18 December 2011

Dog in a manger

Yesterday David Cameron marked a rite-of-passage among Conservative Prime Ministers as he told a meeting of Church of England clergy in Oxford that a return to Christian values could counter the country's "moral collapse" and blamed a "passive tolerance" of immoral behaviour for this summer's riots, Islamic extremism, City excess and Westminster scandals. In my lifetime this same speech has been made by all previous serving Tory PMs, usually in marked contrast to the moral actions of their own supporters or backbench MPs. And right on cue, up popped Aiden Burley MP in a Nazi uniform to embarrass the PM into action, the latest in a line of Coalition casualties to come up short by this measure by their leader.

It's the sort of non-argument that the late, great Christopher Hitchens would skewer so much more eloquently than me, but I would make the simple observation that surely a morality based on rewards gained in heaven is exactly what Islamic extremists could do with less of, rather than an extra helping. But then that sort of bloviating bilgewater is exactly the sort of dog-whistle speech I expect a Tory PM to make to his party's heartlands, as someone only kept in the job by the support of a man of clay and the opposition of a man of straw.

Since the speech was made to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, Cameron probably felt obliged to declare that "Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so", which, of course attracted all the headlines. However, it was probably the least interesting part of what he said. Far more revealing for me was when he described himself as a "committed but vaguely practising Church of England Christian". This says all you need to know about the man; that this religious code is something for the rest of us, not Dave. So much for us being 'all in this together'. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister's Spin Doctor, Cameron "doesn't do God" either, but seemingly because he lacks the conviction. Instead, Dave does Christianity Lite: "I can't believe it's not Jesus".

It's the worst kind of Christianity that expects others to carry to weight of morality and faith. This is a subject on which I speak with some authority, having spent much of my formative years sat in drafty churches witnessing good, committed, decent people trying to discover what exactly it means to do the right thing. I know that it is exactly this kind of 'vaguely practising' Christian who is the biggest pain in the arse, who expects the church to act as a handmaiden in times of trouble. The sort of person who turns up to midnight mass every Christmas and expects a full "smells and bells" burial for his loved ones, but who would no more think of lifting a finger to help the church at other times of the year than he would think of streaking down Oxford Street on roller skates. Such people are quite easy to spot at this time of year, because they turn up to Midnight Mass at midnight, instead of 11.30pm when the service actually begins.

15 December 2011

Saint Nicked

Recently several friends have shared this rather cute piece of technology (below) that allows you to create a personalised video from Father Christmas. As long as Santa can get his virtual lips around the real name of your child (or your own, should you be feeling very lonely), you can create a real virtual message from St Nick himself.


As you can imagine this has been circulated with glee among parents I know, as if children need any more encouragement to get excited about the impending festival of toys. But for me this takes things a bit too far in the traditional, unwritten contract-of-deceit that exists between parents and children at this time of the year.

As a liberal rationalist, I have always been ill at ease with the collective childhood deceptions such as Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, but have been helplessly carried along on the tide of participation that starts at nursery. So far I have managed to stick with my core principle that I should teach my children how to think, not what to think; to get them to consider the evidence and to try to offer a plurality of views on the important issues of the day: the Middle East conflict, crisis in the Eurozone and why Shaggy has a taking dog.

This can come back to haunt you, as two years ago Sam grilled me mercilessly about how Santa could possibly do all he is reported to do in a single night. Inside I was bursting with pride at the relentless logic of his Questioning Funnel, while mentally scrabbling for possible plausible answers to the next question. We agreed at that point he would consider all the evidence and come to his own conclusion. The dawning of the truth was ultimately delayed by 12 months by the evidence of a half-eaten carrot and drained whisky glass on our hearth. I had become part of the conspiracy and hated myself for it.

So you can probably see why I can't bring myself to create one of these Santa videos for my children. It's one thing to tell a few white lies in order to create a sense of wonder and magic at Christmas. It's quite another to be fixing evidence to make the case. This is not the tradition of imaginative story telling to fire children's imaginations, it is fraud. If you need faked video evidence to make your story plausible, then maybe it's time to 'fess up. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Creating a fake DNA profile for Father Christmas so you can test a swab sample lifted from the whisky glass?

It has been a widely discussed question as to why, when children find out Santa isn't real, they continue to trust what their parents tell them about other things. We are probably saved from being a species of Sophists both by the impracticalities of doubting everything and by coercing older children into participating in the conspiracy. But I wonder whether there isn't a collective harm being done at a deeper level.

Take the world of Conspiracy Theories and the almost child-like minds that believe the most elaborate hoaxes can be brought upon the world by the same bureaucracies who can't even manage to accurately count the number of people in its own prisons. Certainly they are people who could do with an earlier introduction to the rigours of the evidence-based approach, as opposed to wishful thinking.