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Britain’s hidden religion

In last week’s NS a host of distinguished writers debated what place God should have in our society.

A little while ago I telephoned Professor Antony Flew at his home in Reading. The philosopher once described as “the world’s most famous atheist” was having his lunch. Could I call back later? When I did, however, the great man was not exactly forthcoming. “Professor Flew,” I began, “I wonder if you would be willing to be interviewed for the New Statesman?” “I am old and decrepit,” replied the prof, “but my mind is still sharp. So my answer is no.” Click, brrrr.

The reason for Flew’s refusal, and his brevity, was not some curious dislike for the NS. The answer lies in the designation above. He may once have been described as “the world’s most famous atheist”, but no more. Flew caused a stir – made news around the world, in fact – in 2004, when it was reported that he now believed in God. There had already been rumours of his “conversion” three years previously, which he denied with a response titled: “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still an atheist!” This time they were confirmed.

New scientific discoveries persuaded him, he said, “that intelligence must have been involved” in producing life. He later backtracked on the reasons for his change of heart, saying he had been misled by the evidence he’d been presented with, a statement that ­attracted some derision in humanist and philosophical circles. Which is why, I suspect, that at the age of 86, Flew doesn’t want to go into all this in depth again.

He does, however, still believe in God – or, in his case, god. For Flew had become not a Christian, but a deist, a distinction the British Humanist Association correctly noted on its website, where it continued for a while to list him as a “distinguished supporter” with the regretful rider: “Professor Flew has recently become a deist. Nevertheless, we would like to thank him for his many years of support.”

Flew was no more sympathetic to the revealed religions of the Book, with their “monstrous Oriental despots” of gods, as he called them, than before. He had simply come to the conclusion that, at the very least, there was probably some kind of “first cause”; and that this, rather than an interventionist deity presiding over an afterlife, was what he meant by “god”.

Most people have probably never heard of the term deism, or, if they had, would fail to distinguish it from theism. The confusion would be understandable given that the two terms’ derivations differ merely in that deist comes from the Latin deus and theist from the Greek theos, and that both mean “god”. The two are very different, however.

Deists believe in a god who created but does not intervene in the universe. That god, however, does not have to be anything more than an entity that set creation in motion. It does not give you the anthropomorphised deity to whom many believers pray, nor any of the trappings and beliefs that we associate with religion.

Theism, on the other hand, implies belief in the God of the Abrahamic religions, who remains present to and active within the world at the same time as transcendent over it.

But, from the Enlightenment onwards, the influence of deism has been vast. Many of America’s Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jef­ferson and Benjamin Franklin, were deists, as were the philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire and the English radical pamphleteer Tom Paine. The precise nature of Flew’s deism is a matter of considerable controversy. Some allege that the philosopher has been taken advantage of, and that his 2007 book There Is a God was mainly the work of his American co-author, Roy Varghese, although Flew vigorously denies this. Nevertheless, many felt that the book lacked the coherence and style of his earlier works, such as God and Philosophy and his essay “The Presumption of Atheism”, and did not show the brilliance of a mind known to generations of undergraduates. A New York Times reviewer summed up the mood of the new book’s detractors: “I doubt thoughtful believers will welcome this volume. Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

The deism of the Founding Fathers, however, was significantly stronger than that which can be ascribed to Flew with con­fidence. Theirs was that of a natural religion, one that was not revealed to Middle Eastern prophets but could be arrived at by reason. The laws of nature must have been designed, goes the argument, hence there must be a designer, and the concept of natural rights (which so permeates the United States constitution) is embodied in his creation.

Any belief in scriptural authenticity or an ­afterlife is not entailed, although many of these deists were close enough to religion for it to be queried today whether they were, in fact, not deists but rationalist theists. Benjamin Franklin was typical of those who took this approach. “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he wrote to the president of Yale University in 1790, “I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

If Franklin’s words strike a chord with many, including those who think of themselves as being Christians, perhaps that is no surprise. According to Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham and a world-renowned New Testament scholar, most of them are in fact deists – whether they know it or not. “I think that almost all ‘ordinary English’ people – and a good many others, too – simply take a deist framework of thought for granted and when they hear the word ‘god’ that’s what they are thinking of,” he tells me. “The fact that there is a major difference between deism and the three Abrahamic religions is not just news to most; it is incomprehensible when the ‘news’ is told them.”

Wright’s analysis certainly fits with the vague professions and low-level observance that characterise the popular image, and often the reality, of English churchgoing (as opposed to the more rigid theologies and greater demands placed on followers of, say, Catholicism and Islam). And if it is correct, it is of far greater significance than the decision of one particular atheist, however famous, to join them. C S Lewis was once himself a deist, until he took a journey to Whipsnade Zoo in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike, at the end of which he found he had become a Christian. But his later words, subsequent to his final conversion, are a stern rebuke to any Christian who fails to affirm the divinity of Christ, or thinks of him merely as a great teacher; for they have in fact lapsed into deism. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” wrote Lewis. “He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

No in-between path can be taken to be truly Christian. In which case, the multitudes that do take just such paths, while still occasionally taking a pew, and the similar numbers of those who profess no formal religion, but maintain a hazy conviction that there must be some originator of the universe, may make up the millions of what could be thought of as Britain’s hidden religion – a deist faith that the world has forgotten.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

Stuart Ramson for Lumos
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“It’s probably the thing of which I am most proud”: J K Rowling in conversation with Eddie Redmayne

The Harry Potter creator talks to the star of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them about her work with the Lumos charity and the urgent need to end the institutionalisation of children.

EDDIE REDMAYNE: Good evening, good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am so excited that you are excited! Welcome to Carnegie Hall and – thank you! – Welcome to a very what I hope is a very special evening. More than 25 years ago, an author put pen to paper and created one of the most extraordinary stories that the world has ever seen. Her astounding imagination continues to thrill us, it captivates us, it enthrals us, it moves us, and it leaves us wanting more. And tonight ladies and gentlemen. . . there will be more.

But ten years ago, an unimaginable image and an unthinkable story propelled her down a very different path – where the lives of millions of voiceless children would need saving. The author is J K Rowling, and the path is Lumos.

Tonight, we will cast a light on eight million hidden children around the world who desperately need our help. 

FILM – NARRATED BY J K ROWLING: A child’s life is so much more than the sum of its parts ‐ and the love a family brings holds everything together. From the very beginning, a child thrives on individual care and attention. A baby quickly forges a bond with loving parents – and because of this bond the brain develops with remarkable speed and complexity. Within a safe, secure and stimulating environment a child gets the most out of life; in play, education and friendship their personalities develop freely within safe bounds. But this picture of childhood can be a fragile one. Conflict and disaster can destroy the foundations of family life. When countries suffer the effects of extreme poverty, the bond which holds families together can easily be broken apart. In these circumstances, families can feel they have no choice but to place their child into a so-called orphanage, especially if the child is disabled and needs care the family cannot afford. Community support alternatives may not even exist. That orphanages do exist locally may convince desperate parents that there is no alternative. But once a child enters an orphanage, a very different picture of childhood can emerge. A child must now compete for the unique attention they crave. A lack of individual care harms babies and affects their infant brains at a critical stage. Any schooling they receive is no compensation for the parental love they are denied, and children can become cut off from the world. Ill-prepared for life outside they have very poor life chances, and they are much more likely to fall victim to abuse and crime once they leave an orphanage. And we know there are at least 8 million of these children worldwide. But there is hope ‐ and it lies at the very heart of the problem. 80 per cent of children in orphanages are not in fact orphans but have parents or extended families who could care for them, given some support. And by better channelling of existing donations, we can support these vulnerable children at home. By directing funds away from so-called orphanages we can transform systems of care; we can establish community‐based services and prevent these places from ever taking root. Community‐based services are a better investment for donors: they are more cost efficient than residential care and reward children and communities in the long run. Placing children into orphanages is a choice and not a necessity; it is preventable and reversible. And by giving communities options in how they support families, we can change the lives of millions of children and give them strong beginnings ‐ and the futures they deserve.

ER: So now to hear more about Lumos and its life-changing work, please welcome to the stage its founder. Ladies and gentlemen, the extraordinary J K Rowling.

JKR: Thank you, thank you very much.

ER: So here we are!

JKR: Here we are!

ER: This is a big deal. We’re playing Carnegie Hall!

JKR: We are, yes. It’s actually my second time!

ER: Really? Alright, so in a short while we get to show these people our little movie.

JKR: Yeah, which is exciting and a little bit terrifying.

ER: And we will get onto talking about that in a little bit. But first, the reason we’re all here. So we’ve just seen this film – this is clearly a massive humanitarian issue, and a gigantic undertaking. I wondered: why this issue? Why is it so close to your heart?

