Beware the evangelicals

While church attendance seems to be declining across (most of) the globe, and religious adherence generally falling (except for Islam, which is growing), we’re far from being out of the woods. Evangelical threats to liberty continue to haunt us, despite the fact that – judging from American Christians – most of the faithful are doing their utmost to undermine the faith, mostly by being moronic:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

The problem is that once people lose the capacity to generate reasoned conclusions for themselves, and once their base of evidence from which they make their inferences is so detached from reality, the opportunity increases for charlatans to step forth, selling them various package holidays in the hereafter. And the more marginal a faith becomes, perhaps the more strident its adherents become through their fear of becoming redundant. So, whereas Christians used to be all about peace, love and forgiveness (at least according to my childhood memories), they increasingly seem to be about intolerance and hate (with increasingly rare exceptions).

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Uganda looks likely to pass a law making homosexuality a capital offence, “joining 37 other countries in the continent where American evangelical Christian groups are increasingly spreading bigotry”. Now, of course it’s true that many Christians would not condone this. I would like to be able to say “most”, rather than “many”, but the two trends described above make “most” sound far too optimistic. If the gradual decline of religion is making the religious more strident, and if this is combined with an increasing trend of the religious no longer knowing what their religion is about, the extremists tend to set the agenda, and the more civilised believers sit on/wring their hands, despairing of what has become of the church.

We should not complacently think that this sort of thing is impossible in South Africa – we have the growing influence of the National Interfaith Leadership Council to worry about, along with more the regular cast of god-botherers such as Errol Naidoo, who has not shown himself to be averse to supporting prejudicial stereotypes with regard to homosexuality. It’s far too infrequent that we see the more tolerant sort of Christian protesting the manner in which people like Naidoo and Immelman express themselves on these topics, yet us atheists are frequently accused of caricaturing or misunderstanding religion.

How can we not caricature, when the only religious pronouncements that reach the public media sound like bad attempts at satire?

Blasphemy day

September 30 (the anniversary of the original publication of the (in)famous Danish Cartoons) was International Blasphemy Day, whose website unambiguously reminds us exists “because your god is a joke“. While I of course agree that your god doesn’t exist, her non-existence gives rise to a plethora of choice in terms of responses – some of which are critical, some offensive, and most of which are somewhere in between. Continue reading “Blasphemy day”

You deserve what you get

While waiting for our dinner guests to  arrive last night, the Doctor remarked on the (apparently) sad state of some of our friends’ lives, where they appear to be involved in relationships that aren’t bringing them much joy. Of one in particular, the Doctor remarked that “he doesn’t deserve that”, and it was clear what she meant – that the friend in question is a lovely man, dedicated to doing as little harm to others as possible, and that we’d therefore prefer a world in which he was as happy as possible.

Hearing “he doesn’t deserve that”, though, immediately brought to mind the thought that – for most of us – you deserve what you get, because of the choices you made. Continue reading “You deserve what you get”

Faith kills another child

In what god must clearly imagine to be a lesson of some sort, an American couple in Wisconsin have been given jail terms for allowing their child to die. Instead of seeking medical care for her, they prayed while the child became to ill to speak or walk.

The girl, known as Kara, died on the floor of the family’s rural Weston home as people surrounded her and prayed. Someone finally called the emergency services after she stopped breathing.

The judge ordered the couple to serve one month in jail each year for six years so the parents can “think about Kara and what God wants you to learn from this”. One parent would serve the term in March and the other in September.

One month per year? For six years? That’s 6 months in total, which seems a pitifully weak sentence for killing your daughter through believing in ceiling cats. Of course, they will suffer pain and guilt. But many murderers suffer that too, and have to spend 20 years in jail. If I believed that my wife was having an affair, and killed her “lover”, I’d get more than 6 months, even if I was wrong about the affair, as these parents were wrong about god swooping down (or whatever she’s meant to do) and saving Kara. And if there was never any evidence that I was right about the affair, you’d understand if the judge sent me for psychiatric observation after I fabricated or imagined the relevant evidence. In any sort of context, this is a ridiculous sentence, which (in its relative leniency) serves only to condone the actions of the parents. Judicial systems should be ideology-neutral as far as is possible, and a case like this treated like any other manslaughter case, where you’d expect to see a far more punitive sentence handed down.

The parents say that “they never expected their daughter to die”. What the hell did they expect? Even within their belief system, do they have any sort of regular experience of prayer saving dying people? I thought not. But then, they wouldn’t count those (non)experiences, because they are too busy switching off any thought processes which get in the way of their relationships with their imaginary friend.

Stupidity kills

An Australian couple were yesterday sentenced to 6 (father) and 4 (mother) years in jail after allowing their stupidity to kill their daughter. The particular form that their stupidity took was homoeopathy:

A husband and wife were jailed on Monday for the manslaughter of their baby, who died after they chose to use homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medicine to treat her severe skin disorder.

In sentencing, the judge said that there was a “‘wide chasm’ between her parents’ approach and the action a reasonable parent would have taken”, and I would have to concur. If your child develops severe eczema at four months of age, and this condition fails to improve despite all the homoeopathy you throw at it, perhaps you should swallow your aversion to big pharma, or whatever conspiracy theory you suffer from, and visit a conventional doctor – something this father never considered doing, even as his daughter’s black hair turned white and infections ruptured her skin – not to mention the eye infection that was apparently melting her corneas.

Do what you want to yourself – in fact, you may be doing the gene pool a favour by eliminating yourself through quackery. But if you are going to take on the risk of bringing another human into the world, at least take that risk seriously, and allow your child to benefit from the fruits of modern science. And while you’re at it, try to help keep their brains healthy too, by not feeding them any stories about zombie magicians who can save their souls from eternal damnation.

Moral agency

I’ve been thinking more about the National Interfaith Leadership Council, following an invitation to participate in the After 8 Debate (SAFM, September 25, around 08h05 NOW POSTPONED) alongside Ray McCauley and a representative of the SA Council of Churches.

Part of the problem with religion hijacking moral discourse is the way in which it dumbs people down, and makes them unable to see that moral conclusions are the result of arguments – not simply absolute rules that we learn via some or other collection of myths (where how we choose which such collection to pay attention to is anyone’s guess).

In these moral arguments, a starting point that’s rarely considered is that of what makes something a moral issue in the first place – for example, I find it difficult to imagine any set of circumstances in which same-sex marriage even gets off the ground as a potential moral issue.

The other allegedly moral issue that the NILC have been making a noise about is abortion – something which barely counts as a moral issue, in that I’d like to think that moral agents need to be involved before something counts as a moral issue.

On the standard criteria of being able to reason and make judgements, foetuses are clearly not moral agents – and even on broader criteria such as sentience, or the ability to feel pain, early-stage foetuses would not make the grade either.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments against certain attitudes about, or laws regulating, abortion – it’s simply unlikely to be the case that they will be good moral arguments. And we should sometimes remember that not every issue we feel strongly about should also be considered a moral issue – and that not every moral issue should also be considered a legal issue.

I’m afraid that it’s a bit more complicated than that.