Have you thought about (HYTA) how the liberal mass media avoids bringing up religion?

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Jesus & Buddha taking a photo in the comedic manga Saint Oniisan. Allah is missing not only because of Islam’s limited presence in Japan but as a faith it doesn’t command much respect there. Also, death threats predictably follow whenever Allah is illustrated.

          It doesn’t take long for an independent observer to notice the inconsistent logic that not only persists doggedly within a faith but also across all religions. With our present understanding of the world, not only do the origin stories of religion border on fairy-tale absurdity, it goes on to cultivate hostility against scientific thinking and also dangerously engenders a tribalistic (and often hateful) disavowal of perceived ‘morally disreputable’ groups of people. Religion, and how it so completely controls a person’s life and thinking, must be a serious topic for discussion at all levels of life and in all formats of relationships. But education denies that platform, citing ‘sensitivity’ while at the same time funneling some of its students into its numerous faith schools; and the mass media is often guilty of a one sided overly-favourable coverage of faith. To find meaningful arguments against faith, you have to really go out of your way and take the long road.

          But is that any surprise? Though objective reporting is outlined as its constitutional duty, most media outlets pander to powerful political parties (look at the US election or at China) and the basest of our desires. We feed frenziedly on trivial gossip and have little interest in important issues like climate change and the religious nuts who deny it. It’s difficult to justify running an article critical of religion when the same page about Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt’s divorce will rack up hundred thousand times more views and far more profit. Articles that are uninteresting or disagreeable to readers would lead to a massive hemorrhage of customers who will move on to the next media outlet able to sustain their limited attention – it doesn’t pay to report the news objectively. And worse, coverage of major conflicts such as that of the Sunni / Shia fallout often fail to identify what’s truly responsible for their schisms – religion. Apparently, what people need to know is at odds with what they want to know.

          And in regular entertainment where the majority of dramas (K, J or C, take your pick) are predominantly yarns after yarns of repetitive romantic and cliched mashups, the successful formula for a well-received show never includes religion. Religion is often a side step, not a center piece. This is ironic given that most people in real life would only consider marrying someone of the same faith. After all, when was the last time Ishihara Satomi rejected a marriage proposal because her romantic interest was Islamic and insisted she had to dress black and cover herself up like a human photo booth? It’s not just controversy at hand but people simply won’t watch something that violates their belief systems. The confirmation bias speaks loud here: we seek out media entertainment that is aligned with our beliefs and shun the opposite. Also, can you imagine if Disney’s Frozen had Elsa as a conservative Islamist and Anna as a Hindu? Elsa would spend all her screen time chastising Anna for daring to be in the same room with a man. Not quite fun to watch. And the very real (and not exactly amusing) joke is that Elsa might kill Anna for being a heretic, sisterhood not withstanding.

          While the media regularly uses political caricature and cheeky lampoonery to get its point across, religion is often exempt from any kind of comedic effect. We have already seen the consequences: The vicious gun attack on Charlie Hedbo for daring to make fun of Islam or the slew of atheist bloggers murdered in broad daylight. The Pope, probably the most successful cos-player in the world, went on to say that “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” And there’s something very telling about that statement. Religion, if you subject it to enough critical scrutiny, cannot withstand factual checks nor logical analysis. It cannot survive the onslaught of humour because religion has neither the evidence nor the intellectual foundation to stem its inevitable breakdown. Why then do we continue giving religion a free pass in the media? Is it fair to respect something that has no credibility? But governments, especially state controlled media, are not interested in enlightening its citizens. All that matters is that faith keeps their citizens docile and the society economically functional.

          And though Saint Oniisan (illustration above) is a wonderful light-hearted portrayal of combining two different and conflicting religious worlds, it doesn’t seek to answer why or how, nor does it fully explore the problematic philosophies of either faith. It has nonetheless been successful and has earned a great deal of support. And a society that can handle poking fun at religion is at least doing something right. Will the day come when the media will pull out the red carpet under religion and pin its wings to the spreading board? Probably not. Religion is too lucrative and too convenient a tool for keeping people in check.
         

So have you thought about (HYTA) the conspicuous absence of religious criticisms in liberal media?  

Have you thought about (HYTA) the mental associations we are trapped in?

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Take a look at the two sentences below.

The cat can be died / I want eat.

The ball can be bounced / I want to eat.

          Except for the rare few grammarians, it’s very difficult to explain why the first sentence is painfully grating on the ears while the second sounds correct. We simply know in an instant. As native English speakers, we may know little about the grammar rules governing our language but we have a very clear sense of what’s natural. Paradoxically, an adult newcomer to a language who studies all the grammar points by heart will still greatly struggle to develop a sense of what is natively OK. With every word and for every sentence, our mind has (from childhood) developed years after years of powerful mental associations that fly under the radar of our consciousness. And this holds true for many of our beliefs, likes and dislikes – most of our attitudes are hidden to us.

          To uncover these covert mental associations, the implicit association test (IAT) was developed. The results, which focused on attitudes towards race, have since been quite revealing: Even if you believe firmly in racial equality, or strive to be an egalitarian, you are more comfortable joking and talking to people of the same race. The more another race differs from us, the more unconscious distrust we have, and the less likely we are to hire or befriend them. It is no wonder that prior to taking the test, the researchers cautioned that knowing the truth of your hidden attitudes can be quite disturbing. These unfavourable mental associations persist despite participants growing up and working alongside someone of a different race, and can be predictably translated into discriminatory behaviour or worse, a contradictory self-denial we are familiar with – a political racist who spews bigotry and still insists he isn’t racist.

          However, the undercurrents of these associations run far deeper than just the issue of race. We have a great deal of mental associations related to what we consider pleasant, hurtful or meaningful. For example, children growing up in healthy families where both positive romantic and parental love are always on display, eventually associate love with sacrifice, mutual well-being and healthy communication. They recognise that playful encouragements and soulful conversations, not barbed criticisms, are key to a healthy relationship. When they grow up, they are likely to seek out these mental templates of love and reinforce them well. The same cannot be said for children who constantly see their parents quarrel or for their mother to storm out of the house. Intimacy becomes difficult for them because they have associated love with contention and prickliness. They hold back on conversations, may lean on spitefulness and often fail to empathise well with their partner.

          One might argue that these associations are trivialities, and that movies, books and education can suggest corrective behaviour. Unfortunately, mental associations are not just extremely powerful to the point of being overwhelmingly instinctive, they are also deeply embedded in our personalities. The followup question may well be “Can you overwrite your personality?” and we already know that’s exceedingly difficult. Still, it’s not entirely impossible to consciously develop awareness  but the effort must be longstanding and continuous. Sadly, once we transition into our teenage years, a great deal of our mental associations would have been locked down. And unless we are lucky enough to receive tremendous influence to understand and think in different ways, we will forever live within the confines of our minds.

So have you thought about (HYTA) what your hidden mental associations are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the different types of lies we tell?

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          Lying, despite whatever moral instructions we received when growing up, is something we consistently do everyday. Even our parents who try valiantly to guide us are also complicit in the act of lying. Does “you are the smartest” or “grandmother is in a better place” sound familiar? It should. Because they are lies. Regardless of the language used or the ‘kind’ intent behind it, a lie is straight up just a lie. In a 2002 study, an estimated 60% of adults can’t have a 10 minutes conversation without lying at least once, and even then, that may well be an underestimation. That’s highly disconcerting. It doesn’t just mean that we are repeatedly being lied to but we are also blatantly lying to others.

          On average, we lie to our parents the most (86%). And though we lie the least to our spouses, it still stands at a shocking 69%. The numbers aren’t terribly surprising, and while we shouldn’t read too deeply in a single study, most of us familiar with self-deception and white lies can understand why the incidences of lying are so high. The lies we tell border on the extremes of consciousness and unconsciousness. And despite what we have been told otherwise, some form of lying is of course necessary, especially when lying to ourselves.

          In a single lifetime, a spider spins many different types of silk. The silk that makes up the eggs cocoon is different from the strands that line the outer edges of the web. So too do we tailor our lies according to the situation, sometimes being only dimly aware that we are lying. We weave a complex network of lies – a web of deceit that any spider would be deeply envious of. We may not intend to harm, but we certainly do not tell the truth. When asked about our day at school, we don’t tell our parents the full details of our misdemeanors, who we developed inexplicable feelings of attraction for, or those we violently disliked. And of course as adults, we lie on our resumes, during interviews and on dates. Lying is par for the course.

          The first type of lie we tell is already known to most people. Often called white lies, we rationalise the need for them so that we can ‘protect someone’s feelings’ or until ‘they are ready to hear the truth’. The husband who reassures his wife that the pair of jeans doesn’t make her look overweight is but one example; or an atheist who finds religious prayer ceremonies very disturbing but instead mumbles a few kind words; and perhaps the classic example of receiving a sales call and lying about how you don’t have time right now just so you can hang up as soon as possible. And the Japanese may well be right up the notoriety scale. Predisposed to be polite in almost every situation, a Japanese will praise you even if you are repeatedly (and clearly) incompetent. Depending on context, these lies can result in grievous injuries since like all lies, they are a deliberate departure from reality.

          And then there are the much more sinister lies we tell. Though the intent is still to minimise hurt, it’s mostly told to make ourselves feel better. When in bed with our spouse, sometimes we  end up dreaming or thinking about someone else – perhaps the very first person we fell in love with – and when asked about it, we will lie not only to spare feelings but also to reassure ourselves that we weren’t being unfaithful. Or in the case of religious conversions, plenty is confidently preached about the validity of the one true faith. Yet, many religious folks have never fully read their holy texts, nor do they usually live up to the moral standards they insist others must follow. So when they confidently lie about their certainty in the faith and rattle off quotes and verses, their primary motive is a psychological reassurance for themselves.

          Finally, the last set of lies we tell is well-documented. Consider the following questions:

(1) “I love you” – a lie told when a quick affair instead of a long term relationship is wanted.

(2) “Yes, I read most of the materials” – a lie told when asked by your teacher to explain why you failed the test.

(3) “I am aware of most of the issues” – a lie told when asked if you read or watched the nation’s speech / rally.

(4) “Yes, I am not too bad in teams and I am pretty honest.” – a lie told in an interview when asked if you are good at teamwork and owning up to mistakes.

          In many, many situations, ours answers given are almost always distorted. Even in surveys with full anonymity promised, participants continue to exaggerate (still lying). These lies are intended to meticulously present a favourable image: You don’t want to be misjudged as callous so you lie about loving another person, and in order to sound more hardworking and knowledgeable, you pretend to know more than you should by using hedging words like “somewhat” or “kind of”.  We want to be seen as the good and cool people.

          And this brings me to a final contentious bone of irony about lying and truthfulness. Honesty is probably an overrated virtue. In every situation above, if you applied a standard of total honesty, not only would you lose all your friends, you would probably find it difficult to live with yourself. And those who make a career in acting are more likely to unconsciously lie repeatedly – especially since their choice of words and carefully pruned expressions are going to be extremely convincing. After all, they know the right things to say and do to elicit a desired response from a date or a manager.

          Like it or not, lying, at least in a way that’s elegant and difficult to detect, is what keeps the clockwork gears of social interaction meshing smoothly. But I think there’s something deeply uncomfortable about being aware that many parts of a conversation are likely to be lies. And yes, that includes the motivational speaker, the teacher and prime minister.

So have you thought about (HYTA) what the types of lies you tell?

Have you thought about (HYTA) your blind spots?

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          In a single quick glance, most of us can confidently conclude that the tables above are of different shapes and sizes. Tilt your head from side to side, or if you must, incline it at an unnatural angle, and your conclusion will not be any different. The tables are as different as apples are from oranges. Yet,  despite what you can see, if the illustrations were printed, cut and rotated, the two tables are actually identical. It’s an example of one of many famous optical illustrations. Here, our brain unconsciously converts the 2-D image into the 3-D image we typically ’see’ in our physical reality, and it wrongly calculates the depth of perception. 

What’s especially fascinating about the optical illusion is not just the erroneous certainty we arrive at our answers, nor is it the tacit implication that our eyes (and perhaps our minds) can make mistakes in visual interpretation. Rather, and quite disturbingly, even when we have received the knowledge to understand the optical illusion, our brain still remains unable to see past the illusion. And this, despite what many will claim about being in control of themselves, showcases a signature property of our mind: a great deal of its processes are unconscious, involuntary, hidden and automatic. We are in many ways not just blind, but as Daniel Kahneman puts so wonderfully, we are also blind to our own blindness.

          Our nose for example obscures our optical vision and yet when we look upon objects in the distance or frown upon our worst critics, we never perceive our nose as an obstruction. Where there should be a nose, our mind has filled that blockade with an imaginary (but extremely effective) and seamless vision that blends in with what we can see. On the surface, these blind spots may seem harmless, possibly even superficial, but as many experiments have proven otherwise, they actually string together a coherent and continuous combination of hidden biases that operate without any input from us.

          In a famous study, after watching an automobile accident involving the collision of two cars, half the participants were asked the following question:

“How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?”

The second half received a slightly different question:

“How fast was the car going when it smashed the other car?”

          Those who answered the ‘smashed’ question not only gave higher estimates of the vehicles’ speed, they were likely to claim that there were broken pieces of glass at the accident even though none was shown. Aside from the dire implications for eyewitness testimony (and a good reason to be dubious of anyone who claims to have seen or heard a ghost, God or the Devil), it also shows how our mind does not act in isolation. How a question is phrased, how we think about the world, or how we react to the emotional triggers in us, can lead us to unconsciously construct falsified realities, hold prejudices and indirectly influence who we choose to love and hate.

          The ramifications are quite far reaching: we automatically feel a greater sense of trust for people who share similar facial features to us, those who have the same skin colour, or someone with a ‘baby’ face. And our brain makes its mind up and delivers its judgement in exactly the same time it took to confidently assert the image above was different: almost immediately. Left unmanaged, our brain can indeed subtly (and successfully) influence many of our decisions for which we will afterwards struggle to find rational reasons for. Time and time again, we know with certainty that human rationality is extremely limited.  

          These biases we levy on others, and which are similarly brought to bear on us, continue to have consequences in the judicial, ethical and religious world. And the funny thing about blind spots is that at a point when we most need to be rational, we often make slip-ups, and even the most educated and intelligent being, for all his awareness and knowledge, is likely no less vulnerable to his blind spots. Still, we can indeed correct and prevent these biases if we try very hard to avoid letting our brain coast effortlessly. But thinking in this way – logical, critical and reflective – is difficult in most situations and sometimes impossible in the most urgent of moments.

          Yet, we should strive to think well and acknowledge our blind spots because many of our critical decisions – who we love, who we work for and who we look up to – if made on a whim, are often carelessly instinctive. While there’s plenty to be said about following your guts and instincts (often from an inspirational quote or two), we now know more about where and when our senses can predictably fail us. We are after all, only animals.

          So have you thought about (HYTA) what your blind spots are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the problem with miracles? (Mother Teresa’s controversial sainthood)

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          Whether we are hardened sceptics or unrepentant nihilists, we all start out either believing or wanting to believe in miracles. Fervently and every so faintly, we hope, with the atypical selfishness that comes with being human, that a compassionate gesture is thrown our way so that for the briefest of moments, the unfeeling laws of nature will bend for us. Miracles seemingly defy scientific or natural laws, and consequently, by definition, are events problematically allergic to evidence. Miracles are claimed by every faith that has ever existed (how else could they prove the authenticity of their Gods?), can be found in the toolbox of the con-man, and is part of the spiritual repertoire of the mystic, shaman and oracle.  

          That miracles share a bed with religion, the supernatural and the seedy is highly disconcerting. Some miracles claim to have evidence of some sort – a blurred video (with convenient camera angles) of a man walking a tightrope with nothing but faith guiding him; blood pouring from the orifice of a deity’s statue; an image of God found in a bread or glazed window; or someone who went to heaven and then came back. The last example though, was especially deplorable. Written by a boy who was left paralysed in an accident under the title “The boy who came back from heaven”, it gained enormous success that led to a film adaptation. His experience was often cited as a miracle performed by the Christian God. And how starkly embarrassing it must have been when the author finally admitted that he had never read a Bible, and only wrote the book to get attention.

          The predictable fallout was quietly played down. As the philosopher David Hume once said “Which is more likely? That the laws of nature have been suspended, and in a manner of your choosing, or that you quite simply made a mistake?”. Going by the lackluster records of  miracles, it is with almost certainty that all miracles fall into the second category – a fatal misstep of the human mind that we now understand has overly generous tendencies to see meaningless patterns from useless noise.

          Many supposed miracles in our long past, whether they were abrupt changes in the weather or the remission of a disease, can now be explained with present day knowledge. We now know how we acquire immunities to infectious diseases, and we understand sudden revivals are not the result of divine intervention. Whether it is performing exorcism to cure a person writhing on the floor or sprinkling holy water to purge diseases, Science has repeatedly at every corner, undermined these supposed ‘miracles’. What we cannot explain now, we have characteristically understood later. In the absence of knowledge, we shouldn’t round up the closest and most convenient explanation.

          Yet, the Vatican, a religious organisation exempt from taxes and an authority that legislates the masses in ‘moral’ values (with many of its priests found guilty of sexually abusing altar-boys), has recently declared Mother Teresa a saint, citing two miracles attributed to her. Supposedly, by praying to her, an Indian woman had her stomach tumour miraculously cured. The thinking and rationale that accompany such a declaration has something so infuriatingly bad, so incorrigibly stale and so wretchedly putrescent, that one has to stand at attention and wonder at how much incredulity is needed to believe such a claim. Even her husband doubted it had anything to do with the prayers! What tool, what insight or what erudition does the Vatican possess to determine a miracle? Sadly, it’s just a gathering of old men who prey on the infantile mind of the religious.

          Even better, the Vatican has a wonderful track record of ‘exemplary’ saints. Thomas More, who burned and tortured people for daring to read a Bible in English (Latin was preferred back then), was declared by Pope John II as a patron saint. Another saint, Junipero Sera, who introduced Catholicism to Califoria, was complicit in the mass extermination of Native Americans. And Mother Teresa is no exception. She’s often celebrated for her devotion to faith and dedication to the poor. If Mario is the frontrunner of Japanese culture, then Mother Teresa is the poster girl for Catholicism. And yet, through her letters, interviews and investigations, it was found that many donations to her organisation were unaccounted for, with medical care often shoddy and deliberately withheld, and in her final days, began doubting her faith.

          Mother Teresa’s order inflicted suffering needlessly. When explaining to a cancer patient why no painkiller was given, she said that,“You are suffering like Christ on the cross, So Jesus must be kissing you.” She denied antibodies to a boy with a kidney problem and insisted prayer would suffice. How is it possible for a human mind to be so warped and twisted, if not for the existence of faith? Why was she made a saint? What mysterious criteria(s) counts towards sainthood? How many have died a painfully agonising death because of the delusions of religious fundamentalists who believe God would provide all answers? Not only have the controversies remain unaddressed, the Vatican has decided to continue playing up Mother Teresa’s positive image by granting her sainthood and recognising her ‘miracles’. No justification needed except “you just have to believe us because we know what we are doing”.

          So have you thought about (HYTA) what miracles (and sainthood) mean to you?