Posts Tagged ‘Limbo’

After life is there more? (And would we want there to be?)



manicstreetpreacher muses on the pros and cons of departing this veil of tears to a big theme park in the sky or to somewhere less pleasant…

I was invited to speak at Liverpool University on 18 November 2009 on an inter-faith discussion panel on the topic of the afterlife, called “Follow My Way 2: Life, Death & Beyond”.  Originally, the discussion was to be on the rights and wrongs of religious tolerance.  I was amazed that the University of Liverpool Atheist Society (ULAS) had asked me whether I wanted to speak following the disastrous public reaction to my outspoken views on religion in March earlier this year, about which you can about in piece, “More Than I Could Chew?”

I have had to up sticks and move to the opposite end of the country in order to find employment in a recession.  To travel to Liverpool and return to my new home would have meant a £100 return train fare and my last two days of paid leave which I had been saving to get home ahead of the Christmas rush.  In case you are new to this blog, speaking out against the parties of God is just about my favourite pastime at present and I leapt at the chance.  If nothing else, it would have been an opportunity to repair some of the damage done at the beginning of the year and learn to keep a cool head against a hostile crowd and potentially baiting opponents.


However, the topic changed overnight, away from the role of religion in the world and to the rather saccharine topic of the afterlife.  With great reluctance, I declined to speak.  I felt that I only had a very limited amount to say on the motion which essentially boiled downed to:

  1. I don’t believe in the afterlife.
  2. Like telekinesis, Father Christmas and fairies at the bottom of the garden, it would be lovely if we did have a soul separate from our bodies which floats off our brains at the moment of death towards a tunnel of life to be reunited with our loved ones and/ or to wait for our loved ones to join us once their time on Earth is up but there simply isn’t any evidence for it.
  3. The consequences of certain people believing in an afterlife can be truly sinister for the rest of us in this life whether we share their beliefs or not.
  4. We ought to stop looking forward to our deaths and make the most of the one life we do have.

ULAS have managed to persuade a member of The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) to speak and I wish him all the very best of luck.  If I was still living in or closer to Liverpool, I would probably have still spoken despite the change of topic, but it just wasn’t worth the train fare or the holiday time.

However, as is so often the case, the experience of being asked to speak on a topic has made me think deeper about that topic.  I half-regret turning down the opportunity now and present my further thoughts to anyone who cares.

If I was there, I would… apologise for all the offensive things I am going to say

I think it would be best to start off by trying to wash out the bad taste I had left in the mouths of the religious members of the audience after last time by making clear that nothing I say is done deliberately for effect and while I am bound to offend a lot of people in the room, this is not intentional.

I have half a mind to say the most offensive thing I could possibly say right away by quoting Jimmy Carr and saying that it is a shame about all the wounded British soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least we would have a cracking team for the 2012 Paralympics.

There’s a more than 50 percent chance of that one going down like a lead balloon…

It would be wonderful if it were true but…

After the apologies and explanation, the first thing to be said would be that there are loads of things that I wish did exist – such as The Force, lightsabres, telekinesis, telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden – but there simply isn’t any evidence for them.  The religious instinct is informed by the same mentality as astrology and tarot reading: the human tendency to see patterns in everyday events and infer some greater meaning to them.

I blogged on this at length following a lecture given by Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College hosted by the Merseyside Skeptics Society in September 2009.  We are swimming in probabilities; it would be more incredible if these coincidences didn’t happen!   There may be some anecdotal evidence for telepathy and reincarnation, but these studies are flawed by what is known as the “Clustering Illusion”, also known as the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”.   Rather like a marksman emptying his magazine at a barn door and then drawing on the target afterwards, if you repeat the same experiment enough times you are bound to see patterns emerge, but the conclusions drawn from them will be false.

American physicist, Victor J Stenger, touches on the search for a world beyond matter in his 2007 book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist and describes how the search for a soul, an afterlife, reincarnation and psychic powers has failed miserably.

