Of Statistics, Scoundrels and Scandalmongers

Some readers may recall an article of mine discussing climate change, and especially something called the ‘Hockey Stick’. This was a graph designed to show temperatures over the last thousand years, with an abrupt and decisive upturn of temperatures in the twentieth century – in other words, a graph that looked like a hockey stick. This was featured on the cover of a report prepared by the International Panel on Climate Change some years ago, and milked for maximum publicity.

Sadly, the graph was laughably and lamentably incorrect. Indeed, it was not just incorrect, it was a statistical artefact produced by manipulating the underlying temperature records in a certain way, according to a particular method. One critic even put random information from a telephone directory into the same system, in order to demonstrate that no matter what information was put in, a ‘hockey stick’ graph would result.

After this became widely known, there was a leak of correspondence from the Climate Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which shed much light on how the hockey stick graph had come to be formed. In sum, a group of scientists were so committed to the overall story of catastrophic global warming that they actively sought to suppress alternative points of view, not simply in their own research but also through manipulating the ‘peer review’ process. If there was information that didn’t fit the story that they were committed to, then it had to be eliminated. So much for the scientific method. (For those who wish to explore this question further, the best guide remains Andrew Montford’s ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’.)

I think of this story whenever I see statistics being used to advance a particular agenda, and it was especially brought to mind by the recent ‘Endpiece’ in these pages, which purported to show how “the world’s least religious nations are the most moral, peaceful and humane”. Where to begin shooting the fish in this particular barrel? Let me just emphasise the fundamental logical point. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the presently secular countries are more humane places, that only establishes a correspondence, not a causation. For the Endpiece writer to justify their conclusion they would need to show that the greater social welfare in these countries was caused by non-religious activity; indeed, to be a really strong case, the writer would need to show that the secular is better at promoting social welfare than the religious. Ideally, the writer would point to all the ways in which the cultivation of social welfare was taught in secular institutions, thereby bringing out into the open precisely what is understood by ‘social welfare’ in the secular view, and contrast this with the understanding of ‘social welfare’ that is taught by the religious institutions. The greater the contrast, the more likely that the writer’s point can be justified.

Of course, I think the project is doomed from the start. Given the way in which Christian thinking has informed progressive practice over the last several centuries (health care, education, the abolition of slavery to mention just a few) and continues to do so (who are the people running the food banks?) the disentangling of Christian social practice from a supposedly secular social practice seems to me like the definition of tilting at a windmill. We need more secular Sancho Panzas to provide the requisite commentary on these Quixotic endeavours, rather than leaving it to Christians like me.

Talking of tilting at windmills with tired old tropes, I feel I should say something about Alan Shillum’s article in the last issue. Mr Shillum was responding to my claim that a culture of vindictive accusation and blame has become prevalent in our national print media. In saying that, I don’t believe that I am very far from the national consensus – informed as it has been by the investigations into such joyous activities as the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. Notice, however, the grounds on which Mr Shillum seeks to defend the press – he argues from numbers, as if might made right, essentially saying ‘we’re more important than the churches, so shut up’. Mr Shillum claims “many more people on Mersea buy and read the Mail on Sunday than collectively attend the island’s churches”, and then asserts that there are “5,000 readers every Sunday just on this little island”. Given that there are only about 8,000 residents on the island, of all ages, that’s a pretty impressive rate of media penetration! If we assume that those under the age of 18 generally don’t read printed newspapers – which I think is a conservative guess – Mr Shillum clearly believes that just about every adult on the island does so; and people believe that we Christians are the delusional ones.

Let’s stick to the boasting about numbers though, in particular whether it is true that “many more” people read the Mail on Sunday than attend the churches. If we compare purchasing the paper to actually attending a church on a reasonably regular basis, then I don’t see much difference. The two Anglican churches on the Island have a combined membership of around 260; if we add to that the members of other churches then “about 500” applies to both the Daily Mail and the active Christian church. Ah, but there are three readers for every purchaser! Well, how many believers are there for every member? If the last census is to be believed, something like 70% of Mersea residents claim a Christian affiliation (down from 80% in 2001 – but then, newspaper circulations seem to have halved over the same period).

The thing is, might does not make right. Even if it were true that the newspapers had ten times as many dedicated supporters as all the churches in England, it would not make their behaviour righteous. Indeed, the notion that it could is part of the problem with the overweening arrogance and disregard for ethical and truthful conduct displayed so despicably by the press in recent years. Hopefully the Leveson inquiry and the various trials will lead to a new code of journalistic ethics and a renewed vitality and integrity in journalism. Heaven knows we need the whistle-blowers, as I have argued in these pages before. We can’t do without a free press – it is one of the “foundational freedoms” that I described a few weeks ago – which is why those activities which bring the press itself into question are doubly damaging.

We need, as a culture, to become much more humble about the truth – and quite possibly, writers of opinion columns in newspapers need to take especial care to cultivate that particular virtue. Part of what this means is being open about our own perspectives, the biases that we bring to our arguments. When this is open and well understood then it is easier for others to point out the errors of fact or logic that may enable the conversation as a whole to journey closer to the truth. It is only when there is a culture of openness and transparency that the social welfare is built up. There is no such thing as a completely unbiased perspective; there is only the question of whether a particular tradition has the internal capacity to critique itself. Without that, all that is left is the power struggle.

So what are my biases? Hopefully, unlike an anonymous author, my biases are obvious. I’m a committed Christian, someone who accepts the stories about Jesus as being essentially eye-witness testimony, and who accepts Jesus as the human face of God. Flowing directly from that, I’m a humanist; I’m in favour of all that leads to the full flourishing of each and every human being on this planet, and for generations to come. Flowing directly from that, I am profoundly sceptical of the power that is wielded by the ‘principalities and powers’ that dominate our public life, amongst which I include not just the government but also the other big beasts, such as industries, unions, media and, yes, the institutional churches. What I would like to be is a gadfly, or, perhaps, the small child pointing out when the Emperor is naked. Speaking of which…

Night of the nihilist zombies

One of the contemporary successes in popular culture is the TV series “The Walking Dead”, based upon the excellent graphic novel by Robert Kirkman. What is it that makes zombies so popular, across the age range? Generally considered to have taken their modern form under the influence of the film director George Romero, zombies can be found in all sorts of surprising places, from children’s games where they fight plants to serious works of academic theology (eg “The Gospel of the Living Dead” by Dr Kim Paffenroth).

I believe that popular culture functions as a mirror to contemporary behaviour. So, for example, the Frankenstein stories take off at the same time that scientific research starts to reveal immense power; the vampire stories, especially Dracula, are driven by the Victorian taboos about sexuality. So what are the zombies saying about us?

Well what are zombies? They are creatures who are superficially human – two arms, two legs, hands, eyes and so on. They also, classically, exhibit some similar behaviours, most famously shopping in Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Yet this similarity is undercut by a monstrous hunger for eating normal human beings. In other words, zombies are consumers par excellence – and this, I believe, is the clue to what they mean.

For we live in a profoundly materialist culture. The one who dies with the most toys wins. We are encouraged by a vast advertising and marketing industry to think that the meaning of our lives can be displayed through our purchases, because we’re worth it. This materialist culture rests, of course, upon a materialist philosophy, the idea that we are ultimately nothing more than physical atoms bouncing off each other in random fashion. In other words, beneath our disordered culture of materialism lies a profound nihilism – a loss of meaning, a gaping hole in the fabric of our culture where the sacred used to be.

To my mind, therefore, the zombies represent nothing more than the foot-soldiers of nihilism, those for whom nothing matters, nothing has meaning. Of course, rather like zombies themselves, I’m not sure that a genuine nihilist has ever existed. We might hear rumours of fabulous creatures in far off islands, but in the mundane reality of our day to day existence, a genuine nihilist is as rare a creature as the fairies that dwell at the bottom of our gardens. After all, what would it take to be a real nihilist – to rigorously adhere to the notion that nothing has meaning? It would mean not simply that the big pictures that had previously provided meaning have to be discarded – so no Christianity or Buddhism or Stoicism or anything like that. No, all notions of better and worse need to be discarded, for those are quintessentially value judgements, and without meaning there is no value, and without value there is no meaning. A proper nihilist must be dedicated to the notion that there can be no discrimination between good and evil, and as a consequence, cannot be relied upon to serve anything which is good or resist anything which is evil.

What I find most sinister about the nihilist zombies is their unconscious innocence, the way that they function as useful idiots for the corporate machine. After all, the way in which the modern economy functions is by seeking to turn us into excellent consumers. Those patterns of resistance to consumerism all assert, even if only by a negative rebellion against the bad, a positive sense of what it means to be human, that there are elements of human life that cannot simply be reduced to a materialist analysis. Nihilist philosophies, however, are deployed as a type of universal solvent attacking the basis of resistance. There is a reason why capitalist culture does not like the local and particular – a reason why, for example, the EU wishes to standardise all the weights and measures across diverse peoples. It is because these local quirks and customs stand in the way of the great idol of material efficiency, and that is the only acceptable ground for behaviour within the corporate state.

Which is why the Walking Dead are such a powerful metaphor. Human beings live within a meaningful world in the same way that fish live within water, it is an essential element of our natures. Those who reject meaning are like fish proclaiming their independence of water (and doubtless the Darwinians will proclaim – but that is how evolution took place! See what wonderful things have come from fish who walked on land! Maybe so, but that is a meaningful claim not a nihilist one). I can’t help but see nihilism as an arrested stage of development; it is the teenage protest against the parent and their culture, a necessary first step in the establishment of a new personal identity, but one that rapidly becomes sterile unless further steps of genuine commitment are taken. So you are no longer simply the child of your parents? Excellent – what are you then?

Part of becoming an adult is the process of developing a code of behaviour to which we are committed, a code of behaviour which represents something larger than our own particular and temporary desires, something more creative than our base biological appetites. All the wisdom traditions of the world offer ways in which a person can pursue such a code and thereby become more truly themselves – that, after all, is what a wisdom tradition is. In our dealings with one another, what we most wish to find out about another person is what their guiding code might be, for that will tell us where and how we might be able to work together, where we might find a common purpose and meaning, where it is possible to establish trust. With a nihilist there is always a sense that at any point they might turn and seek to start turning you into their next meal – for what is there to stop them other than your own capacity to resist? There is no consciousness, and there is no conscience.

Nihilism is the code of the zombie, and we are living through the night of the living dead. How can we resist? How can we support the human against the undead plague? It’s all a metaphor of course – but metaphors are the way in which human beings share meaning. The nihilist will cry ‘It’s all meaningless’ and when we hear such cries we need to translate it to uncover the fundamental truth: ‘I am an undead servant of corporate capitalism! You will be assimilated!’

Aim for the head.

APAATW1: The Shadow of Terror

The Picture (click for full size):

Shadow of Terror

Image (c) Natalie Eldred and Sam Norton, 2013

The Thousand Words:
The roots of this image lie in the experience I had at the Sunday morning worship at Greenbelt in 2009 and in much that has been spoken about Israel at Greenbelt since then. It seemed to me that those in authority at Greenbelt were only focussing in upon one aspect of the tragic situation in the Middle East. That is, the viewpoint that was being put across was a binary one – Israel is an aggressive occupying state, whereas the Palestinian community is the martyred innocent. This seemed to me to be incredibly shallow, and it continued to vex me.

I wanted to explain how I saw the situation, and an image formed in my mind. Not being in any sense a capable artist, it remained there, unspoken for several years, until a chance conversation with my artist friend Natalie Eldred at the Dark Mountain Festival provoked the possibility that it might take shape, that there was a potential collaboration here. So, over the last few weeks, we have been chatting about this image, working out how to get what was in my head in some more communicable form – and now here it is (and I feel like a child who has woken up on Christmas morning).

Simply put, there is a cascade of terror – a pecking order – whereby each state and actor is reacting in fear to something bigger than them, and through their reactions, they in turn cause those smaller than them to cower in fear. The idea that it made any sort of sense to separate out one of the actors in the complexity as especially worthy of blame seemed not just impractical but impious. There is a paradox here. At one and the same time I wish to affirm both an innocence in all the actors involved, and a comprehensively shared guilt. In other words, what I most want to do is remove the possibility of a scapegoat. All are implicated.

