Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Difference between Feeling True and Being True

In her book, Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz explains that being wrong feels exactly like being right! It is our nature to assume that the knowledge we possess is correct. Our level of certainty tends to remain constant regardless of whether we are actually right, or if we just mistakenly think that we are right. We enjoy an ongoing sense of rightness until the very moment we are proven wrong. 

In teaching General Psychology, I found that each chapter we cover carries the underlying message that, as humans, we are nearly always wrong about nearly everything. Our memories are erroneous. Our sensory perceptions are flawed. We are unable to conceptualize large numbers and great spans of time. We are easily fooled by appeals to emotion. Our innate tendency to make sweeping generalizations based on tiny bits of information creates an environment of near-chronic wrongness.

Despite chronic wrongness, it is natural for us to trust our feelings, our thoughts, and our perceptions. Navigating human life would otherwise be impossible. Our sense of rightness enables us to make decisions and take necessary actions. It is an unfortunate side-effect of living in this bubble of pleasant certainty that we experience shame when proven wrong. We stubbornly resist opportunities to improve on the accuracy of our respective funds of knowledge, because being proven wrong is so unpleasant. We are mortified as the false perception, “if I am proven wrong, then I am made a fool,” emerges. Evidence abounds to suggest that the accurate interpretation should be, “if I am proven wrong, then I am learning, developing and improving.”

  • Make friends with being proven wrong. The moment you understand that being proven wrong is necessary to becoming a better you, a world of opportunity materializes. As Dudley Field Malone said, “I never in my life learned anything from a man who agreed with me.”
  • Be a skeptic. Skeptics are not the same as pessimists. Pessimists are characterized by feelings of negativity and hopelessness. Skeptics are simply people who require evidence before believing a piece of information. Being skeptical is the opposite of being gullible. 
  • Don’t be fooled by emotionally persuasive manipulations. Arguments that are supported by appeals to tradition, popular opinion, common sense, weak analogies, attacks on character, and false generalizations all exploit the human tendency to trust gut feelings and emotional responses.
  • Learn to identify actual evidence. Very often, actual evidence will conflict with gut feelings and emotional responses. True evidence is measurable and empirical. I may feel that this was the hottest summer ever. However, if measurable data indicates otherwise, I must trust the empirical evidence over my feelings.

So, if I am interested in finding the truth, then I must understand that, while gut feelings are useful, they are an extremely fallible resource. I must continuously test my gut feelings against objective litmuses like logic, mathematics, research results, and physical properties. I must learn to trust real evidence, especially when it conflicts with my emotional leanings. 

The ability to override gut feelings enables humans to operate beyond the confines of biological and environmental programming. Every animal on the planet is a slave to intuition. Throughout the majority of human history, we have operated exactly like every other species in this respect. However, logic, mathematics and the scientific method provide a means for humans to break the bonds of primitive thought processes. Determining the difference between feeling true and being true is the mechanism for transformation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Are You an American Patriot, or an American Nationalist?

In his book, Capture the flag: a political history of American patriotism, Woden Teachout distinguishes American patriotism from American nationalism.[1] American nationalism requires love and support for our country. I relate nationalism to the commitment one feels for a favorite sports team. Regardless of who is playing on the team, who is coaching the team, who owns the team, and how well the team is doing this season, the fan proclaims, “My team is the best!” Likewise, regardless of the foreign policies of this country, domestic policies of this country, and data on how this country ranks in the world on myriad issues, the nationalist proclaims, “America is the best!” Nationalistic flag waving support for any and all military actions initiated by the US very much resembles a sports fan rooting for his/her favorite team. The mantra of the American nationalist is, “AMERICA, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT!”

Conversely, the focus of American patriotism is love and support for the ideals of our country. The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution articulate these values:

·         Popular Sovereignty: The people are the ultimate source of the authority for the government. It derives its right to govern from their consent.
·         Majority Rule and Minority Rights: While decisions are ultimately made by the majority, these decisions may not infringe on the rights of the minority
·         Limited Government: The powers of government are limited by law and kept in check through separated and shared powers, due process of law, and leadership succession through elections
·         Basic Rights: Life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.[2]

There is a significant correlation (.78) between the nature of legislation passed in the US and the desires of the economic elites in America.[4] There is a near zero correlation (.03) between the nature of legislation passed in the US and the desires of the average citizen in America.[5] These statistics demonstrate that popular sovereignty does not currently exist in the US! The American patriot is outraged by such information that cuts to the heart of our democracy. The nationalist may shrug it off as, “just politics.”

American patriots ensure that minority rights are protected. The Constitution is very clear on this point. However, disregard for the rights of minorities are in the news every day. African Americans represent 13.2%[6] of the US population, but are arrested at a rate “10 times higher than people who are not black.”[7] Unfairness to any minority group is repugnant to a patriot, but may be seen as trivial or even "getting what they deserve" to the nationalist.

American patriots support the separation and limitations of power in government. Laws like Citizens United nullify the checks and balances put into place by the framers of the Constitution to ensure that power is never in the hands of a privileged few. When the economic elite fund politicians from both sides of the isle at all levels of government, there is no longer any real separation of power. Any process that undermines our democracy will outrage a patriot. Nationalists, however, will continue to wave the flag and shout, “We’re the best!”

American patriots support the natural rights of everyone everywhere to live freely and pursue their own happiness. Freedom is a fragile and complex notion. Initially, a capitalistic, free-market economy is a healthy environment to foster freedom. However, anyone who has played the game Monopoly knows that it always ends the same way. One player will own everything while the other players have nothing. Monopoly is an unrestrained capitalist, free-market economy. In the real world, if a society wishes to preserve freedom, capitalism must have checks and balances that continuously even the playing field. Regulations on banking, Wall Street, and others at the top of the food chain protect liberty and freedom for the average citizen.

American patriotism, by its very nature, prohibits nationalism. A true American patriot holds government accountable to the people. The Iraq War, which ultimately killed between 144,745 and 166,468 civilians and orphaned over half of Iraq’s children, was initiated despite the CIA’s “best Intelligence” indicating Saddam Hussein did NOT have weapons of mass destruction.[3]  A war precipitated by ignoble motivations is tantamount to mass murder and should be repellant to a real American patriot.

The fundamental values outlined in the Constitution are forever in the hearts of American patriots. American liberals and American conservatives should also be American patriots. Nationalists wrapped in the American flag, who claim patriotism, need to be outed for what they really are.

[1]  Teachout, Woden (2009). Capture the flag: a political history of American patriotism. New York, New York, USA: Basic Books. p. 230. 
[3] Taylor, Peter. "Iraq War: The Greatest Intelligence Failure in Living Memory." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
[4] Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest
Groups, and Average Citizens." Perspect. Polit. Perspectives on Politics 12.03 (2014): 564-81. Web.
[5] Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest
Groups, and Average Citizens." Perspect. Polit. Perspectives on Politics 12.03 (2014): 564-81. Web.
[6] "USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau." USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

[7] Heath, Brad. "Racial Gap in U.S. Arrest Rates: 'Staggering Disparity'" USA Today. Gannett, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why bad critical thinkers believe they are good critical thinkers

"When you are dead you don’t know it, but it is difficult for the people around you. Same as when you haven’t developed critical thinking skills."

I ripped off and modified this quote from an internet meme. Unfortunately, it relates a fundamental truth. Good critical thinkers know that they are good critical thinkers, because critical thinking requires training. It is an internal battle between the instinctual pull of human egocentrism and a disciplined commitment to evidence and logic. Non-critical thinkers don’t realize it, because they don’t really understand what the term “critical thinking” means. This lack of insight is itself a demonstration of egocentrism. defines critical thinking as, “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”[1] This means that when evidence and logic conflict with what you believe, you change your position. Believing doesn’t make a piece of information true. Neither belief, faith, intuition, gut feelings, nor common sense can be used to validate the accuracy of a piece of information.

For instance, if I believe that the United States is the best country in the world, but I have never lived anywhere else and I have not researched the data on what constitutes the “best” country, then my belief is unfounded. It is based on feelings rather than evidence. “I love my country,” is a statement of feeling and requires no evidence. 

No matter how badly I may “want” a piece of information to be true, no matter how powerfully a piece of information “feels” true, no matter how many other people I respect “believe” a piece of information is true, critical thinking requires the maturity to rise above my own ego needs and reject information that is not supported by evidence and logic. 

The scientific method is critical thought in action. It is a mechanism for factoring out emotion driven human bias. The results of the scientific method are nothing less than every benefit of modern life from space ships, to medicine, to the electronic device you are currently using, to nearly every object in your current field of vision! Prior to the advent of the scientific method, our natural tendencies towards preconception and superstition were the primary stumbling blocks to the advancement of our species.[2][3] Human nature evolved to help us survive in the natural environment. Traits that are adaptive in a primitive culture can be quite maladaptive in a modern culture. As a result, many aspects of human nature hinder progress.

Reliance on gut feelings is natural. Every primitive animal on the planet operates on gut feelings.
Overriding gut feelings in favor of critical evaluation does not come naturally to any species. It requires ongoing diligent work and self-discipline. The difference between the skilled critical thinker and the average thinker is as dramatic as the difference between the physique of a professional bodybuilder and that of the average couch potato.


[1] Open Source. (2014 ). Critical Thinking. Available: Last accessed 28th May 2014.
[2] Harris, William. "How the Scientific Method Works." HowStuffWorks., 14 Jan. 2008. Web. 09 June 2014.
[3] Killeen, P. R. "Superstition: A Matter of Bias, Not Detectability." Science199.4324 (1978): 88-90. Web.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Guns, Mass Shootings, Evidence, and Opinions

In the wake of repeated mass shootings and the predictable subsequent media debates arguing simple solutions to a very complex problem, I did some research to find what the empirical evidence on the issue would reveal. My personal bias prior to the research might be categorized as a pro-gun liberal. I would support reasonable gun regulations such as background checks and a ban on assault weapons, but I firmly stand behind the Second Amendment.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) summarizes a study conducted by Adam Lankford.[1] Lankford provides a quantitative assessment of all mass shootings worldwide (171 countries) from 1966 through 2012. Omitting gang-related, hostage-taking, robberies and domestic shootings, the study borrows the FBI definition of mass shooting: a shooting that killed more than 4 victims. (ASA)

Lankford found that, unlike shooters from other countries, American mass shooters were more likely to strike in schools, factories, warehouses, and office buildings. American shooters were also more likely to use multiple weapons. (ASA) Lankford also found a strong correlation between civilian firearm ownership rate of a country and that country’s mass shooting rate. The top 5 countries for firearms owned by civilian population were also in the top 15 countries for mass shootings within that population. Lankford cites gun ownership rates as the best predictor of mass shootings. (ASA)

In an interview with Science of Us, award winning sociologist, Abraham De Swann, cites three qualities that make an individual more likely to commit mass murder:

1.   Their sense of conscience is limited to friends and family (low morality with regards to minorities and the less fortunate in society).
2.   They are low on self-efficacy. That is, they don’t feel particularly responsible for their lives. Life happens to them. Others are to blame for their problems (fate, God, luck, destiny, minorities, people who are different).
3.   They have very little empathy for people outside of their social circle ("If it doesn't affect me or mine, then they deserve what they get").[2]

Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment and Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, provide evidence that heinous behaviors do not manifest in a vacuum, but result from complex interactions between an individual and his/her social environment.[3] America is ranked number one in mass shootings. In a list ranking the top 5 countries for incidents of mass shootings, America is followed by the Philippines, Russia, Yemen, and France.(ASA) How does the social environment in America contribute to our having nearly twice as many mass shootings as the other four countries on this list combined?

Frederike Sommer et al, conducted a “systematic search” of the professional literature on school shootings which included 35 international primary studies.[4] While there was no single factor that was present in all school shootings, certain factors did emerge as strong predictors. The following is a breakdown of frequent and infrequent qualities in perpetrators of mass shooting:

·       88.1% social conflict within the school

·       53.7% peer rejection           
·       43.3% conflicts with teachers                                            
·       29.9% victim of bullying:                                                  
·       29.9% romantic rejection                                                 
I love westerns, biker flicks, and gangster movies. I like guns, and swords, and other dangerous toys. Courage, strength, violence, and heroes are concepts that resonate with my inner 7th grader. A thirst for adventure is the emotional element that draws me to dangerous themes.

That said, while I own guns, I have never carried one or even considered it. Why would I? If tears say, “I am sad,” and punching a wall says, “I am angry,” then carrying a gun says, “I am scared.” And, I am not scared.

Only a terrified person would need to have a firearm on his person at all times. Some situations warrant such fear. If one is in combat, law enforcement, a violent street gang, or any position where one might reasonably expect to be the target of some else’s firearm, then carrying a weapon is sensible. But, what level of paranoia and anxiety would be required to prompt a person living in ordinary circumstances to believe that, at any moment, someone might try to kill him? If life itself is so frightening that one feels the need to carry a firearm everywhere, I interpret that as evidence of a level of anxiety bordering on delusional. And, if I’m not mistaken, an absence of psychiatric problems is a prerequisite for obtaining a concealed weapon permit.

I have been fortunate in my life. At 55, I have resolved every conflict through conversation or an ass whipping. Whether I am at a motorcycle rally or in a bad part of town late at night, I move through life without fear of my fellow man.  I’m not saying that I am against guys carrying firearms, only that those who do are also carrying more fear than I can muster. 

The odds of my dying in a mass shooting are 1 in 12,000,000. I am 4 times more likely to die by a lightning strike! If I am ever in the unfortunate situation of being present at a mass shooting, I will try to stay alive and try to help others stay alive. Otherwise, I will continue to be a kind and generous person, rather than a well-armed one.

[1] "U.S. Has 5% of World's Population, But Had 31% of Its Public Mass Shooters From 1966-2012." American Sociological Association N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.
[2] "An Author Explains How Mass Killings Happen." Science of Us. N.p., 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.
[3] Zimbardo, P. G. (1971). "The power and pathology of imprisonment", Congressional Record (Serial No. 15, 1971-10-25). Hearings before Subcommittee No. 3, of the United States House Committee on the Judiciary, Ninety-Second Congress, First Session on Corrections, Part II, Prisons, Prison Reform and Prisoner's Rights: California. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
[4] Sommer, Frederike, and Et Al. "Bullying, Romantic Rejection, and Conflicts with Teachers: The Crucial Role of Social Dynamics in the Development of School Shootings – A Systematic Review."International Journal of Developmental Science 8 (n.d.): 3-24. 12 Oct. 2015. Web.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Major Depression: 4 Steps to Navigating Rough Waters

Image by George Hodan

After suffering a lifetime of Major Depression, I have found 4 strategies that minimize the damages and maximize the benefits of this disorder. Yeah, there are actually benefits!

STEP 1: Get treatment!

Let’s start with separating “normal” depression that everyone experiences from clinical depression which affects 20-26% of women and 8-12% of men over the course of a lifetime[1]. Normal depression means feeling blue or having a down day. Clinical depression means that for most days, over at least a two week period, you experience 5 or more of these symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, empty, depressed, or tearful
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities
  • Increased or decreased sleep
  • Restlessness or a sense of being slowed down
  • Loss of energy
  • Feeling worthless or guilt ridden
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Unintentional weight loss or weight gain of over 5% of your body weight (within a two week period).[2]

Prior to coming to terms 
with my depression, I was completely against medical treatment and in severe denial. I felt like getting such treatment somehow spoke to my character, as if it meant I was weak or less of a man. I employed every alternative strategy I could come up with. I tried yoga, running, diets, self-hypnosis, weight lifting, meditation, talk therapy, and every holistic treatment I could find.

By age 28, I was at the end of my rope. Fortunately, a doctor friend insisted on a trial of antidepressant medication. This changed my life. Over the course of a couple of weeks, my mental processes became clear, my sleep and appetite improved dramatically, and my overall level of functioning skyrocketed. I went from the being the lowest to the highest producer in my office. I had always been a “C” student, but when I returned to grad school after treatment, I earned all “A”s. Once I treated the underlying illness, all of the other strategies I had tried in the past were able to take root. It was as if I had been wearing dark glasses with the wrong prescription my whole life and suddenly they had been removed. This was how “normal” people felt!?! I had been dragging a boulder behind me while everyone else skipped along unencumbered!

Depression is a serious illness and should not be ignored. We lose many good people every day to suicide. Often, well-meaning, but ignorant, family and friends tell sufferers of depression to “get over it” or “suck it up.” The proper advice to give a sick loved one is to get treatment. No one would advise a heart patient to, “Stop taking your medication. You don’t need that shit!” However, depressed people hear such comments frequently, and from people who are supposed to care about them!

Treatment programs may include medication, talk therapy, physical exercise, yoga, meditation, dietary changes and numerous other strategies. A major obstacle to any treatment program is patient noncompliance[3]. Depressed patients often feel shame and embarrassment about their condition. It takes precious little social pressure from the people in his/her life to get a depressed person to stop treatment or fail to seek treatment. The results can be tragic. Statistically, death by suicide tops chronic liver disease, Alzheimer’s, homicide, arteriosclerosis and hypertension.[4]

Even with excellent compliance, depressive episodes still happen. But, sticking with the treatment program can make episodes much less frequent and much less severe.

STEP 2: Don’t trust your gut feelings.

Emotions evolved in humans because they helped our ancestors survive.[5] Feelings of love and affection motivated them to protect younger and weaker members of their social group. Anger and fear, associated with the fight or flight response, gave early humans the instinct to protect themselves by confronting danger or fleeing to safety. In a modern society, in certain situations, some of these primitive instincts can be a hindrance. For instance, if one were to act on every violent impulse one experiences when angry, the social, legal and physical consequences would be catastrophic.

During depressive illness, gut feelings are out of whack.[6] Because they evolved from survival instincts, gut feelings can be overwhelmingly powerful and difficult to overcome. Most people assume their feelings are accurate without question. This can be a HUGE problem for people with depression. Messages from the guts of depressed people can look like this:

“You are useless.”

“All you do is screw up.”

“Your life is terrible.”

“You are a failure.”

“Everyone can see that you are a loser.”

When people trust this faulty sense they are worthless and life sucks, depression is intensified. When clinical depression manifests, symptoms are unavoidable. “Thinking your way” out of an organic, depressive episode is akin to “thinking your way” out of having a bad cold. You can be aware that you have a cold and think positive, healthy thoughts… but you will still have a cold. The depressive episode will pass, but it will do so gradually, the same way a head cold subsides.

At this stage in the game, I am acutely aware of the physical and cognitive symptoms of emerging depression. My concentration and memory slip. My ability to do complex tasks becomes impaired. Everyday activities feel overwhelming. My sleep patterns change. I know the experience is unavoidable, but I also know that it is temporary.

STEP 3: Be kind and patient with yourself.

If you have depressive illness, you have an ILLNESS! Ease up on yourself.[7] How would you treat a sick friend? Would you tell them to get over it? Would you tell them that they are worthless and lazy?

As soon as I become aware of depression, I consciously start to shift my inner dialogue:

“Take it easy. You can’t rely on your feelings today.”

“This is like a thunderstorm. It will eventually move on.”

“You can’t trust the emotional signals you’re getting today.”

 “Depressed feelings are not evidence of anything but depressed feelings. They don’t mean a damn thing.”

“Just like a head cold. Take care of yourself and it will eventually pass.”

“You are doing the best you can and that is enough.”

“If these exact same things happened on a day when you were not depressed, they would not affect you at all.”

When I realize I am dealing with a depressive episode, my priorities also shift. I know that the machine I use for problem-solving, planning, and social interactions is malfunctioning, so it’s a bad time to engage in those activities. I know not to make big decisions about my life when I’m depressed.

For some people, socializing eases depression. But for me, solitude can also be helpful. I communicate that I’m not feeling well and need some time. Then, I go off by myself and nap, read, listen to music, write, play guitar, watch movies, or do light exercise. These solo activities can be comforting to me when I’m depressed. The best strategy, when you are having severe depression, is to fill your time with any non-hazardous activities that help you cope until the episode passes.

STEP 4: Appreciate the experience.

I am a fortunate man. I was thrown into the world an intelligent, reasonably attractive, white, male American with a loving, stable family. I have received a lifetime of benefits (seen and unseen) associated with these qualities, even though I did nothing to earn them. Under other circumstances, I could have easily become an arrogant, self-righteous, uncaring, privileged jerk. But, depression has made me keenly aware of human suffering. Depression helped make me an empathetic, caring human being. Depression has given me the opportunity to experience depths of emotion that are not available to people without the condition. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, but I wouldn't be me without depression. And, I love being me!

People say they want a “happy life.” I consider this a foolish aspiration. Every healthy person will live through a complete repertoire of emotional experiences. Each of us will know joy, sadness, boredom, love, hate, excitement, bliss, pain, and on, and on. Emotions give color and texture and meaning to our lives. Often times the most difficult emotional experiences are the most necessary ones for our own development.[8]

I don’t think anyone would actually want a “happy life” even if it were possible. Less emotional experiences would mean being less human. Why are there movie genres for horror, comedy, tragedy, action, romance, and fantasy? Because people want to experience a full range of human emotions!

No one “enjoys” having depression, but the experience is wasted if you fail to, at least, appreciate it.

[1] "Hotline Information." Depression Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[2] "Major Depressive Episode Symptoms." Psych Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[3] Martin, Leslie R., Summer L. Williams, Kelly B. Haskard, and M. Robin DiMatteo. "The Challenge of Patient Adherence." Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management. Dove Medical Press, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[4] "Hotline Information." Depression Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[5] "The Nature of Emotions." » American Scientist. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[6] "Corsair Philosophy." : Why You Can't Always Trust Your "Gut Feelings?" N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[7] "Depression Acting Up? 5 Ways To Be Kind to Yourself." Depression Acting Up? 5 Ways To Be Kind to Yourself. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
[8] "Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being." Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nostalgia, Blackberry Picking, and the Confederate Flag

I grew up with the Confederate flag, “Dixie,” shrimp and grits, antebellum homes, Civil War artifacts and all of the things that fuel the sweet nostalgic sense of what it means to be Southern. My family descended from plantation folks, so my childhood was steeped in the romance of Old South life. I grew up on property that was once a plantation. The “Big House” and the old cotton gin house, still occupied by family members, represent historic monuments to our heritage.  I drank deeply of rhetoric about a more tranquil time when society was not plagued by minority issues.

Years ago, I was riding with an African American co-worker down Folly Road, on James Island. As we approached the Wappoo Cut Bridge, we were treated to a beautiful view of the estate of Mr. Willie Mcleod, an ancient Southern gentleman who resided at his family’s plantation for well over 100 years. The back yard of his antique home opened to a huge field. The scene was framed with live oaks and six, tiny buildings that once functioned as slave’s quarters. My friend looked as if she were going to be ill. She said, “Why do they leave those horrible slave houses up? My stomach hurts every time I see them.” At the time, I was truly shocked that a sight so pleasant to my eyes could cause such a visceral negative reaction in another.

I have memories of a perfect, Tom Sawyeresque childhood on the sea islands of South Carolina. However, the recollections have been cherry picked, censored and sanitized to such a degree as to no longer resemble actual experiences. Old fellas like myself, will often reflect on the idyllic experiences of youth. But, ask young people who are currently in the midst of actual youthful experiences, and their descriptions of these will be anything but idyllic.  This is because the stories we tell “about” life are different from what we experience when we are in the process of living life. The trouble with nostalgia is that it is rooted in fantasy. Many of my stories about getting into trouble as a kid are hysterically funny. However, the reality of these experiences was often painful and sometimes scarring. Nostalgia about the Old South is no different. 

My wife and I went blackberry picking last weekend. It was humid and over 90 degrees outside. Insects feasted on us as briers tore at our arms and legs. Sweat poured into our eyes and soaked our clothes. After less than an hour in this oppressive environment, we called it quits. While picking, my wife, who is biracial, commented, “Can you imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton?" I responded, "Like this, except someone would probably be standing over us with a whip and we would be working as long as there was enough light to see!” 

I imagine that most white, Southern people don’t spend much time thinking about such things. We rarely allow ourselves to consider the realities of slavery. A subsection of the American populous was systematically tortured, degraded, raped, and murdered. The modern family dog enjoys more protection from harm under the law than did a slave prior to the Civil War.  There is nothing romantic about the atrocities inflicted on living, non-fictitious, human beings under the Southern plantation system. Rationalizations about loyal slaves and kindly masters only work when one imagines oneself as the master and when one denies objective reality. In a country so grounded in the knowledge that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental human needs, the enslavement of sentient beings was a clear and obvious abomination. Slaves were real people whose life experiences were vivid and valid and relevant. 

I am proud of my Southern manners, my accent, and my Lowcountry culture. I am proud of my family’s accomplishments. But, as a moral person, the only response I could possibly have to symbols of a regime that supported the institution of slavery is revulsion and shame.

For Germans in the early 20th century, the swastika was a symbol of German pride. The dialogue that captured German hearts and minds at that time revolved around embracing German culture and heritage. The horrors visited on Jews by the Nazi regime should overshadow any nostalgic sense a modern German might experience from the display of a swastika. What kind of person would be so insensitive as to suggest that the swastika be displayed anywhere other than a museum?

Likewise, the horrors visited on African Americans by the plantation system in the American South should overshadow any nostalgic sense a modern Southerner might experience from the display of a Confederate flag. What kind of person would be so insensitive as to suggest that the Confederate flag be displayed anywhere other than a museum?

Monday, October 5, 2015

On the Financial Crisis

The financial crisis was not caused by healthcare, or poor people, or gays, or social welfare, or teachers. It was caused when Fortune 500 corporations in a poorly regulated banking industry played the same scam on home buyers as the “rent to own” stores. They give the customer the item (couch, stove, or in this case… house) and set em up with a payment plan he/she can’t afford. When the sap can’t make the payments, they repossess the item and re-sell it to someone else.

Trouble is, when the scam is played on huge numbers, there’s no one left to re-buy the repossessed items. The result is devastating to the average consumer, and a gold mine for the ultra wealthy who can now buy up everything at dirt cheap prices. The punishment to the banking industry for these unethical practices? They are given TRILLIONS in corporate welfare, paid for by the same people who got screwed over by them.

Somehow, I just don’t feel as upset about Uncle Sam taking $100 from me to help feed and shelter a poor family as I do when they take $200 to help upgrade someone’s Leer Jet!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Can an Atheist be Spiritual?

Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - Follow the Light
Oxford Dictionary defines the term “spiritual” as follows:
  1. Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things
  2. Of or relating to religion or religious belief[1]

As a skeptic and an atheist, I do not believe in spirits, souls, gods, or ghosts. Spiritual people believe in the supernatural, skeptics do not. There is a complete absence of credible evidence substantiating the paranormal. Belief in spiritual forces, whether these forces are defined by organized religion, popular culture, or personal intuition, requires faith. While the concept of faith has been exalted as a human virtue, I tend to agree with the Kurt Vonnegut Jr quote, “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith. I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”[2]

For me, the religious application of the term “faithful” can be used interchangeably with the terms “gullible” and “superstitious.” Believing something without evidence is a slippery slope. If I choose to accept one supernatural manifestation on faith, am I not then susceptible to believing any absurdity? Talking snakes, invisible deities, angels, pixies, leprechauns, and unicorns are all supported by faith and disputed by reason. How does one justify belief in a god, but not in a pixie, or in some other god?

Are ghosts real because it feels as if ghosts are real? If so, this same intuitive sense could be used as justification for every god ever worshiped and every superstitious belief ever held. Is god real because the Bible says he’s real? If so, the Koran is proof for Allah’s existence and the Vita Merlini is proof that magical wizards are real. Are souls real because people you respect in your culture say that souls are real? If so, respected people from other cultures and other time periods who held superstitious beliefs are proof of said beliefs.

It is human nature to be egocentric. Egocentricity is how humans all over the world and throughout history reflect the predominant beliefs of their own culture and “feel” fortunate that they happened to have been born into the “true” faith, while considering those born in other cultures unfortunate to have been taught false beliefs.

Believers and non-believers enjoy and suffer the same range of emotional experiences. Both groups experience wonder, ecstasy, fear, anger, love, excitement. However, believers and non-believers may differ in their interpretations of these experiences. It is a natural limitation for humans to lack insight with regards to emotion. The experience of emotion often seems to arrive from external sources. Believers may interpret some of these sources as supernatural ones (god, spirits, the devil, ghosts, angels, and demons). Sometimes these emotional experiences may be mistaken for evidence of the paranormal. But, feelings are not evidence. Science provides rational explanations for human mental states. Changes in neurochemistry resulting from reflexive and perceptual reactions to internal thoughts and external events create emotional experiences.[3]

The entire process that creates an emotional experience is housed within the human brain. The brain can react to thoughts in the same way it reacts to actual events. For instance, if I believe with all my heart on a Thursday that it is actually Friday, I will experience whatever emotions accompany the idea, “It’s Friday!” In other words, a false belief creates the identical emotions as an accurate belief.

Can an atheist be spiritual? My answer is, “no.” Can an atheist experience the same sense of wonder and joy as a person who is spiritual? Yes, of course.

[1] "Definition of Spiritual in English:." Spiritual: Definition of Spiritual in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US). N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2015.
[2] "A Quote from Mother Night." Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2015.
[3] "Biology of Emotion - Boundless Open Textbook." Boundless. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2015.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why would anyone want to be an atheist? 5 reasons

This is a great question and one that I think I am uniquely qualified to answer. Religion was at the center of my life growing up. I was a Born Again Christian and experienced all forms of religious ecstasy. Jesus Christ was my personal savior and my walk with the Lord was never far from my thoughts.

My early answer to the question, “Why would you want to be an atheist?” was, “I don’t want to be.” Why would I want to give up beliefs that provided so much comfort? I wanted a loving, omniscient parent figure watching over me. I wanted bad people to be punished and good people to be rewarded. I wanted miracles to be real. I wanted to meet my loved ones in Heaven after I died. I wanted the power of prayer to influence outcomes in this world. I wanted to believe what everyone I grew up with believed. I wanted to believe in magic.

As I began to develop my critical thinking skills, I found that my religious beliefs did not hold up to my personal standards for logic and evidence. I desperately wanted my Christian beliefs to be objectively true. Everyone I loved and respected growing up was a Christian. “Christian person” and “good person” actually meant the same thing to me (I have since found this to be a grossly inaccurate perception). I was so determined to prove my beliefs valid that I spent over 20 years attempting to reconcile rational thinking with Christianity. I failed. Historically, better minds than mine also failed at this endeavor. Ultimately, I had to accept that there were no loopholes through which I could contort a logical argument to such a degree as to deny reality. As the religion of the ancient Greeks, my religion was simple mythology.

Reality demonstrates its true nature to us every minute of every day. You don’t need to be an atheist to know that snakes don’t talk, that gravity is constant, that death is permanent, and that even the potential for evil (or free will) could not logically exist if God were simultaneously all good, all knowing, AND the creator of all things.

1. In the absence of credible evidence, atheism is the default position

I didn’t decide to become an atheist. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, atheism is the default position. Every baby on the planet is born an atheist until she is indoctrinated into the mythology of her culture. The burden of proof is on he who makes the assertion. As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If I claim to have a pocket full of magic beans, it is not your job to prove me wrong. I made the claim, therefore, I must show you the beans and show you that they are magic. Likewise, if I claim that there is a god, I must show you the god.

I am an atheist because any other position would be intellectually dishonest. The fundamental human thinking error is to mistake “feeling true” for “being true.” The modern age was born the minute the scientific method factored out this natural human tendency. “Wanting” a piece of information to be true does not make it so. “Believing” a piece of information to be true does not make it so. Objective truth is provable through evidence and logic. Objective truth often conflicts with what I would prefer to be true. However, I value truth above my own emotional preferences.

The evidence for every single religion is no evidence at all. Each is justified by the same fallacious support:

Personal, spiritual experiences that have led the believer to an intuitive sense or “gut feeling” that the god in question is real.

Feelings are NOT evidence.

Many other people within the believer’s culture, especially respected people in positions of authority (parents, ministers, educators, political officials), share a belief in said, God. 

Popular opinion is NOT evidence.

Spoken or written stories state the existence of the god in question. 

Stories are NOT evidence.

Sometimes Christians say, “If you knew Jesus as I do, you would believe.” Speaking in tongues? Check. Healing? Check. Emotional redemption experience? Check. Feeling the Lord’s presence? Check. Prayers answered? Check. I have been through the experience that people call “knowing Jesus.” However, I imagine that it is a rare Christian who has experienced the dignity, peace, and wisdom that accompanies living completely without superstition and under the warm light of reason. It takes great courage to manage life without imagined supernatural helpers, but the benefits are tremendous.

2. Self-deception is degrading

As a boy, when my mother told me that Santa wasn’t real, I remember longing to believe again. But, it was impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Discarding my belief in Santa was a loss of innocence and, though painful, loss of innocence brings the gift of maturity. If I were an adult who refused to acknowledge Santa as a myth, I would be considered by most to be mentally unsound. Discarding my comfortable religious mythology was also a loss of innocence, but it allowed me to develop an aspect of maturity otherwise impossible to access.

As an adult, I wouldn’t want to still believe in Santa and I wouldn’t want to still believe in a god. Through the 19th century, women were generally regarded as incapable of managing adult life without the guidance of a man. It is repugnant to modern sensibilities that female adults were treated like children. It is equally offensive to me that religion keeps the adult believer in a child’s role throughout life.

3. The permanence of death is scary but makes life richer and fuller

The irreversible nature of death is an obvious truth when considering mosquitoes, tomato plants, or bacteria. However, when we have to deal with the death of a loved one, the permanence of death becomes overwhelming. And, when we have to reflect on our own ultimate mortality, this truth is seemingly unbearable. So like children, we retreat into fantasy. No one we care about really dies. We all get to live in a magical paradise forever.

Dealing with one’s own mortality can be a frightening business. But, as Emily Dickinson said, “That life will never come again is what makes life sweet.” Truly accepting our own impermanence makes every sunset more beautiful, every meal more delicious, and every kiss more passionate. It shines a bright light on the things that are truly important in life. Knowing that our time is limited makes opportunities to interact with the people we love deeply special.

4. Making the world a better place is intrinsically rewarding

Often times, bad people enjoy great success and good people are punished. Likewise, aggressive, violent apes are often rewarded with the first choice for food, grooming, and sex partners while their passive counterparts live as victims of an unfair social order. This doesn’t occur because the ape god is punishing or testing the passive apes. It occurs because this is the nature of life in an ape tribe.

Praying will not change unfairness. One hundred years of prayer research has clearly proven that prayer has absolutely no impact on external reality.[1] None. The problems of this world are myriad and complex, but solutions will only come about when people take action to provide actual help for one another.

The fantasy that everything will be made right after one dies has been used to control slaves, peasants, oppressed minorities, and the downtrodden throughout history. This horrible myth has enabled the rich and powerful to live in opulence through the suffering of gullible believers. Believers who accept their miserable lots in life, because they think a god will fix everything when they die. How many lives have been thrown away? How many people wasted this one and only opportunity they would ever have to enjoy the absolute wonder of living a human life?

The promised rewards of heaven and threats of hell are completely superfluous to any human being with an ounce of empathy. The joy one feels for doing good is its own reward.

5. Being responsible is empowering

You are 100% responsible for your life regardless of your beliefs. This truth becomes obvious at the end of life, but it is often denied by believers until that point. The number one regret of the terminally ill? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”[2]

If you are unhappy with your life circumstances, it is not because you are being punished by God. You are randomly thrown into this world under a wide range of life circumstances beyond your control. You may be fortunate, unfortunate, rich, poor, ugly, beautiful, healthy, sickly, tall, or short. Regardless of your circumstances, you have the right and the responsibility to make something meaningful of your single opportunity at life.

Religion demands a prescribed life. It provides a paint by numbers formula for meaning. Conversely, my life is a blank canvas on which I paint from an endless palette of the experiences that vibrate with depth and significance specifically for me. Unrestricted by the egocentric delusion that my every thought and act is being monitored and judged by an invisible deity, I live as a truly free man and revel in the joy it brings me. I still experience fear, but I fear things that are real. Demons, devils, and other magical forces have never once harmed anyone. People who believe in such foolishness, however, have inflicted harm beyond comprehension.

I guess my final answer to, “Why would I want to be an atheist?” is “Because it is the most satisfying life I can imagine!”

[1] Masters, Kevin S., Glen I. Spielmans, and Jason T. Goodson. "Are There Demonstrable Effects of Distant Intercessory Prayer? A Meta-analytic Review." Annals of Behavioral Medicine Ann. Behav. Med. 32.1 (2006): 21-26. Web.
[2] Rosen, Katerina. "The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying." The Huffington Post., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

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