Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What Makes it a Cult?

I have a high school friend who is considering moving their family from one state to another because they found their "spiritual home." This strikes me as more than just a little bit culty, and got me thinking about what's the right definition for "cult."

Of course, my friend thinks this is all positive. It's wonderful that they've found their spiritual home with this group.  All positive goodness. But don't cult members always think like that when they're inside one?

The meme at right floats around the internet, poking fun at organized religion as nothing more than a big cult. And while I'll admit to having chuckled at the image, I don't think it's an
insightful or valuable representation. It bothers me that cult is too easily tossed around as a term of derision towards all religion.  Some are not particularly harmful.

The google definition of cult isn't much help either. Google defines cult as "a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object." Using this definition, one could easily make the case that Christianity is a cult for Jesus Christ. Then we're right back where we started -- all religion is just a cult.

It seems to me that the connotation of the word cult implies that the organization is fringe and causes significant personal harm at the whim of a single, charismatic leader who dictates the dogma for the group and controls their personal lives.  But again, it's all a sliding scale, isn't it?

One characteristic of cults could be that they cause demonstrable harm to the members. But individual preachers can be charismatic and bilk parishioners out of money without being a cult, right? Here's a few:

  • Joel Olsteen has made millions off the "Prosperity Gospel"
  • Pat Robertson tells elderly poor people to give him more money so they'll get more from god.
  • Creflo Dollar gained notoriety recently for asking for donations for a new private jet.
The Prosperity Gospel sounds SO much like the Nigerian bank scams that it would be funny if it weren't so tragic for the congregants. "Just send your televangelist money and you'll receive even more from god" is just like "Send me money and I'll share my fabulous wealth with you." It plays on people's greed and gullibility. Even though I consider those generally undesirable human traits, they are still people. And these ministers cause them demonstrable harm with this sort of scam. 

So do "Prosperity Ministries" rise to the level of cult? I don't think so. The term in my mind seems to also convey an aspect of self-righteousness and shunning of any people who disagree with the dogma.  

This brings me to a couple religions well known for shunning non-believers or apostates.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses - JW's are famous for shunning apostates. Families disown family members for admitting they don't really believe anymore. 
  • Catholics  - As recently as 1983, Catholics were expected to shun apostates! Good thing they have a way to revise errors in Catholicism. 
  • Orthodox Judaism
  • Amish - Shunning is a formalized process for the Amish. 
  • Scientology - They even have a formal name for it: Disconnection.
  • Islam - Most Islamic Sharia law demands execution for apostasy. Islamic nations have been known to fulfill this law and kill apostates. That's one hell of a shun!
This one seems to be a stronger indicator of "culty-ness".  The end result of this formalized shunning of non-believers is an isolation from mainstream society based on the doctrine of moral superiority. 

In the end, I think it's isolationism in general that I most strongly associate with cults. Closing a group off from the outside world allows radical ideas to persist better than they would if a cult member could tell their friend the crazy things their cult leader said.

So what's the take-away? I suppose it's that we should strive to be as welcoming, multi-cultural, and diverse as possible. The cross-fertilization of ideas will help us discriminate between those which have merit and those which don't. We should be skeptical of ideas that are both secret and sacred. Truth withstands scrutiny.  It seeks publicity and understanding. It never hides because the public isn't ready.

Friday, June 26, 2015

In 50 years, Most Conservative Christian Churches will Disown their Unethical Stance of 2015

Time and time again throughout American history, conservative churches have stood on the side of barbaric biblical practices. These examples span a broad range of time and geography:
  • Witch burnings in Salem, MA (Exodus 22:18 "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live")
  • an extensive and well reasoned (biblically) defense of slavery http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/string/string.html 
  • Opposition to civil rights
  • Opposition to interracial marriage.
And most recently,
  • Opposition to Same Sex marriage.
For all but the most recent, support from churches in modern day America is unthinkable.  There may be a few, but they are seen as more radical and fringe than Westborough Baptist. 

I take great pleasure in the knowledge that like all these past immoral acts on behalf of a "God", in about 50 years, nearly all these churches will disown their former positions and claim they always supported equality. 

I derive a certain amount of glee from the knowledge that some day in the near future, their own religions will turn their back on conservative Christian leaders of today and pretend they didn't exist. 

Congratulations, America. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

If Bible stories were named like Aesop's fables

Now that I'm no longer in the Christian church, it seems so painfully obvious that Bible stories are simply attempts to explain the world around us, and rather juvenile ones of that.

My kids love reading Aesop's fables and "just so" stories so I thought it would be fun to remap some Bible story titles into Aesop's fables titles. So for a little fun, let's think up some new names for classic Bible stories that better fit the genre!

  • Genesis 3 (The Fall of Man): 
    • "How the Serpent lost his legs"
    • "How Survival Became Hard"
    • "Why Birth Hurts a Woman"
  • Genesis 5-7 (Noah's Ark):
    • "How the Rainbow got its Colors"
    • "The Old Man and his Boat"
  • Exodus 12 (Passover)
    • "The Chosen People's Escape"
    • "How the Red Sea got its Name"
  • Exodus 20 (10 Commandments):
    • "How Killing Turned Out to be Wrong"
    • "The Twisted Morality of Jealous Inmortality"
  • Book of Job: "Why Your Day Sometimes Sucks"
I'm sure there are other good examples. Or better names for the stories I've suggested. Leave some comments in your tweets or in the comments below. I'd love to hear your ideas. Thanks for reading!

Coming Out Atheist Message

I'm toying with the idea of a short & sweet coming out message to my friends, many of whom went to Christian youth group with me. This would probably come as a minor "huh" moment for most of them.
I'm not sure how serious I am about posting this on Facebook. Probably not very, because I'm not really the type to make a big stink about my beliefs. I thought this might be helpful as a Coming Out Atheist letter for others. Here's a draft:
About 20 years ago, I started sincerely exploring the reasons why I believed in God. True things withstand scrutiny, and it was important to me that I be consistent in the things I accept as true. I considered the strength of the foundations of my religious beliefs. The reasons I thought had for believing in a God were not at all convincing when examined honestly. 
Absent a defensible foundation for God belief, I considered the only honest conclusion would that God is not likely to exist. Looking across the history of human religions, the progression from polytheism to monarchy-polytheism to monotheism is all too clear. I'm quick to dismiss all those silly ancient beliefs like Roman and Greek pantheons. What objective evidence could I point to when asserting that Christianity is somehow different?
The magical beliefs surrounding Christianity fell as well. It's clear from our understanding of the brain that my consciousness resides there in. And that its demise will surely mean the end of my consciousness. There's no rational reason to believe that I will somehow survive the death of my brain. In short, it's wishful thinking that directly conflicts with everything we learned about consciousness.
This last realization took some time to come to grips with. I was raised to believe that my religion made me immortal. That loved ones lived on in a magical place where there was no pain or suffering. Where they were aware of the happenings here on earth. They could possibly even read my mind. I believe that such would be my fate as well, and coming to grips with my mortality was by no means trivial.
I've lived my last 20 years without any sort of God belief and couldn't be happier. My version of immortality is the influence I have on those around me. It's rewarding to realize that I can be inspirational to those around me and that they will carry forward my vision, my joy, and my curiosity to others.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Are You Smart Enough to Convert to Atheism?

Graduation Cap, Used under Creative Commons License
Theism is easy. Answers to all your questions are readily available.

  • Where did we come from?
  • What's the meaning of life?
  • How do I know what's right or wrong?
  • How can I be sure I'm raising ethical kids?
There's a great deal of comfort in believing that we have answers to all these questions. 

Yet if you ask the hard question, "How do you know that's true?", it becomes quickly apparent that we religion doesn't really know. Rather, it gives you a consolidated group of individuals willing to attest to the dogmatic answers, with each individual largely relying on the attestations of others in the group as validation for his own attestation. In short, religious answers arise from group-think, with core assumptions reinforced by weekly group recitations of the "creed".
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
This isn't to say that all religious answers to the life's hard question are necessarily wrong (that would be committing the "Genetic Fallacy").  There is no shortage of religious people who understand the origins of the universe and of life. And some churches may indeed have some good ideas about how to raise ethical kids. The United Church of Christ was quick to recognize the injustice of marriage inequality, and take legal action based on freedom of religion to advocate for equality. Many churches like the protestant one I grew up in are comfortable with skepticism about everything -- except of course the central creed.

In the end, church dogma and answers are subjective group-think opinions. If left unexamined, some of these opinions are damaging. For example, church inspired sexual repression leads to sexual ignorance and higher teen-pregnancy (http://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0024658) in religious communities.

So why do you need to be smart to be atheist? Well you don't really. You just need to recognize that the answers you are getting aren't really reliable and be willing to set out on your own to investigate the important answers as objectively as you possibly can. It takes mental effort and discipline to identify the beliefs that are unsubstantiated group-think and reconsider them. It requires a level of intellectual self-confidence and personal discomfort to admit the truth: "I don't know," and to qualify statements with phrases like, "it seems to me" and "as far as I can tell."  In the end, your statements and views are more accurate. Pretending to know something you've never validated is fundamentally dishonest. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Common Failures of Critical Thinking

There's striking similarity between theists and conspiracy nuts when it comes to the failures of critical thinking used to argue the belief. I see the same sorts of arguments from Christians and Muslims alike.

  • "Atheism is bad." 
  • "Without my religion, how can you be moral?" 
  • "Atheists just chose atheism to avoid responsibility to god."
  • "There must be an explanation for this unexplained event" (hint: It's mine)

These seem to be the central failed arguments of irrational thinking, and there's STRIKING similarity across all theists and conspiracy theorists.I'm not sure which camp to put "Ancient Aliens" in. It's somewhere between a religion and a conspiracy theory.

FailureTheistConspiracy NutIssue
Future EvidenceWhen you die, you'll see you were wrong!Some day the truth will come out!Claims to be right despite not possessing any evidence
You can't prove me wrongCan't prove god doesn't exist!Can't disprove the planes were real!Shifting the burden of proof
Something isn't known so I'm rightUnknown/unusual phenomena x proves god is real.Unexplained 9/11 detail proves CIA's involvementOften, the "unknown" is actually well known to experts.
Unpleasant ramifications of disbeliefIf my religion is false, the conclusions are unpleasant so it must be true.If you reject my chemtrail claim, you're being poisoned.As if the unpleasant ramifications of disbelief make it true!

I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones that seem to come up all the time. So I suppose the thing to do is think about how to be sure YOU don't fall victim to these sorts of errors.  Ask or reming yourself: 
  • What assumptions am I making about evidence I haven't actually seen
  • What evidence would convince me I'm wrong?
  • It's not good enough to show my opponent is wrong. If I'm making a positive claim (something is true), I must show I'm right.
  • Whether I like the ramifications of a fact or not has NO bearing on its truthfulness. 
On that last point, it's valuable to notice when you have strong feelings about the truth of a claim. For me, this sets of little mental warning bells. "Be Careful! You're susceptible to confirmation bias here"

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The "Prophecies" of Dr. Seuss

A common refrain among Muslims and Christians alike is that their holy book makes prophecies. When pressed for examples, we quickly find that the believer is favorably interpreting vague scriptures as predictions of known events. This is a sort of after-the-fact fitting reality to the verses rather than the other way around. It permits the validation of all sorts of ridiculous prophesies.

For example, in this post, a Muslim interprets Allah's quote, "And verily, a day with your Lord is as a thousand years of what you reckon." to be a prophecy of the speed of light. Over here, Sura 55, verse 33: "O assembly of Jinns and Men, if you can penetrate regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate them! You will not penetrate them save with a Power." is interpreted to prophesize that man will develop space travel! Finally, here you can see that the Koran predicts atomic theory when it says "[ Allah is] the Knower of the unseen." Not absent from Him is an atom's weight within the heavens or within the earth or [what is] smaller than that or greater, except that it is in a clear register"!

Christians do this too.

Since we're starting with the answer, the process becomes much easier. It just requires some creativity as I will demonstrate with the assistance of Dr. Seuss as my prophesy material rather than the Bible.

  • "Green Eggs and Ham" was a prophecy about mankind finding value in molds like Penicillin
  • "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" Is a prophecy for evolutionary change in species and the discovery of the Tiktaalik fossils.
  • "The Cat in the Hat" foretold the U.S. banking crisis. Thing 1&2 were AIG and Lehman Bros. Off having fun without supervision. The Cat is the US Government, which helped clean up the mess with its big machine.
  • "The Foot Book" is a prophecy about your personal (possibly not yet recognized) foot fetish.
    • Note: This one uses a prophesy of things that you don't know now but will soon discover. It's similar to the theist's prophesy that you'll tremble before their god on judgement day. This method is great because there's absolutely no way to disprove it!
      … You kinky foot-fetish-freak! (DM me, let's talk)
  • "Oh the Places You'll Go"  foretold the rovers on Mars.
  • Thneeds in "The Lorax" were a prophecy of the emergence of the Snuggie!
  • "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was a prophecy of the "War on Christmas!"
  • "Yertle the Turtle" was a prophesy about the fall of the Roman empire.
  • "The Sneetches" was a prophesy about Apple's iPhone marketing strategy.
  • "The Zax" who got stuck in their tracks is a prophecy about the two-party political stalemate in America.
  • "Hop on Pop" Prophesied women's liberation through the emergence of stay-at-home dads once women bagan having careers.
  • "Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?" Prophesized the emergence of Mad Cow disease
  • "There's a Wocket in My Pocket" was a prophesy about the emergence of mobile phones and the proliferation of intelligent gagets throughout the home.
Twitter Contributions:
  • "Green Eggs and Ham" was prophecy of GMO foods. (@harrybulzonya)
  • "Through 3 cheese trees" This is a warning against GMO crops. (@AtheistMutt)
  • "The Cat in the hat" predicts that Cat and Human DNA will be put together to form a walking talking hat wearing Man-Cat. (@JohnDoe_997)
    • Hey!  It could happen!
See how it's done? Simply pick a verse and find something plausible that it could be an analogy for after-the-fact. (post-hoc). There are enough flowery and non-specific verses in the Bible to satisfy nearly any event.

Edit: related honorable mentions: