Sunday, February 24, 2013

Internet Revitalized

While doing some research on the web the other day, I came across a site that revitalized the beauty of the Internet. I was becoming increasingly concerned that the Internet (which was invented to simplify the exchange of knowledge and to increase accessibility of academic information) no longer serves its intended purpose, and instead has become merely a cesspool of social networking. The website, however, exhibits social networking at its finest.

You can easily figure out the details of the site by playing around with it, so I’ll shall spare you of an in depth explanation. Instead, I’ll tell you why I personally find it useful.

As an individual with a less than popular opinion on religion, I don’t often come across people who share my beliefs just by chance. I can Google search topics, but then only the big names show up in the results: Dawkins, Dennet, Harris… But with Diigo, I can find a multitude of everyday individuals who share my interests and exchange ideas and information with them simply by bookmarking pages I find interesting.

So, upon searching for some likeminded individuals, I entered “psychology, philosophy, science, religion, atheism” and voila, hundreds of matches. One of the first results was for a user named Todd Suomela, who was one of very few to include both a short bio and a profile picture (of a stormy blue and orange sky, naturally). Intrigued, I clicked on the link to Todd’s library to find that he has bookmarked over 13,000 web pages! And he adds new ones daily, sometimes more than one a day.

I realized at this point that this guy could save me a lot of time. I can search tags for topics he has bookmarked to find things that interest me, without having to sift through thousands of pages on a search engine. Better yet, for instances where I’m really pressed for time, Todd has highlighted and annotated articles.

For example, Todd bookmarked an article from 2007 written by Jonathan Haidt entitled “MORAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION”. It’s somewhat lengthy and I stumbled across it (via Todd) at a point in time where I was much too occupied to read the whole thing. But through Diigo, Todd had highlighted about 5 takeaway points from the article. These highlights made me realize that the article would be worth returning to, so I did.

Haidt argues that, while he is an atheist himself, Dawkins and Harris have been too unforgiving of modern religious conservatives. In their respective books, Dawkins and Harris argue that religion does much more harm than good in establishing a moral framework. Haidt, disagrees, noting that religion does foster morality, but a different kind of morality from the secular liberals’ idea.

Sam Harris wrote a response article both for his own defense and to support the ideals of the “new atheists”. He retorts that Haidt had simply misunderstood the comments on the religious conservative sect and that in reality, the new atheists simple feel “the point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know”.

I found this debate fascinating, primarily because it featured opposing members of the same team. And since the two articles are from over five years ago, I likely would not have found them easily without the unsolicited and voluntary help of my Diigo friend, Todd.

The other major benefit of this site and of searching through users is that you can access interesting information you may never have searched for on your own. In Todd’s bookmarks, I came across the WordPress blog of a teacher about her experimentation with different teaching methods. I doubt I’d have ever come across something so obscure and interesting without Todd’s recommendation. And this is only one user of the site. Diggo has thousands of users, and hundreds that match the interests I searched. I look forward to seeing what else I can find. I’m thrilled that websites like this exist to revitalize the true beauty of social networking and worldwide communication.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Children are Always Learning

 But Parents Don’t Realize They’re Always Teaching

In the early years of life before adolescence, the human mind is only capable of inductive reasoning. Logic as an overarching rule for thought processes does not yet exist, and children must make inferences about the way the world works through direct stimuli. Abstract thought and meta-cognition develop along with deductive logic in the early teen years. Without these abilities, children accept the teachings of their elders as truth, since they lack the ability to discover these truths for themselves. 

This is why it is so easy for parents to convince their children that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and perhaps God, all exist. Until a classmate or older sibling shatters the illusion, the child believes in these mythical figures with their parents pretending to believe as well, for the child’s sake. Eventually the child’s parents renounce all “mythical” (perhaps “invisible” is more suitable in this sense) figures and their practices, except for one: God. This is largely why children, even as they progress into adolescence, follow the religion of their parents without much question.

Let’s say a 3rd grader is told by his peers, “Santa Claus is not real”. He returns home after school and asks his parents if this is true. His parents knew this time would come, and tell their child the truth.

The same 3rd grader is later told by his peers, “God doesn’t exist”. Again, he asks his parents if this is true. But this time his parents, who have raised him to believe in God, are believers themselves. They confidently tell their son that God is real, God is good, but not all the other kids believe in the same God the same way. Confused but comforted, the 3rd grader proceeds through his life following in his parents’ religious footsteps.

Whether it’s wrong or right, the problem here is not that the child will grow up to follow or not follow any given religion. The issue is that in many instances the individual is not choosing their religion because they think it’s right. They think their religion is right because it’s all they’ve ever known.

It’s kind of like Huxley’s Brave New World. Hypnopaedia has youngsters of every caste being trained while they sleep to believe their caste is the best, so that when they grow into adulthood, there is no civil unrest. “It’s great to be a Beta. Almost as smart as the Alphas, but with less responsibility. And Betas are much, much smarter than Deltas…” 

Children are not necessarily a tabula rasa, but perhaps a lump of clay. A parent may only have so much to work with from the outset. But every lump of clay can either be carefully tended to or shaped into something beautiful, or left to be distorted by the harsh weather of the world around it.

The scary thing is, this applies to much more than verbal instruction. Children acquire information and learn behaviors even when they are not verbally instructed. Observational learning (most famously displayed by Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment), better known as “monkey see, monkey do”, is one of the major ways that children learn behavior. Correcting this phenomenon with “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work. Children learn even when you don’t want them to be learning. Every stimulus a child is exposed to has a magnified effect, more powerful the younger they are. And if parents don’t fill in the gaps with truthful answers to questions and explanations for behaviors, the child will fill the gaps in themselves. And to them, mommy and daddy are always right.
To be continued.


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Children are Our Future...

"So Let's Make Sure They're Just Like Us!" 

Perhaps I’ve been a bit hasty in judging religious culture. There is really only one overarching issue posed by religion: indoctrination. Young minds develop around the religion of their parents. Toddlers, knowing nothing of the world, rely on the wisdom of their parents to guide them safely through the unfamiliar world. Accordingly, young children have no choice but to regard their parents’ words as fact.

The documentary Jesus Camp is a prime example of this problematic indoctrination. Take the following clip for example: Evangelical Christians home school their children to shelter them from science and other beliefs outside their own.

Later in the film, Levi states that he could never befriend or get along with anyone who wasn’t Christian. Perhaps had he gone to school away from home, his closed-mindedness toward other beliefs would not be quite so pervasive. But from a very young age, the children in Jesus Camp are trained to be members of “God’s Army”, and the issue extends to politics. The Evangelical Christian voting block is 99.9% Republican, solely for the right wing’s promise to keep God in government. There are many political issues (beyond religion) that members of this voting block may never acknowledge, and certainly won’t ever consider when casting their ballot. 

By keeping their children from experiencing the world freely and making their own judgments, the parents of Jesus Camp are breeding an army of religious drones guided only by the word of God and their overbearing parents.

Or overbearing preachers for that matter; take for instance Becky Fischer, the pastor who runs the Jesus Camp for the Evangelical children and their families. Undeniably a passionate and powerful speaker, Fischer has kids in tears as she washes their hands of sin and deems Harry Potter an enemy of God.

A colleague of Becky Fischer is Pastor Ted Haggard. Pastor Ted is another fabulous Christian speaker, but is better known for his 2006 gay prostitute scandal. Oh, and he admitted to purchasing some meth from time to time.

Point being, no one is perfect. There is no reason to raise children to believe that “our way is the only way”. Without exposing yourself to opposing beliefs and ideas, there is no opportunity for progress. Dissent is the precursor to discussion, which is the precursor to resolution.

For reasons they don’t understand, religious zealots hate opposing religious zealots and start violent and political wars instead of just accepting the inevitable and necessary impasse. Nearly every war in history began with one religion’s disapproval of another. Everyone thinks their religion is the “right” one, but even if this were the case, how does killing, hating, and terrorizing members of other religions help anyone at all? If kids were brought up to take pride in their religion without disrespecting the spirituality of others, we’d have a much more peaceful world.

Take the war in Northern Ireland: decades of violent conflict between the Protestant British majority and Catholic Irish minority. The conflict didn’t begin to reach a resolution until the Protestants realized that the Catholic prohibition of birth control would soon leave them outnumbered. And to this day there is bad blood between the Catholics and Protestants in the UK.

The resolution is simple. Let kids learn, let them explore, and let them learn for themselves what is the right way to practice their chosen religion. So much of an adult’s life is reflective of their upbringing. This issue is not widely regarded as crucial, but in weeks to come I will discuss the importance of childhood and proper parenting. But without a doubt, the absolute worst thing for a child is indoctrination. Children should enjoy the right to question, critique, and examine, for this is the beauty of higher intelligence! 


Friday, February 1, 2013


Why Religion Persists Against All Odds  

Any middle school science student can tell you about Gregor Mendel’s peas and Charles Darwin’s finches. But there is much more to heredity than genotypes coding phenotypes, and there is much more to evolution than survival of the fittest.

Reproduction is every organism’s ultimate goal. But why would an organism aware of its own imminent death pass the suffering on to a new generation? Similarly, why would complex organisms, humans for example, behave humanely toward their own kind, or other kinds, if their demise were unalterable?

The religious sect is indoctrinated by a centuries old state of mind that was created to numb the people’s overwhelming fear of death. When humans evolved enough to develop feelings, language, complex thought, logic, etc., we also gained awareness of our own mortality. To temper the fear enough for our species to continue to reproduce, religion was created.

Christianity and the Bible serve as a framework for morality. Without a strict handbook to distinguish right from wrong, many people would not behave rightfully. The strongest animal instinct is self-preservation; protecting one’s own life is the only law of nature. But with religion, the human priority becomes serving God, more so than preserving and bettering one’s own life.

In a more primitive world, living by the code of a higher being would be an advantage for species survival. Christianity motivates the human species to join forces and serve God in the quest for eternal life. The moral guidelines of Christianity (theoretically) keep people from killing one another, and instead band the savages together for a common cause. There is power in numbers, and a large community is much stronger than living individually.

As the community expands and becomes knit more tightly, the Christian doctrine becomes more central to the identity of the group. Members are welcomed and protected, non-members are excluded. In today’s world where politics conquer nature, non-membership in a powerful group doesn’t really qualify as a life-threatening issue; you can simply join a minority faction and get a long just fine despite some potential political marginalization. But in a pre-political society, when the land was governed by natural right, being an individual could hinder your odds of survival.

Even in the pre-modern, but certainly civilized, era (i.e. Renaissance, Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution), scholars of the time identified as “theologians” for fear of being sentenced to death by the Catholic crown. The government and church were so intertwined that excommunication from the church was synonymous with capital punishment. Refer to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion for a more specific list of suspected atheistic scientists.

In the modern world you won’t exactly be killed or exiled for admitting you’re not Christian, but there are still consequences. Identifying with an Abrahamic religion has become such a norm that people are wary to admit otherwise. The stigma attached to Atheism is more negative than any other group. Surveys have suggested that Atheists are the most hated group in the United States; Muslims and gays rank higher. Additionally, less than .1% of the population admits to being Atheist.

The God Delusion provides evidence that many of today’s scholars and politicians merely wear the mask of Christianity to earn research sponsorship or voters, respectively. The stereotype of Atheism is that it goes hand-in-hand with immorality and Satanism. Accordingly, no politician is willing to run on the Atheist ticket, even if they are one. This is similar to the phenomenon featured in the documentary Outrage, in which a team of bloggers “outed” hypocritical gay Republican politicians who voted against their true constituency to maintain their political image. But lucky for the LGBT community, the public seems to be gearing toward a more liberal view of sexuality. Sadly, Atheists still feel the need to hide; for centuries there has been no way to live in the Western World at all except as a Christian.

But humanity has progressed and we don’t need God anymore. We don’t need the idea of God anymore to keep people civil. This is not to say that religion should be eliminated; it still serves many moral and social purposes for those who really do need a deistic influence in their life. But for those too intelligent to have real faith, don’t force it. It is natural to fear death, and it is natural that this fear drives even the smartest among us to believe in God. Reason burns in the mind and belly of the intellectual, but even the intellectual will suppress logic in search of eternal life.         


Illusory Proof of Christianity

How Science Supersedes the Divine 

A middle-aged man is pronounced dead at the scene after his vehicle was smashed by an 18-wheeler. A little boy flickers in and out of life as he undergoes emergency surgery. And another man spends just 23 life-changing minutes behind the gates of hell.

The commonality in these anecdotes is that each of them represents a different best-selling Christian novel, which Abrahamic readers gobble up as proof that heaven and their God exist! So let’s jump back to the first story…

In 1989, Don Piper was crushed by the roof of his car when a semi-truck struck him on his drive home. The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene, only for him to return from his heavenly journey 90 minutes later in a hospital bed. Convinced that God had sent him back to Earth to fulfill His divine will, Piper published 90 Minutes in Heaven.

The next novel, Heaven is for Real, was written by Todd Burpo on behalf of his four year-old son, Colton. Colton nearly died during surgery, but lived to tell the story of what he saw: images of the Virgin Mary beside Jesus, and his own self sitting comfortably on God’s lap.

Bill Wiese is the subject of the third anecdote. His story begins when his wife wakes in the middle of the night to her husband screaming from the living room. She explains that she had never seen him as she did that night: tormented, afraid. As Wiese returns to his normative state, he explains that he had spent the last 23 Minutes in Hell. He returns from his trip to the underworld with a fire in his belly, and God’s words “Tell them I am coming very, very soon” burned into his memory.

Piper, Burpo, and Weise all believe their stories are fact; but the three authors are somewhat blinded by the closed-mindedness of religion. Individuals who look up to a Divinity may fail to realize how divine their own mind is, and therefore forget just how much the human brain is capable of. The majority of the population cannot (or choose not to) recognize altered states of consciousness. It is not a matter of being unintelligent or simpleminded, it is just typical. Most people cannot distinguish between dreams and reality whilst in the middle of a dream.

In the first season of House, Dr. House relates the story of his own surgery and near death experience as though he were an anonymous patient. When describing the delusions he experienced, House states, “the white-light people sometimes see, visions this patient saw. They're all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down”. This is exactly what really took place in the three stories above.

The brain shuts down in part while we dream, and completely when we die. In both of these cases, a hallucinogenic chemical known as dimethyltryptamine is released to ease the individual into their unconscious (or potentially un-alive) state. The more adventurous of the living have recreationally experienced this chemical, known more colloquially as “DMT”. DMT produces powerful, other-worldly hallucinations that differ based on the individual. Just like any other substance, not everyone experiences it the same way.

As a devout Christian, it is no surprise that the release of DMT in Piper’s brain manifested as his ascension into heaven. When his body was brought back to life, his hallucination could have easily seemed real. The documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule, presents the DMT molecule as an explanation for heavenly near-death experiences as well as alien abduction stories. It’s interesting how people who report being abducted by Tralfmadorians and the like (as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) are immediately outcast as crackpots. However, devout Christians who report visiting God and the heavens (under the influence of the same chemical DMT) are regarded as heroes, messengers of God sent back to enlighten fellow believers.

But I digress. The fact of the matter is that all of this “proof” from people who have been to heaven/hell and back, is simply the powerful dreams of individuals who hope, wish, pray, and actually do believe that their experience was real. Take Bill Weise, his wife found him out of bed around 3am right after he allegedly escaped from the bowels of Hell. Sounds like some sleepwalking and a nightmare. But Wiese has used this bad dream to acquire disciples, and now travels to spread his story. In many of my own dreams I’ve visited places both real and fictional, and sometimes these dreams feel very real. But after a warm shower and cup of coffee my head is clear enough to logically conclude that I had not actually visited Mordor for 23 minutes last night. 

The last novel to address is the story of a four year-old boy’s journey to heaven. My explanation is nearly identical to Piper’s situation, but the difference in age poses something interesting. James Fowler’s theory of religious development states that in the preschool years, children’s concept of God is very concrete; toddlers tend to view God as a father figure (with a long white beard and robes, naturally). Colton Burpo’s story is compatible with this notion; he says he sat on Jesus’s lap while Angels sang to him. Sounds a bit like a bedtime routine.


The Beginning.

I intend for you to know little about me; without a description of who I am, you are free to read, respond, and ponder outside the narrow scope of a specific persona. Instead, I wish for you to paint your own picture of who I may be through my stories. I will discuss topics that you have probably wondered about, and if you have not, you will. Most of my posts will be related to philosophy and evolutionary psychology and how these two fields play a pervasive yet covert role in everyday life. I’m not trying to teach; I am by no means an “expert” in either field. My ultimate goal is to inspire conversation where there is usually silence. Too often today, in the age of relativism, we keep quiet for fear someone will be offended. This in turn has created a population which takes offense much too easily. We tend to accept all opinions as “good” in their own way. This is a false notion fashioned by a society afraid to insult. Insult, as well as praise, has a distinct purpose: to encourage progress. Controversy is healthy. So let us be as controversial as the web will allow. Let’s bring back Self Reliance and Civil Disobedience, as Emerson and Thoreau called for. Let us express ourselves as fearlessly as Richard Dawkins has, without the arrogance we’ve not yet earned. I hope to spark some ideas, I hope to piss some people off, and I hope for some to be inspired.
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