Parents can play a vital role in supporting their child with dyslexia – Veronica Bidwell

Bidwell_Parents-Guide-t_978-1-78592-040-0_colourjpg-printIn this chapter from The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties, Veronica Bidwell looks at the important role parents can play in supporting the learning of their child with dyslexia. Looking at the kind of difficulties typically experienced at different ages and stages of development, she provides some very reassuring and useful advice.

Click here to download the extract

Packed full of advice and practical strategies for parents and educators, her book is a one-stop-shop for supporting children with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), ranging from poor working memory, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, through to ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Specific Language Impairment and Visual Processing Difficulty. Veronica is an Educational Psychologist with expert knowledge of Specific Learning Difficulties.  She has been involved in education for over 30 years working with mainstream and special schools.  She has run a leading independent Educational Psychology Service and has assessed many hundreds of pupils and provided advice and support to pupils, parents and teachers. Click here to find out more about her book.

Read an extract from Learning from Baby P

shoesmith_learning-from-b_978-1-78592-003-5_colourjpg-webSharon Shoesmith has worked with children for almost 40 years in a career which culminated with her role as Director of Children’s Services in the London Borough of Haringey. She was in this role in 2007 at the time of death of Peter Connelly, also known as ‘Baby P’. Blamed for his death and unlawfully sacked, Sharon Shoesmith became the primary target of a public and press-led outcry in the aftermath of the case.

Click here to read an extract

Learning from Baby P is Shoesmith’s dispassionate analysis of the events which followed Peter Connelly’s death, documenting the responses of the media, politicians and the public whilst defending social workers against the scapegoating which happens so frequently in the aftermath of high profile child protection cases. She explores the psychological and emotional responses we share when faced with such horrifying cases of familial child homicide, and how a climate of fear and blame which follows such tragedies can lead to negative consequences for other children at risk of harm, and for the social workers striving to protect them. Sharon now works as a researcher, writer and public speaker in areas related to education, social care and public perception.

Learning from Baby P is a thought-provoking book aiming to deepen understanding and shed light on the difficult relationship between politics, the media and child protection.


Dyslexia, a disability or an ability to think differently? – Veronica Bidwell

dyslexiaIn this article Veronica Bidwell, author of The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties, explains the numerous ways that teachers and parents can support the learning of children with dyslexia.  She suggests adopting a holistic approach that engages all the body’s senses, examining the bigger picture before delving into the subject matter and recapping little and often with the aid of memory gadgets.  Packed full of advice and practical strategies for parents and educators, her book is a one-stop-shop for supporting children with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), ranging from poor working memory, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, through to ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Specific Language Impairment and Visual Processing Difficulty. 

In an interview on Woman’s Hour this week Jo Malone, the brilliant fragrance queen, talked about her life and how she built and sold a multi-million pound company, battled cancer and then built up her new company, Jo Loves.

Jo mentioned her failure to succeed in school and the fact that she had left with no qualifications whatsoever. This, happily for the rest of us, did not deter the entrepreneur. Her fragrant oils, creams, candles, colognes and perfumes are loved and have made her a household name.

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Music Therapy with Families – Q & A


In our recent release, Music Therapy with Families, international music therapists describe and discuss models of working with families in different clinical areas, from those with family members with dementia or autism, to those in palliative care, psychiatric or paediatric hospital settings. To celebrate the release of Music Therapy with Families, we caught up with Stine Lindhal Jacobsen and Grace Thompson to talk about all things music therapy and their new book!


What motivated you to write Music Therapy with Families?

Grace: Back in 2012 I attended the Nordic Congress of Music Therapy in Finland.  There was a round-table presentation where music therapists from different countries shared their approaches to working with families.  It was really exciting to hear about the diverse approaches each music therapist took in their work, and also the variety of populations music therapists were working with.  Many were working with young children, but others were working with families with adolescent children or families where adult children were supporting older parents.  The following year I met my future co-editor Stine Lindahl Jacobsen at the European Music Therapy Congress in Oslo, and soon after she invited me to write a chapter for this book.  I was so excited about the idea, that I enthusiastically offered to help Stine with the editing and she agreed – that was the start of our special connection across opposite sides of the world!

