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Front cover of Imperial Earth by Arthur C. ClarkeImperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972), Arthur C. Clarke

I was a pretty little boy once, before all the drink, drugs and debauchery. Arthur C. Clarke would have been pleased by this, because he liked pretty little boys and in those days he was my favourite writer. Alas, I’m no longer pretty and he’s no longer my favourite writer. I see the flaws in his writing too clearly now and I don’t like his optimistic liberal politics or his piety about One Humanity. But I see the virtues of his writing too: its intelligence, clarity and scientific acumen, for example. If you put aside anthropology and genetics, Clarke knew what he was extrapolating about and his books have aged well. Nothing dates faster than the future, but Clarke’s various futures aren’t wholly ridiculous yet.

For example, Imperial Earth was published in 1976 and is set in the twenty-third century, but it’s still possible to suspend disbelief while you’re reading the book. It’s getting harder, however, and one thing must have been hard to accept even in 1976. The novel is about the Makenzie clan, who live in an underground city on Saturn’s moon Titan and are unique because of two allegedly uncorrectable errors. First, a computer has accidentally altered their surname and second, a photon has adventitiously ended their lineage:

The fault lay in Malcolm’s genes, not Ellen’s. Sometime during his shuttling back and forth between Earth and Mars, a stray photon that had been cruising through space since the cosmic dawn had blasted his hopes for the future. The damage was irreparable, as Malcolm discovered when he consulted the best genetic surgeons of four worlds. (ch. 1, “A Shriek in the Night”)

So Malcolm Makenzie has to clone himself to produce his son Colin, and Colin has to clone himself to produce Malcolm’s grandson Duncan. Rubbish! Men have colonized the solar system and can produce clones, but can’t repair simple damage to sex-cells? And the clones, produced from somatic cells, have the same defect? That Malcolm, Colin and Duncan are all black-skinned isn’t incredible, just irritating: like Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy, Clarke’s future is a Star-Trekkian, rainbow-of-races one and he likes being ironic about racism and prejudice. It’s also a disenchanted future: there’s nothing supernatural in it and man’s power over nature is increasing all the time.

But Clarke still wants to invoke old emotions. So where is sublimity – awe, mystery and wonder – to come from in a universe without God or gods? This problem has existed for a long time: the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) identified the phenomenon of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, at the beginning of the twentieth century, as science advanced and God retreated. Where do atheists find awe?

The poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) faced the same problem in the same era and Arthur C. Clarke was familiar with Housman’s solutions. Clarke even took the title of a novel, Against the Fall of Night (1948), from one of Housman’s poems:

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.

Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.

Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.

Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?

Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.

(XLV in More Poems, 1936)

Housman uses the sea as a metaphor for time, which conquers all things and all men. We are dwarfed by time just as we are dwarfed by the sea. Both can invoke awe even in atheists. Housman also sought awe in the ungovernable chances that rule our lives and in the thought of death being the final and irrevocable end. But Clarke, a much more optimistic and cheerful character than Housman, did not dwell so much on death. It appears in his work occasionally, not obsessively:

Grandma had met Captain Kleinman only a year after the final parting with Malcolm; she may have been on an emotional rebound, but he certainly was not. Yet thereafter the Captain had never looked at another woman, and it had become one of those love affairs famous on many worlds. It had lasted throughout the planning and preparations for the first expedition to Saturn and the fitting-out of the Challenger in orbit off Titan. And as far as Ellen Makenzie was concerned it had never died; it was frozen forever at the moment when the ship met its mysterious and still inexplicable doom, deep in the jet streams of the South Temperate Zone. (ch. 5, “The Politics of Space and Time”)

Mysterious and inexplicable dooms are very old themes, but Clarke still wanted to use one, despite his optimism and belief in science and reason. But he preferred Housman’s awe-by-dwarfing and awe-by-chance. In Imperial Earth, communication is by hyper-scientific, unenchanted “viddyphone”. But one day, by “pure chance”, Duncan Makenzie finds a “magic number”, accidentally misdialling when he is trying to call his step-grandmother. The circuit is “live immediately”, but there is “no ringing tone” and “no picture”:

Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. As he listened, Duncan felt a growing sense of awe. Here was something completely outside his normal, everyday experience, yet he recognized it almost at once. In his ten years of life, the impressions of many worlds had been imprinted on his mind, and no one who had heard this most evocative of sounds could ever forget it. He was listening to the voice of the wind as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head.

Duncan forgot all about Grandma, and turned the volume up to its highest level. He lay back on the couch, closed his eyes, and tried to project himself into the unknown, hostile world from which he was protected by all the safety devices that three hundred years of space technology could contrive. (ch. 1, “A Shriek in the Night”)

Safety devices disenchant; the wind’s randomness re-enchants. Wind combines both power and chance: it’s a chaotic and sometimes destructive phenomenon. But there’s more to come for Duncan on the “magic number”:

As luck would have it, the wind must have slackened at about the time he [began to record its sounds], because there was a long, frustrating silence. Then, out of that silence, came something new. It was faint and distant, yet conveyed the impression of overwhelming power. First there was a thin scream that mounted second by second in intensity, but somehow never came any closer. The scream rose swiftly to a demonic shriek, with undertones of thunder – then dwindled away as quickly as it had appeared. From beginning to end it lasted less than half a minute. Then there was only the sighing of the wind, even lonelier than before.

The shriek conveys “overwhelming power” and sounds “demonic”, but Duncan doesn’t believe in demons and the overwhelming power turns out to be wielded by man: the shriek was made by a “ram-tanker” scooping hydrogen from Titan’s atmosphere to use as fuel. Clarke’s future runs partly on Promethium, which would have pleased Marx:

I was standing on a beach in Siberia when this book [Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents Of Marxism, Vol I, II and III, (1978)] was recommended to me. The wavelets of a small artificial ocean made by damming the river Ob were splashing on the sand, and I was wondering out loud about the roots of the Soviet passion for making grand modifications to nature. “You need to read Kolakowski,” said the person I was with. “He’s got a great chapter about what he calls ‘the Promethean motif’ in Marxism – the idea that it’s the destiny of humanity to steal fire from the gods and make the world whatever we want it to be.” (“Book Of A Lifetime”, Francis Spufford)

The Promethean impulse in incompetent communism led to horrendous pollution and a world that people didn’t actually want. In capitalism, it hasn’t been as destructive so far, but the world it creates still leaves people wanting sublimity. Housman taught Clarke some ways of invoking that, but Clarke had his own way too: mathematics. In Imperial Earth, Duncan’s grandmother introduces Duncan to pentominoes, or shapes made by fitting five squares together edge-to-edge. Only twelve pentominoes are possible and they can arranged to make a ten-by-six rectangle. But it’s not as easy to make the rectangle as it looks:

For a long time, Duncan stared at the collection of twelve deceptively simple figures. As he slowly assimilated what Grandma had told him, he had the first genuine mathematical revelation of his life. What had at first seemed merely a childish game had opened endless vistas and horizons – though even the brightest of ten-year-olds could not begin to guess the full extent of the universe now opening up before him. This moment of dawning wonder and awe was purely passive; a far more intense explosion of intellectual delight occurred when he found his first very own solution to the problem. For weeks he carried around with him the set of twelve pentominoes in their plastic box, playing with them at every odd moment. […] And once in a sort of geometrical trance or ecstasy which he was never able to repeat, he discovered five solutions in less than an hour. Newton and Einstein and Chen-Tsu could have felt no greater kinship with the gods of mathematics in their own moments of truth… (ch. 7, “A Cross of Titanite”)

The gods are gone from Clarke’s universe, but he still uses them as a metaphor for the way mathematics dwarfs man. Note the final ellipsis too: it’s Clarke’s own, because he likes trailing dots and leaving things unsaid. In mathematics, trailing dots are used to represent indefiniteness or infinity: 1, 2, 3… Infinity is another source of the sublime and Clarke invokes it regularly in Imperial Earth. This is Duncan looking at the strange mineral Titanite under a microscope:

