11.10.2011

Rabbi Thinks Non-Believers Actually Believe (But I Don't Believe Him)

Over at Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs tries to make a case that everyone, regardless of what they tell you (or what they think they believe), believes in God.

While I was willing to give the Rabbi the benefit of the doubt, it didn't take long to realize that I don't think he knows what he's talking about.

In the post The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes writes:
Try as I might, I continue to be startled by the mindset of the non-believer. It's not so much that I can't grasp the notion that someone could believe that there is no Creator and that there is no grand design to the universe, but rather that so many of their choices and thinking patterns seem to suggest that they believe something quite unlike that which they profess. Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level? After all, one random grouping of molecules interacting with another has no inherent meaning or value. I still await the brave soul (or neuron complex if you prefer) who will respond that I am quite correct; that no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other, that statements like "I would like to enslave all of humanity" and "I would like a chocolate bar" are functionally equivalent, and that their very own thoughts and words are intrinsically suspect as they are nothing more than some indiscriminate electro-chemical impulses. Until then, I will carry on believing that most "non-believers" actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or that they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.
Rabbi Jacobs makes his first misstep when he suggests that the very nature of non-belief requires the non-believer to concede that his or her actions and accomplishments lack meaning or value. Either Jacobs has not talked to many non-believers, or he chooses to ignore the fact that meaning does not require a creator or a religion.

Jacobs poses three questions to non-believers. He believes that the non-believers' answers to these questions will likely prove that they actually do believe in God. He says, "I posit that if you are inclined to answer any of them from a non-materialist perspective then you might secretly suspect that there are grander cosmic forces at work than those discernible on a purely empiric level, or, possibly, that you are a victim of societal programming."

What are the questions?
1. Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?

2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?

3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?
It is apparent that the good Rabbi is unable to understand that respect, compassion, empathy, heritage, ritual, morality, and pleasure can all exist outside of religion.

I'll address Jacobs' questions one at a time:

1. As a non-believer, I would not sell my parents' remains for dog food because I am an evolved human being with a strong sense of respect for family, heritage, and ritual. Do I believe that by not disposing of my parents' remains in an appropriate manner I would be punished in some metaphysical sense? No. Do I believe that my parents would be aware of my lack of respect from beyond the grave? No. Then why would I not take the materialistic route, and accept the dog food? Because -- get this -- non-believers actually are capable of placing value on non-material things. Like believers, we evolved to be ritualistic beings with a strong sense of heritage. Because humans have had rituals associated with the burial of loved ones for at least 130,000 years, and because these rituals remind us of who we are, and where we come from, we (yes, even non-believers) find comfort in these rituals. There is a psychological and emotional component to closure (obviously) that transcends religion. There are many non-religious components to a proper burial (respect, sanitation, etc.), just as there are religious components (the afterlife, etc.). These rituals, regardless of their origins, do not lose their importance if one does not believe in a supernatural being.

2. The reason I would not smash my 'hated companion' with a coconut upon hearing about the tsunami is twofold:
  • First, as a skeptic, I understand that, at times, when we attempt to predict the behavior of natural phenomena, we can be wrong. Perhaps, the tsunami will not destroy us. Perhaps, we would both find a way to survive. All humans have a survival instinct, and non-believers are not exempt from this. 
  • Secondly, this question is insane. Without the Ten Commandments as a source of morality, and without the fear of eternal hellfire, humans are still quite reluctant to murder, steal, and cause harm. This is called empathy. Lack of belief in a higher power in no way makes it okay to murder anyone, even if the world is about to end, and even if that person is a real pain in the ass. If I were to find myself in the desert island scenario, as a human being with compassion and a evolved predisposition for altruistic behavior, I would wish to comfort my fellow human being in our final hours, just as I would wish to be comforted. It would matter not that I might be rewarded in the afterlife for such compassion -- it would simply be the right thing to do. Also, there's that psychological need for closure that we were discussing above. If this particular scenario is not a good time to seek cognitive closure, I don't know what is.

3. Of course, love, art, beauty and morality are intrinsically significant. The reason that we find them significant is actually quite simple: they evoke feelings of pleasure. Humans place value on things that bring pleasure. When we are in love, when we view wonderful artistic expressions or natural beauty, or when we do good things, we feel pleasure, warmth, and appreciation. These things have value not only to us, but to others. As social beings with evolved capacities for reciprocity and compassion, we gain pleasure from producing art and music. We gain pleasure from expressing love to others, and by performing acts of kindness. Art can be a source of communication. Beauty, love, and morality enhance our lives and our well-being. I would ask you, Rabbi, why do we find expressions of love in animals? Why do birds, who have no known capacity for religious thought, sing or exhibit their beautiful plumage? All of these things you list (love, art, beauty, morality) exist in nature: apes and birds woo mates with song and beauty. They participate in altruistic behavior daily. Yet it is not required that they believe in a creator.

I find Jacobs' view of non-belief to be rather sad. It mirrors the view of many -- that without religion, life is meaningless, or that without religion, society would dissolve into barbarism, greed, and anarchy. This view shows how very little Jacobs, and those who share his views, understands about where humans came from, and how we got here. If we study the evolution of religion alongside the evolution of humans (and of societies), we learn that we were social, compassionate beings long before the God of monotheism arrived on the scene. I am not denying the role of religion in shaping humanity and society, but just as we evolved morality without the Abrahamic God, morality will continue to evolve regardless of a belief in said god. Just as polytheistic (and other pre-monotheistic) humans exhibited moral codes, a hypothetical post-Abrahamic society of the future would also exhibit moral codes. Many of these codes would certainly have ties to pre-monotheistic societies, just as many of these future codes might improve upon the sometimes barbaric and primitive moral codes of the Bible.

Jacobs concludes:
If you are willing to define the human experience as nothing more than an arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms and other blind and indifferent forces acting in concert, then at the end of the day, you necessarily concede that human emotion and experience are intrinsically meaningless. What difference, then, does it make if you (or others) choose to completely disregard concepts like kindness, decency and love? The non-believer is duty bound to say that it makes no difference whatsoever, as meaning -- in all of its varied splendor -- resides exclusively with those who acknowledge its basis. One that is neither blind nor random nor physical.

If you chose the non-materialistic answer to any of these questions (no, yes, yes) you may be more of a believer than you think.
*sigh*

Rabbi, most non-believers do not define the human experience as nothing more than arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms, etc. And those who might, are not saying in any way that human emotion and experience are intrinsically meaningless.

Science may tell us that we arrived via a series of chemical reactions, mutations, and a complex array of mechanisms. But at the end of the day, we are here, and we will do what we will do. It took us 4.5 billion years to arrive, and over the course of that amazing journey we developed the ability to create and to find meaning. We do good things because good actions promote societal cohesiveness, good-will, and ultimately, survival. We ostracize those who do bad things, such as killing others, because such behavior threatens that cohesiveness and survival. Even if we took religion completely out of the equation for everyone, most of us would still choose to do the right thing. As social beings, we want to belong. As survivalists, we want to survive and reproduce. And as empathetic beings, we want to make others happy. Because, ultimately, we want to be happy. We can't be happy when everyone is killing everyone.

The meaning of life is up to each of us. We do not have to understand where the first life came from in order to appreciate how fortunate we are to be alive. Originally, life's purpose was simply to survive, to replicate. And now, our purposes are defined by what we choose to do with our lives.



11.09.2011

Happy Birthday, Carl

Carl Sagan would have been 77 years old today.

You could do a lot worse than to spend 3 minutes and 53 seconds of your time today listening to him.


“Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision… We can recognize here a shortcoming—in some circumstances serious—in our ability to understand the world. Characteristically, we seem compelled to project our own nature onto Nature… “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy [of] the interposition of a deity,” Darwin wrote telegraphically in his notebook. “More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.”… We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves… The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall… If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?… We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable… Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop… Our commonsense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame… If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal…”

Happy Birthday, Carl.






Symphony of Science: Neil deGrasse Tyson Sings!

In the latest video from the Symphony of Science folks, we're treated to the lovely (auto-tuned) vocal stylings of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, physicist Brian Cox, and planetary scientist Carolyn Porco.

The video, "Onward to the Edge!" also features stunning visuals from My Favorite Universe, BBC's Wonders of the Solar System, and NatGeo's Traveler's Guide to the Planets.

The Symphony of Science folks describe it as: a musical investigation into the importance and inspirational qualities of space exploration (human and robotic), as well as a look at some of the amazing worlds in our solar system.

Enjoy.




The Good News - Election Edition: Science, Reason, Sanity Win In Landslide

In our ongoing, but much-too-infrequent series highlighting good news, we look at Tuesday's election results, which were resounding victories for science, reason, and sanity.

