Thursday, August 10, 2017

August Subject: Richard Dawkins

“The recent cancellation of a book event with Richard Dawkins by the radio station KPFA has caused reverberations around the world. KPFA cited offensive remarks Dawkins has made about Islam. Dawkins and his followers have claimed these were taken out of context and that he’s been equally critical of Christianity. What this controversy misses, however, is the far greater destructive force of other ideas Dawkins has promulgated over decades, which have helped form the foundation of a mainstream worldview that endorses gaping wealth inequalities and encourages the wanton destruction of the natural world.” 

Image result for Image of Richard DawkinsThe dangerous delusions of Richard Dawkins

“His rationalist crusade creates a false impression that the only alternative to religion is reductionist science”

Many of you have read his books and listened to his talks.  Now is your turn to chime in with your opinions.  How is he right and how is he wrong?  He is responding to the 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’ which Mr. Dawkins authored. Do you think it is fair to criticize a book published more than 30 years ago, today? Do you agree with Jeremy Lent in his assessment of Richard Dawkins?  

Please also follow  and like our Humanist Society Face Book Page for interesting subject matter and post your comments. 

August Meeting Announcement

Humanistic Judaism – Judaism Beyond God

You’re invited to attend our monthly meeting on Wednesday August 16 starting at 6:30 pm. We meet at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall located at 4225 NW 34th St. in Gainesville. Refreshments and socializing are from 6:30 to 7:00 pm, and our program begins at 7:00. Thanks for bringing a snack or something to share, and the Food4Kids backpack program is accepting your generous donations.

At this month’s meeting, Rick Gold, a board member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, will make a presentation and discussion on Humanistic Judaism. The Humanistic Judaism (HJ) movement, started by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in 1963, combines attachment to Jewish identity and culture with a human-centered approach to life. HJ affirms that human beings are independent of supernatural authority and responsible for themselves. Humanistic Jews seek solutions to conflicts that respect the freedom, dignity, and self-esteem of every human being. They are committed to community service and actions for social justice. You can contact Rick at 571-337-8018 or [email protected].

We’re excited to bring you this interesting program. It’s been awhile since we met at the UUFG, and it will be nice to see you there! Al Tweedy sent me a message that I’m going to share with you. This is an opportunity to gather with peace activists in the community in September. If you are interested, please read below:

“UN International Day of Peace”, Sunday, September 17th. Organizations could use more marchers with Vets for Peace from YMCA 10:15 am to UUFG.  Distance of March is not quite 1/2 mile.  UN Reps are providing over 30 flags to be carried by the marchers, and/or provide refreshments for the marchers, on the front lawn of UUFG, as they arrive. Please contact Carol Curtis at 363-6681.

As always, We appreciate and encourage your participation and feedback. Your continued enthusiasm is deeply appreciated!

Friday, June 23, 2017


Why the Odds Favor Islam


On May 22, an Islamic suicide bomber detonated himself outside a pop concert 
in Manchester, England, killing and wounding dozens, many of them young 

Image result for islam imagesThe terrorist was a 22-year-old named Salman Abedi. A few days after the attack, I was reading an article about the mosque he attended—the Didsbury 
Mosque. “That’s funny,” I thought looking at the accompanying photo, “that doesn’t look like a mosque, it looks like a church.”

Sure enough, as I discovered, the Didsbury Mosque was once the Albert Park Methodist Chapel. It had been bought by the local Syrian Muslim community 
and transformed into a Muslim place of worship.

Similar transformations have been taking place in other parts of the UK. St. Mark’s Church in London is now the New Peckham Mosque, St. Peter’s Church 
in Cobridge, sold to the Madina Mosque. The Brick Lane Mosque in London was 
originally a Methodist church. But church-to-mosque conversions are only 
part of a larger story. There are now 423 mosques in London, and the number 
is expected to grow. Meanwhile, 500 London churches have closed since 2001, 
and in all of England 10,000 churches have closed since 1960.

The transformation of the Albert Park Methodist Church to the Didsbury 
Mosque is emblematic of one of the most significant shifts in history: the 
transformation of Europe from a largely Christian continent to a largely 
Islamic one. The transformation is far from complete, and there’s an outside 
chance the process can be reversed, but time and demographics favor Islam.
In several of Europe’s cities, the Muslim population now hovers around the 
thirty percent mark. In ten years’ time, that will be forty percent. Of 
course that doesn’t mean 40 percent of highly committed Muslims facing 60 
percent of deeply devout Christians. Both faiths have their share of 
half-hearted “nominals” for whom religion is more a cultural inheritance 
than a deeply held conviction. Still, the “nominal” problem is a much 
greater problem for European Christians than for European Muslims. In many 
European countries, Sunday church attendance is the 5-10 percent range 
whereas mosque attendance is very high in relation to the size of the Muslim 
population. In England, there are already more Muslims attending Friday 
prayers than there are Christians attending Anglican services on Sundays. A 
study by Christian Research predicts that by 2020 the number of Muslims 
attending prayer service in England and Wales will exceed the number of 
Catholics attending weekly Mass.

It’s also noteworthy that the expanding Muslim population in Europe is 
relatively young, whereas the declining “Christian” population is an aging 
one. Sixty-forty seems like good odds until you realize that the average age 
of the 60 percenters will be around 55 while the average age of the 40 
percenters will be around 25.

You may object that if there is any fighting to be done, most of the 
fighting on the “Christian” side will be done by the army, not by citizens 
in walkers and wheelchairs. But keep in mind that the military draws its 
recruits from the ranks of the young. As the population of the people that 
Islamists refer to as “crusaders” ages, European governments will be forced 
to draw more of their new recruits from the Muslim population. The same goes 
for the police forces. Many Muslims will serve their country or their city 
faithfully, but many will have divided loyalties, and some will have signed 
up in the first place with mutiny in mind.

Most likely, however, the transformation will be effected without major 
battles. It won’t be a matter of numbers or of military strength, but of 
strength of belief. Those with the strongest beliefs will prevail. Those who 
are not sure what to believe will submit without a fight.
Will Europe Defend its “Values”?

That’s the theme of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, a novel about the 
gradual Islamization of France. The protagonist, a middle-aged professor, 
has a number of qualms about the Islamic takeover of the university system, 
but nothing sufficient to resist it. The things he values most—literature, 
good food, and sex—are, in the end, no impediment to accepting Islam. True, 
he is offered several inducements to convert—career advancement, plenty of 
money, and several “wives”—but one gets the impression that, even without 
these incentives, he would still eventually convert. At one point prior to 
his submission, he thinks about joining a monastic order as his literary 
hero, J.K. Huysmans, had done, but he soon realizes that he lacks the 
necessary Christian conviction. Indeed, he has no strong convictions.
His plight is the plight of contemporary Europe in a nutshell. Many 
Europeans see no sense in resisting Islamization because they have nothing 
worth defending. To be sure, European leaders still talk about “our values,” 
but they can’t seem to specify what those values are, beyond appeals to 
“diversity” and “pluralism.” For example, after the Manchester massacre, 
British Prime Minister Theresa May stated that “our values—the liberal, 
pluralistic values of Britain—will always prevail over the hateful ideology 
of the terrorists.”

I’m not so sure of that. In an earlier era, Brits would have connected their 
values to God, country, family, and honor. In other words, things worth 
fighting for. But “liberal, pluralistic values”? That’s not very solid 
ground on which to take your stand. Who wants to die for diversity? Indeed, 
it can be argued that the worship of diversity for its own sake is what 
allowed terrorists to get a foothold in England in the first place. No one 
wanted to question all those diverse preachers spreading their diverse 
message about Jews, infidels, and homosexuals. The trouble is, unless there 
are higher values than diversity, there’s no way of judging between good 
diversities and bad diversities—between, say, honoring your wife and 
honor-killing her if she displeases you.

The same is true of freedom. Freedom is a fundamental right, but what you do 
with your freedom is also important. There has to be some higher objective 
value that directs our choices to good ends rather than bad ones. Otherwise, 
freedom becomes a license to do anything one pleases.
An Attack on Childhood.

Here we touch on a very touchy subject. I would not like to be in Theresa 
May’s shoes when, after a horrifying attack, she has to come up with just 
the right words. But one thing she said struck me as not quite right. She 
said: “We struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a 
room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish, but as an 
opportunity for carnage.”

