ReasonFest 2012 Panel Discussion: “Is religion a force for good?”

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Several people now have asked me to post a transcript of what I said at the ReasonFest panel, so here you go:

Is religion a force for good?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. What’s “religion”? It’s one of those things that’s easy to define until you try. What’s the difference between a religion and a cult? A culture and a religion? A philosophy and a religion? A delusion and a religion? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, although he was talking about the definition of pornography, religion may be one of those things were we just know it when we see it.

What’s “force”? I don’t think we mean the energy field created by all living things that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. Do we just mean something that inspires or motivates people? Do we mean it causes good things in itself? Do we mean that the good it motivates outweighs the bad?

And what’s “good,” anyway? Entire philosophy careers have been made out of nailing that one down and we still haven’t gotten it. Is “good” the minimizing of suffering of conscious creatures, as Sam Harris suggests, and is there more than one way to get there? Is “good” culturally dependent and relative? Is it even attainable?

I was originally going to say something very different about this. I had a whole thing worked up about why religion is not a force for good. But the more I thought about it, the more my answer changed.

I think it’s important that we feel free to be critical of ourselves in here. The framing of this question sets it up as a dichotomy – religion IS or IS NOT a force for good – and it’s a premise with which I disagree overall. Here’s why.

Religion has inspired people to do all sorts of things they probably would not otherwise do. I’m not just talking about the Crusades and 9/11 and impeding stem-cell research and all the things we wish religion did not motivate people to do, but building the Parthenon and volunteering at soup kitchens and making a cappella music (a cappella is Italian for “in the style of the church”). Religion is responsible for inspiring and motivating art, music, architecture, literature, and charity. While I agree with Christopher Hitchens in that there’s nothing a religious person can do that a secular person can’t, I don’t think it’s fair to say that religion is not a force for good.

But we clearly can’t call religion “a force for good,” either. It has redeeming qualities, and these seem to be persuasive enough to the majority of people around the world, though to be fair many of them have little say in the matter. While not all religions are structurally violent, especially to LGBTQ people and women – some pagan religions are downright feminist & sex-positive – the three Abrahamic religions, taken as written, certainly are.  I’m not going to list all the atrocities religion has brought to human history, but I will summarize by saying that most religions, as practiced, can be terribly destructive to the welfare of conscious creatures on this Earth.

I think that the best answer to this question of whether religion is a force for good or not is that religion just IS. Religion is a human invention, a tool, a meme, an adaptation, or as Dan Dennett simply calls it, a natural phenomenon. Its function is twofold. On the one hand, religion helps social animals establish loyalty to their group and to certain moral principles, so their genes can better benefit from the protections and gains-from-trade never before possible in pre-religious societies. On the other, religion provides explanations (albeit piss-poor ones) about The Big Questions: where did our universe come from? What’s the meaning of life? How ought we to act? What happens after we die?

While philosophy and science have, especially in the last few hundred years, given us much better answers to those questions than any religion previously, I don’t think it’s ideal to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Before I became an atheist, I was a worship musician, and my favorite gig was always conferences, because I felt so connected to other people. I was so thrilled to learn about the existence of atheist conferences when I deconverted, because of the energy that comes from connecting with people this way. We are social animals and we thrive in these settings. Our health demonstrably suffers when we’re lonely. Our brains are adapted to flourish in these circumstances, and yes, religion can provide that.

Is religion a force for good? It CAN be. Take science as an example. We have used the tool of science to double human lifespans, decrease infant mortality 90%, and decrease maternal mortality by 99% – and that’s just since 1900. We can also use science for evil. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was simply technologically impossible to kill more than a few dozen people at a time, a few thousand with an army. In the first week of August, 1945, the United States killed 100,000 people in Japan, and tens of thousands more died from radiation over the next few months. But it was not science in itself that did this; it was people. And just like with religion, it is people who use it for good or bad. Religion, like science, just is.

We need to understand, and help others understand, that morality does not come from religion. In fact, morality predates religion and continues to shape and inform religion, whether religious people admit it or not ;) It’s not good nor evil. Just like science, it ultimately depends on what we choose to do with it.

The panel included four participants: Aside from me, there was also KU computer-science PhD candidate Chris Redford (a.k.a. Evid3nc3 on YouTube), who happens to be one of my personal activism heros and whose YouTube videos have been an inspiration and motivation for me since long before I knew who he was. It was a huge honor for me to meet him for the first time, when I was invited last semester to give my “Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?” hour-long talk for SOMA at KU, and I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to be asked to appear on this panel with him.

