Saturday, February 20, 2016

Science and the Baleful Influence of the Anglican Church

One of the greatest disasters wrought by Christianity has been the suppression of science for the 1500 years when Christian ideas reigned supreme. We all know about cases of proto-scientists like Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno who were burned alive for questioning Christian views. We also know about cases where people were silenced by the prospect of being burned at the stake. 

A more subtle disaster was the waste of time caused by religious indoctrination. The greatest minds were trammelled in infancy so that (however great they were) they could never be fully liberated to achieve their full potential. Galileo was constrained by the orthodox view that planetary orbits must be circular. Kepler believed the traditional teaching that angels kept the planets moving. Newton wasted time trying to decipher the Bible's hidden secrets. Even Darwin frittered away vast amounts of time as a young putative clergyman puzzling over bogus prophecies in the book of Daniel.

Another way in which Christian teaching inhibited scientific progress was though social pressure.  As the Churches lost power, the threat of death diminished. The range of threat included clerically inspired mob violence (eg Joseph Priestly), loss of occupation (eg 19th century geologists), and social ostracism (eg William Godwin). This is one reason why almost all scientific progress up to the mid-nineteenth century was made by noblemen and rich scions of noble families. They moved in educated circles where traditional Church teachings were already held in contempt, and rich and powerful circles where the power of the Church was limited.

For others, social pressure could be enormous. One spectacular example of this was provided by Thomas Fairchild, a celebrated eighteenth century gardener in Hoxton, near the City of London. Fairchild was the first to create a plant hybrid in (perhaps before) 1717. He placed the pollen of sweet william (Dianthus barbatus) on the style of a gillyflower (Dianthus caryophyllus). A new hybrid flower, a type of carnation, looked like neither of its parents, establishing sexual reproduction in plants. This infertile flower became known as "Fairchild's Mule."

Hybrids had existed for a long time already (Shakespeare makes reference to a debate as to their natural or unnatural qualities in “The Winter's Tale”) but what Fairchild was doing was clearly blasphemous. It was “playing God”, presuming to tamper with God’s Creation (exactly the same religious objection still made by traditional Churches to modern genetic science). Fairchild worried about a backlash occasioned by his taking the power over creation into his own hands. To compound his crime, Fairchild had recognised that plants had sexes. He corresponded with the great Linnaeus who also recognised the existence of plant sexes. For Christians this was an abomination. Cross-pollinating species manually was obscene as well as blasphemous, and another cause of criticism of both Fairchild and Linnaeus.

The significance of Fairchild’s work was enormous. He became celebrated in scientific circles for his experiment, and presented a dried flower from his hybrid to the Royal Society in 1720. His work should have triggered much further research, but it did not.  Outside the scientific community it was blasphemous to attempt to create a new species, because God had already created all the species he wanted on Earth. Fairchild did not pursue the obvious lines of further research, and neither did anyone else until his ideas were taken up again by horticulturalists a century later when the influence of Christianity had diminished further.

Fairchild, a devout Christian, should have been a national hero. Instead he would live in fear of God’s wrath for the rest of his life. He died in 1729, apparently still terrified about the prospects for his soul. He bequeathed twenty-five pounds to St Leonard’s Church in the Hackney Rd for the endowment of an annual Whitsun sermon on either "The wonderful works of God in Creation" or "On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of creation". This annual event, a form of atonement for his sins, became known as the “Vegetable Sermon” and is still held each year, attended by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. It provides a baleful reminder of the influence of the Anglican Church in Eighteenth century England.

More at

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

More child deaths and irregular burials by the Catholic Church

We now know pretty well what happened to single mothers in Ireland, up to the 1990s. They were incarcerated in Church-run state-funded, institutions. In these institutions, called mother and baby homes or Magdalene asylums, the women were obliged to carry out hard manual work,  to atone for their sins (and provide profits to the institution). Their children were punished too for the sins of their parents. Usually they were stolen from their mothers. Some of the children were secretly sent abroad to be brought up by good Catholic families. Some became sex toys, Some were beaten to death, starved to death, or murdered in other ways. Mortality rates were over four times higher than in the rest of the population.

Now we know a little bit more. In one home at least, children's bodies - almost 800 - were denied a proper burial but instead dumped in a sewage tank. As you might have guessed, the Catholic Church has declined to apologise, or to carry out or assist in any investigation.

Below is an article from the Guardian, 4th June 2014.

Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway's mass graves

Forget prayers. Only full disclosure by Ireland's Catholic church can begin to atone for the children who died in its care 
Sean Ross AbbeySean Ross Abbey, a home run by nuns in County Tipperary, from where 438 babies were secretly exported to the US for adoption. Photograph: Brian Lockier/
The bodies of 796 children, between the ages of two days and nine years old, have been found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway. They died between 1925 and 1961 in a mother and baby home under the care of the Bon Secours nuns.
Locals have known about the grave since 1975, when two little boys, playing, broke apart the concrete slab covering it and discovered a tomb filled with small skeletons. A parish priest said prayers at the site, and it was sealed once more, the number of bodies below unknown, their names forgotten.
The Tuam historian Catherine Corless discovered the extent of the mass grave when she requested records of children's deaths in the home. The registrar in Galway gave her almost 800. Shocked, she checked 100 of these against graveyard burials, and found only one little boy who had been returned to a family plot. The vast majority of the children's remains, it seemed, were in the septic tank. Corless and a committee have been working tirelessly to raise money for a memorial that includes a plaque bearing each child's name.
For those of you unfamiliar with how, until the 1990s, Ireland dealt with unmarried mothers and their children, here it is: the women were incarcerated in state-funded, church-run institutions called mother and baby homes or Magdalene asylums, where they worked to atone for their sins. Their children were taken from them.
According to Corless, death rates for children in the Tuam mother and baby home, and in similar institutions, were four to five times that of the general population. A health board report from 1944 on the Tuam home describes emaciated, potbellied children, mentally unwell mothers and appalling overcrowding. But, as Corless points out, this was no different to other homes in Ireland. They all had the same mentality: that these women and children should be punished.
Ireland knows all this. We know about the abuse women and children suffered at the hands of the clergy, abuse funded by a theocratic Irish state. What we didn't know is that they threw dead children into unmarked mass graves. But we're inured to these revelations by now.
Corless expresses surprise that the media were so slow to report her story, that people didn't seem to care. If two children were found in an unmarked grave, she observes, it would be news; what about 800? But what is the difference between the wall of lies, denial and secrecy the church constructed to protect its paedophile priests and a concrete slab over the bodies of 796 children neglected to death by nuns? Good people unearth these evil truths, but the church always survives.
The archbishop of Tuam and the head of the Irish Bon Secours sisters will soon meet to discuss the memorial and service planned at the site. The Bon Secours sisters have donated what the Irish TV station RTÉ describes as "a small sum" to the children's graveyard committee.
Father Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archediocese, says: "I suppose we can't really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died."
Let's not judge the past on our morals, then, but on the morals of the time. Was it OK, in mid-20th century Ireland, to throw the bodies of dead children into sewage tanks? Monaghan is really saying: "don't judge the past at all". But we must judge the past, because that is how we learn from it.
Monaghan is correct that we need to mark history appropriately. That's why I am offering the following suggestions as to what the church should do to in response:
Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don't insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are. There were homes throughout Ireland, outrageous child mortality rates in each. Were the Tuam Bon Secours sisters an anomalous, rebellious sect? Or were church practices much the same the country over? If so, how many died in each of these homes? What are their names? Where are their graves? We don't need more platitudinous damage control, but the truth about our history.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Religious Auto-Exceptionalism

Most rationalist are fascinated by the religious mind. There are many aspects to be fascinated by. The failure to see obvious self-contractions and fatal inconsistencies. The failure to follow simple arguments. The love of supposed “mysteries”, and so on. One aspect that seems to have received no attention to date is the phenomenon of making up oppressive rules and then making up reasons to ignore them. This phenomenon of what we might call religious auto-exceptionalism appears to be restricted to monotheistic religions.

Here are a few examples. Let’s start with a couple of Jewish ones. The first is an Hasidic tradition of Jewish women wearing a sheitel, a wig or half-wig. The underlying idea is that, as in Moslem communities, a woman must not let anyone outside her immediate family see her hair. To ensure that no-one can see her hair, she cuts it off, or at least hides it under a sheitel. The sheitel is considered like a sort of hat and there is no rule about who can see your hat. But of course a good sheitel looks just like a natural head of hair. So women wearing a sheitel can go around looking like women with a normal head of hair – even an attractive head of hair. What is going on is that they have made a rule about female modesty, and then developed a way to flout it. In a wonderful piece of triple-think Some Jewish women will then cover their sheitel for the sake of modesty!

Here’s another Jewish example. In the Jewish scriptures God gives his chosen people one day off in every seven. People do not need to work on the Sabbath. The provision permitting people not to work became an injunction not to work. God told Moses to kill a man for collecting firewood on the Sabbath day. The word “work” is interpreted to cover all sorts of activity. Orthodox Jews will not perform such everyday tasks as lighting a fire, making a telephone call or opening an umbrella. In short, all sorts of normal activity is banned, so a small industry has grown up inventing ways of doing things automatically without performing even basic activities. At one end of the spectrum people will prepare a meal the day before, and set an oven timer to cook it for their Sabbath meal. At the other end of the spectrum are a host of specially made devices designed specifically to get around these pointless restrictions. And it gets better. Jeremiah 17:22 says
neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, neither do ye any work; but hallow ye the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
So as well as a prohibition on doing things, there is also a prohibition on carrying things out of your house. This covers anything. People cannot for example carry their car keys out of the house. They cannot even carry a prayer book to the synagogue. And the rule affects everyone, so mothers cannot carry babies, not even in strollers. Old people cannot “carry” walking sticks. Sick people cannot carry medicines. Handicapped people cannot “carry” wheelchairs. As has often been observed, only a religious mind can invent nonsense of a magnitude such as this.

This prohibition on “carrying” is taken very seriously by Orthodox Jews who have developed a vast collection of law on the subject, many rules made by one group contradicting rules made by other groups. (If you take something out of your house then bring it back, have you carried it out?). These rules are not only pointless in any rational universe, but seriously oppressive. So religious minds have found ways to justify ways around the rules. An obvious problem is that the rule prohibits the wearing of clothes, and no religious person wants to enforce that. So clothes are considered exempt. And that opens up possibilities. For example if your car key is built into a belt, and you wear the belt, then you are not technically carrying the key! Incidentally, if you think I’m making this up, you can check the facts with any Orthodox Jew, or any book of Jewish law or any Orthodox Jewish website. In the Orthodox community there is much debate over the wearing of spectacles, hearing aids, bandages and plaster casts, and wristwatches, with separate debates over men’s and women’s jewelry.

