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The Backfire Effect

You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you

President Carrie Henson’s Comments at the February 6th, 2018 KPB Assembly Meeting adapted from an article by The Oatmeal…

I’m going to tell you some things. You’re not going to believe these things I tell you. And that is okay. You have good reason not to. But I need you to keep listening, regardless of what you believe. I don’t care if you are liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between. I don’t care if you are a cat person, a dog person, or a tarantula person. Morning person or night owl. Iphone or Android. Coke or Pepsi. I don’t care. All I care about is that you listen to the end.

You may have heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood. It’s a disturbing visual, Except it isn’t true.

In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth. His mouth was a petting zoo of nightmares.

Upon learning this information, I want to ask you something: how did it feel to learn this new fact about George Washington’s teeth? I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

What if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials? What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves?

Now, let’s try this again: How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington? Any more of that friction I mentioned earlier? Before we go any further, allow me to reiterate: I am not here to convince you that George Washington was a bad person. I could go through all my cited sources and cherry-pick arguments that either deify or demonize George Washington. I could paint a portrait of a monster, or I could exonerate a patriot. But as I said before, I don’t care. It’s not the point.

The point is to give you an emotional barometer of how you feel when presented with new ideas. Because you may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. I would even wager that when I told you the first fact, you accepted it without question. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately wanted proof of my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort in your head and may have quit listening to me entirely.

And that’s okay. That’s all part of it. Let’s try a few more. Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. He was 5’7, which was taller than the average Frenchman at the time. Houseflies live for about a month, not 24 hours. Humans don’t explode in a vacuum nor do we boil. We just pass out from lack of oxygen and then we die.

Again as you listen to these facts, take stock of how you feel. I’m guessing you softened to the last few fairly easily. Let’s try a few more.

There is zero evidence that Jesus Christ was born on December 25th. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Six of the seven justices who voted in favor of Roe v. Wade were Republican appointed. How did those last three feel? Depending on your beliefs, I’m guessing it may have put some of you pretty close to popping the top of that barometer. At the very least, you can concede that it felt different to hear those statements compared to the ones about Napoleon or houseflies.

Why do we easily soften to some ideas but not to others? Why do we gnash our teeth when presented with evidence counter to our beliefs? Why do we not only ignore the evidence, but dig our heels in deeper and believe more strongly in the opposing argument? Why would providing more evidence make someone less likely to believe in an idea? It seems backwards and kind of bonkers to me. Turns out bonkers has a name in the world of neuroscience. It’s called the backfire effect. And it’s a well-documented psychological behavior.

A few years ago at the university of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, a study was conducted where participants were placed into a MRI machine. Once inside, they were presented with counterarguments to strongly held political beliefs. As participants were read these counterarguments, various parts of their brains were scanned for activity. What the study revealed was that we react to threatening information the same way we’d react to being attacked by a predator.

Core beliefs are the beliefs which people cherish the most deeply. They usually develop from childhood and are compounded by life experiences. Core beliefs are inflexible, rigid, and incredibly sensitive to being challenged. When I told you that George Washington’s dentures were made from animal bones, it probably didn’t ruffle many feathers. But when I suggested they were made from slave teeth, I’m guessing it caused strife with some of you. There are obvious cultural reasons for this; slavery is a sensitive, hot-button issue. But there are biological reasons as well. Some of you may have held a worldview that George Washington was a patriot and a hero. By presenting negative information about him, it challenged that worldview. Your brain loves consistency. It builds a worldview like we build a house. It has a foundation and a frame and windows and doors and it knows exactly how everything fits together. If a new piece is introduced and it doesn’t fit, the whole house falls apart. Your brain protects you by rejecting that piece. It then builds a fence and a moat and refuses to let in any visitors. This is why we have the back fire effect. It’s a biological way of protecting our worldview.

So, what do we do about this? The disappointing truth is that I don’t have much advice for you. I don’t have a way to change the behavior of 7.5 billion people carrying their beliefs around like precious gems wrapped in hand grenades. This is compounded by the internet, where anything can be cited as a source and every disagreement degrades into a room full of orangutans throwing feces at one another. The best I can do is make you aware of it, so you can identify the backfire effect in your own brain. Which isn’t easy. The mind can’t separate the emotional cortex from the logical one. And one could argue that this emotional underbelly is what makes us human. But I would argue that it’s also what makes us animals.

I sometimes pretend this part of my brain is in my pinky toe. When a core belief is challenged, I imagine it yelling insane things at me. I let it yell. I let it have its moment. I let the emotional cortex fight its little fight. And then I listen. And then I change.

Because this universe of ours is so achingly beautiful. And we’re all in it together. We’re all going to same direction. I’m not here to take control of the wheel. Or to tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it is ok to stop. To Listen. To change.

Atheist by Definition; Humanist at Heart!

President Carrie Henson’s Comments at the July 18th, 2017 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Meeting.

Since this body insists on subjecting me to a Christian prayer before these public meetings that represent all citizens and have even censored some citizens from being able to civic-ally invocate, in protest, I will continue to subject you to my beliefs until equality is restored by this Assembly.

You have heard me refer to myself as an Atheist but that tells you nothing about what I believe, that only tells you in what I do not believe. Calling myself an Atheist only refers to my lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. Atheism is one thing and one thing only: a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what I believe. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.

Atheism is not a belief system nor is it a religion.

While there are some religions that are atheistic (certain sects of Buddhism, for example), that does not mean that atheism is a religion. To put it in a more humorous way: If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Despite the fact that atheism is not a religion, atheism is protected by many of the same Constitutional rights that protect religion. That, however, does not mean that atheism is itself a religion, only that our sincerely held (lack of) beliefs are protected in the same way as the religious beliefs of others. Similarly, many “interfaith” groups will include atheists. This, again, does not mean that atheism is a religious belief.

Some groups will use words like Agnostic, Humanist, Secular, Bright, Freethinker, or any number of other terms to self-identify. Those words are perfectly fine as a self-identifier, but I strongly advocate also using the word that people understand: Atheist. I don’t use those other terms to disguise my atheism or to shy away from a word that some think has a negative connotation. We should be using the terminology that is most accurate and that answers the question that is actually being asked. We should use the term that binds all of us together.

If I call myself a humanist, a freethinker, a bright, or even a “cultural Catholic” and lack belief in a god, I am an atheist. I don’t shy away from the term. I embrace it.

In recent surveys, the Pew Research Center has grouped atheists, agnostics, and the “unaffiliated” into one category. The so-called “Nones” are the fastest growing “religious” demographic in the United States. Pew separates out atheists from agnostics and the non-religious, but that is primarily a function of self-identification. Only about 5% of people call themselves atheists, but if you ask about belief in gods, 11% say they do not believe in gods. Those people are atheists, whether they choose to use the word or not.

I am an atheist because there is not sufficient evidence for me to subscribe to the belief in any God or gods. When I refer to myself as an atheist all you have found out about me is that I lack a belief in any gods.

When I refer to myself as an atheist you have learned what I do not believe, when I refer to myself as a Humanist, I am giving you a clue as to what I do believe.

I was raised a Humanist, though we didn’t use that term. I learned to be responsible, compassionate, and ethical. I was taught that my actions have consequences, that happiness can be found, and that ultimately what is important is our relationships with other people.

It wasn’t until about a decade ago that I first learned about Humanism and found that its philosophy was in lock step with my own personal world views. I decided to find out if there were other like-minded individuals in our community dedicated to making the world a better place and so I founded Last Frontier Freethinkers. Through LFF I have gotten to know some amazing people and have been able to explore my understanding of Humanism and how it can be applied to daily life.

Humanist consider rational thinking essential to good moral reasoning. Because rational thinking is so important, Humanists engage in a method of thinking called “Freethought” Freethinking is best thought of as an attempt to free your reasoning of self or society imposed limitations. It is hard to do because it requires a lot of discipline to realize when you are limiting your thinking and to actively consider alternatives.

Humanism is first and foremost a philosophy about morality. It is the study of what it means to be a good human being. For me, there are three traits I consider mandatory for a person to be good. These three traits are the true holy trinity. A good person is compassionate, ethical, and responsible.

The word ethical in this context, refers to a group of virtues. If someone is ethical, they are honest, principled, fair, and decent. An ethical person has a sense of justice, integrity and knows the difference between right and wrong. They do not like to see other people taken advantage of or treated unfairly.

Compassion is the most important attribute of this true holy trinity. It trumps the other two because it acts as a moral compass. To be compassionate you need to see other people as full human beings. Once you understand that all people feel love, pain, and sorrow, exactly like you do, you begin to understand how important it is for you to become responsible for the impact your behavior has on others.

For a compassionate person, good is defined as helping people, and bad is defined as hurting people. It is easy to know the difference between right and wrong because when you are doing right you are bringing about joy and happiness to others and when you are doing wrong you are contributing to others suffering.

Being responsible is part of the true holy trinity of goodness because it is not enough to be honest and fair. It is not enough to care and not wish to cause harm. Unless we take responsibility for our actions and the impact our actions have on others, we cannot hope to behave in a way that is good.

Understanding that each person in the world is a real person with real dreams, desires, and problems changes the way you view “other” people. This change is central to why the Humanist philosophy is called Humanism. Once you truly grasp the reality of other individuals, human rights are no longer a pithy slogan: they are a mandatory prerequisite for civilized living that must never be compromised.

This is what I do believe. I am an atheist by definition. I am a Humanist at heart.

Religion should have no place in government.

President Carrie Henson’s Comments at the June 20th, 2017 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Meeting.

Religion should have no place in government. Before I begin to defend that proposition, let me be clear about what I am advocating: I certainly am not advocating that persons who are religious should be excluded from government positions, much less that they should be denied the right to vote. Nor am I saying that it is improper for government officials or voters to be inspired in some way by their religious beliefs. The source of one’s motivations is a matter of indifference to others, at least to the extent that this motivating source merely provides one with a general commitment to act responsibly and with respect for others in the moral community.

No, what principally concerns me and many other Secular Humanist’s is religion’s role in informing and shaping public policy and, in particular, in the use of religious tenets as a justification for public policy. Discourse about public policy should be framed entirely in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based entirely on secular considerations.

Why do I take that view? To begin, I am assuming that we are speaking about a democratic form of government, or at least a government of a country in which the citizens are encouraged to discuss and debate public policy and the government is expected to justify its public policy to its citizens. There is one clear prerequisite for democratic discourse to be successful: the participants in that discussion must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate reasons that others offer for their views. That is not possible if religious doctrine is offered as a justification for public-policy positions.

If you claim that you oppose same-sex marriage because the Old Testament states that homosexual conduct is an abomination, that’s the end of the discussion, isn’t it? There’s really nothing more to say. At this stage, there’s effectively no way for someone who differs from you to persuade you otherwise. There is value in discussion. When we can discuss the pros and cons of a particular policy, we may just arrive at a better decision. As indicated, discussion is foreclosed when one appeals to religious tenets or dogma.

You might ask why is it the case that reliance on religion cuts short discussion. Can’t we discuss religion just like we discuss other beliefs? In principle, perhaps. In reality, no. Just take a look at the assembly members as I speak today. Some show no interest in what I am saying and have already tuned me out. Perhaps they are praying for me instead or have just completely removed their consciousness from my voice entirely.

Even if these assembly members were willing to allow their beliefs to be examined critically, think about how involved the process of determining public policy would become. Every time someone offered a religious belief as a justification for public policy, we would become immersed in an incredibly complex discussion about whether the underlying religious belief is justified.

Let’s say someone favors abstinence-only education because fornication is a sin in Christian doctrine. To start off, we would have to examine the basis for the claim that fornication is indeed a sin. This requires interpretation of biblical texts that are not terribly straightforward or transparent in their meaning. Moreover, who is to say the Bible represents the commandments of God? We now know, for example, that the four Gospels set forth in the New Testament represent a fraction of the various gospels regarding Jesus that floated around in the first few centuries of the Common Era. How do we determine which statements attributed to Jesus actually represent the views of Jesus? Do we even know whether Jesus existed? Scholars have spent decades on such questions. And, of course, for those who do not accept Jesus as divine or even a divinely inspired prophet, there is the problem of proving to them that they should accept the pronouncements of Jesus as authoritative. How in God’s name do we accomplish that within the period of the time available for coming to a decision on a public policy such as the support of abstinence-only education? We cannot turn every public policy debate into a debate on religion unless we are willing to spend all eternity engaged in such debates.

Contrast this religion-laden approach to public policy with the secular approach. The primary goals of abstinence-only education are to reduce STDs and unwanted pregnancy. If abstinence-only education is effective in achieving these goals, especially if it is more effective than standard sex education, perhaps it should be supported. If it is not, then support may not be advisable. This is a question that can be resolved through empirical studies. Granted these empirical studies cannot be done overnight, but they require a finite amount of time and yield clear results, as contrasted with the lifetime of study that would be required to address obscure theological questions that do not promise to yield a definitive answer ever. In fact, studies have been carried out on abstinence-only education, and these studies show it is not effective. That should resolve this question, and it would resolve this question if we kept religion out of government.

As I said in the beginning, I am not arguing that religious persons should be kept out of government and, of course, I recognize that a person’s religious beliefs will influence his outlook. But if that person wants to engage fellow citizens in a discussion about the correct course of action to take, he must restructure his arguments in secular terms. There is nothing onerous about that requirement. In fact, it operates as a much-needed check on the soundness of one’s reasoning. If one cannot reformulate a religiously based moral belief in terms that a nonbeliever might find persuasive, one should pause to consider whether one’s views are correct. Perhaps you have misinterpreted God’s commandments. After all, why would God ask you to follow a rule that does not make any sense when you try to explain it to someone else?

I submit we need to go beyond sacred texts and religious dogma when considering the basis for public policy. Using some allegedly sacred writing from millennia ago—that provides us with the profound wisdom of a nomadic and barbaric tribe—as both the starting and end point of any public policy debate does not seem an especially promising way to deliver solutions to twenty-first-century problems.

Stronger Together

I don’t know about you but the state of our nation’s continues to drain my emotional well; the well where my strength and conviction resides. So far the only way I have found to replenish that well is to get involved.

The first time this happened is when I was asked to lead our local Sister March on January 21st 2017 and was overwhelmed by the turn-out. We had 322 people come out to support Human Rights issues in our little town of Soldotna. Immediately after that was an amazing community building event at the Soldotna Library. There was music and special speakers but what really filled me with hope was the vision board. Each participant was asked to put one positive vision they had for our community’s future on the vision board. These community goals were then complied into Five action groups:

  1. Women’s Issues/Healthcare
  2. Clean Air/Water/Climate
  3. Alaska Budget/Education
  4. Community Dialogue
  5. Elections

Now these smaller groups will get together and come up with actionable steps to achieve their specific community goal. I am so looking forward to participating with these groups and see how this momentum continues to evolve in our community.

My well was overflowing after this inspiring event! Then President Trump started signing executive orders that put the health of women all around the world in jeopardy and blatantly discriminated against Muslim refugees and immigrants. So far the only “draining” that I could see Trump doing was my emotional well once again.

Thankfully the Women’s March of Washington group had more for us to do, 10 action items in 100 days, the first to be sending postcards to our elected officials. Last Frontier Freethinkers hosted a postcard writing event at Odie’s Deli and again I was overwhelmed by the attendance and all the thoughtful concerns that everyone passionately put pen to paper. At one point everyone in the restaurant was writing on a postcard, even those who originally came just to have lunch. My well was full again.

As we all struggled to frantically call and email our elected officials in the following week, to stop the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, I felt my well begin to drain again when my very own representative, who had been overwhelmed by all the comments of opposition  she was getting from her constituents, was the swing vote to allow DeVos to move out of committee and head to a vote on the senate floor for which she will almost certainly be confirmed. This will be a devastating blow to our public school system.

Yesterday I went to watch a comedian economist tell political jokes and talk about Climate Change. Not just talk about it but actually provide actionable solutions that we all could take part in thanks to the work of Citizen’s Climate Lobby. I had not laughed that hard in a long time and for the first time had a glimmer of hope that we could actually do something tangible to mitigate the effects of climate change and move towards a more sustainable and livable future. I also noticed that as I go to all these events I am seeing a lot of the same faces and realizing that these are my people. These are the people who will change the world. My well was overflowing once again.

So that is it! This is how I am staying sane during this very chaotic time in American History. I am engaging in the resistance movement. I am actively participating and contributing to that movement. I am letting those that are standing next to me fill my emotional well with hope and inspiration for a brighter future as I see our numbers grow and our passion build. They are keeping me strong and committed to the cause. I hope I am doing the same for them. It is funny that Hillary Clinton’s Campaign promise was Stronger Together because that has never been truer for me than it is today.

If you are really struggling with the unthinkable things that are going on in this country, if you are in despair, and your emotional well is bone dry. Join Us! I promise you it will help. There is sure to be continued horrors as we move through these next for years, there will be  set backs, and we won’t win every battle. But we will win the war…

If we refuse to let them break our spirit,

If we refuse to back down,

If we refuse to be quiet,

We are Many Voices and we are Stronger Together!

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC - DSC_9915crgn_R_Ph Gene Page

I am a big fan of The Walking Dead. Not because of the imaginative and entertaining ways they come up with to kill zombies but because of the very real moral issues they have to deal with on a daily basis to survive. The main group meets lots of new people as they forage for food and shelter; lots of “strangers”. In a world like that, strangers are the great unknown and we all know how humanity fears the unknown. Is the stranger friendly or will he try to take what little we have, and will he try to kill us to get it? Every new person is a potential threat. So here in lies the dilemma… when the world is falling apart and all resources are scarce is it ok to consider someone a threat before they have proven that they actually are and act accordingly; which could include killing them before they have a chance to kill you? From strictly a survival stand point the answer is yes but you see humans have evolved beyond just “being”. Life is not just about being alive but how we go about living. Since man has been able to reason and ponder his existence, it has no longer been enough to just be alive; our lives actually have to stand for something. They have to have meaning. This leads us to the questions… is life really worth living in a constant state of fear, suspicion, and suffering? What value does a human life have if it is just mindlessly surviving long enough to reproduce? Is there a grander ideal that even in the direst of circumstances we should be trying to attain?

The characters in The Walking Dead all have asked themselves these questions. Some have come to the conclusion that they will do whatever it takes to protect themselves and the others they know and care about. They are unwilling to risk accepting any newcomers; other’s feel that every new person deserves a chance to prove themselves and is willing to take the risk for the greater good. Because once you get to know someone they are no longer a stranger and most often we come to care about the people we know.

This parallels very well with the current Syrian Refugee debate that is going on in this country. There is a large group of people that think we should close our borders to these people (strangers) in need in the off chance that a dangerous terrorist might slip through among them. Humanists and other empathetic Americans disagree with letting fear overrule compassion. Some of us do not want to just survive but instead want the entire human race to thrive together. Empathy has evolved in humans specifically for this purpose. It has been genetically selected because humans not only survive when they cooperate and care for each other but we reach our full potential to flourish as a species with less suffering.

I am so glad that there are people out there like Brandon Stanton; he is using his Humans of New York blog to tell the stories of Syrian Refugee families. It is much harder to be callous when you “know” who they really are. A stranger is just an unfamiliar entity but once we learn their story they become familiar and some become so close that they become family. When will we learn that we are all part of the human family?

Religion has tried to impart values but religion is divisive and separates the human family into groups. Dogma has made it very clear that thou shall not kill those within your ideological group but all other groups are fair game. Moral issues are decided very differently under the guise of dogmatic preference. The same goes for nationalism. We must help those from our same country but children, families, people outside our country can perish. But these are all labels we have given each other; once those labels are removed we are all the same. It is only our individual way of thinking that sets us apart, not where we live or what god we worship. Some choose fear and in honor of Star Wars day a quote from Yoda… “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Instead what does compassion look like in The Walking Dead world? Do people still die? Of course they do; that is always inevitable. Instead it is how they live that really matters. Do they help everyone in need? Even if helping them might put them in a dangerous situation? Even if some are making poor decisions that put the rest of them in danger? Do they exile those people knowing that if they survive and hook up with other people, they may come back to try and take what they have? I’m still working out my own answers to those questions but there is a very interesting character named Morgan that has vowed not to kill any living person because “all life is precious”. Even if they are attacking him, his goal is to subdue and try to reason with them instead of kill them. He believes his life only has value if he values the lives of others. Otherwise he is no different than the “Walking Dead”.