The other two participants were KU law student Doug Coe, who identifies as a follower of Jesus, and who intends to be an activist against modern slavery after law school, and KU undergraduate religious-studies major & sociology minor Colton Tatham, who also identifies as a follower of Jesus. I think it’s an interesting trend, and I’ve heard this more and more lately, that people are no longer identifying as strongly as “Christians” but rather “followers of Jesus,” in the same vein as Jefferson Bethke:

It’s as though Christians are beginning to recognize, even if not admittedly, that the word “religious” has become pejorative. It seems that, more and more, there is a shift in thinking in our society, that the word “religion” brings to mind images of 9/11 and pedophile priests and megachurch pastors with $8.4 million private jets or megachurch pastors who have adulterous 3-year meth-fueled relationships with gay sex workers. I think this shift in thinking is a wonderful step in the right direction. My next article will explain why I think this is so. Until next time!

- Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward CurrentNonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Remember this one for debates!

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Been really sick the past few days, and I apologize for the lack of updates. Here is one to hold you over, and frankly, it says it all:

Pro tip: This goes for any text, not just the Bible or other “holy” texts.

As a reminder, Rick Santorum and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson will be speaking in Columbia today (Friday) at 4 PM. Here is the SASHA Facebook event if you have questions for them!

Also don’t forget that on Sunday at 10 AM, we’re having our monthly “Alternative Church” with coffee, bagels, and the Columbia Atheists group. Check out our Facebook group for more details.

New articles coming soon!

- Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Oh, HELL no! I smell a lawsuit!

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This is outrageous. A new Oklahama bill seeks to squash atheists’ First-Amendment right to practice our religion in the traditional manner!

NPR link: State Bill Outlaws Use of [Human] Fetuses in Food Industry

Freedom From Religion Foundation, ACLU, anybody, can we move on this?

(Thanks to Terry Munger for the joke!)

See you guys tomorrow at 5:30 PM for the weekly SASHA meeting (click here for the Facebook event), at Reasonfest in Lawrence, Kansas on February 11/12, and at the Reason Rally on March 24!

- Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

A comment about “Christian” bullying

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My friend, atheist advocate & activist, and SASHA blog guest author, Damon Fowler, posted this to Jessica Ahlquist in response to the treatment she is receiving by so-called “Christians” following the recent ruling regarding the prayer banner:

I’m really sorry you have to deal with that kind of treatment. People would always tell me “You don’t want to talk to those kinds of people anyway”, which is probably true, but it didn’t make it much better. I guess the best advice I can give is keep what friends you have close, don’t act like you’re bothered by it in front of them, and keep your online support on standby. I’m sure anyone would be willing to listen if you needed someone to talk to. I’m here and I know a bit about what you’re going through. Anyway, things will get better. You did a great thing. :)

My response:

I’m not trying to give unsolicited advice, but I disagree that someone should act like discrimination/bullying etc doesn’t bother them, if indeed it does (as it should!). Their behavior is not only completely unacceptable morally, but it’s also illegal, and ironically, anti-Christian. I think in some cases, in the face of egregious bullying, it can be more productive to call the bullies out on it, very publicly, especially if you have the option of “low-hanging fruit”; for example, you might say…

“Jesus said,  ‘You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). Jesus said, ‘If someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well’ (Matthew 5:40, Luke 6:29). Do you think that I am evil? Then remember what Jesus said about evildoers: ‘Do not rise up against an evil person; if someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well’ (Matthew 5:39).

What you should really be doing, instead of getting mad at me, is asking yourself if you are really a Christian, or if you are what Jesus called the Pharisees, a hypocrite – the Greek word for an actor, someone who pretends to be righteous, but in reality, is selfish, prideful, and wicked. If you are really a Christian, you will do as Jesus commands, even when it’s difficult, ESPECIALLY when it’s difficult. If you are really a Christian, you will recognize your pride, your indignation, and stand up for what Jesus taught – tolerance, and peace with those who disagree with you, but most of all, forgiveness to those who persecute you. If you are really a Christian, you should be asking yourself, “Would would Jesus do?”

You believe that Jesus could work miracles, that he could do anything he could imagine with just a mere thought. When Jesus was being tortured by the Roman soldiers after his arrest, did he summon lightning to strike them dead? No, he prayed for them. When Jesus was hanging by nails through his feet and wrists on the cross, did he spit on his executioners, call them names, and threaten them? No, he asked God to forgive them.

In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” By persecuting me, you are disrespecting the judge’s decision that the banner is unconstitutional, and by disrespecting the judge, you are disrespecting God. Christians are commanded to obey the governments that God has placed over them. When the Apostle Paul wrote that, he was writing under the Roman emperor Nero, perhaps the most tyrannical and anti-Christian government in Christian history. Under Emperor Nero, Paul – who, unlike Jesus and his other apostles, was a Roman citizen – was executed, a nearly unprecedented punishment for a citizen. The Apostle Paul had every imaginable reason to fight his government, but he steadfastly refused – in fact, he encouraged obedience, because this is what Christians are commanded to do. If Saint Paul could obey the decisions of his government, even in the face of his own execution, what makes you think you don’t have to?

You call yourself a Christian; why is it that I, an atheist, am more kind than you? Jesus wanted you, as his follower, to set an example of how to treat people, regardless of whether they are Christian or not, and ESPECIALLY if they persecute you. You call yourself a Christian; why is it that I, an atheist, am more civil, more peaceful, more gentle than you?

If you choose to persecute me, if you choose to disrespect the judge’s decision, understand that, as Paul himself said, you will bring judgment on yourself. Your words and actions are bigoted and hateful, not forgiving and peaceful, as Jesus taught. You are treating me this way out of your own selfishness, bigoted intolerance, and lack of respect, love, and generosity toward your fellow man. Further, your thoughts, words, and actions are explicitly against the instructions of both Saint Paul and Jesus himself. And if you are a Christian, you YOURSELF believe that you will face judgment for this. You think that I am going to hell because I am an atheist? I stood up for the United States Constitution, even though it was difficult, even though I knew I would face hatred from hypocrites like you. And I did it with respect, kindness, and a desire for tolerance. And what do you do in return? Directly, blatantly, and pridefully disobey Jesus himself. And as the Bible says, whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10). So I have news for you: If you want to call yourself a Christian, you have two choices: Regardless of whether you agree with it or not, and regardless of what you think of me personally, you must respect the judge’s decision, and you must treat me with love, tolerance, peacefulness, and forgiveness, as Jesus commanded, or you will burn in hell yourself, according to your very own rules. The choice is yours.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s having to teach someone their own damn religion. Ugh.

A note to Jess:

I want you to know that the 550+ members of SASHA are behind you 100%. You are an an inspiration, an amazing person. These “Christian” bullies, they get defensive and angry because that is how our brains respond to cognitive dissonance – when they are demonstrated to be wrong, but they cannot cope with it. They know they are wrong, but nobody likes to be wrong, and it’s easier for them to lash out at you instead. That is not only childish, selfish, and wicked, but it’s also anti-Christian. Their own religion tells them, in no uncertain terms, to love their enemies, to forgive those who persecute them, and to obey their government. Take heart in knowing that you are right, and no amount of bullying can take that away. And frankly, in terms of love, kindness, forgiveness, and tolerance, you are showing THEM how it’s done.

Keep up the great work. We’re here for you if there’s anything at all we can do to help. I’m looking forward to hanging out with you again and hearing you speak at the Reason Rally!

Dave

P.S. You’re not old enough for this yet, but here’s what we enjoyed when we got the news that you’d won :P

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

A quick update, and my response to a comment on Jessica’s victory

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Hello everyone!

I apologize for the lack of updates lately; lots going on. I’m in Philadelphia right now for a funeral, but I will be posting much more soon. So many things to write about – forthcoming are more articles in the Facebook series about the atheist-turned-Christian video, an article about Jessica Alhquist’s recent victory, an article about the current crop of Republican candidates, an article about the Jewish funeral I attended today (this could go a couple of different directions… death rituals and meaning within Judaism, the ethics and economics of modern funerals, atheists & grief…), some articles about several other interesting Facebook threads that I’ve participated in lately (religious delusions as a justification for faith, what’s comfortable to believe versus what’s true…), responding to some comments on some of my previous articles, and more.

I have to get going, but I’m going to leave this open to an informal poll among our members & our other readers: What would you like to hear about? Please leave me a comment here or on our Facebook group’s Wall about what idea from the list above sounds interesting to you, or suggest a topic of your own. Looking forward to hearing from you!

In the meantime, here is a quick thought about the Cranston ruling:

Kevin Harris wrote:

It’s a sad day when a judge confuses the establishment clause with the [free] exercise clause. The public schools belong to the people. If the people in the community express a religious heritage in public, so be it. What you would rather do is force YOUR secular philosophy into the public schools by removing any religious or Christian expressions. There IS NO NEUTRALITY! The removal sends a message that secular philosophy is the choice of the academy and to be preferred in the public square.

My response:

I think people confuse secular with anti-theist. (Also, I think people confuse atheist with anti-theist).

“Secular” means “not overtly or specifically religious; of or relating to the state as distinguished from the church, civil; of or relating to the laity as distinguished from the clergy; not formally related to or controlled by a religious body” (source).

We have a secular government in the United States. That doesn’t mean that we have an atheist or anti-theist government; all it means is that we are not a theocracy, [nor] a monarchy (divine right of kings), etc. It means that we govern ourselves in a way that’s distinguished and separate from the church, that is, not under the control of a religious body. Our public schools, Cranston among them, are included in this.

I think that a lot of this could be resolved simply by helping people understand that their idea of what these words mean is incorrect and skewed by religious motivations.

You can bet your ass that the people who support the banner, all Christian no doubt, would NOT be so supportive of the idea if instead of opening with, “Our Heavenly Father,” it said, “Our Overlord from Hell,” even though they are equivalent statements in principle.

Let us know what you’ll like to read about next!

Take care,

Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

A God I’d have a beer with…

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“Yeah, I’d vote for Senator What’s-His-Nuts. He seems like he’s pretty real…you know, a regular guy. I could see myself having a beer with him, is what I’m saying.”

I hear that line a lot going in to the voting season (and though I’m not here to talk politics, I will say that I think it’s really stupid).

It seems like a lot of people enjoy evaluating potentially important decisions on who will lead their city, state, or country based on whether or not the person they’re voting for would have a beer with them.

Which is only just *slightly* more civilized than deciding who leads by way of a Viking moot.

However, as of late I’ve seen a lot of Christians seem to adopt roughly this same view on God. They will cuss, drink, and generally act all “in yo’ face” for Christ. This often includes being aggressive in their discussions and debates with Atheists and other non-Christians. When called out on the sophomoric behavior and then (for icing atop the cake) informed that their actions are, in fact, in conflict with the teachings of their Bibles, they will respond in a way that essentially boils down to this: “Yeah, well, just because that’s what it actually says doesn’t mean that’s what it really means.” When pressed for clarification, normally their reasoning is reveled to actually be “I just feel like God approves. Besides, he’s loving and I’m sure he’ll forgive me since I’m devoted to him.” That’s pretty much the theological equivalent of “I think God would have a beer with me.”

M’kay, kid. So, you think that the all-powerful, cosmic, mega-tyrant of the Old Testament (and the son-murdering, earth-ending God of the New Testament) is going to see you transgressing his strict instructions on thoughts and behavior but, just before he smites you, stop and say to himself, “Oh, that’s okay. They have a ‘personal relationship’ with me, so I will overlook it.”

Yeah…I call bullshit. Read the Bible. Yes, there’s plenty about love and forgiveness and blah blah blah in there, that’s true. There’s also quite a few scenes where God over-the-top smites someone for disobeying some part of his commandments. For example, in the book of 2nd Samuel God murders some poor fellow for reaching out and trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling in the mud.

Interestingly, God merely thanked Indie for it. Thanked him, then backed away... timidly.

The reason God killed the guy? Well, Mr. High-and-Mighty had decreed earlier that only certain people (namely priests) were to be permitted to touch the ark. Remember though, the victim (named Uzziah) was only trying to keep the sacred ark from falling on the ground; he had no ill intentions. Hell, it was practically reflexive. Still, God murdered him on the spot for innocent disobedience. We could talk at length about the moral implications from this disgusting story, but the main point I want to emphasize here is that God didn’t care where Uzziah’s heart was or what his intentions were; he just straight up killed him for the physical act of disobedience.

Pictured: a man who would appreciate God's response

Don’t think that sort of murderous tyranny is relegated to the Old Testament only, either. The New Testament has, as its major theme, the idea that people who disagree with God are wicked, foolish, disgusting, and ultimately hell bound.  Threats and promises of eternal torment are to be found a plenty in the New Testament, and they are aimed at anyone who refuses to bow down to God in exactly the way he demands that they bow down. So no, God doesn’t seem to laid back about his doctrines in either testament.

At no point does the Bible contain a clause saying “pick the parts you like because God is a cool, laid back deity who ‘gets you’,” so all this nonsense with self-professed Christians cussing out Atheists, making death threats (or wishing death upon us), and just generally acting like assholes under the pretense that God will understand and forgive them needs to stop.

Now, why am I taking the time to say this? Why do I care if Christians match the proper level of piety espoused in their Bibles? Simple: because beliefs shape society, and only earnest beliefs can be changed through rational discourse. Want a society where women are treated as property, knowledge is seen as evil, and bigotry reigns supreme? Easy enough to do, just expose your population only to hard-line, fundamentalist religious doctrines and you’ll have it in no time. Want to undue all those evils I just mentioned? Well, muster up enough logically and emotionally valid arguments to change peoples minds and go hash it out over coffee or some such. It’ll be more difficult and take longer, but eventually through education, logical reasoning, and social grass-roots activism you’ll hopefully accomplish your goal if the people you’re talking to actually care about what they believe.

Hoover, the key point to notice is that for social change to happen, those who are in the wrong must at least take their beliefs seriously enough so as to be able to critically evaluate them. Otherwise, all the activism, logic, and debate in the world won’t elucidate them as to why they are mistaken.

So you’ll get nowhere fast with idiots who don’t even understand or practice their own professed religion. People like that merely use their religion as a thin cover for ignorance and tribalism. Tragically, once they reach that stage there’s usually no arguing with them; the best you can do is ignore them and hope their kids turn out different.

In the end, I’ll be blunt: I detest religion. However, I respect a person who, despite being religious, is at least sincere, well read, and well thought out about where they stand. I can debate, discuss, and reason with just such a person and for that alone they have my appreciation. However, those who act however-the-hell they want or thoughtlessly spew hate in the name of their God of choice while remaining ignorant of the very commandments they’re transgressing have absolutely none of my respect whatsoever.

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SASHA blog guest contributor Brandon Christen, a former Church of Christ preacher-turned-atheist, was born and raised in Missouri. He grew up in a religious family, and joined a far-right conservative church when he was a senior in college. For almost six years, the church dominated all facets of his life and thinking until, in early 2010, he began to openly question its steadfast rejection of science and philosophy. After a protracted struggle with his convictions, Brandon became an atheist in September of that year. These days Brandon remains intensely interested in religion, focusing on religious versus secular moral and ethical issues. Brandon frequently engages in conversations with as many religious individuals as he can in a “grass roots” effort to spread awareness about secular morality. He also acts as a strong voice in the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Missouri. While he sees debunking religious falsehoods as important, Brandon’s ultimate focus is on becoming a professional philosopher and emphasizing in ethics so as to lend his voice to the attempt to heal the moral divide between believers and non-believers. 

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward CurrentNonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Dave’s Mailbag, Thursday 9/22/11

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Hello all!

I regularly receive emails about my articles here; depending on the nature of the message, I sometimes get one that I think is better served with a public response. Last night I received the following, presumably in response to my blog post about religious identity vs. practice in America, and thought you all might be interested:

Dave,

You are an asshole. In a depressed society where kids are turning to identity in gangs, and their parents are working as hard as possible to keep them in church based programs and out of trouble, you are running your mouth in opposition. Really dude…you are pathetic. No one has to “identify themselves” as you say. These are churches set up to create a positive identity for a child, and you inflect that kids are forced to go to church. The church in some poor depressed neighborhoods is the very outlet for safe harbor for children…

[sender's name withheld by Dave]

Sender,

Thank you for your message. To make sure I understand your position, your claims are:

1) We live in a depressed society
2) Kids are turning to identity in gangs
3) Parents work to keep their kids in church-based programs
4) …and out of trouble
5) No one has to “identify themselves”
6) These churches [in poor, depressed neighborhoods] are set up to create a positive identity for children
7) Churches in some of these neighborhoods are a safe harbor for children

Let’s break this down:

As a student of economic anthropology, one of the things I study is quantifying and analyzing data about social welfare, the overall well-being of societies. There are a couple of ways to assess your claim. You didn’t mention where you’re writing from, but considering you said “we live,” I’m presuming we’re both from the United States. The HDI (Human Development Index) is the most common composite statistic used to rank countries by level of human development. It’s a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living for countries worldwide.

The United States is among the highest in the world when it comes to human development. In fact, using 2010 data (the latest available), we rank at #4, with an HDI of 0.902, behind only Norway, Australia, and New Zealand.

Now, human happiness is not totally dependent on life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living. People are happy or depressed for all sorts of reasons, many of them subjective:


My ex, Bekka, took the above picture during her Peace Corps service in Liberia, West Africa. These are her brothers and sisters from her host family during training. They are all smiles basking in the attention, and from what I understand talking to her, some of the hardest-working, gentlest, and nicest people you could hope to meet. Liberia is one of the poorest countries on Earth, ranking 162nd on the Human Development index, with a GDP per capita of $392, or about $1.07/day. It is also one of the most religious, with approximately 100% of the population self-identifying with a religious tradition (mostly Christianity, also Islam and indigenous religions). Liberia recently went through two terrible back-to-back civil wars, in which about 1 out of 7 people in the entire country died, and unemployment is still around 90% (!), with 85% of the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25/day purchasing-power parity. Lest readers retort, “Well, I don’t know what $1.25 can buy you in Liberia. Maybe you could live like a king on $1.25/day there,” well, that’s what purchasing-power parity means. In other words, 85% of the population lives on less than what you could buy in the United States for $1.25/day in US dollars ($456.25/year).

I think that, if your claim that we live in a depressed society is true (it’s not; “depressed” is a relative term meaning “in a state of relative unhappiness”; according to 2006 figures, we rank fairly high, at #26 on the Satisfaction with Life index; see also this link – it’s not even that we’re not below-average when it comes to happiness; we’re actually in the top 1/7), we ought to examine what the happiest societies are doing differently than we are.

You imply that promoting atheism, as I do, leads young people away from church and into gangs, and therefore is damaging to the goal of lifting our society out of its depressed state. If I have misunderstood your logic, please let me know, as I don’t desire to tear down a straw man.

We can test your claim empirically. I have already addressed that this is a loaded claim in that our society is, in fact, not in a depressed state by any of several quantitative measures. Even if that were true, though, if atheism leads to crime, then the most atheist societies should have the most crime, especially gang-related crime as you are concerned with. We can also test your claim the other way around: If religion leads to less crime in society, than the most-religious societies should have the least crime, especially when it comes to gang-related crime as you stressed.

I could quote to you a bunch of statistics, graphs, charts, maps, and studies that demonstrate beyond any reasonable refutation that the opposite is true: The most atheistic societies (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, etc) have the least crime, and the most religious societies have the most. I can’t help passing up two quick examples: South American & Mexican drug cartels, and the Italian mob, both in countries with the largest populations (and proportions of the population) of Roman Catholics in the world. If anything, it appears that the hierarchical example of Roman Catholicism may have taught them how to organize their crime! To demonstrate the absurdity of this claim, I’m could say two words to you that you’ve never heard back-to-back before: “Swedish mobsters.” Exactly.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) receiving The Order of St. Sebastian (The Godfather, Part III). Did you know that “Corleone” is actually Swedish, not the name of a city in Sicily, Italy as portrayed in the films?

But instead, I’m going to follow Phil Zuckerman’s advice [the sociologist at Pitzer College who wrote an ethnographic book about his studies in Denmark & Sweden called "Societies Without God: What The Least-Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment"]:

Don’t get sucked into arguments about “Can we be good without God?” Don’t try to convince theists that secular morality is actually more rational and, well, more moral. Rather, just insist that morality is ultimately revealed and shown through human action and deed. And we can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled. End of discussion.

Let’s move on to the United States, since that will give us data most applicable to our real concern, religiosity vs. crime & depression [of society in general] in this country. I think two complementary facts should demonstrate to you the fundamental flaw in your claim: In the US, in states with the highest percentages of atheists, the murder rate is lower than average. In the most-religious US states, the murder rate is higher than average (PDF link). The National Gang Intelligence Center, a subdivision of the Department of Justice, put together a nice map illustrating where gang activity is concentrated in the United States:

A vast majority of gang activity in Illinois can be attributed to the fact that it contains Chicago (see below). This makes it an outlier in the Midwestern states. Most gang activity in the rest of the country (California, Florida, New Mexico) is immigrant-related, almost exclusively from Mexico & Latin-America (the Latin Kings gang, which is the largest & most-organized in the United States, is actually based in Chicago).

ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) at Trinity College produced this excellent video lecture with Professor Juhem Navarro-Rivera explaining the demographics of religious belief among Latinos in the United States (roughly 21 of every 25 Latinos in the United States identify as Catholic/Christian):


You can download the full report as a PDF here. I can’t help but mention the similarities of the map on the cover of the above report to the map of gang members per capita I posted above from the Department of Justice. Not to say that correlation implies causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy), nor to imply that all Latinos are involved with gangs, but read the reports, look at the statistics, and see for yourself: Self-identification with a religion is highly positively correlated with criminality, both in the United States by state, and in countries around the world. Whether the lower crime rates among atheists is due to their atheism or a third factor is something we should definitely look into, but what is clear is that advocating atheism cannot be said, reasonably, to lead to higher crime rates, nor to depression as a society. In fact, the data suggest the opposite.

If that were true, when we compare a map of religious adherence to a map of crime rates, we should expect to see TWO things:

1) The areas with the MOST adherence should have LOW crime rates

2) The areas with the LEAST adherence should have HIGH crime rates

What do we see when we look at the data?

Click for source data

At best, the correlation is inconclusive. For certain states, it seems to be the opposite – the more religion, the more crime; for others, religiosity and crime don’t seem to be linked.

There is a myth, perpetuated by theists, that religion is necessary in order to keep people from becoming criminals. You made the claim that no one has to “identify themselves,” and then go on to say that churches provide a positive identity for children. Well, which is it? You seem to be implying (again, correct me if I’m wrong) that without a religious identity, children would fall into the trap of 1) no identity or 2) a criminal or gang identity.

This is a false dichotomy. You are ignoring the obvious alternative of an atheist identity. As a demographic, atheists have fewer divorces, abortions, and STDs, and lower poverty rates, homicide rates, overall crime rates, and teen pregnancy rates. As a demographic, atheists have higher IQs, incomes, education rates, and literacy rates, and more Nobel Prizes, university professorships, etc. You paint the picture as though without after-school church programs or Sunday School, youth would be lost. You’re forgetting philosophy clubs, science fairs, Camp Quest, the wonderful world of reading, of history, mathematics, biology, COLLEGE, hope for the future, and so on.

Religion is for people who have never matured in their understanding of ethics. Religion teaches a child’s view of ethics, that “being good” means “obeying your parent.” It gives a moral blank check to those bold enough, dishonest enough, to claim to speak for God. Atheism means looking at ethical questions as an adult among other adults, considering ethics as a means of maintaining peace and cooperation among equals, so that all may pursue happiness within the limits that ethics defines. – John B. Hodges

It seems to me that the best thing we can do is teach ethics to young people. You may argue that teaching religion IS teaching ethics, but I would ask, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” and point you, again, to the expert on this topic, Phil Zuckerman, and his quotation: “We can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled.”

What we need is to teach young people how to think critically, how to understand the social and psychological pressures of what draws people to criminal behavior, and the alternative: Not more religion, not more thinking that if you just close your eyes really tightly and cross your fingers, society will magically improve, but more science, more reading, more knowledge – the only things that have ever demonstrably led to actual improvement in human societies, as Steven Pinker aptly points out in this linked video, tipping exponentially toward a better world starting with the Age of Enlightenment in the 16th century, when science really began to shape how we view (and govern) ourselves.

We need to teach young people to be more skeptical, not more obedient. Teaching obedience is not only demonstrably ineffective (see above) but leads to rebellion (at best), or worse, the idea that people can do whatever they want – no matter how disgusting, inhuman, cruel, and savage it may be – because your invisible friend will still be your buddy and let you live in his invisible mansion when it’s over. Teaching young people how to read, and teaching them philosophy, leads – demonstrably – to more ethical behavior. And as Phil Zuckerman said, that is really what our concern is in all of this.

If I have misrepresented your view, please let me know exactly what you meant to say, and I will respond. I hope this has helped you (and other readers) see that religiosity is, actually, a bad influence when it comes to moral, pro-social thought & behavior.

Take care,

Dave

mail@davemuscato.com
(573) 424-0420 cell/text

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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3, Thunderf00t, TheAmazingAtheist, The Atheist Experience, Edward Current, NonStampCollector, Mr. Deity, Richard Dawkins, QualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, The Friendly Atheist, WWJTD?, Debunking Christianity, SkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too! :)

Antitheist Apologetics

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This is an antitheist apologetics post by Seth Kurtenbach.  It is meant to show how easily one can make a ridiculous theological argument.  Of course I don’t endorse any of the premises that follow, but many theists do, and so I show that by twisting faith-based beliefs one can conjure up almost any argument.

Thanks to Anthony A. for posting this on the SASHA wall.

A theist might respond by saying that satan’s torture/torment of evildoers is not done as an act of punishment, but merely because it gives him pleasure to torture and torment. Without just intentions, the infliction of suffering on evildoers is not itself just, but is merely the infliction of suffering on evildoers.

For example, suppose it is just to punish murderers by killing them. Suppose also that a prison guard happens to have access only to murderers, and kills them because killing them gives him great satisfaction. He does not kill them out of a sense of duty, or because it is just, and these reasons play no motivating role in his actions: he would kill them even if they were innocent. One might balk at calling him a good guy. In this way, it is possible for satan to inflict suffering on evildoers without being a good guy.

However, if this is the case, then it seems that the guy ultimately in control is allowing a lot of unjust suffering to happen at the hands of satan, allowing satan the satisfaction of torturing people. God is supposed to be all powerful, and in virtue of this power he can prevent satan from torturing anyone, and yet he allows it. This is like the prison warden knowing about the rogue murderous guard, being able to prevent the guard’s transgressions, but allowing them to continue. Is the warden justified in allowing this to go on? No, he should stop the rogue guard and administer the punishments himself, to ensure that justice is done rather than power abused.

So, if satan tortures evildoers, then either he does so justly or unjustly. If justly, then he’s a good guy. If unjustly, then god unjustly allows it to happen. If satan is a good guy, then god is a bad guy, because it is assumed that they are on opposing sides. Therefore, either way, god is unjust.  Bummer, theists!  Wrong team!

Jebediah’s Wager

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A response to Pascal’s Wager by Seth Kurtenbach.

Pascal’s Wager is an all too familiar argument for those of us in the skeptical community.  We like to point out that there are innumerable other gods for whom the same wager may be considered, thereby undermining the power of the original wager which usually focuses on Christianity.  We say, as did Richard Dawkins, “what if you’re wrong about Zeus, Ba’al, Wotan, or the great JuJu at the Bottom of the Sea?…”

You may know by now that a Christian will quickly point out that these deities do not threaten eternal damnation as punishment for lack of belief, and do not offer eternal reward for belief.  The strength of Pascal’s wager is its appeal to infinite reward and punishment.  It is a simple decision procedure called dominance reasoning which tells us that, given the possible payoffs, it is rational to believe that Jesus saves.  Even if one uses a slightly different decision procedure, expected utility, one is still rational to accept Jesus into his heart, because any non-zero probability, however small, multiplied by infinity is still infinite.  Thus, the Christian believes he has you.

But, you say, consider the infinite number of deities that can be cooked up wholecloth, which do threaten eternal punishment and reward.  We may not have discovered the one true god yet, and based on this uncertainty, there is no reason to favor Christianity in particular.  This response has its merits, particularly if it emphasizes human fallibility and uncertainty about the cosmos, but it is likely to have little affect on one’s interlocuter.  If the point is to undermine the strength of the wager itself, then I think there is a better way to do so.

And it goes like this.

Jebediah, proposing his Wager

Suppose Jebediah, a devout Amish, approaches you (a Christian) and proposes the following wager:

“Good fellow Christian, we believe in the same Lord our God, that He died for our sins, was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day He rose again.  We both know that accepting the Lord into our hearts carries with it eternal salvation; an infinite reward.  We both know that failing to accept the Lord into our hearts carries with it eternal damnation, an infinite punishment.  Now, as a member of the Amish community, I believe that one must shun the fruits of technology, and live as they did in the Bible, without buttons, zippers, and iPods.  Should one fall to the temptation of such devilry, one is surely lost and doomed to Hell forever.  I see that you have a smartphone, and a zipper, and you drive a car.  Good fellow Christian, what if you’re wrong?  What if you are judged at the Pearly Gates for endulging in such sins, and though you believe in the One True God, he casts you out for failure to keep the Laws?  We all know that a True Christian keeps the Laws.  Is your zipper, button, iPod, or car really more valuable to you than your soul?  Surely these items do not provide infinite satisfaction.  If you give them up, and live as the Amish, and we are wrong, then your loss is merely finite, but if you fail to give them up, and we are right, then your loss is infinite!  Listen to reason, and shun the iPod!”

Behold, Jebediah’s Wager:

1.  If you shun technology and the Amish have the correct theology, then you gain eternal reward.

2.  If you shun technology and the Amish have the incorrect theology, then you suffer a finite loss, but still live a rewarding life of simplicity and devout Christianity, and so may still receive an eternal reward!

3.  If you do not shun technology, and the Amish have the correct theology, then you suffer eternal punishment.

4.  If you do not shun technology, and the Amish have the incorrect theology, then you gain some finite pleasure from the technological comforts (mmmm, the joys of zippers!), and perhaps still an eternal reward.

Thus, by shunning technology, one is guaranteed an eternal reward in Heaven, and by refusing to shun technology, one will either suffer eternal damnation or perhaps eternal reward anyway.  Why gamble with salvation?  Take the sure bet, and shun technology.

How will the Christian respond to this?  If he or she does not immediately become Amish, then he or she realizes the weakness of Pascal’s Wager.