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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cynical Faith

Atheists are often charged with being cynical, but only because faith in a truth claim is confounded with faith in a principle. By extension, skepticism is viewed as morally suspect. Determined faith in a principle, against all odds, is rightfully considered valiant. Determined faith in an extraordinary truth claim, contrary to any and all evidence, is the product of indoctrination. Skepticism is met with scorn only in matters of religion. In all other matters, we all place more confidence in the objectively verifiable than in the speculative. 

The very notion of the sacred depends on the contrast with the material world as profane. This idea imposes self-loathing for engagement with the material realm. For this reason, Humanists see religion as anti-human. We find the very idea that there are doctrines that must not be challenged to be fundamentally authoritarian. We recognize that there is a spectrum of religious belief from literal to metaphorical in the interpretation of text, but find that even a metaphorical interpretation betrays religion's authoritarian purpose

Humanists are motivated to be moral because we posses the quality of empathy available to every human who isn't pathologically deficient.  We focus on life BEFORE death, because we understand that our consciousness is not independent of our bodies and will not survive our physical demise. We require no promises of eternal reward or threats of eternal punishment in order to access our natural human empathy. The Golden Rule has surprisingly broad moral applications. We wish for the religious faithful that they learn to embrace the human experience and shed the self-loathing imposed by religious despotism, so that they may partake of the full range of life's splendor and anguish. The religious faithful will not agree with all of these principles, but must concede that Humanists are not without principles.

In the endless struggle to uphold the separation of church and state, atheists are characterized as being without principles. The religious faithful seem to be the nicest people anyone might wish to meet until they are challenged on matters of faith. But, authoritarianism is a two-sided coin. Just beneath the surface of the compliant believer is a holy warrior on guard to pummel the opposition. Once the mind accommodates the belief that God's judgment awaits the skeptic, it is a short distance to reveling in that judgement or hastening it.

In Rhode Island, the evidence of God's standing army is abundant. The courageous teen who challenged her High School's prayer banner was vilified by the same people who hold up Daniel as a profile in courage for resisting religious coercion. Her Humanist family was accused of manipulating her, as if she couldn't have been motivated by any principles of her own. She received a scholarship from supportive admirers after suffering an academic setback due to harassment and it was assumed that money was her motivation all along. A person not inclined to look for a nefarious agenda easily might have imagined her family's struggle to balance their support with concerns over her safety. People of faith can be so cynical. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Devil You Know

Good Guy Lucifer is an advise animal macro series, based on a cover illustration from DC Comics, that establishes Lucifer as a foil for the God of Abraham. Although he can be co-opted anyone with a computer and free time, he lends himself to a particular formulaic usage. He provides an antidote to the virus of self-loathing inculcated by religion. As many atheist scholars point out, religion is inherently authoritarian. The very notion of the sacred renders interest in the material word profane by contrast. God brought humanity into this world and can take us out on a whim. Because our very existence is contingent on God's grace, we are condemned to grovel at his feet. Where God ostensibly created humanity for his own amusement, Good Guy Lucifer affirms our desire for autonomy and engagement with the material world. Where God punishes us for being exactly as he made us, Good Guy Lucifer accept and understands human nature for what it is.

The Good Guy Lucifer meme is especially effective for exposing the fallacy of sin. There is, in fact, a Good Guy Lucifer meme for each of the seven deadly sins. Christianity treats sin as a supernatural force, inextricably bound to earthly conduct yet transcending the material world. Vicarious redemption, also known as salvation by grace, does nothing to resolve any real wrongdoing. It bundles and transfers transgressions to a third party, like mortgage-backed securities. Worse yet, it honors deathbed conversions of psychopaths and condemns ethical nonbelievers to eternal torture for the mere thought-crime of skepticism. 

A prominent obsession of the religious right is regulating sexual behavior. This can be understood from the perspective of lust as a sin. Marriage is perhaps the best index of social attitudes on appropriate sexual conduct. When women were considered property, polygamous marriage was more common. The fact that same-sex marriage is not yet universal is a vestige of inequality between the sexes. There is no reason for gendered legal status where women have the same rights as men. Good Guy Lucifer understands that sex is the natural expression of healthy desire. While self-regulation is arguably preferable to indiscriminate public sexual display, there is a vast difference between self-imposed impulse control and abstinence motivated by religious notions of sin.

As reasonable as it may seem to object to excess in principle, even gluttony is not exempt from the Good Guy Lucifer meme. Understanding gluttony as a sin, however, misses the point. It is human nature to enjoy things that bring pleasure. Everyone must weigh the costs and benefits of immediate gratification. One who can defer gratification is said to possess higher emotional intelligence. Those who are driven by compulsion may need clinical help. Dismissing these compulsions as sin demonstrates how useless and dangerous the concept of sin really is. Good Guy Lucifer sees no harm in enjoying the things that bring pleasure. He leaves it to individuals to regulate their portions.

In an age of austerity and opulence, greed stands as the metaphorical "sin" of indifference to human suffering and deprivation. Good Guy Lucifer sees greed merely as the driving force for achievement, which it is in an equitable, incentive-based economy. The notion of greed as a sin obscures the real problem of pathological indifference.

Fatigue and lack of motivation are common indicators of depression. Dismissing depression as the sin of sloth is not only simple-minded, it is dangerous. Good Guy Lucifer understands this. Moreover, it is human nature to enjoy leisure. Like gluttony, sloth is a matter of degree. Opportunity and reward being equitable, each person strikes an optimal balance between work and leisure based on a desired level of material comfort. The ruling class never suffers deprivation because of sloth. The Protestant work ethic seems to apply only to the working class. 

Good character is often measured by slowness to anger and quickness to forgive. Anger management may be an index of character, but a character defect is more complex than the concept of sin allows. Good Guy Lucifer understands righteous anger. Wrath is not a characteristic of a docile underclass. Perhaps wrath best betrays the authoritarian motives underlying the concept of sin. 

Envy is arguably a petty emotion. To desire something merely because someone else has it, without regard for its intrinsic worth or whether one has earned it, is infantile. It is human nature, however, to measure one's own happiness against the outward signs of the happiness of others. We emulate those we admire and we want to believe ourselves worthy of the lives we imagine that they must have. Good Guy Lucifer understands the human propensity for envy. The juxtaposition of austerity and opulence is bound to provoke envy. The ruling class depends on envy not developing into wrath.

Understood as arrogance, most people would agree that an excess of pride is a character flaw. Arrogance is associated with an exaggerated sense of one's own worth, often demonstrated by an undue sense of entitlement. The story of the Garden of Eden, even metaphorically, represents the denigration of intellectual curiosity and a tribute to willful ignorance. Without pride, the only motivation to achieve is for divine approval or material reward. Good Guy Lucifer understands that a sense of accomplishment is just reward for a job well done.

Good Guy Lucifer demonstrates effectively the fundamental flaws in the Christian concept of sin. Sin as a supernatural force has an ambitious, unitary agenda. The concept is not only simplistic, but also masks more complex problems such as developmental needs, psychiatric disorders and economic injustice. The contradiction of sin is that the condemnations are for temporal comportment in the material world, but are supposedly founded on transcendent, eternal truths. As Milton's Lucifer waged an epic struggle against the divine despot, Good Guy Lucifer represents the struggle for real free will, without the choice between willful ignorance and eternal torture

Good Guy Lucifer projects an irony not unlike like Steven Colbert's. He betrays an antitheistic subtext by coyly rationalizing his self-interested role in mankind's perditionOne of the reasons that religion, especially monotheism, is characterized as anti-human is for its impossible expectation of self-denial. Good Guy Lucifer is the antidote. Good Guy Lucifer is a revolutionary figureWith the increasing boldness of the religious right, Good Guy Lucifer has the potential to become a powerful rallying point for atheists on par with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an ironic response to the encroachment of Intelligent Design on the science curriculum. It was a pretext for insisting that if the claim that God created the universe is to be given equal weight with evolution, the claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe must also be give its due. It is a case that could only be made through irony. Followers of Good Guy Lucifer could make an ironic case against public displays of worship. Unlike the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Good Guy Lucifer rejects God's narcissistic need for worship

Atheists are often expected to stand in reverent silence during compulsory prayer or look the other way when religious displays are installed on public land. There is an expectation that only rival religions have a basis on which to claim offense at public displays of worship. Unlike atheists, followers of Good Guy Lucifer could register righteous indignation that worship is against our religion. As a rival religion, The Legion Of Good Guy Lucifer can claim some of the special privileges that Christians are demanding in the name of religious freedom. As a non-religious interest group, atheists are denied these protections that Christians are demanding. Where Colbert's SuperPac ironically demonstrates the absurdity of corporate excessThe Legion Of Good Guy Lucifer, through irony, can demonstrate the absurdity of religious freedom as the freedom to marginalize atheists.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bringing Up Baby

Richard Dawkins introduced the meme as a cultural explanation for the ubiquity of religion, to complement evolutionary explanations. Memes, like genes, compete for supremacy. The meme for sacredness, for example, has insulated revered truth claims from critical scrutiny at the expense of free expression in maters of faith. Memes offer a cultural explanation for the successful replication of even irrational ideas through repetition

There is a meme in circulation that babies are born atheists. This meme can perhaps be understood more fittingly as a counter-meme. Children born to Christian families are referred to as "Christian babies" without the objection one might expect in response to a comparable affront to reason. The idea that children can be identified by their inherited religious traditions before they are indoctrinated has gained acceptance through repetition.  

Indoctrination of children is a serious matter that has garnered serious critical attention, but satire is one of many weapons in the critic's arsenal. While it is technically true that infants are without theistic belief prior to any indoctrination, they can hardly be expected to reject a proposition to which they have yet to be exposed or which they do not fully grasp. Because humans begin life without knowledge of theism, one might just as well assert that babies are natural agnostics. The meme of "Christian  babies" provides a backdrop for differentiating between atheism as a lack of belief and agnosticism as a lack of knowledge.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents a seven-point Spectrum of Theistic Possibility. As a scale of theism, the spectrum examines only the dimension of belief, not knowledge. 

Atheism stands in contrast with theism, a belief in God. The strong atheist soundly rejects theism while the de facto atheist merely acts on the improbability of theism. Agnosticism stands in contrast to Gnosticism, or a claim to knowledge. The agnostic concedes that theism cannot be corroborated, but does not dismiss it as improbable. Although agnosticism represents a lack of knowledge, it would seem to correspond to the "completely impartial" middle ground in Dawkins' scale. 

Prior to any indoctrination, babies might aptly be described as de facto atheists for their lack of belief or as agnostics for their lack of  knowledge. Although babies lack theistic belief, they also lack the conviction of a strong theist or strong atheist. While children do attribute agency to inanimate objects at a young age, they are neither inclined toward nor naturally skeptical of the particulars of theism. The de facto atheist lives life as if under the assumption that there is no God. The "completely impartial" agnostic weighs the probabilities of God's existence. A baby lacks both knowledge and belief and would not have occasion to consider the question prior to indoctrination

Theism, like any belief, cannot be embraced or rejected without prior knowledge. Babies are nonbelievers by default, at once agnostics, de facto atheists and completely impartialAny number of scholars have observed that atheism is an anomaly. No such terms exist to describe nonbelievers in astrology or alchemy. Understanding atheism as an anomaly creates a sense of non-belief as a default position. The following model places belief on one axis and knowledge, or claim of knowledge, on the other. It accommodates babies as well as those atheists who, like agnostics, are mindful that atheism is an anomaly.

Dawkins' seven-point spectrum can be collapsed into four quadrants, allowing for indifference, uncertainty and non-belief within a single profile. Collapsing this spectrum has the disadvantage, however, of losing some obvious nuance. It requires The following synthesis incorporates the knowledge dimension into simplified version of Dawkins' Spectrum.

Interaction between Theistic Belief and Knowledge

Gnostic Theism 
The Gnostic Theist corresponds to Dawkins' strong theist. This person insists that God exists. For Gnostic Theists, belief is knowledge because their delusion is their truth. Gnostic Theism might also be understood as mystic fundamentalism, a direct experience of God. Babies, lacking experience and knowledge, obviously lack the conviction of a Gnostic Theist. 

Agnostic Theism
The Agnostic Theist trusts that God exists without claiming to know with certainty. This is the common understanding of faith. Dawkins' de facto theist is the best analogue for this position, but this would also include the "leaning towards theism" profile. Treating knowledge and belief separately illustrates the problem of the "faith in faith" argument. The meme for blind faith treats faith as heroic, especially when maintained contrary to knowledge. The qualifier "blind" is superfluous in light of the essential nature of faith. In epistemological terms, the case for "faith in faith" amounts to a "valor of credulity" argument. Babies are naturally credulous, but lack any concrete theist beliefs prior to indoctrination.

Agnostic Atheism 
The Agnostic Atheist doubts that God exists. This is a position of nonbelief, or skepticism toward theistic truth claims. It is analogous to the de facto atheist in Dawkins' spectrum, but also subsumes the "leaning towards atheism" profile. The de facto atheist and the Agnostic Atheist act as if under the assumption that there is no God, whether or not they embrace that assumption. Either might concede that theism is ill-equipped to present evidence, but still see no good reason to believe in God. An infant without indoctrination would neither believe nor disbelieve in God independently. In this regard, it might be argued that babies have the most in common with Dawkins' de facto atheist or the Agnostic Atheist presented here, but they also share the indifference of the "completely impartial" middle.  

Gnostic Atheism 
The Gnostic Atheist denies that God exists. It is a position of disbelief, or rejection of theism, analogous to Dawkins' strong atheist position. The Gnostic Atheist or strong atheist might also be described as an antitheist. Sacred text are attributed to an omniscient entity, but they betray human motives and ignorance. There are any number of outrageous, unfalsifiable claims that any reasonable person would reject out of hand. It should be no surprise that anyone firmly rejects the existence of God without proofThe marvel is that revealed faith has survived in principle in spite of the repeated rejection of untenable particulars by believers themselves. Infants lack the conviction of the Gnostic Theist, Gnostic Atheist or strong atheist, but they have no reason to consider the question of God's existence independently

The synthesis presented adapts Dawkins' Spectrum of Theistic Possibility to treat belief and knowledge as separate dimensions. It contains four profiles, compared to Dawkins' seven, but represents a full range of belief. The "completely impartial" middle ground and the "leaning towards..." profiles from Dawkins' Spectrum are subsumed within the de facto or agnostic profiles. It is worth mentioning that "knowledge" implies apprehension of truth, not delusion. In this regard, Gnosticism can be understood as strong belief. Non-belief without knowledge is perfectly rational, belief without knowledge is notDawkins' Spectrum of Theistic Possibility makes the reasonable presumption that the adult respondent has context for the question of God's existence. The act of responding to the form implies interest in the question. 

On the question of whether babies are natural atheists, it could be said that they resemble agnostics in their lack of knowledge and atheists in their lack of belief. Perhaps the most striking similarity between babies and atheists is that they are content to live life as if under the assumption that there is no God. Atheism is an anomaly. No terms exist to describe nonbelievers in astrology or alchemy. The meme of atheist babies speaks to the sense that non-belief is a default position. It reminds us that prior to indoctrination the very question of God's existence would have seemed peculiar. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Freedom from Religion is Real Religious Freedom

The Rhode Island Catholic establishment has a persecution complex. There are a number of recurring themes in the persecution narrative that runs through the controversies surrounding the West Cranston prayer banner, the state's holiday tree and the Woonsocket memorial cross. The premise of this persecution narrative is that there is something fundamentally undemocratic about allowing a minority to overturn the will of the majority in matters of religion. The Catholic majority is a demographic and political reality in Rhode Island, but majority rule does not always equal democracy. The U.S. Constitution provides for freedom OF religion as well as freedom FROM religion. 

The Constitutional provision against the establishment of religion is not only the law of the land, it is fundamentally democratic even where there is an identifiable majority religion. Even if Catholics represented 100% of the population, identifying an area as "Catholic" would imply a commitment to preclude all others from ever settling there. The Establishment Clause prohibits privileging any one religion over all others, thus protecting against religious coercion. The demographic reality of a Catholic majority does not entitle Catholics to impose their religious beliefs on people of other faiths or on non-believers, yet the Catholic persecution narrative equates the refusal to privilege the majority religion with an encroachment on religious freedom.

The West Cranston prayer banner was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Public education is compulsory. Schoolchildren are required to frequent the facility. Arguably, the banner represented a sincere effort to be inclusive. Unfortunately, this effort overlooked non-believers as a constituency and no spirit of inclusiveness was evident in the response to challenge. To ask non-believers to look away is no solution. The establishment clause exists to prevent coercion in all its forms. One of the most insidious forms of coercion is the public display of religious conformity. The debate over the banner illustrates this point more effectively than the banner itself. The pledge of allegiance was recited prior to the school board meetings with the words "under God" punctuated by shrill exaggeration. The aim of this exercise was clearly to intimidate. This pugnacious display of piety was flagrant display of intolerance. Christians admire the courage of the biblical Daniel, who was thrown to the lions for defying religious coercion, but vilified a courageous teen who acted on the same principle.

The state holiday tree is fodder for the yearly revival of the "War on Christmas" narrative. The tree is on public land and is publicly maintained. People doing public business cannot avoid it. The practice of referring to a holiday tree as such is not the result of non-believers overreacting. It is a reasonable expression of respect for diverse beliefs. Jeremiah 10:3-4 identifies cutting a tree out of the forest and decking it with gold and silver as a heathen practice, but this practice is also associated with Saturnalia, a rival religious holiday. Calling it a holiday tree still overlooks non-believers for whom the tree represents no holiday. This manufactured controversy demonstrates once more the pervasiveness of the fallacy that state recognition of the majority religion assures religious freedom. Any overreaction is from the religious majority. Non-believers have assented to the polite fiction that a holiday tree is secular.

The most recent such controversy in the area is the Woonsocket cross. The cross is arguably a religious symbol on public land and would seem, therefore, to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Supporters have asserted that the cross is not a religious symbol, but many petulantly defend this previously obscure memorial with religious devotion. Many in the secular community are hesitant to take on this issue out of respect for the Christians it commemorates and because it is reasonable to regard the cross as a historical vestige of the community's religious heritage. The casual observer may be inclined to view the cross as a historical token of disregard for religious pluralism. Some defenders of the cross have accused the complainant of cowardice for declining to be identified. Whatever view one takes in the matter, it is in the interest of all citizens to protect dissenters from reprisals. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is providing a much needed buffer that will allow for resolution of the matter. The call to root out the dissenter betrays a view of the cross as a symbol of religious conformity.

The local issues mentioned above are echoed at the national level. Religious opposition to anti-bullying initiatives, marriage equality and reproductive freedom is rife with the Christian persecution narrative. This narrative demands that Christians be granted certain exemptions in public policy for the exercise of their religious conscience. Specifically, it demands that religious bullies be allowed to express their righteous indignation in the form of intimidation, that Christian institutions be exempt from recognizing same-sex marriages and that Christian medical professionals be exempt from providing family planning services. 

Citizens and institutions are bound by civil law and professionals are bound by standards set by their peers. The free exercise of conscience does not extend to any act of conscience. Christian Scientists who withhold medical treatment from their children are accountable to civil authority because the state has a compelling interest in the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens. Professionals and institutions that refuse to abide by the standards set by their peers and civil law must make way for providers who can and will.

It is often said that faith and reason are independent domains. It is a natural human tendency, however, to resolve cognitive dissonance through reason, even in matters of faith. But reason and faith are mutually exclusive. Faith does not require justification and reason welcomes challenge. When faith and reason come into conflict, the believer either defers to faith or concedes to reason. An article of faith that is submitted to a test of reason ceases to be an article of faith. Faith is only what the believer accepts without question. 

Reason is the common currency of civilization. It is not the exclusive domain of elite scientists. It is also the domain of philosophers who support subjective generalizations with objective observations. We all observe, predict and generalize. Scientists just control and document more meticulously to insure objectivity. Even theologians appropriate reason to reconcile untenable articles of faith with modern sensibilities. Civil law employs the common currency of reason. Acts of conscience must be accountable to reason, not obscured by faith. Adherents within and across faiths cannot agree on ultimate truth precisely because their mutually-contradictory claims require absolute, unconditional acceptance. Civil law is our only hope for consensus.