Professor Susan Blackmore of Plymouth University charts her journey from naïve believer in the paranormal to hardened sceptic after she set out on a mission to prove in the lab that supernatural forces were at work, only to find that the experiments were flawed and the data inconclusive.  The story is told in her book, In Search of the Light: Adventures of a Parapsychologist.  At the time of writing, I hadn’t read Blackmore’s book myself, but she summarises her journey very eloquently in her debate on religion against Christian theologian Alistair McGrath at Bristol University on 13 November 2007.

A few years ago, thirty of the world’s “top” theologians met at the Vatican to discuss what happened to the souls of unbaptised babies after they die and whether St Augustine’s doctrine of limbo was valid.  I am struggling to think of a more intellectually forlorn exercise; did any of those theologians have any actual evidence of what does happen to the souls of said un-baptised babies, or even whether they possess a soul in the first place?

Positing that humans possess a soul separate from our bodies simply commits the philosophical fallacy of begging the question.  When did the soul evolve?  Do non-human animals have a soul?  Why would a deity bother with a mortal life at all and just have the afterlife as the norm so we can all enjoy his or her company straightaway?  How can a soul survive the death of the brain?  In what state is your soul when it leaves your body for good?  It wouldn’t be very enjoyable to be permanently suffering from a stroke for all eternity.

Sounds like hell to me

Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays.  How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?

– Mark Twain

I suppose my ideal version of the afterlife would be to live in a temple of knowledge and philosophical discussion with a library where you could read any book you chose for as long as you wanted and have discussions with the greatest thinkers of all time from Plato to Hume to Spinoza to Jefferson, one-to-one or in an auditorium.  But again, there’s just no evidence for it.

I have to say though that the Christian version of the afterlife sounds absolutely ghastly, as Mr Twain summarises so beautifully above.  I’m sorry, but did I miss something?  Spending all eternity singing the praises of your maker?  And you thought I was going to go for one blog post without quoting Christopher Hitchens, but it sounds like hell to me!

In 2000, Hitchens travelled to North Korea under his guise as a university professor and reported on the abject serfdom endured by the wretched population who are expected to wake up in the morning praising the Great Leader, Kim Ill Sung and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jung Ill, only to wake up again in the morning and begin the process all over again.

Kim Ill Sung became President of North Korea in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty Four.  It is almost as though someone lent the Great Leader a copy of the book challenging him to put it into practice and he gleefully accepted.

According to Hitchens, you will not open a newspaper, turn on a television set or watch a theatrical production, that is not dedicated to worshipping the cult of Fat Man and Little Boy.  However, Kim Jung Ill is only the head of the party and the army.  The head of state is still his father; surprisingly, since the guy has been dead since 1994.  Hitchens dubs the government a “necrocracy, or a “mauselocracy or a “thanatocracy.  Indeed, the son is said to be a reincarnation of his father.  This should strike a chord with the Christian apologist on the night.  It’s just one short of a Trinity.

But at least you can die and get out of North Korea.  Under Christianity and Islam at least, it’s only when you’re dead that the real fun begins.  Who would want this to be true?

Silly souls

Atheists constantly have the charge levelled against them that they cannot justify why they are moral and altruistic.  If we all end up the same way and there is no final judgement for our lives’ deeds, then why should we care what happens in this life?  Leaving aside for a moment my stock retorts about the intrinsic satisfaction of doing one of your fellow mammals a good turn without expecting reward or avoiding punishment, the theistic worldview hardly settles matters more satisfactorily.

Perhaps it is too cheap a shot to ask why religious people don’t just commit suicide rather than bothering with this veil of tears.  But the question still remains frustratingly unanswered: if there is going to be an in-gathering, if there is going to be a magical place where all tears will be dried and all injustices put right, then why do the religious care so much about what happens in this life?  Why do they want to control what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms?

