from Pantperthog to Knockando

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A review of Godless Morality by Richard Holloway

Over a decade ago I was reviewing books for the trade journal of UK Christian bookshops. I was sent a book by Richard Holloway, who had just left the ordained priesthood in the Anglican Church. He had stepped down from the role of Bishop, which is obviously fairly high up in that denomination, and was now embracing life after theism. The book I was reviewing had a write up of Richard that mentioned he was the author of Godless Morality - a title that intrigued me. So when I found a second hand copy recently I bought it to see what he had to say.

It's a short read and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he had to say. His basic premise is that because theologians and religious leaders can't agree definitively on what constitutes moral or immoral behaviour, this throws the legitimacy of basing morality on religion into question.

He points out that coercing moral behaviour by insisting people behave a certain way is often far less effective than if people consent to certain moral standards. That's a very important point when so many religious people seem to want to make laws for everyone else to follow. You could possibly change the way people behave but you will not make them want to behave that way by forcing them to.

Instead, Richard suggests that authority has to earn respect through the "intrinsic value of what it says", not because it can impose moral parameters on people and make them behave a particular way. The moral philosophy in the book isn't complicated. Richard makes a good case that morality based on preventing harm is pretty much universal and can therefore act as a base for a moral system that does not depend on religious revelations of what is right and wrong.

But harm must be evidenced - and the evidence for harm to the individual and to society is lacking for a number of things that are proscribed by religion. Ultimately, in Richard's view, many religious statements on morality come down to preference because they cannot explain why doing or not doing a particular action will cause harm. He is particularly critical of people ascribing their own preferences to 'God'; with people even sometimes admitting the course of action they claim is divinely mandated, and therefore 'moral', is unfair or defective, and yet because it is labelled as 'God's will' they will not countenance change.

Richard sums this up by saying identifying "transient social attitudes" with 'God's will' has in the past given religions great power, but is now what is frequently rendering religion irrelevant. Enshrining the mores of the past as eternal means that when society changes, religion struggles to keep up. It becomes a living museum of dimly-remembered attitudes that are seen as no longer useable in the world most people navigate daily.

That's all pretty sharp and is still very effective anti-fundamentalist thinking. Unfortunately, in the 17 years since this book was published, there has been a great amount of change in many of the ethical areas Richard looks at in later chapters. The commentary on human fertility has dated badly, while the legislation of gay marriage was not even on the agenda back in 1999 when the book was written.

But over all I felt there were still several important things in the book, particularly that idea of basing morality in a common universal ethic instead of competing truth claims within and between religions, and the idea that moral behaviour people consent to is more binding than behaviour that is coerced.

The book concludes with a 'look ahead' that depicts humanity standing on the cusp of a future that it shapes for itself, through gene technology and other triumphs over the natural barriers that prevent humans from achieving more. It is an interesting vision of the future from a churchman. It isn't the classic eschatalogical hope of Christianity, but it is hope nonetheless. Knowing Richard's trajectory, and how in a few short years he would formally reject the faith he was still ostensibly part of when he wrote Godless Morality makes this final section very interesting. It was also personally quite challenging to find myself agreeing with so much of what he wrote, given the path he was on in his faith.

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Monday, July 04, 2016

USA & Canada 2016 - the long trip back to the coast and the last few days

This is my last post in the series detailing our trip to the USA and Canada. It was six weeks ago today that we arrived back in the UK.

As mentioned in the previous post, we crossed over the Rainbow Bridge next to Niagara Falls and started the 300 or so mile trip across New York State.

Before we left Canada we went to a rare Canadian IHOP, where I had the healthy breakfast. It had fruit on it and everything.


(Here's some proof it was Canadian - the Maple Leaf in the O of IHOP)


Our destination was Albany where we were going to stay the night before driving across Massachusetts the following day. Unfortunately the motel we had booked there was not a good place. It was the same chain we had stayed in back in Niagara, but in Albany the building and bedroom was filthy. We checked in and then we did something we had never done before - we checked back out again! There was another hotel across the road, and we got a room there. It wasn't great, but at least we didn't feel like we would wake up murdered.

We got out of Albany pretty quickly the following morning. We had quite a bit of driving to do. Cathy took a lot of photos out of the windows because there was always something to see. Whether that was the expanse of sky over the open country...


...or flame-decals on big red trucks.



We stopped at one of West Massachusetts's biggest tourist attractions: the factory outlet for the Yankee Candle company.


If you like Yankee Candles, then you need to go to Yankee Candle Village. Even if you don't, it's worth a visit. They have a year-round Christmas village full of decorations. O gauge trans run overhead in many of the rooms. They have a great toy shop, which includes this Lego model of  the 'Village'.


Eventually we got back in the car and drove back right through Boston and up towards Marblehead, a little town on the coast. We had much nicer lodgings here, in a B&B.


There isn't much in Marblehead.


But they do have a very nice headland, that is peaceful and scenic.


It has this oddly-constructed lighthouse on it.


There's also a fort and a harbour. There is a lot of history in the place. The first ship commissioned into the new United States navy after the declaration of independence was from Marblehead.

It's also just down the coast from Salem, which is of course famous for one thing - the witch trials. The town now is full of occulty shops selling witchy tat. It also has a statue of America's most loved witch, Samantha from Bewitched.


And it's not all witches. There were a number of churches too.


We had lunch at the sci-fi themed Flying Saucer Pizza Company restaurant. They did vegan pizzas. Their decor was all kinds of ace.


As was their signage.


The following day we headed back to Boston to the airport, stopping on the way on another headland called Nahant, where we got a view across the water of the Boston skyline in the distance.



Soon we were driving back into Boston. On the way to Marblehead we had passed this gloriously named place.

On the way back we saw this confusing signage that I'm sure had a deeper meaning.


We were leaving Wonderland and coming home. It had been an epic 17 days and it was all over far too soon.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

USA & Canada 2016 - Niagara Falls

I wasn't sure about Niagara Falls. But as we were kind of near, it felt silly not to go and see them. I didn't really know what to expect - would it be the slight underwhelming of the Grand Canyon? Or the unexpected brilliance of Monument Valley?

We stopped on our way out of Toronto at a mall which had a Pickle Barrel restaurant. I had pancakes. They were easily the best pancakes I had all trip. I will do another blog post about pancakes one day. I just wanted to mention them.

We arrived in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side), dropped our car at the motel and wandered down to the main bit of the town. Our first stop was the Skylon Tower.


It's very reasonable and from the top you get great views. (Probably helped by it being a lovely sunny day.)

The 'American Falls' are off to the left.


The Horseshoe Falls, which are the 'Canadian Falls' are off to the right.


You get to see how far in the boats go.


The boat ride was part of the plan. We bought the double-ticket for a daytime cruise and nighttime cruise with fireworks.



We began at this important stop.


Where we got our fetching 'one-size-fits-none' poncho.


You can upgrade to more substantial ponchos for a fee. Maybe we should have because as soon as you get out on the boat and into the spray the poncho inflates and the water flies up the sleeves.


The water-level view is great.


But close to the falls you can't see anything for the mist and spray. It's beyond noisy as well.



Back off the boat we took a walk up Clifton Hill, which is tacky beyond all reason, with souvenir shops, lazer tag, haunted houses (plural!), and other wet weather 'attractions'.


Up Clifton Hill is the Sky Wheel, right next to the rather ace looking Dinosaur Adventure Golf.


The views of the falls from the Sky Wheel are OK. But not as good as the views of the dinosaur golf.


Or the tacky bits of Clifton Hill.



The Canadians have the American tendency of building casinos next to big tourist attractions. One of the biggest casino hotels also had a Hershey's Chocolate Store. We posed for a selfie with one of their mascots.


Before heading back to walk along the promenade, looking at the falls.


You can get very close to the edge. Watching the water go over is hypnotic.


The spray coming off the falls means that near the edge it is permanently 'raining'.


Which means if the sunlight is at the right angle you can see a rainbow in the spray - a spraybow.


Here is a video of a complete spraybow. (It's 30 seconds long)



You can eat right at the edge of the falls in a fully spray-proof restaurant.


As dusk descends they turn on powerful searchlights to illuminate the falls.


And soon it was time for us to poncho up and head back out on the boat. We didn't go as far into the falls at night, and then stayed stationary mid-stream as fireworks popped brightly above us. It was one of those magical moments.


So what was the verdict? Niagara Falls was well worth doing, I think we did most of the best bits. There is a place where you can go down behind some of the falls and there are a few things on the American side. But considering we got there about noon, I don't feel we missed much by only having an afternoon and evening there.

We got to see the falls again the next day, as we crossed over the Rainbow Bridge to the US Customs point, re-entering America at the start of a mammoth two day, 450 mile drive across New York and Massachusetts. This was the final leg of our amazing trip and I'll blog about it next.

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

USA & Canada 2016 - Toronto Zoo

We took a whole day to visit the Toronto Zoo, mainly because this offered us the best chance to see some genuine Canadian/American animals without going out looking for them. And as one of the animals we wanted to see was a grizzly bear, this was probably the safest way too.

Because grizzly bears are massive.


We started our visit with a ride on the zoo train that took us to the Canadian zone.


We arrived at the grizzly enclosure in time for feeding. The food was fruit and vegetables lobbed over the wall. Some went in the pool, so the bears went in the pool to get it.


Make no mistake, they look cute, but these animals could rip you limb from limb and not really exert themselves doing it.


Near to the grizzlies were the moose. They were rather diffident and were happy to lie down some distance away from the nosey visitors. But seeing a real live moose meant Cathy ticked something off her lifetime goals list.


We then walked past the wolves...


To get to the polar bear feeding time.


Again, there were on a more veggie-based diet than I expected.


But a few fish were chucked in and you could watch them dive for them.


And even get to high five the bears through the glass if you were quick.


The last bears on our trip were non-native to Canada.



Although, two would now qualify for Canadian passports.


The cubs in questions were snoozing photogenically.


While mommy panda (pictured above) munched through a load of bamboo. Her technique was to cover herself in bamboo and eat her way out.


I filmed her eating. This lasts one minute.



Meanwhile daddy panda was outside, snoozing in the sun.

And that was (just some of) our day at Toronto Zoo.

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