Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Fear Factor

In his book Mortality, the late and great Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not.” Simply put yet strikingly wise, Hitchens knifes the central premise of religion: that we must not only do good, (according to god’s will) but, much more importantly, we must believe. And that belief, regardless of our deeds, will be the deciding factor in our final judgment; as if a lifetime’s worth of bad deeds may be atoned by a last-minute declaration of fear and cowardice. This precept represents the damning – if you will – flaw of religion, in that our convictions are hollow if not accompanied by the complete submission to god. In other words, god cares more about his subjects glorifying him than the way in which they lead their lives. As much as the faithful may be inclined to argue, they cannot wholly disagree if they truly believe in their holy books. God’s chief concern, in the three major monotheistic religions, is that we bow at his feet and adulate him, as if bearing us upon the earth without our consent was a gracious gesture worthy of our eternal gratitude.

So what does this say about the role of religion in general? That our deeds and moral outlook are deemed of far lesser value than our willingness to obey not just god, but the right god, sadly represents the characteristic nature of humanity: fearfulness. And unfortunately, this succumbing to fear has cost us countless lives on the claim that one god is more true than another. Imagine a world in which religion was stripped of its petty requirements of dogmatic belief and blind obedience. A world in which the fine moral values, which religion has at least had some hand in evoking, were detached from the rigid boundaries of a jealous god and his threat of eternal damnation. How many lives could have been saved if our convictions were placed ahead of our submission? If our responsibility to morality and reason trumped the childish fear of torture after death? It is hard to say, but almost indisputably, many a war could have been settled if our commitment to each other superseded our commitment to the invisible entity above, whose demands of unbridled worship have driven far too many to pick up the sword.

If not for the fear factor inherently tied to religion, god would quite likely have no role in our world. The spiritual relationship that people draw comfort from forming with him could undoubtedly be experienced in different and more healthy ways. (After all, doesn’t the fact that reports of spiritual experiences are found abundantly in every religion sort of negate the notion that one person’s god is the true godwhile all other relationships with the divine must somehow be insincere?) Plainly, god is the product of cowardice. Our creation of him stems from the woeful uncertainty of death, and has proven to be the greatest and most usable excuse for people to betray their fellow humans.

It is said that our society could not function without the moral bedrock that god provides. As I hope I have articulated, this merely reflects humanity’s lack of trust in itself; that it could not survive if not for an all-contorlling dictator. But really, would our society self-destruct without him? Or would our faculties of common sense and reason be enough to shed light upon right and wrong? I sincerely believe the latter would be true, yet my religious peers may tend to think the former. The German poet Heinrich Heine offered an astute analogy: “In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.” I like to think that humanity is equipped with the adequate knowledge and good sense to make sound moral decisions without looking to god for guidance. In fact, I know it is possible. I see plenty of friends do it all the time. Some of the most morally responsible and conscientious people I know do not seek direction from god in order to live their lives. Of course, some do, and I respect them equally on the grounds of their decision-making – but I would contend that common sense and reason play a much larger role in their morality than they think.

It seems such a simple proposition: taking the functional aspects of  religion, i.e. community, generosity, and morality, and discarding the decree of absolute subjection to a god that serves only to create a burden of moral expectations for us to carry and sets rigid limits within which our minds are restricted from freedom of thought. Yet people remain glued to god, as the fear and inconceivability of death lingers hauntingly and incessantly. In my opinion, life can be cherished more fruitfully and grasped more fully when god is removed as the solution to all problems. Fear is an inevitable human condition. Let us accept it for what it is, live boldly beside it, content in the mystical uncertainty of life and death, rather than tempering it with fallacies that produce childish feelings of comfort and distort the full and direct experience of this life – the only one we know we have. And may we have the integrity to hold our convictions, and the courage to allow that to be enough.

 


Leave God Out

If you must seek comfort through religion in the wake of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, that’s fine by me. People express their grief and direct their compassion in different ways; shortly after an atrocity that is still a highly sensitive issue to those affected is certainly not the time to criticize someone’s beliefs.

But don’t you dare blame this tragedy on Atheists. Don’t you dare link this senseless act, performed by a young man with a deeply troubled mind, with the politics of secularizing America, as if driving God out from our public places led to such a calamity. Please don’t humiliate yourself by suggesting that the murder of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults, dedicating themselves to the education of those children, was merely the reflection of a society that has eliminated God. Don’t you dare.

Yet, someone did.

Former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was recently attacked by what he calls “the predictable left” for saying that the ban on prayer in schools caused the Newtown killings. Now, we all know that it is not atypical for the media to twist someone’s words for the benefit of their organization or for the detriment of someone else. But no worries – Mr. Huckabee himself went on the air to clarify just what he meant, exactly. And he certainly did clear things up.

In responding to the accusations that he blamed the school shooting on the ban on school prayer, he ensured us that, of course, it was not just school prayer that triggered this event. A great number of other things contributed to it as well.

Phew! He’s not that disillusioned. As he admits, many elements are at play here. For example, the young man had asperger syndrome, a somewhat lesser form of autism. He was home-schooled, further hampering his social experience. He was likely depressed and could find no outlet to channel his frustrations. All these things probably factored into his decision to shoot 20 elementary students, right? Well, in Mr. Huckabee’s opinion, these aspects are not even worthy of mention. Several others, however, are.

“It’s far more than taking prayer or Bible reading out of the schools,” Huckabee assured. “It’s the fact that people sue a city so we aren’t confronted with the manger scene or a Christmas carol. That lawsuits are filed to remove a cross that’s a memorial to fallen soldiers. Churches and Christian-owned businesses are told to surrender their values under the edict of government orders to provide tax-funded abortion pills.”

Oh, yeah. Those things.

But wait a minute. Isn’t this supposed to be about the 26 murdered victims of a psychologically troubled 20-year old? Surely Mr. Huckabee is not using the current vulnerability of the public to promote his political agenda. That would be arrogant. Insensitive. Even absurd.

But it appears as though many of our top-tier politicians continue to insist upon the meshing of church and state. Even if they need to disguise a psychologically abnormal and troubled 20-year old as the epitome of “evil” – as Huckabee labeled him – to convince us that God’s absence in schools and public venues is the true heart of society’s problems.

But unfortunately, this problem goes much deeper than the assertion that “evil” was present in Newtown. If the issue was as simple as destroying evil and glorifying God, I think we would have fixed it by now. But leave it to the religious fanatics among us to mask the true problems with useless, ungrounded mumbo jumbo. I’m sorry if I offend my religious peers, but this problem has nothing to do with God. Nothing. And if we continue to demonize these killers and shun them as mere evil outliers within a more godly general society, we are evading the issue indefinitely.

I understand that there is a lot of hatred being spewed at Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, and this response is only natural, particularly for the victims’ families. But let’s get one thing straight. This man was not a monster. He was not the devil. He was not simply separated from the presence of God. He was psychologically ill and socially inept. Real-life conditions lead this man to commit the crime he committed – all within the scope of human experience.

So let’s not put our religious blinders on. Associating God with this problem only renders us incapable of tackling the true issues at hand by disregarding pragmatic solutions in favor of the lazily asserted notion that the answers simply lie with God. Lanza was clearly lead astray by some sort of unfortunate psychological condition. This should cause us to ask questions regarding how to better identify and treat the psychologically ill. Additionally, he could not have committed this crime without access to his mother’s weapons of brow-raising potential, including a “sporting version of the U.S. military’s principle assault weapon,” as reported by the NY Post. This should lead us to consider the degree of gun accessibility in America – though I think the media has run this issue dry. Regardless, these are two practical issues involved in this tragedy that, if attended to, could make a real difference in preventing future catastrophes like this one. And there are surely many more underlying elements to the atrocity that are more difficult to identify.

But school prayer? Lawsuits protesting Christmas carols? Taxes devoted to abortion pills? What?

The selfish agenda of religious leaders like Huckabee to impose Christianity on the public is one of the many ways that religion deters our society from analyzing its biggest problems from a rational, practical standpoint. But Huckabee’s remarks represent more than just a foolish distraction to pragmatism. They are are disgustingly insensitive and insulting. He once again substitutes God as the protagonist in a story whose main characters should be the victims, their families, and the population of psychologically ill people that we must learn to identify and treat more effectively. But when people like Huckabee have the floor, everyone else – in this case, 20 slain schoolchildren and 6 dead educators – must be forgotten to ensure that all eyes are on God.

