Monthly Archives: August 2012

Book Review: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

As it’s summertime, it seemed only right to read another of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I’ve now read the majority of his works, and this is the last of the more well-known Wessex novels for me to tackle, even though it was one of the very early books that he wrote.

Though not usually considered as one of his best in popular circles (that title usually goes to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far From The Madding Crowd or Jude The Obscure) but to aficionados of Hardy, this is a perennial favourite. Perhaps some of the reason behind this is that the overall tone is much more optimistic than those more tragic novels. I confess though that the book took me a while to get into. While the very opening was a wonderful description of place, as became typical of Hardy’s later writing, he then launches into a very confused scene.

As a reader, my preference is always for characters to be introduced fairly slowly, one at a time, so you can get to distinguish between them and learn to love or hate their various characteristics. What we have here is a whole choir (sometimes spelled colloquially as quire) who are introduced to us all at once. In such an introduction, I found it very difficult to tell them apart. From there, much of the dialogue in the first half of the book was hard to follow. This is compounded by one of Hardy’s notable features: his writing in the rural vernacular. Though noticeable in his later books, the speech here is particularly impenetrable at times.

The story really only then picks up in the second half, where two main characters emerge out of the crowd: Dick Dewey and Fancy Day. There is a very gentle romance between these two which is very engaging and shows off Hardy’s great talent as a writer of romance. But things in the world of Hardy’s Wessex rarely run without a hitch. Some family objections are thrown into the path of the two lovers, seemingly hindering them from their path to matrimony. Also, though they may seem young and innocent, at least one of the two parties, during the course of their engagement, does not exactly rebuff all advances made their way. As for the ending, I shall leave for you to see who it was that wore the wry smile and why.

I could not say that I agree with those who think this one of Hardy’s best novels. However, as a work of fiction, it is as good, if not much better, than most other works of the 19th century. Though it is very short, the denseness of the language in the first half of the novel should not be underestimated. But if you can find a tree to sit under for a couple of sunny days, then this would find accompaniment to that idyllic scene.

Can a christian be non-religious?

I started writing this post at the start of June and have been struggling with it for some time. What I’ve had to do is re-write from scratch as I have just run into too many problems which I shall elucidate upon below.

My initial aim was to ask whether or not it was possible for a christian to be non-religious. My Facebook profile, under the heading of “religion” states that I am a religionless christian. This, however, is highly dependent upon my particular interpretation of the word “religion. So my intention was to look at the different ways in which religion was defined (by the dictionary, by the majority of people in our westernised society and by what the bible had to say) and compare them to see if and how christianity really fitted the criteria.

The trouble came when I tried to write up the definition from ‘society’s’ view that wasn’t either too narrow-minded so as exclude many valid viewpoints or too vague so as to lose any and all significant meaning. Eventually, I worked out what the problem was: it was a question over whether religion was something someone believes or something someone does. I asked the following question on Twitter:

“Do you view religion as something someone does or something they believe? Or are the 2 inseparable?”

These are the responses I received:


“Some believe, some ‘do’. I’ve met Christians who are devout & passionate about faith, & some who do it for the social life.”

“depends on the person – “religion” is a belief, “Religion” is an act. In my experience, they don’t always go together.”

“depends on the person. I know some who believe, some who do and some that go hand in hand.”

“when my human was non-religious she thought it was a story people believed. She didn’t know it was something people “do”.”

“Both. Without belief, actions are just rituals and without action, beliefs are just empty words.”

Possibly the last of the responses comes closest to my own view. I think of religion as being typified by ritual. But christianity need not be. Of course, some denominations do define themselves by such rituals, whether it be by liturgical chanting, having communion in a very rigid, set format or marching a cross around town on Good Friday. But none of these are specified in the bible as being necessary. On the contrary, the hallmark of christianity is faith, not works. But then we have to bear in mind the book of James where we find the closest thing to a christian definition of “religion”:

“If anyone thinks to be religious among you, yet not biding his tongue, but deceiving his heart, this one’s religion is in vain. Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

He goes on to say, famously:

“My brothers, what is the gain if anyone says he has faith but he does not have works? Is faith able to save him? But if a brother or sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace; be warmed and filled – but does not give them the things the body needs – what gain is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, you have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In other words, a correct understanding of christian belief necessarily entails action. Christianity has no room for those who would like to consider themselves theorists only. But these actions are not rites and rituals. Rather, they are actions that help people practically, something no amount of chanting or crossing yourself will ever achieve.

So can a christian be non-religious? Absolutely. You can turn christianity into a religion, if you so choose, but to let become christianity is a not the best idea. I finish with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“To be a christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.”

The Semantics of Statistics

This has been brewing in my head for a while, and now that I’ve got a little time on Saturday night, I shall attempt to get my thoughts into a Word document before copying and pasting into WordPress at a later time.

I get quite annoyed when I read or hear people getting the wrong end of the stick when they talk about statistics and probability. Specifically, my beef is with the use of the word “random” in a very loose way. Of course, I don’t discount the possibility that I have been careless myself, but I can’t think of any examples. To illustrate this, it cropped up in a quite revealing conversation I had recently with a creationist.

I have laid out my position on this before, so I won’t go into too much depth. One trick that catches a lot of people out is the mixture of truth with untruth. In this particular conversation, I pointed out that some very good evolutionary science has had some very poor philosophy attached to it; but the problem that is created is that many of evolution’s best apologists fail to distinguish between them. What then happens is that those who lack the ability to discern between them are left with a choice to either reject or accept this mixture of ideas. Hence, you can often accept some poor thinking (as in the case of those who think evolution rules out God) or you can reject the good science (in the case of the creationist).

My observation, based on talking to a number of those who hold either of these views, is that there is a lack of understanding of what it means to be “random.” The phrases (or something equivalent to them) are that “evolution is a random process” or “genetic variations are random.”  Also, the word “chance” is used in this context though I find this so ambiguous, scientifically speaking, as to be almost useless.  The false interpretation, which seems to be relatively common, is that something which is random is indeterminate. What is true, however, is that it simply means something is unpredictable. Of course, if something is indeterminate, it will be unpredictable, but it is a logical fallacy to say that something which is unpredictable is necessarily indeterminate.

To demonstrate this, we need only consider chaotic motion. One example of this is the motion of a magnet suspended above several others. The motion is governed by a well understood interaction of electromagnetic forces and gravity. However, minor variations in the initial conditions will result in wide differences in the resultant motion. So by observing the initial conditions, one cannot practically measure to a sufficient degree of accuracy in order to be able to predict the motion.

Things get even more pronounced when you talk of quantum mechanics. As most people know, the problem of measurement can no longer become overcome even in theory. In the quantum world, probabilities rule. You no longer speak of a particles position, but rather of the probabilities of finding it in a given position. And if you do find its position precisely, there’s no way of knowing its momentum. For nigh on 100 years, there are have been competing ideas as to how to interpret this, ranging from the Copenhagen interpretation to the many worlds hypothesis.

It’s fascinating how probabilities change simply on the basis of the revelation of information. Anyone who has scratched their ends and eventually come to the right solution for the Monty Hall problem know that the crucial bit of information is that the host knows where the best prize is. Unlike the Monty Hall problem, Deal or No Deal has a host who is clueless as to where the prizes are located. The top prize is £250,000 and at the start of the game there is a 1 in 22 chance that the player has the box with them. But as the game progresses, and the £250,000 is not revealed, the probability increases. Nothing has physically changed about the box, only the information has changed.

Likewise, the last couple of weeks have seen exam results for Scottish Highers, A-Levels and GCSEs. All the papers have been marked and the exam results are known to the examiners. Yet to the students, with a sealed envelope in their hand their lack of knowledge of the contents means that the results could still go either way; they could get the grades they need or they might not. To them, the probability factor makes it indistinguishable from a crazy scenario whereby the results weren’t fixed until they opened the envelope.

I hope that made some kind of sense. I know it’s slightly disjointed. But I hope you found it interesting. Let me know what you think.

Book Review: What St Paul Really Said by Tom Wright

Continuing my look at the New Perspective on Paul, I move onto one of the earlier books by Wright on the topic of Paul. Earlier this summer, I read & reviewed E.P. Sanders’ short introduction to Paul.

From the outset, Wright states that this is only a short introduction, something of a ‘taster’ for his forthcoming much larger work on Paul, which, at the time of writing this review, is due out in the summer of 2013.

Wright begins his discussion by asking what world Paul inhabited, as this seems foundational to discussions on the nature of the origins of christianity. Wright refers to David Wenham (one of his books on this topic is reviewed here) and stresses Paul’s Jewishness. It seems, though I will confess to some ignorance on this, that at the heart of many accusations over the falsity of the early church is the notion that Paul abandoned his Jewishness and instead brought to the primitive community a quasi-Hellenistic religion, distorting the message and legacy of Jesus. Of course, if one subscribed to this view, then the grounds of christianity (or at least the whole history of what has become christianity) would be severely undermined. Consequently, it is a view that needs to be looked at carefully, with all due consideration and seriousness.

Wright then goes on to give an account of why he believes Paul never abandoned Judaism, but rather, his understanding of it was radically reformed. As a persecutor of the early church, Saul of Tarsus had great energy and enthusiasm for his work. As an apostle, Paul of Tarsus was no less “zealous” in his aims.

So far, so uncontroversial.

Out of this, though, Wright comes to the question of “what did Paul mean when he talked of ‘gospel’?” Here, Wright veers away from the traditional reformed answer which focuses on how one is “saved” (technical term: soteriology) and instead states that the gospel is an announcement about Jesus and how God is made known through Jesus.

Though evidence is presented above on how thoroughly Paul stays faithful to Jewish monotheism, one does then face some thorny problems with certain statements he makes about the Jewish law, particularly in Galatians and Romans. Wright tackles these in much the same way as Sanders does, by arguing that statements about the law and about circumcision are not about moralism or legalism, but rather that they were statements about Jewish identity. i.e. if christians find their identity in Christ, then there is no longer a need to adopt the identity markers of Judaism now that in Jesus, Judaism has been fulfilled.

An important figure in Wright’s arguments is that of Pelagius, a figure I doubt the majority of christians will be familiar with. In short, he was a late 4th/early 5th century theologian who believed that people could be saved by living to strict moral guidelines. You can read more about him in Alister McGrath’s Heresy. Wright’s use of this figure is to demonstrate what many modern christians think Paul meant when he spoke of salvation through the law, but which Paul did not mean at all. There is no historical evidence which supports the idea that Judaism was prevalent with those who sought to save themselves by their own efforts. Rather, they were the chosen people of God and their observance of the Torah was what distinguished them from other people.

The second half of the book is then almost entirely devoted to the question of what Paul meant by ‘justification by faith’. With the background given earlier, Wright’s view was that ‘faith’ is the identifying mark by which christians are identified rather than the means by which they become christians. In other words, he swaps round the traditionalist viewpoint of which is the cart and which is the horse.  There’s a very helpful diagram which outlines various different interpretations of the word “righteousness” – though Wright chooses to focus on just a couple of these, rather than going into much depth on each of them.

The apparent conclusion of the book then asks how Paul’s teaching, understood in this new light, ought to affect the church. At this juncture, as in Surprised by Hope, Wright seems to leave his world of ancient academia and applies his sharp judgement to the modern church – or at least, to some aspects of the church. He gives a powerful and thought-provoking challenge which should be of interest to all christians.

However, the book doesn’t quite end there. The final chapter seems somewhat tacked onto the end. Here, Wright effectively gives a critique of a book by A.N. Wilson called Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. I might, at some point, pick this up and have a read myself. The main content of the book is said to be greatly opposed to the view put forth by Wright, and the key arguments are countered by reference to Wright’s own analysis as laid out in earlier chapters. This final chapter does come across as a little ungracious, and its tone jars slightly from that of the previous chapter.

That aside, it is a very good read and I’d highly recommend it to anyone else wanting to gain an understanding of the new perspective on Paul.

The Clothes Maketh The Man

empty suits

During my recent time of unemployment, it really came home to me how important clothes are to our self-perception. For my job, I nearly always wear a suit and tie. So initially, it was something of a relief to be able to wear casual clothes for the majority of the time, only donning the suit for interviews. Yet sometimes, I allowed myself to become too casual. Since a lot of my jobhunting was done by phone, there were some days when I didn’t get properly dressed until after 10am. Until then, I would remain in the old jogging bottoms and t-shirt that I normally slept in.

But doing this had an unexpected effect on my psyche. On such days, it really made me feel unemployed. Years of suit-wearing have ingrained in me a sharp distinction: suit = work; casual = non-work. I like relaxing and time off as much as the next person, but prolonged periods of not working make me feel non-productive.

In the past, I have had very rare occasions when I’ve worked from home. But this is my relaxing environment; work doesn’t belong here. On those occasions, I’ve found it very difficult to get going as there are just too many other possibilities. So what I found helpful was to get everything ready as though I was going to work. I would set my alarm for 6am, have a shave and a quick breakfast, put my suit on and even go so far as to make a packed lunch. I’d then sit at my dining room table and try to get on with work. Without this routine (you could almost call it a ritual, I suppose) I just find it far too easy to get distracted from work.

More recently, when I was on a business trip my luggage was lost in transit. Having travelled in my casual clothes, I found myself in a sudden quandary. Having arrived on the Sunday night, I had business meetings fixed up for Monday morning. But the people I was due to meet were people I had never met before, so I had to make a professional first impression.  Having been put up in a very posh hotel – far posher than befits me – the hotel had a concierge service and I was able to request the loan of a suit.

However, it soon transpired that I do not share the bodily proportions of the average Indonesian. I find it hard enough to find a suit in this country for anyone as short as me (about 5ft 7 or 5ft 8) but in Indonesia the problem was trying to find anything big enough for me. The first suit jacket I tried on was a disaster: the arm ended just below my elbow. It took 3 pairs of trousers before we found a pair I could get over my 34 inch waist; all the others were for those who are slimmer than I.

Eventually, we made do with something that was passable, though the shoes gave me blisters and the shirt sleeves still didn’t quite make it as far as my wrists. I had to make do with this setup for 2 days. I was able to present myself at business meetings and to attempt to come across as a professional, even though in the more casual moments I did explain about the lost luggage.

What we wear influences how others think of us. I think this is true in the vast majority of cases. Some may claim to be able to rise above such superficial prejudices, though I think this is more the result of reasoned thought overriding first impressions. Even if this is less than I think it is, how I am dressed certainly affects how I think others perceive me.

Priests: a nonconformist point of view

Carrying on from my recent posts on “a nonconformist point of view” I conclude with this look at the priesthood. The understanding I have, based on the different denominations I have been a part of over the years, is quite specific. Yet I have noticed that there is a rising trend to refer to members of the clergy as priests, which goes quite against my understanding. So here, once again, I am thinking out loud and giving the evidence and reasoning behind my thinking. You are welcome to disagree either in comments or, if you write a response and let me know, I’ll be happy to include a link.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The idea of a christian priest stems back to christian origins, where this new belief was regarded by outside observers as a sect within Judaism which eventually grew into its own separate identity. In the Judaic system, the priests were the link between ordinary people and God. Effectively, they were a go-between. There were very stringent rules about who could and who could not be a priest. It’s worth noting that the concept of a priest most probably predated Judaism as they are introduced in the Old Testament as figures already known, with no single text detailing the precise role they had, though there is plenty of detail you may find in Exodus, Leviticus & Numbers.

Today, it is often used another synonym for minister, pastor or vicar. In catholicism, the common picture that is summoned up is that of the confessional box where a member of the church steps into a small, ornately carved, wooden cubicle and tells the priest all the things they’ve done wrong. The priest then tells them to serve some penance (e.g. say 3 ‘Hail Mary’s) and then declares, en loco deus, that that person is forgiven.

What does the bible say?

There are a few key passages in the New Testament which radically reform who can and who cannot be a priest. Interestingly, I don’t see a real sea-change in the role of a priest, as I think that it pretty much the same as it was in the Old Testament. However, if you glance at a concordance (I use Strong’s Strongest as my reference) you will note a dramatic fall off in the number of uses. The OT is replete with references (over 750) whereas the NT has only just over 150. Most of these references are in the gospels and Acts as references to the Jewish authorities.

Where the theology of christian priesthood is found, we have references almost exclusively one book: Hebrews. There are 3 references in Revelation and 2 in 1 Peter which probably ought to be dealt with first. The Revelation references may be found in 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6.

What these reveal is that John thoughts that priests were synonymous with saints. It was a category that included all believers. Assuming an orthodox belief that Jesus died for all, then 5:10 states that the saints (i.e. all believers) were “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God”. Of course, if one is of the presupposition that “kingdom” means institutional church then this could be misconstrued. But this particular nonconformist believes that the notion of kingdom is that of being all the people of God, subject to the one God as our king.

The 1 Peter references may be found in 2:5-9

“Like living stones yourselves, you are being built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices that will be well pleasing to god through Jesus the Messiah. That’s why it stands in scripture: ‘Look! I’m setting up in Zion a chosen, precious cornerstone; believe in him! You’ll not be ashamed.’ He is indeed precious for you believers. But when people don’t believe, ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone’, and ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence’. But you are a ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood’; a holy nation; a people for God’s possession. Your purpose is to announce the virtuous deeds of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.”

Here, Peter harks back to Exodus 19:3-6 but reinterprets it. Instead of a priestly kingdom to mean a nation which contains and is governed by priests (I think pertinently of the welcome signs to County Durham ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’) we are now under the kingdom of heaven, where God is our king and we all are priests. Peter has no hint that some are to be priests and some are not.

In Paul’s writing, we find a complete absence of priesthood. Instead we find apostles, prophets, teachers and leaders (1 Cor 12:28).

Given the large number of references in Hebrews, it’s hard to do the subject justice without an exegesis. So I shall attempt to just pick out the key passages, whilst encouraging you to read the whole book.

They key introduction may be found in 4:14-16:

“Since, then, we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Who is the “us” that the writer to the Hebrews is referring to? Are the apostles some kind of new priestly order, whereby they are the ones who can approach this metaphorical throne? It seems highly unlikely to me. What the author is driving at is that the actions of Jesus have opened up a whole new wealth freedoms, unbounded by the rigidity of the Torah. To approach God is no longer something we do through an intermediary. The revelation of Jesus as God has lifted the restriction on who can and who cannot be a priest.

The Argument

Given the above, my line of thinking on the matter is as follows:

During Jesus’ lifetime, there was no great intention to reform the priesthood. This is, admittedly, an argument from the absence of evidence, but while his message was subversive it wasn’t so in this way. Instead, Jesus’ concern was more about the symbolism embodied in the Temple.

One of the contentious roles of the priesthood is whether they have an ability to forgive sins. That is, more than on an individual level (“I forgive you for stepping on my foot”) but rather than they act en loco deus to confer on people the forgiveness of God. On this point, I disagree with N.T. Wright who says (in Jesus and the Victory of God) “In first-century jewish reality, the way YHWH forgave sins…was ultimately through the officially established and authorized channels of Temple and priesthood.” He says this in relation to the incident in Mark 2 where Jesus forgives a cripple before healing him. My opinion is that the “legal experts” in verses 6 & 7 were correct in declaring that only God can forgive sins. So Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness was a direct claim to be God, though Wright apparently denies this.

When the curtain in the Temple was torn at the moment of Jesus’ death, the symbolism of the separation of God and mankind that the curtain represented was removed. For more on that, see this recent piece. The high priest had been the only person able to pass through that curtain, but now Jesus was taking the role of high priest. There was to be no more earthly go-between between God and mankind.

Now, we have access to God, since anyone who has “seen” Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9). What this instigated is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Instead of a few individuals who can trace their family history back to the tribe of Levi, all of us are priests. We can all boldly approach God who, through the new covenant instigated by Jesus’ death, has restored us to fellowship with him.


The notion of a priest is an important one in both Judaism and christianity. How the latter differed from the former was one piece in understanding the importance of the work of Jesus, accomplished on the cross and interpreted by the first generation of evangelists.

While it might be comforting, from a psychological point of view, to have aural confirmation that you are forgiven, the act of a member of a clergy making such a declaration in no way enacts the forgiveness of God. To turn this around, imagine that you did not have access to the priest. To whom would you make your confession? Would you go unforgiven? I don’t think so.

In accordance with 1 John 1:9, my opinion is that we are free to confess our sins to God. There is no more need for an intermediary since Jesus became the one high priest.

I think the theology in most churches kind of runs along these lines, but the terminology still exists in some churches, even if the authority to forgive sins and act as a go-between is no longer used. These are the reasons why I don’t refer to clergy as priests. I may not be ordained, but I am no less a priest – neither are you. This may seem like nit-picking, but I think the terminology we use (and the connotations that come with it) make important statements about what we believe and practice. So by reserving the term ‘priest’ for certain individuals, we deny this rich vein of christian teaching that was evidently considered important for the early church and which is still relevant today.

What’s your take on this?

  • Do you agree with this analysis, or would you make significant revisions to it?

I hope it has provided you food for thought.

An open letter to my MP

After my recent time unemployed, I have finally been able to have the time to write to my MP about the failures in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Below is the body of the email which I sent to him. Any links are inserted into this blog post, but were not included in the letter, though URLs which have been typed, were.

I am writing to you with reference to the failures of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which I experienced recently. At the end of January, I was informed that I would be made redundant from my role as an accountant in a recruitment company in London. This redundancy became effective near the end of April. I am happy to report that I have now found work, being employed by a different company in London, from the start of July.

In the meantime, however, I had to claim job seekers’ allowance (JSA). However, my experience of dealing with DWP has shown some significant failures which I think ought to be brought to your attention. If it possible, I would ask that you raise these concerns directly with a minister responsible for the DWP, or even with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith.

My experience was that of a department is in disarray, had terrible communication and very few internal checks. As part of my claim, I was asked to provide some documentation on my savings. These are, as are many people’s, held in ‘e-savings’ accounts that do not provide monthly statements. I stated to the job centre that I was perfectly willing to provide proof of my savings, by logging on to the online bank and showing them. They were, however, unwilling to accept this as evidence. Even though I explained that these bank accounts didn’t provide statements, I was asked for statements nonetheless. This demonstrates an inflexible approach that has not yet caught up with modern technology and ways of personal banking, which the DWP ought to be attuned to.

It took an extra couple of days for my building society to provide printouts that they were willing to stamp. I duly took these into the Crawley Job Centre Plus as requested. Interestingly, when I asked for a receipt, I was denied. This seemed extremely odd, as it would have been no significant effort on their part, but it denied me written evidence that I had the provided the documents on a timely basis. As it turns out, this was very important.

