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The Calgary Secular Church
Editor's Note: Please welcome Korey Peters, who's written a guest post about an atheist organization he's founded that he's calling the Calgary Secular Church. In this post, he'll explain what motivated him to do it and what he's hoping to achieve.
My name is Korey Peters, and I'm one of the founding members of the Calgary Secular Church (CSC). In this article, I'd like to do three things: 1. Describe why I think a secular church is important. 2. Describe what the CSC is about. 3. Present my opening remarks from our inaugural meeting (which go in-depth into what we hope to accomplish). There will be some overlap, although I've tried to keep it to a minimum. I'll be happy to field questions in the comment section.
In the process of de-converting from fundamentalist Christianity, I stopped going to church. I had no intention of ever going back. However, I once rashly promised my wife that if we ever moved to the UK, I would sing in a choir with her. Well, much to my surprise, we did this in 2006. Within a week of landing my wife reminded me of my promise, so off we went to find an Anglican church with a good choir.
And find one we did. We were quickly integrated into the most lovely group of people you'd ever want to meet. The music was wonderful, the services light on insanity and heavy on social issues, the ale English (as it should be). That choir became our instant community for the 2 years we lived in England, and to this day I miss them all.
I'd never had such an enjoyable time at church! When we returned home, we began attending a local Anglican church and singing in the choir there. Here I was, a recent atheist now attending church more than I had when I was a Christian.
All of this got me thinking: Why couldn't atheists start a church, full of all the good things that church can bring, but absent the horror, ignorance, and superstition? I began to talk the idea over with some friends, but it remained an abstraction.
Several weeks ago I had a conversation with a co-worker that spurred me to finally take action. His wife was recently pregnant, and they discussed the many changes in their lives that a baby would bring. One change that was proposed was going back to church so that their child would learn right and wrong. I almost spit my coffee across the room. What a preposterous idea! Here were two college-educated, non-religious people who had just proposed taking their child into the church to learn the very thing Christian churches are least capable of teaching. The realization hit home that they have nowhere else to take their child. There were no viable alternative. No place that fostered community, that was safe to take children and young families to, that would help people live right and teach their children to live right.
They needed the atheist church I had been planning.
That night I emailed a co-conspirator and we met a week later to found The Calgary Secular Church. I wanted to call it The Calgary Atheist Church, which my friend considered too off-putting. She wanted The Calgary Humanist Church, which I thought was too wishy-washy. We settled on Secular, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. "The Un-Church Church". Perfect. She created a Facebook group for us, and we were away.
What is The Calgary Secular Church?
The Calgary Secular Church is the good parts of the Christian church, without the bad. We are a small group of a-religious or atheist people who want the community and celebration we used to have in our Christian (or Mormon) churches, but reject the superstition and faith espoused by our former haunts.
We have no dogma, but we do have an ethical and moral framework (based largely on Adam's writings) that is robust but open to challenge. This is a subtle but powerful advantage over non-churched atheists. While free thought is recommended, some people have no interest in completely re-analyzing their moral framework every time they leave the house. That's fine. The CSC provides a place where people who want to be ethical can benefit from the work of others in this area, where every little thing doesn't become an ordeal of self-analysis. Let us stand on the shoulders of giants.
How We Operate
The CSC meets the first Sunday of every month. As we grow this may change. We are rather informal (our first meeting was in an Italian bakery), but not unstructured. Meetings will have an orderly and predictable progression.
What We Aspire To
The following remarks are taken from a speech I gave at our inaugural meeting. They reflect my own intentions for the church, and are subject to change or modification by the other participants as we get going. However, I hope they will play a large role in the CSC's future.
Today we are going to save the world.
Welcome to the inaugural meeting of the Calgary Secular Church. Over the last 2000 years, the Christian church has come to be the center of much of the richness of human experience. However, the shortcomings of the Bible and Christianity are too serious to continue to ignore. Our purpose, therefore, is to take the good parts of church, the parts that are so beneficial to human society, and that have been proven effective over the last several millenia: the community, the music, and throw out the bad parts of church, the parts that threaten to make this planet inhospitable for human life: the systematic ignorance, the immorality, the bronze-age baggage. We are going to do church better than the Christians, better than anyone else. This is the Calgary Secular Church.
I'd like to start by giving a few ideas for the CSC that I think are of critical importance. Then I'd like to discuss a few ideas that I think would be nice to have. Finally, I'll throw it open to the floor for everyone else to comment about what they'd like out of the CSC.
Okay. Some things I think are critical. Without these, I'm not interested in belonging.
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles by which we agree to be governed. When presented with two courses of action, a constitution allows us to choose the path that best fits our identity. It allows us to know what to do, even when we encounter completely new situations. With this in mind, I have a simple constitution which I'd like to propose for the CSC. Right now it's just for discussion, but I would like to codify it within the next few weeks. If you have suggestions or critiques, please let me know (and I'll post this on our Facebook page ASAP).
First Article: As much as possible, minimize real and potential suffering. As much as possible, maximize real and potential happiness.
This is our fundamental outlook on the world. All activity can be measured against this ethical framework. You can read more here.
Second Article: Sustainability.
The CSC is the ten thousand year church. We have no apocalypse to save us. We're on this planet for the long-haul, and we should plan for that from the beginning. If we are undertaking a course of action that we cannot sustain for the next ten thousand years, it's the wrong course of action.
Third Article: Build a durable local culture.
We should help create a culture that is inclusive, just, ethical, and wonderful. Humans need community, and I want the CSC to provide that community. I want to be the local church, the place people go to celebrate or mourn, for safety and support, to ease their cares and laugh.
Fourth Article: Build a durable global culture.
Like it or not, we are all in this together. With the advent of nuclear power, the Earth suddenly became very interconnected. We can no longer afford to believe bronze-age myths about the end of the world when we now have the power to bring that end about. Therefore, my final article is that we must work towards making this world into a global culture of people who look at themselves firstly as humans, then as earthlings, and only then a sense of belonging to any other group.
These four articles are tentatively listed in order of priority. We can measure our intentions against them, and the higher articles trump the lower ones. For example, if we have a plan that will grow global culture, but is not sustainable, that plan needs to be re-evaluated.
Okay, moving on. I want the CSC to be an ethical heavy-weight. I think the First Article is a great moral precept, but others have come up with a new 10 Commandments that I think is very valuable. They can be read here: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/new10c.html Imagine how useful they would be to your children in making the world a better place if they had these memorized, instead of the rubbish that's in the Biblical 10 commandments.
My final "must have" is ceremony and celebration. I want the CSC to be at the forefront of helping people celebrate their lives, both the good times and the bad. I propose we craft ceremonies around the key landmarks in a human life: birth, education, marriage, death. I'd also like us to think about some festival days: days when we get together as a community and celebrate the sheer joy of being alive. The universe is full of mystery and wonder, and I'd like to celebrate that together with my friends. As a basic starting point, I'd like to propose we get together for special feasts on the equinoxes, winter and summer solstices. If we want to do other things, that's great. But I think that's a good start.
Okay. That's all my "must haves". Here are a bunch of other things that I've been thinking about, and we can take them or leave them, although I think each of them is important in their own way, and if we decide to "leave them", we should propose replacement policies for each of these areas. This is less the "theoretical" stuff, and more the "nuts-and-bolts" stuff.
I see the CSC having a massive and critically important children's ministry. In western culture, the Christian church has been the place where parents take their children to learn right and wrong. Well, needless to say, I think we can do almost infinitely better in this area for reasons I'd be happy to bang on about ad nauseam after the meeting, and I want to position the CSC to be the first choice in where parents take their children to learn how to be good people.
There are several ways I think we should do this.
Firstly, Sunday School. What kid doesn't like making a little sheep out of cotton balls? What parent doesn't like one hour of free child care? It's a match made in heaven. It is my intention to run the best Sunday school in the city. We can teach children critical thinking, the scientific method, ethics, and we can do it while enjoying juice and cookies, and we can do it without having to skirt around "Is my daddy going to hell?" questions.
Secondly, a children's choir. I intend to run the best children's choir in the city, and to organize it in such a way that each one of our sibling churches can do the same. I want to be a parent's first choice for teaching their kids the joy of music, and the gift of being able to sing. As a wonderful side-effect, our church services can be full of beautiful music. I am fully not joking about doing this, and have begun making plans already.
Thirdly, summer camps. I spent almost every summer of my youth at camp, and it was wonderful. There is a secular camping movement in the US already, and I don't know why we can't do it too. It's great for the kids. It's great for the teens who work there. It's great for the parents who get a week-long holiday.
Okay, next is money. I'd like us to plan for the future in this area, and envision a system where donations are put into a fixed-interest account. The principal is never spent, meaning your donations help humanity forever.
Confession. What? Confession? Yes! I think it's valuable to be able to go to someone safe when you screw up and tell them about it. I envision having qualified staff on hand that you can talk to when you do wrong, not to absolve you of your "sins", but to help you make restitution, to help you ask for forgiveness, and to help you forgive yourself. Like I said at the beginning, we can do this way better than the Christian church.
Growth. I want to grow. I tossed around the idea of advocating for the word "Missionary" in our title, but decided not to. But I do want to grow. I want to grow like a franchise, which has been proven effective in the business world. As we go along, I'd like us to keep track of our progress and our processes so that the work we do now makes it easier for others who want to start secular churches. I'm fine with charging money to other sibling churches for our resources, but I don't care if we do or not. I'm fine with having a hierarchy, just to make getting the work done easier, but I don't care if we have one or not. I'm fine with starting other franchises ourselves in other places, but I don't care if we do or not. I'm fine with having many other churches under our legal/corporate umbrella, but I don't care if we do or not.
All I really want is to make this easier for others to do as well, so that the good things we create can spread and grow. But what that growth looks like, I don't really care. I just think franchising might be the best way.
I'd like to sing in a choir myself. I hope we have one for adults. I want a rich tradition of music.
We might consider starting an anti-defamation league. Atheists are one of the most reviled groups on the planet, and many blatantly false things are said about us with complete immunity. I'd like that to stop. I'm not saying we should sue everyone into oblivion who says atheists are stupid. I am saying it might be valuable to create some language around some of the most common accusations and stand ready to defend ourselves from being called baby-eaters or Nazis or whatever other stupidness that people cook up. It's illegal discrimination, and we need to fight it.
I think it might be valuable to offer de-conversion support. Losing your faith is terrifying, and many of the people who are losing it stand also to lose their families, their jobs, their entire communities, and they feel like they're the only people in the world who this is happening to. It doesn't need to be that way. We can offer counseling, confidential contact, legal advice, and even places to stay (there are a surprising number of teens who get kicked out of their homes every day for saying they don't believe in God anymore). I'm not saying we should run a half-way house, I'm just saying the need is there and we should help if we can. I don't know what that help would or should look like. I'm open to ideas.
The Calgary Secular Church has just recently had its inaugural meeting, and we will continue to meet on the first Sunday of the month. If you live in the Calgary, Alberta, Canada area, please feel free to join us at our next meeting. Please check our Facebook page for details as to times and locations.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new study used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity as inexperienced and experienced soccer players took penalty kicks.
- The new study is the first to use in-the-field imaging technology to measure brain activity as people delivered penalty kicks.
- Participants were asked to kick a total of 15 penalty shots under three different scenarios, each designed to be increasingly stressful.
- Kickers who missed shots showed higher activity in brain areas that were irrelevant to kicking a soccer ball, suggesting they were overthinking.
In a 2019 soccer match, Swansea City was down 1-0 against West Brom late in the first half. A penalty was called against West Brom. Swansea midfielder Bersant Celina was preparing to deliver a penalty kick. He scuttled up to the ball, but his foot only made partial contact, lobbing it weakly to the right.
Was it a simple mistake? Maybe. But there might be deeper explanations for why professional athletes choke under high-pressure situations.
