Saturday, May 31, 2008

I am on a very strong antibiotic. I am on the mend, I think. I had to sleep part of the night in a chair last night because I thought I was choking and my lungs felt like they were collapsing. I have learned three important things from this illness.

1.) As soon as you feel sick, stop exercising.
2.) Don’t get on a plane.
3.) Get enough sleep.

I know, I’m a genius!!!!!

Something I’m reading: “Kluge” by Gary Marcus. I recommend it HIGHLY. I had a binge of economics/biology book buying. I got “Nudge” by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, which was okay. Then I read “The Economic Naturalist” which wasn’t that great, more like an interesting set of explanations… sort of. But then I read “Kluge.” OH it’s so good. And elegantly written to boot. It’s about how our brains evolved, what our weaknesses are because of it, how the oldest part of our brain can take over, for better or worse results. And the book is short, I read it today. And I am reminded again how impulsive we all are. And how critical thinking is something that is acquired, not innate. Even though evaluating cost and expense of any given opportunity is innate, it’s just that we aren’t naturally good evidence gatherers. We have horrible confirmation bias, we tend to be unrealistically optimistic, and we can be overwhelmed by visceral experiences – seeing someone attractive and sexually available, the smell of food, the over-response to a scary story in spite of statistics. Anyway, I recommend this book SO much. I already think it’s on my Christmas book list. Maybe by then it will be in paperback.

I am about to start reading it again.

Here’s the thing I wanted to blog about.

This week, on the plane back from Portland, I listened to a conversation between the two people, a man and a woman, behind me. They hadn’t known each other before the plane ride. I could make out that they were both religious. He said he was a retired psychologist that worked for a church organization – which one I didn’t catch. She said she was Catholic and proud of it. She told him she converted to Catholicism as an adult. He asked her why. (You can imagine that at this point I was pressing my ear between the seats so I could hear…) And she said, “Oh I became Catholic because our kids were getting ready to go to school and I there was a Catholic church and school nearby and the people there seemed really nice and like the people I like to be around, really family oriented. And my husband was raised Catholic, so he liked it.”

This reminded me once of another plane conversation, this one with someone I was sitting next to, and actually in the conversation with. He told me he lived in Salt Lake City, and in fact he had just moved there four years before. Then somehow it came out that he was Mormon (I might have asked him this point blank.) I asked him if that’s why he moved to Salt Lake City. He said no, he set up a business there. For some reason, I guess, it was a good place for his business. Then he said he converted to the Mormon church after he got there. I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, when in Rome… And people there are all Mormons and he wanted his kids to be like the other kids around and it was good for business because everyone else he was dealing with was Mormon.

First of all, I give both these people major points for honesty. I think they were speaking the truth. I mean, you could argue that the Catholic woman was telling her pragmatic side of the story for being Catholic rather than her religious reasons because the person she was talking to was a psychologist from another church and maybe she thought it would be too disagreeable to say something like, “I am a Catholic because Jesus is the Son of God and he appointed Peter to be the first Pope by saying, ‘On this rock I build my church” and the current Pope is the mouthpiece of God now.’” So I could see that even if she felt this way, she might not have said it, because it wasn’t such a neighborly thing to say.

But my hunch is that she really is Catholic because of the reasons she said and not for any other reason. And I think the Mormon guy on the plane a few years ago is Mormon for exactly the reasons he told me and nothing more.


Now if someone asked me why I was an Atheist, I would probably go into a long and boring account of why I don’t think there is an ultimate designer in nature and get into some philosophical reasons why I think there is no God.

Imagine if I said, “Well, a lot of really cool people are Atheists. In my neighborhood everyone is reading Dawkins and Dennet and Sam Harris and I want my kid to be accepted by their kids so that’s why I’m an Atheist.” I think the other person would be floored. I think they would immediately write me off as superficial and shallow and I think they would be right to do that!

But I suspect if I challenged the religious people on the plane this way, if I said, “Wow, how cooly pragmatic that answer is.” I think they would be really offended and think of me as persnickety and holier-than-thou (how ironic!)

On the other hand, I thought of it this way. What if my answer was “I am a Catholic.” And when they asked why I said, “My family was Catholic. I became accustomed to Catholic ritual. It is a comfort to me. I like the architecture, the medieval overtones, the outfits of the religious, and I especially love the music, in particular Bach.” Would that be less superficial? Because I could see myself saying that if I had not become a-religious.

So, I just thought I would throw that out there. I think it’s interesting, is all.


Rhonda-San Jose CA said...

I heard about Kluge on the podcast, This Week in Science. The author was interviewed and the book sounded so interesting. Thanks for the reminder, I really want to read it. Great comments on the practical reasons people are religious. Makes you wonder how many "true believers" there really are.

TimmyB said...

Feel better soon, Julia.

I love hearing about people's religious beliefs and how they got there. The handsome, young straight guy who sits near me at work admitted that he believes the entire universe is only 6,000 years old.

My response was: "Oh, you're a young earth creationist. How cute!" When I asked him if he came upon this belief on his own or if it was handed down to him by his parents, he admitted it was the latter.

He was raised in San Diego, where apparently they have no science classes. When I questioned him about the light that was already on its way to us from distant stars 6,000 years ago he drew a blank trying to explain why the creator would make it appear like they'd been shining our way for billions of years and the light was created in transit. I think most people just don't want to have to think about it too much.

In this country, thinking is frowned upon.

Happy weekend.

paul said...

If you enjoyed reading Nudge and Kludge, you really must read Smudge. It's just as good as the others, only smudgier!

RonStrelecki said...

