Madeleine Davies

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A response to Stephen Fry

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in God. But he’s furious with him. I can sympathise.

His God is an “utter maniac” who, despite being “all seeing, all wise, all kind, all beneficent”, sits by while children die of bone cancer.

Judging by the reaction to his rant, this is the God that other people have in mind too. It’s a God I’ve had in mind, and railed at, and hated.

So I’m not dismissive of the rant, because this isn’t a God plucked from nowhere, a cartoonish fantasy that nobody with a faith has ever squared up to.

Fry knows this, because he starts his speech by describing it as “what’s known as theodicy” (Wikipedia: “the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil”). People of faith have been engaged in this attempt for thousands of years: philosophers and theologians, and those with the best qualifications – people who have gone through the sorts of terrible things Fry has in mind when he describes God as “utterly monstrous”.

CS Lewis lost both his mother and his wife to cancer. If you really want to read some fantastic tirades against God I’d recommend A Grief Observed over Fry any day. Brutal.

Pete Greig’s God on Mute, written after his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumour, should also be a classic.

Nicky Gumbel, whose family died in the Holocaust, described Fry’s question as “the biggest moral objection to the Christian faith, and no one has really ever come up with a satisfactory answer.”

I appreciate that kind of honesty.

I watched my Mum die from cancer from when I was ten until I was 12, and there’s nothing worse than hearing attempts to explain it that, even as a child, are utterly unconvincing (and infuriating):


“He allowed it to happen so that good could come out of it”


“It means that you’ll be able to help other people who have gone through it”.


I don’t want this to turn into a Bible study, but having read the thing cover to cover (it took me two years and to be honest I skipped the bits about measuring things in cubits), I can confirm that Fry’s material has been doing the rounds for a while.

“Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face

and forget our misery and oppression?”

Psalm 44:23-24

I don’t have the answer to Fry’s question.

But I have rejected his God.

I can’t, and don’t, believe in a God who is “capricious, mean-minded, stupid”.

Neither do I believe in the sort of heaven presented in the film on death produced by the British Humanist Association, which he narrated – a place you hope to scrape into if you’ve done enough good things to merit a reward.

To be fair, Fry was responding to the sort of God given to him by the presenter: the bouncer at the “pearly gates”.

(Incidentally, it was quite funny when this presenter said: “And you think you’re going to get in?”

My personal impression of God post the two-year Bible read is that he has a soft spot for ranters.

I also imagine he found the Speckled Jim episode hilarious.)

So, no, I don’t spend my life cravenly thanking a God who sits on a cloud just watching while we suffer.

The God I believe in is loving, compassionate, present – sometimes through other people – and cries with those who suffer.

“Jesus wept”

The last person I heard say this was watching The Voice with me.

But it’s in the Bible and I love it.

I think we’re a bit embarrassed about talking about the actual experience of faith here in the UK. But surely it’s this that enables people to struggle with theodicy but believe in, love, and even trust in God anyway. It could be a feeling, a conversation, a dream, a sense during a prayer that he (or she) has heard, and cares.

Fry talks about a world of “pain and injustice” but in some of the countries that are arguably far less shielded from this than the UK, faith is thriving.

I’ll always remember interviewing a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who became a Christian after a dream in which he saw a church shining. And the woman who lost her husband in the Rwandan genocide.

“I clung on to faith for a good long time after that, and God provided such a stability through the trauma,” she told me. “But over the years it really challenged my faith, to the point where I was wondering: how could God let that happen, and is there really a God at all? I think in the long term, it has grounded me and strengthened me in my faith.”

So the one thing I really take issue with is Fry’s suggestion that: “The moment you banish him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.”

It’s a bit like the atheist bus sign that read “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

Pretty patronising.

I don’t doubt that some people found it liberating.

But it discounts the people who take a huge amount of comfort and strength from their faith, precisely BECAUSE they actually have quite a lot to worry about.

I’ll end with the bit in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where the Boy asks the Lion for a cure for his mother, who is dying of cancer:

“Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.”

Some thoughts on intervention (after reading A Problem from Hell)

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2014 at 7:59 pm

After Justin Welby spoke in favour of airstrikes in Iraq in the House of Lords last month (“there is justification for the use of armed force on humanitarian grounds”) there were various tweets from Christians along the lines of “but Jesus said to love your enemies”.

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The Potent Spirit of Ashraf: attending a gathering of the Iranian opposition in exile

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2014 at 6:21 pm

AN overture precedes the arrival of the leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) on the stage of the Villepinte Hall, Paris. Children with drums beat out a bombastic rhythm over the fervent cheers of a crowd decked out in yellow hats, flags and banners. The air is filled with the clacking of plastic hand-clappers shaken vigorously. From the ceiling hang huge golden lions bearing sabers — the symbol erased from the Iranian national flag after the revolution of 1979. The front rows are filled with the dignitaries of 69 countries, journalists, and activists, but in the hangar at the back, a raucous crowd is packed into tiers.

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Has science buried religion?

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2014 at 8:26 pm

This was the motion debated at Union of the University of Exeter in January. I opposed the motion. Here’s what I said…

On one, very literal, level, it is easy to disprove this motion. Science has not buried religion, because religion still exists. In most parts of the world it does more than exist. It flourishes.

Sometimes, when I’m in the press room with colleagues on the national newspapers I have to remind myself of this fact. Much mainstream coverage of religion in this country is wedded to a narrative of irrelevance and decline, what Matthew Arnold called the “long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith.

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My Summer of Love: film review

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2014 at 3:49 pm

The scenes depicting charismatic Christianity in My Summer of Love are clearly the work of someone who’s been up close to the real thing. Hands are outstretched, things are lifted up in prayer, while fire is beseeched to come down. The language, which I often think must sound quite suggestive to some ears, is spot-on: “More passion, Lord”. The director, Pawel Pawlikowski had previously directed a documentary about born-again Christians in the North (Lucifer over Lancashire) and it is perhaps this that inspired him to make the brother in this story a member of this tribe (he isn’t in the novel on which it is based).

The film is primarily about the heady relationship between two teenage girls, one, Mona, scribbling on the woodchip that papers her room above The Swan, the other, Tamsin, wringing Saint-Saëns ode to this creature out of her cello. But the film is more interesting for the addition of Mona’s brother, Phil, who has recently converted to Christianity.

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Expanding the circle in Iran

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm

The women in The Circle want to have a smoke. All are thwarted until the end, when a woman arrested after travelling in a car with a man who is not her husband is permitted to light up in the prison van.

It’s one of a number of moments in the film, released in 2000, in which a small kindness, or relenting, is shown. The director, Jafar Panahi, has said that he believes that “everyone is a good person”. In a film illustrating the many restrictions on women in his country, Iran, he shows a policeman asking a woman, vomiting as a result of an unwanted pregnancy, if he can help. A shop assistant holds a shirt up to a young soldier’s chest in order to help a young woman, recently released from prison, assess whether it would fit her fiancé. Panahi, who has rejected any suggestion that the film is feminist, asserts that he “never showed any kind of maltreatment or anger from men” in it.

“Iranian society, particularly in comparison to this part of the world, is a man’s world pretty much,” he said in an interview shown, in print, on the Artifical Eye DVD. “The radius might be marginally larger for men.”

Just how much larger can be demonstrated by looking at Iran’s penal code. The testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man’s. The age of criminal responsibility is set at 15 for boys and 9 for girls. And the diya (blood money) for murdering a woman is half that of a man.

Panahi has said that he was not angry about the situation he depicted in the film. The emotion most powerfully conveyed is fear, rather than rage. In several scenes, women cower behind cars, an undignified, childlike position. Two women recently released from prison watch as another of their number is seized by the police; another observes as a young girl is abandoned by her mother. The fleeing, sneaking and skulking is all performed in the flowing garments of the attire prescribed by the State, making for an ungainly movement.

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“I blame the parents” (Child poverty blog 5)

In Uncategorized on October 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm

“Since 1969 I have witnessed a growing indifference from some parents to meeting the most basic needs of children, and particularly younger children, those who are least able to fend for themselves. I have also observed how the home life of a minority but, worryingly, a growing minority of children, fails to express an unconditional commitment to the successful nurturing of children.”

Report of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances; Frank Field, 2010

“Large numbers of the poorest children are read to every day, taken to places of interest, have regular bed times and are breast fed by their mothers. These examples of positive behaviours among the lowest income parents give grounds for optimism that such behaviours can be promoted more widely among vulnerable families.”

Low Income and Early Cognitive Development in the U.K; Washbrook and Waldfogel for The Sutton Trust, 2011

Is poor parenting to blame for child poverty?

In December 2010, the Labour MP Frank Field published his independent review on poverty and life chances and concluded that

“The UK needs to address the issue of child poverty in a fundamentally different way…It is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life.”

His work builds on that undertaken by the Centre for Social Justice, with a clear focus on the first years of a child’s life – a “broadening of the attack on child poverty”. It “questions the almost universal assumption over the last hundred years that increases in income alone will automatically lead to social progress.” After all, he points out, the post-war period had seen a “considerable increase” in real incomes, yet “too many children now start school who are unable to make the most of their schools lives.”

There is plenty to take issue with here. The Labour Government did focus on income, but it also invested huge amounts in public services such as the Sure Start centres, in recognition of the fact that income alone wouldn’t solve the problems faced by disadvantaged children (see Blog 2.).