America spoke on Tuesday, and, for the most part, we were very clear in communicating that we are not as racist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-science, or as crazy, as our politicians.

A few highlights:

  • Ohio voters rejected the recent GOP-backed collective bargaining law, which would "prevent public-employee unions from collective bargaining, prohibit strikes and force teachers, police offers and firefighters to contribute a set amount toward their health benefits and pensions." (Time)
  • In Maine, voters rejected the ban on same-day voter registration, which the state's Republican Party claimed was 'gay.' (Sun Journal)
  • In North Carolina, where voters will decide on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in May, five openly gay candidates had victories. This fact should worry any Republican who thinks the May 8 amendment is in the bag. (QNotes)
  • Openly gay candidates fared well in other states as well, including races in Texas, Ohio, Montana, and Iowa. Progress. (LGBTNation)
  • Democrat Adam Ebbin became Virginia's first openly gay state senator, defeating Republican challenger Timothy McGhee by a margin of 64 percent to 35 percent. Pwned. (Washington Blade)
  • In Wake County, North Carolina, Kevin Hill defeated challenger Heather Losurdo in a contentious school board race, tipping the balance of power from the Tea Party-sympathizing Republicans, who took control in 2009 on a platform of doing away with the district's highly regarded racial and socioeconomic desegregation program. (WTVD-ABC)
  • In Arizona, the state senator who wrote Arizona's controversial immigration law was defeated in a contentious recall election. (CNN)

The message from Tuesday's election results should be pretty clear: "If you overreach, you will be punished."



In Which I Am Rankled By An Annoying Anti-Occupy Wall Street Image

An old high school acquaintance circulated an image of American soldiers carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher through a war zone. The text surrounding the image reads: "Sorry, we're too busy protecting your freedom to occupy Wall Street."


This image has circumnavigated the Internet, as such things tend to do. It usually is met with responses such as: "The OWS movement is filled with a bunch of lazy, spoiled, far-left, frauds," or "'Nuff said."

We all love these Internet-ready mini-billboards which attempt to drive home a point with an economy of words and a searing image. They can be powerful and persuasive. But this one rankled me.

To be clear, I have nothing but respect and admiration for our men and women in uniform, and for our veterans, but, one could insert any movement, cause, or daily activity in the last part of this text: 'attend your tea party,' 'walk for breast cancer,' 'vote democratic.' Sadly, we have to go about our lives here and do what we need to do, whether that's attending a football game, leading a scout troop, or exercising our right to protest.

Perhaps what this image underscores more than anything is the sad fact that no matter what is going on in the homeland, our soldiers are in foreign lands risking their lives for what are, arguably, dubious causes. (Anyone who thinks the war in Iraq is about 'our freedom' is fooling themselves.)

Undoubtedly, many of these soldiers would rather be here occupying Wall Street, like many other fine service men and women.

"For 10 years, we have been fighting wars that have enriched the wealthiest 1 percent, decimated our economy and left our nation with a generation of traumatized and wounded veterans that will require care for years to come," said Joseph Carter, a 27-year-old former Army sergeant and Iraq war veteran who marched Wednesday to Zuccotti Park.


11.08.2011

2011 American Values Survey: America Still Not Cool With Atheists

The Public Religion Research Institute has just released their 2011 American Values Survey.

While there are a lot of interesting findings, the most interesting are the findings related to voters' attitudes about the religious affiliation of potential presidential candidates.

Among the findings:

America digs a religious president
Two-thirds of voters say that it is very important (39%) or somewhat important (28%) for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. However, nearly 1-in-5 (19%) say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who had strong religious beliefs if those beliefs were very different from their own.

Suck it, atheists!
Once again, an atheist president seems to be the most universally reviled, with 67% of all voters saying they would be somewhat to very uncomfortable with an atheist in the White House. Unsurprisingly, Republicans were the most uncomfortable (80%), with 70% of Democrats and 56% of Indpendents also feeling uncomfortable with an atheist president. Americans seem to be more threatened by no religion than by religious views that lead some people to fly planes into buildings.

Not crazy about Muslims (but then again, they're no atheists)
America is slightly more comfortable with a Muslim president than they are with an atheist president, with 64% of all voters feeling uncomfortable with the idea. Republicans are the anomaly here, however, as they feel slightly more uncomfortable (81%) with the idea of a Muslim president, than they do with an atheist president (80%). The majority of Democrats and Independents are uncomfortable with a Muslim president (56% and 58%, respectively). These numbers would likely be higher if most people weren't somewhat used to Obama by now.

