I have a certain grudging admiration for Melanie Phillips, even if she does resemble an underweight lesbian. Being a Top Female Journalist and maintaining the snotty attitude that goes with it (“the Daily Mail doesn’t publish work by aspiring journalists,” she apparently sneered to an acquaintance of mine) must be a tough job.
Prospect Magazine put Ms Phillips in a list of 100 Public Intellectuals in 2004, and although the whole poll is dodgy since bloody Chomsky won this year, I can’t help but suspect that she was on the list by virtue of her gender rather than any actual intelligence. Phillips’ argument with Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre over MMR was hilarious and highlighted for me her continuing refusal to acknowledge that she is in fact very poorly schooled in science, economics and statistics. To summarise, she claimed that the meta analysis done which showed that no causal link has been found between autism and the MMR vaccination was unreliable because it didn’t corroborate the findings of the first study done by Andrew Wakefield of a small, uncontrolled group of autistic children. She demanded to know why other small, uncontrolled and non peer reviewed studies had not been included.
She seemed unable to understand that if Wakefield’s conclusions had been correct, the meta analysis of many different studies would have borne out his results, and that a small study, particularly one without a control group, is usually less reliable than a really big one. If one child in 12 develops autism after the MMR vaccination, one cannot draw the conclusion that the two are linked because there is not enough evidence. The results could have come about by chance. If we take a study of 10,000 vaccinated children and 10,000 unvaccinated children, and 1,000 of the vaccinated group get autism but only 200 of the unvaccinated group do, then we can say there’s probably a link. But no such study exists, despite Phillips’ whinging that one should. Like many reactionary, educated middle class women, she has a bee in her bonnet about vaccination because she doesn’t understand how it works or that many members of her family would not have survived childhood without it.
Instead of actually making an effort to understand the evidence presented to her in very simple (yes, patronising) language, Phillips instead attacked Goldacre and science generally, and complained that Goldacre had said she was stupid. Unfortunately if one says stupid things one must allow that other people may call you stupid as a result.
Take this article which Mr Trellis forwarded to me since I don’t usually bother reading her blog. Once again, she whines that science has taken all the fun out of religion, relegating it to something between a hobby and dangerous mental illness depending on which end of the spectrum you look at. Yes, scientists have made religious people feel very silly indeed. First they tell us the Earth revolves round the Sun, and then it turns out the Earth is actually billions of years old and not six thousand as we’ve been claiming for as long as anyone will listen to us! Whatever next?
But anyway. She complains that Political Correctness Gone Mad (TM) has sapped the Christian message from Christmas and that some local councils are avoiding the word at all. For Phillips, the True Meaning of Christmas (TM) is very important and shouldn’t be lost, which confuses me somewhat since she is Jewish and should not, therefore, be telling everyone else to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. She also claims that religion is great and boring old rationality has nothing on the vast follies of idiocy that religion can offer us. Rather wonderfully (and I was hoping she’d do it) she also wheels out the old chestnut that religion makes people Good (TM).
Utter pap as usual. Christmas is about as Christian as my left elbow. One can acknowledge that the Christians, in their tedious cardigan-clad way, have tried to spoil the fun most normal people have at this time of year. But one must also realise that most educated Christians know perfectly well that this ancient winter festival was simply rebranded in order to convert the pagans. Jesus’s hypothetical birthday would actually be sometime in March, and two of the Gospel writers thought his birth not even worth mentioning.
As a result, I think it’s only fair that we should play around with the name of the festival. “Christmas” makes Mr Trellis bristle, and indeed he didn’t understand why I laughed at him when he asked if I went to church on December 25th. “Winterval” or “Festivus” might make me cringe, but at least they make it clear that this is a nice party with presents, not a dull afternoon sat on a pew. Phillips may not like it, but we do live in a multi-cultural society. I think trying to include people who don’t share the British cultural traditions is worthwhile, as long as it’s not shoved down their throats, and part of the inclusiveness is the separation of the festival from Little Baby Jesus.
Phillips witters on about cathedrals and the works of Bach as examples of how religion makes people clever and artistic. Unfortunately she has neglected to mention something. Bach was indeed a Christian, but he wrote secular music in addition to the religious ones. The main market for a composer at the time was the Church. He wrote religious music because that was what he was paid to do – and he complained bitterly about the low wages. However, Bach’s last work, the Art of Fugue, is a profoundly mathematical, scientific piece: precisely the sort of thing Phillips disapproves of.
Similarly, great architects and artists of the past were not so much inspired by religion but restricted by it. Like Phillips, artists were commissioned to produce pieces to another’s specification. Commissioning art and architecture were considered easy ways to bypass Purgatory and join the express check-in queue for Heaven. Therefore, the best commissions for a painter or builder would have been the religious ones: until the Industrial Revolution, large public buildings were mainly churches and cathedrals. In the same way, Phillips is …allegedly… paid around £250,000 a year for her poisonous column and her writing is restricted by her commissioners. She must write what they want to read.
I wonder if Phillips has ever looked at the enormous allegorical paintings in the Louvre featuring semi-naked Biblical heroines and realised that she’s looking at Renaissance porn, commissioned and paid for by someone who wanted to see boobies while pretending to think about god.
Finally, she drops the philosophical whoopsie. Religion, she says, gives people a moral code to live by. Look at the Nazis, she adds, and you’ll see the effect of secularism. Unfortunately she neglects to mention that the Nazis used religion to control the German population. Nazi Germany certainly did not give the outward appearance of a secular state. Besides, this argument is tosh and insulting to anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Which religion are we talking about?
Millions have been killed either in the name of religion, or because they followed the wrong one. Mother Teresa let people die rather than treat their curable illnesses, because her religion told her they would go straight to heaven if they died after they had been baptised. If they got well, they might go and sin again. Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses avoid life-saving medical treatments and blood transfusions for themselves and their children.
One also cannot pick out the good aspects of religion, as Blade does, and declare that only these are actually *religion* per se. The same faith that tells you to help the poor also tells you to stone adulterers to death. Most religions have a vague basis, using ambiguous texts and teachings (highly didactic and prescriptive faiths are followed by a tiny minority) which are open to interpretation either by the clergy or the individual believer. This interpretation also varies from time to time and from place to place.
It’s therefore impossible to declare, for example, that *all* Christians believe stealing is a sin regardless of the circumstances. Religious morality does not come straight from whatever god or gods you happen to believe in, but via human interpretation, commentary and discussion.
If people are only good because god tells them to be so, why don’t I take a pickaxe handle to work with me every day? It’s certainly tempting, but I don’t do it, not because I think it will make Little Baby Jesus cry, but because I know that killing people is a bad idea.
As for religious moral codes, I shan’t bother to list all the oppressive religious commandments that are still obeyed today, but I definitely think that a lot of the world’s population would be much better off with a bit less religion and a bit more fun.
Jump up and down and wave your knickers in the air, Melanie. It might cheer you up a bit and make you more positively disposed toward gay marriage.