Men of Imperial- How To Talk About Gender

Most students at Imperial are men. While this gender imbalance is obvious from the first day of Freshers Week, what it means and how to talk about it can be more challenging. Whispered remarks about “The Ratio” can be heard on most courses and jokes abound about the sexual frustration of Imperial’s males; the straight ones at least. But beyond this, any serious discussion of gender among students can often be dismissed. We can be pretty poor at talking gender and it’s we men who seem to do it worst. 

The low proportion of women students at Imperial is not the College’s fault and in fact when compared to the science, engineering and medicine departments in the rest of the UK, we have slightly more equal gender ratio than average. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be discussed. When posters went up last year in the chemistry department showing the proportion of female researchers in the different groups, it was graffitied with “So? Problem?” Posters inviting female physics students to a female-only event were graffitied with comments calling the event “sexist”. These comments are massively unhelpful and entirely miss the point. It can be tempting to think that simply removing legal barriers to female academics is sufficient to right historic wrongs. A glance at the progress of African Americans since the end of legal segregation in 1954 suggests otherwise. It is quite right that we make a particular effort to encourage schoolgirls to be interested in science and for women undergraduates to pursue their subjects further. When we men are dismissive of the idea, we serve the status quo.

Last week a mini Twitter storm broke out over an upcoming science event in the Excel Arena of Olympic fame. The event features 6 panelists including Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, which is a very cool and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel, all 6 speakers are men. As with Imperial, it is not the fault of the organisers if these were genuinely the best candidates. Where they messed up was with the FAQ on their website, which addressed lack of women. They said; “I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?” “No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that’s what they’re for. We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.”

Yes, this is supposed to be comically exaggerated language but even ignoring the labelling of those who complain of the lack of women speakers as “bigoted” and “misandristic”, the FAQ’s message is quite clear; put up and shut up. We should do neither. It is quite right and reasonable to wonder why the organisers failed to find a single woman panelist. It may indeed be the case that they really did try, but this is hardly the first panel event on science to be all male, and maintaining the status quo allows a self fulfilling prophesy whereby men gain higher profiles from speaking at events which leads them to be invited to more events. It may not be up to this particular event to “fix” this, but to brush it away as a non-issue is wilful ignorance.

Men of Imperial, we can do better than this. To question why the gender imbalance is as it  is not to question whether any one of us deserves to be here or to suggest that College discriminate in favour of women students and employees. Students are right to challenge the status quo and make active efforts to encourage women scientists in College and further afield. Dismissing these efforts as “sexist” is lazy. The Excel event told us that “as scientists we have no choice but to accept reality.” This is a strange definition of science. Rather, as scientists we examine reality, come to understand how it works and find out how to change it. Scientists do not simply accept reality.

Choosing Our Non Prophet Week Charity

If our decisions are not to be based on faith then what should guide us? Most people, I hope, would answer, “evidence” but most of the time, other factors get in the way. It can be easy to simply follow the crowd or opt just for what “feels” right. This is especially common when it comes to supporting charities; the heart wins out over the head. Investing in condoms and sex-education can be as many as 250 times more affective at preventing HIV/ AIDS deaths as investing in drugs to treat those who already have it, yet this goes relatively underfunded against the emotional instinct to help those who are already sick.

So when it came to choosing a charity for our annual Non Prophet Week, we wanted to keep things as rational and evidence based as possible. We chose to focus on getting the most bang for your bucks; making sure that if your money could make a bigger difference elsewhere, that’s exactly where it went. We also needed to choose just what we wanted the charity to be up to. This is a more emotional question- can we really compare side-by-side the work done by a charity that provides free books for children to one that helps sick hedgehogs to one that helps refugees? We went for the simplest, bluntest measure we could; who saves the most lives for the least money? This doesn’t make charity that isn’t aimed at saving lives a waste of time; the BHA, after all, is a charity that doesn’t go out saving babies from burning buildings and yet we are proud to be partnered with them. But the BHA can be helped in many non-financial ways; saving lives, on the other hand, is a costly business. In fact the US government, when investing in road works, sets a maximum cost of around $2 million per America life. So if a new set of traffic lights will save 4 lives in its lifetime, they’ll spend up to $8 million on them.

