Academics Believing in Their Subject Area

I have recently been a PhD student at University of Exeter. In some of corridors in Baring Court (the education area), there were student posters that represented PhD projects, MA projects, BAs etc. I read some of the theology ones, thinking that they might critique religion in an interesting way. But I was disappointed to realise that all of the students were proponents of the particular religion that they were dealing with. The posters, as far as I can remember, set out such things as missionary expeditions, much like the posters and presentations you find in churches. The religion itself wasn’t under question. It was more a matter of the religion being promoted, or of its proselytizing techniques being under review. A corollary of this was that many of the science tutors at Exeter seemed equally zealous when supporting science. One of the science tutors, for example, told us (as MSC Education Research students) that science was the field to be in, because science research gets funding. She was basically saying – ‘you should be in our gang – we will sort things out for you! – we will look after you’.  Much like the theology posters, she wasn’t questioning her paradigm, as it were. She was simply starting out from somewhere already a long way along a particular road. Another area that strikes me as being particularly self-absorbed, or locked-in, is economics. Economists seem to always be talking about how each country needs to increase its GDP, produce more goods, export more, or how companies need to increase their profits, expand, gain competitive advantage etc etc. This when air pollution is already bad, when global warming is advancing apace, when world population is massively out of hand.

Having been a Literature student, studying things as varied as fiction, drama, film, poetry, journalism, TV, photography, philosophy, history, etc etc, I suppose I might call myself an ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’ person, for want of a better word or phrase. And I suppose I don’t feel like I’ve got much to defend. I don’t really feel as though I have a subject or a philosophy to defend, perhaps because my remit is so broad. But when I meet religious people, or scientists, it often becomes obvious to me that in their eyes I represent something Other. The science tutor in Exeter, for example, referred to research that wasn’t scientific as ‘wooly’ and ‘wishy-washy’. In her eyes, the term science had an unambiguously positive value, because science, in her eyes, is good! When scientists want to undermine a piece of research, for example, they can simply say that it is unscientific, which is to say that it is ‘bad’. I imagine that the theology students start out from similar assumptions. The term Christian, for example, carries a positive value for Christians. To be unchristian, is bad, much as the other big religions have negative terms that define people who are not them (Gentile, Goy, Kuffar, unbeliever, unclean). Philosophers have termed the association of good and bad to key words as boo-hurrah theory. And unlike myself, perhaps, scientists and theologians have basic principles and rules which are somehow sacrosanct – scientific method, ecumenical authority, the book, the clan, The Word.

I happen to think that it is a good thing to NOT believe in ‘your’ own subject area, and to not promote or be heavily loyal to ‘your’ subject area, as much as this is possible. Because if you support a particular group, or promote a particular field – as academics often do, to promote their work, to secure funding etc – you very easily become locked into a particular value system. You are therefore not a free thinker in any meaningful sense. You are not a philosopher or a theorist or an academic. You are more likely an advocate, a devotee, a rhetorician, a keeper of the faith, a salesman, a technician. I suppose that a big factor here is also the extent to which people are committed to, or embedded within, a way of thinking. Politicians and priests are perhaps the most extreme examples of people whose voices are most heavily circumscribed by the group that they belong to, or serve. Politicians are whipped into line, priests take orders from an ecumenical council. The principle is much the same. Strength through unity. A form of value consensus. Pay is an important aspect. People who are paid, perhaps inevitably end up belonging to a particular system, end up as proponents of that system. A teacher, for example, becomes obliged to promote a sense that thinking or learning can be assessed – that people can be assessed. The higher up the pay chain people get, the more embedded within a system they become. A CEO, a headmaster, a president, the Pope. They are so often a head-salesman. 99% of the time they follow a script. They serve a way of thinking almost completely. They represent a larger body. They are figureheads.

I suppose that the most extreme opposite to a figurehead is someone who is free to be diverse and pluralistic in their thinking – someone who is not beholden to anyone or anything. In literature, the ‘fool’ or the picaresque traveller are perhaps the strongest examples of this particular free spiritedness. There is Huckleberry Finn, who is free to say what he likes. He is not beholden to the values of the community in which he lives, because he is a hobo, the son of an alcoholic. He is a bit like the working classes in Orwell’s 1984, who can speak freely – are not subject to thought control – precisely because they are an underclass; their thoughts do not count in some way, so there is little point in monitoring their thoughts. A lack of authority or influence, stories tell us, brings with it a peculiar kind of intellectual freedom. But unlike the company man (e.g. the priest, or the academic who advocates for a particular school of thought), the free thinker is somehow also cursed by their alienation from power and authority. In Oedipus Rex, for example, Tiresias is aware that knowledge is so often a curse, because those in authority are so often blessed by their ignorance (Oedipus), or resent others communicating their secrets (the Gods). The knowledge of the Greeks gods, for example, was jealously guarded. For Tiresias to be telling the secrets of the gods, then, was a form of deceit. The knowledgeable figure, the ‘wise’ man, then, was somewhat liminal – having access to the world of the gods, yet not being fully beholden to the gods. Tiresius, in this way, could dip in and out of the worlds of the gods and the humans, telling the secrets of the Gods to the humans. His burden was to communicate between realms. Knowledge was either unwanted (by Oedipus) or its communication was a betrayal (Tiresias told the secrets of the gods).

I’m not entirely sure where my grudge is here. Part of my annoyance with things in general right now is that lots of the bad stuff going on, like air pollution and climate change, is actually quite easily avoidable, and yet it’s very rare to hear it discussed in a sensible or holistic way. When scientists discuss air pollution, for example, you can bet that they are well paid, or middle-class, and thus own cars, large houses, fly to international conferences, etc etc. The same goes for politicians, or any of the other people who comment on such matters. These are very likely people who can afford to not live on the side of a main road (where air pollution is worse), or can otherwise avoid some of the worst experiences of the modern industrial world. These are people who are very often beholden to a particular line of argument or thought, so do not feel free to speak freely or to bite the hand that feeds them. So these are people who are in some ways unlikely to think or speak critically about what is happening in the world. They are more likely to be conservative in their thinking, because to speak out is to risk their neck in some way.

P.S. I wrote this post a couple of years ago but then held off from posting it up. At the time of writing I had been arguing with teachers on The Guardian website who were each defending and promoting their subject area – areas such as maths, science, history etc. It seemed obvious to me that it was mostly the science tutors who were promoting their subject area. And it struck me, having myself been a Literature student and having dabbled in philosophy and history, that these ‘humanities’ and ‘arts’ (Literature, philosophy, history etc) areas tend not to defend or promote themselves. Perhaps self-promotion goes against their way of thinking in some important way. My sense is that as soon as you start to promote something, this is the point where you stop thinking openly. Maybe it’s that simple.

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My Great Grandfather, William Henry Heeks (1872 – 1918)

On my 40th birthday, three and a half years ago, I felt a sudden need to find out more about my Heeks ancestors. My grandpa Charles Heeks (1911 – 2006) had been dead a few years and his son, my dad, Gordon Heeks (1942 -), was struggling with CPD and was needing to take oxygen through a canula just to breathe. Having just turned 40, I felt that time was upon me in some important way and that the older generations of men on the Heeks side of my family were either dead or dying. I wanted to find out more about who my ancestors were. And I knew pretty much nothing about my grandpa Charles’s dad.

So, for the last three years or so, on and off, I’ve been searching the internet, contacting relatives, and doing all I can to find out more about my ancestors.

My great grandfather, the man I began my search with, turns out to be William Henry Heeks (1872-1918). And this morning (19th March 2017) I get a lovely breakthrough. My aunt, Diana Heeks (1944-) emailed me the thing I’d been hoping for all along – a photograph of my great grandfather, William Henry Heeks!

W H Heeks

After reading so much about him for the last few years, seeing his face for the first time is a strange experience. I knew, for example, where he was baptised, what regiment he served with, when his children were born, the occupations of his brothers and sisters, where and when he died etc etc. But what I really wanted was to make a connection with him. Seeing a photograph of him is the most I could hope for in this sense of a connection. Photographs! The magic power of photographs! Freezing a moment in time forever! Because there he is, just sitting there, somewhere in time, over a hundred years ago, looking straight at me!

What I’ve learned about William Henry Heeks (1872-1918) over the last few years has been a mixture of legend and rumour. Then there’s the more factual details I’ve found from his military record and from historical records such as censuses, birth records etc.

(n.b. I’ve also covered some of the following in my broader family tree blog post)

First the rumours and legends!

A rumour or ‘story’ is that William was illegitimate; that his father was not actually Charles Heeks (1845 – ?), but ‘a member of the Lea and Perrins family’. This rumour of illegitimacy has been raised by members of my family, but I can’t yet find anything substantial to corroborate this story. William’s parents on the census records, Fanny and Charles Heeks, were married in 1870. William’s birth and baptism are recorded in early (Jan-Mar) 1872. His parents’ names are included on his baptism record, and he is listed as ‘Son’ on their 1881 census record. So there’s nothing suspicious there, in  terms of William being born before the marriage of his parents, or of his named father not acknowledging him. But then again, a rumour of illegitimacy can’t easily be disproved either.

