Sunday, 29 April 2012

Jeremy Hunt is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep

I was back in church for the final reading of the banns today. The reading was from John's Gospel, Chapter 10. I was quite taken with verses twelve to thirteen:

But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.

The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. 

These verses put me in mind of of something I heard on Radio 4's Profile programme this morning. I normally avoid Profile, a programme that supposedly offers 'an insight into the character of an influential figure making news headlines', but is often little more than a sycophantic hagiography of some establishment bigwig from the world of politics, business, the civil service or religion.Today's prog had special topical interest, being a profile of disgraced* Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

According to a civil servant who used to work for Hunt:

 I shall never forget the first time I saw Jeremy Hunt. He came in to say how pleased he was to be here, and the usual stuff, and then moved swiftly on to the now familiar theme of "we're all in this together" and "we've all got to make sacrifices" and then he said the department could face cuts of up to fifty percent, and he swiftly added 'We've already given up our ministerial limousines'. And there was stunned silence. When there was an opportunity for staff questions, he was asked 'Are you really saying that fifty per cent of us are going to get the sack?' Still smiling, Jeremy replied, 'Oh, possibly, yes'. We were all thunderstruck. Absolutely incredulous. That beneath that smooth, smarmy manner he had the callous, crude insensitivity of David Brent, Ricky Gervais's character in The Office. You know, he was just saying 'Well, we've given up our car rides, and now you can give up your jobs I mean what could be fairer than that?'

You could dismiss this as the account of a hacked-off ex-employee with an axe to grind, but it's quite consistent with the ruthlessness of an ambitious member of the gilded elite (Head Boy at Charterhouse, PPE at Magdalen, management consultant, well-connected general purpose entrepreneur, yada, yada), who'd happily throw an underling to the wolves in an attempt save his own skin. You didn't really think we were all in this together, did you?

He may not be Culture Secretary for much longer, but to me, he'll always be the unofficial minister for rhyming slang.

Of course, he's not all bad; according to Michael Gove he's a great guy and 'his lambada is something amazing'. So that's all right, then.

*David Cameron might be behaving as if Jeremy hasn't been caught red handed, but even he must have realised that he's not fooling anybody.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Brides of Dracula

Vampire Dermal Therapy

An amount of your plasma is taken and separated into platelet rich and platelet poor plasma. The rich plasma is injected sub dermally into wrinkles and areas needing rejuvenation.

This is a piece of genuine copy for a real beauty treatment, currently being punted to ladies who lunch, at two hundred quid per face.

Truly, the living dead are among us.

To be fair, it's a canny piece of marketing. After all, colonic irrigation's been around for a long time now and there has to be a market for a more on-trend medical-sounding intervention to relieve Hollywood starlets and bored golfing wives from the pent-up discomfort of all that excess money. And the word "vampire" exudes an altogether more classy image of sexiness than having a hosepipe stuffed up your bottom for no very good reason.

The name "vampire dermal therapy" conjures up the dangerous allure of the vamp, from Theda Bara to the ubiquitous sexy vampires of contemporary pop culture; when I imagine colonic irrigation, I think of a freshly de-gibleted chicken having its body cavity washed out. If you're a well-off wannabe siren-goddess, I'd say it's no contest (it must be a real bummer if you're a needle-phobic alt-med fadster, though).

Thursday, 26 April 2012

... and I'm still feeling mean

I'm celebrating the acquisition of my latest set of wheels, an elderly, silver, Honda Civic, formerly the property of an elderly lady who didn't put many miles on the clock. Take it away, Lemmy:


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Revenge of the Murdochs?

The sensational cache, which reveals ‘absolutely illegal’ information was being freely exchanged between government and big business, was published by the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards yesterday – on the eve of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony to the hearings. James Murdoch yesterday told the Leveson Inquiry that a typed 'emoticon' after this email meant the 'illegal' reference was a joke.

Last night it was being seen as the Murdoch family's revenge on ministers who cut their ties with the media giant last summer after the phone hacking scandal exploded.

