January 1, 2012

Is religion harmful?

There’s an ongoing debate among the non-religious about whether to accommodate religion or to stand against it. For me the key question seems to be whether religion is is benign or harmful.

If it is benign, or even positive, despite being wrong then it can safely be accommodated. We shouldn’t really care if people are religious or if children are indoctrinated into religion. However if religion is actually harmful then we should rail against it and fight it at every turn. We should work to eradicate it from every area of public life and discourage its spread just as we would for other harmful beliefs.

But how do we tell? Is it even possible to tell? As a (now) outsider I have several issues with the role of religion in society. There are, I think, two essential problems.

The first is that bad data leads to bad decisions. Though it’s possible for good outcomes to occur from bad data they’re unlikely and on balance bad outcomes will be more common. Examples of this can be found all over. Christians and Scientologists eschewing medical assistance in favor of faith healing is just one but there are many. Anytime one takes unsubstantiated faith over proven evidence things are going to start going wrong.

The second is related to the first. Religions (with few exceptions) claim to be the source of absolute truth. Truth that is unchanging and good for all time. Unfortunately this truth bears a striking similarity to the morality and understanding of the time when the holy books were written. Slavery and misogyny are commonplace among the older religions and the fight to end slavery and for women’s suffrage required fighting against organized religion. Today in America we’re seeing the same thing being played out in the fight for gay rights and gay marriage. Ultimately religion will evolve. The religious will change their position on gay rights just as they have on slavery and women’s suffrage. But until then many will fight against those rights on the grounds that they go against God’s absolute truth.

On balance therefore my belief is that religion is actively harmful to society. I believe it retards our moral progress by elevating primitive and barbaric beliefs to that of absolute truth. This leads me to an anti-theist position. A position where I believe that the ultimate goal should be the sidelining, marginalization and ultimate eradication of religion.

p.s. I want to make clear that I’m not talking about the criminalization of religion. I think it’s good to keep government and religion separate. That means no support for but equally no discrimination against religion. Rather I’m arguing for the non-religious to stand up and speak out against religion. Highlight the flaws, the fallacies, the contradictions and the immorality of it. This will be sufficient, I believe, to ultimately eradicate it.

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December 29, 2011

The same yesterday, today and forever

At the front of the church where I grew up, in big letters were written the words “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever” (a quote from Hebrews 13:8). I spent hours and hours staring at those words. They speak to both a power of religion and to a major flaw. It is, I think, one of the main reasons why conservatives in this country are so religious. Religion provides at least the illusion of constancy, permanence and certainty in the turmoil of an evolving world. However therein lies a fundamental problem.

The reality is that Christianity as practiced today, apart from being so variable as to really be thousands of separate religions that happen to share a name, is almost entirely unrelated to that practiced at its birth. The beliefs and practices of Christians have changed enormously. Only the patina of permanence remains and for many that means hanging on to rules and dogmas as they were taught (one might say indoctrinated) as children.

The result of this is that through the ages Christianity has been on the wrong side of moral and ethical progress. I know that some will claim the Old Testament’s proclamations on slavery and tithing were progressive. But if you actually read the instructions and injunctions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy they’re nothing short of barbaric by today’s standards — and therein lies my point. Our standards today are entirely different from those of iron-age people, which speaks to their human, rather than divine, origin.

Even by Jesus’ time the Old Testament standards were showing their age.

Matthew 5:38-41
“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you”

An unchanging God saying “don’t do what I told you before, do this instead.”. Yet even so slavery, misogyny and homophobia continued to be accepted, even condoned through the New Testament. The fight to end slavery and for women’s suffrage required fighting against organized religion.

Here’s part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of racial reconciliation in 1995:

“WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
“WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and
“WHEREAS, In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; “

Today in America we’re seeing the same thing being played out in the fight for gay rights and gay marriage. Christians today are as behind the times, clinging to their unchangeable morality as they were when they founded the Southern Baptists because the Northern Baptists were anti-slavery.

Ultimately Christianity will evolve. Christians will change their position on gay rights just as they have through the centuries. But until then many will fight against those rights on the grounds that they go against god’s absolute, unchangeable truth.

When I look back through history and see the evolution of human rights and how that has moved beyond the biblical teachings I cannot help but be convinced that the bible is the work of men not god.

December 27, 2011

It’s the solstice stupid

The signs going on about how Jesus is the real reason for the season have been really bugging me this year. I don’t have a problem with people calling it Christmas. If that’s what they celebrate at this time of year that’s fine. But at least be respectful of other people’s beliefs.

As a Christian holiday Christmas has had a very checquered past. It was banned at many times for being a rowdy, drunken, violent pagan holiday. In Massachusetts, for example, it was banned by law in the 1600s.

“Whosoever shall be found observing Christmas, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, every such person shall pay as a fine five shillings to the county.”

So, Christians, feel free to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus. But recognize that the holiday predates Christianity and as such has been coopted by multiple religions.

The real reason for the season is the winter solstice. It’s been celebrated for millenia so get over it already.

December 24, 2011

All christians are 99.975% atheist

This quote resonates with me. It wasn’t penned until after I left Christianity behind. I wonder how I would have taken it had it been written earlier?

“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” — Stephen F. Roberts

I think it’s because there are and have been so many religions and their adherents believed just as completely and honestly as any in my chosen religion. This caused me much consternation. Why was it so easy to dismiss, even to laugh at, the other four thousand or so gods that people have believed in?

Today of course the answer for me is: because they’re all equally mythological. At the time though it was just another wrinkle in my security blanket of faith.

December 24, 2011

Losing my religion

Despite the corniness of the title that REM song resonates with me. My departure from christianity has been a long and complicated journey. It has involved many steps and stages. Though many slip into, or out of, religion with apparent ease for me it is a topic that has consumed a lot of my time and involved a lot of consideration. I guess I’m not really capable of just hoping it’ll all turn out right in the end and so need to figure out what’s true and what isn’t, what adds up and what doesn’t. At this point I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m a solidly convinced atheist. The difficulty with that word is that, like saying one is a christian, it means different things to different people.

I use it in what I believe is an accurate form. I mean that I am pretty certain that there is no god. I say “pretty certain” deliberately. Over the years I’ve come to realize that there can be no absolute certainties in life. I am flawed and error prone. Thus while I have a greater or lesser degree of confidence in a variety of beliefs any one of them can be proven to be wrong. To believe otherwise would be to presume inerrance (or perfection) at least in some limited sphere. Thus while I’m pretty certain there is no god, as in all things, I could be wrong.

With that said, and having reached a position on which I am confident, I still find myself pondering questions of religion and morality. Questions such as why so many people are absolutely convinced that there is a god when it’s clear to me there is no good evidence for it. Why they believe that of the thousands of gods in which people believe or have believed theirs is the one true god. Why they believe that without a god there can be no morality.

I’ve been looking for a place to write my thoughts on these topics. Not because I believe I will provide any great insight. I’m no scholar, philosopher, historian or theologian, but because writing about them may help me sort through what I think about them. What has been holding me back from writing is that my family runs the gamut of christian beliefs from all out atheist, through agnostic, liberal christian to fundamentalist evangelical christian. In writing about these things it’s possible that I will anger some branches of my family tree. The more closed-minded may even wish to shield their children from me and these writings.

What particularly may upset is that over the past years I’ve become increasingly sure that religion is not just wrong but harmful. This stems from my experience that misinformation and mistaken beliefs lead to poor decisions and poor outcomes. It is exceedingly rare that a mistaken understanding leads to a positive outcome, especially when compared to that from a correct understanding. Thus I see incorrect understanding of the world around us and how it works due to the beliefs of primitive tribes being applied to the 21st century leading to bad outcomes of all kinds. There are so many examples of this, both past and present, that I’m sure some will come up if I write further.

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