Voice of Sanity – October 2016
Membership: adults $24/year
Editor: Joyce Bates
All correspondence to:
3620 Pelham Rd., Suite 5, #135
Greenville, SC. 29615
The Voice of Sanity
THE NEWSLETTER OF THE PIEDMONT HUMANISTS
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The Sunday meeting has a meet and greet or special activity from 10:00AM to 10:45AM
At 11:00AM there is usually a talk, video, or general discussion from 11:00AM to 1:00PM
Location: the Earth Fare 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville.
Sunday, October 2nd
10:00AM: Meet and greet
11:00AM: General discussion
Sunday, Octover 9th
10:00AM: Meet and Greet
11:00AM: General discussion
Sunday, October 16th
10:00AM: Being new to humanism and how to transition
11:00AM: General discussion
Sunday, October 23rd
10:00AM: Meet and Greet
11:00AM: General discussion
Sunday, October 30th
10:00AM: Meet and Greet
11:00AM: General discussion
ANNOUNCEMENT: The new location for the Freethought group will be Friar’s Tavern,
1178 Woodruff Road, Greenville, SC 29607. Meetings for trivia and pool will be at 7:00PM on October 13th and 27th.
The Free-Thought group will meet at 7:00PM October 6th and 20th (Thursday) for a meal at California Dreaming restaurant; 40 Beacon Drive; near the Pelham Road exit off I85.
October 8th: Second Saturday Brunch will be at10:00AM at the Golden Corral, 3240 North Pleasantburg Dr. Greenville, SC 29609
RELIGION AND SUICIDE*
Richard G. Dumont, Ph.D.
There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Albert Camus
Since suicide is so obviously an individual act, it is not surprising that most explanations for it have been individualistic, be they theological, philosophical, psychiatric or psychological. In contrast, sociologists tend to focus on groups as units of analysis, from small groups of two or three people through communities, such as cities, counties, regions and nation states. Regarding such phenomena as suicide, sociologists are inclined to calculate suicide rates for the ecological units of interest. A suicide rate is generally calculated as the number of suicides per 100,000 population. In 2013, for example, the suicide rate for the United States was 10.3, with 5.5 for females and 12.6 for males. The U.S. ranked 30 out of 109 nations. At rank 1 was Greenland, with its rate of 83.0 (43.0 for females and 116.9 for males). The five countries with the lowest rates were Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Haiti, and Nepal, each of which had rates of 0.0. (Source: World Health Organization. Available online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_coutries_by_suiocide_rate ). Among the U.S. States, suicide rates ranged from a highs of 29.6 for Wyoming, 23.0 for Alaska, 22.6 for Montana, 21.3 for New Mexico, and 21.0 for Utah to lows of 9.5 for Rhode Island, 8.7 for Massachusetts, 8.3 for New York, 7.4 for New Jersey and 5.7 for Washington, D.C. (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhlml/mm6345a10.htm.
French sociologist Ếmile Durkheim published his Le Suicide in 1897. In that work, which is considered a classic in Western sociology, Durkheim identified four types of suicide. Egoistic suicide results from feelings of not belonging, of not being integrated into a group or community, such feelings involving meaninglessness, apathy, despair, or depression. As will be observed below, egoistic suicide is the research subject of the current study. Altruistic suicide is, in many ways, the opposite of egoistic suicide, namely, when individuals are dominated by group goals and beliefs. Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II provide a vivid example.
Anomic suicide is related to rapid and dramatic changers and upheavals in the society and/or economy. Images of individuals jumping from skyscrapers during the time of the stock market crash and Great Depression of the early Twentieth Century come to mind. Fatalistic suicide is the opposite of anomic suicide. It occurs when an individual is overregulated, subject to oppressive rules, regulations and discipline. The 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown provides a dramatic example from recent history. On November 18, 1978, Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones led hundreds of his followers in a mass suicide by drinking a punch poisoned with cyanide.
A number of reviews of Durkheim’s research on suicide have been written since its publication, some negative, some positive and some, more or less, neutral.
Durkheim has been accused of committing the ecological fallacy,, which occurs when one incorrectly infers the value of data at the individual level from the ecological unit of analysis. For example, just because German provinces having higher percentages of Protestants had higher suicide rates, it does not necessarily follow empirically that Protestant are the ones actually disproportionately committing suicide. Although highly unlikely, it could be that it is actually the Catholics who are suicidal. (See the following sources, for example: Freeman, David A. 2002 The Ecological Fallacy University of California. http://www.stat.berkeley.edu/-cernsus/ecofall.txt; H. C. Selvin. 1965. “Durkheim’s Suicide: Further Thoughts on a Methodological Classic”, in R.A. Nisbet (ed.) Ểmile Durkheim pp. 113-136; and Irzik, Gurol and Eric Meyer, “Causal Modeling: New Directions for Statistical Explanation”, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), p. 509.
Another criticism of Durkheim’s work has been advanced by Frans Van Poppel and Lincolin H. Day, who argue that the differences in suicide rates are due to the differences in how deaths were categorized by the two groups. Specifically, deaths by suicide would be more likely to be recorded as suicides by Protestants than by Catholics. Source: Van Poppel, Frans, and Lincolin H. Day, “A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide—Without Committing the Ecological Fallacy”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jun., 1996), p 500.
Other reviewers, such as Inkels, Johnson, Gibbs and Martin, and Berk, have written in support of Durkheim’s methodology. For example, Bernard Berk has written that Durkheim “intended his theory to explain variation among social environments in the incidence of suicide, not the suicides of particular individuals.” Source: Berk, Bernard B. “Macro-Micro Relationships in Durkheim’s Analysis of Egoistic Suicide”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 2006), p.60. See, also, Inkeles, A. 1959. “Personality and Social Structure,” pp. 249-276 in Sociology Today, edited by R.K. Merton, L. Broom, and L.S. Cottrell, New York: Basic Books; Johnson, B.D. 1965 “Durkheim’s One Cause of Suicide,” American Sociological Review, 30:875-886; and Gibbs, J.P. and W.T. Martin, 1958, “A Theory of Status Integration and Its Relationship to Suicide,” American Sociological Review, 23: 14-147.
Durkheim calculated and compared the suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics for a number of German provinces. In each instance, he found that provinces having higher percentages of Protestants had higher rates of suicide than those having higher percentages of Catholics. By way of explanation, Durkheim invoked the concept of social integration. Due to its hierarchical form of organization, obligatory church attendance and numerous attendant rites and rituals, the Catholic Church bound its members to the church and to one another than was the case for Protestants, who were more egalitarian and had fewer rites and rituals. Accordingly, Protestants were more likely to be victims of egoistic suicide.
The purpose of the current study is to replicate Durkheim’s analysis, utilizing the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., as the units of analysis. Additionally, our analyses will distinguish between Evangelical and Mainline Protestants along with the Unaffiliated. Furthermore, we will consider Historically Black Churches. Data for this study derive from the same base utilized for the writing of my two recently published books, Economic Inequality and What YOU Can Do About It (2012) and When Hate Happens, So Does Other Bad Stuff (2013). The data on religious affiliation come from the Pew Forum on Public Life 2009. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Available online at: http://religiomn.pewforum.org/reports and at http://religions.pewforum.org/maps.
The specific source for suicide rates is the Mental Health Association of America,” State Rankings on Suicide Rates” (2008). Available online at:http://www.nmha.org/go/state=ranking.
Table 1 displays the principal findings of this study.
Table 1: Correlational Relationships between Religious Affiliation and Suicide Rates.
Evangelical Protestants .252 The higher the percentage of Evangelical Protestants
the higher the suicide rate.
Mainline Protestants .118 The higher the percentage of Mainline Protestants
the higher the suicide rate.
Catholics -.415* The higher the percentage of Catholics
the lower the suicide rate.
Unaffiliated .244 The higher the percentage of Unaffiliated
the higher the suicide rate.
Historically Black -.342* The higher the percentage of members of Historically Black
Churches the lower the suicide rate.
* Statistically significant at p = .05
Although not all of the above findings are statistically significant, they are uniformly consistent
With Durkheim’s original theory and are, thereby, supportive of it.
We have examined the relationships between several religion variables and the suicide rate, guided by Durkheim’s theory of suicide. The relationships of suicide rates between Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants and the Unaffiliated were in the predicted positive direction, although none were statistically significant. Regarding the relationships between suicide rates and the percent of Catholics and the percent of members in Historically Black Churches, however, Durkheim’s theory was more strongly confirmed and supported. It may be hypothesized that members of Historically Black Churches, because of a history of discrimination and oppression against African-Americans, are bound more closely to one another and to their churches than would otherwise be the case.
*This article appears on pages 40-41 of the October/November, 2016, of Free Inquiry.
It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
THINKING ABOUT THINKING
Philosophers and scientists have been arguing for centuries about: 1) Whether our consciousness is distinct from the brain and can therefore somehow operate as a separate entity or: 2) That if consciousness is connected to the brain it must be the commander of all actions allowing us to be masters of our fates. During the last fifty years neurological experimentation and improved technology have been inching closer and closer to a definitive answer to these questions. In his short but brilliant book Consciousness, Christof Koch shows us how science is slowly untangling the tantalizing evasiveness of how the mind arises from the physical brain. Here are some studies that reveal that we truly have our physical make-up to thank for our intellect.
There have been a lot of experiments done with sleep disorders. One in particular was done to examine the activity of the primary visual cortex. This is located in the posterior area of the brain and is the first area to process input from the eyes. Those conducting the experiment assumed that since volunteers claimed seeing different scenes in their dreams there should be activity in this area during the REM phase of sleep. Surprisingly the area was inhibited instead. Further investigation showed that other primary sensory areas such as hearing were also suppressed. But this is not the case in people who have suffered massive brain damage and are in a vegetative state. These primary sensors still do function by themselves. It seems that the critical difference between people that are permanently unconscious and those that regain some consciousness is the ability of the latter to retain connection and feedback between all the sensory, memory, motor areas of the brain and the prefrontal cortex.
There is another side to the coin because it is possible, although rare, that a person can be conscious and yet have brain damage that will not allow them to communicate with the outside world. Such a case was a woman who had severe head trauma from an automobile accident and gave no visible response to attempts at communication. She was placed in an MRI scanner and told to imagine playing tennis and walking about in her home. The scanner picked up the kind of brain activity identical to healthy people who closed their eyes and imagined the same kind of activities. Steven Hawking, although suffering severe handicaps from amylotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), lives in a fully conscious world.
Another experiment was done with what neuro-scientists call concept cells. These are groups of neurons that form an idea of a particular object. Every time you talk about, experience or think about a particular person or thing there is a pattern of spikes in the area of the brain where the concept neurons fitting that experience are located. It is possible to hook up these concept cells to a visual display that shows a person’s thoughts. This was done when pictures of a volunteer’s two favorite actors were projected on a monitor and electronically hooked up to the particular concept cells for each image in her brain (a feat it took three years to make workable). When the patient thought of one of the actors instead of the other the image of that actor became more dominant on the monitor. When she shifted her attention to the other actor, that image then took precedence.
The corpus callosum comprises the brain tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres. This area can be cut in epileptics so that seizures cannot spread from one hemisphere of the brain to another. After surgery these patients lead remarkably normal lives, but there are unexpected aftermaths. One odd result is called alien hand syndrome. People sometimes lose control of one of their arms. It seems that the unconscious motor region on one side of the brain is cut off from the cortical conscious area on the other side and the individual experiences the odd sensation of seeing their arm move without any previous awareness of the action.
This brings to mind a series of experiments performed in the 1980s by neurologist Benjamin Libet. He measured the time in milliseconds between the action of muscles flexing and the actual conscious decision to move one’s finger. The flexing began about 300 milliseconds before the decision was made. The series of experiments became fodder in the arguments for and against free will. However, motor movements are only a small part of the daily activities our unconscious mind performs leaving us free to “think” of other things which brings us to the subject of zombie agents.
Zombie agents are all the hard won actions we have consciously put together in the past but now completely ignore when we perform them. None of us have to patiently tease out the shapes of the letters and their attendant sounds in order to extract meaning from the words on this page. That technique was mastered in our early elementary school years. Our unconscious automatically does the physical ground work allowing us to efficiently absorb meaning from sentences and paragraphs. The same is true for hitting a tennis ball, playing a musical instrument or driving a car. Ironically, once the processes are mastered and given over to other areas of the brain, any conscious attention given to them can disrupt a skilled performance.
There are social zombie agents, too. These are better known as unconscious biases and can be triggered by simply repeating a series of related words. One of a number of tests was used by John Bargh at Yale University to influence the behavior of test subjects by using such words. The words in this test were old, lonely, retired, forgetful, wrinkled among others and they were used in a task for members of one group to use as they made up sentences. The words were eliminated from the list given to members of the control group. He then timed how long it would take for the experimental and control groups to walk from the classroom to the elevator. All members of the experimental group walked more slowly to the elevator than those of the control group. Similar behaviors were stimulated with other groups of words suggesting biases.
Some patients with serious brain injury have undergone trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to determine how much their consciousness may be damaged. TMS pulses are applied to through the skin to the frontal lobes and immediate adjacent areas. These pulses produce a wavelike flow of about 40 cycles per second and will extend from the points of stimulation to more remote areas of the brain if consciousness is present. When used on vegetative patients the EEG responses from the stimulation are confined to local responses and no “wave” of activity is observed. However, some patients are in what is called a minimal conscious state. That is, a condition where the usual cognitive signs are poor such as the ability to follow movement with the eyes or make verbal or hand gestures to questions. These patients, however, still yield an EEG reading with a wave of activity identical to a normal waking state.
So, what is the case for the mind being connected to the brain? We know that people with extensive brain damage can be either vegetative or conscious depending on where the damage is. As far as conscious control of our actions is concerned the answer may be yes or no depending on the situation. It was definitely yes for the lady who could mentally switch images on a monitor in the concept neuron experiment. For epileptics who had the corpus callosum severed it was a little of both. They had better control of their lives unless alien hand syndrome occurred. In the Libet experiment it was definitely no because the conscious was the last to know the finger was getting ready to move. Zombie agents featured yes and no. Our conscious minds are necessary for the concentration required while learning a new behavior, but as soon as the behavior is accomplished it is relegated to the unconscious allowing the mind to attend to other tasks. Social zombie agents apparently follow the same pattern.
The TMS experiments seem closest to teasing out the working conscious from the unconscious. The EEGs of vegetative and minimal conscious patients clearly shows that activity flashing across different areas of the brain is a prerequisite for cognition. Christof Koch believes that at a certain point the “wholeness” of our awareness becomes more than the sum of its parts. With nearly 100 billion cells and an exponential amount of connections in the brain the answer to the question of the “whole” is probably still a long way off. JB
Consciousness, Christof Koch, 2012, MIT Press https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome
ONE TEENAGER AND SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
Cindy Fisk is only a teenager but has had the courage to speak out about constitutional violations of separation of church and state in her high school in Colorado. She says she got confidence from participation in her local debate team. Here are some of the things she has done:
Recently Amendment 67 appeared on the Colorado state ballot. The amendment was known as the “personhood” ballot. It was supposedly put forth because of an incident where a drunk driver struck a woman in her last trimester of pregnancy and caused her to lose her baby. Although well intentioned, the wording of the proposed amendment makes the killing of any fetus a legal homicide and also puts the mother at risk from prosecution. Ms. Fisk wore a garbage bag to a Halloween party as a statement against the legislation. Her comment was that the amendment was “garbage”.
She also came out for the right of such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and similar groups to distribute their pamphlets in the local school district. Her argument was that the Gideons had already been allowed by the school administration to distribute their bibles.
She objected to a presentation by a faith-based sex education teacher at the high school, as well. This instructor told students that pre-marital sex took them further from God. Crucifixes were displayed on the presentation slides and there were improper comments about female anatomy. Fisk and some fellow students wore T-shirts printed with mottoes such as “Real control is birth control” when they attended these presentations. This particular sex education program was funded by an outside organization well known for proselytizing.
She received lowered grades for the above activities from her government teacher who considered her habit of questioning authority objectionable. She also received threats. One threat suggested that the “atheist” leave school in a body bag. Her father filed a police report but nothing was ever done.
Cindy Fisk is now in college and although she knows she was punished for standing up for separated of church and state she has no regrets for what she did.
Upon waking, a woman said to her husband, “I just dreamt that you gave me a necklace of pearls. What do you think it means?”
The man smiled and kissed his wife. “You’ll know tonight,” he softly whispered.
That evening, the man came home with a small package which he gave to his wife. She jumped up and embraced him, and then settled on the couch to slowly and delicately unwrap the package.
It contained a book entitled, The Meaning of Dreams.