Boingboing pointed out that Peter Watts has put another novel on the web. I liked his previous two, and enjoyed his presentation on the biology of vampires.

I’ve just finished reading Blindsight. It’s a first contact novel, but ultimately the aliens are secondary to the interplay between the humans, and to the book’s take on evolution and consciousness (which, unlike the result of Strictly Come Dancing the other week, I won’t spoil for you). Readers who bought Watts’s books also liked Greg Egan, as Amazon might say (they probably liked autopope too), so it helps if you don’t mind the exposition and are conversant with your Searle, Penrose and Dawkins (or at least, not worried by having to look stuff up). At least one reviewer I’ve seen totally failed to understand what was going on, it seems: it’s the SF writing Singularity again.

The book is bleak, hard science fiction, full of ideas, and leaves you with that slightly altered-state aftertaste you get from the best science fiction. Plus, you know, vampires in space. I liked it.

Over on uk.religion.gjm11 there are a couple of posters who are idealists, that is, they think that the physical world arises out of consciousness and not vice versa (and, er, therefore God exists).

The discussion of idealism has spawned some huge threads on uk.r.c, which I’ve not managed to follow completely. I think the idealists are probably wrong, so I’ve waded (or perhaps paddled) into the fray a bit, with a detour to explain bits of Buddhism (p.p. scribb1e) to Richard Corfield, who some of the ucam.geeks might remember. Even in my misspent youth, I was a fairly materialist Christian (by the way, Egan‘s expository dialogue is this one, so it looks like he convinced me in the end).

gjm11 has made an essay-length posting in response to the arguments of one of the idealists, which his legion of at least one fangirl may enjoy, so I thought I’d share it with you. (ETA: corrected description of essay and number of fangirls).

You know it’s been a good night when your feet hurt and you go through two dress shirts. The CDC Ball was fun, as usual. The demo couple, Marco Cavallaro and Joanne Clifton, were very good. Their tango in particular stood out as a great performance as well as being technically good (how does she do those head snaps?). Definite passion there. Not sure I’ve seen hair grabbing as a move in tango before. Wise to seek partner’s consent before using, I think 🙂

unoriginal1729 has great photographs. The consensus on Facebook about this one is that I am singing, and not that lauralaitaine has just stood on my foot. I don’t remember singing during that one, although I do recall treating one fortunate lady to my rendition of “New York, New York” while carefully choreographing the fast “it’s up to you” bit to be the weave and twiddly thing (technical term) that Clive’s taught. Go me.

There are a few more of scribb1e‘s photographs here, although some of the ones that would have been good didn’t come out because of the low light and rapid motion (q.v.).

I was a bit broken for the rest of the weekend and so missed all of the possible parties on Saturday. Sorry all. Watched Strictly Come Dancing instead, and agreed with the result (Carol Smillie was the weakest dancer, I think, and I didn’t rate her samba this week as highly as the judges did). I am a bit worried that Craig Revel Horwood is mellowing in his old age, but it’s possibly just that the increasing standard of the remaining dancers is giving him less opportunity to stick the knife in and twist it in that entertaining way of his.

It seems there’s been a spot of bother recently between some students’ unions and some university Christian Unions.

Most university CUs in the UK are affiliated to the UCCF, an avowedly evangelical organisation which sprang out of our old friend, CICCU, in 1836 (or something). Exeter’s SU apparently wants the CU to stop making members sign up to the UCCF doctrinal basis. This is clearly the right thing to do, as the part about imputed righteousness is nonsense, as N.T. Wright (no relation) argues cogently in What St Paul Really Said (gjm11 also won this argument a while ago, if anyone like nlj21 is interested).

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, the University and the SU denied the use of campus facilities for the CU to run Pure, a course for Christians teaching typically evangelical attitudes to sex, because they didn’t like the bit about gays (this appears to be an illustration of the power of Facebook, by the way). Legal action has been threatened by the CUs.

It’s nice to see the young people enjoying themselves, I suppose. I’m reminded of the saying that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.

There are lots of people squealing about persecution, but I also read some of the more balanced views of the recent controversy. Cartoon Church has a good set of links to other thoughtful postings.

