Thought of the day

What new information has religion ever revealed to the world? I don’t mean what information have the religious revealed. I want to know what information or discovery is now known because of religion.

Terrorists motivated by religion

This isn’t a shocker:

The hospitalized Boston Marathon bombing suspect charged Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction has told investigators that he and his brother were motivated by religion but were not in contact with overseas terrorists or groups, officials said.

Several officials familiar with the initial interrogation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev described his behavior during questioning as cooperative.

A senior government official said Tsarnaev has told investigators — by writing some answers down, and by nodding yes or shaking his head no to others — that he and his brother were not in touch with any overseas terrorists or groups.

Tsarnaev, who has injuries to his tongue preventing him from speaking properly, also indicated that he and his brother conceived the bombing attack on their own, and were motivated by religious fervor.

And what is the key underlying factor in religion? Everyone say it with me: faith. It doesn’t take some overseas organization to motivate a person to effectively random violence on a massive scale. With faith, anything is possible. I mean. It’s fucking random. It isn’t a way of thinking or knowing at all.

Don’t expect to hear too much about religion’s role in this (much less faith’s). The left-wing media is going to bury this key factor and the right-wing media will speak of the motivations here only in terms of “radical Islam”. (Why “radical Christianity” doesn’t appear to be a thing, I don’t know. That religion has more than its fair share of brutes, past and present.)

To digress, I’ve been perplexed by another issue surrounding the surviving terrorist fuck. Apparently people would like to deem him an enemy combatant and strip him of the rights afforded to citizens under the Constitution. It is absolutely beyond me that the nature and magnitude of a crime should make a difference. Once we start walking down that road, we start calling accused murderers “enemy combatants” – guilty or not. And why stop there? Stealing gum from that store undermines the U.S. economy, you economic terrorist. Enemy combatant! Like we need to tip the balance of power any further into the hands of the government.


Continuing my new series about misunderstandings, I want to address an issue that has popped up in an on-going debate I’m having on Facebook. Unlike in my last post, I won’t be linking to anything because it’s all happening on a personal page of a friend (which is probably private anyway), nor will I give out any names.

So, the debate I’m having is wide-ranging and there’s a lot to address in it, but I want to focus on one specific area: whether religion is a force for good or evil. I had a twopart post back in November where I argued that people do good things because of their human nature, but what allows for evil acts is the scourge that is faith, otherwise known as belief without evidence:

If a large premise of religion (and belief in God) is that one doesn’t need to use reason and rationality to come to bold conclusions, then what stops a person from going a step further and saying that God wants his followers to take x’s land, or oppress y’s people, or kill people of belief z? Indeed, arguments leading to these conclusions have all been made using religion – Christian and Muslim invasions, Christian-based slavery, 9/11. It may be argued that these are incorrect conclusions, but 1) there’s no objective way to determine that and 2) if the religion says faith is a virtue, then there is no need to enter something as wacky as reasons into the debate, is there?

Faith is simply not a valid basis for believing anything by virtue of its very nature. This is what underpins religion and, thus, undermines our good nature.

The misunderstanding of this came when I was accused of implying that human nature does not lead people to do bad things. Of course, I never argued such a thing. Just as our evolutionary history helps to explain why we might be motivated to do good acts, it also helps to explain why we’re sometimes outright bastards. After all, sometimes being greedy can pay off. Theft occasionally pans out, whether it happened 100,000 years ago on the African plains or 10 minutes ago at the local gas station. Some people manage to commit murder, not get caught, and actually improve their lot in life (again, whether tens of thousands of years ago or yesterday). However, none of this undermines my argument that religion is an influencing factor for bad deeds. People still believe crazy things on the basis of the nothingness of faith, thus allowing and sometimes even encouraging them to do heinous things.

Thought of the day

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: It delights me when theists attempt to call atheism a religion. It isn’t because it is – of course it isn’t. It’s because inherent in their attempt is an implied invalidation of atheism. Why, if I prove it’s religious in nature, then it loses credibility.

I fully realize that theists don’t intend to insult religion like that, but there’s no way around it. And I agree with what they’ve done. If something is religious in nature, if it’s underpinned by the odiousness of faith, then it does lose credibility.

Religion is not a motivator for good, part 2

In the first part to this post, I defined religion as an influencing factor in terms of people doing good. This is opposed to the idea of a motivating force. I compared them as such:

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence.

The reason, I’ve argued, that people do good deeds is that it’s in human nature to have empathy, sympathy, concern, and interests in the well-being of others due to our evolutionary history and status as a social animal. That isn’t to say we don’t have good reasons for those good deeds, but I am saying our tendencies as humans should not be viewed as fundamentally different on a biological level than the tendencies of any other animal.

As it happens, religion has had a long history of getting people to do good things. I would hazard that most charities are religious in their nature, and if not, then they at least make up a sizable portion of the total. We see church and mosque and synagogue groups traveling to help out developing nations and other places and people in need every day. It isn’t uncommon for someone to help out a neighbor while citing God’s will. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do good things.

Unfortunately, as it also so happens, religion has had a long history of bringing people to do bad things. We have The Inquisition, the Crusades, yet another war brewing in the Middle East, the current situation in Nigeria, Northern Ireland for quite some time, the Church’s devastating restriction of science for so many centuries, and on and on and on. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do bad things.

But here’s the kicker: There isn’t anything to stop a person from being influenced by religion to do bad things. The two primary reasons for this are 1) the subjective interpretations that are demanded by holy texts and 2) faith. Let me quickly break these down.

Subjectivity in Holy Texts

Unlike science or history or a number of other legitimate fields, theology and religious studies have no objective methods for determining what any piece of holy writ is meant to convey. Sure, there are textual critics, such as Bart D. Ehrman, who do perfectly valid work that has perfectly valid conclusions, but that’s because they have a real methodology and objective argumentation. The biggest advocates of what this or that piece of holy text means are little more than literary critics. That isn’t to say literary criticism is necessarily vapid, but there is a lot of empty air in the field. I mean, there’s a reason why two people can write two conflicting theories on a Shakespeare play and yet each have acceptable arguments. Or fifty different people with fifty conflicting theories. It all comes down to personal, subjective interpretation. Really, that’s art. And there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but problems do arise when people begin to pretend they’re using objective means to come to their conclusions – which is exactly what we see with theologians and priests and others of the like.


I still haven’t heard a better definition of faith than “belief without evidence”. Because that’s exactly what it is. Stories in the Bible (and presumably other holy books) support this (but maybe arguments can be made against this claim and I can’t really say boo, what with the subjectivity of it all), and the words and sermons of believers are overwhelmingly in favor of believing x could be true, even when there is no good reason to suppose it actually is. So given this fact, it isn’t surprising that we see religious people influenced by their religion to do bad things every day. Because, why not? If a large premise of religion (and belief in God) is that one doesn’t need to use reason and rationality to come to bold conclusions, then what stops a person from going a step further and saying that God wants his followers to take x’s land, or oppress y’s people, or kill people of belief z? Indeed, arguments leading to these conclusions have all been made using religion – Christian and Muslim invasions, Christian-based slavery, 9/11. It may be argued that these are incorrect conclusions, but 1) there’s no objective way to determine that and 2) if the religion says faith is a virtue, then there is no need to enter something as wacky as reasons into the debate, is there?

So to conclude, it is our humanity – our very nature – that leads us to the tendency to do good things. Everything else is sauce for the meat – though, to be clear, not all sauces are equal. Some will tend to bring us to do more good than bad, to even be restricted from doing bad because of those crazy things called reasons. Others, however, are not so positive. Enter religion. This influencing factor is subject to the interpretations of countless people who have come to countless conclusions. (Just imagine if science worked that way, where two scientists working independently with the same information rarely came to the same conclusion. It would be mayhem.) Moreover, religious belief has this awful tendency to be underpinned with faith. Faith, as described earlier, is nothing more than belief without evidence. And if a person is willing to believe something for no reason other than hope or wishful thinking or fear or whathaveyou, then what sort of basis is that for doing good? More importantly, what sort of basis is that for not doing bad? The fact is, it isn’t a good basis for either – but anyone can (and has) made it a basis for any number of acts, good or bad. That’s what faith inherently allows.

Religion is not a motivator for good, part 1

This image caused a kerfuffle over at the Atheists of Maine Facebook page last week:

The point of the image is simple: Science has a practical utility whereas religion often has a petty focus. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to understand that. Some were Christian trolls (who had to be banned), others were atheist/agnostic trolls (one of whom was almost banned), and still another was an accomodationist (that is, a person who does everything in his power to promote the effects of religion without actually believing in its core ideas). This last person responded with this link:

As hundreds of thousands of East Coast residents evacuated to seek shelter from Hurricane Sandy, the Christian humanitarian relief organization World Vision scaled up its emergency response to provide immediate relief supplies to families and children impacted by the storm.

Three rapid assessment teams will deploy in New York, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia this week while additional staff will remain on standby to begin distributing emergency supplies to the hardest-hit areas.

“Why, there you are!”, the argument goes. “Religion does have an important role to play. Just look at how much good it has motivated!”

I think it’s a patronizing and lazy argument.

It’s patronizing if only because it was made with the posting of a link, as if it isn’t common knowledge that people do good things all the time under the banner of religion. It’s lazy, if not because it was nothing more than the posting of a link, then because it doesn’t take into account human nature, evolutionary history, different forms of selection, and overwhelming evidence from other animals around us. Let me clarify.

People do good deeds in the name of religion all the time. That isn’t a secret, with or without the above link. But that does not therefore mean religion is a motivating force for that good. That argument was never made, and whereas that’s the point being argued, it’s the height of intellectual laziness to engage in this arena of discussion without even considering anything about motivation. Let me clarify further.

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence. So now let me connect this to the point I want to make.

The motivation to do good in the world is an inherent human characteristic. We have ample evidence for why this is so, ranging from the extrapolation of kin selection into an environment with large, non-tribal populations to the way other animals exhibit moral behavior to studies which compare how different cultures respond to the same moral problems. For example on this last point, the Trolley Problem was posed to remote tribes that had never been exposed to Western, Christian, or most other modern ideas. The specifics of the thought experiment were tailored to make sense to these isolated groups, but the results were stunningly in line with what we see all over the world. A sense of right and wrong would appear to not only be inherent in humans, but it can often result in similar outcomes in disparate groups.

The position I am putting forward then is that religion is an influencing factor that often operates on this inherent motivation to do good. A more robust argument can be made for this, but the rough outline is here (and it’s an outline I don’t think accomodationists and many others have even considered). Religion itself, however, is not a motivator to do good. Just ask yourself, Who honestly believes that good deeds would cease without religion? And for those that do believe that, how do they explain people who are good and do good without it? One might say that religion is just one of many motivators for good, but that’s basically saying that there exists some other basis for doing good. That basis, I am arguing, must be the reason people do good things. I happen to believe we have a lot of quality reasons for looking to our evolutionary past and status as social animals to figure out the nature of this basis, but even if I’m wrong, it still follows that religion is an influencing factor in doing good, not a motivating force.

In part 2 to this post I am going to address how religion’s status as an influencing factor and one of its prime characteristics (the promotion of faith) opens the door for it to cause harm in the world.

The state with the fewest Christian adherents

A study was done in 2010 which quantified the number of Christian adherents in the US by state. It defined Christian “adherents” as including all those with an affiliation to a congregation (children, members, and attendees who are not members). In other words, this study, as best as I can tell, looked at the number of people who are affiliated with a church or other religious organization in some official capacity. That tells me this isn’t that useful if we want to know which state has the most believers in a particular, cultural god, but it would seem to indicate something about how devoted people in a given state are. And the good news is, Maine appears to have relatively few devoted citizens:

The researchers found Utah to be the most Christian* state with around 78 percent of population identifying as Christian adherents. The researchers found Maine to be the least Christian state with only about 27 percent identifying as Christian adherents.

*Christians include Mormons and Unitarians / Universalists who self-identify as Christians.

I’ve seen other studies where Vermont is listed as the least religious state in the Union whereas Maine is in the bottom tier but not usually topping the list. I tend to believe those, if not for the number of studies that have been done which, if I recall correctly, have given those results, then for the fact that Maine is speckled with the quaint New England churches that decorate so many calendars, not to mention its fairly conservative voting record in certain social areas; my observations as a resident of this state tells me that there are more Christians than the above study indicates.

Rhode Island prayer mural ordered taken down

A high school in Rhode Island had an obviously illegal prayer banner hanging on its walls. It opened with “Our Heavenly Father” and closed with “Amen”. Student Jessica Ahlquist pointed out that the school can’t go about promoting Christianity, so they ought to take it down. She made a few direct pleas, spoke with administrators, and made a Facebook page for starters. In other words, she had a perfectly reasonable and measured initial response. So you’ll never – never! – believe what happened next: the Christians and high school administrators were stubborn and said “no”. I know, I know. Who would have thought people who supported Christianity and chose to spend their lives controlling teenagers would be stubborn. I swear, I can’t think of more than three or four thousand instances of stubborn actions from the people who ran my high school.

Anyway. Once the mooks rebuffed the constitutional efforts of one of their better students, Ahlquist sued. And won:

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux rejected the school’s claims that the message in the mural – which opens with “Our Heavenly Father” and closes with “Amen” – was purely secular.

“No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” Lagueux wrote in a 40-page opinion.

And now the school has a short period in which it must remove the mural. This is excellent. No one should be using public funds to promote any particular religion. This is especially true when those subjected to that promotion are impressionable teenagers.

Of course, the school had the audacity to claim the prayer was somehow secular in nature. I can’t help but feel everyone involved knew that was a lie. But even if they didn’t, it’s still a stupid argument. I’ll let the judge take this one:

[N]o amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.

Not even for you Christians out there.

Irony much?

I recently made a status update on my Facebook wall which mocked Christianity. As sometimes happened, it soon gathered together a small chorus of people who feel nothing mean should be said about religion. “Why, live and let live, Michael!”, they will say. Of course, then we get faith healing laws in the U.S. and imprisonment of gays in Christian Uganda. For that sort of reason (and more), I think it’s perfectly reasonable to mock religion; it is a hell of a force for evil in the world. (In democratic nations where the populace has been able to rid itself of most of the religious nutbags – our mainstream – life is far, far better on the whole.) I would love to see religion go away.

But out of that status update came a common cowardly Christian. Instead of diving into the discussion, he went to his own wall and made a passive-aggressive response. (In terms of my own status, it was probably for the best. My wall actually fostered (and is still doing so) a pretty good discussion amongst a number of intelligent individuals.) First let me show the comment that spurred the passive-aggressiveness. This was made by a friend of mine:

1.) Respect for beliefs and respect for the people who hold them are often confused with each other. Demanding that we respect each other’s beliefs is silly. I respect my room mate. However, I don’t respect his belief that it’s ok to leave the bread bag open. Similarly, I respect my girlfriend. But I don’t respect her belief in God. To ask someone to respect a belief with which they disagree is essentially asking them to agree with it. The very reason people disagree with something is because they don’t respect it.

2.) Religious beliefs often bring with them the encroachment of others’ rights. It’s the belief of many that gays shouldn’t be able to marry. And you think that deserves respect?

3.) Condoning such wide-scale subscription to superstition is a huge impediment to progress.

That was a response to a variety of points, but the part which caught the attention of the cowardly Christian was number 1. Here is his passive-aggressive status update:

Evidently I’m supposed to tolerate your beliefs but mine are to be mocked.

Rather than explain the rather simple distinctions between toleration, acceptance, and respect of beliefs, I decided to point out that he was being passive-aggressive. If he wants to respond to what he sees on my wall, he should grow a pair and make a post in the proper, adult location. (It’s like all those Christian blogs that make response posts but refuse to link back to the original posts because they come from atheist blogs.) This then turned to another Christian saying I was passive-aggressive. It was a stupid reflection of my rhetoric and it had no basis; people may think what they wish about me, but imagining that I’m passive-aggressive is just silly. I quickly dispelled the notion:

[Name of Second Christian], I think you are a genuinely stupid person who cannot understand the majority of arguments you hear. I think your anti-science bend comes from your quack of a mother, and I sometimes pity your ignorance.

How’s that?

(That person is a creationist and his mother is an alternative ‘medicine’ practitioner.)

Well, you can imagine how that went over. “Why, you, sir, have insulted a person’s mother! That’s just awful!” It’s a silly complaint, really. I insulted her ‘profession’ and used her as a proxy to do so. Since the attack portion of my comment is hardly that specific to her, it’s just people having a knee-jerk reaction. It’s like getting upset over “Yo momma” jokes, except the momma in this case really is a quack.

But I’m used to whines about tone. People who can’t argue their points bring it up as if it’s legitimate. Sometimes it’s because of thin-skin. Most of the time it’s a way to demand respect. If it is off-limits to be disrespectful towards something, whether it be religion or quackery, then it will quickly appear as if that something is worthy of an academic or intellectual discussion. And so whines about tone are aplenty. Of course, that gets boring pretty quickly. Just about the only thing that can make those whines worth reading is when they come with a splash of irony. That happened about 50 comments into the status update with this gem:

Ok ‘michael hawkins’, you dont have to believe anything you dont want to, and im not trying to convince you because frankly, from the things you have said in this entire blog, you should burn in hell because its EXTREMELY disrespectful how you are talking to us.

How Christian.

I imagine if this person recounted the Facebook comments to a friend of hers, it would go something like this. (Let’s call her Suzy.):

Suzy: So yeah, this guy called a person’s mother a quack.

Suzy’s Friend: Whoa! Someone’s mom?

Suzy: Yeah, I couldn’t believe it!

Suzy’s Friend: So what did you say?

Suzy: Oh, I told him to go to hell…out of respect, of course.

Suzy’s Friend: Of course.

(I realize that by not naming names, it may seem as though I am ironically being passive-aggressive. If these comments came from a public page, I would post names. Given that I know this person’s Facebook page is only visible to his friends, it would be wrong for me to say who said what. But worry not, each party involved will get the message.)

Science and religion conflict

It’s popular amongst theists to claim that science and religion do not conflict. They recognize the basic validity of science, so for religion to be in conflict with it would undermine their most cherished beliefs. This is why we get these inane rationalizations from places like the Catholic Church which say that evolution is true yet it somehow can work with theology. It obviously can do no such thing, but that isn’t about to stop the Pope from pretending like the Bible supports the theory. That’s really the way they all do it: get the facts from science and then change the theology to match it. I understand the hands of believers are being forced, but their ruse is just too transparent.

But with things like evolution, it isn’t that hard to twist the theology to fit the facts. There is no method whatsoever within theology that can show any holy writ to be accurate or not, so changing it around on a whim is not that difficult. But what about more fundamental issues? If there is some fact which contradicts something that believers absolutely cannot do without, then we really could stop with these silly claims that science and religion do not conflict. Fortunately for you, dear reader, I have just the example:

Science says the laws of Nature cannot be broken. Ever. Never ever. Go on, ask any physicist or cosmologist or astronomer. Or just look at the evidence yourself. The physical laws are the physical laws and they change for no one. But what do religions say? They say God intervenes. Whether he does it by answering prayers or by directing evolution, he takes the known laws of physics and causes them to go on a path, according to all religions, in a way they otherwise would not have gone. That is not possible according to science. And, yes, every religion with a god has some fundamental dogma within it which says that its god has interacted with the Universe in a way that alters its physical laws on some level.