Archive | June 2011

The Brokeback Mountain moment of Atheistic Hyperbolism

Whilst full of the usual hyperbolism, and risking putting people off the film by starting an ‘atheistic’ campaign to get it coverage, the following post from The Freethinker certainly sounds intriguing. I hope the film makes it to a cinema near me anyway:

NON-BELIEVERS are being asked to rally in support of a new movie – The Ledge – which, if successful – could project the positive aspects of atheism to millions of viewers all over the world.

Click on pic for trailer of The Ledge

In an email to the Freethinker today, Johnny Monsarrat – a volunteer for The Ledge’s atheist writer and director Matthew Chapman – says the movie:

Could be the Brokeback Mountain moment for atheists, drawing blockbuster attention to our cause. But, if the film doesn’t do well on video-on-demand and through its ‘test run’ in New York and Los Angeles theatres starting July 8, it could fail to go nationwide, scaring studios away from atheist films for years.

The first big film with an atheist hero and an A-list cast, The Ledge stars Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Charlie Hunnam, and Terrence Howard.

Monsarrat adds:

We see The Ledge as an opportunity for atheism to reach far beyond the usual circles, and so far it’s been nominated Best US Drama at Sundance, and made Russia’s Top Weekly Chart (No 3) between Pirates of the Caribbean and Thor.

Reviewing the movie here, atheist blogger Greta Christina wrote:

I enjoyed the heck out of The Ledge, and am recommending it heartily to pretty much everyone. Atheists, believers who are curious about atheists, people who just like good movies – I recommend The Ledge” to all of you.

Written and directed by Matthew Chapman (author of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, as well as Charles Darwin’s great-grandson), The Ledge is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous …  and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable. Its characters are, well, human – likeable, aggravating, tough, loving, damaged – and the story is unpredictable in exactly the ways that human beings are unpredictable. It’s not a perfect film … but its imperfections are ten times more compelling than most of the boilerplate crap regularly churned out by the Hollywood machinery.

Young People and Religion: Findings from the latest research and its practical implications

I have just been alerted to this report on a conference I attended last month. I even make it into the associated picture… fame at last :)

Over 130 people, including academics, members of groups such as the Salvation Army, the Church of Scotland and the Pagan Federation, staff from charities like The Children’s Society and Lokahi Foundation, a representative from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and journalists, gathered to hear about new research and debate the issues.

Thanks to the Religion and Society Programme we’re now learning more about young people and religion in the UK than ever before. As part of a £12 million strategic research programme, two of the British government funded research councils (the Arts and Humanities and Economic and Social Research Councils) invested £4 million in research on youth and religion specifically. This led to the funding of 21 original research projects across UK universities. These are now starting to have findings: we heard from 8 of these on the day. The event was hosted at King’s College London by theologians Pete Ward and Alister McGrath. This is a summary of the presentations and discussion (see the bottom of this page for the conference programme and to download this report).

The main theme which arose from the research was ‘authenticity’, with that of ‘transitions’ also emerging. Young people from a range of religious and class backgrounds, many of whom live with uncertainty and change, seem to be placing a particularly high value on close, trusting relationships. Family remains a strong influence, though parents’, and religious leaders’, religiosity may be questioned – the question is always whether people can be trusted, whether they are ‘authentic’. The inadequacy of a clichéd view of religion as church-like institutional practice for capturing the sheer variety of their experiences was apparent, as were tensions with the secular mainstream. It was clear that we need to be sensitive to young people’s religious identities, really listening to them rather than making assumptions. And in the religiously plural environment of contemporary Britain no one trend can be taken for granted as universal.

Continue reading here.

Al-Akhbar Newspaper Seeking freelance translators (Arabic to English)

Just spreading the word…

Al-Akhbar Newspaper is a left-leaning daily newspaper, launched in 2006 by prominent Lebanese journalist Joseph Samaha. Its website (, currently the most visited Lebanese newspaper site, is launching an English edition, featuring translations from its daily Arabic edition as well additional original content. The English edition will target international readers with a broad interest in independent news and analysis from Lebanon and the Arab World Freelance translators will be assigned translation jobs from Arabic to English according to their time availability, topics of interest, and expected turnaround. Applicants must have a strong command of both Arabic and English. Applicants should have a demonstrable knowledge of, and interest in, the wider Middle East. A background in journalism, research, or a specialist field is a plus. Please send your CV and a cover letter to: before July 5, 2011, indicating the number of hours (or words) you would like translate per week. This is a freelance position; applicants are expected to work remotely.

Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist (via The New Oxonian)

I enjoyed this post a lot… and can empathise with two points especially:

1) I am an atheist-agnostic, yet I have little-to-no interest in science. That is not the same as saying that I do not find the most interesting bits of it fascinating, or that I doubt its validity or usefulness… I am simply saying that dialogues about science and scepticism do not particularly interest me. I would rather talk about theatre, literature, current affairs or, dare I say, religion. I always feel that when I am within ‘non-‘ or ‘anti-religious’ circles that I am being implicitly looked-down upon for not being interested in evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics etc etc.

2) I have never really understood the point of inter-faith dialogue… I don’t know what it achieves. But I guess it is better for people to be talking than not talking…

Anyway… enjoy!

Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist I’ve been puzzling for a few months now why the discourse between hardshell and softshell atheists has taken such a nasty turn. Can’t crabs just learn to live together–scuttling from side to side without disturbing each other’s tranquility? True, when I first detected the trend among the leading atheist commandos (variously Gnus, News, EZs and Full-frontals) I said they were behaving like jerks, which of course got me called worse names by their … Read More

via The New Oxonian

Having your Cake, and then Raping the Baker: Biblical Criticism by a Respectful Nonbeliever

I’m pretty busy with my thesis right now… hence the sudden fall off in proper posts. However, one of the good things about getting back into the office and working on the University computers is that I had a dig through my old documents and came across some essays and assignments that I submitted as a first year undergraduate. During that time I took some Theology courses… and some biblical studies courses. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things that I submitted… in an attempt to show that you don’t have to believe in what you are studying to engage with it. Especially with biblical studies… some of the stories are just absolutely fascinating. Here is a piece that I wrote on II Samuel 13: 1-22 – a quite shocking (and thus, unfortunately, often overlooked) story about David’s son and daughter, Amnon and Tamar.

You can find the NIV translation of this passage here. Or a more light-hearted look at it on The Brick Testament (and I shall intersperse my essay with images from this amazing resource).

Power and Powerlessness in II Samuel 13: 1-22

The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is one of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that can prove shocking to the modern reader. This is illustrated well by the fact that, in the opening paragraphs of many commentaries, the authors feel compelled to highlight the nature of the account as “exceptionally tense” (Hertzberg, 1964:322), “frighteningly realistic” (Evans, 2004:220)  or even “revolting” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341). However, when looking at the passage in the form in which we have it today, it is important to not become distracted by subject matter, but to see the story as it is in its context. In this passage, the doom pronounced on David’s house in the previous chapter [2 Sam 12:10] begins to receive its fulfilment (ibid), and the passage also  “stands as a prologue to the account of (Absalom’s) rebellion in chapters 15-20” (McCarter Jr., 1984:327).

Much modern scholarship (particularly Christian scholarship) tends to focus on the character of Tamar and her tragic fate, but, as Hertzberg points out, whilst Tamar is indeed the “tragic figure of the drama, (…) in the general context she is merely a subsidiary figure whose fate is only important for the light it sheds on the struggle between the two oldest princes and its further consequences for the history of the kingdom of David” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Marie Evans believes the focus of the text to be “the use and abuse of power” (2004:222)  and it is the intention of this essay to build upon this belief by identifying and discussing the various manifestations of power and powerlessness in the text, rather than focussing on one individual character.

At the very beginning of the chapter we are made aware that the recorded events related to the previous chapters. Whilst “in the course of time” [2 Sam 13:1] does not denote a precise duration of time, the phrase “was intended to provide the link between chapters 12 and 13” (Mauchline, 1971:259)  – these chapters, along with David’s indiscretion in chapter 11, are connected as cause and effect (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341).

The main characters of the story – Amnon, his father David, Amnon’s half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom – are introduced in verse 1, and we learn that not only has Amnon fallen in love with Tamar [v. 1] but that Amnon became “frustrated to the point of illness” because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” [v. 2].

Because of the clarification that Amnon was so frustrated because he wish to do something to Tamar, it is clear that Amnon’s is confusing lust with love (Conroy, 1978:23), and that he is “dominated by the same sensuality as his father” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Not only is he presented as being powerless against his desires, he is also powerless to do carry them out because she was a virgin [v. 2] – “unmarried girls, and particularly those of the royal house, would be carefully guarded” (McCarter Jr., 1984:321).

In verse 3 we are introduced to the only other character in the story, David’s nephew Jonadab, indicating that whilst this whole affair will have far-reaching consequences, it is essentially a family affair. (Conroy, 1978:28)  Jonadab notices how Amnon’s frustration is affecting him physically [v. 4] and addresses him as “the king’s son” – emphasising the dichotomy between the powerlessness he was feeling, and the power he should be experiencing “as a prince with all the privileges of royalty” (Mowley, 1998:182).

Before the plot is developed in verse 5, the reader is subtly reminded of the ominous presence of Absalom – Amnon identifies Tamar as his “brother Absalom’s sister” [v. 4], emphasizing to Jonadab just how bad the situation is, and alerting the reader that Absalom is very much involved in the story, even though he is currently ‘backstage.’

From verse 5 onwards, Amnon is presented as exerting power and authority, albeit for his own selfish ends and, as throughout this entire passage, always subject to the power of his own lust. Here, Jonadab provides Amnon with a crafty plan to see Tamar in private, but one that will require the (innocent) collusion of King David. In actuality this presents no problems, and verses 6 and 7 describe how David believes Amnon’s feigned illness and sends for Tamar. Apart from illustrating the power of Amnon and Jonadab, who successfully manage to trick and manipulate the king, these verses also say something about the power of King David: this is the first instance in this passage where David is seen as a power that must be appealed to – whilst the exercising of this power is overshadowed by Amnon’s manipulation, the important notion here is the necessity of appealing to David, and the potential that had David exercised his power in a different way, the following events would not have occurred (Evans, 2004:221).

Tamar arrives at the house of her brother Amnon [v. 8], silently obedient and submissive to the wishes of her father, the king, and her brother, the crown prince. Amnon, however, refuses to eat the food that she has prepared for him [v. 9], and orders everyone to leave the room – an action which Hertzberg regards as “a whim of the crown prince, who is so used to giving orders” (Hertzberg, 1964:323).

After dispensing with the servants, Amnon continues exerting his power, effectively ordering his sister to bring the food to him in his bedroom [v. 10] and again, physically grabbing her saying, “Come to bed with me, my sister” [v. 11].

What follows in verses 12 and 13 is an impassioned speech from Tamar. She recognises that she is powerless to stop her much stronger [v. 14] brother carrying out his wishes, so she appeals to two more powerful authorities – custom [v. 12 & 13] and the king [v. 13]. The reason Tamar gives for condemning Amnon’s wishes as a “wicked thing” is that “such a thing should not be done in Israel.” Regardless of whether she is referring to incest, or premarital sexual relations, it is worth noting that in this case “morality (…) finds its sanction in custom, not in a written code,” (Kennedy, 1905:252) – here she is referring to “serious violations of custom [Gen 20:9; 29:26] that threaten the fabric of society” (McCarter Jr., 1984:322)  She makes no reference to the Law, or to the authority of God, and it is at this point that the reader first realises that God is mysteriously missing from this ‘revolting’ story. When looking into the subtext of Tamar’s statement that Amnon would be “like one of the wicked fools in Israel” [v. 13], Kirkpatrick tells us that the term “fool denotes not merely one who is stupid and ignorant, but one who has abandoned the fear of God, and cast off the restraints of decency and morality” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:343)  Whilst this description certainly fits with the character of Amnon presented in the text, and whilst the narrator may indeed have intended the reader to pick up on this meaning, if we accept the apparent absence of God in this passage, this places more responsibility on the individuals capable of changing the situation, and their use and misuse of power.

Tamar’s appeal for Amnon to speak to the king [v. 13] has provoked much academic discussion. This discussion is generally directed towards the nature of Amnon’s sin (incest or rape), but it can also prove useful in discerning how much power David would have had in this matter. Numerous questions arise: Was the law stated in Leviticus 18:9, prohibiting sexual relations between siblings and half-siblings, in place? If so, does Tamar assume David would use his power as king to overrule this law?  If not, is David to be appealed to as a father or as a king?

There is a lot of disagreement amongst scholars about whether the law of Leviticus 18:9 is in place. McCarter Jr. (with Mowley, 1998:182) believes that the most defensible position is that the laws were in full effect, and that unless Tamar is merely temporising, her “assumption that David would be willing to overlook such a prohibition in order to accede to Amnon’s request is consistent with what we know of David’s attitude elsewhere [v. 21]” (1984:324).  Whilst this is based slightly more recent scholarship, by the simple fact that Tamar makes no reference to God or any legal code, it seems more reasonable for us to accept the opposing position of Mauchline (with Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) that Amnon “could have married her in the ordinary way” for “the marriage of a brother and half-sister was possible at this stage of Israel’s history” (1971:260).  If we accept that this is the case, it is reasonable to conclude that Tamar is appealing to David as a father who has the power to grant or refuse a marriage proposal.

After clearly demonstrating his physical power by raping Tamar [v. 14], Amnon continues to treat her like a servant, ordering her to “Get up and get out” [v. 15]. We are told that, not only did Amnon suddenly hate her, but that “he hated her more than he had loved her.” This sexual, psychological factor is a natural progression of Amnon’s (now fulfilled) lust from verse 2, for “it is human nature to hate those whom you have injured” (McCarter Jr., 1984:324,citing Tacitus).  This demonstrates how powerless Amnon really is against his base, human nature.

Amnon refuses to listen to any further protest from his sister Tamar, and has his servant unceremoniously throw her outside outside, and bolt the door behind her [vv. 16-18]. Tamar, who has acted blamelessly throughout because she did everything in her power to stop Amnon disgracing them both, then tears her robe, puts ashes on her head and goes away weeping aloud, performing “all the signs of mourning, not for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of her virginity” (Mowley, 1998:184).

In verse 20, Absalom takes an active part in the story for the first time. It is interesting to note that Tamar turns to her brother Absalom after the incident, and not to her father, David. Conroy suggests two possible reasons why this might be the case – there may be have been more solidarity between siblings than between a father of many offspring and his children, or Tamar may have held David partly responsible for what happened (1978:18). Both of these alternatives diminish David’s power and influence over his children, the only difference being that in the first case this was always so, and in the second it is the result of these recent events.

Some translations, such as the New International Version, do not include the full version of verse 21 (included in the Septuagint and the ordinary text of the Vulgate  (Kirkpatrick, 1930:345)), which reads, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry; but he did nothing to harm his son, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  However, the inclusion of the italicised text makes little or no difference to how we interpret the text. Whether David did not act because of his love for his son, or because “he was reminded of his own misconduct and could hardly punish his son for a similar offence” (Mowley, 1998:185),  it is clear that David, who had the power to intervene as both king and father, did not do so.

In the final verse of this passage, we see Absalom, Tamar’s actual brother, silently hating his half-brother Amnon. According to Kirkpatrick, by oriental custom, Absalom had both the power and the duty to avenge his sister’s wrongs (1930:345).  However, Absalom chooses not to exercise this power – this could be seen as a sign of weakness (maybe he feared that the house of David would be discredited if he made a sharp protest ) but it is far more likely, given his eventual murder of Amnon, that he is exercising his power wisely, by biding his time (McCarter Jr., 1984:326)

Power has clearly been a major theme running right through this text. What we have been presented with is a situation where four human characters all use, or misuse power in various ways, in a situation in which God plays no active, recorded role: Amnon is the powerful crown prince, who is powerless to resist his sexual urges, and uses his royal powers and physical strength to satisfy this lust; Tamar is the powerless victim who tries everything within her power to prevent the events taking place; David is the powerful king who fails to appropriately use his power to prevent the situation; and Absalom wilfully withholds his power, preferring to bide his time and take revenge at a more suitable moment. There is a clear “pattern of reversal, upset and contrast”  (Conroy, 1978:36-37) at work here – those who have power (Absalom, Amnon and David) misuse it, and Tamar, who is powerless, is the only character to emerge blameless, albeit as “a desolate woman” [v. 20].


•    Conroy, Charles, Absalom Absalom! (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)

•    Driver, S. R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913)

•    Evans, Mary J., The Message of Samuel (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)

•    Hertzberg, Hanz Wilhelm, I & II Samuel (London: SCM Press, 1964)

•    Kennedy, A. R. S., Samuel (Edinburgh: TC & EC Jack, 1905)

•    Kirkpatrick, A. F., The First and Second Books of Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930)

•    Mauchline, John, 1 & 2 Samuel (London: Oliphants, 1971)

•    McCarter Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)

•    Mowley, Harry, 1 & 2 Samuel (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998)

UCC offers new MA in Contemporary Religions

I received the following information through a mailing list last night, and thought that it might be of interest to some of the readers of this blog:

A new MA Contemporary Religions programme will be offered by the Study of Religions department at UCC Cork from September 2011. This is the first programme of its kind in Ireland.

The MA may be taken full-time (12 months) or part time (over 2 or 3 years) and will be taught in the evenings. The closing date for applications this year is July 1st. Applications received after this date will be considered if places are still available.

Details of the new MA programme can be accessed from the MA Contemporary Religions link on the dept website at or at

For queries about the programme content and delivery or an informal discussion about study options at MA or other levels please contact me or any member of SoR staff (details at .

Enquiries about the MA application process (online, via PAC, the Postgraduate Applications Centre) should be directed to the UCC Graduate Studies Office – details of the new MA Contemporary Religions and of the PAC application procedure are at the GSO website

Kind regards

Prof. Brian Bocking, Study of Religions Department, CACSSS University College Cork (UCC), Ireland

Qualitative Methods for Nonreligion Studies

For anyone vaguely interested, I have another publication. It’s freely available to download. If you are interested in the wide variety of research being currently conducted into Nonreligion from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, then I suggest you give it a look.

Report: Qualitative Methods (NSRN Methods for Nonreligion and Secularity Series)  PPSIS, University of Cambridge, 14 December 2011

I have also added this paper, and another, to my recently created page.

Movement Humanism and Deconversion from Christianity

I just wanted to draw attention to two interesting articles that I have read this morning, although I do not have time to respond.

Firstly, R Joseph Hoffman’s piece on “Movement Humanism“. A few choice quotations would be:

George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.


Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

The other is a freely accessible, academic article from the Journal of Religion and Society, entitled “Explaining Deconversion from Christianity” by Bradley R. E. Wright, Dina Giovanelli, Emily G. Dolan, and Mark Evan Edwards. The passages which particularly struck me were:

It is not clear how well these intellectual and moral concerns map on to a rational choice perspective on religion. One could argue that they are implicitly linked to costs and benefits; for example, the forced acceptance of non-scientific ideas might pose a psychological cost. Likewise, the perceived injustice of hell might cause emotional distress. Nonetheless, in discussing these concerns, the [deconverts] focused on issues of moral right and wrong rather than cost and benefits. They write as “truth-seekers” more than “benefit-optimizers,” taking perhaps more of a philosophical approach, rather than economic, to religion.


Christians are not usually drawn to other belief systems; rather they are put off by the Christian God. They are not lured away by non-believers; rather they are frustrated with believers. Deconversion, therefore, usually represents more of a desire to leave Christianity than an attraction to its alternatives.

I hope you take the time to read the full articles if you seem at all interested.

Video – Understanding Religion in Modern Europe

Grace Davie, University of Exeter, probably needs no introduction. She is a leading sociologist of religion and author of, amongst other works: The Sociology of Religion (2007); Europe, the Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World (2002); Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (2000); Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (1994).

Professor Davie spoke to the topic of “Understanding Religion in Modern Europe: A Continuing Debate” as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Sociology Seminar series on 09 March 2011, which can be viewed online HERE. I would heartily recommend giving it a watch (if you have a spare 60-90 minutes). I only wish I had plucked up the courage to ask the three questions I had written down…

Whilst I can’t remember what they were,  I certainly remember thinking about the churches in Edinburgh… where the people who care about having ‘good’ church music are the ‘older’ people… who have to pay ‘younger’ people to come and sing in their choirs… because the churches with young and willing congregations aren’t interested in ‘good’ (and by good, I mean traditional) music…

Anyways… watch the lecture if you have time :)