Was Bell beastly?

12 April 2013

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"WHAT we do in war affects the whole character of peace." It is a dictum that has trans-historical resonance, although in this form it comes from a speech from the clergyman whom Archbishop Fisher later described as "volcanic".

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester during the middle decades of the past century, was at one stage touted for the position that Dr Fisher later took; but what did for his prospects, it is said, was the speech that he delivered in the House of Lords in 1944, in which he condemned the blanket bombing of Dresden and other German industrial centres.

Dr Bell was the subject of last week's Brief Lives (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week): more than an obituary show, in that it invites personalities who themselves have challenging viewpoints to propose subjects, and puts them together with a scholar who is expected to provide a more objective reading, the whole presided over by Matthew Parris.

Bell's admirer was Peter Hitchens, who, as Parris repeatedly gushed, is not averse to swimming against the tide. Hitchens, with the church historian Andrew Chandler, made a good fist of explor- ing the motivation this turbulent priest.

Bell was no pacifist, and he was one of the early speakers against the rise of Nazism in Germany. Indeed, what he bears witness to is the type of churchmanship that was unafraid to engage with political issues in the pulpit. We heard archive material of a sermon Bell delivered in 1957 about the Cold War, which was unapologetically political in a way that, as Dr Chandler pointed out, one would rarely hear now. Whether you go with Hitchens's assessment that the World Wars did for the Church in England, one cannot but marvel at the oratory of a bishop who was still confident in the knowledge that he was a member of the national Established Church.

As I scan the schedules, I am often drawn to those programmes that promise sceptical viewpoints on a firmly held belief system. This tendency might be described as a form of "confirmation bias", whereby we engage with arguments that reinforce our intellectual principles. Thus, I was immediately drawn to Jon Ronson on. . . (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), which investigated this very phenomenon.

In its crankier form, this is a paranoid state that encourages people to see patterns in everything they observe. The number 11 is everywhere, as Uri Geller explained: it is the number of letters in many an American President's name (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton).

But it can get more serious. The innocent have been implicated for serious crimes on the basis of little more than the effects of confirmation bias, where a series of coincidences seem like incontrovertible evidence. The campaigning lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who works with many death-row prisoners in the United States, claims that policemen are prone to confirmation bias, since they have authoritarian personalities - although, as a natural sceptic, I am bound to ask whether this in itself is not a prejudice born of his own confirmation bias.

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