Monthly Archives: July 2014

Why Law Shouldn’t Be Based on Morality

There’s a common argument that law ought to be based on morality, but I disagree. While there is a huge amount of overlap, law and morality operate on slightly different planes. I wrote about this in Rethinking Religion, but I feel like elaborating on it a bit more.

I think law should not be based on opinions of what is right or wrong, but on the objective needs of civil society, local and national. Morality is more about interpersonal relations and how each of us as individuals relate to other living beings and the planet generally. But not everything we might think is immoral needs to be illegal.

Put another way, if there is an evidence-based argument that regulation of X would make an empirically measurable improvement in a community or nation — data that show regulation of X will reduce pollution or crime or enhance property values or something — then by all means, regulate X. But if the only reason for regulating X is that some people think it’s just morally wrong, then I say leave it alone. And I would say that even if I agree that X is morally wrong.

For example, most of us might agree that marital infidelity is morally wrong. But many of us might also agree that enforcing faithfulness is not the government’s business.  However much unfaithfulness might damage a marriage, this is something the people in the marriage need to work out for themselves.  Marital faithfulness cops would be uncomfortably intrusive into our personal lives, I would think.

It also tends to be the case that where infidelity is illegal, somehow only women are prosecuted and punished. Bleep that.

Buy the Book at Amazon

There are some behaviors that we might agree are morally wrong but which can’t be stopped by banning it. I’m thinking now of abortion.  I’ve been arguing for years that even if there were a broad consensus to create policy to stop or reduce abortion, criminalizing it doesn’t work.

How so? There is all kinds of hard, real-world data showing that abortion law has no impact on abortion rates. Some of the highest abortion rates on the planet are in places where abortion is illegal. Some of the lowest abortion rates are in places where it is legal. I understand that when a country changes its abortion laws, whether to legalize or criminalize, any subsequent change in the rate of abortions is temporary. Eventually the rate settles back to what it had been before the law changed.

People who succeed in criminalizing abortion may congratulate themselves for standing up for morality, but they aren’t saving babies. And where abortion is criminal, it’s also much more dangerous for women. Around the world, the enormous majority of deaths of women from botched abortions occur where abortion is illegal.

I was reminded of this when I found an old blog post written by a former anti-abortion conservative Christian who is now a pro-reproduction rights atheist. “How I Lost Faith in the ‘Pro-Life’ Movement” lays out all the arguments I’ve been making for years, clearly and logically.  The author, Libby Anne, also was shocked to learn that the one thing proven by copious data to reduce abortion rates is use of birth control.

Do read the whole thing. Libby Anne concluded that the tactics of the abortion criminalization movement are utterly illogical if their goal was to reduce abortions and save babies. However, it makes perfect sense if their goal is to punish women for their sexuality. See also “What If Banks, Not Abortion Clinics, Needed Buffer Zones?,” which is a short excerpt from Rethinking Religion.

I’m not happy with the pro-reproductive rights side, either. I have felt for years they should be broadcasting the fact that criminalizing abortion doesn’t stop it as loudly and as broadly as possible, and I am ignored. Arguments purely based on a concept of rights are not persuasive to people who are uncomfortable with women having rights, especially sexual rights. I wrote about morality last week,

Notice that most of our hot-button and never-ending public squabbles about what’s moral and what isn’t touches on the same two issues — sex and death. That’s because these are two issues most of us are really emotional — and often conflicted — about. Lying, stealing and cheating, by contrast, are not nearly so controversial.

But regarding sex, it’s really women and sex that set off everybody’s crazy alarms. There are all kinds of ancient taboos about women and purity and whatnot ground into us that are still jerking us around, whether we admit to it or not. Male sexuality doesn’t trigger anywhere near the same degree of angst.

A few years ago I wrote an article for on Buddhism and Abortion. I still get comments on it sometimes, mostly from people who don’t seem to have read it carefully. Yes, most schools of Buddhism consider “a life” to begin with conception, and terminating a pregnancy is a violation of the First Precept.

