Sunday, 28 March 2010

Hey, priest, leave those kids alone!

I’m sure you’ve all come across the jokes about catholic priests abusing alter boys, and I’m sure you’re all aware that, in recent weeks, these jokes have been revealed to be largely based on fact. The best jokes are always based in reality, which is then ridiculed, taken too far or misconstrued. The facts in this case, however, are probably too chilling to joke about in good taste. It started in Ireland, where reports published last year revealed the extent of child abuse, and more worryingly, the extent to which it has been covered up. Since then the rot has spread across Europe and America, with more and more allegations of abuse and cover-up coming out of the woodwork. So far the main response of the Catholic Church has been to send out an apology and mumble something about not interfering with secular prosecution, when it seems to me hard to argue against excommunicating the abusive priests, and severely punish those involved in covering it up.

The allegations against the priests are universally sickening. For years, hundreds, probably thousands of young, vulnerable boys were systematically abused by people in authority. Often these boys had no-one to turn to and were too afraid to speak out. What was done to them has left them traumatised for life in many cases. The worst thing is that the many senior members of the Church knew that this was going on and turned a blind eye, even helped to cover up the appalling abuse.

Priests accused of abuse were moved onto a different parish so they could continue their abhorrent activities elsewhere. Reports to authorities within the Church were largely ignored or dealt with in such a way as to favour the priest, not the victim. The pope himself has been dragged into it, facing allegations of ignoring accusations of child abuse against priests in Wisconsin. It seems that child abuse is not only something done by sick individuals abusing their power over young boys, but something which has become institutionalised within the church. Rather than trying to face these allegations and accusations head on, the church has, for years, tried to cover them up and pretend they didn’t exist. They’ve put the interests of the Church ahead of those for whom the church is responsible. They seem to care more about an abstract concept; the church, than the individuals who make it up.

It is ironic that of all the institutions it is the Catholic Church which is awash with allegations of sexual deviance, the very same institution which prides itself in the celibacy of its priests and the specialness of sex, which must be exclusive to the marriage relationship. The Catholic Church prides itself on being a moral authority, especially when the issue of sex is involved. It is deeply ironic and also very disturbing that the world’s most sex-obsessed institution and the one so keen to give unbreakable rules to everyone, no matter how impractical, is the one rife with sexual deviance.

I’m not sure this is entirely surprising though. Can we really expect that people abstain from sex for their entire lives? Sex is not only something which we are hardwired to want as animals; it is also the greatest act of love one can partake in. That Catholic Church’s long time fear of sex and something which is to be avoided by those most holy is born of a misunderstanding of sex as a necessity for reproductions and little else, and has led to appalling sexual abuse of vulnerable people. Priests who abuse young boys are undoubtedly evil, but the Catholic Church should look very hard at itself in order to see why such abuse is rampant in such a supposedly celibate group of people.

That is for the long term. In the short term the church should excommunicate anyone who is guilty of child abuse and hand them over to the civil authorities for punishment. It’s my hope that very few of them ever get to see the outside of a prison ever again. The church must also look very hard at the process for dealing with such allegations. It cannot continue to put the credibility of the church ahead of the wellbeing of its most vulnerable; it must face allegations of abuse honestly and critically. Anyone involved in the mass cover-up, yes, even the Pope, must be punished for what they have done. I’m sure the church has internal means of punishing people who have sinned; they should use them to show the world that they do not accept child abuse. Overall, as a result of this scandal, the church has a lot to answer for and must hold itself accountable, or be held accountable by everyone else.

Monday, 22 March 2010

My Top Ten... Albums

I pride myself on finding more and more varied way of killing time every weekend; I normally call the result a blog. My latest idea for how to fill a couple of pages of a word document with my opinions is to do a series of top 10s. As you know I like to go on and on and on and on about music that I enjoy, so I thought I’d start off this adventure into a brave new world of procrastination with a list of my top 10 albums and an explanation of why I like them. These are not necessarily in precise order because I find it difficult to order things precisely.

So without further ado:

  • In Absentia (Porcupine Tree) I said they weren’t in order, but if I had to name my favourite album of all time this would probably be it. The thing about this album is that is brings together a whole host of different musical styles and genres, without ever feeling overcrowded. Blackest Eyes, the first track of the album exemplifies this; it combines a Heavy Metal-style opening with an indie rock-esc acoustic guitar which plays through dark and disturbing lyrics which echo beautifully. The chorus is almost like a pop song; it’s so memorable and the lyrics are so catchy despite retaining the foreboding of the verses. The pinnacle of the song for me is towards the end when it switches to full on psychedelic reminiscent of their earlier work. The rest of the album continues in the same vein, combining styles beautifully and retaining a dangerous, dark edge to the lyrics. The end of the album bring Collapse the Light into Earth, one of the most beautiful and mournful songs I have ever heard. Overall this is one of those albums which every self respecting fan of alternative music must listen to at some point. I guarantee it will not disappoint.

  • Picaresque (The Decemberists) This album is a true rollercoaster ride of emotions. The Decemberists have a knack for tugging at the heartstrings and with songs like Eli the Barrowboy and We Both Go Down Together, this album is a great example of this. However the tone is not all about love and loss. The Decemberists have a satirical side too, as shown by songs like the Sporting Life and 16 Military Wives, mocking jocks and the arrogance of American foreign policy respectively. Possible most bizarre and ingenious song on the album however is The Mariner’s Revenge Song, and full blown tale of a mariner who hunts down a miscreant who ruined his family when he was only a child. One of the most striking things about the album is the variety of different instruments used, notably the use of accordions and violins give the album (and indeed the band) a unique sound.

  • The Soft Bulletin (The Flaming Lips) I have a feeling I’ve mentioned this one before, so I’ll keep this short. The Flaming Lips are possibly the happiest band I have ever heard, and this album is possibly the happiest album I have ever heard. Right from the start it’s bubbling with pure, unadulterated joy that never lets up until the album finishes. Despite its joyful exterior the lyrics do not always share the same happiness. They can be painfully sorrowful and macabre. A good example of this is Waiting for Superman, which is wonderfully tragic, while still sounding extraordinarily happy.

  • The Wall (Pink Floyd) Probably the best Rock Opera I’ve ever heard. It has everything one expects from one of the best psychedelic band in history. The Rock Opera has always been a difficult thing to take seriously, but Pink Floyd manage to get over this, mostly with the addition of some brilliant individual songs like The Thin Ice and Comfortably Numb, which stand up as song in their own right. The story if the Wall is amazing; a wonderful tragedy which provides a critical examination of society and culture. It’s also musically astonishing. Some of the best psychedelic music ever recorded.

  • Absolution (Muse) One of the albums (and bands) that got me into Alternative Music. Simply amazing. Some absolutely brilliant songs, like Butterflies and Hurricanes and Time is Running Out litter the album, in fact I don’t think there’s a bad song here. Matt Bellamy’s piano playing and brilliant song writing make this album truly outstanding. Absolution has an amazing variety, from warnings about mankind’s effect on the environment to beautiful love songs to song about fear of death.

  • In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel) Another groundbreaking album in my own personal musical development. This album introduced me to the wonders of Indie Rock, with its acoustic guitars, distortion, impenetrable lyrics and tradition of using as many unusual instruments as possible. Fortunately what this album has, which is sadly lacking in many Indie Rock albums which I have mentioned extensively previously, is raw emotion. In the same way as with the Flaming Lips, you get a real sense of joy from the album, despite the more complex and melancholy nature of many of the lyrics. The album clearly has a sense of humour and, despite what people say, it doesn’t always take itself too seriously; the King of Carrot Flowers II is a prime example of this, as the band professes their love for Jesus Christ. I know this album has a reputation for being Indie Rock Snobbery personifies, but that’s worth ignoring because this is a fantastic album, despite the reputation.

  • Wish you Were Here (Pink Floyd) the first band to get a second album on the list is inevitably Pink Floyd. I said that The Wall had some of the best psychedelic music ever recorded on, but this is even better. I would put this album on the list on the strength of Shine On you Crazy Diamond alone, but I don’t need to, the other three songs are unbelievable as well. Shine On is a wonderful tribute to Syd Barrett, but the rest of the album deals with the difficulties of fame and the tragedy of loss, universalising the trauma that the band felt with the loss of Syd.

  • Stupid Dream (Porcupine Tree) Another band with a second album, but this one is so unlike In Absentia that you’d have difficulty realising that they’re the same band. Stupid Dream is another brilliant psychedelic album (the third of this list). It lacks the variety of In Absentia, but has much more by way of psychedelic experimentation and all round madness. Despite this it is more reserved that some of their earlier, more extreme work. The lyrical quality of the album is outstanding, dealing with death, guilt and drug abuse, themes which seem to be pretty common to this list actually. The highlight of this album probably comes at the end with Stop Swimming, as song much like Collapse the Light into Earth in that it is mind numbingly beautiful and tearfully sad.

  • F#A#infinity (Godspeed You! Black Emperor) Post-Rock, music in the style of classical music, using instruments usually associated with rock music. Godspeed You! do it brilliantly. F#A#infinity is their darkest album and some of the best sampling I’ve ever heard. They use no lyrics, but the voiceover at the start of Dead Flag Blues is heart wrenching, it sets the tone for a wonderfully atmospheric and dark album. However there is a glimmer of hope in the album, especially at the end of Dead Flag Blues, adding to the complexity. The perfect placement of notes, interspersed with samples from all over the place simply cannot be described. Go listen to it; it will blow your mind.

  • Puzzle (Biffy Clyro) If you’re listening to this album skip past the first minute and a half. The rest is pure gold. Despite listening to the album literally hundreds of time, I can barely say why it is I like it so much. As with most of these albums it has astonishing variety and the lyrics are extremely intelligent. As usual the album is searing with passion and emotion. It’s upbeat, while still having a darker side. Those last few statements could apply to almost all of these albums on reflection. I guess that’s just what I like.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Suspension of Non-belief

In a few days time (or a few days ago depending on when you’re reading this, or even months ago!), atheists from around the world will gather in Melbourne for The Global Atheist Convention. Given that I don’t believe in God you would assume that I would be in support of a meeting of atheists from around the globe to send a signal out to religious people that atheism is a strong and growing movement. You would be wrong. The Global Atheist Convention may well do more harm than good to atheism as a concept because it will lead to a misunderstanding of what atheism is, probably because the people attending the Convention have the same misunderstanding.

Atheism is a meaningless word. It describes a non-belief; an absence of dogma and faith. An ‘atheist’ is simply someone who does not believe in God, just as someone who doesn’t believe in astrology is an ‘a-astrologist’, or someone who doesn’t believe in alchemy is an ‘a-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who reject most spiritual non-scientific practices or beliefs, why do we have one for religion? For both astrology and alchemy we have more scientific, rational approaches to the same issues; astronomy and chemistry respectively. These are positive, rational, scientific positions which have long since shown both astrology and alchemy to be absurd (although astrology does still have a worrying amount of popular appeal). Perhaps a better way of showing religion to be absurd (and much of it is) is to focus on the alternative, rationalist approach, or approaches should I say.

The problem here is that, aside from the very theoretical and minority debate about God’s place in science as the creator and sustainers of the universe (a possibility which I am open to, but don’t understand enough about to make a worthwhile judgment), religion focuses on morality. Morality is a slippery issue with so many competing ideas, most, if not all, of which are fundamentally flawed, that it is difficult to present a credible alternative to religion’s very strong and usually pretty sensible rule. There is also so much debate within religion about morality and so many of our assumptions and values come from religion, that it can be difficult for a secular point of view to penetrate and make much of an impact on moral discussion.

Nevertheless it seems that the incredible intelligence and articulation of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would be put to better use in support of a secular philosophical system which tries to play the same role as religion, rather than simply trying to destroy the credibility of the claims of religion without suggesting an alternative. Religion is more than just a pseudo-science which claims to provide answers to scientific questions using God to fill the vast gaps in our scientific knowledge. ‘Atheists’ have spend far too much time to date trying to discredit religion on this point, unsurprising given than people like Richard Dawkins are mostly scientists and so that is what they are interested and knowledgeable about. The fact is that most religious people don’t really care about the scientific claims of their faith and that is certainly not why they hold that faith. Faith is something which goes far beyond scientific claims; religion is a way of life. Religion makes claims about morality, it gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives, it makes moral statements and gives people a clear way in which to live their lives. This is not going to be destroyed simply by showing people that their belief is a nonsense; it cannot be destroyed per se, only replaced by something based more on reason and science.

This is where I believe that movements like Humanism and Utilitarianism are far more valuable than Atheism. They do not exist for the simple purpose of discrediting religion, but for the purpose of offering a secular alternative to the claims that religion has on people’s lives. They don’t even do this directly, but simply by existing they offer an alternative in the same way that chemistry offers an alternative to alchemy. Atheism does not offer an alternative, it is a non-movement of a non-believe which is deeply damaging because is portrays atheism as an equal and opposite faith statement to religion. It is not. Atheism is a meaningless word which needs to be dropped. Events like the Global Atheist Convention present to the world a false impression of what it actually is to not believe in God.

I personally do not subscribe to any particular believe system, like Humanism or Utilitarianism, the best way to describe my belief system would be ‘me-ism’. Obviously I think it would be ideal if everyone subscribed to their own personal ‘me-ism’, but I don’t think that is ever going to happen; the popularity of mass movements such as religion proves that. Atheism is not a believe system that anyone can subscribe to because it does not put forward any belief, so what is there to have an international convention about? Richard Dawkins is vice president of the British Humanist Association and I’m sure most of the people both attending and speaking in Melbourne belong to the same or similar organisation. At the very least they have constructed their own believe system based on their lack of belief in God. It would serve the cause of replacing religion with a secular viewpoint (or several secular viewpoints) much better if these intelligent, influential and committed people spend their time and energy trying to put forward those viewpoints, rather than continually putting down religion, usually on the grounds of science.

The Global Atheist Convention, and the work of people like Dawkins and Hitchens has done much to put Atheism on the map. While I am glad that this has happened, I can’t help but feel that self-professed Atheists are missing the point somewhat. They should stop gathering to slam down religion again and again, but instead start putting forward alternative, secular ways of life which replace, rather than destroy religion.

Sunday, 7 March 2010


So interesting things have been happening in the world right? Wrong. There’s has been nothing of interest in the news of late, so this blog is becoming less and less ‘current affair’ and more and more ‘ranting about stuff/fiction’, which is fine, I guess. With any luck someone will make some deliciously inappropriate comment in the next week so I can be disapproving of both the comment and inevitable press outburst, or maybe something significant will happen in the world.

For this week however, I am continuing with something that I haven’t done in a couple of months. Remember at the end of last year I wrote these two delicious little pieces? Well today I’m doing another one. Here’s my brief:

Lost. Write about a town that has disappeared. It could be a Palestinian village on a hillside in what is now Israel, forcibly evacuated in 1948 and then “erased” from maps and view (though there are vegetable remains of the town). It could be a ghost town in the American west—a silver or gold rush boom town which remains in substantial form but is empty of people. It could be an African town erased by the encroaching Sahara. Or it could be a village sunk under a reservoir formed in 1933 in Massachusetts. Write about it in the present and at the moment of its last human habitation and at its most vibrant, lively apex. (600 words – actually more like 670)

If you leave the great sprawling city of Rome by the southern most gate, along the Appain Way, that great blood vessel along which Pompey crucified Spartacus’ followers, and go for a few miles, you come across a town. Aricia is fairly large, dominated by a market square in the centre. Dotted in a circle around it used to lay little hamlets and farms, whose occupants used to travel to Aricia on market days to sell their goods. On those days the town bustled. Farmers and craftsmen sold everything from food to clothing to little toys for children, competing for the attention of the housewives and artisans who did not need to peddle their wares on market days. Children would run around, weaving between groups of chatting women and stalls piled high with apples or cheese or garments, not caring for the difficult task of making a living. They played games that the adults had no hope of understanding and had long since lost into the deep pit of age. Men laughed and joked and argued about price while women gossiped and haggled.

The vibrancy of those market days is gone now. The farmers and the craftsmen, the women and the artisans, the children are all gone now. Aricia lies deserted. The square in the centre of the town, once the centre of the hubbub of market day, is silent. Nothing but memory remains of Aricia’s former wealth and energy, and even that memory is fading. Aricia is dead.

It was the young who went first. Hearing rumours on the wind of the great wealth and opportunity of Rome. They did not want to work their father’s farms, or take up is craft. They wanted to see the world, to experience the wonders of the greatest city on earth. They wanted to watch a great General ride in Triumph through the city, to see an Emperor, almost godlike in his power and wealth, to see a great festival, with Games in the mighty Coliseum. To see the blood of the Legendary Gladiators spilled out for the sake of entertainment. Steady life in Aricia was nothing compared to the excitement that Rome had to offer. So they left. A few at first, but the trickle steadily grew and word of great successes and the wonders of the capitol of the world eroded doubts and the trickle kept growing.

The market days were not so vibrant any longer. There were fewer farmers and craftsmen and fewer people to buy their goods. There was less energy, less noise. Children too young to go on their own adventures still played, but with almost an entire generation sucked into to the ever growing heart of the empire, Aricia felt hollow. There were too many abandoned houses, too many people fearing for their futures with their sons no longer there to look after them in their old age.

Rome continued to pull all towards it. It tugged at those who had worked on farms all their lives and had never dreamt of anything else until their sons abandoned them and it became harder and harder to make a living with so few people in the town. The old slogged on, unable to comprehend the thought of a new life, trying desperately to make enough to survive.

But eventually all of these either left or died, leaving Aricia barren. Rome had sucked the life out of it, drained the wealth and the people until there was nothing. Now if you travel along the Appain Way and go for a few miles, you come across the remains a town. No-one lives in Aricia. Weeds grow in the paving stones, once well worn with the feet of people, now worn only by memories of a past that is all but forgotten. You can see where the markets used to be, where the men would shout and the women would gossip and the children would run. All now lost in the sprawling morass they call the Greatest City on Earth. Rome.