What’s wrong with religion

A friend and I have been discussing gnu atheism and various concomitant topics on a loooong Facebook thread recently. The following paragraphs have been lifted from one of my comments. I felt they were worth sharing here (others, of course, may feel differently.)

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Religion, I think, is a bad thing. It is bad because it asks its adherents (and it claims adherents when they are too young to question it) to subscribe to fanciful, illogical and superstitious ideas which it calls “truth.” It invents a cosmic scenario which is divisive, and plays a high-stakes game with humanity. It teaches believers they possess absolute truth with absolute faith. It offers a poor substitute for ethics (e.g. the 10 commandments) and prizes obedience over skepticism. It is, in a word, illiberal.

Liberal religion is a fine thing on paper, and I agree most religious people ascribe to some gradation of liberal religion – the Unitarian Universalists and Humanistic Jews being two examples I admire. But essentially these are religions without beliefs, without god and without “religion.” The more seriously you take your bible or qur’an, the more illiberal you are likely to get in your beliefs and observance. The scriptures themselves are illiberal beyond belief; to take them seriously is a dangerous game (I know because I tried it). So what’s left when the illiberal aspects of religion are stripped away? Essentially nothing which anyone would recognize as “religion.”

Religion has the uncanny power to take a bunch of already-existing prejudices, biological factors and bad ideas and exacerbate them to the nth power. Religion has been the main obstacle to progress since humanity began thinking scientifically. It still is. It’s a bastion of anti-scientific thinking. It offers nothing of value that couldn’t be had elsewhere, and emphatically does not make humans behave better (as most religions would have it.) So why let this “major aspect of human culture” off the hook so easily? Atheists, secularists and freethinkers should demand that religion earn their respect; instead, it often appears that respect is a default position adopted out of the unwillingness to offend the sensibilities of religious friends and family (however liberal in their belief and practice). Religion doesn’t get a free pass. It’s been revoked. And it’s about time, too, I’d say.

God does not exist!

Every time I go to the supermarket there is a guy selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same guy, but he always says the same thing: “Hello, my friend…” and then elicits handouts with a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.

Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn place), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.

Today we had a brief conversation. It went like this: “Hello, my friend!”

“Hey.”

“Ah, god is good, is he not?”

“No, he’s not. You should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”

“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”

“He’s never done anything for me.”

“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked.

“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. (Maybe secretly I was hoping he’d take a swipe at me. To his credit, he didn’t.) Then we got in the car and drove off.

Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.

Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” – the same all powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.

You can’t have one without the other, can you?

Santa is watching

Is there no escape?

My wife: “What are we going to tell Melissa about Santa?” Me: “Oh, I don’t know. How about nothing?”

This question is the latest in a string of “What are we going to tell…?” questions we’ve been patiently addressing for years, since before we even decided we wanted children. It’s a natural consequence of holding non-traditional views on a number of life-and-death issues.

I imagine many parents don’t worry about such things and just tell their kids what they were told by their parents. Propagating the Santa myth is effortless; it seeps in culturally (unless you live in a place like Iran). Fighting it, however, takes grit.

Why fight such a harmless tall-tale, anyway? What’s wrong with the jolly old mensch from the North Pole, who — in an improbable 24-hour arc — manages to deliver presents to all the good boys and girls the world over? Let’s look first at that tiny adjective, “good.”

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!

Here we have an iconic portrait of Santa Claus as Big Brother: he’s always watching, waiting for you to slip up so he can vengefully mete out due punishment. Compare with Psalm 139:

It is you who know when I sit and rise,

you fathom my thoughts from afar.

I submit there is essentially no difference in these two verses, one a pious hymn penned over two millennia ago by an unknown hand, and the other a hit song written by Haven Gillespie in 1934. And they’re both downright creepy if you ask me (the Psalm ends with a declaration of “utter hatred” for the Lord’s enemies). Why would any sane parent want their children to live in fear of an omniscient being? We’ve decided not to teach our daughter to believe in such a god, so why substitute that with Santa’s Secular Thought Police?

Moving on, there’s the issue of lying to children. Is it moral? Bertrand Russell once wrote, “There is no excuse for deceiving children. When … they find their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them and feel justified in lying to them.” And lying it is. Every parent knows perfectly well that the Santa story is just that, a story, and all of them know it’s a matter of time before the kids figure it out for themselves.

That said, secular parenting author Dale McGowan writes, “Santa Claus … is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had.” McGowan sees Santa as a dry run for God. He argues in a spirited essay that if children are encouraged to apply logical thinking to the Santa story, maybe they can learn to apply it across the board. And once they realize it’s hooey, the balloons will begin bursting one by one in a triumph of skeptical inquiry.

I don’t recall the moment when I realized there was no Santa Claus. Maybe my parents never played it up much at home. For me Santa was that obese fellow in a red suit at Hunt Valley Mall surrounded by fake snow and bad lighting. The smell of glazed ham and cheese wheels from the nearby Hickory Farms store must’ve hinted at something artificial. Kids aren’t stupid — they know baloney when they smell it.

Then again, I understand the practical use of Santa — much like God — in frightening children into obedience. If you can get youngsters to believe that there is someone watching them while they sleep, reading their thoughts, taking extensive notes and evaluating their performance, then you have a pretty good chance of keeping them in line — for a while.

I also realize that children need to fantasize and develop a vibrant imagination. We are a story-telling species, after all. But I think there is a difference between giving them free reign to blur the line between fantasy and reality and actively promoting deception. I think Santa belongs to the latter category; and, say, Pinocchio to the former. (No parent ever tells their children that the boy with the long nose is going to come in the window once a year and bring them gifts, do they?)

My wife’s question remains, though: What are we going to tell Melissa? As a parent who’s also an incurable rationalist, both Russell and McGowan persuade me. But all those discussions over what to teach our daughter about the world (“We have to tell her something!”) are giving way to a broader principle: teaching her to think for herself. Do that, I argue, and the rest will take care of itself. Do that and we won’t have to lie to her. Do that and she’ll be better prepared for a future of hustlers and hucksters.

Parents can make use of the Santa myth either way. We can use it to pave the way for a life of credulity, or we can use it to turn our children into thoughtful, independent people capable of sniffing out a proverbial slice of baloney.

If we can’t ignore Santa, then we might as well own him.

From The American

The freedom of unbelief

Liberi di non credere
By Raffaele Carcano
Editori Internazionali Riuniti, 2011. 379 pages (in Italian)

The PD should be advocating a more secular agenda.

Raffaele Carcano, who heads the UAAR, Italy’s association of atheists, has written a vademecum on the current state of secularity in Italy. Here the reader will find no philosophical arguments for atheism, no attacks on religious belief or even a catalogue of indecent behavior by the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Instead, Carcano guides the reader through the routine abuses of the rights of non-believing citizens: from the suppressed atheist bus campaign in Genoa to the Lautsi vs. Italy ruling that crucifixes in public classrooms are not in violation of freedom of conscience, the hand of the Vatican is never far from the puppet theater of Italian politics.

Secularism is on the rise, however. Non-affiliated Italians, according to a recent study cited, represent nearly 20 percent of the population and the number is growing. Compare that figure with the only two percent belonging to minority (non-Catholic) religions and you realize they represent a fair slice of the citizenry. Yet they have almost no voice or visibility. Moreover, their rights are trampled by such institutional perversions as the “8 per thousand” religious tax (income tax routed to the Church), Catholic religious teaching in public schools, and the ostentatious display of (exclusively) Catholic symbols in public spaces. Add to this the tendency of Italian media to pander to the Catholic Church and report every grunt and groan of its leaders uncritically.

Then comes the political class, to which the author devotes two full chapters, serving up an analysis of the near-total abandonment of secular causes to which few politicians — right or left — give more than lip service. In fact, the Democratic Party takes the brunt of the criticism for being practically the only center-left party in Europe that doesn’t lift a finger to advance a secular agenda. The only parliamentarian noted for her devotion to secular causes is Emma Bonino, who was shot from both sides during her 2010 campaign for the governorship of Lazio.

The Italian situation is contextualized throughout the book with reference to the European Union and the United States, even going back to ancient times (the first recorded book burning, according to Carcano, was of the “impious” Greek author Protagoras). The tone is sober, but not without the appropriate irony. The reader comes away with the impression that Italy is less a modern secular nation than a kind of milquetoast theocracy. Non-believers may no longer be tortured or burned for their impiety, true, but they are consciously marginalized and proselytized to by a cynical political class and their hubristic clerical bedfellows. Which, one might add, is nothing to be proud of in the 21st century.

From The American

Heathen’s Greetings

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a number of their billboards available on their website. Now that the holiday season has begun, I thought I’d post one of my favorites here.

I’ve never really been a huge fan of December and the competing religious holidays. Personally, I’d just assume let them pass unnoticed. But when children are involved there’s just no way to do that. As a parent, I want our daughter to enjoy this time of year without her feeling out of place because her parents aren’t religious. The best solution is not to forcibly shield her from images of Santa or fir trees (what’s religious about them?) but to celebrate in a secular fashion. This holds true throughout the year, of course.

In a few years I’ll be able to explain the above message to her. For now, though, the important thing is to help her to enjoy her life and grow up without dogma. This will be increasingly hard as she gets older and enters the Italian public school system, which is distinguished by its institutionalization of Catholic religious proselytizing. Why should it be so difficult to be free from religion?

Making stuff up

Watch Jerry Coyne get pugnacious on theologian John Haught. If ever a theologian was his own worst enemy, it is Haught. (Just try and follow his logic; you’ll get nowhere.) Coyne’s verdict: theologians “make stuff up.” (At the end of the first part, Coyne goes through a list of awful things that Catholics have done to the world thanks to their adherence to the arcane doctrines of their church. Haught is a Catholic theologian.)

Read Ophelia Benson’s view of what theologians do here. (Update: the videos appear to have been removed. Update: Now it’s back.)

Jewishness without god

The following short essay was written for Moment Magazine’s 2011 “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question put to all contestants was, What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? 500 words isn’t much space to elaborate in, but here is my entry. 

I didn’t win the iPad 2, which was the main reason I entered the contest (truth be told). My essay was excerpted, however, under the heading “Finalists” on their website. You can read the three winning essays there as well.

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I grew up secular and came to my Jewish identity as an adult. When my Jewishness first struck me, I regretted not having had a religious education. I was so unfamiliar with the Bible I didn’t even know it was about the Jews. There was much to catch up on.

The next four years were spent teaching myself to be Jewish. Living in Rome, my options were limited. I went to an Orthodox synagogue. I frequented a struggling group of Reform Jews. I studied Hebrew at the local JCC. I constructed an ad-hoc form of kashrut, which seriously damaged my relationship with a dying aunt. I read deeply in Jewish history and the history of anti-Semitism, which didn’t make me many friends at parties. However, I did feel I was beginning to understand what being Jewish was about: feeling uncomfortable in the world.

In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like “Baruch Hashem” (“Blessed be the Name”) and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. “Idolaters!” I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.

First I began to notice how many fellow Jews were atheists. They were everywhere: Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov and Amos Oz. Even the so-called “New Atheist” movement was brimming with Jews: David Silverman, Jerry Coyne, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Weinberg and Susan Jacoby. These Jewish atheists were sensible, creative, highly-motivated people. And free of the superstition that so annoyed me.

I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. “And how long have you been studying Talmud?” the rabbi asks. “Five years.” “Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?” (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for “atheist”, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)

As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called “God.” If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.

Ratzinger’s blood libel against atheists

Not exactly a denial of God, is it?

It reminds me of Durban: a gathering of peace-minded folks from all over the globe getting together to discuss problems which afflict us all. But all they can talk about is Israel. The love-fest turns into a blood libel against the Jews.

Joseph Ratzinger knows that he can’t aim his pious invective at the Jewish people as his predecessors did. So this most contemporary pope takes aim at the next best enemy of his faith: atheists. It’s another blood libel in the making. Here are his words from Assisi yesterday*:

The enemies of religion…see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.

Do we really demand that religion disappear? Or do we just demand that it know its place and stay in it, and not meddle in things which aren’t its business? And there in that last line is the blood libel: that Nazism was the outcome of atheism. But Ratzinger was in the Wehrmacht as a young man, and knows perfectly well that Nazi anti-Semitism was a Christian inheritance. Adolf Hitler was a Catholic who has never been excommunicated and Mein Kampf was never added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as, say, Kepler, Voltaire, Locke, Mill and Galileo were. Kettle black enough for ya’?

The absence of God leads to the decline of man and of humanity. But where is God? Do we know him, and can we show him anew to humanity, in order to build true peace? Let us first briefly summarize our considerations thus far. I said that there is a way of understanding and using religion so that it becomes a source of violence, while the rightly lived relationship of man to God is a force for peace. In this context I referred to the need for dialogue and I spoke of the constant need for purification of lived religion. On the other hand I said that the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.

See? There it is: “the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.” While religion can be used either as a means to violence – as Ratzinger knows only too well – or peace, atheism inevitably leads to the degredation of humanity and the violent corruption of society.

He’s telling fibs again. The happiest societies on Earth are the most secular. Sociologists know this. Ask anyone who has escaped from religion and they will likely tell you they are happier and feel “free” for the first time in their lives. This is not uncommon at all, no matter which religion is being left behind.

This knowledge is making the pope shit his pants.

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* One year ago, almost to the day, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said some disturbingly similar things about atheists. And he published them in a Vatican newspaper, to boot.