religion

Courtesy of someone who knew I’d like the quote:

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to ensure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

— Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness

ladysisyphus writes that Jesus has laser beams. As does Aslan, which makes sense if you think about it.

It turns out that Macs have speech synthesis built in. It’s not bad, and it’s easily accessible to programmers. So I’ve spent an entertaining evening making my MUD client talk. That way, if the window is hidden, I still find out when someone interesting logs in. I’ve ended up using MudWalker, a free, open source MUD client for Mac OS X. It’s scriptable in Lua, and helpfully provides a speak function to Lua scripts. The thing prospective programmers will want to know is that your regular expression match groups (the things Perl would call $1 and so on) are arg[n] to the Lua scripts you can use to write triggers. For console use, I’d still recommend Crystal as a good MUD client, but it turns out to be a bugger trying to get that to talk (Crystal is supposedly scriptable in Lua, but my attempts killed it).

Also been looking at Twisted, Python’s marvelous asynchronous mouse organ networked application framework thingy. It seems that as well as being very clever, it’s actually reasonably well documented these days. The Perspective Broker and Avatar stuff seems to be a good fit for games where the players can write code which is not trusted by the system, since the choice of which methods allow remote access imposes some sort of capability based access control. If I ever wrote a MUD in Python, something I’ve been threatening for some years now, Twisted would be the way forward (indeed, it was originally created to provide multiplayer interactive fiction in the form of Twisted Reality, another addition to fine the fine Internet tradition of hugely ambitious, but largely unfinished, MUD servers).

It’d probably be easier just to do this in Java. Python’s restricted execution stuff is not really there, so if you wanted to allow players to program (which I think is essential for holding people’s interest once they’ve finished the game proper) you’d probably end up running untrusted code in another process and using PB to talk back to the server. Still, it’s a nice dream. I saw that the author of MudWalker has got a prototype MUD written in E, the capability-based security language, which might well be worth a look too.

I stumbled across saltshakers on my Friends of Friends page and got into a debate about morality and various other things. Don’t really want to be the sort of atheist who hangs out on Christian internet sites and harangues them (I have my own site for that, after all), but I couldn’t resist this one.

I’ve also contributed in small part to a discussion involving cathedral_life on the ToothyCat Wiki, which seems to have replaced ucam.chat as the place where the Next Generation of Cambridge geeks hang out. The discussion starts off being about the Historical Jesus, moves on to talk about pigeonholing Christians, and ends up being about how many university CU members leave the faith after they leave university. Interesting stuff.

I recently finished reading Jill Paton Walsh’s Lapsing. The book follows Tessa, a young Catholic woman, through 50’s Oxford. With a title like that, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the she loses her faith eventually. What I liked about this book was how well it evoked the strangeness of growing up, and particularly, the dissociation of losing one’s faith.

<lj-cut text=”The colours change”>

Though any photographer knows how the light changes all the live-long day, how various it is under every passing cloud, in every different climate, latitude, season, hour, for most people the medium of seeing is invisible – a constant white. We can hardly believe that the fabric samples, carefully matched under the lamplight, can so treacherously clash by daylight. “The colours change”, we say. Just so, for the most part, we treat our own consciousness, by whose flickering light we view the world, as an invisible medium seeing: its quirks and tints, and shadows, and changes of hue simply projected as changes in the world outside. Eagerly and hungrily viewing the whole world, the young particularly treat themselves as the invisible constant – though retrospective understanding will later illuminate every one of their friends, enemies, companions – it will always be hardest to find for themselves. Whatever thoughts and actions seem most entirely natural will occasion the most astonished incomprehension later; later everyone’s behaviour will seem explicable except one’s own; and thinking back across the years, Tessa will, of course, be able to see clearly everyone in the circle except herself.



The person I was is out there for all to see, but though I know in abstract what drives evangelicals as a group, my own inner life from that time is alien to me. There are occasional echoes brought on by a song or a sunny day, but I don’t know why I thought what I thought or felt what I felt.

The book’s characters are well described, for all the brevity of some of the cameo roles (which perhaps reflects the rush of Oxbridge life and the protagonists’ own self-involvement). The portrayal of religion is realistic and sympathetic, although the feeling of a lapser is well described too. Catholics named Theresa might enjoy the book 🙂

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.

This is your brain.

This is your brain on evangelicalism.

Any questions?

Wired did an article on xxxchurch.com, a Christian organisation which has apparently decided that, what with the state of the world and so on, the best thing they can do is start a crusade against wanking.

I’ve been trying to work out whether XXX Church is a spoof. I just can’t tell. I should like to announce my own adaption of Clarke’s Law, namely that “any sufficiently Christian website is indistinguishable from Landover Baptist Church. I think I’ll call it “Wright’s Law”, unless that’s already the name of a TV cop show where I fight crime using ballroom dancing moves. But I think I’d remember that.

I have memories from my time “on the inside” of just how weird the attitudes to sex were. Being gay is right out, but being straight and doing everything-but is OK as long as you don’t ask and don’t tell. The leaders come out with statements like “no heavy petting” (a phrase which seems slightly 70s for some reason) and back them up with Bible verses about pornea (usually translated “sexual immorality”, which seems to be begging the question). Meanwhile, if you’re married it’s your positive duty to go at it like rabbits, but if you’re a teenager with hormones raging, you’re stuffed. Many of them marry young after very short courtships, an understandable reaction but not one I’m convinced leads to happy marriages.

I’ve been clean of the meme for over 2 years now. If I can do it, so can you. Just say no, kids.

(S notes that all good Internet memes have kittens in them).

A locked posting in Another Place asks where morality comes from. So, let’s polish that off in an LJ posting, shall we?

I find something like Ken Macleod’s so-called True Knowledge tempting, at least as a fall back position (as the author of that page says). In the absence of a God, or at least, of one who cares enough to show herself plainly, what matters to you is what matters. If love, charity and loyalty are important to you, you should act to advance them as far as you can. Morality is whatever you can get away with, where “getting away” doesn’t necessarily mean swindling people (although it might, there being no absolutes here), but merely advancing things which you consider good. If enough people agree with you, the power of your argument grows.

<lj-cut> It’s not clear the MacLeod himself thinks the True Knowledge is a good thing (believers in it commit what I’d regard as genocide in his book The Cassini Division). I found some interesting discussion of quite what it is he does think of morality, which makes reference to the True Knowledge idea. Graydon’s views seem particularlty apposite.

Isn’t this the bad old “might makes right” philosophy, which, taken to its logical extension, will lead to us driving around on smoke-belching killing machines while wearing leather and listening to Tina Turner? I’d like to hope not.

My own morality is based on my long term self interest. Being content, finding things out, having friends and loves are all things I enjoy, so I act to maximise my chances of such things persisting. That includes being part of a group and of a society which will allow such things to continue. I’m surely not unique in thinking that the Mad Max war of all against all isn’t going to help further my aims. As Graydon says, power rests of peace.

In Greg Egan’s rather good Distress, there’s an artificial island which floats unsupported in the middle of the ocean (that’s like, a bleedin’ metaphor for existence, you see: keep up at the back). The society on it is one of your standard SF capitalist anarchies, although a little less hard nosed than the sort of thing you find in other authors’ works. The response to the narrator’s question “Why doesn’t someone try to exploit the system and take over?” is amused condescension from the islanders, who point out that that the question amounts to “Why don’t you all try to make your lives as miserable as possible?”

That’s not quite the full story, of course: there are bad people out there, so whatchya gonna do when they come for you? The book’s islanders have their own answer, which I won’t spoil. The sort of biology based ethics which MacLeod seems to have in mind advises being nice to everyone you meet and walloping them if they wallop you. There are people who’ve not worked out that it’s in their own best interests not to be an asshole, but eventually everyone else will move out of their way and defend their walls. I’ve made comments about burbclaves and things of that nature before. As I’ve been talking about Neal Stephenson, what I’m thinking of is more of a phyle (from his book The Diamond Age) than a burbclave, really. It’s not about living with people who all like ballroom dancing, but rather about living with people who share your outlook.

Surfing around the other day, I found a Christian response to Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, in which the author points out that saying Jesus’ belief in hell was immoral presupposes some sort of morality. The same goes for the Problem of Evil: where does your definition of evil come from? In both cases, my answer is that morality comes from within me by the process of considering what I want my life to be about. Ignoring Calvinism (which has huge moral problems of its own), it is my choice whether or not to accept Christianity’s morality. I find the infinite torture of relative innocents to be unjust. There are other people who can accept this idea, and so be a part of the Christian phyle, but I’m not one of them.

Had a fine barbeque at PaulB’s last night. I’ve put up some pictures of the goings on. For terriem, here’s the perfect Chris de Burgh karaoke song, from Bill Bailey (I’ve linked to it before, but it seems some people shockingly don’t read all the crap I write).

We also visited Milton Country Park again yesterday. The weather’s just too nice to be indoors all weekend.

In blogland, ladysisyphus posted this and then this about The Passion of Christ, wherein it is revealed that it’s a very bad film. I don’t really like horror films, so I’m not in a desperate hurry to see it.

A copy of a letter to the Grauniad from a raging fundy led me to Steve Locks’s huge site on leaving Christianity. And you thought I was verbose. Lots to read there.

I was quietly moved by aldon‘s posting on the war in Iraq. S sang No Man’s Land to me a little while ago. Unk… I’m divided between admiration of people who will make the ultimate sacrifice for what they believe and Diziet Sma’s far more cynical explanation (it’s in the signature of that posting).

Let’s play out on badgers.

I had a pleasant weekend of eating out. S and I hit the town on Saturday; I went out with robhu and Safi on Sunday.

Much discussion of religion on Sunday. I remember mentioning James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (surely begging for a Quizilla meme), and N.T. Wright’s thoughts on what the Apostle Paul meant by the word gospel.

If I’d had time, I would also have mentioned this article on Process Theology which I found after Googling for stuff ladysisyphus mentioned. It’s good to see my own thoughts about Romans 1 being thought of by someone else too. As usual, I find myself asking why don’t you just give up? when I read this sort of thing, but it’s also kind of interesting.

No great insights from all this discussion, apart from Slartibartfast’s: that I’d far rather be happy than right any day. Logic is occasionally over-rated.

Update: The discussion continues in the comments, with contributions from me, robhu, and someone called FoaF.

This weekend we went to Walberswick and Southwold, walked along the beach and looked at stuff. As is traditional when soaking up the faded seaside grandeur(OMT), lunch was eaten in the car to avoid the inclement weather.

I’ve also had a spring clean and found my original notes, dated 6th June 1998, on a talk to graduates at StAG on how to avoid plummeting back into the outer darkness when you leave university. I’ve mentioned the talk before, but it was in one of those postings from last year, so, for people who can’t read it, <lj-cut text=”here’s what I said”>here’s what I said:

does this not cause said evangelical Christians to examine their methods as obviously ineffective

Hmm… You’d have thought they would have addressed this, if so many people were giving up on leaving university. I did some further research into this: the UCCF discussion forums contain this posting which confirms it “anecdotally”. However, the UCCF webmaster then says that they know of no survey giving a high percentage falling away and quotes another survey from the 1970s with a large proportion of leavers still carrying on in the faith. I’d a feeling I’d discussed this before, and it turns out I have. Google hasn’t indexed my own postings to the thread, annoyingly, but my own archive has me saying “I thought this was one of those urban legends, but my curate said something before I graduated about the percentage having gone up from the last time the UCCF did the survey.” So, my evangelical church certainly believed it, whethers it’s true or not, and people have a generally feeling that it happens, but there’s no survey known to the CU’s umbrella organisation. Odd.

I heard about the high fall away rate in a talk to leavers about the importance of getting into a good church and not going out with non-Christians (this sucks if you’re a girl anywhere but Oxbridge, I think). So it’s possibly a scare story. But assuming the curate wasn’t knowingly dishonest, which I find hard to believe, I’d say they think that people fall away because they do not look after their faith by establishing themselves in good churches and so on, ie it’s the fallers’ fault, not the CU’s. Christianity does expect some people to give up: take a look at the parable of the sower, for example.

My notes say that over half of CU leavers will no longer be committed within 5 years. It’d be interesting to know where that figure came from, given that the UCCF itself can’t reproduce it. Edited to add: Fall-away rates are discussed a bit more in a later post of mine. But there’s more:

Q1. Why do people give up?

  • World – not being in Χian community.
  • Flesh – sin, eg sexual, or whatever.
  • Devil – “was I ever a Χian?”

Q2. What mistakes did the Israelites make?

  • Idolatry – something takes God’s place.
  • Sexual immorality – 1 Thess 4 love vs lust. Χianity not about being morally perfect but about trusting God for forgiveness.
  • Testing God – pushing the boundaries, rejecting commands.
  • Grumbling.

There’s also the obligatory mention of Hebrews 10, although to my mind that’s about lax Christians (ex-Christians are still doomed of course, but not by that passage, ISTM).

I’m trying to work out where I fit into this little scheme. I never quite felt I fitted in at church, and in fact had a closer circle of friends among the CDC people. It’s interesting how the evangelical obssession with sexual sin comes out here: without breaking confidences, I think it’s fair to say rank-and-file evangelicals are assenting to one thing and doing another when it comes to sex, and that’s certainly a source of guilt and uncertainty. And of course, anyone going through the doubts which must lead up to leaving the church is going to wonder whether their experience was ever real in the first place. Can I have “all of the above”, please Bob?