2006

Martin Amis writes on Islam and Islamism in The Observer:

It has been seriously suggested, by serious commentators, that suicide-mass murderers are searching for the simplest means of getting a girlfriend. It may be, too, that some of them are searching for the simplest means of getting a drink. Although alcohol, like extramarital sex, may be strictly forbidden in life, there is, in death, no shortage of either. As well as the Koranic virgins, ‘as chaste’, for the time being, ‘as the sheltered eggs of ostriches’, there is also a ‘gushing fountain’ of white wine (wine ‘that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason’).

He refers to Philip Larkin’s Aubade and Church Going, neither of which I’d read before, both of which are well worth reading.

Amis thinks that Islamism is best tackled by raising the consciousness of Muslim women, which sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure how you’d go about it. One can imagine that attempts to imitate Lysistrata will result in more women being on the receiving end of the belt he speaks of.

He ends with yet another call for people to take on the Invisible Friend followers:

Even so, the time has come for a measure of impatience in our dealings with those who would take an innocent personal pronoun, which was just minding its own business, and exalt it with a capital letter. Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally. People of independent mind should now start to claim the spiritual high ground, too.

Amen to that.

Edited to add: Steven Scholl takes issue with Amis’s generalisations.

Premier Christian Radio have put up the audio of the Unbelievable discussion programme I was on. You can download the MP3 from archive.org.

Here’s my director’s commentary track (except I wasn’t a director, but you get the idea).

The first phone-in question from Steven Carr is a hard one for Christians. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks of God being like a shepherd who seeks each lost sheep. Steven said “a good shepherd is not one who says ‘I have given the lost sheep enough evidence to find its way home'”, provoking laughter in the studio because we all realised how Steven had struck home, I think. Some people (St Paul, for example) seem to get dramatic experiences, whereas some don’t. This is inconsistent with a God who we’re told seeks out everyone. The usual Christian defence is to say that God cannot over-ride our free-will and make us believe (C.S. Lewis says “he cannot rape; he must woo”). But God wasn’t so concerned with St Paul’s free-will and autonomy that he could not knock him off his horse on the way to Damascus, yet St Paul’s sort of experience is rare.

Marvin’s call was interesting, and all of us in the studio regretted that we didn’t get the chance to discuss all his points. His first point was that to accept the existence of evil one has to accept the existence of God who creates good and evil. I didn’t really follow that argument. The existence of evil seems to be merely a matter of people doing stuff I consider bad, and I don’t need to suppose that God made them do it. It’s possible he was arguing that without God we have no moral basis to call something evil, something which I’ve touched on before.

Marvin mentioned Anselm’s Ontological Argument, but Paul Clarke agreed that he’d concede that one.

Marvin’s second point was that we accept the truth of other classical writings, so why not the Bible? This argument fails because we’re not asked to live according to the teaching of those other classical writings. Something which we’re told to base our lives on should be held to a higher standard. But there are already many excellent arguments against Biblical inerrancy, so I’m not going to rehearse them all again here, but I will talk about the specific example I mentioned.

I don’t think that Paul Clarke’s response to my killer argument against inerrancy holds up. To say that the “we” of St Paul’s “we who are still alive” in 1 Thess 4 could encompass later Christians presupposes that St Paul knew he was writing to such people. My understanding of inerrancy was always that it did not and should not require such an assumption. At the Square Church they taught that the beginning of biblical interpretation was to work out what a passage meant to those who originally heard it (in this case, the people in Thessalonica, as is clear from 1 Thess 5:27). The method of interpretation where you read something like an epistle as if it’s personally addressed to you was right out, in fact.

Secondly, Paul Clarke’s defence of the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 7 relies on some ambiguity about what the “present crisis” (verse 26) is. Paul Clarke suggested its a some local trouble affecting the Corinthian Christians. But St Paul himself spells this out in verses 29-31, ending with “for this world in its present form is passing away”. Something more than local trouble is being spoken of.

As I said to triphicus, it’s perfectly acceptable to concede the point (as she sort of does) but then look for what a Christian might take from that passage anyway (in this case, that the glories of this world are fleeting, and that Jesus could be back at any time so Christians should look busy). But to maintain that this sort of interpretation is what Paul actually meant to say in the first place, as Paul Clarke seemed to, seems like making work for yourself. It’s only the extra-Biblical assumption of inerrancy that requires evangelicals to go through these contortions when faced with texts like these. Removing that assumption cuts the knot. I’m reminded of the Washington Post’s description of Bart Erhman’s tortured paper defending some passage in Mark, and of the revelation Ehrman had when his tutor wrote a note in the margin saying “Maybe Mark just made a mistake”.

I stumbled a bit when I mentioned Occam’s Razor because Paul Clarke rightly jumped on the fact that in some sense God’s miraculous healing of someone’s fibroids is a simpler explanation than them getting better naturally by some unknown mechanism. Edited to add: what I should have said was that this sense of simple isn’t the one Occam’s Razor applies to.

scribb1e points out that this doesn’t address those people who pray and don’t get better. She also says that unexpected stuff does happen in medicine but it’s not proof of anything very much more than the ignorance of doctors. If a Christian gets ill they will almost certainly pray about it, and some of the people who pray will get better (along with some of those who don’t). You can’t say it wasn’t God’s doing, but you have to wonder about his inconsistency. Edited to add: scribb1e elaborates in this comment.

nlj21 kindly batted off a question to both the Paul’s in the studio. Paul Clarke was right in saying that the fact that some people leave Christianity doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it does make you wonder about CICCU and similar organisations, doesn’t it? cathedral_life‘s comments on this discussion (where she signs herself as “AR”) seem apposite.

I hope I gave a reasonable answer to nlj21‘s question to me, although I’m sure he’ll be along to disagree.

I loved the question about “a god that suits your lifestyle”, because lifestyle is a Christian code-word for “having sex in a way we don’t like”.

I was expecting someone to try the No True Scotsman argument about me leaving Christianity (“no True Christian leaves Christianity”) so Narna came up trumps and I delivered my prepared answer. Go me.

I found Paul Clarke’s summing up quite affecting, because it was clear that he genuinely was concerned about my welfare. In the end, though, as I said, you can only follow the truth as best you can.

LiveJournal have improved the site’s email notification stuff, so that you can register an interest in any thread or posting and get email (or just a message to your message centre) when someone posts a comment on it. You can also register an interest in a particular user’s postings, and in various other stuff. Currently this is only available to paid and permanent account holders, but I think LJ are rolling out something a bit less good to everyone else soon (looks like free users will be restricted in how many things they can subscribe to).

This system has been carefully designed to only tell you about stuff that you can see anyway. They’ve also thought about the situation where you forget to select the right option and make a public post something which you meant to be locked: the notification email doesn’t contain the text of the entry, so you’ve got some grace about locking it. The new system is a very nice feature, something that makes LJ a much more useful place to have a discussion, since you can now easily monitor interesting posts once they’ve disappeared off your friends page. I’d thought about building something like this into LJ New Comments, but now I don’t have to. So that’s good.

Despite this, there are countless whinging lamers posting to the announcement saying that this feature is going to aid internet stalking (because an internet stalker isn’t obsessive enough to keep hitting refresh on a thread, or to use a free service or browser extension which will tell you when a web page changes). People who believe in security through obscurity are silly. You always assume that the bad guys are as clever as you are (or cleverer, in the case of the complainers).

LJ are also talking about extending the notification system so that soon you’ll have the option getting notifications using LJ Talk, LiveJournal’s instant messaging service. If you didn’t know LJ had an IM service, now you do. It’ll talk to any program which uses the standard Jabber protocol. I’m using Adium, Windows users might like Gaim (both of these support other protocols like MSN Messenger and AIM, so you don’t need to keep multiple IM programs running). By default, your buddies on the chat service are your LJ friends. Say hello if you see me on there.

I’m back home after a long day, with a flying visit to London for my appearance on Premier Christian Radio, followed by lizardc‘s party.

The Premier show went well, I think. It’s all a bit of a blur in retrospect. They’re posting me an MP3 of the show, so I’ll put that up somewhere once I get my hands on it.

Paul Clarke, my opposite number, was friendly and interesting to chat to, both before and during the show. You can see why St Helen’s Bishopsgate made him an evangelist.

It was nice to get a friendly call from Steven Carr, as most of the calls and emails took the Christian side, as I expected. Steven’s question was why we can’t all have Damascene road conversion experiences, given that we’re told that God seeks us out as a shepherd seeks out a lost sheep.

The format wasn’t a in-depth discussion, but rather a rapid responses to calls and Paul Clarke’s points. We didn’t get to go back and forth on a topic, which was a shame but was necessary to stop the listeners getting restive, apparently. I think there was more to say about my favourite Biblical contradiction, for example. The other Paul gave the standard evangelical response to that, but I think I could have made my case better if I’d been allowed to respond to his response (1 Cor 7:29-31 seem conclusive to me, as I mentioned to triphicus in that thread).

I was told by both Paul Clarke and scribb1e that I’d done well in handling the callers. I’d already decided that it was important not to get angry or to deride the opinions of people, however much I disagreed with them. I hope I managed it.

It was an interesting experience, both for the discussion we did manage to have and for the coolness of being in a real live radio studio. Once the show began and my initial nerves had calmed, I enjoyed it.

I’ll write some more about it later, but right now I need some sleep.

As people on my friends list already know, Premier Christian Radio asked me to take part in their Unbelievable programme, a weekly feature which usually involves a discussion between a Christian and a non-Christian. I’ve agreed, so I’ll be on this Saturday between about 12.15 and 1.30 pm, BST (that’s GMT + 1 for foreigners).

From my email exchange with the presenter, it sounds like the topics of the discussion will be the issues raised in my Losing my Religion essay, namely whether facts are sufficient to lead to Christian belief; the role of faith and the idea of a relationship with God; and probably some of my specific problems with evangelical Christianity. My opposite number will be Paul Clarke, someone who works with students at a conservative evangelical church in London, which sounds quite similar to my old church. It should be interesting. There’s also a phone-in part of it, apparently, to which any of you lot are welcome to contribute.

Premier broadcasts to Greater London on MW 1305, 1332, 1413 in London; and nationally on Freeview Channel 96, Sky Digital 0123, NTL 886. You can also listen on the Internet.

Edited to add: looks like the start time will be nearer 12.15 than 12.30.

Bruce Schneier rightly points out that defending against what happened last time isn’t a good way to make yourself secure against an enemy that can easily switch tactics. That said, I think I’ve got the answer. iPods, liquids and shoes don’t blow up airliners; theists do. Rather than attempting to second-guess what tactic they might try next, theists themselves should either face an outright ban on flying or more stringent searches and restrictions, depending on the current threat level. You might argue that this discriminates against the majority of theists who don’t want to blow up airplanes. However, we must remember that all this means is that they don’t want to blow up airplanes at the moment. Once a person begins to believe that they have an infallible invisible friend who tells them what to do, they might do anything. As Winston Churchill said, “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now, we are merely haggling about the price”. Anyway, inspired by this, I give you: <lj-cut text=”Theists On A Plane”>

Edited to add: for the benefit of the huge influx of new readers I expect to get real soon now, I’d better point out that this is a wind-up, or “troll” as we say on the internets. My real feelings are more like these, although I’ll probably mutter something about theists to myself the next time I’m parched on some budget airline flight.

This is mostly a link dump of the stuff I’ve been reading lately, but I’ll try to say something interesting while I’m about it.

The Post-Evangelical

In the pub on Friday, my spy in the ranks of the enemy told me excitedly that she’d read a book I must read also. It turned out to be Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical. So I went and read it again to see whether I agreed with what I thought 6 years ago, when I liked the bits about evangelical sub-culture but thought his epistemology was crap.

I still think Tomlinson is at his best when he is describing the pressure towards conformity in evangelicalism and pointedly remarking on the astonishing similarity between evangelical mores and those of middle-class society. There’s nothing wrong with being middle-class, in my book, but to elevate the most caricatured aspects of it to the status of a religion is probably taking things too far. Tomlinson’s thoughts about that weren’t new even in 2000, as Pete Broadbent pointed out (apparently Pete’s a bishop these days, so there is something the Church of England got right).

I still don’t know quite what his proposed alternative to both evangelicalism and liberalism actually is. It might be something which takes those parts of evangelicalism which aren’t the middle-class bits and uses them as guidelines rather than as axioms. For example, Tomlinson tells us that post-evangelicals don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy, but do retain the belief that God will speak through the Bible.

Or it might be an attempt to make the whole thing fuzzy, using, in Tomlinson’s terms, “poetic” rather than “scientific” language. Regular readers will know that anyone who behaves like a scientist and starts asking questions about what their religion actually means and whether it’s really true must end up an atheist. In that case, perhaps the best way for religion to survive is to avoid finding the answers to questions. If evangelicals are caricatures of the middle-classes, are the post-evangelicals and emerging church people caricatures of arts students, as holyoffice tells us (you’ll need to search for “The Emerging Church”)? I suppose I’d need to ask a real live post-evangelical to be sure: is there one in the house?

While I was looking around the web to see what other people had said about the book, I came across Maggi Dawn‘s blog. She’s currently the chaplain at Robinson college, but was one of the people who worked with Tomlinson in setting up a church in which meets in a pub. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the archives of her blog. A couple of things which caught my eye were an evangelical critiquing the idea of a personal relationship wtih Jesus, and the story of how the Christian Union at Birmingham University fell foul of Student Union rules.

Textual criticism

Rev Dawn also linked to the Washington Post story on Bart Ehrman, a university lecturer on the New Testament. Ehrman’s a former evangelical Christian who became an agnostic after studying the history of the Biblical texts. The Post does a good job of evoking what it must feel like to be in his position.

The comments on the article on Rev Dawn’s blog rapidly dissolve into the standard liberal vs evangelical slanging match (“by this all men will know you are my disciples, if you flame one another on the Internet”, as Jesus once put it). There is an interesting question she poses there, though, which is why people who have left Christianity devote so much time to criticising it instead of moving on.

LOL furriesChristians

There’s something in Tony B’s comment, I suppose: even if you’ve decided it’s not true, there’s an intellectual fascination there, and the feeling that it’d be nice if all manner of things really will be well. But there’s also something like the stuff Sam Harris talks about. Even moderate religion gives cover to fundamentalists by making belief in an invisible friend strangely more respectable than believing in alien abduction or that Elvis is alive, and by propagating the idea that criticism of a person’s religious beliefs is taboo in a way that criticism of any other belief strangely is not. The latter is a defence mechanism evolved by religions, as Douglas Adams rightly says. People who’ve left a religion have already broken stronger barriers than that, so it’s not surprising that they’re occasionally a little outspoken (who, me?)

Boingboing linked to From the Ball-room to Hell, a polemic against ballroom dancing written in 1892 by a dancing teacher who has turned from the evil of ballroom to the Lord. It’s always fun to see the holy being somewhat excitable in their descriptions of depravity. Quotes from his work ought to form the basis of next term’s CDC advertising posters.

She is now in the vile embrace of the Apollo of the evening. Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his, her bare arm is almost around his neck, her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his, face to face they whirl on, his limbs interwoven with hers, his strong right arm around her yielding form, he presses her to him until every curve in the contour of her body thrills with the amorous contact. Her eyes look into his, but she sees nothing; the soft music fills the room, but she hears it not; he bends her body to and fro, but she knows it not; his hot breath, tainted with strong drink, is on her hair and cheek, his lips almost touch her forehead, yet she does not shrink; his eyes, gleaming with a fierce, intolerable lust, gloat over her, yet she does not quail. She is filled with the rapture of sin in its intensity; her spirit is inflamed with passion and lust is gratified in thought. With a last low wail the music ceases, and the dance for the night is ended, but not the evil work of the night.

The girl whose blood is hot from the exertion and whose every carnal sense is aroused and aflame by the repetition of such scenes as we have witnessed, is led to the ever-waiting carriage, where she sinks exhausted on the cushioned seat. Oh, if I could picture to you the fiendish look that comes into his eyes as he sees his helpless victim before him. Now is his golden opportunity. He must not miss it, and he does not, and that beautiful girl who entered the dancing school as pure and innocent as an angel three months ago returns to her home that night robbed of that most precious jewel of womanhood–virtue!

I’m not sure whether hardcore Christians still frown on ballroom. Nobody seemed to mind it when I was a Christian, but a more recent graduate told me that The Square Church regarded it as suspect. There are a lot of Christian dancers, so I assume that these days it’s the lesser of two evils when compared to going clubbing and pulling strangers.

I must report that the only time I have taken a lady from a dance to my waiting carriage, it was all her idea and I ended up refusing her very kind offer because at that time I was in thrall to CICCU. This, my friends, is why we must erase them from the face of the earth.

<lj-cut text=”Dr Who (spoilers for that but not the trailer for next week)”>Cybermen and Daleks, oh my! There was some real sci-fi, what with the void ship and the ghosts. The Doctor was a bit too whimsical and mad on occasion, but also made me laugh. So much better than last week’s nonsense. More free advertising for Bluetooth headsets is always welcome, too.

In other news, Engerland lost on penalties and are out of the World Cup, it’s hot, and it’s Saturday night. So now we can all just sit back and wait for news of the first stabbings to come in.

If you need cheering up, though, I’d recommend Bill Maher on abstinence.