However, Buddhism takes a more situationist than absolutist  approach to moral questions. Instead of rigidly applying one-size-fits-all rules, individuals are encouraged to weigh the possible consequences of their actions, taking in all the people affected. We are encouraged to reflect on our own intentions and motivations. And then we consider all that in light of the Buddha’s teaching. That said, I can think of a great many circumstances in which abortion may be a morally justifiable decision.

And, in any event, we have real-world evidence that the many nations with legal abortion are not suffering catastrophes because of it. Even if we agree abortion is immoral, there is no civil purpose to be served by making it broadly illegal.

Not only does criminalizing abortion push women into risking their lives to terminate pregnancies, I understand there are places in Latin America where women avoid getting medical care after a naturally occurring miscarriage because they fear being prosecuted for getting an abortion. Abortion may be immoral, but criminalizing it also leads to a kind of immorality, seems to me.

Empty Your Cup

Someone asked this question,  and I decided to discuss it in a post because the question itself reflects the kinds of barriers we face trying to understand other religions:

“I am a Christian but, having lived in India for quite a while, am interested in all religions. (By the way: I am also an anti-religionist.) My question is this: is Buddhism centered upon improving one’s self by doing good to others? Or, to put it another way, is Buddhism essentially self-centered and atheistic?”

From a Buddhist perspective, the question is based on a false dichotomy — that our only choices are “improving one’s self by doing good for others” or “essentially self-centered and atheistic.” The short answer, of course, is “none of the above.” But I’m not taking offense because I realize the question is not coming from a Buddhist perspective.

I started to reply to the comment, and then I decided to write the answer in a blog post, and eventually what came out was an essay, which I’m calling “How to Understand Buddhism: Tips for the Spiritual Seeker.” The answer begins with the observation that often questions about Buddhism are not answerable, because they come with assumptions that don’t apply. The “answer” then becomes an attempt to guide the questioner away from his assumptions.

Buy the Book at Amazon

The bigger problem is, of course, that much of Buddhism makes no sense until you’ve worked with it for awhile.  If you just read some books about it your brain will try to make sense of it, because that’s what brains do. But without some personal experience and expert guidance nearly always your brain will be crafting “what makes sense” from assumptions that don’t apply.

The results often are ghastly. The Internet is well larded with essays and videos about what’s wrong with Buddhism, mostly made by people who don’t know dharma from doughnuts. And I’m not saying Buddhism is beyond criticism, especially since the practice does often fall short of the ideal. But too often people draw conclusions about Buddhism more from the clutter in their own heads and not from Buddhism itself. It’s frustrating.

There’s an old Zen saying, “empty your cup.” This is from a story about Master Nan-in (1868-1912), who one day was visited by a scholar with many questions about Zen. Without replying, Nan-in poured tea into the scholar’s cup. And when the cup was full, he kept pouring. As tea spread across the table, the scholar said, The cup is full! No more tea will go in!

Indeed, Nan-in said. Just as you are full of views and opinions. No more will go in until you empty your cup.

Why the U.S. Christian Right Is Dangerous

Amanda Marcotte writes about The Christian right’s obscene, defining hypocrisy.

Whether it’s liberal college professors supposedly turning kids to Marxism or gay people who are accused of recruiting, over and over you hear the claim that the children of conservatives are in serious danger of being talked into everything from voting for Democrats to getting gay-married. …

… I think I know where conservatives get the idea that other people are sneaking around trying to indoctrinate children into unthinking ideologies. It’s because they themselves are totally guilty of it, both in terms of trying to recruit other people’s children and trying to frighten their own children about the dangers of exploring thoughts outside of the ones approved by their own rigid ideologies.

Marcotte provides several examples, from a group operating in Portland pubic parks that entices children with games and then teaches them about Hell, to the growing “home schooling” movement that encourages parents to keep their kids out of public school so they won’t be exposed to any but an extremist, right-wing religious ideology.

You can trace the anti-public school hysteria back to Brown v. Board of Ed. (1954). Before court-ordered school desegregation, even (white) conservative Bible Belt parents thought public school was one of the great things about America, and only those idol-worshiping Papists sent kids to parochial schools. After Brown, however, suddenly public school education was no good.

Parents yanked their kids out of public school and sent them to all-white “Christian academies,” which sprang up suddenly like mushrooms after the rain. The first voucher programs began then, so that tax dollars could follow the white children into their new white schools. But when the private schools also had to desegregate to survive, the home schooling movement was born.

By now, the home schoolers probably don’t consciously associate home schooling with racial segregation. Their “cause” has morphed into a general mistrust of mainstream America.

Karen Armstrong, who writes about religious history and fundamentalist movements around the world, defines fundamentalism in a broad sense as a reaction against and rejection of modern Western society. Fundamentalists, in different ways, all attempt to establish enclaves of pure faith that shut out any other views. Those they come in contact with who aren’t “them” must be assimilated. And in time, if that doesn’t work, they must be eliminated.

There are two chapters in Rethinking Religion dedicated to religious mass movements and religious violence. These chapter propose that the two factors always present in violent mass movements are a holy cause — defending the faith against those they think are its enemies, in this case — combined with a fanatical grievance, or the belief they’re the ones who are the victims. You see this in violent Islam, in the violent Buddhists in Myanmar, and also in mass movements that are not expressly religious. If religion isn’t the “holy cause,” sometimes belief in a glorious national or racial destiny will do nicely as well.

Buy the Book at Amazon

The “Christian Right” in America definitely shows all the symptoms that lead to violence. They are obsessed with the belief they are being persecuted and are surrounded by enemies. A growing subculture of ignorant religious fanatics could prove to be a huge and violent threat eventually. I’m not sure what to do about it, but it’s not healthy.

The Basis of Morality

One chapter in Rethinking Religion is devoted to rethinking morality. Many religious people insist — absurdly, to my mind — that there can be no morality without religion. Secularists have taken up this challenge and have devised various non-religious moral theories. Prominent atheist Sam Harris, for example, has written a number of articles and books with his own proposals for how we might live by a moral code without having to believe in a judgmental God.

Religious and secularist moralists tend to make the same basic mistake, however, which is to assume that “morality” mostly involves living according to some kind of universally accepted code. It doesn’t. It never did.

Much current research in psychology and sociology points to another source entirely for where our moral notions come from. And that would be our biases and emotions. Our orientation toward all moral issues depends on how we feel about those issues, and then we use our “rational” minds to craft a narrative to explain why our views are “good.” We all do this, whether we admit it or not.

This is why many of our public fights over “moral” issues remain at impasse. People who are disgusted by homosexuality, for example, will find no end of reasons why suppressing it isn’t some kind of moral “good,” while people who accept homosexuality think it’s the suppression that’s immoral.

Notice that most of our hot-button and never-ending public squabbles about what’s moral and what isn’t touches on the same two issues — sex and death. That’s because these are two issues most of us are really emotional — and often conflicted — about. Lying, stealing and cheating, by contrast, are not nearly so controversial.

Although Christians opposed to abortion and birth control insist their perspective is religious, the truth is that Bible-based arguments against abortion and birth control are laughably flimsy, and the pertinent scriptures could be interpreted many ways. Yet to go by the energy the Christian Right puts into fighting these things, you’d think Jesus never talked about anything else. In fact, he never addressed abortion or birth control at all, nor did the Apostles, even though abortions and haphazard attempts at birth control were going on at the time, and they must have known about this.

In truth, our opinions about these issues actually are coming from a murky place in our ids where our feelings about sex, sexual purity, women, motherhood etc., are perpetually stewing and jerking us about. We choose sides depending on what those feelings are, and then we grab the first available ideology that harmonizes with our opinions, whether “religion” or liberalism or whatever.

Buy the Book at Amazon

And if the facts of a situation don’t fit our narratives, we change the facts. The pro-life zealots who camped around Terry Schiavo’s hospital a few years ago convinced themselves that Ms. Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state at all, but was awake and communicating, for example. The truth is, “moral clarity” nearly always depends on ignoring the messy, and often painful, details of human life that obstruct the view.

But those irrelevant details are what our lives actually are. To ignore them is to ignore humanity. That’s why moral absolutism, taken to logical extremes, becomes inhumane. To deny our subjectivity is to deny us.

I’m not arguing against all codes of morals, mind you. Humans need agreed-upon codes of behavior in order to live in communities together. But those are not the basis of morality.

The basis, like it or not, is just us. The basis is our ability to be compassionate; to be empathetic; to value others as much as we value ourselves. Often morality depends on our ability to put aside our own desires and defer to the needs of others. If we can do that, we will be moral people, and if we can’t we won’t. And if we can’t, all the rules in the world won’t matter.

Ritual, Modernity and Citta

One of the arguments I make in my book Rethinking Religion is that religion is not about adopting supernatural belief systems. Instead, religion is about changing the way we experience and understand our lives and our selves, especially as part of everything else — the whole universe throughout time.

I realize western monotheists may struggle with that definition, but I think if you look beyond the specifics of doctrine and understand religion’s effects, I say that’s what it is. Those effects are achieved in many different ways, and in many religions belief in an actual God is essential to those ways. But in many other religions gods often are more like learning aids; just believing in them or praying to them isn’t the point.

In trying to come up with a definition of religion that is inclusive of the whole world’s religious traditions and not just the Big Three of monotheism, the great underlying commonality I could see was was this: Religions are about engaging in many kinds of practices that help us experience and connect to something beyond the confines of the limited self. That something may be God, but not necessarily.

It’s important to understand that this connection is not primarily intellectual or conceptual, and again, I think this is common to all religious traditions, and it also sets religion apart from philosophy, as westerners usually use the word.  Both religion and philosophy address questions of how we humans relate to life and death, time and being, but they address these questions in entirely different ways. Philosophy gives us conceptual and theoretical answers that engage the intellect. Religion primarily engages what Buddhists call citta — the mind of subjective experience, sometimes described as an awareness that is more emotive than intellectual, or something like what westerners call “heart.”

And, personally, I think the reason large parts of the Abrahamic religions are going through an identity crisis now is that they have no concept of citta.  The parts of monotheism that are not fundamentalist seem especially unsure about what it is they actually are doing, or why. They may still believe in God and have high regard for the Bible, but then what? If religion is not just about believing things, then what is it?

Many practices can engage citta, from praying to meditating to yoga and martial arts. But right now I just want to say something about ritual.

In many religious traditions there was a time that laypeople weren’t expected to know much about doctrine. Instead, religion was all about ritual. Through ritual, people reenacted and actualized the myths and symbols of their traditions and thereby came to “know” them on an intuitive level. This in turn made the myths and symbols feel relevant and the mysteries they represented seem immanent. They may not have been able to explain original sin in any coherent way, but religion still had an impact on their experiences and perceptions.

Buy My Book at Amazon

Possibly because it has no concept of citta, much of Christianity has downplayed ritual in modern times.  If one does not believe literally in evoking spirits or whatever the ritual claims to be doing, then what is the point? Rituals are not rational. They seem to be about performing some kind of magic — we light a candle and say the magic words and everything will be better. People today often are uncomfortable with ritual.

But I found a great quote by Carl Jung —

Offerings are made to the invisible powers, formidable blessings are pronounced, and all kinds of solemn rites are performed. Everywhere and at all times there have been rites d’entrée et de sortie whose magical efficacy is denied and which are impugned as magic and superstition by rationalists incapable of psychological insight. But magic has above all a psychological effect whose importance should not be underestimated. [Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957]

Put another way: The myths and rituals of religion are meant to transform citta. They are not (necessarily) meant to evoke magic powers. They are not intended to supplant reason and intellect. Mindfully done, however, a ritual can affect citta and thereby have a real impact on how a person experiences himself and everything else. And that’s no small thing.

The Misuse of Mindfulness

button-nowBack in the Jurassic Age when I was a college student, a boyfriend decided he was going to live a completely spontaneous life. He would make no plans but simply do what he felt like doing at the moment, he said.

And overnight he went from being a fun, if sometimes aggravating, boyfriend to being an utter pain in the ass.

Instead of calling ahead to make dates, for example, he would inform me where he was about to go and that he would drop by my dorm — in five minutes — to take me along if I wanted to go, too. If I was in the middle of doing laundry and couldn’t leave, that was too bad. The final straw came when he remarked that at least his dog was always happy to go anywhere and didn’t need time to get ready.

And yes, he was being a self-centered jerk even by college-age standards. But after all these many years I still think of him — not fondly — whenever I hear someone talk of “living for the moment.”

At the New Statesman, Steven Poole writes that somebody who actually lives a completely spontaneous life would have to be some kind of sociopath. “Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others,” Poole writes.

It also makes it impossible to be in any but the most impersonal and casual relationships. You would always just be that guy who shows up sometimes. You’d never be part of anything beyond yourself.

Poole writes that “living for the moment” has become something of a cult, and spontaneity the highest virtue du jour.  And behind this, he says, is the trendy fad of mindfulness.

 Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

However, the Buddhist practice of  mindfulness meditation has nothing to do with blocking out intrusive negative thoughts. Just the opposite, actually. Mindfulness is being mindful of everything, including pain, stress, and negative thoughts. Blocking anything out, ignoring what’s actually going on in your body, emotions, and thoughts is the opposite of mindfulness.

Buy My Book at Amazon

Mindfulness often is described as a whole body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. Sometimes people ask how they can be mindful and also make plans and schedules. But one can make plans and schedules mindfully.

Consider that Buddhist monastic life tends to be rigidly scheduled. All day long bells and drums signal when it’s time to get up, to assemble for meditation, to cook the next meal or begin alms rounds. But within that container of scheduling one can remain fully mindful, fully embodying the moment and the activity.

On the other hand, you can be as spontaneous as a leaf in the wind and still be oblivious to yourself and everything else. Living for the moment is not the same thing as living in the moment.

See also “The Four Foundations of Mindfuless.”

Fanatics of Faith

Timothy Egan writes in the New York Times that fewer than 7 percent of humankind’s wars involved religion. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,'” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” That surprises me, frankly. I would have guessed at least half.

But of course, there are disagreements about which conflicts are religious and which are not. Egan mentions “Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s bloody purges and Pol Pot’s mass murders” as examples of not-religious atrocities. But I’ve read arguments that those terrible things were religious, really.

Buy My Book at Amazon

One such argument I discussed in my book, Rethinking Religion, is that religious messianism can seep into a culture and inspire the kind of political messianism that gives power to a Hitler or a Mao Zedong. And I do think there’s something to that argument. But I propose that it’s more likely messianism, fanaticism, and violent aggression come from deeper places in the psyche and attach themselves to whatever cause or issue is at hand, religious or not religious.

Egan’s point is that while religious violence has not been the norm in history, right now it is. If you look around the globe, the majority of ongoing violent conflicts have some connection to religion, somewhere. Sometimes it’s hard to find one that doesn’t,in fact. And these same religions also preach love and compassion.

“The problem is that people of faith often become fanatics of faith,” Egan writes. “Reason and force are useless against aspiring martyrs.”

It’s important to look carefully at the connection between religion and violence. The terrible irony is that very often people engaged in religious violence are violating the teachings of the very religion that is the object of their fanaticism. That is definitely true of the Buddhist of Burma and Sri Lanka who are attacking Muslims, for example. There is absolutely nothing in Buddhist teaching that condones or excuses what they are doing.

I say the one element most current religious violence has in common is that they are coming from reactionary movements opposed to some kind of social change. The change may be creeping western hegemony, or the presence of a despised ethnic minority, or many other things. But what often seems to happen is that political, social, or cultural reactionism seizes religion to give itself moral cover, or to justify bigoted and irrational fears.

Very often political and religious reactionism form alliances and support one another. This is certainly true in Burma and Sri Lanka and in the Islamic Middle East. It’s also true in the United States, even though our religion-based terrorism has been mostly centered on abortion clinics, which for some reason means it doesn’t count.

Extremist religious groups rarely follow their own religion’s teachings in any kind of holistic way. They make a fetish of some practices — usually those involving moral purity and the status of women, or respect for symbols and icons — while completely ignoring teachings about compassion and tolerance. This suggests to me that religious violence has deeper social and psychological roots than doctrinal ones.

What Is Faith?

Here is something about faith from a Buddhist perspective. The first chapter in the book How to Raise an Ox by Francis Dojun Cook is titled “The Importance of Faith,” and it begins, “Practice is not possible without faith.” Dojun Cook continued,

“Prior to the experiential realization of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, one must proceed with practice in the faith that the teachings are true and that through practice we will realize our Buddha nature. Without this faith, there is no support for the practice, and if there is doubt or lack of assurance, one will either not begin practice or will not continue it through one’s inevitable difficulties.”

Having faith the teachings are true is not the same thing as “believing in” doctrines. This is an important point. Buddhism proposes that the way we understand and perceive ourselves and our lives is an illusion, and that through practice we can realize this for ourselves and thereby break the chains that bind us to dukkha. So, in this sense, the faith is more a matter of trust than of belief.

Buy My Book at Amazon

Dojun Cook writes that when students of the dharma “begin to verify the teachings of Buddha in their own experience, faith is superseded by direct knowledge.” This is in contrast to other spiritual traditions, in which “the tenets of their belief are not experientially validated in the same way as the doctrines of Buddhism.”

Even though Buddhist faith is not about belief, I think sometimes it requires a suspension of disbelief. Sometimes people make up their minds too quickly about what’s possible, or about what’s “natural” and what isn’t. Trusting the teachings means it’s okay to not understand them right away, and to remain open to “not knowing” without forcing it all to make sense. When we insist on stuffing the dharma into our existing cognitive database, we strip it of its power to teach us.

You Can’t Kill Intolerance With More Intolerance

If you’ve read my book Rethinking Religion, you know how much I want reactionary Christians to stop trying to force the rest of us to bow to their tribal totems. If it were up to me, there’d be no Ten Commandments monuments or Nativity scenes on pubic property. No store clerk would ever be harassed for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There’s be no special legal favors for “Christian” corporations, no proselytizing anywhere, and separation of church and state would be global policy.

Although achieving this happily tolerant state won’t be easy and won’t happen in my lifetime, I think it could happen some day. But there’s a smart way to work toward a religiously tolerant world, and there’s the stupid way.

Buy My Book at Amazon

For examples of stupid, see 5 atheist and Muslim billboards that drove the Christian right nuts at Salon. One is a large billboard with a picture of Santa Claus, captioned “Keep the MERRY.” Under that is Christ on the Cross, captioned “Dump the MYTH.” Another billboard reads “Who Needs Christ During Christmas? Nobody!” The name “Christ” is crossed out. These billboards were both sponsored by the group American Atheists.

The Salon article quotes American Atheist president David Silverman:  ““We all love this time of year…Christianity has been trying to claim ownership of the season for hundreds of years. But the winter solstice came first and so did its traditions. The season belongs to everybody.” I agree. I also think that’s what they should have said on their billboards — The season belongs to everybody. Ridiculing Jesus was unnecessary.

Seriously, atheist dudes, the Christian Right is not Jesus’ fault. The CR may have adopted Jesus as its team mascot, but it’s ignored his teachings for years. And seeing Jesus ridiculed is as jarring to Christians — including the tolerant, progressive ones — as watching their mothers being publicly humiliated.

This is not a way to win hearts and minds; it’s just a cheap self-indulgence.

Before buying any more billboard space, I suggest that American Atheists sit down and have a good, long think about what they are trying to accomplish. And then they should take a look at current research in cognitive science and social psychology to craft a smarter way to achieve their goals.

For example, is the goal (a) to  wean humankind from religion completely? Or is it (b) to foster a society in which religion is respected as a private matter and not something we’re perpetually hassling each other about?

I can tell you right now (a) is not going to happen in your lifetimes. Or this century. Likely not in this millennium. Something that has been part of civilization since there has been civilization doesn’t disappear that easily. I’m not even going to try to persuade you that (a) wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, although I don’t think it would be. I’m saying it’s a fool’s errand to even try.

