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Closely tied to our conceptions of morality, conspiracy occurs when the truth is deliberately obscured. Conspiracy is often intimately involved with, and precipitated by political entities whom seek to minimise any negative repercussions of such truth becoming public knowledge. But what exactly does a conspiracy involve? According to numerous examples from popular culture, conspiracies arise from smaller, constituent and autonomous units within governmental bodies and/or military organisations, and usually involve some degree of ‘coverup’ or deliberate misinformation/clouding of actual events that have taken place. Such theories, while potentially having some credulous background, are for the most part ridiculed as neurotic fantasies that have no grounding in reality. How then do individuals maintain such obviously false ideas in the face of societal pressure? What are the characteristics of a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and how do these traits distinguish them from society as a whole? What do conspiracy theories tell us about human nature? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

As a child I was intensely fascinated with various theories regarding alien activity of earth. Surely a cliche in today’s world, but the alleged events that occurred in Roswell, Tunguska and Rendlesham Forest are a conspirator’s dream. Fortunately I no longer hold these events in any factual stead; rather, as I have aged and matured so too has my ability to examine evidence rationally (something that conspiracy theorists seem unable to accomplish). Introspection on my childhood motivations for believing these theories potentially reveals key characteristics of believers in conspiracy. Aliens were a subject of great personal fear as a young child, thus encouraging a sort of morbid fascination and desire to understand/explain (perhaps in an attempt to regain some control over these entities that could supposedly appear at will). Indeed, a fear of alien abduction seems to merely be the modern reincarnation of previous childhood fears, such as goblins and demons. Coupled with the ‘pseudo-science’ that accompanies conspiracy theories, it is no wonder that the young and otherwise impressionable are quickly mesmerised and enlisted into the cause. A strong emotional bond connects the beliefs with the evidence in an attempt to relieve uncomfortable feelings.

Conspiracy theories may act as a quasi-scientific attempt to explain the unknown, not too dissimilar to religion (and perhaps utilising the same neurological mechanisms).  While a child could be excused for believing such fantasies, it is intriguing how adults can maintain and perpetuate wild conspiracy beliefs without regret. Cognitive dissonance may act as an underlying regulator and maintainer of such beliefs, in that the more radical they become, the more they are subscribed to (in an attempt at minimising the psychological discomfort that internal hypocrisy brings). But where do these theories come from? Surely there must be at least some factual basis for their creation. Indeed there is, however the evidence is often mis-interpreted or there is sufficient cause for distrust in the credibility of the information ( in light of the deliverer’s past history). Therefore we have two main factors that can determine whether the information will be interpreted as a conspiracy; the level of trust an individual ascribes to the information source (taking into account that person’s past dealings with the agent and personality/presence of neurotic disorders) and the degree of ambiguity in the said events (personal interpretation different to that reported, perceptual experience sufficiently vivid to cause disbelief in alternate explanation).

To take the alleged alien craft crash landing at Roswell as a case in point, it becomes obvious where the conspiracy began to develop within the chronological timeframe of events and for what reasons. Roswell also demonstrates the importance of maintaining a trust in authority; the initial printing of ‘Flying Disc Recovered By USAF’ in a local newspaper was quickly retracted and replaced with a more menial and uninteresting ‘weather balloon’ explanation. Reportedly, this explanation was accepted by the people of the time and all claims of alien space craft forgotten about until the 1970s, some 30 years after the actual event. The conspiracy was revitalised by the efforts of a single individual (perhaps seeking his own ‘five minutes of fame’), thus demonstrating the power of one person’s belief supported by others in authority (the primary researcher, Friedman, was a nuclear physicist and respected writer). Coupled with convenient (in that it is ambiguous) and an aggressive interpretation of circumstantial evidence, the alleged incident at Roswell has since risen to global fame. Taken in the context of historical happenings at this period in history (aftermath of WW2, beginnings of Cold War – increase in military top secret projects) it is no wonder that imagination began to replace reality; people now had a means to attribute a cause and explanation to that which they clearly had no substantiated understanding of. There was also the catalyst for thinking that governments engaged in trickery what with the numerous special operations conducted in a clandestine manner and quickly covered up when things went awry (eg Bay of Pigs incident).

Thus the power of conspiracy has been demonstrated. Originating from just a single individual’s private beliefs, it seems as if the fable twinges a common thread within those susceptible. As epitomised by Mulder’s office poster in the X-Files, people ‘want to believe’. That is, the hypocrisy in maintaining such obviously false beliefs is downplayed through a conscious effort to misinterpret counter-evidence and emphasize minimalist details that support the theory. As aforementioned, the role of pseudo-science does wonders to support conspiracy theories and increase their attractiveness to those that would otherwise discount the proposition. By merging the harsh reality of science with the obvious fantasy that is the subject matter of most conspiracies, people have a semi-plausible framework within which to construct their theories and establish consistency for defending their position. It is a phenomenon that is quite similar to religion; the misuse and misinterpretation of “evidence” to satisfy the desire of humanity to regain control over the unexplainable and support a corrupted hidden agenda (distrust of authority).

There is little that distinguishes between the characteristics of conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists; both share a common bond in their singlemindedness and perceived superiority over the ‘disbelievers’. But their are subtle differences. Conspiracy theorists undertake a lifelong crusade to uncover the truth – an adversarial relationship develops where the theorist is elevated to a level of moral and intellectual superiority (at having uncovered the conspiracy and thwarted any attempts at deception). On the other hand, the religious seem to take their gospel at face value, perhaps at a deeper level and with a greater certainty than the theorists (perhaps due to the much longer history of religion and firm establishment within society). The point here is that while there may be such small differences between the two groups, the underlying psychological mechanisms could be quite similar; they certainly seem to be related due to the common grounding within our belief system.

Psychologically, conspiracies are thought to arise for a number of reasons. As already mentioned, the role of cognitive dissonance is one psychic mechanism that may perpetuate these beliefs in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. The psychoanalytic concept of projection is one theorised catalyst that is proposed to dictate the formulation of conspiracy theories. It is thought that the theorist subconsciously projects their own perceived vices onto the target in the form of conspiracy and deception. Thus the conspirator becomes an embodiment of what the theorist despises, regardless of the objective truth. The second leading psychological cause of conspiracy theory creation is one that involves a tendency to apply ‘rules of thumb’ to social events. Humans believe that significant events have significant causes, such as the death of a celebrity. There is no shortage of such occasions even in recent months what with the untimely death of Hollywood actors and local celebrities. Such events rock the foundation of our worldviews, often to such a large extent that artificial causes are attributed to reassure ourselves that the world is predictable (even if the resulting theory is so artificially complex that any plausibility quickly evaporates).

It is interesting to note that the capacity to form beliefs based on large amounts of imagination and very little fact is present within most of us. Take a moment to stop and think about what you thought the day the twin towers came down, or maybe when Princess Diana was killed. Did you formulate some radical postulations based on your own interpretations and hidden agendas? For the vast majority of us, time proves the ultimate ajudicator and acts to dismiss fanciful ideas out of hand. But for some, the attractiveness of having one up on their fellow citizen at having uncovered some secretive ulterior motive reinforces such beliefs until they become infused with the person’s sense of identity. The truth is nice to have, however some things in life definitely do not have explanations rooted in the deception of some higher power. Random events do happen, without any need for a hidden omnipresent force dictating events from behind the scenes.

PS: Elvis isn’t really dead, he’s hanging out with JFK at Area 51 where they faked the moon landings. Pardon me whilst I don my tin-foil hat, I think the CIA is using my television to perform mind control…

The period of 470-1000AD encompassed what is now popularly referred to as the medieval ‘dark age’. During this time, human civilisation in the West saw a stagnation of not only culture but society itself. It was a time of great persecution, societal uncertainty and religious fanaticism. It cannot be helped that similarities seem to arise between this tumultuous period and that which we experience today. Some have even proposed that we stand on the brink of a new era, one that is set to repeat the stagnation of the medieval dark ages albeit with a more modern flavour. Current worldly happenings seem to support such a conclusion. If we are at such a point in the history of modern civilisation, what form would a ‘new dark age’ take? What factors are conspiring against humanity to usher in a period of uncertainty and danger? Do dark ages occur in predictable cycles, and if so, should we embrace rather than fear this possible development? These are the questions I would like to discuss in this article.

Historically, the dark ages were only labelled so in retrospect by scholars reflecting upon the past and embracing humanistic principles. It is with such observations that we cast our aspersions upon the society of today. Even so, humanity struggles for an objective opinion, for it can be argued that every great civilisation wishes to live within a defining period of history. Keeping such a proposition in mind, it is nevertheless convincing to proffer the opinion that we are heading towards a defining societal moment. A great tension seems to be brewing; on the one hand there is the increasing dichotomy between religion and science, with sharply drawn battle lines and an unflinching ideology. On the other we have mounting evidence suggesting that the planet is on the verge of environmental collapse. It may only be a matter of time before these factors destabilise the dynamic system that is modern society past its engineered limits.

Modern society seems to have an unhealthy obsession with routine and predictability. The uncertainty that these potential disasters foster act to challenge this obsession, to the point that we seek reassurance. Problems arise when this reassurance takes the form of fanatical (and untenable) religious, philosophical or empirical belief structures. Such beliefs stand out like a signalling light house, the search beam symbolising stability and certainty in stark contrast to the murky, dangerous waters of modern society. But just as the light house guards from the danger of rocks, so too does the pillar of belief warn against corruption. For it is, sadly, intrinsic human nature to take advantage of every situation (to guarantee the survival of oneself through power and influence), and in combination with personality, (propensity towards exploitation of others) beliefs can be twisted to ensure personal gain or the elimination of opposition. It seems that such a phenomenon could be acting today. Religion provides a suitable system upon which to relieve mental anguish and distress at the state of the world (reassurance that . So too does science, as it proscribes the fallacies of following spiritual belief and a similarly blind ‘faith’ in securing a technological solution to humanity’s problems. In that respect, empiricism and religion are quite similar (much to their mutual chagrin).

In such a system we see that de-stablisation is inevitable; a handful of belief structure emerge from the chaos as dominant and compete for control. Progressively extreme positions are adopted (spurred on by manipulators exploiting for personal gain), which in turn sets up the participants for escalating levels of conflict. Our loyalty to the group that aims to secure its survival, ultimately (and ironically) leads to the demise of all involved. It is our lack of tolerance and subservience to evolutionary mechanisms, coupled with a lack of insight into both our internal nature as a person and social interactions that precipitates such a conclusion.

This brings the article to its midpoint, and the suggestion that three main factors are responsible for the development of a new dark ages.

Human belief systems

As argued above, humans have an intrinsic desire to subscribe to certain world views and spiritual beliefs. Whether due to a more fundamental need for explanation in the face of the unknown (being prepared for the unexpected) or simply the attraction of social groupings and initiation into a new hierarchy, the fact remains that humans like to organise their beliefs according to a certain structure. When other groups are encountered whose beliefs differ in some respect, the inevitable outcome is either submission (of the weaker group) or conflict. Perhaps an appropriate maxim that sums up this phenomenon is ‘if you can’t convert them, kill them’. Thus we see at one level, our beliefs acting as a catalyst for conflict with other groups of people. At a higher level, such beliefs are then modified or interpreted in varying ways so as to justify the acts committed, reassuring the group of its moral standing (the enemy is sub human, ‘infidels’, wartime propaganda etc). Belief is also a tool that is used to create a sense of identity, which is another feature that conscious beings seem to require. Those that are lacking in individuality and guidance take to belief systems in order to perhaps gain stability within their lives. Without identity we are operating at a reduced capacity, nothing more than automatons responding to stimuli, so in this respect, belief can form a useful method for providing motivation and structure to an individual. Problems arise when beliefs become so corrupted or conflict so great that any act can be justified without cause for long-term planning; only the complete destruction of the enemy is a viable outcome. The conflict spirals out of control and precipitates major change; another risk factor for ensuring the New Dark Age is a plausible reality.

Economic/Political Collapse

Numerous socio-economic experiments have been conducted over the few millenia that organised civilisation has existed on this planet, with varying degrees of success. Democracy seems to be the greatest windfall to modern politics, ushering in a new era of liberation and equity. But has its time come to an end? Some would argue that the masses need control if certain standards are to be maintained. While a small proportion of society would be capable of living under such an arrangement, the reality that some large swath of the population cannot co-exist without the need for social management and punitive methods calls into question the ultimate success of our political system. Communism failed spectacularly, most notably for its potential for abuse through corruption and dictatorship. Here we have the unfortunate state of affairs that those who come into power are also those whom lack the qualities that one would expect from a ruler. Islamic states don’t even enter the picture; the main aim of such societal systems is the establishment of a theocratic state that is perhaps even more susceptible to abuse (the combination of corrupted beliefs that justify atrocities and unification of church with state causing conflict with other populations whose beliefs differ).

Is democracy and capitalism running our planet into the ground? Some would point to recent stockmarket collapse and record inflation as a sign that yes, perhaps human greed is allowed too much leeway. Others merely shake their heads and point to the cyclical nature of the economy; “it’s just a small downturn that will soon be corrected” they proclaim. Mounting evidence seems to counter such a proposition, as rising interest rates, property prices and living costs force the population to work more, and own less. Is our present system of political control and economic growth sustainable? Judging by recent world events, perhaps not, thus precipitating another factor that could lead to the establishment of a new dark age.

Ecological Destruction

Tied closely to the policies implemented by modern politics and economic propensities is the phenomenon of ‘global warming’, or more broadly, the lack of respect for our biosphere. It seems almost unbelievable that humanity has turned a blind eye to the mounting problems occurring within our planet. While global warming has arguments both for and against, I doubt that any respectable empiricist, or indeed, responsible citizen, could refute that humanity has implemented some questionable environmental practices in the name of progress. Some may argue that the things we take for granted (even the laptop upon which I type this article) would not have been possible without such practices. But when the fate of the human race hangs in the balance, surely this is a high price to pay in such a high stakes game. Human nature surely plays a part in this oversight; our brains are wired to consider the now, as opposed to the might or could. By focusing on the present in such a way, the immediate survival of the individual (and the group) is ensured. Long term thought is not useful in the context of a tribal society where life is a daily struggle. Again we are hampered by more primitive mechanisms that have exceeded their usefulness. In short, humanity has advanced a sufficiently rapid pace that has since overtaken the ability of our faculties to adapt. Stuck with a game of catchup (that most neglect to see the value or importance of) society is falling short of the skills it needs to deal with the challenges that lay ahead. The destruction of this planet, coupled with our inability to reliably plan and deal with future events could (in combination with previous factors such as deliberate political/economic oversight of the problem) precipitate a new dark age in society.

But is a new dark age all doom and gloom? Certainly it will be a time of mass change and potential for great catastrophe, but an emergence out the other side could herald a new civilisation that is well equipped to deal with and manage the challenges of an uncertain future. Looking towards the future, one can’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. Over population, dwindling resources and an increasing schism between religion and science are all contributing towards a great change in the structure of society. While it would be immoral to condone and encourage such a period in light of the monumental loss of order, perhaps it is ‘part of the grand plan’ so to speak in keeping humanity in check and ensuring that the Earth maintains its capacity of life. In effect, humanity is a parasite that has suitably infected its host, resulting in the eventual collapse of its life-giving organs. Perhaps a new dark age will provide the cleansing of mind and spirit that humanity needs to refocus its efforts on the things that really matter; that being every individual attaining individual perfection and living as the best they can possibly be.

Extremism of today comes in many forms, not only the clear-cut religious fundamentalist type that is so often portrayed in popular media. Strong atheism could be described in the same vein as religious extremism; they both share similar traits (vocal opposition to conflicting views, ‘fundamentalist’ leaders who are unwavering in their views, use of strong, emotive and persuasive language). Many atheists would balk at being compared to theists, and to a small degree they have a valid point of exception. Atheists do tolerate and consider opposing views with more appreciation than religion seems to. But these views must be from their own group; generally, ‘strong’ atheists will only validate the arguments of other atheists or non-affiliated (with a religion) individuals. This is comparable to the Christian considering an alternative viewpoint on minor biblical details but neglecting to even acknowledge the opinion of the skeptic. Atheists are more similar to their religious brethren than either side would care to admit. In this article I intend to present and argue that there are two main processes at work, interacting to perpetuate extremism on both sides of the theistic debate.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that acts automatically and unconsciously to reduce tension between conflicting thoughts. It is thought to occur when the individual experiences two contrasting cognitions and also when behaviour does not match such beliefs. The theory broadly defines ‘cognitions’ as any mental event (emotion, attitude, belief). Dissonance, or tension between cognitions, is inherently unpleasant for human brains. Mental unpleasantness thus forms the motivation to reduce dissonance by either filtration (ignoring, denying, reducing) or modification (changing cognitions to increase consistency). Humans dislike inconsistency because we are hard-wired to trust our mental processes; they form the primary source of evidence in our dealings with the outside world. Hypocrisy not only causes inefficiencies in the system due to inaction and conscious internal debating but also overwhelms our information processing capabilities. In short, mental hypocrisy prevents us from knowing with certainty what is happening both outside and inside our brains.

Group behaviour encapsulates a myriad of interconnected theories; the end result is a very complicated process. Such behaviours can be simplified if one takes a step back from the theoretical details and considers the overall picture. Groups evolved thousands of years ago out of our ancient lineage to the primates. Primates are social animals, therefore it makes sense that all species that are closely related share similar behavioural properties. Humans have vastly improved upon the rudimentary social groupings evident in primate populations, but the basics are all there. “Social grooming” in primates closely mirrors our own close relationships relationships, however we tend to augment physical contact with communication. Keeping relationships functioning can be hard work, as large percentages of the individual’s time is wasted maintaining friendships and ‘grooming’ others. As a way of improving the efficiency of this process, groups may have begun to form that included individual’s with similar beliefs about the world. This reduced the amount of time needed to maintain loyalty as group norms (unwritten rules of conduct and belief) gradually arose to police the attitudes and behaviours of members, ensuring their similarity.

Evolution soon saw the advantage of group-like behaviour, as many hands make light work. Hunting and gathering became much easier and more efficient overall (perhaps too efficient as nomadic tribes cleared out entire areas before moving on to greener pastures – a sign of things to come?). Thus the fundamental human need to belong was initiated into our evolutionary makeup. Humans began to fear ostracism by the group, as quite often it meant certain death, either from competing tribes or the hardships faced finding food and shelter alone. We now have the basic outline of group behaviour; the group maintains similar beliefs and worldviews through an evolutionary predisposition (group norms and ostracism) to minimise infighting and improve the individual’s chances of survival (through the survival of the group). Overall cohesiveness and efficiency is the end product; in effect, individuals sacrifice some of their freedom for the good of the many.

Group identification could be construed as a defense mechanism that protects against assimilation by competing groups. Individuals soon learnt to identify their fellow group members through physical characteristics (race, gender, skin colour, clothing) and also commonly-held beliefs. Outgroups were a threat, whether it be attempts to claim resources and territory or mating partners from their neighbours. Thus, when physical combat was too risky (and it often was), a psychological subterfuge evolved. Outgroup beliefs attempted to erode the ingroup and mass convert members to its cause. This explains the harshness with which we treat traitors, even in modern times (often carrying the death penalty not to mention the social stigmatisation).

It is my proposition that the relationship between group identification and extremism is moderated by the degree of cognitive dissonance experienced by the individual. More specifically, the more a person identifies with the group’s beliefs and practices (at the highest level becoming totally enmeshed within the group, loosing a sense of self) is not directly predictive of extremism. Rather, the individual must also be predisposed to ‘filtration’ and ‘modification’ of dissonant cognitions for extremist positions to be adopted. This explains individuals who identify strongly with a chosen group but are content to live their lives without disturbing the beliefs of others and are open to at least consider conflicting ideas. Extremists, on the other hand, are not at all open to criticism of their group. A ‘hyper-drive’ of their group protecting instincts instead kicks in, fueled by active denial or modification of incoming cognitions that are dissonant with their own. Hence the phrase ‘like talking to a brick wall’. Extremists simply cannot receive criticisms in their unedited form; their brains act automatically to shield their beliefs from corruption, thus ensuring the protection and perpetuation of the group.

I believe this is apparent especially in the Middle East conflict. Suicide bombers make the ultimate sacrifice; total group identification mixed with cognitive dissonance reactions and a corrupted interpretation of a religion is recipe for disaster. Any religion that gives promises of an adulterous afterlife with multiple partners in exchange for the mass killing of largely innocent people is, in my opinion, not religious but rather evil incarnate misconstrued. This theory can be applied to any religious group, be it religious or otherwise. To an extent, the atheist movement can also be said to suffer from a degree of extremism, although I hope that the majority of its members are both openminded and empirical enough to maintain their professionalism and consider all the evidence, not just that which happens to agree with pre-established beliefs. That being said, it is also a timely reminder to such persons that the instinctual and automatic nature of human though processes should be made conscious if the evidence is said to be considered with a pure methodology.

There may not be much that we as a society can do in order to overcome the maddeningly obnoxious frustration that cognitive dissonance breeds. There is nothing more pitiful and wasteful than an individual that ‘goes down with their ship’ so to speak. The human mind is a beautiful creation; some people need to realise its potential and use it to the degree that it is designed for. To do nothing is not just a waste of one’s mental capabilities, but also the potentials of all the minds in the said group. Religious (and secondarily atheist) extremism needs to look beyond its own group and towards the future if the ‘zombification’ that cognitive dissonance breeds is to be overthrown.

But how could this be done practically? Is it acceptable, even moral and ethical, to allow extremist groups to continue down their self-destructive paths until their beliefs are so twisted, warped and modified (in order to accommodate rising dissonant cognitions) that they end up doing more harm than good? Some might argue we are already at this point with the Middle Eastern situation, therefore with the level of carnage that area is currently experiencing, to do nothing would be construed as morally unacceptable. Thus we all share the responsibility for this situation; thinkers, dreamers, philosophers and scientists alike must work together and identify the factors that underlie extremism and put in place a plan for action that can reconcile group differences and embrace humanity in a sea of tolerance. Perhaps we should re-double our efforts to identify extra-terrestrial life; nothing unites humanity like an threat from outer-space (well it works in the movies!).

First of all I wanted to thank mjackson75 for kindly accepting my invitation for this interview. Your time is much appreciated. This transcript begins the first of my ‘Interview with a…” series where the beliefs of a wide variety of people are investigated. The emphasis of this series is on religious belief and what we can learn about it in terms of human nature. I also hope that it allows people from both sides to consider issues from an alternative point of view and contributes to a plan of action as to how society can move forward, whether through a amalgamation of science and spirituality or otherwise.

Please take a moment to visit mjackson75’s wordpress blog for more of his insightful views on theism, politics and ontology.
I thought we would begin with a clarification of your present position. In what sense do you describe yourself as a Deist? What do you mean by this term?

I consider myself a Philosophical Deist. Actually, I consider Deism more of a philosophy anyway than a religion as there is no real system tied with Deism. Instead, Deism is a thought system with some basic beliefs: Belief in a creator of some sort; belief that the universe gives ample evidence of creation; rejection of so called “revealed” religions (religions through special revelation of written documents or prophets); and a belief in the preciousness of life.

You mention on your blog that you were originally part of Christian worship. Was there a defining moment when you realised that traditional religion was not fulfilling your spiritual need? If not, have you always harboured doubts regarding the authenticity of religious teachings but lacked a suitable alternative?

There was no defining moment for me. I became serious about my Christianity when I was eighteen years old. From that time on, I went to and became very active in my church, I read the Bible, I prayed, I went to Bible studies, I sang in the church choir, I actively pursued a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, over these 10 or so years, there was always that little voice in the back of my head questioning whether I truly believed what I was proclaiming. So, I immersed myself in apologetics. I would never say I became an expert scholar, but I became pretty well armed with all of the arguments for belief.

I discovered that I truly valued intellectualism. Not to mean I’m extremely intelligent, instead I mean that I love to think, I love to be challenged intellectually. I soon came to the realization that I was faking my Christianity. I decided that wasn’t fair to me or to the church and other Christians with whom I was worshiping on Sundays. The more I tried to immerse myself in my Christianity and pray, the more uncomfortable I became. After quite awhile, I was able to nail down some of my beliefs, and Deism is where I found a fit.

What are your thoughts on an intrinsic human need for spirituality? Do the traditional religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism etc) fundamentally satisfy this need for you or do they offer only superficial reassurance?

I believe that humans are spiritual beings. The reason I say this, is that I do believe in St. Anselm’s (I think???) argument that basically said: finite beings could never comprehend the infinite if the infinite did not exist. I probably really butchered that, but it’s been a long time. Anyway, I see truth in this statement. Man is a spiritual being in the sense that he strives to know the truth. Even Atheists, I believe, think often of spiritual things…they may ultimately reject the thoughts they had, but they do still think them. We can’t help but wonder is there something greater than ourselves out there.

As far as the religions go, I don’t believe they satisfy humanity’s spiritual appetites at all. In some ways maybe, but overall the religions are systems of belief and behavior. They can become extremely impersonal. The religious texts of these religions are thousands of years old. They were from different times, cultures, and places. This doesn’t mean that they are completely irrelevant; however, I do believe that trying to submit your beliefs to a pre-established system based on texts and prophets is not going to ultimately be fulfilling. This is a personal question. I think the answer will be quite different coming from a Muslim, Jew, or Christian. To me, the revealed religions offer superficial reassurance. I think they take the personal responsibility out of living a good life through the concepts of original sin, human depravity, sin, justification, and sanctification.

What do you think are the differences in those who adopt traditional religions vs those who do not (atheist or agnostic)?

Dangerous question here. I’m bound to tick someone off with this one. Firstly, I believe that our experiences have a lot to do with it. These experiences range from did your parents go to church, to have you been through a lot of pain in your life. Experience plays a huge role in everything we do. That said, I do believe that people who tend to be more emotionally focused, tend to choose religion; whereas people who are more intellectually or rationally focused, tend toward Atheism or Agnosticism. Unfortunately, people reading this will assume that when I speak of reason and intellect, I am referring to “smart” people. That is not the case. There are plenty of Christians out there who could debate me under the table. I’m not referring to intelligence level. I’m referring to the mode of thinking.

Do you believe humanity is intrinsically ‘good’ at heart? If so, how do you explain the occurrence of ‘badness’ (crime, greed, anger) in the world?

I don’t believe that humanity is intrinsically “bad” at heart. It’s hard to say whether I believe we’re intrinsically “good.” I think what is more accurate for me is the belief that humanity is intrinsically “selfish.” I don’t believe this is a bad thing overall.

I have become rather convinced that our actions out of our love and respect for others stems from good selfishness. I mean that I, like every human, want to be happy. What makes me happy? My wife and son and doing good for others. This means that because I love my wife and son, I will sacrifice my wants and desires in order to give them what they want and need. Through sacrificing my wants and desires (altruism) I am actually making myself happier because they are happy. I believe that humans do good because doing good makes them happy. So, if doing good makes you happy, perhaps that means you’re intrinsically good.

As far as “badness,” I think that is selfishness gone awry. Crime and greed are results of selfishness based on obtaining my wants and needs, not the selfishness of making myself happy through helping others. When one puts his or her own desires above the needs of another individual, we can easily run into trouble.

Do you think spirituality can solve this problem of human vices? If yes. how so? If not, how can we live harmonious lives if our future seems devoid of spirituality (through an increasing reliance on science and technology)?

I don’t believe that spirituality can solve the problem of human vices. The reason is that none of is likely to ever attain true good selfishness (as explained above). We are imperfect beings with thoughts, limited perceptions, and emotions. I don’t believe spirituality has to be about improving ourselves. I think spirituality could just be about recognizing what’s out there. By determining one’s beliefs, then one can begin to align his or her life to those beliefs and values. However, we are all going to have some different ideas of what is most important.

I don’t believe science and technology are necessarily the answer either. I believe that this is a human issue, some would say a matter of the heart. I don’t necessarily like that cliché, but I guess it works. I don’t think any scientific discovery or technology is going to make humanity get along better. As long as everyone has their own provincial perspectives (Steven Covey refers to it as Paradigm), we will have the basis for misunderstanding.

How would you explain the increasing trend towards agnosticism and atheism? What is causing this shift and how far will it go? Will both sides become increasingly fundamental and extremist with no ‘theistic middle ground’ for the average citizen?

I think this may have to do more with the philosophical changes taking place between generations. Modernity vs. Post-Modernity. The younger generations, X-ers like me, and the Nexers, don’t seem interested too interested in just accepting the religion of our parents. Many of us are determined to find out for ourselves. There is also a sense of rebellion, I believe, between any two generations.
I actually do think that the theistic vs. atheist/agnostic sides will become more polarized. I’m not sure that “extremist” is the right word, but I do think their beliefs will reach a greater separation and less understanding. I don’t know that there will be any theistic middle ground. The book of Revelation talks about the “Luke-warmness” of the church at Laodicea (I think). For many people of any faith, there is no interest in finding a middle ground, it’s either all the way in or all the way out. People like me are apostates that are going to hell, no matter how well I live my life and how good a person I am. For Christians, there are no “good” people, because of the depravity of man. Therefore, either you accept the gift of eternal life, or you don’t.

What aspects of Humanism most appeal to you and why?

Truly, the aspects of Humanism that most appeal to me are:

  1. The belief that man is the highest form evolved;

  2. The belief that man is not fallen in nature;

  3. The belief that man is the source for endless progression; and

  4. The belief that man is capable.

What aspects of Humanism do not appeal to you? How can they be improved?

There are a few aspects that don’t appeal to me:

  1. The politics of many humanists being nationless, borderless, and oftentimes arguing for a more socialist form of government;

  2. There are others whose politics seem to center around moving toward a more direct democracy form of government (which I believe is totally impractical);

  3. Many Humanists, instead of arguing their beliefs, seem to be engaging in more and more ad-hominum attacks against theists; and

  4. The fact that many Humanists won’t allow for the possibility of a creator

As far as improvement, I have made generalizations in the last two questions, and I am well aware that there are always exceptions. I think that just like any movement or philosophical ideal, there will always be those who desire to take things to the extreme. I would like to see the Humanist associations keep away from the radical fringe, at least in official policy. The more radical one becomes, the less influence he or she is likely to have.

How do you respond to the theistic criticism that Humanism cannot provide the type of morality offered by religion?

This is hard to respond to in a way that the theist will accept. However, because I don’t believe in the inspiration of the Bible, or any other revealed religion for that matter, I see the morality as not divinely inspired through religion’s revelation, rather I see morality in humanity as culminating from an amalgamation of both a- priori and environmental influences. I believe that humanity is endowed with a general respect for life and taught a general respect for property. Immediately the “fallen” and selfish nature of man is brought up in combating my view, however, I think the vast majority of humans do have a respect for the lives and property of others.

And finally, how do you see the future of human spirituality? Do you think that a fusion of all religions is appropriate (eg the mental principles of Buddhism and Hindu with the morality of Christianity and Islam)? Or do you think future society has no place for spirituality at all, and ‘hard science’ will come to dominate?

To be honest, I don’t see either in the future. As far as religions go, the majority of those holding to them do so because one particular religion speaks to them in a personal way. Usually, it seems that this is so by cultures. There will undoubtedly be the “freethinkers” such as myself who have beliefs that my fit into some aspects of various religions, but I think the revealed religions have too strong a grasp on the various global cultures (i.e. Christianity in Western Civilization, Islam in the Middle East, etc…) I believe there is a place for spirituality in humanity. I don’t believe that “hard science” can ever replace the never-ending search for the greater.

I would like to thank Vulcanis for the opportunity to give my views on these fantastic questions. This interview really made me think about what I truly believe. I truly enjoyed this.

Secular humanism is fast becoming one of the most popular idealogical fads of this age. An increasing unrest is brewing within the world’s intellectual elite as religion and atheism go head to head. As we stand at this crossroads, it is important to take a moment and reflect upon what this trend means to a modern society. In this article I aim to examine the current conflict between atheism and theism, and how this is dividing the opposing parties towards an increasing fundamentalism. Secondly, I also wish to introduce the life philosophy of Secular Humanism, an alternative value system that allows for spirituality and intellectual skepticism to co-exist.

Teleological thought processes seem to dominate human thought, as we attempt to look beyond what is in front of us and seek some deeper meaning or absolute truth about the world. ‘Stronger’ religions gain footholds among the populace which then snowball and spread like contagion throughout the minds of the world. In this context, a strong religion is one that 1) seems plausible to the agent, 2) appeals to human nature and 3) easily passed between people. Weak religions, by way of contrast, could be likened to cults; ideas that appeal to a small group of deluded individuals and involve overly complex ritualistic ceremonies (reducing its appeal through a lack of understanding). Thus religion as we know it is a natural emergent outcome of this process; easily communicable between individuals and groups alike, regardless of nationality or ethnicity and fiercely infectious and appealing to the inner human need for explaining the unknown.

Spirituality is undoubtedly an intrinsically human characteristic, dating back to the birth of civilisation. Therefore, it seems illogical to try and deny that which comes as second nature. It can be argued, however, that religion in its most pure and authentic form is becoming increasingly scarce. The core principles of religion are not to blame. Rather, spirituality is a human trait that should be protected at all costs. It is the distortion of religion by those in power that creates problems. The Dark Ages in medieval Europe is a prime example of such corruption. During this period of cultural and intellectual stagnation, religion came to be recognised as a source of power and control over a populace. Tapping into and exploiting the human ‘soft-spot’ for spirituality not only changed the way in which religion was taught, but created a fusion of church and state. Fortunately this has been revised in most (I use this word with emphasis due to the presence of Middle Eastern governments based on a interpretation of religion) modern constitutions and a separation of church and state is recognised as not only fair/just, but also the ethical and morally correct thing to do.

In more recent times, the rising rate of education and promotion of scientific principles has culminated in an emerging trend towards strong atheism; that is, explicitly declared, proud atheism with individuals actively asserting their disbelief in god(s) and general rejection of traditional religious ritual. Strong atheism has been spearheaded (most prominently) by the biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennet, two very vocal advocates of disbelief. While their methods and tone could be construed as (ironically) verging on the fundamentalist, it has been argued that such a strong stance is necessary in order to counter the matching (and disturbing) rise in fundamentalist religiosity. I propose that it is no coincidence that this increase (particularly radical Islamic groups) is occurring in third world countries that lag behind the Western world. Original religious teachings are becoming distorted as the evil power of theism is once again realised and abused by those in authority.

Aethism is finally becoming ‘fashionable’ (for lack of a better word). While the concept has existed since ancient Greece (indeed, Aristotle was executed for his disbelief in the Greek gods), those who spoke out against it were met with unflinching retribution. This is where we really get to the crux of the issue with religion; the way in which it can be corrupted to play out the delusions of a powerful few, and the way in which its teachings are often taken literally. Adding to the problem is religion’s unwavering stance against criticism and introspection. This is where modern society comes in, with its rising distaste for those which do not have the courage to look inward and accept the possibility of error. The education system (to a degree) promotes a healthy skepticism and questioning attitude which is finally causing a critical mass of doubters to turn around and challenge the monopoly that religion has held over our minds for so long.

There are those of us who seem to have been born with a natural deference to atheism, while others sit in the middle content to hold some belief but doubting the minor details, and finally the fundamentalists who are indoctrinated at an early age. It is to this middle group that this article appeals. Secular Humanism is not only a collection of ideas and philosophical stances, but rather matches the ability of religion to provide a framework upon which to guide conduct. Some of us seem to require such structure within our belief systems, as it seems to be human nature to hold a cynical attitude towards the behaviour of others and our own capacities for self control.

Secular Humanism was founded in 1980 by Paul Kurtz, with the original declaration undergoing several revisions and now supported by a plethora of leading intellectuals and scientists. It is an amalgamation of all things ‘science’ and intellectual; a guide to living created by smart people, for smart people who want the structure and organisation of a religion, but also desire the freedom to criticise, revise and generally act in an inquisitive manner.

Ten main principles form the basis of the Humanist declaration. None are unexpected, having been selected for their universality and applicability with a scientific ethos in mind. Secular Humanism promotes ideals of;

  • Free inquiry
  • Separation of church and state
  • The ideal of freedom
  • Ethics based on critical intelligence
  • Moral education
  • Religious skepticism
  • Reason
  • Science and technology
  • Evolution
  • Education

All are self explanatory, therefore I will not go into the finer details. Suffice to say, the nub of the proposition is that humans should have the fundamental right to choose the course of their lives. Children should not be ‘born’ into a religion; essentially, every person is born an implicit atheist (they have no knowledge of religion therefore cannot make an informed choice regarding their affiliation). Equally important principles of Humanism are the freedom to critically evaluate and also empowering the individual to make their own moral decisions.

Predictably, the first counter-blow from religion comes in the form of a cynical attack; “People are incapable of making their own moral choices, religion is needed in order for people to behave morally”. This argument equates religion itself with morality, which is simply not true. Religious advocates should be gracious enough to exert the same level of faith to their fellow humans that they do to a faceless, silent god.

Certainly, there are those in society who do lack the level of freedom required of adopting the Secular Humanist position. This lack of freedom predisposes them to commit crimes, ruminate over inappropriate thoughts and otherwise act in malicious ways towards society. Whether due to biological malformations or environmental upbringing (or a combination of both) such individuals simply cannot be held responsible (in the sense that they are free to chose the course of their actions) for the crimes they commit, therefore they should not be granted such freedom in the first place.

I am not advocating a policy of preemptive incarceration, but rather a change in mindset from lumping such people together in institutions (and arguably increasing the problem through intense exposure to other like-minded individuals for long periods of time) to re-educating them and assisting them to live a harmonious life.

But is this so called ‘rise of the atheists’ without its share of doom and gloom? We must tread carefully, or risk an increasing divide of the intellectually ‘rich and poor’. Those that can adopt the Humanist position freely and without reservation must ensure and respect the freedom of those who do not wish to participate. Human diversity, even when it results in the negative, is worth preserving at all costs. Without it, there would be no critical opinion, no discussion and a stagnation of society. Opposition breeds improvement, and Secular Humanism is only too willing to hear and learn from the criticisms that the disgruntled have to offer. The days of fundamentalist religions are numbered. Secular Humanism is at the forefront of this war, empowering society to question and challenging it to grow into maturity.

Stopping for lunch at the usual time I made my way to my seat in the corner of the canteen beside the rack of journal articles. One thing I love about working for a CRO is the plethora of sciency-related readings available in the staff library. The August issue of New Scientist caught my eye with its intriguing title; “Spooks in space“. Now before we get started I would like to make one thing clear; I am not a physics guru, mathematical representations of physical theorems not only confuse me but I also question the usefulness of over complicating a subject that already holds such a stereotype of requiring intellectualism and genius in order to fully appreciate it. Therefore, while the first section will outline a (very) basic foundation of the theories, I hope that the second part is more thought provoking and practical for discussion.

Boltzmann brains, named after the 19th century thermodynamicist Ludwig Boltzmann, are a hypothesised phenomenon arising from the cosmological interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics (the complexity of the universe will always increase). Boltzmann’s original idea was that random thermal fluctuations may have been responsible for the creation of our universe. Delving deeper, Boltzmann proposed that our observable universe (with its low level of entropy and thus higher organisation) may be a figment of our own imagination; we may simply be the result of a ‘random fluctuation’ within another universe of higher entropy (lower organisation, higher chaos).

The Boltzmann paradox is thus; if we are the result of a a random fluctuation, our likelihood of existing is much less probable than a universe full of Boltzmann brains. In short, the billions of self-aware brains that make up humanity (remember, if we are due to random fluctuations) are less likely than a single, self-aware and conscious entity with false memories and perceptions of the world around it.

The good news is, we aren’t Boltzmann brains! I believe the argument here is that in order for Boltzmann brains to arise, the target universe from which they are formed must be at a high level of entropy. Due to the fact that we exist in a universe with low entropy (being relatively young) tends to rule out the likelihood of so many brains spontaneously arising all with false memories and perceptions of the universe. The Boltzmann scenario is only salvageable if our portion of the observable universe is a small ‘bubble’ within one much larger that has high entropy (chaotic and prone to random fluctuation).

Boltzmann brains have vast theological implications, if correct. They may form the basis for a rationalised and scientific explanation for the existence of a god. As a devout atheist (who has gained some tolerance for religious discussion over the years) I do hold an active interest in rational theological discussion. The Boltzmann hypothesis seems to be the first plausible (although still highly unlikely) explanation for the existence of god that doesn’t involve mindless devotion and ‘leaps of faith’. Below is a post I found that outlines a basic theory, which I hope to develop further.

“Getting back to Boltzman Brains, it occurred to me that a Boltzman Brain could provide a naturalistic explanation for the existence of God.
The first cause proof of God is that there has to be a first cause to our universe. Atheists, however, always retort: “Oh yeah, then what caused God?”
So, a theist can now say that God was a spontaneously-formed Boltzman Brain formed from the formless chaos of Nothingness.
This response also rescues God from the charge that if He exists, then He is Nothingness itself; God would really be a Something rather than a Nothing if He were a Boltzman Brain.
Since there is no existence more lonely than being a disembodied, utterly alone, Boltzman Brain, God created the world and us in order to have some company. . ” – Warren Plats, link.

Thus the requirements for a Boltzmann-based god would be;

  1. A sufficiently old universe (infinite age?) to allow for the spontaneous formation of a being with self-awareness and omniscient capabilities.
  2. Methods for that being to interact with its universe or itself in order to create the target universe.
  3. A desire on the god’s behalf to create the target universe.
  4. Allowance of the god’s existence for a sufficiently long enough period to both formulate and enact the creation (random fluctuations in chaos can more easily remove order than create it – a cup is more likely to drop and smash than it is to jump up and reform).

Moving on from these requirements, a possible Boltzmann god may then arise from the constituents of an infinitely old universe rearranging themselves spontaneously so as to create order from chaos and in the process, give rise to an all knowing, all powerful entity. As a side note I would like to make the point that the name “Boltzmann Brains” is slightly misleading; our ideas of what constitutes consciousness is often clouded by our own experiences. So far, humanity is the only fully conscious entity in our observable universe, therefore we tend to describe consciousness in terms of ourselves. Boltzmann brains, and in fact other more exotic forms of alien consciousness need not necessarily be made up of the same stuff that makes up our brains. Nerve cells, blood vessels and electrical impulses can give way to, and are less likely to produce consciousness than more simple models such as silicon chips and even clouds of interacting atoms (such as Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe). Given enough time, anything that can happen, will. In this case, a universe that has existed for an infinitely long period has a higher likelihood of producing such a conscious entity.

But the question remains of how such an entity can spark the creation of a universe that is suitable to lifeforms like us. Was it external manipulation such as a conscious and purposely directed fluctuation that gave rise to our universe? Or was it an internal rearrangement of its own constituents (eg; the creation of a singularity); a self-directed suicide on behalf of the entity that created our reality? The latter opens up the possibility of a cyclic universe, in that everything that has come to pass will happen again. The eventual creation of a god-like Boltzmann brain serves as the eventual catalyst which prevents the perpetual darkness that an infinitely expanding universe would bring and starts everything afresh.

I hope to revist the topic of Boltzmann brains sometime in the future. What seemed as a relatively ‘goofy’ and niche area of philosophical physics quickly spills out into a question of reality itself, the implications of Boltzmann brains as typical observers (can we really be sure that our measurements of the universe are ‘really real’) and the usefulness of Boltzmann brains as a theological model for creationism (albeit in a distinctly more science-heavy form).