Windsor Humanist Society

November 18, 2008

Does Religion Make You Nice? Does Atheism Make You Mean?

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Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. In The Ten Commandments, she approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: “Where there is no God, all is permitted.” The opposing view, held by a small minority of secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, is that belief in God makes us worse. As Mr. Hitchens puts it, “Religion poisons everything.”

Arguments about the merits of religions are often battled out with reference to history, by comparing the sins of theists and atheists. (I see your Crusades and raise you Stalin!) But a more promising approach is to look at empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one’s reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

Maybe, then, religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone. If so, you would expect to find the positive influence of religion outside the laboratory. And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called “niceness.” In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street. Since giving to charity makes one happy, Arthur Brooks speculates that this could be one reason why atheists are so miserable. In a 2004 study, twice as many religious people say that they are very happy with their lives, while the secular are twice as likely to say that they feel like failures.

Since the United States is more religious than other Western countries, this research suggests that Fox talk-show host Sean Hannity was on to something when he asserted that the United States is “the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth.” In general, you might expect people in less God-fearing countries to be a lot less kind to one another than Americans are.

It is at this point that the “We need God to be good” case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren’t those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don’t go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don’t believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they’re nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren’t exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.

The first step to solving this conundrum is to unpack the different components of religion. In my own work, I have argued that all humans, even young children, tacitly hold some supernatural beliefs, most notably the dualistic view that bodies and minds are distinct. (Most Americans who describe themselves as atheists, for instance, nonetheless believe that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.) Other aspects of religion vary across cultures and across individuals within cultures. There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence—it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, “[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them.”

The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Ms. Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.
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…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, F.Black after a November 7, 2008 article by Paul Bloom in Slate.Com

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November 12, 2008

Public Funding for RC Schools – Debate Between Ontario NDP Leadership Hopefuls

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The controversial topic of public funding for Catholic schools re-emerged Saturday at the first debate between candidates vying to become leader of Ontario’s New Democrats, along with warnings about focusing on issues that could divide the third-placed party as it attempts to rebuild itself.

Three of the four leadership contenders tried to distance themselves from the proposal that helped sink the Progressive Conservatives in the last provincial election, saying the party needs to focus on the issues that unite and strengthen it.

“The next election needs to be fought on the economy, on the environment and rebuilding equity and fairness to this province,” Peter Tabuns, former head of Greenpeace Canada, told a gathering of more than 200 supporters.

“We looked at what happened in the last election when (Progressive Conservative Leader) John Tory rolled his party over a cliff on the faith-based funding issue. The simple reality in this province is that when you take on those issues, it means everything else gets cleared off the table.”

Michael Prue, who got into hot water earlier this year by suggesting it’s time the NDP reviewed its policy of supporting public funding for Catholic schools, refused to back away from the issue, saying party members have the right to debate any topic they wish.

“(In) the last four conventions this issue has been on the convention floor and (in) the last four conventions the party brass has refused to allow it to come forward — that is not democracy,” said Mr. Prue, a former East York mayor.

“All I’m saying to this party is that if the members want to discuss this issue, then the members should have the right to put it on the convention floor and to vote on it.

Mr. Tory spent much of the 2007 election campaign defending a proposal to give $400-million a year to religious schools which opt into the public system. But the fierce debate that ensued eroded Mr. Tory’s public support and left him without a seat in the legislature.

Mr. Prue has maintained he isn’t trying to re-open that debate and said that Mr. Tory took on the issue “on the wrong side” by seeking to extend funding.

“I haven’t heard anyone in the New Democratic party wanting to go down this route, but we have to determine if the current system is against the United Nations charter of which we are a signatory nation.

But party veteran Gilles Bisson was one of three contenders who warned faith-based funding was an issue that would divide the party.

“It is really the third rail of politics; the Liberals would love nothing better,” Mr. Bisson said.

“We need to focus on those issues that bind us together and that are dealing with the issues of today, such as the environment and the economy.

When it comes to the province’s finances, Mr. Bisson said, he believes it’s research and innovation that will create jobs, while Mr. Prue argued his track record balancing the books as mayor during a recession shows he can tackle the economy.

Mr. Tabuns said the way to help the struggling auto sector is by linking the environment and the economy, while Hamilton’s Andrea Horwath, who entered the race Friday, said she wants to remove barriers for unions to organize and improve jobs.

All four candidates agree, however, that rebuilding the party leading to the next provincial election in 2011 will be a key priority.

“If we are going to win the next provincial election, we’re only going to do it if we are organized, said Ms. Horwath, who has a background as a grassroots organizer.

“I have experience there.”

The NDP hasn’t been the ruling party in Ontario since former premier Bob Rae took the reins in 1990. Mr. Rae presided over one of the most challenging periods of the province’s history, inheriting a $700-million deficit and at one point projecting a record deficit of $9.1-billion.

The Ontario NDP is sponsoring nine regional debates in advance of the leadership convention in March to replace outgoing Leader Howard Hampton, who will step down after 13 years at the helm.

The candidates will travel to Sudbury, Kingston, London, Ottawa, Timmins, Hamilton and Thunder Bay.
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…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, JimmyMack, after a November 8, 2008 article by Romina Maurino over The Canadian Press

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November 10, 2008

Islamic States ask UN to explore ‘Freedom of Expression’ & ‘Incitement to Religious Hatred’

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On 2/3 October, over 200 national delegates and NGO representatives attended a unique two-day expert seminar at the UN Geneva to discuss limits to Freedom of Expression. Convened by The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the request of united-nations-genevathe Islamic States, a dozen experts and many other speakers took the floor to explore the links between Freedom of Expression and incitement to religious hatred.

Many of the experts urged caution in proposing new legislation that could have negative consequences for the very people whose rights we are striving to protect, and while implementation of the existing legislation permitted under Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR (The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) is still so patchy in its adoption.

Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia and the representative of the OIC were joined by former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Doudou Diene, in calling for a review of Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, and tighter restrictions on Freedom Expression in the aftermath of 9/11 which, they argued, has created an entirely new set of circumstances. This view was strongly opposed by several Western delegations (as well as IHEU) on the grounds that today’s tensions are nothing new, that the limits already offered by Articles 19 and 20 are entirely adequate – and in any case have still to be fully adopted by many states.

Said IHEU representative, Roy Brown, after the meeting: “It is outrageous that many of those States pushing for changes in international law are among the worst offenders themselves when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities”.

It now seems probable, however, that following this meeting The OIC will have achieved another of its objectives and The Human Rights Committee, the UN body of experts charged with monitoring the implementation of The ICCPR, will be asked to consider revisiting its recommendation of 1980 that restrictions on Freedom of Expression should not impair the enjoyment of that freedom itself.

In a warning for the future, it became clear that the Islamic States, having won the battle in both The Human Rights Council and The UN General Assembly over combating defamation of religion, are shifting their attack to a new battle front: what they call “the West’s double standards” over outlawing Holocaust denial while permitting insults to religion. Their demands for “a level playing field” will focus not on repealing laws against Holocaust denial, but on using these laws as models to prohibit any speech critical of Islam!

A detailed summary of the seminar can be found here.

Statement by Roy Brown, International Humanist and Ethical Union to Expert Seminar on Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 2/3 October 2008

“…I must thank the organisers for giving NGOs the opportunity to participate in this important seminar. I have listened very carefully to the debate and I want to thank the experts for the clarity of their analyses, and several of the other contributors for the points they have raised.

The debate has looked at three main issues so far, but it is clear that cutting across these are two quite different schools of thought: those who believe that the existing restrictions on freedom of expression as set out in Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR are already adequate, and those who believe that freedom of expression is being misused to single out a particular group for attack.

It was suggested by some speakers that the ICCPR is a child of the Cold War, that 9/11 has created an entirely new set of circumstances and that a review of articles 19 and 20 may therefore be necessary. But the ICCPR is actually a child of the Universal Declaration, and even in 1966 memories of the Holocaust were still fresh. It was the intention of those who drafted the UDHR and the ICCPR that those events should never be repeated – against any group. Had they wished to go further in restricting freedom of expression in order ensure no repetition they would most certainly have done so.

The intention of those who drafted articles 19 and 20 was clearly to help prevent incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence against any group, however they might be characterised. I would argue that Article 20 should be broadly construed. It does not go far enough if the explicit reference to nationalities, races and religions is taken as delimiting its scope. This paragraph should be widely interpreted. I do not think we can exclude incitement to hatred of other groups identified, for example, by gender, sexual orientation, class, caste, or even allegiance to a particular football club. Surely, it is incitement to hatred that is the problem, regardless of who may be the target.

My second point is this. There is an elephant in the room, but perhaps I see a different elephant from others. Articles 19 and 20 differ widely in their application both from country to country and from group to group within countries. In some States, as is well known, draconian penalties await critics of the government or of the state religion even when that criticism may be factual and justified. Yet in those same states it is open season on incitement to hatred of other religious groups, and of one group in particular.

We should be extremely cautious in tinkering with articles 19 and 20 when some States already disregard them within their own jurisdictions. I believe the greater problem is lack of uniformity in the application of articles 19 and 20, not the articles themselves. The essence of international law is surely that it be applied internationally and not selectively.

Doudou Diene has argued that we need to revisit the norms and their interpretation. Surely equally important is their adoption and implementation. As one speaker has pointed out, we have tools we have not used. Let us first explore their use.

We should also be cautious about changes that could lead to legitimising unreasonable restrictions on freedom of expression that exist in certain countries – and extending those restrictions to other states where freedom of expression has become one of the cornerstones, indeed one of the principle safeguards, of liberal democracy…”

~~~~End of Mr. Brown’s statement~~~~
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…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, JimmyMack, after an October 8, 2008, article carried by The International Humanist and Ethical Union blog

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November 9, 2008

Invalidate Proposition 8 – Listen Up, Canadians – You Can Help

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You may be aware that in May 2008, The Supreme Court of California prop_8_logodetermined that the California Constitution required civil marriage to be available to same-sex couples, instead of being limited only to opposite-sex couples. This is the law in Canada as well.

In response, The Mormon church encouraged its members to donate to the “Yes on 8” campaign, which encouraged voters to pass an amendment to the constitution entitled “ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME-SEX COUPLES TO MARRY”.
Individual Mormons ended up contributing $22 million to this. Additionally The Knights of Columbus gave a total of $1,425,000, the largest donation from one organization or one person on record for “Yes on 8”.

On Election Night, “Yes on 8” was successful, by about a 52-48 vote. It’s believed that the effect of misleading commercials paid for by donations to “Yes on 8” is what resulted in their success. For the remainder of the week, there have been marches, vigils, and protests against this result, in cities across California, due remarkably to both gay and straight youth, not the traditional gay leadership, holding “Yes on 8” to account, and bringing visibility to this issue.

Canadians were prohibited from donating to either side of the election campaign, but it appears we are free to fund the legal challenge to the amendment, and I encourage you to so do. This appears to be the first time since same-sex marriage has been legal anywhere in our lifetimes that it has been undone. As someone who was married by a WHS officiant, it is chilling to see how easily and glee-fully my marriage can be wiped away. If this stands in California, it’s not too much of a stretch to think it could happen here next, via the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Constitution.

The campaign to invalidate Proposition 8 (yes, this is a legitimate site): InvalidateProp8.org

Help protect same-sex families in California from religious discrimination.
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…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, R.Gault, on November 8, 2008…
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