January 2009

This journal has been a bit high-brow lately, you know? Time for some light relief.

  • Yellow, university chaplain and all-round good egg, was going through some back issues of Christianity magazine when he happened across the problem page. Maggie, the Christian agony aunt, deals with her readers’ sexual problems, while strangely neglecting to deal with the most glaring problem suffered by her correspondents. Yellow found a letter from, and reply to, a lady who “can’t leave the little man in the boat alone”, who has been petting the pussycat, strumming the banjo and flicking the bean, if you take my meaning (I’m saying she’s been wanking a lot). Maggie knows that God doesn’t approve of that sort of thing, and suggests a number of interesting remedies.

  • Those of you who were watching the apotheosis of President Obama might have heard about the controversy surrounding Obama’s decision to ask Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration. Warren’s views are fairly typical among evangelicals. With regard to women, he’s a complementarian. He’s against gay marriage, abortion and so on. His views are quite different from those espoused by Obama. So what was he doing at the inauguration, and behaving himself too? bites_the_sun has the answer.

  • Dan Savage also runs a sexual problem page, although his answers tend to differ from Maggie’s. Savage reacts in a fairly direct way to the anti-gay mob. For example, he’s responsible for the new meaning of former Sentator Rick Santorum‘s surname. “Warren” is already a place where rabbits live, of course, so Savage has instead turned his attention to Saddleback, Warren’s mega-church. Savage is pleased to announce a new term, saddlebacking, which I’m sure will come in useful, especially to the people who write in to Christianity‘s problem page.

In other news:

Jerry Coyne has an article in The New Republic. It’s notionally a review of new books by two Christians who defend evolution against creationism, whether it be traditional young Earth creationism, or creationism’s more recent adaption to a major predator (the US court system), intelligent design. One of the Christians is the biologist Kenneth Miller, who testified against the IDists in the Dover School District trial; the other is Karl Giberson, a physicist.

Coyne argues that, while there are Christians who are accept evolution, this does not mean that these things are compatible (“It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers”). Having dismissed IDists’ attempt to have the definition of science extended to religion, and the God of the liberal theologians, a god who almost nobody actually believes in, Coyne moves on to address Miller and Giberson’s attempts to harmonise science and religion. He does so with civility and directness:

<lj-cut text=”Good bits”> (Note: The links below are to places where we’ve discussed similar ideas before; they do not form part of Coyne’s text)

[According to Miller] God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature.

In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky.

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

He concludes that:

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

Coyne does, I think, over-commit himself to one particular answer to the Fine Tuning Argument (just as Dawkins does), and he mis-states what the Strong Anthropic Principle is, but overall the article is excellent, and you should all read it.

There is a difference between creationisms (like YEC and ID) which contradict well established scientific theories, and Miller and Giberson’s efforts to argue that God did it but carefully hid his tracks (or that God set things up so that intelligent life would arise on Earth, though Coyne argues that this argument is contradicted by science to some extent). With YEC and ID, we’ve good reasons not to believe them. With a God who carefully hides his tracks, we must instead ask how we’d know if we were wrong (we might also ponder the arguments from God’s silence). The problem with Miller and Gibson is not facts but method.

If we accept a proposition merely because we can’t show it’s wrong, we might believe all sorts of things, so why credit the Christian God rather than my particular favourite deities? It seems that Miller and Giberson’s theories start from the conviction that God did it and work backwards to an explanation which is not directly contradicted by current science. As we saw when talking about biblical inerrancy, there’s always a logical way to make that sort of thing work; yet to do it is unskillful, the opposite of the fourth and seventh virtues in the Noble Twelvefold Path. In science “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Clive put endings on stuff, so I’ve added the three alemanas to the rumba and something called the Whirligig in tango to last week’s stuff, including a link to another one of those instructive videos where the commentator is clearly a bit too into the lady.

This week <lj-cut text=”More waltz from Clive, foxtrot from Bruce”>there was more waltz from Clive and foxtrot from Bruce.

Ballroom and Latin C – Waltz

Running spin turn (end in PP facing diag centre, woman doesn’t brush, apparently)
Whiplash: through R, side L without weight turning sharply to closed position. (1, 2, wait).
Straighten right knee, drawing LF in to stand on it (1 bar)
Lower into left knee, extending right leg (1 bar)
Transfer weight to RF (fallaway), ronde LF behind right, slip RF behind right and pivot to face diag centre (1,2,3).
Double reverse wing: for man, like double reverse spin but continue to turn body to lead her to wing rather than cross. (1,2,3 for us)
Chasse to right.
Outside spin.
Turning lock.

Dancesport Modern B – Foxtrot

Open telemark,
Curved feather, SQQ, finishing outside partner on RF, sway to right
Heel pull – back L, rotate half a turn on left heel dragging right heel with it, transferring weight to right heel at the end (QQ), sway to L, I think.
Last two steps of curved feather again (QQ), finishing OP again, sway to R.
Reverse wave (there’s a lot to this, so here’s what I think it looks like, but I’m probably wrong): back L with right shoulder back (S), she steps outside you, back R dragging heel (Q), still outside, rising, back L, top of rise. Lower and pull toe of RF past LF and step back R (S), rotating so lady in line, back L (Q), back R (Q), lower and take toe of LF past RF and step back L with right shoulder back to repeat. The woman’s doing something a bit like the man’s feather and 3 step while this is going on.

Top tips: don’t be backweighted on the reverse wave: push the feet back from the body, almost feel like you’re leaning over her.

The dancing lessons have stared again. Hurrah.

<lj-cut text=”Rumba (of which I found a video, yay; sadly I look nothing like the guy in it, boo), tango, waltz, reflections on being Batman”>Ballroom and Latin B (Clive)

3 threes: now with video of good people doing it
Forward basic lowering left hand to lead lady to turn to her right at the end of the bar, leaving her with her back to you, place both hands on her shoulders.
Cucharacha to R, leading her to spin to L on the 1 beat and catching her shoulders again immediately (according to Clive it’s a cucharacha, the video has a back basic).
Diagonal step forward L, chucharacha, hinting at her to turn to her R at the end of the bar.
Back basic, end with her in single hand hold.

Thing with no name:
Forward basic ending with LF back.
Pivot half a turn on LF taking RF forward away from her (beat 2), pivot on RF half a turn landing on LF facing her (beat 3), back on RF and settle into hip (beats 4&1), taking handshake hold.
Rock forward onto LF (beat 2), back on to RF leading her across (lead RH down and to right) (beat 3), lunge into left leg pushing RH out to right to make her turn and lunge in opposition to you (her free left leg in front of your free right leg). Stick left arm out diagonally forward. Smile.
Back basic from there, leading her across you with right hand, changing to left hand as she passes, ending in fan position.

Three Alemanas – easy steps for the man, it’s all in the arms, see the video on Youtube.

The rest of the lesson was heels and toes and body rotation in foxtrot (where does one buy the book with this stuff in, anyway?), and the quickstep we did last term.

Ballroom and Latin C (Clive)


Link (QQ).
Chase: Forward L, through R, side L turning sharply back into close position, forward R outside partner, side L to back LoD, pivot on LF face LoD and small chasse, R, L, R. (S,QQQQ,Q&Q),
Whisk LF behind RF (S)
“GD Is My Bowling AlleyTM“: Forward R, side L turning to back LoD (in closed position), back R turning to diag centre, whisk LF behind RF (promenade position) (QQQQ). Repeat (QQQQ again).
Through RF, close LF to RF (closed position), lower into LF extending RF to side (QQS)
Recover slowly, drawling RF in, straightening left knee a bit (SS)
Close RF to LF and point LF to side (&S): this shouldn’t be a bobbing action, keep it grounded
Whirligig: side and forward L (S), through R turning R (Q), side and back L (Q), back R loosely crossing behind L (Q), twist turn for 3 quicks (QQQ), ending with RF free, RF forward around her to unwind her twist (7th quick), forward L (Q), forward R (Q), tap L (Q).
Closed promenade, SQQS

Must have been something else, too. What have I forgotten?

Dancesport B Modern (Bruce)

Mostly technique. What I remember:

Importance of keeping partner on your RHS in Viennese, stepping around her when going forward and taking small steps to allow her to go around you when going backward.

Lots of hold exercises, including making us put our coats on and position our arms so the fabric is stretched around the back of the coat, without allowing our shoulders to hunch. Importance of remembering you are Batman and your cape encloses the lady (make the hold big). The Five Points of Connection. The Noble Eightfold Path (just kidding).

Waltz stuff. Importance of lowering on the “ee” of three, like wot I don’t do, and also of not moving horizontally while lowering vertically. Importance of gradual rise (halfway up on 2, all the way on 3).

Fallaway and slip pivot: facing diag centre, forward LF, side RF, LF side under body (beats 1&2), rise on “oo” of two, slip RF past LF (now backing LoD) and pivot to L on it (now facing LoD), lowering as you do so (beat 3). Next step must be forward L down LoD (back R for lady), or you’ve not turned enough. The rise here feels to me like I’m pushing off the LF as I’m bringing the RF towards it, no idea whether that’s right but it seemed to be what he was doing. Corrections welcome.

Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

The programme consisted of them both trying to get the arguments from their books into an hour long discussion. There’s an MP3 of the programme available on Premier’s site. If you get annoyed with people posting links to audio and video without summaries, you could read my notes, below the cut, or skip to the conclusion.

<lj-cut text=”What was said”>Free will

Ehrman mentions Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people (summarised here), in which Kushner says God is not all-powerful. Swinburne points out that being all-powerful doesn’t include being able to do something logically contradictory. His argument is that there are good states which can’t occur without allowing for the possibility of suffering. For example, you can’t give people free choice (a good thing) to people without allowing them to chose evil. Responsibility for others is a good, but we can’t really be responsible for them unless their well-being depends on our actions. God, as our creator, has the right to allow us to experience suffering if it’s ultimately for our own good.

Ehrman responds that free will doesn’t explain why many people suffer and don’t receive benefit from it. A child dies of starvation every 5 seconds, and it’s hard to argue that the child benefits from it. Christians think there will be no suffering in heaven, and yet there will, presumably, be free will in heaven. Hence there is no logical inconsistency between free will and the absence of suffering.

Natural evil

Justin Brierley (the presenter) mentions natural disasters. Swinburne says that if the only suffering we experienced was from other people, some of us would barely suffer at all. He thinks this would in some ways be a bad thing. Natural evils (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts) allow us opportunities to practice being cheerful in the face of suffering, to make significant decisions, and to help others. Making good choices improves our character. Deciding the kind of person we’re to be is a good, but only serious situations allow those choices.

Ehrman is unconvinced by this. The 700 children who starved to death in the course of the programme did not have the choice to be cheerful about it, nor does it seem right to excuse the suffering of others (the starving) by saying it gives us an opportunity to make moral choices.

The Holocaust

Swinburne talks of soldiers who die in just wars. We regard it as a good thing for them that they give up their lives for the good of others (to save their country from tyranny, say). The starving children are starving because our governments aren’t doing enough about it, and neither are we as individuals, but Swinburne seems to be arguing that the starving children or murdered Jews (he explicitly mentions the Holocaust at this point) give something good to others, just as the soldiers who die defending their country do. The good here is the opportunity for people to make decisions that matter. Swinburne realises this sounds callous, but thinks we have to step back from our emotional response to the problem.

Ehrman thinks the Swinburne’s cool detached approach to the Holocaust isn’t good enough.

What The Bible Says

The programme moves on to the Bible’s attitude to suffering. As he does in God’s problem, Ehrman says that the Bible doesn’t tend to give modern philosophically based answers, but its authors have a range of answers of their own. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible often say that suffering is punishment for Israel’s sins. In some places, suffering is caused by the actions of other people (the closest the Bible gets to the free will argument, though it doesn’t ever mention the argument explicitly). In other places, suffering is redemptive, so that people suffer to bring salvation (Jesus in the NT). Some Biblical authors attribute suffering to supernatural powers who work against God, and believe God will sort the baddies out at the end of time. Others (one of the authors of Job) think that it’s wrong to even question God about this. Finally, Ecclesiastes (summarised by scribb1e here) says that life, including suffering, just doesn’t make sense sometimes, so we may as well be happy as best we can.

Justin Brierley quotes Ehrman’s God’s Problem, where Ehrman describes sitting in a church near Cambridge (he has family locally) in a Christmas service, being moved by the intecessory prayers for God to come into the darkness. Ehrman says that the story of Jesus is that God does intervene, but looking around the world, this doesn’t seem to make a difference now.

Swinburne agrees that the Bible has a number of different answers to why people suffer, because there are number of reasons that God might allow suffering. He adds some that Ehrman hasn’t mentioned: Hebrews 12 talks suffering as character formation, John 9 talks of a man born blind so that Jesus could show something by healing him.

Ehrman thinks that some of the understandings in the Bible contradict each other, for example, the apocalyptic understanding where suffering is caused by the powers of darkness disagrees with the prophetic understanding where suffering is caused by God. Swinburne says that apocalyptic teaching says that the powers of evil are ultimately allowed by God. He talks about how God suffered himself in the person of Jesus.

Ehrman says that Swinburne’s views are not the views of the Biblical authors, but rather theological views derived from the Bible (Ehrman sounds a bit evangelical here, arguing with Swinburne’s view that the church has authority over the Bible). The earliest Christians believed that God would soon bring an end to suffering, with the return of Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive, what arrived was the church. These days, God is inert. Swinburne doesn’t quite disagree with Ehrman’s assertion on when early Christians expected the world to end (because he’s presumably not an inerrantist), but starts to go into the standard rationalisations on this point when Brierley asks for a summing up from each of them.

Summing up

Ehrman agrees with Brierley that the Bible isn’t trying to come up with a philosophical explanation of suffering, but that the authors have various answers to what God’s doing about it. Ehrman thinks the most important thing is that we should do something about it.

Swinburne says we are privileged to be allowed to do something about suffering. He says a world without suffering would be a world without resonsibility for each other. There’s a hurried digression about free will in heaven, and parable about how it’s better to suffer for the greater good than to live a live of bliss.

Stiff upper lips

Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time. By contrast, in God’s problem, Ehrman tells us he has his students read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Ehrman’s book quotes Primo Levi’s Auschwitz Report, as well as the memoirs of Rudolf Hoss, written shortly before he was hanged by the Poles near the crematorium of the death camp over which he presided. In the face of sort of thing, Swinburne sounds like Pangloss (5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism: the lyrics to the existing ones about snakes and war are here, so you can get the metre).

Still, we ought to be careful of using the Holocaust as a sort of trump card in these debates, because it seems disrespectful of the dead, and also because it can be used as a tactic to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically a bad person, which is the sort of thing that Christians might do, dammit (holding to a doctrine of total depravity is a big help with that sort of thing). So, what of Swinburne’s argument?

Why is this blog called “GCU Dancer on the Midway”, anyway?

I’ve mostly been ignoring Saunt Eliezer’s recent stuff on Fun Theory over at Overcoming Bias because it triggers my (badly evidenced and probably irrational) “transhumanism: phooey” reaction, but as he says, “if you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument“.

Luckily, I’ve had this argument before, and chose the Culture over my present existence. I think Swinburne is partly right, in that eliminating all possible causes of suffering actually does more harm than good. After all, one of those causes is other people making their choices, and other people who can make their own choices are interesting, even if the choices can lead to us ending up wearing the diaper (scroll down) from time to time. But why allow those choices to actually kill and maim people? Why aren’t there angels acting as slap drones? (Saunt Eliezer thinks there are problems with the Culture, but they also apply to Christianity. I’m sure he’ll tell us the right answer soon 🙂

There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.

LiveJournal/our Russian overlords have laid off 13 of 30 staff in the USA.

Valleywag has an “LJ is doomed” story with inaccurate numbers. It looks like no_lj_ads is collating links to other information.

synecdochic (who is involved in the Dreamwidth project, designed as an LJ replacement) reckons nothing dramatic will happen overnight, but engineering staff have apparently been cut, so we might expect maintenance and new features to be neglected. Edited to add: LJ themselves are saying they’re just moving their development team to Russia, which would make sense if your aim is to cut costs: Russians are presumably cheaper than Americans.

The preferred LJ backup tool for Windows is apparently ljarchive. Those of you who use operating systems can sort yourselves out.

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)


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.

Reading my archive of Usenet posts from my misspent youth, I came across reference to Myers-Briggs tests for Christian ministers (this was presumably at the point where the bits of the church in the UK had decided that personality tests would help work out what gifts people had, or something).

But what if you’re a vicar and find yourself with the wrong sort of personality for your role or congregation? Luckily, Myers-Briggs corrective pills have the answer. Possibly only funny if you can work out who George C. of South London and Sandy M. of London are (or were in the early years of this century).

Some of the archive might be fun too: I liked Were you the Dalai Lama?, Clerical Vacancies, The Decayed of Evangelism and the outcome of the same.

One useful thing one can take from a Christian past is the ability to get the in-jokes.