Why I joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The toad who lives at the bottom of the garden in the pile of bricks beneath the potting table was very happy with his new plunge pool. I made it on a particularly slow afternoon when I had run out of ideas for things to do. It was either make a toad Jacuzzi or darn socks, so naturally Mr Toad lucked out. Before that, I tidied the cellar, going through all the laundry bags full of horse tackle. I sorted and bagged rugs, cleaned and polished bridles, reorganised my ever-burgeoning collection of multicoloured lead ropes, overreach boots and numnahs, and even sorted out all the saddle soaps and boot polishes.

Letters: The ban on public worship has enabled more of us to experience spiritual riches

Divine works Sir: Luke Coppen writes that livestreamed services ‘lack the vital communal dimension of worship’ and ‘are, at times, excruciatingly dull’ (‘Risen again’, 11 April). I would beg to differ. Catholics, at least, have had the rare opportunity to tune in to some beautifully sung Latin Masses in the Extraordinary Form which they would otherwise struggle to attend. As a Hampshire resident, for example, I have greatly appreciated the Birmingham Oratory’s livestreams. When celebrated well, these Masses are divine works of art in themselves, but are also highly prayer-focused and God-centred, with the celebrant facing the same way as the congregation — towards the altar. If anything, this pandemic

Will coronavirus hasten the demise of religion – or herald its revival?

On Saturday evening, Christians will prepare for an Easter unlike any other. With every church closed, from St Paul’s Cathedral to the meanest country chapel, Anglican worshippers will be directed to a website where lay leaders, priests and bishops will hold a ‘virtual vigil’ ending at dawn on Easter Sunday. In Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in England and Wales, a deacon will sing the great Easter proclamation known as the Exsultet. But this year, when the final syllable dies away, he will look out into the nave and see row upon row of vacant seats. It’s faith, but without the faithful. It’s happening the world over. This

Jonathan Sacks: Joy is the Jewish way of defeating hate

Last Monday night and Tuesday were our Jewish festival of Purim, when we recall the events described in the Book of Esther. It is the oddest of all festivals. There is rejoicing, which starts a fortnight before at the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar. There’s a celebratory meal on the day itself. We send charitable gifts to the poor and presents to friends. There’s riotous noise during the reading of Esther whenever the name of the arch-villain Haman is mentioned. And it’s the one day in the year when it’s considered a religious duty to drink slightly too much alcohol. This might fit within the conventional parameters of

‘I was a tortured, obviously brilliant child’: James Ellroy interviewed

James Ellroy is occasionally quoted as saying he’s the greatest American crime novelist ever. The man sometimes called the ‘demon dog of American letters’ has no hesitation in affirming it when he arrives in The Spectator’s London offices to record a podcast. ‘Oh yes, I think that’s been proven,’ he says matter-of-factly. Has he always thought that? ‘When I finished the LA Quartet. I knew there was nobody like me and there wasn’t.’ Ellroy’s new book, This Storm, is the second novel in a projected set of prequels to his LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) set between LA and the Baja peninsula

Mary Wakefield

Why I changed my mind about Catholicism

I grew up in a traditional English family, surrounded by cousins, chivvied by aunts, presided over by my grandmother, who insisted on Sunday church. We weren’t religious but Anglicanism (of a 19th-century sort) was in the air. We read the Revd Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and if I thought about Jesus it was in an English setting. I imagined him barefoot walking through fields, rescuing the lambs that had fallen into cattle grids. Our family viewed Catholicism with suspicion. For us it was voodoo: foreign and crowded with unnecessary intercessors. The aunts would tell us that our great-great-grandmother had refused to let Catholics in the house

When atheists stole the moral high ground

In 1585, Jacques du Perron presented to the court of the French king Henry III, as a kind of after-dinner entertainment, a formal logical argument for the existence of God. Du Perron, formerly a Protestant, was now well on his way to becoming a cardinal. He was a highly intelligent and rhetorically gifted man and he performed his task well, to the great pleasure of the assembled nobility. Flushed with success, he then turned to his audience and announced that, if they wanted, he could prove the opposite case too. The king was not amused. Most of us like to believe that we believe what we believe because rigorous reasoning

Patently insincere: Kanye’s Jesus is King reviewed

Grade: B– Kanye West has found Jesus Christ. Lucky old Christ. If I were Christ I’d have hidden out a while longer, frankly, but there we are. The most lauded (mysteriously) performer in the world right now wishes us to believe that he has been reborn, as a kind of cross between Billy Graham and the Revd Ian Paisley. The man who previously requested his girlfriend to perform oral sex upon him so that he didn’t get ‘spunk on his mink’ is now instructing people not to have premarital sex. The man who recently described himself as ‘beyond all doubt’ the greatest artist in the entire history of the world

Should Muslim parents be allowed to challenge LGBT lessons?

We saw two different worlds, or at least two different value systems, collide in the High Court in Birmingham this week. On one side there was Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the headmistress of Anderton Park, a little primary school in Sparkhill, a largely Pakistani bit of the city; on the other, two men who represent Muslim parents there. You may well have heard about the case. It has turned into one of those totemic issues: tolerant Britain vs backward religious people. At issue is the question of whether and how children should be taught about gay relationships — and whether and how parents who don’t like it should be allowed to protest

The BBC’s paranoia about causing offence has reached a new high

If the Naga Munchetty fiasco wasn’t cause for enough embarrassment for the BBC, an apparent attempt to censor a script referring to a Sikh Guru’s martyrdom for fear it, ‘might offend Muslims’ should certainly be. The Beeb’s in-house ‘thought police’ have driven Lord Singh to quit a radio slot he’s contributed to for thirty-five years. It’s a sorry state of affairs – not just because it highlights a new high in BBC paranoia on giving imagined offence to imaginary people, but because it demonstrates how historical facts (not just opinions) are not immune to censorship. In the end, the broadcast went ahead. It did not criticise Islam and unsurprisingly received no

Why was a GCSE student disqualified for criticising halal meat?

We have to talk about the schoolgirl who was disqualified from a GCSE exam on the grounds that she had made ‘obscene racial comments’ about Islam. This bizarre incident is being chalked up to overzealous wokeness on the part of some GCSE examiners. But it’s more than that. It tells us a bigger story about 21st-century Britain and the creeping criminalisation of any questioning of Islam. Too many institutions now believe it is their role to monitor and even punish anti-Islam ‘blasphemy’. The girl — Abigail Ward — is 16 years old and a strict vegetarian. In her GCSE Religious Studies exam she wrote some critical comments about halal meat.

Letters | 15 August 2019

God Sir: In his defence of Christianity (‘Losing our religion’, 10 August), Greg Sheridan writes as if Christianity and religion are interchangeable terms. His claim that the vast majority of people who have ever lived have believed in God may be true, but most of them were or are not Christians. And when he mentions that Christianity is the most persecuted religion, he fails to observe that much of this persecution is from adherents of other religions. As a non-believer, I look at the harm done by followers of different religions fighting each other — and at the years of sexual and emotional abuse of children by religious orders. I

Losing our religion | 8 August 2019

There is no faster way to get yourself classed as dim than by admitting that you hold religious belief, especially Christian belief. Anti-Catholicism used to be the anti-Semitism of intellectuals; now Catholics get no special attention. All believing Christians are regarded as stupid, eccentric or malevolent. Some conservatives will make the case for the social usefulness of Christian values. The conservative asks: if society prospered with these traditions and customs, is it really wise to throw them away without a moment’s hesitation? That is just what the West is doing, especially the Anglophone West. Britain, Australia and even the God-fearing United States are becoming atheist societies. Britain is more atheist

What I learned talking to Boris Johnson about religion

I don’t pretend to have had extensive discussions about religion with our new Prime Minister, but I did have a couple of brief ones when he edited my first Spectator articles. We once discussed Christian and Muslim ideas of martyrdom, and he was suddenly reminded of a hymn he liked at Eton which he proceeded to sing to me down the phone.  His tone towards religion in general was, as you’d expect, a bit guffawing: here’s a prime site for flippant jokes and the puncturing of earnestness. But, knowing that I took religion seriously, and seeing that we had an article to discuss, he was a tad constrained. The intellectually

The curious reaction to a niqab-wearing homophobe

Are we allowed to criticise the niqab yet? This question crossed my mind as I watched that viral clip of a niqab-clad woman hurling homophobic invective at a Pride marcher in Walthamstow in London. Surely now it will become acceptable to raise questions about this medieval garment (banned in several Muslim countries) and about the views and attitudes of those who wear it? On one level, the footage of the niqab-wearering lady spouting anti-gay hate wasn’t very surprising. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. It’s not as if someone who covers themselves from head to toe in archaic black cloth (which, as Qanta Ahmed has said, is not in the least

Billy Connolly and the death of free speech

I hope readers will forgive me for returning to a subject I addressed here recently. It was a reflection on the current confusion over who in our society is allowed to speak and who is not. Back then I referred to the oddity of the YouTuber Carl Benjamin being forced to live with his worst ‘joke’ forever while Jo Brand appeared to be able to be forgiven for hers in no seconds flat. Incidentally, since the comedienne advocated an upgrade in the contents of the trend for ‘milkshaking’ it has indeed been stepped up a gear.  Last weekend in Portland, Oregon so-called ‘anti-fascists’ reportedly laced their offerings with skin-corroding substances to

Letters | 4 July 2019

Support for stop and search Sir: Mary Wakefield is rightly exasperated by fatuous comments over police use of stop and search (‘Stop posturing over stop and search’, 29 June). Perhaps this year there will be 200 murders of children by other children. Swamping areas with police is obviously a visible response to the problem, but gangs know there is a reluctance to stop and search and this is part of the reason for their arrogant attitude. Stop and search is street policing in the raw. It often leads to arrest, and it can be a messy, frustrating, confrontational business, even when done with tact and patience. As a Met PC

Letters | 27 June 2019

Appeasement? Sir: Your editorial (‘Plan B’, 22 June) refers to the need for Boris Johnson, as prospective PM, to have ‘warm words for our European allies — even if we end up without a deal’. The use of the word ‘allies’ troubles me. The dictionary defines the word in context: ‘Any time there’s a disagreement or conflict, it helps to have allies: if you don’t, you’re all alone.’ Being ‘alone’ is not the same as being wrong. Britain has been very much ‘alone’ in the past. And while it has sometimes been wrong, it has often been alone and right in its cause. One of the most extraordinary aspects of

Ideas are history

Wallace Stevens called it ‘the necessary angel’. Ted Hughes thought it ‘the most essential bit of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings’. Coleridge described its role a little more vigorously: ‘The living Power and prime Agent of all human perception… a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’. The imagination is the subject of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s latest grand sweep of a book. Not a historian to dwell on individual kings, queens or battles, he has identified the creation of ideas as the driver of history, the imagination as their source and the pool

Lead astray

Is the pope a Catholic? You have to wonder. In the old days, a pope’s remit was modest: infallible, but only in the vanishingly rare cases when he pronounced on matters of faith and morals concerning the whole church. But even at their most bombastic and badly behaved, earlier popes would have hesitated to do what nice Pope Francis has done, which is to approve changes in the liturgy which amount to rewriting the Lord’s Prayer. That bit that says ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’ is, for Pope Francis, a bad translation. ‘It speaks of a God who induces temptation,’ he told Italian TV.  ‘I