A hexagonal corridor of light, dwindling away to infinity, outlined by millions of sparkling points in a geometrically perfect array. By changing focus, Duncan could hurtle down that corridor, without ever coming to an end. How incredible that such a universe lay inside a piece of rock only a millimetre thick! (ch. 7, “A Cross of Titanite”)

This is Duncan hearing the engine that powers the space-ship taking him to Earth:

From an infinite distance came the thin wail of the [Asymptotic] Drive; Duncan told himself that he was listening to the death cry of matter as it left the known universe, bequeathing to the ship all the energy of its mass in the final moment of dissolution. Every minute, several kilograms of hydrogen were falling into that tiny but insatiable vortex – the hole that could never be filled. (ch. 15, “At the Node”)

And this is Duncan actually on Earth:

It was even worse when he looked up at the sky, so utterly different from the low, crimson overcast of Titan. He had flown halfway across the Solar System, yet never had he received such an impression of space and distance as he did now, when he stared at the solid-looking white clouds, sailing through a blue abyss that seemed to go on forever. It was useless to tell himself that they were only ten kilometres away – the distance a spaceship could travel in a fraction of a second. Not even the starfields of the Milky Way had yielded such glimpses of infinity. (ch. 19, “Mount Vernon”)

In the main hall of the Administration Building, Duncan paused for a moment before the giant, slowly rotating DNA helix which dominated the entrance. As his gaze roamed along the spokes of the twisted ladder, contemplating its all-but-infinite possibilities, he could not help thinking again of the pentominoes that Grandma Ellen had set out before him years ago. There were only twelve of those shapes – yet it would take the lifetime of the universe to exhaust their possibilities. And here was no mere dozen, but billions upon billions of locations to be filled by the letters of the genetic code. The total number of combinations was not one to stagger the mind because there was no way whatsoever in which the mind could grasp even the faintest conception of it. The number of electrons required to pack the entire cosmos solid from end to end was virtually zero in comparison. (ch. 42, “The Mirror of the Sea”)

So it’s too awesome to be awesome. Which is awesome. Duncan is dwelling on DNA because he’s at the cloning-centre, overseeing the fourth generation of Makenzies. Because a clone is a copy, the possibilities of recombination are over, but there will be a twist at the end of Imperial Earth whereby possibility is renewed and life comes out of death in a way it never did in Housman. There’s also a clever link in Imperial Earth between Clarke’s two great alien loves: the sea and the heavens. Something apparently small and earth-bound turns out to be gigantic and otherworldly. Clarke used marine and extra-terrestrial themes in all his books, but there’s another clever link in Rendezvous with Rama, where the sea is actually waiting in the heavens. Or a sea is waiting, at least.

And it’s a cylindrical sea, extending right around the interior of a gigantic alien space-craft whose ultimate purpose and destination are never discovered. Or not in this first novel of the Rama series, at least. I haven’t read any of the other books, which Clarke wrote in collaboration with Gentry Lee, and I don’t want to. I don’t want answers to the questions raised by Rendezvous with Rama, just as I don’t want answers to the questions raised in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931):

Some of the Old Ones, in the decadent days, had made strange prayers to those mountains — but none ever went near them or dared to guess what lay beyond. No human eye had ever seen them, and as I studied the emotions conveyed in the carvings, I prayed that none ever might. There are protecting hills along the coast beyond them — Queen Mary and Kaiser Wilhelm Lands — and I thank Heaven no one has been able to land and climb those hills. I am not as sceptical about old tales and fears as I used to be, and I do not laugh now at the prehuman sculptor’s notion that lightning paused meaningfully now and then at each of the brooding crests, and that an unexplained glow shone from one of those terrible pinnacles all through the long polar night. There may be a very real and very monstrous meaning in the old Pnakotic whispers about Kadath in the Cold Waste. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)

Lovecraft was another writer who faced a Godless universe and the dilemma of disenchantment. He invoked sublimity and dwarfed the puny ambitions of man by mixing astronomy with biology and inventing sky-spanning, dimension-demolishing monsters. Clarke was familiar with Lovecraft – he wrote a Lovecraftian pastiche called “At the Mountains of Murkiness” – but his optimism kept him from imitating Lovecraft’s monstrous, quasi-supernatural solutions. All the same, the giant alien artifact of Rama is reminiscent of the vast alien city discovered by Antarctic explorers in At the Mountains of Madness. That is perhaps Lovecraft’s best and most successful book, just as Rendezvous with Rama is perhaps Clarke’s best and most successful. There’s much less reference to infinity in Rendezvous than in Imperial Earth, probably because Clarke has enough on his hands as it is. When Rama originally appears in the solar system, it is so large that it is mistaken for an asteroid:

The object first catalogued as 31/439, according to the year and the order of its discovery, was detected while still outside the orbit of Jupiter. There was nothing unusual about its location; many asteroids went beyond Saturn before turning once more towards their distant master, the sun. And Thule II, most far-ranging of all, travelled so close to Uranus that it might well have been a lost moon of that planet.

But a first radar contact at such a distance was unprecedented; clearly, 31/439 must be of exceptional size. From the strength of the echo, the computers deduced a diameter of at least forty kilometres; such a giant had not been discovered for a hundred years. That it had been overlooked for so long seemed incredible.

Then the orbit was calculated, and the mystery was resolved – to be replaced by a greater one. 31/439 was not travelling on a normal asteroidal path, along an ellipse which it retraced with clockwork precision every few years. It was a lonely wanderer between the stars, making its first and last visit to the solar system – for it was moving so swiftly that the gravitational field of the sun could never capture it. It would flash inwards past the orbits of Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury, gaining speed – as it did so, until it rounded the sun and headed out once again into the unknown. (ch. 2, “Intruder”)

The year of discovery is 2131, so it’s easier to suspend disbelief in Rendezvous than in Imperial Earth, set in 2276. Rama keeps getting curiouser and curiouser: originally thought to be asteroidal, it’s soon discovered to be artificial on a scale far beyond man’s wildest ambitions. Furthermore, it’s hollow and when a spaceship called Endeavour is sent to investigate it, the crew discover an air-lock and can get inside. And “air-lock” is the word: Rama is full of air that men can breathe. Because it’s cylindrical and spinning on its long axis, it also has gravity and the crew of Endeavour are able to set up camp in the interior.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
What they see when the lighting comes on is well-captured by the cover-artist of the first edition. However, the clouds are artistic licence, inspired by the section in which Clarke describes how the frozen interior of Rama and the ice of the Cylindrical Sea begin to thaw. There’s a scientific team on Earth called the Rama Committee, which is overseeing the exploration of Rama, and one of its leading lights is an exobiologist called Carlisle Perera. He is able to predict something others have missed. The crew of Endeavour have to abandon Rama while his prediction works itself out. On their return, they make more unexpected discoveries, sail the Cylindrical Sea, and fly to the far end of Rama, which is otherwise inaccessible because of the cliff on the opposite side of the Sea. Or one of the crew flies to the South Pole, at least:

Lieutenant James Pak was the most junior officer on board Endeavour, and this was only his fourth mission into deep space. He was ambitious, and due for promotion; he had also committed a serious breach of regulations. No wonder, therefore, that he took a long time to make up his mind. (ch. 24, “Dragonfly”)

He’s breached regulations by smuggling a “sky-bike” on board as “Recreational Stores”. A sky-bike is a man-powered flyer and he intended to use it in the Lunar Olympics. Now, he suggests to Captain Norton that he fly along Rama instead to the mysterious horns at the South Pole. Gravity will be lower near the axis of Rama and he’ll easily be able to keep aloft. This is an example of how Clarke, having imagined Rama, is able to add scientific detail to his creation: he can see how things might really be. But part of how things might really be, inside a giant alien spacecraft, is a lot that human beings can’t understand, like the structures Jimmy Pak flies to on his sky-bike Dragonfly:

In almost every way the southern and northern ends of Rama differed completely. Here was no triad of stairways, no series of narrow, concentric plateaux, no sweeping curve from hub to plain. Instead, there was an immense central spike, more than five kilometres long, extending along the axis. Six smaller ones, half this size, were equally spaced around it; the whole assembly looked like a group of remarkably symmetrical stalactites, hanging from the roof of a cave. Or, inverting the point of view, the spires of some Cambodian temple, set at the bottom of a crater… (ch. 26, “The Voice of Rama”)

Again the ellipsis is in the original: Clarke is trailing off into mystery, because no-one can understand what the spikes are for. But they become charged with electricity and produce giant bolts of lightning, which cripple Dragonfly and force Jimmy into a crash-landing on the southern half of Rama. He encounters more mysteries here and makes a startling discovery:

Not until he was only a few metres away could he be completely sure that life as he knew it had intruded into the sterile, aseptic world of Rama. For blooming here in lonely splendour at the edge of the southern continent was a flower. (ch. 30, “The Flower”)

This is part of the revelation that Rama is a kind of space-ark and not as lifeless as it originally seemed. But the flower is inside “a trellis of wires and rods”, so when Jimmy decides to pick it, he has to travel light:

He stripped off all his clothes, grasped the smooth metal rods, and started to wriggle into the framework. It was a tight fit; he felt like a prisoner escaping through the bars of his cell. When he had inserted himself completely into the lattice he tried backing out again, just to see if there were any problems. It was considerably more difficult, since he now had to use his outstretched arms for pushing instead of pulling, but he saw no reason why he should get helplessly trapped. (Ibid.)

Jimmy is “the most junior officer” on Endeavour, remember, so I think Clarke’s Housmanesque, paederastic tastes were guiding his imagination there. But a Housman character wouldn’t be called “Jimmy” and wouldn’t survive his misadventure. Clarke raises the possibility of death, but doesn’t realize it: Jimmy is able to escape the southern half of Rama and return to his crewmates. Then there are more startling discoveries, more mysteries, and more touches of scientific verisimilitude, including “tidal waves” on the Cylindrical Sea, which is actually fitted with:

Anti-slosh plates, Norton told himself. Exactly the same as in Endeavour’s own propellant tanks – but on a thousand-fold greater scale. There must be a complex pattern of them all around the Sea, to damp out any waves as quickly as possible. (ch. 32, “The Wave”)

Rama has its own propulsion system, you see, and is starting to manoeuvre as it approaches the sun, so the Cylindrical Sea is starting to slosh about. As he describes Rama’s final hours in the solar system, Clarke comes up with some clever twists and misdirections and the last line of the novel is one of the best in science-fiction. You should have been expecting it, but you probably won’t have been, because it suddenly switches scale from the micro to the macro. Rendezvous with Rama is an admirable novel in a number of ways: easy and enjoyable to read, minutely imagined, cleverly plotted and plausibly detailed. I find its Star-Trekkian, rainbow-of-races, free-and-easy-sexuality society irritating nowadays, but that’s Clarke being Pollyanna or Pangloss.

It’s also Clarke being adolescent: if he’s your favourite author, you might be intelligent or an adult but you probably won’t be both. If the human race is still recognizably human in 2131 or 2276, I doubt it will take him seriously as a writer, but it might honour him as a prophet for his physics and astronautics, if not for his anthropology. There isn’t only one human race: there are lots and Clarke, like many other science-fiction writers, missed exploring a very interesting and complex world by being piously obtuse about humanity and its genetic variability.

But he explored other interesting and complex worlds, extrapolating and imagining and introducing millions of readers to the wonders of space, science and the sea. Rendezvous with Rama is about a giant and mysterious space-ark carrying a mysterious cargo to an unknown destination. It may also be an ark for Arthur C. Clarke’s reputation, carrying it down the decades until his hopes are realized or his creations confounded. He’s not my favourite writer any more but I still admire him and I’m grateful for the pleasure his books have given me.

