Posts Tagged ‘islam’

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell. Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

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: “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: “Which Century are We In?” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’ve jumped in a couple of times on the New York City Muslim “Community Center” debate this week.  Having become so engaged locally in political debate with the TEA Party, my primary impulse was to defend the freedom of religion pronouncements of our Constitution, and, well, use that as a hammer to pound these Conservatives that have portrayed (literally) President Obama as one who is “shredding the Constitution”.

Setting aside the extreme xenophobia that such a debate always brings out (the church in Florida scheduling a “Burn the Koran Day”, for example), I understand the unease that people feel.  The difference is, I think, that I feel an unease about any religious structure, be it Muslim or Christian, Mormon or Scientologist, as they are all monuments (to varying degrees) to irrational belief.

But on another level, churches are expressions of human community, and to the extant that this is what they represent, I am supportive.  Of course, we never get one without the other.

Leaving for now the completely irrational, our more general fear of Muslims is that they will not assimilate — that they will remain a separate society within our own.  Of course, there is truth in this, particularly among immigrants.  But this has always been the case with any immigrant population to one degree or another.  I calm myself from this fear with the fact that it is generally the second generation that become, truly, “American”.  That transformation performed, to a great extent, by the nearly irresistible appeal of our consumer society.

We are now, and have always been, a mix.  The conservative strain in our culture seems to have been forged mostly in the southern states, based on a shared Scots/Irish root system that was traumatized by the disaster of the American Civil War (not to mention earlier dislocations and humiliations in the “old” country).  So that even among these that think of themselves as true and historic Americans, there is a certain communal isolationism that is distrustful of modernity and dismissive of the “elites” of New York City, Washington, D.C. and, well, the rest of the planet.

History has a power that is largely unrecognized in our daily lives, and issues like the (so called) “Ground Zero Mosque” bring all sorts of historic memory to the surface.  Not just the recent memory of 9/11, but even our ancient human tribal nature that distrusts and violently rejects the “other”, the “outsider”.  We like to think that we live, now, in the age of reason, but I am reminded time and time again that our thin veneer of modernity rests upon the impulses and instincts of ice-age humans.  As Chrisopher Hitchens likes to say, our problem is that “Our adrenal glands are too large, and our frontal lobes are too small”.  To put it another way: we shoot first and ask questions later.

I spent a bit of time this week in a running argument on Facebook with a conservative friend (and his friends) because I thought they should stop believing things for which there was no evidence.  Of course they just called me a socialist, changed the subject, or referenced sources that were more factories of make-believe than repositories of evidence.  They felt politically attacked, but my point was the more basic one I keep making: that we can’t have a reasonable discussion of an important issue if one side or the other is ready, willing and eager to say whatever is in their mind that is not supported by evidence.

Of course a great source of the anti-science, anti-intellectual force in our society is the conservative, religious right, rooted in the American South which was not only defeated in the Civil War, but also humiliated and marginalized by the same “East coast elites” that the conservative movement criticizes today.

As I ponder the power of history, I realize that there are consistent parallels between the personal and the cultural: we are comfortable with what we are born into, and it is only through effort (a willingness to abandon the cherished falsehood for the better answer) that we progress as individuals and as a species.

In “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven (reviewed this week), the author offers a quote from 1963 by Daniel Bell:   “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.”

We see this same struggle against “modernity” in the Muslim world.  The major difference between “them” and “us” being that the American religious right is stuck in the 19th century, while Islam appears to be stuck in the 12th.

So the question becomes this: how do we all move together into the 21st century?

t.n.s.r. bob