13 September 2013

Mass delusions

Cracked had an entertaining article this week called The 6 Most Humiliating Public Failures by Celebrity Psychics. It's a great read just to see a lot of these sham artists exposed for the frauds they are, but I was particularly struck by one particular video which I had originally seen on Sam Harris' blog in which a martial arts 'master' apparently kicks the crap out of a room full of students without so much as touching them:



This is appended by another video showing the same old man getting the crap kicked out of him by an unnamed "MMA fighter" who subjects martial arts mysticism to the roundhouse kick of skepticism. 

The above video caught my interest because of the mass participation. These students appear to be completely absorbed in the delusion. It's entirely possible that they were all just humoring the old fart, but I think that's the vastly less likely scenario. There are far too many documented cases of mass delusions to simply dismiss the students' behavior as a deliberate charade. More likely, they were completely convinced of his supernatural marital arts powers – something that occurred with a gradual and insidious infection of self-deception.

We humans are primed to trust others. That may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but we generally want to believe people are telling the truth and, unless their claims are flagrantly false, will generally give them the benefit of the doubt. Add to the mix a culture of supernatural mysticism, and we can trust people even when they're making claims that are patently ridiculous. Witness the flocks who kept John Edwards in business for so long, or the masses who fall over as if 'slain in the spirit' and miraculously healed at Benny Hinn conventions (less miraculously, the healings always conspicuously lack rigorous documentation). It's no different at Pentecostal or evangelical churches where people speak in 'tongues', attribute their woes to demon possession and undergo exorcism, or who seem to fall to the ground at the slightest touch or gesture of the preacher. Suggestion is a powerful thing.

But this bothers me, especially having come from an evangelical church which practiced speaking in tongues, faith healing, being 'slain in the spirit' (that's when you get all trance-like and fall down... often accompanied by tongue-speaking), casting out demons, and even (supposedly) resurrecting the dead (it was believed a prominent member had brought his wife back from death through prayer). Why on earth would we have any reaction but, "Riiiiiiight" when someone makes grandiose supernatural claims? Well, the unfortunate truth is that humans are terrible at skeptical thinking. How terrible? Well, the blog "Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking", though now retired, is an outstanding and humbling resource.

I'm sure there's some evolutionary reason we have these deficiencies. I don't know. What I do know is that being an atheist or a self-proclaimed 'skeptic' does not stop one from having such biases and lapses in judgement. I've caught myself being guilty of confirmation bias in touting misinformation that supports my belief rather than being properly skeptical. I've found myself being less patient with believers than I am with non-believers. I've even noticed that I tend to react more defensively if I think a critical comment is coming from a believer rather than a fellow non-believer.

But, I can at least say that I'm more skeptical in general. I've gotten better about not taking claims at face value before researching them. I'm more aware of my biases than I've ever been which, while that may not eliminate them, certainly helps to mitigate them. And given the old saying that getting atheists together is like herding cats, I'm reasonably confident that I've avoided any mass delusions such as those in which I partook back in my religious days. But why people are so prone to engaging in such thinking and behavior is something with such a complex answer that I'm far from understanding it. But I feel that if I do – if we do – we'll get better at preventing it.

09 September 2013

I don't really see the point of arguing about religion anymore

I don't want to be all dramatic and say that I'm going to retire this blog. I'm not. But the dearth of posts lately has been due to an unusually oppressive case of writer's block. It's not that don't want to write – far from it! And things are settling in nicely with my career change and such, and while things are a bit different, I certainly have plenty of time to blog. My problem is more that I'm just having a hard time giving a shit.

Today I hopped over to William Lane Craig's Facebook page. I don't know why, really. Morbid curiosity, I suppose. I saw a post where he had conjured up some point-by-point analysis of his discussions in Australia with Lawrence Krauss, with detailed explanations of why Krauss was, like, totes wrong bro. Several of his fans chimed in to tell him how handsome and charming he is, as they always do.

