Saturday, 27 April 2013

I Might Be Wrong

I haven't had the chance to use this awesome gorilla image in a while. So it's going here.

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
- Bertrand Russell, The Triumph of Stupidity

I talk about a lot of things on this blog, and it does seem like I've made my mind up about them.

When it comes to matters of religion, you can probably tell that I do not believe there's some omniscient bearded dude watching over us all, who made this world and is now so bored he takes an active interest in every single person currently drawing breath. Nor do I believe in any other manner of deity or deities floating about in the ether. I see no evidence for it, and so to me it makes no sense. Similarly you'll hear me discuss views most would label 'conspiracy theories', and again I don't believe it. They rely too much on logical fallacies and conspiratorial thinking in the place of solid, quantifiable, verifiable evidence, and so I place little value in them.

These conclusions that I have reached about such matters were a long time in coming; I do my best to consider these things as best I can before I make my mind up about them. But make my mind up I did.

I don't believe that god exists, organised religion really isn't for me and I reckon that anyone who starts spouting off about how the Jews were responsible for 9/11 is talking shit.

Here's the thing, though.

I could be wrong about these things.

Perhaps tomorrow some guy claiming to be Jesus will reveal himself to the world, and will be capable of feats that are little outside the laws of reality and that meet old David Hume's definition of miracles. Or perhaps Tim LaHaye's apocalyptic novels will prove to be decidedly non-fictional, and overnight we'll be left in a post-Rapture world (I can't help but think that The Thinking Atheist has a point about the wonders this would do for the globe, but there you go). Maybe tomorrow an alien spacecraft will be sighted floating over a major metropolitan area, and for once the vast number of phones that can record HD footage will come in handy by actually capturing some solid video of the damn thing.

Certainty is a concept I distrust greatly, and so I have to be honest enough with myself that even my most cherish views and beliefs could be false. I can't help but notice that the guys who deal in absolutes? You know, the ones who are totally and completely certain about the things they're espousing?

Yeah, I can't help but notice that they're the sort of folk who scare the shit out of me.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Conspiracy Theory Flowchart of Conspiratorial-ness

I really ought to be getting ready for class tomorrow, but this is just too good not to share.

It's a huge-ass image; be sure to full-size it.

Considerable kudos go to The Reason Stick for putting this together. I hope THEY don't realise you did.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

This Week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism – 21/04/2013

Been a while since I worked on a consistent weekly segment for this blog, so I thought it was high time I got something started up again.

My idea for the 'Sunday News Round-Up' is for it to pretty much do what it says on the tin: every Sunday I'll post links to some news articles relevant to topics this blog covers, along with a bit of analysis and discussion from me. I'll break them down by topic, articles relating to atheism and religion in one, articles relating to scepticism in the other.

Right then, let's get this show on the road.


Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele are back in the news this week, as they're appealing the decision made by the European Court earlier this year. You might recall these three as the guys who complained that their employers were discriminating against them on religious grounds; Mrs Chaplin is a nurse forbidden to wear a cross at work, whilst Mr McFarlane and Miss Ladele are a relationship and marriage counsellor respectively who refused to work with homosexual couples. The former lost his job over it, whilst the latter is claiming that her employers making her work with gay couples would be discrimination.

All the rulings against them were held up in the European Court of Appeals, but now they're back decrying unfair treatment, double-standards and further discrimination against Christians. I do feel a bit sorry for Mrs Chaplin, I must admit; she had been wearing her cross (not exactly a big deal) for thirty years when she was asked to remove it on health and safety grounds, and she did actually offer to modify it so it did not only for this to be refused. The other two I have no sympathy for, however. We're reaching the stage were gay couples are finally starting to gain the right straight couples have solely enjoyed for far too long, and these kind of people can scream that they're not homophobes until Hell freezes over: if you are refusing to work with such couples based solely on their being gay, that's actual discrimination based upon sexual orientation.


Yeah, me neither.

