Archive for September, 2011

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

"I CAME, I SAW, I SPLIT". Street painting by Bob Diven

SERMON: “Nature is out to Get You!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s true.  Nature is out to get you.

It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm).  We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent.  It’s not.  It never has been.

Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements.  Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies.  Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.

And this, of course, is our dilemma.  We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check.  Well, that may not be accurate.  I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force.  In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.

The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance.  It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.

As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources.  Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train).  Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress  can only continue as long as we continue.  But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.

Life exists in the gaps between the forces of nature.

A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time.  In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain.  But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine.  And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones.  Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).

Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen.  But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down.  We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.

Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable.  Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create.  But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is.  And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space.  It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food.  Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance.  Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.

Nature, of course, will win in the end.  It always does.  And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach).  No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again.  It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.

But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well.  So don’t take it personally.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

"STREETSIDE ABSTRACTION" Street painting by Bob Diven.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.” by Michael Shermer

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

The Believing Brain started off strong for me, and included an unexpected narrative of author Michael Shermer’s own journey from belief to skepticism.  But in that narrative the seeds of the books later flaws were sown.

For though this book is a thorough guide to what we know about how the brain works in regard to belief, the skepticism of the author seems to stop at his own door, and the reader is “treated” to several lengthy passages that essentially make the case for why Democrats and Republicans believe silly stuff, but that the author’s own Rayndian-influenced Libertarianism is above the belief-dependent fray.

In this I was reminded of Sam Harris book “The End of Faith” where, after elegantly critiquing the irrational belief that is the basis of all human religion, takes a side-tour into the wonders of Transcendental Meditation!

Make no mistake: there is good, solid information in The Believing Brain, and it contains a useful catalog of the many biases we humans are given to.  But I think there are better sources for this information, and I would send a curious reader to two other books I’ve reviewed on this site (that are both free from the intellectual side-trips on offer here).  The books I’d recommend are:

“Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” by Hannah Holmes.

And:

“Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus

Although I have to credit this book with bringing to my awareness the useful concept of “Belief-dependant-realism”, I found the book, overall, to be an odd amalgam of subjects where, in addition to the aforementioned foray into Libertarianism, the final two chapters are devoted to cosmology, and the various “multiverse” theories.  Interesting, sure, but…

One thing I did derive from this book was an enlarged awareness that none of us is truly capable of living outside of the biases of our own brains.  That is sobering and a bit discouraging.  But, then again, it might free up a bit of our analytical energy to use in more fruitful pursuits.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “The Law of the Lord” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

A Family Portrait...

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.”  (Psalm 19:7, King James Version)

In the argument from belief, the subject of morality inevitably arises.  It is usually framed as a question about the validity of any morality that is subjectively formed (as human morality is theorized to have evolved — through natural means — as part of a suite of human social behaviors).  From the religious believer’s point of view, such an “earth-based” morality has no valid claim on any individual because that morality is relative and subject to change over time.  In contrast, a universal morality that is believed to exist beyond human consciousness and held to be eternal and unchanging can, in contrast, claim a certain ultimate authority over human behavior.  Of course, the creator of this law is God himself and, as the bumper sticker says “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”

The problems with this second view are numerous.  For one it fails to answer the question it claims to: is the law the law because God created it, or does God endorse the law because it is (and has always been) the law?  (This is similar to the problem with claiming that God is the answer to the question of eternity, which inevitably leads to the old “What existed before God?” or “Where, then, did God come from?”   questions.  God, it turns out, gets us no closer to penetrating the depths of time than anything else).

But the major problem with the idea of an unchanging morality is that it cannot be shown to exist in reality.  There do appear to be some fairly universal features to human morality, and from this apologists for the divine draw confirmation of the Creator’s hand in human existence.  On the other hand, however, is the ever-growing body of evidence that morality is not exclusively the domain of us humans, but exists on a graduated scale across a wide spectrum of biological life.  And within that spectrum, not all that we would call “morality” requires any great level of animal consciousness for it to be useful in organism-to-organism interactions (cooperation, sacrifice, defense of blood kin, etc.).  But among social primates (as well as the higher mammals) the roots of our human morality are clearly on display.  This can mean that either God has given some sort of moral sense to soul-less animals, or that our morality is as naturally-derived as that of our ape cousins.  The evidence speaks pretty clearly, I think, in support of the latter.

But the larger problem with claiming that one is an adherent to an eternal, ultimate morality is that there is no way around the reality that all morality is understood and applied in a relativistic manner: Exceptions are always made even for the harshest of laws.  Therefore morality is never applied (nor employed) evenly.

The believer would argue that this is simply due to the weakness of humans as compared to the purity of God.  Be that as it may, the upshot of this is that even the law of God, it turns out, is — in practice — relative.

Of course this makes complete sense if you take the more realistic (or materialistic) view that morality is a part of our suite of evolved human behaviors.  Morality is, and always has been, part and parcel of the way in which profoundly social animals define both themselves and others within a group (be it a family, a town or a nation).  Morality (and it’s relative, ethics) consists of certain innate (and learned) rules that are necessarily flexible.  Tests have clearly shown that we apply rules more strictly to a stranger or someone outside of our own political or social group, and give those we know the benefit of the doubt.  Our system of jury trials recognizes this, and therefore trusts a smaller (enforced) social unit (the jury) to speak for the larger community.

Why not simply pick one person to judge all of the cases all of the time?  The answer to that question, I think, points to the recognition (by the wiser among us) of the flexibility of morality as practiced in our daily lives, as well as the danger of having a justice system that sees everything in an unreal “black and white” way.  Of course, many people believe in their hearts that this is precisely how a righteous God wants us to see transgressions!  And yet even within such rigid belief systems, there is (in the Christian tradition) Jesus, the Son of God who intercedes on behalf of us sinners, as well as the Holy Spirit that can enter into our sinful soul and guide us to a life more pleasing to God. (And we haven’t even touched upon the Angels that protect us and the saints that incline their ears toward our prayers).

The good news in all of this religious mythology is that the essence of humanity is still expressed, even as religion claims to be unsullied by such earthly influences.

One of my favorite examples is from the last presidential election.  When Sarah Palin, a conservative with genuine evangelical street cred, revealed that her daughter Bristol was pregnant (and not married) Sarah was not taken to task by her religious brethren.  Why not?  This was sexual sin, pure and simple.  But wait: the boy was going to marry the young pregnant girl (do the right thing), and mom Palin stood by her wayward daughter (which was instantly held to be an example of her own expression of God’s mercy).  Because Sarah Palin was unquestionably part of the family of God, God’s family stood by her and her daughter and, hence, no impartial, unequivocal justice was demanded.

“Black and white” morality was, in this case, flexible.

Yet I somehow doubt that such understanding would have been granted to the opposing side had one of the Obama girls turned up pregnant.

Why not?  Because morality is relative.

On one level, this event speaks to our enduring tribal nature (of which religion is a rather more expansive expression).  But on another level, it reveals that even among the believers in Absolute Truth and God’s Avenging Justice, a basic humanity persists: exceptions were made for another member of the tribe, a member of the family.  Mercy trumped Law.

I suppose one could argue that the process I’ve alluded to is not proof of the relativity of morality, but an affirmation of the strength of it.  But let us look at one more thing.

We have a sliding (read: relative) social standard for what we call “generosity”.  We expect those with more to be more generous.  This is part of our unwritten social contract.  But since generosity is not always universal, we have formed governments with tax structures and bureaucracies that enforce a sort of State generosity on both the willing and the unwilling alike.  As Americans this social welfare system causes us to struggle with our Puritan impulse to be generous only with those that are worthy of our labors.  Yet Jesus’ definition of generosity was not similarly proscribed.  According to his aspirational vision, if you have a coat and see someone who doesn’t, you are supposed to give away your coat.  No questions asked.  That’s the deal.  (Of course that now puts the other person in the position you were just in, so I suppose she should give the coat back, and you can keep trading it back and forth until Christ comes back).

For if we really took a view of generosity anything like Jesus, none of us would be driving cars and living in big houses.  We’d be giving it all away so some naked, sick and sunburned soul in sub-Saharan Africa could have a sheet of tin over his head and a scrap of meat for dinner.  But we don’t do that.

The reality of it is that we see to our own needs first, and define both those needs (and the need for expressions of generosity) within our immediate social situation.  So a Hollywood star can spend an hour making a public service commercial and call it “giving back” for the millions they spend on their own lifestyle each year.  But this is just an extreme example.  We each navigate these tricky waters every day of our lives.  Perhaps that is why part of the appeal of religious belief is the baldly impossible moral standard it sets for us money-earning apes.

And that is why it makes so much more sense to see ourselves as the selfish-yet-social evolved primates that we are.  It is about the only way that our behavior (both good and bad) makes sense.  I have long held that it is never God (nor the fear of God) that truly makes man moral, it is the practical need to get along with our tribe, our community, that exerts the most powerful influence on personal behavior.  Compared to that pressure, the law — the morality — of God ranks as a far-distant second.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

"Kuss mich wie ein fish" (Kiss me like a fish). Street painting by Bob Diven

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

This book took me a full two weeks to read through.  I expect that’s hardly a good beginning to a review meant to encourage a reader, but this is a book by a writer who is doing a bang-up job of wrestling a coherent historical narrative from a collection of unreliable sources about a pre-literate culture.  Unreliable because many of the stories the Vikings told about their own history were written down long after the events they describe (when they are describing actual historical events).  And many of the poets who were part of that heathen culture had their own poetic axes to grind in praise (or condemnation) of their Viking chieftains.  The other accounts were written down by non-Vikings, and a lot of folks in western Europe and the British Isles had reasons to dislike the violent heathens from the north that were raiding their monasteries.    Fortunately for us, the author Robert Ferguson has the trustworthy mix of interest, knowledge and skepticism to give us a comprehensive tale of the Viking culture.

The reason we care about the Vikings is because they had a tremendous cultural impact on Western Europe, not just as raiders, but as settlers who, over time, became a part of the lands they first set foot upon as invaders.  If you descend from a Western European or English/Irish bloodline, then Vikings of some stripe are in your family tree.

Besides painting an illuminating portrait of the culture of these northern seafaring raiders, The Vikings gives an even more profound glimpse into the centuries-long process of European Christianity displacing Viking Heathenism.  This is a powerful tale that any of us can relate to.  For it turns out that Christianity was the wave of the future, and became heavily identified with civilization and progress and as such was used as a tool of control by cagey chieftains, kings and bishops.

In this role Christianity had the advantage of central control, which naturally appealed to a leader of unruly tribespeople.  Heathenism (and Viking culture, in particular) was much more egalitarian.  Yes, there were priests and shamans and tribal chiefs, but leadership was by mutual consent of the led, and religious practice was an individual as much as a communal affair.

The Vikings, it turns out, were everything we thought them to be: violent, vain and warlike.  But they were also a people of laws, honor and rough humor.  And it turns out that the brutality that the Vikings visited upon the monks and monasteries of England and France was a response to religious violence visited upon their heathen brethren by the representatives of Christ.  The Christian religious leaders had decreed that the killing of a heathen did not count as murder, and a particularly bloody massacre of a community of Vikings became well known throughout the northern lands.  The Viking age was launched, in so small part, as a religious war.

Of course we know who “won” that war.  Ferguson’s book confirms earlier suggestions that the Norse pantheon had fallen from its earlier heights to become the subject of more coarse ridicule than serious worship.  In short, the stage was set for a change.  Not that the rank and file gave up their idols easily.  Far from it.  Throughout the Viking age, the battle raged back and forth with monasteries (and cities) burning to the ground as often as heathen temples.

In the end, this is the story of human culture and it’s evolution from a larger tribal identification into the beginnings of nationhood and national (over cultural) identification.  Though I found myself getting lost in the lists of unfamiliar names (a bit like reading parts of the Old Testament), the human stories are compelling, heartbreaking and enlightening.  The Vikings in this book are living, breathing, modern humans like you and me, living out their ethics and aspirations in their turbulent, colorful, tragic and dramatic times.

I recommend this book.  It’s a good way to get to know your heathen great-great-grandparents!

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

"The Real McKoi". Street painting by Bob Diven

SERMON: “The Second Epiphany” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Merriam-Webster lists one definition of epiphany as: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

When I think of epiphanies of a certain magnitude, I think of conversion experiences.  I’m guessing most of us have at least one good conversion in us.  St. Paul sure did.  We can assume that he was raised in the religious beliefs that he held when he was struck blind by that heavenly light on the road to Damascus.  That most famous of epiphanies led to his conversion from a (born) persecutor of Christians to a (born again) follower of Christ.  As far as we know, he had no further conversions after that, and any epiphanies that followed were of a scale to fit within his “new” system of belief.

I think that the course of most conversions follow a pattern similar to Paul’s.  Listen to most “testimonies” from the converted, and they’ll refer to a previous life that consisted of early beliefs about the “essential nature or meaning” of life that had never been questioned.  Suddenly a triggering event causes them to re-think their beliefs.  In my case I was simply presented with the basics of Christian salvation that — although I had been raised in a nominally (at least socially) Christian home — were news to me.  And so I converted.

As readers of this blog will know, I later converted again.  Not back to my previous beliefs, but to a completely new understanding of that “essential nature or  meaning” thing.  I have often borrowed from evangelistic jargon and referred to this as my having been “born again…again”.

It’s not unusual to find someone who has had a conversion experience (though there are many who manage to skip this step without any noticeable injury to their life experience — but I was not cut from that genetic cloth).  What is more unusual is to find those that have had a second conversion — an epiphany of a magnitude to re-set the orbit of the intellectual planets yet again.  Yet the potential is always present, and is recognized as a true danger by the major monotheistic religions.  In Christianity, it is condemned as “apostasy”, and those who go down that road are viewed with deep suspicion and considered highly dangerous to other believers.  In Islam, they simply condemn apostates to death (a rather extreme version of the non-compete clause in an executive’s contract — for no-one wants a former “insider” working for the enemy).

I was fortunate in that my declension from faith did not incur death by stoning.  But it has, indeed, engendered a certain wariness from my former fellow-believers.  I think I know why.

St. Paul knocked off his ass by revelation.

A conversion experience is a big deal.  On some level it is the animal suddenly realizing it is more than an animal.  For many, it is the moment in which the solitary human suddenly becomes aware that there is more to life than his own selfish needs.  I have no doubt that for a good number of people this is a good thing.  That the higher power they believe in is imaginary is of no practical consequence to the quality (and validity) of their own emotional and intellectual experience of first encountering the “divine” in this way.

This sort of tectonic shift in one’s psyche is naturally felt to be a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing event.  (The last thing one would expect is that there should be any further need of additional internal earthquakes of this sort).  After all, as the hymn goes: “I was lost, but now am found” never, it is implied, to ever be “lost” again.  Yes, we may “stray” from the one, true path, but the whole point of this life is to achieve an awareness of God.  And having achieved that, the rest is working to improve that primary relationship.

In short, we only need to ride to Damascus once in our life.  Not over and over again.  Yet — in some recognition of the possibility — it is still warned (and guarded) against.

I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t expecting to be knocked off my (spiritual) ass a second time.  Which could be one reason I didn’t recognize that the disassembly of my Christian belief system was well underway during my months as a bible-smuggling missionary in Europe.

Yet if I’m completely honest, was my second “conversion” really such a dramatic conversion at all?  The week before it finally happened, I asked myself — for the first time — the question: “Could I live in a universe without a God?”.  Which meant that, in reality, I had never doubted (or seriously questioned) the existence of God up to that point (even in the years before my teenage “salvation” experience).  So perhaps my departure from Christianity should count as my major “Road to Damascus” experience, and not a second epiphany at all.

However, as evidence that I really did have a “second” conversion I have to consider the long-lasting impact the loss of my faith had on me.  From that day to this, it instilled in me a keen awareness of the tentative nature of belief: I knew that any belief system I attempted to build in place of my previous system would be subject to the next psychic urban renewal project that came to my mental town.  In short: if my Christianity could be shown to be false, what was safe from future revelation?

I therefore made a considered decision to resist my emotional need to quickly fill the void left by the loss of my religion.  I left the lot open, as it were, and allowed myself to drift in the great, terrifying and exhilarating existential deity-less void I found myself in (which felt, quite literally, like willing myself to dog-paddle in the deep end without grabbing for the edge of the pool).  I’m glad I did.  I’m proud of that decision.

Eventually (once I confirmed that the sun would continue to rise and that my self would persist in a familiar form) I formed a new sense of spirituality that was basically new-age in nature.  I brought my same religious zeal to each new “truth” offered me, and tried them out.  Holding on to the things that seemed to work (and the explanations for why they seemed to work), until I got better information.  That phase of my life lasted as long as my Christian life had — about 15 years.  But then, guess what?

Yep.  Another epiphany.  This time I converted not to another belief, but from belief altogether.  In the parlance of Daniel Dennett, the “spell” of belief was broken in me.  (Yes.  It turns out that the loss of my Christianity was not at all the loss of belief I thought it was, as my believing nature simply moved on to greener — though more tentative — pastures).

It’s almost impossible to describe these events in terms that don’t echo the testimonies of the religious.  But be that as it may, I now consider it possible to live a life “beyond belief”.  The religious protest that everyone else operates as much from belief as they do, and that scientists are no different.  There is a taste of truth in this, as we all make assumptions in order to make sense of life as it is happening to us.  But this is not always the same as belief, nor is it the enormous intellectual filtering mechanism that religion is.

But believers of all types will tell you that you can’t possibly understand what you’re missing out on until you have an epiphany of your own and have the hidden revealed to your (previously) blind eyes.  This is true, too.  Well, up to a point.

Having once believed, I can now understand all belief (as an addict can understand all addiction without having to get strung out on every substance or temptation on earth).  I don’t have to try out Islam or Mormonism or Scientology.  I have experienced the activation of my believing brain, which process is the basis for all human belief.  So I find myself (now) in the position of trying to describe to believers (who feel they have already gone from blindness to sight) that there is yet another world which they have never seen: the life beyond belief.

Statistics show that conversions are rare in adults.  This is why most religions target the young.  But late (and second) conversions do happen.  I am living testimony to that.  Which is why I write these sermons.  For surely I’m not the only one who has been knocked off his donkey of belief more than once.

t.n.s.r. bob