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The Awe Delusion

What does the magnificence of the universe
have to do with God?
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After 64-year-old Diana Nyad completed her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida in September 2013, she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday show in what was to be a motivational reflection on the triumph of will over age. When Nyad announced, “I’m an atheist,” Oprah responded quizzically: “But you’re in the awe.” Puzzled, Nyad responded: “I don’t understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist—go on down the line—and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.” What Oprah said next inflamed atheists: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

This is the soft bigotry of those who cannot conceive of how someone can be in awe without believing in supernatural sources of wonder. Why would anyone think that? (continue reading…)

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Is God Dying?

The decline of religion and the rise of the “nones”
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Since the early 20th century, with the rise of mass secular education and the diffusion of scientific knowledge through popular media, predictions of the deity’s demise have fallen short, and in some cases—such as in that of the U.S.—religiosity has actually increased. This ratio is changing. According to a 2013 survey of 14,000 people in 13 nations (Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Brazil, India, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S.) that was conducted by the German Bertelsmann Foundation for its Religion Monitor, there is both widespread approval for the separation of church and state, as well as a decline in religiosity over time and across generations.

In response to the statements “Only politicians who believe in God are suitable for public office” and “Leading religious figures should exercise an influence on government decisions,” even in über-religious America only 25 percent agreed with the former and 28 percent with the latter. All other countries reported lower figures (with Spain at or near the bottom at 8 and 13 percent and Germany in the middle at 10 and 21 percent, respectively). Moreover, most of the countries in the survey showed a declining trend in religiosity, especially among the youth. In Spain, for example, 85 percent of respondents older than 45 reported being moderately to very religious, but only 58 percent of those younger than 29 said they were. In Europe in general, only 30 to 50 percent said that religion is important in their own lives. (continue reading…)

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Sovereign Insanity

How weird beliefs can land you in jail
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When I was in college, my friend and I attended a tax seminar in which we were told that paying taxes was unnecessary because the Sixteenth Amendment—empowering Congress to levy an income tax—was never legally ratified. After a long and detailed history of the IRS, we were advised not to file a tax return and given instructions on what to do and say when the feds come a-knockin’. The slick presentation seemed internally coherent and logically plausible in the room, but later, after some reflection, I figured it couldn’t possibly be true because no one would pay taxes if it were. In contrast, my friend went for it and got away tax-free for years, until the IRS caught up with him and he got his comeuppance.

I was thinking about this incident in August, when I appeared as an expert witness on the psychology of why people fall for such schemes in a Portland, Ore., court in the case of USA v. Miles J. Julison, a house flipper who neared financial ruin after the housing-market meltdown. That year he reported $583,151 in “other income” to the IRS on his tax return, claiming that the entire amount was withheld as income taxes. Submitting eight IRS 1099–OID (Original Issue Discount) forms, Julison requested a refund of $411,773. (According to the IRS, an “OID is a form of interest. It is the excess of a debt instrument’s stated redemption price at maturity over its issue price.”) The IRS sent him a check in that amount, which he spent on a home loan, personal debts, a car and a boat. Emboldened by his success, the next year he demanded a refund of more than $1.5 million. This time, however, instead of a refund check he got a trip to court and, after a guilty verdict, jail. (continue reading…)

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When Science Doesn’t Support Beliefs

Then ideology needs to give way
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Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. I also believe in science as the greatest instrument ever devised for understanding the world. So what happens when these two principles are in conflict? My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. Knowing about the existence of motivated reasoning, however, can help us overcome it when it is at odds with evidence.

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won’t work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn’t fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in. (continue reading…)

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What happens after we die?

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