Archive for the 'Religion' Category

An explanation for religiosity?

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Here’s an interesting article from England’s The Times newspaper: “I don’t believe that believers really believe“. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the gist is that the columnist does not believe that believers truly believe what they say, because their actions are wildly inconsistent with the professed beliefs. It’s an interesting argument, but I don’t think it’s quite right. I believe Jamie Whyte’s perceptions about religious belief are biased from living in a country that is largely apathetic toward religion. Well, here in the United States Under God of America, things are a bit different, and it’s not quite so easy to be so dismissive about religion.

I don’t blame the incoherency between professed beliefs and actions on lack of true belief, I blame it on hypocrisy and compartmentalization. Most people realize religion doesn’t have anything to do with their day to day life. The only time they are in “religious” mode is when it is explicitly brought up, for example when they go to church, or when someone asks them what their religion is. Otherwise, they just live their lives as humans are wont to do, with all of the activities contraindicated by their religion that that entails, even if it is wildly hypocritical. It’s not that religious adherents don’t believe in all that nonsense, because they do; it’s just that it’s nearly impossible for it to affect every aspect of their life.

I really like the point Jamie Whyte makes about abortion, though. If abortion really was comparable to the Holocaust, as abortion protestors frequently like to claim, we might actually want to, you know, stop it.

Abortion protesters never get old

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

I don’t have much time to blog today, as Obama’s acceptance speech at Invesco Field (combined with the fiasco of the change of venue) is sucking all of the oxygen out of the atmosphere. It was actually hard just to find time on a computer. So I’ll focus this post on one little quirky aspect of every Democratic Convention I’ve been to so far (every one since 1992): abortion protestors.

In case you haven’t realized, the abortion protesters are really serious about what they do. They aren’t violent at least, so they tend to get a response of bemused indifference from the police instead of active hostility. This allows them to demonstrate a lot closer to the convention venues, so they’re typically the only protestors convention-goers ever see (along with all of the pro-Democratic protestors like Code Pink, anyway). The more violent demonstraters, like the anarchists, are typically relegated to having clashes with hundreds of riot-clad police blocks away, so you really only see them on television.

The abortion protester’s favorite tactic is to wave around large banners of partial-birth abortions. That their images don’t really have much relevance to the vast majority of abortions doesn’t faze them; they’re going for the extreme example. So as a result you get to see all sorts of fun pictures of mutilated fetuses on your way into and out of the convention. It’s kind of cruel to force the little kids who are going with their parents to see this kind of stuff, but I guess that’s the First Amendment for you.

Unfortunately, I think their tactic has backfired on me. I’ve seen these images so much that they don’t even viscerally affect me anymore (and a visceral reaction is all they have going for them). They only have so many pictures of mutilated fetuses to work with, and I’ve seen them all. So I’ve resorted to making sarcastic comments when I go past these people, like “Yummy!” or “Thank God that one was aborted, look at how ugly it is!” Consider it a counter-trolling of sorts.

In the end, none of the photographs these protesters have shoved in front of my face have changed my views on abortion at all. I’m still pro-choice, and that belief is not based on any visceral reaction, but rather a long and considered internal debate. And keep in mind, photographs of any number of surgical procedures are pretty much guaranteed to be visceral. I’m sure a photograph of a full face transplant surgery in progress is a lot more disturbing than any of their abortion photographs, but it wouldn’t serve as evidence to convince anyone to ban the procedure.

To their convention-goers’ credit, they are responding to the protesters well, which is to say they’re completely ignoring them. Trying to engage people this far gone in a debate is a non-starter, so it’s best not to even bother. That’s why my brief remarks to them are flippant at best, and I never stop moving as I deliver them. Plus, nearly all of their arguments are prejudiced on religion anyway, so when they try to “convince” me they completely miss the mark. We don’t even share the same worldview.

And on one last note, it’s interesting to see how the abortion protesters have recognized the power of language. They distort their language to their own aims, no matter how inaccurate it is. Thus every month-old embryo isn’t referred to as an embryo, but as a “baby” or “child”, which is of course thoroughly inaccurate.

How beliefs linger after faith is gone: My tale as a kosher atheist

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Looking back over this blog, I’m realizing I really haven’t said too much about my religion (or rather, my lack thereof). It’s something a lot of people are interested in; heck, some bloggers make an entire career out of it (cough PZ Myers cough). So I figure I might as well take another crack at the subject and explain how exactly I ended up where I am now: a complete lack of any faith. But that’s such a big subject area that I’ll focus on a very small area of it in this post, specifically how I maintained certain irrational customs, such as keeping kosher, long after my faith dwindled to nothingness.

But first, I’d be a fool if I didn’t leverage some of my previous blog posts (if for no other reason than having to avoid rehashing all of the same material again). I developed a pretty healthy sense of morality at a young age, none of which derived from religion. Some of the people in my family were once very religious, but that had been mostly eaten away by the time I was born. It’s gotten to the point that our holiday celebrations are almost entirely secular. I’ve had a mixture of experiences in churches, some good, some terrible, though of course most of my encounters with religion occurred in synagogues, which were just boring. I lived in a state of indifference towards religion for most of my childhood until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, which really focused my mind on the downsides. Then, throughout college, I couldn’t help but keep bumping into more instances of religion at its most exploitative, as well as religion at its ugliest. Those events and others inspired me to take a more active role against religion, which brings me to today.

I have finally, finally, just within the past two years, started eating pork regularly, despite not having been a believer for at least ten. It sounds pretty silly, right? It’s not like we ever kept any of the rest of the kosher rules — prohibitions against mixing milk and meat, checking for that silly “U” symbol on everything, etc. Heck, we even ate non-fish seafood all the time, especially crabs (though living in Maryland, how could you not?). I just had a silly hang-up with pork, and I rarely if ever ate it, with the exception of pepperoni and of course bacon. It’s more because I wasn’t accustomed to eating it than for any other reason, but if anyone ever questioned me about it, my excuse was a mumbled response about keeping kosher. My mom’s parents never served anything pork, and so she never learned to cook it. Thus, it was never served in our house, and I didn’t particularly want it when we ate out either.

Just like how dietary restrictions linger long after the faith is gone, so too do other facets of faith. I’m thinking specifically of the many ways in which religion brainwashes people: to revere “men of God” when the only thing that differentiates them from normal people is that they’re more useless, to have respect for specific cockamamie beliefs but to detest others that are equally unlikely, to distrust empiricism and value a non-rational world-view, to trample the civil rights of others merely because they are different in some regards, and many more. It’s pretty common for people to lose their belief in God but retain most of the other attendant silly beliefs, like pulling the tablecloth out from under a house of cards so quickly that most of the cards remain standing. You just can’t radically adjust your world-view so quickly.

When I was in eighth grade, after I had stopped believing, I remember asking my mother about Muslims (back in those days, we didn’t know much about them). She told me they believed in one God, and that it was the same God as the Christians and Jews. I’m thinking, “Great, just like we do” — except it was a “we” that didn’t include me. A cultural we, if you will. So, silly me, I thought that Muslims were our allies, and began to look suspiciously at my Hindu classmates who believed in multiple gods. I felt more empathy with the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths because that’s what I was raised with, even though I disbelieved in all of them equally. Well, three years later September 11th happened and I quickly stopped thinking of Muslims as “allies” in preference to Hindus — after all, the hijackers weren’t flying those planes into buildings in the name of Vishnu.

And now, over a decade since I’ve been actively calling myself an atheist, the deprogramming still isn’t complete. I still find myself marveling at some of PZ Myers’ attacks on religion, because despite them being so obvious, I wouldn’t think of most of them on my own. I still have all of these absurd ideas in my head that I can easily reject when I consciously think about them, but that color my perception the vast majority of the time when I don’t. I really wish I had been raised in a secular society. It’d be amazing to know what it feels like to be totally unencumbered by religious baggage. But I regrettably did not have that experience, and so every day is another struggle to find all of the non-rational beliefs in my mind and snub them out. And many of them don’t have anything to do with religion. For instance, it was only just recently — when I started watching MMA — that I realized that the oft-rumored, near-mythical powers of martial artists were completely made up. And don’t even get me started on acupuncture or chiropracty.

Why Mormons evangelize in twos: The power of pairs

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Have you ever wondered why Mormons/Jehovah’s witnesses/etc. travel in pairs when they go door-to-door evangelizing? At first thought, you’d think it would be more efficient to split up and cover more ground. But they’ve clearly spent a lot of time thinking about it, because upon deeper examination, evangelizing in pairs is actually the optimal strategy. Here’s why.

If only one person was sent out evangelizing, they’d be at a numbers disadvantage. Even in the case of only a single person being home to talk to, that’s still even. Any discussion can easily turn into a back-and-forth argument. However, with two people, a lot of situations are two-on-one, in which the evangelizers fervently agree with each other and work as a team to convert the person they are speaking with. Group dynamics is a very powerful thing, and all it takes to get absurd views considered normal is a majority of the people present subscribing to them. It really cuts down on the power of counter-arguments if none of the other people in the room see any validity in them whatsoever, whereas a back-and-forth between two people feels a lot more equal.

Having the evangelizers work in pairs also prevents that most dreaded of situations for evangelizers, being ganged up on by those they would seek to convert. The odds of running into more than two adults on a typical evangelizing run are very small; after all, the nuclear family has been an American standard for three generations now — you have to go back to before World War II before you start seeing lots of extended families all living together.

Having the evangelizers in pairs also allows them to keep each other in check. A frequent situation encountered during evangelism is when a person of a different religious strike lets the evangelizers in for the sole purpose of trying to convert them to their own religion. Reverse-evangelism, if you will. If the evangelizers were sent out on their lonesome, they might possibly be vulnerable to a really convincing homeowner. With two of them to keep each other faithful, however, the odds drop to nearly zero. No member of a tightly-integrated pair would possibly want to appear religiously weak in front of their other.

Sending trios out evangelizing, on the other hand, would simply be overkill, and is not justified in terms of the reduced area that two trios can cover versus three pairs. Two really is the ideal number for evangelizing — large enough to achieve a majority or at least parity in nearly all cases, but also as small as possible so as to not waste human resources. That is why evangelizing in pairs is actually the optimal strategy, and is thus what nearly every organization that practices door-to-door evangelism settles on.

So the next time Mormons visit your house, at least pause to reflect on the elegant logic that led there to being exactly two people getting cursed at through your mail slot.

The good old days of American politics

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Man, how I yearn for the good old days of American politics, back when pandering to piety wasn’t a requirement of all candidates. Think Robert Ingersoll could be nearly as successful today? He was politically active for decades, yet gave huge speeches in nearly every city of America deriding religion. He was called the Great Agnostic. Yet he was respected for his views, and an adviser to presidents and candidates alike. His presence was highly desired on the campaign trail.

If you think nothing like this could happen today, you’re probably right. Religion has taken over the public sphere a lot more since those days (despite what Christianist revisionist historians would have you believe), and now every candidate on a national level is forced to pander to all of this nonsense. Obama and McCain alike have made pilgrimages to receive the blessings of various pastors of megachurches. It’s enough to make you sick.

It’s also yet more proof that, out of all minority labels associated with a prospective candidate, “atheist” is the one most likely to dissuade the largest number of voters. That’s right, more Americans would vote for homosexuals, any given ethnic minority, Muslims, women, even felons, than atheists. And people wonder why our country is going downhill — maybe if you’d stop being as damned bigoted as our enemies then it wouldn’t be!

Why Dianetics is better than the Bible

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

I am hardly a fan of Scientology, yet I find some humor in the fact that Scientology’s “holy book”, Dianetics, is better than the Bible in nearly every way. Here is my reasoning.

First of all, Dianetics is much more self-consistent than the Bible. One need only to examine a brief list of contradictions in the Bible to see what I’m getting at. This isn’t even a fair comparison for the Bible, really, as it was written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years. Dianetics, by comparison, was written by one author in a few years. Dianetics would have to be pretty terrible to lose out in this comparison, and the truth is, it’s not that bad. The ideas it espouses, while wrong and dangerous, are at least coherent and consistent. You can’t say the same for the Bible.

Dianetics was written long after the invention of the modern printing press, which gives it a huge advantage. It has been faithfully reproduced, word-for-word, since it was originally penned by L. Ron Hubbard. By contrast, the Bible was written long before the invention of the printing press, and it was savaged by over a millennium of hand-copying and translation between multiple languages. The end result is no one can really even be sure about what any specific passage in the Bible is even supposed to say, let alone what it means. Schisms between branches of Christianity have broken out over little more than which copy or translation should be considered canon and which is heresy.

Dianetics was written in modern English, and as such requires no translation for comprehension by a modern audience. Each word in it that you read is exactly what L. Ron Hubbard had intended. The Bible, on the other hand, has been pieced together from works written in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Any translation is inherently inaccurate, and multiple translations even moreso. Even worse, the ancient translations were done by people with an agenda, and for many of the books in the Bible, these are all we have left. They didn’t have any concept of modern scholarship, where the goal is to translate the work as accurately and true to the original as possible. So it’s really hard to even say what the messages in the Bible are supposed to be, whereas Dianetics, written originally in modern English and still readable in its original form, has no such ambiguity.

There isn’t even any agreement on which books the Bible is supposed to be composed of. Compare Catholicism and their Apocrypha, or the Eastern Orthodox Church. And that’s not even considering Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dianetics, at least, has a single canonical version. There are no schisms about which text is supposed to be in it and which isn’t.

Face it, the comparison between the Bible and Dianetics is completely stacked against the Bible. Although, to be fair, the same would be true of any comparison between a modern book and an ancient one (this is why my arguments so far are thus more of a criticism on the Bible than a booster for Dianetics). The difference is that most ancient books are only the object of inquiry for scholarly study; no one is trying to base an entire belief system around them. Hopefully now you have a bit more insight into why I, and my fellow atheists, find religions based on ancient books so confounding.

Help expose Expelled

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

You too can do your part in fighting for science by linking to the Expelled Exposed website on whatever blog or personal site you happen to run. Expelled is a dishonest intelligent design creationism propaganda film, and Expelled Exposed is a site that gives the viewpoints of actual scientists (you know, the people you should look to for answers when it comes to biology). The idea, obviously, is to increase exposure to a great source debunking that film, and also to get the counter website more highly ranked in Google.

And if you don’t quite know what I’m talking about, reading up on some more background information might be in order.

Decrying publicly funded Islamic education in Minnesota

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

An investigative reporter out in Minnesota has uncovered a publicly funded Muslim charter school that is promoting the religion of Islam on the publics dime. The charter school is collocated with a mosque, and all students go over for “voluntary” prayer and Islamic education immediately after school, after the ritual washing of hands and feet, of course. As if all this didn’t make the religious nature of the school obvious enough, the building the school is located in is also the headquarters of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, whose mission is to “establish Islam in Minnesota.”

This is a clear violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. No public funds should be going towards promoting any particular religion, especially not to a captive child audience. It doesn’t matter that attending the school is entirely voluntary (for the parents, anyway; the children likely have no say in the matter). It’s entirely unconstitutional. Minnesota hasn’t been doing a good job of regulating this school, having only visited it thrice in the past five years. All manner of illegal things have been going on right under their noses.

It is the state’s duty to provide a secular education. Any promotion of religion should not take place in public schools. I wonder what in the world Minnesota was thinking when they established a separate public school just for Muslims; how is this justified or appropriate?! America has always been a melting pot. Our strategy is to assimilate immigrants into our culture, and schools are the best way to do that. So establishing a separate school to prevent that assimilation, and then promote religion on top of that, is absurd. Just like we have no public schools that promote Christianity, there should be none that promote any other religion.

I think we’re heading down the very dangerous road of the British and the French who, in the name of “cultural diversity”, are allowing large segments of their population to remain isolated and cut off. In Britain they even allow Muslim men with multiple wives to get government benefits for each wife — so long as he married them before immigrating! And this is even though bigamy is illegal for all other British citizens. The results of this kind of appeasement of immigrants are devastating: witness the large Muslim immigrant riots in the banlieues of Paris in recent years, leaving thousands of cars torched, hundreds of police officers injured, and millions in damages. Or look at the extremist imams in Britain who actively preach hate and condone violence against “heathens”, providing the breeding grounds for such plots as the July 7 London bombings.

So far, America has done much better. We don’t have the problem of home-grown terrorists like the United Kingdom because we’ve purposefully liberalized and integrated our immigrants into our culture. Children who receive a secular modern education generally do not grow up to be extremists. So we shouldn’t be shooting ourselves in the foot here and using taxpayer money to subsidize non-secular education that only serves to actively prevent assimilation and could potentially foster more extremism down the line. Our current strategy is working; don’t deviate from it! Get rid of all public schools that segregate out children by religion. There’s absolutely no place for it in America.

Scientific versus religious world views

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

After reading this excellent blog post about scientific versus religious world views by John Wilkins (who I know from awhile back), I couldn’t help but sharing this most excellent passage. The next time you get harangued by a religious fellow claiming that reason and faith are equally valid ways of knowing things about the world, send them this:

So, science is universal, while religion is rather local. One relies on an epistemology everyone in the world has access to; the other relies on an epistemology that barely works for that religion. To say of all religions that “each is valid” is to assert an absurdity. If each religion is separately valid, and all religions contradict each other, we are way past postmodernist silliness and out the other side into pure fiction and flights of imagination. It basically causes the very idea of knowledge to be degraded to the point that it no longer has the slightest meaning.

Hey look, more creationist dishonesty!

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Last month, PZ Myers, famous atheist blogger and evolutionary developmental biologist, was at the center of a bit of a furor when producers at a screening of the creationism propaganda film “Expelledhad armed thugs kick him out of the theater, while completely ignoring his guest Richard Dawkins, an even more famous atheist. My blog post attracted a bit of discussion in the comments. But now it looks like that favorite mouthpiece of the Intelligent Design Creationism movement, the blog Uncommon Descent, has commented on what I said. And, as creationists are wont to do, they did it in a thoroughly dishonest and misleading fashion. Here’s a piece-by-piece vivisection of their attempt at framing this incident as anything other than a complete embarrassment for the creationist movement.

To recap, thuggery or scams that have persisted for a long time and are endorsed at the highest levels of the establishment come to seem “normal.” So the “problem” is not the behavior of thugs and scammers but the attempted responses of those they attack.

Playing the victim card is a very common creationist tactic. “Oh no!”, they shriek, “The entire scientific establishment is out to get us!” And I guess they’re sort of right about that. But it’s not because of the reasons they claim — it’s not that they’re being persecuted, or “thugged” or “scammed”; it’s simply because they are using dishonest tactics to try to pervert real science and ruin students’ educations with non-reality-based nonsense. They claim some overarching conspiracy, as if all scientists “know” evolution is fake but just keep hush hush about it for their own reasons. I guess they’re just projecting?

That’s what the Expelled film is doing in the ID vs. unguided evolution (Darwinism) controversy. It shows both the evidence for intelligent design of life and the unconscionable lengths to which the Darwin fans are willing to go, to keep both students and the broad public from knowing why their ideas about the nature of life are probably wrong.

Actually, it’s the other way around. Expelled shows the lengths to which creationists are willing to go to distort the truth and resort to propagandist tactics to spread their false ideas. They even go so far as to compare scientists who believe in evolution with Stalin and Hitler, complete with a visit to an actual Nazi concentration camp. But yeah, it’s really the scientists who are going to unconscionable lengths for having the audacity to speak the simple truth about the world.

Read the rest of this entry »