Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is Religion Our Big Problem?

Is religion a positive aspect of human expression or has it been the one thing that seems to hold our species back from true peace and happiness? A recent article by Valerie Terico on Salon.com featured "6 Reasons Why Religion Does More Harm Than Good." The article is well written and presented in a well-thought out manner. The points in the article suggest that Religion is the most divisive construct known to humanity.
 The six points in brief are as follows:
1.)    Religion promotes tribalism
2.)    Religion anchors believers in the Iron Age
3.)    Religion makes a virtue out of faith
4.)    Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions
5.)    Religion teaches helplessness
6.)    Religion seeks power
The points are explained in detail in their respective article which I have linked above but I would like to make some points about the intellectual fallacy being promoted by the author of this article.
1.)    The first point concerning tribalism isn't a disputable claim. Yes, religion is tribal in the sense that it categorizes people as those who are "believers" and the "unbelievers." As such it is a product of society which in itself is defined by an "us" verses "them" mentality. This is the natural condition of the human psyche. The problem with tribalism is not exclusively religious but it is manifested in politics, neighborhoods, high school cliques, sports, etc. In any context of opposition there will always be a tribal mindset. "The STL Cardinals are better than the Chicago Cubs;" the Democrats are right because they are not Republicans and vice-versa; My family is better than the Jones family; I'm way cooler than the dad down the road. We see this tribalism everywhere!

Rather than religion being the problem it is an effort to find a solution. Judaism teaches one to love their neighbor as themselves, Christianity teaches its followers to love the sinner, Buddhism expands the concept of self to be all inclusive, Hinduism has been the more tolerant and accepting society based in India than any other nation in history. Religion teaches a positive image of God and mankind which is inclusive of all humanity regardless of a person's current beliefs or moral disposition. Likewise it is equally truthful that many alleged followers of religion do not have the same inclusive and loving characteristic which is essential to the authenticity of the faith that they profess. However, the lack of perfect emulation is not an inherent fault of religion but is due to the dysfunctional dualistic quality of the human psyche which is reinforced with negative perceptions from society as a whole. A society that is largely opposed to authentic religious conviction.

2.)    Concerning the second point, which asserts that religion anchors believers in the Iron Age, Valerie states:

"Sacred texts including the Bible, Torah and Koran all preserve and protect fragments of Iron Age culture, putting a god’s name and endorsement on some of the very worst human impulses. Any believer looking to excuse his own temper, sense of superiority, warmongering, bigotry, or planetary destruction can find validation in writings that claim to be authored by God."

A person who desires to excuse their bad behavior can find justification or an excuse anywhere or nowhere as many people don't care whether its justified and most certainly don't need an excuse to engage in vile behavior. Human nature has a strong narcissistic component to it that perceives itself over and above others. This hearkens back to our previous point concerning tribalism. This egoistic impulse that causes one to have a desire for the self cannot be overcome nor redirected towards a more positive purpose without a calling to do so. This calling does not come from a secular society and secularism has no traits which would be useful in endearing altruistic qualities in a person without conviction. Can secularism or atheism convict a person that their malevolence needs to necessarily transform into benevolence? No, there isn't anything in the doctrine of secular humanism that has the power to transform the individual person nor society on the collective level into a more positive utopia of human experience.

Religion presents the worse of human nature in its texts but then provides a narrative of conscious and spiritual change for the betterment of collective humanity. The fact that most Scriptures were written in archaic times does not change the reality of their message. Human psychology was exactly the same then as it is now. Despite the tendency of some to see modern man as a superior species this is simply an error of perception. A civilized person in the 21st century will quickly devolve into an animalistic and primal person once they are removed from their comfortable environment. Therefore the civilizing effects of prosperity and materialism in the Western world are not effecting genuine change rather they are simply suppressing the true nature of man. This suppression is superficial and is why Western society has the highest violent crime rate in the world. Secularism has no answer to this fundamental reality afflicting the human psyche.

3.)    Concerning faith as a virtue, Valerie states:

"As science eats away at territory once held by religion, traditional religious beliefs require greater and greater mental defenses against threatening information. To stay strong, religion trains believers to practice self-deception, shut out contradictory evidence, and trust authorities rather than their own capacity to think. This approach seeps into other parts of life. Government, in particular, becomes a fight between competing ideologies rather than a quest to figure out practical, evidence-based solutions that promote wellbeing."

The assertion that science is eroding religious territory is a personal opinion expressed by the author who apparently hasn't invested much time into the study of either science or religion. Science is a method of evidence-based research into the natural phenomenon of existence. In many aspects science has been completely complimentary to religion and in other ways science has caused religious people to re-appraise some of their beliefs about the world in which they live. Science and religion have both evolved and this evolution has not been mutually exclusive. The problem with Valerie's entire point here is that she is guilty of everything she has been accusing religious people of up to this point. Valerie accuses religion of creating tribalism but she has created tribalism herself by separating science and religion as two opposing forces rather than the common heritage of humanity. Valerie is using science as a weapon to wound the devout and asserting an argument based of the scientifically enlightened verses the unenlightened religious who are stuck in the Iron Age and opposed to science. This assertion is patently false and the hypocrisy is blatant. Valerie despises religion for being tribal but she can be tribal so long as it isn't in a religious way.

Further, Valerie ties in religious anti-scientific enlightenment with the problem of the Government. Apparently all of the politicking and lack of progress in government that Valerie would like to see is the fault of religion. Valerie wants the government to find evidence-based solution to world problems but she fails to see that her assertion that religion is a hindrance to this process is in and of itself not evidence-based. Do we have statistical information about the religious beliefs of each of the members of governance from the state to the federal level? No. Do we have any data which would indicate how devoted a government official is to his/her professed faith? No. Do we have any stats on what government decisions are attributable to religious conviction? No. Do we have any examples of atheist governments that are not partisan and are making life a utopia for its citizens? No but we do have evidence to the contrary, think Napoleon, Stalin, Than Shwe, Kim Jong, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, the list could go on.

4.)    The fourth point is that religion diverts human compassion and money to promote religious ideals as Valerie states:

"Crass financial appeals during times of crisis thankfully are not the norm, but religion does routinely redirect generosity in order to perpetuate religion itself. Generous people are encouraged to give till it hurts to promote the church itself rather than the general welfare. Each year, thousands of missionaries throw themselves into the hard work of saving souls rather than saving lives or saving our planetary life support system. Their work, tax free, gobbles up financial and human capital."

Without controversy, religion is at the forefront of feeding the poor, educating the illiterate, giving to charities, supporting orphaned children, running half-way houses, food banks, digging wells for those with no access to clean water, building schools, rescuing spouses of domestic abuse, etc. (see: http://philanthropy.com/article/Religious-Americans-Give-More/143273/ )  Valerie says that none of this matters as it is simply a crass financial appeal to perpetuate the religion. The fact that religion is actually doing its job, which is to create a more altruistic and benevolent type of people for the benefit of all, is another example of Valerie's hypocritical position. She attacks religion for being malevolent and then attacks it for being benevolent. This double-standard is nonsensical. Case in point, if religion helps the masses through various campaigns which are funded by its own contributors and subsequently the religion itself is strengthens by the endeavors then the effect is that a strengthened religious organization will in turn be able to help even more people. The real truth in Valerie's hatred of philanthropy and that such charitable work cannot be taxed as she stated at the end of the above quote. She wants religious activities and philanthropy to be a taxable endeavor. Further, she has a problem with the wide range of charitable contributions by religious people because these charitable efforts are selective. Charity is directed towards specific situation rather than being controlled and directed by a government authority. In other words, Valerie states, "saving souls rather than saving lives or saving our planetary life support system," which clearly reveals her agenda- she wants religious funds to be redirected towards her own subjective causes such as global warming. Feeding the poor, housing the homeless, educating children, etc. are not worthy endeavors compared to Valerie's beliefs that social liberal programs and taxation is the true answer to humanity's needs.

Do religions have an agenda for giving? Yes but this agenda is negative and not legitimate compared to Valerie's own subjective agenda. At least that is what she wants her readers to believe.

5.)    Valerie states that religion teaches helplessness. This is an odd fifth point to make after having criticized religion for running the government and laboring in the fields of philanthropy. Yet she states:

"Let go and let God. We’ve all heard these phrases, but sometimes we don’t recognize the deep relationship between religiosity and resignation."

Religion acknowledges that there is a limit to human-based solutions and especially in times of crisis it is important to acknowledge something greater than our own ego's. This is not apathy nor is it resignation rather it is reverence for the process of life and the limits of human abilities.

Valerie continues her rant:

"Droughts, poverty and cancer get attributed to the will of God rather than bad decisions or bad systems; believers wait for God to solve problems they could solve themselves."

I am not sure what world Valerie is living in but generally when I speak to people from a variety of religious faiths they recognize that droughts are an act of nature and fund many dams and levees in areas of the world where it's necessary. Perhaps Valerie thinks that religious people have not contributed to the development of societal infrastructure throughout history. Poverty is a condition that religious philanthropy has poured billions of dollars into to combat and cancer is a disease that now afflicts 1 in every 3 individuals in the USA which is caused by environmental factors. All of these things are completely recognized as being a product of bad systems and bad decisions based upon the struggle of natural laws and in some cases the negative consequences of human indifference to the natural order and to other humans. There is no religious culprit in any of these factors. Thus this attack on religion is baseless and completely devoid of any substantive content.

The conclusion of Valerie's anti-intellectual rant of religious apathy concludes with the statement: "When this mentality persists, religion inspires personal piety without social responsibility." In what scenario does religion neglect social responsibility? In every point listed up to this point social responsibility has been shown to be the preoccupation of religion. Further, personal piety is the only motivator towards social responsibility. Personal egoism is the inverse and has not demonstrated a quality of altruism which has benefited humanity in the least. Can Valerie back up her baseless assertions with any evidence? No.
6.)    Valerie finishes her baseless attack on religion by contesting the corporate personality of major religious organizations. She states:

"Think corporate personhood. Religions are man-made institutions, just like for-profit corporations are. And like any corporation, to survive and grow a religion must find a way to build power and wealth and compete for market share. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity—any large enduring religious institution is as expert at this as Coca-cola or Chevron. And just like for-profit behemoths, they are willing to wield their power and wealth in the service of self-perpetuation, even it harms society at large."

Corporate personhood is a term used to describe a corporate entity which is classified as having the rights that are typically bestowed upon an individual. Valerie is attempting to assert that religious organizations are corporations who are hiding behind corporate personhood in order to protect their religious freedom and thus selectively offer services to the people it want to serve. She is correct but I fail to see where the problem lies? A religious non-profit organization differs significantly from a for-profit corporation like Coca-Cola. For-profit corporations exist specifically to make money in a Capitalist driven environment. Non-profit entities are organized for and by a particular group of people that hold a certain set of beliefs in common. The for-profit corporations receive federal funding in many cases while non-profit entities do not. Coca-Cola sells its product to drive profits for its shareholders whereas non-profit religious organizations do not have shareholders and funds acquired through the endeavors of its people serve the common interest of the people. The most marked difference between these two entities is the for-profit groups serve Capitalism whereas non-profit groups serve a social system. Further, the promotion of religious agendas does not harm society at large as Valerie contends but has been demonstrated to help the most unfortunate of society. This is the non-Capitalist nature of non-profit institutions.

Valerie concludes her rant by stating:

"In fact, unbeknown to religious practitioners, harming society may actually be part of religion’s survival strategy. In the words of sociologist Phil Zuckerman and researcher Gregory Paul, “Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.” When people feel prosperous and secure the hold of religion weakens."

The final quote that summarizes this article is the only evidence that Valerie has provided throughout her entire article and it is not evidence that quotes a study neither it's just an opinion piece. The idea that there isn't a single advanced democracy that is prosperous and religious can be refuted by one simple example- the United States. The US is the most advanced and powerful democratic republic on the planet and while it has its fair share of problems it nonetheless is better off than most other countries. The United States enjoys a high level of religious observance and according to the annual World Giving Index the United States ranked #1 and #2 (sharing #1 with Myanmar) as the most generous country in the world. The USA beat out all other nations in the category of "helping a stranger." Note: This study is not tied to the wealth of a country which makes the outcome fair for the 140 participating countries. Charitable giving in 2013 rose 6% in the USA. Apparently, Valerie would see this charitable giving and rise of 6% as the result of crass financial appeals.

As far as the weakening of religious life in prosperous countries this is a true statement. However this is not a positive development and an observance of the most secular countries in Europe demonstrate this negative outcome vividly. Sweden for example is considered the "happiest" country in the world and yet Sweden has the highest suicide rate in the entire world. (Wasserman, Eva- September 11, 2012). The New York Times ran a report stating: "Numerous studies have shown that places like Denmark and Sweden that consistently score high on measures of happiness and life satisfaction also have relatively high suicide rates." Citizens in first rate prosperous countries are supposedly the happiest and yet they have the highest rates of suicide. Something doesn't add up here. The fact is that regardless of how prosperous society is and regardless of how many material possessions a person has accrued; happiness is a temporary emotional manifestation that suppresses authentic feelings of fear and hopelessness. This fear and hopelessness is promoted by the vanity and pointlessness of living promoted by secularists. The suppressed feelings eventually surface and a psyche that does not have the tools to effectively deal with these negative emotions will find a final solution to end its pain.

Valerie's article represents the shallowness of secularist agenda which is driven by a distortion of facts and basic understanding of human nature. Valerie attacks religion and in so doing displays the exact same characteristics in her attitude which she attacks religion for. My hope is that this article will enable some people who are struggling with these attacks to think a bit more critically. There are many voices of secularism which are increasingly attacking any and all religious expressions. The old and erroneous vision of utopianism is rearing its head in society once again and we must never forget what has happened to the human race under that banner in previous generations. The atrocities committed in the name of religious are terrible but pale in comparison to the systematic atrocities committed to Utopianism.