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Evolution of Illusion: How Biology Bamboozles Believers

brain

We’re being lied to. Our entire species is being repeatedly tricked, constantly misled and most of us are falling for it. We’re tricked into superstition, supernaturalism, and mysticism and not just by scientific ignorance, adherence to tradition or testimony of authority figures (well meaning or otherwise). The fact is that our own makeup betrays us. Some of the very evolutionary adaptations which have allowed our species to survive and thrive also leave us open to drawing false premises, accepting deceiving conclusions and following the leads of others in order to be accepted socially.

Research into how the brain works and why it works the way that it does has led to several theories about how religious thinking came to develop in the human mind. The most widely accepted outlook is that religious attitudes are a by-product of existing cognitive developments which serve other purposes. The “By-product outlook” suggests that a great many of the adaptations which our species evolved in order to survive life on the Serengeti actually combine to make us susceptible to ritual, superstition, mysticism, in short… religion.

Decoupled Cognition is a perfect example of a useful adaptation on which the “mind virus” of religion has piggybacked.  This is our ability to think of something that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future, all while paying close attention to what is happening around us. We are uniquely adapted to evaluate the thoughts and feelings of others who are not directly in front of us.  Decoupled Cognition is the key to social interaction. Imagine if you had to have another person in front of you in order to conceive of what might be happening in their mind! Social interaction as we understand it would be impossible. We all rehearse conversations; imagine the likely responses and others and posit possible outcomes. Our ability to implement a complex interaction with an unseen second party inside our own minds and completely independent of our external reality is key to our social abilities, but it is also a prerequisite for religious thought. Without it the whole enterprise collapses from conception.

Another essential mental development for our survival is what psychologists call Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD. This mental development once served to keep us on our toes, to keep us mindful of the possibility of predators and wary of danger. HADD is the mechanism responsible for human tendency to perceive agency or intelligent intent where there is none. It’s why we mistake shadows for burglars or wonder who slammed the door before we consider that it might have been the wind, and in our animal past it was surely a valuable survival mechanism. After all it’s far better to jump at shadows and flee from the wind than risk the pouncing predator.

HADD allows for and even favors the interference of unseen intelligent agents. In other words we’re hardwired to see design where none exists. If you presuppose an unseen agent where there is none is it that far a leap to the idea that that agent is all-powerful, or that it will grant you wishes if asked? When this trait is combined with the mechanisms which provide our sensitivity to the detection of human-like forms and faces we can begin to see human forms almost anywhere from ghosts and apparitions, to Jesus appearing in food products the world over, The Man in the Moon, or a smiley face in punctuation marks.

Perhaps the most obvious cognitive adaptation that results in religious belief is the human need for attachment. As a species we crave community, acceptance, and fellowship. Neuroscientists studying the brain’s workings today believe that whole networks of neurons in our brains are dedicated to our need for attachment.  Helpless children instinctively seek out a caregiver to help ensure their survival and when they grow the need for attachment manifests as romantic love ensuring the passing of genes and the survival of the species. It also takes place in other adult relationships. Attachment is, in fact, the basis of community.

Just as the attachment centers of our brains urge us to seek relationships with corporeal life forms religious people are attached to their deities. The fact is we never lose our urge to seek a caregiver and religions offer us a caregiver who will provide for all of our needs, love us unconditionally and forgive us any transgression. Most religions are designed to appeal strongly to the most primal and frightened parts of our brains. They offer us a community of like-minded individuals, a sense of safety and security and an all-powerful caregiver figure who will keep the predators at bay. The driving need for attachment is what makes the concept of religion so appealing to begin and also what makes it so difficult to leave.

I’ve only touched on a few of the aspects of our minds which allow for religious and supernatural thinking. There are a great many more adaptations which contribute to the human proclivity toward religion. There are a number of excellent sources out there for more information. I recommend starting with Dr. J. Anderson Thomson’s “why we believe in god(s)” it is a concise and very approachable book on the subject and will serve as an excellent primer. Understanding how our minds work, and why we’re susceptible to the faulty logic, fuzzy reasoning and backward tribalism that results in supernaturalism, mysticism and religious thought is key to fighting it. We grow through exploration, both of the world around us and perhaps more importantly – the world inside us.

March of the Missionary

Missionary2

Rejoice benighted savages

Raise your voices loud in song.

We’ve come to tell you of our god

and how your lives are wrong.

Give thanks and pay us homage

Do us service ,raise us high

We are the voices of creation

Only we know what happens when you die.

You say you’ve got your own gods?

A history and tradition all your own?

You’ve been bewitched by demons!

And without us you’d never have known!

We’ll save your souls and make you right

If you’ll do exactly as we say

Dress and speak and act as we

And pray always as we pray.

Repent of your many blasphemies

Know your worth is less than none

Beg my god for mercy evermore

Or your torment is never done.

My god is a god of mercy

He’ll save you from your sinful mire

But if you do not submit to him

He will punish you with fire.

We will bring you peace and salvation

And the love of our living lord.

We’re going to give you Jesus

Either with the book or with the sword!

Wrong Again Religion!

marriage

I’ve noticed a growing trend of Christians complaining about being “attacked” for their beliefs about the “sanctity” of what they call “traditional marriage”. My first impulse is to point out the fact that Christianity is not the oppressed minority under siege from a massive and powerful conspiracy to destroy and deny it its rights. It is not the victim in this situation, but the victimizer.  I’ve tried that tack however and had very little success with it so I’m going to try something a little different.

Since I’m trying to build an argument to make Christians understand, it seems only right to start with the bible. It is, after all, the Christian instruction manual for life; it must contain their concept of “Traditional Marriage” and lay it out plainly, right?

Shockingly however, in the Bible, marriage is not limited to a consensual union between one man and one woman. There are, in fact, any number of acceptable forms of marriage laid out in the pages of the Bible and most forms of marriage it mentions don’t even require both parties to consent! Not only is consent not required but there are SEVERAL variations of non-consensual marriage.

Genesis tells us of Judah, who forced the wife of his dead son to marry and sleep with his other son. (Genesis 38:6-10)  In Deuteronomy 21 we learn that soldiers who are attracted to enemy women are allowed to take them as their wives so long as the soldier in question waits a month between taking her and raping her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-13) In the next chapter we learn that rape is considered an acceptable form of marriage proposal so long as the man is willing to pay his victim/fiance’s father the required fifty shekels. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and in Exodus we learn that a master can force his slaves to marry regardless of their will. (Exodus 21:4)

However the Bible isn’t all non-consensual rape marriages, as I said it is open to many interpretations of nuptials. For instance, according to the Bible, Yahweh has no problem with polyamorous or polygamous relationships. According to (1 Kings 11:1-3), King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Christians today make the claim that God punished Solomon for his polygamy, yet the fact is the Bible says quite plainly that Solomon was punished for marrying foreign women who lead him to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1-2, 9-10). According to  (1Chronicles 3) King David had seven wives. Regardless of modern spin on the situation both men are generally regarded as paragons of scripture and high in god’s favour, and nowhere in the text is there any question about whether their version of marriage was a correct one.

Christian apologists will tell you that Jesus defined marriage in (Matthew 19:4-6) “Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” yet this is not a definition. Christ never condemned the previously mentioned forms of marriage or said that this was the only acceptable form of union. At most what you’ve got here is yet another form of marriage in the text further demonstrating the elasticity of the term in the scriptures. And a careful reading of the passage and his concluding statement “let no one separate” reveals that Jesus’ primary intent in those verses was to forbid divorce—something which modern Christians readily ignore.

There is, I assure you, much more than can be said on the subject of biblical marriage but suffice it to say that the modern conception of consensual one-man-one-woman marriage is, by the lights of the Bible, a new and radical departure from what the fathers of the faith would call a traditional marriage.

As for why conservative Christian views come under scrutiny from secular society the answer to that is simple. When one looks back through history the positions of conservative Christianity are, almost without exception, horrendously  backward and bigoted positions based largely on personal bias, ignorance, and of course selective interpretation of the scriptures. Let’s look at some examples.

SLAVERY

Perhaps the most striking example of conservative Christianity’s failure to evolve with the times is the conservative defence and fostering of the practice of slavery. The abolition movement met constant and often violent opposition from the faithful when it came to the question of freedom for slaves in America and England. The Reverend Alexander Campbell one of the founders of the Restoration Movement famously  said: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.”

That is an opinion that was shared by Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America as evidenced by the following quote:

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency of the arts.”

                How did they justify this position you ask? They turned to the ultimate authority on law and morality of course. They delved into their bibles and came up with examples like the following to show that God wanted slaves right where they were.