It’s possible to fully agree with May’s sentiments while, at the same time, 
noting that there once was a time when a room full of children watching an 
Ariana Grande concert would not be considered “a scene to cherish.” “Her 
dress, dancing, and song lyrics,” wrote one columnist, “are deliberately 
decadent and immodest.” And, after watching some YouTube clips of her 
performances, I would have to agree. I’m pretty sure that most of the 
parents I know would not want their children to attend one of her concerts.
While the world was justly outraged at Salman Abedi’s attack on innocent 
children, no one seems to notice the attack on childhood innocence that the 
typical pop concert represents. The two “attacks” should not be equated, of 
course. The producers of pop concerts are not the moral equivalents of a 
suicide bomber. Still, the fact that so many parents saw nothing wrong with 
dropping their children off at the Manchester concert suggests a great deal 
of moral confusion in the West.

Unfortunately, such moral confusion leaves people vulnerable to those who 
are absolutely certain about their beliefs. The moral relativism of the West 
is one of the chief reasons why the Islamic cultural jihad has been so
successful. People who can’t see that the soft-porn style of Lady Gaga, 
Miley Cyrus, and Ariana Grande is not good for children will have difficulty 
seeing the problem with polygamy, child marriage, and other aspects of 
sharia law. In a relativistic society, the safest default position is “who’s 
to judge?”

Relativism Leads to Islamic Dominance

Earlier I said that Europe is being transformed from a Christian culture to 
an Islamic culture, but that’s not quite accurate because it’s actually a 
three-stage transformation. Much of Europe has already transitioned out of 
its Christian stage and into a post-Christian or secular stage. There are 
still many Christians in Europe, but Europe’s Christian consciousness has 
been largely lost. The next stage is the transition from secularism to 
Islam. That’s not inevitable, but it’s likely because without a framework of 
Judeo-Christian beliefs, secularism becomes relativism and relativism can’t 
offer much resistance to determined true believers.

Back in 2014, Theresa May said “we celebrate different ways of life, we 
value diversity, and we cherish our freedom to lead our lives as we choose.” 
But if your culture stands for nothing more than the freedom to shop for 
different lifestyles, it won’t last long. The contemporary Western 
fascination with pop culture highlights the problem. Pop culture is by its 
very nature a transient phenomenon. What is pop today won’t be pop tomorrow. 
Indeed, the popular culture of tomorrow may very well favor burqas, multiple 
wives, and male supremacy. There may still be a place for singer-dancers 
like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, but that place would most likely be as a 
harem dancer in a Sultan’s palace or as entertainment for a Saudi prince who 
has bought up a country estate in Oxfordshire.

It’s hard to beat transcendent values with transient values. That’s 
especially the case when the transcendent crowd are willing to die (and kill 
you in the process) for their values. Most Brits, on the other hand, are not 
willing to lay down their lives for the sake of keeping bacon on the menu or 
porn on the telly.

Christianity vs. Two Forms of Totalitarianism

When I use the word “transcendent,” I refer only to a belief in an eternal 
life beyond this worldly existence. Quite obviously, as in the case of 
Salman Abedi, transcendent values can be twisted. The idea that God will 
reward you for murdering innocent young women in Manchester by furnishing 
you with virginal young women in paradise is a truly twisted concept. But 
apparently it is widely shared in the Muslim world. When, during a World Cup 
qualifier in Australia, a minute of silence was called to commemorate the 
London terror victims, the whole Saudi soccer team refused to observe it. As 
Sheik Mohammad Tawhidi later explained:

In their eyes the attackers are martyrs who are going to paradise. And if 
they stand for a minute of silence they are against their Muslim brothers 
who fought for jihad and fought the infidels.

As twisted as these values may be, it’s beginning to look as though secular 
values aren’t up to the job of opposing them. The trouble with secular 
values when they are cut off from their Judeo-Christian roots is that they 
are arbitrary. Autonomy? Dignity? Equality? Says who?

“If there is no God,” wrote Dostoevsky, “everything is permitted.” 
Secularism has no God and, therefore, no ultimate standard of judgment. The 
end result is that each man becomes his own god and does his own thing—even 
if that “thing” involves the exploitation of childhood innocence. Islam, on 
the other hand, does believe in God, but not the God Dostoevsky had in mind. 
The God of Islam is an arbitrary despot whose commands are not rooted in 
reason, love, or justice.

