Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

A humanistic view of marital infidelity would ask if both partners should take responsibility for one of them wandering. Lucky Peter Robinson; he gets his wife to take all the blame and then forgives her on national television.

Here’s a piece I publish in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph:

Part of the indignity for Iris Robinson is that her disclosures about
an affair contrast with an image which she has presented of herself as
a morally assertive and sexually prim woman.
There have been sexual infidelities in other political families in
Northern Ireland that have not brought people to the extremes of
attempted suicide and public confession.
The striking thing about the confessions we heard last night is that
no clear motive for them was made plain.
Peter Robinson said that part of the motivation was to end speculation
that his personal problems and recent absence from public life were
grounded in illegal financial dealings. And it is clear that he now
wants the media to stop investigating the affair that Iris had.

Spotlight on Spotlight

The Spotlight programme on BBC Northern Ireland has said that it is
still waiting for answers to a series of questions put to the
Robinsons. Presumably, a good result for Peter and Iris would be that
the planned Spotlight programme would be pulled. The Spotlight team
are now faced with the suggestion that humiliating Iris with further
disclosures would be bad for her mental health, and might cost her
If there is any more to the First Couple’s desire to make this
heartrending public confession, other than to morally constrain
Spotlight, then it is perhaps indicative of a naivete about the rest
of the world’s expectations of them.
Iris, in particular, presents herself as almost legalistically religious.
At the time she was having her affair she was pontificating in the
media about the ‘abomination’ of homosexuality.
She brought heaps of grief upon herself over that whole argument.
She was ridiculed in much of the media and lampooned as a ridiculous
hate figure, most colourfully on the Gay Pride parade through Belfast.
Yesterday, on social networking sites, Iris was being traduced as a hypocrite.
It is hard to escape the sense that her own sexual frailties would not
have brought her such pain had she not succumbed to the fantasy that
she was pure and holy enough to dictate right and wrong to others.
You get a flavour of that smugness in the interviews she gave to
writer Lorraine Wylie three years ago for a book described as ‘An
Intimate Portrait’.
The book included accounts of life lived almost as a soap opera. One
memorable yarn recounts how the Robinsons got so sunburned on holiday
that they couldn’t put clothes on over their tender skin and set up an
arrangement whereby Iris would order room service from under the
bedclothes while Peter hid naked in the bathroom. The outworking of
that, as told in the book, was that Peter ‘glowing like a Sellafield
fish’ misheard his cue to come back into the bedroom and presented his
full glory to the waitress.
Iris also wrote of her fury at the vicious rumours about her marriage
and her husband. She said, ‘it never ceases to amaze me what
imagination can conjure up. I’ve heard my husband accused of
everything from infidelity to domestic abuse and even murder.’
The initial impact of the disclosures on last night’s news appears to
have been highly sympathetic.

God and Conscience

Journalists who were present when Peter Robinson made his statement
were clearly deeply moved by it.
Some will have been reading backwards to the extraordinary flashes of
temper from him in the past year and perhaps concluding that these are
more intelligible against the background of marital stress. And
religious people will note that both Iris and Peter emphasised the
power of God and conscience in their lives. It was guilt which drove
Iris to an attempt at suicide; it is the conviction that God himself
has forgiven her which consoles Peter.

And it is not only sexual indiscretion which Iris has owned up to.

The statement says that she provided financial support for her lover and encouraged others to as well.

But if they talk sometimes as if they are not quite human themselves,
they certainly appear a lot more human to the rest of us now.
Sexual infidelity is human. The grief of a betrayed spouse is human.
And it is human to plead in extremis for mercy from an investigative
media which might drag out the pain, even if it does not unearth more
For Iris, now, political life is at an end.
This is a tragedy for someone who was a gifted parliamentary performer.
Sometimes the focus of her interest appears to have been punitive and
moralistic. A reading of the questions that she has asked in
Westminster over recent years shows a primary concern with the
treatment of prisoners and particularly of sex offenders.
She enjoyed politics. There was something almost exultant in the wrath
which she turned on Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in the assembly
and others. Being married to Peter Robinson may have been a political
advantage to her but it may also have carried considerable benefits to
him too. She seemed to soften him a bit. She was one of the more
colourful and intriguing characters. Life will be much more
embarrassing at church and among her own circle now that it is clear
how human and ordinary she is, but there are people who will like her
the better for it.
The other question is whether her marriage to the First Minister will
survive. He himself says that is not guaranteed and it may be that  he
was suggesting that the decision is still more with her.
She described her depressive illness as ‘personality changing’.
If she stays with Peter and accepts his forgiveness and can be happy
there, well and good.
If she moves on, and casts off some of that prissy conviction that she
flaunted so lavishly before, then who knows what she might be?
A potential embarrassment to the party if she no longer feels bound by
loyalty to it?
A wiser better person if she will let herself be ordinary and
vulnerable without feeling the need to expunge your own life when the
ardent facade breaks?
Or will she go into some kind of shameful purda?
Well, now that wouldn’t be the Iris we know at all.

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One overlooked aspect of the Eames Bradley report on the past was the charge that the churches have a responsibility for sectarianism.

[You’ll note that there is a new player format here now. It’s a bit brash, I know, but I’ll find something more suited to the genteel people who visit this site.]

Rev Lesley Carroll explained it all to the Clonard Fitzroy Fellowship last week.

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No one took responsibility for the rape and brutalisation of children by religious orders when it was happening but there are more ways to respond now than simply by being appalled and swearing it will never happen again.
For a start, the orders which were responsible should be disbanded. This will only have token value, since there are few people left in them here and they have no responsibility for children any more. But if they stood down themselves it would be a singular admission of disgrace, and that is what is required of them.
Further, the state should impound their property and reverse legal sweetheart deals to limit the amount of compensation they would have to pay.
Those who continue to celebrate the contribution of these orders should examine their consciences carefully.
Currently there are Christian Brother trusts running schools on both sides of the border, preserving, as they see it, the ethos of the Christian Brothers.
Well the legacy of the Brothers may include some doctors and solicitors who think they got a fine education, but the suffering inflicted by the Brothers was not a fair price for that.
Those trusts should divest themselves of the name and reputation of the Brothers.
Further, I would like to see the history of the depredations, the cynicism and the corruption of the orders and much of the secular church taught to children in schools. It is as important that the history of this hideous period be taught to children here as it is that the history of the Holocaust be taught in Germany.
The atrocities were different in scale and degree, but the story is the same, of how ordinary people can become bestial.
And if the story is told, it has to be related to the global story. In many other countries, the sexual exploitation of disadvantaged children by Irish missionaries was disastrous.
In Canada, they were involved in running schools for Native American children. Those children were trained for servility before their white masters. Thousands were raped and many of those who fled the schools died.
In Australia they were responsible for the importation of Irish orphans and their severance from all hope of knowing who they were.
And if the evidence of experience now is that these celibate orders fostered sadism and sexual perversion, then we must look closely at how they are now conducting themselves in countries where they still function and claim respect.
There are no Christian Brothers teaching in Ireland but there are many in India and in several African countries.
If Ireland is to accept responsibility for the suffering that past generations allowed to be inflicted on children, then it must speak to those other countries and alert them to the danger that their own children may be abused in this way.This could be an Irish diplomatic responsibility.
Never again should these orders be respected or their word be taken untested about what they are doing.
And then we must try to understand how these things happen. Presumably many of those who joined the orders did so with an honest intention of living a disciplined and celibate life. Many of them left home at 14 to join junior seminaries, before their own sexuality was awakened and then had to learn to live with an impossible pledge to celibacy taken before they were fully formed.
These boys and girls also swore obedience to their orders and were, therefore, easily manipulated.
And then they were clustered together in single sex institutions, treated like gormless functionaries by their own superiors and put in charge of vulnerable children, who served the role of the cat that the office boy kicks.
But we have seen it in prisons and concentration camps and in English public schools, that a combination of sexual repression and power produces sadism.
Our own beloved CS Lewis, in a book regarded as a spiritual classic, Surprised By Joy, describes, indulgently, the routine sexual exploitation of little boys in an English public school.
These things were worse in Ireland than elsewhere, and where they were at their worst elsewhere it was often Irish clergy and religious who were doing it. That is the unforgettable legacy of a proud Irish missionary endeavour.
Well, let’s at least be sure, as far as we can, that future generations remember and understand, and that anywhere on this earth that an Irish missionary is in charge of children there is someone keeping a close watch on him.

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One of the telling moments, when you seek to be a detached and cynical atheist, is when you open a copy of the New Testament to read the account of the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – just for research purposes.
For you may have disregarded the myth since you left school and stopped going to church – which in my case was 40 years ago – but there is no escaping the hold of this powerful and moving story. Especially, the version according to John.
This is one of the stories that we learnt as children and it survives in our imaginations with a potency that Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus just don’t have.
And in a rapidly secularising Ireland, Easter retains a magic and enthralls like few other times of the year.
Part of that, of course, is because it is bigger, for most of us, than the Passion. We have our own rituals around eggs, bonnets and the flight to Donegal which have nothing to do with Christian heritage.
Easter is the first holiday of the Spring. April sunshine — when you get it — awakens a nostalgia for freedom and romance, the best parts of Springs past. The sap is rising. Something of our own selves, overshadowed by winter, is resurrected at Easter.
When we were children, we went to the church to pray at each of the stations of the Cross and to contemplate the suffering of Jesus. There was a bit of guilt-tripping going on there too. It is still the message of most churches that we are to blame, ourselves, for the suffering inflicted. God had to become a man and suffer as a man because we were sinful.
There is actually very little sense of that burdensome idea in the Gospel itself. Jesus never says, I have to go off and get flayed now, because Adam ate the apple, and you’re no better yourselves.
It is clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus was crucified because he had rebelled against the Temple. He was – like myself – profoundly anti clerical. He is my anti-clerical hero.
I personally think the story has been damaged by the mythologising in the Christian tradition.
Without any interpretation added on to it, the story of the Last Supper and the arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel evokes deep feelings. I suspect that this story would still be with us as a piece of treasured ancient literature, engaging our fascination still, even without the gloss. In a secularising Ireland, where fewer and fewer people take the church interpretation literally, it would be a tragedy if this story was lost to us because it was dismissed as only having Christian significance.
In most of the Christian tradition, Jesus is understood to have known himself to be the son of God, on a mission to lay down his life for the sins of humanity. What is lost in that version, is the earliest heartbeat detectable in world literature, of a man agonising and struggling.
Some of the Christian churches have gone back to the text, stripping away the ritual and theology of, say, the Catholic Churches, to find a simpler Eucharist.
The Last Supper is remembered by Roman Catholics as the establishment of communal sacrament, exclusive to true believers. The evangelicals read the story more truly when they offer the bread more freely. After all, Jesus did not refuse it to Judas.
But their conviction that Jesus was God makes much of the story unintelligible. Why would he have gone into the desert for forty days? Usually such a pilgrim is trying to draw closer to the divine – what need would Jesus as God have had to do that?
There are some elements of the story which are perplexing. When Jesus rode on the donkey into Jerusalem, in Matthew’s version, and reached into a fig tree for something to eat, and didn’t find fresh fruit, he cursed the fig tree never to bear fruit again. What was that all about? The modern Christian perspective allows little room for the petulance of Christ.
The story lends itself more to creative rereading than to ossification in doctrine.
There are numerous little flashes of temper, and even sarcasm, in the gospels. ‘The poor you will have always with you.’ There just isn’t an interpretation of those words available to us that does any credit to him. But they ring so truly that they tell us that they are the words of a real man; just not the man Jesus as envisaged by Hollywood or in the little holy pictures I used to have in my prayer book.
Nowadays, I am more likely to encounter the story of the Passion in literature and music than in church. There have been numerous novels retelling the crucifixion, from Kazantzakis to CK Stead. The body of music continues to expand, from the passions of Bach to the Seven Last Words of James MacMillan, religious music that sells to cultured secular people.
This story will not die so long as thier are minds to engage with it and retell it. It might even have a better chance to flourish when the churches have lost hold of it altogether.

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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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Bishops discussing the BVM

Here’s one I enjoyed doing for Sunday Sequence: a debate at the Church of Ireland Chaplaincy at QUB on whether Anglicans or Roman Catholics (‘papishes’) have the better understanding to the real nature of Mary of Nazareth.

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BBC discussion on religion

The BBC has been running a series of items on the decline of religion in Ireland. They invited me onto a podcast panel and this is the end result. I thought they had pulled me in because they had read my new book, but no; just a coincidence.

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