Got my mojo working

Superstitions. Lucky charms. Faith healing. Benedict Carey at the New York Times asks: Why Do People Cling to Odd Rituals? The conclusion, according to researchers, seems to be that people are wired for belief.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

So is faith in a lucky rabbit’s foot similar to faith in an all-seeing, all-powerful, benevolent deity? Of course not, says Mr. Carey, glancing nervously over his shoulder for unsheathed knives.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

Right. Lucky charms are completely different from religious charms. And writing a letter to Santa is not at all like praying to St. Jude. But if that’s true, why is religion such a good substitute for magic in young children?

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”

Who would Jesus bomb?

For Evangelicals, Supporting Israel Is ‘God’s Foreign Policy’

Last July, the Rev. John Hagee of San Antonio arrived in Washington with 3,500 evangelicals for the first annual conference of his newly founded organization, Christians United For Israel.

At a dinner addressed by the Israeli ambassador, a handful of Republican senators and the chairman of the Republican Party, Mr. Hagee read greetings from President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and dispatched the crowd with a message for their representatives in Congress. Tell them “to let Israel do their job” of destroying the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, Mr. Hagee said.

He called the conflict “a battle between good and evil” and said support for Israel was “God’s foreign policy.” The next day he took the same message to the White House.

Many conservative Christians say they believe that the president’s support for Israel fulfills a biblical injunction to protect the Jewish state, which some of them think will play a pivotal role in the second coming.

The alliance of Israel, its evangelical Christian supporters and President Bush has never been closer or more potent. […] For one thing, white evangelicals make up about a quarter of the electorate. […] A large part of the Republican Party’s base remains committed to a fiercely pro-Israel agenda that seems likely to have an effect on policy choices.

Evangelical Christians who know President Bush, including Marvin Olasky, editor of the magazine World and a former Bush adviser, said Mr. Bush, unlike President Reagan, has never shown any interest in prophecies of the second coming.

The Crusade Against Religion

In a Wired magazine article, The Crusade Against Religion, Gary Wolf talks to some prominent atheist authors, and visits a modern mega-church.

Richard Dawkins is getting a lot of press for his recent book “The God Delusion“. But several reviewers say he hasn’t brought any new ideas to the table.

Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes. “How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?” Dawkins asks. “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”

An even darker worldview comes from Sam Harris, who released a book two years ago called The End of Faith: Religion Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Harris argues that, unless we renounce faith, religious violence will soon bring civilization to an end.
“People used to think,” Harris says, “that slavery was morally acceptable. […] That looks ridiculous to us today. […] At some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God.”

Daniel C. Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has a more moderate view. He’s more interested in why people hold religious beliefs.

But like the other New Atheists, Dennett gives no quarter to believers who resist subjecting their faith to scientific evaluation. In fact, he argues that neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school.

Dennett is an advocate of admitting that we simply don’t have good reasons for some of the things we believe. Although we must guard our defaults, we still have to admit that they may be somewhat arbitrary.
“How else do we protect ourselves?” he asks. “Instead of protecting stability with a brittle set of myths, we can defend a deep resistance to mucking with the boundaries.”

I ask Dennett if there might not be a contradiction in his scheme. On the one hand, he aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods. And besides, are we not atheists? Sacred prohibitions are anathema to us.

The Rise of Pessimism

In a NYT editorical, Adam Cohen writes about the Rise of Pessimism:

Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.

The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones.

… Instilling hope is a critical part of leadership. Other than a few special interest programs — like cutting taxes on the wealthy and giving various incentives to business — it is hard to think of areas in which the Bush administration has raised the nation’s hopes and met them. This president has, instead, tried to focus the American people on the fear of terrorism, for which there is no cure, only bad choices or something worse.

Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism — a force that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, used to rally the country when it was deeply challenged. The next generation of leaders will have to resell discouraged Americans on the very idea of optimism, and convince them again that their goal should not be to live with their ailments, but to cure them.

The evolution of the creation movement

How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate

The chairman of the [Kansas] school board, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, is not merely a strict creationist. He has openly stated that he believes that God created the universe 6,500 years ago, although he was quoted in The New York Times this month as saying that his personal faith “doesn’t have anything to do with science.”

“I can separate them,” he continued, adding, “My personal views of Scripture have no room in the science classroom.”

Dr. Abrams has no choice but to separate his views from what is taught in science classes, because what he says he believes is inconsistent with the most fundamental facts the Kansas schools teach children.
… The age of the earth, and the universe, is no more a matter of religious faith than is the question of whether or not the earth is flat.
It is a matter of overwhelming scientific evidence. To maintain a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth requires a denial of essentially all the results of modern physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and geology. It is to imply that airplanes and automobiles work by divine magic, rather than by empirically testable laws.

American Madrassas

David Byrne reviews a new documentary from Loki films called Jesus Camp. In which a preacher indoctrinates young children in a summer camp in North Dakota to become an “army” for Jesus.

There were some perfect sound bites — at one point Pastor Fischer instructs the little ones that they should be willing to die for Christ, and the little ones obediently agree. She may even use the word martyr, which has a shocking echo in the Middle East. I can see future suicide bombers for Jesus — the next step will be learning to fly planes into buildings. Of course, the grownups would say, “Oh no, we’re not like them” — but they admit that the principal difference is simply that “We’re right.”

Are bicyclists bad for the environment?

I rode my bike in to work today. And for the rest of the day, I noted with satisfaction that riding took only 10 minutes longer than my regular commute by car.

Then I learned that Wharton Business School professor Karl Ulrich has written a working paper called: “The Environmental Paradox of Cycling“. In which the good professor claims that I am actually harming the environment. By … living … healthier.

Andrew Leonard at Salon deconstructs the argument- Bikers, they ain’t no good:

Here’s the gist. Bicycling and other means of human-powered transportation consume less energy than driving, which is good for the environment. But all that healthy exercise makes cyclists live longer, which means they end up ultimately consuming more energy than they would have had they not biked. Which is bad for the environment.

But hold on there for just a second. There are holes in this argument that you can drive a biodiesel-powered Hummer through. First and foremost: Isn’t it likely that biking is a kind of gateway drug for enlightened resource consumption? I see it happen here in Berkeley all the time. First you start biking around town, then you put solar panels on your roof and start worm composting your newspapers. Suddenly, you find yourself raising organic free-range chickens in your backyard and hosting weekly meetings of your local Peak Oil Awareness encounter group.

Books on science and religion

A reading list courtesy of our friends at the New York Times:

Books on Science: Faith, Reason, God and Other Imponderables

By Francis S. Collins.
Free Press, 2006.

By Richard Dawkins.
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

By Daniel C. Dennett.
Viking, 2006.

By Owen Gingerich.
Harvard University Press, 2006

By Joan Roughgarden.
Island Press, 2006.

by E.O. Wilson.
W.W. Norton, 2006.

By Lewis Wolpert.

How to do the right thing

Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, gave an engaging talk at the South By Southwest 2006 conference entitled “How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times.” (23MB MP3 Link)

He explains why people make irrational decisions — that is, decisions that do not make economic sense. Why do so many people play the lottery? How do we over-estimate the threat of terrorism and underestimate the danger of backyard swimming pools? Some of it is due to how the news media portrays the world. But a lot of the problem is in our own minds.

As a psychologist, Gilbert has been able to conduct experiments that show how the decision-making process works. And fundamentally, he argues that the human brain is well designed for the natural world, but incapable of the kinds of statistical reasoning required in modern society.

People are notoriously bad at comparing relative risks, and of estimating chances of success or failure. We cannot even predict how much we’ll enjoy a reward, and are often disappointed in the results.

Gilbert also has some harsh words for that principle of eastern philosophy, “living in the moment”.

If you want to live in the moment, you should have been born a fruit fly. Or a toaster. One of the human brain’s most glorious and unique talents is its ability to look backward and forward across great swathes of time—to examine its own history and to imagine its own future, to engage in mental time travel. The problems that are most likely to cause the extinction of our species are due to living in the moment and letting the future take care of itself. The problem is: It doesn’t.

Bad news for the Christian Science Monitor

A new study has confirmed results reported last year on the power of prayer. Or rather, lack of power.

Scientists at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in MA evaluated the effect of prayer on over 1800 coronary bypass patients. They asked several Christian groups to pray for some patients, and not others.

The prayers made no detectable difference. In the first month after surgery, 52 per cent of prayed-for patients and 51 per cent of non-prayed-for patients suffered one or more complications […] A third group of patients received the same prayers as the first group, but were told they were being prayed for. Of these, 59 per cent suffered complications – significantly more than the patients left unsure of whether they were receiving prayers.

Maybe they should try praying for the doctors….