Bad Religion: Christopher Hitchens Is Right

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Unfortunately, folks, Christopher Hitchens [1] is right.  I’ve been trying to avoid writing this post, mainly because it’s easy for many, perhaps most, readers to dismiss any message if they can label the messenger “anti-religious.”  I’m not anti-religious; I accept that, at this point in our evolutionary history, natural selection has favored brains that are particularly susceptible to religious ideation.  I do not rail against this fact.  I accept Orgel’s Second Rule, “Evolution is cleverer than you are,” so I do not challenge the conclusion that, to date, the genes that facilitate these sorts of supernatural beliefs have replicated and survived better than those that do not, possibly due to the survival advantages of the social bonding that accompanies religion-based groups.  I thus accept that religion has its place in our nation, but I also clearly understand the U.S. Constitution to express the wisdom and necessity of keeping religion and government separated.  More on that below.

As I was writing the post on the apparent primacy of feeling over thinking in both the Casey Anthony trial and debt ceiling kerfuffles, even though neither of these cultural events has openly to do with religion, I was struck by how religious ideation makes these events probable.  The essence of religion, at least as it is generally practiced and experienced in this nation, embraces anti-empiricism, anti-rationalism, anti-compromise; in short, absolutist faith.  Representing the world in a non-factual, faith-based way is continually validated in almost any part of U.S. life that is touched by religion.  No religious adherent is ever challenged to “prove” her religious beliefs.  No criticism is made when those beliefs are incoherent or inconsistent with other aspects of the adherent’s life.  No such belief, no matter how bereft of evidence, how directly contrary to all the hard-won learning of our species – the widespread 6000-year-old-Earth belief is the obvious example – is openly, officially and regularly declared to be just plain wrong, glaringly incorrect, absurdly erroneous.

So what, you say.  People have a right to believe what they want – see that U.S. Constitution – and these beliefs make them feel good, and don’t hurt the rest of us.  True, true and false.  They hurt us in three important ways.

The first way is open and obvious: some of these beliefs impede actions that are beneficial to the rest of us or encourage actions that are harmful to us.  E.g., if it is true, as the increasing weight of overwhelming evidence indicates, that we are overheating our planetary home with probable disastrous consequences and that remedial action is required now if not yesterday, then religious beliefs that discourage corrective behavior are harmful.  There is, for example, widespread belief in this nation that Jesus will not allow anything terminally bad to happen to Earth – or if it does happen he will fix it later – because he intends to come back here and create a paradise, and in the meanwhile he wants us to exercise dominion over everything and use it as we will.  Therefore, efforts to conserve and protect air, water, flora and fauna are at best unnecessary and wasteful and at worst blasphemous, signs of insufficient faith.

It is bad enough for the rest of us that people with these beliefs vote, but some of them, perhaps many, are in Congress, including the current GOP 2012 presidential candidate frontrunner and avowed bible-believing Christian, Rep. Michele Bachmann, who famously said in early 2008, “The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It’s all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” [2]  (Whatever the details of the genesis of this belief of hers, it comes to us clothed in a deep, and critical, factual ignorance: she expresses the companion belief that carbon dioxide is “a harmless gas” that comprises 3% of Earth’s atmosphere; it’s actually about 77 times less than that at .039%. [3] )  Note that she, like other of her colleagues, does not urge a cost/benefit analysis in addressing climate change, but rather dismisses its very reality, even linking it to a disfavored religion, voodoo, in her dismissal.

The second way is more profound and more dangerous for all of us.  It involves an habituated way of thinking.  Many writers, including Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, have noted that religious ideation is the only sort of cognitive activity in which we have cultural license to make firm pronouncements without any evidence.  The three named authors use this fact to indict religiosity.  But our culture affirms rather than indicts religiosity, so the effect of this exceptional aspect of religious mental activity is not that it is isolated, but that it is available as a comfortable template for other sorts of ideation.  If going with your gut, following your intuition, knowing in your heart, seeing by faith, getting messages from a deity is the gold standard in that most important area of religion, how could it not be appropriate for other, less important life areas?  If I firmly believe, strongly feel that global warming is a hoax, why should I not state that as an objective truth?  The big picture of the fate of the world is made clear to me by my faith; those details offered by “science” are mere trivia, essentially irrelevant.

This religiously habituated way of thinking is made more dangerous because it lacks all rigor.  There are no external standards to constrain it, no objectively wrong answers.  Look at the variety of religious offerings available today:  one god hates fags, another loves all its children; one watches carefully for the most minute of sexual “transgressions” and punishes them with the horrible pain of burning for all eternity, another allows everyone into eternal paradise; one proclaims the attack on the World Trade Center to be unforgivable evil, another says it was a sacred victory over evil.  Pick the truth that feels comfortable to you and if none does, make up a new one, even create a new church as “Pastor Ted” Haggard did when his yen for furtive gay sex openly conflicted with his homophobic rants in the homophobic church he originally founded.  No reason not to; the only wrong answers are those that disagree with your current beliefs.

Remember the ‘60s, when those of us who were young then were publicly reviled for our “situational ethics” and “moral relativism”?  21st century U.S. religion is all of that, and writ large.  Back then the hedonistic slogan was “If it feels good, do it.”  Today the religiously authorized mindset is “If it feels good to me, it must be good for everybody; if it feels bad to me, it’s bad for everyone.”  If I’m straight, everybody should be straight, or pretend to be.  If I find analytic thinking to be difficult and uncomfortable, analytic thinkers must be elitists who want to harm me.  If “No New Taxes” sounded like wisdom to me at one time and place, it will always be wisdom, no matter how circumstances change; that is, until I feel differently.  Etc.

Religiosity both primes this way of approaching the world and gives it extra punch.  If my personal ick feeling is triggered by proximity to gays or people of color (called “Mexicans” here in my home state of Arizona) and I act on that feeling, I’m just a bigot.  But if my own personal god validates – nay, instills – that feeling in me (and why wouldn’t it, since I selected this particular god to match my feelings in the first place), why then I’m not a bigot; I’m an especially good person, a god-fearing person.  And no one can publicly say otherwise.  (Well, assuming a sufficient number of other folks have roughly the same god I do; the Westboro Baptist Church god, for example, is plagued with an unworkably small number of [admitted] followers.  So far.)  Acts and expressions that would be sheer whim and caprice, subject to all manner of rational attack, if I do them on my own, become virtually unchallengeable if I do them in the name of my god.

And that’s the wisdom of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .”  That’s why entangling religion and government, a hallmark of fascism, is so toxic to individual freedom.  It is an essential part of that freedom that we are able to express whatever utter subjectivity our brains cook up – artistic, athletic, political, religious (the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”) – but government is objective, public, outward-looking, and it demands a wider worldview.  The religiously habituated mode of thinking, with its egocentric decision-making and ultimate subjectivity does not serve the public well.  Religious mental activity inevitably includes too much emotion, too much focus on personal brain-states, to permit its effective use in government.

There is widespread belief now that Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State” [4] is a Constitutional fiction cooked up by atheists and liberals and whoever, that the Founding Fathers were all Christians who believed in Christian dogma, that they never intended what the Establishment Clause seems so clearly to say.  A current iteration of this belief holds that the Establishment Clause actually prohibits only governmental establishment of non-Christian religions.  Whatever exactly that might mean.

But how would such a reading of the Establishment Clause exist with the Free Exercise Clause?  If we establish one religion, don’t we necessarily dis-establish others, which can then not be as freely exercised?  A brief look at the not-so-distant history of Europe demonstrates that the concepts of a government religion and free exercise of religion are functionally incompatible.  Even if one accepts the Christianity-is-special claim, what flavor of Christianity?  (Remembering also that the smaller the difference, the bigger the fight – ask the Sunnis and Shia.)  Is Mormonism Christianity?  Episcopalianism?  (My mother’s Episcopal church is substantially gay, clergy and laity.)  And who decides?  The majority of voters?  Would the established religion change with the whims of the electorate?  Would the out-religionists be car-bombing the saloons of the in-religionists?  Ask the Irish.  The deeply emotional essence of religious ideation precludes any peaceable scheme of government-sanctioned religion.