Luckily for the AHS, although depressingly in terms of global inequality, some lives are much cheaper to save than others. Working out just how much it costs to save a life is a difficult and painstaking process but there are organisations out there doing it such as GiveWell, the charity evaluators. With cost-per-life-saved as our guide, the best charity for NPW was clear- the Against Malaria Foundation. Keep in mind that $2 million price tag for saving an American life. The AMF save one life for every $2,500. Not only do they save lives, in preventing malaria (by distributing mosquito nets), they prevent a great deal of suffering for those who would have caught the disease but survived. They also boost local economies by keeping people in work rather than off, ill. They boost education by keeping children and teachers in school. Each net is delivered at a total cost of $5.50. You can see more of the GiveWell evaluation here

So that’s why we chose them. I hope you’re as excited about their work as we are- judging by the money we’ve raised in the past, we stand to save quite a few lives in this week of fundraising. The big question remaining is just how will you do it? The next few weeks are your chance to get thinking about raising dollah. The exec will be too- I’ve already ended up agreeing to a Creme Egg eating competition with the BHA’s webmaster. Let us know your ideas and we’ll get them on Twitter with #NonProphetWeek and Facebook. Let’s save some lives.

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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Secular Europe March 14th September

People should be treated equally when accessing public services. It’s mad that so simple a statement should need to be shouted and yet when it comes to religious privilege in the UK, that’s exactly what is needed. The truth is that for its many advances in other areas of human rights, the UK remains a country of deeply rooted and deeply divisive religious privilege and nowhere is this clearer than in our education system.

Christians enjoy unfair access to education in this country. Christian schools, primarily Catholic and Church of England, are empowered to direct state funds exclusively towards fellow believers and only have to give places to non-Christians if there are any left over. They are also permitted to discriminate in hiring staff, not just religious education teachers but in any subject. This would not be permitted in any other type of organisation, public or private, except, of course, in a church.

In our universities too we see the stain of religious privilege, with our own AHS societies often on its receiving end. The past year has seen a particularly high number of instances on British campuses with the last academic year kicking off with Pineapplegate, where Reading Atheists were forced to remove a pineapple named Mohammad from their Freshers Fayre stall by their union. The Reading society currently faces the threat of closure for refusing to sign their union’s behavioural policy, which includes a prohibition on causing offence.

On the other side of the coin we have seen the march of religious privilege continue unhindered as Bristol University’s Christian Union banned unmarried women from addressing their society, only allowing married women to speak in the presence of their husbands. Such policies should never be permitted in public institutions and yet we allow them to continue under the guise of “religious freedom”.

The status quo in universities continues to mean silencing statements for fear of harmless “offence” and doing nothing to prevent practices that deliberately harm oppressed groups. That this is the case is not because our universities are run by religious fundamentalists, it is because they know that religions will fight tooth and nail to protect their privileges, while the non-religious too often are not aware of where to turn when they see their rights denied.

This is one of the reasons behind the creation of the AHS; to be a national body that can represent students who find the tide of religious privilege washing over them. Universities need to know that when the rights of their non-religious students are ignored we will not remain silent. Universities need to know that when they allow religious groups on campus to use their names and facilities while discriminating against others they will be held accountable. Universities need to know that only a secular approach can provide equal opportunities on campus for all students. This is also why the AHS will be supporting and attending the Secular Europe Campaign March this Saturday 14th September.

This Saturday’s march is the first major secular event of the new term and academic year. It will be attended by many different secular groups from around the UK and is our chance to send a strong signal that there is a real appetite for secularism in the UK. It will take place at 2pm outside Downing St. with more info here. We want to see as many student faces there as possible. Spread the word!

See you there,

Rory

Finding Beauty in Science: My Secular Pilgrimage

I am sat at a pew in Westminster Abbey, filled with a sense of awe and reverence. Unlike the elderly lady to my right, her hands clasped in silent petition, I am not here for prayer. I am, however, here on a pilgrimage of sorts in an attempt to understand the power and limits of science.

Five steps to my left and I will be stood over what remains of Charles Darwin. Four steps forward and I will come face to face with the death mask of Issac Newton. But it will take a keener eye to spot the object of my pilgrimage. Set neatly in the floor between Newton and Darwin is a small, unremarkable stone square about twice the size of my head. This is the nation’s memorial to the greatest British physicist since Newton and the man behind much of my final year of university physics; Paul A. M. Dirac. I have come to pay homage and end up spending a while just sat watching tourists pass the stone. Despite its simplicity this stone square is surely the most effective and beautiful memorial in the Abbey.

Kings, Queens and statesmen have relied on the skill of artists to convey, perhaps fabricate, a sense of their importance and success in life. Dirac’s memorial displays the power and beauty of his life’s work with just the 6 letters that form his most famous equation; the Dirac Equation. This is his own handiwork. To describe in so precise a form the motion and very existence of all fundamental particles of nature, the same stuff of which we are made, is an act of uncommon genius. For Dirac, however, it may also have been an uncommon act of sacrifice; the dedication of his life.

I have with me, to aid my pilgrimage, a copy of Dirac’s Lectures on Quantum Mechanics in which he lays out in just 87 pages the mathematical ideas that lead to his equation. The ordering and logic of Dirac’s prose is impressive and carefully chosen. If asked by a student to clarify a point during a lecture he would simply repeat what he had said, word for word, and continue with the lecture. As far as he was concerned, he had already expressed the idea as clearly as it could be stated.

He was just as inexpressive in his personal life, speaking only when necessary and answering with one word sentences. So private was he that many of his closest friends never knew what his middle initials – A. M. – stood for (it’s Adrien Maurice). In this sense Dirac embodied his own subject of physics with his life. Direct and to the point, never more than necessary.

Wandering further around the Abbey I find myself in Poets Corner, final resting place of Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson and other greats, and can’t help but wonder who chose the better path in life. Certainly, there would be some buried in Poets Corner who would be quite hostile to the work of the scientists buried nearby.

The clock strikes four and the singers of the famous Westminster Boys Choir begin their daily service, their hymns reaching into every nook of the Abbey, exhorting listeners to direct their attention to heavenly matters. “There is no equation for the salvation of your soul,” they seem to say, although such arguments would hold little sway with Dirac, an ardent atheist and humanist.

The dead poets’ concern, however, would not be heaven but the heart; strangled, they might say, by the constraints of scientific rigour. This argument was most strongly made by William Wordsworth, himself memorialised in the Abbey;

Sweet is the lore which nature brings

Our meddling intellect

Mishaps the beauteous form of things

We murder to dissect

Part stanza, part slap, this is a direct attack on those who, like Dirac, dedicate their lives to science. When Dirac uses his equation to dissect the universe, does he also murder it? Is a life lived for science empty of beauty, of true meaning? Was Dirac’s?

The question cuts to the very heart of what has been troubling me since the end of my physics degree three weeks ago and what brings me here to the Abbey; was all this science worth it? Hidden to most visitors, this debate seems to wage in the Abbey itself. The Romantic poets vs the materialist scientists. Can they be reconciled?

Oscar Wilde, a much too outlandish poet to find himself in the sacred vaults of Westminster Abbey, famously declared, “all art is quite useless”. He argued that it was beautiful precisely because of this uselessness, because it was done for its own sake, not corrupted by practical concern. Perhaps the problem of science, and I know this sounds strange, is precisely the fact that it is quite useful. Often very useful. There was never a disease cured by a novel nor a planet probed by a poem but in being useful, science runs a risk that art does not; that it ceases to be for its own sake. This makes it better at attracting research grants but could explain something of why science is seen as an ultimately unfulfilling pursuit by many.

Can science be rescued? Is it possible to find the beauty of art within science? The Bristolian commemorated by that diamond stone and equation could have something to teach us. Although quite literal minded and blunt in his approach to life, Dirac’s idea of science was of science as an art, with mathematics his brush and his paint. He taught students always to pursue beauty in their work and would often reject proposed theories on the basis that they weren’t beautiful enough. His approach to physics was to play with abstract, pure mathematics and see if any physics popped up. His underlying belief, almost religious in its strength, was that the laws of nature should be beautiful and simple.

Dirac’s field, quantum mechanics, is notoriously complicated. Particles are also waves, electrons are said to be in more than one place at a time, even in more than one universe at a time. Obtaining useful results from this often requires crude approximations and simplifications. It seems that at its most fundamental, physics is at its most useless. This may be the spirit in which the heart of science can be rediscovered. Could science pursued for its own sake, the less useful the better, be not just a way to better equations but to rediscover a sense of beauty in the subject?

The choir has finished and I realise I’m at risk of staying for a church service. I perform one quick lap of the Abbey before heading out into the warm evening. I have no definite answers but I wouldn’t expect any certainties when trying to understand a quantum physicist like Dirac. Nevertheless, my secular pilgrimage has given me a glimpse of these Two Tribes in silent war. Could Dirac’s belief in the beauty of physics and science for its own sake provide a bridge between the two?

My head full of thoughts, I leave Westminster Abbey to its more traditional pilgrims.

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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How To Think in Five Dimensions and Prove The Big Bang

This will likely be the geekiest thing I ever post but I don’t care. I’ve spent all of today on one particular problem on a General Relativity problem sheet and I have to talk about it.

The problem sheet’s challenge was to mess around with some geometry and see what comes out and lo and behold, the Big Bang came out. This is cool as hell. The process by which you can use nothing but a sheet of paper and a pen to unlock the secrets of the universe has always felt to me like a magic trick. Except of course it’s better than a magic trick. It’s better because it’s true.

There’s another way I think that theoretical physics might just be better than magic and it’s the reasoning behind this post. I’m betting that in revealing my secrets the trick won’t be spoilt but made all the better. I believe this because for me the beauty of physics isn’t simply in the end result but in the process. The twists and turns of both pen and logic are really what it’s all about. So here’s my attempt at getting across the magic trick, the secret to the physics performance. Here’s how to derive the Big Bang.

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I started this morning imagining a sheet of space-time. This means imagining something in four dimensions so the first thing I need to do is explain how to see that extra dimension. I promise it’s not as hard as you might think. When we talk about dimensions we normally mean space- up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards or x,y and z, mathematically speaking. But really, a dimension is just something you can measure. In the case of space you measure it with a ruler but speed can also be thought of as a dimension (and it is, in a thing in thermodynamics called phase space) and so can, say temperature. Imagine running your fingers over the surface of a metal ball with one end of the ball close to a heater. Your fingers will tell not just where each point is but how warm it is. As you run your hand over the ball’s surface your brain is interpreting information in not just the three dimensions of space but in a fourth dimension of temperature. So really, we use multiple dimensions everyday without realising. Imagine dripping multicoloured paint over the ball. Now between your eyes and hands you are taking in five dimensions worth of info, with each point on the ball having colour, temperature and position. If now move the ball closer to the fire so it starts to heat up then BAM we’ve introduced the dimension of time into things and now we can use the time to also describe each point on the sphere, e.g. (light blue, 50 degrees, 5 cm up, 4 cm right, 3 cm forwards, half past 6). Congratulations you can now think in multiple dimensions.

So back to that slice of spacetime. What does it look time? For the most part I just think of it like this-

Imagewhich is only 3D but if I really need to think of that 4th dimension I imagine it have varying colours on a rainbow scale from red to violet. What I’m really interested in is how curvy the slice is. I can talk about this using maths. Bigger numbers mean very curvy, the number 1 means not curvy at all. Now I’m ready to write an equation. I want to show you the equation because its very pretty but don’t worry if you can’t follow the maths too well, I’ll talk you through what everything means.

I’m going to use the letter g to represent curviness and add two little letters to the bottom to show what dimensions I’m talking about. T means time, i j and k mean the x, y and z axis (yes physicists could just say x, y and, but that would just be too sensible). So curviness is written as gij.

My ultimate goal in playing with this slice is to see if it stays still or if it stretches or squashes all by itself. The next step is to talk a walk on my slice and see what happens. I imagine my slice as a great big field with bumps and dips in it.

ImageLet’s run across that field. As you run uphill, especially if it’s steep, you’ll notice you start to lean forwards to keep your balance. The steeper it is, the more you need to lean. Running downhill you now need to lean back to stop yourself falling over. The amount you need to lean forwards or backwards, let’s call it the wobbliness of the terrain, depends on the curviness of your landscape. The wobbliness is an important part of your landscape too so let’s make that into an equation. The symbol for this is Greek. I can’t remember the name for it but it looks like a crane. This has three little letters on it which means it contains even more than our curviness, gij, which only had two. In fact, it contains a few g’s. Here’s what it looks like-

ImageSo now we know how to describe our space-time slice, which is great, but what about actual stuff? Planets and stars and beds and dogs- what about matter? Let’s drop a lump of matter into our space-time and see what happens. The lump will experience what in physics is called “stress”. This just means pushing and pulling due, for instance, to any pressure inside it and is affected by the density of the lump. We’re now going to allow for the possibility that the space bit of our space-time is expanding. We’re going to describe this expansion with the letter a with a=1 meaning we don’t have any expansion and the bigger a is, the faster we’re expanding. Remember, we aren’t assuming space is expanding, just allowing for the possibility. If our slice of space is expanding that means that everything in that slice will be stretched, so the stress on the lump of matter will increase. We denote stress with a T and it looks like this-

ImageThe capital P is pressure, the curly p is density and the u is speed, which depends on a, how quickly our space is expanding.

Now stress, like energy, is conserved. That means you can’t create or destroy it, i.e. the total amount of it can’t change. We can express the idea that the change in stress is zero like this-

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Adding in all of the letters we’ve already work out gives us

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where w is just a constant to do with the temperature of our matter. For cold matter, like the stuff around us, w is zero and we get

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where k is just some constant. For hot matter, like radiation, w is 1/3 and we get Image

Now let’s really look at what is going on in these equations. First of all that mysterious t0. It just represents some unknown time but what happens when t=t0? Well a=k(t0-t0)=0, in other words space has zero size. If a is zero then what about our density? We had

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so if a=0 and we’re dividing by a then we’re dividing by zero- which give us infinity. So there was some time in our space-time slice, t0, when our lump of matter was infinitely dense and concentrated in a tiny point of zero size before it started to expand. That, my friends, is the Big Bang.

“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.