Marriage is one of those long-standing cultural concepts that’s become part of the furniture, so to speak. Its cultural meaning and legal meaning have both changed over time though. What does it mean now, and what might its future be?

Google dictionary isn’t very enlightening on this:

the formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.

After some research and pondering, and trying to be as culturally diverse in my thinking as I can be, the one common meaning that I think seems to underlie all marriage is this: it represents a “next of kin” status between two adults, who are (or are going to be) in a sexual relationship. For some cultural backgrounds or religious traditions, this status is created by the act of getting married. In my own cultural context, marriage merely reflects or formalises the fact that it has already happened; that a romantic relationship has progressed to a point where the couple feel they are “family” to each other, and envisage their lives as a shared one. (Whether or not they “have a family” in the usual sense – with children.) And it’s perfectly possible for a relationship to be like that without marriage.

Is marriage a “commitment”? There is usually the intention of permanence, certainly, just as there is in our relationships with our family members – and we won’t easily let these relationships break down. But in all honesty, we accept there is a chance they could. In the Christian tradition, couples promise to stay together “for better or for worse”; divorce then means breaking a promise. In a civil marriage there is no requirement to promise anything – the formal wording simply indicates acceptance of the other person as husband or wife, and declares that there are no impediments. I don’t think any vows are made in the Islamic tradition, either. Growing up in the Christian tradition it’s easy to assume vows are a fundamental component of marriage, but this is not the case.

In the UK, legal marriage may be a convenient way of getting the rest of the world to treat the two of you as “kin”.* Cohabiting couples who are not married may need to be more pro-active to achieve the same thing, for example writing a will if they want to ensure inheritance. But I guess some people would rather engage actively, and not have all this decided (or assumed) for them anyway.

Legal marriage is also designed to offer protection from the risks associated with relying on a partner – risks such as giving up an income to be financially supported by them, or allowing the home to be put in their name only.** There do seem to be other ways to gain some protection, though, such as a Living Together Agreement or “no-nup”, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before all legal protections that are beneficial for spouses will be rolled out to long-term cohabitors.

Interestingly, while there are few requirements for getting married and attaining this legal “next of kin” status, the same is not true of the divorce procedure. Justification is required, which either means demonstrating that unreasonable behaviour or adultery has taken place, or simply undergoing a lengthy separation period*** and using that as grounds instead. I guess this means that a couple cannot end their legal marriage status while remaining together – not that many would want to, I suppose, but it could happen that a couple undergo an ideological shift in regard to marriage and want to come out of it, in which case – too bad!

This disparity between the entry and exit points to marriage, in terms of the amount of legal interference and hurdles, may be a reflection of the UK’s Christian tradition. It’s interesting that adultery isn’t included under ‘unreasonable behaviour’ (which is a pretty mild name for a collection of things that includes domestic abuse) but has its own separate category. This seems odd, unless you’re aware that adultery is the one and only justification Jesus is quoted as permitting for divorce in the Bible.

Legally and culturally, marriage is becoming less and less important. Feminist thinking clashes with much of the associated cultural baggage – the engagement ring, the fancy white dress, the father giving the bride away, the woman’s name (and title) change. A lot of us these days are wondering what relevance these traditional relics have to our lives and relationships.

On the other hand, the introduction of same-sex marriage is one good example of marriage adapting to the modern reality and the values we hold, and it seems to offer a welcome opportunity for the development of alternatives to traditional patriarchal rituals. Getting married has always been a rite of passage with symbolic and personal meaning, aside from entering into a legal institution. We embrace ritual, ceremony and celebration at key points in our lives, and “tying the knot” with a partner is one of them. It will probably remain so for many people, even if many others decide it isn’t for them.

* The list I’ve gathered is:

  • some organisations, such as pension providers or hospitals, use marriage as the criterion for regarding a partner as next of kin
  • marriage gives the husband automatic fatherhood status of any children the wife gives birth to
  • it allows one spouse to make National Insurance contributions on behalf of the other
  • it entitles each to inherit from the other’s estate (there may also be less of a tax burden, I’m not sure)
  • it gives certain immigration rights

** Spouses each have the right to live in their partner’s home while married – they cannot be kicked out. Spouses can be ordered to give money to their ex after divorce, in recognition of contributions they made unofficially. As I understand it, these don’t apply to cohabiting; Scotland differs from the rest of the UK in some things, though – this may be one of them

*** 1 year – used to be even longer

(most of my information came from this page)

Posted in gender, is religion good or bad for you? | Leave a comment

Why aren’t more women in science?

As I mentioned a while back, I came across a compilation of essays by researchers in the field debating the question: “Why Aren’t More Women in Science?” I saw it by chance in the library at work, and grabbed it.

It wasn’t a particularly easy read. I quickly became entangled in a spaghetti bowl of different strands of questions and answers as I read my way through the essays. As is the way with research! But I’ll do my best to organise what I learned and explain what I’ve concluded.

Much of the book focused on the question of whether there are any cognitive or aptitude-related barriers to women succeeding in science careers. Do men just make better scientists?

One obvious place to look for clues of any ability discrepancy between the genders is in school test results. Apparently, girls tend to outperform boys in maths exams up to high school level; but on the other hand, boys do better in the SAT-M. I gather that the latter is intended to test raw ability, rather than being a test on learned material that can be prepared for. So, this is seen by some researchers to indicate that girls aren’t as good at independent problem-solving. However, the author of chapter 4 points out another way of looking at it: the SAT-M underpredicts girls’ success in school and college maths exams, and thus may not be a good test of maths aptitude at all. (After all, who’s to say what is a good test?) Also, differences in maths and science ability through time and across geography are generally bigger than any gender differences, so there must at least be other factors involved.

An intriguing study described in chapter 3 revealed that bright girls don’t cope well with confusion; the brighter the girl, the more readily she would tend to become despondent and give up on the confusing tasks set in the experiments. This turns out to be due to these girls having a belief in the importance of innate talent (or lack thereof), and the relative unimportance of learning. With this belief, finding things confusing or hard made them conclude they just didn’t have the natural ability and that was that. It wasn’t clear to me why this should be the case, when the reverse seemed to be true in boys. The author suggested it may come from a different way that bright girls are praised for their ability as they are growing up. I don’t know if that is the case, but certainly one factor in the time-and-geography variation could be whether the culture emphasises learning or talent.

Another common approach is to look at tests of more basic cognitive abilities that perhaps provide the building blocks for higher-level skills such as maths or science. These do seem to differ by gender – males perform better on some spatial visualisation tasks, although this is a skill that responds well to training, and it’s suggested the difference may be to do with boys getting to play outside more as children. Conversely girls perform better at tests of verbal fluency.

Whether looking at school subjects, IQ, or basic abilities, male populations often show a broader distribution of abilities – boys’ abilities range a bit more widely from very poor to excellent, while girls’ tend to be a bit less extreme. The result being that there may be more males at the gifted end of the ability spectrum than females, even if the average ability in the two populations is the same. This seems to me a rather narrow, fatalistic view of career destination (not to mention a self-congratulatory one, coming from scientists!): you have to be the top of your class at school to make it as a scientist?! Try telling that to Einstein…

Other researchers recognise that a science career can draw on many different basic cognitive abilities, verbal communication actually being one of them, and it would be hard to identify any particular set that is critical for success – different scientists may well be talented in quite different ways. A science education equips people with skills in science, but the underlying ways that different people are implementing those skills in their brains may well be different (and harmlessly so). Chapter 8 discusses some structural and functional differences in male and female brains.

It begins to seem as if differences in patterns of interest may explain the dearth of women in science better than differences in ability. Chapter 6 reports that women tend to be more interested in people than in ‘things’. Chapter 12 characterises males as systemisers and females as empathisers. Interest, abilities, and experience clearly are not independent, though – they go round in a kind of feedback loop, and we become “cultured into” our careers, as chapter 9 puts it.

Could it just be that fewer women are drawn to the male-dominated culture of academic science*? If this culture changed, I think we would see more women going into science and sticking with it. Science would be done a bit differently but it would still be done, and done well.

This still begs the question of how the ‘yang’ culture in sciences such as physics and maths has remained well-established long after women’s liberation, while much more of a ‘yin’ presence has grown in sciences like biology. I think in the end I can’t get away from the notion that innate differences – probably in average interests and personality more than ability – do play a role. But I think their role is greatly amplified by stereotypes, gendered socialisation from childhood onwards, and cultural ideas about professions. If it were possible to remove those (which of course it isn’t), I think the ‘yin’-ification of physics would have happened much more quickly.

It was a relief to come to this understanding – I’ve never been able to accept either that all gender differences are innate, or that they are all socially conditioned. It seems obvious to say it’s a mixture of the two but this idea of amplification was a “lightbulb” moment for me.

Stereotypes are usually a coarse reflection of some view of reality that contains partial truth. They don’t come from nowhere. It’s unfortunate that they don’t just reflect, but also feed back into, and define, the world they describe. If girls tend to believe in the importance of innate abilities, they will be particularly susceptible to negative stereotypes around women’s goodness of fit in various fields of work.

I recently read about the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (in a book about economics, of all things) – and it was another lightbulb moment. I really like these terms as a way of grouping together a bunch of traits; male and female are in the lists of traits, but aren’t defined by them. Yin and yang might be a good simple way to describe things like a working culture, as they satisfy our need for reduction and classification, without making gender the focus of it – yin and yang are merely associated with gender. Perhaps we could benefit from thinking more like that. I know I will try to, from now on.

(* Several essays also discussed discrimination, and the work-life balance problem in academic science, but to me, these are just another aspect of the fact that science has a ‘yang’-dominated culture.)

Posted in gender, personal reflection, science | 6 Comments


One of the things that really gets my goat is when the word “honesty” is hijacked to justify what is really just plain unkindness (or worse). Dumping out onto other people the worst contents of your mind about them is not an automatically constructive thing to do, just because it is “honest”. And I don’t buy it when I see indulgence and arrogance being packaged up as virtuous, even courageous behaviour by wrapping the word “honesty” around it like a shiny ribbon.

Come on people! A world in which there was 100% disclosure, for example if our thoughts could be read by others, would not be a better world! The pain and offence caused by our prematurely formed or biased judgements would nip in the bud many a friendship that could otherwise grow and thrive. There is a reason we don’t generally tell people exactly what we think of them, but choose instead to vent to others privately as a way of processing our feelings – and the reason is not cowardice. Nor is it dishonesty, unless we are being completely false towards the person. It’s that our human social world would simply not work if we told everybody every single negative thought we had about them.

That’s not to say that everything negative should be kept hidden, of course. There are times when it’s necessary to confront someone, and there are times when a frank conversation can help clear things up. There are also times when venting behind someone’s back turns into malicious back-biting; where avoiding talking to the person merely allows a fortress of negative judgements to be built up, going unchecked by reality.

I’m not sure there are any easy answers. All I know is that goodwill, kindness, and a willingness to work with the good in others seem to go a long way. Where these are not present, no amount of “honesty” is likely to get you anywhere.

Posted in moral issues, personal reflection | 1 Comment

2013 highlights and 2014 goals

Highlights of my 2013

  • Got a flat with my partner (I still feel so grateful every day)
  • Finally began driving, 2.5 years after passing the test – took refresher lessons, joined City Car Club, and eventually hired a car for a week over the holiday for visiting family – think I have actually become a reasonably competent driver now! Never thought that day would come…
  • Began playing music again – wish I hadn’t left it so long.
  • Helped set up an Edinburgh Sunday Assembly, particularly the band
  • Threw the Hogmanay party I’d first dreamed of a year ago, hoping that by 2013’s end we’d have a home to throw one in :)

Goals for 2014

  • Get a new job, or at least get clear on the direction and take what steps are needed
  • Exercise more
  • Try writing songs again
  • Play more violin and piano
  • Fix up the flat a bit more (various DIY jobs, bits of furniture to get etc.)
  • Reach out more at work; surrender to the discomfort and make myself heard
  • Become more mindful of my biases towards various bleak ways of thinking, and try to get better at gently nudging myself out of them.

Happy New Year!

Posted in personal reflection | 2 Comments

2013 in books

I read a record number of books in 2013! I think it was a 2013 resolution of mine, to read more books – and particularly, to read more stories, and less self-help. I haven’t regretted that at all. Here is a selection of some of my best reads this year.


‘Rachel’s Holiday’ by Marian Keyes
– Marian Keyes is a fantastic writer of humorous women’s fiction, and this is probably one of her deepest and most moving books, dealing with recovery from addiction.

‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel
– Already blogged about this one.

‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson
– Quite entertaining, probably all the more so if you know a bit more of 20th century history than I do.

‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett
– Probably my overall favourite – a brave setting (black maids working in white homes in 1960s Mississippi), but really just a very well-written story – completely engaging from the first chapter.

‘The Hairdresser of Harare’ by Tendai Huchu
– I like stories that offer me a window into another culture. Having visited Harare many years ago, I enjoyed being able to picture it.

‘Love… From Both Sides’ by Nick Spalding
– Quite silly, but cleverly written and a good concept for a novel – seeing a relationship develop from both sides. The only book all year to make me laugh out loud on the bus. In some places I was laughing so hard I was crying.

‘Walden on Wheels’ by Ken Ilgunas
– Blogged about this too!

‘Nine Lives’ by William Dalrymple
– I’m still reading this one actually, but it’s very interesting – essentially nine documentary-like chapters about different people the author met around India, their spiritual beliefs and practices, and the context in which these sit in modern India. Some of these are a lot more disturbing than I imagined.

Non fiction

‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ by Brene Brown
– The only self-help book I would recommend from this year’s reading. Research-based, concise, and very practical. How to live a more whole-hearted life. See also Brene Brown’s excellent TED talks.

‘The First 20 Minutes: The Surprising Science That Reveals How We Can Exercise Better’ by Gretchen Reynolds
– Reports a load of research results, but doesn’t seem to do much in the way of drawing out the main messages or conclusions, so it felt a bit like reading a bowl of spaghetti to me. However, I did pick up some potentially useful tips from it. For example, did you know that stretching exercises as a warm-up are worse than useless? Neither did I!

‘Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness’ by Jessica Valenti
– I read this expecting to be put off the idea of having a baby, but if anything, it actually made the idea a little less scary. It’s people’s expectations of parenthood that seem to matter – and how helpful the society/workplace is (I’m glad I’m not in America after reading this). One other thing that stuck with me is the research suggesting that mothers working and children attending nurseries (part-time, especially) is probably better for both than staying at home full-time.

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
– Think I may have mentioned this before, too – it’s fascinating, compelling, and has made me see the world a bit differently.

‘One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One’ by Lauren Sandler
– Interesting, research-based, mostly positive perspective on singletons. One thing that stuck with me was the picture it paints of ‘suburban ghettos’ – the homogeneous, middle-class, out-of-town housing estates people are forced to leave city apartments for (and submit to the prospect of social isolation and/or many hours spent in cars every week), in order to have a family of a certain size – and the idea that there’s a middle way with a small family.

‘Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence’ by various authors
– A series of essays pertaining to this question. I’ve been meaning to write a post on this for ages, but I haven’t summoned the energy to wade through the terribly dry, academic writing again and summarise. It’s only because it’s a topic of such personal interest to me that I even got through it once! I will write the post soon…

‘How to Get a Job You’ll Love’ by John Lees
– A real morale boost for anyone looking at their career. Lots of practical advice.

Posted in personal reflection | 1 Comment

We are nothing but our stories

The following is (roughly) the address I gave at this morning’s Sunday Assembly. I fear the end was slightly corny, but I meant well!

I thought I would read a passage from a book I’ve read recently, that has inspired me. The book is called “Walden on Wheels” by Ken Ilgunas.

“I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel most lost.”

The book is a memoir written by a young American guy who struggled with the high cost of being a student, with feeling shackled by the need to pay back huge student loans, and with the limited prospects for finding meaningful work. The book is about his way out of this situation; about how he found ways to live in line with his values of freedom, integrity, and adventure, to live a good life despite the constraints on him, and it ends up with him going back to university for postgraduate study – and living in a van to be able to stay out of debt.

I found it an interesting read. One thing that stood out to me was that he didn’t always seem to have a great time when he did follow his values or his sense of adventure. It was as if he was driven by a romantic narrative that was a bit more gritty in reality. He took an ill-prepared hike up Blue Cloud mountain in Alaska, and he freely admits this experience was painful and miserable, and only later became a warm and fuzzy memory. It felt good to look back on, because it was the kind of challenge that fitted with the adventurous storyline he wanted to live by. He says:

“When it comes to memories, it seems we all have an editor within who will—if it’ll make for a good story—revise the senseless into symbols, or rephrase miseries into warm memories.”

Maybe following our values and acting along the lines of our chosen stories is something that pays off later on. I don’t think it’s just mental editing after the fact that generates meaning. The experiences themselves are important. We just have to have patience to take the journey and not expect every moment of it to be blissful. Again, to quote from the book:

“… more and more, I began to believe that to live a happy present requires having lived a full past. It requires that we go on our own journey. And if we are so lucky as to reach the end of that tortuous, troubled path, we may be afforded the gleaming vista of self-discovery.”

There’s no getting away from hardship in life. Maybe what matters is where it is leading you; what the purpose is, and whether that is in line with your deepest values, as they emerge along the way.

That’s not to say that happiness is always about looking back over your past. There were some sublime moments for Ken, like the sight of the northern lights in the Alaskan winter sky, and sometimes these moments came unexpectedly. Moments where life feels magical and wonderful are there to be had, and they might always just be moments, but I think we can open ourselves to more of them if we choose to. The Sunday Assembly is all about that! I remember the first time I came to a Sunday Assembly, during the Fringe, the singing had that kind of effect on me. Maybe I just really connected with the particular song, but I was blown away by how good it felt just to sing joyfully with a bunch of other people. I couldn’t wait to get involved. I really hope this will be a place where we all get to have more moments of wonder and joy.

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A new beginning

When I wrote of “getting involved” at the end of my previous post on the Sunday Assembly, little did I know that I – along with my other half – would be putting together the band! Oh, and playing in it too, even though I haven’t played music in public for years!

Sunday Assembly is now a global movement, a network of ‘secular churches’, and the Edinburgh branch had our launch this week with Sanderson and Pippa, as part of their 40-day tour of new Assembly launches. (One of the other organisers has put some photos online here.) With a lot of work done by a little group of organisers, we all got to know each other a bit, and we had an evening we could be proud of.

There has been some press coverage, and the comments have been really interesting. Perhaps it’s partly the nature of Internet comments threads, but opinions among the non-religious seem to be really polarised. Some people love the idea, while others are actually affronted by the very concept – the analogy of “pretend meat for vegetarians” has come up more than once, with the implication that there is a kind of hypocrisy involved: if you like religion that much, you should just be religious!

Some people have said that they don’t think a community can work when it is not based around some common belief, or purpose, or activity, or whatever. I guess time will tell – the London one seems to be going strong, but it’s still only in its first year. I guess there is more potential for fragmentation or conflict when there isn’t a defining creed or official stance on various things. There has already been a split in the New York one, with a more atheism-centred and religion-bashing group having to go off and start their own thing independently. Then again, perhaps this just shows that the Sunday Assembly is already pretty clear on what it is and what it isn’t.

I don’t think it’s harder to understand or explain to people than any of the myriad varieties of church out there. (And churches are not immune to inner conflict, either!) It’s just that everyone knows what a church is, even if they’re not familiar with a particular one. When I was a Christian, I could mention “church” and I don’t think it bothered me whether people knew exactly what kind of church I went to. With this, I get a bit nervous when I don’t have the opportunity to give a full explanation!

But I’m definitely excited and proud to be a part of this. Church, if you set aside the religious element, is about congregating with others to take a bit of time out from busy lives and reflect on life a bit; to be uplifted together; to reach out and do some good to others. There are many people who want all these things, but are just turned off by the God part. This is for them (but not exclusively! ;) )

Posted in personal reflection, Sunday Assembly | 6 Comments