It would appear that at least Mahatma Ghandi pre-empted my challenge.   Ghandi was undoubtedly the twentieth century’s most influential pacifist with his devastating policy of non-cooperation against India’s colonial masters, which sealed independence for the Jewel in the Crown in 1947.

However, it must be remembered firstly that Ghandi’s command to turn the other cheek only worked because the British Empire had by then been crippled by two World Wars in the space of 25 years and secondly, his ideals took a much more sinister side.   Ghandi’s remedy for the Holocaust was for the Jews to commit mass suicide because this “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.”

Even if we grant Ghandi’s religious dogma of karma and rebirth, is the suffering and agony of millions of people in this world an acceptable price to secure their happiness and freedom in the next?  Ghandi’s world was one where millions of people would have died in order for the German people to doubt the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich.  How would a world full of pacifists respond once they became “aroused” to the evil of Nazism; commit suicide as well?

The concern for human souls seems to have trumped the care for human beings when you consider the Bush administration’s denial of funding at the Federal level for potentially ground-breaking stem cell research.  Apparently a middle-aged father succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease or a young girl suffering from third degree burns are less important than the souls of three day old human embryos in a petri dish comprising no more than 150 cells.  If you think that still sounds like a large number of cells, there are over 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly.  You inflict far more pain and suffering every time you swat a household insect than if you use a three day old human embryo potentially to save another human being’s life.

You lot may be looking forward to checking out, but don’t demand the rest of us to come with you

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of the American population believe that Christ will return to Earth someday to judge the human race for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion.  At least 20% think that this event will happen within their lifetimes.

To an atheist, this might seem like a ridiculous belief – particularly when you consider that we have waited long enough following Jesus’ promise to return to Earth within the lifetime of his followers at Matthew 16 among several other instances – but it does not appear to be a potentially harmful preachment.   Until you consider that there are fundamentalist American Christians hard at work in the Holy Land to this day attempting to incite the already warring religious factions into nuclear Armageddon.


Ronald Reagan brought in Hal Lindsay and Jerry Falwell – a pair of religious lunatics of the first, second, third and fourth orders – to advise the Pentagon on biblical prophesy regarding the end of the world when it looked like he was going to turn the Cold War hot.  Falwell in particular worked hard at inciting the worst and most fanatical elements among Jewish settlers on the West Bank in Israel and was even awarded the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal in 1980 by Menachem Begin.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury (!), Dr Geoffrey Fisher throughout the 1950s and 1960s consistently refused to condemn the apocalyptic madness of Russia and the West during the Cold War.  When some observers were proposing all-out surrender to the Soviets in order to avoid doomsday, sheepish Dr Fisher wrote a tract that could have been produced by Ahmadinejad in the present day:

I am convinced that it is never right to settle any policy simply out of fear of the consequences…  For all I know it is within the providence of God that the human race should destroy itself in this manner.

There is no evidence that the human race is to last forever and plenty in Scripture to the contrary effect.  Though, as you say, the suffering entailed by nuclear war would be ghastly in its scale, one must remember that each person can only suffer so much; and I do not know that the men and women affected would suffer more than those do who day by day are involved in some appalling disaster.  There is no aggregate measure of pain. Anyhow, policy must not be based simply on fear of pain.

I am not being unfeeling. Christ in His Crucifixion showed us how to suffer creatively.  He did not claim to end suffering, nor did He bid His disciples to avoid suffering.  So I repeat, I cannot establish any policy merely on whether or not it will save the human race from a period of suffering or from extinction.


In a later interview, Fisher commented that “the very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other and more vital world, into which anyhow they must pass at one time.”

As Sam Harris comments in Letter to a Christian Nation:

According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on Earth.  It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen – the return of Christ.  It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves – socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically.  Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious.  The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

I don’t even want to get started on radical Islam’s commitment to Jihad, martyrdom, and three score and a dozen nubiles in paradise, so I’ll again defer to a man who is blessed with a far more eloquent turn of phrase:

The irony here is almost a miracle in its own right: the most sexually repressed people found in the world today – people who are stirred to a killing rage by reruns of Baywatch – are lured to martyrdom by a conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello.

