Yes, we’re all individuals

…or Why I Disagree with Telescoper: Religion Is A Diversity Issue

A few days ago, Peter Coles, aka Telescoper, wrote a typically punchy and engaging post on the question of where religion fits within the equality and diversity programme in higher education. (I’d have responded sooner but a workshop on Monday, a conference on Tuesday, and this last night meant that I’ve been otherwise engaged. I know that Peter will be especially interested in the latter).

Peter writes at the start of his post,

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

I suspect that Peter may well be referring to yours truly. It could be entirely coincidental, of course, but shortly before his blog post appeared I sent Peter — who was a colleague here at Nottingham for quite a number of years — an e-mail highlighting both the STFC statement and the Times Higher Education article on religion as a diversity issue to which he refers. Only Peter knows whether his post was indeed prompted by my missive.

On very many issues, Peter and I are very similar in our views (at least going by what he posts online). I’ve learnt a great deal from Peter’s In The Dark blog over the years, particularly on the subjects of Bayesian statistics and jazz. And with regard to certain  key aspects of diversity and equality — I should note before I go any further that I am a member of our School’s Diversity Committee — Peter and I are in full agreement.

But, as a certain former Professor of Public Understanding of Science based at a university somewhat south of Nottingham has said, a “flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people when confronted with long-established religions“. I was rather disappointed to see lazy age-old arguments — comprehensively rebutted time and time again but they keep on coming — about the perceived value of religious faith pop up in Peter’s post. He argues that many smart people he knows are religious. Sure. And very many smart people believe very many silly things indeed (including, as Peter himself points out, Issac Newton). So what?

I agree entirely with Peter that everyone should be free to believe whatever they like. Of course. Who could seriously argue with that? I, for one, have always been particularly keen on Douglas Adams’ wonderful Great Green Arkleseizure creation myth (and the impending Coming Of The Great White Handerkerchief), although my children are rather more taken with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (Heretics.) There’s a whole smorgasbord of myths out there to choose from — knock yourself out for all that I care.

But the freedom to believe in whatever you choose comes with a proviso. A big proviso. Believe whatever you like… as long as your beliefs do not denigrate others. Even then, you’re still of course entirely free to place your faith in whatever belief system you like. But don’t expect not to be challenged about it. However much we might skirt around this issue in order not to offend anyone of faith, it’s clearly the case that religion too often embodies offensive and divisive beliefs.

Here’s one example. (I wrote about this at length, as is my wont, here.)

Here’s another.

And here’s another.

Frustratingly, the Equality Act 2010 gives special provision to religious faith. It actively bolsters the type of bigotry embedded at the heart of many faiths, as the British Humanist Association has highlighted.

Some are more equal than others.

Throughout history, religion has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world which has moved on in terms of womens’ rights, LGBT rights…human rights in general. Religious faith generally acts to impede progress towards a more equal and diverse society — it is divisive and tribal at its core.

Of course, I’m not saying anything startlingly new here. And many of you may well dismiss everything above — if you’ve got this far — as Dawkins-esque in its stridency. But it’s no use lazily dismissing Dawkins as a fundamentalist, as Peter does. Ad hominem slurs are easy. Let’s instead play the ball…

Although I’ve got two copies of The God Delusion on my shelves — I bought myself a copy the day before a graduating PhD student got me the book as a thank you present (unbeknownst to me, of course) — I’m certainly no cheerleader for Dawkins. A hell of a lot of what he’s said over the last few years has been appallingly stupid, exceptionally damaging, and sexist to its core. But as regards his views on religion, dismissing the well-reasoned arguments in the following video as “fundamentalist” is not, it must be said, the most powerful of rebuttals.

Similarly, for those of us who have sat through countless hours of scripture readings during various religious services, his character reference for the Judeo-Christian god is clearly spot on. Even a cursory reading of the bible will confirm that.

[God is] a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser , a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, phillicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully

Peter argues that it’d be unprofessional and simply inappropriate to challenge religion in the context of, for example, the STFC summer school. I largely agree. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve managed to get through a considerable number of scientific conferences without once standing up and criticising a speaker for their religious beliefs. Indeed, by my reckoning, this is true for all of the conferences I’ve attended. I’ve also sat through very many weddings, funerals, and baptisms and bitten my tongue. Hard. In fact, I’m godfather for children of friends and relatives. Hypocritical? Yes, but, like Peter, I’m just as capable of being the soul of discretion and not challenging religious faith every waking moment. (Well, OK, “soul of discretion” is perhaps just a little bit of a stretch.)

But Peter misses the point. First, it is not necessarily the case that criticism of religion would be inappropriate at a scientific meeting, including that STFC school. What about a throwaway, off-the-cuff remark on the ludicrous claims of creationism in the context of our understanding of the evolution of the universe? Offensive or not? To whom? And who decides?

But it’s the broader aspects of including religion within the diversity agenda in higher education, highlighted by the THE article, which are my key concern. I’ve repeatedly heard it said that, for many, their religious faith is as immutable as their race. For all of the reasons discussed in this powerful article, this makes no sense at all. The idea of immutable faith particularly, and especially, has no place within a university. Universities are about challenging ideas, concepts, values, and beliefs. Immutability is simply not an option.

Homophobic Christians are fond of saying that they hate the sin, but love the sinner. When it comes to religion as a diversity issue, I respect people of faith, but will always disrespect their faith.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

9 thoughts on “Yes, we’re all individuals”

  1. Philip, you asked for my viewpoint re: Tim Hunt, however, many of the comments are being deleted from the Royal Society disqus for being ‘too accurate’ and naming names, so here you go:

    First I should preface my experience. I’m an Engineer, I have been for a bit under a decade and in that decade I’ve worked all around the world, with subordinates and bosses of all kinds of shapes and sizes. I’ve helped to put together the case to remove sexual harassing bosses from roles, which I’m sure you can understand I cannot discuss in depth. I’m now self employed and still work throughout the world, so there’s no boss you can write to about me.

    So maybe I bring a rather different experience from those who in academia have saw this as a very ‘theoretical problem’ which they have magically resolved but to be honest doesn’t appear to be working properly in practice. From what I’m seeing I’m certainly bringing a much higher level of standards and expectation to the table than these institutions have.
    In my view point for the UCL and the Royal Society to have behaved appropriately they must respect their duty of care, they must be proportionate, and they must be fair. None of these things can be done when the information is still developing.

    From what I’ve seen, none of these things have taken place which has caused the “Witch Hunt Train” unleashed “in the name of diversity!’ to roll right back through the front door of the UCL with disastrous consequences for the reputation and perhaps the mental well-being of the institution, its fellows, alumni, faculty and students.

    So I can say, that with that reversal of the train that my expectations aren’t all that far off many, many members of the public who are stakeholders in the problem as they (in part) fund the institution.

    Re: Information

    It’s required that the information is accurate, transparent and complete. Otherwise, you cannot understand the situation and make an appropriate decisions. That should be clear.

    There is currently lots of new information coming to the table and being report by journalists, and I’ll say it: Louise Mensch has really gone to town on it. But hey, that’s what investigative journalists do: they are conviction driven and that’s something we are often missing today.

    e.g. Apparently the original ‘interview’ done by the BBC who got a ‘sorry’ out of Tim Hunt was mis-transcribed regarding ‘meaning to be honest’. The information given by Connie St. Louis was only partial. That has been contradicted by a Russian Journalist, she backs the ‘transcript’ which has now turned up. I’m afraid that yes, I do need to question the strength of character of anyone who lies on their CV.

    But yet before all of this, within hours, we have the UCL apparently phoning Tim Hunts wife, who is also a Professor at the UCL and stating ‘If he doesn’t resign, we’ll sack him’. That’s absolutely incredible.

    Let us also be honest these are pretty big gaps, what was presented in the original was ‘A statement which was sexist which lasted 5-7 minutes’. Now where are we? We have a transcript which shows about 2-3 minutes of impromptu speech where Tim Hunt makes a really quite self-depreciatory “Joke about sexism” which some are still attempting to describe as “A sexist joke”.

    Re: Proportionate

    When we talk about “A sexist joke” that’s a very very odd statement to anyone outside of the “everything is IST” gender bubble. If it is a joke that would promotes discrimination? Not really. In fact I would suggest that most people *do* meet partners in their life and something people cry and some people *do* fall in love in laboratories.

    And even if you view it as having ‘ist’ effects, there’s a positive opposite: *Join a Lab, Fall in Love!* and I think the public understands that very, very well. I also think they understand the difference between a joke about sexism and a sexist joke.

    Anyone outside of this bubble who see all ‘relations’ as negative doesn’t have a proportionate position, they have a partial position.

    They do not recognise that this discussion might actually help women and men who want both to work in a Lab and to have a loving home life to see science as a career they might want to be involved in; rather than viewing science as dry and dispassionate.

    Now, another argument of proportionality, I see that the public understands very well that in liberal civil society, which in the UK we have enjoyed for a long time; freedom of speech *does* extend to things which others might just be offended by.

    Because the limit of speech by the liberal definition is that where either hatred, discrimination or harassment of a group or individuals is advocated is an absolute “No No”.

    You can discuss anything you want beyond that limit including some things that some might just find to be offensive. The answer is: Sorry, though, offense is taken not given.

