Monday, May 21, 2007

What If the Lie Really Is Good For Us?

A number of studies have been published in recent years, some of them pretty well designed, that have suggested that there is a causal link between religiousness and longevity, happiness, social satisfaction, health, longer and more stable marriages, charity, being moral, honesty, integrity, mental health, and so on. All of these studies need to be considered carefully in their own right, but I am not going to discuss any of them directly here.

Predictably, non-believers have been very quick to criticize and reject the findings. “The study was poorly designed,” “Praying is good for you because it has an stress relieving effect like meditation, not because God is listening,” “It’s the social contact of regular church attendance that is good for people’s health and happiness, not contact with God,” and “A longer and more stable marriage isn’t a good thing if both partners are miserable and they have 12 kids because the Pope said birth control isn’t allowed,” are typical of the comments. And some of them may be right.
But let’s consider another possibility without criticizing the studies.

What if they are right?

What if it turns out that even though religion is a complete myth, humans are actually better off by any reasonable standard if they believe and practice than if they don’t? Such a scenario is plausible, and in theory it could be empirically verified. That’s what all of these studies are trying to do. If they succeed, then the atheist who prides himself in holding science, evidence, and truth above all other priorities will have to put his money where his mouth is.

So if it turns out that being religious really is good for us, then what?

The possibility presents a much deeper and more profound challenge to the non-believer who wants to wage the God fight. Non-believers will point out, correctly, that even if all of those claims about the positive benefits of believing are accurate, none of those results show that God exists. Beneficial doesn’t equal true. And there are even lots of believers who would concede the point that God’s existence can’t be proven.

But if that point is granted, then what exactly is the non-believer striving to achieve? Is it better for us overall to believe something true, but demonstrably bad for our lives, happiness, and longevity? Except for the rare philosopher among us, I think most people when pressed on the issue would conclude that truth is ultimately of instrumental value, and if it turns out that a falsehood serves our interests better in the big picture, then truth becomes a lesser priority. And if that is right, then the non-believer who wants to fight this fight, who wants to convince people to believe otherwise just doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And this non-believer really needs to ask herself or himself just what it is that they are trying to accomplish?

The atheist should be prepared to admit, if it turns out to be well supported by the evidence, that it might be better for us all to keep believer. Sure, the whole God business is false, it’s a fairy tale, and so on. But if it turns out that believing this particular truth instead of the happy myth makes us more unhappy, less mentally healthy, less charitable, less kind, less compassionate, die sooner, have worse health, and have weaker social ties, then it’s not at all clear that we should all abandon the myth and that Dawkins and the like have our best interests in mind. It may turn out that humans really are better off believing a deception and we’re worse off it we mess with that.

So here’s a reality check for the atheist: If we really mean it that the evidence, reason, and truth are what’s most important, then we need to be prepared to admit that the evidence could in fact show that we are all better off being religious. And if that is true, then we need to think long and hard about the kind of world we are trying to achieve with our arguments.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell: Exploiting Religious Tolerance and Respect

When I heard that Jerry Falwell had died, I was thinking of the various critical things I had to say about him for the blog when I saw Christopher Hitchens (new book: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.) on Anderson Cooper’s 360. Hitchens deserves a great deal of credit for having the courage to actually say these sorts of things on American television. It is indicative of the sad state of affairs in the U.S. that it makes us cringe to have someone say so many obviously true and critical things about someone who hid behind the protection of our respect for religion. Falwell’s example makes the case better than almost anyone else that our affection for religion has led us to turn our heads the other way and ignore almost anything as long as the author claims that they have religious motivations for perpetrating their crimes. Falwell represented everything that has gone wrong in our country concerning religious tolerance and religious idiocy.
COOPER: Author and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens is about as far from Jerry Falwell in his beliefs as one could get. Christian fundamentalists are a major target of his new book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." He joins me now from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Christopher, I'm not sure if you believe in heaven, but, if you do, do you think Jerry Falwell is in it?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": No. And I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to.

COOPER: What is it about him that brings up such vitriol?

HITCHENS: The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishment if they hadn't got some kind of clerical qualification?

People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup. The whole consideration of this -- of this horrible little person is offensive to very, very many of us who have some regard for truth and for morality, and who think that ethics do not require that lies be told to children by evil old men, that we're -- we're not told that people who believe like Falwell will be snatched up into heaven, where I'm glad to see he skipped the rapture, just found on the floor of his office, while the rest of us go to hell.

How dare they talk to children like this? How dare they raise money from credulous people on their huckster-like (INAUDIBLE) radio stations, and fly around in private jets, as he did, giggling and sniggering all the time at what he was getting away with?

