The Press Saturday, May 30th 1998

One of the most distressing things about this column is that it puts me in touch with the shockingly low standards of professional atheism in this country. Polly Toynbee had a go at God in Monday's Guardian; "The Pope is preparing an encyclical against superstition. Oxymoron or what? The pontifical commission for Culture is writing a report about the dangers of people believing in magic, levitations, visitations by spirits, angels, aliens and the like. The mind boggles. Some might suggest that he start with the Turin Shroud. And what of transubstantiation, virgin visions, appearances of the stigmata, to say nothing of ascensions and assumptions. Since this is Whitsuntide what of spirits descending in fire to worshippers rolling on the floor and speaking in tongues"

What is notable about this catalogue is its utter lack of discrimination. The reference to the Turin Shroud is particularly unfortunate, in that it comes the same day as the Pope pointedly refused to  describe it as authentic, or even to claim that the Church, rather than science, was competent to do so. Instead, he called it "an icon of dramatic eloquence", which is a rather more sophisticated approach to the problem.

Polly may not like stigmata, speaking in tongues, or "virgin visions" (whether of or by virgins, or even both). But there is no doubt that they happen, which puts them in an importantly different class from levitation, alien visitations, crystal healing, and reincarnation. As she points out in a bravely plonking conclusion, "Truth and empirical evidence matter", but refusing to distinguish among the things she disapproves of leaves her completely unable to look at the empirical evidence and decide what needs rational explanation as an undeniable physical fact and what can be dismissed as a more or less eccentric hallucination.

"Distinguishing which miracles and supernatural phenomena are OK is beyond rational contemplation for those of us as bemused by the Eucharist as by Inca Heavy Energy Digestion … one superstition looks just as absurd as another from the outside." The people she talks to appear to have been too polite to tell her that she should, in that case, look more closely.

This kind of atheism as the intellectual equivalent of fox-hunting: a brisk healthy canter over open countryside, reinforcing one's social standing, in pursuit of a quarry which can't bite back.  It's a real shame, because the rise of superstition is a real story, that none of the newspapers know how to treat. The tabloids print anything, and the broadsheets just sneer.

Give them a good dirty vicar, though, and everyone knows what to do. The court martial of Captain Richard Landall, an army chaplain accused of groping and propositioning two army wives whose husbands were serving in Bosnia, made the front page of every newspaper I saw. It will probably do so again once the verdict is delivered. The prosecution evidence was full of unforgettably vivid moments: the padre is supposed to have shoved his hand down one woman's knickers as she changed a video for her children and to have wolf-whistled as he drove past another victim when she was actually on the way to lodge a formal complaint against him. "All I have said and done has been with completely and utterly pure motives. Unfortunately, I am a flirt and have been all my life" he wrote in one apology. There is a promising and rather sad comic novel lurking in the story, but I doubt he's the man to write it. He won't even get paid very much for his story if found guilty.

Another man who has got in trouble for talking about sex is the is the insufferably bumptious Shmuley Boteach, a Lubavitch Rabbi who is the ultra-orthodox answer to Anne Atkins. "The eleventh commandment, which they have expunged, but which came down orally, is 'Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition', he told the Times diary after being sacked from Willesden synagogue for publishing a book called Kosher Sex. He made his name with some outrageous hustling as a chaplain at Oxford but looking at this mess it occurs to me for the first time that he might actually believe his own propaganda.

The Guardian had a serious attempt at unravelling what is going on at Westminster Abbey. It was not really satisfactory because everyone seems to have stopped talking to the press, including to Madeleine Bunting and Sarah Hall, who wrote the piece.. There was one extremely odd detail: the story claimed that Neary's supporters have a web site at, but as far as I could tell there is nothing on that site about him at all. However, even with the pro-Neary sources cut down to the anonymous Dean of another cathedral, there was still quite a lot to suggest that what is going on is complicated and not a simple martyrdom.

"Wesley and Martin have become icons: Martin an icon of pure creativity and music, Wesley an icon of business management," said their anonymous Dean. "It's probably not true of either."

"This version of events" they add" has resonance far beyond the cloisters because it reflects in suitably simplified, starek terms the huge power shift which has filtered into all areas of life health, education, broadcasting and the Church from the professional to the manager. The rage visited upon the Dean's head in recent weeks is feeding off and playing to the insecurities of the professional classes."

It is curious that this aspect was never played out at Lincoln. The emotional colouring of the stories there were quite different, even though in both cases they were supposed to involve a modernising dean and a privileged chapter. "A number of difficult problems had been left to fester, it was claimed, and Carr was sent in with the remit to sort them out as someone with the determination as well as the clear-sightedness to grasp and deal with nettles."  Yet this time the manager is cast as the villain, simply for being the manager. That is an interesting shift, and may be the profoundest lesson of the whole business.

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