A legend is that William had a reputation as a drinker and a fighter. A story that has attached to his memory is that he once jumped out of a bedroom window to fight another man on the street. This one is easy to believe because both of his sons, William (aka ‘Uncle Bill’ 1903-1978) and Charles (1911-2006), both enjoyed fighting in one way or another. They both boxed as amateurs. ‘Uncle Bill’ (1903-1978) served in the military and would later tell stories to my dad about how he would box in the Far East. Bill would make money from boxing by deliberately looking bad in early fights so that he could then, later on, put in better boxing performances to surprise the betting odds. He and his friends would then put bets on him to win, knowing that the odds were in their favour. Charles (1911-2006) also boxed as an amateur. I can remember asking my grandpa Charles about his boxing. He told me that he enjoyed boxing and playing various other sports, such as cricket. He had been, I think he said, an area boxing champion at heavyweight. That probably meant that when serving as a policeman, he was one of the best heavyweight police boxers in Birmingham in a particular year. So when I hear that their dad, William Henry Heeks (1872-1918), had a reputation for fighting, it’s easy to fit this into context; to imagine that his sons were carrying on in their father’s footsteps.

Now for the more factual stuff!

William’s army record tells a sad story of illness. His army and burial records list his cause of death as phthisis, in 1918, aged 46. According to what I can find on the internet, phthisis is a form of pulmonary tuberculosis or similar progressive wasting disease. From what my dad has told me, William suffered from ‘grinder’s rot, which is a lung condition that is caused by breathing in the fumes from a grinding machine. His army record bears out that he had worked as a grinder, as he lists his profession, aged 42, as that of grinder. This is near the end of his life, in 1914, where he enlists for at least the second time in his life. He is discharged in 1917, ‘no longer physically fit for War Service’. So, he enlists in 1914, at the start of WW1, and is considered ‘fit’ for service. But he is then discharged in 1917, near the end of the war, and is considered to be ‘no longer … fit’. A year later he is dead.

So, when my dad says that William died of grinder’s rot, the above information seems to bear this out. But…!

William had also enlisted earlier in his life, in 1890, aged just 18. According to his military record, he is then ‘transferred’ to the reserves in 1897 and is then ‘discharged’ in 1899. Interestingly, the reason for his discharge is given as ‘discharged in consequence of having been found medically unfit for further service’. So, at this point in his life, aged only 27, he is already considered ‘medically unfit’. And, as far as I can imagine, he has spent a good deal of his working life in the army. This has me wondering what was wrong with him aged 27, whether he was already suffering from phthisis, and whether his time in the army has any bearing on his illness. Perhaps he had been a tool grinder in the army, if that is possible. Or perhaps he had contracted TB in the army. Perhaps he was a smoker, perhaps he led an unhealthy life. In the above photo, his right thumb looks brown. Perhaps that’s from handling a smoking pipe. Upon enlisting aged 18, he gives his trade as ‘Engine Driver’. So, presumably, he has already spent a few years working around fumes and dust before he enlists aged 18. So there’s a good chance that his life has been unhealthy before the age of 18.

I don’t know where William was stationed in the army and whether he saw any active service. I do know that he was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers from 1890-1897 and again from 1914-1917.


I’ll add more here as I get time….






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Richard Heeks’ Family Tree, 1814 to 2014

I started researching into my Heeks ancestors a few years ago, in 2013. I wanted to find out who my great grandfather was. I didn’t even know his name. It seemed strange and a bit pathetic that I couldn’t even tell anyone who my great grandfather was. His son, my grandpa Charles Heeks (1911 – 2006), died almost ten years ago. Charles, as far as I know, knew very little about his dad because his dad had died when Charles was very young. And my dad, Gordon Heeks, didn’t talk much to his dad about Charles’s dad. So this man, my dad’s grandfather, was something of a mystery. All my dad could tell me was that his grandfather had enlisted in the army just before WW1 so that he could get some sort of payout or pension for his wife and children. He signed up in the knowledge that he was ill and would probably soon die. And then he died, just after WW1, a few years after enlisting. That was the legend!  He died of “grinder’s rot”, in my dad’s words. Grinder’s rot is a lung condition you’d get if you’d worked a tool grinding/sharpening machine. According to my dad, who is an engineer and knows about these things, grinders would work with their face right up against the grinding tool. They’d be breathing in grinding dust all day. Horrible job! Horrible death!

My dad pulls a face when he pronounces the words “grinder’s rot”, and nods his head grimly as if to affirm that there are good reasons why you would never want to be a grinder. Grinders died young and knew they would. They knew their fate, so it goes. My dad is also dying from a lung condition, having smoked for the last 50 years. He knows his fate too. He has moments of not being able to breathe in enough oxygen. Moments in time that must feel like drowning.

The legend, as far as I can tell, turned out to be pretty much true. My great grandfather’s name turned out to be William Henry Heeks. I found his army record, which brought him to life, with details such as his size and appearance. He was 5ft 6″, 133lbs, with grey eyes and brown hair. He had “tattoo both arms numerous”. This was an interesting surprise because my dad is tall, at 6ft 3″, and his brother a bit taller at 6ft 5″. Their dad, Charles (1911-2006), was around 6ft 1″. So we imagined that Charles’s dad would be equally tall. And no one in our family has tattoos either, as far as I know. So I was finding out about someone almost alien – a little man plastered in tattoos. And why not?! What could I really have predicted about this man who had lived and died in another age, who had served in the army, who had lived an obviously rough life, dying as he did of grinder’s rot aged 46?

But anyway! I kind of started this post with the intention of presenting what I have found of my Heeks family tree. So here it is, my work so far! I’ve traced back two generations before William Henry Heeks (1872-1918). I have gone back, so far, to his grandparents, Charles (1820-1882) and Ann Heeks (1814-1913):

Family tree image2

This full image (above) is not easy to view, so here is a zoomed in image of the main bits:

Family tree image zoom 9

This is all very much a work in progress. I want to trace back further, but to do that I have to find bits of information which as of yet I don’t know. For example, I’d like to find out about:

  • Fanny Bennett (1852-1934) before she married Charles Heeks.
  • The parents of Charles Heeks (1820-1882) and his wife Ann (1814-1913)
  • Ann’s (1814-1913) maiden name

One of the things I have really enjoyed about this family tree project is finding out that so many of my ancestors lived close to where I was brought up, in Worcestershire. Although I was born in Birmingham (in 1973), my parents moved to Bearswood, Storridge, near Malvern, Worcestershire, in 1976, when I was three years old. I was brought up near to Malvern, in the countryside. I went to primary school in the village of Cradley, and then went to secondary school in Malvern. After leaving school at 16, I then worked in building and farming jobs for a few years in the countryside near Malvern. I had always kind of assumed that because my parents were born and brought up in Birmingham, that a lot of my ancestors would have also lived in Birmingham.

But it turns out, in a nice way, that many of my ancestors actually lived very near to where I was brought up – in and around the Malvern area. I now live, for example, in Malvern Link, which is where my great grandfather, William Henry Heeks, was baptised. His mother, Fanny Heeks (nee Bennett – 1852-1934) was working as a parlour maid at Holyrood House in Great Malvern at the time of the 1871 census. I now work at the Malvern Royal Mail depot on Abbey Road, Great Malvern, which is just a couple of minute’s walk from Holyrood House. My great great great grandmother, Ann Heeks (1814-1913) gives her birth place as Castle Morton. I know Castlemorton well, having cycled over the common there hundreds of times on my way to work in Eastnor, and having swum in Gullet Quarry there as a teenager. In short, I have spent my life walking the same roads that many of my ancestors walked. I have no doubt walked past where they lived and worked. I have spent a large part of my life in view of the Malvern Hills, just as they did. And until recently, I did not know of this happy coincidence, this serendipitous living of lives in the same place. I’d  assumed that local history wasn’t my history. But I was wrong, albeit that I hadn’t even really given it much thought in the first place. So I wasn’t so much wrong, but just unknowing or ignorant, with a vague sense that I was not actually from Malvern and was more of an outsider, historically at least.

Another serendipitous thing, here, is that my grandpa Charles (1911-2006) had a grandpa Charles, as well as a great grandpa Charles. And did he know this? Did he know that he was named after his grandfather? As far as I know, my grandpa Charles (1911-2006) knew nothing of his grandparents. I wish he was still alive so I could show him his family tree, to show him where his name came from.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’ll keep researching into my family tree….

If you read this and want to to contact me, feel welcome to do so. I’m hoping that other Heekses out there will read this and compare my findings against their own family tree. Heeks is an unusual enough name to mean that many of us Heekses will be related. It looks as though many Heekses come from the small village of Little Comberton back in 1800 and before. That’s where I’m expecting to find my next generation of Heekses -the parents of Charles Heeks (1820-1882).

A big thanks to Steph Higgs for helping me with the Bradley side of the family. Thanks Steph!

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Faith vs Religion – Is ‘faith’ becoming a euphemism for ‘religion’?

Britain. 2016. The term ‘religion’ seems to be going out of fashion in the quality press (such as the BBC and The Guardian) and ‘faith’ is taking its place. It’s as if a memo has been distributed to journalists saying: ‘Please keep use of the word ‘religion’ to a minimum. Use ‘faith’ wherever possible!’

For example, some recent headlines from The Guardian:

These Tory messages show us why faith has no place in politics

What are your thoughts on faith groups, society and the state?

UK faith leaders unite to challenge welfare penalties on larger families

And the BBC:

Never Again: Fear And Faith In Paris

France: Fear, Faith and Football

Faith has been synonymous with religion for a long time. But from recently listening to BBC radio, and from reading both The Guardian and BBC websites, I feel that ‘faith’ is cropping up more frequently nowadays and is somewhat displacing the term ‘religion’.

But faith is a poor synonym for religion. ‘Faith’ also misrepresents what religion is, or what religions are. For example, religions are often centrally organised, wealthy, powerful bodies, that have the authority to dictate and enforce ways of thinking and behaving. Religions, in this sense, are top-down bodies (top-down in the sense that leaders and institutions orchestrate a body of followers). It’s no accident that a key definition of religion – the first in the SOED (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) – includes not only a state of belonging, but also what is being belonged to, i.e. ‘a religious order’.

1. A state of life bound by religious vows; the condition of belonging to a religious order, esp. in the Roman Catholic Church. ME.

Faith, by contrast, tends to emphasise the role of the person who is belonging to a religion. Definitions of faith tend to include terms such as confidence and belief, as in this key (i.e. first of seven) SOED definition:

 1. Confidence, reliance, belief esp. without evidence or proof. (Foll. by in.) ME

‘Faith’, much like ‘belief’, suggests a state of being or doing – the noun ‘belief’ easily morphing into the verb ‘believe’. With faith and belief, then, there is some sense of doing, personal agency and choice; we might say ‘I have faith!’, or ‘I hold a belief’, or ‘I believe in…’

So where I have argued, above, that ‘religion’ is likely to connote or at least include an authoritative body (such as a church, or a proper noun such as Christianity), for example, then ‘faith’, by contrast, tends to imply a more bottom-up process of a person believing, doing, acting, or behaving.

The term ‘faith’, by not including the thing that the person has faith in, is somewhat more abstract and neutral than the term ‘religion’. You could, for example, have faith in justice, have faith in your ability to succeed, or quite simply have faith. And in this sense, ‘faith’ already holds many positive connotations in Western culture. A loyal dog will be faithful, for example. ‘Faith’, in this sense, is closely linked to trust and loyalty; terms as equally at home in discussions of personal relationships as they are in religious discourse. But overall, terms at home in modern day language and contemporary Western culture. Positive terms, mostly speaking! The SOED, indeed, also includes a definition of ‘faith’ that is more closely linked to honesty and fidelity than to religion:

 7. The fulfilment of a trust or promise; fidelity, loyalty. ME.

So ‘faith’ in very simple terms, is more likely to be well received in current Western culture than is the term ‘religion’. Religion has many recent negative associations in Western culture, notably in relation to terrorism and child abuse – both of which frequently make headlines in the UK press.

My feeling is that the BBC and The Guardian are trying to take the word ‘religion’ out of things, aware that religion holds so many negative connotations. But surely this is disingenuous, not least because the term ‘religion’ is more apt to describe religion (a tautology I’m prepared to stand by) than is the term ‘faith’. Because, let’s face it, if we take the headlines included at the beginning of this blog and replace the term ‘faith’ with the term ‘religion’, then the titles become clearer and more honest representations of what the issues of the articles actually are. For example:

These Tory messages show us why faith has no place in politics


These Tory messages show us why religion has no place in politics

Makes more sense, doesn’t it?!

You could easily imagine that the headline writer began with the term ‘religion’ and only later tried to replace it with the term ‘faith’. Hence my previous tautology – religion is religion! Religion means religion!

I think my main argument here is that ‘faith’ is becoming a euphemism for ‘religion’. And it is a poor euphemism, partly because faith is not a good synonym for religion.

And I think journalists are being told to give religion an easy time – to take away any negative association with power, authority, reverence etc. The overall effect is that of misrepresenting what religions are, and how the politics of religions work. It actually also serves to efface the whole history of religion, as if religions in some important way do not even exist, and have perhaps never exerted political authority over people. It is as if we are all free agents in what we choose to believe. It’s as if Marx never said that ‘religion is the opiate of the people’. So it’s as if modernist thought didn’t take place.

The move from using the word ‘religion’ to using the word ‘faith’ perhaps also simply represents a brand change. Religion has no doubt become a tarnished brand, whereas ‘faith’ is not yet as heavily sullied.

But if ‘religion’ is such a tarnished brand, then why are the BBC and The Guardian taking it upon themselves to clean the brand? Why this big semiotic leap?! Why didn’t they bother to tell us about it?

The move from the term ‘religion’ to ‘faith’ also represents a subtle change of emphasis, from the body/political/institution to the individual. You can oppose a religion, because you can identify it is a body, an institution, or mode of thought. But can you oppose ‘faith’? How can you oppose millions of individuals? How can you argue with them? How can you argue with faith?

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The Guardian – they delete comments

The Guardian is a longstanding British newspaper (and now news website) that has for a long time championed left wing and liberal values. The newspaper itself grew out of a liberal non-conformist movement in Manchester during the 1820s. The earlier Manchester Observer had supported the protestors of The Peterloo Massacre (1819), pushing for voting rights (supporting parliamentary reform -bringing an end to rotten buroughs) and promoting literacy among the working class. When the Manchester Observer was then closed down (sued for libel following its publication of accounts from the Peterloo Massacre), the Manchester Guardian somewhat took its place, and later became known simply as The Guardian.

In many ways, then, the Guardian is a newspaper born out of a tension between the industrial north and the governing south in the early Nineteenth century. Founded by a cotton merchant, John Edward Taylor (who opposed the protestors of the Peterloo Massacre), the Manchester Guardian was arguably less radical – and less working class – in nature than the Manchester Observer. But it was still progressive overall, being backed by the Little Circle; a group supporting  parliamentary reform; seeking proportional representation. It is worth remembering that, by today’s terms, England was not far from being a feudal society in the early Nineteenth Century. Most men, indeed, did not have the vote until the electoral reforms of 1918 – reforms made famous for allowing some women the vote. These were reforms, broadly speaking, supported by the Guardian at that time.

The scene I am trying to set, and which I think (from researching its history) is broadly true, is that of a liberal newspaper necessarily caught between conservative and progressive forces. A newspaper that I thought would champion freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the rights of people to have a voice. A newspaper broadly associable with modernity, egalitarianism, democracy, the Enlightenment etc etc. A newspaper capable of speaking truth to power, whilst at the same time representing a socially progressive movement forwards, away from the dark ages.

But… They delete comments! They have deleted my comments! They’ve even deleted comments that quote lines from Monty Python!

I have been commenting on Guardian articles for a few years. The comment sections are great places for people to share ideas and trade arguments. In recent years, there have been crunch times when many people have felt compelled to make their feelings and opinions heard. Commenters, for example, would often criticize Tony Blair for his support of the Iraq war, and criticize the Blairs in general for charging huge fees for giving speeches. And then there was the Charlie Hebdo incident, and later the Paris Attacks. People on the left became torn between opposing Islamic extremism and wanting to show support for religious minority groups. I think the Charlie Hebdo incident created a shift in opinion/comment in the Guardian comment sections, because many left wing commenters began to become more openly hostile towards Islamic militancy in Europe. And that’s when the modmins really started to delete comments.

I would often put a lot of thought and effort into writing a comment (a short essay!), only to then see it get deleted. Where my comment once was, a line would take its place:

This comment was removed by a moderator because it did not abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail, see our FAQs.

Part of commenting is reading other comments and commenting on them. It’s a forum where people can bounce ideas off each other. It’s great because you get to learn things from other people. But the deleting of comments would ruin this whole experience, because lots of comments would get deleted, and any responses to those comments would also then get deleted. Typically, people who had put a lot of time and thought into their comments would get pissed off to see their comments deleted. So they would then make a comment to question why their comment had been deleted. Like this:


And guess what?! The Guardian would always then delete those comments! That comment ended up looking like this a few moments later:


The message coming from the Guardian seemed to be that critical comment relating to issues of race, gender, religion etc was verboten. And what’s more, any criticism of the Guardian’s censorship of comments was off the table too. Criticism was not allowed! Meta criticism was definitely not allowed.

And then there’s feminism! The Guardian employs many feminist writers, which is a good thing, because feminism can raise many important and interesting points for everyone. But it deletes so many comments that take issue with feminism, which is a bad thing. Ideas should always be up for discussion and debate. One article that comes to mind is The seven priorities for young feminists today. Many decent comments got deleted on that one. I didn’t manage to copy many of the original comments. The comment ‘Male suicides’ may be short and betray a hint of desperation, but is it a comment worthy of being deleted, when the suicide rate for men is actually very high?:

Link 4

They deleted ‘Male suicides’ but left ‘Feminism is moribund’. UrbanLeprechaun’s comment “8. Recognise that it is hard being a man” disappeared completely, presumably because his account got deleted (which happens regularly!):

Link 5

OK, I wish I could have found some better examples of good comments being deleted. But believe me, many long and thoughtful comments have also been deleted, and presumably simply on the grounds that the modmins didn’t like them.

As a Monty Python fan, I particularly hate it when the modmins delete comments that quote lines from Monty Python films. Chuck48 (below) is presumably responding to just having a Monty Python line deleted, so responds by repeating the line ‘The people’s front of Judea will not be silenced’, with a note to the moderator: ‘Learn to take a joke moderator. I was just saying that ever [sic] manifesto sounds like something the PFJ would say:


What has The Guardian come to, in terms of religious of political freedoms, when Monty Python lines are verboten?

As SuperTurboFunkatron so nicely put it, before his/her comment was deleted:

Seems freedom of speech is awesome so long as it’s what people want to hear 😦

Sad face indeed!

So where do we go with this? What can be said about a world where a British newspaper that seemingly stands for freedom of speech is so quick to censor comments that are critically engaging with religion, feminism, politics, war, etc etc?

Perhaps I need to make it my mission to find more examples of decent comments that have been deleted. But if I can just start a ball rolling here, I will be happy, because I haven’t read many other blogs of articles on the Guardian’s deleting of comments. So if anyone else out there reads this, please feel welcome to find more examples and quote them yourself.

I happen to think that freedom of speech and expression is one of the most important rights and obligations we have. I thought that the Guardian would also be supportive of freedom of speech, thought, expression, etc. Perhaps they just need to take stock of this situation and make some changes to if, or how, they moderate their comment sections.

If The Guardian needs to understand one thing, it’s that important and contentious issues should not be shut down as a first option. Anything important is contentious, so there has to be an intelligent conversation around everything, regardless of whether someone, somewhere, will take offense. That’s the hallmark of a civilised society. And if you are deleting Monty Python quotes as a matter of course?! Take a look at yourself!


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Appreciating Wildflowers in Urban Spaces (Roberts Park, Saltaire)

I live in Saltaire, a village on the edge of the city of Bradford, UK. It’s a mostly urban area, with not much in the way of nature or wildlife. There’s a city and main roads on one side, and then woodlands, a river and moors on the other. So Saltaire is kind of in-between. In my head, at least, I have to travel to find things I want to photograph. Specifically, I miss flowers and insects.

One of my favourite experiences, from a few years ago, was from when I lived in the south west of England – just south of Exeter, next to the Exminster RSPB reserve. I often saw hobbies, peregrine falcons, and migrating birds, but one of the nicest things was seeing hummingbird hawk-moths feeding on wildflowers. I spent hours watching and photographing them. My favourite shot captures a moment when a moth briefly got a flower caught on its proboscis.


I captured some extreme close-ups too, on an eye level with the moths, where I could see their eyes and faces really clearly.

Happy days! Being close-up with wildlife, spending hours watching hummingbird hawk-moths, watching thousands of migrating birds flying overhead… I miss those days!  Living among wildlife helped me to become a photographer. It’s much easier being a photographer if you are surrounded by beautiful things!

Moving up north to a place where I have to search harder to find wildlife has been depressing. I have tried to photograph streets, factories, chimneys etc, but it just hasn’t done much for me. I thought I might be able to adjust to an industrial environment, but I haven’t. I need nature!

So one thing that has brought a smile to my face recently is that in a nearby park (Roberts Park, Saltaire), the council have planted two wildflower areas. The wildflower areas are small, but are little oases of life and colour. Just a few feet wide, and maybe 30 feet long, but there’s so much colour, and such a variety of flowers:


The flower beds look beautiful from a distance. Go closer still, and the stems, flower heads, and grasses, are great. The range of colours become more noticeable the closer in you go:

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And when you’re just a few feet away, there’s the buzzing of bees. Honey bees, bumble bees, little flies – all beavering away searching for nectar. Life!

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Buzzzzzzz, buzzzz….

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And this is the great thing about wildflowers in public spaces and urban areas. It’s a little slice of nature in a park. For photographers like myself, it’s an opportunity to photograph flowers and insects close-up.

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Maybe if I wait long enough, I’ll see a hummingbird hawk-moth again. Because where there is a variety of wildflowers like this, there’s food and habitat for all kinds of insects. Seeing hummingbird hawk-moths again is definitely a possibility.

One thing that impressed me when photographing the wildflowers was how many people stopped to look at them and talk about them. I have spent perhaps one or two hours photographing these wildflowers, and in that time 5 or 6 people have stopped to look at them, photograph them with their phones, smile, wander around the flower beds. With the insects buzzing around, it’s much more of a complete experience than the deadness of normal bedding plants, where there are no insects.

So I want to support wildflowers. I want to support councils, individuals, and anyone, who grows wildflowers. I want to thank Bradford Council for growing the wildflower beds in Roberts Park. It must be difficult for councils to grow wildflowers, when parks traditionally grow the kinds of bedding plants that make for regimented displays of colour.

Thanks Bradford Council!

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Why Humanists tend to miss the point about god – Without Religion there would be no god

I consider myself an atheist, in so much as I dislike religions. I don’t believe in god, but then again I don’t think that my disbelief in god is a big part of why I would call myself an atheist. Having studied a little bit of sociology, I would agree with the sense that religions are responsible for creating the idea of god. God, in this sense, is constructed as a being that forms the centre of a social and political belief system: a religion. So, I would argue:

Without religion there would be no god.

Which is akin to the well known sense that:

Man created god in his own image.

Which itself is a reversal of the biblical phrase from Genesis, of ‘God created man in his own image’.

My position, then, is that god is somehow secondary to religion, since creating a god is a strategy that religions use to do what they do – whatever it is that they do: social power, thought control, building churches, lobbying governments, coercing children etc.

So, I am a bit bemused that humanists tend to be so literal about their disbelief in god, as if a belief or disbelief in god were the be all and end all of religiosity or atheism.

One of the key issues here is that many vocal atheists are humanists, and humanists are often scientists or have founded their sense of atheism on the scientific theories of atheists such as Richard Dawkins (see his book The God Delusion). Scientists like to argue in ways that are familiar to science. They tend to value ‘objectivity’ and neutrality highly, for example. They look for ‘evidence’ or ‘facts’. Arguing about the existence of god fits this bill very well, since scientists can propose the existence of god as a hypothesis that can be tested. They can ask, for example, ‘what is the evidence for the existence of god?’ By asking this question as if it was centrally important, they make the assumption that just because it is important to scientists, that it is important more generally. (They essentially split ‘belief’ away from religions, as if the part can meaningfully be studied independently of its social context.)

I would argue that scientific humanists are ultimately seeking to critique and combat religion as a social force, but are seeking this aim via first seeking to discredit the notion of god as a creator. But they rarely admit to this as a strategy, preferring to claim that they are primarily concerned with facts or theories about the existence of a de facto god. Ultimately, I would agrue, such humanists are structuring their attack on the assumption that:

Without god there would be no religion.

Which is kind of an opposite to my more sociological thinking mentioned above, i.e.

Without religion there would be no god.

What I find worrying about the scientific humanist type approach is that it seeks to be apolitical, and that this is disingenous, since religions and belief systems affect us all personally. That is, scientific humanism doesn’t firstly confront religions as social forces run by actual people. Rather, it seeks to question the existence of god, as if the existence of god was somehow more important than the religion that created the idea of god. Such a scientist could thereby approach a vicar, a pope, etc, and say, it is not so much ‘you’ or your religion I have a problem with, it is the belief in god itself that I am questioning. This is a curiously apolitical, asocial, and non-confrontational form of argument, because it attacks an idea more than it attacks a social group, institution, or an actual person of figurehead. Scientist humanists, in this sense, are unlikely to say to a religion:

But you created this god! You maintain this god!

Scientists, in this sense, avoid getting personal with religions.

I much prefer the Christopher Hitchens approach. He had the nerve to attack religions as tribal institutions that seek to promote and ingrain ignorance and intolerance. Unlike the humanist scientists who stake their claim on the existence of god, Hitchens would fight religions on all fronts, drawing on politics, sociology, literature, psychology, history, and just about any other resource or technique he felt he could argue with. For Hitchens, theory is a messy and pragmatic business, where the theorist fights with whatever he has to hand.

The glory in that is that Hitchens was being very true to himself, in that he was essentially arguing that there are many good reasons to dislike religions, and that it’s worth fighting religions with everything in your arsenal, even if that means embracing your feelings and impressions (e.g. anger and hatred, personal experience – i.e. acknowledging and celebrating the fact that theory is both subjective and objective.) If you find religion to be repugnant, it’s OK to say so without having to have an overarching theory via which to incorporate your feelings. Unlike scientific humanists, then, Hitchens didn’t limit himself to notions of ‘objectivity’ or otherwise confine himself to one mode of argument.

A lovely example of Dawkins and Hitchens arguing together can be found here on YouTube.

So, by way of summary, my argument is that religions are primarily social institutions. Thus, religions should be critiqued as social institutions, and not simply on the dry and philosophical terms of whether a god exists. God, I would argue, is secondary and almost incidental. So to put god first is to fight on a false front, as it were, and has the consequence of not facing religions and religious people themselves.

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