Advertising Net Culture Religion

The Vatican and the ethics of advertising…

I’ve discovered that in one territory at least I’m in perfect tune with The Vatican, or at least with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I confess, this was entirely unexpected. From their perspective perhaps it would reassure them that there is hope even for the godless. From mine, it suggests that much of human ethical behaviour is biologically hard-wired and that it can be extraordinarily beneficial to an individual from a social species like ours to operate in altruistic and honourable ways. For more on that, if you’re interested, I can recommend pretty much everything but the last chapter of Matt Ridley’s extroardinary The Origins of Virtue.

The area that has triggered such an outpouring of love between the Pope and myself is advertising. It’s a territory that’s been on my mind a lot recently, along with marketing and particularly public relations. I’ve been trying to work out in my head what I think of all of these industries, which are both seemingly necessary and fundamental to the world we live in and yet simultaneously–to me at least–obviously ethically dubious. The Vatican seems to agree. Even though it has a pretty balanced view of these industries, recognising the good they can do, it also defines public relations as, ‘the systematic effort to create a favorable public impression or “image” of some person, group, or entity’. It’s difficult to view that description as anything but faintly damning.

When confronted with any accusation that industries like advertising are intrinsically dubious, however, the same arguments are trotted out in its defence. The one that I find particularly offensive (while accepting that it is not representative of the entire industry) starts off with the (entirely reasonable) move of declaring me and my sort hopelessly na√Øve and idealistic. It then roams off into altogether less plausible territory, first stating that we live in a world fundamentally red in tooth and claw and then retreating back into a weird childish rhetoric: “Everybody’s doing it, so why can’t we?”.

The most grotesque example of this position that I’ve ever read was in a book by celebrated advertising guru Paul Arden called It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. I can’t find any of the (limited) substance of the book online to interrogate accurately and I absolutely refuse to buy a copy, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to hopelessly mischaracterise from memory.

In the book Arden confronts in two small pages of large type (with pictures) the question of whether advertising is fundamentally immoral. The question he’s specifically addressing is basically this – isn’t trying to make something look better than it is to sell it really a form of lying?

His response is to cite some examples of when people engage in advertising every day. He talks about the person who dresses nicely to go outside, or puts on make-up. These people are engaging in advertising he declares, and we don’t decry them. So what’s the problem? Then he talks about a vicar standing up in church and proselytising the Word of God. Clearly, Arden argues, in trying to make God sound sexy to his audience, the vicar is engaging in advertising. And if they’re doing it, what’s wrong with me selling the odd Pot Noodle, some powdered milk, a couple of MIG fighter jets or the Labour party? Just to be clear, I chose these examples on his behalf.

When I first heard this argument I was absolutely horrified and explored its logic to try and work out if it made any sense. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t. And here’s why. The whole position is based on a weak argument by analogy. Argument by analogy works on the basis that if two things are similar in one or many ways that one can argue that they are similar in another. Getting dressed up is an attempt to put someone in a positive light. Talking about God from the pulpit is an attempt to represent a position or belief system in the best light. Advertising is an attempt to put any object or pattern of thought in the best light. There is nothing wrong with the first two and therefore there is nothing wrong with the third.

But this only works if the three things are truly similar. So here’s the test – can we think of any significant differences between the advertising executive, the business woman dressing for work and the country vicar? Is there any possibility that the concept of ‘promoting the good’ might mean something rather different for each of them? The answer should be obvious.

Nonetheless, let’s dig into it a bit more. Number one – do people ‘buy’ other people as products, and are they likely to be seriously misled about paying for someone’s services if the physical appearance of the person without their clothes and make-up on is radically different from their appearance with them on. Answer, almost exclusively no. So the analogy doesn’t stand. Women who look nice are not normally engaging in the same kinds of exchanges as those that advertising participates in.

There are exceptions of course, so let’s look at one of them. An apparently attractive female prostitute is paid for by a young man. The man ‘falls’ for her positive messaging and invests money in the possibility of intercourse only to discover she is in fact a man in drag. This might be considered a closer analogy to the process of advertising. Is he likely to be happy about this exchange? Is he likely to think it harmless? If we said this was ‘like advertising’ would we think of advertising in a positive light. Probably not. We may not have much sympathy for the john in question, but that’s not really the issue.

