Letters to the Editor

20 September 2019

Brexit, courageous chaplains, religious experience, Baptismal alternatives, and crooks and cookery


The Prime Minister, Brexit, and the national good

From Mr Malcolm Dixon

Sir, — The slew of letters (13 September) fiercely critical of your using a photo of a protester mocking the Prime Minister on the previous issue’s cover rather confirms my impression that Brexit, far from having no moral or religious connotations at all, as alleged by one of your correspondents, has, in fact, become a folk religion in its own right, whose zealous followers brook no argument and regard any criticism as apostasy.

Since our Government has now become a branch of that religion, competence and experience are no longer required for appointment to high office, but only an unswerving allegiance to the “true faith”.

As for our Prime Minister, although the office deserves respect, I would have expected that any Christian would be at least dismayed, if not completely appalled, by the conduct of the current occupant of that high office.

26 Tubbenden Drive
Orpington, Kent BR6 9PA


From Dr Alan Cram

Sir, — I write concerning the apparent offence caused, as evidenced in your letters page, by the picture of Boris Johnson as a clown and Bishop Nick Baines’s article (Comment, 6 September).

First, lampooning religious and political leaders is an ancient tradition: a very effective way of knocking the powerful and arrogant off their pedestals. The Old Testament prophets were experts at this, and Jesus himself was not averse to mocking the Scribes and Pharisees of his day. Court jesters were employed by their masters to do just that. The representation of Boris Johnson as a clown is totally apt, since that is the image he himself has promoted over the past few years.

Second, the Bishop of Leeds was attacked by several readers for asking how we can trust a Prime Minister who has lied so much. This seems to me to be a very pertinent question, since we are not simply talking about a politician who is economical with the truth, but a Prime Minister who is an inveterate liar. As a journalist, Mr Johnson made false accusations about EU directives; he lied during the EU referendum campaign; and he lied during the recent Conservative leadership campaign.

Bishop Baines is not alone in his criticism: many other commentators have been more damning and, more tellingly, so have members (and sacked members) of the Conservative Party, including at least two former Conservative Prime Ministers.

86 Pontardawe Road
Swansea SA6 5PA


From Mr Gordon Arthur

Sir, — Your decision to use “that poster” has unleashed the Furies. But, whether or not your readers (or you) sympathise with the sentiments of the poster is beside the point. What the poster graphically demonstrates is the state of division, rancour, and lack of trust which now pervades our country. These are difficult times, and you were right to draw attention to the hostilities. Christians must now be at the forefront of efforts to heal the divisions and to recover a common endeavour.

20 Gumley Road
Smeeton Westerby
Leicester LE8 0LT


Arnhem: remember the courageous chaplains 

From Linda Parker

Sir, — To mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden at Arnhem, it would be appropriate to bring to mind and honour the 15 British Army chaplains who accompanied the troops that landed by parachute and glider on 17 and 18 September 1944.

Their situation was in some ways unique, even for airborne chaplains, as there was no possibility of retreat. They were performing their spiritual and practical duties under constant fire, and all showed physical and moral courage, mostly on the front line of battle. Any concerns about role-conflict did not appear to have prevented the variety of tasks carried out: taking services, bringing in wounded, tending wounded under horrendous conditions, keeping up morale by material and spiritual comfort, and, in some cases, directing the course of military action, although not bearing arms.

The Revd H. J. Irwin and Fr B. J. Benson were killed during the course of the battle. The Revd W. R. Chignell, the Revd J. Rowell, and the Revd R. Talbot-Watkins made their escape, escorting men over the Rhine during Operation Berlin, but the remaining padres became prisoners of war, one, the senior chaplain, the Revd A. W. H. Harlow, for the second time in the war.

By their unarmed ministry of presence throughout the battle, they were able to be of spiritual and physical support to the men they served.

Murrens, Old Reading Road
Crowmarsh Gifford
Oxfordshire 0X10 8EN


Theories of the origins of religious experience 

From Professor Michael N. Marsh

Sir, — According to Dr Mark Vernon, “trance theory” explains God’s being realised “perhaps” 200,000 years ago (Comment, 13 September). So, trances result from endorphins, which release tensions and promote large-group bonding. But what, then, is the logical connection, if any, with his “early religiosity” and “increased pro-social behaviour”, and why?

Surely, after a hokey-cokey, or a rousing “Rule Britannia”, transient rises in endorphins occur; but one would hardly think that the crowds emerging from Saturday-night dance halls or the Albert Hall were all craving for God and needing restraint by divine edict. Incidentally, are serotonin, oxytocin, nor-adrenaline, or other aminergic neurotransmitters irrelevant?

Two years ago, another critically based conference, countering the Cognitive Science of Religion school, was held in New Mexico. Admittance to speaking was competitive, and successful speakers needed further competition for space to publish (Religion, Religiosity & Theology, edited by J. Feierman and L Oviedo, Routledge, 2019, forthcoming).

My chapter envisions that near-death and out-of-body experiences (ND/OBE) could have favoured a “sensing of the divine” in early hominins exposed to the same precipitants as today: haemorrhage; fractures; intoxications; fevers; brain damage; psychedelic drugs; childbirth injury; anaphylaxis; bereavement (Hopi tribe widows). Three relevant hallucinatory outcomes include visions of a powerful god-like entity; but especially seeing deceased forebears apparently alive and well but in another inaccessible realm, and critically, upward flight (from disturbed eighth cranial nerve vestibular/mid-brain connections).

But another crucial ingredient is that ND/OBE events markedly alter subjects’ post-experiential psychological profiles, including heightened religious commitment. That change in personality and its causation would have been carefully noted, and its “spiritualising” influence gradually incorporated into the social mores of these ancient peoples.

Ancient peoples were as ill as we are today, and unsurprisingly, in relation to genetic, physiological, and environmental factors. We know that REM (rapid eye-movement) dreamlike sleep can override normal conscious awareness, intruding into such states as narcolepsy or cataplexy syndrome, which is genetically based; sleep paralysis; lucid dreaming, and causing NDE.

There is no reason to suppose that this constellation of disordered conscious states did not affect early man (much as we know that specific FOXP2 gene mutations relative to articulatory speech were borne far back by Neanderthals and Denisovans).

These altered states of consciousness are brought about by aberrant molecular switching between their relevant aminergic control mechanisms within the upper midbrain. Such disordered switching leads to moments of complete unawareness or detachment from reality, often termed by religious writers as “Absolute Being”; union with God; or even “the dark night of the soul” of St John of the Cross. Indeed, these neural abnormalities explain the sheer profundity of deep religious transcendence best defined by William James’s “ineffability”.

It should not go unnoticed that these are substantive insights into specific genetic and neurophysiological underpinnings of the very fundamentals of humanly based religious thought and experience. Again, all religions subsequently elaborated by literate peoples (Egyptians, Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jews, Christians) involve flights into “heaven”. I have never come across anyone who asked how that idea originated. I suggest a concurrence among ancient peoples with out-of-body hallucinations, which became progressively woven into the extending fabric of all later evolving religious systems and creeds.

There is no reason to suppose that early man was “deluded”: but we must guard against being deluded ourselves by wispy ideas that hardly convince or lack effective purchase on these issues. Any “new” theories must acknowledge what is already established and be grafted on to what is already known.

Wolfson College
Oxford OX2 6UD


Baptismal alternatives 

From the Rt Revd Robert Paterson

Sir, — It is disconcerting that the Revd Philip Welsh should write an article for the Church Times (Comment, 13 September) on the subject of baptismal commitment while clearly being unaware of the Alternative Texts approved by the General Synod four years ago. To compound the error, your paper chose to give this omission some prominence.

Your readers may find it helpful to read the 2015 texts, and to use them, having first read the guidance notes that I had a share in writing.

Cedar House, 63 Greenhill
Evesham WR11 4LX


The Revd Philip Welsh replies: Your correspondent is quite right to point out my omission. I suspect I am not the only member of the clergy to need this reminder, and the Alternative Texts certainly address a number of my concerns. These simpler versions emerged as a pastoral response, “to make a baptism service accessible to those who are not used to being in church” (Guidance Notes). My own focus was about the importance of using available options as a matter of general practice.


Crooks and cookery 

From Mrs Margaret Duggan

Sir, — Please, please, Angela Tilby (Comment, 13 September), Guido Brunetti’s wife is Paola, not Paula, and her cooking is one of the de­­­­lights of Donna Leon’s novels.

Yes, Paola is a declared sceptic and non-believer, her Commissario husband less so: he even resorts to an occasional prayer. And, in The Death of Faith, you cannot blame their teenage children for being repelled by the predatory priest at school who teaches the catechism.

But Leon’s books are filled with humanity, protests about the endemic corruption of much of Italian government, and deep morality.

23 York Mansions
Prince of Wales Drive
London SW11 4DL

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