Questionable Motives

December 5, 2010

How do the religious undermine the Golden Rule?

I read many comments and articles by ‘moderate’ theists who suggest that, at their core, religious beliefs are really all the same, that what people are responding to with various kinds of religious faiths is recognizing the transcendent, honouring the spiritual, paying homage to a felt but never seen creative and loving force. It all sounds so… well, kumba ya-ish. And heart-warmingly lovely, mitigating the trivial differences that so easily separate us and acts like a special kind of blessed force (unseen by athiets, of course) that promotes the common good.

And then I read something like this and have to remind myself that the metaphorical holding of religious hands argued by different theists about life-enhancing nature of religious compatibility is nothing more than soothing lies we find in the daily practice of religious beliefs that inform how we behave towards others.

A 17 year old girl lived a hellish life and died a horrible death because of people acting on their religious convictions. More religion will never solve this ongoing and familiar tragedy played out in the lives of us little people who grant their religious convictions and the convictions of others a legitimate role in determining how to behave in ways that supposedly honour a god.

This is insane. And it’s insane because doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – some divine enhancement in the lives of humans – is not a rational nor reasonable expectation. Such a belief that a different result will occur is maintained in spite of contrary yet consistent evidence of harm caused by acting on religious convictions. When we choose to empower such beliefs with an assumption that they are legitimate because they involve some homage to a deity, then we have left the arena of what is rational, what is reasonable, what is probable, what is likely true, and entered the arena of what is is merely hoped for, what is wished, what is improbable, what is likely false. And this legitimizing of what is hoped for in spite of evidence to the contrary is not compatible with empowering respect and audience for what is true. Expecting more religious belief to magically find some way to stop the kind of human abuse people commit in the name of some god is crazy talk. It’s delusional. It’s dangerous and, in the case of Nurta Mohamed Farah, deadly.

Anyone who thinks that religious belief has a legitimate and compatible role to play in helping anyone determine how to treat other human beings with dignity and respect is guilty of helping to legitimize the actions of people to do terrible things to other people for exactly the same reasons. By legitimizing the intentions of those who act to honour some god, we legitimize the basis of such assumptions that they are true, that they are accurate, that they are correct. Such assumptions help to legitimize delusion and insanity rather than what’s rational and reasonable and backed by consistent evidence. Those who assume that religious belief is equivalent to rational thinking have no evidence to insist the two are compatible methods of inquiry, compatible voices that need to be heard, compatible means to inform morality and ethical behaviour, compatible avenues to establishing respect not only for the rights and freedoms and dignity of other people but how to act in ways that achieve these results. The evidence does not support this assumption. What evidence there is shows that by legitimizing delusional thinking, we legitimize its failure to respect other people’s claim to equal rights, legitimize its failure to establish equal freedoms, legitimize its failure to support equal respect between people, and we see this failure played out in religious inspired tragedy after religious inspired tragedy.

Isn’t it high time in the 21st century to stop tolerating and legitimizing this failed voice offered up as a compatible way of achieving noble goals and Enlightenment values by the religiously deluded? The religious perspective has nothing to offer any of us but more failure to be reasonable and rational and consistent with the evidence in every area of human endeavor in which it is granted a fair hearing. Isn’t it time we recognized its failure? Isn’t it time that we gave full credence to the rational and reasonable voice¬† of a basic equality and dignity for all in shared rights and freedoms and reject the anti-rational voice of delusion? Is that not the least we can do on an individual basis if for no other reason than in memory of this one girl whose sad life was warped and twisted and ended by the deluded in the name of their religious beliefs? Isn’t a human life more important in and of itself to be treated as we ourselves wish to be treated – with the same level of dignity and respect – than simply as a piece of property of some god to be used and abused by the faithful who claim to be fulfilling god’s wishes?

We really do have to choose eventually because these different perspectives and antithetical methods of achieving our goals are not compatible. Agreeing at the very least to empower the Golden Rule seems to be a good starting point for everybody… unless you are deluded, in which case your opinions should not be invited to the grown-up’s table.

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April 20, 2010

Why is attribution to link cause with effect so important to determining what’s true?

I would have thought this question was pretty easy to answer but I have come across many religious believers who have serious difficulty understanding why. For example, I am told repeatedly (and I presume honestly) with great assurance that testimonials and revelation lead to a transformative experience that itself is strong evidence that god (or some ‘outside’ agency) exists and intervenes in meaningful ways in our world. When we unpack the meaning of this claim, we find that the link is very tenuous between having an experience and attributing some outside supernatural agency to what caused it.

I have found that believers in supernatural agencies are quite willing to attribute to these supernatural agencies to whatever cause is currently unknown, misunderstood, or poorly informed – what many call the god of the gaps, referring to assigning god to whatever gaps we have in our knowledge. But it goes much further than that, I think.

From demonic possession to the building of the pyramids, from the ghostly squeak in the floorboards in the dead of night to the influence of the stars on our fate, far too many people attribute these things or events or imaginings to a single, easy, completely unjustified source: it was oogity boogity! (Fill in whatever name to some supernatural agency you may wish here)

So what’s the harm, right? If people want to believe oogity boogity links cause to effect, who cares? People have a right to believe in whatever they want, so the excuse goes. And I agree… as long as this belief stays within the private domain where it belongs. People are allowed to delude themselves and pretend that their attributions to supernatural agencies are as valid an explanation as any repeatable, testable, measurable, falsifiable and reliable explanation that clearly links cause to effect by means of a consistent mechanism, one that works here as well as there today and tomorrow. But when that supernatural explanation is inserted into the public domain and people support the insertion because they happen to agree with the attribution rather than causal truth value, then we are opening the door to lunacy.

Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media (brought to us by Yahoo News). Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader. “A divine authority told me to tell the people to make a general repentance. Why? Because calamities threaten us,” Sedighi said. Referring to the violence that followed last June’s disputed presidential election, he said, “The political earthquake that occurred was a reaction to some of the actions (that took place). And now, if a natural earthquake hits Tehran, no one will be able to confront such a calamity but God’s power, only God’s power. … So let’s not disappoint God.”

Minister of Welfare and Social Security Sadeq Mahsooli said prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best “formulas to repel earthquakes. We cannot invent a system that prevents earthquakes, but God has created this system and that is to avoid sins, to pray, to seek forgiveness, pay alms and self-sacrifice,” Mahsooli said.

When we allow attribution between a cause and effect to have no natural mechanism to measure its truth value but, instead, allow for whatever supernatural explanation people want to be inserted in its place, we are setting the stage for exactly this kind of lunacy. There is no known way to link dress to tectonic activities, so the attribution to god is as good as one that attributes the link to the nefarious deeds of intergalactic mushrooms.

So next time a politician tells you that he or she will support some oogity boogity to be inserted into public policy, take issue with it. Don’t allow your private preferences for assigning a favoured supernatural attribution to sway you; religious or not, your civic duty to all your neighbours is to keep all oogity boogity out of public policy altogether.

February 12, 2010

Is spirituality wholly an expression of biology?

Filed under: Biology,Neurology,Science,Spirituality,Transcendence — tildeb @ 1:42 pm

One of the strongest proofs for the existence of realms of reality ‘beyond’ our own is the transcendental experience. People have long relied on this personal revelation of becoming aware of an expanded consciousness to be evidence for god. But what if it is strictly a biological event, a neurological process in our bicameral brain that reduces our sense of body boundary? Consider this evidence from¬† Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy, posted on Physorg under the title Selective Brain Damage Modulates Human Sprituality:

“Neuroimaging studies have linked activity within a large network in the brain that connects the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortexes with spiritual experiences, but information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking,” explains lead study author, Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy.

Dr. Urgesi and colleagues were interested in making a direct link between and spirituality. They focused specifically on the personality trait called self-transcendence (ST), which is thought to be a measure of spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors in humans. ST reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one’s self as an integral part of the universe as a whole.

The researchers combined analysis of ST scores obtained from brain tumor patients before and after they had surgery to remove their tumor, with advanced techniques for mapping the exact location of the after surgery. “This approach allowed us to explore the possible changes of ST induced by specific brain lesions and the causative role played by frontal, temporal, and parietal structures in supporting interindividual differences in ST,” says researcher Dr. Franco Fabbro from the University of Udine.

The group found that selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase in ST. “Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST,” offers Dr. Urgesi. “Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness. Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.”

This experience of a loss of body boundary and a feeling of transcendentalism is also well documented by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor who describes the effects of the stroke she suffered in her book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.

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