Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Life Lessons I've Learned

I remember how much I used to think about how life was difficult but it was nothing in comparison to eternity; I could still look forward to an afterlife in paradise later without so much trepidation. This little trick used to alleviate my pain related to OCD back in the day, albeit in small measure, and served as a bit of a "security blanket". Now, I understand that each day could be my last and there’s no happily ever after. I think this holds a lot of weight for many Christians. They feel like they can handle the monotonous and perilous struggles of life because they believe there is a proverbial pot of gold waiting for them. For example, the slaves of the antebellum period undoubtedly drew strength from Biblical stories, like Moses and the Exodus. They truly believed that god would rescue them similarly and this certainly gave them a sense of hope and purpose.

We’ve all heard the stories of beautiful mansions, streets paved with gold and arch enemies of the animal kingdom nuzzling each other. It’s a beautiful construction of humankind’s passions, imagination and desires. There’s no more crying, no more killing and certainly no more humans being sinful in heaven. If only you follow Jesus, you too can possess a mansion on a thousand hills. We are told that sex will no longer be practiced but something far greater lies in store.

I used to tell myself that the present miseries pale in comparison to an eternity in bliss. But, what does an atheist tell themselves when melancholy comes knocking? It’s made me work harder, smarter and try to resolve my problems with greater determination. I can’t afford to hold out for eternity when this is all there is. I’ve got to be a better person now, a better parent, husband and more productive citizen. I’ve got to overcome my problems and stop holding out in a state of idleness and frivolous prayer. In short, I can’t depend on Jesus; I’ve got to depend on me.

Things are different these days. I have a keener sense of my own mortality and how every day could be my last. This can be a bit depressing at times and I find myself asking, “is this all there is to this?” We’re born, we go to school, we get married and have children, we work, we retire and we eventually die. At least, this seems to be the standard mode of operation. I know that a lot of apologists use this as a reason for believing in god. We have this sense of dread about death and the solution is found in believing in an afterlife.

As an atheist, I’m learning to stop taking things for granted and to stop sweating the small stuff. I’ve learned to let things go because I don’t have time to hold on to things. I’ve learned to not take things for granted and to examine things critically. I’ve learned to stop leaning on a crutch, namely Jesus, to get through another day. I’m becoming less dependent on others and more self-reliant. Atheism has allowed more of the real me to come out. My psychological problems have lessened and I have a clearer picture of the person I want to be. My family has undoubtedly noticed a difference in my behaviors. My wife and I get along better now. Is this a result of atheism? I don’t know but I do know that I’m more passionate about learning and I don’t want OCD to get in my way so I’m vigilant about getting better. What sparked my newfound interest in learning? The answer is atheism. Atheism, science, skepticism and using logic have been appealing enough that I don’t want anything to distract me. It’s been a positive adventure; although, I don’t know how much more I can give to this blog.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Alcohol and Brain Damage

While driving home late at night from work, I find myself listening to a program called Hope in the night with host June Hunt. Mainly, I listen to her because I can’t seem to find anything else on the radio. Also, I like to listen to Christian’s because they are always good for a laugh. In the case of June, she probably spouts out about five words a minute which is funny in itself. But, her musical “talents” are what really makes the show shine—picture a singing dog that is gargling Listerine to get the picture. Last night, she stated that even occasional to moderate drinking causes holes in the brain and I just had to call bullshit. She told the caller, a struggling alcoholic, that any alcohol at all would put holes in your brain. She stated that if he saw the pictures that she did, he would stop immediately. I’m not for sure, but she’s probably been listening to Dr. Daniel Amen too much—the quack extraordinaire.

My common sense radar went off and I thought about all the countries that allow alcohol use in the still developing brains of teens. Surely, there should be evidence of brain deterioration in some of these populations, such as Italy or France. But, there turns out to be no evidence of such relationship. Conversely, some substantial evidence shows that moderate alcohol consumption has many beneficial qualities—research indicates that moderate drinking helps maintain a well-functioning brain into old age. For example, I found this from a quick google search at the Brain Development and Drinking website:
• A study of about 6,000 Americans age 65 and older in communities across the country found that moderate drinkers had a 54% lower chance of developing dementia than abstainers. 1
• A study of 15,807 Italians age 65 and older found that moderate consumption of alcohol greatly reduced the risk of developing cognitive (thinking) impairment. Abstainers were 53% more likely to suffer mental impairment than were drinkers. 2
• A study of 7,983 people age 55 and older in the Netherlands found that those who consumed one to drinks of alcohol per day had a significantly lower risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s) than did abstainers. 3
• A study of over 6,000 Britons over a period of 35 years found beneficial mental effects when a person drinks up to about 30 drinks per week, and increases with consumption. The researchers did not test the effects of higher levels of alcohol consumption. Abstainers were twice as likely to receive the lowest tests of mental functioning than were moderate drinkers. 4
• A study of more than 400 people age 75 and older in the Netherlands, who were tracked for a period of six years, found that drinkers were only half as likely to develop dementia as similarly- aged abstainers from alcohol. 5
• A study of 3,777 elderly French men and women over three years found that moderate alcohol consumption (two to four drinks per day, most often wine) reduced the risk of developing dementia by 80%. 6
• A study of over 1,000 Britons aged 65-79 who were monitored for an average of 23 years found that “drinking no alcohol, or too much, increases risk of cognitive impairment,” in the words of the editor of the British Medical Journal, where the research was published. 7 In other words, moderate drinking reduces the risk of cognitive impairment.
• A Harvard study of over 9,000 women aged 70 to 79 over a 14 year period found that women who drank in moderation performed significantly better on tests of cognitive functioning. 8
• An 18-year study of Japanese American men found that moderate drinking in middle age was associated with superior cognitive performance later in life. Moderate drinkers scored significantly higher on the Cognitive Abilities Screening Instrument (CASI), which includes tests of attention, concentration, orientation, memory, and language. Both abstainers and heavy drinkers had the poorest CASI scores. 9
• A 20-year Harvard study of 12,480 women age 70 and older found that moderate drinkers were much less likely than abstainers to experience poor memory and decreased thinking abilities. 10
• A University of Texas study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that older women who drank in moderation (up to two drinks per day) performed better than abstainers on tests of memory, attention, concentration, verbal-association capacities and oral fluency. 11

So, I think we can safely conclude that moderate alcohol consumption doesn’t cause holes in the brain but listening to this imbecile might.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Christian must Believe #6

in things like the transfiguration or a man running faster than a chariot but dismiss evidence regarding alien abduction. Why don’t Christians unanimously believe in alien abduction when: there is ample eye witness testimony; there are plenty of books written to affirm these experiences; and there are even pictures of these UFOs? Eye witness testimony is trumpeted by apologists as an excellent way to gage the authenticity of scriptures. In the case of alien abductees, the sketches of the aliens are often very similar and the experiences of the abductees have many of the same features. So, we have collaborating eye witness testimony, books which support the experiences as being veracious, and pictures, which the Bible lacks, to actually show the vessels that these aliens travel upon. Many of the abductees give the same anthropomorphic attributes to these aliens. They are generally shaped much like a human but with larger eyes, stretched out fingers and long, anemic appearing limbs.

Of course, science has taught us that we can cause all sorts of interesting phenomena to occur by manipulating various regions of the brain. We can simulate experiences of abduction, demonic possession and spiritual encounters—not unlike the experiences that Schizophrenics frequently have. Psychologists will tell you there are several more parsimonious explanations for what the one abducted by aliens is experiencing: a sleep-related hallucination, a misinterpretation of a shadow or faulty memory—just to name a few. When confronted with alternate explanations, the Christian and recently abducted will rely on an endless array of ad hoc rationalizations to ward off any doubts when a thorough examination of their claims is given by a critical thinker.

A group of people believing in the same thing proves nothing. One thousand people seeing the Virgin Mary in the window of a building proves nothing. Perfectly sane and intelligent individuals can believe their distortions and delusions with very convincing enthusiasm. Jesus appearing to the disciples, even with the contradictions in the number of disciples not considered, shortly after resurrecting proves nothing either.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Are Humans Really Evil?

My particular brand of Christianity always taught me that people were evil from the very first breath of air they took. Since Adam and Eve disobeyed god, every human was under a curse and were slaves to their sin. I’ve talked to some Liberal Christians since that time who say the whole ‘original sin’ thing is incorrect but that’s definitely not what I was taught, and I certainly don’t see that perspective in the Bible. Since turning into a heathen, my position has changed and I no longer concur with this dehumanizing stance. Humanities nature is too complex to label it as solely diabolical.

I’ve been reading books by Desmond Morris and Frans de Wall, both Zoologists, who study the behaviors of some of our nearest relatives. Frans de Wall, in particular, makes comparisons between Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Homo sapiens. Chimpanzees are known for their aggressive tendencies and male dominated societies. Bonobos are better known for their high sexual promiscuity, relatively low aggressive nature and high ranking, dominant females. We seem to carry a mixed bag of behaviors that these two different groups of apes demonstrate.

What’s Fair is Fair

I argue that humanity is not evil by nature; the situation is grayer than that. There are some truly despicable humans out there and history has showcased some of them throughout the modern era—I don’t think I need to mention any names. But, for the most part, humanity lives in a give and take state of affairs. Through mutual reciprocity, humanity tends to cooperate with each other on a routine basis. On an aside, the media also seems to ignore the trivial, admirable things people do on a daily basis and focuses exclusively on the heinous acts committed by a very small percentage. We live in a culture of fear as sociologist Barry Glassner taught us. The media feasts on shocking stories that get people to watch the evening news. We also tend to resent those who have an “unfair” share of resources. For instance, we may idolize celebrities but, at the same time, we may feel a certain sense of justice when something bad happens to one of them.

Some theorize that societies become violent and disorderly when resources are not fairly distributed and a disproportionate amount of wealth is avariciously withheld from one group for the sake of another. Societies like America encourage entrepreneurship and capitalistic pursuits but also see a disproportionate distribution of wealth. Certainly, early America saw violence en masse among the poor working class who struggled to make ends meet. They were being unfairly treated, provided inadequate pay and it caused serious tension. For example, railroad workers went on strike in the latter part of the 19th century. They tore apart the railroad and disassembled box cars; the military was eventually called in and violence ensued. Many workers were wounded and some were killed; the egalitarian in all of us was showing through. In the cases of humans, as well as apes, there have also been studies where one is rewarded with more than another for the same positive behavior. The person who is given less refuses to take anything at all. Indeed, most employers don’t want employees sharing their salary information with each other for that very reason. In ape society, you better be someone willing to share or you will quickly be ostracized from the group; this seems to be an innate characteristic of the ape species.

In contrast, societies known for far less violence like Denmark stress egalitarianism and the values of participation. On an aside, in Denmark, it is not uncommon to see babies left by themselves outside of restaurants while their mothers enjoy a meal without the slightest bit of apprehension. The mother believes that the fresh air is good for them and abduction is almost unheard of.

Can You Feel that, Buddy?

Empathy is another trait that Frans de Waal has witnessed time and time again from Chimps and Bonobos. An individual ape has the ability to look at things from another ape’s perspective and, in a sense, to feel what they are feeling. They take care of each other when one gets sick and rescue those in danger. They usually make sure those who are weak get a fair share of food as well. There have also been experiments which demonstrate how apes will forgo food if it avoids hurting another ape. Apes are also capable of self-recognition which is a key component to more sophisticated levels of empathy.

Chimps, in particular, can be quite violent as well. The males struggle for leadership and will wait for the current dominant male to fall from grace. They may team up with other males in a strategic alliance to knock the current dominant male off his pedestal. Some humans, filled with an aggressive nature, will do whatever it takes to get to the top. This aggressive nature is not ubiquitously observed across our species. Some humans, including females, are content to make an honest living and work their way to the top—without resorting to underhanded scheming. On the other hand, Bonobos are generally lovers not fighters. They have make up sex and lots of it. Orgies, male on male, and female on female sex are common occurrences among the Bonobos.

Some people I know say that humans are evil by nature; I think this sort of view comes prominently from the Bible. We are born bad and the only cure is to ask forgiveness for being human. Let's not forget that god puts us here in the predicament we find ourselves in the first place. He knows, with foresight, those who will continue to do very evil deeds but creates them nonetheless. If we were truly born bad, I believe that our morality would not have improved over time but gotten more deleterious instead. However, in the case of our morality, the exact opposite appears to be true. Our 21st century morality is head and shoulders above that of Biblical times or medieval times. In Biblical times, it was apparently commonplace to witness a stoning or mass execution; genocide and infanticide were not entirely uncommon either. This was the ‘just’ penalty for disobedience. In today’s time, these practices are looked at with the utmost abhorrence in America and much of Europe. As far as I know, Europe no longer has witch burnings either. The most problematic thing I see today in Europe is the Catholic Church continuing to get away with pedophilia. Even in the case of capital punishment, we do it in the most humane ways possible, at least in America and other civilized countries.