Archive | August 2010

Review: Edinburgh Studio Opera’s “Opera Sins”- Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Opera Sins *** (3 stars)

Thursday 19th August: 4.30pm
Friday 20th August: 4.30pm
Monday 23rd August: 4.30pm
Wednesday 25th August: 2.30pm
Thursday 26th August: 4.30pm

St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, George Street; £12.50 (£8.50)

See here for more information: http://www.edinburghstudioopera.com/2010/08/30/opera-sins-fringe-2010/

Yesterday afternoon I made along to St Andrew’s and St George’s church to see the latest offering from relative Fringe newcomers, the University of Edinburgh affiliated “Edinburgh Studio Opera”. I didn’t quite know what to expect from what was essentially an opera sketch show, but at £12.50 for a one-hour performance I had high expectations.

The production took place in a beautiful oval church, with the entire building being used at various points during the scenes to greater or lesser effect. The nature of the venue dictated that there was no stage lighting to speak of, but the beauty of the surroundings and the limited costume and set combined to produce an atmosphere akin to a private performance occurring in an opulent drawing room, rather than a bawdy public spectacle, and thus the lack of “theatrical” lighting was of no detriment to the performance, and even added to the atmosphere. Nick Fletcher (Musical Director) provided a strong accompaniment to the scenes on the grand piano, and has successfully drilled the cast (who for the most part could not see him at the piano) in dynamics, expression and tempi. No mean feat with such a large, strong-voiced cast!

The scenes opened with the sin “Greed” portrayed through a scene from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. Having been involved in a production of this myself (as Marco in 2006) I know how fiendishly difficult some of the larger ensemble numbers are. The scene revolved around the relatives of the recently deceased Buoso Donati, who were frantically trying to find his last will and testament. All voices were uniformly strong in this piece as the performers rushed around stage frantically trying to find the elusive parchment, eventually retrieved from the pulpit by the lovesick Rinuccio (Joe Doody), much to the consternation of his fellows. The audience’s enjoyment of this well-staged, vocally robust scene was emphasized by the extra whoops and cheers provided for the unfortunate soul who had to lie motionless from the moment the audience entered until the end of the scene. I still preferred the way we did it in 2006 though…

This excellent introduction was unfortunately followed by a particularly weak scene from Monteverdi’s,“L’incoronazione Di Poppea” depicting “Pride”.  The disappointment induced by this scene was not the fault of either of the singers, but simply because the music was dull, revolving around an uninspiring dialogue between two lovers. Halfway through I admit I gave up following the translation in my programme. One would have thought that a better example of pride could have been found amongst the multitude of scenes and arias at the production team’s disposal…

Next we were treated to Jerome Knox’s powerful rendition of a popular aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” – Non più andrai. Whilst the singing of all performers in this scene was up to scratch, something about the scene just felt a little flat. Maybe it is because I am comparing the scene to Opera Ireland’s excellent production (Dublin, 2008), but I don’t think I agreed with the Director (George Ransley)’s decision to go with Gilbert & Sullivan-esque physical actions to accompany the words being sung on stage. However, this blocking did ensure that those audience members who had not paid fifty pence for a programme, or were unfamiliar with aria, knew what was going on.

Things were quickly back to their impressive beginnings with the fourth deadly sin, “Wrath”, depicted in this context by a scene from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. I have never heard this opera before but after this taster I am most definitely going to have a look for it. The music was gorgeous and lush, with Suzanne McGrath’s soprano (Ellen) soaring elegantly over the awe-inspiring sounds of the ethereal chorus in the gallery behind the audience. The chorus was led by an equally commanding Frankie Powlesland as the Reverend, and although Ian McBain did not get to sing anything as John, his portrayal of the young apprentice was touching and complemented McGrath’s performance nicely.

“Gluttony”, my favourite of the seven deadly sins, was portrayed through another excellent piece of music – the scene from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel where the young children find the gingerbread house in the woods. This was another new piece of music for me, and another piece that I am definitely going to try and track down. The performances from Rachel Timney (Hansel) and Laura Reading (Gretel) definitely made this scene, their voices being up to the task, and some of the expressions of delight on their faces being worthy of Hallmark. It was lucky that their performances were so strong as the staging for this scene was virtually non-existent. It was a clever idea to have chocolate lowered down from the gallery, and I know it would be impossible for a fringe show to produce an edible gingerbread house, but it felt somewhat cruel to leave the performers wandering aimlessly around the audience for such a long period of time.

“Envy” was portrayed in another bizarrely chosen scene from Rameau’s “Zoroastre”. It seems that the performers (Gareth McGuigan and Lauren Fraser) drew the short straw in being allocated this scene, as both had robust voices which I would have liked to have heard tackling more pleasing music… but I guess if anything this production has demonstrated a wide-survey of the opera phenomenon and shown me what I do and don’t want to investigate further.

Finally, the audience were presented with a tour de force in form of Vanity Fair from Vaughan-Williams’ “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The wonderful layers of frantic modern harmonies combined to produce a wall of breathtaking sound reminding me fondly of his “Dona Nobis Pacem” which I used to listen to on a regular basis. The entire cast were involved in this colourful scene, many of whom were wearing their costumes from previous scenes, which only added to the flamboyant and foreboding nature of the scene. ESO couldn’t have asked for a better finale to their production.

All-in-all I feel I can only give this production, as a whole, three stars. The music was uniformly of a very high standard throughout, and whilst some of the scenes were definitely worthy of a four or five-star rating, the whole piece was confounded by the inclusion of some less attractive music, and some scenes which seemed to have been directorially neglected, although admittedly to the benefit of others. However, everyone involved in this production should be proud as each and every one of them participated in some moments of greatness and the merits far outweigh the criticisms. Do try and make it along to their other two performances (and obtain copies of the Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Humperdinck).

I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby.

The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism

Yesterday I chanced upon Atheist Climber’s interesting post on “The Atheist Re-Enlightenment” whilst browsing around reddit.com, and this inspired me to make available the third chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, in a slightly updated and “blog-ified” format.  This chapter was entitled “The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda” and assessed the views and agenda(s) I have discerned in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and compared them with my (fairly general) impression of the views and agenda(s) of prominent Enlightenment thinkers. I hope it illustrates some of the merits and pitfalls of referring to a contemporary Enlightenment, spearheaded by certain individuals or a more general atheistic movement, and provides some interesting starting points for discussion.

The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda

Although it can be inferred from representative literature that contemporary atheism pushes a liberal agenda in favour of a peaceful, moral co-existence, where rational inquiry can be freely practised, positive expressions of this are difficult to find. This blog post teases out positive expressions from the representative writings and utilises these, in addition to the contemporary atheistic criticism of religion, to consider whether contemporary atheism promotes a twenty-first-century return to Enlightenment values. Following a brief presentation of these values, I consider various key points of contact, before concluding that there is an agenda at work, which has been heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, but also incorporates certain aspects of Romantic and anti-clerical thought.

As with any historical period, it is misleading to refer to “the Enlightenment” as a distinct, bounded phenomenon. Different Enlightenments occurred at different times during the eighteenth-century, and localised terms for “enlightenment” carried different meanings within these contexts (Outram, 2005:1). However, these contextual usages delineate a consistent theme of new light bringing fresh and deep understanding[1]. As will become clear, it is almost always possible to find a counter-example to any simplistic designation of the Enlightenment position. However, this acknowledgement does not negate certain commonalities of spirit and purpose. It is possible to speak of the Enlightenment as an “historical fact” and an “ideal reconstruction” (Crocker, 1969:1). Whilst the individuality of various writers means that ‘the Enlightenment’ is in many ways an ideal reconstruction, it is also a “fact inasmuch as a group of writers, working self-consciously, […]sought to enlighten [humanity], using critical reason to free minds from prejudices and unexamined authority” (ibid). Humanity seemed to be freeing itself from the superstitions of the past, “human omniscience” seemed an attainable goal (Berlin, 1979:14 cf. Hampson, 1990:150-151), and people believed, with Kant, that “we are indubitably living in an age of enlightenment” (in Hof, 1997:165).

As I am not attempting to assess theological critiques of the Enlightenment[2], this greatly reduces the sources available for an examination of its relationship with contemporary atheism. Also, due to the large number of Enlightenment sources, I proceed from contemporary atheistic writings, and compare their implicit and explicit vision with the Enlightenment. However, the writers considered as Enlightenment representatives are by no means all atheists. Whilst “Baron d’Holbach [1723-1789] and Jacques-André Naigeon were the two foremost proselytisers for materialistic atheism during the French Enlightenment” (Kors, 1992:273), their contemporary, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) cared little “if his atheistic manuscripts saw the light of day” (ibid). Voltaire and Rousseau were most certainly deists, with Rousseau believing that atheism was immoral, arrogant, and philosophically untenable (ibid:287). And there is evidence that other thinkers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestly, George Berkeley and Isaac Newton maintained a Christian faith, believing that “reason and revelation went largely hand in hand” (Hyland, 2003:60). Therefore, any similarities discerned between the views of “the Enlightenment” and those of contemporary atheism cannot include a denial of God’s existence.

Explicit calls for a new Enlightenment can be found in the work of Hitchens and Dawkins. In the final chapter of God is not Great, “The Need for a New Enlightenment”, Hitchens calls for “a renewed Enlightenment” which is well “within the compass of the average person” (2008:277-283). This enlightenment is seen in direct opposition to the religious alternative being delineated “with extraordinary vividness” (2007b:xxvi). Similarly, Dawkins writes the following in his “Mission Statement” for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science – “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science…”[3] – clearly seeing the defence of the Enlightenment as an imperative for his foundation.

It is much more difficult to find such explicit declarations in the work of Dennett and Harris. There are instances where they have participated in lecture series’ promoting Enlightenment values (Enlightenment 2.0[4], the Enlightenment Lecture Series[5]), and Dennett indicates his displeasure that the spirit of the Enlightenment hasn’t led to a scientific examination of religion (2007:49). However, despite frequent insinuations and provocations from public comments, Dennett refrains from mentioning the Enlightenment in seventeen articles published in the Washington Post[6], and Harris only mentions it five times in passing in the fifty published articles listed on his website,[7] suggesting that they are intentionally avoiding utilising the term. If anyone can alert me to any writings by these authors which do explicitly refer to the Enlightenment, I would be delighted to have them brought to my attention. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen to date, it appears that two representatives of contemporary atheism make sparing references to their Enlightenment agenda, and two either fail to make this explicit, or intentionally avoid doing so. Whilst potential reasons for this are discussed in another of my posts, these observations indicate that if an Enlightenment worldview is being presented, it is implicit rather than explicit.

Through previous research, I concluded that religion is overwhelmingly portrayed as physically, morally and intellectually dangerous by contemporary atheism. On this subject, the general Enlightenment position held that through reason, humanity was “freeing itself from the prejudices and superstitions that had produced so much blind cruelty in the past” and from the “repressive and disciplinary role” of Christianity (Hampson, 1990:150-151,155 cf. Dupré, 2004:251). Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Protestant, believed that Christians “are encouraged to cruel intolerance by beliefs that arouse their aggressive passions” (Crocker, 1969:10). And in a striking prelude to the writings of Harris and Hitchens, d’Holbach asserted that God is known “only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon earth” (in Hyland, 2003:89).

On the immorality of religion, in addition to the overwhelming denunciation of religiously inspired violence, Voltaire criticises biblically celebrated immoral actions (e.g. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) (Gay, 1964:28) and derides the Christian optimists who “accepted that evil was just a necessary part” of the world (Hyland, 2003:61). D’Holbach was of a similar opinion (ibid:89), and David Hume held that “religions result in cruel persecutions, bigotry, strife between sects or between sects and the civil power, and the hunting down of unorthodox opinions” (Gaskin, 1993:xvii). Concerning the non-religious origin of morals, Hume speaks for the Enlightenment, writing: “Their root [morals] strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature” (1993a:183).

Finally, in 1947, Horkenheimer and Adorno stated that “the Enlightenment had always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. […]The programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world: […]the substitution of knowledge for fancy” (in Outram, 2005:6). Although this was an anti-Enlightenment polemic, it provides an accurate account of the Enlightenment opinion on knowledge and religion. Condorcet (1743-1794) opposed both the church and belief in God “because it perpetuated ideas detrimental to progress” (Hof, 1997:262); Voltaire thought that “it was to the interest of ecclesiastics everywhere to keep men in the condition of ignorant and submissive children” (Gay, 1964:44); and Kant maintained that the churches made their “domestic cattle dumb” (in Hyland, 2003:54). As with the previous two points of discussion, these points of commonality cannot sufficiently support a declaration that contemporary atheists are promoting an Enlightenment worldview. However, they do demonstrate that the key themes through which these atheists couch their opposition to religion found significant expression in the writings of the Enlightenment. These similarities also emphasise an anti-clerical regime which can stand apart from ‘atheism’, suggesting that contemporary atheism inadvertently endorses a secular reformist Christianity…

In his critique of the Enlightenment, Hegel wrote: “When all prejudice and superstition has been banished, the question arises: Now what?” (in Outram, 2005:109). If this question is applied to contemporary atheism it perfectly encapsulates the scope of this investigation. When the negative critique of contemporary religion is stripped away, what positive intentions can be discerned? When referring to ‘positive intentions’, the term “positive” is not used in an evaluative sense, but denotes the active courses of action proposed, as opposed to the negative criticism of religion.  Thus, this analysis focuses on four key aspects of the worldview promoted by contemporary atheism, and discusses parallels with the Enlightenment: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; the stance on the continued existence of religion; and the emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature.

Throughout contemporary atheistic writings there is a recurrent emphasis on the importance of knowledge. Bafflement as to why anyone would choose religious faith over the pursuit of knowledge is exemplified when Dawkins cites Douglas Adams: “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day” (2007b:142 cf. Hitchens, 2008:278; Harris, 2006:48). Dennett emphasises the importance of this pursuit, believing that the only constant of human nature left in our post-modern, scientific age may be “our incessant curiosity” (2010:xxiii). However, this emphasis is no mere corollary of the Enlightenment denunciation of religion’s obstruction of knowledge. Yes “imposing ignorance is shameful”, but there is nothing shameful in ignorance itself (Dennett, 2007:339). “The average person [now has] access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed” (Hitchens, 2008:282) and should be allowed “to make their own informed choices” (Dennett, 2007:327) Including in matters of religion (ibid:327-328). This same concern to promote knowledge, above and beyond objecting to its censure, can be seen clearly in Enlightenment writings: Rousseau aimed “to free children from the tyranny of adult prejudice and expectation” (Hyland, 2003:83); Voltaire believed the clergy should be “told what to teach and how to teach it” (Gay, 1964:31); and “the mere diffusion of accurate and up-to-date information” was an important part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Hampson, 1990:86). However similar to the contemporary atheists’ concern for education this might seem, there are several important differences. Firstly, this concern to educate does not appear to have extended to the ‘common’ people. Aside from the expense of the Encyclopédie restricting its circulation (Hampson, 1990:86), there is evidence that Voltaire, d’Holbach, Diderot and Naigeon (ibid:160-161; Kors, 1992:299-300) “took the existence of an unteachable majority for granted” (Hampson, 1990:160). Secondly, it was a common thought that unrestricted use of reason was either undesirable (Kant in Outram, 2005:1) or simply impossible (Diderot and Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:96 cf. 78-79). And thirdly, it was regularly argued, in the words of the Benedictine Louis-Mayeul Chaudon (1775), that “the study of physics” could be put into the service of religion, as a cure for both atheism and superstition (in Kors, 1992:288 cf. Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:78-79). These widespread views indicate that whilst contemporary atheists may be influenced by these initial, tentative steps, their emphasis on a fully naturalistic and rational education for all takes them above and beyond the pale of the Enlightenment writers.

Dawkins states that “the atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing” (2007b:405). This double affirmation is passionately expressed in quite romantic language, by the other writers: “we have been given a lot to love” (Dennett, 2007:253) and once people have embraced reason, and “accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives” (Hitchens, 2008:6) they will “feel in their bones just how precious life is” (Harris, 2007:54 cf. 2006:226). Again there is a correlation between these views, and the general purport of the Enlightenment. The core of Voltaire, Hume and Kant’s ethics “was a favourable estimate of human nature and of the human enterprise” (Gay, 1964:135), and even the devout Anglican, Dr Johnson (1709-1784), acknowledged that “pity is […]acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason” (Hampson, 1990:159). However similar these views may seem to those of contemporary atheists, the majority of these expressions were not based upon a materialistic atheism (Kors, 1992:296-7), but upon a re-examination of the relationship between man, religion and the deity. Therefore any correlation between contemporary atheism and Enlightenment thinkers on this matter seems purely coincidental.

There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12)  – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism.

Unsurprisingly, the Enlightenment exhibits a spread of opinion on this issue, with Condorcet being prepared to dispense with the church (Hof, 1997:262), and Voltaire oscillating between “white-hot hatred” and “respect and even affection” for Christianity (Dupré, 2004:253 cf. Outram, 2005:113). However, the overwhelming thrust of the Enlightenment was one of religious tolerance (Outram, 2005:114-115 cf. Hampson, 1990:152). This toleration was extolled by Kant as “enlightened” (in Hyland, 2003:57), and most explicitly by Voltaire, as “the natural attribute of humanity” (ibid:62 cf. Dupré, 2004:251; Gay, 1964:25). Whilst these arguments for tolerance share some similarity with the professed positions of contemporary atheists, there are two key differences. Firstly, Enlightenment toleration was imbued with an inherent respect for the religious beliefs of others whereas contemporary atheism views “the very ideal of religious tolerance […as] one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss” (Harris, 2006:15). And secondly, any toleration extended by these atheists is generally viewed as an interim solution, before religion eventually dies its natural, or induced, death. However, as discussed previously, contemporary atheism often exhibits an ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, which reflects the Voltaire’s oscillating position. It is also clear that, in striking resemblance to the “civil religion” proposed by Rousseau (Gehrig, 1981:51), a “religion of reason”, purged of superstition and immorality, and imbued with an anti-clerical ethos would partially address the concerns of contemporary atheists. These observations clearly add weight to theories of both Enlightenment and secular Christian influence on contemporary atheism.

The final aspect of the contemporary atheistic worldview for comparison is the tendency to view the natural world with awe and wonder. The use of romantic language by these authors is, at times, quite intense: Dawkins notes a “quasi-mystical” response amongst scientists to the “magnificence of the real world” (2007b:25,32 cf. 397,404); and the others speak of the “mystery and marvel” (Hitchens, 2008:8-9), the “unimaginable surprises” (Harris. 2006:36) and the “humility, and awe, and sheer delight, at the glory of the evolutionary landscape” (Dennett, 2007:268). The notion that the natural world is sufficient for any human is a resurgent theme throughout the writings of these four authors. However, whilst the Enlightenment saw men as “objects in nature no less than trees and stones” (Berlin, 1979:27), the message taken from this was that human interactions “could be studied as that of atoms or plants” (ibid). Hints of reverence are found in the writings of Hume, who has Philo declare that nature “possesses an infinite number of springs and principles, which incessantly discover themselves on every change of her position and situation” (1993b:50). However, the key notion here is again that these “springs and principles” of nature “discover” themselves – they make themselves known upon proper scientific examination.

It is commonly held that “the idealisation of nature” is something which occurred in the movement away from the Enlightenment and into the Romanticism of the nineteenth-century (Outram, 2005:108)[8]. This could explain why Dawkins alludes to critics at Cambridge who condemn his worldview as “nineteenth-century” – a double-edged attack aimed both at his directness and at his awe at nature’s “monstrosities of improbability” (2007b:185-187). Romanticism was itself a form of diffuse Christianity, imbued with the same anti-clericalism observed in the Enlightenment and contemporary atheistic writings. The observed parallels between contemporary atheism and Romanticism are suggestive, once again, of a sentimental attachment to certain aspects of Christianity, and a liberal, secularising reformist agenda. Thus, whilst it is not possible to label contemporary atheistic emphasis on the majesty of nature as “Enlightenment”, these observations point to an additional, Romantic, influence – itself a reaction to, and in some ways a development of, the Enlightenment. Although contemporary ecological concerns and a more “New Age”, holistic attitude to human interaction with nature are likely to influence the contemporary atheistic position, these too are rooted in Romantic ideals (Chryssides, 2007:6) and thus further support this argument.

This discussion has demonstrated that however much contemporary atheism may be influenced by Enlightenment norms and values, the consistent surpassing of Enlightenment ideals in the areas considered discourages the conclusion that contemporary atheism promotes an Enlightenment worldview per se. Only two of these four authors offer explicit support for a new Enlightenment, and then only sparingly. Their three-fold criticism of religion does indeed follow the pattern established by the Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity. I have identified that there is a positive agenda at work, even if there are disagreements over the final fate of religion. Whether this agenda is to be labelled a new Enlightenment or not appears to be down to the individual idiosyncrasies of the authors involved.

A full bibliography, and a continuation of this discussion can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief


[1] See Hof, 1997:4-5 on English, French and German interpretations of the term.

[2] See, Tina Beattie’s “The Enlightenment and its Aftermath” (2007:57-75).

[3] http://richarddawkinsfoundation.org/foundation,ourMission, (21/03/10, 19:12)

[4] http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0,   (21/03/10, 19:20)

[5] http://websiterepository.ed.ac.uk/explore/av/enlightenment2006/dennett.html, (21/03/10, 19:26)

[6] Since 14/11/06

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/daniel_c_dennett/, (21/03/10, 19:31)

[7] http://www.samharris.org/site/articles/ (29/03/10, 15:27)

[8] See, McGrath’s “Nature: Affirming the Transcendent without God” on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (2005:116-122).

Respect to you, President Obama: On the utter ridiculousness of objecting to Mosques in Lower Manhattan

I know this has been a regular item in the news for quite a while now, but after seeing President Obama’s great speech on the BBC News website today, I thought I should put in my oar also.

Here are the three main reasons why I think it is utterly ridiculous to object to a mosque being constructed a few blocks away from Ground Zero. If I think of any more later on I will add them on:

1. What does hallowed ground mean?

Obama states:

“We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”

Now, at this point we could get into a big discussion on the notion of the sacred and the profane… a debate which infuses the discipline of Religious Studies and shall probably continue to do until the end of time. This would, however, be tangential and somewhat academically dry. Whilst people may debate with me on the specifics, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Ground Zero is not, in some sense, hallowed. But calling a piece of ground sacred or hallowed is simply a means of stating that it has great significance in the lives, hearts and minds of the community of people who hold this piece of ground to be hallowed. It is an acknowledgment that an event occurred at this site which binds people together through shared grief, pain and commitment to renewal and the national identity. This “hallowedness” may even have a spiritual element, and individuals may choose to interpret this “hallowedness” through their own religious stance, however no one person or religious group holds the monopoly to the “hallowedness” of this site. The site is, in a sense, sacred… it is, in a sense, hallowed… but it is hallowed to the nation and has an oxymoronic sense of national secular sacredness. This is a sacredness that is perhaps felt more strongly by American citizens… but it is the same sacredness that any human being will feel upon visiting the war graves of the Somme, or the memorial at Auschwitz even if they have no personal connection to the horrors that took place their themselves.

Religious people are entitled to interpret this feeling of hallowedness/sacredness through their religious beliefs. But they do not have the monopoly to claim that their interpretation is the only valid one. And there is nothing oxymoronic about an agnostic, atheist or nonreligious person experiencing and fully appreciating this hallowedness also. Ground Zero is a hallowed site. But most definitely not in an exclusively Christian sense. If people have a problem with one religious building being constructed in the near vicinity, then they should have a problem with ANY religious building in this area, and not the buildings of one particular religious tradition.

2. How near is “near”?

This is a fairly basic point but one which carries a lot of weight.

Where exactly do people draw the line? I believe, with President Obama, that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” [the USA]. However, even if someone was able to convince me that there was a justifiable reason for keeping mosques away from Ground Zero, how far exactly would be deemed far enough away to not cause offence?

According to the Washington Post (Bloomberg News), New York currently has more than 100 mosques (compared with just 10 in 1970). Of these mosques 17 are in Manhattan (see here). I suppose it was only a matter of time before people threw up a stink about this… but seriously, where do you draw the line? One block, 10 blocks, 20 blocks, a different island, a different city, a different state, a different country? Everyone has different subjective boundaries in their heads… but the fact is that there is a specifically designated memorial area at Ground Zero, and apart from this it is all down to individual idiosyncrasy.

I put it to those who object to a mosque being constructed in the vicinity of Ground Zero that their “sensitivity”, whilst being grounded in a real relationship to a traumatic event, is based largely on prejudice and misunderstanding and is a small step away from the “sensitivity” that would see mosque construction being opposed throughout the USA.

As President Obama said:

“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

3. Finally, and most importantly, MUSLIM does not equal TERRORIST!!!

I can’t beleive that, in this day and age, I am still having to write this.Yes, the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Muslims. There is a lot of debate in the Islamic community as to whether they can even still be called Muslims for carrying out such a heinous crime. And of course there is a minority who believe that their actions were righteous. For a much fuller discussion on the matter of contemporary Islam and terrorism, please see the final section of my previous post “A Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam”. How Muslim or non-Muslim the terrorists were is not really the issue here… the fact is that equating Islam with terror is exactly the same as making sweeping statements like “All Catholics support the IRA” or “All Southerners are in the KKK”. Seriously, what if the 9/11 attack had been carried out by the IRA? I’m sure the USA wouldn’t have gone to war with the UK and the Republic of Ireland for harbouring terrorists, but would the reaction be the same if a group of Irish American Catholics wanted to build a chapel in the vicinity of Ground Zero? Well, who knows…

And lest we not forget, Muslims – whether American citizens or foreign workers – were also the victims of the 9/11 attacks. According to a 2002 BBC News article, there were an estimated 70 Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. Also, a blogger who seems to have done quite a bit of research conservatively estimates 28 innocent Muslims died that day. By objecting to the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, opponents of this development spit in the faces of the families of those innocent Muslims who died that day. If these opponents were truly representative of Western society, is it any wonder that terrorists feel justified in their actions? Sarah Palin, a fine example of this hatred and ill-education wrote “to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks”. I put it to you, Sarah, that your narrow-mindedness, prejudice and petty pandering to the lowest common denominator is a perfect example of one of the gravest ills affecting Western society today, and can only serve to perpetuate division, oppression, victimisation and an end to freedom and liberty.

This is not a defence of Islam. I have many issues with Islam as a religion, and I am very aware that calls to violence and aggression are present throughout the Qur’an, the Hadith and the founding principles and stories of the faith. But I am also aware that it is not my place to judge a group of people on the basis of the literature and traditions that they hold dear. Just as there will always be Christians who think homosexuality is an abomination, that the world was created in six days and that it is okay to bomb abortion clinics, just as there will always be atheists who would fight tooth and nail to remove all traces of religion from our cultures, leaving music, art, literature, philosophy etc as but pale shadows of what they once were, so too there will always be those in the Islamic community who believe in violence and terror as a valid means of protest against the “Western” way of living. Do we assume that the same debate that ensues in non-Muslim contexts surrounding these and other issues, does not occur within Muslim communities across the globe? Do we assume that Muslims not only all think in exactly the same way, and have exactly the same opinions on every issue, but that also our caricature of their beliefs, thoughts and practices is universally applicable in all times and places? Erm… no…

So, before you go calling for restrictions on “other” people’s freedom, at least give the above three points some thought.

If you still come out feeling justified in your opinion then let’s talk some more.

“The writ of the founders must endure.”

Respect to you, President Obama!

Informative Links

For an excellent satirical spoof on this story, see OUTRAGE OVER PLANS TO BUILD LIBRARY NEXT TO SARAH PALIN

For coverage on the worrying publicity generated by Pamela Geller, see The US blogger on a mission to halt ‘Islamic takeover’

A quite amusing, Taiwanese take on the whole thing

And a BRILLIANT, 12 minute berating of those who would object to this “Mosque” by Keith Olbermann

And an excellent article on tolerance in Lebanon: The Ground Zero Synagogue in Lebanon

Review: Jacob’s Ladder – Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Jacob’s Ladder **** (4 stars)

Underbelly, Cowgate – 11:10AM (60 mins). 5th — 29th August. £6.50-£9.50


Yesterday I went to see my first show of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010…  at it was Jacob’s Ladder which was bloody awesome (however not in any way related to the 1990 Tim Robbins film of the same name).

On paper, everything about this play is “young”: The cast boast a couple of Fringe newbies; the production company has been birthed for the specific purpose of bringing this play to light (although under the experienced hands of Sam Hansford); and the website for the production describes it as having originated in the musings of “exciting young playwright Emily Moir”. However, these cursory observations are instantly forgotten the moment the action commences in this exuberant performance.

Admittedly, a play which begins with the small cast of six innocently formulating the specifics of a devil worshiping cult could hardly go wrong in my book. The Monty Python-esque logic of “What do cults do when they aren’t worshiping Satan?” – “They go in for animal sacrifice don’t they?” – “That falls under the worship, I reckon” – “Well, they must do a certain amount of farming… they have to take care of the animals they sacrifice” – “Does anyone here know how to keep animals?” – “I keep bees….” – had me squirming in my seat with joy, whilst at the same time provoking many tangential forays into the more philosophical crevices of my mind. A major achievement for a play at 11.10 in the morning!

Although nothing much happens – with the entire drama unfolding in front of a garden shed in the grounds of a sociopathic, wannabe cult-leader’s country home – this is theatrical social commentary at its best: think “Lost in Translation” rather than the stereotypically artsy 4.48 Psychosis. Whilst scattered with comedic gems, the script courses seamlessly through all colours of the emotional spectrum, and tackles all manner of subject matter – from pregnancy and sexuality, to the similarities between the British penal system, and the phenomenon of boarding school – and leaves the audience wanting more when the play comes to its all-too-abrupt end. Disappointingly, one couldn’t help but feel that the writer panicked about the time allocation in the venue, and signed off before the  story reached its natural conclusion – a shame considering the running time was only 50 minutes, instead of the advertised hour. However, this in no way detracts from the power of the piece as a whole.

All of the performances on display were of a very high standard, and every cast member should be thoroughly proud of what they have achieved. Ed Sheridan was particularly affecting as the awkward and creepily convincing cult leader (Jake), and at numerous points brought elements of Hamlet and Shylock into the mix – a testament, perhaps, to his work with the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company. And in strikingly different, yet equally powerful performances, Sophie Pemberton (Sal) and Emily Rose Hay (Mary) confidently articulated many unspoken, yet real and significant aspects of female sexuality, despite their young age – “I dangle the carrot because, frankly, I don’t know what to do with the stick” summing up Mary’s dilemma succinctly.

Naturally this production is not without its negatives. At times the inevitable shoehorning of monologue after monologue started to grate, and some of the caricatured characters on display rivaled the work of the Royal Mile’s finest. And although inevitable during the Fringe, the uncomfortable seats, ludicrously shallow rake and inappropriate music drifting in at points from adjacent venues did somewhat spoil the atmosphere in places. Be that as it may, the many pros of this production far outweigh these minor cons, and I would thoroughly recommend that you take in Jacob’s Ladder with your morning Starbucks.

If there’s any justice in this cruel world, tickets for this production will be very hard to come by. Have a good fringe, guys!  (And  I know a good joiner, if you want to get the shed door fixed…)

(I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby)

The (Un)naturalness of Religion and Atheism

This post has been motivated by a fascinating article by Armin W Geertz and Guðmundur Ingi Markússon “Religion is natural, atheism is not: On why everybody is both right and wrong”. It shall mostly be a summary of the main points for those of you who don’t have the time to plough through such things, but I shall also be throwing in some of my own ideas and thoughts based upon my research and personal experience.

A major stumbling block which has reared its head at numerous points throughout my study is that, dependent upon the context, both the “religion as a natural phenomenon hypothesis” and the “religion as an unnatural/parasitic phenomenon hypothesis”, seem perfectly reasonable and valid. Thus. I was instantly rapt when I read the introduction to this article, where the authors claim that one of their aims is to:

“… consider the differences between the naturalness hypothesis and Dawkins’ memetic or unnaturalness hypothesis of religion and argue that, ultimately, both approaches must be combined if we are to achieve a comprehensive account of religious and cultural systems.”

However, even more important is the fact that this argument is applied throughout the article to both religion and atheism… with great success in my opinion.

Their snapshot of current opinion on atheist numbers in the USA and Worldwide:

I am always somewhat bemused and amused at the vast differences in figures that are presented when one asks the questions “How many atheists are there in X?” or “How many people do not believe in God in Y”. The simple fact is that many of the results presented rely on such figures as church attendance, or even merely church affiliation/membership and use these as indicators of religious belief, and that the way in which questions are asked in surveys, and the population being surveyed, and the source of the statistics, impacts hugely upon the ways in which the figures can be skewed.

Geertz and Markússon write:

A consistent discourse is promoted claiming that the vast majority of American citizens believe in God (a Newsweek poll claimed 91% in 2007) and ignoring or denigrating atheists as an insignificant minority (Aronson, 2007). Other polls seem to indicate that more than 29 million American adults, or one in seven, declare themselves to be without religion (American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 gave a result of 14%) [see also here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll of 2006 gave a result of 18% [see here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll also indicated that 73% in the U.S. claimed to believe in any form of God or any type of supreme being.Figures are quite different in that poll for European countries […]. The poll suggests that in Great Britain, France and Germany, the majority are either agnostics or atheists. In Spain, agnostics and atheists are almost as numerous as believers in any form of God or any type of supreme being. In Italy, believers form a substantial majority, but still not to the extent seen in the U.S. These figures, if reliable, could indicate why Europeans generally are not as upset by the New Atheist literature as Americans are.

They also point to a rough estimate provided by Phil Zuckerman in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism of some 500-750 million people in the world who do not believe in God… making unbelief statistically the fourth largest “belief”, “persuasion”, “stance” or whatever you wish to call it, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (c. 2 billion, 1.2 billion and 900 million respectively). However, the key thing that I wish to stress here is that these statistics are for non-belief. No comment is being made here as to whether these people have intentionally chosen this stance, or even give religious belief  a second thought… and it is most important to emphasise that these individuals are most definitely not all atheists. Unfortunately I do not have the precise citation to hand, but I remember when reading Victor Stenger’s fair abysmal The New Atheism, a moment where he effectively took the entire population of China and added them to the unbelieving choir (if not the atheist choir… damn I wish I had that citation with me). However, whether he said “unbeleivers” or “atheists” is not my central point. My point is that far too many people involved in the debate on numbers of religious or nonreligious affiliates  simply make sweeping generalisations to suit their own agendas. Be very careful which figures you trust. I can”t say more than that… but just always make sure you ask where they are coming from…

The New Atheist Movement

The authors seem to agree with my conclusions that the “Four Horsemen” (whether this appellation is suitable or not) are seen from both within atheism itself (by those labelling themselves as New Atheists, and those who eschew this more contemporary form of atheism, such as Julian Baggini), and from without atheism in both scholarly and religious circles, as the main spokesmen for this “movement”. The fact that the best article they can point to as “a summary of some of the characters in the New Atheism movement” is Gary Wolf’s The Church of the Nonbelievers fills me with despair… it is no criticism of their scholarship, which seems to be of a very high standard, but simply a criticism of the Wolf article and the severe dearth of scholarly analysis that there is “out there”. If anyone is particularly interested in an overview of this nature I can supply you with my undergraduate dissertation, and I would also encourage to check out the research project “The “Return of Religion” and the Return of the Criticism of religion – The “New Atheism” in recent German and American culture” being carried out by Thomas Zenk et al in Berlin. Or indeed my previous blog post “The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats”.

Another interesting phenomea that these authors draw attention to is the emergence of atheist summer camps, starting in 1996 with Camp Quest: “Today there are six Camp Quests across North America (Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, California in the U.S. and Ontario in Canada) and one is currently being organized in the United Kingdom”. What exactly is the need for a specifically atheistic summer camp? Couldn’t it just be a summer camp for the sake of a summer camp? What do they “teach” at an atheistic summer camp? I suppose it is just a backlash against the scores of religiously themed and motivated summer camps prevalent in the US and other countries… but it still seems a bit unnecessary to me!

And finally, although in danger of extreme reductionism. the authors cite the work of Paul and Zuckerman, who propose that the reason why religiosity may still be so prevalent in the USA as compared to other first world democracies is that it is the only one without a stable, socio-economic security. Paul and Zuckerman write:

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the U.S.

G. Paul and P. Zuckerman, Why the gods are not winning, Edge. The Third Culture (2007).

A very stimulating thesis!

The Naturalness and Unnaturalness of Religion and Atheism

What is the Naturalness of Religion Hypothesis? Phil Zuckerman is used as a caricature of an erroneous stance on this issue. He believes that the central tenet of this hypothesis is that “belief in God is biologically determined, neurologically based, or genetically inborn, growing out of the “natural” processes of the human brain”. Thus construed, he ‘naturally’ assumes that the statistics, intimated above, on the numbers of nonreligious people in the world, are essentially damning to this version of the naturalness of religion hypothesis.

The authors then discuss numerous alternative formulations of the thesis:

  • They state: “The naturalness hypothesis as widely understood by cognitive scientists of religion refers to the fact that religious ideas and behaviors thrive on (or are parasitic to) normal human cognitive and psychological processes.”
  • They refer to two types of “naturalness” proposed by Pascal Boyer: a) the subjective feeling amongst believers that their beliefs are self-evident or “natural”; b) “those aspects of religion which depend upon noncultural constraints” – these constraints being evolutionary or “cognitive”… “universal features of the human mind–brain, which have a direct effect on the likelihood that certain ideas will be acquired, memorized, and transmitted”.
  • And they point to Justin Barrett’s characterisation of the naturalness of religion hypothesis as “much of what is typically called “religion” may be understood as the natural product of aggregated ordinary cognitive processes”.
  • But they do acknowledge that Zuckerman raises a valid question which must be dealt with by any proponent of the naturalness of religion thesis: If religion is natural, whence the spread of non-belief?

Zuckerman’s stance is then related to the prevalent stance amongst many prominent New Atheists, who are ‘naturally’ (or should I say, understandably) averse to prescribing any type of “naturalness” to religion. The preferred stance here is the “unnaturalness hypothesis”, based upon the meme concept coined by Richard Dawkins and detailed extensively in both The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. At its most simply, according to this thesis, religion does not depend on normal human cognitive and psychological processes but on an external “mind virus”. But at its most simple, this thesis falls foul of the immediate, common sense objection… if religion is dependent upon something external to the human species, how has this same mind virus developed, in different variations, in vastly different and unconnected cultures worldwide?

This being said, Dawkins does make a great deal of sense when he writes in The God Delusion:

“Propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature [come to a child from the respected and indeed unquestionable authorities known as parents, relatives, elders etc.]. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense – using the same infectious gravitas of manner”

The authors continue:

“One can understand why atheistic activists feel more at ease with the unnaturalness hypothesis than its natural alternative. The notion of religion as a transmitted, mental illness fits hand-in-glove with the ideological aspects of the New Atheist movement. Not only is religion unnatural (and by association atheism natural), it is also a condition that is treatable, at least in principle.”

However, this risks equating two very different concepts. Just because something is “natural”… whether this specifically means genetically, evolutionary, or occurring by second-nature across the globe… this is not the equivalent to saying it is correct, good or indeed necessary. There are many things which have in the past seemed normal and “natural” but which have been left behind. And similarly there are things which have even been biologically engrained which have been outgrown. If it were to be shown that religion were natural and atheism were unnatural, this does not mean that one is a better state of affairs than the other… it would simply be a comment based on observable phenomena. Any of these statements that I have made could be true or false, but the simple point is that nature does not inherently have to provide the definitive state of affairs.

The authors eloquently sum up the merits of each explanation as follows:

“The naturalness hypothesis accounts for a range of recurrent issues quite economically. For example: a) why religion is a human universal, being present in all known human groups (the human mind-brain is more or less the same everywhere); b) why supernatural agents are central to most religious systems (they activate entrenched cognitive mechanisms such as our hyperactive agency detection and are easy to process and memorize); and c) why rituals take the form that they do (due to action representation and effects on memory). The unnaturalness hypothesis, on the other hand, explains at best surface variation (say, why an important agent is called “Jesus” here but “Visnu” there) and the propagation of superstitious beliefs.”

But are careful to clarify that “we still maintain that Dawkins’ unnaturalness hypothesis identifies important aspects of cultural transmission and that a full account of religion will have to combine both approaches.”

The authors propose a simple thought experiment whereby a group of infants find themselves on an uninhabited island and grow to form a society without the aid of parental influence. Will they become religious? The authors contend that the unnatural, virus-of-the-mind hypothesis would answer “no!” and that the naturalness hypothesis would give at best a “most likely”. This is because, in this hypothetical situation, the development of religion…

“does not depend on religious concepts being genetically hardwired, independent of environmental factors. The only inborn aspects at play are normal, cognitive mechanisms of the mind–brain which we use to navigate in our mundane, day-to-day environment – such as our ability to detect agency in the environment (in other living organisms and fellow humans), our capacity to infer the intentions of other people and automatic or intuitive expectations about things in the environment (such as solid objects cannot be in more than one place at a time, that living beings have agency and that people have intentions). In this [hypothetical situation], religiosity (as belief in supernatural agents) is an emergent property arising from the interplay of normal cognitive mechanisms and the immediate natural and social environment (opaque causal processes → ideas → talking → spread of supernatural concepts). Only by removing cognition from its environmental and social niche do we arrive at Zuckerman’s caricature of the cognitive science of religion.”

Here comes what I see as one of the key points of their thesis: naturalness is a question of probability, with religion being likely but not necessary – atheism, whilst being less likely, is “certainly possible, given the right environmental and cultural niche.”

“In urban conditions, the environment is to a large extent man-made, and thus there is much less incentive to interpret causal relations in terms of non-human, supernatural agency. Further, there is a difference in the modern epidemiology of ideas in the sense that naturalistic explanatory frameworks will be more readily available due to higher levels of education.”

The authors then present Justin Barrett’s thesis, that there are certain cognitive capacities when theism has no problem dealing with, that atheism will struggle to cope with, making it a much less likely outcome. At first these sound reasonable… but Geertz and Markússon manage to provide compelling counter arguments at each turn. I shall present each of Barrett’s cognitive capacities in turn, combined with Geertz and Markússon’s rebuttal:

  • The Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device (HADD) – “Repeated, demonstrated false alarms from HADD should equally reinforce beliefs in non-theistic, natural explanations. Wouldn’t the reasoning mind that concludes, ‘No, it’s not a tiger that brushed the branch, it’s only the wind’ also be able to conclude, ‘No, it’s not my ancestor who pushed the rock from the ledge above, it’s only a startled goat’?”
  • Moral Realism – Barrett is not concerned with whether or not we can be moral without religion. What he claims is that religion gives a certain moral certitude which atheism cannot. However, “We argue that atheists also find moral certitude in the ideologies of a just society or in human compassion or simply in enlightened altruism.”
  • Dealing with Death… specifically guilt: “We don’t know how atheists deal with such situations. We do agree with Barrett, however, that guilt for instance is a natural mechanism and can be felt without any apparent reason for it. But this problem must be dealt with by both atheists and theists regardless of their particular persuasions.”

Another argument that the authors use to refute the argument that atheists do not cope as well as theists in the world is quite simply that atheism is both ancient and complex… it is not a recent phenomenon. They spend a long time discussing this point, however I do not feel that it needs as much explanation as they provide. Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism and James Thrower’s Western Atheism: A Short History provide an ample introduction to atheism throughout history, as of course does Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. However, the do draw attention to some work by an early historian of religions, Guiseppe Tucci, who identified a heterodox movement in India approximately 300-150BCE known as the Cārvāka school, who held the following main tenets:

1. Sacred literature should be disregarded as false.
2. There is no deity or supernatural.

3. There is no immortal soul and nothing exists after the death of the body.

4. Karma is inoperative and an illusion.

5. All (that is) is derived from material elements.

6. Material elements have an immanent force.

7. Intelligence is derived from these elements.

8. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless. (Thrower, 1980 and Tucci, 1924)

This bears a remarkable similarity to the views of some contemporary New Atheists…

Now what about more recent “adaptationist” or “religion by natural selection” approaches?

According to this type of approach, “instead of maintaining that it is a by-product of adaptations for mundane survival, it claims that religiosity is a functional adaptation in its own right, crafted by natural selection.”

I’m not going to do much more than throw out what Geertz and Markússon have to say on this approach. They point to the theory of Jesse Bering who “theorizes that belief in ambient, unseen agents, such as ancestors, was selected due to its beneficial effects on cooperation in our ancestral past.” He writes that the psychological foundations of some religious behaviours

“may be side effects of other design features that, quite by chance, had salutary effects of their own on the organism’s ability to pass on its genes and, over time, were independently subjected to natural selection.”

And continues: “God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.”

The authors cogently observe that “The interesting paradox here is that even staunch atheists, such as Bering himself, may continue to “hear” the “voice of God” emanating from the recesses of their mind, no matter their agility with Occam’s razor and other thinking aids of the scientific method.”

So how does this all fit with the New Atheism?

The authors tip their hat to the common (and to some extent common sense thesis) that the New Atheism “was ignited by the shattering events of September 11, 2001”, however they are quite rightly insistent that whilst 9/11 may have been a motivation to put pen to paper in some specific instances, in most cases (specifically in the case of Richard Dawkins) outspoken writing “is also the culmination of [a] long-standing opposition to religion and religion’s place in society, a career of critique antedating 9/11 by decades. Furthermore, 9/11 tells us very little about the continued strength and propagation of New Atheism.”

