Scientific American has an article about atheists and trust

January 18, 2012

Specifically how we aren’t generally trusted. According to the article, Will Gervais, Ara Norenzayan and colleagues at the University of British Columbia sorted through the results of several different studies showing how atheists tend to be the least trusted groups. For their study, they hypothesized that awareness of secular authority figures might be able to improve that.

In one study, they had people watch either a travel video or a video of a police chief giving an end-of-the-year report. They then asked participants how much they agreed with certain statements about atheists (e.g., “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”) In addition, they measured participants’ prejudice towards other groups, including Muslims and Jewish people. Their results showed that viewing the video of the police chief resulted in less distrust towards atheists. However, it had no effect on people’s prejudice towards other groups. From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.

The article goes on to note the predilection for atheism in some European countries. The Scandinavian area sounds like a haven for atheists and the suggestion is that confidence in a country’s government, especially ones “that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens” means people might rely less on faith in God to get through their lives feeling cared for.

After that, the article links to a brief summary of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology where people had been given two versions of a fake news story. One reported Canada’s political situation as stable and the other did not. When questioned later, those who read about instability were more likely to give God, or some other force, credit for controlling the universe. I don’t pay enough attention to the politics of my country but I know voter turnout is fairly low in most elections and some chunks of the country are right up there with the worst the American bible belt has to offer.

To my way of thinking, people are used to calling their conscience God rather than give themselves the credit for knowing the right thing to do when the time comes. Maybe they trust themselves even less than they trust atheists but just never look at it that way. When I was a kid, I didn’t need to think a god was watching; I was pretty sure my mother was. A god would punish me in the afterlife but Mom could shout at me mere moments after doing wrong. My conscience developed from a lot of lessons on what not to do and having parents who’d demonstrate proper behaviour every day I was around them. That kind of teaching stuck with me.

It’s good to see atheist groups rallying around charities and demonstrating just how wrong assumptions about us can be, just like any stereotype of a minority group. On an individual basis, we should probably all do more and find ways to give back to our communities. I know I don’t do enough of that. Aside from donating clothes and household items once in a while, I don’t do a hell of a lot to help others. And yes, I do start to feel a bit guilty about that. The conscience is fully functional when it comes to the “ought”s.

So, thoughts? What steps do you take to make your mark and be a better person?


Old news: why atheists celebrate Christmas

January 3, 2012

For the next few weeks I’m going to be catching up on some links I’d saved throughout December on account of my broken wrist; that, coupled with general laziness and craving more quality time with the Man, made updating this blog something of a low priority. First up, a December 5th article out of Live Science. It focuses on a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Researchers used results from an earlier survey of elite U.S. universities and their science departments and pulled 275 of the 2,198 respondents to be their sample. In the original survey, about half of the scientists had declared themselves religious but they noticed that some of the ones who declared themselves atheist were still willing to spend time in church and the like.

The atheist parents surveyed had multiple reasons for attending religious services in the absence of religious belief. Some said their spouse or partner was religious, and encouraged them to go to services as well. Others said they enjoyed the community that attending a church, mosque, temple or other religious institution can bring.

Perhaps most interesting, Ecklund said, was that many atheist scientists take their children to religious services so that the kids can make up their own mind about God and spirituality.

“We thought that these individuals might be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions, but we found the exact opposite to be true,” Ecklund said. “They want their children to have choices, and it is more consistent with their science identity to expose their children to all sources of knowledge.”

I don’t know if I would have thought that was “most interesting” but whatever. I can see it as making sense, though. To limit kids and never expose them to the other side of the belief coin would make an atheist parent just as out-of-touch and fundamentalist as the worst of the religionists. In order for a person to make a real choice, choices have to be made available. In the article they use an example from the study of a man who’d been Catholic. He later decided religion and science weren’t compatible enough to keep that up but has chosen to let his child experience Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism, too. He’d rather she be equipped to make an informed choice later rather than insist only his way is right.

I’ve wondered how I’d deal with that were I in a parenting position. I think I’d wind up modifying what my dose of religious studies taught me in terms of the sheer variety of belief out there. Some people think this way, some think that way, these ones don’t get along at all because they each claim the same slab of rock as having religious significance and nobody is entirely sure who found it first. Here’s what seems to be the best of what they have to offer and here’s the stuff that made me question why…

I don’t recall asking my parents about this thing called God when I was a kid. I went to Catholic school and mass every week with classmates but there wasn’t much at home to encourage more than the bare minimum in terms of that business. They let me spend many Saturdays with my cousin and her church-going parents but I don’t recall many Sunday school excursions with her so I don’t think I was allowed much in the way of overnights. (Not necessarily for that reason, mind you. My early morning habits started pretty damn young and most of my cousins were weekend layabouts by preference.)

I don’t know if I’d want to set a kid up by saying, “There absolutely is no god and anyone who tells you different is deluded.” I see the overall value of believing in something bigger than we are, but I’d quibble on the need to name that inner need “God” and anthropomorphize it into a vast supernatural creature capable of giving a damn. The universe is already bigger than we are and most of us don’t stand around expecting it to notice us and give out hugs. No treats expected for the best behaved — unless you count those who still buy into karma.

Maybe it’d be worthwhile to transform the god crap into a belief that compassion truly has the power trump greed and villainy. That winds up being a basis for some of the better beliefs already out there anyway. Promote the belief that most people do want to be good and helpful instead of selfish and arrogant S.O.B’s all the time. Maybe they just never learned how and could benefit from a new approach. Maybe they learned the wrong lessons from their past actions or failed to get encouragement when the opportunity arose to make the more humane decision. Plus, some people get a skewed idea of what a reward for effort ought to look like. Sometimes it ought to look like a smile instead of dollar sign, for one thing. More could be done to support that outcome, I think, and in better ways than “You’ll go to hell otherwise.”

To end, to end.. how to end. I guess I end by saying that we need to do whatever is necessary in terms of bettering ourselves and our children. If making room for religious experiences helps with that a little, then make a little room for it. And we can all hope that at some point maybe people won’t need that step anymore.


“Scientists say Turin Shroud is supernatural” — what kind of scientists…

December 20, 2011

…would suggest something like that? The Independent has the story:

Italian government scientists have claimed to have discovered evidence that a supernatural event formed the image on the Turin Shroud, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

After years of work trying to replicate the colouring on the shroud, a similar image has been created by the scientists.

However, they only managed the effect by scorching equivalent linen material with high-intensity ultra violet lasers, undermining the arguments of other research, they say, which claims the Turin Shroud is a medieval hoax.

Good gravy. Two years ago it was other Italian scientists that proved it could be duplicated a lot easier than that. Curse those bloody scientists! Can’t they see that all this waffling confuses a public already tending toward lower scientific awareness? Who are they supposed to believe?!

Which begs the question, why the desire to prove their faith can be backed up by scientific evidence? I thought the whole point of faith was to believe without needing proof.

Another question comes to mind, why get “government scientists” involved with that kind of ridiculous make-work project? Aren’t there better uses for government money that would result in.. well, useful results for the world at large, or at least Italy? Why piss around trying to prove the shroud’s validity? It’s such a waste of time and resources. And money. So much money.


If you disagree with your church, why are you in it?

June 10, 2011

A survey from the Public Religion Research Institute was just released indicating that many Americans are willing to ignore what their church leaders preach against homosexuality and abortion.

The report focused on the views of millennials (people ages 18-29) and found that they are more supportive than their parents of gay marriage. Their views on abortion closely mirror their parents, however, with six in 10 saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Also, most millennials — 68 percent — think at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions.

Some of the difference comes down to how people interpret the bible. around 60% of those who claim it’s direct from God still think abortion is sinful and deserves to be illegal and around 80% of those who believe men alone are responsible for the books support the opposite. The article doesn’t note how many of the 3000 surveyed were in either camp, sadly.

