Dear Esther

I just finished playing “Dear Esther,” (1) a game, if you can call it that, about the the death of a man, and I have to write about it (Warning, spoilers ahead). He is sick, or so he says. He was friends with a man named Donnelly who suffered from syphilis and abused laudanum, or so he says. He pines for his lost love Esther, or so he says. The player’s character narrates the game, but is he a trustworthy narrator?

In the game, you wander around an island, witnessing sights of beauty while listening to the forlorn tale of the island’s inhabitants. There is Jakobson, a poor man who tries to raise himself out of poverty by herding goats, and Donnelly. Who are these two people, and how do they relate to the player? We gather that Donnelly was the player’s friend but that there was a falling out.

Why is the player on the island? We hear that the player has cordoned himself on the island to isolate the sickness from others. Perhaps. When we first start out, we can see a communications antenna on the peak of the central mountain on the island, with it’s pulsating light at the top drawing us in. We immediately know that this tower is our destination. What awaits us there? Why must we traverse the island to get there? The narrator tells us that the seagulls have all left the island, and that the original inhabitants of the island have left as well. There is nothing left, just the remnants of buildings and the sickly, scraggly plant life, rocks, and sand. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is palpable.

A beautiful cave

A beautiful cave (2)

There is a tension between the idleness of the island, the feeling of inevitable death, and the drive to reach the top. The narrator calls it his Damascus. As we travel through the island, we come across sights of true, awe-inspiring beauty. We come across paintings on the walls of caves and cliffs; paintings of hydrocarbon chains, alcohol compounds, and electrical schematics. Perhaps this is symbolic of how Esther died? Then start the messages…at first they tell the tale of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, but they start to take a subtle turn. “Was Paul’s conversion the result of brain trauma?” it hints to us. Is our trip also the result of brain trauma? Is any of this real? We start to feel more and more that we are being led to the top, not going there of our own accord. It is nighttime now and the moon is up, and there are candles lighting the way. Who lit these candles? We catch glimpses of a hooded character in the shadows, but nothing more. Who is this stranger?

The drive to get to the top gets stronger. We are moving faster now. The messages on the walls start to hint at something less hopeful. We aren’t heading to our salvation at the top, but rather to the inevitable conclusion of our fate. We get to the top, to the communications tower. We climb to the top of the tower and look out over the island. We look down, past the tower, past the cliffs, to the ocean below, and we jump. We fall in slow motion, pas the tower, past the cliffs, and begin to fly across the ocean. Our shadow is that of a seagull. We fly out over the ocean, soaring, and the screen begins to fade until there is nothing left but the sound of the ocean. We are dead.

I sit pondering the game. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is supposed to be a story of redemption, but that is not the fate of the character. The continual references to the story seem to say many things, but never confirming. Perhaps the story is a sort of wistful hope that the character clings to in order to avoid dealing with his fate. Perhaps the game itself is saying that stories such as there only serve to divorce ourselves from reality. It certainly shows a sense of desperation in dealing with death…and perhaps even in trying to find meaning in life; some sort of sign that this journey has some revelatory meaning.

The lonely island

The lonely island (2)

Just what was the journey? Was the island real? Was there really a person leading us to the top, and if so who was he/she? Was it Esther? Donnelly? The narrator himself? We never really find out. The narrator refers to “Esther Donnelly” a few times; are they actually the same person? Was Donnelly really the narrator’s lost love? Are they perhaps different parts of the narrator himself? Does the narrator even exists for that matter? These are not questions that the game answers.

It’s amazing to see how indie game devs are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with games. Games such as “Dear Esther” show that there is such a huge potential for telling meaningful stories in the medium. While it may sound strange at first to use a game to convey a story like this, it actually was the perfect choice. The story is one of discovery (as much as you discover anyways), and by using an interactive media, we are actually making the discoveries for ourselves. As the drive to reach the top increases as the game moves on, it is not just the character that is driven, but ourselves that is driven. We aren’t just contemplating the death of a character, but the death of ourselves. By using the format of a game, it becomes much more introspective, and much more personal.


Dear Ester Trailer (1)

(1) Briscoe, Robert. “Dear Esther.” Dear Esther. Available: http://dear-esther.com/
(2) [H|G]~Modred189~ “Dear Esther Screenshots”. Steam Community. 19 Februrary, 2012. Available: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Modred189/screenshots/?tab=public&showdate=1&filter=app_203810

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Atheist vs Agnostic vs Pantheist vs…a matter of semantics

Christina over at WWJTD posted a blog entry talking about Dawkins’ debate with Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (1) During this debate Dawkins reiterated that he was not 100% certain that god(s) does not exist. Of course this isn’t anything new to those of us who have read The God Delusion (2) and have been around the movement for a while. It also isn’t surprising, just a little depressing, that some religious organizations and individuals have declared “Victory! Dawkins is not an atheist! He’s one step away from joining the dark side!” (okay, maybe not quite that last part about the dark side).

Dawkins is an atheist; there really is no debate over this. Any claim to the contrary is caused by a disconnect in semantics. There are differing opinions on what the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and even “theist” mean, but there is a general consensus with which to work. As I’m sure you have guessed, the naysayers don’t use the consensus definition. There are two similar schools of thought that I think accurately codify the consensus, although there are slight variances between them.

Graph of Belief

Graph of Belief (3)

The first is one described by Peter Brietbart as a 2 dimensional graph. The terms atheist, agnostic, and theist aren’t points along a single dimension, but rather answer two separate questions that together form a worldview, and thus a location on this graph. Along one axis is the answer to the question “Do you think there is a god or gods?” with gnostic and agnostic representing the certainty of the answer. Along the other axis is the answer to the question “Do you believe in a god or gods?” with theist and atheist being at the two ends of the axis. These questions may seem at first glance to ask the same thing, but there is a subtle yet important difference. The first question allows for a very shaded answer; answers can be “yes,” “no,” “we can’t know for certain, so maybe,” and all sorts of other possibilities. The second question is narrower though; answers are pretty much just “yes,” or “no.” There can be various strengths of “yes” and “no”, but “I don’t know” cannot be the answer because the question asks what you believe, which, by definition, is opinion. (3)

To illustrate the point, let’s consider a thought experiment. We can debate all day long whether or not “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (4) is the greatest rock album of all time. The question is one that inquires about the truthiness of the greatness of the album. We can honestly answer “I don’t know” to this question, and indeed probably should answer this way because of the sheer complexity of the question. However, the personal question of “Is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band my favorite album?” is different. It either is or it isn’t. If you don’t have a favorite album because it’s impossible to choose (a legitimate position), then the answer to “Is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band your favorite album?” is unquestionably no, because you don’t have a favorite album. There can really only be one of two answers, “yes” or “no.” If you think don’t know the answer, then the answer is really no because you don’t already have a favorite album.

The Greatest Album of All Time?

The Greatest Album of All Time? (5)

With this approach, what Dawkins refers to as an “atheist” and what the naysayers refer to as an “agnostic” are really both “agnostic atheist.” The majority of Christians, I suspect (but do not have evidence to support), are “gnostic theists,” with a fairly large minority of “agnostic theists.” Personally I like this definition and tend to use it myself. For the record, I’m an agnostic atheist and gather that most atheists are agnostic atheists.

The second approach is the one used by Dawkins in The God Delusion and describes belief on a sliding scale from 1 to 7, much like the Kinsey scale. (5) On this scale, a person who has a complete belief in god(s) and believes that there is 0% chance they are wrong is assigned a value of 1 (notice how it correlates with being completely heterosexual on the Kinsey scale). On the opposite end, a person who has a complete disbelief in god(s) and believes that there is 0% chance they are wrong is assigned a value of 7. Dawkins places himself as a 6.9 on this scale, and I tend to place myself somewhere between that and a 6.5.

So where does an “agnostic” sit on this scale? It depends on your definition. According to a “dictionary atheist” or the naysayers mentioned above, anything less than a 7 is an agnostic. Of course this cuts both ways; such a belief also implies that anything greater than a 1 is also an agnostic, although we don’t exactly see people falling over each other to complete this dichotomy by calling 99.99% of all religious people “agnostic.” According to most of us in the non-belief camp (and many in the belief camp as well) an agnostic is, in practice, probably something below a 5-6 but above a 2-3, give or take. I mustn’t be remiss to point out that giving any hard cutoff is doomed to failure, and that agnostic is more like a fuzzy region in the middle part of the scale.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins (3)

These two approaches are very similar and tend to provide similar results. I tend to prefer the former, because it provides a richer set of information than the latter, but the latter is easier to use and comprehend. I also tend to view the latter as representing a diagonal line along the former, going from gnostic theist to gnostic atheist. This view does require one change: the y-axis is transformed such that it goes from gnostic to agnostic on one side, and agnostic to gnostic on the other (yay non-linear vector space transformations!), but it’s more or less the same.

With this view, I tend to view the debates over whether or not someone is an atheist, agnostic, etc as kinda stupid. Any attempt to tell someone else that they are label X is an exercise in futility. The use of these labels merely serves to pigeon hole people who don’t necessarily fit those holes. Once someone is unwillingly shoved into one of these holes, then it becomes very difficult not to create strawman arguments based on this label. Everyone in all corners of the spectrum just needs to take labels, self-reported or otherwise, with a grain of salt until a clearer picture has been formed of the person through discussion. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time.

(1) Christina. “Richard Dawkins: not an Atheist?” WWJTD. 25th February, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/02/25/richard-dawkins-not-an-atheist/
(2) Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Mariner Books, 2006.
(3) Brietbart, Peter. “Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic.” The Freethinker. 25th September, 2009. Available: http://freethinker.co.uk/2009/09/25/8419/
(4) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sgt._Pepper%27s_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band
(5) “Spectrum of theistic probability.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability

Why don’t Christians understand the separation of church and state?

The reactions of the Cranston, Rhode Island Christian majority to the result of Jessica Ahlquist’s lawsuit has gotten me thinking. Just why is it that Christians don’t understand the concept of separation of church and state? They certainly disagree with the concept, but I think that, just as importantly, they have some misconceptions about it.

First, some background for those that aren’t familiar with the Ahlquist case. At Cranston West High School in 1963, a banner was created titled “School Prayer” containing the following text:

Our Heavenly Father.

Grant us each day the desire to do our best.
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

Amen.

Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist (2)

This banner still hung in the gym when Ahlquist, an atheist, began attending. During her sophomore year, the ACLU sent a letter on behalf of an anonymous parent (presumably not Ahlquist’s parents) to the school requesting the banner be removed since it is obviously illegal. When Ahlquist learned of the letter, she began attending school board meetings to try and persuade the board to remove the banner. After multiple failed attempts, she filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU against the school and won (obviously). (1) Before, during, and after the trial, Ahlquist has faced a great deal of push-back from the Christian majority in Cranston, including threats of violence. She has had to have a police escort at school, and her state senator even called her an “evil little thing.” (2)

Many arguments have been put up in defense of the banner, and many arguments have been made about how the lawsuit is part of our evil plot to get the government to support the religion of atheism. Obviously these arguments incredibly inane and not even remotely based in reality, but nonetheless they are being made. As an example, see this comment from the comments section in the Providence newspaper (3):

As an analogy to hanging a banner with a verse on the wall of a public building that our citizens are exposed to, I fear that at some point in the future, the legal process on this issue will evolve to the point that houses of worship will not be allowed to front public streets. After all, citizens pass them bye while traveling said public streets and the separation purists certainly will not allow that will they?

Why do so many Christians always seem to think that our efforts in enforcing the separation of church and state are really efforts to outlaw faith? I have been pondering this question lately, and I have a few hypotheses.

"Help! We're Being Oppressed"

"Help! We're Being Oppressed" (4)

A common hypothesis that comes up is that these Christians have enjoyed majority status for a very long time, such that they don’t know what it’s like to be a minority. They don’t know what it’s like to experience real religious prejudice, so to them anything that hampers their ability to what they want is viewed as a grave injustice and a violation of their rights. I do think this is true, but I don’t think it’s the only reason, and maybe not even the primary reason.

Another hypothesis I have is that these Christians have a lack of basic understanding of the law and our governmental structure. There are two common misconceptions that I see rather often. The first is that the government is only forbidden from establishing a government church. I think the reason for this comes from a reading of the First Amendment in a vacuum.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (5)

As worded, the amendment does seem to imply that it only forbids the US Congress from writing legislature that favors one religion over another, but anything else is allowed (side note: how do people take this wording to mean that congress is only forbidden from establishing a state church? It’s quite the leap). What these types of people fail to take into account is that the constitution does not exist in a vacuum since we are a common law nation, but instead must be considered with the history of the Supreme Court and other legislation, namely Everson v. Board of Education and the 14th Amendment (the constitution applies to federal and local government). The second misconception that I see often is that legislation passed by “majority rule” has the highest level of precedence. The most obvious example of this is the backlash against the recent Proposition 8 ruling. Rick Santorum even stated (6):

We need judges who respect the people’s voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the Constitution says.