 “Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Genesis 16:9

“There were still people left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizzites, Hevites, and Jebusites. Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land whom the Israelites could not exterminate to serve as slave labor. As it is to this day”  1 Kings 9: 20-21

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:5-8

WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

Female equality in our society was a long fought battle that met with strong opposition from both men and women. One of the groups strongest in their opposition to this equality was, inevitably , Conservative Christianity. The idea being that it was unnatural and sinful for women to reach above the subservient, weaker position they’d been given by god. This position, they assured us, was upheld by holy scripture and they used bible verses like those that follow to anchor their prejudice.

 “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”  1 Corinthians 11:8-9

 “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7

                Now I hear the Christians screaming “There were Christians fighting for suffrage and abolition too!!” and they’re right. There absolutely were Christians working for abolition and suffrage, and their work would have gone a whole lot easier if it hadn’t been for the Parties of God pretending they have some unique understanding of morality or private warrant to decide “right” for all mankind.

I’ve written it before and I’ll likely write it again. Religion provides no unique benefits to the world, it does how ever have unique pitfalls which make it an unnecessary and dangerous extravagance. The Christian viewpoint has been on the wrong side of every major social change in history. The “gay marriage debate” shouldn’t be a debate. Once again the bible has provided, as it always does, a justification to cling to outdated stigmas and stereotypes. The rest of us, secular society, will once again drag you kicking and screaming toward modern morality and basic humanistic consideration for your fellow humans. We’ll do it because you don’t get to choose how we live, and when we’re done and we’ve finished all the work you can all sit around and declare that, just like the Church freed the slaves and gave women the vote,  the Church brought equality to “the gays”.

Paley’s Watch is Broken

broken watch

A person walking along a beach stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. Without even knowing what it is this person recognizes that this object is complex and has a purpose and so this person will determine that the watch didn’t spring up by itself it must have a creator. Similarly the universe (or life on this planet) is complex and demonstrates purpose so must have a designer.

     That’s a variation of the Watchmaker Analogy, or the Watchmaker Fallacy depending on which side of the divide you’re on. In 1802 a Christian apologist named William Paley published a book called “Natural Theology” where he laid out his case for the existence of God as the only rational explanation for the existence of life on this planet. The Watchmaker Analogy is Paley’s most famous contribution to apologetics and has survived more than two hundred and ten years despite the fact that it is quite simply riddled with flaws and assumptions.

The idea that someone can determine whether something was designed by a designer simply by observing it is an outright assumption with no factual basis. In reality we recognize a watch as being designed because we are intimately familiar with watches. We know that they don’t occur naturally, we’re familiar with machinery and with the concept of metalwork. Also we know for certain that watchmakers exist. They are an actual verifiable group of people who can be definitively shown to produce watches. The same cannot be said of any universe creator.

We recognize design by its superficial complexity. By that I mean the obvious “unnatural” order that stamps our creations. For instance when you compare an office building to a mountain the artifice, the engineering, in short the design of the building is immediately apparent. This brings up another flaw of Paley’s argument. We recognize design by comparing it to naturally occurring phenomena. According to Paley’s own argument the very complexity of the watch points to its having been designed but one has to ask: complexity when compared to what? The rocks? The trees? The sky?  The watchmaker analogy is attempting to show that all things are designed by comparing the apparent complexity of human creation to the apparent simplicity of natural phenomena. It undercuts its own central thesis.

The Watchmaker Analogy states that complexity requires design and by expansion it declares the obvious truth that design requires a designer. Yet it ignores the simple fact that any designer with the power and ability to design all life on earth (let alone the entire cosmos) must be a being of surpassing complexity in and of itself.  By the logic of the analogy the creator itself would require a creator of its own, as would that creator and so on infinitely.

The analogy is often used to attempt to hold up a specific theology (Christianity, Islam, etc) yet it doesn’t actually make any  attempt to define who or what the designer may be. Even if you accept the Watchmaker in its entirety it doesn’t get you any closer to proving any particular theology. It can, at best, get you to deism. On it’s own Paley’s analogy is insufficient to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer. Within the bounds of the analogy there is actually no reason to assume it’s a single designer rather than a series of cooperating entities (for example). The Watchmaker supports equally the idea that reality was formed by an army of magical pixies as it does the idea of any all-powerful monotheistic god.

