Archives For religious beliefs

god fossil

Hello, The Week? Yes, this is 2009 speaking. Listen, could you give me back your New Atheism bashing from one of your recent articles? It’s sort of my thing. Sure, it’s all fine and dandy for a writer to criticize repetitive The God Blank books because we get it, religion has issues. And it’s fine to point out that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are tough acts to follow anyway. But did we really have to venture into the old, recycled demands that atheists lament the loss of their faiths and mourn the concept of God by quoting random secularists and atheists who said something about how losing one’s religion can be painful to start a flame war in the comments? Come on, I mean some of this commentary is so old, one wonders if it had to be taken from a museum and dusted off before being used, not to mention the fallacious premise that the lack of a conviction in an afterlife, ordinarily a placebo for our conscious minds able to understand a concept as odd and terrifying as death, should somehow reduce us to amoral, depressed nihilists.

After all, how arrogant is it to assume that just because there’s no deity to reward you or eternal life after this one that you’re now free to throw yourself a life-long pity party and act like an emo teen who overdosed on goth poetry? You have a responsibility to others to help make this world at least a little better than you found it, though as an atheist, you’ll have to do it without prayers and expectations that the creator of the entire universe will pause its grand plans to come down and help you. There’s also the problem that atheists can’t simply declare "because God says so and I follow God," and consider it a weighty rebuttal to a criticism or supporting evidence. They’ll actually have to prove their ideas empirically and can’t demand that their critics must prove that something doesn’t exist before they’re allowed to have an opinion. It’s kind of absurd to require proof of a negative and doubly absurd when the burden of proof is on you for invoking the very thing that has to be disproved. And yet that’s what all too many faithful do with their gods.

So yes, if you’re used to delegating all your problems to the supernatural and are content to sit there, dreaming about your eternal life after this one is over, pounding your shoe on the table about the arrogance of atheists and demanding they prove that God doesn’t exist when you call him as the justification to impose your way on others, certainly losing your faith is a huge blow. It means you have to discard things that made your life easier and more convenient. You will also have to face scorn from those who can no longer use a deity as leverage over you because all their invocations of a god now sound like "if you don’t do what I say, Santa won’t being you any presents this Christmas." But again, this doesn’t mean that you’re now free to mope around and lament your godlessness. You have a responsibility to those around you to make your life count and do something noteworthy. Few great inventions and big ideas were born by focusing on the fun stuff the dead get to do in the afterlife. They came from curiosity about the natural world, by asking tough questions with good science, and by thinking about the people around us.

Ironically, while ardent theists talk about atheists trying to shirk their responsibility to a deity no one has ever proved extant, they’re refusing to have a responsibility to their fellow humans once they compare atheism to rebellious nihilism and insist that lack of faith gives people a license to do as they wish and there’s nothing to stop them from killing, pillaging and raping just for fun. If all that holds them back from this sort of destructive behavior is a book and they really believe that should they ever lose faith, they would go out and do unspeakable things just for the fun of it, they’re not sane, stable, or moral people, and they really need to reevaluate their outlook on life rather than excoriate atheists for not thinking like them. It’s as if they no longer have any real obligations to others and no longer inhabit the same world. Don’t they want to fight disease and advance our civilization? Don’t they want to live longer and explore farther? And wouldn’t they want to do this if not for themselves, then for their children and their children’s children?

[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]

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god fossil

It seems that with every school shooting, there’s an almost inevitable parade of fundamentalists rushing to tell the world that we all as zealous about religious beliefs as they are, there would be no more gunmen bursting into schools and colleges and God would protect us all. If they really believe in this line of thought, the only thing I could possibly call them would be ghouls. Just take a minute to think what they’re saying. Their righteous, omnipotent deity who loves humans and thinks of them as his progeny is either powerless before secular laws or is willing to let children and young adults die just to make a point. It’s the classic theodicy problem posed by Epicurus. If the god is able but not willing to help, he’s downright malevolent and that’s the kind of deity that we’re being told should be praised and revered in public. That’s hardly a deity to worship.

Tragedies are supposed to make you question why they happen and what can be done to make sure they don’t happen again. But to the ghouls whose petty tyrant of a God won’t intervene in a dire situation they’re an excuse to proselytize rather than question their devotion. Instead of the hard thing to do, asking why their god would allow something like that, they blame humans for a deity’s shortfalls. Or at least that’s the only reason I can think of for their actions without having to resort to a more sinister explanation. They may see this tragedy as a chance to advance their ideology and opportunistically jumping on others’ grief to convert more followers to their cause, acting as the religious version of the ambulance chasing lawyer if you will. Either way, it takes a rather compromised set of morals to think that the non-intervening deity is in the right here.

[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]

There’s a reason why you should never, never try to tackle complicated questions in bullet point format. You’re going to skip over the really deep and important arguments and reduce a very complex issue into a few quick stereotypes, usually the most pervasive ones you see flying around. That’s exactly what happened here, as a discussion about the complexities of leaving traditional religion are reduced to their most simplistic and often quoted versions. Sure, the list is not complete and these are supposed to be the three top reasons why more and more younger people are leaving their faith or feel safer coming out as atheists, but they’re missing what should’ve been the main reason for doubt of traditional religious narratives and one of the included points is a downright combative "onward Christian soldiers" plea to defend the faith. Were articles about the reasons for atheism’s growing popularity commonplace and often featured elaborate discussions of the points involved, I would skip this completely, but unfortunately, it’s these sorts of regurgitated oversimplifications that tend to be the norm when discussing the rise in non-believers and religious skeptics, especially in the United States.

Now, just because the points are oversimplified, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and the first given reason actually does have an effect on the more liberal and open minded faithful. Aggressive fundamentalism is one of the biggest menaces of the modern world, and angry zealots’ demands that laws reflect their unforgiving, black and white personal opinions as well as their hounding of anyone who disagrees with them as heretics doomed to burn in the fires of Hell with all the pretentious drama it entails, are definitely making more liberal religious followers question their membership in the faith. In fact, younger generations tend to associate the most vocal Christian organizations with homophobia and are turned off by the idea that they’ll be very quickly pigeonholed into following Republican politics. Why should they have to join a movement which espouses an attitude they find bigoted and is becoming synonymous with politics they find objectionable? But that in and of itself only explains why fewer younger generations are attending church services, not why there are more and more atheists. That’s credited to atheist intellectuals like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, who are persuading the formerly faithful to join atheists, and existing atheists to stand up and be counted.

Certainly there are more outspoken atheists out there today and they can speak for the moral side of atheism as a school of thought. But what about the most important point behind doubt of religious doctrine, a scientific body of work showing that specific religious claims are either false or downright impossible? The holy books say we were created by a deity. The evidence says that we gradually evolved and developed over millions and millions of years, that we didn’t simply appear just as we are. One can of course ignore this evidence or try to abuse it with rampant quote mining and lies as Young Earth creationists do for a living, or take what looks like the high road and cram religious beliefs into a scientific framework with pseudoscientific buzzwords, but at the end of the day, there’s still a mountain of studies that show traditional religions’ versions of history to be flawed and their knowledge of the basic laws of our universe as virtually nonexistent. Why would someone who wants to sum up the reasons for an uptick in non-believers not even mention that we now know for a fact that many religious dogmas are just plain, objectively wrong? In that light, younger generations’ association of religious organizations with bigotry, homophobia, and political partisanship are even more important because they not only disagree with what these organizations espouse, but they know that these stances are based on erroneous beliefs, one of which is that atheists and liberals are undermining their faith out of hatred.

Christianity is the one religion left that can be hated without running afoul of political correctness, says Drew Belsky. In an era when the federal government is forcing religious institutions, contrary to their religious beliefs to give people insurance coverage for contraception, says Bishop Edward Burns at The Southeast Alaska Catholic Online, it’s pretty undeniable that religion, and religious freedom, are under siege. Most Americans still believe in God, but they have to defend their faith or the attacks will take a toll.

Just as the old joke goes, Jesus was probably a great guy, it’s his fan club that’s gotten out of hand. You see, religious institutions are used to getting their way by threatening us with fire and brimstone, so when all these threats have lost their bite thanks to a much more secular public and better scientific education, they can’t just force their beliefs on others anymore and play victim. It’s kind of like a bully who was put in his place crying to his parents that the principal won’t let him take the other kids’ lunch money anymore and gave him a detention for giving a wedgee on the playground. To the likes of Belsky and Burns, being told to abide by the rules which are not set up to favor their religion is a sign of hatred and bigotry because they’re not used to equal treatment but to preferential treatment. Modern societies are more multicultural, politically diverse, pluralistic, and more likely to be secular, trying to empower individuals to make their own decisions rather than allowing a religious organization to dictate morality and law via an edict. Fundamentalists can’t handle that because in their minds and guts, they’re absolutely, 115% sure they have been given the divine and infallible word of God and anyone who disagrees is a damned heretic. How dare the modern world take them less and less seriously? So they lash out against the secular public, picking a fight with reality, a fight they’re very unlikely to win…

