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.

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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.

What if I don’t want to be a shoe? What if I want to be a hat?

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As I get older and listen to people express their inner feelings, one of the deepest pains I hear is how so many us are living a life not out of choice, but out of expectations or pressure. We live our lives based on parental expectations, societal expectations, and religious expectations, among any others. Many times these aren’t just expectations, but also pressure and force. I have heard people complain sadly as to what they wanted to study, what career they wanted to pursue, whom they wanted to marry, etc but couldn’t. Most of them wish their families and societies would see their way, would accept them, and unconditionally support their happiness. And these complaints reminded me Friends’ pilot episode where Rachel complains to her dad.

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But the part that confuses is when people say they want to be accepted, that they want society to change, but they themselves don’t. We are society. Although we want to be accepted, we don’t accept what we don’t like. We don’t want to be singled out because of our race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other trait, but too many of us do that to others.

We want our children and spouse to follow our beliefs. Even if we say we don’t want it, we expect it. And while those expectations from our parents made us change our dreams, we don’t think its wrong to expect it from our children or spouses. But the funny thing about beliefs is that they keep changing along with our life experiences. What we believed or practiced yesterday, we might not do that today or tomorrow. Yet we probably had fights and arguments with our family members or loved ones regarding how they aren’t following our beliefs. Even if we do not force them, our expectations creates pressure on them, especially on children, to conform to our beliefs. That is the same pressure we felt as children, those of us who complain about our parents or societies’ expectations. This is the hypocrisy that keeps the cycle going on and on. And this pressure and expectation never leaves us. If someone we loved wanted us to be something and we didn’t choose that career/spouse etc, as they get older or pass away, we choose to do what they wanted us to do because we feel guilty and think we owe it to them. Why is it fair that we leave others with a feeling of guilt of how they should live their lives?

If our own ideas and beliefs keep changing, why is it okay that others should live their lives the way we are living ours at this moment in time? Our ideas might change tomorrow. Should we make our children and spouses keep changing their lives based on our expectations and ideologies? Today I might marry say I want to marry someone who only believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but what if I don’t believe in it tomorrow myself? What if my partner stops believing in it, but keeps up the act just for my sake? Is that fair? When we say we want our children and spouses to have our values, we misconstrue values with beliefs. Values are universal – honesty, compassionate, kind, empathetic etc. But beliefs are personal. And beliefs should remain personal, without expecting it from anyone else, not even from our own children. We should be teaching them values, and not beliefs that might not make sense to them as they grow older, but which they might be forced to continue to please their parents. Teaching them is acceptable if it is done with the unconditional expectation that as they grow older, they have the right to choose their own paths. If we want to be accepted by others, we must break this hypocritical cycle of not accepting others. We can all be happy if we let everyone choose whether they want to be a purse or a shoe or hat, whatever makes them happy!

A little empathy for our fellow human beings

Over the last 6 days I have seen two sides of human nature. I have seen people across the globe support a group they weren’t required to support. But many did. Maybe it was because they wanted to show support for their shared humanity. Maybe they found it weird that a ‘Power’ that is supposed to transcend all dimensions, multiverses, and the singularity would be so creepily obsessed with all aspects of human sexuality. Or maybe they supported because of empathy – because they have experienced and can imagine what prejudice feels like. Many took a stand knowing their families or friends would disapprove of them. Many took a stand knowing it goes against what they have been taught most of their lives. Maybe you don’t belong to the LGBT community, maybe you don’t even know anyone who is one, but you showed support that another human being should have equal dignity and rights. To those who took a stand to show support – thank you for your courage. It is because of people like you that our species has progressed from the stone age.

Then there was the other side, and I was honestly taken aback by how many homophobic people there are. Could it be because you find it unnatural – as unnatural as left-handedness, different hair, skin, or eye colors? Or could it be because it was written on a piece of paper centuries or millennia back – papers that have obviously not been subjected to ‘reinterpretations’ by every generation of humankind who over time have been taking it less and less literally? Do I even need to remind everyone about the evolution of the interpretations of slavery in the last two centuries in these papers? Is this what having a sense of entitlement that only your group possess a monopoly over Truth and Righteousness looks like – to condemn our fellow human beings for who they are? Are we really going to let a piece of a paper let us discriminate against a group of people – the same piece of paper that also says that the greatest and only unpardonable ‘sin’ is wrong beliefs? Not wrong actions, but wrong beliefs. And what is sin but a construct of different groups across varied geographic and cultural locations. What is sin for me might be steak or a hamburger for you. And that truly baffles me – how can anyone say ‘how do these people believe such ridiculous things?’ and then say ‘this is wrong because this paper says so’? Quite simply, where is empathy? We follow every sentence literally and blindly like sheep till it affects us negatively, then we choose to reinterpret it till we become comfortable with it. And we call misguided or wrong whoever doesn’t accept our interpretations. How can we be so hypocritical and lacking in empathy for another group? How are we not ashamed in condemning any group of people who have done no harm to anyone, but who just happen to be different from us – be it religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation? Isn’t it the same fanaticism of seeing the world in Black and White, and Us vs Them that has been tearing apart our species since time immemorial?

But what has really made me sad is seeing the actual people who are still homophobic. People with a bachelors/masters in ‘science’ who apparently didn’t learn critical thinking and questioning. People who call themselves doctor but never learned empathy. People who have a biology major but never learned about the human body. People who have faced or cried prejudice who ironically cannot show empathy for another group facing prejudice. Today we are going to be prejudiced against a group because of a piece of paper, but if tomorrow we scream bloody discrimination against us or our [self-identified tribal] group, everyone else is going to turn a deaf ear to our pleas and plight. It shouldn’t take geography or culture or religion to have basic humanity and empathy. Can’t we all come together because of our shared humanity? Can’t we all accept that who we are as a people should matter more than our beliefs or our background? Can’t we all learn and show a little empathy?

Gender pay gap

Gender pay gap is a serious topic. And to have an honest discussion about it, we must also present honest data. The “77 cents to a dollar” argument is like me asking why do I earn less than a neurosurgeon. If we are going to compare apples to oranges, we are starting out with a dishonest data. The real wage gap is 93 cents to the dollar. And we must do everything we can to abolish pay gap discrimination based on gender. It must be equal work = equal pay.
But I do want to know why does the 77 cents to the 93 cents gap exist. Do women choose fields that pay less, or are women nudged/forced/conditioned since childhood to choose fields that pay less? If it is the latter, we must do everything possible to encourage women to choose the career of their liking, not the career we think we should have.
Second, motherhood should not be penalized when it comes to pay. We need a society where we have parental leave and parental benefits, where both parents can take a break of a few months. Mothers should not be penalized when it comes to pay or promotion because they had a child. We need 2.1 children per couple to maintain the population level and prevent a world where a smaller younger population is supporting a larger aging population.
And to discard the gender pay-gay, we must all – and this includes women too – discard the idea of traditional gender roles. That doesn’t mean that everyone should be forced to do everything. But if a woman wants to be a soldier, she should face no cultural, social, or legal barriers. If a man wants to be a daycare teacher, he shouldn’t face any social ostracization. And this is where we also need women’s help. In survey after survey, across cultures and continents, majority of women prefer a spouse who will support them and be the primary provider. We cannot make a moral argument about equal pay if one gender is expected to be the provider and payer. It is neither false nor politically incorrect to say that in every survey, majority of men prefer appearance in women, and majority of women prefer money and power in men. And if we are going to ask men to move past their evolutionary preference for appearance, women must also move past the evolutionary preference for the provider. Because if the best chance to pass on genes lies in chasing money and power, men will keep doing that and keep the money and power for themselves. Equal pay is intrinsically related to traditional gender roles and ideas.

Hopelessness to Hopefulness

After the Peshawar attack last week, I was feeling quite hopeless about the human species. I couldn’t imagine ideologies would go so far as to kill children. Intolerance and prejudice can never be separated from violence. And the intolerance prevalent in our own families breed these monsters who would slaughter children. If a girl falls in love with an ‘infidel’, the abuse she suffers for such a cardinal ‘sin’ is unspeakable. And how many people in her family and community support her? ZERO. This girl might be one of the most talented people I have seen in my life – the type who can touch any activity and turn it into gold – be it art, writing, or anything else. Yet nothing this person does in life matters because she went against faith. Do her family members and friends make things up, or are they fearful after the hundreds of verses they have read? All this in the liberal mecca of New York City. So I could only despair at the ground situation in closed and conservative societies. If the parents in this liberal mecca can threaten to murder and/or commit suicide, what must be parents teaching their children in these other nations. Or why would anyone be surprised at the honor killings? If I could count how many times my female friends from this society have said “my parents will kill me” when I ask them why aren’t they pursuing this or that they clearly like. It seems as a joke, but I wish it was a joke. I was despairing how people create the concept of “otherness” and sin, and act confused when someone commits violence against these others. Then they go on social media claiming we or our flying spaghetti monster never condones violence. Show me how we can create others, teams, groups, and a superiority complex combined with a victim mentality – and how none of this can lead to violence – and I will give you the award for being the smartest person ever born in this universe. I was despairing for humanity. I couldn’t see light because most, not just the majority, were still living in denial with their heads buried deep in the sand.

But I cannot exist without hope. It would be criminal of me to ignore the few who dare to speak up. Over the last year or so two people have spoken to me – “there are a lot of crazy stuff in this book”, and “a lot of this doesn’t make sense”. Two people who had a different tune over the years are starting to open up. There are a couple others who really do not know what is written on a piece of paper, but once it was shown to them, disagreed with any intolerance or prejudice. These women are the heroes and the faces of hope and change. I read Pakistani English newspapers, which naturally have a liberal slant because it is read mostly by the highly educated young people – who naturally have a liberal outlook on life. And more and more writers (who tend to be young) are starting to question the intolerance in their society. Earlier, terrorists were called “unbelievers” by their apologists. I used to think – hey wait a minute, I am an unbeliever and these terrorists should not be labeled with me!! Today, a few are starting to label these terrorists for who they are, radical extremists. Few are openly starting to question their theological leaders. Instead of saying my flying spaghetti monsters treats others with respect, they are openly saying we should respect every human no matter what piece of paper says what. We should stand for humanity over beliefs. Maybe a paper calls homosexuality a sin, and if so, maybe the paper is wrong. These young educated people give me hope. But these voices have existed in the liberal pages of newspapers. But to start seeing them in my own life, where prejudice and intolerance is becoming uncomfortable for some people in my generation gives me great hope. None of these friends are atheists. But they have managed to combine their spirituality with their humanity. Only thing I can tell them is “thanks” and tip my hat. In these darkest of times, they give me hope. And in this war of ideas, rather than criticizing the stupidity of the majority, I have to magnify the voices of these few individuals. They are the future, and they are our hope for a change.

Power of comedy and satire

Comedy and satire are probably one of the most powerful weapons in our society. Authoritarian figures and institutions use a sense of gravitas and seriousness to quell any questioning of their words or actions. They turn someone or something into hero or holy, and any criticism is prevented by invoking their greatness or holiness. It is like the emperor who is not wearing any clothes, but no one can tell him because no one must question the emperor.
Then along comes the satirist who speaks the truth to the masses. By pointing out the ridiculousness of something or someone, it takes away the sense of gravitas. And once that seriousness about an authority topic is gone, people are free from the bondage and are free to question everything else. It is the like the child who finally points out that the emperor has no clothes. Once that ice is broken, everyone else can join in on the laugh. A self-proclaimed holy man might tell me to run between two buildings every morning because it is the holy thing to do. Then the joker comes along and shows me the absurdity of the situation that I can let a man control me to the point of making me run between two buildings every morning.
That is power of comedy – to give power to the people, to show the absurdity of authoritarian institutions and their ridiculous reasoning and rituals to control the masses. If you can make something funny, it stops controlling your life. The same attitude can be used in our day-to-day lives. Life always throws shit at us. But it is up to us to decide whether to dwell in the gloom, or to find the ridiculousness of the situation and have a good laugh about it. In the end, it is the joker and the satirist who speaks on behalf of the masses while bringing a sense of control and power to the masses.

Marriage – Love, Arranged, and Other Things

First of all, let me set some ground rules. It will help in understanding this essay. I am a classical liberal. That means I believe in individual liberty and social progress. I am less likely to blindly agree with traditional rules or authority figures. This is in contrast to a classical conservative who puts the group/society/family customs over individual rights, and is more likely to follow tradition and be wary of change. But supporting individual rights does not mean blindly supporting individualism. We are a social species. We need to be with people, and we should work with others. For nearly all of human history the individual has been subservient to the group. Supporting individual rights means that society’s rules do not intrude on an individual space’s and our inherent right to pursue happiness.

Secondly, people glorify their own side while minimizing any of its weaknesses, and do the exact opposite to the other side. And that leads me to talk about the sense of privilege of particular groups. For example, in the United States there is white privilege. It is better to be a Caucasian here than to be a racial minority. On Earth, there is male privilege. Life is much better for a man than for a woman. In urban India, or among South Asians living in the West, there is a privilege of choice that isn’t available to the vast majority that live in rural areas and small towns. Reality isn’t cherry picking and fetishizing toned-down ancient traditions and beliefs for modern times; instead reality is the daily lives experienced by the vast majority.

Finally, we are defensive by nature. No one likes to face uncomfortable truths about themselves or their self-identified groups. It forces us to think and make changes, and most everyone prefers to continue the status quo than rock the boat. Therefore, we tightly hold on to whatever our side has always been doing because the known devil is better than an unknown angel and the uncertainty of change.

In my culture, I repeatedly keep hearing “arranged marriage is better because there is no divorce, while love marriage causes divorce”. I have two problems with this. First, it is even embarrassing to use ‘correlation is not causation’ because it misses and ignores so many different points. Secondly, this attitude is universally used in a racist way towards the West, especially Caucasians, because of the existence of divorce in the West. This racist attitude goes along with the view that Americans are selfish, immoral, and have no sense of caring for each other or having family values. It is an attitude that disgusts me and it nearly always starts with the topic of ‘arranged marriage’.

Here is the reality of ‘arranged marriage’ – it was universal in the entire world. Marriage was, and still is in many places, a societal institution that involved the family and/or the tribe – the individuals never mattered in the marriage. It was a political deal, a business deal, or a family/tribal deal. For most of human history no one got a say in the choice of his or her spouse. It was decided for them. That is still the reality in the majority of India. Your elders pick your spouse for you. Till 15-20 years back, majority of Indian women married before they turned 18. Is there a choice when you are married off that young? Or is there even a choice when your spouse is picked for you when you are 18, 21, or 25? This is arranged marriage that is a reality for the majority of the population. And what are the criteria for an arranged marriage? It starts with religion, then caste, then sub-caste, then your state, then job/education/income for a man, and education and beauty/skin color for a woman. This is reality. As the nation is progressing, some parents are giving their children choices to look at the photographs before their spouses are finalized for them. But what happens when some wants to go against the criteria picked by their elders? I live in the United States and I have friends having to fight against family in the matter of someone being from a different caste or a state. This is arranged marriage for the majority. The person getting married has few, if any, real choices.

And why is divorce so low? Divorce has always been historically low or non-existent. But let us go back to the real India. What is the status of a divorced woman? Does society accept such a woman? Where will she go or how will she sustain herself? What are her chances of getting married again? Divorce does not exist because the woman’s life will be destroyed if her husband divorces her. The social stigma will follow her to her grave. 70% of women in India face domestic violence. Dowry and harassment by in-laws still exists, as does marital rape. The woman in rural India has no recourse to protect her rights. Yet she cannot ask for a divorce because it will be even worse for her. So the idea that arranged marriage doesn’t cause divorce is a bullshit theory propagated by those living in a fantasy land and without the moral courage to face the truth.

The singular advice I always got growing up, of how a marriage works, was this – “For a marriage to work, one person has to be submissive to the other. You can’t have two equals in a marriage. And by default and because of their ego, it is the man who has to be in charge.” It is my goal to see a world where that advice is no longer applicable. This is how marriages have lasted without divorce. Because the husband can treat his wife any way he wants and he knows there is nothing she can do. Because the wife knows the best way to make it work is to be obedient and submissive to the husband. Maybe it is good for many people and maybe they like it that way. It is their choice and I won’t stop them. But I will call out the intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy of the low divorce rate. A close friend of mine told me another story. This is what her mother told her in college – “if you ever leave your future husband/in-laws home and come back because of problems, I will beat you and kick you out of our home and send you back.” With a mother like that, how can this woman stand up against abuse from others? The saddest story I knew in my personal life was a guy being forced by his father to marry someone imported from his home country. He loved another woman and his father wouldn’t accept it. He never loved his new wife and never wanted to be with her. His father wouldn’t even allow him to divorce her. That girl, imported to a new strange land, suffers in misery. This is the ugly reality of arranged marriage. As far as the increasing divorce rate in urban India goes, it is because women are finally standing up. With education and financial independence, many women are refusing to be mistreated by their husband and/or in-laws. They are no longer tolerating things they might have tolerated before. Divorce has become empowering for women. As much as it is better to not have to divorce, it is not always bad. I would rather see someone be divorced and happy than be married and miserable. And yes, even in my extended family I have seen divorce bring happiness and continued marriage in the previous generations bring nothing but absolute misery.

So why do so many Indians living in the United States think it is better? Well, as I mentioned, we fetishize the past and we have diluted the reality so much that it doesn’t really affect us. Whether it is here or in urban and liberal India, the proper term for ‘arranged marriage’ should be ‘match-making’. Children have much more choices, no one is forced, and most of us have the right to say no. There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents being involved in marital decisions. It is actually better that they should be involved a little because they know us quite well and can give advice that we might have missed ourselves. But this is not real arranged marriage, this is ‘arranged marriage ultra lite’. Yet even with the choices we have, many families balk when their children go out of their community – be it religion, caste, ethnicity, or nationality. That is when all this idealism of arranged marriage comes crashing down. To those who think arranged married is the most wonderful thing in the world, I have two questions – do you say it because you are in one, or do you say it because you are pretty sure you will be in one because you know your parents won’t allow it otherwise? Because I certainly haven’t heard it from anyone who is married to someone they themselves picked! And to those who are happily in an arranged marriage ultra lite – I am happy for you. But just because your situation worked for you does not mean you can make blanket statements without understanding the reality that exists for the majority.

There are basic components to make a marriage work, and it doesn’t matter whether you picked your spouse or your parents did it for you. They are – respect, compromise, communication, understanding, trust, honesty, passion and love. To paraphrase Steve Jobs – do something or be with someone you have a passion for. Only then will you be trying your absolute best all the time.  When I saw the movie Gone Girl, I noticed how similar to real life it is in the sense that two people live a lie to each other.  Both try to be someone they aren’t, and after a while it does become exhausting. We should be allowed to be ourselves to be in a happy marriage! As a believer in the individual’s right to pursue his/her happiness, I believe every individual must have the right to have the final say in his/her life, especially in a matter as big as choosing a spouse. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If a Caucasian finds happiness with an African, so be it. If a Chilean finds happiness with a Chinese, so be it. The presence of those basic components in a marriage is what makes it work. Otherwise there is either divorce or an unhappy everlasting marriage. If race and religion mattered, there would never be divorce or an unhappy marriage when someone married within their own group. But we all know that is not true. It is about our ability to respect the other person and our differences. It is not about which side is right, but about what is best for the two of them. It is not about teaching our children my way or your way, but what is the best thing we can teach our child for the future. These are the things that can make a marriage work. When we marry, we must also expect that our spouse might change. It would be shocking if they didn’t. So marriage shouldn’t be about marrying an idea of a static person, but growing with them and accepting them as they are exploring new aspects of themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes the change can be bad or so severe that there is no other alternative but a divorce. In such a scenario, it is better to go your own ways than be miserable with each other.

There are many reasons why marriages don’t work. People get married young and realize they made a mistake. People have unrealistic expectations or do not follow the basic components that might make a marriage work. Some people get married for extraneous reasons like to have kids or that marrying will fulfill their emptiness and boredom. Some get married because of parental pressure. These reasons can result in divorce in more liberal places, or unhappy marriages in more conservative places. My request to parents would be – teach your children how to make right decisions; do not make the decisions for them. Teach them how to choose a spouse, and hopefully you aren’t racist, intolerant, or prejudiced but teaching them how to pick a good person. Teach them how to make a marriage work. Do not tell them they are immature to pick a spouse even when they are 30, while marrying them off at 18 and expecting them to handle kids and in-laws while they are still in their teens. That idea of arranged marriage is about parental control and power, not about you caring for your child. And if you make decisions for them, they will not know how to decide for themselves when they are out of your home. They will always be dependent on someone or learn it at a later age in life when things are more important with significant consequences.

And please do not push anyone to get married. It is not for everyone. Nor can everyone do it well. It is better to be alone that ruin a second person’s life because you thought getting married is a cultural requirement. Get married to the person when you are ready. In the long run that is what matters, not a clock or an idea or other people. It is about the person we are coming home to every day, it is our partner we are hopefully spending the rest of our life with. Otherwise it is no different than rushing towards a marriage or getting married at a very young age without thinking it through. Do it for the right reasons because many lives are involved and life is too long to be unhappy or ruin your and someone else’s life.

The final point I want to make is a request to family, friends, and society not to ruin a couple’s marriage. Once upon a time someone told me – “society will not accept your marriage and you two will not be happy. We will not accept your marriage.” It is true that external stress due to relatives, poor health, finances, and society can cause marital discord. It is why divorce rates or domestic violence rates are so high among the poor and minorities. They aren’t bad people. But the stresses we face because of external factors slowly comes out in front of our significant others. Instead of supporting his daughter and her happiness, I never understood how that man can openly say he won’t support her and mentioning how miserable it is going to make her life. With a parent like that, who needs an enemy? With parental love like that, who needs hate?

There are many causes for divorce. The same rules apply to a happy marriage. Both exist in all parts of the world. So can we Indians please stop with the racist attitude towards Americans? But as someone who supports the pursuit of happiness, someone who knows what love is, I want others to have the opportunity to pursue the same thing. It is beautiful to fall in love with your best friend, to have the privilege to marry such a person. And many times in arranged marriages I have seen the couple become best friends and fall in love. I want everyone to have the opportunity and the right to the life they want, and the way they want it. Let us not fetishize a heavily diluted ancient custom and take away the freedom of choice from people. If you want your parents to pick your spouse, I wish you the best of happiness. But please do not judge those who do not want it the way you do. Please do not make it harder for others. Everyone deserves to be happy on his or her own terms. No one should sacrifice their happiness to please everyone else’s feelings or sentiments. That is not the pursuit of absolute happiness. We get one chance to live, and I want everyone to have the maximum opportunity to be absolutely happy and live the best life they can possibly live. Let us give people the freedom to choose their own life.

Evolution or Creationism?

A few weeks back a friend asked me if I believed in creationism or evolution. I did not answer because I do not think that a simple “yes or no” answer, without context, really answers something that is as complicated and controversial as this topic. There are many good and intelligent people who do not want to be anti-science, many who do not have an issue with microevolution, but are uncomfortable with macroevolution and speciation, especially human speciation, because of deeply held theological beliefs. A while back a friend told me that she saw on a Pakistani TV channel a debate between a scientist and a religious figure. According to her, the scientist told the religious man – “This is what science says. What you do with the information is up to you.” I will try to do that. Evolution is extremely complicated and there are numerous fields of science that confirm it. I will try to explain at a layman’s level so it is easier for anyone with school level biology education to understand.

Evolution:

When thinking about evolution, I think it will be easier to focus on “isolation” and “generation time” than on size of the organism. This is because many people can imagine microbes becoming different strains, but can’t imagine a large animal evolving into something else. People usually mistake ‘transformation’ or ‘metamorphosis’ with evolution. Probably that is why they wonder ‘if monkeys evolved into humans, why are monkeys still there’. This is a sad aspect of our education system. Monkeys do not turn into humans. Chimpanzees and we share a common ancestor. But how?

Mutations are always happening in our body. Some mutations are advantageous while some are not. That is where our “natural talent” for something comes from, or our individual traits like hair color or eye color. When any two groups of the same species are separated for an extremely long period of time, mutations in both groups start accumulating. Natural selection happens when a certain mutation allows that person to pass down his/her genes to his/her offspring. “Survival of the fittest” is a wrong phrase in describing evolution. The better phrase would be “survival of the one most likely to pass down his genes in this particular ecological niche”. If a small group of humans wander off to a forest where all the fruit-bearing trees are tall, eventually every individual in that group is going to be tall. Anyone who is not tall enough will be at a disadvantage for sustenance. So children who grow to be tall are more likely to survive and find mates and pass down their tall genes. It is the same way we are different races and have different features. Someone in Turkey has different features compared to someone in China. There are, and have been, many indigenous groups whose adults barely reach five feet in height. These differences in features happen because of separation of one group from the other, and inbreeding in an individual group. If Koreans only bred among themselves, they will maintain their features that will be distinctive from the Han Chinese who might breed only in their own group. These features develop over hundreds and thousands of years. Evolutionary scale for large animals like us with longer generation gap is in the millions of years. That is why our nearest common ancestor to the chimpanzees lived a few million years back. In this time, we have had other “relatives” in the hominid family. We even bred with some of them, like the Neanderthals. And that is how evolution works – slow branching out among members of a family. In our daily lives we see members of the canine families, like dogs and wolves, and we have members of the feline family like cats, lions, and tigers. Even though they are different species, we see it every day how much traits they all share. They might have evolved to be different species, but they came from a common ancestor. And therefore they share the similar genes, the way we share genes and features and traits with members of the primate family.

Let us get back to mutations. Our DNA has about 3 billion base pairs. Each base pair – A, T, C, G – is the alphabet of life. A combination of three of those bases code for an amino acid, and thousands of amino acids arrange themselves into a protein. When each cell in our body divides, the DNA gets replicated. But the enzyme that is involved in the replication – of adding the A, T, C, G base pairs to new strand of DNA, makes mistakes. Most of those mistakes are repaired by other mechanisms, but some mistakes still remain. Sometimes these mistakes can cause serious harm. But these mistakes do not pass down to our offspring. Only the mutations in the sperm and the egg pass down to our children. Each mature egg has divided about 30 times from the time it was a zygote, and it has accumulated about 9 mutations along the way. Each sperm has divided about 400 times for a total of 120 or so mutations. So every time a baby is conceived, the zygote already has about 130 mutations. These mutations can be completely neutral, they can be fatal, or they can introduce new genetic traits missing from the parents. If this person has many offspring, there is a huge probability of those traits being passed down. And the traits associated with the mutation become part of the gene pool. But if that person had a mutation for an IQ of a 200 but he/she did not have any children, that mutation goes out of our gene pool. Passing down such traits through breeding is what gives characteristics to certain groups.

This is microevolution. What how does speciation happen? Besides separation between groups over large periods of time, it would be easier to understand speciation by understanding generational time. It takes time for mutations to accumulate that might give an individual, and then a group, advantage in a certain geographical niche. And that time depends how fast that particular species replicates/reproduces. Viruses and bacteria replicate really fast – many in a matter of minutes. For such microorganisms, thousands of generations can be produced very quickly. If they have a high mutation rate, it might be hard to develop drugs for them because the virus can change a lot in a short period of time. That is one of the biggest problems in developing therapies for HIV. For human beings, each generation is about 20-25 years. For thousands of generations to pass, we would be looking at hundreds of thousands of years! That is why imagining evolution in higher animals is hard. It is much easier to see it in birds or frogs or even fruit flies. We have even done experiments in fruit flies to show macroevolution. And the best example might be the evolution of dogs from wolves. In about 10,000 years, we have domesticated wolves and bred them every way possible to create so many kinds of dogs! Evolution is the reason why native populations were decimated because of diseases from other continents. People in the new places did not evolve with the diseases; therefore they did not have the antibodies to protect them. Evolution is also the reason why we have so much good bacteria in our body. We co-evolved with them in a symbiotic relationship where they produce enzymes and vitamins, while they use our body for sustenance.

The three basic concepts of evolution are mutation, reproduction/generational time, and competition (or having the traits most likely to survive and breed). Obviously, this is a very short introduction to evolution, but this is the basic biological mechanism of evolution.

Creationism:

I asked the same friend about evolution and Genesis. As a follower of an Abrahamic faith, she said she took Adam and Eve as literal stories, and as a biologist she also agreed that evolution is true. And to give her credit she then said – “I never thought about them both at the same time. But both cannot be true. It is evolution that is true, not Adam and Eve.” Then how do so many people disagree with her? I cannot comment on a singular creationism story because over the course of human history every group has had its own creationism stories. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to debate between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Genesis, which is just one story out of hundreds. Similarly, it would be intellectually dishonest to give credence one group’s beliefs while refuting other beliefs. Let us take the story of Genesis. Officially, just about 55% of the global population follows the Abrahamic religions. And many of them do not take their Scriptures literally. And when we hear about the controversy in the West or in the Islamic world, it is either evolution or biblical story of Genesis. This ignores the fact that half the world does not believe in that story, and that there are as many creation stories as there are have been ancient cultures in this world. To those who say that children should learn “both sides of the story”, which creationism stories should we teach? Or do you only want your creation story to be taught. For some religions like the Dharmic religions of South Asia, or for animism and many others, evolution lines up even better when you consider reincarnation. For many philosophies Hinduism or Buddhism, the human body means nothing. It is the soul that is reborn in various animals and ultimately achieves a release from the cycle of rebirth. And Hinduism isn’t even a singular faith. One can find monotheism, polytheism, agnostism, and atheism within different aspects of Hinduism. Therefore, the idea that Genesis is the only other alternative to evolution seems to be hollow and intellectually dishonest. And I am not advocating other religions. My point is to show that there are countless beliefs and a lot of them have no contradiction or no opinion on creationism vs evolution. So why should we discard their views?

Finally, the idea what evolution is a “theory” so it shouldn’t be taken seriously, or that there are gaps in it are an illogical and flawed arguments. In scientific terms, “theory” is a hypothesis that has been repeatedly tested and withstood every test. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in all of science. No one ever complains about many other scientific theories that aren’t as strong as evolution. People jump into the latest fad about diet or beauty products with faux scientific principles and no one complains. Newton’s gravity breaks down as we approach the speed of light, but we still teach it in schools because for most practical purposes it works fine. Einstein’s relativity breaks down at the quantum level, but we still accept relativity because outside of the quantum level it works fine. And we have yet to fully understand quantum mechanics. From my perspective, the singular focus on evolution exists because it targets people’s faith/beliefs, not because of its scientific inadequacies. I have heard time and again support for creationism because of how “perfect” the human body is. But is it really? Besides our intelligence and our opposable thumbs, our body is hardly the best physical specimen. We are neither the strongest, nor the fastest. Our natural lifespan (before the onset of medicines and healthier diet and agriculture) is comparable or even lower compared to many other animals. And eyes aren’t the best, nor our sense of smelling or hearing. Our immune system cannot fight off emerging and zoonotic infections. Our brain hasn’t yet evolved for a long lifespan, therefore the cases of Alzheimer’s. Many of us have genetic predispositions for so many illnesses, including cancer. So how exactly is our body the “perfectly crafted specimen of a God”? We have vestigial organs like appendix which has lost its function through evolution, and which can actually cause life-threatening harm. The human body is imperfect, but it is constantly evolving and getting better.

Scientists (and me):

Scientists must also stop being arrogant when discussing creationism, evolution, or theology. People have the right to their beliefs. Many of us overstep our scientific boundaries and think religious people are stupid, or make blanket statements about beliefs that cannot be disproven by science. For example, whether there is a God or Gods/Goddesses or any supernatural being cannot be proven or disproven by science. If people want to believe in fairies and monsters, we must let them because it is their right. Science cannot quantify the supernatural; it must only stick to the natural world. Whether there is a supernatural world or not is the field of theologians and philosophers.

But on the same token, scientists must stick up for the natural world. Everything in our universe follows laws and order. Even the disorder of nature follows scientific laws. There are no miracles, but only probabilities. From everything we know about our universe, there are no supernatural phenomena in our natural universe. Scientists must stand up for the teaching of the natural world in our schools, and they must stand up against individual beliefs being taught in public schools or being passed off as science. For a scientist, evolution is the best theory of how human beings came to be. But a scientist cannot and should not answer why are we here or what is the meaning of life or what is there after life. And scientists must be humble to the fact that a new discovery tomorrow can disprove evolution. There is much to learn about evolution, just like any other topic in science. Just because we do not have the answer does not mean something is wrong. We are on the right track. If having all the answers was a requirement, then nothing could be taught in schools because science itself is evolving with new information and new understanding. But if evolution is wrong, will it prove creationism? No. Because it would bring me back to my original question – whose idea of creationism should we follow if evolution is wrong? And if evolution is wrong, we must teach in our schools whatever scientific theory replaces evolution.

Scientists must also understand that humans are a spiritual species. Our intelligence and self-awareness makes us ask questions that a study of the natural world will never be able to answer. For me personally, as a formerly religious and a currently spiritual person, this hasn’t been an easy journey. If someone truly believes in the Abrahamic religions’ story of Genesis, the question “if Adam and Eve are not real, then…” can be a very tough one. It certainly is an extremely scary thought, because it goes to the foundations of these religions. And I do not have an answer to give others for such deep and personal questions. I didn’t grow up in an Abrahamic faith, but I have faced my own share of questions in the last 10-12 years. It has been a torturous journey, from being quite religious to finally coming to terms that religion and science cannot be compatible. For the simple fact that every religion is different from another religion, and picking and choosing parts from one religion and not from another to make it compatible with evolving scientific theories is too intellectually dishonest for me. 10 years later I still do not know what is true; all I am sure of is what is not true. I am slightly less peaceful than before, but I am definitely happier than before. I might not know the answers to our existence, but at least I feel I am no longer self-righteous and stubborn about my theological beliefs. Every person has gone through or will most likely go through these questions. And scientists must respect these philosophical and spiritual journeys. When it comes to evolution, I have come across six reactions – 1. Completely reject evolution; 2. Accept microevolution but reject random macroevolution and instead believe in intelligent design; 3. Accept evolution of other species but not in humans; 4. Rather than taking Adam and Eve literally, try to find the meaning of their existence in the earliest of humans;  5. Call one self somewhat religious but not take Scripture literally and accept that it is written by men; 6. Accept science, reject religion and/or its doctrines. And I think nearly everyone falls in one of those six categories. And I am quite sure most think their category is the Right or True one.

This essay won’t change anyone’s mind. But I hope it makes some people think. And hopefully a few of that subgroup will allow their children to accept what is taught in a public school science classroom, rather than tell these kids that science is wrong. That is how change takes place. As far as the future goes, I am confident evolution will be accepted the way heliocentrism has been and many other issues. Without wanting to bring more controversy to this topic, there have been many “self-evident” beliefs and actions, practiced for centuries, that are no longer considered true. Religions have ‘re-interpreted’ many former beliefs to ‘evolve’ with changing times. I am confident evolution will reach that stage very soon. The foundation of modern biology is built on evolution. And for a society to progress, it cannot treat scientific theories as a choice. By the middle of this century I can foresee evolution being accepted in even the most conservative societies of today. In modern biology and medicine, nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Benevolent Sexism

There have been enough debates and writings about patriarchy over the course of human civilization. So is there anything new that I can add to this debate? I doubt it. But I am going to try and show how patriarchy has led to benevolent sexism, and how it is as likely to prevent female empowerment as overt sexism. There is no better way than to give personal examples from the world I live in.

I will start off by making a confession – I was a benevolent sexist till my early 20s. It wasn’t until a friend finally told me “Dude, stop trying to make me feel helpless. Let me feel the self-respect of accomplishing something by myself.” Not only did I realize my mistake, but it started the process of understanding benevolent sexism. It appears to be beneficial to women, but it actually makes them feel helpless. Chivalry, although it has acquired a romantic notion, was a form of benevolent sexism. Women were considered weak and they needed to be protected by men. They needed to be saved by their knight in a shining armor. A single woman wasn’t expected to take care of herself. A woman was incapable of doing something and so should be helped. These were the notions of chivalry, notions that our patriarchal society has continued in a benevolent form of sexism.

We are being sexists when we say women should not be able to do something because they are emotional. When we put women on a “lady-like” pedestal and tell them what a “lady” should or shouldn’t do, we take away their choices. A tough woman working in the fields was never considered a “lady”. It is the woman who was taken care of by a man who was a “lady”. When we say a good woman is a good wife and a good mother, we take away their choices. And “good wife” has hardly ever meant as an equal partner, it has always meant as an obedient wife. And not every woman wants to be a mother, nor are all women good mothers. Isn’t our society littered with troubled adults because they had horrible mothers (and fathers)? Yet we have many societies that look down upon women who do not want to marry or do not want to have kids. Unlike overt and hostile sexism, many of us give in to benevolent sexism unknowingly. I certainly have been guilty of it and I still have work to do on it.

Recently I experienced something that once again opened my eyes. A young girl was carrying a few bags and I instinctively offered to carry some of her bags. She replied, “no, I got it. I am an independent girl”. I was actually impressed by her. This story can be spun in two ways. I might have made an innocent offer to help her and she turned it down rudely. But I also had to think, would I have made that instinctive offer if it were a male carrying a few bags. Or did I make it because I wanted to help a girl. It certainly wasn’t an inconvenience for her. But I thought it might be. Offering help to someone isn’t bad. In other examples, I hold the door open for everyone. But I can also see why specifically doing extra for women can make them feel as if we are treating them as helpless adults. It exists in cultures when we say that women shouldn’t have to work outside. It exists when we say they shouldn’t be doing tough jobs. In the end, benevolent sexism treats women as weak and as people who need a man to be their protector.

So why does it seem to be popular in many places? Firstly, it has been instilled in us from childhood about the nature of women, which is weak and emotional and in need of protection. Secondly, women support benevolent sexism in places where hostile sexism is highly prevalent. In places where women are made to feel inferior and have much of their rights denied, benevolent sexism where they can be protected becomes more alluring.

Sexism harms both genders because it focuses on negative gender differences. I will be the first to admit that the two genders aren’t the same. When we average the 3.5 billion men and women on the planet, we do have many differences. But everyone does not fall within those generalizations. And sexist attitudes and gender roles affects those who do not follow those norms. That is why a woman who wants to focus on a career gets ostracized. Benevolent sexism is when a man who cannot support a large family all by himself is made to feel like a failure. It tells girls that they must give up career for husband and children. It tells boys that they must not show emotions. It calls assertive women as bossy, and sensitive men as weak. When we talk about weakness, we usually equate it with feminine traits and feminine body parts. When we want to talk of strength, we talk about “being a man” or some male body parts. This inherent attitude that women are weak and men are strong is what defines benevolent sexism. It doesn’t allow individuals to be themselves, but to follow norms established by society. And if we can’t be ourselves, how are we ever going to be happy?

And sexism, like anything else in life, is practiced by both genders. Hostile sexism is highly beneficial to men. They get to keep women below them and make the rules about what men and women cannot do. But benevolent sexism is also embraced by a lot of entitled women who feel they deserve a lot of benefits from men just because they are women. They might complain about overt sexism that curtails their rights, but they have no problem with the sexism that allows for men to provide for them or support them. While hostile sexism puts stress on women to fit in to an “ideal” female role, benevolent sexism puts stress on men to fit in to an “ideal” male role. Both attitudes curtail choices, freedom, and our individuality. “Women are supposed to…” is no different than “men are supposed to…” Maybe many do want to follow the norms and it is their choice. But when we make it societal expectations, we invade the space of individuals who do not want to or cannot follow those traditional roles. We will always have hypocrites who will want only what is good for them, while not offering the same to the other side, but we cannot have a society that determines what an individual must or must not do, and we certainly can’t have a society whose idea of the woman is “weak” in need of protection, and whose idea of the man is “strong” and as the protector. We certainly do not live in the jungles where men need to protect women from wild beasts.

For both genders to move forward, we must stop imposing gender norms, either overtly or benevolently. Each gender has its strengths and weaknesses, as does an individual. Let us complement each other as different genders and as individuals. Let us focus on our strengths. We cannot treat half of humanity as if it is weak and needs protection. Let us empower women as leaders, preachers, parent, workers, soldiers, doctors, teachers, and legislators. Let us do the same for men! To move forward, let us give the individual the freedom to be who they want to be, and the best they can be. Benevolent sexism favors neither gender. So let us put an end to the notions of such gender roles.