This analogy has survived as long as it has because it is a clear and concise phrasing of what seems, on its face, like a reasonable supposition. It survived unmolested for almost sixty years until it was completely destroyed by, ironically, a student of Paley’s works named Charles Darwin.  Darwin’s evolution by natural selection showed us (well most of us) that complexity does not in fact require design. It showed us that complexity can and in fact does result from gradual adaptation and mutation over long periods of time. It demonstrated that deity is not necessary and provided an actual answer without the endless regression that the god hypothesis always results in. Despite the efforts of generations of apologists, theists and religious “scientists” natural selection remains the best answer we have ever developed for the “how” of existence while The Watchmaker analogy has become a sound bite for those too invested in their preconceptions to take an honest look at the realities around them

Pascal’s Wager…A Sucker’s Bet.

pw

“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.

The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.

Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.

Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:

“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter

Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.

Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.

Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.

Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.

No True… Reason

scot

We’ve all heard variations on “No TRUE Christian  judges or condemns others.” Or “No TRUE Muslim  supports violence.” It’s one of those arguments one hears from both the secularized moderate believers who pick and choose what to believe, and the hard line fundamentalists who take their holy text literally. These two groups  use the argument very differently ( and often against each other)  yet they DO share a point of similarity.

Both groups make absolute claims about the nature of their faith and those who share it then when they’re shown evidence that demonstrates that those claims are false they respond with  “well then they’re not true Christians!”  ( or Muslims, or Hindus etc) This argument has a name; it’s called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It is, at it’s simplest, a rescue of a false generalization by re-characterizing the generalization.  Basically the person making the statement simply redefines the term in question to make their argument unassailable.

The “No True Scotsman” fallacy was advanced by the British philosopher Anthony Flew.  His example went as follows:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Heraldagain; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”

Obviously this fallacy is not limited to just religious people. It does, however, crop up regularly and predictably in religion. It demonstrates perfectly, I think, not just the irrationality of their thinking but the desperation with which they cling to these ideas even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  For example: when confronted with the violence and atrocity fostered and promoted by the Catholic Church throughout it’s history they’ll say “well that’s not true Christianity” all the while glossing over the fact that their beliefs are the result of a text designed by that church and spread through the very means they deplore.

The NTS fallacy provides an ever present “get out of jail free card” to the moderate theist who is confronted with the violence and intolerance of their religion. They’ll tell you that suicide bombers aren’t TRUE Muslims, and anti-abortion terrorists aren’t TRUE Christians; they’re just violent people who misuse their faith to sate their violent impulses.  Of course in order to make this line of thinking work you have to gloss over the specific injunctions to violence and intolerance at the core of most religious  faiths, but the moderate theist or “open-minded” apologist is generally expert at such intellectual acrobatics.

On the other side of the coin the fundamentalist can use the NTS fallacy to justify spreading their  hatred and even violence against not just disbelievers, practitioners of other faiths, and people with “objectionable” lifestyles, but against followers of their own faith as well. If the moderate Muslim or secularized Christian isn’t a true Christian then any protection offered by the faith can be safely withdrawn or overlooked.

The danger of this kind of thinking is that the definition of “true” in the NTS fallacy is dependant upon the person making the statement. A “true Scotsman” is a Scotsman like me. A True Christian is a Christian who interprets Christianity like I do.  This kind of thinking  further insolates the believer from evidence of reality  and the actual impact of religious belief. It creates  even more  division and elitism in a system already rife with both.

The kind of thinking demonstrated by the NTS fallacy is just plain dishonesty, an unwillingness to accept an obvious truth. In Flew’s example the truth is that Scotsmen are obviously as capable of sex crime as Brits. When it comes to religion the truth is that an objective look at its doctrine will show you that religion often demands  intolerance, hatred, ignorance and division.  To come to any other conclusion you have to cherry pick or use false reason like that in Flew’s fallacy.

The Ad That Never Was…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0ZqQznblZo

I don’t care about sports, I’m not one of those people who watches the Super Bowl just for the commercials, and I only use YouTube to look for specific things so I had no idea what this was when I clicked on it. For about two minutes I was absolutely delighted: here was a well made and compelling advertisement for Atheism. Could it be that this was really aired on Super Bowl Sunday? No. Sadly it wasn’t. Sadder still this add I enjoyed so much was originally made for, of all things, Scientology!   here’s the real one if you haven’t seen it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TyVyzQARh4

“Cause in the eternal debate for answers what’s true is..space lizards” Really? My problem in this post  isn’t with the Scientologists though.  That’ll have to be another post (and it will be, stay tuned 🙂 ) no my problem here is that you’ll never see anything like the first version on t.v. No advertiser would make it, and no network would run it even if they did it’d be a nation wide scandal ten minutes after it aired.  Let me say I’m well aware the first version isn’t without its own problems. Atheism isn’t a movement it’s a single position, advertising for it is problematic because of that. The last thing I would propose is giving theists actual ammunition to claim that Atheism is a belief system. How about Anti-Theism? If it’s not a movement as far as I’m concerned it should be, a loud and busy movement. I’d like to see some more Scientology commercials for instance, made by people outside of Scientology.

