Jesus-Colored Glasses

Caution: Angry late-night rant ahead. You have been warned.

The thing I hate most about religion today is that it teaches people to view the world through an incredibly twisted lens. It teaches its adherents that it’s okay admirable to reject other people’s views and hold one’s own up as inherently superior.* “You are a member of the elite—God’s chosen people. You alone have the true moral code of the universe, and everything you do to uphold this code is service to God.” To someone holding such an idea, empathy is not just unnecessary, it’s an act of defiance against one’s religion.

Take the recent Chick-fil-A debacle as an example. In the event that you haven’t heard of this, Chick-fil-A is a fast food restaurant owned by asshat Christians who oppose equal rights for homosexuals. (God sez gays are teh abominnayshinz, so tey is bad, kthxbai.) They’ve contributed to anti-gay causes for years, so it perplexes me that it’s taken this long for public outcry to happen, but there’s been a wave of anti Chick-fil-A sentiment over this recently. As a result, corporate sponsors (the muppets) have removed their support for this “biblical values” company, and many individuals have announced that they will be boycotting it. Not content to let supporters of equality express their outrage unanswered, religious apologists have responded by saying, essentially, “Chick-fil-A should be allowed to express their values, just like everyone else,” calling for a “National Eat at Chick-fil-A Day.”

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How Not to Respond (Again)

Here’s a follow-up to my last post:

This is pretty much exactly what you should not say to survivors of a shooting:

I’m very, very happy God spared you.”

So, what, God descended from heaven to intervene to “save”* some members of a church, but not to stop the shooting in the first place? What this vestment-shod sociopath is saying is that God’s opinion is, “Yeah guys, y’all are cool, and I’m willing to alter reality to save your lives, but those other people who got shot? Yeah, I couldn’t care less about them. Sure, I could’ve stopped the whole thing at any point, but those other poor bastards just didn’t love me enough.

Sigh.

If you attempt to reason that God saved someone because of X, you’re also implicitly saying that God did not save everyone else because they lacked X. By thanking God for sparing you from this sort of tragedy, you are thanking God for bestowing it upon someone else in your stead. Frankly, that’s quite morbid.

What I also find fascinating is how no one ever seems to attribute malicious acts to God, even though he’s said to be a vengeful angry god—one who regularly destroyed the lives of a multitude of people in the Bible. How eager Christians are to overlook those atrocities, though! I’m so incredibly sick of hearing “God is all-powerful and all-good.” Reality disagrees.

Feelings of helplessness are miserable indeed, but this is not the way to cope with them.

* Saved from physical harm, that is. Who knows how much mental trauma the survivors will have to endure.
Sure, it's better than death, but it's hardly protection is it?

How Not to Respond to Crises

I dislike prayer.

Okay, that’s an oversimplification and thus a lie. Praying when you’re in a crisis is perfectly understandable. I can see how this might make it easier to cope with bad things that are happening to you. (I find no comfort in this idea, but hey, whatever floats your boat.) It’s not the act of prayer itself that bothers me—context is important. What I’m referring to is when religious believers who weren’t involved in the crisis say “I’ll pray for you” or “Let’s pray for the victims.” As I have said, the words are not the problem, but what happens after this pledge? It’s far too common for believers to approach prayer as if it’s the solution to a problem. It isn’t.

When someone says “I’ll pray for you” to someone in crisis, what I hear is this: “Gosh, your situation makes me feel bad, but I’m not actually going to do anything to fix it. In order to assuage the feeling of guilt I will experience for my inaction, I’ll just think about it in the general direction of the sky, and it’ll be just like I’m helping!” As far as I can tell, prayer is just a method of cognitive dissonance removal.

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One Dimensionality

I have noticed a disturbing trend among the faithful (one that I am deeply thankful is not universal): a proclivity toward seeing the world only in terms of black and white. To these pitiable sheep, that which does not fit neatly into their preconceptions must therefore be interpreted as bad. God, after all, is said not to be the author of confusion, so if something is confusing or otherwise aberrant, the obvious conclusion is that evil is afoot. In such a scenario, the believer has no recourse but to retreat to the comforting ignorance of childish simplicity.

Religions teach their adherents to categorize everything into discrete boxes, which can be understood as the sacred and the profane. In terms of classical definitions as laid out by Durkheim, the sacred is that which a religion holds to be special—significant and “above” mundane affairs. By contrast, the profane is everything else, encompassing both the spiritually neutral and the purportedly unclean. It speaks volumes that this word has come to bear a negative connotation in contemporary parlance; to call something profane is now to suggest that it necessarily stands in opposition to the sacred.

With such beliefs, it can come as no surprise that so many refuse to see the world in hues of grey. In an environment where any given thing is either inherently good or inherently bad (for example, the fundamentalist Christian tendency to see that which glorifies God/Jesus as good while everything else is worldly and thus bad), we should expect a polarization of thought. It’s precisely this simplistic approach that bothers me so much about believers of this stripe.

This tendency becomes incredibly dangerous when, as is so often the case, the believer’s preconceptions are inaccurate—the pernicious belief that nonbelievers are intrinsically immoral, for example. When such a simpleton encounters a challenge to this misconception, they are expected, in keeping with the social pressures imposed by their faith, to respond with pugnacity. To doubt anything is to doubt all; questioning the wisdom imparted upon you by your betters is nothing short of an affront to God himself.

Allow me to say it in no uncertain terms: this dogma is deeply immoral. Such a person is incapable of moral reasoning in their present state. It is human nature to be curious, to question, to wonder. Such religions demand that we not only demolish this urge, but to apologize for even feeling it in the first place. Tis better to be a simpleton, the message clearly reads, than to seek any truth that has not been expressly approved by the appropriate theologian.

Fuck that.

The world is not black and white. In attempting to force the rest of humanity into these narrowly conceived narrow minded boundaries, one can only spread the disease of misinformation and mistrust. The doctrine of “they are not like us, for we alone are special in the eyes of our god” is nothing but a tactic of dehumanization, meant to justify the abuse and oppression of the unbeliever. Anything an outsider says must be immediately reinterpreted in the grammar of  the faith. The proponent of this doctrine communicates to all who would disagree, “I do not need to know your perspective, for my god has told me that you are a tool of the Great Enemy, and until you seek my truth, your ideas are without merit.

Yet those who fall victim to this barbarous predisposition will rarely see that their words have this effect. The faithful are taught to compartmentalize and juggle contradictory beliefs with the most astounding of alacrity. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” in one moment, but in the next, “the sinner is the tool of Satan, so he cannot be trusted.” To the credulous, the only form of compassion is that which comes inscribed on the pages of a centuries-old collection of fables. One can be no more permitted to see the contradiction in the message than in the doctrine that spawns it.

Until the non-believer embraces ours, the one true religion, he is to be kept at a distance. His ideas are not to be attended, for he cannot not know that he is but an unwitting pawn of the devil. Take heart, however, for God’s word is true, and in sharing it with the heathen, you will surely open his heart to the Lord. Speak, then, but do not listen.

It is perhaps the do not listen that carries the most weight in that message.

And why should they listen? They are told incessantly that they have the only knowledge that truly matters in the world—their religion is the single most important facet of existence and their faith the only noble purpose. They need only repeat their mantras until the infidels are gone or converted, then God will smile upon them. To understand the unbeliever is only acceptable insofar as it allows you to more swiftly reach this end. One certainly must not dare to see the world from another perspective, for such a thing invites doubt, and doubt leads to ruin.

Their beliefs separate them from the rest of reality, and they profess that this is exactly how they prefer it. Knowing nothing about the world outside, they preach a message of superiority, but this claim must never be critically evaluated, lest one risk offending God, for which the punishment is eternal torment. Thus they seek their naïve comfort in the illusion of a dichromatic world; their indoctrination becomes a tool to bleach away all color, yet the world resists their attempts to sanitize it so. Ours is a world filled not with black and white or even shades of grey, but instead with marvelously bright colors.

The colors must not be seen.

Nature’s Law and Gods

The Laws of Nature

What are “laws of nature?” In the conventional sense of the word law, we see a meaning akin to “a rule that people must abide by.” In the governmental sense, laws do not absolutely restrict; they can be broken, even if there are penalties for doing so. When discussing natural laws, this is not the case. Natural laws cannot be broken. This tells us that we are dealing with a very different sort of idea when we use this version of “law.”

I fear I may have just set the stage for a massive deception, however. If you conceive of natural laws as similar to those of the legal sphere (only unbreakable), you’re going at it entirely wrong. The laws of nature are not some combination of metaphysical sliding scales that determine the speed of light, logical progression, mass, energy, or the deliciousness of cheesecake. The laws of nature are deceptively mislabeled—they do not decide the parameters of reality; they merely describe the things we’ve identified as consistent in the observations we’ve made about our universe. These “laws” have been rewritten several times as new information has been discovered. Newtonian physics led to relativistic physics. Observations made under a microscope do not apply to forces acting at the Planck scale or in quantum physics.

In the same way that we might describe a tune played in a minor scale as somber or one in major as uplifting, the laws of nature describe the observable cosmos. As we discover new things, we are forced to refine or reevaluate what we had previously taken to be “law.”

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On Religious Experience

“Seeing is believing.” How cliché. This saying is so common yet entirely without merit. When it comes to scientific analysis, seeing alone is most certainly not believing. One first needs to demonstrate that what one is observing is actually what is happening. (Is that really a lake, or is it a mirage?) Then one needs to repeatedly verify one’s observation in further testing. (It sure looks like a lake, but I’d like to make sure before I walk over there. How can I find out? Aha, I’ll climb this tree to see if it gives me a better view!) Of course, other people must also verify our findings. (Hey, Fred. What’s that thing over there? A lake, you say? Great! Let’s go check it out.)

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the scientifically oriented and, well, everyone else. Perhaps the most relevant personal example I of this I can think of took place a few years ago, just as I was discovering my atheism. I had been involved in a lengthy conversation with a friend, and it eventually turned to religion. I knew very little about the scientific method, and I knew far less about cognitive psychology, so I was not prepared for the revelation that followed.

I was an atheist, I said, because I saw no reason to believe; I saw (and indeed, still see) only reasons not to. I had never had a personal religious experience that could not be explained through entirely naturalistic mechanisms. I cited the wide variety of religious traditions as evidence against the accuracy of all religions, for surely if one of them were really true, it would be demonstrably different from the rest (and presumably followed by the majority of humanity). I mentioned the inconsistencies between denominations and even within shared holy texts. I mentioned the incomprehensibility of a deity who wanted to make its presence known, but not badly enough to actually do so in person.

These reasons were entirely unconvincing to her. She told me about a time that she had been filled with doubts, so she had started reading various books on religion. The one that most swayed her was one by a man who claimed that he had previously been an atheist. She said he started writing his book as a way to disprove religion (which speaks volumes to his reasoning capabilities—religions are specifically designed to be unfalsifiable), but the things he found while doing his research caused him to embrace Christianity as the One True Religion™. What she found most convincing of all was the argument for personal experience—seeing feeling is believing.

The reason she believed in God, she said, was that she had felt an undeniable wave of emotion during a religious gathering. She had raised her hands into the air alongside everyone else, and she had felt elation. Thus, God.

I didn’t really know what to say. This is why I regret not having studied cognitive psychology.

Of course it should come as no surprise that emotionally charged social situations can trigger emotional reactions (even especially profound ones). It’s even less surprising when you take into consideration the fact that she was in a crowd of people swaying to rhythmic music. Peer pressure, a sustained beat, and preexisting religious expectations? If this doesn’t sound like fertile soil for a hypnotic experience, I don’t know what does. This does not add any evidence to the theistic argument, however, because the very same kind of experience found in Christian worship can be achieved through Buddhist meditation. If this experience indicates any connection with a divine power, that power does not seem to particularly care about an individual’s religious beliefs. This also supports the naturalistic position, as these experiences are entirely observable in the physical state of the brain, and they can be activated through external stimulation.

Does that mean that my friend did not feel the emotions she described? Absolutely not. This is crucial—I do not deny the realness of religious experience. It’s just that people are wrong to attribute those experiences to supernatural causes.

This is where the science-minded and the religion-minded butt heads. To the “spiritual” believer, personal experience is the single most important thing.

To the scientist, it’s just the opposite.

Richard Feynman sums it up perfectly: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps no lie is so dangerous as the one you tell yourself.

There can be no denying religious experience, but we can certainly disagree about attribution. Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian turned atheist, often talks about speaking in tongues. He remarks upon the tingly feelings he used to get while speaking in tongues as a believer. Since becoming an atheist, he has lost precisely none of his ability to do this, and it still brings him the same feelings. My own personal experience parallels this—I can still summon forth, at will, that sensation I used to get during “spiritual” activities.

Reason teaches us to rely on valid and reliable demonstrations of evidence before establishing firm convictions about anything, and this applies equally to issues of religion. If a phenomenon isn’t repeatable, it probably isn’t worth discussing. To the believer, a satisfying feeling may suffice to substantiate religious claims, but a scientist knows that the easiest person to fool is yourself. The cognitive sciences show us that we are pretty terrible judges of our own minds, particularly because we are incapable of perceiving the processes that occur inside our own brains, below the level of consciousness.

If belief in the supernatural is a prerequisite to experiencing “transcendence,” there is no explanation for the otherwise seemingly religious experiences felt by former believers. But belief is clearly not necessary, and the obvious explanation is that these feelings are in no way supernatural; they are simply brain states. Like every other brain state, they are largely similar between individuals and have a wide range of possible triggers. The experiences, then, are entirely real, even if they are nothing more than convincing hallucinations.

Critically Missing the Point

Recently, I found myself engaged in conversation with someone about the topic of climate change, and this conversation is a striking example of why critical thinking skills are so important. As the result of his unwillingness to question his sources—especially someone he viewed as an authority—this gentleman was claiming not only that there has been no increase in average global temperatures but also the more egregious notion that the human species has had and is not capable of having an impact on global climate. In his view, it seems that nothing we do to the environment actually matters.

The amount of mental acrobatics that must go into maintaining this belief is staggering. I would have loved to present to him a small earthen dish containing naught but dust, but I rather doubt he would have appreciated the joke.

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