Archives For secularism

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 ]

If you’ve ever visited r/atheism or any major atheist and skeptic sites, you’re probably well aware of the martyr complex, the guilt trip used by religious fundamentalists who believe that not being allowed to impose the will of their leaders on the rest of the society they inhabit, is tantamount to persecution. In the United States this is often played out in attempts to institute public prayer, force the government to somehow declare a preference for Christianity as the national religion, or at least as the preferred religion of the state. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox communities’ demands to segregate and control the nation have far more severe consequences. Their towns in West Bank settlements are quickly becoming security hazards according to growing voices from the IDF and lately, they’ve gone overboard by invoking the history of Jewish persecution in Europe in a way that I could only describe as downright shameful. Jewish history is filled with stories of being chased out of counties and hunted down by members of other faiths. and those stories are quoted on a regular basis. But not like this.

You see, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem upset that the secular authorities interrupted their effort to enforce segregation by gender around them with harassment and violence, marched in protest of the police putting a man who vandalized a religiously liberal bookshop in jail, while wearing yellow stars of David. Yes, the same yellow stars Jews were forced to wear by medieval Inquisitors and Nazi extermination squads. Apparently, the police frowning on a Jewish fundamentalist harassing and attacking people who don’t follow a 3,000 year old morality codex and don’t object to being in the same space as other humans with different genitals or suffer a panic attack imagining how G-d will punish them for behaving like sane, modern people, is exactly the same as the Holocaust. This was such an extreme and exploitative display that several prominent Israeli politicians blew a fuse or two, demanding that ultra-Orthodox rabbis condemn these protest. The rabbis responded by whining about the Israeli media apparently ignoring vicious attacks on their followers by secularists.

Considering that the ultra-Orthodox are often said to be a drain on Israel who demand state benefits with free education for their enormous families (yes, enormous, I’ve personally seen ten to 16 child families in Tel Aviv with frightening regularity) after which they often refuse to recognize the state or follow secular laws they don’t like, of course there’s a lot of tension between them and secular Israelis. However, it’s really hard to buy the tale of systematic persecution of the ultra-Orthodox when they’re the ones vandalizing private property, spitting on little girls, and assaulting soldiers for not immediately bulldozing over Arab protests in the West Bank. So I certainly understand why their claims that Arab grievances get aired in Israeli press while the media censors tales of their plight would fall on deaf years. They’re wild exaggerations at best or outright fabrications at worst and their ridiculous stunt in Jerusalem hardly adds credence to their claims. If anything, the Israeli secularists see spoiled, authoritarian bullies who demand government handout after government handout spitting on the deaths of their grandparents and great-grandparents because they refuse to follow the laws of the land.

Oh and by the way, ultra-Orthodox Jews imposing their will on others and clashing with secular Jews who like to pride themselves on their adaptability to the modern world is not a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. In fact, the small enclave of Kiryas Joel in New York has become a place for Judaic fundamentalists to set up their haven of intolerance and authoritarianism. When a study found it to be the poorest city in America, stories of what an unsuspecting visitor to the town may expect started coming out as did the stories of Jews who grew up there, and their interactions with Jews in nearby New York City. As one such lengthy tale shows, the result is usually very bad news for all those involved as the residents of Kiryas Joel rebel at any signs of modernity or a break with tradition while secular Jews are offended by having their ancestry being called into question when they’re lectured for listening to music or being around members of the opposite sex in public without a separation. If the ultra-Orthodox really are victims of the secular world, they certainly don’t act like victims neither in Israel or in America if we pause to consider even a small sampling of their interactions with humans who don’t want to step 800 years back in time not to be spit upon, harassed, or have their property vandalized.

[ photo illustration by Eduardo Castaldo, Newsweek ]

Another year, another £1 million award for accommodationism from the Templeton Foundation, and this time it went to Lord Martin Reese, an accomplished and highly prominent scientist who’s not known for devoting a whole lot of time and attention to spiritual matters, unlike many past winners. In fact, the award itself seems a tad awkward since Lord Reese basically took the money and ran, saying that he only went to church once in a while, mostly for the decor and the organ music. Sure, there was the half-hearted jab about obnoxious debate on religious matters and the ham-fisted invocation of the non-overlapping magisteria meme, but it felt forced, as if the astrophysicist was saying "look, can I just take my million pounds home and call it a day?" But that’s not what Templeton wants and it’s not for what their patrons shelled out the cash. They wanted their winners on a soapbox, preaching the harmony of science with religion to bright lights from the world’s media but their latest pick just didn’t seem to be doing the job. And that’s why they outsourced their message to a lackey who attended their fellowship program on obfuscation and intellectual impotence through pseudo-eloquence.

Like I’ve said before, when it comes time to deal with the facts, accommodationists always rush to talk about tone and having an open mind because frankly, that’s all they’ve got. Were they to actually take a stance on a religious issue, they would fall into a certain spectrum of beliefs which will inflame believers they desperately want to please. This isn’t just a hypothetical statement. One of Templeton’s major projects, BioLogos, took a stance on the notion of Biblical inerrancy and was swiftly smacked down by a prominent theologian for the blasphemous refrain that maybe the Bible isn’t necessarily true and correct in every word. So this time, when handing over their message to someone on the payroll, Templeton had Mark Vernon stick to waxing poetic about his patrons’ award marking the end of atheism in the UK, arguing the following inanity in earnest…

But with Rees’s acceptance [of the Templeton Prize] , the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment. That such a highly regarded figure received its premier prize will make it a little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.

Let me recap. So because his benefactors gave a lot of money to a very famous and distinguished scientist, the entire scientific establishment of the UK hasn’t just accepted, but welcomed accommodationism with its arms open, and Dawkins is now in for a slog every time he mentions how religious fundamentalism can and often does poison our society and our knowledge? Why do I find it so hard to believe? Last year, Templeton’s vast war chest bought them the temporary cooperation of the National Academy of Sciences and allowed them to present their bribe in the same establishment in which scientists received awards for their hard and peer reviewed work. This year, they got absolutely no help from the British scientific establishment and a shy and uncommunicative Reese who grabbed his money and ran after doing the absolute bare minimum when he had to sit down to be interviewed about his opinion on secularism and atheism. And one of their fellows is now trying to spin this waste of time and effort as a subtle victory over atheists? Hell, if Dawkins were to send an AI expert a check, using Vernon’s logic, I could pen a self-indulgent column arguing that atheism has been warmly welcomed into the computer science community, and it’ll be that much harder for mathematicians like Berlinski and Dembski to pursue their declarations in favor of creationism. And I would be just as wrong.

Now, I’m well aware that Templeton was very, very rich and that his son is just as wealthy. I also know that it’s money they made and they can spend it on anything they wish, be it buying their way into science, or buying a fleet of gold-plated yachts ran by sailors who once commanded the Navy’s top vessels and staffed entirely by former Playmates. But at the same time, I just can’t help thinking that the millions they waste on exercises in confirmation bias passed off as research, buttering up scientists and reporters, and flooding the media with ruminations about how important it is to believe and books declaring that everything humans ever learned was at the very least inspired by religion, could be spent in much more productive ways. Obviously, since it has always been run by Christian Evangelicals, the Templeton Foundation sees the money it spends on the incessant publicity efforts and religiously themed pseudoscience as being invested in humanity’s souls and the best way to use its wealth. However, if I had the kind of cash they have laying around, I would be handing out millions to fund competitions between private space tourism companies, sponsor medical labs, and get into joint ventures with organizations which bring clean water, food, and vaccines to the developing world. But of course, I don’t have Templeton’s deep pockets and it’s quite obvious that we have very different values and priorities. They’re much more concerned about quieting mouthy atheists and their afterlives…

