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Religion is and isn’t special

Passerotti, God the Father

The primary reason, it seems, that people are now telling Dan Savage that he shouldn’t have apologized– even in as qualified and precise terms as he did– is because it gives the impression that one should not criticize religious beliefs. And if one does so, and it offends, the appropriate thing to do is to relent and express sincere regret. The basic impression of someone who hasn’t dug into the details and/or prefers not to consider them is that Dan Savage insulted Christianity, Christian students were offended, and so Savage apologized to them. Examining the situation beyond that very superficial level reveals all three of these statements to be inaccurate, but people who are just fine with the idea of insulting religious beliefs are concerned to see Savage, ordinarily very much just fine with doing such himself, suddenly appear to acquiesce to those he disturbed. It looks like appeasement, like giving up legitimacy and rhetorical ground.

The “spell” referenced in the title of philosopher Dan Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell is not religion itself, but the protective aura of deference surrounding discussion of it. Dennett argues that if we aim to properly discuss the origins and effects of religion, we can’t be held back by barricades of etiquette which allow the description of religious beliefs and practices as true and/or moral, but not false and/or immoral. Further, we must reject the proposition that religion is a sui generis pursuit, noncontinuous with other kinds of human thought and behavior or even with other kinds of non-human animal thought and behavior. Does this mean saying religion is just like all other kinds of basic things humans– and even other animals– do? No, of course not. The fact that it has a name, constitutes a category, suggests that there are reasons for saying that some things people do, say, and believe are religious whereas others aren’t. However it’s also true that religious speech is a kind of human speech, religious behavior is a kind of human behavior, and religious beliefs are kinds of human beliefs. These are all things that humans conceive, live, and do with their human brains and their human bodies in their human societies and cultures. Studying the cognition of religion– the production and perpetuation of it in terms of how minds produce and perpetuate all other kinds of human activity– means starting with this recognition.

It sounds pretty basic and non-controversial, except when you consider that there are believers who are so certain of the one-of-a-kind, completely separate and special nature of their beliefs that they won’t even call them religion. Instead you get “I’m spiritual; not religious” or “Other people have religion; I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” To them, “religion” is the category of all of the failed, false, misguided attempts of humanity to reach the divine, whereas they have the real thing. To say otherwise is not only mistaken but offensive, precisely because this body of beliefs has been declared so very personal. You wouldn’t question out loud whether someone loves his mother, and for that same reason you shouldn’t question whether he loves his Lord– or how he knows he has a Lord in the first place. The problem is, of course, that loving someone is a highly subjective and emotional matter, whereas gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, souls, and any other entities which are supernatural but asserted to exist objectively are not. Whether God exists as creator of the universe and answerer of prayers, performer of miracles, and possible hater of gays is an objective proposition whose truth or falsity matters. The truth or falsity of the objective existence of all things matter, of course, but you’d think especially that of the supposed origin of life, the universe, and everything.

So claims of empirical truth that come from religion are just like all other empirical truth claims in terms of being subject to the same demands for evidence and justification. Atheists by definition are just people who don’t believe in any gods, but atheists who are also skeptics will point out that they disbelieve because they have searched for such evidence and justification and found them to be lacking. The case for God did not convince them. This is obviously not the entire story, however…atheists are not rational androids who simply  applied logic to the proposition that gods or the entirety of supernatural agents existing and then concluded that they don’t. Being human, atheists are subject to the same intuitions and biases that affect everyone else– and that’s where things get interesting.

See, there’s reason to believe that religion is intuitive….that we suspect and come to believe in the existence of “spiritual beings” because of ordinary features that come with being human. We are social animals, particularly keen to detect and discern the motivations of other creatures with agency. We anthropomorphize at the drop of a hat. We have an existential sense that makes questions like “What’s it all about, anyway? Why are we here?” seem not only sensical but important– especially in the face of crisis. We are incapable of knowing what it’s like to be dead, because there is no way to be conscious of complete non-consciousness (no, sleeping does not count), so accounts of life after death seem compelling and we speculate about what Grandma must be thinking and feeling or even doing right now, even though she passed on years ago. Participating in religious rituals makes other participants feel like family, even if they aren’t actually kin, and being willing to expend resources to do so presents a powerful signal to others of our commitment to the group. We tend to believe in a just universe— the idea that immoral acts must be punished and good ones rewarded, somehow in the fabric of existence if not through the justice systems humans have created. There is just all of this stuff that human brains are prone to do that makes belief in supernatural entities and moral codes likely, if by no means determined. And of course there’s the fact that each individual human born into the world doesn’t have to take on the responsibility of creating a religion from scratch– there is almost certainly one available for him or her, handed down from his or her parents virtually from birth.

Some recent research has indicated that more intuitive thinkers tend to be more likely to also believe in a personal god. An intuitive thinker is a person who tends to think with his or her “gut,” allowing feelings to guide conclusions about the rightness or wrongness or even truth or falsity of different propositions. Intuitive thinking is reflexive and quick, and– let’s be honest– how most of us think, most of the time. It’s not a bad thing; in fact without intuitions we would be utterly lost. We just don’t have the time to make all of the thousands of decisions we make in a day by taking a time out, sitting down, and pondering what to do while taking every possible factor into consideration, weighing the pros and cons, and making an inductively or deductively reasonable conclusion…which charitably but falsely assumes that that’s what we are inclined to do in the first place.

The human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally.

It would be far too cut and dry to say that intuitive thinking is affective, feeling-based, whereas counter-intuitive thinking is…well, thinking-based, but let’s say that counter-intuitive thinking is more reflective. It’s slower and requires a little more effort. Well, a little effort, period, as opposed to simply allowing your first emotionally-laden conclusion to rule the day. It’s intuitive for a religious person to think about God as behaving more or less like a super-human— having amazing powers and knowledge, but still doing things like focusing on one thing at a time and using the most direct physical means to cause events. Having a gender, opinions, and emotions. That’s the “personal god” the most intuitive person is most likely to believe in. I like to say that religion is intuitive but theology is counter-intuitive– theology is where you will find descriptions of God as a genderless amorphous “ground of being” whose behavior (if you can call it that) is complex and ubiquitous. This god is ultimate, and by that I don’t mean “super awesome” but rather “distant and removed.” This is not a god who intervenes directly in human endeavors by means of causing either catastrophes or miracles in order to influence our behavior. That is a proximate, personal god, the kind of being Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell would describe as punishing liberals every time a natural disaster or terrorist attack occurs. This is the god Rick Perry ordered Texans to pray to for relief from drought and threats to property rights, and who he, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain all believe told them to run for president. The god George W. Bush says told him to go to war.

You can probably guess the dangers I see in making God that personal, that proximate. But thoughtful theists generally recoil from it. They recognize the problems in claiming that God subverts human choices (“free will”) to specially punish or reward politicians, the enemies of fundamentalists, or football teams, not to mention directly cause or inhibit natural events such as tornadoes, tsunamis, or the processes of natural selection. Evolution is not a threat to a person who doesn’t demand that God be proximate. The plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover were mostly Christian, a couple of them even Sunday school teachers, but nevertheless they were branded atheists for supporting the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools unqualified by disclaimers questioning its validity. From the perspective of someone who believes in proximate, personal, In-Your-Face God, everyone who isn’t might as well be a nonbeliever. And nonbelievers are the enemy.

This is the type of person who views critique of his or her religion as bullying or blasphemy, who places matters of faith off limits to critical discussion while simultaneously holding that God intercedes directly in world events in a perceptible ways on a regular basis– that is, that God’s existence, nature, and behavior are easily empirical matters. This is the type of person who, while virtually ubiquitous, must not be allowed to dictate the rules of the conversation. If they are, the definition of “respect” becomes “behave as though my beliefs are true,” when in actual fact a) it is possible to maintain that a belief– any belief– is false respectfully, and b) respect can and often should be abandoned when considering beliefs that are ridiculous and/or obviously harmful. It’s not a choice between understanding these beliefs and openly forming opinions about their truth or falsity, how morally acceptable or objectionable they are– we can and should strive to do all of the above. With these as a simultaneous goal, it becomes easier to identify when being critical crosses over into being an asshole and when being empathetic and understanding crosses over into being a doormat.

Religion is special.
And it isn’t.

Have we evolved to reject evolution?

Following on the Pope post, there are various theories about whether people might reject evolutionary theory because it contradicts their intuitions. One was described by developmental psychologist Paul Bloom in an article he wrote for Natural History magazine entitled “In Science We Trust.” Bloom, who lays out a theory of intuitive mind/body dualism in his book Descartes’ Baby, believes that we have intuitive “theories” about physics and agency which cause us to operate as though they’re inherently separate things. Following from that, he basically argues that we may reject or misunderstand evolution because we have a hard time imagining something conscious being made out of non-conscious things (that is, consciousness as an emergent property), or that evolutionary change could happen without conscious guidance. This doesn’t make it impossible to understand and accept evolution– of course, since plenty of us do just that– but it would suggest that we have some built-in biases in our thinking which predispose us against doing so. Bloom writes:

A minority of Americans subscribe to an unusual theory about the origin of people and other animals. They are often adamant about the truth of this theory, and believe that it is the only one that should be taught to children. But if you press them on the theory’s details, their answers are muddled. It turns out that these people understand little of what they are defending; they are just parroting back what they have heard from others. Who are they?  They are Darwinians–people who claim to believe in evolution by natural selection. . .  Psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University, for instance, finds that children insist that everything has a purpose. Educated Western adults believe that human-made artifacts have purposes (cars are to drive around in) and that body parts have purposes (eyes are for seeing), but young children take this further, saying the same for animals (lions ate for being in the zoo) and for natural entities (clouds are for raining).  And psychologist Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan found the most direct evidence for natural-born creationism. She carried out a series of studies in which she asked children flat out where they believe animals come from. Their favorite answer is God. That is true of children whose parents are fundamentalist Christians–no surprise–but it is also true for children whose parents accept the theory of natural selection! Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was right to complain, then, that it seems “as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.” . . .   Looking within the United States, the difference between Darwinians and creationists does not reduce to smarts or education: studies of college students found no difference in how well (or poorly) they understood the theory of evolution, whether they believed it was true of not and no matter how much biology they’d studied. When researchers asked the students who endorsed Darwinian beliefs to explain the theory of natural selection, their answers were on average no more accurate than those of the students that rejected evolution. Many in each group misunderstood the theory, coming up with something closer to Lamarck’s view than Darwin’s.   So while an evolutionary biologist might argue that giraffes evolved long necks because the ones with longer-than-usual necks got more food from trees and hence tended to have more offspring, many students would say that it is useful to have a long neck and so (somehow) giraffes will have longer-necked children. They believe, as Lamarck did, that there is some mysterious force that causes animals to become better adapted to their environments, and they confuse this with modern evolutionary biology.  

Those are just a few excerpts; you can read the whole thing for free at the link above. I don’t find it at all surprising to think that there are plenty of people who profess to accept evolution but don’t actually understand evolutionary theory. I wouldn’t be surprised, for that matter, if such people constitute the majority of evolution-accepters. The idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics which Lamarck advocated just seems to be easier for people to grasp whether they are pro-evolution or not. The matter of why some people find this misunderstanding of evolution perfectly okay and others abhorrent does not seem to be about who is more educated or who thinks more critically per se, but very likely more about religious and/or political affiliation. That’s my thought, but I don’t have the research to back it up…yet.

In the meantime, people advocating that evolution should be taught in public school science classrooms and never creationism should sit down with a cup of tea and a copy of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea if they’ve never done so. Consider it an intellectual gift to yourself.

Some thoughts on religious anthropomorphism for Easter

Michael Blume writes concerning the “personification of the universe” model of religion:

Religious traditions seem to derive their motivational, cooperative and then reproductive potentials from the belief in superempirical agents – ranging from deceased ancestors to various spirits, angels and demons to gods, bodhisatvas and alien visitors from outer space to God. . .   In fact, non-personal systems such as early Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism (etc.) had to adopt superempirical agents (such as bodhisatvas, khami, tirthankaras, the Lord Tao and many more) in order to survive demographically. The underlying logic is rooted into evolutionary theory itself: As human beings, we might be ready to accept commandments from supreme “personalities”- but not from abstract and non-living objects or principles.  As Friedrich August von Hayek rightfully observed: A theistic commandment such as “Be fruiftul and multiply” (Genesis 1, 28) may be accepted by religious believers as authoritative and even beneficial, although it cannot be verified empirically. By personification, religion is able to attribute value to forming families and having children.  In contrast, to accept empirically tested hypotheses as “teaching” normative commandments would constitute a natural fallacy contradicting our evolved feelings as well as philosophical lore. Although modern definitions of Darwinian or Evolutionary Fitness agree on the importance of reproductive success in evolutionary processes, we are simply not ready to accept any “commandments” thereof.

I’m pretty well convinced myself that when it comes to religion, agency is where it’s at– even when official theology says otherwise. If you want to read a good defense of that point, I would highly recommend Jason Slone’s book Theological Correctness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.  He marshals a great deal of evidence from experimental psychology to show that people who are thinking religiously are thinking in terms of agency, and that they think of supernatural agents (gods, spirits, bodhisattvas, and so on) as essentially being like humans with some superpowers tacked on.

The argument is basically that religion is ultimately about intuitions– that theology is something believers accept to signal that they are part of their own particular religious community, but their reflexive reactions suggest that there are more deeply-rooted, fundamental ways of thinking about agency which are applied when thinking about the supernatural.  In other words, that given the right circumstances you can “tease out” convictions in people about how supernatural agents think and behave that rely more on ordinary intuitions about how humans think and behave than on the particular dogma that defines one’s faith.


Human nature, by Junior Lopes

Here are a few…let’s call them suppositions I’ve reached in the process of doing a very cultural degree program followed by a very cognitive one:

1. Perspective always matters. None of us are truly objective, because we speak from a perspective by necessity. But by seeking out and being informed by the perspectives of others, we can come closer to objectivity. The truly objective is that which is true or existent independent of our perspectives, however, and cannot be determined by simply adding up subjective views. If nine out of ten people think Beck is the best musical artist ever, that’s useful information. It does not mean that Beck is objectively the best musical artist ever. You can’t vote on the sex of a rabbit, etc.

2. Perspectives often differ as a result of distributions of power. The more powerful often speak more loudly and are easier to hear. Power may come from many sources–sheer numbers, monetary wealth, physical strength, influence, and so on. While the perspectives of the less powerful are important because they can include insights that are simply overlooked by the powerful, they are not right simply by virtue of being relatively powerless. If you added up all of the kinds of non-privilege in the world and found them all existing in one person, that person would not be the wisest human being ever. But he/she would probably have a hell of a story to tell, and it’s one we should hear.

3. There is such a thing as human nature, but we are not biological robots. We are both natured and nurtured. Biological determinism and strict social constructivism are both telling partial stories which are thereby incorrect stories. A person who thinks a trait of the human mind is more biologically determined than you do is not necessarily a biological determinist, and a person who thinks the trait is more shaped by society is not necessarily a strict social constructivist. People who focus on culture tend to fixate on difference while people who focus on cognition tend to focus on commonalities. This does not make them enemies, but collaborators (that is, if they’re willing to be). “Biological” and “neurological” do not mean “permanent,” and “cultural” does not mean “easily/quickly mutable.”

4. Nor do those classifications mean the abdication of responsibility or legitimization of normativity.  Our minds are built by both biological evolution and the culture around us, and saying that a certain trait is adaptive no more confirms that it is good than does saying something is a message sent by society.  Neither evolution nor society have “wants.” They are both complex forces that shape people without purpose. We as individuals take what we’re given and decide what to do with it. We don’t hand responsibility over to either force, but share it with them. Free will– the kind of free will worth wanting– is created in the exchange.

These are all very general “planks” of my thinking about how minds work, but I thought it important to jot them down because holding these suppositions says a lot about what I do or don’t find surprising, likely, or moral. For example, you’re not likely to arouse outrage in me at the idea that rape is an evolutionarily adaptive trait. It might be completely untrue, but the very idea won’t offend me because I know that doesn’t remotely mean that rape is good, prudent, or hard to avoid committing. I’m already very familiar with the idea that war, sexual deception and jealousy, religion, and more biases than could possibly be conceived may well be adaptive, and those possibilities are interesting in terms of their explanatory value but hardly threatening. And to return to Stephen Pinker-think, nothing we discover about the human mind is going to legitimize rape.  If someone claims otherwise, they’re doing science wrong. Or not doing it at all.

Sue Blackmore decides that religions are not, in fact, viruses of the mind

The world needs more scientists with wacky colored hair

Sue Blackmore is one of the go-to voices in the UK on matters of religious thinking and consciousness. She is, believe it or not, an atheist with a PhD in parapsychology.  Originally a firm believer in the paranormal, she reached the conclusion in the course of her study that it doesn’t in fact have any scientific basis.  At that point she decided to find out what the mind really is capable of doing, which resulted in a number of books including the excellent (though steeply priced) Consciousness: An Introduction.

She is probably most famous for The Meme Machine, however, a book in which she takes the idea of the meme which Richard Dawkins proposed in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene (yes, it really was that long ago) and ran with it.  I don’t think most people who use the word “meme” these days really have any idea where the term originally came from and how it was formulated.  Some people don’t even know how to pronounce it, because they don’t realize it was intended to sound similar to “gene” in order to convey a similar means of propagation.  Genes, Dawkins wrote, have their own metaphorical interests which can be viewed as independent from ours in that they “desire” to be perpetuated  into the next generation.  In the same way, memes are ideas which “desire” to be spread as far and widely as possible.  Blackmore expressed this epidemiologically, comparing memes to viruses which need hosts that are most conducive to spreading them.  A memeplex is a conglomerate of ideas which are transmitted together because they are mutually supporting, such as a philosophical outlook or a religion.

As you can imagine, an idea’s interests that are independent from ours might well be also contrary to ours, which is what the word “virus” is intended to convey.  Viruses are not symbiotic with us– they manage to propagate at the expense of our health by making us sick.  In his 2006 book Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett compared religion to a lancet fluke which invades the mind of an ant, driving it to climb to the top of a blade of grass to be eaten by grazing animals, and didn’t seem to fully acknowledge how that analogy could be perceived as insulting to believers.  It smudged the line between being willing to die for worthy causes, of which martyrdom is perceived to be one, and being made to die pointlessly for someone/something else’s desires.  You might say “Well, that’s the entire point– the memes just make you think you’re doing something meaningful!”  Maybe so, but that’s assuming one’s conclusion.  Most of us would grant that some forms of self-sacrifices are in fact noble and not at all pointless, but both Blackmore and Dennett would say that those are caused by memes as well.  How do we determine which ones are virus- or fluke-like and which are not?

After attending an Explaining Religion conference at the University of Bristol, Blackmore says that she no longer views religions as viruses of the mind in the sense of being detrimental to their hosts. Why? Two main reasons:

1.  Michael Blume was able to show that religious people have far more children than non-religious people.
2.  Ryan McKay was able to show using experimental data that “religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a ‘supernatural watcher’ increase the effects.”

To the first point a person could note that there are more important things in life than the number of one’s children.  True in a proximate sense, but not in an ultimate one.  If we’re evaluating the benevolence of a meme on an evolutionary scale, increasing reproduction is a clear advantage even if it’s not in the best interest of individuals or, indeed, the world itself.  To the second point, which is well-supported by a number of studies that have been performed over recent years, a person could dither about the degree to which being cooperative and honest should be counted as more a benefit to the individual or to the group, and then talk about whether it promotes in-group cooperation at the expense of creating inter-group hostility.

However, I’m not sure we really need to conduct either discussion.  Memetics is not the only way to examine religious ideas epidemiologically.  The advantage in looking at religion as a memeplex is that it emphasizes that religious ideas are transmitted between human minds just like any other ideas, but I think that Pascal Boyer manages to do that more effectively using his epidemiological approach because he doesn’t feel compelled to treat ideas as strict analogs to genes.  He tries to figure out first what should count as a religious idea, and then discusses which religious ideas are more likely to “stick” and which others are not, but not by attributing metaphorical interests to them.  That isn’t to say that Boyer doesn’t have his own ideas about whether religious ideas are on the whole more beneficial to us or more detrimental, but that question is not essential to his theorizing about what fundamentally makes an idea religious and likely to spread.  In fact, it’s quite irrelevant to that theorization.

I don’t think the matter of whether and when religion benefits humanity and when it harms us should be off-limits to scientific inquiry.  And even if I did, scientists are going to research those topics anyhow.  But it doesn’t seem appropriate to make a decision about the value of religion as a whole as part of your theorizing about how it works.  These studies which point out various ways in which being prompted to think religiously causes people to be better to each other are tightly circumscribed and specific.  I don’t think showing that people tend to behave better when they think they are being watched, for example, really says anything about the value of religious beliefs in general even if one function of religion is to perpetuate the idea that there is always someone watching.   This experimental data is important, but it’s also important to hold off on forming grand conclusions on the basis of a few studies.  It’s good that Blackmore has decided religion isn’t a mental virus, but that doesn’t mean it’s a mental panacea either.

Some random musings on “forever”

When I lived in Denmark, a friend told me that no one there receives a prison sentence longer than fourteen years, regardless of their crime.  I’ve since learned that that’s not true, but the idea still baffles and appeals to me, and that has nothing to do with the specific number.  It’s because it suggests that a body of people have cumulatively decided that “forever” isn’t a punishment, that a life sentence is inherently no longer about the perpetrator but instead about desires for revenge on the part of the victim, the victim’s friends and family, and the greater society.  The thought of locking someone up and throwing away the key is immensely satisfying when they have done something to hurt you horribly.  I don’t mean to be at all flippant about this, but it just seems to me that people have a cognitive disconnect when it comes to thinking about “forever” or even “for the rest of your life,” and it gets in the way of our concepts of morality.  I don’t think that anyone should commit or be committed to something forever, or for the rest of their lives, because there is no way for them or us to properly conceive of what that really means.  Our understanding of time just doesn’t allow us to do so.

I’m relatively young, but not very young.  I realize that as you age, the years tend to run together and zip by in a way that would be literally incomprehensible to someone a decade or even a few years younger.  It doesn’t seem like you have changed much between five years ago and today, even though the individual years between when you were fifteen and sixteen or even twenty-five and twenty-six seemed instead like eras.  Still, a person can change dramatically in the span of a single year– any year.  Anyone who has watched their parents virtually turn into different people immediately after retirement, for example, is aware of this.  And yet from the inside, it seems like we’ve been basically the same person all along.  Naturally.  It would be very disconcerting if we didn’t, because the sense of “me being me” would be lost.  It’s common to hear someone say that she is no longer the person she used to be, but when saying that the person is almost always referring to a certain aspect of her character that has changed– not that she went through a complete change in terms of who she is. And yet that’s precisely what often happens.

I can’t help but think of the reactions I’ve heard to Jesse Bering’s theory about a cognitive constraint that prevents us from conceiving of the cessation of existence.  Basically, he argues, we believe in life after death because we are unable to conceive of being dead.  It’s impossible to do so, because there is no way to be conscious of the fact of being unconscious.  The immediate response is “Of course we can!  Do we not dream when we sleep?”  Sure we do, but that’s not real unconsciousness– real unconsciousness would be awareness of nothing, not even dreams.  Real unconsciousness isn’t sleep; it’s a black-out. You feel nothing during it, but you can sure feel terrible afterward.  Even if you’ve done it, you haven’t experienced it because experience during it is impossible.  In the same way, we think we can conceive of forever, or “for the rest of my life” or “for the rest of his/her life,” but we really can’t.  We can conceive of a really long time, because everyone has experienced a really long time, but that’s as close to “forever” as dreaming is to death.

It’s impossible to tell whether this conclusion is the product or the cause of many of my thoughts about justice and morality, but it is certainly connected either way.  It’s why I consider the death penalty to be more compassionate than a sentence to life in prison, for example.  Make no mistake; I oppose the death penalty– but I oppose life imprisonment more.  Given the chance to be Queen of the World for a day, I would abolish both but allow prisoners to opt for death at any point in their sentencing if they decided that was preferable.  But that would be a penalty they would have to carry out transparently and by themselves.  As horrible as the reasons for and means of committing suicide can be, I consider it a fundamental right, and perhaps if more people agreed with me on that, the means would become more humane for everyone involved.

I cringe when I hear people speak blithely-but-seriously about someone going to Hell, or even saying, as atheists often do, “I wish I believed in Hell so that he/she could burn in it.”   Do you really?  Do you honestly wish that you believed there is a place where people will be tortured forever?   You aspire, in other words, to be the worst sadist imaginable and regret that you’re not?  Because that’s what wishing eternal torture on someone entails.  If you were a sadist-in-practice in this life and tortured someone on your basement in the most merciless way for thirty years, behaving like…I don’t know, a Reaver from Firefly, it would be but a paper cut in comparison to an actual Hell.  Not even that, actually, because of course nothing can be compared to infinity.  How long would it take for your torture to become meaningless?  To become as much torture for the inflicter as for the inflictee?   A shorter time than I’d guess for people who like to invoke this lunatic notion, if they’ve even considered the idea in the first place.  And yet I’m not willing to convict them of sadism precisely because of that– I don’t think they have actually thought much about it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (one would hope)– “I’ll love you forever.”  Really?  Are you sure about that?  Unconditional love is a nice-sounding idea, but loving someone who has decided after twenty years to become an ax murderering child rapist isn’t exactly a positive character attribute even if you manage to achieve it…and there’s no particular reason why you should, regardless of what Charles Manson’s many female admirers would say.  I would posit, actually, that most if not all of them admire him precisely because of the acts that caused him to be imprisoned in the first place.  If he were to be released and decided to take up a career as a janitor in Montana, much if not all of the attraction would probably be lost.  Again, a personality change over time.  There’s a good reason, I think, why such sentiments as “IIIIIIIII will always love yoooooooouuuuuu” are referred to as “sweet nothings.”  They sound sweet but literally mean nothing, if you’re doing it right.  There are a lot of stupid reasons to stop loving someone, certainly, but a heck of a lot of good reasons as well, and there’s no way to know which ones of either variety are going to crop up until they do.  Surely if you love someone for who they are, you should continue to love them for who they are.  Right?

What prompted these thoughts?  Something very mundane, actually, but still important– a discussion on whether people who have committed to a monogamous relationship are allowed to cheat, if something catastrophic happens which effectively kills any chance at romance.   Dan Savage’s answer is “yes,” if the cheating functions as a kind of pressure release valve which enables the sex-desiring partner to stick around.  But what got me thinking about “forever” was mainly the comment thread in which people discuss  what pledging your life to someone can and should mean.  As a Buddhist might point out, the only permanence is impermanence.  We’re all changing all of the time, and that’s a good thing.

There’s a thought I try to keep in mind.  I debated getting it tattooed, but it’s not exactly elegant wording– clumsy as hell, actually– so have decided against that.  Nevertheless, I try to live by it:
Life is short, so take it seriously.  But life is short, so don’t take it too seriously.

Who do you admire?

At The Daily Dish, Conor Friedersdorf contemplates the results of a recent Gallup poll asking Americans which men and women they most admire.  Barack Obama won out for men, whereas Hillary Clinton came out on top for women.  Friedersdorf thinks the fact that politicians make up the majority of people on both lists is “all about” name recognition, and I agree. He also says that “I’d never cite a living politician if asked who I admired most,” and I agree with that too.  Nor would I cite a religious leader who is heavily involved in politics, several of whom also figured highly in the ranks (Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama).  In fact, the only people at the top who wouldn’t qualify for either of those two descriptions are Angelina Jolie, Oprah, and…Glenn Beck.  Dear god.

The poll asks “What man/woman have you heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?  And who is your second choice?”  I admit that if you called me on the phone and asked me this question impromptu, I would have some trouble coming up with my “best” answers.  I don’t keep a list of heroes in my head, because usually it’s not something important to consider unless you are asked for a Gallup poll, or, say, a job interview (why having a good answer to this question is an important quality in a receptionist, I’m not sure).  I couldn’t tell you my top five movies or bands, either.  It’s not because I’m apathetic or without preferences, just that ranking such things never really seemed that important.  But since I’m pooh-poohing the top answers given by the Americans polled, it seems like I should be able to come up with some I might actually give, at least for right now.  Such as…

Radley Balko:  Radley is a journalist.  To sum him up as a journalist, however, would be a little like summing up Norman Borlaug (someone who would absolutely be on my list, if he hadn’t died last year) as a farmer.  Radley’s work is decidedly political, but it is the kind of politics which any person with an ounce of compassion should praise, yet of which most are completely ignorant– seeking out and revealing the cases of people who have been oppressed by America’s justice system, whether by oversight or quite deliberately.   He’s written extensively about the harm caused by no-knock drug raids, prosecutorial cover-ups, asset forfeiture, the necessity of access to DNA testing for convicts, and general police malfeasance.  His work bring injustices to public attention– “My reporting helped get a guy off death row, helped win a new trial and acquittal for a 13-year-old murder suspect, and led to the firing of a corrupt medical examiner in Mississippi.”  His blog, as you can probably imagine, is frequently a depressing read.  But it’s a necessary one, and I admire him for doing this sometimes very dirty work.

Joel Salatin:  Joel is a farmer– but not a regular one.  To quote Wikipedia, he is
“a self-described ‘Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer'” who “produces high-quality ‘beyond organic’ meats, which are raised using environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture.”  To unpack that, it means that he doesn’t just farm without using pesticides or genetically modified animal foods, which is what “organic” usually implies.  Hence the ‘beyond organic’– the goal of Polyface Farms is to start with grass and build a progressive and decidedly non-industrial food chain off of it.  Cows, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, all living off and contributing to the grass and each other’s…err…products.  No pollution production, no pesticide runoff, no tight confinement of animals in dark spaces eating food that makes them sick.  No docking of tails for depressed pigs.  No government subsidies, because the government doesn’t subsidize growing grass, or cows that were fed only grass or chickens that were fed only grass and the grubs of other animals that ate grass. Just a circular, self-perpetuating cycle of food production– something you’d think was the norm until you found out otherwise.  I admire that immensely. I also admire Michael Pollan for making sure the world has the opportunity to know who Salatin is.

Eugenie Scott:  Eugenie, who sometimes goes by “Genie,” is an anthropologist who heads up the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and is, incidentally, one of the biggest fighters against creationism in public schools and promoters of evolution in America.  See Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Eugenie generally operates behind the scenes, but she is probably the foremost authority on the evolution/creationism controversy in the country.  And it’s not just about Dover– it’s about a country-wide ongoing tireless battle to make sure that what is taught in public school science classrooms is actually science, and she’s been contributing toward that effort for more than 20 years.  I find a lot to admire in that kind of dedication. I also admire Lauri Lebo for writing about the Dover trial in a way that could make everyone understand it and feel like they know everyone involved in it, because that’s absolutely necessary if people are expected to care. 

Carol Tavris:  Carol is a social psychologist who studies human bias.  She is co-author of a very important book entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, which is a lesson in intellectual humility that everyone– everyone— needs.  I could make a list of science-based books that have made my head spin with possibility…and will, at some point.  But reading this one, and hearing Carol talk about it in the interview below and this one, really punched through for me.   As often as people throw around the term “cognitive dissonance,” they don’t really seem to understand it.  It’s not the simple fact of holding contradictory views– it’s the discomfort that arises from realizing that your views are contradictory.  Intellectually honest people feel cognitive dissonance and seek to resolve it by changing their views.  Intellectually dishonest people either don’t feel it to begin with or they find a way to avoid the discomfort by rationalizing their views to make them seem consistent, which is what Mistakes Were Made is all about.  We’re all regularly intellectually dishonest– it’s the norm, not the aberration.  Bias is in our nature, and bias is, in my view, infinitely fascinating.  That willingness to brave that chasm of human folly and make it easier for the rest of us to do so as well is why I find Carol so admirable.

AAR 2010

Thousands of smiling, mild-mannered people with blue tote bags have descended on the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta.  This is the 2010 American Academy of Religion conference.  I’m posting from my room in that hotel, using the wireless internet that they made me pay for on top of the room rate.  Why do expensive hotels do that? Oh right, because they can.

My spiffy bag

Anyway– I’m here because I’m on the steering committee for the cognitive science of religion consultation this year, and hopefully will be next year and as long as they’ll have me after that.  Even though the vast majority of panels at AAR aren’t for me, I just love academic conferences and the enthusiasm from all of these people– some wearing suits, some that look like hippies, some wearing Buddhist saffron, some in leather– is palpable.  And though the cognitive science section is just getting off the ground, it’s doing so fast.  Attendance has been really good in the past two years, which was a hard thing for me to imagine when searching almost in vain for science-related sessions prior to that.  In 2007 I was excited to attend a special session in an enormous ballroom dedicated to discussion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, only to find when I arrived in the heavily populated room that the talks would primarily be about the FSM’s status as a “new religious movement” and virtually nothing about evolution, intelligent design, or church and state issues.   Sigh.

This year, on the other hand, is a different ballgame.  A few hundred people attended a plenary talk by Frans de Waal, a noted primatologist based at the Yerkes Primate Center here in Atlanta.  He has been researching the capacity of chimpanzees and bonobos (and sometimes other animals) to practice empathy for decades, and based his most recent book, The Age of Empathy, specifically on that subject.  I haven’t gotten through the whole thing at this point so won’t review it yet, but I can say that it should be an easy and engaging read for a non-specialist.  If you’re interesting in hearing about the impressions of ape capacity for reciprocal exchange, altruism, and love from a person who spends virtually every waking hour around them, this book would probably be a good choice for you.  Be aware, however, that this is a contentious subject and de Waal definitely has his detractors.  For more on who they are and why, you might want to pick up Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.

Oooh….TV.  Georgia TV

This morning’s session was on scientific approaches to religion and reductionism, which is going to be a topic that keeps coming up so long as there are people who don’t understand that reductionism is what science does, and that it’s necessary.  The third speaker gave what I considered the most interesting talk, making a case for something similar to what psychologist Bruce Hood calls “supersense”– the religious sensibility being something that views ordinary objects and behaviors as special for unseen reasons.  A believer who nonetheless devours scientific explanations for religion, he referred to the different kinds of knowing about religion: a) knowledge of the facts about religious beliefs and behaviors, b) introspective knowledge of what it feels like to believe, and c) a scientific understanding of the “how” of religious and behaviors.  The “insider/outsider problem” is a well-known one in religious studies, and people will always be asking whether a believer or a disbeliever is in a better position to give an authoritative description of a religion.  The answer, of course, is that it’s similar to asking whether something is nature or nurture: it’s both, depending on what you want to know.  However empathetic a person you are, empathy relies to an incredible degree on having experienced something like that which your subject is experiencing, or as close to it as you can get.  A person who has never believed in God is just not going to understand what it feels like as well as someone who believes or someone who used to believe and has the memories of that to draw on.  Our memories aren’t anywhere near infallible– it’s not like we have VCRs in our heads, let alone Tivo— but an edited and interpreted memory still beats no memory at all.     

20th floor balcony.  Taking this gave me vertigo.

(I’m working on very little sleep right now…probably should’ve mentioned it earlier, but didn’t because lack of sleep made me forget to do so.  Apologies if I’m not making much sense.)

So that’s the first day, and it has been all about empathy for me.  The bits of political commentary that have eked their way into the Q&A sessions on some of the talks irritate me, but I suppose it’s to be expected at this point– a conference full of herpetologists would probably find a way to work in some snark at some party/candidate or another at this point.  Our section still has some sessions to go, but luckily I have a bit more discretion over what to do tomorrow. I think the aquarium might be calling my name, and I can never pass up an aquarium that can speak.

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