Archive for August, 2006

I heckle, therefore I am

Billboard Heckler is now its own category. It’s the most regular… okay, the only regular feature so far, so I thought it might as well be.


Billboard Heckler – Feel ugly?

There are a handful of churches around Sydney (and possibly elsewhere) that show the same series of printed signs. I usually snap it from the Epping Gospel Church (here and here) because it’s on the corner of a side street that’s easy to pull into. This time I got it from the Springwood Presbyterian Church instead:

Feel ugly? God thinks you're to-die-for. Romans 5:8

This is a standard tactic that really goes to the core of Christianity. The tactic has two steps.

  1. Make the listener feel worthless.
  2. Tell them that God loves them anyway.

This is one of the only things unique to Christianity among the major religions. At least, that’s what people used to tell me at church. I don’t have a thorough enough understanding of Islam, Hinduism and so on to really confirm this. But it’s certainly not a core selling point the way it is in Christianity.

For anyone who’s never seen a Christian, here’s a quick summary of the beliefs of the world’s biggest religion: Man is evil and deserves to be punished. God decided that he would let his own son, Jesus, take the punishment instead of man. Anyone who accepts that sacrifice doesn’t have to pay for his own sins, and can live with God in heaven.

For now, let’s ignore the question of how punishing an innocent man for someone else’s crimes can be called justice. We can come back to that another time. The interesting point is that Christianity is meaningless unless people can be convinced of their own inherent sinfulness. If you feel like you’re a reasonably good person, then you’re never going to feel like you need a saviour.

In order to achieve this, Christianity sets the bar unattainably high. God, we’re told, accepts nothing short of absolute moral perfection. Have you ever lied? You deserve to be punished for all eternity. Ever had a lustful thought? That’s two eternities. Ever felt jealous, lazy, ungrateful, angry, ever held a grudge, ever had one too many drinks, ever reneged on a promise, ever wanted to hit someone? Ever spent money on something for yourself that you could have given to the poor? Ever sat down for a moment when you could have been out helping an old lady across the road? Get your red pyjamas ready, you’ll be in a lake of burning sulfur before you know it.

In fact, if the doctrine of original sin is brought into the picture, then it’s possible that you inherited your parents’ sinful wretchedness before you were even born. So we can safely say that nobody has ever lived up to God’s moral standard.

C. S. Lewis put it like this, in The Problem of Pain:

Now why do we men need so much alteration? The Christian answer – that we have used our free will to become very bad – is so well known that it hardly needs to be stated. But to bring this doctrine into real life in the minds of modern men, and even of modern Christians, is very hard. When the apostles preached, they could assume even in their Pagan hearers a real consciousness of deserving the Divine anger. The Pagan mysteries existed to allay this consciousness, and the Epicurean philosophy claimed to deliver men from the fear of eternal punishment. It was against this background that the Gospel appeared as good news. It brought news of possible healing to men who knew that they were mortally ill. But all this has changed. Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure….A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed.

I could spend a while talking about Lewis’ claim that the first-century Pagan audience was better aware of their own inherent evilness than we are today; but regardless of that, the fact remains that Christianity is irrelevant if people feel good about themselves. As soon as people see themselves as scum, God steps in and rescues them.

The problem is that, all too often, the church is the instrument by which people see themselves as scum in the first place.

This attitude is found throughout the New Testament.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
(Mark 10:17-27, NRSV)

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:36-38, NRSV)

In a rare double-billing of Billboard Heckler, this is from Saint Hilda’s Anglican Church in Katoomba:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 1:5-10, ESV)

Romans 5:8, which is quoted at the bottom of the “feel ugly” billboard, is towards the end of a multi-chapter tirade about the sinfulness of Paul’s readers (you might want to skim over this):

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

  ”None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
  ”Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
  ”The venom of asps is under their lips.”
  ”Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
  ”Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    in their paths are ruin and misery,
    and the way of peace they have not known.”
  ”There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
nn”Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
nnnnand whose sins are covered;
nnblessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person -though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus ourNo one is good but God alone Lord.

(Romans 1:21-32, 2:17-24, 3:9-18, 21-25, 4:6-8, 5:6-10, 18-21, 6:20-23, ESV)

The International Churches of Christ, of which I used to be a member, had a series of bible studies designed to help introduce new converts to Christian life. (This was before the big ICOC collapse of 2003.) Study #6 (in the order I learnt them – they varied from place to place) was called “The Cross”, and went through Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection from one of the gospels. The previous two studies, #4 and #5, were called “Sin” and “Repentance”. These were basically designed to make the person feel like a worthless dog, by going through everything they’d done to make God angry with them. This was a prerequisite for hearing about Jesus’ death, because otherwise it wouldn’t have its full impact.

The (former) ICOC was a bit of an extreme case, but I think the essential idea is pervasive in Christian culture. The worse people feel about themselves, the more they feel like they need God.

Now, I’m no psychologist. But think for a moment about a system where people are constantly being made aware of their shortcomings, that their only chance for redemption is to seek unwarranted forgiveness, and that they have no hope to improve unless they completely surrender their will to their master, and even then they won’t really be good enough until they die. I strongly suspect that this is going to produce some seriously warped minds. This sounds more like an abusive relationship than a divine one.

I acknowledge that no human is perfect. But there’s a one giant leap to get from that to the claim that everyone who’s ever lived was and is inherently evil. To make that leap, you’d need to show that:

  • An absolute moral standard exists,
  • God exists and is the perfect example of that standard, and
  • God draws the line between “good” and “evil” directly underneath perfect adherence to that standard.

I don’t believe any of these things (although I might be willing to concede the first one, given tight enough definitions). And in general, I don’t think churches reach people by providing solid evidence for them. I think the vast majority of the time, they aim for the emotional response of “yes, I’m a bad person, help me”, where the prospect of a saviour seems like a glimmer of hope. Then the goal becomes to maintain everyone’s perception that they’re filth as long as possible.

Of course, as soon as you claim that God is good and people aren’t, you immediately run into a paradox – why did God, who is good, create people who aren’t? Is this an instance where a good tree bore bad fruit? There are plenty of Christian answers to this, generally to do with the nature of free will, but I don’t personally find any of them convincing. If “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, it would seem to be a design flaw, not an occasional fault. To take a variation on Paley’s watchmaker analogy – if you noticed that, for a particular brand of watch, every last watch had the same fault, what would you think?

  1. What a coincidence – all these watches of the same model came from the same manufacturer, and entirely by chance, all of them broke down in exactly the same way! What are the odds?
  2. Clearly each individual watch is at fault for independently not living up to its designer’s specifications.
  3. What idiot designed this piece of shit?

People who are raised with a respectable amount of modesty are usually reluctant to say anything like “I’m a pretty good person”. For a Christian, it’s even harder, because pride is a sin, and “no one is good but God alone”. But I think this is something that each of us needs to believe, if we’re going to reach any kind of maturity. At the very least, we need to evaluate people’s actions by a realistic standard, not one that would condemn everyone who has ever lived.

Until we do, we’ll be living under God’s protection racket.


Billboard Heckler – Certainty is overrated

Okay, I’ve gotten through a busy patch and am hopefully back to regular transmission. Time to continue the billboard series.

This one is from Katoomba Uniting Church:

Certainty is overrated. It stops the searching.

What a beautiful sentiment. It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey. Sigh. I’m picturing green rolling hills and fluffy clouds as we speak.

Okay, I don’t think I need to say that I disagree with this statement, and indeed find it highly ironic. Particularly in light of Hebrews 11:1, which says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV, emphasis mine).

But it raises an interesting question, and one that I had to think about for a while. How is this different from the scientific method? One of the fundamental principles of science is that no fact is sacred – that any claim must be falsifiable, that we must be ready to abandon our acceptance of any theory as soon as it becomes apparent that it does not fit the evidence. Michael Shermer wrote in Why People Believe Weird Things, quoting from an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court during one of the many attempts to get “creation science” (or more recently, “intelligent design”) taught in public schools:

It follows from the nature of the scientific method that no explanatory principles in science are final. “Even the most robust and reliable theory… is tentative. A scientific theory is forever subject to reexamination and – as in the case of Ptolemaic astronomy – may ultimately be rejected after centuries of viability.”… “In an ideal world, every science course would include repeated reminders that each theory presented to explain our observations of the universe carries this qualification: ‘as far as we know now, from examining the evidence available to us today’”.

So it would appear, on the surface, that science agrees with the Uniting Church that “certainty is overrated”. Then what’s my problem with it?

It took me a while to really pin it down, but I think there’s a fundamental difference in intent between how this idea is used in science and how it’s used in religion. This is a quote from someone I’ve had an email conversation with over the last couple of weeks:

Whether or not we accept something as a fact depends as much on whether or not we want it to be, as on whether or not it is.

In my reply, I disagreed with this. It’s certainly true that this is how many people do perceive facts; but I don’t think that this is the correct approach, or that we have to resign ourselves to never being able to really understand the world beyond our own preconceptions. Instead, I think it’s well within our ability to accept ideas based on whether they are supported by evidence, regardless of whether we want them to be true. Indeed, this is the approach people need to have if there’s any hope to reach agreement on anything.

I suspected that he would use this line later to claim that I wasn’t accepting his facts because I didn’t want to. Sure enough, half a dozen emails later:

Do you remember in one of my earlier messages I said, “Whether or not we accept something as a fact depends as much on whether or not we want it to be, as on whether or not it is.”, and you didn’t agree. Well, this is one of those situations. You have no reason to doubt [my statements] apart from a fear that if you did admit to it, then your objection to the existence of God falls in a heap.

I should point out that he kept this position after I repeatedly asked for actual evidence.

