Perversion of Religious Tolerance

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

In November 2008 the United Nations adopted a draft resolution calling for the adoption of laws prohibiting the “defamation of religion.” This resolution and its antecedents have been introduced by Islamic states seeking to legitimize and propagate proscriptions on blasphemy by curtailing the freedom of expression.

Lou Dobbs addresses this on CNN, with input from Christopher Hitchens:

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Writing in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Free Inquiry, Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske warn of the prospect for additional assaults on free speech in the name of religious tolerance.

In April 2009, the U.N. will host a world conference on racism. Under the guise of protecting racial minorities, this event is likely to produce additional resolutions limiting free speech where it treads on cultural or religious sensitivities. A draft declaration written in Abuja, Nigeria, in preparation for the 2009 conference calls upon states to avoid “inflexibly clinging to free speech in defiance of the sensitivities existing in a society and with absolute disregard for religious feelings.” Like many of the HRC “racism” and “religious freedom” resolutions passed in recent years, this declaration focuses primarily on “Islamophobia,” seeking to paint all critical discussion of Islam, Islamic states, or Islamic organizations as racist and potentially violent.

Attempts to enshrine a protection against defamation of religion are antithetical to essential human rights, and pervert notions of religious tolerance by squelching dissent and insulating orthodoxy from criticism. It should be blatantly obvious, too, that the mutually-exclusive truth claims of various faith traditions cannot be reconciled, leading to the ludicrous situation where the canonical statements of one religion could be deemed defamatory by another.

Still, “defamation” concerns false accusations or malicious misrepresentations (as opposed to “blasphemy,” which deals with irreverent or impious behavior or utterances toward that which is held sacred). On some level, the prospect of having the truth claims of religion subject to the rules of evidence in a court of law holds some appeal. And, if the same protections attach to atheism (or its supposedly “religious” variant, Secular Humanism), it will be interesting to speculate how this can be used to the advantage of those whose truths are routinely defamed by religious fundamentalists.

A tip of the hat to Pharyngula. This issue has previously been discussed by Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and is also covered at The Freethinker and The Perplexed Observer. For a comprehensive treatment of this issue see the Center for Inquiry’s report titled “Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations,” which recommends the rejection of “defamation of religions” as a legal concept.

1 March 2009
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End of the War on Science?

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Chris Mooney, writing at Slate, notes that with the passing of the Bush administration, the metaphorical “war on science” (characterized by government promulgation of misinformation, interference with the communication of scientific findings, and wanton disregard for scientific data) comes to an end. The battle, it seems, will continue.

This bad news comes at a time when we need an appreciation of science—an understanding of its fundamental role in sound policymaking and the future of the economy—more than ever: to help solve our intertwined climate and energy problems, to bolster our long-term technological competitiveness, and to prepare our society for the coming controversies that research in fields like genetics and neuroscience stands ready to unleash. Instead, the communication gap between scientists and ordinary Americans has brought about (or helped to perpetuate) a number of home-grown anti-science pathologies. A seemingly immovable core of Americans don’t believe in evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, nearly half of us, according to polling data. Americans are also more likely to reject the Big Bang theory than are people from other countries.

Mooney seems to suggest, though, that continued focus on the battle between religion and science, perpetuated both by “New Atheists” and religious fundamentalists, contributes to the widespread rejection of science by broad swaths of the American populace. Such a conclusion is unfortunate insofar as it implies that both sides in this “debate” are culpable in furthering the lack of public understanding and acceptance of key scientific principles. While it is true that being too strident in using scientific fact to upend religious tenets can cause a backlash, it is the willful ignorance and suspension of reason embraced by some religious zealots that perpetuates this divide.

Mooney is right when he calls for improved communication of scientific advances. But what we really need is a better educated electorate, able to critically evaluate conflicting truth claims. With the end of the Bush era, perhaps Americans will once again be prepared to celebrate accomplishment, and intellectualism will be, if not in vogue, subject to a reasonable level of respect and admiration.

18 January 2009

Waiting to Be Born

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Today, 18 January 2009, has been proclaimed National Sanctity of Human Life Day by soon-to-be-former President George W. Bush.

All human life is a gift from our Creator that is sacred, unique, and worthy of protection. On National Sanctity of Human Life Day, our country recognizes that each person, including every person waiting to be born, has a special place and purpose in this world. We also underscore our dedication to heeding this message of conscience by speaking up for the weak and voiceless among us.

Every person waiting to be born? Really? Set aside the inherent contradiction in the notion of “persons unborn” (unborn life, maybe, or even unborn humans, but “persons”?). I want to know more about these persons queued up for an eventual birth, their purpose in non-life, and their struggles with the discrimination they suffer at the hands of those for whom birth has apparently led to such arrogant disregard. Can we even be sure that they’re Republican?

Kate Harding, writing in Salon, asks jokingly whether the first draft might even have included recognition of “every twinkle in every potential daddy’s eye” and notes:

Not considered as worthy of mention as zygotes in a proclamation on the Sanctity of Human Life: civilian and military casualties of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, victims of Hurricane Katrina, victims of torture by the U.S. military, hundreds of dead Palestinians, or Americans executed under the death penalty, to name just a few.

At Atheist Revolution, vjack similarly writes of Bush’s hypocrisy in seemingly favoring the unborn over the actually born.

You could have pushed to outlaw abortion, but you didn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I’m actually glad you didn’t. But if you really believed all this nonsense about unborn children being persons which are somehow more deserving of protection than those of us who have been born, I would have thought you might have put more effort into completely abolishing reproductive freedom instead of just blustering about it so much.

Parturition has its privileges.

18 January 2009

Religion a la Carte

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

A recent survey conducted by the Barna Group (a Christian organization that conducts research pertaining to cultural change and the role of religion in society) shows, among other things, that a majority of American adults pick and choose their beliefs rather than conform to a specific denomination’s slate of theological and moral views.

By a three to one margin (71% to 26%) adults noted that they are personally more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs than to accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a particular church. Although born again Christians were among the segments least likely to adopt the a la carte approach to beliefs, a considerable majority even of born again adults (61%) has taken that route. Leading the charge in the move to customize one’s package of beliefs are people under the age of 25, among whom more than four out of five (82%) said they develop their own combination of beliefs rather than adopt a set proposed by a church.

Barna then goes on to speculate on the implications of this research, albeit from a slightly alarmist perspective. Among these are that 1) Christianity is a faith being defined by, rather than challenging, individuality; 2) many people embrace an unpredictable and often contradictory body of beliefs; 3) there is an abundance of unique worldviews tempered by various religious beliefs, as well as secularism; and 4) that “faith” is increasingly viral, rather than pedagogical, with observation, discussion and self-reflection contributing to the development of individual religious belief.

What may be distressing to organized Christianity is encouraging to those of us seeking to advance a rational, secular, humanist worldview. If many Americans are receptive to views at odds with religious orthodoxy, there may be great opportunity to make the case for humanism. We must, however, recognize that the increasing heterogeneity of religious belief suggests that we might be more productive in promoting a secular worldview if we refrain from broad and largely unproducive generalizations and focusing too intently on the nonsensical views of religious fundamentalists. We also need to begin making clearer distinctions between Christianity as a religion, and “cultural Christianity“.

18 January 2009
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Omnipresent Omnibuses

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

The profusion of atheist bus campaigns being waged in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain and elsewhere has, quite expectedly, given rise to counter-offensives by the usual purveyors of bumper sticker theology and anti-atheist bigotry. The Friendly Atheist has posted a couple of humorous images (one shown below) extrapolating this Battle of the Buses to an absurd, but telling, conclusion.

As tempting as it is to dismiss these atheist advertising campaigns as silly exercises in provocation, and as easy as it is to take issue with specifics of the messages (the British campaign’s use of the modifier “probably,” for example, and its mildly hedonistic undertones), on the whole they seem to have served an important purpose, and it is refreshing to see active engagement with the religious fundamentalists at ground level.

It is likely that these campaigns have been successful in reaching out to atheists and agnostics unaware that their views were shared by a large segment of the population. Certainly they have done much to sustain discussion about the role of atheism in our society. A more enduring benefit of these advertisements (and the corresponding counter-attacks launched by God’s apologists), though, may be in converting this theological dispute over the existence of God into a popular culture debate.

Atheism is clearly on firm ground intellectually, and there has been no shortage of treatises on the subject by such luminaries of freethought as Dawkins and Dennett. While those and other books, volumes written in criticism of religious belief over the past few hundred years, and rapid advances in our scientific understanding of the universe and its inhabitants have buttressed the intellectual case for atheism, the vast majority have not been persuaded to abandon their faith in the mythological underpinnings of their chosen religion.

In changing the issue of God’s existence from a scholarly dispute to a matter of cultural preference, we may see more progress than has been made in countless arguments and debates. If these advertising campaigns can foster a perception of moral equivalence, the issue is relegated to the level of choosing between Coke and Pepsi, or Country Music and Rap. Who knows… we may even be able to coopt the mantra of the creationist crowd and insist that schools “teach the controversy” over God’s existence.

The important thing, it seems, is to refrain from attacking religion in these campaigns. Instead,  the message should be that there is an equally valuable choice, which is embraced by others who share your important ethical values and live rich and fulfilling lives without belief in any gods.

17 January 2009
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Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

In his book Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), in which science covers the empirical realm of fact and theory, while religion addresses questions of morality and meaning. According to Gould, there should be no inherent conflict between science and religion due to their mutual exclusivity. This view has been controversial because (among other things) 1) the moral authority of religion is invariably dependent on supernatural claims, and 2) science can inform ethics and morality.

In a recently published study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, authors Jesse Preston and Nicholas Epley demonstrate that when religion and science compete with each other for explanatory space, they also compete for value, in a sort of zero-sum game.

Although science and religion do not always conflict, a frequent source of tension concerns the competition for explanatory space. Religion and science offer different explanations for a wide array of phenomena, including some of the most fundamental human issues (e.g. intelligent design vs. natural selection). This direct opposition may cause the value of religion and science to become inversely related when these explanations are brought into mind. In the present research we investigate whether the evaluation of science and religion may be automatically opposed, such that increasing the perceived value of one as an explanatory system diminished automatic positive evaluations of the other.

In one experiment, participants read passages describing scientific theories involving cosmology (the “Big Bang Theory”) and abiogenesis (the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis”).  Each passage was concluded either with a strong statement, asserting that the theory best accounts for known observations, or a weak statement, claiming that the theory does not account for other data and raises more questions than it answers.  In the strong condition, significantly more respondents showed a positive attitude toward science when compared to God, whereas in the weak condition (where the explanatory value of the scientific theory was called into question), attitudes toward God were more favorable than science. In the other experiment, a reciprocal relationship was found when God was used as a strong explanation, with automatic evaluations of science diminished as evaluations of God were enhanced.

These data suggest that using scientific theories as ultimate explanation can serve as an automatic threat to religious beliefs, and vice versa. Perhaps more important, these findings also indicate that explanatory weakness in one belief system can bolster automatic evaluations of the other. These automatic oppositions emerged despite making no explicit mention of the potentially opposing belief system or to the possible conflict between science and religion.

Although it is somewhat obvious that the “God of the Gaps” is invoked where coherent and understandable scientific explanations do not exist, this study reinforces the idea that NOMA lacks practical applicability. Nature abhors a vacuum, and people seem to have an innate need to fill “explanatory space” with either science or religion. In light of these data, the best strategy with which to see reason and science prevail over irrrational religious belief may lie not in continually attacking  the incredulity of religious explanations, but to ensure that scientific advances are clearly and simply communicated, and that public confidence in the scientific endeavor is increased. As the authors note, “enhancing the apparent explanatory power of scientific explanations may automatically decrease positive evaluations of religion.”

A tip of the hat to The Situationist.

4 January 2009
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Religion and Self-control

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Religiousness has often been associated with a number of favorable behavioral and health outcomes, such as increased longevity, decreased affinity for risky behaviors, greater compliance with rules and regulations, and subjective well-being. In an article in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, University of Miami researchers Michael E. McCullough and Brian L. B. Willoughby report on a meta-analysis of the literature exploring the purported connection between religious adherence and a variety of beneficial outcomes.

[M]any measures of religiousness are associated consistently (albeit, in most cases, weakly) with a wide variety of outcomes that are relevant to health, well-being, achievement, and social flourishing. However, these associations present an interesting puzzle, because an overarching explanatory mechanism that might explain them has not been identified.

The authors undertook a comprehensive review of prior research surrounding the role of religion in fostering self-regulation and self-control, and the putative relationship between self-control and a variety of reported benefits. For purposes of this study, the authors defined religion as the “cognition, affect, and behavior that arise from awareness of, or perceived interaction with, supernatural entities that are presumed to play an important role in human affairs” and self-control as situations in which people suppress tendencies or emotions in pursuit of a goal with greater long-term utility.

Their analysis showed strong evidence that religion is positively related to self-control (and the related traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness), that religious practice influences goal selection and pursuit (with greater value placed on social harmony than on individual pursuits), and that religious ritual promotes self-regulation. Importantly, they found that these attributes of religious belief (that is, the tendency toward greater self-control) could account for some of the correlations between religion and improved health, well-being, and social behavior.

While their data supports positive effects from religious belief, the authors are not oblivious to the antithetical position that religion can lead to great harms.

There is no reason to think that religion’s effects on human life are uniformly good or socially desirable, even though most of the research on religion that has been relevant to this review has involved outcomes that are generally valued (e.g., health, psychological well-being, relational harmony, staying out of trouble with the police, school achievement). Indeed, the evidence for religion’s ability to motivate aggression and prejudice is at least as convincing as is the evidence for religion’s ability to facilitate cooperation and other forms of prosocial behavior, especially then the religion is of a fundamentalist, authoritarian variety.

Commenting on this research in the New York Times, John Tierney notes

So what’s a heathen to do in 2009? Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals. Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

In fact, although it may not be religious beliefs, per se, that yield these societal benefits, participation in a religious tradition fosters an important sense of community. Recapitulating that sort of community ( and its corresponding social support structure) among nonbelievers is no small order. As has been noted here before, the mere rejection of archaic fables is an insufficient basis for organizing such communities, especially given the breadth of the nontheistic population.

Humanist Community Centers, anyone?

31 December 2008
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Atheists Get No Respect

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Responding to the frank anti-atheist bigotry exhibited by Elizabeth Dole’s campaign for re-election to the US Senate, Kay Hagan has accused Dole of making slanderous attacks on her faith. In a press conference to confront the accusations made against her, Hagan noted:

Let’s get right to it. Elizabeth Dole should absolutely be ashamed of herself. I don’t know what things were like when she grew up in North Carolina, but the North Carolina I was raised in would NEVER condone this kind of personal slander. I can’t begin to tell you how upset I am that she has attacked my Christian faith…

At their core, Americans aren’t Democrat or Republican, red or blue – they’re Americans, plain and simple. We ALL love our country, and we all value the role of faith in American life.

Heman Mehta at Friendly Atheist thinks Hagan’s choice of words was unfortunate.

Let’s be clear about this: It’s not slanderous or pathetic to be an atheist. Hagan’s just saying it’s slanderous and pathetic to lie about your opponent in order to win an election.

I’m not happy with her choice of words. She could have used the opportunity to say that, while atheists make up a vital segment of this country, she is a woman of faith. In the heat of the moment and the political stress she must be under, though, I can understand why she said what she did.

Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist has a more critical view of Hagan’s response.

Hagan isn’t making the claim that atheists are Americans too and have a right to present their views to perspective political candidates. She is not saying that the fault of Dole’s advertisement is that Dole is lying and promoting bigotry and hatred. She, in effect, endorsed the hate and answered, “How dare you accuse me of not being just as bigoted against atheists as you are! You take that back!”

Kay Hagan had an opportunity to confront the bigotry her opponent has tried to wield for political gain, but chose, instead, to validate it. She should be ashamed of herself. Those in the secular community who have lent their support to Hagan as a result of Dole’s tactics must not become apologists for this more subtle form of bigotry, and must address it as forcefully as possible. Who knows – attacks on Hagan’s campaign by atheist groups might actually help her in the polls, too.

30 October 2008
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Prophets of Gloom

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

James Dobson, who said recently that Sarah Palin was “god’s answer” (we can only guess to what question), and the lovely exemplars of Christian tolerance over at Focus on the Family have released a speculative letter from a Christian in 2012, reflecting on the changes that will have occurred during the first Obama administration.

This letter is not “predicting” that all of the imaginative future “events” named in this letter will happen. But it is saying that each one of these changes could happen and also that each change would be the natural outcome of (a) published legal opinions by liberal judges, (b) trends seen in states with liberal-dominated courts such as California and Massachusetts, (c) recent promises, practices and legislative initiatives of the current liberal leadership of the Democratic Party and (d) Senator Obama’s actions, voting record and public promises to the far-Left groups that won the nomination for him.

Of course, they do not claim to be predicting the future, but say that the changes described are “likely or at least very possible.”

Which divined outcomes of an Obama presidency are deemed so frightening that a sympathetic reader of this letter would rush to the polls in support of John McCain? At the top of the list are ending discrimination against homosexuals, removing religion from our schools, and ensuring access to reproductive choice, none of which are surprising. Also included in the letter are predictions that gun control will be strengthened, obscenity laws will be liberalized, civil liberties will be respected, the war in Iraq will be ended, a single payer healthcare system is established, the progressiveness of our income tax system will be increased, and environmental protections will be strengthened.

Of course, each prediction included in the letter is extrapolated to a comically absurd conclusion.

Near the end of the letter we are told that a new Fairness Doctrine will require radio and television broadcasters to provide equal time to progressives whenever a right-leaning show is aired (presumably, this will put Fox News out of business). And, finally, we learn that President Obama has pursued the prosecution of Bush Administration officials who were, apparently, complicit in deceiving the nation and leading us into the war in Iraq.

Let’s just hope the religious right has improved its prognostic abilities over the last few millenia.

26 October 2008
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The Neuropsychology of Religious Belief

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has an essay in the 23 October 2008 issue of Nature (Being human: Religion: Bound to believe?) in which he explores the cognitive traits that sustain religious identification and belief.

We should not try to pinpoint the unique origin of religious belief, because there is no unique domain for religion in human minds. Different cognitive systems handle representations of supernatural agents, of ritualized behaviours, of group commitment and so on, just as colour and shape are handled by different parts of the visual system. In other words, what makes a god-concept convincing is not what makes a ritual intuitively compelling or what makes a moral norm self-evident. Most modern, organized religions present themselves as a package that integrates all these disparate elements (ritual, morality, metaphysics, social identity) into one consistent doctrine and practice. But this is pure advertising. These domains remain separated in human cognition. The evidence shows that the mind has no single belief network, but myriad distinct networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people.

The findings emerging from this cognitive-evolutionary approach challenge two central tenets of most established religions. First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape. On the contrary, we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.

Improved understanding of the neuropsychology underlying religious belief will be helpful if rational, secular alternatives are ever to supplant religion as the predominant theme around which communities are organized.

A tip of the hat to Mind Hacks.

25 October 2008
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