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Press: Sunday Times probes roots of Dawkins’s sin

30 April 2021


SOMETHING new, I think, in the semi-tabloid press: in this instance, The Sunday Times, where Sarah Ditum considered atheism and Christianity.

The peg was the decision by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to withdraw an award that they had given to Richard Dawkins in 1996. “Dawkins’s sin? Failing to profess the correct beliefs about trans people. In a tweet, he had offered the following conversation-starter: ‘Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.’ For the AHA, this amounted to Dawkins’s using ‘the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalised groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values’. Simply posing the question was transphobic.”

Ditum neatly frames the spat in Tom Holland’s terms of a post-Christian thought-world: not one where Christianity never happened, but one where it still shapes even those who reject it, much as the glaciers of past Ice Ages shaped the landscape that we inhabit today (Features, 27 September 2019). This is, of course, a part of Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue, published 40 years ago. Nice to see The Sunday Times catching up.

“‘The central image of Christianity is someone being tortured to death, and that valorises the victim,’ Holland explains. ‘That sense that to be weak is a source of strength is so embedded in our culture that we don’t really even need Christian doctrinal teaching for people to instinctively believe it.’

“When the Church looked powerful, atheism had the moral authority of the underdog. Now its victory leaves it looking like another oppressor to be taken down. That explains . . . why it was an allegation of transphobia that finally led the AHA to renounce Dawkins. ‘Trans people depend for public sympathy on the assumption that those who historically have been persecuted and those who are a minority deserve sympathy, which is a deeply Christian idea,’ Holland says.”


THE strangest story of the week, and the most enticing headline, came from The Washington Post: “Why are so many Christians in Colombia converting to Orthodox Judaism?” It turns out that there are in Cali now three Orthodox synagogues — and seven “emergent” ones, composed of converts mostly from Pentecostal Christianity. The article did not go deeply into the reasons, since it was mostly a plug for a book of photographs of the phenomenon.

Following it up led me to a four-year-old story on Elad Villegas, formerly Juan Carlos, an Evangelical pastor with a congregation of 3000. In 2002, he had been kidnapped for ransom by Marxist guerrillas. His father paid the family’s life savings — $50,000 — but one of the conditions of the release was that everyone would deny that a ransom had been paid. Instead, they concocted a story that the pastor had, in captivity, converted his kidnappers to Christianity, and that was why they had released him.

The story made him a celebrity, but the lie corroded his soul. “He became acutely aware of how Pentecostalism — how he — exploited the parishioners, passing off psychological and emotional manipulation as divine intervention. His faith was untouched, but he needed to find a new way of connecting with God.” Inspired by two visits to Israel, slowly and circuitously he led his congregation to attempt a conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Two hundred of them followed him all the way.


THE New York Times had a story with astonishing implications for the future of tabloid journalism in this country. You know all those Daily Mail stories that tell you the age, number of children, and price of the house of anyone in them? The sort that always contains something like: “After the murders, the 59-year-old mother of two retreated to her £750,000 home where she ran a nude bingo hall. It was there she first met Rev Jenny James, who responded to an advert for a chaplain. . .”

Well, it turns out that Facebook has an internal policy banning absolutely any reference to “private information that could lead to physical or financial harm, including financial, residential and medical information”. If an identified photograph of your home appears there, and you complain, it can be taken down.

This came up in the context of a dispute between Facebook and a New York tabloid, which had run a story about the large houses owned by a Black Lives Matter activist. But, if it is widely known in this country, it will mean that a great many of the traditional tabloid staple stories can no longer be spread through Facebook. What will it do to stories about bishops’ palaces, I wonder? Do they count as “private residences”?


FINALLY, I was enchanted by the end of another Washington Post story, about a pastor facing 20 years in prison for allegedly claiming $1.5 million from a government Covid-relief programme for small businesses, and spending it on fancy cars — 39 of them — and an unspecified number of houses. The story ends: “On the church’s recently deleted Facebook page was the motto: ‘We’re feeding & clothing the homeless & needy.’”

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