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.

Dry Rain

Perhaps it’s an Irish thing, but I’ve always found rain very beautiful. It’s refreshing and cleansing, it brings rainbows and solidarity under umbrellas. It’s just such a pity it had to be so, well, wet. The people at Random International seemed to be thinking the same thing- in a temporary installation at The Barbican; they’ve created a downpour that you can walk through and remain bone dry.

The Rain Room, around until March, is about ten metres squared with a sieve-like roof letting drops of water in, giving the feeling of an almighty downpour. The genius is in hundreds of sensors on the roof that detect where you are standing and switch off the water directly above, meaning you’ll be right in the middle of it all and never get wet, even as you walk around the room.

It’s a really surreal experience. The first step in is the weirdest, requiring quite a leap of faith as you walk into a near- certain soaking. But with less than an inch between you and the rain left, it starts to move away. It’s an incredible thing to watch this wall of water wrap neatly around your hand as you move it, a sense of control and power. This must be what Moses felt like while parting the Red Sea, or something.

The desire to understand, predict and control the weather is one of the most basic human instincts. It’s also the most elusive. Even today, we can only look on in horror as hurricane Sandy devastates much of the United States and the Caribbean. This must account for something of the appeal of The Rain Room; the chance to control the rain, albeit artificial rain; to experience the rain without the inconvenience of getting wet.

I know this sounds pretentious as hell but if we don’t get wet, are we really experiencing the rain? Standing in The Rain Room, the initial feeling of control gave way to an eerie sense of detachment, of being an observer rather than a participant. You would reach out to touch the rain and it would retreat back, a metaphor, perhaps, for Man’s own estrangement from the natural world.   Image

One thing for sure is the Room is thought provoking and, with a minimum two hour queue, very popular. Whatever the room makes you feel, it will be worth the wait.

Watch a video of my Rain Room experience here!

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 Atheist in the Room

On Wednesday I attended the World Muslim Leadership Forum’s annual conference. That’s probably the last place you’d expect to find an atheist and yet there I was, my little BHA pin badge proudly on display, to listen to a varied collection of Muslim speakers from around the world discussing issues facing the “Islamic world” today.
The conference couldn’t have been more timely. With riots across the Muslim world in response to an inflammatory YouTube video and the Arab Spring still unfolding, what these guys have to say matters.
The first speaker, and probably my favourite, was Anwar Choudhury, director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the first Muslim to represent the UK as a diplomat. Choudhury spoke passionately of his identity as both a proud Muslim and proud UK citizen. He argued, quite rightly, that it takes more courage to be a moderate than an extremist; that to choose the extremes betrays a lack, not abundance, of faith. He himself was a victim of a terrorist attack when working as the UK ambassador to his country of birth, Bangladesh, when a grenade was thrown at him when leaving prayer at a mosque, leaving him in hospital and killing his bodyguard. However, he said, the abiding memory for him of the attack was not the grenade but the 100s of Bangladeshi civilians who surrounded his hospital that night to protect him from further attack.
We had talks from 9:30 to 5 covering a wide range of Muslim voices from the self declared “eco Jihadi” imploring her listeners to go veggie to Ugandan born Lord Sheikh of Cornhill, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, giving business advice. The Muslim Council of Britain, representing over 500 Muslim groups, was represented by its director who chaired one of the panels. Something that stood out was the lack of calls for any explicitly “Islamic” style of government or political movement. Instead speakers focussed on the need for more Islamic voices within current systems- Islamic financial products competing along side conventional products and more Muslims taking their place in the public sphere.
For all the panic in Britain about the lack of Muslim integration in the UK, the suggestion that British Muslims are seeking special laws and exemptions, this event showed those who seek the exact opposite; Muslims seeking to practice their faith freely and work with others on building common ground. This was, after all, their reason for inviting someone from the BHA. Anwar Choundry finished his speech by highlighting his view that there is no war between Islam and “The Other”, instead the fight is between extremist and moderate. There is no doubt in my mind that the passionate “moderates” who spoke on Wednesday have a great deal of good to bring to the country, a necessary reminder that the tempting narrative of “crash of civilisations” gives too simplistic a world view, a message that now more than ever we need to hear. It is up to us to decide which narrative to believe- from personal experience working with Muslims, I believe much more in the narrative of the Muslim Leadership Forum than the divisive narrative of extremists. It needs to be heard.

Secular Humanism and Life After Death

Just what is there to say about secular humanism and the afterlife? Humanists don’t believe in any such thing, after all and yet I’ve been asked to talk about just that at the London Interfaith Centre this November. It might seem as sensible as discussing the Christian view of Mohammad or vegetarian recipes for roast pork. 

But stuck for ideas I ain’t after a tweet for help (and a helpful retweet from the BHA) was answered with over 30 thoughtful 160 character gobbets to get me started. There were new ideas and ones I’d thought of, ideas I liked and those I wasn’t so sure of. Here, for your reading pleasure, are my thoughts on these tweets.

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral

A few people quoted a nice piece from NPR about what a physicist might say to your bereaved. Some also suggested quoting Sagan about how we’ll end up in stars. I can certainly see the poetry in this. It’s a pretty nice thought that the stuff we’re made of will one day undergo a nuclear reaction in the belly of a star or that our matter never really dies; it just takes another form. But I’m not sure this can provide true comfort. After all, the blood in my veins may well one day play its part in the celestial boogie, but so will the atoms in this keyboard and Julius Cesar’s dandruff. In fact, this version of “afterlife” is open for us all, regardless of how we live, as if it doesn’t matter how we treat people, the risks we take, where we stand on the Mac/ PC debate, none of it. For a humanist who believes that there is such a thing as a good life, this concept of afterlife kinda sucks compared with the wrath/ reward structure found in most religions. What’s more, it requires a pretty selective reading of science. Yes we could become stars but then those stars will burn out and spacetime will continue expanding until all is isolated and cold (I suspect this sentence explains why I haven’t been invited to speak at any funerals). Also, stars are only cool because we humans say they’re cool, they ain’t objectively, scientifically so. You just can’t have meaning without humans. So selective science provides for some nice poetry, but we’re going to have to get more humany…

Humany woomany

Most tweets spoke of the need to focus on the here and now over any hope of afterlife. These were much more in line with my own thinking. Here are a few of the tweets I got;

For me, as an atheist, the “afterlife” is how we are remembered: how we have influenced others and the world around us.

Make the most of this life. Its all the more precious because its brief.

Important to try and make this world better, in this life, because there probably isn’t a second chance.

Celebrating the life & using this life to do good?

You could go with the old (but true) cliche that the fear of death is really fear of a life half-lived.

I like ’em all! One thing you’ll notice is that unlike Sagan and religion, these human-ier approach offers no immortality. Reproducing won’t make you last for ever- your genes get watered down with the generations and your children are individuals, not you reincarnated. Memories can’t last forever, either. But is that so bad a thing? I guess firstly, if that’s how it is then that’s how it is. There’s no competition on for who can create the loveliest vision of the world. 

But is eternal life even all that lovely? It’s certainly unfathomable. Would I still be the same person without my body? If a big part of my personality is playing golf, how can I still be myself without arms? But I don’t really see how it’s desirable to simply never expire. It seems that the sensible statement “I don’t want to die tomorrow” has been madly extended ad infinitum without too much thought. 

Looking at the world around us all we can guess is- this is it. There are no second chances. Lost opportunities will remain just that; lost. This was the theme in many of Tuesday’s tweets and what I would say is the essence of the humanist approach to death. We are born without purpose and die without going anywhere, all that matters is what happens in between. Whom we meet, how we live, what we leave behind. 

This doesn’t mean religious ideas of afterlife have no use. Nietzsche made good use of the concept of reincarnation to express neatly his view of life. He invites the reader to imagine being forced to repeat her life over and over for ever. Every mistake, triumph, wasted evening, friendship gained and lover lost. Now, he said, how would you live your life differently knowing this? I’d say that’s the acid test for a life well lived. It may only be a metaphor but there is still some use, at least, for the afterlife for a secular humanist. So, as the cool kids say, YOLO.

A million thanks for the tweets! I’ve still a while to go before this talk, will be sure to write more about it.

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.

Effective Tuition Fees

Now this is very sad, I know, but I thought I’d make a table comparing the different tuition fee systems. A lot has been made of how most people won’t actually pay back most of their debt- so what fees are they effectively paying, then? I’ve worked out these effective yearly tuition fees for people on different salaries in today’s money with monthly payments in brackets.

Old System
New System
6,000 fees
Free education! Free education! Free education!
900 (7.50)
Still free Still free
2,250 (22.50)
Yep, free again Free
3,300 (37.70)
Free Free
3,300 (45)
3,600 (30)
3,600 (30)
3,300 (75)
8,000 (67.50)
6,000 (67.50)
3,300 (112.50)
9,000 (105)
6,000 (105)

It seems that the new system is good for anyone earning less than 24,000 as a graduate- that’s a good bit over the median salary of 20,000. The new fees suck if you earn more than that and the 6,000 fees proposed by Labour only benefit those earning over 27,000. Monthly payments are easier for everyone on the new system.

That’s right, the Tory system is good if you’re poor, the old Labour one good if you’re richer than average and the proposed Labour one good if you’re really rather richer than average. It’s a topsy turvy world…

Against Aid

This post was published on Slugger O’ Toole.

Walking by a lake you see a child drowning. There is no one else around- what should you do? The clear moral answer is to jump in and pull the child out without sparing a thought for potential inconvenience. It has long been argued that the same moral reasoning applies to world poverty- we must intervene to help the world’s poorest. The widely held view is that this help should be aid.  But does sending aid make the difference it is supposed to- what if we were offering our metaphorical child little more than a faulty life ring? Or worse still- is our aid merely dragging her down?

I came across a few articles this week about the money sent by wealthy countries to poor to assist development. The verdict wasn’t good. One was an article in Thursday’s Guardian showing how Somaliland, unable to receive international aid for legal reasons, had become more democratic and, ultimately, wealthy as a result. The other was a report by New York University (NYU) which found that billions of dollars of US military aid sent to Columbia had only worsened drug problems there. Depressingly, the articles argued, it seems that aid just doesn’t work.
This isn’t a popular idea, or an obvious one. Ireland especially is renowned for the difference its international assistance makes to the world’s poorest countries. Untainted with the guilt of empire (unlike Britain) and unconcerned with promoting ulterior political or economic goals (unlike the US) Ireland has been uniquely free to focus its development program on simply making a difference to those who need it most. The Irish aid budget is over 600 million euro per year and outside of government, Ireland is home to many large aid organisations such as Concern and Trocaire, working in dozens of countries worldwide. For a once poor country, this has been a source of pride for many.
But could this pride be misplaced? I want to discuss here the arguments against aid- the belief that poor countries are actually much better off without our financial support. This is obviously controversial, not least in the midst of a famine in Somalia and a global financial downturn that has hit the poorest the hardest. But if aid is in fact hurting these countries, this is an important debate to be had. The charges made by the sceptics against aid can be summarised as follows- removing democratic accountability, killing exports and rewarding tyrants.
Removing Accountability
America was founded on the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’; in international development the reverse is equally true- no representation without taxation. If poor countries become dependent on wealthier ones for providing basic services instead of taking taxes from individuals and local businesses, the need to remain accountable to one’s citizens is reduced and corruption and inefficiencies sink in. Somaliland provides an excellent example of this- it was forced into democratic reforms when port companies refused to pay taxes. Aid money would have significantly reduced the clout of these merchants.
Dutch Disease
Dutch Disease is a phenomenon named after the discovery of oil in Holland in the 1950s. The sudden influx of foreign money pushed up the relative value of local currency, devastating the country’s manufacturing industry, which had relied on exports. The same can occur with aid, which is also a sudden influx of foreign money. Exporting has been the key to growth for so many booming countries such as China, India, Japan and South Korea- aid may well keep this opportunity away from its recipients, damning them to poverty.
Rewarding Tyrants
Many of the world’s poorest countries also have the most reprehensible leaders and yet still receive aid. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a clear example of this, with aid essentially keeping the regime afloat. According to Professor Paul Collier, director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, as much as 40% of African military spending is funded accidentally by aid.
This week’s NYU report found that US military aid found its way into the hands of the very drug barons they were targeting, due to corruption.
These are powerful arguments- aid can make a country less democratic, less competitive and more violent. Of course it is hard to argue against aid for emergency relief during a famine or earthquake but the larger argument that aid provides a clear path for a poor country’s economic development seems shaky at best. It seems clear that aid, as it is, is not working. The question for Ireland and the rest of the world is- will we continue dodging difficult questions or can real reform take place? Or is reform not enough; is now the time to make charity history?

Freefall- a manifesto for economic change

As markets tumble in Europe, America and across the globe, the world is waking up to reality: the recession is back. Indeed it never really went away. How much of this can really be a surprise? We have more or less the same economic system today as that which brought the economy to its knees just three years ago. In 2008 policy makers could at least plead naivety. Who could have seen the sudden collapse of the world’s largest banks? And who could have known just how interconnect companies and countries had become?
But these rhetorical questions do in fact have answers: Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics and Nobel laureate, was our Cassandra.  He was preaching long before the housing bubble and credit default swaps of the inherent dangers posed by lax legislation and misaligned incentives. His 2010 book Freefall, recently updated, is his victory lap. But more than “I told you so”, Stiglitz offers a way out of the mire. Politicians would do well to head his advice.
Market Failure

Stiglitz lays the blame for the crisis squarely, triangularly and circularly at the feet of free markets and their ideologue proponents. I’ve blogged before about my own flirtatious relationship with free markets and identified some of their key failings. One failing I didn’t mention was externalities, which was a failing central to the near collapse of the financial system and one which Stiglitz emphasises.  Externalities are by-products of business where there is no market mechanism to account for them- sometimes positive, sometimes negative. If I own a bee farm and an orchard sets up next door, the orchard benefits significantly from my bees’ polination without affecting me. But should the orchard owners not pay for this privilege? This is an externality– the market provides no way of paying me. A negative externality would be global warming- harm is caused by business but not in a way penalised by the markets. 
Stiglitz argues that banks, with their light touch regulations, posed huge negative externalities on the economy as a whole in a number of ways: the misunderstanding of risk, performance related pay and implicit government subsidy.
Risky business

Before making a loan, banks need to understand the risk associated with the borrower defaulting and adjust the interest rate accordingly. But to further decrease risk, banks started to package loans together with assumption that the more loans one had, the more the risk was spread out. This was fine, provided defaults weren’t correlated. But when house prices started to fall across the country, defaults became very correlated indeed. Because many of these loans had been packaged together in highly complex ways, banks suddenly realised that they couldn’t really tell which loans were safe and which weren’t. They also couldn’t trust the safety of other banks and so stopped lending to each other, resulting in the credit crunch. Stiglitz verdict is clear- commercial banks shouldn’t be allowed to create products they don’t fully understand. As US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson quipped, “the only useful financial innovation in recent decades has been the cash machine”.
Performance related pay and other oxymorons

Performance related pay was abandoned by most professions when it became clear that it rewarded quantity, not quality and encouraged short term results. These are precisely the problems plaguing modern banking. Bonuses are paid for gains but not removed for losses, promoting excessive risk taking as bankers just couldn’t lose. Mortgage vendors were rewarded according to the number of mortgages issued, not their quality, leading to the phenomenon of “liar loans” for which borrowers required no proof of income. Even after the Crunch, the flow of bonuses continued, making a mockery of the claim that they were performance based.
Bankers on benefits

But perhaps the strongest externality was the implicit guarantee that the government would always save the biggest banks to protect the rest of the economy. This safety net enabled banks to take much greater risk at much lower interest rates- a subsidy of billions of dollars, greatly distorting the market. When the bailouts were received, very little was loaned on to small and medium sized business, the risks of speculation were still too tempting.
What’s to be done?

Stiglitz is no communist and recognises the importance of markets- the key is regulation. As the world sits on the brink of what may well be a double dip recession, here are his suggestions for policy changes to make a difference-
  1.    Separate commercial banks from investment banks- banks shouldn’t be taking huge risks with ordinary households’ money.
  2.      Require banks to keep some of the mortgages they sell on their books to ensure they have a vested interest on providing loans to those how can afford them.
  3.     Give share holders greater say over executive pay and stop payments in stock options- they encourage short-term thinking.
  4.     Require bailout funds to go to small and medium sized business. Much of it is their money, after all.

This is Stiglitz’s manifesto for change. Free markets have failed but markets can still work within sensible rules.  Failure to change in 2008 brought around the current difficulties. The world cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.