Monthly Archives: May 2013

Non Semper Ergo Numquam

Here’s a logical fallacy I’ve been coming across (and making) lately.

“Non semper, ergo numquam” means “Not always, therefore never”.

In response to pointing out some cause of an event, or a criticism of an idea, a person finds a counter example. That can’t be true because of a particular example when it is not true.

It is a kind of quantification fallacy, a false conversion, but from my research I could not find a name for it.

It is a fallacy because most of the time we make general statements not with the purpose of suggesting they apply in all cases, just that they are general enough to remark on. To undermine such a general statement it is not enough to respond with a counter-example.

So “natural selection drives evolution”… “here’s a situation where natural selection doesn’t drive evolution.”

Or “religion promotes supernatural nonsense”… “I’m religious and I don’t believe in the supernatural.”

Or “marijuana is not a particularly harmful drug”… “But my cousin did weed, and ended up in a psych hospital.”[1]

But still, the counter example is a tempting rebuttal, and a strong rhetorical trick. I’ve found myself often trying to justify the counter-example: trying to reject it or cast doubt on it. Which is a tacit acceptance that the generalization was supposed to apply in all cases. It inverts the discussion, so a reasonable statement gets turned into an unreasonable exclusive statement, and the person is forced to defend that unreasonable position. The correct response is more like “so?” But even that can feel like a weakening of the argument. Though I fight it, I instinctively love black-and-white certainties. And even when I am intending to suggest a matter is only a very dark shade of grey, it can be galling to be reminded it is not entirely black.

It is particularly galling when faced with someone with a tendency to commit the opposite fallacy: “aliquando ergo semper” (sometimes therefore always) – someone who will take the valid counter example as evidence that the matter is entirely white. Who’ll conclude that, if natural selection is not the mechanism behind all evolution then it can be entirely discounted, or that the presence of any historical material in the bible means the bible is historically accurate. In those cases an unambiguous counter claim would be preferable, for the same of rhetoric. But this fallacy is always there for the over-eager.

[1] Also an example of a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.


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The Third Commandment

Evangelical Christian culture has a specific idea of what the third commandment entails and goddammit, they won’t hear anything else.


The evangelical definition of taking God’s name in vain is so far-reaching that it has become the mainstream (secular) definition. Ask someone what it means to take God’s name in vain and regardless of their faith tradition or religious persuasion they will probably tell you that it means using one of God’s many pseudonyms in an exclamatory or thoughtless manner.


Much of western Christianity doesn’t even know that the commandments were issued to the same Israelites who, when they asked God his name, weren’t given a straight answer. They still don’t have an answer…. The commandment issued on Mount Sinai wasn’t intended to censor careless bandying about of a literal name, but rather was stating we are not to use God to justify or legitimize an action that is not justified or legitimated by God.

Getting this detail wrong has resulted in Christian culture declaring God’s position on causes such as war, marriage rights, evolution and megachurches, all while staunchly refraining from typing “omg” lest they blaspheme the name of G-d. The irony is excruciating.

From Stuff Christian Culture Likes

One of the best things I’ve read for a long time! Head over to the site to see plenty more excellent posts.

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Things Progressive Christians Rarely Say: Your God Does Not Exist

I’m participating in a few discussion threads on various blogs of progressive Christians at the moment. As is often the case, evangelical / fundamentalist Christians arrive and try to make it clear that they know the one true God and everyone else is wrong. Discussions can be amusing but rarely very useful, since theists really seem to have no arguments beyond “No, I’m right!” or (for the slightly more self-aware) “You can’t be sure I’m wrong!”

But it is interesting how progressive Christians respond. The progressive Christian involved have previously said that they are not theists. They believe in a ‘ground of all being’ or a panentheist God of ultimate concern. But when a commenter attempts to define God,

“I believe in the God of the Bible: who created humans in his image, who came and lived among his people first in the tabernacle, then in flesh as Jesus, who died and rose back to earthly life, then ascended to heaven.”

they seem very reluctant to say

“That God doesn’t exist.”

rather preferring to build a bridge

“You can’t be sure God is like that.”

And even then there seems to be a hesitation to say

“God isn’t like that, God is…”

It appears that the desire to retain a connection between progressive Christianity and the wider Christian world is stronger than the desire to counter bad theology. Which strikes me as odd.

It is all a matter of subtleties, and I’m sure I could be accused of reading too much into this. The progressives don’t make a secret of what they believe, and they don’t make a secret of opposing fundamentalism. I’ve heard it said several times

“I don’t believe in the God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in, either.”

I just find it odd that they feel the need to retain some connection to the words. An assumption that they are referring to the same thing when they talk about “God”, but just differ in the qualities they assign to it. Which seems to me to be a bizarre assumption.

[NB: Quotes above are paraphrases of several discussions.]


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Did God Sign Our DNA?

Welcome to the several hundred extra blog visitors who’ve arrived here over the last couple of days.

It seems the influx is motivated by a (sadly false) report that Harvard researches announced they found a message from God in our DNA. The report was an Onion-style satire and purely false.

But my post on my own discovery of a message from God in our DNA is showing up high on Google searches. It has been linked to from several forums. And, unlike the Harvard article, the results I claim in my article are quite genuine. I didn’t not make it up, as anyone can easily check.

At some point I’ll explain why we have that message in our DNA, for those who can’t immediately see. But let’s see how far this little storm blows first.


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The Problem with Western Education

For fifty years we’ve known that there are serious problems in the Western education system. It does very well for a select few, but fails so many. Countless initiatives and government interventions have attempted to remedy this.

But all of them have failed to turn education around.

Because all of them have fundamentally treated the problems in education as a supply problem. We must attract and retain better teachers, improve teaching, disseminate best practice, improve monitoring and assessment, set targets, improve curricula, upgrade classroom resources, provide extra support for weaker students, improve school facilities. The list goes on and on.

But I suspect that education doesn’t have a supply problem, and never has.

It has a demand problem.

Someone who wants to be able to do something or to know something, will suck in that knowledge or skill at an incredible rate.

The reason it is tough to teach, and teachers so often fail is because they are shovelling truck loads of education at unmotivated ‘learners’ and hoping that at least some of it will stick to them.

Who’s fault is that: apathetic students, uninspiring teachers, or the assembly line model of education?

I don’t know, and I offer no solutions. But it might be worth at least admitting that we’re spending vast amounts of time, money and anxiety solving the wrong problem!


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The Death Spiral: Businesses and Churches

A Death Spiral is a sequence of destructive choices that collectively lead to certain disaster, but are each the best choice available at that time. In other words, once you’re on the death spiral, you’ll either ride it to the end, or else you’ll make a break for it. But making a break for it is most likely to bring a more rapid end (with a small chance of saving the situation).

Death Spiral is a term that came into business-speak originally to refer to a spiral of debt, where more debt is needed to service the previous debt, and so on, until the company is bankrupt. But if the company had not taken on more debt, it would have risked having to miss orders, miss salary payments, default on its loans, and spoil its reputation: so the best option at each point in time was to take on more debt. And hope.

Hope is the key feature of the death spiral. As a business owner, you see where things are going. But the choice is to severely damage what you have, or to keep on hoping. Hoping that there’ll be a sudden influx of customers, hoping that productivity will suddenly soar. You can’t afford to invest in those things to make them happen, so all that is left is hope.

Many mainline churches are stuck in their own death spiral, clinging on to hope. The church is shrinking, those people who remain are being pressured (overtly or implicitly) for more money, more of their time, their responsibilities are growing, the minister (if the church even has one) finds their time is getting more stretched, even as their salary shrinks. Meanwhile a very small handful of churches are growing, are glitzy and attractive, full of great worship and enthusiastic children’s work. Growing mostly by sucking people out of the surrounding churches, particularly those people who are impatient to see something happen, leaving behind those who prefer to be, rather than do.

But death spiral churches can’t just change direction. That would alienate those already in the congregation, disrupt important relationships and damage the community. And the church owes those stalwarts continuity and support. They have been loyal, and their giving keeps the church running, even as there are fewer and fewer of them. No, radical action is unfair, as well as dangerous. If many of them left, before new folks came, the end would come much faster, and with more certainty.

Better to hope. Hope for a new influx of people, hope for a wave of enthusiasm, hope for fresh ideas, hope that God sends help.

Stephen Lingwood, the Unitarian minister and blogger, posts every year on the numbers of Unitarians in Britain. The numbers shrink, churches close, others struggle with no minister, or prospect for growth. Some grow, most don’t. It is a pattern repeated across different denominations. It is easy to focus on the politically brash and big churches and ministers, the mega-churches, and the tv-stations. But most churches aren’t like that, and most are doing poorly.

If you are in a death spiral, what do you do? What’s the right answer?

There isn’t one. Breaking out of the spiral isn’t the right thing to do. At any point it is a bad choice. In a business it might mean putting people out of work, in a church it might mean alienating people from their community. Sometimes the right thing to do is to ride the spiral down, to live in hope, and when the time comes, face the end with dignity.

Some businesses and churches try new things, but that’s often not a good solution. A friend of mine was involved with a business in a death spiral, they set up a completely unrelated business on the side. The new business grew, and the old one was allowed to fizzle out. This was fine for their management team and shareholders, but not for their highly skilled staff nor the companies in their supply chain.

Some churches are doing similar things, running parallel congregations, different expressions of church. A church in my town growing up did this: it started a new all-singing service alongside its traditional one, and gradually over a couple of years, the traditional one continued to decline, until it was stopped all together. The old church initially celebrated the influx of new people, but when it became clear they were not going to invigorate the congregation, but replace it, things got nasty. The minster left, a new replacement was hired, one with even less reason to sustain what had gone before. A successful new project can accelerate the death spiral in the old one. While the management/minister and a few others can make the transition, most will suffer the same fate in either case.

There is no right answer. But it is a miserable process. I reflect on the business ventures I’ve started that have failed, and there is nothing quite so soul destroying and knowing where things are going, but being powerless to avoid it. And I can’t help but feel sorry for those I know who’s congregations are going the same way. Particularly as, in many cases, the churches who are struggling this way are those that I think are positive forces for community and support.

[This is an extended and bloggified version of a conversation I had today with an online friend who is a former Methodist minister.]


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Well Done RI

Very happy to see my old stomping ground of Rhode Island has become the 10th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Congratulations Rhode Islanders!

Also very thrilled to see my former boss, now ABCORI (American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island) bigwig, among the crowd celebrating on the steps of the state house. And great to see at least a dozen of the people I knew and worked with in ABCORI voicing their excitement too.

Its easy to frame anti-gay bigotry as a problem caused by Christianity. The reality, as usual, is more complex. I proudly stand together with my Christian friends and former colleagues on this issue.

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