Show Hide image

Exploring Christianity from the inside

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense - review.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £12.99

Jesus, like Jeremy Paxman, asked a lot of questions. Although it’s possible to construe this as the sign of an enquiring or humble mind, it has rather more to do with capturing the agenda. Paxman asks a minister why she’s failing to deliver; Jesus asks the Pharisees whose image is on the coin. The message is clear: we shall have this conversation on these terms.

The New Atheists – notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris – tend not to ask so many questions, preferring instead to tell us about theology and science, ethics and history. Nonetheless, they have successfully captured the God agenda. Thinking about this objectively, they said, freed from the instincts, emotions, hopes and all the other subjective sentiments that cloud the light of reason, what evidence have you that God exists? Most of the authors of the anti-anti-God polemics that followed in their wake took the bait and found themselves dancing to a tune they didn’t choose.

Francis Spufford’s short and witty book does not. Instead, it explores Christianity from the inside, recognising that as human beings are quite important to the religion, to discuss it without reference to the human is silly. It is a mistake, he writes early on, “to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary.”

This is courageous for at least three reasons. It is open to misinterpretation – specifically that prioritising feelings is the same as abdicating reason. (It isn’t, as Spufford insists, but that is how it will undoubtedly be read by some.) It is highly personal – not only is Spufford opening himself up in public but he is also leaving himself vulnerable to the accusation that his Christianity-from-the-inside is different from other people’s (something he would probably admit).

And it pushes at the boundaries of what can be said, necessitating metaphors that strain and crack under the pressure of what they are charged with doing or, alternatively, recourse to phrases such as “something makes itself felt from beyond”, which are sitting targets for the God-hunters.

None of this openness and courage should be taken to imply that Spufford is like some literary Christ, led meekly to Skull Hill without a word of protest. Billed as being “unhampered by niceness”, Unapologetic successfully skewers various atheist holy cows, including the embarrassingly anodyne, marketing-savvy advice offered by the British Humanist Association’s bus advertising campaign in 2009 or John Lennon’s dreadful “Imagine” (“the My Little Pony of philosophical statement”).

The book is not, however, particularly interested in sniping (Spufford is generally quite kind about Dawkins and Hitchens) and lacks the exuberant spite of the New Atheists. Rather, it is an attempt to communicate what Christianity is to a culture that is “smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling”. Spufford is insightful about that culture, now far more informed by goods than by God, in which “each moment is supposed to be the solvent of the one before”. He is alert to the cultural accretions that render certain Christian words all but redundant in modern English, translating sin, for example, as “the HPtFtU” (read the book for an explanation).

Spufford is scrupulously honest, not only about the suffering that litters history and the world but also the final inadequacy of all attempts to reconcile it happily with the Christian God. He recognises that awe, so often the emotion of first and last resort when it comes to religiosity, plays a much less significant role than desperation. He is perceptive and pleasantly sarcastic about Church history (“A message of personal forgiveness? What could possibly go wrong?”). He readily admits: “The life of faith has just as many he-doesn’t-exist-thebastard moments as the life of disbelief. Probably more.” And he understands that the Christian answer to this pain, both within the human heart and beyond it, must rest on Christ and, in particular, his death.

Accordingly, the centrepiece of the book is a superb retelling of the life of “Yeshua”. Lives of Jesus are notoriously difficult, plagued by the problem that the story is at once too fa - miliar and too strange. Yet it can be done. There were moments of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ that conveyed Christ and his teaching with freshness. Spufford’s retelling is, remarkably, creative, orthodox and moving, managing to convey the terrifying appeal of both the man and his message.

Unapologetic is unlikely to persuade anyone who thought The God Delusion was a good book. That Spufford gets in a thousand words of anti-Christian abuse within the first couple of pages suggests he knows this. However, in a literary field that is fast becoming overpopulated, it is an intelligent, sophisticated and much welcome addition.

Nick Spencer is research director at the think tank Theos and is currently writing a book on the history of atheism.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.