Sometimes Richard Dawkins must despair of us

This week saw a return to the stranger side of mystical and religious belief. Plus, can you really own Mount Everest?


It’s hard being Richard Dawkins. There must be mornings when he wakes, reads the papers and despairs of the dimness and credulity of the human race. And mornings when he finds tiny reasons to believe that humans are getting smarter, more rational, more secular. This last week hasn’t been one.

Wherever we turned, foggy, malign or half-forgotten mysticism reared its head. Stuff that we thought had died out long ago came back, like zombie revenants. Among the main contenders were: 

Exorcism: Pope Francis, hitherto regarded as a chap of sound good sense, suddenly seemed to inhabit the same universe as Max von Sydow and that vomit-spewing child. He was in St Peter’s Square after Pentecostal Mass, when he met a man in a wheelchair. A nearby priest whispered in his ear and the Pope went into action. He touched the man’s head and pushed firmly down – at which, the patient’s jaw dropped and he exhaled – as if expelling demons. That’s what a panel of exorcist “experts”, in a post-match report, concluded had happened. Demons, they said. No way was that just some kind of blessing. It was definitely demons. To sum it up, the Vatican’s “chief exorcist” said “Francis is the bishop of Rome and, like all bishops, he is an exorcist.” Did you know all bishops are?

Freemasonry: Uh-oh. Dan Brown is back in town peddling his ooh-er-spooky conflations of art history, symbolism and religious cults. This time the baddies are called The Consortium, an organisation that pulls religious groups into a sinister alliance. Brown talked about his love for the Freemasons (“an organisation that essentially brings people of different religions together”) which may be requited. “They sent me a clear message that the door is open if I ever want to join,” said Brown, a man who can detect messages of Rosicrucian liturgy on a Jaffa Cakes wrapper. His point was that you can’t join the masons, as you can join the Scientologists. You have to be asked. How cleverly he made it sound like “a calling”…

Son of the Messiah: At the close of a bizarre Desert Island Discs, US Pulitzer laureate Alice (The Color Purple) Walker chose as her island book Human Race Get Off Your Knees: The Lion Sleeps No More. The author, David Icke, once told Terry Wogan he was the Messiah’s son. His book warns readers that the world is run by shape-shifting reptiles, and human thoughts are controlled by the Moon, “a gigantic spacecraft”. Did the clear-thinking, radical-activist Walker really buy this stuff? “Do I believe everything?” she said. “I don’t think it matters.”  

Witchcraft: Amid the metaphysical, anti-rational bollocks was a reminder of what man-made churches can do. In the Congo, BBC documentary makers discovered that children who routinely wet the bed or had sleepless nights were accused of witchcraft and put through “deliverance rituals” that included starvation, beatings and torture to make them stop. At a church in Kinshasa, a pastor walked down a line of children and picked some for treatment. “The holy spirit has revealed that these kids have been possessed by witchcraft,” he said, and pointed to a young girl. “Like this one. She ate her mother...” I suspect Prof Dawkins is acquiring new converts to the atheism cause every day.         

Who owns the world anyway?

Daniel Hughes, a British mountaineer, must have been dead chuffed when he hauled himself up the final slope of Mount Everest last Sunday morning. He’d conquered the highest landmass on Earth, raised thousands for Comic Relief – and he’d trumped the other 145 climbers with him by making the world’s first live videocast into a smartphone on the top of the world. Imagine his chagrin when, on reaching base camp, he was told by the Nepalese tourism secretary, that he’d broken the law in not asking permission “to film, broadcast or conduct media-related events on Everest”.

Media-related events? This was on Mount Everest, 29,000ft above the concerns of petty authority, tinpot officials and the pride and boundaries of nations. But, as far as Nepal is concerned, they own the mountain as though it’s a National Park and you had to ask an official if you could film there.

The desire to own the world knows no bounds. Remember how, last December, a previously unnamed bit of Antarctica was named by our Government “Queen Elizabeth Land”? And how the claim was instantly disputed by Argentina and Russia as a “provocation” and an “attack”, with warnings about the folly of staking “territorial sovereignty” on this uninhabitable lump of frozen Nowheresville.

Who owns the Marianas Trench, the deepest bit of the world’s oceans? The Americans plonked a damp flag on the Mariana archipelago some time ago and called the Trench a “national monument” in 2009. Mark my words, they’ll be charging the next deep-sea camera crew that conducts a video event in their, you know, park.

What will happen to our astronaut, Major Tim Peake, when he goes to the International Space Station in 2015? Will he be faced with a stiff invoice for daring to conduct a vodcast 23 miles above Luxembourg or Peru?

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