July 30, 2005

Religion in the Workplace: An American Problem?

I have my RSS aggregator set up to bring me posts from several excellent atheist blogs (basically everything listed in my blogroll) and many news sources related to atheism, church and state issues, etc. Sifting through this vast information every week gives me a fairly broad perspective, particularly since several of the blogs and news sources are from outside America. I have noticed that persons from outside America often express surprise that we Americans are frequently exposed to religion in the workplace. They have a hard time believing that such a thing could happen in an otherwise civilized country.

Although my experiences a certainly skewed from living in one of the most conservative and religious parts of the country (the deep South), I do not seem to be alone in my experiences with religion in the workplace. Besides, I encountered milder forms of this problem in two other parts of the country before moving to Mississippi. My understanding of this phenomenon is simply that religion is becoming an increasingly important part of public life in America.

For those of you in other countries still having a hard time believing this, I have provided some examples I have personally experienced (and continue to experience almost daily). Before reading these, please keep in mind that I am employed at a state university:

- Religious clothing and jewelry
- Religious calendars, posters, and other decorative material
- Sending e-mail containing bible quotes or "you're in my prayers," etc.
- Discussing events that took place at one's church
- Directly asking others where they attend church
- Directly asking others if they want to attend one's own church
- Criticizing other co-workers for not being "good Christians"
- Making comments like, "I guess my faith led me to that decision"
- Beginning events (graduation, certain meetings, etc.) with prayer

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July 28, 2005

Needs Met by Religion: Belonging

In America, loudly announcing that one is a Christian and attending church provides one with a nearly instant support system. Here in the South, religion goes way beyond Sunday morning. The fundamentalists attend church on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. During revival, they attend every evening. They rarely have friends outside their church. In other words, joining a church provides a tremendous sense of social support...as long as you are willing to conform to church doctrine.

The need for belonging is a powerful human need, and many people meet this need through religion. This is a very appealing thing about religion. A Christian moving to a new town joins a church and loneliness is over. We atheists have nothing that can compare to this. Life as an atheist can be downright lonely, especially for those of us who live in rural areas. We have a long way to go if we are to provide people with an alternative to religion for meeting their belongingness needs.

I wonder how many believers remain under the control of the church primarily for this reason. To leave one's religion, one must give up a tremendous community. Most of the prior fundamentalists who I have heard discussing their deconversion experiences highlight this loss of support as one of the most difficult aspects of the process.

Atheists are a diverse group, and many of us aren't exactly "joiners." We learn to meet our belongingness needs in other ways. This is fine except that not everyone is going to be willing or able to do this. It would be nice if we had a stronger community. Of course, an obstacle is that most atheists don't view themselves as primarily atheists (in the way Christians do). What do you think? How do we build community?

July 27, 2005

Book Review: The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism

While browsing on Amazon.com, I ran across this book by Hood et al. and thought it sounded interesting. Boy, was I wrong! I thought I'd provide a brief review to help prevent others from wasting money on this one.

The book claims to present "a new framework for understanding religious fundamentalism." This was why I bought it. I am fascinated with efforts to understand the psychology of Christian extremists, so it seemed like a sure thing. False advertising! There is virtually no psychology here. The book is about 90% history, and while interesting, it is incredibly skewed in favor of fundamentalism.

Here is the authors' "new framework" in a nutshell: The only way to properly understand religious fundamentalists is to understand them from within their own belief system. On every single one of the 254 pages, the authors use the term "intratextuality," their term for understanding fundamentalism by assuming that every word of the religious text is true and exploring reality from within that perspective. Not surprisingly, at least two of the authors turn out to be fundamentalists, and the book is very kind to fundamentalism.

My favorite part by far is that they use the phrase "objective truth" repeatedly to refer to biblical truth. They make absolutely no distinction between external, objective, empirically verifiable reality and crazy biblical crap. Even better, they dismiss all biblical contradictions by arguing that because the bible is the inerrant word of god, it can't be contradictory and therefore it isn't. Need I say more?

Anyway, this was a big disappointment. The title was extremely misleading, and I'd stay away from this one.

July 25, 2005

Hitler: Did We Really Learn Anything?

I recently caught a show on the History Channel called "Hitler: Tyrant of Terror." I can't usually bring myself to watch the History Channel because it is so dumbed-down for mass consumption that it irritates me. This show was no exception. I am fascinated by history, and I don't need all the cheesy music, dramatizations, etc.

Anyway, the show got me thinking about two things. (This is not going to be about the usual "Was Hitler a Christian?" question, so if you are interested in that, go here instead).

First, it got me thinking about Hitler's skill in manipulating the German people for his own ambitions. Clearly, the GOP learned a great deal from Hitler. Don't get me wrong - I am not equating W (or even Cheney) with Hitler. These men are evil but in a very different way. Hitler was able to convince his people to do things (not limited to the holocaust) that were clearly not in their individual or national interest. It was painfully clear from the newsreels that they were not just willing participants but enthusiastically supported their leader. The GOP has accomplished a similar feat by convincing America's working poor to oppose their own self-interest by voting Republican. While watching Hitler's early rise to power, I found many parallels to today's post 911 patriotism, flag-waving, hostility to immigrants/atheists, and near blind devotion to a leader who continues to mislead his people. The Germans didn't know some of what Hitler was up to because they didn't want to. What is our excuse?

Second, this show forced me to confront the realization that any lessons we supposedly learned from Nazi Germany have all but evaporated. Visit the evangelical GOP websites. Neoconservatives are united in their opposition to multiculturalism and their desire to end affirmative action. Their "war on drugs" has had a disproportionate effect on ethnically diverse persons. While promoting "religious freedom," their Patriot Act strips the rights of a disproportionate number of non-Christians. Their economic policies are making the rich richer while turning the poor into a class of servants that drives our economy. Like the Germans, we look the other way. Even when evidence of crimes (e.g., Gitmo, Rovegate, etc.) surfaces, we look the other way.

July 24, 2005

I Finally Discovered Podcasting

Okay, so I'm not exactly cutting edge when it comes to technology. I was late to get into blogging, and I just now got iTunes set up to receive podcasts. Now I'm listening to the InfidelGuy show and loving it. He's interviewing Joan Boaker of theocracywatch.org, and she is discussing Christian domionism. She is brilliant, and I fear I will become addicted to this. I see that American Atheists also has podcasts. Very cool.

Innovative Strategy for Defending Evolution

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as evolution / Group fed up with Christian right influence in culture war plans to stage mock Scopes trial in reverse

I love it! Finally, someone is preemptively going after the Christian extremists. This is a source of inspiration not just because it shows that there are rational individuals out there but because it teaches us that we can be active instead of reactive. Bravo!

July 23, 2005

Christian Priorities

I recently read that the United States could eradicate world hunger for less money than we have already spent on the war in Iraq. Let that sink in for a minute.

Why is it that the same politicians who are first to claim we are a Christian nation also happen to be the first to support war over ending world hunger? I think I must have missed the part in the bible that says cheap gas for our SUVs is more important than human life.

The next time someone starts in with the "how can you have morals if you don't believe in my god" crap, I think I'm going to have to laugh in his/her face. Evidently, Christian morality is limited to the economic self-interest of the rich.

July 21, 2005

God is for Suckers! � Hope Springs Eternal

God is for Suckers! � Hope Springs Eternal

Check out this post over at God is For Suckers! It seems that there is yet another scientific study showing that prayer doesn't work. This goes in the file of how to respond when a Christian insists that there is no contradictory evidence of his/her beliefs.

July 19, 2005

Most Gays, Psychologists Reject Conversion

Most gays, psychologists reject conversion - U.S. News - MSNBC.com

Most psychologists reject conversion of gays? Wait a second, are we expected to believe that highly educated mental health experts disagree with Christian extremists? Clearly, this is evidence of "liberal elitism" in academia. How dare these well-informed scientists dispute someone's interpretation of an old book! The entire field of psychology must have nothing better to do than persecute Christians. For shame!

July 17, 2005

Needs Met by Religion: Coherence

Following up on my previous post on this topic, a good starting point would be to observe that religion provides people with a sense of coherence/consistency/certainty. Thus, religious belief satisfies what mislay referred to as "safety needs" for many people. The promise of an afterlife, the notions of salvation and forgiveness, and belief that the bible is actually the word of god all serve to provide a sense of security and predictability in a confusing world.

Don't be too quick to dismiss this as something prehistoric man needed and expect people to have outgrown it. Making decisions is difficult for many people, and making important decisions can be extremely tough for any of us. Christian extremists believe that the bible is the inherently word of their god. It can be thought of as an instruction manual for life, bringing a powerful sense of relief and strong feelings of safety. Because everyone who attends their churches uses the same instruction manual, disagreement is minimized and consistency is again promoted.

This discussion implies that a viable alternative to religious belief must offer some form of coherence/stability/consistency in order to meet safety needs. Can a naturalistic belief system do this? I believe it can but not as easily. Part of human nature appears to involve looking for shortcuts, taking the easy way out, and running from true freedom because it entails unpredictability, ambiguity, and risk. Many people do not like to think and will actively avoid it. This is part of the appeal of superstition that naturalism has difficulty matching. For science and reason to provide a viable alternative, people must be willing to think.

First, people must know how to apply sound reason, critical thinking, and empiricism. In other words, they must know how to think. Spend any time at American colleges, and you will find that the majority of first-year students have not yet learned these skills. This is not a good sign and forces us to confront the shortcomings of public education. But instead of blaming the public schools exclusively, we must take a hard look at parents and church.

Second, those who have critical thinking and reasoning skills must be willing to apply them. This is an even greater challenge because the application of these skills is time-consuming, more difficult than the application of religious devotion, and requires a commitment to the objective truth rather than the constructed "truth." For example, an individual is required to value and apply scientific empiricism at least as much as his/her own subjective experience. The American public has been moving in the opposite direction over the past several years, and we have our work cut out to reverse this trend.

Third, because the first two tasks are in direct opposition to religious faith, they will impact the other needs currently met by religion for the vast majority of people. I'll get to those other needs in later posts, but the point for now is simply that finding a sense of coherence elsewhere does not occur in a vacuum because many other needs will be impacted.

July 15, 2005

Religious Belief and Mental Illness

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000), delusions are:
...erroneous beliefs that usually involve a misinterpretation of perceptions or experiences. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g., persecution, referential, somatic, religious, or grandiose)...The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear contradictory evidence regarding its veracity (p. 299).
Kind of interesting that we aren't treating religious fundamentalists for their mental disorder, isn't it? Although some mental health professionals are willing to admit that there is considerable overlap between psychosis and intense religiosity, many believe that religion is a legitimate cultural issue that should not be viewed as pathological.

According to the DSM-IV-TR, "Clinicians...must take cultural differences into account. Ideas that may appear to be delusional in one culture (e.g., sorcery and witchcraft) may be commonly held in another" (p. 306). Thus, it appears that a belief which would otherwise be considered delusional should not be considered such if it is commonly held within a particular culture. Does this mean that Billy Graham is in good mental health while Tom Cruise is crazy?

Of course, I am deliberately oversimplifying the complexity of psychiatric diagnosis here. I do not believe that all religious believers are mentally ill or should be labeled as such. My point is simply this: as the intensity of fundamentalist religious beliefs increases, the boundary between religiosity and mental illness begins to blur.

July 14, 2005

Needs Met by Religion: One Framework

Judging my the comments to my last post, there seems to be some interest in the "religion as a basic human need" question, so I think this is worth spending some time on. Besides, I find the question of what leads people to religion and maintains their blind devotion to it a fascinating topic. This will be the first in a series of posts discussing the appeal of religion from a psychological perspective.

There are many psychological theories that consider human needs, and they run the gamut from instinctual drives (Freud) to more aspirational models (Maslow). Influential in psychology and probably even more so in other fields, Maslow posited a hierarchy of needs in which higher-order needs become relevant only after lower-order needs are met. He believed that most people will never satisfy their higher-order needs but that attention turns to these needs once lower-level needs are met. Starting from the bottom and moving up, these needs include (1) physiological needs (e.g., food/water, sleep, etc.); (2) safety needs (e.g., sense of security, stability, etc.); (3) love needs (e.g., belongingness to groups, family, etc.); (4) esteem needs (e.g., self-esteem and praise/recognition from others); and (5) self-actualization (i.e., reaching one's full potential).

This theory has been criticized on many grounds, but the most important criticism involves its limited applicability to western, mainstream, middle-to-upper class individuals. Nevertheless, it does appear that once physiological needs are out of the way, many people appear to meet the remaining needs through religion.

July 13, 2005

Religion as a Basic Human Need?

Christians (and I suppose theists of other persuasions) are fond of arguing that religion meets a basic human need. This perspective is shared by many social scientists, especially when religion (i.e., organized religion) is replaced by the broader construct of spirituality. The question of whether religion or spirituality meet core human needs is an important one with fairly obvious implications about the future of theism and atheism.

If religion/spirituality are basic human needs, how are we to understand atheists? Do we have a different constellation of needs, similar needs but arranged in a different priority, or different ways of meeting similar needs? If religion/spirituality are basic needs, it is unlikely that humans will ever evolve beyond these delusions. If this is the case, maybe we atheists need to modify our expectations.

I'm not quite ready to concede that religion/spirituality are basic needs per se. However, it is fairly clear that they can (and often are) a way through which people meet other basic needs (e.g., community/belongingness, purpose/meaning, etc.). If we hope to make any progress toward helping society let go of religion and become more "reality-based," we will have to confront the benefits that many people believe they derive from religion. I do not disagree that there are benefits, but I believe that there are equally effective and much less destructive means for obtaining the same benefits.

July 12, 2005

Are There No True Christians Left?

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of...
Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky., 09/15/1946 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What is a true Christian, and how might we spot one? We can't simply ask Christians because they don't seem able to agree on this important question.

A true Christian is anti-gay because the Christian bible condemns homosexuality. A true Christian opposes scientific theories (e.g., evolution) or actual discoveries (e.g., geological findings concerning the fossil record) because these theories and facts contradict the biblical account of creation. When reality contradicts their bible, one must distort or even deny reality in order to preserve the "truth" of their bible.

Maybe this is admirable. After all, only a person of true faith could endure in the face of such overwhelming evidence that his/her beliefs were inaccurate. Isn't such a person an impressive example of exactly what the bible says believers should be? Isn't this person's commitment and dedication to their bible as the inerrant word of god praiseworthy? Despite persecution from all sides, the true Christian stands tall.

In turning to Mark 16:16-18, we read:
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
In studying these words carefully, two things are clear. First, the statement that Christians "shall take up serpents" does not appear to be a suggestion but a command. In the United States, there are serpent handling sects. However, members of these sects are typically looked down upon by mainstream Christians. This is the Bible. If you want to call yourself a Christian, you "shall" take up serpents. Pretty clear, huh? Second, this passage clearly states that a true Christian can drink a lethal dose of poison and not be harmed. Christians, if you'd like to convert me, this is one of the things I will need to witness. These things are in your bible so they must be true, right?

Unless you cast out devils, speak in tongues, handle serpents, survive poison, and heal the sick, it is not clear that you believe. And if you do not believe, it is not clear that you should be calling yourself a Christian.

July 11, 2005

Benefits of Living in the Bible Belt

Hurricane Dennis missed this area and wasn't as bad as they had predicted, resulting in wind and rain but no real damage around here that I know of. It is still dark, so I haven't been able to see how many downed trees I may have. I guess god decided to spare us. I am confident that the only reason the storm missed us was that by neighbors were praying. It is like there is a big magical shield around this part of the country.

July 9, 2005

Man in 10 Commandments Case Fears for Safety After Paper Prints Name

Man in 10 Commandments Case Fears for Safety After Paper Prints Name

The fact that this guy has reason to fear for his life (and I believe he does) tells us a lot about Christians in America. While they have creative ways of justifying their behavior, it remains inexcusable. Worse, those of us who blame the offenders but let religion off the hook are simply insuring that this sort of thing will continue to be a problem.

What Sam Harris brings to the table in The End of Faith, in the several articles he has written, and in the interviews he has done since publishing his book is the notion that the root of these justifications must be abolished. It is not enough to condemn certain violent Christians as bad people who are misusing religion to justify their behavior. Religion itself must be critically examined.

A belief that it both erroneous and harmful must be challenged. That such a belief is derived from a popular religious tradition changes nothing.

July 8, 2005

Hurricane Coming

Things may be a bit quiet here for awhile, as we are bracing for Hurricane Dennis to hit the gulf coast. Hopefully, it will turn out to be no big deal. The town is on the verge of mass hysteria, making it a bit difficult to remain calm.

While stocking up on supplies, I noticed that there were many other people doing the same. I thought this was strange. Assuming that most of them are Christians (which is an extremely safe assumption around here), why would they have any concerns about weather? I'm the one who should be preparing to face the wrath of god, right? I suppose the ones who have the misfortune of living near an atheist should be worried.

If my house gets destroyed, the neighbors will gather around and say, "I guess he finally got what he deserved. God was punishing a nonbeliever." But what will they say if a Christian's house were to be damaged? "I guess they weren't right with the Lord afterall." And of course, the Christian whose house was damaged would be quick to say that this was "just a test of my faith" or that the disaster was "part of god's plan."

July 6, 2005

Losing Faith in Religion: Sam Harris

TheStar.com - Losing faith in religion

Nice to see Sam Harris in the news again. He makes so much sense, and I applaud his willingness to speak out for sanity.

