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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beating Religion: Strengths and Weaknesses

Last week I identified the two wildly different mindsets that frame religious and irreligious thinking.  This week I’m going to highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Guardian mindset.  I am going to skip such an analysis for the Seeker mindset, because it is not terribly pertinent to what I have in mind.  The results of this exercise in analyzing the Guardian mindset will be utilized next week, when I look at the kinds of strategies we need to employ in order to beat religion.

I’m going to begin with the weaknesses of the Guardian mindset, because it is these weaknesses that have driven the development of its greatest strengths.  In order to understand these weaknesses, it is first necessary to realize that the Guardian mindset is entirely arbitrary.  Guardians take whatever intellectual ground they happen to be standing on at the time and decree it sacred, unquestionable, and absolutely supreme.  But even a cursory glance at religious beliefs shows that ‘whatever they happen to be standing on at the time’ doesn’t mean much.  Odds are extremely good that the Guardians have picked some really lousy intellectual territory to defend, and this gives them two very serious weaknesses.

If every ounce of scientific knowledge and technological infrastructure was suddenly and utterly annihilated, mankind could rebuild it.  It would take an extremely long time, thousands of generations in all likelihood, but it is actually darn near inevitable that we would eventually rediscover all the natural laws we now know.  This is because science is a convergent process.  It doesn’t matter where you start; you always head towards the same final destination.  But faith is not a convergent process (in as much as it is a process).  So if every ounce of modern religious beliefs and rituals was suddenly and utterly annihilated, the religions mankind subsequently invents would be radically and significantly different (and just as arbitrary).  This is an extremely important point to understand.  If you fail to teach your science to the next generation, it will be re-discovered.  But if you fail to teach your religion to the next generation, it dies.

Intellectual Emptiness
Because Guardians ‘choose’ their territory more or less at random, solid epistemological endeavors will nearly always push away from the Guardians’ turf.  And solid epistemological endeavors are, well, solid.  So when some annoying Seeker goes around asking pointed questions, the Guardians are hard pressed to find good answers.

It is in response to these two weaknesses that the religions have perfected several techniques critical to their survival.  The first technique is a direct response to the underivability of Guardians’ chosen dogma.  If you fail to teach your religion to the next generation, your religion dies.  So the most successful religions in all the world are the ones that hammer in, that really hammer in the notion of passing on your religion to your children.

Compare the ratio of religious Americans to non-religious Americans with the ratio of religious private schools to non-religious private schools.  I don’t think the sheer number of religious private schools is a straightforward result of religious people being more numerous.  Religions, especially many Christian sects, push very hard for their followers to have many children and to teach them their religion from the moment they’re born.  Private schools, home-schooling, Sunday schools, youth groups, bible camps, cartoons, books.  You name it, they’ve got it.  Religions have become very good at getting to kids at an extremely young age and inundating them with indoctrination.  And in areas where a particular religion holds power, they have become very good at getting to kids that aren’t being taught their religion and ostracizing the shit out of them. This is why people push for prayer in public schools, or for the removal of evolution from biology class, or religious speech on our money and in our pledge.  At some level, these religious organizations understand that they absolutely need to push their religious beliefs onto children.  And not just their own children, but as many children as they can manage.  Because if they don’t, their religion will die.

The other techniques I will highlight tonight are in direct response to the Guardians’ second great weakness, the intellectual emptiness of their turf.  Because Guardians cannot hope to defend their turf with solid, well-reasoned arguments, they tend to resort to other methods.  Their first line of defense is typically censorship.  They don’t just teach children what the religious beliefs are, they also teach those children not to ask too many questions.  They apply enormous amounts of social pressure against anyone who speaks against their religion, calling such criticism offensive or even labeling it hate speech.  Some even go so far as to call for the deaths of cartoonists who produce forbidden art.  They also go to great lengths to hide the skepticism of many of the world’s most distinguished individuals, and especially the world’s scientists.  All this they do because their beliefs just can’t face the criticism directly.

The Guardian’s second line of defense is the renouncement of reason and empiricism.  The very concept of religious faith is designed specifically to pre-empt epistemological endeavors.  In fact, religions’ need to pre-empt our intellectual capacities is so great that merely presenting text in a hard-to-read font is enough to significantly decrease self-reported religiosity by priming the reader towards analytic thinking.  (The peer-reviewed publication is subscription only, but you can read a news article about it here.  Check the fifth paragraph).

Guardians’ third line of defense involves the use of other mental faculties to undermine reason (the most common being emotion and intuition).  They talk about how loving Jesus is, how great it feels to embrace him, and how fulfilled they feel now that they’ve found him.  Many also use fear – fear of hell, of divine punishment, of social disapproval, or outride threats of violence – to pressure people into acquiescence.  Another aspect of this is inherent to the rampant notion that religion answers certain needs that science can never approach (otherwise known as NOMA – Non Over-lapping MAgisteria); most commonly the moral and (invented) spiritual needs.  When religions manage to convince the populace that science literally can’t address such needs, they secure themselves a rather safe place in the world, a place where people won’t even bother listening to a skeptic because they think he has nothing to offer.

There is undoubtedly much more I could say about the strengths and weaknesses of the Guardian mindset.  But what I have covered here is sufficient for the points I intend to make next week.  To recap, the key aspects of the Guardian mindset we must consider are:

-Guardians’ turf is arbitrary and can’t be re-derived once lost.
-Guardians’ turf is intellectually indefensible.

And in direct response to these weaknesses:

-Guardians have become very dedicated toward the task of pushing their religion onto children.
-Guardians rely heavily on censorship (both laws and social norms) to defend their turf.
-Guardians rely heavily on faith, emotion, intuition, and NOMA to defend their turf.

EDIT:  Case in point, the Texas Republican Party Platform includes their opposition to teaching critical thinking skills because they "...have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." (Page 13, Knolwedged-Based Education entry.  Emphasis added.  Notice how they want to teach kids what is known, instead of focusing on how to figure things out.)

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