give you a clue… I have a really long neck. And I like leaves.
F: Toby, are you a giraffe?
T: Yes!
F: But you said you had two legs.
T: I do have two legs. And another two.

When he wondered about war…

D: Would you like to wear a poppy, Tobs?
T (sadly): I would… but I can’t remember anyone who’s died.

(Watching a trailer on TV)
T: Is that man in the middle the man who doesn’t like anybody?
D: Er, what do you mean?
T: When there was all the fighting.
D: You mean, ‘Is that Hitler?’
T: Yes.
D: No, Tobs. It’s Alan Sugar.

When he scared himself to death…

(After half an hour quiet in bed, there’s a panic-stricken yell)
T: Mumma! MUMMA!
F (hurtling upstairs, fearing an intruder in his room): Yes, Toby?
T (sitting on edge of his bed): Mumma… I can’t feel my pulse.

And there were a few tantrums, too…

(Going in to Sainsbury’s)
T: Are we going to buy some woggles?
F: What?
T: Woggles, Mumma. Are we buying woggles?
*long pause*
F: What?
T: Woggles, Mumma. Everyone has woggles!
F: Hmm.
T: I would like some green and yellow ones.
F: What do you do with woggles?
F: Toby, I just don’t know what you mean. I’m sorry.
T: WOGGLES, Mumma! WOGGLES! I want some WOGGLES!
F: Toby… darling…

(In Stortford on carnival day, Toby spots lots of kids with weird toys – essentially floating snakes on sticks)
T: I want one of them.
D: Well, you can’t have one.
T: But I REALLY want one.
D: You’ve just had your birthday. Didn’t you get enough presents then?
T: No. I want more.
D: That’s very ungrateful. You need to realize that you’re really very lucky. Do you know Patience we’re sponsoring in Africa. Do you know what she gets for her birthday? A rock and a stick.
(a beat)
T: But I want a rock and a stick!

He is down with pop culture…

(Listening to Lady Gaga)
T: Why does she want you to poke her face?

And was occasionally rude…

(Very loudly, while using the iPad on a plane)
T: These are called COCKS!
(Cue hurried checking of the iPad, only to see he’s looking at a picture of people playing badminton).

T: What are the rules of rugby? Can you use your hands?
D: Yes.
T: Oh good. I like to use my hands when I’m playing with my balls.

And he never shirked big questions…

INT: A gents’ toilet)
T: What’s that Daddy?
D: Erm.
T: What’s that, Daddy?
D: Keep walking.
T: But what’s THAT, Daddy?
D: It’s a machine.
T: What kind of machine?
D: It sells things.
T: What does it sell?
D: Never you mind.
D: Condoms, Toby. Condoms.
T: What are condoms?
D: They’re something you use if you want to avoid awkward questions five years later.

D: It’s up to you what you believe. All I would ask you to do is never stop being inquisitive. Never stop asking questions.
T: OK Daddy.
T: Why are there dogs?

T: You will keep me forever, won’t you?

When he misheard Mumma and had a panic…

(Mumma and Dadda’s bed, 6.40am, after complaining that he had woken up with a sore willy)
F: Toby, do you want me to sort out your willy or do you want to cuddle for a little bit?
T (worried): Cut off a little bit?!

Scared of dying? Then get a life.

(A version of this article appeared in the Herts & Essex Observer, December 3, 2016)

WATCHING the news or reading the papers over the last few weeks has been a disquieting experience. Following the atrocities in Paris on November 13, it has become all too obvious that we are under attack.

MI5 agents report that they are stopping serveral acts of terrorism a month in the UK and it is only a matter of time before Islamist nuts get lucky again and succeed in bringing death to our streets, our shopping centres, our transport systems or wherever else these barbaric cultists think will cause maximum damage. Should we panic?

My wife almost had an anxiety attack this week at the thought of going to Westfield Shopping Centre in London. We are being fed so many scare stories that I quite understand why the notion of being in an enclosed public space might now be daunting. In Fran’s case, however, it’s got nothing to do with terrorists. She just doesn’t like people. Especially when they’re doing their Christmas shopping.