Christians are not being persecuted by not getting free or cheap rooms via the SU, any more than gays are by a course run by evangelicals for evangelicals which, as an aside to the main topic of “Evangelical Guilt 101: Wanking and how to avoid it” (link to a hilarious Pure session plan, mildly NSFW), says what Christianity always has pretty much always said about homosexuality. Both sides look petty and keen to be perceived as persecuted.

Some SUs and CUs have come to an understanding without turning the whole thing into a culture war. CUs can disaffiliate from the SU and maintain their oligarchy (I recall being delighted to learn, while I was a member of CICCU, that this was the correct term for their method of government). SUs can stop their extreme sports version of being Gruaniad readers. Everyone wins.

Alas, one troublesome priest has rumbled the fact that CUs are actually part of our plan to turn middle-of-the-road Christians into atheists. Sometimes it’s a protracted process, to be sure, but our mills also grind exceeding small. Look everyone, over there: a lawsuit! (That ought to do it).

I’ve been watching the video of Richard Dawkins in Lynchburg, speaking at the Randolph-Macon Women’s College as part of his book tour. The Q&A session (video link) after his book reading is great fun. Students and staff from the nearby Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian college, had come along to debate with him, so questions from them dominated the session. I think he dealt with them fairly convincingly.

There was one moment towards the end of the session when he seemed lost for words, which I found interesting. One woman (not from Liberty) asked him whether anger was a common feeling for people going through de-conversion. Dawkins was uncertain, and said he’d never considered it (he’d considered that people might be afraid when de-converting, but not angry). He threw the question open to the audience: “Is that a common experience?” “Yes!” “Anger against whom or what?” “Clergy people, authority figures” said one woman, clearly, above the clamour of other voices saying what I suppose were similar things. “Thank you, I have learned something this evening,” said Dawkins, and went on to say as much in his tour journal.

Dawkins isn’t the sort of atheist who’s angry with God for not existing, or with the church because the priest put the fear of hell into him, or whatever. His outspokenness is down to an impatience with people who just don’t get it, it’s not personal.

But the same cannot be said of every supporter of Dawkins on his shiny new website, as Maryhelena pointed out. She thought that Dawkins, lacking a psychological understanding of de-conversion, was possibly unleashing a destructive anger. She went to saying that it was counter-productive for a de-convert to be angry, as the decision to leave a religion is a philosophical one, and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own philosophical opinions. I replied saying that it wasn’t quite as bloodless as she’d made it sound, that I thought it was possible to attach some blame (negligence, mostly, rather than malice) to religious teachers, and that some amount of anger might actually lead to people doing useful things rather than just talking about it. Her response made more sense to me, since I agree it is counterproductive to become trapped in your anger, attractive though that can be.

I’m still left with the feeling that some negligence attaches to religious teachers, especially those who teach the young and impressionable (hey, who’s for a class action suit against CICCU?) But perhaps part of my feeling is a manifestation of the regret I feel that I didn’t think harder myself. In that case, I suppose, it should motivate me to continue to think, and to provoke others to do the same.

I am currently laid up. I’ve been trying out Firefox 2.0. It looks quite good. On the Mac, it’s faster then 1.5 and doesn’t get bogged down when you leave it running for a long time (I tend to put the Powerbook into sleep rather than shutting it down). I’ve not tried it on Windows yet, as I use Mozex for editing Wiki entries at work, and that’s not been updated for 2.0. The essential extensions have been updated, though: AdBlock and Greasemonkey being the two I use the most. It’s always a shock to use someone else’s machine and find their intarweb has adverts. I mean, how quaint. And you need Greasemonkey for LJ New Comments, which the people on lj_nifty seemed to like, bless ’em.

I like the spelling checker for form entries, and the way that you can now have it save and restore sessions, move tabs around, and put a close tab button in the corner of each tab. The smart completion thingy for Google searches is quite nice, as is the way that sites can offer their own search plugins which Firefox picks up on and can then install automatically (you can tell the site offers a plugin when the little arrow in the search box glows blue: thanks to marnanel for pointing that one out). I like the way that it can be configured to add RSS feeds to Bloglines, too.

While I was enjoying all this web 2.0 excitement, I thought I’d try out del.ico.us. It’s a site that lets you store your bookmarks externally, so you can find them on any computer, and also lets you tag them with keywords so you can find them again easily (which is my main reason for using it: my bookmarks were getting out of control). You can see my bookmarks here, and there’s also an RSS feed of them if you’d like to stalk me.

So, Ted Haggard, eh? Some of you might remember him from his clash with Dawkins (video link) in The Root of all Evil?. He came across as a fairly typically fundie nutter, and ended up throwing Dawkins off his land; to be fair, Dawkins did start out by comparing a service at Haggard’s mega-church to a Nuremberg rally. However, it turns out that Haggard’s positions were slightly more nuanced than the TV programme might have lead you to believe: he was concerned for the welfare of immigrants in a way which brought him into conflict with the Republican regime, for example.

Readers who’ve been around in Cambridge for a while might remember the fuss when Roy Clements came out (or, it appears, was pre-emptively outed by his wife and some Christian friends). Clements was senior pastor at Eden Baptist Church, the other big student church in Cambridge. He was also an internationally renowned author and preacher, famous for his clarity and insight.

In the UK, evangelical Christianity can best be compared to a fandom, right down to the interestingly-dressed people at conventions and the perennial arguments about the canon. Like any fandom, evangelical Christianity has its leading lights. As a newcomer to evangelicalism at university, it wasn’t uncommon for me to offhandedly tell other Christians about someone I’d heard preach and be told that I was lucky, as that man was a Big Name Preacher: the sort of person you might see at a Christian conference, but which it would take a University Christian Union with CICCU’s undoubted clout to get hold of. Clements was a Big Name Preacher (John Stott and Don Carson are other examples of people who are famous-to-Christians, who I heard as an undergraduate). Eden Baptist is no mega-church, and evangelicals in this country thankfully do not have the political influence they do in the USA, but both Clements and Haggard were published authors and influential pastors of large and important churches.

When the story broke, Clements dropped out of view fairly quickly. This was partly his decision, I think, but also partly down to some frantic retconning by Christian publishers and bookshops, who, according to Clements, suddenly found that his teaching actually hadn’t been so great after all (the vicar at my old church continued to quote Clements in his sermons, for which one must respect his integrity).

But then, a few years later, Clements was back with a website and a theology attempting to combine conventional evangelicalism with the idea that God thinks committed gay relationships are OK after all. Contrast this with Haggard’s decision to take one for the team in his final letter to his former church. There’s nothing wrong with your theology, says Haggard, it is absolutely all my fault, and I must change.

Should we respect Haggard’s integrity in staying the doctrinal course, or is there no merit in continuing to believe something so wildly wrong, or in being part of a movement so dedicated to doing harm? As for Clements, one could say he’s done a little retconning of his own. The Bible says less about homosexuality than the evangelical obsession with it would lead you to believe, but, arguments about the importance of the issue aside, if you read it the evangelical way, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than the traditional one. To attempt to maintain an evangelical approach to scripture while denying this conclusion seems untenable, to this ex-evangelical at least. Better to give up these contorted attempts to salvage inerrancy (or even, perhaps, theism 😉 and just carry on doing what we know to be right anyway.

And with that, I’ll end on a song. Via Helmintholog, I give you a rollicking gospel number: Meth and man ass.

I was part of an interesting discussion last night at a party. We got onto science and religion, and one of our number, who I’ll call F, was pretty steadfast in asserting that science and religion were the same sort of thing. Her reasons were partly that science grew out of religion, I think, and partly that both are engaged in a search for truth.

We got side-tracked a bit by trying to define religion in a way which doesn’t include ballroom dancing, say (funny clothes, weekly meetings, rituals… hmmm). Like the judge asked to adjudicate between erotica and pornography, we know religion when we see it, so we agreed that Christianity was a religion, say, so we could talk about that rather than religion in the abstract.

The scientists (or at least, people who’d studied science as undergraduates) argued that the methods that religion and science were the key difference between them. Christianity typically begins with the statements of the church or of the Bible, science typically begins with a hypothesis which is confirmed (or refuted) by experiment. While it’s not true to say that there’s no valid knowledge outside the scientific process, where Christianity does make claims about things happening outside people’s heads, those claims are susceptible to science, per Dawkins.

F made the point that we might eventually supersede the scientific method with something else, and that science might lead us to evidence for the existence of God. Both of these are things which are possible but haven’t happened yet, I suppose.

She also pointed out that people like Dawkins would want to exclude bad or fraudulent scientists from our definition of science, but were happy to rail at the worst of Christianity, people who most Christians think are crazy. In other words, Dawkins is aiming at straw men. I didn’t get a chance to think about this properly, but in the Dawkins case, his argument in The God Delusion is intentionally very broad, and takes in the mainstream version of Christianity as well as the fundamentalists. I’d also add that science is better at correcting for bad science than Christianity is at correcting for bad Christians, precisely because it is actually possible to show someone’s science to be wrong.

We then talked about reality as a construct and F said that maybe there wouldn’t be gravity if people didn’t believe in it. Nobody was willing to jump out of the window and try this, although someone did drop a cracker on the table to confirm that they even keep it on at weekends. We did say that it was easy to see how that might be the case if solipsism were true, but it was hard to see how many minds agreed on a reality if each of them had the power to change it (which sort of begs the question, since we were assuming that people do agree). I mentioned that people on uk.religion.christian who think that matter arises from consciousness, and not vice-versa, who might believe something similar to F.

At the end of it all, scribb1e and I were struck by the failure of the majority, who were scientists or mathematicians by education, to connect with F, a liberal arts person, and vice-versa. I hope F didn’t feel too put upon. More than that, though, I wondered how many people hold similar sort of views to hers, who I never meet because I mainly have these sorts of discussions with scientists.

[ LJ Poll 855650 ]

It seems the right way to respond to Dawkins if you’re a believer is to claim that he’s not actually talking about the God you believe in, but rather the God that only people who don’t have theology degrees or Americans might believe in, laughable simpletons that they are. I’m thinking of Giles Fraser in the Church Times and Terry Eagleton in the LRB.

As I mentioned previously, gjm11 has responded to the Giles Fraser review, so I thought I’d write about the Terry Eagleton review. Both of these are postings to uk.religion.christian, a surprisingly sane Usenet newsgroup (surprising because most other Usenet groups with “Christian” in the title are full of nutters), which you can look at most easily via Google.

I’ve not seen any reviews by evangelicals yet. It’ll be interesting to see what they say, as they can’t really pull off the “not my God” argument.

I’ve read a couple of Richard Dawkins’s books recently, namely his latest, The God Delusion and A Devil’s Chaplain, an earlier book.

A Devil’s Chaplain

A Devil’s Chaplain is good holiday reading (just as well, as we took it to Venice with us). It’s Dawkins in bite-size chunks, a collection of articles on his favourite subjects: evolution, science, pseudo-science, and religion. Most of the articles have been published elsewhere, but enough of them were new to me to make the book interesting.

<lj-cut>With the current publicity for Dawkins-the-atheist, one might forget that Dawkins-the-explainer is remarkably good at his job, and well deserves deserves his Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He writes clearly and engagingly, and explains complex ideas with flair. His passion for science is shines through in his writing.

Dawkins dispatches the pseudo-scientists while showing that their sideshow tricks are nothing to the wonders of real science. Crystalline truth and crystal balls is a workmanlike example of this, where he mocks the New Age crystal energy nonsense before launching into a description of what crystals really are.

The Information Challenge was particularly interesting to me because of the discussion robhu and I had about evolution and information, back in 2004. In that thread, I linked to the article and suggested that Dawkins hadn’t clearly distinguished between storage capacity and Shannon information. I suppose I must have been skim reading when I read it on the web, because on reading it again in the book, it’s obvious he does make that distinction, and also talks (in the “The Genetic Book of the Dead” section) about information acquired from the environment in the sense of the paper by MacKay we were talking about.

Dawkins also provides the reader with some moving eulogies, notably one to Douglas Adams, whose pathos again gives the lie to the caricature of Dawkins-the-unfeeling-atheist.

The book is certainly worth reading, but don’t expect the depth you’d get from a full length work on a single topic. As I said, it’s bite-size chunks.

The God Delusion

The God Delusion must be the book that Dawkins has been wanting to write for years. It’s well timed. People like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have prepared the ground, and in this country we’re in the middle of a debate about the role of religion in public life (not to mention that any passenger who is parched on a UK to USA flight might find themselves fondly imaging nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too).

Dawkins lines up his definition of theism and then proceeds to knock it down. He’s carefully not to fall into the trap of claiming he has proved that God does not exist, but rather, he argues that God’s existence is overwhelmingly unlikely.

<lj-cut>Dawkins has has no sympathy with Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (the old idea that science answers “how?” questions and religion answers “why?” questions). As he says, any religion worth its salt (so, excluding deism or the extreme liberalism of people like Cupitt) makes claims that God affects the material world, and these claims are susceptible to scientific inquiry. Giles Fraser, writing in the Church Times objects to definiteness and wants Dawkins to recognise that his God is vaguer than the one Dawkins attacks, an objection which gjm11 dealt with in a posting to uk.religion.christian.

Turning to his area of expertise, Dawkins shows that evolution invalidates arguments from design, and for an encore deals with a host of the other arguments for God with his customary panache.

The book is bracketed by chapters arguing that wonder at the universe need not die with theism. Dawkins is keen to divorce what he calls Einsteinian religion from the theistic sort (Einsteinian because Einstein often referred to “God” as a sort of shorthand for the mystery of the universe, although he wasn’t in fact a theist). It’s obvious to me that non-theists retain that sense of wonder which might be described as spiritual, but I suppose it’s one of the things that theists worry they might lose if they gave up on God.

Dawkins has something of a reputation for being outspoken, not to say arrogant. That’s partly down to the special privileges religion gets, as he mentions in the book. We don’t consider it impolite to disagree with someone’s political views, yet as a society we are extremely careful to show respect to religious behaviour, however outlandish. This is part of a defence mechanism to protect religion, as Douglas Adams has pointed out. It’s not surprising that Dawkins’s decision to ignore this social convention makes people uncomfortable.

The writing is less formal than his earlier works. In some places, Dawkins develops a stream-of-consciousness style, at one point breaking off into a paragraph about how much he misses Douglas Adams (something even the theists can agree with, I guess). He also uses humour to good effect, with some wickedly barbed remarks (he seems to especially dislike the Templeton Prize). scribb1e read the book after me, and laughed out loud at the jokes. I’m not sure this style helps when people are so ready to accuse Dawkins of arrogance, but on the other hand it probably makes the book accessible to a wider audience, which is certainly something Dawkins is aiming for.

There are a few clangers in places where Dawkins cites specific examples of things from the Bible and early church history and gets it wrong (St Paul didn’t, as far as we know, write the Letter to the Hebrews, and to argue that Paul invented Christianity is over-doing it). Proof-reading by someone who knew about that sort of thing wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Nevertheless, the book largely achieves what it sets out to do, and, as I said, it’s about time.

Dawkins is currently promoting the book all over the place. His interview with Jeremy Paxman was particularly good.

The Foundation

Dawkins has also established The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. This looks like it’ll be a lobbying and educational body, both in the UK and the USA. You might not think we need such a thing in the UK. If so, I suggest you read rosamicula‘s recent posting, and remember, it’s describing a British college. But at least such colleges aren’t teaching nonsense as a matter of policy, unlike the government-funded Emmanuel College in Gateshead, who hastily removed their science teaching policy from the web after Dawkins pointed it out in the Telegraph.

One thing Dawkins doesn’t address is the way societies remain religious despite the advances of science. As Andrew Brown puts it:

Some people may ask why, if I am so pessimistic about religion, and believe so much in its destructive power, I am then so rude about Dawkins. Sam Harris, and similar atheists. Don’t they agree with me? Yes. But they’re optimists. They hold out the hope that there can be democratic, peaceful societies committed to the (costly) effort of reason and self-criticism even when this has no obvious benefits, and irrationality no obvious costs. Actually, their assumption is stronger than that. They believe this is the natural, equilibrium state of any society that has discovered science. And it seems to me that this is one of the beliefs that has been completely exploded since about 1950. Or, as Housman put it, the love of truth is the weakest of all human passions.”

I keep thinking there’s a need for a grass-roots movement to do what religion does for people on the small scale. I’m not sure whether it’s a realistic, given that the only thing atheists have in common is the lack of a belief, but it sounds like a nice idea. We could call it the Culture, say.