Like a breath of fresh air

Obama’s Inaugural Address

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man — a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.

Religious totalitarians

NPR : Walking the Faith Line with Eboo Patel

Religious totalitarians have the unique advantage of being able to oppose each other and work together at the same time. Osama bin Laden says that Christians are out to destroy Muslims. Pat Robertson says that Muslims want only to dominate Christians. Bin Laden points to Pat Robertson as evidence of his case. Robertson points to bin Laden as proof of his. Bin Laden says he is moving Muslims to his side of the faith line. Robertson claims he is moving Christians to his. But if you look from a certain angle, you see that they are not on opposite sides at all. They are right next to each other, standing shoulder to shoulder, a most unlikely pair, two totalitarians working collectively against the dream of a common life together.

Religion reporter loses faith

William Lobdell was already a serious Christian when the LA Times assigned him to the religion beat. But eight years of reporting on the church shook his beliefs.

Religion beat became a test of faith

At the time, I never imagined Catholic leaders would engage in a widespread practice that protected alleged child molesters and belittled the victims. I latched onto the explanation that was least damaging to my belief in the Catholic Church – that this was an isolated case of a morally corrupt administration.

And I was comforted by the advice of a Catholic friend: “Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar.”

No thanks, I’ll walk

A New York state senator has proposed a bill to specifically ban texting while driving. This was in response to a crash that killed 4 teens when the driver was texting.

Of course, existing traffic laws typically ban any behavior that distracts a driver or prevents them from safely operating a vehicle. But it’s probably a good idea to explicitly ban texting anyway. I’d bet that most people who text or talk on the cell phone probably think they’re still in complete control.

According to a survey by AAA and Seventeen magazine, a huge fraction of teen drivers engage in risky behavior – including DWT (driving while texting).

Many teens admit risky driving habits

The survey showed 61% of teens admitting to risky driving habits. Of that 61%:

  • Nearly 50% said they text message while driving.
  • 51% talk on cellphones.
  • 58% say they drive with their friends in the car.
    (Having other teens in a car can dramatically increase the likelihood of an accident).
  • 40% say they speed.
  • 11% say they drink or use drugs before driving.

Whenever I see a brand-new crop of teens getting their licenses and taking to the road for the first time, it reminds me of those National Geographic specials about turtles. One night each year, on a tropical beach, thousands of little turtles will hatch out of the sand and rush towards the surf. Many get caught and eaten before making it to the sea. Many more get picked off in shallow water. And only a few dozen of them will survive the whole year to make it back to the beach and lay their eggs. And then their offspring will ask to borrow the car keys.

The evolution of faith

A fascinating article in the New York Times magazine a few months ago discussed the evolution of religion. That is, how did religious belief become such an important part of human culture? The answer seems to be that humans are already wired for religion.

The article surveys what we know about how humans think, and how this might predispose us to belief in the supernatural. And the rituals of religion may confer other societal advantages. Which makes being an atheist a bit of a challenge, even in our enlightened age.

Continue reading “The evolution of faith”

Gravity, on the other hand, is complete hogwash

Democracy is not perfect. Our governments can only be as wise as the politicians who run for office. And there are a lot of ways of corrupting the system. Large campaign donors buy votes and influence. Redistricting guarantees that incumbents will stay in power. And well-organized special interest groups can wield power far beyond their size. To the extent that a minority can decide who is worthy of seeking office.

And so it seems that the current Republican presidential candidates, like their predecessor, George Bush, are doing everything they can to court conservative evangelical Christians. In last month’s Republican candidates debate, three of the nine candidates said they do not believe in evolution. (Senator Sam Brownback, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo).

Senator John McCain tried to play both sides, saying while he believes in evolution, “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also”.

The theory of natural selection is the basis of all our modern understanding of biology, medicine and the environment. It has passed every test for the past 150 years and is accepted as fact by virtually all scientists in the world today. And yet neither the current President, nor these Republican candidates choose to believe it.

The cynic in me would say that a third of the Republican candidates are just playing to the religious right wing. But more likely is that these intelligent men really do not believe in evolution. The Republican party is dominated by religious conservatives, who promote these like-minded candidates.

Of course, evolution is real, no matter how many polititians deny it. But when they refuse to accept an idea that runs counter to their religious beliefs, regardless of overwhelming evidence, how can we expect them to make good policy decisions? How will they make rational choices about major issues in science, medicine or the environment?

To his credit, Gov. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, also accepts evolution. He apparently has been able to reconcile his religious beliefs with scientific evidence.

“I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe,” Mr. Romney said in an interview this week. “And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.”

He was asked: Is that intelligent design?

“I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design,” he said. “But I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”

While governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes.

“In my opinion, the science class is where to teach evolution, or if there are other scientific thoughts that need to be discussed,” he said. “If we’re going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why it was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that’s for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class.”

Never eat anything bigger than your head

Back in college, the head of the Lab for Computer Science had a reputation for agressively pursuing grants and equipment. One of my professors used to joke: “If you offer Prof. Brown five pounds of bat guano, he’ll immediately ask for ten”.
Turns out, most people behave the same way. According to Cornell Prof. Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating”, you can get people to eat really old, stale popcorn, as long as you give them a big enough tub of the stuff. And people will always eat more if you serve food on bigger plates.

His overarching conclusion is that our decisions about eating often have little to do with how hungry we are. Instead, we rely on cues like the size of a popcorn bucket — or the way we organize our refrigerator — to tell us how much to eat.
The scariest part is that most of us think we are immune to these hidden persuaders.

Mr. Wansink and his team were so taken aback by the results of their experiments on the shape of glasses that some of them went home and replaced the squat glasses they owned with tall, skinny ones. Mr. Wansink also uses dinner plates from the 1940s, which have the double advantage of being smaller and being more interesting than your typical Crate and Barrel fare.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200

Back in the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote that when unbaptized babies die, they go straight to hell. Why? That pesky concept of original sin, dating back to Adam and Eve.
By the Middle Ages, Catholics had relented somewhat, and people came up with the concept of limbo. While never actually part of church dogma, popular belief was that unbaptized babies went to limbo, along with some philosophers and pre-Christian Jews.
This week, a Vatican committee published a report that rejects the concept of limbo. Not only that, but they suggest that unbaptized babies might, just might enter heaven directly. After spending years debating the issue, how did they come to this conclusion? Seems the 21st century God is a kindler, gentler one than back in the 12th century.

Limbo, the commission said, “reflects an unduly restrictive view of salvation.”
“Our conclusion,” the panel said in its 41-page report, is that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness.” The committee added that although this is not “sure knowledge,” it comes in the context of a loving and just God who “wants all human beings to be saved.”

Oh, and it’s also a way of competing with other faiths for the hearts and minds of believers.

The question of limbo had become a “matter of pastoral urgency” because of the growing number of babies who do not receive the baptismal rite. Especially in Africa and other parts of the world where Catholicism is growing but has competition from other faiths such as Islam, high infant mortality rates mean many families live with a church teaching them that their babies could not go to heaven.

Traditionalists are not happy with the report.

“It makes baptism a formality, a party, instead of a necessity,” Wolfe said. “There would be no reason for infant baptisms. It would put the Catholic Church on par with the Protestants.”

It would also deprive Catholic leaders of a tool in their fight against abortion, he added. Priests have long told women that their aborted fetuses cannot go to heaven, which in theory was another argument against ending pregnancy. Without limbo, those fetuses presumably would no longer be denied communion with God.

Eating disorders: cause and effect

Eating disorders are a big problem in our society, especially among young women. Recorded cases have doubled in the U.S. since the 1960s. A recent article in Scientific American, “Through a Glass, Darkly“, discusses some of the causes.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people suffer from eating disorders. The article claims about 4% of women will suffer from clinical anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa in their lifetime. Another 2 to 5% of Americans will have a binge-eating disorder in any 6 month period.

And what causes these problems? A lot of people rightly blame media for promoting malnourished waifs as the ideal body image. This sets impossible goals, for women to look like the thinnest 5% of society. Yet while many women are influenced by those external images, recent studies say that those who suffer from eating disorders are more affected by their own faulty self-image.

A faulty body image–rather than an exaggerated ideal–is crucial to the development of eating disorders.

What lies behind a distorted body image? To answer this question, Vocks’s team took photographs of 56 people suffering from eating disorders and 209 healthy subjects used as controls. The scientists then asked the test subjects to adjust their images on a computer screen until they “recognized” themselves. Additionally, they asked both groups to give their virtual “me” the figure that they wished they had.
Whereas all the respondents had similar notions of an “ideal” figure, the bulimics and anorexics all significantly overestimated their real body mass. In contrast, the subjects who were not suffering from eating disorders believed that they were slimmer than they actually were.

Another trigger for eating disorders is “frequent and extreme dieting”. This confuses the body’s “hunger-satiety system”, leading to faulty perceptions and behavior. Ironically, dieting is also the best predictor of future weight gain. Dieting is worse than useless.

A child’s upbringing can also increase risk. Eating disorders often occur in well-off, well educated families. Yet when parents set high standards, the children feel pressure to excel, to be “model students” and lead perfect lives as adults. That’s always an unattainable goal. Conversely, a good relationship between parents and children balances security and independence. This promotes a healthy self-image. Without that positive influence, children are at greater risk of eating disorders and drug addiction.

What’s the prognosis? Not so good. About 5% of anorexic women die from the disease. Fully one quarter remain chronic anorexics for the rest of their life. A third regain some weight, but continue to have badly distorted body self-images. Only about 30% of anorexic women recover fully.

The situation is a bit better for bulimics. Half of those who get treatment recover from the disease. The other half continue to binge and purge for the rest of their life, which often causes chemical imbalances, digestive tract damage, and increased risk of heart attacks.

He who dies with the most toys – is still dead

The Skeptic column of Scientific American this month talks about the paradox of happiness. (Scientific American: Can’t Get No Satisfaction). Namely, nobody can be happy with what they have, if their neighbor seems to have more. In the words of H. L. Mencken: “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Richard Lay­ard in Happiness […] shows that we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950 and “we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health.” Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness. Why? One, our genes account for roughly half of our predisposition to be happy or unhappy, and two, our wants are relative to what other people have, not to some absolute measure.

Furthermore, people aren’t very good about predicting what will make them happy, according to Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness. Lots of variety (in snacks for instance), quickly loses its appeal. People given lots of variety are no happier than those who just eat their favorite snacks.

Even variety in sexual partners is greatly over-rated. According to Social Organization of Sexuality, “married people have more sex than singles–and more orgasms”.