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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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