Entries for July 2010

July 30, 2010

Crime and guns (part 2 of 2)

(See part 1 here.)

Opponents of personal gun ownership worry that easy access to guns may cause needless death and injury in situations which otherwise might end peacefully. We have all heard horror stories where children have accidentally killed people because they stumbled upon firearms left unattended. We worry that people in drunken states or people prone to violent rages may use guns in deadly ways. We also fear that this would increase the risk of armed crimes.

People also fear that carrying guns around might cause people to respond more aggressively than otherwise to the minor slights and annoyances of everyday life, like the person who cuts you off in traffic, or gives you the finger, or for any of the many minor aggravations that are a part of life. We fear that having a gun might cause people to channel their inner Travis Bickle, saying, "You talkin' to me?" before unleashing a fusillade of shots, or that a fender-bender might escalate into the gunfight at the OK Corral.

How realistic are these fears? Not very, says Dan Baum in his article Happiness is a worn gun in the August 2010 issue of Harper's magazine (subscription required, I think). He says that the data does not seem to support most of those fears. He also says that carrying a concealed weapon gave him a heightened sense of awareness about his surroundings and a sense of security that actually made him react more calmly when challenged, like when two men yelled a slur at him on the street. He just walked away with a 'Zen-like calm', with less anger and tension than he would have had when he was unarmed because he knew he had a gun and thus felt less put upon and more in control of the situation. He had the inner confidence that comes from knowing he could have handled the two men if things had turned ugly.

Rage wasn't an option, because I had no way of knowing where it would end, and somehow my brain and body sensed that. I began to understand why we don't hear a lot of stories about legal gun carriers killing one another in road-rage incidents. Carrying a gun gives you a sense of guardianship, even a kind of moral superiority. You are the vigilant one, the sheepdog watching the flock, the coiled wrath of God. To snatch out your gun and wave it around would not only invite catastrophe but also sacrifice that righteous high ground and embarrass you in the worst possible way.

He also points that an armed citizenry might be of real help in many situations. Most people think that the police will protect them from crime but in reality police are nowhere around when crimes are committed (unless you are dealing with really stupid criminals who act in the presence of police) and usually arrive long after the fact, whereas your fellow citizens are all around you and may be able to rescue you from crime or violence.

It is feared that the mere possession of guns will make people into vigilantes, seeking out crime so that they can enact their Dirty Harry fantasies, waving a huge gun and saying to some hoodlum "You feel lucky, punk?" But is this true? Baum writes:

But shall-issue [i.e., laws that made gun ownership much easier by requiring authorities to issue any adult a carry permit unless there is good reason to deny it-MS] didn’t lead to more crime, as predicted by its critics. The portion of all killing done with a handgun—the weapon people carry concealed—hasn’t changed in decades; it’s still about half. Whereas the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., can produce a list of 175 killings committed by carry-permit holders since 2007, the NRA can brandish a longer list of crimes prevented by armed citizens. I prefer to rely on the FBI’s data, which show that not only are bad-guy murders—those committed in the course of rape, robbery, and other felonies—way down but so are spur-of-the-moment murders involving alcohol, drugs, romantic entanglements, money disputes, and other arguments: the very types of murders that critics worried widespread concealed-carry would increase.

It is true that the US has extraordinarily high levels of violence and violent crime involving guns whereas countries like Canada and those in Western Europe (where gun ownership is highly restricted) have much lower rates. But how much of this is due to easier ownership of guns and how much is due to other factors? Are Americans just historically and culturally more prone to settling conflicts using violence and would find other ways to harm others if they did not have guns? As jpmeyer points out in a comment to yesterday's post, even within America there is huge variability with respect to crime and violence that (at least superficially) seems to show little correlation with gun control laws. Since guns can always be obtained by anyone in any country determined enough to do so, doesn't restricting its availability simply deny access to those who would use it in a responsible manner?

Gun ownership is a tricky question that inexplicably arouses a lot of passion. Like global warming, it is not an issue that has moral or religious overtones (like god and gays and abortion) so it is surprising that people get so worked up about it. It really should be one of those questions that could and should be discussed on a very clinical and empirical basis, involving questions such as: What does the data tell us about the effect of widespread ownership of guns? What is the impact of allowing people to carry them either concealed or openly? What does widespread ownership of guns have on the level of violence and crime and death and injury?

Baum says that after going around for some time carrying a gun both openly and concealed, he will stop doing so because it is "uncomfortable, distracting, and freaks out my friends; it's not worth it… If I lived in a dangerous place, I might feel different, and I may continue wearing a gun when I travel to such places (at least to the ones that allow it)."

In an interesting aside, Baum says that "Young adults buy markedly fewer guns than older people. They want to be urban and digital, and guns are the opposite of that. A big push by the industry to feminize the shooting sports has fallen flat; only in hunting has women’s participation increased, and even there just by a little."

So ultimately the issue may simply be decided by changing demographics and social trends. Guns may come to be seen as uncool as smoking cigarettes and John Wayne may go the way of the Marlboro Man.

POST SCRIPT: Will Wall Street win again?

In the wake of the financial scandals, a new agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been set up to protect ordinary citizens. Elizabeth Warren would be the natural choice to head it since she has been a key mover of the idea and has shown herself to be a smart and fearless fighter. (For Warren's appearances on The Daily Show, see here.)

Naturally, this makes her disliked by the banks and credit card companies and they are exerting pressure on the White House and Congress to scuttle her nomination. The Democrats know that if they overlook her, their progressive supporters will see this as yet another gross betrayal and capitulation to their Wall Street overlords.

Funny or Die reads Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's secret thoughts on Warren.

Timothy Geithner's Secret Thoughts on Elizabeth Warren - watch more funny videos

July 29, 2010

Crime and guns (part 1 of 2)

In American politics, strangely enough what gets people really fired up are not the major issues of the economy or wars but the three g's: guns, god, and gays. (Also abortion, but it ruins the alliteration.) The split on this issue is pretty much along ideological lines. Self-described conservatives tend to oppose almost any restrictions on the ownership and carrying of firearms while self-described liberals see unrestricted ownership as an invitation to increased crime and violence.

The latest issue of Harper's magazine had an interesting article (subscription required) titled Happiness is a worn gun by Dan Baum about the recent trends around the country that allow people to more easily own and carry handguns, either openly or concealed. Baum has owned and used guns a long time but just recently tried out what it was like to carry a gun around on his person, either concealed or openly, in those places where it was legal to do so. He estimates that around 6 million American routinely carry guns on their person.

I agree with Baum when he says:

To the unfamiliar, guns are noisy and intimidating. They represent the supremacy of force over reason, of ferocity over refinement, and probably a whole set of principles that rub some people the wrong way. But a free society doesn’t make people give a reason for doing the things they want to do; the burden of proof falls on those who would forbid. I started out thinking widespread concealed-carry was a bad idea. But in the absence of evidence that allowing law-abiding citizens to carry guns is harmful, I come down on the side of letting people do what they want.

I am not fearful of people owning guns. I am not a supporter of an outright bans on guns and support the Second Amendment. I can see where having an armed public can be beneficial in some situations and can also be a deterrence against a tyrannical government. This stance puts me at odds with almost all of my family, friends, and the people I move around with in the normal course of my life, who are shocked at my views whenever the topic comes up.

Where I disagree with the extreme pro-gun groups like the NRA is in their desire to view even reasonable restrictions on gun possession as evil. I can see the need to make sure that people who buy guns are screened in some way to weed out criminals and the mentally ill and that they be required to undergo firearms training to show that they know how to handle them. The right to own a gun should be treated like the right to drive a car. Just as we are willing to give ordinary people the right to drive vehicles (which can be lethal weapons) provided that have shown that they have had training in how to use it and handle it responsibly, so it should be with guns.

As Baum says,

We may all benefit from having a lot of licensed people carrying guns, if only because of the heightened state of awareness in which they live. It's a scandal, though, that people can get a license to carry on the basis of a three-hour "course" given at a gun show. State requirements vary, but some don't even ask students to fire a weapon before getting a carry permit. We should enforce high standards for instruction, including extensive live firing, role playing, and serious examination of the legal issues.

Baum lists five reasons that people give for opposing handgun ownership: "you think it so unlikely you’ll be attacked it’s not worth the trouble or the sacrifice of Condition White; you expect the police to come to your aid in the event of trouble; wearing a gun makes you feel less safe instead of more; you’ve decided you couldn’t take a life under any circumstance; or you don’t want to contribute to a coarsening of society by preparing to kill at a moment’s notice."

(Baum says that the gun advocates have a color-coded system for the level of alertness. "Condition White is total oblivion to one's surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod. Condition Yellow is being aware of, and taking an interest in, one's surroundings—essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving: keeping our eyes moving, checking the mirrors, being careful not to let the radio drown out the sounds around us. Condition Orange is being aware of a possible threat. Condition Red is responding to danger." Baum said that whenever he carried a gun, he always found himself in Condition Yellow. He ultimately gave up carrying a gun because he found that he enjoyed being in Condition White, where you can get lost in your own thoughts.)

I personally will not choose to carry a gun myself, mainly because I am not sure that I have what it takes to actually kill another human being, though one never knows what one might do in extreme situations where one's own life or the life of a loved one is threatened. Carrying a gun and not being able or willing to use it lethally seems worse than not carrying one at all. Another reason is that I hate carrying unnecessary stuff around on my person. After being nagged by my family, I now carry a cell phone for them to contact me in an emergency but only they know the number and so I never get any calls on it (since I can usually be reached by them at home or at work) nor do I make any since I hate talking on the phone anyway. Carrying in my pocket every day something I never use irritates me but I do it to accommodate the family. A gun would be bulkier and the chances are almost zero that it would be ever used so why carry one around all the time?

(To be concluded tomorrw.)

POST STRONG: If only Eve had had a sassy gay friend…

A comedy cliché is the sassy but sensible gay friend who saves the heroine from doing something foolish. Actor Brian Gallivan has made it into his signature character.

The sassy gay friend rescues other famous fictional characters like Desdemona, Ophelia, and Juliet.

You can read an interview with Gallivan here about how he arrived at this series.

July 28, 2010

Crime and punishment

Studies "indicate that across a wide spectrum of the population and independent of local crime rates, viewing local television news is related to increased fear of and concern about crime." That is consistent with my personal experience. I hardly ever watch TV and definitely not the local TV news. As a result, I tend to be less fearful of crime than those who watch the steady diet of fear-mongering that local news channels depend upon in order to get ratings.

I also live in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood in a middle class community with people walking their dogs and children playing on the sidewalks, and all these feed into the impression that one is living in a crime-free area.

But I recently started subscribing to the local weekly paper that reports the news in about four or five small suburbs including the one I live in. The items mostly consist of local community events and people, city council and school board meetings, and the inevitable zoning controversies of which at least one involves the proposed construction of a McDonalds to which the neighbors object. There is something about a proposed McDonalds that galvanizes opposition in middle-class neighborhoods.

But there is also one curiously fascinating feature that consists of the police blotter that lists all the crimes reported and I must say that reading it changes one's perception of the neighborhood, reminding one that there is petty crime all around. And when I say petty, I do mean petty. Most of them deal with stolen bicycles left unattended, people entering unlocked garages and homes and stealing small items, minor altercations, and domestic violence.

There was one item that jumped out at me and that was the arrest of a man for stealing a toothbrush. I can't get that terse one-sentence story out of my mind because it raises so many questions. What would lead someone to steal such a cheap item as a toothbrush? Was it someone who had recently fallen down on his luck but still valued personal hygiene? There seemed to be something poignant about someone who would risk arrest just to get a toothbrush. Or was the 'thief' (the word sounds jarringly strong for someone committing such a petty action) a kleptomaniac? Or was it an adolescent who could easily afford to buy it but wanted to steal it as a lark or a dare?

If the theft was out of genuine need, why would the drugstore (which is where presumably the attempted theft occurred) be so hard-hearted as to report such a person to the police? Surely you would give a person so desperate to maintain personal hygiene a chance and perhaps even a toothbrush free of charge? If it was a stupid childish prank, surely a strong warning would have been sufficient?

Another blotter item spoke of the arrest of a person for stealing a 12-oz can of beer. Again, the pettiness of the crime causes one to raise one's eyebrows and wonder about the story behind the story.

There is often a class element involved in determining whether a petty crime gets reported to the police or not. I recall that when I was in high school in Sri Lanka a couple of boys from my school were caught stealing books from a store down the street. These boys were from well-to-do families who clearly did not need to steal and were presumably doing it for kicks or on a dare or for one of the many other reasons that make young boys act stupidly. Because their families were influential, the matter was hushed up and the boys quietly allowed to transfer to another school. But a little later two classmates and friends of mine who were not members of elite families got caught stealing books from the same store, confirming that young boys are incorrigibly stupid. But in their case, they were immediately expelled with all the shame that accompanies such an outcome, and their case was publicized and made into a stern lesson for us all on the evil of stealing.

There is no doubt that I benefit from the class bias of society in that my honesty is taken for granted for reasons that have nothing to do with knowledge of my personal character. Once at the grocery store I forgot to take the items on the bottom rack of the shopping cart out and place it on the counter for checking out and so they were not rung up. I discovered this only later after paying my bill and heading out the store. When I discovered my error I of course told the cashier and we all laughed at my forgetfulness. I suspect that if I had actually wheeled the cart out of the store without noticing my error, I still would not have been arrested for theft because my age and my ethnicity and my 'respectable' demeanor (at least I think I look respectable) would have protected me. It would have been treated as the honest mistake it was. But others who have the 'wrong' profile will not be so fortunate and will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

I recall once a conference presentation in a hotel meeting room that I made together with my African-American female colleague. After our session, we cleared up and took our stuff out to make room for the next presenters. I picked up what I thought was my colleague's expensive-looking coat (she is always well dressed) but it was only later after relaxing in the lobby and getting ready to go home that she said that the coat did not belong to her and I realized that it must belong to the people who had been setting up after us. Her boyfriend was also present and he started to take the coat back to the room to return it, but then stopped and asked if I could do it because he said that it would be awkward for him to do so as people 'might not understand'. The problem was as clear as it was unspoken. It did not matter that he is a very distinguished-looking and impeccably dressed man who could easily be mistaken for an ambassador or college president, while I was my usual nondescript self. The basic fact was that he is black and I am not, and that made all the difference in whether we would be presumed guilty or innocent of theft.

Most of us are unaware of the class and race privileges we enjoy and assume that it has been eradicated until we are directly confronted with it.

POST SCRIPT: Girl raised from birth by Wolf Blitzer

From The Onion News Network.

Girl Raised From Birth By Wolf Blitzer Taken Into Protective Custody

July 27, 2010

The origin of religion-9: Real and fictive kinship

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the strategies that religions use to both grow and retain their members. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion suggest that the growth of religion could have been aided by the idea of 'fictive kinship'. To understand this, we need to bear in mind that what evolution selects for are individual genes, not the full organism. The full organism (a human or chimpanzee or bird or plant) is simply a vehicle for carrying and reproducing genes.

The early research of W. D. Hamilton and R. Trivers showed how it can be evolutionary advantageous for a gene for the organism that contains it to nurture, protect, and even sacrifice itself for a relative because of its shared genes, and that this could form the basis for what we call altruism. As the mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane replied when asked if he would give his life to save his drowning brother, "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins", which reflects when the number of his own genes that he loses by dying breaks even with the ones he saves in others.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57, and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27, 1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a clear summary of the research on how evolution can provide an explanation of the biological basis of altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

This drive to perpetuate a gene by aiding the survival and reproductive success of those who share that same gene, our 'kin', is evolutionarily advantageous and is thus likely deeply embedded in our primal brain.

Farmers know this and take advantage of this altruism towards actual kin by tricking animals into creating a false sense of genetic connection, a 'fictive kinship', in order to make an animal help another not related to it. For example, sheep and lambs can die during the birthing process and although it would help the farmer if an ewe that had lost its own lamb allowed an orphaned lamb to suckle it, ewes are reluctant to allow a lamb not its own to do so. This is understandable behavior in Darwinian terms because the ewe's genes do not benefit from spending its resources on an unrelated animal. But by skinning the dead lamb of an ewe and using it to cover the body of a lamb whose mother has died, the ewe can be fooled into thinking that the lamb is her own and allow it to suckle.

Cornwell and Thomson suggest that the perpetuation and growth of religion is aided by this idea of fictive kinship. In primitive societies, we recognized as kin those who lived with us or very close to us. As societies grew larger and more complex, other devices had to be created to keep track of who was kin and who was not. Family names were one such device but in even larger groups we find ways to trick people into thinking in terms of kin by using labels such as 'brother' and 'sister', 'fatherland' and 'motherland', and so on. These terms are targeted to appeal to the primal brain that has evolved to instinctively rally to help kin, and are exploited by armies and religions and politicians in order to get people to band together as fictive families to fight against other fictive families.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, exploits the fictive kinship aspects extensively. It speaks of 'god the father' and 'Mother Mary', their priests are referred to as father or brother, their nuns as sister or mother, and the liturgy constantly invokes the idea of the congregants as brothers and sisters.

Another explanation for the origin of religion is the idea that belief in an afterlife is a precursor to belief in god. This view suggests that in primitive societies, older adults may have found it advantageous to themselves to initiate and propagate the idea that there is an afterlife in which they still wielded influence over events in this life. It enabled them to command respect and good treatment from the young in this life even when they were old and decrepit and of little practical use. It is not a big step from believing in a world of the afterlife to believe in some sort of hierarchy existing there, with the ruler of that after-world transmuting into a god-concept.

It is unlikely that we will definitively answer questions about the origins of religion since those events lie in deep evolutionary time and beliefs don't leave fossil remains or their imprint in DNA.

Those of us who wonder why religions still exist in the face of modern understanding of how the world works tend to underestimate the determination of believers to hold on to their beliefs. A Pew poll finds that while the public may say that they respect and understand science, "much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs."

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that "recent discoveries and advances" in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers. (my italics)

But whether we treat religion as a mental illness (as argued by Albert Ellis) or understand its origins and presence in any number of other ways, we clearly have our work cut out in trying to expose it because of its deep evolutionary origins that can make people choose to believe in illusions over reality.

But the big weakness of religion, the one that works against it and will ultimately lead to its demise, is that it is a false belief with zero evidentiary support and such beliefs, however strongly held, eventually crumble.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to discredit science to preserve religion

Following up on the above Pew poll, you can see the comical lengths that religious people will go to in their attempt to show that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Incidentally, the creationist Kent Hovind (aka 'Dr. Dino') who is featured in the video is now serving a ten year prison sentence for tax fraud.

July 26, 2010

The origin of religion-8: Religious observance as obsessive-compulsive behavior

In the previous post in this series, I discussed neurologist Robert Sapolsky's theory that the charismatic founders of religious cults had schizotypal personalities. He then goes further and tries to identify what traits might be at work amongst the followers of religion. What is it that makes them adopt ritualistic practices that serve no useful purpose? He suggests that the conscientious observance of time-wasting rituals that characterize devout followers of religions is a milder manifestation of what we now call obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD).

There's a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

You could look at any of these organized religions -- though we're very accustomed by now that, when we think of religion, it's often interspersed with good works or a sense of community -- and see that religion in its orthodoxy is about rules: how you do every single thing all throughout the day. You look at orthodox versions of any of these religions, and there are rules for which direction you face after you defecate, which hand you wash, how many swallowings of water, which nostril you breathe in with, which nostril you breathe out -- these are all rules that Brahmans have in order to get into heaven. Numerological rules: how many times you have to say a certain prayer in a lifetime.

Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: every day there's a bunch of strictures of things you're supposed to do, a bunch you're not supposed to do, and the number you're supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you're not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others' eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.

Then, obviously getting closer to home for most people here, there is the realm of the number of rosaries and the number of Hail Mary's. Religious ritualism is shot through with the exact same obsessive qualities.

Once again, these rules are time wasting and maladaptive for most people. But not for all, because if so they would have disappeared over time. They work to the benefit of those who make the rules. Sapolsky suggests that religious rituals originate with people who have OCD-type symptoms because it provides them with a livelihood. The rabbis and imams whose job is to perform the rituals that ensure that animals are slaughtered correctly, the priests who hear confessions and conduct services, the pope, are all people would have to get real jobs if there weren't these structures that provided a perfect match, a socially approved outlet, that allows them to benefit from what is essentially a disability. As Sapolsky says, "Outside of the realm of religion, OCD destroys people's lives. It is incompatible with functioning. Not only can you function with those rituals in the religious context: you can make a living doing it. People make a living doing rituals ritualistically in the context of religion."

So according to Sapolsky, schizotypals are the kinds of people who originate religions and people with OCDs make up the ritualistic rules that surround them and are its most ardent followers, who form the core fundamentalists who take the magical claims of the originators literally.

But protecting them and their beliefs are those with milder versions of this trait, the average person in the church, synagogue, mosque, and temple who are more modernist believers who kinda-sorta believe and kinda-sorta obey the rituals but not 'religiously'. (It is interesting that the metaphor of doing something religiously is used to characterize someone who never fails to perform a specific action at the requisite time and place.) Such people construct a protective belt of metaphor and obfuscating language to create the illusion that the beliefs make sense and that the rituals have a rational basis. They deflect attention away from the fact that at it core, the beliefs are factually false and unsupportable. The need for the existence of this group to allow religion to flourish ties in with the computer modeling work of James Dow that I wrote about earlier in this series.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people - those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

So perhaps the schizotypal personalities of Jesus and Mohammed and other cult leaders have features that attract even non-believers (many atheists have nice things to say about Jesus and Buddha as persons, Mohammed and Joseph Smith not so much), and this is sufficient to give the unreal message they propagate survival value.

People constantly ask why we new/unapologetic atheists argue against all religion and not just 'bad' religion consisting of the extremists, the fundamentalists, and the blatantly crazy and murderous. In this passage from an audio clip that I linked to recently, comedian Marcus Brigstocke explains why he thinks all religion is bad. After listing the crazy things that religious extremists do, he says:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they'll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away. (my italics)

I am not sure if Brigstocke is familiar with the work of Sapolsky, Dow, and others about the neurological bases of religious leaders and their followers, but his words do seem to be perfectly consistent with it.

We will not be able to get rid of religious extremists as long as 'moderate' religion continues to exist.

Next: Strategies used by religions to grow.

POST SCRIPT: Marcus Brigstocke on living according to the Bible

July 23, 2010

The phony social security crisis-7: Who are the hard workers?

As I said in the previous post in this series, the elites who work in comfortable conditions in well-paying jobs have no idea of what work is like for the vast majority of people. And they live in this cocooned world where the media feeds their inflated sense of self-worth. The ever-oblivious New York Times columnist David Brooks is one of those people who serves the needs of such people, someone who can say with no sense of irony: "I was going to say that for the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?"

The rich are more industrious? How clueless can you get? Does he have any idea how hard manual laborers like farm and construction workers or waiters work, on their feet, each and every day? I'll let Matt Taibbi dissect him:

I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who's pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn't work as hard as Jamie Dimon. [Dimon is CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase whom economist Simon Johnson calls the most dangerous man in America for the harmful effect he has on the economy-MS]

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.

Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.

Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he's wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn't really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall.

If I had to do even five hours of that work today I'd bawl my f------ eyes out for a month straight. I'm not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress.

What is even more annoying is when well-to-do people express annoyance when they discover that people doing what they consider low-skilled and demeaning jobs (like sanitation workers) may sometimes earn enough wages to provide a modestly comfortable life for their families and even take vacations or drive a reasonably nice car. They seem to think that a job that requires low entry-level skills should always pay poorly. When people say such things in my presence, my response is always to tell them that if they think those people have got such a great deal, whether they would consider giving up their current jobs and in exchange for those, or at least encourage their children to seek those jobs. Of course, the thought had never even crossed their minds.

What is perfectly understood but left unsaid by the oligarchy is that if all jobs, however menial, paid a decent wage, then the cost of things would rise and the rest of us would have to pay more for clothes, food, and other services, leaving the rich with slightly less disposable income for restaurant meals, and hotels, and to pay for tee-times at their country clubs. As Voltaire said, "The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor."

The attempt by the oligarchy to get their hands on the social security trust fund is spearheaded by people who have consistently lied about its viability. The reality is that the founders of the social security program back in 1935 were not stupid or innumerate but were mathematically savvy people who anticipated most of the demographic changes that subsequently occurred (including the likelihood of increased lifespan) and took them into account in their actuarial planning, making social security one of the best programs ever. The one thing they failed to anticipate was the post-war baby boom, which is what necessitates some tinkering now. The 'zombie lies' (to use Digby's words) that are spread about social secuirity must be combated.

POST SCRIPT: Parody of Old Spice ad

There are some things that just cry out to be parodied and one of them is this ad for Old Spice that I am sure that everyone must have seen because it has received so much publicity.

The Brigham Young University Library (of all places) has produced one of the best parodies.

July 22, 2010

The phony social security crisis-6: Retirement and the nature of work

The doomsayers have managed to persuade the majority of people that they will not receive anything from social security, though that is completely false. The idea that the only way to solve the overblown social security 'crisis' is to raise the age of full benefits eligibility from 65 to 70 is wrong. There are other ways to fix social security other than raising the retirement age. The most obvious is to remove the cap that limits the social security payroll tax to only those incomes below $106,800 (the ceiling for 2009). Currently all incomes above that limit do not contribute to the social security trust fund. But there should be no upper limit. As Kevin Drum points out in a handy chart, that one move alone would solve the Social Security problem but there are other ways.

Of course, lifting the cap on earnings that are subject to the social security tax is one of those solutions that will adversely affect only rich people who will hardly notice it but since it is this same group that forms the oligarchy that runs the government and the media and sets policies, such policies are not even considered because this greedy group cares only about increasing its wealth even more, aided in their attempts by the media ignoring this systemic feature. The New York Times recently ran a disapproving article about how the elites in Pakistan avoid paying taxes: "That is mostly because the politicians who make the rules are also the country’s richest citizens, and are skilled at finding ways to exempt themselves." I wonder when the NYT will realize that the US is not much better?

How much one cares about the issue of raising the social security retirement age depends on what kind of job one does. It matters greatly if one has an easy job or a hard one. The attitude to work of elites in well-paying and interesting jobs done in comfortable conditions is a far cry from the experience of people who work because they must and are forced to do hard physical labor every day or work in conditions where they do mindless routine work under the constant supervision of bosses and at jobs that provide no intrinsic satisfaction. The former group enjoys working and tries to continue doing so as long as they can while for the latter group, retirement is a welcome relief, something they look forward to, a brief period of time when they can relax and enjoy life while still (hopefully) having fairly good health, before they become decrepit and die. Such people view raising the retirement age with horror and who can blame them?

Take my job. I spend my days almost entirely in climate-controlled buildings sitting at a desk. I have a lot of control over what I do and when I do it. The work is not repetitive and is intellectually stimulating. I enjoy my work so much that I take it home and do it on weekends and holidays too. So while I may put in a lot of hours at my job, it is not really work in the sense that most people conceive of work, and it would be absurd for me to claim that I am overworked. A raise in the retirement age would not be a blow to me.

And yet, all the media bloviators seem to not recognize this obvious fact about the importance of the quality of work that one does. They act as if it is only the number of hours that one puts in that matters, and not the nature or conditions of work. I am sick of hearing business and financial types justifying their high incomes by bragging about how hard they work. The media seem to venerate these people as highly industrious, as if an hour put in as an investment banker is the same as an hour working in an assembly line or on a construction site or as a waitress or picking fruit and vegetables on a farm.

The arrogance and sense of entitlement of Wall Street types is amazing. They seem to think that they are doing us all a favor and that if we make reforms that cut into their astronomical earnings, that they will teach us all a lesson by 'going Galt' on us, quitting what they do, taking over our jobs, and throwing us out of work, as seen in this email from one such person that has been widely circulating:

What’s going to happen when we can’t find jobs on the Street anymore? Guess what: We’re going to take yours. We get up at 5am & work till 10pm or later. We’re used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plates, we’ll eat that.

For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy working to notice. Do you really think that we are incapable of teaching 3rd graders and doing landscaping? We’re going to take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we are so-o-o-o underpaid for building the youth of America. Say goodbye to your overtime and double time and a half. I’ll be hitting grounders to the high school baseball team for $5k extra a summer, thank you very much.

So now that we’re going to be making $85k a year without upside, Joe Mainstreet is going to have his revenge, right? Wrong! Guess what: we’re going to stop buying the new 80k car, we aren’t going to leave the 35 percent tip at our business dinners anymore. No more free rides on our backs. We’re going to landscape our own back yards, wash our cars with a garden hose in our driveways. Our money was your money. You spent it. When our money dries up, so does yours.

Yes, all you lazy landscapers and chicken pluckers and farm workers and teachers out there whining about low pay and lousy working conditions. You better not blame the investment bankers and put restrictions on what they do and can earn because they will quit and come and take your jobs in revenge! Do you realize how impossible it is to live on just $85,000 a year 'without upside' (whatever the hell that is)? Because you know something? The reason they have been successful so far is because they are not only much smarter than you but they are also genetically programmed to work hard irrespective of what the job is or how much it pays, and they can do your job, whatever it is, much better than you can. So you better not mess with them.

The reality is that the despised landscaping or farm worker jobs are not only much harder than white-collar jobs but also actually produce things that people need and use. The Wall Street types represented by the author of the above email are actually parasites, making a living off other people's money. They have no idea what real work is and yet think they do.


POST SCRIPT: The Wall Street business model

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gives the perfect summary of the thinking and morals of the Wall Street investment bankers who caused the financial crisis with their speculative practices.

July 21, 2010

The phony social security crisis-5: Raising the social security retirement age

(Continuing a series from March 2008.)

If you want to implement policies that really stick it to poor people, you have to do it when the Democratic Party is in power. The reason that Democratic administrations are the most useful vehicle for harming the poor is that those who call themselves 'liberals' are far more vigilant when Republicans are in power, rightly seeing them as out to serve the interests of the wealthy. But the Democratic party, while serving the interests of the same oligarchy, has fooled people into thinking that they are in favor of economic justice, so when they attack the poor, liberals are caught wrong-footed and do not mount a vigorous counter-attack.

That is something that the oligarchy that runs America realized some time ago but hasn't quite sunk in with liberals because of their fixation on shoring up the Democratic Party's electoral fortunes. This interesting comparison between those who call themselves liberals and those who say they are progressives is worth pondering. One key difference is that "Progressives pursue issues; liberals support candidates". Liberals who think they must support Obama at all costs because otherwise his opponents will benefit at the polls are falling into the same trap as with Bill Clinton, and will end up enabling policies they should oppose.

Despite Ronald Reagan railing against so-called welfare queens, he met vigorous opposition when he tried to pursue policies that harmed the poor. It was only after Bill Clinton's election that we had so-called 'welfare reform' that resulted in a lot of poor people, including single mothers with young children, having their meager benefits cut off. (It was also Bill Clinton who signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.) Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pursing education policies that would have aroused strong opposition from liberals if Republicans had proposed them.

But the biggest prize that the oligarchy seeks is to destroy social security as a government program and safety net for the poor. George W. Bush wanted to privatize social security and got such a fierce response that it forced him to abandon the attempt. But now during the Obama administration and with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, we hear a lot of talk about reducing Social Security benefits, primarily by raising the retirement age for full benefits from the current 65 to 70. Although Republicans like John Boehner have initiated discussions on this, key Democrats are also going along with it.

Like he did with health care reform where he sabotaged the public option, Obama is handing off to others the unpleasant task of cutting the social security benefits of poor old people so that he can avoid responsibility. In this case he has appointed a commission (called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform but is derisively referred to as the 'Catfood Commission' because its likely recommendations will force old people to eat cat food to make ends meet) comprised entirely of elites (with one exception). As one blogger says:

[T]he Obama Administration appears to have chugged the austerity/jack rates/cut the deficit Kool-Aid insanity by forming the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They stuffed it with offensive idiots like Alan Simpson whose sole purpose is to screw the little people out of their social security savings. Hence the sickening nickname, the Catfood Commission.

This blogger is, however, still trapped in the 'liberal' mindset, saying, "I still find this hard to comprehend happened under a Democratic Party administration." He does not realize that this is not an anomaly but precisely the role that the Democratic Party plays in the system.

The arguments in favor of raising the retirement age are presented in economic and demographic terms and in terms of fiscal responsibility. We are told that the social security trust fund will be unable to keep pace with the demands of retirees because we are living longer than we were when the program was started. That is true but the state of the trust fund is nowhere near as dire as it is often painted.

Also, while it is true that life expectancy has increased by 12 years (from 65 to 77) since 1935 when the program was established, that is not the whole story. Life expectancy has gone up because we have had success in reducing infant and childhood mortality with the development of vaccines and other medicines. The relevant figure for the social security discussion is the amount by which life expectancy has increased for people who reach the age of 65. Susan Gardner quotes from Nancy Altman's book The Battle for Social Security: From FDR's Vision To Bush's Gamble:

For Social Security purposes, the correct question is not how many live to age 65, but rather how long those reaching age 65 live thereafter. Here the numbers are not as dramatic. In 1940, men who survived to age 65 had a remaining life expectancy of 12.7 years. Today, a 65 year old man can expect to live not quite three years longer than he might have in 1940, or 15.3 years beyond reaching age 65. For women, the comparable numbers are 14.7 years beyond age 65 in 1940; 19.6 years in 1990. [Emphasis added.]

The second major issue that is being ignored is that the people who are blithely suggesting raising the retirement age are well-to-do people who work in jobs that are interesting, pay really well, and are not physically demanding. It should be no surprise that Members of Congress, media personalities, corporate executives, Larry King and Andy Rooney, etc. are able to, and want to, work well past 65. They work indoors in air-conditioned buildings with legions of assistants to take care of the drudge work. They have plenty of vacation time and the money to relax how and when they feel like it. For such people, retirement would likely mean a less enjoyable life. Why would you want to give those things up? Furthermore, the rich are the very ones for whom the social security benefits form a negligible part of their retirement income. What they lose in social security benefits is negligible compared to what they gain on tax cuts.

Furthermore, life expectancy is much greater for those who are well off (and thus working at easy jobs) than for those who are worse off and thus likely to be working at difficult jobs, and the gap is increasing. For males age 60 in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, life expectancy only increased from 77.7 in 1972 to 79.6 in 2001. In contrast, the corresponding increase for the top half of earnings distribution went from 78.9 to 85.4.

So the people who work the hardest are the ones who already have the least time to enjoy retirement.

Furthermore, nowadays it is very hard for older people who get laid off to get another job and raising the retirement age would consign them to an even longer period of poverty. I also do not see the point of keeping older people working longer because that would mean fewer jobs for younger people, exacerbating the unemployment problem.

POST SCRIPT: Retirement is for losers

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on raising the retirement age.

July 20, 2010

The origin of religion-7: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

What has been discussed so far is the origin of prototypical religions, the early forms that consist of vague beliefs in supernatural forces and the afterlife. At various points in time, these became crystallized into concrete religions some of which are still extant, each distinguished from the others by their rituals and the specific forms that their beliefs take. This post will look at the originators of those religions. What distinguishes those who create specific religions (and those who follow them) from the rest of us?

Religions like Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, and Buddhism all seem to have had charismatic leaders, as do the more modern cults. This suggests that an important factor in the creation of relatively modern religions (by which I mean those that originated within the last three or four thousand years) lies in the qualities of the founders and this is the angle that neurologist Robert Sapolsky has investigated. He looks at the people who started these religions and what made them so effective at convincing others to adopt and propagate their ideas. He takes a Darwinian view and suggests that religious leaders had traits that enabled them to succeed that arose as a byproduct of selection for other features. It also explains why even now we have charismatic cult leaders regularly springing up (like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson are some names that immediately come to mind) who are able to persuade others to follow them even to death.

Sapolsky thinks that charismatic religious leaders may have evolved traits over time that, despite their evolutionary disadvantages, survived due to other factors. This process can be understood by comparing it to diseases like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs, all of which, in a naïve Darwinian view, should have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason they persist is that even though the full-blown form of the disease is disastrous to the bearer, a partial or milder version of the disease actually confers advantages, and this more than compensates for the destructiveness of the full disease. Sickle cell anemia in its mild form, for example, confers protection against malaria.

So what might be the trait that the founders of religion could have had that can provide benefits in a milder form while in its full-blown destructive form it should have been selected against to extinction? Sapolsky thinks it is schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia has a genetic component and the full-blown disease creates "disordered thought, disconnected socialization, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, a 50% rate of attempted suicide". It is clearly evolutionarily maladaptive and by itself should die out. So why is it still around?

It turns out that there is a milder version of schizophrenia called a 'schizotypal personality' that is found among the relatives of schizophrenics (though not in all of them). Sapolsky suggests that the originators of our religions (and many of their followers) seem to display all the signs of being schizotypal. In a talk he gave on the subject, Sapolsky describes the identifying traits:

What is schizotypal? It's a more subtle version of schizophrenia. This is not somebody who's completely socially crippled; they're just solitary, detached: these are the lighthouse keepers, the projectionists in the movie theaters. These are not people who are thought-disordered to the point of being completely nonfunctional; these are people who just believe in kinda strange stuff. They are into their Star Trek conventions. They're into their astrology, they're into their telepathy and their paranormal beliefs, they're into -- and you can see now where I'm heading [laughter] -- very, very literal, concrete interpretations of religious events.

What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.

Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: "Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?" And in the 1930s, decades before the word "schizotypal" even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.

It's the shamans. It's the medicine men. It's the medicine women. It's the witch doctors.

It's the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It's the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans. What's very clear, though, is they all have a limit on the number of shamans. That is this classic sort of balanced selection of evolution. There is a need for this subtype -- but not too many.

The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic. This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It's a milder, more controlled version.

Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from. What this shamanistic theory says is, it's not schizophrenia that's evolved, it's schizotypal shamanism that's evolved. In order to have a couple of shamans on hand in your group, you're willing to put up with the occasional third cousin who's schizophrenic. That's the argument; and it's a very convincing one.

Western religions, all the leading religions, have this schizotypalism shot through them from top to bottom. It's that same exact principle: it's great having one of these guys, but we sure wouldn't want to have three of them in our tribe.

"[T]here are multiple deities", "[T]here is but one god and he is Allah", "I am who I am," any version of this -- is an awful lot like schizotypalism. Who is it that invented the notion that virgins can give birth? Who is it who first came in with the extremely psychiatrically suspect report about hearing a voice in a burning bush? In most of the cases we don't know much about the psychiatric status of these folks. In the more recent historical cases, we certainly do, and schizotypalism is at the heart of non-Western and Westernized large theological systems.

But while this may describe the founders of religions, what is it that attracts people to these schizotypals among us, to become their disciples and proselytzers, and create the religious insitutions that we now have?

Next: What traits make people susceptible to becoming religious followers?

POST SCRIPT: If Jesus and his disciples lived in a frat house

July 19, 2010

The origin of religion-6: Religion as a by-product of evolution

As with other features in evolution, there are two possible ways that evolution can give rise to some phenomenon. One is that it is an adaptation that came about because it was directly advantageous in itself at some point in time. The other is that it is an accidental by-product of natural selection for some other trait that was advantageous. These two pathways are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that religion developed along both lines.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is largely the product of the second process. He thinks that asking what the survival value is for religion is the wrong question because it likely has none. His hypothesis is that belief in god and the afterlife is a by-product of a genetic pre-disposition to believe one's parents. It is not hard to see why having the genes that tend to predispose one to obey one's parents has a selective advantage over those that are either neutral or advocate disobeying them. Human infants in particular are very vulnerable and depend on the adults around them to enable them to grow to adulthood. Not listening to them could be disastrous, causing them to do life-threatening acts. But at the same time they lack the capacity to discriminate between the information fed to them. So young children believe both the useful and the useless, those supported by evidence and those that are simply unverifiable folklore, and over time the latter can morph into religious rituals and belief. As Dawkins says:

On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs will evolve over generations, either by random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry. Languages drift apart from a common parent given sufficient time in geographical separation. The same is true of traditional beliefs and injunctions, handed down the generations, initially because of the programmability of the child brain.

This theory would explain why most children adopt the beliefs of their parents and dismiss as absurd and unbelievable other religions, even though they both have that same lack of any evidentiary support. Since children tend to be surrounded by similar believers, they hold on to those beliefs into adulthood. And once these beliefs are firmly entrenched, people are reluctant to let go of them. This is why now, despite their obvious disadvantages such as wasted time and effort and resources propitiating an imaginary figure, religion can still endure.

But this only explains why children are willing to believe their parents. But why did their parents develop their beliefs in the first place? In some ways, this is a chicken-and-egg problem, and the resolution in likely the same, that they both co-evolved.

As I said in a previous post, there is evidence to suggest that our brains are hardwired to believe in the magical. It is similar to the way that our brains are evolved for language. Language has many commonalities with religion. It is ubiquitous and universal. While there is a huge variety in the number of languages around the globe, at least superficially, at the same time, the deep grammatical structures of languages reveal common structures, which has led to the idea that our brains are hardwired for language and that the process of learning a particular language involves superimposing the local vocabulary and other superficial features onto a universal and common foundation. In other words, what a child learns from the speech of others are cues that throw certain switches in the pre-existing brain's circuitry that corresponds to the local language structure.

It is known, for example, that if you put children together who do not speak a common language, or speak only pidgin versions of a language or, in the case of deaf children, do not speak at all, they will together spontaneously develop a creole language that has many of the grammatical features of ordinary language, suggesting that the ability for language is innate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 24)

It is suggested that religion is like that. Due to evolution, we all have hardwired in our brains the propensity to see patterns that may not be there and to assign supernatural agency to natural events. What the many varieties of religions do is build upon this common base to create local religions, just the way local languages emerged around the globe while having a universal grammatical structure.

The suggestion has been made (but would be impossible to test) that if you put children who have no prior religious beliefs together for an extended period of time, they would spontaneously develop some form of religious belief that would have generic features that correspond to the kinds of religions that we see around us, because their brains have a similar predisposition to do so. If true, this would suggest that religion will always be with us, a sad future to contemplate.

But I am not so sure that this particular parallelism holds because there are key differences between language and religion. Language provides unquestionable benefits for any group of people and is always advantageous. While religion may have provided benefits in primitive societies, nowadays children are able to obtain scientific explanations for puzzling phenomena that were not available for their ancient ancestors, and so are less likely to build elaborate god-based theories. Few parents nowadays are likely to tell their children that thunder is a sign of god's anger, even if they do not understand the science of it. Somewhat more people are likely to see god's hand in major natural catastrophes (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods) and in disease epidemics but these will also surely decline. As the number of things that seem inexplicable shrink, the switches in the brain that trigger belief in the supernatural are less likely to be tripped.

At least, I hope so.

Next: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

POST SCRIPT: Global warming or biblical Armageddon?

The Onion News Network reports that Kansas has decided that in the interests of fairness, both theories concerning the end of the world should be taught to school children.

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

July 16, 2010

World Cup musings

Although I am not a soccer fan, I watched the World Cup soccer final between the Netherlands and Spain. I had nothing better to do last Sunday afternoon and thought that I should at least see the culminating event of something that had been engrossing the entire world for a month.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, although the game itself was not that great and the amount of roughness was excessive (especially by the Netherlands), even allowing for the absurd histrionics of players who collapse on the ground (referred to as 'flopping') and writhe in agony when tacked for the ball, as if they received a fatal injury, only to jump up and continue playing normally once the referee has penalized the tackler. Surely veteran referees must be aware of all this gamesmanship and discount it when awarding penalties, so for whose benefit is all this acting?

Some of the tackles were genuinely vicious and it surprises me that more players do not get actually hurt. The one time where the Spanish player was kicked directly in the chest with what seemed like a martial arts kick was such a flagrant foul that I was amazed that the kicker was not immediately red-carded and ejected from the game but apparently the referee's view was obscured and so could not see how bad it was. I started the game with no team to root for except a mild preference for the Netherlands but the nasty style of play by the Dutch players made me switch my allegiance to the Spanish.

I really like the fact that the game moves so fast, with no breaks in the action, so that a 45-minute half actually lasts for only 45 minutes, with no time outs, stopping the clock, endless replays, challenges to referee calls, etc., the kind of things that drag American football out so that an allegedly 60-minute game actually can go on for well over three hours. Even though I am not a connoisseur of soccer and there was no scoring until almost two hours of play at very end of extra time, I was not bored at all, and was surprised at how quickly the time went by. Of course, this means no time for commercials except for the ones that are in the stadium and form part of the background to be captured by the cameras.

Another thing I like about soccer is that it is so simple. The players wear no special padding or helmets or other equipment. There is just one referee whose call is binding with no second-guessing involving replays or consulting with other officials, other than depending on the two line judges for offside calls. Although players do argue with the referee, the chats are quite short and the threat of the dreaded yellow card is enough to deter them from making too big a deal.

I am not sure why Americans do not prefer soccer to football. Soccer players look like regular people who happen to be athletic. They are normal-sized, quick and skilful, and fit enough to run around on the field non-stop for 45 minutes at a stretch. Anyone can aspire to being a good soccer player and still look a normal person. Who would want to be like the behemoths in football who pant heavily after a single run and have to go and rest on the bench after a few plays, or the absurdly tall basketball players?

I suspect that the very cheapness of the game and the lack of advertising opportunities during play works against it, since it prevents businesses from making huge amounts of money from it. Basketball is even simpler than soccer, requiring fewer people and less space but the way it is played in the US allows for a lot of stoppages for commercials, which may explain its appeal to sponsors. But given that soccer has managed to attract strong commercial support in the rest of the world, it is perhaps only a matter of time before it becomes a major sport here too.

The paranormal played an unexpectedly large role in the tournament. I found hilarious the soap opera surrounding the French team's collapse and ignominious early exit, along with their coach's dependence on astrology in selecting his line up. He will apparently not play people who are Scorpios and is dubious about Leos on defense. His faith in the stars did not do him or his team much good but I am sure that he will continue to be a firm believer.

Meanwhile, what about the Paul the Prophet? The octopus in the German aquarium correctly predicted all three of Germany's group matches (2 wins, one loss), plus their next three games (victories against England in the round of 16 and Argentina in the quarter finals followed by the loss to Spain in the semis), and then wrapped it up by predicting Germany to beat Uruguay for third place and Spain to beat Netherlands in the final. That's 8-for-8 with odds of only 1 in 256 of getting it by chance. That's pretty impressive and has, I am sure, impressed at least some superstitious people that Paul has real powers.

But as with most paranormal claims, on closer examination things are not so impressive. There is some selection bias at work. Given the intense interest in soccer in the world, Paul was just one of many candidates that people were seeking signs from and it is only those that were successful in the early rounds (say the first four) that attention was focused on as prognosticators, and all the others were ignored. (See my earlier post on these kinds of selection effects. You can read about some of the failed animal oracles here.) Paul started getting real attention only later in the tournament, after Germany beat England. That means only the last four picks should be considered as real predictions, and that works out to 1 in 16 chance of success, which is good but not spectacular.

Paul has a track record even before the World Cup, though. He made predictions in the 2008 Euro Cup, picking Germany to win in all six games they played but getting only four right, which is not that much better than chance. Also he seems to have a preference for selecting the container with the German flag, selecting them to win 11 out of the 13 games they played. Since Germany has a strong team (winning 9 out of the 13 games), this increases his odds of success. So I will have to conclude that the evidence is just not convincing that Paul can see into the future and stick with my theory that he is simply an astute soccer fan.

Paul has, however, retired from the oracle racket, which is a wise move since it means that he can go out a winner and preserve his reputation. What ruins it for most claimants to paranormal powers is that they go to the same well too often and eventually the odds catch up with them. And when prophets fail their followers, they often suffer nasty fates. I am glad for Paul's sake that he quit while he was ahead.

POST SCRIPT: The football sniper

July 15, 2010

The origin of religion-5: The struggle between the primal and thinking brains

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks says:

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As [University of Oxford anthropologist Justin] Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. "Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability," he says.

Useful as it is, common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death.

[Queens University, Belfast's Jesse] Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods' minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people. (my italics)

As Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson write in their article The Evolution of Religion:

A significant adaptation that guided the course of human evolution has been our capacity to view the world through the eyes of another -- known as 'theory of mind'. This ability, which allows us to attribute mental states such as beliefs and desires to others, and intentions that differ from our own, is so complex, it does not fully develop in children until around the age of four. While some scientists argue that our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, possess some abilities to perceive the intentions of others -- it is humans who have honed this ability to a fine art.

What does this have to do with religion? As our ancestors developed a sensitivity to the thoughts of others as an aid to second-guessing their outward and visible behavior, they would have started to see an intelligent creative force wherever they looked. An individual watching another chip away at a flint would attribute to him a purpose, similar to his own when he created a tool. So too would he assume that lightning, rain, the sun, the stars, the moon must have had some sort of purposeful creative force behind them.

Here lie the very deepest roots of our religious beliefs.

The reason religion is so successful is that it taps into our primal-brains in much the same way that a Big Mac does -- only more so. Religion gained its foothold by hijacking the need to give purpose at a time when humans had only their imagination -- as opposed to the evidence and reason that we have today -- to fathom their world. Spirits and demons were the explanation for illnesses that we now know are caused by bacterial diseases and genetic disorders. The whims of the gods were why earthquakes, volcanos, floods and droughts occurred. Our ancestors were driven to sacrifice everything from goats to one another to satisfy those gods.

To understand this propensity to believe in the supernatural, Cornwell and Thomson suggest that we have to look deep into our evolutionary history, in particular the fact that our powerful primal brain, which deals with our basic instincts of survival and reproduction developed earlier in evolutionary history than the frontal cortex that controls our reasoning capacity. This staggered development is mimicked even in the growth of a human brain now.

The brain configuration of a pre-adolescent child is far different from the one she will possess as an adult. It takes about 12 years or so for the frontal lobes to develop fully after reaching puberty. Our frontal lobes are key to social behavior, abstract thinking, planning and solving complex problems.

Let's call our frontal lobes the 'smart-self' and the more archaic part of our brain the 'primal-self'. Our smart-selves know that over-eating and under-exercising is bad for us, leading to heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter life-span. But our primal-selves are still primed for the risk of starvation, thus it simply cannot understand why the smart-self would deny you a nice Big Mac with a large order of fries and a chocolate shake… The smart-brain is just not designed to prevent the primal brain from taking over because the abundance of food most of us are surrounded by is a fairly new development in human history. Perhaps given another few thousand years, those individuals with the will-power to resist all that tasty fat, protein, sugar and salt will out-reproduce those that don't.

The point is, that there is an instant conflict between what we know is good for us and what we feel we want -- and we often fall victim to our more primal needs even when we know they are harmful.

Religion arises from the drives of the primal brain that is instinctual while science and reason is the product of the frontal cortex, the later brain, that controls thinking and reasoning. The catch is that the primal brain, the source of what we call instinct, tends to drive our behavior more than the frontal cortex. This is why children find it easy to accept uncritically the religious beliefs that their parents foist on them and why it takes effort to reject such beliefs even when they grow into adulthood. As Cornwell and Thomson say:

Much of the world's population still believe in a god forged out of the fears of a desert people and, worse, fully believe not only that their view of god and his wishes are right, but that those who disagree must be converted or face eternal torment (sometimes even offering some help to get there). The primal fears instilled by religious fever act as impenetrable walls to reason. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66% of the US population agrees strongly with the statement 'God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years'. Given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, such obstinate belief should frighten any reasonable thinking person. It also is testimony to the wealthy and powerful religious organizations who spend billions of dollars on public relations, creating controversies where none exist and spewing lies about the evidence for evolution. But none of this would be possible without our brains being ready and available to take in the message they are delivering. It is easy enough for atheists and humanists to chuckle at the credulity of believers, but we do so at our own peril. (my italics)

Religion needs to be taken seriously. Understanding its roots, how it can seize command of our psychology and take control of our culture, may well be one of the most important endeavors we pursue. For even with all our grand technology, modern medical advances, and volumes of knowledge, if we do not stop our archaic past from overriding our modern reason we are surely doomed.

Current religious beliefs are a kind of parasitic system that latches onto the primal brain's needs. As I will discuss in the next post, the primal brain dominates during early childhood, making children more susceptible to magical thinking. By the time more mature reasoning powers start to develop, the brain is already encumbered with religious thinking that it has to fight against.

POST SCRIPT: BP's oil killing the gulf

This aerial video shows the scale of the damage caused by the BP oil spill and whales and dolphins and sharks trying to find clean water.

There are also still photos of animals and birds bathed in oil and they are heartbreaking.

July 14, 2010

Overdoing public grief

On the radio yesterday morning I heard a report on camps designed specifically for children who have recently had a bereavement in the family to attend with other similarly situated children. The camps will be staffed by people trained in grief counseling and the children will be encouraged to express their feelings through artwork and conversations and even cry.

Although I am not a psychologist, I must say that the story made me uncomfortable. Is it really a good idea to take a child who has just lost a parent, grandparent, or sibling and put them together with other grieving children so that they are surrounded by grief all the time? My impulse would be to keep the child at home, play games with them, send them out to the movies, or to encourage them to play with other children. Their sense of loss must be palpable and surely what they need is relief and distraction from it, not reinforcement.

For example, I think it is great that most people use the Memorial Day holiday to have picnics and barbecues, and strongly disagree with those pious scolds who every year complain that people are not treating the day with appropriate solemnity. What d they want people to do? Visit graveyards? Fast? Pray? Listen to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings on an endless loop?

It seems to me that nowadays rather than encouraging people to be stoic in the face of tragedy, they are now being encouraged to wallow in public grief. We seem to be telling people that what needs to be done is to drag out the grieving process and make their emotions public. Is this a good thing?

Take for example tragedies where many people die, such as the events of 9/11 or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City or the Virginia Tech shooting. Immediately calls go out to build a memorial for the dead, which is usually followed by squabbles as to the appropriate design. And on every anniversary the events are commemorated with all kinds of symbolic events, such as the beating of drums or the pealing of bells once for each death, accompanied by the reading of the names of the victims. Even now, fifteen years after the event, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is publicly commemorated this way.

It has now got to the stage where following the (unfortunately frequent) senseless killing of several people by a deranged shooter, there are calls for a memorial to be set up to commemorate the victims. When I drive on the highways I often see small private memorials by the roadside, presumably to commemorate a highway fatality. If we are not careful, we will become a nation of memorials.

I don't understand this need to memorialize. They say that time heals all wounds. I believe that to be true but how can time do its work if every year people pick at the scab by reliving once again in a big ceremony the events surrounding the tragedy?

Maybe I am weird but to me grief is something that one deals with privately. If I had had someone close to me die in a tragic and untimely way, the last thing I would want is to have other people, total strangers, make a big fuss on the anniversary, reminding me of it over and over again, and obliging me to act grief-stricken on schedule on that day. As anyone knows, feelings of sadness at the loss of a loved one hit randomly, triggered by inconsequential things. For all other people know, I might be feeling pretty good on the anniversary and now have to put on a show of sadness for the public which would make me feel hypocritical, which is worse than feeling genuine grief.

What has happened is that the grief counseling industry has taken over and decided that we need to show our emotions with a great outpouring of feelings. The media is a major culprit as can be seen in the way that they treat deaths of public figures as events of great sadness and public importance, when they are not. The recent coverage of the deaths and funerals of Michael Jackson, President Ford, Tim Russert, etc. was way over the top. As a result, it seems that we should all feel sadness on demand.

Even people who have the most tenuous of connections to the events now seem to feel that they need grief counseling too. Rosa Brooks commented on this phenomenon in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings:

Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don't just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace's Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible.

Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, "Where to Find Support" — apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.

The death of Michael Jackson produced vast hordes of people who did not know him in the slightest but acted (at least in front of TV and news reporters) as if they had been devastated by the loss of an immediate family member or close friend. When John Lennon was murdered (the equivalent of Michael Jackson's death for my generation) I recall being shocked at the murder and sad at his untimely end but I did not feel grief, did not mourn, and definitely did not need counseling despite my close identification with Beatles music.

Everyone now seems to have even internalized the jargon of grief counselors, with ordinary people now glibly talking about the need to 'allow for the healing process to take place' in order to 'bring about closure', as if one can end one's sense of loss tidily at a scheduled time by going through some prescribed set of rituals.

Each person comes to terms with grief and loss in their own way. In my case, I tend to busy myself with mindless activities, such as cleaning out the garage and closets, sorting papers, watching TV, and so on. I let the minutiae of daily life consume my thoughts, except for brief moments when I let sad memories enter in small doses that I can deal with privately and alone. I don't want to talk about my loss, and I definitely do not want other people encouraging me to 'let my emotions show'. I just want to be left alone.

I would hate to have memorial activities on each anniversary that force me to confront, once again, the fact that they have died. I do not even visit my parents' graves and do not do anything special on the days of their birth or death. Why force myself to think about them? I think about them often at random moments and that for me is enough.

I am sure that other people react differently to tragedies in their lives. That is my point. We all react differently. Each of us deals with grief in our own way and should be allowed to go it alone and not feel obliged to conform to other people's expectations of how we should feel and behave. The rest of us should simply make room for bereaved people to respond in any way that works for them. Public memorializing tends to impose one set of expectations on everyone and serve no purpose that I can see, except to allow public and elected figures to grandstand.

POST SCRIPT: Get religion! Waste time!

July 13, 2010

The origin of religion-4: Religion as an evolutionary adaptation

While the growth and perpetuation of religious beliefs is an interesting question, we also need to explain how they originated in the first place. How did such unreal information arise at all?

Some have argued in favor of the direct adaptation model, based on Darwinian natural selection principles, that says that the tendency to assign causation and agency to natural events is an evolutionary advantageous strategy. In more primitive times, assigning a conscious agency to natural events may have provided survival benefits that did not accrue to those who did not, since the benefits of a false positive outweighs the disadvantages of a false negative. i.e., having genes that predisposed one to assume that lightning was caused by the anger of some powerful supernatural agency (aka 'god') and taking evasive action by cowering in shelters was better in terms of survival value than assuming that lightning was harmless and wandering around in the open, even if the reasoning behind it was faulty. It was only much later that we realized that lightning was dangerous for non-religious reasons and could avoid its hazards using mechanisms that did not involve rituals to appease an angry supernatural power.

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks elaborates on this:

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. "You see bushes rustle, you assume there's somebody or something there," [Yale psychologist Paul] Bloom says.

This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don't have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

Another report in the New Scientist (no subscription required for this one) about a computer model by James Dow provides some support for direct adaptation. (The original paper by Dow can be read here.)

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people - those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

The interesting conclusion here is that believers in the unreal require the support of nonbelievers in order to have their numbers grow. In other words, the 'respect for religion' trope that says that we should treat with respect, and even admire, the faith of sincere religious people, is actually part of the problem. This conclusion supports the strategy of the new/unapologetic atheists who seek diligently to undermine false beliefs such as god and the afterlife.

Brooks also writes that the reason our brains are so susceptible to superstitions is that they are hardwired to do so, which suggests deep evolutionary origins.

It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world.

What psychologists have found is that during hard times or times when people feel they are losing control of their lives, they are more prone to adopt religious beliefs and superstitions. During the great depression of 1929, for instance, the most authoritarian churches saw a rise in attendance. If this hardwired aspect of the brain is true, then adopting religious beliefs uncritically is the path of least resistance. It takes conscious effort and will to resist religious beliefs, which explains why atheism is a harder sell than religion.

POST SCRIPT: Waiting for Elmo

Have I said how much I love the Muppets comedy sketches on Sesame Street?

July 12, 2010

The end of an affair

Well, the great drama of where LeBron James would play in future years has mercifully come to an end. There must not be a single person in America, however remotely located or disinterested in sports, who escaped from the endless speculation that culminated with an actual TV show where he revealed his decision. Surely the last was an act of egotism that has not been exceeded by any sports figure?

Living as I do in Cleveland, which was at the center of this spectacle, I could only marvel at how emotionally swept up people got about this whole thing. Even though I resolutely tried to ignore the coverage, not reading the endless newspaper articles, I still could not avoid being nauseated by the headlines alone, and the sight of an entire city and region, including civic leaders, begging and pleading with him to stay. This was over and above the usual and also highly excessive day-to-day adulation that we have lived with over the last decade ever since it became clear, even while he was in a local high school, that he had exceptionally good basketball skills. This devotion to him manifested itself in huge murals with him in messianic poses and his every movement adoringly reported in the papers, with front-page photos of him appearing regularly.

Just think about this for a moment. All this was because he was able to play with a ball better than others. Of course some would try to rationalize their childish involvement with something so trivial by trotting out economic arguments, such as that his playing here brought a boost to the economy by having people come to the city to go to the games, patronize the restaurants, and so forth. I have no doubt that there was some economic impact but it was clear that what was going on was based on far more than economics. This city is desperate to win a national championship in a major sport and winning the spelling bee simply does not cut it.

This desperation manifested in the city and its sports fans acting like a needy lover who is willing to do anything in order to keep the object of devotion around. And as often happens, when the lover is spurned and the object of adoration finds someone new, love turns to hate in a second. Instead of the spurned lover throwing all the stuff out the window, in this case fans are destroying or defacing the ubiquitous James memorabilia. The murals are coming down. Angry, vicious letters appear in the newspapers. The city has called James selfish, ungrateful, and a traitor. They seem shocked that he would leave them after all the love they have given him

What did they expect? Shifting metaphors, the city is like overly indulgent parents who give in to their adored child's every whim, praise him incessantly, overlook or excuse every misstep, and then are surprised to find that he has grown up to be thoroughly spoiled, only cares about himself, and spurns his parents when he no longer needs them. In his TV special he said quite explicitly that he wanted to do what's best for himself with no other consideration in mind.

I can understand that, actually, but that is because I know that major sports is a business in which sentimentality plays little or no part. Players are businessmen, going where they can make the most money. So are the team owners. The Cleveland Cavaliers owner called James ungrateful, which he is, but is that news? I am certain that he, like other sports team owners, would in turn dump the city in a heartbeat and move somewhere else if they did not cater to his whims. The owners and players can be like this because they exploit the fans' sentimental attachment to their teams, which makes them willing to shell out huge amounts of money for taxes to pay for new stadiums with luxury accommodations for wealthy patrons, highly inflated ticket prices, buy team merchandise, and watch their teams on TV.

I used to be a sports fan once, long ago. My emotions would rise and fall with the success of my team and I would eagerly discuss with other fanatics the possibilities of the next game or do a post-mortem on the one just passed. But then I grew up and realized that there were other things in life that were more important. I got further disenchanted when I became aware how cynically owners and players viewed the fans, as people with pockets to be picked. Now sports is something I follow casually by flipping through the sports section of the daily paper in a few minutes, but refuse to take seriously.

Since I live in Cleveland, I would like the city to win a football or basketball championship only because it is painful to watch actual adults agonize over not doing so for so long, and winning would put an end to that misery, at least for the next few decades I hope. (As for the local baseball team and its fans, I have no sympathy whatsoever for them because of their determination to hold on to the offensive Chief Wahoo logo.) It is pathetic that the city feels so invested in achieving something so trivial and I am embarrassed for them. In Bertholt Brecht's play Galileo, Andrea tells his teacher "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero" to which Galileo replies, "No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero." How much more unhappy (and pathetic) is a city that needs as a hero someone whose main skill is the ability to throw a ball through a hoop?

LeBron James can go wherever he likes and apart from feeling sympathy for how badly the people here feel because they suspect that their one chance of success has slipped through their hands, I simply couldn't care less. I am grateful, though, that the hoopla surrounding him will now take place far, far away.

POST SCRIPT: Paul Robeson

If people feel they must have heroes, then instead of venerating athletes with just one talent who simply look out for themselves, people should emulate figures like the multi-talented Paul Robeson, athlete, singer, actor, and activist, who was willing to sacrifice his career to fight for justice for the poor and against racism. Because of his outspokenness, he was hounded by the US government and his passport seized for many years. My parents had the great privilege of attending a concert given in London by Robeson after he got it back, and said that it was electrifying.

Here is Robeson singing the song that became identified with him, Old Man River from the musical Show Boat. It is a performance that never fails to move me, especially its memorable lines, "I get weary and sick of trying. I'm tired of living and scared of dying."

Later in life, Robeson would change the lyrics to make them less despairing and more inspiring.

The commentary you hear is by Harry Belafonte, a worthy successor to Robeson as someone who uses his celebrity to advance the cause of justice.

July 09, 2010

The origin of religion-3: Do people have a 'god gene'?

It seems clear that people want to believe in religious ideas or at last have a propensity to believe in supernatural phenomena. Is religion a social belief that developed only after complex societies formed or is a predisposition towards religion hardwired in our brains? Those who argue the former think that religious beliefs emerged late in evolutionary history as a cultural artifact, a 'meme' if you will, that appeared only after language and social structures appeared, and spread widely because of its utility.

Others argue that the ubiquity and durability of religious beliefs suggests (though does not conclusively establish) that they might have evolutionary advantages and that a propensity to believe in gods and the afterlife developed early on and became hardwired in our brains and spread throughout the species the same way (through natural selection) that other genetic features spread, thus providing us with what one might call a 'religious gene'.

If so, then that raises two more questions. The first question concerns time. Did the hard-wired propensity to believe in supernatural agencies arise after the human species appeared or has it an even earlier genesis? Advocates of the former view suggest that religious beliefs are an evolutionary adaptation that appeared after humans and spread because they provide a survival advantage, by being a kind of glue that helped form tightly knit groups of early humans that provided greater success in hunting and foraging. This idea of properties selected for the benefits it confers on a group (known as 'group selection') is controversial because strictly speaking natural selection only works on the level of individual genes, not even a whole organism, except in so far as the organism is a vehicle that propagates the genes. Group selection seems to be possible only under very limited conditions. (See Evolution "for the Good of the Group", David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson, American Scientist, vol. 96, September-October 2008, p. 380-389.)

Supporters of the latter view of pre-human origins think that the origins of religion lie deep in our primal brains that originated long before humans appeared on the scene. The fact that we share the pattern-seeking quality with other species suggests that that feature at least goes back deep into our prehistory.

The second question deals with mechanism and involves the technical issue of whether the propensity to believe is an evolutionary adaptation (i.e., a property that provided a selection advantage that enabled it to grow and spread throughout the entire species) or whether it is a by-product of selection for another feature that did have a survival advantage. For an example of the latter, diseases like sickle cell anemia should, in a naïve Darwinian view, have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason that it persists is that sickle cell anemia in its mild form confers protection against malaria. So sickle cell anemia exists as a by-product of selection for malaria resistance.

Neurobiologist Jeff Schweitzer dismisses the idea that there is such a thing as a religion or god gene' and argues that religion originated and was transmitted as a cultural artifact.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept "I don't know," because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don't know.

The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature's wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer, but rather from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate, and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature's plans.

Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike most other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death's certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.

Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one's destiny, a desire for social cohesion, and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. Evolution and natural selection do not enter into this equation other than with the obvious fact that humans evolved large brains.

Anthropologist Maurice Bloch argues that religion originated along with the capacity to use our imaginations. If religion is a figment of the imagination, it thus probably originated around the time that humans developed the capacity to imagine things and beings that do not exist and which live on after they physically die. He thinks that this likely happened around "40-50,000 years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age."

Is belief in god a 'meme' (a unit of knowledge) that propagates like a gene, by spreading from person to person via cultural transmission instead of biological inheritance? The problem with cultural explanations is that one has to make the additional assumption that these cultural belief practices are plausible enough to have spread rapidly throughout the entire population. With evolutionary genetic adaptations, a single advantageous mutation can end up dominating an entire species.

While it is possible that belief in god is a purely social and cultural phenomenon, resulting from the need of early people and societies to find explanations for natural phenomena and to frighten people into obeying social norms, their similarities across wide geographical areas suggests that they may have some sort of biological origin. While it is true that the power of the state and the religious hierarchy has historically been used to enforce religious orthodoxy by severely punishing non-conformity, beliefs in gods seem to predate the existence of such organizations. And anything, like religion, that has features of universality immediately suggests that they have their origins in our distant evolutionary past, the way that the universality of the animal body structure of four limbs can be traced back to our fish-like ancestors.

Next: The case for the hardwiring of at least the propensity for religious beliefs

[UPDATE: Paul, the octopus prophet, picks Spain to win the World Cup.]

POST SCRIPT: Is the South African racist an endangered species?

Jon Oliver of The Daily Show investigates and finds one exceptional specimen.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Oliver - World Cup 2010: Into Africa - The Amazing Racists
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

July 08, 2010

The origin of religion-2: The power of religion and other superstitions

When investigating the origin of religion and other superstitions, an important fact to bear in mind is that it is not just humans that base their behavior on imputing meaning to meaningless correlations. There is evidence that even animals do this, suggesting that this instinct comes from a fairly primitive part of the brain, and developed early in our evolutionary history before we branched off from those species that share this trait. We all have heard of Pavlov's experiments with conditioning responses in animals. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner did an interesting experiment with pigeons. After the usual ones where pigeons were trained to peck at a button in order to obtain a food reward, he then did an experiment where the rewards were given out randomly. What he found was that after awhile the pigeons started going through what seemed like rituals, specific repeated behaviors. It seemed as if they were trying to figure out which pattern of actions had caused the rewards to appear in the past and were repeating them in order to 'cause' the rewards to appear.

What is extraordinary is that superstitious beliefs, although formed on the flimsiest of evidence that can easily be explained as coincidence, tend to be hard to shake off. What is more, superstitious people strongly resist any real test of their beliefs because that might 'harm' their lucky charm. Or they find some explanation to shrug off any failures.

I know Sri Lankans who will not put nail clippings in the trash but insist on flushing them down the toilet. Some don't know why they feel they must do so, except that they were told as children that to do otherwise would bring bad luck. The practice likely originated from the belief that witch doctors could more easily put an evil spell on you if they had some piece of your body. Since nail clippings are among the easiest tissues to obtain unobtrusively, flushing them made it harder for your enemies to put spells on you.

Some superstitions and religious rituals, especially involving food, originated out of common sense health precautions during times when people were not as aware as they are now of the causes of disease. But over time, those sanitary practices evolved into rigid rules of religion or superstitions as people forgot the reasons for them. In the worst cases, these rules can be used in abusive ways but in others they are simply amusing. I recall a story of a woman who always used to trim the ends of the roast before putting it in the pan and into the oven. When her daughter asked her why she did this, she replied that she learned it from watching her mother and assumed it had some cooking benefit. Becoming curious, she asked her mother why she did it and her mother said that it was because her mother did it. When she asked her grandmother, her grandmother explained that it was because she had had a very small oven and oven pan, and usually had to trim the roast to make it fit in the pan.

Religious beliefs, like superstitions, continue because people do not bother to stop and question why they do something and whether it makes sense to continue the practice. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion reflect on the extraordinary hold that religious beliefs have on otherwise rational people.

Despite the illogic of believing that some great being in the heavens, capable of creating not only the laws of physics, the principles of evolution, and the vastness of time also cares a great deal about whether or not you use your left hand to clean up after defecating, eat a cracker while sinless, or not mix cheese with chicken, we still seem to sup it up like mother's milk.

An acquaintance of mine is a cricket fanatic and during the last cricket World Cup I asked him if he had watched the final game live with other fans at a public screening. He said no, that he had watched it at home because then he could do 'pujas' (prayer rituals done by Hindus) at his home shrine in order to help the Sri Lankan side win. (Depressingly, this person is a faculty member in the medical field, showing that an education in science does not inoculate one against superstitions.) What was particularly interesting was that he told me this the day after Sri Lanka had lost convincingly to Australia, and yet he seemed unfazed by his god's lack of action and to not draw the obvious conclusion from this that his pujas had not helped in the least. He will no doubt do his pujas again on future occasions, the way religious people pray for things despite overwhelming direct personal experience that their prayers will not be answered. And when his team wins, he will no doubt ascribe their success to his pujas.

(Note: The psychic octopus Paul's prediction that Spain would upset Germany in the World Cup semi-final game came true, continuing his winning streak. Is the octopus really psychic? It seems like just a matter of time before people start worshipping Paul as a god, since he seems to be more successful than the existing gods. I personally think that Paul does not have any psychic powers at all and is merely an extremely knowledgeable and astute soccer fan. Even though he has apparently only predicted games so far in which Germany plays, it has been reported that if he is not too exhausted, he will pick the winner of the Spain-Netherlands final too.)

But while we can often find plausible reasons for many superstitions, the origins of religious beliefs lie far back in time, making their sources much harder to determine.

Next: Do people have a 'religious gene'?

POST SCRIPT: The power of belief

In this clip, Richard Dawkins covers an experiment on dowsing that shows how strongly people want to believe in their superstitions and refuse to accept any evidence that goes against their beliefs. He also discusses Skinner's pigeon experiment.

July 07, 2010

The origin of religion-1: Superstitions

I think we can all agree that, looked at objectively, religious beliefs result in a colossal consumption of time and resources that, to anyone outside that particular religion, seems like an enormous waste. As Richard Dawkins says:

As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches my attention is its profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.

Religious behavior in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.

Though the details differ across cultures, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion.

So with all these disadvantages, and with science showing that most of the claims for religion are either false or lacking any evidentiary support, why do we still have religion? Why would such useless belief structures be so widespread and durable? Why are they able to command such a significant number of adherents? The ubiquity and longevity of religious practices cries out for explanation.

Since religious beliefs are supported by no empirical evidence, one has to look for other reasons to explain both their origin and continuation, and a good place to start is with superstitions, which are also irrational and yet they too are durable beliefs that can grab hold of people, spread widely quickly, and new ones appear all the time. So studying the origins of superstitions may give us clues as to the origin of religion.

Before every presidential election, for example, you find the media paying attention to some 'predictor' of the outcome. They will point to some state or county or precinct that has in the past always had a majority for the winning candidate and then focus on what that indicator might predict for the current contest. Sometimes the 'predictors' are something as unrelated as the winning team in the Super Bowl or stock market indices. Of course, rational people are aware that there can be no causal connection between the two events.

It is always possible to find, after the fact, some indicator that seems to correlate with some major event. For example, suppose I tell you that you should give me all your money to invest because I have an uncanny knack of predicting whether a given stock will go up or down the next day. You naturally will want some evidence of my predictive power before you give me your money. If I guarantee to do it correctly four times in a row, would you be willing to give me your money to invest? If you say yes, you are a sucker. The reason is that all I need is 16 people to agree to the same deal, each of whom does not know about the other 15. Then I give 8 of them a prediction that the stock will go up the next day and 8 that the stock will go down. I then forget about the eight who got the wrong prediction, and give four of the others the prediction that it will again go up, and the other four that it will go down. The next time, I deal with only the four who got both earlier predictions right and give two up and two down. This leaves me with two who got all three right predictions. I repeat the process and of those two, I will finally end up with one person who got all four predictions right and is now a believer that I have this amazing skill at picking stocks.

It is because of this tendency of people to not use their reasoning abilities or seek underlying mechanisms that causes superstitions to originate and conmen to flourish. When something unexpectedly good (or bad) happens, people tend to remember some of the circumstances surrounding that event. Then if another similar good (or bad) event occurs, and they recall that both occasions had some common feature, then that feature can become seen as an omen, as a good or bad luck talisman. Thus superstitious people end up wearing 'lucky' clothes or carrying some 'lucky' items or doing some ritual before an important event, based on whatever it was that happened to catch their notice. Athletes and sports fans can carry this to ridiculous extremes. Faith healers particularly exploit this to con people because people will note and remember their few alleged successes and ignore the vast number of failures.

People seem to be very susceptible to this kind of magical thinking. The latest superstition is the 'psychic octopus' in Germany that has apparently picked the winner in every match involving Germany in the current soccer World Cup. (It predicted that Germany will lose to Spain today.) The need of people to seek out patterns and correlations, and think that they arise out of some underlying causal agency, seems to be innate. Because of it, it is extremely easy for superstitions to originate and for crooks to scam people into thinking that they have secret powers.

This tendency to ascribe causal relationships, and even a causal agency, to unrelated events is, as we will see in the next post, not simply a cultural trait developed in the last few thousand years in humans. It goes back quite far.

Next: The power of religion and other superstitions.

POST SCRIPT: Last word on flags

I received this cartoon from a reader following my post on the flag fetish and the next day's photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.

Bizarro flag.gif

Another reader also reminded me of this Eddie Izzard sketch about flags.

July 06, 2010

Anonymity, pseudonymity, and sockpuppetry

The recent article I wrote in The Chronicle Of Higher Education titled The New War Between Science and Religion generated a lot of interest. The editors told me that it was the most viewed, forwarded, and commented on article for some time. The article dealt with the current debate between the new/unapologetic atheists and the accommodationists, with me taking the former side.

There were also some responses on some blogs, including a critical one on a website called You're Not Helping. The site's anonymous author (I'll assume a man) said that he was an atheist and that the goal of his site was to critique fellow atheists whom he felt were harming the cause of atheism by poor arguments, tone, etc. That's fair enough. The internet is a fast-moving place and we could all use watchdogs to monitor what we say so that in our haste we do not say things that are not measured. The commenters here often point out when I am in error or go too far off the rails. The criticisms about me on YNH however, though strongly worded, seemed to me to be somewhat confused and so I did not respond, figuring that readers would figure out for themselves who was more credible.

It was with some surprise that I discovered recently that the site's author had pleaded guilty to the offense of 'sockpuppetry'. This is where one person assumes one or more aliases and then posts articles and comments on the web to support a single individual (usually the sockpuppet himself or herself) or to advance a specific agenda. The different names are used to give the impression that the opinions are widely held.

YNH's sockpuppetry came to light when he slipped up in various ways, such as by praising one sockpuppet's comments while signing with the same name, using similar verbal and punctuation tics for the different authors, etc. An alert website called The Buddha Is Not Serious (where do they get these names?) noted some of these quirks and investigated. When the evidence of YNH's sockpuppetry became too obvious to deny, the author gave a petulant apology and closed the site except to those who register, and then later shut down the site altogether.

In the course of reading about YNH's shenanigans, I discovered that rather than being a disinterested atheist trying to improve the quality of the debate, the site's author seems to have been a 'concern troll' (someone who acts like they are sympathetic to your side of an issue but are giving you advice that is really meant to undermine your position) whose main agenda seems to have been to attack a variety of new atheists. When commenters would try and defend them, the various sockpuppets would be brought in to gang up on them and intimidate them.

This started me thinking about this whole business of anonymity on the web. I am not anonymous. In fact, my name is part of the website's name, not because I am an egotistical maniac, but because when I started this blog, I did not have the imagination to think up a good name nor did I think it worthwhile making the effort to think up one for what I presumed would be a short-lived experiment. Now I am kind of stuck with the name, though I dislike it. When I visit other sites and post comments, I do so under my own name.

But I recognize that being public about my views is a luxury that not everyone can afford and other people being anonymous does not bother me in the least. I can well understand why some people would prefer (for family, social, professional, or even psychological reasons) to keep their true feelings about issues from being widely known. I would prefer that people use one pseudonym consistently (rather than no name at all or multiple names) so that others know they are dealing with a single person, but realize that doing so carries the risk that if you are a prodigious commenter or blogger that people who care enough may be able to piece together clues as to your identity.

What puzzles me is why anonymity seems to bother some people. I do not understand why people sometimes investigate to try and reveal the true identity of a pseudonymous blogger or commenter.

But while I can understand why some want to be anonymous, there are some things an anonymous person should not do, such as make personal attacks on people or spread rumors about them or bring their personal lives into the equation. Such actions are bad in general but doing so behind a shield of anonymity is cowardly and inexcusable.

What I find really pathetic, though, is sockpuppetry. How insecure must one be to create alter egos whose main function is to praise and support your ideas and denigrate those of your opponents? And yet there are cases of people whom you would not think needed to do so indulging in this kind of thing.

Another thing I found is that there seems to be a fairly common practice of site owners banning certain commenters whom they find obnoxious for whatever reason. I am not sure why this is necessary. If someone says something you don't like, why not just ignore them?

Reading through all this, it struck me how calm my own blog is, even though quite a lot of controversial topics are discussed, I often take a strong position on things, and the readership is quite large. Even though people have disagreed strongly with my views and those of other commenters, and some people have posted lengthy rants that have had only marginal relationships to the posting, there really has been no nastiness of any kind, even though anonymity is allowed. I have no idea if sockpuppetry is going on here and frankly don't really care enough to investigate. The thought of banning someone has never even crossed my mind and I do not even know how to do it, frankly. The only comments that I erase are ones that are obviously spam. If I find that a discussion in the comments has started getting repetitive and is not going anywhere, I just stop participating.

I hope it continues this way.

POST SCRIPT: Clint Webb for Senate

At last, an honest political ad.

July 05, 2010

On the pursuit of happiness

On this holiday on the day after independence day, I am posting again a reflection on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who created that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, the suggestion that we should actively seek happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so."

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don't realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Good advice.

POST SCRIPT: More on flag fetishes

There were some interesting and informative comments on my post on flag fetishes.

One rule about the proper treatment of the US flag that is routinely violated is the use of the flag design on clothes. You can see this photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.

July 02, 2010

Flag fetish

As we approach the independence day holiday with its orgy of patriotic fervor, I want to remark on one of the things that I find curious about America, and that is its flag fetish. People seem to treat the country's flag with a level of veneration that I find somewhat bizarre. There even exist statutes that spell out in incredible detail how the flag should be treated such as how and when the flag should be raised and lowered, how it should be carried or folded, how old flags should be destroyed, and so on. All the rules of etiquette surrounding the flag are incredibly complex and June 14 has even been designated as Flag Day. Most people, I suspect, are not aware of many of these rules such as, for example, that the flag should never be used as wearing apparel, should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, or water, should never be carried flat or horizontally, and so on. Even the Bible does not get this level of special treatment.

However there are no penalties in the statute for violating any of these rules. As a result of flag burning cases, the US Supreme Court has ruled that doing what one likes to the flag is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

It is curious though that some acts that are officially deemed to be disrespectful to the flag are routinely committed with no controversy. For example, the rule that "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard." Yet one sees images of the flag on all kinds of merchandise and advertising, especially around the fourth of July. It looks like people venerate making money even more than they do the flag.

While Muslims justifiably get made fun of for getting all bent out of shape when they feel that their prophet is being dissed by even drawing a cartoon of him, the veneration with which Americans treat their flag is very similar to that irrational reaction. If you were to go on a public street and place the flag on the ground and stomp on it, I would not be surprised if you angered many bystanders and even rouse some of them to violence against you in order to protect the 'honor' of the flag. Look at the reaction that occurs whenever political protesters burn the American flag and the periodic moves to pass a constitutional amendment to prevent desecration of the flag. Thankfully, we haven't had that kind of silliness for some time.

I recall a community discussion during the first Gulf war in 1992. In one incident in that war, a group of fighters had used Allah as a rallying cry to fight US troops, saying they were defending Islam. In the discussion, some people said that they could not understand how so many Muslims could get so impassioned about fighting for Allah. The idea of fighting for god instead of nation seemed irrational to them. I pointed out that American troops use their flag as a rallying cry in just the same way (the national anthem itself is all about such an incident), and from the point of view of Muslims, Americans must seem even more irrational in the way they were willing to fight for a mere flag instead of their god.

The people in the room were surprised by my comments. Until I raised it, the thought had never crossed these people's minds that the honor and value they placed on the flag was a form of idol worship similar to what people place on god and religion.

Once again, it reveals that it is really hard for people and nations to see themselves from the point of view of others.

POST SCRIPT: Angry black men

I really like the exchanges between Jon Stewart and Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore. They can find humor in racial stereotypes while still showing its ridiculousness.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Samuel L. Jackson Scale of Black Emotion
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

July 01, 2010

The cycle of abuse and injustice

I recently read the book The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. This is a story of Warsaw during the German occupation of World War II, told through the eyes of Antonina, the wife of the Jan Zabinski, the head of the Warsaw zoo. They both worked for the Polish underground and over several years sheltered in their villa over three hundred Jews as they tried to escape from the ghetto and get to freedom. The book is based on the diary of Antonina and recounts the tales of the refugees and of the animals under their care. It gives some first person insights into what life was like under Nazi occupation and during the Warsaw uprising.

One thing that I learned from the book that I did not know before was that "the Nazis were ardent animal lovers and environmentalists who promoted calisthenics and healthy living, regular trips into the countryside, and far-reaching animal rights policies as they rose to power. Goring took pride in sponsoring wildlife sanctuaries ("green lungs") as both recreation and conservation areas, and carving out great highways flanked by scenic vistas." (p. 86)

The well-known obsession of the Nazis about racial purity also extended to the animal kingdom and they had a particular interest in exotic species that generated some weird ideas, such as trying to bring back to life 'pure-blooded' species that were now extinct. In pursuit of this goal, they raided zoos in the countries they occupied, in search of animals that most closely resembled extinct animals so that they could do breeding experiments with animals that showed specific desirable traits. Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo, was a key advocate of this idea.

Heck's reasoning went like this: an animal inherits 50% of its genes from each parent, and even an extinct animal's genes remain in the living gene pool, so if he concentrated the genes by breeding together animals that most resembled an extinct one, in time he would arrive at their purebred ancestor. The war gave him the excuse to loot east European zoos and wilds for the best specimens. (p. 80)

During the occupation, the people in Warsaw received rations of bread that were carefully calculated: Germans got 2,613 calories per day, Poles 669 calories per day, and Jews 184 calories per day (p. 104). No doubt German scientists had calculated precisely the minimum calories needed to maintain life. The Nazis also believed in the abominable practice of collective punishment, where in response to an act by a single individual, retribution was immediately meted out to the members of their family and even the extended community. "[I]n Poland harboring a Jew was punishable by immediate death to the rescuer and also to the rescuer's family and neighbors, in a death-frenzy deemed "Collective responsibility"." (p. 116)

In reading this I was struck by how Israel now practices collective punishment in the occupied territories by imposing a policy of restricting food supplies to the people of Gaza and also committing such acts as bulldozing the homes of the extended families of anyone suspected of any terrorist action.

In response to my series of posts denouncing the Israeli siege on Gaza and the attack on the relief flotilla, one commenter defended Israel's actions and produced data suggesting that the physical health of Gazans was not that bad compared to people in some other developing countries. I did not respond to that comment, thinking that most readers here would recognize that you cannot justify a policy of deliberately restricting food reaching people merely by saying that other people are worse off. The point is that willfully brutalizing people, deliberately keeping them hungry and miserable, and denying them basic due process is wrong, whether or not the targets of such actions look emaciated as a result. Deliberately denying entire populations of people equal access to food and medicine and other staples of life based on their ethnicity, religion, or nationality is simply monstrous, whether done by Germans to Poles and Jews or by Israelis to Gazans, and also irrespective of whether any single groups receives minimal amounts.

Reflexive Israel supporters like Senator Chuck Schumer said, to enthusiastic applause from other Israel supporters: "And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense." He should be roundly condemned for these disgusting remarks. He seems to think that collectively punishing an entire population because he does not like who they elected is just fine as long as the people of Gaza have just enough food so as not to starve to death. And this man is a US senator. Why are there no widespread calls for him to resign?

You would think that any people who have suffered harsh injustices at the hands of others and know what it feels like would resolve to prevent such acts anywhere to anyone in the future. But the sad truth is that not only do they not oppose such actions, they even inflict them on others, perpetuating the cycle of injustice and oppression. We find on a collective scale the cycle we see in individuals, where the victims of abuse often become abusers themselves.

The US was born of anti-imperialist sentiment but that has not prevented it from becoming an imperialist power now, applying brute force on country after country. When I see the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions that are being used against Hispanic people, I often wonder if this does not originate in fear. Some whites may think that when white people in America become a minority, as they are projected to do sometime in the not-too-distant future, they may be treated as badly as they treated minorities.

The cycle of abuse and injustice must be broken. The only way to do that is to break free of the sense that allegiance to our particular tribe (whether ethnic, religious, or nation) is more important than our allegiance to human rights and justice.

POST SCRIPT: Brilliant Marcus Brigstocke rant on the three Abrahamic faiths

It is hard to disagree with anything he says.