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Front cover of Hitch-22 by Christopher HitchensHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

The true extent of Christopher Hitchens’ literary achievement is apparent only when one reflects that two of his favourite authors were Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. With those shining examples before him, he contrived for decades to produce some of the world’s most pompous and constipated prose. The caption to one photograph in this autobiography runs: “Blockading a racist hairdresser, 1968.” I won’t call that the funniest line in the book, because as far as I could discover it was the only funny line in the book. And the humour was not intentional. Racism is not, after all, a joking matter. One question occurred to me again and again as I toiled through Hitch-22 and the dull story of Hitch’s short journey from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism: what is his mother tongue? Because it certainly isn’t English. Yes, if Waugh is a swallow and Wodehouse a hummingbird, then Hitchens has all the aerial grace and acrobatic skill of the Guggenheim Museum. If you’d like to feel your synapses shrivel, read on:

Let us go, then, you and I [sic], to a dingy and rather poorly lit union hall in Haringay, North London. The time: the mid-1970s. The place: a run-down but resilient district, with a high level of Irish and other immigrant population. I am the invited speaker and the subject is Cyprus, the former British colony in the Mediterranean which has recently been attacked and invaded by both Greek and Turkish armies. Many refugees from this cruel bombardment and occupation have arrived in London to join the staunchly working-class and left-wing Cypriot community that has been here since the 1930s. My articles on the ongoing imperial crime have won me a certain audience. The brothers and sisters in Haringay aren’t easily impressed by visiting talent, and it’s unlikely that I’ll even get the taciturn treasurer of the local branch to refund my “tube” fare from downtown, but I’m used to this no-nonsense style and have even trained myself to approve of it. Before being exposed to my scintillating rhetoric, the audience will be subject to a steady series of quotidian preliminaries… (“The Fenton Factor”, pg. 137 of the Atlantic Books paperback)

Hitchens is further proof of the connexion between left-wing politics and bad prose. We aren’t in need of further proof while Noam Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould remain in print, but I can recommend this book if you’d like to see Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie brought into disrepute. Hitch retails toe-curling stories about his two most famous literary chums. The Schadenfreude truly is terrific. If Hitch’s fellow theophobe Richard Dawkins wrote as badly as Hitch does, I’d abandon all my religious doubts and join the Society of Pius V. Alas for theists everywhere, Dawkins doesn’t, but the “Argument from Hitch” should still join the five classic proofs of God’s existence. Could anyone produce prose of this quality without divine assistance? Even the most militant atheist might feel a tremor of doubt.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (2012)

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You want literary trangression? I’ve recently come across something that puts everything else into the shade. Sade’s Sodom? Soppy! Aldapuerta’s Eyes? Infantile! Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions? Fuck off and diet! The most powerfully nauseating piece of prose I’ve ever read is this:

Emery’s life-partner, Laney, is HIV positive. Laney and Emery are proud to be a serodiscordant couple. Through diligent safe-sex practices, Emery has remained HIV negative since becoming Laney’s partner in 2005.

That is part of the potted biography of Emery Emery (sick), an American “stand-up comedian” who is one of the many contributors to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by Ariane Sherine. If you don’t find it nauseating too, either you’re a Guardianista or you have no aesthetic sense. For smarminess, sliminess and sheer self-fellating self-righteousness, I have never seen its equal, despite my diligent liberal-prose-reading practices since well before 2005. Okay, I expected this book to make my flesh crawl – after all, David Baddiel is in it – but Emery surprised even a H8-positive homo-negativist like me. But I wasn’t surprised that the editrix of the book “writes regularly for The Guardian”. Or that she and her close-knit contributional community “have donated their full share of the profits from this book to the Terrence Higgins Trust”, “the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.”

You would expect that sort of piety from deeply devout atheists like Richard Dawkins, whose quarrel is not with religion as such: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. His own religion, liberalism, has its own sacred cows and its own pious rituals, like the ostentatious donation of money to AIDS charities. But I wonder what Dawkins and other liberal atheists would think about AIDS if it didn’t differentially impacticize a Minority Community sacred to their faith. What if it had a much higher prevalence among fundamentalist Christians than among gays, for example? I find it impossible to believe that liberal atheists wouldn’t draw uncomfortable conclusions for Christianity, if that were the case.