But even without actual sanction, the camel of religion will try to poke its nose under the tent of government – see the “under God” addition to the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on our money, the various religious inscriptions on government buildings, etc.  Religious ideation is powerfully pervasive and it habituates us to its comfortable style of mentation.  It is simply so much easier to believe what we imagine than to try to understand what we may not believe.

The third way these intrusive religious beliefs harm the rest of us is through their capacity to sharpen and rigidify tribal distinctions.  As I suggested above, the enduring power of religious ideation is likely, at least in part, due to its enhancement of group solidarity.  The highly social nature of our species means that those brain traits that increase groupness are likely to propagate.  If we have a group god, a supernatural leader and guide, we are better able to all pull in the same direction, with less squabbling over the details of management and administration, historically a clear operational advantage.

But a clear disadvantage is that some aspects of a tribe member’s behavior are more likely to be accepted or excused, simply because he is a tribe member.  “He may be an old fool, but he’s our fool” as the saying goes.  So, if one who is apparently my tribe member – roughly the same apparent god, similar biases, an enemy of my enemy – takes an abstract, conceptual position – No New Taxes, for example – well, I’m likely to support her against those non-members who take the opposite position, even without fully understanding the implications of the position, merely because she is one of us.

An example played before me today, after I had written the above and as I had a late lunch and scanned the cable news shows.  An ad hoc, bipartisan group of senators, the so-called Gang of Six, had agreed on a plan outline to resolve the debt ceiling emergency and President Obama had received it in a generally welcoming way, saying that he hadn’t read it yet but it appeared to represent progress.  A Fox News “expert” responded with the remark that if Obama liked it, the plan was probably not acceptable.  Think now about any logical relation between Obama’s hopefulness that the outline represents progress and the (unseen) outline’s unacceptability to Fox News.

Fox News spent, and spends, much time and money depicting Obama as not a member of “our” tribe.  A salient aspect of this is the ongoing insinuation that he may not acknowledge our tribe’s god; i.e., he may be Muslim, not Christian.  An August 2010 Pew poll [5]   found that 34% of “conservative Republicans” (the core of Fox News viewers, I submit) said he is Muslim.  Among all those who said he is Muslim, only 26% approved of his job performance while 67% disapproved.  Among those who said he is Christian (i.e., a member of our tribe), the approval – disapproval numbers were just about reversed:  62% approved – 29% disapproved.

If he’s a Muslim, he doesn’t look to our Christian god.  If he has a different god, he’s not in our tribe.  If he’s not in our tribe, whatever he likes can’t be for the good of our tribe.  That’s the power of religious beliefs to create tribal distinctions.  That’s the covert logic of that Fox News “expert”.

Initially, the alienization of Barack Obama obliquely centered on his skin color.  That didn’t get much traction because we really are a multi-colored nation.  Then much was made of his name:  it sounded foreign, like one of our Arab enemies.  That sort of worked, but a lot of us have funny-sounding names.  Then there was that drawn-out, strangely pathetic claim that he wasn’t even a U.S. citizen, that he was born in Kenya.  That alienization effort was particularly fact-resistant, but ultimately degenerated into unintentional comedy perpetrated by a few, sad true believers, and one cynical, shallow opportunist, Donald “The Donald” Trump.

And buzzing through all this, robust even today, is that ultimate tribal indicium:  religion.  Try to imagine what could be used today to alienize our president if religious beliefs didn’t exert their powerful influence in this nation.  (And, yes, I recall the various other slurs – that he was “socialist” or “communist” or “fascist” or “Marxist” or whatever – used by talkers who pretty clearly had little idea what the terms mean, but these were boutique, artisanal efforts, not really suited to a mass audience.)  He’s an attractive, friendly guy, great smile, good voice, disarming sense of humor, beautiful family.  Not defensive in disagreement.  He’s even trying hard to quit smoking.  Not much to hate there.

Without the inherent divisiveness of religious beliefs, such vague abstractions as “debt ceiling” and “tax increase” would lack the emotional punch that tribal associations give them, and our national economic problems would be substantially less intractable.

ARC – 7/21/11

______

[1] Author of god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007, Twelve

[2] http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/polinaut/archive/2008/03/bachmann_doesnt.shtml

[3] http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1701/poll-obama-muslim-christian-church-out-of-politics-political-leaders-religious  It occurs to me that her belief here may also be infected with innumeracy.  She may have seen the .03 in proximity to the % sign and, having a general idea from her work as a tax collector that .03 and 3% are the same, was simply unaware that .03% is 100 times smaller.  Or thought her base wouldn’t know.

[4] Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802.

[5] http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1701/poll-obama-muslim-christian-church-out-of-politics-political-leaders-religious

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15 Responses to Bad Religion: Christopher Hitchens Is Right

  1. melissa says:

    It’s true that religiosity has dangerous effects on our country when it impels people to vote in a certain way, for example. However, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘No religious adherent is ever challenged to “prove” her religious beliefs.’ Beliefs can’t be proven. I think the challenge here is to find ways of separating church and state, belief and democratic action, while preserving people’s rights to freedom of religion.

    • By “religious beliefs” I mean conclusions and predictions based upon supernatural premises. For example, I believe that Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old because [and here insert the latest radiometric and helioseismic data and analyses]. Michele Bachmann believes this planet is approximately 6000 years old because [and here insert any of the various arithmetic manipulations from the recitation of generations in the book of Genesis]. My belief is subject to challenge, subject to disproof, because it is based on the common ground of science. Indeed, Bachmann herself can come to this ground — Oh, how I wish! — and demonstrate that my understanding of some of the data is flawed and I am, say, 100 million years off in my belief. But her belief involves no such common ground upon which she and I might meet because my first challenge would be to the accuracy of her data source: What is the basis of your belief that there was a sentient being who created Earth? That you have correctly identified any such being (out of all the historical claims to such identity)? That any such being communicated the details of that creation to certain semi-literate shepherds in the Middle East 3000 years ago? Etc.

      In what American political forum have you ever seen, or can you imagine, putting such beliefs to their proof? Fact-based beliefs can be “proved” (at least in the sense of Popperian falsifiability), altered, modified, disproved by anyone. Any attempt to subject a faith-based belief to proof results in amused condescension at best and murderous outrage at worst. It does not yield a common-ground response. It does not alter the stance of believers. See the large, rigorous study demonstrating the inefficacy of intercessory prayer published in The American Heart Journal in 2006, the way the involved doctors tip-toed around the results and the dismissive responses of religious commentators, typically along the lines of “We know prayer works. We don’t care what the study says.”

      • melissa says:

        Thanks for the thorough response, and I totally agree with you! Like I said originally, it’s true that beliefs simply can’t be proven, at least not, like you say, “in the sense of Popperian falsifiability.” What I meant was this: given that fact, what should we do? It seems that in your post you identify the problem without really offering a solution. How do you propose to balance separation of church and state with freedom of religion?

      • Beliefs can be proved, and disproved, if by this we mean validated or invalidated by subjecting them to principled analysis and comparison with other known or agreed data; for example, the overwhelming and increasing avalanche of data that disprove the 6000-year-old-Earth belief and the much slimmer volume of data that disprove belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer. If you mean simply that some beliefs in some believers are impervious to fact and analysis, that is unfortunately true. If the belief is wholly supernatural — e.g., that each of us has a non-physical essence that will continue to live after we die — it is by definition outside fact and analysis (and therefore outside reasoned discourse).

        This is why polite and meaningful discourse requires that the one who asserts the proposition has the burden of proving the proposition. I can assert to you, “There is a Pink Unicorn in your backyard that is only visible to those who believe in it,” but I cannot reasonably and fairly say to you, “If you cannot prove that the Pink Unicorn does not exist, you must acknowledge its existence by shouting out a greeting whenever you enter your backyard.” You, however, can fairly and reasonably say to me, “Until you show me some evidence, I will not believe your Pink Unicorn assertion.” Whenever a proposition impinges upon the common reality we all share, this burden of proof must apply if we are to get along together.

        Unfortunately, our current cultural deference to “religious” (read “Christian”) beliefs suspends this burden of proof, even when those beliefs involve critical assertions about our common reality, like climate change issues, the civil rights of LGBT Americans, the efficacy of various criminal justice schemes, etc. The answer to your question about making the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause compatible is to revalidate that burden: if your belief-assertion involves our shared reality, you cannot shed your burden of proof by labeling your assertion “religious.” Under our Constitution your religion will not be disfavored, but neither will it be favored (established) by excepting it from the rules of discourse the rest of us live by. Like everything else in a functional modern society, “free” exercise here does not mean without constraint. Here, for example, you cannot legally, out of religious motives or otherwise, cut out a young girl’s healthy clitoris against her will, as you can elsewhere on the planet where a religion is established.

        National government is about the shared reality and the common good of the people of the nation. Religious beliefs, like all other beliefs, must be subject to the shared reality test. Religious-exercise freedom, like all other freedoms, must be subject to the common good test.

  2. IFKaramazov says:

    The communal aspect of religion is huge. If you go back to Graeco-Roman religions, you find that the Olympic religion and the mysteries were all about public worship, ritual and rites, that sort of thing. It was very much about group cohesion and less about substance. Hence you could have those who believed in the absolute literal truth of the myths and those who held, like the Emperor Julian, that many were metaphors to be interpreted in order to arrive at higher philosophical truth.

    As it is, I personally think that conceding freedom of belief, in a certain respect, a rather dangerous road to go down (e.g. “I am free to believe that God made men/whites/Jews superior to [X group]”), but then no freedom is really absolute in that sense. Even freedom of speech is hampered by regulations against expression that is directly threatening or which is designed to incite others to violence (now more and now less enforced, depending on the zeitgeist).

    Regardless, I really have to admire how well you’ve presented your viewpoint in a dispassionate, calm manner. It’s one of the best things about this blog, to my mind. I imagine that all but the most closed-minded would would be willing to give you a fair hearing.

  3. We’re breeding a culture of sensationalism, and Jesus is the gateway drug. I’m glad you brought up the Casey Anthony trial, because I’ve been forcibly subjected to it for prolonged periods of time (God bless HLN), and have needed an excuse to vent. The contradictory signals the media has been sending out boggle the mind. They say they’re not condemning the judicial process, but display zero respect for the jurors. …it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t want the jurors to have the kind of power they displayed here, then you don’t respect the judicial process. They say they don’t want anyone to go out there and get all Batman on Casey Anthony, but insist 24/7, 7 days a week that justice wasn’t done. Implicit: injustice prevailed. Implicit: citizens of America who sit by and do nothing about this outcome are passively encouraging injustice. Is it any wonder the predominantly Bible Belt originating viewerbase (http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/is-hlns-issues-the-best-value-to-reach-republicans-cbs-morning-news-for-dems_b26981) is so confused that anti-vigilante messages were actually called for? The masses are being told by the clergy of their tribe that the knee-jerk reactions they’ve become so accustomed to following through without a second thought are too extreme, bad, unwanted. The Bible is changing. Not in the subtle way that has actually been going on for the past 6-7 centuries, but a very blatant, metaphorical way.

    HLN is like porn for the brain. Engage auto-pilot and let your emotions steer the way. They’ll lead you to the right (tribe-endorsed) climax. Er, conclusion. And then “experts” wonder at the media circus around the trial. It couldn’t be simpler. You’ve got millions of people, who have been trained to use their brains as little as possible, who have now been given the opportunity to watch something that requires the minimum amount of brain activity and provides the maximum amount of approval within their own tribe. It’s just math. America’s biggest tribe now has the best small talk ice breaker they could have hoped for. “Casey Anthony not guilty” is the challenge. “Outrageous!” is the password. Say otherwise, and they’ll start shooting.

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