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Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is the True Enemy?

As a result of reading David Eller's chapters in The Christian Delusion, I decided to read a book that was on my shelf by him entitled, Atheism Advanced. I have read about 1/3 of it this morning and I am extremely impressed. I have some new insights into what the real problem is. It's not Christianity, it's not theism, it's not even religion, it's superstition. What is superstition? According to Webster, it is: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation. All religions are manifestations of superstition. Why are people incurably religious? I think it is because we are hard-wired by evolution to look for meaning and explanation in our world. What man cannot explain with his current empirical knowledge, he explains using superstition. The lack of certainty, as shown in a previous post, creates anxiety and fear. In order to avoid these negative feelings and in order to be able to function well in the world, man seeks explanations for what he doesn't understand. Superstitions fulfill a real psychological need. That is why religions are so attractive. They offer simple and definitive answers for the unexplained or unknown. Religions are based on the stories (superstitions) that various cultures have developed to explain what they don't understand. Historically, each culture has invented their own stories and myths. Most are never written down but the ones that are get incorporated into holy books and become the basis for the religion. Religions then evolve over the course of time as unexplained phenomena becomes understood and the influence of other culture's superstitions are incorporated.

Of course, most people will never admit their religion is based on supersitition. They will freely admit that others are but not their's. How do you combat this ethnocentrism? Not very easily, but I think as Loftus has argued, the key is something like his Outsider Test of Faith. How is the best way to get someone to do this? I think from reading Eller that it is to require in our educational system, courses in history of religions, comparative religions, and the pscyhology of religion. Perhaps this is where we should be focusing our attention rather than on just critiquing evangelical Christianity? I am very interested in my reader's comments on this point.


  1. I liked Eller's book a great deal too. Wow! You are a reading machine. You will surely be a force for Christians to contend with. This is great news! Glad you're on my side.

  2. Hmmmm.... I think that superstitious behavior is not so much a conscious yearning for explanations as it is the result of pattern-seeking errors. People impose patterns of agency when there are none, like a gambler wearing a "lucky hat" or seeing a message in the clouds. So to a large degree I think religion exists essentially as a byproduct of other phenomena that are otherwise evolutionarily advantageous.

    There's an excellent and very little-known book on the subject called "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer of Washington University. He opens the book by trotting out the usual explanations for why people have religion – to explain natural phenomena, to provide a sense of morality and social cohesiveness, etc. etc... then he completely demolishes those explanations and digs much deeper into evolution and cognitive psychology.

  3. Mike,

    thanks for the reference. That is another book on my reading list. I just found a quick overview of the book and it looks very interesting. At first glance, I don't think that what Boyer is saying is at odds with what Eller is saying. Boyer is expaining it more on a neurological basis whereas Eller is looking at it more anthropologically. When I said in my post that the brain is hard-wired from evolution to look for meaning, etc. I had in mind exactly what Boyer is saying.

  4. Wow! Glad I checked in today. I like this direction... you and I are synching up more and more, Ken. I have a FEW comments (out of studying the larger context of religion and particularly Christian origins and evolution on and off for years)...

    We need this kind of deeper understanding of religion and how it functions for individuals, groups and societies. Apologetics and rational analysis/argument alone will not get the cause of a more mature, positively functional religion very far. (Realistically, "religion" will not vanish, but it CAN, and often does become LESS superstitious, more humanitarian, etc.; and educational efforts like you describe can help!)

    Two depth thinkers/researchers and their general lines of approach come to mind as critical (among others) to taking this direction. (I may have mentioned both to you personally.) They are Ken Wilber and Burton Mack.

    Wilber has written a LOT, and I've read only a small portion. Best for "our" purposes is probably his fairly recent "Integral Spirituality," a must-read to pursue a broader context for "superstition" or "magical thinking," etc. He deals with that and much more, building on solid developmental stage theories from various disciplines, and creating the most comprehensive multiple-factor understanding of spirituality in relation to the overall development and integration of a person that I think exists. It is very systematic without being rigid or simplistic.

