Ethics Online


Alchemical Sufi Silent Retreat – Sinai Desert 2023


‘May I Be Here Now’


The memories I’m about to relate may outwardly appear inconsequential but seen from within these experiences were so substantial that they still occupy my thoughts to this day, remaining in my memory as shrines on the wayside.

A minibus picks my friend Nicky and me up from Sharm El-Sheik. We’re oblivious to what we’ve let ourselves in for, innocents abroad on a journey into uncertainty. It’s a two-hour drive to the centre of the Sinai Desert. With continuing jihadist terror attacks, security is intense. Every 30Km our journey is punctuated with army roadblocks and checkpoints manned by peevish security agents, fresh-faced soldiers, and chain-smoking armed police, who scrutinize our passports.

I remark at how very few vehicles there are on the immaculately tarmacked highway cutting through the desert and am told that post-Covid the Egyptian economy has gone into freefall with devaluation of the Egyptian Pound and 30% inflation.

The further we drive into the desert the more inhospitable it becomes, countless miles of barren scrubland and distant soaring peaks. I ask myself: ‘How can anyone survive in such a harsh environment?’ before the exhilarating yet disturbing thought occurs: ‘You’re gonna find out soon enough, boyo!’

The sight of the desert envelopes my senses, and I wake up to the fact that this vast and silent pocket of the Earth is one of humanity’s great theatres in its search for Meaning…

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I shop, therefore I am?

Our day in lieu this year fell on ‘black Friday’, a “sacred day” in the calendar of consumerism. During its advent we’re led to believe that retail therapy, aka oniochalasia, engenders ‘mental relaxation’: nothing heals a heavy heart like a heavy shopping bag.

As far as I can tell however the vast majority of my colleagues aren’t oniomaniacs – slaves to an overwhelming impulse to shop. Few adhere to the adage ‘buy now or cry later’ or accept that Cinderella is proof that a new pair of shoes can change your life. The vast majority stayed at home, had a lie-in and took the opportunity to catch up with their preparation and marking. After all it’s been a tough term and the new content loaded exams will soon be upon us…with still a whole component to go!

When black Friday comes around I can’t help but remember George W. Bush’s advice after 9/11: shop! Personally I never warmed to Bush but maybe he had a point given that one recent psychological study claims 62% of us shop to cheer ourselves up and to feel less negative.

One of the many brilliant things about our subject is we’re free to explore issues around materialism, secularism, consumerism, hedonism, authenticity, meaning, purpose, possessions, social responsibility…in short we’re free to talk about shopping: I shop, therefore I am?

The true meaning of Christmas is so easily lost in the wrappings but from all of us here at Ethics Online we wish you a relaxing Christmas. At least the shops are shut…..but only just.


Understanding the Trinity

What is the Biblical proof for the Trinity – God being three in one? There are numerous passages in the Bible that hint at the Trinity – the great ‘I am’ saying in John’s gospel where Jesus uses the sacred name of Yahweh to describe himself and scenes such as St Peter saying ‘You are the Christ, the Holy Son of God’ in answer to Jesus’ question over who the disciples thought him to be. But these sayings are unclear, circumstantial, open to interpretation. The word ‘Christ’ didn’t mean then what it does now and being a Son of God was an honour shared by Kings and wise men. The stories and phrases in the New Testament that attest to Jesus having divine attributes certainly don’t describe the Trinity as it came to be understood  where God is three persons, of equal nature, consubstantial, coeternal, of one Being. No where in the Bible does.  Apart from one place 1 John 5 7. And this monumental passage reads ‘ For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.’

This verse alone is the only place where the Trinity is formulated in a recognisable, unambiguous way. And it is almost certainly wrong.

Leuven 1516 and Erasmus is changing Biblical scholarship. For centuries the Western world had been following the Latin vulgate version of the Bible, largely translated by Jerome in the 4th century. But Erasmus taught himself Greek – borrowing money from friends and family to do so. And when he was sufficiently fluent he went back to the earliest Greek Manuscripts and translated them all over again, remaining true to the earlier manuscripts when errors had occurred in the Vulgate, copied over the previous 1000 years by men who were ‘half taught and half asleep’. And lo and behold – what did he find? The all-important Trinitarian text – the so called Johanine comma  – was not there in the Greek. Not anywhere. He just couldn’t find it in all the manuscripts he consulted, so Erasmus, being Erasmus left it out. The resulting edition caused a furore and the great man hastily re-inserted it for his 3rd edition published in 1522 but the debate had started and it has raged ever since. In 1927 the Catholic Church officially cast doubt on the authenticity of the Johanine comma and most modern editions of the Bible now leave it out.

So when your students are debating the development of the Trinity they should be informed about this fascinating nugget. The Trinity is not nearly as clear as everyone assumes it is and it is almost certainly not Biblical doctrine.

War and Rumours of war

Nicky Cox writing in the Independent this week highlights the rise in fake news and the corresponding rise in young people’s anxiety. “Outside of worries about their families, terrorism is the single biggest fear in their lives” she says citing a huge increase in calls to Childline from children suffering with anxiety over world events, including nuclear war.

RS teachers have a special responsibility in this. While war is still in most of the GCSE and A level specs, we as professionals have long realised that we are dealing with something very sensitive indeed. It is a hard line to tread between presenting the dry academic facts of ‘Jus in Bello’ and the heart-stopping fear that can haunt a child long after they leave the classroom. They worry – seriously – that nuclear war is coming and will destroy everything in its wake. We have to be very careful when we talk about war in the present climate in particular.

At the same time, students need to know the facts. The Religious Studies classroom may be the only time in their childhood, and perhaps even adulthood too, that they will have the space, support and resources to engage with issues that have divided mankind for centuries.

When Ethics Online facilitate a GCSE conference we usually start with a power point. For copyright reasons we can’t include the soundtrack here but import some music and feel free to download this and use as a generic starter to ‘war’.

Often we the get students talking about different types of killing. One of the priorities of ‘Just war’ is the protection of innocent people. But what constitutes innocence? If someone inadvertently leads you in to danger, does that make them no longer innocent? What’s the real difference between attack and self-defence and are there limits to the sanctity of life? We use these (rather elaborate) scenarios to get people focussing in.

Later we show ‘The Priest that Blessed the Bomb’ from our film Just War which charts the remorse of the Catholic priest that blessed the Hiroshima bomb.

Sorry it can’t be more here but we’re sure you will be able to use these – and we’re always happy to come into school – though because Joe is still teaching that’s easier said than done… so in his absence, hope these help!

Download the PowerPoint

Joe and Nicky

Asking the brightest to fail.

I was sitting next to a professor at Cambridge the other day. She’s a professor in Modern Foreign Languages but what she said had such relevance that I thought I should share it. ‘The students are terrified of failure’ she said. ‘My first job is to rid them of that!’

I was taken aback to begin with. It’s Oxbridge after all who demand the highest grades. If you haven’t got the bank of A*s or current equivalent, you needn’t bother to apply. But I also saw what she meant and at this time of UCAS form filling (and Oxbridge applications) I thought maybe we should explore it a little.

Failure is the domain of the arts subjects – in maths or natural sciences, failure is easily seen – an answer is transparently right or wrong, although the deliberation is naturally credited. But failure – fear of it and embrace of it – is particularly aligned to the arts. The arts subjects live and breathe on uncertainty. You take a historical analysis, a piece of art or literature, or indeed a belief – and then you ask the questions. The unsettling ones; the ones that give pause for thought. All arts are the opposite of fundamentalism; religious studies pre-eminently so.

So …. It is worth us – their teachers – realising that we are actually asking our best students to do not one but two things. Firstly we are asking them to know the facts – they must be able to trot out what MacIntyre said about virtue or how Aulen modified atonement. For a particular kind of person – that’s the easy bit. But then we’re asking them to understand those views to such an extent that they can see round the corner too. Somehow we have to inspire them to really feel these questions so that they want to rip into a viewpoint… with that most mature of skills; the ability to see where their argument might lead – and indeed how it might fail. And to do so with some hunger.

We’re teaching them to be intellectual acrobats – without fear of heights. And that’s a hard thing to be. But I think that’s what the professor was wanting; although I’m sure she was aware of the irony. How can you expect a student, whose whole life has been dedicated to writing the best essays, doing the best work, not to worry about failure? It’s a cruel ask at the last. But one on which education is founded. Education is built on the possibility of failure because that’s what prevents ideas from sliding into fundamentalism.

So when your students complete their UCAS forms it’s worth remembering that these universities have seen it all before. What they’re wanting, above all, is the hunger. A hunger that’s not afraid to fail because the asking is as interesting as the knowing. That’s maybe what they want. And maybe something that the best personal statements do show. Students come and students go – our job is to teach them to embrace failure. Only then can they authentically learn.

Hobbes on compatibilism

Determinism matters because bound up within it is the whole idea of moral choice. If our every action is determined then it’s a bad day for the moral man – he was always going to die for his friend and he’s not really to be credited. Upbringing, psychological make up, you name it – he was always going to say ‘Take me’ to the sadistic guard. But if he has free will, his action is truly moral. Morality assumes we have that will – the dignity of man appears to depend on it.

There are some philosophers who are unwilling to abandon the idea of human freedom (after all, we think we are genuinely debating our moral choices) while yet agreeing that certainly, many things about human beings are determined. These “Soft Determinists” or “Compatibilists” see that to do away with free will makes an evil man a kind of natural disaster. For a hard determinist, Hitler could not help his actions, he is morally neutral; neither better not worse than Nelson Mandela. The Compatibilists try to reconcile some kind of determinism with free will.

Thomas Hobbes attempted to do this – albeit in a limited form. Man does follow a path that is determined by things that happened to arrive there – he can’t help it. For Hobbes it’s a question of logic. If you say that this event happens because of another then that is true. It does. There are sufficient and necessary reasons to cause it to happen – and it could not happen any other way because if it did, the reasons were neither sufficient nor necessary. Something else would have happened in line with the reasons that were actually sufficient and necessary. The laws of cause and effect means we were always going to make the choices we make. And yet Hobbes is a compatibilist – he does try to reconcile determinism and free will and he does it like this.

Imagine a woman in a shop. She sees a teenager nick some high value meals – they’re laid out in the fridge and he just lifts them up and puts them in his bag. There’s just a few seconds to decide whether or not to alert the security guard (the teenager is raggy and he looks like he could use a good meal) or let him get away with it.
Now – according to Hobbes – the will of the woman (the actual bit that choses) is determined. Her upbringing, sense of fair play, values, compassion all have a hand in causing her to make a certain decision. They are sufficient and necessary reasons. But having made the choice (determined) she then is free to do what she will with that choice as long as nothing restricts her (not determined).

Scenario 1 – she decides to report the boy and opens her mouth to do so but his friend sidles up beside her and says ‘If you report him I’ll flatten you.’ She closes her mouth again.
Scenario 2 – she decides to report the boy and opens her mouth to do so but sees his young sister in the corner and realises he’s stealing for her – and she looks positively starving. She closes her mouth again

In the first scenario she is stopped by the gruesome friend and hence not free. In the second, she is not impeded – and hence free to make her decision. And this is what Hobbes means by compatibilism. So long as her will is not impeded; she is free to use it – even though the will itself is not free. He thought it was like a stream flowing down a river – while the water had to flow within its natural confines, it was free in so far as its path was not blocked or impeded.

Celebrating RS A Level Results this week!

Getting your results


Congratulations to all students who will be getting their results this week – and an even more heartfelt congratulation to the teachers who have supported, coaxed, galvanised and inspired them to get there. 2017 has been a challenging year for Religious Studies – one of the most challenging, perhaps, people can remember. With the final year of the legacy spec running alongside the first year of delivering the new, teachers have had to battle with a truly colossal workload. Just in terms of accessing the new content there have been huge demands, but coupled with also writing and delivering new GCSEs, while nurturing (in the inimitable way RS teachers do) another cohort of young people – it’s a staggering achievement. Teachers should feel very proud.

To study religion is to study issues more debated in society than any other. No wonder ‘A level’ entries in 2016 increased more than any arts, humanity or social science subject. It could be almost taken as read that the Russell Group would recognise the subject as being a suitable preparation for university but why? What exactly does RS equip us to do?

Now I recently had a run-in with a friend who holds a medical PhD from Cambridge and who I had (plausibly enough I reckoned) labelled a ‘scientist’ as opposed to a ‘dreamer’. His reply was – to put it politely – robust! Einstein, he told me, had also been a dreamer and had leant out of his patent office window to dream what it would be like to ride on a beam of light into the heavens. Scientists are per se dreamers – it’s just that they can’t stand pseudo-science; or things that purport to be ‘true’ when they – demonstrably – are not.

I huffed a bit at that word ‘true’. Religious Studies peeps tend to – we can’t help but feel our antennae prick up whenever a debate about what may or may not be ‘true’ swims into the room. Deep in our bones lies an understanding that not all things are true in the same way. That, I think, is was Religious Studies teaches us (among, of course, a billion other things) and that’s what I told my friend.  In doing so, I was reminded of a lovely article written by David Bentley Hart which has recently started doing the internet rounds but which meets the debate head on. Hart is talking about a common pitfall he perceives among atheists who need only trot out the ‘reliable’ witticism “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden” to elicit a warm response. “Admittedly” continues Hart,” one ought not judge a movement by its jokes, but neither should one be overly patient with those who delight in their own ignorance of elementary conceptual categories.” And then he goes on to explore the ontology of God (

That, I think, is why the Russell group so warmly recognise Religious Studies as a perfect way to ripen young minds. That is why teachers continue to grapple with impossible demands on their time, energy and good will but nevertheless deliver lessons that consistently turn brains on rather than off. That is why Religious Studies is one ‘A level’ that matters much more than the result you pass them in the envelope tomorrow. There is mystery in this world and there is science and there is truth. And Religious Studies – almost uniquely – takes that trio in its stride. When you add to the trio instability on a global scale, with bigotry and appalling hate crimes on the rise, an appreciation of religious diversity and also religious unity is one small way of fighting back. Religious Studies changes the way people think – you change the way people chose to think by showing there is a choice. And it’s one that can inform a life. In any book, that’s a result well worth having.



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