Sunday, January 15, 2012

Christians "against" religion?

You  may have seen the following YouTube video doing the rounds. Maybe, like me, you have friends who posted it on facebook.

It's a "Spoken Word Poet" doing a rant against "religion". But he's a Christian. Get it? No, me neither...

When I see videos like this, I am not impressed by the show of humility and standing up against the big evil "religious" folk. I’ve seen this all before. The trouble is that Christians tend to define “religion” in a way that suits themselves. Since “religion” has a bad reputation these days – a large amount of which is due to evangelical Christians such as this young poet! – it is fashionable to join the anti-religion club and thus make oneself and one’s clan look more attractive.
There is something slightly devious and dishonest about this. It’s usually called “shifting the goalposts”: when somebody seeks to score an effective attack on your beliefs, you merely redefine certain words so that the criticism no longer “applies”.
By many, many common definitions of “religion”, Christianity – particularly evangelical Christian – fits absolutely. (Frankly, if modern evangelical Christianity is not a “religion”, then I don’t know what the word even means!)
Let’s try a few randomly-selected features of “religion” that I’m sure most people would agree are pretty standard, and see if they apply to Christianity. Belief in the supernatural? Check. Authority claimed via ancient scriptures? Check. Clearly delimited boundaries of who belongs to the group and who doesn’t? Check. Particular view of human nature that is asserted as more true than all others? Check. Idiosyncratic rules on various areas of life, particularly sex, based on ancient taboos, way behind the curve of the secular moral Zeitgeist? Check...
Sure, evangelicals might reject certain features common to religion that they don’t like. The classic one is “doing good things in order to please God”. Enter our Spoken Word Poet, who criticizes the usual “works righteousness” thing that is supposedly the opposite of the “undeserved grace” that evangelical Christians like to go on about.
Some of the poet’s lines are just ludicrous (I insert my own definitions as follows): “One [the Real Version of Christianity] is the work of God, one [every religion other than my own] is a man made invention”. Of course he sees it this way, but doesn’t the adherent of every religion think that their religion came from God, whereas the heathens/unbelievers/fools “made up” their beliefs instead? To be sure, it’s logically possible that Christianity, as one of the many religions in the world, just happens to be the true one instituted by the creator God himself, but seeing as so many people are more than capable (on the Christians’ own view)  to delude themselves in countless “wrong” religions, it certainly weakens the case considerably.
My biggest problem with the “Christianity is about grace and is not religion” thing is that it is ultimately extremely hostile to non-Christians. Why? Because it defines the “good works” of everybody else as worthless, futile, misguided, even demonic. Look at the artful theological logic: everyone is a sinner, therefore no good works count, but Christians are saved - and even this salvation is God’s choice and has nothing to do with their deserving it - and once “saved”, good works of Christians actually “count” and please God!
Imagine if an earthly father were to behave like this. He tells all of his children that they are worthless scum, incapable of doing anything that would please him or make him proud, but then he arbitrarily chooses one of his kids and says, “You, my little chosen one, are forgiven, don’t ask me why! From now on, the good things you do count, but not the rest of you runts!” What a twisted and cruel father!
What Christianity effectively tells people is that by merely being born, you are already in “sin”. Never mind actually doing anything truly evil; just by living your ordinary human life, making the most of your chance at existing in this world, experiencing ordinary pleasures and toils like anyone else, you are condemned. And if you go further and actually try to act selflessly and do good in the world, this is also not good enough for “God”.
This is putting everyone outside of Real Christianity into a double bind. Not only are Christians the only ones able to truly define right and wrong (because they have the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and they alone “know God” personally), but even if someone else does do something that they would deem to be good, it doesn’t “count” because it’s not motivated by “faith”. However, when Christians do something good - no matter how trivial - it pleases God because it is done by “grace”.
But to return to the poet, this argument is a very effective way to immunise Christianity against any criticism. When people point out various failings of Christianity and all the bigoted, hateful people Christianity frequently produces, they say, “it’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken”. But how long do they really stick to this apparent humility? Frankly, I think, just long enough to deflect criticism. Once that’s done, Christians go right back to being self righteous all over again. Only they know the truth. Only they get to define what is right and what is “sin”. Only they are uniquely predestined by God to be chosen to do good works for him.
So is Christianity really not about “doing good works in order to please God”? Surely, the whole point of Christianity is that once you are “saved”, your old sinful life is left behind? You are a new person? The Spirit of God lives in you? You have freedom from sin, the correct motivation for righteousness and the spiritual empowerment to do good works? You work tirelessly for the “crown of righteousness”? But, oh, whenever someone points out that you’re not doing much of this, suddenly you can’t be criticised because you’re just a “sinner who has been saved”?
I love how “One [Christianity] is the cure and one [religion] is the infection”. This is an interesting semantic game. Christianity is normally defined as the cure for the infection called sin. “Sin” is actually whatever Christians define to be bad. Hence Christianity entitles itself to define the infection and also provide the “only” cure. How convenient. But the poet makes it sound like religion is the infection! That’s clever. So religion is depicted as kind of symptom of the underlying problem called “sin”, a very Christian concept that not all religions necessarily focus on or even recognise. He obviously doesn’t want to define religion as, say, “worship of the creator called God”, “seeking after the ultimate transcendent truth ”, “following a spiritual path”, “a community of people with a similar relation to a sacred reality”, or any other way of defining religion that could easily overlap with Christian itself! No, sin is the only issue - because we say so - and these other “religions” aren’t doing a good job of dealing with it.
And Christianity’s unique solution is “faith” not “works”. I struggle to see how this is an improvement. At least with “works”, you know who you are supposed to please (God), presumably you know what he wants, you know what pleases him, and you can take some pride in getting it right. Sure, the Christians say that the problem is, nobody can do “enough”, that “all fall short of the glory of God”, but what is their answer? Not that God simply says, “Look, I know you can’t do it, and it’s not your fault, so I forgive you, ok?” Oh no! That would be too easy! (Though that’s what any decent person would do. We know that our fellow human beings aren’t perfect, so we don’t hold them to this ridiculous standard and we would be fools to hold ourselves to it.) Instead, this God, who created us himself, and is in charge of everything, actually blames us for not measuring up. Then he gets angry with us (disproportionately so, since he will punish finite sin with infinite torture in hell), but - how kind of him - he provides a way out by allowing his son to be brutally tortured and killed and if we “believe” we can escape his wrath. Charming.
And this belief is an odd thing. You have to believe in a particular interpretation of a particular set of rather fanciful stories (that don’t look particularly less fanciful than all the stories from the other “false” religions that God allowed to develop in this world). The key point of this story - the death and resurrection of Jesus - happened roughly 2,000 years ago (and counting), with zero independent evidence supporting that it actually happened at all. If God could wait through 13 billion years of history (or 100,000 years of “human” history) before hatching this plan of his, could he not have waited another 2,000 years and let it happen in an age of video cameras, global communication and scientific method so that it could be witnessed by a lot more people and thus established considerably more firmly as true? Seeing as it’s so important?
Besides, why make belief the criteria? If all this horrible human sacrifice stuff was really necessary to do the forgiving (and I still can’t really see why it should be), couldn’t he just do it somewhere and impute the forgiveness to us all, regardless of where we happen to live and what religious upbringing we happen to receive? Why hinge everything on having a “correct” belief, particularly one that is not intuitively obvious nor easy to arrive at by historical or scientific study or even pure logic? No, “belief” as a criterion for pleasing God seems to me much harder, and certainly much less fair, than what Christians like to call “religion”.
So despite what it's meant to look like, this poet is this is not demonstrating humility and taking a stand against bigotry. Quite the opposite. By ruling out, a priori, the validity of every other religious view, and claiming that your "cure" for the dubious (and harmful) concept of sin is the only possible solution, you are actually demonstrating the height of arrogance and bigotry. Precisely why religion, particularly your kind, is so despised.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Throwing away a box of Christian CDs

