Links and Comments: Mostly about the Evils of Religion, Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It

Tonight, many links and comments about religion, especially on this day when thin-skinned Muslim terrorists murdered French journalists who had dared to insult their omniscient, omnipotent god by drawing mocking cartoons about Muhammad. Some of the reaction has been to fault the journalists, as if they had it coming. This strikes me as Islamophobia, because I doubt if this reaction would apply to Christian terrorists, for example, if they had hypothetically murdered the writing staff of The Daily Show. (To echo a comment I read somewhere on the web today.)

So today Slate reposted a classic essay by Christopher Hitchens, The Case for Mocking Religion. It topped the “most read” list of articles all day. Hitchens had a way with words.

Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

And novelist Salman Rushdie, target of a Muslim “fatwa” for his book The Satanic Verses 25 years ago, issued a statement of support for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, target of today’s assassinations. Part of it was even quoted on the NBC nightly news! But not this part:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. … Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

And one of my Facebook friends linked this classic web comic from a site called The Oatmeal: How to suck at your religion. It’s a series of panels about condemning others’ religions without realizing how your criticisms apply to your own. Sample:

[Character 1] Everyone knows what REALLY happened is an omnipotent father figure BUILT outer space and then put a garden on earth where a naked couple ate some fruit which was bad and then he had magic no-touch sex with a virgin who gave birth to this bearded hippy who got killed until he came back to life as a zombie where he floats around teaching us all not to masturbate too much or we’ll be sent to the earth’s core and barbequed for all eternity!

[Character 2] I know, right! Those crazy scientologists have it all wrong!

These links segue into my backlog from the other night, plus one from just yesterday. The Friendly Atheist site excerpts a long passage from a new book by Marshall Brain called How “God” Works, published yesterday, a passage that explores the obvious evidence that prayer doesn’t work (controlled studies have actually been done!), and asking why so many people believe (or want to believe) that it does.

So why do billions of people on Earth today believe that prayer works? Why is religious inspirational literature filled with thousands of examples of “answered prayers?” What’s happening is simple: Believers, because they lack or ignore critical thinking skills, do not look at evidence correctly. Or they completely ignore evidence. For example, believers fail to take coincidence into account when evaluating prayer’s efficacy, using confirmation bias to make note of the prayers that “work” while ignoring all of the prayers that do not.

How do Christians typically handle the unambiguous evidence that amputees represent? They might come up with rationalizations to try to explain why statements in the Bible are untrue for amputees. Or they might try to explain why amputees are somehow different from other people. Or they might simply get angry and storm away so they can ignore the evidence completely.

This is pretty obvious as far as it goes, but my interest, as I’ve repeated in this blog, is to explore why such beliefs exist — the obvious answer being that beliefs that promote social cohesion, self-importance, and thus reproductive success, persist despite their being to some degree fantasies about actual reality.

As a follow-up to my posts the other night about how the world is becoming more peaceful, here is a post by Adam Lee, The Peaceful Side of Atheism, that explores the idea that the declining level of violence in the world is due the decline of religion. That religion supports violence against rival religions and infidels has obvious support from today’s events in Paris.

Also from yesterday, Jerry Coyne links a cartoon that speaks to John Loftus’ idea of the “outsider test for faith” — the notion of how you, believing your particular religion, would defend it to an objective alien who happened to land on earth and was trying to figure out which religion was “true”. It also echoes Richard Dawkins’ criticism of the idea that a child born of Religion X parents is taken automatically to also be of Religion X.

Mr. and Mrs. John McCracken of Lake Oswego, Ore. have a brand new set of twins — identical in every way, except that while Baby Lauren, like her parents, is Presbyterian, Baby Samantha is Hindu!

From a couple weeks ago, this Newsweek cover article: The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin

This is religious hypocrisy 101, very basic stuff, about how believers pick and choose passages from the Bible to support their gut prejudices and hatreds, while ignoring the many many other relatively inconvenient passages that are obviously not applicable in the modern world.

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshiping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers —-fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

Many other good bits — again, all obvious and well-known to anyone who pays attention to religion in the context of the broader culture.

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.) The first books of the Old Testament were written 1,000 years before that. In other words, some 1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen. There were no printing presses beforehand or until 1,000 years later.

Naturally, right-wing religious pundits condemn the article without actually addressing any of its issues, e.g. via Right Wing Watch: Todd Starnes: ‘Repugnant’ Newsweek ‘Blasted The Bible’ By Disagreeing With Conservatives

Starnes wrote in his Fox News column last week that he’s outraged that the magazine “portrays Evangelical Christians as homophobic, right-wing fundamentalist hypocrites” …

Well, yes.

Along the same lines, Valerie Tarico at Alternet has an interesting article about how the magical aspects of the Jesus story grew over time, considering the order in which the Biblical gospels were written: Not-So-Virgin Birth: Why Stories of Jesus Became More Magical Over Time

Again, obvious stuff to anyone who has studied history, as well as modern culture, and understands how events are reported and stories are retold in light of motivations to cast current events as fulfillments of earlier prophecies. Decades after the events.

Christianity’s virgin birth narrative, both what it says and why it is poorly integrated into the rest of the Bible, is a fascinating study in cultural evolution. Specifically, it illustrates a process called “syncretism” whereby religions merge over time when cultures come into contact.

Salon: Religion’s smart-people problem: The shaky intellectual foundations of absolute faith

An article by John G. Messerly, who blogs at The Meaning of Life.

Should you believe in a God? Not according to most academic philosophers. A comprehensive survey revealed that only about 14 percent of English speaking professional philosophers are theists.  As for what little religious belief remains among their colleagues, most professional philosophers regard it as a strange aberration among otherwise intelligent people. Among scientists the situation is much the same. Surveys of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, composed of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically nonexistent, about 7 percent.

Now, this post is full of anti-religion links to articles about the political and intellectual evils of religion. In one sense, neither I or anyone else should care about what fantasies religious people “believe”; it’s their own lives, and everyone is entitled to their own lives, no matter what fantasies help them get through the night: Jesus, Allah, Scientology. My posts here have been to call out the evils that religious people do, in terms of condemning people of other faiths, or of no faiths, to political Hell, particularly in their political activism that would assassinate non-believers, as in the news today from Paris, or relegating them to second-class status, as conservatives and Republicans seem anxious to do here in the US. This affects me personally, of course. But as I’ve said here before, my fascination with this theme is in the context of the larger, rather science-fictional, theme about how to think of mankind’s existence in the context of an enormous universe.

Still, one final shot. The site Good As You has a post about how the conservative radio host Erick Erickson equates gay activists with the Paris terrorists.

It’s typical of condemnation by the religious right of everyone they feel squeamish about.

And yet. I sympathize with Good As You’s editor, who posted this today: Why you won’t see me covering some of the usual suspects going forward.

Just as Media Matters declared victory over Fox News a while back, in terms of documented evidence of Fox News’s continued misrepresentation of factual news, the Good As You’s editor has decided that his attention to the extremists on the right — Peter LaBarbera, Matt Barber, Bryan Fischer, Lindy Harvey, et al — has run its course. They speak to audiences in right-wing bubbles but have ceased to have any influences in the broader culture. They have lost. And so as Jeremy Hooper of Good As You has stopped paying attention to those who have lost, I feel that here on my blog I need to stop paying quite so much attention to the religious zealots who deny reality and who would deny citizenship to anyone who is different from themselves, and focus more on the positives, the reality of what science and thinking have revealed about the real world.

It will be very tempting to do otherwise, just because there is so much opportunity otherwise. But life is short, and in the long run, I think, focusing on the positive will be more productive than focusing on the negative.

Will any of this make any difference to anyone who reads this and is invested in the stories of Christianity? No. I am sure it won’t. And that is the point.

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