Friday, June 10, 2011
What atheists can learn from Angry Birds
It couldn't last forever. My sojourn in the Caribbean has come to an end and I am on my way back to Calgary Canada. On the way I am making a stop in New York with my sister and her family. There has been especially a lot of playtime with my five year old niece. One of her favourites and mine is the game ' Angry Birds' popular on Apple devices. Simple in concept, it has proved addictive for people from my niece's age group up to the 'on the go' business executive.
For those not familiar with the game, there is a demonstration you can watch in the video above. Each level consists of a scene with some pigs either shielded beneath or sitting on top of a physical structure made of some combination of metal, wood, stone or glass. There are a number of birds that are controlled by the player. The player is required to launch one bird at a time using a slingshot. The aim is to hit the pigs and try to destroy them. Experts from all over have discussed why the game has taken off the way that it has. One thing for sure is that Rovio the creators have hit the jackpot.
Why are the birds angry?
The more I play the game the more it becomes clear to me that one can learn a lot more from this game than just how to propel a virtual slingshot. While playing with my niece a couple of nights ago she asked me earnestly, " Why are the birds angry? What happened to make them like that?" It was a very good question and one I could not readily answer. I also made a bit of a double take. For once this type of question was not aimed directly at me. I can't count the number of times I have heard that sentence uttered with the word 'atheists' instead of ' birds.'
When I looked a little bit closer I did find rather surprisingly that there are quite a few similarities between angry birds and angry atheists. Indeed I now see many intricacies within the game that have something to say to those of us that have chosen to be involved in activism in opposition to religion. I can tell you that being a person carrying the name David, I identify very personally with the challenges of launching my tiny slingshots against the Goliath that is religion. In playing with the Angry Birds I feel their frustrations when they fail in their mission and share in their euphoria when they move on to a higher level.
Reading the background story
Nonetheless, I have to admit that my niece is right. The reasons for the birds desire to obliterate the pigs does seem a bit obscure. If you read the background story write up for the game it does say that the pigs have taken and hidden the eggs of the birds, but there is nothing that happens within the gameplay that suggests this happened. Many people that I come into contact with are similarly bewildered at non believer anger. Certainly on the face of it, it seems that the majority of the religions aren't bothering anybody.What we see day to day, particularly in the Caribbean, is people dressed in their finery going to church, joyful singing with tambourines and people in organisations coming together to plan picnics and fish fries. Yes, the images of the fundamentalists flying planes into buildings, blowing up abortion clinics or trying to milk people's worries and money over impending doomsdays are there. But these realities are far removed from the typical West Indian worshipper.
However, just like the scenes we see in the Angry Birds, the state of play we see today in religion does not tell the whole story. There is an entire history that has been played out before.The background story to the game reveals that humanity has been denied much in terms of opportunities for women, blacks, indigenous cultures and many other marginalised groups. Religious people never read the part of the background story that shows how we often resolve conflicts by letting competing 'wills of God' fight it out through bloody wars that have led to millions of deaths over millennia.There is a documented history that shows how faith has held us back from reaching the pinnacle of social and scientific development. However, just like those playing Angry Birds none of the background story is given to everyday gamers who are addicted to playing for salvation.
Only those with an above normal level of curiosity take time to read the background notes on the fantasy game of faith. Those of us who are so inclined often get angrier as we recognise that priests and clergymen have hidden much from us. The 'eggs' containing the criticisms and challenges to holy books are kept strategically out of view and create an illusion that atheists through their protestations are simply making much ado about nothing. For many believers the background story we delve so hard to discover is a mere foot note in history. For them it is about as relevant as the blurb that gives the background story to the Angry Birds game.
The believer knows that the only thing he needs to understand in order to score heavily in faith is the one central message in the game's instruction booklet. The message that tells him that he is playing for God and whatever moves he makes should be because God demands it and not because his innate moral sense tells him he should act that way. Those instructions are so simple it is no wonder that people find this game so attractive. It's up to us atheists to make sure people think about the rules a little bit more before they take up the game controls.
Be careful what you aim for
It is my experience that in playing any video game, you work out the most effective strategy over time. Many times the strategy you end up sticking with is not the one that appeared to make the most sense when you first played. Angry Birds is no exception. The first thing that I did when I started to play was to aim the slingshot at an angle that would hit the pigs directly. There are often as many birds available as there are pigs to be destroyed and if you take out one each time you fire you are well on your way to getting rid of them all by the end of the level. However, this it turned out was not the best approach. If you were a little bit off you could end up just missing everything and sometimes the protective hats that the pigs wear in the game make them survive even when they are hit full on. No, a much better approach in the long run is to aim at the structure surrounding the pigs. By breaking those down you can often get rid of many pigs at one go. It is also great if you can focus in on the weak points where wood and glass predominate. These parts tend to break much more easily than the more rigid stone and metal structures.
Atheists and persons trying to encourage persons to look at their belief more critically often make that same mistake. The technique regularly used is trying to deal with believers one by one. We hope that we can just approach them with our killer arguments to make them stop believing . It seldom ever works. What I think we should be doing is seeking to weaken the structures that support religious thinking, those that protect it and hold it up. These structures are the institutions in society that actively promote and support the practice of faith. The structures I am talking about are not the churches.Those are built from hard stone and even a severe impact from a missile in full flight is not going to make them rock. No, the structures I am talking about are the ones that sometimes are called the softer ones, the more informal institutions.
Breaking down the institutions
These informal institutions are things found in the subtle messages society gives that shape behaviour. In the Caribbean these are around in abundance. These institutions include messages embedded in our culture that emphasise to our citizens that you cannot be a truly moral person without belief in a God. It comes in the form of the national television stations and media companies that appeal to a person's belief in the Almighty to promote safe sex, sober driving and the liberation of women from spousal abuse. It can be seen in an education system that makes sure that every child is taught how to pray before they learn how to put together a proper sentence. A system that makes kids memorize bible verses by rote just as they do their two times table.We observe it in a legal structure that puts God at the centre of the Constitution and tells us there is nothing more honourable than swearing on the bible. It's the structures like these we need to aim our slingshots at.
In short we must aim to change the environments the theist is living in so that it becomes more difficult for the individual to sustain a life based on faith and reject reason and common sense. There are many studies over the years that have shown that the individual merely reflects the society and environment that surrounds him; although most people consider themselves independent agents nobody really acts on their own. The individual merely conforms and is constrained by those structures that are present in society. It is a phenomenon known as institutional isomorphism and it has immense power The way I see it, is that once we deal with these institutions, the individuals will take care of themselves.
How can we change these institutions? We can seek to put in place educational programs that emphasise the scientific method and critical enquiry and de-emphasise the idea that everything in the world was neatly manufactured by a super-being who lives beyond the cosmos. We can seek to make amendments to legal provisions or practices which make assumptions about behaviours based on a persons religious belief. We can reach out to parents to make them reconsider their idea that a bible is the best gift you can give your child and tell them that sparing the rod does not necessarily mean spoiling the child. We can try to break persons free from the mould that says the best way to get discipline in a society is to preach " do as I say and not as I do."
Changing the Culture
I know many will say that this is unrealistic, that changing culture is something that takes a long time. It is slow and sometimes huge efforts lead to only minuscule changes. This is of course true, even in Angry Birds structures can seem unperturbed after four or five birds have crashed into them at warp speed. Still I have learnt to wait a few seconds after every bird has been launched in a level. Quite often when you are sure you have failed to make the necessary strikes the whole structure just falls down under its own weight. We must not give up hope because change seems slow.
Indeed, it is interesting to see over the years how many education programs in the Caribbean have been launched with the stated intention of changing societal behaviour on a fundamental scale. Millions of dollars have been spent to try to change the behaviour of the individuals by going after the collective. The AIDS program is one that readily comes to mind. The recent Polite Percy drive in Barbados has tried among other things to teach the importance of being on time for appointments. That would be a cataclysmic cultural shift because punctuality is something as natural to Barbadians as maple syrup or apple pie.
Yes, one thing that Angry Birds has taught me is to be patient. You must be prepared to go through several trials before clearing a level. I have learnt that you have to be not afraid to practice and experiment sometimes. Every time I have engaged in discussions over religion and faith with a believer I have gone back analysed it and try to realise what approaches work and which just leave me falling to the ground with a broken beak. I am constantly refining my technique and I think my effectiveness is improving. I am not complacent though, I know there are new belief systems coming out everyday at a rate even greater than that at which Apple comes out with new levels for the Angry Birds app. I can't even begin to anticipate the new spiritual levels I will be exposed to in future debates with theists. Regardless, I will keep myself prepared.
Flying among the Birds of Prey
Another thing that has come clear to me as I have been flying through international skies is that I am one bird among many. Religion is holding sway in the world, but non believers are there. I have had the pleasure of meeting with some and they are working hard at making a difference in their own individual styles. There are not too different from the different coloured birds in the Angry Birds game, each with their own special powers and skills. Some are explosive and seek to blast belief to smitherines, some are more subtle in their methods but it is the combination of efforts of these birds of prey that I believe will eventually topple things like belief in prayer among the masses.
So, Angry Birds has taught me a great deal and in the end it has given me hope. There is no doubt that religion has its weak points. There are right at those junctions where rigid doctrinal texts are connected by weak threads of logic. We must remember that if we aim at the shaky parts of a structure even the strongest institutions can fall. Once we continue to carry our little stones of reason in our slings I am confident that one day the walls of belief will come a tumbling down.