Archive for August, 2011


Sunday, August 28th, 2011

"Skull-Diggery" Street painting by Bob Diven.

SERMON: “I Feel the Earth Move” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying.  Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”.  (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).

Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet.  Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places.  Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust.  Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology.  When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded.  When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.

We live on the floating rocky surface of a cooling planet.

Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon.  Yet we do.  Consistently.  Incessantly.  Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation.  (God is love.  It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house.  It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).

I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.

This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon.  (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)

Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it.  I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place.  I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East.  But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion.  Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one.  (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).

The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth.  But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change.  The world, after all, was changing.  Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe.  There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one.  But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.

Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion.  It’s a tricky thing.  Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors.  But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam.  There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott.  Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in.  (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source.  They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).

This is hardly satisfying.  It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant.  That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it.  But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life.  Belief begins in our own brains.  So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time.  But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.

And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion.  And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago.  Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.

The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans.  And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones.  Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication.  The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.

Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, August 21st, 2011

"Manhole Mania" (where I added two manholes to the three already on the street) Street art by Bob Diven

SERMON: “Angry Badger in my Head” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I’m in the middle of a big project.  It’s one of those deals where I am applying my experience in a wide range of past projects to a new one that has it’s own particular challenges, many of which I can clearly see are made up of steep, unavoidable learning curves.  The project also involves the participation of a good number of other people, all of whom I must rely on, and trust that they will come through.

There is money involved, which is an easy trigger for anxiety in my monkey brain.  And reputation, which is vitally important to us social mammals.

Sweating and stressing as I build a set for a film project.

As I write this, I’m at the ragged edge of exhaustion, enhanced, in no small part, by the four days of spotty sleep brought on by my brain’s response to stress.

Our brains are pretty interesting things.

It was some years ago when I first experienced the rather impressive energy my mind and body were capable of producing for days on end (when the situation called for it).  It was probably when I was making sets for the opera.  I became a sort of carpenter-berzerker, working early until late, and getting up and doing it again, and again, and again.  (The week after the set was done, I would crash and have to take some time to get myself back in working order).

I became rather proud and impressed that one part of my self could so clearly heed the call of my conscious brain and pass the word on down to my body and off we would go.  The only downside is that once kicked into such a high gear, my mind doesn’t really know how to turn itself off.  It seems to just switch on and like some angry badger will not let go until the great task is dead, dead, dead.

Of course, depending on your worldview, one might think of this as God’s spirit helping us along, or one’s “higher-self” coming to our aid in a pinch.  The reality is, of course, that this is just how our brains and bodies react to stress.  There is some trigger that gets tripped when we feel the threat of a potential disaster should the challenge confronting us overcome us instead of us conquering it.  Eat or be eaten.

A fair share of our time in life is taken up with the pursuit of some sort of conceptual framework which we can apply to life (including the way our brains actually work).  It makes sense: we are born squalling and helpless into a world none of us has ever seen before (despite the claims of reincarnation).  We are living, breathing beings for whom knowledge of our world is vital — our very survival depends upon it.  So it is also very natural to us (and, again, vital) to learn from those of our kind who have more experience than we do.

I think if we each reflected on our life we could easily recall those moments when someone else was there with a word of instruction or advice at the right time, and also recall the tremendous sense of relief and gratitude that accompanied those occasions (okay, maybe not when the instruction was a rebuke from mom or dad).  Of course, we often find out later that we’ve been given the wrong advice, or incorrect (or at least incomplete) information.  But sometimes the accuracy of what we pick up is not as important as the encouragement that is part and parcel of someone sharing their experience with us.

This is how I became a Christian when I was 14.  In response to my own curiosity, my older brother let me take a “Bridge to Life” tract from the stack he had by his bed.  As he was busy trying to finish a paper for school, he sent me off with this over-the-shoulder matter-of-fact remark: “Read it, and then say the prayer at the end before you go to bed”.

I went to my room, and read the tract that introduced me, for the first time it seemed, to the concept of sin and salvation through Christ.  When I got to the prayer at the end, I remembered his instruction to say it before I went to bed.  But I was about to go to a high school football game, and reasoned that in case something “happened” while there (jumped by a gang of thugs, or some such), maybe I’d be better off to say it now.  So I did.

This began my spiritual journey, and over time I attended meetings and studies and churches and learned what it really meant to be a Christian.  And, being the kind of person I am (with the kind of mind I have), I took it seriously for some long stretches of 15 years of my life, finding myself, at last, smuggling Christian literature behind the iron curtain as a “Summer” missionary.  But that’s another story.

In time I came to realize that Christianity was not the “truth” I had been told it was.  I had been given bad advice.  I felt foolish.  How could I have fallen for all of that?  (Well, it turns out that was not the last thing I would “fall” for before the spell of belief was finally broken).

I don’t feel so foolish about believing what I did (when I did) now.  I’ve come to understand that we are believers by nature.  I also understand how profoundly social we are, so that when my own brother tells me Jesus is Lord, and there is a Holy Spirit and a God the Father, I am naturally going to give his words some weight.  I had no reason to doubt him, and I also have no reason to blame him, for he was a believer too.

So as I observe this evolved computing/sensing/thinking electrified fleshy organ in my skull at work, I see it now for the biological organ that it is, and less as a conduit to anything higher than my own consciousness.  The human mind is amazing, but not in the sense of it being anything close to perfect.  Oh no. It is like everything else in life (and, actually, like everyONE else in life): a complex organism doing the best it can with what natural selection and evolution have given it.  Our minds, like our bodies, are the sum total of millions of years of random changes, enough of which were beneficial to our survival (or at least not dangerous to it) to allow it to survive until it became “us”.  It was not built from scratch from a brilliant new design.  Nope, it was built upon the first cells that generated their own little electrical impulses.

It is an amazing story — this tale of how we came to be — scads more interesting that any reductionist religious fable we humans have invented to give us that much-needed conceptual framework we so eagerly search for.

And though I aggressively stand up to anyone trying to impose their religious beliefs on others, I don’t hate religion or religious believers.  For in the bigger scheme of things, we are all babes in the woods trying to find our way in the very short time we have to figure it all out.  My brain is what it is: both ancient and modern; hard-wired and plastic; wonderful and clunky.  It’s the only brain I’m gonna have, in the only life I’m gonna live.  I’m doing the best I can to do the best I can with it.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, August 14th, 2011

"Who Framed Robert's Rabbit?" Street painting by Bob Diven

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds” By Kevin Dutton, Phd.

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

FROM THE WEBSITE: DR. KEVIN DUTTON is a psychologist and research fellow at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. His work has been published in journals that include Scientific American Mind, Journal of Experimental Psychology, and Cognition and Emotion.

Reading too much about the neuroscience of the human animal can, I think, be a bit  like learning a little too much about how sausage is made.  I mean, it’s better to know how things work (and how things are made), but it can sure put you off your favorite food for a while.

Having tempted you with THAT introduction, I nonetheless can recommend “Split Second Persuasion”, which is really a neuroscience book tarted up as a sort of guide book for would-be master persuaders out there.  The author takes situations we are all familiar with (the person in a tense situation that has said just the right thing to defuse things, the smooth talker that has talked us out of something) and takes us to the root of what is happening inside our brains.

The author is an English psychologist, and he references a boat-load of studies and brain scans that paint a pretty clear picture of not only how our brains work when it comes to “persuasion”, but where the frontiers of this sort of research are right now (which inevitably points to where it might be taking us in the near future).

It’s a highly readable book  — seasoned with judicious sprinklings of wit — that includes some experiments on the reader (as well as one of the best descriptions and explanations of psychopathy I’ve yet to run across).

If you have any interest at all in just how it is that your own brain makes its own “sausage” when subject to “persuasion”, you’ll enjoy this book.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Goodbye Adam and Eve” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

According to this recent story on NPR, the accumulating evolutionary evidence of genetics is penetrating even into Evangelical university settings, threatening the most basic Christian tradition of a literal Adam and Eve birthing our species in the Garden of Eden:

But others say Christians can no longer afford to ignore the evidence from the human genome and fossils just to maintain a literal view of Genesis.  “This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world.”

Mohler and others say if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn’t be surprised if their faith unravels.

Christians are right, frankly, to mistrust science.  Not because science is unreliable, but because science does, indeed, threaten the very foundations of religion.  One might ask why.  Aren’t Science and Religion concerned with completely different spheres of the human experience: one with physical reality, the other with spiritual belief?  There are many who support this polite fiction.

Of solid rocks and shifting sands...

The problem is that every religion makes claims about the origins of life.  Yet none of these creation stories have survived the discoveries of science intact.  Even the Catholic church (perhaps, as suggested by the NPR story above, recalling the historic debacle of Galileo’s persecution) has thrown in with evolution, and placed God back at the beginning of that natural process (where he can, presumably, sit for a while as science continues to search for just how life did begin).  Evangelical Christianity has drawn its line in the sand by claiming that the Bible is the unerring word of God, and the more devout of that wing of belief have carved out a special niche in the walls of unreason, determined to be the purest of the pure who take every single event as described in holy texts as the gospel truth.  So they believe in a literal Adam and Eve, with Eve made from a rib taken from Adam’s side while he slept.  A rib removed, it is written, by God himself.

But as others (like Christopher Hitchens) have pointed out, one aspect of what makes religion appealing to some human minds is the opportunity it presents to be part of an exclusive club, a club which has stringent requirements for inclusion.  We like this.  In fact, we like it enough that the further the things we profess to believe are from what most everyone else believes, the more we congratulate ourselves for holding firm to those beliefs.

So the religious extremist has little to lose and everything to gain by fighting the tides of popular and scientific opinion.  The fundamentalist is, in fact, entrenched in a dynamic that is fed by an antagonism toward “the world” (which can mean reason, education, community mores and the like).

There are a lot more believers in another group, however: those that are cultural believers (having been born into a tradition, as most Americans that have been raised under a pervasive Christian influence).  These are the reasonable believers, who have, by and large, been ready to admit that the Bible is mostly allegory.  These are also the ones that accept scientific evidence, and then work to incorporate it into their belief system.  They continue to believe in God, to be sure, but they don’t wear it on their sleeve (and they don’t go in for the extreme fundamentalist mindset).

It is the moderates who won’t have too much trouble abandoning the idea of an actual Adam and Eve.  But then, they have not staked their entire belief system on a indefensible position of Biblical inerrancy.  What is significant about the NPR article is that the acceptance of the genetic evidence of our evolution is beginning to penetrate the Evangelical Christian community, which is, I think, profound.  At this stage it is still at a level where the presidents of bible colleges can force heretics to resign, but the fault lines are showing.  Eventually, this might lead to the more extreme fundamentalists calving from the evangelical community like a lone iceberg from the arctic ice sheet, left alone to float in the broad ocean and, eventually, to melt away.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, August 7th, 2011

"Hold the Anchovies" Street art by Bob Diven

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Bill McKibben calls “The World Without Us” “…one of the grandest thought experiments of our time…”.  Take the world as we know it — all of our technology, our structures, our fabrics and copper pipes and fired brick — and leave it all alone to the ravages of nature.  What would happen?  And how soon would it happen?

A lot of what we’ve built would crumble pretty damn soon, according to author Alan Weisman.  It turns out that just about everything about the infrastructure of our modern life is only kept spinning and standing through an astounding amount of effort that most of us (myself included) can comprehend only with the aid of a book like this one.  I had no idea the amount of electricity and pumping it takes to keep the New York subway system from flooding in a matter of hours.  I didn’t know that without workers to blow out the debris that can accumulate in the expansion joints of major bridges the power of heat expansion and contraction from subsequent cooling would shatter their massive pre-stressed, reinforced concrete spans in a very short time.

But not everything of us would vanish so quickly.  We have labored hard to bring to the surface of our planet vast quantities of heavy metals that will take a very, very long time to migrate back underground.  Our plastics and polymers will linger for millennia until bacteria finally evolve to eat them, or until they are driven underground by the forces of geology and melted into nothingness.  The animal kingdom, if they take notice at all, will breath a sigh of relief and rapidly re-occupy abandoned urban landscapes.

The most satisfying (and compelling) parts of this book are the descriptions of just how the things most familiar to us will come apart.  In this the author is clearly aided by talking to people who would know: the very engineers and scientists responsible for the creation and maintenance of these things.  But there isn’t enough of that to fill an entire book, so the author takes us on side trips into the ecological history of our human presence on the planet.  In this he takes a definite view which will be distasteful to those who think of the earth as our god-given garden to exploit.  (Weisman even gives a few pages to describing one group that endorses the voluntary self-extinction of our species — an intriguing but, I think, flawed exercise in self-loathing and mis-placed hyper-morality).

Aside from the terribly sobering reality of just how powerful an effect a single living species has had on their home turf, I was also struck with a certain admiration for both the power of nature to return every molecule back into the materials box and the human knack for engineering ways to stave off that eventuality and make our pipes not rust and our houses not fall down around us (at least while we’re still living in them).

This book is such a fine collection of facts and perspective, that I can’t help but recommend it.  It’s also a smooth read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Jesus Vines and Lakes of Blood” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Kudzu vines on a utility pole in the shape of Jesus on the cross.  A Texas lake turns “blood red”.  Signs from God?

I’d have to do a survey, but I’m fairly confident that these sorts of stories show up like clockwork every week in the national news.  They fill a certain niche in a newscast: part humor, part social commentary, part visual interest, yet never truly mocking: they are presented in a straightforward manner, as if it were not completely unreasonable that the God of the Universe should choose to communicate a message too opaque to even qualify as “vague” through a utility pole and an invasive creeping vine, or a small man-made lake turned blood-red mud hole in drought-ravaged Texas.

The “Jesus vines” story was on the news last week, and spread like a short-lived wildfire across the nation (and the world, considering the citation in the UK’s Guardian newspaper).  This week it was the dying reservoir in drought-stricken West Texas which reached a critical mass that led to a flowering of Chromatiaceae bacteria which, according to this Live Science article, thrive in oxygen-deprived water.  It turned the water blood red.

In a television report on the red lake story, a reporter interviewed two teenage Texas girls, one of whom was quick to make the connection between a Bible verse and the putrid pond. (“And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.”  Revelation 16:4 KJV).

I guess that means we should ignore the two verses previous to that one state that the first “vial” is to be poured out on land, where it produces boils and sores on every living thing, whereas the second “vial” is then poured out in the oceans, and kills every living thing there, and THEN the third vial is accidentally spilled in a 5,440 acre (when full) reservoir in West Texas, while the other 1.62 million square miles of freshwater lakes on the earth are spared, more or less (okay, I changed that third one around a bit).

This is how our human minds work: the local is the global, and the personal is the universal.  We are solipsistic, tribal animals, bred by evolution for survival, not for the comprehension of an entire planet (much less a universe).

Photo of the "World Trade Center Cross" by James Tourtellotte -- US Customs and Border Protection

I also saw that there was a bit of news about the “cross” at ground zero in New York City.  Once again the ease with which our minds go the the deep well of belief is striking.  We think “What are the chances of a perfect cross coming to rest standing upright in rubble after the fiery collapse of two massive skyscrapers?”  Pretty good, it turns out.  Especially considering that a skyscraper is made up of thousands of crosses of steel where sections are riveted together, producing strong points that are likely to be the last parts to be torn apart in a collapse.  That one of these (many smaller ones were found surrounding the most famous one) was upright and visible could have been predicted.  In reality, the statistical probability of there NOT being an entire crop of steel crosses after such an event would be incredibly small.  God apparently works not just in mysterious ways these days, but primarily through very predictable, silly ones as well.

Of course it’s not just Christians who find symbolism and meaning in the perfectly pedestrian surprises of nature and disaster.  It is a human condition.  As much a part of us as the blind spots in our eyes, our weak primate backs or our inability to not respond to a baby’s cry.

I’ve been as much a believer as anyone else.  And maybe that’s part of the problem, and why it took me so long and so many turns to move beyond belief to — as Daniel Dennett says — “break the spell”: I was a believer surrounded by other believers.  But I did break the spell.  And though the tickle of belief will always be resident in my mammalian brain, it has a greatly-diminished influence on my cognitive life.  I have moved to a point where any nagging suggestion of my believing brain, when left to its own, is quietly beaten silly by the more quiet deliberation of my reason.

I get some mild heat about my Atheism.  Perhaps it strikes some as presumptuous or overdone.  But let’s take just a step or two back and consider this from a different perspective:  Given all of the scientific evidence we now have of the world, what is the more difficult response to understand:  taking a tangle of an aggressive, invasive vine on a human-built structure as a sign of a universal deity’s personal intervention in our lives, or seeing that tangle as a natural occurrence that strikes our pattern-seeking brains in a predictable way?  The former interpretation is a flight of fancy and is, therefore, much more stimulating to us, I think.  It’s more fun.  The latter is a sort of wet blanket on the pleasure we get from tricking our own brains into thinking wild things.  It is also more closely aligned with reality.

I think this points tp the greater drag on the spread of Atheism and a materialistic view of life: it doesn’t look like much fun from the outside.  Worse — it seems to require that all of us kids stop playing pretend.  I get that.  I also think it’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong.  It may well be that in the face of actual reality — that we are simply these surprisingly conscious animals let loose in a nature that demands our demise in a very short time — there’s nothing wrong with engaging in all the fantasy we can get our hands on to keep our minds off of death and annihilation.  I can’t really argue with that, anymore that I could deny a dying alcoholic a final scotch or a diabetic one last ice cream cone.

But those of us still trying to live our lives would like it if there were more human brains focused on making life on earth as good as we can for ourselves and for others.  But, as one Mr. Hardison said in the Guardian article about the Kudzu crucifix: ‘You can’t spray Jesus with Roundup.’‘  Amen to that, brother.

t.n.s.r. bob