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Aug 12 2010

Home-grown religious huxter

When I was at that “debate” between Hugh Ross and Brian Lynchehaun, Brian made what I thought was an interesting point toward the end. He asked the audience to picture a circumstance in which a loved one was dying a painful death, with no hope of a medical cure. Someone offers you a chance to visit a faith healer, who promises a miraculous result, and all it will cost you is your life savings. Left with your back against the wall and no other options, would you take that chance?

A skeptic atheist wouldn’t, and Brian’s argument was that this is a illustration of how skeptics are less likely to fall for scams than a religious person. It popped into my head when I read this article about a pastor in Montreal:

Several members of the Bethel Christian Community have gone public with troubling allegations about money they say they lent to their spiritual leader — Rev. Mwinda Lezoka, a Congolese native who has ministered to Montreal’s growing African community for two decades.

These are not rich people – these are ordinary working people, some of whom went so far as to remortgage their own homes. They gave their money to a man they trusted, and were not repaid. It turned out that pastor Lezoka was using the money he appropriated for… slightly less divine ends:

During the years Lezoka ministered to his parish at the Bethel Christian Community Church in Ahuntsic, he also studied gemology, and appeared to head a Kinshasa-based export agency specialized in diamond trading.

Lezoka was apparently an administrator of a diamond exporting firm in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – the firm has since gone bankrupt. It does not take a great deal of imagination to envisage a scenario in which Lezoka used funds that were loaned to him for the purpose of developing the church in order to prop up his failing investment.

Jewish and Christian scripture exhort the faithful to be honest and fair-dealing. Bearing false witness is in the commandments (God is not cool with it), and that has been extrapolated to include all types of lying. Surely a pastor, one whose life is devoted to the teaching of scripture, once caught in a lie, would come clean and be honest, right?

“I did not take anyone’s money,” said Mwinda Lezoka, speaking in French, in an exclusive interview with CBC News. “So I, Mr. Lezoka, am not responsible for deceiving anyone.” … The pastor was unable to produce any financial records, when asked by CBC News. Nor could he explain why charitable tax receipts he issued have false numbers, according to Revenue Canada.

It’s sad, but unsurprising, when people with religious authority show themselves to be as callow, evasive, and corrupt as people with just regular ol’ Earthly authority. Unsurprising to me, at least, because even while I was a believer I didn’t buy the fiction that priests are somehow more righteous or upstanding than anyone else. To borrow from (and paraphrase) Napoleon, religion is an agreed-upon fiction. It is built firmly on the basis that everyone believes the story – if you do not believe, you cannot be shown evidence to engender belief (the fundamental difference between science and religion). If the morals and righteousness are based upon fiction, there is no end to the number of cognitive dissonances and goalpost shifts possible to justify any act of evil.

I am well aware of the fact that these people might have been duped by anyone. Many people fall for scams that are not religious in any way. However, credulous belief in falsehoods and the associated elevation of people into positions of power and authority (and assumed rectitude) based on those falsehoods makes a person more likely to believe in nonsense. To put it plainly: those who are willing to believe anything are willing to believe anything.

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13 comments

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  1. 1
    Scary Fundamentalist

    “If the morals and righteousness are based upon fiction, there is no end to the number of cognitive dissonances and goalpost shifts possible to justify any act of evil.”

    A society without any fiction-based morals or righteousness wouldn’t be any less evil. The evil simply wouldn’t require any justification.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Pithy. Shame it isn’t true.

    Plot religiosity of the populace versus crime rates (particularly violent crime). The most religious countries are those that commit the most crimes. We can quibble about which causes the other, but the fact remains that places with secular codes of justice and law are much nicer places to live than theocracies. It’s also a fact that religious (or quasi-religious) justifications are common for atrocities such as genocide, torture, war, etc. etc.

    Take away the myth that Jews are God-killers, or that the WHO is trying to sterilize Muslim children, or that God is on our side against Iraq, and you’ve got a much more difficult time motivating people to commit murders.

  3. 3
    Scary Fundamentalist

    You’re confusing two things – the level of religiosity of a particular people and the influence of religious organizations on the government.

    Ethnically homogeneous nations with a deep religious history and tradition, but who also have a clear distinction between church and state have the best crime rates. Ethnic heterogeneity (United States), the absence of the Rule of Law (Iran), and generations of religious sterilization (Russia) are historical drivers of civilizational degeneration of which violent crime is a modern symptom.

    But that’s deflecting from the point. What should morals and “righteousness” be based on if it’s not a generally-held system of belief? Anthropology indicates that those populations who base their morals and norms on a cohesive and widely-held system of belief, regardless of its fictionality, are better suited to survive.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Canada has an ethnically heterogeneous population in its major cities, the extent of which increases every year, while violent crime decreases. Memphis, Boston, and Kansas City all have higher per-capita violent crime rates than New York or Los Angeles. Ethnic diversity and crime don’t appear to be related, so I don’t know where you’re getting that.

    Iran has rule of law. Iran has TOO MUCH rule of law, actually. That’s why shit is so fucked up there.

    I don’t know what you mean by religious sterilization – oppression of religious minorities?

    At no point did I say that morals shouldn’t be based on a shared system of beliefs – I said it shouldn’t be based on an ideological perspective that is impervious to fact-based correction. While not every individual’s religion precludes them from considering facts, religious belief as a whole requires you to believe in something for which there is no evidence, and to discount the evidence when it conflicts with the belief. That kind of basis for society is dangerous.

    Anthropology in no way indicates that believing in a lie is a good thing – it does indicate that it’s better than believing in nothing, but nobody has proposed that. It is possible to share a set of moral imperatives that are derived from philosophical exploration of fact-based observation of the natural world, requiring no “faith” whatsoever.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    Incidentally, people reading this should go visit this guy’s blog. He and I disagree on… well pretty much everything, but it’s always some thought-provoking content.

  6. 6
    Scary Fundamentalist

    Rule of law = the law is applied equally to all citizens in all situations (not exactly happening in Iran).

    Religious sterilization = Abolition of all deistic religion and forced conversions to athiesm (a central plank of Marxist communism). Ever talk to someone who lived in the USSR?

    Anyway, that’s a sideshow with too many -isms.

    “It is possible to share a set of moral imperatives that are derived from philosophical exploration of fact-based observation of the natural world, requiring no “faith” whatsoever.”

    Heh. Considering that “faith” is simply one’s confidence in a concept or idea, the extrapolation of moral imperatives from philosophical exploration of the natural world is a perfect example of faith. In fact, all religions that I’m familiar with began from exactly the process that you describe. Some become more fantastic than others over time, mostly for the immediate benefit of the existing clergy, but all are grounded upon observations of reality.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    I guess if you are going to define your own terms, your position is at least internally consistent. I’m not sure your description of Iran is accurate, but that’s really tangential to the discussion anyway.

    I think forcing anyone to believe anything is a bad idea – the idea of punishing thoughtcrime makes me shudder. However, there are some ideas to which we should mount a vigorous response, and many that we don’t have to officially recognize through our laws. I also think you meant ‘theistic’ instead of ‘deistic’.

    Once again, if you’re going to create your own definition for what faith is, your position makes sense. However, religious faith is not merely confidence in an idea – it’s sustaining a belief regardless of evidence – quite a different animal, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Religious doctrine may have been founded on an interpretation of reality, but by refusing to allow it to change based on new information (pork is not unclean, homosexuality is not an unnatural abomination, condoms or birth control pills are not abortion), said doctrine denies reality and places belief on the same level as fact. The two are not equivalent.

  8. 8
    Scary Fundamentalist

    (FYI, look in any dictionary for the definition of “faith”) All right, now that we agree that religion began using the very way that you suggest we create modern societal norms, let’s examine whether there is a difference in how such norms become universal. Because, we both acknowledge that these norms must be nearly universal in order to be of any meaning.

    In most religions, norms are often made universal through dogmatic brainwashing, through threats of social harm, and even through threats of financial or physical harm, sometimes through the state and sometimes with their complacence. I’m sure you agree with this.

    So take the modern societal norm of the acceptance of homosexuality as an example. It is being made universal through dogmatic brainwashing, via the cirriculum in the public schools. There are significant threats of social harm, e.g. from ostracization and vilification of someone who doesn’t support gay rights. The state can even take away your livelihood if you refuse to assist in the normalization of homosexuality.

    What I’m saying is this – the debate over the acceptance of homosexuality is an example of a battle between two dogmas, both of which are originally derived from reasonable but opposing observations of the real world. Proponents of both sides are also seeking to spread the acceptance of their beliefs in such a way that it becomes impervious to fact-based correction. So a blind acceptance of the normalization of homosexual behavior is just as much “faith in the absence of evidence” as is the blind rejection of it on religious grounds.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    Here is a definition of faith. As you can see, it distinguishes between mere confidence in an idea, and belief without proof. This is why I said ‘religious faith’, which is what you are talking about, as opposed to simply colloquial confidence, which is the equivalence you are (falsely) trying to draw.

    The rest of your comment is simply false. I have no patience for distortions of fact, and I especially have no patience for invocations of the “homosexualist agenda” bullcrap. ANY idea becomes popular by social pressure – it was the same for giving women and black people the right to vote, for allowing interracial marriage, for multiculturalism, for the recognition of French as a national language… any civil rights issue. Just because you don’t like gay people and being a bigot isn’t popular anymore is not tantamount to the state forcing dogma on you. Do you have to BECOME gay? Do you have to billet a gay person in your house? Do gays have rights that you don’t have? No – none of these things are true. You’re merely making broad assertions, and playing semantic tricks with language. I’m not sure what kind of people that technique works on, but as I said, I have little patience for it.

  10. 10
    Scary Fundamentalist

    Okay, can we get one thing straight? Herein, I’m not arguing for or against either side of the homosexual issue; I’m only presenting it as a case study. I can back up each of the assertions I made with facts, if you like. But your rush to judgment coupled with accusations of bigotry is rather unbecoming of you.

    You also stated the point I’m trying to make when you said that any idea becomes popular with social pressure. The point is as follows: many supposedly areligious societal norms are being constructed and propogated exactly the same way that religious norms are constructed and propogated. First, construct the norm through philosophical exploration of fact-base observation of the natural world. Second, propogate it by force and/or social pressure to make it popular, and therefore effective. And third, make it impervious to fact-based correction via these pressures to ensure its continued effectiveness.

    Whether these norms are correct or not is irrelevant, and I fear that you are getting hung up on this. What is relevant is that religion isn’t the only place that you can find belief in the absence of proof.

  11. 11
    Crommunist

    Hehehe, you said “get one thing straight.”

    Also when I said “you”, I meant “one”. I have no idea what your personal stance on homosexuality is. My apologies for being unclear.

    Again, you’re trying to draw an equivalence between religious belief, which is founded not on reasoned observation of the world, but on an assumption about the supernatural that comes from not understanding the natural world, and naturalistic belief, which comes from the logical positivist consequentialist paradigm. The first is by definition impervious to fact, because it assumes its foundation in absence of fact.

    The second is based on observation of the world, and changes over time – first homosexuality was thought of as a mental illness, then observation ruled that out. Then it was unique to humans, observation ruled that out. Then it was harmful to families and children, observation ruled that out. That’s what’s happening – it’s not just a question of conflicting ideologies.

    Even if it was conflicting ideologies, we would look to the consequences of one over the other. The religious view would infringe upon the freedoms and rights of a group of people, essentially creating a second class. The logical positivist view might make some people uncomfortable, but it neither picks their pocket nor breaks their leg.

  12. 12
    Scary Fundamentalist

    First, you might be surprised at how many religious laws and practices are actually derived from consequentialism. In reality it is dogmatism that renders them impervious to future observation and fact, not religion, and I’m sure you’ll agree that dogmatism is alive and well within nonreligious disciplines.

    Second, two of the three observations you cite regarding homosexuality are not empirical, and therefore fall outside the realm of positivism. For example, there is no empirical test available by which one can provide evidence that any particular condition is a “mental illness” or not.

    Third, there are many views (religious and not) that create separate classes of people; after all, we do have freedom of conscience. While it may be morally wrong, we should remain free to use our own means (property rights) to distinguish between whatever classes of people we may create. However, I agree that government must not employ any such separations – that would violate equality before the law.

    As an aside, I believe that the very fact that the government administers marriage creates two classes of people unnecessarily – married and unmarried – and therefore is not justified in its entirety.

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    If you can find me a religion with a history of revising its beliefs based on consequentialist thinking, I will be happy to stipulate that religion is not merely a subset of dogma. However, it has been my observation that religions are in the habit of making assertions about right and wrong that are not based on human welfare, but rather an invocation of unobservable consequences if the assertions are not believed and followed.

    Also, it is not possible to “test” whether or not something is a mental illness, and nobody has made that claim. It is a question of a standard definition of what comprises mental illness, and homosexuality does not fit the definition. Nor, incidentally, does being a liberal, loud-mouthed asshole.

    I’d be willing to discuss the merit of whether or not the government should recognize marriage at all. Perhaps it would be better simply to recognize marriage as a religious issue, remove any employment or government benefits for religious sacraments, and use “husband” and “wife” as colloquialisms only. I don’t know if that would be a better society, but it would certainly be more philosophically consistent.

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