Stine: Ever since I started working with families in 2005 I wanted to develop a theoretically anchored music therapy approach focused on the complex dynamics of families. I kept looking for these in the literature to be inspired and learn from others but only found a few. The idea about the book has long been in my mind and after the foundation of an international network of working with families within music therapy I was really motivated to follow up on the book. I was utterly grateful for Grace Thompson to offer her assistance as co-editor as the job isn’t easily done – and I happily accepted. Our collaboration was pure pleasure – it was really a sensation of sharing the same vision and goal.


What do you think it is about music that has the potential to be therapeutic?

Grace: This is a great question, and one that music therapists are asked a lot!  There are different perspectives that you can take when thinking about how music can be therapeutic.  Some people theorise that music making in communities has always been a way for people to socially bond together.  Other academics highlight how music stimulates many parts of the brain at once, making music participation a bit like a full brain work-out! In my work, I align with theories from developmental psychology which highlight how musical play and interactions are part of the earliest forms of social interaction.  Before we could even speak, our caregivers used musical forms to attune to us and try to engage with us.  For children with disabilities who might have various developmental challenges, music therapists create opportunities for musical interplay in order to provide another avenue for social and communication development.  For some children, interacting within music making is more motivating and enjoyable and so they persist with the interaction for longer.  Music making therefore provides a really powerful opportunity to support and promote developmental outcomes. Each author in our book has a different theoretical perspective which they explain in depth in their chapter, so the reader can gain a very broad understanding of how and why music therapy makes an important contribution to people’s lives.

Stine: Big question – and important. For me it is about how music motivates us and draws us in. When you work with people in music you get a sense of them very quickly and they get a sense of you too! There is so much information in musical interaction which guides the music therapist but also the people you work with. For me the musical interaction is genuine and there is an important authentic meeting. You cannot lie in the music. The music can help you contain difficult emotions and aid you to try on new expressions and roles. Using music gives you endless opportunities to flexibly, respectfully and adjustably meet the need of many different clients as the book also illustrates with all its different therapists and clients.


It is mentioned in the book that music therapy is gaining popularity as a therapeutic activity. Why do you think this is so?

Grace: Well, in my work as a music therapist with children on the Autism Spectrum, many families comment that music therapy doesn’t feel like therapy.  Instead, they say how much they enjoy the sessions as a parent, and how their child really looks forward to coming.  I think that families really appreciate being able to share a mutually enjoyable experience with their child.  When they see their child playing the instruments, singing and moving to the music, they can also see their child’s strengths.  As a music therapist, I love being able to uncover what the child can do well, and using that as the basis to support further development.

Stine: I also think music therapy is gaining popularity partly because research is growing and building an argument for its use, but also because we as academics are getting better at disseminating the positive effects and complex processes to other disciplines and to the general population.


What, in your opinion, is the most challenging aspect of working with families (as opposed to individuals) in music therapy? What is the most rewarding aspect?

Grace: I have worked as a music therapist with families who have young children with disabilities since around 2000. I have always experienced how quickly the children get to know me and how much fun we have together when we are playing music.  But of course, I will only work with the children for a short time in their lives.  It is very rewarding to support parents to join in with the musical play so that they can also experience this sense of fun and connection that can even deepen their parent-child relationship.  However, some parents can be a bit hesitant to join in with the musical play. Our Western society tends to portray music as a specialist activity where you have to be ‘talented’ to make music or sing.  So one of the challenges of the work is encouraging parents to have a go, and sing along even if they don’t feel they are very musical.  I also encourage parents to keep using the songs and musical activities in the home without me, so that they can continue to provide rich developmental opportunities for their child, as well as having a new way to have fun together and strengthen relationship.

Stine: It can be very challenging to form healthy working alliances when working with families with emotionally neglected children. The aim is to make the family work better together and have no need of therapy. There is always a risk that as a therapist you might take over, or overshadow the parents, or bond more with one family member than another. However, the challenge and hard work is worth every second when you get to experience the empowerment of parents and children through music – when you get to see families grow closer, bond stronger and interact better.


What are you hoping readers take away from the book?

Grace: I hope our community will really understand what music therapy has to offer people with various disabilities and health challenges.  I would love to see families including more music making in their daily lives, sharing joyful moments together with music, and supporting their children and loved ones to be the best they can be. I also hope that music therapists and music therapy students will be inspired by the different case examples and feel more confident to work with families in music therapy.

Stine: I hope music therapists in all forms will find inspiration and knowledge about working with families in music therapy. Interdisciplinary colleagues working with or interested in working with families might also get inspired or get to understand the work of their own colleagues. The book can be relevant to anyone interested in how music can connect to the lives of various families and their special needs, resources and challenges.


To buy the book or find out more about it please visit here.

Teacher tips for supporting children with dyslexia – Diana Hudson

In this chapter taken from dyslexiaSpecific Learning Difficulties – What Teachers Need to Know, Diana Hudson gives practical advice to busy teachers who have a student with dyslexia. She provides simple but effective tips to improve their learning, organisation and memory processing skills, whilst describing indicators to help them spot a student who has not yet been diagnosed.

Click here to download the extract

Specific Learning Difficulties – What Teachers Need to Know is a straight-talking guide to supporting students with Specific Learning Difficulties. It provides an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of students with commonly encountered SpLDs, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and OCD, and suggests ways of modifying teaching materials to make learning more enjoyable for them.

Diana Hudson is a tutor and mentor to students with SpLDs. She has been a subject classroom teacher (biology), a learning support teacher and a SENCO. She has a diagnosis of dyslexia and is a parent to four children, three of whom have been diagnosed with SpLDs.

Click here to find out more about Diana Hudson’s book.

How can parents support their child with dyslexia? – Neil Alexander-Passe

alexander-passeNeil Alexander- Passe, author of Dyslexia and Mental Health, talks about the different ways that parents can support their child with dyslexia who may be struggling at school. He explains that, with the right encouragement and communication with teachers, there is every chance that a child with dyslexia will thrive in today’s day and age.


Contrary to public perception, you do not outgrow dyslexia. The dyslexic child who struggles with literacy will likely become a dyslexic adult who also struggles with literacy.  What has changed, however, is that today’s schools have a duty of care to support the additional needs of their students.  Unlike older generations of dyslexics who quite likely had a negative school experience, teachers have a responsibility nowadays to make sure that SEN students are recognised, that they are made to feel included in the classroom, and that they are not subjected to humiliation and left behind.  In fact, teacher training is finally introducing a compulsory SEND element, which means that all teachers will be judged on their ability to support the special educational needs of their pupils.  What, though, can parents be doing to ensure their child with dyslexia enjoys school?  And how can they help their teachers provide the best support?

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Dyslexia doesn’t have to be a barrier to success – Margaret Rooke

rooke-creative-successful-dyslexicMargaret Rooke, author of Creative, Successful, Dyslexic, explains the journey she went through in writing this book. Compelled as a mother to help her daughter, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a teenager, Margaret set about using her 20 years’ experience as a writer on national newspapers and magazines to approach the 23 high achievers with dyslexia whose stories form the book.  Its aim, she says, is “to reassure anyone with dyslexia and their loved ones – together with any others who do not seem to shine naturally at school in these results-driven days.”

When I found out my 13-year-old daughter was dyslexic, my first response was shock. She had ticked all the educational boxes at primary school very happily.

She stopped learning as soon as she arrived at secondary school and we spent a couple of years working out why this was. Was it the school? Was she on some kind of strike? Was she simply unhappy? Continue reading

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An interview with Marian Partington – author of If You Sit Very Still


Marian Partington’s sister Lucy was kidnapped by Fred and Rose West in 1973. In 1994, 21 years later, her remains were found in their basement. If You Sit Very Still is Marian’s response to this most traumatic of losses and her journey away from resentment, towards forgivness. 

We spoke to Marian about the process of writing such a unique and intensely emotional book. 

Marian, you wrote an essay on Lucy’s disappearance called Salvaging the Sacred in 1996. What motivated you to build on this, and to write If You Sit Very Still?

The essay was published in the Guardian Weekend and there was a huge, generous unexpected response which somehow changed me and honoured my continuing purpose. There was a hunger for meaning and wholeness that resonated within me, surprised me. It felt urgent and vital. There was no turning back. I felt heard and understood and realised the necessity of continuing to grapple with questions that wouldn’t go away; to stay true to this unravelling, wherever it may lead, however long it would take and to continue to write. The question of how to live with less harm, how to deepen our compassion in the wake of human atrocity, continues to challenge me to the core. It is upon this that I build.

Your language throughout the book is both lyrical and unflinching in its description of the events of Lucy’s disappearance. It’s a very powerful narrative. How did you feel while writing it? 

Finding words, finding a voice was almost impossible at times, yet remaining silent was not an option. If I had tried to carry on with no words, trapped in the frozen silence, I would have allowed death. The words that arose within me came from an instinctive need for a terrible truth to survive, a bearing of witness, a speaking by proxy in the face of unspeakable demolition. So writing became a way of allowing myself time and solitude to experience my grief and to face the unbearable pain of what had happened to Lucy.  Each word felt like a rung on a ladder leading from a deep pit. It felt empowering and honouring of our shared love and study of English literature to write. It felt as if we were raising the register through the grace of the words that arrived. It felt as if we shared a sacred realm. I felt blessed and guided.

Lucy converted to Catholicism before her disappearance. Years later, you joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and spent time in Buddhist retreats. What part has faith played in your journey to forgiveness?

It felt significant and hugely challenging in a way that was ‘beyond’ any formal religious faith. Lucy ‘disappeared’ five weeks after she was received into the Catholic church and we found out five weeks after I had joined the Quakers, twenty years later. I remember thinking that if there was anything of value in a religious faith it needed to show up now. Shared silence was important. To allow what lies within to surface and to be transformed.

I made the vow to forgive the Wests after a seven day silent Buddhist retreat. I realised that this would be the most creative, imaginative way forward, but I had no idea what it would involve and how it might come about. My faith was to trust that I would be shown a way. I call the religious words around this inner work ‘barnacled’. ‘God’, ‘sin’, ‘repentance’, ‘redemption’,’ forgiveness’- these words feel encrusted and clogged up with ‘aeons of piety’. But to travel within religious communities informed by teachings that aspire towards deepening our capacity to love and feel compassion and to know and live with wisdom has been essential to becoming less self-centred and more open to a greater whole. I have grown towards knowing our interdependence and our connectedness and the need to remain open to whatever arises and to learn from that. I feel deeply grateful for all that travel with me, for those who unpick their deluded selves and work towards our ‘true nature’ which is at the heart of ‘this great matter of life and death’.

You comment in the book that our society ‘suffers badly from a fear of the reality of death’. Do you feel as though you’ve come to terms with the reality of death?

When I cradled and wrapped Lucy’s bones I faced mortality in a profound way. It was unavoidable and awakening. I felt deeply grateful to be alive. As I grow older and was recently seriously ill it has become more important to reflect upon this reality every day. I feel that there is a gentle, tender, vast, subtle energy that is truly where ‘time intersects with eternity’. Recently I was convinced of this and knew that it didn’t matter if I lived or died. I am exploring the reality of radical helplessness (my next book!) and the need to surrender in the face of death and to embrace every moment.

Dreams play a very important part in your journey. The structure of the book is based on the medieval dream poem, Pearl, and you highlight five major dreams as signposts towards the act of forgiveness. How did you interpret these dreams as particularly significant?

All I can say is that the dreams felt ‘real’, almost more real than everyday life. They needed to be faced, heeded and integrated. They led me to reflect and act with confidence. I knew there was a truth in them that could not be ‘thought’. Maybe they came from ‘the collective unconscious’. They were compelling and profound, as if they were drawn from a deep well of creative imagination. To finally realise that the book that Lucy had in her bag the night that she was abducted from the bus stop was the ‘shape’ that I needed for this book (after sixteen years of writing!) – this fills me with pleasure and gratitude.

In many cases, it is the perpetrators who are remembered, more so than the victims. How does that make you feel, and why do you think that is?

Yes, I think that this was and continues to be something that drives me to speak for Lucy (Primo Levi called it ‘speaking by proxy’) and to reclaim her as my sister from the labels ‘missing person’ and ‘West victim’. The need to find the words, carefully, so that Lucy can live in people’s minds in all her complex, fiercely intelligent beauty and aspirations was involuntary. I couldn’t just leave her ‘out there’, sticky and stained by the media representations.  I felt sad that my energy could not extend to doing that for all of the ‘West victims’, but I try to at least name them when I can. Eventually I realised, through painful self-confrontation on long Buddhist retreats, that the perpetrators and their family were also victims, and that I am also a perpetrator and a bystander. I think it is easier for the public to demonise perpetrators than to try and connect with the suffering of those who are labelled ‘victims’. This is deeply unhealthy for our society. It makes me feel frustrated and sad that this is the case. It seems that we need to dig deeper, look within and learn something more about what it means to be human in response to human brutality and violence.

You have shared your story (and Lucy’s poetry) with inmates in male adult prisons to encourage them to experience victim empathy. How was that process for you?

I feel very privileged to have worked in 15 or so different prisons over the years (since 2001) in Restorative Justice settings. It has given me an opportunity to know that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone I have met and that sharing this story has brought healing in its wake. Meeting people who have committed serious crimes (rape, murder, sexual abuse) and listening to them respond to us with their own heart breaking stories has helped me to deepen my trust and to know that Lucy’s suffering is bringing something good into the world, despite the terrible loss and horror of it all. My work in prisons with the Forgiveness Project (  since 2005, with a 3 day programme called RESTORE, as a speaker and a facilitator has been even more amazing because it involves two speakers, one ‘victim’ and one ‘perpetrator’. The labels drop away and the prisoners begin to thaw and tell their own stories. Our work in a women’s prison with creative writing, as a follow up to RESTORE has led to a sharing of Lucy’s poems and a great harvest of poetry from the women. This has all helped with my healing enormously. It lives up to the meaning of Lucy’s name: light. I feel her gentle spirit is at work in the world.

You mention that your work as a homeopath has informed your work in male prisons. How so?

In my work as a homeopath for the last thirty years I have listened to many stories of traumatic loss and witnessed the serious dis-ease that can come from unresolved mental/emotional pain. As a homeopath I have learnt much about the path towards healing (moving from dis-ease towards becoming whole) with its unexpected twists and turns. I have had to apply this knowledge and experience to my own life and then to those I have encountered in prisons. I have tried to use words and the little woven bag that Lucy made for me when she was 8 years old as ‘remedies’ in the prisons and to listen as an ‘unprejudiced observer’. First I have had to face what needs to be healed within me. It seems to come back to developing a for-giving, compassionate heart: to face, accept and let go. I have known my own murderous rage and that it is easier to delude oneself and remain in denial than to begin to thaw. I work with ‘similar suffering’, growing into the truth that an old Chan master gave to me: just know that your suffering is helping to relieve the suffering of others. I feel grateful to all those I have worked with and met in prisons. This work generates cycles of compassion.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I hope that readers may learn more about the journey from the frozen silence towards the shining silence, from cruelty towards compassion, from harm to healing, and that carefully chosen words can initiate change. I hope that this book will help to confront and dissolve the roots of fear and prejudice that lie within and without, and that it will help to nourish and allow a more generous and loving world. I hope that people will come to know Lucy, my sister and feel something of the love that I feel for her, that seems to deepen.

For more information or to buy the book, please follow the link.



An interview with Paul Hedges – author of Towards Better Disagreement


Are atheists immoral? Does religion cause conflict? Is religion always opposed to science? Paul Hedges considers common topics of disagreement between religious believers and atheists, in his new book Towards Better Disagreement. We caught up with him to find out more.

What motivated you to write Towards Better Disagreement?

I think the main thing would be in response to what are often called the New Atheist debates. There is a very polemical and antagonistic stance which exists between religion and atheism, or more correctly between a number of prominent and influential spokespeople on each side. This colours a lot of the current discussion and perception, but I think a lot of people are not clearly in one camp or the other. A lot of the debate tends to be either very polarised, or quite simply wrong, and ignores the very real common ground that exists.

The book encourages readers to explore their stance on religion vs atheism. Did you find that you questioned your own position while researching for and writing it?

Yes, absolutely, I’m glad you asked that question. I was pretty clear when I started that the area of dialogue and exchange between atheism and religion needed to be covered. As such, I was pretty sure that some common ground existed, without ignoring very real differences and disagreements. But as I read and researched around these topics, and also started putting things down in writing, it raised a lot of questions for me.

Some of these things were perhaps issues I had had in my mind for sometime but never really fully worked through. I would always tend to put myself in the religious box if asked, rather than the atheist one, but on so many grounds I often found myself agreeing with a lot of what the atheist arguments seemed to say. Of course, there are lots of bad atheists arguments out there too, but I don’t think that agreeing with atheism that typical religious arguments don’t add up is something religious people need to be defensive about. Likewise, I think atheists can realise that lots of stuff they label as “religious” isn’t simply backward or crazy but based in very rational or natural human behaviour. I would say that as a result of writing this book I have a sense of having a foot in both camps in terms of having strong sympathies with some of the arguments and positions of both atheists and those who typically call themselves religious.

You cover a wide range of topics in a comparatively short book (less than 200 pages). Was it a challenge to do so, and how did you decide which were the most vital issues to explore?

That is a good question. Partly the areas I covered are those which interest me, but also I looked into quite a few areas that just seemed to keep coming up in the debates, and so I think they are things which people are either interested in or are just hot topics in the discussion. To some degree too I draw from things I have taught at universities, and if things seem new, important, or interesting to my students then it suggests to me that perhaps a wider audience will want to know about it too.

I actually also asked a group of my friends, former students, and other people to read and comment on bits of the manuscript as I went along as well so this provided some good feedback as I was writing in terms of what fascinated people, what they felt could be cut out, or areas they thought were of interest. It’s always good being able to run some things past part of your audience first.

Was there anything that you discovered while researching for the book that particularly surprised you?

The research for this book is something that went over quite a few years, and so there were a number of surprises. For instance, I was aware that the medieval development of science involved many Christian and Islamic thinkers who believed that the universe was built by a creator and so it would be ordered and coherent. This provided a foundation for actually starting to explore many areas that would lead to modern day science. However, I hadn’t realised how this influence went well beyond the medieval period and that the areas of life which we today call science and religion were so intertwined up until very recently. Indeed, the whole idea that there is a conflict between them, and that this has always existed, is very much a very recent myth founded in the nineteenth century for polemical reasons and not based on any solid evidence. However, it is such a natural part of our worldview and assumptions that I was shocked at how wrong it was.

I was also challenged on some of my assumptions about Islam, and this is something I go into within the book. Especially as I have had to teach about this at university, I have needed to really read up and fact check lots of assumptions, and also my own existing assumptions and prejudices – as Islam was not one of my main areas of expertise.

You argue that there is no natural antagonism between religion and science (atheism) and yet it is more commonly thought (in Western society at least) that atheism is the direct antithesis to religion. Why do you think this is?

There are quite a few reasons for this, and I will just mention a few here as well as some reasons there are problems with them. One is the polarisation of debate of recent decades especially in a Western context. On the one hand, the so-called New Atheist approach has received a lot of publicity. One reason it is termed “new” is new because it is more directly hostile and antagonistic to religion than many atheists have traditionally been. Whereas in the past atheists have often viewed religion as maybe a harmless superstition, it is been portrayed by figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as a positive evil, and a menace to human society and well being. So, on the atheist side we have seen a marked dichotomy of reason, science and atheism against religion and faith. Meanwhile, on the religious side, spreading especially from the United States of America, we have seen an often anti-intellectual and anti-science brand of what we can call fundamentalist Christianity. Prominent and influential voices on both sides of the debate have a stake in promoting this stark dichotomy. Indeed, while certain forms of religion and certain forms of atheism do make an antithesis, and science gets dragged into this, it is not the only way to look at things.

As I discuss in the book, the Protestant forbears of today’s anti-science fundamentalist Christians supported the heliocentric worldview of Galileo and others (that is the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way round) which some people see as an assault on a biblical worldview. Indeed, one of the most important early Protestant leaders, John Calvin, developed a theory known as “accommodationism” which meant that the Bible was accommodated to the worldview of those who first heard it. As such we shouldn’t assume it is a scientific textbook. This we need to remember is long before anybody ever assumed that religion and science could be in conflict, and his theory wasn’t really designed to deal with this but other matters about the cultural knowledge and understanding found in the Bible. So this shows that here no natural antagonism exists in areas which often seem controversial today.

Again, another way a distinction is drawn is the argument that religion is responsible for a lot of violence in the world today. A lot of media reporting can lend credence to this. But once you start analysing the situation with a bit of depth and stepping back from the heated rhetoric it is not so clear. Lots of the so-called religious violence is happening in places which are extremely politically unstable, and not for reasons to do with religion. Of course, for the actors involved calling on religion is a powerful tool to help build their narrative and credibility, just as at various times over the last century people used nationalism, Communism, or many other powerful tools to build their justification for war and violence. Again, if we look at many people drawn to the so-called Islamic State it has been observed that many of them don’t really have any background knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, a background of petty crime and an escalation of that is a far more likely route to terrorist radicalisation than devout attendance at a mosque.

However, it seems to suit the media to portray a story of Islamic terrorism against a secular West, which helps build into a sense that religion is dangerous, if not pathological, while being secular and atheist is rational and peaceful. Most people are not aware that the world’s largest Muslim organisation has condemned Islamic State and terrorism in the name of Islam, that the vast majority of Islamic scholars and many leading Islamic organisations in most Western countries have likewise issued condemnations, and that across the Middle East many meetings of religious leaders and scholars have done similar things. This simply does not make the headlines, and in most cases not even the middle pages of papers or small stories on TV. As such, a common narrative is allowed to develop in the mainstream discourse which is not based on facts, analysis, or understanding.

Again, we need to see that a lot of the discussion is based around what are often Western assumptions about monotheism. So, religious people believe in a big creator God, while atheists deny such a deity. But what about Buddhists who also deny that any creator God exists? Or traditional Confucianism which can look to some type of force in the world, sometimes termed Tian, which means both “sky” and something like the Western term “heaven”, but does not see this as a personal deity, and which sometimes seems to imply some sort of natural force or power in the universe, like the forces of nature. Here, we do not see the stark antithesis between belief in a personal creator God and the denial of this. So again, it is a particular historical, philosophical, and social context which can make the differences between religion and atheism, or religion and science, seem natural or inherently antagonistic, when it is not necessarily so.

Why do you think there is a need for a book that presents a neutral overview of the religion-atheism debate?

I think my answers to some of your previous questions will have addressed this to some degree, but I will emphasise some specific points. First, there is so much misinformation out there. Even very intelligent and well qualified people, on both sides of the debate simply get the facts wrong, distort them, or really don’t care what the facts are because they already know that they are right. On the atheist side many people seem to take ignorance of religion as a kind of badge of honour to show how little regard they have for it. Meanwhile, on the religious side we see people, maybe with PhDs in certain kinds of theology, but who haven’t studied religion from a really academic point of view spouting their views. As such, when it comes to facts and the truth, there is precious little of it in sight when high profile debates take place or books get written. Certainly there is some good work out there, but more often than not people stand in one corner or the other and use whatever evidence they find to try and make their case. As such, for somebody to try and stand in the middle and present two sides is unusual. How often do we stop and think: well, on this side they think this and they have some good points, and on that side they have this opinion and it is pretty solid.

I discuss something in the book called Confirmation Bias which is the tendency we have to fit any new information into what we already know or think. As such, we tend to ignore ideas or evidence which doesn’t fit our worldview, or slant new information to fit into our preconceived ideas. Everybody does this, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, agnostics, it doesn’t matter who you are, or how clever you are, it is a simple facet of the human mind and how we process information. Learning normally only really happens when we are ready to try and overcome this, and challenge our existing ideas. I hope that a book which tries to take both sides, and look at the different viewpoints and assess the information as impartially as possible can help out here.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

At the risk of sounding somewhat corny, and simply repeating my title, the ability to disagree better. I am hoping that my readers are ready to stand back from their built-in prejudices – we all have them – and say: “Well, let me see what the other side has got to say about this”, or “I think this is right, but do I really know it is”. Once people stop mudslinging and start listening then real dialogue can take place. Also, when people are prepared to question what they think they already know, or what they think should be the case, then they can appreciate what merits the other side may have. I discussed this in relation to Confirmation Bias in answering your last question, and I think that holds good here. So, if people are prepared to think again about what they think that will be a good take away.

Thanks very much for asking me these questions, and I hope the readers of your website will find it interesting and useful.

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