Archive for May, 2006

Google Maps Come to Sydney

After feeling like second-class world citizens behind the US for years, Google Maps now cover Sydney, along with other Australian cities (at least all the capitals, and it looks like a lot of others too). Ah, the joys of not having to the browser idiosyncrasies of WhereIs.com anymore.

I can’t help but think that the timing is too much of a coincidence

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Pray for me

This blog is obviously in its early stages, and I’m sort of undecided about how much of my personal life (a) I want to disclose and (b) anyone else will give a hoot about in any meaningful way… but let’s see what happens.

As I’ve mentioned before, I recently became an atheist, i.e. during the last year or so. However, I’m still on the email list for my old church’s newsletter, which I still read, with a strange mix of interest, nostalgia, and amusement.

Recently the church has been compiling a list of people who have left the congregation (left God, backslid, fallen away, whatever) and have been organising prayer nights specifically to pray for them. Tonight is the second prayer night. I don’t yet know for sure whether I’m on the list, but I certainly fit the criteria.

It’s tricky to know how to feel about this. It’s bizarre to know not only that people are praying for intervention in my life, but even when they’re doing it. It’s weird to be on the other side of the fence. After all, a few years ago I would have been involved in this myself – I prayed for goodness knows how many lost souls during my time as a Christian.

On the other hand – and this is a discussion I’ve had with at least one person who’s still going to church – this a really clear-cut opportunity for God to reveal himself somehow. I’m planning on writing a fuller account of my “deconversion” later, but basically, for a long time I was asking God to give me some indication that he was there. It didn’t have to be a burning bush, but surely omniscience includes the ability to know what will actually make sense to my mind. And there was nothing. Not a whisper.

Now, Christians might claim that I wasn’t seeking honestly, that I wanted to leave for my own reasons and wouldn’t have responded even if God appeared before me in a flash of light, and that there were probably lots of signs in my life that I would have noticed if I cared to open my eyes. (Can you tell I’ve argued that side before?) I have no way of refuting that except to say that I know my own mind. I would have no hesitation in going back to God if something happened to make me actually think that he’s there to go back to. I haven’t seen that yet, but my eyes are still open. My theory about the nature of God is falsifiable.

So here’s the situation. I, a committed Christian for about six years, prayed repeatedly for God, who claims to desperately want a relationship with me, to somehow make it clear that he is there, and was honestly willing to follow him if he did. Now, his beloved children are more than likely asking the same thing for me. I’d be surprised if anyone could construct a request that is more obviously what God would want to do anyway.

And yet I’m still an atheist.

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Angels and Demons

With The Da Vinci Code opening this Thursday, I thought it was finally time to get around to reading Angels and Demons last weekend. Here is my quick review – it’s light on details because I wanted to keep it relatively spoiler-free.

To call Dan Brown formulaic is along the lines of calling Michael Moore partisan. It’s annoying at first until you realise that it’s so blatant that he could only be doing it on purpose. Once you accept that, you sort of strap in and enjoy the ride.

So yes, Angels and Demons is formulaic. At a whole-book level, it has virtually the same plot as The Da Vinci Code. (To be accurate, the former was written first.) At a lower level, both books read like a series of episodes, each of which gives Robert Langdon a short amount of time to solve a puzzle, which he does, but with one small flaw that he will realise at the very last moment. This is even more obvious in Angels and Demons because for the bulk of the book, all of the puzzles are the same.

This sounds like it should be very boring. But it’s not even remotely boring to read. Instead, it has an effect something like a tune with a chorus, that there’s something familiar to return to; and it makes every twist stand out more against the predictable background. It gives the book a sort of comfortable structure and flow. And when the episodes end and you’re still a good chunk of paper away from the end of the book, it leaves you wondering what to expect.

It’s hard to say more of this without spoilers, so I’ll move on to something that did annoy me. I had a very hard time keeping suspension of disbelief, particularly through the early part of the book. Partially it was to do with Brown’s treatment of particle physics and science in general. Both books liberally mix fact with fiction when it comes to Christian history and conspiracy theories, which is fine, because the subject is fairly obscure, in some places deliberately obscured, and quite subjective, which leaves a lot of room for Brown to pull supposed “facts” out of his butt. But this doesn’t work nearly as well for modern science, and he did a pretty unrealistic job with it.

To some degree you can forgive him for this – it’s a tall ask to portray particle physics in a way that doesn’t go over the heads of the popular audience, but is still realistic, and then add a new discovery to it that consistent with known facts, but is not already discovered. (There are any number of stories where some idea that’s obvious to anyone in the field is passed off as a new breakthrough. Good Will Hunting comes to mind.) The problem with this in Angels and Demons isn’t necessarily that he does it unrealistically, but that he tries to do it at all. It’s obviously not his strong point, and the finer details of it aren’t really critical to the plot. It may have been a better book if, like The Da Vinci Code, it stuck to the Catholic conspiracies.

There are other places in the book where you can’t help but fall out of the world of the story and say “I don’t believe this”. It’s frustrating to be repeatedly told that ambigrams couldn’t be reproduced by even the most sophisticated modern techniques, when there are obviously fictional examples sitting right there on the page in front of you. Another example is the Papal election – unfortunately Dan Brown was 14 the last time a Pope died, so he was writing from ignorance when he described the election as a media non-event in the modern day. Reading it a year after the media-saturated death of John Paul II and election of Benedict XVI in 2005, you can’t help but feel that Brown forgot how many Catholics there really are in the world.

The pace did pick up in the later parts of the book, as he focused on his strengths and really got into the swing of the story. Unfortunately (and without spoiler details), he may have gone a little too far towards the James Bond end of the spectrum with near-death escapes towards the end. I always felt nervous about the fate of the characters, but towards the end I realised that it wasn’t because I was worried they wouldn’t survive – instead, I was worried that their survival wouldn’t be explained to my satisfaction. I was more concerned about the fate of the plot than the fate of the characters. This is not a good sign.

Still, I devoured Angels and Demons. You can forgive Brown for exploiting the semi-factual religious conspiracy formula a bit, because it does work. In fact, it could well have been better without the attempts to move outside that formula – in which case, it could easily be treated as an experimental first draft of The Da Vinci Code.

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Move This @#$% Car

From Column 8 today:

“I live in Chippendale, which is a great neighbourhood by the way,” enthuses Lizzie Gillanders. “Someone abandoned a clapped out old car in Shepherd Lane and it just sat there for a couple of months almost blocking the street, despite myself and a couple of neighbours ringing the council to ask for its removal. In the shop on Abercrombie Street the other day a few locals were discussing what to do about it. One fellow said that if you spray paint an obscene word in a pothole in the road it will get filled in immediately. Yesterday morning when I left for work I noticed the car, freshly festooned with fluorescent four-letter words. As I walked past it again on the way home a tow truck arrived, and in five minutes it was gone.”

Brilliant.

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St Barnabas, and Billboard Heckling

Most Sydney residents take the presence of St Barnabas Church for granted. It’s one of those landmarks that doesn’t stand out because it’s particularly impressive, but as… sort of a milestone for where inner Sydney begins, like a signpost at the junction between City Road and Broadway. For much longer than I’ve been around, the announcements on its billboard were made fun of – in the best spirits – by a sign in the Broadway Hotel across the road. It’s a good summary of the much cliched Aussie spirit – open sarcastic ribbing that doesn’t hide a solid underlying mutual respect.

So, religious affiliation aside for the moment, the fact that it was destroyed by a fire early this morning is a bit of a jolt. There’s something about a building that stays the same while basically everything around it is sold, taken over, knocked down and rebuilt, that provides a kind of continuity and identifies the place as still being the same city. I just learnt from that article that it’s been there for 148 years, which is big for a country that wasn’t even known to the rest of the world until 200-odd years ago. I would like to put in my personal vote (this being, obviously, a polling booth) that whatever of the building needs to be rebuilt is rebuilt in at least the spirit of, if not a close copy of, the original building.

But to avoid getting too sentimental, I’m going to use this as a segue into a discussion of a billboard I’ve noticed a couple of times on the way home that has made me think. It’s at West Ryde Baptist Church (update: got a photo):

GOD IS ABLE TO DO EXCEEDING ABUNDANTLY ABOVE ALL WE ASK

The reason that this is interesting to me is that I think here’s a sleight of hand in Christianity to do with God doing what we ask. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer when he said what was possible through prayer:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22, NIV)

Few if any Christians would take these words literally, although Jesus doesn’t appear to make the distinction between the figurative mountain and a very literal fig tree from the previous few verses. James gives a hint of what happens when this doctrine collides with real-world experience:

You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2d-3, NIV)

The point I’m getting to is this. Christians (I don’t have enough first-hand knowledge to apply this to followers of other religions directly) quickly discover what I call the “prayer fine print” – that is, when you ask for something in prayer, there are any number of reasons that kick in automatically to explain the fact that God might not actually answer it. Jesus’ words hint at one – “if you believe”. There is always room to doubt that you really believe that what you ask will be given, like the father in Mark 9:24. James suggests a different reason, that if you have the wrong motives, God may decline your request.

I don’t have a problem with these restrictions per se – God isn’t man’s servant, after all. The real trick comes with Christians’ perceptions of prayer, today, faced with the practicality of reconciling the biblical promises about prayer with the fact that the most earnest, well-intentioned prayers often go unanswered. Every Christian I know (myself included, until recently) has developed a series of justifications for why God will not necessarily answer each prayer in the way they expect. The most common and universally applicable is that our request simply wasn’t in line with God’s will.

This brings us back to the billboard. The implication of God being able to do “above all we ask” is that what we ask is incomparably inferior to what is best, or what we actually need. Only God knows the plan that will best meet all his objectives, and his plan is infinitely more wise and ultimately more fulfilling than our near-sighted desires. If what we ask doesn’t come about, it’s because God has something even better in store.

Apart from the question that this raises about why we are encouraged to ask at all, it’s important to note that this removes any criteria by which we can ever judge whether God is listening to our prayers. It might be true that a prayer went unanswered because it wasn’t part of a plan for something even better that we can’t understand, but it might also be true that it went unanswered because there was no one to answer it, and we can never tell the difference. A Christian might not need that confirmation, but for someone who is looking for God, or someone who is questioning God, anything that stands out against the random background noise of fulfilled and unfulfilled desires could make an enormous difference.

Now, none of this proves that God doesn’t exist. But it’s interesting to me – in no small part because I tried to come to terms with exactly these things in my own mind – that the set of reasons we develop to explain God’s noncompliance, reasonable though each of them may be, allow us to discount any failed prayer. That is, there is nothing we can pray for (apart from something we would expect to happen anyway, like “please make the sun rise tomorrow”) that is so clearly consistent with God’s character and desires that we have no doubt that he will grant it.

At least, that’s how my mind works. Maybe I’m just faithless. If anyone out there can suggest a prayer that God will undeniably answer, let me know. (I’ll get the comments system up soon.) This isn’t about putting God in a box, it’s an attempt to find some way in which God, in all his unchanging glory, is actually consistent and in some way knowable.

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A Salvation Story

A Salvation Story – christ-on-a-stick’s story of her path into atheism.

Definitely worth a read, although it is dangerously long.

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Note to self

To do:

  • Comment posting system.
  • Page navigation (currently the front page displays the latest 10 posts, although you wouldn’t know it yet). Also some kind of category navigation.
  • Search.
  • Random quotes.
  • Add more stuff to the sidebar.
  • Improvements to the admin pages.
  • RSS.
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Raison d’etre

Okay, here’s my attempt at a preemptive FAQ:

Why are you writing a blog?

Doesn’t everyone have a blog? ;)

Seriously, I’m not sure yet. Part of the motivation to put this up was my conversion to atheism in the last six or so months – I have a lot of stuff to ramble about and I need an outlet for it. It’s probably not going to contribute greatly to the state of humanity, but someone out there might find it interesting. And if no one ever reads it, it’ll be a chance to get my own thoughts straight on whatever subject requires thoughts to be straightened.

What’s with the name?

“The Right Side of the Boat” was originally the name of the blog that I started a few years ago, when I was still a Christian. (It lasted about a week.) The name comes from John 21:6:

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. (NIV)

It was supposed to be some vague pun on “net”. (Horrible, I know.) I carried the name over to another site, this time a collection of Christian essays and discussions by me and people I knew, in about 2002. That fell flat as well.

So now, I still have the subdomain, and it’s still a good name, if only for the ironic value.

Wow, it’s actually quite difficult to invent FAQs. I might add to this later if there are any actual questions.

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Inaugural post

This is the first post to The Right Side of the Boat…

I’ll add some comments soon about what this is and what it’s doing here.

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