Friday, July 24, 2009

Self-Help: Coping with Symbols of Faith around You

I just was pointed to In My Face Every Day by @vjack. It's an article about religious symbols surrounding us and sometimes getting on our nerves. I first thought about commenting, but my reply is again quite verbose, so I'll make it a blog entry instead.

We are atheists, and as such by definition reasonable. Why do we get annoyed or even enraged by religious symbols, which to our belief have no effect at all? The answer to that question is both essential to our own inner growth and to the way of coping we should choose. These ways are probably very individual. I will list mine.

For me, a religious symbol is not the symbol of any good god. It is the symbol of lost independence, of low self-esteem of the bearer's intellect, of lost competence and authority over essentials in his own life. That makes me sad. What makes me angry is that in the name of this symbol, patently wrong political decisions are taken - about wars, abortions, elections, health care coverage. Understandably, that anger needs venting. Strategies include:

  • Wearing “anti-symbols” just to make a point that there is opposition somewhere, not because I believe in it. The A is not widely recognized, but depending on which religions or beliefs surround you, you choose your anti-symbol. If homeopathy is pervasive, wear something that shows your belief in science. If creationism is your problem, wear the spaghetti monster. If sin and evil are frequent themes of your Christian community, wear heavy metal band t-shirts. In my opinion it's not important at this point that for example you don't believe in a Great Beast, but it's important that you focus your anger into a clear anti-position by wearing a Therion (a heavy metal band) tee.

  • Debate the wearers. Doesn't work too well with the suggestion above. Try to be subversive and very, very reasonable. But don't let them get away with anything. Your anger will give you power (coincidentally a Sith teaching for all the geeks out there, so in a way a religious tenet) and will flow from you once you've made your points. As a secondary effect, you might even learn a new argumentative strategy. As a tertiary effect, you let the bearers of the symbols feel that there are people around who disagree - they're just usually quiet. As a quaternary effect, who knows, you might be convincing!

  • Subtly, but unmistakably state your disapproval. Wrinkle your nose. Minutely shake your head. It frees you from your inner rage. It gets the message across. It will make a statement.

  • Debate with someone who's with you (and agreeing with you) about religions, make some good points you recently thought about. If you dare appropriate volume (so you can be overheard) is a bonus, but even getting your mind clear of your current thoughts among friends helps.

I think the most important thing to remember is that while atheism is not a religion, it is completely fair to demand treatment as if it were - in public, in debates, in where you can put your symbols, etc. Just because you don't believe without evidence doesn't mean you have to swallow your anger at displays of irrationality. It doesn't mean a debate is lost if the other party's offended and it certainly doesn't mean that beliefs without evidence should have extra rights anywhere in life.

The second most important thing is that sometimes, life is “offend or be offended”. I hope you all value your inner health greatly enough to know when it's one of those days or events when you just can't keep quiet.

You are just as valuable as any believer. Take care.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Beef with Belief

I feel it's necessary to explain why I think religions are harmful, dangerous, undemocratic and hindering our progress as a society and humanity.

A religion is a nice, comforting idea. It helps finding our way in times of trouble. It supports us with a belief of meaning and with a social environment having the same beliefs. It reminds us to overcome our selfish impulses, to be altruistic, to give the benefit of doubt. It teaches us tolerance, while remaining confident but not becoming arrogant. It's a recipe for a balanced life. Undoubtedly all fine things.

Unfortunately, all throughout history and remarkably also in recent times, the spirit of religion has been overcome by the desire of certain individuals - often major players in their religious hierarchy - to protect religion itself, not its values. The recent blasphemy law passed in Ireland and the claims that a government can't be morally superior without referring to god in their constitution in the United States are only two examples of religious power on the rise - for power, not for the good of its believers.

But religion without its content, its philosophy and its morals is just wrong.

First, there obviously is no evidence for it, so everyone interested in power of, obedience to or spreading of religions keeps pointing out the importance of belief over evidence. That in turn is directly contradictory to democratic values of which critical appraisal of leaders is the essence. Belief also blocks an impartial view of scientific evidence.

Second, the overwhelming majority religions claim to be the only right one, undoubtedly stemming from the increased mass experience and joy that can be gained from being right. Trust me, it's an aspect of psychology I'm very familiar with. ;) That in itself has a huge potential of conflict. Some religions even spell conflict out in their written texts, calling for the conversion or conquest of enemies. Christianity and Islam come to mind.

Third, if religious content has to be taken at face value, it hinders modern ethical behaviour. No atheist ethicist would consider an abortion a bad thing without knowing anything about the situation of mother and potential child, yet a Christian one is force to believe so. Is eating meat unethical? Maybe, maybe not, but no doubt that a Christian or Jew would think that's a leap, since it says that earth and everything in it is subject to man. So what in ancient times was good ethical behaviour often is not any more, and strict, irrational adherence to ancient, scientifically patently wrong texts is making the world worse.

