Archive | January 2011

Pastor Terry Jones, John Hick, and ‘Religion of the Devil’

Last week, it was reported in the UK that the world’s favourite pastor, Terry Jones, was denied access to the UK, where he was due to address “England is Ours” because, according to the Home Office, “Coming to the UK is a privilege not a right and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good.”

So what has Mr Jones had to say? A choice selection from an interview at the above link, and on Radio 4 (Around 1hr 20mins in. Should still be available for another couple of days) would be these:

Interviewer:  “Are you an extremist?”

TJ: “Definitely not. We are very convinced about our views, when it comes to our Christian views or when it comes to our political views, or our views on Islam. We have always tried to make it very clear that we are not against Muslims… we are not against their rights… we have always spoke out against the radical element of Islam.”

And:

TJ: “We are not against the Muslims or the Muslim community… we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion… our concern is… the radical element of Islam. […] If you are talking to the Pastor, then of course I believe that the Bible and Christianity are the only way, that means that Islam and all other religions are wrong and of the devil. That is normal Christian doctrine. […] If you are talking to me as an American… we welcome Muslims into this country, they are protected under our constitution…”

And

TJ:  “From a religious aspect, from a Christian aspect, we would consider [Islam] a religion of the devil… so would the Anglican Church… they may not say that…”

Interviewer: “They certainly don’t say that…”

“Well, that’s because none has the real guts to stand up and say what they really believe, because of persecution… because of being called a hate preacher.”

What a delightful man, eh? Well… whilst I don’t agree with this guy on many, many things… I am going to focus now on his belief that it is normal Christian practice to consider other religions, and Islam in particular, as ‘of the devil’.

I am going to take John Hick as my exemplar here… not because he is by any means an exemplar of mainstream Christian thought – although he is a very highly regarded theologian and philosopher of religion, with degrees from Edinburgh and Oxford, and is currently an emeritus professor of both Birmingham University UK and the Claremont Graduate University, California. He is a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham UK, and a Vice-President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion and of the World Congress of Faiths. See http://www.johnhick.org.uk/jsite/ for more info. He has also spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of religious pluralism… And I would suggest, from my personal experiences, and my conversations with many moderate Christians, that this is a fair representation of the way in which many come to terms with the reality of religious pluralism.

Here, I am referring to the 1988 reissue of Hick’s God and the Universe of Faiths.

Hick begins his discussion by posing an age old problem – “if I had been born in India, I would probably be a Hindu…” (p. 100). There are two standard solutions to this problem: If each religion is true subjectively for its adherents, but not objectively, then we render religion an illusion (this would pretty much be where I stand on this matter), and if one religion is simply true and the others false (in totality or varying degrees) how can this be reconciled with the view of a loving Creator God who wishes continual and universal relationship with his creation?

Hick continues, stating: “it is not appropriate to speak of a religion as being true or false, any more than it is to speak of a civilisation as being true or false” and proceeds to identify what he considers to be the ‘essence’ (that is, that which is most important) of Christianity as “the way of life and salvation which has its origin in the Christ-event (p. 119).” Here, he is using the term “Christ-event” to “refer to the complex of happenings constituting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the persisting community which was created by its response to him (p. 111).”  There then follows a discussion of how the community’s actions and beliefs were ever changing and developing, even during the short period during which the gospels were written, which leads Hick to his conclusion that even though the Christ-event is the single most important thing in Christianity, Christianity “cannot be defined in terms of adherence to any doctrinal standard, for its doctrines are historically and culturally conditioned (p.119).” So far so good…

Hick then sets out what I believe to be his central thesis. Accepting his definition of ‘the essence of Christianity’, “do we regard the Christian way as the only way, so that salvation is not to be found outside it; or do we regard the other great religions of mankind as other ways of life and salvation (p. 120)?” After discussing the traditional Christian position (to answer the former in the affirmative), Hick points to the moral contradiction of a loving God who allows only a small minority of mankind to achieve salvation (p. 122). Hick likens the wavering position of the church, to the controversies surrounding the old Ptolemaic image of the universe. Before abandoning the view that the earth was at the centre of the solar system, astronomers tried valiantly to keep adding extra epicycles to the scheme, until it became increasingly artificial and burdensome to try and maintain this position (p. 125). Likewise, the Church continues to add extra epicycles to its theology to explain the problem of other religions, when it should face up to the reality and “shift from the dogma that Christianity is at the centre to the realisation that it is God who is at the centre, and that all the religions of mankind, including [Christianity], serve and revolve around him (p. 131).”

To me, everything up to this point seems to be good philosophical reasoning, but to the person of faith, this discussion does raise the question “Why should I bother? If every faith in the world will get me to the same place, why should I stick with mine, and what reason do I have to choose another?” The majority of the rest of the book is spent trying to answer these concerns. Hick does this by suggesting, in the words of Irenaeus that “There is but one and the same God who, from the beginning to the end and by various dispensations comes to the rescue of mankind (p. 175).” In other words Mohammed, Gotama Buddha, Moses, Nanak and Jesus of Nazareth all reveal the nature of “God” in their specific geographical, historical, and cultural contexts, and encourage a moral life which is can be in some way considered to be core to all religions. Thus a Christian should stick to being a Christian, even though other religions may be equally right, because this is a way of life which has worked for the past two millennia in the West, and which has grown with and shaped the entire Western existence as it is known today.

This would be my crude summary of Hick’s take on religious pluralism. Personally, I find his final attempts to redeem the practice of individual faiths both belittles his impressive Copernican idea, and the concept of faith. If someone is to make a voluntary decision to place their faith in the “God” revealed through a certain religion, this decision cannot (in my opinion) be an arbitrary choice, but requires some sort of reasoning based on their opinion of the truth or falsehood of that religion’s core beliefs. This is why I always look sceptically upon interfaith work, because I simply don’t know what it can achieve. Don’t get me wrong… I think it is vitally important that people talk to each other, and that religious communities should work together to break down barriers… but I also believe that they should be open about the fact that they fundamentally disagree, and relate to each other simply as human beings, rather than as ‘religious’ human beings. Whatever your take on it, I hope I have demonstrated that it is not ‘normal’ Christian practice to consider other religions ‘of the devil’. Individual believers will react differently to other faiths… and so will the religious leaders and institutions. However, this is one issue particularly where Jones does not speak for the Christian mainstream.

I will end on a positive note, however. For all his ridiculousness, Jones does make one very sensible statement in these interviews:

“The idea isn’t to cause trouble or kick up a stink. These things do need addressing and people do need to speak about them. We shouldn’t be frightened about them.”

Whilst I don’t agree with his methods of ‘addressing’ people’s fear of extremist Islam, I sincerely believe that things are much better out in the open, and that people need to talk about things. I would much rather people engaged in critical dialogue, than stored up unjustified prejudice inside…

Some Snippits from the Psychological Study of Religion

I am always fascinated by the variety of ways in which people try to scientifically test ‘religion’. Here are a couple of quotations I have come across recently that somewhat whetted my appetite.

“In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach. One solution is to report on a naturally occurring quasi-experiment. In the first celebrated quasi-experiment in the literature, Francis Galton (1883) looked at the effects of prayer on health and longevity. He found that members of royal families, who were regularly wished long lives in their subjects’ prayers, did not live longer than those same subjects. They even died, on average, younger than their subjects! Similarly, relatives of the ‘prayerful’ did not recover any faster from illnesses than other people.”

From Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. 1997. The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience. London: Routledge, p. 47, citing Galton (1883) Inquiries into Human Faculties and Developments

I’m very interested in this sort of research, and intrigued that it was happening as early as 1883. Of course it is always going to be affected by all sorts of subjectivities, and by the ever present charge that any deity could intervene to influence the results of such attempts to scientifically test their influence… but interesting nonetheless.

“Darley and Batson (1973) wanted to test whether the parable of the Good Samaritan, taken from the New Testament and presented as a model of true altruism, would affect helping behaviour. In this story a traveller, robbed and severely beaten, is saved by a kind stranger. Christian seminary students, who had just read the parable, and some who were supposed to give a talk about it, were put in a situation where they could help someone in apparent distress. The experiment was well designed. There were two experimental variables, being exposed to the parable (or not) and being told to hurry, or not to hurry, in going to another office in order to help the experimenter. On their way to the office, after having met the experimenter and being asked to help, the students ran across a man who was clearly incapacitated. The results showed that the parable of the Good Samaritan had no effect on the students’ readiness to help, while the instruction to hurry did.”

From Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. 1997. The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience. London: Routledge, p. 47 citing Darley and Batson (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho…” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

This doesn’t tell us too much about religion… the relevant text could have been anything ‘presented as a model of true altruism’… but I guess it shows that people behave as people in certain situations. It probably suggests something about the kinds of circumstances where people allow their ‘religion’ to influence their actions.

Just a couple of interesting little excerpts that caught my eye :-). If anyone knows of any interesting studies into similar areas, please do let me know.

 

The Secular Beatification of Stephen Fry

I have just read the following email from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and I thought they wouldn’t mind me sharing it with you…

I think Stephen Fry is great, and why not give him an award, eh? I wonder what the motivations are though? Is it a sort of ‘middle-finger to religion’ publicity stunt? Is it some form of secular beatification? Or is it just about giving a nice guy an award?

I LOVE that previous winners have been Greg Graffin, Salman Rushdie and Joss Whedon, though… I’d consider myself a fan of all of them, though I had never thought about their ‘humanistic’ credentials really.

Greetings!

The Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism is presented at Harvard University each year by the Harvard Secular Society on behalf of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the American Humanist Association. Selected by a committee of 20-30 Harvard students each year, this award is given to a figure greatly admired by our students and community for both artistic and humanitarian reasons.

Now in its fifth year, we’re excited to announce that the HSS Cultural Humanism committee has chosen Stephen Fry based on what they feel is an outstanding contribution to Humanism in popular culture. (Buy your tickets now!)

Actor, author, comedian, Fry has worked for three decades in film and theater. Well known for his exploration of the US in “Fry in America,” Fry has also starred alongside Hugh Laurie (“A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and “Jeeves and Wooster”) and in a variety of award-winning films including V for Vendetta, Wilde, Alice in Wonderland, and his own documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Fry has more than two million followers on Twitter. He’s known to European audiences as not only a cultural icon, but a passionate and compassionate voice for Humanism. Now we’re honored to bring his unique Humanist message to an American audience.

The award ceremony will take place Tuesday, February 22 at 8 pm and will feature a performance by Fry.

Previous winners of the Cultural Humanism Award are, in 2007, novelist Sir Salman Rushdie, in 2008, punk rock star Greg Graffin (of the band Bad Religion and the UCLA Faculty of Biology), in 2009, writer/ director/producer Joss Whedon (“Buffy,” “Angel,” Firefly,” “Dollhouse”) and in 2010 Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the hosts of The MythBusters.

The Lifetime Achievement Award sells out every year, so get your tickets at the Harvard Box Office now! And to see the Facebook event, click here.

 

Islam at the Dinner Table: Baroness Warsi, Religious Illiteracy, Dichotomies and Road Safety

Baroness Warsi

Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.

The report continued:

Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]

[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.

[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”

In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.

“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.

“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.

“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”

Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.

“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.

“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””

It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.

Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.

I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.

This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.

I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’

On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.

But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.

Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?

Feel free to send in suggestions :P

A dark and turbulent sea of despair stretches endlessly ahead…

Just came across the following nice bit of fundamentalism, and thought I’d share.

“We have come into an electronic dark age, in which the new pagan hordes, with all the pwer of technology at their command, are on the verge of obliterating the last strongholds of civilised humanity. A vision of death lies before us. As we leave the shores of Christian western man behind, only a dark and turbulent sea of despair stretches endlessly ahead… unless we fight!” From Francis Schaeffer, Time for Anger (1982:122)

In Castells, Manuel. 1997. The Power of Identity – Volume 2: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 21.

Apparently, “Francis Shaeffer is one of the leading inspirations of contemporary American Christian fundamentalism. His Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, shortly after his death, was the most influential pamphlet in the 1980s’ anti-abortion movement in America.” (ibid:21fn)

One wonders what he would have to say about the situation 30 years on?

Musings on the Happy Leaf: An Englishman in Edinburgh on all things TEA

Given the strong opinions on this matter, this post may be a little risky. However, following on from my previous post, about tea… I thought it would be great to ask Samuel – the most knowledgeable person that I know, in all matters tea-related – to pen his thoughts on the matter. Being the lovely chap that he is, he happily obliged… and here are his thoughts:

Musings on the Happy Leaf: An Englishman in Edinburgh on all things TEA

Samuel J: Tea Guru

It may be a touch of the “stiff upper lip” or my simple philosophy of being pleased with my lot, but I believe it is difficult to make a bad cup of tea, when one has the correct ingredients. In fact, I enjoy drinking tea from those great urns, mainly because there is a copious amount! True it is not good tea per se, but I can always know there will be an equally average cup to follow soon after!

I thought I would always remember my bad cup of tea. By being very wary of various shops propounding to sell tea I’ve managed to keep it to one in the past few years. Though darn it if I can remember where it was. Perhaps at the airport? They gave me the American thing of tea bag, pot of lukewarm water etc… just as many have described in various articles (see the links in the recent “Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and George Orwell on Cups of Tea“). Usually if you are provided with a pot, bag and UHT milk you can go up and “accidentally” spill all the water, pop the bag in and watch as the assistant puts some really boiling water in. I was surprised a few days ago when I went out for a meal and ordered Tea afterwards. We were each given very hot pots and bags, but all of my colleagues proceeded to pop the bag in to the cup and pour on the water. “Daft”, I said to them, as I deposited my bag in the hot pot and enjoyed a glorious cup! In these places where you are given the tea and expected to take your milk in its UHT pot form, then you must always protest and ask for a jug of milk. My father usually resigns to drinking it black on these occasions, but if you ask specifically for a jug then they often manage to find one.

Pots and bags

I think you should always drink tea from the pot. Well, you know, using a pot… Don’t lift your china high and dribble the spout down your top! I also like using large mugs. Make sure they are emblazoned with interesting pictures or vaguely riveting text, more for the enjoyment of your fellow tea drinkers… Or even your colleagues who choose to sin against the tea club and drink coffee in your presence. I disagree with George Orwell who said that:

“The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse”

Samuel disapproves!

Black teas, the only ones you should drink according to Orwell, are very suitable for brewing in a silver pot. In fact I believe that Indian or Ceylon teas should be brewed in a silver teapot, it gives a stronger flavour. Green teas (see ‘namby pamby tea’…) are better brewed in china pots as they were originally intended – the metal will impair the delicate flavours in these examples. It’s true that you get better cups by using loose leaf tea rather than bags, but it is very easy to be very lazy. Personally I hate using baskets or muslin bags for this loose tea, – you’ve bought it to be different to the paper bags, then you re-enclose it in a different receptacle! Pointless! Much better to use a tea strainer as you pour from the pot. I do admit, though, that loose leaf tea is of a higher quality so naturally it will make tastier tea than the usual bags even when constrained by a mesh cage.

Starting off, you should always use freshly boiled water. People often re-boil the kettle or top it up. This isn’t the best as the repeated boiling drives off the dissolved oxygen in the water which is an essential component of delicious tea. Pop three teaspoonfuls, (or three bags, if you must!) in a warmed teapot first and then pour in the boiling water second for a normal pot, if you feel you need it a bit stronger, then one or two more should suffice! I agree with Douglas Adams et al. when he states you should warm the pot on the stove; my grandmother always leaves her teapot on top of the water heater in the kitchen, but regrettably I don’t have a suitable warm surface in my kitchen. Ergo I still have to swish my teapot with water…

Pouring the tea.

Always pour into the milk. Anyone who complains that “I want to see exactly how much milk is needed after I’ve put the tea in my cup” or sim. either hasn’t drunk enough tea or is just a bit loopy. If you drink the same cup of tea every day, then all you have to do is realise how much you put in after the tea and just switch the order. I tend to find that most people like about 8-10mm of milk in the bottom of the cup. This is varied slightly on the diameter and depth of the cup, but generally remains about the same. If someone, like Lawrence, especially enjoys milky tea, then simply putting 12-15mm of milk in is usually suitable! I know this rule of ‘milk in cup then follow it with the tea’ is a slightly outdated (and in fact lower class) rule, but I prefer to follow it. I am led to believe that it stems from the days when people with not much money bought poor quality china which would crack with the high temperature of the scalding hot boiling tea, and so putting the milk in first would stop the cheap china cup cracking under the sudden temperature change.

She look a little loopy...

Those upper classes who could afford it would buy more expensive china which was less susceptible to sudden temperature changes – thus they would happily, and unthinkingly, drink it black. Another element that can mar the flavour on occasion is when stirring the cup. When imbibing with those who choose only to partake of the evil bean, some might unconsciously take a used teaspoon from a coffee mug and stir their tea with it. This is a definite no no. I also find that when others use my teacups for coffee this leaves a horrible hint of the bitter coffee flavour in the cup even after washing. If you don’t have such delicate taste buds then these are less important points.

To get good tea for yourself, the easiest thing is to go to a good tea shoppe… there are two excellent examples in Edinburgh. My favourite is the quaint AnTEAques shop on Clerk street. It sells tea and antiques, as you might expect from the name. They have a choice of a perfect plethora of loose leaf teas from Assam pekoe fannings to chocolate mint tea! And have delicious fruit scones for accompaniment. On the other hand, if you want more space (AnTEAques seats about 10 people and has no facilities) then try Tea Tree Tea on Bread street. They have a much larger operation which includes coffee, sandwiches, cakes and a similar selection of fine leaf teas. For china pots and elbow room, go to Tea Tree Tea and for the choice to purchase the delightful bone china tea service you use, go to AnTEAques!

Or indeed make a date to sample tea a la Samuel!

And after tea? A good, refreshing pint!

Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and George Orwell on Cups of Tea

This morning, I had the pleasure of coming across an article on Slate, written by world famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, on “How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea” (inspired, in part by George Orwell’s 1946 “A Nice Cup of Tea“). It was a thoroughly entertaining read, and certainly told me a few things I didn’t know about the idiosyncrasies of the British tea-drinker.

Particularly humourous passages include the following, regarding his disdain for the way tea is served in his now-native United States:

“It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate.”

And his ridicule of the standards set by our (Brits) second favourite hot beverage… the wonderful coffee!

“Until relatively few years ago, practically anything hot and blackish or brackish could be sold in America under the name of coffee. It managed both to be extremely weak and extremely bitter, and it was frequently at boiling point, though it had no call to be. (I use the past tense, though there are many places where this is still true, and it explains why free refills can be offered without compunction.) At least in major cities, consumers now have a better idea how to stick up for themselves, often to an irksome degree, as we know from standing behind people who are too precise about their latte, or whatever it’s called.”

Upon singing the praises of this article, my friend Alex chipped in with “I see your Hitchens and raise you Adams”, and directed me to the following article on Douglas Adams’ love of “A Proper Cup of Tea“. Another entertaining read, filled with a similar disdain for the typical American tea-making ability.

However, whilst these two idols (appropriate choice of words, no?) of mine seem to agree on most points regarding tea-making, there is one major point of contention. Adams writes:

“Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk, then it’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea, you will scald the milk.”

However, Hitchens writes:

“If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour.”

Clearly taking his cue from Orwell, who wrote:

“One should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

What are we to do? What am I to think? My family always put milk in the cup first… I always put the milk in after. But then I am a heathen and make my tea with a teabag in the mug. Oh the dramas which occupy our middle-class lives, eh?

I think in this, as in all other tea related matters, I shall defer to my dear friend and unassailable expert tea-drinker, Samuel. Perhaps I shall invite him to respond to these three literary greats. [UPDATE: In fact, I did… you can read his response here.]

Samuel ensured that we all had a constant supply of tea during the "get in" for a production of "The Mikado"

Looking through Orwell’s 11 “outstanding points” on tea, I would emphatically agree with the following:

“Tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”

I don’t think I have EVER had a good cup of tea that has come out of an urn… cafeterias and burger vans take note.

However, I think he is being somewhat harsh when he pens:

“Tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Drinking tea with sugar was certainly something that I grew out of a long time ago, though it was only thanks to tea with lashings of sugar at my Grannie’s that allowed me to appreciate tea in the first place. However, sugar in a nice cup of Chai Tea rarely goes amiss… and you can’t beat some Peppermint Tea and Honey… although Orwell wouldn’t have approved: “there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it” – I think I would disagree on the optimism part!

Religious And Irreligious Hyperbolism: Pushing the Boundaries of Social Acceptability?

How many of you have, on occasion, been simply baffled at the extreme views of leading figures of religion (and, significantly, nonreligion) across the globe?

What is it that makes evangelists like Pat Robertson think it is okay to come out with statements like this?

“If the widespread practice of homosexuality will bring about the destruction of your nation, if it will bring about terrorist bombs, if it’ll bring about earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, it isn’t necessarily something we ought to open our arms to. ”
Pat Robertson, The 700 Club television program, August 6, 1998, on the occasion of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival 1998, see here.

What is it which inspires Richard Dawkins to overstate his case with such hyperbolic statements as this (which Dawkins himself acknowledges as one of the most oft-quoted examples of a somewhat intentional hyperbolism):

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us who are school from infancy in his ways can become desensitised to their horror.” (Dawkins 2007, 51)

How can Osama Bin Laden feel justified in coming out with the following statement, with which the majority of Muslims would wholly disagree?

“We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

Osama Bin Laden (February 23, 1998). See here.

Now, clearly I am not equating these statements in any way, shape or form. Some of the views expressed above have the capacity to cause offense, some to cause people to lose their faith or their self esteem, and others which can have very drastic consequences for the lives of others. However, these statements (and countless millions more to which I don’t have quick and easy access) are all united in their distinct hyperbolism. They vastly overstate their position, and seemingly alienate not only those of opposing viewpoints, but also those within their own ‘community’ who hold more moderate views.

Why on earth do people do this? A potential answer, which I had never really thought about, jumped out at me from the pages of an article I was reading recently. Referring to the extreme positions taken by a number of high profile atheists (my area of expertise), Samuel Bagg and David Voas write:

“It doesn’t mean that every one of their followers will then become atheistic, just that the extreme position must be publicly taken in order to legitimise the moderate ones. In a process that Voas has earlier termed “diffusion”, the traits of a few visible figures may be copied by many others, and even if the original character and meaning of the trait is lost in the process, the copies will stand on their own. For example, cultural diffusion occurs when celebrities stop wearing fur because it represents cruelty to animals, and people on the high street stop wearing it because it is now unfashionable.” (Bagg and Voas 2010, 105)

This makes an awful lot of sense. Although I am not sure how conscious this would be on the part of leaders taking extreme standpoints, you can certainly see how pushing the boundaries of acceptable dialogue to greater and greater extremes allows more moderate positions to fill up the space in between. With every documentary that Dawkins makes for Channel 4, the message of contemporary atheism gets a little bit more socially acceptable. People may not buy into any of it, but they start to realise that smart people are out there saying very extreme things about religion, therefore it is okay to hold much diluted versions of those positions.

It also says a lot about the power of celebrity endorsement. Think of Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the Church of Scientology, or of Madonna and her Kabbalah. These are minority religious positions or movements which receive major attention and endorsement from individuals who are very publicly visible. Although many of us would like to think that we were not influenced by celebrity endorsements, I wonder how effective this sort of thing is?

A very tangible example that I can think of is the emergence of Darwinian evolution as a sort of meta-narrative for the contemporary atheistic cause. At a recent workshop I attended, Matt Sheard (Birbeck College, University of London), whose work focuses on Working Class Atheists in Britain (1900-1980) suggested that only two of his 70+ sources made any reference to Darwin in their personal atheistic ‘testimony’. Whilst I don’t have any statistics or references to provide, I think that most would agree with my subjective impression that Darwin is a BIG deal in contemporary atheism. One highly plausible suggestion that we discussed on the day was that Dawkins et al have done a remarkably good job in bringing Darwinism to the masses, and through constantly talking and writing about it have diffused this enthusiasm throughout contemporary atheism, and wider society at large. Whether a positive or negative, atheism lacks the overarching narratives which are bought into upon religious conversion or a religious upbringing… this focus on Darwinism, to some extent brought about by the leading figures of the contemporary atheistic cause, could be providing a very valuable function for the movement at large.

Personally this is something that I can totally relate to. I am going to say something potentially controversial – “I do not care about Darwin”. I just don’t. This doesn’t mean I don’t accept evolutionary theory. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is a very important scientific advance which has benefitted humanity in innumerable ways over the past 150 years. However, I am not a scientist. I don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to hear about it. There are plenty of other things which I find much more interesting. However, the simple fact that I know what I know about evolutionary theory, that I consciously weigh the evidence and make a decision, and that I know that it is significant is for the most part down to the diffusion of that message throughout the contemporary atheistic milieu.

So… the next time you hear a celebrity or a religious or world leader making extreme statements and find yourself confused as to why anyone would expound such views, take a moment to think: “What does the presence of that position in the public domain do to the boundaries of socially acceptable positions?” Attitudes can change for better and for worse. It just may be that some of these extremely articulated positions aren’t as ill-conceived or naive or insensitive as might first appear. They may be part of a shrewd and well-thought out publicity campaign. And even if this is not the conscious purpose which they serve, with time they can shift the cultural barometer in their favour.

References:

Bagg, Samuel, and David Voas. 2010. The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 91-111. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.