Food - Bee Wilson on the theological consequences of eating chocolate

There is nothing, so far as I am aware, in any Christian scripture forbidding the consumption of chocolate. Allowing cocoa solids to pass your lips features neither among the Ten Commandments nor the Seven Deadly Sins. You will not go to hell, if you believe in it, for eating Ferrero Rocher. Yet, through a strange perversion of this secular age, we can now barely mention chocolate without calling it sinful or wicked.

The "chocaholic" use of the rhetoric of sin is mainly rather sad. It is a way for needy people, usually women, to pretend to themselves that they are not being greedy when they take a fourth slice of chocolate volcano pudding. In talking lightly about the sinful decadence of what they are doing, they saddle themselves with a spurious sense of guilt. But this guilt is also strangely comforting, because it is experienced as external to the eater. If there is an outside authority telling you that all chocolate is sinful, then a whole bar is no worse than a single square. What's more, you can enjoy an illusory feeling of rebellion against the chocolate-hating deity. Hence that dreadful phrase, coined by Salman Rushdie (who knows a thing or two about Satan), "Naughty but nice". You torture and absolve yourself in one chocolatey bite.

It is a sign of just how widespread this mentality is, that Chocolat by Joanne Harris has enjoyed such success. Now out in paperback, smothered with rave reviews and Christmas recommendations, this is a novel which takes the idea of chocolate-as-sin quite literally. The heroine is a mys-terious chocolatiere called Vianne Rocher, who sets up shop in a French village of small-minded people. The local priest, Father Reynaud, sees her praline- selling activities as evil, and does everything he can to sweep her out of town. Taunted by the presence of "Venus's nipples, truffles, mendiants, candied fruits, hazelnut clusters, chocolate seashells" - and in the middle of Lent! - he organises a "Church, not chocolate" campaign. With a tired inevitability, it all culminates in the priest bingeing on chocolates on Easter morning, "moaning" in ecstasy, like "a pig", unable to resist the amandines and chocolate fondants he has preached so zealously against.

Obviously, Chocolat is a fable about the battle between pleasure and intolerance. It is also a piece of utter tripe. Never mind the cliched quality of the writing: what makes it really bad is the implausible notion that Catholic priests are essentially opposed to the enjoyment of chocolate. This is simple misrepresentation. Chocolate is the last thing that most Catholics, troubled with problems of genuine sin, would worry about. The saintliest Catholic I know is a devotee of tiramisu, all kinds of the stickiest chocolate fudge cake and those Chips Ahoy! cookies you get in America.

The pleasures of the table are among the few pleasures that Catholics can enjoy without pangs of conscience. Think of Jennifer Paterson, G K Chesterton and Saint Thomas Aquinas - all famously devout Catholics, and all splendidly rotund. (If Aquinas never ate chocolate, it was surely only because he was born too soon.) Now compare them with John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Beatrice Webb - rational atheists all, and each one of them as thin as whey.

Chocolat is objectionable on at least three related counts. It makes an imbecile mockery of the notion of sin, for those who still hold by it. If being a man of faith were only a matter of eating once a day and avoiding sweets, as the cure in Chocolat does, then we might all do it.

Second, the book grotesquely inflates the value of chocolate above all other foods. What about those who simply don't enjoy eating Easter eggs and drinking mochaccino? According to Chocolat, such people must be either very repressed, or else lying. Thus the bigotry of religion is replaced with the bigotry of chocomania. And finally, Joanne Harris actually trivialises the fanaticism she is trying to attack. If we reduce religious intolerance to a refusal to enjoy chocolate, what words remain for the Spanish Inquisition?

Neither religion nor chocolate is seen in its true light when they are set in opposition. When Galileo went into exile, and Cranmer to the stake, we can be sure they did not do so in the name of chocolate.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris is published by Bantam (£6.99)

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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.