Sunday, 17 July 2011

A Review of The Ledge, by Tulpesh Patel

The Ledge, written and directed by Matthew Chapman, begins with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) standing on the titular ledge, biding his time until noon when he must decide whether or not to jump to his death. Trying to talk him out of jumping is a policeman (Terence Howard), who that morning was told that he is infertile and therefore the two children he has raised are most certainly not his. The story behind Gavin’s suicidal mission unfolds through flashbacks: Gavin falls for his neighbour’s wife, Shana (Liv Tyler), hires her to work for him, and starts an affair. Of course the husband, Joe (Patrick Wilson), doesn't take it too well when he finds out, forcing Gavin to choose whether or not to sacrifice his own life in order to save Shana’s. So far, so derivative.

The reason for a review of this film appearing on a humanist society blog, and what is supposed to elevate The Ledge above your bog-standard quasi-psychological thriller, is that Gavin is an Atheist (with a definite capital 'a') and Joe is a fundamentalist, fire and brimstone Christian. The film is set up to be an exploration of life, love and sacrifice in the context of religious belief, and is unique, as far as I am aware, in having a strident atheist take a central role.

The Ledge suffers a great deal from trying to shoe-horn in so many issues that none of them can be given the thought and nuanced approach that they deserve. It doesn’t so much explore issues of belief so much as present reasons why religion is bad. Neither the theist nor the atheist will learn anything from this superficial presentation of ideas. A typical shouty exchange between the god-fearing and the heathen goes something like: "What about war and poverty?!"; "Well, what do you tell a dying child who hopes to see his parents again?!".

A checklist of controversies is ticked off with little thought to how their inclusion might add to anything of real value to the film. Gavin's flatmate is perfect example: does a character who has all of five minutes of screen time have to be gay, HIV-positive, searching for an accepting faith and wanting to get married? There’s a lack of subtlety that pervades the entire film, with a sledgehammer approach also noticeable in the direction. The cool, shaggy-haired atheist's apartment is always presented as bright and breezy; the clean-cut, uptight Christian on the other hand lives in an angular, claustrophobic and invariably dark apartment, as if his faith in god also required him to keep his blinds closed all the time.

I was surprised by the strength of the cast given the potential controversial central issues, but the two biggest names really fail to deliver. Terence Howard's performance as the policeman is reflective of the film as a whole – overwrought and unconvincing. That the cop would pop out to answer phone calls to discuss his wife's infidelities whilst he is trying to talk someone down from the top of a building is also incredulous. His entire side-story adds nothing to the film, save for an opportunity to ram home a message about forgiveness at the end. Liv Tyler's lip quivered a lot and Charlie Hunnam is forgettable. The film's saving grace (for want of a better phrase) is Patrick Wilson, who is impressive as the simmering pot that eventually boils over.

The film’s reception has been mixed to say the least. Whilst nothing that generates debate and reflection can ever be a wholly bad thing, most people I watched the film with at the National Federation for Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies’ AGM were more interested in discussing the inexplicable appearance of a ball gag rather than any of the issues the film tries to address, which I think says a lot about how much The Ledge missed its mark.

Ultimately, the film is unlikely to cause the stir that its makers might have hoped for, or set the box office alight. The Ledge certainly doesn't live up to its potential, but it's still worth a watch and deserves some credit for bringing atheism to the fore.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

BBC's the Big Questions - Thoughts on the Young People's Special, by Tulpesh Patel

I posted with some excitement a couple of weeks back (see below) about being offered the opportunity to take part in the BBC Big Questions Young People’s Panel on the future and relevance in young people’s lives. Sadly it fell through, they managed to confirm someone else to take part while I faffed about with thesis corrections and trying to arrange dentist appointments, but I was happy to see Amber Wright, President of the University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society, representing a Birmingham AHS society, alongside Alison Rawlinson from (I think) the Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists.

Unfortunately, it took me too long to get round to writing this and it’s disappeared from BBC iPlayer Hopefully it will be up on Youtube soon, because it made for fascinating watching. In the meantime here are some thoughts on the program and the issues being debated.

The main question under discussion was whether religion will survive another generation, with secondary issues such as such as the recruitment of children into religion, the reaction of religion to advances in scientific understanding and the increasingly liberal attitudes of younger generations. The panellists were Shane Lynch of Boyzone and Coronation Street fame, Radio 1 DJ Nihal Arthanayake, writer and critic, Bidisha Bandyopadhyay and Joanna Jepson, reverend at the London School of Fashion and one-time mentor on Channel 4’s lamentable Make Me A Christian.

The discussion covered familiar ground.  Joanna Jepson began by basically saying that that religion was for and made by humans, thereby pretty much undermining everything she had to say on the value of religion for the rest of discussion. Debate on the religious indoctrination of children quickly turned to faith schools. Faiths schools are almost required by religions in order to keep them going; exposure of their children to other religions, and secular and/or atheist thinking in anthema to those who wish to foster the narrow minded dogmatism that maintaining religion requires. The arguments against faith schools are many any strong and don’t need to be repeated here.

The real damage is not that children in faith schools leave not ‘believing’ in evolution, but that they are not equipped with the tools of rational, reasoned thought that make an understanding and appreciation of evolution obligatory. An important point made by and RE teacher in the audience, was care needed not to conflate the academic study of religion and the indoctrination of children into a specific religion according to the dictat of the faith schools; it is just the latter that secularists and atheists have a problem with.

Nihal made two important points, that didn’t  get the attention that they deserved during the discussion. First that religion is very closely tied up with culture and community, and second that parents often use religion to constrain their children’s behaviour within cultural boundaries – making cultural issues, particularly surrounding the role of women, a matter of punishment and control by a punitive god in order maintain patriarchal hegemony.  

Members of the audience, one particularly heatedly, also cried out that atheism and science was also just a faith, when careful consideration of the definition of faith and its concomitants shows that it clearly isn’t. AC Grayling has stated it most clearly: “Faith is the negation of reason. Reason is the faculty of proportioning judgement to evidence, after first weighing the evidence. Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence”.  Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of [or rather to] faith’, was mentioned on more than one occasion as a virtue by religious apologists in the audience (including, the guy was famous for singing this disco anthem).

Stephen Jay-Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ also featured, but was wonderfully shot down by an audience member who pointed out that this cannot be the case given the number of scientific claims made by religions and their texts. Where religion has anything to say about the natural state of the world, science and faith collide; faith has always been, and undoubtedly always will be, on the conceding side.

To date, religion has also claimed to the sole arbiter of issues of morality, ‘where do athieists get their morality if not from God’ was shouted from the audience more than once. Humanists have their answers based on philosophical thought, but even discussions of good and evil are falling within the realms of scientific understanding. Sam Harris argues in his latest book, the Moral Landscape that neuroimaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging will be able to tell us more about not only how the brain works but also morality, what constitutes good and bad and how we ought to live. Whilst the merits of such a theory are still being discussed, the fact is that the religious fingers around the neck of moral thought are increasingly loosening.

As to whether religion can survive another generation, the answer is most certainly yes. Not even the most optimisticic militant atheist would think otherwise. The indoctrination of children before they are able to think for themselves; the comfort that religion offers to the poor that the bleakness of naturalism can apparently not; the seemingly insatiable need for people to hope of there being ‘something more than this’; that science doesn’t have, and doesn’t have to temerity to claim it has, all of the answers; that that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, whilst wiser men are full of doubts; all these reasons and hundreds more are why religion, whilst apparently in decline, is not going to away completely.

Religion can of course, in some individuals, cease to be important within one generation. I am proof of that. Both my parents were born in India, and whilst an education for my father in the UK wore away at all but the most cultural aspects of his religion, my mother is a Hindu. Just how Hindu, given that I know more about her religion than she does is a matter for another discussion. (I was an ardent supporter of the BHA’s census campaign because it’s most important effect was on people like my dad, who would have reflexively put Hindu on the form before being made to think about what he actually believe, or more accurately what he doesn’t believe). But, the significant caveat in my case is the liberal outlook of my parents, who gave me the choice and freedom to think for myself. Not all children get this freedom, especially not those who are forced to go to faith schools because of their parent’s faith. Making a break from a family and community bound in religiously culture can be very difficult. The growth of organisations such grass-root societies, particularly at university where exposure to different people and ideas is much less under parental control, is vital, as it provides a support network of  like-minded young people.

As to the future, Bidisha optimistically hoped for of a future of harmonious secular humanism. I think most would settle for Nihal’s wish that “people believe and love their faith without believing and telling me that they’re better than me”.  Surprisingly, it was born again Christian Shane Lynch who captured the essence of what it means to be religious, and the reason that religion will persist: “God gave me my life back, but I still eat lobster.”

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

BBC's The Big Questions - Young People's Special

This afternoon a wonderfully exciting email drew me from my MEG data screening slumber. It was from researcher at the BBC saying that they were looking for people to take part in a pre-recorded Young People's Special of the Big Questions being filmed in Birmingham this weekend, and that Andrew Copson, Chief Exec of the British Humanist Association, suggested that they contact me!

For those who haven't seen the Big Questions, here's a little background on the show, lifted straight from the email I got:

"'The Big Questions' is BBC1's flagship live moral and ethical debate show presented by Nicky Campbell. Each week, three topics are discussed on the show – these are ethical or moral questions connected to the week’s news headlines. Some recent topics include: Should Britain be ashamed of its arms trade? Would Jesus be a Catholic? Is it right to rent a womb? Do we have the right to uphold our religious convictions? The Big Questions is broadcast live on BBC1 between 10am and 11am on a Sunday morning."

This series they are are doing four special shows that are being pre-recorded and where the whole hour of the show will be given over to one topic. On the afternoon of the 15th of May they will be recording their young people special and will be asking the question will religion survive another generation? During the debate they will address questions including: should children be recruited into religion at a young age?; can religion survive advances in knowledge?; and is organised religion out of date?

I've got a 'phone interview' with a researcher tomorrow afternoon, after which the editorial team and producer will decide whether I'd be any good on the show.

I've already been warned that apparently an appearance on The Big Questions that infuriated Robin Ince so much he started organising the 9 Lesson and Carols for Godless People shows as therapy. I can get quite excitable, particularly when it comes to religious debate, but I'm pretty sure my fury-threshold is much higher than Robin Ince's (although I think, judging by his shows, pretty much every other human being on this planet has a higher threshold than him).

If they decide that I'm not interesting, or annoying enough to be interesting, it was still nice to be even considered. I will probably have to juice up my immediate answers to the discussion questions, which are an emphatic yes, no, no and yes.
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Friday, 18 March 2011

3rd Annual AHS convention - Day 2

The second day of the 2011 AHS convention was largely aimed at committee members and was that great combination of being fun and informative.

The morning started with a dilemma as I was forced to choose between the Finance and Sustainability talk, which sounded useful but hardly ‘fun’, and the Choir Workshop. I’m so glad I chose the choir as it ended up being the highlight of my day, if not the weekend. A murder of crows can carry a tune better than I can, so heaps of praise must go to the BHA choir leader Chloe Clifford-Frith, and the rest of the choir members that took part, for making all the true amateurs feel welcome, stripping away our self-conciousness and teaching us to sing a whole song in 30 minutes. The fact that the song was Do You Realize was the cherry on the icing on the cake. I’m glad my excitability and lunatic grinning didn’t put the proper singers off when we performed for everyone who had attended the other workshops.

I was really inspired by the singing and wish I had the opportunity to sing in a humanist choir in Birmingham. Someone suggesting started up my own choir, but I’m finding it hard enough to get atheists/humanists together as it is, nevermind getting ones that have either the talent or inclination to sing!

The next workshop was holding one-to-one debates with people of faith, with Chief Exec of the BHA Andrew Copson and David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation pretending to be Christians. Andrew and David took it in turns to contest that faith schools were a good thing, that god existed and that morality only exists because of god. Well done to the three brave people who volunteered to put forward the case for atheism, who more than held their own against the typically ludicrous arguments that are usually put forward by religious folk when discussing these issues.

Andrew had some simple, practical advice:
  • Respond to the opposition’s points as systematically as possible 
  • Defend without getting defensive 
  • Be prepared to attack and score your own points 
  • Avoid ad hominem arguments – attack the ideas not the person 
  • Have good examples of evidence prepared – anecdotes are not evidence 
  • Take a deep breath and sit up straight, it can make all the difference to how you feel and are perceived.
The breaks between sessions were also a great chance to network. Whilst we were all there because we were atheist/humanist and valued secular values, the pluralism of ideas was special; every discussion I entered into, one on the merits of Justin Bieber’s existence and views spring to mind, was fiercely and intelligently contested. I met some wonderfully interesting folk from across the Irish Sea, who brought an 11 strong contingent from Cork Uni and who were voted into the AHS fold during the Extraordinary General Meeting. Closer to home, I managed to get to know some of theUniversity of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society (UBASH) better and get the ball rolling for pooling resources and holding our own Reason Week.

I wasn’t quite sure how to react to the responses to my happy humanist and Darwin tattoos, from both folk at the workshops and an anthropologist from LSE who’s writing a book about the humanism and humanist organisations. Both are tattoos that don’t think I’ll live to regret but I suppose I’m in a pickle if I undergo a religious conversion; although as Andy Copson suggested, I could always just stick a little halo over the happy humanist’s head. You can see the photos from the second day of the convention (including my gurning  Bo-Selecta face next to my tattoos) here.

After a group session where we got together to discuss ways of improving how the AHS works, the day finished with the presentation of some awards. Whilst the best kind of charity goes unspoken, I can’t say I wasn’t chuffed to bits when AC Grayling (via a pre-recorded message) announced that Aston had raised the most money during Non-Prophet Week!

Together with the special efforts of Emma Moseley, Jack Hooker and Nick Martin (and a helping hand from the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub), we managed to raise a bucket-load of money , which was split between VESL, Amnesty International, Book Aid International, One World Action  and Childreach International.

Congratulations must also go all the award winners, including Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society, who won the award for best overall society

I ended the weekend pretty tired out, but, just as when I left the launch event two years ago, I was energized and excited. A huge thank you must go to Richy Thompson, President of the AHS, and the rest of the Executive Committee for doing such a fantastic job, not only of organising the convention, but the running of the AHS as a whole. The value of the kinship and support that the AHS provides cannot be underestimated.

3rd Annual AHS convention - Day 1

Saturday 12th to Sunday 13th of March was the 3rd annual convention of the National Fedration of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies’ (confusingly, also AHS for short).

 It was strange but reaffirming to back at Conway Hall, home of the long-standing bastions of free-thought, the South Place Ethical Society. Arriving there with a couple of our society’s members was special because it meant that I’d started and kept the Aston Humanists running for more than two years. I was at the press launch of the AHS when it was just a small clutch of societies, to see how big it has become since (it’s more than doubled from an initial 14 to at least 32 societies), is testament to all the hard work of the AHS founders, committee members and the support of the British Humanist Association.

Walking around the stands before the talks kicked off was a great opportunity to put faces to Twitter names and flesh out relationships that had previously only existed via Facebook. It was also a good chance to pick up some free literature, talk to the NSS about their campaigns, and of course, amass a collection of cool badges.

Thanks to the very brilliant Pod Delusion you can  hear all the talks from the Speaker’s Day, which included Humanist MP Lord Warner, Gerard Philips from the National Secular Society, Chief Exec of the BHA Andrew Copson, the brilliant blogger and journalist Johann Hari, distinguished philosopher AC Grayling and a trademark scatological rant, sprinkled with morality, profanity and scientific deference, from Robin Ince.

I urge you to listen to the talks as they are all fascinating and full of thought-provoking ideas, calls to action and not a small amount of humour;  I heard someone in the audience say that the talks were rousing and I’m very much inclined to agree.

In the break, two of the Aston Humanists got to speak to Johann.Nick Martin got a chance to talk to him about his experience of the Dalai Lama's homophobia and here's Sandra Nimako-Boatey very excitedly getting his autograph. (I apologize for the skewiff photograph, but blogger just doesn't want to play ball with pictures for some reason.)

You can also see some some of the photos (the right way up) from the speakers day on the AHS facebook album.

The afternoon of talks ended on a real high, with a fantastic performance by the BHA Choir.  Their set was peppered with excellent versions of well known songs of an atheist bent, including Monty Python’s hilarious Every Sperm is Sacred, but  I was blown away by their performance of The Flaming Lip’s Do You Realize? I was (and still a little bit am) obsessed with the album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (and frontman Wayne Coyne) and must have heard that song millions of times; whilst I appreciated it’s profundity at the time, I never really got just how humanist the song was.

The trip to the pub after the event was a chance to catch up with some familiar faces and make new friends. Andrew Copson joined us for a drink and delighted us with stories of his time as a student, including an occasion when he woke up with a mouse in his mouth! As well as being one of the most personable people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, the man’s dedication to the cause knows no bounds: he’s arranged his civil partnership ceremony forward to a day before the official census so that his marriage can be recorded, and will then head straight from the ceremony to March for the Alternative, the huge protest planned against student fees and government spending cuts!

The price of a London pint precluded any excessive drinking, but the fun company meant that I still didn’t collapse into my hostel bed until nearly 1am; exhausted but with my head buzzing with excitement.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Upcoming public inter-faith panel discussion

The Birmingham City University Islamic SocietyBirmingham City University Debating Society  and al Hakima Media, (a group who hold Islamic conferences/conventions in the Midlands and Greater Manchester regions) have teamed up to hold a public “Question Time-style” inter-faith panel discussion. There are representatives from the Christian, Sikh and Muslim faiths on the panel and members of the Aston Humanists and the University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society have been asked to represent ‘non-religious based organisations’.

The event will be open to the public, with around 70-80 people expected, and will cover a number of different themes including:
  • Women, society and religion, 
  • Freedom of speech and religion, 
  • The world with or without religion 
  • The contribution of religion, if any
  • Current issues faced by the Middle Eastern countries
As Chair of the Aston Humanists I’ve gladly taken up the offer to take part. Whilst I’ve spoken in front of bigger audiences before, it has been in academic settings, where the audiences have definitely been less religious or partisan. The chosen topics cover a lot of controversial ground and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into some juicy discussion but I’m quite nervous having never had been part of a formal public discussion before. By a very happy coincidence, however, I’m attending the National Federation for Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies annual convention this weekend where there is a workshop on debating held by BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson and European Humanist Federation President David Pollock. Hopefully the advice on debating will stand me in good stead not just for this event but also my PhD viva voce a week later!

These are all the details of the event as I have them so far:

When: 5pm to 6.30pm, Thursday the 17th of March
Where: Baker Building room 508, City north campus, Perry Barr, Birmingham, B42 2SU
How much: Free!

I’ll update with more information as and when I get it. It should be a cracking event so please do come if you can!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

American postal censorship?

Last year, whilst working in University of California, Los Angeles, a friend tried to post me this book: When Atheism Becomes a Religion by Chris Hedges, that she found in a Borders bargain bin. Two weeks later it was returned to her with "Unauthorized Circulation: Religious Content (Int'l) RTS" written on the package. She kept the packaging and just recently gave it and the book to me in person.

Hmmm.. going to follow this up and write this up in full as and when.