Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I Think Religion CAN be a Good Thing

It's no secret that I don't ascribe to any religious beliefs, but I think that religion gets unfairly panned by atheists. Before I talk about why religion can be good, I will enumerate specific religious beliefs that I think are harmful. I will refer to manifestations, rather than make blanket statements about religions, since it's usually certain groups that espouse the harmful beliefs. Many manifestations of western religion are obsessed with social dominance (it's a worthwhile read), which puts them at odds with anyone that has dissimilar beliefs. This is the root behind a lot of the hatred that is put forth by religious groups. Also, many manifestations are selfish interpretations of the religion. For example, some Christians interpret Genesis 1:26 to mean that people can do whatever they want to the earth without regards to the effects.

Those two are the most obvious problematic beliefs. They aren't necessarily isolated to religion, and are visible in the political arena. Within religions, these beliefs are most common within fundamentalist sects of Christianity and Islam. Buddhism seems to be the religion that does the best job of avoiding these.

The reason religion can be a good thing is because it gives people meaning, purpose, and moral guidance in a way that is accessible. Most people would be ideologically lost without religion, since trying do derive meaning, purpose, or morality from existence without it is far from easy. In fact, I think the rise of non-believers is largely due to the creation of viable non-religious world views. As a non-believer myself, I think that religion is valuable, but needs to be kept in check, in the sense that a belief system and its effects should only be applied to its practitioners.

25 Minutes of Auditory Bliss

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the death of the album, the rise of the single and bands loading up albums with filler tracks. I would counter that a lot of bands that aren't a product of corporate record labels and radio play never fell into that trap. So I'm going to argue that "The Element of Sonic Defiance" by Strung Out is the ideal album.

First, every single track on the album is good, and they are varied in pace, style and intensity. It is only 25 minutes and eight tracks long, and I think it's because they saw it as complete and sufficient without feeling the need to bulk it up. Every track is beautifully produced, including some use of samples and other production effects, but not to the point where the songs aren't amazing live. It's 25 minutes of what an album should be, with absolutely no filler.

Second, the arrangement of the songs on the album, and the way they are put together produces something greater than any single track. This is done without falling into the trap that many progressive rock concept albums fall into, which is a significant portion of the tracks are dependent on the context of the other tracks (Pink Floyd, anyone?). Each song can stand on its own, but becomes something more when listened to the album as a whole.

I will note that The Element of Sonic Defiance is almost 9 years old now, but in my mind, there is not a better example of a perfect album. There have been plenty of other great albums released since then, but every one I can think of either has some weak songs, or the songs themselves don't form a cohesive work.

[edit] I should mention that I think all of Strung Out's albums have been great from "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues" on, but none have the cohesiveness of EOSD.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Purpose of Ritual in Religion

Religious rituals, like going to church on Sunday or praying, have two purposes. First, they are to reinforce preexisting beliefs, and make them salient in a person's life. For example, making sure to eat a kosher meal, or praying before a meal, reminds that person on a regular basis of their beliefs. A person is more likely to act on their beliefs if they are cognizant of them.

The second reason is to induce a phenomenological experience. Many church services are structured in a way to try to get the congregation to "feel" the presence of god. Every mystic ritual was created with this purpose. Entheogens were used with this intent. Phenomenological experiences are more important to religion, since they are what creates strong and lasting believers.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Psychological Mechanism behind Conversion

One thing I've come to believe more with experience is that a person's world view, be it religious or secular in nature, is ultimately a component of their personal experiences. Specifically, certain personal experiences carry with them a certain indescribable meaning that cannot be fully conveyed to another person. It is the phenomenological portion of the experience, to put it in more formal terms. For example, you can describe a meaningful event in your life to someone else, but there is no way for you to convey the full weight of that experience. It is that part that I am going to talk about today.

So, what causes a change in world view? People are inherently biased towards their current beliefs, especially the beliefs that make up a person's world view. Disconfirming information is requisite for conversion to even be a possibility. Unless a person is lacking any sort of strong conviction, there is a good chance that any strong challenge to a person's world view will be avoided if possible.

Does disconfirming information automatically cause a conversion? No, since there is a few ways a person will try to deal with it. First, people will attempt to reinterpret it in a way that supports their world view. For example, a fundamentalist Christian may interpret the decline of church attendance as a sign that the end times are near, rather than a rejection of religious institutions and their inherent flaws.

If disconfirming information cannot be reinterpreted, a person will try to reject it. The most common method is to discredit the information or the source. Common rationale include claiming a flawed methodology, a biased source, that the information has been "spun" to present it in a certain way, or that the information is entirely fictitious.

Sometimes disconfirming information cannot be rejected. The third thing that people will do is to minimize the impact of the information. They will say it isn't as important as it seems, or that it's presented in a way that overplays it. This is done using similar rationale that people use to reject information, but in a way that acknowledges some level of correctness.

If none of the above work, a person goes through a "crisis of faith" or an "identity crisis", where their beliefs are challenged on a level that cannot be easily dealt with. This requires a person to either change their existing world view in such a way that it can handle the information, or it requires them to change their world view. If a person's world view is changed in a meaningful and profound way, this would be considered a conversion experience, which is a significant phenomenological event in itself.

So how does phenomenology and phenomenological experiences play into conversion? They are important because most conversions are due to experiences that challenge a persons beliefs, not second-hand information. A challenging phenomenological experience is the most powerful form of disconfirming information, and it is much harder to reinterpret, reject, or minimize. I will use my own conversion experience as an example to make this idea more concrete. I stopped believing in a theistic "God" not because of the facts and ideas that were hurled at me by some of the people I know. Rather, I stopped believing in God because a naturalistic point of view provided a better view of reality, and allowed me to handle personal issues that my previous beliefs couldn't.

My next post will be on what religious rituals have to do with phenomonology and creating zealous believers.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Challenging Proselytizers: Why I Approach Missionaries

Unlike most people, I find engaging missionaries on the street (or sidewalk) a productive and enriching activity. When I see two guys in suits wearing nametags trying to start conversations with people, I'll go up to them if I have the time. I feel obligated by my own worldview to challenge them in their beliefs so that they might grow and be better practitioners of their beliefs. I try to give them insight into a worldview that is completely foriegn to them, and hopefully it will result in the missionary having more empathy and understanding of a view of reality that they would otherwise not have.

I use two methods of talking about religion and worldview (I find the term "worldview" a better term, since it encompasses both religion and secular belief systems). The first is to discuss the phenomenological aspects of experience, especially religious experiences. Most religious people have had experiences that caused them to convert to their religious belief, or confirm a pre-existing religious belief. Similarly, most humanists, atheists, or other practitioners of secular worldviews (not to be confused with people who don't have an explicit worldview) have analogous experiences. The key point is that while the experience can be explained, there are aspects of that experience that cannot be conveyed to another person. My experiences that caused me to adopt a humanistic view of reality cannot have the same impact when described to another person.

The second thing I do is to respond to a request with an analogous request. For example, if I am asked to read the Bible or Book of Mormon and make up my mind about it, I will ask them to read Dawkins' The God Delusion, or Dennett's Breaking The Spell, and contemplate whether that is a more rational approach to belief. If they ask me to try to talk to God or pray for some divine revelation, I will ask them to try to look at some of the secular worldviews, and try to understand how those explain belief in God.

The goal in both of these is to avoid the standard rote arguments that have been rehashed for endless years, and to try to create a non-threatening way of engaging and challenging those who are trying to proselytize. In my experience, most every missionary I have used this on has enjoyed the conversation, and I feel that it has helped both parties get a better understanding of the other's worldview.

I will note this method is not good for the showy street preachers who preach hellfire and damnation on streetcorners. Those people aren't interested in rational discussion, rather they are using theatrics to try to provoke a response.

I would appreciate if anyone who has any other ideas for challenging missionaries in a non-advesarial way would post them in the comments.

In my next post, I'll talk about the psychological mechanisms underlying a "crisis of faith" and how it relates to conversion and growth in a persons world view.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Can Life Have Meaning Without a God?

One thing I encounter frequently is the argument that a meaningful life can only be derived from religious or metaphysical beliefs. I think this comes up because oftentimes the person making the argument had no meaning in their life until they found religion. I feel that I have found meaning in life without the need to defer to a metaphysical entity. I believe that the meaning of life is to continue living, growing, and improving. Life exists to beget new life, new ideas, and new creations.

So what does that mean on a personal level? It means that personally, you have to figure out your own meaning. One approach to do this is to ask yourself "What is my place in the world?", "What makes me feel fulfilled?", or "What would make me the best 'me' that I can be?". The problem with this approach would be the lack of a clearly defined personal meaning, or a clearly defined means of determining a personal meaning. The advantage is that the meaning I have found for myself is far more satisfying and personal than any purpose that a religion can offer.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Creating a Humanist Culture

There are several things needed to create a Humanist culture that can effectively replace religious culture. The first of these is a common mythology, but not in the sense of a bunch of made up stories. Rather, these are culturally shared stories that may be a bit idealized or simplified. For Humanism, two obvious examples would be the story of human life evolving, and the second would be Darwin's development of the theory of evolution.

The second thing that needs to be created is a common morality that is practical and understandable. The three Humanist Manifestos are a good start, but are too abstract and vague in nature to be sufficient. Instead, the morality should consist of simple principles demonstrated in examples and backed up by justification. The existence of moral gray areas also should be addressed.

