Q: Why do people say, ‘More tea, Vicar?’ when someone farts? A: It’s a joke about the thin veneer of civilisation covering our all-too solid animal nature, and our embarrassment about it – always good for a laugh.
It’s a joke about the incongruous congruity of a human (the vicar) representing morality ordained by a supernatural supreme being (God-based civilisation), an undeniable animal stench (the fart), and the consequent irreverent humour (the joke).
God being spiritual, and farting, animal, the saying ‘More tea, Vicar?’ humourously encapsulates the tension between those two worlds of meaning. The tea is a healing balm. The fortified wine that might then be produced closes the wound. Tea and sherry – closure medication for our divided souls.
But how does the vicar come into it?
Imagine a semi-mythical English past where people, whether working-class or middle-class, called their front room, if they had one, the parlour.
The parlour was the best room, reserved for special occasions. One such occasion would be a visit by the vicar, the Church of England parish priest. The family would wear their Sunday-best clothes, and tea would be served using the best service.
The conversation would be somewhat strained, due to the status of the guest depending on a shared tradition of faith in a supernatural supreme being (a belief which would inevitably cause some doubt in the minds of all concerned, not least that of the vicar).
During an awkward pause in the conversation someone, perhaps nervously, lets rip a loud fart. To allay the even more awkward silence and the undeniable animal stench, Mother – who, traditionally, pours the tea – brightly asks, “More tea, Vicar?“.
(Traditionally, Father may relieve the tension with a cheerful “Better out than in!“, thus enabling the conversation to sputter on. Fortified wine might shortly be produced, to the relief of all.)
Probability maths says that given infinity, a random character generator (producing upper and lower case letters, spaces and punctuation marks) will reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Think monkeys and typewriters, if you like.
(Shakespeare is wheeled on for this thought experiment rather than, say, Charles Dickens because he’s the supposed apogee of literary creativity. The reductionist probabilitarians are saying: you think Shakespeare’s great – well, he can be reproduced by empty randomness.)
You can kind of see what they mean, and there’s probably not much point arguing with a probability mathematician (though there are valid questions about the abstract concept of infinity) – but it just seems wrong, doesn’t it? The first sentence or two, maybe – but the whole thing? Maybe some things will never happen by chance, even in infinty.
Then there’s the origin of DNA. Scientists say it can be explained by random chemical events occurring over a very long time. There are several different theories as to how this might have happened, but none of them sounds remotely plausible. As with the randomly reproduced Shakespeare, it just seems impossible.
I know it sounds like I’m on the slippery slope from intelligent design to creationism, but I’m not. I’m suggesting that the crucial element in both cases is meaning.
Henry VI, Part One Scene I: Westminster Abbey. Dead March. Enter the funeral of King Henry V, attended on by Dukes of Bedford, Regent of France, Protector; and Exeter, Earl of Warwick, the Bishop of Winchester, heralds, etc. Bedford: Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
I’m yawning already, but that’s not the point. The works of Shakespeare, including that opening of the first play, exist because they have meaning. That meaning comes from human consciousness and its medium, language. The unique sequence of six million characters comprising that product of meaning could never be reproduced by chance, I’d suggest.
Wikipedia says DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms. Most DNA molecules consist of two strands coiled around each other to form a double helix. Both strands store the same biological information, which is replicated when the two strands separate. DNA molecules called chromosomes contain an organism’s genetic information.
Does that sound like something that came about by chemicals randomly bumping into each other without the post-DNA benefit of natural selection?
(Some sayRNA, a similar but single-strand molecule currently synthesised from DNA, appeared first, and that DNA evolved from RNA. RNA is thought to be capable of self-replication. However, the appearance of RNA in a hypothesised pre-DNA ‘RNA world‘ presents the same problem.)
So how could such incredibly complex self-replicating molecules have come into existence? Perhaps it happened because – humour me – the universe (or multiverse if you like) has meaning, perhaps deriving from universal consciousness. Again, I’d suggest that meaning is never the product of random processes.