Carla Hale, who had worked at Bishop Watterson High School for nineteen years, had her post terminated because her homosexuality is “a violation of moral law”. No, seriously. That's apparently their reasoning for this bullshit move. I never cease to be astounded by the fact that these people still think they can get away with this sort of thing still. Either way, a shitstorm is brewing, the school is under heavy scrutiny and Hale, who very kindly says that all she wants is her job back, is nonetheless pursuing legal action against the school for it's blatant discrimination against her. She's going to win, there's no doubt about it; the school diocese has no justification for the stunt it's pulled.


And finally for this section some news closer to home for me: a poll in Scotland by the Sunday Times and Real Radio Scotland shows a sizeable decrease in the number of people saying they belong to the Christian faith. This stands in stark contrast to an earlier poll in 2001, which had 65% of respondents saying they were Christian; in this new poll it's dropped to 55%, and those stating that they have no belief in god has risen from just 28% to 39%. Good news all round, by my standards. The National Secular Society, whose analysis of these numbers I'm politely pinching, points out that many people tend to overstate their religious tendencies in these polls, so for all we know the changes might be even larger.

The poll results are available online; you can check them out here.


Anyone remember Andrew Wakefield? The former doctor who kicked off the whole MMR vaccine controversy with his fraudulent 1998 paper that linked the vaccine to autism? Who was using his paper to try and trick the government into using a medical test he had the patent for?

Yeah, well the asshole's back in the news again this week.

In the wake of the reports about Measles spreading in south Wales this month, Wakefield is using this outbreak as an excuse to remind us all that he sadly hasn't stopped breathing and to blame the British government for the whole thing. Yup, the man partly responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of infants because he scared their parents away from vaccines is once again trying to redirect the blame on everyone but himself. Professor Andrew Finn, a specialist in childhood vaccines and an actually credible source of information on these matters, has denounced Wakefield's statements as, and I do quote, “balderdash”:

“His proposal for single vaccines was not based on any observations in his published paper. It came straight out of his head. There has never been any evidence it would have made any difference.”

Wakefield has been struck from the medical record and has fled to the USA, where he continues to perpetrate his particularly noxious brand of bullshit.


If you follow vjack's blog Atheist Revolution, you might remember a post about how you should really reconsider using the Huffington Post as a reliable source of information. Well, please allow me to further stress this point by looking at another article in which HuffPo gives credence to pseudoscience and nonsense over critical thinking.

Specifically this one, in which it gives a soapbox to a group led by New Age woo-peddlar Deepak Chopra who are complaining about TEDx removing pseudoscientific videos from its blog.

Please note that TEDx is not the actual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference; parapsychologists like Rupert Sheldrake, the removal of whose talk Chopra and his friends are protesting, would never manage to get a platform there, due to them actually having standards. TEDx conferences are third-party conferences that license the TED brand in order to gain more attention, but they often don't have the standard of entry their parent group does. Nonetheless, the misuse of the brand can have negative effects on the parent company, and nothing damages ones credibility as a solid source for science than allowing a herd of quantum woo-types to use your name to add much-needed credibility to their ideas.

Thus TED, a private organisation that is free to add or remove whatever it wishes from its blogs, removed their links to several videos of such talks from their site. The videos are still available; they've not been wiped from the internet, so any claims of censorship or a cover-up is nonsense. Chopra and his ilk just seem to get upset when people try to hold their claims up to the same standards as everyone else in the scientific community, and Ariana Huffington is only too happy to offer him a highly visible spot to complain about it from.

That's this week in Atheism, Religion and Scepticism, folks. See you next time.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Four Reasons Why The Boston Crisis Actors Theory Makes No Sense

Responses to the attacks in Boston that occurred this week are already pouring in, and it’s genuinely heart-warming to see the vast majority of people united in support of the victims of this event. We search for answers, for an explanation for this seemingly unexplainable act of violence upon innocent lives.

But there’s a small but vocal minority who say they’ve already got the answer.

It’s our old friends, the Crisis Actor Theory espousers. And they’re saying the Boston attacks were faked.

