Posts Tagged ‘Earthquakes’

SERMON: “I Feel the Earth Move” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying.  Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”.  (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).

Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet.  Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places.  Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust.  Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology.  When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded.  When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.

We live on the floating rocky surface of a cooling planet.

Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon.  Yet we do.  Consistently.  Incessantly.  Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation.  (God is love.  It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house.  It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).

I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.

This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon.  (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)

Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it.  I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place.  I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East.  But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion.  Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one.  (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).

The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth.  But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change.  The world, after all, was changing.  Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe.  There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one.  But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.

Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion.  It’s a tricky thing.  Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors.  But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam.  There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott.  Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in.  (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source.  They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).

This is hardly satisfying.  It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant.  That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it.  But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life.  Belief begins in our own brains.  So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time.  But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.

And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion.  And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago.  Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.

The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans.  And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones.  Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication.  The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.

Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON “Confessions of an Evolution Nerd” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

It may not surprise you to know that I’m always sticking my evolutionary nose into other people’s world-views whenever opportunity allows.  Just in the time between typing the title of this sermon and writing the first sentence, I was interrupted by an acquaintance to chat about this and that, and by the end we were talking about the popular perception that the apocalypse is upon us (as evidenced by the ever-popular sign of earthquakes, or “superbugs’ — to cite the two examples in our conversation), to which I gave (in quick succession) the three following factoids: 1) Viruses evolve faster than we humans do (as clear evidence of evolution and also to show that the idea of disease as a directed judgement from God is absurd); 2) That the human body is more than half bacteria (by cellular weight — oh, and I threw in that we probably began as bacteria), and: 3) That we live on a cooling planet (my blanket answer to our constant surprise at earthquakes).

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

Now, really, who but an evolution nerd would squeeze that much annoying science into a friendly conversation?

As if I needed more proof of my evolution nerd status, I took a series of on-line ethics surveys that were being conducted by two university psychologists, and one of those surveys asked a series of questions that were designed to show where one stood on the “conservative/liberal” political spectrum.  I was surprised to see that I was actually a bit on the conservative side compared to most of my fellow self-identifying liberals in all areas but one:  when it came to Evolution versus Creationism, I was way to the left of even the lefties.

I can’t help but be reminded of my Evangelical years when I get the feeling that I am barking like a voice in the wilderness about a subject that very few people consider relevant to their lives.  Of course I think it’s relevant because it makes so much about life make sense.  And so I have the fervor of a convert, which is about the most annoying thing there is on the planet (think of a friend that has just recently quit drinking or smoking — for a while their turn-around is the ONLY subject on their mind, and the source of a certain focused zeal).

Of course one of the reasons I’m so ready to leap to the defense of rational thought is that we humans seem naturally predisposed to jump to the most irrational conclusions when faced with natural disaster (in particular).  We are pattern-seekers, and will find one whether or not a pattern actually exists.  Hence the Facebook posting from an evangelical friend:

“Sept 11th (NY) Jan 11th (Haiti) and March 11th (Japan).Luke 21:10-11Then jesus said his disciples: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.There will be great earthquakes’,famines and pestilences in various places,and fearful events and great signs from heaven. ‘Jesus says for behold I come quickly,’ * so ask yourself ARE YOU READY?* repost this.”

I also watched a video that displayed the “beauty of mathematics” (as a sign of God’s order) that assigned a numeric value to every letter in the alphabet, then took a series of phrases and “added” up the numbers, ending with “The love of God” adding up to 101% (the popular figure for the optimum human effort).  I couldn’t help but think, however that “The love of Dog” would also equal 101% by that test.

These are highly typical examples of what the human mind finds irresistible.  But is there really any harm in such nonsense?  Who knows.  Clearly I think it’s better to believe more in fact than in fantasy, but maybe that’s just because I’ve become such an evolution nerd.  Or maybe I feel like such an evolution nerd because I am surrounded by so much non-rational nonsense.

When I made a decision last year to start writing op/ed pieces for my local newspaper, my motivation was to counter the rising popularity of the TEA Party movement with a dose of rationality.  I decided that I had a sort of duty to at least be a “speed bump” to slow, if not stop, them.  Now, I have sympathies with the feelings of the TEA Party regarding certain things, but what I mostly saw was the panoply of hair-brained beliefs that were being swept along with their political agenda (the “Birthing” controversy, for example).  But in all of my engagements with that group, I came out feeling like I had charged valiantly against an impenetrable fortress of motivated ignorance.

There is clearly more to this sort of thing than the difficulties of countering a popular political movement (to take the TEA Party example).  Underlying it all is the problem of the ways in which our evolved primate brains work, and the fact that most of the operators of those brains have no frigging idea that they are operating under any sort of mammalian limitations to cognition (for more on that, see “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed on this blog).  But there I am again: proselytizing, preaching, evangelizing about my “version” of the truth, like a true nerd.

I am like every other human in that I have a sense of self so inflated as to believe that I can, on some level, achieve a workable knowledge of the “truth”.  On the other hand, I have enough of an awareness of the limitations of that self that I know that the best I’m going to get is a “workable” knowledge.  One thing about living in the age we do is that we cannot help but know that we are surrounded by a record of human knowledge such that no single human mind can hope to contain it, not matter how much study or time is given the pursuit.  And our collective knowledge increases incredibly every day with each new invention or discovery, so that our own store of knowledge can be seen as a mirror of the universe that is still speeding up some 13.6 billions years after it began.

Damn, I did it again.  I had to get that “age of the universe” thing in there, didn’t I?

Well, I told you at the outset what I was.  Now I’ve just gone and proved it.  Next thing you know I’ll be going door to door, asking folks if I could share a little literature about Charles Darwin…

t.n.s.r. bob