    Perhaps as important as anything else, Wilber and his "Integral Institute" have drawn together many thought leaders and scholars from various disciplines into conversation, conventions, etc. (I have yet to plunge into that but plan to when I can.)

    The other, Burton Mack, is also interdisciplinary. His main work is focused on Christian origins. (The shortest summaries of some of his core theses I think are in Chapts. 4 and 5 of "The Christian Myth," but "Who Wrote the New Testament?" is also must-read.) Key in his work is the idea of religion as social interest and "social formation," developing in a sort of "experimental" way, particularly at times of high social/political change or stress. Certainly the 1st century Eastern Mediterranean area fit that.

    That's why superstition is only a portion of the picture... however, groups of people, as well as the cultural and scientific knowledge of any period tend to cohere around what Wilber and some would call a particular "developmental level" (or color level in his case).

    As to educational efforts... YES! It's vital, but also a challenging area to create much in, it seems. Taking such through established channels for public education is particularly so, but still worth pursuing. That level needs a large group effort, probably ideally an effort that is cooperative among academics, perhaps some of the liberal or "metaphysical" religious organizations (such as TCPC and its recent child curriculum release), etc.

    Howard Pepper

  5. To expand on Mike's point, I too agree our superstition arises from our inate tendency to infer pattern and agency in the world beginning when we are infants.

    It's part of the brain psychology of adapting language to fit with our understanding of the world. Superstition, it would seem, is a inference and misconstrual of how nature actually is and the tricks played on our minds when we are young and still diveloping our intallects. In other words, sometimes when we try and wrap our minds around it all... the mind automatically infers things that aren't in order to fill in the gaps and connect the dots so whatever we are percieving will make sense.

    Another good read on this mind psychology and the belief in the supernatural is "Supersense" by the evolutionary psychologist Bruce M. Hood.

  6. I often hesitate to share my information with my religious friends because many of them base their entire life around it and without their belief they would be lost. I often wish there was an ethical society or some legitimate group of people that I could direct them to...

    I have a friend and his father is an Evangelical minister. When I was researching things, I would show him mistakes, contradictions and alterations within the Greek writings. He would take them to his father for answers. There were no answers to my questions. It got very ugly and he decided that Christianity wasn't true based on the idea that the Greek sequel has to match the Hebrew foundation which it is built upon. He became very depressed. As you know, it can be extremely traumatic. I had something similar happen with a friend's wife. I'm not equipt to deal with the emotional fallout. It is no wonder that people don't want to look behind the curtain.

    Any suggestions for handling that part of the problem?

  7. I suspect that dogmatism, along with superstition, is also part of the problem. Sam Harris argues for this.

  8. Emet,

    I don't have a good answer for you but I would suggest you take a look at the website of psychologist Marlene Winell. She also has abookto help people leaving conservative religions.

  9. Valerie Tarico ( may also be of some help.

    It's a significant problem. Life is very hard; I don't like to take away a person's "crutch". Also, if there is a "transcendent reality", and these belief systems are the means people use to "connect" to it in some meaningful way (I don't have that faculty) - again, I don't want to interfere with that.

    They lose me, though, with salvific exclusivism. To be willing to abandon the rest of humanity for the sake of your own individual salvation - it's a selfishness that beggars description. I won't go into it; I've made my opinion known in other threads on this blog, and I'm sure Ken is tired of hearing me whine about it.

  10. Ken,
    Your commenting on Debunking Christianity led me to your site a while back. I truly enjoy the work you're doing here, as it allows me to benefit from your life experience and scholarship.

    Regarding the post topic my own experiences tell me that, yes indeed, superstition is a very real threat, made even more threatening by the social institutions that promote and nurture it. For instance, when a religious person misreads and misattributes the world, they are urged by their coreligionists to persist in that misreading and misattributing. They've gotten it wrong and their support system encourages them to keep getting it wrong while insisting it's right. Such a scheme beats back intellectual growth as it fosters error.

    Of course, religion is an easy target, but we're also witnessing a sort of "applied superstition" put to work in the political arena and promulgated through the "news" networks. It's fascinating to observe, but also quite sad considering the level of credulity it suggests.

