Age of Homo religiosus

Our annual God issue is always a bestseller, yet there are many NS readers who think we should have

Tolerance is a characteristic on which the British used to pride themselves. But the ever more frequent discussion of religion, and how it relates to science and to our much cherished pluralism, is increasingly marked by an absence of that quality. Indeed, debate in this area reminds me of a tradition at my old school called "the house shout", in which the members of two houses would bellow "Up School House" and "Up the Grange" at each other from two sides of a quad, victory being awarded to whichever was judged the more vocal. The contest did provide a certain brute physical exhilaration, but ultimately proved no important point. It was not a conversation. There was no exchange of ideas or attempt to persuade.

Today, we hear far too much aggressive assertion that serves only to increase intolerance and suspicion. It may have been a thoughtless slip, but too often we hear careless generalisations such as the novelist Sebastian Faulks's recent dismissal of the Quran as "the rantings of a schizophrenic". We are familiar with the opinions and sometimes actions of religious fundamentalists in this country - it is less than a year since the home of the publisher Martin Rynja was firebombed because his firm was due to print a novel about the Prophet Muhammad's bride Aisha. But in their words, many of those who seek to defend reason show themselves to be equally unreasonable and inflexible in their views. A gentle and accommodating agnosticism has given way to an angry and insistent atheism that sees offence as the best way to defend rationalism and science.

Going on past correspondences, the sympathies of most New Statesman readers are with the "God-free". There seems to be a widespread feeling that a magazine of the left should not only display a preference for secularism but for atheism, too: that we should take our editorial line from Richard Dawkins and agree with him that religion is, at best, as silly as believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden but is, more generally, "dangerous nonsense" that devalues human life.

But this ignores the deep association in this country between religion and radicalism. The right may see the parable of the talents as a justification for wealth creation, and Margaret Thatcher once pointed out that the Good Samaritan was only in a position to help because he had money; but others have long looked to the man who washed the feet of his disciples and who consorted with outcasts, and have drawn very different conclusions. British socialism, said Harold Wilson, owed more to Methodism than to Karl Marx, while Keir Hardie was even more explicit: "I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined," he wrote in 1910.

Radical predecessors such as the Levellers and the Diggers would have agreed. And the Lollard John Ball's thrilling rebuke to the iniquity of entrenched privilege would be nothing without its biblical reference. "When Adam delved and Eve span," he asked in a sermon during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, "who was then the gentleman?"

Just as pertinently, to refuse to engage with faith would be to close one's eyes to the reality of belief, both here, where in the last census nearly 80 per cent of the population agreed they had a religious affiliation, and abroad. The Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, admired by thinkers and leaders from Amartya Sen to Al Gore, once commented that Asian man is "Homo religiosus", but the term could be applied much more widely. At a time when the convictions of billions do so much to shape our geopolitics, is it really wise to discount them as misguided delusions?

Much of the current noisy argument comes down to the status of knowledge, and specifically what is commonly deemed as the unbridgeable gulf between "revealed" knowledge and that of science - which Dawkins's ally Daniel Dennett once told me was the "only game in town" when it came to "facts, and the explanation of facts".

But this is an overly narrow view. Religion consists of far more than "revealed" truths, which are, in any case, obviously of a different kind from those derived from theoretical and empirical study. More importantly, this is to claim far too much for that corpus of conjecture we call human knowledge. As a student, I read David Hume's argument that although we may believe the sun will rise tomorrow, we cannot know it. For me, it was as profound and as revelatory as any religious experience, and as convincing as any scientific proof. And I hope that his words will inform the blog on religion, reason, belief and unbelief that I am about to start on Newstatesman.com: "Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken."

All will be welcome to the blog, those who wish to shout as well as those who wish to converse, religious believers and atheists alike. But it is my conviction that the discussions (in which I hope readers will join me) will develop into debates about matters of belief, whether they be over evolutionary theory, the validity of literal readings of sacred texts, or the boundaries between the religious and the secular. For how many of us can truly gainsay the wisdom of Socrates: "All I know is that I know nothing"?

Sholto Byrnes begins his new God Blog on Monday: www.newstatesman.com/blogs

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives