Have you thought about (HYTA) how good thinking is undervalued?

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          Most people are unaware of the invisible crisis beset on humanity: an increasing inability to think well and independently. When the majority of people get their news from Facebook, accept tweets as tidbits of truth, and are unable to discern between real and false news, to say we are in a bit of trouble is to understate the problem. And there are those who cannot tell the difference between weak anecdotal evidence (personal stories and recounts) and strong scientific facts. An under-appreciation for the rigours of the scientific method, a poor sense of reasoning, and an ignorance about the pitfalls of our brain all translate into an impending cataclysm.

          Even right now, concerned parents splurge on tuition, enrichment lessons and overtime remedial for one singular purpose: they believe confidently that these investments will lead to a higher quality of life for their children. But it has been shown that the level of education achieved has little bearing on one’s ability to think well or have a good life. Good thinking may not make you rich, but it could prevent you from losing thousands of dollars over your lifetime; it won’t necessarily make you any smarter or more successful but it will reduce the likelihood you make dumb decisions; and while it certainly won’t guarantee a long life, it will give you the tools to live a meaningful one.

          It may not seem obvious to the uninitiated but everywhere we go, it’s a battlefield of beliefs, influence and persuasion. Churches, monasteries and mosques are constantly organising conversion events disguised as festive celebrations in the hopes of persuading the very young to join up – which if I may add, should be a crime in itself. Advertisements constantly make all sorts of ‘scientific’ claims and sport well-know celebrities to inject a greater sense of believability. Our friends often exert a great deal of pull on us and enthuse us to try many different things, some savoury and some not. The real challenge is being able to discern what’s worth putting your life on the line for, and what’s a blatant scam.

          Even at this point, there are many people in Singapore, a supposedly modern and progressive city, who believe in really weird things. Some swear by certain translucent crystals that supposedly possess mystical restorative powers, while others splurge on a type of prosperity fish. Either way, they all too easily put forward several thousands unthinkingly, blindly chasing after myths and traditions. It’s also deeply disheartening that many people who gamble, do not understand the simple probability that over a long time, you will always lose far more than you can win. It’s why casinos will flourish. They simply know their enterprise will ultimately be always profitable – they can count on you to lose, eventually.

          Or take the recent study by NUS which revealed that around 8 in ten Singaporean patients have no understanding of the differences between a virus and bacteria. They also didn’t know how antibiotics worked and that it had no effect against viral infections. To make it worse, despite having a cold (caused by a virus), they continued taking antibiotics, leading to a gross misuse which would only result in the unhappy ending of super-bugs that are resistant to various drugs. But they will however, happily take to traditional chinese medicine (TCM) and accept a great of its nonsense as medical truths. That Singapore runs a prime-time drama show advocating the potency and effectiveness of TCM should be a recurring point to be ashamed of.

          Simply knowing more about our bodily functions does not require years of study, but a simple habit of reading more and an indulgence in thinking more. Is there a way to verify that what I paying for will really work? How can I distinguish one method from the other? Does this claim contradict another? Why does this belief not make sense in the context of the scientific method? These are the all important questions that for many, simply do not exist. In this case, good thinking may reduce wasted opportunities, save you hours of needless worships or prevent you from surrendering your mental independence. Everyone is always telling us what to believe and how to believe, and more than ever, we need to fight back by thinking well.

          It is not a hyperbole to say that nonsense is the primary language that dots our modern landscape. There’s a great, great deal of it, and very, very little that’s done about that. Most of education will never teach us to think well. Even if you practiced critical thinking in History, or did rigorous analysis in Chemistry, unless you studied something philosophical that always challenges your basic beliefs, these academic subjects are domain specific – which means that they are rarely applied onto ourselves. It’s different to critically think about how religions were controlled during a communist regime versus whether is a religion controlling my life and viewpoints. Giving reasons for the latter case can be a moment of great personal crisis.

         Thinking well is still applicable even in areas of human relationships where irrationality is too often the norm. Why is this person significant to me? Other than very strong feelings, am I encouraged to be better? What grounds do I have for holding on to this relationship for so long? Though contextually dependent and difficult to answer for each individual, the struggle between the heart and the mind will determine whether someone is worth the hours and words in the very short lives we live. And it is precisely because time passes so quickly that we must make the right choices and keep the right people with us. A single misstep may close all avenues of transition while the right path may well lead us to a new state of euphoria never experienced.