The sequence could be extended, especially the left. The first shadow is that cast by the United States. Uncle Sam could be shown reacting in horror to “the Islamic World”, then they in turn could be shown reacting in horror to “scientific modernity and the Enlightenment” – and that in turn could be shown reacting in horror to “untamed nature” (thinking of the Baconian programme to ‘rape’ the natural world and master it). An alternative would be to show the scientists reacting against the Inquisition, and then a papacy reacting against – what? Their own shadow?

The other side occasioned some thought and conversation. I originally wanted to have a homosexual man on the right hand side but we agreed that it would be visually easier to convey the same point by showing a woman. In any case, the point that I wanted to make was that there are minorities in the Middle East – women, gays, Christians – whose only safe haven in the area lies in Israel. I do not wish to say that Israel is an entirely virtuous place – it isn’t – but it does have some very important virtues, that are worth affirming, and the overall picture is much more complicated than the Greenbelt analysis seems to allow.

Put simply, the Greenbelt analysis only seems to show this:

greenbelt on israel

and I want to insist that we Christians must have a wider focus – a focus wide enough to include our own fears, and the shadows that they cause to fall.


Natalie has described the process of working up the cartoon over on her blog. It has been a real education and privilege for me to see this happen, to see the artistic process up close, and a source of great joy to see one of the things that had seemed trapped inside my head come to life on the page. Humbling too, to see some awesome talent at work.

(Yes, I know this isn’t a thousand words. It’s a figure of speech…)

A picture and a thousand words

From yesterday’s lectionary reading: “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”

I love words, they are my tools, my craft. Yet – being the good student of Wittgenstein that I am – I recognise their limitations. So often, where the right spirit is absent, the piling up of word upon word serves only to exasperate rather than elucidate. I believe it to be true that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, and that the pen is mightier than the sword – and yet, it is also true that a picture is more powerful than a thousand words.

To that end… watch this space.


2013-10-10 09.54.20
I like the fact that I can be in the midst of my busyness and then be startled by a reminder of where I am, of where I have come from. Rootedness, and Peterson’s “there are some forms of ministry that only become possible when you have been in a place for a long time”.

TBLA: reading list on sexuality and related issues

I’m planning to get back to my TBLA sequence as time permits – hopefully once a week on Fridays, as that is now my day off again! This post will be regularly updated – and where I identify gaps, I’d be grateful for pointers from the better-informed in the comments. Some of these are in my ‘to be read’ pile. Please note that I am trying to be comprehensive in my reading and studying on this, and do not assume that I agree with all that is described or linked to. In the nature of things, some of these are distinctly non-Christian. You have been warned.

Questions relating to homosexuality specifically
A question of Truth, Gareth Moore
Strangers and Friends, Michael Vasey
All of James Alison’s writings

Feminist writings
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

Alternative sexuality
Spiritual Polyamory, Mystic Life

‘Manosphere’ writings
Married Man Sex Life, Athol Kay

An evangelical perspective
Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Wayne Grudem

Secular philosophical aspects
The Sex Code, Francis Bennion
The Puzzle of Sex, Peter Vardy

Traditional philosophical/theological
The Bible

Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha
Sex at Dusk, Lynn Saxon
The Myth of Monogamy, David Barash and Judith Lipton
Strange Bedfellows, Barash and Lipton
The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti

Marriage: a history, Stephanie Coontz
Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe

Church of England
Some Issues in Human Sexuality
The Way Forward, ed: Bradshaw
An Acceptable Sacrifice?, ed: Dormor and Morris

Other theology
Touching the Face of God, Donna Mahoney
Sex God, Rob Bell
The Education of Desire, Tim Gorringe

Selected novels, films and other culture
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
Diary of a London Call Girl, Belle de Jour
Shame, Steve McQueen

Interesting blogs
Sunshine Mary
The Free Northerner
Donal Graeme
Chateau Heartiste
Married Man Sex Life
The Rational Male
Women for Men

Truth, virtue, and the demonic Daily Mail

So the Daily Mail, that bastion of all that is best – as most clearly exemplified by their pro-Nazi policy in the 1930s – is once more trying to traduce contemporary British politicians through guilt-by-association and muck-raking. How very depressing. I tend more and more to the view that anybody who is genuinely a seeker after truth will have as little to do with that appalling publication as possible. Perhaps it should only be sold with a plastic bag wrapping, to ensure that the vulnerable and easily influenced do not come upon the contents unprepared, whilst those who have hardened stomachs and souls and a taste for the darkness can pursue their tastes in private.

