Remembrance

On Saturday, it was the tenth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. Every 20th November we gather as a community to remember the trans men and women who have died as victims of hate crime.

Hate crime takes a number of forms. In its most extreme, it leads to murder. The murder of Ian Baynham in Trafalgar Square, or David Morley on the Embankment, or the brutal and unnecessary deaths at the Admiral Duncan pub ten years ago. But there are other things that happen that are dismissed. The people who call us names in the street, who make assumptions about others’ gender identities and discriminate against them for it, even the people who were bullies at school. This is all hate crime, and it is all damaging.

When people die as a result of hate crime, it is not always because they are physically beaten by their persecutors. These mental beatings take their toll. It is estimated that 50% of young trans people attempt suicide at least once. In the LGBT community as a whole, rates of depression, self-harm and addiction are higher than in the general population. This is not a coincidence, nor is it because we are naturally disordered. It is because we face such discrimination on a daily basis.

And in that spirit, we should also remember the victims of bullying. It is anti-bullying week and we know that the victims of bullying today may be the suicide victims we are remembering tomorrow. A single act of bullying can be so devastating to a young person as to lead to all sorts of mental health and emotional problems later in life. Bullying is not normal, it is not a rite of passage, it is a devastating and life-changing thing to happen to someone. Sustained over a course of years it can destroy self-esteem and erode hope in someone’s life.

The bullies will also suffer, those who torment others doubtless suffer countless torments themselves. The young woman of 18 who has been charged with the murder of Ian Baynham will never get her life back. She will forever be marked as “different” and probably even as “bad”. Her life has been destroyed because she was never taught that it is wrong to persecute those who are different.

So this week, as well as praying for victims of transphobic hate crime and all forms of bullying, let us think about what we can do to make the world a better place. Report it when someone assaults you in the street, refuse to accept that “it’s just a part of life”. Do not let hate-speak go unchallenged, have the courage to correct people who make ignorant and hurtful remarks about what they cannot possibly understand. If you are in a position to do so, share your own story with a young person who will be given strength from it; maybe even write to your old school and tell them about your experiences. A few acts of harm can destroy a life, a few careful acts of kindness may rebuild someone.

We are all one body of Christ; it’s time to look after each other.

More on the God Delusion

Whilst I don’t want to turn this into some kind of anti-Dawkins platform, a couple of interesting points have been raised about what I wrote last week that I think I should respond to, particularly as Wednesday’s post was something of a knee-jerk reaction. I still maintain that my issue with Dawkins remains that he rails against extremism whilst channelling some of that into his own thoughts. I hope those who commented on Facebook won’t mind me lifting quotes to give this some context.

I don’t quite see how he has replicated other social prejudices. I also cannot see how it follows that Dawkins and other atheists are in anyway like religious extremists. I haven’t read any atheist writings that condemn and call for violence against people of faith.

I don’t think calling for violence is the only way to instill hate and prejudice in others. What if he were to say that being gay is against nature and those who believe it is not are irrational and unless they are challenged and choose to change their beliefs, the very fabric of our society is at risk. That doesn’t wish death on anyone, but it is still hateful and damaging. Indeed, it is one of the beliefs that Dawkins identifies as harmful, and challenges.

I find his attitude to religion to be equivalent. If you single out one religion he talks about – Islam – the things he says truly are designed to polarise and to pit people against one another. He claims to want to wipe religion from the face of the earth. No, he doesn’t resort to using the language of violence but that doesn’t make it acceptable in my mind.

Moderate religious people compartmentalise their thinking – accepting science in one regard but reserving a special place for their faith. I think you are probably right insofar as Dawkins’ takes his fight to the fundamentalists because moderates don’t offer the ‘culture war’ that you could argue the new atheists are looking for. However, I also thinks moderates are overlooked by the new atheists because they have effectively marginalised themselves. If you are moderate enough to believe that faith is personal, that science offers a method for progressing human understanding and as such, religion has less of a place in society in terms of say making legislation then you are left with a group of the faithful that is essentially toothless.

It’s interesting, though, that as I said above Dawkins flip-flops between wanting religion to have less influence and wanting to get rid of it altogether. And I also don’t agree that most moderates are ‘toothless’. They will certainly not be if Dawkins gets his way and faith is driven out of society. He would push people to have to fight for their right to a personal faith. Something that is protected by (amongst other things) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Just as he insists that all religion, taken to its natural conclusion, leads to ‘young men with bombs in rucksacks’, it strikes me that if his brand of atheism was taken to a logical conclusion (and if it becomes de rigeur in politics) would drive faith underground or make everyone fight. That in turn would make it look as though he was right, it would become a vicious cycle that could even create further extremism.

The crux of the ‘new atheist’ argument is that as a basis for understanding the universe, science offers a method based on logic and reason. As you rightly recognise, science cannot falsify the existence of a God. However, from this empirical worldview there is also no reason to invoke a higher power to explain any natural phenomenon. The bottom line is, whatever one might argue, science is irreconcilable with religion because in order to accept the tenements of any faith, one must put aside what is known about the laws of physics, biology and the universe and one must ignore the illogic that arises as a result of invoking a creator to explain its existence. Please understand that I am not attacking religious people here, I simply think that you have to accept that there has to be some suspension of reason in order to have faith.

But just as there is always an element of “who created the creator” inherent in religious philosophy, there will always be unanswered questions in science. What caused the big bang (and what if the LHC doesn’t find out)? There is no reason to invoke God to fill the gaps, I agree. But Dawkins only ever challenges this ‘God of the gaps’ theology, and it is not the only thing that draws people into faith. I don’t want to believe in a god who is diminished by science, or can only exist where science can’t answer our questions. I am happy for there to be things I don’t understand. Sometimes faith comes from a place that just can’t be explained itself. Pascal (an agnostic) used to talk about there being a ‘God-shaped hole’ in all of us. There is a human instinct to faith, and maybe it does involve a suspension of purely scientific thinking, but until a couple of years ago it required a suspension of scientific fact to observe a bee flying!

It involves a suspension of science and rationality to enter into a monogamous relationship, to use birth control and have sex for pleasure. Love cannot be empirically measured, laughter can’t be adequately distilled into chemical processes. We don’t understand the human mind; science can see chemical changes occur in the brain of someone with persistent neuroses or psychoses, so why is it not enough to correct those chemical changes to restore a person to how they were without those neuroses?

We suspend reason in order to live to the fullest. Religion is not the root of all evil, science is not the cure. Religion can be used, shamefully, as a whip to drive people to do all sorts of things. But it’s humanity that does that. Yes, there are arguments and turns of phrase that are emotive and are consistently used to draw people into extremist views, but politics can do that as well. Political Islam draws heavily on communist political philosophy (read The Islamist by Ed Husain to explain this more fully), and some parts of Christianity frequently embrace politically motivated ‘scientific’ studies to support their views on alternative sexualities.

We are flawed human beings. I can’t explain through my faith why we aren’t perfect, and neither can a scientist. We came to be this way through millennia of biological, social and psychological evolution. In so many ways, we suspend reason just by being.

This debate could keep going forever, there have been arguments against creationism for as long as there has been a capacity for human thought, so I’ll leave it there.

The God Delusion on Channel 4

I will try to keep this as far from a rant as I can. I’m watching Richard Dawkins on 4OD in a series called ‘The Root of all Evil?’, and it is fascinating.

I do have a problem with Dawkins, and I should confess that now, but my problem is not that he is an atheist; rather, it is that he sees things in very black and white terms. He views all religious experiences as being ‘the first step to young men with bombs in rucksacks’ and says that ‘even so-called moderate believers are part of the same religious fabric [as Osama bin-Laden and the taleban]’, and that all with faith ‘encourage unreason as a virtue’.

The problem is that this view is so distorted that I wonder if he would recognise a ‘so-called moderate’ if he fell over one. You know, Professor Dawkins, there are some of us who agree with you that the world is over 4 billion years old, and that evolution is indisputable scientific fact.

In fact, I would go even further than that. I know many Christians who positively thrive on the scientific method in their theology. To be more accurate, I suppose I mean the Socratic method (one cannot, obviously, test philosophical and theological reasoning in a lab). Like Dawkins, I love the times when other people from my academic discipline are able to come together to argue, debate and maybe even change one another’s views. This tradition, although I called it Socratic, is also a very important part of Jewish tradition. Christianity and Judaism thrive on debate, discussion and the idea that the Word of God is both unchanging and of constant relevance.

Richard Dawkins does say, in fairness to him, that he doesn’t hate anyone. I’m not sure this is borne out by the bigoted language he uses. I find it is frequently offensive, and if he were to talk that way about any other group in society it would be considered so and not aired. However, I am glad he is able to broadcast and to talk. I am glad that he challenges fundamentalism where it becomes dangerous, but I worry that he doesn’t see a difference between ‘death cults of suicide bombers’ and the average church, mosque, or synagogue attendee.

I don’t pretend to know everything. I have deep questions about the world that my faith can’t answer. Science isn’t there to fill the gaps in my knowledge of God, and God isn’t there to fill the gaps in my scientific knowledge.

I hope I have been able to communicate that I don’t disagree with him on everything, but I feel like Dawkins uses poor methodology to research his atheist work. He refers only to the extremes, never to the religious folk who might actually agree with him on some parts of his research. I find it telling that he doesn’t talk to someone like Karen Armstrong, a former nun and expert on the semitic/Abrahamic faiths, or Richard Holloway, formerly Bishop of Edinburgh and both a relativist and a moderate. Is he too scared that he can’t challenge the middle ground?

Review: Kit and the Widow

Kit and the Widow were playing the Hampstead Theatre tonight, so I went along with my sister, her fiancé and a couple of my friends.

As ever, totally sidesplitting. Although there always moments when I find the humour crosses boundaries for me (the Romany Caprice, for example, if anyone knows it), but you can’t help laughing (albeit guiltily).

Kit’s interpretation of The Flight of the Bumblebee (“The Vol du Bourdon, or Who Stole my Chocolate Biscuit?”) was a highlight, as was a new song about the sex lives of the Lib Dems and White Van Man, which is not new but is new to me.

We also had the pleasure of meeting them briefly after the performance, and had a quick chat with The Widow, who recognised us (“Oh, good Lord, it’s the whole of the front row!”). Tori’s fiancé is albino is sure that he managed to throw The Widow off slightly, because when he was bantering with the audience he decided to pick on the person on the end of the front row and then seemed to pull a face that said “oh, no, what can I say that’s not offensive about the albino man?!”. Lovely.

For the uninitiated, here are a couple of verses from a song about Obama that may, sadly, soon be outmoded.

Life in General

So I didn’t leave my job, but I did have to take a significant cut in hours (and, therefore, pay).

However, I have been offered a place at the University of Oxford to study for a Post-graduate Diploma in Theology (PGDip), starting in October! So I’m very excited; looking forward to getting my teeth into some study again. I’m sure it’ll be the bane of my life once I start, but right now the idea of being back in an academic library and being full-time curious is just too exciting!

I will be sad to leave my job, and certainly to leave London after six years, but it seems like the right time. My health’s not been great lately, but I’m trying to see Oxford as an opportunity to get better, and not to see my health as a reason to put off the course I really want to do.

Vincent, The Doctor and Me

The Starry Night (June 1889). Oil on canvas.

This week’s Doctor Who fascinated me. Vincent van Gogh has always intrigued me, of course, because his legacy has always been as much to do with his mental health as it has his work.

And I loved that this formed a pivotal plot-point; that there was never a possibility of watering down his deep depressions.

For a start, it has made me want to read more about him both as a man and an artist. I assume a lot of research went into his speeches, and that is wonderful. I found myself looking at paintings that I had never thought to consider before.

I may have a degree that (nominally) included some art history, but I was all about the imagery – politics is everything in my art-brain. I love hearing people talk about art, though, and about how it is achieved. I read Noes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale a couple of years ago, and loved the way he talks about his artist’s use of colour. The protagonist is a female artist who suffers from bi-polar disorder (also, somewhat erroneously, known as ‘manic depression’). Her art is abstract, the sort of thing that I once dismissed as “stuff a four-year-old could paint” when I visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Then I read Patrick Gale’s description of colour, and how it is achieved, and began to think differently. Look at the sky. If you’re like me, and don’t really have a brain for painting, it’s usually blue, pink or grey. I had never seen the green underneath the blue, or the purple in the grey. Colour was flat, except in variegated yarn…

And then, last February, my friend Clinton took me to see Rothko at the Tate Modern in London. I was totally indulging him, I thought; maintaining that I ‘don’t understand’ modern art and can’t respond to the abstract. But I was blown away by the sheer size and scale of the work, and the gorgeous depth. I won’t pretend that I understand what happened in my mind when I looked at it, but there were some canvasses that I was so captured by that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I remember this one, in particular;

Black on Maroon (1959), Oil on Canvas
I can’t tell you what it was about it that I loved. I remember saying to Clinton that it evoked a sense of the trinity in me. Something about the infinite colours appearing as just three; the way in which it is one construction in which three elements are apparent but the whole spectrum is present. It was complicated, and somehow moving.
I don’t know anything about Mark Rothko, not really, except that he was active in the 1950s and painted abstract canvasses. So only as much as I have already told you! But that painting made me feel like I knew something of his mind. It’s daft, of course, to claim to know the mind of one you can’t ever meet, so I imagine that what I felt was something more innate, more inherently human. Not a unique sensation that can only be imparted by the work of one individual, but a shared sense of wonder and then of sadness. Not sadness in the depression sense; that is something very different in my mind. No, this was a melancholy sense that things will never be complete. A knowledge that I will never know the mind that created the image before me, nor the true complexity of the process by which it was borne out. It was a philosophical sadness, that the true nature of the universe cannot be revealed in this lifetime.
All of this came flooding back to me when I considered the scenes in the Musée d’Orsay. That way in which we respond to art so instinctively. We formulate complex ideas on the outworkings of someone else’s imagination, and we form them in seconds, although we can never truly know the mind of the artist.
And I agree with the assessment of the writers; that van Gogh did not betray his illness through his work. I don’t feel darkness when I look at his work; even the later paintings like The Starry Night, which are full of dark colour, don’t make me feel sad or empty. The focus is an overlooked beauty. The beauty of a truly starry night when the wonders of creation are revealed. There is no way to look at The Starry Night and see only darkness. Indeed, one is more likely to see only light.
But this ability to see beauty, and experience joy, does not diminish the capacity of the brain to harm. Just as the body has its mechanisms for keeping us stable (the process GCSE students call ‘homeostasis’), so does the brain. Just as the other organs in our bodies can go wrong, so the brain can go wrong; and it can have a real impact on your emotional stability.
I feel like it’s a risk for me to admit to this, but I expect a lot of other people felt the same; I really identified with the pure fear that was in the character of Vincent when he thought he was going to lose Amy and the Doctor. I have been scared at what might happen if my friends leave, or change, or both. I have told people I can’t cope without them, and I have thrown myself face-down on my bed and wept at the thought that they might not come back. But that has not prevented me, like our fictionalised Vincent, from sometimes managing to take a deep breath and carry on. Like another great man presented this series, Winston Churchill, I “Keep Buggering On” when the world and my emotions want me to stop. 
Now, I will never produce the wonderful art that van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Sylvia Plath or Virginia Wolf created from their depressions. But I hope I can learn to at least understand and try to explain my own mind, such as it is. I hope, with God’s help, I can channel all that bad stuff into something good. At the very least, I have promised myself that I will do my bit to challenge the stigma of mental illness. Because, damnit, poor mental health doesn’t have to be validated or explained by genius. Just as there are people on the autistic spectrum who are not savant and there are deaf people who cannot craft a symphony like Beethoven, so there are people with depression who are not creative in that way. 
So it is thanks to people like van Gogh and Virginia Woolf that I can expect people to have some understanding of what it is like to live in this brain and this illness of mine. It won’t be clear to everyone – maybe you wonder what sort of pretentious garbage this all is, anyway? – but I can identify myself in them and remember that you do not have to be healthy to make a difference in this world, as long as you have hope.
“Now I think I know what you tried to say to me,

How you suffered for your sanity,

How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they’re not listening still;
perhaps they never will.”


Originally posted on RowleyPolyBird

Love is an Orientation

I haven’t yet read the book Love is an Orientation, but I have seen a lot of it around; particularly as a recommended companion to Living it Out. But I happened to be searching for a Billy Graham quote, and it came up with this interview with the author.

Firstly, this pretty much confirmed what I had read about the book; that it is very much from the perspective you would expect of a straight, evangelical Christian, but comes to a conclusion that is graceful and loving.