Friday, March 30, 2012

Food Friday: Low-Carb Chicken Masala over faux rice

I recently found a website with some Slow-Carb (and Paleo) recipes that looked good, starting with "Thai Chicken and Slow-Carb 'Rice.'" I'm excited to try a number of Jason's recipes at Finding My Fitness, I found another I wanted to try: "Indian Butter Chicken (Minus the Butter)." The only thing I wasn't wild about was the use of a pre-made spice pack (which according to its ingredients list includes sugar), but I've made some other modifications as well, drawing from some of Jason's other ideas elsewhere on the site, as well as a Chicken Tikka Masala recipe that I really liked. A couple differences are notable: while Jason uses raw chicken, I use pre-cooked chicken, because I tend to cook up a whole chicken all at once; also, Jason's recipe appears to be targeted toward one serving, while I needed to serve two (it ended up being somewhat closer to three servings).

This was rather spicy--not over-powering, but it had some heat. I liked it very much, but my wife found it perhaps a bit too spicy and felt that it "tasted like potpourri." I think that's because of the cloves, which I will leave out next time we try it. I had wanted to include it because it was in the packaged mix Jason used and also because it was one of the spices that Penn State researchers found lower triglycerides and insulin levels (they included turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, rosemary, black pepper, oregano, and paprika). Looking back on the list, I easily could have slipped more into this dish, but maybe we'll try that next time--and really make it a potpourri! One of the other versions of this story that I read included coriander (in the Garam Masala) and ginger (also in the recipe). In the end, I don't know about piling on the spices just for possible health benefits, but if doing so can also lead to a tasty dish? Count me in!

Chicken Masala:
2/3 c. unsweetened coconut milk
squirt of lemon juice
1 T. Garam Masala spice mixture

1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp Cayenne chili powder
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves (optional)
2-3 servings-worth of cooked chicken, cut into pieces

2 T. butter
1 onion, chopped
two cloves garlic
1 T. minced or crushed ginger 
3 oz (half can) tomato paste

Combine the liquid ingredients and the spices, mixing well. Add the chicken, stir to mix, and set aside.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion until translucent, then add garlic and ginger and cook a little longer. Add tomato paste and chicken and cook until heated through.

Faux Rice
Take 1/2 head of cauliflower and chop in a food processor to very small pieces (think grains of rice or smaller). Cook with some water in a covered pan over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, until it reaches the desired level of being cooked.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Religion: more harm or more good for humanity?

One of my atheist Friends on Facebook likes to post questions and links that stir the pot between believers and non-believers (full disclosure: I don't actually know him in real life, but a mutual friend connected us, and I do enjoy reading his posts and the conversation they provoke).

Last night, he raised the question "Has religion done more harm or good for humanity?" I put some serious thought into this question a little over six years ago, and haven't really touched it since, but now seems like as good a time as any to do so. I have often argued the "more harm" side, but perhaps that's just because so many believers seem so reluctant to acknowledge the dark side of religion. But the more I think about the question as a whole, the more ambivalent I become.

Let's start with a back-of-an-envelope argument that religion has done more harm than good. The crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, modern Islamic terrorism the world over, religious persecution of gays or those seeking (or providing) abortions, to say nothing of electing and re-electing George W. Bush: All of these things could reasonably be attributed to religion, along with all kinds of more personal atrocities.

Believers could point to such things as the end of slavery in America or the progress of civil rights as progress inspired by religion. Or, conversely, they could make the analogy that overtly-secular forces such as Soviet Communism are responsible for massacres as horrendous as anything religion has set up; atheists would respond that those atheists aren't representative of all atheists, to which believers might respond: "precisely, and the believers who committed the other acts you cite don't represent all believers, either."

A book--or, perhaps, an encyclopedia--could be written on this argument (from the "harm" side, at least one has been--God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens). But ultimately, that's simply a catalog of atrocities committed in the name of religion. It should give pause to those who consider religion to be an unalloyed good, but it doesn't answer the question.

What can religion take blame and credit for?When we talk about such things as the Crusades or the conflict in Palestine, or the conquest of the Americas (which were frequently seen in religious terms), it could reasonably be argued that such events were in reality political conflicts of one sort or another which were simply justified by religion and that, absent religion, they would still have been "justified" by other rationales (racial inferiority, simple hatred of "the other," whatever). Many of these things can also be seen as reactions to population pressure, to economic forces, or simple avarice on the part of leaders, with religion simply the icing on the cake that made it palatable to the people. This function of religion can't be neglected, because it's still a negative that religion can be used this way, but--to use a metaphor--religion might simply be chocolate icing which could have been replaced with vanilla or cream cheese or what have you (much as Maxism or racism was used elsewhere and otherwhen).

By the same token, however, the positives of religion could reasonably be taken away from religion. If it helped end slavery in the US, we can also remember that religion helped justify that same slavery in the south and historically. And we could argue that secular forces (industrialization making slavery less necessary, a higher standard of living raising the consciousness of the suffering of others) also played into such movements and that secular forces might have done the job just as well (for instance, if the Enlightenment project hadn't been set back by religious forces).

Thus it seems like the arguments that help absolve religion of blame can also be turned around to absolve it of virtue. Call it a push?

When it comes down to it, the two positives that religion might legitimately be said to offer are hope and morality.

The Case for Hope
Religion offers at least two kinds of hope. One, of course, is the hope of life after death (which helps enforce morality, whether that morality includes being nice to children and puppies or slaughtering infidels) which for some people seems to make life seem more meaningful, even though its effect is actually frequently to de-value this life. More, though, it offers hope that life is inherently meaningful, that there's a reason to go on living. Likewise, though, the belief in religion allows people to believe in ultimate justice of all sorts: that bad people are punished and that our good actions will be justified. It gives us hope that our small contributions to larger movements will be successful: either God will help us or God will ensure that our contribution to a cause is justified in the long run. Consider, for example, people struggling against oppression. An unbeliever might not participate in resistance because of a belief that they can't make a difference, whereas a believer might find courage in their belief that God will support them or, at the very least, make their suffering and/or death not be in vain.

Now, of course, there are some arguments against these points. Religion isn't needed to make life meaningful. Or, on the other side. people may rely on God to solve their problems rather than acting themselves. And, likewise, a person following secular beliefs could realize that seemingly impossible things have been accomplished by collective action, justifying their risk to contribute. Nonetheless, believing that God will help a just cause is far different than believing that people could succeed against the odds. Flip that around though: history shows us that people also can die based on religious beliefs in the service of losing causes and unjust causes, and in these cases religion gave them the strength and confidence to do things which might have been better off not being done!

How about morality?
In the first place, it's certainly possible to be moral without believing in religion--or to be immoral while believing in religion. Perhaps religion does do a better job of enforcing moral codes--the beliefs so engendered tend to stick better and be more deeply held.

None of this is particularly surprising, when we considered how religion developed alongside more complicated social structures. The rise of "civilization" over tribal living is deeply tied to the rise of religion. In tribal life (small communities with close ties among its members), morality is relatively easy to enforce. Shaming is very effective in such groups and, if worse comes to worse, the community at large can physically force adherence to rules.

In larger social grouping such as cities and states, this sort of community no longer exists. People no longer necessarily know their neighbors and they come in contact with all sorts of people. In this case, the enforcers of morality become two-fold: laws which are backed up by the state and morals which are backed up by religion. Laws suffer from the limitation that no government can effectively police all of its citizens; plus, the state is essentially reactive in enforcing its laws, and imperfect at that. Thus, the importance of religion. If people believe that something is wrong, if they believe that breaking a rule will not just be punished by their community or state if they're caught but instead will be punished by their god(s), they are somewhat more likely (though not assured) of following these rules.

Now, this is all historical, of course. I've already asserted that atheists can be moral, and I have no reason to go back on that statement. But it's equally clear that they may very well not be. The common "If there's no God, then anything is allowed" is too easy to accept by those who have not particularly thought on the matter. Here's where our beliefs about human beings will ultimately come into play. A pessimistic view would suggest that, in fact, the majority of human beings (or, at least, a significant number) can't (or won't) be moral without the fear of God hanging over them. Thus, for society, religion might be a good thing. This isn't to say that it is good for all members of society, just for society as a whole, to keep people good and to unify a large, diverse population. A more optimistic view would hold that the reason that it seems like people can't all (or mostly) be good have to do with their education and beliefs, and so can be corrected. This is a pretty big question--bigger, in fact, than I want to try to dig into today, even though it's essential to the question. If people are basically bad, then religion (or something like it?) might be necessary for social order; if people are basically good, then religion might not be necessary and therefore not necessarily good.

Less good or bad than inevitable?
In response to a similar post some six years ago, my friend Matt wrote:
By asking whether religion is good or bad for humanity, you're essentially asking whether humanity is good or bad for humanity. (My answer: on the whole, it's a slight negative.)
I'm not saying religion is genetically hard-wired into us, but I am saying that every single conceivable consequence of it, from holy wars to those little tiny envelopes they make for Sunday School donations, would come about in roughly the same way for other reasons in its absence. It's here, it may or may not be queer, get used to it. Human beings have a limited number of responses to stimuli, and they're always going off, all over the place, all the time. We could as easily get rid of (or more deeply ingrain) legal codes, fungi, left-handedness, or ennui.

Perhaps that's true--in a way, it anticipated Alain de Botton's Atheism 2.0, which has the basic premise that, because of human nature being what it is, atheists can learn a thing or two from religion, which after co-evolved socially with human beings. We might be able to imagine other ways of dealing with the problems that religion deals with, but in a way it's difficult to see what the options were because, in a sense, the weight of history is saying that they weren't--for one reason or another--viable options, which is particularly true because "organized religion" wasn't chosen by King So-and-So in 10,000 BCE or whatever: it was "chosen" on a cultural level over and over.

That said, it's still an open question whether organized religion should continue to be an important force in the world, and it may very well be a question which our culture is answering in the negative--look at all of the "spiritual-but-not-religious" folks out there. The relevance of the question, really, is whether the good of religion outweighs to evil of religion such that it should continue in the present and future. Or could other belief systems do as well or better? 
 Religions don't kill people; people (with religions) kill people
A virtual friend who's long since disappeared made an analogy that clarified my thinking a bit, likening religion to a loaded gun, she suggested that it's not religion which is at fault so much as it is what people do with religion that raises difficulties. To her conclusion that "religion is unquestionably good, in the hands of GOOD PEOPLE," I feel compelled to add that religion is unquestionably bad in the hands of bad people. That's the thing: religion is incredibly powerful. Likening religion to a gun may have been an understatement--try a missile or even a nuke!

What gives religion so much power is its absolute nature: when a priest or pope or imam says "this is the right thing to do," it is theoretically God saying that it's the right thing to do. Rules are backed up with infinite punishment or infinite reward, and thus can trump everything, including--or especially!--common sense. Thus do people fly airplanes into buildings or strap bombs on as they head to the subway; thus do people Crusade to take back "holy lands" or torture those who disagree and get away with it. They get away with it because they're seen as fundamentally and absolutely right. This is religion's great power for good and evil. Not its only power, but probably its greatest.

That doesn't happen just in religion, of course, but it seems to me that religion is a more powerful force as a justifying motivation. In Soviet Russia or Communist China, there was significant resistance--overt, covert, and silent--because the secular regimes couldn't justify their abuses beyond the naked use of power to do what they wanted. Religion seems to be a more believable uniting fiction, in the sense that it more easily turns off critical thinking and resistance.

De-fanging religion?
In more recent times, we have seen religions which acknowledge human fallibility and limitations, religions based on democratic and individualistic premises, even--liberal Christianity and the UUs come to mind. The effect of this is to curb religion's capability for evil without much injuring its capacity for doing good. Believers who can accept that--whoops!--their beliefs might be wrong, that a book might not be the ultimate Truth, that they might be misinterpreting "God's will"--such people aren't too likely to make the grand acts that harm others and can't be taken back. They're more likely to act with more consideration and tolerance. And that's all to the good.

There's another characteristic of religion (if we're defining religion as "organized religion") that's worth looking at for its goodness and badness--also, for that matter, as an additional source of that power of religion that I referred to earlier. I'm speaking now of hierarchical organization. Throughout most of history it's been a feature of religion and to some extent continues in anything that can be called organized religion. Churches work primarily in top-down ways. The Pope says "this is so" and his bishops make sure that everyone on down the line through priests and the Catholic laity get in line, at least to the extent that they can and are willing to do so. Even churches without the rigid hierarchy still have echoes of it if they have a minister/pastor/priest, because almost by default they become an authority figure.

This hierarchical structure, of course, isn't limited to churches. It is, however, both pernicious and powerful wherever it exists. Just as nations wiped out tribes with the power of their more rigid organization, Christianity wiped out less structured pagans too, often in conjunction with the hierarchical power of the State. I think it's a fair characterization to say that non-hierarchical organizations are better for the individuals in them, while hierarchical organizations are better for the stability of the organization itself and the power structures that exist within them--that is, it helps the people on top and it perpetuates itself.

That said, some churches in the modern day have moved closer to a balance between the organization and the autonomy of the individual. This started, of course, with protestantism itself back in the 16th century, as it brought "the word of God" into the vernacular and gradually lessened the importance of a mediator between God and the individual. The church in which I grew up, the United Church of Christ (UCC) is something of the par excellence as far as this goes, and outside Christianity, the Unitarian Universalists similarly embrace democratic governance. Both are governed at their highest levels not by a leader but by democratic gathering of representatives from congregations. It acts democratically to express the majority will, but even this expression is not binding in terms of belief or behavior (though, of course, certain things like spending money are binding by the fact of being actions taken rather than things said)--local churches have complete control over their own finances, hiring and firing, and even theological and political stands.

