The Church of England and complementarity

The Church of England tries to dismiss Cameron’s latest drive for gay marriage:

However, the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation.

This argument simply doesn’t work. Because other things that embody the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women are korfball and mixed-voice choirs. Sure, you could play korfball with all-male or all-female teams, as indeed you could make up a choir with all-male or all-female voices. But it wouldn’t be the same, eh?

Incidentally, I can’t be the only person that was amused by the use of the adverb ‘explicitly’ to describe ‘the biological union of man and woman’ 😀


I remember, one time, the Dead Dad killed a duck.

We were on our way home from a night out, at the cinema or theatre. It had been a pleasant family evening out. A duck was in the road, and didn’t disperse as quickly as it needed to.

The Dead Dad stopped the car. We didn’t really know what was going on. But, looking out the side window, I saw a duck bleakly looking up as the Dead Dad alternately twisted its neck and punched it in the head.

I still don’t really understand why or how he did it.

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Jimmy Savile

At the time of writing, we don’t yet know whether the allegations that are being made against Jimmy Savile are true. I was always terrified of him as a child. Even as a ten year old, I didn’t like the way he had children draped over his chair while he grabbed their legs and puffed away at his cigar. I asked the Dead Dad about it. He said that he was just weird. Some people are just weird, and it’s best to avoid them.

There’s a school near where I live where the new chair of governors was… well, weird. He gave off a bad vibe. He asked whether he would be able to accompany the year 5 class to their week-long residential retreat. The headteacher said yes, and arrangements were made. Some of the teachers at the school were concerned as something simply didn’t feel right. But nobody said anything.

And then, with less than a week to go before the trip, his CRB check came in. He had failed. He resigned as chair of governors on the spot, and that was that.

I don’t think it’s healthy for us to rely upon government to tell us who are paedophiles and who aren’t. As parents, as teachers, as scout leaders, as Sunday School helpers, it’s up to us to use our intuition and not allow the children within our care to come to harm. Governments tend to be incompetent at the best of times. Why leave something so important up to them?

I’d like to think that, had my letter been accepted on Jim’ll Fix It, the Dead Dad would have insisted that we did something else that day instead.


It’s an age-old debate in which there can be no winners, only losers. Just how do you pronounce “Greenwich”?

There is debate about the first syllable. Is it “Grin” or is it “Gren”? And there is debate about the ending. Is it “-idge” or is it “-itch”? That gives you four possible pronunciations and adherents of each will tell you that theirs is the one true path. All others are too posh, too working class, only used by those originally from outside south-east London or are simply wrong. I was born in south-east London but might find it difficult to defend against a charge of poshness. However, my way is the right way. You’ll just have to guess which.

Today at church we had an honoured guest to give the sermon: The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean at St Paul’s Cathedral. His early work was in neighbouring Deptford, so he really ought to be an important source for determining the right pronunciation. Unfortunately, there was a much more extraordinary episode which blasted any recollection of how he might have pronounced “Greenwich” from my mind.

Our church is named for the 11th century saint, St Alfege. Which Dr Ison insisted on pronouncing “AL-pheege” putting him, I might suggest, in a class of one, with the rest of the world pronouncing his name “AL-fedge”. Regrettably, he used Alfege’s name throughout his sermon, and it was quite amusing to watch the vicar trying to decide whether to interrupt and correct him or whether to let him plough on. He went for the latter and simply rolled his eyes, winced a bit and then tried to look elsewhere. Members of the congregation exchanged glances and shrugged.

Word to the wise: if you’re going to give a sermon at somebody else’s church, it’s a good idea to double-check their preferred pronunciation of the saint to which that church is dedicated.

St Alfege is holding a restoration appeal to fix the eastern front of this fine Nicholas Hawksmoor church. Please give generously if you can.

Science and philosophy. A Hackney SITP review

Tonight I made it, somewhat late (sorry), to see Clio Bellenis present on “Is philosophy relevant to science?” at Hackney SITP. This is a subject that has huge resonance for me. For I was once a student of science who became increasingly disenchanted with the subject and who took up philosophy in order to provide some answers to the questions I felt science was unable to answer. And, having started studying physical science at university, I ended up with a degree in philosophy, to the great disappointment of my parents.

So it was with great anticipation that I turned up to the friendly Hackney SITP to see Dr Bellenis speak. Boy, was I disappointed. After (rightly) putting the boot in to Professor Brian Cox for his idiotic attack on philosophy, she gave a very muddled presentation that touched on philosophy of mind and the free will/determinism debate but which managed to avoid any discussion at all about philosophy of science. In the questions that followed, Dr Bellenis presented some astonishingly facile arguments against the existence of God [“He is logically impossible, unless He is a sadist. If God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, how can there be suffering in the world? He must be evil. Therefore God cannot exist” This argument manages to undervalue the concept of freedom. Every parent knows that it’s better for their child to be free to make mistakes than to be constrained], railed against grammar school tests and, most irritatingly of all, stated that she knew very little about philosophy of science.

Given that this was supposed to be the subject of her presentation, I felt this to be a very major failing. I do prefer it when speakers at this sort of event manage to answer the exam question they have set for themselves.

An alternative approach might have been to identify a few reasonable but controversial propositions that scientists might make and then test them using philosophy. For example:

  1. “Science is the only way to acquire knowledge”. This could have allowed discussion of alternative methods of knowledge-acquisition and whether they are, philosophically speaking, as valid as science. What gives science its higher position, if anything? The work of Paul Feyerabend would be a good reference here. Shouldn’t we be open to mad approaches to knowledge acquisition if they produce information that is useful? Even religious approaches?
  2. “The empirical method is infallible”. This could have allowed discussion of some of the challenges to empiricism. In particular, the work of Thomas Kuhn (which Dr Bellenis sadly misused horribly in the question and answer session: paradigm shifts are fundamental changes in the building blocks of science, not a change from one theory to another. [Incidentally, Kuhn is poison for most skeptics, who do seem to prefer the idea of a linear progression towards perfect knowledge. I do wonder why he’s so popular with them]), which suggests that science can be very bad at analysing evidence fairly, especially when it contradicts the major theories of the day. Conflicting theories often don’t get a fair assessment until there are so many holes in traditional science that it becomes untenable. Doesn’t this mean that scientists should be more receptive to radical, unconventional theories today?
  3. “Only those things that can be replicated using the scientific method shall be considered true”. This could have allowed discussion of logical positivism, which seems to curry favour with some more radical skeptics today, even though the theory has fallen into disrepute in modern philosophy. But what can replace it? What are the implications for science?

Now it’s been some 20 years since I studied philosophy of science, so I’m a bit rusty, I know. But, in my view, this would have provided a much more stimulating framework for discussion of the relationship between science and philosophy than Dr Bellenis’s rather incoherent presentation. Ultimately science doesn’t need philosophy, just as it doesn’t need history or politics. But it’s much, much stronger for taking account of it.

Many thanks to the lovely Alice Sheppard for arranging tonight’s presentation and for making Hackney SITP an essential part of the monthly calendar.

It’s a Church of two halves

The issue of women bishops continues to divide, irritate and enrage people, both Christians and non-Christians. The Church of England has, in its own inimitable style, decided not to decide until later in the year. Luckily, the Church of the Dead Dad is on hand with a solution:

The Church of England should create a brand new church that allows only women bishops. This church, which we might call the Church of Wengland, will allow men in all other clerical roles but they will be forbidden from being bishops in this new church. In all other aspects, the new church will be identical to the existing Church of England.

Of course, there will be quite a bit of administration necessary to create the new structure, as well as some tough choices over how to find suitable venues for worship and how the Church of Wengland might be funded in its early years. I’m not exactly proposing a schism, but it would be reasonable to expect there to be some transfer of existing worshippers from the current Church of England to the new church. Given that the Church of Wengland will expect its funding to be separate from the Church of England, this could create some divisions. However, I do not consider these insurmountable.

Having created the new church, all criticisms of the Church of England’s position on women bishops would be instantly illegitimate. It could be pointed out that women can be bishops, just in the Church of Wengland, not the Church of England.

OK, some of you might be protesting. “But the Church of Wengland isn’t the real church; the Church of England is”.

To which, I respond: so why are we so tolerant of the England national football team? The England national football team is, for some reason, spared the incessant criticism the Church of England faces. Why? Football is, in many ways, in a far worse and intolerable state than the Church. Unlike the Church, football is totally dominated by men at all stages, including management, coaching and ground staff.

We will, I am sure, see women bishops in the Church of England within the next ten years. At what point might we see a woman football player playing in the England football team? Why is that prospect so remote? Why aren’t the same people who want women bishops demanding women strikers?

One can only conclude that criticism of the Church of England is motivated more by rabid atheism than by genuine concern over gender equality.

Iron man

My parents married in the late 1960s. There were certain societal norms at the time which, in hindsight, look archaic and inappropriate by today’s standards. One of these was, as a newly married wife, my mother ironed all of the Dead Dad’s shirts every week. In fact, she would launder all his shirts, iron them, hang them on hangers and return them to his wardrobe every week.

I never got the full story from either of them, but at some point in the early 1970s they had a row about her ironing. Perhaps he didn’t quite like the way she was ironing creases into the arms, or maybe he objected to the way she buttoned the collar to the clothes hanger. Or it might have been something as trivial as her having left the ironing board out in the kitchen when he wanted to use the space for something else. But, as a result of that row, for the remaining 35+ years of their marriage, she never ironed anything for him ever again, right up until the day he died. And not even then.

I don’t want to take sides in this dispute. I can’t, because I don’t know what led up to it, what caused that particular flashpoint, and what was said afterwards. But I do reflect that it can’t be healthy to let a spat like this fester for that length of time. Can you identify any arguments like the Live Mum’s and the Dead Dad’s? And are you happy to let them carry on for a third of a century? Or will you do something to resolve it?

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics: a rambling review

Tonight I went to WestSkep, at which Canon Dr Giles Fraser was speaking on “Being suspicious about the Skeptics“. Now my regular readers, yes both of you, will have noted that I prequelled this event in an earlier blog post. In the event, Dr Fraser turned out to be more interesting than I could have anticipated. He’s a very impressive speaker and, despite the audience really wanting to give him a bloody nose at times, he skipped through the questions with the ease of a prize fighter.

A full, nuanced review is beyond my capabilities, even when sober, so here is a collection of random observations and interesting (to me, at least) comments that I collected from the evening. Please note my careful use of scepticism as distinct from skepticism. I mean them to refer to two totally different concepts. Fraser underlined that he understood scepticism well, but was less clear on skepticism, not least because he had never attended an event.

Fraser’s talk started with scepticism proper, ie Descartes. Descartes wanted to know how he knew that he wasn’t a brain in a vat under the supervision of a bad demon. His response was that he knew that he existed because he had thoughts: cogito ergo sum. Fraser observed that Descartes then proved the existence of God in three different ways, all of which ultimately are flawed. Hume was the next great sceptic. Fraser said that Hume found it hard to reconcile his own scepticism with the fact that, on occasion, he liked to go out drinking with his friends and play backgammon with them. Clearly scepticism has its bounds! He then moved on to Cavell, who famously observed that scepticism means you turn those closest to you into strangers.

Fraser then asked us to consider Othello, as a demonstration that there are limits to the situations to which the scientific method can be applied. Othello wanted to know whether Desdemona loved him, and looked for evidence. Unfortunately the best evidence, as with a scientific theory, is that she doesn’t. Othello searched high and low for evidence of her infidelity. And, of course, thanks to Iago’s treachery, he finds it in abundance. Fraser aimed to demonstrate that, in some cases, the evidence based method can be used to control and possess others. In such situations, it is bad.

There were then lots of questions. I won’t attempt to cover them all, but some of the more interesting observations or discussions that followed included:

  • There was a discussion about whether religion or atheism was the better default position. Does religion presume more than atheism or is it vice-versa? Fraser answered that, personally, he uses religion as a receptacle for things he doesn’t know about rather than using it to answer questions or gain knowledge.
  • Someone asked about an ultra-sceptical approach to the world. Does Descartes mean that we need to assume lots of things? Is the concept that there are other people in the pub listening to the talk an assumption, or is it reasonable knowledge? Fraser was unconvinced that such a position can reasonably be considered an assumption.
  • Someone asked whether Othello should have been more sceptical. Wouldn’t that have revealed the plot against him? Here I wish that Fraser had lived up to his talk’s title and been more suspicious. It’s easy for us to laugh at Othello’s lack of scientific method, because we’ve read the whole play and know the terrible conclusion. How do skeptics know that they themselves are truly being sceptical enough when approaching questions about the world?
  • Dr Evan Harris, the self-styled patron saint of the evidence-based method as a means to control others, asked some pointed questions about whether it’s appropriate for religion to be taught in schools.  Amusingly, Fraser agreed with him, noting that religion is taught so badly that it often becomes a “machine for the production of atheists”.
  • David Allen Green asked whether someone who believes in the Christian God is, by definition, an atheist to all the other Gods people believe in. Doesn’t this make Christianity some sort of rounding error in a true atheistic position? Fraser reminded him that this was an early Roman attack on Christianity. It was suggested that Fraser doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, which Fraser emphatically rejected.
  • Someone asked whether there were some situations in which it would be appropriate to seek evidence for love. However the questioner failed to entirely make his point, coming across as someone who was trying to force the evidence based method into a situation where it didn’t really make sense. Fraser wasn’t trying to define a set of circumstances where EBM is never appropriate, but simply to show that there are some situations where it doesn’t work. Therefore we need to always be suspicious of it. Related to this was a question that sought to get Fraser to define some of his terms better so that there could be a debate on common ground. But Fraser wasn’t having any of it. Defining terms is the sort of whiny crap first year philosophy students like to get up to… usually the sort of first year students who fail to make it into the second year due to their lack of academic rigour.
  • Crispian Jago highlighted the apostle Thomas, who had behaved skeptically in demanding to see Jesus’s wounds and – in Jago’s view – been treated badly by the Church for it. Fraser scoffed at the very idea, noting that Thomas was a saint, quite possibly the highest honour the church can bestow.
  • The strangest question of the night belonged to a young lady who, as well as talking about duck sex, suggested that it was inappropriate to take children to church because it tends to want to instil absolute truths and might constrain their inquisitive minds. As the parent of two young children, both of whom go to Sunday School, I can only presume she has no children of their own. Their Sunday School has never demanded that they accept Bible teachings without question and they ask me thousands of questions every day, just like almost every child does.