Fourth, the belief in things that are wrong (afterlife, guardian angels, hell, apocalypse) leads to wrong decisions. A lot of harm is done by telling gay kids they'll end up in hell. Many have been disinherited because of perceived sinful living. Unnecessary risks are taken because guardian angels will protect the believer. Wars are waged. The list is endless and has cost uncountable millions of lives.

Fifth, a society were belief is taboo - where one has the right to feel offended at criticism of whatever reasonable kind - diminishes its peoples capacity not only to fairly criticize its leaders as was my first point, but also diminishes the peoples ability to reason. Every debate can be stopped by throwing belief into the mix, so it's usually best not to debate it at all. In the early days of the Internet, flame wars were common. Not that they're the best thing to happen to a debate, but now many forums have rules specifically banning religion as a subject of even the slightest jab. I hate flame wars, but not debating a problem is much worse. The taboo also creates an easy out for intellectually weaker individuals. It stops the smart people from shining and thus leads to prominence of the wrong kind of people. Again, from a debate which can be arbitrarily stopped, wrong conclusions are taken, which leads to wrong actions, see Fourth.

A religion was a nice idea once. Its concepts might still be valid, but they might not. The fact is that modern society's acceptance of belief as a virtue is stopping our progress on genetics, space exploration, ethics, education, world peace, world feeding and countless other noble and necessary ideas. Belief is bad, and religions are bad because they require it.

We should get rid of them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Elephant in the Room of Brain Research

There is no life after death. We might not for every intent and purpose be able to scientifically disprove the existence of god. Life after death however is a neurological impossibilty.

In the history of religion, which predates any written record of humanity, life after death has been a global constant. It seemed one way, and a quite consoling one, to explain the phenomena that were experienced by every human alive. That doesn't make it fact however. With the ascent of psychological research, starting with Freud, explanations for those core human phenomena have been researched.

  • dreams
  • reason
  • self-awareness
  • culture
  • art
  • déja-vues
  • aggression
  • love
  • familiy hierarchy
  • social networks
  • religion

The list is literally endless thanks to subdivision. For thousands of years, progressive steps towards insight into these phenomena have been few. But with the first picture of a neuron to modern day fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), humankind has made huge steps forward.

Considering these advances, and considering the lack of evidence for any kind of afterlife, applying Occam's razor (that the simplest explanation is often the correct one), every scientist aware of what we know must conclude with overwhelming certainty that there is no afterlife. Because, let's face it, no matter how unique, intelligent, inexplicably marvellous and of divine origin we feel we are - our consciousness, that is to say, we have been explained. We are advanced, reasoning, abstraction-capable primates.

It is a wonderful thing to feel connected to nature as a part of it and not elevated above. It doesn't devalue anything our cultures have achieved. We are great, and only in knowing how great, and why, and in what way exactly have we the capacity to grow.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Contradictions and Compartments in Paradoxical Self-Awareness

(This post was inspired by a post of Thanks!)

It is a frequent misconception that some people have paradoxical beliefs and others don't. These others often are atheists and are talking about their superior selves. I want to shed some light on how in my opinion the paradoxical mind really works.

A paradox is a state of mind where one can believe one thing while at the same time believing a contradictory thing. As with everything related to the human brain, it is a product of evolution.

For example: Red frog is bad. But red strawberrys are fine.

The color red has paradoxical meaning. That is no problem, unless you try to apply reason. What does red mean? It obviously means good and bad at the same time, therefore a reasonable person must conclude that red is not the cause of good nor evil.

The paradoxical state of mind is at its evolutionary roots context-driven. It requires no effort to differ. Red strawberrys are a good kind of red, red frogs a bad one.

The effort we have to make to get rid of our inner contradictions is a reasoning one. As reason (in the example provided and in evolutionary theory) is beneficial but not essential for survival, it is much more important to recognize that the red frog is poisonous than to realize that it can not possibly have anything to do directly with the color red.

Applied to religious thinking, one can believe in science and religion at the same time. But one cannot uphold a defensible reality-based view of the world unifying the vastly contradictory statements of the two. To put it differently, you can believe in religion and science, but they can not both be true. Or: You can believe in both, but not in a world were all creeds of both apply.

An atheist has the same capacity of falling into the trap of just believing something, or of having contradictory beliefs, even without realizing it, than any other human being. Atheism is not a philosophical school you subscribe to that makes you impervious to ill-guided, unscientific thinking, paradoxical beliefs, quacks and magicians, nor psych tricks of marketing and sales gurus nor optical illusions for that matter. It is merely a framework that allows you to make best use of the tools of science and reason to become as unconflicted and self- and world-aware as possible.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A complicated world needs education to match

The world gets more complicated, so much that the majority of people cannot understand explanations for events that are explicable with our knowledge.

These people bow to psychics, churches and gods, giving up on understanding entirely.

It must be the goal of any society bent to further knowledge to drive out superstition and religion, because recently, these forces have begun to grip even strata of society that were considered enlightened and reasonable before.

In my opinion, this is undoubtedly so because the world has become more complicated. For example: A person with an intelligence of university professor and 12 years of education might have had many misconceptions about the world 50 years ago, but might have had a very reductive belief in god, if any. Today the same person has many more obvious gaps in knowledge. These are cleverly exploited by quacks, fundamentalists and others.

Thus, a former authority on the world like a teacher or doctor is nowadays but a specialized worker. His own gaps are obvious to himself, but false tolerance of patently wrong views of the world hinder him in giving the best, most reasonable advice to his community. Or worse, being of insecure character, he himself might become engulfed in faith, something he as a professional must deny. Much worse in fact, because that reduces both his percieved authority in and out of his field while at the same time leaving him conflicted, maybe crippeled between belief systems.

We, as a society, must educate our members as much as necessary. A hundred years ago, 10 years of education were enough in most cases. The surge in superstitious beliefs clearly indicates that an infusion of education and appropriate time to administer it must be granted to our children. They need to have the knowledge and the tools of reasoning neccessary to regain the intellectual ability to refute gurus and leaders exploiting their ignorance for their own gain.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Diagnostik bei Hr. Schäuble am Beispiel (GERMAN)

Der Deutsche Minister Schäuble findet zum Bundesgerichtshofsurteil das die anonyme Bewertung von Lehrern durch Schüler auf der Seite erlaubt, dass anonyme Bewertungen "dem besonderen Vetrauensverhältnis von Schülern und Lehrern nicht gerecht werden". (NZZ am Sonntag, 28. Juni 2009)

Zwischen Lehrern und Schülern herrscht zwar ein Vertrauensverhältnis, aber auch ein Machtgefälle.

Jeder Schüler der sich im Internet namentlich gegen einen Lehrer ausspricht, hätte Konsequenzen - wenn auch im Idealfall nur unterbewusste - zu befürchten.

Meines Erachtens besteht die Chance dass sich ebenso positiv auf die PISA-Scores auswirkt wie eine Bildungsreform.

Hr. Schäuble scheint ganz generell vergessen zu haben, was Demokratie bedeutet. Jeder UN-Wahlbeobachter weiss dass anonyme Meinungsäusserung ein Eckpfeiler ebendieser ist.

Den Schülern das Medium Internet als Instrument des Zusammenfindens und der freien Meinungsäusserung wegnehmen zu wollen ist ein klares Zeichen dafür dass Hr. Schäuble genau erkennt dass die Informationsgesellschaft ihren Namen zu Recht trägt. Ebenso ist es ein klares Symptom von Hr. Schäubles Kurzsichtigkeit, seiner Paranoia und seiner zielgerichteten, den Staat und nicht das Volk als einzige Autorität anerkennenden Machtpolitik.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Truth, Lies and Solutions

I am obsessed with truth.

The fact that I put that much value into it has various reasons.

  • every truth I tell can't come back to haunt me if I forget about the fact that I told it
  • every truth I tell might not be beneficial to me, but it will be beneficial (if difficult to accept) to others if they take it for what it is
  • every truth I tell reinforces my memory of facts, while every lie I tell demands that I remember both fact and lie
  • every truth I tell that is difficult to accept requires polite phrasing (truth be told, I've been going soft on that guideline for a while now) and thus challenges my language skills
  • every truth I tell increases (if ever so slightly) the chances I will henceforth receive truth from the person I'm talking to


  • every truth I'm told increases not my ego, but my knowledge
  • every truth I'm told might make me realize uncomfortable facts (about myself, the world, the things or people I like) but without realizing them, wouldn't they be there anyway? Realizing ugly truths is the only way to do something about them.
  • every truth I'm told I can pass on

I realize that many people are afraid of truth.

Many of them simply forget to consider that truth remains true whether they know about it or not. Put otherwise, if you choose to ignore something true, you can stay comfortable, but that doesn't make whatever you choose to believe instead true! For example, over the last 10 years a life after death (previously thought impossible to disprove) has been discovered to be extremely unlikely. That is scary. But now you know that, you can do something about it! What does it mean for you? You know there is no life after death, while others believe that one exists. You have the advantage! (Though not necessarily the obligation to destroy anyone's dreams about the afterlife ;)) What would that mean for humanity if that fact could be widely promoted? Less hope? Not likely - many people who don't believe in an afterlife have a lot of hope. Less suicide bombers? Probably a few, though suicide bombers rationalize their suicide with religion, they don't commit suicide because of it. Less irrational decision shortly before death? Maybe. Fairer inheritance laws? Oh yes!

But the most important thing is, what does it mean for you? Truth is truth. You can do something about a situation (well, most of them) - but only if you choose to see it, to accept it beyond the initial discomfort, to the point where you see the problem in it's whole ugliness. Then you can act on it.

Truth is important.