Atheist Students Must Fight Back

This appeared in the Huffington Post

Students have rights, their beliefs don’t. If there is one message universities need to hear at the end of this academic year, it’s this. For non-religious students on campuses across the UK, 2013-14 has been the most challenging year to date, with criticism of religion censored and religious rules enforced in lecture theatres. It has also seen the start of a significant fight-back.

At the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), of which I’m president, our member societies have borne the brunt of this confused understanding of student rights since the start of the year. At their Freshers’ Fayre in October, our members at LSE wore t-shirts featuring the satirical Jesus and Mo webcomic. Skip to the next sentence if you can’t abide grotesque offence: the cartoon depicted the two religious figures saying “Hey” and “How ya doin’?”. At the request of their own students’ union, the body surely set up to defend student rights, the university sent 10 security guards to surround the two students and their offending cotton, demanding that they remove the t-shirts or be removed themselves. All of this without any evidence of an actual student’s complaint. The two students eventually agreed to put on jumpers, at which point a security guard was assigned to each to follow them for the rest of the day, to the point of waiting outside the toilets, to ensure the t-shirts remained covered.

It is an astounding world in which using security guards to intimidate students is deemed more acceptable than tolerating blasphemy, yet this is simply the logical conclusion of a campus atmosphere that equates religious belief to sexuality or race. Many students’ unions operate “no platform” policies for racists, but at London South Bank University our members were told they could not invite speakers who criticised religion at all, or even engage religious societies in debates, putting joining the South Bank Atheist Society on a par with joining the BNP. This February the same university banned images of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a satirical deity in which nobody believes, on the grounds that they were “religiously offensive”.

There is no significant pressure from religious students to censor atheists and Humanists on campus, rather universities and unions are taking it upon themselves to be offended on behalf of religious students. The irony is that free expression of religious and non-religious students are bound together, not least as many religious beliefs could be deemed offensive to any other religion. The right for a Christian to say that Jesus was the son of God is the same right for a Muslim to say he was a prophet or for me to say he was neither. The expression of all three views must be protected.

Free expression is not the only right to be lost by students to belief systems. We see misogyny, normally rightly scorned at universities, permitted on campus in the name of religious freedom. Take Bristol’s Christian Union, which forbade women from speaking at their events unless they were married, and even then only if their husband was present. Or take Universities UK’s guidance, published last November, that permitted the enforced segregation by gender of public lectures at the request of the speaker, the guidance explicitly stating that priority should be given to religious beliefs over secular beliefs like Feminism. To do otherwise would be to deny the speaker his (the guidance explicitly says “his”) right to free speech, as if to speak to a mixed-room was like asking him to levitate.

Against this onslaught, students need to fight back. In fact, we have already begun to. At the AHS we were able to secure pro-bono advice from a QC for our LSE members, who drafted a 15-page complaint to the university. After two months’ delay and increasing media pressure, the university caved in and gave an apology to the two students. This same 15-page document will be made available to all our members, should they need it in future. South Bank University turned a negative into a positive after we publicised their treatment of their Atheist Society, making a commitment to free speech, agreeing to promote the society and even putting posters of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on their own notice boards. We have begun a fundraising campaign, supported by Stephen Fry among others, to expand our work for next year.

We can expect little support from the National Union of Students, who both supported the segregation guidance and refuse to condemn censorship, but students have shown this year that we can and will stand up against religious privilege on campus. Next year atheist, Humanist and secularist students will be better prepared to take the message to our universities: students have rights, their beliefs don’t.

How To Look Good Dead

(I wrote this for the New Humanist magazine)

I was told once that the best way to know a city is to get lost in it. I can’t say if this is a universal truth but with my truly terrible sense of direction I’ve had plenty of chances to put it to the test. It was just this Monday that I made my favourite finding to date. Bumbling around the mean streets of Chelsea, lost and late for a lecture, I took a shortcut through Brompton Cemetery and turned a five minute shortcut into a 30 minute stroll, stopping at the most interesting graves, walking around the different mausoleums and ensuring I was more than fashionably late for that lecture.

The cemetery houses the mouldering great and the decaying good of 19th and early-20th century London and long ago reached capacity. But what made me pause in the place was not so much the architecture of the various stone monuments as gaining a snapshot of how people had chosen to have themselves, or their loved ones, remembered. To sum up one’s life in the space of a gravestone, perhaps the length of a tweet, is surely impossible and yet something must be written. It was looking at the different attempts at this “summing up” that grabbed my attention for so long and got me thinking about how and why people pick certain graves. For those of you considering dying at some stage, here’s my handy cut-out-and-keep guide to choosing your grave. After all – if you get it wrong, you won’t get get the chance to change your mind.

The first consideration when choosing your final resting place is surely location. Residents of Brompton Cemetery clearly had this in mind by picking the leafiest, poshest area in the city. One of the saddest aspects of death is surely its democratic nature – it takes us all and treats us as if we were the same. By buying a really swanky location for your grave you ensure that future generations will know just how loaded you were. If you wouldn’t be seen dead outside of SW, make sure you aren’t.

Now after a long, hard life don’t you deserve to decay in style? Cemetery chic is very much in for when you go under but choosing that perfect tomb isn’t quite as simple as keeping up with latest from the Milan catwalk. You’ll want a timeless classic, something that endures through the ages but is still totally “you” and stands out. This absolutely means that the traditional “rounded rectangle” gravestone is a no-no. Nothing says, “I really wasn’t that much” like a miserable rounded rectangle – it’s the jeans and t-shirt of the grave world and darling, you deserve better.

Not all budgets stretch to it but a tasteful, life-sized statue of an angel is a great way to express yourself and something many Brompton residents have given their seal of approval. Another really great investment that we at the New Humanist can’t get enough of is a roof. Remember, your hair still grows after you die and you certainly don’t want it getting wet. A classic choice is the mausoleum, a small house to keep you nice and dry during those winter months and really leave your mark on the landscape.

Lastly we come to the tricky part – what to write? This has to be the most personal part of the grave experience – just how can you leave that perfect final message to the world? Never fear, we at the New Humanist have some great tips to make your epitaph an epictaph. Remember that the ideal gravestone is a permanent business card; you want to make sure that people know just who’s worm-gobbled remains they’re walking past. Include any titles you may have like Sir, Lady and so on. I saw one person in Brompton who went so far as to mention their Oxford MA and the barrister firm they worked for – take an up-to-date CV to your local stone masons and see what they can do with it.

Once you’ve made it clear just who you were, how will you find those choice sentences that really encapsulate your life?

This could be quite a challenge but luckily there’s a handy, one-size-fits-all solution to that; a Bible quote. Nobody wants to run the risk of having people disapprove of their choice of epitaph. By choosing a quote from the Bible, even if you don’t believe in it in the slightest, you shield yourself from criticism and ensure you blend in nicely with the other Bible quotes on your neighbours’ graves. Sorted.

So there’s my guide to How To Look Good Dead, allowing you to remain fashionable right up to the end and beyond. By following these simple rules you really can take all of the hassle out of dying and finally begin to look forward to it.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there’s another approach to death and another take on the Brompton Cemetery. The stoneworks today are giving way to the chisel-like wind and rain of a century, the carved statements of self-importance rendered increasingly illegible with passing years. The cemetery remains, as any other cemetery, a field of buried, indistinguishable skeletons; a congress of ex-people. It was this truth that, for me, held the real power of the Brompton Cemetery. The utter absurdity of so much of our existence is laid out in its coarse, stone-carved nudity. The gaping disconnect between the pompous monuments and the anonymous skeletons beneath them could well serve as a stark reflection of our own lives.

Our obsessions with collecting accolades and positions simply for keeping up appearances seem just as foolish as keeping a roof over our graves. What use is there in limiting our existence for the sake of the approval of others?

One final suggestion, next time you’re out and about in the city: get lost.

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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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.