Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Religion and Self Control

For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It

John Tierney reports today in the Science section of the NYTimes findings by a psychologist that religious people demonstrate more self control that than the general population. Dr. Michael McCullough (of the University of Miami) and a fellow researcher have surveyed eighty years of research and found:

...As early as the 1920s, researchers found that students who spent more time in Sunday school did better at laboratory tests measuring their self-discipline. Subsequent studies showed that religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers, and that religiosity repeatedly correlated with higher self-control among adults. Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins...

Does that imply religious people have lower doctor bills and live longer. Not only that...but better teeth! Heh! There's more:

“...Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of the brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”

That points up the value of ritual. But what about 'spiritual' people, those with a sense of the Divine who are concerned with their relationship to it? How do they compare to more traditional 'religious' people?

...strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low...

So beings one's own guide, following your heart--so to speak, does not impart the benefits of a more pious outlook! Maybe "the self" is not the best thing to rely on when temptation looms?

“..Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors...”

John Tierney asks:

...Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion...But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not. Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy. Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church...

So, just going through the motions does not bring a pay-off. You have to internalize these issues, make them a part of yourself. Dr. McCullough concludes:

...Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages...”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Science and the New Admin

Extreme good news. President Elect Obama has made a number of appointments for cabinet and advisory positions who are scientists. From the "Science Debate 2008" org's mailing:

...A few days ago we told you about the appointment of Steven Chu as Energy Secretary.

Today we have two more outstanding appointments to announce:

1. We have learned that John Holdren will be President Obama's Science Advisor. John has an excellent knowledge of science policy, and a deep understanding of how the public needs the government to engage on science policy issues. He is a recent past president of the AAAS and an early and ardent Science Debate 2008 supporter. You can watch a 1-minute video he did for us last February, promoting a primary science debate at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

2. Jane Lubchenco, we're told, will head up President Obama's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admninistration (NOAA). She is an outstanding choice with a deep background in marine biology. Jane is also a past AAAS president, and also an early supporter of Science Debate 2008. When we issued candidate invitations to an Oregon debate, Jane was a close advisor. Here's a 1-minute video of her.

Just think of it! An actual marine biologist in charge of NOAA! What a stark contrast to the previous admin that reveled in appointing unqualified lackeys who demonstrated nothing but contempt for the departments they were suppose to be in charge of.

From another mailing:

...we would like to congratulate Science Debate 2008 supporters Harold Varmus and Eric Lander on being named co-chars of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A 1989 Nobel laureate in medicine, Dr Varmus is former director of NIH and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and has been one of our closest and strongest advocates throughout the last year - we are very pleased and proud of his appointment. Also an early supporter of Science debate 2008, Dr Lander is the Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; the first author of the Human Genome Project, and one of TIME's 100 most influential people of our time (2004)...


Monday, December 15, 2008

Bee santuary established

Bee-friendly garden, pollinator paradise, planned at UC Davis

How cool is this:

...Häagen-Dazs has announced that it is making a $125,000 donation to the UC Davis Department of Entomology to launch a nationwide design competition to create a one-half acre Honey Bee Haven garden at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis....The garden will include a seasonal variety of blooming plants that will provide a year-round food source for honey bees. It is intended to be a living laboratory supporting research into the nutritional needs and natural feeding behaviors of honey bees and other insect pollinators...

If you are interested in donating to the project directly, go here. If you want to find our more about the UC Davis project, check out the entomology dept's website.

Häagen-Dazs has committed to donating $250,000 to bee research. You can check out the company sponsored educational website HelpTheHoneyBees. They've introduced a new flavor "Vanilla Honey Bee".

I could not find "Vanilla Honey Bee" when I went shopping tonight. But I picked up a pint of 'Rum Raisin' and 'Vanilla Bean'. Thanx, Häagen-Dazs.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Going to Babylon

Beyond Babylon

This weekend I'm visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a number of our Coven members. I'm particularly excited about the "Beyond Babylon" exhibit. There was a good review of it in the NYTimes entitled "Global Exchange, Early Version". From the article, something I'm really looking forward to seeing:

"...a ceramic goddess with wings and talons for feet is an exuberant arrival from cultural sources unknown...Referred to by archaeologists as “The Queen of the Night,” she is so hybrid a creation that she was at one time labeled a fake. She is now considered authentic, but authentically what is the question..."

A good portion of the exhibit focus on the remarkable artifacts recovered from a ship wreck:

...For a truly cornucopian example of multiculturalism, though, nothing matches the contents of the Late Bronze Age merchant ship recovered from the sea off the southern coast of Turkey...it probably sank around 1300 B.C., packed with cargo representing a dozen cultures, from Nubia to the Balkans...Although the ship’s home port is unknown, it appears to have traveled a circular route through the Mediterranean and Aegean, stopping in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, picking up and unloading as it went. Bulk materials included copper ingots, Cypriot pottery, African wood and Near Eastern textiles, all for waiting markets...Divers also found luxury items, possibly personal possessions of the ship’s crew and passengers. Examples of ivory containers in the form of ducks have parallels with Egyptian prototypes, but were probably made in Mediterranean Asia. The two sources merge in a figure found in a tomb: a nude female swimmer with a chic, Nile-style pageboy who is hitching a ride behind an ivory-headed bird...

Follow the link for the NYTimes article for a pic of the swimmer and her bird friend.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Witch Well

A Hole in the Ground Erupts, to Estonia’s Delight

Estonia is noted for it's sink holes, some of which exhibit mysterious behavior:

...The famed Witch’s Well of Tuhala erupted last week for the first time in three years, attracting pilgrims from all over Estonia...the visitors dangled pendants to test energy fields and held arthritic fingers perfectly motionless over stones...

I was not aware of the rich Pagan polytheism of old Estonia. Like many Pagan cultures, monotheism was not to kind:

...Estonia has been bullied into a series of belief systems over the centuries, from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy and Soviet atheism. Seventeen years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia is one of the world’s most secular nations; in the 2000 census, only 29 percent of its citizens declared themselves followers of a particular faith. That does not mean they are atheists. Craving an authentic national faith, Estonians have been drawn to the animistic religions that preceded Christianity...

Ellue Rouk, a 69 year old believer in the old ways, considers herself deeply involved in the natural word:

...Her special ally is a birch tree in her yard, so powerful that a malicious neighbor has plotted to kill it, she said. When she cuts roses and sets them in a vase, she said, they sprout roots. These dramas, she said, are an “inheritance” from her ancestors. “There is an old Estonian god, Taara,” Ms. Rouk said. “He lives. He exists. Though there are people who would like to get rid of him...”

"Taarausk" was a God worshiped in forests. Here's my favorite bit from the article:

“...Christians,” she added, “have no respect for nature.”

A very wise woman, that Ellue Rouk.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Holiday Wars

Missing atheist sign found in Washington state

I've been trying to avoid commenting on this, but it's getting wide coverage. The "Freedom from Religion Foundation" took it upon itself to have a sign posted near a nativity scene in Washington State. The sign reads:

"At this season of The Winter Solstice, may reason prevail..."

Sounds good to me, but then:

"There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world..."

Well, that seems a little tasteless to be hung near a nativity scene. And I could quival about semantics. But I have to come down on the side of 'free speech' in this case. But then the brilliant minds at the Freedom From Religion Foundation have to end their Holiday message so:

"...Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Well, Merry Christmas and Happy Yule everybody! What a cheery message from the so- called 'brights'. I don't find religious themed holiday displays offensive at all. I wish those sick individuals who choose this time of year to pick silly fights and war with symbols would just get a life.

What really bothers me is this statement from the head of the FFRF:

"...It's not that we are trying to coerce anyone; in a way our sign is a signal of protest," Barker said. "If there can be a Nativity scene saying that we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus, we should be at the table to share our views."

Will someone explain to me how a Nativity scene is "saying" we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus? I certainly have bones to pick with many Christians and monotheists and their attitudes. But heck, when I see a Nativity Scene, all I see is Isis, Osiris, and the little baby Horus! Heh! A while ago, a local politician contacted our coven wanting to know if we were interested in protesting a local Nativity scene that was set up on semi-public property. We thought about this long and hard, and decide it was not worth it. I really don't think plopping a Pentacle down next to someone's religious display does anything for our cause.

I was an Atheist for many years. It was a good safe place to be. But I wish the current crop of 'NeoAtheists', 'Brights' (Grrr!) or whatever they are calling themselves would find some other ways to generate publicity. I wonder if feeding the hungry, helping animals and the environment, and some old fashioned community service ever crossed their minds. You'd think so, as they claim 'reason' is on their side.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

More Enchantments

Secrets Only Your Witch Would Know

The NYTimes seems to have a 'thing' for the shop 'Enchantments' in the East Village, as they've written positively about it before. This article explores the fact that Wiccan/Pagan themed shops seem somewhat immune to the effects of our economic downturn. I don't know if I totally agree with that, yet it raises some interesting issues. But the only thing I'll quote from it is a joke:

...How many thelemites does it take to screw in a light bulb? None! Because Aleister Crowley never left instructions...”


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Harm None: phasers on 'stun'

Wicca Experts Encourage Christians to Engage America's 'Fastest-Growing' Religion

This is just another fluff piece about the snow-job entitled "Generation Hex", a book that purports to teach Christian how to interact with Wiccans/Pagans. It's off topic for my blog, and it's been covered before very well (here, for example), but I'm in the mood to rant a bit.

Now get this:

...The authors urged for more engagement from the Christian community, and more long-term engagement at that...

Yum, that sounds so warm and fluffy.

...Burroughs said the number one complaint they received from Wiccans about Christians was that they would befriend them but later desert them if they did not convert in a short period time...

Oh pooh! You don't say! You mean you're upset that I pegged your friendship as nothing more than proselytizing?

...To change this perspective, we must decide to love Wiccans whether they ever become Christians or not...

My bad. There's certainly nothing wrong in teaching us all to love one another, no matter our beliefs. Bravo! It was really stupid of me to think that the only reason you'd give me the time of day was to get in good with God.

...Only this long-term approach will work with many Wiccans.”


...Alupoaicei also advised Christians to simply take the time to listen to Wiccans instead of starting out using terms that might alienate the person or keep him or her from sharing his or her story...

Ah, that's it, get us all touchy feely.

“...Many Wiccans/pagans had a specific triggering experience that caused them to turn toward Wicca or paganism..

Yup, establish a rapport.

...You could ask, ‘What led you to embrace Wicca? What do you like about it?’ and use that as a steppingstone to talk about your own faith...

Then the minute they go weak in the knees, chop'em to ribbons with pearls of wisdom from the Bible!

“...Most people love to talk about themselves,” she added. “Why not ask them to share a bit about themselves with you?”

Great, I'm glad they tipped us off as to what to watch out for. Basically it means our Christian friends are not really our friends, they just want to take a real long time to convert us and absorb us Landru-like into the body of Christ. So, when peppered with such questions from some bar-fly Crusader, have some snappy responses handy:

1)"I decided Paganism was for me the first time I tasted human flesh"
2)"Talk about myself? I'd rather be playing with myself!"

Oh wait, I did something like this over here. I hope you find my suggestions inspiring, but it's always fun to think-up your own.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pagan Eye candy

Still of Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in the upcoming film "Agora", to be released December 18th.
(Original image here)

Monday Night Light show

Tonight, Monday Dec 1st, at sunset we should see an amazing 'great conjunction', of the crescent Moon, Venus, and Jupiter. Sadly, as this conjunction has been forming over the last few weeks, we've been hit with some bad weather here in the Northeast (I've only gotten a good look at Venus and Jupiter 3x in the last two weeks). Hopefully it will be clear tonight.

From SpaceWeather.com:

...When the sun goes down tonight, step outside and look south. Beaming through the twilight is one of the prettiest things you'll ever see--a tight three-way conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon. The event is visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities. People in New York and Hong Kong will see it just as clearly as astronomers watching from remote mountaintops. Only cloudy weather or a midnight sun (sorry Antarctica!) can spoil the show...The great conjunction offers something extra to Europeans. For more than an hour on Monday evening, the crescent Moon will actually eclipse Venus. Astronomers call such an event a "lunar occultation." Venus emerging from the dark edge of the Moon is a remarkably beautiful sight. Sky watchers across Europe will be able to see this happen...

Changing Museum Policies

How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?

I've blogged before about the repatriation of pilfered artifacts . Today there's an Opinion piece in NYTimes by Sharon Waxman, who is the author of “Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.”. It seems the new director of the MET (Thomas Campbell) has the opportunity (according to Sharon Waxman) to set a new course when dealing with artifacts of dubious origin. New guidelines are being issued by and association of museums:

...This past summer, the association finally issued new guidelines, which recognize that buying unprovenanced antiquities encourages their illicit trade and recommend that its members purchase only antiquities that can be proven to have been legally exported after 1970, or else removed from their country of origin before that date. (It was in 1970 that Unesco adopted an international convention barring the illegal export and transfer of cultural property....

Sharon Waxman continues:

...The Metropolitan needs to come clean about its past of appropriation of ancient art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it needs to tell a much fuller story about its more recent role in purchasing looted and smuggled antiquities...

She feels the new director of the MET, Thomas Campbell, can:

...inaugurate a new era of transparency for all museums, and to recalibrate the Met’s relations with countries that feel aggrieved...By publicly acknowledging the controversial or otherwise dubious histories of some artifacts and by making the recent past as much a part of the artifacts’ stories as the ancient past, Mr. Campbell can set an example for all museums and build new bridges of respect and cooperation...Transparency may not end every demand for repatriation. But it will disarm those critics in source countries who know — but rarely acknowledge — that regardless of past transgressions, their treasures may be safer, better preserved and more widely adored in the world’s great museums like the Met...