Sunday, November 30, 2014

    Bookworm Report #4 by Russell Pizer "why we believe in gods"

    why we believe in god(s) (143pp, © 2011)
    “A concise Guide to the Science of Faith”
    by J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD with Clare Aukofer
    with a forward by Richard Dawkins
    •  •  •  •  •
    This is an unusually small book.  Though it has 143 numbered pages, it is really only about half that length because it measures 4½” wide by 7” high and ¾” thick.  A fast reader could probably finish this in a few hours.  However, it is a book the reader will probably want to read two or maybe even three times.  This is because of the large number of endnotes that contain related and/or  apropos information.

    The title is in lower case letters probably because the author purposely did not want to spell the word “god” with a upper case letter G.

    The Forward by Richard Dawkins has this to say, “Darwin, though not religious in his maturity, understood the religious impulse. He was a benefactor of Down Church and regularly walked his family there on Sundays then continued his walk while they went inside. He had been trained to the life of a clergyman.  William Paley’s Natural Theology was his favored undergraduate reading.  Darwin killed natural theology’s answer stone dead, but he never lost his preoccupation with its question: the question of function. It is no surprise that he was intrigued by the functional question of religiosity.  Why do most people . . . harbor religious belief? . . .

    “‘Fast food’ is a leitmotif of the book: ‘if you understand the psychology of fast food, you understand the psychology of religion.’  Sugar is another good example.  It was impossible for our wild ancestors to get enough of it so we have inherited an open-ended craving that, now that it is easily met, damages our health.”

    “Thomson’s chapters identify a series of evolved mental faculties exploited by religion, each one beguilingly  labeled with a line familiar from scripture or liturgy; ‘Our Daily Bread,’ ‘Deliver Us from Evil,’ ‘Thy Will be Done,’  ‘Lest Ye Be Judged.’ . . .

    “To most of us, the arms-extended gesture of the worshipers looks merely foolish. After reading Thomson we shall see it through more penetrating eyes: it is not just foolish, it is infantile. . .”

    The Preface ends with: “We [the non-religious] now know why and how our minds manufacture and spread beliefs in god(s). [N]ew research continues to add to what we know. This knowledge can free us. Anything we can do, no matter how small, to loosen fundamentalist religious’s grasp on humanity strikes a blow for civilization and boosts the chances for truly global civil society – and perhaps even for our species’ long-term survival. . .”

    Mr. Thomson concludes his amazingly logical, carefully researched and scientifically based explanation as to why people believe in god(s) with this:

    “It is . . . so much easier to believe. Religions offer sets of rules and, when combined with all of our adaptive mental mechanisms, eliminates the need for serious thought about the issue.  The 2010 Pew Poll on Religion actually found that agnostics and atheists were more knowledgeable about the world’s religions than believers were, which would seem to indicate a higher level of thought about the issues involved.

    “But there is hope.  In a June 6, 2010, ABC News interview, physicist Steven Hawking, considered by many to be one of the greatest scientific minds of our or any time, said, ‘There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority; and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.’ As most people know, without the aid of science, Hawking would long ago have succumbed to the ravages of amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’) no matter how many people prayed for him. Instead, his fine mind survives and continues to learn and teach, aided by an array of technological accouterments. . . .

    “As demonstrated in this book, science – specifically the cognitive and social neurosciences – shows us how and why human minds generate religious beliefs. More than an outline is apparent and with each passing day, psychological mechanisms, the neuroanatomy, and the neurochemistry of religion continue to come into sharper focus. . . .

    “Religion may offer comfort in a harsh world; it may foster community; it may incite conflict.  In short, it may have its uses – for good and for evil. But it was created by human beings, and this will be a better world if we cease confusing it with fact.”

    If someone asks you to say "grace" at Thanksgiving

    We will be spending Thanksgiving with my daughter, her boyfriend and the boyfriend's family.  I know that my daughter has been religious in the past and it's likely that the rest of the attendees are also on the religious side.  In case someone asks me to say "grace" at the bounteous table, it seemed reasonable to be prepared.  The internet, as we all know, is full of suggestions for every occasion, including this one.

    From the website Secular Seasons there are a number to choose from.  Some I found in interesting were these:

    ........ from the humanist writer Nicolas Walter:

    Let us think thrice while we are gathering here for this meal. 
    First, let us think of the people we are with today, and make the most of the pleasure of sharing food and drink together.

    Then, let us think of the people who made the food and drink and brought it to us, who serve us and wait on us, and who clear up and clean up after us.

    Finally, let us think of all the people all over the world, members with us in the human family, who will not have a meal today.

    For those who find these humanist graces too long, or don’t want to be reminded of the suffering of others just before a celebratory meal, there are these simple words of secular thanks and good wishes:

    We are thankful for the food on this table.
    We are thankful for this time together.
    Our thoughts go out to family and friends;
    We hope that they are safe and well.

    Or these words of humanist benediction
    For the meal we are about to eat,
    for those that made it possible, 
    and for those with whom we are about to share it,
    we are thankful.

    From the Science Notes blog on Wordpress:

    What a great occasion! We are gathered here together in the safety of our home, each of us taking a moment from our busy, separate lives, to enjoy this wonderful meal with ones we love. Let this evening be a special time in our lives, a blessed stopping point in which we can simply enjoy who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. Let us enjoy this magnificent now with family and friends. Thank you, mother, for preparing this beautiful meal.

    Presumably one could substitute for "mother" as appropriate

    We have created this meal to serve and sustain our lives. Let us enjoy this meal in the full knowledge that all life is purposeful action aimed toward our highest value, our own precious lives and happiness.

    Many of the suggestions I found were way too wordy, especially for folks who are sitting there looking at that glorious meal in front of them.  (You didn't think they were going to bow their heads and close their eyes, did you?)

    This one from the American Humanist Association is a perfect example of TMI:

    A Non-Believers Grace
    I offer my deepest appreciation and my most profound apologies to the plants and animals whose lives were forfeit for our good health this day.

    We give thanks to the ranchers and the farmers, their workers and their hands whose skill, sweat and toil have brought forth this bounty from the Earth.

    We are grateful to the workers in the fields who pick our food, the workers in the plants where our food is processed, the teamsters who carry it to market and the stockers and the checkers who offer it up for our selection.

    We are particularly appreciative for those at this table who have prepared this food with love and affection for our enjoyment and nourishment this day.

    We remember fondly those who the miles and circumstance keep from joining us today as we remember those who are no longer with us and are grateful for the time we have shared with them.

    We enjoy the warmth and fellowship that surrounds this gathering as we share the fervent hope that people the world over can share the good fortune, warm feeling and conviviality that embraces this gathering.

    Thank you.

    Besides the length, I personally also have a little problem with the concept of apologizing not only to the animals but the plants.  If you need to apologize, then don't eat them.  Otherwise, perhaps you could thank them too for their contributions in some manner that doesn't introduce guilt at the very beginning of the speech.  I trust the writer buys only humanely raised and slaughtered turkeys or artisan tofurkey and gently-pulled heirloom carrots.  Needless to say there were lots of interesting comments on the original publication.  Enjoy them at

    And finally, if you're with the right group to appreciate it, here's a short one from

    Thank you glycolysis and electron transport chain, which we are about to receive your STP bounty through phosphorylation.  Amen.

    Trying to figure out the grammar on that one gave me a headache, but I'm impressed that the spell checker got all the words right.  From

    Monday, November 3, 2014

    The Bookworm Report #3: Humanism - An Introduction

    By Russell Pizer
    •  •  •  •  •
    Humanism - An Introduction by Jim Herrick -- the subject of this Bookworm Report #3 -- is a small paperback (105 pp)that begins with this introduction written by Laurie Taylor.
    “It sounded like an easy way to win half-a-crown.  All I had to do was to stand in the middle of the playground at my Catholic school and shout out in a voice that was loud enough to be heard by the giggling crowd of fellow [students] who’d come up with the bet: ‘If there really is a God then I challenge him here and now to strike me dead.’  But I can still recall the drumming of my heart as I slowly walked towards what I still secretly feared might be a date with destiny.
    “I’d brought it on myself. For the best part of a year, I’d been trying to convince my school friends there was no proper basis for the religious dogmas that we were being force fed in class. It had earned me a certain mild notoriety but I was only too well aware that my dismal failure to effect any conversions to atheism had something to do with the shallowness of my own arguments. I’d told my classmates, for example, that the idea of a virgin birth was a contradiction in terms. You simply couldn’t be a virgin and have a baby. Didn’t they know the facts of life? I’d also argued that the miracles of the loaves and fishes and the rising of Lazarus were really nothing more than cleverly conjuring tricks and even made the profoundly heretical suggestions that if Jesus was God and God was all knowing and all powerful then surely he could have avoided his own crucifixion and gone on teaching until a ripe old age.
    “As I struck my pose in the middle of the playground, I made a resolution which nearly captured my adolescent moral capacity to have it both ways at the same time. If God failed to strike me dead after I’d made my challenge then I would devote myself to the task of discovering some rather better reasons for not believing in his existence. . . .”
    “[Jim Herrick’s] account of humanism [in this book] does much to trace its historical development, its philosophical underpinnings and its current status as an alternative to systems of religious belief.  But he is always faithful to his underlying contention that ‘humanism is a position which thinking individuals can reach as a personal conviction.’ . . .”
    On page 1 (Chapter 1 - Humanism Outlined), Mr. Herrick begins with this: “Humanism is a most human philosophy of life. Its emphasis is on the human, the here-and-now, the humane. It is not a religion and it has no formal creed, though humanists have beliefs. Humanists are atheists or agnostics* and do not expect an afterlife. It is essential to humanism that it brings values and meaning into life.
    “As we move away from the morass of the 20th century, we can hope that humanism will be a beacon to help us through the 21st century. It is an approach that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. 
    Chapter 2 begins: “The tradition of humanism is a long one. It questions existing ideas and quests for new one. People have asked what powers control our lives, what is the nature of the world about us, what is our personal potential? From the documents of ancient history to the flowering of thought in ancient Greece, from renaissance Italy to the 18th century Enlightenment, from the wide developments in philosophy and science in the 19th century to the crystallization of humanist ideas in the 20th century, the humanist temper has developed through time.”
    He then continues with: “Some Greek philosophers laid down the essential foundations of humanism. In his work Of the Gods, Protagoras (481-411 B.C.E.) stated, ‘About the gods I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist . . .’
    - - - - -
    *Many Humanists that would disagree that there are only two such categories.