Contrast this to, say, Catholicism. Or fundamentalist religions. These are far more dangerous than something so liberal (or Liberal, actually) as the UCC. While a less-hierarchical denomination like the UCC may have less power to do evil, it arguably also has less strength to do good, but that's okay because it actually still has a lot of strength which is mostly only good for good.
Hasty, tacked-on conclusion

Despite what optimistic atheists have thought at various times in history, it seems that religion isn't going away any time soon (and, in fairness, maybe there are good reasons for that, which we atheists ignore at our own peril). This being the case, it's less important to wonder whether "religion has done more harm than good" than to ask "what aspects of religion are most dangerous and which ones are most beneficial? The fact is that religion is not one stable, monolithic thing throughout eternity or even throughout the lifespan of one religion, and that being the case, it might be worthwhile to think about the question in this dissecting way. And when I say "useful," I mean for both believer and non-believer: useful for the former to choose her religion thoughtfully and--in this democratic age--to influence it; useful for the non-believer to know which religions really are enemies to you and which ones are, in many ways, allies, not to mention learning a bit more about how we work and what we need.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: Change Anything

Change Anything: The New Science of Personal SuccessChange Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the subtitle suggests, Change Anything is about applying what we know from science to changing things we're unhappy with in life. The case studies pointed to emphasize certain areas of life that people commonly want to change--getting ahead at work, diet/fitness/weight loss, substance abuse, personal and professional relationships--but the real idea is to get to the underlying forces that help us to change, well, anything. Although willpower and building it are a part of the book, willpower is far from the central concern. In fact, they talk about "the willpower trap," believing that our failures to change come primarily from weakness of will. In fact, what's central to all of the successful change talked about in the book is making decisions to alter one's environment to achieve the desired outcomes. It is the people, places, and things that surround us that have the greatest impact on our behaviors and habits--and our ability to change them.

Not only does Patterson bring together a number of things that we've learned from science (and I should add that most of this isn't really new--you may very well, as I did, find quite a few of the studies and insights familiar. But Patterson does do a good job of bringing them all together and offering examples of how people have applied these principles to making changes in their own lives.

Science finds its way in not only through the research, but also in the overall approach--Patterson stresses that while we use these insights to craft a change plan, that we may very well encounter failure initially. Much like a scientist forming a hypothesis, we make our best effort to match the insights of the book to our own lives and needs, but failure just means we need to go back to the drawing board and that we've learned about something that didn't work.

For better and or worse, the book is an entryway to a website, so that besides offering you what information it does, you also have the opportunity to tap into a community of people and some on-line tools to help in your own changes. Of course, the site is only free for the first month, so it may be worth weighing the costs and benefits of taking advantage of that particular service.

Regardless, Change Anything has a lot of good material in it and should be a go-to for anyone looking to make change or to help facilitate change in others.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review: Embassytown

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Embassytown is my second Mieville work (I found The City and The City interesting, enjoyable, and yet somewhat lacking). The novel seemed to spend a long time getting anywhere, and it was a bit hard to get into, the way that it got there, but in the end the payoff was worth it. This is probably more like 4.5 stars than 4--the slow build-up wasn't bad, per se, I just wish there could have been a more engaging way to pull us in deeper faster.

Our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is a native of Embassytown, the human outpost on the alien world Arieka. She grew up there, got away from this fascinating backwater because she had the ability to immerse, to maintain consciousness while traveling through the Immer, which is the humans' method for faster-than-light travel across the universe. After she marries a linguist, however, she is drawn back to Embassytown by his desire to study the language of the Arieka Hosts, a desire to avoid the politics of her Immerser profession, and the subtle call of home.

The language of the Arieki is central to the novel. These aliens have a language that is unique in two ways: because they have two mouths, they speak a double language, a language which only makes sense with two voices; also, for them, language (or Language, since they can only conceive of one) is purely representative of reality, meaning--among other things--that they cannot lie. They also cannot learn other languages, or even really understand that other languages exist. Sometime in the past, through a fortuitous discovery, it was found that the only way humans could communicate with the Hosts was to have two speakers who were empathically linked in some way--from twins, they moved to clones, with special training to allow them to work as one. These doubled individuals are the Ambassadors, the only humans who can speak to the Hosts (or even be understood as speaking).

I don't want to get too far into the plot, but suffice it to say that intergalactic and local politics lead to a crisis of world-shattering proportions, which Avice and her allies must solve through a deeper understanding of these alien beings--as well as a greater understanding of human beings.

One of the sub-genres of science fiction is of the alien anthropology variety, hinging on the unique characteristics of an alien species that are understood dimly at best by the characters and the reader when the novel starts. It's a sort of puzzle or detective story, and in this case the aliens--however much their forms are strange to us--are ultimately at their strangest when it comes to the seemingly-simple difference of being incapable of lying, and the linguistic and consciousness differences that follow from that difference. In the process, Mieville offers an interesting exploration of what being human means, which in this case means beings who use language the way we do.

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and I wanted to comment on the production as well. Susan Duerden, narrating, is Avice. The POV is 1st person narration, and she carries it off perfectly. I don't know how this was handled in the text version, but Language is represented here by two voices overlaid, as they are described to be, and it works nicely.

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