Monday, June 15, 2009

The intellectual bankruptcy and dishonesty of atheists

I read just a horrible editorial in USA Today this morning, an editorial that takes up a half page in the opinion pages of a paper with a circulation in the millions. The editorial is by Andrew Newberg, an “associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania”. Turns out that his course work in radiology and psychiatry makes him an expert in theology as well. Who knew? His editorial with the cutesy title This is your brain on religion starts off with a story designed to tug on the heartstrings as we read about young Andrew being made to feel poorly about his atheism and himself by the mean fundie parents of a high school girl friend who believed that he was hell bound. My first reaction was to wonder why these supposedly frothing-at-the-mouth fundamentalists were letting their daughter date in high school, especially dating an atheist. The second thought was “Well played” because by giving an unverifiable account of how these fundies made him feel badly about himself, anyone with strongly held Biblical beliefs is immediate cast into a poor light. The whole account sounds fishy but we can’t prove it didn’t happen, which is what makes it so clever.

Mr. Newberg then launches into a diatribe about the positive physiological impact of warm and fuzzy beliefs and the negative health effects of believing in a meanie God. Having positive beliefs (including meditation and yoga) is lumped together in a vague soup and belief in a God that dares judge His own creatures is as bad for your health as eating six cheeseburgers while smoking a cigarette driving over the speed limit without a seat belt while talking on a cell phone.

There seems to be little question that when people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one's physical and mental health. Again, the research is clear: If you ruminate on negative emotions, they activate the areas of the brain that are involved in anger, fear and stress. This can ultimately damage important parts of the brain and the body. What's worse, negative emotions can spill over into outward behaviors that generate fear, distrust, hatred, animosity and violence toward people who hold different or opposing beliefs. Thus, it becomes more easy to believe that "I, and my religion, is right and you, and your religion, are wrong." It is this destructive religious rhetoric that atheists are quick to point their fingers at when focusing on the negative qualities of faith. In fact, reading some of the following quotes could be bad for your brain if it evokes a fearful, anxious or hateful response:

If I may paraphrase…in other words, if you believe in a lovey-dovey God who just wants to be friends, you will feel better about yourself. If you believe that God is vengeful it will have a negative impact on your self-esteem and your general health. That is really what God is concerned with, making sure you have a positive self-image. Any whiff of sin or judgment is hazardous to your health. Perhaps the Surgeon General should mandate a warning on the cover of Bibles: “The Surgeon General has determined that reading this book may be hazardous to your health”. What the above paragraph demonstrates is that Mr. Newberg hasn’t a clue about what Christianity teaches (and you know he is speaking about Christianity because the top of the editorial has a stylized picture of a brain with a cross built into it in gray matter) which merely makes him ignorant or he is aware of what Christianity teaches and is misrepresenting it anyway which makes him a liar. The point of Christianity is that in spite of our sin and failing, God provided a way for sinners to be saved and forgiven. Belief in hell and judgment is not mutually exclusive with a belief in a God who is loving and forgiving.

Then there was this gem:

"I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good. … Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country." — Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, one of the more extreme anti-abortion groups, 1993.

"You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions, but I don't have to be nice to them." — Televangelist Pat Robertson, 1991.

Fortunately, surveys suggest that only a small percentage of Americans hold such hostile beliefs. Unfortunately, this minority often attracts the greatest amount of camera time and ink, too. But what is truly frightening is the fact that 1% translates into 3 million potentially violent citizens in our country alone. And this certainly plays out on the global stage, as beliefs conflict and terrorism fosters fear, hatred and ultimately violence.

Here we see the unmistakable tactic of linking all devout believers with Islamic terrorists, the preferred tactic of contemporary opponents of Christianity that has been exploited into lucrative book deals by capitalist-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Newberg plucks a couple of decades old quotes out of context from inflammatory speeches and then uses that to paint a broad brush of extremism. The implication is clumsy but clear: people who are strongly anti-abortion or believe that a particular faith is right and others are wrong become potential violent extremists. This tactic is designed to drive a wedge, “you don’t believe THAT do you?” and therefore because you don’t align yourself with such extremist groups you are left with a watered down belief system. Mr. Newberg cleverly dictates the terms by which you may believe: you either are aligned with the forces of “intolerance” and by implication are a potential domestic terrorists or you aligning yourself with some vague, fuzzy spirituality indistinguishable from meditation and yoga. It seems incomprehensible to Mr. Newberg that someone can simultaneously believe in Biblical Christianity, take it seriously and yet not be making pipe bombs in their basement.

But wait, there’s more!

There is another potential dark side to religion (my note: I think he may be confusing Christianity with the Force. Common mistake.). As I have witnessed at the hospital in which I work, when people feel that they contracted a disease because God is punishing them, such individuals may not follow doctor's orders, keep appointments or take medications as directed. After all, why try to get better when God is trying to punish you? Research confirms that people who hold a punitive image of God can compromise their immune system and psychological health, thus prolonging their suffering and illness. Currently I, along with researchers at other universities, am developing simple strategies to show people how they can turn negative religious attitudes into a more positive framework that will help them deal more effectively with their health problems, and thus improve their quality of life.

So how can a person of faith guard against the negative side of religiosity and spirituality? Our research findings suggest that all one needs to do is to stay intensely focused on positive and loving concepts — of ourselves, others and our deepest values and beliefs. Obsessively focusing on any form of negativity — be it religious, political, or interpersonal — damages social empathy and cooperation.

That is such a ridiculous argument that it should be apparent to any rational person reading it. I have a hard time believing that there is a noticeable population of people who refuse medical care because they think God is punishing them. So that struck me as a bit disingenuous. More ominously though is that this guy has developed a proselytizing system to modify the religious beliefs of others, a missionary of sorts who is able to preach his gospel of a God who is infinitely tolerant and impotent to punish sin. How is that not a religious system? I wonder if he or the university that supports his research receives Federal funding? If so, I wonder what people would say if a university that received Federal funding were engaged in proselytizing terminal patients by preaching the Gospel of Christ? What Mr. Newberg and his associates are doing is using their position as “academics” and the access those credentials give them to preach to people and try to distort their belief systems. These people who are dying may have aberrant beliefs but where does Mr. Newberg get off chastising devout believers for their beliefs while at the same time preaching his own gospel to people? Mr. Newberg is every bit as much a religious fundamentalist as the people he rails against, except that his religion is given legitimacy by the imprimatur of “science” and “reason”.

Mr. Newberg reduces faith to a chemical reaction, one that makes people feel good if they focus on the positive and feel bad if they focus on the negative but ultimately it is no different than meditation or yoga. The gospel that Mr. Newberg preaches of a God without judgment and of people without sin may make a person feel better about themselves in their dying days but it will serve them poorly when standing before the Judge.

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