Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Christian Love, or How to Justify Putting Gays and Lesbians in Concentration Camps

Earlier this month, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman, effectively banning same-sex marriage. This wasn’t quite far enough for Pastor Charles Worley, however. In a sermon to his congregation, he shared some of his own ideas about the subject:

“I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers but I couldn’t get it pass the Congress – build a great big large fence, 50 or a hundred mile long. Put all the lesbians in there, fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals. And have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. And you know what? In a few years they will die out.”

 We’ll ignore his faulty logic (and the terrifying realization that Godwin’s law is infiltrating real life) and focus on the overall message: gays and lesbians are not real citizens and do not deserve the basic rights we attribute to all humans. While this is a horrifying statement for anyone to say (especially someone in a position of authority), the most disturbing part is the reaction of the audience, which wholeheartedly agrees with him.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, a member of Worley’s congregation attempted to justify his statement, calling it a metaphor (but never explaining what the metaphor actually was) and trying to say that nobody would actually put gays and lesbians in concentration camps. But throughout the interview, she comes across as ignorant and confused, unsure of her own opinions. When asked if she believes adulterers should be put to death, she struggles with an answer for a while before finally saying yes. And while she asserts that homosexuality is wrong, she can’t seem to come out and say that homosexuals should die.

This interview is indicative of the cognitive dissonance caused by religion. The woman says that no one would go through with Worley’s suggestion, but also says that it should be done if “they can’t get the message that [homosexuality] is wrong.” It seems like she’s trying to hold onto the “Christian” value of love while accepting the words of her pastor, which contradict that value. We see this in most religious fundamentalists—the struggle to reconcile the contradictions between the teachings in holy books, the ideas their pastors promote, and their own sense of morality. By parroting his words, and failing to form her own coherent thoughts on the subject, this woman demonstrates an extreme of one of the main dangers of religion—the blind acceptance of dogma.

 This situation illustrates a popular quote by H.L. Mencken: Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what you’re told. Religion is doing what you are told, regardless of what is right.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Rapture in Review

One year ago, followers of Harold Camping were scrambling to find an answer to why they were still alive. After putting all of their faith and much of their money into advertising the end of the world, many were broke and horrified. Take Robert Fitzpatrick. He spent over $140,000 on advertising the Rapture. Or Keith Bauer, who drove his family to California for the Rapture, maxing out credit cards as they went. After May 21, 2011 had passed, I would have expected them to be furious at Harold Camping and losing faith. But for some strange reason, many of his followers didn’t. Why?
Harold Camping has been President of Family Radio since 1958. He has predicted several dates of the end of the world by using numerology, which is regarded as pseudoscience (or, as it's known to its friends, NOT SCIENCE).

I would've gone with a crystal ball—less math, same results.

His followers weren’t put off by his less than reliable calculations, and spent thousands of dollars on newspaper ads, billboards, and RVs plastered with slogans. They quit their jobs, uprooted their families, and dedicated themselves to preparing for the end of the world. None of them expected to wake up a year ago today. But they did, and instead of calling Camping a fraud, they remained faithful. According to one believer  she couldn’t “afford to doubt,” and “if you believed it, you’d be as sure as I am.”

If you believed in Santa, you’d be as sure as these kids you’d get that pet pony.

After putting so much of themselves into one idea, the followers couldn’t accept that they might be wrong. Everyone does this, to some extent. It’s called confirmation bias, the tendency to accept only evidence that fits your worldview. In this case, it appears that no evidence whatsoever was accepted.
Everyone else, including mainstream Christians, mocked Camping’s followers. I mean, why would someone ever believe that some old guy knows when the world is going to end? I contend that mainstream Christianity has only itself to blame. If you teach your children not to question, to believe that Jesus is going to come back and walk the Earth, that all believers are going to be beamed up to Heaven, then how can you be surprised when they start believing that it will happen on, say, May 21st, 2011? 79% of Christians in the United States believe that Jesus is coming back, and 20% believe it will happen in their lifetime. The “crazies” in any religion stem from that religion—call them false prophets or deny that they are “true Christians,” but they were taught from the same book and mostly the same ideas.
Harold Camping admits that he was wrong, but contends in this letter that, although he was wrong, “millions if not billions” were exposed to the bible; which makes the whole thing worth it. Christians might be thinking “Awesome! A million more converts for us!” But think about it. A million more converts is a million more people that will be taught to not question, to believe that Jesus will come back and walk the Earth, to believe that they will be beamed up to Heaven. And so we enter the cycle again.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting Smart: Why Atheism is in no way just another religion.

In the year or two that I have found myself an active member of the atheist community, the critique I have heard issued most frequently (and usually with a tone condescending enough to make that Willy Wonka meme cringe) is that "Oh, atheism is just like any other religion, you're just replacing one belief system with another." I think it's fair to say the community as a whole is pretty sick and tired of this complaint, and they are right to think so. Because it's bullshit.

Religion is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods". For the atheists in the audience, that's generally all the  distinction we need between us and a religion, but many theists disagree. To show how atheism is not a religion in a constructive manner, we have to look at the practice of religion from as scientific a standpoint as possible, viewing it from an anthropological perspective. By contrasting this with atheism, we can get a sense of the differences between the two schools of thought.

In order to  get a sense of what makes a religion religious, we have to define the various facets that make it so. For this I am referring to Ninian Smart's "The Religious Experience" Smart was a writer and English educator known as a pioneer for secular religious studies. He is known best for establishing the "Six Dimensions of Religious Experience" as he called them, which act as a framework for comparing religious beliefs in as clear-cut a manner as possible. The six dimensions of religion are: ritual, mythological, doctrinal, ethical, social, and experiential.

Educator, Theologist, and Bowtie Enthusiast
Ritual is defined by Smart as "some form of outward behavior (such as closing one's eyes in prayer)­ coordinated with an inner intention to make contact with, or to participate in, the invisible world." Like Christian baptism, Jewish circumcision, or the Hindi yogas; ritual is a physical way of passing a message onto, or connecting with, the spiritual realm. This implies that in order for something to be ritualistic in the religious sense, it needs to have a supernatural element. If you are in any way clear on what atheism means, you see the divide present. With no supernatural element to connect to, whatever actions atheists participate in are not in the same category as religious ritual, and thus atheism cannot be religious in nature.

Mythology is defined by Smart as the stories pertaining to the history of what is believed by the followers of the religion. He notes here that it is not important whether the myth matches up to historical fact, just that myth refers to what is believed. Examples of religious myths include the Abrahamic Genesis or the Norse creation of earth through the death of Ymir. If you genuinely think that atheism has a mythology, and certainly one comparable in any sense to attributing the creation of earth to the death of an Ice Giant, you have to  be na├»ve at best and moronic at worst.

"But what about the Big Bang?" my fictional friend John Q. Strawman objects, "surely that functions as a history of what atheists believe, and thus serves as a mythology." Well John, the difference is that the Big Bang is governed by scientific thought, not merely as a story. If someone came along and fully disproved the big bang as a scientific fact, we would stop believing it in a snap. If atheism were just another religion (and thus the Big Bang our mythology) we would continue believing the Big Bang to be truth no matter how incorrect it was; as any atheist can tell you, this is not the case. In comparison, if I were to disprove the hypothesis of new earth creationism that some Christians believe (don't worry, someone took care of that for me) then people would see they would see the evidence and disregard it entirely, maintaining their belief no matter what. That's where the difference between atheism and religion in terms of mythology lies, in how new historical evidence is interpreted and taken in.

Doctrines in religion are their official teachings, or as Smart puts it "an attempt to give system, clarity, and intellectual power to what is revealed through the mythological and symbolic language of religious faith and ritual." Vital points of religion such as Catholic transubstantiation (that bread and wine taken at communion becomes the literal body and blood of Christ) falls under this category, as does the majority of the teachings of Buddha and Confucius. Atheism has no official teachings. As a movement we have no official set of points we must follow or learn. While as a movement we espouse scientific learning and critical thinking, we do not teach it as an essential part of being an atheist. This distinction provides just another reason atheism is not just another religion.

The ethical dimension of religion serves as a code of conduct held by the individual and to a degree held by the religion as a whole. The Abrahamic 10 commandments serve as a classical example of this. While atheists are held to the laws of the country and state, and have a personal moral code; the atheist community does not have a definitive set of rules deemed ethical. Atheism is based on individual thought and ethics based on personal reasoning; only religion enforces a strict institutionalized morality. This is the difference that sets religion and atheism apart.

The social aspect of religion is what drives it to be such a powerful force in the world. With a community held together by a common belief, religion thrives on its ability to institutionalize itself into a religious person's life. Y'know what, I'll be generous and acknowledge the critics on this point. We, as a movement, are actively forming groups and organizing ourselves as a social entity. From the ever expanding number of SSA affiliates to the incredible crowd drawn by the reason rally, we are trying to get people to come out from their private beliefs and become a part of the secular community. But then again, every group tries to get their members to form a social solidarity with the organization, from religions to atheism to fraternities to a god-damned underwater hockey club, they all try their hardest to get you to structure your social life around their organization and identify with that group. A social dimension is not unique to religion, and thus atheism cannot be judged as "just another religion" based purely on its social basis.
Underwater Hockey, just another religion? (sorry Greg)
This all brings us to the final dimension of religion, the Experiential. Smart puts it well: "Although  men may hope to have contact with, and participate in, the invisible world through ritual, personal religion normally involves the hope of, or realization of, experience of that world." It is feeling the presence of god, it is the Buddhist contemplating nirvana in his meditations, it is that Christian we roll our eyes at when he/she says "I have a personal relationship with Jesus." It is the part of human experience that takes us from the everyday, mundane life and gives us a sense of the profound nature of the invisible, spiritual realm. The issue is that, in saying that atheism is just another religion, you are implying that we are trying to reach out and grasp a connection to a spiritual realm that we simply do not believe in.

All  six of the dimensions I mentioned and talk about here hinge on the concept that religion is trying to grasp for an understanding of, a connection to, the spiritual realm that transcends what we can observe with our minds. But when you take into account that atheism, by its very definition, implies a non-existence of this invisible world, all these dimensions suddenly break down in their ability to be religious in nature. Taking all this into account, atheism cannot be described as "just another religion" because atheism, by its very definition, just does not possess the elements needed to be religious in nature.

p.s. In the sake of fairness, here is an essay using Smart's Dimensions of Religion (they seem to have replaced mythological for narrative, same difference.) arguing the exact opposite of my claim. I shall let you decide which makes more sense.