Religion’s Darkness

Last night on The Late Show, Vice-president Joe Biden spoke movingly with Stephen Colbert about how his faith had helped him get through the dark times in his life, like the recent death of his son. It is true that faith can be a great force for good. But it is also true – and should be remembered on today, of all days – that as the 3 speakers in this clip note, religion can be a powerful force for horror and destruction as well.

“Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” PBS | 2004 duPont-Columbia Award Winner from Alfred I. duPont Awards on Vimeo.

Modern science tells us that everyone and everything is interconnected, part of a larger, dynamic whole. It also makes us aware of our dual, particle/wave nature. Humans reflect that dual nature in the way they need to both feel part of a larger whole and to feel that they offer a unique contribution to that whole. (Ernest Becker discusses this in The Denial of Death.) Religion offers a fundamental way of fulfilling these needs. However, there is always the danger that, blinded by what Monsignor Albacete calls “religious passion,” believers can become blinded to our interconnectedness and wreak horror and destruction on so-called non-believers.

Only when we recognize this fact can we resist the pull of religion’s potential for darkness.

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The Relativity Machine

Want to experience relativity? Try riding a bicycle!

Albert Einstein reportedly said that he thought of relativity while riding his bicycle. According to some, he thought of the concept while riding at night with his bike headlight on. He considered the implications of the fact that the speed of light emanating from that headlight was the same whether he was moving or stationary. This brief video offers an idea of those implications.

But relativity isn’t just restricted to bike headlights or trains. It’s something we all experience at one time or another. As Einstein once said:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

However, if you don’t have a pretty girl to sit with for an hour, and you have no desire to put your hand on a hot stove for even a second, it may be difficult to intentionally create an experience of relativity. But not if you have a bicycle!

I was thinking about this last weekend, while I was riding in a big bicycling fundraiser called the Pan-Mass Challenge. The PMC has many cyclists (5,700 this year) riding long distances to raise a lot of money ($40 million this year) to fight cancer through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Because so many people have been touched one way or the other by cancer, there are many spectators along the route who cheer the riders on.

PMC spectators cheering the riders on

PMC rider and spectators making a connection

While riding this year I was struck by how different the experience of this ride is for the riders and for the spectators.

For the spectators, their location is constant and they see a steady stream of cyclists coming and going. This is the reality of the event for them. But for the cyclists, who are riding in groups with other riders, the group of riders is constant and they see a steady stream of spectators and scenery coming and going.

The end result is that while spectators and riders are interacting with each other for brief moments, the realities they are experiencing are very different – even though both realities are equally true.

The reason for this is that each group is experiencing only a part of a larger whole. The cyclists experience the fullness of the route they are riding, from the beginning to the end. But they are only experiencing a small fraction of the riders in the event: those that fit into the road immediately around them and going the same speed. Meanwhile, the spectators get a much greater sense of how many riders there are in the event: those that continually stream by over many minutes and even hours. But they have no sense of the route as a whole – only the small part of it in their location.

Usually these realities remain distinct from each other. However, sometimes a rider will stop to fix a tire, visit with friends along the route, or for some other reason. When I have done that in the past I’ve been struck by how different the ride feels when I am still and see the many cyclists passing.

While the PMC offers a dramatic example of this phenomena, you can experience it any time you go for a bike ride – especially with a group of friends. So if you want to experience relativity firsthand, get on your bike – the “relativity machine” – and go!


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Getting Beyond Individualism Vs Collectivism

Are we individuals who live and achieve things on our own, or are we members and products of a larger collective? This question – this either/or distinction between individualism and collectivism – is at the heart of the schism in today’s politics.

According to some, we are all individuals. We are responsible for our actions, pursuing our own interests, sinking or swimming on the basis of our individual merit. If we are successful and wealthy, these people say “we built that” on our own. If we are unsuccessful and poor, they say it’s because we’re lazy and just feel that we are “victims.”

According to others, we are all members of and shaped by groups. We are products of our upbringing, blessed or limited by our environment, helped or hindered by society and its laws, succeeding or failing based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we are unsuccessful and poor, these people say it’s because life presented obstacles (bad parents/poor schools/bad neighborhoods/discrimination/etc.) that we were unable to overcome. If we are successful and wealthy, they say it’s because of the help of others (family/friends/teachers/mentors/employees/etc.) as well as tax laws and government policies (like the Wall Street bailout) that favor the wealthy.

Both perspectives seem reasonable. Does anyone think individual responsibility is not important? And does anyone not recognize that someone who has grown up in a stable home and neighborhood and who has attended good schools with capable and caring teachers has an advantage over someone who hasn’t?

But if both perspectives are reasonable, how do we get beyond the either/or divide at the heart of this conflict? Perhaps we can find a clue in the stadium phenomena called “the wave.”

A wave is created when successive groups of people in an arena jump up and raise their hands, then quickly sit back down, creating the appearance of a wave of humanity rippling around the stands.

In late August of 2008, at the “Sharpie 500″ Sprint Cup at Bristol Motor Speedway, the pre-race festivities included an official attempt at the world’s largest wave, with an estimated 168,000 people taking part.

Imagine you were there that evening, standing in front of the pits next to a man holding a green flag. The race is about to begin, and the tiny half-mile track is filled with the din of the sold-out crowd. You can barely hear the announcer over the PA system as he tells everyone about the planned wave. Then the starter points the green flag at the throng in front of him and sets it off.

As the multitude roars, you watch the human wave start off towards the first turn. You watch as masses of people jump up and sit quickly back down, section after section around the turn. You might wonder at some point whether they will keep it up, but as you watch you see the wave come sweeping out of turn four and head to the finish line.

Now imagine that, as the wave sweeps down the home stretch and continues on for a second lap, your focus shifts to a single person in the stands in front of you. Maybe it’s a friend, or a celebrity you recognize; maybe it’s a particularly attractive stranger. In any case, focused on this particular person, you watch as they suddenly jump up and throw their arms in the air with a cheer and then quickly sit back down.

What happens next? Do you continue looking at this person – if it’s a friend do you smile and wave to them? Do you turn your focus back to watching the human wave swing around turns one and two?

More importantly, do you think about the perceptual shift you just experienced?

To understand what just happened, let’s consider an analogy from modern physics.  According to quantum physics, all matter and radiation have both particle- and wave-like characteristics. Any distinction between these two properties is simply due to how they are observed.

As demonstrated by the famous double-slit experiment, an electron will reveal either its particle or wave nature based on how it is measured (observed) when it goes through either one or two slits. Simply stated, if only one slit is open an electron will act like a particle; if two slits are open it will behave like a wave.

A similar effect can be recognized in our scenario from the race track. As we saw, you can either watch a crowd doing the wave OR you can watch an individual participating in that wave –  you can’t see both at the same time. What you see is the result of a shift in how you’re perceiving what’s in front of you.

Realizing this offers us a way beyond the either/or conflict about individualism and collectivism. It becomes clear that this conflict is a result of fragmentary perception, in which we only see the wave going around the track or we only see individuals jumping up and down. Each of these perceptions is incomplete on its own; the event only fully makes sense when we consider both facets equally.

A wave depends on individuals deciding to take part by standing and throwing their hands up in the air and then quickly sitting back down. But these individual actions are tied to the actions of the rest of the crowd. Individuals are only likely to take part if the people in the section before theirs are participating. And their decision to participate increases the likelihood that the people in the section after theirs will also take part.

Just as matter and radiation have both particle- and wave-like characteristics at the same time, any accomplishment by a group of people has both individual and collective qualities simultaneously. Any achievement an individual gains from a group endeavor is inextricably tied to the achievements of the other members of the group.

Americans have historically had a strong sense of individualism, but in the past such individualism was leavened with an awareness of a collective American spirit. Our national motto – “e pluribus unum” – proclaims “out of many, one.” Our Declaration of Independence concludes with the phrase “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  And at the signing of that document Benjamin Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Today we have many who subscribe to an extreme form of individualism which appears to have no appreciation of this collective spirit. In its place has been erected a paean to “liberty” in which individuals are free to do whatever they please without regard to the effects of their actions on others and society.

And so we have individuals in business whose primary goal is maximizing their personal wealth without regard to how their actions affect those who work for them, the shareholders and customers of their companies, or the communities of which they are ostensibly a part. We have politicians who are consumed with a desire for position and influence without regard to their actual responsibilities to the voters they are supposed to represent and serve or to the public employees who carry out their policy mandates.  And we have debates about issues like gun violence in which proclaimed individual rights trump any serious concern for the safety and well-being of others in the community.

After decades of such extreme individualism we are dealing with its fruits, which include a growing economic disparity between the wealthy and everyone else, political gridlock and a steady decline in essential infrastructure and government services, and an inability to address critical issues like the steady stream of gun-related tragedies.

This isn’t working folks. It’s time for us to renounce this extreme individualism and to regain an appreciation for the leavening effect of the collective American spirit.  It’s also time we moved beyond the imaginary schism between the individual and the group.

Nothing is accomplished without individual action. But success is achieved on a collective level. The wave at that race track wouldn’t have happened unless individuals actively participated. But the final achievement – the wave – is a collective result.

If we want to find real success – as a person, as a business, or as a country – we need to get beyond the fantasy that our individual interests are somehow distinct from our collective well-being. As we learned at that race track, success only comes when we see our individual talents and accomplishments blended with others to create a larger wave of human achievement.

It’s time we learn to ride that wave into a successful future.

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Certain Dangers

Although it’s a basic element in modern physics, many people today have a problem with uncertainty.  Some say uncertainty is keeping businesses from moving forward; others claim there are certain Truths that stand as a bulwark against an alleged “moral relativism.”