Apart from the terrible ethical consequences that follow from this otherworldliness, we should observe how deeply implausible the Koranic paradise is.  For a seventh-century prophet to say that paradise is a garden, complete with rivers of milk and honey, is rather like a twenty-first century prophet saying that it is a gleaming city where every soul drive a new Lexus.  A moment’s reflection should reveal that such pronouncements suggest nothing at all about the afterlife and much indeed about the limits of human imagination.

– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason

A rather less pleasant place

I could not finish a piece on this topic without a reference to the dark side of an afterlife: that of eternal punishment.  This is an utterly evil concept that has surely ruined the lives and peace of mind of many children and which some have said is a worse form of abuse than the mildest forms of physical and sexual abuse.


Before the first “Follow My Way” in March 2009, I had read extracts of the Koran as quoted by others, namely Sam Harris in The End of Faith and the excellent treatment by prolific secularist and anti-fascist blogger Edmund Standing on Butterflies and Wheels.

I had also purchased my own copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran, but I had not read it in full.  I have now done so, cover-to-cover, and it was an appalling experience.  I am currently in the middle of writing my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.

Every time I now see someone wearing traditional Muslim dress or facial hair, I can’t stop myself from wondering, “What do you really think about me as an unbeliever, an infidel, a kuffar?  What do you really believe is going to happen to me after I depart this life?  Given that it says on practically every page of your holy book – which you claim is a miracle explained only if it were authored by an omnipotent deity – that I as unbeliever will face a painful chastisement in hell, fire or Gehenna for all eternity?”

I have not had the chance to ask this question of a believing Muslim myself yet, but I would certainly ask it of the Muslim apologist were I speaking on the night.

For the one life we do have

How’s this for an ending?

We’re all doomed.  One way or another we all end up dead.  The party will go on without us and we won’t be able to look down on it from on high.  The human race will go extinct one day.  Maybe at its own hands.  Certainly if the religious fanatics attempting to acquire apocalyptic nuclear weaponry while I write get their way.

But if we don’t finish each other off, then disease, famine or tempest ought to do the trick.  And our goose will be well and truly cooked in about half a billion years time when our sun runs out of hydrogen and swells up into a red giant and consumes half the solar system.  And if there’s anything left of us after all that, then the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see now in the night sky on a direct collision course with the Milky Way and will be upon us in [theatrical glance at wrist watch] ooooh… four billion years time.

If that doesn’t do it for us, then maybe I’m wrong and there is a God!

We have but a few short precious years of consciousness.  But try to make it count.   Try to enjoy the time you have.  And above all, try to help other people enjoy their time as well.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.  Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.  The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.  Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.  We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people.  In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and The Appetite for Wonder


Hitchens and Fry versus the Catholic Church: Post Mortem



manicstreetpreacher witnesses first-hand a rhetorical massacre of Vatican hench(wo)men by the cream of British intellectualism.

On Monday, 19 October 2009 I attended a debate at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, London featuring “New Atheist” and author of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens and actor, writer and broadcaster, Stephen Fry, to argue against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world” with Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Conservative MP, Ann Widdecombe proposing.

The debate was filmed by BBC TV cameras and the debate moderator, Zeinab Badawi, told us that it would be broadcast to 70 million people throughout the world on 7 and 8 November 2009.   The full video of the debate can be viewed below:

Each of the four speakers were allowed 15 minutes for an opening statement, then there was about 30 minutes of the audience’s questions and comments and then the panel were given a final five minutes to sum up.  The whole event lasted a shade under two hours from 7:00 – 9:00pm.  The only disappointment is that Hitchens wasn’t signing books afterwards, but apart from that it was very well put together by the organisers, Intelligence Squared.

Exactly as I predicted before the event, this was an utterly one-sided affair.  Hitch and Fry wiped the floor with their papist opponents.  It was an embarrassment for the parties of God.  The two men had everything on their side.  They had the arguments, they had the historical facts, they had the present day facts, they had the rhetoric, they had the wit and most importantly they had the audience, although it has to be said that most of them were dead against the motion from the start.

Blow-by-blow: Archbishop John Onaiyekan

Archbishop John Onaiyekan opened the motion for the proposition.  He seemed an amiable enough fellow; I’m sure you’d like to have him round for dinner.  Unfortunately he was encumbered with a thick Nigerian accent, which made it difficult to understand what he was saying.  Not that it would have made too much difference.  From what I could pick up, his opening statement was a wishy-washy apologia that cited few factual examples and even less ideology.

The Archbishop said that from his Catholic upbringing to the present day as a 65 year old adult, he had no regrets and devoutly believed in the motion, otherwise he would not be a member of the Catholic Church in the first place.  The Church has stood the test of time over the last two thousand years ranging from the good ordinary folk of the world to the leaders of the world.  He cited the 2008 papal encyclical, Caritas In Veritate, “Charity in Truth”, as a good example of what the Church stood for.

Noises were made about the Church’s syllabus of errors, but the Archbishop stressed the need to keep perspective and be careful when judging others.  After all, the late pontiff, John Paul II apologised for many of the Church’s “misjudgements” throughout history.

The Archbishop argued that true good of the Catholic Church can be attested by its 1.2 billion members and we really ought to go and speak to some of them to realise that the world needs more people linking arms and striving for a future of justice.  The Archbishop also stated that the Church has a hand in setting up many schools and hospitals and contrary to the public perception of its stance on condom use, had worked closely with the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS.

It was a well-meaning and consolatory opening.  The Archbishop finished with plenty of his allotted time to spare and asked with a dash of irony whether there now could be anyone in the audience who didn’t think that the Catholic Church was a force for good.  Bless him, he must have hoped that his two opponents would be willing to search for common ground.

What planet has he been living on?

The Hitch

OK, let’s face it.  This is why the majority of the audience paid their admissions fee.  To witness arguably the world’s most outspoken atheist and opponent of religion take aim at the easiest target he could have wished for.  We were not disappointed.

After the usual warm-up quips about the moderator admiring his shirt, Hitch went at the Holy See like a rabid dog.

WHAM!  The statement delivered by Pope John Paul II’s spokesmen on 12 March 2000 apologising for everything from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the oppression of women (who after all comprise half the human race), to the forced conversion of the indigenous peoples of South America by the Conquistadors.

BLAM!  The 94 public recognitions of the Church’s crimes against humanity from apologising for the African slave trade in 1995 to the admission in 1992 that Galileo was actually right when he said that the sun was the centre of our solar system and the earth and the other planets were in orbit around it.


KA-ZAAM!!!  Hitchens’ demanded that apologies were long overdue for the crimes of the Croatian Utashe lead by Ante Pavelić in the Second World War which received the full blessing of the clergy, to the rape and torture and cover-up of children in Catholic schools and care homes from “Ireland to Australia”, to the hideous preaching of Augustine’s doctrine of limbo which had countless parents in agony over the destination of the souls of their un-baptised children.

BIFF!  There were a few more sins for the Holy See to atone for: the 1933 Reich Concordat with Nazi Germany which dissolved the Catholic Centre Party and removed all opposition to the rise of Hitler while ensuring that the Church maintained control of state education.  Come to think of it, wasn’t the first treaty that Mussolini put his name to the 1929 Lateran Treaty with the Vatican.  Wasn’t Jozef Tiso, the despot who governed Slovakia an ordained priest?   Wasn’t every other fascist dictator from Franco to Salazar raised as a Catholic with the public blessing of St Peter’s Basilica?  Wasn’t Adolf Hitler’s birthday celebrated from the pulpits every year right up until his death?


Well alright, then perhaps a little bit more.  This is getting kinda fun.

THWACK!!!  Hitch declared that none of this could be laughed off with gestures to the charitable.  After all, didn’t Pope Ratzinger qualify the apology to the South American Indians by saying while on a visit to Brazil in 2007 that they were “silently longing” for the arrival of Christianity?  The sex abuse scandal culminating in the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Massachusetts, only for the same Cardinal to show up at the 2005 conclave to elect the new pontiff doesn’t exactly enhance the Vatican’s claim to moral superiority either.  Neither does the doctrine of anti-Semitism for the Jews’ complicity for the death of Christ preached until 1964, nearly 20 years after the judgment of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

POW!!!   Hitch then proceeded to tear the moral relativism that has engulfed the Church in recent years  (and would certainly engulf the arguments of its apologists this night) a new one.  He stated that the rape and torture of children is something that cannot be relativised.  It cannot be shrugged off as something that would not happen if “queers had not been allowed into the Church.”   If any “normal” person were accused of child rape, they would want to die.  If they were found guilty, they would commit suicide.

ZAP!!!  More suggested topics to apologise for?  How about the re-inauguration of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, who effectively said, “Genocide?  No.  Deicide? Yes!”?  Ratzinger invited Williamson back into the fold because Church unity was more important than moral integrity.  And how about the genocide in Rwanda, the most Catholic country in Africa where priests and nuns were guilty of inciting the massacres and indeed, many are now standing trial for taking part in it themselves.  No proper apology has ever been issued.

Hitch then stood up for his friend, Stephen Fry, who is “not like other girls” and cannot be a member of the Church for being a “fag”.  The Church’s condescending stance to “hate the sin, love the sinner” means that a substantial portion of the world’s population is excluded from the sacraments.

Hitch ended by saying that he did not wish harm on anybody, but he looked forward to the death of Ratzinger for one reason and one reason only.  In the intervening weeks and months between one pope dying and another being elected by the College of Cardinals, there is a period when no one on earth claims to be infallible.  Our species must be rid of its faith the certainty from above if it is to progress.

The crowd loved every minute of it.  Hitch’s address was punctuated by applause and cheers several times.  The biggest cheer came when he faced the Archbishop and asked him for a public apology for the Church’s policy of delivering false information about the effectiveness of condom use, effectively saying that “AIDS is bad, but condoms are worse”.

In case you couldn’t tell, Hitchens is a personal hero of mine.  I’m well on the way to having read all of his books.  I’ve seen him lecture and debate as many times as I’ve been able to find on YouTube.  I’ve referenced him more times than I care to remember on this blog and in my appearances on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and I have come in for some stick from commenters and listeners for being a mouthpiece for the Four Horsemen in general and Hitchens in particular.  This was the first time that I have seen him speak live and it was worth 10 times the admission price.

It was orgasmic!


The Conservative MP and Catholic convert was announced to have left the Church of England in 1992 when it decided to ordain women priests.  In answer to a question from the audience, she explained that a woman can be an MP because it is a profession, but there is no theological basis for a woman to be a priest because they cannot lead the confession before Christ.  Apparently a woman can no more stand in for JC than a man for the Virgin Mary.  Right.

Out of the two papists, it has to be said that Widdecombe put up by far the better fight.  She raised rapturous applause from the Catholic supporters in the audience (all five of them) by starting off demanding that Hitchens give an apology for the caricature he had presented of the Church’s history, saying that members of the Waffen SS had to renounce their Christianity before entering the organisation, and Ratzinger made Bishop Richard Williamson renounce his views on the Holocaust before once again granting him the sacraments.  She also tried to deflect his remarks saying that he had to delve into history and go back to the Crusades and the Inquisition for the core of his arguments.

I was in dire need of a sick bucket at one point when Widdecombe indulged in the worst kind of relativism in defending the Church’s stance on slavery since it was simply in line with the opinions of the rest of the world!  Hitchens later pointed out that if slavery had to be considered in context, what could be more relative than that?  What happened; did God change his mind?

As if slavery wasn’t bad enough, Widdecombe went on to say that it has only been in recent years that the courts and the Samaritans have tackled the problem of child sex abuse and there has been a Sex Offenders Register.

Special pleading and calls for clemency do not convincing arguments make, Miss Widdecombe.

The worst offence Widdecombe committed was recommending the work of historian Michael Burleigh who, along with Martin Gilbert, has praised the efforts of the wartime pope, Pius XII, in rescuing many thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by giving them refuge in Castel Gandolfo. I wonder how many people realised that in fact Burleigh re-prints a bogus statement purporting to be from Albert Einstein praising the Church’s response to Hitler in his 2006 book Sacred Causes, the questionable authenticity of which Hitchens debunks in God Is Not Great.

While Hitch didn’t nail her for that point in his closing remarks, he did stand by his views on the Church preaching the doctrine of deicide against the Jewish people as likely to have provided a well of anti-Semitism throughout Europe which facilitated the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

It wasn’t all bad, however.  Widdecombe at least pointed out that the Church does much in the way of charitable giving and as a politician, she relied on them as much local government.

The address finished off with a call for the Church’s offer of hope and salvation, which the two nasty heretics at the other side of the table simply could not offer.  Hitch’s retort in the closing section was to agree whole heartedly that absolution was not forthcoming from him and Fry, but Catholics still had to live with their conscience and good luck to them.


As good as Hitchens was, the revelation of the evening was Stephen Fry.  Here was a man who I previously did not think capable of saying boo to a goose coming out (if you’ll excuse the pun) in full force against the forces of theocratic sexual repression.

Fry started off quoting Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest, saying that speaking one’s mind was quite often not just a moral duty, but a pleasure!  This was a subject he felt strongly about, not because he objected to people being religious, but because he felt passionately about the Enlightenment, which the Church has never tired of attacking.  Straightaway, Fry sarcastically rubbished Widdecombe’s dismissal of history, saying that history “quivers down all of us”.

Fry then went on to attack the appalling doctrine of purgatory and the hideous idea that a soul needs to be prayed for by us mortals here on earth in order to “take the first left when getting on the plane and getting a first class seat to heaven.”  He lambasted the tradition of people giving money to ensure the safe delivery of the soul and questioned why it should be a privilege that only men could enjoy.

The next target was the Church’s exploitation of poor people, citing Thomas More who burned people at the stake for reading English translations of the Bible during the Reformation yet was made the patron saint of politicians by Pope John Paul II!  Then there was the disgraceful joint statement on contraception with Saudi Arabia (!) in 2003 that began, “On behalf of the revealed religions of the world…”

However, the real meat came with Fry’s attacks on the Church’s stance on homosexuality.  As a gay man, Fry could not possibly be a member of an institution that thought him evil.  On the contrary, Fry announced that he was a man who was full of love and certainly had no need of the pope’s permission to tell him to practise it.  Fry compared sex to food.  It’s jolly and it’s fun.  But frankly, the Catholic Church is anorexic.

Fry has made a series of TV documentaries about HIV in Africa, HIV and Me, and attacked the Church’s stance on preaching misinformation about contraception.  “Yes, abstinence and being faithful help prevent the spread of AIDS, BUT SO DO CONDOMS!!!”  It was not the last time the mild-mannered British comic would raise his voice.

This wonderful opening speech was topped off by speculation as to what Jesus would think.  Fry is clearly one of those atheists who at least think that Christ was a great moral teacher (unlike Hitchens who questions both the man’s existence as well as his morality), and asked what the Nazarene would think of the opulence of St Peters and the male-dominated hierarchy.  Of course he would be horrified and would be the last person to become a member of his own church!

In his closing statement, Fry answered Widdecombe’s protests that he just had to bring up condoms and sexuality was rather like a criminal in the dock saying to the judge, “Do you have to bring up that burglary?”!  The second time he raised his voice was in reply again to Widdecombe’s relativist defence of the Church not condemning slavery because it was a socially acceptable normal with, “WELL, WHAT ARE YOU FOR?!”  Magic.


Democracy in action

After the main speeches, the debate moved to comments and questions from the house.  The atheists were in full force in both numbers and words.  The moderator eventually had to ask for Catholic supporters to ask questions to balance things out!

Several gay men and women took the mikes and made their feelings known on the Church’s interference with what they do behind their bedroom doors.  One man asked the Archbishop what current policy of the Church he was most ashamed of!

Hitchens answered supporters’ objections to the Church’s charitable work and fundraising with his stock reply that Hamas do much of the same in Gaza, but is anyone going to say a word in defence of them for that reason?  He also showed his feminist colours by attacking the Ten Commandments as suppressing women and that the one proven way of bringing a society off its knees was to bring about the emancipation and the empowerment of women as opposed to having them as field hands, pack horses and baby producers.

Hitch also quite happily admitted to being sexually obsessed after Widdecombe accused Fry in her closing remarks of saying the evening’s only piece of “unpleasantness” by mocking the Archbishop’s vow of celibacy.  Hitch’s retort to this piece of prudishness was that from the day he first discovered that his God-given male member would give him no peace, he decided to give it no rest in return.  He also pronounced that homosexuality was not just a form of sex, it was a form of love.  Stephen Fry was a good friend of his and he would allow him to baby-sit his children any day of the week.  If, on the other hand, a clergyman showed up to look after his children, he would first call a taxi and then call the police!

The audience polls before and after the debate said it all:

Before the debate:

For the motion: 678
Against: 1102
Don’t know: 346

After the debate:

For: 268
Against: 1876
Don’t know: 34

Therefore, the number of people in the audience who opposed the motion increased by 774.


Andrew M Brown, on his Daily Telegraph blog, summed up the problem for the parties of God rather well:

The problem (from the Catholic point of view) was that the speakers arguing for the Church as a force for good were hopelessly outclassed by two hugely popular, professional performers.  The archbishop had obviously decided that it would work best if he stuck to facts and figures and presented the Church as a sort of vast charitable or “social welfare” organisation.  He emphasised how many Catholics there were in the world, and that even included “heads of state”, he said, as if that was a clincher.  But he said virtually nothing of a religious or spiritual nature as far as I could tell, and non-Catholics would have been none the wiser about what you might call the transcendent aspects of the Church. Then later when challenged he became painfully hesitant. In the end he mumbled and spluttered and retreated into embarrassing excuses and evasions. He repeatedly got Ann Widdecombe’s name wrong.  The hostility of both the audience and his opponents seemed to have discomfited him…

Even if you didn’t agree with him you’d have to concede Hitchens especially was spectacular and hyper-articulate…  Hitchens drank bottled water mostly, and plenty of it, though from time to time when he was sitting down he raised a glass of amber fluid from out of sight, down on the floor somewhere, and took a slug from that.  I don’t know why he kept a drink under the table like that, perhaps because the debate was filmed for broadcast.  He sweated profusely and dabbed his shiny forehead, eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief. But his diction was clear and he was in control, like a revivalist tent preacher, building the volume to a crescendo at the end, to applause and roars from the audience.

Amen to that, brother.

In conclusion – more and more are wearing their scarlet letter with pride


Aside from the superb showing by Stephen Fry and the utter annihilation of the apologists at the hands of the heretics, the evening was notable for one other reason: the number of people willing to announce their atheist colours with pride and make their feelings known about what they really feel about the most oppressive, hypocritical institution that our mammalian primate species has ever concocted.

The books by the “New Atheists”: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and of course, Christopher Hitchens have instilled the non-believers around the world with the motivation and the confidence to speak out.  This is no mere flash in the pan.  As Winston Churchill had it, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Sorry to all the bishops, priests, nuns and mullahs, but we are not going away in a hurry.  All we need now is the confidence not to pick on such a soft target next time and debate whether Islam is a force for good in the world…