[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]

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worshiping crowd

For all the media attention lavished on Tim Tebow about his very public religious rituals on the field, have you noticed that it’s rarely mentioned that as an NFL quarterback he is actually quite mediocre? If he takes a knee before the game to ask his deity of choice for being able to win the game, about half the time the answer is a rather resounding no according to the final scores. Amazingly, according to a Fox News poll, around 43% of viewers thought that God was helping Tebow win games, which would mean that not only does a deity in charge of a universe cares about one particular human playing one particular game in one particular country at one highly specific time period, but that he’s also exceedingly fickle in his support. On top of that, that also implies that a football game somehow plays into some grand divine plan for the universe itself. But of course this isn’t really some sort of statement about football or Tebow, but a statement about the place religion has in contemporary American society, how it’s put on a pedestal and gets used to justify narcissism, arrogance, and medicority.

Now, this isn’t even about one’s personal beliefs. As both civil decency and the law say, you should be free to believe what you want and have the right to voice your beliefs and practice them on private property without the police showing up at your doorstep telling you to cut it out. Of course insisting that your religious practices tell you to force everyone around you to participate in your rituals or threaten them with violence or arrest is a very, very different matter altogether as does using your professed faith to imply that you’re somehow a better, more moral person that those who don’t ascribe to your beliefs, and that by default, you have more say in what goes on around you. Unfortunately all too often, Americans allow professions of faith become professions of power and selfless charity while they’re being used as anything but. Rather than going to the poor, the homeless and the temporarily needy, large chunks of budgets for numerous churches go towards staff and maintenance. In vast megachurches, millions are spent on advertising, performance pieces, and the relentless self-promotion by pastors turned religious rock stars building their own brands and selling their books filled with inspirational fluff cribbed from self help books and peppered with Biblical quotes to make sure they sell quickly.

When sports writers talk about someone like Tebow in unflattering terms based on the fact that he is not that great of a quarterback, they cite a torrent of angry e-mails accusing them of hating a Christian athlete, as if no other quarterback in the NFL also considers himself a Christian or doesn’t thank his deity of choice after a win when being interviewed by the media. The cultural message seems to be “let’s overlook that Tebow is at best mediocre and used his outward, broadly-televised fundamentalism to build his brand, look at how much of a devoted Christian he is! He came from a very religious home, he must be a great person!” Why? It’s not like a less public profession allows one to use religion as an excuse for average performance. At work, I never hear phrases in the same vein as “his code is often buggy and he violates a number of key architectural rules, but doesn’t it just inspire you when he prays before he starts banging on the keyboard?” And odds are that I never will because we’re judged by what we produce, not how devoted to our personal beliefs we are. Other athletes in the league also know how to separate their faith from their work and wait until they win to thank their deities, rather than make a huge show of their religiosity, knowing that if anything, it cheapens the faith.

Displays of very public piety don’t say that you’re devoted to your faith. They say “here, look at me, look how I’m such a devoted member of a religious group” in much the same way a self-appointed pick up artist peacocks at a nightclub. It’s far more impressive when one’s devotion comes out in quiet actions and a willingness to sit down and hold discussions which test their beliefs. Many of my religious friends are well aware that I’m an atheist and read this blog. None of them insist that I come to church with them, that being Christian somehow makes them more moral or charitable than those around them, and ask me questions about evolution, AI, and any other topic which has philosophical implications for their beliefs. And they also get annoyed at really flashy displays of piety for show. They are a much better testament to incorporating faith into one’s life to be a better, more charitable person than any self-promoting spokesperson who uses religion to cover up his greed or his mediocrity under an untouchable, cultural third rail so he and his supporters can rush to accuse you of bigotry and discrimination should you dare to offer an objective critique of what he does and how he does it. And this is why we need less Tebows and Focus on the Family types, and more curious, open-minded moderates.

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Over the years, I’m sure that many of you have met a very particular phenomenon that manifests itself in more volumes of theological platitudes than most of us would even care to count, the insistence that because what we know about the universe by the scientific process changes over time, we must turn to religion as the only constant and steady source of information. Humans tend to like constancy and we are very much creatures of habit, sometimes to a glaring fault. Just watch how people react when Facebook rolls out a minor tweak or a nearby bar they frequent closes shop or moves to another part of town. In fact, in IT, we brace for a user revolt every time we make a serious update requiring a change in their daily routine. But does that mean that since we’re creatures of habit we must not adjust our views on existential questions and that any change must be a bad thing? So what if people question and update what they know? Why must our supposedly divinely guided preachers, clerics, rabbis, and monks put up a fight and use their close-mindedness as a mental firewall so they can block new ideas coming from the world around them, and why should we praise them for this?

