Crimes Against Divinity and the future natural history of Christianity

Full disclosure: Crimes Against Divinity is a blog promoting atheistic freethought, sometimes with interesting and inspirational links on science news, but mostly with commentary on news stories about social injustice linked directly or indirectly to religion. Lots of material about gay rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights and feminism, and so forth. Nobody who knows me well offline will be surprised to hear that I am in favor of rights for pretty much everyone, lean pretty far left politically, and identify as an agnostic atheist (i.e. I allow that there could in principle be a God, but don’t see any convincing evidence for one) with Buddhist sympathies. But for those who don’t already know me well, I feel like I should put my personal biases up front before people scroll down and act surprised by anything I’m about to say. Also, I’ve known the author since my university days and count him as a friend, though I don’t agree with everything he posts. This is in response to one of those “eleven questions” memes, so it’s pretty off the cuff and isn’t meant to be a treatise about all my thoughts on religion.

Well! Elsewhere on WordPress, my buddy Senator Jason nominated my blog for some kind of chain letter award. I definitely have fewer than 200 followers, but I can’t think of any blogs I read with fewer than 200 followers except Jason’s, and I’m not just going to go out and start reading a bunch of random blogs in order to find ones I think are good enough for me to link here. Thanks, Senator, but I’m guarding my copious free time (such as it is) pretty jealously nowadays.

That said, the good Senator (who is probably off giving dictation to Miss Pink right this moment) did post some interesting questions in his nomination post which I figure are worth addressing here. We’ll get the most consequential of these out of the way first, as they also happen to be the easiest to answer:

(1) Gin, whiskey, or tequila?
WhiskY with no ‘e’, specifically single-malt Scotch. More specifically Lagavulin, although I also like other Islay malts like Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardbeg and similar. (If you were wondering, I also take my espresso straight — a “short black” as we say here in Oz — and have been known to drink Russian Caravan tea when burning the midnight oil.)

(2) Sushi or pizza?
Pizza, until they invent cheese sushi.

(3) Ginger or Mary Anne (sic)?
Mary Ann all the way. (Not that I really watched the show when I was old enough to have an opinion. This is just me talking in the moment about how I generally go for down-to-earth girls next door before glamour girls or movie stars. Hence my current partnership.)

(4) Would you rather fight a hundred duck sized horses or one horse sized duck? (With a nod to Reddit).
I gotta hand it to you, bro, I didn’t see that one coming. Interestingly, Emily once had a nightmare about a horse-sized duck: it was an anxiety dream (she has a lot of those) in which she was trying to herd cats in a courtroom sometime in her past life as a lawyer, but she didn’t know anyone’s names or what they were doing there, and it was just as she was flipping madly through her notes that the duck walked in. She was fairly perturbed when she woke up, but I found the dream hysterically funny and wondered whether she found the arrival of the duck even a wee bit implausible in the given context. Of course not, I mean, it was a dream, but that’s the kind of state check you use to start lucid dreaming. So yeah, I think we could take the duck if we had to.

(11) Computer or console games?
Tough one. I enjoyed them both when I had enough disposable free time to play game: On the one hand, Bard’s Tale, Ultima IV/V/VI, Star Control II, Warcraft, Starcraft. On the other, Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Final Fantasy. (Look, look how I just dated myself.) Some of our very favorite titles were not even PC games, like Alternate Reality: The Dungeon — my brother and I played it on the Atari 800XL with all the disk-swapping patience-testing tedium that entailed, and then years later we played it again via an Atari emulator on our much-faster Pentium-based PCs. All I can say now is that the contest in my mind has been decided in favor of “computer” games since the Homestuck adventure game won’t be coming out for console platforms.

And now, a stream of opinionation which is scarcely more rigorous than anything I said above.

(5) What do you think the extent of Christianity’s influence would have been had Constantine not converted, thereby making Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire?
I don’t know much about the history of the Mediterranean of that era, but since (if I understand right) the Romans were really the only game in town, my provisional answer is “nil”. It would have at best remained an obscure splinter sect of Judaism, though perhaps some other obscure splinter sect of Judaism would have filled the void. The other monotheism that did as well, Islam, was picked up by the Arabs and Ottoman Turks and so was propagated by its own empire. Other religions, like Zoroastrianism, also have had fortunes that rose and fell with the empires (plural) with which they were associated. Even Buddhism probably owes a lot of its historical impact to having been propagated by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in India, to say nothing of its spread through China and Japan and the imperial courts thereof (vying with, and syncretized with, Confucianism and Shinto along the way). There are ways to propagate religions without them receiving the aid of some kind of state, but they probably don’t remain pure that way either. With a centralized authority, the religion is adapted to suit the needs of that authority. Without it, it is simply folk religion which the people can syncretize at will, mixing and matching and fighting amongst themselves until whatever results fits their own personal needs. (Individual believers may not view the process this way at all; I am talking more about the high-level sociological processes going on. But it’s emotionally much easier for me to talk about those processes in the abstract than it would be for someone who identified strongly with one of the religions I’m talking about.)

