Afghanistan, the war on terror and the war on drugs

Watching scenes from Kabul airport recently felt like déjà vu for me. The Vietnam War ended in eerily similar scenes. I’ve been astonished to read more than one article that has described the events in Afghanistan as an unprecedented military defeat for the USA, or as a sign that the era of neoliberal intervention in foreign countries was over. If the USA did not learn anything from Vietnam, why would we assume it will this time when facts and evidence are even less valued than in the past. Several commentators have noted the intersection of the US war on terror and the war on drugs in Afghanistan. I have been engaged for nearly 20 years now in work to update global estimates of conflict deaths and global estimates of deaths attributable to drug use. I was curious to look a little more closely at relevant statistics.

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Definitions of God and the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy

Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.

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Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Why do Americans die earlier than Europeans?

A recent paper by demographers Sam Preston and Yana Vierboom showed that there are an additional 400,000 deaths in the USA in 2017 that would not have occurred it the USA experienced European death rates. That is about 12% of all American deaths and higher than the COVID-19 death toll of around  380,000 in 2020.  In a Guardian article earlier this month they identified major factors contributing to this US “mortality penalty” including overweight and obesity, drug overdose, lack of health insurance, suicide, lack of gun control and racism. These deaths tend to occur at younger ages than Covid deaths on average, so that total potential years of life lost are three times greater for the excess deaths than for Covid in 2020 (13 million versus 4.4 million).

Preston and Vierboom used data from the Human Mortality Database (HMD) for their analysis. They calculated death rates based on the five largest European countries, whose combined population size is very similar to that of the United States: Germany, England and Wales, France, Italy, and Spain. They also argued that using these larger European countries  to provide a mortality standard would avoid unrealistic expectations that might result from comparisons including small countries with possibly exceptional combinations of factors affecting mortality (e.g., climate, diet, social history, and healthcare delivery).

A few days ago, I downloaded updated data from the HMD and replicated and extended their analysis to include years up to and including 2020, drawing on recent data from Eurostat and national health statistics agencies (see here for details of data, sources and methods).

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Premodern religious values and happiness

I recently came across a ranking of countries by average reported happiness. This year’s World Happiness Report, released on March 20, uses data from the Gallup World Poll to calculate average reported happiness by country for over 150 countries for years 2005 to 2020. The focus of the report is on the impact of COVID-19 on happiness in 2020 by comparison with years 2017-2019. I was interested to see to what extent modern versus premodern religious values might explain variations in happiness across countries, along with a number of other factors that were examined in the World Happiness Report. I have posted here previously on my analysis of premodern or “fundamentalist” religious values.

The main measure used for happiness in the World Happiness Report is based on the national average response to the question on life evaluation in the Gallup World Poll (GWP). The English wording of the question is  “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

The following graph shows the happiness rankings of 101 countries for which I have both happiness measures and estimates of the modern/premodern religious values index I developed (see here). The happiness scores are averages for years 2017 to 2019.

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Psychedelics and the health risks of drugs, alcohol and tobacco

In the last decade or so, there has been a renaissance of interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. While natural psychedelic substances have been used by humans for many thousands of years, psychedelics had a massive cultural impact on the West in the 1950s and 1960s. Albert Hoffman, a research scientist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, accidentally invented LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 and discovered its psychedelic properties five years later. In 1955, a New York banker named Gordon Wasson sampled the psilocybe (magic) mushroom in Mexico and published an article on his experience in Life magazine.

Scientists discovered the role of neurotransmitters in the brain in the 1950s, and psychedelics inspired scientists to search for the neurochemical origins of mental disorders previously thought to be psychological. Psychedelics were also used in psychotherapy to treat various disorders, including alcoholism, anxiety and depression, with some promising results, although these studies generally did not reach modern standards of research design.

However, psychedelics were also embraced by the counterculture and became linked in the mind of authorities with youth counterculture and the anti-Vietnam war protests. By the end of the 1960s, most Western governments had outlawed and forced underground the psychedelic drugs which had been legal in most places previously, and also shut down all scientific research.

In the 1990s small groups of scientists managed to start conducting various trials of the therapeutic uses of psychedelics and this has led to the so-called psychedelic “renaissance” in which larger well-designed trials of psychedelic use for treating a range of mental disorders are being carried out by research groups at institutions such as Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University and New York University. Just today, it was announced that the Australian government will be providing $15 million funding for clinical trials into the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics for the treatment of mental illnesses, including depression and PTSD. Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind gives an excellent account of the history of psychedelics, both above ground and underground, and the psychedelic renaissance, and was a best seller. See also this article by Michael Pollan on the “Psychedelic Renaissance”.

As part of my work on the global burden of disease for the World Health Organization (WHO), I carried out several assessments of the direct and indirect health impacts of the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. I recently did an approximate update to year 2019 for deaths directly due to drug use disorders (overdoses and directly toxic effects) and indirect deaths from road injury, suicide and infectious diseases attributable to drug use. A proportion of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C deaths can be attributed to injecting drug use with contaminated needles. The great majority of direct and indirect deaths due to drug use are due to the use of opioids, both illicit and pharmaceutical opioids. Very few deaths are associated with psychedelic drug use, but I was curious to get a ballpark estimate for comparison with other drug deaths. I will present a brief summary of the broad estimates of drug-attributable deaths, then review evidence on the likely contribution of psychedelic drugs.

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Pre-modern values, religion and culture

Many people outside the USA have watched with astonishment as fundamentalist Christians have aligned themselves with a serial adulterer and sexual assaulter who lost the recent election and is now seeking to undermine democracy in order to stay in power. Since first elected, Trump has worked hard to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition, sacked people for doing their jobs and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. But this alignment is not as bizarre as it seems on the surface. Fundamentalists share the value of demonizing and seeking to punish those they see as “other”, one of the key characteristics of fascism, as I discussed in my previous post. This applies to Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, as evidenced by the recent murders in France and Austria by Muslim terrorists angered by cartoons.

What is fundamentalism?

So I have extended my analysis of the the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) (see earlier post here) to see what it has to say about the extent of religious fundamentalism in the world today. Most religions developed in the pre-modern era and their sacred texts and teachings incorporate pre-modern culture and values to varying extents. Peter Herriot has written extensively on fundamentalist religious beliefs, characterized these movements as attempts to return to the pre-modern origins of their faith as prescribed by their sacred books [1]. He identifies five main general characteristics of fundamentalist religious movements:

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Trump’s threat to democracy: an attempted fascist coup?

Over recent months, there has been a steady stream of commentary in the Australian and European media arguing that the Trump program is fascist. Based on a couple of discussions with people who know much more than me about 20th century European fascism, I thought these claims were overblown, and that Trump’s program lacked a defining feature of fascism, the co-opting of industry of industry and the economy for ultra-nationalist goals. I’ve since realized this is too narrow a view of fascism, and that its expression is quite dependent on history, culture and period and may take a different form in different places and times. Mark Twain expressed this well when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the debate around definitions of fascism. But I was most struck by some of its quotations from various historians who have specialized in studying 20th century fascism (Wikipedia gives references):

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