03/24/13

Fear and Faith: Faking Conversion?

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.03.52 PMIn the past, citizens of Western societies had their religious beliefs affirmed directly through a  socio-cultural system that extended religion through most areas of public life. In the United States and Europe in the present, Christianity is treated—rhetorically speaking, at least—as a private affair. In my own experience, people who claim to be Christians do so on the foundation of a profound religious experience, be it that of a conversion, communication from God, an unexplainable series of events, etc. In other words, belief in God is founded first on an emotional understanding. This is important not because of the standard reasoning of naysayers that emotion is false and cognition true. Rather, because people know that society places a higher value on reason than emotion, they tend to privilege reasonable justifications of beliefs or world views over emotional ones, even when the latter have a greater sway.

I caught a TV show by British illusionist Derren Brown called Fear and Faith in which he shows by various means how religious belief can be reproduced through a series of psychological and emotional manipulations. The clip is forty-seven minutes long and worth watching in its entirety. Pete Rollins has a brief discussion on his blog about the very first portion of the show, when the vast majority of audience participants, even though they do not believe in the devil, were unwilling to participate in what they thought was a Satanic rite where they had to stab the picture of a family member. Brown suggests that we are “hardwired” to believe, to draw connections between our actions and some greater scheme of meaning. Rollins argues that, despite conscious disbelief, religious belief is still operative on a repressed level. This claim is particularly important in Western society where it is culturally normative to distance religious belief from public daily life; consequently we are encouraged to disassociate religious belief from our normal operation even when it is influential. This, as I’ve argued before, plays out in dangerous ways in the way we interact with other groups of people on a personal and international level.

What I found even more interesting, though, was the main focus of the show. Brown takes an avowed atheist and attempts to induce a religious conversion experience in her in order to show that religious experience can be manufactured and can occur outside our logical and volitional processes. In the course of a fifteen minute conversation, Brown speaks with a stem cell researcher named Natalie while sitting in the aisle of a large church. He first associates Natalie’s feelings about her father with the idea of an all-caring and loving father figure, and connects that idea with the tapping of his fingers on the table they are sitting at as an aural cue, much like a favorite song that helps one recall a significant event. He speaks with her about awe-inspiring experiences and subtly suggests the possibility of their orchestration for her personal benefit, like the idea of God or Jesus. Brown then gradually brings these two ideas together, both through hand gestures and his speaking to suggest to Natalie the possibility that a loving figure was arranging events in her life and watching out for her. Then, at nearly the end of the conversation, he says he has to leave the room for a moment, but reiterates the conversation by tapping on the table again to bring back the powerful feelings and suggesting that sometimes we may find “things” right in front of us that were with us all along. Brown then leaves the room and within less than a minute, Natalie has an emotional reaction as she takes in the conversation and the religious environment she sits in. She begins to sob and speak to God. When Brown comes back, she speaks of having an all-encompassing feeling of love. Only later on the show does he explain to her the cues he introduced to help manipulate her experience.

Watch the clip to get the full effect of this process, since it may seem staged on reading it. We are highly emotionally suggestive, naturally anthropocentric, and we want to make sense out of nonsense. Brown’s point is that we don’t need the supernatural to explain the scenario he created through a series of replicable manipulations. Though the emotional experiences are quite real, they come from within us and are not prompted by an outside force. It is interesting in that sense that many would rather attribute their actions as re-actions to a deity, rendering themselves automatons, rather than attribute to themselves the power to create experience. Even after explaining to Natalie the orchestration of the events, she still (understandably) could not immediately give up the reality of her emotional experience.

The point is not that the emotional experience is somehow fake because it doesn’t correspond to an outside object. That presumption begs the question of God’s existence we are trying to address. Rather, the point is that we are disposed to make meaning out of chaos, and religious belief is one of a number of ways to make meaning. It is not, however, the only way. Brown concludes that, insofar as religious belief makes people happy, there is nothing wrong with it, since we all just want to be happy. I cannot buy this argument because of its tendency to create collateral damage. As Brown suggests, after having a conversion experience, what one tends to do is find additional experiences, to discern additional patterns out of life events that confirm one’s beliefs. The supreme way of doing so is convincing others of your worldview and having them adopt it. The trouble comes when others have equally universal understandings that govern their lives and do not cohere with ours. Then conflict begins, and my happiness comes at the expense of yours. This is historically true with Christianity and with democracy.

It would be much too easy for me now, outside of a religious context, to say that I was always skeptical about God communicating with me. I did often have a sense of disappointment that it seemed to “happen” to others much more often than myself. I do recall one experience at a prayer meeting where I had what I thought was a mental picture from God. I had the picture of an empty ice cube tray being filled under a faucet. If you start in the corner and fill one cube, it begins to spill over and will gradually fill all the other cubes as well. In the context of a prayer meeting about how God was “working” in our community, I interpreted that image as God telling me that the work he was doing in our church was going to “spill over” into the surrounding areas and have a positive influence. I conveyed my image to the people who were present and it was validated by their approval. Our collective belief was affirmed. But, just like Brown’s experiment, it was highly controlled, not by one man, but through a tradition, which is even more efficacious because the responsibility is difficult to place anywhere but with God.

What do you think? Does the fact that we are highly suggestive, that spiritual experiences can be created, suggest the possibility that “supernatural” experiences don’t have to be supernatural?

03/8/13

Where have all the good atheists gone?

A friend of mine posted an interesting question on his blog. He writes that many atheists argue that religion is responsible for “almost every atrocity in history,” and that they think ethical systems formed without a divine backing are “by definition more humane.” If, then, atheist ethics are as good or better than religious ones, he asks, “why is it that we see no atheist Mother Teresa’s, Gandhi’s, or the like?”

It’s an interesting question, and for those who self-identify as atheists, it is likely to get a defensive response. The question is framed so that the easiest response would be to make a list of great atheists. (See the comments on his post for an example.) As I’ve mentioned, I’m not comfortable with atheism as any sort of system to set alongside other religious institutions, and I don’t identify as an atheist, but there are a few points to consider in the question nonetheless. Though it seems to invite such a response, I don’t think the best way to respond is by creating a tally of religious and atheist “good people” and seeing who comes out on top.

I have heard the arguments that religion is responsible for all or most of the atrocities in the world. These arguments, just like the ones that atheists are all immoral antichrists, are used largely for rhetorical effect. (What bothers me about both sides in that debate is that if such vacuous maxims get repeated enough, they begin to be believed.) I have made the claim in the past that Christianity is responsible for as much bad as good in the world, and I do think that the quantity of the “good” should prompt the question of whether it is worth the “bad.” I think of the idea of responsibility differently, though. Religion is not responsible for atrocity in the sense that it sets out intended for bad things to happen to good people. “Religion” itself doesn’t intend to exploit, though it is certainly used to. In that sense, religion is not responsible, but it’s not responsible like the bystander who watches a woman get assaulted by someone else and does nothing to stop it. It then approaches the woman and offers to pray with her that such a thing never happens again. There are certainly many cases in which religion is directly responsible for exploitation, violence, and death, but it is just as often a passive observer that exposes its guilt in not acting from the convictions it promotes. It, or more precisely those who live it, are irresponsible.

I also understand, and sympathize with, the line of argument that suggests that any ethical system said to be predicated on the commands of a divine god whom one obeys out of fear of punishment is immoral because of the lack of value it places on humanity. This argument is not for insiders, though, who already believe “that’s the way it is.” And indeed, if the Christian system is correct, then our accusation of God’s capriciousness is moot.

The assumption in the question of why there aren’t as many famous atheists is that those well-known  folks were people who helped an extremely large number of others because of their religion. Had they not been religious, this understanding seems to suggest, they would not have cared so much. At this explicit level, though, the argument falls apart. The much greater testimony is that for the vast majority of people, religion inspires them to change very little about their everyday lives. In other words, the argument shows me that the greatness of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK, and others was not due just to their religion, but due to them. Why would we suggest that religion is the dominant factor when it has no such effect on the vast majority of the population? The overwhelming effect of contemporary religion is to produce an internal change, invisible and unverifiable, despite all external circumstance. It is more often a removal from the world rather than a commitment to it.

This is not to say that religion has no effect, because one could turn the argument around and say that religion doesn’t make people bad, either. In fact, that is the typical Christian and/or liberal response to religious violations. “Well, they’re not practicing correctly. That’s not my religion, my God.” That’s where my assessment of religious responsibility comes in. The reason that religion is problematic is not primarily because it creates bad people. There is a nexus of environment and choice such that it is not possible to lay blame cleanly. A bigger problem is in the passivity it allows for many religious folk to take in the face of “atrocity” that directly contradicts their purported identity and understanding of the world.

I didn’t discuss the practical responses to the question, such as if atheism is an absence of religious belief, it would make little sense to trumpet such an absence as the reason for the good one does in the world. Thus a good many great people were such without explicit reliance on any institutional ethical system. We tend to self-identify positively, and it is only recently that the epithet atheism has taken on the role of a positive entity. In addition, the Western past is one filtered through a Christian lens, and thus it would be difficult to overestimate the effect this has had on historical interpretation and social development. The question I would ask in response: Why, if religion provides a superior ethical system, has it not delivered on any verifiable scale a change in the way we live, act and treat one another? My preliminary answer would be because requires more than religion, than religious ethics, than belief, to make change.

02/18/13

Can our Senses be Trusted?

The Friendly Atheist posted a clip from a BBC show about Big Questions. The clip was addressing the question, “Is faith compatible with reason?” The clip was mildly interesting, and the non-believers certainly came out looking more “reasonable” than the spiritual folks (Christians, pantheists, etc.) There were a few points worth discussing further.

First, the representative reasonable figure noted the importance of confirmation bias for people of faith, meaning that they start with the conclusion (that God exists) and apply a massive filter to the information they receive. Information confirming their bias is accepted relatively easily, while information criticizing it is rejected very quickly. The bias is operative in other areas of life as well, which is why it is much more difficult to change someone’s mind once they have already “decided” something. It’s also a reason why 86% of people who become Christian do so between the ages of four and fourteen (according to this documentary).

Also noted was the difference between reason and faith as a difference between deductive and inductive reason. The first starts with the premises and reasons to a conclusion, the second begins with the conclusion and then finds premises to (in this case) affirm it. What I found most interesting, though, was an unchallenged comment made on the “reason” side that said the senses can’t be trusted. This was in response to a pantheist noting that her heart told her that her beliefs are true. Though I grasp the point the respondent was trying to make (that the warm fuzzy you feel in your heart doesn’t make God real), the principle that we cannot (or should not) trust our senses is problematic for me.

Let’s set aside for a minute the fact that we do trust our senses almost all of the time, though they do sometimes mislead us. For example, on the main drag of the town where I grew up, planters were placed at the sidewalk corners of the intersection, probably as part of a beautification project. Their inconvenient placement near the crosswalks means that nearly every time I drive that street, there is a split second where I almost begin to brake because I think a person is trying to cross the road. I might interpret that as my senses misleading me. (There is also some confirmation bias there, in that we tend to try, anthropocentrists that we are, to discern faces and bodies in places where they are not.)

But let’s try another scenario, that of the famous Romeo and Juliet. If I recall the climax of the play, it involves Juliet taking a drug that makes her appear dead. Upon finding her dead, Romeo takes poison and dies, and upon Juliet waking up, she finds Romeo dead and stabs herself to death. Romeo obviously experienced a great deal of sadness as a result of finding Juliet and his senses confirmed that she was dead. In turn, Juliet’s senses confirmed that Romeo was dead, and she too killed herself. The only justification we would have for saying Romeo’s senses deceived him and Juliet’s did not is that we know the outcome, that Juliet was not dead but that Romeo was. We have no significant reason to suggest that his senses were more impaired than hers. (They both seemed a little emotional, if you ask me.) Juliet was, for Romeo, dead when he saw her. His senses conveyed that truth accurately.

What I am arguing is that the claim that the senses lead us astray is not based just on the senses, but the reasoning that we do from them, reasoning done over time. We might argue that had Romeo waited a bit longer, his senses would have shown that Juliet was not dead, because she would have opened her eyes and sat up. What if took longer? What if it took days? Years? How long would we have Romeo wait?

There is a social element here. Let’s say several others came and confirmed Juliet was dead and she was buried. Hundreds of years later, her grave is accidentally disturbed and it is found she was buried alive. Would we say that the senses of all who confirmed her death deceived them? Why? From whose perspective would we make that judgement? Perhaps from a scientific perspective that might claim she was in a comatose state with an extremely low heart rate that nonetheless kept her alive for days. Assuming it could have been done, should extensive scientific testing have been done to confirm her death? What if it was done, and it also confirmed that she was dead? It would only be with the element of time that we would be able to know otherwise.

The point is that the senses are momentary, but that judgement is made over time. This implies no necessary limitation on the senses. I understand the argument that science needs to be empirical and not merely sensory, but this is not applicable in all areas of life. To shut off the emotions because they are connected to unreliable senses is to close off life itself. Sadness, anger, and love are all emotional responses that appear most real when one is feeling them, and may seem diminished or even inaccurate later. Do we explain that variance of emotion by imposing present reality on the past, by saying that from our current neutral state that the presence of emotion in the past was wrong? Or do we acknowledge merely a different emotional state, a different sensory perception than before? (I realize I’m slipping from senses to emotion, which are not necessarily the same thing, but feelings and reason are often contrasted in the same way in common discussion that senses and reason are.)

I find it a problem that the senses can be dismissed in favor of science. It seems to me another version of faith. Both argue, at one point, that what I sense around me does not give me an accurate representation of what there is. It cedes my ability to make judgment, to perceive reality, to an external system. For social purposes all must participate in this to a certain extent, but that does not necessarily or always relegate the senses of the individual to a secondary status. In the birth of the scientific age, scientific conclusions were often dismissed in favor of theological dogma; in the present day, the opposite is the case. Is the reason because we had a lesser grasp on reality in the past, that we were dumber? Or is it related to the fact that less people assented to a scientific worldview in the past than they do now? The basis of a greater acceptance of scientific or reasonable method is not because on its inherent truth, then, but because of its social acceptance.

Anyone have any thoughts?