Standing up for Science

Many of those on the Left mock conservatives’ anti-science beliefs regarding climate change and evolution, but is liberalism immune to pseudoscience and science denial? How much of the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, naturopathy sentiments on the Left is related to liberals’ anti-corporatist feelings or influence of New Age beliefs? Standing up for science means standing up for the scientific method and being alert to our own biases. It means studying all issues with a dispassionate, rational, and analytical mind.  For scientists to be trusted as credible sources of information and rationality, we have a higher moral obligation to be rationalists in all aspects of our lives. Passion and emotions are not necessary for empathy, but they can blind our judgment in any topic. A rational mind can also be empathetic, but without losing our equanimity or being influenced by the daily ebbs and flows of life.

“It worked for me” isn’t a scientific statement. We must understand how our nature to remember exceptions, and not the norm, can make us fall prey to low-probability events and treat them as more common than they actually are. This trait also makes us believe in miracles, follow our intuitions, or believe in anecdotes. Our intuitions might tell us nature might be better than biotechnology, but history of our species has shown that it is nature that kills us, and science and technology has improved our health and quality of life. We must understand why randomly selected, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies are important in weeding out outliers or entire populations with genetic or other variations. In the age of alternate facts, we must be aware of quackery posing in the name of alternative or traditional medicine. Just because it might not harm us (and many do harm us) doesn’t mean it is effective – one of the gold standards in pharmaceutical clinical trials. If we dismissed placebo-controlled trials and fell for anecdotes, the market would be awash with pharmaceutical drugs that “works” in many people.

Searching for ‘meaning’ is human nature. If some in the West find it in Abrahamic religions, many find it in spirituality, nature, or turning towards Eastern religions and traditions which look exotic to westerners. But not everyone of these exotic eastern people believe in their holistic treatments. For many it is an option out of poverty. Growing up in the East, I have experienced and have been subjected to many kinds of pseudoscience, and I have seen poor people turning to quacks while rich people going to cities for medical treatment. It is a privilege of not seeing these hardships and complaining about vaccines or glorifying eastern traditions which came out of necessity, and not necessarily some exotic scientific knowledge that only exists in the East. This doesn’t mean we must support pharmaceutical industry blindly. We can criticize its business practices and ask for improvement in clinical trials. We can support traditional cures that have been proven to be effective. Skepticism is the hallmark of science, but re-litigating debunked ideas regarding climate science, evolution, biotechnology or molecular biology is a waste of time and resources, while causing real harm to people’s health and lives. Similarly, celebrities waste people’s time, money, and health by becoming modern-day snake soil salespeople of unproven naturopathy/holistic/fad treatments. Finally, it is important to know that it is the dose that makes a poison. Working in a testing lab, I know very few products are devoid of harmful ‘chemicals’ like mercury or lead. They might exist in the range of parts per trillion, but exist they do.

In conclusion, if we subject facts to our own biases, we lose all credibility in calling out others who might deny facts. There is no eastern, western, or Islamic science. Science is the study of nature to the best of our technological abilities. As our technology and knowledge keeps improving, so will our scientific hypothesis and theories. Standing up for science means standing up for rationality and the scientific method, without subjecting it to our ideological beliefs. It means standing up for funding, resources, independent research, support for students, engineers, healthcare professionals, and everyone working in the scientific field. Turning science into an ideological battle is the very antithesis of the scientific method.

 

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales – a perspective

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the first book of Dr. Oliver Sacks that I read, had a profound effect on me. The book has 24 chapters, with each chapter being a standalone clinical tale from his career as a neurologist. Divided into four parts, the book delves into ‘Losses’, ‘Excesses’, ‘Transports’, and ‘The World of the Simple’. The first part, ‘Losses’, describes numerous clinical cases of people who have lost some aspects of neurological function. The protagonist in the title chapter has trouble identifying things around him, and once mistook his wife’s head for a hat which he tried to wear! There were also a few poignant tales of those who had lost their sense of self or identity. The second part, ‘Excesses’, has many stories of neurological ‘excessive’ disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome. These stories describe people whose lives have become either energetic or impulsive because of their disorders. Although the ‘Losses’ part showed how neurological defects can have a detrimental effect on quality of life, the ‘Excesses’ part showed how some neurological disorders can bring more color and ‘life’ to someone’s daily existence. And sometimes treating these symptoms can make the patients feel as if they have lost an important part of themselves.

The last two parts were quite special to me. ‘Transports’ has clinical tales about patients who have ‘transported’ to a different conscious state – imaginations, spiritualism/religiosity, dreaminess, and reminiscence. There were two touching clinical tales about ladies whose illnesses made them dream or hear sounds from forgotten parts of their childhood. This section also delves into epilepsies of the temporal lobe, which has been implicated in deep spiritualism, religiosity, seizures, and having ‘visions’. Finally, the fourth and last part of the books presents clinical tales about mentally handicapped people – a group that used to be shunned and misunderstood by society, yet whose unique gifts and talents were presented with empathy in this book.  This section showed Dr. Sacks’ empathy and talents in presenting mentally handicapped people as normal human beings. He gave a sense of normality to those with autism and various other traits that might be considered oddities or mental disorders. This book also led me to question what exactly is normality? What neurological or physiological disorder is ‘abnormal’, or just a different kind of normal?

One of the thoughts that occurred to me after reading this book was whether we should accept what nature has given us, or whether we should try to overcome nature’s limitations with biotechnology. It also got me thinking about many people’s fears about new technologies that tinker with nature’s status quo. Many people use the phrases “everything happens for a reason”, or “there is a meaning behind everything”. Even though it is said with good intentions, I want to give a differing perspective on why it isn’t necessarily empathetic or helpful. Many of us say it from our experiences, privilege, and by rationalizing outcomes after they have occurred. Yet many people might not appreciate these statements when it relates to tragedies like war crimes, suffering of the innocent, or a parent burying a child. How can we tell a mother that there is a meaning or reason behind the death of her child? I have personally found these statements to be unhelpful, and in contrast have appreciated the honesty that something bad happened because I made a mistake or because I didn’t have the foresight to make a wise decision. That honest appraisal has led me to make changes, rather than rationalizing or normalizing a mistake as if the outcome was part of a divine plan. If we say everything happens for a reason, it might not motivate us to try and change the status quo for a better outcome.

When I see people with mental and physical disability, what is the reason or meaning behind their situation? Many of them have made the most of their disabilities. But wouldn’t it be better if they had their full neurological and physiological capabilities? Why should we accept or rationalize pain or physiological handicaps, instead of trying to create a world without such suffering? I have read articles written by parents that they wouldn’t use gene therapy to treat their children’s physical disabilities before they were born, because those handicaps made their kids who they are today. I find such thinking selfish because the child doesn’t get to decide if it wants to be born with neurological or physical disabilities if potential preventive treatments are available. I find it incomprehensible that those of us healthy would rather choose and rationalize nature’s random mutations causing severe disabilities in others over biotechnology that can prevent or treat disabilities.

There are those who have lost their sense of self and identity, or are physically disabled to the point where their quality of life has diminished. We can empathize with their pain without telling them that there is a reason for their disability. It doesn’t mean that we should despair at finding no ‘meaning’ to our circumstances. We can accept that life isn’t always fair, or that bad things happen to good people without any supernatural machinations. And that unpleasant truth should be the impetus that drives us towards eliminating unfair situations in life, towards fighting for a better and just world, and towards eliminating pain and suffering. This should prompt us to invest more in biomedical research where disabilities and illnesses can not only be treated, but also prevented through gene therapy. Such therapy, whether for embryos or adults, requires society to reach a consensus as to what treatment is acceptable or not, especially when someone is incapable of giving consent. How should we treat those who have lost their sense of self and are incapable of informed consent? And should it be mandatory to use gene therapy on an embryo that has all the markers for severe disorders? And how should we distinguish between the ‘excesses’ and ‘losses’ disorders. If the ‘excesses’, as shown in the book, can enhance someone’s life, should they be treated in unborn fetuses? These are questions with no objective answers, but questions society must ponder with the increasing advances of biotechnology.

