The problem with religion-4: Corrupting the minds of children

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I started this series with Matt Ridley’s quote: “The Asian tsunami was not an act of god but 9/11 was” and will end with it, because it says something very profound.

Religious apologists for Islam are quick to claim that the 9/11 perpetrators were not following their “true” religion, that god would not have condoned this act. But what is the basis for this claim of exemption? After all, the perpetrators themselves seemed to think that they were indeed the ones that were following the true religion. In his periodic video surfacings, bin Laden appears quite confident that he is serving god well, as is Bush when he speaks of his motivations.

What makes people do things that kill huge numbers of people in the name of god and religion?

The seeds of such behavior are often planted early, when children are young. Religious teaching is probably the earliest kind of formal teaching that children get, both from their parents and from their places of worship. They are taught that their faith and their god are the “true” ones, and that people of other faiths are wrong and their god is a false god. As a result, from a very young age, children learn in-group/out-group thinking framed in terms of religion. This lays the groundwork for more in-group/out-group thinking later in terms of ethnicity and nation.

I have written before of one example of where this kind of thinking can lead, in the tragic case of Edgardo Mortara. But in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins provides a much more disturbing example of the effects of religious instruction on children.

(For further reading on the case described by Dawkins, see the sources cited by him: the paper Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality by John Hartung; the paper The Influence of Ethnic and Religious Prejudice on Moral Judgment by G. R. Tamarin, (New Outlook, 9:1:49-58); and the book The Israeli Dilemma: Essays on a Warfare State, G. R. Tamarin, 1973. Rotterdam: Rotterdam University Press.)

In this extended quote I have taken from the book (starting on p. 255), Dawkins summarizes the results of what he calls “[A] horrifying study by the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin”:

Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli school children, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’. . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 percent gave total approval and 26 percent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 percent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua’s conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:

I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.

Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for Israelites:

I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.

I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.

Once again the sage Maimonides, often cited for his scholarly wisdom, is in no doubt where he stands on this issue: ‘It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them. If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one’s power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.’

Unlike Maimonides, the children in Tamarin’s experiment were young enough to be innocent. Presumably the savage views they expressed were those of their parents or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is, I suppose, not unlikely that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction. These considerations fill me with despair. They seem to show the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. I cannot help remarking that two out Tamarin’s three quotations from group A mentioned the evils of assimilation, while the third one stressed the importance of killing people in order to stamp out their religion.

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin’s behavior, and 75 percent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

I share Dawkins deep sense of despair at what we do to children in the name of religion. I recently saw the documentary Jesus Camp in which evangelical Pentecostals run a camp where young children are trained to become ‘soldiers for Christ’. Elementary-school age children are being taught to view those who do not share their narrow sectarian beliefs as some kind of enemy, by adults who are fully convinced that their own religion is right and that they are fighting for Jesus in a war with everyone else, including the ‘false’ Christians. They see themselves as being a counterweight to Muslim children being taught to be militant.

Once you concede the validity of religion, what argument can you use to say that these people are wrong? After all, they are basing the beliefs and actions on the same religious texts that apologists use. Osama bin Laden’s Koran is the same as everyone else’s. The Bible used by the children in Jesus Camp is the same as that used by Martin Luther King.

Anthropologist John Hartung, Associate Editor of the Journal of Neurosurgtcal Anesthesiology explains in the abstract of his paper why the commonly expressed justifications of religious morality, that they do contain expressions of benevolence and love towards all, do not stand up to scrutiny.

The world’s major religions espouse a moral code which includes injunctions against murder, theft and lying. Or so conventional 19th- and 20th-century Western wisdom would have it. Evidence put forth here argues that this convention is a conceit which does not apply to the West’s own religious foundations. In particular, rules against murder, theft, and lying codified by the Ten Commandments were intended to apply only within a cooperating group for the purpose of enabling that group to compete successfully against other groups. In addition, this in-group morality has functioned, both historically and by express intent, to create adverse circumstances between groups by actively promoting murder, theft, and lying as tools of competition. Contemporary efforts to present Judeo-Christian in-group morality as universal morality defy the plain meaning of the texts upon which Judaism and Christianity are based. Accordingly, this effort is ultimately hopeless. (my italics)

This is why the efforts by religious apologists to defend the virtue of religion as ultimately a source for good do not stand up to scrutiny. The sad truth is that people seem to find it much easier to use religion to do evil than to do good. As Blaise Pacal says in his Pensees (1670): “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Baxter!

Baxter is two years old today.



The problem with religion-3: All prayer, all the time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the comment that triggered this series of posts, the rise of liberation theology in South America was used to argue as a case where religion played a positive role. But let us see the liberation theology movement in its full context.

For the better part of the twentieth century, many of the countries of Central and South America were run by murderous despots, while Catholicism was the dominant religion in those countries. Around 1960, ‘liberation theology’ came into being, led by some intellectuals and clergy, arguing for a radical interpretation of the Gospels, focusing on those elements of the Bible that seemed to call for an end to oppression. But while there was this grass root effort to change the relationship of religion to state power, what was the church doing in those days, apart from a few brave priests and nuns? How many Catholic eminences took stands similar to even the limited calls for justice that Archbishop Romero took, or even came out in support of him while he was alive? Why did the Vatican and the Catholic Church not call for massive protests and agitation to overthrow the government of El Salvador when Romero was gunned down, in his own cathedral no less, by government death squads? If liberation theology was considered a good Christian thing, why was it not officially adopted by the Vatican?

In fact, those religious people who fought for the oppressed have usually had to fight not only against the governments of their time but also against their own established religious institutions. We have to remember that the priests advocating liberation theology were very much a minority and going against the grain of the official church and their activities were at best tolerated by the Church as long as they did not make too much waves. They were by no means favored by the Vatican, as can be seen by the fact that liberation theology was never adopted as part of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. In fact, Pope John Paul II harshly criticized it, and sought to redefine liberation as meaning mainly “liberation from sin and the evil one”, thus conveniently shifting attention away from people’s material needs and back to praying for their souls. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the current Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1984: “An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.”

Now, much later, those same priests and the movement they tried to create and which was suppressed by the Church are invoked by religious apologists in defense of religious virtue, to try and distance Christianity from the oppression that took place in South America with the collusion, or at least the tacit acceptance, of the church, to try and say “See, Christians were on the right side!”

There have always been courageous religious mavericks but the reason they are admired is precisely because they were mavericks, fighting against the stream. Religious institutions have cynically used them as a cover, to hide their basic alliance with power. How could it possibly be that the Church can be considered on the side of the poor when one sees the magnificent palaces and cathedrals and churches built by them in Europe, and the luxurious lifestyles lived by the bishops and other hierarchy, at the very time of rampant poverty, hunger, disease, exploitation, child labor and slavery? It was not the church that led the fight against feudalism and peasant servitude. They were the beneficiaries of that system and, as the so-called First Estate in France, were politically very influential and part of the ruling class. As historian Peter McPhee writes in The French Revolution 1789-1799 (Oxford University Press 2002, p. 13): “It was the rural population above all which underwrote the costs of the three pillars of authority and privilege in eighteenth century France: the Church, nobility, and monarchy. Together, the two privileged orders and the monarchy exacted on average one-quarter to one-third of peasant produce, through taxes, seigneurial dues, and the tithe.” The Church joined up with the nobility and monarchy to live well at the expense of the poor.

One has only to read any history of France prior to the revolution of 1789 to see how religion was used to keep the poor in their place of servitude. The cry of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” did not originate in, or ring out from, pulpits and cathedrals. Again, religious apologists might try to salvage some redemption from the fact that some poor rural clergy did support peasant rights and sided with them in the meeting of the Estates-General convened in the spring of 1789, but the religious institutions as a whole were not on the side of justice for the poor.

The usual response of religious apologists to this critique is to argue that these kinds of oppressions were done by people who were not “really” Christians, but those who paid only lip-service to Christianity, that real Christians would be on the side of the oppressed. But where is the evidence in support of this argument? How do we judge who are the “true” Christians and what is “true” Christianity? If the official policies of religious institutions when they are in positions of power and influence do not represent the “true” religion, then what does?

Perhaps we can turn to the sources of religious beliefs, the religious texts themselves. Can we use them to discern “true” religion? But they are filled with things that can be used to support the most appalling things like slavery, rape, murder, and child abuse. It is incredibly easy to use the Bible to portray the Jewish-Christian god as a cruel, vindictive, genocidal, egotistical, jealous, tyrannical despot. No one who wants to defend religion as a source for good should invoke religious texts.

So where does the idea come from that religion has not been a primarily negative force in history? What is usually done is a post facto cherry-picking of people and events, labeling those actions that are good as representing “true” religion and those that are not good as “false” religion.

The reality is that it is the basic philosophy and modes of practice of religion that supports the exploitation of people by discounting the value of this life (the only life that we are sure we have) and shifting their focus from justice in the here and now to dubious rewards after they die. It also encourages feelings of helplessness by asking people to put “one’s faith in god”. This is exactly what Martin Luther King pointed out. Religion tells people to “wait”, that praying and worshipping and “having faith” will result in their problems somehow being solved magically by some sort of deus ex machina and, even if it does not happen while they are still alive in this world, they will receive justice and rewards in the next, a kind of consolation prize for being such good sports and not complaining about their suffering.

This philosophy is extraordinarily useful as a tool for keeping people oppressed, and governments have long recognized and exploited this. If I were a despotic and exploitative ruler, I would assuredly encourage and support religious groups that urged their people to pray for thing. Because then people, rather than taking charge of the their own lives and organizing to better their lot, are putting their hopes in a “higher power”, waiting for god will intervene and change the hearts of the rulers and make them better. Nothing would suit a cynical ruler better than to have his subjects use their energies praying for change and believing that god will reward them for their faith and patience.

But it does not benefit only the rulers. It should be obvious that such a doctrine is also convenient to those who already have a good life now and live comfortable lives at the expense of the poor. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote “When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible” captures accurately how religion serves the interests of power.

Next: How religion corrupts the minds of children

POST SCRIPT: Will the US bomb Iran?

This is the question that has caused considerable consternation worldwide. Alexander Cockburn lays out the best analysis that I have seen for and against the likelihood of Bush taking such a step.

The problem with religion-2: Religion in racism and colonialism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the US, after the systematic elimination of the Native Americans, one can consider Christianity to be the de-facto “official” religion, since most people would consider themselves to be good Christians and the political leadership repeatedly invokes religious piety and symbolism.

If, as is sometimes argued, the presence of Christians in the abolitionist movement is a sign that Christianity is benevolent, then why did Christians condone and benefit from slavery for so long before that? We now assume it is an unspeakable abomination to treat human beings as objects that can be bought and sold. Why was this not obvious to the religious leaders of that time, if religion is basically against oppression? Why could not the theologians and clergy and laity in those times realize what seems obvious to anyone now? Surely it is because they considered Christianity to be compatible with slavery.

If you are going to applaud the role of religious people in (say) combating slavery, then you have to allow that many more religious people were among those who created, condoned, and profited from the slave trade for a long time. Where was the Christian church when slavery was flourishing for over centuries in Europe and North America? Where was the Christian church in America when the Native Americans were being systematically slaughtered? Where was the Christian church of Belgium when Christian Emperor Leopold was unleashing unbelievably barbaric terror on the people of the Congo? The dominant group in all these situations were people who would have considered themselves good Christians. Why were these things allowed to occur?

If the involvement of clergy in the civil rights movement was a good Christian thing to do, why was this not recognized a century earlier and during Jim Crow, since Christianity was still the dominant religion? Why did it have to take a few people like Martin Luther King to get some people to realize this? And even then, we are fooling ourselves if we think that once their eyes were opened to the fact that discrimination against black people was bad thing, that Christian institutions immediately hitched themselves to the cause. Those clergy and laity that did so were a small minority. One has only to read King’s famous 1963 letter from Birmingham jail to his fellow clergy to feel his keen sense of disappointment that more of them were not supporting him in what seemed to him to be an obviously righteous and moral cause. We agree with King now. Why did not most Christians agree with him then?

In fact, King in his letter (although religious himself) nails with deadly accuracy the reason why religion has been a negative force, and that is because although individuals might have noble intentions and want to do good, religious institutions drag them in the opposite direction. So when individuals and small groups of religious people try to work for social justice, they are usually fighting their own religious institutions as well. He said (boldface emphasis is mine):

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
. . .
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
. . .
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. . .But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church.
. . .
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical [sic] distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
. . .
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.

As King points out, what institutionalized religion tells people is: “Wait”, which really means: “Never”. And when it is not telling them that directly, it is telling them indirectly, by saying: “Pray.” And what has basically lain behind that call to pray is the promise that if you wait, you will be rewarded in heaven. So the role of religion is not to mobilize people to fight oppression but to ask them to not act but to hope for god to intervene.

Just as much as the true measure of a politician is not what they promise when they are campaigning but what policies they put their energies into when they are in office and in a position to actually achieve something, the way to judge a religion it is not by what a few on the fringes try to do but what religious people and institutions do when they are in a position to influence things.

George Bush thinks that starting wars and killing people on large scale are the actions of a good Christian. The people who flew planes into the twin towers thought they were good Muslims. The Jews who call for the forcible removal of all Palestinians from the occupied territories and claiming their land for god think they are being good Jews. The Brahmins who refuse to even touch the people of the scheduled castes think they are being good Hindus. Assuming that we think their actions were bad, on what basis can we say that any of them are mistaken in their beliefs?

Next: All prayer, all the time

POST SCRIPT: Those cheeky Aussies

The Australian comedy show The Chasers does some really funny stuff. (I earlier showed a clip of them in an item about The Secret.) Their latest prank is to have someone dressed up as Osama bin Laden manage to get within 10 meters of George Bush’s hotel in Sydney when he was there for the recent APEC meeting.

In another prank, they go photographing high security sites dressed in different ways.

(Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

The problem with religion-1: Religious individuals and institutions

The author Matt Ridley made an interesting observation: “The Asian tsunami was not an act of god but 9/11 was.”

I think that quote makes a good starting point for the next series of four posts that deal with the problem of religion. The posts are in response to a discussion that originated in a previous post and although I did not specifically intend to have them start today (I am one of those who thinks that there is far too much emphasis on commemorations and memorials to tragedies), there is no question that the perpetrators of the atrocity committed on September 11, 2001 are emblematic of the problem with religion, and the dangerous mix that occurs when people of devout faith believe in life after death and are sure they know what god wants them to do and will reward them if they do it.

In particular, what I am responding to is the following comment that, by pointing to instances where religion also inspires some people to do good, argues against my critique of religion as a negative influence in society:

Would you discount the influence of religious institutions on, for example, the pre-civil-war abolitionist movement, the US civil rights movement of the 60’s and the liberation theology movement in Latin America? And would you discount the activities of religious charity organizations in responding to natural disasters such as the tsunami and the Katrina? Would you also discount the activities of local religious organizations who regularly contribute food and material support to the poor and homeless in the Cleveland area? And what about those religious organizations that are currently calling for social justice in places like Darfur and elsewhere around the world?

I am certainly not arguing against your notion that religious has been — and will continue to be — used as a weapon by those who would unjustly wield political and economic power over others. But it seems to me fairly easy to come up with examples in history where religious organizations have operated to support the poor, to ease suffering, and to call for liberation of the oppressed.

This is a familiar argument that basically states that since there are some people who do good things in the name of religion, that means that religion as a whole cannot be bad. I agree with the author that it is easy to come up with examples of religious people and groups who try to do good things but is anyone, even the most ardent anti-religionist, really arguing that all people who profess religion are evil or incapable of doing good? There have always been people fighting for social justice and some have found support for their mission in religion and others have found support in secular sources. But that is not the point.

What is actually argued are two things: that religion has never been a necessary condition for goodness and morality, so that that particular claim to its value is spurious; and that the doctrines and practices of the institutionalized religion has largely been a negative influence in society through the ages.

In fact, the very examples quoted above illustrate the point I am making because they illustrate the actions of people acting outside of, or marginal to, institutionalized religion. If giving “food and material support to the poor and homeless in the Cleveland area” is a good Christian thing to do, why is this left to small under-funded groups, religious and non-religious alike? Why is this not done as part of official policy in this so-called Christian country? We know that some Churches are quite wealthy. The Vatican, for instance, has immense assets. Why do they not use those assets to give more to the poor?

One has to distinguish between the actions of religious individuals and small groups (acting as independent agents following their consciences) and religion’s historical role as serving the interests of the ruling classes. What I am rejecting is the argument of religious apologists that the good actions of a few religious people can immunize religious institutions against the charge that can be laid safely at their doorstep of centuries of widespread collusion with oppressors.

The basic question is where, historically, has religion as an institution stood in relation to oppression? What has been the role of the religious institutions that represent the majority of the population in those countries whose leaders also share their religious beliefs? (Small religious sects like the Amish or the Shakers are typically not part of the ruling class and often consider themselves to be among the out-group. Hence their role in the struggle against oppression may well be different from those religious institutions that represent “official” religions of nations. In fact, as I will discuss in a forthcoming series on the evolutionary basis of altruism, small groups tend to be much more cooperative and supportive of one another than large groups.)

In what follows, I am going to use examples from Christianity but not because it is particularly better or worse than other religions. One can find the negative influences in all the religions wherever they form the majority and are part of the state apparatus, even unofficially. Consider the disgraceful treatment of women and apostates in Muslim countries, the appalling treatment of Palestinians in the Jewish state of Israel, and the inhumane treatment of the so-called “untouchable” caste that was condoned by higher caste Hindus for centuries in the majority Hindu country of India.

Why have we seen consistent patterns of oppression by religious groups of other people? It is worthwhile quoting Sam Harris from his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 80):

Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings. Consequently, faith inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamic terrorism is recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation.

Religious apologists tend to disavow the evil actions done in the name of religion by saying that those people have misunderstood the “true” will of god and misinterpreted the religious texts from which that will has been discerned. Such apologists tend to think that it is only they who have discerned the “true” meaning of religion and god’s will.

Harris responds to that argument too (p. 11):

You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the “true” spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for nearly five centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently – though isn’t it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith have failed?

It is always possible to retrospectively look back on history and cherry pick, treating as truly religious just those actions that by our own current standards are “good” things and rejecting those that are “bad”. What needs to be looked at is what religious people have done when their religion has been the dominant group in a society. Have they used the state power that was so accessible to them to create peace and justice in their societies? Just to pose the question is to know the answer.

Next: Religion’s role in racism and colonialism

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Bush, Larry Craig, and religion

Here are more of Maher’s New Rules.

Going against the norm

The media circus that has surrounded US Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) with his guilty plea for lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, followed by his attempt to withdraw it, and his resignation from the Senate followed by his attempt to withdraw that too, has obscured some of the underlying issues surrounding what is admittedly an unfortunate event. The main one is how things that should be treated similarly are treated wildly differently depending on whether or not they conform to prevailing behavioral norms.

The police report on the events leading up to the arrest of Craig reveals a world in which gay liaisons are established by means of subtle codes and signals. The signals that Craig supposedly sent out to the undercover officer were of such a nature that those who are not gay or not privy to these cues would probably be oblivious to what was going on around them or baffled by what seemed to be merely eccentric or annoying behavior.

Most of us are not aware of the many secret worlds that are going on all around us. What might seem to us to be a normal city scene with people going about their lawful business may reveal, to someone in the know, scenes of drug activity, prostitution, theft, and other covert activities, all being accomplished by the subtle codes and signals exchanged by people who have established this secret language.

Assuming the police report is true, what seems to have occurred in the Craig case is that he was sending out a subtle invitation to someone he hoped was also gay. But he was either particularly obtuse in not recognizing that his advances were not being reciprocated or the undercover officer gave out conflicting signals of his own.

But it is not clear that what happened raised this event to the level where the police should have been called in. After all, similar sorts of encounters are commonplace in heterosexual situations. I am sure that women routinely experience subtle (and not so subtle) sexual overtures and invitations from men bars and other public places, and the men doing so can be confident that the women at the receiving end are not undercover officers, and even if they are, that they will not be arrested.

Although women may find such overtures offensive, most are unlikely to call in the police unless it reaches the level of serious harassment, because it is unlikely that their complaints will be taken seriously. Men even tend to feel that women should be flattered by being thus approached by them, that it is a tribute of sorts to their attractiveness. But when heterosexual men are similarly propositioned by gay men, they seem to take offense and call for the gendarmes to intervene. It seems like women are supposed to accept or even welcome such advances by men, and respond according to the unwritten ‘rules of the game’ by accepting or rejecting the overtures without calling the authorities, while men feel that it is intolerable to be similarly approached by other men, and have a right to be protected from them.

This kind of double standard happens when society sets norms of behavior that are not based on general principles but instead on what a dominant group finds acceptable. The seemingly harsh response to Craig’s actions can be seen as being due to us currently living in a world of standards largely established by male heterosexuals.

It is similar to religion in public life. Speaking publicly about one’s faith in god, asking people to pray at public events, wearing religious symbols, providing tax exemptions to religious groups and activities, invoking god as an explanation for random events, are all seen as acceptable, even meritorious. Books about how religion and god have positively influenced people’s lives are routinely published and have good sales. But when atheists start speaking publicly about their disbelief in god and write books to that effect, people question why they are so ‘militant’ and ‘forcing’ their views on others.

For example, almost every hotel room in America has a Bible in it. What do you think the response would be if atheists wrote up a small booklet laying out the case for the non-existence of god, and asked hotels for permission to put one in each room?

It seems as if atheists are supposed to accept without complaint the religious messages that they are constantly bombarded by in public life but religious people feel that they have a right to be shielded from atheistic ideas.

These kinds of double standards are pervasive and so taken for granted that we often do not recognize their existence. This is why I always find it useful in such situations, before forming a judgment, to switch the identities and characteristics of the protagonists and ask how I would react then. This strategy helps to unearth ones own biases and prejudices and helps to get at the underlying principles that should be used in determining the appropriate response.

POST SCRIPT: Double standards

While we are on the subject of the Craig affair, here’s a Tom Tomorrow cartoon that highlights the hypocritical morality that suffuses public life.

The Powell and Petraeus shows

There has been a huge media build up over the so-called Petraeus report, the progress report by the US commander in Iraq David Petraeus, on how the ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq is going. The report is due to be presented on Monday, September 10, 2007.

This has to be seen as another example of how media is managed by this administration. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Despite Bush’s repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government.”
[Read more…]

The history of western atheism-5: The religious climate in Darwin’s time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was aware of all the religious debates swirling around him as a young man, although they did not seem to divert him from his passionate pursuit of collecting beetles. In the early to mid-1800’s, England was in a reaction against the radicalism and turmoil following the French revolution of 1789 which had dethroned the religious hierarchy there. The Tories (which later became the Conservative Party) were strong supporters of the authority of the King and the Anglican Church and traditional Biblical teachings of the special creation. They were ascendant over the Whigs (which later became the Liberal Party), who wanted “extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews, and Catholics to hold office) and the abolition of slavery.” (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 24).

In such a Tory-dominated climate, evolution-related ideas such as that the mind and consciousness were not separate entities and that the body was purely a creation of the brain were strongly frowned upon because they raised disturbing questions such as “[I]f life was not a supernatural gift, if the mind was not some incorporeal entity, what became of the soul? With no soul, no after-life, no punishment or reward, where was the deterrent against immorality? What would stop the downtrodden masses from rising up to redress their grievances?” (Desmond and Moore, p. 38, my italics). We thus see that advocacy or religion and the suppression of atheism has always been a key element in the strategy of those who want to preserve power in the hands of the elite few.

What is interesting is that during this time there was widespread “antitheism,” the active opposition to theism. The working classes perceived the established Anglican Church in England, which (like the Roman Catholic Church in France) lived in luxury, as an oppressor and were calling for its abolition.

Science entered into this discussion because the idea that species were immutable had been used to support the hereditary power of the elites. The idea that god had specially created species once for all time was used to imply that social classes were also fixed and ordained by god, and that to challenge them was to challenge god’s plan.

The rising popularity of the idea of the transmutation of species proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1774-1829), and the spread of other radical ideas from European mainland, were undermining this idea and fuelling atheistic ideas, along with generating calls for a radical restructuring of society in England and the dethroning of the Anglican Church from its privileged position.

At that time blasphemy was a crime because Christianity was part of the law of the land. The Anglican Church was wealthy because they could impose taxes in the form of tithes on the population, just like the Catholic Church did in France. While the Whigs were for reform and greater democracy, they too were wary of letting the masses get too much power, preferring to have reform-minded elites run things. They feared that loosening the faith of illiterate workers would lessen their ability “to bear up against the pressure of misery and misfortune.” (Desmond and Moore, p. 70)

The theologian William Paley (whose famous book Natural Theology (1802) has the famous watchmaker analogy so beloved of intelligent design creationists and reincarnated by them as Mount Rushmore) was very frank about the social function served by religion in keeping the masses from complaining about injustice. He said that “Christian revelation. . . established the existence of ‘a future state of reward and retribution.’ And retribution in the next life is eminently useful for regulating human conduct in this one. Without the threat of eternal torture, men ‘want a motive‘ to do their duty, and ‘their rules want authority.’ Promise them future rewards, on the other hand, and a perennial problem is solved: the unequal and ‘promiscuous distribution’ of power and wealth. The swilling masses will put up with their hardships and degrading ‘stations’ once they accept that any injustice will be rectified hereafter.” (Desmond and Moore, p. 78)

Thus religion served the purpose it still serves today, to help preserve injustice by making the victims accepting of the status quo because they are fearful of divine retribution if they do otherwise. It persuades people to accept injustice and their current exploitation by promising them non-existent rewards that will supposedly receive in the non-existent life after death.

It was in this religious and political climate that Darwin proposed his dangerous idea. He was someone who sought respectability and avoided controversy. It was not in his nature to be a rebel and risk vilification by the Church and the bourgeoisie society in which he was so comfortably ensconced. He knew that his model of how species evolved would cause a stir and he risked being accused of blasphemy.

But at the same time, he was scientifically ambitious and knew that what he was proposing was a grand new idea that would increase his already considerable standing among the scientific peers who understood it and were not blinded by religious dogma. So he developed his theory in secret, sharing his ideas with just a few trusted colleagues, collecting vast amounts of evidence so that when he was finally prodded to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859 by the sudden appearance of Alfred Wallace’s similar theory, his work was on a solid empirical foundation that withstood critics’ attacks.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

POST SCRIPT: Supply Side Jesus

An alternative Biblical story.

The history of western atheism-4: Atheism spreads to the masses

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV documentary A Rough History of Atheism, Jonathan Miller points out that by the end of the 18th century, while skepticism of god and religion was gaining ground among the intellectuals and the elites, and was probably secretly quite widespread, the spread of atheism to the working classes was opposed (even by these enlightened people) because the elites feared that it would destroy the basis of their power. It was fine to discuss atheistic ideas around their dinner tables as long as the servants were not present. As James Mills said to his son, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, “There is no god but it’s a family secret.”

Religion has also consistently been used as a tool of oppression, from the colonization by Europe of Asia and Africa and South America, to its use during slavery. It was consistently used to divert the energies of the enslaved people away from organizing to fight for their rights and freedom and directed to accepting their lot as god’s will and hoping for rewards in heaven. The idea that being rich and powerful is a sign of god’s favor is a valuable tool to maintain that status quo.

A belief in the divine right of kings and nobility has always served as a powerful means of social control and a deterrent to democratic ideals, and this had been recognized for a long time. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said, “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side.” As Voltaire said, “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.” Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged the value of religion as a means of social control when he said “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet”, echoing Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) who said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

The cynical view that advocates that religion should be fostered by political leaders even if they do not themselves believe in it, is an attitude still maintained by some Straussian neoconservatives today.

As long as atheism stayed within the rarefied world of the elites and intellectuals, it did not pose a danger to social order. It is only when atheist views threaten to spread to the general public that it is viewed with concern. What we see currently in America may be a replaying of this historical pattern. The recent success of books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and the resulting public discussions of atheism that they have provoked have caused a similar disquiet.

For example, “common” people like Tom Paine were considered dangerous when they advocated atheist views, especially since his pamphleteering was reaching ordinary people. Actually, Paine is more properly be described as a deist but his stinging arguments that both Christianity and the Bible were false and many Christian doctrines immoral were enough for him to be labeled an atheist.

France in the 18th century was a fertile breeding ground for atheistic ideas because of the corrupt relationship of the Catholic Church with the French nobility. They both lived luxurious and extravagant lifestyles based on forced taxes exacted on peasants and workers. This led to a great deal of resentment and cynicism against religion and the ruling classes, factors involved in the events leading up to the revolution of 1789.

Atheism became more widespread when it started to permeate popular literature because novels reach a much wider and more middle and low-brow audience than philosophical treatises.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was clearly influenced by Baron D’Holbach and in his most famous book Madame Bovary had one of his characters, the pharmacist Homais, say the following: “I can’t believe in an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who puts his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which proves to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in ignorance, in which they would be glad to engulf the people with them.” Later on, Homais debates the local priest and urges him to read Voltaire and D’Holbach. It should be not surprising that Flaubert was criticized for his writings, on the grounds of immorality and impiety.

Another French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) is quoted as saying: “Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.”

These ideas spread across the channel to England and influenced the climate in which Charles Darwin worked, as I will discuss in the next posting.

Reflections on the Harry Potter books (no spoilers)

I read the last book in the Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about a week after it was released. It was necessary that I read it soon because I am surrounded by people who are die-hard Potter fans and they could not talk freely about it in my presence until I had done so.

This was a nice quality about true Harry Potter aficionados They tend to be very scrupulous about not wanting to spoil other people’s fun, and carefully avoid saying anything that might give the ending away. So even though I surf the web and read a lot of websites, I found it easy to avoid accidentally tripping into a site that had spoilers. Of course, very shortly people who have not read the book or do not care for the series or even actually hate it will learn what happened and will not hesitate to reveal the ending, thinking it silly to treat it with such care. Such people do not really understand the wonder that is in books.

The whole Harry Potter phenomenon has been curious. Children in general have loved the books, but the adult reaction has spread across the board. Many loved the books as much as children did. There were, of course, those religious people who objected to the books on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. There were also those who did not themselves read them but thought that having children read long books was a good thing. Meanwhile some book snobs sneered that the Potter books were just childish escapism and that children would be better off reading Wuthering Heights or other elevated forms of literature.

Although I am not one who went to the extent of dressing up as a wizard and attending parties, I found all that hype to be harmless fun and cannot understand those who frowned on it as overblown. What can be so bad about people getting highly involved with books and having fun with them? I also found it hard to sympathize with those adults who measured the value of the series based on whether it encouraged reading in general. Some praised the books because they felt it provided a doorway for children to enter the world of literature. Others said that it had a negative effect and pointed to some evidence that said that Potter fans were not moving on to read other books because they did not have the same appeal.

I find this debate to be silly. Why must the value of books be measured by whether they serve any important function? Why can’t we just enjoy them just for their own sake? Clearly many, many people obtained a great deal of enjoyment from the books and that should be enough. Maybe the books encouraged them to tackle Beowulf next or maybe they went back to playing video games. Why should that influence our judgment of the books?

As for the books themselves, some people complained about the occasional uneven pacing where there seemed to be long stretches of time when little or nothing happened. This was especially true in the very last book. This was probably due to the books being firmly in the genre of British boarding school literature. In that genre, the stories follow two complementary schedules. One format is situated in the school or its environs and invariably starts with the beginning of the school year and the children arriving at the school from all over the country, the adventure beginning soon after, and ending just in time near the end of the school year when all the children disperse for the summer holidays.

The other schedule arises because the action is situated in a town and begins with children arriving home from boarding schools for the summer holidays, having an adventure whose end coincides with the end of summer and everyone then dispersing to their various schools for the new year.

J. K. Rowling follows the first schedule and this formula enforces a fairly rigid timetable on the adventure as she has to make sure that the plot is stretched out over nine months or so, and this requires a certain amount of treading water where the characters just fill in the time.

In the early books the reader does not notice this because there is a lot of character development, details about boarding school life, studying for tests, quidditch matches, and side plots that can be woven into the story, providing some humor as well. But in later books, as the emphasis shifted to the more serious and direct confrontation between the Voldemort and Potter sides, filling in the time gaps became more difficult although Rowling’s skill as a writer managed to hide it well most of the time.

The first time the stretching out showed for me was in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which the central action involved the Triwizard tournament. This involved teams from three different schools, two of whom sent a large contingent to Hogwarts for it. The tournament involved just three events that individually lasted at most a few hours each, and realistically the whole thing could have been completed over a weekend (or at most a few days) like most interschool tournaments, But in the book there were long intervals between the events that lasted months. Although accommodating a huge number of visitors at Hogwarts for so long a time would have been unrealistic, no satisfactory explanation was given as to why this was necessary.

These are minor quibbles but may help to explain why in Deathly Hallows, the middle section had our hero and his friends wandering around in the woods with no clearly discernible purpose. Although compressing the time would have tightened the pacing, that would have resulted in the adventure ending before Christmas, something that Rowling presumably felt she had to avoid.

All in all, this was a very good series of books. Rowling handled emotions well, dealing with tragedy and death without being maudlin, with love without being sappy, and drawing moral lessons without being preachy.

Shafars and Brights

(Today being the Labor Day holiday, I am reposting an item from July 21, 2005, edited and updated.)

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for “shafars” (an acronym he has coined that stands as an umbrella term for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, which has caught on more than Smith’s, to have people identify themselves as “brights”. Who or what is a “bright”? The bright website says that “a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.” Clearly shafars and brights are almost synonymous.

Smith playfully refers to the “faith” of shafarism and says that “Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science.” He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world’s fourth largest belief system doesn’t exist. In number of adherents it’s behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it’s 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today’s politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don’t believe in God or are not certain that God exists.

Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. “None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I’d take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists.”

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God’s punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

“The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I’ll hear from them for this, but throwing God…successfully with the help of the federal court system…throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad…I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen.”

Robertson said, “I totally concur, and the problem is we’ve adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system.”

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the “religious” perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can’t label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you’ve got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.

After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some ‘organized’ religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith’s essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.