Sunday, September 28, 2014

If I Should Die Before I Wake

You may already be familiar with the name Zoltan Istvan . He’s a transhumanist philosopher, best known for his book The Transhumanist Wager. His protagonist Jethro Knights is a radical iconoclast, and lately Zoltan himself has been publishing articles advocating the drastic change implemented in his book. He received death threats for his WIRED post in favour of restricting Human breeding, and his latest article on Huffington suggests that we should make it illegal for anyone under the age of sixteen to participate in religion .
While I respect Zoltan and enjoy entertaining his philosophies, I believe his radicalism is misplaced. When discussing the dangers that religion poses to children, Zoltan is mostly referring to religious extremism. I wholly agree that such an environment would be emotionally unhealthy for a child. I agree with Richard Dawkins that threatening children with eternal hellfire is cruel and potentially psychologically damaging, and that social services would probably be justified in removing children from a fundamentalist household.
My main issue with militant atheism is that it makes no distinction between moderate religion and religious extremists, and treating religious moderates as dangerous zealots is grossly unfair and counterproductive. In Zoltan’s article, he never really specifies what constitutes religious indoctrination. Does he think taking a kid to a church picnic would be abuse? That doesn’t sound rational to me.
And that is after all the great hypocrisy of militant atheism: it’s irrational. It’s essentially tribalistic hate-mongering for those outside their thede. For instance, many militant atheists cite 9/11 as proof that religion is an existential threat and must be abolished if we are to survive. Although 9/11 did have a high body count for a terrorist attack, and was admittedly a very horrifying spectacle, 3000 deaths is a relatively small fraction of the global death toll. Between 100 and 150 thousand people die every day. Even if religious extremists killed 3000 people every single day (which they don’t), that would still only be a marginal increase in the daily fatality rate.
Statistically you’re more likely to choke to death on your own vomit than be killed in a terrorist attack. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a right-wing American politician; when you treat terrorism as a greater threat than any of at least a dozen diseases with a higher body count, that is not rationality. That is the primitive, tribalistic, Lord of the Flies part of your brain telling you to hate your enemy.
If we are to rationally discuss the possibility of prohibiting religion, than the costs and benefits of prohibition must be objectively evaluated. I think the comparison to alcohol prohibition is an apt one. Like religion, alcohol is dangerous in excess but mostly benign and even beneficial in moderation. Even if you believe that the destructive effects of alcoholism are so great that it would be better if alcohol didn’t exist at all, eliminating it is not a practical option. Not only is prohibition costly, the black market it spawns feeds organized crime, ultimately making prohibition more destructive than alcohol ever was. Similarly, I believe that suppressing religion in general would have a galvanizing effect, and drive many religious moderates to extremism out of self-preservation.
Zoltan doesn’t even discuss how we could possibly enforce a law that forbade parents from passing their religious beliefs onto their children. Is praying with your children by their bedside adequate cause to remove them from your custody? I don’t believe that, and I don’t think most atheists believe that either. It’s ridiculously cruel and petty.
While Zoltan’s ideas may come from the best of intentions, he often neglects the insurmountable practical problems that would arise in implementing them. He proposes population control, but never says how it is to be enforced, who decides who’s qualified to reproduce, and ignores the obvious potential for discrimination. He proposes keeping religion away from minors, but again neglects to speculate how this would even be accomplished, or what even counts as religion.
Despite the massive political and logistical problems with imposing an age limit on religion, I think the main reason it should be rejected is simply out of respect for individual rights. People do have the right to believe whatever they want, and are free to act in any way that does not interfere with the rights or wellbeing of others. You do not have the right to force others to think or act differently, even if you believe it is for their own good. Parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, so long as they are not harming them. I know not everyone will agree with me, but moderate religion does no harm. Or at the very least, it does not do sufficient harm to justify the massive expense of attempting to abolish it.
I realize that religious extremism is terrifying, especially with the recent activity of ISIS, and I understand why people think it should be stamped out as brutally as possible. But responding with discrimination and violence only justifies the cause of the extremism and fans the flames of hatred. A war between militant atheists and religious extremists would only bring about the mutual destruction of both. If your enemy cannot be destroyed, than the only rational option is to make peace with them.
I respectfully urge the non-religious community to reject Zoltan Istvan’s suggestion of making it illegal for minors to practice religion. Such blatant discrimination against so many billions of people’s cherished way of life will only cause more suffering than it would prevent. The day you have to outlaw evangelism of your opposing ideology is the day reason and justice are no longer your side.            

This article was originally posted on Wave Chronicle.

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