cambridge university

Shock and Law | The Tab Cambridge
"The Red Tops are blowing the law exam way out of proportion, says CHRIS ROWLANDS. He’s seen things you can’t even imagine."
(tags: law funny newspapers cambridge-university exam)
National Trust – Nature’s Playground » The Click Design Consultants
I saw these signs in local National Trust places recently: they look like they’re nasty prohibitive ones but they’re actually encouraging you to hug trees and sit on the grass and stuff. A bit twee but fun.
(tags: signs funny national-trust)
The Biggest Challenges to Staying Christian
Peter Enns asks his Christian readers for the biggest challenges to staying Christian, and then tells them to be "trans-rational". Adam Lee comments.
(tags: religion de-conversion christianity atheism peter-enns rationality)

The Fireplace Delusion : Sam Harris
“I recently stumbled upon an example of secular intransigence that may give readers a sense of how religious people feel when their beliefs are criticized. It’s not a perfect analogy, as you will see, but the rigorous research I’ve conducted at dinner parties suggests that it is worth thinking about. We can call the phenomenon “the fireplace delusion.””
(tags: sam-harris wood health psychology fireplace samharris religion)
The Art of Controversy – Schopenhauer
Machiavelli for arguments, illustrated here by someone with a keen knowledge of internet memes.
(tags: trolling controversy schopenhauer philosophy argument logic fallacy)
BBC News – Swiftkey, a scientific start-up
Interesting article about the best predictive keyboard for Android: it’s the product of some Cambridge PhDs who studied natural language proccessing, apparently.
(tags: cambridge university compsci language swiftkey keyboard text SMS android)

Project Euler

“Project Euler is a series of challenging mathematical/computer programming problems that will require more than just mathematical insights to solve. Although mathematics will help you arrive at elegant and efficient methods, the use of a computer and programming skills will be required to solve most problems.”
(tags: puzzles maths mathematics programming)

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: How to replace the School ICT Curriculum

20 GOTO 10

The undeniable fact and its inescapable consequence | Alethian Worldview

“The undeniable fact is this: God does not show up in the real world, not visibly, not audibly, not tangibly, not for you, not for me, not for saint or for sinner or for seeker. … the inescapable consequence is that we have no alternative but to put our faith in men rather than in God. … When men say things on God’s behalf, and make promises that God is supposed to keep, the word they tell you is the word of men, not the word of God. That’s true even if what men say is, “This is the word of God.” They’re not giving you God’s word, they’re giving you man’s word about God’s word (or at least what they claim is God’s word). Sure, you can believe what men tell you about God if you like, but if you do, you are putting your faith in men. Before you can have faith in God, God has to show up, in person, to tell you directly the things He wants you to have faith in. Otherwise it’s just faith in men.”
(tags: deacon-duncan religion atheism)

I Am An Atheist: 16 Things Atheists Need Christians to Know

Some only relevant to Americans, but there are some good general points.
(tags: lists religion christianity atheism)

Atheists face Muslim-led censorship from UCL Union

The atheist society at UCL posted a Jesus and Mo cartoon as the image accompanying their Facebook event. One Muslim objected as the cartoon depicts Mohammed in a pub (what the Muslim was doing looking at the Facebook page for an atheist event isn’t clear). The UCL student union got a complaint from someone and asked them to take it down. They refused. The story got picked up by atheist blogs and Dawkins Our Leader and hence the newspapers. The union backed down though there’s still the vague threat in the air that the atheist soc might be guilty of bullying or harassment.

Hopefully the media attention has put the fear of God into the Union and they won’t be so silly in future. Muslims do not have the right not to be offended.
(tags: richard-dawkins dawkins ucl university censorship religion islam)

Bash Tips for Power Users

I didn’t know about the “fc” command. Nice.
(tags: programming shell unix linux bash)

Twilight: The Use of Sparkle

If Iain M. Banks had written Twilight. Funny, even though I’ve never read/seen any Twilight.
(tags: parody twilight iain-m-banks sf science-fiction sci-fi culture books)

So who is good enough to get into Cambridge? | Education | The Guardian

Guardian reporter sits in on admissions meetings at my old college. Inevitably, the photo with the story is of King’s, because it’s prettier than Churchill.
(tags: churchill cambridge-university university education cambridge)

Fat Acceptance Movement. ||

kuro5hin is still alive: who knew? Anyway, this is a recent Diary entry from HollyHopDrive who discovered a bunch of Fat Acceptance blogs while looking for fitness information. Her division of what she found into stuff she agrees with and bullshit looks sound.
(tags: medicine health fat)

The Americanization of Mental Illness –

The expression of mental illness is cultural: anorexia was more or less introduced to Hong Kong by newspaper articles. A view in which mental illness is caused by brain problems rather than childhood experiences or demons actually makes people less sympathetic to those with mental illness, because they’re perceived as being unfixable.
(tags: anorexia schizophrenia culture science psychiatry psychology)

Colin Marshall talks to economist, blogger and rationalist Robin Hanson

"Robin Hanson is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research associate at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and chief scientist at Consensus Point. He’s also the thinker behind Overcoming Bias, a popular blog about issues of honesty, signaling, disagreement, forecasting and the far future, around which a large rationality-centric community has developed on the internet."
(tags: rationality signalling robin-hanson overcoming-bias economics)

Evangelicals warn: women bishops will ‘put men off ordination’ – Times Online

"They have girl cooties," a spokesman for the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust said today.
(tags: evangelicalism christianity religion women ordination reformed)

Brainboxes, booze and sex – what a fascinating combination – Telegraph

Ah, Newnham. (Though Celia Warden rightly says that the papers are only interested because of "posh girls shagging" angle).
(tags: sex newnham cambridge-university funny)

The talk to CUAAS was surprisingly well attended, given I spoke at the same time as Jo Brand, who I met on my way to the loos (we exchanged nods, as one speaker at the Cambridge Union does to another: it is not the done thing to make much of these things). I’m not sure how many CICCU people turned up, since they didn’t make themselves known to me (apparently one woman was frantically making notes during my sermon, a well known evangelical habit, so I suspect there were a few). I spoke too fast, but people in Cambridge hear fast, so that’s probably OK.

Below, you can find my notes, with some hyperlinks to expand on the things I said.

“The Truth about CICCU”?

  • Not my tabloid headline, blame your committee 🙂
  • No toe-curling tales of secret rituals, alas.
  • In fact, none of this stuff is a secret.
  • But if you’re not a Christian, you might be curious about just what “those people” get up to, and why.
  • And if you’re a here as CICCU person wondering what I’m going to say, you’ll find out some stuff I wish I’d known as a CICCU member.
    • Not just that God isn’t real, either 🙂

Who I am:

  • Came up in 94, Churchill, NatSci (physics) for 4 years.
    • That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date
    • But I had a look at the CICCU website and things sound familiar, so…
  • Lived and worked in Cambridge after that, going to the church I went to as a student.
    • Gradually lost my faith during 2002.
    • Still interested in talking about religion and trying to understand it.
      • As well as taking the mickey occasionally.

How I got in

  • Parents sent me to a church school because of the “ethos”.
  • Followed a friend to Christian Union meetings there.
  • Read the entire New Testament as a sixth former, decided it sounded true.
  • So, I came up Christian already, but didn’t have a church.
  • Went to CU meetings at Churchill because a “Christian Union” sounded like a good thing to be in, just like the ones at school and sixth form were.

What it was like

  • I have my old emails. Everyone should keep theirs. So….
  • Initially, I just went to the college CU meetings, not the central ones in town.
  • College CUs got together, sang songs, prayed, read the Bible.
    • Though CICCU appointed the college reps, the individual CUs were friendlier to non-CICCU Christians than the central meetings.
  • Also got into a “prayer triplet”: meeting up with a couple of other guys to pray for each other and discuss what was often quite personal stuff. Nearest thing to a confessional in the evangelical world.
  • Everyone was friendly but over the course of the first year I began to feel that CICCU weren’t where I was:
    • I had gay friends and I knew CICCU disapproved of homosexuality (though not of being friends with gay people: how else to evangelise?)
  • Prayer triplet wanted me to go to one of the churches in Cambridge and stick with it. I was a bit shy of churches, but started going to St Andrew the Great.
    • St Andrew the Great is one of the churches in Cambridge that gets lots of students.
    • It’s Church of England, but conservative evangelical:
      • Evangelical: not just “in favour of converting people” (though that too): Bible inerrancy, personal response to God, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for sins). See the CICCU Doctrinal Basis.
      • Conservative: not politically (necessarily) but not given to things like speaking in tongues, prophesy in the church and so on. Emphasis on finding what God wants through Bible reading and prayer.
    • I thought StAG was good
      • Preaching was, and is, more interesting than sermons at middle of the road churches
    • But more “fundamentalist” than I was.
      • They’re not fundamentalist really, they’re evangelical, but I wasn’t very theologically sophisticated at that point.

