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It started almost immediately after Sandy Hook. The reliably shrill alt med ignoramus who hasn’t read about a conspiracy theory he didn’t immediately love, Mike Adams, penned a fiery screed accusing psychoactive drugs of creating mass murderers and using a seemingly long list of very grizzly events to support his point. Since he’s Alex Jones’ best buddy and fills in on the Coast to Coast radio show, the meme has spread like wildfire among conspiracy theorists, and even the pundits of World Net Daily — known as World Nut Daily for some very good reasons — are now spouting the dogma of antidepressants turning people into a homicidal frenzy, all so Big Pharma can profit from untested drugs while the government covers up the dark truth. Although that last part there could’ve been from the Sandy Hook Truther conspiracy. It’s kind of hard to keep all of the overlapping conspiracies straight sometimes, though it’s usually a safe bet that there’s some mention of the government covering up something for someone nefarious so the bigwigs of the New World Order can keep their sex slaves and appease their alien overlords.

Here’s the immediate problem with the psychoactive drug-induced mass murders theory. It fails the statistical significance test. Tens of millions of people have taken what’s known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to treat mild to severe depression, and social disorders like anxiety and OCD. Virtually all the brand names given by Adams and his friends and fans are from the same family of SSRIs, and we can safely ask why just a few dozen examples of a violent crime out of a population of tens of millions of patients mean that SSRIs turn people into crazed gunmen. After all, if your study population is, say, 20 million and your sample time period goes back decades, having some mass murderers, serial killers, and short tempered violent criminals is pretty much statistically inevitable. Plus, what about the other tens of millions of patients who didn’t commit any crimes? How can you argue for a causative effect between SSRIs and murder when the murderers are so few and far between as to be a tiny blip on the radar? And that’s not to mention that SSRIs don’t have any known side effects that increase one’s aggression.

In fact, patients on SSRIs with the most extreme side effects and conditions are likely to commit suicide, not homicide. A quick reading of the list presented by Adams and company mentions a number of suicides quite prominently, as well as changing the definition of mass murder to "any violent crime in which more then one person died," further weakening their own case. Yes, a lot of gunmen commit suicide after their massacres, true. But the problem is that it’s very difficult to make any definitive causative link between SSRIs and suicide. Considering that patients with an extreme case of depression may commit suicide in spite of the drug rather than because of it, as well as the fact that for patients with a history of abuse and trauma SSRIs might not really do all that much more than a placebo, the connection is very murky. While we can say that gunmen in the headlines today were taking SSRIs and other similar medications, we can make a stronger case that the medications failed to do their job than Adams can that their medication pushed all, or nearly all of them, them towards violence, because the former explanation better fits with the fact that tens of millions of SSRI-using patients aren’t violent, and the relevant scientific work.

So let’s review. Mass murdering gunmen on psychoactive drugs are few and far between even when the criteria for mass murder are loosened to include any crime in which two or more have been killed. The link between SSRIs and violence has been studied and shown not to exist. And while patients on SSRIs with a severe diagnosis are more likely to commit suicide, we could very easily make a sound case that suicides are the result of the medication failing to do its job, not driving someone to a suicidal state, much less to killing themselves after leaving a trail of victims in his wake. But none of this bothers the conspiracy theorists. To them, everything has to be a secret plot by those behind the scenes because this the only way they can imagine the world. If they allowed for random chaos to interfere or simplt incompetence to bring down economies and lose wars, why, the world would be an unpredictable place they couldn’t pretend to navigate like sages in the know observing a chess match. They would have to be ordinary shmoes just trying to make sense of events that all too often simply don’t make sense in the big picture…

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Here’s a fun fact for you. If you zap someone with a powerful enough magnetic field, you could change this person’s behavior and not always for the best. In fact, you could even zap someone into a state of cold, callous sociopathy if you know where to aim, at least for a short while. Yes, the effects do wear off, but it does seem perfectly plausible that the same effect could be easily harnessed and prolonged by a chemical cocktail and we’ve known that behavior can be altered with the right tools. So of course conspiracy theorists around the world were wondering if sinister military officers or politicians with little concern for their fellow humans would start injecting some people with a psychopath-killer-in-a-syringe serum and setting them loose on a battlefield to do unspeakable evil, acting as shock troops before or during an invasion. The answer is twofold. In theory, yes, they could. In practice, the results would vary widely and can easily backfire and we already have plenty of sociopaths available for building a small army of shock troops. Just ask the Pakistani ISI if you’re curious, and while you’re at it, ask how well it’s worked for them…

Basically, the issue here is that there are limits to which you can change someone’s behavior as well as for how long. In the article above, the subject feels less empathetic and inhibited, but his psychopathy only extends to taking more risks in a video game and pocketing an uncollected tip which he promptly pays back after returning to normal. His comparison point is a special forces soldier who had extensive training and whose skills were honed in real wars. This doesn’t tell us much because military training is a major variable that’s overlooked in such stories. How likely is our non-military test subject to injure or kill someone in a real fight? Probably not very, and here is why. If you ever take a martial arts class, you’ll spend the first few weeks apologizing if you do manage to land a punch on your sparring partner and the instructors will yell at you for going far too easy on your blows and tackles. You’ll shy away from jabs and your natural instinct will be to flinch or fall back when attacked, not to calmly stand your ground. Humans are social creatures and they tend to be averse to hurting each other in the vast majority of cases.

True, we can be induced into hurting others with money or threats, and we do know how to train someone not to shy away from fights and to overcome the natural aversion to real violence. But the experimental subject in question appears to have never had any combat training or martial arts background. He may be less averse to getting into a fight because his impulse control was radically lowered, but chances are that he’ll run for it if he picks a fight with someone who’s able to hold his own or when he realizes that he’s about to get hurt. Likewise, he’s unlikely to punch as hard or as accurately as someone who’s had some real training. All in all, he may be a major menace to unwatched tips in a bar and in Grand Theft Auto, but he’s most probably not a threat to flesh and blood humans. His former special forces friend? Absolutely, but he seems to have no need to be zapped into an emotionally detached state and has his impulses pretty well under control. On top of that, were we to just zap or drag a random person into a psychopathic malice, there’s simply no telling whether he would turn on his friends and handlers or not, a chance no evil, self-respecting mastermind of the New World Order would want to take.

And that brings us back to the very real problem of an abundance of psychopaths to do a dirty job for someone willing to pay. Just look at what happened in Afghanistan during and soon after the Soviet occupation. The mujahedeen trained to fight a guerilla war against the Red Army as well as become proxy shock troops for the ISI in a potential war with India, were not given drugs or magnetic bursts to the brain. They were recruited based on their religious convictions, trained to channel their loathing for the occupying infidels into violence, and let loose on Soviet troops. No artificial inducement or neural intervention was even needed. Today they quire regularly turn on their former handlers, kill people who displease them with near impunity and absolutely zero question or moral qualms, and have generally proved to be a far bigger threat and liability than an asymmetric military asset. Considering that real psychopaths are so dangerous, why create an entire army of them with experimental chemicals or magnetic beams? If indiscriminate murder is your goal, fully automated robots are the easiest way to go, not average people or soldiers just out of basic with their impulse control drugged and zapped out of existence…

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We’ve already seen the scope-severity paradox, the tendency of humans to lose track of the heinousness of a crime when the numbers of those affected by it are high enough, which explains why millions are outraged when a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain shoots and kills a harmless teenager in his zeal, while a continuing genocide in Sudan wasn’t mentioned in the news until Clooney’s arrest. Basically, when a million people are affected by systematic crime, we start tuning out because we can’t visualize the scale of what they experience and muster up the appropriate empathy. But when we can imagine how someone would feel in a situation we can readily understand, our empathy kicks in. So, asked a team of psychologists, what about the way we process and react to violence? Is there a point where we also tune out, even when we actually have to be violent? As it turns out, there is a point where we do abstract death and violence but it only happens when we don’t have to be directly involved and can harm by proxy, while simulating or contemplating a violent act in person seems to produce a very powerful physiological revulsion to the idea of harming a fellow human.

One of the most compelling simulations of violence in the research involves an experiment in which subjects discharged a real, but unloaded gun into a researcher’s face. As you can imagine, their stress levels went sky high during the ordeal because they obviously didn’t want to shoot the researcher or be responsible for some sort of accident in which they kill someone. In the less extreme scenarios, the subjects also showed intense physical discomfort to violence. In fact, the only way they felt more at ease with a violent action was when they were given tools to distance themselves form face to face violence. Their results were consistent with classic morality thought experiments which revolve around a scenario involving a runaway train and six people out of which one could be sacrificed so the other five can live. In a setup in which the sacrificial lamb was simply an innocent bystander who could be pushed in the way of the train to save five people, 90% of subjects found the pushing to be unacceptable, even with the lives of five others on the line. But when the sacrificial human was in an alternative path to which the subjects could divert a train with a lever, almost 95% of the subject found it morally palatable to pull the level and kill him to save the others. In both cases, the concept and outcome are the same. The only difference is a means to distance oneself from getting one’s hands bloody.

And as odd as it may seem, I think that these findings can mesh with a much darker experiment which found that we can be persuaded to harm each other for cash. You would think that harming someone for a bonus would be contrary to our supposedly nice nature, but the simulated shocks were performed remotely, viewed via a closed circuit TV, and encouraged by the researchers. Were the subjects in that study be told to shock a person right in front of them, it’s likely that the outcome would be very different. Were the subjects deciding on whether to sacrifice a bystander to a runaway train told that there’s money for them in doing so, or that they will actually be using a convicted child molester or a wanted serial killer as a makeshift brake to save five people, it would be a safe bet that far, far more people would find the sacrifice more than acceptable if not outright an inherently moral course of action. And what if this hypothetical person to be sacrificed is portrayed as being a very depressed, borderline suicidal drug addict or alcoholic who came to the tracks to think about ending it all that night? What kind of interesting results and discussions would that thought experiment produce? I’ll bet a great deal of data and subjects’ options that would make for every interesting reading and debate.

These studies are terrific starting points to flesh out the intermediate steps between mindless acts we could classify as good or evil, and abstract human cognition that shapes what we consider to be moral and we can go even further with them because the complex questions they raise and the similarities they have point to an encouragingly consistent set of conclusions. For example, in the mercenary study, subjects who watched the simulated victims twitch from their shocks backed off, just like the would-be saviors in the morality experiment refused to agree to push someone in front of a train if they had to do it themselves and watch a person die by their hand. Meanwhile, both showed their willingness to inflict more harm on others when they didn’t have any contact with their victims and had a convenient proxy nearby. Overall it seems that we are not inherently violent and have a physical resistance to harming others. But give us incentives or what we think are valid reasons to harm others and a proxy by which to do it, we’ll justify our actions while meting out misery and woe. Put us in a position where our power is unchecked and we can easily abuse it with dire consequences, and when we are in a position in which we must harm others under duress, we’ll comply far more than we would want to admit to ourselves, much less to others. This is why we often don’t care to think about studies into our morality…

See: Cushman, F., Gray, K., Gaffey, A., Mendes, W. (2012). Simulating murder: the aversion to harmful action. Emotion, 12 (1), 2-7 DOI: 10.1037/a0025071

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Here’s a very surprising bit of news that comes with both a positive note and an enigma. Crime rates are still falling across the world and no one seems to know exactly why or how it’s happening. Despite all the griping about today’s violent movies, video games, and plentiful, freely available pornography, replete with ever more dire warnings of porn addictions and video game-driven crime sprees by self-appointed morality crusaders, it seems that the world is really safer than ever. Oh and here’s another interesting twist. According to studies done around the world, neither harsh sentencing, long prison terms, nor executions really prevent or deter the average crime rate to any significant degree. Jails in the United States are overflowing so much so, there has been talk of virtual incarceration for some convicts instead of actual jail time, and yet, it has a higher crime rate than nations which have much, much smaller incarceration rates and abolished the death penalty. Here’s the bizarre but lucky paradox with which we’re faced. None of the things that should be driving crime upwards seem to be encouraging more criminal activity and none of the things that should deter crime seem to do the trick, and yet, crime rates are way down. So much for the gloomy predictions of amateur criminologists.

Now, none of this means that good law enforcement, a robust legal system, and jails don’t have any role here because they perform crucial jobs. However, there may be another factor at play which was introduced by very speculative social surveys. Rather than containing the violence we’re all capable of unleashing by the use of judicial implements such as jails and lethal injections, we’ve domesticated ourselves. By creating societies which emphasize working together and where violent behavior is extremely counter-productive, we slowly but surely tamed ourselves into settling disputes with courts rather than feuds and mediation rather than duels or blows in the public square. Likewise, today we can call the police when there’s a fight or a robbery rather than have to take matters into our own hands. Added up over countless incidents over many years, it may well add up to a major drop in violent crime rates because many incidents that would claim a life or end up in a violent altercation simply don’t escalate to that level. Meanwhile, of course, there are criminals and there are places where the law doesn’t reach or doesn’t want to reach which means that there will always be potential for there to have violent encounters or arguments than end up in injuries, deaths, and legal charges. We’re not turning our world into a non-violent utopia, but we’re growing and learning to avoid our violent nature.

So what about all the violent video game and porn -tube sites which supposedly flood our minds with anger, encouraging desensitization to blood and gore and subliminally priming the minds of young men for rape? It seems that the statistics disagree with the oft-repeated hyperbole about our entertainment choices. If the mix of sex and violence in the media really did prime people for aggression, how come we’re not seeing that as a flood of stabbings, robberies, thefts, and sexual assaults rising day by day? Because the would-be offenders are deterred by jail? We just saw that this isn’t the case. The only conclusion we can make form the available data is that whatever effect violent and pornographic imagery has, it doesn’t carry over into the real world on a meaningful scale. Considering the history of nearly all moral panics and their typical formulas of amateurish pseudoscience and breathless hyperbole, that’s not surprising in the least. After all, they’re based on taking a barely plausible idea which demonizes something self-selected moral crusaders happen to loath, cast it as the nefarious perverter of youth into sex-crazed, bloodthirsty fiends, then cherry picks legitimate studies to get a flimsy veneer of factual backing behind their pet cause, often throwing in their personal opinions while trying to present them as scientific facts. It seems we’re just too calm and domesticated to let something like a little simulated murder or mayhem turn us into armed criminals patrolling the streets for victims…

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Virtually every culture, sub-culture, and profession has it’s own method of posturing about how big and oh so very, very important you and your work are, basically, what’s known as a penis waiving contest. Just like male primates are thought to try to intimidate each other with their erections and do so to win mating rights, and as it would seem, female preferences places size limits on those erections, humans use their job titles, cars, and media mentions to boast about how successful they are to win access to more resources or positions of authority in their social group to the extent that we let them before calling them boastful or obnoxious. Pundits like to brag about how many shows they do on a weekly, if not daily basis. Lawyers proudly mention any high profile case on which they worked. Scientists have the impact factor of the journals and studies they publish and the more citations they have, the logic has been going, the better and more prestigious their work. So if a study finding a correlation between violent video games and violence is frequently brought up, well, it must be better than a more obscure one that did not and more valuable in a court case. Right? Actually, no. It isn’t.

One would think that trained scientists, who know that the true value of work is in the data, wouldn’t pay nearly as much attention to it as university quants who use impact factors to judge the worth of a scientific effort. I’m sure you’ll remember how many scientists complained about complicated experiments being reduced to just a couple of meaningless numbers during the tenure decision process, and how many physicists wrote brief rants about impact factors not being what they once used to be on my posts dissecting arXiv studies. So why would a pair of psychologists try to argue that because a legal brief with more popularly cited studies on the alleged link between violent video games and aggression is better than one with less known ones? It’s essentially an argumentum ad populum in academise. Could it be that the psychologists in question, Craig Anderson, Brad Bushman, and Deana Pollard Sacks, who always tend to find that video games and porn are evil and make people more aggressive, are trying to raise their profiles a bit with a few media mentions? The media loves to jump on a controversial topic and they certainly study a few of them. No problem there, but that doesn’t mean they can wave around a paper-thin conclusion as if they had some sort of scientific evidence of relevance to the case, which is exactly what they seem to be trying to do. Their argument boils down to this: in a legal brief arguing that violent video games cause aggression there are more people who published some sort of study in a peer reviewed journal than in the counter-brief, therefore, it’s a better argument.

Do I really even need to point out why this argument is flawed? Shouldn’t I just leave it at that and let this huge and glaring fallacy remain self-evident? We’re talking about 69 people who did a study on the video game and aggression link signing a document saying that video games can make people aggressive and managed to publish it in a top tier journal at some point in time. So because those 69 people were rounded up by a lawyer and signed his brief, that means there’s now a strong link between video games and violent behavior? Say, I seem to remember psychologists who published in respected journals signing on to the Satanic ritual abuse cases concocted by hoaxers to make money from Christian fundamentalists. And there were more than a paltry 69 of them signing just one legal brief. Does this fact mean that we were wrong and there’s now solid, empirical evidence of Satanic ritual abuse and its harm based on how many times papers on it were cited by others, even if it was to show the conclusions as erroneous? Yes, having your paper cited and then dissected actually ads to your impact factor the same way as having it cited as evidence for follow-up or similar work. An impact factor only tells us how much of a splash a paper made, and in the case our trio of psychologists has made, this only extends to the journals. We don’t even know how widely the papers themselves were cited in other scientific literature or in what context. We just know they published in a good journal.

We also can’t rule out the influence of lawyers themselves. One would think that a lawyer on the hunt for a few self-appointed experts in a controversial field is probably not going to solicit perfectly objective advice. He will find those who are willing to agree and ask their friends as well. Plus, a brief worded with enough conditions and qualifiers is easy to sign. Yes, sure, depending on the person’s mood, content of the game, lifestyle and upbringing, and how much Red Bull a player had, some aggression may persist after playing a violent game, fine. Does this now mean that video games make you aggressive and there’s now evidence that it’s harmful to all players? No. Studies on several dozen freshmen at a university and the signatures of 69 people who at some point studied the topic an iron-clad case does not make. And so what if people stay a little aggressive for a few hours if they play Grand Theft Auto or Halo? Rates of violent crime are down across the board, both adult and juvenile. So whatever aggressive feelings a few people might have in a lab or at home don’t exactly seem to be spilling out into the street. If the premise here was true, we’d expect to see spikes in violent crime with new editions of violent blockbusters. We don’t. So why do we insist on making a big deal out of it? To me it seems like just another case of old fogeism in action, coupled with a plea for media attention…

[ illustration by Olly Moss for Wired Magazine ]

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You’ve probably seen a few posts regarding Usama Hasan, an academic who was planning to give a lecture about his take on evolution at a London mosque, and then went back on his intentions after encounters with a group of very agitated demonstrators and death threats, both online and in person. Those death threats took off from a website of radical Muslims who consider the very notion of someone accepting the merits of basic biology a crime to be punished by death, much like the dangerously literalist head case form the Caucasus we highlighted last week. After hearing that Hasan wanted to tell the mosque’s following that evolution could be compatible with Islamic teachings, they basically decided to run him out of town because the only way they know how to settle any dispute is by threatening those with whom they disagree with violence. To say that this is utterly ridiculous and deeply disturbing is an understatement of epic proportions, and what’s even sadder in all this, is that we’re seeing this kind of simplistic, barbaric, violent dogmatism in a secular, well-off country. It really is a testament to how fundamentalism fuels hatred, intolerance, and utter disregard for others’ rights.

Here’s the thing. If you want us to appreciate a culture’s history, it’s accomplishments, and the fact that there’s more its can offer than stereotypes for bad guys in big budget action flicks, we could certainly do that. On one simple condition. When a Muslim scholar tries to reconcile science with his religious beliefs, you don’t barge into his mosque to threaten his life and hurl out propaganda casting all those who dare to think in a way you don’t personally approve as apostates ripe for a beheading, and if that happens, you will stand up for a fellow Muslim’s right to believe in his own way. How about that? Or is that too much to ask? And please don’t tell me that this is just an aberration and a few bad apples are spoiling it for everybody else. Today, with rebellions in the Middle East led by young, tech-savvy, often secular, and educated youth, things might start to change. But yet, in the grand scheme of things so far, Muslim nations have given their fundamentalists free reign with very disturbing results. Iran executes people on a nearly daily basis, many for violating its clerics’ interpretations of Islam, Saudi Arabia’s morality police basically stalk the citizenry, looking for any objectionable behavior day in, day out, and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws allow Islamic fundamentalists to get away with murder whenever they decide that the most rational way to respond to a call for peace and tolerance is with savage brutality.

This is simply not the way sane human beings interact and if you really think that all humanity will ever know, all it ever needs to know, and all it should focus its energy upon is your interpretation of an ancient text which was extremely controversial when it was first being written in your very community, and that this belief in your own omniscience and infallibility gives you the right to kill those who disagree, then you, my good friend, need to have your head examined by a competent professional. If this is how religious devotion helps one find how much human life is really worth, I’m afraid that most of us are perpetually in the bargain bin, and that our lives will continue only at the radical fundamentalists’ pleasure. In the West, we’ve tried burning people at the stake for saying things with which we disagreed on and off for over a thousand years and we found it to be kind of a bad thing, and one that doesn’t quite stop human progress as the fundamentalists desired. In fact, while way too many Westerners were devoting themselves to ideological warfare, Muslim academics invented algebra, conducted pioneering work in optics, and honed their skills in astronomy. And it seems that for most religious radicals, who don’t care to understand the past through anything other but the prism of their personal fantasy, history may well be repeating itself as the Muslim world’s rabid ideologues try to wage a jihad on the infidels, who they’ve recast as being absolutely anyone who doesn’t follow Islam the exact same way as they do.

In the West, we have moments when we decry Christian fundamentalism and its followers’ attempts to once again dominate political life, and we’ll continue having them because we’ve already seen what happens if an institution which considers itself divinely infallible assumes absolute control of entire nations. But at the very least, when we’re hit with blasphemy laws, we’re talking about censorship and fines, not being dragged into the town square and beheaded by an unhinged lunatic with a bloodlust, absolutely sure that he’s doing what the invisible man in the sky (or more probably, a hateful voice in his head) told him to do. And in both, we see how religion’s most devoted and most zealous followers react to hearing something they don’t want to hear or seeing something they don’t want to see. Instead of engaging with those who think differently and learn about their worldviews, they rush to censor and destroy anything that catches their ire, and in the case of wanna-be jihadists, anyone who dares not to cower to their savagery. Now, I wonder, what do the great communicators of the accommodationist world think Hasan should do in order to effectively convey the alleged compatibilities of evolution and religion to a crowd of bloodthirsty maniacs who howl with pathological rage and threaten his life for even mentioning evolution in a positive context? If they didn’t invoke their religion as a shield from every criticism, people like those who threatened Hasan’s life would be locked up in psychiatric wards and treated, but unfortunately, we’ll bend over backwards to tolerate intolerance if this intolerance was spawned by faith…

[ photo illustration by Fredherico Silva ]

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Wow, have I been slipping around here or what? While my goal of having fresh posts for you daily hasn’t been abandoned, it seems that this month my crazy schedule finally caught up with me, and I had to prioritize a few fires at work and academic projects due in rapid-fire order against a fresh post. But with all the academic and occupational emergencies handled, I’ll try to get myself back on task here. Since when last we left off, we were talking about the self-appointed judges, juries, and executioners of religious fundamentalism, using some examples from Anthony Horvath’s vapid fairy tales to analyze their attitude. Yes, they had a very uncomfortable and ethnically questionable undertone, but really they were just stories. Horvath wasn’t about to kill Dawkins for being an atheist or advertising how he’ll do it. He was just fantasizing how his deity was going to go about it. However, religious fundamentalism which inspired Horvath’s stories can also be used to fuel murder, even when the victims of the crimes weren’t occupying soldiers or fiery ideologues but a simple ethnographer who was cataloguing the stories of ancient cultures in the Russian Caucasus for local museums…

Ratmir Shameyev, a notorious 22-year-old leader of the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat, had a simple answer. Dressed in black and wearing his trademark eye patch, Shameyev appeared in a video announcement on the jamaat’s website ten days after Tsipinov’s death, clutching his automatic weapon. The ethnographer was a mushrik (idolater) who promoted pagan customs, he said. And thus, he had to die. Tsipinov’s murder caused particular bitterness because he was a prominent and much-loved public figure. But the extremists have also killed several fortunetellers ( who were also considered mushriks) and businessmen in recent weeks, the latter, probably, for refusing to pay a tithe to the rebels.

Notice that at just 22, fiery, black and white religious fundamentalism already made Shameyev a dangerous, close-minded, sociopathic moron who will kill anyone whose faith in the supernatural isn’t just like his. And it really is people like him who seasoned terrorist groups with lofty political aims will recruit to do their dirtiest or bloodiest work, exploiting his religious fervor for their goals and assuring him that he’s doing Allah’s work. His capacity to think critically and let others live their lives as they want is either gone or was never there in the first place, so when he’s given orders to kill and the requisite quote from a holy book, he’s not going to think twice, wondering if Allah would really approve of his choices. He’s just going to kill. And this is why fundamentalism is one of the biggest threats to world peace today. It reduces human beings to unworthy sinners whose lives are no longer of any value, and who should be disposed of lest they pollute the zealots’ fantasies. You can say what you will about American theocratic wanna-bes, and as my track record on this blog shows, I’m really not what you’d call a fan, but only a small handful of them have actually went off the kind of deep end to slaughter anyone they see as a heretic. In turbulent regions where radical Islam has made its mark, lawlessness and very long, bloody histories of conflicts with different faiths, empires, and modern nations, lets this happen.

Now, while it is tempting to simply call Shameyev a violent whack job who needs to be locked up for the rest of his life along his fellow cutthroats, and leave it at that, we really can’t. What allows rebels like him to thrive is a long-standing grievance with the heavy handed actions of Russia in his part of the world. When large, Muslim, and fiercely independent republics annexed by the Soviet Union wanted to break away from Russia and set up their own governments after the USSR’s implosion, Russia replied to their petitions by sending tanks, troops, and special operation teams to siege the rebelling territories and break their will. Even after it was no longer a fully fledged superpower with an unlimited budget, Russia had a military more than big and powerful enough to rain pain and misery on millions of people. Its actions first gave rise to militant groups whose goal it was to repel the Russian army, and then, after the struggle of these groups attracted the attention of jihadists across Central Asia, terrorist groups which bombed civilian targets in Russian territory. Shameyev is a product of the vicious cycle of Russian crackdowns on resistance groups which form in response to the crackdowns. And it would seem simple that at some point, either the Russian army or the rebels would stop to end the violence, but unfortunately, whoever will back down first has to accept defeat, and neither the autocratic Russian rulers, nor the ever more violently fundamentalist rebels are interested in anything but an outright victory.

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Today’s narrative for religious apologists and fundamentalists seeking to force their will into law usually goes something like this: atheists are arrogant and were responsible for all the genocides of the last century, while religious people are humble and peaceful folk who answer to a higher authority. For a good example of all the mistakes and fallacies of this position, as well as how it’s being advanced, just take a look back at the WoWT teardown of an interview with the governor of Indiana and consider something that’s frequently missed by a vast majority of religious apologists coming from accommodationist stances, or organizations trying to buy their way into scientific institutions. As they argue about all the positives of religion, they avoid discussing a disturbing continuation of torture and barbaric honor killings in the name of religious traditions as anything but random acts of violence by deluded people. And that view ignores just how frighteningly common these cases are, and how the practice of religion by some of its strictest devotees can easily fall into the realm of theodicy.

But wait a second, how could I say that? No truly religious person would ever do something like this! Religion is all about peace, love and understanding, teaching us how to be good to our fellow humans and inspiring a whole lot of art, literature and scientific research into existential problems, right? Actually, the notion of faith as an exploratory tool rather than a rigid set of principles by which all of us must live or face dire consequences, is an idea cultures developed during their periods of learning and scientific advancements when a number of aspiring polymaths asked questions about the natural world and justified their pursuits as a God-given ability which shouldn’t be suppressed by dogmatism. But historically speaking, today’s big religions were created at a time when people who spoke the same language, worshipped the same deities, and lived in one particular area usually kept their distance from those who spoke other languages and worshipped other gods. And as a result, many religious texts talk about loving thy neighbor while at the same time preaching death to heretics, those who disobey the religious tenets, and distrust of those from foreign lands.

In today’s world, where every major city is within just a day or two of travel from each other and we have quite a few ways of communicating instantly across the globe, these ancient rules lead to a lot of tension. In Christian nations, many a pundit warn about Muslim immigrants being the first wave of anti-Western crusaders who will impose Sharia law on the world, when in reality, the vast majority of them is just looking for a better life. On the flip side, we have incendiary Muslim clerics demanding the death of anyone who looks at them the wrong way, or dares to make light of their actions, backwards laws that punish victims of rape and assault in the UAE, and a culture of brutal honor killings and violent assaults and kidnappings in the name of following an arcane rule in ancient holy books. Just consider the barbaric murder of a young couple in India whose only offense was dating across religiously dictated sub-castes, or the honor killing of a young girl for disobeying her father, or death threats to barbers for daring to cut a man’s beard in Pakistan. There are dozens of cases like this on a weekly basis all across the world, and each of them can be linked to religious ideas.

While high minded theologians complain about atheists’ lack of metaphysical sophistication, demanding that those who decided they want nothing to do with theism shed a solemn tear for God, the sad fact is that as the more tolerant and peaceful members of religious movements try to help the less fortunate, somewhere, there is a father beheading his daughter for not following a holy book closely enough, or a group of people beating a young man to death for daring to wear the wrong clothes, or read the wrong book. Even in the U.S., where this kind of behavior will easily land you in one of the most severe penitentiaries in the nation, and very possibly on death row, parents will deny medical treatment to their children because they see the child’s disease as a test of their faith, running for faith healers instead of doctors. Maybe those theologians who lament any form of secularism or non-theism as dangerously blind nihilism could at least try to explain the darker side of faith rather than sweep it under the rug? Or if they’re so interested in a tit-for-tat, can they tell us about the last time they saw a news story about a father killing one of his kids for not reading Dawkins or not visiting Pharyngula on a daily, or at least weekly basis?

Sure, we could just blame it all on the people. After all, it’s true that there are authoritarian, anti-social humans out there just looking to justify their inhumanly cruel actions. For an “evolutionist” like me, all humans are part of the same species and we all need each other to survive and keep evolving. For most faithful, all people are God’s children and we should all treat each other with respect. But for disturbingly many, religion is used as a tool for instituting draconian order over societies, a justification for xenophobia, war, and discrimination. How long did it take most Christian nations to acknowledge that darker skin or internal reproductive organs did not make someone a lesser human being? How long will it take Muslim clerics to stop treating women as males’ personal property? There’s something very wrong when societies will obsess over Grand Theft Auto, trying to ban games like it after every crime involving a teenager, but when honor killings take the lives of young adults because their parents think it’s their divinely ordained duty to slaughter their children if they don’t obey ancient laws in the holy texts they follow, nobody seems to want to point to the holy book as a potential problem.

As people lose their lives over arcane dogmas, how can we honestly pretend that religion is, and always was, such an inspiration for everything good in life that without it we would all become savages who’ll go on killing sprees in between bloody orgies? Seems to me that following religious texts and customs literally results in a whole lot of misery, bloodshed and grief, a good deal of of which could be avoided if more people took tomes of ancient customs, traditions, and metaphysically infused punditry, far less seriously than we do…

[ photo illustration by Fredherico Silva ]

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Over the years, South Park rarely pulled its punches and eagerly dove deep into just about every controversial and politically charged issue in the United States and sometimes, international events. But while Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been inundated with hate mail and ridicule over the years, this is the first time they were threatened with a violent death at the hand of religious fanatics, and the question in my mind is which one of the pillars of Islam includes death threats to those who don’t share your worldview? Between monotheism, daily prayer, charity, ritual fasting, and making the Hajj, I can’t find anything about murder and mayhem for the sake of satisfying one’s intolerance. And there’s another twist to this story, highlighted by the linked report…

That’s right. Revolution Muslim is based in New York and enjoys all the laws, freedoms and protections to say whatever they want to say on their blogs and sites. While they expect nothing short of reverence for their ideas, the very Western society they despise ignores the cries of those who want to censor them, protects their right to condemn anyone who dares to look in their direction with even the slightest criticism, or threaten them with a gruesome death. By contrast, for all the ridicule and threats about Hell, fire and brimstone I’ve received from zealous Christians who find my defenses of cosmology and evolution to be an assault on their religion, not a single one has ever implied that he or she was going to stab me to death because of something I wrote. Now of course, our would be defenders of Mohammad’s honor say they don’t do that either…

… Abu Talhah al Amrikee, the author of the post, told CNN it was meant to show those offended by the depiction of Mohammed how they can voice their opposition, including by sending letters to the South Park’s creators.

Yeah. Sure. A group which sees nothing wrong with the September 11 attacks and thinks they have to terrorize those around them to fend off hypothetical assaults on their property, sisters and mothers, compiles a raging sermon warning the creators of a TV show not to end up like a documentarian stabbed in the throat for a film showing the plight of women under Islamic fundamentalists, and all they really want is to organize an orderly, calm protest and a polite letter writing campaign encouraging cultural sensitivity. Of course, how could we not draw the same conclusion after reading a long litany of threats fetishizing violence in the name of religion and giving addresses and contact information of people at who the post was directed? It’s all so clear now! This is pretty much the same excuse as violent anti-abortion groups and radical animal rights activists summon in their defense. After demonizing their targets, foaming at the mouth with gruesome threats, and giving contact information for other enraged zealots to do the dirty work, they claim they’ve done nothing wrong and whatever the consequences of their actions happen to be, they’re never responsible for anything.

And that is patently ridiculous. There’s a reason why I never threaten those who I criticize on a daily basis with even so much as a polite e-mail or hand out any personal contact information, and why comments linking to a site inciting violence, ethic, or religious hatred, or containing hateful remarks get deleted. My disagreements, no matter how bitter or heated, are with people and the actions they take, and no matter how much I disagree, there is absolutely no reason to harass or threaten anyone with violence or murder. Muslims offended at how an irreverent TV show takes on the issue of violence, mayhem and death threats by religious extremists at the drop of a hat should complain and Western society legally ensures their right to do it. But writing screeds glorifying murder in the name of Allah for the crime or having a different worldview, then claiming that you were just putting together a few strongly worded but polite letters and a few protest signs, crosses the line between civilized discourse and lunges towards terrorism. Freedom of speech is given to all in the West, not just a few groups who want to use it as a platform for dictating their will and hurl death threats at others.

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Science isn’t always about walking around in lab coats, stirring beakers or sitting around and working with a blackboard full of complex equations. Sometimes it involves rolling up your sleeves and doing experiments on animals to find out more about the origins of intelligence, the inner workings of brains and the mechanics of various genes and possible treatments for diseases. If you stick to fruit flies, nematodes or various bugs and spiders, you have little to fear. But mess with something cute and furry like mice or monkeys and get ready to have your house firebombed or your car smashed by furious animal right activists bragging about their latest acts of terrorism against scientists out of a misguided sense of self-righteousness. In their world, monkeys, mice, and any other mammals that can be put on a poster with a sad face come first, and if a certain area of knowledge requires scientists to do something invasive to them, that line of inquiry will have to be off limits.

lab mouse cartoonAt any time you find yourself committing acts of violence against someone, you better have a very good reason for it and animal rights groups who resort ot terrorist tactics think they have one. To them, using lab animals for a multitude of experiments is the equivalent of research on humans and the scientists who do it are like the evil doctors at Nazi death camps, randomly chopping up animals just for the hell of it. The reason why scientists actually do any invasive experiments or even keep lab animals around doesn’t matter to them. And do facts really count when righteous rage is your only guide?

It’s one thing to talk about the ethics of animal research to urge scientists to host their subjects in the most humane conditions possible, and question the validity of the research being done. But to somehow justify harm to humans because you think you feel the pain of your furry friends? Two wrongs have yet to make a right and comparing the fate of lab rats to the international civil rights movements, as the ALF like to do in their interviews, isn’t only totally groundless, but downright insulting to the actual civil rights movements. Who made them moral authorities? How do they feel justified trying to hunt down scientists from whose research they benefit on a daily basis? Why should other animals have the same rights as us? It’s not like they’re the top of the planet’s food chain. We are. Plus, we have to note that in nature, all those fluffy little things have full blown wars, maul each other to death and couldn’t care less about our kindness.

Violent animal rights activists seem to live with this idealized version of the animal world that’s far more like a saccharine Disney cartoon than a nature documentary. Nature is harsh and most creatures survive by being as mean and cruel as possible, or by outrunning their relatives, leaving them as a predator’s snack. Do they think that when they walk into the jungle a leopard will really care about how much they respect it as a part of nature? Or that an angry chimp will stop from tearing their faces off because they firebombed the house of a doctor trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and worked on primate brains to test her approach? Yes, I know that nature is pretty but we have to be realistic here. Humans experiment on animals to acquire knowledge, put it to good use and help us survive as a species, not because they just want to play Operation with rodents.

I also find it rather interesting that animal rights groups don’t attack geneticists working with fruit flies and little nematodes. Same goes for research on arachnids or any other creature that’s not a picture of doe-eyed, fuzzy cuteness. And let’s say that they succeed and intimidate enough scientists to abandon research on animals. What happens next? Will they sacrifice their own bodies to help continue scientific inquiry into the evolution of complex organs, diseases and biomedical treatments? Something tells me that we shouldn’t wait for that with bated breath. Then again, I could always be wrong about how far they’ll go for their animal friends…

[ thanks to WOWT reader Jypson for the story tip and suggestion ]

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