JKR: Well, I think Eddie said it really well in his introduction – truth is that I saw a newspaper story about a very small boy, he was seven years old and he was effectively being kept in a cage. And I was pregnant at the time and I saw this image in the newspaper, and it was such a shocking image of this child – holding onto wire and screaming – that I went to turn the page. I went to turn the page because it was painful to look at, and I felt very ashamed. As I went to the page, I thought: No, no, you have to read the story, and if it’s as bad as it looks, you gotta do something about it. So I read the story, and it was even worse than it looked.

So to cut a very long story short, I pulled out the news story – which was all about an institution in the Czech Republic where very young children were being kept in appalling conditions. I went home the next day, Monday, [and] I started to write letters to anyone I could think of – MPs, and MEPs, and the president of the Czech Republic. I wrote to everyone I could think of, and that led me to connecting with experts in this field, and the creation of Lumos.

ER: And so there are eight million children living in orphanages worldwide –

JKR: That we know that we know of! See, I think what’s staggering with. . . what was amazing to me when I first began finding out about this these issues, you think how could eight million children be going through this and we don’t know? But a very small amount of thought shows you they are – as you just said – so voiceless. They are literally hidden from sight. So in fact eight million may be a conservative estimate – there may be more children who have been taken from families that we don’t know about, because record-keeping tends to be poor, which is one of the problems.

ER: And they are institutions that we are saying are harmful to children – I suppose, I imagine, not everyone agrees?

JKR: Absolutely so it is completely understandable that we – and by ‘we’ I mean wealthy Westerners – we may have an idea that institutions are kind. Kind in that otherwise perhaps the child will be on the street, or the child is alone. That’s completely understandable. We tend to have that image in our minds from movies, like Annie, that orphanages can be kind of fun! Actually, that’s not true – even the well-run ones are proven, as we saw in that short film, to do often irreparable harm. You will know, because he has – you have a baby now, who is five months old?

ER: Yup.

JKR: And you will know, as I know as all of us who have anything to do with small children know: that they are hard-wired to demand love. They just come out looking for it, because that’s what they need for brain development. And as was shown in this movie, we know that children who are raised in institutions suffer developmental delays, they tend to be physically stunted, they normally have psychological trauma… it is just not what nature intended for children to be herded together, and not given individual love and care.

ER: And are there sort of studies and statistics which support [this]?

JKR: Absolutely, so I’m not just saying this – plucking this out of the air to tell you. We have 80 years of research now that shows very, very clearly – all the research agrees – that this is very harmful. And in fact Lumos works with scientists in the field who can show you brain scans, showing the difference between a child that’s come from an institution and a child has been raised in a family.

As the movie showed, one large recent study shows that children who come out of institutions were six times more likely to have been abused;

10 times more likely to enter prostitution; 40 times more likely to have a criminal record.

And they were 500 times more likely to kill themselves. So you see we do have this enormous bank of research telling us that we are allowing or even inadvertently causing children to be harmed.

ER: For me, one of the complicated things get my head round – and, I suppose, for people in developed countries like the US or the UK in which institutionalisation is a thing of the past – one of the things we struggle with is there’s this sort of disconnect in terms of how we view orphanages.

JKR: I completely agree. I think a small amount of thought shows us if you imagine what would happen – God forbid – were a terrible natural disaster to hit New York tonight, everyone I think would immediately think “Well, the important thing is I keep my loved ones close to me, we stay together and we get the support we need to rebuild our business, find ourselves a home”… When we put ourselves and our families in that in that mentally in that position we understand. However, what’s happening across the developed world is disaster hits and families are immediately pulled apart: “we’ll take those children from you.” Now, imagine that, in the wake of the disaster, people come to you and say: “that child will get fed only if you give me that child.” And we keep propping up the system, and it’s causing a huge amount of damage.

ER: And so is that why families are being torn apart? Why do parents give them up?

JKR: Right, exactly – for many people, that’s the key question. So when I tell people [that] 80 per cent of these children have parents, then an understandable reaction is “what loving parent could give up their child to one of these places?” But we know that there are three main drivers into institutions. The biggest one, the overwhelming one, is poverty.

So parents who make themselves literally be starving are told “if you want to feed that child, we will take it to the institution – the child will get food in the institution.” So they literally believe “that’s how my child will be fed and survive – I’ll have to give the child.” The other one is disability. We find in the developed world, and certainly this was the case in Eastern Europe, where we’re doing a lot of work, children with disabilities were not integrated. And so parents again were told “if you want medical assistance for a disabled child, or if you want that child educated they have to go into the institution.”

And then the third driver is natural disaster, and this is where a very nasty aspect of institutionalisation comes in. It is often the case in the developed world, the so-called orphanages are run as businesses, and that effectively children are trafficked for profit because we Westerners are generous and we can we give a lot of money to these orphanages. And unfortunately there are very unscrupulous people, who in the wake of disasters use it as an opportunity to get children and corral children as a magnet for foreign money, rather than putting the money into systems of care that would keep families together. So since 2010, there has been a 700 per cent increase in children in institutions in Haiti. 

ER: So, for me. . . what’s the solution? How does one go about it?

JKR: Obviously this is this is a massive issue, a massive issue. And, as you would imagine, the solution is complex but – I bring you hope! This is an entirely solvable issue. This is entirely solvable, and we know how to do it. Doesn’t mean it’s easy – but we know how to do it. So it’s a two-part problem: first of all we have these children, some of them living in truly appalling conditions, whom we need to rescue.

The other part of the issue is we need to stop children going into those institutions in the first place, ever again. Lumos’ ambition – and we believe it’s achievable – is that by 2050 we will have ended institutionalisation globally. Now, that’s going to be a huge amount of work, clearly, but a lot of us are really up for that. So, first thing is we need to put into place different systems of care, and some very good news is institutions are very, very, expensive to run. And if we just redirected the funds that are being pumped into institutions, that alone would enable better systems of care to be set up.

But you also need a lot of expertise, and what we do with Lumos is, we work with people in country who are already trying to change these systems. So that’s the point I always really like to get across, we are not moving into countries and saying: “let us show you how it’s done.” We are walking into countries because in all of these countries there are experts, who know the system’s wrong, but they don’t have the money and they don’t have the clout, and they aren’t connected with the kind of people who can help them change systems. We can go in and help them do, that so that’s what we do. We go in and we try and affect the change.

We also do things like – I mean, we’ve provided urgent medical assistance to children we’ve found in very, very bad situations and so on. So it’s multi-layered, and then the other thing we do is advocacy, so we work with places like the UN and the EU to change policy, to stop this being the default position when disasters happen.

ER: I think I read that every year, particularly in this country [the US], millions of dollars are being given to orphanages.

JKR: That’s right. I have these notes because I want to get the figures right – because normally I just make it up out of my head, like people say “how many house elves are in the Hogwarts kitchen?” and I just [gestures]. But this is really important – I’m not saying house elves aren’t important, they clearly have been massive in my life, they mean a lot to a lot of people. . .

But I want to get this right because this is this important. So, this is an incredible figure: this is how much Americans give to charity annually – how awesome are Americans? – The answer is $375bn. So I mean that is phenomenal, that’s phenomenal and just warms ones heart to think about the generosity. Now, that money was given with the absolute best possible intentions. There’s not one person here tonight, I know, of any age, that does not want to help a child in trouble. It’s a human instinct that we all have.

We know that that money drove a lot of children into orphanages who probably didn’t need to be – well, no child needs to be in an orphanage. But we know that it created a drive-in. And, so what I would like, even if you never give us another penny – I’m so grateful for what you have given us tonight, we will always be able to use money very effectively because these children have very complex needs.

But even if you never give us another penny, if you just walk out of here tonight and explain to people that donating to orphanages or volunteering and orphanages is sometimes propping up some very corrupt people making a lot of money, and if you give your money to community-based services you can actually help ten times as many children. Just checking my notes – ten times as many children.

ER: You mentioned Haiti – that is somewhere that is obviously in our minds of the moment.

JKR: It is, hugely in our minds. In my mind a lot at the moment because, we know and I have more figures here – these are new figures to me, because obviously there’s recently been an absolute catastrophe there. So we now know that there are 30,000 children institutionalised, and the same statistic I keep quoting still applies: the overwhelming majority of those children have at least one parent, and these are families whose livelihoods have been swept away, these are families who were so desperate that they thought that was the only way they were going to keep that child alive. Which is an absolutely heart-breaking thing to me and I know it will be to you also.

There is a lot of corruption in Haiti, and we know that there are people who are called child finders – not childminders – these child finders are out there persuading parents to give up their children to orphanages, and making lots of promises to them about what they can do for that child in terms of protection and care. And those children are not receiving protection and care – rather the reverse.

We know that a lot of child trafficking is going on, and we also know that for each child in an orphanage in Haiti, currently each child is attracting six thousand dollars’ worth of foreign aid, and that’s why it is becoming a business. So people with the best possible intentions are giving money, and I think they might be horrified to see what’s going on. So what I’m saying to you is, for God’s sake don’t stop giving money, but give it right. Give it to NGOs that are working to give people back livelihoods and to support communities, not to institutions.

ER: And Hurricane Matthew has exacerbated that…

JKR: Hurricane Matthew was, as we all know, an absolute nightmare: half a million people lost their livelihoods, we have 900 dead, and it will – unless we intervene in the correct way – continue to prop up this very damaging system. And I will say this because I would like you all to know, that I put my money where my mouth is: I gave a million pounds last week to Haiti to support community-based services. And I’m not saying it for that reason – I kind of cringe slightly as I even say that – because I’m not saying it for that reason. I’m saying that I’m not asking anyone to give where I’m not already giving, but Haiti is a particular catastrophe and I wanted to give extra funds to Haiti right now through Lumos, because Lumos is on the ground right now affecting this kind of change, and really looking out for those children in those institutions.

ER: And recently Bonnie Wright and Evanna Lynch – so Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood from the Potter films – who we love! And I think Bonnie is here this evening – but they are two incredibly dedicated Lumos ambassadors, who visited Haiti, and they not only saw the horrific conditions but also they saw the solution that you’ve been talking about Jo and we actually have some footage from the trip here:

FILM – NARRATED BY BONNIE WRIGHT AND EVANNA LYNCH: “Hi, my name is Bonnie Wright and I’m an actress and director. You may know may know me as Ginny Weasley from the Harry Potter films. But today I am here in Haiti with Evanna Lynch, who you may know as Luna Lovegood. We decided to come to Haiti because we’re concerned about the 30 thousand children living here in orphanages instead of at home with their families. 80 percent of these children have families who would care for them but cannot. I was incredibly shocked and upset to find the conditions at the first orphanage we visited. I’ve heard so much about the work that Lumos was doing and from some of the workers here about what these institutions were like, but I think out of this first visit just highlighted how incredibly important Lumos’ work is here in Haiti. The most important thing that I took away from today is that children really need to grow up in families.”

“Without family and without love, children can’t be children. The most important thing as a child is to be with your family, and you have to do everything you can to keep that family unit in place.”

ER: Those are pretty profoundly powerful images.

JKR: They are, they are but you know… we’re obviously doing a lot of work in Latin America now, it’s an area that does have a problem with institutionalisation. But we are very hopeful at Lumos that we could reach a tipping point in five years or so, where we can we can change policy. We are very hopeful that by 2035 – if we can get the funds – we will be able to stop institutionalisation in Latin America. We believe that.

ER: So it’s solvable?

JKR: It is solvable. It sounds overwhelming when you think of that number of children, and the complexity – I’m not denying the solutions are complex. But Lumos is working with absolute experts in this field. They know what they’re doing, they know how to make it work, and what they need are the funds and the support. And the last thing I would say – particularly to young people in the audience today – I would reiterate: we need to change minds.

We need to change minds, because while people are putting money into these orphanages and while people are volunteering in orphanages, a lot of corruption flourishes around those institutions. There is a sense that we are, as ever with the best intentions, propping up something that’s very damaging. Those children should be with their families, and if they can’t be with families, foster care, or adoption, or supported living in small family-style units are all proven to be the best possible alternatives.

ER: What can we do? Tell us what we can do!

JKR: I think its two-part as I say so number one, I am going to firstly say I could not be more grateful all of you being here tonight. You’ve already done the most enormous amount for us to raise money for us and thank you, thank you. So fifty percent of what you can do: if you want to fundraise for us, I will be forever in your debt.

The other half though as I say is, if everyone who is here tonight walked out of here and said: “I get the issue! I know that institutionalisation is wrong, and in future when I donate, when I hear a friend donating, and saying they want to give some money away at Christmas, I will say “not the orphanages.”” But look, if you want to give it to a child in the developing world, look at community-based services. We’re not the only NGO working in the field, we are one of several, so do a little bit of research and make sure that you are supporting families to stay together.

ER: We will spread the word, we will spread the word. That is our job, to spread the word. And I’ve got to say, having known so little about it before, it’s an extraordinary thing and it’s a complicated thing, but as you say solvable. And you must be incredibly proud of the work that Lumos are doing.

JKR: I am – it’s probably the thing of which I am most proud.

This conversation took place on 12 November 2016 at Carnegie Hall, New York City.

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: wearelumos.org