The Spectator

Letters to the Editor | 17 September 2005

Text settings

Pro-God, anti-religion

Theo Hobson makes some interesting points in his article about ‘literary atheism’ (‘Writing God off’, 10 September) but his case is fatally flawed by his repeated tendency to assume that ‘religion’, ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are somehow synonymous. They are not. It is, in fact, perfectly possible to reject religion without rejecting God; one can be anti-religion without being an atheist. In many minds, especially today, ‘religion’ has come to mean the kind of established and organised institutions, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, noted more for their intolerance of dissent — or much, much worse — than for anything positive.

Condemning Martin Amis for being influenced by Mick Jagger is a bit, well, adolescent. Ian McEwan’s comments on religious belief post-9/11 are no more than a pale echo of the much more famous argument concerning the validity of belief in God after Auschwitz, not to mention Dostoevsky’s profound and illuminating approach to the issue in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Christopher Hitchens’s view that the influence of Churches and other religious institutions has been positively harmful, far from being either original or unique, is quite widespread.

None of the above examples persuades me that the writers are anti-God, as opposed to anti-religion. Nor am I convinced, Larkin notwithstanding, by the thesis that today’s English writers aspire to replace faith with literature. Yes, intelligent American Jews frequently struggle with the question of God and yes, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a harbinger of the Islamic intolerance with which we are all struggling now, but both these facts seem to me unrelated to Hobson’s theme.

Mira Bar-Hillel
London SW19

Why do atheists always define themselves in terms of what they don’t believe? Just for once, it would be nice to hear one of them say, for example, ‘I believe that the universe results from the operation of unconscious matter which came into existence spontaneously from nothing, and happened by chance to have properties that allowed it to evolve to the present complex state.’ Nothing wrong with that as a statement of belief, but there’s no more evidence for it than there is for believing that the primal matter was consciously created.

Given that no conclusive proof either way is possible, I share the view of Erwin Schrödinger, who was well ahead of today’s ‘scientific atheists’ in his thinking on religion, and asked, with a respectful nod to Berkeley, what it could possibly mean for a universe to exist for millions of years before any conscious mind became aware of it.

John Bunting
Godalming, Surrey

A licence for mayhem

Rod Liddle (‘The joy of stigma’, 3 September) is correct to point out what happens when lobbying groups force the mentally ill back into society. In America, the ‘homeless’ problem was almost entirely thrust on cities by the efforts of advocates who followed the theories concocted in the 1960s by the English psychiatrist R.D. Laing. His movement maintained that schizoids were more in touch with reality than ‘normal’ people.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one example of the manifestation of public acceptance of the insane as hero. Nurse Ratched and the doctors in the ‘straight’ world were depicted as ‘crazy’, and R.P. McMurphy, the schizophrenic protagonist, represented reality.

In the 1970s, advocates of this perverted ‘human rights’ theory were successful in their desire to empty psychiatric hospitals. They were egged on by legal activists who worked behind the scenes to protect the homeless by lobbying to abolish loitering and vagrancy laws in states and cities. The goal was to prove that capitalist America had failed. As a result the streets filled with the mentally ill, alcoholics and drug-users.

In my city, Raleigh, North Carolina, it was discovered that of the 85 or so ‘homeless’, 80 were formerly treated in hospitals for mental or addiction disorders. When confronted with these facts, care-giving officials and activists said there was no problem if the ‘homeless’ took their medication. But most did not. They menaced people on the street while police stood by helplessly.

Bernie Reeves
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

Eupeptic Cowling

Although Maurice Cowling took a low view of the human condition, he was a eupeptic pessimist. His brains were never in his bile duct. He was as incapable of peevishness as Simon Heffer is of anything else (Politics, 3 September).

Mr Heffer does raise an interesting point, the supposed intellectual decline of the Tory party ‘from a state of sophistication to Year Zero’. But this question is more complex than Simon Heffer realises. Has he ever thought of comparing and contrasting Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher as (1) sophisticated intellectuals and (2) successful prime ministers?

Bruce Anderson
London SW1

Masters of their fate

As a long-term admirer of Aidan Hartley’s work — particularly his recent Zanzibar Chest — I was surprised and disappointed when he attributed the source of Somalia’s woes to ‘Britain and the West’ (Wildlife, 27 August). He is completely off base in saying that the problem is that ‘the world has allowed Somalia to remain in anarchy since 1991’.

What would he have us do? Land troops to overthrow the tyrants? At the last look, half of my countrymen and most of yours are trying to put as much daylight as possible between them and our current foreign deployment. Or perhaps the United Nations should step up to it — that august body which couldn’t manage the oil-for-food programme in Iraq and found no genocide in Darfur. If the Somalis as a whole really wanted something different for their country, they would have done something about it by now.

Mr Hartley loves Africa as a native son, and his pain in what he sees there is palpable. Alas, what he also sees is Africans running Africa the way they want to, much as you see Americans running America as we want to. Both sights can be very disheartening.

David Mayger
Alexandria, Virginia, USA

Bad cop idea

No doubt you were disappointed that following your support for David Cameron (Diary, 3 September) his first policy announcement was mayor-appointed police chiefs. Can you imagine the insanity of a Ken Livingstone-appointed commissioner? Cameron seems decent and bright but lacks as yet the experience to deliver a sure touch on policy and has no resonance with voters beyond Tory heartlands.
David Williams
East Grinstead, Sussex

For and against Clarke

I am that rarest of breeds, a left-wing reader of your publication. To my mind a Conservative party under the stewardship of Kenneth Clarke represents potentially a very serious threat to the Labour government because Clarke is the only leadership candidate who speaks for the people on the subject of Iraq (Politics, 10 September).

Surely it is not that much of an exaggeration to say, ‘If the Prime Minister really believes it, he must be the only person left who thinks that the recent bombs in London had no connection at all with his policy in Iraq.’

I wonder whether, if Mr Clarke does win the leadership, we will see the Right in Britain ideologically distancing itself from American policy.

Darrell Goodliffe

At present, Germany has some five million unemployed, and the Italians are busily debating the possibility of their leaving the euro, because of the damage it has inflicted on their economy. If it had been up to Mr Clarke, we could be suffering very similar economic ‘advantages’ at this very moment.

The fact that the side-effects of the euro have now become so overwhelming as to finally persuade Mr Clarke to go so far as to be willing to delay British entry for some years says quite a lot about his judgment — none of it encouraging. Mr Clarke’s supposed change of heart concerning British support of the euro reminds me of the old saying, ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’

Peter Davey
Bournemouth, Dorset

If the Conservative party wishes to win the next election, it has to win back all the defectors like me who voted Ukip last time. I was a Tory candidate in the 1970 and February 1974 elections.

If Ken Clarke is elected leader, we can forget it. His latest U-turn on Europe is just hypocritical, naked personal ambition. By the next election he will be older than Churchill was the first time he was leader and, remember, Churchill did not have to face the electorate; he was appointed by the King in a time of a dire national emergency.

If the Tories wish to continue their suicidal streak started by Lord Howe when they ousted Margaret Thatcher, then elect Clarke. But remember also that he would not be up against Blair but against Brown; a very different kettle of fish.

Richard Devonald-Lewis
London N1

Gift of a taxman

Theodore Dalrymple is right to think that the Dobermann dog was the creation of a 19th-century German tax collector (Second opinion, 3 September).

Louis Dobermann, from Apolda in Thuringia, also ran the local lost dogs’ home. This canine asylum gave him an opportunity to use breeds from various countries. He took the Manchester Terrier from England, the Beauceron from France and the Rottweiler to build around the rather nondescript German Pinscher. In a remarkably short space of time this venture in European co-operation produced the Dobermann breed. When properly handled, there is no finer or more versatile dog. It is seldom that one has cause to be grateful to a tax collector.

Ian Blair
Nympsfield, Gloucestershire

Truth, not spite

In his Diary (10 September) Trevor Grove describes my new biography of his chum Sir John Mortimer as ‘somewhat spiteful’, by which obviously he means embarrassingly truthful. Does this mean that Mr Grove’s wife, who is writing Sir John’s authorised biography, will be omitting all the fascinating, often hilarious, less than flattering revelations I have been able to make about Sir John, thanks to the many witnesses I interviewed who are not among his large coterie of fans and groupies? And if she does try to tell the whole truth, will Mr Grove accuse her, too, of being ‘somewhat spiteful’?
Graham Lord
Valbonne, France