Pronunciation

It’s an age-old debate in which there can be no winners, only losers. Just how do you pronounce “Greenwich”?

There is debate about the first syllable. Is it “Grin” or is it “Gren”? And there is debate about the ending. Is it “-idge” or is it “-itch”? That gives you four possible pronunciations and adherents of each will tell you that theirs is the one true path. All others are too posh, too working class, only used by those originally from outside south-east London or are simply wrong. I was born in south-east London but might find it difficult to defend against a charge of poshness. However, my way is the right way. You’ll just have to guess which.

Today at church we had an honoured guest to give the sermon: The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean at St Paul’s Cathedral. His early work was in neighbouring Deptford, so he really ought to be an important source for determining the right pronunciation. Unfortunately, there was a much more extraordinary episode which blasted any recollection of how he might have pronounced “Greenwich” from my mind.

Our church is named for the 11th century saint, St Alfege. Which Dr Ison insisted on pronouncing “AL-pheege” putting him, I might suggest, in a class of one, with the rest of the world pronouncing his name “AL-fedge”. Regrettably, he used Alfege’s name throughout his sermon, and it was quite amusing to watch the vicar trying to decide whether to interrupt and correct him or whether to let him plough on. He went for the latter and simply rolled his eyes, winced a bit and then tried to look elsewhere. Members of the congregation exchanged glances and shrugged.

Word to the wise: if you’re going to give a sermon at somebody else’s church, it’s a good idea to double-check their preferred pronunciation of the saint to which that church is dedicated.

St Alfege is holding a restoration appeal to fix the eastern front of this fine Nicholas Hawksmoor church. Please give generously if you can.

Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.