So, I was at Homerton the other day and went along to a cafe type-o-thing run by the Christian Union. Ended up talking to someone we shall call Bob (disclaimer: Bob may not actually be called Bob), who asked me about my time at university. We chatted a bit. And then he threw in one of those good conversation starters: “So, was there a Christian Union at Churchill while you were there?” Zoiks.



ENTERPRISE: [deep bass rumbling noise]

A shimmering patch of space appears behind ENTERPRISE. It resolves itself into a hideously beweaponed ship, shaped somewhere between a cross and a sword.


WORF: Evangelical Alliance Bird of Pray de-cloaking off the port bow.

TROI: Sir, I'm sensing... moral outrage.

WORF: They are charging weapons! Targetting overseas students and people with low self-esteem.

PICARD: Red Alert! Raise shields, arm photon torpedoes.


<lj-cut text=”OPENING CREDITS”> I’m exaggerating, it was all very civilised. Bob was friendly and terribly apologetic (ba-da-boom!) about asking personal questions, something which no longer bothers me since I stopped being embarrassed about what’s happened to me. I explained that I was in that very CU at Churchill but left church a few years after leaving university, as I felt there wasn’t much evidence for what I believed.

Bob asked what I thought of Romans 1, where the Apostle Paul says that people are without excuse for their disbelief, since God’s nature is clearly seen in creation. I’ve come across that argument before, and my response was the same as it was back then. Writing in the 1st century AD, St Paul has no better explanation for creation than that it was God what dunnit. As science provides progressively more powerful explanations, it is no longer self-evident that there’s a creator. It’s not clear what we can learn of the creator’s nature, either, other than that God is a mathematician with an inordinate fondness for beetles. Arguments from creation mean you end up with a God of the Gaps.

We then talked about the rest of the Romans 1 passage. I’m not sure I correctly understood Bob here. He seemed to be saying that because St Paul says that there will be unbelievers, the existence of these unbelievers shows that validity of Paul’s argument. That seems to boil down to “people disagree with Paul, he predicted this, therefore he’s right”. Putting on my (somewhat tattered) evangelical hermeneutics hat, it’s not what the passage is about, either. Paul’s not using all the moral outrage at the end of chapter 1 to demonstrate his own acute observational skills, which then also allow us to trust him when God-spotting, but rather, he writes to people who already believe in God but need convincing of their own sinfulness, as chapter 2 shows.

We went on to talk about what I thought about the historical claims made by Christianity, especially the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I said I wasn’t really sure what I thought about that, but it was a bit hard to chose between the stories of how God intersected history which are found in most theistic religions. Since Judaism is a bit of a special case to Christians, I chose Islam as my example. Bob argued that early Muslims didn’t have to die for their faith, but rather, in line with soldiers everywhere, they were keen on the idea that the other fella should die for his. But again, having people willing to die for a religion is not something special to Christianity. Throughout history, some people have been willing to die for the strangest of things.

Bob was curious to know what I thought of Jesus. I said that the Jesus of the Gospels was still an attractive figure, although he does say some odd things which make me wonder about the church’s later decision to convert Gentiles (Peter and James seem to have had similar qualms, of course). However, the God of the Old Testament seems somewhat nasty at times, especially if one is taught to regard the OT as pretty much an accurate description of what happened. At this point, either Bob mentioned C.S. Lewis’s “Mad/Bad/God” trilemma or I pre-empted it. I talked about Andrew Rilstone’s taking to task of Christian evangelists like Josh McDowell, who want to use the trilemma as a proof of Christianity. Lewis’s own ambitions are smaller: he merely uses it to argue against the watered down version of Christianity (perhaps more popular when people in this country would claim to be “C of E” for the sake of respectability) which states that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God. Bob owned that he was sometimes disturbed by the pat arguments of some Christian apologetics, especially those which seem intellectually dishonest.

This lead on to thinking about arguments in general. I made the not very original point that what you consider to be supporting evidence depends on where you stand to start with, and mentioned the phrase “paradigm shift” for good measure. Arguments won’t win someone to a religion (or away from it). I’m not sure what else is in the mix, but I know that despite the evangelical desire to maintain the notion of absolute truth and push messy emotions aside, eventually, feelings will have their say. As the discussion became more personal, I said that, as well as the lack of evidence, I also left because of how Christianity made me feel.

That’s why, even though Christianity seems logically inconsistent to me, I sometimes say that if I had started off somewhere less brittle, my faith might have flexed rather than broken. After all, we tolerate inconsistency elsewhere in life, building up the a selection of Swiss Army notions we find useful in certain places, a Heath Robinson mechanism where the edges don’t fit together and are joined with string and sealing wax. We might even share bits of it with friends. Though the actions of some Christians (not Bob, of course, who was unfailingly polite) draw me towards fire breathing atheism, I wouldn’t like to rule out going back to some sort of faith one day. Embarrassing U-turns are becoming my forte. But it’d have to be a form of faith which is conscious of where the edges don’t join up.

So, it’d better not hide the rough edges beneath a shiny surface of facts and faith and pat answers. It’d better not claim to be the only way to the truth. It’d better not be entirely dedicated to enlarging itself, to the power and the glory. It’d better not try to order every aspect of other people’s lives for them (however much some of them so want to be ordered), sending forth alternate waves of joy and guilt until they’re assimilated. I claim that the only moral response on encountering such a jumped up, runaway machine is to go straight to its major databanks with a very large axe and give it a reprogramming it will never forget.

There’s something nasty out there, changing the DNS settings of Windows machines to point at what look like a couple of Linux boxes on some US hosting service. Best guess is that it’s down to another fricking Windows exploit, one that seems to work via a web page which downloads an executable, which runs itself to change your DNS settings, and then deletes itself. It got me during my lunchtime surf at work, and it seems other people have seen it too. Check your DNS settings before you next use Internet banking, or face the Man in the Middle. Praise Bill!

(I always thought it’d be cool to have a LiveWires course on exploits, as the kids were always keen on Internet stuff: In this worksheet, you will own a poorly configured IIS server, changing the site’s front page to the message “Je5u5 0wnz j00: ph43r G0d”.)

In other news, the dear old Church of England (in fact, the Anglican communion) looks set to split on the gay issue, what with a big meeting of bishops coming up and much sabre rattling on both sides. Bit of a shame, as I can’t help feeling some affection for the old thing, although I suspect that a split church is just what many evangelicals (such as our old friends Reform) are looking for. (Really must get round to responding to livredor‘s latest on that thread, too).

Andrew Brown linked to an article about homosexuality from a Texas preacher. It’s not what you think. In fact, it’s great.

Real Live Preacher, as he calls himself, writes honestly and writes well. So, I sat and read the whole site, archives and all. I cannot help but think that, had someone like this been around when I was beginning to realise that I couldn’t stay in my church, things might have been different.

The Preacher’s life story had some echoes with me. That said, for me there was no great event in my life which was the final straw, no example of human suffering which finally showed that there could not be a good God running it all; instead there was just the drip, drip, drip of guilt and doubt, eventually wearing me down.

The Preacher came back to his faith by deciding that “faith is something you do, not something you think. In fact, the greater your doubt the more heroic your faith.” He decided to gamble his life, living in faithfulness to God, without really knowing or caring whether God existed:

I pushed all my chips across the table. The preacher bet it all. Why? Because the idea that there is a God who cares for us busts my heart wide open. Because I pushed reason as far as it can go but I wanted to go farther still. Because I wanted to, and… well… I just wanted to.

I can’t follow him where he’s gone, but I can’t help but admire him.

shreena‘s posting about how Tony Blair may allow “faith groups” a role in policy making has lead me into an interesting discussion, touching on evangelical pressure groups, inerrancy, Total Depravity, and, of course, gay bishops. Just got round to posting another thing to it, which is why I mention it.

Punting out to Grantchester on Saturday night was hard in the heat, so the other PaulW ended up doing most of the work. I think he’s got a much more efficient style, as I was splashing more. Punting back in the dark was enlivened by low branches. As we were returning, we also saw some youfs wandering along the Meadows looking for some sort of rave thing that was supposed to be happening, but heard no repetitive beats.

Still too hot, although aircon is working here at the moment. Dancing tonight should be interesting.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

The idea of the Singularity comes from an article by Vernor Vinge. Vinge says that, what with the progress in genetics and computer hardware (such as the trend computer people know as Moore’s Law), it’s likely that we will eventually create entities with greater than human intelligence. When this happens, those entities will know how to create entities even more intelligent than they are, and so on. With ever increasing speed, the curve of intelligence against time will move upwards, and our successors wlll pass beyond our comprehension (the name “Singularity” comes from the mathematical term for the place on a curve where an infinity occurs, such as at x=0 in the graph of 1/x). As Vinge writes:

This change will be a throwing-away of all the human rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye – an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that were thought might only happen in a million years (if ever) will likely happen in the next century.

<lj-cut> The essence of the Singularity is a change in human nature which is incomprehensible to those who, either by choice or lack of opportunity, are not part of the change.

In my wanderings around the web, I came across various sites belonging to people who would like to bring about the Singularity. Now, Vinge’s original article is mostly about how the Singularity could go wrong. Evil computers could take over the world, or the aggressive evolutionary heritage of enhanced humans could bring them down (though I’d like to believe that even a superintelligent being which was as selfish as a human would have a better idea of what was good for it than we do right now). So this enthusiasm was a little surprising at first.

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

When I look at the pages advocating the Singularity, I see something like a Christian eschatology for techies. Not for nothing has Charles Stross called the Singularity “The Rapture of the Nerds“. I’m an engineer, of sorts. I make things. I look at the world and want to fix it. Things which are broken and could be fixed if only someone would think frustrate me, and apparently others too.

I have had it. I have had it with crack houses, dictatorships, torture chambers, disease, old age, spinal paralysis, and world hunger. I have had it with a planetary death rate of 150,000 sentient beings per day. I have had it with this planet. I have had it with mortality. None of this is necessary. The time has come to stop turning away from the mugging on the corner, the beggar on the street. It is no longer necessary to look nervously away, repeating the mantra: “I can’t solve all the problems of the world.” We can. We can end this. — Staring into the Singularity, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Cory Doctorow writes that the Singularity idea gives you that tingly, numinous feeling when you read about it on the web because the Google guided flow of the net puts you in the right mood for the experience. I don’t agree with his other objections: there’s no reason why you can’t simulate the body, glands and all; Penrose might be right, but, unless I’ve missed out on some very big news, there’s no particular reason to think so right now; and there’ll be another fad in AI when genetic algorithms have paid out. True, the AI cheque always seems to be in the post (allow 30 years for delivery), but biotech, and so what Vinge calls IA rather than AI, might be going places.

Could I say truly that this generation will not pass away until these things have come to pass? I’m not sure I quite share the Singulatarians’ beliefs: Doctorow is right in saying that it sounds too good to be true. The dot-bomb should have taught nerds caution when extrapolating trends which seem to be good for them. But sooner or later, if we survive, I suppose I or my descendants might face some questions about whether to join the change.

And being a bit of a techie, I find it easier to believe in a transformed life beyond that particular veil than in Heaven (though both of them have the problem of not quite being able to imagine how I’d still be me). I don’t believe that suffering is essential to humanity (if I was the protagonist at the end of Greg Egan’s short “Reasons to be Cheerful“, I’d have cried for a bit and then moved the sliders: some emotions are best experienced in small doses). And, Dr Asimov, although it’s true that eyes do more than see, their successors should be better yet. So, if I’m still around, sign me up.

The Song of Sidney made me laugh. You probably need to have read the original to get it.

I still get Christian sub-culture jokes, despite God’s absentee landlord behaviour and the serious diplomatic incident resulting from the misbehaviour of one of his ambassadors (why yes, I am watching a lot of Babylon 5 lately). If only there were a way to keep that sense of shared community and lose the obsession with blood, sex, sin and death which seemed so inseperable from it.

Dancing on Monday was rather man heavy but good fun, although I’m still not sure about the tango from the second lesson. CDC Needs Women! Better yet, ones who won’t sacrifice me to the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Middle Class (Heterosexual) Dating Club which is Her Body on Earth. But that’s just a weird personal preference of mine. I digress.

More Babylon 5 season 2 on Tuesday. They seem to be getting into their stride a bit now: the bit about Londo’s wives was actually funny, and the foreshadowing is coming along nicely. Bode bode bode…

terriem accompanied me to dinner last night. Thanks to Terrie’s educational skills, I now know the proper definitions of “passive-aggressive” and “perineum”, both of which will stand me in good stead in later life. The conversation turned to religion, and why religions generally regard sex as so significant, how religion is used to oppress women, and so on.

<lj-cut text=”Pens and feathers and all other instruments”> I reckoned that sex is seen as so significant because of the (at the time) almost unbreakable link between it and children. Today I got to thinking about societies where sex is viewed as much less significant, and whether I’d want to live in them. Because of disease and pregnancy, it’s usually science fiction where you’ll find them. (It’s possible some existed in isolation in the past before Europeans turned up with their guns, germs and steel, I suppose). I was thinking specifically of the Culture, the civilisation envisaged by Iain Banks. The Culture’s humans are genetically modified: they don’t get pregnant unless they want to, they can change sex, and they enjoy sex more (there was a great interview with Banks where he said that SF was too geeky and so hadn’t come up with some of the obvious things you could do with GM on humans). Sex isn’t meaningless in the Culture, but it doesn’t usually have the weight attached to it which remains, even today, in our culture.

There are hints in the later books that some parts of the Culture itself think that things are getting too easy for the Culture’s inhabitants (who are the mysterious entities who helped in the attempt to blow up the Orbital in Look to Windward?), but I’d like to disagree with Agent Smith and say that we don’t need suffering to give our lives meaning. If a lot of that significance is because of pregnancy and attendant considerations of disease, hunger, power and inheritance, then if it fades away as we progress away from those considerations, that’s all to the good.

That said, there’s some residual unease in me about such an idea. Remnants of evangelicalism, possibly. I’ll be interested to see where Banks takes the Culture in future books, anyway.

I’m a heretic!

The Dante’s Inferno Test has banished you to the Sixth Level of Hell – The City of Dis!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Level Score
Purgatory (Repenting Believers) Very Low
Level 1 – Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers) Very High
Level 2 (Lustful) High
Level 3 (Gluttonous) Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious) Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy) Moderate
Level 6 – The City of Dis (Heretics) Very High
Level 7 (Violent) Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers) Low
Level 9 – Cocytus (Treacherous) Low

Take the Dante’s Inferno Hell Test

From Crummy via Oblomovka comes a link to Eighties Ending, in which the ending of every 80s film ever is sent up.

Andrew Brown is also linked to by Danny O’Brien. Brown wrote an interesting piece in the Telegraph about the C of E’s attitude to homosexuality. One of my Chrishtunfrends was telling me that she’d heard someone at StAG on Sunday point out that the Bible is more concerned with usury than with homosexuality. If the speaker was one of the leaders in the church, one wonders why they’re backing Reform.

Crummy also links to ep which “perverts the notion of Unix pipes in a way not seen since the unveiling of tee caused riots at the 1913 USENIX.” I wish I could think of this stuff.

I won a medal on Battleground God, taking no hits and biting no bullets. This presumably means I’m a logically consistent agnostic, which is a relief, let me tell you.

Had fun yesterday teaching Natalie, a friend of Safi’s to dance, as she’s coming to the CDC Ball on Thursday. My house has a big front room with a wooden floor. We hardly use the room for anything, so it’s almost empty and makes an ideal dance floor. Went through waltz, quickstep, cha-cha, rhumba and jive, with Safi showing her the women’s steps and then me providing a bloke to dance with. It was most fun. Apparently I was a good teacher.

Slightly late to Intermediates. Learned a do-able Paso Doble in the first lesson, which I might mix up with bits from the second to create something which looks good and is possible. Fleckles (sp?) in the Viennese in the second lesson. Can’t do them. Pub afterwards to discuss things beginning with H for Henry’s fancy dress party on Friday.

Utterly exhausted on reaching home, but sleep refused to happen. Feeling somewhat odd today. Ho hum.