Yet, my misanthropic missus aside, there are plenty of folk cowering with terror at the imminent suicide bombings. Jeremy Vine held a phone-in on his Radio 2 show last week in which listeners explained how they could not face going to malls, football matches or cinemas because they felt it would make them sitting ducks to Islamist gunmen. One person texted in to express their concern about “going to Norwich”. Now, to paraphrase Jay-Z, I’ve got 99 reservations about going to Norwich but jihadism ain’t one.

This is irrational. To use the cinema as an example, there is statistically more chance of you choking to death on your popcorn. It’s a cliché but you are letting the terrorists win. There is no point in being so afraid of death that it stops you living a life. Fear of death is usually indirectly proportional to how much of a fulfilling life you think you’ve led.

If I were to be murdered by jihadis, I would be justifiably peeved. There is plenty more I want to do in my short time on Earth – at least one novel I need to write, one degree I’d love to study for. I want to see my son grow up, I am determined to visit the Galapagos Islands, I still have delusions that I could have a No1 single. Much of this would flash before me if I were faced with the muzzle of a terrorist’s gun.

Yet I’ve also done a lot of things of which I’m proud. I’ve had good times with great friends and learnt a lot of things about a lot of things. Life is finite, delicate, precious. That night in Paris is a reminder of that. But we face these reminders constantly. What happened at the Bataclan shouldn’t make you avoid enjoying rock concerts any more than the Shoreham air disaster should make you avoid driving past airfields.

Something’s going to kill you in the end. The best way of dealing with that inescapable truth is to make sure you cram as much good stuff into your life before that happens. The terrorists want to destroy our way of life. They don’t need to kill you to do that, they need only scare you into not living it. So get a life.


I WAS going to steer clear of religion this week – I have no real desire to be the Observer’s “angry atheist”. But then I read Rev Derek Hinge’s letter (Writer’s God is not our God) in response to my previous column (Is it vulgar to question?) and, if we are bandying around labels, I’ll respond in the guise of the Observer’s “exasperated secular humanist”.

Let’s recap.
1) East Herts’ predominantly Christian council votes to keep official prayers before meetings. Cllr James Cartwright says this is important because it means God will help him make good decisions.

2) I hypothesise that it’s a bit weird to believe God will care about local recycling collections when he doesn’t seem to give a monkey’s about letting children die.

3) The Rev Hinge accuses me of misrepresenting Christianity, stating that of course Christians believe that “God cares… as much for those in local government as for the death of innocent children”.

4) I’m ready to respond in this theological tennis match with a rant about how I misrepresented nothing. In fact, he has merely restated my original point. So I line up a repeat of my “But that’s a bit weird” complaint.

5) Yet before I can, in his very next paragraph, the good reverend suggests that it is folly to believe in a God who would constantly interfere in human affairs.

So, let me see if I got this right, God DOES care about council agendas AND dying babies, just not enough to do anything about either of them.

Riiiiight. If this an example of the coherence of the average Sunday morning sermon, it is little wonder church attendance is plummeting.

So the council shouldn’t bother praying after all, then?

Game, set and match? Well, er, not quite.

For Rev Hinge also made reference to a “huge amount of evidence” for the existence of God. This is very exciting news. Cllr Cartwright last week made the exact same claim on Twitter. I now envisage a Darwin vs Russel Wallace-style race to be the first to publish this information in a peer-reviewed journal. The Nobel committee will be all ears.

Evidence, after all, is all it would take to turn most non-believers into devout worshippers. Alas, I suspect, we’ll be told this wealth of evidence can all be found in just one book.

Theists commonly complain that atheists are atheists because they simply haven’t heard “the Good News” and so prescribe a dose of Bible study three times a day. The reality is that the vast majority of us HAVE read the Bible. We have just found it sadly lacking.

Cllr Cartwright tells me this shows a lack of intelligence. As he is just one email away from becoming a Nobel laureate, I shall have to take his word for it.

