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Faithless Priests

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.

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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.

Beamdog: The Story So Far

Trent Oster might have founded Bioware and Beamdog, but if you went looking for him the best place to look wouldn’t be at a swanky hotel or on an exclusive beach or in a high-powered boardroom. No, you’d be best off heading to Edmonton, Canada, and travel down to the University district, where you’d probably find him in the Next Act pub, munching on a Peanut Butter and Bacon sandwich or a Class Act burger. If he’s not there, perhaps he’ll be in his office nearby with the rest of the Beamdog team, playing through their latest 5th Edition D&D campaign.

The Beamdog team has chosen to be based in this rugged area because they’re sticking to its indie roots – what Oster calls Bioware 0.6 v2. And that doesn’t include splashing out on swanky digs. “Our office is just run-down enough to keep our scrappy start-up feel while not actually fighting rats off at lunch.” says Oster. After fifteen years at Bioware, taking Neverwinter Nights from a one line concept to a five million-selling franchise, Oster feels he “learned thousands of ways not to do things”.

One of those lessons happened in his last five years. Whilst leading the Dragon age Eclipse Engine development, Oster was also in charge of a prototype episodic RPG codenamed ‘Agent’. Its aim was to bring the smarts of James Bond and Bourne to a game, without the violence. “Rather than a gun, your character is a manipulator, a con artist, a surgical tool to head off the problem before it escalates. Our concept was that if you were to run into 20 guys wielding AK47s you would pull out a phone and call the spec ops guys to handle it while you moved around the enemy and went upstream toward the cause of the scenario.” Yet by this time, Bioware had been acquired by EA, and Oster found it impossible to sell the innovative aspects of the game to them – though that didn’t stop him trying. “It was spectacularly soul crushing.”

“My best memories are when we were a smaller company and we were all clearly aligned on what we needed to accomplish.”

That made Oster miss the early days of Bioware. “My best memories are when we were a smaller company and we were all clearly aligned on what we needed to accomplish. I like the impact a smaller team can have on a game. When you become too large, the contribution of every team member is lessened and the ownership people feel is diminished. For me that was when teams were under 40 people.” He was still impressed with the company as a whole – and he picks out senior design people like James Ohlen, David Gaider and Preston Watamaniuk for praise – but for him, personally, he needed to try something different.

So when Beamdog was set up in 2009, Oster put his key learnings to the test. His plan was to use a small team of “great people, listen to the experts, allow them the freedom to succeed and always ensure everyone is on the same page with the vision of what we are making. When you have a skilled team and a clear understanding of where you are going and what you are building, a game can come together better than you can imagine it.” In his view, disasters come when team members ‘go dark’ and communication stops.

Setting up Beamdog was the start of the company’s ‘First Age’, as Oster puts it. It appears that Oster is fond of talking of the company’s Three Ages. It’s not unexpected for a man who’s spent twenty years embedded in arcane lore to talk in mythic terms, but Beamdog really is the culmination of all he’s learned, both fantastical and real. “Our vision is to have a fun game studio to work at, which builds quality games, and listens to our customers with a minimum of bullshit. We work hard when we are at the office, but we don’t do crunch time… I think we also listen to our fans and we’ve hired half our team out of the community, which really helps keep us tight in the loop on what our fans want. I think we’re one of the only non-MMO companies on the planet patching a game three years after the initial release.”

The First Age, then was the creation of Beamdog itself and a self-publishing platform, so that Beamdog could have a means to directly sell its games to its consumers. At this stage, Oster began building the team, along with his longtime Bioware collaborator, Cameron Tofer. “Cam and I each bring close to 20 years worth of video game development experience to our team. We’ve managed to bring in a number of former Bioware team members and fill out some key positions with some amazing people. Luckily for us the local talent pool is quite strong. We are committed to staying small, which means we agonize over every hire to ensure we get a great fit.”

A small team means many people multiclassed, to start with at least. Oster himself describes his job as “Business Development-Producer-Artist-Programmer” but admits his actual hard development skills are degrading over time. “My big hope is my new levels gained are the right skills to take the company forward.” For newer team members, by contrast, Beamdog now focuses on glass cannons, by fast-levelling single class experts, like art director Nat Jones and writer Andrew Foley.

The Second Age of Beamdog was the creation of the Enhanced Editions of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II and Icewind Dale, which was a long period involving hard work on all fronts – gaining the licenses, reconstructing the mysteries of the tech, and then rebuilding the engine for modern machines. “Our effort during this point was focused on rebuilding the Infinity Engine from a Windows 95 oriented architecture to a multi-platform engine which allowed the improvement and extension of the existing games.” Given how ancient some of that code was, and out-of-date the tools were, that took quite some time

The Third Age is where we are now, starting with The Siege of Dragonspear, and it’s all about scratch-built content creation. After all the story of Baldur’s Gate has been told, and we all know how it goes – but there are plot holes aplenty. “The idea of a new story I’ve never played before is amazingly exciting. I think the older games are amazing and having new content caters to the existing fan-base, which is more hardcore and more interested in deep content…. (so) we’ve written a completely new story, made all new environments and created well over 25 hours of all new gameplay for fans of the Baldur’s Gate series. We answer the question posed in the Baldur’s Gate II opening cinematic, what were the “dark circumstances” which forced the hero of Baldur’s Gate to leave the city?”

And what of the Fourth Age of Beamdog? Where can the company go from here? “As to what the focus of the Fourth Age will be, I’ll leave that open to the imagination… I have more projects in my head than neurons.” says Oster. “I’m a huge D&D fan, with at least a few ideas for almost every setting. I was a big Dragonlance series fan, loved Dark Sun as a setting and played a ton of Forgotten Realms settings.” That’s enough hints at possible futures to leave us all salivating…

Source: 01_06_Beamdog: The Story So Far

Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

On the edge of Ostrava there’s a sharp-sided hill. If you stood on it, you’d have a view over the old city, and you’d marvel at the number of smokestacks you saw. They’re all shapes and sizes and surround the old town centre like widely-spaced fence posts. If it was wintertime, you’d also marvel at how the hill you’re standing on is free of snow, while all around is white satin. Putting your hand on the ground, you’d find it oddly warm.

Like the old buildings and the smokestacks, this hill – called Ema – is a symbol of Ostrava’s inescapable past. It’s formed of the waste from the ironworks in the town’s centre. The last slag was dumped on Ema in 1993 and despite that 22-year gap, it’s still hot. Beneath the streets of Ostrava lies a massive anthracite deposit that made the area the ideal location for iron smelting, and which had been exploited for more than 200 years.

Source: Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

Why our child won't have my name.

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So, we’re having a child. In less than a month. And it won’t have my name. There are many rational reasons why this is, but the main one, to get out of the way, is that the presumption a child should take the father’s name is nonsense on stilts. Tradition is never a good argument.

On top of that, there’s good feminist reasons for he/she/it (damn the lack of an acceptable gender neutral) to have my partner’s name – to balance out the long history of mankind where children didn’t have women’s names and women were excluded from society, seen just as vectors for men’s seed, treated as chattel and the property of their husbands.

Of course, there’s no reason it should have anything like my name, or even a standard human name. “Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion.” FM-2030 said “I am not who I was ten years ago and certainly not who I will be in twenty years.” I’d rather our child escaped the shackles of tradition, though she can opt in later, should she so wish.

Tradition is only local: surnames were mononymous in most areas of the world at one time, then became bynames, to distinguish people. In Prestatyn, where my grandma lived, the surnames were so similar that it was still normal to call people that way – she used to call them Jones the Butcher, Jones the Taxi, and Jones the Baker. Outside of there, I’m sure Jones of Prestatyn wouldn’t be unknown.

Though I was open to the child not having either of our names, we’re sadly not as enlightened as FM-2030. It’s probably going to have a first name that reflects something of its heritage, and it will take its mother’s surname. I was also open to the child being given just a first name, then choosing its own surname at the age of majority; we may just emphasise that it can change its own name whenever it wants.

Practically though, the child is in the medium and long run more likely to grow up with its mother, so it should have her name. There’s a higher chance of me dying and a higher chance of it staying with her if we split up (which we’re not planning to, but it’s wise to be rational). Even for day-to-day aspects, the child is initially dependent on her, so more likely to be travelling with her around the country and world.

There’s also the aesthetic qualities of our actual names. My surname is batshit hard to spell. I’ve gradually got tired of spelling it out and typing it out every day. My partner’s name is as interesting and not an absolute pisser to spell. And it’s much easier to make puns or references with her name – Dain – and the middle names which I’m trying so hard to slip in like Duné or Ironfoot.

The final quality for decision-making is core; respect. The woman carries the baby, and suffers huge pain and terrible damage. All the support I can give is nothing in comparison to what she has to go through so we can have a child.