Category Archives: Politics

Are political parties the problem not the solution?

I am slightly active in the political party that I am a member of, but it worries me that maybe it is the very existence of political parties as formal structures that is the problem in modern politics in democracies. Here is a brief argument why:

If you have a formal organisation in which the rules are made by elected or other officials, then that narrows down the target for corrupt behaviour: the smaller the executive body, the fewer people have to be corrupted in order to corrupt the entire democratic process.

This comes out in two ways:

  1. Individuals who may become or already are corrupt can become executive members of a formal organisation, in order to exploit their positions, or
  2. Vested interests can buy influence from executive members.

We have seen both occurring in Australian politics, which has over the last century rapidly become the preserve of a “political class” – you either have to be born into that class or have worked in the “right” institutions, like a union, or company.

This inevitably leads to a shift away from proper representation of the wider electorate to the representation of vested interests, and leads to the nascent fascism of our present western society. The plutocracy is inevitable when political parties are funded by corporate interests by people who are socialised into the political culture.

One solution here, and I say this as a member of a political party that represents individual liberty against corporate interests, is to delegitimise political parties as such. In the United States, Europe and the UK, political parties are part of the governmental fabric. The systems are set up so that parties can seek votes officially when the populace votes in elections. In the US, they seem to have a weird system where you actually register as a voter for one party before you even vote. This allows you to vote in primaries for party-approved candidates. Sounds democratic, but it normalises the rule of parties, and only two parties at that. There is talk of doing this in Australia at present.

This makes it almost impossible for new parties to form and get votes. One state in Australia – New South Wales – even makes it so hard to get a new party elected that the fourth most popular vote (my party – I’ll get back to what it is later) could not be registered in time for the last state election. The media, which let’s face it is not well prepared to deal with subtlety in politics, ignores these “minor” parties (a distinction without meaning in politics) and does not discuss them, which forms a feedback mechanism for reinforcing the two-party idea. When new parties are formed, and are successful, they rely upon massive amounts of private funding, which again means corporate interests.

The solution to this is, I think, to “deregister” political parties altogether. At present, in Australia you vote along party “preferences”, the result of deals made party-to-party by the executives of those parties (and not the membership), which means that the voting papers offer you the option to vote en bloc. Again this institutionalises the major parties and constrains voting preferences. Public funding to parties is given by the number of votes received in the last election. New parties get no public funding.

There is no mention of political parties in the constitutions of the US, UK or Australia. They simply have no legal standing with respect to the public institutions of our polity. Why, then, do we privilege these corporate objects? When the US formed, representatives were exactly that, they represented their constituents as individuals. That these individuals allied themselves with other representatives in the parliaments of their countries was a factor voters had to take into account, but the formal idea of parties was not initially what mattered.

So I want to suggest that we pass a federal law in which no candidate may be listed as a member of the party they really represent, either on voting papers or in the arrangement of members in parliament. Who governs should be reserved for the parliamentary vote, not the privileging of prior institutions. This would resolve the corruption issue to a large degree: corporate interests cannot easily corrupt a parliament that has no formal institutional structure, and voters would be forced to decide who they would vote for as individuals, not as cogs in a political machine. I do not think this would eliminate corruption, but it would make it a lot harder for systemic corruption to become entrenched.

The party I am a member of is the Sex Party, which is a civil liberties party. We stand for the rights of adults to make their own life choices (hence the name, since sex is the major arena which is regulated for no good reason). In the last federal election, the Sex Party made a preferences deal with various other parties that were, to put it mildly, less objectionable than the major parties, but they failed to reciprocate in time, and as a result the Sex Party candidate for the Senate failed to get elected despite getting an order of magnitude more votes than the one that did get elected (a motoring enthusiast party with no policies). If preference deals were eliminated because one could not vote along party lines, the result would be a more representative senate (and lower house).

So as a member of a party, I am recommending we drop all party affiliations from the voting papers. What think you, folks?

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Filed under Australian stuff, Freedom, Politics

Bastardry: On protest and on fascism

2014 03 16 13 26 55

Outside the State Parliament in Spring Street Melbourne.

