Atheism vs. Religion: Which Is the Healthier Viewpoint?
What does Robert Sapolsky—an "utter, complete, atheist"—think about the persistence of magical thinking in our modern world?
Robert M. Sapolsky holds degrees from Harvard and Rockefeller Universities and is currently a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University and a Research Associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya. His most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Robert Sapolsky: So when you look at the really unique bizarre things humans have come up with, ranging from cave paintings to Snapchats and everything in between, probably the most unique and universal thing we’ve come up with is this religion business. We talk about the symbolic metaphorical thinking.
Essentially there has been no culture on earth that has not invented some form of what could be termed “meta-magical thinking,” attributing things that cannot be seen, faith-based belief systems, things of that sort. It’s universal, and 90-95 percent of people believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other out there. Every culture has it. People have endlessly speculated about the evolution of religiosity, and at least in terms of westernized religions it makes perfect sense why they’ve evolved: Because they’re wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress. It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen and we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that you believe there is not only something out there responsible for all of this but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress reducing explanation.
If then on top of it you believe that individual out there is benevolent—even more so control and predictability. Benevolent and listens to human entreaties? More elements of control.
Benevolent, listens to human entreaties, and prefers to listen to people like you who look like you, pray like you, request like you? Even more so. They’re just all these levels of control, predictability; they’re stress reducing.
And what is infuriating to me as an utter, complete atheist is a very, very solid literature showing the health benefits of religiosity, independent of: you tend to get a social supportive community. When you’re religious you have fewer lifestyle risk factors. The mere ability to perceive causality, reason, benevolence—“Benevolence especially for people like me if I say the right combination of words and fervently believe in it”—that’s wonderfully protective and there’s health benefits to it.
If it is a totally heartless indifferent apathetic universe out there you are far more at risk for all the logical things which is to conclude it is an utterly depressing universe out there.
Rates of depression are much higher among atheists… Go figure.
So in terms of that it makes perfect sense why this is something that people have come up with and rather than asking why is it that 95 percent of humans come up with some form of religiosity, a much more biologically interesting question to me is: What’s up with the five percent of atheists who don’t do that?
Of all the strange things that humans have come up with, almost none is stranger—nor more pervasive across separate cultures—than religion. Why this meta-magical thinking evolved is easy to understand in hindsight: Robert Sapolsky calls it a "wonderful mechanism" that our ancestors used to cope with forces of nature, tragedies, and good luck that they couldn't explain. And even in the presence of explanations today, it continues to be useful for the majority of humans, to the point that asking "Why do so many people still believe?" is not the most interesting question in the vicinity. Sapolsky would rather ask: "What’s up with the five percent of atheists who don’t?" The only thing crazier than religion might be atheism, he suggests. There's a solid catalog of literature that shows the health benefits of religiosity. It's nature's antidepressant for what is often a brutal and awful world, and offers a protective quality that atheists forfeit—which explains why incidences of depression are much higher in that group. To Sapolsky, what's more curious than the bizarre need to believe, is the choice not to.
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Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?
- Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
- Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
- Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
Sweeping re-alignments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTAwOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzU3ODA1NH0.u_5xakBvkYwgPtiwLU3z-1e082hBeqwS4Rl1uiJqdF4/img.png?width=980" id="23ff1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="24a5b6ec251a11f3ed7aaefc205dde17" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like "monster". Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a portmanteau of that word and Governor Gerry's last name." />
The original cartoon of the 'Gerry-Mander', published in 1812 in the Boston Centinel.
Image: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), Public Domain.<p>One way for a political party to manipulate the outcome of elections is to 'gerrymander' electoral districts: manipulate their boundaries to increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome (see also #<a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/53-ever-been-ger..." target="_blank">53</a>).</p><p><span></span>The term is almost as old as the United States itself, and the practice continues to disfigure the electoral map to this day. Perhaps these maps can serve as the inspiration for a radical solution. </p><p><span></span>They show the contiguous United States (i.e. without Alaska and Hawaii) sliced latitudinally and longitudinally into ten straight-bordered bands of varying size, so that each contains exactly 10 percent of the population. </p><p><span></span>Although certainly not intended as a reflection on electoral redistricting, it's tempting to see these sweeping re-alignments of the U.S. as a suggestion with some potential in that direction. </p>
United Strips of America<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTA4MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzE1MjQ1MX0.WpISo-g15B5O3qXbHXHf-7lQtAainpO7zPuizXWFOGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d6656" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="72ed7c905283f9979ec0f82d451ad261" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'." />
The contiguous United States, divided into horizontal and vertical deciles.
Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.<p>Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'.</p><p><span></span>Looking at the top map, which divides the U.S. into 10 longitudinal strips, we see</p><ul><li>Seattle rules the northernmost slice of territory. It is the broadest, and therefore also the emptiest one.</li><li>The Chicago, Omaha, New York City and Indianapolis strips complete the northern half of the country. And indeed: 50 percent of the population occupies roughly one half of the country, from north to south.</li><li>The dividing line between the top and bottom halves of the country runs from just north of the San Francisco Bay to halfway across the Delmarva Peninsula.</li><li>Capital cities of the southern strips are San Jose, Charlotte, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston.</li><li>The Houston Strip is divided into two non-contiguous areas. Florida maintains its panhandle, albeit much reduced. </li></ul><p>The bottom map shows the U.S. divided latitudinally into 10 bands of equal population. </p><ul><li>San Jose and Los Angeles both retain their capital status, this time of the two westernmost strips.</li><li>San Antonio is the main city of the Big Empty, more than twice as wide as the second-broadest band.</li><li>The dividing line between America's eastern and western half, population-wise, is far off-center: it skirts the eastern edge of Chicago, making the western half much bigger than the eastern one.</li><li>Houston, Chicago, and Indianapolis also remain the largest cities in their respective bands.</li><li>Further east, Jacksonville and Philadelphia get to rule over their strip of America, while Charlotte and New York City keep winning, both vertically and horizontally.</li></ul><p>Redistricting a country into zones of equal population – and that being your only criterium – will create districts that are randomly diverse, and perhaps also, at least in this case, unmanageably large. </p><p>However, mixing up the political map with a bunch of straight lines as the only instrument is something that has been considered before. Usually, the objective is the wholesale removal of age-old divisions. <br></p>
Perfectly square departments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTEzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTQyMzIwOH0.kYuf58g0bjsPL9DGPq5PycZ7PDJMnItT0rfrPonOP3k/img.jpg?width=980" id="89a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5b81a43e785997bb1f11f72548659a9f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bCh\u00e2ssis figuratif du territoire de la France partag\u00e9 en divisions \u00e9gales entre elles, proposition annex\u00e9e au rapport du 29 septembre 1789 \u00e0 l'Assembl\u00e9e nationale de la commission dite Siey\u00e8s-Thouret" />
France divided into 80-odd geometrical departments: failed proposal by Jacques-Guillaume Thouret (1790).
Image: Centre historique des Archives nationales – Atelier de photographie; public domain.
European Pie<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTQ0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTE5NDE3OX0.dPcY1tkO7nwkx6IX98Sleh7AmBpDnwlcJLfC_Z-WBlY/img.jpg?width=980" id="b35d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="84509a9425e13c0dd8fbe00df28a197e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
In this rather outlandish proposal, continental Europe's 24 cantons center on Vienna.
Image: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Maps, Cornell University.<p>And in 1920, an anonymous author – possibly the Austrian P.A. Maas – proposed slicing up Post-World-War-I Europe as a pie, into 24 slices that would center on Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral. Each of those slices would be made up of a wide and random variety of linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups – and that would be the point: the better to unite them all into one massive superstate (see also #<a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/a-bizarre-peace-proposal-slice-europe-up-like-a-pie" target="_blank">851</a>).</p><p>Needless to say, both plans never left the drawing board. Would a proposal for the longitudinal and/or latitudinal redistricting of the U.S. have more traction? <br></p>
Coast-to-coast precedents<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTIwOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDM2OTE0OX0.52UjcA_YD9Y9UB9_hoSctI_xBrRDALZ2DRLkIo9a8RM/img.jpg?width=980" id="10784" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1999808ea21e11162fdb9181c3912753" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Illustration of the Connecticut Charter boundary, 1662" />
Putting the 'connect' into Connecticut: the Nutmeg State extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Image: Connecticuthistory.org<p>Well, for one, coast-to-coast polities have some pedigree in America's past: some of the first colonies had claims that extended from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. </p><p>If history had gone entirely the way Connecticut would have wanted, the state would include such inland cities as Detroit, Chicago, and Salt Lake City, and extended to what is now the northern part of California.</p><p>Is such geopolitical weirdness reasonable or feasible today? Absolutely not. But in its randomness, would it be it as unfair as gerrymandering? </p><p><em><br></em></p><p><em>Decile maps of the contiguous United States reproduced with kind permission by u/curiouskip; found <a href="https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/ijyn7p/oc_us_population_deciles_by_latitude_and_longitude/" target="_blank">here</a> on <a href="https://www.reddit.com/" target="_blank">Reddit</a>.<br></em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1054</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a><em>.</em></p>
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.
- A new study says solar and lunar tide impacts led to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.
- The scientists show that tides created tidal pools, stranding fish and forcing them to get out of the water.
- The researchers ran computer simulations to get their results.