Archive for October, 2011
I think that most people who don’t believe in God self-identify as agnostic (or non-believer), even though they may well be “practical” atheists. (By “practical atheist” I mean one who negotiates his or her life as if there is no God).
I suspect that there are also a number who self-identify as Christian who could be counted as practical atheists. Otherwise, the preacher and evangelist would not be so troubled by the many church members who seem to be more “social” than true “believing” Christians.
(Consider this recent article in Der Spiegel about the growing number of Americans that self-identify as “non-religious”, even as our politics seem to be rushing in the opposite direction).
Of course agnosticism is the only scientifically defensible stance in the face of the evidence we have. Scientific in the sense that since the existence of God is a theory that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, it cannot, therefore, be considered a valid scientific theory at all. By this standard, then, true atheism remains an untenable factual stance.
But let me ask: do you think that there is any chance at all that the Norse god Thor could turn out to actually exist?
Most people would laugh at the question. But they would not, then, label themselves “Thor-less atheists”. Nor would they call themselves “Thorian agnostics”. Why? Because the terms atheism and agnosticism are reserved (in everyday use) to the question of the existence of the “one true God”. In our everyday life, then, it seems that we don’t think it worthy to waste the terms on the thousands of extinct god ideas that have existed (and continue to exist) in our myriad human cultures and times.
And yet the vast majority of humans don’t have to think twice when asked if they believe in God. They will answer with an emphatic “yes”.
But based on the evidence of the sheer size and age of our universe — and our incomprehensibly tiny role in that universe — isn’t the notion of a local, modestly-endowed god much more likely to be a reasonable conclusion for a human believer to adopt? Isn’t the existence of an earth-based spirit or a demon more likely than an omnipotent God who orchestrated the birth of an entire universe 13.5 billion years ago just so that a recently evolved hominid holy man could reveal God’s plan to his fellow hairless primates two thousand years ago?
But of course these are not the actual terms under which we humans contemplate an eternal maker. We don’t really think in terms of distances between galaxies, or billions (or even millions) of years. In our everyday reality, the world we carry with us is almost entirely local.
That’s why I think that the only reason we can actually seriously entertain the notion of an infinite, eternal, omnipotent God is because of the fact that everything about our evolved brain and the reality of our everyday life continues to tell us that we are actually a very large presence in a fairly small world.
It is only with great effort (and pain-inducing difficulty) that we will our brains to open up to the vastness of geologic time, or the true distances between earth and the edge of our still-expanding universe, or the intricacies of our Rosetta Stone of DNA. And even after we stretch our synapses to the breaking point, they inevitably snap back to the local, immediate level of awareness that we actually need to navigate our complex tribal lives.
This means that the God that we actually believe in, in reality, only has to be able to fill our idea of heaven with his grandeur. We do not picture the size of the space he should actually fill (which, practically speaking, is pretty much an incomprehensibly vast reach of empty, cold, dead space). By comparison, we live on a fly speck of a fly speck of geology spinning in a sea of flyspecks so distant from each other as to be like particles of dust in a sandstorm across and endless desert.
If we actually held a true idea of the size of space (and our size in comparison) we would A) never conceive of a God so large, or B) imagine him having the slightest interest in conducting an experiment in soulful life on our speck of a planet.
But then, our idea of God did not develop in such a mental landscape. God evolved with us when we were even more tribal and local than we are today. We grew up together: us and our imaginary friends, so familiar to us that even now some scientists do the mental gymnastics to stretch their idea of God to fit the reality of our existence that science (not religion) continues to reveal to us.
And that is the other rub: Which predictions, what descriptions of life, or of the universe, or of the earth, contained in ancient religious works have proven to be true in anything other than the most poetic sense?
The reality is that religion resists the enlightening probing of science until it can resist no longer, at which point religion does its best to adapt. On the grounds of this behavior alone, religion is suspect as a source of any testable truth. Religion may have something to teach us about our own natures, to be sure, but only in the same as any work of literature or art (for it is closely related to those human endeavors).
For these reasons, I see no reason not to take that extra small step and call myself an atheist. It seems no different than declaring gravity a reality (even though that, also, is still a “theory”). In reality, the only reason I can see not to embrace the moniker of “atheist” is the discomfort it causes other human beings (for a good overview of the level of mistrust most Americans feel toward Atheists, check out the surveys cited in this article). And I am, after all, a social animal, which means the embracing of any minority view carries with it a certain social risk. I don’t want people I am talking with to feel uncomfortable or challenged (at least not unnecessarily). And, as I’ve said before, there is no real cosmic harm to believing in something that isn’t true. Sure, it may hasten the decline of our species by keeping us from confronting approaching climate-based dangers, but that’s a problem for us, not the universe.
But be that as it may, declaring oneself an atheist is not worthy of the gasps that it can generate. It is to me a small step to take once the idea of belief itself has become (rightfully) suspect.
In emotional terms, however, the final (and most difficult) barrier to unbelief is the catch in the throat that comes when we ask ourselves “But what if God exists?” I can tell you from experience that this is a tenacious reaction which, to me, speaks of both the long history of belief and our natural inclination toward it. What it does not speak of, however, is the existence of God (no matter what the clever preacher may make of such a natural human anxiety). Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question: “But what if Thor actually exists?” Or “What if Athena is real?”. You will likely not have anywhere near the same catch in the throat when Thor or Athena are involved. Why is that? We don’t take them seriously as contenders for actual divinity. Why not? Because we weren’t born in the times or cultures in which such beliefs would have been as much our birthright as monotheism is today. That should tell us something about belief in God.
The rest of belief is made up of little more than confirmation bias and belief-dependent realism. I’d bet you a nickel that if you started praying “in faith” today to any of the extinct gods, your reality would soon confirm their existence as it sought out the evidence of answered prayer in the hundreds of random events that fill your days, with your confirmation bias working just as well as it does for all believers, be they Christian, New Age or pagan.
As Richard Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheists. It’s just that some of us make an exception for the god of our choice — the God of whom we demand so little proof and so little power that it’s actually quite a wonder we need to imagine him as big as he is when a local god serve us just as well. But that need to be the center of an infinite God’s attention is — as they say — a subject for another sermon.
Dinosaurs look so strange. They look like something that lived in another world. It is a great part of our fascination with them: they are our familiar monsters. Monsters because of their size, for one, and their mysterious absence (but for fossil remains) for another. But they are also a bit familiar. They walk on two or four legs, after all, and have two eyes, a nose, two ears and a mouth (with plenty of teeth in the mouths of our favorites). So are they really so strange as we portray them to be?
I once attended a lecture by the director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History about a huge herbivorous dinosaur whose bones were found in Northern New Mexico. At some point during the lecture, he mentioned that — like today — the Cretaceous prairies were populated by herds of herbivores that would have vastly outnumbered their carnivorous predators. Suddenly a light went off in my head, and the funny-looking duck-billed hadrosaurs went from being exotic dinosaurs to ancient wild cattle grazing like any buffalo or modern range cow: the “wild cows of the Cretaceous” (as I called them in my musical “EXTINCTION: A Love Story”).
This began a series of shifts in my thinking that steadily undermined my capacity to see ancient life forms as being any more odd in appearance than any animal living today. As if on cue, there then came the occasional chain e-mail or National Geographic article with a collection of photographs of the strangest-looking living things that have been found in our modern world. Turns out we don’t have to go back to the Cretaceous to find animals that look like they were built of spare parts late on a Friday afternoon at the biological assembly line. (See some in National Geographic HERE)
The situation is not much different from that of the foods that we eat. Each of us surely eats something (without a second thought) that would induce vomiting in another human from another spot on the earth.
The problem with seeing extinct species as completely un-related to us is that it can make it easier to dismiss the biological link that all life on earth shares. Now I’m not certain that it is really necessary that each living human feel a warm and fuzzy bond with the small 210 million-year old rodent that we appear to have descended from, but it couldn’t hurt.
Seeing myself as a part of not just the chain of current life, but of the history of life on the planet has given me a not insignificant comfort in the face of a universe that is seemingly incapable of regarding my existence. Whether the hungry tiger can appreciate it or not (as she decides how she’s going to snap my neck before eating me) we are brother and sister, in this parade of life together.
But that’s the rub: we humans are the animals who think about these things. Fortunately for us (and especially for certain cats and dogs), we have found other animals willing to abide our expressions of familial affection. And it is these animals that we consider the most familiar and pleasing to our eye and mind. Dolphins and whales appear very different from us, but perhaps it is their earlier life as four-footed, land-based ungulates (as well as their obvious intelligence) that makes it easier for us to consider them part of our family of “friendly” animals.