A new study published in Frontiers in Computer Science used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to analyze the brain activity of inexperienced and experienced soccer players as they missed penalty shots. Although past research has explored why soccer players miss penalty shots, the recent study is the first to do so using in-the-field fNIRS measurement.
The results showed that kickers who choked were activating parts of their brain associated with long-term thinking, self-instruction, and self-reflection. The chokers, in other words, were overthinking it.
The psychology of penalty kicks
Penalty shots offer an interesting case study of how mental pressure affects physical performance. After all, there's a lot at stake, not only because the kick can sometimes render a win or loss, but also because there are sometimes millions of people anxiously watching, some of whom might have a financial interest in the outcome.
That pressure is no joke. For example, research on Men's World Cup penalty shoot-outs has shown that when the score is tied and a goal means an immediate win, players score 92 percent of kicks. But when teams are facing elimination in a shootout, and the kick determines an immediate tie or loss, players only score 60 percent of the time.
"How can it be that football players with a near perfect control over the ball (they can very precisely kick a ball over more than 50 meters) fail to score a penalty kick from only 11 meters?" study co-author Max Slutter, of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said in a press release.
"Obviously, huge psychological pressure plays a role, but why does this pressure cause a missed penalty? We tried to answer this by measuring the brain activity of football players during the physical execution of a penalty kick."
In the new study, the researchers aimed to answer two key questions about choking under pressure among both experienced and inexperienced players: (1) What is the difference in brain activity between success (scoring) and failure (missing) when taking a penalty kick? (2) What brain activity is associated with performing under pressure during a penalty kick situation?
To find out, the researchers asked ten experienced soccer players and twelve inexperienced players to participate in a penalty-kicking task. The task was divided into three rounds, each of which was designed to be increasingly stressful:
- Round 1 had no goalkeeper and was labeled as a practice round.
- Round 2 had a friendly goalkeeper who wasn't allowed to distract the kicker.
- Round 3 had a competitive goalkeeper who was allowed to distract the kicker, and kickers were also competing for a prize.
Participants kicked five shots in each round. They wore a fNIRS-equipped headset during the task that measured activity in various parts of the brain.
All participants performed worse in the second and third rounds and reported experiencing the most pressure in the third round. Inexperienced players performed worse than experienced players, which might suggest that they were less able to deal with the mental stress.
The locations in which experienced and inexperienced players kicked the ball in each round. Red dots represent missed penalties and green dots represent scored penalties.Slutter et al., Frontiers in Computer Science, 2021.
The neuroscience of choke artists
So, what types of brain activity were associated with missed shots?
The most noticeable result was that kickers missed more shots when they showed higher activity in their prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area of the brain associated with long-term planning. This was especially true among participants who reported higher levels of anxiety. More specifically, experienced soccer players who missed shots showed high activity in the left temporal cortex, which is related to self-instruction and self-reflection.
"By activating the left temporal cortex more, experienced players neglect their automated skills and start to overthink the situation," the researchers wrote. "This increase can be seen as a distracting factor."
Also, when players of all experience levels felt anxious and missed shots, they showed less activity in the motor cortex, which is the brain area most directly associated with kicking a penalty shot.
Don't overthink it
The results suggest that mental pressure can activate parts of the brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. In general, expert athletes show more efficient brain activity — that is, more activity in relevant areas, and less activity in irrelevant areas — and therefore experience fewer distractions. This is likely one reason why they were more successful at penalties than inexperienced players in high-stress situations.
This principle is described by neural efficiency theory, and it applies not only to athletes but experts in any field. As you gain mastery over something, you can rely more on automatic brain processes rather than deliberate thinking, which can lead to distractions. The authors of the study concluded that their results provide supporting evidence for neural efficiency theory.
Still, as long our experts are human, it seems that high-pressure situations can turn anyone into a choke artist.
What's the difference between brainwashing and rehabilitation?
- The book and movie, A Clockwork Orange, powerfully asks us to consider the murky lines between rehabilitation, brainwashing, and dehumanization.
- There are a variety of ways, from hormonal treatment to surgical lobotomies, to force a person to be more law abiding, calm, or moral.
- Is a world with less free will but also with less suffering one in which we would want to live?
Alex is a criminal. A violent and sadistic criminal. So, we decide to do something about it. We're going to "rehabilitate" him.
Using a new and exciting "Ludovico" technique, we'll change his brain chemistry to make him an upstanding, moral citizen. Alex will be forced to watch violent movies as his body is pumped with nausea-inducing drugs. After a while, he'll come to associate violence with this horrible sickness. And, after a course of Ludovico, Alex can happily return to society, never again doing an immoral or illegal act. He'll no longer be a danger to himself or anyone else.
This is the story of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and it raises important questions about the nature of moral decisions, free will, and the limits of rehabilitation.
Today's Clockwork Orange
This might seem like unbelievable science fiction, but it might be truer — and nearer — than we think. In 2010, Dr. Molly Crockett did a series of experiments on moral decision-making and serotonin levels. Her results showed that people with more serotonin were less aggressive or confrontational and much more easy-going and forgiving. When we're full of serotonin, we let insults pass, are more empathetic, and are less willing to do harm.
As Fydor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if the "entrance fee" for having free will is the horrendous suffering we see all around us, then "I hasten to return my ticket."
The idea that biology affects moral decisions is obvious. Most of us are more likely to be short-tempered and spiteful if we're tired or hungry, for instance. Conversely, we have the patience of a saint if we just have received some good news, had half a bottle of wine, or had sex.
If our decision-making can be manipulated or determined by our biology, should we not try various interventions to prevent the criminally inclined from harming others?
What is the point of prison? This is itself no easy question, and it's one with a rich philosophical debate. Surely one of the biggest reasons is to protect society by preventing criminals from reoffending. This might be achievable by manipulating a felon's serotonin levels, but why not go even further?
Today, we know enough about the brain to have identified a very particular part of the prefrontal cortex responsible for aggressive behavior. We know that certain abnormalities in the amygdala can result in anti-social behavior and rule breaking. If the purpose of the penal system is to rehabilitate, then why not "edit" these parts of the brain in some way? This could be done in a variety of ways.
Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine via Flickr / Wikipedia
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a surprisingly common practice in much of the developed world. Its supporters say that it can help relieve major mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder as well as alleviate certain types of seizures. Historically, and controversially, it has been used to "treat" homosexuality and was used to threaten those misbehaving in hospitals in the 1950s (as notoriously depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Of course, these early and crude efforts at ECT were damaging, immoral, and often left patients barely able to function as humans. Today, neuroscience and ECT are much more sophisticated. If we could easily "treat" those with aggressive or anti-social behavior, then why not?
Ideally, we might use techniques such as ECT or hormonal supplementation, but failing that, why not go even further? Why not perform a lobotomy? If the purpose of the penal system is to change the felon for the better, we should surely use all the tools at our disposal. With one fairly straightforward surgery to the prefrontal cortex, we could turn a violent, murderous criminal into a docile and law-abiding citizen. Should we do it?
Is free will worth it?
As Burgess, who penned A Clockwork Orange, wrote, "Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?"
Intuitively, many say yes. Moral decisions must, in some way, be our own. Even if we know that our brains determine our actions, it's still me who controls my brain, no one else. Forcing someone to be good, by molding or changing their brain, is not creating a moral citizen. It's creating a law-abiding automaton. And robots are not humans.
And yet, it begs the question: is "free choice" worth all the evil in the world?
If my being brainwashed or "rehabilitated" means children won't die malnourished or the Holocaust would never happen, then so be it. If lobotomizing or neuro-editing a serial killer will prevent them from killing again, is that not a sacrifice worth making? There's no obvious reason why we should value free will above morality or the right to life. A world without murder and evil — even if it meant a world without free choices for some — might not be such a bad place.
As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if the "entrance fee" for having free will is the horrendous suffering we see all around us, then "I hasten to return my ticket." Free will's not worth it.
Do you think the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange is a great idea? Should we turn people into moral citizens and shape their brains to choose only what is good? Or is free choice more important than all the evil in the world?