TED Conversations

Diane Benscoter

Author - "Shoes of a Servant", Salient


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Where on the continuum does religion become extremism? Is extremism a cognitive disorder?

As an ex-cult member and an ex-deprogrammer I have experienced and observed extremism up close and personal.

Suicide bombers, Hitler youth, Jonestown victims and other variations on extremism are based on belief systems that cause otherwise good people to cross the line into what I view as a cognitive disorder.

When you look at the most active TED conversation, many are about religion. Religion's role in society at this time is a heated debate throughout the world. My concern is not about if Mormonism or any other doctrine is the "true religion" or even if all forms of religiosity is foolishness. My interest is if and when fully functioning cognition is hampered by certain memes that cause "us" and "them" circular thinking, and when that becomes gravely dangerous.

Most religions claim a corner on the "truth" and create walls between them and non-believers. Under certain circumstances this becomes horrifically dangerous. Wars and atrocities are the result.

So...is there a way to identify, through neuroscience, what happens to decision making processes when someone becomes a victim of an infectious meme? Is there a way to treat this like a mental disorder when along the religious or political continuum a belief system becomes extremist and allows someone to believe that it is "right" , for instance, to lead Jews into concentration camps or strap a bomb to your body and detonate?,

Topics: meme religion

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    Feb 22 2011: Can't help but think of the Amish people. I guess to many folk this would be a cult. They learn their priorities at an early age. They are to love God & one another, with very little focus on self. In their teens they are sent out into the world in order to choose whether they want to be Amish, or join the happy throng on the outside. In the documentary I saw, most returned. They saw little to commend our 'Eat, Drink, & be Merry' culture.
    They have near zero crime, no tv, no cars, no cellphones & no need for mind alteration. Our society has many positives, but it comes at a price.

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      Feb 22 2011: Thank you for your comment. I understand the distinction you are drawing.

      I am seeking to understand where on the continuum the human brain slips into a place in which any atrocity is possible; between someone whose brain is fully functioning from a rationality perspective, and someone who is capable of flying a plane into a building full of people. The word cult becomes less useful to me as I have considered questions of religion and extremism over the course of my life. Are the Amish a cult? Are the Moonies a cult? Maybe those questions aren't so important in the big scheme of things. I do know, however, that my brain was hampered by the circular logic I was infected by when I was in the Moonies. I know I was capable of doing most anything for my "messiah" during those years.

      The research is yet to be done on how the human brain is effected by extremist ideas/memes. I am interested in and planning on doing that research. I am also interested in looking for those most vulnerable to dangerous memes and using the results of the research I do to educate those most vulnerable about what happens to the brain under certain circumstances.

      Maybe it will help some to avoid what I would call a highly dangerous cognitive/memetic infection.
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        Feb 23 2011: Hi Diane

        I have to put my hand up & admit that I am a fundamentalist Christian by most measures. My main purpose in life is to introduce my 'master' to people. I have no inclination however to rob, kill, maim, or otherwise abuse people; quite the contrary. My mandate is to care about people.
        A certain David Coresh; as far as I can tell; started out in similar fashion. As he was a magnetic personality, he gathered a flock. Pretty soon he decided that he would make the rules, & the rest is history. Perhaps Jim Jones had a similar history. Currently Gadafi & Mugabe are in a similar positions. We could add Hitler, Stalin et al to the list.

        So where do I differ ? Quite simply; & obviously; I don't have the power. Power corrupts, & even if a person is charismatic, good, kind, strong, whatever, there is a limit to the power that they can handle. I follow Jesus. I do go to church; the pastor is my mate, he isn't considered any better than me, or anyone else. We bow to no pope or archbishop, but to Christ alone. The major cults are money making businesses & that is their reason for existence.

        So I would put it this way. If we follow a man (or woman) in spiritual matters we have to be very careful as often people get ideas above their station. I don't think it can be halted by medical intervention. If we could prevent any person, or group of persons, gaining too much power over others that might work. However as society is structured, that's not going to work. You can see it at elections; folks vote for the charismatic candidates, who then abuse their positions to rip us off. Am I an old cynic or what ! I wish you luck in your quest.

        PS I would class Mohammed as a man & Jesus as our Creator (ie greater than man)

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          Feb 27 2011: Hi Peter. Thank you for your post and your candor. I understand your points would not dispute the power of power.

          My hope is to understand the characteristics of those most vulnerable to extremist memes. I also hope to understand, through research, as much as possible about what happens, from a neuroscience perspective, when certain vulnerabilities meet certain types of extremist memes.

          I am not worried about you strapping a bomb to your body and detonating for Jesus! However, someone who is lost in their world, whose world is war torn, who is at the prime of their life with little hope for happiness...etc. I worry about. Therein is my passion. I want to protect those most vulnerable. In doing so, the Hitlers of the world may have less to feed on.
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        Feb 28 2011: Hi Diane

        If I understand you correctly, your ultimate goal would be to 'treat' those people vulnerable to negative memes. Wouldn't it be better to concentrate on the negative meme 'carriers'. eg why treat a whole nation, when treating one Hitler would achieve the same end ?
        We also have another problem. You seem like a nice person, but who gets to decide who needs 'treated' & who does not ? If such a 'treatment' was perfected, surely it would be every Hitler's dream come true.
        We should certainly use the law to discourage those who would mislead the vulnerable, but, in the final analysis, people must be free to make their own decisions; & that must include bad ones.

        You've picked a difficult subject.


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