In contrast (Creationist exhibits of Velociraptors frolicking with children notwithstanding) we know full well that were we to come face to face with even the most intelligent raptor of the dino-age, the only meeting of minds would be that of our terrified brain and the raptor’s hungry one. To us, he would be a dinosaur: to the dinosaur, we would be just another animal. An exotic one, to be sure, but (as long as we weren’t armed with a man-made weapon) an ultimately easy one to catch, kill and eat.
But we are loathe to see ourselves as “just another animal”. This offends us in some way. We have a deep need to be special. So deep, in fact, that it’s not enough to be special on just on a local level: we must matter on a cosmic scale. We want to believe that a part of our selves lives on forever with our creator.
Honestly, I think this may be a fair trade-off for being saddled with a brain that can consider its own mortality. After all, what harm will it do in the long run? Yes, apocalyptic religious thought is currently gumming up the works like a giant wooden shoe in the gears of the sustainability problem solving machine, but in the end how much difference will that make on an earth scale measured in geologic time? Practically none.
(On that score, I think we humans are clever enough to stretch our time on earth by a considerable margin. After all, we have so far escaped the extinction that has been the inevitable norm for ninety-nine percent of every other animal that has ever lived on this small planet. And, barring another six-mile wide meteorite strike, we might just find a way to use our technological skill to survive the damage done by our technological skill. Seeing ourselves as the clever animals that we are would help enormously in that process, as it would strip away the false veil of differentness that we hang between us and every other thing in nature. After all, as you sit reading this, half of your body’s cellular weight is made up of bacteria (a fact that makes our current obsession with antibacterial gel seem a bit existentially absurd.))
We are as exotic as any species that ever walked the earth, with our odd bipedal, upright and naked bodies. With our flat faces, we may be the most unusual primate on the planet. And with our mutant brains, we have built our own un-natural world within a world in ways unmatched by any other creature. It’s no wonder we see ourselves as different. We are different! In tiny but significant ways. But whatever the differences between us and nature, they are minuscule when weighed against the most basic commonalities we share with every living thing.
Perhaps we are the strange creatures on this planet, and the other animals have just been too polite to tell us to our face.
I was much more anxious than I would have liked to have been as I drove to El Paso. I did my best to enjoy the drive, listening to the final chapter of a book on tape. There are days like that, where my ability to remain calm in the moment is over-challenged and succumbs to the tendency of my dog brain to project and fret. Still, I felt better by the time I checked into my motel room with enough time to sit for a bit before I checked in at the Arts Festival Plaza to start my street painting for the 2011 “Chalk the Block” festival downtown.
Those of us chosen as Arts Festival Plaza artists were to begin our paintings at 6pm on Friday night and work until 10pm (we were to pick up again on Saturday at 7am, and complete our paintings for judging by 2pm). I was excited and confident as I checked in, got my materials and refused the offer of a spray bottle full of water (I was too much of a street-painting purist for to employ that device that I’d recently seen in use). I set to work, and had my 5 x 10 foot design sketched out in white chalk in a few minutes. I began to paint in the colors with my pastels and immediately noticed something was wrong: the surface was not taking the color well at all.
I had assumed that years of painting with pastels and chalk on asphalt and cement had prepared me for anything, and had been excused from the “mandatory” festival training session the Saturday before (my excusal based largely on that experience). But it now dawned on me that painting on brick was another animal. That made sense: bricks are fired masonry. In essence I was trying to make pastel stick to chunky glass. I had a sinking feeling as I calculated that the detailed, rich painting (of a T-Rex fossil come to life) I had envisioned was instead going to be anemic and sad. I felt a rueful sense of the excess of my confidence: I had been cocky to think I didn’t need the training session; to think that I was better than the kids around me who were now slopping thick, soupy tempera paint all over their spaces with buckets and brushes.
Damn. They knew something I didn’t.
Well, my feelings of self-correction aside, I needed to change my plans. I got a spray bottle and started in to teach myself a new way of painting with the stakes as high as they could be (I had come to win this competitive event, after all: the prize money was good). It took a while, but by the time the sun was setting, I had figured out the right combination of water and pastel rubbed onto the brick that would take on the feel of a sort of slurry, which seemed to have at least some capacity to stick to the masonry. Good. But now I knew I would have to obliterate my drawing to cover the space with the right colored slurry for each portion of my painting. Not so good. I calculated that I could recover from that. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was moving that way. I would, however, still have to wait and see how the dried slurry surface itself would take pastel, and if I would ever get back to the quality of the painting I had planned.
By the time I had coated all of my surface, and got back to the first dry parts to see how I’d actually have to adapt my painting style to them, it was dark, and the work lights were turned on. Much to my relief, the prepared surface took pastel well: I was back in business. But then the glaring work lights started popping breakers, and the next two hours were spent working in various combinations of semi-darkness, and finally an odd sort of slow-motion strobe effect as watchers walked in front of the few remaining people-height lamps that shot a low-angled light across my painting-in-progress.
I kept working until 10pm in awful light, all the while wondering what terrible things I could be doing to my painting that I might not be able to correct in the daylight. I returned to my motel room and a night of fitful sleep.
Back to the plaza at 7am, things looked okay. All of my work from the night before held up, and I could now, truly, get to work. After a couple of hours of painting a feeling of pleasure bubbled up through the layers of my mind. I suddenly felt happy. I was going to be okay. All of the detail and depth I had wanted to include in this work were mine to create, no longer restricted by those damn red bricks underneath. I was back in the running, back in familiar territory. I was working in confidence again.
I remembered a line I wrote for my play about the American painter John Singer Sargent: “I’ve always had more confidence than sense. But in the end, it’s made sense to be confident”. Was that me, today?
I finished my painting an hour ahead of the 2pm deadline. I had indeed had time to include all of the detail that I had planned, and was pleased with how well the final painting matched my original “vision”. I looked at the work of the other artists that surrounded me, and those in other parts of downtown that were all competing for the Best of Show award. I knew I had the best painting, but then I didn’t. I began to look for the reasons why it would not be the obvious choice of the judges, and my confidence was diminished (a process, perhaps, aided by my challenged “cockiness” of the night before).
Friends from my home town showed up to be there for the judging and the award, and my social sense was kicked up a notch, navigating the complex preparations for an unpredictable outcome (which in this case, now meant bracing for a public loss witnessed by friends).
The announcement of the awards was late. We had plenty of time to sit around and wait and chat, as I laid the mental and verbal groundwork for being okay with whatever came (read: not winning). I had enough experience to understand the Biblical warning that “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV). I knew that I was subject to “chance” as much as anyone else.
So when the announcement finally came (in the teasing form of a description of the winning painting), all we had to hear was “T-Rex”. In the nanosecond of space between those words and the sound of my friends erupting in screaming, I experienced the exhilaration of being chosen. It rang like a crystal bell inside me: brief but pure. That moment only had the time it took for my anxious friends to take in enough breath to start shouting. After that my attention was diverted to them, even as I struggled to listen above the happy din for the sound of my name (to be sure I had actually won). In the moments that followed, I wondered whether my cognitive and emotional experience was qualitatively any different than that of a nominee awaiting the opening of the envelope on Oscar night.
The rest was twenty minutes of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, a newspaper interview and then home to rest my sore muscles and raw fingertips.
Why tell this long story here? What does it have to do with the church of bob? The answer lies in the thing that was absent.
What I’ve described is just the kind of experience into which we humans almost always insert the idea of God or cosmic purpose. It’s the sort of thing we pray about: asking for God (or spirit or whatever) to guide us or to grant favor. It’s the kind of situation where ritualistic behavior is natural — a lucky charm or a certain kind of behavior that seemed to make something good happen in the past.
Upon reflection what was noticeable to me was the complete absence of any of that in the events I described above. Apparently we can, in fact, move beyond belief.
I set out to win this competition, but not through prayer. I was juried in based on both my past work and my submitted design for the festival. I was confident, but was immediately challenged by an unforeseen difficulty that my experience and determination helped me overcome (though the event supplied the materials, I had brought along some of my own favored chalks that saved my butt that first night — a “lucky” choice my experience taught me to make). I knew that I had the capacity to create a painting people would enjoy, and that I would likely enjoy doing it (a good indicator of final quality). I knew from experience that my social skills were up to the interactions with staff and audience. I had won a street painting festival in the past. None of those factors made my winning inevitable. But, in reality, it made my winning a distinct possibility. To then add prayer to the reasons for my success would have shifted the 99% of my career-artist reality onto the 1% of the supposed external force I might have prayed to (or, conversely shifted all of the blame back to me had I lost, leaving none of it with the God that let me down). Seen in that light, prayer would have been, well, silly.
The outcome of this street painting festival was never inevitable. Though my skill and (thirty years of) experience did give me a certain objective advantage over a number of my competitors, it could not immunize me against another more talented competitor, or a system of judging that was hidden from my knowledge.
I may never know who the judge (or judges) were that made the final decision on the “Best of Show” award, much less what factors they took into consideration. It may be that I won by a wide margin. Or it could have been very, very close. So it is in the complexity of life: we desire to know the hidden factors in order to calibrate our sense of reality, to draw conclusions about cause and effect. But most of the time, we just don’t know everything that went on. No wonder we seek a spiritual “edge” to push things our way, or to comfort us when they don’t, switching our biases on or off depending on the situation and whether our not they confirm or confront our beliefs.
I came, I saw, I worked and I won. This time. That’s all I know.
“”People are in cages of their own making,” he said. “I can stand on the outside of the cage and show them the gate is unlocked, that they are free to go, that they have always been free to go, but they need to decide to leave the cage.”"
“…All we need to recognize is that the qualities we have ascribed to God actually belong to humanity.
In other words, Christianity has turned God into a kind of superhero capable of doing everything human beings can’t do, a move that renders humans helpless, small, in need of rescue. We enrich God…but we impoverish the world.” — from “Breaking up with God”
The provocative title of this book made me reach for it. I couldn’t wait to start reading it, even though I knew there was a chance that it was a ruse: a clever ploy to sell a book that appeared to be one thing but was actually another. (My many years as an evangelical Christian have sensitized me to the reality that deception in the name of spreading the Gospel is not regarded as a crime.)
So I dove into this book. Chapter by chapter my interest held, even as my wariness built: would this deeply religious young woman — who would eventually graduate from Harvard Divinity School in her quest for (Episcopal) priesthood — really “break up” with God, or would the book take a sudden twist at the end, explaining that what she was really doing was breaking up with an immature idea of God, and embracing the better, truer one?
Indeed, there were some tricky passage, such as the descriptions of a blossoming teenage eating disorder that put my sympathies with the writer on edge, like a train taking a corner too fast. But I stuck with her tale, and boy, am I glad I did.
By the time I reached the end of this book, I saw that (by either plan or sheer brilliance) the style of the writing had advanced in step with the maturation of the writer on her personal journey. The awkward, but passionate girl I had sat down with became a troubled teenager, then the spiritual sister to the medieval mystic women she quotes, before at last blossoming into a women of poetic and powerful calm, who did, when it came to it, have the courage to “break up with God”.
“But then Charlie died, and the devil’s third temptation in the desert suddenly made sense to me. On the pinnacle of a temple he says to Jesus, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. The devil talks about the promise of angels, of protection, of not dashing his foot against a stone, but Jesus says, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
I think Jesus knew that if he jumped, he would fall. His God couldn’t catch him. There was just too much suffering in the world — too many people drowning in floods and buried by earthquakes, too many people starving, too many people sick and dying for Jesus to believe in a God who’d catch someone who jumped off a building to prove a point to a bully.
I had believed in a God who loved me, and because he loved me, and because I was good, he would protect me. My faith was a kind of magic trick. My prayers were not much different from incantations. I might as well have been saying abracadabra. I might as well have been standing on the top of a temple, arms spread wide, leaping into the air.”
That is poetry to my ears, the poetry of an earned wisdom.
I regularly muse that it is probably not reasonable to expect individuals who have invested so much of their identity in their religious beliefs to be willing to give them up, no matter how irrational or indefensible they may be. Priests and pastors would risk their livelihoods, others would risk the shunning of friends, wives, husbands and parents. For we don’t believe in a vacuum, but through our beliefs form intimate communities. So it was especially good for me to read this account of one woman’s journey to the point where the loss of her faith did, indeed, represent a great cost and a reconfiguring of her sense of self. The good news is that the story has a happy ending.
This is a writer who has my sympathy and intellectual allegiance. As one who once believed, I found it good to have this look into another’s journey along a similar path. Of course no two spiritual divorces are the same, but neither are they ever completely different. I recognized much of my own journey in this book.
I highly recommend it.