In contrast to such paeans to certainty, The New York Times recently posted an interesting piece: “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.”   Drawing on lessons from an old BBC television series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by a Dr. Jacob Bronowski, Simon Critchley notes the distinction made in the episode “Knowledge and Certainty”:

He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

Critchley notes that a result of this inevitably imperfect information is that we assume a responsibility for our interpretation of that information. Knowledge isn’t based on some reality existing “out there” – it is based on our looking at the information and drawing our own – hopefully reasonable – conclusions. This personal dimension means that there is a moral aspect to knowledge:

For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

As Critchley notes, this uncertainty is integral to our remaining both moral and human. Evil occurs when we think we have a god-like certainty that we know The Truth and others don’t:

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

When you consider the many evil things individuals and groups have done to other individuals and groups – or the the Earth itself – at one time or another, you will inevitably find an element of inflexible certainty in their beliefs. From the Crusades to Auschwitz to 9/11 – they all have their roots in the delusional but unshakeable certainty of their perpetrators that they were acting on the side of Good.

Such certainty can be seductive in an uncertain, chaotic world like ours. But for the sake of our sanity and our souls, we should be very wary of the purveyors of such certainties.

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Fear and Political Beliefs

Daily Kos had an article earlier this month titled “Fear is the mindkiller: Focus group peers into the Republican brain.” In it they quote from research by Democracy Corps:

Understand that the base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country – and their starting reaction is “worried,” “discouraged,” “scared,” and “concerned” about the direction of the country – and a little powerless to change course. They think Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in DC let him get away with it.

This echoes something I discussed in depth almost two years ago. In my post “Keep the Change” I noted:

William O. Beeman, a professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of “Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival,” also notes this varying response to change and talks about the responses of those who resist change:

In essence, all such movements are a natural consequence of human processes of cultural change. In every society on earth change proceeds at an uneven pace. Some society members embrace change with relish. Others find it oppressive and troubling. When people feel that change is being imposed on them, some will find it necessary to resist–sometimes violently. The dynamics of revitalization thus are tied to inter-group dynamics. When a group in society perceives itself as having its power and authority usurped in the course of social change, the group comes to blame both internal and external causes for its fall from power.

As far as internal issues are concerned, Beeman notes that decline is often associated with individual failings. “They accuse members of society of becoming weak and irresolute to the point where they let others oppress them.”  Regarding external issues, Beeman says “…the group objectifies an Other, and identifies it as an oppressor. Usually the movement advocates resistance — sometimes violent — to that oppressor.”

As with the movements Beeman discusses, the Republican base is choosing some extreme responses to the change we’ve been experiencing – like our recent government shutdown and flirtation with government default. They’re also “objectifying an Other” in their extreme negativity towards President Obama. These behaviors, and the fact that some people actually consider them reasonable, can be disturbing to those not viewing the world through that lens of fear.

It might be helpful to gain an understanding of the big picture here. I think “Keep the Change” has something to offer in that regard.

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Some people view the world in either/or terms. To them everything is either one way or another way: true or false, individual or collective, young or old, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic, red or blue, sacred or secular, believer or nonbeliever, Christian or Moslem (or Jew), sinner or saint, evolved or intelligently designed, career-oriented or family-oriented, urban or rural, foreign or domestic, with us or against us, my team or your team, your tribe or my tribe, Mac or PC, Coke or Pepsi…the list goes on and on.

These people see the world as either Black or White.


Others take a more nuanced view of things. They argue that things are hardly ever as clearly demarcated as the Black & White Crowd claim. China and North Korea may both be communist countries, for example. But China seems much more hospitable and in tune with capitalism – to the extent that it can at times appear to have more in common with the capitalist United States than with communist North Korea.

Sometimes these folks will point to a larger whole containing both sides. As Barack Obama said in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech: “…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”

These people will say they recognize that, rather than being black and white, the world is made up of Shades of Gray.


Shades of gray certainly give us a better picture of how things are. It’s much easier to see details and recognize items in this picture. But the picture is still incomplete. It rests on a mental abstraction of the world, filtering things through the mind into this shade and that.

We are accustomed to using our brains in every dealing we have in the world. In refining our thinking we can get beyond the limits of a black and white world and perceive its many different shades of gray. But that only takes us so far in perceiving and understanding our world.

Perhaps we need to step back once in a while, stop dissecting and analyzing everything, and just let the world speak to us while we listen. Maybe the world can then tell us something more about itself.

Sunrise Near Heldebergs

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Holistic Healing for Deserts – and Climate Change?

TED recently posted an excellent talk by Allan Savory, who works to promote the holistic management of grasslands around the world. In bringing land that was once desert back into productive and sustainable grasslands, his program may also offer a significant role in dealing with climate change.

His talk offers a great example of the powerful way an holistic approach might address a serious problem.

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