Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Cool Parody of Dateline NBC: To Catch an Atheist

I'm not the only new blogger to the atheist blogosphere. That Atheist Guy's Blog has several interesting posts, beginning with June of 2007. The Friendly Atheist picked up on his parody of Dateline and that's how I found him.

It makes me wonder if the recent success of atheist books like The God Delusion and God is Not Great among others is helping inspire new bloggers on the topic of atheism, freethought, and religious skepticism. If so, this is a good thing since the more people who share their atheism and the more Christians who recognize that there are atheists among them in their families, places of business, schools, and even their circles of friends, the better.

The recent comments of PZ Myers [Pharyngula]

In regards to a map, which appeared at, titled US Map of Faith, Myers commented:

It shows the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed
victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed. Oh, it's labeled as the frequency of religious adherents, but it's the same thing.

Myers received a lot of flak for his comments, which were probably more off-the-cuff than serious when he initially made them, but how can anyone refute them with intellectual integrity? The map itself depicted "religious adherents as a percentage of all residents,” and showed the highest percentages in dark red, lowest in light yellow.

The comments drew flak from the same atheists that tend to pussy-foot around with religion rather than confront it, but none that I saw offered a real rebuttal that went beyond the argument that we should respect others beliefs. One critic, not an atheist however, went so far as to call Myers an asshole, and stuck to the ad hominem route rather than logically refute the paragraph above. He later attempted to remove the post, but it would seem that the Scienceblogs web architecture has defeated that, since the post still remains.

Atheist Revolution has a post that deals with the finer points of the Myers quote above, but I’ll add that delusion is present among many in these regions. Moreover, a distinct lack in education correlates with many of these regions. Does religion promote lack of education or does inferior education promote religious beliefs? I suspect it’s a little of both with a feedback loop, but the correlation is obvious.


Atheists are manipulating the young through their minds?

Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series of Christian fiction, gave a recent interview on in which they re-state their claim that the mythical Jesus is destined to return. During the interview, however, they had some things to say about the recent notoriety of atheistic works (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al). The accusation they made was that the atheists are taking advantage of the absence of god in public schools to reach the minds of impressionable young children.

One other reason I think the atheistic books are very prevalent in America is because, for 50 years, we've expelled God from the public school. We've expelled Him from many of our places. The ACLU and other anti-God agencies have tried to eliminate God from our public square. And so people are interested in reading from people like that to support their beliefs.
The non sequitur above, which implies that the ACLU is “anti-god,” is not the only logical fallacy these two make, and it is utterly fascinating to watch these two spell-casters create false dichotomy after false dichotomy as they try to paint reason and intellect as tools of the devil, while supporting childhood indoctrination of mythology –what Dawkins refers to as amounting to child abuse. Never mind that the ACLU’s primary mission is the preservation of civil liberties. One of those being religious freedom, which means that no single cult or superstition gets to codify their doctrine as the right one or the state sponsored one. The limited thinking of Christians usually follows with comments about how they “removed prayer” from public schools, but this is, of course, complete bollocks. Prayer exists in probably every public school in the United States. Teachers just aren’t allowed to lead it, since this would be the establishment of a state religion. Prayers that adhere to a Christian superstition would exclude Muslim or Hindu cults and their superstitions, not to mention the Wiccans and their silliness.

Another passage by Lahaye, one that precedes the above quote by one paragraph is perhaps the most revealing of either Lahaye’s limited education or his willingness to deceive. A third option, of course, would be his complete and utter delusion into the fantasy he has fleshed out in his fan-fic series with Jenkins (the Left Behind series):
Did man just originate spontaneously through evolution? It's always interesting to me that atheists who can't believe in God can believe in anything else. They believe in evolution, and evolution is the biggest fairy tale in our past two centuries. And yet, there are millions of intelligent, well-educated people who believe it because they just don't want to believe that there is a God.What they don't realize is they don't want to have to give accountability to God.
Which do you suppose Lahaye really meant, “spontaneously” or “evolution?” Does he really think that evolution is spontaneous? Or is he using an intentional hyperbole to deceive those of limited intelligence who might be inclined to read his fan-fic series of Christian fantasy with credulous abandon? It’s no secret that religious fundamentalists, particularly those that get the spotlight, frequently say nonsense like the comment above which calls evolution a “fairy tale.” They bank on the fact that our nation is one with great challenges in the field of science education and that people have a limited education regarding biological sciences, chemistry, physics, archaeology, and geology. All of which have produced overwhelming evidence that evolution is a fact that can only be denied by the ignorant, the utterly deluded, or those bent on deceiving the first two. These “millions of well-educated people” have come to the realization that there is a grand deception – a spell, to quote Dennett – with regard to religious belief in the United States and that there is no longer a reason to adhere to the superstitions of Christian mythology. Why should one be accountable to a god that isn’t there?

The Left Behind series, which I have loosely referred to above as a fan-fic, is fiction. The authors make no bones about it. Bookstores shelve it in the section ironically labeled “Christian Fiction.” Indeed, the interviewers of Lahaye and Jenkins prefaced their interview with a comparison of authors to other authors of the supernatural such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown. But readers of these authors, with the possible exception of Brown, don’t accept that the supernatural as they depict it is real or that the story they tell will really occur. Harry Potter is fun to read and the imagination can truly take a vacation at Hogwart’s, but no Potter fan is expecting to attend the next Quiddich match. Lahay fans, however, truly believe that their messiah will return and that there will be a battle on earth during their lifetimes! For all intents and purposes, Left Behind is an instruction manual for the deluded!

End times theology is a widely held belief in Christian mythology and that so many people believe that “the End,” or the “rapture” will occur in their lifetimes is a serious threat to reason and society. What reason, would one have to conserve the environment or leave a sustainable future for one’s descendants if the End is near? Why shouldn’t political decisions also reflect the delusion that Israel is a holy land and that the people of Israel are the chosen people of God? Believers in End Times (or those that are willing to cater to them) would be biased against any Middle East solution that would fail to consider this.

In their latest book of the series, Kingdom Come, Lahaye and Jenkins attack reason and the intellectual as tools of Satan. Clearly a message to their deluded followers that they should avoid reason and intellect –avoid thinking for themselves – since these are tricks of Satan. As religious dogmas go, Christianity is one that you have to admire when it comes to its self-inoculating ability. Christians are frequently quoting scriptures like, “the fool hath said in his hear there is no God” (Psa. 14:1) and “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). The reward offered through Christian mythology is, likewise, an inoculation against doubt since it provides “eternal life” (Rom. 6:23) for believing in “one God” (Jam. 2:19).

When asked if reason is dangerous, Lahaye responds:
Yes, reason without God. You show me two people with brilliant minds. If one believes in God and has a respect for almighty God, he can be like a Louis Pasteur or a Sir Isaac Newton or one of the many Christians who were scientists and contributed greatly to the well being of the world. Or, they can be like
Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud or many of the others who hated God or were ambivalent about God, just had no time for Him or His word, and they went their own way.We're living in a society where you have the wisdom of men on one hand and the wisdom of God on the other. Bible-free reasoning is going to lead you to one decision, [and] a Satan-filled [mind] or an empty vacuum is going to be contrary to that.
Christians often cite early scientists for their religious beliefs, in spite of the fact that few had any sort of choice. We may never know what scientists like Pasteur may have really thought about religion. We know he was a Roman Catholic and that he commented that religion and science were compatible, as did many of his scientific contemporaries. But how much of this is his attempts to justify his scientific pursuits with the Church that controlled so much of society? We know that Newton was religious and wrote much on the topic, but we also know that this brilliant mind had an obsession with alchemy and with finding “hidden messages” in the Bible.

What’s interesting in Lahaye’s comments above, however, is the false dichotomy and non sequitur he creates with his association of atheism with Satanism. The intent is clear: to associate atheists and their intellectual arguments with the work of the Christian deity of evil (Satan). “Bible-free reasoning” is likened with a “Satan-filled mind” and thus, the Christian should avoid thinking any thoughts that might question the spell cast by Biblical doctrine. The less educated the believer is, the easier it is to keep them inoculated.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Morality and the Humanist-Atheist

It is a common question of the religious, particularly the Christian, to ask when confronted with the atheist, “what keeps you from killing, raping, and doing whatever you want?” I’ve encountered this response enough that I think that the religious adherent, particularly the Christian, honestly believes that the source of their morality is their God and their Bible. It’s interesting that the Christian doesn’t consider that morality exists cross-culturally and is evident in human history prior to Christianity. If morality is informed by the Christian God, then why does the Muslim profess moral principles? Why does the Hindu? Why does the member of the Navajo nation? And, what about the West African tribesman? Are these people immoral, deliberately violating moral principles? Are they amoral, living without any concept of morality?

The short answer to the Christian who asks where the atheist’s morality comes from is that it comes from the same place as that of the Christian: human experience and the intuition of right and wrong. The Christian attributes this understanding of morality to their religious upbringing, but studies have demonstrated that morality is understood beginning at age 2 and 3 as toddlers begin understanding that hurting others is wrong [1]. Of course, it’s easy for the Christian to attribute this understanding among their children to their Christian lifestyle, but that doesn’t explain why the children of non-religious families have equal understandings of right from wrong.

People express morality in a variety of ways. For many, racist behavior goes against their moral principles –that principle being that racial discrimination is wrong; this might inspire someone to be careful that they aren’t giving the appearance of being racist and plan actions accordingly through moral reasoning; to use a racial slur or not is to employ the moral concept of “right from wrong;” we can criticize the decisions others make on the basis of racism, forming a moral judgment; and by admitting to ourselves that a racist should others fairly in spite of skin color differences, we admit to having moral feelings.

I use the “racist” example on purpose because it was only a few short years ago in American history that the same religious doctrine that informs Christian morality also informed many Christians that racial oppression was a morally correct concept. Indeed, this same doctrine once considered the Navajo nation, along with the other 500 or so aboriginal nations of people that populated the North American continent to be godless savages, exempt from the “golden rule,” which suggests that one treat others as one would wish to be treated. So my short answer above may actually be wrong in hindsight: Christians don’t obtain their morals necessarily from the same place as the atheist or the humanist.

I’ll not quibble with the fact that the morality taught by the mythical figure, Jesus Christ was, for the most part, admirable. “What would Jesus do?” is a powerful statement (it really is a statement more than a question) to most Christians, but when compared with supposed “Christian values” and “Christian morals” of modern Christians, it fails. Being Christian doesn’t guarantee moral behavior.

Some of the most heinous crimes committed include those committed against children, bringing to mind the pedophile priests of Catholicism. But lest the Protestants think they’re exempt, let us not forget the Houston mom that drowned her 5 children one-by-one. And what did Andrea Yates tell her prison psychiatrist?

"It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren't righteous. They stumbled because I was evil. The way I was raising them they could never be saved. ... Better for someone else to tie a millstone around their neck and cast them in a river than stumble. They were going to perish."

If I were a Christian apologist, I’d argue that I’m cherry-picking a few isolated cases and that Christians are human and, in spite of their strong moral values and training, even they can be afflicted with evil. But, how then, does the Christian explain the data that indicates that the very immoral concepts that Christians are most vocal about are often the ones they have the most problems with? I’m speaking of abortion, murder, and the sanctity of marriage among others.

Abortion rates among religious societies are significantly higher than that of secular ones. Some of the highest rates of abortion are in the United States (23 per 1000), one of the most Christian nations on the planet. In places like Western Europe where religiosity is low, abortion rates are low (11 per 1000) [2]. Homicide was, likewise, positively correlated to religiosity with the United States leading the world, per capita. In the U.S., the homicide rate exceeds Western Europe's by 4 to 1 and Japan's by 7 to 1 [3]. With so many Christians in the United States openly objecting to same-sex marriage based on the “sanctity” of this institution, one might expect them to be setting the example. However, U.S. Divorce Rates by religion reveal:

Jews 30%
Born-again Christians 27%
Other Christians 24%
Atheists, Agnostics 21% [4]
Why don’t Christians, or for that matter, Jews (who also frown upon the practice of divorce), have lower rates of divorce than atheists and agnostics?

The answer is that morality is a human concept, informed by human experience and human intuition. To the humanist-atheist, there is no escape-clause of getting forgiveness or atonement from a deity for immoral acts. We act and behave as though life is sacred not because it was divinely given until some mythic afterlife occurs, but because it is the only opportunity we have to make a mark on this planet and our actions affect those we come in contact with as well as those that follow us. We don’t require the threat of punishment by an invisible deity or an eternity of torture in a “hell” to treat other humans with dignity and respect. Nor do we need the motivation of eternal life to seek to better our world and improve the lives of others if we’re able.

[1] Tisak, MS & Turiel, E (1984). Children’s conceptions of moral and prudential rules. Child Development, 55 (3), 1030-1039.
[2] (1999 data)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Five Stages of Religious Evolution

A well-known theory of religious development was proposed by Robert Bellah (1964) in which he defined an axial point of religious evolution. Bellah describes 5 stages:

1. Primitive Religion (i.e. Native American & aboriginal)
This stage contrasts with others in that it isn't "world rejecting" and mythical characteristics are related to characteristics found in the experienced world. Thunder, for instance, would be the expression of a deity's anger. Whereas later stages utilize sacrifice, the Primitive Stage is characterized by identification, participation, and acting out. Rituals involve reactualization where events aren't simply portrayed but made to happen again. The Hopi or Zuni mask ceremonies are good examples of this. The person in the mask becomes the mythical being.

2. Archaic Religion (i.e. ancient Greece; early Judaic)
This involves gods, priests and sacrifices. The distinction between men and gods is defined and demarcated. The world is not rejected, but there is likely to be a concept of hierarchical cosmology where every being has its place in the hierarchy. Fluidity of the religion exists, where individuals exercise some creativity in their worship, but the presence of priests will limit it. Different cults come into being during this stage and certain priests are attached to cult centers such as the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. Greece provides a good example of an archaic religion since there is clear record of the temenos that physically existed between the sanctuary (the sacred) and everything outside the sanctuary (the profane/secular).

Egyptian and early Judaic cults also show these characteristics with hierarchical gods and demarcation of the sacred versus the secular. Growing populations in each of these societies also gave rise to new cults as priestly-classes and ruling-classes variously merged and emerged.

3. Historical Religion (i.e. Roman Catholicism)
This marks an "axial age," which, to Bellah, is the point at which the world's great religions emerged along with philosophy and science. The world is rejected both morally and philosophically and writing is now present. A dualism emerges with a concept of a supernatural world as well as an earthly world. Salvation becomes a paramount purpose of religion and old myths are put aside as the participants are taught to believe in monotheism. The human moral condition is now perceived as much worse than by primitive and archaic stages (pre-axial). Consequently, humans can only participate in the "ultimate reality" by seeking salvation.

In this stage, a four-class system emerges
1. Political/Military Elite
2. Cultural/Religious Elite
3. Peasantry (farmers)
4. Merchants and Artisans

Struggles begin to exist between political rulers and the religious elite, such as the King versus the Pope in pre-Anglican Britain.

4. Early Modern Religion (i.e. Protestantism)
This is best exemplified by the Protestant Reformation. World rejection continues as does the dualism of heaven and earth. An unmediated relationship between humanity and God is now taught and religious doctrine is no longer kept as privilege to just the religious elite but made available to all. God is now accessible to the peasantry and merchant classes. Emphasis is placed on "faith" and total dedication of oneself in all areas of life. The distinction between "elect" and the "non-elect" is substituted for the distinction that existed between ascetics like monks and the "mass of believers" as with the Historical Stage. In the Calvinist cult, for instance, the elect equates to those chosen by God for salvation. The non-elect are all others; the non-chosen.

5. Modern ReligionNot world-rejecting and has diminished interest in creeds or "right" doctrines. There exists an increased emphasis on the individual and the idea of moral deprivation is not taught. Bellah finds difficulty pinning this new religious movement down and admits to as much, though he cites the growing tendencies (even in the 1950s and 60s) of people to find new forms of enlightenment and that

..."...for many churchgoers the obligation of doctrinal orthodoxy sits lightly indeed, and the idea that all creedal statements must receive a personal reinterpretation is widely accepted. The dualistic worldview certainly persists in the minds of many of the devout, but just as surely many others have developed elaborate and often pseudoscientific rationalizations to bring their faith in its experienced validity into some kind of cognitive harmony with the 20th century world."
Of course, Bellah's Five Stages theory doesn't imply that the previous stages disappear, but it gives an interesting point of reference that we might apply to the anthropological perspective that Horton provides with regard to society and complexity.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Psuedoscience and Superstition Influence Surgeon Generals

Today's Washington Post carries an article (Lee 2007) which quotes former Surgeon Generals Richard Carmona and C. Everett Koop who each make some interesting revelations regarding the pressures applied to them by the Executive Branch to influence their policies. Their statements were made to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week. Rather than allow the nation's top physician to base his opinion and policy on science, they were instead influenced by "theology, ideology, [and] preconceived beliefs that were scientifically incorrect."

This is particularly revealed in the present admininstration. Koop stated that, while under Reagan, he was pressured to not speak about HIV/AIDS but ignored this. Apparently Reagan was pressured by advisors to dismiss or replace Koop, but Reagan tolerated Koop.

Carmona, however, was top-Doc in a different sort of administration altogether. Bush has shown all in his administration that thinking and reason aren't welcome -the dismissal of federal prosecutors for no other apparent reason than they didn't act on ideological motivations and used the rule of law and reason to guide their actions is but a single example.

On the topic of sex education, the administration restricted Carmona from speaking about the effectiveness of condoms along with abstinence since the Bush administration was only interested in the pseudoscientific and theologically driven claim that abstinence-only programs are effective and are to get funding.

On the topic of stem cell research, Carmona said he was instructed not to speak about it during the national debate. The top physician of our nation was essentially cuckolded when it should have been his show. Instead of being allowed to inform the President and the nation with scientific data and information, so that reasoned debate and decisions could be made, he was sidelined and forced to watch as Bush screwed the nation. Pre-conceived notions and beliefs too precedent over science and reason."The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds."

Now the Bush administration has found a new Surgeon General candidate and has nominated James Holsinger to the top-Doc job. Holsinger seems to be a perfect candidate for an administration that isn't interested in science but wishes to base its medical practices on theological and ideological positions. Holsinger wrote an 8-page paper titled "Pathophysicology of Male Homosexuality" in 1991, which concludes that since our culture has named pipe fittings "male" and "female" and that since the two sexes are "complimentary," homosexuality is therefore wrong and gay sex can lead to diseases or injury.

What scientific journal published this paper you ask? None. It was prepared for the Committee to Study Homosexuality of The United Methodist Church. Ignored by Holsinger is the fact that disease and injury is prevalent in sex between males and females, even ones that are married. Ignored by Holsinger are deeper questions of homosexuality that include the possibility that two people are deeply and honestly in love with each other and wish to share their lives with each other. Ignored is the evidence that some people simply don't find members of the opposite sex attractive and cannot bring themselves to seek relationships with anyone except members of their own gender.

Indeed, Holsinger ignores much in his "paper" presented to a religious cult. But it may be enough to get him the job of the nation's top physician.

Further Reading:

Ex-Surgeon General Says White House Hushed Him [Washington]
Homosexuality isn't Natural or Healthy []

Monday, July 9, 2007

Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime

In reading some of the recent back and forth in the atheist blogosphere, criticizing and defending Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, several themes jump on the critical side. One of these is the premise that authors like Dawkins (and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) are “hurting the cause of the atheist movement.”

On Evolutionblog [], Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars [] comments in the Jason’s post, “Brayton Says I’m Wrong. What Nerve!”:

When the other side demonizes us and uses outrageous rhetoric, calling us "Stalinists" or "jackbooted thugs", we reprint those words on every blog because we know it makes them look unhinged and loony. When those on our side talk about breaking out the brass knuckles and wanting to obliterate religion and accuse them of abusing their children by teaching them the tenets of their faith, they do exactly the same thing to make us look bad and to help insulate their followers from the influence of "them."

At his own blog, Brayton had this to say in his post, “Atheism and Civil Rights”:

I do believe that such rhetoric, calling all religious believers either stupid or deluded, is false and that it undermines our ability to work with reasonable Christians on a range of issues. [...] The real nuts will hate atheists without such rhetoric. They hate and fear all non-Christians as a matter of presumption and there is likely nothing that could persuade them otherwise. But for a more moderate, reasonable Christian who just doesn't understand why anyone would be an atheist, likely because they've never known any, seeing militant pronouncements like that is certainly going to reinforce their fears of atheists rather than help reduce them.

I agree with Brayton that calling religious believers “stupid” is not only counterproductive but also immature. However, I think that this represents a distinct minority of atheists engaged in the battle between religious superstition and reason. Certainly I’ve seen this type of atheist, usually in internet chat forums and blogs, but the atheists in question here are those so-called “public” atheists: Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. I’ve yet to read Hitchens’ new book, but I’ve quickly scanned through my copies of the other authors’ works and I failed to arrive at the page where either of them referred to religious believers as “stupid.” I’m assuming that Brayton is, therefore, creating hyperbole and that his real discontent is with the term “deluded.”

Someone is deluded when they accept an erroneous belief or set of beliefs held in spite of evidence to the contrary. What authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Stenger have argued successfully is that evidence does exist to the contrary of religious superstition. But I don’t think Brayton, Nisbet, et al are denying that delusion, the operative word in Dawkins’ book title, is absent with regard to fundamentalist or even moderate religious believers, specifically Christians. What they object to is that Dawkins and co., as first pointed out by PZ Myers, aren’t afraid to mention that the Emperor is without attire. The Emperor in this case is religion. Dawkins mentions PZ’s version of the Courtier’s Reply in the preface of the paperback edition of TGD and also addresses many of the fallacious criticisms that have been leveled at him from both theists and atheists alike. Dawkins refers to the latter as those that precede their criticisms with “I’m an atheist, but...”

For those critics on the side of reason who describe Dawkins as an “in your face” or “militant” atheist and claim that Dawkins et al are “hurting the cause,” where is the quantifiable evidence? The Amazon and New York Times Best Seller’s lists are quantifiable evidence against their claims. And while they are only anecdotes, the Converts’ Corner of offers quantifiable evidence as well. Daniel Dennett put it well in Breaking the Spell (the inspiration for this blog’s title) when he pointed out that a taboo exists with regard to inquiring, examining and questioning religious belief by non-believers in society: “[t]he first spell –the taboo- and the second spell – religion itself – are bound together in a curious embrace. Part of the strength of the second may be – may be – the protection it receives from the first.” Dennett, too, goes on in that paragraph to invoke the Courtier’s Reply.

Which brings us, finally, to the question of blasphemy. Are we atheists willing to pussy-foot about, afraid to offend the superstitious –the people we privately agree suffer a delusion that they are willing to spread evangelistically through society like a virus, infecting children and those looking for hope, answers, or something to give them purpose? Do we give in to the taboo and “frame” our positions by hiding our logic and reason? Is there any way to adequately “frame” atheism that logically addresses religious superstition and delusion?

The biggest beef that pussy-footing atheists seem to have with Dawkins’ book is the title. Most believers critical of the book have probably never read it and they, too, are hung up on the title. The word “delusion” is blasphemy and taken to be an insult. That’s a fact I was conscious of when I purchased a copy at a major bookstore and as I carried it around in public. But there exists a delusion all the same and it needs to be discussed. In public. By intellectuals. And that discussion is happening: in the blogosphere; on television; on the radio; in podcasts; in the editorial columns of newspapers; in major magazines; and on college campuses. These aren’t “militant pronouncements” as Brayton puts it, but reasoned discussions and reasoned responses.

I’m not shouting to believers, “ha, ha! Look at the Emperor’s bare ass!” But nor am I commenting on his smart fashion sense. And where the discussion emerges, be it at work, school, or home, I’m willing to risk the perceived blasphemy and point out that I see religion as a delusion and why.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Why study religion scientifically and what are we able to objectively examine?

The Scientific Study of Religion

On science message-boards and blogs, there are typically two camps: believers and non-believers. Many discussion forums omit religion sub-forums because of the controversy and division that ultimately erupts and most bloggers probably avoid it altogether, but I think that in any decent discussion community of science, there should be time and space devoted to the topic of "religion." Whether those of us in the sciences like it or not, religion and science affect each other. In addition, I think that religion deserves to be examined and explained scientifically just as any other social phenomenon.

Among religionists, the objection to examination of their beliefs is often immediate and harsh. They readily claim that theirs is a “way of knowing” that is outside the ability of science to comment with informed authority. They readily claim that theirs is a “way of knowing” that is outside the ability of science to comment with informed authority.Not a single religion would ever object to any scientific evidence that supports their position, and many claims of such evidence have been made! The Shroud of Turin, last year’s Noah’s Ark “find,” and the recent Tomb of Jesus nonsense (preceded by the James ossuary hoax) are examples of this. However, not a single one of these religions would readily accept scientific evidence that dispels their myths and superstitions. Ken Hamm’s Creation Museum demonstrates this.

But science can objectively examine all the "earthly" manifestations of religion: the institutions, the rituals, the texts, the symbolism, psychological effects, the traditions, myths, etc. Indeed, we can examine the beliefs themselves and determine if evidence exists to support these beliefs. And it's because religion is such an "important and pervasive phenomenon in human society" that it should be studied (Dennett 2006).

Another reason to study religion is to reach a consensus about what religion actually is. Guthrie notes that definitions imply theories and that there simply are no good theories about religion (1993). Anthropologists have their definitions; sociologists have theirs; believers of various religions have various independent versions; philosophers yet another; and so on. Even within these groups there is much disagreement about what constitutes a "religion" or "religious thought."

Daniel Dennett’s definition is the most succinct and utilitarian: one or more social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.

There are, however, two main positions when it comes to religion: that of believers and that of non-believers. The positions of believers are primarily central to their own religious beliefs and typically discount other positions as inferior. As Guthrie puts it (1993:8), to them, "belief must precede understanding" in many cases and that "these theories primarily concern some single, ostensibly true, religion, not religion in general.

The various theories that explain religion are, in brief:

1. A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.
Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions' believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct.
This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions' believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one "true" God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn't explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.

2. Religion is the human response to anxiety, fear, desperation and dissatisfaction and provides comfort to humanity.

This explanation has been around for some time and is very plausible. It has been proposed by intellectuals like Freud, Hume, Spinoza, Marx, and Malinowski. Freud is quoted as having said religion "must exorcise the terrors of nature" and "reconcile men to the credulity of fate, particularly as it is shown in death." Hume noted that "the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear." These opinions are supported by the work of Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands where he found that the Polynesian inhabitants had varying degrees of magic for varying degrees of risk in their daily activities. If the natives were going to fish in their local lagoon, no magic was required; but as they ventured further from shore to the deep sea, the amount of ritual and magic involved increased proportional to the risk involved. This theory also supposes that people in all cultures fear the finality of death and the unpredictable forces of nature and therefore find comfort in religious beliefs of an afterlife or rewards/punishments in the form of bountiful seasons or catastrophes like floods and volcanoes.

3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.

This is a theory of religion for which Emile Durkheim was a strong proponent (Durkheim 1965), but it was variously proposed by others such as Auguste Comte and even as early as Polybius of first century BCE Greece. Freud and Malinowski also commented on this theory as did anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim, however, was the most influential proponent of this theory and his position was that religion couldn't be actually about gods and deities (since they don't actually exist) and must therefore be about something else entirely. Durkheim asserted that religion seeks to divide the universe into two realms: the sacred and the profane. The sacred, being that which is devoted to the illusionary gods, and the profane, being everything else, sets apart the two realms. In ancient Greek religion, this was often a physical barrier at a sanctuary called the temenos, often just a low wall that surrounded the temple grounds. The temenos wasn't designed to restrict access but rather to demarcate the point at which the sacred began and the profane ended. According to Durkheim, the believers considered the "sacred" to be set apart from the "profane," but what really occurred was that the society was setting itself apart and thus providing a cohesive unity or a solidarity between itself and all else, such as other religions. The problem with this theory is, of course, that there are many religions, extant as well as extinct, in which there is no separation between the sacred and profane. The Navajo along with most Native American cultures view everything as sacred, albeit in varied degrees.

This theory also makes "perpetuation of the society the purpose of religion (Guthrie 1993:17)," but there are religions that have destroyed their societies such as the Xhosa, whose beliefs caused the "cattle killing" in South Africa; and the inhabitants of Easter Island, who decimated their forests in their beliefs that included the giant monuments. Likewise, it can be argued that the Maya destroyed themselves because of ritual warfare and deforestation due to temple construction.

4. Religion is whatever a given set of believers think it is and provides explanations valid for a given culture.

Boyer (Boyer 2003:10-12) summarizes this theory quite well by pointing out that people created religion to explain puzzling natural and mental phenomena as well as the origins of things like plants, animals, humans, the world, etc., and that religion explains evil and suffering. Guthrie (Guthrie 1993) also calls this theory the intellectualist and rationalist theory, and compares it with science (though, clearly Guthrie is not a proponent of this theory) as a means of explaining the world. He cites Bernard Fontenelle, a 17th century intellectual: [i]religion started when lighning, wind, and other natural phenomena made people imagine human like agents, "more powerful than themselves, capable of producing these grand effects." People imagine these agents as like themselves because they think analogically. Fontenelle's recognition that analogy and metaphor are universal makes possible a naturalistic and rationalistic account of religion."

E.B. Tylor was one of the first to assert this theory with his study of Australian Aboriginals and his hypothesis that primitive religions begin with animism. Few who study religion today consider his work to have provided a valid or concise theory, but his discussions about animism bring up good points that relate to anthropomorphism, a concept that may well tie into each of the theories (except the irrational first in this list). Tylor proposed that early people contrived the notion of a soul or "spirit" after experiencing dreams or hallucinations about deceased loved ones and assuming that the reason these people could be "seen" after death was that there is something that survives the body when it stops living. This "life-force" can find its way into non-human things as well, such as crows, bears, rocks, etc. Tylor asserted that these "spirits" that inhabited various things by "animating" them, evolved into polytheistic religions then, finally, were reduced to a single god.

5. Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.

Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist from the University of California-San Diego discovered that an individual's religiosity may be heavily influenced by the electrical activity of a specific region of the brain. Ramachandran evaluated 3 groups of people: 1) patients of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) who had religious "preoccupations;" 2) "very religious" people who were not TLE; and 3) non-religious people without TLE. He found that the first group had the highest response to religious words and icons, significantly more than the control group (Ramachandran et al 1997; Ramachandran 2003). There are other theories and suggestions that religiosity in humanity is an evolutionary advantage and is passed on through DNA. It could very well be that the willingness to "believe" is just the right addition to intelligence that allows us to develop technology. The technology of agriculture may have developed from the propensity for belief: procedures for food production and water management show up in the archaeological record as having "ritual" significance that varies in intensity and frequency from culture to culture. Undoubtedly, early humans applied magical thinking to the availability of food, rain, predators, etc.

There are certainly reasons to study religion scientifically. The theories of religion I outlined briefly above are by no means complete nor have I mentioned each theory.

6. The Theory of Human Relationships.

This is another theory of religiosity in humanity which originates from Robin Horton (1960).

Horton suggests that people will turn to relationships outside of "purely human society" when those relationships within society fail to meet needs. Horton asserts that large, complex and technologically advanced societies have the ability to predict and control their physical world but the members of such societies are often individualistic, alienated and lonely when contrasted with small, simple societies that are technologically less advanced. The smaller, less complex societies are typically better at creating intimacy and friendships within their populations. They are, however, bad at material control and prediction of the physical world with regard to things like weather, agriculture, disease, etc.

The small, simpler societies look to deities for technical assistance with the environment: they have rain gods, for instance, as well as rituals and deities associated with the forces they cannot control. The larger, more complex societies look to deities for personal relationships: "Jesus is my co-pilot;" or "do you have a personal relationship with God?" are both phrases common in American religious communities.

Horton's theory seems to be similar to the "Wish Fulfillment" theory of #2, which suggests: "Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion." The objections to Horton's theory are similar as well: that there is much in religion that is deleterious and frightening. The Xhosa Cattle Killing; the sacrifices of children or warriors by the Maya and Aztec; the Inquisition; the Salem Witch Trials; Suicide Bombers; etc. Still, his correlation of societal size and technological advancement to religious trends can’t be ignored, even though no clear line of causation has been established or suggested.

So, religion can be studied. We just did it. And this post doesn't even scratch the surface of what can be objectively examined about religion. My primary interest is in ancient religion and cult practices, but I firmly believe that in order to understand past religious practices and beliefs, it is first necessary to understand those of the present. I also hope that by studying religious belief, others come to examine their own beliefs and the beliefs of those that seek to impose them on the rest of us.

Before we can hope to break the spells of superstition that inhibit and hinder progess in society -superstitions that are responsible for hatred and violence in society- we must learn about them. We must seek to find out why people succomb to the spells of belief and why these beliefs -these superstitions- are so powerful their believers are willing to kill and die for them without regard for the rest of humanity.


Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Dawkins, R. (2003). A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Dennet, D. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Adult.

Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elemental Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1950). Witchcraft, Oracles and magic Among the Azande, 2nd ed. Oxford: Carendon Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horton, Robin (1960). A definition of religion, and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 90, pp. 201-226.

Malinowski, B. (1979/1931). The role of magic and religion. In W. Lessa & E. Vogt (Ed.), Reader in comparative religion (4th ed., pp. 38-46). New York: Harper & Row.

Ramachandran, V., Hirstein, W., Narmel, K., Tecoma, E., & Iragui, V. (1997). The Neural Basis of Religious Experience. Annual Conference of He Society of Neuroscience, 23(Abstract #519.1).

Ramachandran, V. (Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego)). (2003). Audio Q&A: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. In Reith Lectures. Oxford University.

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Kudos to Net Nanny for adding WorldNutDaily to their Blocked List

At first I didn't believe it as I read the article on WorldNutDaily ( about a WorldNutter who was unable to access the site after installing the software, which he believes will keep his 11-year old from accessing porn.

But after reading the article, they showed a picture very much like this one:

Net Nanny nailed WorldNutDaily right: "Hate/Violence" in their content. Mostly hate.

Recent commentaries at that hate and violence filled site reveals articles such as the one by Mike Adams who announces his intention to allow children fornicate with adult pedophiles in his home -whether or not he truly plans to do so is unknown, but he certainly makes it clear that he disagrees with statutory rape laws (Why I Support Statutory Rape, 7/2/07).

And WorldNutDaily has a long history of anti-gay/anti-lebian commentary that is flat out hateful. One of the more recent articles is Not even baseball safe from 'gay' promotions (7/1/07), where WorldNutters imply that because hats for kids are being given away the same day as "Pride" celebrations at the ball park, it must be a subversive effort to "convert" our nation's youth to homosexuality. It's as if they believe homosexuality is something to be caught like the common cold should an unvaccinated child be exposed to colorful clothing or the mere voice of singer who happens to be gay. If it weren't for ilk like WorldNutDaily readers/writers who are constantly displaying their bigotry and prejudice toward homosexuals, there would be no need for Pride events.

So my hat (if I were to wear one) is off to Net Nanny. Filter that hatred and violence.

Atheists as an oppressed group

Over the weekend, there was quite the buzz at Scienceblogs over the topic of atheists as a group that is oppressed and the “framing” of atheism as being a rational mindset whereas religion is an irrational one. Much of the arguments centered over the latter, with mega-posts by an agnostic poster that goes by the nom de blog mecha (one wonders if it rhymes with “betcha” or “Mecca”).

The discussion is interesting to say the least, and I was tempted to chime in there but thought it would make a good second topic here.

Personally, I find that atheists are, indeed, an oppressed group. I base this on the fact that many atheists are afraid to admit their atheism to friends and family if only to avoid negatively affecting the status quo of relationships -not wanting to rock boats and all. Some are worried what biases might emerge if their employers should discover their atheism. In my own workplace, I wouldn’t fear the latter, but I do worry that religious friends (some of them very religious) would have changed opinions of me. At the very least, they would begin worrying for my eternal soul, since they accept wholeheartedly that one must believe or go to hell. If they ask, I tell them I’m atheist. If not, I don’t bring it up. In a nation where 70% of the public absolutely believes in God and admit they would trust atheists least just for being atheist, not everyone can afford to be open with their lack of belief.
Personally, I find that atheists are, indeed, an oppressed group. I base this on the fact that many atheists are afraid to admit their atheism to friends and family if only to avoid negatively affecting the status quo of relationships -not wanting to rock boats and all.
With regard to the second main argument that was being tossed back and forth –does atheism equate to rationalism whereas religion equates to irrationalism- I’d say the choice should be clear. Atheists and agnostics who refuse to admit that religion is an irrational position –a delusion- are simply playing politics. In their quest to be PC, they hesitate to make that admission. It’s a hesitation I can understand, but it’s also one that I ultimately find intellectually dishonest. There’s a certain temptation to find a “common ground” with the religionists so as to make progress in areas that the religiously deluded so irrationally affect with their superstitions. These areas include stem cell research, teaching the fact of evolution in public schools, the rights of gays and lesbians, the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS, and others.

But this “common ground” simply doesn’t exist. While I’ll agree that there are many liberal religionists that accept things like evolution and want to proceed with stem cell research, the fact of the matter is that the United States leads the western world in two areas: religious conviction and doubt of evolution. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the correlation and, while that isn’t by itself evidence of causation, there’s no denying it. The most religious nation in the West is also the stupidest.

Religion is a delusion. This is clear. A delusion is an irrational belief held without evidence. I recognize, however, that it is a human condition to allow for delusion. It may even have been a selective advantage at one point in hominid development, creating a foundation for ritual and belief that led to innovations in agriculture and technology. Appeasement of deities allowed early humans to find and ultimately produce food and organize in large, cohesive social bands and societies.

But where earliest religious cults sought appeasement of deities for the betterment of their clans, bands, and cities, modern religious organizations have more selfish reasons for their irrational beliefs: personal relationships with gods and attainment of “everlasting life” is the goal. The percentage of the religious in the United States that wholeheartedly believe that rapture (a term not even mentioned in their Bible) will happen in their lifetimes is very high. If that isn’t the epitome of irrational mindset, then what is?

NISBET SUGGESTS ATHEISTS CAN IT [Dr. Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge]
“Polarizing” is a dirty word, so atheists should surrender [Pharyngula]
Is Atheism a Civil Rights Issue? [Evolutionblog]

Introductory Post

This is the first post of a blog I hope will grow into a forum for discussion that others will participate in on a regular basis on the topics of reasoned responses to superstitions and irrational beliefs, with particular regard for religious superstitions and beliefs, which affect society.

I’ve been involved in the blogosphere now for a couple of years and I’ve chose to publish this blog under a pseudonym for a variety of reasons. One of them is that I want the freedom to speak openly and directly regarding subjects that might seem out-of-character for those that know me in real life. I also want to eliminate potential bias or prejudice as I pursue and academic and professional career, since it is becoming more and more a common practice to google applicants, even if this is done unofficially. And, as recent polls have revealed, most Americans have a unreasoned distrust for atheists as a matter of personal policy.

Which brings me to the topic of atheism: I’m an atheist. Specifically, I’m an agnostic-atheist, an identification which may be oxymoronic to many who consider themselves to be either theist or atheist but also among those that simply consider themselves agnostic. So let me offer a brief explanation.

As an atheist, I don’t believe that there is a god that created the Earth or even the universe that contains it. Nor do I think that one is necessary for the universe to exist. Moreover, I don’t find compelling the claims that religious texts of man are of divine origin. Indeed, I find these claims to be completely without merit and no evidence has ever been demonstrated that the Bible, Koran, or Holy Vedas are anything more than the literature of humanity. In some cases, this literature is very beautiful and revealing of the societies they originate from, but they are literature nonetheless. There is significant evidence to support the literature hypothesis and not a single shred that any of them is of divine origin or influence.

But I’m also agnostic in the sense that, while I believe the things in the above paragraph, I also admit that I cannot know for sure that my beliefs are 100% true. I cannot examine every square kilometer of the universe, testing it for the presence of a god. I cannot return to the moment the Bronze Age author of a Biblical passage authored his account to observe his inspiration. And I admit that the god hypothesis is a possibility –I just don’t think it to be a very likely one. In fact, I think it to be so unlikely as to believe otherwise and therefore I’m an agnostic-atheist. I see no good reason to accept that any of the gods of humanity are factual, but I concede that, not knowing everything about the universe, a god may be out there. Somewhere.
In general, I don’t fault others for what they believe. That is to say, as long as they don’t try to codify their beliefs as policy for the rest of society or even try to convince me that their beliefs are right. I don’t criticize those that I work with or come in contact with each day for their beliefs, pointing out that they’re wasting their time when I notice they have a bible on their desks, a crucifix around their necks, or offer “have a blessed day” when I complete a telephone call.

But the moment someone says their beliefs should be taught as fact in public schools when there is no supporting evidence; the moment their beliefs include public claims of the outrageous or the absurd; the moment their beliefs are used to obtain money, including public funds… I feel it is my right and duty to speak out. If the superstitious want to publically share their superstitions and call them real, they deserve criticism and even ridicule in the form of parody and satire just as any political or economic assertions receive. Religion should not get a free pass when it comes to critique, inquiry, or ridicule.