Letters: Faith and facts

Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them?
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Sir: Peter Stanford ("Doubts about Dawkins", 14 September) writes that the recent books by Christopher Hitchens and myself "deserve a decent response. But how to fashion it?" A decent start would be to read them.

Page 1 of The God Delusion would demonstrate that I don't " caricature all church-goers as simple-minded fundamentalists" (Google: "Affection that I still retain for the Church"). Of course the churchgoers Stanford or I meet socially are not simple-minded fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, they are heavily outnumbered, especially in the most powerful country on earth, where nearly half the people believe the universe began after domestication of the dog, and a slightly smaller proportion yearns for a Middle East Armageddon when they'll be raptured "up" to Heaven.

We all live with the consequences, made all the more dangerous by the simple-minded fundamentalists of the Islamic world. The "response" Stanford recommends, by John Cornwell, does not display a Christian standard of decency, as Stanford will discover if he Googles "Honest Mistakes or Willful Mendacity".

Cornwell's slighting of my reading list is singled out for special praise by Stanford. This is a stock criticism. It assumes there is a serious subject called theology, which one must study in depth before one can disbelieve in God. My own stock reply (Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?) is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes (Google: "Courtier's Reply ").

Stanford's trump card is his observation that "religion is not primarily about belief, as we understand the word, but faith". Religion, as he sums it up, "simply isn't about facts". Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself.

Richard Dawkins


Bad practice at Northern Rock

Sir: I have more than 50 years' banking experience and was for six years head of banking training in one of Britain's largest banks. I designed and ran lending courses for managers. I am, by definition, an old-fashioned banker.

Northern Rock's practice (report, 15 September) was what is known in banking as borrowing short and lending long; nothing new but a bad practice. If anyone on one of my courses had suggested that one could finance mortgage lending by borrowing on the money market at three months they would have been ridiculed as a financial illiterate and become a laughing stock. It is similar to overtaking a long queue of traffic of the outside of a bend; everyone knows it works of course (for a time), but only fools or the inexperienced are ready to attempt it.

The background of Adam Applegarth, the chief executive, tells you all you need to know. He came direct from a university to a staid organisation which, like all building societies until recently, took deposits from the public at a set rate of interest as long-term as possible and lent it against the mortgage of property at a higher rate, the difference in the rates being used to run the society; how boring. So Mr Applegarth takes over and re-invents the wheel.

Northern Rock should not have been affected by the US market, although it was inevitable that something would seriously affect the stability of the short-term money market. That is life, and Northern Rock should have just relied on the deposits of the good Northerners.

No, they would not have grown as much, if at all; nor would house prices have gone up so much. Nor would Mr Applegarth have been praised so highly by those who ought to have known better. If Northern Rock's depositors had known and understood what was going on they would have left in droves long ago.

It is the old story, greed and ambition; that's all.

Peter Croggon

Fellow of the CharteredInstitute of Bankers, London

Sir: The only income building societies used to have was money from investors and mortgage repayments. After overheads, all their income was available for mortgage lending. The sole purpose of the societies was to facilitate house purchase.

The sole purpose of the mortgage banks is to deliver shareholder value through increased dividends and share prices. Purchase of houses is incidental to their work. Competition forces them to dabble in the money markets and competition forces them to take risks.

According to Alistair Darling, when the societies held sway there was insufficient money in the system. The Government's deregulation of the mortgage market certainly brought in a great deal of money but this new money has gone directly into higher house prices, most now beyond the reach of many first-time buyers. The euphoria caused by rising house-prices has led to a cavalier attitude to debt.

The deregulation of the mortgage market and the demutualisation of many building societies have caused enormous economic problems, and the situation at Northern Rock shows the folly of expanding a business with funny money.

We need to find a way to distinguish between money and wealth.

David McKaigue

Thornton Hough, Wirral

Sir: You argue that Alan Greenspan erred (Business, 14 September) by keeping the federal funds rate too low, and that this helped create the various bubbles. But he was also more directly remiss in that he did not use any of his powers as supervisor of the soundness of financial institutions. When mortgage lenders started making ninja loans (no income, no job, no assets) he could, and should, have spoken up.

Instead, he allowed George Bush's idée fixe of creating more homeowners, whether or not they could afford to buy their houses, to overrule normal financial prudence. History will judge Greenspan to have been one of the worst chairmen ofthe Fed.

Ian S McCarthy

Myersville, Maryland, USA

Sir: It's a bit rich of David Cameron trying to lay the blame for the present banking problems solely on the shoulders of Gordon Brown. Wasn't it the Tories who removed credit restrictions so that anybody could borrow as much as they wanted? Before that, there had been a limit of 33 per cent of earnings.

With people buying their dreams on the never-never, there is always the risk that these dreams could turn into a nightmare. And the only people who benefit from financial nightmares are the financial institutions.

To have a lecture from the "spin doctor" who was in the Treasury at the time of the Tory Black Wednesday is a bit like the kettle calling the pot black.

Duncan Anderson

IMMINGHAM, North Lincolnshire

Metric measuring is compulsory

Sir: In your report "Brussels drops fight to axe pints and miles" (11 September), it is not true that "market traders and small shopkeepers do not have to display metric units on their premises, and never have done".

All shops and traders, irrespective of size, have to price and weigh loose goods in metric units with the option of an imperial conversion. The exemption for "small shops" (less than 280sq metresof floorspace) applies only to packaged goods, for which they need only display the price per package with no unit price (per kg or lb).

The pint and mile had already been reprieved. The present directive leaves it to the UK Government to decide when to phase out the remaining imperial units. So no change there.

In any case, this just a proposal by the Commission. It will now have to be considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and could yet be amended. If the proposal is approved, metric units will remain the primary system in the UK, and traders will still have to weigh and price in kilograms. And if the EU withdraws from weights and measures issues, it will be possible to have a sensible discussion about the need for a single, rational system of measurement everybody understands and uses, without having to refute silly, xenophobic arguments.

Robin Paice

Chairman, UK Metric Association, Southsea, Hampshire

The shame is just unbearable

Sir: I am appalled by your article (13 September) on Paddington Bear. Paddington would never touch Marmite. And to be used as an advertising campaign is everything that is wrong with the world. If Paddington would even touch a different type of sandwich it would most likely be a BLT, because Paddington is known to like bacon.

Unilever should be ashamed of exploiting him. Next thing, Winne the Pooh will be eating porridge for elevenses and the Three Bears will be drinking hot chocolate.

Helena Silver (Aged 15)

Sevenoaks, Kent

The power of an education

Sir: Dominic Lawson's article (Comment, 14 September) questioning his notion of whether he thinks we should believe politicians when they promise to save the Earth, raises the question of whether we should believe Dominic Lawson when he tries to imply that politicians promise to save the Earth.

No politician is promising to save the earth and certainly neither Zac nor Teddy Goldsmith ever promised to do so. Teddy has spent his life boldly asking us all to face major environmental issues such as population threats and big business abuse of our planet's well-being, and Zac has been motivated by Teddy and his own awareness of our planet's perils.

I had the pleasure of being enlightened about our planet's challenges by a Schumacher lecture Teddy gave and thereupon invited him to lead an International School of America "round-the-world, academic year-long, programme" for 30 university students.

Zac was a student on the programme where he was also instructed by Brian Goodwin and Peter Bunyard. When Zac returned, his father, Sir James, invited me to lunch to thank me for "converting his son from a playboy into an ecologist". Sir James also gave me a cheque for £20,000 at the end of our meal, made out to the ISA. A good example of the power of education.

Karl Jaeger

Founder/Director, International School of America, Bath

The struggle to save the gorillas

Sir: We are deeply depressed by the news that the western gorilla has been added to the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species. ("Stark warning of extinction list", 13 September).

The Aspinall Foundation has been working for more than 20 years in West Africa to protect its subspecies, the western lowland gorilla, through our rehabilitation and reintroduction projects. So far, more than 50 gorillas have been successfully returned to protected areas of their native habitat.

In the UK, our animal parks at Howletts and Port Lympne, in Kent, are home to a captive breeding programme which has produced 112 births to date, six of which have been returned to West Africa with two more to follow next year.

Committed conservation work is being done to protect this magnificent species, but urgent action is needed to curb the commercial bushmeat trade and deadly Ebola virus if we are to begin to feel truly optimistic about its future.

Bob O'Connor

The Aspinall Foundation , Hythe, Kent

Orwell's vision

Sir: It's strange how George Orwell seems increasingly relevant these days. Seeing Gordon with Maggie outside No 10 reminded me of the ending of Animal Farm, where the animals look from man to pig, and pig to man, and can no longer tell the difference.

K Sykes


Demands on police

Sir: Your correspondent (letter, 15 September) calling for Dixon of Dock Green-style policing forgets that we no longer live in the world I remember from the 1950s. There are, unfortunately, so many reports of the police not reacting to crime in progress or to detailed evidence from victims and witnesses. Complex legislation, a transient population, family breakdown, less respect for authority and insufficient rehabilitation in prisons all play their part. In short, the police are so overwhelmed with demands on their time with the attendant recordkeeping that little investigation gets achieved for many cases.

Peter Salter


Forgotten stars

Sir: Paul Taylor (article, 12 September) speaks of Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale as being the "equivalent" Hamlets to Olivier and Gielgud of the later 20th century. What about Michael Redgrave, Paul Scofield, Richard Burton, Nicol Williamson, Alan Badel, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Rickman, Alan Howard, Michael Pennington, Ian Bannen, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ian Charleson? All post-war, and highly praised. Are they forgotten so soon? It seems odd for Mr Taylor to speak favourably of a reconstructed Elizabethan past at The Globe, while appearing to encourage amnesia among the contemporary Elizabethans.

Colum Gallivan

London SW17

One for Salford

Sir: Joan Bakewell's advocacy of the arts is more compelling than her grasp of geography (14 September). When she ventures north to Jimmy McGovern's play, King Cotton, she will find the magnificent Lowry is in Salford.



Squaddie initiative

Sir: The correspondence about ordering in foreign lands when you don't know enough numbers in the local language to go round reminds me of a time in Dusseldorf several years ago, when five off-duty British soldiers came into the bar where I was. "What's the German for five?" asked one. "I don't know," said another. "But the word for four is vier." "Right," said the first soldier, turned to the barman and said in English: "I want vier beers, and one more."

Marc Jeffery

The Hague, The Netherlands

No Tory vote

Sir: If your Thursday columnist, Cooper Brown, is hobnobbing with DC and Sam (Extra, 13 September), that seems to me to be the best reason I know for not voting Tory.

Viv Parsons

Hythe, Southampton