What if you are wrong (Part I)?

Whenever the subject of one's skepticism towards the existence of a god and the efficacy or desirability of religion arises in more than a passing fashion the posing of this question seems inevitable. Although it is just a restatement of Pascal's Wager, which has been addressed in any number of ways over the years, I would like to share a few additional, and I hope fresh, thoughts.

The first (and most obvious) implication is that I am a fool to not conform to the questioner’s religious beliefs – in essence, the question is really an assertion that while no possible harm could come from such conformance, any outcome would for me be either positive (eternal life) or neutral (no different than if I had stuck with unbelief).

This strikes me as both a weak and a selfish argument. It is weak with regards to the power it holds to convince someone holding any but than the most cursory objections. It is normally employed as a last-ditch effort when all other means have been tried and failed. It offers no compelling reason; in short, it is a childish, playground-style challenge.

The deeper objection I have to this position stems from its oft-ignored selfish implications. In order to see this clearly, it is necessary to consider our moral framework.

Morality at its most essential is the mutually agreed-upon set of norms governing the interrelation-ships among individuals. It has to do with the bonds and tensions we share as a society and as cultural beings. In much the same way that we could not be what we understand as “human beings” without shared culture, morality could not exist without a society; in this sense, society is a place where individuals’ (and clustered groups') self-interests clash with those of others. The resolution of such conflicts over time by negotiation, mutual cooperation, discussion, and all the other means at our disposal are what bring about, define, and sustain morals. Without such interchanges there is neither place for nor need of the concept of morality. Pure self-interest, and action based on such as the only consideration, emerges as the antithesis of true morality when considered in this way.

The motivations behind our actions therefore speak to their morality. An act must be judged thus in part by the presence or absence of consideration for the concerns of those other than the actor, not just by whether its consequences are beneficial to only others, and not just by the balance of beneficence and maleficence in its consequences. An inattentive and careless man that accidentally bumps into a bystander and thus prevents her from mistakenly stepping into the path of an oncoming truck is not committing an act that we could call moral, nor would we label as strictly immoral the same act if it resulted in her death – he clearly has neither benign nor ill intent outright. Only actions taken where it is fully and correctly realized that there are no consequences beyond the self are truly amoral actions, and only actions taken with full knowledge and intent of (or with callous disregard for) pernicious effects on others with no attempt at mitigation can be completely immoral actions. An act that one knows will affect others, for better or worse, can be called a moral act or an act with moral implications.

Intentions, though, are only part of what defines the quality of moral actions; changes in the relationship of oneself to the rest of society or to individual elements existing within it carry significant weight in this regard. For example, if an ostensibly altruistic act changes the relationship, the nature of that change speaks to the moral caliber of the act on an equal footing with its intent. If I were to throw myself in the path of a bullet to save the life of a stranger's child, this would certainly be considered altruistic, but such claims would likely ring hollow for my own children, my wife, my extended family, and close friends. No doubt many who commit suicide do so in the belief that they are somehow “helping” society but instead end up causing enormous despair and suffering in those to whom they were closest. In both cases intentions may be noble but the consequences can be devastating.

We understand that an act which alleviates suffering appears higher on the moral scale proportional to the amount of suffering it alleviates. We can also talk similarly of acts that elevate the human condition in general, where human condition refers to the ability of individuals to plan, direct, and lead productive, beneficial, fulfilling, and happy lives of their own.

If we believe in a shared moral code that in any way obligates us to help those in need, then clearly we should target our efforts first at those we are able to help whose need is greatest, and we should measure out our assistance proportional to the amount of need. All other considerations are secondary to these aspects of the moral imperative, and any actions that counter or impede them are to some degree immoral, or at best serve to diminish what can be imagined as the “optimal good.”

So, what if I am wrong?
Since a decision to conform with the questioner’s wishes merely by the force of the questioner's statement (the “challenge”) would be made on the basis of a completely self-centered concern, such a decision is not moral (in the sense of a “good” moral act) – it is amoral at best, but I contend that it would be in effect an immoral one – that is, the quality of such a decision can and should be evaluated using the moral framework and by this measure comes out to the negative.

Now without claiming that I am a paragon of charitable virtue, I can state with confidence that were I to suddenly agree with the questioner and conform, there would be some subset of my current efforts that would be redirected towards my new-found religious endeavors. This subset could be a small or a substantial portion of my total output, and if we assume that at least some of those efforts are beneficial in their present form to society at large, without prejudice or preference, it becomes obvious that a decision to conform would in all probability be a moral decision – that is, it would fall within the sphere of judgment as either moral or immoral. A simple example would be if I joined a church that expected me to tithe 10% of my income, whereas before I had donated 4% of my income to Doctors Without Borders (which the tithe makes me unable to afford any longer). I might also have volunteered at the local public school, but now, due to obligations at church, I can no longer devote time to this service for the school.

Consider also how plain it is to any observer that the demands imposed by the religious camps of the most vociferous and persistent questioners are typically much higher than the demands coming from those who are driven by lower urgency. That is to say, religious concerns take the largest amount of effort and devotion from the lives of those who proselytize the most vigorously. Those who are less motivated (and thus less pressing in their urging of others to conform) come from traditions that have fewer demands on their adherents.

If I were to agree to accept the challenge, I would therefore redirect some portion of my efforts, on a scale that would likely be proportional to the effort put forth towards pressing my conformance, away from the benefit of society at large and instead towards religious observance.

An objection may be raised here which points to the charitable work done by religious institutions; it might even be suggested that I may be so motivated by my new-found faith that I would engage in a larger amount of charitable work through my religious ties.  Historically, however, churches have proven the least efficient means for delivering charity1. They are inefficient both in the percentage of what is taken-in that comes-out as true charity, and in the scope or reach of that charitable output. While it is true that there may be many very effective faith-based charitable organizations, none of those objectively recognized as efficient is a church in and of itself.  Furthermore, religious institutions tend strongly to filter their charitable works to exclude as recipients those whom they see as unlikely to accept their teachings. Nearly all connect proselytizing with charity, which is thinly disguised and re-branded as mission work.

Churches painstakingly count all of this in the ledger under “charity” both as a claim to moral high ground (a retort offered in the face of even the most casual challenge) and for tax purposes.  If true charity is indeed a “good” moral imperative, it is plain to see that a large share of the “charity” arrogated by religious institutions is perched on the thinnest moral ice.

It is obvious that any redirection of charitable efforts on my part away from modes that are blind to ancillary attributes of recipients and towards those that restrict or attach conditions to the recipients (other than unmitigated need) is an immoral one, clearly going beyond the sense that it adds elements of pure self-interest to the decision process. This latter of course gets folded in if the charitable work I am performing is not done in an effort to elevate the human condition in general but is instead done to elevate my own condition (either in this world or in a promised hereafter).

If people perform charitable work as part of their church’s activities we may still inquire regarding their underlying motivation. If that motivation is driven by the purely self-interested desire to please a deity or to ensure a place in a desirable hereafter, then we must judge the motive to be amoral as it takes no heed of concerns that are not self-directed, and this diminishes the overall good in what may in other ways be morally positive acts. If the charitable acts themselves direct resources away from what the wider society has identified as the most-needy or most-deserving recipients and towards a more select group, then to the extent that they do so the acts themselves are to be judged as immoral.
As was stated at the beginning of this section, if I change my belief system to conform to the questioner’s desires, I would at best be doing so for reasons that are divorced from any semblance of true morality and that would have implications which are upon reflection seen to be immoral.

I have noticed that those who ask this question of others absolutely never ask it of themselves, so I would like to briefly explore this important possibility, followed later by a third form, in Part II.

1“Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States” [http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=cragun_32_4]

What if you are wrong (Part II)?

In Part I, we looked at some of the basic principles underlying our moral framework and saw how those principles conflict with conformance to Pascal's Wager.  Here in Part II, we turn the question around and examine the consequences if instead it is the believer who is wrong.   I leave it up to the reader to judge which case has the worst outcome for the individual and indeed for humanity.

