Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why I am an Atheist (part three)

This is part three of this article, here you can find parts one and two.

Part III: Indoctrination, endemic of a delusional mind 

As children, we are bombarded constantly with an endless barrage of information. We tend to put a lot of trust in our parents as guardians of the truth. As I've said before, for children the world is a much smaller place than the one we as adults come to know. The mind of a child is much like the surface of a sponge, and like water to a sponge, information is the thing that fills the brain. But not all information is good information, in fact most information is probably bad information, and as children we have no real sense of this struggle of good and bad, for children all information has an equal footing.

To a child who has never seen a pot of boiling water, he or she could easily be convinced to place their hand in that pot even as steam is clearly seen emerging from its top. This isn't because children by nature are unintelligent, but rather ignorant to the world they are experiencing. It is incumbent upon us as adults and parents to educate our children to the good and the bad.

To a child, fear is a concept that has no place in their world, their minds having never experienced it, have no concept of what it means to be afraid. There is something primal that can certainly be applied to a given situation, for instance, a child having never been punched in the face by a bully might run, when faced with the prospect of such a thing, even though that child having never experienced it, should have nothing to fear. However, although it is easy to say that the child was afraid, it is much more complex than that, the child is only reacting to the chemical release of adrenaline and the emotional response of neuropeptides being released into the bloodstream by the hypothalamus gland located in the brain.

This instinct to run is something that has been built into our brains through millions of years of evolution. It should be noted however, that there is nothing special about this kind of behavior as it is found in all species of animal on the planet Earth, built into the primitive, most primal, R-complex or reptilian part of the brain, known as the basil ganglia. There is, of course another part of this emotional response that plays off of the reaction to run, and that is the reaction to stay. Although it isn't really clear why some prefer to stay and others prefer to run, this reaction is classified as the fight or flight response, and it is one of the most basic emotional responses a brain can have in any given situation when faced with imminent danger.

Now you may wonder why a child who has never been burned, may place their hand in a pot of boiling water and discover a new danger, but a child who has never been bullied has the instinct to run when faced with a punch to the face? The thing to understand here is that humans, although certainly more advanced in every way to all other animals of the world, we are still animals nonetheless. Our reactions to danger are dictated by primal instinct, an emotional response that has evolved over millions of years.

Our responses to other animals, as opposed to inanimate objects are clearly discernible, after all a tiger baring his teeth, is much more frightening than a toaster. Having never seen a tiger or a toaster, one could argue a child would respond to the sight of a tiger much like any adult, and react to the sight of a toaster in just the same way. Of course, this is a hypothesis for which there will be no evidence gathered, as likely no one would put a child in the same room as a tiger, to see what kind of reaction can be elicited.

Many factors must also be considered by the brain when faced with danger, but maybe none more important than the size of the thing for which a child is afraid. A good example of this can be seen as although most children might run away from the sight of a tiger, the sight of a cat, may illicit an opposite reaction. Clearly, to an observer a cat and a tiger bare much of a resemblance, the sharp teeth, tabby paws, long twisting tail, and predator slit eyes, but unless you have had a bad experience with cats in the past, or have an allergic reaction to them, their size alone dictates how you might respond to a chance meeting with one, a response I might point out, the cat will also most certainly share.

You may have heard the old adage size matters, well in these cases, it really does. Again, I must point out that the reaction to run, is in some ways equal to the reaction to stay in a given situation, and for whatever reason, in some brains, a child when faced with the hiss of a tiger who is baring his teeth and claws, may choose not to run. Of course, any child likely to do this, would be a prime example of Darwinism at work, after all, the one who runs today, can stay alive to fight another day, but certainly any child who chooses to face a tiger today, will likely be its prey.

As a very small child, I have very few memories, but I do recall an occasion in which I placed a penny into a light-bulb socket, while the light was plugged in. You might ask yourself what would possess anyone to do such a thing, but you must understand it is the inquisitive nature of children that allows such ignorance, possible. So with the light plugged in, and the light-bulb removed, I slowly placed the penny in the socket.