Overall it was an interesting discussion, and Fraser acquitted himself well. As with other SITP discussions, I found the debate didn’t answer the title of the talk, which was a bit frustrating. I’d have liked him to turn the focus on skepticism a bit more. Skepticism, for me, is ultimately deficient because it fails to recognise that it is a view of the world that operates on a reduced instruction set (ie the EBM). This fundamental axiom of skepticism is never justified, yet it is used to exclude other ways of arranging the world such as religion.

Furthermore, skepticism is an inadequate way of resolving real problems in the world. OK, so EBM tells us that vaccination doesn’t cause autism. But does that, in itself, justify the mass-vaccination of billions of people against their will? No, skepticism cannot help us answer questions of this sort. Raised this evening was the issue of eugenics, which can be easily justified on scientific grounds but is intolerable under even the most basic ethical frameworks. Another example might be global warming, where it makes sense to avoid it, but not at any cost. To answer these questions, we need to recognise that they are typically resolved in the social, political and emotional arenas. They cannot be answered using science alone. It would have been provocative, for sure, but Dr Fraser didn’t really do enough this evening to explain why we should be suspicious of the skeptics.

Other reflections on tonight’s talk: serious and not-so-serious.

Marabou storks and autism

Marabou stork nightmares is a terrifying book by Irvine Welsh. It tells the story of Roy Strang, who has constructed a fantasy world around Marabou storks, in order to protect himself from the horror of the appalling things he has done. In the end, it isn’t enough and his past catches up with him. The woman he raped finds him, and then castrates and murders him.

Earlier today, I was chatting to an American friend of mine, S, whom I know through online gaming. I’ve known her for nearly eight years. In that time, S fell in love with a Swede, moved to live with him there and has had a son. She loves her boy, with all the passion and feeling that really only a mother can. That’s plain to see. Her son has severe autism and learning difficulties. He suffers from several allergies, including wheat and dairy. And, because S knows and loves her son, she can pinpoint the precise day that he went from being an “ordinary” boy to the child he is today.

It’s the day that he went to get his vaccinations.

Now, I’m aware that the finest scientific minds in the country, if not the world, have tested the vaccines-autism link and have been unable to find anything. I respect the scientific method. However, I also respect S’s opinion. Reconciling the two isn’t easy. However, the scientific method at its best can only say “we have currently discovered no evidence that there is a link between vaccination and autism”. Empiricism will always be susceptible to as-yet-unperceived causal links that, because we don’t know about them, we simply don’t think to test. We may not even know how to test them.

So you must believe me when I say that there is little that makes me angrier than people glibly claiming that S is in any way irrational or is undertaking quackery when she expresses her view that it’s at least reasonable to suspect the vaccinations as a contributory factor. You have lost your basic humanity if you argue this way. Skepticism doesn’t permit you to abandon your responsibilities towards other people. And if I catch a skeptic abusing S or any other grieving mother, you will find your scientific method protecting you about as much as the marabou storks saved Roy Strang. There’s a lot more to life than science, and that wider world demands that you treat your fellow, irrational unscientific brothers and sisters with a little basic respect.

Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.