Posts Tagged ‘christianity’

SERMON: “Daddy Dearest” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 4th, 2012
The “scarlet A” that has become a symbol for the atheist “coming out” campaign.

Today I lingered for a moment on a syndicated Christian radio program as the host interviewed her guest.  I listened as they reached their consensus that the explanation for atheism was the deep hurt of a father who “wasn’t there” in the atheist’s youth.  They used (my beloved) Christopher Hitchen’s pronouncement that any tales of his deathbed conversion (he only recently died of cancer) should not be believed.  The man on the other side of the radio interview said these words made him want to “crawl under my desk — for man is designed to be with God”.  To these two Christians, then, the only explanation for not believing in God was the disappointment of a disappointing “earthly” father, not reason, not evidence, none of that nonsense.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run across this idea.  If I tell an evangelical Christian that I don’t believe in God, they will almost invariably become instantly sympathetic, moved, even, as they struggle to imagine the magnitude of hurt I must have experienced that “drove me away” from God.  (It’s of little consequence to them that the entire construct of that question presupposes the existence of an actual God that I could be hurt by, or disappointed in.  But that is another matter).

Having considered and studied the nature of belief for some time, it now seems to me that belief in God is a natural part of being human.  True, belief is not quite universal among our species, but the majority of humans do believe in some power “greater than themselves” (and by this they don’t mean the powerful forces of nature).  It’s been an interesting experiment to be among the minority in this regard (and in the minority of even that minority of unbelievers by virtue of identifying myself an atheist, as opposed to agnostic).

One part of this “non-spiritual” adventure of mine is experiencing the social aspect of being in this non-religious minority within a broadly religious majority culture.  But another aspect of the adventure is the challenge of being one of those humans who — unlike some of my atheist brethren — found belief to be fairly easy to go along with until it was no longer a tenable conceptual framework.  In other words, I seemed to be quite able and willing to believe…right up to the moment I realized that God didn’t actually exist.

But that has put me in a challenging cognitive spot: between a rock and hard place, as it were.  For it would appear that I have an evolved brain that is (like the brains of the believing majority) actually wired to believe (to conjure meaningful patterns from random events by selective emphasis) and yet I am currently not actively engaging that part of my brain.  So you could say that I am, in a sense, at odds with my own biology!

But I also have what could be classified as a “critical” brain.  And I don’t mean that in a completely negative sense.  I think it is precisely my critical capacity — combined with a curiosity (perhaps bequeathed to me by my own earthly father)  — that has made me the artist and writer that I am.  After all, to progress at all in any art or profession, one must develop the capacity to evaluate one’s own performance, which in my case meant finding a balance between developing a cold eye for searching out mistakes or weaknesses in my work, and a genuine appreciation for the products of my own particular talent.  But it may well be that a brain like mine — so well tuned for creating art — is not the best brain for living in a world of belief.  In other words, having the brain that I have, perhaps my declension from belief was as inevitable as my acquisition of it in the first place!

When my Christianity came to an end, I felt like a hard-rock miner who had been manning a clattering drill for fifteen years who had suddenly broken through a rock wall that, instead of leading to an open chamber, was actually the last bit of crust on the other side of the earth, and so I found myself suddenly tumbling off into the vast void of God-less space.  In time I began to look in wonder at Christians who had believed in God all of their lives (and would likely believe until they died).  How could they do it?  Was it simply a function of my determined personality that turned the seemingly virtuous trait of getting-to-the-bottom-of-things into a boring-a-hole-right-through-an-entire-belief-system character flaw?

Could be.

But getting back to the sympathetically vapid stance of our two radio people, I can honestly tell tell them that I have no beef with God.  (But, based on my experience with such discussions, I don’t think they would be quite able to grasp what that really means).  Like when a young friend recently asked me what my chief complaint was with God.  Well, I would have to answer that I have no “complaint” with God, because, well, God does not exist as a real thing that I could have a real complaint with or about.  The question itself is built upon the same presuppositions as the “bad-daddy” atheism cause I described above.

And this is where I must make a diversion into an area where things get really tricky.

So far, we’ve tended (historically) to see things in one of two ways: 1) God exists, and we were created by Him to know Him, and it is an act of sinful “will” to ignore or deny this reality; or 2) There is no god (never was), and we just made him up anyway (and so it logically follows that we can unmake him up just as easily).  But I’m coming to see that it’s more complicated than that.  For religious belief is based on a particular approach to interpreting naturally-occuring phenomenon, that is itself built on the natural cognitive structure of our evolved pattern-seeking (and highly social) brains.  This means that what we are really talking about is a difference in the interpretation of actual phenomenon, not in the existence (or validity) of that phenomenon.  So that when we say that God doesn’t exist, the believer thinks we mean that the phenomenon that a believer uses to support his or her belief doesn’t exist, (and they simply KNOW that this is bullshit).  And I suspect that a lot of atheists make that subtle, but critical, mistake in their argument.  But as I’ve come to say: “I believe in the phenomenon, I just don’t believe in the religious interpretation of it”.

And so when I listen to folks like those on the radio today, I hear people creating an entire argument in an imaginary space that never has to make contact with reality, only with a certain shared perception of it.  And the theories and questions and challenges that emerge from that cloud end up being of no practical use to someone like me.  There is no point of useful engagement with such notions.  Threats of divine judgement are not ignored by the non-believer out of some injured-child defiance, but because they are hollow threats.  There is nothing to back them up and, therefore, nothing to get riled about.

There are multiple levels to human behavior, and they are woven together in an way that makes their untangling a tricky thing.  But this shouldn’t be surprising, for isn’t that the way of all of nature?  Ecosystems and animals live in a highly interdependent dance such that any slight change in any part of that system can trigger a cascade of unforeseen consequences.  And so it is with us humans when belief is removed from the cognitive equation.  It may just turn out to be that unbelief is an unnatural state to some of us!  This could be part of the explanation for why there aren’t more non-believers than there are: on some instinctual level folks understand the risk of leaving the security of the group think.  But then we are also curious, reasoning animals, and I am certainly not the first (or only) human to come to the conclusion that he’s been believing a bunch of silliness with no basis in fact or evidence.

But then this, to me, makes the argument against God even more compelling.  For even here there is a natural explanation that is consonant with other observable realities.  Belief in God then is not merely a delusion, but a particular kind of illusion that is custom-fit to our mode of thinking and feeling.  This, too, points to the natural evolutionary origins of belief far more than it points to an actual God.  But to understand such ideas, someone in the embrace of active religious belief would have to take several significant steps back before gaining any kind of useful perspective.  And this is an action that few, it seems, are willing to take.

So the atheist recognizes the reality of the world offered by science, but must then persevere through the discomforts of living a godless life with a brain “built” for belief, whereas the believer indulges in the easy comforts of a fantastical (yet custom-tailored) mindscape of that belief.  Two different yet related modes of human existence as we navigate our way through the remarkable fact of our existence on this planet.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Witnessing for Darwin” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

I wondered whether it would be prudent to keep my little brass “bob bless” pin on the lapel of my sport coat as I worked my way through security at the airport.  Would that quarter-inch of pin welded on the back be seen as a potentially deadly weapon?  Apparently, I need not have been concerned (though two screeners did get a chuckle after close inspection of my solid-bronze Dimetrodon skull belt buckle).

As the jet powered up and began rolling down the runway, I was like a kid again, thinking “Whee!  I’m on a jet!”.  The pilot in me noted how long it took for the jet to rotate up into the air, and felt the dramatic clunk of the wheels coming up.  I watched the ground drop further and further below me, until I could see the random “pattern” of the distinctive clumps of mesquite bushes on the desert floor.  I wondered if someone else would look for a pattern of divine design in the obvious spacing between the plants.  What I assumed I was observing were the natural limits on proximity dictated by the features of those particular plants in that particular environment.  I made a mental note to read up on how desert plant spacing is determined.

When cloud cover obscured the ground, I returned to reading an essay on early human evolution.  And as I read about the evidence for when our hominid ancestors first began using tools (about 6 million years ago), I couldn’t help but see myself at the leading end of that ancient process that, at a certain point, really began to speed up (in this case, up to about 600 miles per hour!).

My "bob bless" pin.

It’s difficult to imagine that we were once not much better at using tools than modern chimpanzees are today (they use rocks to crack nuts, stripped twigs and spit to draw termites out of logs).  But that’s how we were.  For us humans, however, the use of tools turned out to be the beginning of a major shift in our evolutionary direction.  For at this point in our history, we began our dependence on technology that continues to this day.  The morphological implications were huge — for our reliance on tools seems to have had a great deal to do with our bipedalism.  And one thing led to another until we no longer needed the natural defense systems of apes (for instance, we lost our protruding canines as we relied more and more on defensive weapons of our own design, and as the need for massive chewing muscles went out with our increased consumption of meat and the added calories available from cooked food, our brain cases could increase in size).

Over millions of years we continued to evolve as tool-using primates until there came a point (some 300,000 years ago) when we hominids were all cooking our food over fires and hafting flaked stone points to wooden spears.  This is the point in history where our brains stopped increasing in size (having likely reached the limit of size that would still allow human mothers to deliver their big-brained babies)  and we were likely talking to each other in some form of language.  After this point, our technological and social progress took a series of dramatic turns that led to our more recent “Neolithic revolution” and then the modern industrial/technical age we now find ourselves in.

I stood in the aisle of the jet as we flew on into the night, heading further east, and pondered the physics that allowed me to be standing with relative ease on an assemblage of human-designed and manufactured parts, all of which (along with dozens of my fellow humans) were rocketing along some 30,000 feet above the earth.  I looked at my fellow hominids, and noted how all were focused on some task or conversation or asleep.  And I couldn’t help but think how we take all of our progress for granted, as if we have always been so insulated from the challenges of life in a natural world.

Back in Dallas, the greeter at the cafe I ate in had asked me about my “bob bless” lapel pin.  I told him about the church of bob, and he said he wasn’t very religious himself, but his girlfriend had a job at a Christian camp, and that if she were to reveal to them that she accepted anything Darwinian, she’d lose her job.  “And she really likes her job” he said.  “But how can they ignore it [the science]?”, he asked.  I gave him some encouraging words about science, and the name of the church of bob’s website, and felt like any other evangelist on the road.

Despite the similar sensations of that exchange, however, science is not — as I’ve said before — religion.  I may be an atheist, but science is not atheistic.  The religious say science is atheistic only because science will not support their system of non-evidential beliefs.  Science is attacked not because science attacks God (it is, in fact, neutral), but because it does not actively support Him.  There is a huge difference.

Creationists use examples such as a jet liner to show how such a machine infers a designer.  This is correct, of course.  But to take that idea of “design inference” and apply it to nature is another thing altogether, and it simply does not work.  All attempts to prove this sort of “intelligent design” are pure pseudo-science, and absolutely no different than astrology, reading tea leaves or alchemy.  Creationism is always an argument from ignorance, in that it takes refuge in the notion that because a phenomenon is not yet scientifically explained, it must, therefore, be divine in origin.  The key word in that sentence is “not yet scientifically explained”.

There may well be things that we will never be able to explain through science.  However, it is wise to note the many times in our recent history when it was proclaimed that we were at the end of what the sciences could reveal.  Each time, science has found a way.  (And, I would note, each time that science finds a way, at least one existing religious explanation has fallen into obscurity — hence the antipathy of religion to science as general debunker of false claims).

It’s as hard, perhaps, to accept that I’m flying at 600 miles per hour, 30,000 feet over the ground as that I am evolved up from a fish-like ancestor that couldn’t even dream of having hands that would grasp a stone-tipped spear (much less write on a laptop computer in an airport terminal, as I am right now).  But, then, how could our ancestors have imagined any of this?  I can accept that I am really in a jet because I’m actually flying on one.  In the same way I have to accept that I am an evolved species because I really do exist, and the evidence for my origins is now known to me.

The challenge for us living humans, then — at least when it comes to accepting our natural origins — is not imagining the here and now so much as trying to imagine ourselves back then.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Easter Bunnies and the Plaster Jesus” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Easter Sunday is here.  The most “glorious” event in the Christian calendar.  (Believers say this, I think, to counter the persistent popularity of Christmas among the non-believers).

My teenage memories of Easter are less of glory and more of getting up before dawn to sing in a small choir (or play guitar) at a sunrise service and freezing my ass off.  (This at a time when I could say that I saw about three sunrises a year: Easter, one day during deer-hunting season, and a “floater”).

Easter is, of course, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Three days after his crucifixion and burial, he came back to life (albeit in a new, eternal form) and appeared to his disciples, thus confirming his claim to be the only son of God.

Or so the story goes.  Of course, as brilliant wags like Christopher Hitchens point out, even if we grant the resurrection event, it does not automatically prove any of the things Christians claim it proves (that Jesus was the son of God, that God is real, that Christianity is the one true religion, etc.).  The fact of a dead person coming back to life would definitely be an event and a phenomenon, but science would be still be left to determine what it actually “meant”.

The pagan and the sacred, side by side for Easter.

But Christians put a lot of stock in Easter.  It is trotted out as the single most vital piece of confirmatory evidence.  Without it — they will freely proclaim — Christianity would have no more moral claim on you and me than Amway.  But there’s the problem: religion doesn’t have a moral claim on any of us, no matter who may (or may not) have risen from the dead.

Before resorting to the obvious — that there is no evidence of any actual resurrection (of Jesus or anyone else) — let us step back from jumping the narrative gun and make sure that we don’t buy into the game as rigged by the religious.

The world of religious faith (and its “evidential” claims) is a human-created world in which the questions have been carefully shaped to fit the answers religion can provide.  That is how the validity of an entire belief system can be seen to actually hang on whether or not a single unusual event took place (in this case: Jesus rising from the dead).  And the resurrection is, of course, a question of faith.  And it is this faith test that is used to determine whether one is a Christian or not (according to accepted Christian teaching, only the devil will deny the risen Christ, and only a believer can affirm it).

Science (and more specifically evolution) on the other hand, does not have quite the same dramatic “do or die” belief structure.  Science does require that we accept certain things, such as a general trust that there is a reality to observe and that we do, in fact, have some ability to perceive that reality.  But beyond that it is all evidence, evidence, evidence.  Which means that “science” is not denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, it is just waiting for the evidence before coming to any conclusions.  Believers begin with the conclusions, and therefore have little to no tolerance for the endless follow-up questions that scientific rigor generates.

For though science would never claim that it is completely impossible for a dead human to live again (god knows many scientifically-minded people have tried to make that happen), we can’t help but be aware of the vast amounts of research and evidence that tells us why a dead body is, in fact, dead, or describes the rapidity with which a human brain, say, goes to crap once blood flow is stopped.

The believer might ask “What about our fellow humans who have had “near death” experiences?”  I think the answer is already there in the term “near death”.  They may have been near it, even very, very near it, but they weren’t there yet.  If they had been, they would have been, well, dead, and we’d hear nothing more about it.  (It’s like that old saw that we only hear from those whose prayers to be spared from death were answered — the others aren’t around to tell their stories).

What we clearly have here is individuals under physical stress (and perhaps actually near death) who have dramatic cognitive experiences that feel very real.  Well, of course they are real experiences.  Only a fool would deny that.  However, having said that, if nothing else something as common as our nightly dreams should tell us that our experience of reality is assembled inside our brains, so why shouldn’t a purely internal, mechanistic brain event have all the power of physical reality?

What am I saying here?  That these experiences never happened?  Of course not.  Of course they happened, but not generally in the way people think they happened (as in seeing an angel that was an actual, physical angel as opposed to the much more likely error of perception) and are, therefore, not genuine evidence of what the believers would want us to believe (just as Jesus rising from the dead — though a doubtful event — would not necessarily prove his religious claims).

Evolution, on the other hand, is an answer that has had to come from questions we didn’t even know to ask until we began to notice the evidence around us.  The theory of evolution is built completely on the study of reality, and once we had enough evidence to begin to form the theory, subsequent discoveries have only proved to confirm it.  Reality is like that: it does not require bending, shaping or shading to fit with itself (as religion does).  Science is the process of steadily stripping away any vestige of human perceptual error in order to ascertain as clearly as possible the nature of reality.  Religion is the encouragement of perceptual error in a directed way for a specified end.  (This is an example of what Michael Shermer calls “belief-dependent realism”).

In this sense science and religion could not be more different.  Religion conjures up imitations of evidence.  Why?  Because the actual evidence does not lead us to religion.

Maybe I’m just a sourpuss because I always had to work kind of hard to get into the wonder of Easter.  Though, to be honest, I think a lot of us who have tried to make religion work did (as many surely still do).  We all knew how we were supposed to feel (how could we not, we were clearly being told how magnificent the event was) but struggled to feel it ourselves.  But that is the consistent problem of religious belief: there are always a handful who appear to be able to make it work, while the rest of us put on the game face and try to apprehend the wonder that continues to elude us most of the time.

I probably hit these subjects too hard.  After all, most of my friends are gentle believers who don’t take themselves too seriously.  And things such as today’s sight of pagan Easter decorations of chicks and bunnies on a house that had a four foot statue of Jesus on the porch serve to remind me that most of humanity is pretty omnivorous when it comes to belief (much to the consternation of the fundamentalist minorities).

Maybe I’m kind of that wheedling preacher when it comes to evolution — a bit too much like those I criticize.  Except that I don’t expect others to find it all as interesting and comforting as I do.  And I certainly don’t expect them to meet me before sunrise on a frigid April morning to sing songs and hear a sermon when all any of us really want to do is get to the hot chocolate and find a warm place to sit.

At its heart, perhaps Easter is a sort of calcified human wish for magic and wonder and hope.  Maybe that is what all organized religion is: a too closely-managed, top-heavy edifice built upon innate human impulses toward mystical belief.  As the pagan Easter Bunny sharing the yard with a plaster Jesus attest, that impulse toward belief will always be a part of us.  But as the bunny and the Jesus also attest, those same impulse will never be completely domesticated by any church or temple.  Like the blades of grass that sprout up through pavement and concrete, they will rise again and again and again.

Happy Easter!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Great Disappointment” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

“Burden of proof lies with the atheist, who must disprove the overwhelming evidence for a Creator who is immensely powerful, eternal, and personal. Simply put, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”

This was a recent post by a friend on a social media site.  I pondered several responses to it, but decided to leave it be.  The problem with the answers I came up with weren’t that they wouldn’t hold up as argument, but that I kept composing them in the same sort of clever manner as the original statement.  I was writing bumper stickers to answer another bumper sticker.  And as we all know, that is a sort of never-ending smarty-pants arms race that is rarely “won”.

That being said, the original statement is worth picking apart, for it is (at its clever heart) emblematic of the truths with a small “t” that religion offers that are, in the end, swallowed up by Truth with a huge, honking capital “T” (like the small fish that is swallowed by the larger fish only to be consumed by an REALLY LARGE great white shark).

So what about the “burden of proof” that opens the statement?  Actual logic is turned upon its head here as it is the theist who is making the larger claim, and, therefore, must provide the greater burden of evidence — evidence which the second part of that sentence claims is self-evident in such a way as to make obvious the “powerful, eternal and personal” nature of God.  The final sentence is a clever turn of the never-out-of-style “I know you are but what am I” argument, which begs the atheist to begin his or her response with a statement of his or her own faith, such as “No, it doesn’t take much faith at all’.

(“Aha!” yodels the theist, “You just admitted that you employ FAITH!  See — atheism IS a religion after all!”).

The fundamental problem here is the underlying fallacy of any argument that determines the truth of a matter by how deeply one believes in a particular answer (as in “I believe in God with all my heart, and you only believe in science with your mind.  I win!”)  Clearly, the question rises from an assumption of belief-as-proof, and therefore the arguer feels completely comfortable dismissing the atheist’s deficit in the “faith” department even as he is not shy about painting that very same non-faith-based idea as a “religion”.  You can have your angel cake and eat it too, apparently.

Of course atheism is not a religion (this does not mean that no humans treat it as such, or that no atheists exhibit religious-like behaviors).  But then again, there is a strain in evangelical Christianity that is fond of denying that its own religion is, well, religion at all.  This usually takes the form (in argument) of a rather meaningless statement like “Christianity’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”.  Which seems to me to be sort of like saying “The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. is not a government, it’s a relationship”.

True enough, I guess, on some level.  But what does that really mean?

The truth (in a lower-case “t” sense) is that we social humans engage in a wide variety of polite fictions that allow us to rub up against each other with a minimum of violence and friction in a crowded, complex society.  One of these fictions is an allowance for the varieties of religious belief (that we may well — privately at least — think of as silly or even dangerous).  Even one such as I finds myself reflexively addressing a priest or nun as “Father” or “Sister”.  It just seems polite, if ludicrous.  (Sort of like a grown-up version of calling a child by whatever super hero name he wants to be called that week).

But what galls the non-believers in a society (something most believers just don’t get) is when those to whom we extend these social niceties take things a step further and insist that such deference is not a gift we give each other, but a duty that all citizens must pay to the enlightened (or “chosen”) few (who are almost always convinced that they know what God wants everyone else to do).  These people we refer to as “fundamentalists”, and they come in all flavors of belief, though they are all, essentially, the same.  (Which is why a white, American Christian evangelical fundamentalist has much more in common with an Arab Muslim fundamentalist than she might be willing to admit.  If they should ever get past their hangup on who’s founder was the more divine, they would be a terrible combined force to reckon with!).

To bring together, now, the threads of the original quote with our use of polite social fictions, the bare, naked Truth of it all is this: the ONLY evidence for the existence of a “powerful, eternal and personal” God is our belief that such a God exists.  Absolutely nothing in nature that we humans have ever discovered has given us any support for the notion.  It is only the cognitive power of belief-dependent realism that bends reality into the shape of the divine.

The deeply religious (and here I think mostly of the evangelical or fundamentalist branches of belief) regularly criticize humanists and environmentalists and animal-rights activists as having made themselves (or nature) into their God.  This, to a theist, is idolatry.  And were it not for that pesky New Testament, such sins of misattribution-of-divine-power could be punished in the old-fashioned way: stoning.  But here is just one more of the huge ironies that the fundamentalist carries without complaint:  it is the fundamentalist that has, in fact, turned nature into God, not the humanist (environmentalist, animal rights activist, etc).

Think about it for a moment:  The religious believer looks at the products of billions of years of completely natural (yet nonetheless wondrous) processes of chemistry, geology and biology and personifies them into the actions of a single individual.  This is the small fish gobbling up the smaller fish, and feeling quite satisfied with itself.  But the truth of nature turns out to be the great white shark of reality that consumes all attempts to reduce it to a size and level of complexity sufficient to be contained within the idea of “God”.

Make no mistake.  Nature is a wonder.  The human body (for all of its odd quirks, switched-off DNA, and systems borrowed from our earlier bodily forms) is a wonder as well.  The existence of human consciousness is a mystery that we have begun to understand, but can not yet fully fathom or explain.  There is yet room in this world for awe and bewilderment, even in the age of science.

But unless the God who made it all possesses a peculiar and perverse sense of humor — of the kind that would make him create a universe, earth and life comprehensible only as the product of a messy and ancient constellation of natural processes (like the ultimate “trickster” god) and then demand that one species of primates (us) see past this deep catalog of misdirection and notice him lurking in the background — then there is most likely no God at all.

To many humans this would be a great disappointment, as if the fish they thought was the biggest one in the ocean turned out not to be.  But take heart: I can tell you from experience that there are greater wonders awaiting those who move beyond the spell of belief.

Religion is a world view that reduces nature to the size of God.  Because God — contrary to what most believers think — is not the biggest idea a human can have.  It is, in reality, an idea that exercises our capacities for understanding while remaining yet small enough for us to grasp: a means of compressing the vast incomprehensibility of nature into the form of a person…like us.  If the continuing resistance to the broad acceptance of the (more unsettling) discoveries of science has taught us one thing about our selves, it is that the human mind clearly evolved to deal quite well with its local environment, but is only very modestly capable of grasping things such as the depth of geological time, the vastness of the known universe or our own biological evolution.  But there is no shame in recognizing the limitations of our animal brains.  After all — as far as we can tell — we’re the only living things ever to have existed that have reached a stage of cognitive development to even struggle with such enormous ideas!

So no, it does not take a special amount of faith to not believe in God.  What it does take is a certain amount of courage to face the enormous profundity of nature.  In that there is no disappointment.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

SERMON: “Exploring a Universe Beyond Belief” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

At times it feels as if I could be a small, human-sized probe hurling silently through the universe, looking back toward my earthly home and noting, from time to time, how differently it looks from an ever-increasing remove (something like that remarkable American Museum of Natural History animation that offers a mind-altering perspective on our place in the vastness of the known universe).  And as I race further from the point where my journey began, I find that my feelings about life on this planet continue to evolve as my increasing knowledge continues to feed my changing perceptions.

I can trace my launch off into existential space to the week I disconnected from the bonds of my religious belief some 25 years ago.  At that moment it felt as if some cosmic rubber bands that were stretched to their limit — and that had been keeping me attached to my beliefs up to that point — were suddenly severed, and all the stored-up energy of years of suppressed questions expelled me into the great, black, existential void of space.  Though it took many more years of floating around within the gravitational pull of belief before I finally slipped out of that particular system into the vastness beyond, my course was set.

The East Coast of the United States as seen from space. NASA photo.

This all sounds a bit hyperbolic, but as a metaphor it is apt and useful.  The truth is that the majority of humans appear to show little or no interest in moving beyond belief, and the constricted perspective that it offers in return for its comforts.  I understand that, because I can tell you from experience that the view from outside that familiar, small world is, indeed, disconcerting.

On the surface, then, that would seem to be an argument in favor of not stepping outside of that believing, comfortable world, except for one tiny problem: reality.

For many of us, the dawning of a spiritual awareness can feel like (and is often promised to be) the one great leap of faith that will ever be required of us.   After all, who ever heard of needing a “second conversion” once you’ve found THE TRUTH?  Well, you’re hearing it here.  It could be argued that human history is a record of the struggle with that second conversion: a conversion from the revealed “truth” of superstition and religious belief to reality.

In part because of the discipline of this blog, the speed of my own flight from belief has only increased, and with that increased speed has come a higher frequency of perspective shifts.  To the end that I have arrived at a sufficient distance from belief to feel like I can now see it both for what it is, and for what it is not.

And what I see in belief is a phenomenon of consciousness, spread across the spectrum of animals that exhibit in in accordance with the sophistication of their evolved brains.  We humans are the big-brained, verbal language-endowed believers, so our beliefs are naturally the more complex (though by no means qualitatively singular in all ways to our species).  But our religious beliefs are completely our own, and have no supporting source anywhere outside of our busy brains.  They are an artifact of our minds, pure and simple.  But of course, our experience of existence is not simple at all, and — artifact or not — belief is a part of that experience.

I don’t think it is my “job” to rid humanity of irrational belief.  I would have to have the egotism of a fundamentalist evangelist to think that a) eliminating belief were a feasible goal, or; b) that I was the one human of such power to accomplish that goal.  I’m afraid I am finding myself more and more in line with the feelings of our late comedian George Carlin when he sees little chance of humankind making any significant alterations in their own path.  This is not necessarily a comfortable existential place to be, but I feel like I am seeing things ever more clearly as I continue to spin out into the space that (it turns out) exists beyond belief.

I often compare my thinking of today to the way I saw the world as a Christian, remembering that Christianity made sense to me then (as it does to many now), and offered some sort of worldview that was workable.  At this more distant remove, however, I can’t see how it could work at all, and most certainly not with the knowledge of science I now have.  I think fundamentalist religion (in particular) functions best, like all irrational belief, in a certain mental environment where curiosity is dampened, and solace valued more than fact.

But to the hyper religious, my views may appear as merely a competing creed, based upon hope, fear and desire (to the same degree that their own faith is).  That is a tough nut to crack, because one always hopes to get it right, and fears getting it wrong and being found out to be a fool.  (Check out this clip of Bill Maher making the point that “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position”).

But I think it’s pretty clear that science (even with all of its faults and false-starts and revision in the face of new evidence) is the best tool we’ve got going to ascertain the nature of reality.  As the comedian Eddie Izzard so funnily put it, science has “Bunsen burners” and all of its other trappings of actual experiment, whereas believers in God have…a book.

The religious (be they old-time or new-age) don’t trust science, in part because it constantly shatters illusion.  They therefore most often accuse it of being too narrow or blind to the kinds of “evidence” that science routinely ignores as unmeasurable (and therefore not evidence at all, but belief).  In short such believers think science has (for it’s own imagined, selfish reasons) set the bar for “evidence” too high, when what science has actually done is reveal to us just how low that “bar” has been for most of our  history.

And so we find ourselves in a modern society in which a majority of our fellow citizens openly distrust science because they continue to value religion.  What can be done in the face of such a dynamic, when there are dozens of “conservative” legislators that would happily de-fund any and all governmental scientific research given the chance?

This is our social reality that fights against the revelation of our true physical reality, be it global climate change, the genetic basis of sexual preference, or the meaninglessness of “race” as a scientific term.

We are an odd bunch of animals, but once we accept that we are, indeed, animals, we are then free to see ourselves as we truly are.  Contrary to the protestations of the religiously devout, such knowledge does not debase us in the least.  It only feels like we are brought down because we have for so long imagined ourselves as creatures that we are not: divinely made, every hair of our head valued by a vast and incomprehensible sky god (that nevertheless inclines his cosmic ear to our every utterance and our every thought).

It takes only a step back to see how absurd such a belief is.  But another step away can bring us into an understanding of why we are so naturally inclined to believe such things in the first place.  One more step away and we can see that such a state will likely continue, and that there will always be this struggle between the humans that have braved their fear to see what really lies behind the mysteries that frighten us, and those that would just rather not know.

Such is our “fate”, I believe.  Like George Carlin I will always carry a glowing coal of hope for humanity within me, and will enjoy the humane, intelligent humor of the likes of Eddie Izzard.  I will be awed by the kind of beautiful AMNH animation that gives form to the knowledge of the cosmos that scientists have fought so hard to accumulate, and look for the ways that I can be a decent human being that does what he can to make the world he can affect as good as it can be.  But I will not suffer under a delusion of my specialness in the vastness of this universe (nor even on this tiny planet).

One’s response to reality will inevitably vary depending on one’s temperament.  Many just plain don’t like it.  That’s their right.  I got into this Quixotic quest in order to figure out my own place in the world, and the rest, as they say, just sort of happened.  I am as self-centered as every other animal that has ever lived.  But thanks to science I can understand, like Cyrano, that in life I “was everything yet was nothing” (everything to me, yet nothing to the universe).  And that’s just the way it is.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON “The Power of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

The promise is as clear and as simple as can be: “God answers prayer”.  All you need to do is ask, and the God of the universe will answer.  So, at some point in your life (with a mixture of fear and anticipation) you try it.

In my case, the first time I did this with adult intention was when I prayed the “sinners prayer”, to “ask Jesus into my heart”.  Did Jesus hear my prayer, and actually enter my heart?  I suppose I did feel different…maybe.  But over time (and with enough encouragement from other believers) I made the decision that that vague “feeling” was, indeed, sufficient evidence of that particular prayer being answered.

And so it began — this awkward un-synchronized ballet of belief and reality.

When we pray (at least as adults) we recognize that we may not know what form the answer will take.  (Frankly, we’re open to any form of answer, as long as it is, indeed, an answer).  But often the answer doesn’t come.  So naturally we ask why.  Usually we ask the person that told us about prayer in the first place.  And this is when the conditions first appear: You have to pray “believing”; You have to make sure you don’t have any unforgiven sin in your life; You have to check your heart to be sure you aren’t holding a grudge against anyone.  If that doesn’t work, you then have to become a sort of prayer analyst: does what I want line up with God’s “perfect” will for me? (I didn’t even know there were categories of God’s will for me, but you soon find out that there are!)

At this stage you might learn that God does, indeed answer prayer, but sometimes the answer is “no”.

What that really means is that sometimes the answer from God is no answer at all, and we are supposed to interpret such silence as “no”, or the cosmic equivalent of the magic eight ball that shows “ask later” when it’s little floating random answer generator shows that phrase in the window.

The "Magic 8 Ball"

(Ask a c.g.i. “Eight Ball” a question HERE).

Bit by bit we learn the complications of prayer, and the once simple process becomes almost baroque in its complexity and yet, despite all of that, the religious will tell you with a straight face that God does, indeed, answer prayer.

The example I have given is based on my experience as a Christian, clearly, but I think it holds for the entire breadth of our human experience of the “spiritual”.  For I’ve come to realize that be it New Age or Old Time Religion, the dilemma is the same: a promise is given from a teacher or sage about how the laws of the spirit world work, and we go off and try them out, then find out they don’t work as promised, and then the explanations begin.

Why do we go along with it?  Why don’t we stone the lying bastards the first time their system doesn’t work?  Good question.

For example, in the Evangelical Charismatic (or “Spirit-filled”) community, individuals regularly stand up during church services babbling in tongues or shouting out what is assumed to be a direct prophecy from God himself (or the Holy Spirit), as the crowd murmurs or shouts “Amens” of approval.  Now most of these “prophetic utterances” are in the same category of vagueness as a horoscope or the insights of a roadside psychic, and are therefore easy to interpret in a way that will very likely line up with some random event.  They are also vague enough (and so much more about the emotion of the moment) as to be easily forgotten.  There is no church agency tasked with tracking the veracity of these prophesies, and for damn good reason: were these citizen prophets to be held accountable based on the veracity of their words, we would be stoning false prophets by the dozens in the streets!

The reality is that we are a believing species, and that believing is such an important part of our social structure that even nonbelievers are loathe to call out all but the most despicable charlatans for their sins against reality.  We want to get along.  No.  More than that, we need to get along (at least within our own community, be it a family, tribe or town).

As I say in one of my films, we are able to find meaning in our stories because we already know the endings.  We tell them front to back, but we know them back to front.  That means that our pattern-seeking brains have had plenty of time to reflect and find all of the seemingly confirmatory details that make a story fit whatever tantalizing bullshit the psychic told us or the amateur prophet shouted at our last prayer meeting.

We are naturally biased toward finding meaning.  This one thing is abundantly clear about our psychology.  We may not recognize this in ourselves because it is so ubiquitous in our species — it is the existential sea we swim in.

Which is why real atheists stick out like very annoying sore thumbs.

The problem with unbelief is that — given the believing nature of our brains — it takes a certain type of vigilance to not give in to that ever-present tendency.  Because the atheist (or non-believer, if you’re more comfortable with that term) understands that the presence of the impulse toward belief does not in itself offer evidence of the existence of any real object of belief (i.e. God), but is much more plausibly an artifact of our highly-evolved social consciousness.

So when it comes to belief, the choice that most people see is between magical thinking and no friggin’ fun at all.  And the atheist feels this — for there is an unsettling sense of vulnerability that comes with recognizing that no-one “up there” is looking out for you after all (and just having that idea can lead you to worry that by not believing, fewer of the good things that used to happen will continue to happen in your life — sort of a “will the sun come up tomorrow if I don’t believe it will?” sort of thing — such is the power of the “believing brain” and our own self-centeredness).

Well, that sucks.  Especially because leaving behind the spell of belief can actually alter your reality in that — because you now view life through lenses a bit less rosy than the ones you left behind — you will see less of the “miraculous” in your life.  (Now it should be noted here that nothing about physical reality has changed, only our perception of it).

And then what do you do as a non-believer when something surprising and unexpectedly positive happens?  At times like that one can feel the residual impulse to thank God or attribute it to “intention”, or “good karma”.  It’s a funny place to be.

For to be an unbeliever is, in a way, to attempt to transcend our animal biology.  I don’t say that lightly, for belief is as strong a biological force as any of our other cognitive functions.

(Maybe non-belief appeals more to certain personality types than others, just like some pilots find flying a single-engine, fixed wing tiny airplane through an unpredictable sky onto a skinny strip of asphalt not challenging enough, and take up flying the uber-complicated and attention-demanding helicopter).

Prayer works as much as anything “magical” works, which is some of the time (which is about what one would expect from randomness, which would be — statistically speaking — about half the time).

So is there nothing to “prayer” at all?  Actually, there is something to it, but it’s not what you’d necessarily expect.

The part of “prayer” that does work is most likely the aspect of speaking things out loud that moves the idea into the part of our brain that processes audible input.  This is probably the part of our consciousness that generates that “still, small voice” in our mind that answers us when we talk to ourselves.  So we do get an “answer”, but that’s hardly a reliable substitute for the promised direct answer to prayer that God was supposed to give.

(And the fact that most humans are ready to attribute that part of their own consciousness to an outside spirit or deity — and that for those with a compromised brain such voices can become truly terrifying and destructive — is another matter).

The truth about the promise that “God answers prayer” is that it just isn’t, well, true.  We would never continue to buy a blender that didn’t blend, or an airplane that didn’t fly, so why do we keep praying to a non-existent God who doesn’t answer us?

We are, indeed, mysterious creatures.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Higher Ground” Sony Pictures Classics.

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

In this remarkable film, directed by (and starring) Vera Farmiga (who was spectacular in the recent “Up in the Air”), the close-knit world of a community of evangelical Christians is shown with a clarity and unflinching faithfulness to that reality that I’ve never seen in a film before.  Because of my shared experience in evangelical Christianity, I found the movie hard to watch at times.  But it was worth watching.

Billed as the story of a woman (Corinne) questioning her faith, I think it is more than that.  It is one woman’s story, yes, but her story is a continuation of her own mother’s tale and is bound to carry on in the lives of her own daughters.  We see the back-story that precedes the main character’s conversion as a young girl, and the later “Road to Damascus” experience that turns her rock and roll musician husband into the Bible-quoting drudge he turns out to be.

It is at this conversion point in the story where time — as it were — is ordered to stand still, and it then becomes a question of how long Corinne can bend to the increasingly stifling intellectual confinement of a religious universe that can not be allowed to expand, lest it explode and fall apart.  But life being what it is, there has to come that moment that tests one’s faith, and we see that moment coming like a slow-moving train wreck.

What happens next is both lyrical and heartbreaking.

I don’t know if this film is for everyone.  It’s not perfect, but it certainly is remarkable, and deserves an audience.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

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!