November 2006

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 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.