Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Is religion dumb and dangerous?

I'll save dumb for later, aside from observing that today's active atheists often seem to be interested in reaping the gloating and other perquisites of being a freethinker, without all that tedious mucking about in actual thought, instead quoting catch phrases like so much duckspeak.

Maybe more people have been killed for religion than for anything atheistic; after all, atheism didn't gain ascendency until the 20th century, whereas people have fought over religion--but also other things perpendicular to religion, like territory or other resources--for millennia before then. Well, howsabout we tally up the deaths under regimes and philosophies that are post- or anti-religious, or anti-Christian, at least?

I'm not trying to make excuses for or take attention away from the things nominally God-fearing people have done wrong. Most of the crusades after the first were ill-executed, if not ill-conceived. We sin doubly when we claim there exists and we abide by an objective and absolute moral standard, and fail to hold ourselves to it. The fact that I'm mostly picking on communist/fascist historical events is also not meant as a relativistic exoneration of injustices enabled under capitalism; capitalism isn't theistic or atheistic, but in proportion to how Marxist they are (theism under economic communism being hypothetically possible as well), socialist or fascist systems are specifically atheistic or otherwise opposed to organized religion (organized government by definition not deigning to suffer competition for institutional loyalty).

Most of these deaths are executions. Many, however, are from starvation and neglect, such as Mao's five year plans failing to take reality, in the form of lack of industrial expertise and infrastructure and noncompliant weather for farming, into account; or Stalin shipping off trainloads of actual or potential troublemakers to Siberia where they could hardly sustain themselves. While not all the non-execution deaths were malicious, they still indicate a failure of a post-theistic system to be of any benefit to large numbers of people. Some sources put Stalin's and Mao's death tolls at twice the upper limits I have listed.

Papa Doc: 30-60k. Small potatoes--I include only because even the lower range outstrips the total deaths under the Inquisition, even the harsh--and meticulously documented, if you'd care to see for yourself--Spanish Inquisition.

Pol Pot: ≤ three million
Sukarno: half a million, not counting ethnic Chinese in Indonesia (this regime was somewhat theistic, but otherwise was pretty faithfully Marxist)
Khmer Rouge: 1.5-3 million
Mao's cultural revolution: 30 million
Stalin: 10-30 million
Hitler: Hitler was fascist, but anti-communist, and he was no Christian, despite any early political rhetoric that might still be on record (claiming there was no bull of excommunication shows you don't understand how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith works); in addition to the six million Jews that were killed, three million Christians in Poland alone were also slaughtered, with Christians elsewhere and members of other suspect groups adding up to another million or two. Let's say 10 million--it's nice and round.

See Mass deaths and atrocities of the twentieth century at Wikipedia for more details. You can look up the data somewhere else if you don't trust the numbers there; they cite plenty of other resources for you to compare, so it's at least a worthwhile starting point even for Wiki snobs.

What's our total? 55-76.5 million, just counting the top six causes (that I could think of) during the twentieth century--not even taking up the whole century. That death toll is as many as the black plague worldwide in the middle ages. Do you still want to argue that the Crusades--a million or so over the course of two full centuries--can hold a candle to these figures? Even adding in deaths at the hands of the Saracens (religious in their own right) during the same time period, it's just a drop in the bucket.

Have there been more religious deaths all throughout history than atheistic ones? Maybe so, but the irreligious sure made up for lost time in the 20th century. Sure, we also have more people nowadays, so the proportions are different, and most religions are more laid back than they were a thousand years ago, but these caveats don't exonerate the modern era's mass murders.

The world population--never mind Europe--during the middle ages was around a quarter billion. It grew over the centuries, but a quarter billion's a convenient average. The Crusades and the Inquisition don't account for two million people, 0.8% of the total population, over a few centuries.

In the first half of the 20th century, it was around two billion people. Contra-religious deaths are as low at 55 million, as high as 100 million if you include abortion, but let's stick with 55 million: 2.75% of the world population, over a few decades. Making up for lost time, indeed.

Never mind that in our enlightened modern era, we're all supposed to be above such horrors as genocide, but apparently only the Church learned anything from the scandals of the Crusades.

"Freethought" indeed. I know of a respectable number of theological skeptics who aren't afraid to cogitate on the hard questions, but most of the time the only response to "What about Mao and Stalin?" is "Uh, Hitler had to be a Catholic in good standing, and besides, their governments weren't atheistic; they were just political entities rather than religious," as if being expressly anti-theistic was really no different from mere silence on the issue.
More like "Thought-free."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A little while ago I was reading an article Mark Shea had written for a local newspaper. The article was mainly a clarification of the CDF's clarification of the pope's recent document about the Catholic understanding of what a church is. As is often the case, the readers' comments were as interesting as the article itself, if not in a terribly worthy sense.

My personal favorite was where one person said 'Yes, you politely point out that the pope is just clarifying how Catholicism understands Christianity differently from Protestants, but I have to disagree that there's nothing to be upset about; really it was just just a diplomatic covering for the pope's actual words, that other churches are defective.'

If I'd read the article and comments early enough that I thought the person who left that comment might still be around to read the followup, I would have pointed out that his so-called disagreement was still agreeing with the principle. Mark spelled out the differences between groups as "adding to or subtracting from" the deposit of faith. If subtracting truth or adding something artificial doesn't constitute a defect, I don't know what does, and if he's going to come out in public and criticize someone for making a public and concrete criticism of groups that criticize Rome for being defective, as well, then I'm not sure what his understanding of debate or dialog really is.

A few others took some cheap shots at priestly celibacy, not cheap in the sense of underhanded or unfair so much as cheap in the sense of "religion is almost beneath my contempt but I'll attack it anyway as long as I can use pithy sound bites from other contratheists as a crutch." To wit: "the Marian doctrines of the immaculate conception and the virgin birth are based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word almah, which means "young girl," for the Greek work parthenos, which means "virgin" as we currently understand that term. From this comes two millennia of sermons about sexual continence, which has caused unbelievable amounts of human suffering."

Parthenos fits under the umbrella of almah, may have even been its defining criterion, so the orthodox interpretation would hardly be implausible, even if the Apostles who knew Jesus and Mary--who would have spoken Greek and Aramaic and at least been literate in Hebrew--hadn't been around to clarify this point for the communities that had only the words spoken by the Apostles and disciples and the earliest written sources to rely on. Still, "unbelievable amounts of human suffering" stemming from advocacy for not having libertine sex? Really? As a microcosm, are we really suffering less in these past 30 years than we did before the sexual revolution? Sure doesn't look like it to me; I'd probably take "sadder but wiser" over "ignorance is bliss," too, but then you can't say "well, they just covered it up and oppressed people more before the sixties," and I wouldn't really say we're wiser for our sadness, just less hopeful. Trading naivete for despair isn't exactly a sage's choice.

I'll wrap up with just a few unrelated points that arose from discussion of Mark's article, since writing overly long and broad posts rather than pithy and self-contained ones seems to be more my thing.

  • Adulthood nowadays seems to be defined as the point where a person becomes capable of making informed decisions. Maybe not with fully developed faculties, but I suppose that since adults make mistakes we shouldn't prevent children from making mistakes, and only enable them to make informed mistakes. Once upon a time, adulthood was defined by the ability to restrain one's impulses. Did anyone ever try to justify "Never mind the disciplines you were taught; if it feels good, just go for it," or did we just slide into it because it was easier?

  • It does seem a little sad that theists argue that without a Lawgiver they would be violent heathens, to which most atheists object; yet it is usually these same atheists who argue for an arbitrary or natural law that pretty closely coincides with the mores of western civilization. The Catholic will recognize this as the Natural Law that it is; no atheist I've met so far has bothered to explain how the values he holds that coincide with Christendom's but do not seem to have been well-recognized in other societies are merely coincidental.

  • "The god of the OT is a genocidal, misogynistic monster."

    I'll grant you that YHWH was stern, even harsh with the Israelites. To write Him off as a monster, though, requires that you skip over all the passages where people try to dialog with Him; not simply the places where He says "leave none of them alive, lest one of your men comes to worship their idols," which perhaps only makes sense to a theist in the first place, but the places where he relents from the strictest punishment they knowingly incurred, as soon as they asked for mercy. Doesn't exactly sound like something you'd expect from Baal or Pazuzu, is it? Wiping out pagan peoples wasn't common in the Old Testament, even between Egypt and the Promised Land, and it was always prophylactic; when punishments did come, they were always slow in being delivered and were never without warning. If the best criticism you can levy is "genocidal, misogynistic monster," then you really lack the perspective necessary to judge how a god-figure, Abrahamic or pagan, figures into human society.

Eh, I won't go over any of the rest. They're lame comments dripping with ignorance of history like "Rome would tortue you for being a heliocentrist if it could" and American provincialism like "Never mind Pol Pot and Stalin, it's Torquemada and Law who really brought war and suffering to the world whilst trying to hide behind the First Amendment." Yes, I know I'm splicing some thoughts together; they're not really any smarter in their original and less compact forms.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pagan (etc*) divorced mother denied custody of children

*Most of the stink being raised orbits the fact that the woman in question is some flavor of neo-pagan, most expressions of which involve libertine ritual (sometimes symbolic, sometimes actual) sex.

The level of discourse I've observed has for the most part been higher--at least a little--than what one normally expects from the Internet, especially on such topics as religion, morality, and politics. Still, for the most part, the discussion seems to glide over the most damning factor in the court's custody decision. From Volokh's excerpt of the decision:

[Mother] has undertaken to engage in a lifestyle that is extreme by normal social standards and [mother] testified that she is a devotee of sado-masochism; that she is bisexual; that she engages in paganism; that she has used illicit drugs on a semi-regular basis; and that she spends a great deal of time online where she has two to four websites of so-called "blogs."

Now, the mother has the right to raise her child as she sees fit, short of exposing the daughter to disproportionate harm by doing so (however the magnitude and type might be defined by legal minds), including raising her as a neo-pagan. One of the commenters at Volokh even points out that any number of legally permissible things can be considered in a custody hearing that push a judgment to disfavor one party or the other, since the question isn't about legality, or just about what's good for the child as what's best for the child within the court's purview.

So the mom has weird sex with a guy she hasn't quite married yet, and worships some sort of abstracted natural forces, and spends a lot of time online, probably writing about these activities.

However, they're all dodging--and perhaps it's because the decision doesn't emphasize it more, but the judge did write that it appears unlikely the mother and her fiance (not the father) will be able to adequately protect the daughter from her practices (like sadomasochism in the bedroom) that are, shall we say, difficult to explain to children. I think blogging is the slightest hazard of these three, but maybe the fear was that the mother spent too much time on the Internet relative to her working and parenting responsibilities, and that the daughter might find out about her mother's activities from exploring her mother's online activities.

Why is the judge fearful of these likely turns of events, and not just of the mother's fringe interests themselves?

For one thing, the mother also "has used illicit drugs on a semi-regular basis." Remember that bit from the ruling?

Stop the presses, people. I don't care what religion or orientation you are or what fetish you indulge or refrain from indulging. If you're a drug user, a big black mark goes into your "not fit for custody" column. You can pretend you're a victim of Christian heteronormative narrow-mindedness, but don't think for a second that your propensity to flout the law and use chemicals that are demonstrably harmful to users, people close to them, and society in general is merely the repressive work of some "sex-negative" people who can hardly help but violate your First Amendment rights with glee. No; first you have to step back and explain why lighting or shooting up or whatever is your reasonably harmless entitlement. Then we'll discuss if it's really a medieval/fundamentalist judge that has the chip on his shoulder.