If the questioner is wrong and I am not, then results with far-reaching consequences can be seen just by examining material conditions as they exist now.  Assuming my questioner is from one of the established religious traditions, we need but look at the physical holdings possessed by the establishment comprising that tradition: church buildings, vehicles, tracts of land, decorative items, artwork, and so forth.  Also, if the deity is fictitious, the resources devoted to its worship can be seen as a ridiculous and nearly complete waste of effort and material, well past the point of absurd tragedy when opportunity cost is taken into account. For example, most church buildings remain unused and empty for 85-90% of the time1, and even when they are used, the vast majority of that use-time is devoted exclusively to members of the congregation – imagine how that space could be used to house the less-fortunate or to prepare regular meals for the hungry. How many coats and shoes could be bought for the price of the statues and various accoutrements in the average Christian church’s sanctuary, or even for the cost of the fancy paneling and wall-coverings?   How many textbooks are displaced by the cost of a church van that gets used perhaps once every two to three weeks?  Could that van instead be used as general transportation for those lacking it, or to reduce the overall use of limited and dirty resources?

Many churches near my house (and there are indeed very many) have more than one outbuilding that functions as a fellowship hall, gymnasium, or Sunday-school facility; the utilization rate of these buildings is even less than that of the typical church’s worship hall, as can be observed with random drives through the neighborhood.  Church establishments take in money as charitable contributions and use that money to construct, heat, furnish, and maintain these largely unused structures.  Not only do goods and services given and used for such purposes exist outside the bounds of true charity (in the sense of a moral good), they displace charity that could be of far greater benefit elsewhere.  Yet the fact remains that nearly every penny devoted to these endeavors is claimed as a charitable contribution, which of course reduces the amount that would otherwise be available (through tax revenue, for example) to serve the wider public good.

If the questioner is wrong, it is also true that the basis under which she is operating is immoral and has led her to commit immoral acts – that is, her acts do not seek to maximize the common good but instead target a select and specifically limited subgroup of society. The acts are justifiable only on grounds stemming from self-interest. In anticipation of an objection that believers are convinced that their actions work to the expansion of the common good, I would suggest that if such is their claim then a heavy burden of proof lies with them.  Their case is not an easy one to make, for as we all know the same argument is used to justify suicide bombings – these zealots are just as (and most likely far more) convinced of the righteousness of their cause and of the benefits to mankind should their efforts succeed overall.

The best retort the questioner can possibly make is that she causes no overt or “extra” harm, but this merely places her actions in the realm of amoral, and I doubt the average believer would find such a label any more palatable than immoral.

If the questioner is wrong it is also instructive to look at effects of belief in a god or gods (and all that entails) on the engine of human progress, especially (but certainly not limited to) intellectual and moral development. It is well documented that religious institutions have resisted progress in scientific thought at every turn, often with violence. The execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600 for heresy is a telling example, but consider also that modern opponents of abortion are able to base their beliefs on sacred religious texts yet simultaneously commit utterly ruthless acts of intimidation, humiliation, and even terrorism (all while criticism from religious institutions is muted or completely absent).  The teaching of evolution through natural selection is vehemently opposed by many in the United States to this day prompted by the cheer-leading of the dogmatists even as the rest of the civilized world furrows its collective brow in puzzlement.  It is also plain from just a cursory examination of history that believers in god(s) have opposed every advance in moral ideals, no matter how well reasoned or argued, that clashed with established dogma; ideals that have overcome this immense barrier have inevitably proven themselves over time to be beneficial to the human condition overall, and many have become so ingrained as to be reflexive or thought of as self-evident.  The practice of slavery, for example, was staunchly defended by virtually every religious institution for thousands of years, even after the forces of secular reason had recognized it as barbarism.  Adolph Hitler and his “final solution” had the tacit support of the Catholic Church from his early ascendancy throughout the times of most of his heinous acts.  In fact, I have yet to discover any single moral advance humans have made whose cause has been led by a religious institution.  Recent examples including the abolition of slavery, woman's suffrage, and the struggle for minority civil rights have all been originated and championed by secular as opposed to religious efforts.  To be sure, there have been folks self-identified as religious who participated in and in some cases headed these endeavors, but none has been lead, initiated, or even proposed, by a religious body or institution per se.
This is indeed a poor track record and is in stark contrast with one of the chief (and loudest) claims of religion which states that we derive our moral basis from it.  At best, the reverse would seem to be the case, although the term theft might be more apt.

A defining feature of the convicted religious adherent is the certainty possessed with regards to the absolute and unquestionable rightness of the system.  Such certainty by definition leaves no room for compromise or even discussion.  This means that there is no “engine of human progress” of which to speak, and that our moral and intellectual development is frozen at the moment of inception of the adherent's religion.  If such certainty were to have prevailed we would still exist in the Stone, Bronze, or Iron Age.   Thank goodness the failings of religious dogma are both inherent and obvious to free-thinking persons.   It is depressing, however, to imagine how much earlier we would have enlightened ourselves and how much further along we would now be were it not for the staunch resistance of the hard-headed, stone-faced zealots who, oblivious to the irony of their self-proclaimed modesty, crown themselves as the righteous.

What if you are right?
Since saying that I am wrong does not carry the same implication as saying that you are right, this is the final permutation. If we ignore the vast majority of the history of all religious traditions and look only on, say, the last thirty to fifty years, most of us would agree that the focus of much of today’s religious discourse (and the carrot which is frequently used in conjunction with the titular question of this essay) is that the ultimate practical, immediate outcome of universal religious observance is a harmonious and peaceful human existence. In such a society, no human being would be hungry or want for any of the basic necessities of life, no wars would be fought, and all would have the opportunity to pursue what many think of as nobler ambitions. This stems from the very modern concept of a god as chiefly a being of love and compassion with equal concern for all human life, who wishes us to emulate those same ways and attitudes. This modern concept of a god is a union or aggregation of the reflected goodness inherent in each of us and in our better social establishments: in short, what modern spiritually-minded people imagine as “godly.” In the dual-spirit of both brevity and levity I will hereafter refer to these Major Attributes of a God OGoodness as Magog.

It is easy to see how out of sync the majority of religious establishments are with Magog. This might stem from, in the case of Christians, the incompatibility of the jealous, tribal god of the old-testament with the only slightly more enlightened god of the new-testament. There are simply too many contradictions among them for any one system to encapsulate them both consistently; the result is a bewildering myriad of sects, each of which picks and chooses from the bible’s long menu to suit their tastes. A topic for a longer essay might consist of an exploration of the reasons underlying Magog's rise and what that says about the deficits of organized religion in general.

A being of boundless love and compassion is by necessity one that can encompass no hubris whatsoever.  By this standard the practice of our adoration and worship must be utterly repugnant to Magog. Enlightened humans understand that we do not show love and compassion to one another through worship; we instead prove it through our feelings of empathy, expressions of sympathy, and acts of kindness.  Overt worship, and all the baggage that comes with it, is more than a mere waste of time, it is a diversion of resources that Magog wishes us to put to better use.  We should expect such a being to place lowest on the list those who spend their time in fawning adoration instead of expressing, through thoughts and actions, concern for all fellow human beings. Who among use does not rightly despise the sycophantic tag-along who gets the job promotion ahead of us merely due to acts of flattery?  Is this any different than prostrating oneself before Magog in an effort to be first in line for the hereafter?

A being that has equal concern for all human life does not judiciously choose those on whom to bestow blessings or good will.  If unconditional concern for all human life is a feature of Magog’s that we ought to emulate, then the filtering of recipients of our good will based on any criteria other than need is incongruous with the will of Magog.

Furthermore, if the questioner is right this would of course mean that all other religious traditions are wrong (in addition to the mere absence of religious conviction), which is an assertion to which all major religions hold fast.  Since no religious tradition can come close to claiming a majority of the human population in its following, this means that the vast preponderance of humans that now exist (and that have ever existed) are wrong.  Most religions assert that such non-followers are permanently excluded from the presence of their god; a fair number of traditions with which I'm sure the reader is familiar go infinitely further and condemn nonbelievers (and indeed all different-believers) to an eternity of torment.  The very idea that a being with any similarity whatsoever to Magog could condemn one to an eternity of the most abominable torture imaginable merely for the transgression of being wrong, ignorant, or even willfully skeptical flies in the face of all that we know of both compassion and reason.  If one were to believe in the existence of pure evil, such a lopsided sentence would surely be the very definition were it to be the product of deliberate intent.

Clearly, such a question as stated in the title can only be asked by those with little to no capacity for introspection, or at least only by those who have omitted sober reflection from their lives.  They fail to perceive the self-directed and exclusionary nature of their beliefs, much less any of the deleterious effects on humankind brought by them.  And that is precisely what is wrong with such a question and also with those that ask it.

1This assumes for example that the church is used for a full 16 hours out of a 168 hour week, perhaps a generous estimate.

Sticks and Stones are nothing compared to words!

Welcome to my blog!  I hope to start and maintain discussions on a number of topics here - if you are interested in philosophy, politics, or science (or any combination of these...) I think you will find something of interest here!  But beware, you may also be challenged and offended, either of which I see as good jumping-off points for long and interesting conversations.

How does the conversation begin?

When you think about good conversations that you have had (or heard about) – those that accomplished a goal, convinced you (or someone else) to change a position, or just really made you re-examine your own perspective – what do you remember precipitated such conversations? Did you just feel an urge to state your position to the world regardless of who was listening? Did someone issue a challenge that touched on something about which you feel strongly? Were you offended by something that you overheard or saw? Did someone's actions so move you that you simply had to speak up, whether for or against? Perhaps you felt that your rights or civil liberties were at stake. I think one thing the world needs is more conversation-starters of all kinds, but this assumes that there are parties willing to participate in an actual conversation instead of simply exchanging volleys of words against which at least one side has inoculated itself. If you think you may have been in a deep conversation at some point, yet you have never questioned the rightness of your own position, you have not in fact participated in a deep conversation. If you are listening to someone else state their position while not honestly entertaining the possibility that the other person may in fact be right, you are actually not conversing – you are doing something else entirely, and you may as well be a politician in a scripted and televised-debate. If you have never seriously considered the arguments against your own position, you are not prepared (nor are you really entitled) to defend your own. If you are so full of opinions that there is no space for rumination, then you may as well be a wooden-headed ventriloquist dummy or an ideological lap-dog.

I know that there are other conversations to be had that are just as important and that don't start off as (or that were never intended to be) adversarial – these would be conversations with intimate partners, close friends, or one's children or parents. The conversations I'm concerned with here, however, are those that touch on things of interest to society as a whole – pick your hot-button issue du jour: abortion rights, same-sex marriage equality, religious freedom, freedom of conscience, etc. Opinions are indeed like a-holes here – everybody's got one. Does that really mean that all opinions are equal, though? Can we somehow boil this stew of opinions and find one capable of withstanding the heat?

And, if there are indeed issues that ultimately reduce to matters of taste, isn't it critical that we find some means of agreeing exactly which issues fall in this category? Now that seems like a decent starting place for a conversation on just about anything.

Would the real Faithful please stand up?

Since the rise of ISIS/ISIL there has been a proliferation or articles and opinion-pieces claiming that its members are not really Muslim, or that they don't represent the true Muslim faith. The president made this remark directly in his speech to the United States. We hear this type of claim all the time, most often when a sect within a particular faith has exhibited what many of us agree is bad behavior. One thing that interests me is what statements like this really mean when one unravels the underlying principles.

In the case of Islam, the situation is unclear because there is not much in the way of organization or hierarchy. Islam has four guiding principles: the Koran, the Hadith, the consensus of orthodox religious scholars, and the method of reasoning by analogy. Thus the only real heirarchy other than the authority of the actual written words resides in the consensus of religious scholars. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad in Islamic Studies, so if he doesn't qualify as an Islamic religious Scholar I don't know what else would. Courts in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and Egypt regularly dispense and uphold sentences of death, stoning, and public lashing for offenses against Islam. These brutal and unbalanced sentences (for victimless- or thought-crimes, no less!) are the product of direct readings from either the Koran or the Hadith and are certainly the consensus of the leading Islamic scholars in the respective states. In fact, in many of these states it is the religious scholars that hold the very reins of power. Most if not all of al-Baghdadi's proclamations and actions are rooted directly in the writings of either the Koran or the Hadith. So too were those of the Taliban. Without a doubt there exist many Muslims of a more moderate mindset, but it is not at all clear that the scholarly consensus is completely against the actions of groups like ISIS. It is difficult to get even a moderate Muslim to agree that anything in the Koran or the Hadith might be untrue or even problematic - to even suggest such a thing in many parts of the world is to invite a death sentence. How, then, can an outsider judge with any accuracy what is the truest version of Islam?

What about Christians? Their case is thankfully less fraught with outright violence, but this was not always so. There are any number of organizations and sects within Christianity, and they run the gamut from pacifist (as are many Quaker churches) to angry Old-Testament bible-thumpers (such as Joseph Kony or the Westboro Baptist Church). As is the case with Islam, I'm sure that the majority of members are in the middle and would prefer to keep their heads down and remain out of the way. Where do we look for a firm and undisputed definition of what comprises the true faith? We can listen to the words of those throughout the entire spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal, all of whom believe just as ardently that what they profess is the true essence of Christianity. The largest Christian denomination is the Catholic Church, and they also have perhaps the most rigid and well-defined hierarchy. Are they the keepers of true Christianity? They can lay claim to many of the most influential thinkers and have the longest history - they say that they are in fact the original Christians, and they make a good case for it. On the other hand, they have certainly done some despicable things, such as running the Magdalene Laundries and shielding pedophile priests from common justice. It's unfair to judge all members of the Catholic church by the actions of its clergy, of course, but the clergy are the ones that maintain the official theology of the church (to which its members are called upon to profess their agreement), so we should at least pay attention to their pronouncements on what makes a true Christian. We could also look to The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints - this too is an institution with a well-defined order but also with what many would characterize as some very bizarre notions - is there anything that inherently gives their opinion lower standing than the official Catholic church, though? In truth, there are very probably nearly as many interpretations of what makes a true and pure Christian as there are professed Christians. Should we take some kind of "average" from among them all? Does the largest group's conceptualization carry the most weight?

In one respect, Christianity and Islam share a common problem - the texts which are their foundational bedrock each contain writings that speak to our better natures as well as writings that are barbaric and backward. In another important respect they are very different: for the most part, Christian theology has softened to the point where it is capable of jettisoning the deplorable aspects of the text (and of the faith itself) while Islamic doctrine remains rigidly attached to the inerrancy of each and every word in the Koran and the Hadith. Thus, outsiders find themselves unable to engage in any serious dialogue about what they percieve as problematic with Islam. For example, watch just about any conversation where a Muslim is asked whether the proscribed sentence of death for apostasy is just and right; you will very likely hear either a straightaway affirmation of the fitness of such a sentence, or the respondent will perform a fantastic contortion of semantics to avoid admitting directly that it is (or might be) wrong while simultaneously trying to give the impression that he does in fact believe it is wrong. Apart from the distortion this reflects in the mind of the respondent, it poses an untenable difficulty for the rest of us: there seems to be no means of distilling such a faith down to its essence - everything is fundamental in a system that affords neither discussion nor disagreement with any of its tenets. Any attempt at distillation would merely pass the entirety of the original contents through - one always ends up with exactly the same thing with which one started.

All this indicates that to say so-and-so is not adhering to the true such-and-such faith carries little of coherent practical value. I think it is time we admitted that when one says things like, "He's not a real Christian," or "ISIS does not truly represent Islam," what one really means is that such persons or institutions do not represent one's own vision or understanding of the faith. Disagreement with this represents a lack of imagination, or perhaps a failure of empathy, that everyone who professes to believe what they say really and truly believes what they are saying; this is especially true when what they say is in clear opposition to what we ourselves honestly believe.

So, what does this mean with regard to utterances such as that made by our president? Surely, he is trying to make the best of a bad situation. It would be unproductive for him to attack the ideology of Islam directly in a presidential speech; it is clearly not something that can be done given that the only diplomatic way to accomplish it would of necessity be so thorough that it would in all likelihood fall victim to the short attention-span of today's viewer - this kind of argument requires deep thought, reflection, and can't be reduced to 10-second sound-bites. Such an attempt, while failing to make headway with the majority of his potentially sympathetic audience, would simultaneously provoke the anger and resentment of the Islamic faithful.

I believe the key to understanding this is to see that, in large part, the harshness of Christianity has been attenuated due to close contact with a culture that is neither in thrall to nor subject to the absolute authority of a faith. Western culture, and in particular those aspects of western culture profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment, has unwittingly waged a war of ideological attrition against the most rigid aspects of faith, and has gained considerable ground. There has been no such cultural war in the sphere of Islamic influence; at least, not until very recently with the advent of easy access to global communication networks and cross-cultural social media. While repressive regimes have always sought to limit and control access to information, we can see that modern versions are ever more desperate and brutal in their attempts at this - they fully realize how swiftly the tide of modern culture will weaken their grip on power. So, given our apparent reticence to prosecute this war of ideas directly and with full awareness, we are left with only one alternative: continue our efforts to culturally encroach upon the isolationist mindset of such ideologies. The question then becomes one of how long we can wait for this approach to make significant headway.

The Importance of Disagreement and Resolution

As some readers may already know, I work in telecommunications engineering.  Many of the meetings I attend are what I would call "working" engineering meetings, where we discuss technical details.  Often, there is disagreement on at least one particular issue.  When disagreements become apparent a discussion normally ensues where everybody in the room takes a much closer look at the issues and events surrounding the point of disagreement.  Sometimes a point needs to be clarified, as when a customer on the call wants to take a deep dive into the meaning of particular data or into the methodology under which the data were acquired.    

The rules that we all understand surrounding engineering and scientific best-practice then take over in large part.  A statement of fact is made, the status of that fact as a fact may be called into question, which leads to discussion and hopefully resolution about what exactly constitutes fact and what constitutes conjecture or assumption – if assumptions are in-play, then the foundations behind those assumptions are examined as well.  This goes on, hopefully in the direction of resolution of the original dispute or misunderstanding, until all or most parties are satisfied.  There are a number of niceties about this way of doing things:

·         Everybody in the meeting has, at least in principle, equal standing to question assumptions or factual bases.

·         Consensus plays the major role in disputes about factual matters.  Of course, authority can step in and trump or short-circuit the development of a consensus but this rarely happens in a real engineering meeting.

·         Every single detail is up for discussion or is otherwise open to dispute.

·         If a question is raised about a particular element, that question is resolved.  Questions that have an impact on the outcome or the data are emphatically not allowed to remain unresolved, no matter how much effort it takes to resolve them.  Sometimes the meeting is adjourned or postponed so that deeper investigation can take place or so that more data can be obtained.
During one such meeting I attended recently, I was struck by the exacting thoroughness of this approach, and how it tends to minimize error and maximize understanding among all of the group’s members.   Why is it that we don't use this same rigorous approach in other disciplines or facets of our lives?  

Dilbert notwithstanding, think about how much of our progress has been made as a result of this type of engineering collaboration.  Phones, cars, vaccines, planes, trains, antibiotics, bridges, buildings, medical diagnostic equipment, the power grid - none of these would exist without intelligent people finding ways to bridge their disagreements in a logical, reasonable, orderly fashion.  When people work together in a way that considers the validity of everyone's position as judged by the same metrics (where those metrics are also the result of similar process), ideas tend to converge into things both durable and  practical.

We all tend to approach any given problem or issue with a pre-formed opinion, and therefore our disparities of opinion are a barrier that must often be overcome; it is important to note, however, that differences in opinion can also be an invaluable source for expanding one's own knowledge-base.  How can we separate the trash from the treasure?

If there is one human truism, it is that we all have opinions.  Opinions are our representations of the way in which we understand the world to be.  In general, an opinion is a synthesis of facts, assumptions, and deductions that one holds to be valid.  An opinion may be any combination of these - one opinion may relate purely to a factual matter, another might consist of a deductionary chain based on a particular set of assumptions.  Since opinions can be thought of as constructed using these discrete elements, each of which is necessary for the opinion to be true, we can methodically evaluate any opinion's validity by examining the validity of the constituent elements themselves.  

Now, we can immediately see that some opinions may consist of elements that are purely subjective in nature and can thus be validated only by the subject herself - statements like "Rocky-Road is the best tasting ice cream" or "I see an image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in those clouds" express opinions that are either dependent on things unable to be apprehended by anyone other than the one making such statements, or that express matters of subjective taste.  Granted, we could in principle evaluate whether the speaker is intentionally making a false statement (using some kind of perfect lie-detector test or real-time brain-scans looking for evidence of willful deception) but this would only occur in extraordinary and bizarre conditions far removed even from atypical social interaction.  Such things might become commonplace in the future, but that doesn't prevent us from attempting to define some kind of reasonable boundary here and now between the purely subjective and the veridical - we can always adjust the boundaries later on.

 I fully acknowledge that this boundary will itself probably be the subject of immediate disagreement, but if we can merely agree that such a boundary indeed exists, regardless of where it lies, then we are already well along the way to resolving most or our disagreements.  The very act of acknowledging and resolving the dispute over the boundary dividing the subjective and the verifiable will teach us quite a lot about each other.  We now know, at the very least, how to look for those elements informing our opinions that result in the differences between those opinions whose resolution is important to us.

Consider the opinions people hold on virtually any hot-button issue: abortion, gay marriage, gun rights in the U.S. and then think about the elements underlying those various opinions.  Those opposed to the legalization of gay marriage are often heard saying that homosexuals are exercising a distinct choice in their lifestyle and are choosing an immoral path.  They also claim that such relationships are detrimental to society and are unnatural.  All of these statements contain elements that are factual as well as those that stand upon assumptions and deductions.  These statements, and others that would be made were we ever to get a complete accounting of the basis for such opinion, give substance to the opinion itself and also provide the framework around which individuals can structure a productive discussion - the only discussion that has any chance of resolving the dispute to everyone's satisfaction. Granted, an opposing opinion's elements must also be laid bare and opened up for discussion as well - it may turn out that both sides have misconceptions or other errors in the framework of their opinions, and that a true resolution involves the construction of a whole new framework that may or may not use elements of either.

We must learn to employ constructive ways of handling our disagreements in all areas of our lives and society.  It is not just the engine of human progress that depends on this:  paradoxically, the better we get at using these means in technical or scientific fields the greater the chances that a non-technical disagreement will result in humanity's obliteration.