I’m curious about that 80% and why they’d be comfortable staying with a church and a religion that preaches the opposite of what they believe is morally and ethically sound. Would anyone sit in a church and let their minister drone on about following biblical teachings that approve of slavery? Does the desire for camaraderie and charity work eclipse whatever junk might come out of the mouth of the guy up front? If they don’t take those sermons to heart, are they making any effort to loudly defend the opposite position in some way? Or do they just sit in church every week filing their nails and perusing the hymnals while everyone else in the room nods in agreement?

Maybe change would happen faster if more people stood up together to demand it. Why not oust the throwbacks and dark age dreamers? Failing that, why not just leave and take the money that would have gone to the church and donate to Planned Parenthood or a gay rights group? Why not put the money to better use and help fund a group you do agree with? Why give any support to an organization that runs contrary to current secular notions about human rights?

I doubt these people stay in church because the potlucks and flea markets are just too much fun to abandon, so what’s the real draw? Do they think they have a better understanding of Christ’s “true” intent for humanity? Is that what gives them the “power” to disregard what their old-fashioned leaders might say about these issues? It might not matter what they think if they never bother to speak up against what’s probably the majority in their congregation. So I ask again, why bother staying?


Victim of “God” gets minor payback

May 25, 2011

What is it about the way we organize our societies for why women wind up thinking that plastic surgery is the only way they’ll get anywhere? Of course, when studies keep popping up that show correlation between weight and money-making, small wonder women willingly go under a knife to “improve” themselves for their jobs.

Back in February I wrote about Penny Johnson, the British woman who opted to sue her plastic surgeon after botched facial work left her nerve damaged and emotionally and financially crippled by her loss of looks.

I pointed this out last time and I say again: she did not have to say yes to anything Le Roux Fourie suggested she do. She went in expecting to fix the bags under her eyes and change her nose a little and Fourie pounced on the chance to get more money from her with extra, unasked for procedures. And, it turns out she totally bought his spiel about needing a breast enhancement on top of it all, which he managed to screw up, too.

Johnson asked the court for £54 million, what she thought was a good approximation of income lost on account of her failed business and half the shares. In the end, she got a fraction of that. Mr Justice Owen

awarded a total of £80,000 damages for the facial disfigurement, the asymmetry and pain caused by the breast surgery and the psychological consequences of the injuries, and more than £6m for past and future loss of earnings.

Assessing Mrs Johnson’s claim for loss of earnings, the judge said it was clear she had persuaded herself that its prospects were far better than could realistically be justified.

“She has understandably become preoccupied by what might have been, which has affected her judgment as to what could and would in reality have been achieved,” he said.

He’s probably right about that, but I’m sure it’s a blow for Johnson. She’s living in a world where it seems like a woman’s image is everything, where vanity is rewarded. It might not matter how confident she can be about her job skills if she can’t be confident about her looks.

Hell of a system.


“is it true that people who go to church have better sex lives”

May 24, 2011

The question turned up in the list of search engine terms that can lead to my blog. Looks like it connected with the post I wrote about a church whose pastor was keen on encouraging sex between married couples to improve their relationships.

It was in Joplin, Missouri. I’d make jokes about God approving of married couple sex for why Ignite Church withstood that tornado when so many other parts of Joplin fell, but instead I’ll just inform readers that they’re open as a relief shelter. Tornadoes are not the product of God’s judgement on anyone’s love life.

Religiously inspired guilt is all you need, apparently.

The findings emerged in the ‘Sex and Secularism’ survey of more than 14,500 people carried out by psychologist Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown from Kansas University.

All of the people who were questioned were found to have sex around the same number of times a week. They also became sexually active at similar ages.

But devoutly religious people rated their sex lives far lower than atheists. They also admitted to strong feelings of guilt afterwards.

Strict religions such as Mormons ranked highest on the scale of sexual guilt. Their average score was 8.19 out of 10. They were followed closely behind by Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and Baptist.

Catholics rated their levels of sexual guilt at 6.34 while Lutherans came slightly lower at 5.88 . In contrast, atheists and agnostics ranked at 4.71 and 4.81 respectively.

Subjective rating, of course. Can’t really measure yourself against someone else’s experience unless everyone gets wired up and computer-tracked. That’s assuming guilt lights up the brain in some obvious and telling way, too.

For some respondents, the most guilt came from specific sexual tasks (i.e. masturbating) rather than the activity on the whole. Others admitted that they’d turned to pornography for clues rather than try to talk about sex with their parents. The survey also uncovered something probably not that surprising. Those religious folks who later became atheist were able to shed a lot of that guilt.

People who had left their beliefs behind said their sex lives were ‘much improved’ and rated their new experiences on average as 7.81 out of ten.

The finding dispelled conventional wisdom that feelings of guilt can continue to trouble people after the religion has faded.

‘We did think that religion would have residual effects in people after they left but our data did not show this. That was a very pleasant surprise. The vast majority seem to shake it off and get on with their sexual lives pretty well,’ Darrel told alternet.org.

Greta Christina’s article goes into a lot more detail about that little tidbit but notes that the survey takers in this case “aren’t statistically representative of the population.” Atheists may have found out about the survey via Pharyngula, or some other pro-atheist venue and thus skewed the results. (I’m trying to recall if I was one of them. I have enough trouble remembering last week, let alone January.) Even so, she writes, similar research done in other, better ways have led to similar results so there’s no reason to discount Darrel Ray’s findings here.

According to the report, religion has essentially no effect on people’s actual sexual behavior. Atheists and believers engage in the same practices, at basically the same rate, starting at essentially the same age. We’re all doing pretty much the same stuff. Believers just feel worse about it. As Ray told me, “Our data shows that people feel very guilty about their sexual behavior when they are religious, but that does not stop them: it just makes them feel bad. Of course, they have to return to their religion to get forgiveness. It’s like the church gives you the disease, then offers you a fake cure.”

But as we see, it’s a cycle that can be broken. This is good news.


Are prophecies more likely to appeal to gamblers?

May 17, 2011

I don’t have any stats to back that up but it’d be interesting to investigate, wouldn’t it? Maybe someone qualified will consider tracking that after May 21st. If researchers go back into the lives of people fleeced (and possibly bankrupted) by Harold Camping’s latest idiocy, I wonder how many of them would have a history of monetary risk taking, or risk taking in general.

I found an article at the Vancouver Sun noting work done in the 1950s by a psychologist named Leon Festinger, who had an opportunity to study a different end times cult. I can’t recall if his name ever came up in my university Psych classes but I was also in the habit of ditching them for coffee with a friend instead so who knows. Anyway, he and his team determined that cognitive dissonance had a big part to play in a person’s ability to buy into beliefs anyone else might scoff at. Why? Because when those beliefs fail to deliver the expected results, hard-core followers don’t usually conclude that they’ve been betrayed. They’ll find a way to rationalize it, turn it around, and stay positive. Again, and again, and again. It’s not even limited to prophecies. People rethink and reanalyze this way on a daily basis to justify any number of bad/sudden decisions.

Which is why I thought about problem gamblers who expect their luck to turn “any minute now” rather than conclude the game is rigged for failure and quit playing. Maybe playing this prophecy game is evidence of impulse control issues, too. Studies done with rats have found links between good decision making and serotonin levels, comparable to what humans experience in gambling situations.

Believing we stand at the end of the world is a hell of a gamble and it’s not going to pay off for anyone.


“It’s natural to believe in God”

May 12, 2011

It’s also natural to crap where we’re standing but most of us adults have the sphincter control to hold it in until we can make it to a bathroom.

