psychology

Give us your misogynists and bigots

Dawkins on the Poaching Pope. "Whether one agrees with him or not, there is a saintly quality in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a benignity of countenance, a well-meaning sincerity." How strident!
(tags: richard-dawkins catholicism religion christianity anglicanism pope)

Triple negatives and Conservapedia’s support for Hitler « Gowers’s Weblog

Gowers shows that Conservapedia's article on Richard Dawkins proves that Conservapedia is evil, using MATHS.
(tags: funny mathematics maths conservapedia richard-dawkins morality)

Out of LSD? Just 15 Minutes of Sensory Deprivation Triggers Hallucinations

Interesting stuff. Reminded me of Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World", where he talks about how common hallucinations are.
(tags: psychology science hallucinations wired brain neuroscience)

What Is Evil For The Darwinist, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan posts some well-reasoned letters from readers on the question of what a non-theist would call "evil" (presumably responses to the old "how can you say God is evil when you don't have a basis for morality?" question). Bizarrely, he then describes them as showing "contempt" for religion. There's no pleasing some people. The letters are good, anyway.

seek and ye shall find…. but what?

“If you REALLY had been a Christian you would have never de-converted.” vs the observation that many de-converts are former Christian ministers.
(tags: de-conversion religion christianity)

Buddhism and the God-idea

Interesting. I liked: "Whether we call those superior beings gods, deities, devas or angels is of little importance, since it is improbable that they call themselves by any of those names."
(tags: buddhism god religion)

Why it’s so hard to quantify false rape charges. – By Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore – Slate Magazine

False accusations probably account for 8 to 10% of all accusations, though the research isn't conclusive, and it's not clear how this compares to false reporting of other crimes. Interesting story about the falsely accused man who found support from his girlfriend who had been raped some time ago: emotions were similar on both sides.
(tags: feminism research rape crime)

Justice with Michael Sandel – Home

Harvard has put Michael Sandel's justly popular "Justice" course on the web. Well worth watching.
(tags: education philosophy morality ethics video community politics harvard justice)

Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermaneutics

Susan Wise Bauer in Christianity Today, writing about Peter Enns, who noticed that the NT authors don't interpret the OT the way evangelicals would. I liked this bit: "This is the exactly the kind of exegesis that terrifies most evangelicals. The man who admits that meanings can be "read into" Scripture stands on the fabled slippery slope, right above a sheer drop-off, while below him churns a sea of relativism, upon which floats only a single overloaded lifeboat, captained by a radical feminist gay & lesbian & transgender activist who is very anxious to make the final decision about who gets pitched overboard."
(tags: bible hermaneutics peter-enns christianity religion paul old-testament)

What’s so great about being an ex-Christian? Intellectual integrity.

This sounds familiar.
(tags: ex-christian de-conversion atheism christianity religion)

Omnipresent G-d (LORD_YHWH) on Twitter

God's on Twitter, with some new commandments. I don't know why these atheists complain about divine hiddeness. "My word is a knife made white by heat, such as that which one uses to cut pastrami." – wisdom for us all there.
(tags: god yhwh religion funny satire christianity judaism twitter)

Science, Pseudoscience and Bollocks

An interesting essay which talks about the demarcation problem in science and argues that we should be against creation science because it's wrong, not try to argue about what science is. I'm shocked he referred to a Christian belief as "bollocks". I got told off for that once.
(tags: bollocks science pseudoscience epistemology empiricism logical-positivism karl-popper popper creationism dover)

Thunderbirds will grow a generation of mad engineers

FAB, Mr Ellis.
(tags: warren-ellis thunderbirds tv)

On The Possible God Of Philosophy And Cosmology Vs. The Personal, Historical God Of Faith

Camels With Hammers links to Dennett's remarks on hearing William Lane Craig's cosmological argument, and then talks about the gap between the source of the universe (which we should properly be agnostic about) and the gods of major religions.
(tags: daniel-dennett dennett william-lane-craig craig cosmology kalam philosophy physics)

Rock-Bottom Loser Entertaining Offers From Several Religions | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Cruel but funny
(tags: onion religion funny satire humour)

“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Greta Christina talks about "other ways of knowing" and their uses, as applied to the theism/atheism debate.
(tags: religion epistemology science atheism greta-christina empiricism)

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

Peter Watts gives his grand theory for why religion hasn't died out. It's all about preventing free-loading once societies get above a certain size.
(tags: peter-watts religion evolution sarah-palin politics psychology signalling)

Whence Rationality?

Some responses to the evolutionary argument against naturalism. The point that evolution is unlikely to come up with the sort of elaborate errors Plantinga mentions is new to me.

Richard Beck, an Associate Professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, writes a blog called Experimental Theology. It’s full of his research and his reflections on the psychology of religion, and is well worth reading. Beck, a Christian himself, is happy to use psychological tools to study belief.

Beck recently finished a series of posts entitled The Varieties & Illusions of Religious Experience. In this series, he talks about two ideas of the psychological purpose of religion, those of Sigmund Freud and William James, and relates the results of some experiments he did to test these ideas.

Tell me about your mother

Freud wrote a book called The Future of an Illusion. In it, Freud argues that religion is a narcotic, not in the social sense of Marx’s famous saying, but rather, psychologically. Religion provides consolation in the face of uncertainity and death. In describing this psychological purpose, Freud does not argue that this means religion is necessarily false (see logical rudeness), but he says (and Beck agrees) that this consolation is suspicious: “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he speaks of healthy-minded believers and of sick souls. The healthy-minded believer is an optimist, who lives by “averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good”. There are good things to say about living like this, but ultimately, James thinks healthy-mindedness functions as an anaesthetic. In this, James’s view of the healthy-minded believer is similar to Freud’s view of all believers. But James doesn’t stop there. Sick souls, he says, don’t find consolation in religion and are convinced that “the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart”. For Beck, the laments found in some of the Psalms come from sick souls. Beck cites Mother Theresa, whose letters show she felt a spiritual emptiness for much of her life, as another example.

Is Freud right? Experiments done to investigate Terror Management Theory suggest he is. Christians were primed to think about their own deaths and then ask to evaluate essays they were told were written by a Christian and a Jew. They were significantly more likely to denigrate the Jewish author than Christians who evaluated the essays without the death priming. In the face of death, believers exhibit what the theorists call “worldview defence”.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor

But, says Beck, these experiments failed to distinguish the healthy and the sick believers. If James is right and the sick souls exist, they should be less likely to defend their worldviews when primed with thoughts of death. Beck came up with what he calls the Defensive Theology Scale, a set of questions designed to rate how much Christians think God gives special insight and protection, answers even mundane prayers, and guides events in their lives. People who have these consoling beliefs score highly, and are healthy-minded, in James’s terminlogy, or Summer Christians, in Beck’s. It turns out that when the death priming experiment was re-run, high DTS scores correlated with worldview defence in the face of death. The sick souls, those Beck calls the Winter Christians, did not react like their Summer counterparts: they didn’t feel the need to defend their worldview even when primed to think of death.

There’s much more in Beck’s essays (for example, the correlation between healthy-mindedness and belief in an active Satan), but you should read them for yourselves.

Worshipping tables

Reading Beck’s stuff, I’d classify my former belief as healthy-minded or Summery. It’s pretty hard for an evangelical to be anything else: sick souls don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, and aren’t inclined to blame sin and Satan when things get tough in their faith. Perhaps there’s some lingering remnant of evangelicalism in me, because I can’t quite see the point of being a sick soul and still being part of a worshipping community, even if you’ve had a religious experience which leads you to think there’s a God. Terry Pratchett writes that witches don’t believe in gods in the same way that they don’t believe in, say, tables: they know they exist and have a purpose, but don’t feel the need to go around saying “O mighty table, without whom we are naught”. God seems inscrutable to Winter Christians, so, as Daniel Fincke asks, Why worship someone with mysterious motives? (in the posting, we also see the important contribution of Chef from South Park to defeating various Christian theodicies). I’ll have to read more of Beck’s old posts to see whether he addresses the question of what motivates Winter Christians.

I did a reasonable amount of holiday reading in Mallorca, in between walking along the front and falling asleep on the sofa.

Jed Rubenfield’s The Interpretation of Murder is one of those murder mysteries using historical characters, which are popular at the moment (if you like them, Giles Brandreth has done a couple of good ones where Oscar Wilde fights crime). In this book, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York in 1909 and are soon caught up in the investigation of a murder and a very similar assault, where the victim survives but can’t remember her attacker.

The book evokes the New York of the era convincingly, a bustling and corrupt city. Modern New York is coming into being: the builders of skyscrapers are vying for superiority, while cars are beginning to replace horse-drawn carriages on the streets. Rubenfield has obviously researched the details, down to the colour of the taxi cabs.

This isn’t a ghastly “Freud and Jung: together they fight crime” story (with car chases), but rather a weaving of their theories and disagreements into the plot, transplanting real debates to the time of their real visit to the USA (although the crime is fictional). With Freud it’s all about sex and death, and so it is with the book, which makes it perfect holiday reading.

John Irving’s Until I find you has all his signature tropes: the wrestling, the young man sexually initiated by older women, the death of a family member, the bizarre and sometimes hilarious set-pieces involving sex or death which make it perfect holiday reading (maybe not quite all the tropes: I don’t think this book had any bears in it). Initially, the book follows the toddler Jack Burns, illegitimate son of an organist and choir girl, as he and his mother trek around Europe in pursuit of his father. Jack’s mum is a tattooist, so we get an insight into the odd world of tattoo parlours, as well as a tour of Europe’s great church organs. Jack’s settled in a girls school, before training as an actor and eventually making his way to Hollywood. Eventually, he sets off again in search of his father, realising that things weren’t quite as they appeared to his younger self.

To say the book is about memory and loss makes it sound terribly portentous and gloomy, but it’s neither. Irving’s an accomplished story-teller, whose work reads to me as if it was made to be read aloud, with the author interjecting asides as the story unfolds. The humour and sadness of the book arises from events described in a straightforward way, without embarrassment or embellishment. I remain a fan.

Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was a bit a curate’s egg. It’s another book which explores memory, this time in the most direct way, following the narrator, Yambo, as he recovers from a stroke which has caused his episodic memory to fail him. Yambo is a book dealer, and still remembers things he’s read. He tries to construct a past for himself, turning to his family and friends, and then to his childhood house, full of the books, records and comics he had as a child. Like Irving’s protagonist searching for his father as an adult, the return of Yambo’s memories in the latter part of the book causes him to re-interpret what he thought he knew about his past.

Yambo was a child during the Second World War, so the book focuses on the rise of fascism in Italy and the necessity to appear to be going along with it, even while resisting privately. The war stories were the most interesting part of the book for me. There’s an awful lot of examination of Yambo’s comics and storybooks which I didn’t care that much for, formative though they were to his character, and the ending left me unsatisfied.

Jan Mark’s The Eclipse of the Century came with a recommendation from Philip Pullman on the cover, so I thought it’d be worth a go. The protagonist, Keith, has a near death experience, but instead of seeing heaven, he sees Quantoum, a remote town in Central Asia. Once he’s well again, he decides to go there. Walking down the disused railway track, he finds a ghost town, abandoned by imperial powers. What remains is a museum inhabited by a bunch of oddballs and deserters of various armies, and the camp of the Sturyat tribe, nomads with a strange religion.

Keith’s arrival and his struggle to work out who’s who are a little slow, as everyone is deliberately obscure in a way which makes the story longer, even the people who don’t really have a reason to hide things from Keith. As things start to get weird, Mark picks up the pace, making it a more satisfying read. There’s some fun mockery of New Age woo-woo in there, too. Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly in the middle of the denouement without resolving what’s going on. I wondered whether there were pages missing from my copy, but I don’t think there were. You’ve got enough clues to figure out what might possibly be happening, but to cut off at that point left me unsatisfied with the book, alas.

Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker‘s del.icio.us feed or something.

Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking

Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:

“We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever,” says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. “You’re trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You’re trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That’s hard work.” In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, “growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world.”

That sounds sort of familiar. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.

The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it’s clear that cleanness (in the Bible’s sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There’s possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).

Old interview with Philip Pullman

Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It’s the origin of one of his statements on whether he’s an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:<lj-cut text=”The quote”>

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This isn’t really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill’s discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren’t ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there’s no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I’m not sure why you’d bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God’s inability to keep his story straight.

The walls have Google

The thing about blogging is that you never know who’s reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling’s response to Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.

(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).

“Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice”

Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to “not”. Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.

A while ago I found a blog posting by someone who’d experienced sleep paralysis. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (it happened to me a few times when I was a kid): you’re asleep, you partially wake up, but find yourself unable to move, and often feel there’s something evil in the room with you, possibly crushing you. The poster didn’t know what was going on. She was terrified, thinking that someone or something had attacked her while she slept. My own comment explaining sleep paralysis came in the middle of a bunch of similar comments. I hope we reassured her.

When I was younger, I think I’d worked out that the feeling of being unable to move meant I wasn’t fully awake, so I should concentrate on trying to move and discount the sensed presence and crushing feelings until my body came back under my control. This was confirmed years later when I read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which Sagan describes sleep paralysis and theorises that it’s behind some modern “alien abduction” experiences, as well as older beliefs like the old hag. This sort of explanation is all to the good. The world has enough real scary things in it without making up more of them.

So, when I happened across a stupid_free posting mocking some teenage witches complaining that their spirit summoning spells don’t work, I was annoyed to see some commenters saying that these neophytes should be careful with the summoning, because you don’t know what you’ll get. The commenters were telling the teenagers to leave the summoning spells to pagans with more experience points (who get better Will saves). I thought that spoof Wikipedia edit about Wicca was a joke, but some of them really do think they’re living in an episode of Buffy. The pagans don’t appear to like people who point this out, alas.

There may be an argument that young people should not get into this occult stuff because they might give themselves a bad scare, even though magic isn’t real. But it’s not an argument you can expect supernaturalists to make, because they’re committed to the idea that this stuff might actually work. Christians have the same sort of problem. I remember my old vicar telling us that he thought we rational Cambridge Christians might have become a bit too skeptical about things like demons. From denying the reality of demons, it’s a short step to wondering about God, I suppose. (Conversely, scribb1e says there’s some teaching within Buddhism about weird stuff you might experience during meditation, which is that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it, basically).

Sagan wrote: “We would surely be missing something important about our own nature if we refused to face up to the fact that hallucinations are part of being human. However, none of this makes hallucinations part of an external rather than an internal reality.” People who experience sleep paralysis or see their recently deceased relatives are not crazy, but it’s unlikely that are they being abducted by aliens, seeing ghosts, or fooled by demons either. Beliefs which were born in our ignorance won’t help re-assure these people. Our brains do play tricks on us, but these tricks fade when examined in the light.