Random mutation, of course, fueled the natural selection which led from the first living organisms to humans capable of pondering the meaning of meaning. However, randomness and meaning are worlds apart.
Perhaps they’re in a hierarchy, with randomness subject to probability, and probability subject to meaning.
Try as it may, maths and science can’t yet explain the origin of life, what consciousness is, or the ultimate nature of the universe.
I’m a big fan of maths and science. I’d love science to have an explanation for everything; but perhaps some things are ineffable. Perhaps maths, for all its fundamental beauty, is the scaffolding rather than the be-all and end-all.
Perhaps the edifice supported by that scaffolding is a multiverse made of consciousness and meaning. If so, the meaning of life and the ‘purpose’ of DNA is to reflect multiversal meaning – a reflection exemplified by the works of Shakespeare.
I thought my post title was original – but, of course, it’s not. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism by Charles Ogden and Ivor Richards has been in print continuously since 1923.
The most recent publication is the critical edition prepared by Terrence Gordon as volume 3 of the 5-volume set C. K. Ogden & Linguistics (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995).
Wikipedia says the book proposes a contextual theory of signs: words and things are connected by signs that are the source of our power over the external world.
(I’d say: sod the signs, it’s language that has the power – the power of meaning.)
The book has been used as a textbook in many fields including linguistics, philosophy, language, cognitive science, semantics and semiotics. Umberto Eco described it as ‘a seminal book, whose merit was to say certain things well in advance of its time’.
In which I write a robust, generalised, secular humanist critique of Islam in the UK without being Islamophobic
Warning: the following article contains strong opinions. Devout Muslims of simple faith may wish to move along; anyone else, please read on…
Am I Islamophobic, frightened of Islam? If I believed the many rabid anti-Islamic websites out there, saying that Muslim immigration is a Trojan horse, about to destroy democracy, I probably would be. But I dont; and I’m not.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, here in the UK, I’ll explain why I don’t much like Islam as it is at the moment; and how that doesn’t make me Islamophobic.
Fact: Oil-rich Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars on the international promotion of Wahhabism/Salafism, widely recognised as one of fundamentalist Islam’s most extreme movements. Much of the money funds children’s education in British faith schools and mosques.
Fact: A headteacher friend told me that in her mainly-Muslim state primary school the day after 9/11, Muslim children were singing pro-Osama bin Laden chants.
Fact: There were demonstrations in London by Muslims against the war in Iraq and against offensive cartoons, but there have been no demonstrations against al-Qaeda or Isis. PR statements of condemnation and claims that Islam is a religion of peace are made, but Muslims have not accepted any responsibility for the brutal terrorism coming from within their religion. Many Muslims resort to elaborate conspiracy theories or blame foreign policy to justify denial.
Fact: A UK opinion poll has indicated significant support amongst Muslims for young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria. Another poll showed that a significant number of UK Muslims believe the 2005 7/7 London bombings were justified because of the west’s war on terror.
Does writing those things in a blog make me Islamophobic?
Fact: Muslims are taught that they shouldn’t live in a non-Muslim country, but if they do, they shouldn’t befriend non-Muslims. (Actually, despite being a native non-believer – I’m agnostic – I find UK Muslims friendly. But the teaching is there.)
Fact: A religious message has been circulated calling for Muslims to foster or adopt refugee Muslim orphans to save them from the ‘alien environment’ of non-Muslim homes. (Many ‘alien’ non-Muslims had come forward, but very few righteous Muslims had done so.)
The accusation of Islamophobia is the knee-jerk defensive response by Muslim spokespeople to any criticism of Islam. This is like the accusation of antisemitism made in response to any criticism of Israel or Zionism. (See my blog on the weird word ‘antisemitism‘.)
Words matter. As a critic of Islam, am I Islamophobic? The suffix ‘phobia’ can mean ‘aversion’, but it’s usually taken to mean ‘irrational fear’ (as in ‘claustrophobia’, meaning fear of enclosed spaces). The widespread use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ deflects criticism. Critics must be either irrational or fearful or both, so they can be ignored. Say the magic word, and the criticism doesn’t need to be addressed.
Am I irrationally frightened of Islam? We all could be rationally frightened of Islam, after the horrors of 9/11 and 7/7. (I say ‘we all’, because some of the victims were Muslims.) But personally, in spite of that, I’ve got no fear of Islam – rational or irrational – or of Muslims in general. So no, I’m not Islamophobic.
‘Anti-Islamic‘ is better than ‘islamophobic’, but that’s not quite right either for a liberal critic of Islam. What if you don’t like Islam as it is, but you’re not actually against it? There should be a suffix or prefix for ‘dislike it as it is at the moment’ – but there isn’t.
There’s a long-term grumbling undercurrent in the British host community of semi-coherent resentment of the post-war immigration project. The sudden influx of large numbers of foreign people, many with foreign languages and religions, was a shock.
If the host community had been consulted and had agreed to mass immigration, there might gave been a more welcoming and trusting environment, which might have made integration more successful.
(My post, Patriotism – for scoundrels addresses the current policy of trying to promote integration by teaching ‘British values‘ in schools.)
When resentment and distrust are aimed at Muslims, as they sadly often are, ‘Islamophobia’ is as good a word as any to describe it. But it won’t do as a blanket response to any criticism.
Openly anti-Islamic racist groups in the UK and Europe try to stir up fear of Islam, but fortunately they have little support in the UK. However, any western criticism of Islam inevitably risks conflation with racism. Most UK Muslims are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin and are therefore, like all immigrant communities, victims of racism.
Victimhood can become a bad habit – hence, perhaps, the over-use of the provocatively misleading word ‘Islamophobia’ – but the victims aren’t to blame. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, racism is deeply embedded in British culture. Liberal critics of Islam should tread lightly.
Is there such a person as a moderate Muslim? Google it, and you find many writers and thinkers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, saying ‘No’. The Muslim ‘No’ argument is that it’s not acceptable to be moderately dedicated to Islam; ‘moderate’ Muslims are on the slippery slope to apostasy and Hell.
Ordinary Muslims – decent, honest and friendly – are moderate, aren’t they? Thats what an anxious host community would like to think. But a powerful and communal ideological commitment combined with a sense of being beleaguered can nudge the most ordinary person into a bunker mentality.
(UK Muslims’ sense of being beleaguered, or even persecuted, is somewhat ridiculous when compared to real persecution. See my article about the previously saintly Aung San Suu Kyi and her Myanmar goverment’s brutal persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, Halo Goodbye, Suu – the Rohingya crisis.)
Moderate or not, Muslims say that Islam isn’t just a religion, it’s a way of life – one which must be preserved, and not be contaminated by integration with the decadent host community. This reluctance to integrate is the cause of most of the criticism, and of the consequent paranoid accusations of Islamophobia.
Symptoms of the host community’s supposed decadence include our acceptance of homosexuality and equality for women, and our lack of religious faith.
Young UK Muslims are often torn between the Islamic lifestyle – which secures their position in their extended family and the wider Muslim community – and the western lifestyle, which isn’t really that decadent, and which has attractions other than the merely material – mainly, the freedom to live how you want, within the protective barrier of reason and secular law.
This tension is expressed in a few cases by joining Isis (to escape temptation and see the world); or lapsing; and in most cases isn’t expressed at all, but simply bubbles under the surface. Perhaps surprisingly, many Muslim families have one or more lapsed or semi-lapsed members who are still very much part of the family.
In any case, the non-western lifestyle of most UK Muslims is not purely Islamic. Pakistani and Bangladeshi cultural traditions – north Indian, as they were for centuries before partition – are mixed with Islamic principle. For instance, most Islamic weddings ignore Quran-ordained simplicity in favour of expensive three-day celebrations with lavish gifts of gold jewellery and clothes.
Other unislamic traditions are less benign. Most UK ‘honour’ killing victims from 2009 to 2014 were of Pakistani origin. (1)
Muslims are entitled, of course, to preserve their way of life (within the law of the land), whether it’s strictly religious or not. There are other insular ethnic-religious groups in the UK that insist on keeping to a special lifestyle – for example, orthodox Jews. But Muslims are the only such group who’s religion is associated with worldwide sectarian and anti-west violence.
Muslims often say that the violence is unislamic. Even if that’s accepted (perhaps with some scepticism), there’s a worrying tendency for the culture of Islam in the west to self-segregate into an ideological supremacist fortress – nicely symbolised by the provocative wearing of eye-slit face veils.
Secular humanists look on with wariness and some distaste – but not Islamophobia.
(1)’Honour’ killing victims: Of the 22 out of 29 reported cases of ‘honour’ killings and attempted killings in 2010 where the ethnicity of the victim was known or alleged, 15 were of Pakistani origin (3 were Indian, 1 was Bangladeshi, 1 Palestinian/Syrian, 1 Kuwaiti and 1 white British) – The Henry Jackson Society database – reported cases of ‘honour’ killings and attempted killings in the UK between 31 December 2009 and 31 December 2014.
(The neoconservative HJS has form for being anti-Islamic, but these statistics appear to be sound.)
I put this to some Muslim scholars, liberals and reformers. So far, there have been two respondents, both reformers. They say that Islam needs to shed man-made sects (Sunnism, Sufism and Shiitism), disregard the extra texts (hadiths) and rely on the Quran, the interpretation of which is human and fallible. However, reform can have a bad side. The Wahabi/Salafi movement is a reformist movement, albeit an ultra-conservative Sunni one. Christian Reformation’sMartin Luther, a nasty piece of work, was calling for the burning of synagogues some 500 years ago. Thank goodness for the Enlightenment.
Muhammad’s nine-year old ‘wife’
One respondent said that the hadith about Muhammad having sex with his nine-year old ‘wife’, Aisha, is fabricated. However, there are apparently many supposedly reliable hadiths attesting to this ‘consummation of marriage’.
Some Muslims argue that Aisha was aged between 15 and 19 when the marriage was consumated, but most Muslims seem to accept that it happened when the girl was nine. Many Muslims apparently deal with criticism about it by saying that in a tropical climate, as in Arabia, girls reach puberty earlier, and that the nine-year-old must have been sexually mature.
I haven’t found any scientific evidence of earlier female puberty due to a hot climate. (I found some contradictory evidence: that girls mature later in hot climates.)
In any case, the idea of a 54-year-old man having sex with a nine-year-old girl, even if by by some freak of nature she’d reached puberty, seems profoundly wrong – at any point in history.
(There are also claims in anti-Islamic sites that Muhammad practised ‘thighing‘ on his child bride before she was nine. None of the ‘evidence’ links work. This appears to be a complete fabrication.)
A UK Guardian article by political editor Anushka Asthana reported the concerns of a leading expert on race and integration that British society is increasingly divided along ethnic lines, with segregation in schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces. In another article in the same edition, Labour MP Chuka Umunna warned of a ‘more ethnically segmented nation‘. Neither article explicitly mentioned Muslim communities, but both mentioned Oldham, a town in Greater Manchester which in 2001 was the scene of violent ethnically-motivated rioting between between local and Muslim communities.
So how come two commentators gave views on increasing segregation without mentioning the Muslim community?
The first Guardian article mentioned above gave the views of Professor Ted Cantle. I emailed Cantle, Chukka Umunna and Anushka Asthana, asking if they’d avoided mentioning Muslims. Umunna and Asthana haven’t replied (but see Update 2, below). Cantle replied, saying: ‘I would very much like details of the extent of segregation of Muslim and other faith communities. Unfortunately most of the analysis is in relation to ethnicity. I suspect that Muslim communities have become more isolated, as they feel somewhat beleaguered, and other communities have moved away from Muslim-associated areas.’ (My bolding.)
On this blog article, he said: ‘I am wary of over-generalisations about the Muslim community. I have learnt over the last 15 years just how diverse it is – theologically, culturally, politically, nationally, socially etc. I thought your blog failed to represent this diversity, even if some of the points may have been fair comment.’ Ouch.
On the first point, surely ‘Pakistani’ is effectively synonymous with ‘Muslim’, so if you know that people’s ethnicity is Pakistani, you know their faith is Muslim; and it’s common knowledge that Muslim communities tend to choose segregation, especially in the case of education, for religious reasons.
I put this to Prof Cantle. He said that (contrary to what I was suggesting) most Muslims are not Pakistani. He referred me to a residential-pattern analysis of the 2011 census figures, which does indeed show that in 2011 there were 2.7 million Muslims, but only 1.1 million people of Pakistani origin. That’s a surprisingly (surprising to me, anyway) low 40%. (A further 646,000 people were of Bangladeshi, Turkish or Somali origin, and there were about 100,000 converts, leaving about 900,000 Muslims of unknown ethnic origin. Apparently.)
Fair enough – the census has spoken. So why did I think that most UK Muslims were of Pakistani origin? I think it’s because whenever Muslims appear in the UK media, whether ordinary people, politicians, community leaders, writers, artists, actors, musicians or TV pundits, they’re nearly always of Pakistani origin. In other words, UK Muslim culture is represented by people of Pakistani origin. So arguably, when analysing UK trends, ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Muslim’ are effectively interchangeable.
Also, the census analysis addresses residential segregation; but what about educational segregation? That subject was discussed at length in the Guardian article – without any mention of faith groups. Can there really be no details available of the extent of educational segregation of Muslim and other faith groups? It’s well known that Muslims choose educational segregation for religious reasons, and that this has been a matter of high-profile public concern for some time (eg, the murky but inconclusive Trojan Horse affair). So it’s difficult to see how this can be overlooked in an in-depth expert review of the subject. (And what about the Wahabi/Salafi oil money funding UK faith schools?)
Other faiths have their own conservative schools, of course, most of which are funded by the state – whereas Muslim schools, on the whole, aren’t. The solution, though, is not to have more state-funded Muslim schools, but to end all state-funded faith schools, and enforce the teaching of the Enlightenment values of liberty, self-determination and personal responsibility that Western liberal democracy is built on. Western values, if you like. (Just dont call them ‘British’ values. See more on the legislation requiring the teaching of British values in my blog article, ‘Patriotism – for scoundrels‘.)
In any case, Muslim self-segregation applies to other areas of life as well.
I’ve since found that, contrary to what Prof Cantle said, there is published research on faith-based segregation. But for whatever reason, Cantle, Umunna and The Guardian are not discussing this. I suspect that the reason is their fear of being thought to be Islamophobic or – even worse – politically incorrect.
Another integration expert, Professor Tariq Modood, has told me that only 7% of Muslims choose Muslim faith-schools as compared with 50% of Jews.
However, that may be a function of the very low number of state-sanctioned Muslim schools as compared with other faiths. Also, the perception of educational segregation comes not so much from the numbers as from the illiberal Wahabi/Salafi teaching that is sought to be imposed.
Guardian polical editor Anushka Asthana (see Postscript 2, above) has finally replied (after some prompting) to my question about the two Guardian articles that discussed segregation without mentioning Muslims. She didn’t refer to the Chukka Umunna article; but she said that in her article, Prof Cantle did mention faith schools. However, I think the Guardian should set things right by explicitly addressing Muslim self-segregation.Top 🔼