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It’s good to see Ed Miliband talking about his Jewishness

The Labour leader’s talk about his faith background contrasts with the emptiness of the Cameron vision

By on Friday, 25 May 2012

Miliband raps university 'snobbery

Some time ago I had an interesting conversation with a well-known Catholic journalist in which we both wondered about Ed Miliband and his Jewish background. How Jewish was he? Had he or had he not had a bar mitzvah?

This last question is given an answer in the current edition of the New Statesman, which focuses on all matters Jewish, and which carries an article by Ed Miliband which you can read here. 

Ed says: “I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?” He goes on to say: “They [his parents] assimilated into British life outside the Jewish community. There was no bar mitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out.”

Can one be Jewish and not religious? This is really a matter for our Jewish brethren to discuss among themselves, but it is of great interest to us Catholics as well. There are many people who identify themselves as Catholics and who never go to Mass. That said, when Ed Miliband uses the word “religious” he intends it in a somewhat different way to us. Judaism is the religion of doing, as much as believing, it is commonly said. So, does Ed mean that he is Jewish, but not religious in the sense of not keeping the Law, not the sort of person who is observant of the Torah?

But metaphysically where does he stand? He may well eat in the House of Commons canteen, but what does he actually believe? “Sometimes I feel I missed out” strikes me as eloquent. Does he mean that he missed out on the sense of community that being an observant Jew would have brought with it? Or does it mean that he feels the absence of God in his life? Or both?

I find myself quite touched by what Ed says here:

Although my wife Justine is not Jewish, my Jewishness is part of me, so when we got married last year, we broke a glass at our wedding, an old Jewish ritual. I will explain our heritage and the connection to my boys. I will encourage them to identify with it and, when they have got past CBeebies, I will sit down and watch Woody Allen with them.

This is not just schmaltz (to use a Yiddish word, as, yes, Ed is right about Yiddish – “there is no better language for idio¬matic expressions”) but rather something important. Ed wants to pass on a tradition to his children. This desire is something without which religion cannot flourish. Goodness knows what he is going to do, though, when they start asking awkward questions about Santa Claus.

Again, Ed says something that needs no comment from me or anyone else:

One night, I went to a dinner with Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, where we sang a traditional prayer. I remember thinking my grandparents – their grandparents, too – would have said the same words.

Finally there is the expression of an ethical faith. He says:

Above all, what I see in so many parts of the Jewish community is a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it.

Some people may disagree with me, but in answer to my original question about how Jewish is Ed Miliband, my answer is, after reading this, pretty Jewish indeed.

Two last points: at no point does Ed Miliband say he is an atheist. He just says he is not religious. In Catholic terms he is what we would call a “non-believer”, a non-theist rather than an atheist. I think this is an important distinction. He is not in the Dawkins camp.

Secondly, Labour’s spin doctors could allow themselves an extra glass of champagne this weekend on the strength of this article. Given the vacuum that is the content of Dave’s Big Society, this article seizes back some important territory from the other side. It lays claim to concepts such as community and tradition, which will be music to the ears of many of Labour’s longstanding supporters, which includes, or has included, the vast majority of British Catholics.

  • Mr Grumpy

    I’m a little more cynical about this, Father. Not in the Dawkins camp? Well, naturally – we religious folk have votes! And if he is so keen on passing traditions on to his sons, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to start by observing the tradition of marrying before he had them?
     
    Having said that, it was not his choice to grow up in a family where a kind of Cultural Revolution in miniature had taken place. It sounds as if at some level he is aware of a yawning vacuum deep inside him. The restlessness of a heart seeking rest in its Creator? Let’s pray that it may be so.

  • Nat_ons

    It is good, if only to have the contents of vessel written on the label. His Jewishness is ethnic not religious, as many America Catholic politicians are culturally ‘catholic’ but wholly heterodox (and thus not Catholic in religion, even in the cafeteria style). Vague spirituality and ethnic or cultural affiliation have always been the more commonly practiced elements of ‘religion’ for many men, whose only proper sense of binding to God and to man is that of doing .. without all the praying, obeying and submitting (sadly, women rejoice to follow suit – seeming to believe they have to out-man men to be real women sic).

  • Recusant

    It’s ironic that he hardly ever speaks about this part of his life, as it is one of the few things on which he doesn’t speak complete and utter crap.

  • paulsays

    There’s no need for that kind of language here, children could be reading this site after all. Could you kindly moderate your language, thanks.

  • TreenonPoet

    at no point does Ed Miliband say he is an atheist. He just says he is not religious. In Catholic terms he is what we would call a “non-believer”, a non-theist rather than an atheist. I think this is an important distinction. He is not in the Dawkins camp.

    I do not understand. According to Wiktionary, a ‘theist‘ is one who believes in the existence of a god, and ‘non-‘ negates the meaning of the word to which it is prefixed. Stricly speaking, that would make a non-theist any entity that was not a theist (just as non-black does not mean white), but suppose we take ‘non-theist’ to be one who does not believe in the existence of a god; how does that differ from Dawkins’ position, which is that of an agnostic athiest (i.e. a person who rejects belief that any deities exist, whether or not they believe that no deities exist)?

  • teigitur

    He is quite clearly an Athiest( in as far as anyone can be) . A were his parents before him. Neither Jew nor Greek.

  • teigitur

    There is so much you do not understand. But light will appear in time.

  • haoben405
  • Parasum

    “Can one be Jewish and not religious? This is really a matter for our
    Jewish brethren to discuss among themselves, but it is of great interest
    to us Catholics as well.”

    Religion used to be a function of “statehood”, and nothing else than that. Until the link was broken – the Jews after the Exile in the province of Judah had the  former, but were only a part of the Jewish population. This looks like a reversion to that.

  • TreenonPoet

     Thank you for that non-elucidation.

  • Jonathan West

    What Miliband appears to be expressing is a fondness for his Jewish cultural heritage. And good for him. And its nice of you to approve of that when it is clear that is not a bliever in God and not religious in any meaningful way.

    There is somebody else who its his description very well. This nis tghat person writing on the subject of Michael Gove’s move to have the King James Bible provided to every school library.

    “I am a little shocked at the implication that not every school library already possesses a copy. Can that be true? What do they have, then? Harry Potter? Vampires? Or do they prefer one of those modern translations in which “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity” is lyrically rendered as “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher. Everything is pointless”? That is Ecclesiastes, 1:2, as you’ll find it in the Common English Bible. And you can’t get much more common than that, although admittedly the God’s Word translation provides stiff competition with “absolutely pointless” and the Good News Bible challenges strongly with “useless, useless”.

    Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature (I’m told it’s pretty good in the original Hebrew, too). The whole King James Bible is littered with literary allusions, almost as many as Shakespeare (to quote that distinguished authority Anon, the trouble with Hamlet is it’s so full of clichées). In one of my books I have a section called “Religious education as a part of literary culture” in which I list 129 biblical phrases which any cultivated English speaker will instantly recognise and many use without knowing their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how are the mighty fallen.

    That person is Richard Dawkins, and the book he mentions is The God Delusion. You don’t say such nice things about him because there are religious aspects of his cultural heritage, even though he is probably no less religious than Ed Miliband.

    Why the double-standard?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    But it seems to me that Ed M is religious in a meaningful way, it is just that he is not religiously observant. What he says is the sort of thing a religious person would say. The form is there, if not the content. Prof Dawkins’s beliefs certainly have content, but the form is anti-religious. For example Prof Dawkins is opposed to parents bringing their children up religiously. It is clear from the Miliband article that Ed M could not share this view.

  • Jonathan West

    Miliband is a politician and doesn’t alienate people unnecessarily. The fact that he has got you saying nice things about him by means of statements that commit him to precisely nothing is proof enough of that.

  • Benedict Carter

    Millipede, the progeny of the classic Jewish-Marxist revolutionary. 

  • TreenonPoet

     Now you are trying to redefine ‘religious’. Enough of this equivocation already. You equate religion to something good (as if none of the bad that Dawkins highlights existed), then write that Dawkins in anti-religious, which may be true in one sense but is not true in the sense of being anti-good.

    I have no doubt that Dawkins is not opposed to children being brought up to be able to make good moral decisions. But that is not what schools of a religious nature are really about is it? Those schools openly declare their intention to instil a belief in the supernatural. Such beliefs can badly compromise rational thinking where the religion is concerned, and so can result in bad moral decisions.

    Isn’t it a shame that Ed Miliband did not have the courage to be as outspoken about the morals of Blair and Brown as Dawkins has about the evils of religion? I accept that the current political system does not engender honesty where this compromises popularity, as Jonathan West indicates, but what does the Church do when Dawkins puts honesty above popularity?

  • Matthew Roth

    I’m pretty sure he’s said he’s an atheist…

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    He did say a prayer with the Chief Rabbi. I doubt Prof Dawkins would say a prayer with anyone.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    You read too much into what I am trying to say. My feeling, and the evidence for it is harly solid, I know, is that Miliband and Dawkins are coming at religion from very different existential perspectives. Miliband seems sympathetic to Jewish culture and religion – the two are very difficult to seperate. Again, think of that prayer with the Chief Rabbi. Not the sort of thing the Professor would do, is it? Or do I misjudge him?

  • Jonathan West

    Miliband’s reflection on the prayer was an historical one – that his grandparents and grandparents’ grandparents would have done the same thing. There was no reflection at all on the content of the prayer. Only those familiar with that particular Jewish custom would even know what the prayer is about. I think it unlikely that Miliband knew anything about it, because it probably wasn’t sung in English, and I expect Miliband just listened respectfully while Sacks sang and the others responded. All that is quite consistent with his use of “we”.

    As for Dawkins, I don’t know whether he can sing, but he did choose the St Matthew Passion as one of his pieces of music when he appeared on Desert Island Discs. I understand that prayers are also said at formal dinners at Oxford University, and there’s no record of Dawkins objecting to the tradition. Does that make Dawkins religious? Or does it mean that he has a degree of fondness for the historical and cultural tradition he comes from?

  • Simon Davies

    “Labour’s spin doctors could allow themselves an extra glass of champagne this weekend on the strength of this article. Given the vacuum that is the content of Dave’s Big Society, this article seizes back some important territory from the other side.”
    Indeed! His comments are a distasteful vote-grabber, not an apologia pro vita sua. Surely, if he was ‘in touch with his spiritual life’, surely that should be self-evident, and not need explaining. It’s a bit like impersonating someone: there’s no point doing it if you have to tell your audience who you’re impersonating.

  • Jonathan West

    Dawkins is not running for office and is therefore free to speak as he wishes on the subject.

    Miliband knows perfectly well that votes are votes, and that he needs the votes of the religious as well as those of atheists. He undoubtedly realises that many religious are feeling under siege from secularism, and are willing to put aside doctrinal differences and form an alliance of convenience to fight against it.

    In addition, Miliband, being a good politician, knows that there is in society still a presumption of “required respect” towards religions and toward religious ideas which is widely held even by those who have ceased to be religious in any meaningful way. It seems to me that the New Statesman piece is a masterly exercise in persuading the religious that he is vaguely sympathetic towards them while not actually committing himself to anything in particular.

    The thing which makes Dawkins so shocking to so many is that he is not prepared to go along with that consensus, and is prepared to criticise religious ideas with the same degree of vigour as is customary when challenging political ideas. The fact that he does so with a good deal more politeness than most politicians manage when talking about each other does not prevent religious people from calling him shrill and confrontational.

  • TreenonPoet

     Yes, I realise that you are picking up vibes. That is not to say whether those vibes are generated artificially or genuinely, but in either case it is not valid to conclude that, because you are religious, Miliband is religious. Nor is it fair to imply that Miliband is religious because he professes some good attitudes. Maybe you did not do so consciously, and readers may absorb the message subconsciously, but it is one of the subtle ways in which prejudice against the non-religious can be built up.

