Saturday, November 1, 2008

Alpha, Omega NEW Audio Essays!

I have recorded a number of audio essays related to topics of religion and belief. Take a listen!
Go to

ESSAY 1: Religion and Autonomy
ESSAY 2: Religion and Money
ESSAY 3: The Boycott on Debating Religion

Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant

One of the tenets of Neurolinguistics is that the brain does not process negatives. This is to say that any statements that include the word don’t or prefixes such as un or non, are automatically, subconsciously processed in the positive. This is because in order to affix meaning, the brain must associate something with the words spoken.

Here’s an example. When a parent says to a child, “Don’t spill your milk!” the child’s brain must subconsciously process, in effect, the command SPILL YOUR MILK. The negative don’t is affixed afterward in the conscious mind.

This is why psychologists advocate for using statements phrased in the positive. Rather than focusing on an outcome that is NOT desired, they suggest that the client focus on what IS desired. The negative statement “I don’t want to feel bad” is changed into a positive by saying, “I want to feel good.”

Another well-used example is this: “Don’t think of a pink elephant.” In order to understand those six words, to process the meaning of the sentence, the listener has no choice but to imagine a pink elephant!

So every time someone uses a word, even if using it in a sense of negation – such as “non-affiliated” or “anti-establishment,” the listener is forced to make the association and THINK OF the very concept being linguistically negated.
If someone says antibigotry, you have to process the concept of bigotry. And you have just performed the act of feeding – that is, perpetuating – the meme of bigotry.

Say nonviolent – you just perpetuated the meme of violent (a meme of hostility).
Say uncaring – you just perpetuated the meme of caring (a meme of empathy).
Say atheist – and you just perpetuated the meme of theist—a theist being one who believes in the existence of gods.

Words are invented, proliferate, and die just like living organisms. When a word falls out of use, all its cultural connotations begin to fade, which thereby hastens its disuse—it’s a downward cycle of decay. An example, in biological terms, is cell death; if blood is cut off from an arm or leg, the cells are starved of oxygen until finally they die.

In many ways, words have also lifecycles. Words such as buggywhip or scurvy or corvee (the dues paid by a serf, usually as labour, in return for use of his lord’s land) have died out. And what causes the death of the word? The disuse of the tangible thing it stood for, or the word as the symbol for the concept, or both?

Now imagine what would happen if people stopped using these words: demon, angel, devil, heaven, hell, sin, ghost, paranormal, supernatural, god.

By continuing to use the words, we perpetuate the concepts and the connotations of the words. We feed the memes. We keep them alive, just as a hundred years ago, the word buggywhip was necessarily kept fresh and alive.

What if no one used the word god at all? This is an interesting thought experiment, a foray into cultural engineering. If people simply QUIT using the words for fantastical elements or entities, what would this do our culture?

Think about it. You’re approached by someone on the street who asks you “Do you believe in god?” If you respond, “In what? What does that mean?” your questioner is stopped in his tracks, suddenly forced to give an explanation of a word that he assumed that you were fully cognizant of.

But what if you didn’t know the word because it had fallen into such disuse that it had suffered “cell death”?

Words are memes. They act as viral agents that spread and perpetuate ideas, concepts, attitudes. For atheists, it’s tough to talk about your perspective in only positive statements. If you say “I don’t believe in god,” you have just perpetuated the concept of god. Say “there is no heaven or devil,” you have just fed the memes of both.

Nonuse of a limb causes it to atrophy. And nonuse (a negative, I know) of words causes them to slide into oblivion.

So what words can I use to express my personal paradigm?

This works well. “Self-awareness, and the ability to make this statement, leads me to the conclusion that I, and other human beings, exist. When confronted with a mystery, I seek rational explanations and evidence that is, by consensus of the existing scientific community, viewed as empirical.”

Notice that this statement does not address what I don’t believe in. There is no use whatsoever of words for concepts that are, for me, imaginary or illusory.

Try it out. See if you can go for 30 days without using any terms for the ideas that other people may think of as real but you do not. After 30 days, check in with your brain and see how contents have shifted. You may be surprised. And the next person who tries to stronghold you into a debate about religion will be even more so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Right Brain, Left Brain, No Brain

Most of us know about the hemispheres of the brain—that is, that the brain is split into two segments, like a walnut, the left and the right—and research has shown that each hemisphere has specialized to perform certain types of skills. The left hemisphere handles language, math, and logical tasks. The right is specialized for spatial abilities, creativity, and imagery. The imagination. Dividing the two sides, running through the middle like a neural traffic cop, is the corpus callosum: a highway of white matter that transmits signals from one side to the other.

It’s a marvel of evolution, and yet not altogether surprising, considering the symmetry of the human animal. Our bodies have left and right sides—two arms and legs here, two arms and legs there. Two eyes, ears, and nostrils. Just about everything about us points to duality. Yin and yang, as the Buddhists might say.

Consider the saying “I’m of two minds about it.” We can sometimes feel that we actually have two minds and that they are talking—even warring—with each other. One side says, “Yes, go for it!” while the other says, “Hmm, no better wait.” Put it into a cartoon, and you can almost see the “angel” on one shoulder and the “devil” on the other.

Such is the endless conflict between opposites. Left and right, night and day, up and down. Our drive for the good and our drive for the bad. (Notice that I don’t say “good and evil” as if these were autonomous entities that exist outside of our volition. They don’t. They ARE us.)

When you start discussing religion versus reason, the dualities become blindingly clear.
Religion draws from the part of the brain that deals with emotion and imagination (the key elements in every Disney movie, perhaps?). It provides a strong reason to feel love (for God), an indisputable reason to feel hate (for sins and those who commit them, Satan and all his representatives), and purported reasons to feel fear (an eternity of punishment).

You probably also know of the “fight or flight” instinct that all animals possess. Expanding this one emotion further, and adding human terminology, we have:

Hate = Fight
Fear = Flight
Love = Embrace

These are our most basic, most primal emotions. They’re what we feel at three hours old and what we feel throughout our lives.

Safe in the community of a religion, people find outlets and havens for these basic emotions, which is all fine and good. I’m all for healthy emotions.

Enter the left hemisphere, the part of the brain that’s specialized for reason. Reason and rational thinking are necessarily divorced from emotion. It is this part of us that allows us to be dispassionate when needed, to analyze rather than panic (as an example, the EMT who must think clearly and stay focused in times of crisis), to negotiate rather than bomb.

The evolution of our frontal lobes and our reasoning abilities has been the backbone of humanity’s progress over the millennia. Our scientific discoveries, our technological advances in math, physics, medicine, and the exploration of the largest (the cosmos) and the smallest (quanta) have been possible, to a large extent, because of our left brains.

When logic butts up against emotion, you have scenarios that are as cliché as Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk. One thinker and one feeler. You see the same dichotomy in many marriages. It’s the age-old “opposites attract” situation.

As well, we have theists and a-theists. Yin and yang.

So in our evolution as a species, this is where we’re at. We’re at the point in the long history of homo sapiens where we are bicameral and dualistic. The two halves of our brains foist us into conflicts that can manifest at every level from two strangers bumping into each other in the street to two nations threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.

At the level that’s completely individual and internal, there is always that voice inside that says “But I do believe … but I don’t believe…”

For now, with our dualistic brains and the opposite-sides-of-the-fence cultures of believers and nonbelievers, we are going to have to learn to coexist peacefully. Like the pot-smoking hippies who live next door to the buttoned-down, Republican couple. We have to acknowledge our differences, our diversity, and our opposite natures, just as we understand the duality of our neural structures.

But as we move into the future—not over decades but millennia—I hope that our reason will take the stronger lead over the emotional impulses and fabula, or theater, of religion.

Creativity cannot and should not be excised from our lives. But the pablum of religion—that is, when it is an infantile clinging to supernatural Mommy and Daddy figures—ultimately thwarts our progress as a species.

Perhaps eventually, day by day, era by era, our species will develop the autonomy that allows us to let go of the fearful part of the brain, the part that seeks reassurance in religion, and find the courage to face our own adulthood.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Just Say No! Boycotting Religious "Debate"

There’s a quote that I love about argument: "Discussion is an exchange of knowledge, argument an exchange of emotion" (Robert Quillen).

Think of a time when you and a friend, or your spouse, were in a heated argument and you realized that you weren’t having an exchange of knowledge but rather an exchange of emotion.

You were venting, not persuading. As the emperor in the film Amadeus said, “You are passionate, Mozart, but you do not persuade.”

Logic versus emotion – the differences, and the differences in methods of expression, can become blatantly clear in the realm of religion. Everywhere I turn, I see devout believers trying every conceivable verbal twist and pseudological gymnastics to attempt to present a “logical” argument for religion. Books, articles, speaking engagements, and blogs abound on the “arguments” of religious belief. That is, “arguing” the existence of supernatural, magical, imaginary spooks, er … God.

It makes me think of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. It's like hearing everyone from academics to the lady in the grocery store crying “I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks!” as if their repetition and urgency will make their spooks real.

Would you “argue” – using the processes of formalized debate – the necessary existence of Darth Vader, Hamlet, Paul Bunyan, Shiva, Captain Kirk, Gollum, Oliver Twist, Luke Skywalker, Superman?

If you did, how do you think your listeners would respond? They may simply back away slooooooowly and leave you alone.

Imagine a person who says “Luke Skywalker is real! He’s really real! I see him, I talk to him all the time, and this is what he told me…”

Confronted with this statement, some of us would assume mental illness - schizophrenia or some other type or level of delusion. The delusion may be mild enough to allow the person to function perfectly well in society, hold a job, engage in lucid conversation, and so on.

What is less likely is that you would try to “argue” this person OUT of their delusion. You may likely think, as I would, that the mental illness – or its socially acceptable version, religious belief – is not something that can be eliminated through logical discourse, in the way that you might, for example, convince someone that it was better to fund a new irrigation system rather than to build a dam.

Logical arguments have pros and cons on both sides of the discussion, valid points that are supported by research and evidence and that may persuade others to agreement.

When well-meaning individuals “argue” the existence of the nonexistent, I see this as nothing short of an enormous waste of time and energy that could be devoted to a more tangible and more beneficial cause.

The three hours that you spent “debating” whether God listens to prayer or created the universe could have been spent helping a struggling child with her homework, or building a shelter, or campaigning for equal rights for all citizens. You spent three hours trying to "argue the heart," not the head. The head has reasons, but the heart has none. Just as you can’t talk someone out of the feeling of love, you can’t talk, or "argue," someone out of their religious feeling.

So how are you apportioning your time?

Personally, I boycott religious discussion. I refuse to engage, in exactly the way that I would refuse to engage in a shouting session with a borderline personality disorder (BPD) sufferer, a schizophrenic, a five-year-old throwing a tantrum, or an alcoholic pleading for “just one more” drink. I won’t engage with them.

Wise parents and animal trainers know the value of ignoring behaviors. The same technique is used in both areas: praise the valued behavior and ignore the behavior you do not value. The child or the animal eventually gets it that behavior X results in no reward whatsoever (attention) and discontinues that behavior. There’s no profit from it.

Kids will often bait their parents and teachers to get their attention, because sometimes negative attention is better than no attention at all. But when the parent yells, their attention can actually reinforce the behavior that they are trying to curb.

I believe that engaging in religious “debate” reinforces and enables religious addiction, so I choose not to engage. I won’t give the spook-believer that sort of power.

Religious people won’t get my attention by “arguing religion” (an oxymoron, in my opinion). I make it clear that I won’t engage until they are ready to present a point of view that can be supported by reason and evidence.

So if they have the same learning capacities as dolphins and crows, eventually they’ll get it that an “exchange of emotion” will get exactly zero response from me, and if the loss of my attention causes perturbation, they may start to reconsider their topics or tactics.

It’s highly unlikely that religious debate will end in my lifetime. As a meme, a thought-virus, religion has survived for thousands of years and isn’t going to die out anytime soon. But refusing to engage in its debate is a sort of memetic Lysol. It won’t wipe out the virus but it won’t enable it either.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Atheists Take to the Streets

Wake up, Americans - when will we have something like this in the U.S.??

Atheists Take to the Streets
"Atheism is the philosophy of those who believe there is no reason to accept that, beyond material reality, there are beings of a different nature, superior to humans, in which lie the origin and meaning of our existence"
By Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY (IPS) - Atheists who have built up a virtual community over the last decade will hold the "First Global Atheist March for a Secular Society" on Sunday, with the aim of defending their views and protesting that they are misinterpreted and in some cases discriminated against. The organisers say the main marches will be held in Madrid, Mexico and Lima, while demonstrations may also take place in London and Rome.

"We have decided to take to the streets to fight prejudice and discrimination against atheists, stress that although we don't believe in god, we have ethics and values, and demand that secularism should be respected," Alfredo Villegas, spokesman for the group Ateos Mexicanos (Mexican Atheists), told IPS. There are hundreds of religions in the world but only a handful of large ones, of which Christianity and Islam have the biggest numbers of followers.

Meanwhile, different studies estimate that atheists (those who deny the existence of god) and agnostics (those who believe that at our present level of knowledge we cannot know whether or not a god exists) number between 500,000 and one billion people worldwide. The "First Global Atheist March for a Secular Society" is organised by people from several different countries who over the last 10 years have established an active on-line community.

"We have been engaging in virtual communication for 10 years. But in February the idea came up to take to the streets to express our concerns, and we agreed on a date to hold our global march," said Villegas, a student of English language at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "There may not be many of us coming out on Sunday, but you have to understand that this is just a start, and that funds are scarce. Next year we’ll repeat the march, and we’ll organise seminars in universities and a world congress," said Villegas who, like most Mexicans, comes from a Catholic family.

The main organiser of the march is CyberAteos (CyberAtheists), a group that is registered as a not-for-profit association in Spain. Other participants are Ateos Mexicanos, Ateos del Perú (Atheists of Peru), the Asociación Madrileña de Ateos y Libres Pensadores (Madrid Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers), and Ateus de Catalunya (Atheists of Catalonia, a province in northeastern Spain). According to a study by Pitzer College, a private college in Claremont, California, between 15 and 24 percent of people in Spain do not believe in god.

In Mexico, 3.5 percent of the population of 104 million people said in the 2000 census carried out by the national statistics institute that they do not profess any religion. But Ateos Mexicanos says that proportion is undoubtedly much higher today. The Asociación Madrileña de Ateos y Libres Pensadores says atheists are people "who have decided to stop being slaves of religion and to exercise their own freedom."

"Atheism is the philosophy of those who believe there is no reason to accept that, beyond material reality, there are beings of a different nature, superior to humans, in which lie the origin and meaning of our existence," says the group’s web site. To be an atheist is to have "a positive mental attitude that promotes freedom of consciousness and stimulates knowledge, seeks to establish a lifestyle based on man as the motor of progress and well-being, and encourages the development of an ethical system that foments mutual respect, comprehension and tolerance," it adds.

Villegas complained that, out of ignorance, many people who are religious think atheists "don't have ethics and can't tell good from bad, when in reality most of us have strong values. "We are opposed to any religion imposing its point of view, influencing the public administration, and discriminating against atheists," he said.

The report "Discrimination Against Minority Religious Groups in Mexico 2007", by Mexico’s National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination, says that many people who belong to religions other than Roman Catholicism or who do not believe in god have problems finding stable jobs that pay decent wages." Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The "First Global Atheist March for a Secular Society", which in Mexico will be held under the name "First Global Atheist Pride March", will take place in the capital in a downtown park, the Hemiciclo a Juárez, and in the Juárez Park in the city of Guadalajara, the second-biggest city in the country.In Madrid, the Spanish capital, the march will take place in the Plaza Mayor, and in Lima, the capital of Peru, in San Martín square.

"If these atheists feel misunderstood and have a need to express themselves, I think it’s right for them to come out on the streets," Sabino Herrera, a high school philosophy teacher in the Mexican capital, told IPS. "I’m an atheist, but in my case I haven't had any need to draw attention to it as something special, although people do definitely react with surprise when I mention it," he said.

Villegas said he hoped public demonstrations by people who do not believe in god or religion or by agnostics can help build social tolerance and contribute to "toppling prejudices.""We also hope other atheists will realise they are not alone, but form part of a wide community," he added.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Addicted to God

Addicted to God
(Adapted from "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer)

Your lights are on, but you're not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Salvation now is what it takes

You can't sleep, you can't eat
There's no doubt, you're in deep
You burn in hell, you can't breathe
To be reborn is what you need

Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough, you know
You're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to God

You see the signs, but you can't read
Your sins are lust and greed
You heart beats in double time
Just come to Christ and you'll be mine

Surrender mind
And you'll be saved
Life after death is all you crave
If God's embrace can make you sigh
Pull out the cash for your next high

Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough, you know
You're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to God

Might as well face it, you're addicted to God
Might as well face it, you're addicted to God
Might as well face it, you're addicted to God
Might as well face it, you're addicted to God

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Anthropomorphizing mystery

“We must be vigilant to discern between words that exist for imaginary things and the existence of imaginary things.” ~ LL Sovrana

Human beings have always created gods in their own image: gods with names, faces, histories, even geneaologies. We imagine ourselves, and others like ourselves, and others that might be like ourselves or even in odd combination with ourselves and other sentient creatures, and we give our imaginary productions names.

In the realm of religious belief, we see human beings who have trembled in fear of the unpredictable nature of existence. To cope with our fears, we give probability a name. A face. A family history. A mythology. We "anthropomorphize mystery."

Imaginary things are entertaining to think about, but we court danger when our own image in the mirror, our own narcissism, seduces us away from the hard work of authentic exploration.