Saturday, December 31, 2011

Religion's Failure as a Source of Morality

A number of my posts have explored the skewed, twisted nature of religious morality.  In particular, I have taken pains to make clear that religious morality is not morality at all but a combination of authoritarianism and fear of punishment.  True morality is predicated upon the avoidance of harm--not the pleasing of authority figures.  I recently came across a quotation from Bertrand Russell that sums up the moral confusion of religion on this point:

"Clergymen necessarily fail in two ways as teachers of morals.  They condemn acts which do no harm and they condone acts which do great harm."  Bertrand Russell

This quotation is very useful.  It not only sums up the absurdity of "religious morality" in short, pithy way, it also shows (once again) that everything that is wrong with religion was pointed out before any of us were even born.  Yet, religion persists because of the ways in which it dishonestly manipulates the marketplace of ideas.

See also, Religion and Morality VII.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Bias Against Non-believers VII

Today I simply want to point out and make explicit a thought that is often implicit in other posts.  Many of the lies the religious tell and believe about nonbelievers are face-saving measures.  The same is true of the phenomena of splitting (into good and evil with no indeterminate middle) and projection (where the believer accuses the non-believer--without evidence--of the same intolerance being shown by the believer).

These things are the beginnings of rationalizations for the emotions the religious person feels when challenged.  He feels these emotional reactions because he has been, in his own mind, shamed by a challenge he cannot answer.  In his mind, he cannot restore his social status without lowering the status of his detractor or, in extreme cases, destroying his detractor.  The more narcissistic and egotistically fragile the believer, the more strongly he will feel this need.  Anyone who has ever been the subject of a narcissist's rage (or witnessed it being directed at someone else) knows how disproportionate and insane it can be.

The narcissism of believers is a treacherous shoal that must be navigated with care.  Such people take offense all out of proportion to any offense actually given and will respond in ways that can cause the non-believer great harm.  Given our already tenuous situation in society, this sort of reaction can cause us real economic harm.  In extreme cases, it can cause us physical harm.  In the vast majority of cases, however, the harm will be social and economic.  Believers today generally have come to understand that physical violence will make them "look bad", which is the one thing they can't abide.  Instead, they will try to make the object of their hate "look bad". 

If you are that object, and they are successful, this can have devastating consequences on your career and personal life.  It can even do great harm to the members of your family by preventing you from fulfilling your role in the family as a result of being unable to lead a normal psychological, social, and economic life.

If you realize that you are in this situation, it is crucial to get good legal advice and to document everything that is going on.  Gather as much evidence from independent sources as possible.  Make written complaints to objective third parties who are in positions of authority (and keep copies--perhaps even sending separate copies to your attorney).  Most important, research methods of dealing with psychopaths, narcissists, and stalkers, because that is exactly the situation you will have on your hands.  The most important piece of advice for such situations is to have absolutely no contact with the person.  Such people have no ethical boundaries and consider the whole thing to be a game and your pain to be their "points" in the game.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bias Against Non-believers VI

In my previous posts on this topic I have tried to stress just how serious and pervasive bias against non-believers is--and how it goes unpunished almost as a rule.  (In fact, it is frequently rewarded, but that will the subject of a later post.)  I have often maintained--based on personal experience--that the religious see us non-believers as morally on a par with child molesters, or worse.  (This is, of course, more than a little ironic given that so many actual child molesters are members of the clergy.)

I have found that most believers and many non-believers simply don't take me seriously on this topic.  They insist on believing that this bias is relatively rare and not a serious danger.  A recent series of blog posts, however, provide evidence that my view is correct.

It seems that an alleged pastor from Miramar, Florida, "Pastor Mike" Michael Stahl, proposed in his own blog, which has since been removed, that a "Christian National Registry of Atheists" be created.  He defended the idea by comparing it to registries for convicted sex offenders, etc.  He wrote:

"I mean, think about it. There are already National Registrys [sic] for convicted sex offenders, ex-convicts, terrorist cells, hate groups like the KKK, skinheads, radical Islamists, etc... This type of 'National Registry' would merely be for information purposes."

