Motivations: Soldiers & Religious Laymen

Why do common soldiers fight in wars? Do they fight for all the lofty ideals their governments broadcast?

For a couple of years I had a part-time weekend job of interviewing American soldiers who returned from battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. My mission: to diagnose any lasting medical issues of the soldiers and get them to the appropriate specialist for further management. But the main focus of my job was to screen for traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and suicidal or homicidal ideation.

So, as you can imagine, my interviews (lasting between 10 minutes to an hour for each soldier, depending on their issues) could be very personal. And besides hearing horrible stories of the psychological impact of war,  I would also hear stories of why the soldiers joined the American volunteer armed services, why they stayed and accepted return deployment or why they left.

Patriotism, freedom, democracy and national security were almost never a reason. Instead, needing a job, needing money for education, escaping their town and seeking adventure were far more common. I don’t have statistics to back me, but that was my impression.

Well, apparently the reasons of soldiers for enlisting and remaining in the armed services has been studied by many people. I am listening to a course on “The American Civil War” which reminded me of this issue. As you can imagine, reasons for going to war vary widely — there is no one reason, but from the Civil War to World Wars I and II, soldiers’ reasons for joining are often not the same ones that the government tries to inculcate.

Thinking about this issue today, I was reminded about  writing I’ve done about the reasons the average lay religious believers belong to their mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and such? Is it because they believe the dogmas and rhetoric of their religious professionals? No, far less than we’d imagine. I wrote an article here addressing that issue for Christians: “Most Christians Don’t Believe“.

All of this is complicated — our minds aren’t homogenous — we hold multiple contrary beliefs and motivations simultaneously and are usually unaware of our own motivations. Instead, our minds make up reasons for us AFTER we make a move. Reasons to protect us from ourselves and make us acceptable. Soldiers and Lay Believers alike may echo the reasons that others like to hear for why they joined, but with very little effort and exploration, the inconsistency of their stories and the other more simple, earthy, practical reasons become clear. We often present ourselves as noble. We make ourselves the heroes of our stories.


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Comparing Language & Religion

The ways people use their languages and religions have many things in common. Looking at these comparisons help us see deep shared structures of both — that is, their common origin: the human mind.

I’ve done many posts on linguistic (the study of language), and this is a sub-index of posts I’ve done which make explicit what I find to be uncanny similarities between our languages and our religions.

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Need for Certainty: a deeper trait than religion


Dil Aram Ministry: India circa 1970s

In my youth, I worked for a brief time in a halfway house in India. “Dil Aram” (Heart of Peace) was a large Christian communal house in Dehli’s rich suburb of Defense Colony.  Dilaram’s mission was devoted mainly to helping Western travelers who had drug problems (many out of local jails) or those psychology lost. Clients did not have to be Christian, nor was conversion required.  But these rehabbing addicts did have to participate with the community which meant cleaning, cooking, and shopping together as well as attending prayer meetings and bible studies.

Inevitably, many of these troubled vagabonds converted. But ironically, while they were coming in, I was going out — I was slowly leaving Christianity. And watching the conversions of these ex-addicts was part of helping me see my way out of my Christianity.

Many of these addicts were manipulative, charismatic types. And what I observed was that they created their new belief in God and love of the Bible (yes, it was a Protestant group) around these personality traits. That is, their personality didn’t change much, just the tools their personality used.  Their Christianity was manipulative — they used it to gain favors and admiration — and all that, very charismatically. Mind you, Christianity served them better than their buying and selling of drugs, but the person did not change much.

Tom Rees, reviews a Polish study here which shows that “need for certainty” may be a common trait for vehement Atheists and religious folks alike. The study seems weak to me, but for some atheists, I certainly see this to be true — they may be open to lots of other ideas but they are certain that religion is only for the ignorant, superstitious and foolish. Their atheism allows them to divide up their world with some certainty — the foolish vs the wise.

As a huge number of my posts on this blog show, I disagree with such atheists strongly — but fortunately, I find that they are disproportionally more common among blogging atheists, compared to the general population of religion-free folks.

My point, and one I make often in this blog, is that our beliefs (religious, political and more) are flavored highly by our personalities. We usually use our beliefs to clothes our inner traits — it is those traits that are more telling of who we are, rather than our beliefs.

More info:

  • Here I write on how complex beliefs (all knotted up) can deceive us into certainty
  • Those months with Dil Aram were eye-opening. Here is a post I wrote about a more inane insight I had during my time at Dil Aram: “Peeing Epiphany”.
  • Interesting !  Just before posting this, I ran into this video set on the Dilaram house in Delhi.
  • Dilaram was a ministry of the protestant missionary group YWAM (Youth with a Mission)


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Me, me, me! — blogger policy

MEMEMEThis is a post for all you folks who are “me, me, me!” advertisers. You know who you are. Or sadly, maybe you don’t. You are the folks who send me emails saying “Check out my blog….”. Often these emails are just software generated generic stuff which I obviously delete.

Even if you add a small personal note to your email, it is the wrong way to get other bloggers to visit your site. It either shows a lack of common sense or worse, a blatant “me, me, me” blindness. If you want me to visit your blog, interact with several of my posts in an intelligent way — in the comments, not an email. Show me that us that you are really reading the posts and talk about the posts themselves. Then, if any of the readers or me find you interesting (or thoughtful), we may visit your blog.  That is the correct way to get readers on your blog — well, at least here.

The same goes for those of you leaving vacuous “me, me, me” comments. If it is obvious that the only reason you are commenting is to get me to your blog, and you do not interact with my post in a genuine way, I will not only not visit your blog, I may delete your comment for violation of my comment policy.


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p-value faith

p-valuegraph.jpegStatistics filters scientific research to find facts in the data. The p-value is one of the most important statistical calculations done on a data set — it tells you how likely your experiment would be to get the same results if run again (or at least I think I’ve got that right). But it does not tell you the magnitude of the effect or the strength of the evidence. It does not tell you if the experiment was run correctly, nor if the other stats were done correctly.  It certainly does not tell you how meaningful the results are. The p-value is useful, but it is easy to be deceived by it, and to deceive others using it.

Surprisingly, as this post by Christie Aschwanden claims, most scientist throw around p-values to support their claims yet do not really understanding its meaning and potential abuse. Now that is faith!

I illustrated the four main uses of the word “faith” here. The meaning I am using here is “trust”. And in an interview on that post, one scientist, when asked to define “the p-value” said:

“I know what many people that I have respected have written about [the p-value] and in fact quoted them. Is that a round about enough way to dodge your question.”

And indeed, that is what religious folks do. They listen to folks they trust, the read folks they trust and though they may not really understand the issue themselves, they trust these people. They have faith.

Take home message: “Faith” is useful, but we still need to remain skeptical.


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p-hacking & self doubt

worship p-valueAs my confession history illustrates, I love looking for radical truth. I have done it in religion, politics, medicine and more. This hunger for insight has led to my grabbing on to ridiculous ideas. Fortunately my personality is balanced by a huge dose of skepticism. My skepticism has also pulled me out of many of my once treasured delusions.

I make a living in medicine. Prior to my present work, for about five years I was an acupuncture practitioner, and later practiced homeopathy for two years. But my skepticism pulled me out of both of these fields and I have practiced allopathy (“Western” medicine or “Modern” medicine or “Mainstream” medicine) for more than two decades now. Statistical evaluation of medical research is the radical truth that backs the medicine I now practice. I was even a university instructor in statistics and research for a few years. In Modern medical statistics we use a sacred test called “the p-value”.

During all my years in medicine, practicing and teaching, I have been very aware of both the common fraud in research and the common misapplications of statistics. But during the last six months, I have read several articles showing the false-confidence we have in p-values — a foundational test in orthodox statistics.  Here is a post by Deevy Bishop showing how researchers actually fraudulently abuse our confidence in p-values by doing “p-hacking”.  The picture above is from this article on the same issue.

Many of my readers already know this information, but they are highly informed specialists. But most readers may have trouble understanding the math and/or may not be too interested in reading further. So the reason I am writing this is to merely again confess my blindness, my greed for special certainty and my vulnerability to deception.

Take home message: To take action in life, we often need to take ourselves seriously, but disappointingly, less often than we imagine.

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“Do you believe in God?”: 4 meta-questions

Do you believe in God?” is a question we have all heard.  Most people take this to be a straightforward question, but readers know that I take every opportunity to discuss the unquestioned assumptions hiding behind common sense.

Here are four big activities hiding behind “Do you believe in God?”:

  1. You” (“You” are not who you think you are.)
  2. Believe” (Beliefs are not what you think they are.)
  3. God” (There are different sorts of contrary gods)
  4. ?  (The question is not asking for facts, but offering a signaling opportunity.)

Understanding these four meta-questions, can help unravel the illusion spun by the apparently simple question of “Do you believe in God?”


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