So we have two arbitrary systems vying for control of the West—the soft 
totalitarianism of secularism and the hard totalitarianism of Islam. Both 
are really forms of slavery. Muslims are slaves of a tyrannical God, and 
secular man becomes the slave of his own desires and addictions. It may seem 
unthinkable that the West will ever submit to Islam, but many Western 
citizens are already in submission mode. Submission to their desires has put 
them in a bad spot. As a result, they are looking for something bigger to 
submit to—something outside and above their own fragile selves. Some have 
already turned to Islam. Many more will unless…

Unless, that is, there is a recovery of the Judeo-Christian belief that God 
is a God of love, justice, reason, and goodness—and that we are made in his 
image (a concept which does not exist in Islam). In the context of that 
vision, belief in human dignity and the rights of man is thoroughly 

People who believe that they and their neighbor are made in the image of God 
will generally have a strong sense of their responsibility to act 
accordingly. Such people will be far from perfect, but they will at least 
realize that it is wrong to submit both to Islam’s warped image of God and 
to secularism’s degraded image of man.

In the end, the choice for the West is not between Islam and pluralistic 
secularism. A rootless secularism will almost certainly submit to Islam. The 
only real hope for the West is the recovery of the faith that once inspired 
Christians to build a beautiful church near Albert Park in West Didsbury, 

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Brain on Religion

We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s

Image result for D.F. SwaabDick Frans Swaab (born 17 December 1944) is a Dutch physician and neurobiologist (brain researcher).[1] He is a professor of neurobiology at the University of Amsterdam and was until 2005 Director of the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research (Nederlands Instituut voor Hersenonderzoek) of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen). [2]

By D.F. Swaab
“As far as I’m concerned, the most interesting question about religion isn’t whether God exists but why so many people are religious. There are around 10,000 different religions, each of which is convinced that there’s only one Truth and that they alone possess it. Hating people with a different faith seems to be part of belief. Around the year 1500, the church reformer Martin Luther described Jews as a “brood of vipers.” Over the centuries the Christian hatred of the Jews led to pogroms and ultimately made the Holocaust possible. In 1947, over a million people were slaughtered when British India was partitioned into India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims. Nor has interfaith hatred diminished since then. Since the year 2000, 43 percent of civil wars have been of a religious nature.
Almost 64 percent of the world’s population is Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Hindu. And faith is extremely tenacious. For many years, Communism was the only permitted belief in China and religion was banned, being regarded, in the tradition of Karl Marx, as the opium of the masses. But in 2007, one-third of Chinese people over the age of 16 said that they were religious. Since that figure comes from a state-controlled newspaper, the China Daily, the true number of believers is likely at least that high. Around 95 percent of Americans say that they believe in God, 90 percent pray, 82 percent believe that God can perform miracles, and over 70 percent believe in life after death. It’s striking that only 50 percent believe in hell, which shows a certain lack of consistency. In the Netherlands, a much more secular country, the percentages are lower. A study carried out in April 2007 showed that in the space of 40 years, secularization had increased from 33 to 61 percent. Over half of the Dutch people doubt the existence of a higher power and are either agnostic or believe in an unspecified “something.” Only 14 percent are atheists, the same percentage as Protestants. There are slightly more Catholics (16 percent).
In 2006, during a symposium in Istanbul, Herman van Praag, a professor of biological psychiatry, taking his lead from the 95 percent of believers in the United States, tried to convince me that atheism was an “anomaly.” “That depends on who you compare yourself to,” I replied. In 1996 a poll of American scientists revealed that only 39 percent were believers, a much smaller percentage than the national average. Only 7 percent of the country’s top scientists (defined for this poll as the members of the National Academy of Sciences) professed a belief in God, while almost no Nobel laureates are religious. A mere 3 percent of the eminent scientists who are members of Britain’s Royal Society are religious. Moreover, meta-analysis has shown a correlation among atheism, education, and IQ. So there are striking differences within populations, and it’s clear that degree of atheism is linked to intelligence, education, academic achievement, and a positive interest in natural science. Scientists also differ per discipline: Biologists are less prone to believe in God and the hereafter than physicists. So it isn’t surprising that the vast majority (78 percent) of eminent evolutionary biologists polled called themselves materialists (meaning that they believe physical matter to be the only reality). Almost three quarters (72 percent) of them regarded religion as a social phenomenon that had evolved along with Homo sapiens. They saw it as part of evolution, rather than conflicting with it.
It does indeed seem that religion must have afforded an evolutionary advantage. Receptiveness to religion is determined by spirituality, which is 50 percent genetically determined, as twin studies have shown. Spirituality is a characteristic that everyone has to a degree, even if they don’t belong to a church. Religion is the local shape given to our spiritual feelings. The decision to be religious or not certainly isn’t “free.” The surroundings in which we grow up cause the parental religion to be imprinted in our brain circuitries during early development, in a similar way to our native language. Chemical messengers like serotonin affect the extent to which we are spiritual: The number of serotonin receptors in the brain corresponds to scores for spirituality. And substances that affect serotonin, like LSD, mescaline (from the peyote cactus), and psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) can generate mystical and spiritual experiences. Spiritual experiences can also be induced with substances that affect the brain’s opiate system.
Dean Hamer believes that he has identified the gene that predisposes our level of spirituality, as he describes in “The God Gene” (2004). But since it will probably prove to be simply one of the many genes involved, he’d have done better to call his book “A God Gene.” The gene in question codes for VMAT2 (vesicular monoamine transporter 2), a protein that wraps chemical messengers (monoamines) in vesicles for transport through the nerve fibers and is crucial to many brain functions.
The religious programming of a child’s brain starts after birth. The British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is rightly incensed when reference is made to “Christian, Muslim, or Jewish children,” because young children don’t have any kind of faith of their own; faith is imprinted in them at a very impressionable stage by their Christian, Muslim, or Jewish parents. Dawkins rightly points out that society wouldn’t tolerate the notion of atheist, humanist, or agnostic four-year-olds and that you shouldn’t teach children what to think but how to think. Dawkins sees programmed belief as a byproduct of evolution. Children accept warnings and instructions issued by their parents and other authorities instantly and without argument, which protects them from danger. As a result, young children are credulous and therefore easy to indoctrinate. This might explain the universal tendency to retain the parental faith. Copying, the foundation of social learning, is an extremely efficient mechanism. We even have a separate system of mirror neurons for it. In this way, religious ideas like the belief that there’s life after death, that if you die as a martyr you go to paradise and are given 72 virgins as a reward, that unbelievers should be persecuted, and that nothing is more important than belief in God are also passed on from generation to generation and imprinted in our brain circuitry. We all know from those around us how hard it is to shed ideas that have been instilled in early development.
The Evolutionary Advantage of Religion
The evolution of modern man has given rise to five behavioral characteristics common to all cultures: language, toolmaking, music, art, and religion. Precursors of all these characteristics, with the exception of religion, can be found in the animal kingdom. However, the evolutionary advantage of religion to humankind is clear.
(1) First, religion binds groups. Jews have been kept together as a group by their faith, in spite of the Diaspora, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust. For leaders, belief is an excellent instrument. As Seneca said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Religions use various mechanisms to keep the group together:
One is the message that it’s sinful to marry an unbeliever (that is, someone with a different belief). As an old Dutch proverb states, “When two faiths share a pillow, the devil sleeps in the middle.” This principle is common to all religions, with attendant punishments and warnings. Segregating education according to faith makes it easier to reject others, because ignorance breeds contempt.
Another is the imposition of numerous social rules on the individual in the name of God, sometimes accompanied by dire threats about the fate of those who don’t keep them. One of the Ten Commandments, for instance, is lent force by the threat of a curse “unto the fourth generation.” Blasphemy is severely punished in the Old Testament and is still a capital offense in Pakistan. Threats have also helped to make churches rich and powerful. In the Middle Ages, enormous sums were paid in return for “indulgences,” shortening the time that someone would spend in purgatory. As Johann Tetzel, a preacher known for selling indulgences, is alleged to have put it, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” In the beginning of the previous century, Catholic clerics were still automatically awarded indulgences based on the rank they held in the church. Threats and intimidation are effective even in this day and age. In Colorado, a pastor has introduced the idea of “Hell Houses,” where fundamentalist Christian schools send children to frighten them about the punishments that await them in the afterlife if they stray from the straight and narrow.
A further binding mechanism is being recognizable as a member of the group. This can take the form of distinguishing signs, like black clothing, a yarmulke, a cross, a headscarf, or a burka; or physical characteristics, like the circumcision of boys or girls; or knowledge of the holy scriptures, prayers, and rituals. You must be able to see who belongs to the group in order to obtain protection from fellow members. This mechanism is so strong that it seems senseless to try to ban people from wearing distinguishing accessories or items of clothing like headscarves. Social contacts within the group also bring with them considerable advantages and play an important role in American churches. The feeling of group kinship has been strengthened over the centuries by holy relics worshiped by the various faiths. It doesn’t matter that there are wagonloads of Buddha’s ashes in temples in China and Japan, nor that so many splinters of the True Cross have been preserved that, according to Erasmus, you could build a fleet of ships from them. The point is that such things keep the group together. The same applies to the 20 or so churches that claim to have Christ’s original foreskin in their possession. (According to Jewish tradition, he was circumcised at the age of eight days.) Some theologians have argued that Christ’s foreskin was restored on his ascension to heaven. However, according to the 17th-century theologian Leo Allatius, the Holy Prepuce ascended to heaven separately, forming the ring around Saturn.
Finally, most religions have rules that promote reproduction. This can entail a ban on contraception. The faith is spread by having children and then indoctrinating them, making the group bigger and therefore stronger.
(2) Traditionally, the commandments and prohibitions imposed by religions had a number of advantages. Besides the protection offered by the group, the social contacts and prescriptions (like kosher food) had some beneficial effects on health. Even today, various studies suggest that religious belief is associated with better mental health, as indicated by satisfaction with life, better mood, greater happiness, less depression, fewer suicidal inclinations, and less addiction. However, the causality of these correlations hasn’t been demonstrated, and the links aren’t conclusive. Moreover, the reduced incidence of depression applies only to women. Men who are regular churchgoers are in fact more likely to become depressed. An Israeli study showed that, in complete opposition to the researchers’ hypothesis, a religious lifestyle was associated with a doubled risk of dementia 35 years later. Moreover, there are studies showing that praying is positively correlated with psychiatric problems.
(3) Having a religious faith is a source of comfort and help at difficult times, whereas atheists have to solve their difficulties without divine aid. Believers can also console themselves that God must have had a purpose in afflicting them. In other words, they see their problems as a test or punishment, that is, as having some meaning. “Because people have a sense of purpose, they assume that God, too, acts according to purpose,” Spinoza said. He concluded that belief in a personal god came about because humans assumed that everything around them had been created for their use by a being who ruled over nature. So they viewed all calamities, like earthquakes, accidents, volcanic eruptions, epidemics, and floods, as a punishment by that same being. According to Spinoza, religion emerged as a desperate attempt to ward off God’s wrath.
(4) God has the answer to everything that we don’t know or understand, and belief makes you optimistic (“Yes, I’m singin’ a happy song/With a Friend like Jesus I’ll stand strong”). Faith also gives you the assurance that even if times are hard now, things will be much better in the next life. Curiously, adherents of religion always claim that it adds “meaning” to their life, as if it were impossible to lead a meaningful life without divine intervention.
(5) Another advantage of religion, it would seem, is that it takes away the fear of death — all religions promise life after death. The belief in an afterlife goes back 100,000 years. We know this from all the items found in graves: food, water, tools, hunting weapons, and toys. Cro-Magnon people also buried their dead with large amounts of jewelry, as is still done in Asia today. You need to look good in the next life, too. Yet being religious doesn’t invariably make people less afraid of dying. The moderately religious fear death more than fervent believers and those who are only very slightly religious, which is understandable when you see how often religion uses fear as a binding agent. Yet many appear to feel a little uncertain about the promised life after death. Richard Dawkins rightly wondered, “If they were truly sincere, shouldn’t they all behave like the Abbot of Ampleforth? When Cardinal Basil Hume told him that he was dying, the abbot was delighted for him: ‘Congratulations! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.’ ”
(6) A very important element of religion has always been that it sanctions killing other groups in the name of one’s own god. The evolutionary advantage of the combination of aggression, a group distinguishable by its belief, and discrimination of others is clear. Over millions of years, humans have developed in an environment where there was just enough food for one’s own group. Any other group encountered in the savanna posed a mortal threat and had to be destroyed. These evolutionary traits of aggression and tribalism can’t be wiped out by a few generations of centrally heated life. That explains why xenophobia is still so widespread in our society. The whole world is full of conflicts between groups with different faiths. Since time immemorial the “peace of God” has been imposed on others by fire and sword. That’s unlikely to change soon.
Though it comes at a price, belonging to a group brought with it many advantages. The protection it offered against other groups improved survival chances. But the harm caused by religions — largely to outsiders, but also to members of the group — is enormous. It seems as if this situation won’t persist indefinitely, though. A study by the British politician Evan Luard showed that the nature of wars has been changing since the Middle Ages and that they are gradually becoming shorter and fewer in number. So we may perhaps be cautiously optimistic. Since the evolutionary advantage of religion as a binding agent and aggression as a means of eliminating outsiders will disappear in a globalized economy and information society, both traits will become less important over hundreds of thousands of years. In this way, freed from the straitjacket of outmoded religious rules, true freedom and humanity will be possible for all, no matter what their belief — or lack of it.
The Religious Brain
Spiritual experiences cause changes in brain activity, which is logical and neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. After all, everything we do, think, and experience provokes such changes. Findings of this kind merely increase our understanding of the various brain structures and systems that play a role in both “normal” religious experiences and the type of religious experience that is a symptom of certain neurological or psychiatric disorders.
Functional scans of Japanese monks show that different types of meditation stimulate different areas of the brain, namely parts of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex. Religious belief is also associated with reduced reactivity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), as is political conservatism. Although the causality of these correlations isn’t clear, it’s interesting that taking initiatives, by contrast, is associated with increased activity in the ACC. The EEGs of Carmelite nuns have shown marked changes during mystical experiences when they felt they were at one with God. In a state like this, individuals may also feel as if they have found the ultimate truth, lost all sense of time and space, are in harmony with mankind and the universe, and are filled with peace, joy, and unconditional love. Neuropharmacological studies show how crucial the activation of the dopamine reward system is in such experiences. In this context, brain disorders are also instructive. Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, is linked to the progressive loss of religious interest. The more slowly it progresses, the less religiousness and spirituality are affected. Conversely, hyperreligiosity is associated with fronto-temporal dementia, mania, obsessive-compulsive behavior, schizophrenia, and temporal lobe epilepsy. A number of these disorders are known to make the dopamine reward system more active.
Carmelite nuns were asked to remember their most mystical Christian experience while undergoing functional scans. The scans showed a complex activation pattern of brain areas. Activation occurred in (1) the center of the temporal lobe, possibly relating to the feeling of being one with God (this region is also activated in temporal lobe epilepsy, sometimes causing intense religious experiences); (2) the caudate nucleus (an area in which emotions are processed), possibly relating to the feeling of joy and unconditional love; and (3) the brain stem, insular cortex, and prefrontal cortex, possibly relating to the bodily and autonomic reactions that go with these emotions and cortical consciousness of them. Finally, the parietal cortex was also activated, possibly relating to the feeling of changes in the body map similar to those in near-death experiences.
It’s sometimes hard to draw a line between spiritual experiences and pathological symptoms. The former can get out of hand, leading to mental illness. Intense religious experiences occasionally spark brief episodes of psychosis. Paul Verspeek, hosting a local Dutch radio show on Boxing Day 2005, asked psychiatrists how they would recognize Jesus Christ if he returned to Earth. How would they distinguish between him and mentally ill patients who claimed to be Christ? The psychiatrists were stumped for an answer. During the 1960s, when meditation and drug use were popular, many people developed psychiatric problems. They were unable to control their spiritual experiences, which derailed their psychological, social, and professional functioning. In some cultures and religions, however, voluntary engagement in meditative practices, trance, depersonalization, and derealization are quite normal and therefore can’t be seen as symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Phenomena that Western culture classifies as chicanery or nonsense, like magic arts, voodoo, and sorcery, are considered normal in other cultures. Some also regard visual and auditory hallucinations of a religious nature (like seeing the Virgin Mary or hearing God’s voice) as a normal part of religious experiences. That said, a high proportion of patients with psychoses are religious, as their condition often prompts an interest in spirituality. And many use religion as a way of coping with their disorder. So problems with a religious bearing always need to be looked at in the light of what is considered normal in a particular era or cultural setting. Only in this way can “purely” religious and spiritual problems be distinguished from neurological or psychiatric ones.
Excerpted from “We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, From the Womb to Alzheimer’s” by D. F. Swaab”

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Are humans cognitively limited to be effective citizens of the modern world?

Robert Burton is a neurologist, author and the former associate director of the department of neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center at Mt Zion. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and Nautilus, among othersHis latest book is A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (2013).”

People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

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Is this just a bunch jargon used to make those who don’t understand, feel unequal or is there a deeper consideration we should grasp.  We already know education and privilege have nothing to do with intelligence, but what about neural wiring?   Are we grappling with the idea that we are all unique and that punishing others for their differences is simply inhumane?  

Please submit your thoughts and comments.