Monday, September 27, 2010

Proselytizers look at the non-religious proselytizers

Charles Taze Russel was a minister and Biblical commentator who found, like many Christian sects, that he had discovered the true essence of Christianity and that everyone else was wrong.  His voluminous writings led to the creation of the Watch Tower Society, which later became the Jehovah's Witnesses.   Among their beliefs, the one that usually caught the observer's eye was that the End Times would come early in the 20th Century, but when the end did not come this aspect of the religion receded.  Although, for a while, the world headquarters of the new age was to have been here in San Diego.  The part of the religion that an observer would be most familiar with today is the door-to-door missionary work that is required of members.  Like Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses are on the streets, knocking on doors, spreading the faith, and giving away away reams of Watchtower and Awake! magazines. 

The November 2010 issue of Awake! deals with the new atheists.  As the introduction states:
A new group of atheists has arisen in society.  Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.
On the whole, the issue retains some fairness and applies a gentle push toward their own religion.  The first article repeats the canard that Antony Flew, the pre-eminent atheist before the rise of the new atheists, found religion in his final years.  Actually, he allowed the possibility of Deism (a Divine Clockmaker who designed the universe and set it in motion) while rejecting the other supernatural parts of religion.  The article then continues to use the argument that since science can not presently give a confirmed explanation for the universe, religion is a viable alternative.  The next article has a somewhat fair acknowledgment that while the godless Communists committed heinous acts, the history of religious nations in the area of human rights is checkered at best.  Although those religions were not true:
At this point, a distinction must be made between true worship—that is, worship that is acceptable in God’s eyes—and false worship.  True worship would help people to
fight against base inclinations.
Still applying the soft sell, the article concludes with a few Biblical references and the idea that all morality comes from above, and neither the so-called believer or the atheist can dodge the True Will.  It is left to the next article to deliver the goods.  The article is an interview with a Czech biologist who found that the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses made so much sense that he was forced to abandon his atheism.  The rest of the magazine has some interesting articles on a wide range of topics and is probably effective as a recruitment tool.  What proselytizers are selling is not miracles (although some are),  they are selling psychological benefits such as a sense of community and rules to guide your life.  The logical arguments only have to be passably good in order to support the lifestyle framework.  Can humanism provide this framework without the supernatural underpinnings?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Belief in political office, required?

As of September 14, Julia Gillard is the Prime Minister of Australia.  During the election candidate Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party (which is actually conservative in American terminology) was careful to proclaim his strong Christian beliefs, as would seem to be required.  Gillard, however, took another tack during a radio interview:

FAINE: Do you believe in God?
PM: No, I don't Jon, I'm not a religious person.
Amazingly, the radio station was not struck by lightning.
Gillard hastened to add she was brought up a Baptist, attending the Mitcham Baptist Church. Why, she even won catechism prizes for remembering verses from the Bible.
''But during my adult life I've, you know, found a different path,'' she declared. ''I'm, of course, a great respecter of religious beliefs but they're not my beliefs.''
Meanwhile, in the USA, a 2007 poll found that 62% of respondents would not vote for an atheist candidate and there are currently no public atheists in Congress.  This article takes a look at the differences between Australia and the USA and posits several reasons for why this could happen there and not here.   First, Australia has a larger religiously unaffiliated population (31% them, 16% us) and few regular church-goers (7.5% them, 40% us).  Second, while stating her lack of beliefs, Gillard is quick to heap praise on belief and churches as positive social institutions.  And her positions are, in general, not opposed to the religious.  She is opposed, for example, to gay marriage.  And lastly, her Labor Party really only received 38% of the vote.  That was enough to put together a coalition in a parliamentary system, but would not be enough to become a President, Governor or Senator over here.  So for the foreseeable future there is little chance of someone winning high office in America without a profession, even insincere, of faith.

Monday, September 13, 2010

San Diego as a Mormon port? A big maybe from history

An interesting article in the Voice of San Diego points out that the Mormon Church once had designs on San Diego.  Back in the late 1840's, the Mormons facing persecution back east traveled west to freedom.  The Prophet Joseph Smith first led his flock from New York state (the burned-over district, so named because so many religious movements were starting up there in the early 1800's) to Illinois.  But there was trouble with a splinter group, and while awaiting trial for starting a riot, a mob appeared and lynched Joseph Smith.  Brigham Young became president of the Church and led them even further west to the Salt Lake area.

Brigham Young's dream was to create a country called "Deseret", covering what is now much of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, which was nominally under Mexican ownership, but practically empty.  And a country could use a port, so he sent some followers to settle in San Diego.  But Manifest Destiny would foil his plans.  In 1846 a US Army patrol ventured into Mexican territory, probably to provoke a response, and after the Mexican army attacked the Congress declared war.  In February of 1848, with the US Army occupying Mexico City, both sides signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, selling the southwest to the USA.  The American government was particularly against the Mormons' insistence on polygamy, so their territorial claims came to nothing.  California became a state on September 9, 1850.  And after then-president Wilford Woodruff had a revelation that Jesus Christ was ordering the Church to abandon polygamy, Utah became a state in 1896.

Was there ever a real possibility that San Diego could have become part of "Deseret"?  Probably not since the Mormon population did not develop fast enough to take over the area and missed their opportunity.  Perhaps if the Mormons had shown up here a few decades earlier it could have happened...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Using the freedom of religion argument to impose one's will (again)

Joel Hanson, the Nevada Independent American Party candidate for attorney general has filed suit against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 for violating a plethora of his constitutional rights.  For example, forcing him to purchase something is a form of slavery, a violation of Amendment 13.  And the graduate from Brigham Young University, who has been practicing law for three decades, is also worked up over his loss of freedom of religion, the suit
cites Bible passages as if they are legal statutes and makes the argument that the plaintiffs are religious Christians, and that part of their sincerely held religious belief is that "all forms of Socialism are abhorrent and contrary to [the] Christian faith." Hansen writes that he believes that "Socialism and its twin brothers Communism, Fascism, are State/Civic religions" and that "Obamcare[sic]/PPACA, an admittedly socialistic and compelled system of belief, violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment."
According to Hanson, six lawyers spent three months working on this lawsuit.  And, also according to Hanson, Republican Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle is aware of the suit and supports it.  

From a religious standpoint, the suit may be correct.  There is no real authority or absolute decisions in religion, so who is to say Hanson is wrong?  You may argue that Jesus was actually a socialist, yet it's all a matter of belief with no way to reach a definitive conclusion.  But there are limits to your ability to declare yourself exempt from laws.  It will be interesting to see what the judge who dismisses this case will write on the matter.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cognitive dissonance theory and life

Cognitive dissonance theory holds that the human mind is unable to hold contradictory beliefs and will strive to eliminate the contradiction.  The motivation is so strong that if the path to reality is closed for some reason, the mind will instead go further into unreality.  There are many examples:
Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.
Numerous experiments have indicated that this theory is valid and a better predictor of behavior than other theories.  In one early test, researchers asked subjects to rate common objects, and then to pick one to take home among a set they rated equally desirable.  Upon being asked to rate the objects again, they showed a preference for what they had picked.  One explanation is that their minds had created rationalizations to change their views of reality and diminish the mental discomfort of having staked an unsupportable claim.  Interestingly, psychologists have also performed this experiment with capuchin monkeys and obtained the same result.

The application to supernatural beliefs is obvious, and that was the original presentation of the cognitive dissonance theory in Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails, which examined doomsday movements such as the Millerites and a contemporary UFO-based group.  A belief that the world will end on a specific day (October 22, 1844 for the Millerites) and the continued existence of the world is a clear contradiction.  Yet those who were in the movement too deeply to renounce it and walk away produced elaborate rationalizations and became more devoted. 

This effect is evident in many human endeavors, both large and small.  Once we make a commitment that is difficult to back out of, yet we encounter a problem, a simple solution is to find a way to believe and then carry on as before.  While easy to spot in others, it is worth taking a moment to consider how cognitive dissonance shapes our own lives.