Posts Tagged ‘religion’

If we choose to create a life — a life that is capable of both joy and suffering — then it is our obligation as parents to help our offspring have happy, fulfilling lives.  Our children do not owe us.  They did not choose to be brought into the world.

Not surprisingly, when a parent makes a child feel unworthy of love, society thinks poorly of that parent.  One example of this is perfectionist parents, who pressure their kids and set unreachable standards.  The general consensus is that children who feel undeserving of love need therapy to learn to love and accept themselves.

I have noticed that many people who believe in God feel unworthy of the love that they believe God has for them.   Religious folks often say things such as “what did I do to deserve God’s love?”

So, is God like a perfectionist parent to them? Is God raising or lowering their self esteem?

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Silly naive children

If Rex, the family dog, dies, parents might tell their children “I know it’s sad, but Rex is in doggy heaven right now.”  This is a comforting lie, and parents know that children are naive enough to believe it.

Sticking with the pet theme, if parents’ decide to have the dog put to sleep, they might tell their kids that they took the dog to a farm where it can run around freely all day.

We all recognize that ‘put to sleep’ is a euphemism for death.  As adults,  we also know that ‘doggy heaven’ and ‘took the dog to a farm’ are also euphemisms for ‘Rex is in a permanent state of non-existence.’ Yet, we present the latter two euphemisms to children as if they are actual real things, just like we do with Santa Claus.

I picture parents talking to each other after the kids are in bed:  “Can you believe they fell for that?  I’m glad children are so trusting.”  Those silly naive children will believe anything!

Yet, even though we are aware that we tell children comforting lies, we do not seem to recognize that we might have been told the same type of comforting lies about life and death.  For example, religious folks might tell us that people do not really die, they just move on into a new state.  They go to people heaven!  Picture your local pastor as the parents telling kids about doggy heaven or the farm.

Mass delusion

Folie à deux refers to a psychiatric condition where two people share a delusional belief.  If the belief sounds crazy enough to the majority of people, then we recognize them as suffering from a psychiatric disorder.  Mass delusion seems more difficult to recognize.

Consider the following groups:

1. Heaven’s Gate group: believed that a space craft was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp and needed to commit suicide so that their souls could board the craft.

2. 9/11 conspiracy theorists:  believe that 9/11 was an inside job

3. Cult of Scientology: a financial pyramid scheme posing as a religion

4. Any popular religion

What are the differences between these groups?  Each of these groups believe/believed some things that we cannot test, and other things that we have tested and disproved.  Members of each group have their beliefs reinforced by other members of the group.   Why are some groups higher status than others?  I’ll take a stab at it, in order:

1.  We don’t like groups that advocate suicide.  Even people who believe we have a spirit that lives on cannot shake the strong desire to survive as a human (few phenotypes are more strongly correlated with genetic fitness than the desire to survive)

2. 9/11 happened recently. It’s pretty easy to make a strong evidence-based case that the Pentagon wasn’t hit by a missile or that the WTC wasn’t brought down by explosives.

3.  Religions invented in the last century suffer from a lack of social tradition inheritance and mystery.

4.  Most old, popular religions tell us things that we want to hear (we will live on, and there will be less suffering in the next world) and were created before the invention of image and voice recorders.  It’s easier to imagine huge miracles in times before there were cameras.

Smile for the camera

In general I think we have strong desire to delude ourselves into thinking the world is a better place than it actually is.


This does not seem like a bad strategy — I’m happier if I think the world is better place than it actually is.  Nevertheless, it’s interesting the line between perceptions about delusion and sanity, and how it relates to popularity and our needs.

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I think it is important to expose kids to a lot of different ideas.  If you are Christian, you shouldn’t prevent your kids from hearing about other religions.  Similarly, as an atheist, I want my kids to be exposed to many different beliefs, with as little prejudice as possible. I don’t presume to be right.  I want them to make up their own mind.

There is another reason to expose your kids to different religious ideas.  Teenage volunerability:

4. To avoid the “teen epiphany.” Here’s the big one. Struggles with identity, confidence, and countless other issues are a given part of the teen years. Sometimes these struggles generate a genuine personal crisis, at which point religious peers often pose a single question: “Don’t you know about Jesus?” If your child says, “No,” the peer will come back incredulously with, “YOU don’t know JESUS? Omigosh, Jesus is The Answer!” Boom, we have an emotional hijacking. And such hijackings don’t end up in moderate Methodism. This is the moment when nonreligious teens fly all the way across the spectrum to evangelical fundamentalism.

A little knowledge about religion allows the teen to say, “Yeah, I know about Jesus”—and to know that reliable answers to personal problems are better found elsewhere.

Christian ‘youth groups’ are a scary thing.  They attempt to get to kids when they are most vulnerable.  While I want my kids to be exposed to different ideas, I don’t want that first exposure to come from some cult trying to recruit them.

There is still the question of how much exposure we should give to ideas that we don’t agree with.  Robin Hanson asks

So is the principle here that parents should go beyond their simple judgment when choosing to what to expose our kids?  For example, should we let polygamists argue for their way of life directly to our kids?  Should we let pedophiles argue their case directly to our kids?  Or is the principle here that we know we are right and those other parents are wrong, obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?

We should distinguish here between exposing children to facts about what some people believe and to exposing them to people who are going to try to persuade them.  I want my kids to know what different groups believe and why they believe it.  I don’t necessarily want them to hear the sales pitch directly, though.  At least, not until they have developed their skills as judges of evidence.

I want my children to be well trained as rational thinkers.  I imagine exercises where they have to find the flaw in an argument. Or maybe we could play the Paranoid Debating game.   I’d like them to know about many of the different biases that we are all susceptible to.

I want my children to always be open to the possibility that they are wrong.  No matter what you believe, there are people out there who: (a) are  smarter and more experienced than you; (b) have a belief that contradicts your own; and (c) are just as confident that they are right as you are.  If you keep that in mind, you’ll be more open to different ideas.  It also helps if you think of belief as probability that can be updated, not as a binary fixed state.

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During a recent friendly discussion about religion, someone pointed out that “believing is seeing.”  In other words, I probably will not see evidence of God until I first believe in him.  Once I believe in him, I will begin to see the evidence.  Apparently. 

Well, I agree that believing is seeing.  As Errol Morris put it

 If we want to believe something, then we often find a way to do so regardless of evidence to the contrary. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.

Yes, if you believe in something you will see evidence for it.  However, I do not consider that to be a good trait.  That is what happens with placebos.  We believe they are helping us, and it affects our psyche.  Placebos can improve our subjective well being.  A placebo will probably not, however, decrease an HIV patient’s viral load.  Similarly, belief in God does not increase the actual evidence in favor of God; it just affects our cognitive evidence selection mechanism.

An example

Let us consider a simple example involving superstition.  I have heard people say that “bad things come in threes.”  Some people are more specific, and believe that “deaths come in threes.”  I will focus on the latter phrase.  What does the phrase mean?  I believe they are saying that if someone close to you dies, then two other people close to you will die in the near future.  Deaths happen in groups of three.

If we were to graph the deaths of people close to us on a time line, it would look something like this (if the saying was true):


Here, D represents the death of a person who was close to you.  You will notice that the deaths are grouped in 3’s. 

Now, keep in mind that the death of someone who is close to you is also the death of someone who is close to a lot of other people.  It then becomes a very difficult math problem.  How could God makes sure that deaths occur in 3’s for everybody? You could pretty much rule out the factual basis of the claim on this argument alone.  Nevertheless, let’s proceed with the example.

In reality, the time line graph would look different.  A real time line of deaths of people close to you might look like this:


Here, the black D’s represent the deaths of people who were very close to you (e.g., a parent, best friend, etc.).  The brown D’s represent the deaths of people who were not as close to you (e.g., a cousin, a friend from years ago that you did not see too often).  You will notice that the deaths do not appear to occur in groups of 3.  However, believing is seeing!

Convienent thresholds

If you believe that deaths come in threes, you will see it.  You will become a victim of confirmation bias, due to an inconsistent application of thresholds.  Which deaths ‘count’ in the group of 3?  How much time has to pass between deaths before a new death is not counted as part of the group?  Threshold flexibility makes it easy to confirm your beliefs.  Behold!


An ‘X’ through a D means that we are ignoring that death.  We ignore some of the brown D’s on the grounds that the person wasn’t close enough to us to ‘count.’  We accept brown D’s in the set when convenient.  Also, notice the varying time window.  We are pretty generous with the time window in the third set. 

In some cases we might even ignore a black D if it clearly does not fit with the other groups.  We will just forget about that disconfirming evidence.  We tend to only remember evidence that confirms our beliefs.

Another example

The 23 enigma: “the belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23, some permutation of the number 23, or a number related to the number 23.”  Yes, the clever person can find a way to connect an event with the number 23.  However, the clever person could do the same with just about any other number they picked.  Believing is seeing.


When something positive happens that seemed unlikely at the start, people will attribute it to God intervening.  But if that same event had turned out bad, they generally wouldn’t attribute it to God’s intervention.  An example of this occured in January 2006, where at first it was falsely reported that some miners had been rescued alive after being trapped for 4 days.  See the headline in the Boston Herald:


As Greg Saunders put it

Now that we know the twelve miners were killed, does this mean America’s prayers weren’t answered? Just like gambling addicts remember their big wins but not their losses, the fate of the twelve miners has transformed from a faith-inspiring act of God to another horrible tragedy in which it’s impolite to mention religion at all.

Again, here, we are talking about how evidence is selected.  Once you believe, it’s easy to see evidence of ‘miracles.’


So far I have given reasons why you should be very skeptical of claims that rely on belief first.  In fairness, however, I need to consider the other side.  It is possible that some evidence in favor of God is very subtle and very difficult for a non-believer to notice.  If the evidence is real, however, the believer should be able to point out the evidence to the non-believer. What is it that the believer is seeing that confirms their belief?  Can they explain it to the non-believer?  And if not, is it really evidence?

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Let’s assume that God exists.  Let us also imagine that God did not write a book that described his wonderful attributes.  We would then be in the position of learning about God based solely on what he created.

If we look for God’s attributes based only on what he created, what would we conclude?

God is a fan of extreme sports

If you look around, you will see living things in violent, bloody competition of survival.  I would conclude that God enjoys extreme sports.  Think about it.  If you were to design a world with different living creatures, would you put them in survival competition against each other?  Imagine you created different types of artificial intelligence with unique purposes.  Picture robots performing different functions.  Would you create them in such a way where they have to try and destroy each other to survive?  Of course not. Not unless you enjoyed the battles (which is possible).

In response to this argument, one of my friends said “living things live and die… that’s the natural cycle of things.”  It seems natural to us, because that is what we know.  It doesn’t have to be that we though.  God could have created a world where animals weren’t trying to eat each other. 

Someone pointed out to me that all living things used to be peaceful, until the original sin ruined it all (I’m paraphrasing).  Apparently tigers used to be herbivores?  I don’t know.   However, we wouldn’t know that the world used to be a peaceful place had God not written a book telling us how wonderful he is.  

God is a poor engineer by human standards

Many living things are poorly designed.  You can find a long list here.  For example:

Crowded teeth and poor sinus drainage, as human faces are significantly flatter than those of other primates and humans share the same tooth set. This results in a number of problems, most notably with wisdom teeth.

Or this:

Male beetles of several Callosobruchus species have sharp edges on their sperm-delivery organs. The females’ ducts grow a bit of extra toughening but not enough to make sex safe from the risk of injury.

God is cruel

Even if you accept the premise that it is necessary for animals to kill each other in order to ‘maintain balance’ (which I don’t), you would still have to conclude that there is a lot of suffering that is completely unnecessary.  A designer who found it necessary to have animals kill each other could still have had them anesthetize their prey first.

Why is our conception of God different?

Most people think of God as loving, pure and just.  Why?  If we look at nature, that is not what we see.  Our opinion about God is apparently strictly based on what we learned about him from the book(s) he his written (or movies he has directed).  Should the inconsistency between what we see and what we are told be a concern for those who are searching for truth?

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If you visit creationist websites, or discuss evolution with the ID crowd, you’ll see/hear arguments about why evolution couldn’t be true.  I was glad to see Steven Novella refute the most common claims made against evolution.  The most common one I have heard is that evolution does not increase genetic information, and therefore macroevolution (a popular term by the ID/creationist folks) is impossible.  Steven dismantles this claim:

All mutations increase genetic information…  If you start with one version of a gene and then it mutates in one offspring but not in another – now you have two versions of that gene. That represents an increase in information. Also, entire genes may be duplicated in the reproductive process. If you start with one copy of a gene and end up with two copies – that is an increase in information. This is especially pertinent to evolution, because one copy can continue to perform its original function while the redundant copy is free to mutate and evolve a new function.

The idea that natural selection removes variation from the gene pool is true but a non sequitur. Mutations, duplication, and recombination increase information and increase variation and then natural selection causes differential survival of that variation which is better adapted to its niche.

The whole post is worth a read, if you are interested in the topic.  As tempting as it is to ignore creationist arguments, we need to keep refuting them.  Especially when 39% of US adults believe it’s ‘definitely true’ that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

update:  you can watch Intelligent Design on Trial (h/t Jim Emerson)

update 2:  new gallop poll on evolution

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Religion and violence

I like a lot about The End of Faith. There are a few things that bother me, however, which I’ll get into now.

Religion leading us to extinction?

Sam Harris is very concerned that religious beliefs will lead to the extinction of humans. Quoting from the book:

We are fast approaching a time when the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction will be a trivial undertaking; the requisite information and technology are now seeping into every corner of our world. … we can see at a glance that aspiring martyrs will not make good neighbors in the future. We have simply lost the right to our myths, and to our mythic identities.

I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children incapable of killing themselves over their books. If not our children, then I suspect it could well be too late for us, because while it has never been difficult to meet your maker, in fifty years it will simply be too easy to drag everyone else along to meet him with you.

There is certainly reason for concern. It is, however, a little unclear to me how much of the world’s violence is attributable to religion. Yes, in most conflicts religion does seem to play a role. However, I agree with Errol Morris that

Religion can certainly help good people to do evil things, but good people do evil things even without religion.

Even without religion, people would find other differences with their rivals that they could cling to. Groups often battle over control of resources. Members of opposing groups fall into the trap of correspondence bias — they attribute differences in action to differences in character. It’s not that your adversaries are like you, but have different experiences, perspective and interests that drive their action. It’s that they are innately evil. You don’t imagine that you would be like them if you were in their place.

With that said, I do think that religion can make the difference between a violent or non-violent protestor. There is something uniquely powerful about the belief that God is on your side. I can’t think of anything quite as powerful that doesn’t involve religion.


Harris is particularly tough on Islam. He has a chapter entitled The Problem With Islam, where he argues that Islam is a dangerous religion. Quoting from the book:

…Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed.

He goes on to quote from the Qur’an. He also cites a Pew study where a nontrivial percentage of Muslims said that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is justifiable (e.g., 43% of Jordanians said it’s justifiable).

There are some problems with his argument. First, there is a problem with the interpretation of the texts. I’ll quote my friend on this one

The texts that discuss fighting are all done in a historical context and has to be balanced against all the other verses that talk about peace. It’s not that hard to figure out…. and there are like 5 verses that discuss fighting… and it was to the Prophet, who was a head of state. I mean, you honestly don’t have to be a genius to figure that out.

The other issue has to do with how the perceived actions of people that believe in a certain religion affect your judgement about that religion. Harris seems particularly alarmed by suicide bombing. It seems to me that that is what is driving his opinion that Islam is a violent religion.

Cause and effect

We live in world where state violence is not considered terrorism. Take, for example, the US invasion of Iraq. We are a majority Christian nation. George Bush claims to be a Christian. There were reports that he said that God told him to invade Iraq. He certainly referred to God often when talking about foreign policy. Like suicide bombers, Bush thought he was fighting for a just cause (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt). He thought he was on the side of God. Why isn’t US aggression, especially violence that was ordered by a Christian President who was inspired by God, used as evidence of Christian violence?

Or consider Israeli aggression:

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.

Why isn’t Israeli violence considered to be evidence that Judaism is a violent religion? As Nir Rosen put it:

The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

The reason is because the powerful write history.

Imagine things were different. Imagine that a majority Muslim nation was the major military superpower in the world. It worked to expand its wealth and power, at the expense of citizens of less powerful countries. Let us assume that one group of people that really suffered at the hands of this superpower happened to be Christian. Would some of these Christians fight back? Would they launch rockets into that nation if they could? Would some of them resort to terrorism? And if so, would they use the Bible to help justify it? I think so. People start with their bottom line. It wouldn’t be difficult to come up with passages in the Bible. I mean you could turn to Deuteronomy “you must kill him, your hands must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the people following” or John 15:6 “and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” Sure, maybe that is not the right interpretation of the text, but like my friend said, that’s what happens with the Qur’an.

Harris seems to be aware that people could use the Bible to justify violence. He said that:

A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do [emphasis mine].

But would most Christians “ignore most of their canon” if they were in the position that the Palestinians are in?

If there was a majority Christian nation, a majority Muslim nation, a majority Jewish nation, a majority Hindu nation, etc., that all had similar power and resources, then we might be in a better position to judge the effect of the religion on violent behavior. We do not live in a ceteris paribus world, however.

I don’t think that any of these religions inherently inspire violence. Oppression is the breading ground of extremism. If the world community works together on education, human rights, democracy, freedom, and so on, I think we’ll see a reduction in violent, radical behavior. I’m not sure that Harris’ approach, which comes across as a call for a war against religion, is a winning strategy. I do share many of his concerns though.

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