Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Perfect Religion

What would the perfect religion look like? I would argue that Christianity is the perfect religion. It is a religion that has evolved into a powerful psychological drug that is very, very hard to give up, making it the most successful religion to date.

Evolution is a biological process that involves change in species. There is no goal in evolution. We humans are not the pinnacle of several billion years of evolution. We may be more cerebral than any previous species (to our knowledge), but that doesn't mean that evolution has strived to produce us and, now that it has, we are biology's crowning achievement. Evolution doesn't work that way. It could care less if we are here. We are just one tiny leaf on the vast tree of evolution. Once humans are exctinct, the process will just carry on much the same. The evolution of religion is quite different. This is a manufactured process (though not conscious on any individual's level) of gradual change in humanity's approach to the supernatural. It is a process that has gradually made religions better and better at recruiting people and keeping them locked into the religious belief. The perfect religion would presumably be one that causes all humans to believe in it, and to never, ever leave it. Christianity might not be quite there yet, but it's done a better job of that than most if not all religions before it.

Fear and reward are important themes in religion. There is much to be afraid of in this world. Primitive hominids had to be afraid of being prey, of lightning, of the dark, of death itself (once they evolved the ability to recognize that inevitability). Reward plays a big role in human psychology. We all seek rewards, whether we consciously recognize it or not. Much of our daily lives are occupied with seeking out ways to enhance complex releases of rewarding neurotransmitters in the brain that make us feel good. Some of these rewards are short-lasting and instant such as those involving a cup of coffee or a piece of ingested chocolate. Others are very long-lasting and complex, such as those involving decisions surrounding marriage, career, and having kids. If you have kids, just think, is anything in life more rewarding than your kids? Having a piece of chocolate might feel better for the 30 seconds you are eating it, but then it is gone. Either you have to just revel in the knowledge that you rewarded yourself with the pleasure of eating it, or you become an addict, constantly seeking out your next chocolate hit. But longer acting rewards such as children and career provide you with a deep sense of well-being and satisfaction. A constant background level of rewarding neurotransmitters that make you feel good about yourself all the time, not just for the fleeting 30 seconds associated with a good piece of food or with a drug.

So, something in life that could calm your natural fears about your surroundings and at the same time provide you with a deep sense of satisfaction and reward would likely be very successful with humans. It would be...addictive.

Now, think about what can do that. What could take away all your fears, including the fear of your impending and unavoidable death, and at the same time give you a long-lasting feeling of reward and satisfaction? Well, religion can do that.

In the good old polytheistic days, humans managed to tackle the fear side of things. Praying to the gods seemed to occasionally convince them not to send a thunderstorm or a flood this time. Sacrificing a virgin to the gods seemed to help out with a good growing season. And, if it didn't, then there was always a way to find something that someone had done wrong that must have angered the gods and over-ridden your costly sacrifice. But, the provision of a sense of control did take care of some of the fear. After all, most of us are most afraid of being out of control. Whatever you are afraid of in life, whether it is heights, snakes, sharks, or rats, you're likely much more afraid of them when you are in a position in which you have no control. How fearful it is to children when a bully comes through the playground and forces them to come face to face with a rat or snake compared to just knowing that a rat or snake is traveling by in the playground. When you can't run away, it gets a lot more frightening. So, the appearance of control over the frightening things in life went a long way to helping humans feel better, and in helping to give religions a firm root in the human psyche. But, it wasn't quite good enough. The reward was lacking.

Along came Christianity (and its spin-off of Islam). Christianity offers an absolute repreive from the most fearful human event: death. And at the same time, it offers the huge reward of knowing that you are going to live in bliss forever. Humans can put up with a lot of misery in the present if they know there is a big reward in the future. Animals don't do this on such long time scales. A dog might perform a trick for the promise of a treat in 30 seconds, but no dog is going to do a trick so that it can get a reward next year. But you might. You might work hard for 40 years of your life just so that you know you'll be rewarded with a solid pension decades in the future. If someone you really trusted was willing to give you a billion dollars ten years from now, you might be willing to put up with almost any misery to get there. Christianity offers the ultimate reward: eternal life in heaven. What wouldn't you be willing to put up with in life to get that reward?

Christianity succeeds where some other religions have failed, in providing that perfect mix of fear and reward. There is just enough fear of death (and a fate even worse than death itself) if you don't accept the religion, mixed with the ultimate reward. It is hard to picture a more fearful punishment than an eternity in hell, and it is hard to picture a better reward than an eternal life in heaven. It is the ultimate combination. That is why I am 100% certain that, despite their denials, almost every Christian would give the religion up immediately if they knew with certainty that there was no punishment or reward after death. Take away those key motivators and the whole thing just crumbles into some vague pre-historic attempt at explaining the supernatural.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Myth of Government Job Creation...Part II

In a previous post I wrote about the myth of government job creation. Today in the news there is a classic example of what I'm talking about:

This story talks about how Shell is to build a liquid natural gas plant in the small northern coastal town (more of a village really) of Kitimat, BC. The project will "create" between 5,000 - 7,000 jobs. Of course, the premier of the province of British Columbia, Christy Clark, rushed to get her name all over this story and to take credit for the Shell corporation's decision to invest in B.C., saying: "We are a stable government with a business-friendly environment, so they’re very interested in British Columbia." Doubtless Clark believes that this is a part of a fantastic plan to increase the number of jobs in B.C., all part of her economic plan to...well, to where exactly?

Yes, an investment like this will bring more jobs to the town of Kitimat. So what? So, more people will move to Kitimat to take up those jobs. It is not as if there are between 5,000 - 7,000 unemployed workers in Kitimat just waiting for a new job (Kitimat's population is around 8,000 people in total). It's also not as if there are 5,000 - 7,000 unemployed people around the province or the country who are just itching to relocate to a very remote coastal village to work on a liquid natural gas plant. And, you can bet that after these 5,000 - 7,000 jobs are "created", the unemployment rate in the province will not change one bit.

So, where do the people come from when a project like this "creates" jobs? They shift from other sectors, they come from overseas, immigrants to Canada have new jobs, and people who move to Kitimat to take up the new jobs marry, have a family and have new kids who grow up and, lo and behold, need a job! Economic growth simply leads to population growth, with roughly the same unemployment following the economic growth. Certainly, during booming economic times such as a few years ago in Alberta, there are very few unemployed people and wages are comparitively high. But, Alberta is a great example of where that leads. What happened when there were so many jobs in Alberta? Wages shot up to entice people to relocate to the jobs. But real estate shot up as well, doubling in price in just a couple of years. Then the whole economic meltdown occured and suddently the natural resources weren't in demand anymore.

You can't have your cake and eat it too. What politician's like Christy Clark don't understand is that economic growth leads to population growth. Then, that larger population demands a larger economy and more jobs to support it. The cycle continues, and more jobs are "created", leading to more population growth and a greater demand for jobs.

The cycle never ends. This is why our current system is not sustainable and is ultimately doomed. We are under the false pretention that we can endlessly grow economically, which we can't. We are also under the pretense that we can endlessly harvest natural resources, which we can't. Natural resources are finite, especially hydrocarbons like oil and natural gas. Eventually they will run out. What will happen then? What will happen when we have developed our economy so much that the population has increased to a level that demands that economy to keep going? Which will crash first, the economy or the population?

Understanding the Monster

I hesitate to write this post because I don't agree with the excessive amount of media attention given to psychopaths who do very evil things. I think that school shootings and the like are massively over-reported in the media and I think that the exposure is likely a contributing factor that leads to them in the first place. Disturbed young people often seek attention. If they feel powerless and empty in their life, they may feel that, no matter how destructive their actions are and no matter what the long-term consequences are, some media glory is worth it. And, in the case I am about to write about, this seems to be the case. This case has been over-reported in the Canadian media and the perpetrators, in my opinion, should disappear from the public eye forever.

In April 2009, a little 8-year old girl was walking home from school in Woodstock, Ontario. She was abducted by an 18-year old woman, Terri-Lynne McClintic, and taken to a waiting car in which sat 28-year old Michael Rafferty. McClintic pleaded guilty to first degree murder and is serving a life sentance (which in Canada means no chance of parole for 25 years). Rafferty was recently found guilty of first degree murder by a jury of his peers and was sentenced by a judge to the same fate. Rafferty in particular is unlikely to ever be released from prison.

McClintic is not the kind of girl you want your son to bring home to meet mom. She was a drug abuser, violent, and had a criminal history. Rafferty seems even worse, a predatory psychopath who "dated" (i.e. had sex with) over a dozen women, including McClintic, in the spring of 2009. His extensive sexual escapades appeared insufficient, however, and he desired to have sex with a child. He downloaded child pornography, and eventually determined that he needed to actually go through with his fantasy of pedophilia and so convinced McClintic to help him abduct poor innocent little Tori Stafford. McClintic convinced Tori to get into the car, and then Rafferty drove them to a hardware store to buy a hammer and garbage bags for the gruesome murder that they planned with forethought for poor Tori. McClintic and Tori waited in the car while Rafferty went in and bought the murder weapon.

They drove Tori to a secluded spot 100 km from her home and Rafferty repeatedly raped her while she pleaded with McClintic to make him stop. Then, one or the other or both of McClintic or Rafferty repeatedly hit Tori in the head with the hammer and killed her. They put her body in the garbage bags, covered it with some rocks in a field and left it there.

For three months Tori's parents, family, and friends wondered what had happened to her. For three months they went through every parent's nightmare of not knowing what happened to their child. Then, eventually, a police officer got a lead and found Tori's remains.

I'm not a supporter of the death penalty, but this case certainly had me re-thinking my position. I don't think Rafferty or McClintic are capable of rehabilitation. I don't think they've shown the slightest sign of any remorse. I'm not convinced they even acknoweldge to themselves that what they did was wrong. I am convinced that if they were given the chance to do something similar again, they would. These two individuals have no place being free in our society. The judge, when sentencing Rafferty, called him a monster. I would agree. Were I Tori Stafford's father, I would have probably dedicated my life to finding a way to kill the man. Even now, I would probably dedicate myself to finding a way to kill him if he is ever released from prison. That's just a natural fatherly instinct. No scumbag deserves to live after doing that to your little girl.

Now to the point of this post. As I say, I hesitate to even write this post because people like McClintic and Rafferty deserve to spend the rest of their miserable lives in anonymity in prison. Never again should their names appear in the media. They should spend 24 hours in a cell contemplating their evil deeds.

With one little caveat. I believe it is worth studying these types of psychological monsters. As a society we do need to understand where these types of people come from. What makes a person like McClintic or Rafferty? Are they born that way or do they develop that way through some terrible combination of personality and upbringing? I think these are questions worth knowing so that we can identify others in the same boat and try to offer them the help they need before they do similar evil things in our society. Wouldn't it be a great small positive note to this tragic, horrible story if a psychologist finally broke through into McClintic's psyche and understood where she went wrong and then some parent somewhere recognized the same destructive path in their child and fixed it? Wouldn't it be great if we could use this case to prevent another child like Tori Stafford from suffering the same fate?

I am not promoting rights for the perpetrators. I am not promoting a public examination of these monsters, or providing them with the publicity they probably will want once they are serving their sentences. What I am suggesting is that we need to find a way to understand what causes an 18 year old woman and a 28 year old man to go so completely off the rails that they would be capable of destroying an innocent life. Most of us cannot imagine performing such incredibly evil and horrible things. Just saying: "Lock them up and throw away the key" isn't going to prevent the next one. Instead I say: "Lock them up and throw away the key, and at the same time let's spend some effort on understanding what created such monsters."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Whatever you Believe, Don't Waste Your Life

Recently, in Nova Scotia, a teenaged high-school student was told he could not wear a T-shirt to school with a slogan that read: "Life is Wasted Without Jesus." The story developed some more from that with the teen insisting he would only come back to the school if he was wearing the shirt. Eventually the school board relented and allowed the teen to wear the shirt, but it seems that some sort of tolerance discussions were included to help students understand diverse points of views in terms of relgions, politics, etc.

Judging by the comments on many of the news websites on this story, initially there was a public outcry that the teen should be left alone and that wearing the T-shirt was his right in a country with freedom of religion. A few dissenting voices pointed out that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, but in my opinion the public perception was overwhelmingly in support of the boy's right to wear the shirt. I didn't have particularly strong feelings about it. If I had seen a teen wearing a shirt like that in public (or in a school) I wouldn't have been offended, but I would likely have felt sorry for them. However, I do feel that the shirt is potentially more offensive than it could be since it openly states that you are wasting your life is you don't have a particular religion. This is quite different than a shirt that states something along the lines of: "I love Jesus" or "I choose to follow Jesus" or something along those lines. The difference, of course, lies in the finger pointing towards someone else being wrong and wasteful of their life. This part of the story could probably be argued back and forth. I don't consider it a huge deal. As I say, I probably wouldn't be offended by the shirt, though I do feel that it is out of place in a publicly funded educational institution.

