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Press: The silly season comes early

13 April 2011

by Andrew Brown

 IT HAS been a vintage week for silliness, start­ing with the extraordinary brouhaha about Lord Rees and the Templeton Prize (News, 8 April). There really is no very dignified answer to the ques­tion “Why would you accept £1 million, no strings attached, from the estate of a ben­evolent squillionaire?” except “Why on earth wouldn’t you?”

It was the latter question that Jerry Coyne, an American biologist who specialises in abuse of Christian sympathisers (I am to him “The Guardian’s resident moron”), set out to answer in a piece claiming that the Templeton money was there to lend respectability to religion.

“Templeton’s mission is a serious corrup­tion of science. Like a homeopathic remedy, it dilutes the core of the scientific enterprise, which has achieved its successes by holding doubt as a virtue and faith as a vice. The situation in religion is precisely the opposite, which is why theology remains mired in the Middle Ages.”

In The Independent, Coyne was quoted as say­ing that the Templeton Foundation was “sneakier than the creationists” — a variation of the New Atheist line that moderate believers are more dangerous and disgusting than ex­tremists, because they can so easily be mistaken for normal human beings. It is rather wonder­ful to see this kind of reasoning trotted out as scientific and progressive.

Still, both The Times and The Guardian ran leaders in praise of Lord Rees, and of the Templeton agenda, and if the whole row ac­complished nothing else, it told every scientist in Britain that there is a very large and generous source of funding to be tapped for interesting projects.

AFTER the Templeton row faded (and there were six pieces on it, one way or another, on The Guardian’s website) it was time for something a little more substantial. I found it in the book pages of the Evening Standard, where David Sexton, the literary editor, re­viewed A. C. Grayling’s rewrite of the Bible.

“The text is actually laid out in chapter and verse. ‘In mimicking that format, The Good Book says something about how it sees itself: as a book of wisdom and insight for life,’ says this vainglorious buffoon, who has also already told an interviewer he hopes it will be read by ‘absolutely every human being on the planet’.

“Grayling has selected all the great texts from the past he can find that do not have any religious aspect to them whatsoever — that don’t mention ‘gods, souls, the afterlife, reli­gion or any associated topic’. . . . Grayling has puréed them all.

“It’s the disco-remix from Hell. You sud­denly realise that what you are reading is noth­ing other than a dud translation of a poem you know well — by Horace, Leopardi, Goethe or Li Po — as channelled by Grayling himself, far from an inspiring writer at the best of times.

“In the final section, his message to the world, Grayling delivers his very own Ten Com­mandments: ‘Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try.’

“It’s the Boy Scouts code: dib! dib! dib!, dob! dob! dob! — apart, that is, from that pathetic, HR termination, ‘at least, sincerely try’.”

A good utilitarian like Grayling must be de­lighted. Any book that gives rise to that review has made a solid contribution to the sum of human happiness.

THEN there was the Sunday Times’s exposé of jihadis on the internet: “Baby clothes and bibs with slogans glorifying martyrdom and ex­tremist jihadist creeds are for sale on a main­stream T-shirt website.

“An MP has called for an urgent investiga­tion by anti-terrorism police into the items on the Cafepress website, which also sells mater­nity T-shirts with slogans glorifying the goals of Al-Qaeda.

“The items include an £11 pink baby suit for children just a few weeks’ old with the slogan ‘Your 77 virgins are waiting for you in heaven so pull up your linen and start your grinnin’. This is an inaccurate reference to the 72 virgins supposedly awaiting ‘martyrs’ in paradise.”

My crack investigative team of mouse-clicking fingers revealed that this was in fact sold by an American nationalist as a way of attacking Muslims. The strapline says “Hey Islamic terrorist go ahead and pull that pin — your 77 Virgins are waiting for you. When you get to your Heaven — pull up that linen and start your grinning!” There is a problem here, but it’s not what The Sunday Times thinks it is.

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