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Chris Pratt, Religious Celebrities, And Why We Should Be Concerned

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In general, celebrities operate on an entirely different level of reality than non-celebrities. Their concept of normal is so skewed, so distorted, and so out of touch that it’s hard to relate to them. Just read up on the weird things Gwyneth Paltrow has said in recent years for proof of that.

Even if they are out of touch, it is possible for celebrities to be genuinely decent people and succeed in an industry known for horrendous corruption. Some celebrities do work that legitimately makes the world a better place. By most measures, Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame is one of them.

I consider myself a fan of his. Mr. Pratt has done many things that have won him the respect and admiration of many. Just read the stories about him visited children’s hospitals and try not to like him. While he has undergone some unfortunate upheavals in recent years after his divorce from actress Anna Farris, he has generally managed himself well in the world of celebrity culture.

However, recent events surrounding Mr. Pratt may be cause for concern. While I doubt he’s heading towards the kind of celebrity meltdowns that have doomed others, I think there is reason to worry about the effects that continued fame, celebrity, and wealth will have on him. That’s because those effects may be compounded by another huge complication, namely that of organized religion.

While Mr. Pratt has not hidden the fact that he’s religious, it recently became an issue when Ellen Page, a noted LBGT activist, called him out for attending a church that has a history of anti-gay rhetoric. Now, as someone who has levied plenty of criticism about religion before, I generally support pointing out the injustices and absurdities of religion. In this case, I’m surprised by the backlash.

In general, Ms. Page was subject to significant attacks for her criticism. She was made out to be the bully here and she’s someone who was subject to deplorable treatment by the director who botched X3. In general, people are siding with Mr. Pratt, saying that Ms. Page was out of line for criticizing him for the church he attended.

Personally, I don’t think Ms. Page went about her criticism the right way. Given the horrendous attacks religious organizations have orchestrated against the LGBT community, I don’t blame her for being vocal. This incident, however, and the way Mr. Pratt responded to it leaves me concerned about the cumulative impact that celebrity and religion will have on him.

To understand the extent of those concerns, you need look no further than another famous Hollywood actor who was also respected, popular, and religious. That actor is Mel Gibson. Today, he’s more a joke and an internet meme. However, it wasn’t that long ago when he was Hollywood’s golden boy.

Like Mr. Pratt now, Mel Gibson a successful action star who could also do comedy and drama. For a time, he was the actor many women in and outside of Hollywood swooned over. I know because at one point, my mother admitted to having a major crush on him and having seen some of his old movies, I honestly can’t blame her.

While Mr. Gibson didn’t make a big deal of his religion for the most part, it did rear its influence when he went through his infamous meltdown in 2006. Even after he apologized for that incident, his streak of making anti-Semitic comments has become somewhat normal. As a result, his once-impeccable reputation is a distant memory.

That’s not a fate that anyone deserves, especially Mr. Pratt. Now, I would argue that he’s in a better position than Mr. Gibson was. The various stories surrounding him and the people who work with him paint him as someone who manages himself very well. I would be genuinely surprised if Mr. Pratt ever underwent a similar meltdown.

That said, there is still a distressing history of religion having a less-than-beneficial impact on celebrities. Whether it’s Kirk Cameron encouraging people to not use their critical thinking skills in the name of Christianity or Tom Cruise bashing psychiatry in the name of Scientology, religion can turn respectable celebrities into an embodiment of perverse religious dogma.

In certain circumstances, they can even help compound that dogma. Celebrities already wield more influence than most priests, mullahs, monks, or rabbis. Religious organizations have a strong incentive to cater to and hold onto celebrity adherents. That way when these celebrities say something about their religion, people are more inclined to listen.

Some celebrities do this willingly and freely. Others are guided towards it. It’s well-documented that Tom Cruise gets special treatment in the Church of Scientology. While we don’t know if Mr. Pratt’s church does something similar for him, they certainly have a reason to do whatever they need to do for him to maintain his support and his money, by default.

At the moment, Mr. Pratt’s church is not on the same level as Scientology or even the Catholic Church. By most measures, it’s a fairly standard conservative Christian church that holds positions that won’t surprise anyone who know anything about religiously-motivated morality. It still holds questionable beliefs and wields more influence than most local churches.

Depending on how Mr. Pratt manages that influence, he could either keep his religious affairs private or go down the path of someone like Kirk Cameron, celebrities whose excessive religiosity hinders their respectability. On top of that, it could lead to him starring in some exceedingly awful movies.

The worst case scenario for Mr. Pratt would be something on the level of Mel Gibson, a meltdown that permanently taints his once-golden image as a likable pretty boy who visits children’s hospitals. I don’t think he deserves that. No celebrity deserves a downfall like that, but religion does tend to make that slope a little steeper.

I haven’t met Chris Pratt and I probably never will, but based on what is publicly known, he’s a good man who has done plenty to deserve our respect. Religion, for the most part, doesn’t change that. However, when taken to extremes, as some celebrities have shown, it can reveal just how corrosive certain dogma can be to otherwise decent people.

As Stephen Weinberg once said of religion, “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Mr. Pratt is a good person and it would be nothing short of tragic if his sincerely held faith did something to undermine that. Even if you don’t agree with Ms. Page for calling him out, her concerns are still valid.

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Creationism, Religion, And Mafia Morality

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Anyone who has seen at least one movie about the mafia has a good idea for how they do business. They take the whole “might makes right” approach to its logical conclusion. Being in the right means being strong. Being strong means being able to dictate what is right. It’s circular reasoning, but that’s how the mob justifies its activities, from loan sharking to protection rackets.

The setup is simple. You find someone who is inherently weaker, tell them what will happen to them if they don’t pay them, and let fear of death or bodily harm do the rest. The weak usually pay up, whether it’s money, respect, silence, or a combination of the three. The foolish will try to resist and often face serious consequences.

Most reasonable people find this kind of morality deplorable. However, this kind of morality is often employed by another organization that is not only legal. It doesn’t even have to pay taxes in many countries. That powerful entity is organized religion it can take mafia morality to a far greater extreme.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not claiming that religion is worse than the mafia. Most religious people are kind, decent people who would never dream of employing this kind of morality. Only a subset of exceedingly dogmatic adherents resort to such extreme and I’m not just talking about the Spanish Inquisition.

These people aren’t pages in history or fodder for a Monty Python sketch. They’re real, they run official ministries, and even manage to obtain tax incentives for major projects. Their brand of religion isn’t just conservative. It’s unapologetically strict. They don’t just garner theological insight from holy texts. They take it as literally as the evening news.

That includes stories like Genesis, despite considerable evidence that it was derived from earlier flood-based stories from ancient Mesopotamia. They read that the god of the bible created the world in six days and they interpret that as six 24-hour days. There’s no room for metaphor or translation errors. This is infallible truth and any effort to contest that is met with the fiercest resistance.

While this kind of dogmatic adherence manifests in many ways, including justifications for slavery and anti-gay discrimination, one of the most overt manifestations occurs in the form of creationists. Now, as much as I respect the faith that many place in their particular religion, I’ve always had a hard time respecting creationists.

They’ve always struck me as a form of Christianity that’s as misguided as it is absurd. It’s not just that they believe the bible literally. They go so far as to say that everything science has concluded about life, evolution, cosmology, and physics is wrong. Some go so far as to claim that it’s an anti-Christian conspiracy on the level of the Illuminati and shape-shifting lizards.

If that was the extent of their faith, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Plenty of non-religious people believe in absurd conspiracy theories. However, creationism is especially pernicious in that a key factor in that dogma has a basis in mafia morality. It’s rarely stated overtly, but when it does show, it brings out the worst in its adherents.

Most recently, it reared its head in a surprisingly overt way during a debate between Aron Ra, the director of the Texas state chapter of American Atheists and a popular YouTube personality, and Kent Hovind, a well-known creationist evangelical who has made a career out of debating opponents.

This is the least absurd photo of Mr. Hovind I could find.

While I have my opinions about Mr. Hovind, who I feel has a serious credibility problem in terms of credentials, his methods for contesting evolution leave a lot to be desired. If you got more than a B-minus in a high school science class at a legitimate public school, even in America, you’re capable of seeing through his poorly-rendered ideas.

However, there are times when he, and other creationists like him, skip the part where they pretend to understand the science they deny and resort to the kind of mafia morality that they feel vindicates their beliefs. In essence, they threaten their opponent on behalf of their deity that believing in science will lead them to an afterlife full of eternal torture and suffering.

Never mind the inherent Problem of Hell that many religious and non-religious people have debated for centuries. By their logic, not believing in the holy texts of their religion is an outright affront to their deity and, for the same reason you don’t want to offend a powerful mafia boss, you don’t want to offend an all-powerful being.

Most creationists are subtle about this, but in his debate with Aron Ra, Mr. Hovind basically resorted to this tactic at the end of the nearly two-hour debate. These were his exact words:

“I would like to remind you guys, you’re gonna die one day and you’re gonna be dead for a long time. I hope you can take what you believe to the grave. You’re happy with it?”

While he doesn’t say outright that his deity is going to punish non-believers like Aron Ra for all eternity, the subtext is there. While non-believers may not be at all concerned with what happens after they die, it’s a genuine concern for someone like Mr. Hovind. He truly believes that his God is the kind of deity that would severely punish people for not believing in a specific translation of a holy text.

