6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.

I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.

It's true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook - things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.

There's much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn't be trying to create something completely new or do something that's never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn't agree on other issues.

A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don't think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they've brought about a sea change in public opinion. They've won major legal victories such as ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.

Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don't need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we'd do about every issue -- we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don't want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn't be criticized, forget about them. We don't need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.

So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here's my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:

1. Atheists can be good people.

This seems so obvious it's not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.

To counter this myth, we don't need to prove that we're better than everyone else. We don't need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we're better at getting away with it).

2. Greater support for separation of church and state.

This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that's more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don't want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don't believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.

Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn't reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there's the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.

3. Greater support for free speech.

One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!

In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don't stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.

Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who'd like nothing better than to censor us.

4. Greater support for science and reason.

Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don't value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it's crucial to let science and reason guide us if we're going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don't, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can't be happening because God wouldn't let the climate change too much, or that it's futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there's no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn't to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.

Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.

5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don't even try to disguise this.

For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."

Left unexplained by all these people is why any group's opinions about God's desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they're sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?

I grant it's possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God's decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.

6. Greater support for reproductive choice.

With this point, I know I'm wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won't be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.

Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.

In cultures where women's ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that's fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be  unyielding guardians of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.

* * *

I don't expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we'll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.

What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren't supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There's real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn't an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we're willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.

August 1, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

What Does It Mean for Prayer to be Untestable?

People who are ignorant of science sometimes speak as if the scientific method was some esoteric, arcane method of problem-solving, applicable only to a few highly specialized areas of inquiry and having no relevance to everyday life. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the scientific method is just a more sophisticated, more careful way of asking and answering questions about what is true, with extra safeguards built in to counteract the ways that human beings often fool or mislead ourselves. In principle, science can answer any question whose answer is a matter of empirical fact and not just a matter of opinion or subjective judgment.

This fact has implications for a broad range of religious claims, especially about the efficacy of prayer. Large, well-designed scientific studies have repeatedly failed to find any evidence that sick people who are being prayed for recover faster or more completely than people who aren't. In response, many apologists have retreated to claiming that prayer's effectiveness can't be tested scientifically, such as this one:

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement...

But this claim probably says more than its originator intended. When theists say that prayer is untestable, what they're really saying, whether they realize it or not, is that prayer has no measurable effect on the world. If it did have a measurable, repeatable effect, we could easily design an experiment that would show it. But since believers say that this can't be done, they must mean that prayer has no benefits that can be proven by any test. Consider some of the consequences that necessarily follow from this claim:

Sick theists who pray for healing are no more likely to recover than sick atheists. If people who were prayed for recovered more quickly or more fully than people receiving no prayer, we could easily show this with a test. That was the point of the MANTRA study I linked to above. But if prayer is untestable, then that must mean that prayer has no measurable effect on a person's recovery, regardless of how many people are offering prayers for them or how fervent those people are in their faith.

Theists who pray for success and prosperity are no more likely to receive it than atheists. Prosperity-gospel churches often teach that the more money a believer tithes, the more God will reward them. Again, a longitudinal study tracking the amount of people's donations and comparing it to their subsequent financial success could easily show this to be so. If prayer is untestable, however, this must mean that the amount of money you give to your church has no effect on the odds of your subsequently becoming rich.

More committed, more faithful believers have their prayers answered at the same rate as more casual, less committed believers. Even if you start with the assumption that God only grants prayers that agree with his will, it seems like a reasonable guess that more devoted, more committed believers would have at least a slightly greater understanding of God's will than casual, apathetic churchgoers, and hence their prayers would be more likely to come true. But if prayer is untestable, there must be no such measurable effect, which means that one's level of commitment means nothing to the effectiveness of one's prayers.

The number of people praying for some outcome makes no difference to its probability. Even if the level of one's devotion makes no difference, you might guess that the number of people praying for some outcome would be correlated with how likely that outcome is. But if prayer is untestable, then it must make no difference whether one, a hundred, or a million people pray for something - it would be just as likely, or rather unlikely, to come true.

The specific beliefs of the people praying for some outcome makes no difference to its probability. If there's one true religion, it seems likely that God would only answer the prayers of believers in that religion, or at least would answer their prayers more frequently than the prayers of heretics. But that would also be an easily testable effect. If prayer is untestable, there must be no such effect, and this means that people of all religions - Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Hare Krishna, Jain, Zoroastrian, Shinto - would see their prayers come true with roughly the same frequency.

People who pray daily are no more happier, no more virtuous, and no more trustworthy than people who rarely or never pray. Some people claim that prayer doesn't produce miraculous effects in the world, but is intended to strengthen the faith and improve the character of the believer. But even this can't be true if prayer is untestable. If people who are otherwise alike in social standing are measurably different in any positive psychological trait, depending on whether or how often they pray, this would be a testable effect. We could measure it with the same kind of epidemiological surveys that measure the beneficial health effects of diet or exercise. If this kind of test wouldn't work, then it must be the case that prayer produces no detectable change in the character of the believer.

Nations populated by people who pray frequently are no more socially healthy than irreligious nations. Building on the last point, if prayer has no measurable effect, this must apply to nations as well as people. This means that nations of fervent believers who pray frequently are no different from godless, atheist nations in every measure of social health: divorce rates, crime rates, number and severity of natural disasters, overall happiness of the populace, and so on.

August 16, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink46 comments

The Amorphous Enemy

In a previous post, "The Soft Landing", I wrote about the future and about one potential scenario that I find disturbing: that militant, fundamentalist churches will grow at the expense of moderate and liberal ones, leaving behind a world split between atheism and angry, intolerant religion. In this post, I'll again look to the future, this time to outline another possibility that I find worrisome in a different way.

In this scenario, both moderate and fundamentalist religion will decline together. But instead of secular humanism and rationalism growing in their place, a different belief system will fill the gap: not any kind of formal or organized religion, but a vague, amorphous, anything-goes kind of credulity. We already see devotees of such a belief system in the modern New Age and pagan movements, in the alternative-medicine and anti-vaccination camps, in the fans of TV psychics, alien abductees, ghost-believers, channelers, and preachers of the "law of attraction". The members of all these groups may not have any specific beliefs in common, but what unites them is the conviction that personal intuition is a reliable guide to truth, as well as a willingness to form their own beliefs by picking and choosing whatever sounds good to them.

A world such as this, instead of violence, would be more likely to suffer stagnation. Scientific discoveries would not be opposed by a rigid ideology, but diluted and drowned out by a society that cheerfully embraces every superstitious fad that sweeps by. For skeptics and rationalists, facing down such an amorphous enemy would be like cutting the heads off a hydra: for every one defeated, two more sprout in its place. And as more of society's resources are diverted from genuinely valuable and productive endeavors to serve the cause of credulity, the pace of progress slows, knowledge fades, and people value science and critical thinking less and less. Ultimately, we could squander the legacy of the Enlightenment and end up in a new dark age like the one we so recently struggled up out of.

What can we do to avert this outcome? The most important principle, I feel, is that we need to keep in mind that our mission should be broader than just attacking whichever supernatural beliefs are causing the most harm. Even if we were successful at that, human beings can dream up an unlimited number of new beliefs to replace whichever ones we vanquish. To win the battle against superstition, we need to work towards a broader goal: a renewed allegiance to reason and the principles of critical thinking in society. We need not just to point out the bad ideas, but to give people the tools to tell the difference between good and bad ideas for themselves.

What this means for us is that, to promote a brighter future of reason, and not just more diversity of superstition, atheists should be guardians of good education. We should see it as our role to ensure that public schools are universal, secular, well-supplied, and staffed by qualified teachers with a curriculum based in science and reason. As well, we must support the effort to make higher education accessible and affordable to everyone. Doing anything else - abandoning the poor to underfunded and inadequate schools, trusting that the market will solve the problem, calling for the privatization of education - is to invite every kind of superstition to take root and grow in the fertile soil of uneducated minds. Surveys consistently show that more highly educated adults are more likely to be skeptics and atheists; the converse is true as well. In the long run, investing in an educated public is an effort that will pay genuine dividends to all of us.

February 19, 2009, 7:50 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments

Fertile Soil

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

A recent poll by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found, as many previous surveys have found, that Americans' knowledge of political and historical facts about our country is abysmal. But this one added a twist - it surveyed elected officials as well as ordinary citizens, and found that their knowledge of the same facts was, if anything, even worse. (You can take the quiz yourself.)

I'm astounded that elected officials didn't do better than the average person. This is a worrying development that suggests the pervasive anti-intellectualism in our society is making its way into government. With some of these questions - for instance, the question about which branch of government has the power to declare war - the incorrect answers can likely be blamed on the influence of a right-wing movement that's actively hostile to the ideas of judicial review and separation of powers. But many of the questions have no such ideological implications, and wrong answers can only be blamed on a more general hostility to empirical knowledge, education and other positive qualities commonly scorned in the media as "elitism".

Anti-intellectualism in America

Photo courtesy of UMKC's Scopes trial page.

Commenters like Susan Jacoby have noted the pernicious effects of dumbing down our civil discourse, making us less able to evaluate the policy choices we face as a democratic nation. But worse than not knowing is the attitude that we don't need to know - that subjective certainty or ideological dogma can stand in for consensus, empirical knowledge about the way the world works. Religious faith is a special offender in this regard, teaching as it does that authority or tradition is a sufficient reason to believe something, and often praising believers as virtuous for believing things that are contradicted by the evidence. An ignorant, poorly educated society is fertile soil for every kind of superstition. Conversely, less educated people are far more likely to believe in ideas such as miracles, demons, and biblical literalism. (See also.)

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new, of course. There's always been a strong undercurrent of it in American society, one that dates back at least to the Scopes trial, and it's not a surprise that belligerently anti-science regions of the country elect representatives who act in kind. That's not new, but what is new is that our society - stretching the limits of what Earth's resources will support - is increasingly dependent on science and technology, and increasingly beset with problems, such as global climate change, that only scientific understanding will give us a hope to comprehend or solve. As the stakes get higher, we can less and less afford to have irrationalism poisoning the public debate and swaying our policy choices. The risk is too great that it will lead us astray at a critical moment.

The problem of anti-intellectualism has no easy solution, particularly when so many people take pride in their ignorance rather than viewing it as something to be ashamed of. Improving public schools is necessary, but at best it treats a symptom rather than a cause. What we need more is a return to the attitude that being intelligent and educated is a good thing which people should aspire to.

This is part of the reason why atheists must take a greater role in public discourse. Religious liberals and moderates can and often do join with us on specific social issues - but even they, for the most part, take the position that faith is an acceptable way of making policy decisions. We have an altogether different message, and one that's far more vital: decisions that affect the common good must be made on the basis of reason. That's a message worth promoting, and that's why we should disregard the squawking of those pundits who urge atheists to keep quiet and not criticize religion, because it's "disrespectful". Our message, in the long run, is crucial and necessary; if we need to do damage to established superstitions to get it out, so be it.

December 8, 2008, 9:17 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink75 comments

Open Thread: Christianity and the Enlightenment

This is an open thread to address John's comment regarding Christianity and the origins of the Enlightenment. Comments and replies are welcome.

November 6, 2007, 12:58 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink58 comments

Emptying the Haunted Air

Almost two hundred years ago, the English Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem, "Lamia", in which he lamented that the advance of scientific understanding would rob the world of its beauty and wonder. Keats' chief villain, though not named in the poem, was Isaac Newton, whose use of the prism to split white light into its component colors was viewed by Keats as akin to desecration:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow...

(It helps if you read "awful" as "awe-inspiring". Like species, languages evolve over time.)

Keats' charge of "unweaving the rainbow" was answered by Richard Dawkins, whose book of the same name argued persuasively that understanding how the world truly works enhances, rather than diminishes, its beauty and our awe. This strikes me as a more than adequate reply. But as far as I know, Keats' other point hasn't been answered in detail, and I'd like to do so.

To this charge, I answer as follows: Yes, science will empty the haunted air. And the sooner, the better. That is not a thing to be lamented, but a long-awaited liberation from an especially harmful set of lingering and poisonous superstitions.

Throughout history, religious believers have been obsessed with the idea that human beings are constantly under assault by devilish powers. Christianity's most famous evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, was one of the chief proponents of this demonic paranoia:

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

—Ephesians 6:12

And likewise the pseudonymous author of 1 Peter, who compared the Devil to a predator forever waiting his chance to strike:

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."

—1 Peter 5:8

These believers, and many others, had demons on the brain. In everything they did, they saw evil spirits swarming invisibly around them, always seeking to bring about the downfall of the faithful, always plotting how best to tempt them into eternal damnation, and always ready to strike at any believer who let down his guard for even an instant. This superstitious phobia, which survives to the present day, has produced incalculable fear, suffering and misery.

For just one example, I wrote earlier this year, in "Rebuking the Devil", of a Pentecostal church in the Congo that still thinks mental illness is a sign of demon possession. Rather than effective psychiatric intervention to help its sick patients, this church's "treatment" consists of chaining them down and beating them, interspersed with faith healing and prayer. Whole sites also exist that are devoted to the idea of "deliverance" from demonic attack and curses in every aspect of life.

But it's not just small fringe sects or Third World countries where demonic superstitions persist. These beliefs are still defended by large, established churches and respected religious spokespeople, and they are still causing harm to real people in the world today.

Consider this comment from a column on Catholic Online:

Those Catholics involved in deliverance ministry who are versed in the aspects of the occult inform me that curses of this type are very hard to complete.

Note - hard, not impossible. Evidently, this Catholic writer really believes that it is possible to cause harm to another by invoking occult aid. And he's not some random nobody, representing only himself, but an ordained priest and a featured contributor on a large and popular Catholic news and opinion site.

Likewise, consider the evangelical Dr. Gary Collins, a highly qualified clinical psychologist and president of the 15,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, who was handpicked by apologist Lee Strobel for his book The Case for Christ. In a stunning interview with Strobel, Collins reveals his belief that malicious demons exist and are actively possessing people in the world today. Even more amazingly, he implies - like the Pentecostals of the Congo - that he thinks this should be the basis for treatment of at least some of the mentally ill:

"From my theological beliefs, I accept that demons exist... there are spiritual forces out there, and it's not too hard to conclude that some might be malevolent."

"I haven't personally [seen evidence of demon possession], but then I haven't spent my whole career in clinical settings... My friends in clinical work have said that sometimes they have seen this, and these are not people who are inclined to see a demon behind every problem."

"People who deny the existence of the supernatural will find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain a situation apart from the demonic. They'll keep giving medication, keep drugging the person, but he or she doesn't get better. There are cases that don't respond to normal medical or psychiatric treatment." (p. 204)

Vast suffering has been inflicted on people as a result of these irrational beliefs. Vjack of Atheist Revolution tells us about his friend Tony, who was kidnapped by his parents' conservative evangelical church and "exorcised" against his will until he was emotionally broken. Another anonymous story, even more horrifying, adds the element of carving a cross into the unwilling exorcism recipient's skin. Children and others have died during abusive exorcisms.

No good has ever been brought about by demon beliefs. They have only ever caused fear, suffering and misery, both for the people who are imprisoned, abused and tortured and for the genuinely mentally ill who are discouraged from getting the real treatment they need.

Thankfully, after millennia in darkness, we finally have an opportunity to recognize these falsehoods for what they are. As the light of true understanding spreads, the supernatural is retreating. We have learned that our world is not a demon-haunted place, with malicious spirits lurking in every corner, but is governed by stable, orderly natural laws, as majestic and impersonal as clockwork. There are no leering demons waiting to menace us; those creatures are nothing but the fevered dreams of a superstitious and ignorant age. In the daylight, they have no more substance than shadows, and melt away just as quickly.

So, Keats was correct: philosophy and science will empty the haunted air. He saw this as a lament, but we should view it as a blessing. Once we have finished clearing out the grotesque supernatural visions that have threatened and terrified so many people, we will be free to turn our attention fully to the needs and concerns of this world, which are the only real or important things.

October 27, 2007, 11:47 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments

Unravelled Threads

One of the hallmarks of a well-tested scientific theory is that it is supported by numerous, independent lines of evidence. We have the greatest confidence that a theory is true when results from completely different fields of science, which have no obvious reason to agree, all converge in support of the same conclusion, like threads weaving together to form a unified tapestry. This coming together of evidence was called consilience by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in his book of the same name.

One of the great success stories of science, the theory of continental drift, bears witness to how this process operates. Continental drift is backed up by independent lines of evidence: rock strata that match up across continents, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; fossils of unusual species that exist in only a few, widely separated places; and magnetic striping in the ocean crust which indicates that the seafloor has been steadily spreading over time. All these unrelated lines of evidence independently converge to support the same conclusion.

This sort of evidentiary consilience is notably absent when we examine religious scriptures such as the Bible. Far from possessing independent lines of evidence that converge on the same conclusion, these texts contain numerous fantastic stories that are uncorroborated by history or even by other retellings of the story elsewhere in the book. Instead of weaving a coherent tapestry, these threads unravel into a tangled, confused mess.

Consider the story of Herod and the slaughter of the infants. This tale is recounted in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. In it, the tyrant Herod orders all the infants of Bethlehem to be slaughtered in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus, whose parents were forewarned and fled with their son to Egypt.

This tall tale finds no corroboration even within the pages of the Bible. The epistles never speak of it, and Mark and John have no nativity stories. Luke does, but his version is completely different. In Luke's story, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, following which his parents return with him to Nazareth (2:39). No mention is made of Herod's slaughter or an intervening flight to Egypt. The historian Josephus, who chronicled the historically bloodthirsty reign of Herod in detail, also never mentions it.

An even wilder story can be found in Matthew 27. In this story, after Jesus dies on the cross, there is a mass resurrection witnessed by apparently nearly the entire city of Jerusalem:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Needless to say, there is no historical record of such an astonishing event, and no other book in the Bible so much as mentions it - a stunning omission, considering this easily qualifies as the most spectacular miracle of the New Testament. Yet if we are to believe Christian apologists who say that every word of the Bible is true, this mass resurrection really did happen, and then sank into obscurity without a ripple and was forgotten. Not a single person who witnessed it felt compelled to write it down or make any record. Nor does any Christian evangelist of the first several centuries ever refer to it in their preaching.

If this had really happened, it would have been a catalyst for mass conversions throughout the Ancient Near East and would have been recounted far and wide. It would have been remembered like no other event in human history has ever been remembered. An undoubtable, verifiable miracle of the highest order, one whose recipients could personally testify about it! And yet, the silence of the historical record is deafening. This is one case where the argument from silence absolutely is valid, and the only rational conclusion to draw is that this biblical story is pure fiction and that the events it describes never happened.

The question of how the apostles died is another notable example of unravelled biblical threads. Apparently, to judge from the historical record, the original twelve Christians handpicked by Jesus himself all vanished into mystery and obscurity within a few years, with no reliable evidence surviving to show how any of them died or even what they did during their lives. All we have today are a handful of wild, apocryphal, and often mutually contradictory tall tales.

Indeed, the story of Jesus himself could be considered the greatest unravelled thread of all. Far from enjoying a consilience of historical evidence, the formative years of Christianity are dim and confused and almost completely lacking in extra-biblical verification. Substantial evidence suggests that there may not have been a historical human being at the root of this religion at all, but rather belief in a mythological figure which only gradually, and after many twists and turns, developed into belief in a recent human individual. Although the early defenders of orthodoxy did much to rewrite church history to fit their own newly developed conception, they could not hide the fact that this story is still lacking in points of empirical contact with the external world.

September 12, 2007, 7:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink28 comments

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