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Friday, November 20, 2015

Roots of Violence--and Peace

We just finished our class on Religion and Violence. It was an excellent class not because of the teachers, but because of all the participants who really engaged in the topic. The last days of this bright class were shaded by the atrocities of the "Islamic State" in Beirut and Paris

Most of the class substantially agreed with Karen Armstrong that religion in itself is not a cause of violence or of the evil of cruelty and humiliation of others, but is often used to rationalize or justify violence and evil behavior. Some recognized that the cause of violence was usually the desire for power through control of others and property by force or by wealth. Still others referred, as did Karen Armstrong, to the reptilian brain that is uncontrolled by the rational brain of the prefrontal cortex.

A recent New Scientist article which I provide here "Is evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality," cites experiments that turn upside down the notion of the animal primitive flight-or-fight emotional brain overcoming the higher rule-making rational brain.

The experiments indicated that when brains were mapped of people inflicting harm on others, their rule-making brains took precedence over their personal preferences to do no harm. Also noted was that they rapidly became desensitized the more they followed the rule to do harm by an authority figure.

The conclusion is that, if we want to reduce violence and brutality, don't pathologize evil "by supposing that only people with flawed minds are capable of evil, when in fact everyone is, given the right (or wrong) context. If we want to make the world a less violent place, ... we have to consider that context. And that requires us to step back from the individual and look at the group." Another neuroscientist is quoted as saying: "The key question is how the perpetrators of massacres define themselves--the group they identify with and who, as a non-member, they perceive as a threat."

This ties with what we know about group behavior, how homo sapiens evolved to rely on group membership to survive, how belonging to even a small group determines how we see outsiders. We feel less empathy for them and easily write them out of the human species. "What is truly toxic is a construction of in-group and out-group which makes genocide an act of virtue and construes the killers as the most noble among us."

What these finding say to me is that, pace Armstrong, group culture and religion can be a source of evil when it is exclusive and identifies out-groups. In Unitarian-Universalist principles, the first principle is the inherent dignity of every person and UU sermons often use the metaphor of the divine spark in every person (baptized or not, divorced or not, male or female, etc). The Catholic social teaching in which I was raised speaks of every person as a child of God which makes us all siblings.

I don't believe in the "spark of the divine" or the "child of God" literally. But then I do not believe in anything literally if that means outside of metaphor, analogy, and symbolism. Nor do I believe in some dignity belonging to human nature--when there is so much evidence to contradict that. (Just read the books of Cormac McCarthy).

Nevertheless, I choose to act for a Universal Ecclesia, People, Church, Umma, Sangha, Community and for the dignity of all human persons--and all living beings and the earth. And I declare solidarity with all of you who so act no matter what language you use and what cultural tradition you represent.

This is why, even though I do not believe in supernatural entities, I refuse atheism because even that creates an illusion of believers and infidels. I do not consider myself a non-believer and always take communion when I sometimes attend Catholic celebrations with my family and friends even though I detach myself from the institutional, hierarchical, male-dominated Roman Church and many of their teachings of exclusion. The same for my Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and First Nation friends and family.

I affirm my presence in the Universal Church, Umma, Sangha, and People. (As did the Prophets--blessed be their names.) Lots of groups, but no out-groups.

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