Fossilized Opinions

Sam Harris is famous for the argument that religion, even moderate religion, does harm by teaching that faith is a virtue that should not be questioned, which encourages militant and violent strains of fundamentalism. Today, I want to talk about another way, subtle but unmistakable, that religion causes harm to human beings.

Because of its tendency to treat all the statements of its founders and sacred texts as holy truth, religion has the effect of “freezing” the prejudices in vogue at the time of that religion’s founding – encouraging followers to view them not as contingent or arbitrary cultural biases, but as the received will of God. And when a community of the faithful sincerely believes this, they’ll perpetuate those prejudices for decades or centuries, long after the rest of the world has made enough progress to leave them behind. These preserved opinions are like fossils, surviving remnants of a more ancient era. But unlike fossils, they’re still alive and malignant and able to do harm.

Consider the belief, still all too common, that rape victims are partially to blame for being raped if they drink or dress provocatively. This is a pernicious myth that’s long been used, and is still being used, by rapists to excuse their actions and discourage rape victims from reporting the crime. It springs from the ancient prejudice that men can’t be expected to exercise self-control in such situations, while women who are raped must have done something to tempt or incite the man into raping her. This is the sort of vile misogyny that our society should long since have discarded – but not only is it alive and well, it’s still being propped up by patriarchal, male-dominated religions. Consider this story about a religious leaflet given to a woman in Virginia:

“You may have been given this leaflet because of the way you are dressed,” it begins. “Have you thought about standing before the true and living God to be judged?”

…”Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts a men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin,” the leaflet states. “By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?”

This loathsome argument, though presumably from a Christian source, has much in common with the Muslim cleric who proclaimed that women who refuse to veil their faces are like “uncovered meat” that gets eaten by stray animals. Both of them justify their woman-hating, blame-the-victim attitude by passing it off as the word of God.

The same attitude is behind a new and worrying trend in American schools: religious-right legislators who’ve supported teaching creationism in science class are now broadening their sights to demand the teaching of “alternative views” about global warming, as well as other favorite right-wing targets. As the article notes, white evangelicals are among the least likely to accept the science behind climate change (and I’ve written before about similar views from both sides of the theological aisle).

It’s no surprise that people who are hostile to the scientific worldview would oppose not just evolution, but other well-established scientific truths as well. A worldview founded on faith, fallacy and magical thinking is unlikely to accord scientific research the respect it deserves. (To cite another example, prominent creationists Philip Johnson and Jonathan Wells also belong to a pseudoscientific group which argues that HIV does not cause AIDS.) And since Christianity has, for the most part, become fused with the Republican Party in America, it was to be expected that there’s hardly any daylight left between the political goals of those two groups. It started with Christians infiltrating and taking over the Republican Party platform, but it’s fascinating to see how this connection now runs in the other direction as well – how the corporatist, social-Darwinian agenda of the GOP has become fossilized as the de facto position of evangelical Christianity.

The harm done by fossilized opinions is most obvious in Islam, where the status of women has scarcely advanced in fourteen hundred years. Laws still in force throughout the Muslim world allow men to take multiple wives, forbid women from getting an education or traveling outside the home without a male relative, devalue their testimony in court, and more. Just a few weeks ago, Muslim tribal elders in Bangladesh ordered the flogging of a rape victim – and Bangladesh is relatively advanced when it comes to women’s rights, at least when compared to most other Islamic countries.

The next time you hear some mealy-mouthed accommodationist denouncing atheists for claiming “intellectual superiority” over believers, remind them of facts like these. If atheists’ opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions, it’s not because we’re intrinsically smarter – it’s because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself. Millions of religious believers’ minds are mired centuries in the past, clinging to beliefs that we now know to be false and moral tenets that we now know to be atrocities. We have every right to feel superior to people who still hold such fossilized opinions.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Paul S

    Isn’t the same “scientific method” used when researching evolution the same “scientific method” used when pharmacological manufacturers research new drugs to heal a mryiad of health problems? I’ll bet there are many believers out there who refuse to acknowledge evolution, while at the same time are reliant on their high blood pressure medication for their lives. Picking and choosing which science to believe based on one’s religious views is hypocritical and intellectually dishonest.

  • Jennifer

    As usual, Ebon, you find just the right words to make a concept clear. I had not thought of religion as “freezing” initial prejudices, or rather, I hadn’t thought it in so many words. But it’s the perfect way to put it. The best thing we can do to increase awareness is to (to borrow your own phrasing) to examine these concepts head on in the light of day.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    If atheists’ opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions, it’s not because we’re intrinsically smarter – it’s because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself.

    I’ve found that one of the most freeing and also kind of nerve-wracking things about atheism is the realization that there’s no higher being who will support or condemn you. It’s all up to us to figure things out.

    -Sharmin

  • Katie M

    Yes, compared to religious believers, the rest of the world has advanced. This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best we have had yet, thanks to science.

  • http://duford.com sduford

    Excellent article, you hit the nail on the Ebon.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This fossilized thinking applies to the clothing they wear as well, as I noted in a post I did a few weeks ago.

    http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com/2010/02/fundy-fashion.html

  • jemand

    I have thought about this before, comparing the old testament doctrine of murdering an entire village of believers in another religion, including their animals, and then salting the land so nothing can grow, with the “fair game” doctrine in Scientology. Now, while fair game is obviously awful, it still is several thousand years advanced from the old testament idea. People are neutralized for *interfering* in *your* religion, only killed if that’s necessary as part of the neutralization. This is a significant improvement over immediate death for just *having* a *different* belief. Similarly, having your believers sign a 50 billion year contract is a significant improvement over having a rule that allows slavery in this life, and if a slave is beaten and takes a couple days to die, than only a small fine is merited. Etc. By watching the development of a new religion today, it seems that the beliefs that religions are likely to “freeze in” as a starting point already are a bit behind the secular ideas of the day. (Also compare the beginning of the Christian religion, and it’s rules, to the philosophy of Plato, say, in it’s valuation of women, for example).

  • JulietEcho

    Well-expressed and quite true. A big part of the problem is “holy” texts like the Bible and the Koran – they might be interpreted to fit the morality of the times by liberals, but the fact that they’re regarding as holy and true and whatnot means that the same morals from OT times (the rape victims example is a powerful one) can be used today by fundamentalists.

    “Frozen in time” or “fossilized” are good ways to put it.

  • Jim Baerg

    In many cases ‘coprolitic’ would be appropriate.

  • http://weneedus.tumblr.com/ Ted

    Your analysis is certainly correct, but I urge you to consider taking it to a bigger issue, namely monotheism’s exclusiveness. Once we have the only god, we give ourselves an enormous problem: everybody else. What do we do with/about Them, those ignorant/evil beings who refuse to recognize Our God’s holiness, and therefore, it necessarily follows, our own?

    We can convert them. When that fails, we can exterminate them. When that fails, we can force them out of land we want. When that fails we can force them to pretend they believe in Our God. When that fails we can force them into exile, those who survive our torture. When that fails we can withdraw from all contact with them (like, say the Amish or charedi Jews).

    No matter how this works out, it can’t be good for anyone involved. And it can’t ever end, as long as monotheism retains its exclusive claim on the sacred.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    But unlike fossils, they’re still alive and malignant and able to do harm.

    Sort of like the fossils of ancient retroviral infections that we find in our DNA.

  • RichardN

    It really peeves me that the so-called Christian ‘right’ blatantly uses an antiquated form of mind control over lesser educated people, to try to convince them that science is bad. That ‘thinking’ and knowledge are, somehow, sinful and evil. It almost seems like a conspiracy of neglect- to be sure we have a dumbed-down working class. That they will always have a huge voting block of folks that think Fox is hard news and the check-out stand newspapers tell it like it really is. That Palin would make the best President we ever had.

    Good examples using the issues of how women are affected. Too bad that women don’t see it coming that it “could be” the United States that someday requires women to disguise their looks in order to prevent rape. Almost sounds logical to some folks.

    Wouldn’t be long after that that we’d be ‘bagging’ children to put-off pedophiles. Yep, your child has to wear a full-length, gray, body bag to school that prevents identity of the child’s sex, race and hair color. See how easy it is to solve “other people’s” problems ?? And I’m not even a Christian…LOL

  • Caiphen

    ‘If atheists’ opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions,it’s not because we’re intrinsically smarter – it’s because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself.’

    I was once homophobic because of my faith. When I ‘forced’ myself to open my mind to the scientific method, I realised this. What the hell for?

    I was a prime example of how this post is 100% correct. Faith is madness, everything should be questioned.

  • Zietlos

    @ #9: Well I laughed. Probably shouldn’t have, but I did.

    Religion does change, albeit at a rock’s pace, as outside forces press in on it. At one point, it was kings who wanted to sleep with many women. At another point, Copernicus (science) really screwed with the teachings of the time. Since religions are just amalgamations of other ideas, it is sedimentary to believe that the latite origins are likely some tribal customs which have no bearing to theologic philosophy, such as Mithras’ tale. Shale we begin anyways? I pumice I won’t over-pontificate. Intense pressure from the outside, given enough time, forces even the most stubborn rockheads to eventually metamorphose, pressing on the original teachings to fit into our modern “tuff schist” religious morality. Maybe in the end, with enough change, we will finally have a gneiss religion that takes doesn’t take human values for granite, you never know, but not in our lifetime. I don’t want to skarn your thoughts, Ebon, I love talc’ing on here, but both rocks, and religion, will alter eventually.

    …Sorry.

  • jemand

    LOL Zietlos. Well, truth is, as long as the texts are venerated as god’s word, the infection is there, lying in wait for a simple reader to take them at face value, and start their own “righteous” commune full of abuse, no matter what the “mainstream” and “acceptable” and “nice” religious interpretation says. Now it’s true that one day, even those texts will be lost to the mists of time, but by then, it will be a different religion.

  • Purple

    Hey Ebon,

    this is a bit off-topic, but are you aware that in Texas, the recent elections voted creationist Don McLeroy off of the State Texas Education Agency?

    Purple

  • bbk

    Insightful post. I also liked Tommykey’s post. Unmalleable ideas are a product of espousing faith as a virtue. If we never question anything, how can we ever change?

    Pair this up with religious privilege and we end up where we’re at. Even if they understand that ideas such as the ones about rape are bad, they seem incapable of attributing these ideas to their own religions. There are even Christian counseling centers out there that purport to treat victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.

  • Katie M

    @Purple-That’s great news!

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    What’s annoying is that when the more liberal aspects of a religion finally catch up with the rest of us, morally speaking, they then have the audacity to claim that is what their scripture really said the whole time.

  • Caiphen

    Purple

    What a relief. Thank Darwin for that.

    Steve

    Yep. The episcopal church is a typical example as they finally ordained a gay minister. Too bad about the 2000 year terror handed down to homosexuals through the generations. Of course, we rationally minded people had nothing to do with them gaining their basic human rights. It’s really very easy to see that religion creates and perpetuates the biggest lies of all.

  • Ritchie

    Nothing but praise for this article from me too, though the one point which sticks in my mind was that ‘Christianity has, for the most part, become fused with the Republican Party in America’.

    What an interesting observation. I wonder what that tells us about either/both of them. I’d love to speculate if I were more up on American politics…

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ritchie “I wonder what that tells us about either/both of them. I’d love to speculate if I were more up on American politics…”
    Come, children, gather ’round and let me tell you a story.

    “Way, way back in olden times, Mean King Nixon ruled the land with a Mean Crooked Sneer and a Mean Iron Fist. The Mean Kingdom was covered in the Stink of Change, with the Lefty Blues, Confident Mamas and Uppity Browns pushing a Stink that was unlike any Stink that Mean King Nixon had ever smelled before. One day, after a morning of twisting the heads of off ponies and secretly bombing Cambodia, Mean King Nixon’s magic mirror told him as he passed it in the Mean Hall of the House that the Stink of Change, particularly when it involved the Uppity Browns (who had been involved in the Stink of Change before, when the Kingdom was split in two by the Mean War), scared the heck out of Pale While Males in the South of the Kingdom, many of whom Really Loved Jesus (who, it was said, hated everything that the Southern Pale While Males hated), and Mean King Nixon and his Mean Inner Men put their Mean Heads together and came up with a plan to use the threat of Blues, Mamas and Browns (later joined by the Godless Sillyknickers, Fabulous Fuchsias and Not-Quite Browns from Sandy Lands) demanding to be treated like the Southern Pale White Males to rally the Southern Pale White Males around Mean King Nixon, so that he and his children could rule the country forever…”

  • Ritchie

    Modus – I’m picturing you in an aran sweater sitting by a log fire with a stack of Werther’s Originals to hand…

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Not Werther’s. I’ve got those unwrapped, striped peppermints that eventually merge when exposed to sunlight become a single candy mass. I inherited them/it after my last grandparent died and, God willing, one of my grandchildren will inherit it when I kick off.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Oh, if you want to learn the actual history of how the Right co-opted the religious Right, start at The Southern Strategy (which is what my tale was loosely based on). It’s part of the interesting, and ongoing, story of how people who don’t care what “right” is co-opted people who are supposed to only care about what “right” is.

  • Katie M

    “In the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater ran a conservative campaign which was a magnet for conservatives. Goldwater broadly opposed strong action by the federal government. Although he had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation, Goldwater made the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964[17]. His stance was based on his view that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and, second, that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do business, or not, with whomever they chose.”

    Never mind the tremendous amount of good the Act did.

  • http://scientificphilosophy.com Glenn Borchardt

    “The next time you hear some mealy-mouthed accommodationist denouncing atheists for claiming “intellectual superiority” over believers, remind them of facts like these. If atheists’ opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions, it’s not because we’re intrinsically smarter – it’s because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself. Millions of religious believers’ minds are mired centuries in the past, clinging to beliefs that we now know to be false and moral tenets that we now know to be atrocities. We have every right to feel superior to people who still hold such fossilized opinions.”

    I agree 100%. The theism-atheism debate still exists because the debaters hold opposing assuptions that cannot be proven or disproven without doubt. Nevertheless, the more we experiment and experience the external world, the more we lean toward deterministic assumptions that support the scientific worldview over the religious world view.

    Glenn Borchardt