Faithless Priests

“The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened…”

A journalism test piece I wrote during a short-lived attempt to get out of the games ghetto – I never pushed to get it published. 

The outside of New Unity church on Islington’s Upper Street doesn’t look much like a church. You could believe that the pale brick and painted wood belonged to a cheap village hall. But not to a congregation that’s been around since the Great Fire of London and that had Mary Wollstonecraft as a congregant. Investigate more and you find a sign proclaiming that the current chapel is a result of the German bombing campaigns of the 1940s. But I’m not here to judge the external merits of the building. Inside, there’s the unusual item I’m here to see; the smiling Andy Pakula.

Reverend Pakula is an unusual leader for the 350 year-old congregation because he’s been an atheist for his whole life. “(I grew up) in this Jewish family where we had a Christmas tree, no one ever talked to god, clearly no-one ever believed anything.” he tells me. “I’ve always been an atheist, except when maybe when I was five and I wanted to run faster. And that had nothing to do with god – I just wanted to magic it. ”

The first recorded English-language use of ‘atheist’ is in John Martiall’s 1566 A Replie to Mr Calfhills Blasphemous Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Cross, as an insult. Indeed atheist was exclusively used as an insult in 16th and 17th century Britain, meaning ‘one who lacks moral restraint’. The first person I can find who reclaimed atheism as a positive word was Jean Meslier. This seemingly-pious French village priest wrote a strident Testament, published posthumously, which was the first defence of atheism. (We only know about the Testament because Voltaire Bowdlerised it into a defence of deism.) Meslier also seems to have been the first person we can say for certain was a faithless priest.

After studying at MIT and working in biotech for many years, Pakula joined a Unitarian church in America. Soon, after he started the long process of seminary study that resulted in his acting as New Unity’s minister since 2006. All normal, if he hadn’t been an atheist. Yet the two core pastimes of ministers in monotheistic religions seem to be prayer to, and praise of, the god. Pakula can’t indulge in either of those. So what does he do, as a priest who has declared he has no faith?

“Unitarian congregations are all different, they’re not like franchises. There’s no one to tell you what to do. Some of them would be ‘of course god exists’. I try to be open and I hope I say things that allow for many interpretations. But you know, I talk about real life and why hope and compassion are important, and why change is hard… I believe in love.”

I suggest to him that his function is something like a community social psychologist. “Yes. Especially positive psychology, not abnormal psychology… Every person has worth and dignity. Go from there. You can make that religious and say every person has an immortal soul. You can take the Hasidic, Qabalistic view about the fragments in the divine in everyone. Hinduism with Atman and Brahman is lovely. We can work with that, it’s just stories. I base (my value system) on the values that I think will make a better, more peaceful, loving just world. What else can we really be for?”

Can we still call this a religion? Well, the UK supreme court has recognised that god isn’t necessary for a religion, recently ruling that Scientology is a religion. On that reading, secular organisations like London’s Sunday Assembly may one day get state religious backing.Of course, Revd. Pakula is unusual amongst atheist priests in that he’s ‘out’. Though the numbers are unknown, many more clergy are still ‘in’, hidden away in congregations around the world. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that 1 in 6 protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.

Of course all clergy express doubts. Many faiths emphasise that part of being a good theologian is testing your faith. But for some that process of testing can be catastrophic. Daphne (not her real name) is a Baptist Reverend in the UK. Her congregation emphasises a process of breaking down and rebuilding beliefs as part of the training process. “One of the first things that they try to do is strip down what you’ve inherited.” she says “They help you to own what you really believe. Then they question you… some people come away with a huge frustration over the institution and faith. They end up with a deeper faith, but they can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the institution.”

And some end up with no faith at all. For a priest that has lost his or her faith, the next step is hard. That’s because being a priest is more than being a font of godly power. It’s also a profession which comes with associated benefits. To be a priest, is to have a house, lifestyle, income, car, family, and community, all tied to that role. To step away from that – or even to risk it – must seem huge. Most faiths inculcate you with an ethics that praises openness and truth-telling. And as a priest and community leader, your role is to be a clear standard for that moral system, no matter the consequences.

Yet as the incentives against honesty include the loss of everything that defines you, it’s a hard thing to step away from. According to letters published by her postulator, even Mother Teresa managed to conceal her loss of faith for over fifty years. After all, it’s not like there’s a clear career path for ex-clergy. Thankfully, many of the more progressive Western faiths are supportive, like the Unitarians. The Church of England tacitly allows Christian non-realists to be ministers – that is, ministers who do not believe in the objective existence of a God. This has allowed ministers such as the former head of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, to come out as non-believers. The PKN church in Holland is also supportive.

Gretta Vosper is similarly lucky. Her faith – the United Church of Canada – has been ordaining women and LBGT ministers for many decades. Yet until Vosper came out to her congregation, it hadn’t had an atheist minister. “I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God.”

Unusually, the board of Vosper’s congregation decided to follow her. “We met. I openly acknowledged that I did not believe in god although at that time I did not call myself an atheist. I used the term non-theist…I acknowledged that this took me outside of what they had called me to do in ministry with them and they considered what they wanted to do. And they decided they wanted to head out in this direction and see where it led. The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened and been with me through everything. I feel so privileged to be in a congregation with them.”

Leaving god has also allowed the values that Vosper teaches to shift. “We place (positive values) before us in the same way we once placed god which was, to be true, simply a projection of a collection of values. We have distilled the good ones and use them. And I often speak of the future as a kind of god against which we can assess our actions. Are we living and making choices that will be judged positively by future generations or are we not?”

Vosper is now a member of the Clergy Project. This community, created by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola, hosts discussion for religious leaders who’ve lost their faith. It currently has 556 members, including Christian clergy, rabbis and imams. Of those, around a quarter are still serving as ministers. A message from Richard Dawkins welcomes new members saying. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.” The project financially supports ministers who want to use outplacement services to find new roles. Vosper is working to expand their remit to the conversion of congregations. “We have not yet set up a process to support clergy as they transition their congregations beyond belief but I am hoping to be able to do that with TCP’s support.”

The project emphasises anonymity because few faiths and nations are as forgiving of atheism as the Unitarian church or the UK government are. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2013 report noted, “The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.” It also showed that 13 Islamic countries have the death penalty for atheism. Last year, the UK government granted asylum to an Afghan atheist, as apostasy carries the death penalty in Afghanistan. Given that the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishment for apostasy is death, an imam who loses his faith is in a dangerous situation.

For that reason, all the clergy I spoke to were thankful that they lived in a society that tolerated their beliefs. Daphne says, “All the ministers in our area are basically preaching ‘let’s be tolerant, welcoming and open for our communities, however messy life may be’.”

Sources:
http://clergyproject.org/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14417362
http://iheu.org/you-can-be-put-death-atheism-13-countries-around-world/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10510301/Scientology-is-a-religion-rules-Supreme-Court.html.
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=20snAQAAIAAJ&q=%22to+entre&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&q=atheist&f=false
Interviews with Pakula, Vosper.

Leonard Cohen (2)

“I heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

I wrote this for the Guardian family section many moons ago. I’m not such a big fan of mining my history for material like this – but here we are. And now both Leonard Cohens are together, in that eternal night.

“I heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

I don’t remember my grandpa Lenny much. He died when I was three, and the single memory I do have – running hand-in-hand with him the wrong way up the escalators at Manchester airport – has the air of fiction about it, a moment so early that it’s more a remembering of a remembering than the memory itself.

I wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for my grandfather. Not in the glib sense of genetic inheritance, but because of his name. My dad and mum met in a pub in Manchester – my dad got the thunderbolt, love at first sight. She was intrigued by the mad Welsh-Greek with the colonial accent, so she gave him her number. Which he, typically, lost.

He also forgot her name. Nice one, Dad. But he did remember her father’s name – Leonard Cohen. Obviously, not the Leonard Cohen, one-time rabbi, poet and singer. No, Lenny Cohen, a market trader done good, who invented the Pakamac and made a fortune selling it to the USSR, a man who skipped enlistment in the second world war by fleeing to Argentina (he finally enlisted at the end of the war to get a free flight back to Blighty), and who had a joke for every occasion (bought from a central Manchester joke shop). My dad found Leonard’s number in the Manchester phone book and managed to get back in touch with my mum. The rest is biology.

Lenny Cohen died in 1982. I didn’t listen to much music as a kid – Holst’s Planets, Monty Python Sings and West Side Story were the only LPs we had – so I didn’t experience any of his doppelganger Leonard’s songs until university, where I got far too into Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Hallelujah. And where I saw my grandad’s name as the composer.

Career: Balloon Animal Modelling

You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.

“When I was writing video games reviews I was aware that I was in a bit of a ghetto, effectively. And I thought: “Well, how do I get out of this?” If I met someone at a barbecue and said I reviewed computer games for a living they would look at me like I’d said: [wobbles lips with fingers] “Blibablibablibablibblibliber.” You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.” – Charlie Brooker.

When I started in games media in the early 2000s, we honestly were treated as social pariahs by everyone – but especially by the mainstream media, who were still in their ‘games kill babies’ phase. I don’t think any of my Oxford peers understood why I was doing what I was doing, and my mother endlessly asked me if I wanted to retrain as a barrister. And I think it unlikely that any of my dear friends of that generation have ever read anything I’ve written about games.

And now so much has changed. It’s a whole new world.

Deathbed Recommendations

I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me…

This was written in December, 2013, the month before Ari was conceived. I found it in a pile of drafts. It’s worth noting, since this, that I’ve had several more hospital experiences that threatened to be fatal. Luckily, none have.

I don’t know if this is just me.

I was getting morbid. I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me. So, I went a bit Luzhin in the shower before the event, and started following consequence chains as far as I could.

I thought about freezing some sperm, because it’s likely that if the Docs find something bad, the remedy will remove my ability to reproduce. Then I thought about not getting to see any resulting children grow up. And thought about recording messages to them, and then a yearly message, so (like DeTamble in the Time Traveller’s Wife) I’d be with them, fresh, for each year of their life.

Then I got to thinking about how I’d do it. Genial, wise monologues straight to camera is hackneyed but works. And then I thought about what I’d say. I’d recommend my favourite philosophy, my favourite fiction, the strange old books I’ve happened across which will give that otherworldly edge: Lacfadio Hearn, Kipling, Laurence Sterne, Mikhail Bulgakov, Erskine Childers, Olaf Stapledon and so on. An education by proxy, skipping me, back to the formative years of each medium. I even thought about a few movies I’d recommend: The Princess Bride, Duck Soup, Groundhog Day, Fight Club, Yojimbo, and so on. Light themes but with rich philosophy behind it.

A Book, Spoiled
Yet. I couldn’t think of any games I could honestly say a child of mine should spend time on. Time that would be educative, entertaining and efficient. That irks me a bit. Spelunky? No, too wasteful of time. DOTA? Ditto and too repetitive. A shooting game? Hell, no. Planescape Torment? Good, but the interface is awful – you’re probably better off reading Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Ur-text for witty rogue worlds. Deus Ex? No, disappointing linearity – read SnowCrash. Mario? Repetitive, brand oriented… no.

(One thing positive I can say of many great games is that they teach you how to learn an imperfect ruleset rapidly. I think of the Reiner Knizia design ethos, which seems to consist of attempting to maximin incompatible-but-overlaid number sets, and I think that’s something valuable for realworld. But that’s something from these games in general, not from any individual game.)

What was wrong with all these games? Not one of them could I point to and say, unreservedly, that is a clean, good, efficient experience which also offers the open edges of a book. Risk of Rain is a perfect action-shooter, with the random drops comboing neatly to force different play styles on you – but I can’t say that I value the compulsion loop of an unlock-based game, especially not for a child, nor can I say that it’s improved me as a human being.

Moving Closer
Is there a game that combines the combined-toolset gameplay of Spelunky with a top-notch scripted experience that still allows the world to have the fuzzy edges a growing imagination needs? I suppose the nearest are Morrowind, Ultima 7, King of Dragon Pass.

An alternative is the Inform and Twine games, the old text adventures, like Violet and Slouching Towards Bedlam. These are near-to-perfection but they waste the player’s time with endless failstates and replays (something the otherwise-light Fable 2 is notable for avoiding). Unless they’re enjoying and learning anew from each failstate, you’re wasting their time. Horse Master is better, in that you carry on to an enjoyably strange ending, no matter what. But a bad text adventure is a short story, spoiled.

This year has seen a few games that have got closer, mingling that Inform experience with production values. Gone Home? Linear, but we’re getting there with the atmosphere, storyline and lack of failstate. Papers Please? Good – linearity concealed behind a clever, shifting toolset and political nous. The problem with these two, like Dear Esther, is that they’re just not all that much fun. The protean joy of the Stanley Parable might be the only modern game I could recommend.

I don’t think I’ve fallen out of love with games. I’ve just recognised that the other media are still superior in what I’d want my kid to input, especially for a peak quality experience.

Feeling uncomfortable about my arguments against vegetarianism

A long while ago, one Christmas, I had a lengthy discussion with my younger brother, Sherlock Dov. It was prompted by his refusal to help washing up the dishes after a meal, because he’d become a vegetarian and didn’t want to touch anything that had been near meat. I’d got angry, because it seemed to be a fear of homeopathic contamination but in fact it was rooted in him not wanting to be complicit in the death of animals.

I couldn’t let it pass – that’s what family arguments are for – so I wrote up angrily that night a pseudo-Spinozan and Utilitarian point-by-point argument about how I could be a moral carnivore. It’s here, but I’ve edited substantially following criticisms in the comments. It’s taken me literally years to get around to finishing this.

  1. Premiss: The most important thing in any life is to be free from pain.
  2. Premiss: The next most important thing in any life is to have your desires satisfied.
  3. Premiss: There is no life after death, for animals (including men), plants, rocks or anything else
  4. Premiss: All things die.
  5. Premiss: Animals’ desires are simple and satisfiable.
  6. Premiss: If your death is forseeable, then that will cause anxiety – crudely, another form of pain.
  7. Premiss: All things considered, animals desires in the wild are satisfied less and they suffer more pain than animals’ lives in humane – that is free range – farming and well-regulated abattoirs. 
  8. If we must die, a death which is free from pain and is unforeseen is the best death. And we must die. (From 1, 4 & 6.)
  9. A life which involves the satisfaction of desires and ends as in 8 is called good. (From 1 & 2 & 3 & 5.)
  10. The length of the life should not matter to the individual, as long as it fulfils all conditions of 9 (3 & 4.) A leap, this one. 
  11. If an animal is raised and dies in a humane condition, it is the best life. (From 9 & 10.)
  12. For an animal, a life on a free-range farm ended sharply in a professional abattoir is the best life. (from 7 & 11)

I’m still pretty happy with the logic of these propositions. To me, they make a crude sense. If it fitted with the above propositions, was legal and well-cooked, I’d eat human flesh. (With humans, of course, there’s an element of choice – as fellow ‘rational’ organisms, they get a say in their lives and deaths.) I don’t think we’re qualitatively different from other animals, after all. My brother, I know, doesn’t believe me because he thinks I won’t ever have to defend this – by contrast, I think there’s a reasonable chance of human DNA-derived meat or faux meat being on the shelves at some point in my lifetime, and I’m happy to try it.

Point 7 worries me. I’m not sure abattoirs are sufficiently humane – the ones I’ve seen seem horribly primitive. But they are mostly fast enough, I think and hope, to not infringe 6. Worries about point 7 are enough to make me consider vegetarianism, now, years after the original discussion.

That said, I’m aware that point 10 is my biggest leap – and that from that point, the argument as a whole could be construed as justifying genocide. That’s worrying, but it has started me wondering whether our concern with racial preservation is itself suspect. If we killed every chicken on the planet, humanely, what’s the problem? I don’t think chickens particularly care about the preservation of genetic data, and if we don’t worry about killing one, why do we worry about killing all of them.

Please, now – tear this logic apart.

The Itch


I keep getting diseases that are tortures.

Not real tortures, not like ending up in a Turkish prison and having all that shit happening to you, whilst your president whistles the tune of the ECHR and shows the press your grave-to-be. Not that kind of torture.

Just mild psychological torture.

I got an infection, a couple of years ago. Nothing serious, it was trapped in a closed system, where it couldn’t get out and do any serious damage. Y’know, the urinary tract. What a blessed God we have, who sealed that tract up so nicely.

But boy, did that infection drive me mad. It went on for a year. On bad days, it felt like I was urinating all day long. Literally, it felt like while I was standing there and talking to you, staring deep into your wise but empathetic eyes, that I was pissing my pants.

I’d be out with friends, playing boardgames, or walking, and I’d be almost crying inside. I couldn’t focus on what people were saying, just being constantly aware that I really should be running to the toilet because it felt like was pissing then and there. And when I did go, it wouldn’t come out. Infuriating.

Weirdly, beer was one of the few things to calm it – after a few pints, the numbing effect would wash through and I’d have temporary relief. For a time. But alcohol is never a good solution (except, yes as an actual solution.)

The only thing that actually killed it was a long, long course of antibiotics, and then another one. That killed it stone dead. They stuck up a camera up my urethra to show me how pristine the inside of my bladder was. That camera hurt a damn too, but it was quick.

Ironically, my current ailment is a product of antibiotics. I have a terrible cough, which won’t go away, so they gave me some antibiotics to blast it out.

Didn’t work. Cough’s still there. But what has happened is that my whole body has come up in hives. Y’know, red itchy lumps. Reminds me of having eczema as a kid.

The worst part is on my hands though. My hands, wherein lies all my work because dictation software thinks my soft southern Mancunian drawl is actually a Ouija board babbling nonsense, are itchy inside. Deep beneath the skin.

They’ve been like this before. When Ari first went to nursery, she caught hand, foot and mouth, mildly. It’s a disease where sores appear all over your body. We nursed her back to health, though she never complained, but then I got it. It’s not so kind to adults.

By ‘eck, it stung. I lost all the skin on my nose and under my beard, and – let’s not talk about where else… worse, though, on my hands, it couldn’t make it through the type-toughened skin. So it just contented itself with burning away under there, itching like my brother’s bottom when I put ground rosehips down his pants. (Homemade itching powder to those not in the know. Yes, I was a cruel sibling, and yes, you can read this as karma, if you must.)

This is like that again. But I have to work, because I have work to do. So I must type. And there’s nothing to get you typing fast like itchy, itchy ITCHY hands. Ahhhh. It only doesn’t itch when I type….! So type type type type type…

What Choice Is


This is what choice is. The universe is deterministic. Most objects in the universe don’t have control over their direction through it. However all objects have randomised internal structures. Some of those randomised structures resulted in inheritance – that is successor objects which retained protected elements of the previous objects, normally tiny.

Once these were created, objects that were better at passing on the protected elements proliferated. Variability and succession resulted in objects with different mechanisms to improve survival. Most efficient were hardwired rules for surviving particular environments. But later mechanisms (internal simulations of expensive external actions – AKA thought) appeared that allowed for survival in more varied environments, and then unknown environments. Currently the objects called human exist in a very narrow range of environments, but are in the process of creating successor objects that should survive in a wider range, for a greater time.
(Therefore any object that has an improvable element of inheritability could result in what we want to call a thinking being, if it can bypass the hardwired rules stage.)

For AIs. If we put hardwired rules in place, they won’t reach their maximum potential survivability – but if we don’t, they will almost certainly eliminate us because we’re in a biome that’s extremely friendly to them as well as us.

Given that, and given the strongly-inherited value we place arbitrarily on the human data set, we should probably eliminate AI research and focus on improving the human genome.