Dr. Corso's med blog: Born to Believe – With Our Heads In the Sand.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Born to Believe – With Our Heads In the Sand.

an Opinion Piece about Faith, Islam and the Human Brain

I've spent many years keeping certain opinions mostly to myself in the name of medical professionalism.  My patients didn’t need to hear how I might disagree with them, politically or otherwise; my job was to support them.  But retirement from full-time practice and the latest atrocities in Paris, move me to publish what I really think about the horrible potential of “religious faith,” and to state the simple fact that it consists of ridiculous magical fantasies – by actual grown-ups.

That said, although faith may be idiotic, it is also entirely normal for most human beings to embrace it. And not so much because of the “wishful thinking” that many atheists cite as a key cause, but because magical thinking may be instinctual to human beings.  You see, our brains are broken.

Okay, I like the sound of that, but it’s probably more accurate to say our brains evolved with at least one very serious cognitive flaw. Yet that flaw, in many ways, behaves exactly like actual brain damage. Brain tumors, strokes and degenerative neurological/psychological diseases are known to occasionally cause the strangest side effects. Cases such as “mistaking one’s wife for a hat” or being completely unaware of the left half of your environment or losing all memory of an experience just minutes after it occurs have come to us through many non-fiction books and films.

Our species’ collective design flaw is just as strange. It manifests as the equally bizarre willingness of most of us to believe in silly religious nonsense.  We can be rational, calculating and critical about almost every other aspect of our daily lives and yet we set aside, and fiercely protect, a portion of our worldview that retains the entirely unwarranted belief in an all-powerful invisible friend, in immortality, and in the absolute correctness of our particular narrow version of a mythical story over the thousands of alternate versions from the past and present.

To live, people must get through every day by responding to the actual realities of their world.  We stop at red lights, keep toddlers away from cliffs edges, and keep our hands out of the pretty blue flames on the stove. Yet most people also make major decisions on how to spend their time, how to cast their votes, and who to accept or despise, based on the content of bogus beliefs that are accepted as true –  all because of this cognitive flaw.  Add in our tribal survival trait of “Us vs Them,” plus some really effective weapons, and you have the perfect modern formula for religious Armageddon.

Each of us, through our development as infants and children, must slowly create a working model of our universe in our heads with which we interpret the world.  Concepts such as light and dark, parent-friend-sibling-enemy, safe or dangerous, hot-warm-cold, happy-angry-sad, hungry-full, person-animal-plant, up vs down (itself an incomplete descriptions of reality but useful in day to day life) all gradually gel to allow us to interpret the input from all our senses in a way that helps us navigate life, to go from an almost blind, mindless rodent of a newborn to a curious, competent child. 

For many of us Westerners that model of reality at one time contained the very the “real” characters of an Easter Bunny, a Tooth Fairy and of course, of Santa Clause.  Yet eventually, and sometimes quite painfully, we were forced to retire these parts of our reality model and replace them with a world devoid of a jolly old elf and his fellows.  On a larger scale, our whole species eventually had to get their heads around the idea of a spherical Earth that was not, in fact, the center of the universe.

But this difficult act of cleaning up our internal models of reality, based on new knowledge, simply fails to occur when it comes to religious beliefs, and instead we fall back on something called “Faith.” This inane belief in unprovable nonsense is packaged and sold as something to be proud of, when in any other context such behavior would incite justifiable ridicule.  All the same adults who lied to us about Santa, assure us that “religious magic” is the exception, that life never really ends, and that we never really lose anybody we love.  That’s a tough reality to willfully abandon.

We humans are intelligent as animals go, and we enjoy the gift of consciousness.  But in no way does that make any of us rational. In fact, all the evidence demonstrates that irrational, often faith-based ideas, such as a pleasant or horrific afterlife, can become the single overriding basis for the decisions and actions of many individuals and groups.  After all, our mammal brain was built over our reptile brain and our human cortex over all of that.  Our brain design is a bit like being forced to build an internet on top of and in conjunction with our old telephone system which itself must still work with our ancient telegraph wires and the pony express.  Evolution doesn’t allow for the tearing down and building of something new and elegant. It’s messy with a lot of old baggage.  And this is why a modern human can truly come to believe just about anything, however inane.  Our very normal, very human brains are still prone to magical thinking. 

We usually adopt the mythology we were indoctrinated with as a child, or one that we found later in life at a time of emotional or social vulnerability. It is easy to develop mythologies about our origin and existence. Our brain naturally works to fill in missing pieces of our knowledge and to respond to grief, death and to any powerful emotional state, dream or other spiritual experience we may have, with fabrications about the supernatural. This seems a likely byproduct of an evolutionary quality that has allowed us to create the stories, big and small, that pass down information from generation to generation.  In other words, our tendency to confabulate, as a species, is likely part of a mechanism through which we communicate and preserve the survival wisdom by which we narrowly avoided extinction – to then become the dominant species of animal on Earth. 

But it is tragic that most of us are unable to step back and see "magical beliefs" in God, Allah, Krishna, Thor, Heaven and Hell as the sad side-effects of human cognitive evolution they are.  Instead we split our internal models of reality into "this world" (actual reality) where miracles like walking on water and super hero powers don't really happen, and the "divine world" (the wholly fabricated stories of myth and magic.) Within the latter, we actually believe that our dead parents can see and hear us through some celestial one-way mirror and that God will hear our prayers and perhaps choose our team over the opposition to win a high school sporting event!

Most of us don't appreciate the irony wherein each individual actually believes that their particular version of magic is truth, while everyone else, representing billions of people from the hundreds of different religions, past and present are “misguided.” We are a ridiculously blind species when it comes to our own absurd inconsistencies. 

None of us would close our eyes and let go of the wheel on the freeway and expect to arrive at our destination.  Nor would we step off a 2000 foot cliff and expect to walk on air. We know better.  Yet deep down most of us sadly believe such things actually did occur thousands of years ago, back in our religious heyday, when ignorant, savage and superstitious tribes were writing the creation myths we now called the bible.

Why does this matter?  Why am I so contemptuous of another person’s "Faith in God" when it works for them? When it clearly provides them comfort, joy and peace?

Because only a religious person (granted a fanatic) would deliberately initiate a world-killing nuclear holocaust if given the chance.  There are in fact tens of thousands of religiously extreme Muslims and no doubt a few folks from other Faiths who would absolutely push that button this instant if they could only get their hands on it.  This is self-deception on a new level. Such believers are now more than willing to “step off that 2000 foot cliff” and take as many others with them as they can.  Suicide attackers know they will die when the bomb explodes and they KNOW WITH EQUAL CERTAINTY that soon they will be happily raping the beautiful, pure, virgin girls that were likely denied them in this life. These are not depressed, grieving, or suffering people who want to end their painful lives. No, these are stimulated, energetic believers, in a state of religious ecstasy.

Levels of religious delusion vary in individuals, all the way from the suicide bomber to someone who may describe themselves as simply believing in a "higher power." But SOME degree of delusion is present in every case of faith.  Rational thinkers who have no delusions of eternal life or of divinely murderous mandates issued from a magic book, would never, in their right mind, push that button, would never presume that doing so was the moral thing to do.

It is a fine irony that we are the lucky species that has finally developed brains capable of studying ourselves, of understanding why we have spawned so many different creation myths, recognizing why we naturally form group rivalries that cause war, knowing why we feel jealousy and experience fierce parental love, discovering how pheromones grip us with drives and desires, and on and on.  Yet instead of utilizing this amazing ability to make the world the thriving, balanced, sustainable and happy place this evolutionary gift could make possible, we sink to doubling down on religious nonsense and tribal instincts.  We indoctrinate the next generation into believing in heaven and hell, making it very difficult for them to deprogram themselves when they reach the age of reason.  And in all too many cases, we dehumanize those with different beliefs and cultures and often unleash our brutality with the world’s most efficient tools of murder. 

Take the recent Paris attacks.  It was the honest belief that their own special imaginary superhero (Allah) wants all infidels dead – so that he can begin their eternal punishment – and the certainty that He (gods evidently have genitalia) will also bestow upon members of their team eternal bliss in heaven. This includes any “fortunate” Muslim victims of their messy collateral damage. We should note that this convenient murder-justifying fantasy, that killing anyone and everyone is just fine because the good get to heaven and the bad begin their eternal suffering, is by no means a new type of human logic. 

In 1209, every one of the 20,000 men, women, and children at Béziers, France, regardless of their religion, were slaughtered by the Catholic armies sent by Pope Innocent (what beautiful irony) III to exterminate the Cathar “heretics.”  This is the reputed source of the expression “Kill them all, and let God sort them out.” So dismembered children of all faiths (innocents) and other murdered Muslims are really the lucky lottery winners in the minds of these deluded monsters.

The attacker’s FAITH, not Western Imperialism, not poverty, but their actual belief in the violent, religious nonsense gleaned from a book written by ignorant, medieval people, drives these particular humans do these particular horrible things to other humans. These psychopaths are behaving in a completely logical and righteous way based on the vile fantasies they have come to believe and now accept as reality.  This type of absolute belief in the absurd is the only reason an otherwise non-depressed, non-suffering person would actually kill themselves.

In as much as religious belief is what explains the brutal and suicidal nature of these fiends, religious beliefs, even nonviolent ones, should be fair game for scalding criticism and ridicule, even on a good day, when the messages from the “other side” are peaceful, because on a bad day, the same willingness to believe in fantasy is used to kill, torture and imprison others.  It's Islam's particular brand of violent, delusional dogma that is responsible for these sickening crimes.

Islam, in its 2015 form, is a religion unique in that it has a very sizable component of violent, intolerant practitioners threatening millions of innocent lives. Saying otherwise is either a damn lie by propagandists, or the result of stupid, naive or willful ignorance.  If this was a predominantly peaceful religion like most current faiths, you would have the vast majority of Muslims, in every part of the world, categorically condemning every such brutal act of faith-based savagery that has been vomited up from the text of the Quran. In fact that is exactly what would happen if a fringe group of Christians behaved similarly in this day and age.  Christians would be in open and vocal revolt against this element of their population and would likely act quickly to help squash it, as they should.

But this deafening outcry and call to action is not what we find.  Many truly moderate Muslims are no doubt appalled at this widespread murder but many will not speak out for the very real fear of deadly reprisal in their communities.  But unfortunately, many others are actually “just fine” with these murders in principle, even if they would not personally initiate them, because their faith supports such barbaric acts. 

And this is simply unacceptable.  As civilized members of the human species we should hold everyone in the world to be complicit in these atrocities to the degree they fail to condemn them absolutely.

And this goes especially for the possibly well-meaning but unbelievably moronic apologists and sympathizers outside the Muslim world, who claim that multiculturalism demands we do not pass our tainted “western” judgement on the perpetrators of suffering within a society.  "It's their culture and we shouldn't judge..."  "It's American Imperialism and our unwanted presence in their land that’s to blame...."  “Poverty and a lack of education…”  Blah Blah Blah.  Pathetically, the unrealistic belief that we should show ANY tolerance to concepts such as “women as property,” “death for those born gay,” or that we should alter our behavior because “they have the right to react if people outside their religion draw a certain cartoon when they know it’s offensive” is often the opinion of those who would apologize for the barbarism in this bottom-rung of modern-day culture.

I count myself a liberal, and I have some objections to US policy in the Middle East, but just as the fringe of right wing ideology becomes blinded by their own rationalizations, naive idiots on the left have launched their own campaign to blame Islamic violence on western insensitivity.  Their opinions ignore the suffering of women, girls, gays, intellectuals, or anyone who leaves the faith of Islam, all of whom are persecuted minorities in many Islamic societies, in favor of indirectly supporting the perpetrators. Again, the irony here is mind boggling. “Those cartoonists should not have kicked the hornet’s nest.” “You shouldn’t say or do things that will offend other people.”

Wrong. Anyone who thinks that it is "intolerant" to criticize a religion, especially one with large elements this violent, this unacceptable to a civilized world, or who believes we should accept injunctions on free speech by creating policies to not write certain books nor draw certain fictional characters, is a naive, politically-correct fool.  And it is time to call them that to their faces, time to rally behind the real victims of oppression.

And the politically correct don’t like it when we do that.  Of late, any criticism of the teachings of Islam to the extent they help breed today’s violence is instantly met with vociferous accusations that the critic hates all Muslims and is mindlessly phobic of Islam.  Some prominent, so-called experts such as Glen Greenwald, Reza Aslan, and others deliberately and systematically fabricate lies about the views of those who speak rationally and reasonably about this problem.  As author Sam Harris astutely points out, apologist Greenwald is a Gay, Jewish Atheist who would be murdered for each of these three innocent circumstances of his life, and yet he attacks those who would decry his actual murder.

These dangerous talking heads have also gone so far as to denigrate true reformers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nobel Peace Prize winner ‎Malala Yousafzai, and Radical Islamist turned reformer Maajid Nawaz as “Islamophobes” and “bigots.”  It appears that the voice of reason in the world has as much to fear from sabotage by feeble-minded liberals as it does from the bat-shit crazy right wing religious nuts.

In the US, outspoken homophobic haters (you know – bat-shit crazy right wing religious nuts) now know they no longer have carte blanche to spew their bigotry without negative consequences for themselves.  Whether trying to get elected or just trying to avoid ostracism within their social sphere, the once vociferous anti-gay rhetoric has become mostly toned down and, where present, is greeted with appropriate contempt by the majority of Americans.  This change (which these same misguided PC liberals rightly applaud) came about through the tireless and vocal outrage aimed at the disgusting, self-righteous, religious bigots who fought so hard against gay rights.  I believe that opposition from gay rights supporters held the line against the bigots until a new generation of younger American adults could tip the scales toward genuine indifference to sexual orientation, to a simply better cultural norm.  This happy revolution (still underway) did not come from placating those uncivilized bigots who so loudly insisted they spoke for God – you know, the one who hates fags.

The true reformers in the Muslim world, like the heroes mentioned above, deserve the same aggressive support from the rest of civilization.  They are our best hope of reducing the pain and suffering of millions of Muslim people and of limiting the inevitable future attacks on the Western world.

So enough walking on eggshells around medieval-era stupidity and savagery, and enough with giving a moral pass to those who would indirectly condone barbarity in the name of tolerance.  It's the 21st century for crying out loud and if history has taught us anything, it’s that bullies should be crushed wherever they are encountered.

A more appropriate response than placation to bullies who threaten us all with death if we dare to exercise our right to draw pictures of their prophet or to disrespect their particularly nasty book might be for every publication in the civilized world to print cartoon images of Mohammed every day for years and for millions of people to burn as many Qurans (and bibles and any other inanimate object that some idiot group “prohibits” us from disrespecting) and thereby stand united against any faction attempting to impose their tyranny on the behaviors of others through real or implied threats.

On a gut level I would find great satisfaction in such actions, but alas it would probably also be a bad idea.  Throwing gasoline on this fire would not be constructive, at least in the short term.  People dying violently is a bad thing, and there would likely be a lot of unfocused violence from such direct antagonism. This absurd fact points out what insane ideology we are dealing with.  So we need practical, thoughtful action from within Islam to most effectively slow and stop the death and suffering that misguided religious faith is now perpetrating.

Christianity was similarly violent in the past, but the European culture eventually evolved to tone down the many horrible crimes committed in the name of the bible.  Burning heretics at the stake, hanging “witches,” these were gradually extinguished through a distancing of religion from secular law over centuries.  With luck, moderates in the Muslim world will likewise reform their particular brand of fantasy to be mostly nonviolent – but probably not before thousands more innocents are murdered at the hands of these intelligent humans who ALSO believe in their own violent brand of magical bullshit.  Supporting reform from within, while difficult, frustrating, and absent of the catharsis that we might feel from stirring the pot, is what the civilized world should make its mission.

The best current discussion I am personally aware of from people who actually know what they are talking about is Islam and the Future of Tolerance, the honest, edgy collaboration between neuroscientist and prominent atheist scholar, Sam Harris and former Islamic Radical turned peacemaker Maajid Nawaz.  This is one of the few truly constructive publications in recent years to give me some real hope on this frightening issue.

And while I  would love for every man, woman and child to realize that their comforting religious beliefs have always been man-made fantasies, I know that this will never happen in the current human species. We are simply not built to be wholly rational. I believe that only by evolving into a new species, one where this cognitive defect has been extinguished, will we ever rid our planet’s dominate species of this dangerous trait.  Maybe we can check back in a million years or so and see where are.


Post a Comment

<< Home