Tag Archives: religious extremism

Why The Republic Of Gilead Would Fail (Spectacularly) In The Real World

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In recent years, there has been a great deal of dread among feminists, libertarians, and supporters of secular values in the United States. The country seems to be going down an authoritarian path. Traditions of liberty and personal freedom are under threat by a government that seems more inclined to micromanage peoples’ lives for their own benefit.

One path in particular is becoming a lot more prominent. That is the one that could lead the United States to a government like that of the Republic of Gilead, the repressive theocratic regime from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In that system, gender politics are pushed to the utmost extreme. The freedom, equality, sex, and love that contemporary society enjoys doesn’t exist.

The reasons for these fears are many. The current state of gender politics has become heated with the rise of the anti-harassment movement and ongoing legal battles surrounding abortion access. During the protests surrounding upheavals on the Supreme Court, it was common to see female protesters dressed in the distinct garb from the “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Such protest has even spread to other countries.

The message is clear. People are worried that our society is inching closer to a world similar to the repressive gender politics of Gilead. I can certainly understand those concerns. While I’ve often criticized certain aspects of gender politics, I don’t deny the worry that many women feel about the current state of affairs.

That said, I believe the idea that the United States, or any western country for that matter, could descend into a state of gender apartheid like Gilead is absurd. While we should be concerned about the influence of religious extremism, even in the west, the chances of it ever gaining power on the level depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is precisely zero.

Even if a regime like it came to power, it wouldn’t just fail quickly. It would collapse so spectacularly that it would be a joke on par with the Emu War. Gilead is not this all-encompassing, overwhelming power on par with Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” Atwood even implied at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the regime was set to fall.

We’ve yet to hear that part of the story, but Atwood did announce that she’s working on a sequel. One way or another, Gilead’s days are numbered, even in the fanciful world that she created. Before then, I’d like to break down why the Republic of Gilead would be doomed if it ever attempted to set up shop in the real world.

If nothing else, I’d like to offer some perspective to those who fear that the state of gender politics is regressing. To those people, I share your concerns. However, I’m an optimist. I believe both feminists and men’s rights activists can and will find plenty of common ground on these issues in due time.

Even if they don’t, they can take comfort in knowing that Gilead, as both a philosophy and a system, is so flawed that dreading it is an exercise in hyperbole. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but in terms of setting up a competent theocratic regime, it’s a perfect check-list on what not to do.


Reason #1: Establishing Gilead Would Collapse The Economy

One of the first things the Sons of Jacob did when they established Gilead was fire every woman from their job and effectively eliminate their legal rights. On top of it being an exercise in brutal oppression, it removed half the labor force from the economy. In 2010, there were approximately 123 million women in the workforce. Firing every one of them wouldn’t just cause a huge recession. It would destroy the economy at every level.

Even the most ardent anti-feminist would be badly hurt by a world where half the GDP just disappeared. Suddenly, the industries that everybody relies on just cease functioning. Baking, health care, technology, and basic services essentially collapse as both the labor pool and the consumer base disappears.

That means from the very beginning, Gilead would have to navigate the worst economic collapse in history. More often than not, governments that cause collapses or fail to recover from them don’t last very long. Even if the Sons of Jacob found a way to blame it on minorities, feminists, or other religions, they would still be on the hook for fixing things and doing so with half the labor force will be difficult, to say the least.

Beyond the logistics, destroying an entire economy as part of a religious crusade is going to piss off some very powerful people who were thriving in the current system. America, alone, has over 500 billionaires whose massive wealth would be threatened by such a collapse. People with those kinds of resources aren’t going to let Gilead succeed, even if they manage to seize power.


Reason #2: Micromanaging Peoples’ Lives Is Impossible (In The Long Run)

I’ve noted before that fascist systems have many fundamental flaws. There’s a reason why some of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in history still ended up collapsing. In the long run, they find out the hard way that it’s just impossible to effectively manage the lives their citizens.

The Republic of Gilead is a lot like Big Brother in that it takes micromanaging to a ridiculous extreme. It doesn’t just have its own secret police to enforce a rigid caste system. Much of its governing philosophy relies on ensuring people stick to their roles and never deviate. Women do what the state requires them to do without question. Men do the same, right down to how they structure their families.

That system only works if human beings are like machines who never get bored doing the same thing over and over again for their entire lives. Since human beings are not like that, there’s no way that kind of society can remain functional in the long run. The fact that the boredom of solitary confinement drives people crazy is proof enough of that.

It still gets worse than that. In every revolution, there’s often a period of heavy solidarity when the people rally behind the new regime as the beginning of a new Utopian vision. This happened in the Russian Revolution and during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Unfortunately for Gilead, it came to power by brute, terrorizing force.

That means this government coming to power isn’t the will of the people. It’s just plain bullying and people tend to resent that sort of thing. Even the Iran Revolution had the good sense to rally the people. The Republic of Gilead didn’t bother with that. It’s hard to imagine that collapsing the economy and subjugating half the population at gunpoint will make them many friends.


Reason #3: Theocracies Are The Least Stable Forms Of Autocracies

Remember when a purely theocratic state managed to prosper without being located atop an ocean of valuable oil? I don’t either and there’s a good reason for that. When it comes to repressive authoritarian states, theocracies are the worst possible choice. That’s because by entwining government with religion, it’s also entwining itself with the various flaws of religion.

Big Brother didn’t bother with religion in “1984.” It didn’t have to because religion, for all intents and purposes, was obsolete. The authority of the state and the authority of a deity was the same thing. The Republic of Gilead doesn’t have that luxury. Their politics and theology is based on an extremely conservative form of Christianity.

While that may seem fine to the Pat Robertson’s of the world, it adds a whole host of complications to the mix. The Sons of Jacob justify their repressive actions by appealing to Christianity and the bible. That’s okay if every single person in the entire republic agrees on one single interpretation of a religion and its holy text. Unfortunately, that has never occurred in the history of humanity.

There are dozens upon dozens of denominations in Christianity. There are also fringe cults, radical sects, and even schisms within those groups. At most, Gilead could have a unified theology at the beginning, but as new generations come along, that unity will collapse.

People will inevitably disagree. Every side will claim God is with them and everyone else are heretics. This sort of thing has been happening with religion for centuries. It won’t stop in Gilead. At some point, someone is going to think they heard God tell them something else and no one will be able to convince them otherwise. When that happens, conflict will ensue.

That sort of conflict can be managed in a more secular dictatorship. When government and religion are entwined, though, it’s much harder to work around. Even if Gilead could survive an economic collapse and the logistics of micromanaging peoples’ lives, it’s very unlikely it’ll survive the never-ending onslaught of religious debates.


Reason #4: Gilead Would Be An Easy Target For Invasion

Whether you’ve read the book or only watched the TV show, it’s hard to tell what sort of geopolitics the Republic of Gilead deals with. There are a few hints that there are other countries who did not descend into theocratic repression. There are even some cases of refugees in neighboring areas where women still have their rights.

The existence of those neighbors is yet another complication that ensures Gilead won’t last long, no matter how much its leaders pray. It already created a huge refugee crisis when it took over a sovereign government by force. At the same time, it handicapped itself by collapsing its economy and relegating half its population to serve as baby factories. It’s not just a source of chaos. It’s an easy target.

Neither the book nor the show reveals much about Gilead’s military capabilities. Even if we assume they get their hands on nuclear weapons, they’re still vulnerable because other countries have them too. More importantly, they know how to operate and maintain them. Religious zealots are good at a lot of things, but science isn’t one of them.

In the same way creationists aren’t likely to understand quantum mechanics, an entire government run by religious extremists aren’t likely to manage advanced weaponry. As time goes on, their emphasis of religion over reality will undermine their ability to develop such weapons. Their secular neighbors will have no such qualms.

Letting Gilead endure with its religious extremism and gender oppression means establishing a precedent that most other countries don’t want. Seeing one country fall to such a violent overthrow would be jarring enough. The first reaction to every nearby country would be to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen to them. One of those steps could be overthrowing Gilead before one woman has to wear those goofy outfits.


Regardless of how you feel about “The Handmaid’s Tale” or where you stand in terms of gender politics, the book offers a powerful message. Like “1984,” it shows how bad things can get when extremism takes hold. Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, we have a lot more incentive to get along rather than fight one another. At the end of the day, that will ensure that Gilead remains nothing more than a flawed, fictional country.

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Addiction, Religion, And The Striking Similarities

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Battling addiction is a serious issue. Even if you haven’t struggled with it at some point in your life, there’s a good chance that you know someone who has. I’ve known more than a few. I’ve seen how damaging it can be to people and their families.

That makes the process for treating addiction just as critical. Unlike the flu or a nasty headache, it’s not as easy as simply getting a prescription and taking a few pills. Oftentimes, there are powerful psychological factors at work to go along with the equally-powerful biological factors. Finding an effective treatment is exceedingly difficult, especially in the midst of a deadly opioid crisis.

One of the greatest challenges for finding such treatments is ensuring that someone doesn’t just exchange one bad addiction for another. Even if some addictions aren’t as damaging as another, going from heroin to methadone is only a marginal improvement for many. There is, however, one secondary addiction that adds even more complications to the mix and it’s not a pill or a substance. It’s religion.

As always, I’m going to try and be careful with my words here. I know discussions involving religion tend to bring out a lot of high emotions. I’m also aware that whenever I discuss religion, I don’t portray it in a positive light. I make it a point to disclose that religion can be a positive force for many people and I have many devoutly religious people in my family who I love dearly.

That disclaimer aside, the forces surrounding organized religion are powerful and they can be misused. The history of such misuse is well-documented. It’s impact on treating addiction is less known, but does manifest. There have been more than a few celebrities who have become religious after a battle with addiction. Some are genuinely better because of it. However, that does raise a few questions.

Did their religion actually help them overcome their addiction?

Did their religion help them address the underlying factors behind their addiction?

Did their religion just become a replacement for whatever they’d been addicted to?

These questions may come off as cynical, but they have serious implications. Religion is a powerful force on some people. Whether you’re a true believer or an ardent atheist, it’s hard to deny the impact of such a force. Religious experiences have been documented to have measurable effects on the human brain. Some of those effects are comparable to addictive drugs.

That’s not to say that going to church and going to a heroin dealer are the same thing. Addiction is complex and so is brain function. At the same time, the human brain is prone to plenty of flaws. It can be easily tricked and people can even trick themselves. When it comes to addictions, you can’t expect your brain the know the difference between heroin and a religious experience.

There is even some research that demonstrates this to some extent. For people who once built their lives around their addiction, religion is a pretty effective replacement. It demands a great deal of money, time, and energy. It surrounds you with people who reinforce and reaffirm your beliefs and behavior. It can even give some people a very specific high.

That high just becomes the new addiction. That intense feeling that religion gives people suddenly becomes the feeling that addicts are so driven to pursue. It may not feel the same as an addict’s previous addiction, which is why they may not see it as such. That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that it fills the proverbial void that the previous addiction once filled.

That’s why it shouldn’t be too surprising to find out that some famous addiction treatment programs have deeply religious roots. It also shouldn’t be that surprising when those who find religion after dealing with addiction tend to be quite passionate about their faith, compared to those who found religion through a different path.

Even if these programs help people, it still doesn’t answer the relevant questions surrounding their addiction. Exchanging one disease for another doesn’t constitute a cure, but people make an exception for religion. The idea of someone being addicted to a religion isn’t as easy to imagine as someone being addicted to cigarettes, gambling, or porn. To them, a religious addict is just someone who goes to church more often.

Some see that as a good thing. Compared to robbing gas stations for drug money, it is an improvement. However, it still leaves the underlying cause of the addiction untreated. Whatever is making someone an addict is still present. While I don’t doubt religious organizations are happy to accept their adherence, it doesn’t fundamentally change an addict’s condition.

That can be damaging and dangerous to people who are already vulnerable. In the worst case scenario, finding religion can only create the illusion that the addict has been cured. Society didn’t approve of them being a junkie on the street, but it does approve of them being a devout religious zealot who rails against the evils of their former vice.

That sends the message that society is selective when it comes to treating addicts. As long as their addiction is productive for society, in that it benefits established institutions, it’ll treat that as a cure. It doesn’t matter if it never helps someone get to the root of their problems. As long as it makes them productive, that’s good enough.

Again, I’m not claiming that most religious organizations actively exploit people struggling with addiction. Some definitely do and a few are quite famous for it. However, it’s somewhat telling that we ascribe finding religion to overcoming an addiction when, on many levels, it’s just exchanging one source of addictive behavior for another.

At its best, religion inspires people to do great things for all the right reasons. At its worst, it can exploit someone to such an extent that it can make people who are genuinely sick feel like they’re healed. Addiction, like many other disease, is something that can only get worse if left untreated.

Whether it’s religion or crack, the brain of an addict will do what it takes to sustain its addictive state. There are effective, legitimate treatments for addiction that actually attempt to confront the source of the issues within an addict. Many aren’t as easy or overwhelming as finding religion, but they make a concerted effort at treating the addict rather than simply guiding them to a more socially-acceptable addiction.

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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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