Friday, July 19, 2013


"[Ted Bundy] said that after a while, murder is not just a crime of lust or violence. It becomes possession. They are part of you ... [the victim] becomes a part of you, and you [two] are forever one ... and the grounds where you kill them or leave them become sacred to you, and you will always be drawn back to them."
--Special Agent William Hagmaier of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit quoting Ted Bundy (serial killer)

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment:"

Some people describe religious beliefs as "false yet harmless" convictions lacking any real or demonstrable harm to the person holding them to be true. But can believing something to be true without supporting evidence really be without harmful effects on other aspects of one's life?

While some thoughts or beliefs, at least on the surface, may seem not to directly hurt a person, the very process through which one comes to believe falsehoods is harmful in itself, and if left unchecked, can sprout through in other lines of reasoning until one does, in fact, believe something harmful.

For example, let's say I believe Santa Claus exists and I have some anecdotal, though fairly unconvincing evidence to support this hypothesis. While the specific belief that "Santa is real" may not hurt me, the fact that I accepted the claim without thorough examination, perhaps because it makes me feel comfortable or offers me reassurance in some way, leaves me susceptible to accepting other unsubstantiated claims on tenuous evidence. It is the process of thought which causes the harm more than any specific false or unsupported belief.

Throughout the countless religion classes I attended while growing up in the Mormon Church, I heard several times that "our thoughts inform our actions," or some variation of that theme. For this reason, one should be mindful of one's thoughts since thinking about bad or sinful things (especially things of an explicit or sexual nature) will invariably lead one to act accordingly. Cases of serial killers and rapists are often described as examples of people who contemplated about such horrific acts long before committing any crimes, thus suggesting that in some sense their crimes could have been avoided by thinking happy thoughts.

But it was not the thoughts of Ted Bundy, and others like him, which led him to kill so many people. No; his beliefs, not simply his thoughts, informed his despicable actions. If he had merely thought about killing people, rather than believing that he could and should do so--consequences being damned somewhat ironically--he likely would have lived a long life as a charismatic, if slightly off-centered and perverted loner. Additionally, being a sociopath, thus lacking the necessary empathy to prohibit him from inflicting harm onto another human being, didn't help.

Likewise, if I spend a great deal of my time fantasizing about flying like a bird or Peter Pan, I know deep down that any attempts to do so would be foolhardy and no amount of thinking will allow me to actually attempt it successfully. However, if I sincerely believe I can fly, perhaps only under specific circumstances (i.e. with the aid of pixie dust), the game changes entirely, and I might be inclined to try it. 

Many suggest reciting or humming a religious hymn as an effective way to distract oneself from unseemly or distasteful thoughts and thus save oneself from the anguish derived from the eternal effects of unrepentant sinning. Coincidentally, many also discover the very Pavlovian conditioned response which may occur if one repeatedly couples thoughts of hymns and sexual desires, however innocently or well-intended. 

As compelling as the argument may sound that our actions are so easily informed by even our worst, most depraved and perverse thoughts, fundamentally the reasoning is flawed, and is nothing more than a feeble attempt by small-minded theocrats to control the minds of their adherents--especially youth with budding libidos. This is what George Orwell described in his book 1984 as "thought crime". It is not enough to say that one should abstain from sexual promiscuity--even thinking about something like adultery, according to Jesus, is the same as committing it, and is just as damning. So much for nuanced and thoughtful consideration from a "just and merciful" god.

Bonus Material:

The Atheist Experience dispelling the notion that lust is the same as adultery:

Thursday, July 11, 2013


"Part of what a doctor can give a patient is consolation and reassurance. This is not to be dismissed out of hand. My doctor doesn't literally practise faith-healing by laying on of hands. But many's the time I've been instantly 'cured' of some minor ailment by a reassuring voice from an intelligent face surmounting a stethoscope."
--Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion")

I don't like talking about my job on this blog, although, today I feel compelled to do so. I have mentioned a few times in previous posts that I work with at-risk teenagers. The facilities in which I work are classified as Residential Treatment Centers. Basically, such facilities combine aspects of boarding schools, mental hospitals and juvenile detention centers.

More specifically, I work with teens with a variety of mental disorders, a history of physical, sexual, verbal and neglectful abuse, chemical dependency and substance abuse, and quite often a criminal history. Many of my patients are either orphans or children of the state (i.e. Child Protective Services takes the kid away from the parents). Many of my patients who still live with their biological families wish they didn't, and for damn good reasons.

These are children with the worst start in life. They have every reason to give up, and many of them do. For many, Residential Treatment Centers offer the first opportunity for a real education, real medical care, a real meal and some one to talk to. For some, this is their last stop before a life in prison.

Often times people will ask me what the success rate is for my line of work. Are we able to rehabilitate these kids? Can they get a job? Will they stop using drugs? Will they perpetuate or stop the cycle of abuse into which they were born?

I usually respond, "It depends on what you consider to be 'success'".

Most people I talk to seem to have the idea that we make these kids "normal" by conventional standards. But for me success is simply having them leave our facility better off than when they came in. For example, let's say we take in a 16 year old girl who has made several attempts to kill herself; if we can improve her self-image enough that she no longer makes serious suicide attempts, but instead starts cutting her forearms and wants to start drinking as soon as she gets home--that is success. It is not ideal. But at least she is alive, and hopefully will continue treatment of some kind when she leaves.

To a certain extent, success in this field is subjective. There is no way for me to be sure that kids really are better off going to Residential Treatment Centers rather than sticking it out at home, because there is no way for me to analyze the alternative for individual patients. Choosing one life-path necessarily means you will never go down another path. But studies are being conducted which follow-up with treatment patients.

As one might expect, the results are pretty scattered, but generally speaking, after about 5 years or so, most former patients tend to speak favorably of their experience in treatment. Some even confess that they would probably be dead if they had not been to a treatment center. Alas, this is still a bit subjective, though.

This leads me to the reason I started this post. A couple of days ago, a facility where I used to work posted the following on Facebook:

"Did you know that ‪#‎spirituality‬ can be therapeutic for teens. It's true"

They also included a link to the following "study": Helping Your Teenager Discover Spirituality.

First of all, the writers of this article differentiate between religion and spirituality, but only loosely:

"Spirituality can be defined as a sacred connection between oneself and a higher power... Religion focuses on beliefs and practices associated with a religious organization or creed; spirituality focuses on inspiration, self-reflection, and personal connection to the sacred."

The thing which bothers me the most by this opening statement is that they switch the definition of "spirituality" without acknowledging it to the reader. A connection between oneself and a higher power is not the same thing as focusing on inspiration, self-reflection and a personal connection to the sacred. I'm not really sure what is meant by the last line, a "personal connection to the sacred". What does "sacred" actually mean outside of a religious context?

The article continues by making claims that spiritual and religious teens have lower occurrences of "bad things" and higher occurrences of "good things" (as defined by the authors). But again, here we have a case of people generalizing and concluding things based on a correlation (which is not causation), rather than refining the research to determine what it is about religion and spirituality--if anything--that actually contributes to positive outcomes in the development of teenagers. There is an implication here that such success lends credence to the notion that god exists; but in reality, even if religion and spirituality do cause more positive outcomes in teens, it could just as easily be explained through the placebo effect. And considering the extensive research which has been done on the placebo effect and the utter lack of conclusive evidence for the existence of any sort of god, which seems more likely?

It always bothered me that this particular facility focused so much on religion while I worked there. One of the highest ranking (and highest paid) employees at this facility was a full-time Chaplin, who required every patient to meet with her upon admission in order to determine the belief system (or lack thereof) of the patient. At first it didn't really bother me since I was still a practicing Mormon. But over the few years that I worked there, I began my deconversion and began to see the problem of their model of ever-so-gently pushing religion on their patients.

These are young, volatile, impressionable teens, many of whom are either ambivalent towards religion due to having to deal with more pressing matters (i.e. abuse), or they hate the idea that a god would let all of these terrible things happen to them. They come to a facility for psychiatric help and for the first time feel safe among adults. In this state, some are susceptible to the views of the adults they are coming to know and trust. It is fantastically inappropriate and a conflict of interests to suggest to these young, damaged minds that they need religion or spirituality in order to be happy and normal (which is the implication). For this very reason, most Residential Treatment Centers train newly-hired employees to avoid talking about religion with the patients. They are here for treatment--not church. And for this reason, none of my patients know I'm an atheist.


Here is a great response from Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) concerning the idea that teens in treatment need religion: Does Believing in God Really Lead to Better Psychiatric Treatment Outcomes?

Here is Sean Mackey (Stanford Medical) on the placebo effect:

And the placebo effect of religion:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


"Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood..."
--Carl Sagan ("Demon-Haunted World")

"Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic powers of signs and exorcisms . . . Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!"
--Leon Trotsky

When I first heard about Evangelical Christians "speaking in tongues" at revivals my teenage mind thought it was a joke. I really could not fathom that someone would believe--much less attempt--such a practice genuinely. But when I saw the footage on television (I think it was on the Trinity Broadcasting Network) it became clear to me that such people exist.

Later I found that my own religion, Mormonism, taught something similar: the gift of speaking in tongues. Most often this "gift of the spirit" is attributed to Mormon missionaries who go to foreign countries and learn the native language in order to preach more effectively. Never mind the 2-3 months of language training before even entering the country and the countless hours of daily study and practice with natives throughout the 2-year mission; if god wants thousands of highly motivated, collage-aged young adults with a first-world education to learn languages not dissimilar to the language of their up-bringing, through thousands of hours of individual and group study, he will make it so.

Similarly, when I saw Evangelical preachers "heal" frail and infirmed people on live television through the power of Jesus Christ, my reaction was one of amazement that anyone could take such a circus act seriously. And, yet again, I came to find that Mormonism taught a similar principle, which at the time I had to assume was more authentic to miracles performed by Christ than the "bastardized" version essentially being sold by charlatans to presumably sincere suckers.

While the Mormon version of faith-healing is much less flashy and more intimate (laying hands on the head of the sick and praying that god will heal them, usually in a small group), it is every bit as misguided and scientifically unsupported as more theatrical versions of the practice.

It seems that on some level many religious people know that science and medicine are more reliable in healing the sick than a sincere prayer. My own father, who was both a Mormon bishop and a Family Practitioner during my childhood, taught me that when sick one should pray and follow doctor's orders. Apparently, god requires both since he "helps those who help themselves" (I failed to find this little quip in any canonized scripture). Well, I could just as easily claim that Joe Pesci helps those who help themselves; or, for that matter, my half-empty can of Mt. Dew.

But as Russell Glasser of the Atheist Experience inquires, if one is to take an aspirin and say a prayer for a headache, and the ailment subsides, how do you know the prayer actually did anything? The scientific literature shows that aspirin is effective in relieving headaches by itself, so what exactly does the prayer contribute?

On its own, can prayer relieve headaches with the same level of consistency and effectiveness as aspirin? If so, why bother spending money on aspirin? If you had to choose a single method to relieve a headache, aspirin or prayer, which would you trust to get the job done in a timely manner?

What about cancer treatment? Amputees? How many prayers did it take to eradicate small pox?

How many people does god require to sincerely pray and die before he will "inspire" doctors and scientists with a cure for HIV and AIDS? If god inspires doctors in this way, as I have heard religious people claim, thereby giving god all the credit for scientific advancements, of what use is the scientific method? It seems to me that the only way to verify that a scientist is so "inspired" by god is by testing their "inspirations" through scientific experiments. Without scientific verification, such revealed wisdom falls within the realm of magic rather than science.

In what way is god actually helping anybody?


Comedian George Carlin on religion (and Joe Pesci) (warning: explicit):

I have posted this before, but its too good not to post again: Benny Hinn letting the bodies hit the floor:

And one with light sabers: