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- That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date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.