    You say “Miliband seems sympathetic to Jewish culture and religion“. As already discussed, he is unlikely to write in such a way as to give the opposite appearance. But, regarding culture, he does present caveats that pacify other cultures. My guess is that (sensibly) he would not approve of the bad parts of any culture, and likewise with religion. To compensate for this, he might go a little over the top in his non-rejection of what he considers to be the harmless parts of culture and religion. In doing so, he may be acting like a successful politician, but he is not being a statesman…

    I mentioned the evil of religion. Here is a link to a recent article illustrating a manifestation of that. I could link to hundreds more. I know that the Catholic Church takes witches, demons, etc. seriously, but I presume that you are not so religious as to consider the torture and murder of innocent children to be acceptable, and I am quite sure that Miliband is not. The whitewashing of religion is not helpful in addressing such evil.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Oh dear. Are Marxists more objectionable when Jewish than when not, BC?

  • Old Jim

    The thing is, to your average Catholic, or, I imagine, secular historian, the sorts of associations and arguments you are making are frankly bizarre, albeit that there have been more and more of you since the dawning of the 21st century.

    Alexander Lucie-Smith, in his last quote, commented that Ed Miliband showed some understanding of ethical faith. Note that he didn’t say that faith was a prerequisite for ethics, merely that the context of Miliband’s remarks was a discussion of religion and that he gave approval to the ethics of a religious community. That’s the only place that you could possibly construe him, and even there only with some effort to read into what he was saying, as implying that Miliband must be religious “because he expresses some good attitudes”.

    If you’re instead referring to Lucie-Smith’s approval of Miliband Jr.’s attitude towards the prayer he said with Jonathan Sacks and his imagining his forefathers joining him in saying it, or his smashing a glass at his wedding, then, “good attitudes” though you may think them, they certainly stem more easily from a religious perspective than from a modern atheist one. Modern atheism, after all, is all about emphasising discontinuity from or a transcendence of the past, refraining from reverence for customs without having sufficient individual conviction in them or proof of their immediate usefulness, and refraining from symbolic gestures or arbitrary material expressions of interior states as “superstitions”. An atheist like Richard Dawkins would see no more worth in saying a prayer because his ancestors would have said it than he would in being a creationist because Great Grandpa was, and he would no more smash a glass underfoot at a wedding than touch wood to avert disaster. This is because he sees no distinction between either of the pairs, whilst Miliband, like most religious people, evidently does. You’re welcome to think that’s because we’re all loopy, just as I’m welcome to think that it’s because our traditions grant us a tad more discernment, an ability to make finer-grained distinctions, and both a longer historical horizon and a clearer metaphysical plain from which to view our activity. What neither of us are welcome to do is contest that there is a difference in attitude between Dawkins and Miliband. There evidently is.

    You say that “religion” is evil. This is the bit that is borderline incoherent to me, because your use and understanding of the word religion is a baffling and utterly unreasonable one. In the scriptures God is quite clear that He doesn’t approve of the child sacrifices made to Moloch by apostate Jews. But I suppose orthodox Jews of the time were equally guilty for them, because they too were “religious”. The Puritans were joykills who banned Christmas because they were horrible “religious” people, and the Catholics invented the superstition of Christmas because they were horrible ignorant “religious” people, fighting to replace the superstitious Saturnalia of the horrible “religious” Pagans because they were “intolerant” of that festivity, which good modern atheists would themselves have hoped to eradicate for being an orgy of “religious” weirdness. Sorry, mate, I’ll stick to a God who’s both Three and One at exactly the same time, because it makes FAR MORE SENSE THAN THAT!! :)

  • Old Jim

    What I’m saying in that last paragraph, by the way, to leave no room for misunderstanding, is that if you view “religion” as some sort of ontological category, most of history makes absolutely no sense at all. Atheism of the modern variety has only been a viable option since the middle of the eighteenth century. Consequently, our quarrel was with other “religions” long before it was with you.
    It seems you want to blame us for wiping out the Cathars, and blame us for the perverse and pernicious nonsense peddled by the Cathars. We’re to blame for crusades against Muslims (because “religion” made us intolerant), and we’re to blame for the faults of Muslims (because we’re both equally “religious”). We’re horrid for decrying the reformation, and directly responsible for the wicked teachings of the westboro baptist church. 

    And I bet you hadn’t thought, even for a second, that it’s possible that these interesting word games are an attempt by the advocates of your novel and bizarre ideology to eat their cake, and then have it too…

  • Jonathan West

    You say that Miliband shows an understanding of “ethical faith”. But it seems to me that ethics is a topic that can be understood perfectly well by those of any faith or none. Also I’ve never heard of the followers of any faith describe themselves as unethical. So you are equating faith with ethics and assuming Miliband is doing the same. I’m not sure that is a justified assumption.

  • TreenonPoet

     ”The thing is, to your average Catholic, or, I imagine, secular historian, the sorts of associations and arguments you are making are frankly bizarre, albeit that there have been more and more of you since the dawning of the 21st century.

    The validity of an argument does not depend on the number of people making that argument, nor the number who don’t agree with it.

    Alexander Lucie-Smith, in his last quote, commented that Ed Miliband showed some understanding of ethical faith. Note that he didn’t say that faith was a prerequisite for ethics, merely that the context of Miliband’s remarks was a discussion of religion and that he gave approval to the ethics of a religious community. That’s the only place that you could possibly construe him, and even there only with some effort to read into what he was saying, as implying that Miliband must be religious “because he expresses some good attitudes”.

    I did not accuse Lucie-Smith of saying that faith was a prerequisite for ethics, but of implying it, whether deliberately or not. Your ”with some effort” reflects the fact that this was not what the article appears, on the surface, to be saying.

    If you’re instead referring to Lucie-Smith’s approval of Miliband Jr.’s attitude towards the prayer he said with Jonathan Sacks and his imagining his forefathers joining him in saying it, or his smashing a glass at his wedding, then, “good attitudes” though you may think them, they certainly stem more easily from a religious perspective than from a modern atheist one…

    Yes, but they were not what I was referring to. I have to admit that the glass-breaking incident did surprise me, and does conflict with my assessment that Miliband would reject bad traditions. Perhaps I prematurely assumed that politeness was judged to override the vandalism.

    You say that “religion” is evil. This is the bit that is borderline incoherent to me, because your use and understanding of the word religion is a baffling and utterly unreasonable one. In the scriptures God is quite clear that He doesn’t approve of the child sacrifices made to Moloch by apostate Jews…

    I am not interested in what the scriptures say at one point without reference to what else they say. I might just as easily argue that Jesus was in favour of killing children who curse their parents (eg. Matthew 15:4). He contradicts this elsewhere. The instruction not to suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22:18) is also contradicted elsewhere. The Bible contains many contradictions and falsehoods. To claim otherwise is bad enough. To use bits of it (or any other fictional scripture) to justify practices that any rationalist would condemn is worse. To use the power of religion to encourage the masses to do the same is evil. (By the way, that does not mean that every participant is evil. If someone has been duped, usually by childhood indoctirination, they may genuinely think that they are doing the right thing when they are not.)

  • Benedict Carter

    Wrong question.

    The right question would be to ask how many revolutionary Marxists have not been Jews?

    The answer? Not many, 

  • Old Jim

    Just a matter of bad comprehension on your part. That sentence was immediately followed by “Note that he’s not saying that faith is a prerequisite for ethics”…

    The point is that Miliband is recognising a Jewish “religious” language and a Jewish “religious” community as a locus of ethical activity. Whether or not atheists can refrain from murdering their families or Catholics can understand the ethical implications of killing Protestants has absolutely nothing to do with it. The piece talks of the relationship between faith and ethics neither as one of necessity nor yet as one of sufficiency. It’s fairly clear that all that’s being asserted, and not by Lucie-Smith or me, but by Miliband, is that the Jewish faith and an ethics in relationship with it can occupy a shared ground in a community to their mutual benefit, such that an atheist like Miliband, with his different assumptions about ethics, can nonetheless recognise their production of ethical activity. No need for you to scream bloody murder about something so tentative as that, I’m sure.

    You might well be right (I think you probably are) in saying that Miliband’s lying to garner the votes of religious people, but there’s no use in simultaneously insisting that there’s nothing in what he says for him to be lying about. If he’s lying, he definitely is lying. If I said that Dawkins was deliberately lying to atheists and that he was actually a Christian, and then in the same breath continued that in any case The God Delusion was a perfectly Christian tract and atheists were reading their bizarre assumptions into it, you might well roll your eyes and wonder how two contradictory remarks can so seamlessly proceed from the same skull.

  • Jonathan West

    It’s not a matter of lying or not lying - politicians are far more subtle than that, not least because they don’t like to get caught out in a bare-faced lies. It’s usually rather bad for their careers.

    Instead, what has happened here is that Miliband has said something which is open to a range of interpretations. Alexander Lucie Smith has chosen to interpret it as Miliband looking towards his Jewish religious heritage (as opposed to his Jewish cultural heritage), a benign attitude towards religion in general and perhaps even a seeking for seeking for religion in his life.

    And I agree, that interpretation can be drawn from the words, and I am sure that Miliband fully intended that to be so. But it was all done by nods and winks without saying anything which described this explicitly or ruled out other interpretations – such as the idea that he was actually talking primarily about his Jewish cultural heritage.

    It is one of the skills of a politician to be able to have what he ways simultaneously interpreted in different ways by different people. I think Alexander Lucie Smith has read too much into it. I think Miliband is just being a good politician, and that he hasn’t revealed much either way in the New Statesman interview about his views on religion.

  • Old Jim

    Well, this is interesting, because aside from “the bible contains many contradictions and falsehoods” and is “fictional”, your insistence that breaking a glass at a wedding must be a “bad” tradition tantamount to vandalism, and your weird insistence that Lucie-Smith’s words have to be interpreted so as to mean something that he manifestly didn’t say, I agree with more or less everything that you have written. Which might strike you as an opportunity to review what you have in fact written.

    The point about the exegesis of scripture (that it has to be viewed in its entirety, and not broken up into convenient slogans) is well made, and one which if honestly applied would be wonderfully effective in dealing with a lot of nonsense peddled by both (particularly evangelical) protestants and atheists alike. But it would be very odd if I made the remark seeking to elicit an argument on biblical exegesis from you, or was trying to make you assent to a point by saying “well, the bible says…” in fact, the rest of the paragraph, and the comment I made in reply to myself underneath it, provide the substance of my real point, one which you have not addressed. That is the terribly convenient way in which you use the word “religion”. 

    In science, if a hypothesis can account for two contradictory observations, it is not a good hypothesis. Likewise, if the way you use “religion” can equally be used to attack Catholics for getting into fights with Protestants and Muslims (because we’re “intolerant”) and can be used to beat Catholicism for the evil that Protestants and Muslims do (because we’re “religious” too) then I put it to you that it is not a sensible way to use the word “religion”. The point is that linking us to an article where some badly catechised Protestants in Africa kill a child isn’t likely to make us feel bad for being Catholics, any more than if I linked you to the same article and said that it was your fault because you like them failed to belong to “the one true faith” ™ under which it would never have happened.

     I think you’re probably younger and less sure of yourself and your arguments than Jonathan West. The arguments you are trying to level are quite naive and easily answered (not that it’s not tiresome). Nonetheless, you’re to be applauded for bothering to read articles in a Catholic newspaper. It is a cut above the smug self-satisfaction I admit both my camp and yours tend to end up indulging. If you want the truth, you’ll find it.

    Pax Christi

  • Old Jim

    Aha, so the real question is this: how closely linked are the Jewish cultural and the Jewish religious traditions, and how far does being open to one entail being open to the other? I still maintain that if Dawkins were Jewish and everything else about him remained the same, he would have being lying if he said what is quoted above. This because Miliband references not only material circumstances, but also his attitudes towards Jewish tradition. You either mean that or you don’t, even if you cannot be caught out on it. I also think that a lot of this Jewish Cultural stuff is meaningless outside of its religiously-informed context, and that an atheist of the Dawkins stripe would consider teaching his children a lot of it harmful “indoctrination”. 

    I admit I was surprised the first time I read Dawkins on the KJV, but nonetheless, he does quite clearly pin down most of his praise to the aesthetic qualities of the translation and the subsequent effect it had on the wider world of English Literature and parlance. The same kind of motives could account for Miliband’s reference to Woody Allen, but little more.

    Having said that, really I think that I do sit between you and Lucie-Smith. I’m happy to learn that Miliband does not talk of himself in a manner that would suggest that he is a “new atheist”, and I think that that is most of what Lucie-Smith is really getting at. But why he’s getting at it should be quite clear for all to see. The conservative government have finally demonstrated that they are no more socially conservative on issues of catholic conscience than the labour party, whilst still being to a catholic unconscionably economically right wing. Maybe if we point out that Miliband isn’t an atheist of the modern variety, and doesn’t have that evangelical conviction in atheism characteristic of them, we might have to hold our noses less firmly come election day…

  • pooka

     In the debate in Oxford, between Archbishop Williams and Prof Dawkins, the latter explained that that very  morning he had been singing a venerable Anglican hymn in the shower.

  • Jonathan West

    (Replying to Old Jim)

    Dawkins has expressed a fondness for the language of the King James Bible, and has correctly noted that many phrases from it have passed into general usage. He favours people being given an opportunity to  read the KJB in part at least in order to understand the allusions, in everything from Shakespeare to PG Wodehouse. For instance, consider the following bit of doggerel,

    The rain it raineth on the just,
    And on the unjust fella.
    But chiefly on the just, because
    The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

    You miss half the joke if you’re not familiar with Matthew 5;45 “For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”.

    So Dawkins is reflecting on his literary heritage. But the bit of it that he is reflecting on is scripture. So is he reflecting on his religious heritage as well? And in doing so, is he expressing himself as being favourable towards religion? I think even you would find your credulity stretched too far to believe that.

    But I have to ask what difference there is between Miliband mentioning that there had been prayers when he visited the home of Jonathan Sacks for a meal and Dawkins supporting knowledge of the King James Bible. It seems to me that the main difference is that Dawkins has made himself abundantly clear regarding his view of religion, while Miliband has not. Politicians are good at making mood music with their words.

  • TreenonPoet

     So you do not agree that the Bible contains many contradictions and falsehoods! How many would I have to list before you changed your mind, or is it one of those things that you reject because it would undermine your religious faith (the strength of which I regard as the essential characteristic of religion)? I should not need to make a list because the existence of only one error (that is not a translation error nor addition) is as damaging as the single exception that disproves a scientific hypothesis. Take the descriptions of a flat Earth. There is no way that they can be ‘interpreted’ to mean a round Earth. What does that say about the reliablity of any assertion in the Bible, let alone all those that contradict the laws of nature?

    Or have most of us got it wrong and through some colossal misunderstanding come to believe that the Earth is round? After all, the Bible is consistent on this point – even in the New Testament. Then I would point to the Bible’s self-contradictions, such as those I mentioned in my previous post. If the Bible says X, and the Bible says Not(X), the Bible is not completely true, and certainly cannot alone be used to affirm or negate X. Viewing the Bible in its entirety only reinforces this.

    Whatever good might come of religion cannot excuse the bad. The bad includes the encouragement of irrational superstition, especially in children at an age when they trust what adults tell them, and especially in a manner that can drive such irrationality deep. Mankind may be naturally superstitious – generating caution that may be life-saving – but for institutions to take advantage of that and to supress the latest knowledge is wrong. It is wrong not only because it instils the false ideas promoted by those institutions, but also because it promotes the easy acceptance of other false ideas. Where is the Vatican’s condemnation of religious indoctrination? To promote Catholic indoctrination is to promote all religious indoctrination.

    From a single bit of scripture (namely the second book of the Torah, but a bit that can be inependently verified), you should not follow a multitude to do wrong. A corollary is that bad traditions should be rejected. I can think of a lot of good reasons why one should not deliberately break undamaged wine glasses. Tradition alone is no justification for any practice.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Stuff and nonsense. Leaving aside such minor exceptions as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, I have been a revolutionary Marxist myself. So unless you know something about me that I don’t…

  • Old Jim

    But you’ve answered your own question! Dawkins’ justification of scripture is extrinsic to scripture: it provides the key with which to open a set of allusions in literary texts (leaving aside the one reference to the possible intrinsic merits of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew.)

    Dawkins emphatically does not insinuate that he romantically meditates, dreamy eyed, over the history of Bible reading in his family, or seem to regard the reading of the Bible in order to draw edification from its content as worthwhile.

    Miliband’s attitude to Sacks’ prayer, his glass breaking and his passing on traditions to his children does not admit very well to the comparison. No-one is saying that they demonstrate that Miliband is some sort of crypto-theist, but I think it’s more than mood music. Unless he’s pandering. But does it make psychological sense that an immigrant seeking to hold onto or properly appropriate his minority culture, one in which God looms very large, would be more ambivalent and/or tentative in his attitude to traditions and ideas that depend upon or proceed from religious ideals or doctrines? I think it does.

  • Jonathan West

    I think you’ve made my point when you talk of “an immigrant seeking to hold onto or properly appropriate his minority culture”.

    And there are pretty much no cultures in which God in one form or another does not “loom very large”. So if you’re going to attach to culture, immigrant or otherwise then you’re going to come across references to God at some point or another. So you don’t have a godless culture to make any comparisons with.

  • karlf

     You really are an unpleasant character

  • Benedict Carter

    Sigh.

    Just take a look at the revolutionaries throughout Europe from Marx and Engels through to the first Bolshevik government and the ranks of the CHEKA until the late 1920′s.

  • Benedict Carter

    If being historically accurate makes one “unpleasant” then let’s have more unpleasantness. 

  • karlf

    I’d rather we had historical accuracy without any unpleasant personalties

  • Benedict Carter

    You what? 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Jonathan, you say: And there are pretty much no cultures in which God in one form or another does not “loom very large”. I agree. And it seems to me that if you abolish God, you end up with a cultural desert; to campaign against God and religion, you campaign against culture too. One of my objections to Prof Dawkins and those who share his views is that they are undermining our culture, attacking its roots, which is the best way to kill anything.

  • TreenonPoet

     I would argue that Dawkins is helping to kill the weeds that smother worthy culture. Dawkins himself promotes literature and science. Some religions seem to treat earthly enjoyment of anything and the pursuit of science to be bad. Where religions support worthy culture (and there are many instances of this), there is no fundamental reason why that support should not continue, but in a way that excludes evil practices. Society should try to ensure that the good is not thrown out with the bad. Sadly, religious institutions tend to insist that aspects such as the worship of God are integral and must be retained (with warnings of ‘cultural deserts’, etc.). Individuals should be free to believe that if they want, but those in a position of authority suggesting that you cannot be good without God (for example) poison society.

  • Jonathan West

    I think that Dawkins is the least of your worries – he put the St Matthew Passion into his list of favourite records for Desert Island Discs.

    It’s not atheists who destroyed the English monasteries, it was Anglican commissioners under Henry VIII. it’s not atheists who vandalised countless mediaeval churches, it was Cromwell’s Puritans. Or to take some examples nearer to our own time, it isn’t atheists who dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas, it was the Taliban, and it isn’t atheists who are systematically destroying every bit of Saudi Arabian archaeological heritage that they can get their hands on, it is happening under the orders of Wahhabi clerics.

    Atheists can appreciate good literature, music or architecture without needing to subscribe to the religious  beliefs of those who created or commissioned the work. And of course the churches commissioned much great art, and got the best artists to work for them. They could because just like everybody else, artists do like to eat occasionally, and so they work to commission, and the churches historically have had lots of money. 

    The great danger to art is not atheists, it is religious people who believe that are being called to destroy art which they believe promotes heresy.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    To say you cannot be good without God would be, in Catholic terms, a heresy.

  • Jonathan West

    It is a heresy that appears to be expressed in the comments on these pages quite frequently :-)

  • TreenonPoet

    What about if you only suggest it by, for example, comparing atheists to Nazis, condemning secularism when it is clear that you do not mean ‘secularism’ but ‘atheism’, saying that non-believers will go to hell, etc.? Even if it is not said directly, the message assimilated may well be that one cannot be good without God. Judging by the number of USAmericans who do not trust atheists, I would estimate that >25% of the blame rests on Catholics.

    Such prejudice in society is like a poison in the body.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Assuming “throughout Europe” includes Britain: H F Hyndman, William Morris, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Sylvia Pankhurst? And I thought we were talking about Ed Milband.
     
    In conclusion, I’m very glad of Cardinal Koch’s confirmation that you and your like are going to have to swallow Nostra Aetate whole if you want to return to the fold.