  11. Cipher,

    "To be willing to abandon the rest of humanity for the sake of your own individual salvation - it's a selfishness that beggars description."

    That says it perfectly. I printed out your quote just to remind myself that I don't have to take it easy on the people who come after me in a self-righteous way.

    I'd like to come up with a great analogy or parable just like the prophet Nathan did for King David to show him the error of his way.

    Thanks Cipher

  12. Just chiming in with another vote to check out Bruce M. Hood's book Supersense. He is very strong on the idea that magical thinking is a product of the way our minds work. In his recent interview with D J Grothe on For Good Reason, he revealed that his next book is going to explore further mind-body dualism, how we instinctively feel our self is somehow separate from our physical beings.

    It looks like the next decade in the cognitive neuro sciences is going to make supernaturalism as a viable and reasonable approach to reality very hard to maintain. Was it Victor Stenger who recently said that this field is going to be one of the next battlegrounds for religious apologists, somewhat like cosmology is today? Properly applied, brain science has the potential to knock the wheels right off the faith wagon.

  13. Starting to see Christianity as one of many religions was a big shift in my thinking. I no longer saw it as THE TRUTH vs. all the other billions of people in the world.

    What helped was higher criticism of the Bible, hearing God referred to as Yahweh, realizing that there could be some truth mixed in with myths, growing legends, etc. in what became our present Bible. Plus seeing the power that the church has over people-a church run by mere humans. My liberal husband helped open my eyes to that. He was from New England. I was from the South. We talked about how people are controlled by their fear of hell, etc.

    Also, I'm disturbed by the prospect of getting through to a Christian, then them being overcome by depression. We've experienced it and lived through it, but we worry about the impact on others if they lost THEIR faith also.

  14. Great discussion and I second the reference to Supersense and Bruce Hood. As a Southern Baptist from birth, the inability to distinguish blatant superstition and magical thinking from Christianity and prayer was what led me to a total questioning of my faith which led to my atheism.

    This concept of religion as driven by how our brains work is what keeps me from feeling hate for my former religious leaders/friends as they are just playing out how they think.

    Here is a great and relevant hour long lecture from Andy Thomson at AA09 titled Why We Believe in Gods that looks in detail at how the many mechanisms of our brains enable religious development. The comparison of the Big Mac meal to religions is awesome.

    I can highly recommend the Brain Science Podcast for accessible but detailed information on brain science. Hood has an interview there as does Robert Burton (on being certain); a really great interview

  15. Emet,

    I sometimes hit them with one of the main differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In Christianity, the goal is to achieve personal salvation. If others can be saved, great, but if not - no big deal. As long as I get saved - that's all that matters.

    In Mahayana Buddhism (the more popular of the two remaining forms), the goal isn't so much to become a Buddha, but to become a Bodhisattva, a being who is enlightened, but who elects not to become a Buddha and step off the wheel of birth and death, but to remain in samsara (cyclical existence), to work to alleviate the suffering, and toward the eventual enlightenment, of all sentient beings.

    To the Christian, the only thing that matters is getting into heaven. A Bodhisattva reaches the door to liberation, but remains outside, holding it open for you and me. And, as the number of sentient beings is believed (depending upon whom you to to) to be infinite, theoretically, the job never ends.

    Hardcore fundies will see this as misguided, indeed, as hubris - setting yourself up in a position to dictate the terms of morality and compassion to God - but, occasionally, you may get one who is sensitive enough to grasp it.

  16. Ach! "depending upon whom you talk to". That's the problem with Blogger - no edit function.

  17. I'm a little late coming to the table on this one so please forgive me since I know you've moved on to other topics that are as equally intriguing as this one.

    What struck me odd is your comment that "The lack of certainty, as shown in a previous post, creates anxiety and fear. In order to avoid these negative feelings and in order to be able to function well in the world, man seeks explanations for what he doesn't understand."

    Having been involved in fundamentalism for well over 20 years (began a new life as a born-again atheist in 1995) most of my experience with the people in that particular superstition were actually very much afraid. Afraid of Satan or Satanic influence. Afraid that their own "salvation" wasn't sincere enough to keep them from going to hell. They're also very afraid of logic and facts and anything that doesn't support their beliefs.

    So it seems to me that even though superstition (AKA religion) may have been invented to assuage their fears, it really serves to increase their fears.

  18. Dante with his Inferno and the medieval srtists have a lot to answer for! No one really knew about Hell fires and torture until they put it into poems and paintings. Jews do not believe in Hell as a literal place. Neither do more moderate or mainstream Christians (Church of England for example).
    Yes, dogma has a lot to do with it. Religion is big business and big money, and has been from the early days of the Christian church.
    Someone (I forget where I read this) stated that the Catholic church makes the Mafia look like pick-pockets in comparison.
    Many priests and pastors (see research by Dan Dennett) do not even believe in God themselves, but they continue to do their jobs because they need to make a living. I wonder how many of the fundamentalists such as the TV evangelists are actually "closet atheists"?

  19. Jews do not believe in Hell as a literal place.

    Actually, the Orthodox do, and many of the ultra-Orthodox are as dogmatic about it as are evangelicals.

  20. I stand corrected. I was not thinking of Orthodox Jews

  21. cipher,

    I'm going to have to talk to some of the Orthodox rabbis I know. I thought Judaism taught that hell was a Christian concept that was taken from the Jewish concept of Gehinnom. And the Jewish concept of Gehinnom is not a permanent place. One of the rabbis wrote an article on his website - Hell? No we won't go. If you have a chance would you let me know if this article is what you've been taught?

  22. Emet, there's a lot of ground to cover here.

    Firstly, let me say that I wasn't actually taught anything. We belonged to a Conservative synagogue while I was growing up - one that had a notoriously inadequate education dept. - and liberal synagogues in my day (the '60's, but I assume it's still the case) didn't place much emphasis on teaching kids about the afterlife. I suppose someone might have said something vague about heaven here and there; I can't recall anyone ever saying anything about hell. They might have, but I don't remember. It certainly wasn't an issue. My parents had no interest in religion; we belonged to a synagogue because in those days, it was just what you did.

    The bottom line is that what I know, I've learned on my own, and I have no investment in any of it.

    Now, as far as that website is concerned - I don't know about this guy. I don't want to upset you if you're close to him, but right away, there are red flags. Firstly, he refers to himself rather immodestly as "an accomplished scholar in Judaism and Kabbalah". He then goes on to list the journals in which his articles have appeared, and a number of them are astrology and New Age mags. Conversely, however, he also mentions - the website of a notoriously fundamentalist outreach organization (they take unaffiliated Jewish kids and turn them into ultra-Orthodox drones). Nothing about this seems right to me.

    As for the article - it's substantially correct, but it reflects only one opinion. That's the thing about Rabbinic Judaism; you can find an opinion to validate pretty much any position, especially if you bring Kabbalah into it. By contrast, Maimonides gives a list of three categories, with ten subdivisions (elsewhere, I think I've seen fourteen) of heresy that result in eternal damnation. (I was in a Jewish bookstore last fall the first time I came upon this list. I was aware of it, but I'd never actually seen it, and was delighted to discover that I meet at least one requirement in each of the three categories. I emailed an Orthodox rabbi of my acquaintance and told him, "I hit the trifecta!")

    The postmortem state described by Rabbi Weiman reflects the beliefs of Modern Orthodox Jews (who emphasize secular education for their children), much of Chabad, a Hasidic sect know for conducting outreach to unobservant Jews (and for being more “tolerant” of them than are other Hasidic sects), and perhaps a smattering of somewhat traditional-leaning Conservative Jews who even bother having an opinion on the subject. If you proceed to the left, you find opinions ranging from universalism to secular humanism (Humanistic Judaism is actually a denomination now). However, if you move in the other direction, into black hat territory (and I don't advise it), you encounter a lot of rabbis who focus on the harsher, more punitive opinions in the Talmud and other related Rabbinic works. They have no problem sending people to hell for eternity. (Some believe gentiles simply dissipate upon death, so you get off easily!)

    Reincarnation is also an option; it’s been a teaching of Kabbalists for centuries, and now many liberal Jews have adopted it, partly because of the growing interest in Kabbalah, partly because of their familiarity with Buddhism and Indian religion (“Hinduism”).

    The bottom line is that in Orthodoxy (especially ultra-Orthodoxy), you believe whatever your rabbi believes or tells you to believe; you adhere to the opinions of the authorities to whom he adheres. There isn’t a whole lot of independent thought. Sound familiar?

  23. I meant to say this as well. Regarding this paragraph,

    Interfaith groups notwithstanding, major religions of the world have a big problem with each other; it’s called Hell. They don’t bring it up at the meetings on religious tolerance, but the official Catholic policy is that Protestants, Muslims, and Jews go to hell. Protestants say that Catholics, Muslims and Jews go to hell. And Muslims say that Christians and Jews go to hell. Although on an individual level we can ignore this, theologically it is a wall that separates major world religions.

    Emet, none of this is accurate. The "official Catholic policy" is that while Jesus is God's means of salvation, one never knows in what way he is working in anyone's life. People who don't consciously acknowledge Jesus, Protestants who don't recognize the authority of Rome - they can all go to heaven. And salvific exclusivism is a tricky business in Islam (there are Quranic verses pro and con), but it's pretty much only the extremists who buy into it. And you know mainline and liberal Protestants aren't exlusivists.

    (Now I'm pissed off that I had to defend these people!)

    Also, his website is called, "Kabbalah Made Easy". It was never easy; it wasn't supposed to be. They're esoteric teachings.

    Be careful with this guy.

  24. Cipher,

    Yes, it does sound familiar except that historically the really great rabbis were considered outrageous and their writings banned until many years after their death. Mostly I see rabbis forcefully arguing their points, but they always give their sources.

    I have several Jewish friends, probably raised similar to you, who thought I was crazy for even speaking to Orthodox rabbis. I didn't have a clue about "black hats", nor reform, conservative or orthodox. Since I'm not obligated in the mitzvahs it is different for me than someone who is Jewish. Once I thought, what if I found out that my mother's mother was Jewish. How would I feel if I was obligated to keep the mitzvahs? Would I find it so interesting?

    Maybe it is different for me because I wanted to know what Judaism said because I had only heard and read the Hebrew writings from the Catholics and the Evangelicals perspective. I wanted to hear what the Jewish people had to say about their book. I think I'm fortunate to have found orthodox rabbis because they really stick to the Hebrew words and ancient Jewish wisdom. On scholarship alone the orthodox rabbis win hands down over the other groups. I've always thought I needed to know what it really says before I can accept or reject it.

    I've also been drawn to Buddhism,and noticed that most Buddhist groups in the U.S. are mostly Jewish. But I have a problem with - who makes the rules in Buddhism? I must be a rules person because I always ask, who makes the rules. Although to be fair, I like to know the rules so that sometimes I can go around them.

    The orthodox rabbis give a very beautiful explanation about eastern religions and eastern medicine.

    In Genesis 25:5-6 it says - Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the concubine-children who were Abraham's, Abraham gave gifts; then he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he was still alive, eastward to the land of the east.

    The questions is, if Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, then what did he give to the other children? Why bother to tell us he sent them to the east? And why does the Torah bother to tell us this rather vague piece of information?

    The answer given is that Abraham was a great astronomer and healer. He gave them spiritual gifts - wisdom of astronomy and medicine. So there is great wisdom in the eastern religions and eastern medicine. That's why it rings true for so many Jewish souls. At least that's what I've been told.

    I'm friends with a man who was an Israeli athlete in the late 60's and early 70's. He hurt his back right before the Munich Olympics and someone else took his place. I think the events that transpired left him unsure how the Almighty could allow such evil. It is the question that this blog and many others struggle with. He's been a Buddhist for many years now. We have great indepth discussions.

    I'm guessing that Rabbi Weiman says he is an accomplished scholar in Judaism and Kabbalah which is code in the orthodox world meaning he has studied the Torah and the Talmud for many years with an acknowledged rabbi. And that his study of Kabbalah is not the Madonna, Britany Spears variety, but the kind of study that can only be undertaken after you have a mastery from studying the Torah and Talmud with the "black hats". Kabbalah and the Zohar are only taught from teacher to student. I know nothing about the Talmud or Kabbalah.

  25. cipher,

    I missed your second post. I have to say that I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic grade school, high school and because they gave me a scholarship, a Jesuit university. I'll admit that it was some years ago, and maybe they teach it differently now, but I was taught in the 70's that only Catholics go to heaven. I know my mother and grandparents were taught that way too.

    I've forced some Evangelical friends to tell me what their bible says when I say, I don't believe that Jesus is the messiah and I certainly don't think he is god or a part of a trinity. I don't believe Jesus was resurrected. I believe the virgin birth is a made up story - I used to tell that to kids in 5th grade after I decided that I couldn't believe in a god that wouldn't take my father. And the answer that they are forced to give is hell.

    I will be very careful. I've heard so much falseness billed as truth, it is a wonder that I even care about looking into religion. One very astute rabbi asked me if my studying was just an intellectual exercise.

  26. By "Sound familiar?", I meant that it's like evangelicalism - they believe what they're told to believe.

    The orthodox rabbis give a very beautiful explanation about eastern religions and eastern medicine.

    Yeah, I know they say that. I don't know if they've been saying it all along, or only since the seventies when a lot of Jews became involved in Asian religions. It's triumphalist and very silly - "Whatever wisdom other people have, we had it first and they got it from us."

    I've also been drawn to Buddhism,and noticed that most Buddhist groups in the U.S. are mostly Jewish. But I have a problem with - who makes the rules in Buddhism?

    I don't know if it's still the case, or if Jews are equally represented in the various forms of Buddhism. Years ago, for example, many, perhaps most, Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism were Jews; now there don't seem to be as many going into it. It also depends upon location.

    As far as "rules" go - I'm not sure what you mean, but if you're speaking in terms of "accountability", they have the concept of karma, cause and effect. It serves much the same purpose as God does in the Western religions.

    And the answer that they are forced to give is hell.

    Well, that's evangelicals.

  27. Emet,

    The meaning given to the passage about Abraham in Gen. 25 by the rabbi is pure speculation . You have to be careful of reading much more into the text than it what it actually says. Once you start doing that, then you can make the Torah or any book say whatever you think it ought to say. All religion in the final analysis though is just speculation. Even the text itself is the religious speculations of the ancients. They didn't know any more than we do--actually they knew less.

  28. Dr. Pulliam,

    You are absolutely correct. I'm only telling what the rabbis say is the meaning to their book. It's their book and their story.

  29. Emet,

    I came across an article that might be of interest to you. Its called: “Hey, Get Away from My Bible!“ Christian Appropriation of a Jewish Bible by Pete Enns.

  30. Dr. Pulliam,

    Yes, that article is exactly the area I’m interested in. His blog was similar to some meetings I had with a Presbyterian minister. There were other Christians present and I made graphic/visuals to make my point. (I make my living as a graphic designer) There was nothing he could verbalize that worked. I'm totally unqualified to write a book or a blog, but I'm thinking of putting together a series of presentations in PowerPoint form to show the insurmountable problems I had with the Greek writings compared to the Hebrew writings. I would never attempt to have a philosophical discussion with someone who has degrees from Harvard. For me it’s just about the facts listed in the documents. All other conversations are above my abilities as a speaker/writer. Most of the time, I read my points after I post them on your blog and I can clearly see that I can’t get my point presented clearly or succinctly. I don’t care if people think both books are fiction, the Greek book is not a sequel to the Hebrew book. It is true that I like the concepts and the end plan of the Hebrew book.

    I’m fairly sure the Muslim faith believes that the promises to Abraham really went to Ishmael, not to Isaac. I’m not qualified to tackle that problem either.

    I’m not sure why I just can’t ignore it all. One of the rabbis that I studied with said, “If you make the PowerPoint in anger then it will not succeed. You must love all of humanity for your ideas to be listened to...” So, I haven’t made the PowerPoint.