And it sort of hit me like Wow, they're spending all this energy just to rationalize the idea that their beliefs are actually worth talking about. Just to convince themselves [since the only people impressed by Craig and his ilk are other Christians] that the thing they're constantly talking about, day in and day out, actually exists

Christian apologetics is a massive, time-sucking exercise designed to make believers feel good about themselves. It's played out, man. It's a failed enterprise. Nobody's mind, on either side of the isle, is being changed at William Lane Craig's pathetically theatrical evangelical shows disguised as academic debates, or by lame apologetics books or by intellectual masturbation masquerading as sophisticated philosophy. Personally, I've had one drawn-out discussion after another with Christians on topics ranging from epistemology to Aquinas' comically awful 'Argument from Motion', and they're not interested in seriously considering another side. Every thread is just one Christian dodge after another (my discussion on morality with Randal Rauser is a prime example).

Worse, it annoys me to no end that while these apologist types absolutely pounce on my posts that cover esoteric and occasionally obscure philosophy, it's a veritable dust bowl every time I post about how fucking stupid Christian beliefs actually are. Wait, so God sacrificed himself to himself to save you from what he will do to you if you don't believe these far-out things are real historical events, and if you symbolically consume his flesh and confess your wrongdoings you'll live in paradise with him forever? Man, where do I sign up?

I've gotten burned out before, but this is different. I'm done. It's not just that I'm sick to death of arguing with stubborn Christians over their inane attempts to rationalize such absurd beliefs, but that I think it's just a waste of freaking time. It's over. Religion has lost. Churches are hemorrhaging members throughout the industrialized world. Apologetics are like Seinfeld: in the end, they're about nothing. I read The God Argument recently, and thought... that's it. I mean, what else needs to be said? Grayling is right, on every count. BUT WAIT, some Christian apologist guy surely has some in-depth rebuttal to every one of Grayling's points, and I'm sure it's a real page-turner.

Well, I can't do it anymore. I'm interested in things like morality, cosmology, whether life is designed, etc. etc. Those are interesting questions and they all touch on religious sentiments. But in the end, in every case, we find that religion can't provide substantive answers. It's smoke and mirrors for the deity worshiped by tribesman of ancient Palestine. Everything we objectively know about the world has been illuminated by science, not appeals to supernatural magic. Sam Harris was right on the money when he called religion a failed science. It was an attempt to explain the beautiful, bizarre world around us. But it didn't work.

So, I've gotta move on. Am I retiring? No. But I have no idea what's next. Maybe in time my writer's block will subside and I'll chug away at new and interesting things. Until then...

02 September 2013

Stupid religious bullshit meme of the day

I spied this on Facebook today. I'll let you suffer through it before sharing my thoughts:


Firstly, this whole story is quite obviously bullshit, in that it never actually happened. It's the kind of things that wingnut evangelical Christians make up to make them feel better, like the old story you can find on Chick Tracts about the student who one-ups his ignorant biology professor. Variations of the tale have been circulating for several years, but there's no connection to any news event. In real life, the "Marine" would have been charged with assault and possibly dishonorably discharged – as last I checked, the Marines frown up assaulting civilians.

Austin Cline at atheism.about.com had a good critique of this tripe:
This is nationalistic American Christianity. Notice that the violence is perpetuated by a member of the American military — ostensibly tasked with defending America, but here tasked by God with defending the True Faith. For the Christian Right, America and Christianity tend to be identical. This is also anti-atheist bigotry. A parallel story of violence towards a Jew or an Asian would be quickly condemned, but it's OK to post "humorous" tales of violence towards atheists because... well, because atheists just don't matter. They are unworthy of the same consideration and decency Christians have had to learn to show towards others. 

That's not what ran through my mind when I read it, though. I immediately thought of how stupid it is to think that God is "protecting America's soldiers". Really? Tell that to the families whose sons and daughters have come home in coffins. Or without limbs. Or without faces. If God is protecting soldiers, he's doing it pretty selectively, which raises a salient theological conundrum: how does one distinguish between a selectively protective God and a non-existent one?

This kind of story does several things. One, it exposes how stupid right-wing Christian theology really is. Two, it denigrates non-believers as unworthy of fair treatment and respect while ignoring the fact that there are, in fact, lots of atheists in foxholes. Three, it insults Christians by depicting them as nationalistic brutes. And four, it reveals how shitty some Christians actually are: