Saturday, 30 July 2011

Passing the Baton (Finishing Relay)

Cheesy title but yes, Relay is over. Thank you so much for your support over the last ten months. Your financial contributions have helped me pay rent, eat and buy books (yay) amongst other more essential things. I even had enough to occasionally feed a student (understand that their taste buds are mercifully impoverished, allowing them to settle for whatever I passed off as cooking). Your prayers have helped me in ways I'm ignorant of this side of eternity but I thank you for them. I know I haven't been appreciative enough of you all. I thank you for your grace and servant-heartedness.

I guess some concluding thoughts would be appropriate, huh? Well here's some personal reflection on how I've grown and how God's used me in the Christian Unions this year...

Looking Back

It's a little hard to remember what my expectations of Relay were. I think I did it because it seemed like a natural next step to take after enjoying involvement with the CU committee so much; I don’t think I really considered how much it might change me or even (rather arrogantly) how much I might need to learn from doing it.

But learn I have. At the very least my attitude toward church and financial generosity have greatly improved. I now have a deeper desire to serve the church I'm involved with and when I bring home my first paycheck once I get a job, I want the first thing I think about to be how I'm going to use some of that money to help someone. Additionally I think I've become a much better listener and encourager. Whereas before I eagerly desired to steer any conversation toward my own thoughts and experiences, I am now much more prone to ask the other person questions that allow them to speak rather than myself.

I also think that my approach to evangelism and spirituality has become more balanced. While I'm still convinced that churches need to up their intellectual ante I recognise that my tendency has been to swing the other way, reducing Christian experience to the purely cognitive. I now see more legitimacy in discussing things like the beauty and desirability of Christianity.

Most importantly the first half of the year helped me truly appreciate the unconditional nature of God’s acceptance of me and the second half helped me understand the proper response to this as discipline and obedience. As a result I’ve been a lot less tempted to wallow in prideful self-pity after sin, and to repent instead. I’ve experienced some times of great thirst for holiness this year and I thank God for that. I think that prior to this year I found it really hard to hold both the Lordship of Christ and his absolute grace together in my head at once. They seemed almost contradictory but that tension has now been largely resolved. I would do well to keep reflecting on these lessons as I feel that during my time since Relay ended, I have found it hard to live in accordance with them. Christian living really is about returning to the gospel and reminding ourselves of its power!

So what impact do I think my involvement with the Christian Unions has had? In many ways it's hard to tell. Most visible changes in the life of a CU occur through what the committee are up to but I didn't spend much time working closely with them. Most of what I did was a bit more “quiet” and centred around individual relationships with the students and side-projects like Equip. While I think this kind of work is hugely important you are not always granted visible “results”. That said I do think all the students I've met with have visibly grown from the start of the year to the end. I've seen them grow more confident in speaking to their friends about Jesus, in the truth of the gospel, and their particular gifts. Certainly I can't claim credit for that, but if God has used me to contribute to their growth then that's great.

I hope also that the presence of Equip, the apologetics workshop, on both Keele and Stoke campus will have produced an understanding within the CU (or parts of it) that the intellectual matters surrounding Christian faith are serious and merit our attention, for the sake of the gospel. Whether this translates into the continuation of something like Equip over the next year or whether this understanding is just communicated within the student's relationships with one another doesn't ultimately matter, so long as it's there!

I really looking forward to staying in touch with the CUs over the next couple years and seeing the new ways they step out of their comfort zone to reach their friends with the gospel. I have a large emotional attachment to these communities and it's going to be hard knowing that I won't be sharing with them in the busyness of the next freshers' or mission week. It is a humbling reminder that our ministries are a small part of God's overall plan.

Working with UCCF and in particular, the Midlands team, has certainly been wonderful. Everyone is just so down to earth. As a ministry UCCF really values unity around the central truths of the gospel and I've come to value that even more. It's been a particular blessing to have Luke as my supervisor and Jason as my fellow Relay-er. While it hasn't been totally smooth sailing between us it has for the most part been pretty incredible. We all share some of the same sense of humour and also many convictions about how the gospel ought to shape our lives in the 21st century. I shall miss our little trio!

What's next?

I shall be spending the next year back at my parents and doing a normal job! I hope to save up enough money to begin a Master's degree the following academic year, within the area of Philosophy of Religion.

So if you could kindly extend a little more prayer in my favour, I'd love if you could pray for the following:

  • That I would be able to find employment
  • That I would not view this year as a “break” but a serious year of further spiritual growth.

I think I'll keep it short and sweet at two prayer points. Thank you so much! As I sign off I'll leave you with a flurry of memories from the last year that stand out to me...

- Arriving late with Jason to the first Relay conference. - Finding someone else who says “get involved” a lot. - Pretending I was a Mormon. - Pretending I was a Muslim. - Realising I don't really understand grace. - Feeding two freshers with a terribly bland Sainsburys basic pizza. - Not being very courteous in discussing eschatology on a team day. - Forming 'Spasms of Vomit' the fictional Relay death metal worship band. - Cheesy Christian disco. - Discussing the gospel and Islam with two Muslims every Friday in the pub. - Trying to remember what I'd done on a certain day for my monthly report because I hadn't written it down. - Telling Luke that I was all confused and sinful and stuff (more than once).

- Arriving late with Jason to the second Relay conference. - Discussing Nietzsche, Christianity and Capitalism with two sceptics in Bangor. -  Finding out I was supposed to give a talk to a bunch of angry atheists a day before the event. - Drinking in the Glebe with two Serbian Christians. - Hanging out with an ex Bosnian mafia member in my room. - Crying because I felt so stressed. - Crying cause I felt so scared. - Being really emo. - Throwing a Bible at Jamie's face. - Loving preparing a talk on the problem of suffering. - Asking whoever was about on campus what they'd like to ask God. - Wishing I was better organised. - Arriving a day late with Jason to New Word Alive.

- Arriving on time with Jason to the last Relay conference (only cause we got a lift!) - Endless predestination jokes during the lead-up to the Equip session on the topic (I was predestined to write that). - Playing scrabble and going to the cinema during a “supervision” with Luke. - Changing my views on the Bible and origins. - Getting angry at Wayne Grudem for his Calvinism. - Cheekily acquiring food from the staff reserves at Relay 3 then returning to ask for beer. - Playing baskateball. - Singing worship songs in a whiny Blink-182 voice. - Struggling to light candles on a breezy day and realising that their intended symbolism holds all the more for it. - Going with Jemma to answer questions on Christianity and homosexuality with a group of girls we didn't know. - Discovering the cool American diner in Hanley and insisting in having goodbye breakfasts there. - Scoring my second leaver's card from Stoke CU (lol).

Time to pass the baton!!!!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

On Being Honest About Being Less Than Fully Rational

(Yes, another tangent post.)

There are some odd tensions within our cultural values. There seems to co-exist both an emphasis on feelings and the personal subjective qualities of an experience and also an emphasis on, nay, a delight in, hard objective reason - the dispassionate search for truth that is unflinching toward even the most undesirable findings.

This latter attitude, probably a leftover from the Enlightenment, is considered a chief virtue in the world of philosophical religious debate. We all know that atheists often pride themselves on what they consider to be their piercing rational insight into the true nature of religion - a matter that in their eyes is confused by the logic-less wishful thinking of God-believers. But we theists give it back too. I have often been involved in discussions among Christians on the internet where we've derided the irrationality of atheist arguments and lamented the inability of our ideological opponents to think clearly enough to see the obvious strength of our position.

In the back-and-forth debate between bloggers and youtubers any sign of irrationality is quickly picked up on and shown to the world as evidence of the person's abject failure as a human being. The accused has committed the ultimate sin: being less than fully rational. (I exaggerate but if you've spent any time lurking around debate forums you'll hopefully see some truth in what I'm saying.) Ironically, placing such a large demand on people to be perfectly rational, and in turn such a high personal cost if one is found out not to be, both in terms of the detriment it causes to one's image of oneself and the shame one faces within the community, actually makes people more likely to be irrational.

It's counter-intuitive but from the reading I've done recently on the psychology of human rationality, it seems undeniably true. In this paper Maarten Boudry and Johan Braeckman explore how it is that humans are able to persist in believing things despite the fact that they are subject to obvious counter-evidence. How is it, for instance, that despite Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end on May 21st being quite obviously falsified, he and some of his followers continue to think that in some sense his prediction was validated? Do Camping and his faithful simply lack a concern for rationality? Are they happy to ignore evidence without batting an eyelid? This sort of explanation of their behaviour is na├»ve. The persistence of such beliefs is not achieved by ignoring reason. It is achieved by using it to rationalise – some reason is construed as to why counter-evidence doesn't actually pose a problem for the challenged belief. The prophecy wasn't a failure after all you see! It was a spiritual event, not one that occurred in space and time! The full end of the world stuff will happen later …

As contrived as those explanations sound, what they demonstrate is a concern for being rational. The fact that a person thinks that the counter-evidence needs explaining shows that the person considers consistency and rationality as good, desirable traits. It is painful to be exposed as non-objective, as uncritical and silly. A person will thus persist in rationalisation both because he/she has a vested interest in preserving the belief under attack AND a vested interest in being a rational human being.

