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.

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.

Beyond Belief: The Albatross

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

–From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The line between free thought and subjugated thought is thin but absolute and can be determined with a simple question that requires no modification of current beliefs:  If there is no God, if we are all that is, would you want to know?

I believe abjectly that human potential is virtually limitless.  We have just scratched the surface of what we can do and become.  Unfortunately, we are constrained by a fatal flaw in our design (it also happens to be one of our greatest attributes):

Faith.

I’m not just talking about religious faith–although religion is a crucial aspect.  I’m talking about faith as the trust we have that we are correct about what we believe (i.e., hold to be true).  Because of that trust we make presumptions.  We hold some presumptions so dearly that we actually consider questioning them taboo.  But  presumption is simply unfounded belief, no matter how logical it may seem or profoundly we may believe it.  Religion then exalts these unfounded beliefs as the Will or Law of supreme and/or supernatural beings–who are themselves unfounded beliefs.   It uses evidence to justify–rather than evaluate–beliefs and either disregards or denounces contradictory evidence (such as evolution and radiometric dating).

It may seem like I’m calling humankind delusional, but as instinctive and intuitive animals, we are right so much of the time–purely by guessing–that belief has become innate.  Whether it’s navigating through traffic, recognizing whether a door is automated or manual, or realizing that an unattended child is getting into something, we guess right an overwhelming majority of the time.  It verifies our faith. It’s probably why it’s so embarrassing and even unsettling when we’re wrong; we’ve failed in our perception of reality.

Faith was crucial when we were ignorant of the natural world.   But as we have passed from the age of faith, through the age of reason, and into the age of knowledge it has become imperative for us to re-evaluate the principles and processes by which we discern what is true.

We have not only acquired more knowledge–beliefs supported by evidence–we’ve gotten better at acquiring it; knowledge chafes against the limits of faith, religious or otherwise.  Our understanding of the world, once buttressed by faith is becoming increasingly imprisoned by it.  We resist accepting new truths because they may dispel older ones.

It has become untenable.

If we are skeptical–which is to say we presume as little as possible, only accepting beliefs supported by evidence–we can get closer to the reality of existence than we ever could by faith in unfounded beliefs.  Because that faith may be displaced.  Skepticism is the purest search for truth and truth encompasses all possibilities.

So this is not to denounce religious beliefs.  The exploration of a transcendental origin, nature, or purpose for existence is at the very least well-intentioned.  And it may very well be true.  But until it is supported by evidence, it is only a belief in what is possible and therefore should neither be the basis for social law nor the arbiter of morality.

The only way to liberate thought is to prioritize truth.  Science and philosophy which share this mandate with religion, will always trump religion because science and philosophy admit to fallibility.  A core tenet of scientific method is scrutiny through peer review and the first rule of philosophy is that we may be wrong about everything. Meanwhile religion, particularly Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, and Judaism, profess, without evidence, to relay the infallible, yet wildly interpretive, word of God.   None hold up to objective scrutiny.  Their only defense is to restrict investigation, deny contradiction, and denounce skepticism.

It’s been successful.  We have been programmed to avoid intellectual conflict.  Never talk about politics or religion.  By default I would add money to that list.  But these are the core, substantive issues affecting the quality of life on earth.  What better to talk about than money, politics, and religion?  Or should billions suffer and starve so no one has to admit they may be mistaken?

When we are wrong–which is inevitable–failing (or refusing) to re-examine what we hold to be true diminishes our potential.  We deny possibilities for no reason outside our own minds.  It limits our ability to understand, even to question.

Thus faith has become the albatross around the neck of human thought.

We absolutely must free ourselves from the yoke of this superstition.  We must define truth as beliefs justified by–and better, arising out of–evidence and always subject to greater truth.  Only skeptical reason, tempered by compassion, can elevate society beyond unfounded belief and into the realm of knowledge in the noble quest to understand.

Free thought.


Irrational Belief

What God would just leave us in a world like this
And call it love?
The gates of heaven should open into oblivion
that under this firmament
–where the seconds saunter spitefully by–
full of dancing fools and lovers,
whose eyes fix on peace
and call it nothing
My bond is to my brother’s keep
‘Til I take his eye for my belt loop
(Just for the snivel in him)
I. Draw. My. Every. Breath.
to climb.
–To find–
My rainbow ends in her arms
her hearth
friendly faces, ocean-side vespers, humble feasts
What world could be as Divine as this
–where the years take wing upon swift gales–
That has no God?
Only selfish fools and lovers
whose eyes fix on nothing
And call it peace

What I Believe

I have a love/hate relationship with labels.  The clarity is great but the rigidity sucks.

When I noted that I am a spiritual atheist, some people ascribed to me their stigma of atheism.  Others considered spiritual atheism paradoxical.

I am a human being who does not believe in deities nor any connections or derivations thereof (divine books, origins of birth, miracles, etc.).  I do not deny the existence of any god, I just don’t subscribe to it.  I don’t know what happens after we die (of course, what I don’t know is infinite).

However, I am a believer and proponent of the connection I share with other people–all people, in fact, all living things–the earth, and the universe.  We are cosmic beings, made of celestial material; we come from the universe and to it we will ultimately return.

And we are alive.  I know of no other comparable fortune.  What’s more, we are aware of this gift and can enjoy it for the blessing that it is.

Plus, we are the inheritors of 200,000 years of human history.  I am the beneficiary of the sacrifices and accomplishments of all those who came before me from families, merchants, soldiers, kings, scholars, and philosophers to theologians, artists, inventors, and masons, even bakers and cobblers.  Their achievements have made our lives possible.  They have progressed us–technologically, scientifically, and morally–to our highest point in recorded history.  I believe we have a responsibility to continue their work and leave an even better world than we inherited.  They are examples, not the pinnacle, of how high we can go.  We honor them by striving to exceed them as they exceeded those who came before.  I believe it is our duty, our obligation, to do so (We have a LOT of work to do).

I believe in a world without suffering, where we are each free to pursue our own happiness, so long as it does not infringe on the happiness of others or abandon our sense of responsibility to one another.

Some will call it a pipe dream, an impossible quest for a perfect world; but I respond (echoing Vince Lombardi), perfection may be impossible, but in striving to achieve it, excellence may be attained.

And that’s what I believe.

What I Hate About Republicans–Fundamentalism

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, one of the most broadly interpreted–and hotly contested–parts of the U.S. Constitution.

The Establishment Clause was initially interpreted to mean the U.S. Congress only.  Many of the states had already adopted official churches. However, by the early 19th century–when many of the founding fathers were still involved in governance–the interpretation had already been broadened to include elements of state and local government.  However, the Clause didn’t formally include the states until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1947 ruling on Emerson vs. The Board of Education.  The ruling echoed writings by Thomas Jefferson on the subject in which he envisioned a “wall of separation” between the government and the church.  It makes sense.  They had just rebelled against a Christian theocracy; it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to re-establish the same system here in America.

Like many of the ideals expressed in the Constitution, our interpretation  of the church/state relationship has evolved.  Both sides have positions rooted in the origins of our nation.  The real question is, do we want to progress with those ideals or go backwards?

This is where Conservatives and strict Constitutionalists miss the point.  The greatness of the U.S. Constitution is its adaptability to the needs of the times while maintaining core values regarding  liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, pursuit of happiness, et al; not because it was perfect as-ratified in 1788, long before the automobile, the airplane, the nuclear bomb, modern medicine, and the Internet.  Remember, the Constitution also allowed for slavery and counted slaves as 3/5 of a person.

But then Christian fundamentalism has its roots in the vestiges of slave culture.  In the 1960s Republicans courted southern whites enraged over the Civil Rights Movement as part of the Southern Strategy.  Republicans positioned themselves not simply as proponents of Christianity, but rather as defenders of Christian supremacy.  This is not about protecting peoples’ right to worship; it’s about imposing their particular brand of Christianity on all Americans.

This brand of Christian fundamentalism is called Dominionism, the belief that secular government must be eliminated in favor of theocracy.  It’s basically fascism toting a crucifix.  Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Sarah Palin number among the nationally known Republicans who subscribe to this theory.

…Which brings us back to the Establishment Clause.

I believe that, much like the issue of slavery, the Founding Fathers were not stauncher in their enforcement of the Establishment Clause in the interests of pragmatism.  It would have been detrimental to the birth of the new nation to  embroil it in a battle over economics and religion.

Yet regardless of how we might interpret the Establishment Clause, what is not debatable is that the Founders did not intend for us to be a theocracy, Christian or otherwise.  How do we know this?  The Constitution itself.  All the framers needed to do was state, “These United States of America shall be a theocratic union…” or ” The official religion of these United States shall be…” or something to that effect.  The fact that such language is notably absent from the Constitution speaks volumes about the Founding Fathers’ intentions.

Of course, there are the words of the Founding Fathers themselves:

“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.” —Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”  –George Washington, Farewell Address

“The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. And ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? …  But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your eyes…and fly into your face…” — John Adams, letter to John Taylor

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”–Thomas Jefferson

The Christian Right mistakenly argues that our nation’s founders were all Christians (much less wanted a Christian theocracy).  Many did believe.  Many others, including, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were  Deists.  It stands to reason then, that they would want a nation in which all people were free to believe–or not believe–as they choose.   It was a concept unique in the world at the time and which many Christian fundamentalists have difficulty comprehending. 

Obviously, faith can be a guide, but it cannot be the basis by which laws are made.  That would, by definition, make us a theocracy, no different structurally than Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

This is where the Republican party bears responsibility.  In courting the Christian fundamentalist vote they have perpetuated a dangerous element in politics.  And the  Republican leadership supported fundamentalism not because they shared their deep, albeit hateful, type of faith.  They did it to acquire a devoted, factually ignorant, and malleable voting block, one conditioned to accept cloudy answers and fall in line with a simple call to faith.

They set discriminatory and oppressive policies, cherry-picked in the interests of their own insecurities, and shroud them in religion.  They claim their purposes are noble; faith is personal and sacred; and to challenge their beliefs is disrespectful and taboo.  In fact, we are the cultural assailants because we won’t let them impose their beliefs on us.

On top of all of that, the most terrifying thing about these Christian extremists is their longing for the Rapture.  Call it Armageddon, call it Judgement Day, they yearn for the destruction of this world because they believe God’s Kingdom awaits them on the other side.  True, the Christian extremists controlling the Republican party want to fundamentally change our form of government. But their ultimate goal is a Holy War.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon both people of reason and reasonable faith to join together to not only oppose Republican Dominionism but to eradicate its influence from American politics.    This is not about abortion rights.  It’s not about gay marriage or the social safety net or U.S. foreign policy.

This is about what kind of America we want to live in: a Christian theocracy based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible, or a nation of laws based on reason, liberty, and equality of opportunity for everyone.  We have to decide and then fight for it.

Otherwise we are going to reap the whirlwind.

This is the end of Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous.  It’s a bit too broad and propagandized, but hyperbole aside, it’s accurate about a point many people don’t want to talk about.

Fundamentalist Atheism

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

-Will Durant

I hate fundamentalism.

I’m okay with people holding strict beliefs in whatever religion they choose (I almost never agree with it but I respect it and on some occasions even admire it).  What I cannot abide is the intolerance in which fundamentalism–fanaticism, really–is awash.  This fanaticism isn’t about a particular religion.  It’s about the dictate that one’s own belief system is must dominate all others.  Any belief system can fall victim to fundamentalism, most of them already have.

Fundamentalism is not about piety.  It’s not about faith.  A person can believe devoutly yet respect other people’s choice to believe differently.  Fundamentalism is about cultural destruction.   It’s a gloved word.  The ironically fundamental flaw of fundamentalism is cognitive dissonance.

We are imperfect beings; our beliefs and behaviors conflict with each other.  This conflict inevitably leads to exaltation of one belief (or set of beliefs) to either the repression or oppression of  others.  In a fundamentalist’s cognitive dissonance, the belief is always exalted.  For example, a fundamentalist Christian father, who abhors homosexuality, learns that his son is gay.  Fundamentalism would force the father to either use his paternal  influence in oppressing his son to prevent him from being actively gay or in repressing his love so that he may disavow his child.  This in turn forces the father to disregard contradictory biblical teachings and promote those that support his actions.  It’s hypocrisy.  More importantly, it’s virulently unappealing to those who don’t share the belief and therefore doomed to fall short of its goal.

Most religious fundamentalists are counterbalanced by their share of detractors.  For some reason, atheistic fundamentalists do not.  All atheists tend to get lumped together.  This may be because atheism is typically not a religion.  There isn’t really a shared system of atheistic beliefs–outside of the assertion that there is no God.  However, atheism is a faith; it’s a faith of oblivion, but a faith nonetheless.

Many atheists shroud their belief in what they would call deductive reasoning.  But the existence of God is scientifically unprovable.  Either way.  Anyone telling you there isn’t a God is stating an opinion, not a fact.  Of course, it’s their right.  And my problem is not with atheism in general, but rather with its fundamentalist manifestation.

I’m sure you’ve seen the type.  Brazen.  Rude. Dismissive of  the cultural and even evolutionary significance of faith in the human experience.  They forget about hope and purpose and belonging.  They ignore the soul’s requisite to continue.  They mock piety as simple-minded credulity.  They laugh at people’s most dearly held beliefs.   Atheistic fundamentalism, like all fundamentalism, seeks only to destroy opposing views.  And worst of all, atheism offers scant metaphysical assurance in return.  It’s pure vitriol and psychological violence at its worst.

I am an agnostic theist.  I don’t believe in the Biblical miracles and I am cynical about the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Still, I find profound truth in Christ’s teachings as well as hope and inspiration in the tenets of many religions, especially Christianity.  I am a product of Judeo-Christian culture–as is half the world.  My social and moral values are defined by it.  Yet it’s not how I identify myself.  I think people take the bible far too literally and interpret it through their own neuroses to justify their own moral point of view.  But that doesn’t invalidate the entire belief system.  Personal faith is a fiercely intrinsic, trans-rational choice.  We are wholly ignorant of other people’s spirituality and have no place in trying to define it.

I don’t begin to think I have any kind of answers.  I’d be audacious to challenge whatever answers others may come to.  But I do take umbrage with anyone who tears down another person’s faith to glorify their own.

(Coexist image from: http://www.geardiary.com/2010/11/29/coexist-a-shirt-for-every-os-at-woot/)