Does that sound harsh? Offensive even? Well, I follow a man who was executed by politicians for being offensive, who described his opponents as being not much better than ‘whitewashed tombs’ – that is, pretty on the outside, but on the inside nothing but rotting bones and decay. He had a gift for pithy language, did Jesus. There is a particular culture of accusation and blame, of shaming and scandal, which our newspapers generally, and the Daily Mail specifically, cultivate assiduously. This is evil; this is what has traditionally been called – in Christian circles – ‘the work of the devil’. That is because the devil, the Satan, in many contexts is simply the power of accusation, of pointing fingers, of saying ‘look at that, did you hear what so and so did’ and so on. It is the cult of gossip, in which the currency of social approval is earned and spent. Jesus is pretty clear that it is this process of condemnation – of judging other human beings – is what leads to hell, whereas the opposite approach, of mercy, forgiveness, being non-judgemental and so on – that is what leads to the Kingdom of God. “The measure that you give will be the measure that you receive” and so on. So, as I say, if anyone is genuinely a seeker after truth, it would be an aid to that process to steer clear of the Daily Mail.

Of course, it’s not just the Daily Mail, it is part of our media culture generally – just look at the appalling revelations about phone tapping by the (now sadly defunct) News of the World. What makes things worse is that we have lost any sense of what ‘truth’ is, and why it matters. Our culture is dominated by the convenient notion that ‘all truth is relative’, the consequence being that everyone has the right to their own opinion, and feelings are triumphant. Finding the truth is hard, living according to the truth is even harder. It is so much easier to nurture our own prejudices, and seek out all that confirms them, whilst ignoring everything that goes against them. It is a part of human nature – statisticians even have a posh title for this tendency, it is called ‘confirmation bias’ – and moving past this tendency in order to gain a little more understanding of the truth is one of those ‘difficult but worth it’ exercises that used to be considered both normal and desirable in our society, but which are now seen as archaic, quaint, ‘square’, boring and all the rest. To say ‘discerning the truth about this situation is going to take a lot of hard work’ runs the real risk of inviting the response ‘whatever’.

So what might help in the search for truth? In a word, virtue. Virtue is what we call those aspects of character which develop from having done the hard work. The discernment of correct values and virtues is essentially the study and development of wisdom, sometimes called emotional intelligence, what Aristotle called phronesis – practical judgement – and that centres upon an awareness of, and education of, our emotions. Our decisions are based around our notions of what is good – for ourselves, for our families, for our friends and neighbours, perhaps, in the most enlightened, for humanity as a whole. Those notions of what is good are informed and shaped by particular traditions and histories, particular ways of teaching values and virtues. In most societies the passing on of wisdom is conducted through the rites and practices of religious faith, the telling of stories and sharing of rituals that embody and express a particular way of viewing the world and asserting a particular pattern of value. Sadly, in our decadent culture, that telling of stories and sharing of rituals now seems to be done through the media. Whereas we once had a culture in which truth, honour, discernment and discretion were widely admired, now we have a culture where the building up and tearing down of human beings has been turned into a highly profitable industry.

Whereas the virtues describe the building up of positive character traits – the honest, the noble, the courageous – we describe as vices those traits which are opposed to them, the mendacious, the hypocritical, the cowardly. Where there is a human institution which exemplifies and practices what is vicious – such as with the Daily Mail – here we have what Christians call the demonic. In other words, here is an organisation which cultivates certain practices which have as their endpoint the destruction of our common humanity and the victimisation and blaming of particular individuals. There is a culture of unaccountable accusation, power without responsibility, the washing of hands in public.

A right discernment of the truth depends upon an awareness of our own foibles and follies, and, indeed, a compassion for them, in ourselves and others. We are none of us perfectly virtuous, nor consummately vicious. We do seem, however, to have certain institutions which are more obviously on the side of the angels, and some which are otherwise. As I say, anyone who genuinely wishes to seek after truth needs to take a step back from such darkness. There are reasons why Scousers never buy the Sun; perhaps we need a broader movement saying something like ‘British never buy the Mail’.