Living With Science, Loving with Faith

A homily I wrote for chapel at St Peter’s School, York as part of a recent Science & Religion workshop day (P.S. Science and Religion with the kidz is now my full time job – visit our project website for more details) 

Reading: Genesis 2:8-20

Living with Science, Loving with Faith

There has probably never been a time in history where there were more worldviews and beliefs available to you in the marketplace of ideas. And there has never been a time in history when our scientific ambitions and achievements have been as world-changing as they are today. And in the noise of all this ambition, invention, discussion, and debate we have to ask ourselves: how do we choose what direction we should go in next? What science should we do, and why? And who should make those decisions?

You see, science does not exist in a vacuum – it is not just a collection of observable facts about the universe. Science is an activity done by humans, for humans – and so what those humans believe is important, or beautiful, or true, will impact the science they choose to do – and the way they do it.

You may have heard that scientists somehow leave their beliefs at the door when they enter the lab. I disagree. When we look at the shape our scientific research takes, the things we prioritise, the issues we don’t – we get a very clear picture of what we put our faith in as individuals, and as a society.

When wondering what drives our science, we can follow the money: what is being funded? By whom? And for what? What would you invest in if you had money to spend on science research? How would you decide what was important? Behind your choices would be a set of values, or beliefs about the world, that shaped your decision, whether you were aware of it or not. Perhaps that’s a value like ‘it’s good to help people’, or ‘we should look after the planet’, or ‘knowing more stuff about the universe is exciting and important’. But what are those values rooted in? How do you know they are true? Can you prove that it’s good to help people, or that saving whales matters, or that the universe is exciting? And if you can’t, why do you believe those things?

In our reading today, we are reminded of two things: the rich diversity of the world, and also the importance of human engagement with it. In Genesis Adam stands before God and is told to both look after and get to know the world around him. He is told to care for the earth and give names to the animals whose home he shares – today we would understand these as scientific activities: conservation and zoology.

And how far have we got with these ancient activities? One of the great ironies of living in this scientific age is that all our exploration has made it clearer than ever that we know very little about the universe, or even about the creatures that live on this planet. We cannot travel to the bottom of the ocean, and we cannot understand the inner life of other animals. Our false sense of authority has led us to the point of destroying our environment and dooming the species we name to extinction. We have more power to benefit or damage creation than we’ve ever had before, and we have, it seems, failed to deliver.

I called this reflection ‘Living with Science, loving with Faith’ because I am totally convinced of two things: firstly, our scientific endeavours have fundamentally changed the world in which we live for the better, and perhaps in some ways for the worse. Whether you are interested in science as a school subject or not, your entire way of life is dependent on its work and discovery. This is valuable, and important. Secondly, it is increasingly apparent that gaining more knowledge about how the world works does not seem to help us to behave better. It is possible – and indeed normal – to be highly educated and also contribute to the world’s problems. So we need science, and we need faith – faith that our set of values are useful, and true, and will guide us towards pursuing what is good. It is through this act of faith in something more important than our own personal happiness that we learn to love the world around us.

It is my faith in a creator God that gives me the conviction that both the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of the greater good are worth the time and effort. Each one of us is challenged to ask ourselves: where do my values come from? Where are they leading me? What do I want the future to look like? And am I ready for the responsibility that comes with that vision?




Assisting the Dying

Last Friday, the United Kingdom witnessed another defeat of an ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill, this time in the House of Commons. The cries of dismay from the ‘pro’ corner were predictable – this was a cruel denial of the right to self-determination, another classic case of religious people imposing their beliefs on others, and a sentence of serious suffering on those at the end of life. In wanting to propose a response to these accusations, I find myself in a tricky position: while I shudder at the way the media has used the case studies of real, suffering people to provoke morbid fascination with this debate, I am also reluctant to detach the existential argument from its context, since our socio-ethical positions do not come from nothing. Our choices do not exist in a vacuum.

But still – my response will reference no case studies. For every story of someone falsely diagnosed but then went on to several more years of health, or who died peacefully, with their family able to cherish those final months, there is another story of horrific suffering and decay and abandonment in a filthy hospital bed. Instead, consider the following question: why is it that we have got to the point where it seems preferable (or at least more realistic) that the latter group should end their lives, rather than working to grace them with the experience of the former?

The expression ‘assisted dying’ is a helpful entry point. An ideology of self-determination – or, as a ‘pro’ friend of mine put it, a belief in ‘sovereignty of the self’ – is a rather ironic basis for supporting something which, even in name, implies dependence on another. There are some things we just cannot do alone – and for the most vulnerable amongst us, this can include ending our lives. But assisted dying is a warped version of the sacred relationship of neighbour love – the extension of help is an end to your life, rather than the improvement of it. Regardless of one’s belief or not in a God-ordained moral system, our choices do not exist in a vacuum. They not only impact others around us, but also reflect our understanding of relational responsibility. When it comes to cases of people seeking medical options which would end their life, this goes both ways. Not only do we have a responsibility to care for those enduring terrible sickness or disability, but we must also learn to see the goodness in being dependent on another when we have nothing to offer them. This is a Good not only for ourselves, in that it mirrors our relationship to God, but also a Good for the person on whom we depend. It is good for humans to be ‘burdened’ by another human’s needs. In fact, it is precisely the kind of burden we should seek.

And this leads us to a second warped ‘Good’ made manifest in Assisted Dying legislation: the sacred act of self-sacrifice. If the guiding societal principle at hand is that your death would be of greater benefit to the people you love than your continued existence, it is little wonder that a driving motivator behind end-of-life wishes is to ‘unburden’ family members and friends. And perhaps that should disturb us most of all; that the very act we are called to embody as disciples of Christ might be prescribed to the weak so as not to inconvenience the strong.

Perhaps I am expressing a religious value as the basis for my argument here, but it is no more ideologically driven than a belief in ‘sovereignty of the self’. The irreligious and religious alike hold ‘sacred’ values, and both should be heard in the law-making forum. However, these ideological positions must come into conversation with practical consequences – consequences which can, in turn, shape ideological positions, perhaps with alarming outcomes. For example: while I am ideologically opposed to abortion, I know that, practically, it is very dangerous to make it entirely illegal, and so wouldn’t support that kind of legislation. Those who are ‘pro’ assisted dying must think carefully about a similar tension. Perhaps self-determination appeals, and has its logical end in being allowed to choose when to end your own life. But what is the practical result? What is at risk?

The case of ‘assisted dying’ is a rare instance in which slippery slope arguments are helpful – even essential. We have the example of countries where it has been made legal, and watched the rapid shift in the relationship between doctors and patients. The impact it has had in European countries is particularly alarming. It is no wonder, then, that the overwhelming majority of British doctors (see the BMA) are against its legalization. Nor is it surprising that major disability and mental health campaigners have spoken out against it: as someone who suffers from depression and related mental health difficulties, I know what it is like to feel that things are hopeless, that your life isn’t ‘worth’ living, and that people close to you find you a nuisance or don’t care for you – and I am young and physically healthy. The belief that humans who have just found out that they might not have long to live, or seem incurably depressed, or who are watching their family struggle to arrange care for them in their old age are able to make a sound, personal judgment about whether or not to end their lives is a rather naïve position to take. The need for a doctor to establish a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish’ to die sounds far more straightforward than it is. Human choices are messy, and are at best only ‘informed’ by their own perception of the past and present, with little to no knowledge of the future, short-term or long.

Of course, I write with a sigh of relief – assisted dying is still illegal in the United Kingdom. But this doesn’t mean that this piece isn’t also accompanied by a warning. Self-examination is required. If we are determined not to allow the most vulnerable amongst us carry the burden of the strong, and if our position against assisted dying is born out of a desire to prosper life rather than just prolong it, we have work to do. We need to protect our National Health Service, ensuring that one’s wealth is not a barrier to quality pain management and care. We need to make it easier for people without disposable income to care for elderly relatives at home. We need to invest in whole person care, not just numbing pain with drugs and leaving people alone in hospital beds. We need better understanding of and treatment for those struggling with mental illness. And we need to examine ourselves, and our attitude towards those who don’t appear to have things to ‘offer’ society. How are we measuring their worth? How are we measuring ours?

Islamic Extremism and the Guardian’s Sin of Avoidance

I’m back at home after my summer working for Theos Think Tank, but managed to sneak in one last blog post before they could be rid of me. So here it is: my take on the Guardian’s recent coverage of radical Islam.

…and while you’re just hanging about here, why not read the piece I wrote after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, on some similar themes?

and one I wrote on killing ISIS?

I can’t think of any more shameless self-promotion that would fit here, so I’ll leave you with that for now.

The General Election and Throwing First Stones

A combination of an awkward time zone and an overnight flight from the 7th – 8th May meant that I basically missed the whole of election night. I arrived at Heathrow jetlagged, grumpy, and with only yesterday’s leftover tabloids screaming the exit poll results to go on. I steadfastly ignored them, sure they must be wrong. I was able to live in blissful ignorance for about another hour before I made contact with any kind of news provider. And then I was upset. Now, a week later, I’m a little bit over it – tired of it, even. I can’t even muster up the energy to start getting angry about policy specific problems. This is, sad to say, in large part due to my bleeding heart lefty friends, who have taken it upon themselves to be outraged for a week about the result. Fair enough – I voted for the Green party, which makes me about as bleeding heart lefty as they come on the British political spectrum, especially since I knew I was really only voting ‘on principle’ and not because it would make any tangible difference to seats in the House. However- it is one thing to be angry about losing the election, or feeling that your political view won’t get properly represented for the next 4 or so years because of FPTP politics, the area you live in, even the increasingly aggressive party whip system which means that it’s difficult to have any sense that if your party didn’t win in your area your voice might still be heard by petitioning your MP. It is one thing to dislike Tory policies.

It is quite another to be angry at Tory voters for exercising their democratic right (even responsibility) and voting as they wished to. Furthermore, it is simply inaccurate to claim that the Tories are the party of some wealthy 1% – clearly, more than 1% of the population voted for them. In fact, my own anecdotal evidence confirms that even some working class people voted for them. My dear lefty friends – we may feel that these people haven’t voted for the party that best represents their interests. But, unfortunately, we also have to deal with the reality that those voters think the Tory party does. Why has the left failed them so terribly? And do we really think vilifying them on social media is the best way to get them on board? (We could also all do with a reminder that being wealthy is not synonymous with a terrible, asocial money hoarder. But I’m sure soon I’ll be accused of not-all-rich-people apologetics).

There is, of course, the further problem that one’s party vote does not just come down to economic policy or an assertion of your preference of certain kinds of people. There may be lots of reasons why someone voted Tory (or even UKIP) that is not an expression of their hatred for the poor/foreigners/the working class/the NHS/etc/etc. Out of the eligible voters in my immediate family, there were 3 Green votes, 1 Conservative vote, 1 UKIP vote, 1 protest vote, and one vote abstention. Represented in this group of voters is the son of an immigrant, 2 NHS employees, a top tax-band earner, 2 future NHS employees, 3 recently-ex students, several quarter life crises, a barista at Starbucks, and an A-Level student. Their voting choices don’t fall where you think they do. Not at all. One of these people voted Green after a history of Conservative voting. Have they suddenly had a change of heart, and swung wildly across the political spectrum? No. They voted Green because their local Green representative was the only one to bother to respond when emailed with policy specific questions and concerns – and Norfolk South is hardly a busy, high profile political area. In short, the others standing in that constituency failed to do their job.

Which brings us to an interesting point. There is a clear, alarming level of dysfunction in UK politics when MPs (even those vying for a position) can’t be bothered to talk to their electorate. But the solution to this problem is not for the electorate to start bad-mouthing each other, or even to bad-mouth MPs in general. Does this dysfunction extend to us? It’s very easy to complain about the growth in food banks, the abandonment of the elderly, the scape-goating of immigrant communities and benefits recipients, the nightmare of tax-dodging big businesses, the destruction of the planet – and essentially not make any difference in our day to day lives which might reflect our concern for these issues. Do we have time to volunteer? We should do that. Do we have a little extra cash to spend supporting charities or local businesses? We should do that. Or – do we not have the cash or the time, and so could stand to cut back on impulse online buying from corporate monsters? We should do that.

Our politics is characterised by an environment of fear. People aren’t voting left because they don’t trust the left. Heaven knows why they think they can trust the right. But, rather than accusing them of existing in some kind of neo-liberal moral vacuum, perhaps an in-house clean up needs to take place. You know, that thing Jesus said. You who are without sin, send the first abusive tweet. Or something to that effect.

Obama, ISIS, and All That: How To Feel Better

A Roman Catholic Archbishop in Iraq has asked for military intervention. 

And there’s that little part of us that says “oh good, if they’re asking for it, then all that death is justified, isn’t it? Now we can put our white saviour anxiety to rest and do the drone thing.”

Doesn’t that internal response make you feel uneasy? I’ve felt uneasy about this for a while.

I suppose it began with the death of Osama Bin Laden. I saw the images of chanting Americans, gathered in rabid triumphalism around the White House, unified in shouting their own country’s name, thereby declaring it to be a name implying death. And I began to feel uneasy – deeply uneasy – at how the death of this man made these Americans feel. And I wondered whether they really understood that he was a man at all.

I suppose (like most of us, deep down) I am, when pushed, a functional utilitarian to a certain degree – if a few men (and women) wielding guns and torturing children must die in order to protect thousands, then I will probably support a decision to kill them.

But let’s call it what it is – we are not ‘eliminating a threat’ or ‘neutralising a movement’ – we are killing humans, who at some point in their lives had never heard of IS, had never held a gun, and had clung in fear to their parents or siblings after waking from a nightmare in their beds. And there was a first time they held a gun, felt a rush of adrenaline and fear and anger, and did what they had been taught to do. Like all humans do, at some point. No one is born a war lord.

Perhaps drone warfare makes it easier to forget that, but the process of forgetting starts long before the buttons are pushed. It starts on the television, in newspapers, where IS is an entity, an ideology, an evil structure – and we somehow conflate the men and women who exist within it with the ideology itself.

This is not unique to the West. Humans have been in the habit of conflating people and principles since forever. The idea which we find disagreeable quickly – almost instantly – translates into the personhood of the other being disagreeable to us. We can no longer find any common humanity – or, at least, we don’t want to. The idea repulses us, even, that we might share something with IS, and so we scramble to disassociate.

Then, when they die, we feel better.

But we shouldn’t be trying to feel better. An attack on IS rooted in making us feel better is a horrifying thought. There should be no glee, not even any relief, that a military response has become so necessary.

We need to stop trying to feel better, and start asking ourselves to feel better. If you feel anything but sorrow at the loss of human life, even if that human life has done terrible, unspeakable things, you have managed to stop seeing anything human in them at all. And there lies the path to doing terrible, unspeakable things in return. Has our compassion fatigue led to outright apathy at the destruction of human life?

I follow a Christ who was in the business of humanising, through the process of forgiveness. He condemned movements and ideologies, and then willingly met with individuals within those ideologies, as one human meeting another.

He was swiftly ‘neutralised’ by his opponents. They stood around him, shouting ‘CRUCIFY! CRUCIFY!’

Did they see a human before them, or an ideology?

U.S.A. U.S.A.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

And do I see humans wearing black masks?

Why I (finally actually) deleted my Amazon account.

I did it. It’s gone. And, to be honest, they seemed a lot less cut up about it than I was.

It all began with Barack Obama’s SOTU address. After watching Obama promise America a big gay wedding between Republicans and Democrats (a quiet service on Mars, with complimentary Cuban cigars for all the guests) and that he would finally put down Gitmo, that badly-trained-now-actually-rabid animal that Congress just can’t quite say goodbye to, I couldn’t quite bring myself to join in the clapping, and the pencil waving, and the congenial winking.

Admittedly, that’s partly because I’m a cynic, and I’m British, and I started watching it wanting to find it ridiculous, so I could tweet snide remarks.

But it’s also partly because I just kind of think that America deserves an angrier President. There’s an awful lot of things to be angry about, after all – and, while his speech was full of winning ideas, and bold, bright, futures, he seemed more proud of the fact he’d won two election campaigns than aware of the class/race related outrage America is experiencing. In the words of Cornel West: “My dear brother President, you need to get off the symbolic crack pipe”.

So I let myself get all riled up about government hypocrisy, and then I went to a conference on economic inequality held on Wall Street, of all places (Trinity Wall Street: Creating Common Good. It was great. Watch online) and I heard a lot of intelligent, reasoned speakers on lively, engaging panels – and I also heard a lot of liberal buzz words and finger pointing – and I decided that I would go home and buy ‘Nickle and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich immediately and educate myself on the problems of class in America. And then I was struck by the deep, unsettling irony that I would go home and buy it on

*Insert something Jesus said about planks and splinters here.*

Anyone who is my friend on Facebook or followed me on Twitter for more than about a week is well aware that I’m a high-functioning keyboard warrior who is angry about a lot of things and also actually *enjoys* being angry about a lot of things. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to be angry about those things without being an enormous hypocrite, because the very computer I’m typing this on is a product of so many of the things that make me angry.

But there are degrees of hypocrisy, and I’m committed to reduction by degrees.

Giving up Starbucks was easy – I don’t like coffee. Giving up buying many of my clothes from chain shops was also (somewhat) easy – I don’t like shopping, and I’m not interested in fashion. Even switching to fair-trade was pretty easy, because Dairy Milk is fair-trade in Britain, and fair-trade tea is so ubiquitous now that there really isn’t any excuse. But cheap books. Cheap. Books. There lieth my downfall. To be able to get a book I want within two days, without any human interaction, at an absurdly low price – oh, Amazon. We had a beautiful thing. We understood each other. It breaks my heart to leave.

If only you’d pay your taxes. And your workers.

Maybe I could have just stopped using my account, but I had to actually delete it – consider it the equivalent of deleting an ex’s number so you can’t drunk text them in a moment of weakness.

N.B: This isn’t a blogpost designed to make you feel bad about shopping at Amazon. I just know that I can’t get angry with big corporations to the degree that I do and still be actually giving them money. And I *do* enjoy my righteous anger. Consider this one step along my personal road of hypocrisy reduction by degrees.

Full disclosure: the reason this is a blogpost and not just a private lifestyle choice is to get you (if you’re in the UK) to consider signing this Tax Dodging Campaign from Christian Aid.

And also so I could make that joke about gay weddings on Mars.

But seriously. Sign that campaign.

Charlie Hebdo: The Art of Being Offended.

I wonder what it’s like waking up as a Muslim in Paris this morning. You’re one of a significant but clear minority in France (about 5-10% of the population) and yet your very presence (and the scarf you wear over your head) has become repeatedly symbolic of the tension between religion and state and the growing suspicion of immigration laws. And sometimes it feels like there just isn’t a clear line between suspicion of the laws and suspicion of the immigrants anymore. Your country just voted in large numbers of far-right representatives to the European Parliament, and now the crude, ugly pictures of the Prophet Muhammed printed by a local satirist newspaper (which you have routinely ignored) are everywhere, being waved as flags of freedom after a massacre carried out by radical Muslims – with whom you feel little to no identification. You just want to get your children to school without other little boys and girls calling them the children of terrorists. And you’re afraid.

Because here’s the thing: I’ll defend your right to say a thing, but that doesn’t mean what you have to say is any good. And no, I’m not misquoting the almost infamous comment from Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Because I just don’t think that’s true anymore. We must all be a Charlie – we all have to agree now – not just be horrified that Charlie came under gunfire – so the #jesuischarlie declares, as does the repeated pressure on newspapers to reprint the images. Of course, there will be plenty of other commenters who are saying similar things in a much more articulate, well-thought out way. But I saw that the Guardian Media Group has pledged a £100k donation to Charlie Hebdo to help ensure it’s not silenced, and Google has pledged $300k, and I couldn’t help but stick my oar in, if only to stop the words from going round and round my head. That’s a lot of money for a cartoon which, to be honest, I just don’t think is very clever, and which I also suspect is somewhat racist. Particularly if one bears in mind the fact that the Muslim population of France is one that is heavily put upon, and is regularly subject to mockery and stigma. Around 60% of the prison population of France is Muslim. I wonder what that kind of money would do if it were given to reconciliation organisations trying to bring together Muslim and non-Muslim communities in France.

Somehow, we need to develop the subtlety of thought to acknowledge that one man’s evil action doesn’t automatically trigger the moral high ground of another. In the words of Will Self: “Good satire should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Does Charlie Hebdo do this? To be frank, no. Muslim extremists (as, ISIS has, if nothing else, insisted we learn) are a threat to other Muslims just as much as to the West. These are people who love to hate. Any excuse will do, because they have successfully dehumanised those who are not like them. This is a crime for which all civilizations have been repeatedly guilty: the very ‘freedom’ which is being espoused as the rallying cry for Charlie Hebdo was the same word used to define our humanity by the ‘enlightened’ west – just as we were gearing up to enslave the rest of the world.

So, first of all, we need to measure the words of our response. The massacre that took place was utterly horrific, inexcusable, evil violence. But that doesn’t mean the cartoons themselves are worthy of praise. What are we applauding when we say that we are Charlie? A society that allows us to say whatever we like? Or a society that still has, running beneath its veneer of freedom and tolerance, a certain malice towards those who are not like us? After all, if we love to hate, any excuse will do. The death of cartoonists is as good as any for anti-Islamic (which seems to very quickly merge into anti-Arab) rhetoric.


Take a look at this Charlie Hebdo cartoon as an example: it depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare spongers (“Don’t touch our welfare allocations!”). Is that comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? No. No it is not. Nor, indeed, do I think that depictions of Muhammed as a porn star, for instance, say anything particularly worthwhile. We get it: Muslims don’t like depictions of their prophet, and sex is shocking. Very clever.

And now here’s my religious angle, and my experience of being offended. I don’t like crude, mocking depictions of Jesus Christ. I really don’t. They actually kind of hurt me, because I believe that, out of love, He died for a world which mocked Him until His last breath. It feels like a continued crucifixion. I don’t think non-religious people can really understand what that’s like. But I am also aware that there are different kinds of being offended. I could be offended because something someone is saying is being said for the sake of upsetting me, with very little other gain – or I could be offended because someone has said (or drawn) something which makes me uncomfortable, makes me question myself, and makes me consider a worldview or experience outside of my own. That is a good type of offense. I’m just not sure Charlie Hebdo is doing that. Of course they should be allowed to make as many cartoons as they like, and not be in danger of death, but, if their deaths make them martyrs of the West, what have we reduced the West to?

To present a positive example of being offended: I suggest you all go and look at the work of ‘’, a satirical cartoonist who not only (in my opinion) offers up much better drawings, but also lampoons religion in a way which is useful. And here’s a handy link for you:

So, a question to ask yourself as you flick past yet another Charlie Hebdo article: if you were to draw a cartoon satirizing Islam, what would you draw? Why? Would you show it to your Muslim friend? What would you be challenging, and would it make them think? Does the picture make you feel superior?