Divination: Stupid or Wise

JiaoBeiBoth in mainland China and Taiwan Taoist temples, I frequently saw people praying and then throwing little wooden blocks of wood (jiao-bei 筊杯 ) on the floor repeatedly.  The blocks were cresent-moon-shaped and flat on one surface and round on the other.  The Taoist petitioners used the jiao-bei divination to ask a question of the gods who answered the questions by influencing the wood blocks.

The supplicants could only ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. If one block landed flat-side up and the other down the answer was ‘yes’ (“sacred jiao”), both down meant ‘no’ (“negative jiao”). If one block landed on edge, the throw was null and void  and must be repeated because the gods did not understand the question.  If both flat sides were up, the blocks would roll and appear to laugh – this is called “laughing jiao” which means the gods are amused at the statement put to them because of one of the following:

  • The question is not clear enough.
  • The divine reply is not sincerely sought as the questioner has already decided what to do.
  • The questioner knows the time is not ripe for the matter posed and yet still wants to seek divine direction.The question posed is therefore considered irrelevant.
  • The questioner already knows the answer, is just looking for reassurance, and the consultation isn’t necessary.

This last option reminds me of the mental subtleties Christians go through while seeking answers to prayers to their God when they don’t think they got the answer they sought for.

Stupid, right? Silly superstition, right? Well, I’ve always wondered how stupid it really is. I certainly don’t think gods are talking through the sticks, or through any such divination or augury method but perhaps there is some utility beyond the false beliefs. For instance, see my I-Ching post for one possible benefit of divination — cooking tofu in our mind juices or how vague readings help us to see behind parts of our minds otherwise hidden — creative insight.

Aeon magazine just published an article called “How to Choose” which discusses another possible explanation for the utility of “stupid, superstitious divination” methods besides my “creative insight” version. The author, Michael Schulson points out that many phenomena in life are somewhat random and that for those processes, using a systemic choice method may carry biases which harm the outcomes. In other words, reason can sometime hurt us. Well, good reasoning may tell us that a random choice would be the wisest, but this in not the sort of reasoning we usually do. Ironic, eh? For more details, you may enjoy Schulson’s article.



  • HT to Cris, at Genealogy of Religion, for writing on the Aeon article.
  • See my post on this Zulu movie where I labeled the divination used by a Shaman as “nonsense”. In the movie, the sick person (AIDS) blows on bag of bones that shaman read as a disease caused by anger and ordered a stupid prescription. So, yeah, often divination is stupid. But maybe my post helps you see the adaptive reason it evolved or persists.


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Ramadan Constipation

Allah_LaxMore than 450 students from Saudi Arabia attend a University near my clinic and in the last few days I have seen several of these young men complaining of constipation. “Odd, I thought,” but then I remembered, “Ah, it is Ramadan!”  The change in their diet during Ramadan is binding them up. Don’t believe me? Read Islam 101 here.


Realizing that Ramadan Constipation is a worldwide problem I’ve thought of this product as both a financial opportunity and a service to the spiritual and physical needs of Allah’s devote followers at this time of year.  Above I have created the brand name and packaging.  Dear readers, can you think of other halal ingredients besides senna that could help our Muslim brothers?

And so that readers don’t think I am picking on just Muslims, please click on this picture to the right to see how I also offer Buddhists relief from their spiritipation also.


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Iraq: More than Religion

Iraq_landHuge numbers of Americans barely know where Iraq is, yet alone know anything about her. And of those who do, most have a simple impression of the conflict in Iraq. Their media-fed view is that an evil jihadi militia is gruesomely sweeping through Iraq turning the country to convert Iran into an Islamist oppressive state. More sophisticated Americans supplement this view by actually knowing the two words “Shiite” and “Sunni” and thinking that the problems has something to do with a centuries-old conflict between these two sects. Some even know a bit of the Islamic history behind these two sects. But according to this excellent NYbooks post, the Iraq conflict is not fundamentally about a conflict between Islamic sects, but is “mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice.”

It is this level of analysis that I also push for when we study religion in general. Sure, looking at theological arguing points may seem important, but to truly understand religion is to see how doctrines serve politics, relationships, decision-making, and the human psyche. Sure, many believers may think that real religion is about metaphysical truth propositions, but they too are misunderstanding the large part of how such ideas work.

So, be suspect of the media when they dumb down events. Be suspect of simple labels as they tempt you to understand a country, a religion, a person or even yourself. The under workings of reality are much more interesting that the easy-to-remember labels.

This post is not necessarily meant to discuss Iraq, anyone’s lack of understanding, Islam or any such thing.  There is too much to understand in this world, ignorance is inevitable. Instead, I am merely pointing out how easily we buy into simple, convenient explanations — and worse yet, how we take our own superficial understandings seriously.



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Rees & Sabio: blogging for our kids

Rees & LantzTomas Rees is the author of Epiphenom – a blog which reviews scientific articles on religion. Last week, Tom (right) met my daughter (the photographer) and me in Brighton, England during the last leg of our couch surfing adventure.

It is always fantastic to meet people in person after years of chatting on-line and Tom was no exception.  He kindly treated us vagabonds to a fine lunch and we discussed our families and blogging.

Tom and I have different religious backgrounds: unlike me, Tom is a natural atheist — someone who never embraced religion as an adult.  Yet Tom and I share a common motivation concerning blogging on religion: we both began because of our children. See my previous post on “My Son’s Tears” and below is Tom’s account.

When Tom heard of proposals to introduce more religion teaching in his children’s schools there is the UK, he decided to start researching for evidence of how such a move could be harmful to his children. Tom is a science writer and well versed in evaluating research (see my 2010 post on him here). He started reviewing articles on the effect of religion on children,  and posted his findings on a forum.  But to reach a wider readership he decided to start his blog.

Tom’s blog is excellent and I’d recommend you reading his stuff.  Heck, type “Rees” or “Epiphenom” in my search tool, and you will see lots of posts where I refer to his work.  Tom states, in the true spirit of science, that his opinions on religion have changed a bit since he started blogging — but I will leave him to tell us more about that perhaps later. He has slowed down posting recently due to being very busy with his family but he keeps putting stuff up for us occasionally.

Questions to readers:  Why did you start blogging?  Do you remember the day you decided?



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My Son’s Tears: why I am outspoken

Religion FreeNeither of my wife nor I are “natural atheists” because we had both embraced religion as adults: my wife was raised Catholic but deconverted in her early twenties and I was a fervent Protestant believer for several years – and only slowly deconverting. But by the time my wife and I met, we were both religion-free and that is how we have raised our kids.

PolyAtheistWe did not raise our children telling them that, “There is no Zeus, no Allah, no Amidah, no Krishna, no Yahweh, no Jesus, no …..” but instead we just did not talk about spooks and spirits. My kids sort of naturally embraced their own natural view of reality without the supernatural. But as they got older, their school classmates who came from god-talk families began to confront my children by telling them that they were “atheists”. My children then came home asking us to tell them what an “atheist” is.

Early in those days, I first told my children to respect the beliefs of other folks. Well, that all fell apart on a day which I clearly remember.

My son was sitting on the couch after school and was tearful. It took me more than half an hour to get him to open up – that was very unusual for my son. He finally told me that his friends at school were teasing him about going to Hell.

I told my son that he no longer has to respect other people’s religious beliefs when they say stupid things like that. I equipped him with anti-scary-god arguments and my son began to debate those school buddies. His friends backed off and 7 years later, he has many good friends, Christian and atheist alike, who now only joke lightly about religion — they’ve grown to respect each other’s turfs it seems. They all sort of realize they inherited their folks’ religious thinking and are now just starting to think for themselves.

Anyway, it was Christianity in America telling my son that he was going to hell that motivated me to start blogging about the same religion I had years ago rejected. I am outspoken about atheism mainly in my blogging, I rarely bring it up in public.  It is only when people start to assume everyone in the room is Christian or say something outrageous that I speak out in public. Otherwise, with my friends, I leave the subject alone. But then, my Christian friends are the casual kinds — not the fervent sorts.

Question for readers: In what situations are you an outspoken atheist or an outspoken believer?



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Self: The Singing Flame

FlameMay I introduce the fine sculpture Harry Iles, who with his wife Ruth is hosting my daughter and I for a few days as we travel in Wales.  Both photos show Harry’s bronze casting called “The Singing Flame”.

Take a look at the photo of the sculpture — it is hard to get a feel for it there.  Adding the title of “The Singing Flame” may help a bit but without viewing the sculpture from many angles and touching it, you can’t dive to deep into its meaning.

Well, in the excellent video below, Harry gives you a 3-D tour of his creation which helps a great deal.  He then adds commentary. But may I suggest you form some opinions before hearing his story. Then contrast your levels of understanding with his intended message. Some of you familiar with my Many-Self view of mind will hear similarities perhaps.  Harry will be reading this post, so feel free to ask him questions or make comments directed to him below.


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Pebbles: Friend or Enemy


I am normally a shoe-wearing city dweller.  But this vacation is beginning on a Jersey beach where I enjoy barefoot walks in the sand.  Yet to get to the beach, I must go barefoot over hot sidewalks peppered with the small pebbles used here by most house owners instead of grass. Stepping on those pebbles hurts!

I discovered, however, that walking on a whole bunch of pebbles doesn’t hurt my feet and is actually pleasant.  It is the sidewalks or the stepping stones make the otherwise harmless pebbles hurt us barefoot folks — those structures are meant for people in shoes. Thus, monotonous asphalt or concrete makes the otherwise pleasant pebbles unbearable.

Humans are story tellers — incorrigible metaphor makers.  Well, some more than others but for me, metaphors spring to mind all the time.  And in this case, my first response was to be angry at the pebbles, but then I realized that it was bland uniformity that made these unique, mutually-forming and accommodating firm objects repugnant.

Question to readers:  Note that I distilled the potential metaphor to a vague abstraction. Please do feel free to bring it back to a concrete [sic] example if you see my point.  Or heck, make your own point!



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