Do you get an idea now of what I mean to say?
HITCHENS: How dare he say, for example, that the Antichrist is already present among us and is an adult male Jew, while, all the time, fawning on the worst elements in Israel, with his other hand pumping anti-Semitic innuendoes into American politics, along with his friends Robertson and Graham?

HITCHENS: ... encouraging -- encouraging -- encouraging the most extreme theocratic fanatics and maniacs on the West Bank and in Gaza not to give an inch of what he thought of was holy land to the people who already live there, undercutting and ruining every democratic and secularist in the Jewish state in the name of God?

HITCHENS: This is -- this is -- he's done us an enormous, enormous disservice by this sort of demagogy.

COOPER: What do you think it says about America that -- and politics in America, that he was so successful in mobilizing huge swathes of the country to come out and vote?

HITCHENS: I'm not certain at all that he did deserve this reputation. And I... COOPER: You don't think he does?

HITCHENS: Well, I'm not certain that he was a mobilizer. He certainly hoped to be one.

Well, the fact is that the country suffers, to a considerable extent, from paying too much, by way of compliment, to anyone who can describe themselves as a person of faith, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Chaucerian frauds, people who are simply pickpockets, who -- and frauds -- who prey on the gullible and...

COOPER: Do you believe he believed what he spoke?

HITCHENS: Of course not. He woke up every morning, as I say, pinching his chubby little flanks and thinking, I have got away with it again.

COOPER: You think he was a complete fraud, really?


COOPER: You don't believe that, I mean, in his reading of the Bible, you don't think he was sincere in his -- whether you agree or not with his reading of the Bible, you don't think he was sincere in what he spoke?

HITCHENS: No. I think he was a conscious charlatan and bully and fraud.

And I think, if he read the Bible at all -- and I would doubt that he could actually read any long book of -- at all -- that he did so only in the most hucksterish, as we say, Bible-pounding way.

I'm going to repeat what I said before about the Israeli question. It's very important. Jerry Falwell kept saying to his own crowd, yes, you have got to like the Jews, because they can make more money in 10 minutes than you can make in a lifetime. He was always full, as his friends Robertson and Graham are and were, of anti- Semitic innuendo.

Yet, in the most base and hypocritical way, he encouraged the worst elements among Jewry. He got Menachem Begin to give him the Jabotinsky Medal, celebrating an alliance between Christian fundamentalism and Jewish fanaticism that has ruined the chances for peace in the Middle East.

Lots of people are going to die and are already leading miserable lives because of the nonsense preached by this man, and because of the absurd way that we credit anyone who can say they're a person of faith.

Look, the president endangers us this way. He meets a KGB thug like Vladimir Putin, and, because he is wearing a crucifix around his neck, says, I'm dealing with a man of faith. He's a man of goodwill.

Look what Putin has done to American and European interests lately. What has the president said to take back this absurd remark? It's time to stop saying that, because someone preaches credulity and credulousness, and claims it as a matter of faith, that we should respect them.

The whole life of Falwell shows this is an actual danger to democracy, to culture, to civilization. That's what my book is all about. COOPER: The book is "God Is Not Great."

End of Transcript.

The only things that need to be added to Hitchens’ candid critique of Falwell are: Falwell devoted his entire life to promoting intolerance, ignorance, hatred, theocracy, and religious lunacy. He did what priests throughout history have done. He employed every dirty trick in the book on behalf of God—he lied, he distorted, he abused, he manipulated, he exploited, he misled and he victimized the poorest and least educated in order to satisfy his most personal petty ambitions to power and adulation. And he cleverly disguised all of it behind the protective banner of “faith,” always insuring that no matter how harmful his words and acts were, they would be sheltered from criticism and from any serious rational scrutiny because he was a “man of God,” and no one who is speaking for God could have any dark motives or actually do any harm to us, could they?

Friday, May 4, 2007

Isn't "God" Just Another Word for New Age Nonsense

It’s quite common for people have some of these views about the nature of God and the variety of religions. They will say, “Isn’t God just the energy in the universe,” or “the God I believe in is all the matter and energy in the universe. Einstein showed that all matter is energy, after all,” and “Science has shown that energy cannot be destroyed.” “Aren’t all the different religions really just different ways of expressing interest in the same underlying force or ultimate reality or energy in the world?” or “the concept of God that people use is another way of describing all the love, power, and energy that we all experience. Worshipping God should be coming to feel that love and energy and spreading it in the world. The notion of God as a person who listens to prayers and passes judgments is too anthropomorphic.”

These attempts to redefine God in a way that would allow us to reconcile what appear to be irreconcilable differences between religions, and to square what we know in science with religion have a great deal of appeal. A New Age interpretation of God appeals to those with a strong spiritual inclination and it might let them avoid the uglier side of organized religions and their histories. It might also make it possible to avoid a number of the paradoxes and philosophical difficulties (like the many detailed in this blog) that plague the traditional notions of God.

So why shouldn’t we redefine God to suit our modern needs and avoid the problems with the old one?

Here is the start of a long list of problems with taking the New Age God route:

1) The energy that spiritualists, psychic healers, and chi masters are describing is not the same energy the Einstein and modern physics study. Energy in physics is electromagnetic radiation. At lower wavelength energies we find gamma radiation and X rays. A small range of the electromagnetic spectrum is visible light (about 400-700 nanometers). And at the high wavelength end of the spectrum we find microwaves and radio waves.

2) One of the reasons that the classic, monotheistic God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent has been so influential in the history of religion is that such a being, if one exists, would be worthy of worship. If there was such a being, the implications for your life, your consciousness, your future, your relationships, and your conduct would be profound. Such a being would be worthy of study, emulation, profound respect, awe, dedication, obedience, and complete devotion. The physical force that warms up burritos in your microwave oven, or the energy the dentist uses to take pictures of your wisdom teeth is not.

3) The various religions in history very clearly do not believe that what they are doing is compatible with or the same thing as what all the others are doing. Catholics do not believe that what the Muslims are doing is just as good. Pentecostals do not believe that they are worshipping the same God as a Buddhist. And they have dedicated vast amounts of time and energy to making it very clear the ways in which they think they are different and the ways in which they think all the other practitioners are wrong. From a very high altitude, it may be possible to make vacuous claims like, “they are all really just doing the same thing.” But we have to blur the details here so much that “same” scarcely means anything at all. We can say of bacteria and of you that you both “eat.” But the differences are obviously more important than the similarities if we want to get beyond 6th grade science class.

4) While it is tempting to redefine “God” to simply mean “love,” or “spirituality,” or some other word that few people find offensive, there are more powerful reasons not to. The term “God” has a very clear set of connotations and denotations in western culture. What the three major monotheistic religious traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—agree upon and have always meant by the term is the all powerful, all knowing, and all good creator of the universe who dispenses justice on humankind. Deciding to use the term in a new way doesn’t make those associations go away. It doesn’t clarify or edify anyone who is trying to understand what God is. The billions of people in those traditions don’t understand the term in this New Age form. That’s not what they mean. And that’s not what they want the term to stand for.

5) Skeptics, agnostics, and atheists want to call a spade a spade. If you find some solace in thinking about love or spirituality, or if you think it is an admirable goal to spread love and spirituality in the world, then let’s call it that. The “God” term has baggage. It’s been the rallying cry behind pogroms, crusades, inquisitions, religious tribunals, theocracies, brutal oppression, genocide, and wars among other things. And the goals there weren’t to spread warm fuzzy ideals of love and spirituality.

6) What exactly are people’s motives for wanting to keep the term with the revisionist God-lite program? Is it a lack of courage on the atheism issue? They don’t want to go ahead and take that final step and give the term up all together? They want to have their cake and eat it too? Maybe they want to be able to keep thinking about God and feeling like they have a personal connection with something bigger and better. But here’s a problem. Inevitably, this idea, like any important ones you have, will have other implications. It will strengthen some beliefs, weaken others. It will work its way into the rest of your belief structure. It will help inform who you vote for, what you think is right and wrong, which wars you fight and which ones you refuse, and so on. No belief is an island. And one’s beliefs are never entirely disconnected from one’s actions.

7) Sure, love’s a great thing. And if more people loved each other that would be good for all of us. But I’m not detecting a carefully thought out social and political agenda here. Bumper sticker slogans don’t convince anybody of anything. Vapid truisms about love, God, and energy won’t help any of us deal with the very real menace of supernatural thinking, religious fundamentalism, and theocratic political agendas that pose a serious threat to our lives, our freedom, and our future. By refusing to take the problem of God seriously, you’re facilitating those people who think that God told them to strap on a bomb and blow up a bus, or the ones who think that evangelical Christianity needs to be imposed on everyone on the globe, or the ones who are trying to exacerbate the hostilities between Jews and Palestinians in Israel in order to hasten the coming of the Apocalypse and Judgment Day.

So now, what was seeming like a harmless little personal indulgence is looking like yet another belief that you need to earn. You need to answer questions for yourself and for the rest of us (since you are living in our neighborhoods, voting for our politicians, putting people on our school board, having my kids over for a sleep over with your kids…..) about what exactly is it you believe and why. Do you really think that electromagnetic radiation, like the kind that beams reruns of “Three’s Company” into your TV is worthy of the attention and concern that the rest of us give to the term “God”?