Ignoring for a moment the absurdities inherent in that attitude, take a moment to appreciate the kind of world Mr. Hovind and others like him believe. In their world, there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing being that wants human beings to think a certain way and accept certain concepts. Even if there’s evidence to the contrary, they must believe it. If they don’t, they’re punished with the full wrath of an all-powerful being.

That’s not just a scary thought, even for a devout believer. It’s the ultimate extreme of mafia morality. No matter how much evidence there is for evolution or how many errors in the bible are documented, the sheer might of an all-powerful deity trumps all of it. No matter what every tool of science or sense of the mind says, deviating in the slightest means punishment in the utmost.

While I’ve noted in the past how eternal punishment and eternal bliss tend to lose meaning in the long run, I suspect it’s a significant concern for creationists like Mr. Hovind. I even have some sympathy for them, if it is the case they genuinely fear the eternal torture referenced in their theology. It may be the case that they’re just charlatans or trolls and they wouldn’t be the first who used religion to aid their efforts.

Even if the Kent Hovinds of the world are just trying to get out of paying taxes, and failing to do so at times, the extreme mafia morality of their theology still has a major impact on adherents and religion. It’s worth noting that Mr. Hovind’s brand of creationism is on the decline among Christians. His kind is an extreme version of a faith that most people don’t accept.

It’s still a dangerous and distressing concept to espouse, that an all-powerful deity would punish reasonable people for accepting what evidence and reason tell them. That’s a tactic that ruthless mob bosses utilize, much to their detriment. Unlike the mafia, though, all-powerful deities don’t risk anything by being so ruthless and those caught in their path are bound to suffer.

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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day And Escaping Hate

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To everyone out there who values peace, justice, and equality, I wish you a happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. To some, this is just a day where kids get an extra day off school. To others, it’s a reminder of just how far we’ve come in the struggle against racism, injustice, and bigotry. Even though it seems like we’re stagnating at times, we’re still world’s better than we were in the days of Dr. King.

It’s hard to for young people today to understand just how entrenched racial attitudes were 60 years ago. For generations, inequality and bigotry wasn’t an aberration. It was the norm. Fighting that was like fighting the tides for a lot of people, but unlike the tides, hearts and minds can change.

That’s something Martin Luther King Jr. believed in. He dedicated his life to confronting hate and pursuing justice for everyone, regardless of race. His legacy lives on today for minorities of all kinds, from the LGBT community to immigrants. It may seem like an uphill battle at times and even after Dr. King’s death, there are still plenty of bigoted attitudes in the world today. Some people cling to those attitudes more than most.

However, it is possible for someone to let go of their hatred. It’s not easy, but it does happen. In the spirit of this day that I’m sure brings out a lot of conflicting passions in today’s society, I’d like to share one of my favorite Ted Talks.

This one is from Christian Picciolini, a former Neo-Nazi and white supremacist who managed to leave his hateful past behind. His story is one that’s especially relevant on a day like today because it doesn’t just reveal how people end up in hate groups. It shows just how difficult it is to get out. It can be done, though, and Mr. Picciolini’s story is one worth telling.

Whatever your politics, prejudices, and attitudes, we are all still human. We all inhabit this planet together. We all want a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. Ultimately, we can achieve much more by working together than by hating one another. That’s what Dr. King fought for and his legacy is worth celebrating, now more than ever.

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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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Religious Dogma, Sexual Repression, And How They Foster (Horrendous) Abuse

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By now, most people have heard the news surrounding the latest round of scandals involving the Catholic Church. Once again, it involves the systematic abuse of children, the elaborate efforts to cover it up, and the religious dogma that is used to protect such behavior. It’s certainly not the first time the Catholic Church has been embroiled in such a scandal, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing.

There’s a lot I can say about the Catholic Church and how badly they’ve handled this issue. There’s even more I can say about how this famous institution’s policies have caused genuine harm in societies that remain devoted to Catholic traditions. However, I would only be repeating what others have already pointed out and I’d rather not do that.

Some have already done it better than I ever will.

For me, personally, these scandals cut deep because I have family who identify as devout Catholics. They see these same scandals too and I can confirm that it hurts them on a personal level. Whenever someone brings it up, they don’t make excuses. They despise those priests for what they did and those who covered it up. It doesn’t shake their faith, though. To some extent, I admire that.

At the same time, however, I often wonder whether they see the same flaws in that dogmatic theology that I see. I try not to bring it up with family members, out of respect for their faith. I still believe that even they are bothered by those flaws. When children are being sexually abused, how could it not?

There are a lot of factors in play with this latest scandal, from the nature of religious dogma to the corruption of powerful institutions. The one that few want to confront, though, involves the cumulative impact of sexual repression with rigid theology.

