Monday, October 22, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 9 – Childhood, abuse, and escape from religion

Chapter nine in The God Delusion, as the name suggests, deals with the way in which children are indoctrinated into faiths. In my opinion chapter nine is the most controversial one in the entire book. Personally I agree with most of what Dawkins writes, though occasionally I can have some understanding for a certain degree of child indoctrination. It is after all difficult to act in a completely neutral way towards children without letting your ideology shine through at all. I expect that it is even more difficult if you believe passionately in something as many religious people do. Personally when a child asks me about my beliefs I always say that I do not believe in any God, but I am also quick to point out that there are people who thinks otherwise. I will gladly explain why I do not believe in a God, but I try to not force the child into adapting my views. I also try to ask children what they think, thus encouraging them to think for themselves. These are my ideals, but I admit that sometimes I don't live up to them entirely, and I cannot expect religious people to do so if I do not… Dawkins writes (and I think he may be going a bit too far here).

"In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon."

Nevertheless, the damage that results form child labeling and child indoctrination is undeniable. Suicide bombers often commit their deeds because it will bring financial support to their family, however, I do not think they would have done what they do was it not for their strong religious faith. As Dawkins often points out, it is also very weird that we label children as Muslim or Christian considering how complicated belief systems really are. Have they read the bible and reflected on its validity? I seriously doubt it… It is entirely equivalent to labeling children according to some political affiliation, e.g. "a communist child", or a "social democrat child". Children should be taught how to think, not what to think. Dawkins writes:

"I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure."

In Sweden there is an ongoing debate (S) about whether confessional private schools should be allowed or not. Today we have a compromise in which religious movements are allowed to run schools as long as they do not have any religious perspectives in the normal subjects. They are however allowed to have some isolated religious events such as morning-prayer. As a liberal I find it hard to have a strong opinion in this debate. The essential question for me is how much the religious events in these schools contribute to indoctrination of children as well as whether going to such a school will prevent the children from meeting people with different ideologies. For instance, the Plymouth Brothers (S), a sect that has been allowed to start a private school in Sweden, have an ideology that explicitly says that it is not allowed to eat in the company of a "devil worshipper" like myself. Dawkins writes (and this I agree with completely):

"Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are 'valid', let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so."

Another theme in chapter nine is the obsession that some people have with preservation of religious diversity which they see as positive seemingly independent of the consequences. The argument goes something like this. Who are we to judge that say female circumcision is wrong - that is their culture and we should respect that. In one American TV-program the ritual sacrifice of a young Inca girl was hailed as being exotic and a wonderful example of cultural diversity (the event took place about 500 years ago). Dawkins writes:

"Humphrey's point - and mine - is that, regardless of whether she was a willing victim or not, there is strong reason to suppose that she would not have been willing if she had been in full possession of the facts. For example, suppose she had known that the sun is really a ball of hydrogen, hotter than a million degrees Kelvin, converting itself into helium by nuclear fusion, and that it originally formed from a disc of gas out of which the rest of the solar system, including Earth, also condensed . . . Presumably, then, she would not have worshipped it as a god, and this would have altered her perspective on being sacrificed to propitiate it."…

"Humphrey makes the point that no adult woman who has somehow missed out on circumcision as a child volunteers for the operation later in life."

To sum everything up, though I think it is categorically wrong to impose your view on children I can understand that in practice this may be difficult to attain to a perfect degree. Beliefs will inevitably shine through. However, I cheer everyone who encourages autonomous thought in children. Ask them what do you think?, do you believe in God?, how do you think the world came to be?, and other questions like that? Let them have their say and let them know that they can believe what they want. At the very least, don't be like pastor Roberts who is running a Hell House in which children are taught what will happen to them if they would be so evil as to have an abortion (they have very generous age limits compared to for instance Hollywood, see picture). Pastor Roberts says:

"I would rather for them to understand that Hell is a place that they absolutely do not want to go. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve than to not reach them with that message and have them live a life of sin and to never find the Lord Jesus Christ. And if they end up having nightmares, as a result of experiencing this, I think there's a higher good that would ultimately be achieved and accomplished in their life than simply having nightmares."

Friday, October 12, 2007

What would be your choice of death?

When I was little I often contemplated and discussed with my friends what would be the best way to end your days? I actually still think about this sometimes. I have often thought to myself that a high fall would be pretty neat, but then again, maybe you don't enjoy that kind of fall the same way you enjoy a rollercoaster… Floating into space is another alternative which have seemed like an attractive one to me. Until today all my reflections had been built on nothing, however, now that I have discovered this article from New Scientist, I am able to make a more informed choice about my preferred death scenario.

