Archive | December, 2011

A Short Post about Killing

28 Dec

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

Obviously I’m quoting from a speech by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. It’s quite apposite, but in a way The Hobbit illustrates the point better.

If you haven’t yet read The Hobbit and you plan to do so, or if you’re waiting to see the film, then you might want to stop reading here, because I’d hate to spoil it for you.

The Hobbit borrows heavily from the folk tales and mythology of Northern Europe. Everyone knows that. What might be a little less obvious (And I have to say it didn’t really register with me until someone pointed it out to me), is that The Hobbit is really quite subversive in some ways.

I don’t mean to provide a detailed criticism of The Hobbit here, I just want to look at one point in particular.

Normally, where you have a story about a wicked dragon sitting on a hoard of gold, you would expect that story to reach a climax with the killing of the dragon and after that things would settle down into happy ever after mode. In The Hobbit, however, this is not what happens. Smaug dies as one would expect, but this is not the end of the story. It is the culmination of one sequence of events, but it is also the start of another sequence of events.

The death of Smaug effectively leaves a power vacuum. Someone has to take charge of that hoard of gold and become King under the mountain and this is where Tolkien is very clever in showing quite how badly people who have previously been heroes can behave. (Of course if you’re familiar with Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Nordic myths that inspired them, you will recall something similar in Siegfried’s story, but I think Tolkien does it better and with far fewer arias).

Given that we’re going to have to wait about a year for the film of The Hobbit, you may wonder what prompted all this.

Well, it’s probably got something to do with the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

My point is that when US and British forces invaded Iraq, it really didn’t take long to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Whatever Blair and Bush loyalists might claim, I think any reasonably impartial observer would be likely to conclude that many in the UK and US governments acted as though they thought that would be the end of the story and we’d soon  be into happy ever after mode.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. Saddam was duly hunted down, tried and subsequently executed, but none of that seemed to have much effect on anything. You might argue that Saddam Hussein deserved to die (See above quote from Gandalf if you do), but his death didn’t seem to do much to make anything better for the Iraqi people.

As a matter of fact, by that time Saddam was pretty much irrelevant. There would doubtless have been practical problems if Saddam had lived, he may even have become some kind of figurehead for opposition to the UK and US forces, (and latterly the US and Iraqi government forces) but I’m not so sure about that because he doesn’t seem to have become much of a martyr following his execution.

So in principal toppling Saddam Hussein seemed like a good idea. He really wasn’t a very nice man and he really didn’t make a very good job of governing Iraq. (Although it’s worth asking how someone like Saddam managed to get into power in the first place. And while we’re at it, how did he stay in power, and where did he get all those weapons from? It’s also worth bearing in mind that most of the mass graves that supporters of the invasion point to as evidence in support of the invasion were dug and filled while Saddam was considered to be a valued ally of the West. Similarly the use of chemical weapons on his own people, which the US State Dept initially blamed on the Iranians).

The problem is that deposing and later executing Saddam Hussein didn’t solve Iraq’s problems, all it did was create a whole new set of problems and, eight years (and who knows how many deaths) later, Iraq looks like it’s in about as much trouble as it ever has been.

I hope I’m wrong about that. I hope we are on the verge of happy ever after mode for Iraq, but the signs don’t look too good.

You might ask what I would have done about Saddam Hussein. Well, I’m really not sure, but I like to think I would have remembered the old adage beloved of moral philosophers, ‘you never do just one thing’. (IE everything you do has consequences and it’s part of your responsibility to foresee those consequences and to take them into account before you act).

Maybe the works of JRR Tolkien should become required reading for world leaders in future.


Vaclav Havel

23 Dec

I don’t feel qualified to offer an obituary for Vaclav Havel.

All I want to do is say that he was a damn’ good man and we need more like him.

I first came across Vaclav Havel when I came across a documentary about him back when he was a dissident and a playwright. He had just been released from doing a spot of jail time for the heinous crime of making fun of the bunch of despotic clowns who happened to be in power at the time.

I can’t claim to be an expert on his work as a writer, but what I’ve seen of his plays tells me that he had a really lovely sense of the ridiculous. In a way, he seemed to be following in the tradition of Aristophanes ie making serious points by making fun of people, but without any sense of malice.

I was delighted to hear that he had been elected president. It was a clear sign that the Czech people had not only got it right when it came to their revolution (ie kick the bastards out, but don’t kill anyone) but that they were also getting it right when it came to creating a new state for themselves after the revolution. (This is where most revolutions go wrong. Overthrowing a despotic government is hard work, but keeping the revolution in the hands of civilised people as opposed to having it confiscated by murderous scumbags is the real trick).

I think my faith in Vaclav Havel, and the Velvet Revolution in general, was confirmed by what has become known as the Velvet Divorce. I gather that Vaclav Havel wasn’t in favour of Slovakian independence, but there’s no doubt that he played his part in ensuring that the process was managed peacefully and with a minimum of friction. (As a matter of fact the whole business barely raised a ripple in the news media at the time, a sure sign of things going well).

The fact that he  appointed Frank Zappa as a good will ambassador (a move bitterly, if discreetly, opposed by the US administration due to some of Zappa’s choice, and richly deserved, comments about J. Danforth Quayle, who was Vice President at the time) is just icing on the cake for me.

So that was Vaclav Havel. Not a saint, maybe. He always came across as a fallible human being, not some manufactured political icon with a polished media image. He didn’t conform to the standard Hollywood model of heroism. ie he did not go running around in a sweaty vest shooting ‘the bad guys’. He was a witty, articulate man who had the courage to put himself in harm’s way in the name of human rights and, so far as I know, he never harmed anyone (Other than deflating a few egos.

 He was the kind of hero we need.

These Foolish Things

22 Dec

Every now and then I do something really foolish.

When I was about seventeen I knew this girl who had issues about her nose.

She told me that she wanted to have plastic surgery to correct what she saw as a defect in her appearance. She also told me that she felt inferior to some of the other girls she knew because they, in her opinion, looked much better than she did.  ‘They’re just like dolls’, as she put it.

I agreed with her that the girls in question were indeed just like dolls. ie hollow and plastic and totally forgettable, but this didn’t help much.

I also tried to persuade this girl that her nose was actually something of an asset since it gave her face character. (I should have anticipated that telling a teenage girl that her face has ‘character’ is generally unwise anyway. ‘Character’ being far too easy to interpret as a euphemism for ugly). What I meant, of course, was that her face was attractive in a way that was distinctive and memorable as opposed to the rather bland and forgettable prettiness that she seemed to be aspiring to.

I suppose you could say that my efforts were well-intentioned, but they were essentially foolish because essentially every word I said made the whole situation more awkward and embarrassing for both of us.

All I can say in my defence is that I was too young and inexperienced to know that there is no way to talk any woman or girl out of any issues she might have regarding her appearance.

You may, or may not, be able to convince a woman that she is, in fact beautiful despite her own misgivings by the simple expedient of falling in love with her, but I suspect that this would only be a temporary measure at best. (‘Love – flames for one year, ashes for thirty’ courtesy of The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa).

In any case I was never going to fall in love with this girl, in spite of her many fine qualities. The plain fact is that she lacked that finely honed edge of psychosis that I find so compelling in cats and women. (One major difference between cats and women, in my experience, is that women are far less likely to purr if you scratch them behind the ears).

In any case, if I had fallen in love with this girl she may have been flattered (at least temporarily) or she may well have been exasperated. Either way, she would almost certainly have told me that she’d always thought of me as a brother. (Lots of girls seemed to think of me as a brother when I was about seventeen. On one occasion I found this particularly vexing as the girl in question had a brother who was a complete prat).

I suppose the conclusion to all this is the simple fact that sometimes you just can’t tell people what they really need to know.

Maybe that’s why Socrates asked questions rather than making statements.

Conspiracy Theories

19 Dec

Sometimes I wonder why people go for conspiracy theories and the related phenomenon of  what I call ‘Denying’. ie holocaust denial, global warming denial and creationism (what one might call ‘Evolution denial’). Not to mention the mother and father or them all, the notion that the moon landings were a hoax. (NASA has devoted a website to countering the ‘facts’ and arguments commonly offered in support of this conspiracy theory).

It might seem that I’m lumping together some pretty diverse groups of people here, but it seems to me that there’s enough common ground amongst them for me to generalise a bit.

Now, I’m not talking here about the unproven and even slightly dotty ideas that some of us are rather fond of. I’m talking about beliefs that seem to fly in the face of all reason and evidence but are held and defended with remarkable passion by their adherents.

