Friday, August 24, 2007

The First Church of Swiper the Fox

Interesting things happen when you live in a religious culture, but have not yet educated your young child about religion.

The Tot attends daycare at our local YMCA while I exercise. I have struggled a bit with my feelings toward the Y, mostly because they have lots of propaganda festooning the walls. Which makes sense, since their mission is "To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all." But really, except for the Christian banners, they seem much more focused on building healthy bodies and minds than the other stuff. So I've decided the whole package of benefits they offer more than counterbalances the Christian themes.

Anyway, as she sometimes does, the Tot was singing snippets of a song she heard that day. I couldn't really make sense of it at first, but then I realized it was some insipid religious song she must have picked up at the Y. ("Thank You for the puppies" is the line that stays with me.) Then I realized she was singing this refrain:

"Aw-w-Man, Aw-w-Man."

Well, it makes sense, right? She referred the phonemes back to something with which she is familiar. And since she's never been taught to pray at home, the closest match was Swiper's catchphrase.

This makes me feel a lot more comfortable about her being exposed to Christian ideas and rituals. It's going to happen, and the idea tends to make me nervous. However, this incident makes clear that the parental influence is a real determining force in how children interpret new ideas. Since she's going to the Y for preschool too, I'm sure there will be some great teaching moments when she comes home to ask me what the heck the teachers are talking about, and (in the words of Oolon Colluphid) just who is this God person anyway? And I also realize sometimes she'll just sit and listen to the story of Noah (the ark, not the naked drunkenness, presumably) or whatever, and interpret it as a fictional story like many others, without any further intervention from me.

But I am starting to wonder if one day she'll come home and ask, "Hey, why is everyone at the Y so crazy about Cheez-Its?"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Okay, let's say a fetus IS a person

I still think abortion should be legal. Now, I don't happen to believe that a fetus is a person - for me that hinges mostly on cognitive capacity, rather than DNA or "living" status, or obviously on what the Bible supposedly says. But for the sake of argument, let's grant that the fetus is a "person," a fully fledged human being with the rights and protections of an independent adult.

I still think abortion is perfectly justifiable. That is because it is perfectly justifiable to kill a fully fledged adult human being, under certain circumstances. And those circumstances are always present in a pregnancy. If someone is threatening you with imminent, severe bodily harm, you are allowed to kill them. Even if they are not mentally competent, and even if they aren't trying to kill you. I think in pretty much every U.S. jurisdiction, deadly force would be justifiable to prevent an assailant from forcibly inserting a large object into the victim's vagina.

It is true that this assault is not imminent at the point most abortions occur - it is still months away. However, the situations are analogous, because there is no opportunity to avoid the assault other than by use of deadly force. In an attempted rape, you can kill the attacker if you have no reasonable ability to obtain protection by retreating or contacting law enforcement. Likewise, it is justifiable to kill a fetus because you have no reasonable ability to prevent significant bodily harm in any other way.

So, there we are. I don't see how anyone could accept killing an insane rapist in self defense, while simultaneously arguing that abortion should be illegal. Perhaps some people are truly so pro-life (across the board) that they would object to killing a mad attacker in self defense. But I'm guessing that position is rare.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Some additional thoughts on Christians and stupidity

Overnight I thought of a couple more reasons why atheists may latch on to the "Christians are stupid" idea.

First, it is true that atheism is associated with higher levels of education. And people with PhDs and professional degrees are typically thought of as smart. Also considered smart are leading scientists, such as members of the National Academy of Sciences (in 1998, a survey found a measly 7-8% believed in a god or immortality of the human soul).

Second, in an effort to convince others through logical means of beliefs not arrived at by logic, believers (the majority of whom are Christians in this country) will spout some astoundingly retarded statements, such as:
  • "The second law of thermal dynamics proves that evolution can't be true."
  • "God must exist, because if he didn't, then there wouldn't be a God to disbelieve in, in the first place."
  • "It was a miracle that Ms.Guided was the sole survivor when the plane carrying 100 people crashed into the ground."
(All of these come from merely the first page of this thread, which, granted, contains items that are simply weird or which espouse standard tenets of faith, but many of which are shockingly stupid, jaw-droppingly cruel, or both.)

Third, Christianity often encourages ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Sure, there are a lot of mainstream, liberal Christians who pursue knowledge with vigor. But the closer you get to literalist, fundamentalist belief, the further you tend to get from honest inquiry and well-rounded education. Most obvious are evolution deniers, who must wall off most of modern biology from their brains. Interestingly, reading Bart Ehrman led me to the realization that Real True Christians are carefully hamstrung even in studying the Bible. It's only "safe" to do so under proper conditions, or (like Ehrman) you might find yourself losing your tenuous grasp on fundamentalism and realizing, whether you like it or not, that the Holy Bible is an error-prone work of man.

On this third note, I leave you with a quote from Martin Luther, the "great reformer" and founder of Protestantism: "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Why we atheists think Christians are so stupid

That ^ is irony, for the impaired among you.

First, let's talk about the idea that atheists think religious people in general are stupid. I actually think there is something to this criticism of atheists. Many don't fall into this trap, but I have come upon the meme often enough that I don't deny it is prevalent. The mistake people are making is in confusing a selective, compartmentalized rejection of rationality with stupidity. It is abundantly clear that manymany intelligent, otherwise reasonable people turn off their critical thinking when it comes to religion. I don't think this detracts from their intelligence, merely from their rationality. And yes, intelligence and rationality are often treated as synonyms, or at least closely linked, in our culture, so it's understandable that people conflate them.

In fact, if you are religious and reading this, you probably bristled when I accused you of being irrational. Generally rationality is highly prized, and you probably protested in your head that you're very rational. Perhaps you even defend your religion as a rational conclusion, pointing to various apologetics. However, if any facet of your religion requires faith, (in the "belief regardless of evidence" sense), you are rejecting rationality. I don't dispute that in every other facet of life, you may be highly rational, and I don't think you're stupid.

But when someone rejects standard methods of discovering truth, and embraces beliefs pretty much just because they feel good, it is understandable that someone who doesn't share this propensity is going to feel a gut reaction that the person is stupid, or crazy, or both. Sometimes it's hard to get beyond that gut reaction to the empirical truth that lots of intelligent people are religious.

As a thought experiment, imagine some belief you consider total, obvious codswallop - whose roots and causes are clear to you as mistakes of observation or well-known foibles of human perception. Perhaps alien abduction stories, the healing power of crystals, astrology, or bigfoot sightings. Now, don't you just have a visceral reaction along the lines of, "How could anyone believe THAT? How could someone be so blind as to what is actually going on?" If you know a believer in this stuff who is otherwise bright and sane, don't you boggle at how they can carry both of these personality aspects in the same brain? That mystified disbelief is just how your atheist friends feel about you!

The second issue here is that Christians seem to feel that atheists unfairly target them, above all other religions. Some Christians complain that we're not anti-religious, objecting to irrational beliefs whatever their form, but that we seem to be gunning for Christianity and ignoring Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Jainism, and so on. Perhaps it's just the natural tunnel vision we're all subject to falling into. Perhaps it's that Christianity teaches a lot about how its practitioners have been persecuted. But take a step back and realize that English-speaking atheists seem to focus on Christians because that is who surrounds us! 85% of the U.S. self-identifies as Christian. Christianity is the established state religion of Britain. The people trying to inject their religious beliefs into the schools, politics, and laws of my country are certainly always Christian, in my experience. Trust me, if the Wiccans mount a campaign to teach that the Goddess gave birth to her consort the Horned God in public school science classes, we'd go after them with equal gusto. If Buddhists smugly proclaimed from campaign platforms that those without Enlightenment were obviously incapable of morality, we'd be writing invective against them too. It's nothing personal - you're the most powerful people out there right now. Sorry.