Many people have pondered the real reasons for the Iraq war, the stated reasons being so blatantly false. Most critics have claimed it was a war for oil; some have suggested it was a stupid mistake by a clique of idiots; others have proposed the darker conspiracy theory that it was intended to unleash chaos specifically to keep the oil in the ground. Well, today Tony Blair revealed the truth: it was a crusade by Protestant extremists. In a piece for the observer, Tony “the Vampire” Blair gives his considered opinion of wars in the 21st century, and decides that they will be primarily driven by religious extremism.

Well, the Iraq war was the second war of the 21st century, its longest-running new war, and certainly a fairly serious business. Before it was invaded, Iraq was a secular dictatorship. It was invaded by a ragtag coalition of Christians, and the leaders of the coalition of the willing were two Protestant nations. Surely we should apply the Vampire’s logic to the big war that he started? Western religious extremism is surely the greatest threat to world peace …

We can do better than that though, can’t we? Now we can look to the religious roots of the Senkaku Islands conflict, driven by the irreconcilable differences between Confucian fascists on the one hand and Shinto Extremists on the other. The increasingly tense dispute between Indonesia and Australia is not really over boat people, but over interpretations of whether Jesus was the son of God. And what is this shit about the conflict in the Central African Republic being ethnically based? It’s clearly a threeway fight to the death between born-again christian fanatics, shamanic exterminationists, and moderate Islam. Right?

History tells me that people in the UK voted in quite large numbers for Tony Blair, several times. I find this hard to believe. Was there ever a time when if he opened his mouth, lies or garbage didn’t come out? Because I don’t remember it, but surely millions of British voters (adults, apparently!) couldn’t have been so easily fooled? Once again there can only be one explanation: Tony Blair is an extremely powerful vampire, with incredible powers of mass hypnosis. Put a stake through that beast! Or at least, keep its hideous rantings off the pages of national newspapers …

I follow God on Facebook[1]. Not the real God, obviously, but this one has almost as many followers: just over a million people follow God. God does a couple of weekly regular updates that get a lot of attention: he does a weekly smite where he finds someone really annoying in public life and threatens to strike them down with some terrible curse; he posts pictures of new creations in which he has blended animals together; and he runs regular “Ask God” sessions where you can ask him questions about life. My favourite was the guy who asked God “why does my girlfriend yell your name when she is coming,” but he has a wide range of questioners. He also occasionally puts up hate mail he gets – he gets a lot of messages from people telling him to stop mocking God, and mostly these messages are full of hatred and anger.

I think it’s safe to say that God is a pretty forgiving, tolerant, inclusive kind of guy. He’s of the pro-gay-marriage, live-and-let-live, community-action-minded kind of viewpoint, not the kind of person who supports vengeance and judgment. He’s how God would be if God hadn’t written the Old Testament, and caused all manner of trouble with his violence and vengeance. This is not a God that will turn you to salt for disobeying him, and will refer you to a suicide helpline rather than tell you not to do it or you’ll go to hell. He’s also funny, sometimes hilarious, and a generally light-hearted and positive voice on my Facebook feed.

Sadly for God, recently his mother died, and he and his family were rightly distraught about it. He announced this on his website and received a huge outpouring of support. Perhaps buoyed by this, God revealed that the insurance company were being dickheads, and set up an Indiegogo website to raise $5000 to send his dad on a holiday. This got a huge response, and within a couple of days God had raised $20,000. You can read more details about the positive aspects of this story at this blogpost about God as a community phenomenon.

Sadly, God’s Indiegogo successes brought some trouble to his online community, and the very worst of humanity came crawling out from under their rocks to criticize him. The things they said were terrible, and the things they said about those who donated to him were also terrible. The worst of the comments have been weeded out now so I can’t copy them, but there are still some pearlers. For example, one person wrote:

like i said before…it is kind of sad that i asked for money to pay my mother’s cancer bills and did not receive a penny…but YOU raise thousands of dollar’s for ” a vacation”……what a shameful example of humanity !!!

Another wrote:

I’ve had enough. Man, it’s like a car wreck!! I can’t believe how many gullible people there are in the world! Yes this was a fun page to visit on occasion but folks….his reward for putting the page up in the first place is his million followers. That’s the reason he does it. He doesn’t get to expect money for making you laugh. To each their own but you are sending money to a cartoon image. You know nothing about this person except what he/she wants you to know. If you think he or she is going to visit you while on vacation with Dad, you’ve got another think coming. YOU ARE SENDING MONEY TO A CARTOON!!!

while someone else writes

like this god page, but i think asking for money and receiving over $20,000 is kind of bullshit in my eyes, sounds alot like gods taking this stuff to seriously and becoming like the church……

but the nastiest by far for me was a comment that has now been taken down, which I saw with my own eyes when it was put up, in which someone wrote

Both my parents died and I didn’t get a cent from anyone. Get a fucking job.

These comments to me seem to show the worst of humanity. Some guy with a million followers openly states that he wants to raise money for some personal, completely selfish purpose; people give him money because they like him and it’s no trouble to them; he raises more than expected and decides to use it for himself; but for a  sizable minority of the population, this is a terrible terrible sin. The first quoted comment shows the reason for this: people can see a person getting something they couldn’t get, and they are angry about that. But they aren’t just angry – although they know that he is sad from a recent loss of a close family member, they post critical comments and accusations on his facebook wall where he can see them. These comments include personal attacks, accusations that he is lying about his family, that he is a scammer, and demands for him to drop his anonymity. Something that had originally been a source of joy for a person going through a difficult time has obviously turned into a huge and painful chore, simply because a sizable minority of people on this earth hate to see someone else gain something for nothing. And no doubt some of the attacks will rub off on God, making him feel like a dirty person for simply asking for help and receiving it. Is this a microcosm of the reasons why so many people are opposed to welfare in all its forms? And why charity is always expected to come with so many strings and so much shame?

I find this particularly amusing when I compare God’s honest and open request for money for jam with the way so many Indiegogo users scam their users through obvious deception. I defriended someone from my Facebook after they began spamming their friends with Indiegogo fundraisers for a project that was clearly dishonest and that they never intended to deliver on; and of course the role-playing world has been beset by very real scams involving large sums of money on undelivered projects, and an entire website devoted to uncovering vaporware. Strangely though, the Dwimmermount project still has supporters even though the author has disappeared for 18 months and taken $50k with him; while God cops a heavy dose of abuse for asking for $5k for the stated purpose of producing nothing. How can it be that the humans in this world can behave this way? What psychological or philosophical perspective makes people supportive of a scam with no product after 18 months, but critical of a direct and simple plea for money from someone who has been entertaining a million people for 3 years?

It’s as if God has managed to prove that there is no humanity out there, just a deep, untapped well of jealousy and immaturity.

fn1: yes, I am sufficiently shallow to have facebook. And no I don’t use google+.

The Shaikh would not approve!

The Shaikh would not approve!

I discovered tonight that my blog has come to the attention of a Muslim scholar in the UK, in a piece he wrote about the UK census. Like me, this scholar noted the obssessive focus of the UK press on the growth of Islam, rather than the explosion of atheism[1]. Unlike me, the writer of this piece didn’t comment on the simultaneous release of gay marriage laws that privilege the bigotry of the mainstream churches. I wonder why?

Anyway, in previous posts here I have presented the use of Tolkien by fascists as evidence in favour of my thesis that his work is racist. So it’s only fair that I hoist myself on my own petard, and have a look at what kind of people hold my work in high esteem[2]. If we can find even one work by this website that supports the veil, then surely I’m anti bikini? Right?

Fortunately, the Islam21c website gives a convenient collection of all the works of the scholar in question, Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, so we can read his opinions in full, and an interesting read they are. Essentially they read like your standard form of leftist religiosity, with perhaps a touch more homophobia and prostration than one might see of a Catholic liberation theologist, but generally in the same vein – they’re the sort of thing that a mainstream leftist christian in America would probably approve of (minus the “peace be upon him”s) or that a conservative Australian catholic unionist (or even Tony Abbott) could get behind. They also have a particular theme that you won’t find in the works of a “mainstream” religious activist in the UK – how to deal with being a Muslim in Britain. And in this regard they don’t read particularly differently to the opinions of a practical Marxist or fascist, in that they attempt to provide guidelines for how to conduct oneself in a world that one simultaneously appreciates and enjoys, but finds morally bankrupt and which (to a greater or lesser extent depending on one’s political and religious leanings) rejects you or your kind. Thus we find advice on whether or not to vote (do so, but do so from a framework of minimizing evil, and aim to follow the advice of Muslim scholars about which party to vote for); advice about how to respond to the killing of bin Laden (which, funnily enough, contains no advice; but condemns al Qaeda while blaming everything on America); an opinion on the London riots (morally reprehensible, but driven by racism and the exclusion of the poor from education[4]); and recommendations about banking practice (if you hold views which require a boycott, as do e.g. vegetarians or environmentalists, then you need people to gather information and present their opinion of whether particular products are valid to use[3]). Every gold card should have a fatwa!

More interesting is the site’s attempts to describe the nature of the hijab (voluntary, but recommended to all), the issue of immodest hijabs (yes, they exist!) and the problems inherent in treating the hijab as a symbol of identity rather than an act of worship (I actually thought these readings would put many a post-structuralist feminist to shame); and most interestingly, its ongoing series of posts on what it means to be British in an Islamic context, built around a debate with another Islamic scholar about the role of music (very appropriate, given the strength of British culture in the production of music). Would that mainstream journalists in the UK could put as much thought into these issues as this obscure website has done! In this context I thought the open letter to David Cameron was particularly impressive.

Although I think I can say I disagree with almost everything on this site, I think I understand the fundamental struggle it describes: to try to live according to a strict set of moral precepts in a world that doesn’t agree with them, or that agrees with them in principle but doesn’t support them practically. You can see this from christian fundamentalists, vegans, pacifists and some kinds of Marxists and libertarians, and the personal struggles their websites describe are all the same. Unlike some christians in the west, though, this site is more honest: it directly blames the Japanese tsunami on a failure to embrace the correct God – a view this tired atheist would have once got angry about, but now appreciates for its cruel honesty. The more times that religious people say things like this, the more potential followers they will lose, because in statements like this they reveal the fundamental cruelty of the god they claim loves them, and the responsibility of all right thinking people everywhere to oppose those gods if they were real. Anyone who submits to a god that kills 10,000 people even though they have never had a chance to convert to his “love” is lacking some fundamental understanding of what compassion is. Or is being very bloody-minded. Either way, it’s better that these things are stated openly than clothed in mealy-mouthed excuses about “the problem of evil.”

Anyway, the post-colonial critique of mainstream analyses of Islam was good, as was the debate about what it means to be British, and the subjugation of nationalism to the greater struggle – very much in keeping with the major streams of international socialist thought. Shame about the hocus-pocus, but you can’t have everything – but who cares when you can hoist faustusnotes on his own petard, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that my website is opposed to bikinis!? And, no doubt, objectively pro-terrorist …

fn1: incidentally, my spell-checker notes that “Islam” requires a capital “I” whereas “atheism” does not need a capital. Typing here, I also note that “Christianity” requires a capital “C”. I think this is bullshit. I think in all future posts, I will capitalize the “A” in “Atheism.”

fn2: my claiming that this islam21c blog holds me in high esteem might be stretching it a bit, but we don’t get a great many hits around here, so please go easy on me.

fn3: In Australia, vegans generally told each other that Toohey’s Red and Coopers were safe beers to drink

fn4: but your average rioter probably doesn’t want to assume this means they receive any sympathy – if our friendly shaikh had his way, they’d be getting a hand amputated!

Christianity’s fundamental promise is of eternal life, and the risk of refusing to accept God’s grace is generally accepted to be eternal damnation. While the truth of these statements is still subject to debate, there is little empirical evidence of the benefit of eternal life, and little research exploring the possible drawbacks of a decision to forego evil in exchange for the promise of eternal salvation. In a world of finite resources, decisions about how best to dispose of available resources while alive need to take into account the long-term and (if certain cosmological properties are shown to hold) potentially eternal consequences of the choice between good and evil. In this blog post, we will examine the costs and benefits of baptism and rejection of sin from an econometric standpoint. Of specific interest in this blog post is the relationship between the benefits of accepting God’s grace and the discount rate society applies to years of life not yet lived.

The immediate use of an analysis of the costs and benefits of accepting god’s grace is obvious, but from a wider perspective a clear understanding of the economic aspects of this theological decision may help us to understand the persistence of evil in a world where humans have free will, and to answer the eternal question: why does evil exist in a world shaped according to God’s will?


Standard cost-effectiveness analysis methods were applied to two simple decision problems. The first decision problem is the question of whether or not to baptize a child, on the assumption that baptism grants the child God’s grace, causing them to live a holy life but to lose the benefits that might accrue to an evil-doer. The analysis was then extended to consider a problem implicit in a great deal of modern rhetoric about the soul and sexuality, viz: if homosexuality is a choice, and that choice leads only to hell, is it cost-effective to choose to be homosexual? This question was answered in terms of numbers of partners foregone, and quality-adjusted life years gained from the sacrifice.

The basic decision problem: whether to baptize

The basic decision problem was addressed using standard measures of effectiveness. It was assumed that were a child to be baptized they would be eligible to enter heaven upon their death, and would thus be able to live forever. Were they not to be baptized, they are assumed to enter hell at death. Each year of life lived was assumed to grant the individual a full quality adjusted life year (QALY); each year in heaven (from now until the rapture, i.e. infinite years from now) was also assumed to grant 1 QALY; while entry into hell was considered to grant 0 QALYs. All QALYs were discounted using the standard formula, and the effect of the discounting rate on the benefits of each decision were calculated over three different life expectancies: 45 years (enlightenment-era), 70 years (biblical lifespan) and 80 years (the life expectancy granted by modern materialist living). Effectiveness was then assessed for a wide range of discount rates, varying from 0.5% to 5%. The difference in QALYs gained (the incremental effect) was then calculated for all these scenarios.

Cost-effectiveness calculation for the baptism problem

Having calculated the incremental effect of baptism, the cost was then calculated under the assumption that evil people make more money. This assumption is implicit in, for example, Mark 8:36, when Jesus asks

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?

which suggests that doing good requires some form of material sacrifice. This is, of course, also obvious in the early doctrine of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and much of pre-enlightenment religious debate was focused around this struggle between material goods and goodness.

This contrast was modeled by a variable \alpha, which represents the percentage of additional annual income an unbaptized sinner earns relative to a person living in grace. For example, if a sinner earns 10% more than a convert, then \alpha=0.1. Then, assuming a fixed average income for god-fearing individuals, we can calculate the lost income due to being good. This is the incremental cost of salvation. From this calculated incremental cost and the incremental benefit, we can estimate an incremental cost effectiveness ratio (ICER), and estimate whether the decision to baptize is cost-effective.

In keeping with standard practice as used by, for example, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, we set the basic income of one of the saved to be the mean income of the UK, and define baptism as “cost-effective” if its ICER falls below a threshold of three times the annual mean income of the UK. We also establish a formula for the cost-effectiveness of salvation, based on the relative difference in income between the good and the evil, the discount rate, and the human lifespan.

All income in future years was discounted in the same way as future QALYs.

The costs and benefits of voluntary homosexuality

Finally, we address a problem implicit in some forms of modern christian rhetoric, that of the wilful homosexual. Many religious theorists seem to think (either implicitly or openly) that homosexuality is a choice. If so, then the choice can be modeled in terms of an exchange of sexual partners for eternal damnation. In this analysis, we calculated the number of sexual partners a potentially homosexual male will forego over a 20 year sexual career commencing at age 15. We assumed that all life years before age 15 are irrelevant to the calculation (that is, we assumed that all individuals make a choice at age 15 as to whether to be good or evil), and that a person foregoing homosexuality will have 0 partners. Other assumptions are the same as those made above. The ICER for being good was then calculated as the cost in foregone sexual partners (discounted over a wide range of rates) divided by the QALYs gained through foregoing this lifestyle and gaining access to heaven.

Faustian discount rates and the problem of heavenly utilities

Commonly used discount rates range from 3 to 5%, but these are potentially inconsistent with the discount rates preferred by evil-doers. In this study we did not model differential discount rates between evil-doers and the elect, but we did consider one special case: that in which everyone observes a discount rate equal to that observed by Dr. Faust. As is well known, Dr. Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly power, and after 24 years his soul was taken into hell. Since he knew the time frame at the beginning of the deal, this implies that he was following a discount rate sufficient to rate all time more than 24 years in the future at 0 value. Under standard discounting practice such a rate does not exist, but we can approximate it by the rate necessary to value all time more than 24 years in the future at no more than 5% of current value. This discount rate, which we refer to as the Faustian Discount Rate, is approximately 12.5%. All scenarios were also tested under this discount rate.

A further problem is the problem of calculating utility weights for a year spent in heaven or hell. Given the lack of empirical data on utility of a year in heaven, and the paucity of first hand accounts, we assumed that a year in heaven was equivalent to a year without pain or suffering of any kind, i.e. one full QALY. According to the site What Christians Want to Know, Revelations 4:8 describes heaven as

a constant chant of holy angels that are continually proclaiming Holy, Holy, Holy over the throne of God.  The Mercy Seat in heaven where God sits is surrounded by magnificent angels full of glory and power that proclaim and bless the holy name of God without ceasing.  Some of these are described as beasts, full of eyes, with six wings and neither rest day or night in their proclaiming the holiness of God.

For those of us who don’t enjoy doom metal, this would probably have a utility value of less than one. In the interests of a conservative analysis, we assign heaven a utility of 1.

A similar problem applies to assigning utilities for hell. Many people claim to have been to hell and back, but their accounts of their time at a Celine Dion concert are not convincing and it is unlikely that accurate data on the state of hell exists. Popular conception of hell suggests a realm of eternal torture, but it is worth noting that in standard burden of disease studies even the most unpleasant and torturous diseases – such as end states of cancer, AIDS, and severe disability – are assigned positive utility weights, often quite a lot higher than 0. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that hell should be assigned a positive but small utility. However, again in the interests of conservative analysis, we assign a utility weight of 0 to a year spent in hell – that is, it is equivalent to death.


Incremental benefit of salvation

The formula for the incremental benefit of salvation can be derived as


where here,

  • LY_{g} is the incremental benefit of being good, in QALYs
  • r is the discount rate
  • l is the human life expectancy

Figure 1 charts this incremental benefit over a wide range of discount rates for three different life expectancies.

Figure 1: Incremental benefit of salvation for three different life expectancies

It is clear that as the discount rate increases the incremental benefit of salvation decreases rapidly. At the Faustian Discount Rate, the incremental benefit of salvation is a mere 0.03 QALYs for a 45 year life expectancy, or 0.0004 for a human with an 80 year life expectancy. That is, even if Faustus had been offered and then rejected his bargain at birth, and expected to live to 45 years only, he would have seen the benefit to himself as being only about 0.03 years of life, due to his tendency to discount the value of years far in the future.

The cost-effectiveness of baptism

We now consider the cost-effectiveness of baptism. Let the income of one of the saved be given by c_{g}, and that of an evil-doer be c_{e}=(1+\alpha)c_{g}. Then the income foregone in order to enter heaven is given by the formula

C=\alpha c_{g}(\frac{1-\exp(-rl)}{r})

where all parameters are defined as before. Then the incremental cost effectiveness ratio (incremental cost divided by incremental benefit) is

ICER=\alpha c_{g}(\exp(rl)-1)

The ICER is plotted in figure 2 for two common life expectancies across a range of values of the discount rate, assuming a mean annual income of 26,000 pounds and that evil-doers earn 10% more income than the saved.

Figure 2: Incremental cost-effectiveness of salvation for two different life expectancies

At a Faustian Discount Rate, life expectancy of 70 years, and 26,000 pound mean income, the ICER for baptism is 16,202,218 pounds per QALY gained.

We can estimate a general condition on society’s discount rate for baptism to be cost-effective, in terms of the additional income gained by being evil and the life expectancy. This formula is given by:

r \le \frac{1}{l}ln\Bigl (\frac{3+\alpha}{\alpha}\Bigr)

For a life expectancy of 70 years, assuming that the damned earn 10% more than the saved, the required discount rate for baptism to be cost-effective is 4.3% or less; if the damned earn 20% more this threshold drops to 3.5%. It is clear that damnation doesn’t have to be much more materially rewarding before it becomes attractive even under quite reasonable discount rates.

The costs and benefits of voluntary homosexuality

We now consider the situation of a callow 15 year old youth, considering embarking on a life of sodomite sin. What should he choose? Obviously, from the perspective of a simple youth, the costs need to be weighed up in terms of foregone lovers. Assuming an average of five sexual partners a year, a sexual career beginning at age 15 (which is set to time 0 in this analysis) and lasting 20 years, and the same conditions on discount rates, eternal damnation, etc. as described above, a simple formula for the number of partners this man would be foregoing by refusing to choose the love that dare not speak its name can be derived as


and from this the incremental cost effectiveness ratio (measured in partners foregone per QALY gained) as


Note that this ICER is not dependent on the human lifespan. It is in fact almost linear in the discount rate (Figure 3). At the Faustian Discount Rate, the potential gay man is looking at a cost of 4.6 lovers foregone for every QALY gained. Note these values change for different annual average numbers of lovers.

Figure 3: Incremental cost-effectiveness of foregoing a life of sodomy

It might be possible to construct an experiment that assessed individuals’ discount rates using this formula: their answers to the question “how many years of life would you give up to win an additional 5 lovers” could be used to identify their value of r.


In Mark 8:36, Jesus asks the rhetorical question

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?

Although usually presented as a question with no clear answer, it is actually quite easy to investigate this question empirically, and to draw conclusions about its implied cost-effectiveness analysis. The results presented here show that, in general, the good gained by forfeiting one’s soul is quite great, and the decision to forego baptism and live a life of evil (including wilful homosexuality) is generally the best decision one would expect a rational actor to make. At very low life expectancies and unrealistically low discount rates it is more beneficial to forego evil and embrace salvation, but at the discount rates usually used by economists, and assumed to reflect rational decisions made by ordinary individuals, salvation is not a profitable course of action.

These findings have interesting theological implications. First, we note that the Church is most likely to gain converts in a society which has a very low discount rate – but in general, the societies where the Church first took hold were societies with high rates of infant mortality and all-cause mortality, which were likely to put a low value on the later years of life – that is, to have high discount rates. But such societies are not naturally sympathetic to the message of eternal damnation, unless they can be convinced to forego rationality in moral decision making. This might explain the Church’s historical resistance to scientific endeavour, and willingness to foment superstitious practices.

These findings also explain christianity’s historical opposition to usury. It is naturally the case that buying something today and paying for it later – i.e. borrowing – is inconsistent with a very low discount rate, which tends to value future years of lost income almost as much as now. Furthermore, usurers operating in the open market will set interest rates well above 0.05%, and it is likely that the practice of usury plus the publishing of interest rates will encourage a society with higher discount rates (in fact, it is likely that this would be encouraged by the lending class). This directly undermines the church’s lesson of salvation, which depends on very low discount rates to work.

Finally, low discount rates are often associated with environmentalism – care for future generations, priority setting that considers costs in the distant future, etc. – but on the central issue of our time (global warming) many of the born again religious organizations that most fervently preach the message of salvation also vehemently oppose any message of custodianship and environmental care. These organizations would probably make better progress in convincing people to give up the joys of the here-and-now for an indeterminate heaven (that seems to involve a lot of noise pollution) if they could find a theoretically consistent approach to discount rates.

This post has shown a simple explanation for the problem of evil: most people operate with discount rates closer to Dr. Faust than to St. Christopher, and as a result they are unlikely to accept the distant benefits of heaven over the joys of the material world. Until the church can find a way to convince us that all our tomorrows are as important as today, the problem of evil will never be solved.

You kids get off my lawn!

