Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Think about it" Thursday: Religious prohibition?

I am of the opinion that an unchangeable mind is a dangerous thing, so today's "Think about it" format is a little different from other weeks, because I've been doing some thinking and rethinking myself. So the following is not necessarily a statement of my "official position," just me throwing ideas out there, trying to think things through, and inviting you all to think along with me.

I finally got around to watching the Intelligence Squared debate on whether atheism is the new fundamentalism. I was struck when one of the panelists (I think Dawkins, but I don't remember for sure) said that if all religious people were like the two panelists arguing for the motion--moderate, reasonable, opposed to Biblical inerrancy and fundamentalism--then there would have been no need for the new atheism. That got me thinking: I do think that religion is a creation of humanity, and that basing your life on something that's fabricated is an unhealthy way to live, but, isn't categorizing all religion as always bad more or less like saying alcohol is always bad just because there are some who use it irresponsibly?

Alcohol isn't exactly the healthiest substance you can put in your body, but I enjoy a drink every now and then and would say that those who say alcohol is always bad are unreasonable. Alcohol can be bad, contributing to car accidents or domestic violence, and for some people it becomes an addiction that destroys their life. Maybe we would all be better off if no one drank, but we all know that Prohibition didn't work out so well. People are going to drink no matter what, so we've opted to regulate alcohol instead of banning it.

New atheists are not seeking any sort of legal ban on religion, but they are actively trying to dissuade religious people from their beliefs. Is saying all religion must go the best approach? A friend sent me this op-ed on the "Religious Wars" from the New York Times last week. One of the most interesting points to me referred to studies that suggest that a tendency toward religious belief may be hardwired into us, and thus, religion in some form or another will probably be with us for a long time still. In other words, we might not ever be able to completely get rid of religion.

Instead of trying to eradicate all religion, might it be more wise instead to encourage healthier approaches to religion? Thoughts?


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18 comments:

  1. "Alcohol isn't exactly the healthiest substance you can put in your body"

    It's actually quite healthy if done in moderation. Numerous studies have shown that a drink or two a day can lower the risk of certain types of cancer

    "for some people it becomes an addiction that destroys their life."

    I've seen arguments that addiction is less about the substance and more about a mental issue that predisposes someone to addictive tendencies. If it wasn't alcohol it would be something else. Part of rehab is re-focusing that tendency on something constructive rather than destructive.

    "studies that suggest that a tendency toward religious belief may be hardwired into us"

    I have an interesting outside view of this idea. I grew up basically non-religious. We were Lutheran in name only, and I could probably count on my hands the number of times I went to church. I later joined the LDS church in order to maintain a relationship (which I didn't realize at the time).

    Now that I am out of the LDS faith, I have no inclination towards any sort of religion. I don't think that religion is hardwired in my brain at least. For me I'd say it's more that I was hard-wired to ponder my existence, and culture had supplied an answer. If that culture was different (if my parents had been atheists) then I don't think I'd have had any religious tendencies at all.

    I am still of the position that believing in Heaven and/or God is not the best thing for a person. Belief in Heaven will leads people to not live as fulfilling a life as they would otherwise. Belief in God also tends to suggest that "God did it" and some people will be fine with that answer instead of digging deeper into the "why".

    One other issue I have with moderate religiosity is that it tends to intrude on personal freedoms a bit. A small example of this is the ten commandments monument on the courthouse lawn in Fargo. Moderately religious people voted to keep it in place, even though our country is about religious freedom. That's just one small example. I'm fine with people being religious, as long as it doesn't affect others.

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  2. This is an interesting question.

    While I personally believe that freedom of belief and religion are essential human rights, these being the rights that even allow me to be an agnostic/atheist, I feel some remorse when I see people spending their time and money in supplication to a god that as far as I can tell is false.

    I personally feel that I have more light and understanding in my life since I have left religion behind. This may be because of the long path of spiritual searching, research into the sciences, and appeals to logic that has led me to where I am today, but this path has given me many gifts. Namely with out dogma I am now more open to ideas and philosophies beyond my own paradigm, and all of the critical thinking skills that allows me to reshape my views as I receive new information or new ways for evaluating the knowledge that I already have.

    Though I would never take away the right for someone to believe whatever the want, I do feel that it is important to at least expose them to ideas that may help them to a path that will give them a more true framework by which to operate.

    I don’t think it is possible to eradicate all religion or forms of spirituality, and superstition, but I do think it is good to educate, and share new ideas with people so that they at the very least have to deal with the idea.

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  3. The questions asked and tone set in this post is decidedly different than that of your post 'To the Lost Sheep: It's ok to run!'.

    A few excerpts from that post: "I have no intention of coming across otherwise [that is to come across as being derogatory towards religion]. "I have no intention of playing nice with religion." "to be blunt, I think it is poison and it needs to be eradicated if we're ever going to progress."

    So, in the span of barely a month you have gone from 'live and let live' to 'we must eradicate religion because it is poison' to just needing a healthier approach to religion. I am confused. And it's quite feasable that all the lost sheep that you promised to help out are confused as well. So, are all the lost sheep now ok in their religion so long as they take a healthy approach to it? What is that healthy approach supposed to be? You came out of the gates early on in this blog sounding like this great liberator from religion to now saying "well, now I'm not so sure."

    Are you even sure how you feel about religion?

    I am interested in you thoughts on what is a healthy approach.

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  4. Patrik, do you even read my posts before you start spouting off? I'm saying I'm thinking, based on a new perspective I've gained. That's all. I'm saying I could change my mind based on new information, not that I definitely AM changing my mind at this very moment.

    I know how I feel about religion for myself. I think I've been pretty clear about that. But for those who don't feel that way, I will also welcome what I consider healthier approaches to religion, which in my view starts with throwing out authoritarianism, whether it's based on authority of clergy or of a book. I posted this morning a news story about the Episcopalian church electing a lesbian woman as a bishop. That's a major step forward. It challenges irrational discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. It shows a willingness to accept a person based on merit instead of dismissing her because of arbitrary prejudices. That's what I consider progress.

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  5. P.S. A willingness to "not be so sure" is a sign of strength, not weakness.

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  6. One of the most unimpressive things about the "new atheism" is their complete lack of motivation to do anything about what they deem to be the most dangerous phenomenon on the planet.

    If religion is that which is going to bring about the end of society then why wouldn't you pursue some kind of legal action against it. Why not attempt to revoke the establishment clause in the constitution? Why do nothing and complain when you could do something and move toward your goal?

    If "new atheist" rely on "education" alone they will never eradicate religion.

    As for genetics. It shouldn't matter that religion could be genetic (I have never seen a credible study done on religion and genetics). If religion is bad then it is bad.

    You are looking for a middle way that doesn't exist. The point of religion is belief that influences all aspects of life. It isn't therapy. Its not a hobby. It wasn't designed to make me feel good. I don't do it at home and no where else. Its a community oriented endeavor. It effects the way I vote. How I love my wife. How I interact with other people. It influences how I view the world. Just like your atheism manifests itself in your eithics, politics, and general interaction with the world, religion does the same thing for the believer.

    Your "healthier" approaches would just make religion a superficial hobby. Which would be just as unimpressive, benign and impotent as this "new atheism" business.

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  7. Pursue legal action against religion? Are you serious?! You can't prohibit religion with law any more than you can prohibit people from getting alcohol by law. You can't legislate personal belief; you can only criminalize it. People are going to believe it whether it's legal or not and will probably clutch even harder to their beliefs if you try to take them away by force. That's stupid. Education and debate—and lots of time—are the only ways it can truly be overcome.

    As for the original question, I think anyone who is so thoroughly convinced of their beliefs that they will gloss over or deny observations, physical evidence, and logically-sound arguments that contradict their beliefs in order to preserve them at all costs is using religion irresponsibly. "An unchangeable mind is a dangerous thing," as you said. However religion is basically useless to anyone who doesn't have that level of belief; a placebo doesn't work if you know it's fake. It would be merely a collection of nice—and not-so-nice—stories, or a "superficial hobby" as Mike said. To go back to the alcohol metaphor, it would be like an alcoholic beverage that has no effect unless you drink about 20 of them; there is no "buzzed" or "tipsy" with this drink, it's either "no effect" or "blackout drunk." There's no responsible way of using it in any way that has a meaningful effect; I see no middle ground with religion.

    I don't think we're hardwired with a tendency toward religious belief. I do think we're hardwired with a tendency (as children) to believe absolutely everything our parents tell us. And I do think we're hardwired with curiosity, and a desire to explain the unknown, and that religious beliefs were born from that desire in the absence of more satisfying explanations. I think as our culture changes and more and more people eschew religious beliefs in favor of scientific explanations, and less people teach religious beliefs to their kids, there will be less of a tendency to accept religious explanations of the universe.

    I don't think religion will ever be completely "eradicated," but I do think it will be largely relegated to the fringes of society, which is good enough for me.

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  8. I read you post. I completely understood what you did and didn't say. I'm just suprised that merely a month after your very assertive post about eradicating religion you are considering your stance. If religion is really as bad as you and others have made it out to be I don't see how you could consider settling for even a lesser more healthier approach. Is there a healthy approach to dabbling with poison?

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  9. Patrik,

    I think there is a difference between "religion" broadly and more dogmatic forms of religious belief. I personally believe that extreme, blind adherence to dogma is poison, whether it be religious or political; however, I also believe that not all forms of religion are inherently divisive or anti-intellectual.

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  10. What is an example of a religion that is not inherently divisive or anti-intellectual?

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  11. I think criminalizing religion is the only way to really eradicate religion (or mitigate it). It would create social pressures which would run religion underground. People who waffle in their faith would just abandon it.

    Your confidence in education and debate to do the trick is admirable, but its misplaced. I shouldn't have to point to Christian denial of evolution in America and Muslim denial of the holocaust in Europe to illustrate the point. People will believe what they want to believe, dispite the evidence and their past educations.

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  12. Not only is criminalizing belief morally repugnant, I'm pretty sure the effect would be the opposite of the one you proposed: people who waffle in their faith would be filled with righteous fury and would rally behind their faith and defend it. Everyone loves to rise up in defense of a persecuted underdog under the oppression of a mighty tyrant. Think of all the religious groups that rallied behind the Mormons when they were under fire for their actions involving Prop 8 (when they normally regard Mormons as fringe crazies). Think of a child who doesn't really have any interest in a toy one way or another until he's told he can't have it, at which point he might throw a tantrum over it. An aggressive attack such as criminalizing faith would only serve to galvanize faith and dedication, not stamp it out. Sort of how declaring war on terror or bombing for peace only makes more terrorists; your actions might seem to have solved or mitigated the problem in the short-term, but in the end it will come back to bite you.

    I'm sure you've heard Aesop's fable, The Wind and the Sun...

    "The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on." (“KINDNESS EFFECTS MORE THAN SEVERITY.”)
    http://www.bartleby.com/17/1/60.html

    People who waffle in their faith will eventually be won over by education and rational debate. Changing the tide of public opinion doesn't require that you convince everyone; we don't need to convince the most fundamental believers out there, we only need to convince enough so that the large majority of the population regards the fundamentalists as misguided and won't really take them seriously, especially as a candidate for, say, presidency of the United States. As lack of religious belief becomes more acceptable, and atheism becomes more respected and talked about more openly, more and more young adults of the new generations are rejecting the blind faith and religion of their parents. This vast lack of respect and credibility will create the "social pressures" you mentioned and eventually religion will move out of the public sphere and go underground all on its own—no violation of human rights required. Consider KKK members or neo-Nazis; they're still around today, but almost no one respects them or takes them seriously.

    Just give it time.

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  13. "What is an example of a religion that is not inherently divisive or anti-intellectual?"

    Buddhism? Sikhism? Jainism?

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  14. @ Ray

    I live an absolutely positively fulfilling life. I have three beautiful kids, a great husband, an awesome job. I enjoy the beauty of the world, travel, love to learn and read. I never hold back, laugh like it's going out of style and stare at the stars at night and think. THIS is a wonderful life...And I believe with my whole heart that there is a heaven. I would argue that people who have discovered their freedom in Christ live a more fulfilling life than you could ever imagine. I don't know what religious people you talk to, but the people at the church I work at are joyously savoring the life they have on earth with the added benefit that they are not fearful at all about death. For MANY faith in Christ is absolutely liberating. It might not be for you or others, but for some it is.

    @ Mike Elliot:

    This is very interesting to me, based on a recent article in Newsweek called "The Decline of Christianity in America." While 2/3 of Americans in a survey stated that they are not strong in their faith, 1/3 answered that they are stronger in their faith than ever.

    And while that 2/3 may not be strong in faith, over 80% of Americas cite a belief in God. Fundamentalism may go underground, but to say that faith as a whole will disappear is completely disregarding the "facts" that many, many people - while not fundamental in their belief system - are FAR from waffling. And the resurgence of strong personal faith happening in that 1/3 of people is very, very telling of the mood of our society.

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  15. Falsehood is always exposed for what it is... eventually. Back in ancient Greece, I'm sure lots of people cited a belief in Zeus. You see where I'm going with this? Culture isn't permanent; religion will die someday.

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  16. Not only is criminalizing belief morally repugnant, I'm pretty sure the effect would be the opposite of the one you proposed: people who waffle in their faith would be filled with righteous fury and would rally behind their faith and defend it. Everyone loves to rise up in defense of a persecuted underdog under the oppression of a mighty tyrant. Think of all the religious groups that rallied behind the Mormons when they were under fire for their actions involving Prop 8 (when they normally regard Mormons as fringe crazies). Think of a child who doesn't really have any interest in a toy one way or another until he's told he can't have it, at which point he might throw a tantrum over it. An aggressive attack such as criminalizing faith would only serve to galvanize faith and dedication, not stamp it out. Sort of how declaring war on terror or bombing for peace only makes more terrorists; your actions might seem to have solved or mitigated the problem in the short-term, but in the end it will come back to bite you.

    I'm sure you've heard Aesop's fable, The Wind and the Sun...

    "The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on." (“KINDNESS EFFECTS MORE THAN SEVERITY.”)
    http://www.bartleby.com/17/1/60.html

    People who waffle in their faith will eventually be won over by education and rational debate. Changing the tide of public opinion doesn't require that you convince everyone; we don't need to convince the most fundamental believers out there, we only need to convince enough so that the large majority of the population regards the fundamentalists as misguided and won't really take them seriously, especially as a candidate for, say, presidency of the United States. As lack of religious belief becomes more acceptable, and atheism becomes more respected and talked about more openly, more and more young adults of the new generations are rejecting the blind faith and religion of their parents. This vast lack of respect and credibility will create the "social pressures" you mentioned and eventually religion will move out of the public sphere and go underground all on its own—no violation of human rights required. Consider KKK members or neo-Nazis; they're still around today, but almost no one respects them or takes them seriously.

    Just give it time.

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  17. One of the most unimpressive things about the "new atheism" is their complete lack of motivation to do anything about what they deem to be the most dangerous phenomenon on the planet.

    If religion is that which is going to bring about the end of society then why wouldn't you pursue some kind of legal action against it. Why not attempt to revoke the establishment clause in the constitution? Why do nothing and complain when you could do something and move toward your goal?

    If "new atheist" rely on "education" alone they will never eradicate religion.

    As for genetics. It shouldn't matter that religion could be genetic (I have never seen a credible study done on religion and genetics). If religion is bad then it is bad.

    You are looking for a middle way that doesn't exist. The point of religion is belief that influences all aspects of life. It isn't therapy. Its not a hobby. It wasn't designed to make me feel good. I don't do it at home and no where else. Its a community oriented endeavor. It effects the way I vote. How I love my wife. How I interact with other people. It influences how I view the world. Just like your atheism manifests itself in your eithics, politics, and general interaction with the world, religion does the same thing for the believer.

    Your "healthier" approaches would just make religion a superficial hobby. Which would be just as unimpressive, benign and impotent as this "new atheism" business.

    ReplyDelete

Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism