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Sep 27 2011

Why do we trust these people?

My friend Brian once used an argument that has stuck with me ever since I heard it (it’s super effective!). Imagine yourself at the deathbed of a loved one – say a spouse or a child. You are approached by someone who tells you that if you give him your life savings, he will be able to secure YahwAlladdha’s personal intercession to save the ailing party. Would you do it, even if you knew the chance of success was remote? If your answer is ‘yes’, then that is an argument in favour of atheism. Faith healers are a dime a dozen (actually, far more expensive than that), and none of them do what they claim to do. Someone who knows that intercessory prayer does not work, no matter how devout the petitioner, is forever protected against this specific type of huckster.

The fact is that this is not, for many, a hypothetical question.

‘Miracle Babies’ pastor to be extradited

An evangelist who claimed to have created miraculous pregnancies through prayer is to be sent back to Kenya to face child abduction charges. Gilbert Deya, who has held services in Peckham, south London, has fought a legal battle to stay in the UK since 2007, arguing anything else would breach his human rights.

(snip)

Infertile or post-menopausal women who attended his church in Peckham, South London were told they would be having “miracle” babies. But the babies were always “delivered” in backstreet clinics in Nairobi. The Tottenham MP, David Lammy, had a husband and wife turn up at his constituency surgery who had been through it. ”The couple went to Africa, came back into the country with a child that the authorities found out was not theirs through a DNA test.

(snip)

When asked how he explained the births of children with DNA different to that of their alleged parents, he said: “The miracle babies which are happening in our ministry are beyond human imagination. It is not something I can say I can explain because they are of God and things of God cannot be explained by a human being.”

I can’t read this story without being absolutely disgusted by how low members of our species are willing to stoop. This is evil, pure and simple. I don’t think anyone would look at what this man has done to his parishioners and say ‘well his heart was in the right place’. He engaged in a scheme that was equal parts fraud and child trafficking – no amount of justification can possibly excuse this, except in his own mind. I can only sympathize with the heartbroken people who were lied to, and the others who were desperate enough to need to part with their newborn children (for reasons I can only guess at).

Buddhist monk charged with raping girl in 1970s

A Buddhist monk has been charged with raping an underage girl in the 1970s, the Metropolitan police has said. Pahalagama Somaratana Thera, chief incumbent of Thames Buddhist Vihara, Croydon, has been charged with four counts of sexual abuse, police said. The alleged rape and three counts of indecent assault occurred in Chiswick, west London, in 1977 and 1978.

I don’t think I have to provide a sophisticated argument or compelling statistics to have you agree that rape is horrible. While we collectively have this myth that rapists are leering perverts hiding in dark alleys and jumping on unsuspecting women (who are dressed too slutty, donchaknow), the truth is that the vast majority of rapists are known to the victim. Oftentimes they are family members or close, trusted authority figures. The sense of betrayal can only serve to turn the physical violence into a full-blown existential crisis. To be raped by a religious teacher – a person who commands absolute trust – must be horrible beyond imagining.

So these are the stories. They’re both about awful people who did awful things. There are awful people who do awful things that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. A NYPD supervisor pepper-sprayed a peaceful protester point blank in the face, then laughed it off while checking his text messages. I doubt he did so with the Psalm of David on his lips. This isn’t the point. The question that popped immediately into my mind when I read both of these pieces was why on Earth did people trust them in the first place? An unbelievable level of faith (wording intentional) was placed in these men – far more than an adult places in their employer or their elected representative or doctor or college professor – people who arguably can demonstrate the reason why you should trust them.

Even if you are a theist (and would you please de-lurk so I know you’re out there?), I think we can build a consensus around the merits placing absolute trust in individual people. There is no shortage of examples of religious leaders who have demonstrated the capacity to lie and distort theological claims to dupe unwitting followers. Those examples include violence against self and others, betrayal of family, complete inversion of ethical principles – any thing that one might describe as ‘sin’. Even if you do believe that some kind of god exists, surely we can get together on the premise that trust should not be given to those that claim its favour.

But this is my main gripe with religion: I don’t really have to speculate what the mechanism is for these kinds of slime to gain the unquestioning trust of their followers. Religion is built on the promotion of unquestioning trust. Trust in the absence of evidence is the fundamental stuff of theistic religion – without faith, religion is simply philosophy (and pretty lazy philosophy to boot). Part of this trust has always been directed at those god-men who claim special insight into the whims of the almighty. A layperson who claims to have had direct communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence is rightly seen as a bit of a nutcase. A politician who claims to have divine direction rockets to the top of the polls. We cannot ignore the encouragement of faith as a major explanatory mechanism for this disparity.

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14 comments

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  1. 1
    etherial

    re: de-lurking theists

    I am more properly categorized as deist, but since you asked politely, here I am. I love your blog.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Aww, shucks. Thanks!

  3. 3
    bunnyhugger

    Pretty much just co-signing #1, also love the blog :)

    While I personally am a theist/deist, I have never been able to really get into “organized” religion, largely because those dudes in the front of the church seemed to be people like anybody else. Growing up and learning about things like crusades, popes in general, Puritans, etc. just drove that message home further. There are plenty of really great priests and ministers and rabbis that I’ve met, including my uncle — but I can’t make a leap of faith to decide that they are privileged with answers I can never find for myself.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Thank you as well!

    If you don’t mind my asking, when you say theist/deist, how would you characterize the deity you believe in? Does this belief shape your day-to-day activities, or is it just there in your quiet contemplative moments? Feel free to not answer if you’d prefer.

  5. 5
    bunnyhugger

    I was raised Protestant, and by college was seriously done with Jesus proselytization, so cheerfully went on to marry an atheist Jew. We celebrate Jewish holidays in our household for heritage reasons, although I really pick and choose what to observe — I believe there’s value in commemoration (e.g. Purim or Hanukkah), or celebration (the environmentalist in me loves anything that advocates annual tree planting), and even in tithing. At the same time I eat pork, wear mixed fibers, and will let my sons choose for themselves whether to get circumcised. It’s really not a regular part of my daily life at all; my morality, daily behavior, ethics, etc., are based on rational thinking (and also, presumably, social pressures) rather than commandments.

    I never really considered the actual characteristics a deity ought to have, largely because it’s more interesting to see how a particular culture’s (or individual person’s) perspective has shaped their deity. There’s clearly no agreement on what the right answer is, so I don’t really expect to get it right either, and thus never put in any particular thought on the answer.

  6. 6
    Bhikkhu Pesala

    “Religion is built on the promotion of unquestioning trust. Trust in the absence of evidence is the fundamental stuff of theistic religion – without faith, religion is simply philosophy (and pretty lazy philosophy to boot).“

    Buddhism is not a Theistic religion, and is not based on unquestioning trust. On the contrary, it requires constant questioning, studying, and introspective meditation (Check out the Buddha’s Discourse to the Kālāmas — the Kesamutti Sutta). http://www.aimwell.org/Books/Suttas/Kalama/kalama.html

    Gullible followers can be found in all religions — people who are willing to pay others to do the hard work for them. Corrupt monks would not be able to attain wealth, power, and undue influence if there were not so many fools in the world.

    Buddhist monks are not permitted to accept or use money at all, so how could they possibly become wealthy and powerful if not for the ill-informed devotees who donate money to monks, hoping for an easy ride to nibbāna? Lay Buddhists should donate only what the monks need and are permitted to accept: food, medicine, robes, and a dwelling place.

    If they want to gain the real benefits of the Buddha’s teachings, they should study and practise it thoroughly and diligently, under the guidance of monks who follow the monastic discipline laid down by the Buddha.

  7. 7
    JesseW, the Juggling Janitor

    Well said. I was particularly impressed with how you started with the (hopefully) uncontroversial point that there are (some) religious leaders who do evil, and ended by hammering home the point that it’s a critical, central element of nearly all religions to encourage un-reasonable, absolute faith in failable human beings.

    If you (or one of us fellow readers of your blog) wanted to add some links to the many atheist blog posts (here on FTB and elsewhere) that provided additional examples and ammunition for this point, that would be great.

    Thanks, and welcome to FTB!

  8. 8
    JohnnieCanuck

    I am having trouble parsing your first paragraph. Can you explain how saying ‘yes’ to a faith healer who asks for money is an argument in favour of atheism?

    I would have put it the other way around. It also seems that Brian was making this argument as an analogy for something, what I cannot quite be sure. Putting money on the collection plate for the promise of a good afterlife?

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    It’s possible I could have phrased that more explicitly. A person without faith would never say ‘yes’, because they do not recognize the possibility that a god could heal their sick relative. Atheists have that specific advantage – immunity from that specific type of manipulation/deception.

  10. 10
    Brian Lynchehaun

    The point here is that while there are large quantities in scams, there is a category of scams that rely upon a person’s acceptance of supernatural beings/powers.

    If nothing else, being an atheist automatically makes you immune to that entire category of scams. Being a Christian doesn’t generally make you immune to the claims of a Swami or someone of another religion, especially when a loved one has a terminal illness, but being an Atheist (one who has seriously thought about it and made a clear rational decision), means that one isn’t susceptible to the ‘traveling faith healer’ schtick (as painful as it probably would be to say ‘no’).

    Atheism = immunity to supernatural scams.

    (and yes, I realise that I’m conflating supernatural with religious here. I feel no need to differentiate at this point, and won’t be arguing about the nuance)

  11. 11
    F

    I think the key distinction to make is that it is an argument for atheism, not an example of. But yeah, it was a bit awkward to me at first, too. I skipped on parsing it, and took the meaning from the greater context. Overall, it doesn’t interfere with the argument’s cromulence. ;)

  12. 12
    unbound

    Trust was ingrained in me from a very young age. So, to answer the question, it was indoctrination. And, let’s be honest, how many times do we really re-examine what we think is the truth?

    Although I had various doubts throughout my life regarding religion, it wasn’t until my 30s and the events surrounding the Boston sex scandal with Cardinal Law that finally got my doubts to a sufficient level to fully abandon my faith. Notice that most people have not left the church as a result of that event…an event that, to me, was so clear cut there should not have been any questions.

    Was there plenty of reason to abandon my faith earlier in my life? Absolutely. But, again, how often do we really question what we’ve been taught since a young child?

    I think a more appropriate question isn’t why do people still trust them, but what event will it take to demonstrate to them, once and for all, that these people are not trustworthy?

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    I hope it doesn’t take an event to trigger such a loss in trust – after all we’ve seen, I can’t imagine how much lower clergy could possibly go. They must be close to the bottom already. I hope that teaching critical thinking skills and improving standard of living will be enough to open people’s eyes and allow them to challenge the throne, so to speak.

  14. 14
    Ian B

    I had started working on a response that disputes the idea that religion is any more faith-based than rationality, but I am too tired and it is too late and I have been working too long to be able to make it make sense. One day I will try again.

    For now, I will simply point out that as I write this, there is an ad on this page for a service that allows you to become an ordained minister online. I will point this out and laugh the laugh of late-night internet despair.

    Keep up the good work.

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