Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Apostasy of the Pedants: How Faith and Fear Are Buoyed By Religious Illiteracy (Part Two)

In her Washington Post review of the book, Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero, Susan Jacoby writes:

The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural -- from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount...Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and -- a finding that will surprise many -- evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.

The article goes on to discuss another aspect of religious illiteracy detailed in the book that is ubiquitous among the most pious of believers: ignorance of other religions. How strange it is that one can take so seriously one's own unexamined beliefs, especially given the preponderance of contrary beliefs, all of which are accepted or rejected without due examination by the various faithful. How can they be so sure of things they haven't bothered to consider?

As with ignorance of one's own belief system, this rejection of outside beliefs without examination is common among religious groups, and Armstrongists are certainly no exception. In his booklet, Does God Exist?, Armstrong presented a question he had once received in a letter. "An atheist wrote me: 'We have the history of many religions, and many gods. Which one of these gods do you claim for your God—and how do you know that He exists?' That’s a fair question. It deserves an answer!"[1] The obvious gist of the letter-writer's question was, "You claim that your god exists, but so do all these other claimants, and their gods are very different from yours. Why should your claim be taken more seriously than theirs?" Of course, Armstrong either didn't get it, or cynically dodged the intent of the question. His answer: "He who did the creating—He who brought everything that exists into existence, including all else falsely called God—He who created all matter, force and energy, who created all natural laws and set them in motion, who created LIFE and endowed some of it with intelligence—He is GOD!"([1]; emphasis HIS, of course).

It won't be lost on the knowledgeable reader that many diverse devotees claim for themselves the creation of the universe as the exclusive act of their god or gods. So, which of the 103 creator gods[2] did Armstrong "prove"[3] the existence of? Elohim? Unkulunkulu? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? Here it is religious illiteracy that allows Armstrong to convince thousands that creation mythology is somehow peculiar to his own special brand of theological nonsense--and, beyond that, that merely claiming one imagined being is responsible for the assumed creation of the universe, rather than any others that could be imagined, somehow makes it so. Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. Freely asserted, freely denied, Herbert.

Education is Salvation

"The deceived do not know they are deceived." They typically don't know much else either, which is how they come to be decieved. It is a great irony that those who haven't bothered to examine their own beliefs (not to mention fair challenges to those beliefs) have learned to shout this mantra the loudest. A lack of education leaves them in the position of naive prey to those who would devour them. This includes a lack of deep education in religious matters.

Most de-converts describe their former religious lives as being supremely studious, and they often attribute their eventual apostasy in large part to their in-depth religious knowledge. This is because those who really "dig deep" (as the ministry of PCG is fond of exhorting its members, safe in the knowledge that most will not put forth the necessary effort) discover things they weren't intended to know. Internal inconsistencies, contradictions with verifiable external realities, abuses of power and trust, dubious doctrinal changes, failed prophecies, etc., all lie festering at the bottom of a great mound of smooth-sounding bullshit.

Most sheep do not bother to delve beyond the ear-tickling preachments at the surface, and they take for granted that the fundamental claims are sound. For example, for them to be right about the Tribulation, they would have to be right about several other claims upon which the Tribulation myth hangs, like so much rotted fruit, from the branches of a diseased tree. There is no more reason in the proposition that "they might be right" about the Tribulation because you were taught so, than there is in the proposition that Catholics might be right about Hell because they teach their children that they will be tortured forever if their lives diverge from their traditions. (And a bit of religious literacy will tell you that these two propositions are mutually exclusive! They both can't be right, but they can both be wrong.)

It's preposterous to take seriously a claim you take for granted, especially to the point that it frightens you. If it scares you, then doesn't it make sense to investigate it, to find out if there is in fact something to fear? Of course! My forthcoming book, The Plain Truth About Armstrongism will lay that whitewashed tomb wide open, and give those who are still confused or afraid the tools they need to disprove Armstrongism for themselves. Education really is salvation (of a sort), and the truth, contrary to what the cult would like you to believe, does not drip like honey from the mouths of their shepherds--it is a hard won jewel that requires a lot of work (in terms of research and critical thinking) to extricate. But it will indeed set you free. So, take my hand, and we'll disperse these phantoms together--once and for fucking all.

[1] Herbert W. Armstrong, Does God Exist? (Philadelphia Church of God, 1957) 3.

[2] At the time of posting, the tally of creator gods had increased to 104. Joy to the world, another delusion is born.

[3] The Plain Truth About Armstrongism will contain a brief survey (because that's all it requires) and consequent dismissal of this spurious and illogical "proof," for those brave souls who do not fear free inquiry.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dealing With Dissonance: The Secret to Being Right

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The pain is usually rather brief, however: we are quite skilled at finding ways of reducing dissonance, especially in those all-too-common cases where one of the contradictory beliefs is that we are right. The typical strategy in this scenario is to reduce dissonance by ignoring or trivializing evidence that contradicts our rightness, and then rationalizing our way to a better night's sleep. This is apparently a trick our brain uses to protect us from being crippled by stress, but it does nothing to keep us from being wrong. For that we need a better way of dealing with dissonance.

The first thing we must do is recognize that it is not conducive to the purpose of being right to have our egos bound up with our beliefs. This problem manifests itself in all situations where people take personal offense at the criticism of cherished ideas. In amateur debates, one will unfailingly encounter comments that mistakenly describe perfectly valid arguments as being "disrespectful." We must avoid the trap of thinking that ideas deserve respect merely because sensitive egos are attached to them. More importantly, we must not allow ourselves to get emotionally attached to the ideas that have taken up residence in our brains, to the point of self-identifying with them. These propositions, attitudes, beliefs, etc. are just that: it is foolish to imbue them with personhood, especially from the perspective of one who wishes to hold correct beliefs instead of merely being self-righteous.

Once we have divorced ego from the business of considering propositions (including those we already hold) then we will have positioned ourselves to reduce dissonance in the direction of any corrective evidence we may encounter. The next step, of course, is to examine our beliefs (and consider challenges to them) from this disinterested vantage point, as an unbiased outsider. In cases wherein evidence can be marshaled against the positions we hold, we will then be prepared to judge that evidence on its actual merits, rather than on the basis of how it makes us feel. Always remember that by considering valid arguments we are not submitting our selves to judgment, but rather the impersonal positions that have become insinuated in our brains by various means (some less rational than others, it should be noted). With practice, one may even learn to sidestep dissonance altogether, noting the ego without serving it, self-aware and ever mindful that a person's worth is not diminished when she modifies her beliefs upon learning some new thing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It is with this attitude that I invite you to read whatever precocious conceits follow in this blog, and especially my forthcoming book, which will show you that Armstrongism was never correct (and therefore it was never necessary to fear its eschatology) and that by dismantling this myth, you will open up a whole world of alternatives for living a life of full joy and inspiration outside the morbid (and most importantly, fallacious) constellation of Armstrong cults.