On Sunday, my wife and I gathered together a whole pile of our Christian CDs out of our collection. We’ve already weeded out most of the Christian books from our bookshelves. The CDs were placed in a box and then we decided what to do with them. Donate them to someone? If they knew we were atheists, they would find it exceedingly awkward; if they didn’t know, then we would be perhaps guilty of encouraging someone in their delusional Christian life. So we decided to just throw them away.

Actually, in South Africa, “throwing something away” isn’t quite such a straightforward proposition. I put the box of CDs into our big municipal-collection bin, where all our other rubbish ends up, and then yesterday morning I wheeled the whole bin out for collection (which happens on a Monday for us). But of course by the time I left for work about two hours later, there was the box we’d used for the CDs already outside of the bin... with all the CDs gone. A pitiful sight in most South African suburbs (except, perhaps, for those who live in the exceedingly aptly-titled “closed communities”) is the countless scavengers who go from bin to bin on collection days - occasionally including mothers with babies on their backs! - to hunt through the refuse left by the middle class to see if they can find anything they deem useful.

So this was likely the fate of our Christian CDs. Considering there were probably at least 30 CDs in that box, someone must have really thought they’d hit “gold”. Did it occur to them that they were all Christian albums? What did they make of that? Did they think some crazy white people were trying to evangelise poor people through their rubbish bin? Are they going to take it home and play it somewhere? Sell the CDs on the street?

Anyway, for me it felt like it was 1997 all over again. That was the year in which a 16 year old version of myself “got saved” and, in the process, thought it would be a great idea to throw out all my “non-Christian” CDs. This included, by the way, a great album from Pearl Jam (Versus), three Nine Inch Nails albums (The Downward Spiral, Broken and a fairly rare “remix” of the latter, called Fixed) and two Metallica albums (the awesome classic Ride the Lightning as well as some later rather humdrum one whose name I can’t even remember). Those are the ones I remember, at least. I think I knew even then that it was a bit of a mistake, but the thrill of simultaneously ridding myself of this “evil influence” and also scoring some glory points with the pastor and some Christian friends was too good to relinquish.

So here I am, about 14 years later, throwing away a bunch of CDs again. For reasons related to “religion”. This time, though, I seriously doubt I will have any regrets. Not that there wasn’t some decent music there: the British band Delirious? actually produced some pretty good rock music, and even the now-dreaded Hillsong United worship band had a knack for producing infectious tunes (which is, of course, precisely why this sort of thing is so dangerous). But I will not be able to stand listening to people whine on about their relationship with their imaginary friend Jesus while I’m sipping wine in my lounge. Nor will I be able to stand hearing nameless hordes singing along to another chorus of Saviour, He can move the Mountains!

But it was amazing how difficult I found it to do this. I caught myself wondering, “What if I want to come back to this one day?” Back? Back? To something I know to be imaginary! To be something whose persistence in my life is entirely explicable in terms of a self-delusion in which I willingly participated!

This is the immense power of childhood religious brainwashing: that even when one has come to one’s senses, the fear remains. Even when one knows that the whole thing was bullshit, and gratefully leaves the “fold” of believers, the pressure lingers on in the mind. Incredible.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hacking the WordPress menu

Having a Content Management System generate a multi-level menu automatically from your pages is obviously a good reason to use a Content Management System in the first place. But sometimes you have very good reasons for wanting to break things a bit.

WordPress typically creates a menu option for every "page" you create, and you can nest these in a hierarchical structure simply by designating a "parent" page for any new page that you add. Most themes will respect this hierarchy and implement a drop-down menu for the pages that have "children".

But there are two scenarios where this default functionality isn't what you're looking for...

SCENARIO #1: I want to make the Parent Page non-clickable

Sometimes you want to treat the "parent" in a drop-down menu simply as a heading, not a page at all. For example, you might have a section of your site named "Products", and sub-pages list the different products; perhaps you only want people to access the actual product pages, and you don't intend to have any general "Products" page at all.

The solution here is creating a Custom menu.

First up, you need to create a Products page anyway, even if you don't intend for it to actually be visible as a page. Create the child pages and set their Parent to "Product". This establishes the correct hierachy.

Inside WordPress, go to Appearance > Menus. Now, create a custom menu. You can start by adding all of the pages if you like. You will notice that by dragging items left or right, you can set up the nesting/hierarchy. Remove the Products page (or whatever your non-clickable Parent page is named).

Here's the trick: create a "Custom Link" with any URL (you are going to change it later), and name it Products (or whatever). Then add this to your menu. Now edit the Custom Link and change the URL to be simply blank (you can't do this when first creating the Custom Link, so that's why you have to do it in this second step). Now arrange your child links underneath this "fake" top-level page link.

Make sure you set this new menu as the primary menu for your Theme (under Theme Locations on the top left) and save. Your site should now work as follows: the Products link is un-clickable (mouseover link behaviour is even disabled) but the child pages are clickable as normal.

The Products page still exists, but is no longer accessible from your menu - just as you intended.

SCENARIO #2: I want to make a page that doesn't show up on the menu

This is kind of the reverse of the previous scenario - in the first scenario, you wanted a menu link but no page; now you want a page but no menu link.

This could be useful if, for example, you need to create a process page for a form, something which needs to be formatted like other pages in your site, but not accessible by users from the menu.

