Why is an atheist getting confirmed?

‘But to ask, ‘Do you believe in God?’ is rather like asking, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Show me the piece of string and I will tell you how long it is. Tell me what sort of God you have in mind and I will tell you whether I believe in him (or her? Or it?)’ –

Anthony Freeman, God in Us: A case for Christian Humanism

As a few of you might know, I’m being confirmed this September at St Pauls Bow Common, a liberal anglo-catholic church in East London. More of you probably know that I’m an atheist. I’m not writing this post to argue about the existence of god – though I’m happy to discuss that separately. I’m writing to explain what I mean when I say I’m an atheist but that I’m also a Christian, because I realise that to most people those will be contradictory things.

I call myself an atheist because I don’t believe in a real, omnipotent, perfectly good creator god who intervenes in our world: the god that many Christians believe in. I call that the ‘supernatural god’ because it exists in a way which contradicts scientific understanding. I’m not able to believe that, whether I want to or not.

As well as an atheist, I also call myself a Christian, because I think there is a valid (if uncommon) way to understand Christianity that is not supernatural or magical and doesn’t require me to believe in unlikely or impossible things.

My confirmation marks the reconciling of three requirements of my own:

  • Culture: A church that provides music, art and an atmosphere that I enjoy and that can evoke a sense of spirituality
  • Community: A church that is a diverse and desirable community
  • Credibility: A meaningful, non-fairytale and non-supernatural Christianity that doesn’t require me to believe impossible or unlikely things

St Pauls Way Bow Common is a unique place of worship. I’ve been to many churches in many denominations, and I was still surprised to find somewhere that can combine radical brutalist architecture with high church Anglicanism, and incense and bells with children banging tambourines.

As an apologetic yuppy, St Pauls Way is the first community I’ve belonged to in London that is significantly different from my existing friendship groups. I meet people at St Pauls Way I know I simply wouldn’t be in contact with otherwise.

Anglo-Catholic worship is centred on its repeated liturgy, which becomes a familiar poetry. It creates the space and atmosphere for me to explore my own thinking, rather than be dictated to by the sermonising I grew up with. The ‘broad church’ outlook of Anglicanism is on the wane, but I hope it survives just enough for someone with my ‘Christian Atheist’ views to co-exist with evangelicals.

I could just keep quiet about my atheism, as so many in the church do. Or I could just exclude myself from the church. (After all, I’m already excommunicated from my denomination of birth, Irish Presbyterianism, because of my sexuality.) But neither of those options would be honest. And the more that Christian Atheists just drop out quietly, the more the church is shaped by evangelical conservatives, creating a vicious cycle in which it becomes ever more fervent in believing the impossible and excluding the unconventional.

One thing I like about the Church of England is the sense that it is almost like a ‘national service’, every piece of land and every person in the UK is part of a parish, regardless of whether they know it, or choose it. If the Church of England continues to squeeze out people like me, it will in time become a members club, so consumed by ‘believing’ a metaphysical tick-list that it won’t notice when the ethics of Christianity and the kingdom of heaven on earth are delivered by secular society instead. I hope for an alternative: a church that embraces its Christian Atheists, alongside it’s traditionalists, and offers its service to all who can benefit from its sacred space, beauty and care.

‘Religious language is a human attempt to make sense of the human predicament. It has been fought and argued out in the rough and tumble of persecution and politics and academic dispute. This being so, to change it and indeed to change it radically – while remaining a Christian is not only permissible but essential’ –

Anthony Freeman

This is intended to be the first of several blog posts, with future posts addressing:

  • what Christian Atheist belief might look like,
  • my experience of different types of christianity and why I have chosen a liberal anglo-catholic church
  • how being liberated from traditional theist beliefs can renew Christianity
  • how Christian Atheists can understand religious language and practice such as ‘prayer’, ‘the holy spirit’ and the eucharist, and
  • why I’m Christian rather than another religion.

Living la vida locum

Since the General Election we’ve seen bold statements on reducing agency spend in the NHS.  It’s an area with great potential savings, but it also depends on shifting agency and locum work back onto a permanent basis.  Unfortunately, the government’s stance on working conditions and contracts will drive more doctors into locum work, jeopardising the savings and creating a more mercenary NHS.

Speaking in June, Jeremy Hunt announced a crackdown on the agencies “ripping off” the NHS.  Reducing agency spend carries none of the political difficulties of service reconfiguration or overt front-line cuts, making it low hanging fruit for the Health Secretary.  A month later when grilled by the Health Select Committee, Simon Stevens said that reducing the agency bill was the “single most important thing” that providers could do to stabilise budgets.  Training more staff will alleviate this in the long run, but Simon Stevens rightly points out that making these savings will require converting agency posts into full time equivalents.

The reasons these doctors, nurses and other staff have gone to agencies or locum vary.  Sometimes it’s to pursue other part-time work or research, or time needed for family.  Pay can also be higher for locum work at the earlier stages of a career, especially when helped by nifty tax tricks.  A bigger factor for doctors is likely to be the freedom locum can offer on working hours and locations, especially the ability to take more holiday when needed and to set a work life balance.

In contrast, the new junior doctors’ contracts define ‘social hours’ as including Saturdays and up to 9pm in the evenings.  The tweets in the #iminworkjeremy campaign reinforced how many unsocial hours are already worked, not to mention that doctors regularly work beyond their hours or through the breaks.  A petition for a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Hunt received 100,000 signatures within the first day, triggering a debate in Westminster Hall over NHS contracts and conditions.  As seen in that debate, politicians of all parties are happy to acknowledge that the NHS is run off good will, but the approach taken to hospital workers seeks to turn this good will into contractual obligation on the sly.

Jeremy Hunt has threatened to impose the contract anyway, putting strike action into the minds of some junior doctors.  This antagonistic approach will gradually create a mercenary attitude in hospital workers, who will play the market forces of excess demand to get their pay.  If the NHS is set up to extract as much as possible from its staff, we should expect them to extract what they can from the NHS.

DevoBlog: health in the recent devolved elections

The recent elections in the devolved regions haven’t captured much attention in the health sector. It’s easy to forget, with so much going on with DevoManc, that 10 million people in the UK already have health systems that are devolved to an even greater extent. Being from Northern Ireland myself, I’m always keen to share a regional perspective – whether or not it’s asked for! But I also think that with different health policies being tried and tested around the UK, there are opportunities for everyone to learn a lot, if they’re willing to listen.

Health is a huge area of spending for devolved administrations and a priority for voters, but receives less debate in devolved elections than in Westminster. One reason is that even with their powers, the devolved administrations have all maintained systems which are free at point of use and funded through direct taxation. On its key principles, the NHS remains national and as a consequence, so does the political and media discussion about it.

As a regional politician, the best way to get the public’s attention is through very specific and tangible policy pledges. It’s no coincidence that all three devolved regions have famously adopted free prescription charges. Devolved governments cannot borrow and although Scotland has significant tax powers, the SNP has not yet used them to mitigate the austerity to which they object. This has meant that devolved party manifestos focus on specific and tangible pledges, with less effort spent on ‘visions’ or overarching approaches. Where there was a more distinctive approach adopted in Wales, this met with limited success.

Prudent Wales

Health was devolved to the Welsh government in 1999. Unlike England, NHS Wales does not have a ‘purchaser-provider’ split and the private sector plays a smaller role in services. Wales faces a more acute ageing population challenge than most regions in England in addition to higher levels of deprivation, which make it more comparable to the North East of England according to the Nuffield Trust than to the whole of England. Mark Drakeford, Minister for Health and Social Services in Wales, has set out a goal of ‘“Prudent Healthcare”:http://www.prudenthealthcare.org.uk/principles/’ in Wales. The principles included such as “Do only what is needed, no more, no less; and do no harm” are in stark contrast to the grander language of the NHS Five Year Forward View in England. The strategy has drawn criticism as avoiding the real debate on rationing, but England might have lessons to learn from its language in terms of expectation management.

In politics, often the best defence is an attack, and the Conservative Party has taken this approach with Welsh Labour’s management of the NHS since 2010. At times in the last parliament, Conservative backbenchers appeared better informed about health in Wales than in their own constituencies. Welsh Labour have been in government since devolution in 1999 and will likely continue as a minority, having missed out on a majority partly as a result of the Welsh electoral system.

At the end of the last Welsh Assembly Plaid blocked Labour’s e-cigarette bill, feeling that their support was being taken for granted. This isn’t a problem that has gone away for Labour which was unable to nominate a first minister last week, in the face of united opposition from all the other parties. If assembly support no longer comes cheap, Labour might have to be more receptive to the other parties’ manifesto pledges such as Plaid’s 28 day standard for cancer diagnosis or the Lib Dem’s independent commission into the future of health services, in addition to pursuing its own ‘Prudent Healthcare’ approach.

Satisfied Scotland

The NHS in Scotland is divided up into 14 health boards which manage and provide both health and social care in their geographic areas. The Scottish Government set out its strategy for health in its ‘2020 Vision’ published in 2011, which included the integration of health and social care. Legislation to implement this came into effect in April 2016. An OECD report on health systems in the UK found that despite many innovative policies in Scotland, there was limited evidence of significant improvements to outcomes. The public does, however, seem to be more content, with survey results showing that NHS Scotland receives higher rates of satisfaction than other health services in the UK, doubtlessly assisted by a higher level of funding per capita and the highest number of GPs per head.

The SNP is now two seats short of its majority in Holyrood, but this is still a strong result given Scotland’s electoral system. With fewer votes than the Conservatives, the Labour party has over the last decade moved from being the natural party of government, to opposition and now to third place.

The SNP has retained its focus on tangible pledges, such as prescription charges, and went into the election with its headline ‘baby boxes.’ There is consensus among parties in Scotland to protect health spending, with the Conservative party suggesting a novel approach of linking it to inflation and the Westminster block grant. It remains to be seen exactly how much funding this turns out to be.

Patient Northern Ireland

Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland is provided by six regional ‘Health and Social Care Trusts’, created by merging 19 smaller trusts in 2007. These trusts are managed by the Health and Social Care Board (established in 2009) on behalf of the Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety (DHSSPS) in what might be the most confusing set of acronyms in any devolved administration! This all seems set to change soon – the DHSSPS was renamed last week to the ‘Department of Health’ and the Health and Social Care Board might be abolished, its functions moved back into the department. Like NHS Scotland, health and social care are in theory integrated, but in practice Northern Ireland has struggled to keep patients out of acute care settings – England might want to take heed that integration is not always a panacea. There are also severe problems with performance: the region’s waiting list target is 52 weeks compared to 18 weeks in England. Despite having a lower target, it’s still being missed!

Elections in Northern Ireland are followed by weeks or months of negotiating a ‘programme for government’, greatly reducing the relevance of manifestos. All five of the main parties will have the option of being in government under the d’Hondt mechanism, but it is still speculation to say which parties will claim each ministerial role. The DUP will have the choice of remaining in control of health, which is significant given that Ministers can controversially pursue their own agendas.

Health is one of few areas where there is agreement between the parties, the DUP’s pledge for £1billion additional spending on health up to 2021 was soon matched (or copied) by Sinn Féin. The two main parties will dominate the programme for government, but the funding will ultimately depend on whether budget cuts can be made elsewhere to fund this which is difficult when each party is fiercely defensive of their departments. Government in Northern Ireland has the added uncertainty of whether devolved institutions will continue to operate at all. When last year’s Stormont crisis left the region with no Health Minister for several weeks, Simon Hamilton had to momentarily ‘unresign’ in order for NICE approved treatments to be funded!

Evidence and illegal drugs – a toxic mix

Nick Clegg recently revealed a manifesto pledge to hand responsibility for drugs misuse policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health, calling the current policy idiotic because addiction should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal one. The aim is to bring policymaking closer to the evidence. Unfortunately, past experience in this area doesn’t bode well for his success.

In 2002, Labour reclassified cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, with David Blunkett explicitly citing his two sources of evidence as the home affairs committee and medical experts on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Faced with political pressure in the run up to the 2005 election, Tony Blair referred the decision back to the ACMD. Notably, Blair still justified this using emerging medical evidence on ‘skunk’, a more potent variety of cannabis. The ACMD reconsidered cannabis in the light of this evidence, but concluded in 2009 that cannabis should remain a class C drug.

This advice seemed to land on deaf ears. Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced that cannabis would be re-classified and from that point, the relationship with evidence became largely antagonistic. The ACMD’s then chair, Professor David Nutt, eventually resigned from the ACMD at the request of Alan Johnson, who said that he had confused the boundary between science and policy.

Scientists can assess the physical, mental and social harm caused by drugs, but politicians will have to get involved when it comes to assigning those considerations weight. I’d hope that a Minister for Health might do a better job of this, but far more significant changes will be needed in UK politics before we have a chance of reaching a truly evidence based approach to drugs misuse.

Cathleen Revisited

Cathleen Ni Houlihan
“many a child will be born and there will be no mother at the christening”

Cathleen ni Houlihan is the female personification of Ireland. She is depicted as an old woman, with her four fields (the provinces of Ireland) taken from her and left homeless. Yeat’s one act play tells of how she persuaded young Irish men to go off and fight for Ireland and become martyrs, “many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening.” This ‘blood sacrifice’ rejuvenated Cathleen and made her young and alive again.

A female personification of Ireland today should show the blood sacrifice being made by many women in Ireland every day, in the name of the church’s opposition to contraception and abortion.

Ladies first but men before

There have always been some good feminist messages in The Titanic. An independent Rose defies her parents expectations, refusing to marry for wealth. She casts aside society’s class and gender restraints to dance in 3rd class. She doesn’t let Jack get too cling either. I’m not sure what to make of her dogging on the car deck, but the lady was nothing if not a free spirit.

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relationships according to silica chips

Social Network connection diagrams have always received a passing glance from me. Back in the days when facebook was more lax about security, I used to enjoy the ‘advanced search’ function, for example, “School: Methody, Religion: Atheist” or “Location: Belfast, Gender: Male, Interested in: Men” would always provide an interesting evening of facebook creeping.

This tool, providing mere pastime curiosity for me, was rightly scrapped after being used for brutal repression by others. Homophobic religious fundamentalists querying facebook for Saudi Arabian lesbians, such new technologies that had gone a small way to liberating these women, was turned and used to help their persecution.

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Chrismukkah

Long time no postings, apologies to my regular readers (yes I mean you, Bolivian scented candle selling spam bots) Maybe I’ll find time over Christmas to write something about what I’ve been doing instead, if I develop code names for all the people involved and write things very cryptically. I should extend my traditional secular and politically correct christmas greeting to you all. Have a happy non denominational winter season of festivities celebrating the common human spirit of generosity as sometimes seen in the act of giving and receiving gifts which may or may not posess theological connotations. Of course we’re still closer to Hanukkah so I should choose a Seth Cohen style greeting.

All this talk of Cameron’s bull dog attitude has reminded me how thin advocates for the European Project are on the ground. Not only is defending the current state of the EU painful, but advocating further integration seems inconceivable. Not being prone to patriotism myself, much of the Euro bashing rhetoric goes over my head. Patriotism? Those who argue agaisnt further integration or even for complete withdrawal don’t seem to suspect patriotism is involved, no, the term ‘national interest’ has been bandied about quite a lot. The coalition government has from its formation depended a lot upon the argument “yes university fees are wrong, but sometimes in the national interest…”, ‘national interest’ features heavily in any discussion of economic policy, it is used to justify policy more often employment or recovery, becoming suspiciously synonymous with ‘the market confidence’. In the latest Europe spat, the national interest seemed suspiciously similar to the interest of the City. The deciding factor in Blair’s persuading the country to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan was also the national interest. (Suggestions that women’s rights would be protected appeared only retrospectively.)

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SPQR 2, the narrative of profligacy

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A few weeks before setting off to Rome I’d read a few amusing news stories about ‘gladiator fights’ happening outside the Colosseum. Apparently the gladiator impersonators had formed gangs and were using violence and intimidation against other would-be gladiators, as well as against tourists to force them to pay up for photographs.

In response, the Italian police sent in agents, undercover in gladiator costumes and togas. Sure enough, a ‘sword fight’ did ensue, other undercover police then stepped in to make arrests as reported by The Guardian and the BBC.
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Senatus Populusque Romanus

I slip in the time to post here just in the gap I have between passing my Driving Theory Test and frantically starting to pack and prepare for leaving for university on the 2nd October. Perhaps before I launch into my ramble about my very Hepburn-esque Roman Holiday I will post some little fillers to videos, articles and other time fillers of the week.

What I’ve been listening to:

Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” got me in the mood for visiting the real thing last week. 2-4-6-8 time to transubstantiate!

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