However, I think it is fairly obvious to you and me that, for better or worse, 9/11 has acted as a kind of “cultural primer’, enabling the message of atheism to strike a chord with others to whom it may not have reached.

The also draw attention to a Guardian piece written by Dawkins 4 days after 9/11 that I had not come across until now  – “Religion’s misguided missiles: promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause disaster”.

They point to three features of New Atheism that they believe help it spread and maintain itself:

  • “A rich ecology of signs increases adaptability as it makes it possible to employ different “segments” of signs (texts, and so on) in response to different circumstances (an analogy to cells applying different segments of DNA in different contexts). Externalization techniques like signs/mnemonics further enable the “offloading” of complex concepts into the environment, thus securing their spread and transmission. Within a relatively brief number of years, variously linked concepts such as memes, genes, rationality, secularism, science, naturalism, democracy, religion-as-a-delusion, religion-as-a-virus-of-the-mind, religion-as-abuse and so on became determining hallmarks of New Atheist semiotic ecology.”
  • A “reactionary semiosis” – “In order to secure the transmission of atheist thought, New Atheists have been engaged in systematic and aggressive criticism and deconstruction of theist claims.”
  • Arguments from authority give credit to certain trends of semiosis – whether these be from contemporary authorities, or from a carefully chosen and cited list of older – even ancient – authorities. I stumbled upon a striking instance of this phenomenon just a few days ago when Hemant Mehta – The Friendly Atheist – asked on his popular blog “What should atheists memorise?”… the greater than 100 responses so far should prove instructive. Why on earth should atheists feel compelled to memorise particularly notable passages? And do these passages perform the same evangelical and personal commitment functions as they would within, say, Christianity? Something interesting to look into I reckon!

For the authors, then,

“In this perspective, the New Atheist movement is a complex system of signs/external mnemonics and distributed cognition, well adapted to the uneasy world of popular media and social activism. These formal, semiotic aspects, we suggest, are key factors in the movement’s spread and maintenance. To restrict New Atheism to the individual brains of New Atheists is insufficient grounds for any claims on the cognitive naturalness or unnaturalness of atheism. Modern, Western cultural, political and social contexts function as the supportive framework for atheist cognition—just as they do for religious cognition.”

And at this point they conclude their paper:

“In the course of this paper, after considering irreligion and the New Atheism, we have refuted Zuckerman’s claim that statistics on atheism pose a problem for cognitive accounts of religion. Neither the by-product nor the adaptationist hypotheses of the naturalness approach make religiosity a necessity for humans. Such would only be the case if we were to remove cognition from its socio-cultural habitat. However, cognitive accounts often proceed as if the wider cultural ecology can be ignored. To amend this, the naturalness and unnaturalness (or memetic) hypotheses must be combined, bringing cognition and culture back together again. In redirecting attention to the fact that human cognition is always situated within a natural habitat of cultural systems, we find that atheism is no less natural than religiosity is. We are therefore critical of the cognitive science of religion accounts of atheism and their unsupported assumptions about atheists.

In the end, religiosity and atheism represent entrenched cognitive–cultural habits where the conclusions drawn from sensory input and the output of cognitive systems bifurcate in supernatural and naturalistic directions. The habit of atheism may need more scaffolding to be acquired, and its religious counterpart may need more effort to kick, but even so, that does not, ipso facto, make the latter more natural than the former.”

To my mind, this is an excellent paper. It may raise more questions than it answers, but I think it nicely frames how things aren’t always as simple as they seem, and how in the field of Religious Studies – whether we are looking at religion or irreligion, belief or nonbelief – the ultimate pitfall is to fall into the reductionistic trap of accepting on theory as definitive, to the detriment of other useful and worthwhile explanations.

I hope some of the citations, quotations, summaries and personal insights I have provided have been useful. Please do use this as a basis for further research and discussion.

Chris

Building the Metal Machine! My Review of Sonisphere, Knebworth 2010

Last weekend, I had the pleasure to be able to attend the Sonisphere Festival. And I thought, since I am always looking for new blog topics, that I should write about the experience for you all. I should say, to start with, that I am in no way a music critic, and most of this is going to consist of “these guys rocked” or “those guys sucked”… but I hope it might prove an entertaining read.

First off, I would like to start with my “Festival in a Nutshell” ratings…

  • TURISAS **
  • CHICKENHAWK ****
  • EUROPE **
  • AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR ****
  • ALICE COOPER **
  • SABATON *****
  • SOULFLY **
  • FEAR FACTORY ***
  • JAPANESE VOYEURS **
  • SKUNK ANANSIE ****
  • PLACEBO *
  • RAMMSTEIN *****
  • THERAPY? ****
  • HENRY ROLLINS ***
  • SLAYER ****
  • BRING ME THE HORIZON **
  • IRON MAIDEN ****
  • SONISPHERE AS A WHOLE? ****

So… now for the full report!

I will happily admit that until July 2009 I was a festival virgin. Thus I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of making the trip to see two of my favourite bands (Rammstein and Iron Maiden), as well as a whole host of others – considering that my repertoire of live gigs is incredibly limited (Metallica, Nightwish, Sepultura, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day and Motorhead being the highlights to date) – and enjoy a thoroughly messy weekend with my friends Geoff, Chris and Heather (the latter two make up the up-and-coming duo “Dead on the Live Wire”).

The Crew… with Geoff looking somewhat confused at being photographed

On Friday morning, after a lazy start, we boarded the train at Edinburgh Waverley with copious amounts of booze… mostly rum and bourbon… and varying amounts of food. Note to self… bring food! The other three had done a fantastic job on the culinary front, but food totally slipped my mind. However, the food stalls at the festival were remarkably good, and there was even a 24 hour “supermarket” in the campsite… and it was an absolute godsend to discover a vegetarian and vegan food stall! However, whilst I applaud the bringing of food, I would not recommend bringing a wedge of brie and leaving it in your sweaty tent for a few days… that was not pleasant!

Geoff and I had the pleasure of travelling first class on the train, and whilst this is not very metal, it most certainly rocked! Free tea, coffee and biscuits FTW! (and indeed, having loads of space and a guaranteed seat! – I hear from the others that the standard class coaches were less than pleasant, and this was corroborated by the regular announcements throughout the train to take bags off seats and let the other metalheads sit down). We decided to start the festival off whilst on the train – i.e. we started drinking with our lunch and paid ludicrious amounts of money for fairly mediocre food… but this meant that by the time we arrived at Stevenage station (changing at Peterborough) we were already in the mood to party. Whilst the organisers of the festival had kindly organised free shuttle buses from Stevenage Station to Knebworth, the queue was so massive that we decided £2.50 each for a taxi was a small price to pay. On arriving at the campsite our initial thoughts were “we have arrived FAAAAAAR to late” – we walked past hundreds upon hundreds of tents and could find no spaces… we were literally about to give up and head back to the entrance when Geoff spotted a perfect two-tent-sized hole just off the path, and we were able to get our tents sent up with the doors facing in to each other. Turns out we were literally 100 metres from the entrance to the main arena, the portaloos, the 24-hour… couldn’t have been better! And so the festival began….

Friday, Saturn Stage: Time Warp World Record Attempt    18.00 – 18.05

What could have happened…

I cannot describe how excited we were to see this on the bill for Sonisphere. We rushed putting up our tent, skipped dinner and arrived at the Saturn stage at 17.55 wondering where all the bizarre transvestites were. Luckily Geoff and Chris hadn’t put on the gold, metallic hotpants that they had brought with them, as 18.00 came and went without a sign of a Time Warp World Record Attempt.

This made me cry a little inside… although a few of us did the Time Warp anyway… which made everything okay… and it did mean that we got to see a few minutes of Turisas…

Just a few minutes though!

Friday, Saturn Stage: Turisas    18.10 – 18.50 **

Turisas… Kane from WWF/WWE?

Turisas playing at Sonisphere

Look at these guys… I mean this was our first impression of Sonisphere.  They look like Kane from Wrestling on the television circa late 1990s, split into numerous and frankly less rockin’ parts! We didn’t stay in front of them for that long… but long enough to work out that we didn’t want to be spending the next half hour of our lives being subjected to bizarre folk metal. Don’t get me wrong… I am a major Nightwish fan, and this band certainly had a little Nightwish about them… but when you see a band take to the stage with an accordion and tonnes of red makeup, and you haven’t even had your first drink of the festival. it’s going to take something very major to redeem them.

They had put a lot of effort into making themselves look fabulous… and for this they earned a ** rating… I’m sorry that I can’t be more articulate in my criticism, but they simply weren’t worth my time. Turns out this was one of the best things that could have happened, as Chickenhawk, who were playing in the nearby Bowtime Bar, were bloody awesome!!!

Friday, Strongbow Bowtime Bar: Chickenhawk    18.30 – 19.00 ****

Again, we find ourselves in a situation where my rating of a band is based purely on an arbitrary feeling of satisfaction. Maybe it was because of the prior disappointment induced by Turisas; maybe it was the pint of Strongbow (£3.90, wtf?) gently coursing its way through my insides; or maybe Chickenhawk just gave me the pleasure of discovering a new band at a live gig for the first time. This is something I never do… I always like to hear a band before I listen to them live… simply because I like singing along and getting into the gig. But whatever the reason, I would thoroughly recommend giving them a listen.

During the gig, they also announced that it was the drummer (Matt)’s birthday, and I had the pleasure of starting the chorus of “Happy Birthday”… so Matt, if you are reading… you have me to thank for that. Maybe it was fate, but at the end of the gig I felt a random pain in my shoulder and discovered a drum stick lying on the ground… Heather has it, if you’re looking for it!

Friday, Saturn Stage: Europe    19.10 – 19.55 **

Waiting for Europe to take to the stage

We were a little dubious about going to listen to Europe… I mean, has anyone ever heard any of their tracks except the Final Countdown? But everyone knows that this track is one of the finest power ballads of all time, and there was no way we were going to miss out on this. In the end we ended up having a seat on the hill looking on the the Saturn stage… a tactic which most of the crowd seemed to have adopted, and enjoyed a few ciders/beers whilst waiting for the big moment. The majority of their set was, as expected, utterly self-indulgent wank. They even played a bizarre Europe-ised version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”! The whole set left us feeling “why on earth were these guys invited to play at this festival?” And how come they got a longer set than Fear Factory? However, as expected, The Final Countdown was the final track unleashed upon the crowd (who all suddenly rose to their feet in an epic Mexican wave of vague interest) and we all had a good sing along. This song was the only thing that saved Europe from the single-star of doom!

The rest of my friends were all fairly intent on waiting to see Gary Numan, and the feedback I heard was remarkably good, so kudos to him. Chris has also been told on a fairly regular basis that he looks remarkably like Gary Numan, and in fact we were stopped on the way back from the bar by some “friends” of Gary who wanted to take a picture of Chris and show it to him after the gig. Whether this was true or not, I leave the judgement on similarity up to you…

Gary Numan

Chris...

Friday, Stongbow Bowtime Bar: And So I Watch You From Afar         20.30 – 21.00 ****

Meanwhile, on the recommendation of Joel (of TotalRock fame) and Aaron (a friend from back in Northern Ireland, and the bass player in Escape Fails) I was off back to the Bowtime Bar to listen to And So I Watch You From Afar. I know there was a lot of group solidarity involved in finding out that these guys were Northern Irish, but they simply blew me away. I loved that a band in this day and age had the balls to go out and perform a short set of phat, heavy riffs and not have any vocals. I was able to stand and listen to them for their full set, not having heard them before, and not get bored – which is a major thing for me, and I noted them down as a) a band I needed to check out more properly when I got home and b) a band that we are going to be hearing a lot more of in the future. Again, my journalistic skills are somewhat lacking here, but I would urge you all to give them a listen.

A major personal highlight of the festival for me was getting to meet Joel after the gig. If you have never checked out his show, or any show on Total Rock before, I heartily recommend that you do so. each programme is self contained and has its own specific genre… some of them are a little too death metal for me, but you quickly work out your favourites. And all of the DJ’s are uniformly good sports and a great laugh to listen to. And I now owe Joel a pint… so there you go mate, next time I see you, you have it in writing!

Meeting Joel after And So I Watch You From Afar

Friday, Saturn Stage: Alice Cooper     21.30 – 23.00 **

Maybe it was all of the rum that we had consumed in the intervening period… but upon turning up 30 mins into Alice Cooper’s set it was clear that we didn’t want to stay for any longer than five minutes. I never thought I would choose going on a waltzer in preference to hearing one of the apparent legends of Classic Rock, but that is in fact what we did. He was throwing some woman around the stage and clearly trying to put on some sort of theatrical performance… to our eyes it just looked inappropriate and sounded crap. We heard that we had missed “Poison” already, and that that sealed the deal. The waltzer was ridden, semi-naked cartwheels and forward rolls ensued… and I believe Heather has a lot of photographs of both of these events… I shall attempt to get some of them up here when they materialise. The rest of the evening was spent partying it down at the tent, where booze was freely flowing and much less expensive. So endeth Friday at Sonisphere!

Friday on the Waltzer

Saturday, Saturn Stage: Sabaton, 11.50 – 12.20 *****

Saturday morning man-love

Saturday morning was not pleasant. I think we all uniformly were wide awake at 6a.m. after only hitting the hay around 2a.m. Thank goodness for the 24-hour shop! Mr Kipling’s Fruit Buns, Twix’s and Hotdog Rolls nursed us back to a more human state, and after having tracked down the immensely overpriced and crap phone charging lockers (with incredibly unhelpful, rude and dim staff), and eaten some delicious food from the vegetarian and vegan food stall (Veggie Burgers, Chilli, Burritos and Falafel), we settled down on the grass in front of the Saturn Stage once more, with fresh pints of Strongbow (I still hadn’t moved on to beer by this point), to take in Sabaton, who were one of our hottest picks from our myspace trawling the previous week. They did not disappoint, and are the only band apart from Rammstein to inherit the prestigious ***** rating!

Would you let these guys build you a metal machine?

Maybe it was just the time of morning, but hearing this chunky, in your face, super super cheesy metal being pumped out to a crowd of hungover metallers really did the trick. They were just so OTT. An amazing amount of soundbite gold spewed forth from the singers lips during this gig… our favourites would have to be: “Who wants to help us build our metal machine” and “Jump with us Sonisphere, Jump with us through the gates of Hell”. We are also pretty sure we heard the phrase “We are all homosexual!” being screamed in a dark, rumbling metal voice… we may be wrong, but  this simply added to their appeal even more. Again, I cannot comment on specific songs, but simply implore you to have a listen. They are also coming to Glasgow in October, and all of us are of a mind to make the short journey across to check them out… we think you should too!!!

Sabaton play Sonisphere

What I thought of Sabaton!

Sabaton's Stage

Saturday, Saturn Stage: Soulfly,    13.00 – 13.30 **; Fear Factory,    14.20 – 15.00 ***; Red Bull Stage: Japanese Voyeurs,    17.00 – 17.30 **

I’m merging these guys into one because… there’s not a lot to say really. I was quite looking forward to Soulfly, having heard a few of their albums a few years ago, and being a major fan of early Sepultura stuff… but after 5-10 mins, going and getting a cup of Chai in the hippie tent seemed a much more appealing option than listening to incoherent angry noise.

As far as Fear Factory go… they were alright. But again, I didn’t know that much of their stuff, and my only impression was that they were a lot more redneck than I expected. At least we sat through the entire set though… we also met this “fascinating” guy called Toby… who insisted on licking all of our faces and telling us that he had seen Iron Maiden an incremental amount of times in the past, over and over and over again. We thought we were going to have a groupie for the rest of the festival, but thankfully he cleared off fairly promptish after Fear Factory finished.

Fear Factory

Chris and our Groupie

The Japanese Voyeurs served as an interesting time filler whilst we drank our Jaegermeister and Red Bull, and lamented the fact that Tim Minchin was playing in far too small a tent for the masses of people who wished to see him. They were alright, and it was a welcome bonus to see a female singer/guitarist :-) However, we got the feeling that once we had heard one song, we had kinda heard them all. We also decided that the keyboard player must be sleeping with the singer, as he literally stood for two songs and did nothing except cling on to the keyboard and rock out… or maybe he was just a random member of the audience who had managed to clamber on stage… we will never know!

We decided that toplessness was the way forward for this festival

And silly big sunglasses...

Oh we are soooo "cool"...

Saturday, Saturn Stage: Skunk Anansie,      17.30 – 18.15 **** ; Apollo Stage: Placebo    18.25 – 19.25 *

Then came the two major surprises of the festival. We had no intention of watching Skunk Anansie, but since there was nothing better on, we went and got some more pints and veggie chilli and once again took up our spot on the hill in front of the Saturn Stage to see what offerings they had for us. We were all pretty much uniformly blown away… the set was a lot heavier than I had imagined, and I have never seen a singer with so much energy. She bounded about the stage, gave it her all, and literally dived into the crowd on numerous occasions whilst singing. I am definitely going to be checking out more of them in the near future.

I had asked myself why Placebo were playing at this festival before it even started. I have always had a fairly indifferent attitude towards placebo, and would generally rate them around *** and say that I was happy to listen to them if there was nothing else available. However, this was just a woeful performance… and there is no excuse for it as they are such a major band. The only effort they had put in was to all dress in white… great… try playing some interesting music for a change… or engaging the audience… or moving around the stage. And to make matters worse they had the audacity to cover Nirvana’s “All Apologies”. I have nothing against bands covering songs by other bands, although I guess Nirvana have a somewhat coveted status on the untouchable pedestal. But to turn what is a fairly attitude filled tune (with admittedly crap lyrics) into an insipid, lifeless, whiny Placebo-fest was just, in my eyes, unacceptable. Placebo… get out of my life!

Saturday, Apollo Stage: Rammstein,    20.45 – 22.45 *****

I had been waiting for this gig for a long time… long before I had ever even heard that it was going to happen. I think I must have been into Rammstein for something like 8-10 years, ever since a friend handed me a copy of Mutter at the bus stop on the way to school, and ever since I have always held them to be one of my favourite bands. I don’t think I have been so excited about the new release of an album as I was for the release of “Liebe ist fur alle da” in late 2009. I knew their stage shows were supposed be epic… and I was not disappointed.

We got a little "made up" for Rammstein

I think my makeup was better...

They played an incredible set… my personal highlights being “Du Hast”, “Sonne” and “Links 2, 3, 4”, and the songs were only let down by the annoying overly English girl standing nearby who kept insisting on taking the piss out of the lyrics and attempting to translate stuff she didn’t understand… really loudly. The sound quality was amazing for an outdoor festival gig. But the most amazing thing was, of course, the sheer performance!

My attempt to capture the enormity of the show

The band were all dressed up in various bizarre costumes… mostly looking very industrial… but I believe at one point there was an Amish gimp on stage… and at one point the keyboard player (a truly bizarre fellow) changed into what looked like a sparkly fish costume, which he wore for the rest of the gig, whilst periodically walking on a rotating treadmill and playing the keyboard at the same time. The singer managed to look uniformly creepy for the entire show, and even in moments where there was no singing would stand and stare at the audience with the most incredibly sadistic look on his face. There were pyros galore… flamethrowers on stage… a guy who set himself on fire and ran around the place… a huge raised platform from which fireworks and pyros flowed like metal ore… a giant penis which covered the front rows of the audience is foam whilst the singer rode it… and to top it all, the keyboard player went out crowd-surfing in a dingy! A dingy of all things! Add to this that someone managed to get into the dingy with him for quite a period of time whilst waving a Union Flag, and the fact that the keyboard player picked an army hat off a screaming fan and wore it whilst being carried around in his dingy, the whole thing started to have crazy un-PC connotations.

There were crazy rising platforms on stage...

Till Lindemann creeepifying things at Sonisphere

A superb performance guys… I cannot wait to see a gig with you on your own and your own stage to do with as you please for as long as you wish.

My one gripe… we were promised 2 hours, and they stopped after 90 mins…

Saturday, Bohemia Tent: Therapy? Playing Troublegum,    23.00 – 00.00 ****

All of my friends were very psyched about this gig… in fact, Chris said it was the thing that made him decide to come to the festival. Even the Germans, Stefan and Andreas, who were sharing the tent next to us (and induced much inappropriate faux German from all of us… I do it all the time anyway, but when you are hearing it throughout the thin walls of your tent at all hours of the day, then it’s very difficult not to keep launching into it!) had brought Therapy? t-shirts with them! I think the album was a little early for me… it was apparently the soundtrack to the others’ school days. However I had been introduced to Therapy? when I was about 16, but unfortunately Bad Religion were introduced to me at the same time and they rapidly became one of my favourite bands! I did, however, make sure that I borrowed Troublegum off Chris a week before the gig so that I could at least be vaguely familiar with it, and join in with some of the choruses.

Thanks to Rammstein finishing ludicrously early, we were able to get really good places in the tent, which quickly filled up to capacity as it was the only decent gig happening that late on in the day. I have not seen any band have so many soundchecks… one of the roadies literally came out and tuned the guitars 4 times before the gig started… and thus everything was 5-1o minutes late in starting. The band appeared and launched straight into “Knives” and the crowd went absolutely wild. I hadn’t been in the middle of a crowd of pushing, headbanging fans for a long time… and to be honest I wasn’t really up for it this time, especially with an album that I did not really know. However, less than 30 seconds into the track – just after the first mention of “fucking you up” – the music cut out and all the lights went out. Despair! Anger! Frustration! What had happened? Nobody knew… but within a few minutes the lights flickered back on… the roadies came out and soundchecked again… and things kicked off. Take 2! They got in a few more bars this time before, inevitably, the same thing happened again!

The crowd were getting really angry by this point, and actually started booing Therapy? as if it was their fault! The now-infamous roadie came on stage and shouted into the mic “Could one of the Sonisphere organisers come to the stage right now!” and after a good few minutes a poor guy in a yellow t-shirt was hauled onto stage and gave the fantastic explanation: “Sorry about this! It’s sorted now… give it up for Therapy?” All fingers were crossed, and this time things worked and they proceeded through the album without incident. All credit to them, they kept going all the way to the end, even though it was nearly half-past midnight when they finished, and they also seemed so keen to keep thanking the fans, without whom, they said, they wouldn’t have last 20 years. Apart from feeling pretty dead by this point, I had a great time! I loved working out that Therapy? are actually another band from my home soil… something that has eluded me this past decade!

Geoff was somewhat disappointed… simply because the album had been such a major part of his teenage years and it just sounded different having it performed by middle-aged men, and live, than it had done on the original. But for my part I thought they did a fantastic job, and I shall now be listening to Troublegum on a regular basis.

I love that they kept referring to the bassist as “The Evil Priest” too… and it was so good to see three guys at a metal festival making so much noise, when the average size of most bands seemed to 5 or 6 people.

We then partied at the tent until 2a.m. again… Chris wanted to go out and wander around the campsite looking for more fun at this point, but the rest of us were so tired that sleep (or what can be called sleep at a festival of this nature) was the only option. So endeth Saturday at Sonisphere!

Sunday, Bohemia Tent: Rollins – Spoken Word,    11.00 – 12.00 ***

Sunday morning started off much better than the previous day… i.e. we didn’t all feel like we were going to die. Opting for not starting drinking until lunchtime, we had the bizarre pleasure of effectively being preached to (it was a Sunday morning after all) by Henry Rollins for an hour. He told some funny stories, he told an awful lot of political stories and stories about his worldwide hiking adventure, and when I say preached… he definitely did that. We are the generation who need to take the world by the horns and tell the world that enough is enough… that war, poverty, racism, homophobia, fundamentalism, George W. Bush and the generally unthinking, reactionary and selfish approach to the world that is prevalent around the globe is not the way forward. It was slightly surreal…especially as the entire crowd were hungover and not feeling particularly “activist”… after 10 minutes I did think of leaving as I really wasn’t in the mood for a sermon, but in the end it was very worthwhile, and Mr Rollins seems to be a very interesting, committed and passionate individual. He claims that his mission for the rest of his life is to travel around the world fucking shit up and causing trouble… in the protester/activist sense. Fair play to him… I think he has a point.

And he also described Iron Maiden’s “Eddie” as the Iron Maiden gerbil… this wins him extra points in my book any time!

Sunday, Apollo Stage: Slayer,    15.05 – 15.50 ****; Saturn Stage: Bring Me the Horizon,    15.55 – 16.35 **; Apollo Stage: Iron Maiden,    20.45 – 22.45 ****

You will notice that by Sunday we were seeing fewer bands, and I have much less to say. This was down to a combination of feeling far more tired, there not being so many good bands on, and us wanting to plough through the lashings of rum that we had brought and largely left untouched in our tents.

There really is not much to say about these bands. Slayer and Maiden did exactly what you would expect them too. They rocked unbelievably, but didn’t really do anything else particularly spectacular. Slayer seemed a bit annoyed, and rightly so, that they were so far down the bill (behind Pendulum FFS), and Maiden played rather too many songs which were unfamiliar to the non-die-hard fan… but these are minor complaints and I really did enjoy getting to see them. Bring Me the Horizon seemed bizarrely young, and were utterly intent on getting everyone in the crowd to mosh, create walls of death, and generally break themselves. We, however, did not heed these calls, and preferred to sit on our spot on the hill drinking beer and comparing their lacklustre performance to the epicness of Sabaton the previous day.

After Maiden, Chris was shattered and decided to go back to the tent… in fact Heather was so tired that she didn’t even make it to see Maiden… but Geoff and I decided that we had to go on some of the epic fairground rides that were dotted around the place… and so we got swung upside down, and this way and that and proceeded back to the tent where we promptly collapsed. So tired! But sleep was, once again not forthcoming… the noise in the campsite was tremendous and try as we might… shots of rum… games of poker… reading 1984… nothing would work. But we must have gotten some sleep, because various weird dreams about snakes and the Bedlam Theatre happened. Stefan and Andreas were packing up their tent when we got back… and managing surprisingly well considering the amount of rum we managed to force down Stefan’s throat before Maiden… and Chris and Heather were nowhere to be seen until half-seven the following morning when the tents were needing packed up. So endeth Sunday at Sonisphere…

Monday

What to say really? We got up… we packed up the tents… we made our way out of the festival site. The queue for the shuttle buses to the train station was epic… like 1000s of people queuing up on one bus… and so we decided to get a taxi again. Literally, there was no-one else waiting for a taxi… had everyone spent so much money that they couldn’t afford the £2.50? Once again, Geoff and I were amazingly glad that we had paid the extra £7 for First Class and, having stocked up on a tonne of “proper” food in a local Tesco,, we were on our way back to Edinburgh!

This has all been a bit rambly… but I thought it was worth sharing my experiences of this awesome festival. To sum it all up, in the words of Chris K:

“I can confirm that A, Rammstein are better than Maiden. B, i do look very much like Gary Numan. C, Sabaton fuckin’ rule! and D, festival toilets are not actually that bad.”

Recommendations for next year? Better lockers… cheaper booze… less Alice Cooper and Placebo… but on the whole a damn fine experience, and I would certainly do it again next year – dependent upon the lineup.

Make sure to look up Sabaton, Chickenhawk and And So I Watch You From Afar!

I realise that this post fits thoroughly into the “and more…” section of my blog… but that’s what it is there for. Most of what I post will be about religion, but I am interested in other things too! This is also likely to be an issue during the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe Festival, during which I am performing in The Threepenny Opera, and will be seeing and reviewing a lot of other local productions… at least this is my intention!

Please let me know what you think!

All the best,

Chris