Posts Tagged ‘daniel dennett’

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

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Paul knocked off his ass by revelation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

When I was a nineteen year-old evangelical Christian in the Coast Guard, a youth minister at the Baptist Church I attended in Alameda, California recommended a book to me.   “The Pursuit of God” (by A.W. Tozer) was one of the few books I ever read that I can clearly point to as being life-altering.  Each chapter was an exercise in giving one’s self up to God, and each in it’s way was frightening, challenging and — ultimately — satisfying.  For I was serious about my belief: if this was, indeed, the way to God, I wanted to know it.

A younger Bob in Coast Guard boot camp: the year I gave up my sword.

The chapter I recall the most was called “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”.  In that chapter I was challenged to think of my most cherished personal possession, and to then surrender its fate to God’s will.  I thought of the antique Civil War saber I had purchased at a junk shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while visiting there with my uncle Ben.  My heart was seized with anguish at this act (if it sounds silly to anguish over a sword, try putting yourself in my position by imagining the one thing in your life you would most fear to lose or — to put a finer point on it — the thing you would most resist giving freely to an enemy or a complete stranger).

The theological basis of this exercise was the notion that everything we have is God’s to begin with, which carried within it the understanding that anything we might be desperate to covet is the very thing God himself might take away from us so that we should have “no other god” in our hearts.  (So: better to surrender it now when its surrender could benefit our soul and stave off a potential “book of Job” moment).

I took the challenge seriously, and surrendered my saber to God (a fairly potent symbolic act, now that I think about it).  And from that day my relationship to material things was altered: my sense of ownership of anything physical held to be transitory at best.

This was a moment of grace, of spiritual transformation, of deepening my understanding of my God.

What, then, do I make of such a moment when I now believe that there never was a God to make such a demand of me?

There is a paradox in the whole question of whether God exists or not, because the reality of our experience of the divine, the numinous and the spiritual does not (it turns out) really hinge on whether there is an actual god/spirit/intelligence behind those experiences.  These are our own subjective emotional and cognitive events.  The fact that they are mostly generated within our own consciousnesses has little bearing on the quality of the experience.  So to say that there is no God is most often met with a response along the lines of “But I know what I’ve experienced!  I have felt God’s presence, witnessed His grace, known His forgiveness, etc!”.  And, indeed, I would argue that we have felt/seen/known those experiences.  But I would next argue that they are all events that have explanations in purely natural or mechanical terms (even if those explanations might often have more to do with human perception that tricks of nature).

I’ve rattled on about this notion of a god-less universe for the last few years.  We clearly know enough now about biology, cosmology and every other “logy” to know that our religious belief systems are ancient, archaic (?), but highly-evolved satisfactions of our wish-fulfillment fantasies of a paternal, caring presence in a sometimes cold and threatening universe.  Religion has the advantage of having always benefited from (and, in truth, traded in) those ubiquitous experiences that have always seemed most transcendent and mysterious to our species.

What we have then, basically, is the mountain of evidence that the world, the universe and everything operate on very natural laws that have never required the actions of an intelligent creator, cast into competition with the breadth of human emotional experience which is very loathe to give ground to cold rationalism when the airy-fairy feels so much more comforting to us.

So is there a God or not?

I’ve reached the point where it seems more and more pointless to argue about the existence of God, because even when God is removed from the equation, we will all continue to have “god” experiences, because they are (I would argue) a natural (and, therefore, inevitable) by-product of our evolved mammalian consciousnesses.  In that sense, God will never go away, even though he (or she) never really existed in the first place.

Or did he/she?

What am I really arguing against?  For if I argue against a god that has only ever existed in our experiences of conscious living, then am I really making a rational argument at all?  Am I not really just saying that the problem is that I don’t like what you call your particular collection of transcendent experiences?  Pretty much.

I’m splitting hairs, then: validating the natural human experience of consciousness, but criticizing the false externalized (read “heavenly) conclusions we draw from those experiences.

(There are practical reasons for doing this, of course:  anything that can undercut the legitimacy of violent, oppressive fundamentalism as it heaps unneeded misery upon millions of living humans every day can’t be all bad).

I set out on a course to find God when I was 13 by becoming a Christian.  When I turned 28, God was gone, and I had to learn to be alone in the universe and to make sense of what I had (until then) experienced as “spirituality”.

What has been most striking to me since then is just how little my experience of life changed with God out of the picture.   This led me to the eventual understanding that my (and by extension: “our”) experiences of the “supernatural” weren’t  supernatural at all (see Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” — reviewed on this blog).  This is how I can now believe the stories people tell me of God, even if cannot concur in their attribution of the source of those experiences.

But life is what it is, and if God is the sum of our experiences of “God” (spirit, mystery), then I have to say that God does, indeed, exist.  As soon as I say that, however, I feel the need to correct and say: but not really.

So the answer is a qualified yes, or no.  Or, yes and no.  Or maybe god is something that we can only possess in the way that we possess our own experiences of living, experiences which we interpret and then hold on to as memories.  Does a memory actually exist?  Yes, in its way, and for as long as the brain that contains it continues to function.  After that, it is gone.  And so “god” will continue to exist, as long as there are humans to keep him, her or it alive.

Maybe it would be a good exercise to give up our most cherished idea of God, just like I gave up my beloved saber on that tearful, prayerful Summer night in California, and discover the “blessedness” of possessing nothing.

t.n.s.r. bob

POSTSCRIPT: A few years after my dark night of the Civil War saber, a robber broke into my rickety art-student apartment in downtown Denver, and stole (among other things) that damn sword.  Were I to tell that story to a fellow Christian, they would most likely say “See — you hadn’t really let it go, so God had to take it away!”.  But it was that experience (and others like it since) that have shown me just how seriously I took that earlier exercise in my own “Pursuit of God”.  With an actual God behind it or no, it was clearly a lesson useful for life in an uncertain world, a lesson that freed me of being overly burdened by the things I own.  And that sort of thing has value in and of itself, without getting a god who likes to take his kid’s toys involved.

Is God above criticism? by the not-so-reverend bob

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Obama was my guy.   I saw in him a real hope and a felt a real excitement.  I figured here was a guy that could be, substantially, beyond ridicule.

But once he was elected, the breathless hope that the man would actually get elected inevitably had to give way to the slow accumulation of experience and the inevitable judgment of history.  But in the shorter run, it meant releasing this figure of hope to the judgment of the comics, the editorial cartoonists, the journalists – in short, to the same ridicule or critique that every public figure is subject – and rightfully subject – to.  It was hard the first time I saw him make a “mis-step”.  But that jolted me into the reality of letting the man be what he was to be.  He’s a grown up, he can take it and make of it what he will.  I don’t shrink from my support and willingness to support the man’s good intentions, but I am not going to be in the denial business just to make him a projection of my own needs.  For my denials will not hide his failures from history, neither will the denial of his successes by his enemies make those successes disappear.

So what about criticizing God?  What happens when I think (or say): “There is no (objectively real) God”?  Does the very suggestion cross a line that MUST NOT BE CROSSED?  What, then, of the suggestion that “God” him (or her) self is a by-product of our own human consciousness?

The “God” aspect of our consciousness continues, it seems, support a wide variety of conceptions:  Animism, Polytheism, Faeries, Spirits, Monotheism, the more generic Higher Power (most notably of 12-step programs), Angels and, well, nothing.  It is plastic, adaptable.

All of which says more to me about the worshipper than the worshipped. So while our greatest sense of alarm that may be triggered by my suggestion that there is no objectively real God, my real bombshell and deeper cause is to bring about a deeper appreciation of this very natural aspect of our inner selves.

I think this is the proper response to this urge in us, for we don’t need another reason to hate or mis-trust ourselves.  Haven’t we had enough of that?  Already had an earful of our lowly, sinful nature (that — conveniently enough — needs just the cure whoever is telling you this happens to be selling)?

No, I think we can look at this part of our selves and ask it what it is really telling us about who we are, and where we have come from.   Religions took hold in the absence of  knowledge and once so ensconced was loathe to leave us.  Even now I find it a challenge to not talk about evolution in almost religious terms.  Part of that is the tone of debate in our culture and the fact that the chief critics are religious critics (and therefore can only view Evolution as a competing church).

Of course Evolution is not a competing church.  Though knowledge can provide perspective — even comfort and wisdom — Evolution is (and can only be) a scientific theory that provides a framework for understanding the things we see around us.

Then why do I seem to confirm the comparison of the theory of Evolution to church by calling this enterprise “The Church of Bob”?  Doesn’t that confuse things all the more?

As an artist, part of my skill is in speaking in the language of my culture in my time.  I ignore the associations, insinuations and connotations of symbols and words at my peril.  In a way I am pushing a fallacy to its illogical conclusion: THE CHURCH OF EVOLUTION.  At the same time I’m recognizing our tribal, social nature.

Church took the form it did for a reason (and reasons not original to the Church – for it borrowed from common knowledge as well).  For the same reason I took the form of a church to challenge the spell that Church and Religion and God have over us.  Or  — more to the point — to dismantle the spiritual weapons that the unscrupulous wield to have their anti-human way with us hominins.

It’s good for us to be a little bad – to mock those that deserve to be mocked.  We need to allow it to happen even to our favorite president.  We need to allow it for even our most cherished God.  We judge a president harshly who would respond with reprisals and the arrest of every contrary cartoonist or comedian or intellectual: we call such leaders dictators and despots.  What do we call a heavenly authority that punishes his enemies?  The one true God.

As I mentioned before, the God aspect of our selves is plastic, and shapes to fit the gods or forest sprites at hand.  As I said this tells me more about Us than about an objective God.  But if — as the religious claim — this God aspect of our selves is the convincing proof that God exists (for God must have made it so so that we would seek him), then at a minimum it tells me this:  God clearly does not care nearly as much as we do by what name he is called.  For it is not God that defines and punishes blasphemy, but Gods happy little servants here on earth, acting on his behalf.  And, to be frank, it is these little anti-human terrorists for which I lose my human tenderness.  It is these into which I would place doubt.  Deep, deep doubt.  Until they wake up, grow up and join the human race and start doing something productive with their energies.

For I am loathe to “take away” from the gentle believer his or her belief.  I just want to knock the zealot off the armored donkey of his crusading faith so he or she will stop torturing and enslaving people.  Why bother?  Because I want to have a nice life.  I don’t want other people to be blown up or lose their homes because some idiot starts a war somewhere;  because I don’t want that to happen to me or my family, friends or community.

Does that sort of cooperative self-interest come from on high?  No, it makes a lot of sense for social critters like us.  It is reasonable, practical, self-loving and as natural to our natures as breathing.

There will always be those that see us for what we are: social, pattern-making primates still a bit afraid of the dark, and will turn what they see as our weaknesses into their gain.  There will always be the sociopath, the psychopath, some smarter than others.  That, too, is part of how nature works.  Our social natures have brought us laws and governments and paved roads and running water and a shared currency that allows us to pay for things and be paid for our work.  These are all very very great human accomplishments, and not to be taken lightly.  And insofar as old, outdated religious beliefs cling to us like so much junk DNA from our reptilian past, I would like to do my part to help each of us (including myself!) release those beliefs that foster self-judgement and punishments of our selves and others for not properly worshipping one finicky bronze-age God from the deserts of the middle east.

Science does not have “all the answers”, but to say that in a way that dismisses what science teaches us is more than stupid – it’s positively dangerous.  We accept that antibiotics can cure an infection, and yet if we really held to what our religious forefathers “knew” as the cause of disease (bad humors or sin) we would never fill the prescription.  We don’t still hold that the universe rotates around US, but to believe that when Galileo proposed it was to risk trial by inquisition.  So old religion tries to maintain its self-bestowed identity as the one true claimant to the center of our lives even as it borrows from the very science and psychology and astronomy that it denigrates (as mere products of the mind of man).  They want it both ways and, frankly, get it just the way they want it.  I say no.  Religion has not earned such respect or loyalty.

I feel the sort of anger toward religion that one feels against the scam artist that sweet talks our grandma into sending him all her savings.  Yeah, Grandma should have known better, but most of us would share a willingness to pummel the jerk that took advantage of her.

Our (preferred) God, like our (preferred) President, is not above criticism.  In his book Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon, Daniel Dennett makes the case that our religious experience should, indeed, be treated (and studied) like any other human behavior.  This is opposed by the claim that the subject is either too great or too holy to be reduced to the level of human behavior.  I agree with Dennett in saying that it is neither.

(Copyright for any commercial purposes 2010 by Bob Diven, all rights reserved.)