In this issue: more Alpha, more de-converts copying me, and more liberal Anglicans doing the Devil’s work. Yes, it’s time to close some more browser tabs before Firefox seizes up completely.


Chat continues over on my previous posting about Channel 4’s documentary on the Alpha course. I found Jon Ronson, the documentary maker, had been on Alpha himself back in 2000 and written about it for the Graun. The link comes via Metafilter, where there’s some discussion of the article and of Alpha, into which I’ve dipped my toe.

I de-converted before it was fashionable

Jamie Frost sounds like he had a experience of Christianity at Oxford which was similar to mine at Cambridge (except, of course, the Cambridge one was just better). He went to St Ebbes, which is the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust church in Oxford, as StAG is in Cambridge. He was, and is, a science student. He also left Christianity, and his tale (of struggling to keep the faith, being buoyed up by emotional sermons and then realising he didn’t have reasons to believe) sounds awfully familiar. He writes about it in a meaty essay (I think it’s even longer than mine), which is worth a read.

The link to Frost’s essay came to me via the indefatigable Steven Carr, who helpfully posted it to the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum.

OK, so I’ve been watching The Wire

Yeah, so after the Templeton boys got lit up in a drive-by by PZ, I heard it was going down over at the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum, so me an’ my boy Carr grabbed our nines and mounted up. I done showed that Richard Morgan (who used to be tight with the Ditchkins crew before he snitched to the Christers) how we do it, then I had interesting discussion on epistemology [You seem to have slipped out of character – Ed], and shit. [Better – Ed]

Bishops Gone Wild

Those crazy Anglicans and their schisms: I can barely keep up these days, so I don’t usually bother. One thing caught my eye: Ruth Gledhill reports that Bishop Greg Venables, of the Fellowship of Mainstream True Christians Except If You’re Gay, had said of the fight against the godless liberals that “We must remember we are not fighting flesh and blood. This is about principalities and powers.”

If you weren’t a CU Bible Study group leader, you might not be able to complete that quote. It ends “and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“. Yep, liberal Christians are in league with the devil. John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, allegedly said “I now believe Satan is alive and well and he resides at Church House.” As Roy Zimmerman would say, “That was out loud, did you know that?”

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.

Did I mention I was on Christian talk radio once? No? Well, anyway, some other chap called PZ Myers was also on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking about science and religion, a topic much discussed in blog-land recently. His Christian opposite number was Denis Alexander, who runs something called the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge, which was started by a grant from those naughty (but terribly well funded) Templeton Foundation people. You can listen to the audio on Premier’s site, and read Myers’s commentary on his blog.

It was an interesting programme. Myers is a strident shrill fundamentalist neo-rationalist atheist on his blog, but is softly spoken in person. The talk was pretty well mannered. <lj-cut text=”Who said what”>Myers and Alexander agree that there’s no place for god-talk in the science lab, and that evolution happened without divine meddling (amusingly, the presenter was careful to add a disclaimer that not all Christians believe the latter, presumably in an attempt to anticipate the letters in green crayon from creationists and intelligent design supporters). Myers was careful to limit the terms of the debate: he specifically objected to the project of using religious means to find out stuff about how the world works, saying that religion gets it wrong and science does better. Alexander accused Myers of scientism and argued that there are fields of discourse other than science which humans find worthwhile (law, art, and so on), but Myers kept coming back to how we find out how the world works.

Alexander argued that big questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” are things we can reason about (specifically, using inference to the best explanation), but are not within the purview of science. He finds the human feeling that life has a purpose suggestive, because there’s a dissonance between atheism and the feeling of purpose. Myers argues that a sense of purpose is inculcated by successful cultures. Justin Brierley paraphrases Plantinga, but nobody bites. Summing up, Myers says that religion is superfluous not just in science, but in the rest of life also. Alexander says that science isn’t the only dimension to life, and that his personal relationship with Jesus makes his science work part of his worship.

I think I’d’ve been a bit less eager to attribute the human need for purpose to evolution, although Myers backed off that a bit when he talked about a cultural idea of purpose. Rather, I’d question the notional that an absolute, eternal purpose is the only real sort of purpose, just as I’d question the same assertion about morality.

I’d also question Alexander’s claim that Christians are applying inference to the best explanation in a similar way to scientists. According to philosophers of science, that inference should only be applied when an explanation is clearly better than the alternatives. The idea that a specific sort of god did it doesn’t seem clearly better, as Hume could have told you (unless by “better” we mean “in agreement with my religion”, I suppose).

Myers and Alexander spent a lot of time talking past each other when they were trying to work out what Myers’s objections were. Myers was wise to talk about methodology rather than disagreement about specific facts, on the grounds that science is a set of tools rather than a static body of knowledge. But Alexander is right that there are other legitimate ways to gain knowledge.

Perhaps we should talk about things that those legitimate ways have in common. As Eliezer says, if I’m told by my friend Inspector Morse that Wulky Wilkinsen runs the local crime syndicate, I’d be a fool to annoy Wulky. My belief is not established scientifically, but I’ve got some strong evidence, because Morse is much more likely to tell me that if Wilkinsen really is a shady character than if he isn’t. As Myers argues, reliance on holy books doesn’t work, but not because it’s not science. Rather, because a report of a miracle in a holy book may occur with or without the actual miracle having happened, with at least even odds (to see this, consider how one religion views another’s book, and note that if God wanted us to have a holy book, it would bear the 5 marks of a true holy book). As we saw last time, that your theory is compatible with the observation is not good enough. Rather, say, “Is this observation more likely if my idea is true than if it is not?”

Prompted by Rowan Williams saying that neo-atheist fundamentalists aren’t attacking the religion ++Rowan actually believes in, the Barefoot Bum has a good bit on the role of the term “faith” in discussions with believers.

Getting killed on the next zebra crossing

The argument goes something like this: religious faith is sometimes taken by atheists to mean “belief without evidence” (Dawkins says as much in The God Delusion, for example). “Ah, no,” say believers, “that’s not what faith means, our belief is based on the evidence”. There follows an interlude for examination of this evidence, which turns out not to be so impressive. “Did we say based on? We meant compatible with,” say the believers. “That’s not good enough”, says the Bum, “all sorts of things are compatible with the evidence if you’re prepared to add ad hoc stuff to shore up the core beliefs you really don’t want to get rid of, but then those core beliefs are held without regard to evidence”. “But,” say believers, “you yourself have some core beliefs you hold without regard to evidence”. “Well,” says the Bum, “I don’t think so, but anyway, you’ve just conceded that I was right about faith, haven’t you?” “Oh dear,” say the believers, “we hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly disappear in a puff of logic.

Six impossible things before breakfast

The believers’ final attempt to parry the Bum is similar to an apologetic argument I’ve seen, whereby the believer says “If you have an unevidenced belief that your senses aren’t under the control of the Matrix or of a cartesiandaemon, why not round it off by believing in my religion?” This is an odd argument: the believer mentions beliefs you might doubt if you’re a radical sceptic (you’ll recall that you risk becoming a radical sceptic if you’re a university-educated Catholic), but which most people accept because it’s impractical not to. It turns out that belief in gods is something we can get by without. (On a related note, the folks over at Iron Chariots have a reasonable article on the proposition that atheism is based on faith).

Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Three parts of faith

There’s another thing missing from the popular atheist definition of faith. At least for Christians, faith has an element of trust as well as acceptance of facts. After all, even the demons believe.

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton separates faith into three parts: content (faith in what?), assent (affirmation that the content is true) and trust (the part that the demons lack). Patton blames the lack of assent (which requires an examination of the evidence) for the loss of faith of the ex-Christians he’s encountered. He goes so far as to say that the statement “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart” is stupid. Patton seems quite different from other Christians, who say that the main reason they believe is the internal feeling of God’s presence, what they call the witness of the Holy Spirit. One can perhaps forgive atheists for using “faith” in a way Christians don’t like if the Christians themselves aren’t sure what it’s about.

The virtue of faith

A thought which should occur to anyone who reads Less Wrong: you can make people reluctant to give up religious faith by making them think that having faith is virtuous. And this is what we find: in Christian philosophy, the theological virtue of “faith” is holding on to belief in the face of doubt. But hang on, where is the virtue in this? Chopping and changing all the time would be impractical, but it’s hard to see why it’s wrong. I suppose that conceiving of a religion as a relationship with God makes faith seem virtuous, because then we apply our notions of faithfulness within a human relationship. But these notions do not apply to facts about the world (even the demons believe), and to think that they do is to fall victim to a cognitive trick (since if the facts of religion are not correct, maybe there’s no-one to have a relationship with). Rather, say:

If the sky is blue
I desire to believe “the sky is blue”.
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe “the sky is not blue”.

I muck around with music a bit (I tend to sing for better keyboard players, although I did bash out tunes from Andrew Lloyd Webber for Dummies at the last singing party we had), and I also dance. I thought it’d be fun to try to get these two things together in my head, by working out how the music for ballroom dancing works. After a bit of Googling for pages written by people who know more than I do, here it is. Seeing as there are better musicians and better dancers than me reading this, they can correct me if I get it wrong.


Foxtrot is in 4/4 time, between 112 and 120 beats per minute (according to these people). It’s typically danced to Big Band music. The music emphasises beats 1 and 3. I think I can see that in A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, where the accompaniment either hits more notes on the treble clef, or uses the bass line to keep that emphasis. In Bobby Darin’s version, the brass is hitting those beats in the intro.

The steps are typically 1 beat or 2 beats long, and we call them “quick” and “slow”, respectively (if I’m writing it down, I’ll abbreviate to Q and S). The basic rhythm of the dance is slow-quick-quick, which means the first two steps hit the emphasised beats. Some figures in the dance vary the rhythm, but the “slow” step, if there is one, starts either on beat 1 or beat 3. Here are the Hiltons giving us something to aspire to, with music and the slows and quicks, starting about 1:25.

<lj-cut text=”Waltz, Quickstep, Tango, over”> Waltz

Waltz is in 3/4 time, as any fule kno . The tempo for slow waltz is about 84 to 90 beats per minute. The music strongly emphasises beat 1.

The steps are typically one step per beat, one-two-three, leading off strongly on beat 1. Sometimes, to get more steps into a bar, one of the beats is split into two half beats, with the second half of the split beat being counted “and”. For example, in the whisk/chassé combination we count the chassé “one, two and three”. Once again, the Hiltons show us how it’s done, starting about 1:20.

The Viennese Waltz is a lot faster, about 180 beats per minute. It’s typically done to classical stuff from Johann Strauss, although other possibilities exist, and of course, a fast waltz gives you the opportunity to dance to silly songs. It’s danced at 1 step per beat, and the steps are mostly turns in each direction as you progress around the floor, and the fleckrl, where the couple rotate about each other rapidly in the centre of the room to show off. There are no split beats in it, it’s fast enough already. Here are some good people doing it.


Quickstep and foxtrot have common roots. Musically, quickstep is in 4/4 again with the emphasis on beats 1 and 3, but faster, at around 200 beats per minute. Again, it’s typically danced to fast Big Band or jazz music, usually about a drum kit that’s getting lonely waiting for its owner to come back from World War II, or some such.

The steps are timed as 2 beat slows and 1 beat quicks like in foxtrot, and the rhythm is typically slow-quick-quick. But the figures we dance in quickstep have more in common with waltz than foxtrot. It’s also more common for figures to roll over the end of the bar, so that you lead off on beat 3 sometimes (the chassé and quarter turn that everyone learns as a beginner does this: it’s phrased as SQQS SQQS). Despite it being fast, we still get split beats in quickstep, too, usually called “quick-a-quick” (there’s obviously not enough time to even say the word “and”).


La Cumparsita is the quintessential tango. We’re still in 4/4, at about 130 beats per minute. The music is staccato (although I’m not sure how well the dots over the notes have come out in the image on the right). There’s a sudden “ba-dump” into beat 1: the piano has a half beat on the bass line of the previous bar in the example on the right, which came from 8notes.com. We usually feel like there’s an 8 beat phrase over the 4 beat bars.

Ballroom tango comes from Argentina via a bit of cleaning up in Paris. Again, there are 2 beat slows and 1 beat quicks, and the odd split beat too. Typically figures are danced quick-quick-slow. It looks nothing like foxtrot or quickstep, though: the style of it matches the staccato style of the music. The dancers stalk around on the slow steps and hit the quicks as quick as they can, and then stop as still as they can, so that the quicks end up being shortened. Here are Marco Cavallaro and Joanne Clifton having some fun with it. I saw them at a ball some years ago: they were great.

Next time, I’ll try and work out what the Latin dances are about.

The LadyMetafilter linked to a bunch of Star Wars versions of the opening titles of 80s TV programmes, which in turn lead me to Ernie Cline’s Airwolf monologue, which had me chortling merrily to myself. You should listen to it.

Was Airwolf airwolf? The Lady sure is pretty (pic related: it’s her). The programme itself was usually fun, if you were young enough not to notice that they only had so many stock clips of Airwolf flying through a canyon or shooting at things. Wikipedia says the first series was darker than the later two. I don’t remember that, though I do remember Hawke’s love interest being left to die in a desert by the baddie, a sort of reverse woman in a refrigerator.

Two things made it stand out for me. One was that it has the best theme tune of any TV programme, ever.

The other was that bit which, at least in my memory, occurred in almost every episode. The baddies think they’re having it their own way; then Airwolf rises over a ridge line with her guns out, howling like a demon, and the baddies realise they’re about to have a very bad day indeed.

It is the expectation of this moment that kept me watching. The firefight after that was a foregone conclusion, it was the sudden reversal which was thrilling, the knowledge that justice would now be done. Airwolf as apocalyptic: there must be a paper in that for someone.

<lj-cut text=”Contains explicit steps”>
Ballroom and Latin B (t’other PaulW pp Clive)

Natural top
Rotate body to R (&), step forward L, replace, cha-cha-cha to L (2 3 4 & 1). Lead lady to spiral on &, ending in cuddle hold side by side, both man and lady with weight on L. Let go hold.
Close RF to LF, transfer weight to LF, step to side RF (2&3)
Close RF to LF, transfer weight to RF, step to side LF (4&1) – the overall effect is hip rotations: the hips start facing the training leg, close up for figure of 8 and you push off the standing foot rotate to face the other trailing leg. Or so it seemed to me.
Back RF, replace, forward locks (2 3 4&1)
Spot turn to L, forward locks (2 3 4&1)
2 more forward locks (2&3 4&1)
Spot turn, (2 3), 3 more forward locks (4&1 2&3 4&1), the last lock the woman turns and steps back instead.
Forward basic,
Back basic leading alamana,
New Yorker to R,
New Yorker to L,
Fast New Yorkers, R then L
New Yorker to R,
Spot turn to L,
Natural top if you want to repeat it.

Top tips: either turn or step, not both at same time. Isolation of upper body from hips is important for those hip wiggles.


First half of long side:

Start near corner, facing diag wall.
5 step: forward, side, behind, side, rotate body to PP (feet stationary) QQQQS
Diagonally forward L, through R, flick L, bring LF behind RF and ball change (ball of LF, flat of RF) SQQ&S
Ronde LF round to put you back in the usual PP (S)
Flick head and hips to R then L (feet stationary) (S)
Diagonally forward L, R (after step, rotate body to L after step to lead lady to close), forward L, lock RF behind L (SQQ&)
Usual tango turn (KEEEERwick quick slow, KEEERwick quick slow) ending on RF, OP on her RHS. On the final step, keep hips rotated to her but rotate upper body to left to lead her to raise her leg (she’s standing on one with the other crossed in front just above the knee, I think).
Rotate upper body R (no step), recover weight to LF, return weight to RF, turn sharply to R and tap LF beside R (lady swivels and then taps), to end in closed position facing wall. (QQQQ)

Ballroom and Latin C

The tango above continues:
Step through L, side R, behind L, rotate upper body to R (no step, she swivels), forward R, side L, close R (QQQQ QQS) to end facing wall again.
Forward L, forward R, (SS)
Link (QQS)
Chase: through R, side L, forward R (OP, curving to R), back L (back along LoD, continuing to turn to R) (QQQQ), chasse to R along LoD (Q&Q), link to turn a corner (QQS),

Short side:
Forward R, forward L, lock R behind L (QQS) – stay in PP for the lock otherwise she can’t tell what’s going on, rotate to closed after final step.
Forward L, side R, behind L to end facing diag centre (diag wall of new wall) with her outside on your RHS (QQS)
Rock forward onto RF, back onto LF, step side R (QQS)
Start with the 5 step again. Phew.

There was also a samba, but who likes samba?

Gambling at Rick’s Bar

According to New Scientist, Francis Collins’s BioLogos site (wherein Collins, an evangelical Christian, advocates theistic evolution) not only faces the wrath of the neo-militant atheist secularists like Coyne and Myers, but has also been criticised by the Discovery Institute, who advocate Intelligent Design. They have a new site at Faithandevolution.org where they explain why Collins is wrong by quoting the Bible.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, as I thought that Intelligent Design was a hack get around the firewall that is the United States judiciary. The courts say you can’t teach religious opinion as fact in state schools, so if you want to get creationism into public education, you attribute creation to an anonymous Designer. You can then claim that you’re shocked, shocked I tell you (your Honour), that some kids might reach the conclusion that the Designer is the Christian God. I don’t want to tell these people their business, but setting up a web-site full of New Testament quotes gives the game away, doesn’t it?

Sun, moon and bumper sticker cry “Jesus is Lord”

Anyhoo, as it happens, the Discovery Institute quotes Romans 1:20, which I’ve mentioned before as a verse that supports the common evangelical belief that everyone knows there’s a God really, even if they don’t want to admit it. The DI say that Collins’s argument that God could have made stuff happen in such a way that his intervention was undetectable goes against the Apostle Paul’s statement that God’s existence is visible from what has been made.

I got into a discussion of undetectable divine intervention over on gerald_duck‘s LJ. gerald_duck had criticised atheists for saying that evolution proves there is no god, which is a valid criticism (if indeed there are any atheists saying that), but he’s oddly attached to the idea that it’s desirable to be agnostic about unwarranted beliefs, like Collins’s belief that the Christian god did it and carefully hid his tracks. I don’t really understand this. I accept that evolution is sufficient to explain the history of life after abiogenesis, because I think there’s good evidence for it. If evolution is sufficient, I require further evidence before I can conclude that, say, a god was involved. Without that evidence, I do not believe a god was involved (if gods there be: again, this isn’t an argument about their existence), just as I do not believe that any Flying Spaghetti Monsters were involved. I can’t strictly rule it out, but gods and FSMs are one of an infinity of possible additions to the hypothesis which I don’t seem to need, so why bother with any of them?

Over at the Discovery Institute, the cdesign proponentsists part company with Collins on whether evolution is in fact a sufficient explanation. If they could show that it isn’t, and further show evidence of design, they’d be on firmer ground than Collins is. Unfortunately for them, they can’t, but they were really following the evidence (which there’s some reason to doubt), their methods would be more rational than Collins’s.

New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter has summarised it well:

Watching the intellectual feud between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos is a bit like watching a race in which both competitors are running full speed in the opposite direction of the finish line. It’s a notable contest, but I don’t see how either is going to come out the winner.

apdraper2000 joined the discussion on people who have fully general counterarguments against the opposition, with a link to Peter Suber‘s essay, Logical Rudeness. Suber’s essay is well worth reading.

What Suber calls logical rudeness is a response to criticism which insulates the responder from having to address the criticism. Suber comes up with a taxonomy of logical rudeness:

The primary type is probably the application of a theory of justified dismissal, such as a theory of error or insanity, to critics and dissenters. Another major type is the interpretation of criticism as behavior to be explained rather than answered. This is closely connected to the type that refuses to see a meta-level in the critic’s criticism, and will not allow critics to escape the object-language of the theory. A rude theory may reinterpret criticism as a special kind of noise, or as unwitting corroboration. A theory may evade criticism without rudeness by postponing as answer or referring the critic to the answer of another. The abuse of postponement may be rude, however, as when the motions of postponement are made shorthand for dismissal, or when the subsumption of an objection under a larger system of belief is made shorthand for refutation. A rude theory may be held for reasons other than its correctness, such as the support for the believer shown by voters or grant-giving agencies. A weak sort of rudeness lies in any unfalsifiable theory, and a strong sort lies in boon theories which identify critics as nonpossessors of a special boon. The theories of justified dismissal and the boon theories tell critics that they are disqualified from knowing truth or even deserving answers because of some well-explained foible or fault in themselves. All the types have in common an evasion of a responsibility to answer criticism on the merits, when that evasion is authorized by the theory criticized. All types are triggered only by expounded criticism, and only insulate the proponent from conversion or capitulation, not the theory from refutation.

There’s the potential for this sort of thing in anyone with a belief whose scope is broad enough to explain why some other people don’t believe it. As mentioned previously, some Christians tell atheists that atheists know there’s a God really and are just being atheists to annoy, because they know it teases. Some atheists tell religious people that theists won’t accept atheistic arguments because they’re afraid of death, or too immersed in the church community to bear the social cost of leaving. In a conversation about race or gender, it won’t be long before someone claims another person’s view is held because of their privilege. And so on.

Suber calls this rude rather than fallacious because it is possible for people who hold true beliefs to be “rude” in this way (and in fact, rejecting arguments because they come from rude people is itself rude). Rather, rudeness violates the norms for debate, but by those same norms, we’d like even people who hold beliefs which lead them to be rude to be able to join in.

In Suber’s taxonomy, some sorts of rudeness seem worse for debate than others. Towards the end of the essay, Suber distinguishes “fixed belief” from “critical belief”, the difference being whether the believer is prepared to concede that they might be wrong. Suber says it’s not clear that critical belief is possible or desirable in all cases. In particular, it seems to me that people who regard disagreement as a moral defect will find it hard to be critical believers.

Suber wonders about the value of debate (by which I assume he means the general to-ing and fro-ing of philosophical conversation, not merely formal public debates). It seems to me that this value partly lies in reducing the problems of filtered evidence. We ourselves filter the evidence we search for, but a multi-sided debate might serve to correct this. One way of squaring a desire for debate with beliefs which justify rudeness might be to admit that we hold such beliefs, but to avoid rudeness itself as a tactic. Beliefs which justify rudeness might legitimately influence whether we want to have the debate at all, but once committed, it seems worth holding our own beliefs critically.

Time to close some browser tabs by writing about what’s in them:

Ehrman not out to destroy Christianity

Bart Ehrman has a new book out. Jesus, Interrupted aims to make stuff about the Bible that Christian ministers are taught in seminaries available to the public. Ehrman was interviewed at Salon. Despite Ehrman’s adoption by the neo-atheist fundamentalist secularists, he seems pretty mild-mannered about religion. In the Washington Post, Ehrman says he’s not out to destroy Christianity, although he hopes that his book will show up the problems with an evangelical approach to the Bible.

Why is God hidden?

There’s a good post from Jeffrey at Failing the Insider Test on the problem of why God is hidden if he wants people to know him. In previous discussions here, apologists say there’s no evidence that God being more obvious would make people come into a loving relationship with him. They say the Bible contains examples of people who saw miracles and didn’t believe, and as the Epistle of James says, even the demons believe (and tremble). Yet even granted the premise that the Bible’s account is accurate (which seems to be generalising from fictional evidence), Jeffrey points out that the Bible itself contains examples of people who believe on evidence from God. Jesus complains that if Sodom had seen his miracles, it would have repented, unlike the towns he’s been visiting. While compelling evidence doesn’t reliably produce the relationship Christians say God wants, it can hardly make it less likely.

Morality again

John W Loftus mentioned a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan of Yale. You can listen here. Kagan does well against Craig, thus proving that it is possible to beat him.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the moral argument for the existence of God is pretty unclear to me: some people just seem to feel that if there’s no God, there can’t be “real” morality. Kagan talks about what rational agents would do and the idea of a veil of ignorance. Craig doesn’t see how being moral matters if the universe will die a Heat Death. Kagan says that there is significance even if this significance is not eternal, and that eternal significance is not needed for morality.

I’m being oppressed

Slacktivist talks about that awful video which the National Organization for Marriage made, and the tendency of American evangelicals to believe both that they are, and should be, in a Chrisitan nation and that Christians are horribly persecuted.

I suspect that American evangelicals’ persecution complex is an inevitable side effect of sectarian hegemony. Once you believe that your faith requires cultural dominance, and that it deserves it, then any threat to that dominance — even just the unwelcome reminder of the existence of alternative points of view — is perceived as a threat, as a kind of persecution.

The NOM video has spawned many parodies, of which A Gaythering Storm is perhaps the best. NOM were even advertising here on LJ until LJ’s staff booted them. Well done, LJ.