In Evangelicals We Trust
In contrast, an Evangelical president is much less threatening, with only 28% of all voters feeling uncomfortable (18% of Republicans, 32% of Democrats, and 31% of Independents). Americans tend to be fearful of the unknown. And while George W. Bush made many uncomfortable, it is a discomfort we are quite familiar with.


The kids are alright?
One trend that is not surprising is that millennials (18-29) seem to be much less bothered by the religious affiliations (or lack of affiliations) that bother older voters...well, except for Mormons.

A little over half (54%) of millennial voters say they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon president, compared to 39% of senior voters (65 and older).  It is unclear if millennials are simply more likely to have seen South Park, or if they are just creeped out by Glenn Beck. I mean, they are weird, right?

56% of millennials say they would feel somewhat uncomfortable with an atheist president (41% would actually feel somewhat comfortable), compared to 77% of senior voters who would feel at least somewhat uncomfortable with an atheist president (this includes the 60% who would feel VERY uncomfortable with an atheist president).

Half of millennials say they would feel at least somewhat uncomfortable with a Muslim president, with nearly as many (47%) saying they would feel somewhat comfortable. Compare that to seniors, of whom 74% would be at least somewhat uncomfortable with a Muslim president.

Progress?

There's much more to dig into, including attitudes on income equality, Obama's performance, and the current GOP candidates-in-running. View the report here (pdf).




The Call: Lou Engle's Plan To Convert Detroit's Muslims

On 11.11.11, the American evangelical firebrand Lou Engle plans on gathering thousands at Ford Field in Detroit, MI, with the hopes of converting the area's large population of Muslims to Christianity.

Who is Lou Engle?

Lou Engle is a senior leader of the International House of Prayer, a well-known Missouri-based evangelical charismatic Christian missions organization which has been called "Kansas City's biggest religious phenomenon in a century." He has been called a radical theocrat, and his sermons have been known to "venture into bloodlust." He has praised Uganda's Kill the Gays Bill.

What is The Call?

The Call is an organization which sponsors prayer meetings devoted to various evangelical causes, including abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage.
Their events feature sermons, prayer, Christian rock music, fasting, and the confessions of personal and national sins. If you are imagining Rick Perry's The Response, you're not too far off. (The International House of Prayer was one of the organizers of Perry's rally.) The Call, like Perry's prayer rally, has been endorsed by many Christian right staples, including Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins, and James Dobson.

This particular event on 11.11.11 is being held in Detroit, because, according to the organizers, it's a symbol of an America in crisis:
Detroit has become a microcosm of our national crisis—economic collapse, racial tension, and the shedding of innocent blood of our children in the streets and of our unborn.

But the place where they say there is no hope, God has chosen as His staging ground for a great communal healing and His house of prayer for all nations. Therefore, we are calling the nation to a 24-hour solemn assembly, daring to believe that Detroit’s desperation can produce a prayer that can change a nation.

Come and take your place on the wall in Detroit, where we will ask God to send fire on our hearts, to forgive our national guilt and establish justice in our land.
There's a little more to it than that, actually. Nearby Dearborn, MI, has the largest population of Muslims in America. It also is the home of the country's largest mosque. Although The Call's web site makes no overt references to Muslims, Lou Engle would like to convert these Muslims to Christianity. And what a better way to do it than through his brand of Christian love.

Right Wing Watch put together a video of "Engle, along with Rick Joyner and Jerry Boykin, who serve with Engle on The Call’s national leadership team, stating their beliefs that Islam is literally “demonic” and Muslims need to convert to Christianity."

Who wouldn't want to convert after viewing this?







11.07.2011

Mississippi's 'Personhood' Amendment Is Ludicrous (It May Be Coming to Your State, Too)

Update: The Mississippi personhood amendment was defeated on Tuesday, Nov. 8, but other efforts are underway in other states. This initiative is not going away anytime soon.
A blastocyst (aka 'person') on the tip of a pin

Mississippi is on the verge of passing a constitutional amendment that would define a person as a fertilized egg.

The so-called "personhood" amendment is on the November 8 ballot, and according to the most recent polling, it is very likely to pass.

This should be ridiculously alarming to anyone who is not completely out of touch with reality. Not only would the amendment have cascading legal implications, it would also have serious impact on the health and rights of all women. In addition, the amendment endorses all sorts of religious ideas, whether or not those are defined in the legislation.

Slate served up a slightly humorous, yet incredibly scary, list of legal questions that would arise from the legislation, including the following:
If you are legal person at fertilization, does that mean you could drink at 20 years and three months? Could you drive at 15 and three months? Could you vote at age 17, and collect Social Security at 64?

For legal purposes, would your birthday still be your “birth” day? Or your fertilization day?

Could you arrest women for smoking or drinking while pregnant? Could the state file a child abuse case against a mother who didn’t wear a seatbelt or otherwise endangered her fetus?

If a doctor doesn't take all possible steps to stop a miscarriage, would that be manslaughter?

Could you post ultrasound photos of your fetus (naked) on Facebook? Or would that be child pornography?

Would you be an American citizen if you were conceived in Mississippi but born elsewhere? Could there be “anchor babies” whose parents come to the United States, have sex, and then return home to Mexico for their baby’s birth?

If a woman eats food contaminated by Listeria and miscarries, could the agribusiness be prosecuted for murder?

What about ectopic pregnancies? If the embryo is not removed, it could kill the mother. Should the mother or the doctor be prosecuted for manslaughter if they remove it? Maybe it would be fairer to prosecute the embryo. If the fertilized egg is a person, isn't that person trying to commit murder-suicide?

Granted, some of these examples seem silly. But their ludicrousness underscores a few things: A) Such an extreme and broad amendment has huge implications on the interpretation of the law moving forward, and B) The amendment is ludicrous from the get-go.

Let's look at the human blastocyst. (By definition of the personhood amendment, a blastocyst would now constitute a person.)

Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris wrote about blastocysts in relation to the ethics of stem cell research, but his arguments are just as apt in debating 'personhood':
A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. [These] human embryos...do not have brains, or even neurons....Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter's potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. This is a fact. The argument from a cell's potential gets you absolutely nowhere.

Sure, a fertilized egg has the potential to become a human being. But we must also remember that an acorn is not a tree. It has the potential to become a tree, sure. We must take into consideration the fact that trees evolved to overcompensate -- to produce acorns that outnumber the trees that result from those acorns. This is how nature works.


Twenty percent of all pregnancies result in miscarriage. If all fertilized eggs are 'people,' then 20 percent of all people are killed before they are born. Will there be investigations to determine who was responsible for the untimely death of 1/5 of all 'people' in Mississippi? Will every woman who suffers a miscarriage be interrogated? If it was natural, is God the most prolific serial murderer in Mississippi's history?

Now that I've brought religion into the picture (how can one not?), let's look at this business of souls. Harris writes:
But let us assume, for the moment, that every three-day-old human embryo has a soul worthy of our moral concern. Embryos at this stage occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? Two embryos sometimes fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. You or someone you know may have developed in this way. No doubt theologians are struggling even now to determine what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case.

Isn't it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The naive idea of souls...is intellectually indefensible.
The vote occurring in Mississippi should be very concerning to anyone who cares about privacy, science, liberty, and the enforcement of religious ideology as law. This amendment would ban all abortions, including those that result from incest and rape. It would ban IUDs and 'morning-after pills.' It would render embryonic stem cell research illegal. It would hamper in-vitro fertilization treatment.

God granting personhood to a blastocyst (artist rendering)
And, if successful, it will serve as a template for similar amendments across the country (there are already efforts brewing in Florida, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states), and passage could fundamentally transform the entire framework of laws in each state.

But what should be most troubling about this amendment is it attempts to define legally something which has yet to be defined by science. There is no consensus whatsoever as to when 'life' begins. There is no consensus on the definition of 'life,' in reproductive terms. The legislation attempts to define life in language that is in no way scientific. What it attempts to do is say that a bolt comes down from on high at the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, and transforms it into a person.

This is supernaturalism, it's not supported by science, and it's about to become law.



Michael Shermer On The Evolutionary Roots Of Political Tribalism

Science writer and historian Michael Shermer isn't afraid to make some generalizations about people and their political ideologies. We all, more or less, belong to tribes, he says, and the characteristics are fairly easy to predict:
This is why, for example, the political beliefs of members of each party are so easy to predict. Without even knowing you, I predict that if you are a liberal you read the New York Times, listen to NPR radio, watch CNN, hate George W. Bush and loathe Sarah Palin, are pro-choice, anti-gun, adhere to the separation of church and state, are in favor of universal health care, vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich in order to level the playing field and believe that global warming is real, human caused and potentially disastrous for civilization if the government doesn’t do something dramatic and soon. By contrast, I predict that if you are a conservative you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, love George W. Bush and venerate Sarah Palin, are pro-life, anti-gun control, believe that America is a Christian nation that should meld church and state, are against universal health care, vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich and are skeptical of global warming and/or government schemes to dramatically alter our economy in order to save civilization.
Some might beg to differ. Certainly there are those of us who are moderate, who fit somewhere in the middle of these two ideological descriptions. Some of us may even find ourselves migrating from one side of the spectrum to the other over the course of our lifetime. But I'm willing to bet that, for the most part, Shermer is correct. We do tend to like to seek out information that supports our beliefs, while rejecting information which calls our beliefs into question. We all are guilty of drinking the kool-aid, to various degrees.

Shermer's predictions bring up two questions: 1) Why are we so prone to such tribalism? and 2) Why are these tribal affinities remain so predictable -- and so strong -- despite our unlimited access to information and our capacity for critical thought?

Shermer describes how this tribalism has evolutionary roots, and was crucial to our survival. He takes us back to our hominid ancestors who lived in small bands on the African Savanna:
There, in those long-gone millennia, were formed the family ties and social bonds that enabled our survival among predators who were faster, stronger, and deadlier than us: unwavering loyalty to your fellow tribesmen was a signal that they could count on you when needed. Undying friendship with those in your group meant that they would reciprocate when the chips were down. Within-group amity was insurance against the between-group enmity that characterized our ancestral past. As Ben Franklin admonished his fellow revolutionaries, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.

In this historical trajectory our group psychology evolved and along with it a propensity for xenophobia — in-group good, out-group bad. Thus it is that members of the other political party are not just wrong — they are evil and dangerous. Stray too far from the dogma of your own party and you risk being perceived as an outsider, an Other we may not be able to trust. Consistency in your beliefs is a signal to your fellow group members that you are not a wishy-washy, Namby Pamby, flip-flopper, and that I can count on you when needed.
Surely, now that we have evolved the capacity for rational thought, and live in such a racially and ideologically diverse society, we have overcome this tribal mentality, right?
Research in cognitive psychology shows, for example, that once we commit to a belief we employ the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirming evidence in support of it and ignore or rationalize away any disconfirming evidence.
Shermer describes a study conducted during the 2004 Bush-Kerry Presidential election. Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University scanned the brains of 30 men, half of which were characterized as "strong" Republicans, and half which were characterized as "strong" Democrats. These men's brains were scanned as they watched videos of both Bush and Kerry making statements which contradicted previous statements.
Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. The brain scans showed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — was quiet. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex that is involved in the processing of emotions, the anterior cingulate that is associated with conflict resolution, and the ventral striatum that is related to rewards. Roughly translated: we have an emotional reaction to conflicting data, rationalize away the parts that do not fit our preconceived beliefs about a candidate and then receive the positive reinforcement of a neurochemical hit, probably dopamine.

In other words, reasoning with facts about the issues is quite secondary to the emotional power of first siding with your party and then employing your reason, intelligence and education in the service of your political commitment.
Studies like these tend to show us what we already assume about human nature -- we have seen it enough in our own experiences. But understanding the science behind such instincts reminds us that, no matter how evolved we think we are, we are still, in many ways, quite primal.

Jesus Appears In Foyer Of Mississippi Home


Ruth Mersenski and her daughter Sandra have been opening their doors for strangers lately. They are all coming to see Jesus.

The Mississippi family says that the image of Christ appeared above their doorway after they had their foyer painted.

The painter, Wendy Brady, finished the job using a technique she calls 'Mississippi Mud. When Brady wiped a colored glaze from the textured compound, all three women recognized the familiar face that was left behind.

"It's as if the image of Jesus is keeping watch over their front door," Baker said. "I'm just the vessel, so what it's meant to me is the joy that it has brought other people...You don't have to guess when you see it. You know what you're looking at."

Surely, this divine simulacrum means something. When asked about the meaning of the phenomena, Mersenski replied, "I'm sure that it came with some purpose, and we have yet to do is find out what that purpose is."