On Thursday 18 January, I appeared as a guest on Miracles and Atheists, a live Facebook show in which believers and non-believers engage in civil discourse. I discussed atheism, my view on miracles, the collision between religion and secular values, Christopher Hitchens, faith healers, and much more. A replay is available – my guest spot begins at around 02:36:00.
In this edition of The Aidan Project, Aidan examines Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal (1623–62) was a talented French mathematician, physicist, inventor and writer, but he is most famous for his theological work. Pascal’s famous wager argues that it is rational to believe in God, because the benefits of this belief being justified when you die are vast: Entry into heaven, avoidance of hell. By contrast, said Pascal, even if God does not exist, the costs of living as if God does exist are trivial. To not believe in God, therefore, is irrational. Whilst it also means you will never know that God does not exist if He, in fact, does not exist, you risk fiery damnation if He does exist. Your life is a bet, believed Pascal, and, on the balance of probability, there is only one way to place it – on belief. In a mathematical sense, if we believe in God, and He exists, the rewards are infinite, and if we are wrong, the losses are hardly worth worrying about. If we do not believe in God, but we are wrong, the punishments are potentially infinite. Aidan examines the merits of Pascal’s Wager, and explores its common criticisms. Place your bets. Further reading: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Transworld, 2006). Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, (New York: Twelve, 2007).
The status of Jerusalem is a leading news story, following Donald Trump’s historic announcement that the United States will recognise the Holy City as the capital of Israel. Aidan looked at the contentious issue of Israel and Palestine back in episode five, The Demise of the Two State Solution. The ancient city of Jerusalem, well known for its importance to the Abrahamic religions, is also at the centre of a peculiar religious psychosis, called Jerusalem syndrome. On this edition of The Aidan Project, Aidan explores Jerusalem syndrome, a clinical psychiatric condition, defined as a temporary state of sudden and intense religious delusions, which manifest while visiting or living in Jerusalem. Examples of Jerusalem syndrome include that of a man from Austria, who became enraged at hotel staff who would not prepare for him a last supper, and a man from the United States Midwest, who was found wandering the city, dressed in a white robe, claiming to be the Apostle Paul. Indeed, many people have become intoxicated with religious devotion in Jerusalem, including Homer Simpson. In a 2010 episode of The Simpsons, the phenomena served as the key plot point, with Homer believing himself to be the Messiah. Aidan also looks at Christopher Hitchens’ verdict on Jerusalem syndrome, which was as unforgiving as one might expect.
References: Christelle Evans and Jonathan Behar, ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, Student BMJ, 14, 2006. [Subscription required]
Yair Bar-El, Rimona Durst, Gregory Katz, Josef Zislin, Ziva Strauss, Haim Y. Knobler, ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, The British Journal of Psychiatry, 176, 1, 2000.
Christopher Hitchens asked in The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish, “Why, when the subject of royalty or monarchy is mentioned, do the British bid adieu to every vestige of proportion, modesty, humour and restraint?” This podcast episode seeks to explore this, and related, questions.
Why, after executing a King, did the British almost immediately experience a distinct feeling of buyer’s remorse? What purpose do the British think the Royal Family serves? And how intrinsic is the yearning for monarchy within the British identity? In Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, wrote stridently that he thought the British monarchical system absurd. Indeed, he helped establish the United States of America in opposition to monarchy. Christopher Hitchens said the British have a ‘fetish’ for all-things Royal. George Orwell, a man who experienced, wrote and was fearful of autocracy, explained that the British see their monarchy as a safety-valve against tyranny. Orwell pointed to the dictatorships, in stark contrast to British constitutional monarchy, which had suffocated democracy in Germany and Italy in the prelude to World War 2. These questions of national identity are, of course, subjective. But by looking at past events (such as the Civil War and its regicidal aftermath), analysing the various arguments made over time (Paine, Orwell, Hitchens and others), and seeking to understand the continued reverence for monarchy, we can gain an insight into the British identity and its apparent obsession with Royalty.
“Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the Judgment of God upon this Land, think well upon it, I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater; therefore let me know by what lawful Authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer, in the meantime I shall not betray my Trust: I have a Trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent, I will not betray it to answer a new unlawful Authority, therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.” So said Charles I at his trial for treason in 1649. History tells us that those conducting his trial would have been well advised to have listened to these words of defiance. Indeed, republicanism in the UK is about as able to face down the monarchy today as Oliver Cromwell was when, already dead, he was exhumed after the Restoration, and beheaded. Such memories, such ghastly memories, are as much a part of the British identity as pomp and circumstance is.
At the beginning of the podcast, Aidan briefly comments on the high emotions surrounding the Catalonia referendum, and the awful Las Vegas shooting, which both occurred on 1 October 2017. Bibliography Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (Oxford World’s Classics), (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2001). Linda Colley, Britons: Forging The Nation 1707-1837, (London: Vintage, 1992). Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish, (London: Vintage Publishing, 2012). ‘HM Queen Elizabeth II — Coronation Day Speech — 2 June 1953’, YouTube website, https://youtu.be/S2pgmKeGEZg, 2015, accessed 1 October 2017. Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England, (London: Profile, 2012). John Laughland, A History of Political Trials: From Charles I to Charles Taylor (Proquest eBook), (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2015). George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume III, As I Please, 1943 – 1945, (London: Secker And Warburg, 1968). J.A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760, (London: Bloomsbury, 1997). Charles Spencer, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, (London: Penguin, 1985 [first edition 1781]) ‘The Monarchy: popular across society and ‘here to stay’’, YouGov website, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/09/08/monarchy-here-stay/, 8 September 2015, accessed 1 October 2017. ‘The Trial of Charles I’, BBC In Our Time website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kpzd6, 2009, accessed 1 October 2017. Clips ‘Blackadder II’, BBC Television, 1986. ‘The Devil’s Whore’, Channel 4 Television, 2008. Images ‘Queen Elizabeth II’ at Madame Tussauds, Madame Tussauds web site, www.madametussauds.co.uk Queen Elizabeth I portrait, Royal Family web site, www.royal.uk Queen Elizabeth II by Andy Warhol, Guy Hepner web site, www.guyhepner.com
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Today is the distinguished Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England on 18 September 1709, Johnson is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. He is undoubtedly a key figure in the Enlightenment and the development of the modern English language. When I was pondering the remarkable work of Johnson, I recalled a story within an oration by Christopher Hitchens. Addressing the issue of free speech, Hitchens describes a curious exchange shortly after the publication of Johnson’s first dictionary. The following short passage is from a transcript of Hitchens’ speech, made at Toronto’s Hart House Debating Club in November 2006.
When it was complete, Dr. Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him, of the nobility, of the quality, of the Commons, of the Lords — and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London, who tended on him at his Fleet Street lodgings, and congratulated him. “Dr. Johnson,” they said, “we are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.” “Ladies,” said Dr. Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”
To be clear, we undoubtedly live in a world in which there is great injustice, hatred and bigotry. But we spend far too much time arguing about trivialities, rather than focusing on what really matters. If you actively seek offence, then you shall surely find it. Aidan
The faithful are playing with reference to a different set of rules when arguing for the merits of religion based on faith alone. Faith, by definition, requires no tangible evidence. But claims from the faithful about human history can be countered by the inquisitive atheist. We all have access to a plethora of terrestrial historical accounts which were not gleaned from divine revelation. In this edition of the podcast, Aidan explores the classic argument of the faithful against atheism when discussing human history. This argument – especially prevalent whenever the issue of violence or hatred is discussed – is that Adolf Hitler was an atheist. The inferred claim is that this godlessness demonstrates the danger of turning away from the moral teachings of the church. Another aspect of the argument which is often thrown in as an addendum is a charge that the Third Reich was a secular movement. How much merit is there in these claims? Did Hitler reject God, and if he did, did this make a difference to human history? And how secular was Hitler’s Nazi regime? Aidan delves into the argument to provide grounded insight and analysis. Indeed, as with the claims of the holy books, the introduction of earthly evidence is crucial when one desires to separate fact from fiction. Selected bibliography: J. Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII A. Hitler (ed. N. Baynes), The Speeches of Adolf Hitler A. Hitler, Mein Kampf C. Hitchens, God Is Not Great G. Orwell, Literature and Totalitarianism
Additional Aidan Project content on related persons:
A scene from the religious satire, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979, directed by Terry Jones.
My latest podcast, Notes on Belief, in which I argue that beliefs matter and are open to reasonable scrutiny.
The phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was famously offered by Carl Sagan as a response to beliefs formed despite a lack of tangible certification. Christopher Hitchens, likewise, stated that, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
These quotes typify my approach to unsubstantiated claims and superstitious beliefs. I released a podcast on June 15, Notes on Belief, which was well-received by the majority of those who heard it (and listened to the argument carefully). As I was so grateful to receive such positive feedback, I have decided – in case you missed them – to point out a selection of other Aidan Project podcasts in which irrational religious beliefs are rightly challenged. I am quite sure that more such episodes will follow, as there are no shortage of theocratic outrages deserving criticism, in the past, in the present and, inevitably, in the future.
It is imperative that society tackles the issues surrounding belief honestly. No free pass for religion, ever. My mission is to speak candidly and to challenge abhorrent ideas.
Liberalism does not mean rolling over for fear of causing offence. Liberalism means standing up for decency and veracity in pursuit of a just world, not apologising for the obscenities of others. I want to do something during my fleeting existence that, even in the most minute way, pushes society towards a brighter future. It is a rather modest, microscopic, contribution amongst such a vast array of discourse, but it is my own.