Saturday, October 27, 2012

In Defense of Seneca’s Adage

Ancient Spanish Philosopher
Seneca, Ancient Philosopher from Hispania
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
- Seneca, 4 BC – AD 65
The public discourse on the role of religion in our daily lives too often lacks the voice of atheists, and mass media further silences atheists when it persistently upholds the tenet that an atheist would never be able to win the presidency in our country in spite of the fact that recent polls by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicate that about a fifth of the US population identifies as non-religious and that it’s the largest growing segment of society.
The claim that belief in God is universal is bogus, and to presume that the collective hypnosis of belief in deity has something to do with evidence for God or with the moral superiority of credulity is misuse of logic. Furthermore, the praising of faith and credulity as a virtue is also highly problematic. The majority of humanity believed the Earth was flat before this was proven false by people who sought empirical ways to verify the claim. Consensus has nothing to do with truth or evidence. Or with ethics, as any survivor of the holocaust would testify. A mob does not accurately dictate what is morally superior or right.
Religious apologists often accuse atheists of arrogance while exhibiting ostentatious attitudes about their unfairly assumed moral superiority. A scan through crime and census statistics in a variety of countries shows that the most secularized societies invariably exhibit some of the lowest rates of violent crime, of teen pregnancy, of divorce and other statistics associated with societal dysfunction. They are also among the most educated and liberal societies, the ones least hostile to civil and human rights whereas the most deeply religious societies are the exact opposite.
People in deeply religious societies are oftentimes routinely denied basic human rights. Saudi Arabia denies women even the right to drive. Uganda almost passed a Kill the Gays bill recently. Afghani and Pakistani girls who attend schools have to fear for their lives. An atheist should expect to be executed in many Muslim lands. Nigeria is plagued daily by the most barbaric and obscene Christian-Muslim conflict, as well as killings of “witches” and slaying of children by their own Christian parents and pastors for witchcraft. In heavily secularized and peaceful Sweden, a recent wave of rapes is tied to recent Muslim immigrants who feel that if women aren’t modestly dressed, they deserve to be raped.
Atheists are happier and saner than theists. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Danish people, the majority of whom are atheists, are the happiest among 40 countries that were studied. Other developed countries with high standards of living exhibit similar rates of disbelief, including Sweden where only 23% of the citizens say they positively believe in a God.
The statistical link between prevalence of religion and societal dysfunction in human societies is more than demonstrated in census data. Gregory Paul has published several peer-reviewed papers on this, including The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions (Evolutionary Psychology Journal) and his Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Society. In it, he found:
… high rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in prosperous democracies. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional.
He concludes,
… data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ”cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
Although no causal relationship can be proven, a statistical correlation clearly does exist. Afollow up study carried out by Tom Rees concluded:
I pulled together data on frequency of prayer from over 50 countries, and found that countries where people prayed more frequently had lower life expectancy and scored lower on the Peace Index. They also had higher infant mortality, homicide rates, and levels of corruption, and had more AIDS and more abortion. That’s pretty conclusive.
What’s more, countries with worse societal health also had more income inequality. In fact, the relationship between income inequality and societal health was similar to that between religiosity and societal health. Income inequality can indeed serve as a ‘barometer’ of overall societal health, as it relates to religiosity.
- Tom Rees, from the article Why some countries are more religious than others
The Global Peace Index (GPI) measures nations’ levels of peacefulness or violence. Statistical data related to the U.S. states reveal similar correlations between religiosity and high crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, school dropout rates, etc. where the more secular states invariably exhibit more societal health than the more religious states. Prison and divorce statistics also shed light on the prevalence of societal dysfunction in religious communities. Atheists are much less likely to divorce than Christians and Jews.
Perhaps the correlation between religion and poverty can be linked to lack of access, at times even hostility, to traditional education among religious groups. In heavily-atheistic Denmark citizens can become doctors, courtesy of the state, thanks to free universal education up to college level whereas in the more religious U.S.A. anyone wanting to become a doctor would have to acquire tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. 93 percent of the members of the Academy of the Sciences –some of our most brilliant minds– are atheists.
All of the above statistical data demonstrates that the bigoted religious claim that infidels are amoral and angry, or the insulting accusation that they lack a moral compass, all have no factual base. People who realize that they can not honestly say that there is a divine being, don’t lose their moral compass and start killing, raping and pillaging. What are we to make of the Crusades, the glorification of violence in the tradition of jihad, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter as a burnt offering to God in the Old Testament, the genocide of the indigenous during the invasion of the Americas, and other great historical acts of religion-inspired murder or genocide, in view of these tired, insulting accusations of amorality coming from the religious?
And what are we make of slavery, if religion or fear of God makes people moral? Up until the 19th Century the Bible, in Leviticus 25:44-46, acted as a property deed that allowed humans to enslave others and turn them into commodities. Slave owners argued: if God ordered slavery, how can slavery be immoral? Even in the New Testament slaves were advised by Paul in Ephesians 6 to be obedient to their masters as if their masters were Christ, to treat their masters as gods, and then he not-very-humbly praised his own teaching regarding slavery calling it ‘a sane doctrine’ in 1 Timothy 6.
Furthermore, to generalize when speaking about atheists is always a mistake. The great minds of both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, from Marx to Ayn Rand, were atheists also: they shared a superior intellect, but in the service of opposing worldviews. Buddhism is an atheistic religion and the Dalai Lama does not believe in a personal god. Curiously, of all the mainstream religions, Buddhism has historically also been among the least violent.
Some theists claim that the burden of proof lies with the atheists and not with the theists. This is an absurd claim. It’s hard to begin to imagine what scientific experiment one would have to carry out to prove the infantile and imaginative events in the book of Genesis: would a scientist have to breathe into a man made out of mud in a lab and document whether it comes to life? Create a woman out of a man’s rib? If a woman could be cloned from a man’s rib, would that constitute proof of God? There are so many problems with the assertion that the burden of empirical proof lies with the atheists that it’s hardly worth considering.
Atheists have nothing to prove, it is the many flavors of theists who are proposing a hypothesis that does, indeed, require extraordinary evidence, aggravated by the fact that their supernatural claims are all mutually contradictory. Hindus believe in reincarnation, Christians believe in heaven but only if you believe in Christ, Muslims only if you believe in Allah, and then Mormons believe they’re getting their own planet with multiple wives in the afterlife … and that God is a man who lives with his many wives in planet Kolob. They cannot all be true, and if they all have been used by good people to perform good deeds then this only proves that 1. the wrong belief may inspire good and bad deeds and 2. good deeds have nothing to do with the right belief.
Here, atheist author Christopher Hitchens added an interesting point on how good deeds serve as promotional tools. He argued that Hamas, a terrorist organization, is also responsible for most of the charity work that takes place in the Gaza strip with orphans and widows. Mormon charities after Katrina also sought great publicity in spite of the fact that the Book of Mormon literally calls black people filthy and loathsome (Mormon 5:15). Atheists like Hitchens argue that the wholesomeness of these religious organizations can and should be debated, that the good deeds that they are so ostentatious of should not serve as an excuse to erase and forget the less noble episodes in the history of a religion, or to avoid rigor in studying the validity of its supernatural claims.
The idea that religion is what keeps people moral is not only false but it’s also dangerous as long as society continues assuming that religious leaders and institutions are above reproach, that we are not to require transparency of them as we do of other people and institutions. It’s this assertion that has allowed Catholic priests to rape and later silence thousands of innocent children over generations while their followers and even authorities try to not see what is going on under their noses, afraid to insult the sensitivities of deeply sincere Catholics.
It is here that the role of atheists in the public discourse on religion becomes more crucial. Atheists argue that it’s not only fair, but IMPERATIVE, to require transparency from religious leaders, that people do not have to be docile and fear religious authorities, that people can raise objections if necessary, that this is healthy.
Lack of visibility for atheists and prevalence of deference to religious authorities has contributed to a generally passive and docile attitude that is too often mistaken for humility and for a virtue. This false humility, and the false arrogance that atheists are often accused of, reveal a system of values that has little respect for empirical and scientific evidence and too much undeserved respect for religions that are ostentatious about a moral superiority that they sorely lack.
A final note on anti-atheist sentiment: social scientists have recently been studying the death denial principle, an underlying and mostly unrecognized tendency in humans characterized by attempts to hide, deny or re-imagine death.  It was first proposed by anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker, who argued that denial of death was behind most of human activity.
Studies demonstrate that, when faced with the reality of their own mortality, people tend to hang on to that which is familiar and to exhibit hostility towards the unfamiliar, and religious people in specific tend to express hostility towards atheists and people of religions that deny their fantasies about the afterlife.  Christians, for instance, exhibited more anti-Jewish and anti-atheist behavior when reminded of their mortality.
In another study, when judges were reminded of their own mortality and were given cases to judge, they also judged more harshly whereas a group of judges that was not reminded of their own death gave considerably less severe sentences.
These studies suggest that people’s bias against atheists, who according to recent studies are the most distrusted and hated minority in America, invariably have to do with the people that have the bias and their unconscious unresolved issues, not with the atheists. When theists assume their own moral superiority, it’s quite insulting for non-religious people, it’s tired and it’s baseless. Seneca was right. Credulity is not a virtue. It’s dehumanizing and it’s no facsimile for true ethics.

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