“Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion” | University of Cambridge

“Despite being written out of large parts of history, atheists thrived in the polytheistic societies of the ancient world – raising considerable doubts about whether humans really are ‘wired’ for religion – a new study suggests.”

“Whitmarsh stresses that his study is not designed to prove, or disprove, the truth of atheism itself. On the book’s first page, however, he adds: ‘I do, however, have a strong conviction – that has hardened in the course of researching and writing this book – that cultural and religious pluralism, and free debate, are indispensable to the good life.’”

Source: Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion | University of Cambridge

How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front – The New York Times

“Tolkien used the language of myth not to escape the world, but to reveal a mythic and heroic quality in the world as we find it. Perhaps this was the greatest tribute he could pay to the fallen of the Somme.”

Read the entire article here: How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front – The New York Times

“The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s” – The New York Times

Maya Jasanoff reminds us of the time when anarchists terrorized Europe. The reaction to these acts of terrorism fit a familiar pattern: in response to fear we turn against the Other (immigrants, foreigners, minorities, etc.). The period examined by Jasanoff fits into this pattern, as she notes, “then as now, migrants and civil liberties paid the price.”

While history never repeats itself exactly, there are discernible patterns of human behavior that are instructive and this is one of them. To Jasanoff’s example we could add many others. Unfortunately, the knowledge gleaned from the past is by itself not enough to bring about change. The barrier to making this knowledge useful, as I see it, is also rooted in human behavior. To overcome this barrier we need to turn to psychology.

Here is just a few of the psychological barriers that prevent us from acting rationally:

  • the irrational knee-jerk reaction in the face or fear that prevents us from acting or thinking rationally.
  • the mismatch between the perception of threat and the actual threat. For example, the actual fear of terrorism does not match the slim probability of being killed by an act of terrorism.
  • the tendency to scapegoat those who are different from us even when the evidence clearly doesn’t warrant it.
  • the tendency to reject claims that are contrary to one’s intuition, ideology, or preferred positions, rather than on the basis of reason and evidence.
  • the tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignoring evidence to the contrary (confirmation bias).
  • our irrational response to cognitive dissonance (the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two inconsistent beliefs). For example, when an anti-vaxer is confronted with the evidence that are putting kids at risk pits the belief that they are a smart and responsible parent against the claim that they are not.  To reduce the dissonance we could change our behavior or our beliefs, but more often than not we find a way to either ignore the claim or rationalize it away.

And of course, we need an educated population with the skills and desire to do the hard work to have informed opinions.

Read the informative article on anarchists here: The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s – The New York Times

“Our Brain Dislikes Disorder.  That Explains a Lot.” | History News Network

“We abhor disorder and uncertainty.” We’ve known this for a long time, but what we haven’t figured out is how to get people to be rational in the face of disorder and uncertainty. The problem is that it is so much easier to react in ways that are emotionally and psychologically gratifying. But this shouldn’t deter us from trying to change people’s responses to fear. We would all be better off as a result!

Source: History News Network | Our Brain Dislikes Disorder.  That Explains a Lot.

History News Network | Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

Rick Shinkman has an interesting proposal to deal with our natural lack of empathy for those we consider outsiders:

“When people are reduced to numbers—as the civilian victims of bombing during the Korean War were—we don’t feel their pain. We don’t automatically put ourselves in their shoes, which is by definition what you do when you are feeling empathic. We have the bomber pilot’s problem. We don’t feel anything for the victims. But historians can help. Storytelling is in our toolkit.  All we have to do is use it.”
Historians have already been doing this in many cases by writing about the experiences of other peoples, but what I think Shinkman is wanting us to do it in a more immediate way in response to current events where empathy is in short supply (like the Syrian refugees for example). Here again I think that this is being done, and in many cases very well, by reporters, humanitarian aid workers, and even comedians (see John Oliver’s show on refugees. It’s wonderful!). The problem is that those who lack empathy either ignore or dismiss information that humanizes the relevant group.
I think it would be more helpful, albeit it’s a long-term strategy, to educate the general population about their “stone-age brains.” In addition, we have to convince them with all the evidence that we have that their gut instinct is misleading them. I admit it won’t be easy, but I think it would be more effective in the long run.

Source: History News Network | Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

“The political aftermath of financial crises: Going to extremes” | VOX, CEPR’s Policy Portal

I was tempted to say “duh,” but a closer look at their research shows a much more nuanced finding that would not be obvious from a simple review of the history. What is particularly concerning to me is the fact that our instincts in the face of these crises (not just financial but security threats as well) are wrong. Our response usually makes things worse without solving the real underlying problems. When will we learn, a knee-jerk, fear based response is not the solution!

Source: The political aftermath of financial crises: Going to extremes | VOX, CEPR’s Policy Portal

Propaganda and De-humanization: “The Brain with David Eagleman” PBS

The study of history is the study of human nature. However, it’s not the only way to understand human behavior. Science can also illuminate the mysteries of human behavior. Scientists may approach the problem in a different way, but they are also trying to understand human beings. So, I was thrilled when David Eagleman turned to the subject of ethnic/religious conflict in the third program in a series on the brain.  And he used the War in Bosnia (something I’ve spent years studying) to illustrate the problem.

What have scientists found? That when people are confronted with people in our out group (however defined) our brains react as if they were objects, not human beings. The ability to empathize with those in their out group had been lost. How does this de-humanization happen? Usually, through propaganda.

I’ve spent years studying religious/ethnic conflict to come to the same conclusion. He also proposed the same solution: educate students to detect propaganda. In other words, we need to educate students to be good B.S. detectors and independent thinkers. This is one of the reasons why the humanities are so important, particularly philosophy and history.

Here’s the link to the website for the PBS program:  The Brain with David Eagleman

Another Study Shows That Beliefs are More Powerful Than Facts

I used to think that people would change their minds if they only had the facts. I learned long ago that this assumption was naïve. Recent research has only confirmed this insight. In The New York Times, Brendan Nyhan wrote about a new study that shows that knowledge of the evidence was not the issue. As Nyhan notes, the science will lose if it “contradicts their political or religious views.” Now we need to figure out to break out of this ideological trap so that we can solve our most pressing problems.