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Children are naturally superstitious

Religious beliefs are cognitively natural, predictable products of our brains—these are the findings of the international Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project out of Oxford, as reported in Science Daily. The three-year research, led by Dr. Justin Barrett, cost over $3 million.

Researchers found that ideas about gods, spirits, design in the world, and surviving one’s own death are a form of “natural religion,” in contrast with institutionalized doctrines, such as transubstantiation or a reward of 72 virgins. The findings pointing to a natural religion suggest that efforts to eradicate religion, as was tried in the former USSR for example, are likely to be unsuccessful.

Of particular interest to me are studies done with children. Some of the Oxford studies found that children under age 4 or 5 believe that other people, such as their mother, are omniscient. They believe, for example, that their mother knows what is inside a box, even if the contents of the box are unusual and she has not seen inside the box. If they’ve been exposed to the concept of God or some other supernatural entity, they similarly reason that he also sees and knows what is inside the box. Past about age 4, however, children begin to understand that their mother doesn’t know what’s in the box, but they usually still claim that God does.

I’ll eagerly await the upcoming book by Dr. Barrett called Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion. Until then, if you’re interested in the developing field of cognitive science of religion (CSR), look into:

Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade

 

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Tasteless testimonial

A door-to-door sales representative came by our house pedaling some educational reference books for school-aged children. We’re all about reading and education in our house, so we let him in. I told him that the books seemed all right, but I just wasn’t sure if we’d use them since information is so readily available on the Internet. I wanted to know what others had to say about the books after having them for a while. This is when he pulled out a little purple, flowery journal.

He handed it to me explaining that when he knocks on the door of a family who has previously bought the books, he asks them to write a testimonial. I read through the testimonials with interest — it seems a number of people who have the books do use them and like them. Then I came across one entry that wasn’t exactly the testimonial the salesperson was looking for.

After giving the salesperson some advice about how he could improve his sales, the person wrote, seemingly apropos of nothing, “If you want to know the meaning of life or why you’re here, go to mormon.org or lds.org.”

Maybe the church member had a throwback to mission days and mistakenly thought he had rung the doorbell. I know, I know—the writer was probably thinking he was just tryin’ to share the good news of the restored gospel. But isn’t it clear why such a statement would be insulting? Okay, I’ll spell it out for you.

“If you want to know” kinda sounds like, “I know, but you clearly don’t know. Soooo, if you want to know what I know….”

The definite article “the” in “the meaning of life” conveys that there definitely is a meaning—just one meaning. And you too can be handed the meaning of your life on a golden tablet by visiting mormon.org.

Incidentally the sales rep and I laughed about this testimonial. Turns out he’s atheist too.

Mormons, like most theists, have very concrete answers to life’s three big questions: Where did I come from?, Why am I here?, and Where am I going? But look what happens when you reject supernaturalism, as atheists do.

Where did I come from?

Image from Where Did I Come From, the book that taught me about the birds and the bees.

Really, before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, any answer to this question is pure speculation. Just look at all the world’s creation myths. But to know that my earliest ancestors emerged some 3.8 billion years ago, now that’s fascinating, and all the more so because there is evidence to back it up.

Why?

Why am I here?

Well, according to mormon.org, I’m here to get a body and to choose to follow God’s plan. Never mind that meaning in life is personally and socially constructed, not some inherent, predetermined dictate.

Far be it from me to tell anyone what their purpose in life is. I can only speak for myself. My purpose is to be the best father to my boys that I can be, to be an effective university professor, and to stand up for reason and truth. Compare this with “obtain a body” (that was easy) and “follow God’s plan.”

Where am I going?

I’ve often thought religion has a bit of an incentive problem anyway. So we get to live with God in heaven when we die? I don’t know, I guess I envision living with God being a bit like living with Grandma. Don’t run around or make noise. Bored? Deal with it. And DON’T TOUCH THAT! Heaven—it’s just so vague (intentionally so).

As Lou and Peter Berryman sing in their song “Glorious Prediction,”

Will there be less TV football if you don’t like football?
Will there be more TV football if you do?
And if you’re not sure if you like it, will there be some football
When the glorious prediction comes true?

Understanding that death’s blow is final, I know that the only things that will survive my death are approximately one half of my genes in my three sons and anything I happen to write, which of course is only worth anything if someone reads it.

No afterlife also means that if you want to do good in the world, this is your only shot. There are no second chances, no opportunities to make things right, and no divine justice (rats!). An LDS acquaintance put it to me in an email this way:

As a ‘believer’, it’s very shameful that other believers don’t do more. I have to wonder why that is. Perhaps they have the thought that because God is in charge that it doesn’t matter too much what they do because God will bless or help anyone that needs help. Perhaps atheists believe, that since there is no God, they are the actors in good/bad and can enrich lives by their own actions. I have noticed that the friends that I have that have joined groups, such as the Peace Corps, have been atheist.

*  *  *

Some people find the answers provided by reality to be troubling. Indeed, much of religion’s appeal lies in believing that you are sent to earth with a purpose, that you’re loved, and that you’ll be reunited with your loving creator when you die. Unfortunately, the answers ring hollow once you demand evidence.

I find reality’s answers to be much more satisfying than any answer religion can provide because they’re true. At least, they’re the best answers we have based on information the real world offers us. And reality’s answers are all the more reason for us to appreciate this life, to do good in this life. It’s the only one we’ve got.

Atheist lullaby

The doctor, lawyer, and atheist activist Michael Newdow has written a lovely atheist lullaby that I thought I’d share. It’s called “Doesn’t Make It So,” from his album “Liberty & Justice for All.”

Through your life you’ll hear some things others say are true,
senators and clergymen and your teachers, too.
Listen well to what they say, but you need to know,
just because they said it doesn’t make it so.

Listen to your elders. Show them due respect.
When the bishop speaks to you, bow and genuflect.
Try to understand each word so your mind can grow.
But just because he said it doesn’t make it so.

You’ll hear so much, how can you know
what’s just not true, what just isn’t so?
People believe with such fervid zeal.
Question everything you’re told to find out what’s real.

As you look around the world it’s clear that you must
put your faith in others, grant a bit of trust.
You can’t challenge every statement. Some you just let go.
But just because you’ve read it doesn’t make it so.

People repeat stories that they hear,
certain that they’re right, but just one thing’s clear—
they often know nothing more than you.
Question everything to learn what is true.

I will always be nearby, guide you in your years,
love you through your laughter, hold you though your fears,
try to give you answers when your questions flow,
but just because I said it doesn’t make it so.

Ethan sleeping

Good without god

Image from: http://www.cafepress.com/+atheists_are_not_amoral,96021795

They’re not categorically immoral either.

In the past three days on my Facebook page, I’ve been called an antichrist1, a Mormon basher2, ignorant3, and unrighteous 4. I imagine that these commenters have replaced any semblance of what I’m actually like with a caricature of a scowling, hate-filled monster bent on abolishing the whole of Christianity. They assume that I’m immoral, and don’t see me as a real person anymore, playing with my kids, helping our neighbor’s 2-year-old get sand out his shoe, or taking a pair of lost sunglasses to the lost and found at the water park. They didn’t see me yesterday remind the clerk at Best Buy that he had failed to charge me for installing a car radio, or momentarily diverting my spray of water from our newly-planted grass to our neighbor’s strawberry patch that also needed a drink. They don’t see me visit pleasantly with the store clerk wearing a cross necklace or putting on my sons’ ties on Sunday mornings. These are not moral behaviors of which only theists are capable—these are simply little acts of human kindness that theists and atheists alike perform every day.

1.

2.

And I expected something like “20 unwanted pounds” or “self doubt!” She hasn’t defriended me yet. Anyway, I’ve never bashed a Mormon in my life! Good folks, Mormons. I just don’t share many of their beliefs anymore.

3.

4.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to promote civil equality for atheists by taking advantage of the “gay friend effect:” People who know someone who’s gay are less likely to be prejudiced against gays. Similarly, people who know an atheist are less likely to marginalize atheists. Image from: https://atheistdad.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/out-campaign.jpgThe more atheists come out, the greater is our progress toward a society where all people are treated with fairness and respect. To remain silent about one’s atheism is the easier route, to be sure, but silence is an implicit endorsement of the pervading Christian privilege.

Given this recent bout of name-calling directed at me, I see that I’ve overestimated some people’s ability to be thoughtful and reasonable, and I’ve underestimated how reactively they would engage their cognitive biases. The most troubling accusation is that people are by default unrighteous if they don’t have faith in Jesus. This is incredibly dismissive of the majority of the world’s population. I sometimes hear this as, “You can’t be good without God.”

I have no doubt that one can be good without believing in God, let alone having faith in Jesus. Let’s look at what research has found regarding the morality of nonbelievers.

In 1934, Abraham Franzblau found a negative correlation between acceptance of religious beliefs and three different measures of honesty. As religiosity increased, honesty decreased.

In 1950, Murray Ross conducted a survey among 2,000 associates of the YMCA and discovered that agnostics and atheists were more likely to express their willingness to aid the poor than those who rated themselves as deeply religious.

In 1975, a study found that college-aged students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat on a test than their atheist and agnostic counterparts in nonreligious schools.

In the most recent studies of religious belief among prestigious scientists, only 7 percent of members of the American National Academy of Sciences believed in God, while only 3.3 percent of the UK’s Royal Society said they believe in God. Are all these scientists unrighteous? Ignorant? Atheism is often the product of understanding the scientific process, not some secret cabal.

In his book, The Psychology of Religion: An empirical approach, David Wolf reviews dozens of studies of this nature that reveal a consistent and positive correlation between “religious affiliation, church attendance, doctrinal orthodoxy, rated importance of religion, and so on, with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, social distance, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and Blacks.”

There have been several interesting studies in which ethical dilemmas are presented to people of various faiths, including to people of no religious faith at all. You can read about these experiments in some detail here. They’re quite fascinating, and I recommend you read them if you’re not already familiar with them.

Image from: Image from: https://atheistdad.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/out-campaign.jpg

In these ethical dilemma experiments, atheists consistently make the same moral decisions that believers do. Maybe they’re just absorbing the religious values from those around them, you may say. However, adapted versions of these ethical dilemmas were presented to a tribe of people who had almost no contact with the outside world, and they too made the same moral decisions. Additionally, consider how to explain people’s morality when they live in a society where almost no one believes in a supernatural God, most notably Buddhists.

One interesting study found differences between areas of the country with various concentrations of believers and nonbelievers. Believers tend to be more concentrated in ‘red’ (Republican) states as opposed to ‘blue’ (Democrat) states. Sam Harris noted that, “Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in blue states, and 38 percent are in red states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.”

Similarly, Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and author of Society Without God: What the least religious societies can tell us about contentment, found that the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, have the lowest percentage of believers and the highest percentage of atheists, and yet they are incredibly moral countries. They have the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, the best elder care, the best childcare, strong education, and high literacy rates. But aren’t they sad people who find life meaningless? Not at all—they have one of the lowest rates of depression and the highest measures of happiness in the world. They find meaning in their work, families, causes that they are involved in, etc.

Another interesting bit of data comes from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which found in a 1997 study that one in ten people in the U.S. were atheists or agnostics (in 2008, the figure had jumped to 16%), whereas only one in 200 prisoners are atheist or agnostic.

This doesn’t mean that atheism necessarily increases morality, although humanism, the ethical system that often goes with atheism, probably does. Another good possibility is that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence, or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses. Neither do these data disprove the existence of God, but they are evidence that 1) people can be good without believing in God, and 2) that the morality of nonbelievers is not likely the product of being in a society steeped in religion.

Seriously?

So the only reason one tries to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That, of course, is not morality. That’s just sucking up. If people are good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would commit robbery, rape, and murder, you reveal yourself as an immoral person and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.

So research does not support the idea that those who don’t have faith in Jesus are unrighteous, or that people become immoral when they lose their faith in God. Indeed, the existence of altruism, compassion, generosity, kinship, and compassion can be explained very well by evolution by natural selection. Such behaviors are reported over and over in studies of animals, such as birds, bats, elephants, whales, rhesus monkeys, and others, and it is all well supported by the theory of evolution.

Skeptical? Read or listen to any or all of the six books below. They all present and summarize the peer-reviewed, published research that lays out the evolutionary origins of our moral instincts.

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner
Natural Selections: Selfish Altruists, Honest Liars, and Other Realities of Evolution by David P. Barash
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal
The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson
The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

Or you can just continue to call me names. Doesn’t bother me a bit. But you can’t get away with calling atheists immoral. Morality is about how you behave and how you treat others, not what theological opinions you hold.

Don’t believe in god? Then you’re the antichrist

Shortly after I had come out as atheist two years ago, two women in the ward called me Korihor, Mormonspeak for the antichrist. That’s right. Two Mormon women called me the antichrist. Why? Because I had the audacity to suggest on my Facebook page that there is no evidence for the effectiveness of intercessory prayer.

So who is this Korihor? He’s a character from the Book of Mormon. Alma 30 establishes that Korihor is a naturalist who rejects supernaturalism, a skeptic who finds no convincing reason to believe in God. Korihor espouses many of the same beliefs that most atheists probably agree with. For example:

 – Regarding the coming of Christ, he says, “no man can know of anything which is to come.”

– He refers to prophecies as foolish traditions of one’s fathers.

– He says that one cannot know something with a surety that which cannot be seen.

– He says that an atonement cannot be made for people’s sins.

– He says that when we die, that is the end.

– He says, “I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.”

Funny—he sounds more like a 19th-century product of the Enlightenment than a 4th-century Mesoamerican evildoer.

From my perspective, these are all perfectly rational ideas. However, in the middle of these thoughts we find the statement that Korihor’s preaching caused others “to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms.” This effectively confounds atheism with wickedness.

Then, God strikes Korihor dumb, and Korihor is forced to go from house to house, begging for food. Eventually he is trampled to death, “And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.”

The moral of this story is “Resist valuing evidence, because it will turn you against Christ, you’ll become heard-hearted and wicked, and you’ll be drug down to hell.” This cautionary tale carries a lot of weight with faithful Mormons because it is found in the Book of Mormon, believed to be “the most correct of any book on Earth.”

This chapter serves to support the misconception among many members of the LDS church that when people cease to believe in God, they no longer can be trusted to be moral. But the maintenance of the myth that skepticism leads to wickedness and hell goes well beyond Alma 30, of course. It is also a tactic used by members of the in-group to discourage members of the group from leaving it. In fact, the then-bishop asked me to read Alma 30 after I had come out as atheist. This was clearly an attempt at psychological manipulation. If individuals are not discouraged from questioning their faith, they are more likely to become a member of the out-group and pose a threat to the in-group.

A children’s version of the story can be found in the Book of Mormon Stories, or watch the video to have it read to you. Get ‘em while they’re young. You don’t want kids asking for evidence of your religious claims.

[Notice how Korihor, the antichrist, has black hair, whereas Alma, the good guy, is blonde.]

What do atheists have against faith, anyway?

“Have you ever noticed that you can’t really prove that the gospel is true?” asks the Sunday school teacher.

“Why yes, yes I have,” I think. Do go on!

“It’s something you just need to have faith in,” he says.

Of course. It all comes down to faith, and this is the problem.

I may be wrong, but I suspect my presence in the classroom prompted these comments from the teacher. He knows I’m atheist, after all. But appealing to faith with an atheist is ineffectual, not because atheists are “stiff-necked,” “hard-hearted,” or have some kind of barrier up against the Spirit. Rather, there is a fundamental difference in the way theists and naturalists understand how we come to know what we know (epistemology). Since it would have been indelicate to reply during the lesson, I’ll reply here instead. I don’t presume to speak for all atheists; this is just my take.

Faith is the first principle of the LDS gospel, and broader Christianity teaches that faith is a virtue. There was a time when I accepted this idea (ahem) on faith, so to speak.

But my attitude toward faith began to change when I started caring about whether or not my beliefs were true. I came to understand that faith is not a pathway to truth because if faith is your pathway then you can’t distinguish between Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, new age spiritualism, or any other belief system. Each of them requires faith.

The better pathway to truth is evidence, but by admission of nearly all religions, belief in God relies on faith, which means suspending the requirements of logic, evidence, or proof. But evidence is the best reason to believe that something is true, whereas faith is belief without evidence.

                                   

I should probably head off a couple of objections that are likely to come up.

1. The Spirit is evidence!

Many members of the LDS church attempt to claim feelings as evidence for the truthfulness of the church or that the Book of Mormon is true. They attribute (wrongly, in my opinion) these feelings as coming from God or the Spirit, and these feelings contribute to many members’ testimonies.

But counting feelings as evidence is a gross misappropriation of the word “evidence” as it is used in secular, scientific, or legal affairs. Feelings are unequivocally not evidence. We all have feelings about things, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people often have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right?

Feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you can’t trust them.

2. Atheism requires just as much faith as belief does. 

Sometimes I hear the rather nonsensical “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Being an atheist requires no more faith than my Christian friends need to be an azeusist, an ateapotist, or an adragonist. You don’t need faith to disbelieve Mohammed was a prophet, to disbelieve that the Galactic Overlord Xenu transported frozen souls to earth 75 million years ago, or to disbelieve that the souls of aborted fetuses cause diseased crops. In other words, faith deals in the realm of belief. It has nothing to do with disbelief. All that atheism means is to disbelieve in a god or gods. That’s it.

But doesn’t it require faith to believe that the universe came out of nothing with the big bang? No, because the big bang is overwhelmingly supported by mountains of mutually buttressed evidence and it is the best explanation that we have for the origins of the universe. Some suppose that something must have caused the big bang, so they call that something God. But from my perspective, it is more intellectually honest to admit that we just don’t know what caused the big bang than it is to make up an explanation.

I’ll end with some words that others have penned about faith more eloquently than I can. I’ve collected them from various sources over the past couple years.

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
— Mark Twain

“The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.”
— Benjamin Franklin

“We [atheists] have something more than just a desire to believe: we have reason and evidence, and most importantly of all, an overriding interest in the truth.”
— P.Z. Myers

“To talk about a Superior Being is a dip in superstition, and is just as bad as to let in an Inferior Being or a Devil. When you once attribute effects to the will of a personal God, you have let in a lot of little gods and evils—then sprites, fairies, dryads, naiads, witches, ghosts and goblins, for your imagination is reeling, riotous, drunk, afloat on the flotsam of superstition. What you know then doesn’t count. You just believe, and the more you believe the more do you plume yourself that fear and faith are superior to science and seeing.”
— Elbert Hubbard

“Children have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas, no matter who these people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given license to inculcate their children in whatever ways they personally choose. No right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.”
— Dan Barker

“What is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them—given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by—to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades….If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers…. Faith can be very, very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”
— Richard Dawkins

“I Believe,” from The Book of Mormon musical. If you haven’t heard, the musical won 9 Tony Awards.

Santorum spill is Sioux City, emergency cleanup needed

The raging homophobe Rick Santorum said yesterday in Sioux City, Iowa, that marriage equality means that children will be “forced to be taught about all of these issues that come with the implemetaion of gay marriage. It’s gonna be, it’s gonna have a devastating impact on children. It’s gonna have a devastating impact on families. And it’s gonna have a profound impact on religious liberties.”

Why? Because “It’s gonna threaten their ability to talk about what they believe is the truth,” as if legal protections have prevented parents from teaching their children to hate in the past. (They haven’t!)

Just look at the derisive way he says the word “transgender!”

He also said we haven’t thought through what “quote equality” is going to do to this country. That’s right. “Quote equality” is dragging this nation down to the jaws of hell. Just look at what’s happened here in Iowa after gay marriage was made legal.

Davenport, Iowa, after a gay marriage ceremony