Saturday, December 10, 2011

Good and Evil, True or False

 "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."


In the words of Jesus Christ of the Christian Bible, "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you." Of course, that particular line of reasoning came about hundreds of years before Christ in China and Greece without the help of Christianity. This powerful realization applies today, just as it did in ancient times: I am like you; you are like me; therefore, I should treat you how I expect you to treat me. All of morality, in my opinion, stems from that one phrase, from avoiding theft to being faithful (if you are in a relationship where that is the mutual understanding) and raising your children responsibly. This is a simple concept that can be used as a reliable compass while attempting to navigate one’s own moral positions, no matter the complexity of the topic. It also serves as the foundation for social order.

Beyond the Golden Rule, individual morality is entirely up for grabs. And why not? As long as no one is being physically or psychologically harmed, there is no reason to limit behavior if there is no outside influence demanding compliance to an arbitrary set of rules. Good and evil become true or false, true being good, because it provides meaning to individuals, creates a stable society, and allows us to further our understanding of reality and technology; false being similar to society's perception of evil, because it works against those goals.

After stripping the spirituality that has clung to the words good and evil with a deathly grip for far too long, we're free to create a set of universal moral values that can apply to all human beings, purely for the sake of maintaining social order. These are neither right nor wrong; they are necessary for a functional, productive society. They might also be referred to as ethical standards. If certain people prefer not to abide by them, they are free to live outside of society, but they can't expect to benefit from the environment created by those who live according to the rules unless they submit themselves to the conditions necessary for social order. To what end, though? Other than the obvious, which is a society wherein people can experience freedom of choice and quality of life at its peak, there is overall human accomplishment to be considered.

I think the Tower of Babel is one of the most fascinating stories the Christian Bible contains. At the beginning, all of humanity is united with one language and, presumably, one culture. They are building a tower that will reach toward the heavens, and their success in this endeavor is imminent. At this point, God expresses concern. He says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). His solution is to cause them to speak in different languages. The first important thing to note, here, is that God attributes mankind with infinite power. The second thing is that this is deemed to be a problem rather than a positive attribute. Of course, it would be a problem to anyone who desired to control humanity rather than encourage its success. In fact, the Christian God’s behavior is consistent with that of a totalitarian dictator, especially in the Old Testament. Finally, God’s solution is of particular significance. Dividing humanity by inventing new languages may seem like a roundabout way of dealing with the problem, but given the basic principles of Structuralism, it would actually be the most effective method short of global mass murder, an act God has already promised never to commit - again (remember the flood?). Language deeply influences thought, and is the foundation of culture, which regulates the behavior of the masses; therefore, if one controls language, one can manipulate the thoughts and actions of humanity.

It is apparent that the author of this powerful story was thousands of years ahead of his time. Humanity’s ability to reason, pass on increasingly complex information from one generation to the next, and then build upon the previous generation’s foundation of knowledge, is unique among all life on our planet. It has allowed us to create, foster, and develop technologies that have been used to cure diseases, harness the energy of the atom, examine the relationship between space and time - even explore beyond the very heavens. These abilities afford us superhuman potential, and if there were a god or superior being, it would be no surprise that our as yet unrealized self-actualization as a species might make it uneasy; but no one man is capable of any of this. It is only humanity as a whole that can deliver the future, as one massive organism, unified and cohesive, working towards common goals. This is why the cultural and religious barriers built by mass indoctrination must be exposed for what they are: nonexistent, fabricated mental projections that serve only to divide us and impede our progress, progress that can only be achieved in a socially responsible society.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Religious Indoctrination

I’ve attempted to establish that there's no real proof behind religion or spirituality; but if these concepts are just made up fantasies, why do so many believe in them? How can one convince billions of people, a significant percentage of whom are fairly well educated, to believe in unicorns? For the answer to that question, we can turn to some of the world’s least popular individuals and their use of brainwashing techniques. Hitler’s administration created “Hitler’s Youth,” Mao Tse Tung developed retraining camps for political prisoners (of course, the term political prisoner, in this case, refers to anyone who disagrees with the current administration), and Kim Jong Il has maintained control of half a nation using brainwashing techniques, some of which are based on principles relied upon heavily by those who practice religious indoctrination.

The documentary entitled “Inside North Korea” follows the journey of a medical team permitted to enter North Korea in order to provide care for victims of the ocular disease, glaucoma. At one point, the team finds themselves in the home of a family. A blind elderly woman is asked what she misses most about being able to see. Her son says, “The most difficult thing for my mother-in-law is not seeing Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.” When asked why, she chokes out through tears, “My Children and I live happily due to the honor of our Great Leader, so I want to see him, even a glimpse of him, so I can thank him.” This goes far beyond admiration and crosses into fanaticism. It is irrational that she should have such passionate love for a man she has likely never met, who has stolen her rights and freedom of choice, who has isolated her, her family, her community, her very nation, controlling not only their actions, but how they are permitted to think. Yet, the devotion on her face seems genuine, just as it does on the faces of her family when they join her in tears.

How is this possible? I’m no expert, but I've been exposed not only to the theory behind indoctrination and brainwashing, but also to its overt practice during my time in Basic Training. Here, let me state that I do not condemn the methods I witnessed during my four years in the military, because they're a means to a very important end, which is to defend a nation against those who would do it harm, and at this time, participants are volunteers; but it was fascinating to observe the techniques used and their effects on my mind and the minds of those around me. I witnessed individuals transformed in a matter of weeks, some of whom confessed later that they had led a life of crime prior to their military service. That transformation carried on into the rest of their careers. These were people who actively fought against authority figures in their lives, only to willingly, at times even gratefully submit themselves to their superiors by the end of their training. As a result of my experience, I feel that I can identify these three attributes of a successful, drug free religious indoctrination: fear, isolation, and repetition.

Fear is necessary, because individuals usually will not willingly participate in the process if there is no fear of reprisal should they choose to rebel. Obedience is paramount, as the most effective forms of indoctrination require participants to take an active role by listening, absorbing, reiterating, and often physically carrying out symbolic behavior. Fear also keeps the mind under constant stress, which tires it and promises relief if the participant can show his or her captors that the process has been completed.
Religion employs fear using baseless threats about the afterlife, as well as the subtle promise of social excommunication. In more extreme cases, parents might use the threat of physical pain on their children as a way of enforcing behaviors and thought processes that are based only on their religion. Don't get me wrong; fear of natural consequences is essential to a child's development. Unfortunately, many devout parents simply aren’t satisfied until their children are behaving in accordance with their rulebook. This is often encouraged by spiritual manuals such as the Bible and Quran, as well as religious leaders.

The idea of the afterlife, specifically in regards to heaven and hell, has been used to instill belief by using fear as a motivator for millennia. Without consequences in the afterlife, people would be left looking to real world consequences, which would leave religious institutions powerless, no matter how large their congregations became or how many people swallowed their messages. However, an afterlife not only offers comfort to those who have lost loved ones, as well as hope to those struggling with their own mortality; it provides an opportunity to motivate using a system based on reward and punishment. Most religions do very well capitalizing on the punishment side of the equation. Even those that endorse reincarnation assure followers that they will be reincarnated in undesirable forms if they stray from certain standards.

The sister religions of Christianity and Islam take the punishment further. Much like the “infinity plus one” argument, they invented a punishment so horrible that it is truly mind bending: hell. Throughout history, hell has evolved into a place where people burn eternally with a fire that can’t be put out. Since the sensation of burning is possibly the most painful one imaginable, this can create an intense level of fear in believers. Some religious sects and denominations try to combat this reliance on fear by suggesting that belief alone is necessary for salvation. However, these interpretations usually claim that actions are determined by belief, and therefore people still need to behave a certain way in order to avoid hell.

One of the most extreme cases of fear being used for the purpose of religious indoctrination can be found in Sharia, or Islamic state law, wherein all individuals within a nation’s borders are under constant threat of harsh abuse if they choose to live in a way unbecoming to Islam. It appears as if the more intrusive a worldview becomes, the more intense the fear tactics must be to keep people in a state of subservience.

Isolation removes participants from the influence of truth. It's interesting to note that every totalitarian government relies on censorship to some degree. China and North Korea are modern examples of this, although China seems to have loosened its grip over the years, perhaps because the current administration has found it impossible to compete economically without exposing citizens to modern thought through education and limited access to the internet. North Korea, however, still refuses to give its citizens internet access, and its borders remain closed to any and all outside influences. This gives the controllers of the brainwashing process exclusive sway over the thoughts of participants. Even the simplest idea that originates from an external source can form into a dangerous question, such as, “If we’re supposed to be the greatest nation on earth, why are so many people without enough food, and why is disease so rampant?” Questions then tend to germinate and develop into full blown theories that inspire action if left unchecked.

Finally, repetition is key. Truth is much easier to believe than a lie, because our brains are naturally programmed to value reason, so indoctrination usually requires some amount of upkeep. In religion, we note that people gather together, usually at least once a week, to affirm one another’s beliefs. They often take part in ritualistic behavior, such as prayer and worship, which can be manifested physically through such vehicles as song, raised hands, and kneeling. Of course, the behavior itself is meaningless, but the process of indoctrination benefits from its symbolic nature. The act of kneeling, which means nothing when someone is merely attempting to get a better vantage point to, say, fix a tire, represents something beyond itself when it takes place in religious ceremony, such as submission to a god. Singing songs that affirm church doctrine is another form of repetition. Those whose beliefs are rational and natural need not be constantly reminded of them to continue believing in them, but those whose beliefs are irrational, unnatural, and have been absorbed into the mind by indoctrination must constantly be maintained through Sunday school, Bible study, church, Youth Group, Bible classes in private schools, prayer meetings, and the like (all of which I was subjected to during my developmental years, and even throughout my college experience), lest the repressed conflict created by continuous cognitive dissonance rise from the unconscious to the surface.

In the military, I recall having to stop whatever I was doing outside and stand at attention, saluting the base flag every time the national anthem played over the loud speakers. Service members who were not in uniform stood at parade rest while they, too, faced the flag. This would often create a base-wide living statue effect for people who were on their way to their vehicles, coming and going from the grocery store, or simply out for a stroll. While I stood there, willingly participating in patriotic indoctrination, I couldn’t help but note the similarity between our behavior and the citizens of Islamic Sharia nations, while their prayers were pumped through their own loud speakers.

These same methods of repetition are not just used for maintaining indoctrinated beliefs, but also for creating them. As a river becomes polluted over time when waste is pumped into it, so the mind tends to slowly conform to the beliefs surrounding it when kept in fear and isolation. For children, who are already eager to imitate their parents and absorb new material far more readily than adults, this process is swifter and more deeply impactful, as newly indoctrinated values need not struggle against preconceived notions. A child who is taught religious principles with the same level of certainty as a school subject is likely to build an entire worldview based on them, just as the extraordinarily complex worlds of math and science are built on basic principles. Furthermore, children become accustomed to the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting truths, such as the scientific process and carbon dating, as opposed to faith and the seven day creation myth. Why shouldn’t they? If they have known nothing else, they have no way of knowing what clarity feels like.

The combination of faith and indoctrination in some form or another is found in all major world religions that have stood the test of time, including, but not limited to, Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This shouldn’t be surprising, as these are the most effective methods for controlling large groups of people, having been implemented by dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Kim Jong-Il. It's simply a question of survival of the fittest; any religion that didn't indoctrinate its followers couldn't have outlasted the advent of modern science and philosophy. The shrewdness of successful religions is, once begun, they're self-sustaining. They contain all of the elements necessary to maintain control over their own populations, so even without a malicious dictator or oligarchy, they continue to thrive. There's no one to blame, as those in power truly believe what they teach. It's the system itself that enslaves.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What is Faith?

"The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves."

--Richard Bach

Everyone, even atheists, should consider the possibility that a spiritual world exists. However, we shouldn’t assume it exists until we find evidence that it does. I've heard people respond to this argument by suggesting that the burden of proof lies on those attempting to disprove religion, simply because religion has ruled unquestioned for thousands of years. Let me point out that the reason I take issue with religion, spirituality, and god, is lack of evidence, not because I want to go against the flow. The burden of proof isn't a matter of chronology. For example, I can’t assert that there's a monster under my bed and then deny you proof simply because I presented my position first. That would be childish.

Right now, the planet contains upwards of 6 billion people. With the widespread use of social media, a kitten can’t make a cute noise without being recorded and posted online for the entertainment of others. There are TV shows with large budgets that have the express purpose of investigating paranormal activity. Digital technology has made every computer with an Internet connection a portal to a monumental documentary on humanity and nature as the story unfolds before us. Tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, deforestation, revolutions - all of these are now available to view, often as they occur in real time.

Yet, with these millions of videos, there hasn’t been one that’s been proven to be undeniable evidence of a spiritual occurrence. I know I’ve never experienced any allegedly spiritual happenings that couldn’t be explained in a much simpler, more natural way. Ask yourself when you last witnessed a miracle rather than hearing about it secondhand. In religious books, however, miraculous incidents seem to be the norm. Oddly, those occurrences become more frequent and fantastical as the clock rewinds. So, the question becomes, is it coincidence that well-documented, large-scale spiritual occurrences have diminished as science has progressed; or has it become easier to verify facts, causing demand to sharply decline for stories claiming to be true but offering no evidence to back them up? I’m going with option number 2.

Really, that should be the end of the discussion. If you tell me a unicorn exists, and I ask you to show it to me - or at least a picture of it, tuft of hair, or possibly a horn that was shed - and you refuse, I’d be a fool to trust you; yet a significant portion of the population believes wholeheartedly in the concept of faith. This is likely due to a denial of faith's true role in religion. It's the theological trump card played by spiritual leaders on questioning members of the flock in order to maintain control. I’ve experienced this many times in the Christian church.

Boiled down, faith requires that we believe the word of god, period. However, more complex versions do exist, such as the Calvinistic notion that people can only obtain faith if it is bestowed upon them by god. As a result of this theological loophole, I've already been asked several times whether or not I ever really believed in Christianity. The reason for the question is all too obvious: if faith is a gift, or calling, then those who change their minds were never really given the gift. This copout is one of the few things a Christian can say to me in a debate that will actually make me angry. I recall times in my life when I would pray to god every evening and ask for forgiveness for my inability to be selfless in all my actions throughout the day. So, yes, I believed – to a fault. Where did I get such an unhealthy, self-deprecating mindset, you ask? Answer: from the Bible.

Christianity holds that we are deeply flawed and worthless outside of Christ’s sacrifice, which makes us perfect, as we are meant to be. However, the fact remains that the Bible tells us we are reprehensible as we are, so much so that god won’t allow us in his presence until we’ve been cleansed. Because we exist in this world as we are, and not as we should be according to divine standards, the message is the same: you are unacceptable. Note the similarity in this type of relationship with god when compared to an abusive marriage, wherein a husband might beat his wife knowing she will not leave him, because he has convinced her she is worthless and will never find someone better. This technique is also used by pimps to keep prostitutes working for them.

 Theological nuances aside, the end result of faith is the same: believe without proof - belief for the sake of believing. By that reasoning, we should all believe in unicorns. However, the general consensus is that unicorns don’t exist, because we haven’t found evidence of their existence. Strangely, religious people bypass this logic using the concept of faith, but only on matters associated with their own religions. This exercise in mental gymnastics when presented with one’s own cognitive dissonance is disconcertingly similar to the concept of “doublethink,” as George Orwell described it in his political thriller, 1984. In the novel, a totalitarian government maintains control over its population by training people from an early age to rely entirely on the government, not only for information, but also for thought processes.

One common argument used in religious circles to placate the need for proof is that life is evidence of god’s existence, because it’s just too complex to occur without a guiding hand. This concept has been dubbed, “general revelation,” in many theological circles, and really there’s nothing wrong with, it except for the conclusion that almost always follows. It’s true that an “intelligent designer” (as Michael Behe refers to his alleged creator in his book, Darwin’s Black Box) may be an explanation for life; but that is as far as the argument can take you.

Even if there is a creator, we know nothing of its nature. It could be kind or cruel; it might have a limited source of knowledge or be all-knowing; it could be male, female, or asexual; it could be alive or dead; it may expect certain behaviors from us, or it might not care at all, choosing simply to observe and take notes in a bizarre, cosmic experiment. A Christian pastor might tell you that god’s nature has been revealed in the Bible, while an Islamic caliph would point to the Quran as god’s revelation to mankind. They can’t both be correct, as they both claim god endorses only their version of the truth, and those who disagree with them will be punished in the afterlife. But if you listen to their reasoning, they sound eerily similar; it all comes down to faith. This is to say nothing of the fact that science has provided us with a perfectly viable theory that uses reason to explain our existence instead of magic or imaginary friends.

So, what is faith? Faith is humanity's attempt to selectively ignore the inconvenience of reason in favor of the emotional comfort derived from familiar ideologies, institutions, and power structures.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Just a Little Metaphysics

 Who are we? Are we at all? Why shouldn’t we lie, cheat, or kill? And of course, the ever elusive, “Why are we here?” It can take a surprising amount of courage to begin asking these questions, and even more to search for their answers, looking past predetermined worldviews that prescribe half-truths and often outright lies in short, convenient sound bytes. People have all sorts of reasons for avoiding the search for truth, whether fear, confusion, or lack of time; but without asking these fundamental questions, we can't be certain our lives and actions are meaningful. So, let’s start with, “Are we at all?”

The argument has been made that we can't know whether we exist, since we have no proof that the signals being sent to our brains are accurate, and therefore everything is meaningless. I disagree. It’s possible our empirical senses are flawed, but unlikely they’re entirely fabricated. Truth seekers must allow for any possibility, relying on humanity’s greatest attribute, reason, to distinguish that which is likely to be true from that which is not, always willing to change positions on any topic if adequate evidence to the contrary is provided.

I submit that there's no absolute truth we can be certain of; there are only varying degrees of likelihood. Sure, you can throw your hands in the air and give up out of refusal to play the odds, but that would be foolish. At any moment, an airplane could crash on our heads, but we shouldn’t live our lives as if that were the case, because the odds of such an occurrence are very, very low. Similarly, we shouldn’t act on the idea that our empirical senses are fabricated simply because there's a remote possibility they might be. We must look at the evidence, which stacks up in favor of our senses, confirmed by consistency in our own lives and corroborated by the shared experience of billions of other humans on the planet, along with thousands of years worth of recorded history.

I figured we could start with just a little metaphysics, since that’s really the beginning of the philosophical journey. When building a worldview, we have to start with a blank slate. Imagine you just came into existence, like a baby but without the messy birth process; then, try to analyze what you know of reality from the 5 senses. Once we’ve established that reality is perceivable, we can set out to discover the truth. The best part is, almost everyone agrees on this basic stuff. That is, most people believe that what we can see and touch is real. It’s the rest that we tend to disagree on.