And do we really think that the vicar stands up and sells God each week purely in order to get his salary and nice house? I would argue that he or she would have at some basic level a belief in the divinity they were talking about. Do we think an advertising executive has the same belief in Pot Noodles as a vicar has in God? Again, clearly not. The analogy again does not stand. If there’s a process of selling going on at all, it’s a very different one indeed.

The truth is, many of these jobs (marketing, advertising and public relations) are business optimisations. A division of labour between people who make and people who promote results in more efficient practice in both. But separating the jobs in this way also has its risks – it cuts off being an advocate from believing in what you advocate, from making the thing you advocate, from being responsible for the thing you advocate. And with the personal social responsibility for what comes out of your mouth removed, then there’s an obvious tendency towards corruption and lying.

And yet, advertising, marketing and public relations can result in a better world. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications says so in their work on Ethics in Advertising (Part Two, The Benefits of Advertising), and I agree:

Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development. It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, which today either exist or are emerging in many parts of the world and which — provided they conform to moral standards based upon integral human development and the common good — currently seem to be “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” of a socio-economic kind.

Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy analogous to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. As free and responsible media in a democratic system help to counteract tendencies toward the monopolization of power on the part of oligarchies and special interests, so political advertising can make its contribution by informing people about the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates, including new candidates not previously known to the public.

Because of the impact advertising has on media that depend on it for revenue, advertisers have an opportunity to exert a positive influence on decisions about media content. This they do by supporting material of excellent intellectual, aesthetic and moral quality presented with the public interest in view, and particularly by encouraging and making possible media presentations which are oriented to minorities whose needs might otherwise go unserved.

So what is to be done? Advertising has its value, it’s clear. It’s important that it exists in the world and it’s not going anywhere. But it’s also clear that people involved in advertising–like Paul Arden in fact–are prepared to leap through highly dubious intellectual hoops to defend their sense that ‘everyone else does it, so why can’t we?’ when it comes to massaging or deforming the truth, with no sense of context.

Which brings me to the Vatican’s recommendations, as filtered through Creative Review and noted down on Design Observer as “What God Says”. If you can find me an individual who works in advertising who follows these rules, then they’ll have my respect. However, I suspect that it will be easier to squeeze a camel through an eye of a needle…

  1. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do.
  2. It is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation
  3. The content of communication should be communicated honestly and properly.
  4. Advertising may not deliberately seek to deceive by what it says, what it implies or what it fails to say.
  5. Abuse of advertising can violate the dignity of the human person, appealing to lust, vanity, envy and greed.
  6. Advertising to children by exploiting their credulity and suggestibility offends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents.
  7. Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle is harmful to individuals and society alike.
  8. Clients who commission work can create powerful inducements to unethical behaviour.
  9. Political advertising is an appropriate area for regulation: how much money may be spent, how and from whom money may be raised.
  10. Advertisers should undertake to repair the harm done by advertising.

P.S. I wonder if anyone has had the nerve to turn these into a simple ten commandments of advertising?


On maps of religious adherents in America…

I was talking to Kerry Bailey the other day and – on the pretty feeble pretext that “you like maps, right” – he directed me to a fascinating post about Religion in America in which county-by-county maps of the US predeliction for various forms of religious belief have been posted and discussed. It’s such a fascinating piece of work – illuminating clumps of different religious communities around the place (Jews, Muslims, Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals etc). My own personal theory – that places with a lot of different religious groups living together tend to be more secular – does not seem to be immediately supported by the evidence. I wonder if there are maps like this for Europe. That would be fascinating.

Academia Health Journalism Politics Religion Science

On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…

While I’m talking about the Guardian (reports from friends within the printing presses are that it’s looks beautiful), i thought I should probably mention an article that I read on Thursday last week which I thought was one of the most important things I’ve heard people say in the media for a long time. Ben Goldacre’s piece on why bad science gets promulgated by the media hit more chords for me than any nearby troupe of jazz pianists could have accomplished in their natural lifetimes. And while I thought it was a little blanketly dismissive of ‘humanities graduates’, I do fundamentally agree that humanities graduates are now taught to mistrust science and push the idea of it as just one of many competing discourses. Over the last six or seven years I’ve become more and more suspicious of these rhetorics in the arts, and more and more aware of how they’re being appropriated by mystics and creationists in the States.

The other thing that frankly scared me was that the article – for the first time I think – really expressed the damage that the media can do with the rubbish it writes in search of a story. That I’m not sure I could stand up and point to one news organisation that takes their responsibility in this area particularly seriously really brought home Ben Goldacre’s point for me. If you can stomach it, you should read the whole damn thing: Don’t dumb me down – We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics…

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria

Religion Science

Science (and evolution) is not a matter of faith…

You know what the real problem is with Intelligent Design? You know why it seems impossible to make it clear to people why it is such total bunk? It’s because the battle was conceded years ago in a parallel argument. Here’s my understanding of the philosophy of science – someone proposes a hypothesis, people test it. If the hypothesis is disproven it is thrown aside. Science is a process of throwing away hypotheses that do not work. It evolves and changes. It is as simple a process as working out that spilling hot things on yourself is something you don’t want to do twice, because the hypothesis, “it is nice to spill hot things on yourself” can be swiftly and easily determined to be untrue. Scientific rationality never claims things to be true beyond all doubt, unless they can be proven in self-contained conceptual systems like maths. In science, any theory is there to be disproven. People make careers out of challenging the work of their predecessors. Science is a process of self-critique.

But it’s not just about having hypotheses and testing them. Scientific rationality is also about understanding the nature of hypotheses themselves. Firstly, there may be an infinite number of hypotheses to test – even if they are only subtly different from one another. As such, with the sheer variety of options, it’s probable you will never achieve an answer that you can say is true beyond all doubt. But you can get pretty close. One step is to undergo testing of reasonable hypotheses. But the other is to pass over the infinite number of untestable hypotheses that also exist. These can be passed over because there is no logical basis for giving any one of those theories any credence over any other. Untestable concepts, untestable hypotheses must be treated with enormous scepticism in any rational attempt to understand the world.

Now we get to religion. I am an atheist of long-standing. Other people believe in a god of some kind. I think they’re wrong but it’s their right to make that error. What is interesting is when people try to move the terms of the debate to deny the existence of atheism itself. The argument bascially goes like this – given that you cannot prove that god doesn’t exist, then atheism is as much a matter of faith as religion. In fact, they argue, atheism is not even really a sustainable position – you can only really be agnostic.

This argument is founded on the assumption that one particular untestable hypothesis – no matter how fantastic – is different from all the others, and that we must give it more credence than equally provable ones about space aliens, pastafarian gods and the like. But it is the responsibility of the person promulgating a hypothesis to demonstrate that it is testable and that the results can be repeated. By allowing ourselves to lower that expectation, and to allow people to conflate a process of testing with a process of justifying, we’ve made it possible for people to argue that not believing any random theory that someone conjectures on the spot is a matter of faith – as good or as bad as any other theory.

We’re reaping Intelligent Design because we allowed the sowing of a view of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as parallel activities. They are not parallel activities. They are precisely different activities. They are not two approaches on the same quest for truth, they are two different processes with two different ends. They may be compatible views for people prepared to accept faith as the answer to areas where hypotheses cannot be tested, but that compatibility is predicated on the two world views operating on different levels, in different territories. Intelligent Design and Evolution are not equivalents. They too operate on different levels, in different territories. We cannot be asked to believe Intelligent Design on the basis that it’s as good a theory as any other that hypotheses magic to fill gaps in logic. Nor should we accept the characterisation of the scientific approach as one based on faith. We have to fix that earlier mistake on first principles if we expect to move forward.

Gay Politics Religion

On the existence of God…

I’m an atheist. I have been for nearly twenty years, and before that I wasn’t really anything – I didn’t really have a position on God vs. No God. I suppose I just hadn’t thought about it properly. I can’t really understand how anyone can be anything other than an atheist, but – despite my incredulity – people do still seem to conjure for themselves other non-atheistic options from the spiritual ether.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t understand how people can even vaguely justify theism (or even agnosticism) that I find myself continually in debates about the issue. I find myself explaining my stance on religion at least once a month. At one stage – while I was at University – I went through a bit of a phase of reading other people’s books on why they didn’t believe in ‘god’ either. These books were routinely extremely boring, because fundamentally the intellectual labour involved in making a highly convincing ‘anti-god’ case is so trivial that it feels out of place in the mouths or books of scholars. Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian was one of those books. I read it to see if I could find a new way to translate the obviousness of atheism to the people I routinely found myself in argument with. But fundamentally, it was the same as every other book of its kind. Obvious. Self-explanatory. Tedious. Repetitive. And yet – despite the banality of the arguments, religious people just don’t seem to get it.

I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that the experience feels real to them and that they derive value from it, and I have to confess that as long as religious reasoning is kept completely separate from policy decisions, logic and the like (ie. as long as people’s personal beliefs have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the rest of the world), then I have no problem with it. But unfortunately that’s very seldom the case. Every so often something frustrating happens to remind you exactly how unresponsive religion is to societal development and our increasing understanding of the world around us. Case in point? There is now around a hundred years of evidence that people who are gay are not gay by choice, and that their sexuality is not infectious in any way (and hence not – in any way – a risk to ‘moral fibre’). A hundred years of evidence accumulated – leading to the conclusion (reached by sets of researchers across the world, health organisations, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, geneticists and ethologists) that someone being gay causes no one any harm. And what do you have on the other side? A couple of lines in a book written in the middle east several thousand years ago (filtered through a wide variety of cultural contexts which managed to cheerfully mutate meanings in all kinds of intriguing and implausible ways). And it’s this dubious translation of a few words of a several thousand year old work of historical fiction that prompts the Vatican to declare their profound dismay at the possibility that gay couples might come to enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexual ones – rights that fundamentally come down to being the default person that inherits when the other dies, or the right to have some kind of say in the health care of your loved-one if they happen to fall dangerously ill.

According to that document from the Vatican, I’m suffering from a ‘depravity’, I undertake ‘grave sins’, I’m ‘intrinsically disordered’. And that’s within the first screenful. Not only that, “all persons committed to promoting and defending the common good of society” should be working to stop me have sexual consenting relationships with other people. Because – of course, how foolish of me – I can obviously have no interest in the common good of society. The document talks about the need to “safeguard public morality and, above all, to avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon” as if heterosexuality were such a trivial and slight state-of-being that even the merest whiff of same-sex action could tantalise even the most apparently straight white-bread down-home farm-boy or girl. Moreover, the document states that, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” Tolerating our evil is one thing, apparently. Approving of it is something else entirely.

Frankly, it is the evil in the Vatican’s document – the fact that it will have a massively negative effect in some people’s lives and no positive effect on anyone else’s – that I don’t approve of. And increasingly I find myself no longer interested in tolerating it either. Still more even than that – I feel increasingly close to losing any tolerance of religious dispositions per se. Because while I’d like to say that it’s just Catholicism that’s seriously pissing me off, it’s not really Catholicism at all – it’s any approach to anything that would put more credence in statements (not even arguments) written thousands of years ago than in the accreted wisdom of hundreds of years that’s at our disposal now.

A few weeks ago I collided with a group of Christians proselytising their religion through song in Leicester Square. I was with Cal and Katy at the time. We’d just been to see a film. In the middle of the street, with no apparent prompting, a smart mobbish group of people started praising their Lord. I ended up explaining to one of them that Christian philosophy had sizable origins in Neo-Platonist collisions with the Semitic tradition, and that it had incredible analogues with some aspects of Dionysian Mystery cults. I pointed out that it was created in a moment of history and that its interpretation had changed dramatically over the years. I pointed out that it might very well not have existed in any plausible form any more if it hadn’t been for the Emperor Constantine using it as a binding agent for a failing Roman Empire – and that the same emperor hadn’t found their Christianity enough of a barrier to stop them murdering their own wife and son. I explained that while Christianity seemed transhistorical and transcendent – that originally it was just one of many different cult practices that exploded in a region at a certain time in history. And that none of these things made it untrue as such – but that they certainly challenged the monolithic image of Christianity as a pure beam of message from God – and that anyone who was going to seriously consider dedicating their life to a religious practice should probably do some bloody research beforehand…

But when we get right down to it, that kind of argument doesn’t really seem to help anyone any more than the debate I’ve been engaged in on Barbelith for the last couple of weeks (On Religion) or, indeed, the extremely entertaining 300 proofs for the existence of God which are derived (often) from actual philosophical positions over the centuries, and which I’ll append to the bottom of this post, because they’re so good. In fact I don’t know of anything that’s going to do any good in this situation, except a faith – not in divinity – but in humanity’s capability to tell its arse from its elbow. Unfortunately, this too is a faith I lost a number of years ago…

From 300 proofs for the existence of God:

(1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause.
(2) I say the universe must have a cause.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) I define God to be X.
(2) Since I can conceive of X, X must exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) I can conceive of a perfect God.
(2) One of the qualities of perfection is existence.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If evolution is false, then creationism is true, and therefore God exists.
(2) Evolution can’t be true, since I lack the mental capacity to understand it; moreover, to accept its truth would cause me to be uncomfortable
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If there is no God then we’re all going to die.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) [arbitrary passage from OT]
(2) [arbitrary passage from NT]
(3) Therefore, God exists

Other stuff I’ve written about religion: On American Science and Fundamentalist Christianity, God as plot device.

Religion Science

On America, Science and Fundamentalist Christianity…

Probably the one thing I understand least about America is its relationship with religion. American is a country that (i) is particularly known for not being hide-bound by convention in science or business and (ii) often demonstrates an astonishing (and often laudable) amount of bombast and rule-breaking in both domestic and foreign-affairs. How then can it be that so many elements of American life can be held so firmly under the sway of religious fundamentalism?

You’d think this kind of thing would be more of a problem for countries like the UK – old European powers whose organisation includes no inbuilt distinctions between church and state. I mean – look at the facts – in the UK, the monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The same woman is also the country’s Head of State and has been for over fifty years. The UK also has – by law or convention – several representatives of the Church of England in our Upper House (The House of Lords), although there is considerable discussion ongoing about whether they should be there or whether all religions in the country should be represented.

But in fact the UK’s religious right has radically less power within the country than in the US. Presidents of the United States essentially have to be church-going Christians. Church-going in the UK is simply considered a bit odd. We have anti-abortion campaigners just like in the US, but nowhere near as many and nor are they so overtly religious. And while it would be naive of me to say that there are no schools in the UK in which creationism or intelligent design are taught, I can’t find any evidence that it’s even mentioned in the UK’s National Curriculum or that any religiously-tinted competitors for evolution are presented as of equal plausibility.

It’s the effects of religion on science, I think, that most appals me. I don’t believe – never have believed – that science is a completely value-free space. Decisions are made every day about what to study, who to study (and what not to study as well). Initial hypotheses are almost necessarily built upon assumption, intuition and the influx of current mainstream political consensus. But the idea that challenges to theories like “evolution” can circumvent the entire academic peer-review and testing process by way of the courts – inspired by people who want to find ways to equate the world with their religious beliefs… Well, it’s scandalous! Totally, utterly scandalous!

The Guardian is running an article in its new Life section today on exactly this subject: The Battle for American Science. It’s this article that part-inspired me to write about this subject today. Here’s a quote from it:

Critics speak with similar alarm about other theories that have been getting a new airing recently, on Aids and abstinence and global warming, for example – theories presented as rival scientific ideas asking only for a “fair hearing”. “It’s a very good rhetorical strategy, because it appeals to the very American sense of openness and fair play,” says Miller. “But there’s something called the scientific process, you know – involving open publication, criticism, and rejection of things that aren’t convincing. We don’t teach both sides of the germ theory of disease and faith-healing. Evolution isn’t in the classroom because of political action or court decisions. It’s in the classroom because it made it through, it stood up to scrutiny and became the scientific consensus. It fought the battle and won.”


God as plot device…

One of the more interesting quizzes I’ve taken recently examines the logical consistency of one’s beliefs about god. I’m a staunch atheist, and have been for over fifteen years now. My ideas consolidated around the time I was Christened in fact – essentially against my will at the late age of thirteen.

