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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    Mar 13 2011: I awoke this morning still pondering your question. I wonder how religious extremism is different fromthe indocrtrination that young people recieveto march into battle convinced that their side is 'right' and ready to kill people they have never met? Surely this process of turning them into people willing to kill for an ideology is a parallel- and these warriors are similar to the warriors for God-terrorists.
    Another example might be political extremism- like a Republican (or Democrat) who is willing to let good legislation that the country needs fail because it is not from his own team.
    Perhaps by widening your search for parallel craziness we can figure out the cognitive disorder in the situations you are considering.
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      Mar 14 2011: Hi Debra,
      You make some very good points which I tend to agree with. After much consideration regarding this issue I I have narrowed my focus to preventing extremist terrorism. That doesn't mean the concept is not valid and important in many areas; even abusive relationships exhibit similar characteristics.

      There will always be charismatic leaders who offer easy answers to complex situations. When those "answers" are backed up with some concept of "God" as the voice of the answers it becomes very potent. That being said; politics, among other highly charged belief systems, can also be the fuel to feed extremism.

      You can't stop a powerful destructive meme with troops. Killing those infected will not stop the meme...Yet, I I think there IS a way to prevent extremist memes from spreading. Understanding our vulnerabilities is key to prevention. We need to provide "memetic condoms" to those most susceptible to being influenced by power hungry meme spreaders - whose goal is to create "us" and "them" thinking in order to dominate.

      I'm not suggesting replacing a belief system with another one. I am suggesting understanding the human condition from a memetic perspective as it relates to extremism and spreading that understanding to take fuel away from the most dangerous and destructive meme spreaders.

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