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?,

  • Feb 23 2011: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you said religion is a continuum.

    At the moment that you declare that you are willing to believe in things without reasonable evidence, listen uncritically to voices in your head and deny science, history and common sense, you’ve publicly declared yourself ripe for exploitation. It’s just a question of who gets to you first.

    Of course some people are more susceptible than others. Kind people that wouldn’t say boo to a goose are more likely to fall into the trap than others that are critical or suspicious. The young are particularly at risk because their brain doesn’t develop the capacity for critical thinking before 12-15 years.

    So you’ve got flu, how bad have you got it? How bad is too bad?.

    You ask if extremism is a cognitive disorder. Here’s one dictionary definition of ‘insane’: “In a state of mind that prevents normal perception”. To the atheist, being religious (any brand) fits this description just as to a devout christian belief in Thor is deluded.

    Prevention is better than trying to diagnose and cure. I think we have to start seriously looking at the principle of freedom of religion. For me the freedom of religion is the freedom to believe in what you want without being influenced by others. That makes it a moral crime to teach others religion. My children are taught about religion, but they are not taught to be religious. I don’t even try to persuade them to be atheists - I want them to make the decision for themselves when the time comes.

    Faith schools should simply be illegal - private or public. It is child abuse, simple as that. Even teaching your own children to be religious instead of helping them to think critically is failing to live up to your responsibility as a parent.
    • Apr 6 2011: whoa there, Keith. Now it's YOU rounding up the people of faith and carting them off into concentration camps. You are (as are most of the people here) falling into what you are deploring: each of you have been harping on the evils of those who don't think like you do, and condemning their beliefs. The problem is not in the beliefs - everyone, especially the athiest, has strong religious beliefs. An evolutionist strongly defends his belief system and strongly condemns any heretic that dare explain past events within a different framework. Instead of suicide bombings, it is often academic murder they commit, but ALL groups share the mental "us" vs "them" issue. Look at the boards here - it's us vs them all over your comments, and if you get your way, no one can have a thought other than yours, or the thought police will be there for retraining or irradication. I do believe in competing ideas, and I think that most people with options will choose the truth. the biggest problems come (socially and academically) when one group tries to dominate the idea landscape and starts talking to the group how all other ways of thinking (e.g. a moral crime to teach religion) are evil and the problem to be eliminated. Free choice, in which all voices are heard and explained well, allows people to find the correct ideas. Truth is never afraid to compete with untruth, but the converse is not at all true. ANYWHERE the mob prevents other voices from being heard, you have this danger, and in our universities today, there are quite a few "sacred cows" that have nothing to do with religion that fit her description to a "T" It's scary that no one here shouted you down, because most everyone on this board is anti-religion, and so secretly agrees that the religious should be eliminated, and so Hitler lives on... as do eugenic movements... and religious wars... et cetera
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        Jul 6 2011: Hi Stephen,

        I did not think Keith was condemning the attempt to persuade other adults to adopt a religion.

        The "crime" he was talking about is the attempt to impose a religion upon a child before the child's brain has grown to the point, and the child has had enough epxerience, so that the child can evaluate the proposed religion for what it is and choose whether or not to believe it.

        The question has to do with how the brain wiring should be engineered in the early part of life.

        Should we impose expereinces which will wire the circuits of the brain so that emotional adherance to the religion of one's parents or local youth minister or other local religious leader is more powerful than the willingness and ability to imagine or study alternative possible belief systems and evaluate them rationally.

        The alternative would be to focus on developing rationality in children rather than adherence to religion.

        For example, use literature and movies to encite empathy. There should be a class every school day in a students life that focuses on empathy inspiring literature.

        Also, have children think through practical problems. Start with a premise like all people matter or treat others the way you want to be treated and work on discussing what follows in particular situations or for particular policy questions. Engage the children in learning how the facts matter, and thus, how the other discipllines are relevant for answering these questions. This class should meet just as often as any other core curriculum calss. Have the students keep a journal with regular writing assignments on such matters. Hold small group discussions of three or four students to discuss the journal entries. Have students write responses to other students journal with regular writing assignments on such matters. Hold small group discussions of three or four students to discuss the journal entries. Have students write responses to other students journal entries.

        For the most part, these two clas
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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.
  • Feb 21 2011: In premodernity meaning is legacy in the form of custom and traditions. In religions that meaning is found in sacred texts and made manifest in ritual. Cults imitate forms of traditional practice by demanding subordination to an ascribed meaning, or set of meanings.

    Extremism is the premodern writ large.

    By contrast meaning in modernity is, for some, found in the explanations of science. For others, these explanations seem trivial. They take to a seedy jazz cafe and become existentialist.

    The culture ambience of modernity, stripped of meaning, creates a vulnerability to the attractions of surrender. The clients of cults are prepared, (softened up) by atheistic reason.

    In postmodernity (as herein redefined), meaning is a cultural artifact in constant flux. Each of us absorbs and changes thousands of meanings. We are sentient creatures. This is what we do. We invent meaning.

    The premodern tends to the theistic: the cult is a form of cultural regression to find meaning.
    The modern tends to the atheistic and the destruction of meaning.
    The postmodern tends to the pantheistic and the personalization of meaning.

    In the Archaic Era the notion of the Sacred was attached to everything.
    In the Premodern it was limited to gods, god-kings, their pals and special places, objects, processes etc.
    In the Modern with the killing of the gods, the sacred is denied. The anguish begins leading to cult attraction.
    In the Postmodern the sacred is restored to everything. A vague, ill-defined eco-pantheism. Meaning is found in being part of a great process of life. The need for cultism dissipates.
  • Jul 4 2011: I see extremism of any kind, whether it be religious, political, or other, as something of a mental Ouroboros- cyclical thinking of an autocanabalistic, and ultimately self-destructive, variety. Within the continuum of religiosity, there seems to be a sub-continuum, specifically of extremist beliefs. Sam Harris has made this distinction before, and it is a vital one to recognize: some forms of extremism give us very good reason to be alarmed, while others are more or less benign. He uses the example of Jainism. To paraphrase, the more "extreme" a Jain gets, the less we have to worry about them. The same can be said of many of the world's faiths and belief systems; Buddhists, Mennonites, Quakers, even Mormons (though arguably the more fundamental varieties of Later Day Saints pose some problems when it comes to affecting policy change in the US, but I'll put that aside) - these people, among others, should more or less not concern us the more fundamentalist they become. Not only is it important to note this distinction, as I said, but perhaps these groups of people can help us in your quest for gaining neural imaging data about extremism. As Lora Lopuhovsky poignantly asked, "Who would participate or who would decide who should participate in a study of this?" Failed Muslim suicide bombers, fundamentalist Christians who murder abortionists- these people will doubtfully submit to neural imaging studies to plumb the depths of their "cognitive disorders". But perhaps our friends, the "benign extremists" will. This may seem to run counter to my earlier call to recognize the distinction among extremists, and further study may reveal this to be so, but looking into the brains of the benign extremists may give us a much better understanding of the malignant extremists. My hypothesis is that extremism of any variety, though the ideologies behind it will cause beliefs/behaviors to manifest in very different ways, is essentially the same at the level of the brain.
  • May 22 2011: I would like to comment on your question "is there a way to identify, through neuroscience". First of all how would you investigate this thru neuroscience? Who would participate or who would decide who should participate in a study of this? An extremist does not think of themselves as "extremist" They just think they are right and you are wrong.
  • Mar 15 2011: Diane, I totally agree with you. At one point in my life I was actually willing to die for God. How? If someone put a gun to my head and asked if I believed in God and, Iif I said yes, would be shot, I would have said yes. Why would I have said yes? Out of fear that I would go to hell. Death seemed like a better option. Then however, I educated myself on religion, evolution ect and came to the conclusion that half the world is deluded. These poisonous memes need antecdotes. People once thought AIDS would kill man kind but we stopped it. But we must stand in absolute AWE of the mighty religion and ask ourselves if we can ever cure this disease.
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    Mar 12 2011: Great question, Diane. Perhaps I have a different view of this than most. It seems to me that in the absense of differing information and in the presence of strong pressures of a peer group or where people are extremely isolated individuals, extremism in religion is a deepening commitment to the literal word that is being preached or read. It is a step by step commitment to the literal word "of God". Many religious groups suggest or overtly teach that their holy books are "inspired' by God so that they speak to the individual's heart. Entertaining other points of view is sin. For people living a miserable existence here, either because of temperment or life circumstances- they see the chance of a better life with God as something worth their last breath. I think that for many people extremism is an attempt to be cognitively consistent and walk such a fine line that they qualify for whatever is worth it to them to delay gratification in this whole lifetime- love from the ultimate authority figure, victory over their percieved tormenters or a sense of being ultimately right. If it is a cognitive disorder it is one of extreme focus and obsession.
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    Mar 12 2011: As you know, Cognitive Disorder is followed by Cognitive Dissoance in human mind. Hitler was originally cahtholic believer when he was chlid. And An jun keun who was swarajist in korea was catholic believer too. But Hitler was called slaughter and Anjunkeun was called patriot even if they killed human. and South and North korean People both admires him as patriot. Afther all is it impotant for humanbeing's cognitive disorder to be caused by social enviornment and historical context?.In some repect, Anjunjkeun was able to called political extremist. But He was admired more as a patriot than as a slaughter.Moreover korean catholic church denied his behaviour until 1980. nowadays conceded his conduct and moves to canonize him as a saint man.
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    Feb 23 2011: I think people become susceptible to extremism when the WHY for their morals has been twisted for one reason or another. In their core, even extremists have ideas that have decent retionale. But the way they go about achieving their ideas is simply wrong in every way, because it fails to satisfy a sane person's "why" of the issue. For example, Al Qaeda preaches "Death to America" because US politicians treated their land and religion as inferior... They have a point, but killing potentially innocent people for the sake of making your culture appear superior (in a fear sence) can't be more wrong; Hitler killed jews because he thought his race is superior... even assuming he was right (which he wasn't), killing the inferior race is surely worse than trying to make the inferior be as superior as you.

    But extremists can't see why their actions are wrong. And that is usually a consequence of them not seeing why something would be right. In the case of Al Qaeda and the like, the views are imposed on people in poverty. For us, we think we should be good because we should "enjoy life", but for people in those environments, "enjoy life" doesn't sit well, so there's no reason why they should be good at present. Because of that, it's easy to install an idea for being "good" according to a certain doctrine for the sake of a better future in another life.
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      Feb 27 2011: Hi Vasil. I think you make some good points. There are studies that have been done to look at the attributes that lend to vulnerability to joining a cult. Similar research has been done to look at extremism. The similarities are fascinating. I am working on writing about this in more detail.

      The discussion of "good and bad" thinking becomes an issue of morals or philosophy without proper research. While moral and philosophical discussions are very interesting, i am working toward comparative research which would look at the cognitive brain patterns of extremists (of course, that will need to be objectified) compared to another group who would test high in critical thinking.

      I hope to demonstrate that there is a notable difference in brain function between the two groups. If a case could be made that critical/rational thinking is hampered by certain "memes" it would become useful information toward prevention of extremism. If we could create a profile for those most vulnerable to these types of memes (as you described above) perhaps educating those most vulnerable would help prevent extremism. Even those in poverty or those feeling lost in their world, in most cases, would not want to lose the functionality of their brains. At least this is my thinking.
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        Feb 27 2011: You are talking about extremism memes as if they share a single common pattern. Have you considered the possibility of there being multiple patterns?

        When bringing cults into the equasion and observing the similarities, I can't help but notice "poverty" is no longer a reason. At least not on its own. Yet what I mentioned about poverty above is also based on research*. When trying to think about the "why", more differences than similarities pop up.

        The similarities, as you're well aware are a lack of critical thinking. That can be contributed to bad education and/or in the indocrtination of kinds at young age with whatever their non-radical religion is, which in turn requires abolishment of critical thinking.

        Yet not every religious person is succeptable to cults and extremism. How come?

        I'd like to think the "golden rule" is at hand here (with it sometimes being taught alongside the non-radical religions), but I'm not aware of any research being done on that, so that's up for a debate.

        Like I said, it boils down to the "why", but there's no "brainwave" translation to "why" (yet), so let me try to break it up into the kind of profiles I think should be researched (all from cults), either by you or someone else:
        - Rich people - their "why" is twisted in that they've often seen money as a reason for everything, but once there, they don't see meaning in life, and in turn they don't see why should they be good.
        - Domestic violance victims - their "why" is twisted in that they'd see the more powerful as being the one to prevail, and in turn the one who they should be. Therefore, the "why" for them is "because I'm not aware of their power" - it's fear driven if you will.
        - Lonely people (as in "living alone with no (boy/girl)friend(s)") - their "why" is twisted simply in them gradually not seeing value in humanity in general.

        * http://www.ted.com/talks/sharmeen_obaid_chinoy_inside_a_school_for_suicide_bombers.html
  • Feb 23 2011: Hi Diane. Just another thought. I note in your talk that you use the term "rewire". Do you think it's a case of rewiring or more just exploiting wiring that's already in place but just a bit 'iffy'?
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      Feb 27 2011: Hi Keith. Having been a deprogrammer, I have come to realize how difficult it is to undo a meme that has settled into someone's thinking. It get's more complicated when it becomes part of their community/their life. I am very interested in prevention at this point.

      Attributes of those most vulnerable to being "infected" by an extremist meme are fairly easy to point to. My goal is to find the most effective way to educate those most vulnerable. I do not think it can be done with a belief system. Arguing right and wrong is not effective, in my opinion. I think prevention may be possible if there is clear evidence of what can happen to the brain and the dangers therein, and if that information is presented clearly and effectively.
      • Feb 27 2011: I’ve spent some time thinking about this problem. This is my take...

        A belief system is just another model. We use models as science does scientific theory as a net to catch and describe the otherwise complex world. All models are wrong, some are useful.

        If we don’t have a model to describe a certain phenomenon then we are open to suggestions. We can either conceive of a model ourselves - “all objects drop down toward the earth” or we can be given one “every massive particle in the universe attracts every other massive...”. When we see something that doesn’t fit in the model like a helium filled ballon going up we become confused until we we either make a correction to our model ‘lighter than air objects go up’ or we throw out our broken model and replace it with a new one: ‘the sun goes around the earth’ got replaced by ‘the earth goes around the sun’.

        Every time that we encounter something that agrees with our models they get strengthened and become more difficult to change - which is a good thing. That’s how we survive, that’s why we’re not in a constant state of confusion.

        Children should be equipped with a sound basis of reason, logic and critical thinking - it must be part of their education; it’s the responsibility of the parents and society. I am very angry with societies that don’t uphold their obligation (that’s almost all societies). I am very angry with parents, schools, churches that insist on teach children to be religious - they are installing a back door for nonsense that can be exploited later on, a kind of trojan horse that will ask an otherwise reasonable person to suspend reason and make leaps of faith unquestioningly.
      • Feb 27 2011: My experience is also arguing right from wrong is not effective. My guess is that you have to use the same tricks and devices that the original programmers do which sounds underhand but that’s the best way to break and reset the models.

        My suspicion is (but I’m not sure) that you’re not going to get very far trying to show the brain becomes dysfunctional. I think the brain is working as designed, it’s just been programmed incorrectly.
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          Feb 27 2011: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I share your passion regarding teaching reason.

          It is considered a mental disorder when someone is a danger to themselves or others. We prosecute criminals differently when this is the case and we lock people up in mental institutions when this is the case.

          Technological advances are allowing the possibility to observe cognitive processes in ways we have not previously had. fMRI, for instance, is very new. Mental illnesses have not been connected to memetics, that I know of. In fact, memetics is a field of much controversy. So, yes... mine is an uphill climb for sure. Still, I know something happened to the victims of Jonestown that was a memeticly influenced state of mental illness. Those were otherwise mentally healthy people. They fed poison to their children! I don't know if you are a parent...but I am. Memetics helps me understand this phenomena. That otherwise rational, kind, caring people can commit atrocities. I'm determined to understand it as best I can from a neuroscience perspective.
      • Feb 28 2011: You know I think you're absolutely right. I think in a few hundred years we will be much the same but we will look back at the year 2000 as we do the dark ages with regards to to how we behave. I need to ponder this over a while.
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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.