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Worst Religion in the World 2013

Last September, I wrote a ranty blog piece in which I named Islam the worst religion of 2012. It’s still one of my most viewed posts a year later, and it’s attracted a steady stream of comments from Muslims since then. Some are predictably angry, but some are shocked — shocked! — that I would say such things about their wonderful “religion of peace“. No actual death threats though, which I suppose is encouraging.

As the comments have racked up, I’ve been wanting to do an update on the Worst Religion for 2013 so that I could name some other religion, and then someone else could get angry at me and invite me to read their holy book. But the fact is that I haven’t found a worse religion than Islam. It’s not that Muslims have done anything globally terrible this year, for which I’m grateful. And Christianity is still awful — there are forms of Christianity in Africa that make Wahhabism look like an Anglican Sunday School — but there hasn’t been a decisive event that’s put Christianity over the line. No, this year has been typified by the slow, steady drip drip drip of harm done by religious extremists. If you want a catalogue of the major sins, check out the catalogue assembled by religionhurtshumanity.com

But of course this won’t cover the billions of acts of shame, guilt, fear of hell, mind control, magical thinking, manipulation, ostracism, parochialism, ignorance, and wasted time that religion is responsible for. Gay kids rejected by their families. Young people and even spouses who realise they don’t believe, but who get bullied back into the faith under pain of losing their families.

So I can’t pick a winner this year. They’re all terrible. I’ll just say that the worst religion is yours, if you have one. Your religion sucks. If it’s fundamentalist, literalist, overly demanding or totalising, then it sucks even harder. Don’t tell me to read your stupid scriptures, and don’t leave comments telling me that your religion is actually wonderful. If you want to do something, then work at making your religion less terrible. Yes, I know many of you are moderates. Thank you. Do more.

On the Race and the Priesthood statement

The Mormon Church, in an effort to address its troublesome issues, has released a statement on Race and the Priesthood on their website (link here, snarky summary here), which is apparently how revelation happens these days.

Isn’t it interesting that prophets used to write on stone, but now they write on webpages? Perhaps that’s because webpages are easier to edit later.

Addressing the ouchy bits of Church history is a really terrible idea. As I’ve said before, the Church can’t get ahead of its issues because it’s issues all the way down. They can’t explain away the troublesome bits without first acknowledging the troublesome bits, and this is unlikely to lead to a result the Church likes. Here’s why: pretend you’re the Church, and you’re haemorrhaging members. What do you do?
a) Try and chase the questioning members who are leaving.
b) Try and consolidate the faithful.

With this statement, they’ve chosen b), but this will have two effects. It will satisfy the easily satisfied (who will stay in the Church no matter what it does), and it will spook some of the others. And, while this may prove wrong, I’ve read one true believer who says that Mormons are freaking out, inundating the Church Office Building with questions and complaints.

It’s a bad move on the part of the Church, and I’m sure they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t feel like they had no other option. Otherwise, they’d do what they’ve always done: maintain official silence, and allow the membership to invent its own opinions, guided by correlated church materials. The idea that the old strategy is no longer working gives me a warm feeling inside, which of course means it’s true.

So what’s in this statement? Here are the highlights, and for every highlight, there’s a problem.

First, the LDS Church utterly repudiates racism in all its forms.
Good for them. Unfortunately, to repudiate racism, they’re going to have to repudiate the Book of Mormon, which has as a central plot point the idea that dark skin can sometimes be a punishment for sin.

The Book of Abraham has its own problems.

Under the bus with Brother Brigham
The statement stops short of saying the priesthood ban was wrong (which is crucial), but it certainly traces it to Brigham Young. But it’s hard for the Church to take a ‘bad Brigham / good Joseph’ strategy. While Joseph Smith did give the priesthood to a black man once, he also thought that slavery was just dandy; check Steve Benson’s comments at the tail of this story. And the statement ignores the fact that other church leaders on down the line said the same thing for a hundred years.

It explicitly says the less-valiant theory is wrong
This is the crazy folk-doctrine idea that black people were less valiant in the pre-mortal life, so they were born with dark skin and no priesthood in this life. Can you believe it? Where do people get this stuff? Oh yeah, from the First Presidency.

Okay, so what are some of the implications of this new church statement?

This statement obliterates the Church’s claim that the prophet can never lead the Church astray.
They do teach wrong things, which then have to be corrected. Which means that the LDS Church looks exactly as it would look if it were just led by people.

Using a prophet as a guide is a bad idea.
They’re supposed to get it right, but ‘prophets, seers, and revelators’ got this issue dead wrong (by the Church’s own admission) for more than a century. So what are they getting wrong now, that will need to be repudiated in 50 years? (Hint: starts with LGBT.)

Isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that God, a transcendant being who exists outside of space and time, holds prejudices that reflect in precise detail the prejudices that are general among the human population? Until he gets updated — to match the exact prejudices of his modern human followers? Isn’t it a bit of a giveaway that Mormon prophets show no better moral judgments than ordinary non-prophets, but do significantly worse? You’d think there would be some kind of consequences for having a god at the head of your church, but if you talk to Very Sophisticated Mormon Apologists, then there are no consequences really; the prophets are imperfect men in a socio-historical context blah blah blah. Well, then what are they good for? And why should I listen to them? I can get loads of ideas from imperfect people in a socio-historical context — there’s no shortage of them, and some of them have quite good ideas. I don’t really need or want to listen to racists. Or sexists or homophobes, for that matter.

This statement is an indicator as to the bind the LDS Church is in.
Leaving the issue alone allows confusion and discontent to percolate through the membership. Addressing it directly exposes a mass of inconsistencies. Either way, it’s a lose-lose for the church.

Apparently this is going to be a series. I can hardly wait for the next ones!

The parallels between gods and aliens are striking

I’ve just rewatched this snippet of a debate between the atheist Christopher Hitchens and the conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza.

Transcript

Now the argument really comes down to this: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. In other words, if we don’t know about something we should believe it doesn’t exist. I want to suggest why this is actually an unscientific and very foolish way to think.

We can sort of see it by stepping outside the debate and applying it to some other issue. Let’s consider a simple question that’s a very relevant question today: is there life on other planets? And the answer is: we’re not sure. We don’t know.

Along comes the atheist, who says the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. We have not found life on other planets, so there’s no evidence. Therefore, there is no life on other planets.

Is this an intelligent position? No, it is stupid and premature. Why? Because we may not know how to look. It may be that there is — So the fact that there is no evidence is evidence of nothing! It may be evidence of the poverty of our imagination, the ineffectiveness of our instruments. The bottom line of it ultimately is when we look at the evidence we find the religious believers are right. Thank you very much.

This is a wonderful analogy! But not for the reasons D’Souza thinks it is.

If the god debate were transplanted to the domain of extra-terrestrials, here’s how it would play out.

The atheist — or should I say ‘an-alienist’? — would say, “We can’t prove that aliens don’t exist. But no one has ever shown convincing evidence of their existence, so until we get some, there’s no reason to believe in them. Of course, I’ll change my mind if more evidence becomes available.”

On the other hand, the alien-believer would say, “I know that aliens are real! I know this because I’ve had a personal experience with them. It’s really more of a relationship.

“They left a book which tells all about them. And I am so certain that my understanding of this book is correct that I am prepared to persecute and wage war with other alien-believers whose understanding of the aliens differs slightly from my own.”

Would you believe this person? Or would you simply feel pity for them, and end the conversation as soon as you could?

It’s fine to entertain the notion — even the hope — that life exists on other planets. But to be as certain of it as theists are of god begins to look like madness, and we should recognise both as such.

There’s another similarity between god and aliens. They’re both what Robert Sheaffer calls ‘jealous phenomena‘ — they show a preoccupation with not being discovered by humans, which makes it convenient for their respective apologists. They also both tend to appear to people when they’re alone.

I don’t think it was very smart of D’Souza to push this the god/aliens comparison, but I’m glad he did. It’s one of the few times he’s said something useful.

Atheist church: My experience with the Sunday Assembly

I occasionally run into atheists and (more often) agnostics who say “Atheism doesn’t provide a sense of community. How are we providing a sense of community?”

Well, I was part of the Mormon community for 38 years, and let me tell you: Community sucks.

No, seriously, it’s way over-rated. If I’ve learned one thing from my Mormon days, it’s that just believing the same thing as someone else is not a very good indicator of whether you’ll get along in other ways. And my experience with other atheists has not done much to contradict this. There’s only so many times you can say ‘Yep, Sagan/Minchin/Dawkins/Doctor Who is awesome.’ Maybe it’s just not something I need, or I can get it from online communities, or something. Also, I’m afraid of echo chambers.

Mind you, I’m lucky. I have a great bunch of people online and off that I get my people needs from, and some people don’t. And some people just groove on having a community, and we need a multiplicity of approaches in atheism anyway, so I was not entirely displeased to learn that the Sunday Assembly was coming to Perth. It’s the project dreamed up by a couple of UK comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They’re on a ‘Forty Dates and Forty Nights’ tour, getting Sunday Assemblies started in major cities around the world. Apparently there’s a bit of comedy, games, and some rock music. Oh, and community. So… it’s like a born-again church? Ew.

Some people haven’t been as keen on the idea of Sunday Assembly, and I understand why. After you’ve had your millionth boneheaded ‘atheism is not a religion’ conversation, now here comes Atheist Church! Oh, great. But don’t be like that — let’s come on down to mingle with the godless and see what it’s about.

***

We’re in a lecture theatre at UWA, 150 of us, including some children, clapping and bouncing around, singing “Walking On Sunshine”. Yes, that is as daggy as it sounds. But Sanderson is here leading the singing, and he’s so enthusiastic and boisterous that I don’t mind playing along for a little while. Is this what happens at charismatic churches? It seems like it — there’s a reading just like at church, there’s Sanderson being the likeable and wise-cracking leader figure just like at church. Oh, and there’s a collection just like at church. It cost the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society a bit to hire the venue, and some of the money will also go toward the next meeting. One thing I don’t think they do at church is a game: Danish Clapping. Everyone pairs up with different people a few times, and I chat a bit with my game-partners between rounds. Next, a physicist explains a bit about the origin of the universe and the cosmic background radiation. It’s all light-hearted, kind of enjoyable, and certainly more fun than a dreary Mormon Sacrament Meeting.

***

Sanderson says Sunday Assembly wants to use all the good things about religion, but leave out the god bits. It reminds me of that approach to curing cancer that involves giving the patient AIDS (or sort of). Doctors take HIV, remove the part that destroys your immune system, and patch in something that kills cancer cells instead. Now imagine that we do the same thing with religion — take all the mechanisms that religion uses to help itself propagate, and then strip it of its toxic theistic payload. Done that way, atheist church would act as something like immunisation, since the churchy aspects of theism — whatever attraction that holds for some people — would have been safely co-opted. Or would this backfire, reifying the whole ‘church is fun’ concept? Not sure, but it seems to be a good imitation. I can’t really see anything here that would be out of place in a church meeting, except the conspicuous absence of anything to do with a god. There isn’t even any religion-bashing. Sanderson explains that they want to keep it positive, or as he says, “Nothing that would make my religious granny uncomfortable.” So maybe this would do for someone who likes the feeling that they get from church, and the exhortation to — as the Sunday Assembly motto has it — “live better, help often, wonder more”. Maybe people stumble into churches with those ideals and like what they find, whether they believe in a god or not. Sunday Assembly could offer that, but with no supernatural ingredients.

***

Sanderson leads us all in a moment of silence, and suggests that we think of what we have. What we have? I’m pretty lucky. I have a good job, a beautiful and loving wife, two smart and strong boys. My health and a home. Sometimes I think of my frustrations and disappointments, but here in the silence, they seem small compared to those of (say) people in the Philippines, hit by disaster. I feel a bit more grateful, and make a mental note to donate more to people who have lost everything.

The theme for today is ‘Impromptu’ because the whole thing has been arranged at the last minute. The venue was only arranged a couple of days ago. Sanderson is about to give a small talk on today’s theme, but he can’t think of anything relating to ‘Impromptu’. Someone in the audience helpfully suggests ‘Live in the moment!’ There it is; there’s his topic. And he speaks about being aware that we’re alive, and one day we’ll be dead and not able to be aware of anything. He gets us to clench up our fists — something he liked to do as a kid — and feel the tension spreading to our arms, shoulders and chest. Then we let it go. Aaaah — release and relaxation.

One more song — ‘Down Under’, of all things — and we’re done. Sanderson will have moved on by the next meeting in a month. Legend has it that he will return, perhaps in 2,000 years. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep it going and he gives tips on the format to those who stay to form a committee.

***

I wouldn’t want Sunday Assembly to be the only way I get my atheism on, but it could be a part of this complete breakfast. I’d think about going again; I probably will go to the next one, though I might not get evangelical about it. It may not be to the taste of all atheists.

Tell you what, though. I saw someone there that I knew. He’s a guy who’s attended lots of churches for a long while, tried to be a Christian; he’s sort of a seeker. I said hi, and asked him what made him want to attend. His response, paraphrased, was “Well, I like going to church, but I no longer think there’s a god. I realised that what I needed in my life was more positivity and joy. So that’s what I’m here for.” (I asked if I could share that here in this post, and he said that was fine.)

More positivity and joy. Couldn’t we all use some of that? So I don’t begrudge the concept. If it takes off in Perth, I’d say that’s what he’d be likely to find at a Sunday Assembly.

Is ‘morality by consensus’ the same as ‘mob rule’?

When I discuss morality with Christians, they often claim that their morality is superior because it’s ‘absolute’. I don’t know what they mean by an ‘absolute’ morality, but if their god did create an absolute morality, he sure did a lousy job of communicating it, since Christians all over the world disagree on what actually constitutes moral or immoral behaviour.

But when I think of ‘absolute’ morality, I always think of Dawkins’ response:

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon what you could almost call an intelligent design.

I like the idea of a morality based on consensus. I think most people are good moral agents, although we could always do better. And over the centuries, we do become better as we slowly expand our circle of awareness, become horrified at the injustices of the recent past, and grow a little.

But when I talk about morality by consensus, some Christians aren’t keen on that at all. “Isn’t that kind of a dangerous slope to go down?” they ask. “Why, that’s just the same as mob rule,” say others. I don’t think it is; consensus-driven morality has arrived at principles that are not a part of mob rule, like reciprocity and fairness. There’s no comparison.

This got me wondering: why are Christians so set against the idea of morality by consensus? Then I realised: it’s a way of making moral decisions without involving a god at all. Or, more to the point, a priest. For centuries, they’ve become used to dictating to the rest of us what’s moral, issuing proclamations — and being believed. With consensus-based morality, the priest is just another actor, and how this must rankle them.

I think for them ‘sophisticated’ means ‘you believe in it’.

This criticism is known as the Courtier’s Reply: How can you say that the Emperor has no clothes, when you clearly haven’t studied imaginary textiles?

Your understanding will never be as sophisticated as that of someone who’s wasted their whole life studying it. Not only that, if you point out nonsensical or contradictory bits of the Bible, the Courtier takes this as evidence that you simply don’t understand it. If you understood it like he did, you’d have constructed an elaborate apologetic to defend it, like he has.

Why apologetics don’t really help

With the Internet, more and more Mormons are bumping into the bits of LDS history that you used to have to dig for. As a result, the LDS Church is trying to — if not come clean about its history — explain its history in terms that will placate startled members. But how do you acknowledge the weirdness without freaking people out?

Here’s what can happen when a doubting Mormon goes to an apologist.

Issues all the way down

The LDS Church is in a flap over historical issues. People are leaving over historical issues! The typical one: Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives and very young girls.

I never had a problem with historical issues; I left because it wasn’t true. For me, that was a historical issue. That Joseph Smith fabricated a vision with a non-existent god — that was a historical issue. Making up a book about non-existent Nephites and Lamanites — that was a historical issue.

And I’m not saying my epistemological apostasy is better than someone else’s historical apostasy. In fact, it might be worse — I was clearly unfazed by polyandry and other blatantly self-serving doctrines, until I started to question the existence of gods themselves. I must have thought a god that would command those things would be worth worshipping, which is just horrible. What was wrong with me?

So if historical issues was what got you out, great! Whatever works. But as far as I’m concerned, the official story is crazy enough.

Archbishop Tutu had better find a new religion.

Gee — Archbishop Desmond Tutu has risen a couple of points in my estimation. He’s come out as a supporter of equality for gay people, saying he wouldn’t worship a homophobic god.

“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” the retired archbishop said.

“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said, condemning the use of religious justification for anti-gay prejudice.

Now for the bad news. What Tutu doesn’t seem to realise is that, according to the Bible, the god he worships is in fact terribly and deeply homophobic, in both the Old Testament and the New.

The Skeptics’ Annotated Bible has a longer version.

You know what happens when I mention this to Christians? I tell them about the Old Testament, and they say, “That’s just the Old Testament.” Then I tell them about the New Testament, and they say, “That’s just Paul.” Motherfucker, it’s all just Paul. There’s not a lot they can’t accommodate if they want to — and I’m glad they want to! I’m glad Christians are ignoring the bullshit in their Bible — but when you’ve thrown Jehovah and Paul under the bus, what’s left?

So I’m glad Tutu feels strongly about this, and he’s in a position to do some good on this issue. But his stand is at variance with the Bible, no matter how he tries to spin it.

Many modern Christians are trying to give God a makeover. They point out that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. But this is misguided. Jesus would have been a 1st century rabbi. There’s no indication that he would have disagreed with the Torah, which (again) demands death for gay people.

Bottom line: If you’re Christian, you worship a homophobic god. By all means, be equality-minded. That’s just being a normal, good person. But if you try to claim a religious justification for your stand, you’re stretching it farther than the Bible will allow.

Here’s an idea for my equality-minded Christian friends: Since you’re getting your view from your own morality, and not the Bible, why not just skip the middleman in all other areas? Toss the Bible, and rely on your own good human morality, just like you do on loads of other issues.

Don’t call it religion.

It seems that religious people are fleeing the word ‘religion’.

Sociologists say we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life, but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular.

We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.” We talk about what ”the Gospel compels us to do” or “gospel living.” Or “sabbatical living” and “God-oriented behavior.”

No wonder the word is poison. Religion’s characteristic blend of narrow-minded dogma, superstition, sexual busybodyism, and hypocrisy has rightly made it toxic, especially to younger people.

Polling shows that young Americans are considerably less apt to have religious affiliations than earlier generations were at the same age. They attend religious services less often and fewer of them say religion is important in their lives.

I think this thesaurus-trawling is merely cosmetic. Call Christianity a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ if you want, it’s still a religion. As one interviewee says:

“The bottom line is: Christianity is a religion. You can’t get away from it,” he said. “If it walks like a duck, with doctrines, dogma, structures, everything a religion has, it’s a duck.”

The article’s pretty critical of religion, but one criticism goes untouched: Religion is a very poor way of reasoning and understanding the world. It relies on confirmation bias and evidence mining. It places preconceptions higher than facts. And this is true, not just of religion, but of all the other things that religious people are making lateral moves toward; supernaturalism, spirituality, god-oriented behaviour (how long before we hear GOB?), call it what you will.

Different name, same tactics. This ploy to alter the language of religion is a transparent semantic dodge.

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