I regularly experience what I call the "band saw effect". That's the feeling I get when I am at a tool store looking at a $600 band saw that I need to do just one little thing. I can't pay $600 for a band saw, and then return it after I cut one little piece of wood. I think to myself, "If I was a member of a church, there'd be a dozen old guys with band saws sitting in the back of their sheds. All I'd have to do is ask one old guy, and he'd say, 'Oh yeah, Mike's got a band saw...' and then I'd go over to Mike's and drink lemonade, do my band saw thing... maybe I'd get his VCR clock to stop blinking 12:00... everybody wins."

That's the kind of service that a Church really serves. Old guys with tools... Atheists have none of this. There is no gathering point. There's no hangout. Churches serve a load of very real functions that you can't imagine needing until they aren't there. Like, how do you know your mechanic isn't ripping you off? If he has to sit two pews away from you for the rest of his life and you babysit his kids, he (probably) won't. And even if he does, at least it's staying "in the community." As an atheist, every person out there is an "independent atom" seeking their "own self interest". There's no way to tell.

Michael Shermer writes some interesting things in his book How We Believe. When asked "Why do you believe?" most people will give what they think of as the most rational reasons. When asked, "Why do they believe?" however, people attribute other's beliefs to irrational causes. Personally, I'd sell my soul for a band saw. And I know there are two hundred guys within a mile of me who have them rusting in their back yards!

Julie said...

I've been looking for something to read this weekend and will find Kludge today - thanks!
I love your posts and the commenters you draw, such intelligent, interesting people. This is the way religion should be addressed.

Lanie Painie said...

Hope your meds start working for you soon!

Whether it Kludge or Kluge, it is definitely a book I want to sink my brain into! I've recently been reading all sorts of materials about adults with Asperger's and that publication sounds fascinating. Thanks for the reccomendation!

I like the explanation of Band Saw Effect. It is difficult for us a-religious people to build a sense of community and gather support systems around ourselves. How do we overcome it? I found volunteering as a great way to find other people with the same or similar value-set, but at times feel that I need to be careful of being rejected because of my anti-religion views. Some churchies tend to make all kinds of assumptions once they hear that you aren't "one of them."

Anonymous said...

I loved what RonStrelecki wrote about the Band Saw Effect - you should post that on your *own* blog.

I think we are still just very tribal folk and we know there are some safety advantages in belonging to a herd -- as well as some sacrifices.

One of my friends moved from California back to her hometown in the Midwest and she is chafing at the small-town cliquishness she had forgotten.

When a retired friend broke her ankle, 2 of her 4 adult children, plus a couple of grandchildren, pitched in to take care of her during the crisis and perform errands and household chores while she couldn't walk or drive.

Twice weekly, a member of her Unitarian Church Care Group drove her to her college class (enrolled for credit, BTW), pushed her wheelchair to the door in a minimally accessible building, and reversed that whole process to get her home again.

I have no answers, only questions and observations ...

Anonymous said...

Julia, you do know that Peter was not really the first Pope...don't you?

Rich Beckman said...

"You do know that Peter was not really the first Pope...don't you?"

I guess it depends on who you ask:

And from the Vatican:

"The series of Pontiffs ran along all the walls of the Chapel starting from that of the altar, in the centre of which could be seen Christ and the first pope Peter..."

surfmonkey89 said...

Another good book to try out is Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. Highly recommended.

And since I just loaned you MY band saw, I'm going to go ahead and order a copy of yours (Kludge).

Go Zags!

JoAnn said...

Julia, whoever asked you why you did not join the Unitarian church does not know much about the UU teachings/beliefs. The DO believe in God, and in Jesus, just not the trinity. Nor do they necessarily believe in the divinity of Jesus.

But at Easter they talk about Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead.

That is more theology than I want to deal with.

Bryan said...

Your overheard conversation was very interesting to me.

Growing up we never went to church, except for weddings, and religion was never discussed. Then for a short time when I was maybe 10 my younger sister and I went to a Methodist Sunday School for maybe six months. I did weekly "Bible study" which amounted to filling out crosswords and other exercises that required looking up things in the Bible. We also memorized the books of the Bible. At the end I stood in front of the whole congregation and my class recited the books. I still remember Genesis through Deuteronomy. Then we got our "Good News Bible" and we stopped going shortly after and that was it for religion in my family.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago and my sister was getting married. She converted to Catholicism because his family was very Catholic and they wanted to get married in a Catholic Church. She took classes and learned the rituals, etc. She wears a gold cross but I have never heard her discuss God. They go to church very regularly but I wonder if she's any more religious than she was before?

I think she did it because it was the easy thing to do and was just a condition of marriage. I don't think she hold the beliefs strongly.

arensb said...

“Kluge” by Gary Marcus. I recommend it HIGHLY.

In "Letting Go of God", you said Deepak Chopra was full of shit. Everything I've read by him has confirmed that.

You also recommended Pinker's "How the Mind Works", so I went out and read it, and enjoyed it tremendously.

Now you say "Kluge" is worth reading. I hear and obey, O Mistress of the Northwest.

K.C. said...

I think that just now at 41 I am realizing that it is time to think about religion. How it is time to "think" about religion and why we "pick" a religion. I think it was so great that you really went into all the thought that you did.

My brother recently asked me the question concerning Jesus, "What if we are wrong?".... KC

Anonymous said...

My son goes to a fairly-newly-opened Catholic school that was begun by Opus Dei members (unbeknownst to us). They are an intriguing bunch. It's interesting how many of them are involved with politics and the financial industry. (We're not O.D. but are more the lackadaisical variety of Catholics.)

Anyhoo, I tend to get nasty coughs and colds also. What's interesting is that my husband never gets sick. Never! Not even when I'm coughing and sneezing and contaminating everything he touches. What gives? Is it too much yeast in the old digestive tube? Low-grade acidosis? An injured fourth chakra? I'm determined to figure this out because I hate being sick.

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