Friday, December 23, 2011

Should non-believers respect belief?

Because theists have made their religious beliefs so integral to all their considerations and opinions they often mistakenly interpret disrespect shown to their beliefs as disrespect for them personally. 

While it's true that there are non-theists who hold a grudge against theists personally for psychological and physical harm they received from believers in the past, the majority of non-believers I know, have heard or have read, reserve their criticism for the beliefs and dogma of theists and hold no particular objection to theists as individuals. We don't find it necessary to kill the messenger for the message they deliver. 

This differs from the practice of theists in condemning atheists, heretics and non-believers to eternal suffering, hell or death for their opinions. Since theists cannot appreciate the difference between themselves and their opinions they cannot appreciate that difference in others. They consider the atheist inseparable from their lack of belief and condemn them both as one. 
Religious beliefs are granted respect and exempted from criticism in our culture for no good reason. The stories found in religious tomes are juvenile and ridiculous, worthy of disrespect by any thinking human. Passively allowing religious beliefs to be disseminated without objection is to grant them a validity they haven't earned. 

Allow me to quote two writers on this topic:

Cover of "H.L. Mencken on Religion"
Cover of H.L. Mencken on Religion

"The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive.

But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed. 

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly.  The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism." H.L. Mencken on Religion
English: AC Grayling at the Edinburgh Book Fes...
Image via Wikipedia

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule.

It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason - to believe something by faith - is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so.

It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world's many religions.

We might enhance the respect others accord us if we are kind, considerate, peace-loving, courageous, truthful, loyal to friends, affectionate to our families, aspirants to knowledge, lovers of art and nature, seekers after the good of humankind, and the like; or we might forfeit that respect by being unkind, ungenerous, greedy, selfish, wilfully stupid or ignorant, small-minded, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, violent, and the like. Neither set of characteristics has any essential connection with the presence or absence of specific belief systems, given that there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists.

That is why the respect one should have for one's fellow humans has to be founded on their humanity, irrespective of the things they have no choice over - ethnicity, age, sexuality, natural gifts, presence or absence of disability - and conditionally (ie. not for intrinsic reasons) upon the things they choose - political affiliation, belief system, lifestyle - according to the case that can be made for the choice and the defence that can be offered of the actions that follow from it.
It is because age, ethnicity and disability are not matters of choice that people should be protected from discrimination premised upon them. By contrast, nothing that people choose in the way of politics, lifestyle or religion should be immune from criticism and (when, as so often it does, it merits it) ridicule.

Those who claim to be "hurt" or "offended" by the criticisms or ridicule of people who do not share their views, yet who seek to silence others by law or by threats of violence, are trebly in the wrong: they undermine the central and fundamental value of free speech, without which no other civil liberties are possible; they claim, on no justifiable ground, a right to special status and special treatment on the sole ground that they have chosen to believe a set of propositions; and they demand that people who do not accept their beliefs and practices should treat these latter in ways that implicitly accept their holder's evaluation of them.
AC Grayling

When it comes to individual theists the ones we atheists do disrespect personally and for good cause are the profiteers of religion, the priests and ministers who's primary use of belief is to empower and enrich themselves. The Vatican and Crystal Cathedral stand as testimony to some leader's shameless and inexcusable bastardization of a message of peace and love toward the unfortunate and poor into an excuse to collect money from these same people and use it to pay for their expensive cars and lavish homes and churches. They are intellectual pirates living off the proceeds of theft.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

A natural argument against religious beliefs

Humans are an instinctively tribal species. And while this trait served us extremely well throughout our long history, we have not only outgrown its usefulness, but are now victim to its destructive influence.

Compared to other animals, humans exhibit extreme "groupishness." We are unusually co-operative with, even altruistic toward, in-group members. And on the flip-side, we are distinctly suspicious of out-group members. We suspect their habits, motives and values, and even question their intelligence. Our apprehension is extreme: while a small number of animal species display occasional viciousness, their aggression is nowhere near the scale of human righteousness, warfare or terrorism.

In explaining the tribal nature of Homo sapiens, evolutionary scientists collectively share the view that within-group co-operation improves the survival rates of its members, who, for example, would be hard-pressed to succeed as independent hunters. In a harsh environment with limited resources, it is highly adaptive to be both pro-social within our tribes and anti-social to outsiders who compete for food and mates. We have been hunter-gatherers for more than 99 percent of our history as a member of the Homo genus, and for 90 percent of our time as the sapiens species of this genus. So what worked for our progenitors has been deeply hardwired into who we are today.But the out-group hostility element of tribalism is no longer adaptive in the modern, complex form of civilization we have created. We are now more interdependent as a species than ever before, by virtue of our interconnected economies, our real-time, Internet-based communication, the power of our weaponry and the environmental influence of our industrial activity. The benefit of out-group hostility has not only expired, but is now severely detrimental to our well-being both as individuals and as a species. We should be working hard to defy our impulse toward out-group hostility. And this is precisely the problem with religion -- it feeds the very instinct that we should be resisting.

While religion promotes the in-group, prosocial side of tribalism, it also fosters the out-group, anti-social side. The out-group feature of religion is uniquely problematic: faith separates people in a deep, fundamental way. Faith-based belief systems are absolutely incommensurable. Different faith-based convictions cannot be reconciled because there is nothing to appeal to in order to understand, challenge or share them. Either you have a certain form of faith or you don't -- there is no rational way to reconcile different views of reality. Religion not only promotes difference, it makes divisions impossible to eliminate, so between-group co-operation is discouraged and out-group hostility is fueled. [Penn] Jillette makes the point that "the only argument against religious terrorism is to try to share the reality of the world." And he points out that faith separates us since it means that "anything goes." Indeed, a shared sense of reality is the only valid starting point for reducing our tribal instincts.

...the more relevant argument is that religion promotes out-group mentality in an age of interdependence when we can't afford to surrender to ancient instincts. Just as we have to resist our ancestral urge to eat sweet, fatty foods -- an instinct that once served our survival but now threatens our well-being in a world where sugar and fat are abundant -- we also have to resist the urge to indulge in the tribalism that religion promotes. Our greatest opportunity as human beings is also our toughest challenge: to defy our maker. Not the faith-based, mystical one, but the natural selection one, which shaped who we are in an environment that was much different than the one in which we now live. (Source)
I have often stated that religious belief is outdated and irrelevant to our modern world but I don't recall ever expanding on that idea as eloquently as Ted Cadsby does above. 

Humans have not only evolved physically, our social structure has evolved as well. Our most basic drives and instincts were formed at a time when we lived very differently than we do today; hunting and killing our dinner, building and rebuilding our villages as we kept up with the herds of prey or after devastating natural disasters, planting and harvesting our crops by hand. Competition among tribes involved the risk of losing access to prey or the best places to plant crops. Humans had to guard against raids in which food, weapons and even members of the tribe were stolen by neighboring groups. It was a time in our evolution when it made sense to live in small, isolated tribes and to be on guard against those not of our tribe. 

Those days are no more. True, humans still compete with each other for limited resources but on a much grander scale. Our tribes have become nations; instead of 10 or 50 people in a tribe we now have millions, in some cases billions, in a nation. Cooperation is often more beneficial than competition on a global level. 

The divisive and tribal nature of religion made sense in its time, but that time is past and so are any benefits that religious belief provided us. "The gods" is no longer a necessary postulation for natural occurrences. "Our gods" versus "your gods" is an outdated reason for warfare and contention on a global scale. Religions have not only outlived their usefulness but have become detrimental to our continued survival as a species. Too often warfare is justified by our old tribal instincts. Even in the Middle East or Africa, where it could be argued that the majority still live tribal lifestyles, religious beliefs cause more strife and division than they promote peace and the general welfare. 

Religious beliefs, as with other superstitions, have outlived their usefulness, indeed mankind has outgrown their need. For the good of humanity they ought to be relegated to the past where they belong. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The other side of Christopher Hitchens

Unlike Fox News, I actually understand and appreciate the concept of fair and balanced. Nothing demands more a fair and balanced review than the life of Christopher Hitchens. 

I certainly admired much his writing, his style and prose were captivating even when I disagreed with the content. I respected his no-holds-barred dislike of religions and religious belief. His passionate distaste for all religions led to some of his most controversial comments; his belief we ought to simply bomb Islam out of existence, for example. 

So while many of us praise Hitchens for his unapologetic atheism, we ought not ignore the ways in which he failed to live up to our expectations as a humanitarian. 

Another writer I respect said today,

All of this was triggered for me by the death this week of Christopher Hitchens and the remarkably undiluted, intense praise lavished on him by media discussions. Part of this is explained by the fact that Hitchens — like other long-time media figures, such as Tim Russert — had personal interactions with huge numbers of media figures who are shaping how he is remembered in death. That’s understandable: it’s difficult for any human being to ignore personal feelings, and it’s even more difficult in the face of the tragic death of a vibrant person at a much younger age than is normal.
But for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writing but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.
Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden. Those hailing Hitchens’ greatness are engaged in a very public, affirmative, politically consequential effort to depict him as someone worthy of homage. That’s fine: Hitchens, like most people, did have admirable traits, impressive accomplishments, genuine talents and a periodic willingness to expose himself to danger to report on issues about which he was writing. But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize...
There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud. But what these paeans to Hitchens reflect even more so is the warped values of our political and media culture: once someone is sufficiently embedded within that circle, they are intrinsically worthy of admiration and respect, no matter what it is that they actually do. 
Click over to Salon and read Glenn Greewald's extensive and brutally honest comments on the life and political attitudes of Christopher Hitchens. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Are atheists smarter than theists?

It's a topic that comes up in almost every debate between theists and atheists; why do surveys consistently indicate that the more education a person has the less likely they are to believe in gods? We've all seen polls like this that indicate the more educated one is the less likely they are to hold religious beliefs.

I would like to suggest that the reason better educated people tend to be non-believers in religion isn't what they know but rather how they came to know it. Education requires a desire to learn. Those who continue, often throughout their lives, to seek more education than they already have are conditioned by the process of learning to understand that their present knowledge is incomplete and that their awareness will change the more they learn. Wanting to learn requires a mind open to new possibilities or ideas not considered before; it requires healthy skepticism and the ability to discern well-establish information from guesswork and conjecture. Formal higher education generally imbues a student with an appreciation for references and additional sources, footnotes and citations. (I said "generally" remembering I'm not that far from Liberty University where those values are not appreciated.) 

That said, there is truth in the claim that education can decrease a person's belief in unnatural or supernatural concepts like religion and superstitions. For example, once you learn the natural explanations for thunder and lightning there's no more need to wonder if Zeus is really behind those phenomena. Yet science does not provide us with absolute knowledge. All scientific conclusions about reality and the universe are conditional; subject to change as we continue to encounter more evidence and create better tools for examining it. Because science cannot and will not reach an absolute conclusion about things like the origin of life and the universe, knowledge alone is insufficient as a reason to disbelieve in gods. After all, it could easily be said that god exists in the parts of the universe we haven't explored or in a realm of reality inaccessible to science.For that reason alone I think contending that what we know is sufficient to explain why the better educated eschew religious belief misses the mark.

If the learned are less theistic I think it can be attributed to the process of learning and the values that process instills in students. They believe less because their goal is to know more.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pascal's Wager Revisited

One frequent, and flawed, argument Christians often employ in an attempt to make faith sound reasonable is Pascal’s Wager.

I wager the majority of those who try to use this argument to counter atheism have ever read Pascal’s Pensées since they rarely if ever quote him properly not do they seem aware of the larger philosophical argument he was making.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is...God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

Pascal's Wager presumes that faith can be engaged and disengaged at will and still be rewarded by god as genuine faith. Faith assumed simply as a choice and not embraced passionately, “with all your heart and mind”, is not acceptable to the majority of Christian religions. “I might as well believe” is not considered a true conversion and does not earn redemption according to most denominations, if not all. So in that context the faith that results from Pascal’s Wager would not be accepted by most Christians as “true faith” and would be a waste of time and effort.

For fun, the next time a Christian tries to pass Pascal’s Wager off as a credible argument for belief in god, respond with Richard Dawkin’s version of the wager…

Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.”