He clarifies what he means when he say "information purposes"by saying that Christians could use the information to target non-believers for "conversion" (which, of course, translates as proselytizing and harassment) AND those that won't convert could then be targeted for economic discrimination (to prevent them from making a living).  Apparently, Pastor Mike hasn't heard that the U.S. is a free country and that people can believe what they like.

I particularly like the way Austin Cline ended his article on this topic:

"Mike Stahl considers atheism a religion. He knows that atheists are a minority. So, from his perspective, atheists are a religious minority. When was the last time a Christian majority forced a religious minority to register for a national database of their identities and location? Hmmmm....."

Before anyone concludes that "Pastor Mike" is simply some loon with internet access, I would like to point out that it is unlikely that he would style himself "Pastor Mike" if he did not have like-minded followers.  Nor is it likely that he would have published such an idea if it had not already met with approval amongst his peer group.  Furthermore, my own experiences amongst the believers leaves me with no doubt that there are many among them who think this way.  I know this because they exposed this part of themselves to me by their words and actions.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Evolution and DNA

I recently watched a documentary concerning evolution and recent advancements in our knowledge of DNA.  It was entitled "What Darwin Never Knew".

The documentary pointed out not only that Darwin never knew about DNA but that until recently no one understood certain aspects of its operation.  Most particularly, it has only recently been understood that DNA consists of a series of strands that govern individual aspects of a species' development and that each of those strands comes with a small portion of DNA that governs when it is turned on and off during the development of the particular species.

The features of the species are so sensitive to small changes in the timing of these events that in some cases simply switching on a particular gene 24 hours earlier during fetal development will cause changes dramatic enough that the animal could be considered a separate species.  If several such minor changes occur in a group of animals, then it will be a separate species.

What is significant about this is that it nullifies the creationist arguments that we so often hear about the rarity of actual mutations in genes and how mutations usually result in harmful changes.  The facts of this argument are true, true mutations (where the DNA strand has been damaged or altered) are relatively rare and usually harmful.

Now we know, however, that mutations are not the only possible way in which evolution can occur.  Simple minor changes in the timing of the development of features during gestation can cause noticeable differences.  Those changes can be the result of genes switching on or off at slightly different times, which can be the result of minor, normal differences in the genome.

Such differences occur every time animals engage in sexual reproduction.  The process of splitting each parents genes in half is not exact.  Virtually every sperm and every ovum carries a different portion of the parent's DNA from all the others.  When recombined with an equally randomly chosen portion of the genes of the other parent they create a new and unique individual that often has traits that diverge from those of one or even both parents.  Anyone who has children or has observed those who do, knows that such differences between parents and children often occur.

Perhaps I should add to the last sentence of the preceding paragraph "If the person is paying attention".  I have noticed that many people, particularly religious people, seem to have a livestock breeder's view of genetics.  They think that children directly inherit the traits of their parents because pigs give birth to pigs and horses give birth to horses.

I have noticed that such people are often quite upset when their own children are not "just like" them.  This is especially true if the trait they expected to see is the one they are most vain about in themselves.  Their child may have unique or even spectacular talents or gifts, yet if those are not the talents and gifts the parents had, they may be completely unappreciated.

Sad as these little family tragedies may be for the individuals involved, they help us understand the depth of the ignorance of the average person concerning genetics and the reproductive process.  Which, in turn, helps us understand the persistence of creationism.  If one must engage a creationist, then it is a good idea to give him or her a small education concerning genetic recombination in the reproductive process.

I wouldn't recommend spending too much time in such endeavors, however.  Creationists are inevitably fanatics who are ignorant of many aspects of science.  The most one should ever do or hope to do when speaking to one of them is to point them in the right direction concerning one or two of their misconceptions.  After that, change the subject or leave.  Further debate will simply upset them and cause them to dig in their heels.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bad Reasons to Give for Being an Atheist

We all have various reasons for the choices we make.  Usually we will have more than one reason for making a particular choice, even if it is something simple and inconsequential such as choosing our favorite style of shoes.  When the choice is something important, such as choosing what to believe about religion and the reason for our existence, the chances are good that we have more than one reason for that choice.  The chances are also good that we have reasons that speak to us very strongly on an emotional level.  We probably also have reasons that are more purely logical.

Whenever discussing one's atheism, whether with religious people, agnostics, or even other atheists, it is good to keep in mind this distinction between the emotional reasons that give us the strength to resist the pressure to conform and the logical reasons that show we are right. 

The religious are all very eager to focus on our emotional reasons, because they know such reasons are insufficient (even though they use such reasons themselves).  They know perfectly well that they have chosen to believe for reasons that are not logical and they want to pretend that non-believers have done the same.  (Hence the frequently heard canard that atheism is "just another religion".)

The religious know they can't win the argument based on logic.  They will try to convince you that their reasoning is logical, but, when they fail, they fall back on the accusation that the non-believer's reasoning is "just as illogical".  Don't play into their hands by citing your emotional grounds as your primary or logical grounds.

For example, a frequently mentioned emotional ground for disbelief is the level of evil and suffering one sees in the world.  This evil and suffering, however, do not prove that god doesn't exist.  After all, he could just be a sadistic bastard, or, as the religious maintain, have inscrutable reasons for causing us--his supposed favored creations--to live in a world of evil and suffering.

The evil in the world may well have been an important motivating factor that led many people to atheism but it is hardly conclusive.  At best, it provides a partial refutation of assertions that a benevolent god exists.  It is a sufficient reason only on an emotional level.

In this context, it is important to keep in mind that believers truly believe the things they say.  They truly believe that this life is but a brief and relatively unimportant interlude before an eternity of bliss.  To someone who believes this sort of thing, it is very easy to rationalize away the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  Those things are seen as some sort of test or training before humans reach their infinite afterlife.

Likewise, don't mention personal misfortunes and god's failure to answer your prayers back when you were a believer.  It may be that the death of a loved one or some other past catastrophe for which you fervently asked god's intervention was a crucial turning point for you personally.  You must remember that was a turning point for you only because it allowed you to throw off the bias instilled in you by childhood brainwashing and finally realize that those studies proving the inefficacy of prayer were right--not because that one example proved the point.

Mention the studies, certainly, but if you mention your personal disappointment, the believer will conclude that you are "just mad at god".  In fact, I suspect that this particular response from believers comes from their experiences with non-believers who haven't presented their non-belief in a logical fashion.

Most important of all, try to avoid mentioning your disagreement with religious morality.  One of the most pernicious and damaging canards that the religious use to justify their bigotry toward non-believers is the notion that we reject god because we don't want to lead moral lives.  This prejudice is so pervasive and ingrained in the religious that I would suggest that you avoid mentioning your disagreements on such matters to the religious at all--even if you are not discussing god's existence.

If this point does come up, as it almost always does, it is good to point out that study after study shows that religious people violate their religious morality as often (usually more often) as non-believers do.  After that, explain how religious morality fails as a moral code and is really just fear of punishment, authoritarianism, and conformity.

When believers ask you why you don't believe simply make the logical case--point to the lack of evidence for god, the evidence that gods are man-made, and your unwillingness to dishonestly apply different standards to different supernatural propositions.

If any of your emotional motivations come up in conversation, just make clear that they are no more than that.  You can say something like:

"That is why it doesn't bother me emotionally that I don't believe in god."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Religion, Hatred, and Narcissism

I recently watched a wonderful documentary about Fred Phelps, his family, and their well-known "Church" (hate group), the Westboro Baptist Church.  It was called Fall From Grace.  Virtually everyone has heard of the Westboro Baptist Church and their protests by now.  They are world famous for demonstrating at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan claiming that the deaths of these soldiers are god's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuals.

Homophobia is a form of "overcompensation" used by some males to quell their insecurities about their masculinity.  It is often hypothesized that those who are rabidly anti-gay are themselves repressed homosexuals whose false identities are threatened by the presence of gay people.  It is assumed that such people feel that they must express hatred in order to send a message to the world at large that they themselves are not gay and to vent their fear over the secret temptation they feel.  In addition, they are often thought to be expressing their own self-loathing by focusing it on those who remind them of their secret internal conflict.

All of these things may well be true of Fred Phelps.  Other sources certainly hint at such psychological conflicts within him.  The film doesn't touch on these commonly expressed theories about Mr. Phelps, however.  Instead it presents Mr. Phelps and the Church in a new light.

It seems that Phelps isn't just hostile toward homosexuals; he is hostile toward the whole world and seems to believe that the whole world feels that way toward him.  While it certainly is true that much of the world does feel that way toward him now after his exceptionally offensive campaign of picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers claiming their deaths represent god's vengeance on America for tolerating homosexuals, it seems that Mr. Phelps does not see the connection.

A revealing insight is provided by Fred Phelps' estranged son, Nate, in a telephone interview, when he says that he thinks that his father is addicted to adrenaline--anger induced adrenaline.  He said his father isn't happy until he has had a chance to lose his temper and fly into a rage.  Such an addiction requires a constant supply of enemies to rage against, which pastor Phelps can readily find in the world at large by holding hate filled public demonstrations on an almost daily basis.

Some narcissists feed their need for attention by attracting large amounts of negative attention.  If positive attention isn't readily available, the narcissist is satisfied with negative attention.  Mr. Phelps seems to be just such a person.  An indiscriminate need for attention, whether positive or negative, is not only a classic sign of narcissism, it is also one of the things that makes narcissism pathological in extreme cases.  Sufferers will do things that are harmful to themselves or others in order to get negative attention if that is the only kind they can get.

Even more revealing in general about the narcissism of the religious mindset are the statements of Mr. Phelps and one of his granddaughters concerning their view that the IED's killing America's soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are retaliation by god against American society for a small homemade bomb that some local young men exploded on Westboro Baptist Church's property.  In other words, they see these deaths of soldiers they have never met as being retribution by their good friend and ally, god, against the society they live in for a personal affront to them.

The most important point is that they see god as their personal ally, their supernatural friend who uses his supernatural powers to punish their enemies.  This is hubris on a colossal, pathological scale.

What I find particularly gratifying is that the film documents this phenomenon so well.  This is a mindset that I have encountered many times, yet it often remains hidden.  As a result, many apologists for religion (and even some non-believers) deny that it exists.  My personal experience tells me that it not only exists but is widespread amongst the religious.

The most revelatory portion begins at the 46:22 mark of the video with Phelps' granddaughter, Jael, speaking to an interested onlooker.

Jael:  IED's are the main thing that is killing American soldiers.

Onlooker:  So why are we thanking god for IED's?...

Jael:  Ten years ago the fags set off an IED at our church.  And it says in the bible, the lord says "vengeance is mine.  I shall repay."  Ten years later, you think it's a coincidence that these American soldiers are getting blown up by IED's?  No.  No it's not.  It's not a coincidence, because when you start messing with the servants of the most high god, god is gonna kick your ass.  Period.

To Jael, her fellow church members, and many other religious people, god is simply their scary, psycho friend that they can count on to attack their enemies.  Maintaining this delusion is so important that the facts are stretched to the point where somehow young men and women who have never met, or perhaps even heard of, any of the members of Westboro Baptist are to be punished for something a few young men from Kansas did years ago that frightened the members of the church.

I have seen this sort of insane linkage on numerous occasions when observing or interacting with religious people.  It speaks volumes about the emotional motivation of the religious and their way of thinking.  They have been driven insane by fear.  Fear of death, fear of "others" who aren't like them, fear of the authority figure's disapproval, and so forth.  Yet, when I try to point this out, I am often met with disbelief.  I am glad to have such an explicit example caught on film to use as evidence in the future. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Religion Is Divisive II

After drafting my post the other day about religion's divisiveness, it occurred to me that one of the reasons this criticism doesn't resonate with religious people is that their emotional motivations are different.  They do not have the same negative reaction to the concept of divisiveness that most non-believers have.   

As I have asserted many times before, one of the motivations behind religious belief is egotism.  Many believers want to think that their belief makes them better than other people.

Thus, even if they can quote the precise definition for the word "divisive", they do not react to the accusation they way they should.  This is because many religious people actually want religion to be divisive.  They want it to elevate them above others.  This egotistical need is more important to them than accurate assessments of the facts and apparently more important than peace and harmony in the world.