Monday, 31 August 2015

Carolyn Hyppolite's Speech From Non-Conference 2015

Last week, My Secret Atheist Podcast featured a discussion with author, speaker and atheist activist, Carolyn Hyppolite. We spoke about the topics covered in hew recent talk at the second annual Non Conference which took place in Kitchener recently.

During the podcast we referred to her talk at the Non Conference of which she had provided me with a hard copy in advance. After our interview, I asked if I could publish her speech on my blog and she was nice enough to oblige!

Setting the Captives Free: Why Critiquing Religion in a Compassionate Act

In my mid-twenties, I had a religious conversion and I would spend the next eight years intensively, desperately trying to attain some notion of sanctity. I wanted to be a saint. In the pursuit of sanctity, I gave up much of the goods of life: I committed to pre-marital celibacy, when I was working full-time, I gave hundreds of dollars a month to the Church or to religious-based charities, I spent hours a day in prayer or in mass, more hours a week in Sunday service or volunteering in religious-based organizations, such as an anti-abortion group, which used guilt and deception to compel women to not have abortion. Most tragically, I spent years learning dead languages and studying a non-subject so that I can better understand something that simply isn’t so.

On the Sunday morning that I realized I would never return to Church, I woke up feeling robbed, robbed of time, effort, money. Most distressingly for me was acknowledging how my mind had received and assented to notions that are obviously mad. I felt like a fool.

And it would soon occur to me that while I had been a vocal and passionate fool for Christ, I had very rarely met an equally passionate and vocal non-believer who challenged me on the demonstrably false and irrational notions which formed my worldview. Despite all the complaints about radical, fundamentalist atheists, during my eight years as a Christian, there was only atheist who actually ridiculed me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I was a Christian and as a Christian, I had a healthy dose of martyr complex. I felt victimized all the time. There was the one time, I tried to use the public parks to arrange proselytizing events for my church and when I discovered that I could not, I felt victimized. There was another time when I was yelled at for trying to trick a woman into not having an abortion and I felt oppressed. Oh, there were those times that Christian Biblical scholars tried to teach me about the many textual and historical errors in the Bible and then I was sure that I was under demonic attack.

However, despite my oversized capacity for self-pity, enhanced by belonging a community eager to discover evidence that the devil is mad at you and sending his godless minions after you, the fact is that my unhealthy worldview remained unchallenged. No one ever asked me “How do you know that?” “What evidence can you offer to support that claim?” Or “How would your consciousness persist beyond the death of your body?”

Most non-believers who encountered my religiosity, probably because I was trying to convert them, simply smiled or said, “Well, if it brings you peace, that’s great.” These responses were politely condescending; they failed to take seriously that I was a person who was capable of wresting with difficult truths. I spent years living in a deceptive system that when put into practice—and practice I did—is actually quite psychologically abusive without facing real challenges.

Perhaps, I am speaking to the choir. You are here presumably because you understand that religion is quite harmful. However, often when we think about the harm that religion does, we focus on the external victims of religion. We focus on the homosexuals who are discriminated against, the atheist blogger who is murdered, the school children who are deprived of a fact-based science education.

However, I would like to posit today that the first victim is the believer, and that it is an act of respect and compassion to challenge that person with a dose of the truth and reason.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is reported to have said of himself:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18)
And I would like to posit to you today that Christianity has not brought good news to the poor but instead made them vulnerable to exploitative institutions that extract the little that they have, it has not set prisoners free but as created societies where repression and prisons abound, it has not given sight to the blind but has caused some believers to linger in illness and condemned millions to intellectual blindness, it has not set the oppressed free but rather led to the needless psychological oppression caused by cultures of guilt and shame in which people are compelled to hate their own flesh.

First, let’s start with Money and Christianity. It should be obvious to all of us that the many billions of dollars invested globally to the building and maintaining religious structures is a problematic use of our finite resources. However, what is most pernicious about this misallocation of material resource is that it disproportionally burdens the poor.

The correlation between poverty and religious adherence is astoundingly high. According to a 2010 Gallop pole, in nations where the per capita income was $2,000 a year or less, 95% of those questioned said that religion is an important part of their daily life. That number drops significantly to 47% where per capita income is at or above $25,000. Thus, we find that where desperation is the greatest—in places such as Bangladesh, Niger, Malawi, Indonesia—99% of the citizens say that they are religious. Conversely, in countries where most people enjoy a high standard of living—such as Sweden, Denmark, and Japan—less than a quarter say they are religious.

The relationship between religion and poverty is too complex to discuss here and I am not suggesting that religion causes poverty per se. However, we have good reason to think that religion exploits the poor (it exploits their hope and desperation). A recent study by the Leadership Network in the United States found that regions of the countries with the lowest income had the best paid preachers.(1)

In the United States, where GDP is high but income inequality is also high, the parasitic relationship between the Church and the poor is quite obvious as one drives through urban ghettos and post-industrial towns. In many of the most economically challenged areas with high-concentrations African-Americans, the only economic institutions still standing in a neighborhood might be a liquor store and a church. In such settings, prosperity preachers abound and they preach an exploitative message, “God will bless you financially after you give to the Church.” That there are hundreds of millions of poor people all over the world being exploited this way is a very good reason to challenge the Church’s claim to be serving the poor.

In addition to exploiting poverty, religion should be challenged because it is negatively correlated with pro-social behavior. Far from setting the prisoners free, religion is positively correlated with incarceration.

As non-believers, we have all had the experience of people challenging our morality. Poll after poll show that many people believe that atheists are immoral devil worships. To whatever extent incarceration is a measure of one’s morality, it is atheists who have the higher moral ground. I am sorry I don’t have Canadian numbers on this but again in the United States, atheists are terribly under-represented in prisons, making up less than 1% of that population. Again, this is not to say that being religious causes one to commit crime, but it might be that by encouraging a society where people are more educated, we both increase their economic productivity and decrease the likelihood that they would engage in antisocial behavior. You might also be aware that non-belief is positively correlated with education and that is positively correlated with pro-social behavior.

We can also conclude that Jesus does not set the captives free by noting the fact that the more religious a society is, the more likely it is to criminalize human behavior. The most religious societies are more likely to penalize the use of recreational drugs, homosexual activity, and in some cases religious dissent. Our highly religious neighbors to the South boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world with 4.4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world’s prison population —Over two million men and women, mostly black, mostly religious, and mostly imprisoned for nonviolent drug possession.

This is not a coincidence. Religion seems to make people more conservative, more likely to want to be “tough on crime.” Far from increasing one sense of compassion, religion increases one’s punitive instincts. A few months back, I was talking to my religious sister about the fact that religious people are more likely to support the death penalty, and she rightly pointed out that religious people do believe in punishment.

This preference for punishment over compassion is not only extended to others but first and foremost towards the self. Religious people are caught in a web of guilt and shame. Having been raised in restrictive environments, their repressed natural urges often lead to a cycle of acting out and shame.

For example, Christians are as likely to engage in pre-marital sex as non-Christians but then find themselves constantly living in a cycle of guilt, repentance and backsliding. The cult of shame around sexuality means that often couples do not acquire contraception because buying a condom or getting on the pill would mean that one is “planning” to sin. And since it is better to fall into sin than to plan it, women trapped within these religious cults often experience unplanned pregnancies, sometimes choosing abortion and thus exacerbating the cycle guilt and Human sexuality is perhaps the area where churches do the most damage. When I first became a Christian, I freely admitted to my father of confession (that is the priest who regular hears my confession) that I found celibacy very hard and that I often sinned by falling into inappropriate sexual outlets, in other words masturbation. The priest assured me that this was normal but that in time through prayer, fasting, and regular confession that I would overcome.

So, I did as I was instructed. I prayed. I fasted. I went to confession once or twice a month. Yet, I still found myself falling into sexual temptation and running to the confessional. Seven years later, I explained my problem to a different priest and he assured me that in time through prayer, fasting and regular confession, I would overcome.
As I listened to him, I remembered my previous confession. “But I had prayed. I had fasted. I shared my most personal and embarrassing failings to a man in a dress regularly. And yet, I did not overcome. Where was God’s grace? At the time, I was already having doubts in other areas and this was just one more indicator that there was something very flawed in my world view.

Often when we talk about the problems that religion poses, we focus on the most egregious abuses, especially religious violence. However, the most tragic aspect of the God delusion is all the little ways that it can rob of you of your very limited moment in consciousness, all the ways that it steals your time and effort by trapping in moral and intellectual dead-ends. This is the real and often unchallenged cost of religion. All that time wasted smashing one’s face against the brute facts of reality over and over again. All those hours of a short life!

All that time prostrating, reciting prayers, waving incense in hopes that an invisible, silent being might change the laws of nature or probably in your favor. And this. The way religion robs us of time deserves to be challenged.

When you encounter a Christian, keep in mind that it is very likely that you are talking to someone who has often been disappointed by a being who does not exist. This is most especially the case for the most committed believer. The more confidently someone speaks about his or her faith, the more likely it is that he or she has had numerous occasions to be disappointed and wounded by it. But having invested so much of herself into it, it’s hard to admit that the struggle is futile, that the constant stream of unanswered prayers is a sign of a silent heaven. The believer is more inclined to doubt the strength of her own faith or the righteousness of his own life instead of acknowledging that he has simply been wrong about God. And this. The way religion robs the believer of emotional health by compelling otherwise rational humans to talk to an empty room deserves to be challenged.

At the heart of the Christian faith is both a false and psychological damaging idea. It is the idea that we, you and I are so broken, that God had to take on human form to be tortured. No matter how ethical the believer is, he is compelled to believe that if he were the only person on Earth, Jesus would have loved him enough to die for him, but the implication of that is that he would have needed to be died for. And this. The way religion saddles so many well-intentioned people with guilt and shame, forcing them into lives of hypocrisy needs to be challenged.

For thousands of years, religion has slowed us down in our pursuit of knowledge, has fed our basest temptations by compelling us to use violence against sinners or virgins, has saddled us with guilt by vilifying the healthiest aspects of our humanity, and has created opportunities for charlatans to make false promises, especially to the most ill-educated and ill-fortunate. This deserves to be challenged.

There are billions of people trapped in prisons of ignorance, delusion, and needless guilt.

Many of them are great people. They are bright. They are kind. They generous. They are thoughtful. But they are wrong. They are wrong in ways that harm themselves and others. Let us actually set the captives free by calling them on their bullshit.


(Image source)

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Please Stop Littering My Environment With Your Religious Tracts

I've really been a bad blogger lately. I'm sorry, this whole life thing is really doing a number on my post frequency. Don't worry though, I'll likely drive the new friends I met away with all my whacky obnoxious ways. Oh yes I will! Just watch me!

To make up for all this neglect of you, my dozens(?) of readers, I did a good deed this morning! My son - whom I've been bonding with regularly lately - and I were walking through the woods at the back of our local library.

(For the young readers: Libraries are sort of like ITunes or Spotify but you need to physically show up somewhere and half the time the item you're looking for has been physically misplaced so you've wasted your time. Think of this as a kind of 404 Not Found but IRL.)

Anyway, I found some litter on the ground that some inconsiderate person just left around ruining an otherwise idyllic spot.

This would be the French version of the Jack Chick Bible tract, A Love Story. I suppose it might have been useful as mildly amusing literature if there weren't a library standing right next to it with thousands of books in it. I mean, the library also has washrooms with toilet paper too. So what's the point of this litter anyway?

I took the offending piece of litter inside and dealt with it.

That's better. The woods are spick and span behind my library and I shall continue to do my civic duty to ensure it remains this way. I go every week to the library these days, so I shall patrol the area.

Meanwhile, I ran into this at the subway station near my house.

Right on top of one of the neglected pay phones on the side of the subway station. Everyone had a phone in this station, so this went nearly completely unnoticed. I wonder who their target audience might be?

Well, this litter went into the recycling box as well. Just doing my part to keep our city clean.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Religious Zealots Have Begun Destroying 'Satanic' Art In Russia

This past year, I reported an opera being shut down after an Orthodox priest, who never bothered to watch it, complained. Then there was the Orthodox Jewish activist Dmitry Enteo and crew, who broke into a Moscow art exhibit they found blasphemous and caused $15,000 worth of damage.

The Moscow Times has a recent piece about this mob of religious thugs.
Visitors to the exhibit attempted to protect the works from the activists. One of the visitors, Lyudmila Dyagileva, called the activists "fanatics and extremists whose actions have nothing to do with faith and Christianity" in an interview with The Moscow Times.

"If they get away with it, it will send a message that you can do anything you want. It is a signal that you can destroy everything if the authorities do nothing," she said.

Enteo was detained briefly by the police on Friday before being promptly released the same evening.
Indeed the head of the presidential Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, drew a comparison between Enteo's group and ISIS, when it came to wholesale destruction of culture.

Well, on Wednesday, a century old St. Petersburg facade of the mythical devil Mephistopheles was dismantled in plain daylight and chucked into a garbage by a religiously motivated group posing as construction workers.
Local news outlets and social media users reported that the relief was removed from the building without explanation on Wednesday. According to one Facebook user, historian Dmitry Bratkin, the house was designed by 19th and early 20th century architect Alexander Lishnevsky.

"Naturally, the monument was under protection," Bratkin said. "Or had been. Fifteen minutes ago, Mephistopheles was knocked off the facade."

One resident of the building, Kirill Alexeyev, told independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that "workers showed up at 10 in the morning, did not introduce themselves, and did not say who had sent them."

Instead, the workers asked the building's residents to move their cars away from the building to avoid being damaged by falling plaster, and then proceeded with the removal of Mephistopheles, Alexeyev said.
They they stuck it in the back of their truck and drove away. It was found in a dumpster not long afterward.

When asked, the workers said that the facade was dilapidated and that they would construct a new one in plaster - these were all apparently lies. No government agency nor the construction firm of a new Orthodox Russian church directly facing the facade claims to know anything about this.

What? Did I say this facade happens to face a new church?  Why yes I did. In fact, the crucifix had just been erected less than a week before the devil statue was busted up.
"A couple of days ago, a cross was placed on the roof of the church that is under construction across [the building]," Bratkin wrote on his Facebook page. "Yesterday, some sprightly people showed up and took photographs of the facade with the Mephistopheles, and today at 3 in the afternoon, a worker hung down from the roof and — whack, whack, whack."

Natalya Levina, another local woman, said her neighbors had spotted "people from the church" looking around and inquiring about the "demon," the Metro news agency reported.
Well, that's not suspicious at all.

A short while after the destruction, one Denis Gorchin, self-described former head of the St. Petersburg Cossack community - although they have disowned him - wrote a letter to a local news site explaining his religious motivations for destroying the statue.
Gorchin, the self-described former leader of the Cossacks, indicated he was motivated by religious reasons, though he insisted the Orthodox Church had no involvement in the attack, news portal reported, citing a letter it had received from them man.

However, he added in the letter: "Opposite the church there is a figure of the devil, which prevents the [Orthodox] cross from being placed, and so on," St. Petersburg's Fontanka news agency reported.

"We were outraged by the fact that this horrible legend, this outlandish story, has effectively become an attraction, a draw for tourists, has become a [matter of] pride, and we have open worship of the Satan," the letter was quoted as saying.

St. Petersburg Orthodox leader Father Konstantin "would never have dared. So we dared," the letter said. 
Yes, that's right! The statue had to go because there was a cross being erected! Note that this doesn't implicate church members, just this Gorchin guy who did the dirty work so to speak. Still, the Orthodox Russian church said they understood why such an action was done - way to not condemn the criminal act.
But a spokesman for the hugely powerful Russian Orthodox Church said the attack was an understandable reaction.

"It's possible to understand the culprit. As a believer, he finds images of a demon disgusting," Orthodox Church spokesman Roman Bagdasarov told pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia.

"Mephistopheles embodies evil in this world and this person decided to act, most likely, to kill Evil," he said.
Oddly, several media outlets have blamed this on right-wing or conservative groups, which appears to be nothing more than protecting religion.

This relief and much of the rest of the work by the architect, Lishnevsky, survived atheist Soviet Russia - only to be smashed to bits by religious fanatics.
Lishnevsky, the architect, died during World War II after being evacuated to a hospital in Yaroslavl — a historical city 250 kilometers to the northeast of Moscow. Much of his work survived the devastation of the was [sic: war] and the secular policies of the Soviet Union.
According to this story,  police have identified those responsible for the destruction. Yet, as with Dmitry Enteo, no criminal charges have been laid. It would seem that Lyudmila Dyagileva could be right after all - the message has been sent that it's open season in Russia now for any art which offends anyone's religious sensibilities.

Let the cultural cleansing begin.

(Image source)

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