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    In Defense of Seneca’s Adage

    Monday, November 26, 2012, 10:59 AM [General]

    Seneca, Ancient Spanish Philosopher

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

    - Seneca

    The public discourse on the role of religion in our daily lives too often lacks the voice of atheists, and mass media further silences atheists when it persistently upholds the tenet that an atheist would never be able to win the presidency in our country in spite of the fact that recent polls by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicate that about a fifth of the US population identifies as non-religious and that it’s the largest growing segment of society.

    The claim that belief in God is universal is bogus, and to presume that the collective hypnosis of belief in deity has something to do with evidence for God or with the moral superiority of credulity is misuse of logic. Furthermore, the praising of faith and credulity as a virtue is also highly problematic. The majority of humanity believed the Earth was flat before this was proven false by people who sought empirical ways to verify the claim. Consensus has nothing to do with truth or evidence. Or with ethics, as any survivor of the holocaust would testify. A mob does not accurately dictate what is morally superior or right.

    Religious apologists often accuse atheists of arrogance while exhibiting ostentatious attitudes about their unfairly assumed moral superiority. A scan through crime and census statistics in a variety of countries shows that the most secularized societies invariably exhibit some of the lowest rates of violent crime, of teen pregnancy, of divorce and other statistics associated with societal dysfunction. They are also among the most educated and liberal societies, the ones least hostile to civil and human rights whereas the most deeply religious societies are the exact opposite.

    People in deeply religious societies are oftentimes routinely denied basic human rights. Saudi Arabia denies women even the right to drive. Uganda almost passed a Kill the Gays bill recently. Afghani and Pakistani girls who attend schools have to fear for their lives. An atheist should expect to be executed in many Muslim lands. Nigeria is plagued daily by the most barbaric and obscene Christian-Muslim conflict, as well as burnings of witches and slaying of children by their own Christian parents and pastors for witchcraft. In heavily secularized and peaceful Sweden, a recent wave of rapes is tied to recent Muslim immigrants who feel that if women aren’t modestly dressed, they deserve to be raped.

    Atheists are happier and saner than theists. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Danish people, the majority of whom are atheists, are the happiest among 40 countries that were studied. Other developed countries with high standards of living exhibit similar rates of disbelief, including Sweden where only 23% of the citizens say they positively believe in a God.

    The statistical link between prevalence of religion and societal dysfunction in human societies is more than demonstrated in census data. Gregory Paul has published several peer-reviewed papers on this, including The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions (Evolutionary Psychology Journal) and his brilliant Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Society. In it, he found:

    … high rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in prosperous democracies. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional.

    He concludes,

    … data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ”cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

    Although no causal relationship can be proven, a statistical correlation clearly does exist. A follow up study carried out by Tom Rees concluded:

    I pulled together data on frequency of prayer from over 50 countries, and found that countries where people prayed more frequently had lower life expectancy and scored lower on the Peace Index. They also had higher infant mortality, homicide rates, and levels of corruption, and had more AIDS and more abortion. That’s pretty conclusive.

    What’s more, countries with worse societal health also had more income inequality. In fact, the relationship between income inequality and societal health was similar to that between religiosity and societal health. Income inequality can indeed serve as a ‘barometer’ of overall societal health, as it relates to religiosity.

    - Tom Rees, from the article Why some countries are more religious than others

    The Global Peace Index (GPI) measures nations’ levels of peacefulness or violence. Statistical data related to the U.S. states reveal similar correlations between religiosity and high crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, school dropout rates, etc. where the more secular states invariably exhibit more societal health than the more religious states. Prison and divorce statistics also shed light on the prevalence of societal dysfunction in religious communities. Atheists are much less likely to divorce than Christians and Jews.

    Perhaps the association of religion and poverty can be linked to lack of access, at times even hostility, to traditional education among religious groups. In heavily-atheistic Denmark citizens can become doctors, courtesy of the state, thanks to free universal education up to college level whereas in the more religious U.S.A. anyone wanting to become a doctor would have to acquire tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. 93 % of the members of the Academy of the Sciences –some of our most brilliant minds– are atheists.

    All of the above statistical data demonstrates that the bigoted religious claim that infidels are amoral and angry, or the insulting accusation that they lack a moral compass, all have no factual base. People who realize that they can not honestly say that there is a divine being, don’t lose their moral compass and start killing, raping and pillaging. What are we to make of the Crusades, the frequent glorification of violence in the tradition of jihad, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter as a burnt offering to God, the genocide of the indigenous during the invasion of the Americas, and other great historical acts of religion-inspired murder or genocide, in view of these tired, insulting accusations of amorality coming from the religious?

