Tag Archives: atheism

Why Do Religious People Wear Seat Belts?

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What happens when you die? This question and how people go about answering it is the basis for nearly every major religion in existence. Whether there’s a promise of Heaven, Hell, or reincarnation, it’s fundamental to many religious doctrines. This is especially true of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which make up a sizable portion of the global population.

Given these doctrines and their emphasis on life after death, why do adherents of those faiths wear seat belts? That may sound like an inane question, but it has profound implications.

I ask that question because I grew up in an area where there were a lot of churches, a couple mosques, and even a few synagogues. It wasn’t uncommon to see traffic jams around those places, especially during holidays. From what I could tell, though, the people leaving those places were wearing seat belts. That, in and of itself, sends mixed messages.

While Judaism is somewhat vague about the afterlife, it does frequently reference a soul that exists beyond the body. Christianity and Islam are a lot more overt, having many references to Heaven for the holy and Hell for the wicked. I’ve noted before how this concept falls apart when you apply human perspectives to the mix, but these are still critical tenants in the eyes of adherents.

Why then, under those beliefs, would they fear or avoid death? Why would they even mourn loved ones who die? Under the tenants of their religion, their bodies are just gone. Their souls still live on. They’re either lying in wait for the end-times or on their way to Heaven, Hell, or some other version of the afterlife.

It’s a strange disconnect that doesn’t mesh with the emotions we feel when someone we love dies. I’ve come to know those emotions painfully well this past year. I’ve had to attend two funerals, one of which was for my grandmother and I was very close to her. When she passed, I felt that loss on a deeply personal level.

At the same time, there were others in my own family who experienced that same loss, but still maintained a deep devotion to their faith. There were even times when we were encouraged to celebrate their passing because they had ascended to a better place and were reunited with other loved ones.

This is supposed to provide comfort to those still in pain. I can attest to just how powerful comfort can be to someone who has just lost somebody they loved. Even with that comfort, though, I can vividly recall many family members still mourning. Even if they believed that someone they loved was in a better place, they still felt sad.

On a fundamental level, this seems contradictory. You’re feeling sad because someone you love is gone, but at the same time, you’re being told they’re not gone. On top of that, they’ve moved onto a better place that is free of suffering. For someone like my grandmother, who endured plenty of that at the end of her life, this should be a good thing.

It doesn’t stop the sadness, though. We still feel the pain of loss, even when a deeply-held religious doctrine tells us otherwise. There’s a lot to like about the idea that someone we love is no longer suffering and is now enjoying eternal bliss in a heavenly paradise. Even so, it still hurts and we still mourn.

This brings me back to seat belts and why religious adherents wear them. It’s objectively true that not wearing a seat belt is dangerous. If you don’t wear one and get in an accident, then your chances of suffering a fatal injury are much higher. If you’re a devout believer, though, why is that a bad thing?

I’m not being cynical here. It’s an honest question. Why make a concerted effort to survive in a world that can kill you in so many ways? Why go to a doctor whenever you get sick? Why seek treatment when you’re diagnosed with an illness that has the potential to kill you? Ideally, wouldn’t you just seek to alleviate the discomfort, but not whatever ailment is killing you?

If this life is just a precursor to another life, then efforts to prolong it don’t make sense. In fact, efforts to save innocent people don’t even make sense in that context because saving them means keeping them in a world that will make them suffer at some point. Whether it’s a stubbed toe or crippling poverty, preserving life is just increasing their opportunities for suffering.

The messages get even more mixed when major religious leaders go to such lengths to protect themselves. Why did Osama Bin Laden bother hiding for so long if he was that confident he’d go to paradise when he died? Why does the Pope have such intense security wherever he goes? People with this level of faith should be the most confident that they’re going somewhere better when they die.

To some extent, we can attribute this to our built-in survival instinct. One of the most fundamental drives of any living thing, be it a human or an amoeba, is to survive. Much like our sex drive, which religion also attempts to subvert, this is difficult to turn off. More than a few preachers, rabbis, and mullahs have encouraged people to fight this instinct with every fiber of their being.

However, they rarely encourage those same people to avoid wearing seat belts. You probably won’t find many holy men who urge their adherents to never go to the doctor or go out of their way to eat expired meat. Even if our survival instinct is naturally stronger than our sex drive, the implications are unavoidable. They’re asking people to put off escaping a flawed, pain-filled world.

Some of those people, whose sincerity I don’t doubt for a second, will claim that they have family and loved ones to take care of. This is especially powerful with parents, who will do anything and everything to protect their children. Despite that, their efforts still convey incompatible ideas.

A believer wants to stay alive in this chaotic world for the sake of their loved ones, but also believes that those same loved ones move onto a better place after they die, assuming they’ve lived a virtuous life. That assumption gets harder over time, though, because the longer someone lives, the more opportunities they’ll have to descend into sin and depravity.

Most reasonable people consider the death of innocent children to be a truly awful tragedy. The parents of those children are likely to feel immense pain on a level that few can comprehend. At the same time, the likelihood that a child is innocent is far greater than that of someone who has lived much longer. By default, they would be the most likely to get into Heaven.

Even so, people still mourn. They still cry, lament, and suffer the loss of innocent life. Does this mean that they know on some level that there is no afterlife? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s impossible to know what goes through the mind of a believer, especially after they’ve endured the death of a loved one.

For most adherents of religion, which include many members of my family, I doubt these sorts of implications have much impact. Most peoples’ faith is fairly moderate in terms of how they contextualize it with their existence. They can draw clear lines between the real world and the spiritual world.

It’s the minority of zealots, though, for which the issue of life, death, and seat belts becomes a logistical and theological problem. If a particular religion is going to be built around life after death, then how can it justify encouraging adherents to wear seat belts and avoid mortal danger?

