Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Psychology of Knowing God



I once read an article on Cracked.com by a Christian who seemed to be fairly informed about atheist arguments regarding God’s non-existence. However, despite this knowledge, he continued to believe in God because he claimed he could feel God’s presence as though he was sitting right next to him. How could anyone feel the presence of God unless he was actually there to be felt? As usual, science has some interesting answers.

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS0SOtY_0ecwNW-CtcIpfW4p7CnoV9MqWOkPQMQ_bU16NTzGQdvImaginary Friends

About 30% of American children between the ages of 3 and 6 years old develop a friendship with an imaginary companion.[1] According to psychologists, this behavior is perfectly healthy and may even help improve a child’s social abilities.[2] What is worthy of note, however, is that many children get so caught up in their fantasy that they believe they can see and hear their invisible comrades.[3] While a child’s psychology is different from that of adults, it is still possible the same mechanisms that make invisible friends so real to children are the same that make God seem so tangible to fervent theists.

http://littlemisstshirt.com/products/98993.jpgWilson and Other Social Surrogates

Remember Wilson the volleyball from the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway”? For those of you who are unaware, the story was about a man named Chuck who was stranded on an island all alone for 4 years. Wilson was a volleyball on which Chuck drew a face and which became his closest companion during his years of social isolation. They laughed, they cried, and they argued just like real friends, except Wilson was just a volleyball. “Castaway depicts a deep truth about the irrepressibly social nature of Homo sapiens,” says John Cacioppo, a psychologist who studied people’s tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects.[4] In one of his studies, he discovered that lonely people are more likely to describe gadgets in terms of humanlike mental states compared to non-lonely people.[5]

Beyond inanimate objects, lonely people also turn to television and other media personalities as a form of social surrogacy. Just as normal friendships evolve by spending time together and sharing thoughts and stories, these relationships evolve by observing media personalities and becoming involved with their personal lives, idiosyncrasies, and experiences as if they were real friends.[6] Studies suggest these relationships can be taken so far that people can become just as traumatized by the loss of a TV character as they would by the loss of a close friend.[7]

While feeling God’s presence may not be the result of loneliness, the neuronal wiring which allows humans to become enveloped in one-way illusory relationships may still play a role in the phenomenon.

When God Talks Back

In the book “When God Talks Back” anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann set out to describe her 4 year study of a “charismatic” sect of Pentecostal Christians who are well known for their “concrete experiences of God’s realness.”[8] In her research, Tanya sought to understand the mechanisms that led to these experiences. What she discovered was that these particular Christians learned to experience God by training their minds to think in a particular way. Specifically:[9]

  • They learn a new theory of mind in which “the mind is not private, but thoughts and images are sensations one might have understood as self-generated are actually God speaking”
  • They literally pretend that God is present. For example, one pastor suggested pouring God his own cup of coffee each morning.
  • There is a common practice of congregants becoming emotional and crying while being reminded by their peers that God loves them unconditionally.
  • Prayer was an important practice, which Tanya described as a “daydream-like engagement in which you are having a dialog with God”

Those who were most adept at prayer reported experiencing more vivid mental imagery, and in some rare cases, brief auditory messages they believed were from God. Tanya observed that practice played a major role in congregants’ ability to have these experiences, and decided to perform an experiment to see if she could elicit them in others. This mini-study consisted of providing IPods to two groups of Christians with different messages to listen to over a period of several days. One group was to listen to a collection of lectures on the New Testament. The other was to listen to a recording of Tanya walking through her version of the spiritual exercises practiced by the charismatic sect she studied. This recording included passages from the Bible, soothing music, and cues to the listener to try to imagine God and visualize what the passages were discussing.

After the study, the group members that listened to Tanya’s recording were more likely to:

  • Experience auditory sensory experiences (i.e. the voice of “God”)
  • Experience vivid mental imagery
  • Feel their sense of God changed as though he were more like a person
  • Feel their spirituality had changed

Synthesis

The phenomena of childhood imaginary friends, anthropomorphization of inanimate objects, and social surrogacy all show that people are capable of having intricate human-like relationships without the presence of other humans. The Pentecostal charismatic study shows that by training their minds to better imagine God, he became so real to people that they could hear him speaking to them. Most Christians/theists likely do not go to these extents to experience God. However, over the course of their lives, the idea that God exists, God cares about them, and God is listening to them is reinforced time and time again by their co-religionists and during prayer. Thus, their minds are trained, often from childhood, to imagine a God that is present in their lives. This means there are likely large numbers of neurons in their brains dedicated to the idea of God, and the more fervently they seek to experience him, the more vivid his presence will appear to be. It is for this reason that many theists find atheism to be quite preposterous, as they feel evidence of God’s presence every day.

Resources:

Good overview of “When God Talks Back”

Great lecture on “When God Talks Back”

Good article on imaginary friends

Good article about social surrogacy

Good article on the science of Wilson the volleyball

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Replacing Religion



Despite all of the issues with religion, it still plays vital roles as a vessel of many socially significant cultural traditions, a glue that keeps communities healthy and intact, and a resource for social support and for teaching children valuable moral lessons. Fortunately for atheists, there is a growing trend toward Secular Humanist institutions and traditions that godlessly fulfill these important social functions.

http://cdn2-b.examiner.com/sites/default/files/styles/image_content_width/hash/1f/1f/1f1f344640598755057812cfe46ee7a0.jpg?itok=MzSRKPjLHumanist Clergy

Celebrants
Humanist celebrants officiate services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies, and other rituals.[1] I used one for my own wedding and it was an excellent experience. It was really important for my wife and me to be on the same philosophical wavelength with the person who was to marry us. During our ceremony, our celebrant spoke of love, relationships, and our union in terms that were meaningful to us. Afterward, I heard from multiple individuals that our service was very moving and one of the best they had ever attended. One family member in particular, who was known to hate weddings, actually enjoyed ours.

Chaplains
Humanist chaplains provide “consultation, preside over ceremonies, and offer opportunities for educational outreaches and community service projects to nonreligious students and members of the armed forces.”[2] There are chaplaincies in several US universities including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.[3] Unfortunately, a bill that would have required the US military to allow Humanists and other non-theists to serve as military chaplains was defeated in June of 2013.[4] This was a serious disappointment for several reasons:

  • Atheists face significant discrimination in the military.[5]
  • Non theist and humanist service members outnumber both Jews and Muslims who do have chaplains.[6]
  • Military psychiatrists are not a safe source of emotional support because information shared with them is not confidential, while chaplains do not have to disclose anything to the military.[7]

http://d2oadd98wnjs7n.cloudfront.net/file_attachments/142584/files/20131019113515-DArwin_.jpg?1382207715Humanist Church

Sunday Assembly
In January 2013, British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans started the first Sunday Assembly in North London.[8] According to their public charter “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”[9] Their meetings often involve singing popular non-theistic music, listening to guest speakers, as well as socializing. There are at least 20 satellite congregations in the US and UK as of this writing.[10]

Unitarian Universalist Churches
Unitarianism is a religion founded on the idea of diversity and social justice.[11] Given its inclusivity, congregations may range from very Christian-like to a purely Secular Humanistic approach. Unfortunately, over the past 10-20 years, the church has been moving away from emphasizing reason toward embracing all beliefs.[12] Thus, Unitarianism is becoming much less amenable to the views of atheists and especially anti-theists, but it really depends on the congregation.

Childhood Education

There are a variety of options to help impart the values of Secular Humanism to children. For example, there are several Sunday School-esque programs for youth including the Humanist Learning Lab at Harvard, which focuses on creating “a safe environment for youth to explore their identities as critical thinkers and as compassionate, community-minded participants in our diverse world.”[13] Another is the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago’s Golden Rule Sunday School which emphasizes “the Humanist ideals of living life ethically and joyfully.”[14] Camp Quest is the secular alternative to Bible camp, which operates as a normal summer camp, but also teaches “humanist values and ethics… [and] encourages rational inquiry, free speech, and respect.”[15] For secular families, there’s the Freethinking Families meetup group, which provides socializing opportunities and a number of family oriented activities.[16]

Community

Virtual

There is quite a large atheist community within the World Wide Web, and it is partly for this reason that the atheist movement has gained so much momentum in the past 10 years. There are famous atheist blogs such as Pharyngula, Friendly Atheist, Sam Harris, and Greta Christina. There are several video bloggers such as Cristina Rad, JaclynGlenn, and The Amazing Atheist, and a plethora of Youtube channels including DarkMatter2525, NonStampCollector, TheAtheistExperience, and TheThinkingAtheist. On reddit.com, as of this writing, r/atheism has 2,108,568 members compared to r/christianity’s 73,079. On it, people share articles, memes, and blogs related to atheist topics. I also see the occasional request for advice from atheists who face discrimination from their families and communities. The online secular community provides emotional support for these individuals, and establishes a culture and set of values that brings us together as a true community.

Local

As of this writing, there are 815 atheist meetup groups in 474 cities and 17 countries.[17] Often these communities organize activities and events such as volunteer opportunities, happy hours, game nights, conferences, dinners, secular support groups, political activism meetings, and presentations. Thus, they provide socializing opportunities to strengthen the bonds and social networks of their members.

For students, there’s the Secular Student Alliance. This organization has many affiliates throughout high schools and universities within the United States. Their mission is “to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics.”[18] For many atheist students, these groups are a safe zone to socialize with supportive individuals who share their worldview.

http://rutgershumanist.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Kasese-kids-Group.jpegCharity

As already mentioned, many atheist communities offer volunteering opportunities. There are also many secular charities including Foundation Beyond Belief, which picks 5 charities each quarter that address education, poverty/health, human rights, the natural world, and interfaith efforts.[19] There is also Humanist Charities, which “specializes in benevolent aid and action to further the health and welfare of humankind. Its purpose includes applying uniquely humanist approaches to those in need and directing the generosity of American humanists to worthy disaster relief and development projects around the world.”[20] Unfortunately, despite our efforts to make the world a better place, there are those whose distrust of atheists hinders our attempts at helping. In 2013 alone, there were several cases where atheist charities were rebuffed:[21]

  • Kansas City atheists were not allowed to help a local Christian group distribute Thanksgiving meals.
  • A $3,000 donation to a Morton Grove, IL park was rejected. Park officials said they did not wish to “become embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.”
  • A group of Spartanburg, SC atheists were not allowed to volunteer in a Christian-run soup kitchen. The kitchen’s executive director said she would resign before accepting the atheists’ help and asked, “Why are they targeting us?”

God

Recent research has shown that science in and of itself can deliver some of the same benefits as a belief in God. Fans of science consider it to be a moral pursuit, since it emphasizes truth seeking, impartiality, and rationality.[22] In addition, using Carl Sagan’s metaphor, science is a candle in the dark which helps illuminate our demon haunted world.[23] Thus, it is associated with both morality and a sense of clarity about the world. This is why studies show that when science fans are primed to think about science, they act more moral, feel less anxiety about death, and are less stressed when made to feel powerless.[24][25] As firm believers in the utility of science, Secular Humanists not only receive the benefits of helpful technology, better decision making, and wonder, but we also experience the moral and emotional advantages as well.

Humanist Holidays

Winter Solstice
In the Northern Hemisphere, after the Summer Solstice, hours of daylight steadily diminish until December 21st. This day (the Winter Solstice) is the shortest of the year, and it marks the beginning of lengthening days. In ancient cultures, the period of returning daylight inspired a multitude of special celebrations including Saturnalia, Yalda, Yule, Hanukkah, and Christmas.[26] Often, these holidays coincided with religious mythology. However, for Secular Humanists, the day is a fascinating astronomical phenomenon that provides an opportunity to celebrate what we have learned about the universe and to revel in its complexity.[27]

HumanLight
Held on December 23rd, HumanLight is a specifically Humanist oriented holiday that seeks to provide a more human and compassionate inspiration than the Winter Solstice. According to the HumanLight website, it “encourages us to have fun enjoying music, art, food, and each other’s company. It gives us an opportunity to convey in a positive way that, although we don’t believe in the supernatural, we do believe in the growth and betterment of all people through reason, science, compassion, joy, optimism and moral excellence. It is a message we present in kindness, when we come together in a positive and constructive atmosphere, not to engage in debate and not to criticize other people’s beliefs.”[28]

National Day of Reason
In the United States, the National Day of Prayer is a federal day of observance on the first Thursday in May “inviting people of all faiths to pray for the nation.”[29] This completely goes against the First Amendment of the US Constitution since government money is contributed to the support of religion, thus excluding those of no religion. In response, the American Humanist Association established the National Day of Reason, which occurs on the same day. According to the NDR website, “The goal of this effort is to celebrate reason—a concept all Americans can support—and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.”[30]

Darwin Day
On February 12th, people around the world celebrate the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution has been under attack by many religious groups because it goes against their beliefs. However, this theory is about as scientific as it gets, and we Secular Humanists embrace it in particular because it helps us understand so much about our origins. Thus, the holiday is a celebration of science and humanity, which provides us an opportunity to show solidarity against religious fundamentalism.[31]

Conclusion

While the cultural institutions of Secular Humanists and other atheists may not be nearly as pervasive as those of traditional religion, we are certainly moving in that direction. Polls show that religion is in decline in much of the world, and the Secular Humanists of today are founding the institutions that will serve a much larger population of atheists in future years.[32]

Resources

Interesting article about how science can deliver the benefits of religion

The Foundation Beyond Belief website

Find an atheist meetup group in your area

Learn how to start your own Secular Humanist childhood education program