That is simply not how our government works. The US Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Nothing can override it except another constitutional amendment. At all. Period. End of discussion. Yet Christians don’t seem to understand this and so we get so many instances of “those damn judges are ignoring the will of the people.” Judges aren’t ignoring the will of the people, they just simply recognize that the Constitution trumps the will of the people.

Let's just go with "First Amendment"

Let's just go with "First Amendment" (7)

My third hypothesis is that these types of people tend to not really care about the law. They tend to go on and on about “I live and die by the Constitution” and “Government should get out of our lives so we can be free,” but they don’t really believe those things. Instead, they see the government beginning to crack down on laws supporting their beliefs, whether it’s no prayer in school, outlawing abortion, or banning gay marriage. They see these actions as the government intervening in their lives, and as a result they are experiencing a loss in freedom. Technically they are correct, too. They are loosing their freedom to illegally use the government to advance their personal beliefs in spite of the constitution. What they fail to realize is that, in these instances, the government is actually making our society more free, not less. Then again, maybe they do realize that this is the case…

It’s important to note that I used the term “hypothesis” here, not “theory.” I did this intentionally because I do not have strong data to support these hypotheses, just personal observation and a lot of reading, but they seem reasonable. What can be done about this? We just keep doing what we do…calling out their stupidity and doing our best to educate the public. We are already seeing a decline in religious attendance, and much of it is due to increased education. Education is the key to everything, and societies always become more educated over time, not less. Time is on our side, we just have to endure in the mean time.

(1) “Jessica Ahlquist.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Ahlquist
(2) Goodnough, Abby. “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer.” The New York Times. 26th January, 2012. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html
(3) Dujardin, Richard C. “Federal judge orders ‘immediate’ removal of Cranston school prayer mural; appeal unlikely .” The Providence Journal. 11th January, 2011. Available: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/01/federal-judge-o-1.html#.TzXtjl0Xuca
(4) “Help! We’re Being Oppressed!” Reddit. Available: http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/dy84p/help_were_being_oppressed/
(5) “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution
(6) Savage, David G. “Santorum decries ‘judicial tyranny’ in Prop. 8 ruling.” Los Angeles Times. 12th Februaru, 2012. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-santorum-decries-judicial-tyranny-in-prop-8-case-20120212,0,2601434.story
(7) Tristam, Pierre. “Deconstructing the Bill of Rights.” Candide’s Notebooks. 23rd February, 2007. Available: http://pierretristam.com/Bobst/07/cn022307.htm

Misogyny in the atheist community…again

So once again, the topic of gender equality has had to be dragged out and explained one…more…time… (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). The last article (5) by Greta Christina is especially pointed (if you haven’t read it, do so right now). In the comments, an astute reader posited that the misogyny issues we are grappling with is our “hot-button” issue for our community, just like pedophilia is Catholicism’s hot-button issue. These types of events are unfortunately bound to happen once a community has a large number of members (expected value increases), but how the community reacts to such events is not just a matter of probability. It says something more fundamental about the community.

Misogynistic Conversation on Facebook

Misogynistic Conversation on Facebook (5)

When we look at the priest sex abuse scandals, there doesn’t appear to be (to me at least) that there is much internal conflict within the church on how to deal with this. Catholics mostly seem to just brush it away (“They aren’t really Christians”), and chalk it up to a few bad apples. This says to me that the average Catholic does not care about this issue, and by extension does not care about solving this issue. Very few Catholics are actually pedophiles, but by not taking an assertive stance against that incredibly small minority that are, Catholicism as a whole has been hurt, with membership declining faster than other denominations (6). Normally I would be incredibly happy to see church membership declining, but this is not a good reason why.

In many ways, the issues we face with misogyny in the atheist community appears to be having a similar, if somewhat muted, effect. When one of our movement’s best bloggers writes a post about her desires to rage-quite the movement (7), there is a problem. The number of actual misogynistic assholes in the movement is, I’m sure, quite low, but when we don’t try to address these issues when they come up, we make our movement weaker.

There is hope though. Beginning with Elevatorgate, we are beginning to speak up about these instances. Progress is being made. I have certainly learned a lot from the discussion of these events. While I wouldn’t consider myself as having been misogynistic like the guys that were discussed, my views on feminism and the state of female equality were definitely skewed. It has been through these discussions that my opinions have changed for the better, and I doubt I’m the only one.

(1) Watson, Rebecca. “Reddit Makes Me Hate Atheists.” Skepchick. 27th December, 2011. Available: http://skepchick.org/2011/12/reddit-makes-me-hate-atheists/
(2) McCreight, Jen. “The straw woman of the skeptical movement.” Blag Hag. 2nd January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/01/the-straw-woman-of-the-skeptical-movement/
(3) Mehta, Hemant. “Accounting for Accumulation.” Friendly Atheist. 5th January, 2012. Available: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/05/accounting-for-accumulation/
(4) Christina, Greta. “Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny.” Greta Christina’s Blog. 29th December, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/12/29/why-yes-but-is-the-wrong-response-to-misogyny/
(5) Christina, Greta. “Two Questions for DJ Grothe.” Greta Christina’s Blog. 9th January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/01/09/two-questions-for-dj-grothe/
(6) “NCC’s 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches reports decline in Catholic, Southern Baptist membership.” National Council of Churches. 23rd February, 2009. Available: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/090130yearbook1.html
(7) McCreight, Jen. “Drama.” Blag Hag. 10th January, 2012. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/01/drama/

P.S. Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been swamped at work plus the traveling for the holiday’s, so I have had very little time for much else. Things should be more or less returning to normal over the next week or two though.

Christian privilege during the holidays

The holidays are upon us and once again there is much discussion about the nature of the holiday and Christianity. There is the whole “War on Christmas” of course, (have you ever thought about how that marginalizes real war and the death and suffering inherent in it). There is also the whole “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas” debate. And of course lets not forget the inevitable Christian displays put up by local governments.

Beck's War on Christmas

Beck's War on Christmas (1)

The whole thing is kind of a circus; a rehearsed drama being played out. It’s amusing and depressing all at the same time. It’s all about Christian privilege, and their lack of ability to understand nuance. We aren’t saying that the holiday should be banished, or that Christians shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate the birth of their fictional zombie savior. Rather, we are simply saying that governments shouldn’t play favorites with religion. If a government wants to have a nativity scene up that’s fine, provided that they also allow Hanukkah, Kwanza, secular, etc. displays as well. In fact, allowing all displays can help our cause, such as the case in Loudon county (2). Of course, the religious right views any criticism that is even remotely related to Christianity as an attack on Christianity itself.

It’s really unfortunate too, because I know of many atheists, myself included, that really like Christmas. Honestly, Christmas was always a secular holiday for me, even when I was quite religious. Church was just something I had to put up with in order to get presents. Looking at it now, I see it as a holiday where we get to spend time with friends and family, where we show how much we love and appreciate those around us. There are fun songs (many of which are secular), great food, and a generally festive atmosphere. What’s not to love? It’s certainly my favorite holiday of the year.

It's Merry Christmas Dammit

It's Merry Christmas Dammit (3)

Unfortunately, there are many religious conservatives out there who cannot stand that people out there try to enjoy the holidays without believing exactly as they do, and they feel that anyone who believes differently is attacking them (hmm…I sense a trend /sarcasm). Are they really so insecure in their worldview that they have to attack anything that threatens it? Are they so insecure that putting up a banner stating “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail” causes the mayor of the town to say “I believe it violates the First Amendment”? (4) It’s yet another case of Christian privilege at work.

(1) McGinley, Brendan. “The Christmas Sweater.” Cracked. Available: http://www.cracked.com/funny-3444-the-christmas-sweater/
(2) Mehta, Hemant. “Thanks to Christians, Atheist Holiday Displays Will Flourish in Loudoun County.” Friendly Atheist. 1st December, 2011. Available: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/12/01/thanks-to-christians-atheist-holiday-displays-will-flourish-in-loudoun-county/
(3) Davies, Matt. “Madmen in the Mall.”  Bartblog. Available: http://bartblog.bartcop.com/2007/12/21/
(4) Mehta, Hemant. “Atheist Banner Rejected from Ellwood City Municipal Building, While Nativity Scene Stays.” Friendly Atheist. 5th December, 2011. Available: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/12/05/atheist-banner-rejected-from-ellwood-city-municipal-building-while-nativity-scene-stays/

Mental Illness and the Skeptical Community

JT Eberhard gave a speech at Skepticon IV title “Why The Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself With Mental Illness” that is simply amazing. I’m sitting here trying to think of how to adequately convey just how incredible and moving it is and I just can’t do it. I highly encourage everyone to watch it below! (1)

JT made an analogy that I hadn’t thought of before that is perfect: diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that usually isn’t caused by environmental factors (but it can be) just like mental illness, and it certainly isn’t the person’s fault. It also isn’t something that can be “cured,” but it can be managed. However, people tend to view those with diabetes very differently than those with a mental illness. Society, on average, tends to view someone with a mental illness as someone who is weak and needs to just “get over it.” They don’t realize that it’s not something that can be overcome with willpower, and I have a hypothesis why.

Most religious people believe that everyone has a “soul.” I put the term in quotes because there are many definitions for what constitutes a soul, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will use the following: a soul is the essence of a person that is divorced from their physical self. It exists before a person is born, and continues to exist after a person dies. Basically the Christian definition of a soul.

This definition is important because Christians believe that a person’s soul is created by God (and therefore perfect at the time of creation), and eventually goes to heaven or hell depending on their decisions while alive (the whole free-will concept, which is an interesting discussion in and of itself). This view that the soul is separate from the body inexorably leads to the conclusion that the soul is unaffected by the body, and indeed by anything physical. In conjunction, Christians view a person’s personality, morality, etc is tied directly to their soul, i.e. if a person behaves badly, then it is because their soul is rotten.

I think it is rather obvious that, given this view, Christians have such a negative view towards mental illness. If behavior is determined by the soul, and the soul is not physical, then problems with brain chemistry therefore must not have any effect on behavior (or not exist, or some other sort of mental contortion). Thus, mental illness is the victim’s fault.

Simply put, this view of mental illness is just outrages. It makes me angry just thinking about it. But we can also do something about it. When people like JT talk about the issues they face, it encourages more people to talk about their own issues. As with atheism, gay rights, etc, talking about one’s own issues puts a human face on those issues. For those like me that are fortunate enough to not suffer from any mental disorders, it’s important that we support those in our lives that do suffer from a mental disorder. As JT said in his talk, this is a cause worth fighting for, and is a cause that we in the skeptic community are well suited for.

(1) Eberhard, J.T. “Why The Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself With Mental Illness.” WWJTD. 25th November, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2011/11/25/why-the-skeptic-community-must-convern-itself-with-mental-illness/

Religion in the Dragon Age, part 2: the tragedy of oppression

I wrote a post some time ago titled “Religion in the Dragon Age: what a fantasy RPG tell us about religion” in which I discussed how religion was still questionable in the world of Dragon Age: Origins; one  that is filled with all sorts of supernatural phenomenon. I recently finished playing the sequel to DAO, cleverlynamed Dragon Age 2, where you play as a human named Hawke. It spends considerably more time dealing with the topic of religion, but it approaches it in a more subtle manner, preferring allegory to outright discussion. As with the previous post, a warning is necessary: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. If you have not played this game yet and intend to, DO NOT READ FURTHER as my discussion here will spoil much of the game. If you aren’t familiar with the games and don’t intend to play them, I recommend reading the original article first because I lay out some definitions and background there that I assume the audience already knows here.

Kirkwall City Crest

Kirkwall City Crest (1)

The story takes place in a town called Kirkwall, in which tensions are high between various factions in the city that lead to disastrous results. There is a group of (non-human) people called the Qunari who have taken up residence in Kirkwall, much to the dismay of the (human) nobles. There are also two groups called the Circle of Magi and the soldiers who guard them, called the Templars (not the same as the real Knights Templar) that are in conflict. You play as a human of noble descent, but lost his/her (her in my case) nobility due to your mother running off with a mage not of noble descent.

In the world of Thedas, mages are viewed with suspicion and fear because they are susceptible to possession by demons from the Fade. They are not viewed like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, who is revered to say the least. Because of this threat, mages are required to join a Circle, which is an organization in which mages are trained and kept. Think of military school. Mages are required to be in the Circle for their entire life, and anyone who leaves is branded as an apostate and hunted down by the Templars. Apostates who are caught are usually sent back to the Circle, but they are also commonly killed on site.

Abomination

Abomination (1)

A mage that has been possessed by a demon is called an abomination. Once a mage becomes an abomination, it is almost impossible to save the mage. There is only one recorded incidence of an abomination being saved in both games that I am aware of. In every other incidence, of which there are many, the abominations are simply killed. Some mages are more at risk to being possessed by a demon than others. Those who are deemed to be at greater risk are made tranquil by the Templars, usually without the mage’s consent. A mage is made tranquil by cutting them off from the Fade, which has the effect of also removing their personalities. Making a mage tranquil is a direct reference to Lobotomies performed on the mentally ill in the mid 20th century, and produces almost the exact same result.

The mages, of course, don’t like this. They are basically kept as prisoners in the Circle, and all races, whether human, qunari, elves, or dwarves, are hostile towards mages. In Dragon Age 2, the leader of the Kirkwall Templar branch, Knight Commander Meredith, is extremely overzealous in her attempts to control the mages. This results in the mages pushing back, resulting in an all-out war. There is a type of magic called blood magic that uses blood of the living to power its spells. It is a dangerous type of magic because it increases the chance of becoming an abomination, however it is also very powerful. During the war, many of the mages resort to blood magic to defend themselves, some meeting with disastrous consequences as a result. The oppressed resorting to desperate actions that they would not normally do to save themselves is a prevalent theme in this part of the story.

The Qunari are a race of beings from the north (iirc) that have their own set of beliefs separate from the Chantry. They don’t believe in any supernatural elements to to life aside from those that can be proven, such as magic. Significantly, they don’t believe in any deities which sets them apart from those of the Chantry. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. The Qunari are a part of what they call the Qun. The Qun can be summarized as a code of honor or conduct, but I don’t think that fully describes it. It is a state of mind, as much as anything. The Qunari submit to the Qun become part of a broader way of life. In the Qun, everything and everyone has a defined purpose. There is no question what someone is supposed to do, or how they are supposed to act. Everyone’s role is predefined, without possibility of choice. To the Qunari, life is simple and they take great pride in having “clarity of purpose.” In fact, people are not seen as individuals, but rather a part of a singular entity that is greater than them.

The Arishok

The Arishok: a Qunari leader (1)

This view of life is attractive for many, and so they choose to join the Qun voluntarily. One prime example is Tallis, an elf who joins the Qun because she felt aimless and without direction. Of course, this puts the Qunari at great odds with the Chantry because the they are stealing followers from the Chantry. A group of Qunari are staying in Kirkwall as part of an ongoing mission to retrieve some item of some sort (not really important what). The population of Kirkwall mostly believes in the Maker, which fuels an us-vs-them attitude among the population and creating a lot of tension between the groups. After a series of inciting incidents, large scale fighting breaks out between the mostly human Chantry supporters and the mostly Qunari and elf Qun members. In the end, the Qunari are all slain in the defense of Kirkwall, with Hawke playing a key role in the fighting.

What is most interesting to me are the events that lead to the fighting. Some of the humans wanted to fight the Qunari, but the leadership of Kirkwall wanted to avoid fighting at all costs. The Qunari, on the other hand, had no “wants” so to speak, but rather had no choice but to fight once a series of events occurred. It didn’t matter what the reality of the situation was, the certainty of the Qun required them to fight. Whether or not they all died, and whether or not innocent people were killed was irrelevant given their collectivist mindset since, of course, the individual is not important to them. This is the danger with such absolutists collective views, and many of the real-world religions have this mentality.

The Qunari aren’t representative of any one particular real world religion or group, but certainly contain aspects of truth from a wide variety of groups. There is similarity with communism considering the whole “part of a collective” bit, although I would say it’s more Brave New World than 1984. The way that members of the Qun describe it, though, makes it much more akin to a traditional religion than a governmental model. People who die for the Qun are very much dying for “their” beliefs, even if those beliefs are shared by all in the Qun. The Qun members are very fervent about their beliefs and that the Qun is the “right” way. In fact, the Qun feel that conquering other peoples and forcing them to join the Qun is actually their way of “liberating” these people and doing them a favor. During a mission, I heard a very telling discussion between two of my party members, Tallis, a Qun member, and Anders, an apostate mage:

Anders: You just… woke up one day and decided “what I really need in life is someone telling me everything I should think?”

Tallis: It wasn’t that easy. Haven’t you ever looked at the world and wondered where the justice is? the equality? In the Qun, everyone is welcome. Elves, humans. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, there’s a place for you.

Anders: Unless your a mage.

Tallis: You won’t find that anywhere else in Thedas.

This game really shows the dangers of ideology, and what happens when one group oppresses another. It doesn’t matter if the reason for oppression is worthwhile or not; oppression often leads to violence, and that is something we should always be mindful of. DA2 shows what happens when ideology is allowed to run rampant, and the results are tragic indeed.

(1) “Dragon Age Wiki.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki