Monday, January 23, 2012

It's Not Religion

I've repeatedly said the issue is not the religion per se - it is the underlying beliefs fomented, with or without religion:

Prejudice: 'our god is the real god, yours is false' - is extremely prejudicial and, however much a few religious people might fight it, this is an overwhelming product of religion. Which is also NOT to say that religion has exclusive access to creating prejudice.

Ideology: Ideology IS prejudice, human behavior is too complex to be fully captured by a set of rules. Any set of rules about human behavior is going to be harmful when the RULES themselves are placed above all else.

Tribalism/Us-versus-Them/Nationalism/Patriotism: These are more forms of prejudice - this is where religious and political ideologies both similarly exploit base human nature.

There is nothing wrong with a proportioned sense of pride about ones nation but no nation, government, or persons should be placed above open criticism. The point is that this "Us" mentality is highly exploitable and must be guarded against.

Credulity: that belief without evidence is greater than empirical facts and reasoned conclusions. 'God hates homosexuals, look here, he commands that you put them to death - we don't do that anymore but it is still an abomination - so no marriage for you'. No evidence of the harm this does to others can ever exceed the internally ridged inculcated mind holding that ignorance is greater than knowledge. See Also: Truthiness

Miracles/Supernatural: I don't have to take my child to the doctor, I'll just pray like it says in the Bible because I KNOW that miracles are real. There are many other harmful products of this belief as well (exploited by faith healers, psychics, and revivalists, .... just to name a few).

False Morals: the promulgation of poorly considered ethical foundations such as the Golden/Silver Rule (which only works if everyone agrees on the desired/undesired behaviors). Don't suffer a witch to live, stoning people to death, death for apostasy, genital mutilations, and so forth [varies]

The counters to these are skepticism, conservatism of action (in the sense of a proper sense of self-doubt as our condition is one primarily of ignorance), liberalism of thought (in the sense of throwing off prejudices, valuing education, freedom, and reform, openness to change in the face of new knowledge, guarding of civil liberties), and a scientific approach to knowledge that demands claims be supported by appropriate evidence and recognizes the propensity of the human mind for cognitive biases, illogic, and factual error.


  1. You make some valid points - my father was a hematologist and despaired at Jehovah's Witnesses willing to let a child die rather than submit to a transfusion.

    They would say, "you can use plasma," but dad would tell them, "plasma on its own is no good when you need several liters of it!"

    Archaic beliefs carry a lot of superstitious baggage, and I don't think anyone argues in favour of superstition. But the tendency of the mind is very often to accept something a respected figure believes, because it saves having to think about something afresh all the time. It saves a lot of energy, and saves it every day!

    You certainly show the dark side of religion. But there is a bright side too, which is why people are drawn to it. I used to travel to Eastern Europe, making perhaps 30 trips, and here was the ultimate Darwinist experiment carried out.

    A country, isolated largely from the West, with all people forbidden from practicing religion under pain of expulsion from society, or even death, for four generations. Enough time for all living memory to be of communism only.

    And yet when communism was lifted, religion sprang instantly back into their lives, not because of people in power, but from ordinary people. You never saw such beautiful, lovingly restored churches! We would often visit them, because nearly everyone considered it part of life, to pray for the dead, and the living, with little candles. It was very moving to see.

    One day there was an icon brought in from Greece or somewhere, and we went to see it. To once side I noticed a peasant farmer, in an old shabby black suit, long black beard, haunted eyes, a tattered hat in his hand, approach it and watched his expression. He stood, completely transfixed, in awe! His face was a picture of absorption.

    Outside he may well have been nothing, but here, his soul was as colossal as everyone else's. It was wonderful to see. I can see his face to this day, gazing up at this silver and wood iconl; this must have been the idea behind the artist who created it. All art tries to inspire in the viewer the feelings the artist is putting into it.

    So yes, I understand religion's dark side, but I don't think this is what has kept it in the mind. Even me, a skeptic, is drawn to it. It's a beauty I don't find anywhere else, but I find it equally in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity. To me, this devotion to any lofty ideal, seems beautiful.

    1. "It's a beauty I don't find anywhere else,"

      Then I feel kind of sorry for you. I think this is one aspect of the damage that religious inculcation does to a mind. I see beauty everywhere without requiring epistemically unsound reasoning to 'trick' my brain into it.

      "devotion to any lofty ideal, seems beautiful"

      The beauty lies in the ideal, not in the devotion. Nazi's were devoted to their ideal. If you define 'lofty' as "ideals that are actually good" then ok, maybe (but we still have to figure out which ones are 'lofty'). But that's not religion either, I can have 'lofty' goals without religion. As you get further away from dogmatic religions I have fewer and fewer objections to them, but they all seem to rely on tricking people with poor thinking skills into buying into some unevidenced superstition about the universe. And I detailed here what I believe are some of the underlying failure modes we have that are COMMON to religion AND SECULAR life. So we all must guard against these.

      I also find the struggle to prove ones self wrong to be beautiful. This is the challenge to find those 'lofty' ideals, and hopefully be able to support them with reasoned arguments and not merely appeals to 'revealed' wisdom that also says the Earth is immobile or a human sacrifice of a 'god' to himself (PS. who can't really die) is our only path to vicarious redemption. It's just insulting.

      Art, great stuff... Love, absolutely, love it. None of these things are religion -- but they are often hijacked by religions.

      Just because 'religion' is a very powerful meme doesn't mean it is necessary or of net benefit to us. They ran rampant for about 1400 years, spreading their meme by the sword through torture, murder and intimidation. You couldn't BE an important person in society and avoid cow-towing to the religion of course in that place and time, so OF COURSE tons of great thinkers and inventors were of some form of religion or another.

      Islam also had an extremely positive, tolerant and flourishing period which profoundly advanced the human race. Sadly that was a very long time ago, but this period of success certainly doesn't 'prove the truth of Islam' (I think it proves the value of scientifically-minded inquiry). And today, something like 93% of the National Academy of Sciences are non-religious and they are the leaders in creating our current wave of advancement.

    2. "here was the ultimate Darwinist experiment carried out"

      This is a false characterization. Evolution simply has absolutely nothing to say about religious tolerance or intolerance. Even if someone THOUGHT they were 'applying Darwinian ideas' they were just acting out of ignorance and it had nothing to do with Evolution. People do stupid things for bad reasons all the time, that doesn't make their reasoning correct.

      I don't blame religious precepts for stupid things their adherents do unless they are commanded by those religious precepts.

      Christianity doesn't command priests to abuse children, I don't blame Christianity for that. I DO however blame the religious institutions that have gone to great lengths to cover up these abuses (and secular institutions are guilty also). Any institution caught doing this needs to be gutted & shut down and their leaders imprisoned. But oh no, we can't do that to a religious institution (gag). And I do blame Christianity to the extent that they believe that gods law is higher than mans law and that this gives them the RIGHT to hide such abuses in the name of their confessional seal. I say Fuck That in the strongest possible terms. So those are a few concrete things I think must be changed. I'm NOT saying outlaw Christianity, but there are limits to what we must tolerate (we wouldn't tolerate human sacrifices by a religion either, but what we do is excuse real abuses by the 'favored' religion of the day and that's wrong).

      If you actually look at evolution you see a profound interconnectedness of all things. A human being could NOT live without a vast network of supporting organisms and also things like water, sunlight, and so forth. And those things wouldn't exist without the physics that produces some kind of chemistry in which 'computation' can be expressed, computation isn't magic either:

      Not to mention our common ancestry with all living things, bacteria and bees and flies and humans all share this history and sometimes the scars. Our eukaryotic cells show evidence of a symbiosis formed between at least three, originally independent, organisms - without which human beings couldn't exist (energy demands, etc). Everywhere we look in nature we see cooperation, symbiosis, interdependence, altruism - why? because they work to the benefit of the organisms.

      A profoundly beautiful dance. Yes, nature is also brutal in some sense, but think, we are the ONLY known organisms that have sufficiently powerful organ where we can compute possible futures and select among them in a way that just might eventually allow us to extricate our future-selves from that cycle.

  2. I think, the best way I can put it, is that humanity has always had sociopaths. Why this is, only genetic research of the future might uncover. But sociopaths - and I have met quite a few in business - are attracted to power, because it gives them a kind of untouchability.

    Religion has always been associated with humanity. and this vast power has been very attractive to sociopaths. When I look at the lives and the words of Buddha, of Jesus, of Guru Nanak, etc, I don't find any fault with them as people. Their words are soothing to the spirit, and their selfless example inspiring to the seeker. In my life I have known many religious friends, of various faiths, and they have been peaceful and cheerful individuals. But if we look at history, we see that sociopaths have wreaked havoc where they have attained positions of power, of commanding armies or ruling kingdoms, and religion has not been exempt from this trend.

    In modern times, sociopaths are attracted to the power of the arms business, of the banking industry, and of politics. It was recently reported that one giant investment firm actually looked for sociopathic traits in new employees, because this absence of fellow feeling would make them highly profitable. They had no sympathy for others, they cheerfully manipulated situations so that the firm made vast profits even at the expense of thousands of individuals who lost everything or were made homeless. The same kind of minds are at work in the CIA, in the Pentagon, and in politics. In fact many people sense that the political parties are often something of a charade, and that America, as an example, is a military dictatorship behind the scenes. The current Democrat leader has instituted more violence abroad even than the Republican before him. The arms business is charge.

    The 20th century has suffered more massacres than at any time in the past. Why should this be so, at a time of intellectual enlightenment? We have Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Josef Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Ceaucescu, and so on. We see that it was Churchill who first bombed cities, and America which resorted to nuclear weapons, burning 200,000 people alive from a safe distance, and hid the photos of victims for 15 years to avoid the public backlash. Our own warmongers - Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger, Bush, Cheney, Obama, Blair we see the West have either manipulated the situation or directly caused the deaths of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of peaceful individuals. My uncle was a captain in the US Navy, both during WW2 and in Iran when the US installed the Shah. It was a reign of terror, supported by the West. Saddam was also installed by the CIA: he began as psychotic, bumbling assassin. He was removed not because of his atrocities – Rumsfeld even shook hands with him after his gas attacks, and Bush Sr allowed him to massacre 250,000 Kurds. He was removed when they needed a more pliable thug.

    What does science have to say about this? What examination has been done of the genetic causes of such individuals, compared to the geniuses which have tended to improve man's lot, instead of decimating society? Why is it, that at a time of great intellectual progress, one billion people starve at this very moment, 300 million are without clean water, and another 300 million live in slavery, often to provide huge profits to western firms? How many thinkers raise their voices against this?

    And if we look around the planet, we find there is a sea of plastic twice the size of North America, in the Pacific, that the water and land is polluted in places, such as the Niger Delta, to such an extent that it is no longer habitable. Extinctions. The razing of the Amazon, the very lungs of the planet. All this is done in the name of money. There is hardly any outcry about it in the west.

    1. >> When I look at the lives and the words of Buddha, of Jesus, of Guru Nanak, etc, I don't find any fault with them as people

      I do. Jesus = 'Give no thought for the morrow'. That's evil advice given that he has taken almost 2000 and is still a no-show for the return.

      And then there is the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11). Which SEEMS nice on the surface, a woman isn't stoned to death for adultry. Yay Jesus! Oh except for two things:

      (1) the evidence strongly suggests this heartwarming story (and I use the term sarcastically) wasn't actually part of the originals, it was inserted later, probably completely made up, and
      (2) This story shows just how Evil the Bible is - Jesus is unable to condemn the commandment from the OT that the woman be stoned to death, so he has to hem and haw about it to get AROUND the law.

      The Bible is full of ignorant and false claims and evil advice.

      >> The 20th century has suffered more massacres than at any time in the past. Why should this be so,

      greater tools for people who would do harm combined with a profoundly ignorant population of sheep

      >> We have Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Josef Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Ceaucescu

      Sorry but Hitler, Mussolini, Leopold, Petain, Franco, Seyss-Inquart, Hans Frank, Tiso, Pavelitch, Degrelle were all Catholic-inspired fascist mass-murdering rulers.

      For that matter, Pol Pot and Stalin were raised Catholic and inspired by their teaching. Stalin took over a Catholic population who revered him as God's voice. The history of Stalin with the Catholics is far more complex and nuanced than "Stalin was an atheist".

      There is no precept in atheism that says to murder anyone - there is in Catholicism. And when Catholicism is used to that end and announces it on Biblical grounds THEN we can blame Catholicism.

      No atheist can say atheism commanded them to do anything. It is not a dogma, it is a position on a single proposition.

      >> How many thinkers raise their voices against this?

      A LOT.

      >> There is hardly any outcry about it in the west.

      Open your eyes then, it is there. I see it every single day.

      And what I see are the religious nutjobs pushing back.

      "we don't have to care for no Environment, God will, derp derp".

      "there ain't no global warmin', stupid lying scientists, derp derp".

    2. We share in our criticism of capitalism, greed, and environmental destruction as well as US role in atrocities (INCLUDING those of the Natives of the Americas).

      Reflecting on how we got here:

      Dr. Michael McDonnel wrote in
      The 'Conquest' of the Americas:
      conquistadors regarded plunder, slaves, and tribute as the just desserts for their efforts in forcing pagans to accept Christianity and Spanish rule. After all, the conquistadors did scrupulously adhere to the Spanish law of conquest by reading the requerimiento, which ordered defiant Indians to immediately accept Spanish rule and Christian conversion, or face punishment in a “just war”. The requerimiento announced that “The resultant deaths and damages shall be your fault, and not the monarch’s or mine or the soldiers”. Attending witnesses and a notary usually certified in writing that the requerimiento had been read and ignored by the usually uncomprehending Indians, thus justifying the death and destruction that so often followed.

      The was "used to justify the assertion that God, through historical Saint Peter and appointed Papal successors, held authority as ruler over the entire Earth; and that the Inter Caetera Papal Bull, of 4 May 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, conferred title over all the Americas to the Spanish monarchs"

      Between Africa and the Americas some 50-100 million native people destroyed. Because Christian God said it was ok.

      Oops, we 'interpreted' the Bible incorrectly just doesn't cut it. It's an Evil institution through and through.

      I question your numbers but exact numbers aren't really what is important, that any people are starving and living in poverty, or are still slaves or effectively slaves is a problem indeed.

      Meanwhile, the Catholic Church goes around and teaches people how wonderful it is that they live in poverty, gives them comfortable places to die instead of actually healthcare and happily takes their money in exchange for access to indoctrinate their children.

      Sociopaths seems to fair very well in capitalism and religion. Both of which I would like to see sharply curbed.

  3. A society built purely on profit and commerce will attract, and even generate, sociopaths. It seems to me that spiritual values provide a bulwark against this. The very first email I received from my science and religion site was from a chemist, in Chicago, who was expecting their first child. He wrote to thank me for raising the idea of spiritual values as part of evolution, and confessed that the clamour of atheism and the deriding of values which he felt important, had put him in a profound depression from which he now saw a way out.

    I write about matters which are of interest to me. Many people feel religion is a help to them, a side of life not expressable by language or satisfied by material wealth or media amusements. It is something private, something expansive inside; I have felt these things for myself.

    I think research of the future will show that despite the sociopaths who have sometimes usurped the power of religion - as they have in every other field conferring power - the scriptures and the traditions which preserve them, are things of beauty to hundreds of millions of people for a very good reason: they nourish the soul in times of hardship, and remind that there are beautiful emotions which cannot be generated by knowledge or power, and in that respect, all men might indeed be said to be equal.

    1. The Bible also says:

      Leviticus 25:46 foreign slaves are yours forever
      Exodus 21:20-21 slaves are property & can be beaten

      In Exodus 21:12 we see that if you 'Murder' someone it says you are to be put to death (Hebrew: מוּת (muth), put to death). However, in Exodus 21:20-21, when a slave, who is your property, is beaten to death there is to be נָקַם (naqam) Avenged for כָּ֫סֶפ (keseph) Silver (a fine is to be paid).

      So I'll pass on that brand of 'equality'. Sure, it says 'in Heaven' there is no bondsman or free, laudable if perhaps an empty promise -- but it also says there will be no marriage and it says there will be no tears or sadness EVEN AS it promises to put your child into a lake of eternal torment. What kind of Stepford 'Heaven' is it going to be when a mother cannot feel emotions for their own child?

      I'm certain that if you Cherry Pick the Bible you can find some beautiful ideas, I know this because I am a former Christian, apostate now. My point is that those ideas are ideas of men and they are beautiful without 'religion' or some fuzzy 'spirituality'.

      And I'm just as certain that you can make people feel better by lying to them and making false promises. But I was taught that lying was wrong and once I broke out of the cycle I found no need to be lied to.

      And we already know we can go well beyond them... why should only 'men' be said to be equal? Why not at least some of the other highly intelligent species we share the planet with? (primates, Dolphins, Octopus, etc)?

      And why draw an arbitrary line there? Why not all animals? Why not all living things, including plants? Some people eat only that which is provided as food (fruits, etc).

      I personally would like to see us get to the point where our food is manufactured out of raw materials so we don't have to eat living things.