Faith and feminism: comrades or conflict? Part 1

There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month showing that women that identified themselves as feminists were much less likely than women in general to identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith.  They were statistically more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic, and to be interested in female-centric paganism, or in alternative spirituality.


But the challenge put to me by feminist friends was how is it possible to be both feminist and Christian?  Or, as feminist writer Cath Elliott put it:

“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

So an attempt at answering that challenge.  There’s so much to say on this issue there may need to be more than one post…

1) Do we have a common understanding of what feminism is?
It is fairly clear that Cath Elliott believes that third wave feminists should have no truck with religion.  This is an old argument, and there’s pages of resources which gives an idea of how long the place of women in Christianity has been under debate.

But feminism is not itself a faith system with a common set of beliefs.  Wikipedia defines feminism as:

“a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women’s rights. Much of feminism deals specifically with the problems women face in overcoming social barriers, but some feminists argue that gender equality implies a necessary liberation of both men and women from traditional cultural roles, and look at the problems men face as well”.

So far so good, right?  So let’s look at the definition of Christian feminism.
Christian feminism does not mean being Sarah Palin.  I promise.  It is one of the feminist movements covered in the definition above and looks at the position of men and women from a slightly different starting point, not just as individual units but as beings that find happiness in their relations with others, inherently equal but undeniably different, and that understanding this equality before God is essential to understanding our place in the world.

Essentially, as Helen LaKelly Hunt puts it, faith and feminism are “really different expressions of the same impulse to make life more whole“.
I don’t see these two approaches as being in conflict either, I don’t think Christian Feminism is an oxymoron, and I’ll attempt to explain why below.

2) “All religions oppress women”
This is the first challenge.  I can’t pretend to answer for all faiths – I’m a committed Christian and while I’ve looked at the other faiths because I’m interested in knowing more about what others believe, I can only answer as to why I don’t feel oppressed.

In many ways, the Christian faith as led by the church defines patriarchy. Indeed, the orthodox churches refer to their leaders as patriarchs!  But I’d argue that this was a reflection of the political period in which those structures developed rather than something naturally inherent in the message of Jesus Christ.

The slight cop-out answer, for me, comes from the fact of me being a protestant.  For me, the key is that Christianity is a relationship with God and not a religion.
The ceremonies, the churches’ structures, the stuff that is effectively man-made attempts to impose order – that’s religion.  I can see why you could criticise that.
We have women in leadership roles in my church, and I made the case for female bishops in a previous post and so I respect, but disagree with, the thoughtful considerations of other Christians that conclude that they do not believe there is a bible-based case for women in church leadership.  The message throughout the bible is that God created a perfect world, but that we humans use the free will he gave us and screw it up while he sends prophets and eventually his own son to try to help us get back on track.  I’d suggest that just possibly exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church may be an element of that?

3) “The Christian message and the Feminist message are fundamentally incompatible”
The Christian message is simply this: we all try to be good.
But we do bad things.  Christians call it sin.
We reason with ourselves that probably most of them are not so bad, but these things separate us from God, who is all good and who cannot tolerate sin.
The price of this sin? Death – eternal separation from all goodness.
But it’s ok – God loves us and wants us to be happy with him.
So Jesus bridges the gap – he died when he didn’t deserve to and paid the price for all of us.  Accept that offer of Jesus, and be happy with God as he intended us to be, living in his kingdom.

Nowhere in that is there an exhortation to treat women as lesser beings.  Nowhere does it say that this is a message for men not women, that women are not equally called upon to be forgiven their sins and help make the world a better place.
So where’s the incompatibility?

I think this slightly depends on what you think the feminist message is.  For me, equality is at the heart of feminism: political, social and economic.  If, for you, the main thread is about sexual freedom, then you will see incompatibility.
But equality is also there in Christianity: equal access to all spiritual blessings through Jesus.
Throughout the bible it is the people that treat women as inferiors, not God.
God’s angels address women directly just as they do men, and when women are in a position to make a difference, while some are consorts like Esther, you also find queens in their own right like Deborah.
Jesus’s attitude to women was truly counter-cultural – we have forgotten just how shocking even talking to a woman publicly was.
And God used the women at the heart of Jesus’s group of followers for one of the most important roles at Easter – it was the women that found that Jesus was gone from and who came to tell the others, this critical role played by women at a time when in the temple courts a woman’s testimony counted for nothing (“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)).
So equality before God?  Yes, it’s spelt out in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And yet there is a conflict.  Jesus’s model for changing the world was that of serving others, serving God.
We can talk about rights, demand respect, argue about fairness, protest about a lack of political and business representation, but ultimately in a perfect world everyone, male and female, would seek the best way to serve each other rather than put each other down and get one over each other.  That’s real equality.
For me, feminism is a stepping stone in this imperfect society to build something a little closer to this, to help us to do the right thing.

Next time: sex, and women in society…

Total honesty? Discretion and life lessons…

From Wikileaks…

Oh dear Wikileaks.  I hope you realise what you’ve done.

There’s a lot of comments on the internet about “this is what the internet should be about” or “this is what openness and transparency should mean” or “this should be acceptable in a democracy“.
I couldn’t disagree more.

I’m going to try to look at what on Twitter is tagged #cablegate from a slightly different perspective.
Here’s four bits of private thought or private discussion to think about:

#1 “Um, is your mum really going out wearing that top?  It’s not her colour, I mean, seriously.  It brings out the red in her nose and makes it look like she’s been drinking.  The fabric clings to her sides and the pattern shows off the rolls of spare tyre fat.  She looks like a bulgy, drunken -thing- squeezed into your t-shirt, except she bought it for herself. So embarrassing”.

#2 “She smells. Again.  She’s our best friend – it’s always been all three of us together. We’re going to have to stage an intervention.  You’re going to have to say something, I mean.  It’s for her own good really – if we notice, presumably everyone does.  It’s not like she doesn’t wear deodorant, but ergh, she needs a stronger one or something. Foul”.

#3 “He hit me.  It was just once, really hard, on the back and he grabbed my wrists so I couldn’t hit him back so they hurt too.  He got too angry and just turned into some kind of monster.  A one-off strike.  He’s never done it before.  He’s never hit our daughter. I don’t think he would. But I never thought he’d actually hit me.  Should I walk out?”

#4 “He’s boring.  But Milly says if you want something from him just smile.  He probably doesn’t get many girls anywhere near him, I mean would you even talk to him if you didn’t have to? Yuck, he’d probably want to date you or something.  Gross.  But he does ‘get’ maths and I don’t want another D”.

No one ever said that humans are nice.

And knowing what to say publicly and what to say privately or not to say at all is part of the process of growing up.

Things have changed a bit even in my lifetime.
Two generations before me it was all stiff upper lips and keeping mum – well, it was a time of world war.  Then things loosened up a bit with the babyboomer generation, the not-at-all-threatening-nowadays Beatles and Rolling Stones, letting it all hang out Woodstock-style and talking about sex became the norm.  The yuppies made it less necessary to be discreet about money.
And now, so much of the time, anything goes.

The issue becomes how much of your life to live in public – with Facebook, Twitter and blogging, what do you say and what do you keep to yourself?
This is accompanied by increasingly candid celebrities – the Kerry Katona/ Katie Price self as a commodity measuring self-worth in column inches. Katie Price is of course also a very canny business woman and extracts a high price for this exposure.

The risk with such instant and compulsive access to broadcasting that we say it without thinking.  That can be a big mistake – your job can depend on you not saying the wrong thing.  Just because you can say something publicly, doesn’t mean it should be said publicly.

Take my (let’s be absolutely clear about this) fictional examples above.  In those situations:
– would the speaker be better off if the content was said publicly?
– would the subject of the discussion, in the terms discussed?
– would the world be a better place for it being said out loud in full hearing of the subject?

I don’t think that there’s a single example above where either party or the wider world would’ve derived benefit from those thoughts or private discussions being put out in the public domain.  I’d be interested to know what you think.

Clearly thinking horrible thoughts about your friend’s mum’s dress sense and actually saying it to your friend in those terms would be stupid – at the end of the day, “c’mon, she’s my mum, dude“. Even if the critique is true.

With the boyfriend that hit out in anger, the call is much harder.
Let’s be absolutely clear, one adult hitting another or a child is utterly, utterly unacceptable and should never, ever happen.
As ever life is a bit more complicated than that.  The problem here is what’s at stake for the parties involved.  It has clearly happened – but is it a one-off, or a slippery slope? Should it ever be spoken about, apart from to each other?  Is there counselling needed as a couple or anger management? What about praying together? Would raising it in public cause more problems than it solves? Or does no never mean that this violence should signal the end of the relationship? Would walking out at this point be sensible, or a serious overreaction?

Sometimes you need to be able to have a candid conversation in order to be able to handle a situation well.  Take the smelly friend – to me, it is clearly in her interests in the long run to know, but definitely in her interests that her friends get together in the short term to work out how to do so so that no hurtful language is used. Even if it feels a bit like talking behind her back – which of course is what they are doing even if they don’t mean it badly.
It is ok to think uncomplimentary things about friends sometimes – I’m particularly bad at washing up, and remembering birthdays and to phone people. I’d expect others to say this about me.  But not necessarily to me, thanks guys, behind my back but privately is just fine.

But what about getting the maths help from the geek you’d never go near unless you needed his help?
Leave aside that quite often the maths geek turns out in the long run to be the better sort of husband and the good looking, popular boys usually start to believe their own publicity and are less good to be around- no teenage girl really believes that, even with Glee on TV.
The reality of life is that often you do things that you might not otherwise do to advantage yourself because its expedient to do so.  You might even talk about it with your mates. It doesn’t make it the morally right thing to do.  But that often doesn’t stop you. And you can usually find a way to justify it to yourself.

Everyone has a nasty part of their mind.
(Oh yes, even Christians).
And sometimes we just go with it.
(It’s not hypocritical to acknowledge that, the whole point about being Christian is recognising your sin, knowing you’re flawed and seeking to overcome it, not do it again and be forgiven).

So how does this link to the Wikileaks release?
According to the Guardian:

Clinton led a frantic damage limitation exercise this weekend as Washington prepared foreign governments for the revelations, contacting leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France and Afghanistan.

The point about diplomacy is that, in order for positions to be informed ones, the type of thing that for an individual might be an inner monologue, or at a push a private conversation, needs to be discretely shared with others within an administration so that agreed internal positions can be found.
Then the right language can be found to achieve the right outcome.

For that reason, I am slightly amused by comments like “the next G20 is going to be soooo awkward“.   If so I guess that would be choice not necessity.  The point is that diplomacy is the art of moving from the raw approach to the smooth interface.  Seeing the furiously paddling legs of the swan may belie the graceful beast above the water but it is merely exposing the workings, not invalidating the whole bird.

Who gains from the Wikileaks cables release?
People who want to exploit divisions between friends, or those who wish to synthesise outrage in order to justify an action of their own.
Some will be genuinely offended, feel let down or angry.
Some will just be curious about the weird world of diplomatic communication.
Some in IT security will no doubt be expecting a call to beef up information protection.
But those that lose are the diplomatic and security personnel who have been compromised, the people who were discussed or quoted, the people who might now face personal danger as others “respond”, and the people who genuinely believe in more governmental openness and see this as a nail in its coffin because it so clearly shows that with great IT power appears to come great irresponsibility.
And if the middle east is destabilised, we all lose.

Are Wikileaks villains, misguided, or heroes of openness?  It’s up to you.
But for me, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

(image c/o

The point of Christmas is…

This year I will be having Christmas in three major parts: once with my parents and enormously pregnant sibling (technically it’s his wife that’s pregnant but you know what I mean),  once with my in-laws and once with my husband’s sister’s family.

What’s Christmas about for me?
I always like “going home” for Christmas: the English winter, the prospect that there might be a light dusting of snow, the dark green pine tree with sparkly decorations, the sort of magic that candle flames and twinkling lights in the dark brings, midnight mass or the child-friendly crib service.
I love the food, the family traditions, and now I’m older and have my own child creating tradition of our own (we’re not big turkey fans, so working out what we want instead and getting it supplied locally is part of the fun).
TV seems to play quite a major role too – not so much the Queen’s speech any more, but certainly Doctor Who or Wallace and Gromit on Christmas day. And now my son’s a bit bigger, the post dinner walk is a bit more important for all of us – we can walk off dinner and he can burn off a bit of energy.

But it’s the Christmas service at church that’s so beautiful and so essentially part of the whole thing for me.  As a regular churchgoer, I’m representative of over half of the UK population in terms of my faith (according to Tearfund in 2007), with 7.9 million attending church monthly and 4.9 million weekly (of which about 1.1 million are for my particular denomination).
The numbers shoot up at Christmas – those with a negative agenda on this will call this “cultural Christianity” and say that those people don’t count or should describe themselves as not Christian in the 2011 Census count, but frankly I’m pleased to see anyone that wants to be there and if they want to self-define as Christian that is surely their business and not that of the BHA.

Children and Christmas
What about children’s perceptions of Christmas?   With the church-going caveat firmly in my mind, I asked my toddler what was special about Christmas.
“It my birthday!” he said.
No, sweetie, you’ve had your birthday.
“It Jesus birthday… but I get presents”, he said, unprompted.
I quizzed him a bit more.  Apparently he wants to see his grandparents and his cousins, but Father Christmas is a character on Peppa Pig.  He’s quite excited about carrying a candle in the church too.

Is he typical?  Well, in 2006 there was some research done (and admittedly with older children), handily put in one place on the internet by the Evangelical Alliance which showed that not all children see Christmas time as a wholly positive experience:

Reported in the Daily Mail 19 December 2006

  • 44% of 7-11 year-olds regarded Christmas day as a celebration of the birth of Jesus – although in Northern Ireland the figure rose to 71%.
  • Although 89% were excited, and 79% were happy about the holiday period, one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas.
  • Perhaps not so surprisingly, one in four (24%) believed the season was about giving, rather than receiving, presents.
  • Giving clearly matters, however, with almost two-thirds (63%) saving their pocket money to buy presents, adding up to an average piggy-bank of £34. 33% nationally and 45% in Scotland managed to save more than £50

What other sorts of Christmas are there?
So what’s the point of a secular Christmas? It seems pretty much that Christmas just becomes an occasion to get together with family or friends,  give them gifts to show you love them, eat food and keep warm and have light in an otherwise pretty depressing time of year.
That was certainly the message from last year’s intro sequence to the Doctor Who Christmas special…
It’s also the message from endless American movies about the true meaning of Christmas.

Well, that’s lovely.

I just wonder whether, if you don’t go to church because you explicitly reject the Christ bit of Christmas, whether you reject the non-christian but religious-routed elements too?
The pagan festival of Yule falls on 21 December, celebrating the return of the light after the shortest day of the year (celebrating the rebirth of the sun, not the sun, as one wiccan put it), with the similar festival for Mithras, Roman god of light, on 25 December.
Wiccans use oak and holly to represent the summer and winter (think about the Christmas song “The Holly and the Ivy” and the traditional yule log – which was a big bit of oak and not a chocolate swiss roll in years gone by). Feasting and giving gifts was a tradition of Saturnalia (the Roman festival on 17 December).
The good news is that mice pies should still be available to you – they seem to originate with Henry V, and Christmas pudding too seems to be without religious significance.
Is that all there is to Christmas?
Ok, so there’s a bunch of traditions and a chance to catch up with family.  Is that it?
Or, how does the story of a baby born over 2000 years ago in a backwater of the Roman empire relate to any of this?
Tell you what, rather than me write it all out here, here’s a fantastic idea… the Natwivity!

The art of storytelling has been part of the church since it all began, so think of the Natwivity as a Nativity play for the Internet generation.  Put it this way – if you’re the sort of person to read blogs, then you might also be onFacebook, or on Twitter.
The press release tells me that “the Natwivity takes advantage of social media’s unparalleled capacity to engage people as they go about their everyday life to re-tell the Christmas story in a fresh, personal way. It is possible to follow on Twitter and Facebook and you’ll be able to pick up the ‘tweets’ at home, in the high street on your phone and at work”.

I’m really looking forward to it – the point about using 140 character tweets is that there should be an immediate, real-life feel.
Each day from throughout Advent (1st December to Christmas Day), different members of the cast will tweet a140-character update. They include Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise men and King Herod.

By reading these daily tweets, followers can learn more about each character’s thoughts and feelings, from Mary’s angst as she rides on a donkey over the hills of Bethlehem right through to the night the shepherd’s saw their familiar hills illuminated by an angelic host.

So if you were wondering at all about the Christ in Christmas, or just feel nostalgic for the primary school Christmas play where you only got to be Third Shepherd or a non-speaking Angel, why not follow @natwivity on Twitter, or “like”

And Merry Christmas!

Natwivity is hosted by the award-winning team (Jerusalem Awards) behindEasterLIVE, a similar project last Easter; Share Creative and the Evangelical Alliance.

2 minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury… and a helium balloon

“Archbishop of Canterbury is thoroughly nice bloke” – that’s the headline my husband suggested. But mine says what it is I want to tell you about…

Today was Back to Church Sunday.  Our church celebrated this not only by having Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, there for the services in both of the parish churches (a formal service and a more freewheeling one), but also by all having lunch together.
I had something specific I wanted to ask the Archbishop, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

The Archbishop did both a talk with the children, and a sermon today. The children all had a sheep to hold, and the Archbishop explained that the staff he had with him was a real old Kentish shepherd’s crook.  Given what happened later, I think this made a bit of an impression on the kids.  He answered questions about going to church when he was young, and what life had been like growing up (tin baths in front of the fire, apparently).
The really nice bit was that, as the children had all gathered on a mat at the front, he went and sat on the floor with them.  I noticed that, similarly, when doing communion, he bent down to each child’s level to do their blessings.  It was a great reminder that being head of the Anglican church nevertheless puts you on a level equivalent to a child in the eyes of God.

The sermon we heard (and apparently there was a different one at each service) was on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31).  This is a great subject for any newcomers service (the other good one is Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian with it’s message “how can I know what its all about if no one explains it to me”?)  The story of the little girl who told her mum that the Optician of Wales had been to her school triggered a great sermon on helping people to see, to see time at church as honest time in which we confess our sins but also celebrate how God sees us, with unconditional love.

When the service ended, we all helped put up tables and move the chairs to make a dining hall.  A posse of helpers had baked potatoes, made bolognese, grated cheese and provided great vats of baked beans and coleslaw.  We had all also brought desserts to share.
The Archbishop did not spend his time just talking to our minister.  Instead, he made his way around the room, firstly meeting all the people who’d stayed for coffee but not staying for food, then round to each table, joining us and chatting with us.  This was done gently, without entourage (he brounght a “minder” with him, basically like a Minister bringing a private secretary – or a Camerlengo to the pope?), and without formality.  He moved around seemingly at random, but clearly trying to see everyone.
When he came to our table, we were all ready to talk to him, but right at that moment, our vicar and a woman in a pink jacket came over – the Archbishop’s visit had been filmed, not just to go on the church website (as I’d assumed) but for Back to Church Sunday, to be shown in other churches. As recent arrivals, would we mind talking about it?  Of course we were happy to do so, but part of me was thinking, well that’s our chance to talk to him gone.   And when we’d filmed our segment, the Archbishop was asked to go and film a segment.

Someone at the church had provided some large silver helium balloons for the service spelling out WELCOME.  After the meal, some of the children were playing with them, and somehow the L had become separated from its weight and had floated up to the high village hall ceiling.  The children tried to use the O balloon to lasso the string of the L but even though the O could reach it, there was not enough tension in the string to bring the balloon down.  The the vicar’s daughter had a bright idea – the Archbishop’s shepherd’s crook!
Although they tried and tried, standing on a chair, the kids couldn’t get the hook to twist around the string and rescue the balloon.  Then one of the church team arrived with sticky tape.  They coated the top of the crook with it, and on tiptoe on a chair, the balloon was finally rescued.  The whole room applauded.

I started to take some pictures – and in the last photo , I realised the Archbishop had sneaked into the background – he’d come to see what was happening and congratulated the kids – nothing wrong with the flock borrowing the crook and all working together to solve a problem.  I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere…

Which meant that, thanks to wanting to record this for my blog, I actually got two minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I talked about this blog and the other things I do online talking about faith issues and in particular the discussions I have with those of no faith.  I asked ths:  I talk about personal experience of God in our lives, and that if Jesus rose again then everything else is interesting but ultimately we need to take seriously what he said and live it… but what other message should I have for you?

The Archbishop said this: the incredible value of each individual.
This is what we learn from Jesus – how much we are loved by God, and the value we place on each human life.  There are and have already been people in this world who don’t value people this way, but we feel this is wrong. It is through seeing ourselves through God’s eyes that we understand why we feel it is wrong.

Thinking about this more, this is like the argument that our morals and values must come from somewhere – why is it that, underneath our own interests, our greed, that we instinctively know that equality and fairness matters?  Why do we sometimes feel that the right thing to do is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?
And all the psychological, biological, genetic, historical efforts going into trying to prove that altruism and ultimately self-sacrifice is not a betrayal of selfish genes but somehow good but without a God dimension… this pales into insignificance when you realise that we know this because. for a moment we see ourselves through God’s eyes and realise how life changing it is to see others in this way too.
How can you not give to the flood victims in Pakistan, send clothes for the deported Roma, visit your neighbour you’ve not seen around lately, buy a coffee for your collague that’s having a tough time when you realise that God sees them as just as important as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Without that sense that each individual should be prized, we are no better than the rich man ignoring Lazarus starving at his gate. And as Jesus has the rich man in his parable say, if we don’t realise it now from all the words from everything that we’ve been told, then we won’t believe it no matter who tells us, not even if someone were to rise from the dead.

Re-Hawking an old idea

Did the universe as we know it merely come into being by itself from a quantum-level change in an existing one?

I’ve been putting off blogging about Stephen Hawking and God.  Mainly this is because I feel that the latest pronouncements splashed across the front page of the Times last week (no link as I don’t want you to have to pay News Corp a pound to read it) were more about stirring controversy to increase book sales than any new ideas on where and how God “fits in” with the universe.

Of course, by ignoring the story for a while I’ve been able to read a lot of the excellent and not so excellent commentary.  The Church Mouse blog was among the best of the religious responses, pointing out that:

What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary. [Stephen W. Hawking, Der Spiegel, 1989]

Compare the quote from 1989 with the one which has caused the headlines today:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

If anyone can spot a difference, please let Mouse know.

To those of us that are sci fi fans, the multiworlds model which Hawking cited alongside laws such as gravity as making God “unnecessary” is familiar.  Basically the idea is that for every “decision” at a quantum level, a parallel universe is created in which the other “decision” was taken.

It features in Doctor Who – not just in the obvious case of “Pete’s World” where the cybermen come from, but also in multiple explanations of things going on (Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s doctors both use it as an explanation – the tenth doctor refers to it in the episode “School Reunion”).  Terry Pratchett’s famous “trousers of time” is another example this theory being used in a really understandable manner.

I’m not going to take on Hawking on the physics.  As the Church Mouse says: “if you try to claim you know more about the science of creation and the big bang you will instantly make yourself a laughing stock.  And nothing that Hawking has said rules out the possibility of God“.
It is that latter part that I think merits a bit more thought.

Of course, if it is taking the decision (consciously or quantum-ly) that creates the new world, then Hawking has a point – it does indicate that a creator god would not be needed to make each parallel world just pop into existence – infinite, multiple worlds spinning off through all time and space of a multiverse.  And getting your head around this is not easy. It slightly makes me think of another Terry Pratchett quote: “Nothing good ever follows the word multiple” (Guards! Guards!)

The responses from the religious community, at least the less fundamentalist parts of it, has been relatively measured.  Most follow the Church Mouse’s rule.  Most also pointed out that while theories of how the universe came into being were interesting, they did nothing to answer the fundamental question of “why” it came into being.
The Daily Mail (I know, rare for me to comment on their more sober reporting) quoted:

Dr Williams said: ‘Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe.’

He told The Times: ‘It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.’

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and one of Britain’s top imams also joined the condemnation. Lord Sacks said: ‘Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation… The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.’

And the apparent head of the religion of atheism, Richard Dawkins, was quick to embrace Hawking as one of his kind of people.  Many comments abounded in the blogosphere, probably not direct from the man himself, saying that just as evolution left no space for God in biology, Hawking left no space for God in physics.

Dawkins did say in the Times that asking “why?” was nonsensical and that “stupid questions” did not deserve to get answers.

Interesting – the entire spirit of scientific inquiry is on the basis of asking “why” such-and-such is and trying to find the mechanics behind it.
Ah, but then this is metaphysics, not physics, and because it is unprovable and therefore cannot be tested by scientific means, the question is outside the self-defined belief system that says that science is all, and therefore not a valid one…
Um, am I alone in thinking that Dawkins’ atheism is not just about following Darwin’s principles but fast becoming a science-based faith in its own right…

“God is a delusion. … Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.” (Introduction to “The God Delusion”).

(another tenet of this belief: knowledge at present is ok until a better theory is available and a theory to explain each thing and everything will eventually be found)?

But I digress.
If what you believe in is a “God of the Gaps“, that God is the explanation until each gap is filled in with a plausible scientific explanation, then perhaps Hawking’s bid to increase his book sales is problematic.But it seems to me that the answer “it can and inevitably does create itself” is unsatisfactory.  From what?  Where did those things come from?

By answering the question of where did everything come from with what seems to be “it has always been something”, we are essentially opening ourselves up to a broader question: yes, the universe as we know it may be the inevitable result from a decision taken somewhere in a parallel universe probably at a quantum level and therefore may have been spontaneously created but how did it all get going in the first place?
After all our observations are that there are patterns of apparently infinite complexity (such as never-ending fractals) but is it reasonable to conclude that they have just “always been” or “just are”?
We’re trying to answer the idea that “something came from nothing” (ex nihilo creation) by saying that what we have always thought of as the beginning point isn’t.  So where did what spontaneously created itself come from?
God is of course the Occam’s Razor explanation for all of this…
But now I’m in danger of straying into the territory that the Church Mouse wisely recommended steering clear of…

So where do we go from here?As I’ve said in previous posts where we go from here comes back to the person of Jesus – if he was who he said he was, and did what we think he did, then all of this discussion is so much ephemera, an interesting diversion on God’s tools when we should be living better, supporting the poor and needy and building our relationship with God through prayer, praise and celebration.
The bible does not use scientific language or mathematics to describe how God made everything, and does not take a view on cosmology, life on other planets (all God’s children too?) etc. etc.
We shouldn’t expected it to- it is after all primarily the story and user’s manual for God’s relationship with his chosen people that turns out to be all of us – and Jesus seems to have had more personal, pressing priorities to communicate concerning something that Richard Dawkins does not actually believe exists: our souls.

A final thought: in other scientific spheres, the ideas of science fiction have so captured the imagination that we have Star Trek communicators in our pockets, and I look forward to the pain-free instant surgical laser of Star Trek: The Next Generation or any of the time travel or teleportation devices we see (but note the warnings on these technologies that sci fi also holds…).
Ideas of good science fiction always inspire, helping us to find the room to adapt for usefulness and become science-fact.
But I’m afraid most of us will have no idea what Professor Hawking’s maths equations that show the possibility of the multiverse that leaves no space for God actually mean and whether he’s right, and I’m struggling to see how they can be adapted for the good of everything except for further development of scientific atheism’s faith position.  But perhaps that’s not the point.
But then, to paraphrase the Times editorial, if we were to know “how God did it”, Stephen Hawking is one of the very few people on earth that would understand how it was done.

Good night, and God bless

Burka bans, Brussels and bended knees

…the niqab is a feminist dilemma… and a European one…

Eurogoblin today reported that the three Presidents of the EU – Council President Van Rompuy, Commission President Barroso and Parliament President Buzek met with religious leaders from across Europe to discuss poverty and social inclusion.

Image of leaders family photo from Flickr under Creative Commons licence

What’s faith got to do with poverty and social exclusion?
While it is possible to argue that it should be the duty of all to mitigate against poverty and social exclusion, we have a choice.
Either, we say that the state should provide and by means of “fairer” or “progressive” taxation that can be spent for the good of all.
Or we say that the Big Society will provide, because as responsible citizens we should rail against and commit ourselves to the fight against poverty and social exclusion.
In most Member States the reality is somewhere between the two – the state takes some tax from us in the name of that purpose, but as it is not hypothecated we’ve no idea what percentage actually goes on these projects locally, regionally, nationally.  All we do know is that a huge number of people are homeless or do not feel themselves to be part of the wider community.
And the reality is that it is often faith groups that step into the breech.

Let me give you a small and very parochial example.
I’ve spent today at the Rare Breeds Centre – a kind of farm zoo and current home of the Tamworth Two.
This was the Ashford Baptist Church toddler group outing.  Some anonymous donations via the church and lift-sharing arranged by the ladies from the church who run the toddler group made it possible for a big group of us to go out for the day, with our packed lunches and have fun playing at the farm without having to pay for anything.
Now this may not sound like much, but the majority of people there don’t have holidays, don’t go for days out because incomes are low and costs when several children are involved just aren’t compatible.

In fact, most of the toddler groups in Ashford town centre are run by faith groups – not religious, in that we don’t require membership of a church to attend and we don’t “spout religion” at people who come.
But we do use the church hall, the organisers tend to be from one church or another and the children’s holiday club which is based around bible stories is advertised.  There’s no obligation to attend that either.  I don’t actually attend the church that runs this toddler group but I do approve of its open, inclusive approach and that it genuinely welcomes everyone, of all faiths and none.
There is a non-religious Sure Start centre, and a toddler group was started that declared that it was “an alternative to all the church-based play groups” but I can no longer find any details about it online.  The situation is a little different for play schools for pre-schoolers, not least because 12-15 hours worth of state funding is available.

That’s not to mention the soup kitchens, the event organisation, the small but helpful charitable efforts  that almost go unnoticed generally but help to keep heads above water.
So in these ways, we try to help with the physical needs of those around us.  Jesus commands us to this  – give him that asks of us our coats our shirts also.  There’s no sin in being poor – although the comments about workhouses etc. on the government’s spending cuts website suggests that some people today feel there should be.
Jesus also spends a lot of the sermon on the mount talking about the poor being blessed, the meek inheriting the Earth, everybody selling their possessions, and rich men having less than a camel-through-a-needle’s chance of entering Heaven…  Oh and for more on “the poor will always be with you”, see this link.

But surely it’s not just Christians that do this?
Of course not.  It is just noticably Christian-dominated around here – one of the things we noticed on moving here was the huge number of churches.  I’m sure in other areas of the country there are thriving synagogue toddler groups, muslim women’s get-togethers and more.

I know that charitable works are a requirement of some faiths, and that performing them is not only good for the individual but also good for the community.

But please don’t think that Christians do these things in some kind of effort to earn their place in heaven.  If you read the Bible, we don’t have seven things we have to do to (nor do we have to follow the rules of the old covenant in Leviticus), that just not the Christian position.
While some parts of the church have attempted to create structures and rules to make it easier to understand actually reading the New Testament shows how hard Jesus and the early Christians worked to say – no, that’s not ever going to be enough, God forgives you, accept it and that’s it.
And so when it comes to charity, we do these things because God himself has paid the price for the sins we have commited and we want to praise him and make his world a bit better.  going to church reminds us of this, because just like everyone else we find it hard to find time and hard to feel motivated all the time.

But you don’t have to be a person of faith to do this?
Of course not.  Humanism is after all placing the human at the centre where others place God.  But it is humankind and not the self that needs to be the centre.
And if it is hard to feel motivated without external help as a person of faith, imagine the sheer bloody self-motivation required to do it without and keep it on track and not self-serving.  It would take a stronger person than me to do that.

Is there a place for faith in the EU?
But I digress.
Does religion have a place in the EU?  Indubitably.

Look at the fuss about the Constitutional Treaty and whether there should be a reference to religion within it.

One religion?  It is indisputable that the present Europe was shaped by the Christian faith, Catholic and Protestant, and also by the enlightenment and the freedom to question (itself part of the true nature of protestantism) from which modern atheism takes its roots.

But even as a practicing Christian I’m still not sure that the Constitutional Treaty should have had a reference to this (and at the end, the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t).

I don’t think that we can always claim that all decisions taken in a state can truly reflect the ethos on which the state evolved.  To claim that we do everything in the EU on the basis of our faith/ faiths is to deny the nature of compromise by which decision-making to cover many conflicting and competing interests take place.  While it’d be great to think that all the politicians and policymakers were doing as Mark Greene suggests and remembering in their work that they are a “might policymaker for God”, I’m pretty clear that the UK expenses scandal shows that it is all too easy to forget how to do the right thing.

But the future of Europe looks multifaith rather than secular.
For all that we might try to draft rules of public engagement that exclude religion, that we might ban people in public office from actually mentioning the thing that shapes, inspires and drives them, most people across the EU have some sort of belief.
This may be in something ranging from “spirituality” and the supernatural, through humanism to the deification of science or money, to agnosticism, deism, right through to following an established faith.
Human beings bend at the knee.  This is not a design flaw.
How on earth can we expect decent policymaking if asking people to deny their fundamental belief systems?

And that brings me to the burka question…

Should women in the EU wear the niqab or the burka?

This is a European question in the sense that it is currently being asked all over Europe.

As Eurogoblin pointed out, the recent burqa ban overwhelmingly passed by the French parliament last week (335 votes to 1).
The Belgian lower house voted on a ban in April 2010 (note the handy BBC guide to different veils.
The Dutch were debating this as far back as 2006.
The Spanish parliament is also likely to start debating their own burqa ban this week.

And the UK? Immigration Minister Damian Green has said that any ban on religious clothing would be awfully “un-British”.  And he’s right.
Freedom of the individual is a very British concept and the idea that a woman might be fined as in the Netherlands for wearing something expressing their religion is distasteful.
I’m not sure I’d want to live in a UK that imposed on me whether or not I could wear a sign of my faith outwardly, and if this is a move away from the mealy mouthed illiberalism that clamped down on it through uniform policy, sudden changes to health and safety policy and statements from the NSS.
Besides, have you been to the West End in London?  This particular Nation of Shopkeepers could find itself hit in the profits if rich middle eatern visitors could not dress as the wish to shop.

So there’s no common approach.

Is the burka ban a European issue?  It seems Vivianne Reding thinks not – I hear that when asked about it, she said that this was an issue for national governments and not something that she would touch with a bargepole.

But as the Commissioner for women and equality (and fundamental rights, and justice), Commissioner Reding also needs to think about the burka as a feminist issue.
And that’s a dilemma.
On the one hand, equal rights means the right not to be subjected to men’s control, nor objectified.  Women should be able to work – or not to work – as much as they like, and so should men.  They should be able to dress as they want to dress…
Because what if a woman want to celebrate her faith and her devotion to her God by wearing a headscarf, a veil, a chador, burka, hijab, niqab etc. ?
What if she’s not being oppressed into it by bullying male members of her family or her husband but has chosen freely and in full knowledge of the implications of what she is doing both religious and worldly to separate herself from the world?
Surely fighting for a woman’s right to self-determinism extends to her right to cover up if she wishes too?

So these are hugely tricky issues.  But we don’t live in the lyrics of “Imagine”, we live in the real world in all its messy, diverse glory.
God inspired, uplifts and makes us more than we can be by ourselves.  Europe needs that to flourish, no matter what flavour that inspiration is.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Her Excellency, at last

Women bishops.  What exactly is the problem?

The arguments against seem essentially to be:

– Jesus didn’t have female disciples amongst the twelve.

Given he was so counter-cultural, if it mattered to him surely he would have done.

– Women were clearly excluded by Paul in his letters to the early church.

1 Corinthinans 14, 34-35 is the best known passage covering this.

– Tradition matters, women have never held these positions and why should we bow to modernity when we resist other secularist, relativist approaches.
After all, of the church had bent to every cultural change there would be church weddings for divorced people, gay marriage…

– Man has dominion over woman, and not the other way around.
This is clear from Adam and Eve, was the cultural norm of Old Testament society and is explicitly set out in Paul’s letters.

If you want to read some more about the arguments against, then Bibleprobe is probably the site for you.  If you are of a liberal disposition, you might want to bolt your computer to a table so you don’t accidentally throw it across the room.

What are the arguments in favour of women clergy?

Well, let’s start by attempting some redress of the antis argument. The Catholic website sets out seven good reasons, but let’s focus in on a few…

– there were indeed no female disciples in the twelve – but Jesus was counter-cultural in his treatment of women.

(see this excellent article at and this one at the Sophia Network which sets out these arguments far more clearly than I could have done alone).
Jewish men did not speak to women in public as Jesus did (Samaritan woman by the well in John 4).  Jesus comforted the widow of Nain and had compassion on a prostitute.
Women did not take part in public prayer and were segregated within the Temple. But Jesus preached to women and men alike.
And look at the roles of women in Jesus’s life.
Without the artificial conflation of Mary Magdalene with a prostitute mentioned in preceding verses, and without the ridiculous over-interpretation of a “kiss on the mouth” in the gnostic gospel of Philip, we can see the importance and privilege of her role – and she was one of the first to see the resurrected Jesus.
Martha and Mary hosted Jesus equally to their brother Lazarus and studied at his feet.
Joanna and Susanna seem to have funded Jesus’s mission (Luke 8), and Phoebe and Priscilla were early church leaders, and the Freemind article lists further examples of both Biblical and early church history examples of women in senior ministry.
By the way, while none of the named twelve were women, it would have been odd indeed if women had not been present at the Last Supper – it was an all- family meal of religious significance!  Just because the medieval artists excluded them doesn’t mean that they weren’t there…

– Paul was writing to specific churches in specific circumstances
Leaving aside the idea that Paul is such an advocate of celibacy and the inferior status of women because he was himself divorced, what circumstances at the time would mean Paul would take a particularly strong line?
At Ephesus, the cult of Artemis, where women were understood to be superior to men, was the starting place for many of the new Christians.  Another possibility would be the bizarre Gnostic heresies at that time that the women were spreading false doctrines about.
In Corinth, the influence of the Oracle at Delphi was a problem – over-enthusiasm about speaking in tongues amongst the women in the congregation seemed to be linking them too closely with the way the women supported the high priest there.
So relegating women to a quiet, submissive role, allowing men trained in Christian theology to set the direction and not to make a “local version” incorporating rites from other religion.

– Tradition does not exist completely unchanged – why uphold some elements and abandon others?
There is evidence that women were church leaders in early Christian history.  The banning of women from leadership roles in the fifth century shows that they were leading prior to that – so why should we uphold a decision made by Fifth century men over previous decisions?
We also need to question why the word meaning “Deacon” was translated identically for Phoebe and male church leaders in some parts of the Bible, then translated as “servant” in other parts, and that it is the latter that is used to justify saying that she had a different status.

Women are now more educated, more likely to have jobs outside the home, can vote equally to men and are no longer the property of their fathers and passed to be their husband’s property on marriage.  They can own property and income in their own right and – like Joanna and Susanna – can dispose of that income as they wish.
Presumably there were many opponents, male and female, of each of those changes.
But no one outside the Taliban would now argue that as men have always been educated only men should be educated outside the home.

Is Christianity just misogynist?
Arguments about this sort of thing give succour to the theme that actually Christianity is just misogynist.

Radical 1970s feminists tried to reestablish the scared feminine (as indeed does Dan Brown) on the grounds that Christianity has been pursued over the centuries in such a way as to subjugate women.

God (the father) creates Adam (a man) and from Adam’s rib creates Eve (a woman), the only time in the history of humanity that woman has been born of man.(it does – who God chooses to speak for him is very important and we surely should not be narrowing our view of who is “acceptable” when the story of Christianity is that God doesn’t go for the big and obvious…)

Eve not only gives into temptation from the serpent, she also persuades Adam to do so too, and so he is punished for listening to her.

With women set up as the fall guy from the beginning, is it any wonder that church tradition – whether Judaism or Christianity- excluded women from official leadership roles?

If you read the comments added to newspaper websites on this story today, you’ll see a whole load of neoatheist sniping, saying who cares (fine) or that women must be allowed to “propagate lies” equally with men (not fine).

This suggests that this doesn’t matter, but it does.
The real argument to have is the battle against the world that believes what we believe to be at best lunacy and at worst dangerous lies.
The lesson of Christianity’s history is that who God chooses to speak for him is very important and we surely should not be narrowing our view of who is “acceptable” when it is clear that God doesn’t go for the big and obvious…

Churchquest 2010…

Well, we’ve been here long enough and done enough unpacking that we can’t avoid it any longer…  we need to find a church.
There’s probably a lot of people that think – why bother?  Surely if you’ve done without one this long you’ve found there are plenty of other things you can do on a Sunday morning?
The truth is that both my husband and I are better people when we are going to church regularly.
We’re nicer to each other, which makes for a happier house, and we think more about other people in the comunity and beyond.
So we’ve started to try to find a church that we’ll like as much as St Mark’s Battersea.

The problem is that St Mark’s is a really amazing church.
It’s big, for a start.  It’s an urban church to which people are willing to travel.
It works in the community (running a kind of half-way house for young offenders, running Alpha at Wandsworth prison…) and people that are helped by the church often join the congregation.  The morning service that we used to go to was so popular that they actually had to split it in two, and even then there are enough children attending that the groups could be split by school year. The music – incorporating both band and organ – was  uplifting, and while primarily Graham Kendrick/ New Wine/ GreenBelt worship type songs, has more traditional hymns mixed in too.  The sermons were based on the reading of the day, really explaining the gospel helping you to go away are really read the bible for all its worth.

Ashford, for the size of its population has a phenomenal number of churches (something at work here, perhaps?), so there’s plenty of options to try.

There are a few things which influence the church we’re going to go to:
1)  we need the church to be a member of the Churches Together in Ashford partnership (this is important for primary school places);
2) we want it to be within about 15 minutes of home (means we get integrated into the local community, actions undertaken by the church for the community should be taking place where we can actually see the results, increases our chances of making friends in the local area, also means my husband can stay in bed later on a Sunday morning);
3) we’re looking for a service as similar to St Mark’s (and indeed my previous churches The Bible Talks at Christchurch Mayfair and Holy Trinity Brussels): liberal evangelical, encouraging thought, questioning, Bible-based preaching, catchy music…
4) we’re looking for a welcoming, friendly, mixed age service, with good children’s groups;
5) I’m looking for a homegroup that is on a day I can attend and where my son is also welcome… or where I have the possibility of setting one up that runs like that…

Two further thoughts.
Firstly , we heard this morning (more of which in a seperate post) that churches preaching to unbelievers need really good sermons, and churches preaching to believers need really good prayers.  My problem is that I still need both, not because I’m an unbeliever, but because I still pray for help with my unbelief…
Secondly, CS Lewis in the Screwtape letters and in setting out the fundamentals of Mere Christianity really goes to town on the idea that you should go to the nearest church of whatever domination and congregation, and not seek a church full of people like you.
Well, possibly. But it’s easier to get my husband to come to church at all when he feels like he belongs.

So off we go on Churchquest 2010.  I’ll keep you posted…

Epigenetics and the Guardian, or what happens when science becomes religion?

There was a fascinating piece in the Guardian today by Oliver Burkeman entitled “Why everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong“.  Essentially a review of the ideas in a book by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini “What Darwin got wrong” and another “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told about Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong” by David Shenk (although the immediate riposte by Adam Rutherford said Burkeman had not been tough enough in critiquing the books), the article asked what if – 150 years after the theory of evolution was published – what we think we know about it actually inaccurate?

Burkeman stresses that while what’s being talked about in terms of epigenetics is not new, and is not a filip to creationists, but that it is likely to drive evolutionary biologists mad.   And when you read the comments below his article on the Guardian online, how right he was.  What vitriol!  What scathing nastiness – at one point a G2 subeditor intervened to point out that the article had in fact been read by two scientists with phDs prior to publication – and even this was attacked.

Rutherford attacks him for the Darwin Was Wrong type headline. 
But Burkeman’s article basically says that – Darwin knew he was starting the process of understanding the world in a new way, not delivering a complete package that would remain untouched.
Reading the article, it seems to me that the point Burkeman is making is not primarily that Darwin Was Wrong, but that a simplistic understanding of popular science means that the general public’s understanding of genetics affects means that something like learning more about epigenetics means that thinking about its implications feels revolutionary (probably doesn’t if you are a geneticist scientist, but most of us are not).  In that way, he is not, as Rutherford suggests, saying that evolutionary biological science cannot already encompass the idea that modifications to the structure of DNA changes its behaviour. He is saying that the public understanding of evolutionary biology is unlikely to be able to cope with such an idea in its simplistic understanding of genetics.

Burkeman’s carefully balanced article is quick to point out that it only the simplistic understanding that is overthrown.  He points out that we are taught to believe that genes are permanent and unalterable other than by random mutation. 
We’re further taught that natural selection is from a random selection of these potentially randomly mutated genes and cannot be affected by environmental factors.  And we’re told that it is simply not the case that certain genes are more likely to be naturally selected to give the next generation a survival advantage, but actually that those genes that are passed on to offspring may or may not confer advantage to an individual offspring, randomly, and that offspring is more likely to have a “better” set of genes for the environment in which the offspring later finds itself and from which their offspring in turn will be produced (the less well adapted for the environment offspring die out).  

He uses incredibly derisory language about pro-creationist author Ann Coulter but noted that her comment that treating survival as the only measure of fitness in “survival of the fittest” was effectively a tenet of faith in the American scientific community “perhaps uniquely among all arguments ever made by Coulter, feels persuasive” (you’d think he’d endoresed her as a champion of evolutionary biology if you only read the comments…)
He admits that it’s possible that Fodor’s thesis (essentially that not every trait a creature possesses is necessarily adaptive, that pop-Darwinists separate traits into those that are selected randomly and those that are selected for their usefulness, but that this can’t be the case because selecting for implies some sort of consciousness in the process) might be nonsense, and even points out that natural selection  is

 probably not a bankrupt concept, as Fodor claims. But nor should laypeople assume that it’s self-evidently simple and exhaustively true.

And basically, I’m with Burkeman in not being sure that everyone understands that it’s not about “selecting for” i.e. that there is something wrong with the idea that “science proves that polar bears that have white fur because they live in a place where passing on the white fur gene is advantageous”. (NB that’s white meaning colourless, in the sense that the horrible “grey” hairs I have are not really grey but colourless and only appear grey against the lovely brown ones that remain, really weird that the commetns board went wild on that one…)
But even if I underestimate the great British public’s depth of understanding of genetics, it seems that, guess what?  It may all be a bit more complicated than that. 

How do those that believe we simply pass on our genes and that the circumstances are pitiless, blind and indifferent explain the bred-for-generations scatterbrained mice put in a stimulating environment and producing later generations of offspring with superior memory skills even though the offspring are not kept in the stimulating environment?  Surely that shows that how the grandparent mice were nurtured affects the nature of the later generations (or were those grandparent and parent mice demonstrating nurturing behaviour learned from their environment in raising the younger generations? Some how I can’t think that the experiment included giving the chance to the mice to practice their parenting skills and to encourage the baby mice to do braintraining exercises…) 

Take the issue of viruses.  Viruses seem to play a role in affecting organisms at a genetic level too, not just genes.  We may all be a bit more interconnected with other species and other organisms than we perhaps thought. 
Rutherford says that knowing this enhances evolutionary theory, rather than contradicting it.  It probably does, if you have a deep enough understanding of it. 
But this in itself raises a question about whether we are simply the product of our genes which are unconsciously fulfilling their purpose (selfishly, to be replicated) and morality is therefore something that we invent for ourselves and therefore timebound and relative.  If viruses affect our genes and their likelihood of being passed on, then restricting the likelihood of viruses that could impact negatively on future generations might be important.   
And more widely, if environmental factors affecting the genes that our offspring inherit could include the learning that we undertake as well as our diet, our stress levels and more, then the political and social case for combatting poverty, educating to the very highest standard possible and a whole range of policies need real reconsideration. 
Nurture could be affecting nature.
Or is this a case of a little knowledge being dangerously over interpreted?

So it’s the common misuse of the genetic evolutionary story to make pronouncements on moral behaviours (ach, well, men are more prone to sleeping around because you can’t overturn milennia of evolution) and, similarly, the apparent eagerness of some of the high priests of the Darwinian scientific atheistic faith group to treat each of these pronouncements as another nail in the coffin of any theist worldview that  Burkeman was criticising.

But Rutherford’s response is worth considering a bit more too. 
He seems basically to be saying that by even daring to talk about Fodor’s book as containing interesting ideas that – to the general public with a superficial understanding of genes and evolution rather than deeply knowledgable evolutionary biologists – might seem “mindblowing”, that Burkeman is boosting the case of creationists.
Utter rubbish.
I’ve heard that sort of argument before. 
Usually from fundamentalist creationists themselves, to whom the sort of stripped back New Testament matters more than Leviticus, no death penalty, gay life partnerships are a good thing Christianity that Protestants in Europe increasingly tend to believe in is anathema.
Or from believers or clergy that say that that women priests are against women’s nature and that Jesus would not have wanted them.
It’s basically saying that unless discussions on issues that you may be feel are already settled are headlined “Why the people raising about this are credulous fools and don’t understand why we’ve proved that our view is right” then they are implicitly condoning the subject of the discussion. You’re either completely with us, or you’re against us.

Well, ok. Actually a little bit of me has some sympathy. 
If you accept that for some people evolutionary biology is in fact a belief system, and that belief systems are both simple on the surface and quite complex, and that they matter to believers because they are true and the basis on which you build your life, then you can begin to understand the somewhat agressive approach that believers can sometimes take when someone misunderstands the more difficult concepts.  

As a Christian, it worries me that people profess Christianity, but don’t actually seem to understand it.  
If my faith is just about a sky god, and that if you live a good life you’ll go and live with him forever and see everyone that’s died before you again, then a huge number of people are Christian.  
But that’s a simplified version that makes no attempt to understand Jesus’s death and ressurection and why it happened, and what it means for us in terms of how we get to spend eternity with God and what being good actually means. People don’t often really know about the age of the gospels, the reality of crucifixtion on a human body,  the fulfillment of the Jewish law… and without all that stuff, you either have a weak or a bad God not worth worshipping.
It worries me, because it’s important that people know so that they have the chance to accept Jesus’s gift to us, but it doesn’t anger me as it often does really dogmatic Christians (and yes there’s a fair few out there). 

I think it is important to discuss, to debate, exegesis or midrash has long been part of the religious tradition of the Abrahamic faiths (I may have mentioned this before…).  It means engaging with believers to sort out what you believe, discussing new ways of looking at it, new ideas and evidence.
But these days it probably also means engaging with non-believers, people of other faiths, some of whom you may find common cause with on some points but accepting that on some you probably won’t. But usually you can try to end up in a place where you can have a discussion and not just hurl insults at each other – call it interfaith dialogue if you must.
Science also has a way of doing this – when a new discovery is made that challenges the old, it is examined (in journals, in the press, in debate, in books) and eventually, if robust enough the old goes, or is adapted to accept the new and so the new becomes the norm.  In that old John Maynard Keynes quote that I love you can sum it up as:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

But Rutherford concludes:

Unfortunately though, to the knowledgeable, it is a disappointing combination of at best misleading distortion, and at worst plain wrongheadedness. Now we have to clean up the mess.

Believe me, people of other faiths know this too. It’s how most Christians feel about the God Delusion which presented not only a distortion of our beliefs but old discussions as if they were new and knock down arguments.

But then we also know that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship with God.
And evolutionary biological atheism is in the eyes of its believers not a religion either, it’s science. 
But it’s funny how the language is so similar, don’t you think?

Lent – not just a past participle…

image from

Embarrassing incident at work today. 

As I walked through reception I saw a colleague I barely know with a dirty mark on her forehead.  I thought about telling her, but decided as she was about to get into a mirrored lift that she’d see it herself in good time. 

But when I got back upstairs, I saw another colleague with a mark and said “ok, I’ve missed something, what’s the mark about?”

“It’s Ash Wednesday”, said my colleague.
Of course it is. What a fool I felt.

I made pancakes last night for Shrove Tuesday (embarrassingly good since they were made from a Betty Crocker instant batter shaker, and it made me wonder why I’d bothered making them by hand so many years). 
I won my only real school prize for Scripture, writing an essay on the origins and meaning of pancake day (see this post for more detail).  As they said on the TV news yesterday, we’re all so used to thinking about pancakes and live in such a relatively prosperous and increasingly secular society that we’re forgetting that they symbolise something.

But the ash marks reminded me that not everyone’s forgetting. 
My colleague mentioned the services that were taking place at Westminster Cathedral and asked me if I too was Roman Catholic, to which I replied no, C of E, and that I’ve not seen that for years (the universal tradition is to burn last year’s palm crosses from Palm Sunday to make the ash, which in itself is a symbolic act).
She suggested looking up the Westminster Abbey website to see if my denomination was doing it too, which was kind of her.  One thing about working on equalities issues is that – far from the way that we see equalities described as being about the sweeping away and secularisation of society – it’s about celebrating and recognising our diversity and that that’s what makes life interesting.

But it reminds me of a conversation with a friend last week.  We talked about giving things up for Lent and how hard it was this year (I’m trying to give up fruitless worrying about the future, she’s giving up alcohol).  Both are small, commemorative acts of personal use rather than big dramatic acts clearly visible to all.

She mentioned that her parents were unlikely to consider what she’d given up “enough”, but she hoped that it would be understood and would not be held against her getting a pass to heaven.
I’ve pondered this last point, because its on this precise issue that we pass for the cultural to the spiritual and a small but significant difference of view.
It’s easy to forget what is cultural (rememberance of the 40 days in the wilderness) with what is spiritually necessary (that is acceptance of Jesus’s gift to us, God’s forgiveness, that the price of our sin has been paid and God’s law fulfilled). It’s not about trying to fulfil a standard – Jesus’s whole message was effectively that this is pointless as no one on their own merit will ever be good enough to meet God’s perfection.
We’ve seen this reflected in so much of religion, both within Christianity and in other faiths, the hope that by setting rules that must be obeyed you’ll be more what God is looking for, or trying to buy your way in to God’s good books through good behaviour. And of course we know that rules that set out to help can become a hindrance by being too hard to meet or becoming the aim themselves rather than the glory of God. 
Christians know from Jesus that nothing they do will be good enough, that it’s faith in Jesus (known as justification by faith) but even then the issue is complicated, with James 2:24 in the New Testament the point being made is that what you believe modifies your actions. As wikipedia sets out unusually clearly, true faith in God results in a desire to follow his instruction to love one another, and thus would result in good deeds.  But that’s difficult to get your head round – resulting in many heretical positions down the centuries.

Lent reminds us of a hardship endured, and ultimately a sacrifice made for us. It reminds us to lend part of our thoughts to this, for this short period (the classic 40 days to Easter).
But Lent is not just the past participle of “to lend”, it’s a real thing affecting the way in which millions of people in the UK live their lives (and with larger population for C&E Europe, possibly a growing number).  We may not have the parading in sackcloth and ashes of the mediaeval world but the connotations of fasting and repentance (conveyed by lack of decoration in church) and regarding the world a little more contemplatively do echo on.  Typically we’ve hung onto the fun of the pancaking feasting which the population forgets the follow-up fasting.

But the echoes are now rebounding more loudly.  Combined with increasing willingness to show religious faith publicly, whether wearing headscarf , turban, skullcap or cross, even if there are consequences because to those doing it it’s a mark of what is important in their lives. The ash marks are both traditional and the latest manifestation of this. Yes they are symbols, the symbol of the thing rather than the thing itself, but symbols matter.

Let’s think about it, while we digest.