The only thing that I can think of that makes sense as to why I tried this was the fact that pennies are round, the socket is round, and much like the games young children play, you are taught to put the small round object through the small round hole. In a fraction of a second, I was introduced to a concept that had never occurred to me before, electricity. Now I may not have known what this was but I felt its power, throughout my body, as my hand allowed the arching electric current to pass freely through me. In that moment I learned a lesson that still haunts me to this day, electric

When I try to think about what I most fear, not many things actually come to mind, but if I were faced with the possibility of being shocked I can tell you,  my reaction would seem utterly irrational for sure. Although, one occasion of electric shock should suffice to keep most people away from it ever happening again, I have had the misfortune of being shocked several times, and this has left an indelible impression of electricity that won't ever go away. One of my more memorable instances of being shocked came when I was around thirteen. I was at a friend's house playing basketball in the driveway with neighborhood kids and it started to rain. Everyone gathered their things and proceeded to head inside the house. My friend's mother asked me to grab the dog and bring him inside with me. Next to the driveway was a small square plot of cement where a shed once existed, on one side of the plot was a metal pipe protruding from the ground, a plug box affixed to the end. The dog had been been chained up to the house, but had gotten his chain wrapped around the pipe that protruded from the ground. Unable to actually get loose, the dog simply rested himself there on the cement.

Now at this point, I had been shocked at least a couple of times, and I was clearly weary of touching a metal chain, wrapped around a metal pipe, that rested upon a metal plug box. So I walked over to the door where everyone was situated and asked, “That looks like an electric box, am I going to be shocked?” “No, the electric company said it wasn't functioning anymore, so you should be fine,” she replied. So I put my trust in her words, after all, she said that the electric company said it was not working, so it should be fine. What didn't occur in my thinking and clearly should have, was her use of the word should, which went in one ear and came out the other, it seems. So without a second thought, I latched onto the chain and began to try and pull it away from the pipe it was wrapped around.

Now, I don't really remember much of what happened after that, at least not for a few minutes, but I've been told that I reached a height of air, I had never reached while playing basketball. I was literally lifted from my feet in seconds and tossed backwards onto the ground. I remember the intense pain with which the unforgiving electricity passed through me and for which horrible memories have been implanted into my consciousness forever. The dog was fortunately very lucky, he was none the wiser to what had happened, and I was glad for that fact, as I imagine, had the dog suffered even a small bit of what I had received, this twenty-five pound animal might not have survived it, and his death at my hands might have haunted me even to this day.

Childhood is a time in the life of a child where they are open to possibilities that can not be considered even later in life as adults. It is said that the cognitive abilities of children, far exceed that of adults and if evolution is still at work anywhere, it is in the minds of children where it can be readily found. I was watching the television once, and I turned it on to a conversation a woman was having with someone else about the state of her children as it related to their education. She was inquiring what she needed to do as a parent to help her kids learn. The other person gave a short cookie-cutter response to the inquiry that involved some talk about forcing the child to study more or taking away their toys to give them better focus on the objectives.

What occurred to me in that moment was that a child's mind is, as I've said much like a sponge, but more so, like a sponge without the restriction of immobility that a sponge has. A child can do all the things he or she wants to do and will do them, if not interrupted. When I look back to some of the things I did as a child, it occurs to me, although I did not know it then, that I was applying science to the world as I observed it. All children do this, everyday, all the time. A boy might wonder, what would happen if I jumped out of this tree? The boy may look down and think he could easily break a limb, or maybe not? It is then that he considers the hypothesis that forms the basis of an experiment. So the boy leaps from the tree, the experimentation of the hypothesis, he supposed. And as the boy had considered, he breaks his leg, an observation he has now made.

So in these few moments the boy has applied a scientific method and has not have even realized it. Again, this happens all the time. Children frequently shock themselves, as I did, others put their hands in the boiling pot and others still, find more interesting ways to experiment with their environment. It is at a fundamental level the inquisitive nature of a child to apply a scientific method to his or her world. What we discover is that a child is most held back by the adults in his or her life who believe that they are doing the most good by bringing such experimentation to an end.

Now, I am not suggesting that a parent should allow their child to burn themselves, jump from a great height or otherwise put themselves in danger. The role of a parent should be, to be no more repressive with their intentions than is needed to secure the safety of their child, and to allow their child to freely explore a natural affinity to use the brain they have to learn and comprehend the nature of the environment in which they thrive. It is adults to which children look to for guidance, precisely in those times when a child is unsure of something.

It is at these times when a child's mind is most open to influence. It is, as I suppose, that the mind of a child is the mind of scientist and if cultivated properly can be used to further such ends, but as you shall soon read, not all parents cultivate such things, and some further do harm by oppressing the natural urge to be scientific by exposing the child to the very antithesis of scientific reason...the delusion of faith.

We have all seen images of the picket line at an abortion clinic, at the funeral of a gay soldier; or at a school where a science teacher has chosen to teach evolution over creationism. Amongst all the rhetoric and hate we see signs confessing the most evil of intent, and when we look, often times we see it held by the small hands of a child. This child if asked, will proclaim a hatred for such things as abortionists, fags and atheists, hate filled speech of the worst kind, but we must take such speech from a child with a grain of salt, after all, the child is merely reaffirming the words spoken by the parents of such children.

A young child, is unable to comprehend the words they are repeating, and although it is certainly hurtful to hear such things spoken from the mouth of such a small being, one must take comfort in knowing that should such a child be removed from that situation, that child could easily be made to never speak of such things again. However, in this country we are not in the habit of removing children from their parents merely on the basis of promoting such hate, though it should be said, that should that child grow up to harm another human being, induced by the words of a parent, than ultimately that parent is responsible for that harm, and should this induced person ever be brought to trial for their behavior so should that parent.

Now you may recoil at the very idea that I am suggesting. In this country, we believe that a person is responsible for their own actions, and as such should be held accountable. But let's consider a few things. The government often takes steps to remove children who are in danger of being harmed, and will often institutionalize a person who is deemed not fit for society. So why should we assume that the government could not take a child out of a home where the parents are promoting not only the deliberate hatred of others, but as is often the case, educating that child to the ways of a religion that promotes violence to be taken to solve a perceived problem.

After all, the same people who stand outside the abortion clinics screaming hate filled rhetoric as the doctors and patients enter the clinic, are the same people who praise the actions of terrorists who murder the doctors and bomb those clinics. Teaching your child to not only hate a particular group of society, but also teaching them that murder is a justification for abortion, is in my opinion, harmful, and if this is in fact deemed to be the truth, than the government would be justified in taking just such a child from the home. We have, as I see it a problem in this country with placing blame where it ought to be placed.

If an adolescent boy finds a gun laying on a shelf in his father's closet, takes that gun to school and accidentally shoots a classmate with it, in some states depending on the age of the boy and the circumstance of the shooting, that boy could be charged with murder and tried as an adult. This to me seems both ridiculous and fruitless, as it will not bring back the life of the dead child, and at the same time aim to punish a boy who is developmentally incapable of truly understanding his actions.

And although the blame for this act, should fall on the father of this boy who left his gun laying on the shelf of a closet, not in a gun-safe, or having a triggerlock, which in either case would have prevented this, but instead we will punish the boy.  Even if this boy is able to understand his actions, he is at an age where his mind hasn't fully developed, and the person he is now, is not the person he will be in twenty-five years, when he may be eligible for parole, if he is convicted.

Although its easy to understand the reasoning for putting a man in prison for life, for committing heinous acts of murderous violence, I fail to see the logic in putting a boy in prison for making a mistake, that otherwise would not have been made except for the inaction of an irresponsible parent. Christian scientists have maintained a religious tradition of not allowing their children to receive medical care when needed, instead, resorting to prayer as a means to heal them, that has resulted in the death of many children. Such parents have been tried and convicted of criminally negligent homicide, meaning if not for the negligence of that parent, the child would otherwise still be alive.

This begs the question, wouldn't it have been a reasonable step by the government to take the child away from parents who chose to adhere to this doctrine, resulting in the possible survival of that child, rather than leave the child to parents who's answer to an obvious appendicitis, is to pray for the pain to stop, and put them in jail after the child has died?

Now not every child raised by bad parents turns out to be a serial killer, just as not every child raised by good parents turns out to be a decent, loving, caring, human being. Some serial killers have been shown to have had good parents, and so some people would argue that, it should be proof enough that children should never be removed from their home, in spite of bad parenting.

The act of indoctrination is defined as bestowing upon someone, the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group, at the same time ignoring all other ideas, opinions and beliefs. Religious indoctrination occurs when a person or persons indoctrinates someone to believe in their religious beliefs, disregarding evidence to the contrary, and ignoring a reasonable proposition. I would argue, that such indoctrination of a child during their formative years is a form of abuse, that although does not certainly rise to the level of the physical abuse of a child, its certainly an abuse of the mind and its implication can be felt long after the child has reached adulthood.

A properly indoctrinated child, can and will not only continue to advance the cycle of indoctrination to their own children, but do so without a second thought, as part of their belief system, its not only their right, but their duty as parents and good religious folk. A child who is not removed from such a situation during those years where they are most susceptible to such influence, is destined to become a sheep in the flock, called religion.

Many people may argue that religion is not particularly harmful, an argument which I will attempt to dismantle later on, but for now will say only this. As I mentioned before, the government institutionalizes people for their own protection, people who have been deemed non compos mentis, a latin term meaning, not of sound mind. Psychopathology is the study of mental illness. In Psychopathology, psychiatrists are taught to recognize many forms of delusion including one referred to as the grandiose delusion.

Delusions are firmly held beliefs that someone holds despite lack of evidence, and despite contradicting evidence. The grandiose delusion typically involves a person who believes themselves to be centrally special through fantastical means, usually involving science-fiction, supernatural or religious themes. If a person believed himself to be special because he is receiving special messages from a source that he thinks is God, would that not qualify just such a person as delusional?

By just such a technical description alone any psychiatrist would be justified in committing a person who believed that they heard the word of God, a contention most preachers maintain during Sunday church service. Beyond that, people often proclaim having felt God's touch or having been influenced by a voice they believed came from God. Would not all these people also be delusional? The problem, is that societal norms about religion have allowed the mass delusion of religion to continue, otherwise it would seem, many people would have been committed, possibly suffering from schizophrenic behavior.

What keeps me up at night isn't the little old lady who believes in God, as delusional as she is, she is in no position to harm anyone. What concerns me, is the intrusion of religion into the government. When we allow religious rhetoric to define public policy we are in serious trouble, and when a candidate for president is open about his beliefs as it pertains to the treatment of homosexuals and women, and no one logically considers this man insane and an opportunity for committal, that is what scares me.

For a year I rode the train into work everyday, one day, one of the conductors approached me while I was reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I had never met this man before, other than the occasional greeting, as he punched my ticket. So this conductor came up to me and asked me about what I was reading. And I showed him the book, and said something about it being a good book for a long train ride to work. He told me that he had been watching me read the book now for days and didn't know whether he should approach me or not. I wasn't alarmed, but curious and I asked him, “Are you religious or atheist?” “Oh, I believe in God,” he replied. At which point I shrugged.

Being that this was a long train ride and I had at least 45 minutes to kill, I could tell the man to leave me alone and go back to my book, or have a conversation with the man, something he obviously really wanted. So I said, “Are you allowed to sit?” “Yes, can I take this seat in front of you?” he replied, taking off his conductor's hat. “No problem,” I said, “I'm always in the mood for good conversation.” He sat down and we began to chat about many things. He told me about his upbringing in a religious home, and the fact he was happy to bring God to his children. He spoke at length about how he actually enjoyed reading books like the book I was reading because it affirmed for him, his belief in the one true God.

He seemed to be quite an intelligent man, and although clearly delusional, I could see how he might be someone I could be friends with, even if we didn't share the same beliefs. I asked him what he thought about the parasitical nature of religion? He only said something to the effect of, “Isn't God great like that?” I then asked him about his stance on abortion, a topic which seemed to light a fire under these religious folks, to which he replied, “I don't take the advice of women who allege to know all about my prostate, so in turn I don't try to advise women on matters of their womb.” “That's a very unusually modern view to take in light of the opinion of most religious conservatives,” I said. “You'll find I'm quite atypical of most conservatives,” he replied.

So I asked him, “Well, what about executions?” “I believe if they did it, they deserve to go to prison, but beyond that, I, not being the judge, jury, or executioner, what right do I have to make judgments on such things?” “Are you sure you are one of those religious folks?” I asked. He laughed and we continued to talk. When I reached my stop, he told me that I should search for some book, for the life of me I can't remember it now, but he handed me a piece of paper with the name scribbled on it, and I stepped off the train. The next day I got on the train and got into my seat and the conductor approached looking to punch my ticket. After taking the ticket, he asked me, “Did you find that book?” “No, I'll just download a copy of it later,” I told him.

Of course, I was merely placating, I had no intention of doing such a thing, after all, it was sure to be full of religious nonsense, of which I can actively listen to, but for which reading too much about, causes me to fall asleep. He continued on, punching tickets down the line until he moved into the next car. I took out my book and continued where I had left off the previous day.

About fifteen minutes later, the conductor approached me from behind and asked if he could sit again, I put my book on the seat next to me and motioned to the seat in front of me. From his pocket he pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me again, and like the previous slip of paper this one contained a list of book titles. “You should read those as well, they will help you to see,” he said. “See what?” I inquired. “The truth, of course,” he stated with an upward motioning hand gesture. I now understood what he was thinking, and I handed him back his piece of paper. “What's the problem?” he asked. “I don't mind us having a conversation but let's make a deal, you don't try to convert me to Christianity and I won't try to convert you to atheism,” I replied.

The man placed his hand over his mouth, and rubbed his chin repeatedly. With a clearly heard grunt of disappointment, he agreed. Over the next few days we debated many things, all religious in nature of course, and he held firm in his beliefs as I held firm in mine. One of the more fervent arguments came while discussing the Pledge of Allegiance. I was of the opinion that any such pledge that involved a deity should not be forced upon children in public schools.

The public school system is funded by tax dollars, which make it a social program run by the government. Being that the government was involved and we should respect the separation of church and state, forcing children to pledge their allegiance to God in a public school equated to, in my opinion, a violation of the constitution. He believed otherwise of course, and stated that no such provision can be found in the constitution. He was right, of course, no such provision can be found in the constitution because Jefferson didn't include it. However, Jefferson in authoring the constitution, made his intent clear in a response to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Church, in 1802:

"... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

Although, Jefferson did not include those words specifically in the constitution, he felt that it should be understood, and his reply to the Danbury Baptist Church reiterated just that point. Having known that the Pledge of Allegiance was not always a pledge to God and country, but unsure of its original wording, I grabbed my phone and proceeded to look up the information on the Internet.

In 1954, pressured by a letter from a religious leader to President Truman two years previous, Congress enacted a bill to change the words of the pledge to include the words under God, a bill President Eisenhower than signed, June the 14th, Flag day. The curious part came when I began to read about its origins. The Pledge of Allegiance was actually created by a man named Francis Bellamy, a devout Christian and Baptist minister, who was looking for a pledge that could be recited in under 15 seconds by any school child. The original pledge contained no reference to God, in fact, the inclusion of god in the pledge would have undermined the point of the pledge itself. The pledge was meant to swear one's allegiance to his country and to the principles for which it stands. You would think in 1892, if the Baptist minister of a church felt God was important to the ideals of the country, he would have included just such a thing.

The discussion moved further into the area of politics, at which point I said, “The founders of this country would not be happy about the state of the union today.” He replied, “The government has always been a Christian government, and it always will be.” Not much angers me, but mixing religion and politics is just one of those things that really stirs something in me. “This country may have been founded in a nation populated by Christians, but the founders themselves were mostly atheists,” I said firmly. “They were not atheists, they were Christians,” he replied.

It seems in this we were both wrong, although some of the founders were Christians, not all were, and neither were they all atheists. Although many of them had religious beliefs, none of them held firmly the belief that religion should be integrated with government. It seems this notion of a Christian state is derived from the belief that if the Founders truly believed that government and religion should not be integrated than why is it not expressly prohibited in the constitution. Surely it would have been easy to simply write a few lines in there that expressed just such an opinion. We have to remember though, that the formation of any new government is surely a tumultuous time in its history. Just such a government would certainly fail without the support of its people. And although the founders themselves believed government and religion should be separate, just such a provision might have caused some displeasure with the religious factions that existed at the time.

Many people see the lack of an expression of separation as an interpretation of inclusion. The problem with that is, if the founders really wanted government and church to be integrated, it would have been just as easy to include a mention of this as it was to not include one. And of a particular problem for me is the fact that there is no mention of God at all in the constitution, in fact the only references that could be used at all in any religious context is the mention of the protection of religious freedom, as mentioned in the first amendment, and the words Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven, at the very bottom of the document, just above the signatures.

Other than these two references, there is no mention of God or anything religious in the entire document. People will also contend that the founders were obviously religious based on the premise that the Declaration of Independence makes several references to God. Contained within the Declaration of Independence are three references to what could be considered a general deism view of things, none of which actually make reference to the Christian God found in the bible. And maybe the best argument that can be made comes from the declaration itself which states that governments created by humanity derive their powers from the consent of the governed, not from any gods.

We continued to talk about religion over the next few weeks, until one day there was a new conductor. When I asked the new conductor what had happened to the other guy, he simply told me that conductors get moved from train to train. I saw him a few times later in the year, but we didn't talk much after that, and I stopped using the train after that, at which point I never saw him again. Some people think that debating things like evolution and cosmology with someone strongly religious is a little like debating a rock about its preference in cola. I however, much enjoy it, and it will take the opportunity whenever it presents itself to me.

In part four, I will attempt to dispel the notion of a creationist universe, and explain how life can come from a place with no life, and how a universe can come from a place of nothing.

UPDATE: You can find part four here

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