The Curious Incident of the Herald in the Night-Time

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Disc jockey, TV presenter, charity fundraiser, knight of the realm, and now alleged rapist and paedophile, it seems everybody has an opinion on Sir Jimmy Savile. Or as I suppose I should call him, devout Catholic Sir Jimmy Savile.

No, not that William Oddie!

That probably seems like a cheap shot, but it’s not. I don’t think his religious beliefs have anything to do with his behaviour. But Dr William Oddie, writing for the Catholic Herald, was very upset last year that Savile’s faith wasn’t generally a major focus of his obituaries, calling it a “conspiracy of silence”. He wanted to make the connection between Savile’s beliefs and his actions, so it’s only fair to take him at his word.

I confess that I haven’t been devotedly following every twist and turn of this story, but I’ve yet to see any reports which connect his alleged crimes to his Catholicism. Despite that, neither Dr Oddie nor the Catholic Herald have uttered a word of complaint. How peculiar, when they were previously so keen to insist that his beliefs informed his actions.

Having got the sarcasm out of my system, there’s an important point here. People are complicated and their motivations are always opaque, but while religions try to claim credit for good actions wherever they can, they always find a reason (or more cynically, an excuse) for distancing religion from the bad things done by believers.

The church often claims the credit for ending slavery, while studiously ignoring the fact that the Bible endorses slavery and the church was content to follow that line for 1800 years. Philanthropists are claimed as evidence of the good in religion, while crusaders and inquisitors are simply dismissed as sinners or even liars about their beliefs – a classic No True Christian argument.

And yes, this works the other way as well. Atheists who are only too happy to point the finger at religion as the cause of all sorts of conflict and suffering will suddenly become very careful and pedantic when discussing certain well-known totalitarian atheist regimes. It seems we’re all much better at examining the details when our own beliefs are under attack.

Given that the vast majority of people throughout history have had a religious belief of some sort, it’s no surprise that religion has a mixed record. The problems start when you start differentiating between the positive and negative acts by employing different criteria for determining the influence of religion. It might give you the answer you want, but it does nothing to determine the truth, which is surely what we’re all interested in.

So don’t just accept it when a claimed association between beliefs and actions matches your prejudices, and don’t just dismiss it when your prejudices are challenged. Otherwise, you might end up looking as foolish as Dr Oddie and the Catholic Herald.

Photo by Bryan Ledgard, used under Creative Commons Sharealike License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “The Curious Incident of the Herald in the Night-Time”

  1. Martin says :

    It’s very hard – for very good reasons – to properly treat any new ‘fact’ objectively. To some extent we need to discard information that doesn’t fit with our worldviews, or we’d be in that extreme ‘open mind’ state of gullibility. For example, if you measure the acceleration of a cannon-ball falling from the top of the tower of piza as being around 20m/s/s, then your first conclusion is that your sensors are wrong, or your maths was wrong, not that the characteristics of gravity have changed and you need to change your worldview of how gravity works. The same sort-of applies to the complex world of people.

    One way of double-checking prejudices is to spend time with people who think very differently from you, but that can be very uncomfortable…

  2. Acleron says :

    To be fair, not that the consideration will be returned, Bill Oddie did write again about Saville.

    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2012/10/15/when-jimmy-savile-died-i-reproached-his-obituarists-for-their-cover-up-of-his-faith-now-i-have-to-ask-what-was-he-thinking-of-during-daily-mass/

    He states that he was wrong but it is a peculiar piece of writing. More on how Saville could have been thinking.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I didn’t know that. Thanks for pointing it out. I suppose once his previous article had gone viral, he didn’t have much choice.

      Maybe that seems cynical, but the later article was published a full 10 days after mine, and given that I have a proper job as well, I’m rarely very quick to respond to stories and trends. It doesn’t give me the impression that he was desperate to write about it.

      • Acleron (@Acleron1) says :

        Oddie is not renown for intensively researching his articles so it is possible he didn’t see yours.

        The impression that he wrote that with one arm up his back is strong.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Oh dear, I didn’t mean to imply that I’d sent him into a spin with the contents of my sleepy little corner of the blogosphere. But at the time when I read the story a few days before writing, it was already listed as one of the Top Stories on the Herald site, despite its age. It was being shared all over the place, and the reason was obvious.

        Having read it, Oddie’s second attempt is also interesting, because of the contrast with his earlier article. The certainty that faith and action are inseparable is replaced by a desperate “who knows?” There’s a whiff of No True Catholic, but it also resembles a different tendency.

        When something good happens, Christians are quick to praise God, but He never gets the blame when bad things happen. When it’s bad news, God works in mysterious ways. I don’t have much of a problem with either in isolation, but put together, it amounts to the sort of cherry picking and special pleading that could be used to support any hypothesis.

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