True religion

In the wake of the attacks in Paris last night, I once again have reason to write a few words on the corrupting influence religion has on the pursuit of truth and goodness in the world.

Dogmatism & irrationality make people immune to reason. Religion allows people to rationalize their selfishness as something holy, and hardens them to the erstwhile human capacity for compassion and empathy.

When extremists claim divine sanction for their barbaric acts of murderous tribalism, we can call this false piety if we like, or claim that it’s a corruption of the ‘true’ intent of religion; but this is just marketing. With deft and repeated application of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, apologists for religion continually redefine religious faith in such a way as to exculpate it from all blame.

And yet the extremists sincerely believe that they are doing what is right and holy; the particularly religious character of this belief both shields it from criticism and makes it extremely resistant to change. If we are to make progress against the ideologies of fear, intolerance, hatred, and violence, we must have the courage to attack the irrationality and dogmatism that lie at the root.



For decades, I proudly identified as part Cherokee, based on the compelling oral history, passed down to me through several generations of my father’s family, of a distant white ancestor and his wife, a Cherokee woman.

Then last year, my 23andme results arrived, and I was forced to accept that even though I may identify with some Native American values and cultural traditions, I cannot claim to possess Native American DNA. Others have had similar experiences. Modern DNA testing has upset many assumptions about people’s ancestry and heritage.

What role do a person’s genes play in determining his or her identity? Surely, one’s genes help to shape one’s personality directly; but what about the indirect influences? One’s genes greatly shape one’s physical appearance — one’s body, face, voice, eyes, hair, and so on. To the extent one is judged by others on the basis of these outward traits, these traits can greatly influence one’s identity.

In the case of my mythical Cherokee ancestor, just the belief in her was enough to influence my sense of self. I never tried to join the tribe, and my only contact with Native American culture growing up was through the hodgepodge pastiche of traditions observed by the Boy Scouts. Still, I felt a connection to my legendary great-great-great grandmother. When I was younger, I even imagined that we might have walked the same trails, and I wondered if my Cherokee blood might explain some features, of my face or of my personality. When I discovered that the tale passed down to me had been false, I felt as though a small but precious part of my identity had been taken away from me.

Most people do not fashion a completely different self out of whole cloth, but grow into some version of the people who have been influential in their lives. When we are children, our sense of self is deeply rooted in our parents, family members, and classmates. In early adulthood we often rebel against the expectations put upon us, and try on different identities for size, trying to find the identity among the thousands of possibilities that fits us perfectly.

Many identities come ready-packaged: races, religions, languages, nationalities, political parties, sports teams, and companies. Identity lends membership in a group, and the many benefits that group membership can bring. It can also be a sort of prison, locking people into narrow roles and ways of thinking.

Ultimately, each person chooses his or her own identity. Acceptance of one’s chosen identity is not guaranteed. A person’s former tribe may label him a traitor, or his adoptive tribe may brand him an imposter. Most people seek a balance between being who they feel they truly are, and being someone who can find acceptance among others.


Europe’s shame is the world’s shame

This needless deaths of thousands of African migrants on the Mediterranean Sea is a scandal for Europe, but it is also a scandal for the whole world. Any nation can if it wishes offer material assistance and asylum to the refugees. Any nation can commit financial support to the nations proximally impacted — to the Southern European nations bearing the greatest portion of the burden of accommodating the influx of migrants but just as importantly, to the strife-riven and war-torn nations of Africa that are the source of most of the asylum-seekers. (For any lasting solution must address the root causes of war and poverty in the source nations.) All wealthy nations can and must help with this effort. This includes the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and many others. Nations that can help in these ways, and do not, share Europe’s shame.


Nuance and context, but just for me

There is a special species of hypocrisy oft exhibited by ideologues and pundits:

  1. a person makes an outrageous, insulting, thoughtless, or simply foolish statement. When called out for it, he chastises his critics for their failure to understand and appreciate the context and nuance of his position.
  2. Then the selfsame person lambasts, labels, and denigrates his critics and ideological opponents ruthlessly, with nary a thought to nuance or context.

“When I do it, it’s okay! When you do it, it’s evil.”

Well-meaning and intelligent people who ought to know better still fall prey to this bias. When people do this, it gives the impression that rational argument and irrational bluster are for them merely arbitrary and interchangeable tools used to improve their own situation — fairness and consistency be damned.