Third, a set of common, purposeful rituals need to be developed. For example, a community ritual (like going to church on Sundays) could help connect Humanists and allow Humanists to develop their understanding of Humanism. Acknowledging your own place in yourself, your relationships, society, the world, and universe at some regular, predetermined times (say after waking and before falling asleep) to help keep your life in context of your beliefs. There are countless other rituals that could be used.

Fourth, Humanism needs to clearly state why and how a life can be purposeful without a need to defer to the divine. This may sound simple, but this needs to carry enough weight that it can stand next to the divine arguments made by religions.

Finally, Humanism needs a clear and formal set of threats and promises to differentiate it from religions. These can be based off of a Humanist view of the future, combined with the shortcomings of religion. Threats and promises create incentive for people to convert, and also act to combat the argument that an atheistic belief system is inherently nihilistic.

So what would these things do? It would make Humanism more appealing and useful for its adherents and potential converts. It would also allow Humanism to engage in dialectical relationships with the more reasonable manifestations of religion. Finally, it creates a pseudo-religious religion alternative that isn't lacking (after leaving Christianity 6 years ago, I still miss many aspects of having a church).

Also, I don't think this list is complete or infallable, nor do I have any good ideas for implementation. As always, feedback is much appreciated, either directly or using the comment system.

On a side note, I now Twitter, so feel free to add punkideas, and friend me on MySpace and Facebook. Also, I'm trying to get a feel for my readership, so let me know if you are a reader (thanks to David for being the one person to let me know he's reading)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Atheism, Humanism, and Religion

I don't believe in a god in any sort of traditional sense, but I reject the label of Atheist. I think the word, besides having a negative connotation, does not convey what I really believe. I consider myself a Humanist in a broad and general sense, since I feel that the label more properly conveys what I believe, rather than what I don't believe. Atheism is only the belief in no god, and has no other intrinsic beliefs. Humanism, on the other hand, is the belief that people and humanity are the most important thing in human existence. Also, Atheism is the second most disliked "religion", behind only Scientology, probably because all that outspoken Atheists do is attack religion.

I think that people who don't believe in a god or other supernatural powers, or don't claim to know whether a god exists need to move away from labels that say what they are against (like "Atheist" and "Agnostic"), and begin using labels that state what are the most important principles of their beliefs (like "Humanist" or "Naturalist"). I think that the outspoken Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, need to focus more on the negative outcomes of fundamentalist religion, rather than the absurdity of the premises of religion. This will help reduce the marginalization of non-religious beliefs. I also think that non-religious people need to stop condemning religious moderates who are not imposing their views on others.

Finally, I think that non-religious people need to come together and form some sort of common culture. Specifically, I think that Humanists and others need to take a page from religion. Religion is based on supernatural threats and promises, like hell and heaven. Humanism should promise a fulfilling life based on rational thought, while stating the belief in metaphysical entities can lead to a wasted life and the misleading of others. Furthermore, there needs to be a community. All the Humanist forums and many of the blogs I have found online are dominated by religion-bashing, rather than good discourse about how people can live and be moral without a god or something similar. Instead of spending all our time saying what we are not, we should spend our time defining ourselves, and contrasting it to what we are not.

If anyone knows of a place where a progressive Humanist can talk with like minded people, you should let me know


Monday, February 02, 2009

Michael Phelps and Keeping Our Illusions about Marijuana

Recently a picture of Michael Phelps taking a bong hit has been circulating around the Internet. This doesn't bother me in the least. What bothers me is how he was forced to publicly admit his "wrongdoing". I am sick how American society can't stand the idea of successful people responsibly using marijuana recreationally (at least outside the world of entertainment). I think Phelps's forced apology is an example of America enforcing the myth that you have to be weed free to be successful. I know that there are college professors, professional athletes, and small business owners who smoke marijuana without negative effects to their livelihood.

The research on marijuana supports the idea that it is relatively harmless compared to alcohol, tobacco, and hard drugs. Virtually all of the lab studies "demonstrating" how harmful marijuana lack any sort of ecologlical validity. It's not to say marijuana is completely harmless, but that the level of harm it causes does not warrent keeping it illegal. Also, the claim that marijuana is a gateway drug has been effectively debunked. Even the history of marijuana criminalization shows how ludicris the war against weed has always been.

The poor economic state of the US provides a new opportunity to push for legalization and regulation as a replacement for criminalizing marijauana. Marijuana legalization would reduce the prison costs and create new tax revenue and jobs. Sounds like something we need right now.

We should not force our modern day heros to apologize for smoking a relatively harmless plant, but we should use this as an opportunity to lose the illusions that harm our society.

UPDATE: Tony Newman wrote about the incident over at the Huffington Post

I've been inactive lately, but I feel like ranting about a bunch of shit, so I'll be posting a few more posts that I'm working on over the next couple of weeks. If I have signs of any readership, this could become a (semi) regular thing again