Link blog: election, politics, uk, liberal

Why We Haven’t Met Any Aliens § SEEDMAGAZINE.COM

They're too busy playing computer games. Wasn't that the explanation in Charles Stross's "Accelerando", too?
(tags: evolution aliens alien fermi science psychology space future)

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: If I could lead the cat herd

"I were leading the cat herd, I'd like to stress that the problem isn't so much religion in itself, or even the Abrahamic tradition in itself. It is, first, the many deplorable elements – the apocalypticism, totalitarianism, sexist, puritanism, intolerance, etc. – that are so prevalent in the Abrahamic holy books and traditions. But it is not every single element of those traditions."
(tags: religion karen-armstrong russell-blackford sam-harris)

HOSTAGES RESCUED BY COURAGEOUS RACIST The First-Person Observer:

“He threw one grenade but dropped, like, twenty N-Bombs". Via Metafilter.
(tags: humour games first-person fps counterstrike racism)

We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!

A long shot, but you never know, I suppose…
(tags: politics election liberal liberal-democrats uk funny)

Facebook | I Blame Monotheism For The Earthquakes, Volcanoes And Global Climate Change

The old gods are not amused!
(tags: religion earthquake volcano climate cthulhu quetzalcoatl)

Commons library research note on hung parliaments

or "How Hung Parliaments Work". Via Ben Goldacre.
(tags: government law politics research uk election parliament system:filetype:pdf system:media:document)

Link blog: religion, funny, science, atheism

The Punchtape Letters

"My Dear Malware,

Thank you for your latest news. I agree that your bombarding of on-line programming sites with questions about “cascading style sheets” (whatever they may be) and “rounded corners” (as if anyone cared) will irritate and annoy a certain number (possibly even a large number) of programmers, but it seems a lot of effort to go to."
(tags: funny programming computers c.s.-lewis parody screwtape c++)

Creating God in one’s own image

Research in the psychology of religion shows that people tend to think God thinks what they think: "People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."
(tags: religion psychology science politics god morality)

Atheism: Proving The Negative: Encyclopedia Entry: Atheism

Matt McCormick's draft of an encyclopedia entry on various arguments for and against atheism.
(tags: atheism religion matt-mccormick theodicy design kalam)

In the Pipeline: Things I Won’t Work With

Derek Lowe, a medicinal chemist, has a section of his blog on the subject of really nasty chemicals. Light hearted yet terrifying.
(tags: science funny humour smell chemistry dangerous explosives)

Troy Jollimore on Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’ – Book Review

"Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient."
(tags: religion philosophy atheism karen-armstrong apophatic christianity)

Link blog: religion, science, politics, christianity

How to Think About Science

Metafilter links to a bunch of podcasts from modern historians and philosophers of science. I've linked to Mefi rather than the podcasts as there are some interesting comments from valkyryn in the thread, on what Shapin and Schaffer were saying about the role of trust in the scientific community.
(tags: audio science metafilter history philosophy)

The late, mannerist years of identity politics

"I am X, and I am different from Y. Other people are ignorant of the difference between X and Y. They must be educated. People, you must call me X and respect my difference from yourself, and from Y. You must refer to me by the term I have chosen to refer to myself by, and stay tuned for any changes I choose to make in this label, and new terms you must use to describe me — those new terms which the stigma treadmill or reclamation of previously-taboo terms may, from time to time, make it necessary for me to substitute."
(tags: identity politics gender feminism transexualism)

A gay witch hunt in Uganda

Andrew Brown: "A bill currently before the Ugandan parliament (pdf) proposes seven year prison sentences for discussing homosexuality; life imprisonment for homosexual acts; and death for a second offence. Sober observers believe it will be passed. The Anglican church in Uganda appears to support it, and the Church of England in this country is absolutely silent."
(tags: homosexuality morality anglicanism religion christianity sex uganda john-sentamu sentamu)

Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name

Christian commenter on Unreasonable Faith: "All ex-Christians are in league with Satan and are fully aware of it, don’t let yourselves be fooled into believing otherwise." Bugger, I've been rumbled. Time to buy a red cape…
(tags: atheism ex-christian de-conversion satan lolxians christianity religion)

Because As We All Know, The Green Party Runs the World.

Peter Watts on the email leaks from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. "That’s how science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby."
(tags: global-warming climate science peter-watts politics environment email leak)

Richard Norman – Beyond belief

Richard Norman on the "New Believers": Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong and such like, the people who say religion is not remotely about believing stuff. "I cannot see how, in the end, a distinctive religious identity can be possible unless it is based on the acceptance of at least some non-metaphorical factual beliefs – beliefs about the existence of a personal deity and about how his intentions and purposes explain our world. Those beliefs do, inescapably, need to be rationally defended. And they can’t be. On that point, certainly, Dawkins is right."
(tags: richard-norman belief religion karen-armstrong terry-eagleton eagleton richard-dawkins)

‘The Evolution of Confusion’ by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009

Dennett on his project to interview clergy who no longer believe but are closeted (Dennett explicitly makes the analogy with gay people in the 1950s), on "deepities" in theology (interestingly, he rejects criticisms that other 3 horsemen don't know enough theology or philosophy), and on how we needn't suppose some people sat down and conspired to make up religions.
(tags: religion video dennett evolution daniel-dennett theology memes deepity)

The Daily Mash – CLIMATE CHANGE EMAILS STOP GLACIERS FROM MELTING

"This is the smoking iceberg that fires a polar bear of truth between the eyes of hysteria and communism."
(tags: funny climate environment satire global-warming science)

Textual criticism

I mentioned Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus in my response to nlj21‘s complaint that Karen Armstrong does not provide a source for her claim that the Apostle Paul didn’t write the Pastoral Epistles.

I re-read the book while we were on holiday recently. I’d recommend it, despite the rather sensationalist cover advertising (“OMG the King James Version’s text is bollox, sorry, ‘corrupted and inferior'”: we all knew that, right?), as a lucid introduction to New Testament textual criticism. Luckily, if you’re too cheap to buy it, there’s a video of a lecture covering the book’s key points, available from Google. Ehrman’s an engaging speaker. His responses to questions at the end are particularly good (especially the one from the bloke who’s clearly read Elvis Shot Kennedy: Freemasonry’s Hidden Agenda and therefore “knows” that Jesus spent a lot of time travelling round India before marrying Mary Magdalene).

Ehrman’s another ex-evangelical, who now describes himself as an agnostic. The Washington Post article on him attributes his loss of faith to textual problems (Erhman started out as an inerrantist, a position he found untenable as he studied the NT texts) and the problem of suffering.

On suffering, if, like me, you’re a fan of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright and of Ehrman, you’ll probably enjoy their blog debate on the Problem of Evil.

On the Biblical text, people can and do dispute Ehrman’s claims. This review on Ben Witherington’s blog has some good comments from both sides of the debate (if anyone does speak Greek, I’d be interested in whether the grammar of Matthew 28:19 does imply that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one person as Ben says). Some of the Bible’s defenders are at pains to point out that one can still believe even knowing that the Bible is a very human document which records religious experiences (some of them wouldn’t say that, of course, and defend something like inerrancy). But Dan Barker’s comment evokes the sort of feeling I can imagine Ehrman having as his inerrantist beliefs collapsed, that is, the feeling that he’d been lied to by his evangelical teachers.

There are other good reasons for thinking evangelicalism is probably incorrect, namely that it’s an extra-biblical tradition despite claiming not to be and that it commits you to interpretations which do violence to the Biblical text in an attempt to maintain its inerrancy. Ehrman’s reason seems to strike at the heart of the thing, though: study the history of the text enough and it becomes impossible to take the attitude to it that evangelicals do.

Book: The Bible The Biography by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s book is a potted history of the Bible and its interpretation, starting around the time of the Babylonian exile and continuing up to the present day. Armstrong’s writing is succinct: the book is short (229 pages in the main text of my copy) and easy to read.

Armstrong sees both the Christian Gospel writers and the Judaism of the first and second centuries CE as profoundly influenced by the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Their conflicting ideas on the future of Judaism can be seen in the attitude of the Gospel writers to the Pharisees as it became clear that the future of Judaism did not lie in a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, but in a revitalised Judaism which the party of the Pharisees would lead.

The parts of the book which deal with interpretation were most interesting to me. Armstrong interweaves chapters on Christian and Jewish interpretation. Later texts start out as reactions to earlier texts, drawing on them to find something useful in the writers’ times. The later texts may eventually come to be seen as scriptures themselves. Armstrong applies this idea to the Christian New Testament and to the Jewish Mishnah, as well as to modern commentaries like the Scofield Reference Bible, the source of much of fundamentalist Christian theology on the End Times.

Armstrong discussion how later commentators draw out meanings which they believe are hidden within the text, a process which she describes as pesher, referring to the commentaries produced by the Essenes. The methods of interpretation are often quite strange to modern readers, but reflect the belief that scripture was infinite, containing a variety of meanings. Sometimes passages are re-interpreted in the light of the Golden Rule, as in the case of Rabbinic punning on scripture to show God’s compassion, or Augustine’s statement:

“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.”

Some Christians, such as Origen, viewed the Old Testament as a commentary on the New, rather than vice versa, and produced detailed allegorical interpretations of OT events, which were taken to refer to Christ or the church (a tradition they could claim was started by the apostle Paul, in letters like Galatians).

The book contains some uncomfortable facts for someone in the modern evangelical wing of Christianity (as I once was). If evangelicals insist their approach is the only correct one, they must conclude that the church has been doing it wrong for most of its history. Worse yet, for evangelicals who claim to use only scripture to interpret scripture, is realisation that the New Testament writers would be seen as terrible exegetes by modern evangelical standards.

As I said, these are not comforting thoughts for evangelicals. While I was writing this, I found an interesting review of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns. Enns has written a book which, if the review is anything to go by, talks about these exegetical problems and tries to address them, still remaining within a reformed Christian theology. Enns does this by drawing an analogy between the humanity of Jesus and that of the Bible. For this, he is well on the way to being drummed out of the seminary where he holds a professorship.

Back to Armstrong. As her story moves closer to the present day, she writes about modern scriptural interpretation with dissatisfaction, albeit tempered with some sympathy for fundamentalists who feel threatened by, well, practically everything that’s happened since about 1800. In the book’s epilogue, she calls for a return to Augustine’s principle of charity as the means of interpretation, arguing that “hurling texts around polemically is a sterile pursuit”, and that rather, the entire Bible should be interpreted as a commentary on the Golden Rule. She rejects criticism of the Bible by “secular fundamentalists”, presumably in the knowledge that in the past both Christians and Jews have seen the violent or otherwise “difficult” passages as an invitation to look deeper rather than as an invitation to imitate God or Israel’s bad behaviour.

I’m a little sceptical, because I think the horse has bolted, at least as far as Christianity is concerned (I’d be interested to hear what Jewish people think). Since Luther, the authority of the church to interpret the Bible has diminished. Everyone is their own pope, vigorously defending their interpretation and eager to anathematise the people closest to them (as Enns’s case illustrates), even more so as believers feel threatened by modern developments and batten down the hatches. I’d like it if Armstrong’s vision became reality, but I’m not sure how she intends to bring it about. More people reading her book might help. I recommend it.

I had an enjoyable weekend. Had dancing and college friends over for a barbeque on Sunday. PaulB turns out to be quite paternal :-). There was an unexpected after-party when some more people arrived just as I’d cleared everything away. We watched Phone Booth, which was suspenseful, short, and, as Salamander pointed out, quite arty for a big release film.

<lj-cut text=”A Fire Upon the Deep”> I finished Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep this week. Vinge is famous for his treatment of the Singularity. He copes with the narrative problem of having inscrutable post-Singularity gods around by positing that the galaxy is split up into concentric zones, with godhood only possible in the outer layers. The book gets rave reviews on SF sites, so it was probably impossible for it to live up to the hype. Like another reviewer out there, I found the manipulation of supposedly sophisticated humans by primitive aliens a bit unrealistic. Nevertheless, it’s worth reading for the ideas. Some similarities between this and Iain M. Bank’s Excession, although I’d say Excession was harder to read.

<lj-cut text=”A History of God”> I also finished Karen Armstrong’s A History of God recently. Armstrong takes us through the history of three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The book is heavy going at times, but worth perservering with. Armstrong has a clear bias towards the personal, inner experience of the divine rather than rationalist religious systems. The book shows that the struggles between the people the mystics and the rationalists have been going on for centuries. She also argues strongly against a personal God.

A quotation from Holbach which struck a chord with me as an ex-evangelical. He writes that poets and theologians had done nothing but:

make a gigantic, exaggerated man, whom they will render illusory by dint of heaping together incompatible qualities. Human beings will never see in God, but a being of the human species, in who they will strive to aggrandize the proportions, until they have formed a being totally inconceivable.

In other news, a controversial display of burnt work has divided the world of art into non-identical halves, like a dead bisected animal. Martian.fm has the full story. Classic.