Archive for February, 2012

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The Library Rex has evolved a "soundless roar" as an adaptation to its natural environment.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans” by Mark Lynas.

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

This book will blow your mind.  And not necessarily in a “good” way.  At least if you’re like me: a hard-core rationalist who favors science over belief, but a skeptic when it comes to sniffing out belief-dependent realism, who nevertheless has more than a few “green” sympathies.  (If you’re a hard-core conservative your head may simply explode — though there is much in here to appeal to the thoughtful conservative).

But here it is at last: a book that takes as its starting point the global reality as laid out by the most current science: we are happily living our way into oblivion as we tinker with the biological and climatological balances that have sustained our existence for millennia.  But that’s not the hard part (unless you’re that “hard-core conservative” mentioned above).  The hard part is accepting how wrong many of us “greens” have got things over the last years, exhibiting our own version of a willingness to ignore science and fact.

In short, our future survival may depend much more on a spreading affluence throughout the developing world that will lead to increased urbanization and an increased use of nuclear power and genetically modified crops.  Gulp.  Of course, that’s not all that this book lays out.  But the gist of it is something I have long suspected: we are far too many now to “go back” to any notion of simpler times, living off the land, burning beeswax candles and weaving our own wool from our own sheep on our own little farm (at least not in large numbers).

There are so many of us, in fact, that any wider attempt to “return to the land” would push our environment into disaster from a destructive consumption of our little remaining bio-diverse habitats.  It turns out that humans are much, much more efficiently housed and employed in cities, and that the more that developing nations develop, the less pressure there is on land use and the environment in general (just one of the realities that goes against some “green” thinking).

The main point the author makes is that we are already tinkering with our climate and environment in profound ways, so the “whether or not to do it” question is moot.  What confronts us now is whether we should begin to see ourselves as “global” engineers, and begin to act consciously and with purpose in a way that utilizes the best science we have to keep the planet in balance so that we can continue as a species…the “God” species.

I remain skeptical of human over-confidence, as it often metastasizes into hubris.  So, in short, I don’t trust US to “manage” things on a planetary scale.  Yet the science (and hence the facts) are pretty much undeniable (except, of course, to those that are motivated to deny them).

I think we should all read this book.  Whether it holds the answers or not is not the issue.  It does, I think, point us in the direction of where the answers to our survival will be found, and that is a very important step indeed.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “The Right to Life” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The rising visibility of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum — as well as President Obama’s recent executive order (that triggered such a backlash from the evangelical community) — has made the cultural tug-of-war over the unborn a front-and-center topic once more.

Back in my Christian days, I was basically told that “pro life” was the only Godly view, so I stood uncomfortably on the steps of the Colorado capitol building one January day in 1979 to protest the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Christian no longer, I am now “uncomfortably” pro-choice.  Not because I have doubts about a woman’s right to exercise control over her own body, but because I don’t think that the volitional deletion of a potential fellow human is ever going to be a simple thing for anyone to deal with.  But this is not — as I think about it — a notion that flows from any sense of morality (at least any Divine morality), but more from a deep awareness of the apparent fact that we only get this “one life” to lead, and as such, it is a fairly precious thing and not to be taken (or taken away) lightly.

But I think another part of my feeling on the issue comes from the sheer driving force of the life impulse.  I think this “drive” is a most basic expression of any living cell, and that this mindless impulse is so much a part of our makeup that it naturally finds a sort of expression in our consciousness (which is, after all, a product of the living tissue that supports it).

Having said that, I think that many who are so fervently pro-life carry their beliefs in a kind of fact-free vacuum, lacking in much of any perspective about the biological reality of life as it actually exists.  The very natural tendency of us humans to see “the world” in the smallest possible units of our immediate environment, friends and family mitigates against seeing the world, life and ourselves as we really are.  In short, it’s hard for us to move from a personal/local view to a world/global one.

What does this mean?  It means that we think of life in mystical, almost fairy-tale like ways.  We talk about the “miracle of life” like it is a baby-factory of immaculate perfection that certain evil-humans are attempting to subvert with abortion and birth control.  What we ignore (and probably with good cognitive reason) is just how messy life really is.

The fact is that right now every living thing that exists on the planet is maintaining it’s existence by feeding off of something else.  In the case of animals and insects (and humans), that means actively killing another living creature in order to convert it’s energy stores into our own (and plants count on that score).  We don’t like to confront this.  So we have cartoon tuna or funny Holstein cows selling us our fish or chicken sandwiches.

But what about the actual miraculous baby factories that human women possess (and that the religiously-conservative seem to want dominion over)?  Up to half of all fertilized eggs die before the women know they are pregnant.  Known miscarriages occur about 15-20% of the time.  Still births occur approximately 1 in every 115 births (in the U.S. alone, that’s about one every twenty minutes).  The March of Dimes estimates that 3-5% of United States babies are born with birth defects.

I’m not good at math, but it seems to me that “nature” is killing roughly 70% of us humans before we even get out of the gate!

These are sobering numbers.  But when you understand that biology is a natural process (and have some familiarity the fact that genes mutate with regularity) these are not surprising statistics.  If, on the other hand, you think that God has made all things wisely and wonderfully, well, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, Lucy.

Things are not as the religious believer thinks they are.  But they have reason to continue to see things in simpler terms.  Irrational belief is irrational because it must exist in spite of countering facts and information.

The larger issue I see is that the overly-religious hold desperately to a set of “facts” (really just mythical notions) in order to preserve what they see as the “dignity” of life, even if in order to preserve that sense of dignity, thousands of living women and children must suffer for it.  What is gained is, to my view, so little for such a high human cost.  Whereas if the hyper-religious could be willing to accept the grim realities of biological life on this spinning planet of rare beauty they might come to a truer appreciation of the actual value and preciousness of life.

In this as in so many other areas, religious “truth” that is ballyhooed as having the power to “set one free” does nothing of the kind.  By fearing a reality that threatens their world view, believers live in a world even darker than the one they imagine awaits to consume them (should they ever let down their guard).

Proverbs 22:13 says: “The slothful man says, There is a lion outside, I shall be slain in the streets”.  This, I think, perfectly sums up the fundamentalist mindset.  In order to forestall an imagined future evil that is not real, many smaller genuine evils are visited upon the innocent women who are faced with difficult life decisions in the here and now.

There may be good and solid reasons to think twice about abortion, but irrational religious belief is not one of them.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Anytime there's road kill, a raptor (or Allosaur) is bound to swoop in..(Dinosaur by Gary Staab, Staab Studios).

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” a film by Werner Herzog.

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Werner Herzog is an odd duck (based on the glimpse into his mind that his documentaries have given me).  But he is an odd duck that meditates on human stories that seem to matter.  And the recent discovery of paleolithic cave art inside Chauvet Cave in France definitely matters.

Granted rare access to this carefully protected site, Herzog gives us a mesmerizing and unsettling glimpse into just how modern we modern humans are.  What I mean by that is this: to study the highly stylized and sophisticated cave drawings and paintings by our European forbears (created some thirty to forty-thousand years ago –the oldest found to date) is to come face to face with the reality that they were most definitely us.

Admittedly, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams with the eye of a professional artist, but there is nothing at all “primitive” about the artwork these anonymous humans left behind.  And as the documentary points out, this was all during a time when most of Europe was covered with glaciers, and we were sharing that cold (but sunny and well-stocked) landscape with our distant cousins the Neanderthals.

This is history and science described with a passionate humanity.  Herzog is justly fascinated with the art itself, but his real passion is to somehow try to transcend the chasm of time and feel his way into the world that these Cro-magnon artists inhabited.  This is the point where science leaves off, and imagination takes hold.  This is Herzog’s domain, and he explores it heedless of whether he will sound silly or not (he sometimes does).

But being seen as a bit silly is a very small price to pay for such insight into our shared humanity.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Where Have All the Gays Come From?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

I’m recalling one of those random conversations in a lobby after a show.  In this case, I was talking with a Christian friend of my mother’s after a performance of my one-man show (about the American painter John Singer Sargent).  I was talking about one theory put forth by a writer that Sargent was actually a “closeted Victorian homosexual”.  My mother’s friend blurted out “These homosexuals are everywhere these days”.  To which I quickly replied “No.  There’s the same number that there’s always been”.  She looked at me with blank incomprehension.

What I understood her to be saying was that there seemed to her to be a proliferation of homosexuality, as if there were now simply more homosexuals as a percentage of the population.  My point was that the occurrence of homosexuality in the population had not changed as a percentage throughout our history, but was likely a fairly reliable constant.  Of course my point had two hurdles to overcome in this conversation: 1) The woman I was talking to probably held to an anti-evolution viewpoint (seeing it is an “anti-god” view of the origins of life), and so would not be open to a scientific view of human sexuality, and; 2) She was in the thrall of the perception that there were more homosexuals when what was much more likely the case was that she was aware of more homosexuals due to their increasing visibility in our culture.

It's not just homosexuals coming out of the closet these days!

(In that same vein, another current cultural trend is an increase in the number of Americans identifying themselves as “atheists” or “non-believers”.  This fact, too, encourages some of us even as it really bothers others.  But I wonder if these trends reflect any real tectonic shift in humanity or a more pedestrian lessening of the social pressures that mitigate public behavior).

There are two issues (at least) in play here.  One involves a recognition of the natural variability within a species, and the other the purposes and effects of social “norms”.

To the first point, it is clear that homosexuality is a naturally-occuring phenomenon (we see it in other animal species beside our own).  Recent genetic discoveries have only served to confirm the biological basis of this idea.  (Therefore I have no reason to think that a propensity toward “non-belief” is any less a naturally-occuring variant of our species).  And this is where the second point comes in.

We are highly social animals, and in order to live together we have long been at work constantly refining the ways in which we coexist in ever larger and more complex communities.  We have developed what we call “social mores”, which are a sort of collective consensus on what is allowed and not allowed in society.  But these rules are ever evolving along a spectrum between what one might call “oppression” and “liberty”.

When it comes to sex, I am reminded of Reay Tannahill’s fantastic book “Sex in History” (which is a delightful overview of just how different societies have dealt with issues of sex and sexual morality).  It turns out that there is less a steady historical progression from ignorance and fear to tolerance and freedom as there have been pockets of different kinds of understandings of sexual behavior (you can find some very old civilizations with much more “advanced” views of sex than those of us modern Americans or Europeans).

But the main point I take away from this is that the human animal is going to be pretty much what it is when it comes to sex.  What changes is what freedom individuals have to express that variety within society.  And this is where the fearful conservatives get it right: when society loosens it’s control over individual sexual expression, variant behavior does appear to proliferate.  But are we really seeing anything other than an expression of what is naturally occurring, but has only been suppressed or hidden?  I don’t think so.

To get to the fine grain of the deal, I expect there is some difficult-to-quantify influence of a more sexually open society on individual behavior (as in some individuals might “try” things they would not otherwise engage in).  But I doubt very much that even the most homosexual- (or atheist) friendly society is going to actually produce any more homosexuals (or atheists) than a repressive one.  What it will do is make the no-longer-repressed variants more visible.

And I think this is a good thing when it comes to homosexuality (and atheism, for that matter).

Because I believe that we only have this one, short life.  And though I understand and support the need for societal rules, the purpose of those rules is to allow the maximum number of humans to live as well as they possibly can.  The place we draw lines in the sand is when an individuals behavior threatens the life or liberty of another.  This is where ethics and civil law begin.

But religious belief gives many of us the idea that one woman marrying another woman and setting up house, raising some kids and living a normal, open life is a threat to our own chance at happiness.  Sort of a zero-sum societal game.  This is a pernicious trait in us humans that only adds to suffering, based on a notion that this particular variant of human sexuality (or — to belabor the point — non-belief) is inherently dangerous to society, despite the evidence we now have to the contrary.

But, then, the reality of our situation may well be this: just as with the number of potential homosexuals or atheists in the population at a given time, there will (also) always be a certain percentage biologically predisposed to be hyper religious, or moralizing, or fearful of those who don’t see the world just as they do.

The question then becomes (as it has always been, in my mind): how do we all manage to live together in harmony?  This seems to be our most pressing and pragmatic goal (well, along with how do we do that while not making our planet unlivable in the near term).

To put it another way: for reasons that evolution makes clear, life varies to such a wide degree that our definitions of “normal” can only be statistical approximations of the mid-point on any bell-curve shaped spectrum of difference.  But since the extremes on any such spectrum occur with “normal” frequency, can they really be viewed as “unnatural”.

Morality and social mores have their place.  But we need to recognize that they are also variable measurements, subject to change (for good or ill).  There are extremes of animal variability that are potentially dangerous to us (psychopathy comes to mind), but we are fortunate to live in an age of science where the identification of such dangers now rests in more pragmatic, evidence-based hands, and not in the fevered mind of the witch hunter or religious zealot.

Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you”.  I think he could have included a whole lot more of humanity in that thought.

t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The other singers call him "Tenor Rex". He just about bit the head off the director. No - seriously.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945″ by Max Hastings.

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

“This is a book chiefly about human experience” begins the introduction of “Inferno: The World at War”, and what follows is just such an account.

“Inferno” offers a succinct overview of the greatest armed conflict the world has ever known in order to meditate upon the impact World War II had on the humans of that world.  To do this the author keeps to a minimum discussions of troop movements and tactics, except where such details provide context or insight into how those decisions (or new technologies) impacted the people directly involved.

This is a heartbreaking version of a story we all think we know.  But the author has the advantage of the passing of enough time to allow him to describe — without flinching — the good, the bad and the ugly of human behavior in wartime.  It’s all here: the familiar campaigns, the famous leaders, the commanders notable for their cruelty, egotism or greatness.  But the details of the when and where are held together by the glue of personal accounts from individuals caught up in the war, from every side and every walk of life.  This is a book of snippets that paint a larger portrait, like a pointillist canvas: up close the bits of anecdotal information seem too small to describe such a global event, but in their cumulative power they enable the reader to grasp the enormity of this war that was nevertheless experienced one personal moment at a time.

I highly recommend this book, even if you’re not a “war buff”.  This is, indeed, a book about human experience.  The humans you’ll read about just happen to have been living, fighting, longing and dying during a global conflict.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “The Still-Naked Emperor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

I think one of the things that bugs me not just about religion, but also about the spectrum of irrational beliefs that people can hold, is that they mask the true fragility of all of life and culture.

I believe that this insistence on finding often fallacious outside (eternal, rock solid, unchanging) reference points for morality, ethics and human behavior (as well as industrial and political policy) present a sort of foundational challenge to the prospect of our long term survival as a species.

Everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else -- in this example our place in evolution.

It is the most basic truism of measurement: everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else, from the original royal “foot” to our modern “light years”.  But somehow, when it comes to human morality we violently resist the notion that our measurements are at all “relative”.  No.  “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” sort of sums up the absolutist stance.  But even when one claims to have found a true North Star of morality in God, adjustments are always made in the actual application of that morality.

We all know and understand this on a civic level (this is why we have jury trials where context and intention influence the findings of guilt or innocence).  But we also understand it on a personal level: nearly everything we do that affects other people is done with an awareness of the potential social cost or benefit — to us.

We humans know from long centuries of experience that we need rules to keep ourselves and society functioning smoothly, and yet we all bend — or break — the rules in a multitude of different ways.  When done to extremes, these infractions are punished by the civil authorities (our elected tribal leaders).  But in our day-to-day lives there is a truth that many are loathe to recognize:  though we may want to believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong that exists outside of our physical world, we are yet ever thankful that we get away with cutting the moral corners that we do dozens of times a day.

Our religions, then, have as part of their appeal the absolute impossibility of the faithful application of their moral dictates to our lives: no one can live up to the law (be it civic or divine).  And so we find ourselves in constant rebellion against that which we ourselves most desire.  In short, we insist on a God we can never completely obey.

For we all wobble across those lines — even the most righteous (for they, too, pick and choose which precepts of their God-given religion are the most important).  It’s human nature.

Why is this?  We know why we want God to be there: to lend our lives a sense of purpose and transcendent meaning.  So why the impossible-to-obey-rules?  Perhaps this makes God “better” than us in a way that re-enforces his “other” status (but conveniently in a form that is able to “look the other way” when we need him to!)  But what about the rules themselves?

Well, one of the problems with rules and laws is that they can reach a point of diminishing returns, where their capacity to influence behavior starts to weaken.  There are never enough cops (or angels, apparently) to enforce them, so it is left up to us to sort of collectively decide which rules matter the most.  (This is most clearly seen in popular mass media, where public outrage over this crime or that criminal ebbs and flows, even as the attention of the public moves on from one favorite outrage to the next.  If enough people are angry, a law can suddenly be applied with the full vigor of civil force.  If enough people cease to care that much, then laws just as much “on the books” are easily ignored.  It happens all the time).

And yet we persist in supporting the myth of a divine law that is immune to a collective human relativism.  There is no such thing.  We humans are the ones who make — and break — the rules.

We humans seem to be natural utopians.  This can be hard to spot as it can take almost any ideological form.  And so those of us that believe in the social value of a strong central government can easily fall into the trap of passing ever more laws to feel like we’re doing something (altering human behavior) that we’re actually not .  While libertarians and anarchists have their own utopian vision built from the extremely silly view that no laws are better than too many.

There is, lurking in between these views, perhaps some sort of “zone of effectiveness”, or “sweet spot” to aim for.

What most upsets society is unfairness.  Not so much because we care a great deal for others as we don’t want our own societal sacrifice to be greater than anyone else’s.  This is where the reality of the power of perception becomes critical.  (Members of the TEA Party, for example, are convinced that they are paying far higher taxes than they actually are and that their “hard earned money” is going straight into the pockets of lazy minorities).

We are quick to criticize those who govern us for paying too much attention to the polls (or “political” reality) when in truth they are making the same kinds of calculations that you or I make in our own daily actions, albeit on a much larger scale.  Make no mistake: there are things citizens simply won’t stand for.  This is not cynicism — this is reality.  (Adding God to the mix, or putting up the Bible’s ten commandments in every courthouse just sort of muddies up the waters without adding much of use).

For unlike God, we humans have to balance out justice and mercy in the real world of our day to day interactions with each other in a way that maintains some semblance of personal integrity while also seeing to our own personal comfort and safety.  The fact that we (generally) selfish humans care for each other as much as we do is one of the saving graces of our species.

Maybe it’s best not to question the myth of morality’s divine origin.  Perhaps we’re better off to let that sleeping dog lie.  But somehow I don’t think society will unravel once we see this divine “Emperor” naked, because he was never the one making us behave in the first place.  And maybe — once we realize that — we will begin to see civil society as the delicate and vulnerable phenomena that it is, and treat it with a good deal more care and kindness than we currently do, and thereby finally take full responsibility for our malleable human morality.

t.n.s.r. bob