  • Turning point: at the end of the first long vacation, went to CU “House party” in Derbyshire. (Churchill plus a couple of nearby colleges)
    • Mix of God stuff and walking, playing games and stuff.
    • The Bible stuff was impressive: the guest preacher had done a lot of thinking about the book we were reading.
    • The people were also impressive: I wanted to me more like them.
  • Decided to start reading the Bible by myself regularly, and praying.
  • Generally felt more committed to Christianity (and gradually became more evangelical).
  • Started going to the central meetings in town.
    • CICCU is a big name in some Christian circles, so they got people whose books I’d read and who were good speakers.
  • Briefly stopped worrying about how to get women to like me, which is tricky for a first year NatSci.
    • Then started worrying about how to get Christian women to like me.
  • Someone obviously noticed I’d got serious, because I was asked to lead Bible studies for my college’s CU in my third year.
    • Met other UCCF staff worker and study leaders to study the passage ourselves, went back to college and lead the group.
    • The “right answers” from the UCCF guy tend to win out because it’s hard to get anyone else to say anything at all (they’re shy), not because no other answers were tolerated.
  • CICCU missions
    • Happen in Lent term.
    • There’s a mini-mission on off years, and a big one every 3 years so every undergrad gets at least one big one.
    • Have always caused a bit of controversy, some years more than others.
    • Usually someone says something stupid about gay people, or someone gets offended by finding a gospel in their pigeon hole.
      • Handing out copies of a gospel to your friends is incredibly nerve wracking. Personally I don’t see the need to get offended by that: it’s a free book.
      • On the other hand, as an atheist I’d press them on the stuff about gays as hard as possible: it’s not nice (unlike the “permanently nice” image Christians have), and it’s not even what all Christians think. I get the impression a lot of evangelicals are secretly embarrassed about it.
    • I dragged friends to a few of the events, but none of them converted, fortunately.
  • Strategy varies: either “gospel is magic” or trying to look at “worldviews” (one CICCU mission when I was an undergrad was even called Paradigm Shift).
    • CICCUs current web pages suggest “gospel is magic” is fashionable again. Also, flares are in this season.
    • Note that Christians who believe Romans 1 often think that philosophical or theological arguments are a smoke screen for people who don’t want to admit that God exists and they should worship him.

  • Summer holiday camps
    • Run by Christian organisations, for churchy kids and friends.
    • Usually sort of activity holiday combined with telling the kids about God stuff.
    • Practically compulsory for CICCU members (“strongly encouraged”).
    • I found a programming/electronics one called LiveWires, which was great.
      • Not at all like “Jesus Camp”, if you’ve seen the film.

How it felt.

  • It can’t be all bad, or no-one would do it, right?
  • It feels good to be part of a group dedicated to what you think is a worthy cause.
    • To the extent that Christians evangelise, they’re acting in your interests, according to their beliefs.
  • Christians are not all stupid (just mistaken). CICCU’s brand of Christianity was intellectually satisfying (but closed, of which more later).
    • Seriously studying the Bible turns out to be interesting.
    • Being taught by big names at the top of their game, likewise.
    • CICCU’s version of inerrancy allows some parts of the Bible to be myth (in the technical sense) rather than reportage.
      • Did not require you to be a young earth creationist. I was a theistic evolutionist.
  • A lot of worries about whether you’re doing enough/your best.
    • The evangelical anthropology is deeply pessimistic about human nature.
    • You can find forgiveness, but only by admitting you’re basically bad.
    • Christians always think everyone else around them is a better Christian (or at least, I did).
  • Tension between piety and worldliness.
    • It would be possible to spend your entire social life doing Christian stuff (CICCU explicitly told us not to: how else to evangelise?).
    • Whether/how much to drink.
    • Fuss about trivia: Halloween formals.
    • Guilt about sex, inside and outside relationships.
      • Relationships with non-Christians are a big no-no, but people do it (usually the Christian women, much to my annoyance).
  • These are people trying to find their way in the world.
    • “Strident” pronouncements may hide insecurity.
      • Though sometimes people really mean them, so it’s best to engage with the arguments.
  • Most Christians doubt.
    • But exercise “faith” in the sense of “trust” in a person.
    • “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Why I got out

  • Real life comes as a shock for many student Christians. CICCU/StAG knows this. To graduands, they say:
    • Many of you will “fall away”. (Possibly apocryphal) UCCF surveys give numbers like 50% after 5 years. So…
    • Get into a “church where the Bible is taught”.
    • Don’t get into relationships with non-Christians.
  • Of course, I stayed at StAG and got into a relationship with a Christian woman.
  • But CICCU had taught me that the most important thing was whether Christianity was true, and I slowly became convinced that it wasn’t.
  • Christianity rests on facts: “facts, faith, feelings”
  • The truth shouldn’t depend on who you’re with.
    • Why is it that so many Christians give up if Christianity is so obviously true?
    • “The devil made me do it”: is he stronger than God?
    • Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, chapter 4:

      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.” [Is this sounding familiar?] 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.

  • Here are my reasons. There are others, but these are the ones that did for me:

  • Evangelical morality is sensible in some places and horrible in others.
    • obvious: homosexuality
    • less obvious: anthropology that says everyone’s really bad and deserves Hell.

  • Is God really good? The OT is a problem, the NT perhaps (surprisingly) more so:

    “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.” – A. A. Milne.

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”‘ or merely slapping his side & chortling “God, isn’t God a shit!” – Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. “Randolph” is Randolph Churchill.

