Thursday, January 20, 2011

Religion Round-Up

If last year taught us nothing else, it's that religion, despite all the hype, really seems to do nothing at all to make people more moral, which is no big surprise.  Or rather, in some cases it does, in some it doesn't, and in the end it's not clear what it's accomplishing, on balance, given all its downsides.  "Yes, it's irrational, but on other hand it may make people behave even worse!" 

(Some of you reading this may actually recall my ex from last year saying at Lolita Bar that she believes religion improves people by making them less nice.  In retrospect, that was a crucial warning sign of just how inhumane her own take on her adopted Catholicism is, with moral and behavioral consequences I only wish I'd been wary enough to predict, especially before introducing her to my parents, who never before in two decades of my adult life had to deal with the spectacle, however slowly brought into focus, of me dating a bad woman.  They'd seen crazy maybe, but never before bad, never before proud-of-doing-harm, like a sad, juvenile sadist pulling wings off a fly, all the while calling it wit and scrappiness and even excellence, pretending to improve the world by flailing at it destructively and thereby testing it -- and by this pretense delaying the day, which I suspect she fears is inevitable, when tolerant, patient people finally realize just how dangerous she is and turn on her.)

Religion isn't just the destroyed skyscrapers and the censorship and the imprisoned gays and all that, annoying as all those things are, there's also the more nearly universal way in which religion sets at the very center of moral thinking -- where we should be most honest and careful -- a love of self-deception, flattering the sensibilities of precisely those people whose mental habits ought not to be encouraged: liars, self-haters, the delusional, the alcoholic, the question-dodgers, the blame-passers. 

I know religion can inspire people to endow hospitals, but I've met atheists who have done such things as well, no tortuous reasoning required, whereas I've never met an atheist who said, "Immorality is inevitable given the fallen nature of Man, so I can't be expected to behave well, but a magical entity will simply erase my horrible moral record when I'm done with my crimes, as long as the magical entity is the one being for whom I show some love and respect!  It's like a Get Out of Jail Free card, even if I haven't done a thing to compensate my real-world victims!  Yay, redemption for the wicked!  Party on!!"

And in the final three themed entries of this "Month of Haters," over the next three days, I must note the roles played in this month's story (or perhaps I should say last year's story) by a trinity of vexing women, all converts to Catholicism, none of them haters themselves as far as I know (even the climactic one, the aforementioned ex from my C-SPAN2 appearance, claims not to be one and sent a Christmas gift -- whether for altruistic or purely-strategic reasons the historians and psychologists can debate). 

But for now, a round-up designed merely to remind us of the unending variety of religion's effects, not to build any particular argument:

•My skeptical friend Vijay Dewan is one of the makers of a documentary about the impact of unscientific "intelligent design" advocates on the influential Texas Board of Education textbook approval process.  Help out on KickStarter.

•My friend Pagan Kennedy wrote a Times piece last year about Buddhists falling in love in the meditation room.  And her cat can talk, as noted in my Book Selection entry this month.

•Over $300m so far on the third Narnia film -- performing much better overseas than in North America, where it made only about $90m, interestingly.  Russia loves Aslan, apparently.  (Also is Russia loving, I think, talking bears, yes?  "Narrrrnia!"  Petrrrrrogrrrrad!!  Ha-ho!)  I hope we will yet see a Silver Chair, and then, surely, my prayers for an apocalyptic Last Battle will come true.  We Narnia fans want to see an evil ass!  And an accompanying ass-ape!

•North Carolina, the most religious state in America and by no means its best, still knows how to use Satan for marketing purposes.

•I must confess I love this song by Sam Phillips, done after her overtly Christian-rock phase, during her alternative rock (but still anti-materialist lyrics-wise) phase, and before playing a mute (??) assassin in Die Hard 3: "Holding on to the Earth" (crank it, as it's a somewhat muffled and low-budget video).  You can kind of see the crazy in her eyes, which I'm beginning to think is how you spot the Christians.

•Jimminy freakin' Christmas, see how many cliches -- not to mention pat solutions -- you can spot in this typically stupid column by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

•Just when I thought my roughly four religious exes were done with the surprises, one (safely married now) informed me, not long after my C-SPAN2 fracas with one of her successors, that she has converted to Mormonism.  She was involved with some sort of polyamorous Muslim at some earlier point, so my guess is she's hoping to become a harem girl one way or another.  Easier to be bi in that setting, I'd imagine.

•And speaking of Muslims and women, my fellow Phillips Fellow, David Keyes, has very cleverly begun an effort to organize a Saudi Arabian Women's Grand Prix, that religious-totalitarian country, of course, traditionally forbidding women to drive (a policy the ex from C-SPAN2 might well applaud).  Sign his petition if you, too, would like to see racecar-driving Middle Eastern chicks change the world.  Sanity and progress vs. faith, over and over again.


Jeff Singer said...

Mr. Seavy,

Please download and read (for free!) "The Irrational Athiest" by Vox Day and get back to all of us with a review post. Perhaps then you'll make some sense about religion.

Gerard said...

The hospital point is interesting. I've never heard of atheists bankrolling the construction of hospitals, although-as you state-it has occurred. There are undoubtedly incredibly philanthropic, generous atheists and agnostics.

How do you grapple with the empirical data of Arthur Brooks though, i.e. demonstrating that conservative Christians, Jews, and other believers are the most generous and charitable as a distinct, demographic group? At least, within this country.

Todd Seavey said...

Jeff, you're three years behind the curve. It was that long ago that Vox sent me a copy of his book himself, and I reviewed it then here:

It was from that book that I learned that atheists, stats suggests, are better-behaved than religious people, with stats seeming to show the opposite tending to misdefine "atheists" to include the believing unchurched.

And therein lies the answer to Brooks, I suspect: a big inspiration for good behavior is simply belonging to humane social networks rather than being an isolated, disgruntled person. Even if we were to crunch the numbers again and discover church members came out ahead by some measures, I would suggest trying to figure out what they're doing right rather than taking every supernatural claim they make at face value.

I'd probably join one of those Ethical Culture type groups if they didn't tend to frame themselves as sort of watered-down religions and lean left (much of my sympathy for the religious right types springs from recognizing how lame "humanist churches" and the like tend to be). Going forward, I hope we'll learn from all such groups and discard their mistakes, just as we can retain the Marxists' concern for the poor without falling prey to their desire to erode private property.

Vox is a man with a mission but strives to be fair, which I respect, and his book also taught me not to assume religion is a disproportionate cause of war, for example, since it appears that humans are just as likely to fight over land, language, and countless other divisive factors. (No human-worshipper I. Yet we should keep striving to do better.)

Dave said...

Todd - do you watch Big Bang Theory? Tonight, the nerds are on a panel at a conference, and they're all telling each other off revealing personal information - not that that's exactly what happened with you - but many people did spread the story "nerd tells off girlfriend during panel discussion"
I think you should collect some royalties my friend.

Jeff Singer said...


Thanks for the link and response. I still have to take issue with your flip dismissal of religion however, especially this:

"Or rather, in some cases it does, in some it doesn't, and in the end it's not clear what it's accomplishing, on balance, given all its downsides."

You and I just don't read the same history and literature I guess -- for me the West would NOT be what it is today without Christ and Christianity. I could point you to all sorts of books on the subject, but if you haven't figured this out by now, I doubt anything I can say on this blog will convince you at this point.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that Steven Weinberg's quote on the subject was apposite:

"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion."

Anonymous said...

Don't understand--the only bad ideas some people think are good are bad religious ideas?