In the book 'I Told Me So', Gregg Elshof takes a look at self-deception techniques from a Christian perspective. He argues (I think, rightly) that we find it hard in our culture to accept that we might be able to successfully deceive ourselves because we place such a high value on personal honesty and authenticity. In fact, that because we value these things so highly we are more prone to self-deception since there is a high personal cost involved in being exposed as inauthentic. In other words because we have such a high vested interest in not being self-deceivers, we are prone to deceiving ourselves about our own self-deception!

It makes sense that a similar logic would play out when we have such a high vested interest in being coolly reasoned, critically aware persons. Because it would hurt so much to see ourselves as less than fully rational, and for other people to see that too, we rationalise away the evidence that we are rationalising! The more we care about being rational the harder it is to see that we're being irrational.

Is this a license to be truly unconcerned with rational thinking? Certainly not. It is not good to be irrational. It is not good to believe falsely. Not only does truth seem good for its own sake, but there can also be harmful consequences to having incorrect beliefs (if you think a cliff edge is actually a continuous piece of land and you try to walk on it, you'll be in trouble!) The corrective is not to abandon a concern for rationality, but to be more honest and humble about the rational shortcomings of all of us. We need to stop demonising irrationality as the unforgivable sin. From a purely Christian perspective, we need to understand that our sinful nature does not stop short of our rationality, but that we all lack intellectual virtues. We need to cultivate an environment where people actually feel free to confess their irrationality as well as their adultery or alcoholism. We need to extend some grace.

The results can only be positive. Not only will we be more able to see the rational shortcomings in ourselves and so improve upon them, but we leave space for people to admit that they have been wrong. How much harder do we make it for people to change their worldview when we place such a high social penalty on being imperfect thinkers? Although I think this is advice Christians need to heed, I dare say that atheist communities may need it especially. So much of the atheist self-image seems built on being rational and so much of their vitriol against Christians involves accusations of delusion. This sort of environment produces a very high cost for seeing rational weakness in yourself and your ideological position and thus places one at very high risk of self-deception. An atheist community that really cares about honest rational enquiry ought to make it easier for these values to be practised.

In the interest of being contributive toward a change in cultural attitude, allow me to make a confession: I don't think my conversion to Christianity was perfectly rational. For a long time I interpreted my conversion as the result of a simple “going where the evidence leads” conclusion. Having read about self-deception techniques and cognitive bias, and spotting them in myself, I cannot sustain that picture (our own interpretations of why we believe things are often wrong). And to be honest, that's been painful to admit to myself. I studied philosophy, an intellectual discipline. Many of my peers see me as a smart person. I have a high vested interest in being rational.

But I know that I have often spent more time being critical of arguments that challenge my beliefs rather than those that support it. I know I've more often sought out material that supports my beliefs, rather than material that challenges them. I know that there are emotional interests that have fuelled these behaviours. So I am less than fully rational. How much less I'm not sure. It's hard to read yourself. But I am definitely not some sort of disinterested rational robot. I doubt anyone is when it comes to the deepest matters of life. Again, skeptics, don't think you're immune. One can be attached and emotionally invested in atheism as much as Christianity or any other worldview.

All this isn't to say that I don't think Christianity is true, or has good arguments and evidence for it. The very reason why I've been susceptible to this kind of behaviour is because I value critical thought. Christianity is able to make sense to me and still does. All I'm saying is that I've succumbed to biases. It's not great, I'm not proud of it, but there ya go. I'm now trying to develop the intellectual virtues that at times I've lacked.

I hope you'll be encouraged to be honest with yourself about your own less-than-perfect rationality. 

God forgive us.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Why I'm An Atheist (In Some Possible World)

I've got some serious posts in the works but this one is just for fun. I came across “An Ideological Turing Test” on the Friendly Atheist blog. The test is all about seeing how well we understand our opposing world-views. Some Christians were asked to respond to a few questions about religion pretending to be atheists and vice versa. Then they took some genuine Christian and atheist responses, mixed 'em together and put them online to see whether we can spot the fakers. So far we've just been asked to distinguish between the real and fake atheist responses. I don't think the results will be particularly significant, but it's an interesting research idea and also a fair bit of fun. It's also intriguing that many atheists commenting on the blog couldn't believe that the Christians were able to understand atheism so well and yet not be atheist themselves!

The test got me thinking about what I find most convincing about the case for atheism and what angle I'd take if I were playing devil's advocate against a Christian. So here's how I'd respond to the questions given in the Ideological Turing Test.

What's your best reason for being an atheist?

To be honest I don't have a “best” single knock-down argument against theism. Rather I'm persuaded of a more cumulative and probabilistic case.

I believe that the facts of evolution and the facts about the extent and intensity of suffering in the world do not strictly disprove the existence of God, but are nonetheless better explained by atheism (and naturalism in particular.) Moreover the existence of God is an area in which intellectuals throughout the history of mankind have disagreed over. It seems to me that if God were real, and he wanted us to know him (as the 'great' monotheistic religions claim) he would make his existence a lot more obvious. Thus the lack of consensus on the matter counts as evidence against God's existence. Claims that persons are simply “suppressing the truth” strike me as ad hoc and counter to the face value appearance of the matter.

In terms of why I disbelieve Christianity in particular, I find that while its founding Israelite theology is somewhat distinctive from its Ancient Near-Eastern contemporaries, it is still suspiciously similar in many areas – enough to doubt the claim that it was revealed by the transcendent creator God. In addition while arguments supporting the historicity of the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life are not ridiculous, they fail to establish a level of historical certainty high enough to warrant an absolute trust in the God of Christianity. After all this God supposedly demands you to surrender your life to him, and I'd want be extraordinarily sure of the existence and goodness of such a God before I could do that. The insufficiency of the evidence available to support such a trust actually acts as evidence against the existence of the Christian God. Moreover as we venture back into the Old Testament's historical claims, we find they get more and more dubious/counter to the available evidence. 

What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?

I would believe in God if all things considered God's existence seemed more probable than not. As for a particular religion, things get trickier. All religions seem to demand a high level of devotion which I think increases the level of evidence needed to justify. Merely believing in God doesn't require as much justifying evidence as basing your life around God. Maybe if I had some sort of unambiguous visitation from God in which the true religion was pointed out to me I'd go for it. But even then I could see myself doubting the veracity of that visitation at a later point. After all there are plenty of people throughout history who have claimed such an unambiguous revelation, but their teachings all conflict. I think if God existed he/she would know what evidence would convince me and would provide it. Maybe God will do so for me in the future? Maybe not.

When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?

First of all, I'm no moral relativist, I do believe there are facts about what is morally right or wrong to do. I don't claim to have a fully worked out meta-ethical account of what “grounds” those facts but I don't think the majority of religious people do either. I believe moral intuitions generally confer knowledge of moral truths but an observance of the harmful/beneficial consequences of an action can lend support or counter-evidence to a given intuition. In ethical disputes I try to appeal to the basic moral intuitions of others or demonstrate the harmful or beneficial consequences of an action to make an appeal on those grounds.

I am unconvinced of arguments that attempt to show that if God does not exist then objective moral duties do not exist. I have yet to see a theist provide an analysis of what conditions are necessary to entail objective moral duties are and then carefully explain why atheism necessarily entails the lack of those conditions. Until that is done I see no reason to abandon my belief in objective moral duties given that they are supported by so strong an intuition as to their reality.

Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

The question of why religion persists doesn't interest me greatly but I have some thoughts on the matter. It seems clear that the human brain has an agency detector that can be a little “over-active”, allowing us to attribute natural occurrences to the intentional actions of an agent. E.g. the village is flooded and the agency detector senses that the act was caused by somebody angry. And because it takes a lot of power to cause a flood, the angry person is very powerful and thus … a god. I understand however that the theist will interpret the data differently and merely say that the agency detector was designed by God precisely to produce true beliefs about God's actions. This is part of why I think the question of religion's persistence is uninteresting. The data is inconclusive in regards to the truth of any religion.

Additionally in a lot of cultures one's own sense of identity is intrinsically bound up in the practised religion. When this is so I imagine that the falsehood of the religion appears unintelligible, for it would literally destroy who you are and would render the world meaningless. But this doesn't suggest anything about the truth of religion so much as it reveals something interesting about human culture.

Feel free to post your own answers, they needn't be as long. If you're a atheist why not think about how you'd answer from a Christian perspective:

What is your best reason for being a Christian?
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to disbelieve in God? Or what kind of evidence would persuade you to join another religion?
When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities etc?
Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of many kinds, yet religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

Try and present the most intelligent Christian response that you can!