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.

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.

Battleborn Review | Techradar

There’s a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness; Battleborn straddles it, legs akimbo. On the one hand, it’s made a good effort to mingle MOBA and shooter mechanics, mixing the team combat, creeps cooldown specials and in-match levelling of a MOBA with the fast pace and face-to-face combat of an FPS. On the other, it’s sacrificed much of the subtlety and variety of the MOBA in that transition.

Source: Battleborn Review | Techradar

Total War: Warhammer review – an intimidating blend of empire-building, strategy and high fantasy | Technology | The Guardian

Warhammer is a range of tabletop strategy games; Total War is a series of historical battle simulations. Combining the two should have produced a black hole of nerdiness so unapproachable it would crush all mortals. Strangely, however, this is probably the most accessible each game has been for years.

Source: Total War: Warhammer review – an intimidating blend of empire-building, strategy and high fantasy | Technology | The Guardian

Sense of Adventure: Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eye Games and The Shivah

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

This article originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into GamesRadar. I post it for archive purposes. I first wrote about the Shivah back in 2006.

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

When Dave Gilbert released The Shivah back in 2006, he dealt with religion head-on, and not in a crass way. His Rabbi Russell Stone is a believably bitter priest with a declining congregation, who stumbles into a nasty noir plot. Despite winning the 2006 Adventure Game Studio (AGS) competition, the nascent state of digital distribution and online media meant that the game wasn’t widely played back then.

Now, seven years on, Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games has released The Shiva: Kosher Edition, with improved graphics, music and voices, making the game feel like an unreleased LucasArts adventure title. We caught up with him to find out how the scene has changed since his first successful title.

The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.
The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.

“Success is relative.” Gilbert says. “I had no idea what I was doing back then, and my launch plan consisted of playing it once to make sure it worked, uploading it to a store server my brother-in-law set up, and then going to bed. Shockingly, this did not turn me into an overnight success story.”

Interestingly, despite the religious title (‘Shivah’ is the Jewish mourning period) Gilbert doesn’t think of the Shivah as a religious game. “It’s a murder mystery which happens to star a rabbi, and takes place in his world. So I didn’t shy from it so much as wanted to tell this specific story.  There’s no attempt to preach or convert or even teach anyone. In fact, despite being Jewish myself I got a LOT of facts wrong. For example, in the game Rabbi Stone is considering closing down the synagogue. In real life, there would be a whole board of people who would decide that kind of thing, and the rabbi wouldn’t be involved. So anyone looking to the Shivah as a way to learn about Jewish culture should probably look somewhere else.”

Indeed, he seems to have chosen a Rabbi as his lead because the characters in his previous game, Two of a Kind, were criticised as lacking motivation. “They were detectives, and it was their job, and that was it. So when I wanted to write another game, I wanted to create a detective (or detective-like character) who was really driven to get to the bottom of a mystery.”

Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.
Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.

In these days dominated by pixel art, it’s not unbelievable to see the pixel-heavy AGS games again rising to the surface. Richard Hofmeier’s IGF winning Cart Life is a heavily-modded AGS title, after all. “Tons of games are still being made with (AGS), and there are more commercial ventures than ever before. It also went open source a year ago, and significant headway has gone into making it cross-compatible. We used the iOS port to release an iOS version of Gemini Rue back in April, and the Shivah remake will also be on iOS.”

And Gilbert’s Wadjet Games is making a lot of AGS games, including the award-winning Blackwell series. “Back in the dark ages of 2006, it seemed like a ridiculous idea to make small point-and-click adventure games and earn a living at it. It still kind of is, but somehow we’ve made it work… I can’t say it’s always been easy, but I can’t think of many things that are as rewarding.”

“People have been saying “the adventure game is dead” for… twenty years, now? We’re not trying to do anything so lofty as to “bring the genre back” or whathaveyou. If people didn’t like adventure games in the first place, we wouldn’t be in business. We just make the games we want to play, and that seems to be enough.”

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada review | PC Gamer

Battlefleet Gothic gets so much right. The campaign’s story, script, voice acting and appearance is all spot-on for the 40K universe. The 2D battles are challenging and interesting, if still quite unbalanced. The RPG elements are horribly compelling. And its detailed, nebula-filled universe brings the tiny tabletop models to life—before they’re blown into thousands of pieces.

Source: Battlefleet Gothic: Armada review | PC Gamer