Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What makes a jape great?

AS A pupil at a minor English boarding school, one of the rituals your correspondent dreaded most was morning chapel: 600 boys and a dozen berobed “masters” crammed into a cold, dim chamber for ten minutes of dreary hymns and prayers. Until, that is, one morning, the solemn atmosphere was shattered by an unforgettable act of comic bravado. Seconds after the headmaster—known as the Head Horse on account of his equine features—took his seat, a giant white sheet rolled down over the arched entrance. On it was a caricature of a grinning horse wearing a mortar-board. Lord, how we laughed.

The perpetrators' identities did not stay secret for long—what schoolboy could resist boasting of such a jape? The rolled-up sheet had been held in place by thread that was tied to the switch for the headmaster's reading light so tautly that when he turned it on, the thread snapped and the caricature was unfurled. The Head Horse had been forced to humiliate himself. Even he had to admit it was ingenious.

Abbie Hoffman, a 1960s radical-cum-trickster, said most pranks fell into one of three categories: “good” pranks were amusingly satirical, “bad” ones gratuitously vindictive, and “neutral” ones surreal and soft on the victim (if there was one). An example of the first is the time Mr Hoffman and his fellow “Yippies” showered the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills in 1967, thereby managing to stop the tickertape for six minutes while traders scrambled to pick up the notes. For a taste of the second, go to any college fraternity initiation. Examples of the third are many and delicious. A master of the art in the early 20th century was Horace de Vere Cole, an inveterate British prankster. Cole bore a striking resemblance to the then leader of the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, and one of his favourite japes was to appear at Labour rallies posing as MacDonald, stride on stage to rapturous applause, and denounce everything the party stood for.

Priceless or puerile? There's the rub, for one man's brilliant prank is another's mindless stunt. Most would agree that the best pranks offer more than just deception, mischievousness or ridicule, and that much of the genre dished up on television now—the mutant progeny of shows like “Candid Camera”—falls well short of the mark. But what is that special ingredient? Elaborateness or simplicity? Satirical bite or surrealism? Irony or bluntness? Even dictionaries seem unsure how to define “prank” (orig. unk.): it is, by turns, a malicious trick, a conjuring act performed to deceive or surprise, a mischievous frolic, and more.

Homeric humour

If the prank is one of the more elusive arrows in the comedic quiver, it is also one of the oldest. The Homeric world is full of them. Hermes, for instance, was “full of tricks—a bringer of dreams”. He played his first when only a day old, stealing a herd of cattle belonging to his brother, Apollo, and driving them into a cave backwards to suggest that they had left instead of entered. So beguiling were his tricks that Zeus “laughed out loud to see his mischievous child”.

Pranks were a feature of ancient seasonal festivals. During Saturnalia, a Roman winter celebration, participants would dance, drink and play jokes on each other; slaves pretended to rule their masters, and a mock king, the Lord of Misrule, reigned for a day. Later, court jesters took advantage of a similar inversion of roles, playing tricks on kings and courtiers. Medieval magicians and tricksters had their own bible, the 14th century “Secretum Philosophorum” (which taught, for instance, how to turn water into wine by soaking pieces of bread in dark wine, drying them in the sun, and dropping them into the jug when no one was looking).

The best pranks have always blurred the lines between legality and illegality, good and bad taste, right and wrong conduct. Festivals like Saturnalia appeared to undermine the social order, but paradoxically helped to reaffirm it, by allowing people to act out their frustrations in a harmless way. The nearest thing to this today is April Fool's Day—“the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year,” as Mark Twain gently put it—though the best April 1st jokes tend to be media hoaxes, rather than traditional pranks. A classic of the genre is a 1957 BBC “documentary” on Swiss spaghetti farmers. Many British viewers asked where they could buy pasta trees.

Some of the best April Fool's stunts are those that send up national characteristics. To prove the point that Germans who break even minor rules struggle with their guilt, a few years back a newspaper in Tübingen announced a new experiment by the traffic authorities. Local drivers who had knowingly exceeded the speed limit in recent days were to turn themselves in, pay a fine and take lessons in safe driving. More than 60 sinners obliged.

Sportive students

For the most impressively elaborate pranks, however, go to a university campus. Take thousands of bright young things with too much time on their hands, itching to achieve, amuse and misbehave, and splendid acts of delinquency will follow.

The best colleges strive to out-prank one another. Students at Yale scored a big victory during last year's football match against Harvard when they passed out pieces of paper to thousands of fans on the Harvard side of the stadium. The fans were told that, when held up, the bits would spell “Go Harvard”. In fact they spelled something else (see photo that opened this article).

At Harvard's neighbour, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “hacks”, as the MIT crowd calls them, are more serious. So serious, in fact, that in 2003 the institute's best hacks were assembled in a 178-page book, “Nightwork”. The pranks at MIT tend to be feats of engineering. They are positively encouraged, because they teach students to work in teams, solve complex problems and, sometimes, get a message across. Mr Peterson's book includes an 11-point code for pranksters: leave no damage, do not steal, do not drop things off a building without a ground crew, and so on. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least, student pranks have become an establishment activity.

But the scene of what many consider the best-ever engineering prank was that other academic Cambridge, in England, where, one morning in 1958, the town awoke to see an Austin Seven van on top of the Senate House building. After weeks of preparation, a group of mechanical-sciences undergraduates had pushed the van, wheelbarrow-like, minus its doors and back wheels, into place, then hoisted it using a derrick of five 24-foot scaffolding poles, 250 feet of steel wire, 200 feet of hemp rope, pulley blocks and hooks, planks, and even sacking to protect the building. Once the vehicle had been dragged to the top of the sloping roof, the doors and wheels were re-fitted.

The world's media rightly applauded the prank. It was breathtakingly ambitious, requiring both brains and brawn in prodigious quantities; the planning was meticulous (the dozen or so students involved were split into sub-teams, including one comprising two pretty females to distract curious passers-by); and it created a spectacularly surreal sight that could be seen across town. The perpetrators were particularly pleased that what took them under three hours to do took the Civil Defence Force four days to undo. The dean of the college from which the prank was launched sent the ringleader a case of champagne.

While students generally prank for fun or pride, another breed does it for political ends. Anti-corporate pranking took off in the 1960s, as giant corporations began to be feared as much as nuclear weapons. Hoffman's Yippies blazed the trail, engaging in playful political theatre against big business as well as politicians. Their modern-day heirs are the likes of RTMARK and the Yes Men. RTMARK is a sort of online brokerage bringing together “investors” who give time and money for anti-corporate stunts. The Yes Men fancy themselves as satirical guerrillas. A favoured tactic is to pose as spokesmen for big companies: one Yes Man infiltrated a banking conference, at which he unveiled an “Acceptable Risk Calculator” that helped companies to work out the point at which deaths linked to their products began cutting into their profits. Several delegates asked for more information.

Another popular target of such groups is the media. To many, the master media-hoaxer is Alan Abel, who over the years has passed himself off as Howard Hughes, faked his own death (the New York Times published an obituary) and, when Idi Amin was on the run from Uganda, lured the press into covering a wedding ceremony in which the former dictator apparently married an American woman to secure citizenship. Mr Abel's tip: strut your stuff on Sundays, when the gullible, junior reporters are on duty.

To some, pranking is a bit like drugs—good fun when you're young, but not something respectable adults do. Mr Abel, now in his 70s, belongs to a rare breed that considers it a lifetime's work. That his like are rare is perhaps for the best. When serious grown-ups try their hand at pranks, the result is often ham-fisted.

Corporate bosses are a case in point. In the go-go 1990s, larks became de rigueur in the executive suite. There has been less of this since boom turned to bust, though at a few firms, such as Sun Microsystems, “pranking the boss” is still ingrained. “It encourages employees to be innovative,” a Sun spokeswoman earnestly explains. Occasionally, a big corporation gets it just right. In 1996, Taco Bell Corporation of America announced it had bought the Liberty Bell from the federal government and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Cue outrage across the country.

These days, the medium of choice for many tricksters is the internet. Spoof websites and bogus e-mails proliferate, and a cottage industry offers downloadable prank phone calls and the like. While the web has democratised the art, it has diluted it. Most of the stuff is crude—the online equivalent of the whoopee cushion. The Prank Institute, an online community “dedicated to the pranking sciences”, has logged tens of thousands of decidedly variable quality. A glorious exception is the site that offers “bonsai kittens”, reared in small jars, which outrages animal-lovers.

The Economist

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Women on Top

This was both a crowning and a promising week for women. Two of them celebrated their victory over a celebrity ex-footballer and a billionaire to become President in Liberia and Chile.

What sweetens the success is their power to crush pessimism and discrimination in our male-dominated world, their power to entertain democracy in nations notorious with deep-rooted dictatorship and civil war, and their power to raise kids as single exiled moms.

We have to wait and see whether they can translate their maternal instincts to leadership skills and whether they can keep their performance unblemished, unlike former Pakistan's Prime Minister and current Philippine's President.

There is one thing certain, however. Female leaders can act as role models for other girls, especially in the poor countries, to aim higher and break the glass ceiling.

After winning her first Golden Globe award for her influential TV series "Commander In Chief" this week, Geena Davis told the audience a story of a little girl who tugged at her dress on the red carpet and said, "Because of you, I want to be president someday."

Believe me, it's always great to have women on top.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Inspired to Write

I found this story inspiring:

Every November, thousands of young South Africans troop to school to be tested on what they have learned in 12 years of education, then spend the next month waiting fearfully for the results. These are the dreaded "matrics," a brace of examinations that determine not only whether one graduates from high school, but whether one's future lies in a university, a technical college or a too-quick trip into South Africa's crowded job market.

Phillip Chauke took his matrics in November and, like everyone else, spent all December in a state of apprehension. Otherwise, however, Mr. Chauke is not at all like everyone else. For one thing, he is 84 years old, not 17. For another, his journey toward matriculation is not so much about the future as the past.

Mr. Chauke was a father to five children and an activist for racial justice, an African National Congress delegate at the approval of this nation's historic Freedom Charter in 1960. But for almost all his life, he was also functionally illiterate, his education halted at the sixth grade, in 1953, with the assistance of South Africa's apartheid police.

His is a cautionary tale about how cruelly history has hobbled the aspirations of this region's people, and how very difficult it is for them to play catch-up.

Mr. Chauke's minimal education was no shame. Even now, the United Nations' educational organization Unesco says, 4 in 10 African adults - 136 million people - cannot read or write. Twenty-one African nations have illiteracy rates higher than 50 percent; 13 of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In that respect, Phillip Chauke is unusual only in that he has done something about his lack of education. Born in 1921 in what is now southern Zimbabwe, he lived too far from any school to learn to read or write, and moved to Johannesburg at age 18 with no education at all. When his first employer refused to pay him for three months, he was unable to protest, he said, "because I was unable to express myself" either in written Tsongo, his native language, or in Afrikaans or English, both foreign tongues to him.

In his second job, as a gardener, his employer's children persuaded their parents to send Mr. Chauke to night school. Over the next 13 years, in on-and-off night classes after two jobs, he advanced to the brink of a sixth-grade degree.

In August 1953, with examinations two months away, Mr. Chauke went to his 8 p.m. class in downtown Johannesburg only to find the door blocked by a dozen or more police officers. "The apartheid law was strict now," he said, "and we were no longer allowed to be seen in town at night." He and a fellow classmate found a school in a black township, reachable by train, where the classes ended before nightfall.

That November, he took and passed his graduation exam in a Johannesburg technical school. White, Indian and mixed-race students occupied the examination room. Mr. Chauke and other blacks sat at desks pushed out of the room, in the school's hallway.

In 1960, after he and several hundred other African National Congress members approved the Freedom Charter in Soweto's Kliptown neighborhood, Mr. Chauke found himself a marked man, followed by government agents, his house under surveillance. He and his family left for Zimbabwe, where he found work in a Bulawayo clothing factory, and he did not return until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1991.

He did not abandon schooling - in Zimbabwe, he took correspondence courses in accounting and English - but Mr. Chauke was not seized with the idea of completing his matriculation until 1999, when he resumed studies with the aim of passing grade eight. In 2001, he went back to night school with a vengeance, five days a week, doing his homework in the corrugated-roof garage of his Diepkloof apartment in the evenings so as to not wake his wife, Margaret.

In November, Mr. Chauke finally wrote his matrics, in a big hall with other, much younger students. In late December, South Africa's education minister flew him and Margaret to Cape Town for a ceremony honoring students who pass the annual ordeal.

It would be nice to report that Mr. Chauke passed, too. He almost did. "I've got economics, I've got English, I've got my own language, Tsongo, and I've got history," he said. But his results in mathematics and accounting, he said sadly, were "very poor, very poor."

So Mr. Chauke intends to try again next November. He hopes to enroll this month in an intensive course for the two subjects he needs to complete matriculation. That assumes that he can find the 3,400 rand, or $540, that he needs to pay his fees by this month's end, no easy feat for an old retiree on a slim pension.

One might reasonably ask why an 84-year-old believes he needs to pass his matrics. Mr. Chauke's answer lay in his garage - two slim paperbacks, "Writing the Short Story" and "Novel Writing," laid atop a stack of papers next to his homework table.

"I want to write books about the life of Africans," he said. "About the way we were treated during those colonial years. Because I am one who lived during a very wasted time, and people can learn from me.

"When you matriculate, or when you have a B.A., they recognize that this book has been written by a person who has matured," he said. "It always gives dignity when you read a book by a man who has such a standard of education."

The Newyork Times (A Man Who Has Passed Many Tests Vies With One More)

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Secret Life of Stories

Dead. That was what the Chicago Tribune’s City News service was found to be as the New Year dawned. It had operated as an agency service since 1890, but, as Julian Borger reported from Washington on Monday, the Tribune, which has owned it since 1999, had grown tired of sharing its best stories with its competitors. Many celebrated writers learned their trade there. "It taught me how to tell a story," the writer Kurt Vonnegut, who worked for it in the 1940s, told the Associated Press. "You learned about good reporting and bad reporting," the celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recalled.

But the kind of rigorous, even brutal, training in which the City News specialized did not work for everyone. It did not work for the great American humorist James Thurber, who found himself subjected to just such a regime when, after a spell as a Tribune correspondent first in Paris and then in Nice, he joined the New York Evening Post. His editors kept sending his copy back demanding snappier intros (the term in the newspaper trade for the opening sentence of a story) until one day something snapped. No doubt knowing his days were numbered, he handed in a fresh version of something the desk had rejected.

"Dead." it began. "That was what the man was when the police found him in an area way last night." He didn’t last long after that: he went to work for the New Yorker, where he was able to write the kind of gentle reflective openings that ease the reader seductively into a piece. We ought to be grateful for that. Had his editors on the Post had their way with him, he might never have gone on to publish The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, or My Life and Hard Times, or such stories, for children to dream through and for adults to read as parables, as The Thirteen Clocks ("we all have flaws," said the cold duke, "and mine is being wicked"), The White Deer and the Wonderful O.

Most readers have a collection of favorite opening sentences from great novels: the fog in Bleak House, the clocks in George Orwell’s 1984 striking 13, Jane Austen’s truth, universally acknowledged, or perhaps Rose Macaulay in the Towers of Trebizond: "’Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from the animal on her return from High Mass." "All you have to do is to write one true sentence, and then go on from there," Ernest Hemingway wrote, and took his own advice when he began The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber with an opening sentence that defies you not to read on. "It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened."

And yet there are many fine books by great writers that begin quite ineptly. Bleak House has the fog, and A Tale of Two Cities the best of times, but who would not flinch from the start of Barnaby Rudge? Even Mansfield Park falls short of perfection.

The most famous dud introduction, which is so bad that there’s now an annual contest to devise something even worse, comes in a novel by Bulwer-Lytton: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." No copy editor would sanction that now. Yet it didn’t do Bulwer-Lytton much harm. His books, most of them nowadays quite unreadable, sold mightily, in the manner of Jeffrey Archer’s today.

But where a sharp introduction really matters - and here James Thurber’s masters at the Evening Post were quite right - is in newspapers, where a stale, flat, unprofitable first sentence more or less guarantees that the rest of the article is not going to be read. In a world where so many thousands of words clamor daily for our attention, this is also a useful guide in choosing what to read and what to discard.

That death-dealing formula: "Am I alone in believing/resenting/being driven into a state of puce-faced apoplexy by ... " is rarely found nowadays except in letters to editors. But one still finds in certain columns reliable warnings of dross to come. "I have a confession to make" is one such tiresome formula. "I don’t know about you, but ..." is another. "Call me a flibbertigibbet/ fantasist/old curmudgeon ..." is a pretty reliable third. Call me an old curmudgeon, but that is where I stop reading.

By David Mckie, The Guardian

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

My Blind Conscience

Today one of my best friends reminded me that January 4 marks the birthday anniversary of Louis Braille, a French man who assisted his fellow blind peers to "see" a more tangible world.

You are surely too bored to hear how great a man Braille is, so is anyone who has felt iron-willed to improve their life against all odds. Not to be a dead fish in the rapid river we all inhabit.

Hyperlinks save both you and me from parroting what has been overstated since our school days. Questions can defamiliarize what we know, however. Are you strong enough to tackle a possible blindness? Or what has been your contribution to the life of the blind, apart from patronizingly dropping a few coins in their hat or pocket?

My own naked answers: a)-no, b)-shameful. It is safe to guess that most of you share my reply to the first question. I prefer to avoid speculating about your answers to the second one, though.

Why shameful? During university years, I befriended several students who had lost their eyes during the 8-year war Iraq imposed on Iran. Most had lost the chance of seeing 18 candles flicker on their birthday cakes.

Soon I became their sub teacher, explaining lessons missed in the class, reading textbooks aloud andhelping with research. The more I got popular among the visually challenged, the more sneer I got from the visually perfect.

That reaction failed to erode my determination to assist my needy classmates, but what did rust my willpower were, well, financial needs. I had got a job where the more I produced, the more I pocketed.

Those of you who have done student jobs must know how irresistible the temptation to make money is. It always is, of course, but in university days it is quite unique, immaterialistic. You relish your financial independence as a big dream realized. You get more spending power to buy coveted books, desk tops and CDs. Then you begin to yearn for more, just like desiring for more sex after enjoying the loss of your virginity.

These were excuses for my scrupulous conscience, whose eyes were gradually gouged by banknotes, no longer seeing my friends' big sacrifice for our land. My blind heros sensed the change. They have sharp senses, believe me. Even offered to pay me, but I thought it was inappropriate for me to charge them.

So I left them, ruining a vital bridge between their isolated islands and our mainland. They managed to graduate somehow. Now after a decade, I still wonder if it is easier for us to live with blind eyes or with a blind conscience.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I'm a Literary Whore

The idea is provocative, are you a literary slut? Do you read whatever comes across your way? Take time to read this comic piece about a reading whore:

Tomorrow I am going to start my detox. This, though, won't involve giving up booze, steaming vegetables or running round the park crossly at dawn, but something altogether more difficult. I have pledged instead to refine my reading habits, turning myself from a greedy omnivore who snuffles around dustbins looking for left-overs when she's not even hungry, into an aesthetic and disciplined reader who snacks only on the best quality, high-fibre fare. Over the next 12 months I am resolved to effect a personal transformation from a dumpling of a print consumer who crams herself with anything she can get her hands on, into a discerning connoisseur with sharp literary cheekbones and not a spare ounce of fat. Ladies and Gentleman, I am, finally, going to learn to say "no".
Being a book slut means feeling compelled to gulp down anything that comes your way. Great if you happen to have Proust by your bedside or Macaulay crammed! into your handbag, but not so wonderful if you find yourself stuck on a bus with nothing to read. It is then that great waves of existential terror start to lap at the corners of your consciousness, turning your mouth dry and your fingers thick and tingly. There's nothing for it but to dash into the nearest newsagent and grab armfuls of distraction to carry away to a park bench and consume in a kind of frenzy of sensation until you have numbed yourself into something approaching calm.

But the problem with print addiction is that, unlike bulimia, there is no option of sicking the unwanted material back up 30 minutes later. It is for that reason that the book slut's brain becomes bloated with the kind of useless and vaguely uncomfortable information that it was never particularly keen on acquiring in the first place.

I, for instance, have a Heat habit, which keeps me pacified and vaguely tranquil for a couple of hours every Tuesday evening. But the unfortunate result! is that my mind is now stuffed with subjects that mean little to me. Despite wishing otherwise, I frequently go to sleep worrying whether Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughan are actually a couple, if Nadine Coyle from Girls Aloud is losing too much weight and how much cosmetic surgery Teri Hatcher has really had. And the awful thing is that there's no point complaining about the dreadful hangover the next morning. I brought this disgusting after-taste on myself.

Of course this isn't the only kind of reading I do. The whole point about being a literary whore is that you love all kinds of texts equally, refusing to play favourites and treating them all with the same kind of intense but ultimately casual affection. Thus, gearing up for the new university term, my last few weeks have been spent on Plutarch's Roman Lives (which I can still just about manage in the Latin translation), Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte and Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot.

But the fact that this relatively taxing material has been interspersed wi! th Robbie Williams' Feel and Paul Burrell's A Royal Duty , not to mention Jordan and Peter's year in pictures in OK, may account for the fact that I find it impossible to treat even "serious" books with the kind of material respect they deserve. Far from protecting each text with a plastic cover - and, honestly, I do have friends who do this - I treat my books like trash. Perhaps it's a kind of complicated self-loathing - I don't quite respect my reading habits so I like to punish the books themselves - but I have an awful habit of losing dust jackets, dropping them in the bath, and using them to prop up the aerial on my TV set.

They are also, I find, just the thing for wedging doors open, using as an emergency beach pillow, and stopping great piles of paper drifting away in a draft.
Then, too, there is my shameful habit of defacing books with scribbles and doodles. I'm not talking here about the neat and considered marginalia of the true scholar, the sort of thing ! that comprises an elegant and essential commentary on the original wor k that keeps PhD students enthralled for centuries to come. I mean, instead, the kind of scrawled comments that constitute a kind of short-hand conversation with oneself that can never be recaptured, even a couple of days later. Who do I think I am writing to or for? Certainly not Posterity, which would surely find it hard to get much sense out of angry jabs along the lines of "oh Gawd!" "yeah, but . . ." "oh p-u-l-e-a-s-e" and just plain "!?!".

So, ladies and gentleman, from tomorrow I am resolved to clean up my act. There will be no more lurking around newsagents on a Tuesday afternoon "just to see" what the cover lines are on the new edition of Heat. There will be no reading a couple of chapters of a pulpy showbiz biography "to cleanse my palate" in between slugs of Suetonius. There will be no scrawling asterisks alongside a particular paragraph and then being unable to recall 24 hours later just why I thought it mattered. There will be no more insane 10-hour read! ing binges in which I force down every kind of print within sight and then go to bed jittery and bug-eyed.

Instead I will snack on high-quality produce, about whose provenance I am absolutely sure. If something comes with a slick pink cover or a ghost writer's credit along the lines of "as told to . . .", I will cast it behind me. My mind will be filled only with the best of everything - the finest fiction, the most scholarly biography, the cleverest translations. I will be monogamous, prudent, chaste. I will, though, be only half the reader - and therefore writer - I once was.

Kathryn Hughes , The Guardian
Original title: Purge or purgatory?: Kathryn Hughes decides to ditch her bad reading habits

Monday, January 02, 2006

Hardwired for Religion?

This fine piece is worth reading and pondering:

Religion, apparently banished from the world by reason, now threatens us with a global war. We can throw up our hands in horror, or we can throw them up in prayer; but it might be more useful to try and understand why this has happened, and what are the features of religion that make it so strong and so resilient, even in technologically advanced countries. To do this, we need science humble enough to recognise that the first and biggest problem is that religion does not exist.

There is no more a thing called religion that can be studied than there is a thing called life. In particular, there is no definition that will encompass religion and exclude everything that is not religion. The chief reason why people can never say that religion is "really" anything else is that it isn't, really, anything to start with. There is another reason: the most popular atheist myths about religion are just demonstrably false.

There is the theory that religion is a device for giving us what we cannot have, whether it be freedom from death, or other forms of existential anxiety: that it is, essentially, a giant apparatus of wish-fulfilment. Yet plenty of religion has existed without belief in the afterlife, and certainly without any belief in any afterlife that would be better than what we have now. There is no afterlife in the Old Testament and no one could regard the Greek afterlife - as a twittering grey shade, yearning for blood to drink - as anything other than a horrible fate which would come to everyone, irrespective of their merits. Such a view depends on an extraordinarily narrow and parochial view of what religions are: monotheistic, literate, with priests and leaders, and, best of all, sacrifices.

This looks very like a 19th-century Protestant's idea of Roman Catholicism. It doesn't look like any of the religions or spiritual practices of the hunter-gatherer tribes from which we evolved; and, while I suppose that the Pope might feel that human history was all a dress rehearsal for the emergence of the Vatican, it seems an odd claim for atheists to make. There's a theory that seems to get away from this and finds the lowest common denominator of religion in spiritual impulses, which can in turn be regarded as something that goes on in the brain, perhaps a malfunction in a temporal lobe, so that the beatific vision could be induced by a man with a kind of hairdressers' helmet hooked up to an MRI machine in a lab in Montreal.

The simple observation that disproves this is that almost all religious revivals start in devout societies where people have kept their faith without any spiritual experiences, while night shelters of any large city are full of people who talk to God all the time, out loud, and hear his voice answering very clearly. Some arguments are more sophisticated. The French anthropologist Pascal Boyer thinks that the problem of explaining religious belief is essentially the problem of explaining superstition.

If we knew why people believe in things that aren't there, we would have solved it. Boyer started his career as an anthropologist among the Fang of Cameroon. Among other things, they believe that any man of exceptional power or vigour has an invisible organ in his stomach, the evur, which can, when necessary, leave his body and fly by night to suck the blood of rivals. He had been trained in Cambridge by Jack Goody, an anthropologist who believed in human nature. He thought that the ways that cultures persist must reflect the ways that our minds work. It is a very curious feature of religions that they tend to stay stable: the same stories are passed down for generations pretty much unchanged.

So what is it that makes some stories easier to tell, and transmit to your children, than others? Among the Fang, he came to believe that myths, like language, flourish because of the way that our minds have evolved. No one has to explain all the features of a religious belief for it to spread and be repeated, any more than children need written and explicit grammars to speak grammatically. In fact, in some respects the anthropologists' codifications of mythology are just as misleading a guide to the ways that people actually believe as a travellers' phrase book is to the way that we actually speak.

But there is a huge difference, in Boyer's account, between the brain structures involved in language and those that determine which myths are memorable. The language areas have, presumably, been selected because they are good at language. You can talk about genes "for" language; but there aren't any genes "for" the experience of God. The features of our brains that determine which religions make intuitive sense need not have been selected at all. Superstition, and spiritual experience, could be simply side effects of the ways that our minds work towards more important ends. However, it is not just agency that we naturally ascribe to gods or spirits.

They don't just do things. We also believe that they have ideas and beliefs about the world, and this is a generalisation of a faculty that social animals need. They need to assume that the animals around them have minds and purposes as well as appetites. In particular, if we are to be successful users of language we have to be able to estimate what other people know about the world, and what they don't know. Otherwise, we can neither sympathise nor lie successfully. We can't even tell when other people are lying to us.

The most important of these is the tendency to see purpose in the world. This operates far below the level of conscious apprehension. If we see something moving, we think it's alive. It's obvious that this is going to be highly developed in all animals, since, in general, it is the bits of the world which are alive that they need to pay attention to if they want to eat or to avoid being eaten. Just as obviously, we see a lot more life than there really is in the world: that is why even the crudest video games immediately make sense.

It is probably not a coincidence that so many visions come from the desert places. The sheer blank lifelessness of the surroundings may well provoke us into seeing pure agency where there is nothing. The ability to understand the workings of other's minds seems quite fundamental to any belief in Gods or spirits. To this extent, any novelist has to have the equipment of a theologian. He must be able to know what his characters are thinking; but also what each character knows and believes about the other characters' motives and, finally, what the reader believes about it all. This is three or four layers of understanding: not just that other people have ideas about the world, but they have ideas about each other's view of the world.

In War and Peace, when the vile Hélène is tricking Pierre Bezukhov into marriage, we readers have to know many things to understand what's going on: we have to know that she knows some of what she's doing, that her mother knows more but conceals this from her daughter, that Pierre knows less, that his friends know more but feel they can't tell him - and Tolstoy himself must have understood our understandings of all this, and manipulated them, without showing any strain at all. Without that very sophisticated theory of mind the plot makes no sense. It lacks, as we say, realism.

What relevance has War and Peace to the Fang belief in mobile, invisible organs of the stomach? The answer is that supernatural beings, even supernatural organs, also have a theory of mind: they have beliefs about what we believe. This is not to say that they know everything, nor even that they can't be fooled: Jehovah, walking in the Garden of Eden in the first version of the Genesis story, is a good example of a supernatural agent whom Adam could hope to fool. But all divinities have ways of finding out the sort of information that gives then an edge: the stuff we would like to conceal. In Boyer's theory, the divinities we believe in are better poker players than we are.

There's some perverse evidence for this in the fact that the Gods of believers are not omniscient in the way that the God of philosophers is, and interesting experiments have been conducted to prove this. For instance, if you ask whether God knows if you steal a bar of chocolate from a refrigerator in an empty room, of course He does. But does He know whether the chocolate bar was on the left or the right of the shelf? Here people hesitate a long time.

