Monthly Archives: February 2013

There Are No Contradictions! — A Game for 3 to 6 Players

3-6 players, ages 6+
Takes from 15 minutes to several hours.
May be played face to face, by email or on forums.

Aim: To receive the most votes by telling the most interesting stories.

Equipment: A supply of small slips of paper and a pencil for each participant to vote with. A 1 minute timer is optional.

Overview: The game proceeds in rounds. There can be any number of rounds in the game. In each round, each player has a turn to be the storyteller. During their turn they tell a story, which the other players each challenge. When all players have taken their turn, each player votes for the other player who told the best story in that round. Votes are retained from round to round. At the end of the game, the player with the most total votes is the winner.

Play: Choose a starting player at random. That player is first to be the storyteller.

The storyteller begins by giving the basics of their story in a 1 minute telling. In this period they establish an exciting, larger than life character, a world-threatening menace, trials of superhuman proportion, and an epic victory. No story is too far-fetched, but stories must be complete: this isn’t just an introduction with a cliff-hanger.

When the telling is done, each other player challenges the storyteller. Challenges begin with the player on the storytellers left and proceed clockwise. A challenge begins with the words “But I heard…”, the challenger then tries to deliberately contradict the storyteller in one crucial detail of their story. So if the story revealed that the hero was born in Zanzibar, the challenge might say “But I heard that he was born in a small town near Wichita, Kansas.” Keep challenges specific, contradictory and short.

After a challenge, the storyteller then has one minute of justification. Justifications begin with the words “You’re right…” But the storyteller must never admit their original story was wrong. They must justify how both their original story is true, and how the challenger came to hear what they said they heard. They have 1 minute to do this, but can take less, if the justification is simple.

After a justification, the next player makes their challenge. Further challenges can build on previous ones, so following the challenge above, the next player may say “But I heard he was born on a transatlantic flight, somewhere over Greenland.” And the storyteller must now weave all three pieces of information together.

When all players have made their challenge, the storyteller’s turn is over. The next player, in clockwise order, becomes the storyteller and begins their story. When all players have been the storyteller, everyone votes for the most convincing story. Players vote by writing the name of the person who told the best story, on a slip of paper, and placing it face down in the middle of the table. Players may not vote for themselves. The votes are then shuffled, and revealed. Votes are totalled over all rounds in the game.

To avoid players recognizing each others’ writing during voting, one player may prepare voting slips for everyone, and those slip can be reused from round to round.

This game is inspired by The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by the games designer James Wallis, and by countless Evangelical apologists for the bible. It is genuinely intended for play. It is instructive, I think, in just how simple it is to justify any contradiction, once you get into the swing of it.


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The Pope, The Queen and Musings on Leadership

The Pope

I was talking to the local baptist minister yesterday, Rob, who’s doctorate was in Catholic Ecclesiology. He confessed that he was disappointed in the Pope’s decision to resign.

During the late tenure of Pope John Paul II, as the man got increasingly frail and unable to speak properly, Rob suggested he showed a vulnerability in church leadership that is rarely seen or acknowledged. That you could be a spiritual leader with a broken body, and limited physical or intellectual strength. It was a testimony to what the church sees as important.

Pope Benedict’s declaration that he did not have the physical or emotional strength to continue doing his job properly, seemed to be a claim that it was his physical or emotional strength that was important. A very different view from his predecessor.

I’ve not a lot to add to that, other than it is a fascinating angle, and one I’ve found rather affecting today.

The Queen

There has been inevitable speculation online as to whether the Queen will also resign. Countered by declarations that, of course she won’t. I suspect she will not, either. Having seen what her uncle’s abdication did to her family, I believe those who say she holds a very dim view of it.

But that reminded me of a previous conversation I had with my wife. The Anglican church is currently in hot water over the issue of Women bishops. It is being held hostage by a very well organized and uncompromising minority, and is looking increasingly medieval and irrelevant as a result. But, she pointed out, the supreme governor of the Church of England is the Queen. Okay her practical authority is not strong in that role, but her job is to provide spiritual protection and oversight. So perhaps the issue with women bishops is more about petty politics than about anything the church would actually claim is significant.

Musings on Leadership

Both issues seem to speak of a disconnect between the claims of the churches and their practical reality. Claims are made about what is significant, but it is difficult to follow those through.

It is difficult, I think, because churches are ultimately human institutions, and they succeed or fail in the same way all institutions do. So while it is possible to appear as if you take the teaching seriously, behind the scenes you’d better function with a bit more realpolitik. Particularly around leadership.


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What Religions are Made of

The structure of Religion

I’ve spent an increasing amount of time the last couple of years, trying to build a model to help me express how I think religion works. A couple of years ago, I experimented with a model based on ideas of the mind. It wasn’t very useful, and I abandoned it.

The diagram here is where I currently am, though this may also be something that proves to be too problematic to be useful. This model looks at religion as being made up of four elements.

Spirituality refers to actions that engender a set of mental states: profundity, transcendence, peace, thankfulness, trance, euphoria. These may be individual practices: prayer, meditation, retreat, or may be group activities: worship, pilgrimage, dance.

Community provides identity, solidarity, and support. Group activities do this: services, festivals, rites of passage. But also things moderated through community, such as morality, service, the interpretation of scripture.

Supernatural phenomena confound doubt by providing access to things that consensus reality denies. Miracles, apparitions, possession, prophecy, levitation, healing.

Story describes the reality behind reality. It explains why things in the other categories are significant and how they work.

The key thing of this model is that the inner elements provide experiences, while the outer ring provides the narrative. The inner section is the territory, the outer ring is the map.

Many Many Caveats

There are obvious features of this model that deserve concessions.

What is a religion? Does this model apply to all things we would call religion, and only those things? No. It doesn’t. I think religion is not a distinct category. It has fuzzy boundaries. That’s fine. The model is intended to be descriptive of a broad range of religions, not prescriptive in any way.

This is, of course, an outsider invention from a western reductionist perspective. It does not respect in any way what a person might think of their religion. I am a western reductionist outsider, seeking to look at religion. I cannot understand religion from an insider’s perspective. To pretend to do so would be more humble, but no less hubristic, I think.

My four sections are very fuzzy when it comes to religious phenomena. Things cross-cut: pilgrimage, for example, I mentioned in spirituality, but has a big community dimension. Pilgrimage to Lourdes may also have supernatural function. That’s fine. I identify these four slices because I think they are useful categories of explanation, not of phenomena.

Where is this Going?

My aim is to get a better understanding of how religion works, how it benefits adherents and how it abuses them, and why people allow it to do either. Because of my background, I naturally seek to do this in sciencey ways: through model making, through hypothesis, through analysis. Daniel Dennett talks about this impulse in Breaking The Spell.

This has proven to be predictive when it comes to my supernatural category. We can make pretty good predictions about what we’d find if we look closely at supernatural claims.

I would hope that success could be applied to theological, spiritual, and communal features too. By seeing patterns in religious stories, for example we can identify functions, and then predictively go and look for how other religions perform the same function.

This is not the predominant model of religious studies. In fact quite the opposite. It is, undeniably, a stance one has to take against a religion. It peels away the covering of story. And peeling the skin off something is an inherently violent act.


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What Should We Call The Supernatural?

Many religions feature supernatural phenomena. Things like prophecy, divine knowledge, healing, spirit possession, astral projection, speaking in tongues, levitation, lack of need for food or water, and so on. They are typically presented as being beyond explanation from consensus naturalism[1].

As far as I can tell, these phenomena have natural explanations. I covered some of the ways that prophecy and healing work in previous posts. The others have similar (and overlapping) sets of tricks.

I was thinking today about what to call these phenomena in an upcoming post. Supernatural phenomena seems a bit credulous, Purported Supernatural Phenomena too wordy.

Then it occurred to me they are magic. They seem to be marvellous and mysterious, but actually rely on a set of tricks.

This isn’t news to the James Randi strand of skepticism, of course.

My only concern is that magic might still have too much of a connotation of being real.

[1] By which I mean that some believers don’t claim these phenomena to be ‘supernatural’ at all, but as perfectly natural phenomena. But in doing so they are typically making the point that the consensus picture of the natural world is overly limited: that there are things “beyond what science says is possible.”


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Where My Morality Comes From

In the comments of the last post, I was asked where I thought my moral sense comes from. This is an attempt to untangle the threads.

Innate Morality

Human beings aren’t alone in displaying ethical behavior. Other animals with social groups larger than a family display behavior we’d consider ethically motivated if performed by a person. For example: helping unrelated suffering individuals (even of other species), ostracising those who steal food, reciprocating kindness, putting oneself in danger to draw predators away from others.

Human beings, like many other creatures, use social strategies for survival, and so are typical in having evolved systems of ethics to support those strategies.

So my morality is partly innate, a function of our evolutionary history.

Learned Morality

A lot of the process of growing up, is the process of learning morality. Learning right ethical behavior, learning to ignore one’s selfish desires, to be able to function in society.

I notice how we do this with our son. We teach him a mix of cultural ethics and genuine morality. The former are things that would be wrong to do, because we have made a rather arbitrary decision as a culture not to do it – such as belching loudly at the dinner table. The latter would be wrong under rational scrutiny – such as hitting someone when they don’t do what you want them to.

So my morality is partly taught, a function of the society and family I grew up in.

Rational Morality

But both previous sources could be wrong. I could have grown up in an evil family. And I do not think evolved behaviors are a reliable determiner of morality. So I need a rational way of determining what is right and wrong.

The core of morality, in both categories above, is the idea that I am a member of a community of other individuals. And I recognize that those other individuals are like me. From this follows something like the golden rule: that I should act to others, as I would have them act to me.

This idea is common to cultures and philosophies going right back to our earliest written artefacts. The form I use we could call arbitrary substitution: I make moral judgements on choices. The options in that choice affect a set of people. The moral choice is the one who’s affected parties I would least fear to be.

I also think this is the objectively correct basis. Because it seems to me to be a logical consequence of objectivity, which requires that my own consciousness is a non-privileged vantage point. Similarly for there to be any objective morality, its conclusions cannot depend on which affected party’s consciousness belongs to me, and therefore the moral choice is the one all affected parties would agree upon, if they were faced with being arbitrarily assigned to each others consciousness. There’s much more to say here, but I’ll gloss over it all and assume the conclusion for the purpose of this post.

This leads to a moral calculus and therefore, I think, to a form of utilitarianism (again, skipping several intermediate steps of reasoning). Morality is not about rules, but about consequences. There is no ethical rule that should not be broken in some situation, though that situation might have to be extraordinarily contrived to the point of fantasy.

So it is not absolutely immoral to kill someone, for example. When I say that murder is immoral I am saying that, in the vast vast majority of cases, killing someone is the immoral option. In the same way, war is immoral, yet in some cases I believe it can be the morally correct choice.

There are moral decisions which are finely balanced, or carried out with incomplete knowledge of the consequences, or morally neutral. I think it is only utilitarianism that can rationally make sense of how we make difficult ethical decisions in real life[1].

So this is a rational basis, but choosing an action based on a moral calculation would be far too time consuming, and unnecessarily complex in most situations.

So in most cases I rely on heuristics that short cut the moral calculation and (hopefully) give the correct answer.

But it is important to fall back on a more complete basis when a situation is not clear, or when someone calls into question a rule. My cultural and innate baggage may rarely go unchallenged, since it is incorporated into my moral heuristics. But when a heuristic is bought to my attention, I at least have a basis on which to reconsider it. And if on reconsideration I find it not to be useful for making the right moral choice, I am obliged to stop using it.

[1] Where utilitarianism falters is in its account of ethical or moral judgements that aren’t weighed up rationally. As I go on to say, I operate on a rules (heuristic) basis most of the time, and deontological accounts of morality map onto this better. But ultimately I think rule-based ethics are adequately accounted for as convenience approximations of utilitarian calculations, whereas deontological approaches strain more when faced with moral judgements under conflicting rules.


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Should Atheists be More Evangelical?

Atheists have good news to tell. There are no gods, ghosts or fairies. There is no incomprehensible sin. There is no judgemental super-being monitoring your mind for thought crime. There is a whole world of reality out there that is more beautiful, more mysterious and more worthy of your awe than any story religion has ever told.

But advocates for atheism more often see their cause in terms of combat. Atheists fight irrationality, atheists dismantle spurious claims, atheists oppose the influence of faith in civic life.

Regardless of whether atheists are correct, it doesn’t sound very appealing.

Perhaps we shouldn’t care. “It doesn’t matter whether it is appealing or not, it is true!” Okay, sure, the horrible truth is better than a beautiful lie. But when did we decide that the truth is horrible?

Somewhere, the popular online atheist movement forgot the difference between connection and accommodation. So, on atheist blogs such as “Pharyngula” or “Why Evolution is True”, I struggle to find more than token common ground with non-atheists. Sympathy and empathy have been purged in pogroms of doctrinal purity.

I’ve been guilty of this as much as anyone. There are some things that make me angry. There are many religiously motivated injustices that need to be fought. Religion often abuses financially, emotionally and intellectually. Many believers bring the fight to us. I gain pleasure from a feeling of intellectual superiority and am tempted to try and engender it whenever I’m given the opportunity. I often fall into the kinds of patronizing language some believers routinely use on non-believers, until the pastiche is indistinguishable from my actual character.

But there are also massive numbers of people online who would be attracted to a more positive message of what atheism could do for them. I think that atheism has a message of good news, and we could afford to all be more evangelical about it.

What do you think, whether atheist, believer, or something in-between?


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