Sunday, November 11, 2007

How the Surreal becomes Commonplace

Religious beliefs demonstrate that even the most outrageous and bizarre stories can come to feel perfectly normal and plausible when they have settled deeply enough into the background of cultural familiarity. When we hear something often enough because too few people are willing to speak up, the absurd becomes common sense. The terms of the discussion get set to a new default, and people who might have reacted critically are discouraged or diverted by the shifting baseline. We end up talking about how best to be religious rather than whether we should be religious at all. We end up debating pointlessly about whether or not we support our troops, rather than whether or not we should be at war. In time, if a story is repeated often enough and if it comes to be believed by enough people, raising fundamental questions about it are scarcely tolerated. It may not be overtly banned, but subtle social pressures evince self-censoring that we are scarcely aware of. Non-believers, skeptics, and doubters are made to feel as if they are doing something untoward, socially inappropriate, rude, or even dirty by even asking the simplest questions.

Sam Harris has made this point remarkably well: consider going to a public speech by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who is an avowed Mormon and going to the microphone and asking this question: “Mr.Romney, do you believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth very soon and build a temple near the courthouse in Independence, Missouri?” The question is a perfectly fair one: it’s a standard part of Mormon doctrine. But we all know that to even ask it in public would be remarkably embarrassing for the questioner, Mr. Romney, and everyone present. Most likely, even asking such a question would get one quickly thrown out of the meeting. The central question is, why would it be so embarrassing? And on the other side, we must also ask why no one was embarrassed at all at a recent Republican candidate forum where several of the candidates proudly stood up and announced that they do not believe in evolution.

The repeated complaints in critical reviews against recent atheist authors like Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens about their tone, their hostility, and their intolerance, instead of addressing the real content of their arguments speaks volumes about how the baseline of accepted discussion of religion has crept up on all of us. The critics are either too blinkered by their affection for religion to even acknowledge the root criticisms of religious belief, or the part of them that secretly appreciate the atheist’s case has been eclipsed by their embarrassment that masquerades as personal indignation, and blustery, moral outrage.

We’ve all been blinkered by it. The prevalence of religious stories in our fiction, our stories, our schools, and our families has deadened our acuteness. And our affection and need for religious belief has a soporific affect on our common sense. Here’s how deep it’s gotten into our heads, and how comfortable the preposterous has become. Consider this first bit of Bible speak that will slide comfortably through most of our brains with hardly a hitch:

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, sacrificed himself on the cross in order to give us salvation for our sins. God loved us so much that he gave his only son so that we could have eternal life.

And consider this revision that captures the same ideas with terms that are not part of the familiar and mesmerizing dogma:

A magical being who cares about our welfare used his supernatural powers to authorize another, lesser magical being to come to us and arrange for us to have an eternal existence if we agree to perform certain acts. That lesser being was given a choice to either allow himself to be executed by some humans or not, and through the prior arrangement with the superior magical being, choosing to allow himself to be executed would authorize the agreement for eternal existence. But the option whether or not to accept this agreement still stays with the humans who can choose to be obedient and loving towards these magical beings or not. If they do accept the deal, then they get to go to a magical place after they die and live forever with the super beings.


Anonymous said...

"When we hear something often enough because too few people are willing to speak up, the absurd becomes common sense. The terms of the discussion get set to a new default, and people who might have reacted critically are discouraged or diverted by the shifting baseline."

Isn't it this transformation from absurd to common sense that you argue constitutes the reason why atheists have the burden of proof?

Proclaiming that the earth was round, not flat, at the time seemed absurd and once proven became common sense. Although with religion it’s not that their claims have been proven to become common sense, it’s just that they have been repeated, repeated enough that the absurdness is forgotten and it becomes common sense. It seems to me that religion is more like a chant.

Anonymous said...

Re "attacking tone"
With regards to Hitchens, I think the New Yorker review is very good. If the "baseline of accepted discussion of religion has crept up on all of us", then I would expect to less and less open criticism of religion. The recent flurry of books seems to indicate the contrary. That religious belief is more and more open to questioning (that is not to say that the baseline should not go lower, I just don't see the Inquistion coming) When was the baseline lower?

