Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Religion And Society

I have recently thought about the development of religion and societies, and have come to an hypothesis: Religion helped build the early societies and let them flourish by piggybacking on secular principles of society-building.

It would seem that the primary pillars of any functional, productive society would have to be:
1) Order (each member performing their part for the betterment of the whole)
2) Trust (a society of thieves, for instance, could not exist without all of them trusting each other to not steal or kill each other)
3) Tradition/Ritual (A common cultural heritage will bind a group together)

(nb. These are the principles for a "functional, productive" society. I suppose it may be possible for a societal group to be productive or functional without some or all of these principles, but I doubt it will be both functional *AND* productive.)

I can't think of any more foundational principles that would apply to all societies. If anyone else can come up with any, please go ahead and add them to the list. Since these apply to all societies as we know them, we cannot assume these to be Judeo-Christian (or Hindu, or Buddhist) values exclusively. These are secularly true (if true at all, of course; I'm not a sociologist). Now then, it would seem that all organized religions provide all three pillars for any sufficiently-sized group of people believing in it:
1) Order - In organized religions, there is an internal hierarchy culminating in either an individual or a smaller subset of the population which control the religion. Religions also emphasize and applaud the individual submitting themselves to the needs of the group (Some call it self-sacrifice, some call it humility).
2) Trust - It would seem that all religions carry a rule or set of rules similar to the Golden Rule or the 10 Commandments (the "Thou shalt not kill" stuff)
3) Tradition/Ritual - This would seem just about obvious, but a common religion, particularly with daily or weekly communal worship requirements and/or a common scriptural heritage, will bring a large community together and enlarge the individual members' social networks.

So, we have shown how religion may be useful to establishing a functional, productive society. However, this perfect world with a perfectly homogeneous population does not exist. There are other societies, built on other religions. These societies are always in competition with each other for resources, and the society (and religion) with the least resources will usually be destroyed by the society (and religion) with the most. So now we enter the realm of game theory.

Religion A and Religion B are both functional, productive societies built around differing religions. We see the classic Prisoner's Dilemma-type situation: A can either choose to be trusting towards B or be aggressive towards B, and B has the same choice with respect to A. Clearly, if they are both cooperative, they can flourish (to a point). If they are both aggressive (assuming they are equivalent militarily), they run the risk of prolonged war and ultimately weakening their societies to the point of collapse. But if one is aggressive while the other is trusting, the aggressor stands to gain all of the resources of the other society (and before they have a chance to overexploit them, as well). Thus we see that religions that are cooperative will either be demolished early on by aggressive religions or will survive until their resources can grow no more, and will have to wage war anyways to continue flourishing. Under this model, if religions are randomly aggressive or cooperative with each other, you can expect the societies built on religions which are intolerant of other religions to flourish.

So we have now reached today's situation, in which most major religions (with the notable exception of Buddhism) being intolerant or otherwise doctrinally asserting that the other religions are "wrong". As far as Buddhism, the case may be made that Buddhism is not entirely a religion, but more a school of philosophy with some religious trappings. I do not know enough about Buddhist rituals, traditions, or structure to say for certain, I leave it up to the readers to decide for themselves.

As I mentioned earlier, I am no sociologist, but I like to think I have something of an objective mind in amateur cross-cultural studies. If you disagree with any of my points, please leave a comment and we'll work on the concept.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"The Big Picture" w/ Avi Lewis

A discussion audience (not really a panel) on religion, hosted by Avi Lewis of "The Big Picture", apparently broadcast on the CBC. Very well-done discussion, and Avi Lewis is my new hero of rational, respectable discussion. I would like to see him moderate debates more often.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day to all! What an excellent idea! Go to the Darwin Day website to check out some info on this new secular holiday.

Also, today, I'll be watching CNN's Paula Zahn NOW for Richard Dawkin's appearance in response to the anti-atheist panel on 1/31. 8pm EST on CNN - check it out!

(I don't like rap, but I like the spirit of the video)

Friday, February 9, 2007

Debbie Schlussel is a victim of hate

Debbie Schlussel, one of the panelists on Paula Zahn NOW's Out In The Open segment I recently blogged about, has also recently blogged about her experience post-panel. She says that she is the victim of much hate mail from atheists. While I cannot speak to the wisdom of my fellow atheist's words, I would hope that she would put up some samples of the e-mails sent to her, both the vitriolic and articulate ones. Merely saying one is receiving hate mail from atheists is not sufficient evidence that all atheists are hate-mongers. Many of us actually embrace the rational thought process that led us to atheism in the first place, and wish only to have our side heard by theirs. At least we could try to raise her consciousness to understand why we are atheists.

At any rate, here is my e-mail to Ms. Schlussel:

Greetings, Debbie,

I watched with great interest your appearance on Paula Zahn NOW's "Out In The Open" segment of 1/31/07, and wish to discuss it with you. In watching the segment, I have a few questions for you:

1) You say that atheists exhibit discrimination towards religious people in America, but how do we do this? It seems that atheists need to have some amount of power (political or otherwise) in order to discriminate against anyone, and the religious very definitely outnumber the atheists. Perhaps you are referring to the attacks on religion in general by atheists in recent years. And yet, these are attacks on religion, and not religious people. The two are not the same, since religious people belong to a specific religion, and these attacks are on religion in general. I have read many articles decrying the Muslim riots of the past year over depictions of the prophet Muhammed, just as I have read articles debunking the claims of "Intelligent Design" in America. Your specific case of some school in California where students are forced to dress as Muslims I can find no evidence of occurring. If you send me a link to an article describing it, I'm sure I and other atheists will join you in denouncing it. Similarly with Fordson High School (I again can't find any news pieces on Muslim prayers at sporting events; please reference this); I feel that no publicly funded high school should incorporate any religion into it's funded activities such as athletics.

2) You claim 'we are a Christian nation'. Yet, how can you claim this when there is an extensive body of law surrounding the secular nature of our institutions? The Treaty of Tripoli, for example, clearly states the secular nature of the government:
"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
Everson v. Board of Education states:
"The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State."
(If you wish to read the full decision, here's the link)
There are many cases also restricting the teaching of religion (specifically, Biblical Creationism) in public schools based on the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment. So, how can you claim this as a "Christian nation"?

3) You say that Michael Newdow's child "[doesn't] know what's going on," and yet you are perfectly fine with such a child (of any denomination) speaking words they don't truly understand, but have such a deep meaning to them. If a child were to start spouting racial epithets because they had heard them and did not understand their meaning, sensibilities would be mortified. Yet if a child speaks the pledge of allegiance (or, perhaps, proclaim the Mystery of Faith) because their teacher tells them they must, our pride swells in what well-behaved and patriotic children we have. Yet, they have no concept of the pledge's meaning, they are merely reciting words too large or arcane for their minds to understand. These words are lodged deep in our minds. Most people can recite the pledge from memory, yet have difficulty remembering their license plate number or their home phone number simply because it is drummed into us. And with that mental conditioning comes the words "under God," a sad (and very late) addition to what should be a solemn pledge of patriotism. After all this, I suppose my question would be:
Do you approve of conditioning children before they are able to understand the world around them to be a specific way?

4) You speak of how Europe is being 'Islamified' due to lack of a strong Church, while demographics show that only 6% of Europeans are Muslim, and that the European Muslim population accounts for a skosh less than 3% of the world's Muslims. This must be something completely remarkable, since Karen Hunter's (apparently out-of-the-blue) statistics indicated about 8-10% atheists in America, and yet there is no such 'Atheistification' of America. Could you explain to me how 6% of a population can '-ify' another populace? Will the unemployed in this country (an admittedly paltry 4.5%) 'unemployify the country'? If not, what is the breaking point at which a group with[sic] '-ify'? Is it 5%? 5.5%?

I hope you will respond quickly, as I am eager to more understand your thoughts in this matter. Thank you for your time.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

CNN Hit-Piece

2CNN's Paula Zahn hosted a panel discussion on discrimination of atheists in America. Here's the first segment, apparently covering the atheist feeling of discrimination:

Here's the second. Note a distinct lack of atheistic or even agnostic viewpoint.

So this came to my attention through Digg.com, and the person posting it offered a link to the "Comments" section for Paula Zahn's program. Here's what I wrote:

You recently ran a piece regarding discrimination in America against atheists, and I was horrified to see the panel discussion following the initial interview portion. Particularly, there was no atheist representation in the panel, so there was no counterpoint to how atheists in America feel discriminated against. I suggest you follow up on the many stories of discrimination that you yourselves allude to with your pre-panel segment. Many people in America are being hounded by religious groups and even their own neighbors just for their beliefs.

A friend of mine, who is a homosexual, once said to my wife that we'll never understand how lucky we are to not have to worry if the guy across the bar will bash in our head with an iron pipe for flirting with him. I'm afraid that now, I at least have an inkling of his fear. I, and many others I know, are afraid to speak our beliefs for fear of reprisals. We *ARE* the homosexuals of the 80's and 90's, the African-Americans of the 50's and 60's, the feminists of the same era, and the Jews of the past few millenia. We are struggling for acceptance outside of the zoo-like curiosity of our theistic co-workers and neighbors.

A comment was made about atheists believing in nothing. This is patently untrue, and misinformation of the highest order. Atheism is not nihilism as some would have everyone believe. Atheists can be swept up into an almost religious fervor just by observing the beauty of the natural world. Free thinkers such as myself believe in a naturalistic worldview, a belief that everything around us is natural and can be discovered through analysis of natural processes. Some theists can share a similar worldview, but a theist also believes in, at least partially, a supernaturalistic worldview. Atheists deny the supernatural, because we find it unfulfilling intellectually (and yes, spiritually, if there is a difference).

Were you to replace the label 'atheist' with 'African-American' or 'homosexual' or 'immigrant' or 'Muslim' or 'Jew', you would be met with such angry resistance you would be hard pressed to not issue an apology to the aggrieved group. And yet I doubt there will be such an apology for us, since we are such a small minority and it will probably be hard for you to understand just how you have set back acceptance of atheists nation-(if not world-)wide in the span of five minutes.

Perhaps I am too pessimistic. I truly hope that you will recognize the error you made and take steps to actually raise the consciousness of your viewers. I do not ask for apology; that would be too much to ask for. But I do wish you would ask a prominent atheist such as Sam Harris (http://www.samharris.org), Richard Dawkins (http://www.richarddawkins.net), or Daniel Dennett (http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incbios/dennettd/dennettd.htm) on your show to present the atheist's perspective and actually balance out the tribunal of prejudiced panelists you invited onto your show.

Monday, February 5, 2007


First off, a little brainteaser to exercise the rational thinking skills:

You're a contestant on "Let's Make A Deal", a game involving three doors, behind one of which is $1 million, and the other two doors contain junk prizes. You pick a door, any door.

Monty (the game show host) then says, "OK, now let's do what we do in all these games: I'll open one of the doors I know to contain a junk prize." He does so. "Now, player, you have a choice: do you switch to the door you didn't pick, or stay with your original choice?"

Which do you pick: Switch or Stay?


The answer is surprising, and you most likely got it wrong.

You probably thought that the probability of your door being right on the first try is not changed by showing us one of the junk prizes, so you chose to stay. But you'd be wrong.

To analyze a bit: the probability of you choosing the real prize on the original try is 1/3, while the probability of getting a junk prize is 2/3. This is important. PW will be taken to mean the Probability of Winning.

You make the choice. There are two possibilities: (1) You chose the right door, and (2) you chose a junk prize.
(1) Right Door: If we switch(1SW), we will lose the prize(PW: 0). If we stay(1ST), we win (PW:1).
(2) Wrong Door: If we switch(2SW), we will win the prize(PW:1). If we stay(2ST), we lose (PW: 0).
So then, looking at these probabilities:
PW(1SW): 1/3 * 0 = 0
PW(1ST): 1/3 * 1 = 1/3
PW(2SW): 2/3 * 1 = 2/3
PW(2ST): 2/3 * 0 = 0

PW(Switching Strategy): 0 + 2/3 = 2/3
PW(Staying Strategy): 0 + 1/3 = 1/3

So we can see that, regardless of which door we pick, if we choose to stay, we will only win 1/3 of the time, whereas, if we choose to switch, we will win 2/3 of the time. Mind-bending! If you chose correctly, kudos to you! You probably heard this before. If not, try to remember how you feel now, and how difficult it is to say "I was wrong." Try to remember this the next time evidence comes up against a deeply-held belief of yours. Let this experience inform you and help you realize the biases that exist in all our minds that make us fight so hard against arguments that disagree with our beliefs. I have another, similarly controversial riddle in mind for later.


Hi all, this is AtheistAcolyte, signing on for the first time!

I am an atheist living in a theist world, in particular the Sacramento, CA region. I would like this blog to be about all things secular in this sectarian world. I need to speak out about this topic, and plan to extensively over this medium.

Lux sit!