How God corrupts creatures great and small

Only Mitchell and Webb's Bad Vicar can save them - Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

After Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to share a platform with Tony Blair on 30 August, he offered a brief explainer in the Observer. “Leadership and morality are indivisible,” he said. “Good leaders are the custodians of morality.” (Blair had not been a good leader.)

It was a sticky subject for Tutu to broach and critics accused him of hypocrisy, pointing to platform partners he has chosen in the past. He also got Blair’s problem the wrong way round: Blair believes only too strongly in the indivisibility of leadership and morality. Like Tutu, though, he extends this belief to the indivisibility of morality and religion. And there’s the difficulty.

Religious morality is not quite like other kinds of morality, because instead of consulting your sense of right and wrong, you’re consulting the moral sense of an invisible being who takes sides depending on who believes in him the hardest. With God on your side, there is a certain feeling of moral immunity. Historically, then, it is unsurprising that leaders lucky enough to have divine guidance made grand, sweeping decisions with little concern for detail – decisions like taking on a “moral” war.

The skewing effect of a compassionate God can be seen even on lower, pettier levels. In exams, students who believe in a forgiving deity are far more likely to cheat, and in lab studies, Christian participants who spend ten minutes writing about God’s merciful nature showed increased levels of petty theft when assigned a money-based task afterwards. More recently, a comprehensive study found that crime rates are significantly higher in places where people believe in divine redemption.

Researchers looked at belief surveys conducted between 1981 and 2007, which covered 143,000 people from 67 countries. In places where the belief in heaven was stronger than the belief in hell, the level of crime was significantly higher. Take a country where belief in heaven is strong and you’ll find a significantly higher national crime rate. The belief in hellfire seemed to have the opposite effect – scaring people into good behaviour, even when earthly policing systems failed.

Too nice

The researchers thought that a belief in the ultimate insignificance of mortal doings along with an opportunity for regular slate-wiping doesn’t necessarily make for good behaviour. Blair’s God, it seems, may have been too nice to him. But redemption could still be at hand. His God just needs to get a little more Old Testament.

How to effect the change? Well, since Tutu is out as a platform partner, perhaps Blair could be set up with Mitchell and Webb’s Bad Vicar. He’d set him straight. Here he is in full swing:

“Aren’t you all entitled to your half-arsed musings on the Divine. You’ve thought about eternity for 25 minutes and think you’ve come to some interesting conclusions. Well let me tell you, I stand with 2,000 years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me, my kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants, and I couldn’t give a ha’penny jizz about your internet assembled philosophy.”

Tony Blair. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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7 adorably wrong retro visions of the future

With the future looking gloomier than ever, let's take a look at what could have been.

Ah, the future. The golden, glorious future. A time when food will be replaced by pills, walking will be replaced by hovering, and someone will have finally invented a printer that will print your black and white theatre ticket even though (even though!) you have an empty magenta ink cartridge. Who can wait? 

Unfortunately, what with the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (see: Trump, Donald J) the future seems less and less spectacular everyday. Is it time to build an underground bunker? Who can say? I can. The answer is yes.

But while you're waiting for your Spaghetti Hoops to heat up in your concrete hidey-hole, you'll need something to read. Here are seven futures that we could have had, if it wasn't for fascism (and also, I guess, the fact that some of these are really dumb).

1. Commuter helicopters

Popular Mechanics (1951) via Flyingcarsandfoodpills.com

What they predicted: Personal helicopters which would transform commuting forever. 

Why it didn't happen: Because apparently Future Us are sufficiently advanced enough to create mini, personal helicopters, but not smart enough to have grasped the concept of a helipad. 

2. Instantly-cookable food

Via Reddit u/Jaykirsch

What they predicted: Food that can be heated or chilled instantly within its packet, by the turn of a knob.

Why it didn't happen: Remember in 2005 when Walkers Worcester Sauce crisps were recalled because it was thought they'd give you cancer? Yeah, that. 

3. Space puppies

Amazing Science Fiction (1958) via Pulparchive.com 

What they predicted: Space puppies. Puppies in space.

Why it didn't happen: Because God enjoys our pain.

4. The "Dinosaur Truck" elevated bus

The Practical Science For Boys And Girls (1949) via Darkroastedblend.com

What they predicted: Buses that could seamlessly glide over cars, carrying us onwards to a new and better future.

Why it didn't happen: It did! China have it. Well done China.

5.  A radio that prints newspapers

Radio Craft (1934) via Tarzan.org

What they predicted: A radio that could print out your morning newspaper, with some kind of nice little red thing on top.

Why it didn't happen: All media is obsolete. You are not even reading these words. Unless you're my mum. Hi mum. 

6. A robot that hits children on the head if they don't listen in class

Computopia (1969) via Pinktentacle.com

What they predicted: A robot that hits children on the head if they don't listen in class.

Why it didn't happen: Whilst our robotics are advanced enough, it turns out so too are our morals. Bummer.

7. Wrist computers

Byte (1981) via archive.org

What they predicted: Little computers that will sit on your wrist, like a watch.

Why it didn't happen: You might be gaping and gawping that someone in 1981 successfully managed to predict the Apple Watch, but you'd be wrong. Take another look - see that tiny keyboard? No one could use that tiny keyboard. What were our ancestors thinking? Idiots. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.