July 5, 2005

Americans United Blasts Istook 'Religious Freedom' Amendment

Americans United: Americans United Blasts Istook 'Religious Freedom' Amendment

In case you haven't heard about this yet, a Republican from Oklahoma proposed a "Religious Freedom" Amendment which would permit prayer in public schools, display of religious symbols in public buildings, and open the door to government-sponsored religion. The fact that none of this is Constitutional doesn't matter because by the time it would reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush will have been able to add a new extremist puppet to the court.

This is probably nothing more than an attempt to increase one's political capital in the wake of the Ten Commandments decisions, but that doesn't stop it from being dangerous. According to AU's Lynn, the amendment would allow majority rule in religion. We all know what that would mean.

July 4, 2005

What Are We Celebrating?

Tolstoy's essay "On Patriotism" is as true of modern America as it was of eastern Europe at the beginning of the century. Like religion, patriotism is a tool used by those in power to control the masses. As we move toward theocracy and the Patriot Act continues to strip away various freedoms, the flag-waving will intensify. The modern GOP has learned how to manipulate the public all too well.

Now go enjoy that BBQ, and try not to blow your hand off with those fireworks.

July 2, 2005

FFRF Statement: Scalia Goes After Atheists

Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Here is an interesting analysis of the Ten Commandments rulings by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Of particular concern is Scalia's dissenting opinion in the Kentucky case where he wrote, "the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists . . . just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists." Before we dismiss this as just another example of clearly inappropriate behavior by Scalia (soon to become the next Chief Justice), note that Rehnquist wrote, "Our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."

Stop and think about the implications of this statement. "Our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Well, I guess...(gulp)...America really is a Christian nation. I honestly see no other way to interpret this statement.

Clearly, the good news was the reality-based opinions of O'Connor, Stevens, and Souter. In arguing against the Christian nation claims (or at least the idea that atheists should have no protection under the law), they restore a shred of hope.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation urges all members of the reality-based community to e-mail our local media outlets about how Scalia is not fit to be Chief Justice. I plan to do my part.

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July 1, 2005

O'Connor Resigns From U.S. Supreme Court

Americans United: O'Connor Was Swing Vote On High Court, Replacement Must Respect Individual Freedom, Says Americans United

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is encouraging all members of the reality-based community to contact their elected officials and suggest a bipartisan nomination and confirmation process for O'Connor's replacement. Using a template the designed to make it easy for us to e-mail W and our Senators (which I just did), I sent the following letter to the Editor of my local newspaper:

With Justice O'Connor's resignation from the U.S. Supreme Court, our politicians have a historic opportunity to mend AmericaÂ’s growing cultural divide. There is no more important decision for protecting the rights, freedoms, and legal protections of every American than choosing a Supreme Court justice.

I write to share my belief in the importance of openness and bi-partisan consultation throughout the nomination and confirmation processes. The Senate has a duty to conduct a thorough, independent review of each nominee, and not just be a political rubber stamp for the administration's selection. The founding fathers had it right: they designed a system of checks and balances that gives the President and Senators an equal responsibility for determining whether a Supreme Court nominee is qualified and able to serve our countryÂ’s best interests.

Please join me in asking our elected representatives to choose consensus over confrontation. There are a number of qualified conservative judges who could win broad, bipartisan support. There is no good reason to further divide the nation by nominating an individual whose legal views are out of step with the majority of Americans.

Nanovirus has some good ideas of what we can do to prevent W from destroying the court. To contact your elected officials, visit People for the American Way.

Church Settles Priest Abuse Claims

Church Settles Priest Abuse Claims

How many "wake up calls" do these people need before they actually do something to prevent child sexual abuse by priests? In case after case, we see the church ignore the situation as long as they can. Are they trying to protect their clergy? No. Their parishioners? Obviously not. What they are trying to protect is their pile of superstitious nonsense. They worry that these scandals will drive people away from their precious religious delusion. But this is a mistake. People have proven time and time again that they are too stupid to learn any meaningful lesson here about religion. They just decide that a few bad priests are ruining things, but they don't stop going to church. The need to fit in with their neighbors and the promise of eternal life are just too addictive.

The lesson to be learned is fairly simple: if you go to church, you are going to get molested. Granted, most churchgoers just have their intellects and grasp on reality molested. I suppose this pales in comparison to the sexual molestation that appears to run rampant among the clergy. Both are problematic, and it is time to fix them.