Religion and Violence

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

This post is a continuation of my learnings from the 2013 American Atheists Convention. The next speaker I will discuss is Hector Avalos, and his ideas on how religion can be a cause of violence.

I always brace a bit when the subject of religion and violence come up, as I have from time to time heard some hyperbolic statements about how all wars are caused by religion. Such statements are not true historically or in any other way, and Dr. Avalos made it clear that he was not proposing that all violence is caused by religion or that religion does always leads to violence.

With that being said, Hector rejects up front the claims of the moderately and liberally religious that the violent fanatics are not following a true form of their religion, on the basis that this is merely a faith-based claim and not grounded in any evidence. You could make just as valid a case to say that the more violent version of the religion is the true form, and that the peaceful members are hertics and hypocrites. It is a wonderful thing for religious believers to be peaceful, but this in and of itself does not prove that it is the ideas of the religion lead to their peaceful behavior.

The core idea of Hector’s talk is that when religious ideas cause violence, it is because they have created a scarce resource. Things like water, oil, and diamonds are normally what people think of as resources over which wars may be fought; however, the scarce resources created by religion are usually much more ethereal then any of those items. Here is a short list.

  • Salvation
  • Sacred Space/Land
  • Group privilege
  • Access to God’s will.

As an example of how violence can be caused around “access to God’s will,” read Deuteronomy 18:20.

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I [God] have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

One has to wonder how would anyone else, not themselves being privy to what God might have spoken to this person, would know which prophets are true and which were lying. And of course anyone speaking in the name of one of those other gods was automatically out. And notice that the penalty against such people who spoke for God without proper authorization was the ultimate in violent acts. They will be put to death.

Dr. Avalos also cited a similar text from the Koran.

For an example of how sacred land can be a scarce resource over which the religious wage battle, one only needs to look at the current and ongoing situation in Israel/Palestine. The fact that rival religious groups hold sacred claims to the same land, on which they are therefore unwilling to compromise because the claims are sacred, is clear enough to demonstrate that religion can cause and perpetuate violence over such a scarce resource.

Salvation, at least as taught in non-Universalist Christian churches, is a scarce resource as it is considered vitally important to a person’s temporal and eternal well-being and is not evenly distributed. Christian teachings (which vary depending on the sect) teach that one must do and believe certain things in order to obtain it. One kind of example of violence brought on by belief in non-universal salvation can be seen in the behavior of certain parents who abuse or abandon their non-believing children. And not even necessarily because the parents don’t love their kids, but due to the idea that if the kids do not believe the parent’s religion they are in danger of eternal damnation if drastic and harsh measures are not taken by the parents. Even in less drastic situations, differences in opinion about religious claims can lead to tremendous amounts to hurt and anger. If it were not for such uncompromising and “sacred” claims about the ethereal and unknown, much suffering could be avoided.

In response to the ways religions can and do cause violence, Dr. Avalos recommends that we totally repudiate and reject any and all scriptures that advise or excuse violence, and not try to reinterpret them as the moderate and liberal religious do. For the record, I think he is right.

Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.

Abortion Access Trouble in Mississippi

Since I have discussed abortion access on this blog before. I am afraid some of my readers may think that just because abortion is legal in America since Roe v. Wade, that the fight for women’s right to autonomy and healthcare is over and we can just relax. Having a right to something means absolutely nothing if you do not have access.

4000 Years for Choice

State Representative Bubba Carpenter recently told a group of local county Republicans that “We have literally stopped abortion in the state of Mississippi,” and that “the other side [is] like, ‘Well, the poor pitiful women that can’t afford to go out of state are just going to start doing them at home with a coat hanger.’ That’s what we’ve heard over and over and over. But hey, you have to have moral values.”

I hope I am not the only one who finds this quote shocking. When your moral values include forcing desperate women to unsafe and unsanitary medical procedures because that is the only way they can access them, you might need to rethink the basis of your morality.

Everysaturdaymorning's Blog

In September 2011, Operation Save America* started their States of Refuge* campaign. The stated goal was “…to establish the first abortion free states since Roe vs. Wade.”* The targeted states were those with only one abortion clinic at the time. This included Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. With help from anti-abortion legislators, they are nearing their goal in Mississippi.

Center for Reproductive Rights has detailed the fight over a TRAP law that might close the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in January 2013.

  • House Bill 1390, which was signed into law on April 16 and partially blocked by a federal judge in July 2012, imposes medically unwarranted requirements that any physician performing abortions in the state be a board certified or eligible obstetrician-gynecologist with admitting privileges at an area hospital.
  • Although all the doctors currently providing abortions to women at the Mississippi clinic are…

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More on the danger of faith

I just now found this post though The Atheist Experience blog, and it is so beautiful that I just have to share it. The post is from “Sincerely, Natalie Reed” and is called God Does Not Love Trans People. In this post she discusses the issue within the transgender community regarding religion. Since transgender people have been so victimized by religion, why do so many still cling to it so tightly? This same discussion is also relevant to women, racial minorities, and other groups who have been victimized so often in the name of faith.

Faith is the opposite of skepticism. Faith is “just knowing”. Under ideal circumstances, a person derives their conclusions from observations, facts and thinking things through. If new perspectives, new ideas, new considerations, new arguments, new observations or new facts come along, we adapt the conclusion. Faith asks us instead to work backwards. We have the conclusion already. Thought, perspectives, observations, facts and interpretations are structured to support the conclusion. Facts that contradict it are either denied, or re-interpreted and re-framed until they can fit with the original conclusion. For instance, if the initial conclusion is that God created man and woman, and for a man to don a woman’s clothing is a sin, then suddenly finding yourself trans puts you in conflict with the conclusion your faith states MUST be the case. So instead of reconsidering the initial conclusion, and accepting that maybe the whole God thing isn’t quite right, you either adapt the facts (suppressing your trans identity and attempting to conform) or you re-interpret and contort your perspective until it all fits together somehow. He made you this way because He loves you. He made you this way to test your strength. He made you this way because suffering brings you closer to Him. Etc.

I recommend that you read the entire post. It is long, but worth it.

In particular the stories of transgender people fascinate me, because I was so ingrained with the ideas of binary sexuality (you must be a man or woman, period!). It was even harder for me to drop the cis-sexism than it was to walk away from religion, since the idea is so engrained in all aspects of our culture. It’s an assumption taken on faith that few people even consider the possibility of questioning. It was only though my contact with the feminist movement and through reading the blogs and stories of transgender people that the assumption began to crack. When you do some reading about sex, and the development of sexuality and the development of sexual identity and preferences, it becomes clear that human sexuality exists on a spectrum and is definitely not binary. (I recommend Darrel Ray’s Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality for more information.)

We need to always question our assumptions and not merely take things on faith. Particular when taking things on faith causes so much suffering for good people.

The personal is political: Women’s health choices VS religious freedom?

English: One of the symbols of German Women's ...

Women’s health issues are controversial. In recent years, conservative politicians and religious leaders have been leading a push to make health services for women harder and harder to obtain. For instance Rick Santorum has advocated that states should have the right to ban birth control. Now, as adamantly pro-choice as I am, I can see why some people might be squeamish about abortion. It took me a lot of reading and listening to women’s stories, as well as a few hours volunteering in the chaos outside the Louisville abortion clinic on Saturday mornings to come to my stance. However, I seriously cannot understand how anyone could possibly also be in favor of restricting women’s access to birth control. Unless, of course, their ultimate aim is to take away from women the ability to control if they will have babies, or when, or how many. And if a woman can’t control her fertility, how can she have control of her life?

Recently, the Obama administration has mandated that employers cover birth control in their insurance policies, and the conservatives are having a fit.

Under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law, most employers and insurance plans will have to cover birth control free of charge as preventive care for women. Churches and houses of worship do not have to follow that requirement, but administration officials recently announced that many religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals, colleges and charities must comply after a year’s phase-in period.

The wave of protest that followed has clearly taken the White House by surprise. Catholic and Protestant evangelical leaders criticized the decision as infringing on freedom of religion. Some religious liberals have called it politically risky for Obama in a close election year.

Now let’s be clear about this, there is still an exception for churches and other “houses of worship”, which generally hire people who are in agreement with their creeds and beliefs anyway. But to mandate that a nurse working for a Catholic hospital should be able to have birth control covered by insurance? This is a restriction on freedom of religion? What about freedom for these women to have access to the health care they need? This is the sort of thing that reaches into me and pulls out all the frustration and anger I have ever held towards religion! Why can’t they just let people make their own decisions about what services their health insurance should cover?

It is probably not news to anyone by now that the conservatives have been trying to shut down Planned Parenthood. Nevermind that federal funds do not, by law, go into funding abortion care. Or that the vast majority of services that Planned Parenthood provides are such controversial things as pap smears, cancer screenings, STI diagnosis and treatment. Oh yea, contraception too, which I believe counts as preventative care. Having been raised getting my information on PP mainly from Focus on the Family, even I was shocked to find out just last year that only about 3% of PP’s services have anything to do with abortion. Planned Parenthood is the sole provider of a multitude of health care services for so many American women, especially those without health insurance.

But here is the take of Scott Walker, who attempted to shut down Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin. (SLIGHT CORRECTION: This is a Forbes article paraphrase of Scott Walker’s position.)

No doubt, the women who will be denied access in the four counties where no such screening will be available, can comfort themselves in the knowledge that, while they may die of breast or cervical cancer, at least they won’t have to expose themselves to some perceived controversy over the local Planned Parenthood treatment facility.

That is just mind-boggling.

And then there is the whole debacle with Susan G. Komen. Why would an organization dedicated to fighting breast cancer retract funding and support for an organization that does a lot of breast cancer screenings for underserved women? Lately they have retracted that decision under tremendous backlash but one has to wonder what were they thinking?

When in the world did it become a religious right to deny health care to employees? And what is it with the conservative politicians lately? Do they envisioning a future where women must stay at home to care for a gaggle of children, imprisoned by biology, while the (wealthiest) men get to hold all the political and economic power? How is it that such personal, private choices are so political?

How could a 12-year-old girl deserve hell?

WARNING: Things will get a bit personal in this post.

I will be talking about my experiences with religion as relates to my self-esteem and self-confidence. Will I be blaming all my insecurities on religion? Well, no, though I think there are areas where religious messages I received as a child took advantage of and exacerbated my natural insecurities. It’s probably only in very recent years that I’ve realized how much some of these messages have messed with my head.

Lets start at the natural starting point, the Christian sum-up of the human condition: Romans 3:23 : “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Yes, I know there is context around this one, but this verse was very often quoted on its own so I will leave it that way. Feel free to look it up if you like.)

So, what could a 12-year-old girl (as this is about the time I started really paying attention to this) have done to “fall short of the glory of God”? This is the message I was just starting to absorb, right in the midst of developing my personal identity. I would think and think and try to remember what I had done wrong so I could confess it, because believing you had not sinned meant you were a liar and full of spiritual pride. (see 1 John 1:8) Oh, there it is. It’s just inescapable…it was almost a relief to be able to name some way I had sinned because then I would at least not be guilty of pride. Oh, and if you didn’t feel bad about your sins your repentance wasn’t genuine right? So my religious reflections were often reflections on my guilt and unworthiness.

I can just see Christians out there saying “Wait, no! You misunderstood the message!” But really, I was only absorbing what I was told and carrying it to its logical consequences, and could you blame me for taking what I was told both seriously and literally? I didn’t have a lot of extra-curricular activities growing up, so I spent a lot of my time in quite thinking and reflection and when I thought of these messages I got from church I could come up with no other conclusion.

I was told that I shared the blame for this. Something that supposedly happened 2000 years before I was born? It makes no sense. But what a guilt trip!

But, you might say, Jesus took care of that right? “God loves you!!!” Still, the idea that “God loves you” doesn’t help confidence if it is coupled with the idea of “you are sinner and deserve punishment.” What is it when someone says they love you but also tells you that you are unworthy of love? I knew I would never really measure up. And just about every Sunday morning, this message would be reinforced. Both in the weekly altar calls and in testimonies from others in church services who talked about how when they tried to take control of their lives everything fell apart and nothing was right until they tearfully came crawling back to God.

I determined I would never make their mistakes.

In the midst of trying to erase my doubts about God, I was being filled with doubts about myself. My own ability to succeed and thrive, and to get though Middle School with my sanity intact. I never did well socially at school, partly to do with my fear of doing anything wrong or breaking any rule (to step out of line was sin!). And also partly because my parents didn’t have a lot of money and it violated my sense of fairness and justice to beg them for expensive designer clothes as some of my friends advised. I feel the need to mention that my religious upbringing was not totally bad. While I never understood the stupid status games played in Middle School, and was never popular there, I found plenty of acceptance among my mother and her group of friends from church. They didn’t care if I didn’t wear makeup, or curl my hair, or wear the tight jeans that were in vogue at the time. When I was a teenager, I got along much better with adults than with my own peers. This was, no doubt, one of the factors that kept me from sinking into serious mental problems.

As you can see, the issues I had with the Christian theology was with the message itself and not with the people. The people, at least the mature ones, were generally wonderful. But this message: That I messed up because I was inherently evil and depraved and not because I was immature and still learning how to behave? And that my guilt is tied to some act of independence and rebellion that my first grandmother once committed? I now know that when a child tells a lie or behaves selfishly it is not because they are evil, but because they are immature.

This concept of sin gets in the way of personal understanding of why we do what we do, and how we change ourselves when we do things we do not like or that have bad consequences. Modern psychology (and honest reflection on one’s own mind for that matter) reveals that quite often we just don’t understand the real causes behind what we do–we do it, and then come up with the rationale after the fact. This is why people so often make the same mistakes over and over and over. It takes a lot of work and self-reflection to overcome the negative patterns. Merely attributing the wrong to “sin” and being sorry for it and resolving to repent is not good enough, and only results in believers getting caught in a cycle of “sin,” guilt, and repentance, and keeps them chained in whatever religious tradition they happen to be in.

And you know what? It’s ok to trust your own reasoning, because your mind is not depraved and sinful. The human brain is imperfect–since we are always stretching it beyond its evolutionary purpose (survival and reproduction). So we should always we willing to consider that we could be wrong. It takes courage and self-confidence to risk being wrong. But it is not a sin to be wrong, and if you find out you are wrong you can always change your mind. Don’t like your behavior? Don’t be mired in guilt, but try to understand your patterns and behaviors so you can make changes. And get help if you need it…this stuff can be hard. There are real solutions to these problems.

And one final point: there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that could make a 12-year-old child deserve hell, whether literal or metaphorical. For a trusted adult to teach a child otherwise is, frankly, abusive.

EDIT: Just to make sure I am absolutely clear on this point, no one ever personally threatened me with hell when I was a child or teenager. I did have experience one or two pastors and sunday school teachers who seemed to be fascinated with “hellfire and brimstone,” but the fact that my parents openly rejected that sort of fear tactic lessened its impact on me. However, even when it was not discussed, hell was always a part of the Christian belief system I was raised in, always lurking in the background as what was waiting for you after death if you did not commit your whole heart and soul to Jesus. So it was always an issue, even if it was not discussed often. 

Here is the talk from Dan Barker from Skepticon IV. If you do not know Dan Barker, he is a former Evangelical Christian pastor and missionary who is now an atheist. His talk is not exactly what I am saying in the post, but it is very closely related and he says it so well. :) (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the main point starts about the 20:00 minute mark.)