If you’ve not yet heard of this particular conspiracy theory (you lucky bastard, you) then let me give you a quick rundown. It tends to pop up in the wake of attacks like Boston or Sandy Hook, proclaiming that the event was staged and the apparent victims are in fact actors hired by the guv’mint/Jews/aliens/New World Order (delete as appropriate). Advocates tend to pour over the many images of these events, grabbing the occasional one where a person in it looks vaguely similar to someone else before proclaiming “LOOK, LOOK THEY’RE AN ACTOR! THEY’RE LYING TO US, GUIZ!”

DallasGoldBug, founder of conspiracy website Wellaware1 and big fan of this blog (going by his comments on this post, anyway), has already been hard at work pouring over images of this tragic event in a desperate attempt to compartmentalise it into his world view of ‘every accident or attack that happens ever is the work of some conspiracy’. I don’t wish to single him out, however, for he’s not the only proponent of this theory out there. Thus rather than make this post an attack piece on one single conspiracy theorist, which just seems petty and more than a little mean, I’d like to instead provide four responses to the theory as a whole in an attempt to demonstrate why it really doesn’t make any sense.

So strap your bullshit protection masks on, guys, and let’s wade neck-deep into this malarkey.

1. They would not hire easily-recognisable public figures
I have several friends who are aspiring actors. You’ve never heard of them: the few things they’ve been in are student productions or small theatrical performances during the Edinburgh Fringe. Nonetheless, they’re extremely talented and have a lot of experience with their chosen vocation. It’s just that they’ve never managed to find their ‘big break’ yet.

The scene is very similar across the pond; Los Angeles is filled to the brim with would-be actors and stars, people desperate for a chance at fame and prestige. The life of a starving artist is a difficult one, however. Paying bills and living expenses when you have little frequent sources of income is hard, and I’d imagine there’s plenty of these very talented but unknown actors desperate enough to take whatever work is offered to them.

What I’m saying is, if I were in charge of a conspiracy that stages hoax tragedies, I’d hire people you’ve never seen before. It just makes sense.

Why, then, do the actors listed by crisis actor theorists all tend to be the well known ones?

If these theoretical people have the skill and ingenuity to organise a hoax on this scale, they wouldn’t hire actors you and I can recognise. That’s beyond stupid, given the umpteen thousands of unknowns who could be utilised instead. On a related note, why would these famous figures even consent to work for such an operation in the first place? These are guys who are doing pretty well for themselves, who have a lot to lose.

And the revelation that they helped stage an attack or accident wouldn’t exactly do wonders for their careers.

2. No-one could cover up something this massive
Stop and think, just for a moment, about how large a conspiracy would have to be in order to pull off a hoax this massive. Think about how many people would need to be in on this conspiracy, from the guys at the top to the first responders, eye-witnesses, the police, the fire and ambulance services, and the actual actors themselves.

That’s a lot of people.

That’s a very large margin for error.

Even assuming you could get all of these people to play ball with this hoax, even assuming that they were all in place at the right time, even assuming none of them had a twinge of guilt and blew the whistle on the whole thing (and that, to put it mildly, is a lot of assuming), people still manage to fuck things up on a scarily regular basis. Humans are not perfect, and we make mistakes. For a hoax of this scale, all of those aforementioned people (who likely number in the hundreds) would have to do their jobs without making a mistake.

That’s a level of competence you just don’t see these days.

The US government couldn’t cover up Watergate. British politicians leave briefcases containing national secrets on public transport. The possibility for things to go wrong on a conspiracy of this scale is just too high for it to succeed.

3. We are pattern-seeking animals
Human beings are exceptionally good at recognising and registering the faces of others.

This is something we learn from a very early age, and it stays with us all through our lives. We can tell very quickly if there is something off about a face that looks not quite human enough, and viewing such a face can disturb us quite deeply. Let me give you an example:

You can tell immediately in this photo which one is Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro and which one is his almost-realistic robot counterpart, Geminoid HI-1. One registers with us as a face, the other is instantly recognised as fake. In short, we’re really pretty good at recognising faces.

Perhaps a bit too good.

Michael Shermer has quite rightly pointed out before that human beings are “pattern-seeking story-telling animals”. We’re so adept at spotting human faces that we can very easily see them in non-human objects and items. This is a psychological phenomenon known as Pareidolia, and if you don’t believe me check out the following:

If you're having a hard time seeing the shapes, just click the image to see the full size.
Those images are little more than a mishmash of shapes and squares, yet with each one our brains manage to interpret these random images into human faces. That’s how hard-wired our brains are to see similar shapes in the form of faces; we do it to the point where we can see faces where none exist.

This is why we notice consistencies in the faces of certain people, such as this painting of a nineteenth century French actor and Keanu Reeves. This is why crisis actor theorists are able to notice similarities between the faces of victims and the faces of people who are apparently actors posing as these victims. It’s similar to the reason why people see images of Jesus in pieces of toast, or why this bird looks a hell of a lot like Nicolas Cage.

Fuck. Maybe that bird’s an actor, too.

4. This is all conjecture, not evidence
Conjecture, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, is “an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information”.

The event that we are discussing right now is still the subject of an ongoing investigation; the authorities are still piecing together the answers, so you can bet that Joe Public does not yet have all the information available to him yet. As such, any views are being expressed right now are not being made with all the potential information.

In short, the advocates of the crisis actor theory are making half-baked speculation based on limited evidence, then calling it proof. This really isn't the case. Fuzzy, out-of-focus images placed alongside fuzzy, out-of-focus images doesn’t constitute proof.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes.

And the advocates of this particular conspiracy theory don’t have any.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Boston Crisis Actors Theory. Hell, you could take the points I've outlined here and use them with any version of the crisis actors theory if you like. In the wake of tragedies such as the events of Boston recently it's only natural that we all want answers, that we desire an explanation for this senseless act of violence.

This need for a truth to bring answers to tragedy can lead us into the territory of conspiracy theory, however, and so if you're reading this whilst still uncertain as to what to think of all this I urge you to stick to the facts. We don't know everything about what has transpired yet, but with a bit of patience and adherence to the principles of scepticism we can hopefully come to a conclusion that explains what has happened.

Keep the victims in your hearts, for they were real people: they had families and friends, hopes and dreams. Thank the heroes who risked their lives on that day for the sake of others, who threw themselves into harm's way for the sake of their fellow man. Such individuals, be they police officer, paramedic or just a bystander who stepped up to the challenge, can remind us that even in the darkest of times people have the capacity to be amazing.

And don't listen to those who would tell you that none of this ever happened, that it was all faked. Such people spit on the memories of those who were killed and bring further grief to an already tragic event.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

On the 'Redefinition of Marriage'

Of late this blog has been taking more of a sceptical bent, intermixed with a bit of light-hearted discussion of religious themes in media and the like.

So it really is high time I gave the religious hornet's nest a good boot and see what stirs up in response.

Let's talk gay marriage.

As vjack pointed out recently, we do seem to be reaching an apotheosis in modern culture when it finally starts to dawn upon people that marriage should be something people have a right to irregardless of their sexuality. Recently Uruguay's congress passed a bill legalising gay marriage in their country with over two-thirds of their lower chamber in support, and just yesterday France's upper house of parliament approved a similar bill. Times are indeed a-changing, with similar legislation all across the globe being proposed and debated.

Now I'm sure that somewhere there exists a non-religious person who is against gay marriage. These things do happen, after all. It's just that I can only think of one individual who fits this description; overwhelmingly, those who oppose the right of a gay couple to get married do so on religious grounds. That's not to say that everyone of a religious mind is against this issue, since some of the most passionate supporters for this cause that I know are also very religious.

All manner of arguments and reasoning are fired back and forth when it comes to this subject, from advocates stating its a civil right to opponents denouncing it as unnatural. There's a whole range of shitty reasoning and logical fallacies being peddled in this debate, and sadly I don't have time to go over them all here. Instead I'd like to focus in on one particular argument being used against gay marriage. It's one of the arguments I hear most frequently when this subject comes up, both in conversation with others and in speeches by government figures.

I'd like to focus on the idea that supporting this movement is to support a “redefinition of marriage”.

Now commonly on my side of the debate (hazard a guess as to which this might be) the response to this assertion is that allowing gay marriage is not a redefinition, but I'm going to take a different approach. Let's say, for a moment, that allowing gay people to get married is indeed redefining the way in which marriage is outlined in law.

Now please explain to me why this is a bad thing?

As society changes, so do the laws. So does the language. As our concepts of morality and fairness change, the way in which we legislate such matters adapts accordingly, as does the way in which we speak. Forty years ago women were viewed only as housekeepers and other notions we'd find extremely outdated now. Sixty years ago and the idea of civil rights would have been laughed at.

Laws change. And to say that in allowing gay people to get married we'd be “redefining it” is to ignore the fact that marriage has been redefined many times before.

Christians themselves will tell you that the Bible does not actually define marriage as “one man, one woman”; that seems to be something we've added more recently. In the past, it's worth noting, marriage was a political thing as well, a means of securing alliances between families and extending one's influence. Love didn't really factor into it all until far more recently. Thus this notion of marriage as a bond between a loving couple (in this instance, one male and one female) is just one more change a long list of edits and revisions to how we define the concept of marriage.

So perhaps opponents of this movement are right in saying that we are attempting to redefine marriage (I'm not saying for certain they are, let me stress; this post is more of a thought exercise than anything else). I fail to see what the issue with this is. Laws and language are redefined every single day, and that's a good thing. If these things do not change with the times they will become stagnant and outdated, no longer relevant to the times, which is something the laws our society is governed by can never afford to be.

At the end of the day, it will forever baffle me why this issue matters so much to people. You don't want gay marriage? Don't fucking get one, then. Marriage is a civil right, and there's no religious monopoly on it.

Why the hell should one group get to decide for everyone who can and cannot get married? That doesn't strike me as terribly fair.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: Dante's Inferno

And here we are for part three in this series on video games that discuss religious themes. You probably know the drill by now; head's up about potential spoilers and so on.

So let's get stuck in.

Dante's Inferno

Publishers don't often like to take risks with their big-budget releases; the amount of money that goes into a Triple-A title means that there's a lot to lose if sales don't go to plan, so often they prefer to stick to what they know works. Electronic Arts is particularly guilty for this approach, along with numerous other shitty business practices which have earned it the dubious title of 'Worst Company in America' in 2012 (and they're all set to retake their title again this year).

This is why it still surprises me that EA actually published Visceral Game's 2010 game, Dante's Inferno.

If that name sounds familiar, that's because it is; Dante's Inferno is a re-imaging of the first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Visceral have taken a few liberties with the story, admittedly; Dante is no longer a poet, instead depicted as a Templar knight who's sins during the Third Crusade have damned his beloved Beatrice to Hell, forcing him to descend into the many circles to save her
as a Templar knight who's sins during the Third Crusade have damned his beloved Beatrice to Hell, forcing him to descend into the many circles to save her.

Many critics of the time wrote this game off as a "God of War ripoff", and whilst this seems a little overly dismissive one can see where they're coming from; Dante's Inferno takes a lot of it's cues from the popular hack and slash title, and I'm by no means trying to claim that it's a great game.

What it most certainly is, however, is interesting, largely through the design and style Visceral imbued it with.

Dante's Inferno offers an unflinching and brutal look at the Catholic interpretation of Hell, and the art department behind this game deserve all their dues for not pulling any punches with it. Each circle is given its own uniquely fucked up aesthetic, and each is populated by a variety of infernal creatures that live up to the name of the circle they exist within. Blood, bile despair and all manner of messed up things are ever-present in this game, which really drives home the idea of the Christian Hell as a vicious and terrifying place.

Video games have the ability to bring to life some of the disturbing aspects of religion, and Dante's Inferno demonstrates this well.

As I said, however, there are still flaws to this particular depiction of religion. There's little discussion of the subject matter, no commentary; Dante simply hacks and slashes his way further down into the Circles of Hell, and whilst visually impressive it's a shame that more thought was not put into it.

A note to developers and publishers; when advertising a video game that covers religious themes, don't do this.

Publishing a game about the descent into Hell is a serious undertaking and requires a considerable amount of tact and maturity, things that EA sadly was incapable of supplying. Their marketing department's decision to run ridiculous hoaxes like fake religious protests about the game are baffling; I'm not sure whether 'juvenile', 'idiotic' or 'outright offensive' summarises the whole thing best, but whoever dreamed this stupidity up is in dire need of a slapping.

Nonetheless, Dante's Inferno remains an interesting game, willing to dive head first into subject matter most developers avoid like the plague. Visceral deserve praise for being willing to make such a game, and EA deserves credit for taking the risk of publishing it.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: BioShock

And we're back for round two of this series on video games that discuss religious themes, chums. Just as a reminder these posts do contain some spoilers, so if you're not wanting anything revealed about these games I would recommend not reading further.

Otherwise, let's get started.


BioShock is widely considered to be one of the greatest games of the last decade or so, and easily ranks up there as one of the best games period. A claustrophobic, creepy and extremely clever first-person shooter, it's a game that isn't afraid to be about something, to tackle big themes and issues in a mature, thoughtful and fascinating way that only an interactive experience can provide.

For those of you who've not heard of it, BioShock is for the most part a thinly-veiled satire and criticism of Ayn Rand's 'Objectivist' philosophy, which means that, for the most part, it's a game about philosophy and politics. Set in the Atlantic Ocean during 1960, it takes place in an underwater city created by a man named Andrew Ryan (like I said, thinly-veiled) as an Objectivist paradise. Ryan pursued this dream to the letter, aiming for a city where “the great would not be constrained by the small.”

All good on paper, but by the time the player arrives in this city, it's all gone to shit.

Oh, and the city is called 'Rapture'. Here's where religious elements come into play.

BioShock covers the topic of religion on several levels. On the surface there's the usual name-dropping and references; the name of the city itself is an obvious one, and the Biblical creation myth is referenced with ADAM, a plasmid that allows the residents of Rapture to perform superhuman feats... but is also highly addictive and the cause of many being transformed into monstrous beings called 'Splicers'. These Splicers, in addition to being creepy as all hell, can often be heard reciting biblical passages and singing hymns as they stalk the flooded halls of the dying city.

But this is just surface-level commentary, and BioShock isn't content just to stop there. It seeks an active, deeper discussion about religion and its many aspects, something one rarely finds in video games. Andrew Ryan is an atheist who seeks an Objectivist utopia, and it is made clear that he considers religion, particularly organised religion, an obstacle to this; in his introduction to Rapture he names the Vatican specifically as an enemy of his cause, depicting it as a thieving entity out to steal the toils of hard-working men in the name of god.

As such, religion is an unwelcome concept in Rapture, with holy books like the Bible banned. Yet despite its lofty ambitions, things don't quite go to plan; a two-tiered society begins to emerge in Rapture, the privileged with access to the incredible discoveries found below the sea, free to pursue their dreams and ambitions without oversight or restraint, and the less-privileged; the underclass who toil away to ensure the city continues to function, and who are repeatedly fucked over by Ryan's laissez-faire attitudes and desire for a society resembling an individualist's wet dream.

Blocked from gaining access to many commodities through legal means, a culture of smuggling flourishes amongst Rapture's underclass, and it becomes apparent that one of the items most commonly smuggled into the city are bibles; one can find them strewn around the city, particularly in the slum regions, and several audio recordings discuss them being brought in illegally. Ryan, naturally, is incensed, bringing in the death penalty against such smugglers whilst declaring that “any contact with the surface exposes Rapture to the very Parasites we fled from”, once again showing his vitriol towards religion and the religious institutions existing on the surface above (amongst other things, admittedly; Ryan has a major bone to pick with the US government and also the Soviets).

Here we see the game discussing issues such as religious persecution, and there's some deeper sub-text to all this that we can interpret. In Rapture, Andrew Ryan and his cohorts sought to create their vision of a perfect society, free from oppression and religion. In this, they failed; faith and religion found a way into the city despite their best efforts, as it provided solace and meaning to an underclass of the population they had failed. Attempts to stop this spread led to Ryan becoming the architect of religious persecution, executing those who smuggled Bibles and other religious idols into the city.

What this game has to say about religion, then, is that it is an intrinsic aspect of society whether one likes it or not; you can take it out of society, but you cannot take away some members of society's need for it.

I consider BioShock to be one of the best games I've ever had the chance to play through, ranking right up there with things like the Half Life series (give us Episode 3, Gabe), and if anything that I've just written sounds at all intriguing to you I urge you to pick up a copy and play it. It's easily acquired for a small price these days, what with two sequels on the market as well now, and I've only scratched the surface with this post in terms of what this game has to say.

It never ceases to amaze me that the game we shall be looking at next was ever even attempted, never mind published. A re-interpretation of a classic religious text, it's by no means the best game in the world but it certainly can be considered interesting.

Until next time, folks.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Religious Themes in Video Games: The Binding of Isaac

Okay, dissertation is over, a few more essays and exams to go, and then I'm finally finished with University. Which means my excuses to continue not updating this blog are now thinner than the evidence for Creationism (cheeky wee religion joke for you there, you're welcome), so I figure it's high time I got back on this horse.

So let's start with a subject that, as has previously been established, I'm a big fan of.

Let's talk about the discussion of religion in video games.

The idea for this post is owed in no small part to the awesome guys at Extra Credits, whose insightful analysis of video games and the video game industry is something I've been a fan of for a long while. A series of episodes they posted a while back covered a similar topic, and found that all too often religion is something video games shy away from covering or discussing.

Understandable, really, given how games tend to court controversy without attempting to ascend Mount Controversial by discussing faith and religion.

There are exceptions, however. And those exceptions are what I'd like to discuss here and in several other posts.

Before we get stuck in, I'd like to explain why I've selected the games I'm going to discuss. A lot of games have religion in them, gods and deities and their worshipers, all that shenanigans. That's been written about before, and whilst it is indeed an interesting topic it's not what I wish to cover here. In this series I'm hoping to discuss games that actually discuss religion and its many aspects, good or bad. Games that have something to say about religion, not just games that mention it.

Let me also flag up a spoiler warning; I'm going to try and avoid major, major spoilers but I will be discussing some aspects of these games that could reveal things you'd rather find out on your own. So yeah, just a heads up.


The Binding of Isaac

Edmund McMillen makes fucked up games. But with The Binding of Isaac, he really outdid himself.

Connoisseurs of Old Testament mythology might see where this is going already, but this game is a retelling of the biblical figure Isaac, who's father Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion. Good, clean biblical family fun, the sort of thing the Old Testament does so well.

The Binding of Isaac (TboI) embraces the rather messed up elements of this myth, telling the story of the titular young boy Isaac whose mother believes she's heard the voice of god ordering her to murder her son. Chased down into the basement, thinks take a further turn for the disturbing as Isaac has to fight his way through a variety of Biblical-inspired monsters to ultimately free himself from his mother's murderous wrath.

The Four Horsemen show up as boss characters riding toy horses and are out to ruin your day. The Seven Deadly Sins are in the basement somewhere too, and they really live up to that 'deadly' part. Isaac can find items and weapons to help him stay alive, which range from things like the Bible to a crown of thorns. There are other elements and references in amongst all of this, don't get me wrong, but religion and the Old Testament are big focuses of this game.

This is a game that's unafraid to shy away from the disturbing aspects of many religious myths, and McMillen's ostensibly cutesy, cartoony art-style masks some really, really fucked up designs. Gameplay lends itself well to the themes TBoI seeks to discuss as well (namely religion and child abuse), because this game is brutally hard. Rogue-like elements ensure that if Isaac should die during his descent into the depths below his house (and he will die, a whole fucking lot), there are no save-points and no extra lives. If you're killed, you're going right back to the start.

TBoI's punishing difficulty and gruesome aesthetic means that not everyone will enjoy it, but given that you can grab both the main game and it's expansion, the Wrath of the Lamb, for just £6 (and it'll be even cheaper during Steam sales), there's much worse things to spend your money on.

Stay tuned, friends. Next post we shall be talking about a favourite game of mine. Rather than waffle about how great it is, I'll let it's introduction speak for itself...