For example, I’d like to believe that there is life on other planets somewhere. There’s no hard evidence to support this notion and while I think that the fact that living organisms thrive in the most unlikely places on this planet makes it seem more likely that we may find life on another planet some day, I know perfectly well that this does not form a conclusive case for the proposition. I’m certainly not going to take offence if someone disagrees with me.

So what makes the people I choose to refer to as Conspiracy theorists and Deniers different and what is it that they seem to have in common?

Well consider, if you will, the following characteristics.

1/ A tendency to seize on, if not invent, trivial inconsistencies or minor infelicities in explanation or exposition as though they somehow ‘prove’ that significant chunks of scientific or historical evidence have been fabricated or misrepresented. This is a habit you often find in politicians and lawyers but it’s not encouraged in philosophy because of the risk of raising a ‘straw man’ argument that only serves as a distraction from the main issue (NB Politicians and lawyers are alike in thriving on distracting attention away from the main issue).

2/ A tendency to claim that evidence does not exist, or at least that the speaker, or writer, is unfamiliar with the evidence. (How often have Holocaust deniers and Creationists pretended that there are only a few scraps of evidence to support the historical account of the Holocaust or the scientific account of evolution through natural selection?)

3/ A tendency to cite ‘facts’ that turn out not to be facts at all, or to appeal to ‘common sense’ which on detailed examination tends to be nothing more than ignorance. (NB Aristotle’s ideas about physics and cosmology are essentially ‘common sense’ explanations based on the kind of observations that anyone can make  without the benefit of elaborate equipment. EG the Earth does not seem to move under our feet, the Sun looks like it rises in the East and sets in the West and so on. unfortunately more detailed observation has proven most, if not all, of his rather elegant ideas to be completely wrong).

4/ (And I think this is the key diagnostic characteristic) Vitriolic hostility towards anyone who disagrees with the writer/speakers views. It is somehow not sufficient for these people to prove their case, or to disprove opposing views, there seems to be a disturbing degree of triumphal spite bubbling through whenever they think they’ve scored a point. Also a tendency to over react to criticism. If you point out a failing in their evidence or reasoning it’s immediately promoted to slander or an attempt at censorship.

So why do people not only believe weird things but also seem to be so passionately committed to these beliefs regardless of the evidence?

What’s special about these ideas and what links them.

Well, obviously some of this has to do with the wider agendas that people have.

For example, I suspect that most Holocaust deniers are less concerned about the state of the historical evidence than with hostility towards Israel, or perhaps towards Jews in general. Either that or they think that Adolf Hitler was actually a rather spiffing chap and he’s been greatly misunderstood. (In a perverse sort of way, you can almost see this as grounds for optimism, because it implies some kind of recognition of the fact that the attempt to exterminate European Jews, amongst others, was in fact rather a bad thing).

Similarly one of the first people I came across who tried to suggest that the 9/11 attacks were actually some kind of CIA plot was actually an inveterate hater of the United States  and Americans in general. (She seemed to feel that this prejudice of hers was not only consistent with her socialist principles, but actually a necessary consequence that followed from them).

Needless to say the fact that she had no evidence to support her theory did not discourage her in any way. Nor did the blatant implausibility of her argument. (If you recall, the Intelligence community in the United States, and particularly the CIA, was under threat of massive reorganisation, if not disbandment, in the wake of their failure to detect and prevent the 9/11 attacks. Why would the CIA engage in a plot that nearly destroyed them as an organisation? I won’t even bother asking why the CIA would think it acceptable to kill thousands of innocent people, most, although by no means all being American citizens, the kind of people who believe these theories are generally willing to believe the people they dislike capable of anything).

The 9/11 attacks were certainly seized on by certain elements in the United States and elsewhere in order to push their own agenda, particularly the invasion of Iraq and the whole ‘War on Terror’  but I think this implies opportunism rather than evidence of complicity.

I also suspect this kind of thinking has a lot to do with a need to feel important. You might be a total nonentity, but if you’re privy to some supposedly secret history of the world, or you ‘know’ that the ‘truth’ that everyone else takes for granted is really just an elaborate fraud perpetrated by some shadowy ruling elite, then that makes you special. It’s a rather shabby form of enlightenment compared with that sought by gnostics and Buddhists, amongst others, but I suppose there’s a similar principle at work.

And I suppose this might explain some of the vehemence behind some of the weird ideas that people cling to. After all, if you give up your hidden ‘truth’, then you have to go back to being a nonentity again.

I don’t really have any conclusive evidence to support this theory. I’m not a mind reader after all. But it seems to make sense.

I suppose I need to point out, although it shouldn’t really need to be said, that I’m always in favour of everyone’s right to form and express their own opinions. There’s also no doubt in my mind that scientific thinking thrives on criticism and challenge. But there’s a difference between informed debate and a crude calumny of detailed research carried out in good faith that’s inspired by nothing more than entrenched ignorance and a desperate wish for self aggrandisement.

So I’m not attacking anyone’s right to say what they want, I’m simply exercising my right to form and express my views about the views expressed by others. This is not censorship, I have neither the wish, nor the capacity to prevent other people from expressing themselves.

This is just me taking my chance to  express my opinion.

Tanks for the Memory

14 Dec

Many years ago I saw a film called ‘Comrade X’ starring Clark Gable.

The climax of the film was a sequence where Clark Gable and his pals are escaping from Soviet Russia in a stolen tank. Unknown to them they’ve stolen the regimental commander’s tank and the rest of the regiment ends up following them across the Russian countryside.

It’s not a brilliant film, as I recall, and the sequence I’m referring to isn’t exactly a triumph of special effects. It was very obviously filmed using miniatures trundling across a model landscape.

Having said that, there’s something about the way these little tanks moved that I found quite fascinating.

I suppose this says something about me and it may not be terribly flattering.

So anyway, tanks are quite unlike other vehicles in the way they move.

In one sense they’re a bit more animated than say, a bus, because you often see the turret traverse or the gun elevate or depress and modern tanks with their gyroscopic gun control are even more impressive. I suppose we’ve all seen film of a modern tank turning through 360 degrees over uneven gun while the gun stays resolutely aimed at the same target.

So in one sense a tank looks almost like a living creature, but in another sense they also look quite dead. Unlike animals in motion, there’s no play of muscles and no motion of limbs or wings and there’s no recognisable face. Not even the cartoon face we see on most vehicles made up of the headlights and radiator grill so beloved of animators.

So tanks are kind of undead.  Animated but somehow not living.

For some people the comparison with prehistoric animals seems to be irresistible. After all, we expect dinosaurs to be big lumbering creatures, and most armoured fighting vehicles are also big and heavy, although these days they tend to be more agile than you might expect.

To me the more compelling comparison is with stag beetles. I know that stag beetles are actually quite small, but they’re huge in comparison to other insects and they have this way of trundling across their environment with apparent resolve and complete indifference to everything around them. They also give a surprising impression of  weight and power. Maybe you need to see them in the context of a Natural History programme to see what I mean.

So as a young boy, during a long gone window of opportunity when plastic model kits were freely available but before anyone had invented solvent abuse, I used to build models of tanks, amongst other things. They were quite small and, obviously they didn’t move about like the real thing, but I suppose it kept me out of trouble and we didn’t have computer games back in those days.

I should add that if you’ve never built a model, you probably won’t understand why it can be so compulsive. I might come back to that at another date, but for now, maybe we can just agree that it’s always difficult to understand the addictions we don’t share and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge these things.

One side effect of building these models was that I started to read a lot of military history, especially World War Two history. Initially this was all about improving the accuracy of my models, but in the course of all this reading I also came across rather more information than I really wanted about what tanks are used for, how they work and what kind of effect they have, not only on the people they’re used against, but also on the tanks crews themselves.

The end result of this is that for many years I’ve been about one short step away from being a complete pacifist.

What holds me that one short step away from pacifism is the knowledge that there really are some things worth fighting for and good many things worth fighting against. Nazi Germany obviously provides clear examples of many of the things that are worth fighting against.

What makes that one short step as short as it has come to be is the realisation that the Nazi regime could have been opposed much more effectively and with far less destructive consequences if people (I think I mean governments here) had been more concerned about human rights and less concerned with geopolitical strategies. ie the West seeing Nazism as a bastion against communism or Stalin seeing the Nazis as useful allies against the Western democracies. (He had some justification for being wary of Western Democracies. During the Russian civil war following the October Revolution the UK came within a hair’s breadth of bombing Moscow).

The irony is, of course, that these grand strategies all turned out to be completely absurd and no one really got what they wanted, or planned for, as a result of ignoring the blatant iniquities of Nazi Germany prior to the war.

Of course everyone talks these days as if they were also somewhere just short of pacifism. It often seems strange how often the peace-loving ideals of our political leaders just have to be set aside because there’s really no practical alternative to military force.

Perhaps the first step towards reducing the number of these totally unavoidable and, of course, deeply regrettable military interventions is to remember one simple fact.

Any resort to violence is an admission of failure.

Oh and there’s another point to remember. The people who end up paying the highest price for this failure are almost never the people who were responsible for that failure in the first place.

The Sociology of Vampirism

9 Dec

Some years ago I was driving through Possil (This is an area of Glasgow that the tourists don’t see and that many Glaswegians prefer to ignore).

For some reason the expression ‘vampire country’ sprang to mind. It probably had something to do with all the steel shutters on the windows of the derelict buildings.

It’s hard to know exactly what this phrase meant other than a vague sense that this was hostile territory where bad things could happen to you if you weren’t careful.

Having said this, Possil is a bit like most parts of Glasgow in that you can turn one corner and find yourself in a reasonably nice neighbourhood and then turn another and find yourself in the Badlands. 

(This is partly the result of the way Glasgow grew up. It started off as just another wee fishing village on the banks of the Clyde, then it growed and growed, just like Topsy the rabbit, and as it growed it absorbed various little villages into itself. As a result, what you have is a patchwork quilt of a city. Outsiders can actually travel from one end of the Clyde Valley conurbation to the other and not be aware of any of this, but for the residents, there are territorial boundaries all over the city and woe betide anyone, especially young men, who cross one of those boundaries without taking due care).

So what does any of this have to do with vampires?

Well, it’s all to do with how you want to place the imaginary toads that are vampires, within the real garden that is Glasgow (And you can choose your own city or community if you prefer, the same general principles will still apply).

Being a lifelong urbanite I tend to place my fiction in an urban setting, and since Glasgow is the city I know best I tend to place stories in the city of Glasgow and its surrounding area.

Initially I thought of vampires as being social outcasts, much like drug addicts (Incidently Abel Ferrarar made much the same connection in his film The Addiction. Not a popcorn movie by any means but well worth watching if you want something a bit more challenging than the ‘Twilight’ saga).

This led me to place vampires in derelict buildings in run down areas in a sequence of three short stories (None of which have ever been published, but I think I still have them on disk somewhere). The series started with ‘Big Tam – The Fearless Vampire Hunter’ which dealt with the gradual spread of knowledge amongst marginalised people of the existence of vampires in spite of official denials. The following stories dealt with the response of the local community to the discovery of vampires amongst them, ie vigilantism, and finally with the central character rejecting vampirism as a lifestyle in favour of self realisation through education.

I was working in Social Services at the time and this influenced the kind of themes I was thinking about at the time.

More recently I have been thinking along slightly different lines. I still tend to think that an intelligent and pragmatic vampire will tend to haunt run down areas and choose marginalised and preferably homeless and excluded people as prey, but I felt that the vampires themselves should move up the social scale a little.

And I’d have to say that I’m losing patience with the whiny self-pitying vampires that seem to populate much of the genre.

I suppose Bram Stoker felt that Dracula had to show signs of relief at being hacked to death as an indication that he had been appropriately miserable while living outside of God’s grace, while I suppose Varney the Vampire finally ended himself in the crater of a convenient volcano due to the sheer ennui of popping up in yet another penny dreadful.

I can understand why Miriam Blaylock is unhappy in Whitley Streiber’s The Hunger, her lovers keep wearing out on her. In Lilith’s Dream, Lilith herself seems quite content with her lifestyle in general until she notices that the people she’s hunting seem to be more intelligent and aware than she had remembered. Bummer.

I’m not really sure why Anne Rice makes her vampires quite so miserable. Guilt at hunting human beings is certainly part of it, a general sense of existential futilityand a certain difficulty in sustaining long term relationships also seem to be significant contributary factors, but essentially they just seem to be miserable because Anne Rice wants them to be.

As for the Twighlight types, I can’t help wondering how long all this adolescent angst is supposed to continue. Are they really going to be all broody and hormonal for the rest of eternity? If so then we should get Van Helsing and his pals to drop by for a staking session.It really is the kindest thing to do.

Personally I think it makes more sense to adopt a model drawn from Natural History. Vampires are apex predators. They don’t fall in love with humans, and they certainly don’t go for the ‘vegetarian’ option of feeding on non-human prey. They regard people as food, pure and simple. They may find them aesthetically pleasing, in the same way as a hunter might well admire a handsome stag, but that won’t stop them from making a kill if they’re hungry.

Of course the situation is more complex than that for a vampire, since they all start off as humans and their only means of reproducing is to convert a human into a vampire (I don’t go for the notion of the ‘pure blood vampire’. Vampires are undead, they can’t reproduce sexually and that’s that). Vampires also need to live and hunt within human communities, so there is bound to be some degree of  social interaction.

It’s a given of Natural History that the population density of predators is determined very largely by the population density of the prey species. This means that a scattered population of humans means an even more scattered population of vampires. A dense population of humans leads to a more concentrated population of vampires. Vampires are therefore going to live in cities. They need the crowd for anonymity (both for themselves and their prey) and also to provide the density of prey that they need to sustain themselves.

 So vampires live in cities, their relationship with humans is liable to be complex, but unsentimental. I would expect vampires to enjoy hunting and not to be too maudlin or guilt ridden by it. It’s always dangerous to attribute human emotions to non-human animals, but it’s hard to watch film of orcas or big cats hunting and not see a certain exuberance about them when they make a kill.

I think it goes without saying that vampires will be charismatic and glamorous. This is partly following the Natural History model again, but it’s also based on the logic that if a vampire is picking someone out to make into another vampire, they’re more likely to choose someone they find attractive. This is partly because they’re going to be stuck with each other for centuries, but also because that attractiveness will make it much easier for them to hunt. Sex for a vampire is not about love (or even lust) it’s abut hunting. Although one must concede that vampires may also enjoy sensual pleasures.

In a similar way, one would expect vampires to also have qualities of intelligence, pragmatism and ruthlessness because these will also be qualities necessary for survival.

In terms of their social organisation, I suppose I would expect some sort of hierarchy, probably territorial in nature and probably also with a strong centralised authority. This model is adopted mostly from the Mafia, as described in The Godfather (The  films more than the book).

The reason for this structure more than any other is that it provides a secure basis for territorial control and also for maintaining secrecy. My assumption is that rivalry between vampires would be lethal and chaotic unless it was rigidly controlled, so one would expect a compex structure of convention and protocol in order to impose limits on the potential for conflict.

Of course, one would also assume extensive infiltration of human institutions by the vampire community, or at least by agents acting on their behalf, and this too is drawn from The Godfather model.

Personally I think this makes for a coherent and (within limits) credible basis for vampire fiction. I don’t claim that it is the only viable model, and I do not claim that my thinking is entirely original. Aficionados of the genre will notice similarities to the work of a variety of novelists and film makers. (None of us works in a vaccuum.’The immature artist plagiarises, the mature artist steals’ – F Scott Fitzgerald). All I can really say is that the ultimate synthesis is mine.

If anyone else wants to play with these ideas, go ahead. I have no doubt that even if you use some, or all of the above ideas, you will still produce stories and characters that are sufficiently different from anything I could come up with for us all to coexist without trouble.


Talking about God (Or not)

5 Dec

I tend to the opinion that debating whether or not god exists is pretty pointless. In my experience the debate tends to get bogged down in entrenched positions and very quickly becomes acrimonious.

I suspect that the reason for this is that for some   people it’s perfectly obvious that God exists and for others it’s equally obvious that God does not exist and I think people on both sides of the debate tend to get frustrated because  people on the other side just don’t seem to get it. This can be especially infuriating when ‘it’ seems to be so blindingly obvious.

So I have no intention of rehearsing, yet again, the arguments for and against the existence of God. If you’re interested in the debate, you’ll find plenty of other opportunities to follow or participate in the debate elsewhere.

Having said this, there are a few comments that often seem to be made about atheists that I would like to address. The reason for this is that I have come across these comments (yet again) in fairly quick succession and I didn’t have an opportunity to respond directly to the people who made them.

So here we go.

1/ Everyone really knows that God exists, when people claim to be atheists, they’re just being difficult (or ungrateful).

I can’t speak for everyone who claims to be an atheist. All I can really say is that I genuinely believe that there is no God, and that to me the idea that God exists really doesn’t make any sense.

(I’m perfectly well aware that to other people the existence of God appears to make perfect sense and that to them, my understanding of how things work would make no sense, but that isn’t the point I’m dealing with here. All I’m really saying at this point is that some people genuinely don’t believe in God and it’s just plain wrong to suggest anything else).

2/ Everyone is born with a belief in God and it’s something that has to be educated out of them if they’re going to become atheists.

I can’t speak to what everyone believes at birth. I don’t even recall what I believed when I was newly born. (This is always assuming that I had any beliefs at all at the time). If you think about it you’ll probably find that you can’t remember anything before the age of three, (and probably not much before the age of five), and if you can think of a way to ask a newborn baby about his or her religious opinions then you’re a lot more ingenious than I am.

So all I can really say is that I have no recollection of ever having had any faith in God. As for having a belief in God educated out of me, this is simply absurd. My mother was a devout, if idiosyncratic, Christian and my father was completely enigmatic on the subject of religion. All I know is that he insisted on other people’s religious beliefs being treated with respect. So no one had any interest in ‘making’ me an atheist. My mother would have preferred me to be a Christian and my father never expressed a preference on the subject.

I should probably add that I’m not convinced that anyone can be educated either into or out of genuine religious belief. (As opposed to religious practice, which is easier, although still not easy, to enforce or suppress).

3/ Atheists are uncomfortable with their atheism and therefore seek to convert everyone else to their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Again, I can only speak for myself here, but I’m perfectly comfortable as an atheist.

I have a world view that makes sense to me and seems to be fairly coherent and consistent with the observable facts. I do recall having experienced a certain degree of angst as a teenager, but I think teenagers are entitled to be a bit angsty and anyway, all this angst probably had more to do with hormones than any doubts about my atheism.

I should also point out that I don’t proselytize. I dislike it when other people try to push their ideas on me and to me it just seems like good manners to respect other people’s right to form their own opinions and beliefs.

4/ There are no atheists in foxholes.

I could be terribly literal-minded here and ask if anyone’s ever done any comprehensive research into the beliefs of people while they’re occupying foxholes, but I won’t bother.

The thing that irritates me about this cliché is the assumption that seems to lie behind it. IE that atheists are simply people who haven’t really been tested and that in the face of death or some similar ordeal they would inevitably give up their foolish opinions and fall back on the comfort and solace of religious faith.

It would be disingenuous of me to cite CS Lewis at this point. (His account of his religious experience indicates that he was raised as a Christian, but lost his faith following the death of his mother when he was a boy. He goes on to relate that he was an atheist during his service in WWI on the Western Front. He was in a trench rather than a foxhole, but this point doesn’t seem to be significant to me. Finally CS Lewis, according to his own account, returned to his Christian faith following a series of discussions with his friend JRR Tolkien).

The reason why it would be disingenuous to cite this example (although it does seem to support my position) is because I’m a little sceptical of what CS Lewis is saying here. (I fully acknowledge that I’ve offered a very abbreviated version of his story here and I am also aware of the fact that I have no way of knowing what was happening in the mind of CS Lewis, and that it is therefore impertinent of me to question his version of events). But the fact remains, I’m simply not convinced that anyone becomes a Christian, or indeed an atheist, on the basis of reasoned argument. (I may come back to this at a later date).

So again, I will simply fall back on my own experience. I have never been in a foxhole or a trench and I have never faced any imminent risk of death (Or at least not since I stopped driving anyway). Having said that, I have not led a particularly sheltered life and so far nothing that’s happened to me has even come close to making me believe (or even to want to believe in God).

Of course you could argue that if I ever did find myself in a foxhole, or some similar predicament, then things would be very different.

Well, there’s no real way of knowing that for sure, but if I did turn to belief in God as the result of extreme duress, then any such belief would certainly be salutary and almost certainly transient and therefore, of no lasting significance in my overall world view.

I should probably acknowledge at this point that the above views are not necessarily held by everyone who believes in God. And I suppose I could go further in admitting that some, or all, of the above views may apply to some atheists some of the time.

To conclude, I certainly don’t hold that atheists are necessarily better, more intelligent, more rational or more tolerant than religious people. In point of fact I would suggest that knowing what someone believes, or claims to believe, about religion tells you nothing about their intelligence, integrity, amenability to reason or indeed the morality of their conduct.