Should we be recruiting and proselytizing? I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself but I think that anti-theism should be spread, or rather it should be voiced more loudly and broadly than it is. I think there are a great many hidden anti-theists out there who want to express their feelings but feel judged even by other atheists and so they don’t. There are a lot books, articles,  web pages and what-not  out there yet the sad reality of our world is a lot of people just don’t read, a lot of people just aren’t willing or able to search out this material. I honestly think a few good powerful ads would do more to jump-start the conversation than can be imagined.  Anyway these are just a few of the thoughts that occurred to me when I saw these two commercials. As always I welcome your thoughts

Atheism is Impolite

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Atheism is impolite. We’ve all heard some variation on this idea whether it’s “Atheists are rude” or “Atheists are overly aggressive.” Or “Atheists have something to prove.” Most often you’ll get this from theists who are threatened by the conversation or from some non-theists; those who have no particular faith but disapprove of discussion and debate on the subject. What I find most difficult and frustrating about this position is that it’s not actually wrong. That they aren’t wrong isn’t especially frustrating, the frustrating part is that it’s only so because the religious have somehow managed to change the rules of discourse. They’ve managed construct a social bulwark around their beliefs that is entirely unique and completely unavailable to beliefs or assertions made in any other category of human experience. It has actually become impossible to challenge the beliefs of the religious within the bounds of civil discussion.

First things first, a slight correction is necessary in order to proceed. When I say Atheism is impolite I should be more specific, Atheist activism is impolite. It is not inherently impolite to be an atheist, the problem only arises when one chooses to speak about the subject, or dares to question anyone else’s beliefs. There are a great many atheists out there who would be regarded as perfect pillars of good behaviour. They don’t question anyone’s beliefs, don’t challenge irrational statements, or demands for special treatment, and will in fact castigate those of their fellows who are too “militant” about their lack of belief.

I say that the theists and “polite” non-theists aren’t wrong because it actually is impossible to politely point out to someone that their core beliefs are false. You cannot, within the bounds of good manners, tell someone that they have devoted their lives to a sham. No matter how soft your language, or how gentle your manner it is impossible to broach the subject without being rude. This is because it has somehow become the height of high-mindedness to assert that “people should be able to believe whatever they choose.” But should they? Really consider that.

Should people honestly be able to believe whatever they want to believe simply because they want to? What if I want to believe 2+2=5 for instance? Should I be free to assert this as truth? In spite of the mountainous pile of evidence to the contrary should I be free to teach it to my children? What if I can convince others that 2+2=5? Should we then be free to demand that “fiveism” receive equal teaching time in math class? Does basic mathematics then become a matter of opinion, and does my right to hold this nonsensical opinion trump your right not to have to put up with said nonsense?

In every other area of human endeavor you have to have reasons to think the things you do. Your beliefs have to be grounded in some kind of verifiable demonstrable truth. If an engineer decided to forgo measuring and instead provided his builders with figures that came to him in a dream the project they were building would fail and the engineer would be censured. If a history student declared that he felt deep inside himself that Napoleon was in fact an Asian woman rather than a French Caucasian man he would be told quite plainly that regardless of his feelings the evidence did not support such an insane claim. We spend a great deal of time teaching our children to defend their opinions with evidence. Any statement that begins with “I think” is often met with the response “Why?”

How many of us heard as children or have said to our own children “‘because’ is not an answer”? Yet it seems that it is a perfectly acceptable answer when discussing theology. “How can you possibly believe in spite of piles of evidence that the earth is only six thousand years old?” is met with “Because.”  “How do you know that this book you esteem so highly has divine origins?” “Because.” And yet asking the obvious next question “Because WHY?” is the height of impropriety. “How dare you challenge my right to believe that the universe was created just for me and those like me!” the theists shriek. “Why do you have to be so unpleasantly forceful?” the politically correct hand-wringers whine. Why? Because theism claims answers they don’t and can’t have. They claim privileges and exemptions from rationality that no area of human interest should have, and they claim that reason and rationality is somehow inferior to blind belief or “faith”.