One way to do this is to use a Custom Menu as described in Scenario 1 above. This would work. However, it could get a little too fiddly if you have lots of pages. Another option is to download the Exclude Pages plugin (search for it within WordPress), which provides a simple toggle on page editing to exclude pages from the menu system.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Z-index treated differently in Firefox vs Safari/Chrome

Just came across an interesting little issue while making a "background" image inside a customised Slidedeck slider. I was basically using the z-index property to push the main image behind the text inside the container. I did this by setting the z-index for the image to -1. This worked perfectly in Firefox. However, in Safari and Chrome, my text was not showing up at all!

Turns out that "default" z-index properties seem to be handled slightly differently in Safari and Chrome. Setting the z-index of the text container explicitly to 1 (positive) solved the problem immediately. Curiously, setting it explicity to zero made no change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Turning a design into CSS divs

Back in the bad old days, people used tables to do layouts for web pages. Actually, many still do, and if you design HTML emailers it is pretty much a requirement.

Anyway, you've probably heard that tables are out and CSS-styled div's are in. It sounds all very wonderful in practice (position stuff anywhere on the page), but in practice one needs to develop decent methodologies to actually use these capabilities to create a useful layout.

Here's a great article I found: From PSD to HTML

I am tending towards using Fireworks rather than Photoshop for a lot of my website graphic design these days, but the principles are the same. This article breaks down the practical steps very nicely, and the principles can certainly be applied to a WordPress theme as well.

Bypassing inline CSS generated by Gantry

As you know, I've started to use Gantry to develop a custom theme for WordPress. I quickly got stuck on the very first customisation I tried: changing the background colour (or replacing it with an image).

I couldn't find where the <body> colour was being set anywhere, in any of the CSS files that the Gantry theme uses. Firebug to the rescue! It showed that the body colour was being set "inline" (shows up as "#" in Firebug's CSS panel, instead of a particular CSS file). So, it turns out that Gantry indeed generates inline styles for certain elements, including the body background colour, in its style "override" panel. It seems a little ironic to have to override an override, if you know what I mean, but here's how to do it...

  1. Find the styledeclaration.php "gizmo" in the Gantry plugin folder, and comment out the relevant lines which do "inline css for dynamic stuff" (it is well-commented). Now you can set your own body tag CSS rules without any fear of them being overridden by inline rules. 
  2. Alternatively, simply add "!important" to your CSS rules.
I've been applying the custom styles using the "styles.css" file inside the Gantry theme. I presume that's what it's there for (it's blank, after all).

Getting started with Gantry

I have been looking for a solid template or framework from which to build a custom WordPress theme for our new company website. I have messed around with some randomly-chosen WordPress themes over the last few weeks, just to get a feel for how WordPress works... and refresh my rusty CSS skills.

The GIGO principle seems to apply when trying to whip a WordPress theme into shape: if the theme has been built using a sloppy process, it may "work" initially but things quickly fall apart when you start really trying to customise it.

In any case, a lot of WordPress themes are more suitable for blog-type sites - which of course is understandable given WordPress's origins.I favour a multi-column "magazine" layout, not only for the company website I'm building, but also for all the conference and association sites I need to tackle as well. Now, WordPress is perfectly capable, in principle, of generating just about any layout you'd like, but it's not easy to find a theme that supports this sort of thing "out of the box".

To my delight, I discovered, a brilliant little CSS "grid system" that helps to get nicely-proportioned layouts done easily in CSS. I recall encountering the princple of a grid layout in my Journalism studies: it has been a tried-and-tested approach to print layout for a long time. While grid systems are sometimes maligned for being overly rigid, they are extremely useful for rapidly structuring a balanced layout, even more so for layouts that are to a certain extent composed of dynamically-generated elements (e.g. content on a WordPress-powered page). can be used in anything from a static HTML page to a Drupal-powered monster, but I discovered that it is also the basis for some WordPress themes as well. Even better for people like me, who are keen to develop something highly customisable, are "frameworks" for WordPress such as Gantry, which incorporate the system to do layout... and provide a lot of additional functionality as well. This is a framework for themes developed by people who make themes (in this case, a company named RocketTheme).

Gantry seems to be aimed at site designers like me, who want lots of columns and a very flexible layout. I'm still in the early days of playing around with the framework, but so far I'm incredibly impressed.

Tasks that lie ahead:
  • Get graphics plugged into the framework (for backgrounds, borders, etc.)
  • Integrate a decent slideshow plugin/widget into my front page, on top of Gantry