Dumb Atheists

I’ve encountered a couple of interesting stats about the British people lately. The most recent was that, according to some humanist survey, the majority of Brits are now non-religious. I greet this as good news, but I’m far less excited about it than I might have been a few years ago. The second stat, heard on a radio science programme, was that science literacy (however that was defined) has long remained around the 10% mark in the UK (as well as in the US).

Those two numbers seem to be a mismatch. I’ve long assumed, till recently, that atheists and the scientifically literate comprise roughly the same group of people. But it seems not. Certainly, most science-educated people are atheists; but that apparently doesn’t work in reverse.

I like to define science as the art of separating fact from fiction. A grounding in science allows you to quickly take a fact, assess its likelihood of being true, and then find the evidence to confirm or overturn your original assumption. Today, a scientific/reasoned approach (I use the terms interchangeably), allows one to plough through the piles of crap friends post on Facebook and decide how ludicrous each post is.

Judging from my own Facebook feed, the rise in atheism has not been accompanied by a rise in reason. A handful of my friends do post religious messages, but in terms of their dumbness, these are benign next to the other things I regularly see. What’s annoying and even frightening is that a high proportion of my friends subscribe to mythology in some way, and mostly it has nothing to do with a belief in God. Many of the new myths revolve around some badly defined, shadowy force, which secretly runs the world. For some, it’s the Illuminati or the New World Order. For others, it’s Big Pharma, genetic modication, the Davos summit. For feminists, its Patriarchy. Other are worried about the Zionist media, or the white supremacist hierarchy… the list is endless. Then choose from a series of conspiracies: apparently someone is using planes to put (undefined) poisonous chemicals into the air – you thought those contrails were just condensed water? No, they’re actually chemtrails! Sodium fluoride isn’t put into water to improve dental health: No! it’s a neurotoxin! Vaccines are being used to poison our kids! Fruit and veg can cure cancer, which means that actual cancer medicine (you know, the kind that works) is part of some kind of plot to poison us. Evolution messed up and so we need to consciously detox our bodies. The white man is hiding the Truth that Jesus was black! 9/11 didn’t happen! Muslims are [insert your favourite Islamic threat here]. Someone invented an engine that runs on urine but Big Oil is suppressing it! Patriarchy is simultaneously promoting nude imagery to degrade women, and banning nude imagery to prevent female empowerment (depending which type of feminist you are).

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins points out that 95% of people simply adopt the religion of their parents. He doesn’t point out though that it works the other way too. Once most people disbelieve in any god, so will their children. Humans are herd animals, and once atheist beliefs become dominant, the majority will quickly decide to be atheists. We appear to have reached that tipping point in the UK. There are additional incentives to adopt an atheist viewpoint: many on the far-right now use atheism as a stick with which to beat Muslims. I suspect atheist Nazis once used a similar tactic to attack Jews. Hence, it’s premature to celebrate the ascent of atheism as a sign that reason is also on the rise; on the contrary, it appears that reason is going through a particularly bad patch right now.

So Dawkins and his militant atheists have declared war on the wrong target. Religion has been in long-term decline for centuries, without their help. The decline has accelerated in recent decades as ideas have spread more quickly. But religious ideas have just morphed into new forms, the most dangerous of which are widespread within parts of academia, and on the liberal left, and are thus fashionable. Science denial has updated itself, and is alive and well. It’s fun – and easy – to attack creationism, but this misses the point. Creationism is a hangover of ancient, dying belief systems. It’s far harder, and much braver to take on the new dogmas.

Just like religion of old, the new dogmas are highly intolerant of heresy. Ask a fundamentalist why evil exists, and the (non-)explanation is: the Devil. People who would laugh at the invocation of Satan will happily invoke modern satans. I’ve seen “skeptics” invoke a modern devil, the Patriarchy (“the” is optional) to explain away differences between male and female behaviours that already have perfectly strong explanations in evolutionary biology and genetics. Today, it is heresy to suggest that “outdated gender stereotypes” are the result of evolution. “Biological determinism” (a term created by feminists to attack biological science that contradicts feminist dogma) is sneered at by postmodern fundamentalists, just as evolution is dismissed as nonsense by religious fundamentalists.

This now means that any attempt to explain human behaviour via evolution is attacked by many “liberals”. Just as creationists once claimed that humans are fundamentally different from the other animals, so now do many on the secular left. The academic “gender expert” who denies “biological determinism” is taking a creationist position that’s been updated for the 21st century. Both belief sets assume that we have some kind of essence (or perhaps soul) that can be separated from our physical self. That we can deny our underlying nature by some form of magical intervention. This new religious ideology underlies modern attempts to suppress human sexuality. Just as Christians claim that monogamy is a natural state of affairs (because God created humans, and he wouldn’t have made us promiscuous, would he?) so the conservative left attacks expressions of human promiscuity from pornography to sex work. Many skeptics laugh at the religious preacher who says that the female form is dangerous and must be covered up. And then applaud the feminist campaigner who uses very different words to say exactly the same thing, with an equal lack of supporting evidence.

How bizarre, and depressing, that science today comes under its strongest attacks from the secular left, not the (comical) religious right. Those who thought that eradicating religion would lead to a rise in reason (me included) have been proven wrong. So this is a call to skeptics and militant atheists: leave the old religions alone – they’re dying, albeit slowly. If you’re feeling brave, take on the dangerous new dogmas instead. You could start by questioning a friend’s belief in the Patriarchy. But be prepared to be burned at the stake.

White Supremacists, Islamophobes and Moronic Correlations

White supremacists
Some Morons

Once upon a time, before Twitter was even thought of, and even before the Web, there existed on the Internet a public domain service called Usenet. This consisted of a large number of threaded discussion groups on different topics – anyone could create a newsgroup, and server space was donated, usually by universities, to allow the system to work. Usenet carried groups covering every subject under the sun, from mountain biking to US politics – and of course porn.

I found US political newsgroups interesting to track. Hate groups proliferated, and even until 2005 or so (when I last accessed Usenet), the prime target for American morons was black people. Coordinated bullying campaigns against Muslims, as we see today on Twitter and the blogosphere, had yet to come into existence. This was the last gasp of organised white supremacy, a centuries-old idea, which flourished throughout US history, until the election of Barack Obama finally killed off their widely held belief that blacks could never make it to the pinnacle of society.

White supremacists were masters of finding (and misusing) correlations that supported their cause, and their favourite correlation of all was that between race and intelligence (as measured by IQ and academic achievement). Educational achievement in the US (and elsewhere) consistently showed a hierarchy: Chinese, then Indians, then whites, and blacks falling last. The statistics were undeniable, and white supremacists used them repeatedly to demonstrate white “superiority” over blacks. They were so determined to “prove” this point that they were even willing to accept the “superiority” of Asians over whites (which kind-of undermines the idea of white supremacy).

Reality of course was somewhat different. IQ (it turns out) is in large part a measure of a society’s degree of education, particularly in science-based areas. IQ scores have increased very significantly over the past 100 years. Within the US since the Civil Rights era, whites have gained in IQ but blacks have gained more – the gap is rapidly narrowing. Furthermore, the statistics on educational achievement weren’t as simple as they seemed. In the UK for example, Indians do outperform whites, but closer examination shows that when treated as a separate group, Bangladeshis (of the same broad racial group) do not. Similarly, African immigrants do much better at school than black immigrants from the Caribbean. The correlation between race and IQ turns out to be about issues of class and culture, not inherited ability.

White supremacy seems to have imploded as a coherent movement. But what happened to the white supremacists? Many of them turned their bigotry, hate and statistical tricks against the new “threat”, Muslims. Of course, not everyone who dislikes or fears Muslims was active in white supremacy. Many confused people genuinely believe in the “Islamic threat” to “the Western way of life”. But those pulling the strings, and creating the propaganda, learned their tricks from the old far-right: fascist and white supremacist groups.

This week, I found myself dealing on Twitter with dodgy “facts” about Muslims (largely from a handful of reactionary Atheists), and was struck at how the old white supremacist tricks are still alive and well (I was also struck with the poor quality of reasoning used by some Atheists, a group from which I tend to expect better).

In one example, I was sent a news link about a poll showing that some young British Asians support “honour killings”. Although the article didn’t mention religion, the person followed up with a tweet claiming that the article showed a link between honour killings and Islam. A quick look at honour killing statistics does show that the majority of cases (though far from all) relate to Muslims.

Is that enough to show a correlation between Islam and honour killings? Well, no – as with the IQ argument linking race and intelligence, the argument doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. Firstly, honour killings happen largely across an area spanning parts of the Middle East, west and south Asia including Muslim, Sikh and Hindu populations. Second, most Muslim countries fall outside this area. The practice appears to be unknown in black African Muslim countries, where women take a more dominant role in society than in many Asian societies. So the correlation between honour killing and Islam breaks down: the correlation appears to be with certain Asian societies, not with any religious group.

The correlation is, of course malicious. Those who began this rumour probably knew perfectly well it was false; but most of those who now perpetuate the myth lack the understanding to realise that they are propagating a lie. Other dishonest correlations exist too: Muslim-baiters like to correlate female genital mutilation with Islam. But this practise is a largely African one, and happens across both Christian and Muslim societies.

A number of reactionary Atheists have this week accused me of “defending Islam” by using arguments like the ones above. But I think I’m defending truth, using scientific reasoning – which is what (I thought) Atheism was based on. I have no love for any religion, and do my best to persuade the religious that their beliefs are wrong. But equally, I believe that everyone has the right to believe and worship as they want, and most importantly I despise bullying, especially of the large-scale variety inflicted on Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minority groups.

Reason is the enemy of barbarity, and the spread of reason is the only thing that can end honour killing, female circumcision, and other brutal practises. But finding such a lack of reason among Atheists has left me sad and disappointed – I suppose I see myself as part of an Atheist tribe, and discovering that members of my tribe can be as ignorant as members of any other has been a useful lesson that we are all fallible.

Does Religion Cause Rape?

One argument made for religion by its proponents is that it instills in its believers a sense of morality that atheists can’t possess. This argument suggests that without religion’s stick-and-carrot approach to morality (heaven if you obey, hell if you don’t), people will naturally revert to selfish, violent, animalistic behaviour.

If true, this raises a dilemma for Atheists: should we raise our children to fear a non-existent God if it makes them “better people”? Is lying to our kids acceptable in exchange for the benefits it may yield? But is religious morality the right morality anyway? After all, Deuteronomy 22:20-21 insists that women who aren’t virgins on their wedding night should be stoned to death. Which seems a little harsh, and in modern Britain wouldn’t leave society with many women suitable for marriage.

In order to prove their thesis that lack of belief leads to lack of morality, statistics are sometime used (or more accurately misused) by advocates for religion – take the following tweet for example, which came from @Eugene037:

Sweden, a country w/ most Atheist, has d most no. of rape cases n Europe accdg to UN Stats

Let’s break this down. First, is Sweden really the “country w/ most Atheist”? On the whole, Europe is less religious than any other continent, and religion is in rapid decline across the region. Wikipedia’s Demographics of atheism page breaks belief into three types: belief in a God, belief in a more general “spirit or life force”, and non-belief (Atheism). While belief in a specific God is low in Sweden, at 23%, there are countries with lower belief still: Estonia and the Czech Republic. However, Atheism in Sweden is only recorded at 23%, which is lower than Estonia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany. In other words, the statement is false: Sweden is not the country with the most Atheists.

Furthermore, Sweden doesn’t deserve its reputation for liberal attitudes: it is a socially conservative country by European standards. In recent years it set the standard for European sexual conservatism, making paying for sex illegal (conversely, here in “uptight” Britain, prostitution is legal, which gives protections and benefits to sex workers that their Swedish counterparts are now lacking. I’ve interviewed sex worker activists on this subject, and will air these discussions in an upcoming podcast).

And finally, Sweden has a far broader definition of rape than most countries, making the quoted statistics suspect – free information activist Julian Assange is accused of rape, and is fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden, because he is alleged to have penetrated a woman without a condom during consensual sex. By the standards of most places, this isn’t rape.

Having dispatched @Eugene037’s claims, let’s find some statistics that might more clearly reveal any correlation between religious belief and rape. Comparing stats between different countries is suspect, as varying laws, enforcement and cultural norms make accurate comparison difficult. Instead, I’ve chosen to compare US states with each other, as the legal and cultural differences between them are smaller than between nation states. For simplicity, I’m using voting behaviour as a proxy for religiosity – Republican “red” states have higher levels of religious belief and observance than Democrat “blue” states. I combined 2008 voting behaviour from 270towin.com and crime statistics from infoplease.com and the results are interesting:

Rapes per 100,000:

  • Average in Republican-voting states: 34.96
  • Average in Democrat-voting states: 28.33
  • Average in marginal states: 29.47

(I’ve uploaded my spreadsheet as a PDF if you want to examine the data for yourself: Crime stats by US state).

In other words, a woman living in a red state is around 23% more likely to get raped than one living in a blue state. (Murder rates are closer, but slightly higher in red states, while robbery is significantly higher in blue states, probably because they are more urbanised, and most robbery takes place in cities).

If you have trouble believing these numbers, think about this: the Bible doesn’t view rape as a serious crime. While a woman who isn’t a virgin on her wedding night must be stoned to death, a man who rapes a woman must simply pay a fine to her father (women are, after all, the property of their father or husband) and marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) – and in a number of other passages, the book explicitly allows the kidnap of women to take as sex slaves. Take for example, Numbers 31:14-18:

Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

The women themselves, of course, have no say in the matter. Women have little status in any of the ancient religious texts; which perhaps explains why they are more likely to be raped if they live in a more religious society, even today.

I’ll finish by trying to answer the question posed in the title: does religion cause rape? If I were to use the dishonest reasoning techniques of proponents of religion, I could say yes, based on the above evidence. But correlation doesn’t mean causality; it’s more honest to say that high incidence of rape and high religiosity have the same root causes: poverty, illiteracy, a lack of education, and a lack of trust in authority. Fix these things, and both rape and religion go into decline.