best of

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can’t be just one true religion

<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.

To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.

So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can’t take the Bible literally

<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.

In a conversation with a Christian (edited: who was actually robhu, as Rob’s given me permission to say) recently, I asked my usual question on personal relationships with God: why do all these people who claim to have one end up disagreeing? How do we know who to believe? To paraphrase their arguments:

<lj-cut>Some “Christians” aren’t true Christians. Which is fair enough, I think, if my question is specifically why Christians disagree. There’s a more general point though, of which more later.

God chooses to interact with humans in a human way, as exemplified by Jesus. He never promised to give people a way to tell who was right. A quick read of the Bible shows that God didn’t always interact in this way. Even in the New Testament, we’re promised there will be signs accompanying those who believe, some of which I’d find pretty convincing if I saw them: I’d certainly respect the religious claims of people doing that stuff more than people who don’t, because they’re showing they can do something inexplicable which is at least worth investigating. Any Christians volunteering to drink poison? 😉 Edited to add: robhu rightly points out that textual critics say this passage has doubtful provenance. Evangelicals generally say the Bible is inerrant “as originally given”, which raises some other questions, since there’s scholarly debate about what was in original manuscripts. Edited to further add: John 14:11-13 promises that whoever has faith in Jesus will do even greater miracles than him, so the odd amputee healing doesn’t seem too much to ask of Christians.

What is noticeable is that God seems to do special effects less and less as we get closer to the present time. Edward Current argues that God’s ability to hide shows how powerful God is, and that God is testing our faith, but, despite his obvious sincerity, I’m not convinced. I think there might be a simpler explanation.

God wants people to know him rather than treating him as an encyclopedia. I suppose the objection to treating God as an encyclopedia must be that it is impersonal, rather than an argument that having access to correct information actually impedes learning. So let’s imagine a world in which God was not an encyclopedia but a teacher of Christians, a good sort of teacher who made the lessons interesting but didn’t let fights break out in the classroom. Does that world look like this one?

Aren’t you just asking why God doesn’t announce his presence? I suppose I am. Annoyingly, someone has got to that question before me and made my arguments better than I can. The brilliant Richard Carrier’s essay Why I am not a Christian (not to be confused with Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name) contains a section called God is Silent which points out the contradiction between what Christians say God is like and how he acts. Go read it.

My arguments about Christians and their relationship with God are, as my correspondent rightly says, a special case of the general argument that God is silent. Talking about Christians specifically negates one of the common defences against that argument, namely that if God were too obvious, it would do away with free will. But Carrier points out that such defences are ad hoc: who thought to mention that God values free will above almost everything else before people started debating the problems of silence and of evil? What is the evidence for this? If you’re evangelical, where does the Bible say that God values free will so highly? Christians can’t even agree that people have it, let alone that God values it.

God’s silence, and his entrusting of what we’re told is a very important rescue mission to a bunch of people who are pretty bad it, are pretty powerful arguments that he’s not there. If I saw any amputees miraculously healed, though, I’d certainly reconsider.

People who post D&D campaign reports to their blogs: death’s too good for ’em, I say. I think I’ll make an exception for this one of scribb1e‘s, though.


‘Antea, in stipendia Roberti, dicerem: ἀποθανεῑν δεν θέλω; respondebat dominus ludorum: alea iacta est.’

<lj-cut text=”The burial of the undead”>
I. The burial of the undead

Hathel is the cruellest month, breeding
Kobolds out of the undead land, mixing
Duty and revenge, stirring
Dire weasels with spring rain.
Joe kept us warm, lighting
A fire in the clearing, feeding
Us with rabbit stew and tubers
Iliriel surprised us, coming up from Arlin
With the falling night; we stopped at the camp
And went on in sunlight, into the castle,
And were shot at, and talked for a minute.
Bin gar kein Kobold, stamm’ aus Arlin, echt Elvish.
And when we were safe, inside the castle,
We climbed the tower with rickety stairs
And we were frightened. We said, Terseus,
Terseus, hold on tight. But down he went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
We watch, much of the night, and clear up the corpses in the morning.

What are the oozes that grapple, what beasts lurk
In this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken mages, who cannot divine
And the trees give no shelter, and the DM no relief
And the dry fountain no sound of water. Only
There is a secret door under this rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
And I will show you something different from either
Skeletons at morning jumping out behind you
Or zombies at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of rust.

Wo ist meine Rüstung?
Was haben sie getan?
Sie haben es gegessen
Das war rücksichtslos.

‘You engulfed me first a moment ago
They called me the shimmering man’
– Yet when you moved on, later, to engulf another
Your flanks full, and my hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my strength failed
, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the corridor, the shadows.
Ich von Panik erfaßt werde.

scribb1e writes:

The Waste Land seems remarkably easy to do this to. Either because great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation, or because it’s a bunch of easily-imitated, pretentious twaddle.

Apart from scribb1e‘s, the greatest parodies of the poem are Wendy Cope’s and ladysisyphus‘s Harry Potter version.