According to the article written by Anna Gosline, death is almost invariable caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain. How this oxygen deprivation arises is different from case to case. In the article ten different means of dying are discussed: drowning, heart attack, bleeding to death, fire, decapitation, electrocution, fall from a height, hanging, lethal injection, and explosive decompression. If your main priority is to not experience pain then your choice should be decapitation (a good decapitator is a requirement though), or fall from height. If conducted properly, these two methods will result in a rapid death and hence a minimum amount of suffering. Things can go wrong though. When Mary Queen of Scots was decapitated (see picture), the axeman failed to completely separate the head from the rest of the body in his first three attempts. He eventually finished the job with a dagger… Decapitation is probably the fastest way of dying, however, even an isolated head contains enough oxygen to function for about ten seconds. Hence, just like chickens can run around headless following decapitation, humans can operate their facial muscles. I don't know whether they can also experience consciousness, but I cannot see any reason why not (I wonder what it would feel like to just be a head)…

The "float into space scenario" has become a lot less attractive after reading the article. It seems to be a lot like drowning where you panic because you cannot get any oxygen. Additionally, your body will swell up like in the movie Total Recall (though they probably exaggerated a bit), not very pleasant in other words. Likewise, electrocution and lethal injection, seems to be rather unattractive choices. Electrocution is supposed to knock out the brain swiftly, however, whether this really happens is a matter of debate (the cranium is a good insulator and may thus prevent the bulk of electricity from entering the brain). An active brain will experience horrible pains as a result of the burns and the high current flowing through the body.

In the light of this, lethal injection seem like a much better alternative, at least if the dosing is right. Before getting the actual killer substance convicts are given a large dose of anesthesia and after that they won't feel a thing. The problem is just that occasionally the given dose is too small and then this alternative is no longer very attractive. Finally, falling from height does seem to be a fairly good alternative. At terminal velocity (the velocity you reach before the wind resistance balances the gravitational force), which is about 200km/h, the blow that you experience upon landing is so great that you can be fairly certain of a swift fatal dysfunction in your body, either the heart or the lungs explode or you crack your spine. If you try landing on your head results will be even "better"…

What would you choose?

Ps: I am not suicidal, I find life too facinating to want to kill myself, so you don't need to call any agencies...

Friday, October 5, 2007

Complementary and alternative medicine - Spontaneous recovery from disease

Alternative and complementary medicine refers to products and practices which are not part of the standard medical procedure that you get when you go to a hospital. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, alternative refers to when a practice aspires to replace standard medical care whereas complementary practices only aspire to complement standard medical procedure. For sure, for sure, medical research is far from a complete understanding of the physiology and anatomy of humans, and there are almost certainly many effective remedies which are not a part of the standard repertoire today. In the future we will no doubt see many advances in science and in consequence, new therapies to treat disease.

Having said this, complementary and alternative medicine suffers from what I consider to be a much more serious problem. First of, many of the techniques and practices used in alternative and complementary medicine have never been tested, or have not gained any support, in controlled studies and hence they have never proved to have any "real effect" (as opposed to placebo effect which they probably do have). Even more serious, because alternative therapies have often not been tested properly, it is hard to tell whether they have any serious side effects. What is almost certain is that if a particular substance has any effect at all, then it is more than likely to have side effects as well (see table at bottom of this article).

Sometimes alternative practices turn out to be effective and when they do they are eventually assimilated into standard medical practices. To be fair, this assimilation process can sometimes be agonizingly slow and some doctors are probably too conservative, however, the essence of the matter is that when an alternative treatment or therapy has gained enough support in studies it will cease to be "alternative" and become "standard". This is to some extent true for acupuncture, which is now used occasionally as a treatment for various conditions even though it has long been controversial. However, importantly, the mechanism that makes acupuncture work seems to be different from what has been claimed by those who have used this procedure in the past. No meridians have ever been demonstrated. Instead it seems that acupuncture stimulate pain sensing nerve endings. These nerve endings in turn exercise a form of lateral inhibition meaning that they block other pain sensing nerve endings around them, thus preventing the patient from experiencing pain in that area.

Complementary and alternative practices can often give the illusion of being effective because we recover spontaneously from diseases. We have an impressive immune system, which deals with seemingly limitless pathogens in an extremely efficient and competent manner. I am making up the numbers here, but say that after taking a certain herb 90% of all people recover from the flue within a week. Wow, surely there must be something to it then? But wait a minute. Almost everyone (say 90%) recovers from the flue within a week if they just stay home in bed. Suddenly these herbs do not seem that fantastic, and they seem even less attractive if you take into account the often excessive price tags.

Back pain is another example that deserves mention, and these figures I am not making up (they come from a lecture I attended recently). Nine out of ten (90% that is) cases of acute back pain will go away after one week. Combine this with the fact that 60-80% of all individuals will experience back pain sometime in their lifetime and what you get is an awful lot of cases of back pain that goes away in one week. Not surprisingly, at least not to a cynic like me, there are a huge number of alternative or complementary therapies for back pain, and they all seem really successful as long as you do not compare them to no treatment at all…

Here is my advice, my alternative therapy if you like. If you experience back pain, and don't have any other serious symptoms such as your vertebrae penetrating your back muscles (in which case I would advice going to a doctor), don't spend your money on all sorts of alternative/complementary therapies, rather relax for one week and see if the pain simple goes away (in most cases it will). Once you have recovered, use the money you would have spent on a therapy on something nice, such taking your girlfriend to a cozy restaurant. If the pain does not go away after one week, go see a doctor and have your back checked up…

Writing about alternative medicines is something that really warms my heart. I have written about homeopathy here, here and here, and here I have written about the role of the placebo effect.