Wearing instead of carrying is not the only way of getting around the rules. Another is to extend the definition of your “house”. Rabbis have developed a whole fantasy world where “houses” are not actual houses but neighbourhoods. These fantasy houses are ritual enclosures. Originally they had to be linked courtyards, but that proved impractical. So the rules were relaxed to allow an area surrounded by a substantial wall. When that became impractical the rules were changed again to allow a flimsy fence. A ritual area regarded as a single house for the purposes of Jewish law is called an erov. Today, there are erovs in most major cities in the western world, allowing Orthodox Jews to ignore the oppressive arbitrary rules that they invented for themselves.

Individuals do much the same thing as the rabbis, playing linguistic tricks, but on a smaller scale. The technique might be less subtle, but it is identical in principle. It is not uncommon to find Jewish people who will not eat pork, but will eat bacon, ham, gammon and wild boar. A simple redefinition of the word pork achieves the desired result.  Instead of denoting all pig-meat, the word pork is regarded as denoting only particular types of pig-meat.

Muslims are also adept at making up rules and then finding ways around them. One rule prohibits telling lies in all circumstances, but this is unrealistic so a doctrine called taqiyya permits Muslims to lie in certain circumstances. Again, the Quran prohibits the drinking of fermented grape juice but says nothing about palm wine or other forms of alcohol. Even so the Quranic injunction is almost universally extended to all forms of alcohol. In practice this is too harsh for many and those who want to can find exceptions. So in some countries there is a market in medical tinctures, permitting Muslims to consume alcohol ostensibly for medicinal reasons. Again the hardship of pilgrimage – an essential element of the hajj –  is routinely avoided and the hajj is converted into a holiday. Instead of spending months travelling on foot through deserts, living in the open and scavenging for food, many Muslims just jump on an airplane and stay in luxury hotels. Again, in Saudi Arabia the month of Ramadan is intended to be a month of fasting and hardship. In practice it is often a month of daytime indolence and all-night parties and feasting.

For Christians the position is much the same. Restrictions are routinely imposed. Often they are exaggerated and made oppressive. Then reasons are found to ignore them. Jews, Christians and Moslems have all made up rules about making images, and then had to change those rules. Again they all made up rules about money lending and then founds ways around them. Historically, at least a dozen different reasons have been found to ignore the comprehensive biblical prohibition on killing. As with the Jews, observance of the Sabbath was converted from a privilege permitting people not to work became an obligation forcing them not to enjoy themselves. Protestants tried imposing Muslim style prohibitions on alcohol, even though there is no prohibition, or even criticism, of it in the Bible. Again, lying is absolutely prohibited, except when the requirement becomes too onerous. Catholics have their own form of taqiyya, allowing them to tell lies in contravention of the Ten Commandments (Its called "equivocation" or mental reservation). No matter how clear a teaching, there are ways around it. Churches have created whole industries dedicated to finding ways around the clear biblical requirement for believers to give away everything they own.

Perhaps the best example of Christian auto-exceptionalism concerns the historic rules around fasting. The idea was that Christians in general, and monks in particular, should eat moderately, avoiding rich foods and over-indulgence. This was formalized into rules restricting the consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products for Christians on certain days, with stricter and more onerous restrictions for monks. In some cases these rules became too onerous, often causing ill-health because of inadequate diets. Various ways around the restrictions were therefore found. For the rich, the Church simply sold the right to eat forbidden foods. We still have a reminder of how lucrative this trade was. Europe is dotted with “butter towers” – ecclesiastical buildings funded by money obtained by selling the right to consume dairy products during Lent. 

The Butter Tower of the Cathedral at Rouen, painted by Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1879

Monks were more parsimonious and exploited exceptions instead of paying for exemptions. These exceptions had been perfectly reasonable in principle and covered those who were ill or travelling. Anyone in a monastic hospital could be served meat and dairy products. Over time more and more monks took to eating in the hospital rather than the refectory. Some monasteries interpreted the rule even more liberally. It was applied only to food served in the refectory – so monks simply found reasons to eat elsewhere, setting up alternative dining rooms where the rules did not apply. Better still, monks found that they could get around the prohibitions, even in the refectory, simply by classifying animals in ways that suited their purpose. Since fish was allowed on fast days, a simple solution was to classify various animals as fish. So it was that monks classified beaver as a fish, arguing that it had a scaly tail. They also classified Barnacle Geese as fish, arguing that these geese grew from the sea creatures we still call goose barnacles.

Truly, the religious mind is an endless source of fascination for normal people.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Kill The Jews

The Christian Church is adapting itself to the secular world in almost all areas. It has been remarkably successful in covering its tracks on its traditional teachings. Modern Christians outside the most conservative Christian communities generally have no idea what traditional Christian teachings were on subjects such as capital punishment, torture, slavery, women's rights, "mixed" marriages, freedom of belief, anti-Semitism, and so on.

The trick is done in to ways. The first is to rewrite history to make Christians the good guys - we all learn in school about Christian reformers, rarely do we hear that they followed generations of non-Christian reformers or that the few Christian reformers spent their lives fighting opposition from the majority of their orthodox brethren. The second is to remove the evidence. Hardly any Inquisition records survive. Trial records disappear. Compromising letters get lost, or edited. Torture chambers get turned into innocuous well-lit offices. Teams of Christians work night and day to ensure that Wikipedia gives a view slanted to the benefit of the Church.

Saint James Matamore - what you see today and what you don't see today
the heavenly saint massacring helpless Moors

There are a few areas that the Churches have not yet cleaned up, and others that the Churches started to clean up only after the invention of photography. The process started late in particularly religious countries like Catholic Spain. Spain is around a generation later in the process than northern Europe. So it is that Catholic priests, monks and nuns are still involved in various forms of traditional animal torture from bull fighting to throwing live goats off church towers.

Goat throwing from the Church tower at Manganeses de la Polyvorosa, Spain, to celebrate the patron saint,  Saint Vincent.

One point of growing embarrassment is the national Saint of Spain. Santiago, Sant Iago, or Saint James, sounds innocuous enough, except that he is actually Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor Killer. In Christian fantasy the heavenly saint fought alongside Christian forces against the Muslims at the Battle of Clavijo during the reconquista, cutting down and trampling God's enemies. Each year, festivals around the country feature brave Christian knights killing Muslims. A number of Mexican settlements were named Matamoros by Spanish settlers in honour of their patron saint.

Perhaps the best example of a late survival of Spain's Christian past, concerns not Muslims but Jews. The mayor of a village called Castrillo Matajudíos is thinking of changing the town's name. Why might he think this a good idea? Because the name means "Castrillo Kill the Jews", apparently commemorating a Medieval Christian pogrom of Jews. The word Matarjudios, "Kill the Jews", features elsewhere in Spanish life. It is a common family surname, as well as the name of an Easter drink. Such cultural fossils present a problem to modern Christians trying to whitewash the Christian history of ingrained anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic martyrdom tales have been dropped, anti-Semitic paintings, monuments and statues have vanished, anti-Semitic texts are no longer officially given an imprimatur, the anti-Semitic wording of Easter services was disretely changed in the 1960's. All we have left as a reminder of the truth is the name Matarjudios.

Just in case you think I'm making this up, below is an article from the Guardian  in 2014, giving a bit more background.

Spanish village of Castrillo Kill the Jews votes on name change

Mayor of Castrillo Matajudíos has proposed reverting to village's original name, Castrillo Mota de Judios (Castrillo Jews Hill)

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona, Monday 14 April 2014 14.40 BST
Castrillo Matajudios

After living with the name for more than 500 years, the village of Castrillo Matajudíos (Castrillo Kill the Jews) looks set for a change.

This week the 60 residents of the village in northern Spain will vote on a proposal put forward by the mayor, Lorenzo Rodríguez, to revert to what is believed to be its original name, Castrillo Mota de Judios (Castrillo Jews Hill).

It apparently acquired this name in 1035 when Jews fleeing a pogrom in a nearby village took refuge on the hill. "The people of [nearby] Castrojeriz took up arms against the king's emissaries, killed five of them and 66 Jews, while the rest were banished to Castrillo, which became known as the Mota de los Judios," the mayor told the local newspaper Diario de Burgos.

After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, "someone wrote that now we're more Christian and decided to change the name from Jews' Hill to Kill the Jews," Rodriguez said, adding that it was important for people to understand "our roots" before reaching a decision on the name.

There is a local tradition in the Castilla León region of drinking matar judios – a mix of wine and lemonade – on Good Friday. Matarjudios still exists as a surname, as does the more common Matamoros (Kill the Moors). The patron saint of Spain, Saint James of Compostela, is also known as Saint James the Moorslayer. Legend has it that his disciples brought his relics in a stone boat from the Holy Land to Galicia, in north-west Spain.

This was about 100 years after Muslims conquered Spain. Saint James became the symbol of the Christian reconquest, which lasted 800 years and ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada and the expulsion of Jews. Muslims were expelled shortly afterwards.

As the announcement from Castrillo Matajudíos came during the first days of the Passover holiday, there was no immediate response from Spain's Jewish leadership. But a Jewish American who has lived in Spain for many years but preferred not to be named told the Guardian the debate reflected an entrenched historical antisemitism in Spain.

"Frankly it doesn't surprise me that there's a village called Kill the Jews, though it's pretty disgusting that it's taken them till now to think it might be a good idea to change it. There's a casual racism in Spain that no one here seems to notice but which is quite shocking to an outsider. People say 'he's a bit of a Jew' and stuff like that and no one seems to notice. Plus Spain is in complete denial about its Jewish and Muslim history."

Jews arrived in Spain 2,000 years ago, and until the rise of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages Spain had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. They were tolerated by the Romans but persecuted by the Christian Visigoths who conquered Roman Spain. The Visigoths introduced forced conversion as early as the 7th century.

As a result, when the Muslims invaded in 711 they were embraced by the Jews who helped them to drive out their Visigothic oppressors. A period of religious tolerance, unheard of anywhere else in Europe, ensued, with Muslims, Christian and Jews living in relative harmony.

However, the plague that swept across Europe in the 14th century was widely blamed on the Jews and in 1391 there were pogroms in all of Spain's major cities, leading to an exodus and mass conversion to Christianity.

Today there are only about 12,000 Jews in Spain, compared with 290,000 in the UK and 478,000 in France. In 2008 a survey carried out by the Pew Research Centre found Spain to be one of the most antisemitic countries in Europe.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Christian Marriage

Cardinals and bishops have recently been claiming that same sex marriage is as sinful as slavery. The Pope has supported them, describing same sex marriage as an "attack on justice". The underlying problem is that, according to churchmen, marriage is a distinctly Christian institution with a consistent long tradition. Less canny churchmen are happy to expand on this: it is an institution stretching back to biblical times, unchanged since then, joining one man and woman, for life. The reason that only less canny churchmen are willing to spell this out, is that is that it is an impossible position to sustain. Marriage has not always been a Christian institution. Formalised pair bonding is almost universal in human societies around the world. The wedding that Jesus attended was a Jewish marriage not a Christian one. The Bible nowhere mentions Jesus establishing Christian marriage. It does not mention Christian marriage at all. 

For many centuries the Church did not even try to impose Christian marriage. Marriage was a secular contract, often based on pagan practice. Most of our pleasant little ceremonies associated with marriage - rings, bridesmaids, flowers, carrying the bride over the threshold - are all pre-Christian pagan customs, many of them Roman. The Catholic Church developed an optional ceremony called matrimony, but did not try to impose Christian matrimony in place of ordinary secular marriage until the twenty-fourth session of the Council of Trent in 1563. For the first time Matrimony was formally declared a sacrament. Even then the Council explicitly recognised traditional secular marriages as "valid and true marriages". Traditional secular marriages continued for centuries afterwards, and the Church continued to recognise these secular marriages, so that for example a person who entered a secular marriage could not then marry someone else in Church. Traditional secular marriages slowly declined throughout Europe. They were swept away in England by the Marriage Act of 1753 and in Scotland by the Marriage (Scotland) Act of 1939 - so the distinctly Christian tradition is really not that old - and in both countries was imposed by law, not voluntarily embraced by a devout populace.

The Bible, and Christian Churches up until the nineteenth century, were also happy to countenance Morganatic marriage and even concubinage. King Solomon had had 300 concubines, and had been acclaimed by God for his wisdom. In line with the Bible, Christian men kept concubines for many centuries, and in some countries still do. In the USA slaves and ex-slaves were often taken as concubines, especially where Christian endorsed State laws made "mixed" marriages between blacks and whites illegal, as such marriages remained until 1967. Then there is the question of marriage being only for men and women. Church Law was perfectly happy to marry men to girls, or boys to women, or boys to girls. In theory the children had to be aged at least seven, and the wedding could be voided up to the age of 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In practice we know of many instances where babes-in-arms underwent matrimonial ceremonies in church. 

Then there is the question of one man/boy and one woman/girl. Old Testament writings indicate clearly that God approved of polygamy. Wise old King Solomon had had 700 wives, as well as his concubines. New Testament writings fail to indicate that God ever changed his mind about polygamy (except specifically for bishops who "must be blameless, the husband of one wife", 1 Timothy 3-2). As Martin Luther observed "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict Scripture". Lutheran theologians approved of Philip of Hesse's polygamous marriages to Christina of Saxony and Margarethe von der Saale. The Anglican Church made a decision at the 1988 Lambeth Conference to admit polygamists, subject to certain restrictions.

So when exactly did God change his mind about polygamy, and how do we know? And why did he not mention his change of policy to his Christian followers for centuries after his sojourn on Earth? (Incidentally, God did not mention his change of policy to Jewish followers for a millennium, and he still has not mentioned it to his Moslem followers). Because of this lack of clarity some Christian sects continued to practice polygamy, and a few still do today. Even mainstream Churches go along with polygamy where it is in their interests to do so, for example in parts of Africa where polygamy is popular, and Moslems and Christians compete for converts. Catholic Presidents in Africa are widely known to be in polygamous marriages, but they still get warm welcomes at the Vatican. Jesus Christ himself can be seen as a polygamist - countless thousands of Catholic nuns were traditionally encouraged by their Church to consider themselves to be married to him. The ceremony in which they took their vows and became "brides of Christ" were conscious imitations of wedding ceremonies, even down to the wedding crown, veil and dowry.

This photograph is entitled "A Meeting of the Brides of Christ on their Wedding Day to their Lord at the Nunnery in Godalming, Surrey". It was taken in 1965 at the Ladywell Convent and is one of a series on the lives of nuns that Eve Arnold took during the mid-1960s. 

Then there is the purported purpose of marriage. For traditional secular marriage there could be any purpose, including romantic love. But love has never had any part in Christian marriage. The possible reasons have varied from the traditional Catholic insistence, codified in Cannon law, that the only acceptable motive for marriage was procreation, to the three acceptable motives recognised by Anglicans. These three motives are procreation, companionship and as a "remedy against fornication", because without marriage we should all be copulating like the "brute beasts of the field". 

Traditional marriages undertaken by Christians were arranged marriages. They transferred the ownership of a woman from her father to her husband. That's why the father is still said to "give away" his daughter during Christian wedding ceremonies. As in the bible, women were a form of property, not very different from slaves and other chattels, denied legal privileges of their male owners. In any case, love was not and still is not required in Christian marriage. By contrast, in practice, love is central to modern secular marriage.

Again, there is the question of whether marriage is for life. Clearly Christian marriage was not. At various times the Roman Church dissolved marriages for a wide range of reasons, some of which, like adultery, were explicitly authorised in the Bible. There is a large body of Canon Law setting out the many conditions under which marriages can be dissolved. The Church dissolved something like 20 percent of medieval marriages between royalty and nobility - pretty much on demand if both parties agreed and were prepared to pay. The marriage between Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt was annulled by Pope Pius XI on 19 August 1926. He obligingly legitimized their two sons.

 Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough, with his wife Consuelo, and two sons

Christian marriage has never been for life, for those with influence. In Britain after the Reformation, Parliament dissolved marriages, reinforcing the fact that for Anglicans marriage was a secular, not a religious matter. Today the divorce courts in Britain, as in many countries, operate under civil law, not ecclesiastical law.

While in Western Churches, because of divorce, marriage can be for less than life. In the Eastern Church, it can be for more than life. A Christian widow or widower was traditionally expected to remain faithful to their dead spouse. The Church discouraged a second marriage ("digamy"), strongly discouraged a third marriage and completely prohibited a fourth.

Then there is the question of consistency. For most Christian denominations, marriage is not a sacrament. For Catholics it is. Anglicans may marry their first cousins, but Catholics may not. At one time Catholics were not permitted to marry anyone within seven degrees of consanguinity, in practice making almost all marriages voidable. All of the main denominations have different ideas of who can marry. Catholic and Orthodox Churches have different rules not only for divorcees and bereaved spouses, but also for priests. Catholic Priests were once able to marry but now they are not allowed to - though married men can, and sometimes do, become priests. According to the Roman Church, couples who are handicapped and unable to have children may not marry - Catholic priests have refused to marry couples on these grounds even in recent times. According to more liberal denominations such couples may marry. Liberal denominations welcome "gay marriage": conservative denominations condemn it as blasphemous. In short, there is no element of Christian marriage that has been consistently applied by Christian Churches, and certainly not since biblical times.

The fact is that marriage is not a distinctly Christian institution. Christian marriage as we now know it has neither a long nor a consistent tradition. It is a relative late comer, and has changed in fundamental ways from place to place, time to time, and sect to sect, with wildly different rules about how it applies and whom it applies to. Perhaps the time has come to stop pretending that the Christian Church has a monopoly on marriage. If churchmen so desperately need a special word to apply to their Christian weddings, why not use holy matrimony, and leave marriage for the Government and the rest of us. 

Christianity's Love of Banning Things

One of the characteristic elements of most brands of Christianity is the drive to stop people doing things they enjoy. There are plenty of examples of Christian kill-joys banning or limiting ordinary activities: reading books, playing sports, singing, dancing, sex, gambling, mixed bathing, theatre, and so on. By far the best known is drinking alcohol - in many places in Europe and the US there are still legal limitations concerning alcohol, especially drinking alcohol on the Sabbath.

Banning the purchase, sale, possession or consumption of alcoholic drinks is a Puritan specialty. Indeed, one of the attractions of prohibiting alcohol was that it constituted a swipe at Catholics, who were seen in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Low Church types as a collection of drunkards.

We all know about the 
disastrous attempt at enforcing Prohibition in the USA in the twentieth century, but Christians everywhere had been campaigning for years against alcohol. In Wales the Methodists and other Low Church types succeeded in steering through the British parliament the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881, an Act of Parliament that banned the sale of alcohol in Welsh pubs on the Sabbath.

As elsewhere, such a prohibition merely invited normal people to find a way around the law. Perhaps the best example occurred a few years after the Act became law. In 1893 residents of Grangetown, near Cardiff, created a invitation-only private members club called the Hotel de Marl. This hotel took the form of a pit dug in a field, furnished with a carpet. A legal case confirmed the club's legal right to serve alcohol. 

Here's a photograph of the Hotel de Marl, a testament to the ingenuity of ordinary people faced by the legally enforced Christian desire to control people's right to enjoy themselves (even though it doesn't look a whole lot of fun!)

Hotel de Marl


Below is a bit more information from

130 years since Sunday drinking was banned in Wales

Members of the congregation arrive for the Sunday service at the Saron Chapel, Ebbw Vale, WalesMembers of the congregation arrive for the Sunday service at the Saron Chapel, Ebbw Vale in August 1952

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One-hundred and thirty years ago this month, William Gladstone's Liberal government passed an act which would change the culture, politics, and even the architecture of Wales, for over a century.
Sponsored by prominent Welsh nonconformists in the Liberal party, such as future Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 banned the sale of alcohol in Welsh pubs on the Sabbath.
It would not be repealed until 1961, when each county was charged with holding a referendum on Sunday opening, to gauge support in their particular area.
While urban districts such as Swansea, Cardiff and Merthyr ditched the ban at the earliest possible opportunity, many rural and Welsh-speaking counties held on to "dry" Sundays.

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On the one hand people welcomed the opportunity for a pint while they were off work, but on the other it was symbolic of the death of a little bit of Welshness”
Robin HughesClerk of Pwllheli Town Council
Dwyfor - now part of Gwynedd - was the last district to drop the ban in 1996.
But Robin Hughes, clerk of Pwllheli Town Council, remembers that it wasn't a particularly contentious issue, with only nine percent of the local population turning out for the referendum.
"There were those on the extremes of the debate," he says.
"People involved in tourism argued that the ban was killing pretty much the only trade in the county, while the chapels thought getting rid of it was going to destroy the moral fibre of the area."
"Most of us had mixed feelings. On the one hand people welcomed the opportunity for a pint while they were off work, but on the other it was symbolic of the death of a little bit of Welshness, that made us a unique, tight-knit community."
Welsh identity
The act was the first piece of Wales-only legislation passed by Westminster since the 1542 Act of Union, and was the first recognition in law of a distinct Welsh identity.
Hotel de MarlHotel de Marl - the outdoor drinking club in Cardiff which made legal history
At the time more than half the people of Wales belonged to a nonconformist chapel, yet members of the Church of England still enjoyed legal and social privileges.
Thus the Sunday Closing Act was celebrated in Wales as an important step on the road to disestablishing the Anglican church and getting the nonconformist chapels recognised on the same footing.
But Sunday closing also had a variety of unexpected effects, which historian and former BBC Wales producer John Trefor thinks may have helped to shape Wales as we know it.
"It was a victory, not only for the chapels and the temperance leagues, but for Welsh identity," he says.
"There was a sense that things could be done differently here. Wales-only Education and cemetery acts came soon after, and in many respects it established the principle on which devolution and the National Assembly are based."
Newbridge MemoWorking men's halls thrived when pubs were closed on Sundays in Wales
Mr Trefor wonders if there were some unintended, but beneficial, consequences to the act.
"It all came about around the same time as the first wave of Italian immigration into the Valleys. So, with the pubs shut on a Sunday, the 'Bracchi' or Italian coffee shop and ice-cream parlour, became fixed in Welsh culture as a meeting place.
"Without the coffee shop, would Dylan Thomas have been the same writer?"
He also notes that an act which only applied to public houses gave a boost to private members' clubs, which became more than just drinking establishments.
"Around this time you see the boom in workingmen's halls, a key part of which were their libraries," he says.
"So there's a new generation of self-educated working men, who start sharing their ideas and forming more effective and radical political movements and unions."
But not all private members clubs were so grand and lofty in their ideals.

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A rude and elementary type but still a club, as much as the best and most exclusive in the country.”
Stipendiary magistrateruling in favour of the Hotel de Marl
In 1893 residents of Grangetown, then a village distinct from Cardiff, won a landmark court ruling after they'd dug a pit in a field, spread out a carpet, and declared themselves to be an invitation-only private members club called the Hotel de Marl.
At the time members' clubs were allowed to serve, but not sell alcohol, a rule which the ad hoc Hotel de Marl got around by laying an old newspaper on the ground, into which members could throw donations.
After taking two days to consider his verdict, the magistrate found in the Hotel de Marl's favour, ruling that they had indeed met the criteria of a members club, albeit: "A rude and elementary type but still a club, as much as the best and most exclusive in the country."
However, the Marquis of Bute, whose land the Hotel de Marl had been using, was so outraged, that he threatened action for trespass against the "members".
By then the genie was out of the bottle, as an investigation by the Western Mail, a Cardiff-based newspaper, in 1892 found 3,000 people drinking on one Sunday in over 450 illegal drinking dens, or shebeens, across Cardiff.
Licensees protested to a Royal Commission into the Act in 1889 that the illegal drinking trade was killing legitimate public houses; as after people had visited a shebeen on a Sunday, they never returned to the pub during the rest of the week.
Part of a temperance poster from 1880, published in Ruabon, DenbighshirePart of a temperance poster from 1880, published in Ruabon, Denbighshire
However, while researching his book Real Heritage Pubs of Wales, Mick Slaughter found plenty of evidence to suggest that in fact the opposite was true.
"When you look for the evidence of the Sunday closing laws in the architecture of our pubs, there's two things that strike you: the number of tiny household pubs, and the number of pubs which were converted around this time, in order to offer accommodation," he says.
"Hotels, like private members clubs, were exempt from the act, but they had to have separate public and residents' bars. A lot of these have been knocked through into one today, but you can still make out the different entrances.
"It's hard to believe that there was suddenly a huge boom in tourism - especially in poor industrial areas - so you can only presume that there was some sort of fiddle going on, whereby rooms were ostensibly let out to Sunday drinkers."
"The tiny pubs are a particularly Welsh phenomenon. They started out as front-room shebeens, but went legitimate because there was far too much money to be made to risk being shut down."
"You only have to look at the amount of money poured at this time, into building some of the most famous and grand pubs in Wales, to see that drinking was big business. Making something harder to do makes it desirable."
"It's now, with all our choice and liberal licensing, that the pub is really under threat," he adds.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

An Open letter to the Editor, The Archers, BBC Radio 4.

Sean O’Connor
Editor, The Archers.
BBC Radio 4

5 April 2014

Dear Mr O’Connor,

As you have had a few months to settle into your new post, I wonder if it might be the right time to bring the Archers into the twenty-first century in one important respect.

We all know that the BBC in its Charter has a mandate to act as a propaganda arm for mainstream religion, but perhaps the time has come for BBC drama to be excused this duty - after all the Charter refers explicitly to religious services. There are many areas on the BBC radio where exaggerated deference is still shown to Christian belief, and I suspect that most people are ready to hear a more realistic version of village life.

Over the last thirty years or so, Ambridge has seen a succession of vicars. They have all been attractive, dedicated, liberal characters – just as they are across all of Radio 4. If you know any vicars, or if you read national or local newspapers, you will know that this does not reflect reality. 

At one end of the spectrum, real vicars are often barely Christians at all. To friends they will generally admit quite freely that they do not believe in nonsense like the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. Some of them laugh at the simpletons who do believe such things. At the other end of the spectrum are conservatives, with no doubts at all, who espouse traditional Christian views: generally they barely conceal their homophobia, misogyny and racism. There are some very strange people indeed wearing dog collars - openly manipulating their female parishioners, hearing supernatural voices, speaking in tongues, preaching hell-fire, exorcising demons and so on.

In between, in the middle of the spectrum, real vicars are sometimes unpleasant characters. Some commit frauds and other crimes. Some are pedophiles. Some beat their wives – so many in fact that there is a special support organization dedicated to the support of battered clerical wives. Others have adulterous affairs. Real vicars are often involved in legal disputes with their own bishops, their own organists, their own choirs or their own churchwardens. They are also often accused of having influenced the wills of dying parishioners – a charge that has been common continuously over nearly 2000 years. Real vicars might watch porn and swear. A surprising proportion of vicars are atheists – they have lost their faith but carry on a pretence because they could never find another job in the real world (we know this because they will often admit it after they retire). Non-belief is so common that there are confidential support organisations for non-believing priests. Real vicars have skeletons in their cupboards. Some are alcoholics. Some take hard drugs. Some do little else but read out a standard sermon from the pulpit once a week. If your sole source of information about the Anglican Church were the Archers, you would never guess any of this. The picture painted is not merely 30 years out of date but also massively sanitized. Ambridge vicars are always caring, sensitive, responsible, liberal individuals completely free of spite, sexual peccadilloes, human weaknesses and criminal tendencies. 

The same is true of Ambridge villagers. Nearly all of them go to church – unlike the residents of any real village. At major Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter we are always treated to unadulterated Christian propaganda – listening in on Church services scripted to be as moving as possible.  Ambridge must be unique in Britain in having a conventional church that appeals to young people. Not one of the youngsters in Ambridge regards the Church as an absurd anachronism - another strong contrast to reality. The sort of characters who really might attend church, old women like Peggy Archer, are now made out to be wholly sympathetic. They are not like real church-going eighty year-olds, people like the embarrassing grannies many of us are familiar with: vicious, vocally Christian, anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist, still opposed to women priests, streaming with bile, and incandescent with rage at the idea of same-sex marriage. Some years ago, poor old Peggy was vaguely bemused by the idea of women vicars, but she soon came round to the BBC's approved progressive liberal view. She is also unrealistic quiescent about having openly homosexual relatives. She exhibits not a hint of anti-Semitism or racism. 

Unlike the real world, there no noticeable friction between High Church Anglicans and Low Church Anglicans. In Ambridge, Christians all rub along in perfect harmony without ever accusing each other of being obscurantist flesh-eating Papists or heretical Presbyterian iconoclasts, as they do in the real world. There is not a single Catholic believer in Ambridge for Anglicans to accuse of pseudo-magical hocus-pocus, as in real life. No Christian burns effigies of other Christians every year as they do in real villages, such as Lewes. Neither do we ever hear of a single wing-nut Evangelical or Pentecostalist in Borcetshire. No Christian parents indoctrinate children with Fundamentalist nonsense, a common and increasing problem in the real world. In Ambridge as in the rest of the Radio 4 fantasy-world, BBC Christians all fit onto just one quarter of the real-world Christian spectrum. We never hear of the quarter in the super-woolley end represented by in the real world by the likes of Bishop Richard Holloway, nor the half of the spectrum at the other end represented by traditionalists obsessed by sin and sex. There is not a single creationist in Borcetshire.

Again, unlike real villages, Ambridge boasts only one atheist – Jim – an eccentric who, despite his rationalism and education, never voices any rational argument against Christianity, and is easily manipulated by the vicar. Caroline who used to be a non-believer, now never voices any religious opinion. In the real world dozens of characters in a village like Ambridge would have abandoned their faith over the last thirty years. In Ambridge the total tally of apostates is nil. No one ever criticizes the Church, or laughs at Christian doctrine, or ridicules church-goers – not even in private – another unique feature of Ambridge. No-one ever complains about the constitutional advantages or massive tax breaks enjoyed by Churches. No one ever mentions all the exemptions negotiated by the Churches for themselves, excusing themselves from complying with equality legislation. In Ambridge, no one is ever forced to sell their house because of chancel repair liability, having to pay legally-enforced arcane Church fees of hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund repairs to the local church – another scandal restricted to the real world.

Joe Grundy used to hold the traditional belief that the Bible was true in a literal sense: Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Talking Donkeys ... all of it. When and why did he stop believing all that? And when did he abandon his Methodism? Did the Methodist membership collapse in Ambridge as it did everywhere else, but without anyone noticing? Why do we not see Anglican Church membership collapsing too, as it is in almost every real village across the country?

When Alan, the present vicar, married Usha, a Hindu, there were two interesting consequences, one scripted and one in real life. The scripted one was some strange soul-searching by Schula and others. No-one objected for racist reasons. No-one lost their faith as a result. No-one threatened the vicar with violence. In the real world many Christian listeners were outraged and wrote in to the BBC to complain about the unrealistic blasphemy of an Anglican vicar marrying someone other than another Christian. These real Christians (who apparently had no idea that in real life several vicars had already married members of other religions) provided a striking counterpoint to Ambridge Christians. A bit of thoughtful soul-searching for Ambridge Christians. Nasty-minded foam-flecked bigotry from real-life Christians. If you look at the news on the BBC you will see that in the real world, there are plenty of racist, misogynist, homophobic Christians making anonymous death threats to pretty much anyone not fitting their model of a traditional Christian. In the real world men like John Sentamu, the black Archbishop of York, receive excrement and anonymous abuse through the post. Like women vicars, their crime, according to their fellow Christian correspondents, is to occupy Church offices while not being white men. In Ambidge, neither female vicars nor Usha, the vicar's Hindu wife, receive offensive mail. Usha once experienced a racist incident, but of course it was not religiously motivated. There are no right-wing extremist Christians in Ambridge, just as there are no rabid religious types casting around for excuses to challenge equality legislation. Such unattractive beings intrude only into the real world, not into Radio 4.

So, please Mr O’Connor, may we have a more realistic, up-to-date, unsanitised version of Christianity  in Ambridge in the future. Apart from anything else you have been missing hundreds of interesting story lines that resonate with reality.

Yours faithfully

James McDonald