Archive for March, 2015

Suppressive Person

March 31, 2015 2 comments

I have previously mentioned that one of the final straws that broke me of religious belief was Tom Cruise’s marriage to Katie Holmes, and the request that my co workers made of me to find out what I could about this religion that they heard he was into called “Scientology.” I was very excited to find out that HBO was going to air a documentary about the group and could not wait until its premiere. It was undoubtedly going to be critical, because, how could it not? They perpetrated the largest infiltration of the US government ever, and I mean ever, and they go around pretending that they are some kind of religious group. On Friday, I was coincidentally asked by a student if they were a cult. It was a question I’ve been asked before, and like before I was hesitant to answer. It’s a tricky question because as far as crazy beliefs are concerned they don’t have a monopoly on it. As far as I can tell the difference between cult and religion is age. Scientology is little more than sixty years old (technically) so it appears strange to us because they make claims about the body, the mind, and the universe that is in stark disagreement with what our science claims. The important difference is that they made their claims after science made its claims, unlike most religions which either cling to absurdity or adapt with new information.

Alex Gibney, who’s previous film was “Maxima Mea Culpa” about the Catholic Pedophile scandal, has crafted a documentary based on Lawrence Wright’s book “Going Clear: Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.” The movie reports the development of Scientology from a pop-psychology book “Dianetics” which was very popular in the middle of the 20th century but once the fad died down L. Ron Hubbard turned the system he developed into a religion. Which from there it becomes extremely clandestine only revealing itself in malls and street corners as its adherents offer free stress tests using a device known as an E-Meter. The movie takes us through the development of the group as they began their missionary group known as “SeaOrg” which gained its name from the fact that it was started as a Hubbard’s Navy which he appointed himself as Commodore to the Celebrity Center, Gold Base, and the current model with David Miscavige as its current head. While normally this movie might be considered a one-off polemic against a group that most people regard as a wacky L.A. thing, the movie does a good job portraying it as being much worse than that. Frankly, I have a hard time disagreeing.

Since I first started considering myself a skeptic I have become aware of various trigger patterns by which I can detect bullshit without really delving into what is being claimed. One major trigger is an overuse of jargon, i.e. if something is claimed to be a medical cure but uses “quantum” or “holistic” or makes claims about “toxins” it bears examining with a great deal of doubt. Remember the onus is on the claim not the denial. Scientology is flush with sciency sounding words and a quasi-militaristic appearance. They use terms like “SeaOrg,” “Gold Base (a rehabilitation center that was described as work camp),” and “Suppressive Person” which is code for an apostate/critic of the church. Interviewing former Scientologist executives who have all escaped the church did not do much to show that this group isn’t a cult, or at worst, a rogue intelligence operation that doesn’t value the legitimacy of sovereign law.

The film is peppered with visual cues from official documents and when possible, the words of the founder himself. And let me say this, he sounds just like he drives a white Ford E-150 van with no windows. On tape and video, Hubbard does not appear to be a charismatic person, which makes me feel like I’m missing something. I have seen interviews with Charles Manson and Jim Jones, and while they seem extremely strange I can see where people would have looked at those two men thinking “this guy has it.” They at least appeared to have the charisma that compels people to follow them. I don’t see this in Hubbard, and it’s not something that I can blame on my foreknowledge of his group because I didn’t see Jones and Manson without knowing who and what they were ahead of time either.

There is nothing about Scientology that doesn’t raise flags in my head. The E-meter is trick working, as one person interviewed in the movie claimed, like 1/3rd of a lie detector. If you know anything about lie detectors then you know that 1/3 of bullshit is still bullshit. I’ve never submitted myself to the test even though I walked by their Buffalo headquarters three times a day when I was living in the Allentown neighborhood, yet I get the principle of conductivity and understand that the more you sweat the more of a reading you’ll get. I believe in Psychology and unlike Hubbard himself who claimed that Scientology was not a psychological movement because “psychiatry deals with the insane” shows me that he was just playing off of stereotypes. This is despite the fact that before he died he wrote to the VA begging for some kind of psychiatric help. The idea that thoughts have mass, that the brain is divided into two sections (reactive and analytic), is all pseudoscience created at a time when the theory of the mind was still fetal. By the 1950s they weren’t pulling people’s teeth out to help with their mental problems but it was no where near today, which is still regarded as a science that’s in its infancy.

It’s a manner of thinking that was transported from the writings of a science fiction author in much the same way that Libertarians adapt their system from a different fiction writer. Yet, this does not necessarily a cult make. Hubbard substituted the quasi-scientific of his belief system for the spiritual of the older religions. However, I now think of this group to be a cult basing this judgment on what director Paul Haggis (himself a former Scientologist for over thirty years) said. He said that you could approach a Christian, Jew, or Muslim and ask them what their religion was all about, and they could run down a basic summary in a few minutes. However if you ask a Scientologist, they are unable to. What can they say? It’s about the mind, but it’s not psychology. It’s about health, but it’s not medicine or even a pseudomedical belief. What is it about? You have to be an OT III (Operational Thetan level III) before they are even told of the creation myth about the galactic overlord, this is after many years of being in the group. Why? Because if they opened with that story, no one would join, it’s only after years of time and large amounts of money that a person is allowed to see his handwritten notes on the subject. By then it’s too late, the average person will cling to a lie rather than admit that they spent that much time and money on something so foolish.

The movie is well crafted and extremely compelling. It does an excellent job at portraying the larger issue of being lost in an organization that demands obedience and punishes apostasy with a fervor that is only excelled by militant strains of other more established religions. I would like to have seen less of the John Travolta and Tom Cruise and seen something about Narconon or their traveling museum of psychology (that when I first wrote about it six years ago I received to comments telling me I should attend it with an open mind). A highly recommended movie.

Miscellaneous notes: Stop interviewing people and only showing part of their face. It’s distracting.

I was surprised to learn that SeaOrg encouraged its members to get abortions.


Teaching Atheism

March 24, 2015 3 comments

One of my classes this semester has been Intro to Philosophy. I haven’t taught this class in several years, and the last time that I was assigned it, I was also assigned the text book that I would use. This was not a good idea, but my chair had this crazy idea that every philosophy class would use the same text book. It didn’t make sense, but I was in my first year of being an adjunct so I didn’t think to question it. The text book itself was something I would let my six year old read. It’s basic to the point of being insulting, but I do look into it once in awhile for dates and people.

This semester though, I went with a new approach for Intro. Instead of just picking ten or so Philosophers and running through their ideas, I have decided that to teach it by subject. For instance, instead of just talking about Cicero I used his version of the Argument from Design in the section “Philosophy of Religion.” In this way the students seem to be more involved. They know that under the “Religion” section, if they don’t like Cicero they can just wait it out for the next philosopher but still get something out of that section.

Philosophy of Religion is a varied subject. I have taught the subject as its own class, but I always ran into one problem: teaching against religion. When I first taught the course I used a book by John Hick. It’s a very short, but dense book that is designed for 100 level courses. It runs through the major topics giving not much more than an overview of the main lines of thought. I don’t want to come off as bashing the book, it’s great for the job it needs to do and I never switched off of the book for the three times I taught the course, however there is one chapter that has always left me wanting: “Arguments Against the Existence of God.”

The author spends 15 pages on arguments for the existence of god, these round out the usual suspects: Cosmological Proofs, Ontological Proof, Design, and argument from Morality. The counter chapter only runs 9 pages. I’m not going to complain about balance; that’s silly. First off, it is impossible to prove that something does not exist. The only thing that can be done is to offer counter arguments to already existent proofs (to Hick’s credit he does this very well), alternative reasons for the existence of religion, or attack specific ideas that are inherent in religion. In concentrating on the second Hick gives a rather elementary view of arguments against only providing three alternatives two of which are notoriously weak. The first is a Freudian theory which is as stereotypical as the adjective “Freudian” deserves. The second is that of Emile Durkheim, this is a sociological position that religion is nothing more than a binding of a tribal mentality with its members. It’s not a bad theory but it relies on a spurious analysis of tribal societies such as Australian Aborigines. The final argument is “The Challenge of Modern Science” in which Hick undertakes the idea that religious writing is based on an understanding that predated our understanding of the world (i.e. Earth as the center of the universe). It’s a very superficial view of the argument and he does nothing to attack the idea that revealed religion ought not to make severe errors of fact if they did indeed come from the divine.

I never liked that section, and even though I was an atheist at the time, teaching that section was always difficult. No one cares about Freud. Only Literary Criticism majors still read him with any kind of earnestness. In both Philosophy and Psychology he’s read as a historical artifact that both disciplines have moved way past (he’s also pretty responsible for the Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare theory but that’s a different subject). What I have done to replace these three arguments is introduce Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll, as their works attack both the concept of revealed truth but also some of the fundamental tenets of religion. This is where it gets tricky.

Paine and Ingersoll are American writers, with that in mind they are both writing for audiences steeped in the Abrahamic tradition, and both spend a majority of the works I selected (a portion of Paine’s “The Age of Reason” and Ingersoll’s “The Gods”) attacking the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition by attacking the Old Testament. As this is the case it becomes necessary for me to find their most general attacks without making it about a specific religion, or a specific sect of a religion. I don’t want to single any particular individuals out and tell them they are wrong, but since i just spend the last two weeks telling the Atheists that they have to overcome the proofs of god’s existence it will at least be fair. The trouble is that Atheists are used to being told they are wrong, religion is so endemic to this society that there is no way to escape it. The reverse is not true and while it has not happened to me, I know people who have been in classes where religious students have been very disruptive when it comes to challenges on their belief system.

The entire point is to give both sides of the issue, to show that while most people think this argument is settled it clearly is not. As I have said numerous times in my class, I have no ideological position. I don’t care about conversion only presenting the arguments. I’ve declined to answer questions about whether or not I am religious (and who I voted for) it’s only about the arguments. Hopefully I’ve chosen the best ones. Ironically, I know that I did pick the best pro-existence arguments I can find.

No Mr. President, They Are a Religious Group

March 17, 2015 1 comment

I get it, I understand the motive behind the declaration. The president was, and is, trying to distance ordinary regular Muslims from ISIS. He’s merely echoing the same sentiment that Bush did after 9/11: that we are not at war with Islam but with those who would make war with us. We certainly don’t want to lump law abiding, non-violent, citizens who happen to follow the Islamic religion with the terrorists who kill and oppress people and are also followers of the Islamic faith. We don’t want those innocent people to become the victims of bigotry or violence because the morons of the world can’t tell the difference. Yet, if we ignore the reality of the situation, we do so at our own peril. Pretending that ISIS is not an Islamic group just because it’s impolite is the pinnacle of ignorance.

Before we get to into it, I’ll admit that I am not an Islamic scholar (this is something that is apparently important to people like Ben Affleck). I know something of the religion having read about a fifth of the Quran. I am also not a historian of he Arab peoples, I know something of the Turkish people as well as the Persians, but while they are majority Muslim countries they are not Arabic. Before the liberal types start accusing me of racism, remember Islam isn’t a race and I think that all religions are equally false. I have no particular qualms with Islam, and in fact my discipline would not exist without the Islamic scholars saving ancient Greek Philosophy from the fires of Christian fundamentalists back in the Middle Ages.

What I don’t know is whether or not the political messages of the Quran that ISIS has been operating under are truly Islamic. I’m not a scholar, and without further research I can’t really comment on it. What I can comment on is that ISIS believes their behavior to be under the aegis of their religion. MSNBC can have discussion after discussion over whether or not ISIS is true Islam, but none of that matters as, again, ISIS believes it to be the only true Islam and that all others are apostates worshiping a corrupted form of Islam. We have to take the word of Abu Bakr Al-Baghadi because one thing he does not seem to be is a liar.

In declaring the Caliphate, ISIS, has declared province over all Muslims. The problem with ISIS is not that they aren’t religious but that they are way too religious. Thomas Paine comments in the Age of Reason that you can get the bible to prove anything. However if someone were to twist the bible into justifying the creation of a Christian state (ahem, Joseph Smith, various contemporary Christian fundamentalists) we would be incorrect to assume they weren’t true believers. People like Abu Bakr may have the wrong idea, but that they believe, we can have no doubt. As their call is for all of their faith to join their caliphate they are not ignoring the doctrines of their book, but taking them extremely literally.

The idea that they are not representative of most of the Islamic world is obviously true as most of that world is not joining them and some of the countries which are officially Muslim countries are either directly or indirectly fighting against them. Representation though, has nothing to do with truth. A single person may have the final say on the truth if they are correct whether or not the the majority of the world will agree with them. It is clear that they are taking an extreme view of their religion that is not even shared by the worst terrorists of Al-Qaeda, although this distinction is more likely one of politics and not of theology. it is clear also, that they intend to enforce a caliphate that hasn’t been seen since the Ottaman empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. However they do so not because of a desire to establish themselves as a permanent political entity but rather their eschatological beliefs are centered on their need to force the end of the world by setting up a specific set of circumstances that will be begin the Apocalypse.

To label them as not a religious group is incorrect and ignores their mindset. This nation’s willful ignorance over the psychology of groups that we label as enemies can only be harmful to us. Whether or not we want to call them an Islamic group is not important because only through understanding that they believe themselves to be one can we understand their motivations. Once we understand this, we can truly defeat them: not only militarily but also psychologically.

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What Religion are You?

March 10, 2015 2 comments

The question was asked to me by my six year old daughter, “Daddy what religion are you?”

The thing about kids is that they haven’t yet learned the filter. That’s not really a question you are supposed to ask people if you don’t know. It’s strange, because the custom seems to dictate that it’s too personal to ask, but if the other person sincerely believes it then what is the harm in asking? That however is another topic for another post.

It’s come up before and my initial impulse is to respond with a question of my own such as, ‘what do you mean?’ or ‘why do you ask?’ I do this, not because I am ashamed that I do not believe, but because it raises an issue with other people she knows: friends and family. Do I want her going around telling people that her father doesn’t have a religion? It leads to one of three possibilities: either they shrug their shoulders and that’s the end of it (the most preferable result), they respond in some condescending manner that I’ll change eventually, or they will tell her that it’s not the right choice to make. Even now, truth be told, I have some reluctance to write this post but I’m working through it because, for the first time I answered her honestly, “I don’t have one.”

She’s probably too young to really understand that there is a difference. More than likely all it means is that I don’t go to church, and that’s really it. What else can she know? I’ve been told by people that it’s wrong to not raise a kid in a religion, but I don’t understand why; it was literally something that I just accepted as being true. You start religious and eventually you grow out of it or you never question it and are religious your entire life. Yet I am faced with this quandary because I really don’t know what it provides if you never have it.

I’ve burned a lot of pixels explaining how I slowly rejected a belief in the supernatural (again, the temptation to mitigate what I am writing is incredible) but I wasn’t born believing, it was taught to me and very quickly after that it became ingrained into my personality in such a way that it was a distinct part of my identity. It was an extremely difficult thing to grapple with as my entire life had been viewed through a particular lens. Changing that prescription was not easy, nor was it light, nor (as some claim) was it done arbitrarily. In all honesty I don’t think I’m that different than I was before, behavior wise, the only difference is that I don’t spend one hour a week in some building listening to an individual tell me that I am “fallen,” or that it’s somehow moral for a god to ask a man to kill his son (whether or not that god was serious doesn’t matter).

“Why not?”

Her follow up was expected. She’s precocious, to literally say that least, but I was prepared for it. Part of me was getting ready for this conversation and if it hadn’t happened at the same time as the baby waking up it could have been much more detailed–though I wouldn’t bore her with the things I write now as most of her day is spent either playing Pokemon or talking about Pokemon. I simply said because I don’t believe any of it is true, and that no one really knows anyway. Sure, they may believe but they don’t know. I know that money works, I don’t understand that complex economics that back the piece of cloth in my pocket with George Washington on it but I know it works. I believe the rest. When people say that they know their religion is right, they mean to say that they believe it because to know something requires that you have evidence. That’s why they are always talking about faith and belief, as knowledge would be a completely different thing. My explanation was that I’m not going to believe something that I don’t have evidence for, but I remain open to any possibility if the evidence did present itself. It’s the best, and the most honest thing I can do.

“So you don’t need a religion?”

I answered, “no.” Of course you don’t, why would you? Sure there are those people for whom without religion they would be horrible people, and as Aristotle would say, let them have it.  A world without bandits and murderers is a better place than one with it, but those people aren’t good people to begin with. If she doesn’t want to go to church she doesn’t have to, I’m not going to force her to learn it. I can teach morals and ethics without reference to the supernatural so I’ll do that. It makes for a better person if they do things because of the things themselves rather than because of some kind of divine punishment/reward system. What is right, ought to be done no matter the personal consequence to the individual. The only other hurdle to get over is when people tell me that religion provides “structure.” Yet, I don’t know what that means and I suspect that they don’t either. I think of structure in terms of time and space, but that can’t be what they mean. If it’s about the week then the structure it provides is merely once a week for an hour, twice if there’s an obligation day, more if you are Jewish and it’s the holiday season, or five times a day if you are Muslim (I recognize other religious traditions are being ignored but I’m ignorant of how their services run). I was raised Catholic so the only structure I know is the one day a week service to celebrate that 2000 years ago an innocent man died for a sin I had no part of in order to forgive that sin. That’s not structure that’s absurdity.

“Couldn’t I just get a house and be a cat seller?”

This was her alternative to having a religion. I laughed because of the strangeness of her choice. I apologized for laughing and then remarked, “if that’s what you want to do.”

It was a rather pleasant and honest conversation. Although I have the sneaking suspicion that she just brought it up because she wants to be a cat seller. The interesting thing about it, was that there was no judgment. I wasn’t weird, strange, or bad because I didn’t have a religion I was just her dad.

I’ve actually been warned against raising her an atheist, as if there was some kind of doctrine or way of life that must be adhered to. The only thing I do is teach her that if something can be proven true, it’s true whether or not you want it to be. Is that so utterly bad? I’ll answer that, no it isn’t. It’s the way it ought to be. I’m not forcing her to be anything, or preventing her from being anything either. I’ll love her no matter what. I don’t need some spiritual entity to tell me to do so, and neither does she.

Child Sacrifice

March 3, 2015 Leave a comment

“I too think that these diseases are divine, and so are all others, no one being more divine or more human than any other; all are alike, and all are divine. Each of them has a nature of its own, and none arises without its natural cause.[1]

[1] Hippocrates, Airs Waters Places c.f. Hippocrates volume  I trans. Jones, W.H.S.; Loeb Classical Library ©1923 London

One interesting facet of the current epidemics sweeping the land is how it unites both far left and far right wackos into one solid group deserving of ridicule. The far left gets their anti-science from an undeserved and absurd distrust of vaccines that is generated from the mind of a discredited doctor and his discredited study made famous by a woman famous for being naked in playboy and hosting a dating show on MTV. The far right gets theirs from one of two camps: the first, and oddly enough, the most reasonable are the libertarians who don’t think the government has a right to protect the interest of its citizens from the spread of disease. I’ll be perfectly clear, I don’t find them reasonable but they are more reasonable than the second group which are the religious extremists.

An interesting irony is that our religious extremists have a lot in common with their cohorts in Pakistan who also oppose vaccinations, even though our version are more than likely to support the war against them. The difference between the two groups is that the Pakistani Taliban opposes vaccines because they succumb to a conspiracy theory that the Polio vaccine is merely a plot by the US to sterilize Muslims. Here, it’s about letting god take care of the sick.

What I would like to know is the difference between killing your child in the name of your god and letting a child die because your religion mandates that medicine is a denial of the role of nature (or in the case of Christian Scientists, that disease is an illusion, as well as medicine). Sure, one is more active but in the end the result is the same as well as the reasoning. There have been court cases regarding the issue of whether or not a person is guilty of negligent homicide when they refuse to treat their children because their religion purportedly claims that medicine is sinful. As of right now 48 states allow for religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations (of those 18 also have philosophical objections).

The worst thing about this, is the double standard that we as a society have. If a child dies because their parents denied them basic care we would think those people to be monsters. However if they deny that care because of their religion we have a qualified revulsion to their actions. Even though, we know, as a people that this is ridiculous. Even if we ignore the children with cancer or other terminal diseases and just focus on this current, easily preventable crisis; we allow people to deny their children the best method of preventing diseases which can be harmful and even fatal. Yet because it is their religion, very few people speak out against it.

What’s even more horrifying is that aside from the Christian Scientists and some members of the Amish communities (who eschew most technology so at least their consistent), there isn’t one major religion whose precepts deny vaccines or proclaim them sinful. Not one. The religious beliefs of most of the people on the planet have no opinion on this simple treatment yet we, as a nation, protect a right which does not actually need to exist–the right to put kids at risk of catching disease. We don’t allow anyone else to engage in behavior that puts other people at risk and use religion as an excuse, why are we doing it here? (Well…almost, in Mississippi a bill has been put forward that will allow any unlicensed person to drive a vehicle provided that the vehicle is being used for a religious organization.)

The thinking here must be that if the disease is natural, thus divine, then the cure must be natural and only god can deliver it. Yet, more often than not, and according to a 2009 Cochrane review, it simply doesn’t work. If there is a god that is listening to these prayers the answer is almost a universal “no.” The Divine being isn’t going to protect these kids from a disease that carries an r18 rating (that means that one person is likely to infect 18 other people for comparison’s sake Ebola is only an r2). This was most apparent when Measles struck the Copeland Mega Church in Texas, which had been spouting its anti-vaccination bullshit based on the old testament.

The point of Hippocrates’ claim was that if one disease is considered divine, all diseases are divine and so are the cures. Not that we are supposed to rely on the whim of the gods to cure us, if he felt that the rest of the book would have omitted his theories on causes and cures, but on our abilities. Vaccinations are not a form of voodoo and guesses, they are the products of our reason, observation, and ingenuity: if you need divine help that’s where you are going to find it.

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