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Mocking the pious freethinker

21 March 2014


POPE FRANCIS, as he would no doubt have wished, killed all discussion of the 20th anniversary of the first ordinations of women in Britain. In fact, there was practically nothing in the papers except for a few lazy rounds of shellfire over church schools. Philip Collins in The Times had a piece denouncing religious selection, which was interesting in that he used Hasidic Jews, rather than Muslims, as the example of multiculturalism gone wrong. This may well be justified by the facts, but it is still unusual.

"The task of living together well is the dilemma of the diverse modern city," he wrote. "I saw this at its most acute in the years I lived near the West Bank. Not the land-locked area that forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, which David Cameron visited yesterday, but the street of that name in Stamford Hill, London N16.

"On my side of the bank, people mostly like me lived out their lives of cosmopolitan prosperity, spending their days in town and their nights in the restaurants of Church Street. On the other side, 100 yards away, the largest community of Hasidic Jews in Europe lived, worked, and went to school in what they called their 'square mile of piety'. The men of the area walked the streets in the clothes their predecessors would have worn in the shtetl back in the Congress Kingdom of Poland.

"No conversation passed between the two communities, no pleasant greetings were exchanged on the rare occasions somebody crossed to the wrong side of the bank. We lived our separate and incommensurate lives in our cultural redoubts, happily and peace-fully ignoring each other."

This is not, of course, quite the way that Christian faith schools operate within the state system here, yet he elides the difference very smoothly: "Schools are selecting pupils on criteria irrelevant to education, and offering a curriculum with a gloss of obscurantism. Nobody worries about indoctrination in the vast majority of Church of England primary schools. It is where two peoples living parallel lives, on either side of a bank and a divide, are being schooled separately that the problem arises."

Despite all appearances, I can't have been doing this job for long enough, since I still am shocked that such idle and utterly slipshod reasoning gets through the editorial filters at The Times, where Collins is, in fact, the chief leader writer.

JOHN GRAY, writing in the New Statesman, reviewed a couple of books on atheism, tracing the sad decline from Frederick Nietzsche to Daniel Dennett: "With few exceptions, contemporary atheists are earnest and militant liberals. Awkwardly, Nietzsche pointed out that liberal values derive from Jewish and Christian monotheism, and rejected these values for that very reason. There is no basis - whether in logic or history - for the prevailing notion that atheism and liberalism go together. Illustrating this fact, Nietzsche can only be an embarrassment for atheists today. Worse, they can't help dimly suspecting they embody precisely the kind of pious freethinker that Nietzsche despised and mocked: loud in their mawkish reverence for humanity, and stridently censorious of any criticism of liberal hopes."

Gray loves Terry Eagleton's book Culture and the Death of God, which has elsewhere had rather mixed reviews; his conclusion is worth quoting, too: "[Nietzsche's] critique of liberal rationalism remains as forceful as ever. As he argued with masterful irony, the belief that the world can be made fully intelligibleis an article of faith: a metaphysical wager, rather than a premise of rational inquiry. It is a thought our pious unbelievers are unwilling to allow."

OTHERWISE, the noteworthy stuff was all American. The Washington Post had themost recent of the articles pointing out that there is a religious dimension to the Russian seizure of the Crimea: "Crimea sits at the heart of both the Third Rome idea and Nicholas I's nationality platform, because it was on the peninsula that Byzantium passed the mantle of Orthodoxy to Russia. In the ancient Greek colonial city of Chersonesos, the Byzantine emperor baptised the Kyivan Rus Prince Vladimir."

Vladiomir is the Russian spelling - if you go to Kiev today, you will find him known as Wolodomyr - and it turns out that in the 1990s there was a tussle on the peninsula between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches over who should restore the ruins where he was baptised. It was resolved when the Russians used a helicopter to airlift in a gazebo to mark the site of his baptism - an edifice whose photograph illustrated the Post's article.

FOX NEWS reports that "Bishop Bobby Davis, pastor and founder of the Miracle Faith World Outreach Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut", had been urged by his wife of 50 years to confess an affair to his congregation. He did this at the end of the sermon: the congregation shouted that they forgave him anyway, and then he dropped dead of a heart attack right in front of them. Perhaps this stuff should be left to Roman Catholics.

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