science

“There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”

Pathology. Horror. Anxiety. Workplace harassment. Bullying. Fear. This blog’s been a joyful little place lately, hasn’t it?

This post is going to be about atheism, but I promise it’s going to be the most uplifting thing I’ve written in a long time. I was doing a couple of shoots this weekend, and was thrilled to be told by each photographer what a great and positive attitude I had – and I realised my blog may have not been projecting that lately. I do always tend to try to be uplifting, even in the face of difficulty and uncertainty – but sometimes there are just Things That Need To Be Talked About, and those things may not always fall into the happiest of categories. I apologise in advance if I offend anybody, as it is not my intention. But I too, am often offended by the ignorance and downright bigotry I see posted in the name of religion all over the place, and I feel I have the right to speak my feelings too, especially when they come from a place of genuinely wanting to rid the world of something so harmful.

My arrival at atheism, however, has finally filled me with a certainty that’s lifted the weight of the world from my shoulders. I’ve only tacked religion a handful of times here, from the time I got banned from every Catholic church in the city, to the time I laid out my entire spiritual belief system as it was a couple of years ago, to when I began to question the whole idea of a spiritual belief system at all, to perhaps the most difficult step in my journey toward atheism: accepting the illusion of permanence, and that this life is the only one we have. A tough one to swallow, at first.

I never was religious. I tried, I really did. I went to Catholic church with my ex husband and I attended devotional series through my former faith-based workplace. Looking back, I have to ask myself why – was it to fit in with those closest to me and avoid personal discrimination? Or was it simply to find an answer to the hopes I’d had all along – that after this life, after we are parted from those we’ve loved with all our hearts – that somewhere we’d get to see them again? I’ve learned so much over the last couple of years, and the toughest pill to swallow has been the lesson that just wanting something to be true doesn’t mean it is. There is something inherently uncomfortable about letting go of a hope guised as a semi-belief, but something so much more assuring and secure when you shift your beliefs toward evidence-based truth. Because with the realisation that this one life is all we have, there’s a push to live the absolute crap out of it, soak up the universe and spread joy and education and build infinite memories and be an instrument of positivity and integrity and leave this planet a little better off than when we found it. To build the minds we were equipped with and actually use them to take control of our own lives. To learn to think, solve, communicate, learn, and better the lives of those around us. That, I believe, is our purpose. Not to follow blindly in fear and hope for a reward while allowing others to suffer.

The first point I want to address is the struggle with hypocrisy when it comes to so-called believers. How many church-goers dress up on Sundays and head to their place of worship, driving right past the homeless or needy on the way there? There, they are asked to give money to support the “work of God”, when they could instead be spending that money in the real world making a real tangible difference. I can count the number of times I’ve been to church on one hand, but I’m assuming the “pass the hat” goes back to the days of tithing, where people would give one-tenth of their income to a religious organization as a divine ordinance and obligation of conscience – despite the Christian Bible stating “you tithe mint and rue and every edible herb but disregard the important duties of the law – judgment, mercy, honesty and love – yet these you have neglected, and ought to have performed.” I’m mixing my Mathews and Lukes there, but the message holds true today: why does the church still ask for all this money and not use it to lessen the suffering of others? Goodness, even for non-believers! We are all apparently created equally, after all. TIME magazine states bankers’ best guesses about the Vatican’s wealth are between $10-15 billion, and of this, Italian stockholdings and investment in banking, insurance and real estate run to $1.6 billion. Why blindly put money into a hat on a Sunday because you feel guilted into doing so when you could donate directly to a charity where it will actually have some tangible benefit in the world? I know many churches do some charitable work with the money. But it largely goes to religious organizations. Why not skip the middle man and give to where it’ll make most of a difference?

On the subject of hypocrisy, a lot of this stems from personal experience. Nowadays, I have a great relationship with my mother, but as some of you may remember, from about 2006-2010 we barely had a relationship after my parents’ separation, which largely stemmed from a drastic character shift following my mother’s religious conversion experience. I witnessed someone quoting the Bible and refusing to attend events on the Sabbath (including performances of my own) and proclaiming we needed to be saved, yet simultaneously being downright spiteful to both my father and myself. I remember it being the biggest reason I had to move out on my own as early as I did, being unable to take the discrepancy between something that was supposed to revolve around love and forgiveness and being spoken to and treated like a piece of dirt. I feel bad writing this now, as after a long and painful journey of reconciliation, we’re now in a good place – but this was definitely a contributing factor in my stepping away from religion.

Then I met, dated, got engaged and eventually married to my now ex-husband, a devout Roman Catholic from a very traditional, Franco-Manitoban family. We all know the story there – family begs son to leave his fiance because she’s not religious, family refuses to speak to the couple following the wedding, and family instills so much guilt into son that son quits his job with no notice, disappears into the country for three weeks, comes back with a shaved head, wild beard, mania and insistence of having “spoken to God” the whole time, lasts a couple of weeks becoming progressively stranger, and then finally leaves for good waving a crucifix around in the air. Oh, and then witnessing via remote webcam his entire troupe of family and friends emptying my house of all my possessions while I was at work. (Movie deal anyone?)

The thing is, I knew our relationship wasn’t how things were meant to be. I knew I was unhappy, I knew we disagreed on so many fundamental things, and I knew we didn’t even enjoy the same things in life. But things weren’t horrible, and I figured, just like anybody else, that this is what life is all about. Fairytale soulmates exist in movies and stories, and it’s through a lifetime of hard work you try to make things work with the one you end up with. (Sidenote: I cannot believe after this ordeal, I was shown otherwise, and I will forever live a lifetime of awe and amazement at how I got so lucky). We did try. I remember a plethora of discussions on our views with regards to religion, and the one thing I could never understand was how someone could proclaim so publicly to be of a certain religious denomination while at the same time disagreeing with much of the Pope’s teachings and actions, disagreeing with some of the Bible itself, and actually placing his own wife and family beneath the almighty God (“I’d be okay if you all died, because I would have the Lord”) – really? How do I even begin to debate this logic? I remember his family begging him in secret in the weeks leading up to the wedding to leave me, his chosen bride, the one he had committed to vow his life to “in the eyes of God” because I would lead him away from his religion. I remember his infinite struggle between trying to be a “good Christian son” and a good husband. The two led to his mental breakdown, a shitload of trauma, and all for the sake of “putting God first”. When it came to the family – again, judge not lest…? (You should see the absolute mortification plastered across their faces in all the pictures. It’s hilarious. It kind of looks like they just lost their son to a Heaven’s Gate indoctrination – somewhat relatedly, this music video is pretty great.)

Now, to address something a friend of mine e-mailed me about when she heard I was writing this post: judgment. I had messages coming in before I’d even finished writing this. The Bible apparently states something along the lines of Judge not, and ye shall not be judged, condemn not and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). My (Christian) friend emailed me a story about how he has found himself “living a life of fear and judgment” due to his heart belonging to Jesus. He compared his experience to one of his own friends, who has “lived a life of that same judgment and downright misery through being gay.” He talked about his own experience of hatred for Christians in the same vein as that that exists for the LGBT community. That he would never judge someone “for their choice” and wished he could receive the same respect. At this point, I didn’t really know what to say. I love this friend dearly, but I was speechless Yes, it’s awful for anyone to experience persecution – but religion is a choice. Sexuality, race, or anything else you’re simply born with is not a choice. Religion is a choice to believe without evidence or critical thinking. It’s a choice to ally yourself to something that claims to stand for peace and unity but instead causes probably more division, judgment, and harm to the world than anything. Look at what Romney was fighting for last election. Look at the masses of “Christians” claiming God would judge America for abortion and gay marriage. Yet that same God doesn’t judge America for its murderers, rapists, and allowance of abuse, intolerance, disease and poverty? Religion is a choice to believe blindly. It’s not the same thing. 

Really?

What about God supposedly never giving us more than we can bear? I hear this a lot from people either going through difficult times themselves, or trying to offer some form of encouragement to someone who is. “I’ll pray for you”, they say. Can we stop for a second and see how much prayer has actually affected the outcome of something in the real world? I’ve had people offer to pray for The Professor as a result of his recent situation. The legal system in place to provide assistance to those in dire, life-or-death need, is such that he has to leave our home and live alone just to qualify to have medications covered a little more than they already are. Medications he needs to stay alive. It’s heartbreaking, and wrong, and I’m sorry, but prayers are not going to take away cancer. Science is, medicine is.  Homeopathic remedies and words uttered into the void aren’t going to make this stop. “God never giving us more than we can bear” is a crock. People get dealt shitty hands in life sometimes. It’s statistics. To personalise them and say “God did it” is childish. I get it – it goes back to the idea of hope. To place hope in something that doesn’t exist I guess may lift some of the anxiety from the reality – especially when countless people across the world are doing the same thing. But if we’re going to invest time and thought and energy into something that’s never been proven to actually accomplish anything – can’t we instead begin to invest in things that actually help? Your life would look very, very different were it not for science. I don’t know if I can say it’d look much different without God.

One of the last things I want to address is the issue of religion in schools. This could be a blog post all of its own, but (and you’ll have to excuse the irony here) – holy crap. Something that is a choice of lifestyle and has no base of fact or evidence does not constitute an education. I know people who went through private religious education emerging as fully grown adults having no concept of procreation. Genuinely believing that nothing more than “loving each other” and trusting in “God’s right timing” was al that was needed to produce a baby. These places have no right being called schools. They dilute the world’s knowledge base by injecting it with blind faith, ignorance, stories and prejudice and teach the vulnerable that it’s fact. They teach new generations not to think for themselves or seek out knowledge, but to rely on an invisible creator as the driving force behind everything that happens in their life. With this mentality, as a species, we will go backwards. Schools are in desperate need of classes on critical thinking, on debate and philosophy, of scientific advancement in health and astronomy. On how to be a fucking decent human being. As Douglas Adams once said, ““I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

A religious “education” is a fear spread to the children of theists at an age where they are not capable of fully forming their own opinions, teaching them to ignore logic and fact and brainwashing them into accepting something with no evidence as truth.  It promotes division, not equality, and is based on a system of fear and punishment. Where is the good in a human being if that good comes not from a place of strong morals and the desire to be a good person, but a place of desire for reward and fear of punishment instead? I don’t think I’m going to burn in hell for not believing. But I’m going to keep trying my damnedest to be a decent person anyway.

I’m at 2,600 words here. I’ve got to wrap this thing up. So I’m going to leave you with a quote from the ever-brilliant Ricky Gervais:

“Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition.”

I think I’m a pretty fucking awesome person without God, but I might be a little biased.  When I was agnostic, I kind of always suspected that if there were a God, this was all some colossal game of his own devising, and if there did happen to be a heaven, the ones who’d end up there were the ones that had the guts to use the brains with which they were equipped, to question the stories, to forge their way in the world with the knowledge and the universe that surrounded them. Not the blind servants who accepted without question tales of talking snakes and promoted human division and repeated empty phrases and built structures in his honour and sucked the hell up to buy their ticket in. I think there’s the making of a good story there.

I apologise if I’ve offended anyone. It really, really was never my intent. But if – and there is such a thing as “religious freedom of speech” – then if the intent is simply to state why I believe what I do, and who I am, with the genuine intent of opening minds and raising questions that may lead people to a better way of life… then all I ask is that even if you disagree, you’ll be respectful in doing so. Ironically, religion sometimes has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Whether you believe in a God, many Gods, demi-Gods (I’m getting a bit Doctor Who here), you have a brain. My only hope is that it’s put to good use in this world – this world that could be so, so much better if only more brains were used in a more practical, moral, and logical way.

Revenge of the Introverts

Last month, I went on a great big blogger meetup, in a city far, far away. On top of some amazing experiences with some awesome people, this allowed for one big thing: lots of alone time waiting in airports. I’m usually the sort of person to get bored rather easily – usually demonstrated in any attempt at physical exercise – so my first stop was to the newsagent’s, to stock up on magazines. Secretly, I kind of enjoyed being dressed up in ruffles, rosettes and accessories for once (first impressions, people!) and purchasing a pile of science, technology and psychology magazines, and I spent the remainder of my solitude reading them cover to cover. That’s the great thing about these sorts of magazines – the popular ones are half filled with ads for products you don’t care about, gossip about celebrities you don’t care about, and recycled articles on the same old beauty techniques, weight loss, and sex tips used in every issue of archives past, tweaked for wording and wrapped in a different package to give the impression of fresh material.  Okay for flicking through for ten minutes in a waiting room, perhaps, but not for four hours sans company or entertainment.

These magazines are great for really reading fully, cover to cover, full of interesting facts and insights. I learned about holograms, peak moments in life, technological advances, and even forgiveness after death, but the most interesting thing to catch my attention was an article entitled Revenge of the Introverts. It was the cover story: a picture of a brunette girl, hiding behind her hair, with my eternal inner monologue pasted over her face. How to Thrive in an Extraverted World. Doesn’t this just encapsulate everything I’ve tried to do this year?? This seemed to be a story written for me to read, so of course I had to pick it up.

It was a long article, but it was absolutely fascinating. Written by a therapist, it opened with a confession: the author loved the study of psychology, but hated dealing with people all day long.  “I was perpetually overstimulated, busy decoding everything I took in. Plus, I wondered why I couldn’t tolerate the large caseloads my colleagues took on willingly.”  This is so true for me – I love education, as well as the idea of helping to educate others – but being continually around or in front of people is exhausting and anxiety-inducing, rather than stimulating. At the end of the day I love nothing more than shutting my office door and putting my favourite radio station on – retreating into my own little world.  I’m normal! my brain rejoiced, as it continued to digest the story.

There are plenty of introverts around. It’s just that perceptual biases lead us all to overestimate the number of extraverts among us (they are noisier and hog the spotlight). Often confused with shyness, introversion does not imply social reticence or discomfort. Rather than being averse to social engagement, introverts become overwhelmed by too much of it, which explains why the introvert is ready to leave a party after an hour and the extravert gains steam as the night goes on.

This doesn’t mean us introverts are shy. This means that unlike extraverts, we get our energy from alone time, and too much exposure to people is actually draining. Introverts are collectors of thought. Extraverts are collectors of socialisation. What surprised me, was that according to a national US study, introverts make up 50% of the population. So why does it seem we’re vastly outnumbered by extraverts? The answer could be cultural. “Like individuals,” the article stated, “cultures have different styles. America is a noisy culture, unlike, say, Finland, which values silence. Individualism, dominant in the U.S., promotes the direct, fast-paced style of communication associated with extraversion. Collectivistic societies, such as those in East Asia, value privacy and restraint, qualities more characteristic of introverts.”  But if every other person is an introvert, why doesn’t our cultural tone seem to reflect that?

It’s not just that we overestimate the numbers of extraverts in our midst because they’re more salient. The bias of individuals is reinforced in the media, which emphasize the visual, the talkative, and the sound bite— immediacy over reflection.  “In verbal cultures, remaining silent presents a problem,” reports a study of communication styles in the U.S. and Finland. Perceptions of competence tend to be based on verbal behaviour. An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak—but will be seen in the U.S. as a poor communicator.

Is this why I’ve struggled to much with public speaking? Is this why it remains one of the highest ranked fears across the nation – because we’re conditioned to believe that extraversion equals competence and, subsequently, success? Is this why, for years, I believed I wasn’t really worthy of deep relationships and meaningful friendships, because I wasn’t a big speaker, not really good at improvisation or making jokes, or even thinking on the spot to answer simple questions like “how are you?”

Conversation between an introvert and an extravert can involve a series of misunderstandings. As the introvert struggles to follow multiple conversational threads and sort out his own thoughts, he remains quiet and appears to be just listening. The extravert reads that as engagement, a cue to keep talking. The introvert struggles with the continuing flow of input and soon starts to shut out the extravert, while nodding or smiling, or even trying to stop the exchange. Rather than simply answering the  question, an internal dialogue begins, in which the introvert “hears” themself talking internally as the other person speaks.

Even if the introvert responds, “I’m good,” they’re probably still internally reflecting on how they really are. They may evaluate their thoughts and judgment about the day, and even the question itself, wondering why we revert to “good” just because that’s the question, or if the other person even really wants to know. The cognitive load becomes increasingly difficult to manage, as the internal talk competes with the external conversation.  Moreover, while trying to keep the conversation going, introverts may miss social cues, which can  make them appear socially inept. The conversation is also anxiety-provoking, because the introvert feels they have too little time to share a complete thought. They hunger to pull away and give time to the thoughts their brain has generated.

How fascinating is this? A scientifically researched argument for all my years of self-questioning actually being normal enough to constitute half the population. One thing I love about the blogging world is that, contrary perhaps to day-to-day existence, there seem to be a copious amount of introverts. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test (of which I’m a massive fan), my type is supposed to be the rarest of them all. Yet in discussions with other bloggers, I’ve found a good number of people whose type is just like my own. Perhaps, as collectors of thought and lovers of solitude, it provides a safe sense of community where we’re free to take all the time we need to construct our ideas and responses, from the safety of our own isolation. In the blogosphere, we can be successful social communicators and contributors, unaffected by the interruptions, fast pace and expectations of external society.  And perhaps this realisation is just what we need in order to give ourselves a bit of a break once in a while, and embrace who we are in our own skin. It seems we’re not such aliens in our own world after all.

Doctor Who can help save science, says minister

… rather than technical and “boring” textbooks, according to the new science minister.

Malcolm Wicks, who was appointed in November following the resignation of Lord Sainsbury, believes that too many pupils are put off science during school.

He claims that popular television shows such as the hit BBC science fiction series provide children with an insight into real science that teachers can use to kick-start lessons. Science education campaign groups have warned, however, that shows such as Doctor Who often involve ideas that have little basis in science.

Mr Wicks said: “If you start a lesson with the chemical formulae you will lose 90 per cent of the class. If you start with something interesting or important, like something they read in the paper or saw on television, they will remain interested.

“It can be part of an entrée to some of the more technical, important but slightly more boring parts of the subject. If I was a teacher I would start with a chunk from Doctor Who and Billie Piper and say, ‘Actually, what was that all about and how is our textbook relevant to that?’

“Take R2D2 from the Star Wars films, for example. We are already doing that kind of stuff in robotics. I would show that, talk about how you would build a thing like that and its uses in the future in the home, in caring for people and for space exploration.”

Mr Wicks believes that it is essential to produce a generation of children who are science-literate so that they can go on to help in making the decisions Britain is likely to face on issues such as climate change and medical research.

However, Derek Bell, the chief executive of the Association of Science Education, said: “We all enjoy programmes such as Doctor Who, but teachers would need to be careful to make it clear which bits are science and which fantasy.”