Questions remain about the relationship between parenting and poverty. And about the extent to which the State should intervene in the former.

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Beveridge’s optimism confounded? Family breakdown and child poverty (Child poverty blog 4)

In Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 5:52 pm

“There is one overriding reason why Beveridge’s optimism was confounded: the decline of the family. From the 1960s onwards, the UK’s divorce rate rose rapidly. The crime rate followed closely behind it, as did the growth of the underclass. While the better off may be able to afford the self-indulgence of the permissive society, the poor need families.”

Bruce Anderson (Conservative political columnist) The Independent

“Gingerbread urges the government to focus much more attention on tackling the real issues facing families in financial hardship, rather than wrongly vilifying the 1.9 million single parents who are doing their best to bring up their children, often in very difficult circumstances”.

Response by Gingerbread, charity for lone parents, to speech by Iain Duncan Smith to Relate

A quarter of children in Britain now grow up in single parent families, compared to 13% in 1979. The latest statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions show that, in lone parent households, 41% of children are living in poverty, compared to 23% in two-parent families.

Included in the Government’s child poverty strategy is a focus on “preventing family and relationship breakdown”, comprising:

  • An increase in the amount spent on relationship support to £7.5 million each year in 2011-2015
  • Direct support to charities who provide family support services online and over the phone

Last week, the Government reiterated its commitment to recognising marriage in the income tax system.

So does family break-down cause poverty?

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“Surely that’s a sin, that’s the problem”: Worklessness (child poverty blog 3)

In Uncategorized on October 8, 2012 at 8:37 am

“Megan had five children living at home, the oldest was 13 years old and two of them were under 18 months of age. Although she had re-partnered, the relationship had not lasted and she was bringing up her children alone. Her previous experiences of employment have made her anxious about leaving her children in childcare. She also had strong views about leaving young children with a child minder or in any other kind of private provision. When Megan had been in work she had not felt better off. She attended a work focused interview every six months although she would not consider entering work until her children were older and she greatly resented the pressure she felt she has been put under to do so. ‘I’ve told them I wont leave them with a childminder…They’re my children. I had them. I should obviously look after them and I understand yes, that I should be working and I shouldn’t be claiming money from the Government and what have you, but I will eventually go back to work and I’ll pay back, in my eyes, what I’ve had from them.’ She also feels that there is a lot of stigma attached to attending Jobcentre Plus for mothers like her. ‘I don’t like going because I don’t like going down to the job centre because all the benefits and stuff are all in the job centre now and I mean, obviously there’s people there…and it’s just the way people look at you when you’re walking in…Like something that came off the bottom of their shoes, some of them sort of look at you like that, sort of thing. But, obviously, they don’t see the full picture. They only see half of the picture.’

Case study taken from Work and wellbeing over time: lone mothers and their children, DWP Research Report No.536, Ridge and Millar (2008).

“In-work poverty has become the major child poverty challenge of recent years, with no signs of any real progress”

Helen Barnard, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2011

When I found the first quote, above, about Megan, I could hear in my head the sort of reactions it might provoke:

“Why would you have five kids if you were living on benefits?”

“Why should the state subsidise large, workless families?”

“Of course mums should be able to stay with their kids until they’re at school”

“This is why we need to make work pay”

In the next two blogs, I’ll look at some of the factors that the current Government has pledged to tackle as “the causes of poverty”, both of which are illustrated in Megan’s case: worklessness and family break-down.

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All about the money? (Child poverty blog 2)

In Uncategorized on September 24, 2012 at 5:20 pm

“The previous Government’s focus on narrow income targets meant they poured resources into short-term fixes to the symptoms of poverty instead of focusing on the causes. We plan to tackle head-on the causes of poverty which underpin low achievement, aspiration and opportunity across generations. Our radical programme of reform to deliver social justice will focus on combating worklessness and educational failure and preventing family and relationship breakdown with the aim of supporting the most disadvantaged groups struggling at the bottom of society.”

A new approach to child poverty, Department for Work and Pensions & Department for Education, 2011

“There is no doubt that there is a very close link between the unprecedented and (nearly) sustained above-inflation increases in financial support for families with children over the past decade, and the unprecedented and (nearly) sustained fall in child poverty.”

Ending child poverty by 2020: progress made and lessons learned; CPAG June 2012

“There were signs that these children worried about asking for even the smallest amounts of money such as the 50p or a £1 that can be charged for a non-school-uniform day.”

The impact of poverty on young children’s experience of school; Goretti Horgan, JRF/Save the Children, 2007

If researching this blog has taught me anything, it’s that I’ll be very suspicious of anyone who claims to know precisely what causes child poverty.

One of the most thorny issues is that of money. There are lots of associations and links between a lack of money and a whole host of outcomes for children, but proving causation is a lot more complicated.

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