It is that last point that makes Atheist activism so necessary, regardless of how impolite it may be. More of us need to put aside the politically correct idea of respecting someone else’s opinion and question the value and virtue of “faith”. More of us should be asking loudly why it is better to believe in spite of evidence. Why is it better to ignore or bury evidence in favor of tradition? Why isn’t it ok to question this one particular area of human experience or to measure it against the rest of reality as we understand it when it is not only ok but absolutely essential that we do so in all other areas?

Don’t be afraid to be thought rude or impolite. Question, challenge, and seek. That is the most important freedom you have. It may be rude to challenge someone’s most personal beliefs but that’s only because we, the secular minority in society have allowed our opponent to weight the dice in their own favor.  As Sam Harris says:

“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t  Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”

I contend that there is no “other standard” there is what is demonstrably true, what is verifiably untrue and that which we do not know. Nothing else, and no area of our experience should ever be beyond discussion.

Hateful Things Good People Say…

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Christopher Hitchens once pointed that “religion makes morally normal people say and do disgusting and wicked things.”  As far as I’m concerned the sentiment in the picture above is a perfect example of that truth. A little more than two weeks ago twenty children and six dedicated teachers were gunned down in an act of madness that shocked and saddened the world. Not even a full day passed before the religious decided to capitalize on the tragedy and remind us why this horror occurred. It wasn’t because of the lacking programs to identify and treat mental illness, or because of the ready availability of firearms and ammunition, no it turns out that the reason that those twenty-six people had to die is because we’ve separated education from belief. Those kids and their teachers died because we don’t allow organized school prayer in public schools?! Can these people really think this? Can people who believe in a benevolent and all-powerful god honestly believe that it would be so spiteful, so hateful that it would stand by and allow the mass murder of children just because we’ve separated prayer from education?

Keep that word “separated” in mind because that’s all we’ve done, we haven’t done away with religion or religious teaching in spite of the theist’s assertions that our society has “abandoned god” or their declarations that this abandonment  has opened up a void which has become filled with immorality and violence. This is the sort of alarmist nonsense one has to expect from the more fundamentalist theist. As a matter of fact though there is no “void” if you’re a religious person and you’re raising religious children there are entire structures where you can go to celebrate your beliefs. There are massive, extremely well-funded infrastructures where you can celebrate whatever baseless tradition works best for you. We’ve separated education from religion for a reason. That reason being that education should be concerned with facts verifiable, testable, reproducible truth. Religious belief is not fact; it is a belief and an incredibly subjective belief at that. It has no place in the world of fact and knowledge, and to dress it up and shelve it next to actual knowledge is to mislead those you would teach.

Whether you agree with removing religion from public school is beside the point though. Whether you believe in god is really beside the point as well. Even if you believe in an all-powerful overseer who is watching the world every second your own life experience must have demonstrated to you that god doesn’t stop bullets, just like it doesn’t avert tornadoes, or stop buildings from burning to the ground. As a matter of fact most theists will tell you that god doesn’t work that way… there’s a plan, and even when we don’t understand it it’s for the good. So in that case the tragedy had nothing to do with the lack of prayer, it was part of the plan…right? Doesn’t that mean that these people have just decided to use a well publicized tragedy to peddle their agenda?

The ultra-fanatical hate group that calls themselves “The Westboro Baptist Church” announced plans to picket the site of the shooting and the funerals for the dead. Though sickening it was not surprising as this “Church” doesn’t have respect for anything at all. They hate homosexuals, and anyone who doesn’t hate homosexuals. They hate the country that gives them the freedom to spout their bigoted nonsense, and they hate the soldiers who die to defend them. One could reasonably expect them to celebrate the massacre of children, or any other unimaginable atrocity. In a way their insane and hateful jihad against…well…pretty much everything is less offensive to me than the drivel that starts off this post.

The simple fact is that the Westboro Baptist church is made up entirely of ignorant, hateful, indoctrinated bigots. One comes to expect any kind of nonsense from them, but trying to use this shooting to preach about school prayer? That’s not the work of wild-eyed zealots, that’s the work of as Hitchens said “Morally normal” people saying wicked things that they can’t really believe in order to promote their own viewpoint. This is much more offensive to me than Westboro for one reason: because these people should know better. Your god, real or not, has nothing to do with this, and even if those kids had been laying on their faces in prayer all day not one bullet would have been moved aside or one life spared and you know it. To pretend otherwise is wrong, callous and disrespectful to the dead and their families.

