The Curious Case of the Tablet

Friday, 30 January 2009 05:06

The Curious Case of The Tablet

Having learned of the imminent publication of What Should I Believe?, Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, contacted Adrian Weston of Raft PR to arrange an appointment for an interview with me. Thus it was that Catherine came to my home on September 30, 2008, where we spent about two hours in quiet discussion. Like all good journalists, she had read my book carefully and prepared a list of questions. I answered straightforwardly and seriously.

All her questions were crystal clear. None aimed to trick or attack me. It was not until the end of our discussion that she chided me for criticising the Catholic Church. She told me that to her the Church was family, and she was loyal to her family. We spent a few minutes discussing family loyalty, and how we can feel hurt if an outsider criticises it. She then packed her things and prepared to leave. I asked her when her article was likely to be published, and she said that possibly it would appear in the issue after next.

Catherine left me copies of six issues of The Tablet which I read with considerable interest. However, I did not feel I needed to subscribe to the journal in order to find her article about me. I assumed that I would find it on The Tablet’s website.

I checked the website each week, but there was no sign of the article. Adrian phoned her office and left messages, but his calls were not returned. Time went by, and I left for Sydney in early December. A few weeks later a friend rang from London to talk about a lecture he was preparing. He mentioned that he had seen the article in The Tablet weeks before. It was, he said, ‘not very nice’. I did not mention this description when I then emailed Catherine and asked for a copy of the article. Adrian also phoned her office. Neither of us received a reply.

A few weeks later, another friend, in an email, mentioned that she had seen the article. She made a photocopy and sent a message that ‘this offensive article’ was in the post.

It was now four months since the interview, and nine weeks since the article had been published. Out of the blue, on January 23, 2009, an email arrived from Catherine’s PA, referring to my email of January 6, 2009, and offering to send me a PDF of the article. I had to prompt her to do this, but eventually it arrived on January 27, 2009.

Why take so long to send me the article? Why wasn’t the article on The Tablet website? Did Catherine think I would not be able to find the article? Surely she knew that nowadays nothing that has been published disappears entirely. Someone has a copy somewhere. I have no answer to these questions, just as I do not know what went on in the BBC Religion and Ethics Department.

Catherine was the only one of the editors of religious publications who received a press release about my book and wanted an interview. She took the book seriously enough to study it, and write a well thought-out article. She gave credit where credit was due. My Depression: the Way Out of Your Prison was ‘deservedly successful’. She set out a number of my arguments, and put her arguments against them. I imagine that some of the more thoughtful of her readers might have decided to get the book and read it for themselves. What more can an author want?

Since reading the article, I have not spoken to my two friends in England who had commented unfavourably about the article, but, knowing them, I think that what they were reacting to was not Catherine’s scholarship but an underlying vein of anger in the article, directed, not at the book, but at me. Unlike the godly who chose to reprimand me after one of my lectures, Catherine did not adopt the lofty tone of one who patronises the ignorant: rather, she saw me as the enemy who must be severely chastised.

When we see someone as our enemy, we can make the mistake of not being as accurate as we can be about his strengths and weaknesses, but, from a distance, attribute to him far more power than he actually possesses. This is what Catherine did to me.

According to Catherine, self-help gurus ‘don’t come bigger than Dorothy Rowe’. My books are ‘highly influential’ Would that this were so! I have found that journalists who want to write a competent article and have no strong feelings about me, get the sales figures for my books. These show that I am no Deepak Chopra. I have found that women journalists who are worried that they might end up living, as I do, on their own press me for a detailed answer as to why I never married again. They do not accept the answer, ‘What for?’ To be a good interviewer you need to know how you see yourself and your world in order not to make assumptions based solely on personal biases.

Hierarchical power structures such as a church or a monarchy encourage their members to make heroes of those at the top of the structure. If you have heroes, and you do not understand that this is your way of seeing the world, and that others may not see things as you do, you can assume that all people have heroes. Catherine assumed this about me. She said that Richard Dawkins is ‘undoubtedly her hero’. When she read my book, she must have skipped that part where I take Dawkins to task for being so silly about memes. I agree with Sheldon Kopp, ‘If you have a hero, look again. You have diminished yourself.’

Catherine saw me as ‘loathing the BBC Radio 4’s Thought for Today’. She might loathe things or people, but I do not. Loathing and hating use up precious energy. I so something far worse. With one exception, the Buddhist Vishvapani, I cannot take the people involved in Thought for Today seriously. I laugh at them. Thought for Today is in the middle of a three hour programme where the presenters are skilled in uncovering the half-truths, the empty blustering, the self-delusions of anyone, but especially politicians, who venture on to the programme. However, the godly are sacrosanct. They are protected from the presenters in the way a cage protects divers from predatory sharks. Apparently, those who speak on Thought for Today have agreed not to criticise one another. It seems that they have not noticed how the plain, down-to-earth good sense of Vishvapani contrasts markedly with the empty abstractions of most of their number, but they and Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, refuse to allow a humanist to join them. On January 7, 2009, Damazer wrote in his blog of the BBC website

Within Thought for the Day a careful balance is maintained of voices from different Christian denominations and other religions with significant membership in the UK. We are broadcasting to the general Radio 4 audience which regularly engages with the comments and ideas expressed by our contributors from the world's major faiths - whether they are believers or not.

The voices from all these different religions cannot help but raise the question, ‘Is there just one God, and all these differing religions are competing, like siblings, to be His favourite, or is there a different God for each religion, and each of these gods compete to be top God?’ Perhaps this question could be discussed on Thought for Today.

This is the kind of question which the godly do not want asked because it throws into doubt everything they believe. Becoming a faithful adherent to a religion is a difficult, often painful process, and always involves the sacrifice of important parts of oneself. Becoming a humble, obedient follower means giving up the parts of oneself that strive for individual expression and achievement. Many of the pleasures and advantages of the world have to be rejected. The joy of being an accepted member of the group has to be balanced against the fear of failing to meet the group’s expectations, being punished and perhaps expelled from the group. If we make a bargain that we will be good in the way the dogma of the religion defines ‘good’ and in return God and the Church will keep us safe, we can feel impelled to destroy in whatever way we can those who would tell us that all we have got for our bargain is a mess of potage.