Science, Atheism and Gender

Science and atheism often go hand in hand. Many of the UK’s most famous atheists are also scientists, from Dawkins to Cox to Al Khalili. Unfortunately British atheism also shares some of the problems of British science and not least of these is gender representation. The blunt truth is that science and atheism are both dominated by men.

There was a mini-Twitter storm this week about an upcoming science event in London, “Consensus”, an event we’ve been helping to publicise and at which I’ll be volunteering. The event looks ridiculously cool with Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, among others, sharing a stage to talk about science- an inspired and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel- all 6 speakers are men. But where the organisers really messed up was in the FAQs for the event, in which they addressed the lack of women. Here’s a screenshot-

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To say the least, these comments aren’t helpful. It’s one thing to organise an event with only male speakers, which may not reflect a problem with the organisers so much as with science at large, but quite another to label those who simple raise the gender issue as “fanatical and misandristic” with “bigoted” opinions. Yes, this was meant to be comically over the top language, in keeping with the rest of the FAQ’s, but even going past the use of language the message remains “put up and shut up”. This is the absolute last thing we shoould say about gender imbalance.

The idea that there could be at least one woman speaker out of 6 isn’t absurd. There don’t seem to be data for the whole UK but at my own university, Imperial College London, around 20% of researchers are women. This makes the odds of, at random, picking a male speaker to be 0.8 which is pretty high. But the odds of picking 6 male speakers at random are 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 = 0.26; in other words we would expect only 26% of panels to be all male. All things being equal, we are quite justified in wondering why at least one woman isn’t on the panel. This is a institutional issue and not simply the fault of one event in London but for them to brush it aside as a non-issue of interest only to fanatics serves to excuse the status quo.

This is an issue that matters to the AHS, not least because we are currently organising our 2014 convention. After our initial invitations went out to potential speakers, all 6 who said they could come were men. We didn’t mean this to happen and like the organisers of Consensus we had also contacted women who just couldn’t make it. But we aren’t just leaving it. We put out a call on Twitter and Facebook for recommendations of women speakers and have been flooded with dozens of suggestions. This is no “positive discrimination”; these are women who are perfect for our convention but for various reasons don’t have the same profile as their male counterparts. Their invitations went out this week; incidentally on the same day that attention was drawn to Consensus’ FAQ’s.

Consensus have since removed this part of their FAQ’s, without offering an explanation. Both science and atheism are increasingly in the public eye and gaining ground. Atheists cannot criticise the Church of England for banning women bishops as long our own “bishops”, our most prominent leaders, are almost all men. A deliberate effort needs to be made by event organisers if we are to be serious about increasing representation within our movements. These events send a message about who we are. The AHS will play its part.

AHS member? I want to know your thoughts on this- please drop me an email on president(at)ahsstudents.org.uk

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What The New Archbishop Needs To Do

As I write this, Justin Welby is being enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. At the ceremony are not only leading figures from the Church of England and government but from various other religious groups, from Islam to Hinduism. Humanists are not invited in any official capacity, but there is at least one humanist in the area – I came to Canterbury for a quick interview on Radio 5 Live about the Church’s approach to those of different beliefs. As ever with these things, I didn’t have enough time to say everything I wanted, but there are some very important issues around how the established Church of the UK approached the non-believers among us.

The Church has opened its doors to dialogue but so far this is dialogue only with the religious, excluding the huge proportion of the population (between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on your survey) who have no religion. This is worrying as the Church looks to play a more active role in the provision of public services with a government that’s happy to let them do just that. Currently, the Church runs over 4,800 state schools in England and is free to exclude the non-religious from applying, or save certain places only for the faithful, if a school is oversubscribed.

It is truly astounding that in the 21st Century children can be turned away from public education because of their parents’ beliefs. This also adds to social exclusion, as middle class parents are better able to work the system. The Church also insists on maintaining the historic privilege of having its Bishops in the House of Lords, giving it further undue influence. This is not the sign of a church that values inclusion.

Welby’s choice of a more diverse audience for his enthronement is a nice gesture but an empty one for as long as his Church continues to insist on privilege rather than approaching those of other beliefs with the humility and desire for equality that should mark the Church of Christ it claims to be. I have had the privilege of working with some amazing Anglicans through interfaith and dialogue work, both clergy and lay people- the Church needs to catch up with its believers.

It’s a high hope, for sure, but Justin Welby is presented with an historic opportunity to change the seemingly entrenched state of affairs. I don’t mind if atheists can’t participate in his enthronement service, I do care if we can’t join in public services. It has just been announced that the new Archbishop is to meet campaigner Peter Tatchell, which is a welcome development, as is his outspoken denunciation of homophobia. But we need more.

The Church’s attitude to non-believers in general and the non-religious in particular needs to change.

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“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.

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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.

What’s Science For?

What exactly is science for and what can it really tell us? Answers to this get thrown about the place all the time. No sensible person could deny that science is the only way to tackle questions like “How did the earth come to be?” and “What is the shape of the universe?” but what’s more up for debate is whether science can answer the “why” questions. Why are we here? Why is this right? Why did he have to die?

It was an article in the latest issue of New Humanist that got me thinking about this. The article, by a physicist, argued that physics can answer the “why” questions- specifically the question of “why are we here?” The author, Michael Brooks, explains, “We can’t delve straight into the question of why we are here, of course; we have to split it into bite sized parts” It’s here that I feel he, and others like him, miss the point. Breaking the thing up into empirical questions destroys the point of the question to begin with.

So am I committing scientific heresy? Well, maybe. But I don’t think science has ever really been intended to answer this kind of question. When we ask “why are we here?” we don’t want to know by what mechanism we came into existence, we want to know what our purpose is, or if we can even have such a thing. This is a question we can’t just break down into chunks; we have to swallow it whole. Science may provide an answer but it will be an answer to a question that no one really asked in the first place. To steal from Wordsworth- we murder to dissect. Maybe this is why the answers tend to be so big, and so varied, because we just have to make some all encompassing statement (like “God did it”) or stay quiet.

I choose to stay quiet.

If grand statements of faith just don’t feel right and statements of empirical fact just dodge the question, it’s perfectly reasonably to say we don’t have a clue why we’re here, or even if the question itself makes much sense. There’s nothing unscientific about that, it’s just reasonable.

So why do we do science? Well firstly, many important questions are empirical, even if The Big One isn’t. But I don’t think there’s any harm in stating that, you know, it’s just awesome. In my General Relativity lectures today we started warping spacetimes. Warping spacetimes. With just pen and paper. That’s cool as hell- as far as I concerned, that’s more than enough reason for science.

The Young Atheist’s Handbook

It’s common for religious groups to tell stories of atheists and other non-believers converting to their religion. But how often do we atheists hear stories from those who lost their religious faith? There seems to be a vacuum here and it’s one that ex-Muslim Alom Shaha aims to address in The Young Atheist’s Handbook, the story of his grappling with living a life without God and rejecting his religious upbringing. It is his own personal story but one that will resonate with many ex-religious and one that certainly feels familiar to my own story; just replace “Muslim” with “Catholic” and Alom could be my long-lost Bangladeshi twin.
I didn’t read any philosophical arguments in the Handbook I hadn’t heard before but I don’t think that’s the point of the book; as Alom himself says, there are very few on either “side” who are swayed by argument alone. What matters more in the book is how these arguments presented themselves to Shaha and at what times in his life; the death of his mother while he was young, living with an abusive father, trying bacon for the first time… It’s that old cliché- I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care. Alom shows that he cares, that these arguments are not just for the cold ivory tower but the mushy, messy human heart. His book presents a refreshing antidote to the unfair stereotype of the atheist as a heartless materialist looking with disinterest at a world of meaninglessly interacting atoms.
While the book may be called a handbook, it is anything but; a Humanist like Shaha would not set about to tell people how they should live. But in providing this memoir, Shaha does succeed in two very important ways- in showing a questioning, doubting, human face of British Muslims that will surprise many readers and providing a source of advice and council to others who may find themselves where a younger Shaha once was; struggling to shake lose beliefs they know not to be true.
So what would my own handbook look like? Very similar to Alom’s actually and I imagine many who left the religions of their parents would find themselves writing a similar book if we had his writing ability. I lost my faith around the same age as Alom but unlike him I got it back; I took Catholicism very seriously for at least two years of university. Catholicism, even in Northern Ireland, doesn’t have the same cultural bond as Islam did for Shaha- for me the fear was a life without meaning. It turned out that life need have no meaning other than the one you choose to give it. But I don’t think there’ll be any need for Rory’s Young Atheist Handbook on bookshelves; The Young Atheist’s Handbook provides a great, well written and very personal account of what it’s like to go through this journey. Now go, read it.