Archive for March, 2010

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Conformist

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: A glimpse of “In Search of Deep Time” and “Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs”.

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

In place of a legitimate review this week, I offer a tale of two “false starts”.

Deep TimeThe first is “In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life” by Henry Gee.  The first chapter of this book was deeply intriguing, but my excitement soon fizzled as I got the idea that I had gotten the idea from those opening pages, and the rest was going to be a lot of flogging.  Of course, I don’t know that, but I felt I could go on to greener pastures.  That being said, the one idea of this book did immediately enter (and alter) my view of prehistory, that idea being this: the depth of earth-history time is so vast, and the fossil record so sparse in comparison, that our natural human tendency to build linear narratives from one fossil to the next (say from one hominid or early mammal fossil to us modern humans) is insupportable by the actual evidence.  (This idea informs a section of this week’s sermon).

The description that the author gives of how we fall into this trap grabbed me, because it is exactly what I’ve done:  in my own attempt to make “deep” time accessible (as I have in earlier “sermons”), I have also brought it down to a scale that makes our human-scale narratives seem applicable.  Oops.  Well, live and learn.  “In Search of Deep Time” is, in essence, an introduction to “Cladistics”, “The basic idea behind cladistics is that members of a group share a common evolutionary history, and are “closely related,” more so to members of the same group than to other organisms.” (quoted from the linked website: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/clad/clad1.html).

Fear not.  That we all share a common evolutionary history is not in doubt.  What is still very open to discovery is the actual lines (with their twists and turns) of that descent.

flaming cliffsMy second “false start” this week was “Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs” by Michael Novacek.  This book was recommended by the author Neil Shubin in “Your Inner Fish” (reviewed here last week).

This is the tale of a series of great dinosaur discoveries in Mongolia by the leader of the American team that made those discoveries (which is generally the source I most want to hear from!)  Turned out I just wasn’t in the mood for a desert adventure story this week (though I may well come back to this book later).  Despite my deep interest in the past, my response to this book told me that I am much more focused on current thought and theory, so I put it down and looked for something else to read.

I made it through several of the early chapters, however, that give a detailed history of fossil-hunting in Mongolia (and the mechanical challenges of using surplus Russian military trucks to drive across the foreboding Mongolian landscape).  As happens with many a true adventure story, the reader is teased along through a deep back-story before the final payoff.  And as I said above, I just wasn’t in the mood (I want to make that clear so as not to cast unwarranted dispersions on the book itself).

According to the jacket description, the team eventually makes “one of the most miraculous fossil discoveries in history”.  And from what I read, the conditions in Mongolia provide for an amazing level of detail in the preserved fossils…maybe I should have skipped ahead to those chapters!

So there you have: a couple half-assed reviews of half-read books.  But what can you expect from a “fake” reverend?

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: And the Band Plays On. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

FIRST, A NOTE: In an interview in MaCleans Magazine, anthropologist Lionel Tiger criticizes the aggressive tone of the “New Atheism” by singling out writers such as Richard Dawkins for calling people who believe in religion “idiotic”.  In his new book “God’s Brain” Tiger (with co-author psychiatrist Michael McGuire) argues that belief is completely natural to humans and that religion and church act as “seratonin factories” that sooth and comfort our brains.

Apologists such as Tiger (who do not critique the science nor the apparent human-source of all religious philosophy, but rather the “tone” of the outspoken atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and others) are referred to as “Framers”.  They believe that reason can be appealed to more effectively through more gentle means.  The argument of Tiger and the like seems to be that since religion is a natural phenomenon (apparently accepting the proposition put forth by Dennett), it is worthy of respectful inquiry, but not ridicule.  I can go along with that…to a point.

But that doesn’t change this basic truth:  We humans are capable of (as well as both biochemically and psychologically pre-disposed towards) believing any number of impossible things for reasons both defensible and ludicrous.  Count me among those that have believed.  Count me also among those that appreciate the no-holds barred approach of, say, a Hitchens.  Having said that, however…

AND NOW, THE SERMON:

The other night I played Irish music for the annual St. Patrick’s corned-beef and cabbage dinner at a local Catholic school.  As I looked out over the crowd I saw a community of people, drawn together (in this building that their individual contributions surely built) by a shared religion.  I noticed the carefree little girl skipping down the isle between the rows of cafeteria tables to pluck a ticket from the shiny green cardboard “leprechaun hat” for one of the evening’s door prizes.  I saw the Monsigneur (a long-time fixture of the town) and reflected on his vows of celibacy as he stood and played the upright piano with a flourish while leading the crowd in song: “When Irish eyes are smilin’ — okay, everyone!”

I did not see a room full of religious zealots holding signs of aborted fetuses in front of Planned Parenthood, or any sign of a child-abusing priest.  I saw a community of fellow humans and sensed the warmth of their fellowship, as volunteers served up the trays of stewed meat and vegetables that they had cooked for their fellow church members.

There is so much to admire and love in a scene such as that.  And looking at the families enjoying themselves, the bouncing kids and the tottering old folks, I would be hard pressed to wish upon them any weakening of the bonds that bind them together as a tribe.  But must the bonds necessarily be those of constraining and invasive religions?  No, of course not.

For humans will find about any excuse to group together: Religion, model railroads, Ham radio, music, Toastmasters, motorcycles, Aryan supremacy.  Clearly we have a natural tendency to clump in groups large and small.  I think we’re still a tribal Ice Age people thrust into a world of technology and change that is ever increasing in amplitude and thereby amplifying our “primitive” natures.

I think the T.E.A. Party phenomenon is a fine example of this reaching back to an imagined past where men were men, right and wrong were easily defined, and life was more easily understood.  Of course nostalgia is so incredibly effective because it reduces the messiness of past times into a handful of notions and images.  The entire founding of our nation can be condensed into a single chapter in a history book.

This is also the problem sciences like Anthropology and Paleontology face: a bit of a bone here, or an artifact there that in reality represents a single object or animal from a specific time that was rescued by accident and conspiring natural conditions to represent a vast, widely-populated and complex time line.  In short, we glimpse an inch of millions of miles of history, a second out of millions of years.  No wonder we can weave entire stories from such bits — they have been isolated from their actual lives and times that were, to be sure, no less complex and varied as our own.  Imagine a scientist trying to reconstruct your entire life from that bit of bubble gum you left under your desk back in fourth grade?  (To be accurate here, the scientist would be able to use the DNA you left behind to verify it was you that was actually in that classroom at a certain period of time, but they wouldn’t know what you were wearing or what you were going to have for dinner).

Nostalgia, then, is selective by its very nature.  Even our individual pasts are remembered as an increasingly refined collection of stories and images.  (Have you ever been presented with a photo of yourself from your past that you had never seen or known of and felt the surprising power it had to re-shuffle your organized memories?)

Conservative politics trades on the power of reductionist recollection as much as religion does: both are constantly harking back to an ideal of impossible simplicity, even as liberalism (and “New Age” belief) project an inevitable teleological advance toward ever higher levels of consciousness and spiritual advancement (based much more on hope than human history).

I tend to fall more into the hopeful-for-the-future camp, if for no other reason than the attachment to a return to an imagined past is both impossible to fulfill and, frankly, detrimental to whatever progress we humans might actually be capable of.

We all believe silly things, even as we try to be rational and fact-based.  I feel the urge as much as anyone.  But what I have managed to do is find the same chemical comfort that religion lends the human brain in a more reason-based pursuit of an informed life.

The proponents of religious belief, even when stripped of any factual basis for their creeds, will still resort to the claim (so richly attacked by Hitchens) that the benefits belief offers to the harried human soul can be purchased nowhere else but in their pews.  And for the most part, they are correct.  But that is much more a criticism of the current market of ideas than any ringing endorsement of their own product.

Other writers such as Sam Harris and Jeff Sharlett have called for a new narrative based on science and fact to replace the creaky tomes of our old religions.  This is a breach I am doing my damnedest to wade into (like I said, I’m the “hopeful” type — my own version of believing in foolish things).  Because the plain fact is that I have replaced religion (almost in the same way that I replaced my once nightly alcohol consumption with morning workouts at a gym, and over time traded my other addictions one by one for healthier alternatives and, eventually, dropped even the better substitutes altogether).

And so I find myself hesitant to rip from anyone’s shoulders the worn old spiritual garment that they wear without first having a new one to offer them in exchange.  But even then I would be committing an assault to intrude on another human’s life in that way.  Religion, of course, has rarely entertained such qualms.  Which is one of the many reasons if does not deserve the market share it has enjoyed for so long.

So what am I (what are we) to do?  I don’t know the entire answer to that.  For now I write, I post, I wear my Darwin walking fish pin, plaster Church of Bob stickers on my truck and generally allow myself to be visible as a believer of not simply a different religion, but a believer of a different kind.

I love attacking ideas.  I don’t love attacking people.  Is this the same sort of cop-out as the evangelical “Hate the sin, but not the sinner?”  Probably not.  For I am not accusing anyone of committing a sin by believing what they do, for believing is looking more and more (based on the research) to be a completely natural phenomenon (like, say, homosexuality).  I would not (like most religions) deny what is natural to us, or try to suppress or excise it.  My argument would be to let our nature flow towards a more enlightened expression, a healthier outlet than the ones we first thought up those millennia ago.

Things have changed a lot since the Neolithic, and we are gradually catching up.  Maybe we should start a new national campaign called “No Cavemen (Cavewomen) Left Behind!”  Heck, maybe we could even find a way to get the likes of Beck and Limbaugh to lay down their clubs and join the circle around the fire of reason.  (Having said that, do you need any further evidence that my own irrational side expresses itself in an unsupportable hopefulness?)

We all believe silly and insupportable things.  It’s as much a part of having the brains we have as sneezing or liking particular foods.  But what we cannot afford to do is to defend foolish ideas against evidence and thereby hold them long past their expiration date.  Religion is an old idea.  We can find better reasons to clump together as a human community.

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

FishButt

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-year History of the Human Body” by Neil Shubin.

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

innerfishNeil Shubin is provost of The Field Museum, and a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago.  He also happens to be the paleontologist that discovered Tiktaalik, a long-sought “missing link” between our fully-fish ancestors and the first Tetrapods.  In short, he found the fossilized remains of one of the first “fish” to walk on land — a fish that had evolved a neck, shoulders and a flattened head with eyes on the top.  In other words, he found an early version of “us” (or, more correctly, an ancient cousin of ours).

This book begins as a fascinating yarn of discovery by a paleontologist who has been pressed into service as an instructor in the gross anatomy lab of his university’s medical school.  As in many great stories, it turns out that the author’s unique mix of training and past experience makes him the ideal person to uncover one of the most dramatic fossil finds in recent history.  And it is also the author’s mix of experience and training that makes this a much more important book than it appears, at first, to be.

“Your Inner Fish” begins as a fascinating story about a breakthrough fossil discovery that becomes an increasingly profound treatise on the amazing natural history of the bodies that you and I take for granted (and struggle with) everyday.  Following the development of the “body plan” we share will all other mammals (as well as many reptiles and, yes, fish), we are finally brought face to face with both the wonders and the physical limitations that eons of continual tinkering with our “inner fish” have brought us.  Using the Volkswagon Beetle as a metaphor, Shubin writes:

“In many ways, we humans are the fish equivalent of a hot-rod Beetle.  Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers — and you have a recipe for problems.  We can dress up a fish only so much without paying the price.  In a perfectly designed world — one with no history — we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.”

This book has the best treatment I have yet run across of the insights the last 150 years of science have brought us regarding the evolution of our walking, talking human bodies.  Later chapters discuss our eyes, our gut, our knees, our ears, our ability to talk and even obesity, (the above-mentioned) hemorrhoids and heart disease.  I came away from this book with a much deeper awareness of my own inner fish.  This book packs more useful information about our shared natural history than any other book I have found, making the vital connections that exist between us and the most ancient of organisms.

Nature, it turns out, is not in the business of creating something out of nothing.  It is, however, endlessly managing to create ever more complex things out of less complex things by re-tasking genes, bones and cells to do so.  Fortunately for the scientist, Nature leaves evidence of its work: a trail that leads us all back to “our inner fish”.

I heartily recommend it.

And, as we say at the church of bob (or will if this ever catches on): “Nasplashte'” (“The fish in me greets the fish in you!”).

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Fishing for Meaning in the Ocean of Unknowns” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.’
(Lyrics by Edward Mote, circa 1834)

It’s been over a year now since I first stood in the pulpit (at “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution”) and preached my first sermon as the “not-so-reverend bob”.  Looking back, there have been two things that have surprised me as I’ve stepped into the made up vocation of pretend minister to a fake church: The first was how comfortable I felt in the role of evangelist and preacher; and the second was the tension that seemed to attend the continuation of such a role.  On the first point it seemed that I simply had a share of the evangelist’s temperament (layered on top of my actor’s impulse).  The second issue of the attendant tension was more vexing even as it was illuminating.