The Daily Mail (no link here, because it's the Mail)

I'm no fan of the Murdochs and I've also speculated about whether the Murdoch press have been giving the government a bit of a kicking recently because of all this public tie-cutting. You'd have to be seriously paranoid, though, to suggest, as the Mail seems to be doing here,* that the Murdochs were actually happy to see the Frédéric to Jeremy's boy e-mails released into the public domain, simply to get their own back on a government that seems to have lost that loving' feeling.

I can believe that the Murdochs and their henchpeople have done bad things. What I doesn't make sense to me is that they would deliberately leak information that was damaging to News International, out of sheer self-harming spite, just to blacken the reputation of a political party that's had to make a public show of jilting them.

I've no more inside information than the proverbial bloke down the pub, but I'll bet that if they could have deleted these e-mails and denied any knowledge, the Murdochs would have done so. I don't think you become a ruthlessly successful global media tycoon without being primarily driven by self-interest.

The Daily Mail's no longer just paranoid about the things that its editors imagine keep fretful middle-England awake at night; immigrants, things that might give you cancer, dole scroungers, asylum seekers, health and safety gone mad, the European Court of Human Rights, political correctness, the War on Christmas and Christianity in general, vaccines, celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, and gay people enjoying lives of insufficient shame and self-loathing. It's now ready to ascribe any form of malevolence, however irrational, to that great bogeyman of all Guardian readers, the Murdoch press. If Mail hacks find any more things to be paranoid about, they'll soon be too frightened to leave home (assuming that they actually believe any of their own copy).

*Note the arse-covering deniabilty of 'it was being seen as the Murdoch family's revenge' (presumably few readers paused to ask 'by whom?').

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Back in church...

... to hear the banns being read read for the second time. I can't give you a another precis of the rev's sermon for today's because my attention wandered a bit (I think it was some sort of a meditation on God's mysterious habit of sending us 'curveballs', although I'm pretty sure that she actually called them 'curved balls', suggesting a less than complete familiarity with the game of baseball). So, instead of an in-depth critique of her sporting analogy, here's a video. I think I've already posted a link to Alan Bennett's classic 'Take A Pew' sketch on this blog, so this time, here beginneth The Reverend Rowan Atkinson's lesson on 'Amazing Jesus':

To be fair, things did liven up a bit towards the end of the service when the Sunday school kids came to up to the front to share what they'd leaned. Apparently the Sunday school teacher had been teaching them about the various bits of paraphernalia to be found in church (the communion chalice, the font the thurible and so on), so the rev. asked a little girl what the font was for. 'It's for in case you feel sick', piped up a confident little voice. Excellent.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Special pleading

I went to a church service service on Sunday. Don't worry, I haven't accepted Jesus into my life or anything like that. I'm just due to be married in this parish and went along to hear the banns being read out (nobody spoke up to declare any cause or just impediment why these persons shouldn't be joined together in Holy Matrimony, which was both a relief and, simultaneously, strangely disappointing - apparently objections hardly ever happen these days). Listening to the sermon was moderately interesting, but also reminded me of just how unconvincing and unnecessarily convoluted organised religion sounds to an outsider.

The sermon was based on a question that had apparently come up in a recent Bible study group; namely why did the resurrected Jesus only appear to a small group of followers, rather than making a high-profile comeback in  a public place, which would have left nobody in any doubt that he definitely had risen from the dead? I thought that the rhetorical answer would be the usual explanation about how much better it is to have unquestioning faith than to demand empirical proof.

In fact, the rector took a slightly different angle and suggested that Jesus' enemies were so determined to discredit him that there would have been no point in him appearing to a multitude. The authorities would have simply declared him an impostor and used spin and propaganda to discredit the story of his return from the dead. Obviously, he said all of this at greater length, but I've tried to reproduce the gist of his argument without distortion.

I suppose it's a slightly more original theory than I'd expected, but it's hardly a satisfying explanation. Quite apart from begging the central question of whether Jesus really did die and rise again (if this unlikely event didn't really happen, then Jesus' post-mortem actions require no explanation), I'd have thought that this interpretation seriously underestimates the power and influence of the Son of God as described in the Bible.