Jon said...

The modern day inquisition appears to be:
1. Islamic terrorism in the west, including "random murders" like of Theo Van Goh. Fatwa's on people like Salmon Rushdie.
2. Western impediments to science like stem cell research, teachers being scared to teach evolution, private schools teaching creationism.
3. Not doing anything about fossil fuel consumption, because it is implied that God will save us from Global catastrophe, and he is the only one who can alter the climate.
4. Israeli settlements in the west bank causing west - middle east strife and reactions.

Jon said...

The modern inquisition takes funny forms:

[---Mr Shaath said that in a 2003 meeting with Mr Bush, the US president said he was "driven with a mission from God".

"God would tell me, George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did, and then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq... And I did.

"We understood that he was illustrating [in his comments] his strong faith and his belief that this is what God wanted."---]

The most powerful man in the world uses God as an excuse for judge and jury concerning major military operations, instead of just reason.

Jon said...

Here's one more inquisition style judgment:

---The New Statesman made it its cover story this week, with a picture of the Pope cuddling a black child and then the sting in the tale: 'Blood of innocents on his hands: Pope John Paul II helped keep the continent of Africa disease-ridden….' (2) It's on the cover of today's Guardian, too, with Polly Toynbee describing the Pope as 'a man whose edict killed millions' (3). Gay and human rights activist Peter Tatchell, of OutRage!, said, 'Millions of people in developing countries are orphans, having lost their parents to AIDS because of the Pope's anti-condom dogma.' (4) How long before someone accuses the Pope of having committed a crime against humanity?---

Central Content Publisher said...

Re: The Baseline, and special religious protections.

Canada (I'm Canadian) has hate crime legislation. However, religion is given a special pass. If, for example, a preacher hands out pamphlets saying that non-believers should be stoned, he is perfectly safe. However, if I hand out pamphlets saying members of that religion should be stoned, I have committed a federal offense. This puts the baseline quite low indeed. Not because I want to produce such a pamphlet, but because I would like to see hateful religious claims answered in a court of law - the way I would have to answer for such a thing.

Last summer, an atheist who was putting up posters for an event in Toronto was assaulted AS an atheist, but the police would not consider the incident a hate crime because atheism is not a religion, and so, isn't covered under the hate crimes legislation.

Note: If you want to jump right to the offensive part of the legislation, look for:

"Indicates that no person shall be convicted of an offence if the statements in question: [...] were expressed in good faith, it was attempted to establish by argument and opinion on a religious subject"

You can just imagine was constitutes "good faith" and a "religious subject".

Anonymous said...

I think that one reason that people feel uncomfortable questioning other people's religious beliefs is that these beliefs supposedly are personal and, thus, private. Strangely enough, these personal beliefs often take center stage in many of the current divisive issues. Needless to say, atheists often are put on the spot because they question and often deny popular beliefs, with their personal values often attacked. But many religious folk often fail to make clear what they specifically believe since to do so might cause them to marginalize themselves. If the atheist is to be scrutinized, religious folk should also be fair game if religion will involve itself in public concerns. Rather than let Romney hide behind some Christian blanket, he should be uncovered and be open about what he really believes since belief more often than fact seems to guide a person's decisions. The Catholic and the Baptist can seem to be on the same side until what they each really believe is stated openly. Then, we can see why separation of Church and State is necessary.

F. Fletcher 192

Anonymous said...

I guess I shouldn't have use the word inquisition.

I didn't say the baseline shouldn't continue to be lowered in the West. But when has defending ones ideas by appealing to religion or faith, been less accepted than it is now? If never, then the baseline is not creeping up, but may just have stopped creeping down. That fact that people feel quite free to publicly chastise the pope, tells me that we may be at a time when private religion as an acceptable public justification for public policy positions is at an all time low. Certainly during WWII, the presidents used the God, justification, and in the cold war as well. The civil rights era was not without justifications from both sides, sometimes to the same gods. Is Bush's "axis of evil", much different than Reagan's calling the USSR an evil empire?
Martin Luther King, felt he was on a mission from God.

Re. The laws in Canada.
If you wish to be able to publicly condemn, those who publicly condemn (make ethical arguments against) homosexulaity say, then than you have to allow for public condemnations of moral positions. Protecting the freedom of expression of people who in good faith vigorously oppose something, ensures that you will be free to express your vigorous opposition to them. I believe that homophobic attacks are covered by the hate crimes legislation, even though homosexuality is not a religion either, so I don't see why atheism would be per se excluded. Was there a time when gays had more rights in Canada than they do now, that would lead you to believe the baseline is creeping up?

Anonymous said...

(formerly Central Content Publisher - login not working)

I see your point, and it's taken. Though, I'm not exactly sure how to measure the bar, or that it's clearly moving in one direction rather than the other. It seems to me, in North America anyway, that the current climate could be described as a somewhat stalemated tug of war. But that's just my general impression. Not a measurement.

I can however, clarify on some other points.

# On Free Speech
"Protecting the freedom of expression of people who in good faith vigorously oppose something, ensures that you will be free to express your vigorous opposition to them." - paulv

Hate legislation in Canada does not protect people who vigorously oppose, but rather, it protects people who vigorously oppose on religious grounds. One might imagine, as many free speech advocates do, that allowing anyone to saying anything to any degree and at any time or place, protects against such flaws. That really hasn't proven to be the case.

Advertisers risk law suit, slanders risk the same, conspirators are only marginally less guilty than those who pull the trigger, and perjurers go to jail. Why should those who promote genocide be given free reign to promote crimes against a class of people? To protect an ideal?

#On homosexuality and hate

Homosexuality isn't protected under the legislation - only homosexuals. So, you can say that homosexuality is a sin, is bad, is unhealthy, isn't fun, should be illegal, or is just plain icky, but you can't say that homosexuals should be killed, tortured, robbed, defrauded, harassed or treated in any way that would be considered a crime under the criminal code of Canada. In essence, the law aims to say that you can't promote crimes against whole classes of people merely because of their class, and that victims targeted because of their class have been victimized in an especially egregious manner.

# Creeping baseline

Again, it's more of a tug of war. The religious free-pass in this particular legislation was a later amendment to the act. One hand giveth, the other taketh away.

I wouldn't say that the baseline is at an all time low in all of history. Certainly not. Relatively speaking, we live in a time of unprecedented freedoms and security. However, there's been a tiny backslide of late.

Anonymous said...

If I understand you correctly,
(and to get even more off topic)

In Canada
atheists have the same protection
against hateful acts and litterature (directed at them as a group), as any ethnic group, homosexuals, etc.

But atheists (unless they can show that positions on unprovable metaphysical subjects, qualify legally as a "religious subject") are not as free to vigorously oppose other positions, as religious people are. (because of the caveat in the law relating to "religious subjects")

I am very much in support of good hate crime legislation, and I think Canada's is fairly good. (religious subject should be clarified) I just think we have to be very careful about it, so that it does not end up limiting our ability to critique other value systems, religions etc. If we allow the offended to define what constitutes hate (Think of the danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed) then this sort legislation could be very easily used to attack legitimate criticism.

Central Content Publisher said...

Yeah, we're certainly way off topic. For those who want to bypass it....

# Hate law stuff starts here #

"atheists have the same protection
against hateful acts and literature (directed at them as a group), as any ethnic group, homosexuals, etc." - paulv

No. Atheists are provided zero protection under Canadian hate legislation (or rather, no protection AS atheists). According to Canada, it's not possible to hate an atheist. Of course, I think, if challenged in court, that would change. The problem is that everyone (judges, the police, etc) want to treat atheism as a religion. But it's not a religion. So they conclude that atheists are not protected. I think atheism could qualify as an ethnicity, and atheists could be protected accordingly. Someone just needs to argue it in a court.

"But atheists (unless they can show that positions on unprovable metaphysical subjects, qualify legally as a "religious subject") are not as free to vigorously oppose other positions, as religious people are. (because of the caveat in the law relating to "religious subjects")" - paulv

It's not about vigorously opposing a position, unless we consider conspriracy to murder a form of vigorous opposition. Calling for the execution of a type of people is a public conspiracy to have crimes committed against arbitrary members of a specific group of people. It should be a crime. That it's public rather than private, and directed at a group rather than and individual, doesn't make it any less a conspiracy to commit.

I wouldn't object to an atheist being prosecuted for calling for the extermination of the religious - should such a thing ever happen. That's not the problem. The problem is that "religious subject" is used as a cover to say, for example, that it's not a sin to kill an atheist. The law is currently formed as if to say "conspiracy to have a crime committed is itself a crime, unless you can justify it religiously".@g

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification

is a good link i found for the law.

For the time being, atheists do have the same protection as members of other groups like political parties, or environmentalists or handicapped people, who don't get special mention. Threats etc, directed against anyone are always an offence, as is assault. So it would be wrong to assert (and you did not assert) that it is legal to threaten atheists in Canada, or that the police can't prosecute an assault against an atheist. They just can't access the stiffier penalities of the hate crime legislation.

Central Content Publisher said...


True, and not true. Atheists have the same protections that all individuals have, but not protection as a group. So, for example, you can't publish an article inciting the murder of a specific atheist, however, you can publish an article inciting the murder of atheists in general - because they aren't officially an "identifiable group".

It's a weakness of the law that it defines a list inclusively, enumerating groups to whom the law applies rather than a list of exceptions. The way it stands now, it can't be applied to atheists, environmental groups, genders, professions (even lawyers), people with a specific political leaning, the handicapped, and on and on.

Perhaps it'll be fixed on the next pass... whenever that may be.

Anonymous said...

Dean (192)

And what of the present political environment in which religion is now coming on strong. There was a poll recently in which it was reported that 50% of those polled said they would not vote for an atheist. Would this appear to indicate that voters are more concerned with religious fundamentals than with a candidate that can run the country? I do not think that a particular religious following is going to make a difference; in that what is at stake in an election is the best person for the job, not the most pious. I find it ironic that we condemn other countries that have a leader with strong religious ties, then turn round ourselves, and demand that ours does as well. Oh, that’s right, the leaders of other countries are non-Christian (Jewish), they are Muslims.

Anonymous said...

I believe that an important part of "breaking the surreal spell" cast on the world is for the atheist to reiterate over and over again in any area of conversation the terrible atrocities and insane beliefs supported by the three monotheistic religions.

Atheists, since we are a minority, need to be activists, and this means that our discourse against theism must broadcast 24/7.

In class, at home, at dinner with the relatives on holidays, especially religious holidays, we must reiterate facts such as these to break the spell:

Ritual Human Sacrifice in the Bible

(Why does God want me to burn animals and humans?)

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is filled with numerous stories of animal and human sacrifice. God, we are told, likes the pleasing aroma of burning flesh. Animal sacrifice is much more common than human sacrifice, but both occur and are "pleasing to the Lord".

Genesis, the first book of the Bible, has Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son to God. "Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you." (Genesis 22:1-18) Abraham takes his own son up on a mountain and builds an altar upon which to burn him. He even lies to his son and has him help build the altar. Then Abraham ties his son to the altar and puts a knife to his throat. He then hears God tell him this was just a test of his faith. However, God still wanted to smell some burnt flesh so he tells Abraham to burn a ram.

Even though he didn't kill his son, it is still an incredibly cruel and evil thing to do. If Abraham did that today he would be in jail serving a long sentence as someone's prison-bitch. It amazes me how Christians see this story as a sign of God's love. There is no love here, just pure unadulterated evil.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus have extensive rules regarding animal and food sacrifices. These offerings are supposed to be burnt so that God can smell them. If you read through these it seems clear to me that the priests were getting their followers to make a big feast for them every week. The priests were very particular about what kind of food to bring and how to prepare it.

Even more peculiar is God's obsession with first-born sons. In Exodus 13:2 the Lord said "Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among Israelites, both man and beast, for it belongs to me." Later it says that you can redeem (replace) an ass with a sheep and that you must redeem a child for an unspecified price. It is clear from the context that "consecrate" means a burning sacrifice. These priests are guilty of theft and kidnapping. Since any sins in the Old Testament were punishable by death, these priests used the threat of death to extort food and money from their followers. What do we call a scum-bag that threatens to kill your kids unless you pay a ransom? A kidnapper! If these priests were alive today they would be in prison with Abraham.

However, in Leviticus 27:28-29, the Lord allows for no redemptions. "Note also that any one of his possessions which a man vows as doomed to the Lord, whether it is a human being or an animal, or a hereditary field, shall be neither sold nor ransomed; everything that is thus doomed becomes most sacred to the Lord. All human beings that are doomed lose the right to be redeemed; they must be put to death." I must admit that I am a bit confused by this contradiction, but it might only apply to slaves in your possession. Not that it makes any difference. A human sacrifice is a human sacrifice, and it is just sick.

Bible Passages About Ritual Human Sacrifice

Jephthah Burns His Daughter

"At that time the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he went throughout the land of Gilead and Manasseh, including Mizpah in Gilead, and led an army against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, "If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."

"So Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave him victory. He thoroughly defeated the Ammonites from Aroer to an area near Minnith – twenty towns – and as far away as Abel-keramim. Thus Israel subdued the Ammonites. When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter – his only child – ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. "My daughter!" he cried out. "My heart is breaking! What a tragedy that you came out to greet me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and cannot take it back." And she said, "Father, you have made a promise to the LORD. You must do to me what you have promised, for the LORD has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites. But first let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin." "You may go," Jephthah said. And he let her go away for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never have children. When she returned home, her father kept his vow, and she died a virgin. So it has become a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to go away for four days each year to lament the fate of Jephthah's daughter." (Judges 11:29-40 NLT)

God Commands Burning Humans

[The Lord speaking] "The one who has stolen what was set apart for destruction will himself be burned with fire, along with everything he has, for he has broken the covenant of the LORD and has done a horrible thing in Israel." (Joshua 7:15 NLT)

Josiah and Human Sacrifice

At the LORD's command, a man of God from Judah went to Bethel, and he arrived there just as Jeroboam was approaching the altar to offer a sacrifice. Then at the LORD's command, he shouted, "O altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you." (1 Kings 13:1-2 NLT)

He [Josiah] executed the priests of the pagan shrines on their own altars, and he burned human bones on the altars to desecrate them. Finally, he returned to Jerusalem. King Josiah then issued this order to all the people: "You must celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in the Book of the Covenant." There had not been a Passover celebration like that since the time when the judges ruled in Israel, throughout all the years of the kings of Israel and Judah. This Passover was celebrated to the LORD in Jerusalem during the eighteenth year of King Josiah's reign. Josiah also exterminated the mediums and psychics, the household gods, and every other kind of idol worship, both in Jerusalem and throughout the land of Judah. He did this in obedience to all the laws written in the scroll that Hilkiah the priest had found in the LORD's Temple. Never before had there been a king like Josiah, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and soul and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses. And there has never been a king like him since. (2 Kings 23:20-25 NLT)

Human Sacrifice

Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble; (Wisdom 3:5-7 NAB The Book of The Wisdom of Solomon is mostly in Catholic versions of the Bible.)

Child Sacrifice

And this became a hidden trap for mankind, because men, in bondage to misfortune or to royal authority, bestowed on objects of stone or wood the name that ought not to be shared. Afterward it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs… (Wisdom 14:21-23 RSV) The Book of The Wisdom of Solomon is mostly in Catholic versions of the Bible. This passage condemns human sacrifice but acknowledges that it did happen by early God worshipers.

Humans are Fuel for Fire

As for you, son of man, prophesy: Thus says the Lord GOD against the Ammonites and their insults: A sword, a sword is drawn for slaughter, burnished to consume and to flash lightning, because you planned with false visions and lying divinations to lay it on the necks of depraved and wicked men whose day has come when their crimes are at an end. Return it to its sheath! In the place where you were created, in the land of your origin, I will judge you. I will pour out my indignation upon you, breathing my fiery wrath upon you, I will hand you over to ravaging men, artisans of destruction. You shall be fuel for the fire, your blood shall flow throughout the land. You shall not be remembered, for I, the LORD, have spoken. (Ezekiel 21:33-37 NAB)

Burn Nonbelievers

"Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it. Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt. Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction. Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you. He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors. "The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him." (Deuteronomy 13:13-19 NLT)