A primary impulse for my research and personal creative work over the last bunch of years has been my own exploration of life after faith: the continuing discovery that there is life beyond belief (and a rich and satisfying life at that).

If you’ve never been under the spell of an encompassing religious belief system, this may seem a minor discovery to you, almost as if I am the explorer planting the flag of my nation on a new and exotic land never before seen by my people, and you are the “exotic” native who has been living there his or her entire life.  This reminds that our lives and life experiences are terribly narrow and completely specific to ourselves.  In a sense each of us is a scholar in a field of research that matters only to one person: ourselves.  And yet there are others whose paths are similar enough to our own — for stretches short or long — that one person’s story can have value and provide useful information, perspective or instruction to such fellow travelers as these.  This is why we have art, literature and even (dare I say it) religion in such profusion: life is something that only happens to each of us once, and it happens in real time that is moving us ever forward, so any help along the way is welcome.

And so I came to a point in life where I felt that I had accumulated some insight worth sharing (from my own journey from born-again Christian to my Darwinian/naturalist/materialist/humanist view point).  Maybe there were others out there looking for a trail through the same woods (sort of like the war movies when one soldier finds a path out of a mine field, and the other soldiers carefully work their way to where his path begins so that not everyone has to search a new path across the entire minefield).  But as soon as I put my thoughts into words and presented them (in as complete a manner as I could) first in “EXTINCTION: A Love Story” and then in “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution with the not-so-reverend bob”, it was as if I had created an orthodoxy that I would thereafter be expected to adhere to.  Because this is how religions work.  In fact, for any (real) church to succeed I would argue that its doctrines and beliefs must be codified in a way that each adherent can know what they are expected to believe (which in turn will set them apart from the other churches and their “errors” of belief).

I think the key phrase (above) is “what they are expected to believe”.  In my case it becomes “what will the members of the church of bob expect from me from here on out?”  Which further breaks down to the twin question of: “what it is that drew people to the “church” in the first place (and then what would make them leave)”?

What I realized is that this is exactly what a real minister of any traditional independent church must feel.  In fact, I know it is.  (I once had a talk with a Charismatic minister who confessed that he and his wife would only listen to certain music in their car out of earshot of his membership, and he expressed ideas to me he could never reveal to his church).  Historically speaking, I would think that ministers in general have been more highly educated (and more curious) than their average parishioner.  Of course the difference with “the church of bob” is that this is most certainly not the case (I seem much more to be but one contact point for like-minded thinkers — expressing in my “preaching” what they’ve already been thinking).  What I feel I have to offer differs little from what any “real” minister may proffer (save with a twist): my own personal history of a journey that took me into deep religious experience and then out the other side.  I add to that my creative talents for lyric and music writing and theater (and let’s not forget the graphics for t-shirts, bumper stickers and cartoons!)

I think the value of any minister is his or her ability to explore a bit of the trail ahead and report back to the others in the caravan.  The obvious risk here is that the minister is exploring unknown territory, therefore he or she can offer no guarantees of what will lie ahead.  And this is the pit that I think most religious ministers fall into, in that they make unexpected personal or factual discoveries that they cannot confess to their followers without risking the loss of their livelihood.  (Here I have a bias based on some experience that leads me to believe that most preachers don’t really believe what they’re preaching to the flock).  So the most basic question I face is this:  Is there an inevitable dynamic of revelation becoming codified (chiseled in stone) then fossilized (out of date) and then abandoned at work here?

Fortunately, it is here that the analogies between “real” church and our “fake” church break down, and our paths diverge.

For religious belief is based on the promise of being able to anchor your faith in bedrock: an unchanging truth revealed by an eternal and immutable God.  The church of bob is based on science and evidence (hence the slogan: “The church of bob: where the religion is fake, but the science is real!”).  And scientific discovery — especially at its current pace — renders my own intellectual bedrock into something more closely resembling the “shifting sands” of the well known hymn.  For anything I may “believe” is subject to challenge by new, convincing evidence.  Which — in practical terms — means that my “faith” is challenged almost daily.

This hints at a mark of my own temperament (as much as my comfort “preaching” evolution mentioned above): for whatever protestations I may make that I want to know once and for all and be done with it, the fact is I am ever drawn to deeper investigation.  And the deeper one investigates what we know about evolution and nature the more evident it becomes that we will never know it all.  At least I won’t (in my single lifetime).  The moments of personal discovery are, however, exhilarating even as they are humbling.  And all my research and exploration of science must still be balanced against living my life day to day, doing my work, making a painting, meeting a client, enjoying my relationships.  But each informs the other.  Which gets me back to what I really was getting at.

I began this “church” when I still held a shred of the mystical in my beliefs — what we’d call the “spiritual”.  I was hoping to weave together a narrative of the meaning and purpose of life that could compete with the compelling narratives of religion and new-age spirituality.  But what I’ve found is that the more I learn, the less there is that is anything but completely natural, mechanistic and biological about us.  The mind-expanding book I review this week (“Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin) opened up an awareness of my fishy ancestry that I had never before known enough about to internalize.  (I also took in a few chapters of “In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life” by Henry Gee that exploded my mental construct of there being a verifiable narrative for the line of our descent from the fossil record.  It turns out that I had fallen into the natural human perspective of having made geologic time understandable, I had also shrunk its vast time scale to fit me).

The fact is that there is no “meaning” in the sense that most religions claim to supply it.  Life simply “is”.  Even what we call the “spiritual” is looking more and more to be an externalization of the natural phenomenon of our own complex and multilevel consciousness.  So here I am, well into the chapters of the second half of my life contemplating what “message” I can make of this understanding?  What is there “uplifting” that I can say from such a perspective as this?

Of course, even as I consider this seemingly deep issue, the sun still arcs across the sky and the trees in my town are now in full Spring blossom; I sip a warm cup of fine coffee and eat a tasty breakfast;  I think, I plan, I have work lined up that is pleasurable and challenging to me;  I go to the gym to keep my body at ease and support my enduring sense of well being.  In short, nothing changes.  My days will pass in the ways that I choose to live them, with the rewards and the challenges that my decisions and circumstance will define.  The essential truths of what makes me happy and productive won’t change much, even as science learns more and more about the actual mechanisms of how exercise affects mood and mental activity promotes brain health, etc., etc.  I will go on living.  You will go on living.  Scientists will go on discovering.  And I will go on absorbing as much as I can.

So what am I left with?  I’ve always wanted to know, to understand things.  It’s never been enough for me to take another’s word.  Even my mother once said (in a moment of clear insight): “You always have to find out for yourself.”

In a sense, I get it now — I get what life is “about”.  And part of “getting it” is knowing that for everything I know, there is much that I will never know, for reasons both of my own lifetime’s limitations of time and energy and for the fact that discovery will continue as long as humans are living (which, barring catastrophe, are likely to continue long after my time is past).  I am driven to learn, to understand.  But I only have this one, single life to live.  Of course my drive to understand has always been in the service of my desire to enjoy my life, to use better knowledge to remove the barriers in my emotions and mind that constricted my capacity for full engagement with my world and the people who inhabit it.  And in the end, I don’t really want a story.  I want life.

And life is all there is.  That is the eternal truth.  Eternal enough for our purposes, anyway.  For even the bedrock of the earth that we walk on floats upon a boiling molten core.  There will come a day when our own sun — so perfectly distant from us to allow the life that made us possible — will burn earth into oblivion.  Our expanding universe will reverse direction, and race back in on itself.  Our own species will eventually become extinct, or evolve into something else.  Nothing is permanent.  All is shifting sand.  And yet none of that really matters to each beings that measure a lifetime in less than a hundred years.  What matters is the days we have, the people we love (and that love us back).  The joys and sadness, the achievements and surprises that are part of our everyday lives.  The sunrises, the sunsets, the lingering over a cup of coffee with a friend.  The sloppy kiss of a child on our cheek, the sharing of a moment of deep emotion in a concert hall or theater surrounded by strangers of our same species.  None of us need instruction in what matters in life.  And none of us needs reminding of life’s brevity and fragility.

For all that there is left to learn and to discover, there is a lot that we actually now know that most of our species lived their entire lives not knowing.  We know that the earth is very, very old.  And though we tend to focus on our primate ancestors, we now know that we were fish before we were mammals and primates.  We know that there were other branches of the human family tree that died out along the way (when they joined, in turn, the other 99% of all species that have ever lived that are no longer around).  We know that we are genetically related to every other living thing on earth and that no other living human is more distant from us than a 50th cousin.  We know that our home planet is unique in our solar system, and that the conditions that favor life are delicate and under threat by a rapidly changing climate.

Religion, by holding out the promise of something better later on only deprives us of what we have now.  And its vain attempt to provide immutable truth and eternal security seems an enormous waste of human energy and precious time.  It is the awareness that this life is the only one we have that makes me want to attack irrational belief (religion) and yet not want to rip it away from anyone for whom it is a comfort in this short life.

For better or for worse, the maintenance of religious belief is well tended to by an army of reverends other than myself.  My call is elsewhere.  In the here and now.  Walking with each of you across the shifting sands of time.

t.n.s.r. bob

(Copyright for commercial purposes by Bob Diven, 2010)

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Nigh

REVUES FROM THE REV: “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

GodisNotCoverThough God may not be great this book certainly is.

Cheapskate that I am (I blame my Scottish Presbyterian ancestry) I generally borrow books from my fine local library.  So why, then,  did I choose to purchase my own (albeit soft-cover) edition of this book?  Because of all the books I’ve read on this subject (Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”, Harris’ “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”) this was the one I had to own.  Reading it again (with eyes slightly different than the first time last year) I am glad it is mine to scribble upon and turn corners of pages for later reference.

If you’re not already familiar with the boozy and brilliant Christopher Hitchens, you’ve clearly not been paying attention to the so called “new atheism” that has been rising into view in American culture in recent years.  Hitchens is a Brit (now a naturalized proud American citizen), a former Marxist and writer who offended thousands of former liberal fans when he came out in support of the invasion of Iraq (not for any love of President Bush and the “Neo-cons”, but for humanitarian reasons: the removal of a cruel despot).

Hitchens has become the most eloquent spokesperson for a no-holds barred critique of man-made religion (which, in short, covers all known religions).  As such, he has become the target of the apologists of religion (whom he makes a habit of debating in public forums whenever the opportunity presents itself).  Personally, I would not want to go against this man in a debate.  He has a quick and piercing mind with a vocabulary to match it.  In the end, Hitchens is criticized most for his “tone”.  This stands to reason, as there is little to criticize in his logic and argument.

So, what about this book.

“God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” tells you what you’re in for in it’s direct and bold title, for Hitchens intends to give religion the dressing down it deserves.  One by one the author meets the claims that religion makes for itself and, frankly, destroys them (imparting a reasonable doubt into the reader is not what Hitchens is about).  His writing is direct, clever and ferocious.  I found it bracing and funny on the first read (often laughing out loud), and reasonable and humane the second time around.   I don’ t know that I’d run across anything like it before, especially not in writing relating to our very human tendency toward religious belief.

Hitchens takes on the metaphysical claims of religion, the arguments from design, of special revelation and the claims that god and religion are the basis of all human morality (along with a few digressions, such as the chapter on the Pig subtitled “Why Heaven Hates Ham”).

In looking for some good quotes for this review, I found myself feeling like I should have to quote almost the entire book to do it justice.  The first chapter alone is a clear summation of what is to come, and a brilliant description of the position and attitude of the nonbeliever.  What Hitchens manages to do (most of all) is to state the glaringly obvious in a way that made me wonder why it hadn’t always been obvious to all of us before:

“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking”.

Of course HItchens can attack “faith” with evidence because even as religion claims to be based solely upon faith (and therefore beyond the scope of reason), it cannot resist seeking support for itself in all kinds of supposed evidence.  But as Hitchens shows, the evidence thus presented for faith is stunning in it’s consistent mediocrity (such as the “tawdry” acts that pass as miracles).

With all the criticism heaped upon Hitchens for his unsparing attacks, I am struck by the impassioned humanity underlying his quest.  In short, he thinks too highly of us evolved mammals to see so many of his kind bowing their knee to an imagined god (or more to the point, to just another mammal who is profiting from their particular “priesthood”).

The basic thrust of his argument is that we know so much more today than we did in the days when many of our major religions were formed.  And although religion was our earliest attempt to answer questions about our origins, death and natural events, there are now no remaining questions for which we require religion to supply the answers.  Yet despite this, belief in religion persists to the point that new religions are forming all the time (special attention is paid in the book to two recent arrivals on the scene that illustrate the phenomenon: Polynesian “Cargo Cults” and Mormonism).

The upshot of “God is not Great” is that religious belief doesn’t have a leg to stand on and  if we humans were truly rational creatures a book such as this would end religious belief.  It won’t, of course (even the author describes religion as “ineradicable”).  But, at the very least, it strips away the false mantle of respectability that the religious have long borrowed from their innate humanity to whom the true credit for their morality, reason and sense of beauty derive.

SERMON: “De animals a comin': The Great Flood” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

In a High School vocal and ensemble competition, I sang these words with my men’s quartet:

“De animals a comin’, two by two
De elephant and de kangaroo…
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah to the Lamb”.

A recent Facebook posting from a friend linked to a story of a Dutchman who had build a replica of Noah’s Ark and had opened it as a museum in Schagen, The Netherlands.  According to Fox News, the replica was “built by Dutch creationist Johan Huibers as a testament to his faith in the literal truth of the Bible”.

Having once been a Biblical “literalist” myself (which made me a “Creationist” as well), and having sat in on a class at Christian Heritage College back in the seventies (when the Institute for Creation Research was based there), I began to reflect on the story of the Ark from the perspective of my current knowledge of geology and evolution.  I came upon what promised to be an “aha” or “gotcha” moment:  I was going to do some math to see if ALL the species of animals and insects on the earth would have physically fit into Noah’s life raft.

As soon as I began my research I found I’d been beat to the punch, mainly by the Creationists themselves.  They had already prepared their defenses against my brilliant attack, and were confidently waiting to knock down my “straw man” arguments one by one.

One writer had already figured that the ark was large enough to hold some 16,000 creatures, and had determined that what God had meant in his command to Noah was to bring into the ark two of every genera (not species) from which the earth could be repopulated.  Dinosaurs were included, but juveniles were the likely passengers.  The Creationists have put great analytical thought into how the animals could have been fed, watered and cared for during their time on the great boat.

Hmm.

So I thought about the geology of the event, and found a very scholarly-sounding Creationist article about how the supercontinent Pangea (that Creationist Geologists seem to accept as existing in the past) was actually broken up in a matter of weeks by a dramatic tectonic event.  This also explained how the flood waters could have covered even the highest mountains.  Of course, the mountains weren’t as high at that time, rising, in fact, as part of the process through which the flood waters eventually abated (which takes care of that pesky question of how much water would it take to cover the Himalayas).  I’ve even found a reference to how the recently inundated lands could shed their oceanic salinity in a short enough time period to allow Noah’s family to get back to farming.

Damn.  Outsmarted again.

Here I thought the existence of some 300,000 species of beetles alone was going to sink the Ark story, or the estimated 5-50-million species of life on the planet (minus, of course, the ones that swim and could adapt to the altered salinity levels in the great flood), or the geologic evidence of Earths 4.5 billion year age. or the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the fossil evidence of the several early humans that evolved into us (or that became dead-ends of evolution).  Clearly I was wrong.

But then, I prefer to base my knowledge on the mainstream of science — the areas where there is agreement, consensus and testable theory.  And in this mainstream there is a flood of another kind: an ocean of evidence to the earth’s age, the reality of evolution and natural selection and an openness to the revision of opinion that new discoveries may bring.

What strikes me, then, in reading the work of Creation “Scientists” is their willingness to simply change the numbers that don’t fit.  To just decide that when God told Noah to grab two of everything that walked, crawled, flew or breathed air, he didn’t mean the millions of species we’ve so far identified, but only the Genera of those species.  Creationists then go on to explain that all the varieties we see today descended from those original parents, yet in so doing they are forced to contort mightily to still deny that any evolution took place.  Natural Selection they allow, but claim it is only a “subtractive” process, in which no new traits are produced.  They also selectively twist geology and borrow scientific descriptions of geologic processes to create a scenario in which the earth was magically flatter before the flood, then majestically more mountainous after.  They are even able to determine just how many cubits of water were sloshing above the tip of Mount Ararat during the height of the flood, and determine the place where the Ark came to rest.  And by acknowledging the evidence for an ancient “supercontinent”, they also neatly tie the bow on the question of how Noah found a mating pair of, say, kangaroos in the fertile crescent.

In short, it’s amazing what a researcher can determine when facts are barred from interrupting the process.

But this gets to the heart of Creation “Science”: it is ideologically wedded to a Biblical worldview and system of belief from which it reaches out to pick bits of low-hanging fruit from a handful of trees of scientific knowledge that have grown up around it, managing to both borrow credibility from science at the same time it dismisses the claims of the forest of trees of knowledge that surround it.  Neat trick, that.

What is painfully clear is that Creationists want to be seen as scientific and rational and to be taken seriously.  But they are stuck with an ancient bit of middle-eastern mythology which they parse like literary scholars into bits that can then be tortured into evidence for actual, real-time history.  It is not an enviable position, and a part of me aches at both the sincerity and uselessness of the pursuit.  For Creation “science” is, like theology (to borrow a phrase from Harris) a branch of human ignorance.

If you and I are arguing about an event, say, a car accident that we have both been involved in, neither of us may want to accept full responsibility (and may, in fact both share in the causes of the wreck), but there are often certain facts available: the testimony of a witness, skid marks on the pavement, the location of damage on both cars.  As long as you and I are fairly honest and decent, we will work toward an understanding that could end with: “I’m sorry, I didn’t really see you” or “I didn’t stop in time”, and a general agreement about what happened (or allow an arbiter to make a final determination).  But if, at some point in the argument, one of us decides to free ourselves from the constraints of reality, and suddenly pronounces: “You’re car suddenly appeared from out of nowhere — the devil ran your car into me.  I could see the demons holding my car back from getting out of the way.”  Well, we’re not going to get very far, are we?

The conlfict between Creationism and Science does not exist because of flaws in science or “gaps” in the fossil record (gaps that continue to be filled, just as the theory of Evolution would indicate), but rather because the Biblical Creationist has taken an untenable stand in support of an increasingly desperate losing cause.  It’s tragic, in a way, to see so much energy, money and intellectual capital poured into extending this branch of human ignorance.  But belief is strong and will fight against all evidence.  And belief can fight against evidence because it has a freedom of movement that science cannot equal.  Science is ever going to be wedded to evidence and reality.  Belief can take flight when threatened, and simply create another story that cannot be proved (and more importantly and ideally, cannot be disproved).

I have little problem with the imaginative flights of the human animal.  It is only when organized religion attempts to co-opt the mantle of science that I must say no.  You don’t get to play in that sandbox unless you agree to the tenets of science (which are not a competing system of belief but the cold hard reality of fact and evidence).  You can’t have it both ways.

In fact, why the need to borrow from Science at all?  If God was organizing both the global flood and the salvation of everything needed to continue life afterwards (minus, of course, the sinners — animal and human — he was drowning), God could easily have picked which Species or Genera, and sent a mating pair of each right up into the Ark (and kept them from eating each other).  He could have flattened the earth and created enough extra water to flood the thing, then made the mountains rise up, and made the water go away.  In short, God is not constrained by the laws of physics or the principals of geology or science.  He can do whatever the heck he wants to.  So, why bother with science at all?

Because no one wants to be thought an idiot.  None of us want to be caught believing something that is, well, verifiably wrong.  Especially when we have invested a large portion of our identity in a specific belief system.  So we look for “evidence” (even bad evidence) to support our beliefs.  Even scientists squirm and struggle when favored theories are threatened.  But by and large they submit personal belief to the better understanding that new discoveries bring.  Even when it hurts.  And (more importantly) especially when it hurts.  This is the price of growth.

My experience has been that the more I learn, the more complex life on planet earth becomes.  It is a world, in fact,  that expands in complexity ever faster the more I learn.  The only way to keep it simple and comprehensible, then, is to learn nothing (or learn narrowly).  And so the only way to keep believing in a global flood some thousands of years ago is to remain ignorant of evolution, biological diversity, genetics, geology and cosmology.  Of course there are many Christians who do not follow the path of the Creationist, (accepting many of the Biblical accounts as allegorical), or who take more seriously the demands of “faith” and do not seek evidence at all (but these are rare).  But because of our uniquely “Christian” national history, the sympathy for the Creationist view is broad.  The headline to a Gallup poll dated February 11, 2009 says: “On Darwin’s Birthday, Only 4 in 10 Believe in Evolution”.  Despite 150 years of steady scientific progress, ignorance and denial prove to be persistent parasites on our intellectual evolution, and that ignorance now sheds the mask of the shaman and attempts to disguise itself in the scientist’s white smock.

“Oh de animals a comin’, four by four
De ol’ hippopotamus stuck in de door”*.

I wonder if that was the Common (River) Hipppotamus, or the Pygmy species?

I’m sure God knows.

t.n.s.r. bob

For an example of a Creation Science argument, here’s a good example:

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v2/n2/universality-of-flood

*”De Animals a Comin'” is a traditional “Spiritual”, Author unknown.

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, March 7th, 2010
Sometimes love isn't enough...

Sometimes love isn't enough...