    And what are we make of slavery, if religion or fear of God makes people moral? Up until the 19th Century the Bible, in Leviticus 25:44-46, acted as a property deed that allowed humans to enslave others and turn them into commodities. Slave owners argued: if God ordered slavery, how can slavery be immoral? Even in the New Testament slaves were advised by Paul in Ephesians 6 to be obedient to their masters as if their masters were Christ, to treat their masters as gods, and then he not-very-humbly praised his own teaching regarding slavery calling it ‘a sane doctrine’ in 1 Timothy 6.

    Furthermore, to generalize when speaking about atheists is always a mistake. The great minds of both the right and left spectrum of politics, from Marx to Ayn Rand, were atheists also: they shared a superior intellect, but in the service of opposing worldviews. Buddhism is an atheistic religion and the Dalai Lama does not believe in a personal god. Curiously, of all the mainstream religions, Buddhism has historically also been among the least violent.

    Some theists claim that the burden of proof lies with the atheists and not with the theists. This is an absurd claim. It’s hard to begin to imagine what scientific experiment one would have to carry out to prove the infantile and imaginative events in the book of Genesis: would a scientist have to breathe into a man made out of mud in a lab and document whether it comes to life? Create a woman out of a man’s rib? If a woman could be cloned from a man’s rib, would that constitute proof of God? There are so many problems with the assertion that the burden of proof lies with the atheists that it’s hardly worth considering. Atheists have nothing to prove, it is the many flavors of theists who are proposing a hypothesis that does, indeed, require extraordinary evidence, aggravated by the fact that their supernatural claims are all mutually contradictory. Hindus believe in reincarnation, Christians believe in heaven but only if you believe in Christ, Muslims only if you believe in Allah, and then Mormons believe they’re getting their own planet with multiple wives in the afterlife … and that God is a human who lives in planet Kolob. They cannot all be true, and if they all have been used by good people to perform good deeds then this only proves that 1. the wrong belief may inspire good and bad deeds and 2. good deeds have nothing to do with the right belief.

    Here, atheist author Christopher Hitchens added an interesting point on how good deeds serve as promotional tools. He argued that Hamas, a terrorist organization, is also responsible for most of the charity work that takes place in the Gaza strip with orphans and widows. Mormon charities after Katrina also sought great publicity in spite of the fact that the Book of Mormon literally calls black people filthy and loathsome (Mormon 5:15). Atheists like Hitchens argue that the wholesomeness of these religious organizations can and should be debated, that the good deeds that they are so ostentatious of should not serve as an excuse to erase and forget the less noble episodes in the history of a religion, or to avoid rigor in studying the validity of its supernatural claims.

    The idea that religion is what keeps people moral is not only false but it’s also dangerous as long as society continues assuming that religious leaders and institutions are above reproach, that we are not to require transparency of them as we do of other people and institutions. It’s this assertion that has allowed Catholic priests to rape and later silence thousands of innocent children over generations while their followers and even authorities try to not see what is going on under their noses, afraid to insult the sensitivities of deeply sincere Catholics.

    It is here that the role of atheists in the public discourse on the role of religion in our society becomes more crucial. Atheists argue that it’s not only fair, but IMPERATIVE, to require transparency from religious leaders, that people do not have to be docile and fear religious authorities, that people can raise objections if necessary, that this is healthy. Lack of visibility for atheists and prevalence of deference to religious authorities has contributed to a generally passive and docile attitude that is too often mistaken for humility and for a virtue. This false humility, and the false arrogance that atheists are often accused of, reveal a system of values that has little respect for empirical and scientific evidence and too much undeserved respect for religions that are ostentatious about a moral superiority that they sorely lack.

    A final note on anti-atheist sentiment: social scientists have recently been studying something called the death denial principle: an underlying and mostly unrecognized tendency in humans characterized by attempts to hide or reimagine death. Studies demonstrate that, when faced with the reality of their own mortality, people tend to hang on to that which is familiar and to exhibit hostility towards the unfamiliar, and religious people in specific tend to express hostility towards atheists and people of religions that deny their fantasies about the afterlife (Christians, for instance, exhibited more anti-Jewish and anti-atheist behavior). When judges were reminded of their own mortality and were given cases to judge, they also judged more harshly whereas a group of judges that was not reminded of their own death gave considerably less severe sentences.

    These studies suggest that people’s bias against atheists, who according to recent studies are the most distrusted and hated minority in America, invariably have to do with the people that have the bias and their unconscious unresolved issues, not with the atheists. When theists assume their own moral superiority, it’s quite insulting for non-religious people, it’s tired and it’s baseless. Seneca was right. Credulity is not a virtue. It’s dehumanizing and it’s no facsimile for true ethics.

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    Monday, April 2, 2012, 3:59 PM [General]


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    The Reason Rally

    Sunday, March 25, 2012, 8:51 PM [General]

    As mass media perpetuates the idea that it would be impossible for an atheist to be elected President, many of us non-believers are ... well, skeptical.  There's at least one out of the closet atheist politician in DC who participated in the Reason Rally this past Saturday ... plus the visibility of books like The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation and God is Not Great leads me to think that atheism has gone mainstream.

    We are becoming more like Canada and Europe where secularism is the majority view and where Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection are generally considered as ridiculous and irrelevant as the birth of Athenea form Zeus' forehead.  18 % of the population of the United States is either atheist, agnostic or non-religious.  That is one fifth of the population.  It's also the fastest growing religious demographic, bigger than Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Blacks, Gays ... and MUCH bigger than the Tea Party.

    Atheists are no longer the most hated group in the country.  According to a recent poll, that medal goes to the Tea Party.  Were it for mass media, one would not even imagine that to be the case.  Corporate media has a love affair with the Tea Party.  It constantly exagerates the importance, prevalence and relevance of their absurd and extremist causes and ideals.  The poll cited by the NY Times accentuates the huge gap that exists between actual popular sentiment and the collective discourse, identities and movements that corporate media tries to normalize.

    In this video you will find atheist statistics which radically contradict many of the biased ideas that people entertain about the atheist minority.  Crime statistics, as well as those related to education, human rights and violence in different societies, as well as between the different states of the US, also echo this data.

    For all these reasons, atheists held the Reason Rally, which took place last Saturday, with the purpose of creating more visibility and awareness about the civil rights of atheists, encouraging atheists to come out, and reminding politicians in DC that there is a secular movement and that atheists also vote.

    Video: Richard Dawkins at the Reason Rally

    Atheists hope to build unity, raise awareness at 'Reason Rally'

    Reason Rally: Nonbelievers To Rally For Unbelief In Washington

    Unbelievable! Atheists to Rally in Record Numbers

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    Muslim assaults athiest, Judge dismisses case

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012, 11:17 PM [General]


    Also read:

    Judge’s dismissal of atheist's harassment claim against Muslim makes waves

    According to the above article:

    "You have that right, but you're way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights," Martin said, according to a recording Perce made of the court hearing. "I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak our mind, not to piss off other people and other cultures, which is what you did."

    The judge went on to point out that in many Muslim countries, ridiculing Mohammed could warrant the death penalty under Islamic law.

    Critics say Martin's lecture shows he used Muslim cultural grounds to excuse a deplorable assault, and failed to defend an atheist's First Amendment rights.

    "That's greatly disturbing to people that believe in free speech," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. "You can say things that are hurtful to others. We hope that you don't, but you most certainly can be protected. People like Thomas Paine spent his entire life ticking off people across the colonies."

    Former terrorism prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, writing on the blog of National Review, accused the judge of allowing the Muslim suspect to invoke a "Sharia defense – what he claimed was his obligation to strike out against any insult against the prophet Mohammed."

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    Helping Whitney get her wings

    Saturday, February 18, 2012, 2:04 PM [General]

    Whitney Houston is being laid to rest today. I never knew her personally, but fame does something where we feel familiarity. We've grown up listening to her songs and they were the soundtrack for our generation. So they feel like a part of us, and Whitney is a part of us.

    I have a friend who has a problem with addiction to drugs, and who has overdosed already four times. He's only 19, and unfazed by Whitney, or Amy Winehouse, or anyone else who's died after struggling with addiction.

    As I ponder the struggles of Whitney and how to best preserve her memory, I think it's important to keep a perspective on what she would have wanted her legacy to be.

    Drug addiction is a disease, it's a physical and mental health problem. We should not demonize or dehumanize people who suffer from this or any other disease, and who struggle to overcome it. We should extend a human hand in solidarity.

    I believe that a portion of the huge profits from Whitney's career should be poured into programs that help people who are coping with overcoming all kinds of addiction and help to advocate for them and educate family and those who love those with addictions to turn from a place of judgement into a place of understanding and true help.

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    Diversity 301: Learning from Temple Grandin

    Saturday, February 4, 2012, 8:44 AM [General]

    My interest in autism stems from the recent diagnosis of my niece as autistic. There is a wide range of symptoms, most of which are believed to be caused by genetics although there has been speculation on the possibility of processed foods and heavy metals in the environment today as the cause but this has not been definitely proven.

    My sister did have a history of eating disorders prior to giving birth, so I do suspect that processed foods in the American food market has much to do with the huge increase in the amount of autistic children born in our generation.

    I just finished watching the movie Temple Grandin. I have a new hero. Here is a person with autism who was able to gain not only a sense of normaly but who earned a PhD.

    Dr. Grandin opened the way for future generations of autistic people and showed the world the potential that these children have. Some people who have a new agey mindset have even included these children among the 'indigo' children, the new breed of highly evolved humans who think outside the box, who see the world differently, who have a different mind.

    This is Diversity 301. I truly believe that our use of the idea of diversity as a human value, learning to respect people of different ethnicities and sexualities, that is only the beginning of a journey towards a fuller understanding of human nature. Diversity must also include what psychotherapists refer to as different personality types.

    To truly understand human diversity, we need to understand the human mind in all its capacities, most of which we never fully develop because our education system is meant to help us gain job skills and be productive and oftentimes does not take into consideration individual psychological configurations. Autistic people think differently. They see the world in images, some live in a world of sound or process their thoughts as images because their brains are wired differently.

    Different does not mean less: some autistic persons are geniuses. Mozart was autistic. So was Einstein. So is my niece :) She's in pre-school now in a special ed class, and is well ahead of her class in terms of her ability to put symbols or letters together, she can count and she leads the class when they sing songs! She appears to easily tune into songs and that makes her a very cheerful child.

    Many of these persons, because of their peculiar gifts, in other cultures have been considered shamans and cultural scouts who discovered or invented new ways of doing things based on a new way of seeing reality, and then brought those gifts back to their tribe or culture.

    Dr. Grandin gave a talk at TED entitled Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds where she talked about how she was able to think like a cow and engineered the infrastructure that is in use today in most of the farms in the US that ensures that cattle are treated humanely: her focus was on making sure that the animals remained calm throughout most of the process of the feeding, treatment and even slaughter. This is born from her compassion, but also from her ability to easily think like a cow, of mentally being able to become a cow which is something that shamans of more primal cultures are able to do: they are able to think like animals they see in nature and hence they are able to harness the abilities of these animals.

    In the movie, the constrast in her mind between the cow that lives and how she suffers, experiences reality, thinks and feels during life versus the piece of meat that is left once the cow leaves her body in the slaughterhouse is enormous. Upon seeing the bodies of animals or people who had just died, she used to ask: "Where did it go?". In other words, she is attuned to the presence and the mind of the being who is there.

    Most of the people that work in slaughterhouses are so used to their own cruelty and to the idea of cattle as commodities that the concept of a living being who thinks, suffers, experiences panic or calm, who has specific needs and who thinks in a certain way escapes them.

    The comparison of Dr. Grandin with ancient shamans turns a bit sour when we consider that she was mockingly and dismissively called 'Dr. Doolittle' by one of her employers because she was trying to understand what the different kinds of mooing meant. In the end, she helped us to see the world as cows see it, and to more efficiently and compassionately handle them.

    But there are also introverts and extraverts who all have different needs and skills, as well as people who have more of an emotional brain versus rational or intuitive brains. Many job descriptions require persons to be outgoing and people-persons, and while it is good to put in the extra umph and go outside of one's comfort zone, a person who is naturally predominantly introverted (about 50% of the population) may not have those skills and may instead have many other skills that involve the use of critical thinking and other skills that might be useful for the same position. By discouraging introversion, the job market robs itself of talent in order to appease mere superficiality.

    Western culture has not yet embraced this idea of diversity in terms of how our brains differ and the kinds of gifts that autistic people or people of different brain configurations may bring to human civilization. Dr. Grandin gives all of us who have loved ones who are autistic hope, and she also represents an important paradigm shift and challenge in terms of human values and how we value and appreciate others.


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