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

Poor old Rowan. In an interview and speech characterised, in a very real sense, by his habitual turgid sesquipedalianism, someone managed to find the statement that Sharia law “is unavoidable” in the UK. If you think my ability to provoke religious flamewars is impressive, you should see the BBC’s Have Your Say forums (or, you know, don’t), or the Graun‘s Comment is Free, right now.

Unexpectedly, the same bunch who voted in favour of the religious hatred legislation a few years ago suddenly found something wonderful, and opined that they weren’t sure public beheadings were such a good idea (though I’m not sure that position is a vote winner: Daily Mail readers would probably be in favour, as long as it wasn’t the Muslims doing the chopping).

All of which is beside the point, really, because ++Rowan (that’s “1 more than your current Rowan”, geeks) wasn’t advocating any of that stuff. After struggling through all 8 pages of his grey prose, I can tell you that Rowan’s a sci-fi libertarian of the sort you sometimes get in Ken Macleod’s books, or maybe Heinlein’s, or Neal Stephenson‘s. What he wants is for people to be able to voluntarily affiliate with a court system for the resolution of some disputes. In an attempt to preserve his right-on lefty image, Rowan claims he’s a little nervous about the unpleasant whiff of the free market about this, but I think we all know he’s secretly itching to set up ++Rowan’s Greater Anglican Communion franchulates all over the world (er, hang on a minute…), strap on a katana and set out on his motorbike for a showdown with Dawkins.

What’s less clear is what he wants for Muslims which isn’t already available. In an article about Jewish courts in the UK, the BBC says that “English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute”. Does anyone know whether there’s anything stopping Muslim courts doing something similar to the Jewish ones?

You might not have realised this, but Christianity is not a religion or a set of beliefs. It is a relationship with God. Or at least, a lot of Christians will tell you it is. I’ve been talking to some of them on uk.religion.christian recently.

The assertion that “Christianity is a relationship” is, at its most basic, a part of an apologetic or evangelistic technique. When talking to people who think that religion is a bad thing, the Christian attempts to convince the listener that Christianity is not like other religions, in fact, it’s so different that it’s not really a religion at all (one can presume that we were saved from claims that Christianity is “religion 2.0” by the fact that there was no Internet when people were thinking this stuff up). It’s the religious equivalent of the spammer’s claim that spam is that which we don’t do. robhu ran into this sort of claim recently. Not all Christians go along with this sort of word-game: hurrah for woodpijn, who is happy to admit that Christianity is in fact a religion.

It’s more interesting to hear people talking of a “personal relationship with God”. I think it means that the Christian relates to God in prayer a bit like they’d relate to humans by talking and listening (God being a person with whom such a relationship is possible, albeit a vastly superior sort of person). This gets you into trouble straight away. If, for example, all the people who claim have they such a relationship really did, they would all agree with each other because when the question of what God thought about something arose, they could just ask him. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but the most recent thread was started off when the Christians on uk.r.c told an atheist that he’d misunderstood Christianity by taking it as a set of beliefs, because in fact (you guessed it) “it’s a relationship with God”. I made my usual point that God doesn’t seem to have his story straight when talking to different people. A couple of posters responded that this was a simplistic view of a relationship, and that the things about which Christians disagree on uk.r.c weren’t very important to God. You can see my response to that.

Mark Goodge responded differently, by saying that he’d meant “relationship” in the sense that someone just is someone else’s son or daughter, regardless of how often they actually speak. Christians are God’s adopted children, even if they believe wildly different things.

As I said in my reply, I can see his point (after all, I thought liberals Christians were real Christians when I was an evangelical). But I wonder how that theology works: who is adopted, and how? Is everyone who claims to be a Christian adopted, including the extreme liberals, the Mormons, and so on? It’ll be interesting to see what Mark’s argument is here.

All the responses still leave the question of just how important believing stuff is to God, in the view of these Christians. The Christian church likes to have schisms on the very issues that the uk.r.christians spend a lot of time debating, so it seems these issues are pretty serious. I’ve certainly run into Christians who thought you cannot be an actively gay Christian, a Catholic Christian, a Christian who doesn’t believe that Jesus was God, or a Christian who doesn’t believe that God exists at all. If these things really are important to God, though, you’d have thought he’d tell his children his views. We must conclude that what God considers important is the stuff that everyone who is a Christian agrees on, namely that you should be nice to people, that Jesus was probably a good bloke, and that it’s important to gather with your friends every so often and sing songs (although not with musical accompaniment, obviously: Christians must be like popular 80s beat combo The Flying Pickets). On this basis, I think I could be a Christian after all.

Evangelicals like to quote scary (to them) statistics about how many teenage Christians will “fall away” (Christian jargon for leaving the faith) on going to university, or how many student Christians will no longer be Christians 5 or 10 years later.

P Z Myers over at Pharyngula pointed to a recent press release from US evangelicals who were worried about their teenagers going astray, quoting surveys which said over 50% would fall away at university. It’s not clear who did the surveys, so atheists should probably find that out before joining Myers in jumping for joy. As one of the commenters at Pharyngula says, moral panic is a great way to raise funds for your organisation.

When I was a lad, CICCU liked to quote similarly hopeful surveys about the perseverance of their graduates. In an old post of mine you can see my notes from a leavers’ talk given by the students’ curate at my old church. She quoted a UCCF survey which gave an attrition rate of over 50% after 5 years. It turns out that UCCF have never heard of such a survey. The link to the UCCF web forum where they said this is now defunct (presumably as part of the UCCF’s goal of ruthlessly suppressing open discussion), but you can see what Dave Bish, one of their staff workers, has to say about it. As well as saying there is no such survery, he writes that Christians should be careful of the post-hoc fallacy if they are tempted to blame university Christian Unions for their apostates. After saying that, he replies to a comment saying that someone should get some real statistics (which must include appropriate controls for non-CU Christians, and non-Christians, I think) by saying that such statistics are irrelevant because God has already told us in the Bible what causes people to fall away. Phew! I’m glad we sorted that one out.

Back here in the reality-based community, though, I’d be very interested in the results of such a survey. I know lots of people like me, and another LJer has said that “to say that I keep stumbling upon people with similar experiences is an understatement”. But the plural of anecdote is not data. Such a survey wouldn’t prove anything about the truth or otherwise of Christianity, of course, but that’s not why it’s interesting.

The discussion on Pharyngula turned up something which struck a chord with me. In the past, when talking about other post-university ex-evangelicals, many of whom studied science, I’ve spoken about them as seeing evangelicalism as a spiritual analogue of science. Is it science students that fall into evangelicalism and then fall out again? Perhaps that’s a bit too simple. A commenter on Myer’s posting quotes The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, a free book about the state of politics in the USA. Chapter 4 discusses evangelicalism. The author writes about ex-evangelical apostates, and completely nails it:

What then gnawed away so mercilessly at the apostates that they could no longer overpower doubt with faith?

Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.

The truth will make you free, as someone once said.

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic’s Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers’ arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton’s review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone’s weaker ones (he’s on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins’s gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of “beyond or outside nature”) God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I’d not entirely taken leave of my senses). That’s just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren’t evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle. isn’t very helpful in determining who’s right, since it’s hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between “God is the existential ground of our being” (or Gledhill’s bizarre “God is String Theory”) and “God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky”. I’d be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many people believe in the “existential ground of our being” version of God, because if that’s the strongest version, that’s the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you’d better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don’t make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that’s at least some sort of progress (although if you’re a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you’re basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like “creator” or “person”, which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins’s argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins’s concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman’s understanding of string theory is that it’d actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she’s so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it’s my old one or Rilstone’s author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it’s really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11‘s response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins’s eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife (“Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address”), you’d need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren’t really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That’s where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.

serenasnape linked to an audio file of fun new words to an old favourite hymn. You can hear it here.

The events the song is describing are yet another example of Christians doing the Dawkins’ work for him. Adrian Warnock’s blog contains a good summary, but remembering that UK evangelicalism is a fandom, let’s lay it down the Fandom Wank way (note to Britishers: “wank” is apparently a lot less rude in America, so I hope you will forgive my adoption of their style):

Over on trujesusfans, stevechalke99 posted an entry saying that substitutionary atonement was wrong. He added “OMG! Harry and Hermione, OTP! That bitch Rowling doesn’t know what she’s doing”.

The wank ERUPTED on in the comments, and other Jesus fans were soon linking to stevechalke99‘s posting. Cue DRAMA. stevechalke99 was promptly banninated by thesoundchurch23, who mods UCCF and ciccuspouseparty. MASS DEFRIENDINGS followed a split between members of the pro-chalke springharvest and anti-chalke wordalive (bahleeted, link to Google cache) comms.

Big Name Fan and springharvest mod pluspete was like OMG! CALM DOWN!11!ONE!ELEVEN, but to NO AVAIL, as Bible fans BASHED ONE ANOTHER all over the GODBLOGOSPHERE. cont’d on pages 1054, 1517, 1534, etc. etc. etc.

I hope I’ve conveyed the seriousness with which we must view these debates.

I ought to be careful here, I suppose. It’s not as if atheists never disagree, for example. But what they’re arguing about is, to those involved, a question of the spiritual “rules” of the universe (or rather, the universe + God combo). It’s not a matter of personal opinions or motivations, it’s about absolute truth. And that’s where it all falls down. Each side is vigorously asserting that their view is the truth, but oddly, they can’t seem to demonstrate that in a way which the other side (or someone who just doesn’t care, like me) can agree with, despite the fact that we have two groups who both claim to believe “what the Bible says”.

Their problem is that neither side’s claims have any grounding in reality. Rather, these mass debates are game which each believer plays in his own head (if you’ll pardon the pronoun, males seem far more enthusiastic about this activity than females), imagining the responses of fantasy figures which are most pleasing to him. I’m sure there’s a name for that; it’s just temporarily slipped my mind.

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

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.