Are You a Hero of Belief or a Hero of Disbelief?

People like us are rare. There is so much pressure to conform, but we are willing to be different. We dare to face down any crowd armed with only what we know to be the truth. As the society drifts toward barbarism, we stand defiant. We risk public shaming and censure. We are on the wall. Each one of us in our own small way, in our homes or small communities, at work, or in public debate – we are the last line of defense for what is true, profound, and good.

Does this sentiment resonate with you?

In what follows, I will explore the idea that this sentiment might resonate equally well with “believers” and “atheists.”

If you live in America, you might live in a place where most people go to church regularly. Your neighbors often refer to the role that Jesus plays in their lives. Prayer is a big part of life. Others say they will pray for you when you are not well. One might pray about a problem when in need of an answer. Given the offhand jokes at the supermarket and other such scenarios, it seems generally taken for granted that the presidency of Barack Obama is lamentable. Few people publicly identify as Democrats.

Under these circumstances, the hero of disbelief feels beleaguered. He may even feel paranoid, on edge. Every saccharine pious smile is an offense. Every “generosity” is a fraud, complicit in the micro-coercion of his daily life. His only solace is his defiance. He is willing to sacrifice himself in his daily interactions because of his devotion to the truth. He is a hero of disbelief for the benefit of all humankind; he suffers with the hope that one day all people will be cured of this rampant blindness.

On the other hand, you might live in a place where almost nobody seems to go to church. Maybe there are some Jewish people around who participate in events at a temple or a synagogue, but they don’t seem to do this out of “religious” devotion – they never say anything that indicates unambiguous belief in God. People seem to care a great deal about gourmet food and drinks and are always on the lookout for the newest fashionable restaurant. Parents compare the rigorous schedules that they hope will make their kids successful. It is important to see the new independent film everyone is talking about. Republicans, Christians, the South, “middle America” – these are commonly the butt of offhand jokes, an easy and reliable laugh.

Under these circumstances, the hero of belief feels beleaguered, paranoid, on edge. The lifestyle that surrounds him seems so selfish, materialistic, and empty, it evokes actual disgust. And yet it plays to the base desires that all people have, so it also presents a temptation that he must vigorously resist. This is life in the sinful city that the hero of belief defies. He stands unwaveringly for Christ, accepting daily condescension and mockery in the spirit of Imitatio Dei

In either of these cases, a chasm may separate the perception of the hero from what is actually happening around him.

In the context of believers, where the hero of disbelief feels besieged, many people may have doubts about their faith and explore those doubts with sophistication. They may even have liberal views on some issues. Such nuances will be obscured or suppressed when the hero of disbelief confronts these people and compels them to take a defensive posture.    

Similarly, in the context of disbelievers, where the hero of belief feels harassed, many people may harbor openness to faith and even engage in religious activities. But the hero of belief will not likely have a chance to learn this, since he too compels his neighbors into a defensive posture.

To be sure, the picture that I have sketched here is a caricature in its own right. For instance, in African American communities people may present the characteristics that I associate with the context of believers, but this will not generally be connected to popular lament about the Obama presidency. And, of course, religious people also like to go to fashionable restaurants.    

Hopefully, the caricature I have drawn is nevertheless plausible enough to make visible a common denominator that is sometimes shared by believers and disbelievers alike: the presumptive virtue of a certain kind of heroism

When a hero of belief and a hero of disbelief do finally clash – at a bar, on a TV talk show, around the Thanksgiving table – heroism often seems to be the subtext. The surface level question may be: does God exist? Is there meaning or purpose in the universe? Is prayer worthwhile? But a deeper question underlying the debate seems to be: who is the bigger hero? 

Consider some of the accusations that characterize these conversations: “religion is easy, it’s a crutch, the opiate of the masses, it doesn’t challenge the mind, it’s simplistic, childish, rather than present reasons for real discussion religious people offer conversation-stopping assertions of faith.”

Or: “atheism is adolescent, self-indulgent angst, it’s easily absorbed and regurgitated from the secular progressive media, it settles for smugness over justification, it accepts the easy condescending smirk over any hard confrontation with serious theology, it always goes after the least sophisticated believers, conveniently avoiding great thinkers of faith.”     

Both kinds of accusers seem to agree that immaturity, conformity, uncritical self-satisfaction, and avoiding the best arguments of one’s interlocutor are grounds for condemnation. And all of these criteria seem to hang together contemptibly as: “the easy way out.” The hero of belief/disbelief, by contrast, heroically faces the challenge of walking the true path, which is far more difficult terrain.  

The point of this exercise is to suggest that people often do not dig deep enough when they argue about “deep” topics like the existence of God, the meaning of life, etc. Digging deeper involves bringing to the fore the unspoken shared concepts and presumptive virtues, along with the subtle dimensions of performance and self-narration, that are generally left unacknowledged.

What is this presumptive virtue of heroism and where did it come from? Why do we feel the need to play the role of “the hero”? Why do we narrate our lives to others and ourselves in heroic terms?

If you are not a hero of belief or disbelief, maybe you are a hero of moderation and compromise. Maybe you are a hero of caprice – “I just do what I want, man.” My annoying tendency is to narrate myself as a hero of complexity: "everyone else is too simplistic; I alone am willing to endure complexity and ambiguity." But I also have an annoying tendency to narrate myself as a hero of self-awareness: "others wouldn’t be willing to admit to and expose how they make themselves out to be heroes; I alone am willing to do so."   

There is not space in this post to elaborate on the sources of our shared admiration for heroism. But here’s a doggy-bag of food for thought to take with you: it derives from a nexus of influences that include the story of Jesus, Immanuel Kant’s imperative “Dare To Know!”, Horatio Alger novels, and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies.

I suspect it will be worthwhile for all of us to dig deeper into these common sources, just to name a few. 

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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