Trash talking about council prayers

DEAR God, my black bin split in August. I ordered a replacement online but as yet it hasn’t arrived.
Rats are sniffing around so could you please remind East Herts District Council about it at their next meeting, as they listen to you more than local residents? Amen.
Welcome to the new way of doing things in Britain’s Bible Belt.
At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from EHDC’s 42-5 thrashing of atheist upstart Adrian McNeece and his request that prayers are not held before official meetings.
And it’s certainly something we can infer from the post-vote Twitter gloatfest of the self-appointed mouthpiece of the council’s overwhelming Christian majority, Cllr James Cartwright.
It is all deeply troubling.
“42-5! 42-5!” parroted Puckeridge representative Cartwright, like a rugby fan unaware of or untroubled by the concept of magnanimity in victory.
He repeated the ‘score’ as though it were a justification of itself, when it merely highlighted just how out of touch this 100% Conservative council is and how ill served we are by them.
He labelled the secularist viewpoint “pathetic” and the vote a “total waste of council time”. Yet muttering platitudes into the ether is well worth the time and council resources, of course.
I’m all for our elected officials taking a few moments’ quiet contemplation before making decisions that affect us all. Preferably about the non-efficacy of prayer and how, even if God exists, His omnipotence and omniscience would mean He already knows off by heart the minutes of every district council meeting – past, present and future. He must be a real wow at parties.
Most perturbing was Cartwright’s unshakeable belief that the rights of the majority trump all.
Channelling Eric Pickles – the gelatinous former Minister of Faith – Cartwright goaded critics with: “You live in a Christian country – get over it!”
This sinister phrase betrays an elected official’s smugness and excitement at the freedom to ride roughshod over the views of the under-represented?
Even if most Brits, including 62.75% of East Herts residents – according to the 2011 Census – identify as Christian, so what? Politicians are elected by majorities but they must strive to serve the whole. Pickles’ mantra holds no more water than “This is a white country – get over it!” as an excuse to tell racist jokes.
Cartwright insists the prayer session is inclusive because those it makes uncomfortable can CHOOSE (his capitals) either to join in the worship of a deity they don’t believe in, or stand outside. Much like Christians living in the Islamic State’s caliphate are free to CHOOSE whether to convert or die.
Some American police officers have taken recently to plastering ‘In God We Trust’ stickers over their panda cars – a concerning move which implies these cops will “protect and serve” fellow believers over non-believers. Last week’s East Herts landslide has the same effect.
By voting so forcefully to impose their beliefs on equally elected councillors (fellow Tories at that), it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.
It tacitly – and, in the case of Cartwright’s ravings, explicity – reinforces the notion that the opinions and concerns of East Herts’ non-Christian minority aren’t worth a damn.
Is this the ‘Christian’ thing to do? Was Christ all about shafting minorities?
“And lo, did Jesus exclaim: ‘Screw the little guy! Screw him to the wall!’” (Matthew ch6 v5-6)*
I asked Cllr Cartwright how he would cope in a Muslim-dominated council which voted to include public prayers in meetings.
He said he would respect the majority decision, although it isn’t clear whether he would stand outside or bow down towards Mecca.
The point is, he shouldn’t have to. That’s what anti-secularist Christians (and ironically they are far outnumbered by secularist Christians) don’t get. Secularism – keeping church and state separate – safeguards an individual’s freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
An elected body asking, in an official capacity, for divine guidance is left wide open to accusations of prejudice. Is a Christian more likely to get a leg up on the Housing Register? Would a secular disco have less chance than a church beetle drive of getting an alcohol licence approved?
I’d have previously dismissed such claims as scaremongering. But that was before the Christian majority showed so little empathy with McNeece that, when he proposed a motion asking them to desist in making him feel marginalised, they stomped on it with such vigour that he had no choice but to resign.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t about clamping down on religion. That Cllr Cartwright believes God will help him make wiser decisions regarding the district’s recycling needs is, of course, his business.
But he hasn’t been elected to a Synod. Why can’t he pray in the privacy of his own home?
Perhaps it’s understandable. God is, after all, a notorious flake. If He can’t be arsed to answer the prayers of the parents of a dying child, then there’s no chance He is going to rule on bin collections unless presented with all the minutiae immediately before the vote.
It shows the danger of writing ‘Christian’ on the Census form just because you celebrate Christmas rather than Hannukah or Eid.
A Church of England survey last week revealed that many of these ‘cultural’ Christians don’t even believe Jesus was a real person.
But the fact so many tick the box emboldens fundamentalist zealots in positions of power, giving them reason to believe they have a mandate to push for a theocracy.
And if that happens, I’d never get my new bin.

* Anyone checking the veracity of that claim may find that I have made up that quote. That particular Bible verse is actually Jesus saying you should pray in private, as praying in public makes you a hypocrite.