Friday, October 31, 2008

Most Atheists are Wrong: Religion doesn't cause all violence (conclusion)

This continues yesterday's blog, in which I explained how a memetic viewpoint clarifies that most morals originate with our instincts, rather than from religious inspiration or philosophical enquiry.

A constant state of tribal fighting, murders, skirmishes, and outright warfare is pretty much the natural state of human beings (where "natural" means what was common over the last few hundred thousand years as humans evolved to our modern form). Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, describes his experience a typical such tribe, the Fayu of New Guinea, who were in a constant "kaleidoscopically changing pattern of war and shifting alliances with all neighboring hamlets..." While in New Guinea, he witnessed an anthropologist interview women about their husbands:
Woman after woman, when asked to name her husband, named several sequential husbands who had died violent deaths. A typical answer went like this: "My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me, and who became my third husband. That husband was killed by the brother of my second husband..." Such biographies prove common for so-called gentle tribespeople...

Guns, Germs, and Steel, p 277, copyright © Jared Diamond, 1999
When we discover a behavioral pattern that spans the globe, it's a good bet that our instincts are running the show. Adding to the weight of this theory, anthropologists also find similar behavior in the other great apes that form bands. Although this is not a scientific proof by any stretch of the imagination, I think most anthropologists and behavioral scientists would agree that this pattern of tribal war and murder reflects our instincts.

Thus, we find two key points about religion and morality:
  • Most of our morals are really memes that express, in language, knowledge that is hard-wired into our brains, put there by evolution to help us survive.
  • Humans are naturally warlike and murderous, again, because it is behavior that helps us survive and procreate.
Yesterday we used the examples of infidelity and child abuse to illustrate how memes that match our instincts are far more likely to survive than memes that are contrary to our instincts. Now we can see that religious memes that encourage warlike behavior are simply reflections of our human instincts. It is our instincts that have caused us to shape religions that advocate warlike behavior.

The logical conclusion from all this is that religion is the "victim" of our instincts. Humans are just doing what we've always done: wage war and murder each other. Modern evolution has equipped us with language, and the "ideosphere" (the meme ecosphere) has evolved memes that support this aggresive behavior.

Tomorrow: Why this is all wrong – religion really does cause harm.

Most Atheists are Wrong: Religion doesn't cause all violence (part 1)

I strongly disagree with one of the most widely-held beliefs of the Atheist community: That religion is at the root of so many of the world's problems. In my opinion, this is a specious argument, a bad case of reversing cause and effect.

When I started historical research for my book, The Religion Virus, I was a "standard Atheist" in this regard: It was plain to me that religion is the root of much of the violence and hatred in the world. I read Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, and was properly outraged at the terrible things done in the name of religion.

But, as my studies took me deeper and deeper into the world's history, I began to doubt this "stock" answer. The more I learned, the more I realized I was wrong. I began to question my assumptions about religion's negative role in society: Was religion really the cause? Or was it just a reflection of deeper forces? If we could take away religion, would people really start behaving better? Or would they just keep doing the same things, using a new excuse?

Memes can only survive when they fit the "ecosystem" in which they live – if a meme contradicts a basic human instinct, it becomes extinct, wiped out of human culture. By contrast, if a meme matches human instinct, it's easy for it to "reproduce" and increase it's population, because we humans are pre-programmed to believe the meme.

(You can Learn more about the fascinating concept of memes, if you're a newcomer to this idea.)

Religions are just a large set of intertwined memes – a memeplex – and thus it is no surprise that most of the morals claimed by religion are really nothing more than memes that survive because they mesh with our instincts. When religions claim to be the origin of morality, they simply have it backwards: Their morals are the ones best adapted to the "ecosystem" of our brains, nothing more.

To illustrate, let's look at sex, infidelity, and child abuse. Humans are sexually dimorphic – on average, men are considerably taller, stronger, and heavier than women. In almost all mammals, this is a hallmark of a harem species, where males mate with many females. And what do we see around the world? Almost all societies have a marriage institution, yet almost all societies "wink" at male infidelity – although it's frowned upon, and grounds for divorce, it's not a criminal activity unless you're the President and you lie about it to Congress. Most societies consider male infidelity to be a matter between husband and wife, not the state's business.

Now consider female infidelity. In most societies, it is not tolerated. Even in our "modern" society, female virginity is still somewhat valued, whereas male virginity is something of a stigma. Female infidelity in many societies is a very serious crime and can even result in death, whereas male infidelity is almost never a crime. These memes again reflect the underlying biological facts: If a male cheats on his mate, it doesn't really hurt the couple much, the male is still able to care for his family. By contrast, if a female cheats on her mate, she may become pregnant; her mate could end up raising another man's child instead of his own.

And finally, consider that child abusers, and especially child sexual predators, are reviled worldwide, and laws around the world reflect this. A man who has an affair suffers his wife's wrath; a man who abuses a child goes to prison.

These three examples illustrate a basic principle of meme theory: Ideas that mesh with our animal instincts find themselves in a "friendly ecosystem," and memes that clash with our instincts die out. A meme that says, "We should criminalize male infidelity" will find itself in a hostile ecosystem, because male infidelity is part of our genetic makeup, whereas a meme that advocates punishing and incarcerating child abusers matches our deepest instincts, and will become part of our culture.

Religion claims to be the origin of all morality, but it is not. Morality originates in our genetic makeup: Our instincts have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and are at the foundation of all human behavior.

To be continued in part 2 ...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why are there so many Atheist bloggers? A reply.

Joey Nelson over at Spiritual Questions Blog claims that the sheer number and persistence of Atheist bloggers proves God exists! Sorry, Joey, your blog is one of the most philosophically bankrupt arguments I've read in a long time, not to mention offensive. I challenge you to retract it and apologize.

It is stimulating to engage in a meaningful, intellectual discourse, but what you've tried to do is dismiss Atheists with an insult to our intelligence and to our deeply held and seriously considered philosophy.

Let's use your same logic, and just replace "atheist" with other cultural or ethnic groups, and see if it flies:

"The sheer volume of Christian blogs testifies to the uncertainty of their belief in God, which they refuse to acknowedge due to mulish pride."

"The sheer volume of African American blogs, trying to claim equality to whites, testifies to their inferiority to whites, which they refuse to acknowledge due to mulish pride."

"The sheer volume of Jewish blogs testifies to the existence of Jesus, whom they refuse to acknowledge due to mulish pride."
Joey, I hope you can see that these grossly offensive statements have just as much validity as your assertions about Atheists. Do these statements make it clear why your argument is bankrupt and immoral?

(Thanks to Sisyphus Fragment for finding this one.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Proposition 8: Hatred and Bigotry in California

At the end of a long, eight-hour drive home from Northern California yesterday, I was assaulted in my own home town by one of the most offensive billboards I've seen in decades. The words were simple:
Protect Our Children: Vote Yes on 8
The message was accompanied by a photograph of a beautiful, smiling white girl, about seven or eight years old.

(For those of you from out of state, Proposition 8 is the amendment to the California constitution that would ban gay marriage.)

What's the message here? Let's break it down:
  • Gay people are all pedophiles.
  • If we give Gay people civil rights, this little girl will be assaulted by sexual perverts

This is religion at its worst. The Yes-On-8 backers are suggesting that our gay and lesbian friends, neighbors and relatives are somehow going to corrupt a cute, innocent little eight-year-old white girl, pollute her in some sexual but ill-defined way. Apparently, the only way to protect this little girl is to take away the civil rights of our gay and lesbian citizens.

This is the height of intellectual and moral corruption. Shame on the Christians who are paying for these disgusting advertisements for Proposition 8. They're the ones demonstrating true moral depravity.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Religulous: The Joy of Being With Friends

Like all good Athiests, I had to see Bill Maher's commentary on religion. All I can say is: Brilliant! Well done!

But what really made me happy was not the movie, but the audience reaction. It was like a huge, communal exhalation, a massive sigh of relief, a place where sensible, rational people could all simultaneously feel free to finally laugh out loud, to express their true feelings about what's going on in the world today.

This experience made me realize that, even though I think of myself as an out-of-the-closet Atheist, there is still discrimination all around. I'm surrounded by Christians who think of me as peculiar and misguided at best, and evil at the worst. I can't really be myself most of the time. Normally I just live with this repression, and I didn't even realize I was doing it. It wasn't until I was suddenly among friends, free to really express myself, that it was clear just how much we Atheists have to suppress our true opinions.

My wife is Jewish, and I always wondered why the Jews stick together so much. Now I have a better idea – it's not because they don't like their Christian friends and neighbors. It's because when they're together, that's the only time they can truly relax and feel free. We Athiests are ten times their numbers, yet we're still an oppressed minority. It took Religulous, and being among friends, to bring that message home, to make me realize just how much I feel the repression on a daily basis.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Jesus Truck

There was a photo contest for religion billboards – here's my contribution. This one moves! I'm sure dozens of drivers have seen this and been instantly reformed and converted.

Seriously, do Christians really think a message like this, plastered on the back of a truck, will make any difference to anyone? IMHO, this is nothing more than egotism on the trucker's part: "Look, I'm holier than you! I'm the best Christian of all!"

Atheist Spot is dead?

Am I wrong, or is dead? The voting mechanism doesn't appear, and no articles have received any votes for the last few days. I submitted feedback ...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hey, Sarah, what if God elects Obama?

Sarah Palin is "putting this in God's hands, that the right thing for America will be done at the end of the day on November 4," according to AP.

Wow, governor Palin, that's so amazing, that God has selected YOU. You must be very proud. But I have a few questions for you.

How does God do this? Like, does He stuff the ballot box? Whisper in certain voters' ears until they go crazy and change their minds? Cause car accidents so that Democrats can't make it to the polls? Inquiring minds want to know!

If God decides to elect Obama, will you become a Democrat? If God is intervening in this election, and you lose, wow. That means God says you're wrong! Heavy stuff, to have God slap you down like that. Will that piss you off, or will you gracefully accept God's will?

If you and McCain win, I know God will get the credit, so if you lose, it's only fair that you accept God's message that you are WRONG about everything. Or is this one of those tricks where God gets credit if you win, but Satan takes the blame if you lose? That would make God kind of a wimp, wouldn't it, but at least you and McCain wouldn't have to convert to that evil Democratic party!

So, Governor, I look forward to your reply. You can post your responses here, or ask the Secret Service to get my home address. Or maybe ask God, you seem to be pretty good buddies with Him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

More anti-atheist discrimination in the courtroom

My local newspaper had a new example of unequal rights for Atheists. A local policemen, Officer Bessant, was tragically shot and killed by gang members, mostly to increase their "street cred", their stature in the gang community. The murder was a despicable setup, a cowardly assassination.

The main witness against the murders is also a gang member who testified that he repeatedly lied to police, and to his parents. This witness also admitted shooting at other gang members in a gunfight with rival gang members. This is not a man you'd normally want to trust.

Yet, this lying criminal was magically transformed into the prosecuter's star witness, for the simple reason that he started reading the Bible. He found God. He decided to repent. Jail made him realize the error of his ways, and he turned to religion. By merely declaring that he was now reformed, following the teachings of Jesus, all that lying and attempted murder was forgotten (literally – he was given immunity), and he became a credible witness.

Now the man may in fact be telling the truth; that's for the jury to decide. But how is this discrimination against Atheists? I'm glad you asked.

Imagine that the "reform" was reversed, that he'd been a Christian gang member, lied to everyone, and participated in a gunbattle with a rival gang. After being caught, and spending some time in prison, our hypothetical witness realized his mistake – Christianity had led him astray.

"Yes, your honor, I realized that it was the illogical rules, the stories of genocide, and the undecipherable mythology in the Bible that confused me. I finally realized that Humanist morals made a lot more sense. As a Humanist, I have to actually think about my life, and the mistakes I've made. And your Honor, I now can see the error of my ways. I know I have to be truthful and honest, because that's the Humanist thing to do. I've repented, and stand before you as a new man, one who has rejected God and all Christian mythology."

Does anyone in these United States think an Christian-turned-Atheist would be able to get the same forgiveness that this criminal is receiving? Does anyone think that an Atheist would be believed by the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury?

Case closed.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sarah Palin and gay marriage: Hypocrisy at its worst

I find few things more disgusting that political hypocrisy. I'd sooner vote for an honest politician whose views were diametrically opposed to mine, than to vote for a hypocrite who agrees with me. Sarah Palin doesn't fit either case – she's a hypocrite whose views are diametrically opposed to mine.

What has raised my ire today? Palin thinks we need a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. This violates everything the Republican Party stands for.

The Republican Party has a long and consistent history of advocating small government, of keeping government out of our lives, of remembering that we are a federation of semi-sovereign states, each of which gets to largely control its own internal affairs.

Evangelicals like Sarah Palin go on and on about controlling government, keeping states rights alive, keeping government out of our lives, and keeping both the spirit and the letter of our Constitution. The Federal Government is only supposed to deal with national and international issues. Everything else is left to the states.

Yet, when it comes to injecting Christian morals into our lives, Sarah Palin is all too fast to abandon these principles. Instead of letting each state consider this issue, Palin wants to abandon her Republican principles (or perhaps she never had any principles to start with), and pass a Constitutional amendment that would make her conservative Evangelical views the law of the land.

Senator McCain, by contrast, is an honest Republican. Although I strongly disagree with his position on gay marriage (he's against it), I admire his principles: He believes this is a state issue, not a federal issue. Unlike Palin, he won't abandon his long-held principles about the role of the federal government, just to achieve some short-term goal.

And isn't it ironic that Palin, and not John McCain, is the one drawing everyone's attention, including mine. You don't see Senator Biden out there stealing all the attention from Senator Obama. I think that's a sad indication that McCain's campaign is in trouble.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Did Religion exacerbate the Worldwide Financial Meltdown? Surprisingly, Yes.

It may seem like a stretch to blame religion for worsening the world's financial meltdown, but it's not. The entire conservative free-market approach to government is based on a flawed understanding human nature. The Creationist viewpoint is not just a religion, it is also a way of thinking that permits and encourages illogical thinking. Religion teaches people to reject facts in favor of opinion and hearsay.

Worse, the Creationist approach discards the most valuable tool available to an economist: An accurate, scientific understanding of human behavior. An economist who rejects Evolution Science also rejects the profound insights that come with it.

One of the cool things about Evolution Science is that the principles apply to a wide variety of interacting systems, not just biological life. Any time you have competing, mutable entities, whether they are corporations, memes (ideas), nations, or plants and animals, a clear understanding of the principles of evolution can give amazing insight into the way these entities interact.

To those who understand evolution, topics like predation, competition, and especially parasitism, are no mystery at all. When we view banks, brokerages and insurance companies as evolving, mutating memeplexes, that compete with each other in the classic "survival of the fittest" battle, we can predict certain things. We can predict that, in an unregulated marketplace, unethical (but successful) memeplexes will evolve. We can predict that "parasitic" (but successful) memeplexes such as "derivative funds" that are nothing more than quasi-legal casinos, will evolve. We can predict that the "tragedy of the commons," where each individual makes decisions that, collectively, hurt everyone, will be an everyday occurance.

By contrast, a Creationist rejects this sort of thinking. Or perhaps a better way to say it: A Creationist is incapable of this deep and profound insight into the financial world. By rejecting evolution, they reject the insights that go with it. The religious explanation of nature is simplistic: God created the world and its plants and creatures, and created humans to look over everything. Evil was introduced when Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent's temptation. Morals are God-given, and are enumerated in the scriptures.

Religion offers no insight into human behavior, and even less into the behavior of complex social structures such as banks, insurance companies and stock brokerages. It is worse than silent ... it offers only ineffective solutions, such as prayer and wishful thinking.

Any useful model of the world economy must be based on an understanding of evolutionary systems. Anything else is just a fairy tale. Given that the Republican Bush Administration is filled with Creationists, is it any surprise that they can't understand the economy?

So, as you look in dismay at your stock portfolio, our the declining value of your home, or maybe you even lost your job, you can chalk up one more way that Creationists are damaging society.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Religion Virus: Atheist ethics, part 3

Secular morality is inherently more moral than religious morality. Secular morality is accountable to itself, whereas religious morality is "free standing," without any foundation.

Let's start with a relevant analogy: Science versus faith. The foundation of science, far more important than any particular discovery, is accountability: Any scientific claim must be verifiable. As Richard Feynman famously said,
The first principle [of science] is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.
Science is the process of finding rational, consistent explanations for natural phenomena, explanations that can be written down and verified by others. Any fact, however trivial, that contradicts a scientific theory immediately requires that the theory be revised or rejected.

By contrast, faith-based explanations of natural phenomena (we are, of course, talking mainly about creationism and its relatives) have no accountability. They don't have to match the facts, they don't have to provide any deep insight, they don't have to be verifiable. Worst of all, history shows that faith-based explanations of nature are often motivated by politics and power, not a desire for knowledge.

Now back to morals.

Secular morality has rested on the solid foundation built by the Greek Rationalist (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and their intellectual followers) for over 2,500 years. These amazing philosophers realized that morals had to start from a foundation that everyone could agree on, that is, an axiom that was plainly true. They selected happiness and improving the human condition as their axiom; who could possibly dispute that happiness and health are good, and suffering and pain are bad?

Based on this axiom, the Greek Rationalists built a set of moral principles, one that was based on sound logic, and that anyone could examine for flaws. And many did: The earliest ethical treatises have been discussed, dissected, and improved since they were first proposed. Yet even today, Aristotle's ethics stand as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.

The key point here is that secular morality has accountability. You can't just make stuff up; new claims about secular morality must rest on the foundation of improving the human condition and must have a logical connection to that foundation. Furthermore, like the scientific method, secular claims about morality are open to scrutiny. If you make a claim about morality, you have to explain it clearly, show how it is derived from the foundation, and be willing to defend your position.

By contrast, religious morality is without foundation. If you believe morality comes from God, then you fall into trap that Plato discovered: What is the foundation of God's morality? How does God know what is good and what is bad? If you argue that God just knows, then you've admitted that there are things (like human happiness) that are axiomatic, and you're back to the secular position – you don't need God in the equation. If you argue that something is good because God says it's good, then God could say rape and murder are good, and they would be good, and the argument is circular; there is no foundation.

Those of faith claim their morality is inspired directly by God, but if that's true, then God is very confused. For example, He made numerous laws about how to treat slaves, but no laws prohibiting slavery. He made conflicting laws, and dietary laws that make no sense in today's modern world. He made laws that we have to prostate ourselves and praise His glory, a very odd thing for a supreme being to want.

And if that's not enough, religious morals quickly lose relevance as societies progress, yet they're frozen in time by the "inerrancy meme" – it asserts that the Bible is a perfect transcription of God's own words. Morality becomes cast in stone, and religions can't adapt as human society advances.

I discussed in a previous blog how churches claim to have the "lock" on morality, that without God, morality is impossible. In fact, just the opposite is true: Religious morals are inherently inferior to secular morals.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Evangelical Christians: One-Issue Voters

Deciding who to vote for has always been one of my most difficult tasks during elections, because I never agree 100% with any candidate. As a responsible voter, it is my duty to rank the issues by importance, and try to find the candidate who will best represent my views. It's no easy task, and is often an exercise in frustration. Yet I take it seriously, because that's what makes Democracy work.

Apparently, the evangelical Christian community has a much easier solution: Vote for any candidate who is the "most Christian." Never mind the candidate's qualifications, or actual voting record, or inconsistent past ... if the candidate goes to a conservative church, and mouths the correct buzzwords, they're in.

According to this article at (a liberal webzine), the selection of Sarah Palin brought more than pigs-and-lipstick jokes to the campaign. It brought money. Lots of it. The Swift-boaters, the ones who successfully besmirched the reputation of an American patriot, poured over 10 million dollars into McCain's campaign immediately after Palin was selected.

What's amazing is the statistics on evangelical Christians. Before McCain selected Palin, white evangelicals favored McCain over Obama by 68% to 24%. Palin's selection pushed it even further, to 71% / 21%, apparently due simply to her religion.

Do these people even think? Could they tell you the detailed positions that the four candidates hold? Or is the abortion / creationism debate all they care about? What about the trade deficit? Global warming? Nuclear proliferation? Overpopulation? AIDS and other international health problems? What about the candidates' experience, credibility, statesmanship?

I find it hard to believe that there is something in Jesus Christ's teachings that makes it clear that McCain/Palin is a better choice than Obama/Biden. All four of these potential presidents are good Christians; to an Atheist, their views about God and the supernatural are virtually indistinguishable. Yet, evangelical Christians apparently believe that being evangelical is the only qualification for the job.

That's irresponsible.