Attacking the darkness

I recently happened across lumpley‘s Mormon gunslingers game Dogs in the Vineyard. This description from the author and this review give a flavour of the thing, and some details of the poker-like conflict resolution rules. It looks fun, very different from the mechanics-heavy stuff (D&D and friends) and focused on helping the group create a compelling story by pitching the characters into conflicts with no easy answers. Playing the eponymous dogs, you’re in a game world where the religion really is true and your job is to defend it, bringing the towns you visit back onto the straight and narrow, using words, ritual and, when all else fails, a six-shooter.

scribb1e found a bunch of alternate settings for it, all based on the playing characters sworn to defend an ideology the players probably disagree with. My favourite is Fashion Experts on a Reality TV Show, mainly for the fashion version of the game’s “Something’s wrong”, X leads to Y progression.

Following scribb1e‘s further suggestion that there should be a CICCU version, I’ve come up with Staff Workers in the UCCF, in which our intrepid players are running characters who are the paid staff sent to help university Christian Unions. In the game, they’d deal with CUs who’ve strayed from the Doctrinal Basis, so the equivalent to a town in Dogs is a university CU (or possibly a college CU in the Reps in the CICCU variant). The Desert People are the liberal Christians, maybe the SCM (they might also be the other religions evangelising on campus, if there are any). Actually, it might make sense for the Desert People to be Fusion and the SCM represent the corrupt religion of the Territorial Authority, I suppose.

I’ve not quite worked out what the CU equivalent of shooting someone is, any ideas?

Here’s the Something’s Wrong progression:

Pride (manifests as self-righteousness)
-leads to->
Sin (manifests as demons outside, e.g. the Student Union refuses to let you book rooms, the student newspaper writes nasty things about you)
-leads to->
False Doctrine (manifests as corrupt religious practices and heresy, e.g. charismatic stuff like speaking in tongues and falling over; rejection of Biblical inerrancy; rejection of penal substitutionary atonement; acceptance of homosexuality)
-leads to->
False Priesthood (manifests as demons inside, like like CU members going out with non-Christians, sleeping with their boy/girlfriends (esp. if they’re the same sex, obviously), getting drunk)
-leads to->
Hate (manifests as apostasy (defection to Fusion, the SCM or to atheism), schism)

I probably will pay up for the PDF of the Dogs rules, so I’ll have to see how far I can go with this, but it might actually be a fun variant of the game.

Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker‘s del.icio.us feed or something.

Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking

Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:

“We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever,” says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. “You’re trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You’re trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That’s hard work.” In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, “growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world.”

That sounds sort of familiar. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.

The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it’s clear that cleanness (in the Bible’s sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There’s possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).

Old interview with Philip Pullman

Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It’s the origin of one of his statements on whether he’s an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:<lj-cut text=”The quote”>

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This isn’t really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill’s discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren’t ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there’s no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I’m not sure why you’d bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God’s inability to keep his story straight.

The walls have Google

The thing about blogging is that you never know who’s reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling’s response to Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.

(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).

“Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice”

Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to “not”. Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.

The Origin of Apostasy in the Breakdown of the Evangelical Mind

Evangelicals like to quote scary (to them) statistics about how many teenage Christians will “fall away” (Christian jargon for leaving the faith) on going to university, or how many student Christians will no longer be Christians 5 or 10 years later.

P Z Myers over at Pharyngula pointed to a recent press release from US evangelicals who were worried about their teenagers going astray, quoting surveys which said over 50% would fall away at university. It’s not clear who did the surveys, so atheists should probably find that out before joining Myers in jumping for joy. As one of the commenters at Pharyngula says, moral panic is a great way to raise funds for your organisation.

When I was a lad, CICCU liked to quote similarly hopeful surveys about the perseverance of their graduates. In an old post of mine you can see my notes from a leavers’ talk given by the students’ curate at my old church. She quoted a UCCF survey which gave an attrition rate of over 50% after 5 years. It turns out that UCCF have never heard of such a survey. The link to the UCCF web forum where they said this is now defunct (presumably as part of the UCCF’s goal of ruthlessly suppressing open discussion), but you can see what Dave Bish, one of their staff workers, has to say about it. As well as saying there is no such survery, he writes that Christians should be careful of the post-hoc fallacy if they are tempted to blame university Christian Unions for their apostates. After saying that, he replies to a comment saying that someone should get some real statistics (which must include appropriate controls for non-CU Christians, and non-Christians, I think) by saying that such statistics are irrelevant because God has already told us in the Bible what causes people to fall away. Phew! I’m glad we sorted that one out.

Back here in the reality-based community, though, I’d be very interested in the results of such a survey. I know lots of people like me, and another LJer has said that “to say that I keep stumbling upon people with similar experiences is an understatement”. But the plural of anecdote is not data. Such a survey wouldn’t prove anything about the truth or otherwise of Christianity, of course, but that’s not why it’s interesting.

The discussion on Pharyngula turned up something which struck a chord with me. In the past, when talking about other post-university ex-evangelicals, many of whom studied science, I’ve spoken about them as seeing evangelicalism as a spiritual analogue of science. Is it science students that fall into evangelicalism and then fall out again? Perhaps that’s a bit too simple. A commenter on Myer’s posting quotes The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, a free book about the state of politics in the USA. Chapter 4 discusses evangelicalism. The author writes about ex-evangelical apostates, and completely nails it:

What then gnawed away so mercilessly at the apostates that they could no longer overpower doubt with faith?

Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.



The truth will make you free, as someone once said.

Because the stakes are so low

serenasnape linked to an audio file of fun new words to an old favourite hymn. You can hear it here.

The events the song is describing are yet another example of Christians doing the Dawkins’ work for him. Adrian Warnock’s blog contains a good summary, but remembering that UK evangelicalism is a fandom, let’s lay it down the Fandom Wank way (note to Britishers: “wank” is apparently a lot less rude in America, so I hope you will forgive my adoption of their style):

Over on trujesusfans, stevechalke99 posted an entry saying that substitutionary atonement was wrong. He added “OMG! Harry and Hermione, OTP! That bitch Rowling doesn’t know what she’s doing”.

The wank ERUPTED on in the comments, and other Jesus fans were soon linking to stevechalke99‘s posting. Cue DRAMA. stevechalke99 was promptly banninated by thesoundchurch23, who mods UCCF and ciccuspouseparty. MASS DEFRIENDINGS followed a split between members of the pro-chalke springharvest and anti-chalke wordalive (bahleeted, link to Google cache) comms.

Big Name Fan and springharvest mod pluspete was like OMG! CALM DOWN!11!ONE!ELEVEN, but to NO AVAIL, as Bible fans BASHED ONE ANOTHER all over the GODBLOGOSPHERE. cont’d on pages 1054, 1517, 1534, etc. etc. etc.


I hope I’ve conveyed the seriousness with which we must view these debates.

I ought to be careful here, I suppose. It’s not as if atheists never disagree, for example. But what they’re arguing about is, to those involved, a question of the spiritual “rules” of the universe (or rather, the universe + God combo). It’s not a matter of personal opinions or motivations, it’s about absolute truth. And that’s where it all falls down. Each side is vigorously asserting that their view is the truth, but oddly, they can’t seem to demonstrate that in a way which the other side (or someone who just doesn’t care, like me) can agree with, despite the fact that we have two groups who both claim to believe “what the Bible says”.

Their problem is that neither side’s claims have any grounding in reality. Rather, these mass debates are game which each believer plays in his own head (if you’ll pardon the pronoun, males seem far more enthusiastic about this activity than females), imagining the responses of fantasy figures which are most pleasing to him. I’m sure there’s a name for that; it’s just temporarily slipped my mind.

Tu quoque

It seems there’s been a spot of bother recently between some students’ unions and some university Christian Unions.

Most university CUs in the UK are affiliated to the UCCF, an avowedly evangelical organisation which sprang out of our old friend, CICCU, in 1836 (or something). Exeter’s SU apparently wants the CU to stop making members sign up to the UCCF doctrinal basis. This is clearly the right thing to do, as the part about imputed righteousness is nonsense, as N.T. Wright (no relation) argues cogently in What St Paul Really Said (gjm11 also won this argument a while ago, if anyone like nlj21 is interested).

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, the University and the SU denied the use of campus facilities for the CU to run Pure, a course for Christians teaching typically evangelical attitudes to sex, because they didn’t like the bit about gays (this appears to be an illustration of the power of Facebook, by the way). Legal action has been threatened by the CUs.

It’s nice to see the young people enjoying themselves, I suppose. I’m reminded of the saying that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.

There are lots of people squealing about persecution, but I also read some of the more balanced views of the recent controversy. Cartoon Church has a good set of links to other thoughtful postings.

Christians are not being persecuted by not getting free or cheap rooms via the SU, any more than gays are by a course run by evangelicals for evangelicals which, as an aside to the main topic of “Evangelical Guilt 101: Wanking and how to avoid it” (link to a hilarious Pure session plan, mildly NSFW), says what Christianity always has pretty much always said about homosexuality. Both sides look petty and keen to be perceived as persecuted.

Some SUs and CUs have come to an understanding without turning the whole thing into a culture war. CUs can disaffiliate from the SU and maintain their oligarchy (I recall being delighted to learn, while I was a member of CICCU, that this was the correct term for their method of government). SUs can stop their extreme sports version of being Gruaniad readers. Everyone wins.

Alas, one troublesome priest has rumbled the fact that CUs are actually part of our plan to turn middle-of-the-road Christians into atheists. Sometimes it’s a protracted process, to be sure, but our mills also grind exceeding small. Look everyone, over there: a lawsuit! (That ought to do it).