Monday, August 25, 2008

Religion: The Great Security Blanket

Religion is said to be a security blanket, an "opiate" which helps people deal with life's suffering. The thing about security blankets is, while they can provide warmth and comfort, they only offer a false sense of security.

I don’t see religion easing so much pain or suffering. Religious people don't suffer less than anybody else. They just tend to put their suffering in a very illogical and often counterproductive perspective. They make excuses for their suffering, and view life as one great obstacle, thinking they’ve got a handle on what it’s all about.

Turning to prayer to deal with trauma can be psychologically beneficial, I am sure, but it does not eliminate the cognitive dissonance.

Consider how it is possible for a person to think that God will answer their prayers, that God will take care of everything, that their lives are blessed . . . and that God is all-knowing, and that everything that happens is according to God’s will, and that they should not be so proud as to think that they know better than God, which implies that they should never ask God for any favors, or question their fate . . . and how they can maintain any coherent notion of personal responsibility with all that going on in their heads.

I don't think the world needs such things.

Why I Am Not A Teapot Agnostic

There are different ways of being an atheist or an agnostic. A person can be agnostic in the sense that they don’t believe in the supernatural, but think that it might really exist. Or, a person can be an agnostic in the sense that they believe in some kind of supernatural realm, just not any described by the world’s religions.

Most atheists say they just don't believe in God. These atheists can also be called agnostics.

For example, well-known atheists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins say they are “teapot agnostics,” which is a reference to one of Bertrand Russell's ideas (found in his essay, "Is There a God?"). The idea is that we cannot prove that there isn’t a teapot revolving around the sun in an elliptical orbit somewhere between Earth and Mars--a teapot so small it could not "be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes."

Russell continues:

"But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history."

So, the argument goes, there may theoretically be a God, just as there may be a celestial teapot, but there is no reason to believe it. This is what is called "weak atheism," since it does not flatly refuse the possibility of there being a God.

The problem with the teapot argument is that it rests on the premise that there is no difference between the ideas of God and the celestial teapot. Yet, there is a difference. Unlike the notion of God, we can define teapots in empirical and logical terms. We can be agnostic about the teapot, because we know what it would mean for there to be a teapot in orbit around the Sun. (Of course, this presumes that the teapot is in some way measurable, even if our best telescopes cannot pick it up. Perhaps it emits a unique, herbal radiation.)

We have no way of understanding the notion of God, however, and so we cannot know what it would mean for there to be a God. There is no meaningful way to even discuss the possibility of God’s existence.

Thus, I cannot be a "teapot agnostic" about the existence of God. You could instead say I’m a theological noncognitivist, but I wouldn’t recommend introducing that phrase into many conversations. A simpler though less descriptive way to put it is that I'm a "strong atheist."

See also:

What Can or Should Replace Religion? Consumerism? Anything?

In my view, we don't need an alternative to religion, and we don't need religion. Religion serves a useful purpose for many people, but not a necessary one, and we are all most likely better off without its unique attributes.

A friend of mine recently challenged me on this point. He says the question of "what replaces religion" is vital, and worries that the immoral and irrational beast of consumerism is taking over where religion is falling behind. He pointed out that consumerism fulfills some of the roles traditionally filled by religion, such as offering a sense of community, a group identity, and a public place for emotional support.

I'm not convinced. As far as I can tell, consumerism is not an alternative to religion, and religion is not an alternative to consumerism. In America, religion and consumerism are both thriving, and neither one seems to be intruding on the other’s territory. I don’t see consumerism stepping in to fill a void left by religion, nor do I see it taking over religion’s role in people’s lives. I just see it as its own thing, which sometimes works together with religion and sometimes separately.

Of course, for some people, religion is a check on their impulses towards consumerism. ("Should I buy another pair of pumps? What would Jesus do?") But I doubt atheists are disproportionately represented in the world of consumerism. So, I don’t think there’s any reason to fear that consumerism would be significantly empowered if religion were somehow suddenly to disappear. (Not that I think religion is going anywhere any time soon.)

Also, the mentioned aspects of consumerism and religion are far from distinguishing. These functions (establishing a sense of community, group identity, and a public space for emotional support) are fulfilled in many different ways: secular holidays; fairs; conventions; online social networks (Facebook, MySpace); discussion forums; museums; psychoanalysis/therapy; the gym; book clubs; coffee shops; literature; films; television; newspapers; research centers; cultural centers; performance centers; libraries; schools; sports; playgrounds; work; and even public parks.

It doesn’t seem to me that religion and consumerism hold a monopoly on these public functions. Far from it. The world is not short of ways for people to come together and share their experiences, dreams, fears, and so on.

Religion does serve a particular function which is not shared by these other things, and it’s not shared by consumerism, either. The one thing religions do that other social institutions don’t do is establish death as the ultimate entrance/transition into something better than life itself.

If people think they need religion, it is because they don’t want to squarely face mortality. They fear the very idea of a life that doesn’t serve some higher purpose. That’s really it, I think. The “what replaces religion” question is thus only vital if you think people need to believe in an afterlife.

I also think the reason a lot of non-religious people defend religious belief is because they know how hard it is to face death and wish they had the comfort of religion to help them deal with it.

Incidentally, if consumerism did happen to increase as religion decreased, I would not view that as such a bad thing. I do not think consumerism is worse than religion. Consumerism has its problems, to be sure, but it does not try to hide from rational scrutiny the way religions do. It does not put itself above our scientific concerns, the way religions do. Sure, consumerism plays on our irrational impulses and makes false promises. And it often distracts us from our best interests. But those problems pale in comparison to the threat posed by religion. You don’t see people blowing up buildings or starting wars because they want to further the cause of IKEA. And you don’t see people trying to limit science education, outlaw abortions, or stop stem cell research because they just love to shop.

We should also consider that consumerism is changing with the Internet. People have much more power as consumers. They have more information, more connections with fellow consumers, and a more direct connection to the goods and the producers of those goods. This is all good. There is a lot more potential (and incentive) to make people more responsible and informed consumers.

The best way to deal with the problems of consumerism is to encourage efforts to ensure the responsible buying, selling and marketing of goods. The answer is definitely not to encourage people to be more religious.

What we can do--the only moral thing to do--is teach our children how to think critically and productively about life, and to approach their existence as intelligently and responsibly as possible. And that means, among other things, not protecting religious organizations from scrutiny . . . not in the public classroom, and not anywhere else. Religion is too powerful and pervasive to be ignored in the public curriculum. Most parents are not equipped to educate their children properly about the history, psychology, and sociology of religion. Most don’t even want to. That is a huge problem, and the status quo is just to ignore it or, worse, to make excuses for it.

Now that I think of it, there is one thing that should replace religion: education.

Superstition and Religion

During an email exchange discussing the value and importance of religion, a friend of mine suggested that superstition might be a vital part of how our minds work.

I agree, in the sense that superstitions are most likely an inevitable product of our cognitive machinery. But there is a big difference between religion and superstition.

Like religion, superstitions are a blend of rational and irrational behavior. Consider the belief that you are more likely to win a baseball game if you are wearing your lucky underwear. If you invest enough energy into that belief, then you are probably more likely to be nervous and make mistakes if you are not wearing your lucky underwear. So the belief is true, even though it was wholly fabricated in your mind.

But the superstition was born from an error, and the failure to recognize that can be damning. The error happened when you first attributed one of your successes to your underwear, and then decided that you had better wear the same underwear for every game. That highly questionable judgment is what established the superstition in the first place.

There is a chance that the underwear played a part in your initial success. But if you focus on that to the exclusion of more likely influences (like training, skill, preparation, etc.), you will no longer be working towards your aims. You will be courting irrationality, and will likely end up cursing yourself. Consider the dilemma you will face if your lucky underwear gets destroyed in a fire.

I think we are inclined towards superstitions because of two related aspects of our cognitive machinery:

1. As beings that rely on pattern-recognition with limited resources (including time) to make judgments about the world, we do not rely on proof to form conclusions about cause-effect relationships. We instead make judgments because they work in the moment, and later revise them when the need arises.

2. Our success as actors in the world depends on our ability to establish a certain degree of confidence in our ability to control the world around us. Yet, we often lack control and cannot fully grasp all of the factors that influence our fate. Thus, we try to explain our successes and failures as being within our control for arbitrary reasons (wearing lucky underwear, pinching salt, etc.).

We sometimes make irrational judgments about cause-effect relationships (“I won because I was wearing my lucky underwear”) when our desire for a confidence-builder outweighs our interest in rationally analyzing the situation.

This is natural, and many superstitions probably don't have a negative effect on our lives at all. They give us a little comfort and we don't take them too seriously, so nobody gets hurt.

The point is, if we don't know how to recognize superstitions for what they are, we risk being their victims when they turn against us.

But let’s get back to religion. Superstitions are not religions. Religions are much bigger and more powerful. Religions regulate all kinds of personal and social behavior. They are partly born from the same psychological elements that are responsible for superstitions, and they involve superstitions; but they are ultimately more than just superstitions.

Religions introduce a new element which is not covered by the two psychological mechanisms I mentioned above. Religions do not simply offer us a way of gaining a sense of confidence in our ability to control our own fates. They do that, of course. But they also allow us to regard the world as being ultimately out of our control, and for a very good reason: God’s absolute goodness.

God’s absolute goodness is the greatest security blanket one could imagine. It’s security times infinity. So long as you follow the rules set forward in your religion (or, in some cases, simply make a deathbed conversion), you will enjoy an eternity of bliss with the ultimate Cause of all that is, was, and shall be. It doesn’t matter how many bad things happen. Your inability to control the world is just a part of the plan. All that suffering is there to teach you how to be a better person. Don’t worry about it if you can’t understand it. You’re not supposed to understand it. Just follow the rules, and you’ll go to heaven.

It’s a nice story, way more powerful than a mere superstition. It’s the kind of thing people are happy to die for.

Incidentally, I often wonder just how much people really believe in their religious beliefs. If people really believe that their recently departed loved one is waiting for them in heaven, why do they cry? Shouldn’t they celebrate with joy and excitement? Shouldn’t they feel jealous that they’re not enjoying all that wonderful bliss yet?

Perhaps they think they should celebrate and be happy, but their dispicable flesh is designed to feel bad. So it’s all a big obstacle God has placed to make their lives more difficult. Perhaps God designed us to suffer at the loss of our loved ones, because that creates a new temptation for us to overcome—a new way to prove our love and devotion to Him. See, when we suffer at the loss of a loved one, our bodies are trying to make us feel more attached to this mortal coil. So we have to try harder to connect with God. It’s all part of God’s cunning plan to make us work for our salvation.

Of course, most people don’t try to explain the incongruities between their lived experience and their religious beliefs. They just believe. This creates a world in which people fail to understand their own feelings, fail to understand their place in the world, and fail to recognize the inability of their beliefs to make sense of their lives.

Let’s face it. Religious beliefs don’t make sense of our lives. They are designed to not make sense. They are designed to lead us to that point where the only answer is, “God’s absolute goodness is beyond human comprehension.” They give us the security of sense without having to do the actual work.

And some say that's good, we should be happy we have religions, because people need the security. Apparently they think sense is overrated.

The distinction between superstition and religion is pretty clear now, I think. Superstitions are small, and they are falsifiable. We can test the proposition that a pair of underwear is responsible for good baseball. We can empirically determine whether or not pinching salt makes a difference in our lives. Superstitions are relatively innocuous, because they can be easily controlled and discarded with rational reflection.

Religious belief, however, has a built-in mechanism to evade rational reflection. For this reason, it is much more dangerous than mere superstitions. Since religions are much bigger than superstitions, and since they offer much more than what is offered by superstitions, religions are that much more powerful. So their potential for harm is that much scarier.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Dark Knight: A Philosophical Concern

I liked a few things about the latest Batman movie, but I have some serious issues with it.

The best part of the movie was Heath Ledger. He was brilliant and chilling, and brought a memorable level of intensity to the film. I commented on a friend's blog about how Ledger topped Nicholson's Joker. I should qualify that. This was a totally different film, not nearly as cartoonish as Tim Burton's vision. Nicholson was absolutely perfect in his role, and Ledger was perfect in his. Neither one's performance would have worked in the other's film.

Anyway, the Joker wasn't the scariest character in this film. That honor goes to Gotham's mayor, played by Nestor Carbonell (a.k.a. Bat Manuel). What was with all that eyeliner? I was half-expecting him to come out as a Rocky Horror fanatic halfway through the movie.

Okay, seriously, I have some major qualms with The Dark Knight. It could have been a profoundly unsettling and challenging movie. Instead, it pandered to audiences' confusions about the foundations of morality, offering a rather dumb and wholly unacceptable "solution" to superficially sate the philosophically lost.

If you have yet to see The Dark Knight, I should warn you that the rest of this post contains plot spoilers.

Let's try to overlook the many logical absurdities of the film. Let's not wonder why a huge skyscraper in the middle of Hong Kong would require its visitors to check their cell phones, and why out of all the thousands of people who must have visited that building, there were only two cell phones in that small drawer. And let's not wonder how a cell phone could take out the electricity in an entire building by remote, and why it would have to be in a drawer in the lobby of that building to do so. Suffice it to say, pretty much everything to do with cell phones in this movie was ridiculous.

And what about that guy who had a bomb so obviously sewn into his belly? Don't they have metal detectors and strip searches in the Gotham police station?

There's lots more. Like, the whole thing about Gordon (Gary Oldman) faking his death to protect his family. That was shameless Hollywood manipulation. Gordon was never even targetted by the Joker, was he? Even if he had been, he certainly wasn't a target after the Joker escaped from prison, and he didn't act like one, either. When the Joker was free to blow up hospitals, Gordon (now Commissioner Gordon, a title more likely to make him a target) didn't even put a single officer on guard to protect his family. No, the filmmakers abandoned logic for a cheap way to set up Gordon's family-in-crisis bit at the end of the movie. Shameless.

And how about the guy who discovered Batman's true identity? All he discovered was a connection between Wayne Enterprises' R&D department and Batman. That's hardly evidence of Batman's true identity.

Okay, so The Dark Knight was severely lacking in the logic department. Fine. This doesn't make it impossible to like the film. It's just really annoying, especially for a film that so clearly wants to engage our critical faculties.

More importantly, the film failed to deliver on all three of its main characters. Batman's character was barely developed in this film, and how it was developed is problematic (see below). The Joker's character was not given a satisfying climax or conclusion, mainly because he was too easily caught and then just left hanging . . . literally. (I wonder if there was more about the fate of the Joker, and it got left on the cutting room floor because of Heath Ledger's untimely death.)

And the coin-flipping Two-Face, while cleverly developed, was similarly shorted in the end. Two-Face should've become a serious threat to Batman, and his reign of terror should've lasted longer. (And he should've had something to keep his left eye moist, but that's not as important.)

Now, as serious as these flaws are, I want to go beyond mere cinematic complaints. Ultimately, this film bothers me on philosophical grounds. The problem is, The Dark Knight plays on its audience's failure to understand morality, offering only confusion and insult, not wisdom or insight.

Much of the world is of the opinion that morality is a faith-based phenomenon. It is believed that science and rationality only allow us to view the world as a cold, meaningless place ruled by chance. Any hope for love, compassion, and humanity are said to be outside the province of reason. Thus, religious and "spiritual" beliefs are called upon as necessary forces for the good of civilization, regardless of whether or not they offer truth. (Or, some say they offer a different kind of truth--the kind you feel, not the kind you should think about.)

This anti-rational view of morality is untenable. It just doesn't work. When we abandon reason, we abandon morality, because morality is based on the very possibility of rational justification. If you cannot rationally justify your behavior, you cannot call it moral.

Morality is part of human nature. It is born from our need to negotiate within our communities. It is the system whereby we judge and establish trust and honor. This process is based on physiological instincts, not faith or idols, and it does not require lies or fabrications to sustain it. It only requires that we nurture the hard-wired desire to negotiate and work together. Love and compassion are involved--not as ideals to be fabricated through myth, but rather as biological processes nurtured through human interaction.

The Dark Knight, however, would have us believe that without faith in idols, we would have no morality. We would coldly act according to chance alone, like Two-Face, with the toss of a coin. Or, worse, we would destroy the world with sinister jubilance, a la the Joker. This insulting view of humanity makes a mockery of morality.

Consider the absurd logic of Batman's choice at the end of the movie. Batman wants to protect the image of Harvey Dent, so the public doesn't discover that Dent turned into a psychotic killer. Apparently, civilization is so fragile that, if we didn't have icons like Dent to worship, we would lose our grip on humanity.

Are legitimate role models so hard to come by, we need to fabricate them to maintain the delicate balance of civilization? No. Profoundly, no.

So now we have a Batman who is willing to lie to protect the reputation of public figures, thereby forfeiting his right to the public's trust.

Was Dent really so special, anyway? Sure, he can punch out mob witnesses and win over Batman's girlfriend. But we are left to wonder how Dent earned the name "Harvey Two-Face" to begin with, and why it wasn't so hard for the Joker to push him over the edge to homicidal mania.

No public figure is so important for the good of humanity that their image is worth preserving at the expense of the truth. It is an insult to reason to claim that any particular image, let alone the image of a district attorney of highly questionable character, is required to sustain the moral foundations of society.

Perhaps in the next installment, Batman will understand this. Fortunately, civilization does not hang in the balance.