Archive for December, 2008


The whin flower blooms even in the frost, proving that kissing is never out of season.

The whin flower blooms even in the frost, proving that kissing is never out of season.

A Frosty Irish Christmas

A Frosty Irish Christmas

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No Pope Here


It is hard to knock a Pope in Ireland without being seen to be taking sides in an old sectarian quarrel – or are we passed that?

When the MP Iris Robinson said that she found homosexuality an abomination she was gloriously pilloried by those of us who defend gays as equals and friends. Now the Pope has said that ‘human ecology’ requires the abolition of homosexual activity. Nasty old Nazi. Imagine saying a thing like that!

Pope Benedict has provided his critics with all the evidence they need that he is a throwback, except that you don’t get to throw a pope back to where you got him from; you are stuck with him until he dies.
He tells us from his wisdom that homosexual activity is something man has to be saved from, much as the earth has to be saved from the destruction of the rain forests.  What offends here is not just the recitation of the old teaching that same sex union is sinful, but the sense of proportion implied.
You would think that, had the pope been looking for an example of sinful sexual behaviour that might be an affront to nature, from which our salvation is urgent, he might have noticed that his own priests have been molesting children in huge numbers and that his own office has been covering it up. Or is that below the belt?
Strangest of all about what he says is his assertion that he is defending human nature. The Catholic church theology of nature is shown now to be a fraud. Benedict understands human nature from his reading of the Book of Genesis, not from his reading of nature itself, which would show that some people are sexually attracted to and bond with people of the same sex as themselves.
Benedict does not want you to live by your nature but to fight against it, the way he fights it himself. Surely priestly celibacy is as much a divergence from nature, as he teaches it, as gay sex is.
But, some will argue, he has to say these things from time to time; you can’t expect him to change Catholic teaching on homosexual activity, or on a whole host of sexual considerations, like contraception or sex before marriage.
Well, the church does change its view of things. It no longer repeats the old law that the word of a Christian is always to be accepted before the word of a Jew, for instance. The hygiene laws of the book of Leviticus, which would seem to require you to ask a woman if she is having her period before you sit beside her on a bus, have also fallen into disuse.
Of course the papacy, we are often told, does not defer to public opinion, and this coming badly timed in the wake of Iris Robinson’s remarks, is beneath notice in the Vatican. So a few western liberals will be appalled, the world is wider than the West  and many others will be impressed.
Pope Benedict, of course, may indeed be thinking more politically than morally, given how popular his words will be in some quarters. With the episcopal churches in Africa splitting the Anglican communion on gay ordination, Benedict might be effectively hoisting a sign to let them all know they would be perfectly at home in his church, which shares their horror and their sense of what Nature requires.
But there will be a cost for this among western Catholics, many, perhaps most, of whom are liberal in their theology and generous in their understanding of sexuality.They know the calamity for the church that past obsessions about sex have turned out to be, particularly the  teaching on contraception, also grounded on the bizarre Papal understanding of the laws of nature, and integrally bound up with its abhorrence of homosexuality. As theologians explained at the time, if you couldn’t argue that sex was for procreation rather than pleasure, then you would have no argument against all the other things that couples do, or that people do on their own, that give them pleasure but don’t produce offspring.
These teachings, in Ireland anyway, are almost universally ignored and the loss of moral authority in the church, which followed from them, has been massive.
Pope Benedict has done a service to anti Catholic secular liberals every where; he has made himself an easy target.
But  a Pope is never an easy target for liberals in Ireland. yet there has been speculation that he is coming here soon.

When he does, he must be met with a sea of pink derision. We should nopt be inhibited bythe legacy of sectarianism from giving him the full Iris treatment.

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There are two separate articles attacking me in the current issue of Humanism Ireland.

The humanists are always having a bash at me; it’s because I am a humanist and they are not.

It seems that fundamentalist movements like this are always more annoyed with people who nearly completely agree with them, but won’t go all the way, than they are with the people they declare to be their real target.

I write about religion from a premiss that makes no sense to a fundamentalist atheist. That is, that some religions are better than others; that there is diveristy and much to be fascinated by in the history of religion; that religion is human and that you can not be a humanist without caring to understand religious motivations – given that religion is not a fringe lunacy in human culture but has been, for probably ten thousand years and more, practically all of it.

So, I argue, if you want to set yourself up as a critic of the baneful influences of religion on people and society, it helps to read about religion, talk to religious people and think about religion. It is not enough to simply sneer at it.

And if they want to attack my articles and books, they should try to understand the motivation behind them and not just read them through a filter that says: he thinks Dawkins is a prat, therefore he must be a prat himself.

I do think Dawkins is a prat. I do think that fundamentalist atheists are as annoying and simplistic as any other kind of fundamentalist.

I don’t believe that religion can be identified as a failure to grasp the theory of evolution or the Big Bang; that it is only a primitive mind’s response to lightning.

One article corrects me with the assertion that Dawkins and the new atheists broke a taboo on talking seriously about religion in the public domain. This is nonsense; they did perhaps break a taboo about celebrating atheism and sneering at religion.  And there is value in that. A religious idea is still just an idea and has to be defended in frank and open discussion or it has to slink coyly away.

But the new atheists are wrong about many of their charges against religion, and they are wrong because they don’t empathise enough with religious people to have any sense of what drives them and divides them.

That’s how they end up with nonsense like Christopher Hitchens’ claim that a revulsion at menstrual fluid is part of all religion. It isn’t.  For all we know there are Irish presbyterians who drink the stuff – it’s just not something they talk about.

Then there is the review of my book, Empty Pulpits.

I am happy when people review my books. I would rather have a frank attack that makes its point well than a sychophantic review that doesn’t, and I have had both.

So, fair dos.  Nail me where you can.

But to attack me for name dropping because there are lots of sources cited! Usually having a lot of sources and interviewees is a credit to a book.

‘I came away dizzily wondering if this was the literary equivalent of one of Hollywood’s Biblical epics, with their “cast of thousands”‘. Really? Too many people quoted in my book? I must remember to keep the numbers down next time to please humanists, for if there is one thing a Belfast Humanist can’t stand it is diversity of opinion and outlook.

‘Malachi adds a dose of mysticism to the brew and decides that the Irish know more about it than the new atheists..’.

No I don’t. I make no claim to their being a particularly Irish insight into anything other than into their own experience. That experience is of being saturated in and dominated by religion until recent times. If you are Irish and middle aged and were once a Catholic, you can remember a religious childhood that precedes the liberation of attitudes in the Second Vatican Council.  What’s contentious about saying that?

Why shouldn’t the memories of those who have lived in a religious culture feature in the discussion about religion?

So it turns out that I am a ‘daylight atheist’ and ‘a lapsed Catholic who can not completely shake it off’ and be as confidently free of religion as the humanists are.

Well maybe I am still immersed in ideas about religion and tilted in different directions by those ideas from day to day.

That is not about a failure to have the courage to stand on the solid ground of reason; it is about the clearest understanding that there is no solid ground.

Humans disappoint the humanists, with their superstitions and diverse religious cultures.  Humans will only measure up to Humanist expectations when they are as logical as Humanists are.

There will be time enough to be logical when we really do understand the universe we live in.

Neitzche said that ultimate truth, if we could grasp it,  might turn out to be of no human value.  What is a humanist to hang on to then but humanity? Revere that, in all its complexity and colour and you might be on safer ground than revering a logic that is still not fully informed.

In the mean time, let’s give the fundamentalists a hard time and be wary of flattering them with imitation.

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But on the subject of beards, I am struck by the thoughts of another blogger,

“Why? Why do we expect men to be clean-shaven?

It isn’t just because we like to kiss / be kissed by clean-shaven men*, because since when did the sexual or romantic preferences of women get to dominate cultural norms? Since when did our ideals even get taken into account, let alone become an oppressive social requirement? Since never, is when.

[* Anyway, kissing someone with a proper beard can be just as nice a feeling – albeit a different one – as kissing the smoothest face there is. And at least with a decent beard you won’t be caught unawares by stubble. Ouch. Maybe we like to kiss smooth men because we can close our eyes and imagine, subconsciously at least, that we are kissing women. Hehehe, evil laughter. Another possibility is that we like smooth men because they remind us of when we were girls kissing boys, and we like to pretend that we are still just a girl, just kissing a boy. That would make sense – the men win too if we believe we are girls kissing boys, that none of it is very grown up or meaningful; if we deep down understand kissing as a time when we are girls and they are boys, then we won”t act as full-grown women or make grown-up demands on the other person… Hm, stuff.]

So anyway – if the pressure to shave isn’t for snogging purposes, why is it?”

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The cool atheists – as distinct from those of us for whom this is a phoney argument – are in a flap over the prospect that some people will think Leonard Cohen’s Allelujiah is a religious song.

This follows the news that X Factor winner Alexandra Burke will record it for Christmas, singing it like a spiritual.

Cohen has a way of mixing sexual and religious imagery that would scare the faithful but bewilder the determinedly unspiritual too.  The ‘real’ message of Allelujiah is despair at the prospect of love which is nothing more than a ‘broken Allelujiah’. I’m not sure who’s supposed to be cheered by it, if anybody. And KD Lang’s rendition is the one I love most.

It seems that he has heard this discussion himself before and doesn’t like his words being appropriated for causes.

This version of Allelujiah posted on Youtube and sung by Malvasio, replaces some of the verses with this message:

There’s a blaze of light in every word,
It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard,
The Holy or the broken Allelujiah.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but

Or does anyone know if these are Malvasio’s words?

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We are getting mixed messages about pork; we are being told not to eat it but also that what  has been eaten so far has done no one any harm. Apparently it is a confidence issue, not a health issue.

One commentator on RTE said yesterday that eating pork now would present as great a risk of cancer as smoking one cigarette.

And besides, only one tenth of the pork in the country is contaminated.

OK: there is a one in ten chance that a cigarette has been pureed into your dinner. Do you still want to eat it?

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Wave is a support group for the bereaved of the Troubles and they are holding a carol service in Belfast on December 9, before a Christmas tree with 3,700 lights, to represent the dead. They invited me to their rehearsal last week.

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An Important Book

An Important Book

It is one of those unnerving reminders of the passage of time that most journalists talking about Maria McGuire, the day after she was outed as a Tory member of Croydon Council had not heard of her before.  Her defection from the Provisional IRA in 1972 was a huge story at the time and her book – glibly dismissed as ‘kiss and tell’ – opened the door on meetings of the IRA leadership at the very height of their campaign like no other book has done.

McGuire admits to her naivete so can hardly be damned for it.

Her contribution to the writing of the history of the IRA is massive and something that journalists should be glad of; it is not something they should be sneering at.

As for Peter Latham, the man who outed her and thereby exposed her to the danger that an IRA death sentence against her will be revived; he has trifled in more serious matters than her knows for a local political advantage. The risk of Maria Gatland (as she is now known) being shot is low – about as low as the risk to Mark Gartland and Sean O’Callaghan. I don’t see them relaxing their security.

But there is another principle: that people should not suffer for what they did in youth, if they have themselves reassessed those things and moved on from them. There are many others who were in the IRA in the early seventies and went on to distinguish themselves in other ways.  Why should they be harassed now?

We have Gregory Campbell in the papers demanding an apology from Maria Gatland. If he had read her book, he would know that he already has it.

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