As a Society, We’ve Got Issues

My latest Psychology Today piece comes in the wake of a violent week, even by the standards of our extremely violent society, with innocent black men being killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, then five police officers being gunned down in Dallas. There’s much that can be said about this kind of senseless violence, but my main point is that our nation won’t find real healing until we come to terms with our troubled history. As a society, we’ve got issues.  Full article here.

Orlando shows the utter failure of all Abrahamic religion

Violence in America is nothing new, of course, nor is violence aimed specifically at gays and lesbians, but the horrific mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando last week is causing many to realize that a serious cultural reassessment is overdue.

A number of dangerous elements were present in the Orlando attack—homophobia, religious extremism, America’s gun culture, and even the possible psychological self-loathing of the attacker—and most rational observers would agree that these all deserve consideration as we seek to better understand recurring mass shootings. No group or institution should be immune from scrutiny in this process, and in fact some stand out as prime suspects: the gun lobby, indolent lawmakers, and of course the extremist groups and individuals who promote hate and inspire violence.

The Orlando massacre, however, leaves another institution with much explaining to do: traditional religion itself. Not just Islam, and not even just so-called “radical Islam,” but traditional religion as we know it. With dozens of corpses strewn about a gay bar—young lives cut down by an outburst of hate—all avenues that led to this tragedy should be considered, and there is no question that the revelation-based Abrahamic religions have long provided one of the broadest, most heavily traveled arteries for both violence and anti-gay bigotry.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam, even in their most liberal and tolerant forms, suffer from the unfortunate, undeniable fact that their foundational doctrines expressly condone both violence in general and the most virulent anti-gay hatred in particular. Homosexuality is evil, and the penalty is death. Any questions? Thus, it should come as no surprise that conservative and fundamentalist followers of the Abrahamic religions are aggressively anti-gay, for they are simply following doctrine. Frankly, it is the tolerant, liberal followers who must rationalize their acceptance of those whose ways are, as the Bible says, “an abomination.”

Of course, tolerant religionists can and do explain their acceptance of gays, since virtually any viewpoint can be rationalized with scripture if one looks hard enough. Love your neighbor, they say, and don’t judge others. The Bible clearly states that homosexuality is sinful, but we’re all sinners, so we should leave the issue to be reconciled between gays and their (hopefully) loving god.

Looming over all of this rationalization, however, is the fact that contradictory, hateful scripture exists, expressly condemning homosexuality in the harshest of terms, and it is here that we see the utter failure of revelation-based religion in the modern world. Stuck with ancient texts written by men who didn’t know where the sun went at night, the modern follower of any Abrahamic religion is at best a theological contortionist, twisting definitions and interpretations to conform to the moral landscape as he or she believes it should be. Unambiguous biblical condemnation of gays? Embrace it if you’re conservative, dismiss it if you’re liberal.

Tolerant interpretations of theology are preferable in a pluralistic society, of course, but the problem is that not all followers choose such interpretations. Look no further than the rantings of conservative Christian preachers after the Orlando massacre, many of whom celebrated the killing of gays. “The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in the world,” declared pastor Steven Anderson of Arizona. “Because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.” If you ask how he can spew such hate, you should understand that the Bible tells him so.

Liberal and conservative religionists can debate whose interpretations of scripture are correct, but the problem is that such debates are still occurring in the twenty-first century. The entire exercise is dependent on intelligent men and women accepting the notion of revelation—that is, the idea that ancient men actually received messages from the creator of the universe and transcribed those messages into what is still considered holy scripture today. Even centuries ago, serious thinkers were questioning this concept. “Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1794. “It cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”

Modern, humanistic ethics allow us to toss aside the concept of revelation and instead view homosexuality—and hopefully all issues—rationally and in context. Same-sex attraction and orientation are natural phenomena, seen widely in the animal world, and need not be feared or censured. From a cultural and historical perspective, we can understand that some societies have accepted homosexuality while others have condemned it, but there is simply no justification for intolerance in any free society today.

It is precisely this cultural and historical perspective that allows us to better understand the situation today. Ongoing intolerance of gays and lesbians is largely the result of strong religious institutions that have long propagated such intolerance. This brings us full circle back to the absurdity of ascribing legitimacy to the notion of ancient revelations.

Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch, writing in the Washington Post in the aftermath of Orlando, conceded the role that religion has played in bringing about anti-gay violence. “Sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people,” he writes. “Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.” Amen, Bishop Lynch.

Importantly, the rejection of revelation is an equal-opportunity phenomenon. It has little sympathy for Islam, but it also derides Christians who, with great righteousness, declare themselves peacemakers while condemning Islam as a religion of violence. As anyone who studies history knows, those claiming to abide by the “true” message of God are always able to justify their violence. Many of the most outspoken proponents of war in modern times have been Christians. The problem of ends justifying means is inherent in any ideology, and any religion claiming direct revelation from God, as the Abrahamic religions do, has the potential to become ideological.

Of course, none of this suggests that the Bible cannot be read as literature, as the writings of ancient agrarian peoples struggling to make sense of the world. Some passages contain beautiful and even inspiring prose, others terrifying glimpses into the human psyche in the context of premodern society. No thinking person, however, could believe what traditional religions ask us to believe: that these writings are “revealed truth” from an all-powerful God.

Science long ago displaced religion as the best means for ascertaining truth—few still cling to the notion that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, for example, or that humans were created in their present form—but religion has remained relevant in other areas of modern life, enjoying particular credibility as a supposed source for morality. In the carnage of Orlando, however, we are seeing that Abrahamic morality is no more useful than Abrahamic explanations of natural history.

Sensible modern human societies should question why they continue to validate the idea of revelation-based religion at all. No deity has ever sent revelation to any human anywhere, and we are killing ourselves by continuing the charade. If your friend, neighbor or co-worker claimed to be receiving special messages from God, you would understandably question their mental health. Likewise, we should question our health as a society if we continue to bestow legitimacy upon individuals or institutions—Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—that claim to be carrying forward divine messages from ancient tribes.

Morality, and just as importantly immorality, can be understood from a naturalistic, humanistic perspective. Humans, as evolved animals, carry innumerable impulses that produce thoughts and actions that we define today as being good, bad, and in between. Our job as a society is to nurture what Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, borrowing from Abraham Lincoln, calls “the better angels of our nature.” Freedom, creativity, critical thinking, prosperity, justice, and other important values can and should be encouraged in the modern world. To do so, however, it’s time to get beyond the confines of ancient worldviews. Having already dismissed revelation as our means of attaining truth, it is time to dismiss it as a medium for morality as well.


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Anti-Abortion Violence: Why the Religious Right Owns It

In this new piece for Salon, I discuss the religious right and its relationship to anti-abortion violence. In the wake of last week’s murders at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, it’s time to examine the roots of America’s obsession with the abortion issue and the propensity of some to react to it with violence. If we look at the historical timeline we find that abortion-related violence did not begin when abortion was legalized, but that it began when fundamentalist Christian groups and leaders belatedly decided to make it a hot-button issue. Full Salon story is here.

Badass: The Culture that Makes Gun Reform Impossible

Another news cycle, another mass shooting. Here we go again.

As we all know, because of last week’s Oregon school shooting, a “debate” over gun control will now ensue, with talking heads on all the networks rehashing all the old arguments. As we also know, this debate is absolutely meaningless, because nothing is going to change. Gun culture defines America, and the rising body count has no long-term impact.

By now we’ve all heard about America’s uniquely high rates of gun violence. That being so, and with discussions about gun control being basically pointless, it seems that we are left with only one legitimate issue that is actually relevant to gun violence: the culture itself. That is, gun control is made impossible in America because of an underlying culture: a macho, gun-toting, tough-guy culture of crooks, cowboys and even cops who see firearms as sacred and bloodshed as socially tolerable. A don’t-fuck-with-me culture.

Think about America’s self-image for a moment, and what comes to mind? Sure, liberty and democracy are part of the idyllic creed we teach our children, but even the youngsters soon learn that the essence of America is that we are badass. You do not want to piss us off. Many have done so—Tecumseh, John Brown, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden—and it never ends well for them.

Commentators sometimes argue that our bloodthirsty culture is the result of violence on television or in video games, but that argument is far too simple and just plain wrong. America has been violent since long before television and video games—it would be more accurate to say depictions of violence in media are a reflection of our violent nature, not the cause of it. Sure, glorification of bloodshed in the media might occasionally push a vulnerable, mentally deranged person over the edge—but that doesn’t explain the brutality and pervasive violence that have defined American society at a core level since the beginning.

As an American, whichever side of the law you’re on—Dirty Harry or Tony Soprano—your solution is to blast away any dirtbag who gets in your way. This is not literally the case for everyone, of course, but it’s at least figuratively so. A badass gene is intrinsic in American DNA: our economic system depends on it, and our society romanticizes it and mythologizes it.

Whether good or bad, hero or culprit, America celebrates badass characters: The Founding Fathers were badass for sticking it to the British crown. Andrew Jackson, racist to the point of being genocidal, is nevertheless praised as a tough-guy badass. Lincoln, of course, exemplified a badass leader who would not be beaten. General Custer thought he was badass, but discovered the Sioux were more badass. FDR, taking charge during the Depression and Second World War, was definitely badass. Jimmy Carter was a one-term president largely because he wasn’t badass. Then came Ronald Reagan, who ripped Carter’s solar panels off the White House as one of his first acts, telling the world in a badass way that he expected American domination of Middle East oil for years to come.

American society reveres aggressive, take-no-shit behavior, an attitude that naturally sees violence as not just a plausible option, but often a desirable one. For those who would truly like to see gun policy reform, it’s important to realize that cultural change cannot come without widespread acceptance that there is a cultural problem. That means understanding that sky-high rates of violence are not the result of one or two bad policy decisions, but that they reflect deeply rooted habits of behavior that arise from a complex array of sources.

Consider, for example, that despite its name, the United States has never had a track record of being united as a society. Rarely has a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood been prevalent across the nation. On the contrary, we forcibly enslaved a sizable portion of the population, fought each other in a horrific civil war that killed over 600,000, then grotesquely mistreated the former slave population and its descendants for another century thereafter, and still do in some ways. Amidst all of this has been a constant flow of immigrants who, while adding to the nation’s mythological narrative, have just as often been seen by the general population as an unwelcome scourge.

Ironically, we celebrate the fact that America is a melting pot, but the reality is that our various ethnic, racial, and religious groups have rarely enjoyed a true sense of fellowship. There’s been some crossover here and there—the divisiveness of Catholic-Protestant feuding has all but disappeared, for example, and there’s been some mixing of ethnic groups—but any suggestion that there is a consistent sense of common purpose and community among the population would be a distortion.

Lacking solidarity as a people, Americans have little compassion for one another and instead often revert to badass attitudes as a default setting. Thus, our economic system predictably breeds insecurity, which in turn inevitably enflames more resentment, hostility and aggression. As a people, even those with jobs work longer hours than the rest of the developed world, get less vacation time, have less job security, and have fewer social safety nets and assurances. In this atmosphere of anxiety, Americans tend to look at outsiders—meaning anyone with whom we do not feel camaraderie—as a threat. A different skin color, a funny accent, an uncommon religion—these are grounds for suspicion, not celebration, for many.

Ours is a violent society because, despite the sugar-coated history we like to tell, ours has always been a fractured society. Bullwhips and chains, institutionalized injustice, class antagonism, constant insecurity, and a total absence of empathy have defined the culture much more than any cooperative spirit. Maybe a conversation about this unpleasant truth is a necessary antecedent to any real effort at gun reform, and for that matter any wider effort to gain control of the reins of government from the various institutional interests that have seized them.

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