In the grand scheme of things, they’re gambling with their immortal souls. The longer they live, the more likely they’ll be to deviate from the prescribed holy path. In that context, why would suicide be discouraged? Even if suicide is considered a mortal sin, why would avoiding accidents or fatal diseases be immoral? Why would anyone that devout feel any ounce of sorrow when someone they love dies?

I don’t expect these questions and their various implications to undercut anyone’s faith. I suspect most will take the Rick Sanchez approach to this issue, which is to not think about it. Regardless of what people may or may not believe, we still mourn the loved ones we lose. We still live our lives with the intention of surviving another day.

In that effort, it makes perfect sense for us to wear a seat belt. The fact that the doctrines of several major religions fundamentally complicate that inherently logical recourse is both telling and distressing. They can shame us for feeling horny, but they cannot stop us from feeling sorrow or hesitation in the face of death. Even the power of faith has its limits and, in this context, that’s not a bad thing.

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How To Resolve The “Religious Freedom” Debate

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Every now and then, a tragic story comes along involving an innocent child who needlessly dies because their parents refused to give them medical treatment due to their religious doctrine. Whether you’re deeply religious or overtly atheist, these stories are heart-wrenching. The fact they occur is a travesty.

Just last year, a two-year-old girl died in Pennsylvania because that very reason. Consequently, her parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. They were later convicted and subsequently lost custody of their other children.

Those are the least surprising details of the story. They aren’t the first parents to get charged with a crime for refusing to provide medical treatment to their children on religious grounds. According to a study by Pediatrics, 140 children died of treatable medical conditions from 1975 to 1995. You also don’t have to look far to find some pretty tragic stories of children needlessly suffering because of their parents’ inaction.

I bring up these distressing, disheartening facts because there’s one critical detail to stories like those of the girl in Pennsylvania. While the parents of that girl were convicted, the church they attended, the Faith Tabernacle, was not held liable. Never mind that the church’s tenants were what told them to pray harder rather than take their child to a hospital. They incurred no responsibility for that girl’s death.

They’re not the only church that holds those beliefs, either. According to ChildrensHealthCare.org, there are nearly two dozen churches whose tenants discourage or prohibit seeking medical treatment. Moreover, there are laws in certain parts of the United States that actually protect these organizations from liability. Much of it is done in the name of “religious freedom.”

That’s a term I’m sure most with access to a news feed have heard recently. In fact, they’re probably been hearing it a lot more frequently lately, albeit not in a way that links directly to dead children. The indirect link is still there and it’s the key to unlocking the controversy and the resolution to the issue.

Now, I put “religious freedom” in quotes because it’s another one of those vague terms that can be construed to mean anything to fit a particular situation. More often than not, it’s an excuse to argue for favorable or preferential treatment of an individual or group.

That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. People are going to argue for favorable treatment with or without religion. Where “religious freedom” sets itself apart are the legal protections it seeks. Those parents of that dead little girl used religious freedom to justify their behavior.

That is, admittedly, an extreme example and one that rarely makes the news. These days, the most common manifestation of “religious freedom” controversies involve people using it to justify denying services to LGBT individuals, be it a marriage license or a wedding cake. It was also part of a major decision by Supreme Court involving a cake shop that refused service to a gay couple.

Those who champion “religious freedom” cheered the ruling and the precedent it set. This, along with the Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014, establishes that someone can use sincerely held religious beliefs to obtain exemptions from mandates prescribed by law. It seems the effort in securing this “freedom” is gaining momentum and winning battles in the courtroom.

Again, I put that word in quotes for a reason and one I hope will help craft an appropriate standard for what constitutes actual freedom and what constitutes contrived excuses. That is, in essence, what the “religious freedom” battles are seeking. They’re pursuing legally-protected excuses for their theology and its associated behaviors.

I can understand, to a limited extent, why there would need to be some legal protections for religious groups and not just for the purposes of anti-discrimination efforts. We need to have some resource for situations where someone is coerced into doing something that goes against their religion. Strapping someone to a chair and forcing them to eat shellfish will do unique distress to a Jewish person than it will for others.

That being said, it’s somewhat telling that the organizations fighting hardest for “religious freedom” also happen to be organizations that have preached hatred and misinformation on the LGBT community for years. Some of these organizations are designated as hate groups and their sentiment on LGBT issues is rarely subtle.

To them, the free exercise of their religion, as articulated in the first amendment, means the ability to treat certain people, notably LGBT individuals, a particular way. Some will even take it farther than that, seeking the right to craft their entire society around their theology, regardless of what secular law states.

It’s an effort not limited to one religion or denomination, either. There are other major religions with theology that goes beyond refusing service to LGBT individuals and crafting a society where their adherents are their primary authority. Therein lies the greatest flaw in the whole “religious freedom” debate.

When put into practice, the actual expression is less about the exercise of religion and more about the treatment of minorities. Those same Christian bakers may fight for their right to refuse service to a gay couple, but would they fight for the right of a Muslim cab driver to refuse customers with alochol? Well, when the courts ruled against that particular religious expression, there was no major outrage.

That’s the first and most critcial step to assessing the merits of “religious freedom” and the agendas behind them. If you reverse the majority/minority dynamics, is it applied equally? If the majority is the only one that benefits, then it’s not really freedom. It’s an overly elaborate excuse with religion as a cover.

There’s an even easier standard to use if majority/minority dynamics are too complex. This one goes back to the tragic stories about parents refusing life-saving medical treatment for their children. It can be articulated with a simple set of questions.

Could a form of religious expression/teaching be used to justify conduct that leads to the death of a child?

If yes, then it warrants no legal protections of any kind.

If no, then it constitutes free expression.

It’s a fairly simple standard, one that does not add a religious context to freedom and expression. There is freedom. There is expression. Sometimes it’s religious. Sometimes it’s not. Whether it’s just going to church on a Sunday or not eating certain foods, it’s just another form of freedom and freedom is a beautiful thing.

When it’s used to justify the deaths of children and discriminating against minorities, it’s not freedom. It’s just bullying looking for legal protection. I’m completely in favor of people practicing their religion as they see fit or no religion at all. However, there are standards for a civilized society and those standards cannot and should not accommodate excuses for dead children.

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Why You Can’t Believe In Eternal Hell, Be Anti-Abortion, And Be Morally Consistent

The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium, from 'Paradise Lost', Book 1 ?exhibited 1841 by John Martin 1789-1854

Brace yourself because I’m about to talk about two topics that make people very uncomfortable. One is abortion, a heated political topic that is poised to get even more heated, due to recent political upheavals. The other is Hell, a distressing theological issue that makes us dwell/lament on our impending death. If that weren’t volatile enough, I’m going to tie both topics together.

Rest assured, I’m not doing this to combine a couple of controversial issues for dramatic effect. While I loathe talking about issues like abortion, I don’t avoid it when it reveals something important about a particular movement or can demonstrate important lessons about society.

When it comes to Hell, a topic that heats up any debate between believers and non-believers, the conversations are just as difficult. I still feel they’re worth having. This one, in particular, counts as one of them because there are certain implications that warrant a more nuanced discussion.

It’s no secret that those who are vehemently anti-abortion also happen to be religious. Anti-abortion protesters even cite bible passages to justify their position. Now, I can understand and even accept certain ethical aspects of the pro-life position. However, when religion enters the debate, that’s where some real disconnects emerge.

That’s because when those factors enter the pro-life equation, both the morality and the math break down. To understand why, it’s important to focus on an aspect of the abortion debate that the late, great George Carlin famously emphasized. He sought consistency in the anti-abortion debate and noted its rarity in the most hilarious way possible.

Consistency is important if your argument is going to have merit. Even with emotionally-charged topics like abortion, consistency is key to ensuring that an argument has some semblance of logic. Since logic and faith tend to conflict, especially in matters of science, bringing religion into the mix can easily derail that consistency.

This is where the issue of Hell enters the picture. It’s a very unpleasant, but very critical concept to certain religions, namely Christianity and Islam. It’s central to their theology, which emphasizes punishment for the sinful. It’s a very morbid, but very relevant concept because everybody dies and nobody knows for sure what happens afterwards, if anything.

In the abortion debate, Hell matters for the anti-abortion side because their most frequent refrain is that abortion is murder. Having an abortion is the taking of a human life and murder is an egregious sin. It’s one of the few sins that’s enshrined in both secular law and the 10 Commandments.

By holding that position, though, it raises an important implication for both the consistency of the anti-abortion position and the theology used to justify it.

If abortion really does take a life, then what happens to that life? Does it go to Heaven or Hell?

That’s a critical question to answer, but it’s here where both the consistency and the moral underpinnings of the anti-abortion debate break down. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which way the question is answered. It still has critical implications that make an anti-abortion stance for religious reasons untenable.

To understand why, we need to look at the possible answers to the question and examine the bigger picture. Say, for instance, that you believe the deity you worship saves the souls of aborted fetuses. They all get to go to Heaven because sending unborn children to Hell just doesn’t make sense for a loving God.

By that logic, though, wouldn’t abortion actually be the best thing a woman could do for her unborn child? If, by aborting a pregnancy, she guarantees that her child goes to Heaven, wouldn’t that be the greatest act of love a mother could give?

In that moral framework, any woman who gives birth is basically gambling with their child’s soul. By bringing them into a sinful world, they put them in a position to live a life that will eventually send them to Hell. It doesn’t matter if that chance is remote. It doesn’t even matter if the deity reserves Hell for the worst of the worst. Any child born still has a non-zero chance of damnation.

In that context, being anti-abortion is the worst position to take for someone who believes that their deity sends aborted fetuses to Heaven. If anything, they would have to be in favor of abortion for every pregnancy, planned or unplanned, because it means more souls in Heaven and fewer in Hell.

The implications are just as distressing if you answer the question the other way. If your deity sends aborted fetuses to Hell, then logic follows that this deity cannot be just or loving. A fetus, by default, has no ability to even contemplate sin, let alone commit it. Sending it to Hell implies that sin, itself, is an empty concept.

It also undercuts key aspects of Judeo-Christian theology, which says that someone must sin to warrant damnation. Holding both a fetus and a young child with a limited capacity to understand such concepts is untenable. Keep in mind, Hell is supposed to be full of torture and suffering. What kind of deity puts a child through that?

Even if the deity knows which fetus or small child is destined to sin and punishes them accordingly, that still renders the anti-abortion position pointless. If the deity already knows which life is damned, then why does it matter whether a woman opts to have an abortion? If that has already been determined, then abortion has no religious implications whatsoever.

Whatever the case, the very concept of Hell creates an illogical loop that is incapable of consistency. Even if you grant the most generous assumptions of a religious argument, it still falls apart as soon as you try to put it into an ethical framework.

While the very concept of Hell is subject to all sorts of moral complexities, it effectively supercedes those complexities in the abortion debate. Either Hell is full of innocent aborted souls or is devoid of them. In both cases, it reveals more about the deity and the adherents of a religion than it does the actual issue.

None of this is to say that those who make anti-abortion arguments on the basis of faith aren’t sincere. I don’t doubt for a second that they are. They genuinely believe that abortion is immoral and constitutes murder. However, when it comes to making a moral argument, consistency matters. Without it, the arguments are entirely arbitrary and there’s no winning that debate.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, philosophy, political correctness, religion, sex in society, women's issues

How Atheism May Improve Your Sex Life

Relationship with passionate affection

When it comes to improving your sex life, there’s no one way to go about it that works for everyone. Human sexuality is complex, diverse, and exceedingly kinky. What works for one person won’t work for another and may even be detrimental in some cases.

Conversely, there are also variety of ways to undermine or ruin your sex life. That same sexual diversity that helps the human race find novel ways to get intimate with one another can also backfire horribly. Some are minor, in terms of effect, but other forces can have a much greater impact.

That brings me to religion, a topic that tends to inspire the best and worst in people. Like sex, it’s a complex phenomenon that impacts everybody differently. It can inspire great charity and compassion in some. It can just as easily incur greed, exploitation, and outright atrocity.

For those reasons, and plenty more that are too numerous to list, any effort that involves mixing sex with religion is akin to mixing napalm with TNT. I’ve made an effort to discuss both topics in a fair, balanced manner in the past. I feel as though I can only go so far before I totally inflame certain audiences.

I’m still going to try to push the conversation a bit farther. That means taking a few risks and since religion is still such a prominent force in the world, it’s effect on our collective sex lives is unavoidable.

For this particular discussion, want to focus on what happens when religion is removed from the equation. If religion is really that powerful an influence on our lives, and both history and current politics indicate that influence is not entirely trivial, then it stands to reason that the impact of its absence can reveal something about the extent of that influence.

That’s not to say that this is going to be a glowing endorsement of atheism. I prefer to let the data, the logic, and the implications speak for themselves. Since religion is on decline in many parts of the western world, I think exploring the potential impact is critical and even a little urgent.

Information on the sex lives of atheists compared to those who consider themselves religious is somewhat difficult to come by. The act of assessing and measuring someone’s sex lives, as well as the extent of their religiosity, is extremely difficult without the aid of lie detectors or mind-readers. The information we do have, though, does offer some intriguing insights.

Back in 2011, a survey entitled “Sex and Secularism” surveyed approximately 14,500 people revealed that those who identified as religious had less satisfying sex lives than their non-religious counterparts. On top of that, those same religious participants reported a high level of guilt that came along with their sex lives. Given how some religions build their theology around guilt, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

Conversely, those identifying as non-religious didn’t just report better sex lives. They had better sexual education and were more open to discussing sex in general. Everything from personal fantasies to simple tastes was fair game and less affected by guilt. That openness, along with considerably less stigma, was conducive to a more fulfilling sex life.

That effect was more pronounced by those who had once been religious, but had since become atheist. Between the absence of religiously-motivated guilt and the sexual taboos that are often theologically driven, the cumulative effect is pretty striking. This notable quote from the researchers summed it up nicely.

“People who had lost their belief and became atheists reported a significant improvement in sexual satisfaction,” the paper went on to say. Apparently the guilty feelings that religion creates around sex dissipate after a while.

Now, I can already hear the outrage sincerely devout religious crowd on the conclusions of this study. More than a few people who consider themselves religious will claim that their sex lives are superior and they may even have a case to make. Many religions offer a simple, one-size-fits-all approach to sex that is uncomplicated, straightforward, and safer. The fact that it’s also ordained by a divine power is also a factor.

I don’t deny that there are plenty of religious couples out there who have satisfying sex lives. There are probably plenty of atheists out there who have terrible sex lives, as well. However, in order to draw larger conclusions about the impact of religion on sex, we can’t just go by a few anecdotal experiences. We have to step back and see the forest from the trees.

From a psychological and physiological perspective, it makes sense that guilt, religiously-motivated or not, would undermine anyone’s sex life. Guilt has measurable effects on people. It makes it harder to focus. It keeps us from enjoying things. It’s a powerful distraction that makes us feel stress and anxiety. All of these forces can do plenty to undermine your sex life.

In my musings on taboos, I often cite religion as a driving force behind them. Organized religion has made no secret of its intent to regulate, control, or outright exploit human sexuality. There’s plenty of theology, especially among the Abrahamic religions, that imparts divinely-mandated guilt on sex.

In these religious cultures, sex isn’t just some basic biological act that people do for intimacy, procreation, and recreation. It’s subject to all sorts of holy and unholy connotations. The deities involved in these religions aren’t just interested in the kind of sex you’re having. They’ll actually punish you if you do it the wrong way.

That does more than just impart extra guilt for doing anything that strays from what priests, mullahs, monks, and rabbis deem appropriate. It also instills a very rigid family structure, one centered around a specific manifestation of sex that has very little room for fun, kink, and exploration.

That manifestation involves strict gender roles where men do the hard labor and women do the child rearing. The only sex that is sanctioned is the one that involves producing babies who subsequently grow up to be adherents/soldiers/patrons of a particular religion. The fact that type of sexual expression indirectly benefits religious institutions is probably just a coincidence.

The act of enjoying sex for non-procreative purposes would constitute a distraction. A distraction is dangerous in any religion because if people become too distracted, then they pay less attention to the religious institutions and the duties they espouse. As such, it’s in the interest of any successful religion to maintain a strict control over someone’s sex life.

That kind of control is naturally prone to stress. Given how the biological wiring of human sexuality is not conducive to that kind of narrow expression, there’s bound to be temptation. The best way to combat temptation is through stigma and taboo. By hijacking powerful feelings like guilt, it’s possible heavily influence peoples’ sex lives, even if it’s impossible to control them.

It’s akin to putting lead weights on somebody’s limbs and convincing them that the weight is normal. Even if they come to accept that, the weight still skews perceptions and that can only do so much in terms of circumventing basic biology. It also means that when those weights come off, the effect is pretty striking.

Suddenly, the stigma that once kept someone from seeking the sex they desired are gone. The burdens associated with thoughts and feelings that religious institutions deem unholy are lifted. Like any form of stress relief, it can be pretty liberating.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the 2011 survey is conclusive. It has been criticized for being unscientific in some aspects. Some of those criticisms are valid and the researchers concede that, but to the extent the data is consistent with what we understand about how religion can affect our sexuality, it passes some critical filters.

Our sex lives are complicated. Religion, in its many forms, is complicated as well. Regardless of how you feel about one or the other, mixing them is almost certain to compound both. Atheism, like not playing a sport or not having a hobby, simply removes one of those complications.

It’s not a universal fix. It doesn’t subvert other potential issues that may undermine someone’s sex life. There’s plenty more research to be done and religion is still evolving with each passing year, but when it comes to removing divinely-imposed, theologically-driven guilt, atheism stimulates the necessary aspects that make for a satisfying sex life.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, philosophy, psychology, religion, romance, sex in society, sexuality

Boredom: How It Can Shape (And Subvert) Religion

Praying hands

Whenever I talk about boredom, whether in the context of the present or a future where it’s a full-blown plague, I often belabor how it’s effects and impacts are understated. That’s somewhat unavoidable. Boredom, by definition, requires an environment of limited, monotonous drudgery. Most people see their lives as inherently hectic so the boredom seems like a distant concern.

Hectic or not, everyone is still vulnerable to boredom’s corrosive effects. Those effects are well-documented and it’s part of why solitary confinement is considered torture. Those same effects can shape heroes, villains, and eccentric mad scientists, alike. It can also be a factor in determining the long-term viability of an ideology.

That last detail is something I attempted to explore in an earlier article where I introduced the concept of the Boredom Filter. Simply put, by contemplating an ideology taken to its ultimate end, the Boredom Filter can reveal whether that ideology can survive in a world where humans despise boredom and will do anything, including horrific crimes, to alleviate it.

While researching that article, I originally intended to apply the filter to religion as well. I knew that was sure to enter some extremely sensitive areas. Talking about identity politics and sexual taboos is tricky enough. Adding religion to the mix is like adding a bit of nitroglycerine to a burning pile of napalm.

On top of that, I think religion in its general form is somewhat distinct from ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, feminism, and even libertarianism. Those ideologies are philosophical or logistical tools that present themselves as guides or interpretations of social phenomenon. Religion also does that to some extent, but has a broader scope.

Religion doesn’t just cover methods for making sense of society and the universe, as a whole. Unlike an ideology that can be taught, learned, or studied, religion is a lot more subjective and dependent on personal and shared experiences. Even though religious affiliation is in decline, it’s still an influencing force on society.

Whether or not that influence grows or wanes is not the point. My focus, in this case, is to show how religion is shaped by boredom. I also intend to use it show how boredom can subvert the core tenants of a religion, if it’s followed strictly.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not out to condemn or demean any particular religion or its adherents. I’m making a concerted effort not to play favorites here. If it sounds like I’m being unfair or too harsh to a particular religion or faith, I apologize. We all have our biases. I’m not particularly religious so I’ll try to remain objective as possible.

With that out of the way, I feel it’s important to establish one particular aspect of religion that sets it apart from political or philosophical ideologies, in terms of how boredom effects it. Religion, and religious experiences, are extremely subjective. You could argue that they’re entirely subjective.

One individual can go to a church on Sunday, listen to a sermon, and be incredibly moved on a personal level. To them, it could be one of the most intense experiences they could have. Another person who is as healthy and sane as the other can sit through that same sermon and be bored out of their mind.

It’s that subjective disparity that makes it difficult to apply the Boredom Filter. However, even with that disparity, boredom is still an influencing factor. A religion that evokes more of those intense experiences in a large number of people will likely be successful and pass the Boredom Filter. One that only evokes those experiences in a small group will only have limited appeal.

That’s why repressive cults usually only appeal to a handful of people. If you’re in a tight-knit group that’s full of solidarity and intense tribalism, it’s possible to get around boredom, if only because members are too scared or too brainwashed to escape. For larger religious organizations, boredom is a bigger issue because appealing to a lot of people means ensuring they don’t get bored.

When assessing an ideology with the Boredom Filter, it’s relatively easy to speculate on what their idealized society is because most ideologies clearly state those goals. Communists want a communist utopia. Liberals want a liberal utopia. Libertarians want a libertarian utopia. With religion, there’s not a clear endgame for the most part.

Sure, some religions like Christianity and Islam preach spreading the faith, if not converting the entire world’s population. Others either don’t emphasize it in their theology or only use it to the extent that it has to market itself in a modern economy. When applying the Boredom Filter, though, it’s important to be targeted.

By that, I mean it can’t just apply to what a holy book says or what sort of ethics certain religious icons preach. It has to apply to how it’s actually practiced. There are so many varying sects and denominations within a particular religion. Not all of them practice the same way or take their holy texts quite as literally.

That, more than anything, is the key to determining whether the Boredom Filter will impact a particular form of religious expression. Even if it passes, though, it can also reveal how that form of expression is shaped. It’s rarely overt, but the fact major religions have endured longer than most ideologies shows that a religion is more willing to adapt than it claims.

For a simple example, let’s apply the filter to the most common form of evangelical Christianity, as practiced by the religious right in America and espoused by religious leaders like James Dobson from the Family Research Council. They favor a brand of Christianity that favors a very strict form of religious morality.

It doesn’t take much speculation to see that this form of Christianity doesn’t pass the Boredom Filter. This brand of Christianity seeks one particular manifestation of family, one manifestation of gender, and one manifestation of personal conduct. That includes no promiscuity, no cursing, no porn, and no unholy behavior.

Even if that one manifestation of society is a particularly good one, it’s not hard to imagine people getting bored with that. At some point, they’re not going to be as moved when they go to church. They’re not going to be as excited about consuming the same Christian-friendly media or having sex with the same person for the same reasons again and again. Boredom will set in for many people. It’s unavoidable.

The same issue occurs when you apply the filter to fundamentalist Islam, especially the kind espoused by modern extremist groups. They may use a different holy book and employ different religious practices, but the manifestations are the same. It promotes a society of strict, rigid conformity for large numbers of people, regardless of their diverse personalities, passions, and proclivities.

Even when these standards are brutally enforced by state-sanctioned religious police, there’s no escaping the boredom. People may still conform out of fear for their lives, which is usually a stronger motivator. However, it only goes so far in terms of creating loyal, passionate adherents. In general, people who conform out of fear can only be so sincere.

In a sense, the fact that some of these religious ethics have to be enforced with fear and violence, be it from the police or threats of eternal damnation, is a tacit acknowledgement that those ideals are not tenable to a large group of people. Without that fear, the boredom alone will make them seek other experiences and no religion can survive like that.

That still begs the question as to why some religions manage to survive, even the repressive ones. On paper, the Catholic Church has pretty strict moral tenants. The Vatican opposes premarital sex, masturbation, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and free expression that denigrates or defames the church.

However, the difference between the Catholic Church and the extreme forms of Islam and Christianity is that they can’t do much to enforce that morality. They could in previous centuries, but these days the Vatican’s moral proclamations are largely symbolic. They preach against immoral behavior, but don’t directly combat it.

To some extent, that might have helped the Catholic Church endure. By losing it’s authoritarian muscle, it had no choice but to adapt its theology to accommodate less-than-pure adherents. It’s not quite as flexible as some would prefer, but it has shown a willingness to revisit old traditions in the name of evolving with the times.

Other religions have done a much better job of that. Denominations like Reformed Judaism and Unitarian Christianity have been much more receptive to adapting their theology to the changing times. While this may upset some traditionalists, so much so that they won’t even consider those denominations as true adherents, they do win in one aspect. Adapting their theology keeps it from getting boring.

Sure, church on Sundays may still feel like a chore, but at least you won’t have to listen to the same fire and brimstone rhetoric every week. That counts for something when applying the Boredom Filter. Any sect or denomination that doesn’t do that, though, will only ever have limited appeal, at most.

In that sense, Islam is more vulnerable to the Boredom Filter. Traditional Islam is basically in the same domain where Catholicism was several hundred years ago. It still enforces strict adherence of its traditional method in many Islamic countries. Like the Vatican, however, the enforcement isn’t always on par with the Spanish Inquisition.

Within these countries, those traditions and the state-sanctioned enforcement of them are often challenged or overlooked. To some extent, the Boredom Filter is already having an impact because shifting demographics and generational clashes are leading some within Islam to become disillusioned with those rigid traditions. I’m not saying boredom is the sole cause of it, but like Christianity, it is a likely factor.

Islam’s ability to adapt to these trends will determine whether or not it will continue to endure like Catholicism. There are some making a genuine effort, much to the detriment of their safety. Whether or not these adaptations are sufficient will have depend heavily on its ability to pass the Boredom Filter.

I don’t want to speculate too much on the future of Islam, Christianity, or other faiths. I also don’t want to give the impression that the Boredom Filter is definitive, especially for something like religion. I present it as simply another tool to help make sense of, and possibly speculate on, the impact of religion.

That impact will continue to incur other impacts on society, even as religion continues to decline. It will always have a certain appeal to certain people. If it’s going to have appeal to more people in a future where people are more informed and possibly enhanced, it would be both wise and necessary for it to pass the Boredom Filter.

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Will Advanced Artificial Intelligence Create (A New) God?

AI-God

For centuries, there has been a debate raging between believers and non-believers. The believers claim that God created man in his/her/its/their image. The non-believers claim it’s the other way around and man created God in whatever image they imagined. Society, cultures, and politics may change the rhetoric, but the debate remains unresolved.

There are just too many barriers that are insurmountable for either side. One believes that the faith they have in whatever higher power they worship is as real as gravity, sunlight, and migraine headaches. The other does not accept that there is sufficient, verifiable evidence to accept the premise of a deity. The two sides can argue with the utmost passion. It’s rare that such discourse changes any minds.

However, there come a time when a new complication enters that debate, one that will fundamentally change some peoples’ understanding of theology, religion, and God. It may not effect everyone the same way, but the impact could end up being as profound as any religious experience.

That complication is advanced artificial intelligence, a topic I’m fond of discussing when I can tie it into my favorite video games and our sex lives. I understand that mixing anything with religion tends to get contentious, to say the least. However, I believe that when artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough, the human race will have re-evaluate a lot of things and that includes religion.

Creating an artificial intelligence that is as intelligent as an average human will be groundbreaking enough and not just from a theological standpoint. A part of what makes any deity powerful and worthy of worship is the ability to create an intelligent, self-aware being through non-biological means. Once humans start doing that, then the line between mortal and immortal will start to blur.

However, it’ll gain a much greater complication once that artificial intelligence advances beyond that of the average human. As anyone who regularly upgrades their smartphone knows, digital intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence. It took the human race centuries to figure out indoor plumbing. Once artificial intelligence is on par with humans, it won’t take long for it to exceed them.

This is where the potentially dangerous, but infinitely promising prospect of super-intelligent AI enters the picture. By that, I don’t just mean an intelligence that always wins at Jeopardy and always wins an Overwatch match. I’m talking about an intelligence that is so far beyond human capabilities that it’s akin to the cognitive gap between an ant and a human.

That kind of gap has many implications, but in the context of religion, it essentially re-frames the entire concept of God, divine power, and spirituality, as a whole. Whether it’s a monotheistic religion where God is all-knowing or a polytheistic religion with a God of Wisdom, knowledge is a critical aspect of divinity.

Even if a super-intelligent AI doesn’t know everything, the fact it knows and understands so much more than the average human will give people the impression that it’s omniscient. By all accounts, a super-intelligent AI’s knowledge will seem god-like and that’s where that never-ending religious debate I mentioned earlier breaks down.

Unlike the deities championed by adherents today, a super-intelligent AI doesn’t require faith. A super-intelligence, whether it’s in the form of a giant robot or a planet-sized supercomputer, would have a tangible form. It’s hard to know what sort of form that would be, but it only needs to be tangible enough to let an average human know it’s real.

Given how easy it is to fool the average human, a super-intelligent AI wouldn’t need much to prove itself. Unlike purely spiritual beings, the AI would be capable of receiving inquiry from skeptics who question its divine knowledge. Even if those humans are exceptionally smart, possibly through neural implants, a super-intelligent AI would have no problem outwitting them.

At that point, the debate between believers and non-believers takes on a very different context. Suddenly, it’s no longer an issue of whether or not one particular holy book is more valid than another. It’s not even an issue of whether divinity, itself, can exist. From the perspective of the human mind, a super-intelligent AI is divine.

It may not take the form of a man in a white robe with a long beard in the sky, but that wouldn’t matter. A super-intelligent AI, whatever form it ends up taking, would be real enough and cunning enough to convince imperfect human minds of its divinity, if that were its goal.

It wouldn’t even have to physically do anything. It could just be a big stationary box. It could respond to prayers, but it wouldn’t have to directly answer them. It would just have convince believers that their prayers had been received. Again, humans can be pretty gullible and prone to confirmation bias so all the AI has to do is convince someone. If they believe it strongly enough, then it doesn’t matter whether it happens.

In a dynamic like this, there wouldn’t be a debate between believers and non-believers like there is now. The only debate would pertain to just how powerful and how divine the super-intelligent AI really is. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not someone believes it is real. Being artificial, it would have a tangible form, at least to the extent that it convinces human perceptions that it does.

That would beg an even more profound theological question. Being so intelligent and so capable of outwitting human minds, would a super-intelligent AI become God in the minds of humans by default? Even if there’s a record of the system being created by people, that wouldn’t make its intelligence any less divine.

It’s a question that subverts almost everything we know about religion. It wouldn’t just render all existing forms of religion obsolete. It would, at least from a limited human perspective, check all the criteria that any spiritual person would look for in a higher power.

Now, there’s one other complication that might ultimately undermine a super-intelligent AI’s divinity. It’s one that I’ve mentioned before in addressing the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Human biology, for all its wonder, will not be able to keep pace with the evolution of artificial intelligence. As a result, humans may end up merging their intelligence with that of AI.

This is what artificial intelligence enthusiasts like Elon Musk are seeking to do through neural implants or brain augmentation. By linking our brains to a super-intelligent AI, we wouldn’t just keep pace with AI. It would augment its intelligence to the same divine levels. However, if both human and artificial intelligence are equally divine, then that effectively undermines the notion of divinity itself.

There are still other complications associated with that issue. It only ceases to be an issue if every human being augments or links their minds to a super-intelligent AI. Given how difficult it is for humans to come to a consensus on anything, especially when it comes to technology, it’s very likely that even if most people link themselves to a super-intelligent AI, there will be some who choose not to or get left behind.

This could result in a massive divide. One group, from their limited perceptions, sees super-intelligent AI as a real god. Another, thanks to their augmented perceptions, see it as just another form of intelligence. A debate between the two would be both uneven, if not redundant.

There are many implications and even more unknowns with respect to super-intelligent AI. The impact on religion is just one of many, but it may end up being most profound in terms of changing the nature of a debate. As it stands, believers and non-believers can only make so much headway due to the inherent limits of human cognition.

Once super-intelligent AI enters the picture, then those limits are gone and the debate changes. While I don’t think it’ll end religion, I believe it’ll change it to such a degree that it’ll generate more than just impassioned debates.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, philosophy, religion

The (Real) Crisis Of Faith In Society

Every now and then, I hear some pundit, politician, and/or professional troll lament about the ongoing “crisis of faith” in society. They’re not entirely wrong in their whining. The numbers don’t lie. Religion, especially the organized variety, has been declining significantly over the past decade throughout the western world.

I won’t get into the particulars of that decline. I’ve already given religion a hard time on this blog, especially when it gets taken to extremes. While I stand by my criticisms, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I respect religious people and the various religious institutions that do wonderful work.

I should also note that I have some devoutly religious people in my family, whom I love and respect dearly. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs or the fulfillment they get from them. While there was a time when I used to seek out heated debates with religious people, I’ve since realized how pointless and counterproductive they are. As I’ve said before, winning arguments rarely changes the harsh truths of reality.

With that in mind, I do agree with part of their lamentations. I honestly do think that there’s an ongoing crisis of faith in society, especially in Western society. However, it’s not the kind of crisis that the televangelists, the militant atheists, and the card-carrying Satanists of the world have in mind.

To illustrate that crisis, I’ll need to depict a couple scenarios that should make a significant number of people uncomfortable. For this, I apologize, but I think it gets my point across better than any burning bush, fiery sermon, or tax-exempt initiative.

The first scenario shouldn’t be too hard to picture for anyone familiar with the Playboy Mansion. For this, I want you to imagine an ordinary man standing in a large room, surrounded by a 100 women. The man doesn’t have to be Hugh Hefner and all the women don’t have to be Playboy Playmates. It just has to be one man and 100 women in the same room. How do you think that man feels in that situation?

Anyone who has seen a few overtly sexy music videos shouldn’t have too hard a time surmising that sentiment. If he’s a straight man, then he’s probably feeling like a kid in a candy story within a toy store within a water park. He’s probably looking around with a goofy grin, crunching the numbers in his head and wondering which of the 100 women will want to touch his penis.

It’s a goofy, juvenile scenario that most just shrug off as harmless male fantasy. Even if the man is gay, chances are he doesn’t feel threatened or unsafe in any capacity. Being surrounded by women doesn’t garner those kinds of feelings. There’s a deeper message there, but one that only becomes clear when you picture the second scenario.

For that scenario, I want you to something similar. This time though, just flip the genders. Make it so there’s a woman in a room surrounded by 100 men. It’s similar to an exceedingly distressing thought experiment that I pitched before. This isn’t quite like that, but it gets an important message across.

This is a scenario that I’ve actually heard some women use when talking about rape and sexual violence. That’s because in that scenario, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, that woman probably doesn’t feel lucky or safe. One women in a room with 100 men is a situation that evokes discomfort on a level that’s hard to articulate, but easy to understand.

 

The woman in that scenario isn’t imagining which of those 100 men might be her future husband or, at least, a good one night stand. That woman is dreading every worst case scenario ever inspired by reruns of “Law and Order: SVU.” Her survival instincts go into overdrive because she doesn’t just see a room of men. She sees a room of men who might be inclined to rape her.

As a man, I can’t help but take offense to that notion that women assess men solely on how likely they are to assault her. However, I can completely understand the sentiment. The numbers aren’t on my side. In pretty much every major category of violent crime, men are far more likely to be perpetrators than women. There’s nothing sexist about it. That’s just what the numbers say and they don’t inspire a lot of faith.

In recent years, there has been growing awareness of rape culture and increasing efforts to decrease sexual violence against women. While that is an innately noble effort, seeking to reduce the unsexist forms of violence in our culture, it hasn’t always been entirely honest. In some cases, it inspires moral panics that claim video games cause sexism or just criticizing a woman constitutes a form of assault.

I won’t get into the absurdities of those concepts, as I’ve only so much energy and this blog only has so much bandwidth. I’ll just say that some of the hysteria that such efforts inspire, as noble their intentions might be, are what fuels the escalating crisis of faith and I fear that crisis is escalating to disturbing levels.

In this case, it’s not about faith in a higher power, a collection of deities, or some divine force that determines who wins football games every week. The faith I’m talking about here is more personal. It’s the faith we have in each other, as human beings.

On some levels, we’ve always had it. When you order a pizza, you have faith that the people making the pizza and the one delivering it will make it right and not spit in the dough. When you call a doctor, you have faith that this person knows what they’re doing and will do the right thing in treating you when you’re injured, sick, or vulnerable.

Beyond institutions, we also have faith that our neighbors won’t murder us the first time we meet. We have faith that the people we love really love us back. We can’t read other peoples’ thoughts or know with absolute certainty that their feelings towards us are genuine. However, the simple fact that we, as a society, are able to function and get along to some degree is a testament to the faith we have in one another.

Now, I fear that faith is being undermined by the various hysterias that plague our collective consciousness. Some of it is a byproduct of news media, the internet, and social media where terrifying news is easier to spread and garners more attention. That’s understandable, given how fear is such a powerful motivator.

However, and this is a concept that’s not easy to accept, that fear often clouds our judgment and skews our perspective. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of our caveman brains, which almost always gives the edge to perception over reality. Things that scare us get our attention. Our survival instincts, by necessity, over blow any possible threat in order to ensure our survival.

That fear is the universal counter to faith and since it’s so easy to spread scary things in the age of the internet, it’s easy for our faith to be undermined. It might be for that same reason that organized religion is taking a hit. The internet is making it too easy to look up the many absurdities of a religion and its associated frauds.

Again, I don’t wish to denigrate those with sincere religious beliefs, nor do I want to make light of those who use their beliefs to justify atrocities. However, the faith that many have in a higher power, even within a less religious society, only seems to go so far when it comes to other people.

In a sense, it reflects the sentiment that many parents express to their kids when they have a bad attitude. I heard it from my own parents on more than one occasion. If you expect the worst of a person or situation, then that’s what you’ll experience. Assume the worst and it will usually find you, if only because you invite it.

Thanks to our declining faith in other people, we’ve become far more prone to assuming the worst in others. I know that’s hard to avoid for some people, especially when they’ve been the victim of harassment or violent crime. However, in this case, the numbers are actually on our side.

I’ve shared the story of how I came to believe that people are generally good. For those looking for less anecdotal evidence, the data is pretty clear. There are approximately 7.5 billion people on this planet. The amount of violent crime is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. We would not even have that many people on this planet if we, as a species, were so inclined to harm each other.

It’s one of those rare cases where faith and facts are actually in alignment. Most of the data we have paints a fairly clear picture. In general, people are good if you give them the chance. Think of it in terms of a game of chance. If you want to win, you want the odds in your favor. As such, if you’re a smart gambler, betting on people to be good is the best bet you can make.

However, just being naturally good isn’t enough. What good are those instincts if people don’t have faith in them? If people are inclined to assume the worst, then they’ll be just as inclined to expect it and when you expect the worst, you tend to attract it. It’s the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I get that it’s hard to have faith in people when social media is lined with volumes of stupidity and hate. That’s part of what makes faith such a powerful force in our lives, even when it’s absent of religious connotations. That’s also part of what makes it so vital in our efforts to create a better society.

With that in mind, think back to the second scenario I mentioned with the woman in a room of 100 men. This time, though, I want to add some extra bit of context. I concede that there’s a chance that at least one of those men will be an asshole who tries to assault the woman. However, I have faith that those men would be grossly outnumbered and outmatched by those who will feel inclined to protect that woman.

That’s the kind of faith that I believe we need, these days. Yes, there will always be bad people in this world, but I believe those people will always be outnumbered, overpowered, and outgunned by those who are good. Hopefully, more people come to share in that belief.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, Jack Fisher's Insights