There’s no way around it. Religious dogma and sexual repression often go together. The Catholic Church is hardly the only institution that encourages strict repression of sexual behavior. Anyone living in Saudi Arabia or Iran can attest to that. With a billion adherents and nearly 2,000 years of history, though, the Catholic Church is one of the largest and most vocal proponents of this dogma.

The reasons for that are many and I don’t want to get into all the issues surrounding its effects. Instead, I want to focus solely on the celibacy of the priests. That practice represents a true extreme of sexual repression. It’s one thing to champion monogamy to the point of murdering adulterers. It’s quite another to have an entire class of people who have to completely repress their basic urges.

It’s not like trying to quit smoking, which is hard enough. This involves denying a basic, fundamental drive that is hardwired into people at birth. Trying to turn that off is like trying make sugar taste bad. It goes against fundamental biological wiring. The idea that someone can repress those force without incurring psychological damage is flawed, at best.

To get an idea of why, think about a time when you were really hungry. Maybe you were sick for a while, trapped on a long road trip, or went on a crash diet. That feeling of intense hunger is not something you can turn off. It’s uncomfortable for a reason. Your body isn’t getting something it’s been hardwired to seek. It’s going to make you feel uncomfortable until you do something about it.

The human sex drive is not like hunger, but it’s similar in that it’s a biological drive. For every living thing, be it a human or an insect, sustenance and reproduction are the two most basic drives. It is possible to survive without reproducing, but the fundamental forces of nature are going to push you to try.

When you push back too hard, it’s like trying to patch a faulty dam with scotch tape and chewing gum. From a psychological standpoint, your brain and your body are deprived. As a result, it’s going to do whatever it can to alleviate this deprivation.

It doesn’t matter if that act is extreme. It doesn’t matter if it’s illogical, illegal, or outright immoral. Your brain and your body will find a way to justify it if it ends the deprivation. For most, it’s just a never-ending battle that requires an individual to fill that missing need with something, which in this case is religious fervor.

It’s debatable as to how much this fills that fundamental need, but a lot of that assumes that celibate priests don’t do something in their private time to relieve the tension. Historically speaking, many in the Catholic Church and other powerful institutions were pretty blatant about how they circumvented the issues of celibacy.

Some priests had lovers on the side. Some employed prostitutes and concubines, but still claimed to be “celibate” because they weren’t married. More often than not, priests were only celibate in the most technical sense and the church often tolerated this. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, a man not known for liberal attitudes, even acknowledged the futility of suppressing the human sex drive when he said this about prostitution.

“If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.”

For a select few, though, that effort to maintain celibacy manifests in a truly horrific way. I think it’s safe to conclude that the priests who abused these children were not mentally well. Many might have been unwell before they entered the priesthood, but celibacy certainly didn’t help. Repression, especially the kind that’s taboo to even talk about, tends to make things worse.

That’s how people end up with mentalities that are poorly equipped to handle basic urges. Instead of a healthy expression of sexual desire, someone may react with anger or self-hate. When people are angry and hateful, they tend to take it out on someone. It’s not always sexual, but when someone has all their sexual desires pent up over the years, sometimes it seeps in.

That’s how simple desire becomes disturbing fetishes, including those that harm children. That’s how unthinkable behaviors are rationalized. When religious dogma tells someone they face divine retribution for feeling these intrinsic desires, that’s causes serious distress and efforts to mitigate it can make for some pretty unholy behaviors

While it’s hard to study the sex lives of celibate priests, the occurrence of these scandals along with the historical documentation of other lurid scandals reveal plenty about the effects of celibacy. When there’s no outlet for sexual expression, other emotions get caught up in the efforts to cope with that fundamental drive. Add religiously-motivated guilt to the mix and the impact only compounds over time.

None of this is an excuse for what those priests did to these children. They still committed an atrocity and no amount of divine excuses can mitigate the suffering of the victims. The Vatican will do what it has to do in order to maintain its power and influence. However, the reconsideration of extreme practices celibacy is unlikely.

Some media figures will mention it, but never to the point of encouraging serious reforms. That’s a dirty word in both the Catholic Church and any other religious institution. Historically speaking, the rate at which major religion institutions undergo sweeping reforms is nothing short of glacial.

I sincerely hope this latest scandal gives those in the Vatican serious pause, but I have a feeling that even this won’t do it. Religious dogma is notoriously uncompromising. People, especially within powerful institutions, make any excuse to avoid changing it. While the Vatican has made some strides, the fundamental issue remains. As long as basic human nature is suppressed, more will suffer and not in a holy sort of way.

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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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Filed under Current Events, political correctness, Reasons and Excuses, religion

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