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.

Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas1

Originally published at physicsfocus.

It’s a little over two years since my first post for physicsfocus and I’m sad to say that this one is going to be my last. I found out last month from Chris White – the physicsfocus editor, self-confessed word monkey, and the bloke who’s been in the unenviable position of having to edit and upload my ranty, vitriol-fuelled posts for much of the time I’ve been writing for the blog – that the site is going to be discontinued in the very near future. *Sob*

I was invited to contribute to physicsfocus in late 2012 by Kelly Oakes, who established the blog and whose infectious enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the project played a major role in my decision to start blogging. (Kelly moved to take up the role of Science Editor for Buzzfeed towards the end of the first year of physicsfocus.) Prior to physicsfocus I had eschewed blogging with the usual, somewhat sniffy, “I could never find time for that” excuse, which, as my physicsfocus colleague, Athene Donald, points out, is a far from compelling reason not to blog.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kelly for the invitation to write for physicsfocus. Over the last two years I’ve found blogging to be not only a great form of catharsis, but an especially useful way to hone my writing and to train myself out of the staid, formulaic style that is the hallmark of the academic paper. (You know the type of thing, “In recent years, phenomenon X has become of increasing interest…”. Yawn.) And, more simply, I just enjoy blogging, even if I agree entirely with Douglas Adams: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” (I’ll add a belated #TowelDay hashtag in honour of Adams. I’d very likely never have signed up to the burble of Twitter either if it weren’t for physicsfocus.)

Given the title above, and the preceding few paragraphs, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be a rather light-hearted swansong post. ‘Fraid not.

Something absolutely momentous happened last month in Ireland and I could never forgive myself if I let the moment go without getting my thoughts down on paper (well, in pixels at least). I was in tears at times as I followed the #MarRef tweets, and overjoyed by the final result: 62.1% yes to 37.9% no. (1,201,607 votes to 734,300 with a turnout of 60.5%). I found this tweet particularly affecting:

And this brought another lump to my throat:

I was raised in the heart of rural Ireland, in the 70s and early 80s, in a border county (Monaghan) and in a strongly Catholic environment: rosary every night, mass as often as was humanly possible, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Catholic primary school followed by an all-boys Catholic secondary school (nicknamed The Sem because it used to be a seminary), sacraments, the Stations of the Cross, confession. (Christ. Confession. I still shudder when I think about walking into that darkened – and too often dank – cubicle to confess my sins.) In other words, I experienced the full gamut of the pomp and circumstance that is the Catholic faith.

And I despised it.

The dismissal of my faith, such as it ever was, happened when I was a teenager. As a young child, I was, however, deeply confused and concerned because I simply couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just believe like everyone else at school? Why did I have these doubts? Surely I was destined for hell if I didn’t just accept what I was told in church? After all, Jesus was clearly not best pleased with Thomas when he asked for evidence (John 20:24-29).

Thomas was rather an inspiring character for me. He did exactly what the majority of us would have done in his situation: he refused to put his trust in hearsay and asked for evidence of the resurrection. And yet, throughout my days at school and church, Thomas’ entirely reasonable doubt was portrayed as a major character flaw – something to be avoided by true believers. Jesus certainly saw it as a problem: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.” (For those who would argue that science and religious mythology should coexist happily, they need to tackle Jesus’ clear admonition of Thomas using rather more compelling arguments than the type outlined here. Faith is anathema to science. This letter in New Scientist a few weeks ago makes the point rather well.).

As a young boy the fact that I could strongly identify with Thomas’ scepticism, despite the fact that his justified doubt was very much frowned upon by priests and teachers, continually worried the bejaysus out of me. It was, however, a couple of defining, and unsettling, moments in class that began to set the seal on my rejection of Catholic beliefs and dogma (and, ultimately, of religious mythology in general). The first of these I describe in the video below, filmed by Brady Haran almost five years ago and which – as you’ll see if you visit the YouTube site – has now accrued well over 12,000 comments. (I’ve noted before that Brady’s videos often attract comments and discussion ‘below the line’ which are significantly more intelligent and better informed than is the norm for YouTube comments sections. This, unfortunately, is not quite the case for the “Do physicists believe in god?” video.)

The second, particularly unnerving, episode at primary school happened when the teacher asked the class the following question (I can’t remember in what context): “If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. “Superman”. “The Six Million Dollar Man”. “The Bionic Woman”. “Luke Skywalker”.

My answer?

“God, sir”.

I truly believed that my teacher would be really happy with that answer – after all, who was the most important being in the cosmos? Who had we been told was the most wonderful, all-loving father? On that basis, who wouldn’t want to be God for a day and experience all that love?

My teacher’s response? “Satan wanted to be God”.

I was nine. I had nightmares.

A common response to these anecdotes goes something along these lines: “Oh, dear. That’s shocking. But that was a problem with your particular over-zealous teacher, it’s not a problem with Catholicism/faith/religion per se. Our faith is all about acceptance, love, and reasoned belief”. Except, demonstrably, it’s not.

The events surrounding the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland have brought home the appallingly divisive and prejudiced attitudes that are often borne of religion. What reason, other than prejudice – bolstered, if not engendered, by religious belief – could there be for a no vote? (This is a genuine question and if you have an answer, please let me know in the comments section below. But please don’t tell me it’s about the supposed negative effects of same-sex parenting on children. My fellow Dublin City University alumnus, David Robert Grimes, dealt with this issue conclusively in The Guardian on the day of the vote).

How can anyone claim that religion invariably provides a superior ethical/moral framework to humanism when the Catholic Church has said that Ireland’s yes vote is a defeat for humanity? How can anyone who would like to establish a fairer, kinder, more equal society – i.e. the very virtues Jesus proclaimed (and I can quote chapter and verse if you’re interested, one of the questionable benefits of spending a good part of thirteen or so years on your knees in the name of Catholicism/Christianity) – identify with that type of prejudice? Why in the name of the Almighty Zarquon would anyone with any scrap of compassion and respect – let alone love – for their fellow humans vote no if it weren’t for the stranglehold of religious faith?

The title of this post is taken from the insightful musings of the delightful Fr. Dougal McGuire in the very first episode of Father Ted: “Sure it’s no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, heaven and hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” (Coincidentally, Ardal O’Hanlan also grew up in Co. Monaghan.)

Dougal further expounded on his difficulties with religious faith in a discussion with Bishop O’Neill in the Series 2 episode entitled “Tentacles of Doom”. Here we can clearly see that his doubts are not just related to Catholicism but are truly ecumenical in scope:

Bishop O’Neill: So Father, do you ever have any doubts? Is your faith ever tested? Any trouble you’ve been having with beliefs or anything like that?

Father Dougal: Well you know the way God made us, and he’s looking down at us from heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yeah…

Father Dougal: And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that?

Bishop O’Neill: Uh huh…

Father Dougal: And when we die, we’re all going to go to heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yes. What about it?

Father Dougal: Well that’s the part I have trouble with!

I would very much like to believe that Father Ted played a big role in helping to secure the Yes vote. Others have certainly pointed out the importance of Ted in accelerating the decline of the church in Ireland: “a comedy that affectionately mocked the old ways while simultaneously, mercilessly exposing them”.

At this point those of you familiar with WB Yeats’ take on the Irish – “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” – may well be nodding sagely to yourselves. I’ll admit that it does seem rather mean-spirited to be berating Catholicism to this extent when it was so soundly defeated last month. But the issue here is much, much broader than just Catholicism.

This upsetting article is from the Guardian last week. We live in a world where we can communicate virtually instantaneously with friends and family across the world, observe the universe as it was roughly 13 billion years ago, and mimic the conditions present only fractions of a second after the big bang. And yet a huge proportion of humanity remains in thrall to Bronze Age/Iron Age/New Age myths (of a staggering variety of hues).

“An abiding sense of tragedy”? Yep. Yeats was spot on.

I’ve really enjoyed reading my colleagues’ posts, and occasionally venting my spleen, for physicsfocus. I’ll miss the site immensely. I’m going to sign off with the signature closing words of the late, great, and brilliantly acerbic Dave Allen: “Thank you, good night, and may your god go with you”.

Image: The incredulity of St Thomas, by Caravaggio

6 Responses to Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

    1. transcendentape says:

      If you plan to continue blogging elsewhere, please post it here or through one of Brady Haran’s hundreds of youtube channels. I was lucky to happen upon your writing through Brady, and I’d hate to miss it if you carry on in a new location.

    1. Hamish Johnston says:

      Perhaps the most interesting question is why it took so long in Ireland? Most other staunchly Catholic western societies liberalized decades ago. A classic case in point is Quebec, which 60 years ago would have been very similar to Ireland both in terms of its Catholic nationalism and cultural isolation. Yet Quebec went through a rapid “quiet revolution” in the late ’60s and is now one of the most liberal societies in the west.

    1. Kuldeep Panesar says:

      I have enjoyed immensely your posts over the years, which have contained much food for thought, humour, and a refreshingly frank and honest critique of the nonsense that surrounds scientific research. If only there were more voices like yours, and people brave enough to stick their head above the parapet.

      I hope that your blogging continues elsewhere.