Let’s say that you and a friend go outside and he insists that if he stands in one exact spot, it will never rain in your city. He’s sure because he read it in a book which said that rain can be warded off by humans standing on some exact geographic coordinate and that book was completely accurate because it said that it was in a lengthy preface. You decided to take him on his challenge and wait if it will rain. Sure enough, a few hours into this exercise, rain comes and your friend gets soaked. Gee, that didn’t work, you say. Your friend says that he probably just got the instructions wrong, goes back to the book, stands in a new spot, and waits. Again, rains come as he keeps repositioning himself, rereading his book over and over again. Meanwhile, you start doing some experiments and talking to meteorologists, and find out that where someone stands in a city hasn’t the slightest effect on whether it rains or not. Newly educated, you return to your soaked friend and tell him that he doesn’t have to do what he’s doing anymore because you did a lot of research and discovered that his ideas won’t work, so he may as well come in, dry off, and you can do something else. But your friend growls that you must be too lazy to help him confirm his notions which is why you went off and found a way to say that it’s just impossible and that all he needs as proof of this assertion is that you changed your mind.

Now, normally, you’d call your friend obstinate and proceed to criticize his ideas as erroneous. Sure, you may have thought it was possible at first but you learned, you changed your mind based on evidence, and you can now move on to other things. He’ stuck and insists on being stuck, angry at those who decided that his ideas are very unlikely to work. And funny enough, few people will object and come to your hypothetical friend’s help by praising his devotion to his notions when the topic is influencing rain. Change it to religious beliefs and all sorts of justifications are invented for the friend in question. How dare you call him obstinate? How dare you call him stuck in the past? Can’t you see how devoted and passionate he is about his faith? Can’t you do the right thing and respect his beliefs by not telling him about what you found? Why do you insist on challenging his cherished ideas with something you recently found out? Who asked you to go and find things out anyway, can’t you see he’s happy the way he is? Despite how much we seem to prize learning new skills and trying a new concept every now and then, when it comes to religious matters, learning is suddenly the enemy and an engaged, curious mind looking to learn something new and update what it knows is viewed as a poison. We change what we think we know every day on almost every possible topic. And yet somehow, we decided that all this learning must now cease when religion is brought into the picture. Why? Because we said so.

Obviously, when you try to make believers doubt, you’re going to get a defensive reaction and many will be all too quick to raise the volume and repeat their beliefs in an endless loop, thinking that by quoting what they’ve memorized often enough is sufficient proof. But that happens with every type of believer, be they followers of a pseudoscientifc New Age strain of woo, 9/11 Turthers, bin Laden deathers, or self-appointed prophets of the end of the world. Why will we dismiss the first three but listen to the fourth one even when we know he’s dead wrong? And why do we feel no problem ridiculing a blathering post-modernist hack but decline to criticize the claims of a priest saying something very similar but using the worlds “God” instead of “quantum” and “prayer” instead of “subjective intent?” I can come up with hundreds of examples of claims we could all easily debunk and dismiss for a lack of evidence, theist and non-theist alike. What I can’t fathom is how theists will suspend the very same logic and critical thinking they use when approaching UFOs, naturopaths, yogis, and self-styled shamans for those in search of something to believe, and swallow whatever they’re told, ceasing to demand some shred of evidence for what they’re being fed. How does that happen? And why should we praise people on their ability to suspend critical thought when seeing or hearing certain words?

[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]

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Most of you have probably heard that six out of ten science teachers skim over evolution in the classroom, carefully choosing to hedge their bets, covering only some aspects of evolution or avoiding the topic as much as possible and telling the students that they just need to get the answers on the tests correctly. It’s not a big, new development either since previous reports identified most teachers as giving creationism a pass or even outright endorsing it in the classroom. But if we know that teachers could be doing a lot better in conveying the science behind evolution to students, why are so few actually doing it, and why are so many playing it safe? If we wanted to pinpoint the motivations of creationist science teachers, we wouldn’t have far to go. Remember the peek we got into the creationist classroom in which both the Bible and the science were pillaged to help a crusading teacher preach his gospel rather than educate? With cautious teachers, however, it could be a mistake to assume some sort of religious empathy as their primary motivation in their behavior. Sure, it might be why why many of them teach evolution poorly, but for many more, the real issue is an implicit censorship.

Keep in mind that in our society, a student who was instructed by someone to start arguing with a teacher on the proper result of a mathematical equation would be the butt of jokes for the next week. A student who was constantly interrupting social studies classes to peddle conspiracy theories would be considered paranoid at worst and weird at best. But students who decided to tussle with a teacher about evolution are praised by the religious community as defenders of their faith. What teacher needs to be made a villain by the parents of the kids she teaches and have the typically overcautious and easily panicked administrators constantly breathing down her neck every time they get a call from some zealot shocked and incensed that science has moved on over the last few hundred years and came up with biological explanations for the origins of humanity, and that a teacher at his local school dares to teach these explanations? We could lament that teachers just aren’t all that familiar with evolution and how we need better low level instruction for those teachers, covering genetics and speciation in greater and greater depth. And sure, more education could never hurt when you’re planning to have that knowledge passed down. But no education in the world will counter social intimidation.

Religious leaders are masters of intimidation and veiled threats, and their followers aren’t much better. The shows of populist fury at school board meetings, urging that creationism be bludgeoned into science classes is just a show of force, an effort by people who decided that they’re simply going to outshout the scientists and their work to turn over facts to the realm of popular opinion for a vote. And if that doesn’t work, they can always threaten to vote for someone who’ll be more receptive to their demands. I wonder why, since they’re at it, they don’t ask that we take a vote on whether gravity is real, or if it really accelerates us down at 9.8 m/s/s? Or if the rabbit they’re raising is pregnant or not, or even female? If they truly believe that their faith in something and a wave of popular support behind the idea they embrace makes their belief legitimate, why wouldn’t they apply this concept across the board? They could vote themselves rich, attractive, and driving new Ferraris they park in the five car garages of their new 10,000 sq. ft. mansions rather than simply stay middle class, driving used cars bought at a clearance by the closest dealer, and living in a 1,500 sq. ft. condo. But wait, they can’t do that since no matter how many votes they take, they won’t suddenly become filthy rich, well not unless their wealthy relative leaves them a fortune in his will, right? Then why would they think this would work with science?

Then again though, we are talking about the kinds of people who embrace ignorance and obstinacy in light of new ideas as a praiseworthy testament to their devotion. Arguing with them is not just like arguing with a wall, but a wall that takes great pride in remaining silent in reply. You can see this behavior at the Texas SBOE, a rare conglomeration of spiteful demagogues who mutilated their state’s basic educational standards in the name of their ideology, and at taxpayer expense, with the kind of rhetoric we usually don’t hear outside of local right wing and conspiracy radio shows. Can you imagine the kind of unholy crusade they would embrace if a teacher decided to eschew their paranoia and sophistry in the classroom and some of their supporters had a cow after their kids came home with a solid understanding of fundamental biology and cosmology? Why such a teacher would be fired and have to move out of state to get a new job and branded as a troublemaker. Will a typical administrator hire someone who caused a stir at his last workplace? It won’t matter whether the stir in question was right or justified by any stretch of the imagination, all that matters is that there was a stir and if a parent calls to complain there will be another stir in the new district as well. Why, there might even be protests and preemptive complaints too! Knowing this ridiculous political calculus, our hypothetical teacher will grit his teeth and deliver the most obfuscating biology lecture he can because frankly, he has few other choices…

[ illustration from a Brazilian anti-censorship ad ]

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If you follow some of the major movers and shakers in the science and atheist blogging world, you’re probably well aware that those working for religious groups that claim to investigate religious claims scientifically, have to sign various statements of faith which actually commit them to the exact opposite, a slavish devotion to just one book and unquestioning acceptance of very broad, vague, and unproven religious assumptions. Francis Collins’ pet project, funded by Templeton cash and insisting that it’s trying to reconcile faith and science, turns out to subscribe to one such statement as well. Jerry Coyne has the details, but the part that struck at me was this blurb advocating what I can only describe as jamming your fingers in your ears and yelling really loud the minute anyone starts trying to explain something complex and abstract about the human condition…

[And] in contrast to scientism, we deny that the material world constitutes the whole of reality and that science is our only path to truth. For all its fruitfulness, science is not an all-inclusive source of knowledge; scientism fails to recognize its limitations in fully understanding reality, including such matters as beauty, history, love, justice, friendship, and indeed science itself.

To give you a little context, this paragraph comes after a hiss at atheists who dare say that you have to prove a world beyond this one before you start making big claims about it. So rather than actually, you know, provide a few lines of evidence past rhetorical games, BioLogos simply marks off areas of research and exploration for itself and declares them to be off limits to science, as if by that declaration they’ve done something other than show their intellectual impotence in the matter. This is just like their previous mewing about how science was so easy and simple compared to the vastly more complicated fields of philosophy and aesthetics. And the followers of this muddled, buzzword-laden theology which has to resort to marking its territory in science just to find a relevant question to answer in the most non-committal and obscure way possible, are just thrilled for an organization which claims to pursue the truth and yet wants its members to agree to a set of beliefs they’re not allowed to question. How much of an honest exploration of anything can you achieve with that?

But then again, for numerous followers of religious dogmas, this forced adhrenece to a belief with a complete lack of any evidence for it and obeying a rule which takes away one’s inability to question this belief is seen as the highest for of devotion. Funny thing is that between two different religions, this devotion is typically decried as simple-minded obstinacy, so one faith’s most devoted and dedicated members are another’s simpletons who follow a false God. We have hundreds of different religions and people worship hundreds of different and mutually exclusive deities. How does BioLogos plan to reconcile all their beliefs and ideas with science? Well they’re not. They’re only interested in affirming their own Christianity and launching petty insults at atheists and scientists veiled in vague and polysyllabic language to make this childish sniping seem dignified.

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Personally, I’m not a fan of the whole religion as a virus argument set forth by Craig James for the very simple reason that he tries to boil down a rather complex psychological and societal phenomenon, and then turns it into a simple algorithm with a few fixed inputs and an output that’s almost always described as negative. Yes, there certainly are major, all too often violent downsides of religious fervor, but there’s more to religion than just a simple human impulse or an edict from an authority telling people what to believe and how. Of course, none of this means that there’s any validity in deities, but to simply call people’s beliefs a virus is reaching too far, even for an accommodationist-basher like myself. This is why when in the spirit of his approach to taking on religion James decides to go Singularitarian and argue that once we’re immortal, faith will be obsolete, I have to call for a time out for both oversimplifying why people join and stay in religious movements, and giving some of Ray Kurzweil’s overly bold and often inaccurate predictions a shout-out in the service of atheism.

old man

Let’s start from the beginning. James’ thesis is that religion is like an entity which fulfills certain human needs and survives by mutating to appeal to our urge to feel special and mitigate our fears of death. Sounds fine so far, but what is he forgetting? If you think back to every introductory psychology class you’ve ever had, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was always mentioned, and one important part of that hierarchy was belonging. People all too often join religious groups not even so much because they have an unshakable faith in a certain deity or a polytheistic tradition, but because everyone around them belongs to the same churches, mosques, temples, covens, and what have you. We’re social mammals and a sense of community is important to us, which could explain one of the reasons religion evolved as a codified form of natural behaviors and radiated into all of its different forms. Were you to look at a map of religious affiliations, you’d find regions of Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists based on geopolitics and cultural hubs rather than a mish-mash of random religions scattered all across the world. A lot of faithful go to church because it’s expected of them by members of their community, and in places where church attendance is considered less important, less people go.

Another important issue is that we’re biologically inclined towards a vague feeling of belief in something that is greater than ourselves, which I would suppose is one of the brain’s adaptations towards living as a social mammal. Having to work with others to achieve big goals requires to view oneself as part of something much bigger and more important than your immediate needs and wants. Now, we’re not predisposed towards any particular faith per se, that’s something that’s usually up to the community around us or a community that we’d like to join, but we can change the level of predisposition towards belief with brain surgery and aggressive, intensive, nonstop indoctrination, often conducted for very selfish reasons. Simply put, we’re wired for some kind of belief that there’s more to the world than just us and have a need to propagate our views and opinions because we often end up investing so much time and effort into them. Again, this doesn’t make any religious view more valid than another, and certainly doesn’t mean that the view in question is even correct since much of religion is built on strong personal opinions and conformation biases rather than reproducible evidence. If we want evidence we can test in a lab and answers to big questions about nature, we have science. But there is that nagging sense of wanting to be a part of something big, a sense that has to be satisfied.

For atheists, neither desire has gone away. We try to form communities and gather into groups that share the same ideas, and we see ourselves as part of a vast universe, privileged to be here by chance and evolution. I would argue that we have good reason for how we see ourselves in the grand scheme of things and we have plenty of evidence to back up our position. But the point is that we still need to satisfy our basic needs to join a community and play a part of something bigger than ourselves. Even if one day we manage to live as long as we want and never have to fear death, these urges won’t go away and we’ll find something to replace existing religions. We may turn the idea of ancient astronauts and alien gods into a new, mainstream faith, although I’m really hoping that we won’t adopt the Scientology variant of it. We would also have to deal with those who would refuse to do whatever it would take to become immortal, protesting the very idea an abomination since their religion tells them we have to die at some point. But no, religion won’t go away just because we may one day have the privilege of unlimited lifespans through cutting edge medicine and technology.

Also, unlike James says, the odds of the first immortal being alive today are infinitesimal to nil. Life extension will thrive eventually and declaring it dead on arrival is premature at best, but the only place where humanity is even close to unlimited life is in Kurzweil’s fantasies and numerological charts, so invoking his ideas for some sort of rhetorical blow to religion is simply not sound in any way, shape or form. Actually, it’s countering religious tenets with almost pseudo-religious techno-utopianism based on wishful thinking and a belief that technology will solve all of our problems according to a timeline we find convenient. Really, there’s a reason why a number of prominent transhumanists are pulling back from Ray and his prognostications and James’ education in computer science should’ve rang a few alarm bells when he read the books…

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In light of yesterday’s post about the CFI’s schizophrenic views on atheism and accommodationism, and its bizarre approach to dealing with the media’s narratives in the great atheism vs. religion debate, I thought this might be a good time to take a step back and reflect on what it is that atheists realistically want. Obviously not being considered amoral monsters as they’re stereotyped by pious con men, or derided for refusing to have sentimental views on an invisible, intangible entity because they see no proof for its existence would be a very good start. But beyond that, what is it that would make atheists happier with the world around them? While I’m just one person and certainly can’t lay claim on representing all atheists, here’s my wish list for how the world would treat religion, science, and tell the difference between harmful dogma and sound, real world reason.

1. Real world facts should trump dogma. Despite the decades of accumulating statistics, medical research, and exhaustive studies, we still have policies based on an idea of piety that made sense before the Medieval period. Catholic preaching and anti-scientific conspiracy mongering are directly contributing to the death toll of HIV and AIDS in Africa, placing more importance on Bible verses than on fellow humans. Spiritual alt med woo tries to make people think of terrible diseases as a "spiritual challenge to be welcomed," rather than something to be excised and treated with cutting edge medical technology. When dealing with real world and immediate problems, we should be wondering what evidence there is for the recommendations we’re given, what technologies and treatments exist to remedy the condition, and how to solve the problem rather than the musings of a creature we can’t see, to whom we can’t talk, and whose existence is inferred from how a priest or a religious devotee feels. If you really think whatever problems we face right now are a divine test, it’s your right to do so, of course. But for the love of FSM’s meatballs, follow tangible evidence to solve them.

2. Religion should not render you immune from criticism. Whenever someone brings up religion to defend a particularly nasty action, people should have the right to be appalled. Doing something because you believed you were commanded to do so by a deity doesn’t mean that what you did is right, and we should be allowed to take issue with that. Calling someone a person of faith, or pretending that there’s some hidden, deep morality in a questionable action just because religion is invoked should be completely meaningless. In any court that tries to establish a defendant’s moral character with a testimony of how often he or she attends church should be treated the same way we would consider how many times someone visits a car wash. Obviously, if you do something wrong, the blame should rest with you and trying to shift it to the supernatural is just a way out. And if your beliefs and the actions you take based on those beliefs are harmful to someone, or encourage the kind of irresponsible behavior that could get someone hurt or in trouble, they deserve to be ridiculed without any of the critics having to be subject to mewing about "respect for faith." Religion doesn’t make good people. Good people raise and nurture other good people, regardless of religion or lack thereof.

3. Religion should not be a justification for violence. Unfortunately, every day there’s a story about someone being killed thanks to faith-based violence. And while modern theologians might offer vague platitudes about a divine morality and human unity via religion, the reality is that faith is often what puts a wedge between us. In the world outside a trendy philosopher’s office, ritualized, religion-enabled violence is all too common and it ends countless lives on an all too regular basis. No one can take away your religious beliefs, but if you think a quote in a holy book gives you the right to take someone’s life or physically brutalize him for not offering what you feel is the proper relevance to your dogma, you should be considered a dangerous maniac rather than an enlightened follower of whoever you worship. And should you actually harm someone, or infringe on the rights of any other human being, you should be hauled to court to stand trial for what you’ve done without getting the kiddie glove treatment from local, equally pious authorities who give you a wink, a nod, and house arrest for a week for your religiously inspired crimes. This is less of a problem in the secular West, but in nations obeying religious laws, this is a constant issue. Of course, there’s always the Vatican’s approach to kids that should be sending courts and authorities on an arrest spree across Europe and America if not for the same artificial religious immunity we just mentioned standing in the way…

4. Religion should not be a tool of authority. While in secular states religions have no real sway on paper, in all truth, the power of religious institutions and their ability to project themselves into politics is obvious. If not for theocratically-oriented institutions and their followers, we wouldn’t have prayers against legislation, and a consistently flawed and failing sex-ed policy proven countless times to be far worse than comprehensive,  scientifically backed curricula. We give religious organizations a free pass on taxes and then go on to lavish undue respect on people who threaten us with hellfire and supernatural punishment should we fail to obey them. Why? How does one earn such reverence by demanding it through threats and do it so well? I know the truth of the matter is that there will always be a religion of some sort out there, but the point is not to let beliefs trump common logic, good science, and the basics of human decency. Churches, temples, or mosques can demand that they be obeyed, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it. That’s the whole point of atheism. Just to be able to doubt, ask for proof, and refuse to follow along with something that makes no sense to you, or is a blatant and inherent violation of human rights to free will and well-being. When you enjoy religious texts for the sake of personal comfort, purpose, and solace, that’s one thing. But when you dictate that all around you feel the same comfort, purpose, and solace you feel, and do as you tell them, that’s when we have a problem.

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Doctor and skeptic Ben Goldacre, has some stern words for those in the Catholic Church who misinform their congregations about the role of contraception in helping to prevent the spread of AIDS. We’ve seen Benedict’s stance on how to deal with the virus already, a stance that ignores any and all evidence that condoms really do slow the spread of HIV and AIDS. And in his latest column, Goldacre sheds a light on the falsehoods that are blatantly spread by Catholic priests in Africa, lies which pretty much ensure that the diseases will rage out of control on the continent for the sake of preserving the purity of a dogma written well before the invention of the kind of effective contraception we take for granted today. Some notable examples include…

[Benedict's] stance has been supported, in the past year alone, by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. “It’s quite ridiculous to go on about AIDS in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church,” says O’Connor. “I talk to priests who say, ‘My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more Aids because of them.’”

Some have been more imaginative in their quest to spread the message against condom use. In 2007, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique said that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV to spread Aids in Africa.

Other gems, including messages which confuse immunization with a physical barrier for a virus carried in the bodily fluids being exchanged during sex, and comparisons of condoms to corks, are also mentioned, as well as the soaring rates of infection in the nations that are being actively told not to use condoms. So how pray tell do the Cardinals make the connection that it’s condoms which are at fault for higher rates of HIV and AIDS in Africa when the very priests who say they’re flooded in contraceptives are vilifying them? Of course they see an increase in infections. They’re demonizing the very things proven up to 95% effective at stopping transmission with proper use, and 80% in any and all cases. It’s like going into a war zone with bulletproof vests, declaring to soldiers that the vests are actually tainted with evil and don’t protect them anyway, letting them march into a storm of gunfire, then wonder why there are more soldiers dying from bullet wounds and declaring that it must be the vests, therefore the last thing the soldiers need are more vests. Which you told them not to use.

Just like the dangerous machinations of AIDS denialists, priests’ ignorance and arrogance when it comes to the AIDS epidemic in Africa are quite literally killing people. We know comprehensive sexual education works, there’s concrete data supporting its many advantages over abstinence-only dogma, and we also know that the pious, anti-scientific version of sex-ed actually drives STD rates upwards. And that’s why it’s a frustrating and aggravating challenge to stem HIV and AIDS infections in Africa. Those trying to make things better have a brick wall of arrogant, unyielding beliefs standing in their way, and human beings deaf to any reasons or logic that don’t support their indoctrinations or personal biases. Oh sure, these priests are more than willing to help those suffering from hunger and illness. They just need to make sure that those who are about the receive the help they’re willing to provide don’t require them to step outside of their ideologies. The result is that the death tolls for HIV and AIDS remain disturbingly high, and will stay that way for a long time to come. This is what you get when strict, merciless dogma is valued more highly than the lives of human beings.

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