According to M. D. Faber’s The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief, although we are born free of religious inclinations, widespread belief in a personal God has its roots in our early childhood development. In infancy, for instance, a child relies on his or her seemingly omnipotent caregiver (a “proto-deity”) to supplicate cries (“proto-prayer”) for nourishment and care. The child is consequently primed to map this process onto a religious narrative complete with its Parent-God. By promoting a religious narrative early on, religious institutions lay the groundwork for religious belief by exploiting an essentially subconscious process before a child has fully developed the ability to reason. None of us are quite “wired for God,” however; the existence of nonbelievers testifies to the possibility of accepting alternative narratives by the time one is exposed to religious ones. Despite reservations about some of the author’s contentions, Krause uses Faber’s analysis to offer his own recommendations for ensuring that one’s children enjoy the rewards of a rational life.
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The latest release from the senior pastor of the World Harvest Church might not inspire great thoughts, but it certainly invites a great deal of criticism. A litany of deficiencies could be ennumerated: citing the founding fathers only when it suits him; glossing over the Bible’s endorsement of slavery and the Christian Crusaders’ brutality; showing little sign of compassion for the poor; demonizing entire segments of society because he dislikes their “lifestyle”; and so on. After noting the irony of Parsley’s characterization of Islam as a violent superstition, Krause supplements Parsley’s chapter on education with a history of Christian attitudes to public education. Peddling the standard fare in evangelical circles on abortion and the media, Parsley leaves little doubt that he intends Silent No More to do nothing more than play off its audience’s fears as a vehicle for his own (unreflective) ideas.
David Eller’s Natural Atheism is no ordinary freethought handbook. Its chapter on church-state separation reviews most of the appropriate legislation and case law, concluding that freedom from religion is protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. As an unapologetic rationalist, Eller insists that any deviation from reason–including faith–merely masquerades as thinking. Advocating the relativity of moral systems to specific social contexts, Eller nevertheless thinks that reason can ground moral systems by encouraging socially beneficial behavior on the basis of intersubjectivity. And while he thinks that no religious source truly values toleration, he is ambiguous about the extent to which freethinkers should tolerate religion for social convenience at the expense of truth.
Hector Avalos’ Fighting Words adds organization, scholarly research, and coherent theory to the phenomenon of religiously inspired violence. Analyzing religious violence in terms of “scarce resource theory,” Avalos argues that sacred spaces and authoritative scriptures constitute scarce resources accessible to, controlled by, or interpreted by only a few. Competition for these resources, or for group privilege and salvation, inevitably leads to violence which is only that much more tragic because of the unverifiability of the very existence of such resources. Failure to recognize the authority of, or correctly interpret or observe, a particular sacred text creates the potential for bloodshed; and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’s soteriological justifications for violence only exacerbate its realization. Rather than merely explaining the root causes of religious violence, Avalos encourages us to assist religionists in modifying their traditions to thwart the maintenance and creation of unverifiable scarcities, or otherwise seek the elimination of their violent traditions.
Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers paints a broad picture of American secularism, beginning with the US Constitution’s break with all precedent in failing to make even a passing reference to a deity, then outlining the importance of Enlightenment values–particularly the concept of natural rights–in propelling the abolition of slavery. Though Jacoby surveys a cast of nineteenth-century secularist heroes, she does not sufficiently emphasize the battles taken up by late nineteenth-century freethought organizations. But she does enjoin us to educate ourselves and ensure that the public never overlooks the harm that religion has caused, offering no compromises for the sake of political correctness.
Helen Bennett’s Humanism, What’s That? will undoubtedly please those searching for philosophical confirmation, but utterly fails as a work of children’s fiction. With her mechanical writing style and one-dimensional characters, Bennett virtually ignores the most fundamental elements of effective storytelling, never revealing the finer details of the story’s setting. The fictional teacher’s encouragement to trust doctors rather than the will of God, and to seek knowledge in general, is commendable. But her mildly informative history lessions are hardly inspiring, and her god-like characterization of Humanism’s adherents are Pollyannaish and dogmatic. Though potentially helpful to some, freethinking parents ought to be aware of its occasional tendency toward irrational or shallow thinking.
In his typical accessible style, Alan Dershowitz tackles some of the most central ethical questions in Rights From Wrongs. Do we discover rights derived from either God or Nature, and if not, on what basis do we invent them? Should we pretend that there is a perfect and absolute source of rights even if we know that there is no such beast, lest everything be permitted? Arguing that such “fraud” would only invite more mischief, Dershowitz develops a secular theory of rights that he intends to ground, among other things, the free marketplace of ideas. But while appreciating the merits of Dershowitz’s attempt to derive rights from agreed-upon wrongs, Krause is skeptical of the capacity of the general public to come to any sort of reasoned agreement about what sorts of actions are morally wrong.
Whenever I critique the inherent, ubiquitous, and incessant relationship between Abrahamic monotheism and senseless violence, I inevitably receive defiant rejoinders not only from Christian rigorists but from misinformed moderates and secularists as well. Such people offer Hitler and Nazism as verification of humanity’s purely secular propensity toward excessive bloodshed. But contrary to popular opinion, Adolf Hitler was not an atheist.
In this review of Michael Shermer’s most recent attempt to ground secular ethics in evolutionary biology, Kenneth Krause outlines some of the highlights of The Science of Good and Evil before turning to a discussion of some of its deficiencies. Among the former is the emphasis that moral problems “must be subjected to rational scrutiny,” that moral sentiments and behaviors arose from evolution rather than God (and exist outside of us in this limited sense), and that while religion may have had limited success in “identifying universal moral and immoral thoughts and behaviors” and canonizing them, religion did not generate them. Krause then turns to a survey of empirical evidence for the thesis that “monotheism has proved an ineffectual prescription for morality,” finally noting statistics showing that widespread American belief in God hasn’t improved social problems like crime rates. This paves the way for Shermer’s secular alternative. Many of Shermer’s points were not original, but still valuable since they clearly “cannot be repeated enough,” and his core standards are fairly intuitive and thus hardly revolutionary.
In this review of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, Kenneth Krause notes Harris’ most important points about the destructive nature of faith. After pointing out that hundreds of millions of Americans hold beliefs clearly inconsistent with well-established scientific and historical facts, Harris turns to a discussion of how faith adversely affects our daily lives, directly motivates religious violence, and even threatens the future of civilization. The problem is not so much specific religious doctrines as it is the principle of faith itself–a principle which eschews reason and ends all meaningful conversation. Harris also blames religious moderates as much as fundamentalists for the ongoing religious conflicts of our times. Though Krause greatly appreciates all of these points, he ends by noting at least two deficiences of this book.