SNR Episode 20 - Reality Needs a Bit Crazy
CBC "Quirks & Quarks" podcast summary for the 24th of April 2010
The Calorie Restriction Society
Articles about the possible health benefits of spirituality/religion. Please be aware that I haven't examined the sources of the data quoted in these links, and really haven't made up my mind whether or not I agree with them.
And just a few of the voices who disagreed:
Hello, and welcome to episode twenty of The Naked Soul. I'm Heather Gout and yes, I did say episode twenty! I don't know how podcasters normally celebrate these milestones – I thought about buying myself flowers, but it might be better to spend the money on a new microphone! What I must do is say a big thank you to my listening audience – do you realise how many of you there now are? I checked my statistics on Podbean.com and found that I have 204 subscribers – 204! Where did you all come from? Thank you very much! I've got to say it's heartening to have that number in my mind now, as I talk into my faithful old microphone. Also a little intimidating – I have sixteen minutes to say something reasonably worthwhile or else two hundred and four people might go looking for something better to do.
So here goes. Did you ever let yourself imagine you'd won a lottery prize, and I mean a very big lottery prize? And then you have to imagine how you will spend the money. And while there will be so many things one could buy, I bet most people make initial decisions to change the whole shape of their life by paying off mortgages and other debts, quitting their job, providing money for family or friends or even moving away. I was saying in the last episode how political and social freedoms came gradually, as personal wealth increased. Money doesn't eliminate problems, but it does broaden the choice of solutions while at the same time offering a certain amount of pleasant distraction.
A lack of money, by contrast, not only limits options but leaves people kind of stuck, with little else to do but stare their situation in the face. Right now, as the global recession weighs down on various economies, I bet a lot of people feel trapped, chained, cornered. My husband has worked for the same firm over twenty years. It's been in receivership once and a few weeks ago it went back into the hands of liquidators. And while there was a certain challenge, in the beginning, to try and live frugally, if it carries on for too long the novelty will wear off and we'll probably get tired of having to say no to anything but the smallest indulgences. It will be difficult to socialise because we'll probably have to politely sit through conversations in which other people discuss their holiday plans, their home renovations, the clothes they recently bought, where they went out to eat last weekend. If anyone else is out of work they'll know the feeling. It's like being a zoo animal. Every day you look out of your cage to see all these unfettered creatures standing on the other side of the bars. But they don't stay. They have a much wider world open to them so eventually they leave, while you remain, day after day, in your small, dull enclosure.
Sorry I can't be more cheerful. I'm not for a moment claiming that being out of work in the West is anything like real poverty. It's not like living in a shack made out of other people's rubbish, or begging for food, or even sleeping rough in just about any city you'd care to name. It is better than that. So I'm not suggesting that all economic despair is equal; it definitely comes in different strength formulas.
It's the side effects that interest me. Like a few weeks ago, when I woke up at about half past two Saturday morning and could not get back to sleep. I got out of bed and sat down on our living room sofa. I didn't bother to turn on any lights. I just sat alone in the dark because it seemed an appropriate setting, and I tried wrestling against this feeling of being stuck, this feeling of having limited options. It was probably not helped by the fact that I'd done a tarot reading and drawn the Three of Wands with the picture on the card upside down. Now the Three of Wands when the image is right side up can signify a decision taken forward into action, so the reverse might mean a number of things – don't carry out that decision, or the future isn't going to change soon, or it's uncertain, or there's no point in starting something new, best to make do with things as they are. I may have said it before, but I don't use the cards for fortune-telling, and in any case I wouldn't have needed to, because it was perfectly possible to apply the various interpretations of this card to the present, and a fair bit of the past.
And there came a point where I suppose I got tired of the stuck feeling. I'd been wracking my brains thinking who might be able to help, who could I talk to, and wasn't coming up with any answers. But I was definite that I wanted to talk, that talking might help. And so I did just start speaking. Of course it felt like praying, which I hadn't done for over a decade, and that did feel stupid. I was constructing my sentences as if I had an audience when I wasn't sure that I did.
And because I behaved as if I had an audience, I felt it was important to make it clear that I wasn't completely sunk in self-pity. So I was contrasting my own situation with the circumstances of people in Haiti and Chile because of the recent earthquakes. I wondered how many people were sheltering in tents or on open ground, lying awake in the dead of night like me and trying to make sense of it all. I wondered how many of them were managing to scrape together enough meaning to keep going.
Meaning, that's the thing. It's not how bad the circumstances are so much as whether from them or from something one can acquire meaning. Meaning can make the worst things bearable. How much meaning? Religion can provide a complete meaning package, depending on the one you choose. I think more moderate forms of faith leave some issues unexplained, expect you to shoulder some meaninglessness. That's the attraction of certainty and dogma – you don't have to do meaninglessness. Not at all. Everything has an answer and if it doesn't appear that way then usually it's a matter of waiting. Now whether people choose religion because they can't handle meaninglessness or whether its because their personal situation needs to be mitigated with more meaning – that's an interesting question. It did strike me that two of our best known New Atheists -- Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, are both Oxford University graduates whose professional lives seem to have taken them where they wanted to go. And so I was speculating – if you are getting what you want from life, or if you have what would conventionally be called success, will you have less need for meaning?
Now I do also know about lesser mortals who are capable of living without religion to provide meaning. When I think about them, it seems to me they have found sources of meaning quite apart from success as we traditionally think of it. Sometimes they are doing work that means a lot to them. It doesn't pay well, and it's doubtful they will ever be famous, but it satisfies them, it fits their personality. Or if the job isn't so good, they invest meaning in the well-being of their closest relationships.
But even those things can go wrong. And when circumstances are particularly difficult some of these people I know may lapse, if that's the right word. I'm pretty sure most atheists would call it lapsing—when otherwise nonreligious people choose behaviours that have been trademarks of religion. And I am talking about irrational things like speaking to an empty room at half past two in the morning, or contemplating the symbolism of a tarot card, considering a dream, maybe keeping a talisman or totem object or security blanket if you want a more benign term.
And part of me feels guilty when I turn to these things, which is why I use the word lapsing. Perhaps I can't shake off a prejudice, that a person really should be totally rational or they should beat themselves up for their irrationality. And yet I'm convinced we can't be 100% rational, that I'm sure some neuroscientist or even a good marketing consultant would insist that humans don't do and shouldn't do total, perfect rationality.
So,...does a reduced sense of meaning lead to more irrationality? I should say that not all forms of irrationality are religious behaviours. When life gets ugly, alcohol and food and drugs and sex seem to have served as effective ways of soothing a mind that is oppressed by reality. Maybe you could call that the materialist option! It's funny, when you think about it that way. Religions will tend to attack the materialist option, rant about all these people who take chemicals and eat too much and have sex with too many people. Meanwhile, arch-skeptics like, say - James Randi, focus their derision on the irrational things people do that look religious. Both sides issue dire warnings about the dangers of the form of irrationality they condemn. But are they both missing the point? Do we need to engage in some form of irrationality, regardless of consequences, in order to cope with having less meaning to life than we would prefer?
Because if we do, then the choice is not whether to be rational or irrational but to decide which consequences of irrationality we are prepared to accept. The materialist option usually has material consequences, if you don't worry much about your diet and lifestyle you become one of those statistically at risk individuals that health authorities warn us about. Actually, if you feel that is your kind of irrationality, then I'd love to hear your comments about the theory of calorie restriction. I was listening to CBC's science podcast, “Quirks and Quarks”, to the episode dated 24th April, in which they looked at the experiments that have been done on animals in which their lifespans have been extended by putting them on a calorie restricted diet. I will, of course, put links on my website at snrpodcast.livejournal.com so you can read about the findings yourself. The data does seem to indicate that humans would benefit from a controlled diet too. And yet, I wonder how many people listened just like me and thought, would it be worth living longer if I virtually had to give up so many foods I enjoyed?
On the other hand, choosing a religious form of irrationality is rumoured to have health benefits. That could be the subject of a podcast in itself, because if you browse the internet, there's a serious debate going on about whether this is true or not. For the sake of argument, let's say religion does make you physically healthier. The consequences of choosing to be irrational via religion might be more social – that is, the people who prefer materialist forms of irrationality might want to avoid your company. But would you mind so much? And even if religion did nothing positive for your physical health, but it made you feel that you were doing something good for yourself, wouldn't that be much the same as living it up with food and wine and women and who knows what else?
Be truthful, the only time it might be said we universally disapprove of irrational behaviour is when it goes to extremes. So drug overdoses and addictions that shut down all other interest in life and sexually transmitted diseases – we're not thrilled about those consequences, any of us. We don't like to see someone deprive themselves of pleasure in the pursuit of some harsh religious asceticism, or worse, think it better to give up their lives for the promise of something better after death. We don't like to see people cowed by religious authority and abused. These are situations where irrationality is monopolising our mental space, and only a totally irrational person would be happy with that.
But I just don't think we could eliminate it from our behaviour, in spite the risks. There is one difference, however, between the material options for irrationality and religion. So often, religion doesn’t recognise itself as a form of irrationality. This makes it even more irrational, in the case where a dogmatic believer will not only think they are rational but more rational than anyone who doesn’t agree with them. I wish I knew how to move someone’s head out of that space. There are liberal religious traditions which take themselves less seriously but they just don’t seem to attract people in difficult times. It’s certainty and fundamentalism that get the crowds in when people are in crisis. We can howl and fret about this but it’s about as much use as fretting about alcohol abuse. No matter how much we don’t like it, and no matter how obviously damaging it is, it’s doubtful we can ever make it go away.
Now there's a thought. While we're on the subject of drink, what if we took Christopher Hitchen's famous catchphrase, 'religion poisons everthing', and substituted the word 'alcohol' for religion. 'Alcohol poisons everything' - discuss. If you've read the book, you'll know that Hitchens devoted an entire chapter of “God is Not Great” to elaborate on the historic transgression of religion. Could a debating society make a strong case, going back as many centuries as civilisation has existed, that alcohol has also been the catalyst for many evil actions, the cause of so much human suffering? You've got to consider that. A lot of people would advocate the banning of religion. Would they also be willing to ban alcohol? I mean, we've tried that to a limited degree and it hasn't worked. Or would they resort to that counter argument, that it isn’t booze itself which is the problem, but its misuse. But how does one prevent misuse, whether its abuse of a substance or abuse of an idea? Or could we ever come to a point where we are all self-aware and accept our need for a little irrationality now and again, and maybe that awareness makes us less likely to go to extremes?
It’s either that, or we need to be guaranteed the kind of life that is so satisfying and secure that we wouldn't dream of seeking relief in anything irrational. In short, we all need to win the lottery! On that highly improbable note, I'll end this episode and hope you'll join me again next time.