With the National Day of Prayer finally found to be an unconstitutional outreach of government into endorsing a religion by courts, there’s been plenty of grumbling about the separation of church and state, and a seemingly endless repetition of the “we’re a Christian country” mythos. Of course, if we actually look at what the founding fathers of the United States said, we find that not only did they outright reject the idea that the nation they built was in any way, shape or form Christian, but they even signed a treaty saying exactly that to Muslims of what is modern day Libya, a treaty approved by Congress and publicly distributed in the States with no protests. So when the very same government bows before Christian fundamentalists who see the first sentence of the Bill of Rights as nothing more than a minor nuisance to be drowned out by prayers and invocations to God, that’s a very serious problem because the government passed legislation which is constitutionally unsound, and a particular religious group insists that it keeps doing so out of its need for self-affirmation and validation.

According to the First Amendment, the government simply isn’t allowed to endorse any religious movement, a notion today’s religious zealots either ignore, or pretend that it doesn’t apply to them. That’s why they vote on a candidate based on how many times he invokes the right deity, judge how well someone was raised by how religiously devout and outspoken he is, and believe that anyone not as devout as them will destroy the nation because he doesn’t live trembling in fear of God’s wrath. But why is it so hard to explain why the separation of church and state isn’t only necessary, but that it protects them as well? Why do they insist on throwing out old fallacies and outright fantasies about the United States being founded on their principles and their faith, even when every ruling on the subject for the last two centuries has unequivocally stated the exact opposite? It’s not very hard for believers to simply ignore what they don’t want to see, then run around accusing others of doing the same. To believe that you’re under constant surveillance of a wrathful, supernatural voyeur watching over you every second of every day with no proof that this is actually happening already needs an immunity to a few very basic facts. But in the debate about secularism, there’s something more going on.

First, an important thing to note is that the opinions we hear from religious fundamentalists might not be their own but rather, a recitation of talking points given to them by demagogues and pundits. Unfortunately, when a person chooses to simply rehash talking points, he generally fails to bring anything more than a quote to the debate since talking points are based for inciting a loyal base and boiling down complex issues into a catchy soundbyte, not to actually carry on a serious discussion. This isn’t limited to religious fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination and it’s equally bad when agnostics or atheists decide to wage a quote war against fervent zealots. Since talking points are all about firing up the base, they tend to lack the kind of facts that need to underpin an argument. And since they’re usually exchanged by people who already believe pretty much the same exact thing, they serve to create an echo chamber where nuances, exceptions and evidence are thrown by the wayside in favor of ideology. This is why we get those inane repetitions of “Judeo-Christian principles enshrined in the Constitution” while those who chant it can’t even quote the right document. These aren’t the kind of well thought out and persuasive ideas we’re told they are. They’re products of echo chambers, endless repetition against the facts, and sometimes, an obvious, outright parody of a pundit’s style. The only evidence these talking point debates use is wishful thinking.

But the most important issue preventing fundamentalists from grasping the need for separation of church and state is because secularism is so alien to them. Secularists see religions as a collection of beliefs which are bundled into different flavors, divided and named by tradition and cultural history. Fundamentalists divide their world into the one true belief dictated to them by God and everybody who’s wrong and whose views are totally irrelevant to the discussion because they don’t worship the right deity or don’t worship it correctly. They crave a government which will pander to them, acknowledge that their beliefs are right and true, and follow their rules in a quasi-theocratic manner, ignoring the real dangers of mixing politics and religion. But again, they ignore these dangers because they believe they’re absolutely right and that their brand of theocracy will work while a supposedly false belief will be doomed to fail. To put it bluntly, we’re arguing with people who believe they’ve been given a direct line to the creator of the universe, claim a monopoly on morality and ethics despite serious scientific evidence against their claim, and demonize those won’t obey them as amoral monsters. They’re people with strong, yet brittle beliefs in search of official affirmation so they don’t start doubting their faith. Why else do the people who pray every day for just about anything and everything need the government to bow with them and launch into a toned down Evangelical prayer in an official emulation of Sunday mass?

[ illustration by Fabricio Moraes ]