If (b), now we’re talking. That is more do-able. And a lot of religious people, like me, would happily join you in the effort. Even then it won’t be easy, but I think enough people are getting fed up with the antics of religious extremists  that a smartly run campaign might actually work.

“Smartly run” brings us to the cognitive science and social psychology.  Google “motivated reasoning” and read up on it. Rmuse at Politics USA explains,

What results of the several studies demonstrate is that once a partisan is confronted with unwelcome facts about their beliefs, the centers of their brain associated with emotional distress light up and remain active until their defective brains “rationalize away the unwanted information.” According to one of the scientists conducting the studies, when conservatives and Christian zealots rationalize away unwanted information, the centers of their brains associated with positive feelings turn on and “overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their ‘fix.’”

The studies also prove that despite showing conservatives, Republicans, gun fanatics, and evangelical special interests facts, scriptures, and even video evidence that their strongly held beliefs are pure fantasy or absolutely wrong, conservative (and some liberal) brains automatically reject facts because they refute their personal beliefs. Research teams at Yale and Dartmouth discovered, for example, that highly skilled mathematicians will, more often than not, deliberately reach an incorrect answer if data leads to a conclusion that is contrary to their political worldview. There are myriad examples of conservatives and evangelical fanatics disputing hard data, the Constitution, and the Christian bible because they are programmed by conservatives’ buzzwords, memes, and outright lies into believing their errant conclusions and faith are fact.

I doubt that surprises anyone, but do re-read the first paragraph of the excerpt. If your message is one that triggers a negative emotional reaction in most folks, including those who might be persuadable, you are hurting your cause more than helping it.

Negative attack ads work in elections — usually, anyway — because they can whip up enough low-information voters to vote against the guy the ads are attacking. Especially in a close election, just a few hundred voters can change the outcome.

But, dear atheists, you aren’t trying to be elected to a county commission. You’re trying to change society itself. That’s a whole ‘nother thing. And your “target audience,” the people whose minds you are trying to change, are not the hard-right religious extremists, because their minds will not change.

Your audience is everybody else, religious and not-religious.

Take a cue from same-sex marriage advocates. They are winning public opinion by engendering public sympathy.  They are changing minds by presenting a positive image of themselves as loving, responsible and family oriented, not by bashing their opposition.

Years ago I formulated a basic rule for successful demonstrating that I call the “Bigger Asshole” rule. The job of public protesters is not to change the minds of the powerful people they are opposing, but to gain public sympathy for their cause. Especially in politics, the powerful won’t change until they are compelled to do so by a sufficient critical mass of public opinion saying they must.

So the job of protesters and demonstrators is to make the people they are protesting look like bigger assholes than they are.  But if the protesters come across as bigger assholes than the protestees, the public will side with the establishment. And I assure you that, in terms of the Bigger Asshole rule, ridiculing Jesus is a losing strategy.

LGBT activists are winning public opinion by making gay-bashers look like the bigger assholes. And considering there’s a lot of overlap between homophobes and religious extremists, atheists ought to be able to do the same thing.

America on Buddhism — More Popular Than Evangelicals

The Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project has a new poll out revealing how Americans feel about various religious traditions. The “mean thermometer rating,” meaning how groups ranked among all respondents, was:

Americans' Ratings of Religious Groups

Buy My Book!

I take it from this that Protestant Christians who are not evangelicals are now officially chopped liver. But congratulations to Judaism!

Notice that if you take out the respondents ranking of their own traditions, on the right hand side of the chart, Catholics and Evangelicals drop a few percentage points, and evangelicals actually dip to 4th place just behind Buddhists. We’re Number Three! We’re Number Three!

Pew says that evangelicals made up about 32 percent of the respondents, and they tended to rank themselves highly, but also they tend to be unpopular with other groups. Buddhists got their highest popularity points from Agnostics and Atheists, thank you, although Jews think we’re okay, too. We are most unpopular with white evangelicals. Buddhism also is seen more favorably by younger people than by older ones, which isn’t too surprising.

Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter