Archive for August, 2012
It’s easy to believe in something greater than ourselves. I say this understanding that it is the act of “surrender” to such an idea that marks a believer’s turning point from a “self-centered” life to one focused on God and others. But with it being the case that: a) it is easy to believe in God, and; b) discovering a belief in God is supposed to change the direction of one’s life, why do we seem to see so little change in human behavior over all?
Now I have just breezed over at least two assertions in one paragraph that need to be addressed, the first being that it is easy to believe in something greater than ourselves (generally — God). This can hardly be a debatable point, as we are surrounded on all sides by religious belief, whether it be traditional Christianity (in our country) or “spirituality” (a belief in more small-scale personal, invisible attendants — be they angels or our own “higher self” — or even belief in aliens or “energy”).
(The Christian may protest that he or she does not merit inclusion in the same category as those who — for example — think that Martians brought us our technology in the distant past, but I would reply that all belief in anything external to our own consciousness is the exact same phenomenon — at least on a broad scale of classification. Yes, there are differences in belief, but there are also differences in trees, but all trees (no matter how exotic or rare) are still classified as related species of trees).
The second assertion is more of a reference to what many “converts” experience when they find God: a shift in their awareness. Now I suggest that a critical part of any conversion experience is the adoption of a narrative about what one has just experienced. I like to call this “branding”, as one reason for the success of any religion (in my view) is it’s ability to re-frame any normally-occurring human experience into a confirmatory tale of their particular story. So to one person, finding the right parking space will mean that God knew they were in a hurry and intervened on their behalf, to another it may mean that an angel led them to the right space at the right time, while another will believe that they found the right spot because their karma was good.
So despite the cosmetic (or even substantive) differences between the many forms of belief, the underlying cognitive “technology” is the same: when it comes to irrational religious belief, trees is trees.
Almost every human has experiences that we can describe as “numinous” — those moments of awareness of something beyond our usual, day-to-day sense of consciousness — the sensation of something existing (or communicating to us) from the “outside”.
(As an artist, I can tell you that the arrival of a seemingly unbidden “inspiration” or idea can have all the qualities of a small miracle. But the fact that these experiences have been — and continue to be — common to all artists in all times of all beliefs, makes it tough to make a case for it being anything other than the result of a creative brain’s regular activity).
At some point in our history, then, we clearly started making up stories to explain such numinous moments. (The fact that such stories “stuck” seems a pretty good indication that the experiences that inspired them were (and are) universal — otherwise no mystic or preacher would have ever found and held an audience). I think this storytelling is wonderfully creative of us, but it does nothing to make anything that we categorize as spiritual a reality that exists outside of our own consciousness. One thing is clear, however: some of those stories that “stuck” have become a part of our cultural DNA.
Why and how religion began is not difficult to understand. But why does it persist in the face of ever-mounting evidence that explains almost everything that religion once claimed to explain? Somehow this just doesn’t matter to believers. If religion has lost it’s explanatory power, it has by no means lost its hold on our hearts and minds. There is a certain comfort to be had in familiarity and history, and in the face of the assault of modern knowledge, many believers abandon ground to science and simply fall back to a more reliable line of defense. Perhaps because religious belief itself is prehistoric, the major religions — then and now — plant their flag of authenticity in their very ancientness, as if longevity automatically equaled veracity. Of course it doesn’t (flat earth, anyone?), but the appeal of history to we short-lived humans remains viable, modern science be damned.
Like evolution itself, religions have had a long time to evolve into their present state. And like all evolved living creatures, religions, too, surely share a common ancestor. This is not hard to accept if for no other reason than all religions share so many traits in common. And just like the (false) claim that evolution cannot be observed occurring, the evolution of religion — supposed to be sourced in eternal, unchanging sources — can, it turns out, also be observed. Think about it: where and when the hell did Scientology show up? Or Mormonism? Or Seventh Day Advent-ism? But note that with each attempt to establish a new “brand name” of religion, connections are almost invariably made to the past (Scientology claims we are ancient, higher beings, Mormonism ties itself to the tribes of Biblical Israel). The most brand-spanking-new religion (though few would want to call themselves such) will claim to be a revelation of ancient knowledge. All of this is, to me, rather telling.
Yet unlike trees (who do not seem to spend any time denying their “tree-ness”), almost every religion is constantly bending over backwards to distance themselves from every other religion. So let’s ask the obvious question here: “why?” If any one of these belief systems were truly THE revelation of TRUTH from a DIVINE SOURCE, wouldn’t it stand out among the rest like a red rose in a manure pile?