Logically, the questions seem quite equivalent: if God sees you lifting the chocolate bar, then he sees where on the shelf you lifted it from. But if omniscience is about detecting guilt and not about detecting facts, then the details of the crime don't matter. And this is what children's intuitions tend to show. Believers in religion frequently argue that morality proceeds from religious belief: Boyer points out that moral sentiments perfectly well exist and flourish in societies that have more or less abandoned religion, such as those of Scandinavia. "Moral intuitions don't come out of moral codes. They develop very early in children, who understand that moral questions are about co-operation, and about constructing coalitions.

Even four-year-olds have a good grasp of the distinction between moral rules and social convention. The difference is that a social convention is not violated if there was no explicit convention, but moral rules can be broken even if no one told you not to break them. Four-year-olds have the intuition that there are circumstances in which it is wrong to do certain things even when they have not explicitly been stated."

It may be that people are naturally moral; it may be that they are naturally supernaturalists. But there need be no relation of cause and effect. The faculties that make supernatural belief natural may well have been shaped for other purposes, just as my nose was not shaped to rest my spectacles on. Yet, without a nose on which to rest my spectacles, I would have a hard time writing. Supernaturalism, once established, might have arisen as an accident, yet still have effects, in combinations with other things, which are themselves evolutionarily significant, and which would tend to fix it in the population.

Others have tried to rescue the idea of religion by claiming that it describes group behaviour. This can be done with some subtlety. The theoretical biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that religious behaviour persists because it links human beings into coherent and successful groups which can then evolve in competition with other groups.

It is certainly the case that societies tend to understand their own ordering in religious terms, rather than looking squarely at the power relations involved. If you want to enforce absolute rules of behaviour, which will always be followed, these need some kind of irrational force that overrides simple reason and Wilson analyses a number of religious rules in terms of their social effects, from a hunter-gatherer tribe in the Malaysian rain forest, which ensures that food is always shared out on egalitarian principles, to the written constitution of Calvin's Geneva, which established a set of tremendously effective totalitarian theocracies. These, too, had a measurable effect on the survival of the group.

In purely demographic terms, the Puritan emigration of English Calvinists to New England was phenomenally successful: the 21,000 English settlers who arrived between 1629 and 1640 had produced 16 million descendants by 1988 and this can't be understood without reference to their religious beliefs. It was their understanding of the Bible which led them to emigrate, and which later determined their practice of universal marriage and their horror of contraception.

The Bible, too, justified their slaughter of the existing population. It is an important part of Wilson's argument that he's concerned with the effects of religious emotion and not how it feels. To take an analogy from sex, it's obvious that the biological purpose of lust is to make babies. We have the emotion because babies are its ultimate result. But the immediate desire is not for babies at all, and in many societies the most powerful argument against sexual intercourse is precisely the thought that babies might come of it. So it may be that the sacred has a biological purpose because one of its effects is to hold groups together.

But that wouldn't mean that we want group coherence, consciously or unconsciously. What people want is a common experience of the sacred, which explains why God remains a more popular object of veneration than the United Nations. Yet even when the theory is this large, there doesn't seem to be anything distinctively religious about it, or else football fans would be religious - they too are driven by an irrational common purpose that binds them together and leads them towards self-sacrifice; few religious mortifications could be worse than the discomfort and boredom of watching a football match and then listening to people talking about it afterwards.

But Nick Hornby and the late Pope John Paul II are not equally religious, even if both of them were, or are, depending on whether the Pope is right, football fans. One might try to combine these two theories of religion into a single whole, arguing that religious belief should appear to science like a complex number which cannot exist without two parts that we call real and imaginary. Science, when it studies religion must take into account both its sociological functions and its psychological ones; and to understand how these two work together on each other. Any particular religion must be specified with reference to both.

This is true but I don't think it goes far enough. The range of human societies and their effects on the psychologies of their members, is just too great for there to be any single form of social organisation, and thus any single thing called religion, which is found in all of them. Technological revolutions, like agriculture, and writing, fundamentally change the nature of religious beliefs. So does trade. The shaman drinking reindeer piss to bring back a vision for his tribe is not performing the same functions as a Jesuit missionary at the court of a Chinese emperor in the 16th century. They aren't doing different versions of religion.

They are doing entirely different things. Neither is more or less religious than the other. Not to believe in religion is in some ways a more radical step than not believing in God, but it might get us out of rather more difficulties; and it still lets even atheists say, with a clear conscience, Merry Christmas.

The Guardian, Andrew Brown: Are we hardwired for religion, or is it just a psychological and social need?