Monday, August 26, 2013

...coming soon: the scientific method........

While asking me about my religious standing, a young lady asked me, “So do you believe in evolution?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“I don’t see how we came from apes” she started “and I just don’t see why people believe something just because someone said it or wrote it.” She remarked.

“Me neither” I said strongly. “But isn’t that what people do with religion?” I asked.
She remained quite.

“Well,” I said, “it’s not that I just believe: I have been convinced.”
“What’s the difference?” She asked.
“I didn’t just choose to believe something because I liked the way it sounded, or felt obligated to believe it because others did” I replied, “I have actually read The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin. And I used discretion and critical thinking to make up my mind!”
“Oh”, she said looking up to me with a bit of surprise.
So, I asked her, “How many people do you know say they do not subscribe to biological evolution and yet have never read any of the scientific literature on it?”
“Hmm” she said quietly while looking down in thought. “I’d say about...all of them” she said with a rising intonation as if asking a question.
I said, “As I started reading these big works I was astounded with the amount of time, research and evidence that Darwin presented in his writing. He clearly had the ‘stuff’ to lay the foundation with and it wasn’t just a bunch of ideas he was throwing against the wall. It was such a flood of information that it was so simple to just connect the dots. Given this information and being that it is still in consensus with modern science, which has since presented even more evidence of Darwin’s theory, how could I deny it? I’m a reasonable person and I’d be lying to myself if I did. And you’d do the same.”

“I didn’t realize that it was that serious of a work. I thought it was just...random theories” she said. “But I’ve never read it so I guess I just don’t know.”
“A lot of people think that…but they forget or had never even known that science doesn’t work that way. It utilizes the scientific method. And that is what set’s it apart from religion.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Free Will: Comply or Die

Imagine receiving in the mail a birthday party invitation from a close friend. As you open it you find the usual stuff: “I’d like to invite you guys to my birthday party, Saturday! There’s going to be great food, great people and great music! You’ll never regret it! If you can’t make it it’s okay but please RSVP if you can.” As you scroll down to the bottom you find a post script, “BUT come Saturday night and I don’t see you I’m going to hunt each and every one of you down, strap you up in my basement and inflict upon you a life-long vengeance of unremitting pain!  Hope to see you guys there! :-D”

A little passive aggressive isn’t it? But I would like, however, to pose this question to the religious: if this scenario is not acceptable to you, or even slightly objectionable within your every day life, then why do you allow this to thrive in your religion? You see, the scary truth about this is that one can identically equate god’s “free will” choice to this tasteless but fitting example.

The Deal
A lot has been discussed about the many quirks in religion systems but it seems to me that many tend to skip over the sore thumb: the fallacious notion of free will. Now beside the obvious flaws we can pick at such as: if god knows everything including the end result then why go through the whole creation, test and judgement deal-e-o; there is a lot of debate in philosophy on the notion of free such as determinism, predeterminism, incapatibilism, and much more. Sam Harris, whose work I greatly admire, wrote on the subject in this respect but with a twist of his own expertise in neuroscience. This is all great and wonderfully complex stuff but what I've chosen to talk about here is the step right before that: the very simple aspect of religion which opens the deal, why we have to choose to begin with and take an offer we can't refuse.

Religion, particularly in Christianity, boasts that its idea of free choice is one of the most painfully beautiful and selfless philosophies in its doctrine, aside from the crusifiction of course. In an askew way it can seem so: god is claimed to have created the multitudes with their own free choice of direction in life and offers them eternal love and reward to those who want it. What a generous guy, huh? It's as sweet as grandma baking cookies for you as a kid for an after-school treat. But that's not quite the truth because there's more to the story. In the end it seems that god's desire for his people to have free choice is greater than his love for their ultimate survival as he will not only kill the non-believers and "lukewarm" believers on judgement day, he will sentence them to eternal torture. It seems as though god places his importance on the interim of choice rather than the end result. Eternal torture for not accepting god's part of the deal is like grandma blowing you away with a shotgun for getting a "B" in science! This sounds more like a control issue rather than a love issue. If this is really all god's design then why set the playing field up that way?

To me free will would mean that you may choose to live your life in any reasonable way without any punishment or reward for either direction- just a different way of life. Punishment and reward are objects of coaxing when used between the two parties. But with the biblical view, when looking at what is actually a clear and immanent threat, one realizes that there isn't much room for a choice, is there? Would you go to my "killer" party as described up top? You'd have to! And what kind of vibe would it have? It would be a group of scared and angry people amongst one victorious dictator. Having forced a person into a particular type of lifestyle under threat of torture for ones own benefit is far from a choice of free will. It's actually an ultimatum. In fact; free will changes its color to a big red flag: duress.

Just to be clear on what were talking about here; duress is defined as “a situation whereby a person performs an act as a result of violence, threat or other pressure against the person.” In Tort Law contracts made under duress can be legally breached and voided because of the obvious bias, unethical practice and undue burden put upon the victim. In this day and age we understand this as logical because we've grown and progressed as a society and we know better than our ancestors did.

The victim of a mugging isn’t going to argue the moral failure of the perpetrator while he has a gun pointed in his face. He’s going to give the perpetrator his wallet regardless of the situation. This is why “God-fearing” people didn't question their religion in the days-of-old and those who perpetrate religion were and still are very much aware of this.

But nowadays the more logically-oriented religious people have started questioning their beliefs because we know so much more about our world through the avenues of science and logical thinking. It has become acceptable or even normal to be non-religious. Illustrating the fact that religion survives by duress doesn’t directly negate the existence of a god obviously (that’s not part of my current argument) but it clearly illustrates the fact that we need to start thinking differently about an ancient way of thinking

The Weapon
So where is the proverbial gun? It takes no detective to find it. It's pretty easy to open a bible and find some sort of verse speaking of a revengeful act against non-believers. For example, Paul, who founded part of the early Christian church wrote to them,

“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord; and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.”

But that’s God talking through Paul to each and every one of us…or is it? Without reiterating what I've already said in the above paragraphs, I ask: can this be justified by a “God of love”? By merely reading the bible it becomes evident that it was not entirely inspired by eternal love from god but by the old brutal mentality of primitive man; the same brutal primitive mentality which prides its tribalism and promotes negative otherism. Kinds like those engage in car bombings and suicide attacks today. When this clear and evident fingerprint of man becomes prevalent, we then have to question the remaining validity of the subject. Knowing the history of religious scriptures or just religion in general confirms this and so I will not go into detail about this here.

Verses depicting god's wrath toward the unbeliever like the one quoted above is merely one out of thousands, if not tens of thousands. It bothers me tremendously to know that there are so many people who claim they are all about god's love but yet take even more pride in the violent destruction and ultimate demise of anyone who thinks differently than themselves. I think those who fit that description indeed reflect a lot about their psychology and they themselves are often ignorant of their own psychology. I despise hearing messages like Preacher Al Martin's which is emphasized with visual and audio effects by a bible-belt church in order to aid in the anger and the fear they want to inflict upon people. With the unmistakable intonation of a condemning preacher, they always leave their flock feeling that if they think they've been good, they haven't been good enough. Every time I hear it I expect to hear a gunshot at the end. It just makes me realize that no matter who they are, more or less crazy than the next, they're just portraying the same condescending and demeaning message. What's the difference?

Where there's smoke there's....hydrothermal vents?
To help better understand god's reasons for threat of torture I thought it would be interesting to find out what believers propose as the authoritative description of hell other than the usual description we've all heard. I then thought the authors of the Left Behind series would be good for this research as I'm sure their ideas are probably widely accepted by the Christian public but I decided that they get enough publicity as it is so I flushed that idea. So when running a simple Google search I was astounded to see the amount of people devoted to illustrating and reiterating those horrid descriptions in the bible. I didn't really find much more than the usual cave-like landscape with fire, brimstone and torture which we're used to hearing but there were a couple ideas I found particularly interesting...

As we know our ancestors devised the notion that hell is down below us in the ground. Though we know now through Earth science that the inner core of the Earth is merely a tumultuous convection of magma at insane degrees of heat and pressure, Terry Watkins, of the Dial-the-Truth-Ministries, amends this fact. After doing the "research" he has exclaimed in the typical  professing-Christian all-capitol letters that “YES! THERE IS A PLACE CALLED HELL!” (This picture is from his website.) 

Terry explains that screams have been heard near erupting volcanoes and concludes that they are from people burning in hell  heard through the volcano. I don't know whether or not he ever considered them being from people living in the communities around the erupting volcanoes. Either way, he concludes that hell is indeed underground. He proposed that for one to physically penetrate the surface of the earth on the way to hell one turns into a giant worm, swims down through the hydrothermal vents deep in the Pacific Ocean and then die. The Riftia pachyptila, or tube worms, as he’s referring to are invertebrates that live near those hydrothermal vents and in his eyes are physically metamorphosed hell-bound human beings. 

I happened to have found more "scientific" descriptions of heaven rather than of hell as the bible paints a mysterious picture which strangely doesn't consider all the laws of thermodynamics. Rich Deem, wrote on his website,

The characteristics of the new creation tell us that it will be vastly different from what we are used to on earth. Probably most noticeable difference will be the lack of gravity. The New Jerusalem is described as a 1,500 mile cube. Structures of this size would automatically become a sphere in this universe, because of gravity. Therefore gravity will either be absent or significantly reduced in the new creation. There will be no Sun or moon. This makes sense, since there will be little or no gravity. Without gravity, the new creation would not be bound to its source of heat and light. The lack of the Sun is not a problem for the new creation, since the Bible tells us that the glory of God Himself will provide illumination. The illumination provided by God is probably not the same kind of electromagnetic radiation (photons) that we call light. The illumination provided by God certainly involves the wisdom and knowledge that He possesses. With this kind of light, there would be no need to visually see things, since this would severely restrict our ability to "see" everything as God sees them. There will be no oceans, which means that there will be no water cycle. It would be difficult for a water cycle to operate without gravity. There will be the river of the water of life, which flows from the throne of God. Given its source, it seems likely that it may not be liquid water as we know it.

“The laws of thermodynamics seem to be absent from the new creation, since the Bible tells us that there will be no heat. In this universe, the second law of thermodynamics controls virtually everything that happens. The law states that heat flows from hot bodies to cold bodies. Stars cannot shine, animals cannot consume food to produce energy to move, and chemical reactions cannot occur, since all these processes require the exchange of heat.”

It seemed to me that there are also people who just cannot wait to die in order to experience these great things. They would claim to be lucky if they just might be able to experience the end of the world. This site provides a counter!* Though they are not sure how the world will end they provide a good list of ideas from aliens to mad scientists and of course my personal favorite: Planet X.

“Others believe that a mysterious red planet, PLANET X: NIBIRU, two thirds earth's size, is heading towards earth right now and will pass through our solar system around 2012 causing polar axis shifts on earth.  Some say that polar shift takes thousands of years.  Others say that Nibiru's presence will cause polar shift to happen quickly. 
“Nibiru (Planet X - the red planet) is one of the biggest December 21 end of the world 2012 predictions.  Some claim that Nibiru is one of twelve planets in our solar system and that it cannot be seen at the moment because it is hidden by other planets.  To find out more about Nibiru and whether it will come near or strike earth in 2012, CLICK HERE (text version - scroll down to see the section on Nibiru) or CLICK HERE to watch a video about Nibiru.”
Clearing the Smoke
So god is “green”, will save you money on your electrical bill and there will be no more need for the Sci-Fi Channel! Of course it would be a waste of time debunking these things as anyone with a basic college education and experience in critical thinking can spot the "hiccups" in what we just read. One would think that a powerful omniscient god who created the universe, floods the world or parts the seas would have provided a clearer understanding as to where we are going and how we will get there.

I honestly didn't want to promote the authors by posting four whole paragraphs of this stuff but I still had to illustrate the fact that people are willing to put so much time and esoteric thought into this stuff without even analyzing the basic structure or foundation of their embellishments. But the strangest fact here is that what seem to be religious fanatics are actually what I would call religious preservationists: they are not only perpetuating fantasy but they are perpetuating the prolonged intentions of belief that religion first held in its heyday. What I mean is that these are not clinically insane people doodling in the sky with these crazy ideas; these are real adults investing their time and research into what many people really believe...or want to believe. 
I can understand that some of these people are just pretending to be research assistants for Indiana Jones’ and they probably have fun doing it too. But researching these fantastic concepts is just as futile as researching the end of the world according to Jupiter, Poseidon or G.I. Joe! As we know, there is a lot more confusion that could use clarification in this realm rather than deepening the ambiguous fantasy. To paraphrase Michael Schermer, most people are more interested in chasing a fantasy or controversy rather than a simple logical explanation.

So Why the Gun?
We've already seen the fact that there is no free choice in religion because of the duress seemingly impinged upon us by god. Taking it a step further back, to the point before god needed to draw his weapon toward us, we would ask why a graceful god of love needs to use a "gun of torment" to force everyone into his final paradisal destination? Why would he need us to be there? To serve us for a change? 

If there was a man who walked into a dog park and placed down two bowls of food and then shot down the ones who randomly chose to eat from the bowl on the left, took home and cuddled the ones who ate from the right, ultimately what is his benefit?  What would be the benefit of this entire filtering-process that a god couldn’t achieve without us? Why create so much life when he knew he would painfully waste so much in the end?

I fail to see the logic and reason, or even the love, in this idea of religion. Torture, within the realm of eternal love and trust, just sets the scale toppling over like Kim Jong-Il, David Koresh, the Phelps, and the father of "drinking the Kool-Aid" Jim Jones of Jamestown. What's the difference between a cult and a religion besides the number of people who follow it? It may seem like a harsh comparison but it is indeed accurate. It illustrates that we are human and so were the creators of world religions. It is part of our inherent nature to be tribal, to group up, to yearn for belonging, to fight for a place and fight to hold that place; but so are the ways of religions as they are "our" creations. Looking at the structure we see in religions we start to see the imperfect tendencies of our own selves surfacing through the eyes of anthropology.

My point being is this: if this is really all god's design then why set the playing field up that way to begin with? We in our sophisticated societies don't even operate this way anymore except in religion. It's like executing the football players of the team who didn't win the Super Bowl! I guarantee you there'd never be a football game again if this was the way it was. Are we now better than god or better than our previous selves? What would be the difference between the god of the bible and "Jimmy" from The Twilight Zone? Jimmy had fun by keeping around him only the people who worshiped him in his utter tyranny, created and destroying strange creatures, banishing free-thinkers to the corn-field, and turning poor uncle Jack into a twisted children's toy for questioning Jimmy's wretched dictation. If this isn't the structure of the "gun" in religion, I don't know what is.

These may seem like silly questions but they all have serious implications. There may be no real answers to them but they stronger as tools of logic and philosophy to help bring to light the flaws that are in the woodwork of our thinking. So why should we allow a dissonant way of thinking continue to exist in our modern world? Logic and rational thinking were the first monkey wrenches jamming up the gears in my past religious beliefs. 

So why the gun? It's because one religion thinks it's better than another religion. It's because of the lingering competition through tribalism or clans which were part of our ignorant past. It's because it was the only seeming possibility of hope and boost in morale for those who would ultimately never get it during their life times like the slaves, the terminally ill and the impoverished. So in the end what we’re dealing with is not a controversial divine authority, ignorant and insubordinate man blinded by gods great glory, riddles in philosophy never to be deciphered, but of authors from times of old. At least in a first world country we no longer need to function in this archaic manner.

Freedom of Choice Operating System 
One last point that I wanted to make is this: religion is a mode of thinking. There is no more certainty in the life of the religious than that of the non-religious except for blind self-reassuring thoughts. I'll illustrate this fact. 

I recently encountered a life-changing career move. It was something I thought I really wanted. A Christian friend of mine told me, "Have faith in Him. He wouldn't have taken you this far if he didn't intend on bringing you all the way." It was a nice thing to say and it's a nice thing to hear. But the fact of the matter is, that's the extent of it. My friend didn't actually know that I was going to get the job, right? It was a process of a semi-reasonable deduction.

Well I actually did finally achieve the goal I was aiming for but shortly realized that it was more of a burden than a pleasure- I regret the entire ordeal. Achieving my goal my Christian friend remarked, "You see! God wanted to bless your life and made it happen!" But my religious friend, an abstinent and highly-devoted Christian, couldn't have foreseen the outcome any more than I could, right? Now knowing my current predicament she says, "The LORD was testing you to show you that life was really better the other way around. Be careful what you wish for." Wouldn't those who are "in-tune" with god be able to foresee things that this atheist couldn't? 
If I hadn't achieve my goal to begin with she would have said, 'The timing just wasn't right for God. Sorry.' On the outset a Buddhist friend of mine would say, 'It all depends on your karma and if you put good energy into your efforts' and another who is an atheist would say, 'so far so good but we'll just have to wait and see what happens.' My Christian friend forgot that I used to be a Christian and I know these types of memorized phrases and self-soothing ways of thinking. With any situation there is a prescribed statement that anyone from any religion would profess. We see through unbiased statistics that religious people have no more a successful life than the non-religious.  I asked this once before and I'll ask it again, have you ever seen a psychic win the lotto? Me neither.

Case Closed
Religious or not there is NO certainty. Some people like Windows, some like Unix. Some prefer paper some prefer plastic. Some prefer hot dogs and some prefer tacos. Quite frankly I take comfort in knowing the reality of the situation rather than fool myself into believing something that just might or might not happen. Being cognizant of reality allows me to strategically plan and be active in my life rather than waste time and energy, praying and thinking I'm actually doing something. This is one reason why I am an atheist. 

We get told, “God’s ways are higher than ours” and “there are some things that we are not supposed to know or understand right now”. My advise to those who say these things is: save it! Those are old phrases used to quite logical minds and to keep curious people compliant. I’m sure a lot of believers find themselves saying it without realizing what they’re doing. But why would any even-minded person utilize logic, reason and critical thinking in every aspect of their lives except religion? People need to stop going to church while leaving their brains in the parking lot!

Atheists are not people who want to be immoral, violent or treacherous. We don’t condone killing, lying or stealing. We know it's wrong to covet thy neighbors ass or thy neighbors wife’s ass! Atheists are atheists because we know that there is room for good people of free thought in the world and we know that we are not going to be punished for it. There is no hell; no proverbial smoking gun. Religions’ role as a social control system prohibited peoples natural-right to experience life freely, but not any more. It is okay to live a life of intellectual and personal freedom! There is an undiscovered universe for each of us to experience through the senses and the keen perception of our intellect. What you're going to perceive depends on what program you're going to run. The fact is you can question what you believe. You can question why you believe and you can “test the LORD thy God.”

Only an open mind is wide enough to take in the beauty of this universe.  

Other Sites not noted above:

* This article was written before but published after 12/21/12. It was quite a kick to see the racing numbers counting down to the "end".

Monday, April 2, 2012

All You Need Is Love

In the Christian bible 1st John 4:8 states, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

In my religious days that verse was one of the cornerstones in my life. Even as a child before taking religion seriously I had always felt a strong connection with nature and had a deeply passionate feeling for life. It felt deeply meaningful to me like a pure natural love and I felt it everywhere and in all people. It gave me a sense of confidence in where I was in my known world. Later, whether in my Christian years or my meditation years it was still by use of this feeling where I was able to discern that I was in the right place.

When I was a kid we went to church on Sundays. But I couldn’t seem to associate the sense of spirituality I experienced in my life with the biblical god whom I was taught about. It wasn’t deliberate it just didn’t feel like it was the same thing even though my experiences could be classified as spiritual. It was of course promoted during those years by good parents, kind friends, and good experiences. Back then one could have called it “spirituality” but it is now what I call a natural sense of unity.

In my mid teens I took Christianity quite seriously and in my early twenties I left that and started practicing ancient yoga meditation to which I became deeply devoted. Though I had profound experiences in meditation I think most lasting was that same natural sense of unity I had as a child but only magnified. Funny enough in my late twenties I became an atheist because of significant lingering issues that neither god nor religion could address. But yet as an atheist I could still experience the benefits of meditation, closeness with nature and a deep sense of humanity, just in a more sophisticated sense. How could this “spiritual” sense still exist if I no longer subscribed to the idea of god or religion?

Now I wouldn’t want to misrepresent myself and say that everything was the same one way as a religious person and continued feeling the same way as an atheist. There was a change, a transition. I lost something I never had but I gained a new understanding of something I always had. Part of this was that natural sense of unity which was eclipsed during this change but later shined again within a new understanding. For more details about this transition please see my previous articles.

I honestly believe that had religion not been introduced to my life I would have become roughly the same man that I am today. Christianity was an unfortunate loss of time with a lot of hard work and very little reward. The heavy discipline of original yoga meditation, though relaxing, I found still damaging to the ego by surrendering the self just as in Christianity (see my article on “The Virus in Religion”). It was now clear to me that those passionate feelings I experienced as a child were not from god because they were still able to survive in one form or another throughout my transitions. “How could spirituality exist if there is no spirit?” I wondered. It’s quite simple: it came from within me. It is not a spirit in the supernatural sense but spirit meaning the psychological seat of emotions and character. This can still be an important part of who we are but ultimately it is of an emotional origin.

Now I don’t like to refer to life stories as a way of proving a point because science doesn’t utilize anecdotal evidence; rightfully so. But I try to provide relevant experiences for which scientific and historical evidence already exists. This is to encourage free-thought in readers who are “on the fence” who have newly embarked on this area which is otherwise forbidden by religion. It may seem audacious for me to suggest that spirituality is merely a psychologically based experience but there is more of a consensus than some may think. Next time you or someone you know is experiencing something spiritual, whether it is praying, yearning for comfort or feeling the presence of god, try to find out what they’re really feeling rather than what they were told what they are feeling.

One of the most common false conclusions religious people make when asked about their most convincing proof of god is, “I can feel Him. Therefore I know.” Christians often claim that it is their “personal experience” of god which renders proof. We know it would be incorrect to say that what they feel is not real. Those feelings are very much real. But it is the attribution of these feelings which is incorrect and has been done so almost traditionally. The religious have neither had a better explanation for it nor have they the reason to look for one. For the religious, they label it the way they were taught to: they are told that it is god. This is true in the emic perspective.  But as scientific facts started emerging we started to see that those feelings are not god.

Contemplation and Expressed Desires
Our genes have a lot to do with our intelligence, our character as well as our moral inclinations. Though this amazing and complex subject certainly has some ties to ideas behind spirituality it is something which we will leave, however, for a future article. For the purpose of staying on topic we will continue on the idea of spirituality as an emotional byproduct.

When it comes to spirituality, the brain’s complex laboratory of neurochemicals, cognitive mechanisms and emotions all play the leading role. For starters, Sigmund Freud wrote in depth on his theories of the psychological development of god. An article from Philosophy of Religion sums it up well by stating, “For Freud, as for [Ludwig] Feuerbach, religion is wish-fulfillment. Freud adds the explanation that the adoption of religion is a reversion to childish patterns of thought in response to feelings of helplessness and guilt. We feel a need for security and forgiveness, and so invent a source of security and forgiveness: God. Religion is thus seen as a childish delusion and atheism as a grown-up realism.”

It may seem a little far fetched but there is a lot of psychological investment in what we intrinsically feel toward parents and inherently in a psycho-social sense toward a loving god. Many of the emotional needs that people seek from their “heavenly father” are the same as some needs sought by children from their parents. But the psychological need that religion tries to fulfill is only a small part of the picture and isn’t so much regarded in this area of study anymore. It does however provide a platform for us to examine what we vainly seek for our selves through the avenue of religion. I might even add that as the origins of religion are highly emotional so are the resulting scriptures. It follows that as a passionate species we still feel a sympathetic resonance with it. I argue that as emotions are often irrational or illogical, so too are the many “quirks” we find in religion.

I might even go on to speculate on my natural sense of unity by saying that this form of spirituality is a yearning to return to the pureness of childhood: if one is fortunate to live in a family where a healthy childhood was promoted, a child’s early mind, which is unhampered by adult struggles in life, is relatively “perfect” or sets the standard thereof. In this sense ignorance is not just bliss but it is simplicity and retrospectively speaking a reformatted version of our fundamental selves. It can simply be a refreshing way to decompress from the pressures we accumulate throughout life. In this ideal is the purity we seek; it is a return to innocence.

This is in part spoken in a theoretical sense but by this we begin to understand that what we seek in the form of spirituality, quite possibly an introspective mirror, reveal the desires we seek for our personal selves. Having fulfilled those emotional needs fills the “god-sized hole” we have in our hearts.

Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience of Religion
In more recent studies in the area of cognitive neuroscience we’ve been able to gain more of an insightful understanding as to why our minds tend to render the notion of the supernatural. Freud almost hit the nail on the head with his idea of transference: continuing the desires for a caretaker or parent into the adult age by conceptualizing god(s). I wouldn’t deny this exists in some form or another but the whole of spirituality is much deeper than this.

Since the days of our early ancestors, or even primates for that matter, instinctive and cognitive mechanisms evolved along side of their behavior to assist them in meeting the challenges they encountered in life. These are the demands of daily living such as care taking, avoiding predators, hunting, migrating, etc. These developed as instincts or traits which made these tasks easier and more efficient. This is analogous to the reason why you don’t have to learn to ride a bike each time you set-out on one! But some of these mechanisms can interplay and indirectly create “quirks” on which we then derive strange explanations for. I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble but in contrast to the religious mentality, our brains are not perfect. There, I said it! (Wink)

Ancient times or modern, we have always been a social species. Hunter/ gatherer societies lived and flocked in groups as it was advantageous for things like hunting and protecting their selves and their young from predators. As living in groups deemed advantageous it became inherent in the brain to provide positive chemical feedback to infer “this is good” and to “keep doing it”. Thusly they continued this behavior. So derivatively speaking it’s easy to understand why going to church can feel spiritually beneficial to us because we naturally feel comforted and encouraged while in the company of like minded people. It is a sense of community.

Church services themselves, particularly those with rigorous worship rituals like the Baptists, the Evangelicals and especially indigenous tribal groups can be tremendously moving. In their worship rituals they reproduce the rush of adrenaline much like how one instinctively experiences through running or even like being pursued by a predator (experiencing urgency, enhanced strength and hopefully achievement). As a matter of fact the good old Boogie Man, that monster lurking in the dark that we as children have all feared, is an instinctive survival trait from our ancient past. Remember, before our early ancestors learned how to build shelter they lived in the midst of nature and they were well aware of the fact that there were nocturnal predators out hunting for food. Waking up to a Bengal tiger licking your foot tickled only for a moment!

Aside from instincts there are also cognitive factors which we often attribute to the supernatural. The notion that the mind or spirit could conceptually continue after physical death is largely a result of us being unable to conceive cessation of consciousness. We encounter a paradox when attempting to imagine non-existence because doing so requires one to be receptive to even perceive this notion. This is, in part, a side effect of what is known as the mind body split. The mind body split in cognitive neuroscience is responsible for the introspective part of our selves: the internal self as opposed to the physical self. Most people claim this suggests that the mind actually does continue beyond mortality but this is fallacious. We know a lot about the mind now days and that includes its idiosyncrasies.

Another aspect that plays a very important role in spirituality is in peoples claimed ability to perceive the will or direction of god. It is spurred from decoupled cognition. Its intended purpose serves us the function of being able to hypothesize what a known person might think or act in a given situation. It is useful in guiding ourselves socially especially in accordance with a parent or a boss for example. Similarly this function acts in the extraordinary feature of postulating “What would Jesus do?” or “I hope my dearly-departed grandparents aren’t watching me!”

Interestingly enough neuroscientists found that the frontal temporal lobe, which houses our sense of self, is also the same part of the brain in which we associate our sense of god. This doesn’t mean that there really is a “god part of the brain”, it’s “our” part of the brain but the notion of god is often so personal that it becomes part of our identity. This also explains why some religious people could be personally offended by reading my articles!  To add to the experience, the activity in the parietal lobe, which is responsible for our physical sense of orientation, can decrease during meditation rendering the illusion of being “larger than life” or an expanded consciousness. We can clearly see that, as I’ve mentioned throughout this article, spiritual experiences come from directly within us.

By seeing that there is this mental mixture of god and self we can deduce that those who claim to perceive the “voice” or “will” of god are literally speaking of themselves- not god. When they say “God told me to run for president.” as a few of the 2012 Republican Primary candidates stated, they were subconsciously saying, “I really want to run for president!” Like talking about ones self in the third-person perspective, the little voice of god is really an extension of the self. It is only misattributed to their identity and association with god. But of course I would be proven wrong if we elect three Presidents of the United States this year!

As we can see this conflicting sense of self and god can be troublesome if not totally disastrous. As devoted believers speak not only as themselves they often also speak from what they believe is the infallible and monumental standpoint of god which is seemingly exempt from any or all criticism. This can result in ideas from “God has asked me to tithe to the church” to “God has asked me to kill the infidels.” This cynical result brings a sobering awareness to those critical of religion and hopefully to those in religion because it reveals the necessity of understanding where spiritual impulses comes from and how it can affect each and every one of our lives. 

People who were unfortunate to have incurred brain injuries can also experience spiritual-like side effects. We understand now that these types of experiences are injurious manipulations of the neuroanatomy in the brain. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, had an experience unparalleled by other researchers in her field. Jill suffered a major stroke and a brain hemorrhage. After eight years and a full recovery Jill’s description of the onset of her injury provides a real and tremendously moving account of her phenomenal experiences as a byproduct of the brain. Both the detail and significance of this is so great I cannot afford the room herein and so I refer you to this must see video link I’ve attached above which applies perfectly to this point.

Those who incur life changing brain injuries are often not as fortunate to have the extensive recovery as Jill did. They are sometimes incapable of willful direction of their post-injury behavior such as in the classic example of Phineas Gage; the brain is responsible not only for the notion of spirituality but behavior as well. It is the same misfortune for those who are born with the psychological predisposition of a sociopath or other negative social dysfunctions rooted in the brain. When the brain is damaged or defective are they exempt from gods “laws” when the men who wrote the bible weren’t even aware that this possibility could exist? What is the religious people’s explanation for the purpose and destiny of one who was born with a defective brain?

There are volumes written and volumes to be written on this area of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience of religion and it is incredibly fascinating. I’m certainly no expert in the field but I encourage everyone to read Dr. J. Anderson Thompson’s general audience-friendly book, why people believe in god(s) for an incredible tour through our early human behavior and modern psyche.

Here are a few more real claims to the supernatural of which we now know have their origin in neuroscience. We all know that there are people out there who honestly believe that they are psychic. In an experiment some of these people were tested as they claimed that they can psychically perceive, with high accuracy, the shapes on the back of Zener cards hidden from view. But in the scientifically controlled setting where the results are statistically analyzed we see that they are the same to that of a random draw. Have you ever seen a psychic win the lotto? Neither have I. The cause: self delusion.

Another example is the Ouija Board. Legend has it that they can be used to talk to the dead. Understandably so! Years ago back in my paranormal investigations I’ve tried it on several occasions and the planchette actually moves! But what’s moving it is far from dead. It’s very much alive and it’s us! It is what is known in psychology as an ideomotor response. It is unconscious movement made by the body such as salivating while only thinking about the sourness of a lemon, the suggestive forces in hypnosis, reflexes and even the shedding of tears while crying. It is commonly explained as the driving force in many other supernatural tools such as pendulums, divining rods and automatic writing.

Another claim of spirituality is where the consciousness seems to leaves the body during a near-death experience. Though it is often a tremendous and unforgettable experience we have learned that it is a type of survival mechanism that is triggered within the brain when it is undergoing severe trauma or stress. It removes the conscious mind from the current of pain neurally and into tranquility or euphoria at which point pleasant hallucinations may occur. It does this as simply as flipping a switch.

We cannot deny that these experiences mentioned in the paragraphs above, especially the ladder, may be deep and meaningful but once again, these are experiences which come from inside of us and not from outside of us. We can now see that these are all fine examples of how natural physiology can create “quirks” on which we then draw the erroneous conclusion of “something else”.

Let My People Go
We’ve already shown here and in past articles that these experiences are not a result of a god and religion; god and religion were the initial resulting explanation for these experiences. Religion throughout the world is as varied in the cultural sense as music, food, dance, clothing and superstition. Cross culturally, however, children learn to believe without question because their parents believe as did theirs. In that tight constraint they do not have a world view of the myriad of ‘competing’ religions and the logical contentions against them. Consequently, in the cyclical sense, society attempted to do the same to myself but I broke the cycle. In light of this fact it doesn’t mean that these feelings are no longer meaningful; they can be but understand them for what they are.

I find it frustrating that churches perpetuate ignorance by not teaching the accredited historical facts in how their religion was developed and spread but they also blatantly ignore science which is the foundation of the developing world around them. Developing science utilizes critical processes in testing and validating points before professing them, something that religion seems to be exempt from. My point here is that there are several reasons why people take refuge in religion but in the wake of the progressing world around them it is the responsibility of their churches to inform and educate them. Certainly the church is worried about one day becoming obsolete but by not confronting reality they are doing themselves and their followers the disservice of misleading them. This is the height of irresponsibility. Someone once said, “By standing still as time goes forward you move backward.”

Spirituality or the natural sense of unity is different for everyone. As spirituality has its complex roots in our emotions let us utilize this knowledge to seek within ourselves, or other qualified humane resources, aid in the fulfillment that we desire while utilizing common sense, critical thinking and a loving sense of self-betterment. We all have different feelings and connections to our surroundings and we all have different ideas of the purity of mind we may seek in our efforts to mentally reclaim or revitalize our worn selves. Dependent or liberating they are all part of us in which we need to learn to understand without having a casting of religion embedded in it.

I feel fortunate to have been able to experience the passionate view of life that I had as a child prior to indoctrination. I’m glad that what I felt was only a passion for the beauty in life rather than a dependency plaguing me for a lifetime. It’s a lot easier looking at things the way they are rather than being inflicted with so many archaic dogmas that so clearly go against the flow of human nature. Once we have brought it down to this basic level I think that John Lennon had the right idea in mind when he sang the words, “All you need is love.” Does it really need to be more complicated than that?

• Thagard, Paul. The Emotional Coherence of Religion. Journal of Cognition and Culture 5.1-2, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden 2005.
• Alcorta, Candace S. and Sosis, Richard. Ritual,Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: the Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, 2005.
• Bocock, Robert. Sigmund Freud,-pg 86. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
• Thomson, Jr., MD, J. Anderson and Aukofer, Clare. why we believe in god(s). Forward by Dawkins, Richard, Pitchstone Publishing, 2011.
• Hudson, Janice and Tanner, Meredith. Bunkbed Positions. Toronto: Room Publishing, 2006.
• Holt, Tim. Sigmund Freud: Religion as Wish-Fulfillment. Philosophy of Religion, 2008
• Lawson, Willow. Brain Area Affects Sense of ‘Self’. ABC News. (year not given)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What I'm Reading....

why we believe in god(s)
By: J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD
      with Clare Aukofer


ISBN: 978-098449321-0

Thanks to the Skeptic Society I had the privilege of meeting Dr. J. "Andy" Thomson and had my book signed at his Cal Tech lecture.

Description from back of book: In this groundbreaking volume, J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD, with Clare Aukofer, offers a succinct yet comprehensive study of how and why the human mind generates religious belief. Dr. Thomson, a highly respected practicing psychiatrist with credentials in forensic psychiatry and evolutionary psychology, methodically investigates the components and causes of religious belief in the same way any scientist would investigate the movement of astronomical bodies or the evolution of life over time - that is, as a purely natural phenomenon. Providing compelling evidence from psychology, the cognitive neurosciences, and related fields, he, with Ms. Aukofer, presents an easily accessible and exceptionally convincing case that god(s) were created by man - not vice versa. With this slim volume, Dr. Thomson establishes himself as a must-read thinker and leading voice on the primacy of reason and science over superstition and religion.

J. Anderson "Andy" Thomson, Jr., MD, is a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia's Student Health Center and Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, and maintains a private practice of adult and forensic psychiatry. He serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Clare Aukofer is a medical writer who has collaborated with Dr. Thomson on several projects.

....and another...

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
By: Richard Feynman


ISBN-10: 0691024170
ISBN-13: 978-0691024172

Book description from Famous the world over for the creative brilliance of his insights into the physical world, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman also possessed an extraordinary talent for explaining difficult concepts to the nonscientist. QED--the edited version of four lectures on quantum electrodynamics that Feynman gave to the general public at UCLA as part of the Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lecture series--is perhaps the best example of his ability to communicate both the substance and the spirit of science to the layperson.
The focus, as the title suggests, is quantum electrodynamics (QED), the part of the quantum theory of fields that describes the interactions of the quanta of the electromagnetic field-light, X rays, gamma rays--with matter and those of charged particles with one another. By extending the formalism developed by Dirac in 1933, which related quantum and classical descriptions of the motion of particles, Feynman revolutionized the quantum mechanical understanding of the nature of particles and waves. And, by incorporating his own readily visualizable formulation of quantum mechanics, Feynman created a diagrammatic version of QED that made calculations much simpler and also provided visual insights into the mechanisms of quantum electrodynamic processes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Just a little something I try to keep in mind as I go through the actions of the day....

This is narrated by the late great Alen Watts and animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Thanks to OurTVproductions for posting this video on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What I'm Reading.....

GOD, NO! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist AND Other Magical Tales
By: Penn Jillette

ISBN-10: 145161036X

Thanks to the Center for Inquiry - Los Angeles I had the opportunity to meet with Penn Jillette in Beverly Hills for a book signing.....I regret I couldn't make it..... 

Book description from the inside flap: 
Not only can the man rant, he can write. 
From the larger, louder half of the world-famous magic duo Penn & Teller comes a scathingly funny reinterpretation of The Ten Commandments. They are The Penn Commandments, and they reveal one outrageous and opinionated atheist's experience in the world. In this rollicking yet honest account of a godless existence, Penn takes readers on a roller coaster of exploration and flips conventional religious wisdom on its ear to reveal that doubt, skepticism, and wonder -- all signs of a general feeling of disbelief -- are to be celebrated and cherished, rather than suppressed. And he tells some pretty damn funny stories along the way. From performing blockbuster shows on the Vegas Strip to the adventures of fatherhood, from an on-going dialogue with proselytizers of the Christian Right to the joys of sex while scuba diving, Jillette's self-created Decalogue invites his reader on a journey of discovery that is equal parts wise and wisecracking.

What I'm Reading.....

A UNIVERSE FROM NOTHING: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing
by Lawrence M. Krauss
(Afterword by Richard Dawkins)



Thanks to the Skeptics Society I had my copy signed by Dr. Krauss at his lecture at CalTech.

Book description from inside flap: 
Lawrence Krauss’s provocative answers to these and other timeless questions in a wildly popular lecture now on YouTube have attracted almost a million viewers. The last of these questions in particular has been at the center of religious and philosophical debates about the existence of God, and it’s the supposed counterargument to anyone who questions the need for God. As Krauss argues, scientists have, however, historically focused on other, more pressing issues—such as figuring out how the universe actually functions, which can ultimately help us to improve the quality of our lives.

Now, in a cosmological story that rivets as it enlightens, pioneering theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explains the groundbreaking new scientific advances that turn the most basic philosophical questions on their heads. One of the few prominent scientists today to have actively crossed the chasm between science and popular culture, Krauss reveals that modern science is addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing, with surprising and fascinating results. The staggeringly beautiful experimental observations and mind-bending new theories are all described accessibly in A Universe from Nothing, and they suggest that not only can something arise from nothing, something will always arise from nothing.

With his characteristic wry humor and wonderfully clear explanations, Krauss takes us back to the beginning of the beginning, presenting the most recent evidence for how our universe evolved—and the implications for how it’s going to end. It will provoke, challenge, and delight readers as it looks at the most basic underpinnings of existence in a whole new way. And this knowledge that our universe will be quite different in the future from today has profound implications and directly affects how we live in the present. As Richard Dawkins has described it: This could potentially be the most important scientific book with implications for supernaturalism since Darwin.

A fascinating antidote to outmoded philosophical and religious thinking, A Universe from Nothing is a provocative, game-changing entry into the debate about the existence of God and everything that exists. “Forget Jesus,” Krauss has argued, “the stars died so you could be born.”