COGNITIVE BIASES

OK, so you have no idea what the title means.  Cicero taught us that we learn (and teach) only by examples.  So here’s an example of a cognitive bias.  If you have ever had a losing streak at the casino or the club, especially with a pokie, I’ll bet you kept going, having convinced yourself that after losing for so long you’re bound to get lucky.  We want to believe it, though we know we are being irrational.  That’s what the experts call a cognitive bias, and what the rest of us call wishful thinking.

Israeli-American researchers, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, have studied this phenomenon in the domain of economics.  To me, it explains a lot about religious credulity.  We “hope against hope”.  In spite of the evidence, we prefer to believe in pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die, that God will answer our prayers, that a Novena, a Mass or a pilgrimage will find us a job.  Positive thinking is a healthy attitude; pessimism is often cause of a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster.  But we should recognize cognitive biases as one of Evolution’s tools to help us survive.  “Yes, we can !” is an act of faith that can (almost) move mountains.  But wanting Heaven to be true does not make it so.  Recognizing wishful thinking as one of the sources of religion can be a first step towards rational freedom.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

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” TORN ” – IN THE U. S. A.

During a recent anti-abortion speech, recorded on video, President Trump, reading his idiot-board (teleprompter, if you prefer), said : “Right now a number of state laws allow a baby to be born, from his or her mother’s womb, in the ninth month.  It is wrong; it has to change.”

We all make slips of the tongue, but we correct them because we recognize immediately our error.  The Donald does not.  The President literally did not know what he was saying.  It is obvious, in an anti-abortion context, that he read “born” rather than “torn“.  He either can’t read or his brain is periodically on hold.  In either case, it is a bit scary.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Erin Burnett, a CNN journalist, drives me nuts by the constantly repeated clip self-advertising her work on the 24/7 news channel.  “You’ve got the money and you’ve got the passion”, she says to someone she is interviewing.  “But how do you actually make a difference ?”  Heard hundreds of times, it makes us forget that it is a perfectly appropriate, serious question we should ask – of ourselves.

Today’s “The Guardian” carries an enlightening piece by Tony Schwartz, (co-)author of Trump’s (?) “The Art of the Deal”.  He concludes his acidic article with : “My hope and belief is that Trump will no longer be President by this year’s end.  My personal commitment is to pay much less attention to him, and more to making a difference to others affected by his policies.  Whatever happens, may the worst of Trump inspire the best in us.  We, together, can do it.”

Colonel L. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is the fictional British engineer who built the Bridge on the River Quai.  Just before the dénouement and the destruction of his most spectacular accomplishment, he muses about the meaning of his life, realizing that he is “closer to life’s end than the beginning”, and of the twenty-eight years he has spent in the British army.  He wonders what difference his life has made.  Clearly, for him, it was HIS bridge – until he realized his folly.  “What have I done ?”, he says, before falling on the detonator which blows up his proudest achievement.  That ultimate, single act of … reparation was the difference he finally made.

Many people seek to find a predetermined, ribbon-wrapped meaning for their lives.  An Australian playwright, David Williamson, wrote a play, “Emerald City”, about the city of Sydney, my home town.  Originally from Melbourne, Sydney’s long-time rival, he, like one of his characters, “covets a home with a Harbour view”.  A line from the play is quoted in Scott Bevan’s recent book “The Harbour” : “No one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life – it’s getting yourself a water-frontage”.  Monty Python’s outrageous movie, “The Meaning of Life”, put the final nail into the coffin of the quest for a preexistent purpose for our lives.  Your life and mine will have the meaning we give it, by the difference we have made.

I keep reminding myself and you too, indulgent reader (actually I have more than one), that at the end, not of the day but of the week, I shall be entering my 82nd year.  It’s time to look back – there’s not a lot to look at or forward to in the other direction – at my life and wonder whether or not it has made the slightest difference in the history of mankind, or even in that of my own little world.  No – this time I’m not wondering how soon I will be totally forgotten, but whether anything I have done, said or written, impacted anyone.  My own answer is that I have tried to leave, in this Blog, a legacy that may help some people to make the most of their lives, rather than spoil it believing in the myth of life after death.  Others have done the same, better than I.  But this is how I have endeavored, for what it is worth, to make a difference.  I hope I am not kidding myself.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

 

 

CHURCHES : TOMBS OF A DEAD GOD ?

The thought dates from 1882 in a book by Frederick Nietzsche.  However, as Mark Twain said of his own obituary, the announcement of God’s demise has proved somewhat premature.  He is, in fact, alive and well in the imagination of the majority of mortals, many of whom still attend services in churches, synagogues and mosques.  While it is true that some “houses of God” have been recycled as discos or turned into exclusive apartments or restaurants with stained glass windows, most churches are still open for business (the more architecturally distinguished sometimes charge visitors an entrance fee – which is fair enough for upkeep and heating), and continue to attract worshippers who dutifully join in the hymns and courageously sit through the sermons.  Why do they do it ?  Some for fear of divine punishment if they don’t (traditionalist Catholics, for the most part), but many from family pressure and/or tradition.  Others again, because they find comfort, solidarity, reassurance and even a measure of pleasure in ceremonies that express and reinforce their faith.  On occasion, some folks use churches for private meditation, but also to take a break after a tiring day or the modern madness of “shop till you drop”.

So churches remain part of the landscape, and feature, in fact, in many famous paintings (and even, in at least one political poster, as during the election campaign of President François Mitterrand, a Socialist – as reassurance to Catholic voters . . .).  They are also part of our society’s history, but also our personal history, especially for ex-believers like myself, while they remain havens of hope for believers who continue to hanker for Heaven.  Modern churches lack the majesty of the soaring walls and the impressive volumes of Gothic cathedrals, but succeed in making the edifice more convivial and colorful than the traditional tombs of God.  But neither the old or the new churches can resurrect a deceased divinity (who, in fact, never existed) or the faith people like me once had in Him.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

EVOLUTION : ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT (A -)

Many non-atheists now admit that the human body is the product of evolution – behind which, they insist however, are the mind and hands of a divine Intelligent Designer.  Our ears are perfectly positioned for us to wear glasses, our arms are just the right length to reach our anus (all over the news, thanks to POTUS) , and our eyes are apparently a model of efficient complexity.  We tend to overlook our digestive system’s disgusting process and product, don’t specially mind having a useless appendix, and accept (if we’ve ever heard of it) that the three million cells in the optic nerve, as Richard Dawkins pointed out in “The Blind Watchmaker”, page 99, is “wired in backwards” – which, he says, “would offend any tidy-minded engineer”.

If God did, in fact, one way or another, make us in His image, He seems to have botched what otherwise could have been used to attempt to prove both His existence and intelligence.  I find it hard to believe that the Creator would have deliberately settled for shoddy work, for anything less than perfection.  Unless, of course, evolution has not yet run its course and will in time iron out the miscalculations.  Which raises the more basic question as to why He bothered to be so complicated and s-l-o-w about it, when He could have molded us, fully formed, say . . . from mud ?

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

TRUST NOBODY ; DOUBT EVERYTHING ?

Wise counsel, sound advice or excessive prudence and precaution ?   Both imperatives are sure recipes, in reality, for making life impossible.

How do we distinguish fake news in the Press from the genuine … article ?  How trustworthy are the media, especially the social media ?  How can we recognize conspiracy theories as the fabrications they are ?  Can we believe all that parents, teachers, politicians and ministers of “God’s word” tell us ?  Should we believe what is written in the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran ?  Is what I write in this Blog credible, factual, truthful ?  Can I be trusted to tell the truth ?

Let’s begin with the 700+ posts in my Blog.  Why should anyone believe them ?  Well, for one thing, they are not anonymous.  On one famous occasion – to my profound embarrassment – I was called out by my faithful friend, Thom.  Naturally I admitted my stupid mistake in biblical exegesis, for which I was, to my surprise, praised by “Lumen de lumine”, my gladiatorial opponent and former classmate, Jim, a ferociously traditionalist Catholic catechist and apologist.

A second reason for my credibility may be my … credentials : two degrees in Theology, including a Master’s (with High Distinction) from the Catholic University of Paris, as well as a seven-year stint as a priest.  I can be expected, in matters theological, to at least know what I am talking about.

There is a possible third reason : the force with which I attempt to make my convictions contagious.  This is, of course, a two-edged sword, so skillfully wielded by Mussolini, Hitler and evangelists like Jim Jones . . .

(If I have, in fact, acquired overall credibility, I could attempt to exploit this to lead you into error on a given subject, and deliberately deceive you.  I however trust your intelligence to be able to detect such dishonest exploitation in my or anyone else’s statements.  People and products are generally trustworthy, but the exceptions suggest that we should always keep a grain of salt handy . . . ).

Beyond this Blog, how can we be sure that what we are told and taught and are expected to believe is worthy of trust ?  This is not rocket-science.  Common sense will always be the ultimate criterion.

We have to take a lot of things on faith.  Life would be unbearable if we had to put everything into doubt.  The groceries we buy at the supermarket, we trust, are not  contaminated (we are rightly outraged when we discover rare cases of fraud or negligence).  We board public transport and even ships and planes without wondering about the driver’s, the captain’s or the pilot’s credentials, competence, sanity or sobriety.  We, as a rule, believe the media, though we sometimes fail to recognize fake news, or dismiss factual news as fake.  We are suspicious of conspiracy theories about JFK, 9/11, the Moon landing and UFOs.  The “evidence” backing them up we weigh and find wanting.  But the gullible will continue to swallow the spiel of  the snake oil salesman  and be happy to pay for his fraudulent product.  Which brings us to … religious belief.

Religions get people to believe the most outrageous doctrines and to accept as historical facts imagined “miraculous” events by exploiting their hopes, fears and credulity.  This Blog attempts to unmask such manipulation and to ridicule the absurd doctrines, rules and rituals which make up the belief and practice of non-atheists.  It invites Believers on the Brink to think for themselves, to recognize their personal credulity and to discover the truth that alone will make them free.

Rational people avoid the extremes of both skepticism and credulity.  They expect and demand reasons for what they accept as the truth, weigh the pros and cons in each case,  use their common sense, and make up their own mind, depending on available evidence.  They know that blind faith is blind folly.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

HAPPY 101st BIRTHDAY , KIRK ! I HOPE IT’S YOUR LAST.

Putting Kirk Douglas on stage at last Sunday’s Golden Globes was no doubt well-intentioned.  His daughter-in-law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, chose to praise him for his movie-career, including “Spartacus”, but also for his defense of its author, Dalton Trumbo, and for Douglas’ rôle in the abolition of Hollywood’s Black List.  Kirk managed to make a wisecrack about how hard it was to follow Zeta-Jones.  But we were not listening. We were all wondering whether we would end up like him – “mens sana sine corpore sano’.  “Death warmed up” would be too cruel, but Kirk looked godawful, and while everyone admires the talent, the courage and the lucidity of the man with the famous dimple, we were witnessing the horror of old age and probably hoping we would not survive that long.

We have recently reflected in this Blog on the speculation that technomedical science will soon eliminate both old age and the death that up till now has inevitably followed it.  None of us will live to see that happen – if ever it does.  In the meantime, Kirk’s appearance (in both senses of the word) provides us with an eloquent justification of euthanasia.  I will be 81 before month’s end.  I want to stop while I’m winning (of course, there’s no hurry . . .).

P.S.  Euthanasia, mercy-killing and assisted suicide are controversial subjects, to say the least, but ones that deserve reflection and discussion.  My punchline to the above post could have been a smart-ass “Make Mine Morphine”, but I preferred a more upbeat note. Dalton Trumbo, in 1939, wrote a book, “Johnny Got a Gun” which later became a film, brought to public attention in the Metallica video of their song “One”.  The book and film add to the theme of the assisted suicide of a quadruple amputee survivor of World War One, that of a militant anti-war pacifism, equally controversial.  Readers can consult these sources should they so desire.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

PRAISE THE LORD AND . . . THE PRESIDENT

OK,  so you think you can guess what I am going to say.  Should I then leave it at that, and let this post’s title serve as a tweet ?  Is what I plan to say so obvious that you don’t need to read it ?  My negative response to both these questions is motivated by the fact that though my pitch is apparently predictable, I haven’t yet read anyone saying what I am about to say.  You don’t have to read it.  But you’ll be sorry if you don’t.

Let me begin from way back, with a well-known observation we too often forget.  We are too close to certain events to realize how historically significant they are.  The classic example is electricity.  Shut-downs and power failures give us an inkling as to what life must have been like for millennia B.E. (Before Edison).  I don’t need to say more about that “Before and After”, that watershed in the history of human comfort, industry, mobility, health, communication, education and well-being.  Electricity was harnessed … yesterday.  Even more recently we invented the computer.  Tomorrow it will be the revolution of Artificial Intelligence.  But just over a year ago something happened that has had us reeling ever since : the election and first year of the presidency of Donald Trump.  Historians will see these events as more than a blip on the screen of American history.  The years we are presently living will never fade from memory, if only because of the bursting on to the world stage of history’s most narcissistic nabob since Napoleon or even Nero.  “Stable genius” has entered our vocabulary, and is destined to remain there, along with another neologism, “fake news”.

Most of us appreciate sincere, measured expressions of admiration for our accomplishments.  Many, though, make it their life’s work : praise is their fuel, and they can never get enough of it.  Trump however is unique.  Never in human history has anyone ever had a real-time worldwide audience for his perpetual bragging and begging for praise.  It may end up the reason for his inevitable downfall.

(Transition from these remarks to the real point of this post will in no way surprise you, though the content might.)

People praise Presidents but adore God.  Ministers of religion try to outdo each other in piling praise on the Person(s) we call divine.  We belt out hymns, literally singing His (Their) praises.  We rattle off the Lord’s Prayer, without realizing what we are saying.  “Hallowed be Thy name”.  “God” is Other, supremely Other.  His very name is sacred, and never to be taken in vain.  “O come let us adore Him !”  We kneel, or even prostrate ourselves, before Him.  We reduce ourselves, we shrink to the ground in sight of His greatness.  We even lie flat on the floor (as I did during my Ordination to the priesthood) in His presence.  He can step on our backs as he walks over us, His worthless doormat subjects.

No need to paint the lily.  Even without the paint you get the point.  We know that Trump has illusions of grandeur.  He is surrounded by sycophants who rival each other, miming Uriah, as they … heap praises upon him.  Religions invented a God even more ridiculous, more pathetic than the Donald.  Grovel in the gravel if you wish.  In face of a divine Ego surpassing even that of Trump, I am and will remain Homo Erectus.  I refuse to bow, to kneel or to prostrate myself in adoration of a figment of human imagination.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

 

 

 

BORING COMPANY

Elon Musk is famous for his success in creating several of the world’s most innovative enterprises, including autonomous cars and flights to Mars.  Recently he was reported as selling, within a week, no less than 50,000 caps embroidered with the name of one of his less known companies : “The Boring Company”.  The play on words no doubt caught the public’s fancy.  But it reminded me of something we all try to avoid : boring company.  Some people, like me, talk too much.  Others, like most people at Customs, have “nothing to declare”.  But many people would be more tolerable if they were not given to empty talk that bores us to tears.  Even bores eschew boring company.

In his biography on Winston Churchill, Andrew Roberts said of the savior of Great Britain if not of the Free World : “This man could not utter or write a boring sentence”.  He was, inter alia, a superb orator, a gifted writer and – for me at least – a model for bloggers.  I have no pretension to claim that every sentence I write is riveting, but I do hope I have never written a boring post.  If ever “Blind Faith, Blind Folly” is published as a book, electronic or otherwise, an editor will, of course, exclude certain of my posts, but not, I trust, because they are boring.  I like to think I write posts that are penetrating, not a Blog that is boring.  Tell me I’m right.  Flattery may be insincere but I have never found it boring.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

BELIEVE IN GOD or BELIEVE IN MAN ?

A French philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, has recently suggested (“Le Point”, hors-série, déc. 2017 – jan. 2018) that Emmanuel Kant’s philosophy can be summed up in four questions :  “What can we know ?  What should we do ?  What can we hope for ? and What is man ?”  Religion and Humanism, I suggest, propose two contradictory sets of answers :

  1. Religion offers us NOTHING in terms of knowledge based on fact.  The only certain knowledge we have – and it is already considerable and expanding exponentially – is the result of rational research and reflection, not “Revelation”.
  2. Religion claims to lay down rules for moral living, but atheists can be just as virtuous and altruistic as believers.
  3. Religion promises us pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die; instead of childish hopes (and fears) in an afterlife, we can make our realistic dreams come true, here and now, in the only life we will ever know.
  4. Religion would have us believe that we are creatures of “God”, while we know that alone among living entities we have – for better of for worse – the awesome, autonomous power of human intelligence, to make of this world if not the Paradise it never was, a home of peace, security and plenty.
“God”  never had the whole world in His hands.  The future of the planet and of mankind is in our, not God’s, hands.  This is our singularity, our challenge, the source of the meaning we can give to our lives.  God is dead; long live Man.
                                       
                                              RIDENDA      RELIGIO