The Myth of Religious Violence

religious violenceRebuilding windows yesterday, a neighbor came over and said our horses had got out again. Our fences are difficult to maintain with deer breaking through them, trees crashing down, and lightning strikes destroying fence charges. I got them back without using halters. They are like little kids prancing around me, fighting for position close to the snacks I brought. I wish I had the time to spend with them. They enjoy the company and like to work. Today I must go chainsaw up the fallen trees and repair fence. Yet, I linger on this device unhappy that Karen Armstrong’s big reviews are almost always positive.

With 2-3 politicians openly atheist, it’s hard to imagine that atheists are such a cultural problem. With so much damnation that if secularism were true it would catch on like a smart phone… With popular atheists acting as wrongly sexist, and more so than the general population, her arguments will no doubt appeal.

It is quite unlikely that I will read “Fields of Blood” by Karen Armstrong. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t agreed with what she has said so far. Perhaps, it is because I am on a limited budget or what seems limited to me. The reviews of her book appear in the Guardian, the Spectator, Kirkus, the Telegraph, the Scotsman, and whyevolutionistrue. The Scotsman states her premise

Armstrong is right – very right – to point out that all societies are founded on theft and intimidation, and that a systemic violence underpins and upholds the concept of civilisation itself. That we have science, art, culture, engineering, cities and philosophy at all is bought by the blood of billions of anonymous humans who died tens of thousands of years ago.

The growing trend of excusing religion and attacking secularism often pins on the insistence that cultural, political, material, and biological reasons create the massive violence, xenophobia, misogyny, and general dishonesty in the world.

The difficulties ensue. If religions don’t foster violence, or provide cover to violent urges, how do we begin the discussion with those who say their violence is most definitely for religious reasons?

Relating that religions were never separate from culture before the axial age is a bit like saying there has always been science even in hunter-gather culture because they saw things and made hypotheses, tested them, and then kept what was true or useful. It’s true but doesn’t describe the evolution of science in culture. Perhaps we should eliminate the word religion and call the phenomenon “world view” and religion an industrial world view or commodified world view or politicized world view or what? It really doesn’t matter in helping decide whether modern or old religion is a cause of human violence and suffering. Certainly the trust in a shaman or sorcery that caused harm still caused harm just as the trust that a jealous god demands no competition creates harm.

Armstrong maintains there are secular wars that have nothing to do with religion, which is true in some cases. But saying Germany and Hitler had nothing to do with Judaism or religion is just plain false. Based on the belief that the Jews had a disproportion of wealth and intellectual accounts doesn’t mean Hitler and others did not see this religion as both a means of identity and a scourge. He certainly didn’t forgive marginalized, disenfranchises, or Jews that were by relation only. He certainly didn’t go after wealth, the means of achievement, or the basic support of the system that created the wealth. He went after a people, and a religion, because they were religious, and the people followed that hook.

Too many say that it is the action that is unsupported and the knowledge-base is irrelevant. Thievery is bad and whether they do it for need, religion, or life-vitality is most relevant. It is convenient to do this to allow some sort of acceptance of contrary views, or those who have left a view but value its tradition, but at some point you have to acknowledged that it is the knowledge base that empowers, delineates, and formalizes the action. Would Christians have gone for Jerusalem if they didn’t have a Christ they thought born there? More importantly what other outlet would there have been for their cultural and political issues? Certainly more peaceful outlets could occur. An individual, when losing their temper, can beat their spouse, kick the cat, go for a run, chop wood for the fire, meditate, or seek their therapist. Which you do makes all the difference in the world, and which you do depends on the culture that uses their religion or world view to define what is appropriate. Much like TV may not create violence but violent acts are copycated. If they had known a positive resolution they likely  have imitated that.

Religious rituals can embrace material causes. Marvin Harris rightly noted that pigs were hated after their habitat was gone. The aggressive and surviving animals wrecked havoc on cities, and became so great a nuisance, and so quick to replenish, that some massive cultural change was needed to prevent any outliers from starting the whole problem over again. A modern example would be to use religion to create universal vaccination without exception, or climate change prevention. This is why religious people call big tent issues religious. They seem all embracing, and evidence of a basic world view.

But this isn’t what secularists are saying. They do not say religion is bad because everyone follows one to create universal change. If the manifold and many religions of the world collide together there must be some sort of means of resolution to get things done that must be available to to all. Democracy requires a majority to agree, and that the balance of that tyranny is met by rights. The only way to do this with modern mobility is to not allow any one religion, culture, or politics to dominate. Does it matter if you call it a religion? If the people who vote say they are voting because their sacred text says so or their religious culture says so you do have to take them at their word. Yes, the religious view can be deconstructed to other causes to help the case; your religion says to stone adulterers, we don’t do that now. But there had better be some good reasons not to other than it just seems better not to, or my religion says no to stoning. Discussion has to center around whether stoning is effective or desired, and why, in a way that everyone can relate to, or make some sort of effective opinion, or create change. Reasoning must have a place or we might as well stop talking.

Reasoning itself is an antidote to outright violence. Religions deny the value of reason for sorcery, magic, and the primacy of the subjective experience as universal.

The push against essentialism and biology holds to a point. We wish to avoid stereotyping and not treat individuals as such. Why? It is easy to mistake the motivations and reasoning of the person(s) involved. If there are 10, 20, or 100 variables that make up a person’s decision process, focusing on the ones you think they may be jumps to conclusion. Yet, acknowledging that biological anger (if it exists) or patriarchy (if it is cultural) are very real systemic or endemic problems helps inform remediation and restoration. If a culture shows great evidence that sexual predation has a high recidivism then those crimes and restitution would be different than thievery which shows to have low recidivism. That this is a state or dynamic issue acknowledge that it could eventually be different and require knew rules and processes. It is also wrong to assume that every sexual predator will be recidivistic. If you don’t know the actual reasons you have to have multiple resolutions until you do. And some things become so serious they monopolize the conversation.

The modern difficulty is the abstraction of knowledge of the individual to laws that apply to all. In once case Jill makes a bad mistake, really knows better, and will unlikely do it again. In another, Joe may be going to do it again without question. It’s one of the reasons that analysis of character applies in sentencing and even in assessing guilt. In societies where people no longer closely associate with each other it is near impossible to provide good analysis. The easiest solution is the demand to follow authority, whether it’s a person, a people, a law, or a culture. Indeed the current trend to virtue ethics is just that. To divorce the individual from having to reason, which is time consuming. It makes sense as a way of treating people as whole units and not judge by ether personality, situation, or motivation. We simply don’t care because it’s about building a character that generates good action.

But that may not be helpful in the long run. Virtue of care, healing everyone becomes dust when care is met by retaliation, destroying the caregiver. People, need their reasons and so called emotions. Change also creates outliers and outlier communities that are going to create friction. Mobility has to give way to creating consensus for decisions that affect multiple disparate groups and some will not be pleased. A misogynist being told they are naturally that way, or that their sacred text caused them to be that way, is not going to create the change until they recognize themselves that they are even misogynistic. You have to sling a bunch of causes to them and assume that what sticks is at least a start. We have to deal with individuals, their individual reasons, and somehow create a coherent, effective,  society that spans across religions, cultures, politics, biology, situations, and environment.

If a religion says to do something for some reason we must address that just as secularists must address their own issues of, for example, embedded sexism. If atheism really means “no gods” and nothing more that is as vapid as saying everything is field and energy. How are you going to grow corn with that? There is a way. It means understanding the structures entailed by the ideology as it is experienced now and observed by others.

Jim Newman,


“Me and Dog,” Moral Atheism

me and dogThe Concord Monitor reviews the children’s book “Me and Dog.” It includes parts of an interview of its author Gene Weingarten.

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: I stepped on my dog’s foot. That actually happened. The whole book was created in four seconds of insight. My dog – like the one in the book – is named Murphy. I stepped on her foot, she howled and then asked me, clearly: “What have I done wrong? What did I do? I won’t do it again.” The whole idea flashed in my mind: I am her God!

The allegory sprung to mind. That there is a controlling presence. That we can importune him with favors. That all things happen for a reason. We may not understand the reason, but somebody up there does. This is a book that is a sweet little book. It’s not hectoring anyone, but it’s trying to start a conversation with a very young person: What if things happen just because? Is that something to fear? And the book says: No, we have each other, we have love and the world is full of endless possibilities. Why should that be frightening?

Much of my life involves working and being with animals. I have often wondered if the god-human relationship came from this differential in power and lack of understanding. More easy has it been for me to see how humans could be animists considering themselves and animals to be on a more level field of consciousness and sense of  interchangeable identity. This has long been pushed aside as anthropomorphism but many have to acknowledge the growing evidence that humans really aren’t so different.

But when that god becomes all powerful then I have to wonder if that isn’t the result of oppression. It works both ways. You can either feel arrogant that you’re master of all or you can feel puny and just a small cog. And all of the steps in between.

