Do we need the opiate of religion?

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These are hopeless times. A widely-cited study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 42% of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Rates of sadness and hopelessness have increased steadily since 2011 when only 28% of high schoolers reported the same.

A variety of explanations have been offered for this alarming problem. Some argue for a return to traditional religion. But could it be that hopelessness is an appropriate response to a world afflicted by violence, sexism, racism, and injustice? And rather than prescribing the opiate of religion, might the solution be to reform systems built on alienation, exploitation, and hypocrisy?

The causes of alienation

Young people are not unwise to see the world as hopeless. The adults have messed things up. Rather than pretending things are all right, young people see looming threats. Political polarization, racial tension, gun violence, and rising authoritarianism fill the headlines. And climate change has added “climate anxiety” and “eco-grief” to the list of modern maladies.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has also suggested that social media plays a role in the growth of depression and anxiety among adolescents. Twitter and TikTok seem to exploit anxiety (for example in “the fear of missing out”). Social media also makes it possible to disseminate fake news and unrealistic expectations about friendship, body image, and happiness. And of course, unscrupulous actors take advantage and profit from this new frontier in exploitation and alienation.

As all of this is going on, some worry that the decline of traditional religion is part of the problem. One recent study by economists Giles, Hungerman, and Oostrom suggests a link between hopelessness and the well-documented decline in religious affiliation. Under the provocative title “Opiates of the Masses?”, the study argues that an increase in “deaths of despair” (caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides) is correlated with the decline of religiosity in the United States.

The argument against atheism

It’s a correlation worth considering. Defenders of traditional religion often suggest that loss of religion is the primary cause of modern hopelessness.

Consider this passage from evangelical preacher Ravi Zacharias:

Having killed God, the atheist is left with no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave. Significantly, the absence of future hope has an amazing capacity to reach into the present and eat away at the structure of life… There is a complete sense of alienation in in the world one hundred years after Nietzsche. It is this utterly morbid and hopeless philosophy that has sent many of our youth into a search for other realities. Those who do not have hope, in an effort to drown their despair, turn to drugs and alcohol.

Ravi Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism

I quote this at length because there is tremendous irony in Zacharias’ work. Zacharias, who died in 2020, has been accused of sexual crimes and using funds donated to his ministry to cover up his sexual misdeeds. But at his funeral, then Vice-President Mike Pence called him one of the greats of Christian apologetics.

Others have claimed that atheism causes hopelessness. In a book that quotes Zacharias at length, Anthony DeStefano put the worry this way: “Human beings simply cannot survive without hope, and atheism is the philosophy of hopelessness.” Another Christian author, Steven Cook, says: “The biblical worldview offers value, purpose, and hope. The atheistic worldview—when followed to its logical conclusion—leads to a meaningless and purposeless life that eventuates in despair.”

But is our present sense of hopelessness really about the lack of faith in eternal life? Or does it come from a more mundane sense that the adults on earth have screwed things up?

The opiate of the people?

Now let’s return to the Giles study and its provocative title, “Opiates of the Masses?” The study notes that “nonreligious organizations often fail to successfully duplicate the sense of community, social services, and cohesion provided by participation in a religious tradition.” There is some truth here. Human beings need a sense of community. But again, the problem is not about hope for eternal life. Rather, it is about the human need for genuine connection, friendship, and belonging. And much of this is lacking in the world of TikTok, Trumpian polarization, and Zacharian hypocrisy. 

This study also suggests that alcoholism and other syndromes have increased as religiously based “blue laws” have been repealed. For example, alcohol is more freely available. And the 24/7 economy no longer includes a mandatory rest day on the Sabbath.

But is the decline of religion to blame for increasing alcoholism, anxiety, and stress? The problem is, rather, that unrestrained capitalism is fraying our nerves, while selling us booze, gambling, pornography, and prescription drugs as placebos. The eradication of blue laws is not about the loss of hope for eternity. It is, rather, about opening the door for exploitation by the addiction-industrial complex. And while religious communities can provide a source of comfort and hope, religious communities also involve exploitation and hypocrisy.

The provocative title of the Giles study is unexplained by the authors. But the phrase “opium of the people” comes from Karl Marx. Marx suggested that the oppressed masses turn to religion as a kind of anesthetizing illusion. In explaining the idea, Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

On this view, religion covers up social problems and defuses the revolutionary spirit of people who feel alienated and exploited. This alienation occurs under soulless capitalism. It happens when decent people watch political and corporate elites fiddle as Rome burns. It also occurs when hypocritical religious leaders exploit the faithful for their own corrupt and selfish purposes.

Beyond the opiate of the masses

If the pale hope provided by religion fades away without fixing the underlying human problem of alienation, despair may in fact result. If we are forced to confront the alienating world in which we live without the solace of religion, hopelessness is not unreasonable. This does not mean, however, that religion is the solution.

Beyond using opiates to mask our pain, we need to solve the underlying disease. The problem is exploitation and alienation. The preachers of hope prey upon their flocks. And corporations cash in on human anxiety. To fix that, we need to critique the alienation, corruption, and injustice that are the source of so much human grief. Solutions for hopelessness include a more humane economy, a reform of the political system, and a critique of religious exploitation. But those are human solutions to human problems that do not require a return to the opiate of the masses.

Crimes, Misdemeanors, and Legitimacy Crises

Fresno Bee, March 25, 2023

Trump and Putin cases put justice systems under stress tests

The law is a human creation. It works best when we all believe it is fair. But the legal system is a limited and imperfect tool for achieving justice. This past week, stories involving Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump remind us that “the rule of law” is limited by political power. In both cases, we’ve heard the phrase “no one is above the law.” But that is an aspiration, not a fact.

Consider the indictment of Russian president Vladimir Putin for war crimes. The International Criminal Court in The Hague claims that Putin is responsible for the crime of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. Putin is likely responsible for a variety of other war crimes. The United Nations has accused Russian forces of war crimes including killing noncombatants, rape, and torture. The U.S. has made similar accusations.

But the ICC cannot go to Russia and arrest Putin, bring him to The Hague, and put him on trial. The jurisdiction of the ICC is not recognized by Russia. Nor is it recognized by the United States, China, or Ukraine. The court is basically powerless to bring to justice any war criminal from those countries. This shows us how far away we are from a global system of criminal justice that would promote world peace.

As the Ukrainian tragedy unfolds, a comedy plays out in the U.S. starring Donald Trump. Trump warned he would be indicted in New York this last Tuesday for paying porn star Stormy Daniels to stop claiming she had an affair with him. The GOP candidate for president called for his supporters to protest and “take our nation back.” In his all-caps rants on Truth Social, Trump claims that the justice system is run by “animals and thugs” and “racists” who let “murderers, rapists, and drug dealers walk free” and who are “purposefully destroying our country.”

In response, barricades were set up around the Manhattan courthouse, the D.A.’s office, and around Trump Tower. And then, nothing happened on Tuesday. Perhaps the D.A. flinched. But the fact remains that Trump’s strategy is to discredit the entire legal apparatus.

And yet, there is the risk of this American comedy devolving into tragedy, if Trump is indicted. What if Trump refuses to appear in the Manhattan court — a court whose legitimacy he rejects? What if his supporters surrounded Mar-a-Lago trying to prevent him from being arrested and extradited? And what if Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, joined Trump at Mar-a-Lago? McCarthy has also accused the Manhattan district attorney of “an outrageous abuse of power” in the porn-star case. What then would Florida governor Ron DeSantis do? Would he refuse to extradite Trump?

These what-ifs may seem unlikely. But after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, these things are not unimaginable. And it’s not only Jan. 6 that exposes the fragility of our system. Many Americans seem to agree with Trump’s basic complaint that the American justice system is unjust.

On the left, critics complain about police brutality, racial profiling, racial disparities in sentencing, and white supremacy in the criminal justice system. On the right, critics complain of a “weaponized” FBI, maintaining that the U.S. Department of Justice has tyrannized the “patriots” of Jan. 6. Trump has also claimed that the Manhattan D.A. — who is Black — is racist against him, while suggesting that the Federal DOJ is a “Department of Injustice.”

Our domestic distrust and polarization runs parallel to the problem with Putin and the ICC. Russia and the U.S. refuse to recognize the ICC. And in the U.S., leftists and Trumpians each question the legitimacy of the American system. But systems of justice do not work if there is no agreement about the impartiality and jurisdiction of the courts.

This crisis of legitimacy is dispiriting if we believe in “liberty and justice for all.” Of course, the law has never been perfect. The legal system is a human creation, built out of crooked timber. It depends on the good will of legislators, judges, lawyers, cops and citizens.

History reminds us that when good will is lacking, these systems fail and collapse. These are cynical times. But it’s still up to “we, the people” to fix what is broken and imagine how we might create fairer, and more universal systems of justice.

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Deep fakes, AI, and the need for ethical supervision

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2023

In the era of deep-fake videos, tech companies must not dismantle their ethics teams

Someone forwarded me a story about Microsoft laying off its ethics team. My first thought was “fake news.” It’s surprising to learn that Microsoft even had an ethics department. It’s even stranger to hear that the group has been disbanded at a time when technological innovation is getting wild.

These are the days of deep-fake videos, internet trolls, and artificial intelligence (AI). And so, in chasing down this story, I used my best internet skills. I checked multiple sources. I refused to believe websites I had never heard of. Eventually I found a report on Popular Science. A reporter there named Andrew Paul explained, “This month saw the surprise dissolution of Microsoft’s entire Ethics & Society team — the latest casualty in the company’s ongoing layoffs affecting 10,000 employees.”

The article explains that the Ethics and Society team once had 30 members. It was reduced to seven people in 2022. And now it is gone. The article notes that Microsoft still has a department of “Responsible AI.” That led me to search Microsoft’s website for the Responsible AI department. There I discovered a number of documents and reports based on the following six principles: fairness, inclusiveness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, transparency, and accountability. It’s reassuring to see that Microsoft has this guidance in place. But one wonders how humans are administering this, as personnel are being cut.

Anyway, I recount how I tracked down this story as an example of online critical literacy. You need to actively search for information, rather than letting it flow into your feed. You should check multiple sources, rather than relying on the first click. Double check URLs to make sure they’re not phony. Seek legitimate sources in mainstream or legacy media. Corporate documents, policy statements, and legal filings are also useful. And legitimate sources of information typically include an author’s name.

Of course, it requires effort and experience to sort things out. It helps to understand that the internet, in all of its tainted glory, is as much about making dollars as it is about making sense. Websites want clicks. They entice with spicy stories and sexy pictures. Algorithms force-feed us stories and images. Search engines profit when we click.

There is money and mayhem to be made online. So, you should enter that space with a suspicious mind. Don’t take anything at face value.

This is especially true as AI and deep fakes become better. I discussed the challenge of AI in a previous column. Here, let’s consider deep fakes.

Two recent deep-fake stories are worth considering. In one, students made a deep-fake video of a school principal uttering a racist rant that included threats of violence. In another, actress Emma Watson’s face was turned into a sexualized ad for an app that could be used to, you guessed it, make deep fakes.

In the first case, it is easy to see how deep fakes could be weaponized, as a fake video could be used to discredit an enemy. In the second case, the goal appears to be to allow for customized pornography, where any face could be “swapped” into a porn video. In the first case, yikes. In the second case, yuck.

One solution to this problem takes us back to the ethics teams at big tech corporations. Now is the time to build these teams up — not tear them down. These groups should be monitoring content and establishing norms and guidelines for the use of technology. Beyond that, we need a full-fledged movement for better education about media literacy, critical internet usage, and respectful community standards for the online world. And lawyers and legislators need to regulate and litigate.

Someone said recently that the internet broke our democracy. It is also possible to imagine how deep-fake technology can break people’s hearts. But this kind of damage can be prevented with ethical guidance, wise legislation, and human ingenuity.

I look forward to reading future stories about the expansion of ethics teams at tech companies. Maybe someday there will be college majors and high school classes in critical thinking and the internet. Of course, when I run across these stories, I’ll double and triple check them to make sure they are not fake news.

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Interfaith work needs to include the nonreligious

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New York mayor Eric Adams recently objected to the idea of the separation of church and state at an interfaith breakfast event at the New York Public Library. Library President and CEO Anthony Marx offered a welcome that celebrated libraries as places of inclusion, diversity, and freedom of thought. In his speech, the mayor acknowledged religious diversity. But he did not seem to acknowledge either the basic principles of American secularism or the presence of nonreligion. This leads me to wonder whether the interfaith tent is big enough to include nonreligion.

As book bans and Christian nationalism grow across our country, we need to recommit ourselves to the separation of church and state. The interfaith project needs to grow to include nonreligious people, and nonreligious folks need to show up at interfaith events.

The problem of The New York interfaith breakfast

The video of Mayor Adams’s February 28 speech is worth watching in full. After the Library’s CEO welcomed people to the event, a Christian pastor gave a prayer that concluded by invoking “the name of Jesus Christ.” Other prayers and invocations were provided by speakers from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and in both Spanish and English. Before the mayor spoke, a member of his staff celebrated “the power of the faith-based community” and the “power of prayer.”

Then the mayor gave his speech.

The mayor’s worrying remarks about religion were connected to comments he made about raising children. He said, “when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.” He suggested that we need to “instill” in children “some level of faith and belief.”

Mayor Adams continued: “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them. That’s who I am.”

The crowd applauded.

Religio-normativity and the faith assumption

Perhaps this applause is to be expected at an event that was intended to celebrate the faith communities of New York City. But it is worth considering what this says to nonreligious people, including nonreligious parents, teachers, and kids. Can we, the nonbelievers, feel welcome in a world that suggests that we ought to “instill” faith in our children? And how inclusive is an interfaith event in which the keynote speaker suggests that the church is the heart of the body politic?

The applause in response to Mayor Adams’ comments is a sign of what I’ll call “religio-normativity.” I’m coining that term here to help describe the problem faced by nonreligious people. I model the idea from discussions about LGBTQ persons and the challenge of “heteronormativity.” Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and ubiquitous. Religio-normativity makes it seem that nonreligion is abnormal, unnatural, unusual, and weird. But, as I discussed in another column, it is not reasonable to assume that faith is natural.

Religio-normativity is the assumption that everyone has a “faith” or describes themselves according to some religious classification. Religio-normativity is obviously inadequate today. As is well-known by now, social scientists and demographers who study religion have recognized the growth of the “nones,” those who do not identify with any religion and who mark “none of the above” when asked. About 30% of Americans now identify as “nones.”

The future of interfaith

This growth of the nones challenges the assumptions of religio-normativity. We should no longer casually assume that everyone has a religion or belongs to a community of faith. And when 3 out of 10 people are not religious, it makes no sense to suggest that kids should pray in school or that faith should be instilled in children.

One would think that those who are actively working in interfaith communities would recognize the need to avoid religio-normativity. But they may need reminders. In my work with interfaith groups, I usually encounter progressive, thoughtful, and sensitive people. Fundamentalists do not typically seek out this kind of thing. But nonreligious people also often fail to show up to interfaith events. And so they are easily overlooked and forgotten.

One powerful interfaith group is the Interfaith Alliance, currently led by Paul Raushenbush. Raushenbush, who is also a Baptist Minister, spoke out in response to Mayor Adams’ remarks. He said, “Every person has the right to religious freedom, including the mayor. However, I encourage the mayor to stop imagining himself as the servant of God and instead take seriously his obligation to serve the diverse people of New York – people of all faiths and no faith alike.”

Thank you Rev. Raushenbush, for recognizing and including nonreligious folks. Public figures need to more actively work to include nonreligion.

Conclusion: the atheist in the front row

Interfaith work needs to include the nonreligious. But the inclusion of nonreligious people in interfaith groups will make things more difficult, since the idea of interfaith includes faith. And some atheists bristle at the very idea that their lack of belief could be described as a kind of “faith.” We will need to work out the details of how nonreligioius people can be included. And we won’t be able to resolve every issue. But nonreligious people can benefit from showing up and demanding representation in interfaith events. And interfaith gatherings can be cured of their religio-normativity, when atheists show up and sit in the front row.  

Can War Be Justified? A Debate

Announcing my new co-authored book, Can War Be Justified? , a debate with Jennifer Kling, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

In this book, we debate this question, drawing on contemporary scholarship and new developments in thinking about pacifism and just war theory. Fiala defends the pacifist position, while Kling defends just war traditions. Fiala argues that pacifism follows from the awful reality of war and the nonviolent goal of building a more just and peaceful world. Kling argues that war is sometimes justified when it is a last-ditch, necessary effort to defend people and their communities from utter destruction and death. Pulling from global traditions and histories, their debate will captivate anyone who has wondered or worried about the morality of political violence and military force. Topics discussed include ethical questions of self-defense and other-defense, the great analogy between individuals and states, evolving technologies and methods of warfighting, moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, broader political and communal issues, and the problem of regional security in a globalizing world. The authors consider cultural and religious issues as well as the fundamental question of moral obligation in a world saturated in military conflict. The book was written in the aftermath of the war on terrorism and includes reflection on lessons learned from the past decades of war, as well as hopes for the future in light of emerging threats in Europe and elsewhere.

The book is organized in a user-friendly fashion. Each author presents a self-contained argument, which is followed by a series of responses, replies, and counter-arguments. Throughout, the authors model civil discourse by emphasizing points of agreement and remaining areas of disagreement. The book includes reader-friendly summaries, a glossary of key concepts, and suggestions for further study. All of this will help students and scholars follow the authors’ dialogue so they may develop their own answer to the question of whether war can be justified.