June 8, 2010

Religious Pollution

"I've sworn off agnosticism, which I now call cowardly atheism." James Cameron. Bullshit. Granted; you are the man and yes, you have the two biggest grossing films of all time under your belt and can apparently fix massive oil spills. But this line is hogwash. There is nothing cowardly in agnosticism. In fact the world's preeminent atheist, Richard Dawkins, is truly an agnostic. Read his work: In 'The God Delusion' he says it plainly that as a scientist he cannot discount the possibly that a supernatural being exists. Ergo, Dawkins is an agnostic.

My view of those in the modern world is that they are willfully - and pleased to be so - ignorant. They go about their daily lives not really giving a damn about the divine, and every so often they go to church, or synagogue, or whatever to appease God. At the end of the day it is about fear. Not fear in some sort of hell, but fear in death. The ultimate question religion tries to answer is that of the afterlife. In this guise, religion is comforting to the majority. It's Pascal's Wager, living life in belief of God has everything to gain and nothing to lose. I believe it's likely that our consciousness ceases to exist upon death. I sure hope I am wrong though, because that is a scary fucking thought. 

Regardless, the question "is there a god?" is a separate question from the question of religion. Yes most religions are centered in the belief of some sort of supreme, super-natural, and judgmental being. But would you be surprised if you died and had a sit down with God where he said, "Yes I exist, and I am the creator. But no, I did not have anything to do with the 'holy' scripture, or religions by which you humans have chosen to live your lives." I wouldn't. In fact, that actually makes a lot of sense to me. To be an atheist today means you subscribe to your world-view by choice. Like Dawkins, most atheists are in-fact agnostics. This is because atheists tend to be the more educated, scientifically minded people. And as scientists they cannot and will not answer the 'God' question with one hundred percent certainty. So let's forget about the 'God' proposition and focus on religion.

I believe that when you look at the history of religion there was a breaking point. A point where religion stopped being useful for humanity and began being destructive. Before monotheism, humanity was a disaster, with very little societal morality, etc. at this point in time religion was beneficial to humanity. But I do not believe that it was rooted in the divine. Our ancestors wrote the torah, the koran, etc., as a code of laws of sorts, for the time. Humans are social animals and really fucking smart. So it is important for us to define our social relationships in a clear cut manner. For centuries this is what religion did. Religion certainly ushered humanity from barbarism to civility. The problem is that it now threatens to bring us back to barbarism, as plenty of the modern world's uncivilized behavior is rooted in religion.

The question of whether religion has been historically good or bad, to me, is an unnecessary one. What are you going to do? Sit there with a scoreboard and count every death one by one. "Well these 115 deaths were religious based..." Useless and frankly a null point because for a lot of them it could be argued either way. Take the crusades for example. Depending on which lens you wish to view them through you could reasonably say that they were a human inspired, or a religious based tragedy. You can view history through so many different lenses, perhaps you might say that the crusades were more a product of the times, etc. The point is that taking historic stock of religion is arduous and ultimately useless.

What is useful, however, is looking at religion today and the prospects of a society that believes in religion versus one that is without faith. To put it plainly, what are the pros and cons of religion in the modern world? To me, it's a no-brainer that religion currently has a negative effect on the human race as a whole. Amongst other things, religion is an extremely polarizing entity. So much so that people kill others and/or themselves in its name. To abolish religion is an easy sell to me. Obviously not for others. In the name of religion today we have suppressive regimes that abuse their citizens. Ritualistic killing. Female circumcision. People are taught to hate and kill and even commit suicide. The fact is that in the modern world, we don't need religion anymore. We need to move past the notion that we should devote our lives in the service of something we have never seen. We need to believe more in the power of humanity than in the power of the divine. This could usher in transformative change. It will never happen, not for hundreds of years at least, but it's nice to think about. Regardless of whether you believe in a particular religion, it should be your duty as a responsible human being to take care of this planet which has given you life. To take care of your fellow man trying to do the same. Look I'm just a monkey trying to do right by his monkey brethren. And I'm more than okay with that. Watch the movie 'Jesus Camp', it will scare the shit of your, seriously. In it, Ted Haggard, the besmirched pastor and former head of the council which overseas thirty million American evangelicals, says that kids love religion because it gives them hope and purpose. Without it all you have is natural selection, basically suggesting that intelligent design is much cooler for children because God formed them with his own hands. Why do religious thinkers believe this way? I happen to believe the natural selection is damn cool. Over millions of years our monkey ancestors were whittled down to the best and brightest: homo-sapien, and now you are here today, reading this shit on the internet. Religious people say they derive purpose from the divine, and that those without religion are lost, and purposeless. That is a load of shit. Purpose can be found everywhere, and why not in service to the whole of humanity and this beautiful planet we call home.

So, what happens when you die? Shit, I dunno. Let's all agree that we don't know. We don't know if there is a God. We don't know what existence is, in fact, we take our existence, more so the existence of the universe for granted. Maybe you want to pray on Sundays, or everyday for that matter. Fine, waste your time, if it makes you happy then great. If it makes you kill then you have no place on my planet, get the fuck off!


  1. "If it makes you kill then you have no place on my planet, get the fuck off!"

    Heh. "You have no place on my planet, get the fuck off!" is pretty much the message sent by the people trying to kill...

    With regards to Jesus Camp, you say it scares the shit out of people; as an example, you list one of the least scariest things I've ever heard anyone say about religion. It gives kids hope and purpose and they love it for that? Well, yes. It also inspires little old ladies to gather in church, drink tea, and knit scarves for people.

    The rest of the things you list are genuinely bad. Two points in response to that:

    (a) it's not the case that religion has any kind of monopoly on evil - the worst atrocities in recent times, genocide and ethnic cleansing and suchlike, have been motivated by ethnic tensions (maybe resource conflicts in Darfur?), with religion at most playing the role of a tribal marker; the worst crimes of the last century were committed by Communist and Fascist governments, which didn't particularly derive their inspiration from religion; possibly the worst dictatorship around today is North Korea, which owes very little to religion (although it's now raised leader-worship to the level of a religion, which if you think religion is a basic and ineradicable instinct is entirely unsurprising); and the Tamil Tigers have been suicide-bombing for years without needing religious justification (no longer, thankfully). Also,

    (b) "religion" is not homogeneous - there are many religions and many streams within each (whenever people list the evils of modern religion, they generally tend to focus on Islam, and not the mystical coffee-drinking Sufi type either) - and the overwhelming majority of religious people you ever come into contact with will not be interested in doing any of any of the things you complain about (with the exceptions of finding hope and purpose and subscribing to Intelligent Design, which aren't all that dangerous). Arguing about "religion" as a whole is a bit dubious for this reason - you naturally think "is religion a Good Thing?" if you either oppose or subscribe to "religion", but virtually no-one subscribes to "religion"; they subscribe to a religion. What is relevant to me (a Catholic) is the sins of my co-religionists, and to a lesser extent of other Christians - are the Crusades likely to recur? Are our bishops liable to start sweeping paedophile scandals under the rug again any time soon? What can I do to prevent these things? The misdeeds of Muslims are not my responsibility, and not relevant to anything that is, unless I assume that all religions are basically interchangeable, which I don't. Maybe al-Qaeda reflects badly on me insofar as I share with Bin Laden a common religious instinct, but that's not much of a commonality between us - barely more than it reflects badly on me that I share a species with him.

    This isn't just nitpicking, because it affects your assertion that religion is trying to "bring us back to barbarism". I guess it depends what you mean by barbarism, but it's not really "religion" that's trying to bring back barbarism, it's an unpleasant strain of Islam - a strain that's arisen as a reaction to Islamic society having to deal with modernity, so it's really an attempt to fend off being brought out of barbarism. For my money, more likely paths to barbarism in the West are decline of available resources (our society uses absurd amounts of oil, it's going to be a huge strain adjusting to something more sane), economic shock arising from demographic collapse, economic shock arising from political lunacy (probably as a result of the previous problems), someone inventing a working holodeck, the workers of the world wasting all their time discussing lolcats and religion on blogs and neglecting the necessary upkeep of civilisation, &c.

  2. Glad you caught the irony in that. :)

    And you are right that I was leading with that first statement about Jesus Camp, after which I bring up a fact that isn't so scary. I am just baffled by the ignorance of some religious thinkers. Haggard is no exception.

    Religion is not homogeneous and there are certainly many great strains that have a wonderful impact on humanity.

    Its true that with or without religion conflict would arise... from my point of view, since religion is not rooted in the divine this point is furthered because religion is just another "tribal marker"... No religion doesn't have a monopoly on evil. That is man's domain because religion is a function of society and not the supernatural. All of nature's atrocities are rooted in man defining his relationship with other men, territory, power, etc.

    You say that subscribing to intelligent design is not dangerous but I beg to differ. It is dangerous in the sense that it blinds those who believe in a shroud of ignorance early on. Which leads to people who cannot think critically, etc. Let's talk about societal resources and human capital: religion and its institutions keep people from paying more attention to meaningful endeavors. I'm not saying people shouldn't go to church on Sunday if it makes them feel good. But those on the fringe spend huge swaths of time fighting abortion, etc.

    What scared me the most from Jesus Camp was the manner in which that lady spoke about the coming war. And the ferocity with which she had those innocent children screaming, "THIS MEANS WAR!" It's this type of attitude that threatens to bring civilization to its knees. And this type of zealotry is gaining ground in America. Everybody needs to take a shift back to saner ground.

  3. I'm not particularly interested in Intelligent Design one way or the other (Creationism I actively dislike), but say you're right about all its evils: ID still isn't really in the same class as female genital mutilation and suicide bombing. As to societal resources and human capital... look, in a world of online computer games and internet porn, worrying about the effect of ID on societal resources is a little like worrying about the dent in average life expectancy caused by unicycle accidents. (Also, I decline to view fighting abortion as a misuse of societal resources.)

    I also disagree that whether ID is taught has the first thing to do with thinking critically. Who thinks critically anyway? How does learning about evolution teach you to think critically? You learn critical thinking by being exposed to disagreements, contradictions, mental friction, &c. and trying to maintain a certain degree of honesty and integrity while navigating them. You learn critical thinking even more by betrayal and disappointment teaching you that not everything that everyone tells you is accurate. (I think a lot more critically about the media and politicians for that reason.) Teaching people accurate science is worthwhile because they learn accurate science from it; it doesn't teach them thinking skills, because it's necessarily didactic. You're probably more likely to stimulate people's minds by exposing them to ID vs. evolution debates than shielding them. (Although exposing them to debates while making clear which side they're supposed to side with at the end is a good way to make kids think you a fraud and a liar...)

    Also - I get annoyed by people who misrepresent evolution (I myself don't care whether people find it convincing, as long as they understand what they're disagreeing with) - but to play devil's advocate, why should I care about the "shroud of ignorance" caused by ID at all? People are ignorant of all manner of things. I work in quantum mechanics. Who out there has a clear idea of what quantum mechanics really means, devoid of errors, misunderstandings and mystical gobbledigook? Outside of actual scientists, not many people. Who out there has a clear idea of what's going on in the sun? Who has a clear idea of whether plasma cosmology has anything going for it? Of what the Big Bang involved? I would react with utter apathy to anyone who came up to me and complained about the proportion of the population who are ignorant of magnetohydrodynamics. Why should ID be different? The only place evolution is really relevant to our lives is microevolution, because of how diseases evolve, which neither ID nor Creationism contests.

    Jesus Camp, I'll believe you that it has scary stuff in it, because I've heard a lot of people complain about it - sometimes about other non-scary stuff that had been misinterpreted, but sometimes about actual weird stuff. I'm not in a hurry to see it - I know a lot of Americas get a bit overexcited about all manner of things - religion makes for the best "look at these crazy people!" movies, but American politics has its excesses as well, displayed on the internets for all to see.

    There's more I could write, but I've got work to do, alas... maybe later, or I'll stick it up on my own blog. (Also browser keeps crashing, annoyingly.)

  4. Hard to argue with what your saying. ID is not on par with other ills of the modern world. And of course critical thinking can be learned from teaching both evolution and ID. Having been through a Jewish high school I can say that with a high level of certainty. However, it worries me to see ID taught as fact alongside the "theory" of evolution. It is pushed on children, to the point where some even call it child abuse (I don't, but it is definitely a grey area, because to me you are depriving them of the beauty of self-awareness) Sure there are worse things, but as a scientist you should be keenly aware of the stranglehold religion has kept over society... this is yet another example in a long line going back to Galileo et al.

    To your point that ignorance about where we came from should be the same as ignorance in magnetohydrodynamics. Come on. Everybody from the lay man to Stephen Hawking subscribes to a theory of the universe and existence. Only few have even heard of magnetohydrodynamics. Ignorance in the question of our origin is quite different and frankly more important. Of course, the difference to my day to day life is negligible. But general ignorance is society is detrimental to progress.

    Nice chatting with you though, sure we disagree fundamentally on a few points. But we can live side by side in peace, and that is all that really matters. If you do write a post, comment with the link.


  5. Indeed, it has been fun. Gotta disagree on magnetohydrodynamics: it's the study of the interior workings of the sun. We live off it! Of course I don't know the first thing about it, however.

    A couple of scattered thoughts here. There are previous blog posts which covered similar territory but I forget where they are, and I was more thinking aloud with them anyway. (I get maybe a reader a month or something.)

    Child abuse... well, mostly, it's child abuse because you're lying to them. If you present them with accurate information it's OK - as long as what they learn about evolution is true and doesn't contain intentional omissions. (As I said, I don't care as much if people agree as long as they understand and don't misrepresent. Better to have someone understand and disagree, than agree with a caricature of evolution, like the bizarre idea that "punctuated equilibrium" means overnight change into a different species - see the opening of the X-Men movie for an example of this.)