In my general experience, when religious people use the line that there’s no such thing as absolute certainty (and not all do), it’s usually an attempt to put all claims on equal footing. You can’t be certain that God exists, but you also can’t be certain that God doesn’t exist, so which side you choose to believe is a matter of faith.

In science, while you can never reach absolute certainty, you can approach it. You can’t say with certainty that a particular theory is correct, but you can say that it fits the evidence better than another theory, which makes it likely to be closer to the truth. By applying this repeatedly to new theories, you get progressively better theories that are more likely to be true. Certainty is not an attainable goal, but it is a valid target.

Think about the value of pi. You can never write a number that represents it exactly. But you can get arbitrarily close to it, and you can know how close the approximation you’re using is. 22/7 is a good approximation; 3.1416 is a better one; 3.141592653589793 is better again. 3.0 (as implied by 1 Kings 7:23) is a bad approximation, and 7.0 is just plain wrong.

Nobody would ever say that each of these approximations is equally valid, or that choosing between them requires a leap of faith. Given any two approximations, you can say with certainty which one is closer to the actual value of #, and therefore which one will give you more accurate calculations.

The general situation in science is a bit more complicated, because there can be disagreement over which of two theories fits the evidence better. But this is only the case when the two theories are reasonably well-matched. It may be that, for example, the Copenhagen and many-worlds interpretations of quantum physics are on roughly equal footing, so that there is some dispute about which one is closer to the truth. But there is no doubt that the round-earth theory is closer to the truth than the flat-earth theory.

My point is this. I agree that absolute certainty is unattainable. And, for that matter, I agree that anyone who claims to have achieved certainty is shutting themselves off from improving their understanding of the world (something that Christians should consider more often). But I don’t agree that this leaves us in a position where we’re wandering in the dark with no way to believe anything except by sheer faith. We can never reach the point of certainty, but we can move progressively closer and closer to it; and the closer we come, the more our understanding of the world improves.

In this sense, I’d say that certainty is decidedly underrated.

For myself, I always have to admit the possibility that I’m wrong about the existence of God. My eyes are open to evidence that a divine being of some kind exists. But as long as the opposite conclusion fits the evidence better, I’m staying an atheist.


New host

We’ve moved to a new host (”we” being all of along with Hear Ye!). Everything looks like it went smoothly at the moment, but there are always a few teething issues. If you see anything misbehaving, let me know.

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Target solver

Someone just asked me for the address of the Target solver, which I’d completely forgotten about. You can find it here. The link to solve today’s Target doesn’t work yet.

I’d completely forgotten about that script. My Target obsession ended a couple of years ago. Somehow, having a program that can solve it for every word in the English language in about a quarter of a second takes the appeal out of trying to do it yourself…


Sci Phi Show interview with Susan Blackmore

The Sci Phi Show has an interview with Dr Susan Blackmore, mainly about memes and touching heavily on religion. I know the interviewer personally and even suggested one of the questions (it’s at 11:03).

See what you think.

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Oh, that’s where it is

Google Maps is just plain cool; I think just about everyone has worked that out by now. It that brings up that “hey I can see my house from up here” spark of recognition. Anyway, this is the view from my hotel room when I was in Manila:

And this is the same view from Google Maps.

So… is it only me who finds this interesting, because I’ve actually been there, because it’s somewhere I’ve only visited a couple of times, because it’s in another part of the world? Or is there a universal appeal in comparing these two pictures?

On a similar note, I’ve always been interested in the Degree Confluence Project.

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Busy or lazy?

Haven’t had much time to post lately – I’ve had a few other projects on the backburner for a while, and I’ve actually gotten around to sinking some time into them in the last couple of weeks. So not much new around here.

As a slight diversion, I did spend a few minutes randomising the site banner – you’ll now see one of five banners, three of which are from my parents’ house in the Blue Mountains, which I’m housesitting every couple of weekends while they’re overseas (another thing that’s distracting me from otherwise blogworthy free time). The other new one is the view of the entrance to the Megamall from my hotel room in Manila.

It’s occurred to me that I’m never going to get around to posting about the Barossa trip – apart from the fact that I never quite worked out what was going to be interesting about it to anyone else. I’ll probably just do a bit of a photo digest and leave it at that.

And I’m collecting an impressive backlog of church billboards. No shortage of material there.

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The Australian census was conducted last Tuesday. For the first time, we had the option of filling it out online. I always get a bit of a buzz out of things like that – we might have a telco that hasn’t dropped its prices in sixty years and refuses to deploy high-speed broadband because it’s not allowed to have a monopoly on it, but we can fill out our census and our tax without using a pen.

No, seriously. I’m a software engineer. This makes me happy.

A quick sample of the census:

So it’s official now. I’ve been dropped from the stats.

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I wonder if anyone reading this can answer a random question. Why is “dz” the two-letter abbreviation for Albania?

Alternatively, can anyone think of a Google search that would quickly answer this? I had a few shots at it but can only find lists of them. It’s one of those things that just seems to be ungooglable.


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