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How do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that in a world built and borne upon the shoulders of religion, that every year less and less people identify themselves as believing in God? In the U.S. nearly one-quarter of Americans say that have “no religion in particular,” with other countries such as Hong Kong, Sweden, and the Czech Republic having at least 70% of their population identifying as non-religious or atheist. China is the world leader of an irreligious populous with 90% stating they have no religion. If belief in God, or at the very least membership in an organized religion, is on the decline, certain uncomfortable questions begin to emerge. Why do fewer people believe in God each in year? What does this mean for the future of religion? And perhaps most disturbingly . . .

Is the death of God inevitable?

This is not a question aimed at one specific belief or one specific God. History has shown us that all religions wax and wane with time, and while some are more enduring than others, in the end they are either replaced or subsumed by a new set of beliefs. We are not speaking towards whether the decline of a religion is inevitable, but rather if the entire concept of religion and belief in a higher power will continue its current trend until eventually no believers remain in the world.

The question cannot be answered by looking at the latest surveys and trying to extrapolate on their meaning. There is too much guesswork, too much assumption down that route. Rather, let us look at the question from its beginning rather than its end. If we wish to know if God and religion are ultimately doomed to fade away, then first we must ask ourselves, why do we believe in God in the first place? Not as individuals, but as a species. Why have humans found or created God for themselves throughout the millennia of existence. If we can find the answer to that, then we can determine if those root causes, and thereby God, will eventually die out.

A Search for Meaning

For many belief in God is a search for meaning. Evolution has trained humans to search for patterns in nature in ways we might predict future outcomes and have better chances for survival. We spend our lives searching for patterns in the world around us and learning to live with them. However when a great and destructive event occurs in which we can find no discernible pattern, meaning, or purpose in, humans look towards a higher power for the answer.

A loved one is killed in a car accident, a flood devastates a community, a doctor diagnoses you with a terminal illness. These world-shaking events can and frequently do turn people towards religion. In 2011, when an earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly non-religious country with 41% of residents reporting no religion – there was a sudden spike in belief following the disaster. Those who experienced the disaster first hand had an increase in belief and religious conversion while the rest of the country did not.

Many of those who challenge religion are baffled by this reaction. How can suffering cause people to become more religious? Most religions, if not all, teach that there is some God or Gods that are working towards our best interests. The popular western interpretation of God is described as being all knowing, all powerful, and all good. However this leads to the question, if God is omnipotent and good, why does he allow evil and suffering to take place?

Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, explains:

“People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning . . . For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”

In the face of disaster, humans put the logical portion of their brain aside. They look for answers wherever they can be found, and thus many people turn to God. Even if they cannot understand why God would cause them to suffer so, simply knowing that there is some purpose or plan behind the pain makes the burden a little easier to bear.

Traditional statues of gods and goddesses in the Hindu temple, south India, Kerala

Image: VLADJ55/Shutterstock

Evolutionary Instincts

If you’ve ever wondered why there is room for the concept of God inside of human beings, you can thank evolution due to what a programmer might consider a bug or glitch in the system. Many psychologists have put forth the idea that the human brain is run by two different processes simultaneously. Dual Process Theory states that we have an explicit and implicit part of our psychology. While the explicit system, System 2, is our source of consciousness, logic, and rationality, it was not the first one on the scene. No, System 2 was evolved once humans had first mastered the appropriately named System 1.

System 1 is the part of our brain that works off of instinct. It is automatic, high capacity, and very, very fast. If someone throws a ball at you, you catch it. You don’t consciously think about the angle of their throw, the velocity the ball is traveling at, the time it will take to reach you. You are able to infer all of that information thanks to System 1, and you simply catch the ball so you don’t get hit in the face. Because that is what System 1 is dedicated to. It doesn’t care about the purpose of life, what the square root of four is, or if you left the stove on. All System 1 cares about is keeping you alive.

As System 1 was being evolved by primitive humans it created some incredible natural instincts and survival mechanisms. One of the most notable is our hypersensitive agency detection, or put more simply, our natural “life sense.” When you find a lion’s footprint in the wild, your instinctual assumption is that the lion must still be nearby. This is because all of the primitive humans who did not assume the lion was nearby did not get to pass on their genes due to lion-related incidents.

System 1 primes us to instinctually see life wherever we go, regardless of whether it is there or not. This erring on the side of caution protected us from concealed danger, but it also left us susceptible to believing in the existence of invisible agents working upon us. This is why so many children are scared of the dark. Their instincts tell them to be safe rather than sorry and assume that there is something within the unknown waiting to attack them.

Many scholars theorize that this is why humanity is so open to the concept of a “man in the sky who watches all of their actions.” In a way, God is much like the concept of the Boogeyman or the Monster Under the Bed. He is another predator in the bushes, waiting to attack – or in this case “punish” – us when we least expect it. We have no proof of his existence, but we are evolutionarily predisposed to give some credence to such a belief, just to be safe.

Can God Survive?

On some level, religion is just a matter of numbers. Many religions, especially their most fundamentalist branches, have come under fire for years for indoctrinating their children to certain religious beliefs. In everything from politics, to religion, to ethics, children are much more likely to adopt the same beliefs as their parents than they are to stray from them. Combine this information with the fact that religious couples have been shown to have more children than non-religious couples – nearly twice as many.

So if children are more likely to share their parents’ views than not, and religious parents are likely to have more children than non-religious parents, then it seems a simple conclusion that even if religion is on the decline, it will take many generations for it to completely die out. However, that doesn’t seem very likely to happen.

While with each passing year there are more and more people who say they are not religious, the reasons why people believe in and need a God aren’t on the decline. We live in a world that allows to focus on more than just surviving to the next day. Our System 2s are able to flourish, and so we begin to question and overcome some of our System 1 instincts. However, those instincts can never be completely suppressed.

What’s more, the world we live is filled with tragedy, hardship, and trial. In every life there will be moments of suffering, suffering that we as human beings will try to find meaning in. Invariably religion has proven to be the ultimate answer for those seeking a purpose behind their pain. And while it might be possible for us to one day overcome our instincts, we will never be able to overcome the nature of the world we live in.

So, is the death of God inevitable? No.

If the reasons we believe in a higher power are so innate and hardwired into who we are as a species, then so long as there people, there will be God.

 

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The tragic tale of Florence Foster Jenkins, terrible opera singer

Florence Foster Jenkins had a dream. She wanted to be a famous opera singer. The problem was, she couldn’t actually sing.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins had a dream. She wanted to be a famous opera singer. The problem was, she couldn’t actually sing.

Well, she could sing. Just not very well. Let’s listen, shall we?

If you can’t watch the video above, let me try to do it justice with a description. It sounded like two sick cats fighting over a tin can full of marbles. It was like a box of accordions being dragged behind a wandering troupe of Vietnamese folk musicians. It was the sound your elderly grandmother makes as she takes a fatal tumble down a flight of stairs.

So how did a woman like that become an opera singer? Well,basically it came down to a large inheritance and a legendary capacity for self-delusion. Not to mention a healthy dose of syphilitic brain damage.

Florence was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Early on, she discovered a love of music, and was actually something of a child prodigy on the piano. She was so good that she was invited to play at the White House during the Hayes administration.

But, Florence didn’t want to play the piano, she wanted to sing. So, she asked her father if she could go to Europe to study Opera.

Presumably having heard her sing, her father took a long draw on his pipe, worked his lip under what was probably a pretty impressive mustache and said, “No”.

Betrayed, and set on revenge, Florence eloped with a local doctor named Frank Jenkins. Unfortunately for Florence, the good doctor had a predilection for ladies of the evening and contracted a case of Syphilis, which he promptly spread to Florence. This being the 19th century, that wasn’t grounds for a divorce so Florence set out on her own while still legally married to the man whose name she would keep the rest of her life.

Florence made a meager living giving piano lessons until an arm injury stopped her from playing. She and her mother Mary moved to New York where Florence met her second, common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield in 1909. By this time her Syphilis was doing what Syphilis does and virulently attacking her brain.

In that same year, her wealthy father died, leaving Florence with the funds she needed to bankroll her own singing career. So, that’s just what she did, renting out concert halls to give private recitals. She hand delivered invitations to these recitals, making sure never to invite any critics.

Her performances were marked with mistakes in pitch, timing, and pronunciation of the foreign words that are sort of necessary to pronounce correctly when you’re singing opera. Her accompanist was forced to make frequent adjustments to his playing to account for her tendency to rapidly switch tempo and pitch, which can be heard on the recordings that survive.

Florence became the celebrity she wanted to be, though not for the reason she would have hoped. Word got around the city about her “so bad it’s good” performances and it became something of an inside joke among the New York elite to send friends to a show with purposely vague reviews. One critic wrote that her singing was “like the untrammeled flight of some great bird.”

The ultimate payoff was to go with a friend who expected to hear a lovely rendition of The Magic Flute and then watch the expression of bewilderment on their face as they tried to figure out why such a terrible singer would be giving recitals.

By popular demand, Florence was finally convinced to give a performance at Carnegie Hall at age 76, and tickets quickly sold out. People stood outside waving hundreds of dollars in the air in the hopes of securing entrance to the show. The most valuable seats were in the back where people would fall to their knees behind doubled over in laughter. People advised each other to bring handkerchiefs to shove in their mouths. Others had to be carried out after laughing themselves hysterical.

Meanwhile, Florence took the laughter as adulation rather than derision. As she walked off the stage to raucous applause, she must have thought this moment the culmination of her life-long dreams to sing opera at Carnegie Hall.

The next morning she read the reviews. One critic praised her great range saying, “She can sing anything except notes.” Another said, “It was largely a recital without voice for the tones that Madam Jenkins produced were tiny. Much of her singing was hopelessly lacking any a semblance of pitch but the further a note was from its proper elevation the more the audience laughed and applauded.”

Two days later, Florence suffered a fatal heart attack. Some attribute her demise to the stress of learning what people actually thought of her singing.

Her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon, argued that it was unrelated. He stated in an interview that her capacity for self-delusion was such that she could have easily convinced herself that it was the reviewers who were wrong.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, Florence Foster Jenkins probably summed it up best when she said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

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The Dwarf Who Became A Giant

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Adam Ranier
Adam Ranier

Image:Achetron.com

If you’re familiar with Game of Thrones, and its most popular character, you know it can be tough to be a dwarf with all the white walkers and having to murder your father with a crossbow. But it’s probably also tough to be a giant. After all, you have to duck under doors and constantly get asked to pull things off of high shelves.

But it’s probably even tougher to go from one to the other. Luckily, there’s only one person in history who has ever had to go through that. In 1899 a child named Adam Ranier was born in Austria. For most of his life. he was small and sickly. When he was 18, he was evaluated by army physicians after his draft number was called who rejected him after finding that he only measured four and a half feet tall.  He was, technically speaking a dwarf.

But then one day he started growing for some reason. And in the next ten years, he grew to be over seven feet tall, making him the tallest man in the country. But while most people would be pretty excited to discover that they could suddenly dominate their local pick up basketball game, Adam had some pretty severe side effects from his growth spurt.

His spine began to curve significantly, and he lost the vision in his right eye along with the hearing in his left ear. In 1931, two doctors studying him discovered that the source of his incredible growth. They found a large tumor pressing on his pituitary gland, pushing huge amounts of growth hormones into his body. Today the condition is called Acromegaly, and Adam displayed all the symptoms, including unevenly spaced teeth, a pronounced jaw and brow, and unusually large hands and feet. Adam also found that eating was difficult and he began to suffer the effects of a poor diet.

Due to his condition, Adam remained bedridden for much of his life. The doctors performed a surgery that was intended to remove the tumor, but after examining him a few years later they found that he was still growing, which meant that they had been unable to correct the condition. Adam died at a fairly young in 1950 at a height of seven feet and ten inches.

But to this day, Adam Ranier remains the only person who has ever lived as both a dwarf and a giant. It’s a shame that more isn’t known about his life. Though, even at the time, his case attracted a lot of attention in the international press. And the Guinness Book of World Records included an entry on him in 1975. And though he was unfortunate to have to suffer such debilitating physical conditions, at least he will be remembered as unique in the history of mankind.

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7 weird things we’ve learned through science

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Virus

Ah, science! Domain of the geeks. I may not have loved you when I was a teenager with other things to think about, like the insane changes in my body, but now that I’m older I have come to be fascinated by your astounding discoveries.

Here’s a look at some of the strangest of natural phenomena—whether in biology, anatomy, archeology, or astronomy. Some of them are too weird too believe… and yet it’s all true!

Clouds

Thought clouds weigh nothing because they float? Wrong. Clouds weigh millions of tons. Yet they float because they are less dense than the surrounding air and than the rising currents of hot air. That’s why the sky does not fall on our heads dufus!

Bacteria

In this very moment, there are about 100 billion bacteria living in your mouth, and 100 trillion (100,000 billion) in your digestive tract. Oh and there are 25,000 germs walking on each square inch of your cell phone, and 7.2 billion on your kitchen sponge. Bacteria and germs are living beings—that makes your body, phone and kitchen extremely social places! Fortunately, most of these microscopic life forms are harmless and work actively for our mutual benefit.

Mosquitoes Allergy

… But they are not allergic to us, unfortunately. The itch that results from a mosquito bite is simply an immune response from your body. When the insect “bites” you, it in fact sucks your blood through its “trunk” (i.e. its proboscis) while simultaneously injecting substances including an anticoagulant. This helps the blood pass easily through its proboscis and its digestive tract. Itching is not directly caused by the bite or chemicals contained in the mosquito’s proboscis but by the immune response of the body fighting them. Our body releases histamine, a protein involved in many allergic reactions, to fight against parasites. Histamine causes swelling around the bite so that the blood rushes to the affected area, and this has the side effect of itching.

Stardust

93% of your body mass is actually stardust. Time to start writing poems y’all. Most of the elements that make up your body, like your bones, organs, and muscles are made of various atoms and molecules. And where do you think those atoms and molecules come from? Technically from your mom, but if you trace everything back far enough, these particles come from the stars.

DNA

Believe it or not, you have 2 meters of DNA in every cell in your body, which has 10 trillion cells. If we put all that DNA together and made a string out of it, we could tie the string from the Earth to the Moon over 100,000 times!

Giant Dinosaur Stomach

The Sauroposeidon, of the brachiosaur family, is one of the largest dinosaurs ever found. It could reach up to 18 meters in height and weigh up to 60 tons. Naturally, his stomach was the size of a swimming pool. Time for a swim in the dino’s tummy!

Eye Muscles

The muscles in your eyes are the most active ones in your body. According to one study, they actually move more than 100,000 times a day. Does that sound like a lot? Try to count how many times your eyes just moved just to read this paragraph. Now, if only I could do one push-up for every eye-movement!

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