The problem emerges when we see the follow-up story about the boy's father pulling the teen out of school. All of a sudden we realize we are not dealing with a peaceful, loving family that simply wants to have their religious beliefs respected and tolerated, and who are also willing to respect and tolerate the diverse beliefs of others. Instead we get this father driving up to the school, refusing to engage with the public or answer any questions, making his own statement with Bible in hand, and taking his son out of school because they are engaging in "extra-curricular" activities that are not "good old fashioned academics" such as reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Clearly the father has no idea what education is, to begin with, and he also is a very intolerant man. He isn't interested in a society that respects diverse points of view. This is not about having a society in which there is freedom of religion, it is about having a society in which he can display his own religious point of view but is not open to hearing (or allowing his son to hear) others' points of view. Part of education, a big part, is learning about the world we live in and how other people think. Learning about other cultures, poltiical systems, and religions, is a genuinely valuable part of education. Education is much more than simply learning the Three R's. This school board has gone out of their way to accomodate a potentially explosive issue. They have taken what I believe to be a mature and respectful approach in allowing the teen to wear his shirt, but to include some education on tolerance and religion to help deal with the diverse opinions involved. But this father has specifically rejected this tolerance and education by taking his son out of the school saying essentially that he will only bring his son back to school if they allow his son to wear his religious billboard without having to hear anyone else's point of view.

This seems to be a classic case of what I was writing about when I wrote about shining religious lights in society. I prefer my dark light.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Insecurity: The Unifying Theory of Humanity?...Part II

I've written previously about how I theorize that insecurity drives human behaviour. When you look around society, much of the behaviours you observe are largely driven by a need that people have to be percieved as important, or to add some value to their lives. At the most basic level, one can look at a young man driving a muscle car and ponder what he is compensating for. (Indeed, Pontiac Trans Ams and Chevy Camaros used to be called "penis extenders" in honour of this theory). You can go into many gyms or fitness centres and watch young people spend hours and hours of their lives trying to get just a bit "better looking". Young men and women who don't realize that they already have virtually flawless bodies will spend hours of time trying to get even thinner or even more muscular. It is an absurd phenomenon, but it is easy to comprehend when you understand that those young people are deeply insecure about themselves and their actions are largely driven by their insecurity about how people percieve them.

Observing and understanding the obsessive behaviour of gym rats or muscle car enthusiasts is one thing, but what about world leaders? Do you look at Barack Obama, David Cameron, or Stephen Harper and think much the same thing? Likely not. You may even be tempted to look at a man like Barack Obama and admire his incredible self-confidence. He might seem like a fulfilled man who is on a mission in life to make the world a better place. But is he?

I think that many politicians go into politics because they want to make a the world a better place. Or, to be more accurate, they go into politics because they think they want to make the world a better place. There is an important distinction. Many politiicans go into politics because they genuinly think they want to make a difference and they think they have some ideas about how to make the world a better place, but the actual driving force for them to act out on those ideas is insecurity. Deep, deep inside, most people want to feel good about themselves because they are deeply insecure about how they are perceived. If Barack Obama was completely secure and confident in who he is, why would he be motivated, at the most raw of human motivations, to get up and give speech after speech about how the world should be? He wouldn't. He's simply go on with his life, trying to make a difference, but needing no recognition for his contribution to this world. No, most politicians need that public recognition that they are doing the right thing.

Now most politicians may not be inherently evil people who want to go off to war and kill thousands of people. But what happens when almost everyone who goes into politics does so because they are deeply insecure about themselves? You have a pool of people, from whom the leaders emerge, all of whom have this deep insecurity about themselves. The most insecure ones are the most driven for acceptance and recognition by the world and therefore are the most likely to end up as the leaders of parties or of countries. As a result, the prime ministers and presidents of this world are mostly deeply insecure men in dire need of penis extension. Narcisists and megalomaniacs, who suddenly have access to billions of dollars and lots of military equipment, and faced with crisis after crisis around the world. Married to this insecurity is the genuine belief that they can make the world a better place, so off they go to do so, even if the path to a better world is very bloody. George W. Bush is the classic example of what I'm talking about here. One doesn't have to be a psychologist to undersand the deep insecuriteis that Bush Jr. suffered from. One can see his longing for paternal approval and recognition. And the whole world witnessed and suffered the results.

So who is the opposite of this model of political leader? Perhaps the Dalai Lama. Though I am an atheist and I think many of the Dalai Lama's beliefs are preposterous and baseless, you have to admire his peaceful approach to life that seems to be rooted in a very secure feeling about himself. He doesn't strike you as the kind of bloke who, if given the nuclear codes and the keys to all the military might in the world, would go on a mission to liberate Tibet by force. I don't get the feeling that the Dalai Lama has a deep seeded need for societal and historical recognition.

I'm not finished with this post but, after letting it sit for a couple of days, I have nothing further to add at this point. So, I'll leave Part II here and come back to my theory in the future.