This is an angry post, by far the angriest that I have made. That’s not an apology. It’s only a warning. It’s about an English bishop upon whom apparently greatness shines its favour, but one, in my estimation, who was probably better as a doctor. But I’d better keep the rest of my anger bottled up for what is to come, though it is, for the most part, decently restrained.
The bishop I have in mind is Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon. Ruth Gledhill tells us that he is “regarded as a rising star heading for one of the top five posts in the established church” — and she seems to be in the know about things like that. But I think he’s an ass, not only for his attack on Dawkins, who tells kids in his new book, The Magic of Reality, (due out in October) that the story of Jesus turning water into wine, or the tale about Mohammed riding to heaven on a horse, are simply fairy tales. Rayfield says:
It is such a shame that the sense of awe, wonder, and indeed mystery, that he opens up so jars with his dismissal of any who do not regard evolution as a complete explanation of existence. Professor Dawkins invariably collapses myth into falsehood and faith into ignorance. For many of us, including large numbers of scientists, the magic of reality not only inspires wonder but worship.
But that really doesn’t answer the question. Does Dr. Rayfield (former lecturer on immunology at Guy’s in London) think that the story of Jesus turning water into wine is more than a fairy tale? Or Mohammed’s famous ride: more than a fanciful religious story or not? The magic of reality may inspire worship for the good bishop, but does it inspire credulousness? What does Bishop Rayfield think of the miracle of Fatima? Or of Mohammed’s heavenly dressage?
You see, we can’t have people continuously telling us that belief for religious people is something complex and shifting, not like believing that the earth is round, or that the moon is a satellite of the earth, but very different, something hard to explain — as James Wood did in a recent Guardian essay about The New Atheism. (I did a post on James Wood’s article a few days ago, and Jerry Coyne has also addressed it to some good effect.) James Wood even explains:
But people’s beliefs are often fluctuating and changing – it is why people lose their faith, or convert to faith in God. If you spend any time asking people what they believe, how they believe, and why they believe the propositions they espouse in church or temple or mosque, you find that there is nothing very straightforward about propositional belief.
Now, doubtless, Rayfield will claim that he’s trying to say something similar. It’s not just propositional. The story of the miracle at the wedding in Cana, for example, is more than just the story about a miraculous changing of water molecules into a “complex mixture of molecules, including alcohol, tannins, sugars of various kinds and lots of others,” as Dawkins says; it’s so much more than that. It evinces, for example, something deep about the relationship between Jesus and his mother, or it says something about the messianic banquet, and how the Jews had been waiting for so long for the fullness of time to come, and here, in Jesus, symbolically represented by the water of Judaism being turned into the wine of new life (in Christ, of course, since the gospel was written long after Jesus had died and was believed to have risen again), the messianic promise is being shown forth and fulfilled. Quite frankly, I have no idea what Dr. Rayfield thinks is important about the story, but if it is okay for him to tell kids that it was really a miracle, a great symbolic work done by Jesus to show forth his significance to the nations, then why is it not all right for Dr. Dawkins to tell kids that it’s a fairy tale? Especially since his book is subtitled: How We Know What’s Really True? Just because Rayfield wants to worship is no reason for Dawkins simply to bow down before Rayfield’s shrines. This is just assinine. Are we all to become quasi-Christians because Rayfield is the genuine article? This simply doesn’t scan.
But then, of course, as is inevitable, if some ass comes along and says silly things like the Bishop of Swindon — who, remember stands in line for the top five posts in the Church of England — and that means that he’s a VERY IMPORTANT PERSON — I decided to scout around a bit and see if he had said any other silly things. And you know what? He did! He published an Op Ed in the Guardian Belief column for 25 February 2010 entitled “Let’s not take the path of assisted dying.” It was about the Director of Public Prosecution’s having finalised his guidelines on prosecutions in cases of assisted suicide, and he does say something that I actually agree with in part, so I’ll start there, just to show that I’m not being indiscriminately nasty.
He points out that, if what leads us to accede to the wishes of someone to end their lives is compassion, then other people might feel under pressure to do the compassionate thing:
This [he writes] could place huge pressure on family members who want to comfort and support a terminally ill relative but not through assisted suicide.
But he should take note of the oddness of saying this. If assisted suicide is the marker here, it’s the person who’s dying who will be asking for assistance, and that person would be asking for others compassionately to allow him to do this. And if family members are being asked by the dying person to have compassion, then, it seems to me, they probably should. Anything else sounds cruel, and disrespectful, especially when it is the dying person who is making the decision, and requesting assistance. But no one — and this is the only part of this that makes sense — should feel under any pressure to respond compassionately by assisting someone to die, unless the dying person requests it.
Nonetheless, I will let it stand as something of concern, so long as the oddness of the way Rayfield puts it is noted. Rayfield himself compares it to the case of Gordon Wilson, a man in Northern Ireland who forgave the paramilitaries who had killed his daughter. Other grieving families felt under some compulsion to do the same thing, ”feeling,” as he says, “under a media-influenced obligation to say that they had done the same.” And the same kinds of pressure might be brought to bear in the case of assisted dying, Rayfield thinks. But of course, it is very different. Saying that you have forgiven someone, and feeling under pressure to say this, is very different from being under pressure to help someone end their life. And the likelihood of media attention being brought to bear in the latter case is very low. These kinds of things don’t get media attention until they are done. But allow it, with all these qualifications, to be a modest concern.
At any rate, as I have suggested, I don’t think the concern of media pressure is in any way a serious one, but neither do I think that compassion should be the motive for assisted dying, and that takes us the next step along the way. For Rayfield doesn’t let well enough alone, as he would have been wise to do. He had to carry it that one step further, and suddenly the man who sounded modestly intelligent turns into an 24 carat ass. After he’s finished with the distant possibility of media pressure to be compassionate being brought to bear upon people whose loved ones are asking for assisted dying (and that’s something that has to be stressed here, because the bishop doesn’t even think of it), he goes on to say this:
As well as compassion, the issue of control has been very much to the fore and we should not miss this. It is hardly surprising that those who have been the most passionate advocates of controlling their death are those who seem largely to have been in control of their lives. Dying brings all of us to a point where we do not have the final word and that calls us back to our humanity in a profound way. There is a world of difference between a society which helps people to die well through excellence in nursing and palliative care, and one which embraces assisted suicide or euthanasia. [my italics]
Reading those words made me go off like a rocket! What a stupid thing to say! You really have to go to some trouble to be as stupid as this! The issue of control is often raised by those who advocate assisted dying. Yes, indeed, the issue of control is central to the issue of assisted dying. It’s about choice, about taking control of our own dying, of making choices about how we will die, whether we will die according to the prescriptions of our diseases, or whether we will instead take dying into our own hands, and make it our final act as human beings.
But no, the bishop won’t have it this way. He will have it that those people who are or have been in control of their lives, who have lived their lives thoughtfully and well, making decisions as to what they should do, how they should do it, and with whom they should do it, should be brought up short to face the limitations of their humanity, should be rendered out of control by their diseases. And what are the limitations of their humanity? Well, simply the limitations of the law that says that they may not be assisted to make this final choice! That’s not the way he says it, of course. He just says — now you really have to be stupid to say something like this — as I say, this takes some hard work: “Dying brings all of us to a point where we do not have the final word and that calls us back to our humanity in a profound way.” But what if we can have the final word? That’s just what assisted dying is for: to give people that final word. And you have to be stupid not to recognise this.
But that is what, for the bishop, it is like to be human: that is, to be helpless, without any ability to control our own destiny, to have no choice at all. This is just what god-botherers like the bishop would think. This helplessness, this being out of control, this inability to make decisions about our own lives, this being in the grip of blind destiny — or in the hands of some god – is, we are to think, to be quintessentially human! Remember all those years that you spent in control of your lives? Sheer illusion. Ultimately what you are really like is this: dependent and out of control. You’re really this helpless body writhing in pain upon a bed, consumed by cancer, paralysed by ALS (motor neurone disease) or a dozen or more other neurological disorders: this is what it is to be human. Your confident life, lived thoughtfully and in control: this was just the hubris of the person who thought, for a short while, that they were as god, but now they know the truth about what they really are, dependent creatures, crying out for mercy. And had it not been for the hubris of youth, they would have realised and repented in dust and ashes long ago. For the bishop, you have no right to feel in control. You are a creature. You only live for a time. You must recognise your master. And disease will do this. It will bring you low. It will make you appeal, in lowliness, for mercy. Where’s the person in control gone now, eh? Where’s that confident, decisive person now? Now, you get to call out to god for mercy! Now you know what being human really is all about!
What a completely blithering idiot of an ass this bishop is! And now we know the standards by which the leading figures who sit on the bench of bishops in the House of Lords are to be judged, and why Lee Rayfield is on the list. They have to be stupid enough to say something like this in all sincerity and honesty, without an inkling that they have any idea how stupid what they have just said sounds to reasonable people.
Well, let me tell you Bishop Rayfield, just so you know. My wife Elizabeth was a woman in control of her life and destiny. She may have had MS, but as she said towards the end, MS did not have her! She made her choice to die as she had lived, confidently, still full of the spirit of life that needed and wanted neither gods nor compassion. What she wanted was respect, and she found it, not from the church, which would have denied it to her, but from those who knew and respected her as the person that she was, respected her enough to let her take that last step, however sad we found it to be, that freed her from the burden that she felt that her life was increasingly becoming. She didn’t want to know the helplessness that the bishop extols as her humanity, when people like the bishop could patronise her and have compassion, and perform all manner of miracles of care over her dying body, when what she really wanted was to be already dead. And if that is how the bishop defines humanity, then we know, don’t we? just how much of an ass he is, because he would, in the prideful certainty of his faith, have denied Elizabeth that last decision, that last courageous act of her life, that brought it to an end as she had lived it, in her control, and in response to her decision. And I’m glad that I am here to tell him just how she died, with courage and composure, lying in my arms, holding me close until she was finally free.