Losing Faith in Religion, Not Faith–Wait…What?!

The Huffington Post has an interesting article about a recent Gallup poll showing that many Americans have lost confidence in organized religion.  The shift represents a more than 22 point swing over the last forty years.

Trend: "Great Deal"/"Quite a Lot" of Confidence in the Church/Organized Religion
American confidence in religious institutions, once literally held in the highest regard, has fallen 24 points since its peak in 1975.

While the polls are clearly denoting a loss of faith in the institutions of organized religions and NOT a loss of faith in God or religious doctrine, they still represents cracks in the armor.  Growing up, I don’t know that I held anyone outside of my immediate family in higher esteem than my church elders.  Even after I was no longer a practicing Christian, I considered the ‘the cloth’ as an estimable position to have.

Very public scandals involving the Catholic church and televangelists preachers have clearly had a deteriorating effect on people’s trust in church leadership.  There was the immediate effect of those scandals of course, but there were also long term effects.  By painful example a religious title obviously doesn’t give a person greater insight into the human condition.  It doesn’t make a person more wise or less prone to mistakes.  It certainly doesn’t make a person better at decision-making.

I think another factor in this loss of confidence is the proliferation of the personal relationship with God central to evangelical Christianity–the fastest growing religion in the world.  Evangelicals don’t need church fathers to intermediate between God and themselves.  Through prayer and contemplation they seek the connection with God themselves and only turn to church officials for guidance in this effort.

While I still maintain that individual spirituality can have a obstructive impact on some advancements in science and technology as well as human rights, organized religion is the true culprit in the fight against cultural egality.

Most of the people I have observed who characterize themselves as spiritual rather than religious, no matter how similar their beliefs might be to organized religious dogma, do not presume nearly the same level of moral authority to impose those beliefs on others.

Confidence in the Church/Organized Religion, by Religious Preference -- 2002-2012

Obviously, the power of the church is far from broken.  It’s more accurate to say the overall influence of the church is somewhat diminished and it has been considerably diminished over the last decade or so.

While it is my hope that–someday–everyone will come to see the merit–even wisdom–of skeptical reason, I have the utmost respect for religious freedom.  In practical terms alone that goes to our basic freedoms of speech and thought.  So I am not interested in any course that leads to the restriction or loss of rights for any churches or belief systems (except that any church that is politically active loses its tax exempt status.  No one should be able to use tax free dollars to influence policy.)

It will be interesting to see how this trend continues.  As an element of civilization, I think it is inevitable.  The more we know, the less superstitious we become.  Still, even the inevitable can take centuries and be rife with backslides and regressions.  Hopefully, this trend will instead snowball to a point where we start moving towards policy dictated by evidence-based argument rather than unfounded claims based solely on religious beliefs.

Ahh…if only.

Money out of politics.

Free. Thought.

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Celebrating Stupidity: Why So Ignorant?

https://therealkenjones.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/ffact5.gif

It has been alleged that I like calling people stupid.  🙂

I actually don’t.  It’s just an honest observation.  Group think and mob mentality are well documented psychosocial states.  Sometimes it manifests as a trend in the stock market other times as a guy being dragged to death behind a pick-up truck. Of course, stupidity comes in myriad forms.

I am not talking about people with legitimate cognitive disabilities, but rather people who fail (or refuse) to put adequate thought behind their words and deeds.

Like evil, stupidity is a result of behavior.  It stems primarily from speaking or acting from ignorance.  Ignorance is unawareness of–or disregard for–information, logic, reason, and common sense.  So stupidity is nothing more than ignorance in action.  It is learned and reversible.

And it is rampant in the United States of America.

This is mainly because we accept it.  We allow people to espouse unfounded and illogical beliefs without challenge.  We have a media that simply parrots talking points.  We have an education system that is merely prep for standardized tests.  We elect ignorant people to positions of power and allow them to use their ignorance to impact everyone.

So why do we do this?

As is often the case, it goes back to religion (I’m not trying to beat up on it, I’m just noting where things come from).  Our nation has Christian roots.  And what Christianity teaches us is that the sin that has doomed our entire race to suffering and strife is the acquisition of knowledge.  Not envy, or wrath, or greed, not murder or rape, but knowledge.  I’ve considered the Adam and Eve story allegorical for as long as I can remember.  A disappointingly large number of people take it as literal.  Either way, it’s unsurprising that after inculcating, even beating, this story into millions and millions of kids over the course of centuries, we have learned to distrust knowledge.

This distrust is nothing more than willful ignorance.

My all-time favorite sign. 😀

Education, discussion, and exposure to new people and experiences can do away with involuntary ignorance.  Hey, I didn’t know cause I didn’t know.  But with willful ignorance, commonly expressed as, “That’s just what I believe,” this baseless, line-in-the-sand positioning becomes a bulwark against enlightenment.  It is often considered principled, even noble, to hold firm to one’s beliefs regardless of their validity.  Unfortunately, it’s used to hurt people for “honorable” reasons.

But it is not noble or honorable.  It’s hubris.  It’s dangerous.  And it’s antithetical to progress.

Essentially one is saying, I am going to keep believing in something even though I have no reason to believe it other than I want to.  At issue in these instances actually isn’t the belief itself but rather the feeling of safety, security, comfort and stability one gets from believing it.  Ignorance really is bliss.

This is common refuge for religious people.  To some degree I understand the obstinance.  Faith deals with ideas that are often reassuring, unquantifiable, and–most importantly–unfalsifiable.  It feels good to believe it and it can’t be disproved, so there’s little motivation to stop believing it.  Plus, science doesn’t have any better answers in many cases.

While this type of reasoning is actually unsound, there is a pure logic to it that appeases common sense…until you actually think about it.  Pleasant fiction is still fiction.

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The above graph clearly illustrates that belief in evolution increases with education level (i.e. greater exposure to information and usage of reasoning skills). It should be noted that as a scientific theory, evolution is to be accepted or rejected, not “believed in.” The framing of the question establishes a theological context.

The troubled waters really begin when this type of thinking spills over into other aspects of life, especially legislation.

When stupidity dictates policy you get Stand Your Ground and Sharia Law bans.  You get our crumbling education system.  You get bigotry, tribalism, and antipathy.

You also get the Texas state GOP rejecting higher thinking skills, including critical thinking, on their official party platform.  Or you get the Louisiana lawmakers who passed a school voucher program allowing people to send their kids to Christian schools pulling their support for the program after people started using those same public funds to send their kids to Muslim schools.  It’s how you get people scoffing at global warming every time  it snows or refuting radiometric dating without an iota of expertise.

Of course, these are right-wing issues.

Note the disclaimers!

On the left, fear of vaccines and other pharmaceutical drugs are built largely on conjecture, unfounded claims, and circumstantial evidence.  Any charlatan with an alphabet soup after their name can write a book and present it to the masses as a breakthrough.  The lay person lacks the acumen to challenge it.  But does that book hold up to the scrutiny of other experts in their field?  The only thing these miracle herbalists and holistic healers need to do is demonstrate–to other experts in the field–that their methods get consistent results–that anyone who follows their processes can duplicate.  That is the standard for the scientific method.

Most of the people I’ve had discussions with could not articulate that standard of proof.  We haven’t been taught to think in those terms.  We believe what we want to believe.

So we do need better education.  But we also need to let go of our own arrogance.  We need to stop presuming that we’re right all the time.  We need to stop thinking that we know and start proving that we know.  We’ve got to stop being scared of challenging our beliefs.

I lean towards skepticism because it makes the fewest presumptions.  It’s mantra is simply that I will believe whatever there is sufficient reason to believe.

It’s a renunciation of absolutes and it’s far from sexy.  For some, it may seem like a cold proposition (of course, that is once again basing one’s beliefs on feelings rather than facts).  Admittedly, the argument that there’s more to life than what you can measure and calculate has merit.  But in terms of what rules we make to live by, we should go by a reality that we can mutually demonstrate.  The standards should rely on independently verifiable evidence.

This means getting past life by je ne sais quoi, and into the realm of the provable, quantifiable, and falsifiable.

That means getting past stupidity, which means letting go of our ignorance, which begins by admitting that we are ignorant.

I know, it doesn’t feel good, but it gets better (I hope! :o).

And  it’s important to remember that the problem is not the lack of knowledge but rather acting on the lack of knowledge.

Changing the culture is a generational thing.  But it’s possible.  And it starts with each of us.

Free. Thought.

Losing My Religion?! I Lost It!

Note:  I’m talking about faith and religion here.  Just a warning in case the topic is not your thing.

To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.

-Benjamin Franklin

I come from a Church-going family.  We didn’t go every Sunday, but most Sundays for the majority of my childhood.  When I got older my mother allowed me to choose whether or not I wanted to attend.   Predictably, I stopped going–although more from a lack of interest than a lack of belief.  In fact, quite the opposite.

Still, over time Sunday became more synonymous with football than church.

A good decade after I’d last set foot in a church, I got a job as a custodian for the Park Village Elementary School (I know, lofty ambitions).  It included an overtime gig opening up the gymnasium for a Nondenominational Christian church group on Sunday mornings.  I did it from time-to-time.

The church was called the Vineyard and they were some of the best people I have ever met.  They were friendly, jovial, courteous, and kind.  And more than that, they seemed genuinely happy.  They were able to actively enjoy each others’ company and each moment as it came.  The key was their faith.

I grew curious.  The pastor readily made time to talk to me about life and belief and whatever else.  Those conversations were amazing.  They helped define the 2nd half of my intellectual–and spiritual–life.

It started me on a journey to rediscover my own faith.

Only problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find it.

I am a student of history and philosophy.  And in studying those fields, I learned things that irreparably damaged my road back to religion.

I have a much more objective understanding of the Bible’s historical context. I see syllogism and allegory in the Christian Bible.  I do see truth, but what I don’t see is even remotely believable literality. I know how the Bible came to be.  I know where many of the stories come from.  I know how the meaning of certain biblical terms has changed over time. I see how the various denominations pick and choose what they want to believe.

Besides, time exalts and mysticizes history.  People freely believe that phenomena considered impossible now was somehow possible a thousand years ago.  I understand why they believe it and why they would want to.  I just can’t believe the same.

When I try to look at Christianity objectively–which is virtually impossible since Christianity is the foundation of my values, morality, and culture–I see the same holes and inconsistencies that I do with, say, Islam or Mormonism.

However, I also understand the very human desire to continue, to not end once this life is over.  I share that desire vehemently.  I likewise share the desire to have a greater purpose for my life.  I’ve felt the comfort of believing there is a God who loves us–me as much as anyone–and wants the best for us all.  I, too, can see the beauty of a world without suffering.

Those hopes are indescribably powerful.  I think they’re essential to the human composition.  It drives our social and moral evolution.  It’s why I find logic in Pascal’s Wager.  It’s also why I find Atheism lacking even though I find it logical.

But these are issues of faith, not religion.

Religion is the rulebook.  And I admit, part of me wants that rulebook.  Part of me wants the religion of Jesus Christ to be true, for cruel and evil people to suffer while the virtuous are blessed for eternity.

But the rest of me looks at some of those rules (eating shellfish being an abomination, stoning disobedient children, the submission of woman) and not only do I NOT accept it, I don’t see Providence in it.  All I see human judgmentalism in those rules.  I only see inequity.

And I don’t buy the whole “His ways are mysterious” bit.  Strange, he made it possible to understand astrophysics yet made an enigma-hidden-in-a-riddle-lost-in-a-mystery out of why eating lobster is a sin.

I find the idea that someone must burn in hell with rapists and murderers–simply because they are gay, and despite any other qualities they might possess–not only offensive, but ludicrous.

What’s more, I don’t believe in evil.  I think people learn and continue cycles of abuse and neglect.  People have chemical imbalances and structural deficiencies in their brains.  People get indoctrinated into belief systems that embrace fear and anger and hatred–and they have mental and emotional compositions that make them susceptible to that kind of messaging.

Not only could an omnipotent God see those potentially insurmountable flaws within us, It would have CREATED them.  Damning or saving us based on a rulebook, inattentive of  those shortcomings, is cruel and unfair.  It’s like condemning someone for being blind.  What “loving” God, ruled by nothing but Its own Will, would choose to be cruel and unfair?

However, from a human perspective, punishing those that hurt others can be appealing.  The thought of Adolf Hitler burning in hell makes me all warm and fuzzy.  And I don’t possess the magnanimity to wish him anything better, but that only reflects the cruelty within me.

So, for the above reasons (and enough more to fill a book), I came to the conclusion that I reject religion.  It’s a personal conclusion, of course.  That decision is profoundly individual.  And it’s trans-rational.  Echoing the sentiments of St. Paul, it has to make sense and it has to feel right.

I consider myself a spiritual atheist.  I could perhaps call the force of creation in the universe, God.  The fact that everything, from the most insubstantial subatomic particle to the most enlightened abstract thought drives instinctively and unstoppably toward organization suggests, to my mind, a possible kind of intelligence.  However, the nature of that intelligence is factually unknown and unknowable thus far.  Will Durant expressed it best:

We are moments in eternity and fragments in infinity.  For such forked atoms to describe the universe, or the Supreme Being, must make the planets tremble with mirth.

As for what happens when we die, I can’t say, and I don’t think that’s the point.  I hope there is some kind of eternal me (and you!) that lives on.  I continue to hope, but it’s not my focus.

Some might find such a perspective restricting.  I find it liberating.  I search for what affirms and optimizes existence.  It’s things like life and love, compassion, kindness, honesty, sincerity, truth, friends and family, faith and philosophy, music and story.  They all profoundly enrich the experience of being.

I can’t imagine that any wise and loving God would wish for us anything else.

I don’t.

(Angel image from: http://samscotti.blogspot.com/.  Atheism image from: http://chan4chan.com/archive/tags/arrogant)