I attended the March in March protest against the current government of Australia yesterday. My legs still hurt. I’m sure that demonstrations were not so arduous thirty years ago.

I noticed that this was a privative demonstration. It was not about something so much as against something, and the something it was against varied by protestor. Some did the standard anti-government protests of thirty years ago – I’m looking at you, Socialist Alliance – but the range of signs was rather disconcerting. Some were against adoption, some against laws restricting abortion. Some held that the problem was the man Tony Abbott, our very conservative prime minister. Others that all political parties were the problem. One even attacked democracy, making full use of their democratic rights, such as they still are. A lot of people compared Tony Abbott and his ministers to Nazis.

There were the usual suspects, of course, but there were also many people who looked out of place, chanting and raising their fists. Elderly people, suburban people and people with kids and dogs. While I would not go so far as to say this was a sign of general disenchantment in Australia society, it clearly indicated a level of disenchantment that is, in my view unsustainable in a democratic society.

These particular protests, held around Australia and ignored of course by the mass media, were a sign of something, but what? And what is the solution?

Had I been asked by the absent media why I was marching (well, hobbling, really. Next time I take a walking stick), my answer would have been this: For thirty years we have been carefully crafting a fascist state, only without the overt symbols of the 1920s. Not a Nazi state, but definitely a fascist state. It all began, in my view, when we made The Economy the single most important aspect of our social fabric, under the neoliberal agenda adopted by the notional progressive, Paul Keating.

This statistical abstraction became more important than our environmental well being, than the rights of individuals, than the democratic order itself, so that now we think, in a country which had a welfare system that worked well and a health system that was the envy of the world, that the well being of financial institutions and companies, and of mining interests, is so important we will take away support for those who cannot find work in an internationalised labor market. We will take away health care in favour of a mixture of health insurance for the rich and the long waiting lists for the poor.

In 2012, I tore a ligament in my leg that connects the quadriceps muscle to the patella. As a result, my quadriceps cramped up in a knot in my upper leg. I was unemployed and had no health insurance. It too six months to get a doctor to examine me, because the emergency doctor, without examining me, wrongly diagnosed an anterior curate ligament tear. No doctor would even look at my leg while I was in excruciating pain and walking around at home on my backside because I couldn’t navigate the steps there.

I was put on a waiting list for “elective surgery” despite my constant complaints and requests. I was dropped from that list because, it appears, one way to trim the waiting lists is to see if people complain. Eventuallly, in the operating theatre where I was scheduled for an arthroscopy, the surgeon took one look at my leg and saw that it was not an elective nuisance, but a serious and urgent survey, and he did it then. Bless him.

My point is that this only happened because of the deliberate bastardry of the neoliberal view of government, with its user-pays principle, and deliberate defunding of the system to below a sustainable level (and then you claim that the system as broken is unsustainable, and defund it some more). Likewise, welfare support, not just for the young, nor for the unemployed, but for single mothers, the elderly and the disabled, has been deliberately dropped below a liveable amount. You simply cannot live on what the government provides you when you are most vulnerable.

And if you have mental health issues, then the system is designed to drive you away, with five hour waiting queues in the Centrelink offices, repetitive annoying “public service announcements” you cannot turn off, and a general level of low level nastiness from many staff, who treat welfare recipients as probably criminals. The system is designed to make you wait five hours each time, send you away with bad information, like that you must log online, except that you cannot because you first have to see someone to do X, where X is something nobody had mentioned, online or off.

I know one young person who has literally no money for food. She will not get any payments until she goes to an appointment they have set two months after she first applied for benefits. She spent six months before that living on her own money as she did not want to be a burden on the state. When she asked how she could live, they gave her a list of churches that hand out food. When I asked the same question last year, when it looked like I would lose my home, I was told to contact mens’ halfway houses; when I did they were all full. I got to the point where I was physically looking at bridges to live under, as I would have had to sell my car (my only possession after forty years of work).

This is not a civil society, and it has been deliberately engineered. The old commonwealth of Australia has become a plutocracy of Australia, where a decreasing percentage of the nation is able to access the resources needed to live, let alone live well. And the only beneficiaries are the already-wealthy; those who run and own financial institutions and property. Follow the money, and you will see who Australia is now run on behalf of.

The issue of refugees is another one of the hot button topics at the rally. Once upon a time, Australia was a country where genuine refugees could make a new life; much of the country was constructed by them. In 1992, a supposedly progressive minister in Keating’s Labor government, Gerry Hand, instituted “mandatory detention” for refugees who had arrived in the country. In effect, not a quarantine (which would have made sense) nor a processing of credentials, but punishment for those who managed to make it here. When PM John Howard said in 2001 that “we” decided who came here, the racism was unleashed and uncontrolled. Nearly all “debate” in the media and political forums about refugees is a racist dog whistle and appeal to fear of the others. We have institutionalised racism. That a few score thousand people around the nation still care enough to protest that is a sign that we still have some common decency left in Australia.

Now, let me sum up what the protests were against:

  • The predominance of The Economy
  • The beneficiaries are corporations and the rich
  • A nationalistic racism
  • The valuing of the State over the citizenry
  • A failure of care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unfortunate

If that doesn’t look like fascism to you, then you do not know much history.

Back in the supposedly radical 70s I used to ignore or mock those who said we were heading into a fascist society, and at that time I do not think we were, but the radicals scared a lot of people, worldwide, and vested interests began to fund opposing movements. These ranged from the obvious (tobacco public relations) to the subtle (founding of “think tanks” that legitimised points of view). But notice that this kind of fascism is bi-partisan. Both sides adopt the same strategies. Much of the damage to the common weal was done by the Labor party. Once done, the conservatives built upon it, because the convention that government has a duty of care had been disrupted by the “progressives”.

And this is why most Australians are fed up with the present political alternatives. They know, either intuitively or explicitly, that a choice between two corporatist quasi fascist parties that merely serve different forms of corporate interests (unions, big business, financial institutions, the military*) is not a democratic choice. That is why that group wanted to “fuck democracy” – only they did not see that what they rejected wasn’t even close to democracy. It was careful management of the populace. It is fascism.

Political parties are clearly not the solution, but it is not clear what is. We cannot disrupt the political constitution of the country any further, because further disruption since the conventions that made it work were destroyed will only have even worse effects. We cannot therefore expect that violent revolution, even if it were something Australians would engage in, will resolve this. Nor can we “work from within” because the system that exists in practice now is self-sustaining, and merely ramps up the expectations to the pout that genuine reformers will not survive from long “within”.

And we cannot “opt-out”; in order to even have money these days, you must have a bank account, and that means you have “opted in” to the financial system, the oppressive degree of licenses and qualifications and identification that fifty years ago would have been seen as what we had fought against in the second world war.

So what? All I can think of, and I have a poor imagination for these things, is civil noncompliance, the kind that Saul Alinsky pioneered.

Go to the voting booths, but return blank votes. Do as little of what you are asked as possible; fill out the forms to the minimum, make the services offered to you do as much work as you can force them to. Show no enthusiasm for anything except what you value. Drown “the system” in apathy. But do not let it be taken advantage of. If they start relying upon apathy, become activists. Make the system, or rather those who the system now benefits, take the back foot. Insist upon all your rights, as a worker, as a citizen, as a parent or partner. Set things up so that the best solution for those in control is to give us what we should have in a decent society.

And then take away their power to give us rights. We should have rights because the entire society assigns them, not because the rich and powerful give in or make them available at their whim. If most Australians want equality of marriage laws, and they surely do, there is no justification for the political parties, the churches that represent less than a quarter of the population or the media that is run by people who dislike homosexuality, to withhold it from us. If they can to this sort of bastardry to one group of Australians, they can do it to everybody, and the evidence is they will.

As Aldous Huxley said

All war propaganda consists, in the last resort, in substituting diabolical abstractions for human beings. ["Pacifism and Philosophy" (1936)]

The word “war” is no longer necessary. Here is a longer quote from Huxley, in 1958, shortly before Eisenhower wanted against the “military industrial complex” we now see as reality about us in every western and developed nation:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.
… In “Brave New World” non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in their calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control it.” [p43]

and

This Power Elite directly employs several millions of the country´s working force in its factories, offices and stores, controls many millions more by lending them the money to buy its products, and, through its ownership of the media of mass communication, influences the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of virtually everybody. To parody the words of W. Churchill, never have so many been manipulated so much by few. [p26]
[Brave New World Revisited]

The first novel I ever read was Brave New World, when I was eight. I did not expect that we would ignore these warnings and enthusiastically set up the dystopias described in this and similar books. I was wrong.

*Australia is building up its military at a time when we face no threats. Why?

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Filed under Australian stuff, History, Politics, Rant, Sermon, Truisms

Accommodating Science overview

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

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Filed under Accommodationism, Book, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, History, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Rant: Old people

The Australian government is looking at extending the pension age to 70, so that older Australians, especially those in the Baby Boom demographic, will be free of the public purse for another 5 years over the present age of 65. Except that it is not the case that older Australians will work another 5 years, as there are no jobs for older Australians. Partly this is due to the unemployment level being at a long time high right now. But even more so, in my view, is that it is due to the inherent ageism of Australian employers.

I have been unemployed for most of the past three years. I am 58. I have applied for nearly 400 jobs in that time, and had precisely no interviews. I have skills in computing, management, design, lecturing, training, office management, and analysis of systems and procedures. Not one interview. I cannot believe that in 400 job hires, I have been the least qualified or that there are applicants who have all my skills and more. I have concluded, after much thought, that employers are ageist.

Now this is hard to prove, just as any other kind of discrimination, and although it is especially illegal in government-related hires, such as university employment, I can think of no other reason why I do not even get interviewed with my experience and record. I’m not boasting, I’m just being realistic. I used to manage a department of 12 staff with a $2 million a year discretionary budget. I have lectured at four of Australia’s biggest and most highly ranked universities. Not one interview.

And I am hardly the only person complaining about this, in Australia or overseas. It is endemic across the western world. Older people will not get considered for jobs if there are younger people who can apply for them, and they will not compete on a level playing field. So we will end up on unemployment anyway. All the fine rhetoric about experience, corporate memory and the like is just that, rhetoric. It is not even honoured much verbally any more unless somebody pushes employer’s federations or government spokespeople.

Given that this is against the Australian, and I warrant most western countries, law, why are there not attempts to police employment practices? I am not suggesting that there should be positive discrimination quotas, but any large enough employer who does not employ a fraction of old people in their hires that is roughly in line with the candidate field generally, should be asked to explain by those who enforce the law, and universities and other institutions that have a demonstrated youth bias (where “youth” < 40 years of age) should be fined the equivalent of what wages those older people would draw, in order to fund our unemployment benefits. That might give a reason to employ people based not upon how good their skin looks, but upon what they can do.

In the meantime, if you can offer an old man some cash, go to my Tip Jar above…

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Filed under Academe, Australian stuff, Politics, Rant

Accommodating science: Strategy

[This is part of the final chapter. It is unfinished, but I have to move on to some other activities, so it may not be completed for a while. Also, the chapter on neuroscience and religion will take a while to work up. So expect one more section soon, and then nothing for a while.]

So, at this point we need to summarise. I wish I could have given you a simple and straightforward answer to the question Is religion able to accommodate science? but it has no simple or straightforward answer. I can, however, give you my conclusions:

When a religious opinion contradicts our best science about matters of fact and explanation, science wins. That is, science should be deferred to, especially in the secular sphere (in the wider community than the religious community that rejects the facts). If you do not defer to science in these cases, you cannot fairly claim to be interested in knowing about the way things really are.

When a religious opinion has no empirical consequences, then no amount of scientific reasoning can show it to be false or unacceptable, most especially when dealing with matters of value. Consequently, claims that science has shown God to be a failed hypothesis only work when God was intended to be an explanation of some particular aspect of the natural order. Since many if not most modern versions of religion no longer make that assertion, their version of their religion is not in danger from science, and it is simply wrong to assert otherwise. And moreover, scientific results can in no way affect the claim that the reason for the existence of the universe itself is the intent or action of a deity, since that cannot be tested. While there is no empirical evidence to suggest a deity is needed (that would be another book, not this one, so take my word for it here), neither can there be any empirical evidence against such a deity, so long as nothing about that deity changes the expectation of the way the empirical world will be from a scientific one.

Religion is not a single unitary phenomenon that can be blamed or praised all at once. Like any human institution it has degrees, varieties and loose and strong interconnections, and moral culpability does not transfer without loss from one part of a religion to another. To say otherwise is to blame very human being for every bad thing any human being has ever done, by parity of reasoning. Claims that “religion poisons everything” end up as vapid as “everything is affected by everything else”, and pay little to no attention to the actual research on the function and influence of religious ideas. I will stick with my own view that religion is a banner under which socioeconomic interests gather, and almost never the direct cause of institutional processes. However, religious ideas can and do affect the beliefs and actions of individuals, and that is enough to be worrying about. It pays not to oversell the problem if we want to deal with it effectively.

So the final issue is what the right strategy should be for pro-science advocates to deal with the actual, not the imagined, religious interference in science and science education. To resolve this, let’s consider some recent research on how people do or do not change their minds in a public debate.

How to change people’s minds

When Chris Mooney wrote a piece for Mother Jones, entitled “Seven reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution”,[60] he was simply reporting the arguments made by a range of cognitive scientists of religion and psychology that certain types of belief are more “natural” for human beings than belief in some of the more arcane or distant results of science. The argument has also been made by Robert McCauley in his recent book Why religion is natural and science is not (McCauley 2011). The argument runs like this: our evolved cognitive dispositions did not evolve to understand the truths of science, but instead to adapt to social agency. Religion, which is a cultural expression of our social dispositions and cognitive biases, is therefore something very natural for us as a species to adopt (given the many meanings of “religion”, this may be overstated). Science, on the other hand, deals with large numbers, long periods, the very large and the very small, and these are things we did not evolve to deal with.

The reaction of some bloggers, such as PZ Myers, whose blog Pharyngula is one of the most widely read new atheist blogs in the US,[61] and Lawrence Moran, whose Sandwalk is a Canadian equivalent,[62] was therefore rather surprising. Mooney was accused of “selling” accommodationism, and making out that atheists were somehow mutants. It was a great over-reaction, and had an obvious agenda behind it: to denigrate any hint that accommodation is a respectable strategy. Why is this? After all, a fact is a fact, and the fact that something like religion is in general a natural default mindset for human beings doesn’t therefore mean one must accommodate religion in science.

The reason has to do with longstanding opposition to strategies that are in some fashion conciliatory to religious believers. It is thought that this “tone” debate defangs opposition to religion in science, and makes critics seem shrill when in fact aggressive argument is called for. Often, parallels are drawn with minority rights movements like the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. And there is real substance to this. To be an atheist in modern America is matched only by the costs of being an atheist in Turkey or Indonesia in the modern industrial world: atheists are less well trusted than politicians, used car salesmen and rapists! This is not the case in most of the rest of the industrial world, however. Atheists are regularly elected as leaders or representatives in other countries, including my own, although there is a worrying trend towards public religiosity among the majority parties even in Australia.

This goes right back to the origins of religious toleration in the United States. In the famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” by the philosopher John Locke, offered to the American colonists as a defence of secular government, he basically exempted atheists from all civil rights, because

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

In other words, atheists can’t be trusted since they have nobody to swear their oaths by. This is one of those “If you don’t believe what I believe, there’s something wrong with you” moments. Nonbelievers aren’t fully human, and can’t be expected to be honest.

But in a secular society, where religious exceptionalism is not established as law of the land (which one could hope were every industrialised nation, although it isn’t the case), discussion between religious and areligious interests has to be carried out without the privilege either of religion or the unquestioned authority of science, and so the debate rages either as political warfare, or as civil debate. Neither approach works well in every case, but I aim to argue that civil debate is the right starting point. 

[60] 26 November 2013 <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/11/seven-evolutionary-reasons- people-deny-evolution>

[61] [<http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/12/12/proud-to-be-a-mutant-then/>

[62] [<http://sandwalk.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/hemant-mehta-buys-what-chris-mooney-is.html>

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Filed under Accommodationism, Politics, Religion, Science

Accommodating science: Faith and reason

[This is the penultimate chapter. I can’t be bothered trying to get the references or footnotes included in the posts, so you’ll have to wait for the book. Some of this has appeared on the blog before in less well written form, so don’t worry about the deja vu]

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable resource. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, VIII]

Continue reading

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Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Religion is mental?

Over at Chris Stedman’s blog, he posted 5 reasons why atheists shouldn’t call religious people mentally ill:

1. Even if well-intended, the equation fails

2. Mental illness is not an insult

3. Religion is often associated with wellbeing

4. This parallel distracts us from trying to understand and learn from religion

5. Atheists and theists share in the challenges of being human

One might challenge some of these, but overall it wasn’t bad. I think that it is simply true that religion is not mental illness, any more than any other contrary to fact belief that is common in a population (like their child is the smartest and most beautiful child) is ipso facto mental illness. But of course, critics gonna critique. This reply by Bruce Long was first in the queue:

Sorry, but you simply have not succeeded at arguing the first point. The clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia and various other psychoses involves a number of salient factors and symptoms that if demonstrated to hold indicate psychopathology. These include delusions of reference (being referred to by or referring to people or conscious beings that do not exist), auditory and visual hallucinations (including the belief in witnessing miracles and heaing the voices of a god or gods in some way), and general paranoia: including being concerned about being watched or believing one is being watched often. Especially if a person believes they are always being watched.

One of the interesting things about schizoaffective disorders is that they are the overstimulation of what ordinary folk also think. We all think we are, or might be being watched. Schizoaffectives think they are being watched when they cannot possibly be (they are in a closed room with no cameras, etc.). Somewhere between the “norm” and the “schizoid” lies religious beliefs, and they in turn range across that entire spectrum. If my mother’s voice constantly nags me to tidy up, is that a schizoaffective disorder? According to this false dichotomy, it would be.

What is interesting about this first paragraph is that it sets up the rest of the fallacies in the reply. Some people hold that God speaks to them daily, and so they are delusory; therefore all people who believe in gods are delusory. Especially if they believe they are always being watched.

But some studies show that morality is generally primed by the thought that one is subject to discovery if one cheats on the norms. A deity who watches always is different only in degree from the fear of those who enforce social norms in the ordinary way. So why declare that the use of a moral fiction is better than the use of a theological fiction? Is it that, surprise, surprise, we have already defined religious belief to be something abnormal? Superstitious? Irrational? Not us?

All of these symptoms are present in faithist commitments to unreal and fictional divine beings believed in as real. Adult persons that refer to and take themselves to be the objects of attention of non-existent persons – no matter what the nature of the putative person – are ill.

“Faithist”? Ah, here is that old rhetorical framing, ad hominem. Anybody who does not agree with the writer is a faithist, somebody who has faith in faith, no matter that nobody who is not religious and yet defends the rights of the religious in a secular society even held that faith, in itself, is a good. The term comes from Sam Harris, I think, but I have heard Dawkins use it, and seen others use it. It is a great way to denigrate your opposition without having to attend to the actual issues, you know, in reasoned argument. Or perhaps Long thinks that faith communities have faith in faith, which might be a bit like saying that football teams have faith in football (when in fact what they do is play that game).

But notice the subtler slipperiness: these symptoms are present in faith communities, so therefore all members of the faith community are ill. There is no doubt that some people have a religious mania that can be taken as a mental illness. But there are members of every community who exhibit such symptoms (from the law of distribution of variation, something I just made up to label populational structure). Can we now say that scientific institutions are mental illnesses? What about if their pathological examples hold to science in a mentally unwell fashion? Again, the presumption here is that religion is mental illness, begging the question.

Adults that hold the paranoid belief that they are part of some worldwide historical conspiracy by supernatural beings to dominate their lives and the lives of everyone else – and to bring about an end to history: are ill.

Sure, if they hold it as a paranoid belief. But is the belief necessarily paranoid? Consider the reaction to communism among the McCarthy generation. Consider the reaction to crony plutocracy among the left. The beings they are afraid of are superhuman in their capacity to corrupt the proper society. It is just like the claim that the world is run by angels and demons, only with less brimstone. Now consider that both claims have panned out in part: communists did have embedded agents in the west, and plutocrats like the Koch brothers and Murdoch are corrupting society. Perhaps the belief that there are supernatural agents is a mistake rather than an illness. Is everyone who accepts a mistake mentally ill? That is reaching.

Adults that speak into space and believe that they are referring to some real individual or individuals (supernatural persons in this case) are ill, especially when they claim that those persons are as real as you or I, but simply in a different way. The same goes for those that claim to be receiving some kind of divine inspiration or internal voice from one of these being or a spirit of some kind. In any other circumstances – all other conditions held constant – such would all be symptoms of psychosis and a paranoid delusion at best.

There is no excuse available for faithism or religionism on the basis of cultural norms. Many times in history mankind has made the most progress by overthrowing the greatest and most widely and dearly held assumptions which turned out to be broadly unhealthy. The black plague was caused because people were convinced that cats were creatures somehow influenced by some kind devil personality. We do not think that if many people truly believed in batman or the flying spaghetti monster as real beings – that they could refer to and be heard by and listen to internally – that they would be trustworthy rational beings whose cognitive faculties could be properly relied upon. That the fictional characters are different makes no difference.

I talk to my dead friends, not because I believe they are listening, but because it is a pattern of behaviour that comforts me, as it was acquired when I was developing and those friends were there. Is that illness? Obviously not. But suppose I flip a simple neurological switch so that I think they are still in some fashion real. If that illness? I cannot see how this might have to be true. People have done obeisance to ancestors, for example, because those ancestors were once actual authority figures, and to do it maintains family and social cohesion. Is that mental illness? Of course it is not.

What Long does here, and let me make it clear that he stands in for a class of respondents on this topic, is point out that delusion can sometimes be paranoid delusion, which is true. But then he concludes that if some delusion is paranoid delusion, then all delusion is paranoid delusion (and since religion is sometimes paranoid, all religion is paranoid). I would hope the logical error is obvious. If A then B does not imply if B then A. It’s the most basic of all logical fallacies.

Another question raised here is whether one can be mentally healthy and hold some form of paranoid delusion. That is, can one not only be mistaken but mistaken in a fashion that is mentally deficient, and yet not be mentally ill? I think, given the multiple variables involved in a human psyche, that some slight or occasional delusions do not a deluded person make. It is not all-or-nothing. So there is also a black-and-white fallacy here.

And yes – there are many faithists – and numbers do not make any difference to the fact of the appropriate diagnosis. It does not follow from something being a cultural norm that it is healthy or beneficial to individuals or to society.

Nor does it follow that if some instances of it are pathological, that all are. And there is some good reason to adopt Stedman’s number 3 thesis: religion can be associated with well being. In fact it is likely that if a social institution (we are talking sociology not the content of religion) survives for any length of time and flourishes, that it is adaptive to local social conditions, or at the very least not maladaptive. Of course, this is not something one can stipulate a priori: you have to actually do some field work. And the field work tends to show that religion does give comfort and stability in many cases. Given the nature of the argument above – that some religious people are mentally ill therefore religion is a form of mental illness – we can equally argue that if some religious beliefs offer comfort and aid well being that religion is a form of social well being. Each argument is equally valid (or invalid).

The argument that religion and faithism does some good is vastly flawed. Acid and disease will do some good if applied under the right circumstances the right way (vaccination). There is plenty of evidence that the benefits of faith in terms of any confidence and peace of mind are equally available to the sceptic and non-believer who chooses to approach the facts with the right attitude. The claim that people need faith in religious icons and supernatural entities is habitually based propaganda (and there re many other motivations, but none of them truly about benefitting individuals or societies). It is arguable that every peaceful moment that any religionist has ever experienced could have been secured in a non-religious manner (except for those that thrill to the euphoria of illusion and deception of themselves and others for personal gain, perhaps). More importantly, arguably for every meditative moment, there has been a human sacrifice, a torture, a political sabotage, a hate crime motivated by needless discursive and doctrinal divisions, or someone that has tried to control the outcomes and minds of others with cheap narratives that are epistemically limited. The empathetic scientist (science in the broad sense including the special and to some extent the social) that works hard to figure out what is really going on rather than – well – making shit up – is doing their fellow man the real service.

And every instance of medical achievement could have been done in the absence of medical research, and every instance of political reform could have been done in the absence of democratic activity, etc. This is not a rational way to approach it. Instead of hypotheticals and conditionals, look at the facts, sociologically. The facts are that religion can be both malign and benign, as can any other institution. On the whole, societies that are homogeneous for religion tend to be more stable, and when that homogeneity is disrupted, conflict ensues. I applaud Long’s final sentence here: let us take it seriously and attend to the actual studies.

Faithists and religionists just are sharing in a complex elaborate sophisticated constructed delusion from which they cannot be swayed by any measure of reason and which remains fixed in the face of a complete lack of evidence and in the face of material demonstrations of its vacuity. For some reason because of its grandness of scope (although science is now rapidly revealing that religious affectation embodies a limited imagination) the delusion is accepted. But this is just silly and inconsistent. Grandiose delusions where the individual is empowered by some god proxy in some manner by fiat are delusions that are conventionally pathological and clinically so. The willful dissimulation that is involved in forgetting it is the one that cannot prove the non-existence of something that is behaving questionably is not some pragmatic maneuver for survival: this is the sign of a mind weakened by pathology adopted and induced, and perhaps just acquired. Faithists most certainly are ill, and convinced faithism is an illness of delusions of reference and grandiose relevance, paranoia, the need to control others, and narcissistic imperatives including the belief of affirmation by the powerful deities (or attracting the displeasure of the same – it does not matter). Like many mentally ill persons faithists are practiced at pretending they are well and have the advantage of corporate agreement and safety in numbers to embolden them. They deserve our help and support, but can be harmful and threatening when challenged. Personally I have borne the brunt of the ire of disaffected faithists on many occasions, and they are not pretty when having a religonised psychotic episode. Most marked is their propensity to passive aggression and clandestine (social) or childish (interpersonal) manifestations of disaffectedness and aggression or aversion in response to criticism: doctrine and dogma are usually called into service, or the demonizing of the opponent as a servant of evil (constructive criticism or appeals to reason are often mislabeled as accusatory or an attack).

The degree of projection and clueless introspection here is astounding, and the comments that follow it in full agreement indicate a long standing problem I have had with these sorts of replies. They make others responsible for the failings of the commenter, by assigning to them what the commenter so clearly evidences: arrogance, failure to attend to the research, paranoia, narcissism, etc.

And the insulting of opponents again: we aren’t just people who think religion is okay in a society, we are “faithists” who “wilfully dissimulate” who demonise opponents (he said, as he demonised his opponents). And again the question begging: religion is bad because it is pathological, which is because it is bad.

I will save you the rest of this – we are only about halfway through.

This is quite typical of the kind of attacks upon accommodationists who do not think religion is a mental illness. Such shrill and vituperative attacks are unjustified, especially since the same things are done by those who think atheism is an illness. It’s tit for tat, and not in an evolutionarily stable strategic way. Ultimately, it’s just another form of tribalism. It’s political.

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