The Divergent Effects of Heaven and Hell

One of the earliest lessons that I learned about religion that didn’t come from religion was that you can’t trust a priest. This is not to say that there are no priests who deserve trust; I mean it rather in the abstract sense- that if you know nothing about a person other than that they are a priest, you have no reason to trust them over anyone else. It was a hard one to learn, too. It took long years and many disappointments to make me understand.

The reason that it took so long is because the myth of religious respectability is planted so deeply in our culture that even atheists believe it. There are studies cited about how faith priming keeps people on the straight and narrow; of course, under the right conditions, so do cameras. In these studies religion plays the role of placebo for an authoritative observer and then people behave as though someone were observing and judging them.

P.Z. Myers responds with a good points; first that using religious discrimination as the basis for breaching social norms that ensure the livelihood of local taxi drivers in the hypothetical scenario posed by Bering is kind of a dick move. The second point is that the relevant numbers- likelihood of pro-social behavior correlated with a person’s overall religious attitudes- are not addressed in the studies Bering refers to. If you look at those numbers, religion doesn’t make a difference.

Of course, failing to make an overall difference does not mean that religious attitudes are irrelevant to behavior. Sometimes finding out the particulars about why something you would expect to have an effect does nothing in particular overall can be enlightening. And/or confusing. Last month PLoS published an interesting regression of belief in heaven and hell with tendency toward criminal behavior. It’s interesting for a few reasons. First, it breaks down religious influences by the content of religious belief rather than by attendance or strength of belief. That really isn’t something that I’ve seen a lot of and it’s definitely a strategy that I would like to see more often.

Second, the wildly divergent effects of belief in heaven and hell are something I doubt I would ever have predicted. The belief in hell seems to function like the cameras- deterring crime. Heaven, by contrast, seems to give people a license for criminal behavior. The effect appears particularly strong in the cases of assault and rape.

Finally the effect size is massive. We think of things like income inequality and urbanization fueling crime (motive and opportunity), but it seems that they get blown away by the effects of specific supernatural beliefs. Presumably these effects are generally hidden because the belief in heaven correlates strongly with the belief in hell and the diverging effects compensate for each other, but the predictive capability of belief structures is well beyond what I would have suspected.

There also seems to be a solid case that there is a causal relationship somewhere in there. The correlation is very strong and does not diminish when the usual confounding factors are removed. It’s not possible to say which way the causation goes from this (i.e. does crime increase belief in heaven or does belief in heaven increase crime) or whether this is an individual or social effect (is the person who believes in heaven more likely to be a criminal, or is his community more likely to have crime).

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Black Knight

White Knighting, when someone in a privileged position rushes in (without permission) to rescue someone in a situation that the rescuer does not understand, is a complicated thing. There is a fine line to walk between failing to stick up for your friends on one side and picking fights on their behalf on the other. Easy to fuck up, even if you remember to check your privilege before starting. I get this one wrong all the damn time. I get it. It’s hard.

Here’s one that’s not hard. Not at all hard. What is going through people’s heads when they demand that someone else fight battles bigger than they are willing or able to fight? I’m going to call this Black Knighting– when someone in a privileged position rushes you in (without permission) to a fight you didn’t start and don’t want to finish. Named both for the role reversal and for the fact that the heckler expects the hapless champion to give everything to the cause. You know, like this:

Full disclosure:  I did not report.  I was large enough to be in no real danger of physical reprisals, but I was also fifteen and it would be years before I would completely understand what had happened.  The entire support structure that I was willing to trust with my story consisted of one person- also fifteen. Sometimes I regret it; sometimes I do not, but I never blame myself.  Not anymore.

I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from reporting. If I can do anything to help support someone else who is reporting, just tell me what. But you do not have the right to demand that someone else report.  You don’t get to force someone else to be a hero. Ever.

Maybe they would be better off reporting. Maybe other people would be better of if they reported. But if they do report, they are the ones who will be called liars. They are the ones who will face reprisals. They are the ones who might be triggered and have to relive the whole thing again.  So it’s their call.

I don’t care if it’s happened to you or not. I don’t care if you reported it when it happened to you or not. You don’t get to make that call for someone else. Why? Because what happened to them has not happened to you. Every person is different, every community is different and each and every individual crime is different. You may encourage victims to report. You may set up community support structures to help them report. But you may never demand that they report.

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It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

A few weeks ago there was a thing that made me mad. I spent some time weighing exactly what I wanted to say; I generally think it is important to be measured in some fashion when discussing things far outside my own experience. On the one hand, killing civilian citizens of a foreign nation without due process using state-sponsored force is something we used to call a war crime. Even if you pretend really hard that they aren’t civilians. We have signed treaties which this violates. There are a handful of things that can make me ashamed of being a U.S. Citizen, but war crimes top the list.

The other hand, of course, is that when enemy combatants hide among civilian populations, civilian casualties are inevitable. The U.S. is not necessarily to blame when civilians die because terrorists use human shields. It certainly sounds like they are playing fast and loose, but using bullshit definitions is not, in itself, a war crime.  The only way to know for sure would be for neutral military/legal experts to examine each case. Since I have neither the relevant files, nor military/legal expertise (and am not a citizen of a neutral country), I was not sure how to comment appropriately.

Then I found out about this. It apparently escaped my attention when it first came out. Read the whole thing, but read this part twice:

A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims.

Or read it three or four times. Or however many it takes to sink in that the United States under Obama has targeted first responders with military strikes. There is no nuance to this.  There is noting to be measured about.  For the second time in my life I am completely and sincerely ashamed of my country.

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There has been an ongoing thing among people attending skeptic conferences (and people reading about them) about inappropriate behavior towards women. I have not managed to follow the entire saga, but even what I have followed is too much to reasonably sum-up. The original furor began over something that Rebecca Watson said that sent out wildfires every which way for no readily apparent reason; the latest round seems to be here.

The saga as a whole is a touch above my pay grade, but I do periodically take an interest in the way certain words are used or misused in the English language.  Which is not to say that I think English deserves any sort of respect or is even a real language.  But it is noteworthy to see people rely on historical ignorance to craft inappropriate analogies for the purpose of emotional appeal.

At certain points in the history of (mostly western) civilization it has been fashionable to hunt witches. We look back on these episodes with a certain amount of embarrassment, so much so that ‘witch hunt’ is regarded almost universally as a negative descriptor. It has become an easy counter to any sort of attack on an individual or small group’s behavior by a larger group. We don’t want to have a witch hunt, we should be embarrassed that what we were doing might be construed that way.

Except one thing. It seems like a stupidly obvious detail when you notice it, but somehow it almost always gets left out when people start crying ‘witch hunt’.

Witches are not real.

Way cerebral, I know. Just give it a minute to sink in.

The reason that we are embarrassed of witch hunts is that witches are not real; many of the crimes they were accused of are mostly impossible, so we know that our ancestors executed innocent people in horrible ways. Crimes like psychically torturing people or transforming people into animals. Some of the crimes were possible but extraordinarily unlikely, like eating babies or poisoning wells, so we’re pretty sure that our ancestors killed even more innocent people than just the provably innocent ones. That is the reason we are embarrassed of witch hunts.

Now suspend disbelief for just a moment- suppose someone were actually going around poisoning wells and psychically torturing villagers. This seems like exactly the sort of person we ought to hunt. We might still consider burning them alive beyond the pale, but if they are actually guilty we should at least hunt them down and put them in jail so that they stop murdering and torturing people. That seems non-controversial. If an actual well-poisoning, villager-torturing person were to be hunted by an actual mob of villagers, it would not meet the modern definition of ‘witch hunt’.

Actual people have made actual threats of rape and other forms of violence to actual women in the Freethought/Skeptic community. Rebecca Watson is one of these actual women. There have been actual cases of harassment. These are not impossible or even improbable offenses. Many have been committed in public. To say that, as a community, people attending skeptic-themed events need to crack down on such behavior is not to call for a witch hunt. It is reasonable. It is non-controversial.

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Ray Bradbury

This is the edition that I read for the first time. If you have not read it, go buy it now. Right now.

Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than `Mr. Gimmick’ and the parlour `families’? If you can, you’ll win your way, Montag. In any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.

-Faber, Farenheit 451

Frankenstein– Mary Shelley, February 1st, 1851.
The Time Machine– H.G. Wells, August 13th, 1946.
Brave New World– Aldous Huxley, November 22nd, 1963.
Farenheit 451– Ray Bradbury, June 5th, 2012.

The books that taught me the importance of science fiction are, today, all written by dead people. We have lost much, not just as people, but as a species. Looking forward we can never see where we are going but through imagination. 

And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.

-Granger, Farenheit 451

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Fire Poi*

Fire is hot. We don’t usually think about it being hot; it’s more instinctive or reflexive knowledge, but fire is actually hot enough to be weird. It was humanity’s very first source of plasma and in the thousands of years that fire held a monopoly on anthropogenic ionized gasses it became deeply symbolic. A primal source of fear. A symbol of power and purity. A source of childish wonder. And, as our very first controlled chemical reaction, and unmistakable sign of humanity’s growing knowledge about our world.

First some quick definitions:
Oxidation is the removal of electrons from a material. It derives the name from the fact that it is commonly accomplished by combining materials with oxygen, well known for electron thievery.

This is fire. You’ve probably heard of it, actually.**

Fire is the 1) oxidation of some material in a fashion that 2) produces energy and 3) proceeds rapidly enough that the energy released sustains the reaction in conditions where it would otherwise not proceed. In shorter terms; fire is an oxidative exothermic chain reaction.
Flames are short-lived quantities of plasma resulting from the extraordinary temperature of combustion products and/or incomplete combustion of fuel.
Plasma is a diffuse state of matter like a gas that has been ionized; typically by extreme temperature but occasionally by some other means. My own weak grasp of modern physics has left some ambiguity as to whether plasma requires that electrons be independent of their home atoms or merely very highly excited (and some additional ambiguity as to what the difference would be in a diffuse gas). At the very least I can say that ‘free’ electrons are a common feature of plasmas. What do I mean by ‘free’ electrons? Remember our energy diagram? One way in which an atom can absorb energy is to push electrons away from the nucleus. The separation of the positive charge in the nucleus and the negative charge of the electron stores potential energy. Push the electron far enough away and it starts to act on its own rather than as part of an atom. Incidentally, when those electrons go crashing back down toward the nucleus that potential energy can be released as a photon, which is why fire glows.

Back to definitions.
Ionization is the separation of electrical charge into separate particles. The violence involved in this process depends on the state of matter in which it occurs. In liquid (especially polar liquids like water), it is relatively easy to accomplish because the charges need not be separated by great distances and can be shielded (or at least insulated) from each other by other particles. In a gas (as when making plasma) the process requires significantly more energy due to the increased distance of separation and the comparative lack of shielding/insulation available.

So what good is plasma, apart from being a really cool toy that we can legitimately refuse to give to our children but still play with ourselves? Well, free electrons and such are really reactive and can generate some ions that would otherwise be rare. I’ve talked before about ionized oxygen.  Short version; it’s bloody effing murder to anything it touches. But since ionized oxygen species are perhaps the most reactive chemicals most of us will ever encounter, they don’t really last all that long. Certainly not long enough to cross through layers of human tissue for example. So plasma would make a really badass disinfectant; selective for microbes on the surface without risking any deep tissue damage. (Screw your Lysol. I have electrons.) If only there were some way to apply it to humans without all the hotness and burning.

Oh wait. We can. While fire is a very good way to make plasma, we broke the plasma monopoly a little over a hundred years ago with the cathode ray. Since then, we’ve figured out how to make it without being hot. Want to disinfect your skin? Maybe soon you will just be able to pour it on.

Tree vs. Lightning. Lightning wins.***

Of course, not all plasma is under control. Lightning is a wild and powerful force that can do phenomenal damage. First it electrocutes your tree, then hits you with a pressure wave from the thunder, then it explodes your tree by boiling it from the inside out.  If you happen to have a seismograph on hand, you get a really good idea of how that plays out.

So what to do? Lightning rods are so 18th century. We know more of plasma than we did then. We know that the potential energy released in lightning is due to charge separation. We know that plasmas consist of separated charge particles. We know that separated charged particles conduct charge better than inert gasses. This is not only really cool when you get a fire going between power lines (don’t try this at home), but it has practical implications.

‘Laser guided electrical filament’- Just call it a lightning cannon. ****

The plan? Shoot lasers at the sky! What will this accomplish? The gas in the path of an intense laser converts into plasma. The plasma provides a conductive channel to relieve the charge separation between clouds and ground, controlling the location of the lightning strike. Keen observers might note that this technology also enables us to build lightning cannons.

Humanity has cowered in fear of plasma for as long as we have known it (and we still do). But the things we fear are often really cool. And when we watch and learn, see how far we come.

Image sources:

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(via MoveOn*)

There are alot of things which should not be political but are. Issues where the opinions of morality, justice or even physics do not weigh evenly on both sides. The reason that these issues become political is very simply illustrated in the Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy.

Estimates of abortion rates in the ’30s (prior to Roe) are comparable to estimates of the number of legal abortions today (~800k/year). Note that is the raw rate, uncorrected for our more than doubled population. While these numbers are likely to be unreliable in both cases due to under-reporting, they provide no support for the idea that banning abortion prevents abortions from taking place. Consider also that the Netherlands boasts the lowest abortion rate in the world in spite (or arguably because) of some of the least restrictive abortion and contraception laws. C.F. the prohibition era. The only thing such restrictions can be said to reliably accomplish is to encourage unqualified practitioners, with dire consequences.

Whatever you might think about the morality of abortion itself is irrelevant to the morality of banning or restricting access to abortion. Bans and restrictions do not save embryos, they merely endanger the mother. When we consider that such initiatives seem seldom to be coupled with measures that have shown actual efficacy in reducing abortion rates (such as improving contraceptive access and comprehensive sex education), we have cause to question the sincerity of the moral motivations behind them.

Anti-abortion arguments in the vein of ‘saving the children’ do not deserve to be engaged, they deserve to be patronized and mocked. If there were some intellectually honest benefit to engaging these arguments, that benefit would surely be manifest by now. It is not. The purpose of these arguments is to set up ad hominem questions about the morality of an opponent. Their success hinges on their ability to make you under-analyze by using your emotions to hide the inefficacy and negative consequences of abortion bans. Morality and justice do not weigh evenly on both sides of the debate over legal, accessible abortion. This has been settled for decades, and treating the debate as honest does a disservice to the good name of ‘debate‘.

The use of bombs and arson and death threats is a subject often considered out of bounds; it is a low blow to mention that extremists in the inappropriately named ‘pro-life’ movement exist because they are not a legitimate part of the movement. I might consider such objections to have more weight if the friendly fire on the subject were substantial and preemptive. It has been anemic and post-hoc, even while laws are debated to publicize the names and addresses of individuals targeted for violence are debated. The fact of the matter is that this violence does exist, it exists only on one side and it exists for no purpose other than suppression. Even if there was no imbalance in the weight of the arguments on each side, terrorism in favor of one side of an argument mitigates the degree to which that argument can be considered honest.

There will always be a few who are ignorant in an honest way and deserve to be engaged, but most of what we have now is nothing more than controversy generated through sheer force of will. There is no settling this controversy through reasoned argument, the only way to push back is to protect the organizations and individuals under both metaphorical and physical attack. Stop arguing. Start fighting.

“Do you think I don’t understand what my friend, the Professor, long ago called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy?
Don’t know what it means? – Well, I will tell you. You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, – and the fools know it.”

-Oliver Wendell Holmes

* If anyone knows the original source for this image, I would like to also attribute it to the artist.

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