Sunday 31 January 2010

Trinity Western & academic freedom

There's a storm brewing over a Canadian university union's decision to blacklist Christian college Trinity Western University, BC, for compromising academic freedom.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) takes aim at the university's Statement of Faith, which binds every member of its faculty. This binding document stipulates assent to some very specific conservative evangelical doctrines, including the inerrancy of the Scriptures, for example:
We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavour should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.
Dr Todd Pettigrew of Cape Breton University has addressed the concerns at Maclean's blogs here and here. The comments threads have been dominated by TWU students and faculty defending the institution.

I generally side with Pettigrew and CAUT, but I can sympathize with TWU students. I too studied at a conservative college that had a similar statement of faith, and in retrospect I feel I received a very good theological education. After all, it was thanks to my education there that I was able to reach my present position as an agnostic. Although I undoubtedly have not reached the conclusions the college would want me to reach, I wasn't shielded from the full array of Christian and non-Christian views, biblical criticism or critical thinking.

But teaching is just one part of a university. Universities also exist for research. Academics are expected to engage in debates, write papers, attend conferences, argue positions, publish findings and contribute to current research. How can they do this with integrity when they are in an institution that requires them never to reach conclusions outside a very tight doctrinal framework?

And make no mistake, this is about very, very specific dogmas. I find it at best mistaken, at worst disingenuous for TWU to defend itself (as many of its faculty have on the Maclean's website) by appealing to some broad, Christian philosophical foundation. The Statement of Faith prescribes extremely specific doctrines outside which its faculty cannot fall. How can free investigation of ideas take place when such narrow parameters are defined in advance?

My own area of interest, and the subject of my degree, is biblical studies. A true scholar approaches the Bible like any other document: it is a human document, open to critical interpretation, and its truth cannot be taken for granted. There have been evangelical scholars who have engaged in critical scholarship, certainly, and I have even benefited from their work. Craig A Evans, formerly of Trinity Western, is one of them.

But still, under TWU's Statement of Faith, a biblical scholar is only free to reach conclusions that fall within evangelical orthodoxy and do not compromise the belief that the Bible is "without error." In no other discipline would an academic be taken seriously if she declared in advance that she was unwilling to go outside a basic presupposition that documents X, Y and Z were infallible. In scholarship, everything is up for grabs. Nothing is beyond skepticism and criticism.

Frankly, it seems to me that evanglical biblical scholarship takes advantage of the weight of cultural assumptions and tradition when it comes to this. Christian orthodoxy has power on its side. The assumption still holds sway that religious beliefs are entitled to an automatic respect and deference that other beliefs lack.

Christian scholars cannot have their cake and eat it. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, for instance, wrote last week that "all theological scholarship should be done with the ultimate goal of building up the saints, confounding the opponents of the gospel, and encouraging the brethren." If your main goal is to uphold a religious agenda (and again, a very specific one, in this case very conservative Reformed Calvinism), don't call it scholarship.

Many have quite reasonably pointed out that secular university professors also have their presuppositions. Someone asked me whether I seriously thought that secular academics revisited and changed their presuppositions.

My response is that I am sure there are many professors who never change their presuppositions. But in theory they can return to the very basis of their beliefs to examine, challenge and fundamentally change them. In a secular university that can happen. Surely that possibility is fundamental to scholarship? Unfortunately, it's what an academic forced to fall in line with a tightly defined set of doctrines is forbidden to do.

(Readers may also be interested in my article for Ex-Gay Watch on the current Wheaton College controversy.)

Friday 29 January 2010

'Fessing up

I've been tagged for a meme by the lovely Ruth Moss at Look Left of the Pleiades. It's an 'honesty' meme, requiring me to 'fess up to 10 secrets, or at the very least things that my readers probably don't yet know about me.

1. I Google my name often. I'd wager most writers do this, but don't admit it.

2. "Gay" is a label I use because it's the most convenient commonplace label for me, but if I laid all my sexual thoughts bare, I'm much more complicated. I'm attracted to women, but not as intensely as I am to men. And it's almost always strictly sexual, where my attraction to men is as much romantic. "Bisexual" might be technically correct, but I think most people think of that as a 50/50 thing. I guess you could say I'm gay, but with a fetish for women.

3. Related to that, I did actually lay all my sexual thoughts bare one time in an anonymous blog. It no longer exists.

4. I support marriage equality because it's a right that others deserve, but I'm indifferent to the idea of gay marriage for myself. If I ever made that kind of commitment, I'd just as soon have a civil partnership. I can't imagine calling my partner "husband," but I'm all for the rights of others to do as they like.

5. I have a tasteless sense of humour. I'm usually wise enough to know when and with whom I can and can't express it, though I've made mistakes.

6. Almost everything I say and think has a tinge of irony to it. In my mind that doesn't detract from being serious about something. The two aren't mutually exclusive, and it bugs me when people think they are. It also bugs me when irony is mistaken for sarcasm. I rarely intend to wound others with my irony.

7. I take medication for depression and anxiety, and have done since 2005. The writing life suits me because I tend towards reclusion. Ironically, people generally perceive me as outgoing.

8. I vlogged on YouTube for about a year. I had 500 followers. I gradually lost interest, and eventually deleted most of my videos, finding them embarrassing to watch.

9. I think most religious beliefs are nutty, but inconsequential. In my experience, moderate believers tend to have a cognitive dissonance so that their most irrational beliefs rarely have an affect on their reasoning, thoughts and actions outside a very limited sphere.

10. Even though I've rejected theism, I can't shake off Jesus or religion. Nor do I particularly want to.

Thursday 28 January 2010

James Delingpole's apology

Following the atrocious debacle of the weekend, in which a member of the public was harassed after having his name and address published at the Telegraph Blogs website, climate change denialist* James Delingpole has offered something of an apology.

Predictably, he can't help but use the opportunity chiefly to sneer at The Guardian's eco-friendly commentator George Monbiot, who called attention to this bizarre behaviour.

Here's the actual apology:
And why did I pull [the article]? Because I made a stupid mistake, that’s why. When I posted up the letter quoted above, I neglected to remove the sender’s name and address. This was careless but not, I promise, vindictive. And I deeply regret any distress or hassle which may have been caused to the person I named. When I read some of the comments below my blog and realised what I’d unwittingly unleashed, I removed the person’s name from the blog; then later, all the comments pertaining to the person; then later, I pulled the blog altogether – embarrassed, ashamed and rather wishing it would all go away. Thanks to Monbiot it hasn’t. But what I would really like to say to the person I named is: I’m sincerely, totally and unreservedly sorry. (And if it’s any consolation, you should see some of the hatemail I’ve been getting from Monbiot’s Guardianista chums).
Fair enough.

I am still unconvinced by Delingpole's explanation of his outrage, however. The charge is that similar (but not exactly the same, I believe) letters were sent by different individuals to 200 different Conservative MPs and parliamentary candidates, which Delingpole thinks is evidence that a global warming lobby is behind the letters. Highly likely, but I am not convinced that is the problem Delingpole wants us to think it is. And it is a huge problem for him. Significant enough that he suggested it was "nauseating," a case of "stalking" by "eco-bullies," and the work of a "disgusting eco-fascist organisation." He even proposes "f--- off" would be the best response from Edwin Northover, the Tory PPC who received the email.

I don't buy his defense of his hysterical overreaction. To explain, here's how I replied to his blog on the Telegraph thread:
James, I have great difficulty believing you would get so hysterical (and you appear not to know how blatantly hysterical and unhinged your rants sound) were it an anti-AGW who had sent a letter as part of a campaign by an anti-AGW group.

The letter itself was so innocuous, the charge of bullying and stalking is just ridiculous. Unless MPs and PPCs are really so thin-skinned, in which case they’re in the wrong business.

I can’t help but see a parallel with last week’s ruling in the US that corporations should be free to provide unlimited finance to political parties. The argument I heard from the political right was that a corporation was protected by the First Amendment (free speech) just as surely as an individual. Every group is made up of individuals. An individual pressing a PPC or MP for answers is valid, but several individuals making a coordinated effort to press for answers is bullying? It was very clear in this weekend’s debacle who was bullying who.

Granted, Monbiot has a political axe to grind with all this, but even if he’s a broken clock… you know the saying.

*Denialists, feel free to educate me on the appropriate inoffensive term for someone who denies anthropocentric global warming.

Why is the Daily Mail still here?

While browsing the website of the Press Complaints Commission (in relation to James Delingpole's appalling behaviour at Telegraph Blogs this weekend - I haven't lodged a complaint, but I don't doubt many people have), I noted the following regulation:
The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
How on earth are the tabloids still going?

Wednesday 27 January 2010

'Climategate' arguments take nasty turn

There has been invective on both sides of the climate debate, and never more than since so-called Climategate, the scandal rather euphemistically dubbed the "Climactic Research Unit hacking incident" by Wikipedia. The scandal is that climate researchers at the University of East Anglia were caught manipulating data in an effort to bolster scientific evidence for anthropocentric global warming.

In the immediate aftermath, the media was full of environmentalists, global warning campaigners and scientists trying desperately to downplay the controversy, alongside climate change deniers having a field day hailing the revelations as a harbinger of the wholesale collapse of the man-made global warming theory.

Neo-conservative commentator James Delingpole of the Daily Telegraph blogs has emerged as one of the most popular (and vitriolic) online voices decrying climate change and keeping Climategate alive. His tone is generally both strident and nasty, if tongue-in-cheek - not just on this, but on any politically charged subject.

On Sunday, George Monbiot of The Guardian reports, Delingpole overstepped the mark severely by publishing an email correspondence from a member of the public to a Conservative Party parliamentary candidate, along with the name and address of the sender. The email was described outlandishly as "nauseating," and a case of "stalking" by "eco-bullies." He suggests a suitable response to the email would be "f--- off," and asks which "disgusting eco-fascist organisation" might be sponsoring the emails. According to the article, several Tory candidates have received "similar" emails, suggesting they were part of a campaign.

Delingpole's description alone is worrying. Stalking? Bullying? Disgusting? Nauseating? Eco-fascism? Worthy of an F-off? All conclusions extracted from one email? You might be surprised how placid and inoffensive the actual email was:
Date: 2010/1/22
Subject: Conservation Query

Dear Edwin Northover,

I was concerned to note the results of a survey of 140 Conservative candidates for parliament that suggested that climate change came right at the bottom of their priorities for government action.

I hope you can reassure me that you recognise the importance and success of climate change action by the UK government at home and internationally.

Can you clarify that:

You accept that climate change is caused by human activity?

Do you support the target to achieve 15% renewable energy by 2020?

Do you support the EU imposing tougher regulation to combat climate change?

Kind Regards,


I am quite dumbfounded. Regardless of the scientific rights and wrongs of climate change, why such a wildly disproportionate reaction to a person exercising his perfect right to ask some questions of a potential parliamentary candidate? Perhaps it was part of a campaign. And? Is this illegal? Is it morally objectionable? Is it deserving of such an unfettered attack? He later says his concern is that it may be "concerted campaign by a green lobby group, masquerading as the work of concerned individuals." However, the two are not mutually exclusive. It's perfectly possible to be a concerned individual and join a collective campaign in a course of action.

But, of course, it gets worse. Delingpole published the name and address of the email's sender. A Google cache of the article shows the name and address missing, but this is a cache of a later version. Only a few lines down the thread, the first comment to mention the identity of the correspondent assumes everyone already knows it from the article. Further down, another commenter quotes from the article, and the name and address remain intact. Eventually, Delingpole himself says he published the details, but later removed them.

If you spend any time at Telegraph Blogs (personally, of the political commentators, I've only found one author I respect), you'll have noticed that no matter how objectionable their content, the commenters the site attracts are far, far more extreme. In my experience, the average commenter votes BNP and would happily set back gay rights to some time in the 1950s.

So it is unsurprising that a disturbing and vicious attack followed from Delingpole's irresponsible post. Within a couple of posts, a commenter had identified the address on Google Maps and posted a photograph of the emailer's house. If I were that man, I would feel very threatened by this. I imagine Delingpole would feel similarly intimidated if a bitter enemy had posted details of his address and photographs of his house online.

Soon his phone number too was posted, and other commenters were posting other personal details.

Ironically, amid all this, someone chimes in to condemn the email as "intrusive and abusive lobbying."

Within a few hours of the post, a commenter was claiming to have personally telephoned the man in question:

I tried to telephone XXXXXXX on the number helpfully posted in this blog, but he’s out until tomorrow. Perhaps he is out ‘tackling climate change’? – anyway his missus didn’t seem to know where he was.

Delingpole later interrupts:

It’s a bit late but I’ve taken out the bit where the sender of the email is named. And I really think it’s wrong to ring up the chap or bother him. It’s not him I was getting at. I’m after the green organization which encouraged all this mass letter-writing.

Did Delingpole not notice that half his followers were unhinged enough to abuse the information he'd so carelessly published? Anyone to the left of Enoch Powell could have predicted this outcome.

Eventually, the entire discussion thread and the original post were removed.

I find this very worrying. James Delingpole, who has the affront to make hysterical claims of bullying, fascism and stalking, is himself engaged in a very nasty piece of bullying.

And how did he get hold of this email sent to Edwin Northover, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Leyton and Wanstead? Did Northover himself pass this on?

I have read the Telegraph daily since the mid-1990s. I've always found the quality of the journalism very high, but the shrill, hysterical, increasingly extreme right-wing tone of Telegraph Blogs has left me with much less faith in the newspaper. Delingpole's outrageously misjudged, vindictive post has finally stepped over a line. The Telegraph ought to ask some serious questions of this incident.

And the Conservative Party should be asking some questions of its candidate Edwin Northover to determine his part in this farce.

[Edit: In the thread, Delingpole admitted to publishing the name, but not specifically the address. However, the user theunbrainwashed posts what appears to be a direct quote from the article, which includes an address. This still suggests Delingpole was the first to supply the address.]

[Later edit: This thread confirms that both were published. I am really baffled by this. Either Delingpole had a deliberate aim in publishing the man's name and address, or he experienced a spectacular lapse of judgment. What journalist overlooks such details as a private name and address?]

Pentecostals lack basic hygiene. Discuss.

I came across an intriguing statement by the Episcopalian priest Morton T Kelsey. In his 1973 book Healing and Christianity, he wrote that "Pentecostal churches [have] orgiastic practices and disregard for the laws of hygiene."

I am not sure if he was simply paraphrasing the author (the interestingly named Dr Wade Boggs) he was discussing at the time, and assumed we would know that, or if it was his own opinion. Either way, I'm not sure what it means. "Orgiastic" is easy enough to read as a reference to the perceived chaotic, uncontrolled, emotional style of Pentecostal worship. But is that actually an accusation that Pentecostals are unhygienic? Here is the whole paragraph, putting the sentence in context:
Dr. Boggs points up the fact that in recent years most of the emphasis on religious healing has come from fringe groups about which there is reason to be skeptical. Christian Science (and Mrs. Eddy is certainly a controversial figure) is one example. New Thought with its dubious ancestry in the theory and practice of animal magnetism is another. The Pentecostal churches with their orgiastic practices and disregard for the laws of hygiene form yet another class, and he discusses such figures as Oral Roberts, Little David, Aimee Semple McPherson, and others. The implication is that, because the ministry of healing has sometimes been associated with ridiculous practices and foolish persons, therefore that ministry is itself ridiculous.
I am both amused and bemused that in 1973 an author could apparently get away with such a statement without feeling the need to elaborate. What could Kelsey be alluding to? One can imagine such a criticism in the early days of Pentecostalism. All those people crowding together, touching and embracing and waving their handkerchiefs in the air in the heat of the Deep South - and not to mention whites mixing so casually with Negroes!

Or perhaps it was a comment on the working class origins of most Pentecostals way back when? In the context of a discussion on spiritual and religious healing, the accusation could almost read this way: How dare the Pentecostals practice faith healing while they ignore the basic principles of good health and hygiene!

I am perplexed. I suppose it's likely that our Boggs, writing in the 1950s, had those views. It's Morton T Kelsey, writing in 1973 without challenging those assumptions, that rather baffles me. Did I miss something?

Saturday 23 January 2010

Pet hates in movie fakery

This is a list of things in films that bug me because they're unrealistic. I made it because I felt like it.

Driving without keeping one's eyes on the road. You'd think a good actor would know that when people drive, they generally keep looking ahead of them. If they do look elsewhere, they do so for a second or two, tops (or they crash). So how do even the best actors get away with taking their eyes off the often-busy road for ten seconds or more at a time to have a conversation?

Drinking out of cups that are clearly empty. For some reason, this happens in Dexter all the time. Not surprising, perhaps, since donuts and coffee are two of the biggest recurring characters in the show. But it is obvious to me when someone is drinking out of an empty cup. Especially when it's shop-bought coffee that would clearly burn your tongue off at the roots if you drank it that quickly.

Picking up boxes, bags and packages that are clearly empty. Newsflash to props guy: We can tell that crate that guy just picked up is made of fibreglass and contains a nothing but a handful of packing peanuts.

People in meetings and church services responding in unison. Maybe it's just me, because I endured all of my adolescence in Pentecostal church services, but it irritates me when everyone responds to a preacher or evangelist with a perfectly unison "Amen!". Real born-again services are a little, and sometimes a hell of a lot less coordinated.

I may add to this list occasionally as other bits of random Hollywood fakery grate against me.

This is the blog of David L Rattigan

Since I started writing for The Guardian's Comment is free, my presence in search-engine results has changed dramatically. An unfortunate side effect of this is that a Google search for "David L Rattigan" turns up several former blogs before this current blog is found a few pages in.

I don't want to delete my former Blogger sites, since it is well-known that deleted urls are easily taken over by spammers, which could have much less desirable effects. All the content has been deleted, so they are basically just empty blogs, with an url directing any readers to my current location.

So I'm hoping that this post, by using key words such as Dave Rattigan, David L Rattigan, David L Rattigan's blog and Dave Rattigan's blog, will give a bit of a nudge to the search engines.

Any other advice would be gratefully received.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Lend a helping hand

Michael Spencer, aka The Internet Monk, is very, very sick with cancer. His income and his health insurance come to an end soon. It is no secret that he has spent most of his ministry and career working for peanuts at a private Christian school in what appears to be one of America's poorest regions (in rural Kentucky).

If you know Michael and his writings, and can pitch in a few bucks, I can guarantee your donation would not be wasted. You can give via the PayPal button on Michael's website.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Gay Brit turns straight, attacks gays

From The Guardian’s Comment is free this morning:

Writing in the Times earlier this week, Patrick Muirhead describes “the day I decided to stop being gay“. Even allowing for its firmly tongue-in-cheek tone, the problem with his article is that he really seems to believe the half-truths he presents about homosexuality.

He talks of his increasing attraction to women, or more pertinently his attraction to the idea of a wife and children – though in fact, when his decision was made, no woman was even in the picture. It was the sight of a father playing with his child that persuaded this one-time “fully fledged homo” to pursue a traditional, heterosexual family life. This is a spectre that cannot be avoided throughout the article: has the author really changed, or is he just enamoured of the idea of “normality”?

In common with many others who have given up the supposedly hedonistic lifestyle of the modern gay man, Muirhead cannot resist taking a parting shot at homosexuals. It’s a familiar pattern, especially in the US, where the religious, rightwing “ex-gay” movement thrives on myth-making about the dangers of same-sex love.

Read the full article, by yours truly, here.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Review: Misery (Stephen King)

I can't say I'm much of a Stephen King fan. I may have read bits and pieces when I was a kid, but in adulthood I have read a novella, a novel and the first few chapters of one other novel.

The novella was The Body, part of the collection Different Seasons. It was famously made into the beautifully crafted 1986 movie Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner. Much of the book made it almost word-for-word into the screenplay. It certainly has some very readable, funny dialogue. But the book was just "okay."

Then I began The Shining. (I recently moved, and shelves of Stephen King paperbacks are all I've had to hand.) Frankly, it was a bore, and King's dialogue for a five-year-old was embarrassingly unconvincing (even for a five-year-old with psychic gifts).

Misery was a compulsive, exciting read, however.

It is easy to find flaws in King's writing, and they can get annoying at times. For example, he picks up a metaphor and uses it to death. In the first part of Misery he latches onto the metaphor of a tide washing over a wooden post, and all of a sudden it's everywhere, branching out into all kinds of sub-metaphors. He doesn't seem to know when to lay it to rest.

The excerpts from the central character's novel are pretty badly written, too - but apparently it turns out to be his finest novel ever. (The exception is the penultimate sequence with the bees, but I shan't be more specific and give anything away.)

However, Misery is such a tense, involving thriller, I could easily forgive these glitches. King writes truly riveting suspense sequences that leave the reader breathlessly anxious to read on. Several times I was feverishly flipping from one page to the next, uttering, "Oh shit!" under my breath as revelations were made and the plot twisted.

This is quite a remarkable feat for a story whose action mainly takes place between two people in a single setting - a setting I gained a remarkable sense for.

I look forward immensely to watching the film this evening. Although I've never seen it, it's familiar enough to me that I couldn't read the book without picturing the iconic Kathy Bates in the role of Annie Wilkes, a character King writes strikingly.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Dispelling myths about leaving fundamentalism

When I was a fundamentalist, I had a perception about those who had left the fold that I can now see was far from the truth. My perception was that those who had left born-again Christianity were never really as committed or convinced as I was. I knew I could never forsake my faith; therefore anyone who left their born-again, Bible-believing, conservative evangelical faith never truly had the relationship with Jesus that I had.

I was wrong. I know that now that I'm on the outside.

I can think of some reasons why I thought that. First, to admit that ex-fundamentalists, liberals, agnostics and atheists were once like me would be to admit that I too could be that way one day. Second, I had such certainty, I couldn't fathom why or how anyone who really knew God could consider any way other than straight-down-the-line, Bible-believing religion.

Pastor, preacher, saint, brother, sister: I was once just like you.

I believed, yes, really believed that Jesus died to save me from Hell. I knew the Bible was true. I shed tears as I worshiped. I spoke in tongues, received words of prophecy and fell to the floor under the power of the Holy Spirit. I talked to God and he talked to me. I stood on street corners and proclaimed loudly that Jesus was the only way to heaven. I even got the call, went to Bible College and interned as a pastor.

Some Christians will suppose that there was always something deficient in my Christianity. They will say I lacked some essential element of faith, or my foundation was insecure. My faith was all in my head and never in my heart, they will say. They will suppose that I never had the quality of relationship with God that they have. Some will have to believe that, or they would have to open their minds to the potentially terrifying possibility that one day they too might stop believing.

No, brothers and sisters, sorry. I was pretty much where you are now.

This is just one of many myths about those who leave fundamentalism. Stay tuned, as I'll be addressing a few others in the coming weeks.