Tag Archives: morality

A food bank is not just for Christmas

Yesterday saw a debate in the House of Commons on food banks. This was secured after a petition started by Jack Monroe which received over 140,000 signatures in just a few days. I was not able to watch the whole debate as I was at work at the time, but did catch up with some bits and listened to an account from my father, who is currently the operations manager of a food bank in the home counties.

The overall impression that he gave was that there were some good backbenchers but that the behaviour of the front bench was disgraceful. The secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen laughing at the debate and also left early, thus refusing to listen to a vital debate on an area of great public concern for which his department is responsible. This abdication of responsibility is not behaviour becoming of a person who is fit to execute office with which they are charged. Esther McVey also did nothing to show that she understood the problems by stating, “As we are saying, it is positive that people are reaching out to support other people.”

When obtaining a voucher for a food bank, those in need are asked to state why they are having to resort to the use of the food bank. This data is gathered by the Trussell Trust, though to my knowledge this has not yet been published as a full scale study. From my father’s experience of administering the vouchers, the overwhelming reason is because of the benefit reforms pushed through by the current government.

The big frustration that arises is that the Conservatives know that the rise in food banks is a result of their policies. Britain isn’t eating because of what our leaders have done in the name of austerity. Yet the Conservatives live in a state of denial, which was exemplified by the debate. They spent more time trying to blame Labour for the increase in the last three and a half years and showed no care or humanity for the half a million or so people who have been helped as a result of the food banks.

The debate, however, was poorly attended for most of its duration. I have yet to investigate this, though I read several notes from people claiming that no more than 50 or 60 Conservatives were in the chamber at any one time, yet when it came to a vote, they mustered enough people to win the vote, though for each who voted for Conservative denialism (a vote, in my view, which demonstrates a callousness and a deep disrespect that is a shame to our common humanity), there were opposition members who didn’t come along. For any member who represents a constituency which has no present need of a food bank, I can understand why they might not have attended, though given the widespread nature of the problem, they could have stood in solidarity with their neighbours.

There is much more that could be written, though I would rather move on to a more practical and forward-looking proposal.

Christmas is less than a week away. This is a very busy time for many people for a variety of reasons. This is no less so for those who help keep the food banks running, collecting and distributing essential items to those in need.

Many people will also have either finished or come close to finishing their Christmas shopping. My request to you is that as you do you shopping for your family or friends or just for yourself, that you pick up two or three additional non-perishable items that you can donate to your local food bank. If you are not sure where yours is, simply Google “food bank [place name]” and you should very quickly be able to find one. There are contact details on any Trussell Trust website so you can find out where to drop items off. If you cannot drop food off, please consider a monetary donation.

As busy as Christmas is, the need for food banks doesn’t end there. There will be people who are struggling to eat at New Year, in the 2nd week of January, the 3rd and the 4th. Please continue to support on an ongoing basis. A food bank is not just for Christmas. Please help ensure that help is available for those who need it. If a society is judged by how it treats its elderly, its poor, its disabled and its most vulnerable, then let’s demonstrate to our politicians that society is more decent than that which they are attempting to engineer.

It is a tragedy that in a modern society we have to have food banks. It is a shame on our leaders that so many are denial that the policies they have planned, voted for and implemented are a leading cause of the massive increase in food poverty over the last three and a half years. Jack’s petition was one form of democracy and we will have another in a year and a half’s time to change the current status quo. Until then, our humanity compels us to help one another.

Return from blogging break

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Hello all. I’m back from my blogging break. There’s been an awful lot happening in the last couple of months. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head that have gone by without being written down or explored. I’ve made a few comments on other blogs or news/comment websites, but taking a break from the blog was necessary and I think it’s done some good.

I must confess that I have done some writing during the ‘off’ period, mostly in August. Though many are not finished, I thought I’d give a taster of what’s to come, either to whet your appetite or else warn you to stay away.

