A Little Summer Reading

One of the things I love about summer is the opportunity afforded by the slightly quieter pace to tackle the pile of reading that’s been growing on my desk over the last year. Having a seven-week old baby puts a cramp on the quiet reading time, but here are a few of the things I’ve managed to get my teeth into in the past few weeks. There are some great books here: do check a few of them out.

The Smuggled Value Judgement

The English village of Hayle is typically picturesque, a small cluster of cottages set around a harbour, looking out to the tranquil waters of St. Ive’s bay. But like so much of England, layers of darker history lie beneath the pretty-as-a-postcard facade. Hidden behind the undergrowth in the garden of what was once the local youth hostel, yawns the mouth of a tunnel. Stoop to step inside its cool darkness and one can walk for hundreds of yards, eventually emerging beneath the cliffs on a nearby cove. Although dank and musty now, local legend identifies this as an ancient “Smuggler’s Tunnel”, once used for bringing illegal contraband ashore under cover of darkness.

The coastal towns and villages of England are full of tales of such tunnels, many dating back centuries to when smuggling was at its height. On moonless nights, sailing ships would pull quietly into bays like that at Hayle, offload their illicit cargo into smaller boats and bring it ashore. There the contraband would be hauled across the sands, carried through tunnels, or even manhandled up sheer cliff faces to a waiting line of locals who would spirit it away. Whole communities benefited from the smuggling trade and the customs men, whose job it was to thwart the black market trade, were often foiled by a stone wall of silence. As Rudyard Kipling, who grew up on the English coast and knew these stories well, wrote in his poem “A Smuggler’s Song”:

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by![1]

When you heard the sound of horses, or the whispers of voices late at night, you were supposed to look the other way, ask no questions, ‘watch the wall’, as the contraband was smuggled past.

horseToday, the smuggling business is alive and well, only it is not tobacco or brandy that are secreted past, but value judgements. You see, whenever a writer tells you that something is good and laudable, or that something is bad and condemnable, there is an important question you must ask before you consider whether or not to believe them. What worldview do they subscribe to and does that worldview support the value judgement they are making, or are they having to smuggle it in from outside, hoping that everybody will look the other way?

The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: Now Available for Pre-Order

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“A breath, a gust, a positive whoosh of fresh air. Made me laugh, made me think, made me cry.” — Adrian Plass

In the last decade, atheism has leapt from obscurity to the front pages: producing best- selling books, making movies, and plastering adverts on the side of buses. There’s an energy and a confidence to contemporary atheism: many people now assume that a godless scepticism is the default position, indeed the only position for anybody wishing to appear educated, contemporary, and urbane. Atheism is hip, religion is boring.

Shining Like Stars

I recall with clarity a night a few years ago when my wife and  I were on vacation in southern California. We’d spent the day hiking in the mountains and, in the afternoon, had descended to explore the mysterious and ancient landscape of Mono Lake—one of the oldest lakes in North America. Pinned to the information board by the parking lot was a sign advertising a talk by a Park Ranger that evening: “Stars over Mono Lake”. And so it was, at 9pm, we found ourselves lying on the ancient sands, looking up a night sky in which a million points of light glowed with an intensity I’d never seen before. The air was cold and clear, the hauntingly beautiful desert silence broken only by the occasional howl of a lonely coyote, cry of an insomniac gull, or scream for help of a distant and woefully lost tourist.