Over the Easter weekend my blog was the victim of a Jesus-jacking. A blog post I wrote a year ago for Easter, What Kind of Undead was Jesus?, suddenly started attracting huge numbers of hits – from 0 on April 4th to 126 on April 8th and then back down to three (so far) today. All these hits were due to web searches on terms like “Jesus lich,” “Jesus is a lich,” and “Jesus was a lich.” I think it was also posted on facebook, plurk and twitter. This year there seems to be a meme going around about how Jesus was a lich – “happy lich Jesus day” and a hashtag to go with it. Somewhere in that my post got picked up and rebroadcast a little, especially on Facebook. It even made it to that sump of New Atheism, Pharyngula.

Anyway, I want to point out that I thought of this a year ago and I have the stats to prove it.

On a tangential note, what is wrong with you people? Somehow over the holiest weekend in Christendom, approximately 300 people felt the need to do a google search on whether or not Jesus was a lich. Don’t you people have something better to do? Like, I don’t know, go to Church? Or play computer games? Or watch a movie? Or have sex? Or go away on an Easter break? I’m guessing that there are about 1 billion people living in nominally christian societies on this earth, which means that something like 1 person in every 4 million people feels the need to find out whether a figure who is a prophet in two of the world’s biggest religions was a lich by googling it on a public holiday. I’ve been away from christendom for a while now, but surely Easter hasn’t become so boring that you have to google Jesus’s undead status? Get a life people! Or at least keep your google searches for a working day …

I read this in response to a request from its author, James Hutchings. The book is self-published, I think, and can be obtained through Amazon or from James’s blog, Teleli, where the second post down explains the giveaway. I’m a nice chap, so I bought it at Amazon.

The New Death and Others is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in the city of Telleli or perhaps in its associated world. The world of Telleli is a slightly bizarre or carnivalesque version of a swords and sorcery setting, like a kind of irreverent Lankhmar, and the gods feature prominently in Telleli life. Many of the short stories in this book feature those gods, or humans or other beings of Telleli attempting to communicate with or challenge those gods. The gods are clearly capricious and not entirely intelligent, and not particularly interested in the affairs of humans – they seem to be caught up often in their own silly little dramas, and the consequences of these dramas for humans do not really get much consideration. There are also a few stories in other fantasy or near-fantasy settings, and at times the stories cross from fantasy into a vaguely fantasy-realism kind of setting. The stories are often irreverent about both the fantasy genre and the gods they describe, and a few of them are straight-out comedy, with humorous footnotes and a punchline. Examples of the kinds of stories in the book are:

  • How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name: A story about a sorceress in the town of Telelee who has learnt all the magic known to humans, and begins to seek out the secret knowledge of the gods. This puts her into a collision course with the cats of Telelee, and the results are unexpected for both sorceress and reader alike. This is a well-constructed short story, combining two stories (the sorceress and the cats) in a very concise and tightly-worked structure. Weaving the plot and characters from two separate storylines into a single arc, with a twist, in the space of a couple of pages is no mean feat; making the story work and evoking a sense of the town that the tale is set in, the mythology of its world, and the particular character of both the cats and the sorceress deserves, in my opinion, a fair bit of respect. This is a nicely done story
  • The Face in the Hill: This is an extremely short story about a politician seeking answers to a significant quandary his society is facing, and manages to fit a neat moral message into a very small space, delivering a powerful ending and a nice description of the key conflicts facing the society in question all within the context of the politician’s journey to consult a particular oracle. In this same five pages we also find out the ultimate results of his decision. It’s a well-balanced and entertaining tale, though perhaps a little heavy-handed.
  • Everlasting Fire: one of the directly comedic stories, this story tells the tale of a demon named Lily, working in hell, and her tragic love affair with one of her underlings. It includes several bad puns, footnotes that add to the self-referential humour, and a lot of cute jokes about hell. It’s also stuffed full of management speech and bullshit bingo, so successfully conjures the image of hell as just another workplace. The ending of the love affair is a little bit 1984, and the asides describing hell are just exactly what it would be like in a really cheap christian morality play (the sort that we all poke fun at, but that has never really been written). This kind of humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but it’s well done and funny.

A lot of the short stories in this collection are good examples of the craft of short story writing: pithy, quick to establish characterization and setting without falling back on cheap stereotypes, and often delivering an unexpected ending that keeps you guessing and engaged right through the book. If I have any complaint about them, it’s a complaint common to Australian art: the continuous irreverence and refusal to take the work seriously can, in my opinion, undermine fantasy and sci-fi settings, and I wish Australians would do it less. It’s like Australians are scared to just sit down and write a serious genre novel, or create a serious genre film; this is why Buffy or Star Wars would never be made in Australia.  But on the flipside, this kind of irreverence is refreshing if you don’t read too much of it, and I don’t, so I can’t complain specifically about this book. It’s a general gripe about the production of culture in Australia. My main gripe about this book is that it contained quite a bit of poetry and most of it I didn’t like (If My Life Was Filmed and untitled I really liked). I skipped most of the other poems after a couple of verses. But I don’t know if that’s a commentary on the quality of the poetry or on me – I’m pretty tough on poetry generally, and even tougher on theatre (which is, in general, shit).

One other minor complaint I had about this book is that in many of the stories I got the sense that the author was constructing a certain atmosphere and level of irreverence, but sometimes let down the story by overdoing the irreverence or overdoing the setting. This is a hard line to tread in writing semi-humourous or irreverent genre stuff: you need to be sure that your jokes don’t cross a certain poorly defined line, and you also need to make sure that your setting has the right level of seriousness and authenticity to match the tone of the tale. I found that occasionally Hutchings would fall afoul of these traps, and a joke would be out of place or the setting would suddenly become too heavy. I guess that this is a common problem for a new writer, and given the difficulty of maintaining tone and style in an endeavour like this I can’t really fault him.

Overall, I think this work is an excellent first book, a fine contribution to a small field of irreverent-but-serious genre writing, and a collection of tightly-constructed and entertaining short stories. For $0.99 it’s a bargain! In fact, my main question is how work like this can be not picked up by a serious publisher, while the book I read afterwards (review to come) was. But there’s no point in dwelling on injustices: buy the book and give James Hutchings less than his just reward for the work.

Discussion of whether Jesus was a Vampire has taken an inevitable turn towards discussion of the Big J’s phylactery, the piss-christ. Now, I’m not a big fan of the piss-christ, I haven’t seen it in person but it doesn’t seem like good art and it doesn’t seem like a good contribution to the debate about christianity. I’m also sympathetic to the view put in comments that modern christianity has been defanged, and it’s no longer particularly brave or radical to take the piss out of it (haha). What I’m not so sympathetic to is the view that the modern art scene has an unacceptable anti-christian bias, or that the current crop of artists should be focussing on a wider debate about all the different religions. This is because:

  • The main thrust of modern conservative debate about identity in the English-speaking world claims that we are a “christian” society with a “judaeo-christian” heritage. See, e.g. this repulsive tweet – by a christian – on Anzac Day. You can’t claim that we’re a christian society and then complain that people who want to criticize their own society’s morals and social structures lay into christianity.
  • Most of the modern crop of artists didn’t come of age in the post-9/11 world, and the context they grew up in was a vigorous and sometimes violent fight against a christian movement not yet in full retreat. In the era they grew up in, Islam and Hinduism were non-events, non-issues, they probably neither learnt about nor knew about them. It’s rich to expect them to change their angst in late adulthood because a few western leaders decided to start a war with a previously largely irrelevant religion

I’m not going to talk about the first problem (reaction against claims of judaeo-christianity) here, but I do want to talk about the context of the artists’ upbringing, because a) it relates to role-playing and b) Paul in comments has suggested that the reaction to the Satanic Verses is indicative that actually Islam was a big issue in the 80s (the fatwah against Rushdie occurred in 1989). I don’t think this is true – I remember when the fatwah was issued, and it came as a complete shock to Westerners – and I want to do a quick scout through the main pop cultural movements I’m familiar with from the 70s and 80s, to give a highly biassed account of how completely irrelevant Islam was in the development of the sensitivities of the current crop of “elder” artists.

And Serrano is an elder. The piss-christ was made in 1987, suggesting that he “matured” (in physical years, if not in artistic merit or sense) before 1987. In fact he’s in his 60s now. So is it reasonable to suppose that he should give a drop of piss about Islam or Hinduism? He was raised in New York by a strict catholic family, so it seems like popular culture in the 70s and 80s is more relevant to his development and his perspective on art than, say, Osama bin Laden.

New York, Islam and the Debates of the 80s.

So what was going on in New York in the 70s and 80s? I don’t think we can say that Islam was a big issue in the melting pot of 70s and 80s America; this site suggests that today in NY there are 160,000 arab Americans, who came in two waves, the first of which was in 1925 and was largely Christian. This is not exactly a big population for New York, and a lot of them aren’t even Muslim (and probably the descendants of the 1920s migrants don’t even think of themselves as Arab-Americans, after 3 generations). The second wave of migrants in the 1960s may have raised some issues about settlement, integration etc. but this needs to be seen in context – 1 million Vietnamese moved to the USA in a few years after 1975, and Chinese migration was an ongoing process in the US. The debates in the western world about migration in the 1970s and 1980s focussed on Asians, not Muslims, and really the issue of “Islamification” only came up in the 1990s, after the collapse of Israel’s war in Lebanon and the camp David peace accords, the second intifada, etc. – i.e. in response to the growing presence of Islam in western news reports, and corresponding waves of refugees fleeing those countries.

If you look at some of the pop cultural stuff specific to New York or the Eastern seaboard from the 70s and 80s – things like the work of Brett Easton Ellis, movies like Heathers and the other teen-movie stuff of the time, Wall Street etc, they’re much more concerned with debates about in- and out-groups in New York, as reflected in class and some regional or christian-specific categories (like WASPs vs. nerds, or simliar) than they are about Islam. I remember watching 21 Jump Street and Cagney And Lacey, and episodes about migrants and discrimination were rare, and primarily focussed on Asians. 21 Jump Street had a few episodes about e.g. abortion, HIV/AIDS, etc. but the background of political trouble to these was always christian. As an outsider looking at NY, I don’t see much evidence that Serrano would have been growing up in an environment where other religions were much of a significant factor.

The key issue in the west in the 70s and 80s was the uneasy relationship between christianity and civil society as envisaged in a modern liberal democratic state. There was a low-key conflict going on between popular culture and christian sensibility, that occasionally exploded in controversy, and this conflict provided fertile soil for the imagination of budding artists. I don’t know much about art, but there were some pop-cultural movements at that time that I understood, so let’s look at them.

Thrash Metal and the Christian Revival

The shock-troops in this conflict with christianity in the 70s and 80s were undoubtedly heavy metal, who took up where punk’s guerilla warriors left off at the end of the 70s, and mobilized an army of disaffected young men against the religious imagery of the time. This wasn’t equivocal, either – heavy metal hated christianity and christianity hated metal. Islam and Hinduism didn’t figure in this, and in fact it took the generals in this movement – Metallica – 10 years to finally write a song about a religion other than Christianity. When they did, it was a hate-filled screed about alternative religions, telling the very personal story of James Hetfield’s own family life. No interest in the large international religions at all. But before then, Metallica wrote songs like Leper Messiah and Creeping Death that were highly critical of christianity; Slayer were using and abusing christian imagery as much as they could, Testament wrote whole albums about the hypocrisy of christianity (albums like The New Order) and the more skatey/speedy metal bands like Suicidal Tendencies were laying in with criticisms of religion as a prop or crutch, and direct criticism of the new wave of televangelists (with songs like Send Me Your Money). Tellingly, the christian response at the time wasn’t to accuse them of bias and Islam-loving. No one demanded that Metallica write Leper Prophet, or that Slayer’s Expendable Youth be rewritten to include lines about muslim martyrdom. No, instead, they accused these bands of being satanists and wanting children to go to hell. Other religions didn’t enter into this debate at all, and in fact to the best of my knowledge the only song written in that time about islamic countries was Iron Maiden’s Powerslave – which was about the Pharaohs.

The christian response to this was organized and serious. They first tried for censorship, introducing the PMRC (a censorship committee beautifully attacked by Megadeth’s Hook In Mouth), they invented the concept of back-masking and made videos about how AC/DC were satanists who believed they were channelling their dead singer through their new singer; they did speaking tours and later Tipper Gore introduced those abominable censorship stickers called “Tipper Stickers.” At no point did the issue of bias come into it, because religious groups in America in the 70s and 80s hadn’t registered Islam, it was irrelevant. They directly accused their enemies of attacking christianity within a christian framework, i.e. of being satanists. The relative sophistication of the “why don’t you criticize Hindus too” victimization complex is very new.

So, Serrano grew up in an environment where all of the extant good music (i.e. heavy metal) was at war with christianity, and neither side was talking about other religions at all. This isn’t reflected in just the good music either…

Pop Music, Blasphemy and Smut

Madonna exploded onto the pop scene in the early 80s with a huge sexual energy and a lot of catholic angst, and was immediately targeted by religious campaigners. She wasn’t targeted by Muslims or Hindus, but by Christians – and they fed off each other for years. This came to a head with the highly emotionally charged Like A Prayer, where she has sex with a child Jesus[1], but she had already managed to offend with Papa Don’t Preach and, well, pretty much everything else she ever did. Compare the lyrics and imagery of songs like hers with those of Lady Gaga, and you can see that it’s a lot harder to offend anyone now than it was in the early 80s. Madonna used blatant christian imagery in her work, and got a lot of flak for it; but christian imagery wasn’t just used negatively in the 80s  – it was heavily present in the work of bands like U2, Terence Trent d’Arby, the New Romantic movement, The Cure, etc. Through the entire opus of New Romantic work (and there is a lot!) you’ll be hard pressed to find any reference to any religion except Christianity and maybe a touch of Buddhism. Sure, the Cure sing about killing an Arab, but they’re quoting Camus; the Bangles Walk Like an Egyptian but they don’t talk like one, and again when speaking of a North African country they explicitly skip the 800 years or so of Islamic history and go straight to the Pharoahs. Nik Kershaw mentions “a lone man of Aaron” in The Riddle, but that’s pretty much the only reference to Judaism in 10 long years of make-up, military jackets and spikey hair. Meanwhile the christian imagery comes thick and fast, and again much of it positive as well as negative. Particularly Gospel Singers, crosses, kneeling in prayer, churches as symbols of mystery, decay or (generalized) faith. You won’t find a mosque or a Hindu temple as an image of any of these things, though they may be visible in the odd place here and there as a homage to exoticism or the Orient.

So where do we think we can find the most obvious evidence of “alternative” religions being presented? Perhaps in a musical movement symbolized by the Ankh, a distinctly non-christian symbol…?

Goth, Punk and the Wyccan Impulse

Goth music draws heavily on the twin themes of religion and death, and was at its peak during the mid-80s under the guiding influence of bands like Sisters of Mercy, Christian Death[2], Bauhaus and the like. Christian Death spent most of their lives ranting against christianity exclusively, in strong and uncompromising terms; but the other bands in this genre were much more eclectic in their tastes. The Sisters of Mercy are a good example, using a lot of christian imagery but also drawing on the magical (in songs like Floodland) and expropriating middle eastern musical forms, particularly that amazing wailing woman in Temple of Love. But when they took this music, they took it in purely aesthetic terms – the political and religious context was stripped out. It’s as if the cultural background was irrelevant to the Western world, so strange and mysterious that it could not influence thinking beyond the aesthetic. And indeed, when we see groups like Inkubus Sukkubus or Garden of Delight searching for mystical inspiration, do we see them drawing on the extant religions of their day, which they could easily turn to for inspiration were those religions omnipresent in their cultural life? No, Inkubus Sukkubus turn to Wycca and varied notions of pre-Christian witchcraft; Garden of Delight construct a strange personal religion based on the ancient Sumerian angels and Cthulhu. Sure, Garden of Delight have a song called Sharia but the lyrics are completely unrelated to Islam. They have a lot more songs about fallen Sumerian angels than they do about any extant religion.

The efforts of Goths and punks to revitalize Witchcraft, Paganism and Wycca are particularly illustrative in this light. In the late 80s and early 90s there was an interesting blend of hardcore punk that attempted to sing about paganism, and which drew on pagan ideals and mythology; at this same time witchcraft and paganism were beginning to be accepted as a religious theme or ideal for people seeking a new type of religious outlet, and I think even were accepted as one of the religions the US Army allows one to worship (by the end of the 90s). However, in reconstructing these religions the people involved were heavily influenced by a christian context, and thought only of investigating the paganism destroyed by christianity. Had they known anything more about the wider religious setting of the modern era, they could have taken a quick trip to Japan and explored a currently existing pagan religion practiced by 120 million people. They didn’t though, because the context for religious thought in the West is so heavily dominated by christianity that the concept of an animist religion that never came into conflict with christianity doesn’t exist to most of us; the idea of animism living in harmony with modern society is anathema to our concept of religious progress because we see religious progress through the prism of christian conquest. Where non-christian religions entered the popular mind in the 80s they did so only in as much as they were perceived to have a relationship to christianity, or stripped of all context down ot the purely aesthetic.

Context-free Islam in Cinema

Islam was barely relevant in cinema in the 70s and 80s, but where it was shown in movies it tended to be presented as the backdrop for western stories, its own history and culture irrelevant. So we see at the beginning of The Exorcist that the original source of the demon is dug up in Iraq, but the demon itself is christian and Iraq is just an empty backdrop, a series of bazaars and the call to prayer as culture-free exoticism to define the origin of the demon as the middle east; islam is here only as historical fact. In the first Indiana Jones the Holy Land serves only as the colonial setting for the conflict of western powers – neither Judaism nor Islam have anything to say about the expropriation of an object that is sacred to both of them, and all the non-white characters are incidental (or mercenaries to be shot). It’s the same old adventure in a different setting. In A Passage to India we have a love story in a colonial setting, but that’s all it is; even the Zulu movies give barely a moment’s time to elucidating the religious and cultural details of the enemy, which is jsut a black African mass. It’s as if there is not even an awareness of the possibility of other religions, or they’re discounted immediately as irrelevant to the Western story.

And this is the key here – irrelevance. It’s not that people wish to deny the existence of other religions in the world, they just don’t figure into the Western cultural context. Religious representation in the West in the 70s and 80s occurred entirely within the Christian framework.

Role-playing and Christian Censorship

This is also clear in the christian response to fantasy RPGs, which was to accuse them of satanism or idolatry, and to campaign for censoring them. This campaign had partial successes, resulting in schools banning gaming clubs and even a 60 minutes “documentary” on how dangerous these games are. But again, the christian response to these games was not in terms of the risk of allowing other religions into schools, or of the game being disrespectful to religions generally – the only concern was about christianity and satanism. And the games themselves were largely bereft of non-christian religious influences when they started – the Cleric character’s spells are clearly inspired by images of the Priests and holy men of the western religious canon, and about the only non-western monsters are the Rakshasa and the Djinn. Even the conception of Hell is heavily inspired by Milton, Dante etc., rather than drawing on those of other religions (such as the Bhagavad Gita). Campaigns set in middle eastern or Asian settings came much later as “alternative worlds,” and the two key settings right up until 3rd edition were Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms – pantheistic but clearly European and feudal. Warhammer was explicitly christian-themed. The main departure of role-playing from the common themes of religious context we see in other cultural works of this time is its adoption of pantheism. But this pantheism doesn’t change the backdrop from its European feudal setting, and it only provides colour to a character class obviously based around western, christian notions of what a cleric can do. And you won’t find many islamic or hindu objections to RPGs in the western world – when a generation of young nerds grew up in the 80s, they knew that they only had one religious enemy, and it was christianity.

The Politics of the 70s and 80s

Anyone who was growing up or a young adult in the 70s and 80s will remember that the social politics was enormously conservative and heavily influenced by christian ideals; much of the pop cultural struggle in the 80s was to push christianity out of our private lives. In the 70s and 80s christian minsters and evangelists preached their bigotry loud and clear, and attempted to enforce it in ordinary life as much as they could. Homosexuality was still illegal in some places, and violence against gays was both accepted and normal (I even had a GM in the early 90s tell me casually about his younger days “poofter-bashing” on Oxford Street). HIV/AIDS was just entering consciousness and widely decried as a gay disease; discrimination against gays in employment and housing was both legal and common, and attempts to end this discrimination met organized and vociferous resistance from the church. Depending on where you were domestic violence and/or rape in marriage were considered acceptable, and it was generally not considered possible to rape a prostitute – this was theft, not rape. Censorship – in the sense of book burning – was advocated by all major christian groups, and attempts to decriminalize prostitution or drug use were met with extremely vocal christian objections. The police were free to beat, rape and torture members of the underclass, and in the 70s in Australia, the US and the UK political activists were still murdered by their opponents, or the police. In America Irish catholics were raising funds for Irish catholic terrorism in the UK, and christian extremist survivalist groups were establishing arms caches in advance of the coming race war. The doctrine of “blood in the face” and white supremacism were intimately connected with religion in a way that they aren’t now – it was inconceivable that a member of the far right could be openly gay in 70s and 80s Europe, but now their leaders are, and even atheism and vegetarianism are tolerated amongst their ranks – this was impossible in the 80s because fascists were universally christian. The catholic church openly supported, or later tacitly condoned, fascism, torture and mass murder in latin America and the Phillipines. Abortion was still illegal and extremely hard to get in many countries – in Ireland even into the mid 90s children who had been raped were prevented from leaving the country to get abortions by mobs of christians. Even women’s shelters and domestic violence programs were opposed by christians on christian grounds. The numerous victims of child abuse in the church were still either too scared to come forward, or their cases were failing, or their lives were destroyed when they did; and the catholic church was still openly involved in destroying evidence, hiding crimes and moving accused priests to other states and countries.

This was all unique to christianity in the west, though no doubt in Hindu countries there were hindu scandals, and in muslim countries muslim scandals (e.g. Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia). But the central angst of the western world and of artists, musicians and large slabs of what was to become “Generation X,” the central threat to the freer, more open way of life we could see coming was the christian right. Islam wasn’t complaining about Roe vs. Wade; Hindus weren’t objecting to Slayer; Buddhists weren’t trying to ban AD&D or stop the sale of morning after pills to raped teenagers. You didn’t see Shintoists protesting in front of abortion clinics or African animists rampaging through Soho smashing gay bars. They may have been doing that in Egypt, India and Japan; but we didn’t even know what was going on there, or even really care much what religions were practiced where, because we were told every day in no uncertain terms that we lived in the christian west, and that game we liked was an offence to christian values; those people coming here from Africa would dilute christian English blood; those women gyrating on the stage were offending christian values of chastity and modesty.

Conclusion (at last)

By the time the Satanic Verses came out and Islamic engagement with western art exploded centre stage, Serrano was 39 years old and had been making art for 6 years. He was raised a catholic in New York during a period of history when non-christian religions were not a big part of either our cultural sensitivities or our cultural fears – and particularly when Islam and Hinduism were simply considered to be colourful parts of the backdrop of our colonial history. At the time he was creating his work there was an intense cultural conflict playing out, especially in America, between christianity and secular culture, and this conflict probably played a defining role in the development of the artistic sensibilities of Serrano and his peers. It’s highly unlikely that he would have even thought about Islam in his attempts to explore “the relationship between beautiful imagery and vulgar materials.” Somewhat perversely for the christian advocates of the “Judaeo-christian society” they claim is the status quo for the English-speaking west, until they allow other religions to share an equal part of that status quo, both in practice and in rhetoric, it’s unlikely that artists like Serrano will ever spare much thought to making art that criticizes those other religions. This isn’t a sign of the shallow obssession of people like Serrano with attacking a weakened and fading christianity – it is, instead, a sign of the way christians have been able to reserve a special place for their own religion in the ostensibly secular west, whose cultural underpinnings they jealously claim as their own. Until they give up the one, they can’t expect to see much of a reduction in the frequency or intensity of the other – which, on a charitable reading of its value as art, might explain why the piss christ remains a popular artwork 20 years after its creation.

fn1: Thus ticking all the boxes!

fn2: Need I say more?


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