As it is, Dicky Dawkins & Co. use AIDS to bash the bishops only because bishops oppose the use of condoms, not because bishops die of AIDS very often. Heads atheism wins, tails Christianity loses. And Christianity is the overwhelming target of liberal atheists in the West. At least one of the contributors is highly positive about another religion. The eminently emetic David Baddiel says this in his potted bio:

Born and raised Jewish, and maintaining a deep affection for his Jewish heritage and identity, David’s Facebook religious views entry describes him as a “fundamentalist atheist”.

The grammar and punctuation there are as skilful as Baddiel’s comedy, but then this porn-positive performer does have an EngLit degree, with all that that implies in terms of issues around issues of good prose. It might seem odd that a “fundamentalist atheist” can have a “deep affection” for a religious tradition, but it isn’t really odd at all, I would suggest. I can imagine another contributor having a “deep affection” for his Hindu or black “heritage and identity”, but not for his Catholic or Methodist. And there’s no way on earth a contributor would express affection for his “white heritage and identity”. That would be blasphemy in excelsis. But Baddiel’s h-and-i aren’t Christian: he isn’t anti-God, he’s anti-Son-of-God. His quarrel, like Dawkins’, isn’t with religion: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. Although I am an atheist (I won’t say “too”), I prefer the religion that gave birth to Milton and Tennyson over the religion that gave birth to Marx and Trotsky.

Perhaps Baddiel studied Milton during his EngLit degree. If so, there’s little sign of it in his dreary “An Atheist at the Movies”, simul-scribed with one Arvind Ethan David, whose potted bio also attributes supernatural powers to something inanimate: “Born and raised Catholic, Arvind’s Facebook religious views entry reads ‘Atheist. Humanist. Yogi. Bear.’” Which is a crap joke, but funnier than Dicky Dawkins’ contribution, “The Great Bus Mystery”, which proves once again that Dawkins should stick strictly to biology:

I was hoofing it down Regent Street, admiring the Christmas decorations, when I saw the bus. One of those bendy buses that mayors keep threatening with the old heave-ho. As it drove by, I looked up and got the message square in the monocle. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial. Another of the blighters nearly did knock me down as I set a course for the Dregs, where it was my purpose to inhale a festive snifter, and I saw the same thing on the side.

That’s the start of Dawkins’ would-be Wodehousean, wanna-be Woosterian story based on an advert run on the sides of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” One way to enjoy life is to read P.G. Wodehouse, who, after an Anglican upbringing and education, wrote sunny, gentle, life-affirming humour for many years. Whether he’d have done the same after a Catholic or Muslim upbringing, I’m not sure. Sunny, gentle and life-affirming are not good ways to describe the best atheist humorist in this book: Charlie Brooker, the Guardian’s Wizard of Wind Up and Magus of Misanthropy. Scabrous, genital-obsessed and life-denying would be closer. Brooker doesn’t shed rainbows: he squirts bile. And I doubt he’ll keep it up for decades. Not successfully, anyway, but that may be because, unlike Wodehouse, he’s a Committed Cultist with a Pious Purpose: to mock and ridicule all True Faiths but his own. Brooker’s True Faith is liberalism: like everyone else here, he’s part of the highly conformist non-conformist community. This is the conclusion of his sermonette:

Laughter separates us from the gods while binding us closer together. If you’re looking for a miracle, look no further that your most recent belly laugh. Maybe a friend made you clutch your sides till you shook with glee; maybe an old episode of Frasier had you howling on the carpet. Either way: in that moment you were immortal. And that, my friend, is as sacred as it gets.

It’s also as uplifting as it gets, for Brooker. No wonder liberals are in a demographic death-spiral. If Frasier is the liberal justification for existence, the conclusion they reach seems to be: the fewer children we have, the better. And note that the steely-eyed and cynical Brooker appears to understand the sadistic and thought-policing role of humour as little as Richard Dawkins understands the sociological role of religion. Brooker’s contribution is in the “Philosophy” section of this book, where you’ll also find the bleatings of the execrable A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birbeck College in London. If, like me, you think that 95% of philosophers are 99% twat, Grayling isn’t going to make you think again. Like David Baddiel’s comedy, Grayling’s prose is excellent propaganda for the theistic cause:

For Christmas-disliking folk, the dream is a Christmas spent in a warm country where they do not celebrate Christmas. They would revel in the absence of Christmas music, decorations and symbols, together with exhortations to spend money on trivia, ephemera and excessive quantities of food and drink. They would be refugees from iterated “Jingle Bells” and other carols that play on a loop in every department store, driving the staff mad… No such escape is available to those with young children, for whom Christmas is a bonanza of acquisitiveness and indulgence, and yet to whom we all wish to give the traditional experience of acquisitiveness and indulgence. It is in large part because of our children that Christmas has accumulated its hybrid and generally over-the-top contemporary form, together with its sentimentality and excesses. It has become a piety to approve of this, so that to call it into question is to invite being called a Scrooge or worse.

As usual, Grayling sounds like a dim vicar preaching a boring sermon. The “Science” section of the book is more intellectually rigorous, but not much more convincing. You’ve seen part of Dawkins’ effort and it doesn’t get any better than that. Simon Singh sings a psalm to science in “The Sound of Christmas”. I’d rather hear a real psalm. Brian Cox tries to big-up “The Large Hadron Collider”, but I think the Middle Ages spent its money better in building cathedrals. They’re certainly better to look at and easier to understand, but then part of the appeal of atheism to liberals is its intellectual elitism and epistemological rigour. Or so they fondly imagine. I suspect G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis will prove far better and wiser guides to life, politics and culture than anyone here.

Like the old religions, the new religion of liberal atheism is mostly overseen by men, but the book’s editrix, Ariane Sherine, does provide a useful visual guide to two of the key core components of liberalism: its narcissism and its autolatry. For the inside back cover she poses in tight jeans and a tight, white “There’s Probably No God” T-shirt, displaying her slim and attractive body for the edification of the faithless. The flesh is important to people who don’t believe in the soul. But those who live by the flesh often also die by it, as AIDS proves. Nor is Christianity to blame for anorexia, self-harm and “raunch culture”. As Christianity is increasingly pushed out of public life and porn is increasingly pushed in, I think there’s good reason to wonder whether secularism is good for women. Islam certainly isn’t good for women, but none of the atheists here do anything effective to oppose Islam’s increasing presence and power in the West. They’ll kick Christianity till the sacred cows come home, but grow curiously muted in the presence of the mullahs. Or not so curiously, given what can happen to the critics of Islam. Religions are not all the same and not all equally harmful. I think that the overt religion of Anglicanism is much less harmful than the covert religion of liberalism, for example. Unbelievers aren’t all the same any more than believers are. I’m an atheist, but I think The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was written by idiots for idiots. It’s smug and smarmy, mawkish and maudlin. It’s desperately jaunty and jauntily desperate. I’m almost inclined to thank God that Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens didn’t contribute to it too. If this book were the worst liberal atheism can do, the religious would have nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the worst liberal atheism can do. The atheidiots here aren’t confined between its covers: they’re all over British public life and influencing public policy in all sorts of ways. The Church of England puts up no resistance to their societal subversion and sapping: nowadays, it’s part of the liberal suicide-cult too. A good way to understand life is to read one of Richard Dawkins’ books on biology. A good way to enjoy life is to avoid one of his attempts at humour. Avoid David Baddiel’s attempts too. In fact, avoid David Baddiel altogether: his appearance, tone and manner don’t so much weaken the case for a benevolent God as strengthen the case for a malevolent Satan. Charlie Brooker is an eyesore too, but he can be funny. Not in a sunny Wodehousean way, though. And he isn’t funny here. Nor is anyone else. Where liberal atheists and atheist liberals are taking the West will definitely prove funny. But I suspect none of the people here will be laughing.

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