I continued to apply for jobs, attend interviews and sign on every fortnight as required. However, I did not receive my JSA promptly. Three weeks after my handing over of the relevant documents, I received a letter from the Worthing Benefit Office stating that my claim would be closed because they had not received my bank statements. Upon enquiry, it emerged that the Worthing Benefit Office did receive my bank statements, but it happened to be exactly one day after they closed my claim. This was two weeks after I had submitted the documents. Whether the fault lay with the Crawley Job Centre Plus or with the Worthing Benefit office, I cannot say. But between them, there was an evident lack of communication. I saw computer records at the Crawley Job Centre Plus where they recorded receipt of the statements, yet the Worthing Benefit Office was unaware of this. Either an integrated computer system or even something as simple as a single phonecall could have prevented this, yet this didn’t seem to occur to the staff.

Having discovered this, common sense would dictate that the claim could simply be reopened at the touch of a button. Common sense, though, is a quality severely lacking in the DWP.

The upshot was that I was asked to make a brand new claim. I was also asked to do a “rapid reclaim” to backdate to when I was first made redundant. I carried on applying for jobs, attending interviews and signing on. When I was eventually offered a job and accepted the role, I still had not received any payment at all. The first payment was not received until after I ended my claim and asked for a P45 from the DWP. This payment was allegedly at the full rate of £71 per week, but was only backdated as far as the second claim. Consequently, for the 10 weeks I was unemployed, I only received an equivalent of £41.59 per week. Given that my monthly rent (on a 1 bed, unfurnished flat, property band B) is £750 per month, I question whether the coalition government consider this enough to live on. I would have to receive 19 weeks’ worth of JSA in order to afford 1 month’s rent. That is, of course, before council tax, food and utilities.

I know that I am much more fortunate than the vast majority of JSA claimants, as my previous job paid more than the average salary and I was subsequently able to build up savings. It was these savings that I lived off during my unemployment, with effectively no help whatsoever from the DWP. Instances of those less fortunate than me are well known, and I’m sure you are aware of which documents the deaths in which DWP decisions have played a crucial role.

Being unemployed is a very stressful time in one’s life. The DWP should be providing services that help to minimise this and to ensure a decent standard of living for those who are seeking work and those who are unable to work. But this ideal is far from reality. Consequently, I would like to propose some recommendations, based on my experience, that could be easily implemented to make others’ experience less stressful and would help to DWP staff to demonstrate a greater level of professionalism:

1) The Job Centre Plus should be permitted to provide receipts to benefits claimants, detailing what documents have been provided and when;

2) The Job Centre plus and the Benefits Office need to talk to one another. If a claim is being considered for closure due to a lack of documentation, it is plain common sense for the benefit Office to phone the Job Centre and ask them if they had received anything;

3) Payments need to be speeded up. Waiting more than 10 weeks for the first payment is not sufficient;

4) Payments need to be increased to reflect the cost of living. As it presently stands, they are not sufficient to provide even the most meagre of livings. This results in considerable financial and emotional stress which is not conducive to either good health or to employment prospects.

5) When a claim has been closed erroneously, and it can be easily demonstrated that the DWP were at fault, as in my case, then the bureaucratic form-filling that currently exists should be lifted, with an authorised manager given the ability to reopen the claim immediately, with no need for additional claims to be made.

So that you aware, a copy of this letter will shortly be published on my blog, which is publically available at where I have further documented my experience of being unemployed.

I’d be interested to know what you think of my letter…

Book review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Having been familiar with Dawkins from some of his articles, videos and tv appearances, it seemed appropriate to go back to the book that made him famous. Also, I’m aware that of late, I’ve rather neglected my science reading (this is only the 4th science book I’ve read this year, compared to 6 fiction and 8 christianity books), so I needed to catch up a bit.

It’s important to note that this is a book written back in the 1970s. The author who wrote it should not be mistaken for the divisive figure that he has become within the last 10 years. So if you were expecting this to be an ad hominem attack, I’m afraid that you will likely be disappointed. I come to this with the same critical eye that I read any other book with, but this is in no way prejudices my review.

The edition I picked up was the 30th anniversary edition, which comes with 3 prefaces and a foreword. They’re well worth reading, with the latest preface being notable for a slightly barbed comment aimed at, though not naming, Mary Midgley, who has been a proverbial thorn in Dawkins’ side for many years.

Reading the first few chapters, the most striking thing is Dawkins’ engaging narrative style. It can be little surprise that subsequent to writing this he was made a professor for the public understanding of science, as his written communication is crystal clear. In addition to the main text, there are some lengthy endnotes which appear to be mostly the product of later editions where there is an extremely defensive tone, in some exasperation of opposition born out of misunderstanding of the ideas and terminology used in the first edition.

At times, these footnotes do irritate as they break up the text a lot. So in this respect, it might have been better to amend the original text. However, this may have been due to an editorial decision, so it would be unfair to criticize Dawkins unduly for this stylistic nuisance.

Although the title of the book implies a book on genetics, this is largely confined to the early couple of chapters with the majority of the book looking at animal behaviour (his specialist subject) from a gene’s point of view. It is easy to see why some might take him for an atomist from these discussions, as he gives little countenance to causes other than genetic inheritance. This may simply be a consequence of his emphasis rather than reflecting his actual views, though such atomism is common, in my experience, amongst those who cite Dawkins as a major source of their scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, one has to recall warnings given early in the book about Dawkins’ use of terminology. Much of the book is written in simile and metaphor, with many adjectives loaded with the capacity to be misread if one reads the text as a literalist.

One of the key themes is altruism. That is, how do organisms end up helping one another out if their genes inheritance follows a rough pattern that might be described as “selfish.” Aren’t selfishness and altruism polar opposites? Dawkins argues that this is not so. In so doing, the prime target in Dawkins’ crosshairs are proponents of “group selection” which (very broadly speaking) favour the idea that animals and plants behave in such a way as to ensure the survival of their particular group. Dawkins argues convincingly that this is an illusion and gives examples where such a theory is left somewhat lacking where the selfish gene theory can provide a reasonable hypothesis.

With all this said, though, it has to be noted that Dawkins includes very little hard evidence in his book. To keep things interesting and engaging for the lay reader, we are presented with multiple anecdotes rather than scientific studies. So, reading with due scepticism, one should be wary of accepting all of Dawkins’ ideas unquestionably. Indeed, shortly after finishing the book, I was given a link to a paper (though unfortunately, it is hidden behind a paywall) which calls into question Dawkins’ “kin selection.”

This brings us to the weak points of the book. It begins in chapter 10, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours’ where Dawkins make a quite startling comment for a scientist:

“One cannot really speak of ‘evidence’ for this idea, but….”

(it’s on page 182 of the 30th anniversary edition, if you want the full quote, it’s rather too long to copy) – yet in the next chapter, where Dawkins introduces the idea of a meme, he makes his statement that faith is

“blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”

Of course, his definition has now become almost as famous as it is erroneous. Yet that fame could mistakenly lead one to think that this was an early example of Dawkins’ departure from science into the world of atheistic diatribe; it absolutely is not. It is merely an example that he used to illustrate his innovative idea on the transmission of information. Of course, subsequent decades of works on memetics have proved fruitless, and it is now abandoned as a serious line of enquiry by all but a vocal minority (here, I think of Susan Blackmore). If this surprises you, I would point you to the last ever edition of the journal of memetics where the situation was summed up quite nicely.

Following on from this, Dawkins looks at game theory which may seem out of place in a biology book, but which serves as a useful introduction to anyone who has not encountered it before. The book concludes with an additional chapter not included in the original edition. It is a concise summary of the follow-up book, The Extended Phenotype. It’s not an extract for a sequel, which I have seen in some publications, but it serves the same purpose, as an advert for the reader to make a further purchase. In this respect, it is quite successful, as it is as immensely fascinating as the rest of The Selfish Gene.

Though some of its ideas have now had severe doubt cast upon them, The Selfish Gene still stands as a wonderful pop science book on biology, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.