We must mourn. We must reflect. We must learn. But we must not deceive ourselves by fruitlessly throwing the issue into the hands of God – for as history has revealed, they happen to be particularly clumsy. And though solving societal problems, like the ones reinforced by Adam Lanza, is never easy or straightforward, we can start by making one simple decision: leave God out.


The Danger of Submission

Completely normal, healthy people are liable to believe completely abnormal, unhealthy things. So it was in Nazi Germany, in which a nation was psychologically manipulated to persecute specific factions of people on the basis of pseudo-science and national loyalty. In fact, approximately 90% of German workers at the concentration camps which systematically murdered thousands of Jews at a time, were, according to psychiatrists from the camps, psychiatrically normal people with no mental deficiencies. How could this be? How could people who committed such unspeakable atrocities be considered normal?

Well, the truth that comes out of this startling fact is that all humans are vulnerable to such mind paralysis. If the conditions of the psyche are right, people are bound to fall into traps such as these. For example, Germany’s culture encouraged a unique dichotomy between the public and private spheres. Privately, Germans were supposed to be passionate, sentimental, and emotional, as demonstrated in the German art and literature prevalent at the time. However, publicly, Germans were trained to devote their loyalty entirely to the state and taught that unmindful obedience to authority was the appropriate way to behave. In doing this, their public sense of self was sacrificed to the greater whole of Germany, and they viewed themselves as mere subjects to the German state, while harboring a dangerously passionate emotional side, left to grow unmonitored in hidden mental compartments.

While most religious people would never condone such conduct, they demonstrate a similar trend within the human psyche. It is natural for humans to possess the desire to submit themselves to a greater whole. The loss of sense of self can be an ecstatic feeling worth striving for. This, in my view, is a major reason why people are so attracted to religion and why being religious persists to be the norm in American society.

In fact, submission of self can be seen across the entire spectrum of world society. Members of a sports team are encouraged to sacrifice personal accolades for the greater good of the team. Any job in which people are required to work as a team promotes this same sacrificial concept. And certainly, this evidently natural human tendency does not always have the detrimental behavioral outputs as seen in Nazi Germany. The key is to channel this tendency into a productive manner that heightens the human experience, without losing one’s sense of independent thought and reason. I have been extremely critical of Christianity and religion in general, but many people seem to use religion merely as a guide, while ensuring that their mental and intellectual independence is not endangered by their submission to a god. However, history has demonstrated that one’s complete submission to religion is one of – if not the – most destructive and murderous impulses. When people believe wholeheartedly in something, they are liable to commit extreme atrocities in the name of whatever greater good they’re immersed in – atrocities that their natural sense of reason would normally object to, but is trumped by the powerful, binding force of eliminating the self.

Therefore, when SS officers in concentration camps were asked how they were able to allow the mass killings to proceed, many of them responded that they were merely taking orders. The command came from the authority that they had invested their heart into and committed their minds to. Obeying the will of the greater good was their main priority – even if that meant murder.

Here, we see the flaw in religious teachings. Complete submission and thoughtless obedience stand at the forefront, and people accept these ideals because it makes them feel as though they are a part of something greater than themselves. This is a good feeling. And sometimes, it can result in spectacular achievements – religious organizations are often first in line to contribute to disaster relief efforts. But other times, it results in the reckless killing of others on the grounds that they are merely “taking orders,” just as the rigidly loyal SS officers claimed. Whether that authority is Nazi Germany or God, though, does not make a difference. The danger is the same, and the suppression of rationality exists equally in both cases. Furthermore, religion can pose no reasonable criticism of the actions of these SS officers, because they are bound to the same philosophy. The only difference is the authority giving orders. And merely claiming that one’s model of authority is true, or would never demand such atrocities, only produces further intellectual stagnation and differences between people that are immune to change, given both sides view their authoritarian figure as immutably correct and perfect.

Therefore, we must find more productive ways to channel our sacrificial tendencies without abandoning our faculties of independent thought. This is something that religion in its purest form fails to do, because it constructs a fixed entity with limitless power who demands complete submission and obedience. And while many would argue that humans merely misinterpret this entity’s will, the danger remains the same; those who commit loyalty to an all-knowing, all-powerful figure are immune to criticism and opposing arguments because the forces of reason and rationality are superseded by the godlike figure. With this religious mentality, intellectual and moral improvement  are impossible. But by procuring an independent mind, we are able to grow intellectually because we are not attaching ourselves to any sort of fixed truth. Open inquiry and rational questioning are at the heart of this ideal – an ideal that neither Nazi Germany nor religion can honestly lay any claim to.


A Broad Analysis of Economic Principles

The economy serves as a central structural base for how we conduct our lives. Americans are, and always have been, flushed with an enthusiasm for capitalism, a system that encourages competition within a market that is generally free from governmental intervention. Our capitalist fervor has shaped our cultural norms and values by glorifying competition and placing the victors on a pedestal. We celebrate the “rags-to-riches” mentality and idolize those who embody it. This is probably why celebrities often appear as icons, rather than human beings, in American culture. The opposite end of the spectrum favors principles that essentially contradict those mentioned above. Socialism advocates for an equality of living that downplays competition in favor of ensuring that each individual is living by the same standards, regardless of the significance of one’s occupation. That being said, history has exhibited the successes and shortcomings of both sides of the argument, and today, we still struggle to decipher what, exactly, represents the best economic system for society.

Both the pros and cons of a socialist/communist system are somewhat obvious and have been explored in great depth. It appears as though a harmonious community that strays from competition in favor of individual equality would be an ideal society to strive for. In theory, all forms of government would eventually be phased out as the people learned to stabilize the society on their own. A modern socialist system would include a government that serves as the full-time regulator of all business transactions, ensuring that no one manipulates anyone else, and as the distributor of wealth, ensuring that people with low-income jobs are compensated for by the people with high-income jobs through taxes. This also appears ideal at first glance, as the struggle of the impoverished would theoretically be eliminated and everyone would live comfortably; no one has too much and no one has too little.

The cons, however, seem to overshadow these utopian-like ideas, especially in an American culture that prides itself on the qualities of motivation and self-reliance. In a society in which everyone is rewarded equally for unequal services, motivation almost certainly declines. Reliance upon our fellow persons is a nice idea, but it eliminates one’s sense of responsibility to the whole. Consequently, overall production declines and the standard of living, though equal, becomes worse, on behalf of the fact that the incentive for improvement is absent.

On the contrast, a capitalist society, in which people compete for wealth and quality of living conditions, may appear ruthless and manipulatory. However, when people are encouraged to compete, they are pushed to achieve products of higher quality that in turn lift society to greater and greater heights, while fostering constant growth and improvement. If one is compelled to create a better product than someone else, the end result, regardless of which product is better, will probably be of greater quality than if the fuel of competition was not present. In this way, growth is incessant. Furthermore, the inclination for betterment seems to generate an ever-increasing level of creativity in this human mind. When we are forced to improve our work beyond that of our opponents in order to survive, we must develop creative ways in which to produce innovative results that outshine the competition. In this way, our culture is constantly expanding and growing, as people extend themselves and their work to the finest limits.

Pure competition, however, is damaging for obvious reasons. When coerced into a dog-eat-dog mentality with no restrictions to the level of ruthlessness one is permitted to use, people are bound to be solely concerned with their personal self-interests, disregarding the well-being of others and therefore contributing to destructiveness. To remedy this issue, the government oversees competition, establishing regulations and ensuring justice and order by implementing rules. I liken the system to a standard game of basketball, in which two opposing sides release their competitive tendencies through a productive outlet, while the referees manage the game and enforce the rules, ensuring that fairness is maintained. In this setting of controlled competition, both sides are able respect the efforts of one another and pursue self-improvement within a setting where reckless and destructive behavior are unacceptable. Using this example, it is clear that competition can be a productive force, so long as it is maintained in a controlled environment.

Given this general framework, it is difficult to interpret the rights and wrongs within the current discussion of President Obama’s proposal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and how much government intervention is needed for a competitive society to flourish. The intricate details of the issues are challenging to evaluate without the first-hand knowledge and experience of what works and what doesn’t. During the election, it seemed to me that Mitt Romney had a firmer control over the economic issues than did Barack Obama, but the extent to which his policies would benefit our economy is impossible to predict. Furthermore, I don’t think that President Obama is leading America down the path to socialism by redistributing the wealth to a certain degree. Socialism entails a nearly absolute redistribution, in which the janitor is living to the same degree of luxury as the doctor. With that being said, it appears obvious that those who work to achieve material prosperity deserve to reap the benefits of such; if taxes and further government intervention impede upon that principle, it seems that the central American “rags-to-riches” ideal fades into obscurity.


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