…One of the best-selling books today is Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real, about Burpo’s son who claims he went to heaven. Why are we troweling that kind of crap into the heads of our kids? This book is an alternative to that, it is an antidote to Heaven Is for Real. . . . I hate the fact that Heaven Is for Real is a runaway best-seller.

Atheists always get this question: How can you be an ethical, moral person? Which is annoying and insulting. It demonstrates a fundamental disconnect. Do you really need fear of hell to make you do good, moral things? I don’t need to fear the devil to do good. I know that it’s fundamentally right to do good. And that’s what I tried to teach my children. I have ethical and moral children.

For me and animals it has meant spending more time communicating, trying to make myself clear, while trying to listen to them. It really has nothing to do with religion but more to do with relationships with those who are sufficiently different than you as to make communication, understanding, and empathy difficult.

Q: You say you “want to start a conversation.” Is this advocacy? Is that you?

A: I’m not that earnest. I wanted to do a really entertaining book that didn’t patronize children and that made a very gentle statement. If there is no deity, and that’s what we have, that’s not a frightening thing. The world is full of beauty and hope and we should treat one another with respect and love, and that’s a pretty great situation.

Empathy and tolerance are popular words these days as is love but it doesn’t address the very sticky issues of moral choices that define ourselves and the future. I am sure climate deniers and vaccine deniers are sincere they are saving mankind from unnecessary pain. Decisions of great consequence must be made.

In the various atheist circles a tremendous amount of energy is being spent to deal with the higher than average amount of sexism in their groups. Too many say atheism is nothing more than no belief in gods. If that is so then how can they possibly also say that being atheist does’t make you immoral, atheists are moral too. You simple wouldn’t know either way. Not a good position statement. Nor particularly accurate. Atheists would do well to abandon the “no gods only” definition and begin to reason just which morals atheism entails.

Jim Newman,

Pope Says Extremists Pervert Religion

jesus and hellThe Pope like so many is determined to show that it is the perversion of religion that explains extremism. Many extremists say they are being more true to their religion. Should we believe them or their apologists?

“Let no one consider themselves the ‘armor’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression,” he said in the presidential palace in Tirana, responding to an address by Albanian President Bujar Nishani, who is Muslim.

The Bible and Koran are full of violence. It can’t be explained away. Even when placed in the context of history, what is to prevent someone from reading it and saying “See, we should do this again. We must return to the original.” There are no comments that say “don’t do this anymore.” The later stories, admonitions,  justify what came before or just add contradicting remarks, leaving it to the reader to decide–the big reason Catholics and others only want you to read selected sections, but refuse to edit the books as that would erode the dogmatic aspects of them being eternally true.

“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all to the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom,” he said.

As long as it’s not women we’re talking about, and a bunch of other issues. As long as freedom means we can convert, evangelize, and threaten with damnation as we please. Do people really think the pope is saying be any religion you want? He’s a cosmic salesman saying any religion is OK but really you should buy mine? It’s like a perversion of a car salesman at a Ford conference saying all car brands are good, but hint, hint, GMCs are much better.

But extremism is all a mistake. A vicious perversion.

“This is especially the case in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted by extremist groups and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalised,” said Francis.

It’s popular now among moderates to insist that this is true. That it is not ideology but culture, economics, desire to do great things, and reaction to conquest that causes extremism. Do they really think that if these sacred texts didn’t have images and words of violence, xenophobia, and misogyny, there would still be extremism using religion? If these texts were about flowers, flowing waters, being compassionate, and eschewing violence it would be damned hard if not impossible to pervert them to violent extremism. Here let me show you how to twist these flowers into a noose and strangle someone as it really says to do.

Some moderates see it as a tactic to get people to at least change their religion because they believe people can’t or won’t leave their religion. But they have no further strategy for going beyond the mental gymnastics required to make their texts and traditions humane. Soft religion is a methadone for the religious without a pathway to get rid of the methadone.

image source

Jim Newman,

Air Force Changes Oath Policy

airmen oathWhat a night. Work late getting windows at L’foes. In bed, realize Pig the cat is locked out somewhere, on second floor porch. Took forever to figure that out. Then stray cat gets in house in early AM. Pig chases it. Pig gets put in room with me while ugliest stray cat ever gets chased out. Now Pig standing guard. I’m seeking coffee. Not looking forward to another stray cat extrication.

The Air Force has changed its mind on forcing reenlistments to say the oath.

The U.S. Air Force said Wednesday that enlisted members and officers are permitted to omit the phrase “so help me God” from their oaths if they so chose. In a statement Wednesday, the Air Force said it arrived at the decision after consulting with the Department of Defense General Counsel; last week an airman who was prohibited from re-enlisting until he uttered the phrase threatened to sue if the Air Force did not change their policy.

“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen’s rights are protected.”

Really? Being threatened to be sued, and the huge media coverage might have something to do with it.

I tried to find a photo of group giving oath with someone declining. Nada. Had one local military person say he could opt in Army but when he did it was like he was the odd man out, and sore thumb of ranks.

Image source.

Jim Newman.

The Sense of Awe and Religiosity

mountain viewNear everyone has experience of vastness, mystery, and feelings of relatedness. We live in a world where there are things really small, really big, and really hard to understand. This is often called a sense of awe.

Barbara King started us out using two books she’d recently finished to dispel the notion that atheists can’t feel awe. She further argued that it’s an experience that need have nothing to do with the “sacred” but can be a pure response to science’s own unpacking of the world’s richness. Then, Tania Lombrozo picked up the ball by looking at psychological research showing how the feeling of awe has two characteristics: an experience of vastness and the need for an accommodation with that experience. Both the religious and non-religious have this experience of vastness, she argued. The real difference between them arises with how the subsequent accommodation is accomplished.

Often people combine this with our seemingly inherent need to explain things.

Marcelo Gleiser then drew from the ancient Greeks to explore how reason could be a gateway to a profound sense of spirituality but only if that sense eschews mysticism. In this way, Marcelo argued we might “rid spirituality of its supernatural prison.” Alva Noë finished the week taking a different path. In his meditation on the limits of rationality, he argued it’s imperative to see meaning and value as real in and of itself, something perhaps rationality can’t do.

There are a couple of things that bother me about this. One is

What makes the elemental human experience of awe significant is it is, first and foremost, an experience of meaning. It saturates the world with meaning. Explanations for the origins of that meaning must always come later.

This is not true for me and I don’t think it is for many others. I don’t sit at the top of a mountain and say “hey, there’s meaning” or “hey, what I am seeing gives meaning to my life.” Yes I do get that “wow the world is huge and I’m puny” sometimes and yes also “this is so incredibly beautiful.” But that doesn’t lead me to believe that my purpose or meaning in life is awe or based on awe. I can get that feeling from looking at the fantastic bizarre beauty of cancer cells or the amazing fuzziness of small mites that love to live on me. I can also have it at the profound worry that things are trying to kill me but it’s amazing how they do it, and I’m pretty helpless against it. Frankly the meaning of my life most of the time is food on the table, keeping people happy, and paying the bills with a few side glances and attempted mindfulness of the world at hand.

This desire to use awe as commonality misses the entire point of the distance between religion and non religion. Awe doesn’t lead to a belief in a sky daddy much less one as described in religious texts. Nor does it lead me to consider authority, hierarchy, and xenophobia as being entailed with a sense of awe. Of course we all experience awe and I guess that recognition is helpful.

But this tactic is like saying “hey, since were humans, we’re really the same.” The issue is how religions and those who practice them harm others with sacred certainty, why and how to stop it. Not humans will be humans.

Seeing a waterfall and saying it convinced them of god is as ridiculous as seeing a cancer cell and being convinced of satan. They are just using experience to reinforce what they have been raised to believe; not discovering anything.

Jim Newman,

Atheist Airman Denied Reenlistment

united-states-air-force-oathSeveral days without internet and the entire family went ozone. Finally, I call Frontier again and they say oh, yeah, it’s working. Not in our house. Turns out not only were modem and RJ-11 jacks fried by lightning but the line through the wall to the first jack. I fed a long line through a window. Family is no longer threatening to move to hotel. Service says Frontier has to come out and swap line to first jack, they installed it.


You can’t fight for your country unless you believe in a sky daddy.

The American Humanist Association is threatening to sue the Air Force on behalf of an atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada after he was denied reenlistment into the service last month because he refused to say “so help me God” in the Oath of Enlistment.

An Air Force official explained in a USA Today report that taking the oath to God is a statutory requirement and the only way the atheist airman can opt out of acknowledging God is if Congress changes it.

A “statutory requirement?” Really? All these changes being made in the various military corps and they found one the requires an act of congress?

The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center noted. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”

The Air Force did their bureau-hand-waving.

AFI 36-2606 “is consistent with the language mandated in 10 USC 502. Paragraph 5.6 (and) was changed in October 2013 to reflect the aforementioned statutory requirement and airmen are no longer authorized to omit the words ‘so help me God,’” she added.

So you can be gay but not believe in a sky daddy?

image source

Jim Newman, www.frontiersofreason. com  @jimnnewman