    Tim Hunt’s joke which was a Joke about sexism did not call for the hatred, discrimination or harassment of women in laboratories. This is absolutely true whether you think it is sexist or not.

    Re: Fairness

    We can see that Tim Hunt made a joke. Some view it as sexist. I would state rather than argue: They are wrong.

    But was the action taken fair? I understand “Diversity Commitees” have a well established reputation for struggling at the definition of fair. So I will state what my definition of fair is: “What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.”

    Well, here’s the latest ‘snippet’ which is being passed around the internet (which as you know is really just the Public House 2.0):

    So in this discussion, we see Jenny Rohn, a UCL professor and David Colquhoun another UCL professor and one who would appear to actually be quite involved in the whole debacle in UCL in his position on the ‘Diversity Commitee’ making and laughing at was a sexist joke, this time directed at Tim Hunt’s wife, who is as I’ve stated and you probably know is also a Professor at the UCL.

    David Colquhoun has stated that because ‘everything is sexist’ its right to point a gun at Tim Hunt’s head and pull the trigger to ‘help women into science’

    Why didn’t he take that gun and fire it at Jenny Rohn?

    Its very clear that making a joke about sexism stating ‘women cry’ is much much less disincentivising to women pursuing careers in science than stating ‘If your husband slips up, we’re going to make sexist jokes about you.’ Isn’t the idea that we should all be helping everyone to participate?

    Does the suggestion that women who are married can’t participate and be treated with respect suggest otherwise?

    Now why isn’t the UCL hauling this employee out in public to ‘fairly treat them’ as Tim Hunt was treated?

    I can say that he has been treated unfairly Q.E.D.

    Is there legal precedent for this: Yes. Under the Equality Act 2010 – which by the way isn’t just about employment, it has chapters regarding public office there are protected characteristics which apply regardless of what your race. gender, age. If the logic that the UCL wishes to deploy is that there is no need to fire Jenny Rohn, but to be willing to defenestrate Tim Hunt, then there’s a serious legal case to answer.

    I’m of course not suggesting that Jenny Rohn should be fired, I would rather that Tim Hunt is reinstated, but, as above, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: and that’s what the law states.

    And regarding the other actor we can clearly see that David Colquhoun has some real issues with fairness, and equality based on his publicly stated views:

    I would say he isn’t really fit to be on any kind of diversity committee, because he really doesn’t get it and he has behaved unfairly and abominably throughout.

    Re: Duty of Care

    From what I’ve seen, the people who are unwilling to call for Tim Hunt to be reinstated really don’t understand what Duty of Care is, or how it applies.
    For me its really quite simple, when anyone is involved in anything, we have a duty of care to each other. It extends from road user to road user, it extends from the shopping mall to the shopper, from employee to employee and also from organisations to participants.

    It extends to providing protection for a person who is involved in an activity with your buy in and there is an opportunity cost which you are exposed to due to their failure to provide Duty of Care.

    I myself as an Engineer, when I bring someone in as an employee, whether directly, as a contractor, or even just a speaker go to lengths to ensure there are resources in place to provide them a Duty of Care, security, safety, evacuation, food, water, toilets, public relations, etc. Otherwise, if something goes wrong, they and the government would have every right to throw the book at me.

    By being a fellow of the UCL and UCL pulling the rug from under Tim Hunt, there is an opportunity cost to Tim Hunt. They should have been providing public relations support to minimise the harm. They did not, they have inflamed the situation and therefore under Duty of Care, I would say there’s a real problem at the UCL.

    In Summary,

    What needs to change at the UCL (and the Royal Society who have made the same profound mistakes) to address this.

    I think its pretty root and branch reform thats needed; but I would suggest they can start with a pretty front page public apology both to Tim Hunt and to his wife stating this or something close to it as a rationale.

    Acknowledging that yes, there are ‘diversity issues’ to work on, but that many actions went the liberal society that the greater public believe in and value which all of the universities in the UK are a part of.

    If they don’t I’m afraid from looking at things, I don’t think these diversity committees are going to last more than a decade. The costs of that will be alarming and profound regardless of your views on the topic.


    1. A nicely balanced comment. People have been expecting Hunt to apologize. Perhaps some of his critics should admit that they jumped the gun.

      You comment should be on another post, though.


      1. Phillip,

        See my response to Brian below. I’ll now turn to your comment under the other post…



    2. Thanks, Brian, for responding here.

      First, could I ask whether you’re entirely certain that it’s the Royal Society that is deleting comments? Have they confirmed this with you? Disqus is a piece of crap and I’ve had a number of totally innocuous comments using that ‘platform’ disappear into the aether at a number of sites (including the RS blog).

      Before I address your comments, I would argue — not state, 🙂 — that definitive “diktats” about who is wrong or right in this matter (as you make a number of times in your comments, “Q.E.D.”) are not at all helpful. (e.g. your statement that “This is absolutely true whether you think it is sexist or not.”) What the heck does “absolutely true” mean in this context? Even in science, there are no absolute proofs. Where’s the objective law-maker that means you’re definitively right? There’s a spectrum of opinions. Don’t you think it’s just a tiny bit arrogant to infer that you’re absolutely right?

      On the matter of what Tim said and whether he meant it. Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth rather than rely on second-hand sources, if that’s OK with you:

      “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls…I just meant to be honest, actually”

      I’m going to cut-and-paste at this point from a comment similar to yours which I addressed over at YouTube ( I’m interested in your response to my question at the end.

      —snip —

      First, it’s important to realise that Hunt’s “job” at UCL was an unpaid, honorary professorship. He is a retired scientist.

      Second, best not to cite the Daily Mail as a reliable source of any type of information. It’s got a rather poor track record: in honest and credible journalism.

      More importantly, you do indeed misunderstand me on the question of joke vs heartfelt beliefs. Whether Hunt’s comments in South Korea were a joke or represent his honest opinion does, of course matter, but it matters in different ways. If it was his honest opinion — and that is certainly what he explicitly said (; note that this is the actual interview, not a transcript) — then this is very problematic when it comes to his being involved with the Royal Society Awards Panel.

      As I say in that blog post, how can the Royal Society credibly claim to be promoting women in science and still have Tim contribute to making decisions when he has declared an “honest” bias? Again, context and perception are everything — even if Tim’s comments haven’t affected his previous decisions, the fact that he has “honestly” said that women’s emotions get in the way of the science is a big problem for public perception of the RS’ awards processes.

      But let’s disregard the fact that Tim has explicitly said, on national UK radio, that he was “being honest” about his misgivings about having women in labs. And let’s leave aside the fact that he had the opportunity during that radio interview (and elsewhere) to hammer home exactly what you said — “It was a joke. A misplaced joke. Of course I don’t believe those things”. But he didn’t.

      Let’s leave all that to one side and assume that it was, as you say, a joke. Your point about “punching down” is perceptive and very well made, I have to admit. But the problem is that context really is everything and Tim should have been exceptionally careful in framing his comments — he is acting as an ambassador for both the Royal Society and UCL. Why did he even say what he said? Why would anyone think that those comments are an appropriate way to start a discussion of the importance of women in science? It shows rather a lapse in judgement, no?

      I’m glad that you agree that, in the hypothetical case I mentioned, a homophobic/racist/sexist joke by an Admissions Tutor to an Open Day audience would be inappropriate and the Head of School would be justified in asking the Admissions Tutor to stand down.

      Let me re-state the question. Let’s say I said exactly what Tim said at the start of my Open Day talk to potential applicants and their parents. And then, when challenged about it during the Q&A session following the talk, backed it up with “Well, I was only being honest”.

      Would my Head of School still be justified in asking me to step down from the Admissions Tutor role?


      Coming back to your points, Brian…

      “They do not recognise that this discussion might actually help women and men who want both to work in a Lab and to have a loving home life to see science as a career they might want to be involved in; rather than viewing science as dry and dispassionate.”

      Errrm, no. This is a complete (and willful?) misinterpretation of what Tim said. He said that the relationships/emotions were disruptive to science and even suggested that segregated labs were a good idea. Even if he said all of this in a tongue-in-cheek manner (but I refer you to the link to the BBC website above), in what way could it be interpreted that Hunt’s comments were supportive of relationships were in science?!

      As regards your points about Colquhoun, let’s put this in context. In the last round of RS university research fellowships, two out of the 43 awarded went to women. Is this because women are somehow less equipped to do science — and if you are going to claim they are, please present me with credible evidence (i.e. citations) that back up your case and control for the effects of environment, i.e nurture vs nature — or might it be to do with some other factors? Colquhoun is someone who is striving to ensure that the best scientists don’t meet obstacles due to traditional stereotypes. If his experience is that certain stereotypes are supported by a certain ‘demographic’ then, y’know what?, that rather chimes with my experience too.

      We indeed have a duty of care to each other. And that involves not placing obstacles in the way of those who want to pursue a scientific career, regardless of their gender or other personal characteristics.


  2. On a side comment, apologies if the last post has some oddities and grammar flaws, I work on a 3840 x 2160 resolution and the blog is setup (I think) for a bit less than half of that. It doesn’t scale.


    1. Brian, was there another comment from you to go with this? There’s nothing in the moderation queue…


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