To me ‘god’ seems such an implausible idea – like a spacial anomaly in Star Trek – something that fulfils a plot function, but seems a bit of a cliché the three-thousandth time it’s used to explain why something unexpected happens. People have so much need for a god figure to provide a sense of purpose to life. I don’t know if I’m happier for not having a purpose – but I don’t think I could have any self-respect if I secretly believed my purpose was a placebo but went along with it anyway.

The quiz tells me that I’m essentially very consistent in my views about god. In fact it only criticises me in one area – and I actually think it’s wrong to do so. The quiz told me, “You’ve taken a direct hit! You said earlier that God doesn’t exist and you claimed that if she does not exist there is no basis for morality. Therefore, you are committed to the view that there is no basis for morality. But now you say that torturing innocent people is morally wrong. But if there is no basis for morality, then you cannot rationally say of any act that it is morally wrong.”

It seems to me that morality is a more noble achievement if it is wrought than if it is given. Just because there is no one to judge us at the end of our lives, does not mean that we don’t feel the need to be judged? And if there are standards to judge us by – even standards we just decide to judge ourselves by – then does it matter where they come from? … whether they come from biology, or from society’s inculcation of belief, or from the spread of virulent memes. As long as we’ve fought to clarify our beliefs, as long as we haven’t simply believed what we have been told, as long as we’ve struggled for consistency and clarity and to do what we believe to be best, then why can’t we call that a man-made morality to be proud of – and not less proud of because it’s in defiance of a godless, arbitrary universe – but more proud that we have been able to create meaning of some kind for ourselves in the midst of total darkness.


Is Mark going to hell?

I’m worried about Mark: “One more thing I’d like to record is that today my father implied he thinks i’m going to hell. He explained to me his concern, that he’d like me to be with him when we both eventually die, and he’s worried about that not happening, because I study different religions …now, that’s pretty horrible.” Of course I’m an atheist, so at one level this would of course sound horrific to me. But I suppose the core question is whether it is worse to believe that your son might not experience an afterlife, or to enforce your beliefs upon them. A horrible situation to be in, for all concerned…


Is Christianity vanquished in the UK?

I haven’t believed in god for over fifteen years now.

I was thirteen when my little brother was born. My mother had come into the TV room and sat me down on the tan sofa and asked me how I’d feel about having a little brother or sister. I said that I didn’t want one. My mother looked slightly perturbed and said that I was going to have one anyway. I remember not being entirely thrilled by the news.

By the time my brother was born I was totally excited by the idea. My mother went into labour early in the morning and I was woken up by her smiling beatifically at the end of the bed ad patting her bulge and telling me to get ready. I couldn’t have been more excited. I got into my school uniform and we drove into Norwich, where we went and made sure my mother was comfortable. Then my father drove me into school and then, for some ungodly reason, went to work.

I remember talking to my friends about the new arrival during lunch break, standing on the doorsteps of Norwich Cathedral. But somehow, by the time school had ended, I’d completely forgotten about it. It was only the sight of a friend of my mother’s waiting to pick me up that reminded me. We went and bought a teddy bear for my little brother and drove to the hospital to see him.

Months later, he was to be Christened. I had never been Christened – my life had been so disorganised and random in my earlier years that no one had gotten around to it. It had become a badge of honour to me in some ways. Everyone I knew had been Christened – I was special, weird, a thirteen-year-old rationalist philosopher surrounded by superstition and madness. But despite taking pride in it, I’d never really thought about whether there actually was a god or not. When my mother said that she would like it if I got Christened along with my brother, I was forced to think about it for the first time. And I was horrified. I just didn’t believe it all. It seemed so ridiculous. Such a ludicrous proposition. It just didn’t make any sense. Nonetheless, bowing to parental pressure I went through with the ceremony, feeling awkward and hypocritical all the way through.

Yesterday the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, declared that Christianity was ‘almost vanquished in the UK’ [BBC News]. He said that people in Britain were now seemingly indifferent to Christian values and the Church. To me this can only be a positive sign. Whatever else might be lacking in people’s lives, they no longer feel that the mystical texts of another people half a world away and thousands of years old can patch up that hole. To me it seems like they’ve all been set free.