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Conspiracy Theories
I find this an entertaining topic. Michael Shermer, in Why people Believe Weird Things, asked why people believe that invisible agents control the world - and he included invisible agents such as secret superconspiracies alongside gods. Now this might be going too far, for high level people in corporations and government surely do plot malicious things, BUT I think Shermer had a point: that a narrative with a giant bad guy (conveniently invisible) is so tempting, for people - especially surplus males, as economists are describing these days.

I don't believe in "conspiracy theories" many of them are about up there with the idea of alien abduction, but I think the culture which produces them - and is getting more and more mainstream - is interesting (if troubling).
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Something To Think About 
Cited From The Above 
In 1966, the U.S. Army released the harmless Bacillus globigii into the tunnels of the New York subway system

I mean, wow. That's crazy. Small wonder conspiracy theories exist. 
The thing is, all kinds of really crazy paranoia-inducing things HAVE been done, like the above. But I guess it's just occam's razor and science to separate reality from fantasy, as always.

In the Middle East, some groups want democracy, while others support Islamism. bin Laden and his fellow Islamists, were in my opinion acting against westernization - the flow of western culture into the Middle East, especially freedom of speech and women's rights affecting the outlook of the younger generation. Sure this is accompanied by economic exploitation, but if exploitation and oppression were enough to cause targeting of mass civilians in terrorism, where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers killing hundreds or thousands of Chinese? What the Islamists want is not to be connected to the west, or to India, or China or Israel, or anyone else, one terms of multicultural give-and-take. They are backwards fundamentalists who are terrified of women and want to impose theocracy on every part of the world once conquered by Islam. bin Laden did not want help from the West, in my view, and if Islamists could destroy the west (and India, and Russia, and Israel), they actually might. Islam, as one historian put it, "has bloody borders."

None of this justifies US foreign policy, but Islamists are the ones melting women's faces with acid for going to school. That's not a cry for help. That's backwards fundamentalism. 

Although maybe China just doesn't tell you about Tibetan suicide bombers. ;-) 
Really when you say "Islam" you mean modern Islam.

The France and Great Britain had half of those places as colonies a century ago and they were no better or no worse than most other third world countries they colonized.

A lot of Islamic countries are experiencing the painful (and often initially bloody) transition to modern times.

East Asia went through this period 20-50 years ago (Cambodia, Vietnam, etc.) and South America went through this transition half a century ago (Pinochet, etc.).

Just because Europe made the transition a few centuries ago for the most part doesn't mean that as human the ones living in Islamic places are lesser people.

It just means their culture is experiencing an identity crisis that much of the rest of the world encountered long ago.

It sucks to be at the tail end of a curve, but things like cell phones and internet and independent broadcast stations like Al-Jazeera mean that the genie isn't going back in the bottle.

They will change. Change is inevitable and it only goes a single direction, although some times it goes two steps forward and one step back as part of the transition. 
personally I don't feel like I know enough to make any judgments on "direction of history" arguments. Was the industrial revolution inevitable, was democracy inevitable, are "developing" countries including theocracies moving toward a western model? I have no idea and I'm kind of skeptical that anyone really could have solid ideas on these things. I'll bet if I read a book on this subject (and there seems to be no shortage of really ambitious books about it), I could be convinced one way and then exactly the opposite way by another book, because the subject is so massive. I suspend judgment on it thus. may be of interest to you, Tronyn. for at least one side of the argument. :) 
Interesting man, but meh, his views and his logic are marred by his idea of Christianity IMO.

Pretty brutal religion, with the idea of original sin and all. I don't think there is any sin (and I also think the world and everything in it is "good" by default; that includes conflicts or the food chain). And I think Christianity would do good to forget that concept.

Just MO as usual. I agree with him on the notion that humanity has always been inherently - not religious - spiritual. I agree that it is part of being human. It all depends how you handle it and what the details of your religion or spirituality are. I's not automatically bad or harmful - need to differentiate.

I recommend reading "His Dark Materials". Pullman gets a lot of things right. 
I subscribe to Marx's view of religion. The heart of heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It's a painkiller. People who turn to religion are not necessarily stupid or ignorant, but desperate. I think religion causes great damage and suffering in the world, but it is a symptom of a greater problem, that of human suffering and inequality.

Despondent people sold a panacea by snake oil salesmen, or some other pithy comment :p 
I know several people who claim experiences similar to what Jacques Ellul claims. Reasonable people, academics, students, firefighters. Not poor, hopeless people.

The same thing can be said about UFO abduction encounters. My take on it, is that the brain can generate some intense and bizarre experiences, in some cases positive in some cases negative. I just think that no matter what one's intelligence level, subjective experience doesn't make good evidence for objective claims about the nature of reality.

Organized religion is different, more of a social phenomenon, that I agree tends to be more pronounced in societies where things generally suck. 
I just think that no matter what one's intelligence level, subjective experience doesn't make good evidence for objective claims about the nature of reality.

These claims don't need to be objective. This is what most people don't get. If someone has a god-experience like that, they shouldn't try and make it into something objective and go try and convert people. Similarly, others shouldn't automatically assume they're somehow wrong. To each their own. 
Live and let live, basically. 
Peace To That Brother 
The problem lies in the definition of the word 'Know', and 'Must', combined.


"I know that what they are doing is wrong and unethical, so they must be stopped"

Then war happens. 
I actually disagree. Giving up the idea of knowledge (ie relativism, no one's beliefs are any better than anyone else's, often motivated by multiculturalism/good intentions) isn't necessary for tolerance. Rational, respectful debate is better - especially on culturally sensitive issues. Certainly some ideas are superior to others, whether we're talking truth claims (history, science, etc) or more culturally infused things like ethics (ie almost every culture agrees that slavery is wrong). Holding a belief, one inherently believes that the belief is correct, and therefore others ought to hold it if they weren't in some ultimate way, mistaken. This is why all but the most liberal religions have a problem getting along - and even some uber-hippie pacifist person ultimately thinks other people should do what he (or she) does and believe what he (or she), this person is simply not willing to use coercion (though they may use persuasion) to achieve this. 
Holding a belief, one inherently believes that the belief is correct, and therefore others ought to hold it if they weren't in some ultimate way, mistaken.

You can experience stuff and it can be good and valuable for you, and you can draw from it, all without necessarily needing to go and convert others or be a missionary.

relativism, no one's beliefs are any better than anyone else's, often motivated by multiculturalism/good intentions

I was arguing the very specific case of individual god-experience or individual spiritual experience. It doesn't keep me from subscribing to the Big Bang theory at ALL if I had some individual god experience or if my distant ancestors believed the world was created by a giant cow or something. I can keep these apart just fine.

I was an academic once, I'm familiar with the scientific method. When I became "religious", there was a period where I thought that science must be wrong (or limited) because I couldn't reconcile things in my head. It seems it is a common first reaction when science and spirituality collide that one of them must be wrong. I no longer subscribe to that idea. All that is required is the ability to keep them apart, which is something organized religions often deliberately do not teach their adherents in order to produce some sort of suicide bomber puppets. That is a crime, let me be clear about that. But not all religion is automatically like that.

Atheists and scientists can be as pompous as the Pope sometimes. It's not their business what someone does at home. Also our media LOVE to generalize. I bet when most people think "religion", they actually think "Islam" or something they have seen on TV, instead of "Lakota" or "Sami" or "Siberian shamans".

Which is a shame, really, there is so much more. 
I think you might be misunderstanding me, though you just made a ton of good points. Or maybe we're talking past each other. I think keeping these things separate is important, and it would lead to a better society in which creationism/fundamentalism wouldn't exist. Truth claims and religious traditions are indeed separate. I also don't deny that scientists can be really arrogant. P Z Myers and Jerry Coyne, for example, really piss me off. Especially Myers: he has a little man complex and is looking for a cause.
All of that said, I think that science has explained enough (including the start of the universe and our human brain functions) that the two DON'T need to be kept separate.

Powerful subjective experiences can be integrated with neuroscience. Basically, I think that it's likely that science (math physics chemistry) can explain anything we encounter, in principle, including our own consciousness. And from there, whatever any human might experience must not be incompatible with chemistry, physics, math, etc.

Sure it could be. I think a Siberian shaman's experience and views are extremely interesting. But I don't think they contradict the laws of physics or the discoveries of neuroscience. I think we're living in one big compatible playground, as soon as the superstitious lay off all claims to objective/scientific knowledge. 
Especially with the mention of nueroscience.

I prefer Nueromancy, which is just a fancy way of talking about books.

I'm not a god person. I've read that there is a genetic predisposition towards being religious.

Having lived in a strongly catholic culture for many years I want really speak bad of those who need the support of organised religion.

Despite the smears on 'the church' aside, I do believe there is something to be said for belief. Or faith, better put. I'm too old to buy into it, probably 10 is too old to believe in the spaghetti monster, but that's just my closed view.

There's a bloody mindedness that only those with faith or complete egocentricity can have. To the extremes this results in, well, religious extremism - or psychosis.

Difficult topic. 
This Would Be Much Easier 
Over a beer. 
All of that said, I think that science has explained enough (including the start of the universe and our human brain functions) that the two DON'T need to be kept separate.

Interesting position.

Modern reconstructionist traditions are aware of the need to reconcile with science (ie. they're aware that this is 2011, to put it bluntly) and are typically using the scientific method to achieve their reconstruction, even (to the point where you'll be asked to either provide a citation, or "plead UPG").

Book religions with their tons of professional priests and exegetes would probably not be so relatively easy to reconcile with science.

ijed: For an atheist, your maps definitely contain an awful lot of blood-sprinkled altars ;-) 
that's all Lovecraft in my view... one of the first modern writers (and a total atheist) to note how incredibly fucked up it would be mysterious powers actually wanted humans hacking each other and animals to pieces as "offerings." The whole Abraham sacrificing his son story, is incredibly creepy - I'd say, even creepier if the voice he heard telling him to do it was real, than if it was just a hallucination of his.

I like this UPG idea, because until recently a lot of scientists basically just denied the validity or interestingness of such experiences, thinking that if people were just less retarded they wouldn't have them. I hope in the future they can come up with generalizable methods (heh) to generate UPG-type experiences. If they ever release that God Helmet thing commercially and it works, it might be pretty interesting for certain people. If they ever figure out dreams, the imagination, whatever is responsible for the spiritual sense, and let us play with that, the results could go beyond anything in any religious tradition/history. 
People are not going to "change". Not even if we want them to.

Humans have an exceptionally wide scale of behavior ranging from ape-like savagery to very sophisticated behavior.

Higher level thinking is not going to go mainstream because tendency is to do as little as is necessary to survive and think as little as needed to fit in. Kind of like a gravitational force that acts as a barrier.

The bar continually raises, information spreads but higher level thinking is actually its own worst enemy.

In two ways ...

1) First, intellectuals tend to draw "final conclusions" due to the human character flaw of ego. You see supposed scientists drawing strongly worded conclusions that they cannot make as scientists. Science is open-ended, always curious, always open-minded ... it does not draw "final conclusions" but rather makes assessments to the likelihood.

2) Intellectuals tend to fail the "survival of the fittest test" and have a tendency towards an Ivory Tower lifestyle. But someone still has to do menial jobs, and those functions are critical operations for our species. And worst of all, some of the higher level attitudes are not compatible with survival.

By definition, you cannot be the fittest if you do not survive and propagate higher level ethos.

"Evil" exists for one purpose and one purpose alone ... "to be defeated". You cannot talk with it, reason with it, bargain with it.

I've recently inadvertently run across several otherwise brilliant historical figures who probably unfairly shattered their reputations by speaking about great Hitler was prior to the invasion of Poland.

Some of the less advanced parts of the world do have wannabee dangerous figures that if left alone will do "bad things". Fortunately, I think cell phones, internet and other hard to control means of communication will lead to less of this kind of thing in the future. 
In my opinion there is no "evil" as in the idea of polar opposites good & evil. There are just things people can't cope with.

Some of the less advanced parts of the world do have wannabee dangerous figures that if left alone will do "bad things".

All parts of the world have dangerous figures. It doesn't go away because one is more advanced. 
You Know ... 
I don't truly believe in the concept of "evil". Not objectively. "Evil" is the ultimate self-sabotage, stains your environment.

That being said, I have seen "evil". It is possible to rationally justify away the causes or such.

But those people will not change. Nature fail? Nurture fail? Bad childhood ... in the end it does not matter, those people have to be dealt with, like the rotten apples they are lest they be allowed to infest their environment.

Objectively there is no such thing as evil. Only chaos and stupidity.

But subjectively ... there are evil people that represent a clear and present danger to their environment. Ugh. 
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