          Thinking well must include skepticism – an essential posture to have and survive in this modern era. Unfortunately, most people fail to realise that. They look to the superficial, fail to see beyond the skin and face, and are unable to sift out the truth. The result is a great deal of unneeded pain and agony, as well as preventable frustration and mental injury. For the sake of mankind’s shared future, it’s more important than ever that we embrace reason and reality in the years to come. Our minds can be our own greatest enemy, and it’s essential we put it to work for us, not against us.

So have you thought about (HYTA) the importance of good thinking?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why “freedom to believe anything” has limitations? (Female genital mutilation in Singapore)

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          When people try to defend certain shady religious practices of selling ‘miraculous’ holy water, the Islamic allowance of underage marriages, or a messianic cult demanding its right to a sizeable cut of your income, this defense is often accompanied with a dismissive and slightly arrogant shrug of the shoulders. After all, as I am often told, everyone is free to do what they like and how they want to live out their lives should be beyond anyone’s interference – there is no right or wrong but merely whether you want to believe or not. Unfortunately, belief isn’t the private affair it seems to be. Those who believe fervently, have always insisted on imposing their religious laws, customs and phobias on anyone who isn’t a fellow sheep.

          In a recently run BBC article, it was revealed (though known for a long time) that Singapore, a country often associated with multi religious pluralism, had remained quiet on an abhorrent but common muslim practice: the mutilation of female genitals. As young as the age of 2, these female babies would have certain skins and flaps on their genitals cut or sewn up. Why, would someone in a modern and progressive society, be willing to subject an infant to such horrific barbarsim? For that, you will need religion. Such a practice of mutilation is considered an Islamic merit if performed, and believed to reduce a female’s romantic desire so that they will remain faithful in marriages. Worse, some advocates insist this is a compulsory process that’s part of Islamic law. And Singapore has no legal ruling on this. Rather than relying on education or parental guidance, these poor babies have their life’s decisions made for them.

          So, no, you are NOT free to believe anything you want if your fervent beliefs will hurt those around you or infringe on the basic human rights of others. If you believe killing yourself is the fastest way to achieve holy communion with a divine being, that’s fine. Just don’t impose your unscientific and unsound beliefs on perfectly healthy minds. As it is, do we not make concessions for the absurdities of religion? There’s the need to respect a Muslim’s unfounded insistence for halal food, a Christian’s sensitivity for the treatment of Jesus Christ and a Buddhist’s belief in the existence of various dimensions of ghosts and demons. But on what grounds and evidence? There’s none to be had but a meek, servile and unthinking mimicry of ancient traditions that have no place in a modern society.

          Whether it’s the Jews practicing their version of male genital mutilation (also known as circumcision) or Christians conveniently denying services, employment or association towards gay people, these terrible and demeaning behaviour don’t stop there. In a wide survey done by Pew Research Center, a significant percentage of Muslims would prefer to see the country they are in be governed by their religious laws, and see no issue with implementing various punishments (such as stoning adulterers to death) associated with ISIS. And in present day America, Vice-president elect Mike Pence has already stated he wanted to overturn legislation he deemed non-christian and reinstall the country in a glorious tribute to Christianity. And so he (among many others) imposes his religious morality by depriving others of abortion and gay rights.

          Religion doesn’t come in peace, nor will it leave in peace. It is not content with merely what it has but must seek to bring others in the fold, whether by choice, subterfuge or violence. You are free to believe what you want but to what end? What does it take for someone to look at an innocent baby and proclaim “allow me to do the work of the Lord” and bloody its genitals? For that, again and again, you need religion. This is strictly wrong, and no matter how we tussle about the gray area of morality, such abject nonsense must be subjected to ridicule and scorn. At one point, it was revealed that a majority of British people thought that religion caused more harm than good. Looking at such heinous practices, and the way religious beliefs destroys one’s ability to think logically, isn’t it about time we called out religion for the terrible blight it is?

So have you thought about (HYTA) why you are not free to believe anything you want?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why it is impossible to build a world where everyone’s trusting, kind and caring?

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          Most of us possess at least some extent of an idealistic, albeit unrealistic hope that our contributions will make the world a better place. While we can indeed help those below us to improve their standards of living, the same cannot be said about moral behaviour. It’s not just that moral standards are deeply influenced by religious perspectives or cultural norms, nor is it because our irrationality often prevents us from seeing things clearly – and these are already very significant factors – but because as people become more trusting towards each other, it becomes far too rewarding to do harm.

          To put into perspective, none of us are willing to commit a crime because we are well aware that the consequences of our actions (no matter how minor) have repercussions that we are unwilling to bear. Whether it’s life imprisonment or the risk of being socially shamed on various digital platforms, we care enough about our reputation that we are automatically deterred from doing anything criminal. It may not be obvious to us, but we are always sub-consciously weighing the possible gains and losses in every moral situation, and we are very capable of exploiting every outcome to the fullest.

          However, and take this as an example, if a successful burglary would gain you millions of hard cash while a failed attempt would only put you in jail for only a few years, a number of people in rather difficult and trying circumstances will consider the entire enterprise a heist worth carrying out. The benefits (assuming the burglary isn’t about trying to break into a fortified military vault) are enticing enough to diminish the threat of jail time. It’s also why during a mass revolt, looting and pillaging of shops (in addition to many horrific crimes) break out. Without law and order, there are no serious consequences, so it would seem almost stupid and too unrewarding to be the morally upright citizen.

          This unfortunately also extends to our moral interactions with each other. In a world of lies and deceits, truthfulness becomes appreciated. A moral quality becomes valuable because  amidst its abundant opposite value, it is now a rare commodity. However, isn’t the opposite true as well? If everyone was absolutely trusting, deception (and any other immoral behaviour) becomes far too rewarding to ignore. In short, the more trusting people become, the more you are rewarded for being the manipulator, the liar and for practicing duplicity.

          Take our present situation as an example: being a successful con artist is difficult to pull off because many incidences of scams and schemes have already been reported. Now wiser to the different methods of deception employed, fleecing someone of their entire life savings would be almost impossible. A small sum of several thousands, especially if carried out over a period of time with a smattering of deceptive reassurances, might be possible to pull off. However, what about a universe where everyone is fully committed to open trust? The one bad apple will far too easily bankrupt everyone in existence until you are forced to learn to build your guard up. In such a situation, it simply makes no sense to be the good guy.

          School examinations are a particularly apt analogy. Almost no student will ever consider cheating except in very unusual situations – you risk expulsion and permanent damage to your career prospects. Yet in the state of Bihar, India, exam cheating is rampant. The top scorer was notorious for being unable to spell ‘political science’ and thought it meant something related to cooking. Over there, parents scale the school wall to help their children cheat. It’s not hard to see why. The rewards for blatant cheating against the limited invigilating vigilance (and weak deterrences) only mean that the immoral choice of academic dishonesty becomes too rewarding to pass up. Why be good when it’s better to be bad, and far easier?

          The way I see it, there’s a balance – a sort of equilibrium – between moral and immoral behaviour. In the long and dark past of mankind, long before established systems of modern governance, it would often be more profitable to just kill someone (and their family/group so they can’t take revenge) and take what they had. If you were strong and belonged to a powerful social group, you could easily get away with it. Now, because of various policies and laws, people are far more useful alive rather than dead. So we negotiate.

          So for those (and they are often religious) who envision a world of warm love, or one that’s governed by a divine being who can spread his brand of justice to eliminate misconduct, they are probably disconnected from reality. For the rest of us, it just means we should temper our expectations. This is what it means to live in society. Besides, how else could we appreciate moral conduct if we haven’t been on the receiving end of a great deal of anguish before?

So have you thought about (HYTA) why it is impossible to build a world where everyone’s trusting, kind and caring?

Have you thought about (HYTA) how the world has crossed a dark & dangerous line of no return?

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          Exactly who and what the Americans voted for cannot be overstated enough. Donald J. Trump, president elect of the United States, has on an unprecedented level, ran an open campaign built on racial discrimination, sexism, proven lies / exaggerations, and won convincingly in a landslide victory. Neither Mussolini nor Hilter, both nefarious dictators, began their parties’ campaign with bigotry as an opening statement. At  the very least, Mussolini had the decency of pretending to be democratic and inclusive before he went on setting up a legal dictatorship.

          And here is Donald Trump who during his campaign, has been recorded on video saying that there was no point following the Geneva conventions (a universal war treaty to be humane towards innocent civilians and prisoners of war), who wants and accepts any form of torture as a means of interrogation and investigation, and who thinks that in order to deal with terrorists, we should target and take out (kill) their families. Can it get any worse? Apparently, yes, because he also went on to say that we have to be more barbaric than ISIS’s methods of beheading people. So, to deal with the bad guys, we have to be more cruel, more heinous than them. Violence begets more violence. It is a perpetuation of hatred, incitement and rampant discrimination. And he’s fine with it.

          This is the person who has access to one of the most powerful armies in the world, the public face for the young to follow, the role model which other countries may emulate and worst – he has the codes and rights for use to America’s nuclear arsenal. He has already famously declared that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if South Korea or Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons. In a country as ritualistically religious as Saudi Arabia, where its practices, beliefs and ‘laws’ closely mirrors that of ISIS, he doesn’t see an issue with giving an ‘American ally’ the rights to own a nuclear weapon. As it is, Saudi Arabia leading the United Nations human rights council (an unfunny joke) is already a legitimate cause for anger, and now it’s ok to give them nuclear weapons?

          And that’s not forgetting his intent of building a wall to be paid for by Mexico and his insistence that Muslims should be barred from America until ‘we can figure out what’s happening’. How he intends to manifest these claims remain to be seen but Mexico has already said it would not foot the bill. What people seem to forget is that Trump is a failed businessman. He’s gone bankrupt six times, and all the businesses he has done has either been fraudulent or complete failures. Trump university? It’s been proven to be a scam. Trump airlines, Trump steaks and Trump wine? All failures. And Trump has been found guilty of using charity money for his own expenses. And he claims to be able to fix the economy?

          To add on to an already burgeoning list, it is likely that one of Trump’s agenda is to obstruct women’s rights to abortion. He once said that women who go for abortions should be punished though he later backed down on it. But it’s clear what he genuinely believes in.   He also doesn’t believe in climate change, brazenly calling it a ‘Chinese hoax’ and has no intent of respecting the Paris agreement – a unified global effort to tackle global warming. And if we move away from the man himself, Trump’s VP, Mike Pence is an ultra religious and loony evangelical Christian. Pence signed for the most restrictive abortion regulations. Even if the fetus had genetic defects, it would be illegal to abort, and if you do, you are required to bury or cremate the remains (presumably in a Christian way). His efforts of closing and defunding Planned Parenthood led to a resurgence of HIV in one county.

          Pence is also anti-gay, has signed laws that allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people, and diverted $53 million dollars towards public religious schools for the promotion of creationism. And like Trump, Pence also denies climate change. A campaign investigation has revealed that Pence used political donations to pay for the mortgage on his house, credit card bill and to buy a car for his wife. With both Trump and Pence, it’s a cataclysm waiting to happen. And that says nothing of the people Trump has picked to serve under his administration. They are all  either ultra-religious crazies, eccentrics or bigots. Even as ISIS and Saudi Arabia try to create an exclusive Islamic empire ruled under Sharia law, under a Trump Pence administration, the Christian version of Sharia law is not far away.

          But we are also seeing a regression in many countries across the world. China has built a firewall to restrict what its citizens can learn from the internet, employed human censors to quickly remove unfavorable content posted through apps and sites, forced the media to follow what the communist party wants, and will soon determine (through a scoring system) what’s right and wrong for all its citizens. Turkey’s no better off. President Erdogan has shown that he will arrest school kids for daring to insult his majestic splendour and he has already violently seized control of Turkey’s press.

          Let’s not forget the Philippines who voted President Duterte into power , a maniac who claims to hear voices and take instructions from God, and runs a vigilante campaign of mass murdering drug addicts and dealers. Under his administration, you are perfectly legalised and duly rewarded for the daylight murder of any suspected drug trafficker or user. No court proceedings required. And not only is he infamously vulgar and crude, his recent diplomatic actions  have been openly hostile towards America and any country that dares to criticise his ‘righteous campaign’. And does it help that in Asia, both Malaysia and Indonesia are gaining more support for Islamic fundamentalism? Or that Crimea’s prime minister, Sergey Aksyonov, has an alleged criminal past, is widely considered Russia’s puppet and rules that homosexuality is a crime?

          Because of America’s influence and sheer might, the Trump/Pence victory is likely to mark a genuine regression of all of mankind’s hard won victories. Separation of religion from politics / education? Giving everyone basic human rights regardless of race or religion? Allowing women to have control over their pregnancies? Acceptance of homosexuals? Support for critical and scientific thinking? These issues, which many people have given their lives for, are now poised to be moving ten steps backwards, with no clear path forward. It’s hard to believe that in a modern civilisation, where technology facilitates new modes of thinking and experimentation, we would choose to recluse ourselves to the dark ages. And sheer optimism won’t be enough here.

          So have you thought about (HYTA) whether are we past the point of no return?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why it is so difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong? (Trump’s presidency)

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          In a recent scientific study published in Nature, it was found that through repetition, the brain can eventually become adapted to dishonesty. Make enough small dishonest decisions and soon enough, there will be little distinction between the truth and the lie. Or right and wrong. And one cannot help but wonder why a significant majority of white voters would vote for Donald Trump, a man who by all accounts, is a proven xenophobe, racist and psychopath.

          What is it that prevents them from differentiating what’s clearly wrong from right? Donald Trump is the anti-thesis of the American constitution which enshrines religious freedom, free speech and equality as a given. However, by electoral choice, the majority of Americans have insisted that there is (and can only be) only one correct religion (Christianity), shown a strong belief in white supremacy and think little about acceptable treatment towards women. Never has human progress been so completely upended by reclusive dark age rhetoric.

          But maybe there’s not much to be surprised about. After all, as a means of comparison, Adolf Hitler, also a psychopath who preyed on ultra-religious and nationalistic fears, easily orchestrated a universal belief that only he could solve Germany’s problems. The keys to the office, the vestments of power and his dictatorial rule would not have been possible without the help of the Germans who (at that time) didn’t see anything wrong with a political candidate who used fear-mongering and political bigotry to appeal to base prejudices. It’s quite incredible that the very notion of subjugating the Jews could be at one point, deemed perfectly acceptable – the Sunday equivalent of morning coffee.

          And yet, in many surveys done, most people consider themselves ‘more tolerant’ and ‘more open’ than others. These respondents can themselves be highly discriminatory (especially in religion views and racial prejudices) and yet still happily tick the checkbox labeled “You consider yourself more tolerant / compassionate than most”. I am reminded of a discussion panel in which the interviewee who supported the deportation of Muslims, began with “…but I am not a racist because…” Clearly, the meaning of racism is completely lost on her. Sure, it’s a trick of the mind since we can all too easily believe what’s wrong is right, but it’s frightening how someone can sprout some of the most hateful speech against a group of people and preface it by insisting this has nothing to do with discrimination.

          And this is worrying. Democracy, a system in which the people vote for the best possible candidate, is beginning to show its short-comings. When a large majority of the population are bad thinkers, prone to logical fallacies, vulnerable to sophistry and largely disinterested in educating themselves further, democracy loses a great deal of its effectiveness. In fact, given that a considerable number of Americans believe in the Bible over evolution, and know little about government and political systems,  this electoral outcome was not completely uexpected. All Trump had do was to fire up the rhetoric everyone wanted to hear – as it is Americans already have a deep distrust towards Muslims, immigrants and Science.

          Still, I am sometimes reminded that as an outsider, it is easier to tell the difference between right and wrong. Many things are often contextual, and when caught up in the moment, it’s difficult to filter out pertinent information. Maybe Bertrand Russell, who wrote the following line in The Triumph of Simplicity, was correct:

          “The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

          While it is easier to be persuaded (and drawn) by those who speak in continued bursts of confidence (Trump believes he can solve anything but he doesn’t even know the difference between the Sunnis and Shia), it might be best, at the very end, to seek, love and keep close those who help us doubt, think and question the fabric of the very world we live in. Uncertainty in small doses is not always a bad thing.

So have you thought about (HYTA) why it’s so hard to differentiate right from wrong?

Have you thought about (HYTA) whether deeply religious people should be exempted from positions of power?

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          Anyone remotely affiliated with religious ideology will at least concede one point: they claim to have some form of intimate connection with God(s) which may include, though not limited to, the ability to sense his presence or hear his divine directions. Under the specter of religion, a chance meeting with an old friend becomes ‘divinely ordained fate’; personal tragedies become interpreted as ‘part of God’s greater plan for you’; or as it’s too often the case, chalked up to ‘the work of the Devil’. So let’s be clear: religion (or the supernatural) of any form is entirely invasive and like creeping vines, will find its way to parasitically coexist with the mind of its host.

          Would you hire someone who tells you he can hear voices, feel an unexplained spiritual presence or fervently believes the world will eventually come to an end? If you took religion out of the context, this person would be immediately labelled as fully dysfunctional, with a short phone call away from being housed in a mental asylum. Yet, under the wrappings of religion, what’s definitely abnormal becomes fully functional, if not acceptable. In the name of religion, it becomes possible to get away with nonsensical claims, and lousy anecdotal stories suddenly become moments of great divine revelation.

          And yet, some of the most powerful people in the world are deeply religious, almost fundamentally so. The Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, infamous for his brash trash talk,  heavy-handed vulgar language, and his horrific campaign of mass murdering drug addicts, said that he would abstain from swearing because God spoke to him and told him to clean up his language. Take a moment to think. It’s really as ridiculous as it sounds. What happens if he ‘hears’ God telling him to conquer nearby Asian countries or being reassured that murder is an acceptable form of justice? It would be but one hair trigger from an irreversible tragedy. And yet, nobody really minds that he ‘hears’ voices. It’s apparently quite normal to hear voices.

          Or what about Antonin Scalia, the American supreme court  justice – an extremely powerful position that most aspirants won’t reach, let alone dream of – who believes resolutely in the existence of the Devil? A judge who presided on issues of law, morality, and government policies, asserted in an interview that the Devil was a real person. He went as far as to say that non-believers were under demonic influence – a convenient (and faulty) way of defending religion while downplaying logic. In a system of laws where secularism speaks first, how could someone so religiously twisted be able to pass down effective judgements? Yet, in America, though not constitutionally enforced, it’s explicitly made clear that in order to hold a government position, belief in God (the Christian one) is necessary.

          It’s easy to point out that these are merely glaring missteps. But they aren’t isolated cases. For example, Pakistan was unable to ban child marriages (some as young as 6 years old) because its Council of Islamic Ideology, a bunch of genuine lunatics, decreed that it was ‘un-Islamic’ and blasphemous. A British chancellor occupying some of the highest scientific position believes in the absurdity of Astrology (not to be confused with Astronomy); climate change, evolution and right to abortion, continue to find incessant obstructions from religious groups; and of course, there’s Malaysia’s recent furor when authorities insisted that hot dogs (the food) be renamed because Islam considers dogs dirty. They also tried to ban and change the name ‘root beer’ because Islam prohibits alcohol. Root beer has no alcohol.

          Are these newsworthy stories worth kicking up a storm over? Absolutely. The front page headlines could beCrazy Philipines President claims to hear voices from the great unknown’ or ‘Supreme Justice should be fired for belief in Devil’. Yet the media response is far too often muted. It often considers religious transgressions and absurdities as social norms. It claims to respect the faith and belief of every individual while undercutting one’s capacity for deeper thought and reflection. The media, because it’s ultimately the mouthpiece of the government (it shouldn’t be), will always continue to promote its country’s main religion and blind nationalistic loyalty. Admittedly, cohesiveness of any kind is dependent on a sort of necessary blindness.

          Regardless, far too many religious people who have no business being in positions of power, are allowed to dictate laws, rules and regulations. And at a minimum, they continue to hold back, blockade and interfere with Science, logic and human rights. To be clear, with or without religion, mistakes will still be made and corruption will still seethe by the side. While religion can be a catalyst in encouraging people to abide by a certain moral code, it’s achieved with hostility towards science, towards other faiths, and a complete misrepresentation of how the world truly works. For these people, their confidence in their religious views are often such that “I could be wrong” doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. That should be enough grounds for a full disqualification.

          So have you thought about (HYTA) whether deeply religious people should hold positions of power?