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What religion is good at

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

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The “shut up” gun

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Apple CEO Steve Jobs was often lauded for creating products people didn’t know they wanted until they saw them. The excellent Physics ArXiv blog features an invention I didn’t know I wanted until just now: a speech-jamming gun, perfect for stopping speakers who run over time.

“Psychologists have known for some years that it is almost impossible to speak when your words are replayed to you with a delay of a fraction of a second,” the blog notes, and two Japanese engineers, Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada, have exploited this vulnerability. Their “gun” consists of a directional microphone and speaker that record your speech and then beam it back to you after a 0.2-second delay. It stops you from speaking, they report, “without any physical discomfort”:

They say the gun is more effective when the delay varies in time and more effective against speech that involves reading aloud than against spontaneous monologue. Sadly, they report that it has no effect on meaningless sound sequences such as “aaaaarghhh.”

What religions are good at

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Whether you’re religious, an atheist, or somewhere in between, the odds are that you live a broadly secular life. None of the rhythms and structures of your modern existence--from your daily routines to your workplace to your vacations--bear the imprint of the religious world. In his new book, “Religion for Atheists,” the writer Alain de Botton argues that this is a big mistake. Religions, he thinks, contain a lot of practical wisdom, and religious institutions were more insightful and realistic about people than their secular replacements have been.

“Even if religion isn’t true,” he asks, “can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

Over thousands of years, he argues, religions have figured out what people are really like--what their real capacities are, and what they really care about. Take learning. At a modern university, students race through a small library of books while assimilating torrents of new information from lectures. After four years, learning simply ends. But religious institutions, de Botton points out, have long known that learning doesn’t really work that way; they recognize “how easily we forget things.” You don’t go to four years of church, then stop going for the rest of your life. Instead, a religious tradition asks you to think about the same questions and ideas over and over throughout your life, even providing you with daily and annual schedules for reflection. That’s the kind of education you need, de Botton argues, if you’re going to learn the things people really care about learning, like self-control, perspective, and ways of coping with the “terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

Religions, de Botton thinks, are better connected to our deeper needs. Religious life acknowledges our need for real community, and crams us into church pews to make new friends; secular life asks us to be content with Facebook. The secular world demands that we be tough-minded, independent adults; religious traditions know that even grown-ups require emotional comfort, and highlight tenderness and forgiveness. Ultimately, what most impresses de Botton about religion is its sheer effectiveness. Today’s thinkers write books, but books, he thinks, are incredibly ineffective ways to motivate people. Religions “employed institutions, marshaling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, buildings, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments, and calendars.”

Japanese artist Makoto Tojiki is a former industrial designer who uses hanging lights to create three-dimensional light sculptures.

Japanese artist Makoto Tojiki is a former industrial designer who uses hanging lights to create three-dimensional light sculptures.

How much of this religious wisdom can be adapted for the secular world? De Botton has some intriguing proposals, like secular monasteries, or an “agape restaurant,” in which patrons are seated next to strangers and given a script of thoughtful personal questions. In London, he runs his own academy, the School of Life, which is a little like a secular church. It may well be that the spirituality and beauty of religions depend, in the end, on real belief. But de Botton’s general message to atheists is worth hearing: There’s much that’s “beautiful, touching and wise” to rescue “from all that no longer seems true.”

A thousand points of light

Japanese artist Makoto Tojiki is a former industrial designer who uses hanging lights to create three-dimensional light sculptures. The result is a kind of three-dimensional pointillism which, Tojiki writes, evokes the way “an object appears differently from how we remember it to be.” Our memories are always changing; in a way, light and shadow “express that which lies at an object’s core.”

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.

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