The Reason for the Season

                   kcic             jitr

It’s that time of year again, the holiday season, and so if you live in North America it’s likely that you’ve seen at least one example of the sentiments expressed above. You’ve probably seen signs on lawns while driving around your neighbourhoods, or banners hung while you did your shopping, and most likely post after post while exploring the internet. It is time again for the Christians’ annual drive to convince us that they and their religion are the source of our winter holiday, and that without their improbable claims and irrational organizations there would be no winter holidays. This time of year we begin to hear about how without Jesus there would be no  December celebration, and no cause for the day of merry-making, gift giving, and enjoyment of family and friends which so many of us secular and theist, enjoy. The fact is, however, that “the Christmas season” has very little to do with Christianity at all and in fact most of the things we would consider to be “Christmas-y” have nothing at all to do with Jesus.

This campaign to make the season about the Christian messiah is, of course, not a new thing. We in North America and some other places even call it “Christmas” now, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, historically speaking the advent of “Christmas” is a relatively recent thing compared to the true “reason for the season” which is the celebration of the Winter Solstice.

The solstice is the time when the sun appears at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon, it is the shortest day of the year, and traditionally the first day of winter.  Observing the solstice is a tradition which predates Christianity by thousands of years, at least. Some scholars actually say that the observation, in some form, of the solstice, may date from as early as the Neolithic period of the Stone Age. Observances of the solstice have been practiced by almost every culture on the planet including the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Greeks, a host of Celtic pagan societies, and several Asian cultures including the Chinese.

So there has always been a winter celebration toward the end of December and the solstice has always been a major festival in most cultures, a day of celebration, feasting and reflection. In light of this fact is it so remarkable that a  theology would choose to try to attach their deity to it? Of course not, what better way to make converts comfortable with a new religion than to maintain a tradition they already have? Even if it is slightly altered.  Not only is it not surprising, it’s not unique. Many religions have attached their mythological protagonist to the solstice. Here are several besides Christ whose adherents  have all claimed December 25th as the birth date of their god: Horus (Egypt) Osiris (Egypt) Attis of Phrygia ( Phrygia and Greece) Krishna (India) Zoroaster (Persia) Mithra  (Persia/Rome) Heracles (Greece) Dionysus (Greece) Tammuz (Babylon/ Sumer) Adonis (Greece) Hermes (Greece) Bacchus (Greece) Prometheus (Greece) Beddru (Japan) Odin (Scandinavia) Salivahana (Bermuda)

The fact of the matter is that the invention of “Christmas” was a carefully thought out and executed piece of propaganda by one of the early Church’s masters of propaganda the Roman (and pagan) Emperor Constantine in 336 AD. December 25 was chosen for the simple, but important reason that it coincided with the supposed birth of Mithras, a Persian god who was adopted by Rome, a god worshipped strongly by the vast majority of Roman soldiers at the time. By making this upstart Christ figure as much like the existing Mirthras as possible Constantine made his worship more palatable to his people in general and his soldiers specifically. The soldiers were, after all,  the source of the Emperor’s power, and so had to be kept happy and comfortable.

In fact most of the “Christmas” traditions you think of associated with the holiday have absolutely nothing to do with Christ or the religion named after him. As a child you likely heard that the reason we give gifts at Christmas is to commemorate the gifts presented to the infant jesus in the manger by the three wise men. Well, right from the start that story is a corruption of the bible story since the three wise men weren’t even in the stable where jesus was supposedly born. According to Matthew 2:11 an unspecified number of “magi” visited him in a house at some unspecified time after his birth and presented him with gifts.

The fact is the practice of giving gifts at the solstice, as well as decorating homes with trees, wreaths, mistletoe, and other greenery all come from pagan traditions which predate Christianity by centuries. Christianity is a relatively modern graft onto a far more ancient pre-existing festival. Christmas as it exists today is a bastardized amalgamation of Christian dogma, pagan, traditions and (in most cases) western commercialism. Saying that Christ is “the reason for the season” is the same sort of arrogance as claiming that all that exists does so just so that our tiny spec of a civilization could come into being. At it’s purest and simplest here is the truth:

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Happy Holidays.