The other topic from this book that piqued my interest had to be with the section ‘Transports’. As a scientist and supporter of rationalism, I strive for knowledge and understanding of our natural world. Religion has affected me in numerous ways, both good and bad. Understanding religiosity also increases my understanding of human behavior. Our advanced brain has made us ponder existential questions, and spiritual and theological doctrines have helped answering many of those questions. But what makes some people more spiritual or religious than others? What is behind the visions, voices, and other types of religious experiences? For many years, I had read of temporal lobe epilepsy being implicated in extreme religiosity. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to read the neurological reasons behind such ‘visions’, hallucinations, or seizures. Specific doctrines and beliefs will always evolve or go extinct, but if we have unanswerable questions then some sort of supernatural beliefs will remain a part of our species. But the changes I would like to see relates to understanding doctrines and personal interpretations of doctrines as immutable facts.  Too often such ‘facts’ have been used for violence, prejudice, and discrimination. We can be spiritual and/or religious, yet be humble enough to accept that no one has the right answers to our existential questions. Our brains might revolt against uncertainty and grey answers, yet uncertainty should be the preferred outcome over false truths.

Finally, if religious doctrines are considered as subjective understandings of our world rather than as objective truths, it might give people courage to go against doctrines when they wish and explore more personal freedom. Too many of us, myself included in the distant past, have wanted to eat something, wear something, and explore other personal freedoms but felt guilty that we are committing a sin or going against immutable truths. I have seen people cry because they mistakenly didn’t follow some doctrine or rule. I have had people ask me wistfully “when will doctrines change”, or “why are doctrines the way they are”. No one should feel guilty if they go against doctrines for their freedom or happiness. I don’t want to see people cry or commit suicide if they cannot follow some of these doctrines. I don’t want to see judgment and nonacceptance on parts of those who take doctrines as literal truths. I think a world where religion isn’t absolute, but where religiosity can be explained as products of our brains’ quest for meaning, a world where people can be spiritual or religious for personal peace and happiness, will be a better and happier world. I want people to see the beauty that comes from our own brains, be it spiritualism or the ability to overcome nature’s deficiencies with scientific breakthroughs. I want people to be confident about themselves, their strengths, and their abilities to change the world.

Women and toxic families

Women dealing with toxic family – a topic that comes back to me every week, even at work after others become familiar with my writing. And these stories are overwhelming shared to me by women from the eastern part of the planet (doesn’t mean it only happens there). In popular culture, many times we easily call women “crazy”. Ignoring psychiatric illnesses, how often is it that someone who might seem “crazy” has been dealing with a ton of shit in life. Stress can easily break down any human being.

One of the most common effects of dealing with toxic family is that women have to live a double life if they ever want to create any sense of self. Families, especially who immigrated to the West in the 80s or 90s, still have the same social attitude as they had back home because they never immigrated. They try to control and mold every aspect of their daughter’s lives – for sake of control, sake of “honor”, and for her “marriageability”. In more conservative families, they have to give a “pure”, quiet, and obedient girl for marriage with the understanding that “you can do anything you want after marriage”. Which usually depends on future husband and in-laws and how liberal-minded they are.

All this control leads many women to start living double lives outside their home. It is like a person divided against themselves. How they want their lives to be vs how their parents or relatives want their lives to be. From clothing to activities to relationships, it is a life either hidden from everyone or from more conservatives friends/family members. But how long can a person live a double life? Some give up and accept their fate. Some know what their parents will never accept and never stray from the path decided for them. But some rebel and their everyday existence becomes a hell. Yet nearly all of them accept it as “love”.

For those living a double life, every moment is spent in fear of being caught. For those rebeling, every day is spent fighting. And when someone isn’t obedient, even if they are in their 30s, the constant criticism is what breaks them down. And that is the story I hear often – every cruel thing their parents or sibling tell them just because they didn’t follow the line. This happens even if they are married. And that makes me sad because I see the shit women deal from toxic relatives slowly trickling down in their behavior to their own children. It is said that abuse exists as a circle. Seeing that circle of abuse breaks my heart and boils my blood because another generation starts suffering. All because for too many people on this planet women are still objects and properties to be controlled. Somehow women represent their family’s honor. And finally, women are seen as an extension of their family/parents – not as an individual with her own agency and personhood.

The Tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits

This is a very charged topic, especially in India, but I’ve been wanting to write about it for a long time because Kashmiri Pandits are one group of refugees that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Having Kashmiri Hindu friends in New York City who themselves or whose parents had to leave Kashmir, gave this topic an added importance to me. Finally, I want to make clear that talking about tragedies isn’t a zero sum game. Just because I am talking about Kashmiri Pandits doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other refugee tragedies in the world. And just because I am focusing on Kashmiri Pandits in this essay doesn’t mean that other communities in Kashmir or elsewhere in India haven’t also suffered terrible tragedies. Discussing one tragedy shouldn’t minimize or take away the importance of other tragedies. It isn’t a competition. And it is impossible to give equal weight to every single tragedy in the world in any one essay.

Kashmiri Pandits are Hindus belonging to the Brahmin caste. The Indo-Iranian peoples who would go on to practice Hinduism came to the Indian subcontinent 4000-5000 years back. As such, Kashmiri Pandits have been dwelling in the Kashmir Valley since the Bronze Age. Although Arabs, Turks, and Persian armies started invading India from the 8th century onward, Kashmir didn’t completely fall into Muslim hands till around the 14th century. Inevitably, subjects in any land start following the beliefs of their rulers. As such, through force, necessity and choice, Hindus of the Valley had started converting to Islam, or had started leaving the Valley. Incidentally, it was Akbar – one of the most tolerant rulers of medieval India, who gave the Kashmiri Brahmins the title of “Pandit” – a learned scholar. And when Akbar’s son Jahangir saw the Valley for the first time, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the land to utter his famous words – “If there is ever a heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

After nearly 500 years of Muslim rule, and as the Mughal Empire was on its downward spiral, the Sikh Empire conquered Kashmir. But only a few decades later in the Anglo-Sikh war, Kashmir was annexed by the East India Company and then sold to a Hindu dynasty. By the 19th century the demographics of the Valley had changed, where Muslims now comprised over 90% of the population. Between 1948 and 1950, in inter-religious violence after independence and other land reforms, led to a huge exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. Alleged vote-rigging in local elections in 1987 in favor of the ruling party disillusioned Kashmiri youths and was a primary motivator for the rise in militancy against the Indian government. As the Soviet retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, militants and resources used to fight the Soviets were in turn directed towards Indian-held Kashmir, and also for the creation of the Taliban. Deadly attacks against Pandits increased in 1989, and in early January 1990 Urdu newspapers in the Valley asked the Pandits to leave. On the night of 19th January 1990, messages from the mosques blared out across the Valley – convert, be killed, or leave but leave your women behind. Within a few weeks, somewhere from 100,000 to over 160,000 Kashmiri Pandits had left Kashmir and become refugees in their own country and around the world. By many accounts, from 1947 to 1990 nearly half a million Hindus had migrated from Kashmir. Today there are only a few thousand Pandits left in the Kashmir Valley. The tragedy is the Indian State’s inability to protect its own citizens in its own country. Nearly a quarter million Pandits are living in Jammu in refugee camps. Many have moved to Delhi, elsewhere in India, or abroad. Even after 26 years, successive Indian governments have failed the Kashmiri refugees. And worst, having over half a million people and their descendants living as refugees in India seems to have been forgotten from the national conscience.

This story isn’t unique. This has been happening throughout our history, and will keep happening in the foreseeable future. The well known example is the plight of Arabs who became refugees in the partition of Mandatory Palestine. One problem with the creation of countries based on identity politics or beliefs is that it makes indigenous people refugees or second-class citizens in their own land. 700,000 Arabs became refugees in their own land. Similar number of Jews were made to leave Muslim lands. 7.5 million each Hindus and Muslims became refugees in the Partition of India. People had to leave lands their ancestors had been living for centuries or since the beginning of civilization. Yet this is human history. Every group has been conquerors, and unfortunately it has led to a loss of the indigenous culture and beliefs. Today Christianity is nearly gone from the Middle-East. Jewish kingdoms no longer exist there. Indigenous Arab and North African religions are extinct. One of the great ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, that has influenced Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, is nearly gone from Iran. European colonialism has led to the decimation of indigenous religions in the Americas and Africa. Even the propagation of Hinduism in South Asia came on behalf of conquerors from present-day Iran. Outsiders come, start calling the land their own, and it slowly erodes away the beliefs and cultures of the conquered peoples. As someone who loves pluralism, I find that to be a great loss of history. But no one is to be blamed except human nature. Everyone has been a conqueror, and everyone has been conquered.

We cannot change the past. But we can learn from it, and we can definitely be more aware so we don’t forget tragedies. And such awareness can prevent us from having a false sense of reality where the only story we read is that of victors and conquerors, who glorify themselves and dehumanize or erase the conquered people. I don’t see a realistic pathway for over half a million or more Kashmiri Pandits to return to Kashmir. It becomes harder with the passage of time. But we can at least remember their tragedy and not forget it in the dustbin of history.

Finding meaning, purpose, and beauty in life

How do I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life? This question has been asked of me many times over the last few years. Considering the fact that I come from a conservative culture, many people still wonder how one can not label himself after a theological doctrine. Being a ‘non’ is still scandalous for many people, who cannot imagine how someone can get morals or the desire to be good without a punishing (and rewarding) deity, even for someone like me who is a deist without following any organized beliefs. This week’s detection of gravitational waves is a good time to explain how I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life.

All of us, and everything we know, come from the stars and supernova. The nuclear core of a star can only create elements up to iron, and any higher elements (including basic elements in our body like zinc, copper, or iodine) come from the extreme energy created when a star explodes as a supernova. To paraphrase Carl Sagan – we are all stardust, born in the cosmos from some of the most violent events in the Universe. When compared to the history of the universe, we are a very young species. Heck, we are extremely young when it comes to life on Earth. Our civilization is only about 10-12 thousand years old. Not too long back we used to sacrifice virgins to seek favors from the gods. Today we can detect gravitational waves. We can fly into space; we can create organs in the laboratories; we can detect viruses; we can predict hurricanes. Science now has explanations for which women were once burned and killed. It is amazing to know how far we have come as a species, but it is even more humbling to think about how far we have to go – how much we have to change, improve, and learn about reality and our universe.

We come up with beliefs when we have no other way of explaining nature. We came up with rituals and incantations when meteorology or medicines weren’t available to us. The universe has had 14 billion years to evolve. Our planet and life itself has had nearly 4 billion years to evolve. In a quantum universe with infinite probabilities, any outcome is possible (steering clear of parallel universes in this essay!). We are just one of those outcomes, selected by nature through trial and error. Natural selection keeps improving us, but we still aren’t perfect. I find that to be beautiful and humbling. Through billions of years of trial and error, we have developed concept of love and empathy. Not just us, even other species have evolved to have emotions. We aren’t even the only hominid species to have evolved. Others have come before us who have gone extinct – others with their own rudimentary beliefs about themselves and the afterlife. The fact that they have gone extinct makes me appreciate our existence even more. It makes me want to work hard to make sure our species survives any natural or self-inflicted calamities.

Yesterday we would call people ‘crazy’. Today we have a greater understanding of mental illnesses. We are trying to treat depression by balancing chemicals in the brain. We are learning about microbiota and how it affects our health and body. Despite all the advances we have made in science, we have barely scratched the surface. If we look back and see how far we have come from superstitions, we should be able to appreciate how far we will go in the future. We are not limited to our present. One of the debates I have had with friends over last 5-10 years is about social progress. Many think the beliefs/practices/understanding we have today is how it will be forever. Yet the same people have progressed a lot in the last few years. Doctrinal beliefs had made them homophobic and they had strict ideas about gender roles. Yet today most of them have changed. Unfortunately, the idea still persists that how the world is today will always be in the future. That is something I am trying to change. If we can only see how far we have come as a species, we should not limit ourselves to the past or the present. The future will not be what it is today. And that idea is humbling to me.

When we consider our place in the universe, our parochial attitudes and differences feel too small. Many of our beliefs feel too small. We are more than our regional allegiances. We are more than our beliefs, race, ethnicity, or nationality. In the vast arc of time and history, we are all one and the same. We all came from the stars, and we are all going to the stars. Isn’t that information humbling? We belong to the human race. We share the same building blocks of life with every living being on planet Earth. Life has survived through extinction events. Life from this planet has the potential to spread in the galaxy. Considering we are designing artificial chromosomes, would it be shocking if we in the future become ‘gods’ and create different building blocks of life itself?

I have a Hindu Brahmin background, and I was quite religious most of my life. I believed I was quite special, that my Best Friend Upstairs was listening to me and doing everything for me. Childhood was good times, living in a happy and protected bubble. Religion, prayers, meanings, and purpose was a lot about me, me, and me. In a way similar to Buddha, growing up and seeing reality started changing things. I remember telling someone 10-11 years back while I was still very religious, that “I am not interested in heaven until hell is empty and everyone is in heaven”. The notion of eternal damnation was unacceptable to me. Finally, seeing all the suffering in the world, especially of children, knocked me off the notion that everything in the world was just, fair and that everything had a divine purpose. I got to realize how lucky I have been where I was in life and how much I have in life. There are adults and children who have known nothing but misery and abuse. Parents bury their kids. Children are born with painful deformities. Old people die in pain and neglect. With so much suffering in the world, I felt very guilty and selfish in my beliefs. Just because things were great for me doesn’t mean it must be great and fair everywhere. Whenever I hear “there is a reason behind everything”, I ask – what is the reason a child is sexually abused for years? If a leaf cannot move without the will of a deity, what is the reason a child would suffer that torment? Around this point in my life, religion was no longer about me. It was about what was good for everyone throughout space and time. And with countless dead and living religions, and every person having their own interpretations of the same doctrine, there were no singular meanings or purpose to existence.

Yet we as a species have evolved to ask questions about our place in the universe. Every indigenous group in every corner of the planet came up with their own beliefs. Despite what science can answer, and we have unimaginable years of scientific discovery ahead of us, there are questions about the natural world that we can never answer. For some people the universe has always been, without any creator or reason. For many others, god is the reason for everything. But neither can answer – why is there something rather than nothing? Even if we invoke a deity, ‘why is there a god?’ cannot be answered. For me personally, god is the end-answer to why is there something. I know that doesn’t answer who made god. But all of us will reach a point where we cannot answer why is there something rather than nothing. I have seen and learned enough about the natural world and life around me that belief in a personal god has become impossible. Such ideas seem childish to me, like it did to Albert Einstein. And I don’t even know how to explain a god. Maybe the universe or multiverses itself are god. These spiritual questions can never be answered. And even if we have figured out the function of every pathway in the cell and every neurotransmitter, even if we can design a human being on a computer and build it in a lab, we will always have these spiritual questions about the meaning of our existence.

The difference between science and organized religion is that science cannot provide black and white answers. Our technology and knowledge of the universe is still too rudimentary. And in a quantum universe with infinite possibilities, it is impossible to come up with “reasons” for something. Yet our brains haven’t evolved to accept probabilistic answers. We desire Truth. We want Yes or No. We want to know what works and what doesn’t. In a universe governed by random errors and mutations, by probabilities and chances, giving absolute answers about the natural world is impossible. Such answers might feel hollow when we crave certainty. Yet, isn’t it humbling and beautiful to see how small we are in the vastness of the cosmos, how small we are to come up with absolute answers? I certainly consider myself lucky that I exist, even if I don’t know why. I consider myself lucky to be able to experience reality, friendships, love, kindness, compassion, and laughter. Considering my uncertainties about any afterlives, I feel a great obligation to fight for justice, equality, and human rights. Knowing how lucky I am to be alive, I have tremendous motivation to treat everyone right. Any and all negative emotions aren’t worth it anymore. Hatred, bitterness, and jealousy is a waste of emotions and time when we only have this one life. I cherish every moment that I am with someone, knowing I might not see them again. When justice is uncertain in an uncertain afterlife, it is paramount to fight for justice today. It has become extremely important to understand the human body so we can have a world without mental illness and pain and suffering in this life, not a hypothetical afterlife. Reducing human beings, their emotions, and ‘sense of self’ to neurotransmitters, epigenetics, genes, and environment might take away the sense of ‘specialness’ we have about ourselves. And I accept that scientific reductionism isn’t for everyone. But my emotional pain and intellectual pursuits over past 10 years has led me on a path where it is less important to feel special about my personal existence and more important to understand ourselves at the molecular level. This can lead us in providing better quality of life for generations to come – for humanity and any other species.

I hope I have shown that those without any organized beliefs can still find a lot of meanings and beauty in life. We aren’t dead inside nor living a life without purpose. Our morals come from having a sense of empathy. I care about the happiness and suffering in this life. The scientific method has brought a lot of understanding to our lives and our place in the universe. If we look at the exponential growth of discoveries over the last few decades, just imagine where we are going to be a few hundred or thousand years from now. I hope we can come to an acceptance that whether we are theists or atheists, agnostics or deists, or whatever else we want to define ourselves – that all of us are capable of finding meanings, purpose, and beauty in life. I hope it will lead to all of us accepting each other for who we are because we are all on the same path to the same place. We are all evolving in our beliefs and values. So let us accept each other and support each other – our friends and parents, children and spouses, and everyone else. Let us celebrate and accept our differences, knowing no one has the right answer, yet everyone has something to teach us.

CDC, Quackery, and the Habit of Blaming Women

Recently the CDC posted guidelines telling women that drinking too much alcohol can result in violence/injuries, getting STDs, or getting unintentionally pregnant. Although intentions might have been in the right place, a lot of it came across as patronizing and somehow taking away the sense of agency – that women need to be warned to watch out for the unintended consequences for their actions. And it falls under benevolent sexism, something I have written about before. Under the pretext of protecting/saving women, we continue to chain them and/or hinder them. I understand the sentiment of the guidelines, it could have been done in a better way by removing a few points that perpetuates assumptions or gender stereotypes regarding women.

Over the last few weeks, society’s habit about blaming women, and pseudoscience, have been bothering me quite a bit. And I am going to point out how both can be inter-related. Throughout history, women have been burnt and killed as witches, or for bad omen, among many other things – for issues which can today be explained by meteorology or microbiology (paraphrasing from Carl Sagan). Human beings used to be sacrificed to please gods or nature. Women have been blamed, even killed, for having daughters and not sons – when it is the sperm that carries the X or the Y chromosome. Women still get killed for ‘dishonoring’ their families. Women’s bodies, independence, and voices are still controlled – many of it under the ‘good intention’ of benevolent sexism. Heck, women are still seen “unclean” when menstruating. And we as a species have still not grown up about breast-feeding in public. As a 200,000 year old species, I think it is about time we became adults about human sexuality and biology.

Society decides what constitutes a woman’s ‘modesty’ – which is invariably covering up as much skin as possible. Isn’t that objectification of women too? When someone says ‘covering up is modesty’, what does that say about women who do not cover up? Aren’t the societies with that kind of attitude suffering from misogyny and violence against women? Someone can show just their face and still be dressed ‘immodestly’, while someone walking naked might not get a second look. Modesty is subjective, and a woman’s character should not be decided by how much skin she shows, but by her empathy, compassion, and kindness (and intellectual curiosity…for me).

As much as we have lived in a patriarchal society, what I still struggle to understand at the age of 30 is how so many women enforce so many sexist rules and chains on other women. Be it sisters or mothers, aunts or friends, it has been enraging to me to see so many women hold back other women – especially from the culture/world I am from. I have seen mothers threaten to kill their daughters she brings ‘dishonor’ to her father’s name. I have seen brothers prevent their sisters from going outside in jeans because it shows the shape of legs. I have seen fathers call their daughters naked for wearing a skirt and leggings. And in all of this, I have seen women – sisters, mothers, friends – defend the sexism, I have seen them defend the brothers and the fathers. I just don’t understand why. Women getting raped get killed by their own mothers. Little girls getting sexually abused are not protected by their own parents if the abusers are family members – lest it brings dishonor to the name of the family. When we complain about our society, what are we teaching our sons when we always blame or try to control women. If we keep women inside the home because she will get harassed outside (or because women don’t belong outside), how are we teaching the men not to harass? If we allow brothers, fathers, and husbands to have veto power over a woman’s life, what message are we sending our sons and daughters. And it is even more frustrating when I see how many women are the enforcers of these rules.

So what about quackery? I will be writing a different article where I bring the hammer down on pseudoscience, something that has bothered me for last few years. But the level of pseudoscience is becoming too extreme for me to stay quiet. I am going to be writing something like I did with religion and spirituality. The problem with tolerating quacks and quackery is that the same concept of quackery has been used to punish women throughout history. We tolerate a lot of quackery and pseudoscience because we term it harmless. But I absolutely believe that tolerating one kind of pseudoscience allows the propagation of other kinds of pseudosciences. Take the example of anti-vaccination movement. It exists in a society where anyone ‘knows’ science without even understanding the scientific method. Be it the anti-vaccination mothers, or not understanding the placebo effect nor anecdotal evidence, I don’t deny the sincerity of the people. I do agree that the tears of a mother on TV complaining about vaccines are real. But that doesn’t mean she is right scientifically. Over the long-run, these feelings and pseudosciences hurt us as individuals and as a society (take climate change denial as an example). Even societies who have killed women as witches think they are doing something good. As Mark Twain once said – “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” (because of feelings, confirmation bias, and other psychological reasons I won’t go into here). So it is important to teach people how the scientific method works and how to ask questions so we don’t get conned by quacks. It is easier to prevent quackery when it is trying to take hold than to eradicate quackery. At least in many developing parts of the world, quackery and women’s rights is still a very inter-related issue.

 

My mistakes – searching for self-forgiveness

As a perfectionist, I am extremely tough on myself for making any kind of mistakes. No matter how big or small, no matter how new or old. Not being able to forgive myself holds me back in a lot of things, but it also stays in the back of my mind as a hopeful deterrent against repeating the same mistake. One thing I hardly ever agreed with was an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ behavior. “He/she started first” doesn’t mean a lot to me, because if we repeat what the first person started then how are we any different from them? Yet, I have left myself do the exact same thing.

I have faced situations over the last 5 (or 10) years that I had no idea how to deal with. I doubt anyone in my situation/age would have. Many decisions I have made are regrettable, out of inexperience. Most of those mistakes were meant to fix things or make things better, but without experience or knowledge there is no way to know if the decision is right or not. Yet with the level of expectations I have of myself, I do expect myself to know how to handle every situation. It is physically impossible, but in hindsight not being able to handle something perfectly eats away at me.

When I hear a problem, my goal is to fix/solve the problem. Complaining about a problem without trying to solve it makes no sense to me. But sometimes one must listen to the complain without offering solutions right away. Sometimes people just want to be heard. I wasn’t (not sure if still am) good at that. But one thing I also learned in counseling – how long do you listen to same complaints where no meaningful action is being taken? At what point do you become an enabler for others who want to feel better by talking it out, without taking the tough choices of changing their situation? I still don’t know the answer to that. Because I still see myself as a problem solver.

If another thing I would change, it would be to learn about mental illnesses at a younger age. I wish for a world where we would all learn about it in college. Because mental illness is too stigmatized, because those suffering from it are blamed for it or judged for it, and too many are criticized for being ‘crazy’ and not being able to get the marbles together. We never make those comments about any other organ. Yet for inexplicable reasons we don’t even remotely give the same respect to the most complicated object in the known universe – the human brain. I have never been prejudiced against anyone with a mental illness, but I certainly wish I knew better to handle it around those who might be suffering from some kind of mental illness. Sometimes good intentions don’t always produce good results, because of our ignorance of the steps that would produce good results. That is definitely one of my biggest regrets, yet I don’t know how I could have ever prevented it. Some situations come out of the blue and there is no way to be prepared for it. And by the time you are, too much damage might be done and there would be nothing left to fix.

And that brings me to the last point. Because of other people’s actions/behavior, we sometimes lose respect for some people. I think respect is earned, and no one is entitled to it. But even if we lose respect for someone, we should be ultra careful that we never even inadvertently disrespect them. First of all, disrespecting someone knowingly is extremely wrong and mean-spirited. When we have respect for someone, it shows in our actions. But when we lose it, we might not know how our actions might not always be respectful. Let’s say we have been mistreated a lot. That doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want and tell ourselves that “it is all going to end the same way, so why should I make any extra effort to be nice.” Maybe the other person who was disrespectful or mean wasn’t doing it on purpose. Maybe they can’t help or control their behavior without professional help. But if we can control our behavior, it is our moral duty to never disrespect anyone knowingly, and do our best not to disrespect them unknowingly. If our actions become a little careless because we aren’t watching our behavior closely, it is better to build a distance so we don’t disrespect or hurt someone, than to stay at the same place and inadvertently disrespect them. As this point, saying “but they have done it a billion times worse” is not an excuse.

These are some of my mistakes I wish I can take back. Sure, we learn from experiences, but sometimes getting that experience might be too late. But we can never learn about every single issue in the planet? So what do we do when we experience something we have never seen before? What do we do that by the time we figure it out, it is already too late? Life doesn’t give easy answers, does it….

Female Modesty and Good Character

Let’s be honest. When it comes to dressing modestly, the rules are usually applied to women. And dressing ‘modestly’ means covering up as much as possible. But who decided that covering up is modest? What is the logic behind it? We are all born naked. Every other living species on this planet is naked. Different cultures across space and time have different standards of dressing up. A lot of it also depends on the climate where all these respective cultures originate. So why is covering up equated with modesty? And why is it applied to women predominantly? Well the answer is Patriarchy, but ideas are generally hard to break down in a single word.

I believe a person has the right to dress as they please. Of course there are exceptions, which depends on workplace rules and/or safety issues. A business might have rule about a certain dress code for employees, or a lab might have one about fully covered legs and no open-toed shoes. As long as these rules are applied uniformly, there is no discrimination. But what happens when society and/or state expects or requires certain standards. And what if those standards are invariably applied to women. I think it is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear and how to express her individuality through her attire. But what annoys me is the idea that women covering up = modest = good/pious/virtuous women.

Why does a woman’s character depend on her attire? Why is covering up seen as representative of a ‘good woman’? When someone argues “XYZ is worn as a symbol of modesty”, then doesn’t it mean that someone not wearing it is seen as immodest? If covering up is good, what makes a woman who wants to wear a summer dress, evening gown, a two-piece, or nothing at all? How many individuals and societies in the world see it as a sign of decadence and immorality? Isn’t that where the attitude ‘she was asking for it by her dressing’ originates from?

When I criticize one side, I don’t mean to say that only that side is bad and other sides aren’t. It only means I am talking about a particular side because I might be more familiar with it, or I want to talk about that side right now. Big chunks of South Asian society (and elsewhere) is highly misogynistic. There is a lot of cat-calling, harassment, and many other forms of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women. Showing of skin is seen as a sign of ‘loose morals’.  And doesn’t this thinking originate from the original idea that ‘covering up’ = good? As an immigrant living in the United States, one of the most disgusting ideas I have experienced since childhood is that white women are ‘easy’ because they don’t cover up or have loose morals compared to brown women. They are seen as highly sexualized objects. And it is not just an attitude among young men. Even too many old women are against having Caucasian daughter-in-laws because they are seen as having loose morals, bad characters, or not good family values. So whenever I see immigrants sexually harassing or abusing white women, for me it doesn’t just fall under any sexual harassment. I have seen it and experienced it again and again how white women are seen in sexually repressive cultures. For men who think like that, white women are easy while brown women are properties that they own. Husbands, fathers, brothers have veto power over the lives and decisions of women. Any disobedience = woman is of bad character/morals. And sexual harassment is extremely prevalent, if hidden under the carpet. The worst part is how many women publicly proclaim there is nothing wrong, and privately bemoan the harassment and abuse they themselves or women they know have faced. Shoving this under the carpet drives me crazy.

Yes, our planet is patriarchal. Abuse and harassment happens everywhere. But not every place is the same. Some places are worse than others. And it has nothing to do with genetics. It is just an attitude that is taking longer to modernize in some places compared to others. Criticizing one place more than another place isn’t racism, it is just about facing reality. It is about trying to improve our species everywhere. And we can’t move forward in fighting sexual harassment if we keep equating ‘covering up’ = modest/good etc. And if we don’t speak out against these medieval attitudes, we are not helping the women living in those societies! We cannot support individuals and still challenge collective attitudes. If we become so scared of being called racists for questioning ideas, not individuals, we are failing the women who are fighting battles in their own cultures regarding their status. We are failing the women who are fighting to break free, if we keep saying criticizing ideas and attitudes itself is racist. Sure, fight for a woman’s right to cover her head. But don’t let someone get away with saying “this is a sign of modesty”. A woman’s character depends on the same traits as a man’s character – actions, behavior, thinking.

A woman’s character is not dependent on whether she wears a sexy summer dress or is covered head to toe in summer’s heat. Because this attitude continues the subjugation of women in a man’s world. This attitude prevents women from expressing themselves fully in many cultures and countries. This attitude supports laws passed in many nations jailing women for not covering up. This attitude continues attacks on women because ‘she was asking for it’. This attitude continues to see women as objects. Making a woman cover up so she doesn’t distract men is also sexual objectification of women. A woman is not a distraction. Men must be taught to see women as their peers and as people, not sexual objects or something they have power or control over. We have to let go of the anachronistic ideas of modesty, something so disproportionately applied to women. Modesty varies by culture. Modesty is subjective. And modesty or good/virtuous character does not depend on what a woman wears or doesn’t wear. So anytime I hear someone say ‘women covering up is a sign of modesty’, I am going to speak out. Because that single attitude sees too many women negatively. That attitude has caused too many problems for women for far too long. Skin is not a reflection of ‘loose morals’ or  ‘bad character’. Skin is what we are born in. Let us celebrate our natural ‘clothing’…our skin, our individuality. Let us speak out against rules/expectations/attitudes that literally wants to hide women in clothes/curtains/four walls and sees it as good thing.

My journey through religion and spirituality

Nearly two months back I was asked by a friend – “do you believe in God?” I replied – “yes, but depends on what you mean by the definition of God”. There has been a lot of speculation and interest over the years as to my beliefs. As someone who came from a different culture and country at the age of 15, I have experienced and seen many different perspectives. Growing up and practicing an Eastern religion, it took some time to get used to Abrahamic religions. The cultural battles in the United States over doctrines and practices still feels funny to me, because growing up I wasn’t exposed in depth to Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs. Honestly, over the past 11 years I have evolved a lot when it comes to my personal beliefs, and hopefully I will keep evolving throughout my life. But I do have a framework about what I believe and don’t. I have held off on writing explicitly about it because my ideas might offend or hurt many people close to me, considering the fact that I come from a conservative/religious society. After a lot of reflection, I have decided to write honestly about my own personal beliefs and my views about religion itself. I have tried to take as many views into account as possible, but I am also not holding my thinking in check to protect anyone’s feelings. I don’t take my beliefs or any beliefs for that matter, as facts. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, and I don’t think there are any two human beings who believe everything exactly with equal intensity. Therefore, my beliefs are subjective, and they fulfill my desire and needs about spirituality. I have divided this essay into three parts – my personal beliefs; my criticisms of organized religion; and my acceptance of religiosity/spirituality. I am going to avoid science as much as possible because it is impractical to take apart each theological doctrine in an essay. I will do my best to stick to logical arguments in tackling various doctrines and ideas. And finally, I will also empathize with our species’ needs for spirituality. So let us take a travel back in time to the evolution of my beliefs and my mindset regarding religion.

A personal journey of love and faith –

I come from a Hindu background, and growing up I was quite religious. More likely, I was religious trying to gain favor with a deity and my community, where religiosity mattered a lot. In short, I wanted to impress God and people around me. After coming to the United States at the age of 15, I encountered doctrines of other religions. Growing up in a pluralistic society like India, I had a general knowledge of all major religions. But meeting people who deeply believed in different doctrines increased my interest in learning about other religions. Even though I had a ‘conservative’ nature when it came to religion and some traditional mindset, I always had a curious mind. And for the first few years in the US, I treated other religions the way I treated them in India – my religion’s doctrines are correct/accurate, but all religions are also correct because they lead to God. I hadn’t thought about the inherent contradictions when it came to the actual doctrines.

15 years back, or half a lifetime ago, I got interested in a Muslim girl in school and it piqued my interest in Islam. Three years later we were in the same college and I spent my summers reading up on Islam. It was the first time I questioned my own beliefs, whose doctrines seemed so different from Islam. I had an existential crisis of how this amazing girl could believe something that was so ‘different’. Her extreme devotion to following her doctrine told me that there must be something correct with her religion. Ten years back I had a broad knowledge of Islam; I had read two different English translations of the Quran and I was ready to convert to Islam for her and started practicing for a year. Conversion wasn’t hard for me because I took the Scripture literally – that all other religions had been corrupted and Quran was the final and perfect Word of God. For someone who loved to impress God, I thought I had found my path. One of the interesting things, which will matter later, was me telling her “how God seems so angry in the Quran”. She left once her family found out about us, and I continued practicing for 7-8 more months. In the 12 months after she had left, I had become more judgmental and self-righteous. I took pride in living a life of self-abnegation, and secretly and sometimes openly I was judgmental of my friends’ ‘immoral behavior’ (alcohol) and my own self-righteous behavior of avoiding anything God prohibits. It was 8 years back, around the time I turned 22, that two of my best friends took me aside one night and told me “just because we drink alcohol and you don’t doesn’t make us bad people and you a better person, and you don’t have to go around telling everyone that”. That was the wakeup call I needed and started my evolution towards understanding religion, spirituality, and human behavior from an academic and intellectual point of view.

Even before my interest in Islam, my idea of God during my late teens lined up with Spinoza’s God. I hadn’t heard of “Spinoza’s God”, but I believed God is everything and God is everywhere. As I grew older, the religious stories seemed too ridiculous to be true. As you can imagine, believing in a Spinoza’s God and Islam (along with a Hindu background) was contradictory. And those couple of years were confusing periods in my life. With time, I saw a lot of hypocrisy in the name of religion. Along with my personal experience with conversion and being insulted for being an infidel, I became very anti-religious. Time, and focusing on good people has calmed me down about religion over the last couple of years.

I don’t know how to label myself, or if a label exists that would define me. I do not believe in any existing religions. I don’t believe in supernatural occurrences because none has ever been documented and proven in the age of science, and none have broken the laws of science. Our universe is governed by natural laws, not the supernatural. Is there a God or deity beyond the natural world, beyond our universe/multi-verses or whatever reality might be? Maybe. But we do not possess the tools to study the non-natural. This is where I reach a philosophical point. Maybe our universe is part of a multi-verse. Maybe there are infinite multi-verses. It is a fact that we exist. Even if we exist in something else’s dream, then that something else exist. But there is something called reality that is in existence. I don’t know what a God might be, but for me a God would be the beginning and the end of everything. If there is something, there must have been a beginning. And that beginning is God. What is the beginning of God? I don’t know. That is a question that keeps me up at night, but no one can answer that question. Even the answer – God has always been – is a non-answer to me. If something is, it must come from something. But none of this can ever be proven, because none of this belongs to the natural world. Therefore, I do believe in the existence of some higher ‘power’, but I don’t know what is that higher power or how to describe it. And my beliefs are my personal beliefs and no one else has to agree with them. I don’t even take them as facts because there is no way for me to know what is a ‘fact’ when it comes to the non-natural. So, that’s my belief – if you want to call it a belief.

A question non-religious people are asked a lot by religious people is – “how do you enjoy the beauty of Creation if you don’t believe in a God?” The magnificence of nature is beautiful enough that I do not need a personal God to appreciate it. And moving away from religion has made me become more aware about human suffering and made me more focused in trying to fix it now – in this ‘life’. I don’t know about the existence of life after death, and that has made me greatly appreciate life, time, and relationships. I want to fight for justice and fairness. I want to fix mental illnesses and bring harmony to my species. I do not have the luxury in the thought that there will be justice in the after-life. I want to create utopia in this world, not in an imaginary heaven. This thinking has also helped me control my anger, emotions, and any negative feelings. I try to maintain the best relationship with everyone, not have a fight, and just be good to everyone. We don’t know if tomorrow will come, and if it doesn’t we don’t know if this life is all there is. So why not be the best we can be every moment, and be the best we can be to everyone on this planet? People also worry about inter-religious marriages because they don’t know what will they teach their children. My answer is – can’t we be humble enough to know that no one knows what is the ‘right answer’. Can’t we teach our children good morals, character, without enforcing doctrines on them at a young age. Or teach them doctrines while also teaching them that there are numerous doctrines followed by numerous people and that we have no way of knowing a ‘right doctrine’. And respect those kids’ own intelligence and personality and support them in their own spiritual and religious evolution into adults.

In summary, this is my personal belief – God is in everything, God is everywhere, but I do not know what God is or how to describe it. God is beyond space and time, God is impersonal. God doesn’t answer prayers; God doesn’t work in mysterious ways. God is nature, God is laughter. All good is God, all bad is God. God is the ultimate unknown. Unless some God decides to definitely make itself known to us in every generation, we will never know what God is. So any and all ideas about God/s are personal and unproven ideas. So why can’t we leave it at that? Why must we insist in the supremacy of religion or our own religions? Why must we insist that our own family members/children/spouses follow our own beliefs? Why can’t we respect everyone’s right to believe or disbelieve – whatever makes them happy. Why can’t we do this without intruding on other people’s personal space and their inherent right to find their own spirituality?

Shortcomings of organized religions –

So what exactly caused my detachment from religion itself? It started with my own experience – the more religious someone called themselves, the more uptight, judgmental, and self-righteous they were. It was not pleasant to be in their company. Whenever a topic came up if we should do something, the answer was mostly ‘no’ because religion didn’t allow it. Or the answer was they had to check if it was permissible to do in their respective religions. There was a bigger focus on the after-life than living in this life. There was too much guilt associated with the simple pleasures of life. Laughter, movies, music, love, jokes, clothing, food, drinking – anything that could bring joy was subjected to guilt. And I couldn’t understand how grown adults could believe their religion, the one they were brought up with as children, is the One True Religion. Religious stories seemed like children’s fairy tales meant for adults. And adults believing in supernatural fairy tales became too much for me. Every religion takes it flavors and ideas from its own geographical location/culture. Religions that were found in the same area share similar traits. For example, Quran is a compilation of The Bible, local Arabian customs and culture, and other Greek mythologies and science already prevalent in the Middle East. It is the same reason why Indian religions share a similarity among each other, but not with Abrahamic or other African or indigenous American religions.

Religions originated for many reasons. One of the original reasons was for a primitive species to make sense of the world around them. That required having gods and supernatural beings who controlled nature and our own lives. As we progressed with time, our gods progressed with us. As humans organized themselves into large nation-states, they needed a singular and powerful God instead of many gods. But this all-powerful God still provided answers that humans themselves couldn’t provide. This God provided the ‘there is a reason for everything’. And religious superstitions also originated when people tried to make sense of the world around them. And I do respect our ancestors for trying to come up with answers, even if it doesn’t stand up in our times. They did the best they could with the technology and understanding of the world that they had. Human civilization has been constantly progressing, as are our answers to existential questions. So I do respect every age that tries its best to understand reality. But what I do not get is today’s age trying to hold on to discredited answers from the past. When our society, science, technology has moved forward, I don’t understand how many people still look backwards. If I have respect for our ancestors who came up with answers that seem nonsensical today, I am befuddled for those holding on or enforcing nonsensical answers on rest of society. For example, there is no reason to hold on to homophobia, or religious supremacy, or any kind of beliefs that have been discredited by science. The answers we come today might still not be perfect or accurate, but it would be illogical for posterity to copy our answers like monkeys if in their own time period science and rationality has come up with different and better answers.

Another reason for the existence of religion is control through fear. One of the unattributed quotes to Mark Twain is “religion was invented when the first con-man met the first fool”. And I would say that con-men have used religion as vehicle to propagate fear and gain control over the masses. Humans have used fear for their own needs since the beginning of time. Fear is an innate emotion that has played an important role in evolution and our survival. It is fear of the unknown and fear of the other that kept us safe from beasts and hostile tribes. And the same fear is being exploited today to turn us against each other in the name of religion, race, nationality, ethnicity etc. But religious doctrine gave us the fear of eternal punishment to force us on the moral path (varies by culture), but also to gain a control over our lives. Men came along teaching us about vengeful and punishing gods and the concept of eternal hell. And the same men promised to turn vengeful and punishing gods into loving and forgiving gods if we followed their, and their word, only. The fear of hell had been planted. And the antidote to hell had been promised. As such, religions had evolved from spirituality and trying to make sense of the world into codified and rigid doctrines.

The more I thought about it, the less sense the concept of a personal God made to me. And it was something I truly believed in. God was my best friend. God was listening to me and watching me. God was doing everything for me. It was a lot of me-me-me. There was a reason for everything. The reason was definitely for my benefit, even if I cannot see it now. With this attitude, I was looking more inwards than outwards at the world around me. Even if something bad happened in the world, there must be a big Plan behind it. But as I grew older and saw how evil the world is, how I saw the quality of life elsewhere in the world – the concept of me-me-me melted away. There is no ‘reason’ why a parent should lose a child. There is no ‘reason’ or ‘plan’ or ‘meaning’ why children should face abuse. There is no ‘reason’ why a personal God would bless some places yet starve children to death in other places. I was only looking at my personal situation, without looking at the world around me. Knowledge, logic, and empathy destroyed the idea of a personal God for me. It felt too childish. A watching protector. It felt like stories we tell children. When it came to the idea of a personal God, I felt like a narcissistic child trying to impress his/her parents and thinking everything is about him/her. Eventually it felt ridiculous to believe in such an idea as an adult.

Finally, one of the biggest reasons that the idea of a personal God troubled me so much was the concept of an eternal hell/punishment and the concept of the end of the world. The deeper I get into neuroscience and psychology, the less I believe in ‘evil’. The more I learn about human biology and behavior, the less I believe in moral absolutes. The idea of a Creator who would also create a hell for Its’ creations is brutal and unacceptable to me. The idea that we should wait for some rapture and the end of the world where only the True and Righteous believers would be saved is unacceptable. The fact that too many religious doctrines place higher emphasis on ‘right’ beliefs rather than ‘right’ actions is unacceptable to me. There have been innumerable religions and there will always be religions coming up in the future. It is part of our genetic identity. The idea that only one sub-sect of humanity is marked for ‘saving’ is unacceptable to me. And the goal of life should not be to wait for the end of the world so that a chosen few will rise to heaven and get rewarded with beautiful real estate in heaven. The goal of life, and our species, should be to spread across the stars and propagate life in other worlds. Life on Earth will exist for only finite amount of time. Our goal should be to preserve life by transplanting it to other worlds across the galaxies. The fundamentals of religious doctrines should stop celebrating death, after-life and ‘true beliefs’, and start celebrating life, joy, and good actions. If there is a God, this life and universe we have is too magnificent and beautiful to not be the greatest gift of a God.

Getting back to doctrines, as a logician I was torn between following scriptures literally vs picking and choosing which parts to follow and ignore, and with what interpretation. I think specifics triumph generalization. Scriptures have generalized teachings for mankind as well as specific teachings about various topics. And I think the generalized teachings present an overall guideline while specific teachings tell us how to act in any individual scenario. So even though scripture might have a generalized teaching about ‘do not kill’ or ‘love everyone’, it has numerous exceptions to those teachings where it condemns various behaviors and acts and prescribes punishments that include death. A simple example is homosexuality. There are scriptures that condemn it and prescribe punishment for it – including the death penalty. Today there are many progressives who oppose any such punishment and preach acceptance and love citing generalized teachings of scriptures. And it pains me to say that textual literalists have the better logical argument. If we accept scripture to be the word of an infallible god, and such a god condemns homosexuality, then the logical argument is on the side of the religious people who don’t accept homosexuality. Even if the practical and humane argument is on the side of the progressives. No matter how much we promote tolerance for our differences, as long as the ideologies exist unchallenged, there will be human beings who will fetishize the past and take scripture literally. We will always have individuals seeking a deeper and different meaning. We will always have individuals seeking to ‘purify’ society from religious interpretations, innovations, and deviations from scriptures. We have seen it in every age; we are seeing it is our age. It is these logical inconsistencies, along with innumerable contradictions, that was the final straw in me letting go of organized religion – because organized religion is built on its doctrines, and I couldn’t stand the illogic and contradictions in the doctrines.

Humanity’s need for spirituality –

Despite my objections to organized religion, I understand that a lot of people have a need for spirituality. And if religion and spirituality give them peace, comfort, and happiness, then I am no one to criticize them for it. Every individual creates their own meanings for their religion. The meanings they create depends on their nature and upbringing, and it keeps evolving throughout life. No one knows the answers to these questions, even the people who are absolutely certain they do! Two people of the same family following the same religion can practice it differently. When it comes to the practical aspect of religiosity (and leaving behind science and logic), I fully support everyone’s rights to their own beliefs. But with a caveat – beliefs should never be forced on or be expected from anyone else. Not your children, spouse, parents, siblings, community, or the world. Beliefs are subjective, and expectations and pressure creates conflict. We can be religious and humble enough to accept that no one knows the real answers, and as such we should support each other in whatever answer gives them peace. And just make sure that the answers we pick does not intrude on anyone else.

Faith, spirituality, religion keeps many of us going in the darkest of times. It transcends the analytical mind because the logical brain deals with facts. When a parent loses their child, it is faith that keeps them going that their child is in a better place. Try telling such a parent that their child’s life meant nothing and that it is now reduced to the dust of time. Faith gives many of us hope that our good actions will be rewarded, the injustice we face in this life might be rectified in an afterlife, or that we will once again be able to see our loved ones whom we have lost.

For the practical purposes of day-to-day living, picking and choosing from scriptures is much better than winning the logical argument and following scripture to the word. Even the most religious of people have issues with many aspects of scriptures. Most human beings transcend their own scriptures and are nice and kind to those of different or ‘wrong’ beliefs. Despite being the logician, I absolutely support this because religion to me is a personal matter. Yes, it bothers me if someone says that no bad things exist in their scripture, because that is factually untrue. But most people realize they cannot follow scripture to the word, and the same people do the best they can to meet their own spiritual needs and be good to their fellow human beings. With religiosity, spirituality, or neither of those coming in over 7 billion flavors, I am in favor of people living their lives based on what gives them peace and happiness – as long as their beliefs do not intrude on someone else’s space and personhood.

I have come a long way in my religious and spiritual journey. And new life experiences, ideas, and learnings keep molding me in newer ways. I have gone from being very religious, to anti-religious, to achieving a truce with organized religion. Over the very long run I do know that organized religion’s influence will keep decreasing, as I think it should. But letting go of doctrines doesn’t mean letting go of spirituality. Religions have come and gone, their meanings and interpretations have changed over time. But our need for spirituality hasn’t changed. Even if ancient doctrines cease to be taken literally and factually, we can always continue our search for the meaning of life and existence. We can always be spiritual and be humble enough to accept that none of us have the right answer. For me, that is the progress, that is the future, and that is what we must strive. Religious doctrines and spirituality aren’t the same thing. Questioning one doesn’t mean giving in to despair and loss of hope. It just means we are maturing as a species and progressing with scientific knowledge. But it also means accepting science might never satisfy our spiritual cravings – unless we figure out every base pair in our genetic code and find where spirituality comes from.

To conclude – I hope I showed the differences between religious doctrines and spirituality. Everyone has the right to happiness – be it through doctrines, spirituality, science, or something else. Just don’t force it on others. Just don’t expect it from others and make them feel guilty for not following your ideologies. And finally, accept that when it comes to the supernatural world, no one has the right answer.

Facebook Privacy Posts to Conspiracy Theoryies – Thinking, Fast and Slow

I had written this post a month and a half back. Two weeks ago The New York Times published a similar article here, and therefore I decided to update and publish this. Few weeks back many people were posting all over Facebook regarding a privacy statement – if you post a certain paragraph then Facebook doesn’t have permission to use your content. Postings like that come up periodically on Facebook, and this time even John Oliver made fun of it in this video. Similar postings in various other topics keep showing up in social media, topics with a single internet search would be disproven. And usually, it is the same people share and post such things. So what is the reason behind this?

In Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, mentioned in the Times’ article, the author comes up with two thinking systems in the brain. He names the fast thinking system, the part that depends on intuition and reactions, as System 1. This system doesn’t spend a lot of time in thinking or analyzing an issue. It lacks critical thinking and questioning skills. In contrast, system 2 is a skeptic. It spends time in studying an issue before reaching a conclusion. It questions everything. A simple example was how President Bush was described as someone who ‘goes with his guts’ (system 1), while President Obama has been described as someone who dithers over an issue (system 2).

From an evolutionary perspective, system 1 would be important in protecting us from predators. You hear a rustle in the leaves and you run as fast as you can. There might not be a tiger to eat you, but if there was a tiger then depending on system 2 would mean you would end up as the tiger’s dinner. But as we have moved on from the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer and live in a civilized and globalized world, system 1 creates a ton of problems for us. People who depend too much on system 1 believe almost anything they hear or read the first time, especially if it fits into a narrative which they have been exposed to since childhood. They lack skepticism and questioning skills. On the other hand, people who possess system 2 skills to an extreme level end up as conspiracy theorists. They are skeptics of nearly everything. Those who are more inclined towards system 1 might be lean more towards traditional and religious values where they do not question what already exists, while those who are inclined more towards system 2 might lean more towards left-wing spirituality that has do with ‘higher consciousness’, ‘energy’, ‘chakras’, naturopathy etc. These people are skeptics in the traditional sense, but not skeptics enough to challenge left-wing pseudoscience. Finally, there are people who believe everything from left-wing pseudoscience regarding aspects of spirituality to right-wing pseudoscience like religious dogma. These kind of people are rarer, but they are a fascinating study because they lack any and all skeptic nature and are prone to believe anything.

Finally, even if people have skeptic genes – people in whom system 2 works well – their system 2 might be able to detect error but might not be able to correct error. These people will know something is wrong because of their system 2, but they will double down on their belief by rationalizing it. Taking it to an extreme is called denialism – as written in this article from today’s New York Times. One common example is evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. A traditional religious person depending on system 1 would believe in creationism if his/her religion has a creationist story. A person who has a healthy system 2 would know the theory of evolution and how it is incompatible with religious dogma. But a person with a system 2 that detects error (creationism), but cannot correct the error will double down on the religious dogma and support intelligent design. Such a person is intelligent and educated enough to know that going against science is a losing cause, but such a person also has a deep affinity for something that is refuted by science, facts, or logic, and therefore that person will try to find any loopholes to try and bridge the gap between science and religious dogma. In this example, intelligent design sounds like science while also allowing aspects of religious doctrine to exist.

But we shouldn’t judge people for having a predominant system 1 or an extreme system 2. Whatever anyone believes, they do so because they are sure about it. And no one is immune from the effects of a system 1 or an extreme system 2. We all have our inner biases inculcated since childhood. Therefore, to be more logical and rational in our lives we must make a conscious decision to teach our children how to think, how to ask questions, and to teach them the difference between facts and beliefs. Because once we are set in our beliefs, it is extremely hard to let go of them. The emotional pull – neuroplasticity – is too hard to break. To control a predominant system 1, we must cultivate listening skills, learning patience, and having questioning skills and an intellectual mindset. We must refrain from rushing into conclusions. We should try to see topics in black and white.

Having healthy System 1 and 2 are important are important for many reasons. Most importantly, a predominant system 1 is part of our tribal mindset of us vs them. This leads to violence and conflicts. We don’t take the time to know the other side’s story, or if our teammate started the problem. We jump to conclusions. Having an extreme System 2 leads to dangerous pseudoscience, including quack cures/treatments/diets etc that can either bleed people of their money without providing any benefits, or refrain people from taking medicines because they mistrust Big Government or Big Pharma. It is important to find that balance between thinking fast and being an extreme skeptic. And it all starts with a conscious decision to slow down how quickly we reach a conclusion. It includes expanding our breadth of reading and knowledge so we are aware of many sides of many topics. It includes learning to question everything, including going against our gut instincts. Most importantly, it includes teaching these skills to our children from a very young age. The price of blind beliefs and denialism is too high for our society to tolerate any longer. Progress requires rational explanations and logical thoughts which can act as a firewall between extremes of human behaviors and emotions.