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How The Internet Has Weakened (But Not Destroyed) Organized Religion

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The current state of organized religion is ripe with conflict and mixed messages. On one hand, religious affiliation has significantly declined over the past 30 years. According to a 2018 survey from Eastern Illinois University, around 23 percent of the US population identifies as having “no religion.” For comparison, that number was only 5 percent in 1972.

In other industrialized countries, the decline is even more pronounced. Throughout Europe, more and more people are drifting away from organized religion. That’s especially true of young people, who are one of the least religious demographics in modern history. In terms of the bigger picture, organized religion is facing a generational time bomb that’s just starting to go off.

At the same time, however, religion still exercises an absurd amount of political power. Religious groups, particularly those who align themselves with conservative politics, have enormous influence. Its platform is tightly woven with that of a major political party. Many people in positions of power identify as religious. Many more rely on a religious base to get elected.

It’s a strange trend that seems counter-intuitive. How can something be weakening due to declining adherents, but still wield so much power? In an age where the egregious crimes of religious institutions have been exposed and more people are educated on the many absurdities of various holy texts, it feels as though organized religion should be on its death bed.

While there are many factors behind this situation, I believe that one particular factor is more influential than most. It also happens to be the same factor that has done the most to weaken religion while helping to sustain its political and social influence. It’s a force that has already radically changed everyone’s life, regardless of their affiliation.

That force is the internet and its impact on religion cannot be overstated.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like to talk about religion in the pre-internet days. You listened to your parents, relatives, priests, mullahs, rabbis, and monks. They told you the history and tenants of their religion. You might ask questions. You might not understand the philosophy behind it. No matter how curious or skeptical you were, you could only do so much to question it.

Most of the time, you just had to trust your elders that they knew what they were talking about. You also had to trust that they wouldn’t lie to you, which is often a risky bet. If you were really motivated, you might go to a library and do some research. Even then, you’d have an uphill battle a head of you, given the many complexities behind religion and why people believe in it.

These days, it’s exceedingly simple to fact check an absurd religious claim. If someone were to claim that a 900-year-old man built a 300-foot wooden boat that housed two of every kind of animal for 40 days during a global flood, you wouldn’t have to spend years in college to learn why that’s absurd. You could just pull out your phone, do a few simple searches, and find out why this claim is completely wrong.

Even a kid who has only taken a basic science class can look up any of the stories their priest, mullah, rabbi, or monk tell them to find out whether they’re based on real history or embellished folklore. Religious institutions, parents, and schools can fight to control the information their young people receive. Many organizations do engage in activities that are outright indoctrination.

However, as demographic trends show, the effectiveness of those efforts only go so far. The information about the absurdities, inconsistencies, lies, and agendas is still out there. It’s widely available to anyone who can access a smartphone or a computer. There’s only so much anyone can do to prevent someone from accessing that information.

As a result, organized religion will never have the same sway it once did in centuries past. No matter how much conservative reactionaries complain, it’s impossible to go back. The combination of modern education and accessible information ensures that major religious institutions will never wield the power they once did.

Given the complexities of modern societies and the geopolitics surrounding it, it’s just not practical for a centralized religious institution to exist. The Vatican can still make statements about morality, ethics, and spiritual matters. It just has no means of enforcing them, as evidenced by how little typical Catholics follow their edicts.

Even without this power, the same internet that has permanently weakened religion is also the same thing that sustains some of its considerable influence. In fact, the internet might act as a catalyst that can turn certain individuals from nominal adherents to ardent zealots.

Think back to the young people sitting in churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples. While some might casually look up the religious claims out of curiosities, others might go out of their way to find information that confirms these claims. Even if they’re factually wrong, they’ll look for any bit of information that they can twist to make it seem true and cling to it.

This is why creationism still persists, despite extensive resources that thoroughly debunk it. If someone is really determined to find information that affirms their beliefs, they’ll find it on the internet the same way people find cat videos and knife-wielding crabs. There will even be unscrupulous people to exploit them, including those who are convicted felons.

Like it or not, there are people who sincerely want to believe their preferred religion and will cling to anything that strengthens that belief. Given the open nature of the internet, shaped by the whims of users rather than objective truth, it’s distressingly easy for someone to customize what kind of information they receive.

If someone only wants news and memes about how their religion is true while everyone else is doomed to eternal torture in Hell, then that’s what they’ll get. They can get their news and information from exceedingly bias sources while brushing off others as fake news. There’s nothing from stopping anyone from using the internet in such a manner.

We already see how this has divided people along political lines in recent years. I would argue that this has been going on with religion for even longer. The rise of the religious right and the prevalence of religious media has done plenty to tighten their grasp on ardent believers. While less people may identify as religious, those who do tend to be more dogmatic about it.

Since those kinds of believers can be mobilized and pandered to, they’re a more unified political force. As such, appealing to them means gaining power. That power may be tenuous and limited, but it’s still viable power that plenty of politicians exploit, sometimes to an egregious extent.

In a sense, the internet has made it easy for both the extreme zealots and the inherently skeptical. Those who might have identified as religious out of tradition in the past are more comfortable identifying themselves as non-religious today. It also helps there’s not as much stigma to being a non-believer as there used to be.

At the same time, those who were devout before can become outright zealots if they consume enough extreme content. In fact, their declining numbers in the general population might give them more reasons to become zealous. History has shown that small bands of religious zealots can do a lot of damage. The internet might hinder their ability to gain adherents, but it might also make them more desperate.

It’s a scary possibility, but one I tend to believe is remote. While I might not be a fan of organized religion, I still have many friends and family members who are religious and wonderful human beings. The internet hasn’t changed that. In the long run, I believe that basic humanity that binds us all will win out in the long run. The internet won’t always help, but it’s certainly a valuable tool.

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Filed under extremism, human nature, philosophy, politics, religion

The Lying God Paradox: An Inherent Flaw Of All-Powerful Deities

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In general, I believe that arguing with religious people is a waste of time. While I’ve made no secret of my distaste for organized religion, I prefer not to discuss it. As I’ve noted before, I have people in my family who are deeply religious. They are wonderful, loving people and they get genuine fulfillment from their religion.

There was even a time in my youth when I went out of my way to debate religion. At one point, I genuinely believed I could convince people of the absurdities of religious dogma. That was before I learned just how strong these beliefs can be and how far people will go to hold onto them.

I now accept that there’s no argument I can make or fact I can list that would ever convince someone that their religion is wrong. For the most part, people have to change their own minds. The most you can do is get them thinking about their dogma and let them make up their own mind.

For that reason, I still find it helpful to share my thoughts on certain aspects of religion. It’s not always possible to engage in meaningful discussions, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I find that the more you connect with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, the more you humanize them and vice versa.

That being said, I have a feeling that this latest thought is not going to win me many friends from the religious crowd. I know this because I’m about to make a statement about gods, all-powerful deities, and an inherent flaw that comes with incorporating them into any theology. That would encompass the three major Abrahamic faiths, as well as most other monotheistic religions.

This statement is a simple explanation for why there are so many different religions, each of which can have many denominations and sects. It also assumes there is an all-powerful deity with the ability to effect human affairs. While I know that’s a lofty assumption, especially for the non-believing crowd, it still exposes an important flaw in the theology and dogma behind religion. It can be summed up in two simple words.

God lied.

I know that idea may make many believers recoil in disgust, but I urge those people to take a moment to contemplate the implications. We’re not talking about a miracle or some divine act that breaks the laws of physics. This is something that ordinary people do every day without the need for immense power. If simple mortals like us can do it, then why can’t an all-powerful deity?

An all-powerful being can literally do anything. Lying would be one of the easiest, least strenuous ways to effect change, especially among a species like ours that is prone to believing lies. On top of that, when you take a step back and look at how religion has manifested over the centuries, a lying deity makes more sense than any other deity.

It explains why there has never been a single, unified religion.

It explains why there has never been a concept of divinity that every human society shares.

It explains why there are so many different religious texts that vary considerably in terms of theology, morality, and practices.

Simply put, God lied to everyone. Whether by prophecy, revelation, or divine inspiration, it was all a lie. It wouldn’t even have to be an elaborate lie. An all-powerful deity could just present the ideas to a few select people in history and let them do the rest. If the goal of the deity was to create a wide variety of religious dogma, then that’s working smart rather than hard.

The fact that it helps make sense of all the disagreements and discords within religion also creates a paradox, of sorts. Religion, by its nature, is built around belief. Peoples entire understanding of gods, spirits, and the supernatural are contingent on how ardently they believe in a particular theology. However, if that understanding is built on lies, then the entire religion is a product of an inherent untruth.

It’s a distressing thought, the notion that such a powerful being could or would willingly lie. That’s why most believers of any faith usually scoff at the notion. They’ll often claim their deity cannot lie because their deity is all-good on top of being all-powerful. Even if their holy text contains some objectively terrible atrocities that a deity committed or condoned, they’ll still make the claim that their deity is inherently good.

However, that only exchanges one paradox for another. If a deity is all-powerful, then that means the deity can do anything by definition, regardless of whether it’s good or evil. If a deity is all good, then that means it is incapable of doing anything evil. As such, it cannot be all-powerful. A deity that can only do good simply cannot be all-powerful, by default.

A lying deity resolves both paradoxes. The ability to lie, whether it’s for good or for evil, is perfectly within the capabilities of an all-powerful being. Even if that deity is all-good, then perhaps it can still lie, but only for good reasons, which do exist. That deity just can’t be all-powerful.

Even with these paradoxes, I doubt adherents of a particular faith would accept the possibility that their deity ever lied to them, their ancestors, or their fellow believers. They may accept that lesser or evil deities lie to others who don’t share their beliefs. However, those same people could make the same claim about them and there would be no difference, in terms of merit.

Non-believers will often cite the vast diversity of religious beliefs, both today and throughout history. They all can’t be right, but they all can be wrong. That’s perfectly in line with the law of non-contradiction.

That won’t stop believers from arguing passionately that they have the right answer to these profound questions. Even if they don’t have a way of verifying that belief, they’ll still believe in what they see is divine truth. However, the paradox of a lying god further complicates that idea.

Even if there is an all-powerful deity that has interacted in human affairs, how does anyone know whether said deity lied? Being all-powerful, the deity wouldn’t even need a reason. Lying would just be another exercise of that power. In that case, a lying deity is indistinguishable from a non-existent one. Logistically, there’s no way to verify either.

I know making this claim isn’t going to win many arguments with the devoutly religious. I don’t doubt that even suggesting that their god is liar has offended some people. I understand that. At the same time, I think it’s an idea worth scrutinizing. Just contemplating the possibility that a deity has lied adds what I believe is a necessary wrinkle to religious dogma.

Religion is such a powerful force in peoples’ lives. For better or for worse, it guides society, politics, and culture all over the world. People believe what they believe with great passion and piety. Nobody wants to entertain the notion that such a big part of their life is based on a lie. For something this powerful, though, I believe it’s worth thinking about.

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Reasons Vs. Excuses: Why The Difference Matters

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Has anyone ever asked you to do something you really don’t want to do? Actually, let me rephrase that. How many times does someone ask you to do something you don’t want to do in the past 24 hours? Let’s face it. Unless you’re a king, a dictator, or Taylor Swift, it’s happened at least once.

Whatever was asked of you, how did you try to get out of it? I know some people will just grit their teeth and do it. Those people deserve ten times the respect they get. Every now and then, if not most of the time, we try to do something to get out of doing what we don’t want to do. Whether you’re in New York City or the Gobi desert, you can’t escape these situations. They’re just part of life.

Whenever we’re in these situations, we usually try any number of things to get out of it. Whether it’s chores, homework, or ballet recitals, we all have our own set of tactics. Some are more elaborate than others.

I knew a kid in school who could throw up on demand. He didn’t even have to put his finger in his mouth. He could just concentrate, cough, and then spew the kind of chunky bile that would dissuade any teacher from giving him an exam. I lost count of how many times that skill got him out of trouble.

Most of us don’t have that talent though. We all still look for ways to get out of things we don’t want to do. I sure have. I don’t deny that. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing either. It’s a good skill to have, knowing how to avoid situations that make you miserable. However, it does reveal an important concept that I find myself noticing more and more as I get older, although sometimes I wish I didn’t.

It has to do with two simple words: reasons and excuses. They both have similar definitions. Most of the time, outside of a scientific context, we use these words interchangeably. For the most part, we understand the meaning behind them.

However, for the purpose of this discussion, as well as future discussions since this is a big topic, I’d like to focus on a particular context. Specifically, I’d like to focus on the situations and justifications we individually use to do or avoid doing something. Make no mistake. There is a difference between a reason and an excuse.

A reason is logical, narrow, and concise. It can be understood by anyone with a functioning brain and verified with simple tools. That’s not to say a reason has to be cold and callous like a Vulcan. It just has to be valid and clear.

I’ll offer a simple example. Growing up, there were a certain set of chores for which me and my siblings were responsible. If we didn’t do these chores, we didn’t get an allowance. It was that simple. The one chore I did most often was mowing the lawn. I didn’t enjoy doing it, but I still did it.

Then, one day, I got sick. I’m not talking about a headache either. I mean I got really sick, so much so that I ran a 102-degree fever. I know because my mother took my temperature twice. I was then bed-ridden for the next two days. Somebody else mowed the lawn, but I still got my allowance because I had a valid reason. My parents understood that. I understood that. There was no need for debate.

Using this same example in lawn care, I’ll highlight why an excuse is so different. If I wanted to use an excuse to get out of mowing the lawn, I sure as hell wouldn’t have chosen something that could be verified. Sure, I could’ve claimed to be sick, but that would’ve been pushing it because they could check. They could take your temperature and see if you’re running a fever.

On top of that, your parents may be really good at knowing when you’re lying. Mine certainly were. It might as well have been their mutant power. They knew when I was lying and if I ever tried, I’d just make an ass of myself.

Plus, lying to your parents isn’t just a dick move. It’s a bad long-term investment. If you lose your parents trust, especially over something as trivial as mowing the lawn, then you’ll give them way too many valid reasons not to trust you in the future, even when you have a good reason of your own.

So in order to make a more valid excuse, you need to come up with something more believable. It doesn’t have to be a lie. It doesn’t have to be completely true either. You could claim you’re depressed that your lover broke up with you. You could say there’s a movie you’d rather watch instead. You could say you just don’t feel like it. These aren’t lies. However, they are still excuses.

The primary trait of an excuse is that it doesn’t physically prevent you from doing whatever is asked of you. It defends and/or justifies your particular decisions, preferences, and what not. Being on vacation in Fiji ensures I can’t physically mow the lawn. That’s a reason. Being in a lousy mood and just wanting to sleep in does nothing to prevent me from operating the lawnmower. That’s an excuse.

With that in mind, let’s take the concept of reasons and excuses to a larger stage. Let’s assess how this applies to the overall process we use in rendering the various decisions and actions of our lives. What we do and why we do it is at the core of what it means to be a conscious human being.

For practical purposes, we like to think that we’re reasonable people. We like to think that we have valid reasons for what we do and why we do it. We break up with a lover because they’re not right for us. We buy organic food because it’s better for our health. We smoke pot because it makes us more fun to be around. Some of that may be true, but we still think of them as reasons and not excuses.

The problem with this is basically everything about it. Once again, caveman logic enters the picture and spits all over that rosy picture we have of ourselves and others. Based on our growing understanding of cognitive science and neurobiology, we have a better idea of how we make decisions and how we justify them.

When it comes to reasons and excuses, the two main factors are choice-supportive bias and cognitive dissonance. I know those sound like terms that Sheldon Cooper would use in a skit on “The Big Bang Theory” that somehow makes him sound like more of an asshole, but unlike 98 percent of what Sheldon says, these concepts are useful.

Choice-supportive bias is our tendency to ascribe positive attributes to the choices we make. It’s also a byproduct of cognitive dissonance, which is just a fancy way of saying our brain feels stressful and uncertain.

In essence, our brain is wired to avoid wrong decisions and for good reasons. Back in the caveman days, if we made a wrong decision, it usually meant we ended up as dinner for a hungry grizzly bear or ate poison berries that made us shit out our lower intestines. We’re alive because of this wiring so let’s not discount its use.

Unfortunately, nature is still a blunt instrument and our brains don’t know we only encounter bears in zoos that charge ten bucks for a soda. That aversion to making wrong decisions is still there, even when we decide something as simple as which breakfast cereal to buy.

With that in mind, we’ll do anything and everything to avoid wrong decisions and the brain stress they cause. Unfortunately, that often means making excuses to reduce the stress and justify our choice, even if it ends up being wrong.

If that weren’t bad enough, our brains don’t run our decisions through a logic filters first. Don’t worry though. That filter is still there in our brains. It’s just not at the front of the line like we all wish it were. If it were, then half the videos on YouTube wouldn’t exist.

Instead, according to current neuroscience, we make most of our decisions on snap judgments and emotions. Then, we’ll use reasons and excuses to justify those decisions after the fact. Unfortunately, since reasons are so rigid and stubborn, we’re more inclined to make excuses. Even if those excuses are mostly true, they’re still excuses.

There are so many other dynamics behind reasons and excuses. There’s no way I’ll be able to cover even half of them in a single blog post. However, there is a reason why I’m discussing this topic and it’s a good reason. It’s applies to both my novels, as well as other topics with very sexy implications.

That reason will become clearer in later posts. For now, consider this a trailer of sorts, minus the cheesy one-liners and explosions. If possible, take a moment to analyze how many excuses you make for your decisions compared to reasons. You may be shocked/appalled/disgusted by what you uncover. I promise you, though, it gets much crazier.

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