Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Love You, Just Don't Hurt Me Anymore

Sorry about how long this one was in coming! There is a very good reason this blog has been neglected: Starcraft II came out. Giving credit to where it is due, this blog was inspired by Angie Jackson reading Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life".

One of the things that triggers a feeling of love in humans is utter dependence, a lack of control which we put in others hands, however correctly. Developmentally this is important. As children, we are totally dependent on our parents, and we put our lives in their hands (hopefully rightly!); this relationship builds up the deep, emotional bond that we generally share with them. Children who miss this opportunity, through neglect or abandonment, can often end up incapable of or having difficulty with forming deep bonds later in life. Of course, it's only one mechanism, there are other ways for love to emerge! But for today, for this post, it's one of the two I'm looking at.
A similar mechanism is found in victims of Stockholm Syndrome. The victims are said to love their captors after being shown token acts of kindness while under the threat of death or torture. The dependence is there, but more specifically, there is a threat. The survival instinct kicks in, encouraging the behavior. While the case giving it the name of Stockholm may be a misnomer, it has been shown to exist, albeit in less cinematic situations than a kidnapping gone wrong.
The two mechanisms combine, often with others, in emotionally and/or physically abusive relationships. While intellectually, the victim will know that the abuser is not treating them well, even that they should leave them, they often report a deep abiding love for the person (and probably an unhealthy amount of fear), and stay, to the discredit of themselves, society, and often the children in the family. The abuser will usually seek to limit emotional outreach, forcing the dependence, or simply withhold money, to foster the dependence. The cruelty comes naturally, and the token kindnesses are generally overblown by the victim's eager mind.
When the victim is confronted about this dissonance between behavior and rationality, they generally dissemble, or rationalize: consider the cliche, "I deserved it."
It's interesting that the times people are most inclined to pray when they are at their most desperate, when they are feeling completely powerless over the course of their life. It's at times like these when people say, "Let go and let God," or are on their knees at every opportunity (never mind those of us who were raised to be praying almost constantly, anyway). It's also interesting that life, will often, arbitrarily and without provocation, beat us down, crush our dreams, and generally do terrible things to us. It also does very kind things for us once in a while, and for the most part, we agree that life IS worth living, despite the setbacks. A religious person, convinced that God is in charge of their lives, would ascribe the random chances of life to the agent behind it; and there you have two mechanisms mentioned above- dependence and cruelty mixed with token kindness.
I think, for many people, religion is simply an abusive relationship with the universe.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

What's the harm? This is why science is important.

This is exactly the kind of thing that depresses me about humanity. To sum up:
A COUPLE allegedly tied up and tortured a teenage employee because a Vietnamese fortune teller told them she stole from them, a Darwin court has heard.

Nhung Tri Tran and Trien Tran pleaded guilty to assaulting Leilani dos Santos on February 17, but not guilty yesterday to threatening to kill her and depriving her of her liberty.

...a Vietnamese fortune teller told the couple the person who had stolen the handbag was close to them, and was someone they loved.

Ms Tran also allegedly told Ms dos Santos they would cut off her fingers, but they loved her and would inject her with heroin, so she would not feel it.

Ms dos Santos said Mr Tran beat her in the back with a meat cleaver, threatened her with a samurai sword and burnt her arm with a cigarette.

Ms dos Santos said the couple had a Lady Gaga CD playing loudly.

There are a few things to this story, but one that jumps out at me is regardless of how much she stole, there's no justification for being subjected to loud Lady Gaga. This is exactly my problem with non-evidence based world views: it's not the everyday people that go around doing insane things, but as long as this kind of irrational, delusional belief is encouraged, we leave ourselves open to just this kind of abuse. Those in the "psychic" industry need to be more responsible (I'm looking at you, Sylvia Browne).
Granted, the egregious abuse in this story may be telling of a serious mental health issue, suffered by the Trans, or even dos Santos- that's beside my point. I'm not interested in placing guilt, or even blame- the fortune teller had a job to do, the Trans had a business to run, and the victim is right to sue for damages.
What I want to examine is the kind of person that could take something like this seriously. Why would anyone even believe in a fortune teller, for one thing? For the exact same reason one believes in magnet therapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, witches, or breaking mirrors for bad luck (or glasses for good luck). Because they've been told it's true. That's all it boils down to- and society plays it off as harmless, which it is, most of the time. Most Christians I know go to doctors, and get vaccinated (even if they refuse to accept the theory of gravity).
<> There are lists of cases as long as my arm where kids are neglected to death, or even murdered, by their parents because of their ridiculous beliefs. When people take homeopathic talismans to protect them from malaria. Men in Africa sleep with virgins to be cured of AIDS (also, see the even more depressing dissenting opinion here). Vultures are hunted to near extinction for gambling on soccer. Rhinos are killed to make ineffective potions against arthritis. Tigers are killed to make manly wards.
So yes, I get upset when otherwise intelligent people ignorantly ruin our planet, kill our innocents, or spread disease needlessly, because they want to believe in superstitious drivel.
< /Rant >
I feel that people believe this sort of nonsense because of the way we're wired. I'll use myself as an example, though according to studies of human beliefs, many people fall into these (and other) traps. 1.) I know that if someone tells me something confidently, I'll be inclined to believe them without trying to verify it. 2.) Similarly, if I hear something multiple times, or I read it in several places, I'll be inclined to believe it. 3.) I also know that if I already believe something, or am inclined to believe it, that I'll tend to remember the things that confirm belief.
I could go on, but let's stick with those three.
1.) Obviously, this is a terrible reason to believe something! And yet, most of us will, and salesmen and preachers alike take full advantage. There are two things I do to avoid this tendency toward blindly obeying. First, I avoid making decisions when caught up in the moment. I give myself a chance to cool off and think about my actions. Second, if I catch myself doing this, I do research to find out whether it's justified.
2.) Just because a billion people believe something, doesn't make it true. One thing that makes this one so dangerous is because of our tendency to gossip and spread rumors. When at all possible, I go directly to the source, if it's about someone, or I verify the story with multiple sources (as above, when I mentioned the dissenting opinion on the virgin cure of AIDS myth).
3.) This is also called confirmation bias, and this one can be tricky to countervail. To do so, I must, on a regular basis, actively seek out dissenting information and re-evaluate my beliefs on a given topic. For instance, after catching myself uncritically repeating the above AIDS myth, I've done some more research- and sadly, it holds up.
The dissenting story was saying that the infant rape in South Africa had nothing to do with the Virgin Cure myth- it still exists. People believe you can cure an STD by transferring it to a virgin. And that's the harm.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Raising Kids Without God

As a single atheistic parent in the veritable buckle on the bible belt, it can be difficult. What do I do about the god thing? Well, biologically, my kids are at the age where they should, with very little reservation, believe anything they're told by an adult. That, coupled with the fact that atheism for me is a simple extension of skepticism and rationality, makes it difficult for me. On the one hand, realizing that there was no god was an incredibly liberating experience- ironically, one of the most legitimately religious experience of my life- and I'd like my children to realize that. But, the more important issue to me is thinking for oneself. As such, just like with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, I'm keeping my mouth shut, and asking questions, and encouraging the kids to ask questions. Telling them the answer is like helping them cheat on a fundamental, and incredibly easy, test in life.
What I do do, mostly out of fun, is talk about Jesus or Muhammad(PB&J) with the same reverence I discuss Thor, Ra, Zeus, and leprechauns. And for the most part, they see them as they truly are, irrelevant to our lives. That's actually all I want- I hope the time for atheism is drawing to a close. There are so many more things of far more interest out there.
The important thing is ultimately, as a human species, we've outgrown the need for religion. It's still hanging around, and probably will, realistically, for hundreds of years more. But there are better sources, now, for anything that religion can offer. Better sources for community, for morality, for indulging our musical whims, for inspiration and guidance when we go astray, and plenty of real, tangible reasons to be good. Like Sesame Street, I don't believe there's much to be learned from religion at this stage in our development. It kept us from annihilating ourselves, but we're adults now, most of us, and quite capable of taking the next step into the future together. My fear is that those who cling so strongly to the history of our species that, in fear of venturing from their caves and finding a path in this marvelous present, they will turn the world's future into their apocalypse.
In an uncharacteristically beautiful and inspired chapter, the words of Paul the Apostle resonate with me. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1 Cor 13:11, KJV

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hepatitis C is natural.

One thing that continually bothers me are the sparkling connotations given to the word "natural." Organic too, to a lesser degree (more oriented at sales), but especially natural.
Have you ever heard someone talking about a natural birth? A water birth? Those are good, right? They must be- they're natural. They're better for the baby and the mother because they don't involve those unnatural doctors with their unnatural life-saving apparatuses (apparati?).
Death in childbirth is also death by natural causes.
Also, this definition of natural neatly sidesteps the whole problem of humans somehow being "Outside of Nature". Having a birth inside your air conditioned home, with your fluorescent lights buzzing, on a bed of polypropylene fibers, listening to an iPod playing soothing sounds of the beach on your $450 Sony Home Theatre System is about as natural as wearing clothes or cooking your food before you eat it. Of course, if you use natural to include everything we do, which it rightly should except in extreme cases, then I really don't have an argument. A human's natural environment is in the city, with ponchos and all the considerable delights of science and technology. That doesn't mean that all those delights are good for us, either- just natural.
For the rest of this post, I am going to kick humanity out of nature. I don't understand why, but generally when we say "natural" we really mean "we didn't do it."
Now, don't get me wrong- I'm a big fan of nature. I enjoy learning about minerals or metazoa or the milky way. I enjoy experiencing them, too- when I take my kids hiking or to watch the stars on a summer night. Nature is awesome- but it is something to be respected. If you've ever had the misfortune of staring into a hurricane, or lived through an earthquake, or seen a volcano erupt, it is breathtaking. Turn your attention down in scale, and you will find the world literally teeming with life- at every level!
Let me sum up with a list of things that are natural: Botulism, plague, Mt. Vesuvius, sociopaths, cancer, velociraptors, and salad. Unnatural: Pizza, refrigeration, the flush toilet, vaccines, clothing, farms, and Wall Street. The universe is truly amazing. Natural is a term that should inspire and imply awe, caution, or even fear. While nature is the mother of us all, she was also an abusive, neglectful monster by human standards. For no reason should we take comfort in the idea of some medicine or treatment being "natural."