The post title comes from an article about the results of a research project.

Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God and life after death, according to a three-year international research project directed by two academics at the University of Oxford.

The 1.9 million pounds project involved 57 researchers who conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures. The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in God and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind, a university release said.

The study wasn’t on the hunt for proof of god. The ambition was find out if we learn to believe, or if the ability to believe is innate within us.

The findings are due to be published in two separate books by psychologist Dr Barrett in Cognitive Science, Religion and Theology and Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion.

The studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett suggest that children below the age of five find it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box in which she could not see.

Children aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four, children start to understand that their mothers are not all-seeing and all knowing.

However, children may continue to believe in all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a God or Gods.

And it’s noted that research on adults out of China and Belfast suggested that belief in an afterlife is instinctual. The books they’ll release about this research might be worth looking for. Quoting Project Director Dr Justin Barrett, from Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind:

Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to cooperate as societies.

“Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.”

But, Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg, also at Oxford, figures that since the mental habits of religion can be found all over the world, ridding the world of religion is a pipe dream and unlikely to occur.

“This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or Gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.”

We’ve evolved to want to believe in something. It won’t matter how many organized religions might dwindle, the urge to create images of gods in our minds and share them with others will keep going on.

Assuming the Rapture doesn’t solve this problem for us on the 21st…


“He is never late, His timing is always perfect”

May 9, 2011

Makes God sound a bit like Gandalf:

A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.

The title is a direct quote from a press release and has little to do with what follows. All bold is in the original.

God will test us to see how much we are trusting in Him to do what He said He will do for us that is recorded in the Bible. Are you passing the test?

James 1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

James 1:12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

2 Corinthians 2:9 Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything.

Trust that he’ll turn up eventually, is the point, I guess. Like Waiting for Godot.

This is the lead up to the promotion of a couple books by Michael Anthony Gagliardi, called A Divine Connection With A Message From God Volume I & II. Hardly gripping titles, but once you start reading them, don’t you dare quit. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial…” after all.

The author connects the widespread job losses, home foreclosures, and financial struggles characteristic of our times with maladies such as anxiety, depression, worry, sickness and even thoughts of suicide, affecting both Christians and non-Christians alike.

I’m not sure if this was supposed to startle people or not. We already know that job loss is depressing and stressful. We already know the threat of foreclosure is a cause of worry and anxiety. We know both of those have a bigger risk of happening if there is a health issue in play and that person has shitty access to affordable healthcare. And it’s quite likely many suicides occur on account of debt. I remember that feeling, that sense of hopelessness and fear about never getting out from under it. It was not a good feeling.

We’ve also designed a society that puts tremendous pressure on people in terms of performance and perfection. Never mind economic issues, just think about all the personal stress we’ll put ourselves under to conform, achieve, diet or change everything else about ourselves in order to fit someone else’s assumption of what we should want to be. What we think we have to live up to. Goals we think we should have. Status and recognition we think we deserve, with or without effort put in to earn it.

We have a tendency to not make things easy on ourselves. A lot of us are overscheduled. Sadly, a lot of parents have done the same bad turn to their kids, too. A lot of parents have made it worse by thinking that the only way kids can be happy is if they’re always given everything they want on top of it. Then there are the groups who are always on the look out for danger in the innocuous, stripping the fun out of things we know were fun as kids don’t dare to let kids do now.

Ever wonder why? I sure as hell do. From not letting kids try a toboggan at school to not letting them play sports in a park because they just might trip on a rock or something, it’s ludicrous is what it is. I’ll quote a bit from a Salon piece called The war on children’s playgrounds:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued reams of playground regulations and actually gone so far as to recommend against “tripping hazards, like tree stumps and rocks.” Maybe we should just bulldoze the local parks and put in a couple of blobs — this time, made of plastic.

The idea, of course, is that playgrounds need constant overhauling because kids are hurting themselves unnecessarily. But that depends on your definition of “unnecessary.”

“Children rise to risk,” says Joan Almon, executive director of the U.S. Alliance for Childhood. “Give them some genuine risk and they quickly learn what their limits are, and then they expand their limits.” The problem is: If kids never encounter even tiny risks, they never develop that thing we call common sense.

They may never develop decent motor skills, either. I found an About piece that reports on a study done in 2010 by Ohio State University professor Jackie Goodway and her colleagues. Using a standardized locomotor test, they recorded the skill levels of 469 kids from urban, state-funded preschools meant to serve the “disadvantaged” youth. Disadvantaged is an understatement.

An astonishing 86 percent of the children in the study scored below the 30th percentile of children nationwide, which is considered developmentally delayed. It puts them at a greater risk for obesity, says Goodway. “These fundamental motor skills–running and catching and throwing and kicking–are the movement ABCs,” Goodway said in a press release issued by Ohio State. “If children don’t learn the ABCs, they can’t read. And if they don’t learn basic motor skills they won’t participate in sports or exercise.”

How many of those kids are going to get enough encouragement from parents, teachers and mentors to persevere and overcome that monstrous setback? It will take more than faith in Jesus, that’s for damn sure.

To finish on track with the original intent here, I quote the press release again:

for Christians who truly understand the power of redemption, it doesn’t have to be that way: “God’s people do not need to be in a constant worry, fear or a panic state of mind because the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross at Calvary offers victory over every situation we face here on earth,” says Gagliardi, whose own home was in foreclosure while he wrote the book. “With Jesus Christ, complete victory is completely possible.”

And have proceeds from his books paid the debt on his house now? The press release doesn’t say. It takes more than faith in Jesus to pay off a house, too, obviously. I’ll bet a cookie Gagliardi worried a little about the possibility of losing it. Maybe prayer (and book sales) eased his worries but, truth be told, a little worry can be a good thing. It can prompt you to get off your ass and do something to fix the problem so you won’t have to worry about it anymore. You can’t aim to persevere at something if you never get around to starting in the first place.


51% is not most; barely half of those surveyed believed in a god

April 27, 2011

18% are reported to have no beliefs of that nature and the rest (17%) remain undecided, according to a recent survey done in Britain that spanned 23 countries and polled over 18,000 people. Similar results occurred with questions about an afterlife. From the Christian Post:

According to the survey, “definitive belief in a God or Supreme Being” is highest in Indonesia (93 percent) and Turkey (91 percent), followed by Brazil (84 percent), South Africa (83 percent) and Mexico (78 percent). Those most likely to believe in “many Gods or Supreme Beings” live in India (24 percent), China (14 percent) and Russia (10 percent).

People who don’t believe in God or a Supreme Being(s) are most likely to live in France (39 percent), Sweden (37 percent), Belgium (36 percent), Great Britain (34 percent), Japan (33 percent) and Germany (31 percent).

They add a few more stats, like 13% of Hungarians think reincarnation is likely and Swedes were more likely than anyone to admit ignorance when guessing about the afterlife. Of those surveyed, South Korea and Spain had the highest ratings for belief that people “simply cease to exist.”

They also noted some stats for creationism and evolution:

41 percent believe in human evolution, 28 percent believe in creationism and 31 are uncertain of what to believe in.

Creationism, or the belief that human beings were in fact created by a spiritual force such as the God, is strongest in Saudi Arabia (75 percent), Turkey (60 percent), Indonesia (57 percent), and South Africa (56 percent).

It certainly makes a difference where a person is raised, educated, and living when it comes to this stuff. Sweden, China, Belgium, Germany and Japan topped the list for countries with more acceptance of evolution, with more than 60% of those surveyed. Sadly, neither the Post or MSNBC note how Canadians rated. I only found one mention in Mother Nature Network:

Mexicans were the most likely to accept the idea of an afterlife, but not heaven or hell, followed by Russians, Brazilians, Indians, Canadians and Argentines.


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