A Critique on the Values and Effects of the Family of Religions - Part 1

 There never seems to be a dearth in the promotion of those espousing religious family values, or of those extolling the positive social benefits of religious practice. These concepts, however, possess little in the way of true specificity owing to the wide variance of religious traditions (as well as the numerous interpretations of each), and are therefore useful mainly as salutary lubricants to ease the ingestion of what might otherwise be interpreted as a set of dubious pronouncements: one is supposed to think something like, “Oh, these are family values with a basis in religion – I am certainly going to hear some altogether decent, selfless, and noble advice.” The fact that such disarming preambles are so prevalent should perhaps induce one to reflect on the nature of values evinced by the intents and actions of the world's family of religions: what is to be discovered when examining the attributes and behaviors of the institutions themselves?
There are without doubt many striking contrasts between the world's religious establishments – we might then well wonder whether it is at all accurate to group them all together as the same “thing.” When we look at the values they hold in common, I strongly suspect the reader will agree that, although they are indeed distinct from one another, they are all of the same kind. Our first task will be to find the threads that are woven through them all
In addition to the delineations between the major religious organizations there exist noteworthy variations within any given establishment. The most common categorization of this phenomenon follows gradations on a scale spanning the gap between fundamentalists and liberals. These intra-religious divisions can be surprisingly deep and bitter, and sometimes lead to permanent schism. One cannot fail to notice how religious liberals and moderates (RLMs) take offense when they become lumped together with their more fundamentalist or extremist brethren. They act as if any perceived association with such types tarnishes their own credentials and gives them lower standing then they had heretofore enjoyed; they offer criticisms of those whom they openly agree are the deserving targets of society's condemnation. They sometimes act confused or surprised that they have not been overtly granted exclusion from such criticism even before any accusations are made, or that they have not been called in as 'expert' consultants as to the nature of the fundamentalists' errors. An important part of this undertaking, therefore, will be to consider whether any substantial difference exists between liberal, moderate, and fundamentalist sects with respect to either values or outcomes.
Persuasive arguments have been offered by others to the effect that religious moderates offer cover to extremists in no small part by demanding (and receiving) respect for their own variably less dogmatic views. Once validity is ceded to any single position not based in reason or evidence then all other kindred positions can immediately claim elevation to the same unearned status. This can be observed in the uncomfortable stammering of spokespersons on the left when they are pressed for explanations on the muted or sideways response of some RLMs to religiously-based terrorism, especially when reminded of the existence of clear and unambiguous religious textual justifications for such acts. These pundits can be heard loudly decrying extremists yet clearly lack the means for substantive criticism. They have disarmed themselves by failing to either see or acknowledge any link between extremists and moderates, either due to lack of insight or fear of giving offense. They may very well suspect, or subconsciously realize, that a true and significant critique of the extremist position will in all probability be just as legitimate when employed against a moderate stance. Something similar can be intimated with regard to pundits on the right who are blind to the obvious parallels between their ideologies (which are, predictably, based in religious dogma) and those of, for example, the foul extremists of the middle east.
In any case, the left's efforts to exhort points of cross-traditional solidarity are just as likely to be counterproductive. The eagerness with which RLMs of one religion tend to seek out and uphold RLMs of other faith traditions may serve to further distance the non-RLM members of those other traditions more so than it may induce positive feedback in moderates. Members of a particular sect or faith (and in fact virtually any social group) tend to see that membership as extending properties of both exclusion and inclusion – the group's members see outsiders as excluded from participation in their deliberations, and themselves as bound to one another by inclusion in the group and its activities. Members in disagreement with each other over an internal matter typically neither desire nor tolerate unsolicited opinions from non-members, especially when such opinions favor one member over another; moreover, the faction with which the outsider is in disagreement often feels a lasting resentment at the intrusion. This attribution of exclusive/inclusive membership is something that all religions, as socially cohesive units, share and indeed nurture.
Siblings in this family of faiths share many other important features. If one spends any time pressing a convicted religious adherent on the ground of his or her beliefs, one will notice that there is never any evidence offered that is not anecdotal or purely subjective: personal revelations, visionary or auditory experiences, intense feelings of being loved or watched over protectively, a strong conviction that circumstances have conspired towards one's favor or fortune, a sense of someone listening (and responding) when one adopts a prayerful attitude, powerful impressions of awe and wonder, perceptions of a nonphysical yet intimate relationship with a divine being. Evidence of this sort can be neither validated nor reproduced, and so cannot really count as evidence in any strict sense. There is no doubt that these kinds of transcendent experiences can establish a powerful grip on one's mind, but this does not speak to the truth or falsity of any particular interpretation of them, and still leaves in question all derivative claims. Similarly, the validity of any evidence offered to such persons counter to their experience or belief is typically either denied or ignored: recent discoveries in neuroscience and brain chemistry, the ability to induce identical states of feelings and perceptions using hallucinogenic substances or targeted electrical stimulation, emergence of complex systems from simpler ones by the process of evolution, deterministic causality in physical systems. Ignoring or denying evidence does not by itself indicate truth or falsity; however, such averments do not follow logical premises or accepted methodology for evidential refutation. This implies that the kind of thinking religious traditions engender results in individuals who are either unable to understand empirical and logical proofs or who reflexively shy away from exposure to them. Many religious traditions overtly state their contempt for reason and rationality, promoting instead as virtue a noxious smog of incoherence1. Those rare few that do in fact claim some basis in reason apply it to a very limited subset of their systems.
This may be due in no small part to another common and salient characteristic: the appeal to emotive responses. This plainly accounts for a heavy preponderance of the allurement of religion while a far lesser (insignificant?) portion is based in reason. Affective experiences are by definition intensely personal; however, when one observes another experiencing the same emotive reaction given a common stimulus, one may feel close to that other in way that is impossible to duplicate with any other type of shared experience. If I observe my future wife shedding tears during a movie by which I am also profoundly moved, this affords me a connection to her that is far more compelling and resilient than, say, my lab partner and I together discovering the solution to a vexing physics problem. Such affective stimuli can thus become deeply embedded as resonance-points for shared emotional responses. These types of interpersonal, affective bonds can endure for great lengths of time, often for life, because they exist on such a firmly-ingrained level of the self. Religious traditions have 'learned' (evolved?) strategies on the exploitation of both the depth and durability of these experiences. One of these techniques involves the special care taken to utilize them from the youngest age possible – most often this occurs well before the full development of reasoning faculties, when the individual is at the utmost vulnerability to such manipulation. Use here of the word manipulation is deliberate; the opposite of this would be persuasion which is indicative of a case based at least partially in reason, or that at a minimum contains a fair opportunity for the individual in question to offer refutation or to reflect on what is presented. There is, however, no successful religion whatsoever that attempts to compete using only the persuasive power of its ideas on the basis of reason. Such a religion would suffer rapid diminution given the lopsided advantage of emotional indoctrination used by rivals; competing religions have survived because they utilize similarly powerful means of attracting and retaining adherents, and as can be seen, the most coercive means is through an appeal to affective as opposed to cognitive experience, even more so when applied during a period of minimal or immature cognitive ability.

Go to Part 2

1With apologies to Dan Dennett and his notion of the “pious fog”

A Critique on the Values and Effects of the Family of Religions - Part 2

In Part 1 I proposed the basic idea that the world's religions possess similar traits and that we should closely examine their behavior and its effects.  In Part 2, I continue shining a spotlight on those aspects of religious institutions and traditions that we should find troubling, and also continue to make the case that they can indeed be thought of as a "family."  The third installment will wrap all of this together.
Part 2
Because the primary binding agent of religious traditions is based on affective and not cognitive experience, there is little to be discovered in common by way of moral foundation between those of us who subscribe to religion and those of us that reject it; we in the latter group find a more appropriate, concrete, and truly universal authority in reason and shared humanity. I have argued elsewhere1 that the religious are unable to ground moral precepts in a conceptual framework that is coherent to, and apprehensible by, persons that are not members of the particular religion in question. One has to “drink the Kool-Aid” in order to buy-into the moral framework that they propose. Most religious traditions express pride in the fact that one cannot fully understand their system except by subscribing and adhering fully to their beliefs2, which makes the ground of their precepts not apprehensible to outsiders by definition. While it is almost certainly true that a key element underlying morality is our empathy with one another, this emphatically does not imply that every (or any) system that attracts and retains followers primarily by using the leverage of emotion provides an acceptable means for proscribing moral behavior, and this is especially true of a system that specifically exploits emotive bonds at the expense of reason.
One particularly offensive feature which overtly targets the emotional side of the human mind is the perversion of one's feelings of self-worth. Constant comparison of oneself with a being whose every attribute is perfection tends to give one the absolute lowest possible sense of self esteem, which is mitigated only by the counterbalancing proposition that this being of unassailable perfection loves and cares for oneself. This type of emotional tug-of-war is cognate to indicators of, among other psychological problems, Borderline Personality Disorder; people with BPD engage others in a roller-coaster-ride of emotions, first drawing intimately close, then suddenly throwing up a cold, impenetrable, emotional brick wall. The effect on those who interact with such persons can be devastating; individuals under this spell often exhibit self-destructive codependent behavior, like a ship repeatedly dashing itself against the rocks in a futile attempt to reach the shore. It is without doubt a severe form of mental abuse, and on reflection it is disturbing how eerily similar it is to the way in which religious traditions foster an uneasy balance between the deity's revulsion to what are put forth as our baser natures and its attraction to our nobler attributes. Many military systems have used a push-pull methodology not unlike this, wherein recruits are “torn-down” before they are “built-up” again. The religious 'tear-down' consists largely of a humiliating dredging and exposure of one's 'ungodly' properties, where humiliation is the key operative descriptor. Note that the utilization of shaming makes masterful use of the persistent association between a concept or act and an emotive response. The guilt thus imparted is deep and long lasting, and is made especially so by the insistence that the causes for said guilt are an indelible stain3 – we are warned that we can in no way remove or ameliorate the causes of our guilt. The end result of such conditioning, should it fully succeed, is an individual with a sense of self-worth that is inseparable from the need to please the deity or conform to its perceived wishes; this individual is made to believe that he or she is fundamentally flawed and inherently unable to self-correct. The extreme dualism on display here is obvious: so very many facets of the individual's nature are repulsive to the deity, yet the deity loves the individual; the individual is unworthy in every respect to even ask for assistance, yet is absolutely dependent on the deity. One is reminded of the cruelty in many domestic cases, where the wife is kept dependent on (and in fact by) a domineering husband who spontaneously jumps from bouts of severe mental and physical abuse, to professions of love, mercy, regret, and kindness.
The social pressure to conform with the practices and rituals of a larger group is akin to shaming; it plays on deep emotional fears of rejection and our innate aversion to embarrassment. Few among us do not feel trepidation at standing against a crowd, especially when the crowd appears so obviously motivated by a sincere belief. A friend of mine once recounted the overpowering anxiety he felt, when he was younger and a member of a small country church in the North Carolina mountains, to even contemplate not joining the throng of worshipers as they hastened to the front of the church when the preacher made the alter-call. It is extremely difficult for an adult to resist such an urge to conform; for a child it is nigh impossible. One can tangibly feel the peevish, sideways looks of disapproval, and one also knows that one's guilt for refusing to participate would not be allowed to assuage itself. It is interesting to note that in so many cases we issue stern warnings to children and young adults about the dangers of succumbing to peer pressure, while this same technique is such an indispensable tool in the production-lines churning out religious followers. Clearly the development of human social order and social grouping depends to some extent on this class of cultural pressure, but it certainly does not follow that we should hesitate to raise awareness of its deliberate use in such cases where that use may take unfair advantage of reflexive emotional postures. We should strive to eschew emotional subterfuge for the same reason we naturally reject propaganda and false advertising.
The insistence that one is unable to sufficiently improve oneself solely through one's own will and actions is ubiquitous and also has very some troubling consequences. There is, according to the major religious traditions, only a single action that can serve to make one worthy, and it consists of some form of submission. Submitting one's will to that of a deity is posited as the sole means of dealing with the so-called indecent facets of one's nature. At its core such a posture of submission is manifestly an abdication of responsibility for one's actions, but this abdication is cleverly hidden beneath the weighty assignment of additional, gratuitous blame for acts in which the individual took no part, or for aspects of the individual's self over which neither control nor choice is possible. This faux blame is then magically and magnanimously removed by the deity, but, of course, only upon the individual's acceptance of the submissive posture. The Christian traditions make this very explicit and take it one giant step further by teaching that one's culpability for all so-called sins, not just the ones over which we have no control, is taken away in this fashion; this is clearly nothing more than the Bronze Age practice of scapegoating, but in the Christians' case we must remember that it is based upon a single human sacrifice. A few moments of sober reflection makes it plain to see that religions which practice in this way are built upon layered deceptions: fabricated incriminations; nonexistent or blameless personal shortcomings; claims of one's inability to initiate and carry out self-corrective actions, even for defects over which one has some measure of control; transference of responsibility for one's actions; the list could go on. I wonder at these needless rotations of blame and guilt: persons are held-to-task for things utterly beyond their control (here I am thinking of “original sin” and the like), yet responsibility for the things for which they can and should be accountable is transferred to another who, apparently, in turn has no control over the actions for which he is being held responsible. It is nothing but a meaningless circle of innocence and guilt, a vapid game of hide-and-seek with our ethical and moral sensibilities. Clarity is difficult if not impossible to achieve under the auspices of such a deranged scheme.
As concerning as the arrangement and priorities of a religiously-oriented mind may be, the ever-present desire for everyone to buy into the same mindset is also cause for consternation. Proselytization and evangelism are defining features of all religions. It is never enough that they indoctrinate their own children but they must strive to inculcate the rest of us as well; enormous amounts of energy are put forth in this regard. Nonbelievers and those who subscribe to a “different” or minority faith have always suffered persecutions, often of the most vicious sort, at the hands of the dominant religion; see, for example, the many forms of oppression visited upon the Jews, witch-hunts, religious violence in Rwanda, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the division of Sudan into two countries, and the punishment of apostasy by death even in modern states. Any look at systems of government though history and across the world today shows that religions everywhere have long enjoyed a status that affords them special protections from sharp criticism and indeed from any but the most cursory examination; consequently, most have never undergone thorough and transparent investigations into their practices except when they commit the most egregious offenses (and such investigations are all of quite recent occurrence). They therefore have been free to spread their influence in nearly any way they desire to the most vulnerable among us without any fear of backlash or even opposition, as the legal and social systems have been bent in their favor.
In the United States it is common to see news stories covering the histrionic outrages of the faithful in response to even the slightest attempt to limit religious displays on public property, preachments by public officials (such as school teachers), or prayers as part of public meetings – such attempts are invariably decried as baseless attacks on religious freedom when in most cases they are just meant to maintain the balance enshrined in the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Consider for a moment what the United States would truly be like if the religious won every case they pressed: our public schools would hold prayer sessions (these would most likely be christian) and those who failed to participate would undoubtedly be ostracized, our children would be taught pseudo-science, the ten commandments (a third of which are overtly religious edicts) would be enshrined in every courtroom, citizens who are LGBT would hold status little better than slaves in the early 1800's – who knows where the craziness would end? Many other countries have enshrined much more repressive means at their disposal including social isolation, physical imprisonment, and capital punishment4. One is puzzled by society's continued high tolerance to such efforts. I am reminded of a science fiction story in which one of its characters had the ability to make himself invisible to others; he accomplished this using a psychic ability to inhibit that on which people in the immediate vicinity were able to direct and focus their eyes – when he wished to remain incognito his ability would simply ensure that no one was able to notice him: he would hide in plain sight! Religious institutions exploit a similar mechanism, which is the fact that we have been socially programmed to 'avert our eyes' whenever we are tempted by the desire to put a religion or a religious institution under the microscope of reason – we look away without even realizing that we are missing something. This aversion to close examination of anything religious is a nearly universal social phenomenon of which all religious systems take distinct advantage.
The three major middle-eastern/western religions are categorized as the Abrahamic faiths since they all trace their origins to the mythical figure of Abraham – the Jewish religion is the first derivative, followed by Christianity, then Islam. Modern Jewish observance, although it hearkens to traditions that are indeed very old, is also very unlike what is detailed in many parts of the Pentateuch. It is very clear that the Christians have obtained large swaths of their belief system from the Jews, and no one can deny that Islam shares much in common with the Old Testament5. Islamic writings contain more than ninety passages regarding the figure of Jesus. Even ancient Judaism shows evidence of origins in the polytheistic traditions that came before. In this they all possess the common trait of having borrowed from previously-existing religious traditions. The idea of a prophet being born of a virgin or in some other very miraculous way is as old as religion itself; so is the story of a special messenger being lifted up to the realm of god in a fantastical manner. Most christian holidays are celebrated on days that so-called pagan religions had long held rituals (e.g. Christmas on the winter solstice and Easter on the vernal equinox). There are a number of instances within Islamic writings containing strong reminders of Mohammed's pagan roots (belief in Jinn, for example). It is clearly advantageous to maintain some sort of continuity or familiarity when attempting to root a new religion which may explain this phenomenon to a large extent, but subsuming the cultural rhythms of the faith being supplanted is also, I suspect, a surreptitious way to help dim the memory of that prior religion, whether or not intended as such.

Go to Part 3
1“Towards an Understanding of Moral Underpinnings,” Essays In The Philosophy of Humanism, vol. 21, No. 2
2Besides reinforcing an air of exclusivity, this is a defensive action serving to deflect the possibility of criticism from without as well as within.
3It is interesting to wonder, if our ignoble natures are indeed permanently “tattooed” onto our souls, who is the tattoo artist?
4Note that every single government that utilizes these practices uses them to foist an otherwise unpalatable ideology of some sort on the people under their power. Some of these ideologies are or have been religious and some have not.

5It has been shown that portions of the Koran are either direct plagiarisms or thin paraphrases of the Old Testament – for example, the story of Yunus in Chapter 37.

A Critique on the Values and Effects of the Family of Religions - Part 3

Part 3 is where I put forth what I see as the obvious conclusions developed in Parts 1 and 2.

 It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that the major religions are thoroughly entwined with each other. We cannot uproot the value system of one without causing irreparable damage to the bases of the others; all find fertile soil in the same kinds of minds, seeking and exploiting similar measures of receptivity.
And what are we to make of the exposition of their values? Love of truth immediately comes to mind as it is incessantly espoused as a religious value of utmost primacy, but such truths are simply declared using certainty by fiat with a dismissive air towards anyone desirous of independent verification or even discursive explanation. This type of self-assured and absolute claim is in fact the most fatal form of relativism – under such a scheme there is no mode whereby one can acknowledge the possibility of validity for any other position (thus, discussion and debate are nonexistent); all external perspectives are kept forever out of reach. It is a relativist outlook that is arrogantly dismissive of its own relativism.
The notion of free will is central to the value system of religions, for in its absence every decision, action, reward, and punishment is clearly void; yet, we have seen that religious systems thwart the very will of reason by circumnavigating rational thought and appealing directly to baser affective experiences. If we understand that our emotions are personal reactions as opposed to considered decisions this point stands out with alarming clarity. Too, those faiths that are rigid in their doctrine of god's omnipotence (such as Islam) contradict themselves in regard to free will without even realizing it, since the idea of an omnipotent deity belies the existence of a will to begin with. The deeper meaning behind the constant refrain of “God willing” (and all of its varied cognates) reduces us to puppets dancing on strings unperceived; such utterances are completely antithetical to the idea of a deity having mercy or kindness. We can imagine that laboratory mice we put in a maze, some of whom we observe finding the cheese and others of whom we observe dying of starvation in a fruitless search, might exhort the following during their struggles: I will surely find the cheese, Scientist willing. Such a statement reduces individuals to objects, strips their connections with one another of meaning or content, and relegates any relationship with the deity to that of simple material possession.
The value of self-worth takes on an obviously distorted meaning in religious thought. Self-worth, and in many cases even the sense of self, is tied to something that is always, given a sufficiently long conversation, reduced to ineffability, which makes such concepts themselves ineffable. To remove such fundamental attributes of humanity from the realm of understanding is to diminish humanity itself. The assertion that (according to all major religions) self-improvement is meaningless without the assistance or approval of a god serves to further erode human dignity.
Every successful faith puts significant effort into profiting by and expanding upon existing social conventions that are beneficial (wherever possible), and into coercing unfriendlier systems to its favor or eliminating them. Rather than shaping or improving social systems to enhance humanity's overall well-being and disposition, religious institutions apply these enormous pressures upon the fabric of society merely to ensure the longevity and growth of the institutions themselves. As such, altruism is notably absent from the repertoire of these organizations; it has been totally displaced by institutional solipsism.
This collection of values and shared attributes, along with the various forms in which they are expressed, does not paint a flattering picture of what many consider to be our finest and most respectable institutions. This is not surprising as religious systems are so made that they exercise (at best) minimal self-reflection, an indispensable tool for moral progress. It is apparent that the values which religious institutions seem to demand of their followers are ignored by the institutions themselves.
Now let us turn to the secondary consideration regarding whether Religious Liberals and Moderates (RLMs) are substantially different from their extremist brethren. To advance a negation of this commonly-held supposition it may suffice merely to consider the same topics just visited, since RLMs differ little or not at all with regard to the preceding arguments. There is no evidence offered by RLMs that is not of the same variety as that offered by extremists, which is neither falsifiable nor reproducible. The appeal to the emotional, non-rational side of personality is utilized as much by RLMs as by the extremists, although it may be true that RLMs tend to emphasize attractive, positive emotional connections over those that provoke shame and guilt. If there is any real danger of cultural or moral relativism, it follows as well from the half-hearted efforts of the RLMs who apparently wish to avoid offending anyone and so contribute nothing substantively new or novel to the discussion on what ought to comprise a common moral framework. RLMs fail to disavow themselves of the notion that humans are hopelessly and fundamentally flawed with no capacity for self-correction, and most of those of whom I am aware also subscribe to the doctrine of redemption only through submission. Finally, since they remain attached to the same faiths from whence are spawned extremists they too inherit from earlier religions and have descendant (or otherwise closely-related) textual bases. They are in all of these respects indistinguishable from the extremists.
When we meet with RLMs, however, we find them amicable and accommodating; they seem genuinely willing to listen to and interested in the other side's arguments. They appear non-confrontational and non-judgmental. How could one believe for a second that they are in any way close to the loathsome extremists when they come across as the exact opposite?
A more revealing test of similarity would be to observe conversations between RLMs and extremists of the same faith surrounding a disagreement among themselves. Whenever this happens two things become plain: 1) the RLM side has no standing to offer legitimate or even convincing criticism to the extremists, because 2) it relies on the exact same modes of argumentation based on subjective evidence, appeals to emotion, countering of one scriptural quote with another scriptural quote, etc. RLMs cannot step outside of the universe of religious discourse in which they coexist with the extremists, but can only argue from inside it, and, of course, all of the arguments offered from within that system are dependent upon it. This circularity precludes any concrete ability to induce their antagonists to change.
If positive headway is ever made in such an exchange, it is because one antagonist frees herself from the limitations of a self-dependent position, and is thereby able to make a point capable of broaching the closed loop. In this case she is in fact arguing from a rational perspective. The extent to which an RLM relies upon religious thought and dogma in a dispute with an extremist is inversely proportional to that RLM's ability to form a cogent counter-point or persuade that extremist.
It seems as if RLMs and extremists, then, differ not in kind, rather merely by degree. The true gap between them is slight or nonexistent, and is more a matter of perception than substance. That RLMs are more palatable and polite adversaries is, sadly, no indication of a greater 'reasonableness' in their position versus that of the extremists'. They can offer no meaningful assistance in countering ridiculous claims made by extremists or in undercutting an extremist position. Every defense they offer for their own position similarly defends the extremist position; they can make no point for which the extremist cannot frame an effective counterpoint. We appreciate their solidarity with us but they lend scant material support.
It is true that in each of the major religions there exist RLM-leaning sects that have moved much of the focus away from one's inherent unworthiness (and thus absolute dependence on deity's mercy) and towards the positive aspects of humanity: forgiveness, kindness, and the like. I have attended a number of such churches myself, however, and have always found that there remains an omnipresent flirtation with the darker aspects of religious conditioning discussed above; I have also made the unpleasant discovery that these aspects sometimes surface in an alarming fashion during unscripted or informal discussions and testimonials. I believe that for them the power of such mechanisms is too critical to abandon altogether, because in their complete absence what these churches would preach is nearly indistinguishable from humanism; retention of these aspects gives them the only tangible connection they have to the status (whether interpreted as pejorative or complimentary) of a religion.

I hope it is plain to see at this point that a significant portion of the distinct features and values possessed and invoked by those entities understood to be religions are either counter to their own professed aims, an outright affront to genuine social progress, or quite simply odious. While we all know that we can glean some kernel of wisdom even from the bad example of a villain in a poorly written novel, we do not seek advice from such characters nor do we look for direct moral clarity in their actions or utterances. The case is the same whether with historic, traditional, modern or even moderate members of the family of religions, who provide an abundance of opportunities for illuminating ill-informed behaviors. Why, then, do we accede so much of our moral authority to such patently bad actors? Aren't we shirking the obligation we have to ourselves and our children that impels us to leave the world a better place than we found it? In what way does allowing these types of institutions carte blanche in our society foster human compassion?  

Memes, Avoidance, and Moral Progress

I think nearly any open atheist who doesn't live in a society of like-minded folks has dealt with awkward silences, and maybe even more so with the painfully obvious omissions in conversations that are like the proverbial elephant in the room.  It's not uncommon for my nonatheist friends and family to take measures by way of avoiding direct conversations about atheism in general and my atheism in particular.  Some even evince distress if they sense that a conversation might head in that direction; this happens, of course, on a scale much wider than my personal experience indicates.  I'm not so self-centered or narrow-minded that I think every conversation should turn on my convictions about the detriments of faith, and I hope most in my circle know that, but I am interested in exploring what seems to me to be a defensive posture that manifests itself chiefly through self-preservation by avoidance.  It is indisputable that people of differing religious beliefs almost never discuss the discrepancies between those beliefs with an eye towards establishing the truth or falsity of either.  In fact, it is normally considered rude for one to attempt initiating such a discussion; is is as if people feel there is something inherently wrong with questioning a particular class of one's beliefs.  The result of this pervasive attitude is that discussions about religious beliefs are limited to either "preaching to the choir" or to those whose agreement is highly probable.  Has anyone reading this ever experienced a preacher having to defend his sermon from an outspoken critic?

This posture strikes me as a little backwards and yet also oddly sensible for reasons that I'd like to explore by considering the topic of evangelism.

Backed up by ideas laid out in her 1999 book, The Meme Machine, Dr. Susan Blackmore has explored the conceptualization of religions and religious traditions as memeplexes, or systems of memes that function together as a social system in much the same way that genes work together in a biological system.  The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, back in 1976, and refers to a unit of cultural transmission, directly analogous to a gene in a physical system.  The memes that comprise a religion would be things like a congregational prayer recited at every service, or the way that southerners gather outside a church after service to visit with each other, or communion in a Catholic mass.  Religious memes clearly reproduce by evangelism or proselytization, and this means of reproduction can be separated into two functional areas:  in-family and out-of-family. 

In-family is the most common and probably the most reliable - the best predictor of a person's religious preference, if they have one, is that of his or her parents.  In literally thousands of subtle ways the memes of the parents are encouraged to regenerate themselves in the children, including those memes associated with a religious tradition.  It is very rare for people to go across cultural boundaries to a completely foreign religion; it might be even rarer than people discarding religious trappings altogether.  The culture reinforces memes; I guess some would argue that culture itself is comprised of memes.  Parents often reinforce memetic reproduction in their children without even realizing what they are doing, although one would have to be blind to claim that parents neither desire nor intend for their children to assume the lion's share of their own memetic composition.  There are certainly any number of things that I know I have overtly tried to pass on to my kids, and most parents who are in any way serious about their religion take what are often extraordinary measures to ensure that their children adhere to that same religion.

Going beyond parent-child relationships, peer pressure becomes more important: brother-sister, aunt-niece, husband-wife, and all other combinations serve as pressure-points and reinforcements for memes to ensure their survival and reproduction.  Since families are social and cultural structures they are part of the memetic landscape.  Such reinforcement mechanisms are never more applicable than in the context of a particular religious faith.

Peer pressure is also the key element outside of the family.  Out-of-family incidences whereby memes ensure their reproduction would include situations like religious services themselves, where memes are repeated over and over very regularly, or books and magazines espousing a religious faith - some of the most disturbing (yet ridiculous) are those nasty little 4" booklets disguised as comics that one finds throughout the southern United States (I've picked them up in restaurants and even a Radio Shack store).  Other sources include WatchTower and Awake! magazines published by the Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholic Digest, B'nai B'rith magazine, Hindusim Today magazine, and a nearly infinite selection of websites.  There are also legal strictures, such as the institution of Sharia in Saudi Arabia, or the barrage of challenges in the U.S. against the separation of church and state.  National religious holidays such as Christmas in the U.S. and many western countries, or Yom Kippur and Hanukkah in Israel, or the Jain holiday of Mahavir Jayanti in India also reinforce memetic reproduction.  Television shows such as The 700 Club here in the U.S. or the variety of Sunday morning church service telecasts serve this role as well.  The Call-To-Prayer in Muslim countries is powerfully inescapable. 

So, evangelism and proselytization can be seen as forms of reproduction, extending the memeplex of religion beyond its current boundaries and ensuring the survival of its constituent memes.  What strikes me as backwards about this posture of self-preservation by avoidance is that it seems to hinge on the minimal awareness of the meme-carrier as to what is actually transpiring.  Vectors avoid directly defending or even deeply comprehending what they are carrying, while a critical and necessary feature of that system is evangelism itself, which naturally entails providing some rationale for others to convert.  Vehicles for the memeplex are in the strange situation of promoting something that they are in so many ways pressured to avoid understanding.  This contrasts with any number of real-life situations:  when we think of preserving or extending, for example, the life of our car's engine, we don't avoid knowing anything about how to accomplish that.  We read the owner's manual in order to understand how often the oil needs to be changed.  If the engine runs poorly then we seek help to deepen our perception of the system.  If I want my 401K retirement fund to grow (or at least be preserved), I take a look at the prospectus the fund manager sends me and adjust my investments accordingly - it would be foolhardy of me to just sit around and remain ignorant of any effect I might have on its performance.  If my health seems to be deteriorating, my best bet is to go and see a doctor to help me understand and stop or reverse the decline. 

Many atheists in a confrontational mood will point out that a thorough reading of the holy texts is what motivated their atheism; the discussion above might explain why this remark offends the sensibilities of the religious so deeply, since those rejecting their memeplex claim to understand it to a greater degree than those who are part of it.  It also illuminates why the machinery and progress of science, as humankind's most reliable and successful means for uncovering fact and truth, are so antithetical to religious systems.

If we think about how our own genes work, though, we realize that we operate with little to no concern for the individual genes themselves, but instead with concern for the entirety of the being that carries and reproduces them; this seems to be the emergent "master-plan" of our genes.   Memetically speaking, then, the entirety of the religious body is operating without overt regard to any of its constituent memes.  This could explain the technique of avoidance - it is similar to the flight response in an animal that is experiencing a threat for which it has no countermeasure, where that response has been reinforced through the evolutionary refinement of the genes that tend to promote such behavior.  It would seem in fact that the memeplex of religion has, as part of its own master-plan, developed the emergent property of selective non-engagement.  I would venture a little further than this and say that the emergent property is more accurately termed as avoidance of critical self evaluation - that is, the body itself (religion) avoids any critical examination or reflection of itself.  In the health example above, I deliberately avoided saying that I would go to a doctor, for we all know of cases (perhaps involving ourselves) where an adverse health effect is ignored or denied, sometimes until it is too late to halt its effects.  One suspects this is due to fear of learning the truth about what may turn out to be a life-altering or life-ending condition; some folks do this with their cars as well (if I ignore that odd rattling sound coming from under the hood, perhaps it will just go away...).

The reticence of nonatheists to engage opponents head on is still intellectually troubling, though, for if an essential condition underlying the survival of a religion is its ability to procreate, then it seems as if direct action and a spirited defense would be among the first orders of business.  Although I have participated in a number of discussions with those of opposing mind, and have also read and watched many other exchanges, I have yet to see direct engagement on any particular element upon which the religion seems to turn.  The discussions invariably slide into tangential matters and avoid the deep questions, such as those regarding the precise nature of god, or the obvious factual and logical contradictions in every holy text, or the very nature of truth and what is knowable.  Instead we hear long digressions about all the charitable good that religious institutions do or about how they offer people solace and comfort in times of trouble.  Whether a religion is useful or good has no bearing on the truth of any of its claims, but this is the misdirection that is most often attempted in lieu of an actual rebuttal.  This seems to be the case whether it is a casual conversation with an acquaintance or a friend, or whether it is a more formally structured debate.  I have become convinced that this avoidance is not intentional at the level of the individual, and probably not even at the level of the institution; I think that instead of intention we can infer the emergence of a behavior that has resulted in the highest likelihood of the memeplex's survival through the unintentional and largely unknown process of cultural evolution.

This doesn't mean that we should accept any position of non-defense; quite the contrary: just as the intentional advancements of medical science and the conscious improvements in our sense of ethical responsibility to one another have interrupted the blind processes of evolution, so too should the development of our intellectual faculties and increasing understanding of the causal mechanisms underlying our behavior interrupt and give new guidance to shaping our cultural and social institutions.  All of these things taken together are what inform true moral progress; if we instead accede our social and cultural development simply to the self-serving machinations of memes and memeplexes then we are just shuffling along a path beyond our understanding and outside our scope of influence.

And that's not progress - just mere survival.