“Faitheist”- A Manifesto for Tolerance

Every Christmas for the past several years I sit down and I cry. It’s not that I’m sad; it’s an important tradition. Every Christmas I sit down and watch It’s A Wonderful Life and like a predictable fool each time I’m blinking back salty water. And it’s not just with this film- name a tear jerker and it’s probably worked its magic on me. I even cried at Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition.

But books, now that’s a different story. I’m always so much more engaged by books. They can move and inspire. I’ve changed countless opinions on the strength of a book I’ve read and found myself in many more people’s shoes than ever I have in films. But a book has yet to win a tear from me. Perhaps it’s the lack of soundtrack, I’ve just never had a pile of paper get the slightest boo or hoo from me, never-mind both at the same time.

That is, until I read Faitheist.

Faitheist is a memoir from Chris Stedman, assistant chaplain at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. I’ve actually known Chris for over two years now, ever since I wrote for his blog, Non Prophet Status. But while I’ve been following his work since, I can’t claim to know him personally, which is why reading his memoir feels so strange, like I’m peeking into his diary. So why does someone just two years older than me have his memoirs out already? It’s because as atheists and the religious debate how to engage one another, his is a very important story to tell.

Chris tells the story of how he went from evangelical Christian to atheist. Such a transition could never be smooth but Chris’ was made all the rockier by his realisation from his early teens that he is gay. He tells of his struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, a struggle that at first he seems to be loosing. He is told that his sexuality is a demon inside him trying to prise him from God. Unable to accept himself, Chris is driven to despair. He describes how one evening, home alone and hating himself for simply being Chris, he took a sharp kitchen knife and locked himself in the family bathroom. Tears and snot smearing his face, he rolled up his left sleeve and practiced, slicing through the warm air above his living skin, the movement he needed to make to end it all. Chris is, of course, still with us but unlike in It’s a Wonderful Life he had no realisation, crouched with his back against the cold shower tiles, of what the world would miss without him- only the thought that suicide would be yet another black mark against his soul made him step out of that shower and replace the knife in its drawer.

This is a very powerful moment and, yes, it moved me to tears. This book and Chris’ life itself could easily, after that episode, have been dedicated to vehemently opposing religion in all its forms. I for one couldn’t blame him yet incredibly the message of the book and Chris’ professional life is one of tolerance; a call for dialogue, not division, between believer and non-believer. Confident now in his atheism, Chris wishes to use his story to highlight intolerance of all kinds- and these includes intolerance within the atheist community for the religious. In his work at Harvard, Chris aims to build constructive dialogue with religious people, focusing on shared values and making genuine, sincere attempts at mutual understanding. Chris stresses that the enemy of secularism is not religion but religious extremism. In combatting this extremism, atheists can find many allies among the religious. Indeed, there simply aren’t enough of us to achieve a good society on our own. We simply must work together and Chris believes it is possible.

If someone who was driven close to suicide by religiously-inspired homophobia can make peace with religion, surely so too can many atheists. The world is simply too complex to divide along the tribal lines of religious and atheist, us and them. In making active efforts to reach across this faith divide we stand to make not just useful allies in fighting the homophobia, sexism and anti-science behind religious extremism, we stand too to build real relationships and gain real friendships. This is Chris’ challenge to his readers and I’m with him on it. Atheists and religious people have too much to gain from sincere dialogue to wallow in lazy stereotyping. As most of us begin to loose the momentum of our two week old New Year’s resolutions, perhaps atheists at large could make a fresh resolution to make an attempt this year to actively engage a religious person about their beliefs, to try to understand where they come from and see what you might have in common. You could just be surprised. Let the dialogue begin.

Do Dead People Have Rights?

Yes it’s a Friday and I should be having fun but there’s something more morbid on my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dead bodies recently and want to share my musings. The thoughts were sparked a couple of weeks back when I went to the Museum of London’s newest gallery– an exhibition on 19th Century human dissection complete with Real Dead Bodies. Most of the bodies were those of criminals sentenced to death and dissection,but one had a more unusual, and disturbing, fate. Prominently displayed in the middle of the gallery was the body of an elderly man who had been executed for murder. He too was to be sent to a medical school for dissection but ended up instead at an art college. The problem facing art students at the time was creating realistic depictions of the crucified Christ and the body of this poor man was to serve as their model. Chemically preserved and nailed to a cross, the body hung in the art school for over a century and was displayed in this same form in the museum gallery.


Like many visitors, I found the display of this man’s body disturbing but I wasn’t sure why. After all, the logic behind dissection as a punishment was partly a Christian one- that without a complete body the deceased would not resurrect at the Second Coming. As an atheist, this was hardly of concern to me, not to mention that a complete lack of belief in any afterlife should make the idea of disrespecting the dead a ridiculous one- how can you offend someone who no longer exists? But this did little to rid me of the suspicion that there was something wrong in using a corpse like this. Thinking about this for a while after, I came to the conclusion that bodies, dead bodies, do in fact have rights.

I swear I’m not crazy.

The term “dead people”, you might say, is misleading because just as “fake Gucci shoes” aren’t Gucci shoes, “dead people” aren’t actually people and how can we do harm to something that is no longer a person? Well it’s certainly true that the original person could’t have been aware of the damage that was due to be done to their body, but that doesn’t make damaging that body ok. It is perfectly possible to harm a living person without their being aware of the harm but that hardly makes discreetly poisoning someone’s cornflakes ok just because they haven’t realised what you’re doing. And is it not true that we can impact on someone even after they’re dead? If his popularity was a feature of Jimmy Saville during his life, the fact that he is now reviled is surely just as much a feature. What is meant and known by “Saville” has been changed, even after his death.

So if a victim being unaware of their harm doesn’t excuse that harm and we can affect someone even after they are dead, it doesn’t seem entirely bonkers to suggest that we can harm someone after they are dead. This isn’t to say that we should treat the dead just as the living; depriving a dead person of oxygen doesn’t inflict quite as much damage as depriving a living person of it. But it does make the opposite extreme, that the dead are non-people, sacks of meat, less reasonable.

Now back to the Museum of London display. If we are to accept that the bodies of the dead being mistreated is harm to the person themselves then it seems clear than disfiguring that body is harm and that we therefore shouldn’t accept the continued crucifixion of the elderly convict. This isn’t to say that dead bodies are sacred, rather that they remain, within reason, subjects to the wishes of their owners. Jeremy Bentham wished his body to be put on display in University College London and it rightly is, but to allow this man to have his humiliation extended by centuries seems wrong to me. He should be allowed to rest in peace.

London’s First Atheist Church

“An atheist church”

I repeated the sentence a few times to myself while making my way along Islington’s St Paul’s road on Sunday morning. St Paul’s famous road to Damascus led him to found Christian communities but this St Paul’s road was taking me to a whole new concept of human community: an atheist church. As in, a church for atheists. Could this work? Did it even make any sense? I wasn’t sure. But I was keen to find out.

I was on my way to the first ever meeting of The Sunday Assembly, the brainchild of comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Formed under the motto of “live better, help often, wonder more”, the monthly meetings aim, in the words of Jones, to give London atheists “all the things that are good about bringing a community together and make us better people, just without God being involved”. The group have no problem with borrowing directly from religion, the services themselves are held in an old, deconsecrated church.

But Sanderson and Pippa aren’t the first people to have this idea, although they seem to be the first to put it into practice in London. The thought of creating a religion-like community of atheists, agnostics, humanists etc. has been a hot topic of discussion since Alain de Button published his book “Religion for Atheists” almost exactly a year ago. De Button argued that rather than shun everything with a “religion” label, non-believers should look at where religion did get it right, including in building community, providing perspective, realising our human flaws and giving us a focus for art and architecture. It is the first of these, building community, that the Sunday Assembly chiefly targets.

The idea is pretty controversial with many atheists. Some can’t see there being anything worth learning from religion. After all, if it’s based on a false premise, how could a religion get anything right? And doesn’t the idea of an atheist church open up the non-religious to the age-old accusation of “you’re really just another type of religion”? I decided to withhold my judgment and see for myself what this type of atheist community would look like. So up St Paul’s Road I went…

The building itself was indeed a stereotypical Church of England stone house of worship, now used as a Steiner school. Having grown up Catholic I’m pretty used to church buildings but many atheists, especially those from religious but non-Christian backgrounds, may find this off-putting. But I quickly stopped thinking about that, because the big news of this Sunday Assembly became immediately clear as I walked in- the idea is incredibly popular. With 5 minutes to go before show time, the place was completely packed with about 200 people. I was just about able to grab a child’s stool at the back (as in a stool meant for children, I wouldn’t steal from a child. Not unless they had it coming) and a minute later heard half panicked, half jubilant commands to open up the choir balcony to accommodate even more people. By the time the meeting started, there were still a good 30 people either sat on the floor or standing at the sides.

So it seemed I wasn’t the only one curious to see this idea in action. The service itself lasted just over an hour and was, again, very much influenced by Christian services. It had much of the format of an evangelical service with sermons sandwiched between hymns. Yep- sermons and hymns. So what is an atheist sermon? Well it’s very funny, or at least these ones were. Since the Sunday Assembly’s founders are comedians, their sermons felt very much like a stand-up gig. The event is compered by the messianic-ly bearded Sanderson Jones who introduced the whole idea behind the project and was generally very funny. There was also a guest speaker, this week’s being children’s author Andy Stanton. I can’t say I got too much from Andy’s speech. There was a general atmosphere in the church of the organisers being very keen not to seem “preachy” but what that meant with Andy was that instead of giving his words of wisdom on “beginnings”, supposedly reflecting on how he became an author, he just made a lot of self-deprecating jokes interspersed with pauses that felt a bit too long to be intentional.that said, the idea of an atheist (or perhaps more precisely a humanist) ’sermon’ is far from a crazy one. Humanists admire great scientists, philosophers and poets and a sermon based around their works and a secular theme like ’wonder’ or ’relationships’ is perfectly reasonable, in the understanding that these are just words of advice intended to provoke personal reflection. Pippa’s stand-up style talk about not sweating the little stuff was a nice example of this. So atheist sermons get a thumbs up.

And an atheist hymn? This Sunday’s hymns were Don’t Look Back in Anger and Build Me Up Buttercup. They even had a live band and lyrics on a projector screen. Hey, I’m cool with this too. As a Catholic I played in a church group and quite miss this. Songs are always full of messages about life, why not enjoy them together? Convincing a room of Londoners who don’t know each other to sing together is a whole other story. I don’t reckon anymore than 20% of us had the gall to join in, but maybe that’ll improve with time. I like this idea- atheist hymns also get a thumbs up.

And then came the prayer stuff. Ok not actual prayers, since no deity was invoked, but some very prayery stuff. A ’moment of silent reflection’ was encouraged which made me, and I imagine others, feel pretty uncomfortable. Not so much because I didn’t like the reflection thing, mind. When my family prays before meals I don’t join in but I do try to remind myself that I’m pretty lucky to have food and should be glad of this fact, even if I’ve no god to thank. So I do see how atheists can use moments of quiet reflection in their lives. But to see this form a part of the atheist church service made me pretty uncomfortable, quite probably because it just felt so religious. Perhaps I should jut get over this but the Sunday Assembly need to remember that many attendees may have had uncomfortable religious experience in the past, making organized silence challenging.

But the silent reflection was a little more prayery than mere silence. Being January, the services theme was around beginning new things and resolutions. In our silence, we were encouraged to think about something we want to change in our lives and how great that would feel to achieve. We were told that scientists have shown that just by saying something out loud, our brains will believe it true. Now I am all for encouraging people to achieve their goals but I feel the organisers were stepping out of their remit and the spirit of rationalism here. The idea that success can be aided by imagining how great it would be to lose those pounds, get that job or kiss that girl is only one philosophy and not only is it not supported by evidence, the evidence actively opposes it. This unscientific approach was further highlighted by choosing a Steiner school as the host venue for the meeting. This was not a coincidence. I raised this with Sanderson Jones afterwards who said that a Steiner school was what they had initially sought, the fact that this one was in an old church building was just a happy coincidence. This is no small matter. Steiner schools promote homeopathy among their pupils and do not provide inoculations, which puts children’s health at great risk.

Then we came slightly closer to a proper prayer. Sanderson got us to shout “Life is good” and “Life is great”, again with the reasoning that simply saying this would have a positive impact on us. But ignoring the lack of psychological evidence here, I’m not sure I agree with this. You see, life isn’t necessarily good. Really shit things can happen and we need to see them for that. If atheists are to adopt the stance that “life is good” then we make ourselves no better than those who slavishly repeat “God is good” as a hurricane bears down on them. An important part of maturity, I feel, is accepting that shit happens so make the most of the good stuff. BLind “hope” is simply an atheist’s version of blind faith and equally flawed. Bah humbug.

Should interest in pseudo- science continue, the Sunday Asssembly will not find me or many other rationalists in its numbers. However, I have hope. This was just the first session of what is hoped to become a permanent monthly fixture. There is room for discussion and change, as the organizers themselves stressed throughout. Being comedians, the organisers have done a great job of creating a fun, lively atmosphere which will be a big selling point for the services. But no one could expect them to be ’all things to all men’. They may not know about the research behind so called ‘self help’ or of the beliefs of Steiners. As they gather momentum and interest and take on more voices, there is no reason to think that the Assembly can’t change. Here’s hoping they will.

Leaving the service, I and most of the godless congregation were struck by a bolt of irony as a real, bona fide Christian church service was going on in the hall next door from an African evangelical congregation. So how different was our service to this, the ‘real thing’? And what is it that will make those who actively oppose one join in the other? The atheist church needs to provide the good stuff of regular church with none of the bad stuff of irrational belief or evangelical zeal. My verdict from the first day? It’s on the right track. I and most attendees left the service feeling a little happier about life- we certainly had a good time. The idea of sermons is a positive one, but may need more focus on a message than making people laugh. Hymns were fun and the reflection time may have a purpose but they should be sensitive to those who may be made uncomfortable by the religious overtones. The ‘self help’ style stuff should be toned down and not central to the service. The connection with the Steiner school should be seriously questioned. But I do feel that the Sunday Assembly could well be the start of a great thing. I left the place like most did, feeling like I’d enjoyed myself and encouraged to be around like minded people interested in exploring and celebrating life. Sanderson and Pippa make for a great team- what they need are more voices on board. Sciencey people, arty people, philosophy-y people- people to give the church a wider vision and a wider appeal. There are improvements to be made but I’d like to be a part of those improvements. London now has its first atheist church. In time, I think I might just be a convert.

Muse, Economics and Thermodynamics

There’s a song in Muse’s latest album that stands out in a big way. Not only is it their first song to feature dubstep, it incorporates an ambitious attempt at their own economic theory. You can listen to the song here but since the economics bit is so short, here it is in its poetic glory-

All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless. New energy cannot be created and high-grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is unsustainable. *cue crazy dubstep*


Now I know it’s just a song so maybe it shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but it’s certainly an interesting idea- can we apply physics, particularly thermodynamics (the laws behind gases), to the economy?

The gut reaction would be no, of course not, the economy is based on inherently unpredictable human beings, how could this be governed by the laws behind gas expanding or ice melting? Human beings are not well-behaved atoms. But this is where thermodynamics is different to this atomist idea of science- thermodynamics accepts, embraces even, the idea that we can never really know what any one atom is up to. And yet it manages to produce extremely powerful laws that have been shown to be very accurate and are behind most of the inventions of the industrial revolution, such as the engine. So how do physicists get from calling atoms unpredictable to neat, predictive laws? Statistics, dear boy, statistics.

We may not know where an individual air molecule may be in 5 minutes time, but we can get an idea of the most probable places it will be. Scientists often call this the “random walk” model- if you flipped a coin to determine if you should step forwards or backwards, the chances are that after enough throws you’d get about as many heads as tails and end up somewhere close to where you started off. The modern equivalent of this is called the “Apple Maps walk”. Now imagine doing the random walk experiment with a thousand people, all starting quite near each other. Let’s go to the top of a tall building and look down on our coin-flippers after, say, a thousand tosses. What will we see? We should find that most people are pretty close to where they started off, even if only a few are exactly at that spot. We’ll also notice that there are people a bit further away but that there are fewer of them the further out we go in either direction. Then we might find one guy who made it all the way to the end of the street. He was the one guy who managed two hundred more heads than tails. Someone was bound to, after all.

The shape or formation of these random walkers is what mathematicians call a “normal distribution”. Now let’s throw in thousands more people and get them to spread out across a whole city, flipping coins as they go. From our aerial perch you might be struck by something- doesn’t this look an awful lot like a gas expanding in slow motion? It turns out that atoms can also be thought of as flipping coins and while some of them might end up in strange, unpredictable places, like the guy who threw a lot of heads, the overall formation is fairly predictable- a normal distribution, with things like pressure and temperature affecting probabilities.

And so with this model we manage to get the solid-as-a-rock- laws of thermodynamics, even if we can’t say much about what any particular molecule is up to. What the Muse song was suggesting is that we could apply this principle to the economy as well and with a bit of thermodynamics in our pocket, we can see why. Might humans also perform random walks with their economic decisions? There’s a chance some people will want to spend money on video games, others on holidays. Some people will want to be doctors, others teachers. We can’t predict what any individual will do but could we find an overall, reliable distribution that gave as a decent insight into the overall progress of the economy? Many physicists in recent decades have thought just that. Unfortunately for them and for the rest of us they were wrong. Massively wrong.

The logic of thermoeconomics (yes I made that up) seems pretty sensible but unlike thermodynamics, it simply doesn’t face up to the evidence. Thermoeconomics does actually provide a reasonable way to model the everyday fluctuations in the stock exchange but where it fails is exactly where it is needed most- it is helpless in the face of extreme events. Thinking back to thermodynamics, it is pretty clear that when released from an aerosol, the particles of a deodorant will spread out fairly evenly across the room. What we would never expect to happen would be for all particles to very abruptly gather in the corner of the room. That just doesn’t happen. Unfortunately this is exactly what happens in a stock market crash- people stop behaving randomly and start moving in herds. Where selling once balanced out buying, suddenly everyone wants to sell. Where lending balanced out need for capital, suddenly everyone’s too scared to lend.

Part of this is psychological. Fear can prevent people from making what might normally be seen as a rational decision. Lack of information can make people risk adverse. But more than this is a fundamental problem with the thermoeconomic model. Thermoeconomics assumes that all economic “particles” are independent of each other but in our economy people and institutions can get much more interconnected than was previously thought. Banks were way more exposed to the housing market than anyone had realized, for example, and as one bank faced failure, the complex web of banks lending to banks lending to banks left the whole system in danger. The aerosol gas was retreating to the corner of the room while neatly spelling out “SHIT”.

So where does this leave our philosophizing rock stars? The thermoeconomics they preached may be no good for accurate day-to-day prediction, but could it be applied to make comments about the economic system in general? My instinct is no, it can’t. Not only is thermodynamics a rubbish way to model human interactions, we are not an isolated system. The earth emits thermal radiation out into space in a more disordered form than it came from the sun, increasing the entropy (disorder) of the universe but not necessarily of the Earth. The only bit of their argument that really makes sense is that we should be cautious about using limited resources. But that much is pretty obvious, a posh way of saying that resources won’t last forever. We just need to use more renewable resources to avoid running out of fossil fuels, that’s all. There’s certainly no reason to believe thermodynamics put a limit on human progress.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken the song too seriously, but it’s been a fun ride. The next time you hear a rock star make some claim about the application of physics to economics, you’ll be well armed. Muse should stick to their music.