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Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Infinitesimal by Alexander AmirInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Infinitesimal is an entertaining read on a fascinating topic: the pioneers of a new form of mathematics and those who opposed them. Amir Alexander claims that “the ultimate victory of the infinitely small helped open the way to a new and dynamic science, to religious toleration, and to political freedoms unknown in human history” (Introduction, pg. 14).

It’s an extraordinary claim and I don’t think he manages to provide extraordinary proof for it. In fact, he probably gets cause-and-effect reversed. Is it likelier that new mathematics opened minds, dynamized science and transformed politics or that open minds created new forms of mathematics, science and politics? I’d suggest that support for the new mathematics was a symptom, not a cause, of a new psychology. But Alexander makes a good case for his thesis and there is no doubt that the world was changed by the willingness of mathematicians to use infinitesimals. Calculus was one result, after all. The book begins in Italy and ends in England, because the pioneers lost in Italy:

For nearly two centuries, Italy had been home to perhaps the liveliest mathematical community in Europe. … But when the Jesuits triumphed over the advocates of the infinitely small, this brilliant tradition died a quick death. With Angeli silenced, and Viviani and Ricci keeping their mathematical views to themselves, there was no mathematician left in Italy to carry on the torch. The Jesuits, now in charge, insisted on adhering close to the methods of antiquity, so that the leadership in mathematical innovation now shifted decisively, moving beyond the Alps, to Germany, England, France and Switzerland. (ch. 5, “The Battle of the Mathematicians”, pg. 178)

Why were the Jesuits involved in an esoteric mathematical dispute? You might say that de minimis curat Loyola – Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits, cared about anything, no matter how small, that might undermine the authority of the Church. In the view of his successors, the doctrine of indivisibles did precisely that: “in its simplest form, the doctrine states that every line is composed of a string of points, or ‘indivisibles’, which are the line’s building blocks, and which cannot themselves be divided” (Introduction, pg. 9).

Indivisibles must be infinitesimally small, or they wouldn’t be indivisible, but then how does an infinitesimal point differ from nothing at all? And if it isn’t nothing, why can’t it be divided? These paradoxes were familiar to the ancient Greeks, which is why they rejected infinitesimals and laid the foundations of mathematics on what seemed to them to be solider ground. In the fourth century before Christ, Euclid used axioms and rigorous logic to create a mathematical temple for the ages. He proved things about infinity, like the inexhaustibility of the primes, but he didn’t use infinitesimals. When Archimedes broke with Greek tradition and used infinitesimals to make new discoveries, “he went back and proved every one of them by conventional geometrical means, avoiding any use of the infinitely small” (Introduction, pg. 11).

So even Archimedes regarded them as dubious. Aristotle rejected them altogether and Aristotle became the most important pre-Christian influence on Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. Accordingly, when mathematicians began to look at infinitesimals again, the strictest Catholics opposed the new development. Revolutionaries like Galileo were opposed by reactionaries like Urban VIII.

But the story is complicated: Urban had been friendly to Galileo until “the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Copernican system and some unfavourable political developments” (pg. 301). So I don’t think the mathematics was driving events in the way that Alexander suggests. Copernicus didn’t use them and the implications of his heliocentrism were much more obvious to many more people than the implications of infinitesimals could ever have been. That’s why Copernicus was frightened of publishing his ideas and why Galileo faced the Inquisition for his astronomy, not his mathematics.

But Amir’s thesis makes an even more interesting story: the tiniest possible things had the largest possible consequences, creating a new world of science, politics and art. In Italy, two of the chief antagonists were Galileo and Urban; in England, two were the mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Alexander discusses Wallis and Hobbes in Part II of the book, “Leviathan and the Infinitesimal”. Hobbes thought that de minimis curat rex – “the king cares about tiny things”. Unless authority was absolute and the foundations of knowledge certain, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, there was a big problem with his reasoning: he thought he’d achieved certainty when he hadn’t. Hobbes repeatedly claimed to have solved the ancient problem of the “quadrature of the circle” – that is, creating a square equal in size to a given circle using only a compass and an unmarked ruler. Wallis demolished his claims, made Hobbes look foolish, and strengthened the case for religious toleration and political freedom. But I don’t think this new liberalism depended on new mathematics. Instead, both were products of a new psychology. Genetics will shed more light on the Jesuits and their opponents than polemics and geometry textbooks from the period. Alexander’s theory is fun but flawed.

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C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrathC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

I wasn’t expecting much from this book: Alister McGrath is a Christian who appears on the BBC, which means his theological opinions are bland and Guardian-friendly. So I assumed that C.S. Lewis: A Life would be badly written, smarmy and smug and that I wouldn’t manage to get very far into it. I was wrong. The prose could have been better, but it’s an easy and interesting read and McGrath does what he promises to do in the preface:

This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings. This task has been made easier by the publication of virtually all that is known of Lewis’s writings, as well as a significant body of scholarly literature dealing with his works and ideas. (pg. xiii)

And yes, readers will understand Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) better after reading this book, from his roots in Northern Ireland to his silence about the First World War, from his distaste for T.S. Eliot to his late romance with Joy Davidman. And there isn’t much lit-crit jargon en route. McGrath has the same Irish roots as Lewis and I think that gives him an advantage over previous biographers. He’s also good on Lewis’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. He doesn’t write about them to show how clever he himself is a critic, but to show how clever Lewis was as a writer. Or how clever Lewis wasn’t, as the case may be: McGrath’s assessments are objective, not hagiographic. The cover calls Lewis an “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”, but I think that’s publisher’s hyperbole and aimed at the American market.

McGrath also discusses a fascinating theory about astrological symbolism in the Narnia series. The Middle Ages recognized seven major heavenly bodies, there are seven books in the series and Lewis was a dedicated medievalist. So the Oxonian scholar Michael Ward suggested in 2008 that Lewis assigned each book to a particular heavenly body:

For example, Ward argues that Prince Caspian shows the thematic influence of Mars … the ancient god of war (Mars Gradivus). This immediately connects to the dominance of military language, imagery and issues in this novel. The four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia “in the middle of a war” – “the Great War of Deliverance”, as it is referred to later in the series, or the “Civil War” in Lewis’s own “Outline of Narnian History”. (ch. 12, “Narnia: Exploring an Imaginative World”, pg. 299)

Elsewhere, The Silver Chair is assigned to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, and so on. It’s an ingenious theory and it makes me think again about the Narnia books. I used to find them confused and incoherent. If Ward is right, I was missing a lot.

And McGrath has a theory of his own about the true date of Lewis’s return to Christianity as an adult. He proposes that Lewis finally accepted “the divinity of Christ” not in September 1931, as previous biographers have thought, but in June 1932. McGrath argues that the latter date better fits the description Lewis gives in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the “final stages” of his conversion. Lewis mentions a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, “birds singing overhead and bluebells underfoot”. So birdlore and botany shed light on biography. McGrath says that the bird-song strongly suggests that the bluebells were the early-flowering English kind, not the late-flowering Scottish kind, “known as the ‘harebell’ in England” (ch. 6, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Making of a Mere Christian 1930-1932”, pp. 152-6). This is careful scholarship: I like a literary biography that bandies names like Hyacinthoides non-scripta (the English bluebell) and Campanula rotundifolia (the Scottish).

Lewis would certainly have approved: like Landor, he loved both nature and art. But would Lewis have approved of all his modern admirers and spiritual protégés? I strongly doubt it. Christianity has degenerated since his day – or rather, has continued to degenerate. Whatever some of his supporters might claim, Lewis is an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. “Mere Christianity” would not have been accepted by the Middle Ages and though it might be useful for individuals, it’s not useful for institutions. This helps explain why Lewis became so popular in America, which has always been full of Christians but has never had a national church. And Lewis’s popularity in America helps explain his popularity in Britain – and his rejection by Ireland. McGrath notes that there is “no entry for ‘Lewis, C.S.’ in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)” (ch. 1, “The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood 1898-1908”, pg. 13).

Why? McGrath explains that Lewis was “the wrong kind of Irishman”, an Ulster Protestant who rejected Catholic Dublin and Irish nationalism without ever losing his love of his birthplace in the north. Lewis became a friend and ally of the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, but that didn’t help his popularity in the south. Tolkien too was an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. Like Narnia, Middle-earth is syncretic and heavily influenced by pagan myth. Yes, as McGrath explains, Lewis thought Christianity was a myth that had the unique virtue of being true. But that again is not something that the Middle Ages would have accepted. And like Narnia, Middle-earth achieved most success in rootless, restless, multi-denominational America. McGrath discusses the flowering and fading of that friendship and sets it into the context of scholarship and university politics at Oxford, which was “late in recognizing the importance of English literature as a subject worthy of serious academic study” (ch. 4, “Deceptions and Discoveries: The Making of an Oxford Don 1919-1927”, pg. 98).

Good for Oxford. And when it did finally succumb to EngLit, it held off further rot by employing men like Tolkien and Lewis, who did not like literary theory, psychoanalysis or modernism. Lewis might have been the wrong kind of Irishman, but he was the right kind of scholar. Like his religion, his subject has degenerated sadly since his death. McGrath’s biography shows that the degeneration isn’t complete, but McGrath is more than simply an illuminating biographer. He’s a laudator temporis acti too, a praiser of times past, whether he intended to be or not. Either way, he’s done justice to an interesting and complex writer. If you want to understand C.S. Lewis better, this is a good place to start.

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Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.


Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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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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