Link blog: cambridge, funny, philosophy, twitter

War of words breaks out among Jehovah’s Witnesses – Home News, UK – The Independent

For some reason, a bunch of newspapers in the UK have recently noticed that the Jehovas Witnesses are a cult. Nice to see so many people in the comments relating their stories of getting out.
(tags: religion cult jehovas-witness)

Richard Feynman on doubt, uncertainty and religion (subtitled) – YouTube

Feynman! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.
(tags: feynman doubt religion science physics)

Stephen Law: GOING NUCLEAR

A chapter from Law’s “Believing Bullshit” about the tactic he calls “going nuclear”: when the argument is going against you, blow everyone away by saying that “all arguments rest on faith” or “everything is relative” or some other such nonsense. Law anatomises the various forms of this tactic.
(tags: philosophy rationality argument stephen-law presuppositionalism)

Meeting Jesus at Oxford | Commentary | Fortean Times

CICCUs cousins DICCU and OICCU made the Fortean Times. Gripping stuff, with some ideas about why evangelical religion is so appealing to people at the famous universities.
(tags: ciccu religion university oxford cambridge)

An Interview with @AlmightyGod | Friendly Atheist

God has a Twitter feed (@almightygod). Hemant interviews Him.
(tags: religion funny god twitter)
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Losing My Religion or The Truth About CICCU: talk to CUAAS

The talk to CUAAS was surprisingly well attended, given I spoke at the same time as Jo Brand, who I met on my way to the loos (we exchanged nods, as one speaker at the Cambridge Union does to another: it is not the done thing to make much of these things). I’m not sure how many CICCU people turned up, since they didn’t make themselves known to me (apparently one woman was frantically making notes during my sermon, a well known evangelical habit, so I suspect there were a few). I spoke too fast, but people in Cambridge hear fast, so that’s probably OK.

Below, you can find my notes, with some hyperlinks to expand on the things I said.

“The Truth about CICCU”?

  • Not my tabloid headline, blame your committee 🙂
  • No toe-curling tales of secret rituals, alas.
  • In fact, none of this stuff is a secret.
  • But if you’re not a Christian, you might be curious about just what “those people” get up to, and why.
  • And if you’re a here as CICCU person wondering what I’m going to say, you’ll find out some stuff I wish I’d known as a CICCU member.
    • Not just that God isn’t real, either 🙂

Who I am:

  • Came up in 94, Churchill, NatSci (physics) for 4 years.
    • That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date
    • But I had a look at the CICCU website and things sound familiar, so…
  • Lived and worked in Cambridge after that, going to the church I went to as a student.
    • Gradually lost my faith during 2002.
    • Still interested in talking about religion and trying to understand it.
      • As well as taking the mickey occasionally.

How I got in

  • Parents sent me to a church school because of the “ethos”.
  • Followed a friend to Christian Union meetings there.
  • Read the entire New Testament as a sixth former, decided it sounded true.
  • So, I came up Christian already, but didn’t have a church.
  • Went to CU meetings at Churchill because a “Christian Union” sounded like a good thing to be in, just like the ones at school and sixth form were.

What it was like

  • I have my old emails. Everyone should keep theirs. So….
  • Initially, I just went to the college CU meetings, not the central ones in town.
  • College CUs got together, sang songs, prayed, read the Bible.
    • Though CICCU appointed the college reps, the individual CUs were friendlier to non-CICCU Christians than the central meetings.
  • Also got into a “prayer triplet”: meeting up with a couple of other guys to pray for each other and discuss what was often quite personal stuff. Nearest thing to a confessional in the evangelical world.
  • Everyone was friendly but over the course of the first year I began to feel that CICCU weren’t where I was:
    • I had gay friends and I knew CICCU disapproved of homosexuality (though not of being friends with gay people: how else to evangelise?)
  • Prayer triplet wanted me to go to one of the churches in Cambridge and stick with it. I was a bit shy of churches, but started going to St Andrew the Great.
    • St Andrew the Great is one of the churches in Cambridge that gets lots of students.
    • It’s Church of England, but conservative evangelical:
      • Evangelical: not just “in favour of converting people” (though that too): Bible inerrancy, personal response to God, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for sins). See the CICCU Doctrinal Basis.
      • Conservative: not politically (necessarily) but not given to things like speaking in tongues, prophesy in the church and so on. Emphasis on finding what God wants through Bible reading and prayer.
    • I thought StAG was good
      • Preaching was, and is, more interesting than sermons at middle of the road churches
    • But more “fundamentalist” than I was.
      • They’re not fundamentalist really, they’re evangelical, but I wasn’t very theologically sophisticated at that point.

  • Turning point: at the end of the first long vacation, went to CU “House party” in Derbyshire. (Churchill plus a couple of nearby colleges)
    • Mix of God stuff and walking, playing games and stuff.
    • The Bible stuff was impressive: the guest preacher had done a lot of thinking about the book we were reading.
    • The people were also impressive: I wanted to me more like them.
  • Decided to start reading the Bible by myself regularly, and praying.
  • Generally felt more committed to Christianity (and gradually became more evangelical).
  • Started going to the central meetings in town.
    • CICCU is a big name in some Christian circles, so they got people whose books I’d read and who were good speakers.
  • Briefly stopped worrying about how to get women to like me, which is tricky for a first year NatSci.
    • Then started worrying about how to get Christian women to like me.
  • Someone obviously noticed I’d got serious, because I was asked to lead Bible studies for my college’s CU in my third year.
    • Met other UCCF staff worker and study leaders to study the passage ourselves, went back to college and lead the group.
    • The “right answers” from the UCCF guy tend to win out because it’s hard to get anyone else to say anything at all (they’re shy), not because no other answers were tolerated.
  • CICCU missions
    • Happen in Lent term.
    • There’s a mini-mission on off years, and a big one every 3 years so every undergrad gets at least one big one.
    • Have always caused a bit of controversy, some years more than others.
    • Usually someone says something stupid about gay people, or someone gets offended by finding a gospel in their pigeon hole.
      • Handing out copies of a gospel to your friends is incredibly nerve wracking. Personally I don’t see the need to get offended by that: it’s a free book.
      • On the other hand, as an atheist I’d press them on the stuff about gays as hard as possible: it’s not nice (unlike the “permanently nice” image Christians have), and it’s not even what all Christians think. I get the impression a lot of evangelicals are secretly embarrassed about it.
    • I dragged friends to a few of the events, but none of them converted, fortunately.
  • Strategy varies: either “gospel is magic” or trying to look at “worldviews” (one CICCU mission when I was an undergrad was even called Paradigm Shift).
    • CICCUs current web pages suggest “gospel is magic” is fashionable again. Also, flares are in this season.
    • Note that Christians who believe Romans 1 often think that philosophical or theological arguments are a smoke screen for people who don’t want to admit that God exists and they should worship him.

  • Summer holiday camps
    • Run by Christian organisations, for churchy kids and friends.
    • Usually sort of activity holiday combined with telling the kids about God stuff.
    • Practically compulsory for CICCU members (“strongly encouraged”).
    • I found a programming/electronics one called LiveWires, which was great.
      • Not at all like “Jesus Camp”, if you’ve seen the film.

How it felt.

  • It can’t be all bad, or no-one would do it, right?
  • It feels good to be part of a group dedicated to what you think is a worthy cause.
    • To the extent that Christians evangelise, they’re acting in your interests, according to their beliefs.
  • Christians are not all stupid (just mistaken). CICCU’s brand of Christianity was intellectually satisfying (but closed, of which more later).
    • Seriously studying the Bible turns out to be interesting.
    • Being taught by big names at the top of their game, likewise.
    • CICCU’s version of inerrancy allows some parts of the Bible to be myth (in the technical sense) rather than reportage.
      • Did not require you to be a young earth creationist. I was a theistic evolutionist.
  • A lot of worries about whether you’re doing enough/your best.
    • The evangelical anthropology is deeply pessimistic about human nature.
    • You can find forgiveness, but only by admitting you’re basically bad.
    • Christians always think everyone else around them is a better Christian (or at least, I did).
  • Tension between piety and worldliness.
    • It would be possible to spend your entire social life doing Christian stuff (CICCU explicitly told us not to: how else to evangelise?).
    • Whether/how much to drink.
    • Fuss about trivia: Halloween formals.
    • Guilt about sex, inside and outside relationships.
      • Relationships with non-Christians are a big no-no, but people do it (usually the Christian women, much to my annoyance).
  • These are people trying to find their way in the world.
    • “Strident” pronouncements may hide insecurity.
      • Though sometimes people really mean them, so it’s best to engage with the arguments.
  • Most Christians doubt.
    • But exercise “faith” in the sense of “trust” in a person.
    • “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Why I got out

  • Real life comes as a shock for many student Christians. CICCU/StAG knows this. To graduands, they say:
    • Many of you will “fall away”. (Possibly apocryphal) UCCF surveys give numbers like 50% after 5 years. So…
    • Get into a “church where the Bible is taught”.
    • Don’t get into relationships with non-Christians.
  • Of course, I stayed at StAG and got into a relationship with a Christian woman.
  • But CICCU had taught me that the most important thing was whether Christianity was true, and I slowly became convinced that it wasn’t.
  • Christianity rests on facts: “facts, faith, feelings”
  • The truth shouldn’t depend on who you’re with.
    • Why is it that so many Christians give up if Christianity is so obviously true?
    • “The devil made me do it”: is he stronger than God?
    • Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, chapter 4:

      Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” [Is this sounding familiar?] So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

  • Here are my reasons. There are others, but these are the ones that did for me:

  • Evangelical morality is sensible in some places and horrible in others.
    • obvious: homosexuality
    • less obvious: anthropology that says everyone’s really bad and deserves Hell.

  • Is God really good? The OT is a problem, the NT perhaps (surprisingly) more so:

    “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.” – A. A. Milne.

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”‘ or merely slapping his side & chortling “God, isn’t God a shit!” – Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. “Randolph” is Randolph Churchill.

    • Evangelicals think the OT massacres are history, and that the Bible accurately records God commanding them, and even telling Israelites off for not finishing the job properly.
    • The other nations around Israel were brutal too, but can an omnipotent God do no better than to have armies slaughter men women and children?
    • The NT is popularly seen as fluffier, but Jesus talks a lot about Hell, as does Paul. As for the book of Revelation…
      • Some respected evangelicals (John Stott) believe that non-believers will be destroyed rather than punished eternally.
      • Some (C.S. Lewis) have adopted a Buddhist idea where “the doors of hell are barred from the inside”. But this seems to conflict with the judicial model of substitutionary atonement. Does God judge us or not?
      • If you push evangelicals, they’ll tell you you’re going to hell, though they might fall back on one of these ideas.
      • Hell makes God seem vindictive (since failing to worship him is the biggest sin), arbitrary (since some people get better evidence than others), and incompetent (since he relies on fallible humans, who do a bad job of evangelism).
  • Problem of suffering
    • Freedom of action is a good thing, but we all recognise limits.
    • Some suffering just seems gratuitous: diseases, natural disasters.
    • Christians don’t have any good answers, they just have a “possibly, therefore probably” argument: God could possibly have a reason, and that’ll do for us.
  • How do I know what’s good without God? Well, how do you know with God (Christians disagree, as do other theists)?
    • Everyone has the problem of where you start from when deciding what is moral, and this includes Christians, whatever they may tell you. Unnecessary suffering seems pretty bad to most people.
    • Assume C.S. Lewis is right and that our moral sense somehow does come from God. But we think it is immoral not to lift a finger to help someone, especially when doing so would have little or no cost to us. Contradiction: either Lewis is wrong, or God isn’t good.

  • Where’s God?
  • Conservative evangelicalism tells you not to expect too many supernatural experiences, the Bible is sufficient.
    • But why not? Can argue about “free will”, but does God care less for your salvation than for the Apostle Paul’s?
  • Evangelicals hate the term “religion” to be applied to their beliefs. True (that is, evangelical) Christianity is a relationship with God, not a religion (by which evangelicals mean “empty rituals trying to earn God’s favour”).
    • But this “relationship” is odd. One party doesn’t talk much, and when he does, the people he’s talked to disagree radically about what he said. As Carrier says, this is not what we’d expect if God really wanted a relationship with us.
    • “Free will” doesn’t work here: Christians actively want some communication from God (especially in the painful throes of doubt).

  • In the end, during an on-line debate with another Christian about some point on the Bible, I realised we were debating about a book, and God either wasn’t there or didn’t care. I stopped going to church in early 2002.
  • It took me over a year to get from there to the point where I’d call myself an atheist.
    • Leaving is hard: sometimes you still want there to be a God.
    • You have told friends you’re a Christian.
    • You’ve even got Christian friends. And girlfriends…
      • That relationship didn’t last (partly because my faith was waning), and when it was over, I realised there was nothing keeping me from admitting my position any more.
  • So here I am.

What I wish I’d known

  • Some of this stuff is blindingly obvious now, and yet…

  • I got in because I read the NT and it sort of made sense to me, so:
    • Don’t believe everything you read.
    • Ask yourself why you feel something is right.
    • The NT has pretty good manuscripts. Most variations are insignificant, but the mere fact of variations ought to give inerrantists pause (see Bart Ehrman‘s books), plus some stuff does seem important: the earliest gospel account of the Resurrection is textually doubtful.
    • Even if a book describes some things accurately, it has not necessarily got all of them right.
    • Evangelicals like to accuse non-Christians of treating the Bible differently from other ancient literature. Herodotus writes history and has dragons in it. Should be believe in dragons?
    • Evangelicals like to say that the origins of Christianity are best explained by the Resurrection, so we cannot treat such accounts differently from other history without begging the question (that is, assuming what we want to prove, namely, that there was no Resurrection). Lessing and the ugly broad ditch:

      “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

      This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.”

    • In fact, evangelicals have not explained why we should treat the Resurrection stories as true if we don’t also accept better attested miracle claims. (Fatima miracle of the Sun, 1917, accompanied by visions of Mary: should we become Catholics?).
  • I got further in because evangelicals had an impressive system for interpreting the Bible.
    • This method seems completely obvious to evangelicals. You probably won’t have much luck convincing them otherwise.
    • Satisfying but closed:
    • Evangelical Bible overviews (such as the one I taught) assume a unity in the Bible. This glosses over a lot of differences.
      • See liberal Christians or Ehrman again.
    • It’s anachronistic:
      • Not the way the church was doing it for many years (allegorical interpretation, see Karen Armstrong, despite her bad rep among atheists). When did true Christianity start again?
      • Not the way the NT writers interpret the OT (see Peter Enns).
    • It’s always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the outside.
      • But it forces you to adopt some twisted interpretations. It’s ironic that people with so much reverence for the Bible end up doing it so much violence.
  • I stayed in because I thought it was right to trust God, that such trust was a virtue.
    • But this transplants our intuition that we should trust friends onto someone whose very existence is in question.
    • We should not change our minds for bad reasons. If we’re depressed, it may look as if God’s not there, and if we’re happy, we may think he is. But…
    • We change our minds less often than we think, because we see ourselves as fighting for our chosen side (atheists are not immune to this). Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

    • Yudkowsky is good. Read his stuff.
  • I stayed in because I didn’t know what was outside.
    • People who aren’t your friends if you leave weren’t your friends anyway.
      • Not that this is necessarily a failing on their part: we all have acquaintances we wouldn’t see if we didn’t do some particular activity.
    • Your world does not collapse into chaos if you leave.
      • Unless you’re prepared to really work at it by being stupid. So don’t do that then.
    • If there isn’t a God, then this, here, now, is what a world without a God looks like. Eugene Gendlin:

      What is true is already so.
      Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
      Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
      And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
      Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
      People can stand what is true,
      for they are already enduring it.

There was a question and answer session afterwards. I remember some questions along the lines of:<lj-cut>

Why didn’t you realise it was nonsense, you’re a scientist? What about carbon dating?

I wasn’t a young earth creationist, and neither the CU nor my church said I should be. In fact, YEC and ID weren’t particularly popular among Cambridge evangelicals back then (though some people did believe them). I don’t know whether British evangelicalism has changed under the influence of America in recent years.

The problem is not so much that intelligent Christians directly contradict science, but that they make up additions which aren’t backed by evidence.

Was it OK to have doubts as a CICCU person?

Yes. Churches and CUs expect it, things like prayer triplets provide an environment where such doubts can be expresssed. What they don’t really expect is for people to doubt successfully. At the end of it all, they should still come out an evangelical.

What’s the disagreement I’ve noticed between CICCU and college chapels?

It’s historical: CICCU got very evangelical in response to the SCM’s liberalism. College chaplains didn’t like CICCU because of demarcation. Still, it depends on who’s running the college CICCU group and who’s running the chapel that year: sometimes they get along just fine.

Would you agree now that Christianity isn’t intellectually satisfying?

Yes and no. Yes: borrowing from Kuhn again, evangelical Christianity is a paradigm in which it’s possible to get useful things done, according to the paradigm’s ideas of what is useful. Those things are satisfying: learning more about the Bible is intellectually satisfying, seeing people become Christians is emotionally satisfying, and so on.

No: because I wasn’t satisfied, and I’ve yet to be convinced that any Christian arguments hold up. (My questioner said he’d kept going to CICCU talks thinking this time he’d hear a good argument. I think I rashly praised Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, which caused a bit of a stir: maybe there weren’t that many CICCU people there after all).

On Craig: has someone won a debate if they’re wrong?

You can admit Craig wins debates without thereby being compelled to become a Christian. His opponents aren’t wrong (IMHO), they just fail to make their case (usually). As scribb1e said later, you don’t call something a proof in mathematics if it’s invalid, even if the result turns out to be true. Arguments are not soldiers, again.

Consider yourself lucky you got out so young. Do you feel relieved? Do you miss it?

I miss aspects of it: the working towards a common cause already mentioned; the singing; the feeling that everything’s under control. But yes, I was very relieved not to have to struggle any more with it. I think I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about stuff which wasn’t worth worrying about. I’d hate anyone else to do the same: hence the web page.

Thanks to CUAAS for inviting me and giving me pizza. I had fun, and I hope my listeners did too.

Edited: Rave reviews continue to pour in. Well, William liked it, anyway, and has some observations on “atheist societies” to boot.

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I’m giving a talk to CUAAS tomorrow

I’m giving a talk to the Cambridge University Atheist and Agnostic Society tomorrow, Monday 19th October, at 7.30 pm in the Union Society building (the one behind the Round Church). Apparently it’s £1 for non-members, a bargain if ever I saw one.

I’ll cover some of the ground covered by my Losing My Religion essay, with a bit more of a Cambridge focus. I think they’re hoping for some dark secrets about CICCU, which is unfortunate, because as far as I know there aren’t any (anyone who knows different is invited to leave a comment below), but I’ll do my best.

Edited: I’ve blogged my notes and what I remember of the Q&A after the talk.

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Bart Ehrman on Premier Christian Radio

Bart Ehrman recently turned up on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking to Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House. You can listen to the programme on Premier’s site.

The subject of the programme was Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus (which, confusingly, is also available in the UK as Whose Word Is It?), a book which we’ve discussed here before. Williams has written about the book over at Bethinking.org (scroll to the bottom for more, including Williams interviewing Ehrman).

Ehrman the evangelical

What’s perhaps surprising is how much Williams and Ehrman agree on matters of fact, but disagree on interpretation. Williams describes himself as a “glass half full” person when it comes to the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. His most convincing argument is that an Ehrman-approved NT translation would differ very little from the ones used by most Christians, and, says Williams, would still be sufficient for God’s purposes. Ehrman himself says on the programme that, while some variants do alter the meaning of passages, he wouldn’t expect a theologian to change their mind as a result of those variants.

When robhu mentioned Ehrman a while back, we ended up concluding that Ehrman’s knowledge of the manuscript evidence is not so very different from that of evangelical scholars (see Article X and section E of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example). But Ehrman couldn’t carry on being an evangelical knowing what he did. So what’s going on here?

Obligatory dig at CICCU

At least part of it it seems to be bad communication from the evangelical scholars to evangelical flocks, as Williams says on his blog. Perhaps one of the evangelical churches or colleges Ehrman attended was unwise enough to ask him to assent to doctrinal statement which asserted “the divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given”, for example. Perhaps they were even silly enough to speak of verbal, plenary, inspiration, rather than of Williams’s ideas of the “immaterial text” which is encoded in the manuscripts as genes are in DNA (clearly one can’t say the word “meme” on a religious blog).

Making inerrancy pay rent

Ehrman questions just what Christians are claiming is inerrant, and how it got that way. He expected assertions of inerrancy to mean something definite about the Bible he was actually reading, both in terms of how it got into his hands and what it says. Manuscript errors and internal contradictions bothered him because they seem to cast doubt on the text in his hand, but the Section III, C of the Chicago Statement makes it clear that errors aren’t errors if they’re not things God meant to get right anyway, and any contradictions aren’t. Well, I’m convinced.

OK, so I’m taking the mickey, but there are some interesting bits of psychology in something like the Chicago Statement. According to this interesting article on the philosophy of science as it pertains to inerrancy (no, really), there’s a logical way to maintain any belief whatever evidence comes in. Simply calling inerrantists illogical or deluded won’t cut it, however tempting it may be. So, let’s say that Ehrman’s commitment was to a version of inerrancy which couldn’t fit in his web of belief alongside the problems he knew about. Williams’s version can fit, but is far less clear. Williams’s version pays less rent, that is, it’s closer to, if not the same as, saying nothing more than “The Bible has an attribute called ‘inerrancy'” (like saying “Wulky Wilkinsen is actually a ‘post-utopian'” in Eliezer’s example)

Evil

Next week on the programme, Ehrman is talking to Richard Swinburne about the Problem of Evil. I hope he’s learned something about Bayes Theorem by now, after the unfortunate events of his debate with William Lane Craig.

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Attacking the darkness

I recently happened across lumpley‘s Mormon gunslingers game Dogs in the Vineyard. This description from the author and this review give a flavour of the thing, and some details of the poker-like conflict resolution rules. It looks fun, very different from the mechanics-heavy stuff (D&D and friends) and focused on helping the group create a compelling story by pitching the characters into conflicts with no easy answers. Playing the eponymous dogs, you’re in a game world where the religion really is true and your job is to defend it, bringing the towns you visit back onto the straight and narrow, using words, ritual and, when all else fails, a six-shooter.

scribb1e found a bunch of alternate settings for it, all based on the playing characters sworn to defend an ideology the players probably disagree with. My favourite is Fashion Experts on a Reality TV Show, mainly for the fashion version of the game’s “Something’s wrong”, X leads to Y progression.

Following scribb1e‘s further suggestion that there should be a CICCU version, I’ve come up with Staff Workers in the UCCF, in which our intrepid players are running characters who are the paid staff sent to help university Christian Unions. In the game, they’d deal with CUs who’ve strayed from the Doctrinal Basis, so the equivalent to a town in Dogs is a university CU (or possibly a college CU in the Reps in the CICCU variant). The Desert People are the liberal Christians, maybe the SCM (they might also be the other religions evangelising on campus, if there are any). Actually, it might make sense for the Desert People to be Fusion and the SCM represent the corrupt religion of the Territorial Authority, I suppose.

I’ve not quite worked out what the CU equivalent of shooting someone is, any ideas?

Here’s the Something’s Wrong progression:

Pride (manifests as self-righteousness)
-leads to->
Sin (manifests as demons outside, e.g. the Student Union refuses to let you book rooms, the student newspaper writes nasty things about you)
-leads to->
False Doctrine (manifests as corrupt religious practices and heresy, e.g. charismatic stuff like speaking in tongues and falling over; rejection of Biblical inerrancy; rejection of penal substitutionary atonement; acceptance of homosexuality)
-leads to->
False Priesthood (manifests as demons inside, like like CU members going out with non-Christians, sleeping with their boy/girlfriends (esp. if they’re the same sex, obviously), getting drunk)
-leads to->
Hate (manifests as apostasy (defection to Fusion, the SCM or to atheism), schism)

I probably will pay up for the PDF of the Dogs rules, so I’ll have to see how far I can go with this, but it might actually be a fun variant of the game.

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Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker‘s del.icio.us feed or something.

Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking

Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:

“We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever,” says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. “You’re trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You’re trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That’s hard work.” In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, “growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world.”

That sounds sort of familiar. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.

The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it’s clear that cleanness (in the Bible’s sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There’s possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).

Old interview with Philip Pullman

Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It’s the origin of one of his statements on whether he’s an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:<lj-cut text=”The quote”>

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This isn’t really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill’s discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren’t ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there’s no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I’m not sure why you’d bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God’s inability to keep his story straight.

The walls have Google

The thing about blogging is that you never know who’s reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling’s response to Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.

(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).

“Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice”

Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to “not”. Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.

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The Origin of Apostasy in the Breakdown of the Evangelical Mind

Evangelicals like to quote scary (to them) statistics about how many teenage Christians will “fall away” (Christian jargon for leaving the faith) on going to university, or how many student Christians will no longer be Christians 5 or 10 years later.

P Z Myers over at Pharyngula pointed to a recent press release from US evangelicals who were worried about their teenagers going astray, quoting surveys which said over 50% would fall away at university. It’s not clear who did the surveys, so atheists should probably find that out before joining Myers in jumping for joy. As one of the commenters at Pharyngula says, moral panic is a great way to raise funds for your organisation.

When I was a lad, CICCU liked to quote similarly hopeful surveys about the perseverance of their graduates. In an old post of mine you can see my notes from a leavers’ talk given by the students’ curate at my old church. She quoted a UCCF survey which gave an attrition rate of over 50% after 5 years. It turns out that UCCF have never heard of such a survey. The link to the UCCF web forum where they said this is now defunct (presumably as part of the UCCF’s goal of ruthlessly suppressing open discussion), but you can see what Dave Bish, one of their staff workers, has to say about it. As well as saying there is no such survery, he writes that Christians should be careful of the post-hoc fallacy if they are tempted to blame university Christian Unions for their apostates. After saying that, he replies to a comment saying that someone should get some real statistics (which must include appropriate controls for non-CU Christians, and non-Christians, I think) by saying that such statistics are irrelevant because God has already told us in the Bible what causes people to fall away. Phew! I’m glad we sorted that one out.

Back here in the reality-based community, though, I’d be very interested in the results of such a survey. I know lots of people like me, and another LJer has said that “to say that I keep stumbling upon people with similar experiences is an understatement”. But the plural of anecdote is not data. Such a survey wouldn’t prove anything about the truth or otherwise of Christianity, of course, but that’s not why it’s interesting.

The discussion on Pharyngula turned up something which struck a chord with me. In the past, when talking about other post-university ex-evangelicals, many of whom studied science, I’ve spoken about them as seeing evangelicalism as a spiritual analogue of science. Is it science students that fall into evangelicalism and then fall out again? Perhaps that’s a bit too simple. A commenter on Myer’s posting quotes The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, a free book about the state of politics in the USA. Chapter 4 discusses evangelicalism. The author writes about ex-evangelical apostates, and completely nails it:

What then gnawed away so mercilessly at the apostates that they could no longer overpower doubt with faith?

Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.



The truth will make you free, as someone once said.

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Rev Steve Midgley on Dawkins

The Rev Steve Midgley, who I remember from my days at The Square Church, has been featured on the Dawkins site. The sermon he gave on Professor Dawkins’s views is about a year old now, but I suppose that a posting on the Dawkins blog might generate some more interest in it. You can find MP3s of it on his church’s site (the church is the Cambridge “plant” from St Andrew the Great which I think nlj21 attends).

Rev Midgley comes across as a thoughtful and careful preacher, eager to ensure he has presented Dawkins’s views fairly.

Midgley speaks about Professor Alister McGrath’s responses to Dawkins. I’ve not read McGrath’s books, but I’ve heard his discussion with Dawkins at the Oxford Literary Festival, and also seen him and Dawkins talking at length in out-takes from Root of All Evil?, Dawkins’s Channel 4 opinion piece from last year. I didn’t find McGrath particularly impressive in either case, mostly because of his irksome habit of telling Dawkins he’d made an interesting point and then answering something other than Dawkins’s question (now I think of it, in Yes, Prime Minister, I think that’s one of Jim Hacker’s tips to Sir Humphrey for dealing with the press). For someone who’s been associated with the infamously evangelical Wycliffe Hall theological college, McGrath seems oddly evasive on some fundamental, if unpalatable, bits of evangelical doctrine, like the Virgin Birth, penal substitutionary atonement, and the sovereignty of God even in natural disasters. I’d be interested to hear what any of you who’ve read McGrath’s books thought of them.

Midgley quotes Terry Eagleton’s LRB article to illustrate that reviewers have criticised Dawkins’s lack of theological knowledge. I think I’d be more receptive to those sort of arguments if someone could point to a rebuttal of Dawkins based on that theology. Eagleton’s attempt founders on its own contradictory assertions about what God is, as Sean Carrol points out. I doubt Midgely is willing to sign up for Eagleton’s theology, which sounds suspiciously liberal to this ex-evangelical. It’s illuminating to ask how Midgley would demonstrate that his theology was more correct than Eagleton’s, though, of which more later.

Midgley talks about Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument. He makes the valid point that ordinary Christians generally aren’t concerned with the Argument from Design. Similarly, he says that forcing us to chose between evolution and God is a false choice, since God may use evolution. I think this mistakes what Dawkins’s argument is. If the universe does not require a designer (as Midgley seems to concede), life itself and the universe are not evidence for the existence of God. If there are no other good arguments for God’s existence (the one from Design isn’t the only one Dawkins talks about, although it’s the centerpiece of the book), it’s reasonable to suppose that God’s not there (or he doesn’t want to be found).

Midgley goes on to point out that scientific theories change, quoting McGrath again, and asserts that Dawkins has a faith as much as a Christian does. Dawkins’s own response to McGrath points out the inconsistency here: Dawkins, along with any good scientist, is willing to admit the scientific theories are provisional. Midgley, to get his old job at St Andrew the Great and to speak to CICCU, presumably assented to some extremely specific doctrines (never mind the Nicene Creed, if you want to test for “soundness”, try the CICCU Doctrinal Basis). These doctrines aren’t subject to testing, peer review or later revision. How are we supposed to know that Midgley is right and Eagleton’s Marxist Christianity is wrong? I think we’d just have to have faith 🙂

Finally, I wish he could pronounce Dawkins’s name correctly. That sort of mistake lays you open to parody.

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Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito?

I’ve been listening to more of those CICCU talks.

Tues 13th Loving God, Broken World: Has God Lost Control?

Bloody theodicy, as some on my friends list might say. Simon Scott approaches the issue of suffering sensitively, as one who has experienced it himself (an illness 7 years ago, he says: I think I remember praying for him at church. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but his description of makes it sound awful).

His points are familiar to anyone who’s looked into Christian responses to the Problem of Evil. God created a good world, but human disobedience made it go wrong. God is absolved of blame for this, even natural disasters are somehow our fault (perhaps, like Mr Deity, God was worried it’d be too easy to believe in him otherwise). Perhaps intentionally, given Scott’s audience, it’s not clear whether he’s advocating creationism. It’s possible to read the Genesis story as applying to Everyman and Everywoman, but hard to see how that interpretation has the cosmological implications that Scott outlines: once the entire world was good, now it is fallen, even in the impersonal, non-human parts. I was a theistic evolutionist once, and it involved a lot of hand-waving.

So, the world has gone bad. But, says Scott, God will fix this (unfortunately, not for everyone, as some people will go to Hell). We might call that pie in the sky when you die and wish for a better world now, but we shouldn’t. After all, if God were to judge sin now, where would he stop? The implication is, as usual, that everyone is guilty, and we’d better be careful when we wish for divine intervention, as we may get it.

This argument fails because it assumes that God’s way of making the world better would be to obliterate everything that displeases him. I can think of more subtle ways of doing it than that. It’s odd that God apparently can’t.

Scott acknowledges that his explanation is incomplete, but implies it’s best not worry why that is, just ensure that you aren’t excluded from the perfect world which will be re-created at the end of time. He tells a parable of a cyclist hit by a bus (this is Cambridge, after all), and a passerby who gives a precise explanation of his body’s pain response rather than helping him to a hospital. There’s certainly a pragmatism to this, which echoes the Buddhist story of Malunkyaputta and the man shot by an arrow: it’s pointless to tell someone who is suffering about eternal verities rather than how to end their suffering. That said, there’s no suggestion in Malunkyaputta’s story that the world is watched by someone who could intervene, but chooses not to. In the meantime, Christians had better not pass by on the other side, but God is at liberty to do so.

Wed 14th Jesus Asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8v29)
The Profit Motive in Religion


After a good start in which he advises Christians to read The God Delusion and atheists to read Alister McGrath, Phillip Jensen plays religion’s trump card. You’re all going to die, he says, and what are you going to do then?

We’ve all woken at 4 am and realised we shall one day die (unless that’s just me and Larkin). Religion deals in the certainties we want when uncertainty is too terrible. Speaking of creationism, I often see Christians who pounce on any scientific uncertainty, eager to pull God out of the gap. This is a different degree of seriousness. We needn’t face where we came from, but we must all face where we’re going.

I’d call it a trick, except I don’t doubt the sincerity of Jensen’s pleas not to let worldly distractions keep us from eternal life. Still, again, how can they? Who would turn down such a thing, if they woke after their own death to find it on offer? The trick belongs to religions themselves, not consciously to their adherents. It is that we’re told we must act before death, and each religion claims that their way is the way to get there, other ways being uncertain at worst and a broad road to hell at worst. Even if we wanted to take up Pascal’s wager, where shall we place our stake? Again, it’s odd that Jensen’s God hasn’t thought of universalism, but rather, insists on the eternal torture or final obliteration of everyone who bet wrong.

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Cross Examined

This year’s CICCU convert-a-thon is called Cross Examined. Stalkerbook tells me it’s happening this week. The talks are available online (as Windows Media files, alas, CICCU having made a pact with the Beast). They are given by Simon Scott, who used to preach at my old church (and who marnanel will no doubt remember for his habit of starting sermons with quotations from pop songs), and by Phillip Jensen, perhaps best known for his views on the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Never being one to pass up an opportunity like this, I listened to some of talks they’ve given so far. Here are some brief notes on what they said:

Wed 07th Faith and Reason: Does God Want Me to Lose My Mind?

Scott gives a lunchtime talk on whether Christianity is reasonable.

He talks of reasonable assumptions, but leaps from assuming that a chair will hold you or that CICCU won’t poison you to the reasonableness of believing in supernatural stuff, bypassing considerations of the magnitude of Christianity’s claims.

Many atheists do not assert that God definitely does not exist. Quotes Dawkins but either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood the point of The God Delusion, namely that it’s about the balance of evidence.

Like many evangelicals, he asserts that there is sufficient evidence and that people don’t believe because they don’t want to, assuming bad faith on the part of anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him.

He defines the coming of Jesus as an events which is unique, so that we should not expect to see God again today. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t address why God isn’t more obvious even if Jesus isn’t still around. Alongside his admission that you can’t see God today, he does say that there are intelligent people on both sides of the God debate, which seems to leave him open to the Argument from Reasonable Non-belief.

Thurs 08th Christianity: Intolerant, Arrogant . . . True?

Scott talks a lot of sense about the sort of cartoon relativism which only liberal arts academics seriously believe. It’s not clear why he thinks this is an argument in favour of Christianity. I think it’s the same sort of false dichotomy that Jensen also perpetrates (see below). Christianity or moral chaos! Choose now! Banzai!

Gently brings up the delicate subject of hell (evangelicals had more gumption in the good old days). Doesn’t quite address why the God who we can trust not want to hurt us is also the danger we face. I’ve written about Hell before: go read that.

Mon 12th Jesus Asked, “Are you so dull?” (Mark 7v18) The Source of Immorality and Corruption Exposed

Jensen does the Total Depravity Roadshow: I’m not OK, you’re not OK either.

False dichotomies all over the place: either accept that people are naturally good, or become a Christian. Accept moral chaos, or become a Christian.

Dawkins is, according to Jensen’s quote, naive about human nature, but Pinker (another atheist) isn’t. This is significant, somehow (unless all atheists agree, they’re wrong?)

When we disagree with the Bible, we disagree with God, apparently.

Roy Hattersley’s Grauniad article is his best point, but even this never actually addresses whether Christianity is true. Is it right to encourage people to believe it merely because it might make them better? Does it, in fact, make them better, I wonder? It probably gives them a certain kind of structure which is sadly lacking in many people today, it seems, but I bet if they became Humanists, Muslims or Buddhists, or merely had managed to get some sort of education from their parents or their school, they’d be nicer too.

Summary

Lots of contemporary relevance (Harry Potter is taking it a bit too far, I think). Reasonable explanation of what evangelicals think. It’ll be interesting to see where Jensen goes with it, but neither of them are very good at saying why one should believe something. Perhaps the approved technique in evangelism these days is just to lay out your stall and hope it clicks with where someone is at the moment.

More soon, no doubt 🙂

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