The Spectator

Letters | 20 June 2013

Text settings

Being good without God

Sir: It is a rash person who tangles with the Chief Rabbi, but his piece on ‘Atheism and barbarism’ (15 June) shocked me. After championing until his last paragraph the old lie that religious belief is a necessary foundation for morality, he suddenly says he doesn’t believe ‘that you have to be religious to be moral’, which effectively contradicts his whole thesis. But there are several derailments before that.

He questions the ability of society ‘to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond’. Rituals and practices, OK, so long as they don’t entail any indefensible beliefs, but narratives have to stand up to empirical testing, and their supposedly unique sustenance of the social bond would not be evidence of their truth.

He declares that ethics ‘manifestly isn’t’ natural. But the strong case for the opposite view espoused by humanists is too important to be dealt with by mere declaration. This is an insult to innumerable ethically sophisticated unbelievers, as is his closing observation that he has not found an adequate secular ethic.

He twice implies that without religion we are stuck with relativism. But religious believers have no monopoly on ethical objectivism, which has many persuasive secular adherents. Secular humanist objectivists ground morality on human nature rather than on the dispensations of an alleged deity. Life is sacred for them too, contra Dr Sacks; they too reject materialism and selfishness.

He is of course right to decry religious fundamentalism. As he says, ‘religion has social, cultural and political consequences’, and the support religion can offer to terrorism and political intransigence is part of the case against religious belief that he does not consider.

Henry Hardy

Wolfson College, Oxford

Who teaches the teachers?

Sir: Although your leading article (15 June) provides evidence as to how improvements in teaching would raise living standards, and Toby Young (‘The best leader Labour never had’, 15 June) lavishes well-deserved praise on Michael Gove’s reforms, neither mentions the key to future success. Nothing will be achieved unless the means by which teachers learn their trade is properly reformed. The most urgent task is to abolish the existing teacher-training establishments. Just as we have ‘teaching hospitals’, so must we have ‘teaching schools’. Within these schools the most capable teachers should become Training Teachers and be rewarded for passing on their skill and knowledge.

When I did my PGCE we had a seminar entitled: ‘How psychological theory can optimise motivation in the classroom’. I fell asleep. My fellow trainees noticed my snoring, and did not miss the irony.

Anthony Thompson

Bodenham, Herefordshire

Majority decisions

Sir: My young namesake James (no relation!) opines that a referendum on our EU membership would break the Tory party in two (Politics, 15 June). Not so. He overlooks the extraordinary capacity of the British to abide by a majority decision fairly arrived at, even one they disagree with. This is exemplified by the year 1975. Both major parties had factions that were at daggers drawn over the issue of the recently joined EEC. Harold Wilson called our first and only national referendum. The pro-EEC faction won by two thirds.

The issue subsided for 17 years until the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. This re-lit the controversy, and was so badly handled that it has remained a venomous issue ever since. Once again, only a nationwide consultation can lance this boil. Every year of delay only makes matters worse.

Frederick Forsyth


Grave business

Sir: Apropos Mark Greaves’s article last week ‘Losing the plot’, I was chancellor of the diocese of Hereford 1977–2000 and I permitted re-use of grave plots after 75 years, provided the consent of the next of kin was obtained. Such a course was widespread in the Church of England and I never heard of any difficulty.

On a different note, I am the holder of 13 shares in the General Cemetery Company. In our annual report, the board reported an increase in the dividend ‘due to increased productivity’ — not I hope meant in any macabre sense, but due to the installation of new machinery.

Jonathan Henty

Petworth, West Sussex

PR stunt

Sir: In reference to Alexander Chancellor’s article (Long life, 15 June), we continue to be bemused by Prince Alwaleed’s ego-driven PR stunt. Forbes still has not been served with any lawsuit. Our story raises significant questions about his finances, and we would welcome the opportunity to uncover further relevant information during the course of any hypothetical suit.

Mia Carbonell

SVP corporate communications

Forbes Media, New York

Pro-IRA and pacifist

Sir: In response to my review of his book about Bono, Harry Browne (Letters, 15 June) says I am ‘really not entitled to state as though it were fact ... without evidence’ that Browne is ‘pro-IRA’, and insists that he is now and has always been a pacifist.

The only evidence I have is from his book. He objects, for example, to Bono’s ‘unwaveringly one-sided pronouncements against IRA “terrorism”’, as if the term were dubious. And he claims that during the Troubles it was ‘brave’, in ‘culturally enlightened society in Britain’, to stand up for Northern Irish nationalism, ‘even amid occasional IRA bombs’, as if their comparative infrequency were mitigation.

Just as a member of the Chinese Communist Party can be a capitalist, it is apparently possible to be pro-IRA and a pacifist.

Lewis Jones

London NW1