Saturday, December 20, 2014

Curing the Need to Make Others the "Other"

A Much Better Arms Race
Recently I was speaking with a dear friend who was bemoaning racial, ethnic and tribal violence perpetrated everyday around the world. Specifically we talked about New York and Missouri but also the terrorist violence perpetrated in the recent shootings in Australia and the mass executions of innocent school children in Pakistan.

Perhaps the causes of such diverse violence may seem too drastically different. At their root all are either a social or evolutionary response to make others the "other." And ultimately the real question has to be can such violence be managed and recast to make most if not all members of our species safer, richer and kinder? 

From the anthropological perspective there is no such thing as race. There is one human race. Race is a contrivance made up by others, including governments, to stratify and subjectively identify groups of people. However the acceptance of racial hatred (and xenophobia) can be traced to the physicality, socio-economic, cultural and linguistic differences between people within close proximity to one another.

Although people can be taught to hate others who are at a distance. And sometimes just the mere mention of a singled-out group, even if they're nowhere in sight, can bring people to froth and foam at the mouth with distrust and disgust leveled at the invisible other.

Case in point, I saw a documentary once where a very old women who lived in Poland and whose village was cleared of Jews during WWII still taught her children and grandchildren to hate "The Chosen People," a group that did not existed in her region for more than 50 years.

As we've seen from history, both in ancient times and in the recent score written and performed over the 20th and 21st centuries, once we institutionalize violence against others we become desensitized to this violence. It is only when we correct those who commit senseless pain on others, and by this I mean through secular law and social justice, that the behaviors of violent groups and individuals can be both managed. Once managed we can then hold to account others who violate the social contract of a grander and gentler secular society.

But the problem is also one of delusion and ego. We will always have ethnic and religious violence as long as we continue to claim separate origins rather than a common one. If we accept a sole origin, which is shown through the historical and scientific record to begin about 175,000 years ago on the continent of Africa, we can recast what it means to be human. 

When we as a species acknowledge both our common ancestry and our radiation out of Africa to conquer the planet we'll then be able to rethink who we are and what we mean to one another but also, in a greater sense, what our evolutionary place means in the context of the universe   We've spread across the planet because we are an inquisitive, adaptive, sometimes violent but always vibrant species. If we had more social peace now combined with our level of scientific knowledge and technology I conclude we would have begun the process to radiate out to the stars.

My friend believes that racism is such a complex issue she fears we may never sufficiently move past the impact the role genotype and phenotype play on our senses.  In her view, she accepts that it is easier for others to treat people who don't look like them differently than it is to build the bridges of acceptance required to move our species forward.

I explained that I understood her view but then added that such ideas then trap us into continuing behaviors which are counter-intuitive to human happiness. If we know that ideas and perceptions can change, then we know that the ability to un-believe a long held negative belief about others can then be changed. Rooting this out creates its own cycle of success and recasts not only more productive dialog but also more positive and cohesive behaviors which elevate rather than tear down others.

Being rational also means we need to be practical. This means we accept that such change, the acceptance of others in a common humanity while wholly beneficial will take time. It also means that we acknowledge that there will be opposing forces who for their own personal and philosophical reasons and gain will try to stop such change - especially if you run a nation or faith organization which prides itself on its subjective teachings and truth being objective proof for all of ontological reality.

Such irrational ideas, be they mysticism or spiritual or theological or xenophobic or forms of nationalism can be inhibitors to and conflict with not only objective reason but also our human ability to see past our own socially ingrained or biologically caused perceptions.

From my always optimistic view, we can precisely show how secular humanism and non-belief are actually pulling our common humanity towards a more open, honest and less violent future. And while we may not get there together, it is clear that the trends and the research shows that by 2050, our world will perhaps reach a tipping point towards a fully secular worldview.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Guest Post: The False Promises of Prayer

Science, Not Prayer, Is The Atheist Way

KB in Time-Out NY
*By Kenneth Bronstein

The other day I was watching Channel 1 on the Time Warner cable station when a news item came on about a small Black church in Brooklyn that was having a prayer service for Dr. Craig Spencer, the Ebola patient at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. I became more and more annoyed as I watched, not just because the churchgoers believed they were helping Dr. Spencer but also because the media was recognizing and promoting prayer as a cure for a fatal disease.

Raising hope for prayer as an Ebola treatment is deceitful and troubling to me as an Atheist. But both churchgoers and their pastors have defended prayer with all the usual justifications:

They assert that prayer is a positive and effective thing that sympathizers can do. When prayer does not work—and, let’s face facts there is absolutely no evidence that it does -- they claim justification for that, too: “god has other plans,” they say, or “god is testing us” or “the ways of the Lord are mysterious.” But if, say, Dr. Spencer recovers, you can bet that churchgoers will claim credit for that: Their prayers made it happen! 

They claim that prayer gives comfort to the person praying, as well as hope and satisfaction because they feel they are doing something helpful. 

Prayer Doesn’t Work

I feel strongly that prayer is absolutely the most ineffective and reprehensible action to take in any crisis and that, furthermore, it is actually deleterious to 
the person doing the praying as well as to efforts to help whatever crisis is underway. Here’s why:

The person praying for a resolution of the crisis is wasting his or her time and effort absorbed in entreaties to the Lord when they could spend that time more profitably working on practical real-life solutions to the crisis. On some gut level, the religious person knows this because when I ask them, “If prayer works so well, why do you go to a doctor?” I often get a guilty smirk from them. They are apparently taking no chances on god alone.

The person engaged in prayer has been misguidedly told that prayer will have some impact on the crisis. It won’t. Prayer is, quite simply, a delaying mechanism and what used to be called in my day “busywork”--something that makes you think you are doing something useful though you aren’t.

Prayer closes doors and shuts minds. After all, what is prayer? You are beseeching a “higher power,” or that invisible guy in the sky, or your favorite saint, to solve your problems for you. (Catholics have special saints depending on what you are praying for. Lost your car keys? There is a saint you can pray to who specializes in helping you find lost items.) Any reasonable person knows that you need to figure out how to solve the problems yourself.

Prayer wastes time. If the river is rising and your house is about to float away, praying isn’t going to help. You need to quickly find flotation devices and call rescue crews. Unless god is a helicopter pilot in His spare time, He is pretty useless to you in this situation.

Prayer gives false hope. In the old days when a doctor would say, “We’ve done all we can. All we can do now is pray,” you knew the doctor was really saying, “Tough luck, the chances aren’t good that your loved one will make it.” Today, doctors are trained to give a more realistic appraisal of the patient’s chances and if there is no hope, they generally will not suggest you plead with that Great Surgeon in the Sky. If they do, it may be time to get a new surgeon. 

Prayer disables you. This may sound farfetched until I explain that most prayer is done while kneeling.
( I was surprised to find out that kneeling was first instituted by kings in medieval times to keep supplicants from charging the king’s throne when refused favors.) Nowadays, if the river is rising, you don’t want to be on your knees. You want to be up and in good swimming or paddling shape. 

Religion claims that prayer “comforts” the person who is praying. I find this the most insidious claim of all because there is no way of judging the comfort level of any individual; it is an unscientific construct based on word of mouth. Prayer holds no exclusive claim to comfort; people have been comforted by meditation, teddy bears, yoga, exercise, music or reciting a mantra, with about the same result. The claim that prayer makes you feel good is, I suspect, the inspired delusion of a Vatican publicist. 

The Atheist Way

Atheists do not engage in prayer or other “magical” ways of thinking when a crisis like Ebola arises. Nor do we prioritize our own feelings of comfort or satisfaction in dealing with such an emergency. We act. We act individually and together, we act in scientifically useful ways, we act promptly, and if there are no immediate solutions, we unite, we rally, we cooperate to find solutions through research and experimentation. 
For example, after the 2005 tsunami disaster, members of NYC Atheists Inc. donated $2,245 to Doctors Without 
Borders to help finance its role in aiding the victims.

Courageous Action Needed

But there is more we can do besides give money, though that is important because religious people generally give to charities through their churches, which don’t necessarily guarantee the money will go where it is needed in a crisis. We Atheists can urge timely research on critical medical issues, we can lobby, we can pressure our legislatures to pay attention to emergency needs; we can make our needs and voices known to decision makers in our government and our medical institutions.

We, as Atheists, must work on all fronts to enable research aiding this current medical crisis. Here are some methods we must focus on:

Lobbying. We must lobby our legislatures to get more NIH funding and to convince lawmakers that research on the Ebola vaccine and other diseases needs to be resumed and prioritized.

Donations. You can donate money through NYCA earmarked to Doctors Without Borders (see end of sermon for details). Also, we encourage you to support medical education through donations to your alma mater

Volunteer. While you cannot be involved in the actual care of Ebola victims, which requires trained specialists, hospitals welcome volunteers on many other levels, including the highly visible pink stripers, who free-up doctors and nurses from non-medical tasks.

Donate Blood through NYCA. On the official U.S. “Day of Prayer,” (and on election day), while religious people are on their knees praying, Atheists all over the country will be on their feet and at the local Blood Bank, donating blood for those in need. Join us!

Vote. Support the candidate that says then does prioritize medical research.

Speak Up. Write, or speak up, and voice your opinions about universal health care and helping those in need. March with us when and if we demonstrate. Let it be known to everybody where you stand, as an Atheist, on the issues of medical care and advancing research. While we may not be ready for an Ebola Die-In demonstration just yet, don’t rule out the possibility of picketing the NIH if Congress doesn’t act with alacrity on this issue.
Paleolibrarian dear friend, Mr. Kenneth Bronstein, is the President of New York City Atheists, an advocacy and social justice group located in Manhattan. NYCA is an affiliate member of American Atheists, Inc. This article (appears in modified form) from the NYCA newsletter. It is republished with the consent of the author and association.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Secular Thriving Though the Holidays

FSM in Lights
During the December holidays I know many atheists are confronted with rituals, objects, gifts, and other subtle and not so subtle religious messages. These are infused into our culture and are brought to us at work, outside houses of worship, and in every store, mall and department store. Nor can we escape the media barrage and those friends, colleagues and family who blindly wish us holiday cheer directed towards specific religions.

While the holidays can be an uncomfortable time for freethinkers, I see it as a great reminder of what it means to be a modern non-believer. Essentially, it means that as atheists we get to opt out. We get to opt out of the commercialism. We get to opt out of the consumerism. We obviously get to opt out of the religious ritual.

However, the holidays do serve as a reminder to be humane, empathetic and understanding. Something that I conclude most non-believers, secularists and humanists do all year round. After all, if you only address this good will for four weeks out of a possible 52 per year, then the “reason for the season” isn’t so much about loving thy neighbor as much as it is to buy these neighbors as much stuff as possible.

To Tree or Not to Tree. That is the Question.

Some of my friends who are also non-believers put up trees and decorate them with secular messages as a rebuke to common Christian ritual and traditions. They’ll state that the holiday tree is not Christian in origin and that it is actually a pagan symbol. This is why they feel it’s ok to have a tree in their homes.

I’ve never passed judgment on such actions or thought. After all as an anthropologist I know tree worship is ancient. However, I believe that it is a false argument to copy a religious practice just to thumb one’s nose at it.

Ho Ho Ho!!!
Also, and let’s not forget that paganism IS STILL a religion; it just isn’t a very popular one now.  So for me it matters little if the tree symbolizes a pagan rite or Judeo-Christian iconography - it’s still religion and that means it is part of the mainstay of what can best be considered delusional and disconnected.

A Possible Solution to the Tree Question?

So if one intends to secularize the tree iconography then perhaps it shouldn’t be done because it’s a pagan option of any modern faith tradition. I certainly think that we can make tree symbolism equally a secular humanist tradition. Much like celebrating the winter solstice has become such a tradition and we just leave religion – and I mean all religion – out of the mix entirely.

So put up a “family memory tree” A tree that has photos of everyone you care about; family, friends or others to remind us to be present for others. Hang photos of trips or occasions to remember that being together is always special no matter the time or place. Put photos up of people no longer around to remind us that we honor those who are no longer with us because of death or a move far away.

Not the one used. Just an
Or don’t use a tree at all. Out in the mid-west, friends at their local library made a “tree” out of books and adorned them with lights and a bow. This tree of knowledge respects all traditions and focuses on the power of information as perhaps the greatest gift we can give to one another simply because knowledge is power.

But however one chooses to be secular this time of year, remember to enjoy those around you. Even if it means being invited to holiday parties since you can still eat, drink and be merry while remaining liberated and sticking to your core ideas.

Think of it. All the food and fun and none of the guilt.

Seems like a fair trade to me.

Ho, ho, ho….