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Sorry, Which Weird, Irrational Beliefs Are Okay, Your Honor?
I just love the ruling that bars a pair of divorced parents from educating their child in Wicca, grouping it in a category called "non-mainstream religious beliefs" -- as if the mainstream ones make so much sense. Also, as Richard Dawkins noted at a recent atheists' alliance, the indoctrination of children into a religion is barbaric and wrong. Sure, secular ethics should be taught. Thinking and reasoning should be taught.

Imagine if all the money that went into recreating Notre Dame in
Newark instead went into teaching people to use their capacity for
reason, and to take full responsibility for how their lives turn out?

It makes no more sense to indoctrinate children in the belief that there is a god than it does to indoctrinate them in the belief that orange aliens with a flying saucer will replace the school bus and driver that takes them to school. Or, as Dawkins says in the link above:

Believing in God is like believing in a teapot orbiting Mars?

Yes. For a long time it seemed clear to just about everybody that the beauty and elegance of the world seemed to be prima facie evidence for a divine creator. But the philosopher David Hume already realized three centuries ago that this was a bad argument. It leads to an infinite regression. You can't statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you're still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that's because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.

Those who embrace "intelligent design" -- the idea that living cells are too complex to have been created by nature alone -- say evolution isn't incompatible with the existence of God.

There is just no evidence for the existence of God. Evolution by natural selection is a process that works up from simple beginnings, and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain -- but it is explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere.

So why do we insist on believing in God?

From a biological point of view, there are lots of different theories about why we have this extraordinary predisposition to believe in supernatural things. One suggestion is that the child mind is, for very good Darwinian reasons, susceptible to infection the same way a computer is. In order to be useful, a computer has to be programmable, to obey whatever it's told to do. That automatically makes it vulnerable to computer viruses, which are programs that say, "Spread me, copy me, pass me on." Once a viral program gets started, there is nothing to stop it.

Similarly, the child brain is preprogrammed by natural selection to obey and believe what parents and other adults tell it. In general, it's a good thing that child brains should be susceptible to being taught what to do and what to believe by adults. But this necessarily carries the down side that bad ideas, useless ideas, waste of time ideas like rain dances and other religious customs, will also be passed down the generations. The child brain is very susceptible to this kind of infection. And it also spreads sideways by cross infection when a charismatic preacher goes around infecting new minds that were previously uninfected.

You've said that raising children in a religious tradition may even be a form of abuse.

What I think may be abuse is labeling children with religious labels like Catholic child and Muslim child. I find it very odd that in our civilization we're quite happy to speak of a Catholic child that is 4 years old or a Muslim of child that is 4, when these children are much too young to know what they think about the cosmos, life and morality. We wouldn't dream of speaking of a Keynesian child or a Marxist child. And yet, for some reason we make a privileged exception of religion. And, by the way, I think it would also be abuse to talk about an atheist child.

Here's an excerpt from the story (first link above) about the parents prohibited from raising a Wiccan child, written by Kevin Corcoran, in the Indy Star:

Indiana law allows the custodial parent to determine a child's religious practices unless a child's physical health would be endangered or a child's emotional health would be impaired.

She said courts typically take the child's wishes into account when determining custody for those at least 14. In this case, a temporary guardian or special advocate could have been appointed while the court investigated the effects of the boy's exposure to Wicca.

Jones brought the case to the Indiana Court of Appeals in January, with help from the ICLU. They requested the appeals court strike the one-paragraph clause.

The parents' Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford's attention in a confidential report by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights.

The Indianapolis residents married in February 1995, and their divorce was final in February 2004. Bristol and Jones have joint custody, and the boy lives with the father on the Northside.

The parents believe in nature-based deities and engage in worship rituals that include guided meditation. Jones said he is not trying to force religious beliefs on his 9-year-old son, who attends a local Catholic elementary school and a Unitarian church.

"He's going to make his own path, in his own time," Jones said.

Which is how it should be with all children, instead of this brainwashing that tells them not to think or reason, "just do it": believe, utterly without evidence, in the existence of god, heaven, and hell. Ridiculous. Embarrassing, least for those of us who wake up thinking, as opposed to waking up and going to church in order to swallow all the hoohah in the bible without a thought crossing our minds. Oh, but the bible is such a source of morality! Oh, is it? I would venture you'd get better morality and guides for life out of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and Epictetus. For a guide to some of the most outrageous biblical "morality," check out Ben Akerley's The X-Rated Bible, An Irreverent Survey Of Sex In The Scriptures.

Posted by aalkon at May 29, 2005 9:01 AM

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Posted by: Ira Pesserilo at May 29, 2005 1:39 PM

I think Bush's faith-based initiative inadvertently brought our attention to an interesting question: What distinguishes religions from cults? If the Methodists can receive gov't support for their social services programs, why can't the Hari Krishnas (I believe that the Krishnas are big on abstinence too) or the Church of Scientology?

So why do we insist on believing in God? My guess is that it has something to do with the fear of death. Nobody wants the party to end. And heaven is the ultimate after-hours club.

The poet Mary Oliver suggests that the roses are a lot more sensible that we are about these issues:

Roses, Late Summer

What happens
to the leaves after
they turn red and golden and fall
away? What happens

to the singing birds
when they can’t sing
any longer? What happens
to their quick wings?

Do you think there is any
personal heaven
for any of us?
Do you think anyone,

the other side of that darkness,
will call to us, meaning us?
Beyond the trees
the foxes keep teaching their children

to live in the valley.
So they never seem to vanish, they are always there
in the blossom of light
that stands up every morning

in the dark sky.
And over one more set of hills,
along the sea,
the last roses have opened their factories of sweetness

and are giving it back to the world.
If I had another life
I would want to spend it all on some
unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
I wouldn’t mind being a rose
in a field full of roses.

Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.

Posted by: Lena Cuisina, Lover of Aristotle at May 29, 2005 1:46 PM

My email is working fine.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 29, 2005 4:08 PM

The belief in God is not only prompted by a fear of death. People believe in God because they fear the unknown, death included. God was invented to explain the unknown.

Posted by: Jason Ginsburg at May 29, 2005 4:47 PM

Yeah. People WANT to recreate Notre Dame in Newark. It's not that life is so good that they don't want the party to end, it's so hideous that people need irrational beliefs to make it tolerable.

Posted by: Crid at May 29, 2005 5:27 PM

Newark is a sad place. When I'm on the east coast, I'm sometimes there to catch or change Amtraks. It's like the city that time forgot.


PS: My life rocks. So maybe that's why I don't think about God?

Posted by: Lena-doodle-doo at May 29, 2005 8:08 PM

Intersting theories. But I've always had faith in God, not fear of her, and I don't fear death only the circumstances of it. But I'm Buddhist so maybe this conversation doesn't apply to me.

Posted by: Lia at May 31, 2005 1:47 AM

Faith in god is irrational. As is faith in the Easter Bunny or teapots orbiting Mars.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 31, 2005 5:29 AM

> Faith in god is irrational.

To obsess on rationality is still merely to obsess. There's much more to human life and warm heart than logic.

Posted by: Crid at June 1, 2005 9:30 PM

When asked by an acolyte what use was there for reason if it was useless, Brother Alwin said, "It's not useless, and it's also not enough. Faith and reason are the two shoes on your feet. You can get farther with both then with just one." "Brother Alwin" is actually J. Michael Straczynski, and the encounter is in an episode of Babylon 5, which constantly deals with motivation and the concept of destiny.

Having said that, I insist that religious fiction is the natural consequence of any observer's inability to reconcile cause and effect. Since every belief is a mental shortcut allowing future action - freeing the thinker from the paralysis of indecision - the development and acceptance of a moral guide is a natural step in building a society.

On a personal level, the "imaginary friend" is easily shown to be useful - freeing the person oppressed by the fear of failure.

At no point is there justification for obliging anyone to subscribe to any belief system through coercion. Evidence - not the kind cited by Bible fans, but real evidence - will show whether a moral guide produces salient behavior.

If you'd like a snapshot of that moral guide, just look at its fans closely, and you'll have all the answers you need as to its efficacy.

Posted by: Radwaste at June 2, 2005 9:20 PM

To say my faith in God is 'irrational', is to say that faith itself is irrational. It doesn't have to mean something to you to be a part of my life and who I am. Faith is a personal matter. I don't insult your disbelief, I see no reason for you to insult my beliefs. They have nothing to do with you.

Posted by: Lia at June 6, 2005 1:51 AM

Faith is irrational. By definition. It's a personal, irrational matter, but it's an irrational matter nonetheless. Your beliefs, if you're like a lot of believers, have everything to do with me, because...if you're like a lot of believers, you're, say, legislating that I can't have an abortion or flying airplanes into buildings and causing 16 year old chlidren to blow themselves up because of them. Stem cell research! Gay marriage (or rather, lack thereof). I could go on and on and on. Sadly, there's more to believing -- as it affects the rest of us -- than just wasting your time and believing in the equivalent of the Easter Bunny dressed up as Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 6, 2005 4:58 AM

You can give me no evidence that there is a god (and "my mommy told me there was one when I was five" doesn't count). And yes, there may be evolutionary adaptations that predispose you to believe witch doctors -- and western preachers -- when they tell you the big guy is going to get you or that the god of the twig will smite you (how come one of those sounds dumb to you and the other doesn't?)...but nevertheless, it is utterly irrational (and draw the obvious conclusions from "utterly irrational") to believe that there's a god sans any proof. Do you also believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny? I mean, come on. How come people aren't, first and foremost, embarrassedA to admit belief in god?...same as they would to admit belief in giant purple dinosaurs or jolly green giants. I sure would be. And am.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 6, 2005 5:03 AM

Oh, and here's one of the definitions of "faith" from

Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

Faith is irrational. Faith is irrational. Faith is irrational. You believe in something without logical proof or material evidence. Calling it "faith" doesn't make it any smarter.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 6, 2005 5:05 AM

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