Jan 16, 2015

If You Realy Believe it, Is it a Lie? Or, Why a Healthy Dose of Skepticism is Necessary.

 The Flyin' Spaghetti Monster...
I've often wondered why people believe extraordinary claims without a shred of evidence, especially when they reserve no doubt and dismiss any reasonable skepticism. I think it's conditioning, a cultural chain, and a deep need to believe what makes them feel good. Affirming unexamined beliefs adds to the mountain of bad arguments and self-deception.  

We see this everywhere, in politics too. Fox News viewers don't go to this venue to be informed; I mean, truly informed. They're looking for more ammunition and supporting arguments of their preconceived notions. By the way, this audience is the least informed in the US. The PBS and NPR audience is the most informed on the other hand. Liberals tend to be more open-minded and open to revision. Of course, everyone has practiced confirmation bias--whereas you accept or remember only the items that support a particular view, dismissing contradictory evidence. Yet, the degree to which someone does this matters a lot.

An extraordinary claim is personhood survival after death. Not only that, but there's a heaven and hell, and that even you can reunite with lost pets. Oh, and that this new realm is of a particular God, religion, etc. Now, there are countless books written on the subject, ..documenting the trip to heaven and back, because, heck, those who had a NDE (near death experience) can't be wrong! Interestingly, none of those people have come back to say that God or heaven was of a different religion than theirs!  

Such claims are extraordinary, so where's the proof? How can I, a skeptic, know that this actually happens and it's not the brain hallucinating? I think it matters whether the evidence can pass the threshold of reason and scientific scrutiny, especially when now we do have lots of research that shows there are physiological conditions that can make the brain produce a NDE. Leaving the body, going towards the light, seeing and hearing stuff, etc, have all been reproduced under certain physical conditions without a NDE. If you're interested in more of this, check out this podcast of a debate "Death is Not Final" from the Intelligence Squared series. Dr. Steve Novella (from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe) nails it.

Just recently, the boy, Alex Malarkey, who claimed he died and went to heaven, where he had conversations with God and Satan, and whose "experience" was written a most popular book among believers, admitted that he lied! Just like that. Now, do you think those gullible believers would change their minds or become more skeptical? My guess is, no! We've seen that frauds like Peer Popoff, Jim Baker, Benny Hinn, who have been thoroughly discredited (big media coverage, court convictions, etc), only to re-appear peddling their old schemes and raking in the cash. All in the name of the Lord of course...

Malarkey's story made millions of dollars to some by selling to the gullible while there are indications that his handlers knew the story was a lie. The crux of the matter is, again, this extraordinary claim was offered & sold as a fact, as an argument for Xtians who want and expect to go to a Xtian heaven. No proof, no healthy skepticism, because if you want to believe something it's your right and your reality! Like George Constanza said on Seinfeld, "Jerry, if you believe it, it's not a lie."  

Jan 7, 2015

The Best Response to Terrorism is to Defend our Liberal Institutions. Freedom of Expression is Paramount in a Free, Tolerant, Society!

View image on TwitterFree expression and democracy were attacked with lethal force today by religious extremists in France. The so-called jihadists murdered a dozen people while shouting "God is Great." Of course, it's not Islam or the Muslim world that did this; only a few deranged individuals would support something like this.  Many Muslims are already condemning this terrorist act, though I bet some Islamic leaders will remain silent. 

Those who condemn this barbarism say that prophet Muhammad and the Koran do not support such actions. Same argument about the Bible. Both arguments are false. The holy books contain many passages in favor of killing others who are simply of a different faith or decide to leave their faith.

With the changing of society, culture, and education, people developed a new morality, dropping the extremist dictates of their holy books. It's like a supermarket of convenience--picking what suits people and what's acceptable in a modern society. It is the lack of fanaticism, without sticking to strict interpretations of revealed morals and religious practices that has made our world better.

Richard Dawkins made a statement saying that non all religions are equally violent. He probably means at present time, as by faithful extremists.There a few, like Jainism who are, by doctrine, non-violent. If you're an Jainism ..extremist, you are the least violent; you may worry about killing any form of life, including insects, and the tiniest creatures. Extremism in the vast majority of religions, on the other hand, results in lots of violence, and history proves this.

So, how do you deal with moronic terrorists who are hell-bent in applying their trade? Obviously we cannot reason with them. The freedom we offer them is not something they want to extend to others. But, we cannot succumb to their threats; we should not change the conditions that make our society more free and liveable. Probably this action will embolden the crazies home and abroad. But, the US and western-type countries should react with restraint and maturity. There are many Muslims who do appreciate the so-called western regimes, either by living in them or wanting to immigrate to them. We have to show confidence in our institutions and that we can handle crises like today's.
View image on Twitter 
We shouldn't paint all Muslims with a wide brushstroke. What I see is that religious fervor coupled with ignorance can result in terror; and terrorism is often inspired by religion. At this time, Islam fuels the hatred of many fanatics. Again, when people become more secular, educated, have a decent life whereas basic human needs are fulfilled, then extremism fades, or is found with the mentally disturbed. Yes, there have been extremists who were educated and well-to-do, but they were also religiously rejected the fruits of the Enlightenment

I do respect people making their own choices as how to live their lives, but unfortunately this is not a universal belief. Liberal democracy and, in general, western civilization is often considered a threat to traditional societies, entrenched religion, and hard conservatives everywhere. Is it a clash of civilizations like Samuel Huntington has argued? That after the Cold War, the sources of conflict would be cultural, ethnic, religious, and not economic or democracy v. authoritarianism.  I think it is the conditions, the context within people operate that is the most important factor.  Change this and gradually you see new people emerge. For example, a single most important variable is the status of women in a given society. Raise their status and beautiful things happen!