Some rather diplomatically detour around this question by taking the (much more humane, I would say) approach of saying that all religions are manifestations of a single set of universal truths. This is taking a more deistic than theistic path (and the folks that believe this way are ever so much more pleasant humans to be around than their more fanatical brethren). But such open-minded believers are hardly the problem now, are they?
What I’m working toward here is the more committed believer: the individual who takes it all very seriously and (poor bastard) tries to make life work according the particular faith story he or she has been told. This, of course, is where things start to break down.
For like I said, believing in something greater than ourselves is easy — in the sense that it comes quite naturally to us humans — but faith, with a capital “F”, turns out to be another kettle of (walking) fish altogether. If people were to be completely honest about their experience, we would find that few, if any, are able to actually make their “faith” work as they were told or taught it should.
Again, the most obvious (if least-explored) answer to this is that there is nothing (no-thing) out there to believe in, which means there are no actual external, invisible agents working on our behalf. Which means that the believer who is trying to put his or her faith into practice is, as it were, carrying both ends of the sofa up some very steep and narrow stairs (while the buddy that is believed to be on the other end carrying his half of the load is A.W.O.L). No wonder living a Christian (or other religious) life as it is supposed to be lived is so challenging.
I have known (and know) people who make a very good go of it, nonetheless. But those that are “successful” (in my experience) either learn to temper their expectations in order to avoid becoming completely out of sync with the reality of life, or isolate themselves in a community of like-minded believers that have little (if any) tolerance for deviation from the mutually-agreed-upon religious story they are trying to live out.
And those are the “successful” ones. But, of course, they are not “successful” at all, because the religion they bought into simply cannot supply what it promised. No. In a very real way, maintaining religious faith is a ongoing project of managing disappointment.
And yet relatively few believers take the ultimate step of leaving their religion (and its impossible challenges) behind. It could be, as Christopher Hitchens posits, that the very impossibility of living the perfect religious life is part of its appeal to us humans, as it provides some circular confirmatory evidence of our status as flawed creatures in need of such salvation from above. I think there is merit in this notion of religion’s appeal to the fervent believer. But every once in a while even one of those believer says “enough” and breaks ranks. I was one of those. (But I can tell you it took a lot of disappointments before I took that step, and even when I did — after 15 years of serious belief, and a lifetime of a casual belief in God — it was more as if God left me than I left Him: I woke up one morning in a universe absent one Supreme Being).
There is an ongoing tension among the religious between those who live their lives in a “simple” (easy) belief in the existence of God and those who are working their asses off to live (impossibly) according to whatever religious text they take as gospel. You can hear it expressed on Christian radio any day of the week, this railing of the “true” against the “lukewarm” believers (taking here the Evangelical Christian example I know best). I get this: the fundamentalist feels like he or she is doing all the work (like the TEA Party folks who see themselves as doing all the work while imagined “illegal-imigrant-welfare mothers” just pick up check after check from the government).
No wonder the idea of ultimate judgement in the “next” world is so appealing: all such unfairness will be redressed, and the poor believer’s thankless task of making the impossible workable will at last be rewarded.
But will it?. There is — when it is all said and done — absolutely no evidence for the existence of anything invisible, intelligent or active outside of our own consciousnesses. In the end, the only “evidence” we have for our faith is, well, our faith. And the absence of any active partner in the endeavor is, I think, what makes faith itself so difficult to maintain.
It’s been an unusually busy Summer of work over at my “day job” (that of an independent artist). I just completed about 1400 square feet of mural for a local elementary school (the school is named after the well-known astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh — “the discoverer of Pluto”). Now I know just enough about astronomy to know that any attempt to show planets, stars, spacecraft and such in any realistic distance relationship would be madness to an artist attempting to create a visually arresting work of art (even the “near” objects in our own solar system are so damned far away it is mind-boggling). So I just put things where I wanted them: some extremely (and dramatically) “close up”, and others not-so-close up.
I’m expecting criticism from actual astronomers, but that’s okay. I understand there is a difference between the “art” I created and what I might actually see if I were able to travel across the incredible distances of space.
But — like everything else about our existence — we don’t actually picture the universe as it is (vast distances filled mostly with, well, “dark stuff”). When asked to think of the universe, pictures of planets, asteroids, nebulae and star clusters immediately pop into my head. My mind goes to the details of familiar objects (assisted in no small measure by the fabulous images our national space program has supplied for us to feast on over the last forty years).
The truth I’m after here is that we are surrounded at every turn by realities on a scale that can freeze up our mammalian brains (like shaking an old pinball machine into “tilt” mode). The latest to challenge my brain is the fact that our planet does not (according to a renowned planetary geologist I know) have the resources to fuel a spacecraft that could possibly reach any other planet that is (potentially or actually) home to life like ours. And conversely (since we must assume that other planets would be similarly limited, made as they are of the same cosmically-available building materials that our own Earth is) there is not another planet in the entire universe that can reach us.
In short — we may not actually be alone in the universe, but for all practical purposes, we are all alone in the universe.
And I could ask which is more mind-blowing: the fact that there is a statistical probability that there are other planets similarly placed and gifted like ours out there that could have evolved life? Or that we will never, ever know about it?
I think about these sorts of things on a regular basis. (Not all the time, of course, as my brain is as limited as any other human’s, and can only go so far afield before it encounters severe discomfort). But each time I pick up an interesting rock, I realize that just about any random pebble I might kick off the sidewalk has enough history in it to disprove any young-earth creation theory, and just about every religious creation myth.
Our problem is not a lack of evidence for evolution and the scientific theories regarding biology, the big bang, and everything else: our problem is that we are surrounded by, immersed in, and incapable of escape from the evidence of our ancient and natural origins. (As a rather glaring and profound example of “evolution in action”, consider the recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control that the Gonorrhea bacterium has been developing resistance to the antibiotics we have be using to treat it!)
Perhaps it is because the evidence has always been with us that we can somehow choose to continue to be blind to it. We have had our entire history to make up stories about the occasional randomly shaped rock formation or cloud (and have had just the right kind of brains to believe our own stories). Religion and mystical thought have been with us for as long as we can remember. Science — true experimental, methodical science — however, has been with us for only a short time, and though we should be praising it for what it has finally revealed to us about the things that concern us most (where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here), instead science is too often treated as a blasphemous crusade led by greedy, godless villains in lab coats.
We humans are brilliant idiots. We are clearly the most clever and innovative animals to ever populate the earth, yet in some ways we “deserve” whatever eventual extinction awaits us. But then, we also “deserve” whatever life we have while we have it. After all, each of us that is here today is a survivor of the eons-long struggle for existence that began with the very first living organism on the planet. Within your DNA is that unbroken thread that has stretched through millions — hundreds of millions — of years, and is living and reproducing and mutating and adapting still.
And that knowledge alone is enough to blow another circuit in the brain.
In reality, the vastness of space is no more difficult to fully comprehend than is the biology of our own bodies. Both are impossible. But we can achieve a certain understanding if we’ll try. If we can open our brain up a little bit to ponder things (that we know from the start we will not completely grasp) we can, eventually, come to terms with our place in the cosmos.
There are vast swaths of our own galaxy that we will never penetrate with telescope or spacecraft. There are questions about our own animal evolution that will never be answered (we are never going to amass and confirm, for instance, a collection of all of the fossilized animals in our direct line — and anyone who insists on these kinds of results from science is a fool). The fact is that we know enough – no: we know way more than enough — to see what we truly are: evolved animals on a small planet that is off in one corner of a single galaxy swimming in a sea of other galaxies in a universe that is still expanding from an explosion that began billions of years ago.
That is enough wonder for me. Next to that reality, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God is just, well, not worth considering. The creation stories of religion lose all of their explanatory appeal when compared with the reality of our actual “creation”, and have therefore long ago lost any scientific credibility (though they retain a certain narrative and historical richness).
As for me, I choose to live a life enriched by the knowledge that so many scientists have worked so hard to bring to me. I don’t care that every experiment has not produced perfect results, or that scientists don’t always get it right, because the process of science is valid and is, it turns out, the best thing we humans have come up with to determine reality. And even that very human-scale achievement blows my mind. Again and again.
If I criticize religious belief as irrational (which I clearly do), it is for two reasons. For one, I see little good that can come from believing things that are not true (especially when there is so much that is verifiably true to ponder with awe). For another, I think that there is a genuine benefit to us both as individuals and as a society in seeing ourselves for the rather surprising (and challenged) evolved animals that we now know ourselves (through science) to be. One of those benefits includes releasing ourselves from unreasonable expectations that can flow from the notion that we are striving for a God-created “perfection” (which also releases us from the false burden of “Eden’s” legacy of irreparable damage: that we were “perfect” before we screwed things up). Though it can be a frightening and difficult transition to move from belief to such an “acceptance”, I would not propose such if I had not done it myself, having found, on the other side, a whole new world that is rich, satisfying and, well, real.
But here I have to be honest about that “other world”. Because it is “real” it can leave one feeling a bit, well, exposed. To borrow one popular metaphor, it leaves one without a familiar “backstop”. (Well, at least the sort of “backstop” most of us have been used to). But in the larger scheme of things what we are talking about is the loss of something that never was in the first place (so we lose, in fact, nothing). We only thought it was there: a god in the sky — in some form or other — watching over us. What we hoped for in moments of desperation was that there was someone with more strength and power out there who would nevertheless look kindly upon us and lend us a hand once in a while. (What can be most unsettling is the realization of just how dependent we social primates are upon each other, and the sense of vulnerability that comes with such a realization. This was the most unexpected surprise in my journey of discoveries).
I should also make clear the distinction that when I use the term “irrational” I don’t mean that it is crazy or idiotic to believe (or want to believe) in such things. By irrational I mean any belief that is unsupported by (or denies strong contradictory) evidence. Personally, I understand the urge to believe. I think it’s almost impossible to be a conscious human being and not understand this. When I heard the bone in my foot break last December, I felt an instant and instinctual urge to ask any thing that might be listening to turn back time just a couple of minutes (really, now, is that so much to ask?). But even in that moment, I recognized that such a plea arose from deep in my animal psyche (that part of my consciousness that recognized that I was suddenly a deeply injured animal that could not run from danger if he had to). But that deep animal part of our brains speaks in wordless bursts that are thrust up through the cognitive strata of our middle and higher brain that must then turn animal terror into actual thoughts, words and concepts.
It is this ancient animal mind that is, I think, is the deeper wellspring of our religious beliefs.
You and I are no longer the “lizards” for whom we name this deep, survival part of our brain. But it is good that we have such concepts in our “modern” world to remind us that though we have left our lizard (or fish, or shrew or monkey) lives far in our past, we yet carry a deep and present legacy of the brains we began with. In a very real (anatomical and cognitive) way, we are fish riding bicycles, lizards driving cars and monkeys at typewriters clacking out Hemingway novels.
So where (and why, and how) did “religion” enter the picture? Like so many things in our prehistoric past, we can never know when a particular cultural moment occurred. We can only guess when the first human had the first spiritual thought. And by spiritual, I mean the first moment that we had an experience of something like ourselves existing, invisibly, outside of our physical selves. (The “like ourselves” part is a crucial clue to the source of our divine beings, by the way). But knowing what I do about how our brains work (and having the sense I now have of the continuum of biological life) it is not difficult at all to imagine a moment when our first ancestors began to use their first words to describe their world. No, this is not where religion began, for an animal does not need to have verbal language to act as if there are mysterious forces at work around them (again, I return to Hannah Holmes’ example dog barking at the vacuum cleaner as an example of an animal version of believing in “god”). We humans are different only in that we have an added layer of processing brain that has filtered these animal “beliefs” into coherent concepts that can be shared between ourselves.
And that is the key to belief: a story must be made of an experience, as a sort of “vehicle” for the transmission (and maintenance) of any belief. This is perhaps why Richard Dawkins refers to such universally-transmittable ideas as “memes” that can move through us (and evolve and adapt) in a manner that is very similar to that of a virus. And as far as that goes, it matters surprisingly little whether the story is true (just as it matters naught if a virus is “good” for us), it only matters that enough of us agree on the plausibility of the story to keep it in circulation.
It is, in fact, this form of human agreement that is the glue that holds us social animals together: we tend to clump together with those who have chosen to believe the same stories we do. I think this even goes down to the level of couples who create a story of their own relationship. At this level, who can say what is “true” or not — what matters most is the agreement. When our stories diverge, so can our connections to others around us. (Look what happens when an evangelical preacher starts to declare that there is no hell, or a politician stands up for an opponent who is being unfairly accused — suddenly they are ostracized as outsiders by those who only a moment before would have defended them to extreme ends).
All this to say that belief is something that has been with us for a long, long time. And not just as humans, but even before. So there is no reason to think that it will go away soon, or ever. For the biology that created belief is our own biology, and from that we cannot escape. However — and this is perhaps the most remarkable (and, I might argue, the most interesting) thing — it seems that we can use these brains of ours to escape irrational belief! It’s worth a try, at least. For though religion permeates the minds of humans all over the globe, there are entire worlds awaiting discovery that religion has never — and can never — know.