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Atheists are quick to attack the basis for the claim that, in general, religious people are happier and healthier than nonbelievers.  But that hypothesis supports the core of what the Alliance for Positive Thought advocates.  We believe that religion has concrete benefits, but also unacceptable failures. 

Myth and faith are unacceptable to skeptical, scientific minds.  But that doesn't require us to attack all benefits of religion.  APT seeks to replicate the health benefits of religion by analyzing and emulating its practices, while surgically removing anything resembling the supernatural.

Independent, scientific evidence supports the claim that religion has tangible benefits.  Rather than attempting to deny them, skeptics should wholeheartedly embrace the pursuit of alternative ways to arrive at these positive phenomena.

The following is a brief introduction to the vast body of scientific support for the following three claims:

  1. Religion promotes health and happiness.
  2. Such benefits are not unique to theistic practice.
  3. Exclusively theistic practices (that cannot be secularly replicated) DO NOT have these benefits.

Religion promotes health and happiness.

Religious People Are Generally Healthier

National Institute of Health (various studies support link between religion and health and happiness)

Churchgoers Live Longer

Religious People Live Longer than Nonbelievers

Is God an Anti-Depressant?  Studies Show That Religious People Are Happier

Church-going Kids Have Better GPAs

Transcendent Meditation Has Positive Effect on Blood Pressure

Religion Promotes Happiness

More Young People Who Think Spirituality is Important are Happy

More Frequent Daily Spiritual Experience Correlates With Less Psychopathology, More Close Friendships, and Better Self-rated Health

Benefits can be achieved without theism.

Study: Optimists Live Longer

When We Do Good, We Feel Good

Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy As Good As Meditation

Music is a Viable Treatment for Depression, Insomnia, and Alzheimer’s Disease

Thought Patterns Can Lead to Mood Improvement

Social Ties Lead to Longer Lives

Uniquely theistic practices are not beneficial.

Prayer Does Not Help Heart Bypass Patients

Religious Belief Does Not Correlate With Positive Mental Health Outcomes But Religious Practice Does


Some Haiti survivors believe that they were chosen by God to survive the tragedy.  It's a common mistake.  Those who survive any treacherous circumstance feel lucky, even though someone has to survive.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Drumbeats called the faithful to a Sunday Mass praising God amid a scene resembling the Apocalypse - a collapsed cathedral in a city cloaked with the smell of death, where aid is slow to reach survivors and rescue crews battle to pry an ever-smaller number of the living from the ruins.

Sunlight streamed through what little was left of blown-out stained windows as the Rev. Eric Toussaint preached to a small crowd of survivors. A rotting body lay in its main entrance.

"Why give thanks to God? Because we are here," Toussaint said. "We say 'Thank you God.' What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now."

In a huge disaster in an area densely packed with people, it is extremely likely that some people will be in the areas that happen to remain structurally sound.  They aren't blessed, they aren't lucky: someone had to be there, and it happened to be them.  The lucky ones who happen to be under a support that survives the tumble will be amazed at their incredible good fortune.

But when you are the one who experiences this “luck” it is overwhelmingly difficult separate one's subjective experience of the world from this objective analysis.  When a terribly tragedy befalls us, our instinct is to call foul believe an injustice has occurred.  Similarly, when we are fortunate beyond our wildest dreams, we must be “blessed.” My grandfather survived the holocaust by the barest of threads, and never understood that God need not have favored him in order for him to have experienced good fortune. Damage in downtown Port-au-PrinceMany died and many survived -- some just barely. His story happened to be one of the latter.

200,000 people may have died in Haiti.  But the capital, Port-au-Prince, where population was most dense in the earthquake's affected area, had a population over 700,000.  That means, yes, you were lucky if were among the survivors.  But you would be in the company of at least half a million other people.

If God had control over the entire situation, why would he callously exterminate the equivalent of a small city full of his children?  What father, however angry, could stomach such tragedy in his own family, let alone cause it?

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Even though the Alliance for Positive Thought questions the existence of the supernatural, we believe that there are some aspects of religion which are useful and desirable to incorporate into everyday life. Possibly the biggest benefits of organized religion are the social relationships and community it creates for participants.

People who belong to a religious faith often attend a worship service where they meet like minded individuals and have the opportunity to make friends. They often feel as though they belong to a community that they can trust, and therefore they have a high level of social capital (the potential energy of social relationships). That is, they have people they can count on for advice on health, employment, relationships, and life events.

These feelings of community are partially generated by participants’ perceptions of shared beliefs and norms. Members of a congregation know that they share moral values and have a sense of right and wrong. Membership and belonging is often perpetuated by the religious leader, and reinforced through actions of the congregation.

However where there is inclusion and relationship building there is also a risk of exclusion and naming those who are different as the “other.” To a religious person, the “other” is someone who does not share their morals. The “other” is someone who they cannot trust. What do these perceptions of the unworthy “other” reveal about the social relationship benefits that religion brings to its participants? Must there always be a boundary between those who are included in a community and excluded? Is it possible to maximize the benefits of social relationships without generating exclusive boundaries?



In my last post, I talked about the first part of my conversation with environmentalist Bill Hartnett, in which we talked about the definition of religion.  The broader discussion was about how religious belief and environmentally friendly lifestyles interact.

earthBill thought I was saying that the reason people make poor choices about the environment is because they are religious devotees.  He told me that I should stop using religion as a “scapegoat.” But really what we are trying to propose here is that religion is a very positive institution in many ways.  It has the power to change minds and motivate behavior.  We would like to duplicate those effects, but redirect that motivation towards more positive goals.

There are quite a few religious people who are environmentalists.  The Bible in fact exhorts followers to care for the land and the animals.

"You shall not pollute the land in which you live.... You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the Israelites." (Numbers 35:33-34)

But there are also religionists who have personally told me things like “We don’t need to worry about pollution because the rapture is coming.”   These people may or may not be in the minority, but the fact is that some sects and adherents believe that caretakership of the Earth is essential to being a good Christian (or Muslim or Jew, etc.)  Some believe that it really doesn’t matter because God will provide in the end.

So deistic religion is not our scapegoat.  It’s a just a lame duck – it’s ineffectual at motivating followers because there is another alternative, namely salvation by faith, and/or God’s magical cleanup power.  The religious need not worry too much because no matter how much we pollute here on Terra Firma, heaven will always be clean.  If you believe you can get into the Big Club in the Sky without cleaning up Earth-side, why bother?

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I ran into Bill Hartnett recently, an author and policy advisor in privatization and sustainable development.

I asked him about his thoughts on the most effective ways to ensure sustainable development, and he cited the motto “reduce, reuse & recycle,” but also stressed the importance of education and getting the message out.

“It’s hard sometimes to convince people to abandon a view that they are firmly committed to,” I said. “What we need is a highly contagious mind-virus.”

“A meme,” said Bill.

“Right. I believe that what we need is a secular alternative to religion.”Before I could go on, he interrupted:

“Well, when you say that, what do you mean by ‘religion’?”

“Well,” I said, “Religion means many things. One aspect includes a commitment to a deity or some supernaturalism.”

Quickly, he fired back:

“What do you mean by supernatural?”

“It means a commitment to a belief not grounded in a naturalistic method like the scientific method. Such a method requires us to be open to any data that might contradict our deeply held beliefs.”

I was right where he wanted me.

"But the Dalai Lama has said that we should question and reexamine even our most deeply held beliefs in light of scientific evidence.”

Bill was right, of course.

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Under the headline “Rise of Atheism,” AFP has recently reported on a British group that is selling “de-baptism” certificates.

More than 100,000 people have recently downloaded "certificates of de-baptism" from the Internet to renounce their Christian faith.

The initiative launched by a group called the National Secular Society (NSS) follows atheist campaigns here and elsewhere, including a controversial advert displayed on London buses which declared: "There's probably no God."

The response from Christian bloggers has been mostly laughter and puzzlement. Why, they ask, would an Atheist legitimize baptism by authoring a ritual to undo it? If it's meaningless, then an Atheist wouldn't care if they were baptized at a young age or not. Right?

One commenter argues that

The “debaptism” effort represents a certain breed of militant, confrontational atheism more concerned with vehemently disassociating themselves from Christianity than maintaining actual religious freedom.

On face, these objections seems reasonable. In fact, no Atheist believes that they are accomplishing any spiritual feat by purchasing a debaptism certificate. This is a publicity effort, it's true, but is not being done because atheists are militant. You don't have to be a violent anarchist to want to express your (dissenting) views.

Nonbelievers have just as much of a right to publicize their opposition to theistic views as the theists have to promulgate them. The societally acceptable reaction to the news that a Mormon is going on a missionary trip is to say something positive. Missionaries are a part of our history, and viewed by Christians as noble. But an atheist who offers a half-joking novelty item for sale on the internet is viewed as “militant.” Atheism is just not socially acceptable in much of the English-speaking world.

If atheists don't make their views known, and vigorously argue their case, they will lose the battle against religion. Theists have TV commercials, TV channels, missionaries, bestsellers, worldwide financial reach, political access. The truth is powerful on its own, but so far, religion seems to have the upper hand.

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Science fiction authors have been predicting for years the day when humanoid robots will roam the earth, and when mankind will be faced with a host of associated ethical issues. We still don't have C3PO, Data, The Terminator, Johnny 5 or Wall-E. But unlike the doomed flying car, scientists still believe that intelligent, man-made beings are in our future. Hans Moravec, chief scientist at Seegrid, a company that develops industrial robots capable of navigating on their own, believes that the fantastic robots of sci-fi will become reality within his lifetime.

The human retina is a patch of nervous tissue in the back of the eyeball half a millimeter thick and approximately two centimeters across. It consists mostly of light-sensing cells, but one tenth of a millimeter of its thickness is populated by image-processing circuitry that is capable of detecting edges (boundaries between light and dark) and motion for about a million tiny image regions. Each of these regions is associated with its own fiber in the optic nerve, and each performs about 10 detections of an edge or a motion each second. The results flow deeper into the brain along the associated fiber.

From long experience working on robot vision systems, I know that similar edge or motion detection, if performed by efficient software, requires the execution of at least 100 computer instructions. Therefore, to accomplish the retina’s 10 million detections per second would necessitate at least 1,000 MIPS.

The entire human brain is about 75,000 times heavier than the 0.02 gram of processing circuitry in the retina, which implies that it would take, in round numbers, 100 million MIPS (100 trillion instructions per second) to emulate the 1,500-gram human brain. Personal computers in 2008 are just about a match for the 0.1-gram brain of a guppy, but a typical PC would have to be at least 10,000 times more powerful to perform like a human brain.

Though dispiriting to artificial-intelligence experts, the huge deficit does not mean that the goal of a humanlike artificial brain is unreachable. Computer power for a given price doubled each year in the 1990s, after doubling every 18 months in the 1980s and every two years before that. Prior to 1990 this progress made possible a great decrease in the cost and size of robot-controlling computers. Cost went from many millions of dollars to a few thousand, and size went from room-filling to handheld. Power, meanwhile, held steady at about 1 MIPS. Since 1990 cost and size reductions have abated, but power has risen to about 10,000 MIPS for a home computer. At the present pace, only about 20 or 30 years will be needed to close the gap.

Of course, Mr. Moravec's logic is subject to argument. Scientists have long known that brain mass is not the best way to measure processing capability. Smaller people have smaller brains, and yet physical size is not a good predictor of intelligence. Whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth, and yet humans like to consider themselves the most intelligent species.

Nevertheless, his conclusion that the processing power threshold for an artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence will eventually be reached is unimpeachable. As long as humans survive and prosper, technological progress will continue, which will ultimately lead to the creation of artificial intelligence. The only question is when. His answer, like many others in the field, is soon.

That brings us to the question that concerns us here: will these robots need or want something like religion?

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I have argued that humans lack knowledge about the organization of time/space on distance scales greater than 300 million light years or so, and that this lack of knowledge means that agnosticism is necessary regarding higher intelligence, to the extent that “higher intelligence” means an entity who exists on incredibly large distance scales. But what kinds of things or entities could we imagine exist on these scales?

When we talk about quantum mechanics, we accept that there is a different physics on small scales. We call the physics that we observe in our day to day lives, the gravity that holds us down, and the mechanics of objects that we can observe “macro level” or “Newtonian” physics. Suppose we imagine that there is something on larger distance scales than what we can observe. Let’s call this the “supermacroscopic” level.

When I talk about supermacroscopic physics, I am talking about huge things, bigger than galaxies, and obviously, we don’t know what exists on those scales, if anything. I can just imagine hypothetical supermacroscopic beings laughing at our feeble attempts to pretend we understand something about them. Of course, I don’t believe that there are Gods laughing at me – this imaginary entity I have created in my brain is a metaphor for the lack of knowledge that I have.

What do we know about the supermacroscopic? Almost nothing. It is easier to list what we do know, because that is a very short list. We know that there is some physics operating there that we don’t understand, because we can measure the influence of dark energy.

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Research overwhelmingly supports the proposition that religion, in general, increases length and quality of life. In a forthcoming paper, McCullough and Willoughby attempt to fit an explanatory narrative to this well-established experimental result: that “self-control” is the trait promoted by religion that results in benefits in health and well-being. This paper is discussed in today’s New York Times Science Section. Unfortunately, the research cited by the authors of the paper is contradictory and does not support their conclusions.

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{jcomments on}Karl Giberson, in his recent book, “Saving Darwin,” argues that religion and evolution are compatible, contrary to popular belief. He was asked to comment on Carl Sagan's version of the wonder of the universe, a feeling of wonder which Einstein unfortunately referred to as “God.”

Shermer pushed on, asking Giberson to comment on the following definitional statement from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos:"

"For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins ... Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we sprung."

"What’s wrong with that?" Shermer asked Giberson, with a smile.

This kind of thinking is "hardly going to inspire ordinary people" to be passionate about spirituality, Giberson replied. "I just don’t think it would be a functional religion."

Of course, as Giberson himself notes in another interview, “Virtually all the leading spokespersons for science – the ones on bookstands and public television – are strongly antireligious.”

So his view is a minority view, but it is also the view that eventually will stand in the way of a secular religion. Eventually, we might presume, evolutionary theory will come to dominate the popular conception of the universe, as it now dominates the scientific community's conception of the universe. Heliocentrism eventually won out in the minds of the average person long after scientists could not refute it, and as long as evolution remains the scientific theory of choice, it will follow suit.

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