The standard explanation - that God and his offspring could do absolutely anything, but they simply choose not to go around manifesting themselves and performing miracles most of the time, in order to test our faith - is unsatisfying in its own way, but it's at least got some sort of internal logic.

The idea that Jesus decided not to advertise his resurrection except to a small band of followers, because he feared that a few establishment spin doctors might convince everybody else to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes and ears, sounds even more dodgy to me.

God can do absolutely anything, remember? If the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or whoever, wanted to deny Him, that shouldn't have presented any problem at all for the influential partnership of Deity and Son. Surely, it would take more than a denial from Pilate or the Sanhedrin to stop God from being heard, assuming that He wanted humankind to sit up and listen? And Jesus is supposed to be God's son. Seriously, his dad is way tougher than your dad. With family connections like that, if He really wanted to make something happen, it would have happened.

Imagine that Jesus had reappeared to lots of people, because He wanted them to see and believe, but a few Very Important People started shouting 'imposter!' The deniers would have looked pretty stupid when the creator of the universe (who can do absolutely anything), trumped them by (for example) burning a message into the sky, in fiery letters a mile high, that scrolled across the heavens and read thusly:

People of Earth, your attention please. This is your Creator speaking. That guy down there really is my son, the one you just had killed. Now - just when you thought it was safe to go back to the Temple - He's back! You didn't expect that, did you?  But don't worry - He's a good boy and He's prepared to let bygones be bygones and give you all another chance. Listen carefully to what He tells you and do your best to follow His instructions, then you, too, could enjoy eternal life in paradise. The alternative is more unpleasant than you could possibly imagine (and also lasts for ever).

Now, is there anybody out there who STILL doesn't believe me? I would advise you all to think very carefully before replying.

An audio version of this message will follow, for people with reading difficulties, (the visually impaired should be able to read this for themselves, now that I've miraculously restored their sight).

If that doesn't impress you, He could have pulled off any other kind of astounding, utterly convincing miracle you care to imagine, just to put the matter beyond doubt. Because He can do absolutely anything, remember? Or are we now supposed to fall back on the old default explanation for God's failure to perform independently verifiable miracles (neatly summed up in that concise theological handbook, The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, as 'I refuse to prove that I exist, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing')?

I think it's the complex, laboured and far-fetched explanations for, and interpretations of, events that probably never happened in the first place that irritate me most about religion. I'm reminded of the time somebody lent me a book by some ex-copper who was convinced that the world was in the grip of a massive international conspiracy to cover up the fact that extraterrestrial UFOs were visiting our planet on a regular basis (which would, admittedly, be way cool, if true). One of the early chapters focused on the "Kalahari UFO crash," (the alleged shooting down of an alien spacecraft by a South African Air Force jet, back in 1989).

What intrigued me was that the author acknowledged that the account of the crash he'd read was riddled with errors and inconsistencies. At this point, when most reasonable people would have concluded that it was an entertaining yarn, but also clearly a load of old cobblers, he did something quite interesting. He asked a rhetorical question. Why was his source so unreliable? The answer, he concluded, was that his source must have introduced deliberate errors and inconsistencies into his account of a real event because he was covering something up - probably the full extent of his knowledge of the conspiracy. The simple, obvious conclusion, that such errors and inconsistencies would be exactly what you'd expect from a made up story about a wildly improbable event, was dismissed in a line or so.

This mode of thinking is strikingly similar to the sort of exegesis and commentary you get in the popular mainstream religions. There's an important difference, though; UFO believers are generally dismissed as cranky anoraks with a weird obsession, whereas we're supposed to "respect" religious beliefs, however improbable, treat their adherents and spokespeople as serious authorities with something profound to teach the rest of us and allow their views to influence public policy. We see faith-based pressure groups and institutions all over the place, something that must irritate the hell out of devout UFOlogists who must be wondering why there's no Tony Blair UFO Foundation, or sectarian schools set up to promote and defend the faith and values of UFOlogy (although, given the fashionable proliferation of educational "choice" as represented by "Academy" and "Free" schools, maybe it's only a matter of time).

Contrast the obscure, circular reasoning behind all those professions of faith, and of belief in incredible things, with the simple, lucid sanity of this short declaration of impiety:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

The quote is of uncertain origin, but is often attributed to Marcus Aurelius.* Thomas Jefferson put it almost as well:

Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. 

If its message was just about living a good life, I'd have no problem with Christianity. Unfortunately the God of Abraham and his boy Jesus also demand that their followers believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, live in fear of their loving father's capricious whims and respect Deity and Son's exclusive monopoly of salvation rights:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me

Exodus 20:5

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

John 14:6

I don't know about you, but that sort of belligerent defensiveness makes me suspicious. It's the same reaction I have if I question something that sounds unlikely and get an aggressive 'are you calling me a liar?' for an answer, as opposed to a reasonable explanation of why the unlikely-sounding thing in question really is the case.

I'm beginning to think that if more people actually paid close attention to what they were being told in church, congregations would be even smaller - to paraphrase somebody or other, any sufficiently devout faith is indistinguishable from inattention.

* Hat tip to the Holy Blasphemy site, which uses this quotation for a strap line

Friday, 13 April 2012

Smoke signals

Botched rocket launch triggers crisis

No, not that one.

It's the Clangers again, in a classic episode, bursting with hand-knitted stop-motion goodness. From the controversial malfunctioning door sequence, when Major Clanger famously exclaims (via the magic of nuclear magnetic resonance, transcribed for swanee whistle) "Oh, sod it; the bloody thing’s stuck again", through the disastrous rocket launch, to the rogue iron chicken crashing through walls like an avian terminator and being ineffectively whacked with wooden spoon by an exasperated soup dragon, it's a thrill-packed roller coaster ride from beginning to end.

James Cameron, George Lucas - for a master class in action-adventure sci-fi, watch and learn:
I don't qualify for an early pension or early retirement but, thankfully, nobody's stopping me from taking my second childhood early, so I'm damn well going to enjoy it now.


In an official statement earlier today, Major Clanger reiterated the Clangers' claim that their unsuccessful rocket firing had been a peaceful attempt to launch a skyrocket full of stars and denied that the Clangers' space programme was a cover for testing long-range missile technology.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Proof For the Existence of God

In which the Clangers refute the Celestial Teapot argument, thus:

They may only be knitted children's space toys, but they're still way more theologically convincing than this guy.

Having seen off Bertrand Russell, the Clangers then proceed to call Carl Sagan's bluff by producing their very own dragon.

If I had the guile and ambition of an L. Ron Hubbard, I'd be founding the Universal Church of Clangerism right now.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Rubbernecking fail

As we're visiting North Wales, we decided to take a look at the unlucky cargo ship MV Carrier St John's, blown onto rocks near Colwyn Bay earlier in the week. Although the ship's mast is visible from the A55, the authorities have sadly blocked off any footpaths in the vicinity of the grounded vessel, so I wasn't able to get a decent picture of the ship lying on the rocks (after trudging down some cliffs, I did get to a vantage point where I could make out a portion of wheelhouse in the distance, but that was it).

As we're staying in Llandudno, where nothing ever happens that's louder than a scone being buttered,* it was disappointing not to get a view of the only exciting thing to have happened round these parts in years. I see somebody's managed to get a distant view on Geograph, so that'll have to do as for an illustration of my "I was close-ish to a moderately interesting news story" story.

Photograph © Richard Hoare, published under this Creative Commons Licence.

* Wit © the late Linda Smith (her description of some genteel seaside resort or other; possibly Hove).

Monday, 2 April 2012

The other Turing test

From time to time, I like to check the galloping pulse of the religious right by examining the latest furious rant blogged by my favourite wackaloon, Steve Kellmeyer. Here he is, in fine form, on one of the skeletons that recently fell, clattering, from the Catholic Church's formerly padlocked cupboard:


It seems some Dutch Catholic priests were caught having sex with young men back in the 1950s. The priests were disciplined and ten of the young men - assumed homosexuals - were castrated.

Obviously, Steve points out, the real victims here weren't a few powerless teenage kids, forcibly mutilated by their abusers, but those poor, persecuted, misunderstood servants of the church, who couldn't even rape and castrate a few kids, then lie about it and cover it up for decades, without some darn bleeding-heart liberal kicking up a fuss:

But, when it comes to this story, multi-cultural liberals disregard the fact that homosexuality was a crime in the 1950s, the fact that the culture was entirely different, that punishment and treatment were viewed in different light - none of this has bearing.

There is only one thing to focus on - men were castrated and a priest was behind it.
That is sufficient.

Call the court of public opinion!

Chant your confession of faith in liberal values! 

There speaks a man with a (very small) point, but absolutely no sense of empathy, shame or proportion. He is, of course, right to point out that in the 1950's, objective homophobia and discrimination wasn't by any means the exclusive prerogative of a few sex-obsessed God-botherers on the religious right, but was firmly embedded in nation states, their laws and in the mindset of large sections of society.

It's also true that ideas and practises that modern liberals would find horrific, once had traction among progressive thinkers. Ideas like eugenics and the forced sterilisation of the "unfit" were, before the Nazis gave them a bad name, mainstream, not just in countries like the USA, but in such beacons of liberalism as Sweden. Progressives like George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes and H. G. Wells were enthusiastic champions of eugenics.

One of the most celebrated victims of state-sponsored homophobia was Alan Turing, the immensely gifted mathematician, Bletchley Park code breaker, computer pioneer and all-round good egg.

In 1952, Turing was arrested and tried for homosexuality, then a criminal offence. To avoid prison, he accepted injections of oestrogen for a year, which were intended to neutralise his libido.

Turing died on 8 June 1954. The coroner concluded that he'd committed suicide. Only he knew exactly what happened, but it would surprise nobody if this brutal, pointless persecution was the final straw that drove him to end his life.

What about the state-approved chemical castration of a blameless citizen who, by any reasonable standards, should have been a national hero (had his vital wartime work not been way too secret to share with the nation)? Does that let the Catholic Church off the hook? I don't think so.

First, the appeal to hypocrisy ( tu quoque) isn't a very impressive defence. If you've raped and mutilated children, saying "sorry" would be inadequate, but at least it would be a start. Retorting that everybody did that sort of thing and you're just being unfairly picked on is, quite simply, pathetic, especially coming from an apologist for an organisation that's supposed to be the epitome of dignity and moral authority.

Second, yes, the officials who tormented Turing and committed many more systematic acts of cruelty against countless other, less celebrated, humans whose only crime was to be slightly different from the majority, just got on with their lives, generally retired quietly and were never called to account. But, crucially, other people were outraged enough, brave enough and persistent enough to decide that enough was enough and to work to put a stop to such pointless, unconsidered discrimination and cruelty. As a result, although bigotry still exists, we live in a far more tolerant, inclusive society at least when it comes to people's sexuality (not to mention race, gender, disability and so on).

The secular world may not have called the petty, intolerant, thoughtless tyrants of yesteryear to account, but it's done something else just as important. It's worked though the arguments, questioned dogmas, debated the issues. It has - unlike the religious right - changed, rather than just paying lip service to change and repentance. It's adapted, listened, evolved, become (at least in this respect) more humane, more understanding, less casually cruel. It's not perfect, but it's a start. The secular world has made progress since the 1950's. So, to be fair, have some religious folk.

But not the dogmatists of the palaeo-conservative right, who see nothing wrong with authoritarianism and the wanton persecution of anybody who dares to be different. Because they know it all already. They don't need to change. They don't need to listen (except to the voice in their own heads that they've identified as the creator of the universe and the fount of all wisdom). When it comes to humility and repentance, they talk a good game, but the reality is that when they're found wanting, their response is denial, cover-up and counter-accusation, rather than changing and becoming more humane.

Alan Turing is known, among many other things for the test that bears his name. To recap:

The Turing test is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour. In Turing's original illustrative example, a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. 

Given Turing's tragic encounter with intolerance, I'd like to propose another test in the great man's honour.

The "other Turing test" is actually a series of diagnostic tests to determine whether any self-appointed member of the morality police has the right to impose his or her values on other human beings:
  1. Could you persuade a reasonable, disinterested bystander, that the "immorality" you're objecting to is causing real harm? If not, then you've failed to demonstrate any compelling reason why other people should change their way of living to suit your preferences.
  2. If 1. (above) applies and saving somebody else from "immorality" is demonstrably causing unhappiness, how, exactly, is this supposed to help anybody in any way?
  3. Is the moral code you're trying to enforce is indistinguishable from your own personal social preferences? If so, you need to knuckle down to the hard work of proving its value by argument and persuasion, rather than feeling entitled to everybody else's respectful deference to your notion of morality and pouting like a spoilt child when you don't get it.
  4. If 1. and 2. (above) apply, but you have managed to get your way by using moral blackmail, or legal or physical force to enforce your notion of "morality", please expain clearly, in language we can all understand, how your "moral authority" differs from plain, old-fashioned bullying.

That'll fall on deaf ear among the holier-than-thou brigade themselves, but those are worthwhile questions for the victims of such unsolicited moral guidance to ask.

Interestingly, Kellmeyer cites gender reassignment surgery as an example of 'politically acceptable castration', ignoring the obvious difference that, in civilised countries, this an elective procedure, undertaken only at the request of the patient. The prospect of such a procedure may fill Kellmeyer with loathing and he's not alone - to be honest, just thinking about it makes me feel squeamish. But the fact that the majority of people can't imagine wanting anybody to do such a thing to them is irrelevant. What matters is how those consenting adults seeking out gender reassignment feel about it. I don't have to share their feelings to respect their right to choose.

And it's the right to choose that really seems to rile the authoritarian religious right. While the Kellmeyers of this world condemn voluntary sex-change procedures, religious conservatives elsewhere have embraced sex-change surgery as a way of "curing" homosexuality. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa asserting that sex reassignment surgery was permissible for "diagnosed transsexuals". As filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has documented, the practical effect of the fatwa is that the Iranian religious authorities can pressurise gay people to diagnose themselves as transsexual and submit to coercive sex-change surgery. In a country where homosexual relationships are punishable by death, it's a way for clerics to deny the existence of homosexuality. 'Homosexuality is a disease of corrupt, degenerate countries. We don't have any people like that here (we had them all killed or castrated)'.

It's not the surgery that palaeo-conservatives object to, it's the idea of people choosing for themselves, rather than submitting to the arbitrary dictates of militant theism. There's a telling comment in one review of Eshaghian's film Be Like Others; 'Islamic Iran and the Christian Right have so much in common —it’s just surprising that they’re not better friends.'

The important thing to remember about nuts like Kellmeyer is that they're mad, not stupid. Their core beliefs may be screwed up and delusional, but there is tactical method in their madness. As I've blogged before, Christianity and Islam have gained far more adherents than any other belief systems by a considerable margin. I don't think it's any coincidence that, at different times in their respective histories, both have gone through expansionist phases of aggressive proselytising, seeking to exterminate rival faiths and seize as much coercive temporal power as possible.

In contrast a less coercive, more moderate faith like Sikhism, (founded on the principle that all humans are equal, no matter what their particular creed, gender or caste), has gained only 23 million followers (as opposed to Christianity's 2.1 billion and Islam's 1.5 billion ).

I'm guessing that Kellmeyer's smart enough to have noticed the declining congregations in the newly liberal, inclusive mainstream churches in Europe and the USA and the recent relative success of radical, intolerant Islam in gaining adherents and intimidating critics. For all the humbug about humility and submission, he's grasped the essential truth that, if you want your audience to believe six impossible things before breakfast, you need to carry a big stick to silence anybody who might be tempted to ask awkward questions and heckle from the back.

Which is why the religious right are casting envious eyes on radical Islamists (not to mention the flourishing, illiberal, witch-finding, gay-bashing churches of the developing world) and wistfully remembering the good old days of the Inquisition when their beliefs, however absurd, got automatic respect from anybody with an understandable distaste for extreme pain and being burned to death.