(6) What do you think the actual percentage of non-believers is in this country, if there weren’t a stigma attached with identifying as one… especially in the Bible Belt?
There is always a stigma attached with public non-conformity to the cultural norms of your community, whether they’re religious norms, gender norms, political affiliation or whatever. But while I expect that people in predominantly Christian areas of the country will identify as Christian, their actual views on what their Christianity means to them may be more varied and nuanced than you and I give them credit for. It’s impossible to say how much more without talking to them one on one or conducting a carefully worded survey. In my opinion, religion is less about how the universe is actually set up as it is about being part of a community with a common set of values and a shared narrative to support those values (some very liberal modern Christians will explicitly admit this, though again, other individual believers may not necessarily experience it this way). People may disagree in private; for example, I’ve known many Catholics who, I was surprised to find, staked out very different positions from the Vatican’s party line on some social issues. But it takes someone of immense courage and principle to openly say or do unpopular things based on what he or she believes is right, whether based on faith or on reasoned argument, while actively engaging society or at least not retiring; most of us simply aren’t willing to expend the effort. I for one must sadly admit that while I admire people of towering ethical influence, my own values are pretty mainstream hipster atheist/agnostic and I rarely have conversations anymore with people who believe very differently from myself (at least, not about religion).

(7) Do you think religious fundamentalism in this country is going to continue to be on the rise, or do you believe that this is the last gasp of a dying way of thought in the face of better education, access to information, and more independent thought?
Nope, because (see above) I think religion is more about maintaining social structures and hierarchies than it is about being right about the universe. There will always be new denominations, cults, and syncretisms to take the places of those that die out for whatever reason. And indeed, for a religion to die it has to become socially untenable to identify with any longer, unwilling or unable to adapt — but in reality they do adapt and evolve under pressure. Christianity in America has been especially resilient in the face of nearly a hundred years of pressure (counting only from the Scopes trial) and I don’t expect that to change now. I think true fundamentalism is rare even among those who identify as religious, of any faith, because any group that makes it their business to tell the mainstream how wrong and sinful they are is going to be unpopular. But there will always be some segment of the population for which that kind of rigid certainty is appealing (assuming they’ve converted; they may also simply be born into it and never lose their faith, but people also lose their faith all the time for various reasons). America’s tradition of religious freedom, written into the Constitution, means that fundamentalist religion enjoys conditions under which it can be considered as valid as anyone else’s in the public marketplace of ideas. In other regions such as Western Europe or Australia, they may not persecute people on the scales or in the ways they used to, but from my experience thus far, fundamentalism is recognized as being very far out on the intellectual and social fringe, and the social apparatus keeping it there is as strong as that which enforced conformity when state-sponsored religions were commonplace.

(8) In light of Question 7, where do you see American Christianity in 100 years?
I think it will remain, as it has been, tied up with the notion of American cultural identity. I’m not sure whether its face will remain the same. If we’re not all going to be boiled frogs in the 22nd century, America is going to have to confront some hard issues, chiefest among them being climate change, education, and the allocation of resources in a post-modern employment market. I think corporate money in politics is a much bigger root problem for American democracy than Christianity is, but Christianity in its small-town white Protestant form (with its small-town white Protestant social norms, rather than the sweeping, subversive vision of equality and compassion Jesus is on record as having preached) is like a big lever which the Republican Party and its corporate donors can reliably pull to get large fractions of the population to vote in lock-step with their interests. (Remember when the world was young and things were simple? No? Me neither.) That is going to have to change. The face of American Christianity will evolve with the demographics, so perhaps it will be more Catholic in the future as Anglo whites slip farther into the minority. Given the trajectory the Catholic Church has been taking lately, I expect that overall belief, level of spirituality, and level of opposition to left-leaning social policy will probably decline into the next century, but the level of identification with Christianity in America probably will not change much.

(9) Fast forward 10 million years from now. What species from this era is showing signs of human-like intelligence?
(You don’t make this easy, do you.) This depends on whether we blow ourselves up or not. If we don’t blow ourselves up, which scenario also includes our demise in a mass extinction event caused by anthropogenic climate change, our descendants are still going to be actively driving things and future species that show intelligence will be whatever they want them to be. If we do blow ourselves up and remove ourselves from the equation, then the most intelligent species will probably descend from some of our primate cousins, who are already set up to use tools and probably need only a small nudge to start using language the way we do. If we don’t survive, and neither do the chimps and bonobos, and neither does anything with an opposable thumb, I don’t think we’ll see human-level intelligence (with tool-using, language and so forth) again in the next 10 million years; multicellular life went 500 million years before we evolved, after all, it can surely go another 500 million before replacing us. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be such a killjoy; mass extinctions cause privation, which cause selection pressure in favor of more intelligent creatures which are able to adapt more quickly, and probably also in favor of social creatures which can help support each other. Some of the more social birds or small mammals could do really well in a post-human environment.

(10) What do you think the likelihood is that sentient alien life exists in our neck of the woods (100 LY radius)?
Practically nil. Requiring merely sentient life (along the lines of, say, advanced vertebrates) rather than intelligent or technological life does improve the odds substantially. But even with as many super-Earths as we’re finding with Kepler, I doubt there is more than one planet per Milky-Way-sized galaxy with life as advanced as it is on Earth. That means we should expect any ongoing conversation with technological aliens to take place on timescales of millions of years (once we find them!), and let’s face it, not even our most ambitious visionaries have attention spans longer than a few thousand years.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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2 Responses to Crimes Against Divinity and the future natural history of Christianity

  1. Well, this was interesting. RA, as you know, I am an agnostic, but I am not sure atheism is the answer is right. You see, there is an interesting book which tries to use gam theory to establish the existence of God. One game the author constructed was very interesting, namely would God choose to remain hidden from us. The answer is yes. Anyway, th payoffs chosen seemed reasonable to me.


    • Richard says:

      Hi Dad, glad to see you’re still keen on the topic. I’m drafting some more posts with more details on all of this, including what I mean by “atheism” here (it doesn’t mean I’m certain there is no God, just that I live my life as though there wasn’t one; that is, I’d bet against God’s existence with Pascal). I will also cover Pascal’s Wager, though I’m curious to know what additional nuances a modern game-theoretic treatment would cover.

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