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 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!
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.
Today, 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?
“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.
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.
One bright spring morning in the early 1630s, a wealthy Dutch merchant was delighted to receive a visit from a sailor bringing a tip-off that a very valuable cargo had just arrived at the docks. As a reward for the information, the merchant presented the sailor with a fine red herring. Whilst the merchant was distracted for a moment, the sailor saw, lying among the debris on the shop counter, what he thought was an onion. Thinking it would go nicely with his fish breakfast, the sailor surreptitiously slipped it into his pocket. That, however, was no onion — it was a Semper Augustus tulip bulb and this was the height of the “Dutch Tulip Craze”, which saw bulbs valued higher than gold and sold for extraordinary sums of money. That one bulb alone was worth three thousand florins (over $1,000)! As soon as he spotted it missing, the furious merchant launched a search of the docks. Finally the sailor was found, sitting happily on a coil of ropes, chewing the last mouthful of his herring and “onion”.
In a fascinating essay in Education Forum, the magazine of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Stephen Anderson tells a chilling story of a philosophy class he was teaching on ethics. Wanting an “attention getter” to shock his students into thinking morally, he displayed a photo of Bibi Aisha. She was a young Afghani girl who, aged just 14, was forced into marriage with a Taliban fighter, who proceeded to horribly abuse her. After suffering four years of violence, Aisha fled but was soon captured. Her husband and other family members then hacked off her nose and ears and left her to die in the mountains where she was later rescued by aid workers.
As I write these words, a new gadget craze is once again sweeping the world: this time, it’s the Apple Watch. If you believe the hype (and the pre-orders suggest that millions do), the Apple Watch is set to be a wild success. The marketing promises us that it will change our lives, allowing us to communicate with loved ones in new ways, play yet-to-be-envisaged-games, and track our health and sleep patterns. Apparently it even tells the time. I say this not to mock, as I’m a sucker for new technology, especially Apple products. Back in 2007, I remember queuing for hours outside a mobile phone store in London for the privilege of being among the first to own an iPhone.
We love technology, we’re addicted to our gadgets, and the ubiquity of digital devices in our lives has been a major contributor to the popular idea in our culture that science is a panacea for all that ails us.
In recent years a growing trend among many Muslims has been to make the claim that Jesus was a ‘good Muslim’. Others have described him as ‘a prophet of Islam’. Their method has been simple: by mining the New Testament Gospels they have sought to show that Jesus fasted, prostrated when he prayed, gave to the poor, and performed a wide range of other Islamic practices. Some have even tried to claim that Jesus gave instructions about how to conduct oneself when on hajj.
The question we want to address in this short essay is why stop with Jesus? Why not see if one can demonstrate that other famous literary or historical figures were also Muslims? It is in that light that we have settled upon one of the world’s most famous literary figures as a test case: we refer to none other than Winnie-the-Pooh. Literary giant, poet in his own right, screen star, philosopher and hero to millions of children, could it be that the secret of Pooh’s success lay in daily submission to Allah?
An updated version of this piece forms chapter 2 of my book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist
“I don’t believe that Sweden exists,” my friend suddenly declared from across the coffee shop table. He took a sip of espresso and stared intently at me, clearly awaiting a response. I paused, my cinnamon roll halfway to my mouth, as I digested what he’d just said.
“I don’t believe that Sweden exists,” he repeated. “I think it’s just a political conspiracy, designed to motivate other European citizens to work harder. All that talk of the best health care system, the highest standard of living, of tall and beautiful people. It sounds like a myth and I’m not buying it. I don’t believe in Sweden.”
There’s a scene a few chapters into the comedy science-fiction novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed former president of the galaxy, is in a spot of trouble. A few moments earlier, he had been standing on the bridge of a starship, now he suddenly found himself mysteriously teleported to a café on the strange, alien planet of Ursa Minor Beta. Puzzled at what has just happened, Zaphod instinctively reached into his pocket for his sunglasses:
[He] felt much more comfortable with them on. They were a double pair of Joo Janta Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which had been specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.
What was science-fiction in 1980 when Douglas Adams wrote this passage has become reality in the twenty-first century. Augmented reality, to be precise, the new buzzword in computing. Augmented reality is a technology that allows computer-driven data to overlay your view of the real world. Originally developed for military applications (for example, projecting flight information onto the visor of a fighter jet pilot), augmented reality is now breaking in to the world of consumer gadgetry.