Sunday, 20 March 2011

Without proof, who knows who said what? Damning the Archbishop of Canterbury without evidence

My first, and quite possibly last, ever blog.

Hello, my name is Chris Mason. I believe in God, but please don't hold that against me. I liked the last pope (good old JP2 - he looked like Yoda for starters), I'm not keen on the current pope (Ratzinger, God's rottweiler - he looks like the Emperor for starters).

My first, and as I say quite possibly last, ever blog is about a dead guy and whether he said what it has been claimed he said.

It's not about religion vs atheism... not for me, anyway. It's about the basic responsibility of journalists to link to primary sources, and the inability of dead people to defend themselves.

Soooo, if you're still with me, here we go. This article was published by The Independent on Friday 18 February 2011. It was written by Johann Hari and includes the following:

In 1965, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury scorned the people who were campaigning for nuclear-armed countries to step back from the brink, on the grounds that "a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway"

The rest of this blog is purely about my ongoing efforts to validate this astonishing quote, so please do stop now if you have no interest in finding out the truth.

If you're still with me, here goes... here's Johann announcing the publication of his article on Twitter:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
Why are bishops still writing our laws - and why is Clegg about to make it worse? My latest article:

Here's Ben Goldacre commenting on the quote:

bengoldacre ben goldacre 
i am in LOVE with the 1965 nuclear war quote @johannhari101

Here's me asking for evidence:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@bengoldacre @johannhari101 Do you have a source/reference for Archbishop Ramsey's quote about nuclear war?

Here's Johann 'referencing' the quote:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@bengoldacre Isn't it bonkers? Hitchens quotes it in God Is Not Great.

Here's me asking for the context to the quote:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre I don't have Hitchens' book, so please can you tell me the date/context/setting of Archbishop Ramsey's quote?

Here's me asking again (to be fair, Johann Hari is actually good at replying, particularly given that he's got 50,000+ followers on Twitter):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Sorry to bother you again, but I find that nuclear war quote by Archbishop Ramsey so shocking - would be great to know more

Me again:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Hi, sorry, one last try. Any more info/context about the nuclear war quote from the then Archbishop of Canterbury?

Johann's reply - could be more helpful, if you ask me, but hey:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@Do0g1e It's from Christopher Hitchens' book God Is Not Great, as I said earlier.

Me saying that I'll buy the book:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Ok, I guess I'll just have to buy the book to discover if a date, context or setting is given. Hopefully it is.

Me having bought the book (I know, I'm a mug - Johann Hari owes me £4.78), and not found the quote:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 I've bought Hitchens' book God Is Not Great, but couldn't find the nuclear war quote. What page is it on?

Me again:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Hi there. Have now bought Hitchens' book God Is Not Great, but can't find nuclear war quote. Any chance of a page number?

Me once again:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Any chance of a page reference to the quote from God Is Not Great that you attributed to the AoC in 1965 in a recent column?

Johann giving a bit of a weak and odd reply:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@Do0g1e I moved so the book is in my boxes - look it up online, it's quoted all over the place, or try the index

Me answering that weak and odd reply:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 I bought the book after you told me that was your reference. I can't find the quote in it. I've googled extensively.

Johann telling me that the quote is in the book, telling me that I actually have to read it (oh, I see, is that how books work? I thought you just stuck them on your bookshelf and looked at them), and blowing me a kiss to signify that hopefully I'll be an atheist soon (that's how I use x's anyway - maybe he uses them differently):

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@Do0g1e Well, the quote is there, that's where I got it. You'll have to read it! Hope it converts you to atheism x

Me asking for the source, having looked for it on the internet:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Only references I can find link back to your column. Aren't you keen to source such an emotive quote?

Johann telling me that he can't unpack all his books (thousands apparently - why buy thousands of books if you're going to leave them in boxes?) to find the quote - I'm only asking about one book, a book he apparently used as a reference only last month:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@Do0g1e I can't unpack and look through thousands of books to find it, to save you the hassle of reading Hitchens! Sorry

Me clarifying the fact that I've read the book (well, d'uh):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Sorry, think we're misunderstanding each other. I read the book - I can't find the quote. I'm not trying to avoid reading.

Johann claiming that the first edition is different to the one I went out and bought on his recommendation:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@Do0g1e Oh, I see. Well it's definitely there - I have the first edition & read it there. Email Hitchens and ask for source if you like...

Me appealing to his journalistic instincts (naive, I know. Kalle Blomquist is clearly a fictional figure):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Fair enough. Still curious that you aren't more keen to validate the quote (it's a doozie). I'll continue trying to.

Johann claiming that he had 'validated' the quote:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@Do0g1e I have validated it - I checked it as I wrote the piece.

Me stupidly saying that I'll continue chasing evidence on Johann's behalf (what can I say? He's got 50,536 followers on Twitter, I've got 25 - I'm slightly in awe):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 No worries. I'll try to contact Hitchens for his source. Based on this, he sounds decent enough -

Me once again appealing to the fictional Kalle Blomquist:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 Just always come back to it being such an astonishing thing for him to say - in public particularly, but even in private.

Me dragging Ben Goldacre back into proceedings (he's a legend, but hey, he was happy to comment on the quote without evidence or proof):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre Sorry, but aren't you keen to nail down a source for a quote that you are both happy to repeat / comment on?

Me painting my colours to the mast - it's true, it's about a dead bloke for me, not about religion:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre Bashing religion - fine. But you're bashing an individual who's dead and can't defend himself.

Me on my soap box (apologies, I'd had one or two beers by this point):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre Why am I alone in trying to ascertain whether the then AoC actually condoned nuclear war or not?

Me now on my high horse (apologies again, I'd definitely had one or two beers by this point):

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre Evidence? Referencing? Sources? Does that only count when it's science? Religion is fair game?

Me admitting that I don't know whether the quote is genuine or not:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre Maybe he did condone nuclear war, but I'm the only one trying to find out if he did

Other tweets that are relevant/interesting - Ben Goldacre decrying a journalist who won't respond to his polite email asking for an explanation of a story:

bengoldacre ben goldacre 
simon johnson from the telegraph hasnt even deigned to reply to my polite email asking how his whale story came about

Johann commenting on what he thinks of a journalist not replying when questioned about a story:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@bengoldacre That's when you know you've won the argument...

Ben Goldacre making a general point:

bengoldacre ben goldacre 
@johannhari101 almost all i get from journalists, quacks, antivaxxers, & corp's i criticise, is different forms of "shut up. just shut up".

And then, when I was debating whether to bother pursuing this (particularly as I still readily accept that the then Archbishop of Canterbury may have said such an outrageous and heinous thing - I just want to find out if he definitely did or not), Ben Goldacre published an article that was so wonderfully timed that it just felt like it was meant to be: 

bengoldacre ben goldacre 
Why don’t journalists link to primary sources?: Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 19 March 2011 Why don’t...

And just in case we were left in any doubt about his feelings on the matter:

bengoldacre ben goldacre 
If you don't link to primary sources, you are dead to me RT

Here's me agreeing wholeheartedly - he's right, and he's a legend as I said:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@bengoldacre Well said! Please can you encourage @johannhari101 to link to primary sources, unless his articles are exempt for some reason.

What happened next? Well, Johann Hari blocked me from following him on Twitter - bit extreme, no?

I don't actually know whether tweets go through to people who have blocked you, but here's me trying anyway:

Do0g1e Chris Mason 
@johannhari101 @bengoldacre Sorry you feel the need to block me, Johann. I'm just asking for a source/proof for a quote you chose to use.

And finally, here's Johann summing up his views about just following someone else's argument without thinking:

johannhari101 Johann Hari 
@arg1985 "You can say X, because bad person Y also says it" is a really bad argument...

Soooo, where does all this leave us? Well, first of all, thanks very much to anyone who actually got this far. Yesterday (Saturday 19 March), I emailed Johann Hari and Ben Goldacre, reiterating my points. I could paraphrase, but here's the complete email:

Good afternoon to you both

I guess there's a very good chance that this email will never be read (fair enough, you're both very busy people and must get a lot of unsolicited correspondence), but I live in hope as I still think what I'm asking for is actually very simple and reasonable, and hopefully resonates with at least one of you.

The below article was posted on The Independent website on Friday 18 February:

It includes the following quote:

In 1965, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury scorned the people who were campaigning for nuclear-armed countries to step back from the brink, on the grounds that "a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway".

I find this quote quite astonishing, outrageous and absolutely heinous. But understandably my reaction straight after thinking wow, that's incredible, is to then think right, well it would have been nice if it was referenced but a quick google should provide references aplenty. It was only 46 years ago after all, and there must have been some reaction at the time.

Oh, and before I go any further, I should probably 'fess up and declare that I believe in God. But painting me as a religious fundamentalist would be something of a stretch (I'd have to start going to church for starters).

Thanks to google, I now know that the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1965 was Michael Ramsey:

Seems like a decent enough bloke:

And he's dead, obviously. So he can't defend himself.

So, how about my efforts to google the actual quote... well, I admit I am not exactly an investigative journalist, but all I've managed to find are lots of links back to the Independent article, along with the below:

It's long, but here's the relevant bit:

Christopher Hitchens: Who said the following -- just to give you a random quotation -- “A nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway.”  Who said this?  Want to guess?  You would if you were asked to.  If you were given it as a blank text, it would be Rafsanjani on a bad day.  Right?  Or Rabbi Kahane, perhaps,  yearning for Armageddon. It’s the Archbishop of Canterbury, in about 1965, the leader of the mildest and most mediocre and sheep-like Christian group of all, the Episcopalian.  Rightly do they call themselves a flock; people who actually want to be called sheep. Well, they look like it, too.

I've also been told that it's in Christopher Hitchens' book God Is Not Great. I've bought and read the book (so's one of my housemates - don't worry, he's an atheist), but can't find the quote. The book has a helpful index and reference section at the back - it's not in either.

So this is my question. If a journalist voluntarily decides to include a quote in an article, do they have a duty to source and verify that quote? Including that information within the article would of course save all the additional effort that others have to go to find it, but when they're asked outright for an actual verified source, shouldn't they be able to produce that quickly and easily?

And finally, before I leave you both in peace, is the fact that someone else also claims that the Archbishop of Canterbury said it in oooh about 1965 actually a verified source? I don't know whether Archbishop Ramsey said what it's claimed he said about nuclear war, but then I'm not the one claiming that he did. Is it too much to ask for a date, venue, context (let's face it, context can be absolutely crucial), properly documented reference for such a quote?

Any enlightenment would be much appreciated, including whether I am asking too much and being unreasonable.

Yours sincerely

Chris Mason

P.S. Believe it or not, it's not about religion or atheism for me. It's about a dead guy having a truly despicable quote attributed to him, for which I am still waiting to see any actual proper evidence/proof.

Just to make clear one last time, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1965 may have said something that I find absolutely despicable, but I want to know that he did before I judge him. Is that wrong?

I also want journalists to take responsibility for including primary sources in their articles. Is that wrong?

And finally, I want journalists to do more than just re-quote things that someone else claims was said, without any evidence or proof. Is that wrong?

Goodnight journalism, wherever you are


Wordle: Without proof


  1. You can see Hitch quoting it here:
    (from 1:22)

    I would be very surprised if an old pro like Hitch would have quoted it without having verified it. But I too would be interested to know for sure.


  2. Johann Hari blocks a lot of people for challenging him or even just asking him questions - consider it a badge of honour.

    Did you know you can search the entire book at Amazon?

    The quote is NOT there.

  3. The quote is attributed to Geoffrey Fisher, and so was before 1962. Fisher certainly said similar things about the Bomb (,9171,810437,00.html) but the sourcing for that quote, which was clearly Hitchens paraphrasing from this quote in his earlier book ( and which is the same quote as the one Ken Tynan quotes from the Express here (and 7 years before Hitchens so perhaps the source) -

  4. And ding! - This is as good as you'll get (search for sweep)

  5. Sorry for taking so horrifically long to reply to your comments, all! Thanks very much, and particular thanks to Matthew for top drawer detective work!

  6. Interesting study.

    Hitch in the vid quotes 1964, whereas it was actually 1958 - according to the report in Time. Hari acknowledged that, but didn't 'source it or leave it out'.

    The ABC in 1958 was Geoffrey Fisher, who was thought of as an old fool by the time he retired in 1961 ('Dr Fisher's views do not automatically command respect, or even attention' - Spectator 1960, cited in the book Matthew referenced). In 1958 he was 71.

    The ABC in 1964/5 was Michael Ramsey.

    If Hari knew his history - especially as a campaigning secularist with a 'reputation' as a 'journalist' to keep up of knowing his subject - he would know Michael Ramsey would not be so trite.

    Hari was just reproducing the most inflammatory stuff he could find with zero effort. For him, it doesn't matter if you character assassinate the wrong person, in search of a general smear.

  7. It was quoted from Hitchen's Portable Atheist.