    • Evangelicals think the OT massacres are history, and that the Bible accurately records God commanding them, and even telling Israelites off for not finishing the job properly.
    • The other nations around Israel were brutal too, but can an omnipotent God do no better than to have armies slaughter men women and children?
    • The NT is popularly seen as fluffier, but Jesus talks a lot about Hell, as does Paul. As for the book of Revelation…
      • Some respected evangelicals (John Stott) believe that non-believers will be destroyed rather than punished eternally.
      • Some (C.S. Lewis) have adopted a Buddhist idea where “the doors of hell are barred from the inside”. But this seems to conflict with the judicial model of substitutionary atonement. Does God judge us or not?
      • If you push evangelicals, they’ll tell you you’re going to hell, though they might fall back on one of these ideas.
      • Hell makes God seem vindictive (since failing to worship him is the biggest sin), arbitrary (since some people get better evidence than others), and incompetent (since he relies on fallible humans, who do a bad job of evangelism).
  • Problem of suffering
    • Freedom of action is a good thing, but we all recognise limits.
    • Some suffering just seems gratuitous: diseases, natural disasters.
    • Christians don’t have any good answers, they just have a “possibly, therefore probably” argument: God could possibly have a reason, and that’ll do for us.
  • How do I know what’s good without God? Well, how do you know with God (Christians disagree, as do other theists)?
    • Everyone has the problem of where you start from when deciding what is moral, and this includes Christians, whatever they may tell you. Unnecessary suffering seems pretty bad to most people.
    • Assume C.S. Lewis is right and that our moral sense somehow does come from God. But we think it is immoral not to lift a finger to help someone, especially when doing so would have little or no cost to us. Contradiction: either Lewis is wrong, or God isn’t good.

  • Where’s God?
  • Conservative evangelicalism tells you not to expect too many supernatural experiences, the Bible is sufficient.
    • But why not? Can argue about “free will”, but does God care less for your salvation than for the Apostle Paul’s?
  • Evangelicals hate the term “religion” to be applied to their beliefs. True (that is, evangelical) Christianity is a relationship with God, not a religion (by which evangelicals mean “empty rituals trying to earn God’s favour”).
    • But this “relationship” is odd. One party doesn’t talk much, and when he does, the people he’s talked to disagree radically about what he said. As Carrier says, this is not what we’d expect if God really wanted a relationship with us.
    • “Free will” doesn’t work here: Christians actively want some communication from God (especially in the painful throes of doubt).

  • In the end, during an on-line debate with another Christian about some point on the Bible, I realised we were debating about a book, and God either wasn’t there or didn’t care. I stopped going to church in early 2002.
  • It took me over a year to get from there to the point where I’d call myself an atheist.
    • Leaving is hard: sometimes you still want there to be a God.
    • You have told friends you’re a Christian.
    • You’ve even got Christian friends. And girlfriends…
      • That relationship didn’t last (partly because my faith was waning), and when it was over, I realised there was nothing keeping me from admitting my position any more.
  • So here I am.

What I wish I’d known

  • Some of this stuff is blindingly obvious now, and yet…

  • I got in because I read the NT and it sort of made sense to me, so:
    • Don’t believe everything you read.
    • Ask yourself why you feel something is right.
    • The NT has pretty good manuscripts. Most variations are insignificant, but the mere fact of variations ought to give inerrantists pause (see Bart Ehrman‘s books), plus some stuff does seem important: the earliest gospel account of the Resurrection is textually doubtful.
    • Even if a book describes some things accurately, it has not necessarily got all of them right.
    • Evangelicals like to accuse non-Christians of treating the Bible differently from other ancient literature. Herodotus writes history and has dragons in it. Should be believe in dragons?
    • Evangelicals like to say that the origins of Christianity are best explained by the Resurrection, so we cannot treat such accounts differently from other history without begging the question (that is, assuming what we want to prove, namely, that there was no Resurrection). Lessing and the ugly broad ditch:

      “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

      This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.”

    • In fact, evangelicals have not explained why we should treat the Resurrection stories as true if we don’t also accept better attested miracle claims. (Fatima miracle of the Sun, 1917, accompanied by visions of Mary: should we become Catholics?).
  • I got further in because evangelicals had an impressive system for interpreting the Bible.
    • This method seems completely obvious to evangelicals. You probably won’t have much luck convincing them otherwise.
    • Satisfying but closed:
    • Evangelical Bible overviews (such as the one I taught) assume a unity in the Bible. This glosses over a lot of differences.
      • See liberal Christians or Ehrman again.
    • It’s anachronistic:
      • Not the way the church was doing it for many years (allegorical interpretation, see Karen Armstrong, despite her bad rep among atheists). When did true Christianity start again?
      • Not the way the NT writers interpret the OT (see Peter Enns).
    • It’s always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the outside.
      • But it forces you to adopt some twisted interpretations. It’s ironic that people with so much reverence for the Bible end up doing it so much violence.
  • I stayed in because I thought it was right to trust God, that such trust was a virtue.
    • But this transplants our intuition that we should trust friends onto someone whose very existence is in question.
    • We should not change our minds for bad reasons. If we’re depressed, it may look as if God’s not there, and if we’re happy, we may think he is. But…
    • We change our minds less often than we think, because we see ourselves as fighting for our chosen side (atheists are not immune to this). Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

    • Yudkowsky is good. Read his stuff.
  • I stayed in because I didn’t know what was outside.
    • People who aren’t your friends if you leave weren’t your friends anyway.
      • Not that this is necessarily a failing on their part: we all have acquaintances we wouldn’t see if we didn’t do some particular activity.
    • Your world does not collapse into chaos if you leave.
      • Unless you’re prepared to really work at it by being stupid. So don’t do that then.
    • If there isn’t a God, then this, here, now, is what a world without a God looks like. Eugene Gendlin:

      What is true is already so.
      Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
      Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
      And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
      Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
      People can stand what is true,
      for they are already enduring it.

There was a question and answer session afterwards. I remember some questions along the lines of:<lj-cut>

Why didn’t you realise it was nonsense, you’re a scientist? What about carbon dating?

I wasn’t a young earth creationist, and neither the CU nor my church said I should be. In fact, YEC and ID weren’t particularly popular among Cambridge evangelicals back then (though some people did believe them). I don’t know whether British evangelicalism has changed under the influence of America in recent years.

The problem is not so much that intelligent Christians directly contradict science, but that they make up additions which aren’t backed by evidence.

Was it OK to have doubts as a CICCU person?

Yes. Churches and CUs expect it, things like prayer triplets provide an environment where such doubts can be expresssed. What they don’t really expect is for people to doubt successfully. At the end of it all, they should still come out an evangelical.

What’s the disagreement I’ve noticed between CICCU and college chapels?

It’s historical: CICCU got very evangelical in response to the SCM’s liberalism. College chaplains didn’t like CICCU because of demarcation. Still, it depends on who’s running the college CICCU group and who’s running the chapel that year: sometimes they get along just fine.

Would you agree now that Christianity isn’t intellectually satisfying?

Yes and no. Yes: borrowing from Kuhn again, evangelical Christianity is a paradigm in which it’s possible to get useful things done, according to the paradigm’s ideas of what is useful. Those things are satisfying: learning more about the Bible is intellectually satisfying, seeing people become Christians is emotionally satisfying, and so on.

No: because I wasn’t satisfied, and I’ve yet to be convinced that any Christian arguments hold up. (My questioner said he’d kept going to CICCU talks thinking this time he’d hear a good argument. I think I rashly praised Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, which caused a bit of a stir: maybe there weren’t that many CICCU people there after all).

On Craig: has someone won a debate if they’re wrong?

You can admit Craig wins debates without thereby being compelled to become a Christian. His opponents aren’t wrong (IMHO), they just fail to make their case (usually). As scribb1e said later, you don’t call something a proof in mathematics if it’s invalid, even if the result turns out to be true. Arguments are not soldiers, again.

Consider yourself lucky you got out so young. Do you feel relieved? Do you miss it?

I miss aspects of it: the working towards a common cause already mentioned; the singing; the feeling that everything’s under control. But yes, I was very relieved not to have to struggle any more with it. I think I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about stuff which wasn’t worth worrying about. I’d hate anyone else to do the same: hence the web page.

Thanks to CUAAS for inviting me and giving me pizza. I had fun, and I hope my listeners did too.

Edited: Rave reviews continue to pour in. Well, William liked it, anyway, and has some observations on “atheist societies” to boot.

I’m giving a talk to the Cambridge University Atheist and Agnostic Society tomorrow, Monday 19th October, at 7.30 pm in the Union Society building (the one behind the Round Church). Apparently it’s £1 for non-members, a bargain if ever I saw one.

I’ll cover some of the ground covered by my Losing My Religion essay, with a bit more of a Cambridge focus. I think they’re hoping for some dark secrets about CICCU, which is unfortunate, because as far as I know there aren’t any (anyone who knows different is invited to leave a comment below), but I’ll do my best.

Edited: I’ve blogged my notes and what I remember of the Q&A after the talk.

livredor did a post on getting into Oxford, inspired by j4‘s original posting. It’s almost a meme. So, here goes. Contains a picture of an 18 year old pw201, so cut for decency 🙂

Portrait of the artist as a young man

The artist as a young manI was bright and incredibly geeky at secondary school (that’s school for 11 to 16 year olds). I went to St Bede’s, a church school. This wasn’t because my family are particularly religious, but because I was ill at around age 11 and they wanted me to go somewhere with a good reputation for pastoral care, and wanted a school which was smaller than the local comprehensive. St Bede’s didn’t have a Sixth Form (that’s the optional bit of school for 16 to 18 year olds, which is sometimes provided by the same place that does 11-16, sometimes not), but after some to-ing and fro-ing, I got a place at Hills Road Sixth Form College.

At the time, Hills Road had a reputation for being one of the more academic schools in Cambridge. In retrospect, the environment was a bridge to university: the pupils had chosen to be there and were pretty bright, there was no school uniform or, thank God, compulsory Physical Education lessons, and a lot of the lessons were fairly traditional chalk-and-talk affairs, a bit like lectures.

I loved the place. I took A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and an AS level in Further Maths. The lessons were taught by university graduates in the subjects, often with PhDs. I enjoyed my subjects (although I started to get a bit bored of Chemistry later on) and responded to the enthusiasm of the teachers. In particular, Dr M, the physics teacher, had a great way of explaining stuff and made the subject enjoyable. I began to consider studying physics at university.

Hills Road had a good library, and I spent a lot of time reading books, stuff like Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, as well as the print version of the New Hacker’s Dictionary. The latter introduced me to the idea that there were other people who found doing stuff with computers fun, and in fact, there was a whole culture associated with it. It wasn’t quite enough to sway me from physics, but it did show me I wasn’t alone.

Wondering where to go

I suppose I started to consider Cambridge after my teachers saw my results from the mock exams we did at the end of the first year and told me I should 🙂 For a state school, Hills Road sent a lot of people to Oxbridge, and they were well set up to provide the coaching for the entrance exams. Being fundamentally lazy (one of the virtues of a programmer), I thought I’d like to continue to study in Cambridge (we didn’t live in Cambridge, so I wouldn’t be on my parents’ doorstep), and that I didn’t really want to do any more exams than I had to. There was the business of picking a college, but Churchill seemed like a good idea: it was modern (so undergraduates could walk on the grass and didn’t wear gowns for meals), it focused on science and engineering (so there’d be lots of people to talk to about that, I thought), it was close to the Cavendish, and it didn’t use the STEP exam, only A Level results and interviews, to offer places.

I went to open days for other places, which occasionally involved a chat with the faculty, but it wasn’t much like an interview. Southampton gave me a two E offer (lots of universities would do that to Oxbridge applicants, hoping to catch someone good if they missed their A level grades), but I liked the look of York, so that was my second choice after Cambridge. I have vague memories of an open day at Churchill, but stronger ones of the interview, later.


Oxford and Cambridge were, and are, two of the few universities in the UK which interview applicants, rather than reading their personal statements on the centralised application form. Like everything else about Oxbridge, there were legends about the interview: the rugby ball thrown from behind the door, the interviewer who looked over his newspaper and said “Do something interesting” (the candidate set light to it), the quirky questions, slightly crazy dons, and so on. I was a little bit nervous.

There were two interviews in the course of the day, as well as lunch with actual students. The first interview was for your subject, the second was more of what, if it were a job interview, would have been the HR interview. I don’t recall much about lunch with the other candidates: as I was reasonably local I didn’t stay in college, so I didn’t meet many of them.

Dr G did the subject interview, which I actually recall enjoying. There were some questions on orbits and gravity, which went OK. Then he pulled out a Crookes radiometer and asked me whether I’d seen it before (which I hadn’t). So he shone a light on it and asked how it worked. Better than that, he asked me to ask him about it, as part of working it out. So I asked whether it works if the bulb is completely evacuated and he said “no”, so it’s not light pressure (which is actually far too small an effect, it turns out), and I noticed the vanes are dark on one side and light on the other, and so it went, until I got to the standard, not quite right, explanation. We talked about the Penrose book a bit, too.

I remember nothing of the other interview, with the college’s admissions tutor, other than that he asked what I’d say to convince him of my enthusiasm for physics, and didn’t seem that impressed that I’d read a few books. He can’t have been completely unimpressed, I suppose.

A little later a letter turned up informing me a had a place at Churchill, conditional on three grade A’s at A level. When the A Level results came out that summer, I knew I was off to Cambridge. I remember having some misgivings about it. Like many of the big transitions which for which we get some prior warning, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like on the other side. Still, I was hardly going to back out now.


Hepworth, by wikipedia user DmnMy memories of the first term involve being tired and cold and a little lost. Cold because the first years got the rooms which nobody else wanted, so mine wasn’t particularly warm.

Tired because the programme for first year Natural Sciences students was punishing: lectures typically started at 9 am (including Saturdays), and they’d be followed in the afternoon by laboratory teaching. Supervisions and doing problem sheets in preparation for them fitted in around this, maybe a spare afternoon or evening. Lectures weren’t compulsory, but unlike the arts subjects, in Natural Sciences they more or less covered the exam syllabus for that year, so they seemed like the best way of learning the material.

Lost because for the first time I was a small fish in a big pond. I wasn’t the best by a long shot, sometimes I felt I was struggling to keep up. Most of my friends had been to state schools, but some people on the course had done more maths than me (vital for physicists), and some had further tuition from their private schools.

Most of my reasons for choosing Churchill turned out to be mistaken. Being near to the Cavendish wasn’t helpful, as the lectures were in the centre of Cambridge that year (it came into its own in the third year, where the lectures were at the lab). Few people at Churchill wanted to talk shop in the precious moments when we weren’t actively engaged in our courses. In my group of friends, we’d start an earnest parody of a customer/shopkeeper conversation if one of our number started doing it: “Hello Sir, What Can I Do For You?” “I’d Like A Pound Of Apples Please” “Certainly, Sir” etc. (this sort of thing partly explained why we found it so hard to meet girls, I suspect, the more important reason being that there weren’t that many of them at Churchill, a side effect of the science/engineering bias I’d not considered). I did like the informality of the place, but I envied the sheer Hogwartsness of the older colleges in the summer, as we punted by them on the river. Still, at least at Churchill we didn’t have to go across a freezing quad to go to the loo.

Things started looking better in the Christmas vacation (Cambridge, like America, refers to time away as a vacation). We’d been given past exam papers to do, and to my surprise, I discovered that with enough sleep and free from the stress of the NatSci schedule, I could do them. I returned with renewed confidence that they probably were right to let me in after all.

The improving weather lifted my mood and made Churchill’s overwhelmingly brown architecture look less grim. At these times, even Christians find their thoughts turning to women in floral print dresses. Previously, we’d tended to socialise in a largely male group of Churchillians, going to the Union Society (where I first heard Richard Dawkins speak) or to my friend PJR’s room, as he tended to accumulate the latest and greatest music and video (I remember a couple of examples: my envy that he had a laser disc player that took discs the size of LPs; and my initial scepticism when he said he was a fan of Kylie Minogue, as I’d not realised that she’d just re-invented herself). One day, though, my friend APW recommended ballroom dancing in no uncertain terms: “You get to hold women”, he said. The rest is history.

Summing up and application

For me, getting in to Cambridge was an illustration of what the very best of the UK’s state school system can do for you. Hills Road was so good that I knew people who’d come there out of the private school livredor went to, their parents presumably calculating that there was no point paying for something they might get for free. I was also lucky in having parents who could help financially. This was in the era after grants, when you needed a loan to live on (I left in debt, but not as much as I would have otherwise).

I was aware of people there who matched the upper-class twit stereotype, but as a scientist in an out-of-town, brown-brick college, they didn’t have much to do with me. I met a mix of people. I was lectured by some people I’d heard of. Most importantly, I found a niche outside of my college and subject, which is an important trick for staying sane (a couple of niches, in fact, the Christian Union and the dancers). Cambridge is huge and full of bright people, some a little shy or strange, trying to make a place where they fit. I am sure there are people who don’t find a such a place, but from my experience, you’d have to try quite hard.

I can never quite work out whether the Grauniad is trolling for advertising clicks, a bit like those people who publish those “Linux sux, Microsoft rulez” articles in the hope of being picked up by Slashdot. The Dawkins blog linked to this piece on religion and secularism recently. One particularly choice quote:

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England.”

I mean, what? Writing a book or being rude about religion is apparently in some way equivalent to blowing up commuters. One of the Drink-soaked Trots has already delivered an excellent rebuttal (don’t miss the discussion of what HL Mencken really said about religion). Dawkins also addresses the question of whether he deserves to be called a fundamentalist in The God Delusion. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that he doesn’t, but his reasoning is that a fundamentalist is not merely someone who’s a passionate advocate of a particular idea, but rather, someone who clings to that idea come what may. I’m not a fundamentalist, says Dawkins, because I’m very clear about what would change my mind (fossil rabbits in the precambrian, presumably). A fundamentalist is someone who will not change their mind and cannot change the subject.

But wait, there’s more, this time from Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London:

“If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow.”

Stuart Jeffries’s article says that the goal of secularists is the exclusion of religion and religious people from the public sphere. That’s not the feeling I get from reading the latest slew of books cheering for atheism. Rather, I think secularists are tired of seeing the statements of the religious taken with more weight simply because they are religious. Or, as Bishop Chartres (and Azzim Tamimi, also quoted) remind us, because of what the religious might do if they don’t get their way.

Another way of spotting the true fundamentalists is that they really don’t like humour, as one particular privilege that fundamentalist religion likes to claim for itself is the right never to be offended. If any of you happen to be alumni of Clare College, and, having had a nice phone call from a current student, you are donating to the college via a standing order or similar, I urge you to cancel the order, and tell them why.

Edited: added the link to the rebuttal.

I’ve been listening to more of those CICCU talks.

Tues 13th Loving God, Broken World: Has God Lost Control?

Bloody theodicy, as some on my friends list might say. Simon Scott approaches the issue of suffering sensitively, as one who has experienced it himself (an illness 7 years ago, he says: I think I remember praying for him at church. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but his description of makes it sound awful).

His points are familiar to anyone who’s looked into Christian responses to the Problem of Evil. God created a good world, but human disobedience made it go wrong. God is absolved of blame for this, even natural disasters are somehow our fault (perhaps, like Mr Deity, God was worried it’d be too easy to believe in him otherwise). Perhaps intentionally, given Scott’s audience, it’s not clear whether he’s advocating creationism. It’s possible to read the Genesis story as applying to Everyman and Everywoman, but hard to see how that interpretation has the cosmological implications that Scott outlines: once the entire world was good, now it is fallen, even in the impersonal, non-human parts. I was a theistic evolutionist once, and it involved a lot of hand-waving.

So, the world has gone bad. But, says Scott, God will fix this (unfortunately, not for everyone, as some people will go to Hell). We might call that pie in the sky when you die and wish for a better world now, but we shouldn’t. After all, if God were to judge sin now, where would he stop? The implication is, as usual, that everyone is guilty, and we’d better be careful when we wish for divine intervention, as we may get it.

This argument fails because it assumes that God’s way of making the world better would be to obliterate everything that displeases him. I can think of more subtle ways of doing it than that. It’s odd that God apparently can’t.

Scott acknowledges that his explanation is incomplete, but implies it’s best not worry why that is, just ensure that you aren’t excluded from the perfect world which will be re-created at the end of time. He tells a parable of a cyclist hit by a bus (this is Cambridge, after all), and a passerby who gives a precise explanation of his body’s pain response rather than helping him to a hospital. There’s certainly a pragmatism to this, which echoes the Buddhist story of Malunkyaputta and the man shot by an arrow: it’s pointless to tell someone who is suffering about eternal verities rather than how to end their suffering. That said, there’s no suggestion in Malunkyaputta’s story that the world is watched by someone who could intervene, but chooses not to. In the meantime, Christians had better not pass by on the other side, but God is at liberty to do so.

Wed 14th Jesus Asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8v29)
The Profit Motive in Religion

After a good start in which he advises Christians to read The God Delusion and atheists to read Alister McGrath, Phillip Jensen plays religion’s trump card. You’re all going to die, he says, and what are you going to do then?

We’ve all woken at 4 am and realised we shall one day die (unless that’s just me and Larkin). Religion deals in the certainties we want when uncertainty is too terrible. Speaking of creationism, I often see Christians who pounce on any scientific uncertainty, eager to pull God out of the gap. This is a different degree of seriousness. We needn’t face where we came from, but we must all face where we’re going.

I’d call it a trick, except I don’t doubt the sincerity of Jensen’s pleas not to let worldly distractions keep us from eternal life. Still, again, how can they? Who would turn down such a thing, if they woke after their own death to find it on offer? The trick belongs to religions themselves, not consciously to their adherents. It is that we’re told we must act before death, and each religion claims that their way is the way to get there, other ways being uncertain at worst and a broad road to hell at worst. Even if we wanted to take up Pascal’s wager, where shall we place our stake? Again, it’s odd that Jensen’s God hasn’t thought of universalism, but rather, insists on the eternal torture or final obliteration of everyone who bet wrong.

This year’s CICCU convert-a-thon is called Cross Examined. Stalkerbook tells me it’s happening this week. The talks are available online (as Windows Media files, alas, CICCU having made a pact with the Beast). They are given by Simon Scott, who used to preach at my old church (and who marnanel will no doubt remember for his habit of starting sermons with quotations from pop songs), and by Phillip Jensen, perhaps best known for his views on the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Never being one to pass up an opportunity like this, I listened to some of talks they’ve given so far. Here are some brief notes on what they said:

Wed 07th Faith and Reason: Does God Want Me to Lose My Mind?

Scott gives a lunchtime talk on whether Christianity is reasonable.

He talks of reasonable assumptions, but leaps from assuming that a chair will hold you or that CICCU won’t poison you to the reasonableness of believing in supernatural stuff, bypassing considerations of the magnitude of Christianity’s claims.

Many atheists do not assert that God definitely does not exist. Quotes Dawkins but either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood the point of The God Delusion, namely that it’s about the balance of evidence.

Like many evangelicals, he asserts that there is sufficient evidence and that people don’t believe because they don’t want to, assuming bad faith on the part of anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him.

He defines the coming of Jesus as an events which is unique, so that we should not expect to see God again today. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t address why God isn’t more obvious even if Jesus isn’t still around. Alongside his admission that you can’t see God today, he does say that there are intelligent people on both sides of the God debate, which seems to leave him open to the Argument from Reasonable Non-belief.

Thurs 08th Christianity: Intolerant, Arrogant . . . True?

Scott talks a lot of sense about the sort of cartoon relativism which only liberal arts academics seriously believe. It’s not clear why he thinks this is an argument in favour of Christianity. I think it’s the same sort of false dichotomy that Jensen also perpetrates (see below). Christianity or moral chaos! Choose now! Banzai!

Gently brings up the delicate subject of hell (evangelicals had more gumption in the good old days). Doesn’t quite address why the God who we can trust not want to hurt us is also the danger we face. I’ve written about Hell before: go read that.

Mon 12th Jesus Asked, “Are you so dull?” (Mark 7v18) The Source of Immorality and Corruption Exposed

Jensen does the Total Depravity Roadshow: I’m not OK, you’re not OK either.

False dichotomies all over the place: either accept that people are naturally good, or become a Christian. Accept moral chaos, or become a Christian.

Dawkins is, according to Jensen’s quote, naive about human nature, but Pinker (another atheist) isn’t. This is significant, somehow (unless all atheists agree, they’re wrong?)

When we disagree with the Bible, we disagree with God, apparently.

Roy Hattersley’s Grauniad article is his best point, but even this never actually addresses whether Christianity is true. Is it right to encourage people to believe it merely because it might make them better? Does it, in fact, make them better, I wonder? It probably gives them a certain kind of structure which is sadly lacking in many people today, it seems, but I bet if they became Humanists, Muslims or Buddhists, or merely had managed to get some sort of education from their parents or their school, they’d be nicer too.


Lots of contemporary relevance (Harry Potter is taking it a bit too far, I think). Reasonable explanation of what evangelicals think. It’ll be interesting to see where Jensen goes with it, but neither of them are very good at saying why one should believe something. Perhaps the approved technique in evangelism these days is just to lay out your stall and hope it clicks with where someone is at the moment.

More soon, no doubt 🙂