At some point, I plan to finish my series ‘The Nature and Origin of Morality’ which has lain dormant for a few years now. I tried an initial sketch when the opportunity arose when guest blogging for The Big Bible blog a few months ago, but I hope to build on this if I get a few days uninterrupted to think and write.

One of the main reasons for the break has been that I moved house. I have written two bits on this. One is a detailed account of the process; the other is a list of hints and tips that I either employed and found useful or things I wish I had done but didn’t. The former was written more for my own reference, but some of you may find it interesting. The latter is more for your benefit or, if I word it correctly for search engine optimisation (SEO) it might help a complete stranger.

Over the summer, one of the big buzz topics has been feminism and the online reaction to some of its outspoken advocates. I’ve commented a little on some points and offered messages of support who have been victims of online bullying, but this piece will hopefully clarify my position of why I will support many feminists but why I don’t adopt the term myself, preferring the expression ‘egalitarian’.

Another topic, as triggered by the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that of whistleblowing. I think, given this name of this blog, I ought to explore the nature of speaking the truth and what consequences that has and whether there ought to be any restrictions on doing so.

I’m working on a couple of pieces on christian belief, atheism and existentialism with the slightly provocative working titles of ‘Sympathy for atheists’ and ‘On the non-existence of God’. These are quite embryonic in their development and have yet to start their journey from my brain to my fingertips.

One piece that I started a couple of years ago, but have struggled with the wording explores the fallibility of human nature and the wrongdoings that are committed by christians, sometimes in the name of christianity. I’ve restarted it a couple of times and shelved it again and again. This time, I’m aiming to finish it. If you can goad me on or offer encouragement, then that’ll be much appreciated.

The most ambitious project, which I’ve started work on, but am a long way (maybe 2-3 years) from finishing is a statement of faith. I realise that I don’t have anything like that which is at all thorough on this blog, so my intention is to look at the 129 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, looking at the answers given and giving my own response. I’m aiming to do one per week, in the hope that this will be as much an investigation into my own beliefs as it is an exposition. The objective, as ever, will be to provide food for thought.

In amongst these, I’ll also be putting in some book reviews. Specifically, these are:

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Longitude – Dava Sobel
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
Robotics:A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

So that’s the plan. I can’t say it’s all a promise I’ll stick to. I may well get stuck with some of these posts and have to shelve them for a while. Other things may crop up which will intrude, either because they are interesting or there is some need that must be addressed. Meanwhile, the offer is always open to host any guest writers. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’ve got things you’d like to see here, whether it be a point of clarification over some issue or just something you think would be interesting, then please send your suggestions in. I’m always on the lookout for further book recommendations. I’ve got a few hundred on my reading list, but it can never be too long.

So what about you? Been up to anything interesting over the summer?

Thoughts on “post-birth abortion”


 Last week’s highlighting of an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME) on “post-birth abortion” [sorry, the article may have pulled from the site, which is why this link no longer works] prompted much comment, among the most cogent of which was Andrew Brown of the Guardian. Another post I highly recommend you read is at Phil’s Treehouse, where a comparison is made with Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal”.

The overriding verdict from both conservatives and liberals has been that the paper is abhorrent. This is a view I agree with, but here I wanted to go beyond the knee-jerk reaction and to think through why it is abhorrent. This is, of course, linked in with the notion of abortion in general, so I think I am compelled to state my thinking on the matter, which I have until now been generally reluctant to do. The reason for this reluctance is that abortion is not an issue that directly affects me though it does affect those close to me.

Where I stand

In many debates there are often a wide spectrum of views, though the debate can often be cast in terms of polarity. In this case there is ‘pro choice’ on one hand and ‘pro life’ on the other. If I had to pick one, I would have to consider myself ‘pro life’ though this is more a case of ‘leaning’ towards this view than necessarily agreeing on all points shared by those who identify themselves as such.

Arguments I have often read from pro choice advocates rely heavily on the idea that it is solely the woman’s choice what she does with her own body. This is a very good argument and one that I would normally support. However, implicit within this, though, is the idea that the foetus being aborted is not an “actual person” however one might try to determine that (see further down for details). Taking the argument reductio ad absurdum it could be argued that it is entirely my choice as to whether to pull the trigger on a gun held against a bystander’s head. Yes, we have free will, but we have a moral duty to exercise it well. Exercising the free will to end another person’s life without their explicit consent is, in my view, morally wrong is the majority of circumstances.

That said, I believe abortion is justified in some cases. Such cases include, but are not limited to, instances where the health (mental or physical) of either the mother or the child is at significant risk (although this is admittedly very difficult to quantify). While there are arguments based on unplanned pregnancies (where those brought about by violent means, I would consider may likely cause significant psychological distress and thus would be justified by my previous sentence) or economic considerations do need to be considered but that in such instances adoption is preferable to termination. How to improve the adoption system is a matter that would need to be addressed, though I would make no such attempt here.

I know this brief discussion is all too brief, but I want to get on the JME paper.

The state of the debate

One weapon used by both sides in the debate is that of semantics. This is highly evident in the JME paper where the term “post-birth abortion” is preferred to “infanticide” even though in substance they are exactly the same thing. But the relative novelty of the former lacks the raw impact of the latter.

Pro life supporters tend to word their views in such a way as to portray an unborn child as being a human. Pro choice supporters will often distinguish between an unborn child and one that has been born.

One thing that made the JME paper stand out was that its rhetoric did not distinguish between the recently born and those that were unborn. In this respect, their view seemed to be more akin to the pro life group. However, the crucial difference here was that the newly born were only considered “potential persons” rather than actual human beings.

The growth and development of any person is a gradual thing. The law is generally not very good at recognising this. For example, it is legal for someone to purchase alcohol on their 18th birthday, but not the day before. The age of consent is 16, but not 15 months & 11 years. While recognising that there may be good reasons for setting age limits, I can see no scientific reason for such sharp boundaries. If anyone has any references for these, please pass them on to me.

I think the same is true of the abortion debate. According to Marie Stopes  the time limit for an abortion is 24 weeks, but can be extended “if there are foetal abnormalities”. The scientific basis for the 24 week limit is interesting. If you do a search for “24 weeks evidence” then you come up with references to 2 reports from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in 2010.

Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/25/human-foetus-no-pain-24-weeks
BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10403496
Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/7853321/Foetus-cannot-feel-pain-before-24-weeks.html
RCOG: http://www.rcog.org.uk/news/rcog-release-rcog-updates-its-guidance

The issue that was considered here was whether or not the foetus was capable of feeling pain. The paper that is linked to is not a research paper, but rather a summary of other research; all of which is referenced, but much of which is hidden from public view behind paywalls. This has the effect of making the methodologies and resulting evidence extremely difficult to review and assess. What I would be particularly interested are the margins of error. For example, was it a case that there was no evidence found that any babies felt pain before this period, or was it an average with a margin of error of 10 days either side?

Giving RCOG the benefit of the doubt, and assuming there are sound medical reasons for supposing that a foetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks, it is still a huge leap from there to link that to an abortion limit. Abortion is not merely the affliction of something which is painful; it is the termination of life (or a potential life).

However, the pain argument does not figure in the line of reasoning provided by the JME paper. The word itself only crops up 3 times (in close succession) and is dismissed as being an irrelevant factor.

Instead the main consideration here is whether or not “the well-being of the family is at risk.” This would seem to coincide with my own view on when an abortion is acceptable. However, this remains incredibly hard to quantify. Having a child is always going to carry some risk and that cannot be eliminated. It is a question of how much risk one is willing to tolerate.

The justification for the paper

The abstract states that the proposition hangs on 3 points:

1) That fetuses [sic] and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons,
2) the fact [sic] that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and
3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people.

To deal briefly with point 3, I would actually agree. The use of the term ‘always’ means that the opposite statement would be that “adoption is always in the best interest of actual people”. Logically, this is a universal statement, so could be falsified by a single counter-example. Though I do not have such an example to hand, I think it is more probable that such an example exists than not. As noted earlier, I think adoption is preferable but it cannot be a panacea for unwanted pregnancies.

On the other two points, the crux of the issue is the demarcation between a “potential person” and an “actual person.”  The authors boldly state “Both a fetus [sic] and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’” The lines that follow, which ought to attempt to justify this statement, wholly fail to do so. Instead, there is a line of thinking given about whether or not a person can make plans for themselves. However, none of that provides adequate reason for the supposition quoted.

In the JME paper no specific time limit was proposed. I interpret this as meaning the authors simply failed to put a number on it, rather than proposing that there should be no limit. But this really then asks very similar questions to those involved in the pre-birth abortion debate. Personally, I think the authors failed to propose such a limit because they lacked any evidence that would back up such a proposal.


The key issue is when one considers a human being to have become an “actual person.” The wilful causation of the death of such a person is, in my view, morally wrong, unless it can be shown that it prevents greater harm to that individual or another at a later time. Some may wish to add the word “innocent” into that, though my own view is that the statement stands well enough as it is.

The paper’s authors acknowledge that a foetus is a human being, though deny it the status of “actual person”, downgrading it to “potential person.” The justification provided for this is weak to the point of non-existence. I can see no good reason for setting demarcation on the development of a human being from the point of being a foetus through a continuum of development into a newborn baby and beyond.

Therefore, I would regard a foetus as having the same moral right to life as a child about to be born, a child just born, a toddler, an adolescent and an adult. Wilfully taking their life away is an act of murder and one I would not support.

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.

The News of the World: some thoughts on the cause of its fall & the consequences

I am writing this this offline on the evening of the 7th of July. I know the news has been moving very fast this week, so I apologise if this is already out of date by the time I get round to publishing it online.

Much has been said and written in the last few days about the News of the World hacking scandal. By the time I left my office this evening, it had been announced that this Sunday’s paper would be the last and that the proceeds of the final sales would go to some unnamed “good causes.” For the avoidance of libel, I acknowledge that the allegations made against the News of the World are as yet unproven, and any references to these actions ought to be read in that light.

So why did the paper close. It seems to me that the watershed moment in the hacking affair was the revelation that the phone of Milly Dowler had been hacked. Before this, the dominant theme of the story had been the phones of politicians and celebrities; the usual tabloid fodder. Though the alleged actions were illegal, there was nothing that sparked a widescale moral outrage at them; we are used to those in positions of power using underhanded and dubious means to achieve their goals. But the hacking of the phone of a murder victim seemed to flick a switch that had hitherto been unnamed. The escalation of the revelations from there only compounded the problem.

At this point, there began a pressure campaign on those who advertised in the NOTW to withdraw their funding. I cannot say for certain how much this pressure was applied by those who do not read [sic] the NOTW, though the impression I got from my limited viewpoint was that the non-readers were in the majority. Had it merely been a boycott from buying the paper, I am not convinced the paper would have folded with such rapidity, since any boycott would have been from those who never bought it in the first place, which is pointless. As the majority of a paper’s profits are made from its advertisers, removing this source of funding was always going to hurt the paper. When it became clear that the paper would not be a viable source of profit, it was decided to terminate the paper’s operation. It would be nice to think it was an act of conscience, but I don’t think this is the case. The business of the paper is the business of Rupert Murdoch: making money. The evidence seen so far seems to point to the idea that all actions taken were motivated by the love of money; even if sometimes this exhibited itself indirectly.

A further course of action which was possible, and which I advocated, was to pressurise the vendors of the paper into not selling it. Unless the vendors had a contract with the paper (or its parent company) then I cannot see that it would be impossible for a vendor to choose not to sell it.

What I find interesting to reflect on is that in spite of this being hailed as a victory for public opinion, it was corporations that ultimately swayed the matter to the extent that the paper folded. I don’t think that it would have done so if the advertisers hadn’t pulled out. So is it the case that the advertisers were the real champions of ethics? Well, I did find a list of those advertisers and it makes for interesting reading. It is not exactly made up of companies who are well-known for being champions of corporate social responsibility and one could certainly write several books containing the accounts of the misdemeanours by the likes of Tesco and Asda, amongst others.

So I would propose that the closing of the paper, while initiated by a mob mentality motivated by moral outrage, was ultimately decided by those corporations who feared for their own profits being damaged by the public boycotting of their own products and services in protest, had they not withdrawn their advertising funds.

Call me a cynic, but the whole thing seems to be about money and greed, rather than a fundamental sense of right or wrong.

At the time of writing, there was an unsubstantiated rumour going round that there was to be a planned merger of The Sun and the NOTW anyway, and that today’s announcement was merely an accelerant to that process. Part of this rumour included the proposition that the websites thesunonsunday.com and thesunonsunday.co.uk had been registered as domain names on the 5th of July this year. If someone who is more knowledgeable on how to check such propositions than I could confirm or deny this, that would be much appreciated.

So now that the announcement of cessation of publication has been made, what will be the likely outcome? Well, in the short-term it looks like we will have one fewer right-wing newspaper on the shelf on a Sunday. It’s not a huge step of progress, but it is a mild improvement. Ideally, I’d rather see more left-leaning papers as the closest we have to these are The Independent and The Guardian, and these are not exactly bastions of liberal freethought at all times.

Given the close links between the NOTW and The Sun, I think it likely that there will be a limited number of transfers going on, though I think it reasonable to assume there will be some job losses. While the problems at the paper may have been fairly widespread, I strongly doubt that everyone who worked at the paper was party to the hacking. So inevitably there will be some innocent people who are going to lose their livelihoods as a result; and what prospects do they have? Though the NOTW was never the most respectable of papers, I would not like to cast aspersions on everyone who worked there. If I try and put myself in the shoes of a budding young journalist, and the NOTW was the only national paper to offer me a job I would be tempted to take it. But given the seriousness of the allegations, will the fact that time spent at the NOTW will be on someone’s CV consign them to history as far their journalistic career goes. I have spoken to a number of people who formerly worked at Arthur Andersen, and who were not able to get a job in accountancy after Enron, in spite of the fact that they may have been very good at their jobs and acted at all times with the utmost integrity.

What of the prime minister and his involvement? I would like to think he’d resign as a sense of duty and seeking to do what is best for the country; though I have never been given any reason to suppose that he has anything but his own interests and those of his friends and business associates at heart. It is now 10pm and I just saw on a preview of Newsnight that Andy Coulson is expected to be arrested tomorrow (the 8th). This may damage the prime minister a lot, though unfortunately the British public are a fickle lot with short memories. I suspect the Lib Dems lack the spine to pull out of the coalition and will seek to hang on to the bitter end of the 5 year term. By this time, the NOTW will be a distant memory, as will the 2012 Olympics and many other national embarrassments, though it is yet to be seen whether or not Ed Milliband will, by then, have actually done anything productive.

Book Review: The Meaning of It All by Richard Feynman

This is a very short book from Feynman (~120 pages of actual text) and comprises of the transcripts of 3 lectures he gave in April 1963. They are as far removed from his technical lectures as can be imagined, so are easily accessible to the lay reader. The impression I got was that these lectures are Feynman trying to find his own mind, by talking out loud and seeing where the train of thought goes. In fact he admits that he covers all the key ground he wants to in the first two lectures, and these are noticeably more coherent than the last one, which takes up nearly half the book.

He covers various topics, though the key themes are uncertainty and the limits of science. He does touch on some potentially incendiary ground such as religion and politics, though he always measured and reasonable, never resorting to polemicism or off-handed dismissal. There is some evidence of the threat presented by the Cold War in the lectures.

Feynman’s virtue as a scientist is present throughout, as he is quick to put down the “argument from authority” though he doesn’t quite name it as such. Probably of most interest to the modern reader is the interaction between science and religion. Here, Feynman takes a very reasonable and fair-minded approach, more akin to Stephen Jay Gould than the ranting polemic of Richard Dawkins. He is also quite firm in the belief that scientific methodology cannot rule on morality; that is, there are subjective things in this world that are beyond the reach of science.

At times, he does get close to waffling a little bit, and the fact the book is taken verbatim from his lectures means that he interrupts himself on more than a few occasions. The book certainly provides food for thought, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the place of science in society. It is probably not the best introduction to Feynman and his work (for that, I would recommend Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman) though for those familiar with this other work, this will be a valued addition to your RPF library.

Book Review: Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

This is probably Hardy’s most famous novel, centred around one of the most well-known characters in all of 19th century literature. At a basic level of reading, this is the tale of a girl who has been wronged and her struggle to find for herself something resembling a normal life. There are some similarities with Hardy’s earlier work, The Mayor of Casterbridge, only where Michael Henchard was the perpetrator who later had his past catch up with him, Tess is very much the victim but who, in the eyes of the society she inhabits, is a pariah for what has happened to her.

One of the main themes of the book is forgiveness, but it is also a comment on Victorian moralism and pietist hegemony in the quasi-religious society at the time. The key question posed is whether or not Tess really did anything wrong that required forgiveness. In the end, she only committed one wrongful act and paid the price for that. More than that, there is also the tale of discovery and redemption for Angel Clare, who discovers that his unforgiveness towards Tess is unfounded and that his love for her can conquer any obstruction in their way.

The book is beautifully written and captures the spirit of the age perfectly. Over a hundred years since it was written, it still stands as one of the greatest works of literature in the English language.

Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

I first came across this book when I read an extract from it in Francis Collins’ anthology, Belief.

The book falls into two parts. The first is a rebuttal to various arguments put against Christianity, in an almost FAQ style format. The second half then puts forward a more positive case, giving reasons and evidence for why Christianity is true. This appealed to me a lot, as most apologetic writing I have read tends to deal with one of these whilst not stating the other side particularly well. (For the former, see the writings of Alister McGrath; for the latter, see Tom Wright).

The style of arguments will be very familiar to those who have read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and indeed Lewis is quoted frequently and properly credited at the end as being a significant source of inspiration for this book. So really, what it boils down to, is a 21st century update of that former apologetic work. This is not the only author from whom much has been borrowed. The chapter on the resurrection reads very much like a summary of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of Son of God.

Now Tim Keller comes across in the book as an immensely likeable chap; he is very warm and rarely patronising. In fact the one verse that came to my mind was 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have; but do this with gentleness and respect.” This book is an outliving of that motif, which is one that I hold dear to my heart and always have in mind whenever I am questioned (by others or myself) on my faith.

There are hints in this book, which is more evident in other things he writes, that Keller is no fool. The footnotes give a hint to the depth and breadth of his study, and frequent reference is made to his own real-life experiences of leading a church in New York. But this mighty intellect is a little restrained here, in order to make the writing more accessible to a lay audience, and not be over-cerebral. This at once gives the book its greatest strength and one of its key weaknesses. The strength is that is highly accessible, and there is no complicated theological discussion or over-philosophising at the risk of losing sight of the goal. This does then have the drawback that it is not a watertight case. To most of the arguments presented there could always be at least one counter-argument. However, Keller has not had the time or space to cover all comebacks and possible disagreements.

The best chapters are those on the resurrection (mentioned above), justice and suffering. Where I personally disagree with him was on page 142 (and the subsequent chapter) where he attempts to show that people already know God exists. If this were the true, then it would not be such a bone of contention as it has been throughout human history.

It is very close to being a great book but the incompleteness of the arguments prevent of being such; nonetheless, it is still one of the better books out there in the field of modern christian apologetics and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in, and open-minded about, christianity, or has recently done something like an Alpha course, or Christianity Explored; though I doubt it will convince those who are determined not to believe.

Book Review: The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann

I read this as a sort of ‘Easter follow-up’ to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I’d heard various good things about the book and have seen it referenced by quite a few people as being highly influential in their view of the crucifixion.

From the very start, this was not what I was expecting at all. The book begins not so much with theological exposition, but with a sociological look at the relevance of belief in the church and of the church’s place in society. From the outset, Moltmann states that his intention is to give food for thought and stimulate discussion, rather than give a systematic theology of the cross.

What follows is an extremely tightly written work. That is, is it not easily broken down and each sentence is carefully thought through and argued; and it is not all that easy to follow the argument, if I’m honest. There were numerous times I found myself having to go back on myself, re-read certain passages and try and find the origin of the thread. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to the way Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, with lots of sentences starting with a reference (e.g. therefore, so, since, etc.) to what had been discussed before.

A very large focus is put on the emphasis of God suffering as a result of the crucifixion, and of exploring the theology of what it means for God to be in Jesus and therefore for God to be crucified. Now a lot of my reading, and probably most people’s, will be coloured by their own pre-existing ideas about the nature of trinitarian theology and what it means for Jesus to be identified as God and yet abandoned and rejected by God on the cross. In this discussion, Moltmann certainly succeeds in giving a stimulus to thought and careful consideration, although from my point of view I did not agree with him on every point, most notably the fact that here he does not regard the resurrection to be an actual historical event, as was the crucifixion, agreeing more with Bultmann and less with Wright on this matter.

However, his conclusion at the end of the chapter which is given the same title as the book is a beautiful summary of a part of the gospel. Moltmann does not give a systematic theology here, though his concise conclusion is brilliantly written and eminently quotable.

From here, he suddenly jumps off in an apparent tangent for the last 50 pages of the book to his “liberation theology” where he looks at personal psychology and at politics. In here, he echoes an important distinction made by Karl Barth on the separation of faith from religion and proposes that the truth of Christianity be as far removed as possible from religious superstition, the root of so many misguided attacks on Christianity, which we still see today.

Overall, it is very odd book, in that some quite meaty theology is sandwiched between two sections on sociology. There is much to think about here though it is not the most accessible read I have come across by a long way. So would I recommend it? Just about; but you might want to keep a dictionary close to one hand and a Bible close to the other.

Book Review: A Place For Truth ed. by Dallas Willard

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking and highly enlightening collection from some highly notable thinkers and authors. I won’t go through all 15 chapters, but will highlight a few. These are all taken from lectures and discussions which have been presented at the Veritas Forums over the course of several years. They do seem to have been copied verbatim, which does mean that some slips of the tongue or mishearings have crept into the text, though this is a minor point that could be addressed by a second issue.

The start of the book is saturated with the idea of truth. In fact the word itself is used so many times, the reader can start to feel as though they are beaten over the head with it. However, the discussions do widen out and cover various topics such as, inter alia, science, morality, theodicy, ontology and philosophy.

The reason I chose this book was because of a few particular names that jumped out at me; my having been impressed by other works of theirs which I have read: Francis Collins, Alister McGrath and N.T. Wright. Now the contributions by these particular individuals is pretty much taken from their other works which I have already read. So for example, if you have read Francis Collins’ The Language of God, then his chapter will contain little that is new to you. So the most novel chapters were those from whom I had not come across before.

There is a distinct Christian bias to the book, though there are some discussions which put across alternative views which help to add some amount of balance to the proceedings.

As with the nature of any composite work such as this, the contributions do vary in quality and style. There will be some that you agree with and some that you disagree with. The one disappointment I had was with the chapter by Hugh Ross, whose arguments appeared very weak and insubstantial, particularly given the high quality of thinking and delivery that was evident elsewhere. On a few occasions, there was also a bit of a bias towards the american education system, which distances a few of the speakers from the non-american audience.

This is very much a book of the current time with the issues being discussed and the other recent writings referred to being very much focused on issues that have come to the fore in only the last decade or so. So as a comment on the status of truth and various related issues, this is a very good guide on the modern thought, though I suspect that it will not have a shelf life of more than 10 years, as by then discussions will have moved on and some of the contributions may appear outdated.