Scene from a bank, circa 2004

[A man arrives into bank dressed in blue overalls and dirty sneakers. He greets a waiting official at a desk near the door and hands him a mortgage application form filled out in crayon. ]
Man: I need a mortgage.
Official: Can you tell me more about yourself please? Let’s start with your current health, shall we?
Man: I am 64 years old, cannot use the entire left side of my body since a severe stroke in 1990, my heart condition renders me unfit for anything but office work, but my claustrophobia prevents me from working inside. The good news is, my schizophrenia is finally under control. So the aliens tell me anyway.
Official: Fine, you meet our criteria quite comfortably actually. I see here [looking at his application form] that you’ve recently been incarcerated for mugging, extortion with a deadly weapon, fraud, and, eh, second degree murder. Is that correct?
Man: Yes
Offical: Uh, ok. I guess we all can be a bit naughty. [Throws smile at man].
Man: I would have been let out sooner if it hadn’t been for the two guards I put in hospital.
Official: Quite! And, now, what down payment can you provide?
[Man hands over brown paper bag with slightly soiled edges. Official grimaces as they sift through the contents.]
Offical: Ok. Let’s see now. One blue biro with chewed top. One used bus ticket stub. A half-eaten apple, two soggy beer mats and a copy of Time magazine from 1987.
Man: Give me that! (grabbing the Time magazine…)
Official: [Adjusting his coat collar]. Ahem. How much do you need?
Man: One million dollars. In low denomination, used notes. I have a bag to put it in.
Official: Of course, you do realise that we need to evaluate the property that you intend to buy. It has to be worth what you intend paying for it.
Man: I can assure you, hand on my heart, it is a fine, fine trailer. One of the best.
[Long pause as man stares directly at official].
Official: We’ll give you two million dollars sir! Zero interest for two years, followed by whatever you can afford.
Man: Done!
Official: Another satisfied customer!


McCain v. Obama – the first debate

It goes something like this:

Early November, 2008. NBC studios, in New York. The polls show McCain and Obama both at 50%, with nothing to separate the two. Tension is riding high ever since Cindy McCain won a bake-off with Michele Obama. Her apple pie beat Michele’s carrot cake handily.

McCain: “I am old enough to be your father. I could teach you a thing or two.”

Obama: “You are old enough to be my father’s father. You don’t understand the modern world. ”

McCain: “At least I fought. You didn’t serve in our military. You’re not able to be a credible commander-in-chief.”

Obama: “My perspective is uncluttered with a sentimental attachment to war. You’re still fighting it.”

McCain: “Don’t dare belittle my experiences. When the tough decisions need to be made, I’ll face them in the eye. I’ve survived worse than you could ever imagine.”

Obama: “The way forward is not war. It is peace and the building of a new future. How is your personal ordeal, brave as it was, favourable for America in the 21st century?”

McCain: “Personal bravery is the making of a man. You’ve not had anything comparable to draw on.”

Obama: “I fought off Hilary Clinton in a bitter and sometimes nasty campaign. I’ve fought racism everyday of my life. My war is the war fought by every working class American, for justice, a fair wage, and universal health care.”

McCain: “We both stand here as the survivors of nasty campaigns. And don’t forget: I was the target of an ugly smear campaign in 2000 with racist overtones, so you’re hardly unique. And as for being a working class American: you’re an Ivy League patrician.”

Obama: “That campaign against you was a Republican smear campaign. Thank you for reminding us. Let’s agree to ignore the bickering and concentrate on the policies.”

McCain: “Ok. Let’s start with the Iraq war. I intend finishing the job, no matter how botched it has been until now. ”

Obama: “We need to withdraw. It was the wrong war to fight at the wrong time. Enough damage has been done: let’s not dig a bigger hole.”

McCain: “Too much blood and money has been spent for us to abandon it now. Sending out a signal of weakness will condemn us to fighting more and bigger wars in the future.”

Obama: “Wars we can fight with our full energy, if we need to. Right now, we are stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies are not just the terrorists: they are poverty, exclusion, racism, religious fundamentalism. Let’s focus on knocking down those threats.”

McCain: “I never met a terrorist yet that I could talk to or that would listen. As for their poverty and exclusion: if they accepted our friendship now, they’d be half-way there to prosperity.”

Obama: “Paying for Bush’s war means we cannot pay for our health care system. Our marginalised citizens fall further behind every year, in education, opportunity, and security.”


At some point, McCain will mention “ordinary working class people”, implying white working class people. Obama will counter with at least 4 or 5 mentions of Bush or of “this failed administration” (an oxymoron?). In the end, the vote will take place. McCain will win 50%, Obama 50%. The Supreme court will be brought in to decide….aaargh!

Einstein on God and religion

The Guardian today reproduces a letter from Einstein, written by him in early 1954 and now on sale. (UPDATE 20th May: The letter eventually sold for a record £170,000. Richard Dawkins, famed evolutionist and atheist was a losing bidder).

The letter is to the philosopher Eric Gutkind and discusses religion. It is fascinating for two reasons: one, biographical, in that it sketches out the religious views of the twentieth century’s most accomplished physicist. Second, it is a succinct declaration about religion that deserves consideration in its own right.

The most interesting outcome of the letter is that it settles the eternal argument about Einstein’s religious views once and for all. Both religious people and atheists alike have been scrambling to claim Einstein for themselves over the years. He famously stated that “God does not play dice”, when referring to quantum theory, which some saw as indication of belief in God. But this has been interpreted, I think correctly, as metaphorical usage only. His other previously published views have been sufficiently ambiguous to not settle the argument either way. Concensus had settled on the view that he was a pantheist. 
But in this letter, he states: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses”. That’s as short and decisive a declaration of atheism as you’re likely to find. There is something emphatic and definite about it. There is no equivocation or murmurings of doubt.

He then dismisses the idea that religions are worthwhile: “For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.” While it might seem hasty to declare all religions to be mere “childish superstitions”, it is without doubt a very clear declaration. Einstein dismissed religions, period. There is no room for a religious view of life in his world.

Almost certainly, nobody’s personal beliefs will change as a result of these revelations. But it might finally put to rest the false notion that Einstein believed in a God, or had any positive feelings for religion. He didn’t. It couldn’t have been stated more emphatically. And the funny thing is: it doesn’t matter either way. What Einstein did or did not believe about God makes zero difference to the possible existence or non-existence of a God. To appeal to what Einstein said would be an empty appeal to authority.


All We Know of Heaven

The Guardian are running a competition, looking for a 150 word opening to a novel with the title “All We Know of Heaven”. I had been looking forward for an excuse to do a little bit of fictional writing, so took the opportunity to rustle up some words.

I had no clear ideas of a novel as such, but had some little vignettes rattling around at the back of my mind. So I have produced four little entries. Unfortunately, the competition is only open to residents of the UK, so my winning entry will have to wait, ahem.

The first is my attempt at a “Mills and Boon”-type romantic tale. Not my cup of tea really, but it struck me as a nice idea to try it anyway. The second is more imaginative. I take as a theme the story of the Lost Tribe of Israel, as they trudge through the mountains looking for a new home. It is a story that, naturally enough, has never been told! Then I tried my hand at school-day reminisence. Finally, I have thrown in the start of a little horror story.


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Jesus Camp

Last night I watched Jesus Camp: one of the scariest films I have ever witnessed (if I can be allowed to use the word “witnessed” in this context). Pastor Becky Fischer, Pentecostal minister, runs a summer camp for the children of evangelical children, in North Dakota. Some are as young as four or five. Using a mixture of old-time preaching, demonic ranting, passionate advocacy, and strident invocations of evil and the devil, Fischer strides around her wooden barn. She shouts, she cries, she pleads. She reduces most of the children to tears. In the most chilling sequence of the movie, she rants directly to the camera, away from the children, about how Palestinians taught their young children how to use grenades and guns. We ought to be able to teach our children to lay down their lives for Jesus too, she argued, in total seriousness. I thought that was gruesome enough, but it got worse. It was followed by her directly asking the children, in a high pitch, “Are you willing to die for Jesus?”. “Yes,” the children shouted. “Are you willing to lay down your lives for Jesus?” she screamed.

This film is a study of what Richard Dawkins has termed “child abuse”. It is thoroughly abusive to plant the seeds of hatred and blind obedience into very young, impressionable minds. This indoctrination process has nothing to do with improving the children, protecting them, or making them good citizens. It has everything to do with control, power, and advancing the political agenda of right-wing demagogues. At one stage, quite hilariously, an assistant dragged a cardboard cut-out of President Bush onto the stage. She had the children praying to God for his good health. I am confident that even Bush himself would have found the scene profoundly disturbing. Inevitably, that was followed by an invited guest preacher lecturing the poor children (remember: these were as young as four or five) on abortion. He produced a wicked little box of tricks: a box with plastic representations of tiny foetuses. “No more, Jesus, please, no more!” squealed one child, crying her eyes out. It was truly horrifying to see the torment and fear in the eyes of these innocent children.

Filling children’s minds with horror, sin, the devil, temptation, evil-doers, and abortion, and then convincing them of the total righteousness of their beliefs, is nothing short of systematic child abuse. It denies these young people any chance of a normal life, full of the joys and simple thrills of an innocent childhood. It negates whole swathes of human experience, including an appreciation for other cultures, a love for knowledge, and an unfolding engagement with the world as a rational, learning individual. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of mainstream Christianity (and there are huge debates here), this form of Christinianity does a disservice to all tolerant people of religious persuasion. This distortion of Jesus’s message into such a narrow, rigid, ancient horror of a religion: this is wrong.

And then there was Reverend Ted Haggard. I had seen him before, being interviewed by Richard Dawkins, when he threw Dawkins out for calling his children “animals”. (It should be said in his defense that he had no formal links to Pastor Fischer’s summer camps.) The final credits of the film confirmed it all. Ted Haggard resigned in November 2006 after being caught hiring a man for gay sex. He was guilty of at least five of his own self-preached sins, simultaneously: lying, hypocrisy, paying for sex, taking drugs, and having sex with a man. Now if that isn’t proof positive that the man is a lying, cheating, hypocritical, cheap, nasty charlatan, I don’t know what is.

More seriously, the children featured in the film started off as bright, well-meaning, good children. They seemed to have all the attributes of future good citizens. But with their minds infected with the clap-trap, barmy and half-baked nonsense of evangelical Christianity, they have no chance.