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Program Archive

The monthly programs are an essential element of CDHS. Our programs support our humanist goals of exchanging ideas, heightening our knowledge of the world and ourselves, fostering moral and ethical growth, and promoting the principles of secular humanism. This archive of summaries of past programs provides an overview of the varied subjects addressed.

Professor Cragun

Religiosity and Happiness: Much Ado About Nothing

August 13th, 2023

Ryan Cragun is a sociologist with a flair for statistics. His talk was titled "Religion and Happiness: Much Ado About Nothing."

He noted frequent media ballyhooing of studies purporting to show religion makes people happier. But such studies are typically deeply flawed. Usually examining only America — a weird country, disproportionately religious, and hyper-individualistic, compared to other advanced nations. And even within America, the studies are often unrepresentative, surveying limited population segments. There's also the eternal conundrum of correlation versus causation. (Cragun suggested the "gold standard" would be a controlled experiment, unlikely to happen.) But the biggest problem with these studies is disregarding the size of any effects reported.

Cragun countered those studies with one of his own, based on a 2010-14 "World Values Survey" of 60 countries. Correlating self-reported happiness ratings with three variables: asking (1) are you religious? (2) how important is God in your life? And (3) how often do you attend religious services? (People often lie about the latter.)

A recap of the results: in only a handful of the 60 countries were there any statistically significant correlations between happiness and the three questions. (Statistical significance meaning only that a result is unlikely due to mere chance.) However, in all such instances, the size of the effect was so tiny as to be meaningless. (The U.S. showed the highest effects, but even here, tiny.)

Based on these results, Cragun commented that "no therapist should recommend religion as a treatment for depression."

Meantime, he was also critical of other reported correlation studies for lacking a theory to explain why religion should confer happiness. Actually, there are some conventional ideas in this regard — like the comfort of an afterlife belief. But Cragun cited Phil Zuckerman's book Society Without God, indicating that religious people actually fear death more than the non-religious, feeling uncertain about their fates and afraid of Hell. Whereas atheists feel sure death is an end, and tend to be accepting of it.

Cragun also cited a famous, well-funded study of heart surgery outcomes when people prayed for the patients. Confounding the expectations of the study's sponsors, those patients were more likely to die. Apparently being told of the prayers made them more fearful.

There's also the idea of comfort at the thought that a paternalistic God is watching over you. But here again that's a double-edged sword. Another source of anxiety, thinking you have no privacy from a judgmental deity. Believing God is always watching you can induce neuroticism.

To the extent there actually is any happiness benefit from religion, it probably has nothing to do with the beliefs, but rather the social connections involved with being part of a congregation. But Cragun pointed out that, of course, one doesn't have to go to church to have nourishing friendships.

George Hrab

Never Trust An Ocelot to Parallel Park

July 9th, 2023

George Hrab is a musician and podcaster. His presentation was aptly titled "Never Trust an Ocelot to Parallel Park." Certainly a subject that's been getting a lot discussion lately. But he called this a "brain sorbet" — a sequence of discrete word things (in which "jury tampering" came up with bizarre frequency):

  1. The "misconception song." What you think you know is often wrong; containing numerous examples of common things like Edison inventing the light bulb (actually, he merely improved it).
  2. The "Who" thing. Referring to the band; particularly the line in one song saying "I hope I die before I get old." Sung by Roger Daltrey at 21. Hrab wondered what he was thinking then — and when he still was singing the song at 73.
  3. A long parody of the Biblical "begats," filled with very very silly names.
  4. "Picky eater." Focusing on the meaning of the word "savory." (Don't ask). Hrab was a "lugubriously finicky" eater as a kid, hating everything.
  5. "Too many crosses" — detailing all the varieties of crucifixion practiced by the Romans, opining that Easter is the lamest of holidays, and ending up, somehow, at Valentine's Day.
  6. Poetry is easy. (This was introduced with a nod to irony.) Particularly easy is non-rhyming poetry, one of four poetry categories Hrab posited. The last category was Limericks, which usually end with a reference to genitalia (such as a word rhyming with Limerick).
  7. Starting with reference to a CD purchased from Amazon, Hrab kind of rehearsed his own history with music, with particular emphasis on "West Side Story."
  8. "I am Molar Ram." At least that's what it sounded like Hrab said, he was talking fast. This was about his experience re-viewing "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," deeming it the best of all prequels, explaining how Jones is the way he is. But viewing it for an umpteenth time, Hrab broke down bawling. Because he's full of unrealized love, and it's killing him. So what does he do? Shtick like he did here. His whole life. Avoiding rejection — "the real me is unnervingly unworthy of love." Yet he nevertheless feels "unmitigated exultation at the possibilities of existence."

Don't we all?

Joseph Uscinski

Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them

June 11th, 2023

Joseph Uscinski is a political science professor at the University of Miami, author of Conspiracy Theories - a Primer.

Conspiracy theories (CTs) have gotten much attention lately; we're said to be in a "golden age" of them.

The pandemic fueled it, with proliferating CTs about its origins, treatments, vaccines, etc. Trump and Trumpism have played a big role too.

About 70% of Americans believe CTs are out of control. Much blame is cast upon social media, especially Facebook; Mark Zuckerberg thus a prime villain.

Uscinski avowed that CTs are not a good thing: promoting dubious ideas, scapegoating, "non-normative" behavior (ranging from vaccine refusal to violence), and even ill-advised government action responsive to CT believers. But trying to regulate this has downsides: decreased free speech, innovation, and choices. There's no good way to determine what's legitimate advocacy.

He posited that it's actually not (false) information as such that drives CT beliefs, but who we are leads us to toward certain kinds of information in the first place. "Anti-social people seek out anti-social ideas and act in anti-social ways." Nobody falls into that by accident. We have predispositions and group attachments; we want to think like others like us. There's the question of who we trust, or not; declining trust in societal institutions — like mainstream news media — loosens our grip on truth and reality. Exploited by political actors.

A recurring theme in his talk is how difficult it is to change anyone's dearly held beliefs. People latch onto anything that meshes with their pre-existing frameworks, and shun anything discordant. [This is called confirmation bias — FSR]

Uscinski reviewed three specific CT cases, with reference to polling he's overseen. First, the JFK assassination. Initially, JFK CTs were believed by about 50%, rising to around 80%. But that was actually before the internet and social media kicked in. And when they did, belief slid back down to little over 50% today.

Secondly there was the plethora of Covid CTs, with belief steady at around 30% and not rising. And third, QAnon — believing Trump is in a secret war against a deep state of baby-eating pedophilic Satanists (yes). For all the concern about QAnon, Uscinski found supporters holding at just around 5%.

Then he looked at two more recent cases. A new panic about supposed sexual "grooming" of children in schools; and the "great replacement theory" positing that elites are working to swap out whites for more pliable brown-skinned newcomers. He found belief in both these CTs in the 20-30+ percent range.

It might be noted that these CTs seem largely to be a thing of the political right. And it was brought up in the question period that such beliefs seem to correlate with religious faith. [CT believers, religious believers, and Trump supporters, are pretty much the same people. Perhaps belief in a supreme being makes the brain vulnerable to other crazy stuff — FSR.]

Uscinski also studied 37 additional CTs, and belief levels over time. He found they'd increased in 6 cases, decreased in 15, and held steady in 16. His bottom line from all this: it's just not true that CT belief is a growing problem; and there's little evidence of social media contributing. He situated that idea in a long line of tech panics, dating back centuries. One might say the notion of social media driving CTs is itself a CT.

But he opined that, in the big picture, people are actually getting smarter. So he ended by posing the question, is the CT problem really worse than ever? — and answered it by saying, worse than when we were burning witches?

J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., M.D.

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

May 7th, 2023

J. Anderson Thomson is a psychiatrist who spoke about his book, Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.

Everyone knows religion reflects trying to explain what we don't understand; to gain a moral touchstone; to combat fears of death. All more or less conscious mental phenomena. But Thomson went deeper.

He began by twice quoting Jefferson in 1816, on how religious dogmas (as distinct from moral principles) have forever induced people to battle and torture each other over abstractions actually beyond the comprehension of any human mind. Charles Darwin was then nine, and would go on to supply the understanding of our origins equipping us to rise above Jefferson's lament.

The evolutionary process he demystified reveals us to be, at the most fundamental level, "problem solving devices" aimed at gene replication. One's own individual well-being and survival is just a means to that end. This is Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene" paradigm. Really ultimately just math — traits enhancing an organism's likelihood of reproducing will proliferate in subsequent generations, carrying along the genes associated with them. In service to this our brains evolved — mostly performing functions not even in conscious awareness.

Thomson spoke of junk food and pornography as "super-normal stimuli" outclassing ones we encounter naturally, hijacking the brain to cause behaviors responsive to very deep-seated desires whose true evolutionary purpose is not to reward us but to get our genes into the next generation. Religion does similar.

It takes advantage of a key human evolutionary adaptation, "eusociality" — described by Thomson as "colony life" or an endless camping trip with close relatives. Religion meshes helpfully with this by enabling expansion beyond just family groups into larger (and thus stronger) social collectives.

He also stressed the salience of parent-child relationships, and how religion gains a foothold in our minds by mirroring that. Especially the mother-child bond. Belief in a deity mirrors knowledge of a mother's existence, actually filling roles akin to a god's. Mothers answer prayers; they're seen as omniscient and omnipotent. A loving presence in challenging circumstances. They provide sustenance. Thomson placed the Christian communion sacrament in this context (though without specifically mentioning breast milk).

Another key theme is that religions ask us to suspend disbelief only within limited bounds — we're set up with alarms against gross violations of the natural order, but religions tend to entail only modest tweaks to our understandings of how things work.

He also discussed ritual, especially "rhythmic physical activity" like dancing and even just touching. Affecting us on a deep subconscious level by boosting endorphin levels, thus raising pain thresholds and promoting interpersonal bonding. Mirror neurons come into play. Yet another deep mechanism religion exploits, with even nonbelievers finding it hard to resist an emotional response.

This put me in mind of my own experience. I was that rare child who never absorbed an iota of religious belief. I was also socially very laggard. Thomson's presentation made me wonder whether those two things were connected. Seventy years later I still feel I lack some standard social genes; and my non-religiosity remains absolute. Yet I'm not entirely without human social response. I've noticed a deep susceptibility to smiles. Seeing one provokes a warm feeling. Even if on the face of, like, a Putin, or a Trump! I find I must engage my rational brain to countermand that innate human response.

This is ultimately what Thomson was urging us all to do when it comes to religion.

Dr. Benjamin Wolozin

The Latest 'Word' on Neurodegenerative Diseases

April 9th, 2023

Dr. Benjamin Wolozin is at Boston University School of Medicine. His talk was titled "The Latest 'Word' on Neurodegenerative Diseases," focusing mainly in Alzheimer's — its biology, diagnosis, and treatment.

He began by noting that normal aging entails a gradual decline in cognition; and while short term memory may suffer, long term memory remains intact. (He used the word "amnestic" as applicable to mild cognitive impairment.) Alzheimer's is a pretty precipitate fall, with loss of "executive function" and complex thinking. But it involves physical brain changes detectable twenty years before such symptoms emerge.

Alzheimer's is a source of dementia, characterized by formation of clumps or tangles of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. But that's not the whole story, and while beta-amyloids may start the process, other factors are quite important in the progression.

Wolozin went through them. Heart health, he said, equals brain health. "Vasculature" delivers oxygen to the brain, and beta-amyloids can accumulate in blood vessels, slowing blood flow. Blood pressure, cholesterol, and exercise levels are all part of the picture.

Good diet and a normal body mass index play a role; as do social relationships. Inflammation, said Wolozin, is "super important" too.

In short, people with overall healthy lifestyles are less vulnerable to Alzheimer's. Some can have beta-amyloid plaques without ill effects. And then there's genetics — if your parents had Alzheimer's, watch out.

But there are various sources of dementia, it's not all Alzheimer's, with some varieties more treatable than others. And medicine is getting pretty good at such diagnosis, detecting brain etiologies like beta-amyloids using imaging techniques, and also blood or spinal fluid tests.

For several decades there have been medicines to treat the symptoms, but not very effectively, slowing cognitive decline only slightly. More recently there was a controversy about Aduhelm, FDA-approved, with questions about its likewise limited effectiveness in relation to its considerable cost. But Dr. Wolozin was more positive about an even newer medicine, lecanamab, which he thinks workers better.

He also spoke about Parkinson's Disease — what accumulates in the brain there is alpha-synuclein. This makes dopamine neurons die. Treatment involves reducing alpha-synuclein and increasing dopamine.

Wolozin concluded with some remarks about aging in general, relating a conversation with his wife in which he suggested they just stop doing it. Surely sound medical advice.

Carol Quantock

For The Birds: Identification, Observation, and Protection

March 12th, 2023

Carol Quantock's talk was for the birds — or, rather, "For the Birder: Identification, Observation, and Protection." She's been a longtime active birder herself.

A "bird" is a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by having a beak, feathers, and (usually) the ability to fly. There are many different varieties. Quantock explained that one can see them at bird preserves, or one's own backyard, especially if stocked with native plants or a bird feeder. She advocated buying only good bird seed, not the cheap stuff.

Quantock noted that bird activity varies during the day; she likes to go out really early. Dusk is another good time to see birds, especially owls. She deemed listening most important, because birds make distinctive sounds; and use of binoculars for a better view.

Most of the talk was about how to identify birds. Of course, the flying part is key, and birds are easily distinguished from other things that fly, like insects and airplanes. But many people like to identify the exact variety of bird. Timing is important, not just time of day, but time of year, since many birds vacation in distant places like Canada and Mexico (though "Moonbirds" do not travel to the Moon; bird wings only work in air).

Also, different habitats host different sorts of birds, giving one a clue for what to expect (though Quantock cautioned to "expect the unexpected"). For example, water birds might be expected on lakes; bluebirds like open woodlands; forests are good for thrushes, owls, and hawks — which, she noted, eat other birds, remarking, "That's fine, it's nature," shocking some listeners.

Another point was that to determine what you're seeing, size is important. Ostriches are bigger than sparrows; a downy woodpecker larger than a hairy woodpecker. But be mindful that a bird's apparent size may vary depending on distance from the viewer; and binoculars do make them look bigger.

Color is important too. Most birds have some. A goldfinch differs in that respect from a bluebird, as the names imply. Though there are way too many birds sporting yellow-and-black color schemes. Males tend to be more showy, while females try to be less conspicuous, to avoid predators and catcalls.

Then there's shape, and behavior. Quantock noted that robins mostly hop around on the ground, and are not seen clutching tree trunks like woodpeckers. She also pointed out that birds move rather than standing still, so that if you watch a bird for any length of time you will be able to see different aspects of it.

As to bird safety, a big threat is cats. Quantock recommended keeping cats indoors, making it harder for them to catch birds. But the biggest danger to birds is windows, which humans thoughtlessly incorporate into their dwellings. The problem is birds thinking they can fly through glass, which they cannot; resulting in fatal injury. Re-education efforts have failed. Quantock suggested instead various stratagems like keeping blinds partly closed.

Notwithstanding the preceding point about birds heedlessly smashing themselves against glass, it was asserted that "bird brained" is largely a misnomer, and that birds (even while their brains are in fact quite tiny) nevertheless somehow demonstrate a lot of intelligence. Very few birds voted for Trump.

Elahe Gol Pari

What is the 'Woman Life Freedom' movement in Iran?

February 12th, 2023

Our February speaker was Elahe Gol Pari, who lived most of her life in Iran; a playwright, screen writer, film maker, etc. Her talk was titled, "What is the 'Woman Life Freedom' movement in Iran?"

Those three words, in Farsi (the Persian language), are "Zan Zendegi Azadi," and became the rallying cry for the protest movement that erupted after the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old Kurdish Iranian woman. She'd been arrested by Iran's so-called "Morality Police" because her required hair covering was imperfect, and died three days later from injuries inflicted in their custody. While the protests were initially directed against those female dress strictures and the "Morality Police" enforcing them, they turned into a movement against Iran's Islamic regime itself. And while women have taken the lead, a high proportion of men support the movement.

These protests have swept the country, and the regime has responded with extreme violence, many hundreds being killed, and great numbers being jailed, where torture, including sexual violence against women (by the "Morality Police!") is endemic. Elahe said that police shooting at women protesters often aim for the eyes, and many girls have been blinded. Furthermore, injured protesters who go to hospitals have been taken out and jailed and further tortured — as have doctors treating them.

Elahe noted that the first Iranian woman to speak before men without wearing a hijab, the full body covering, was Tahira Qarrat Al-Ain in 1848. This was greeted favorably. No, actually, they killed her.

Elahe also observed that the headscarf, at least, is traditional Iranian clothing, akin to males wearing hats. But in 1936, under the modernizing regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were given the freedom to dress as they pleased. In fact, the hijab was banned in schools and government offices. In 1963 women were given the vote.

Then the Pahlavi dynasty was ousted in 1979 with the "Islamic Revolution" under Ayatollah Khomeini, who opposed such liberalizations.

There was some discussion of the import of these female dress strictures. They putatively embody the idea of covering feminine charms so as to avoid exciting male sexual appetites [seemingly insulting to men, as if they can't keep their libidos under control; which Western men appear able to manage quite well even on topless beaches — FSR] But it was meanwhile suggested that these dress restrictions are in truth assertions of male power over females.

Adam Neiblum

Manufactured Need: What Capitalism Learned From Christianity

January 8th, 2023

Adam Neiblum has degrees in philosophy and religious thought, and has authored several books and articles. His talk was titled "Manufactured Need: What Capitalism Learned from Christianity."

It bashed both, though with greater force vented upon religion. Christianity, he said, was the original "big business." The parallels between the two are many: both are characterized by the "manufactured need" of his title, with religion providing the original model for how capitalism operates.

Neiblum sees a lot of the products sold in the capitalist consumer economy as not really needed by the buyers, hence the idea of manufactured need. He invoked the philosopher Immanuel Kant to draw a distinction between "intrinsic" and "instrumental" value, the latter being merely a means to an end. Kant saying that a human being should never be treated as a means; rather it's a human life that's the ultimate in "intrinsic" value. Neiblum considers capitalism a reversal of Kant's doctrine, with almost everything sold being of (at best) instrumental, not intrinsic, value.

Its sale thus dependent on manipulation, deception, and indoctrination, playing upon people's fears and insecurities. In that category he cited, for example, women being forced to think they have to use cosmetics, fearing social failure otherwise. Many products indeed being marketed not for their "intrinsic" value but to enhance one's social status. Cars, for instance, seen as status symbols rather than merely modes of transportation.

The big fear that religion preys upon is death. Not an imaginary, or even exaggerated fear, but integral to the human condition. And Christianity ups the ante by threatening, in place of extinction, eternal torment, creating a need for absolution. While on the other hand promising the ultimate consumer good: eternal paradise. All together a perfect gambit for making people dependent upon the "product" of religion.

In this context Neiblum spoke of the "Seven Deadly Sins" — all of which are, in actuality, aspects of normal human life. Only in extremes are they a problem. He focused, for example, upon lust, and how truly screwed up it is for religion to make people feel guilty for it. Explaining how much of human culture would vanish if nobody experiences any lust. (Indeed, the species itself would vanish.)

This is just one way in which religion's pretensions as a source of morality are awry. Neiblum presented polling data, asking people whether they believe God is needed for them to be moral. Results ranged from 90% of Swedes saying no, to only 2% in Indonesia. Narrow majorities in America, and worldwide, said no. Neiblum noted that the most thriving nations have the biggest "no" numbers, and obviously they're none the worse for it.

He portrayed one's development of moral ideas as a maturation process. It begins in childhood with punishment avoidance being key, rising (ideally) in adulthood to mature moral reasoning and agency. Along the way we make mistakes, and from them learn to be better. The religious, however, tend to confine themselves to the ladder's lowest rungs, thus in effect remaining children — morally, psychologically, and socially.

Back to capitalism, Neiblum acknowledged that he didn't have an alternative to replace it; in fact, he ultimately acknowledged that it "makes it happen" for us, and on the whole is "remarkably positive." No such indulgence was vouchsafed for religion, which he likened to an albatross on the neck of humanity. We need to normalize atheism, and stress secular education and critical thinking. The good news is that people free of religious beliefs are on the upsurge.

What a shocker.