Posts Tagged ‘non belief’

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 “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

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW THE SHORT VIDEO CARTOON

SERMON: “The God Next Thor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

I think that most people who don’t believe in God self-identify as agnostic (or non-believer), even though they may well be “practical” atheists.  (By “practical atheist” I mean one who negotiates his or her life as if there is no God).

I suspect that there are also a number who self-identify as Christian who could be counted as practical atheists.  Otherwise, the preacher and evangelist would not be so troubled by the many church members who seem to be more “social” than true “believing” Christians.

(Consider this recent article in Der Spiegel about the growing number of Americans that self-identify as “non-religious”, even as our politics seem to be rushing in the opposite direction).

Of course agnosticism is the only scientifically defensible stance in the face of the evidence we have.   Scientific in the sense that since the existence of God is a theory that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, it cannot, therefore, be considered a valid scientific theory at all.  By this standard, then, true atheism remains an untenable factual stance.

But let me ask: do you think that there is any chance at all that the Norse god Thor could turn out to actually exist?

Most people would laugh at the question.  But they would not, then, label themselves “Thor-less atheists”.  Nor would they call themselves “Thorian agnostics”.  Why?  Because the terms atheism and agnosticism are reserved (in everyday use) to the question of the existence of the “one true God”.  In our everyday life, then, it seems that we don’t think it worthy to waste the terms on the thousands of extinct god ideas that have existed (and continue to exist) in our myriad human cultures and times.

And yet the vast majority of humans don’t have to think twice when asked if they believe in God.  They will answer with an emphatic “yes”.

But based on the evidence of the sheer size and age of our universe — and our incomprehensibly tiny role in that universe — isn’t the notion of a local, modestly-endowed god much more likely to be a reasonable conclusion for a human believer to adopt?  Isn’t the existence of an earth-based spirit or a demon more likely than an omnipotent God who orchestrated the birth of an entire universe 13.5 billion years ago just so that a recently evolved hominid holy man could reveal God’s plan to his fellow hairless primates two thousand years ago?

But of course these are not the actual terms under which we humans contemplate an eternal maker.  We don’t really think in terms of distances between galaxies, or billions (or even millions) of years.  In our everyday reality, the world we carry with us is almost entirely local.

That’s why I think that the only reason we can actually seriously entertain the notion of an infinite, eternal, omnipotent God is because of the fact that everything about our evolved brain and the reality of our everyday life continues to tell us that we are actually a very large presence in a fairly small world.

It is only with great effort (and pain-inducing difficulty) that we will our brains to open up to the vastness of geologic time, or the true distances between earth and the edge of our still-expanding universe, or the intricacies of our Rosetta Stone of DNA.  And even after we stretch our synapses to the breaking point, they inevitably snap back to the local, immediate level of awareness that we actually need to navigate our complex tribal lives.

This means that the God that we actually believe in, in reality, only has to be able to fill our idea of heaven with his grandeur.  We do not picture the size of the space he should actually fill (which, practically speaking, is pretty much an incomprehensibly vast reach of empty, cold, dead space).  By comparison, we live on a fly speck of a fly speck of geology spinning in a sea of flyspecks so distant from each other as to be like particles of dust in a sandstorm across and endless desert.

If we actually held a true idea of the size of space (and our size in comparison) we would A) never conceive of a God so large, or B) imagine him having the slightest interest in conducting an experiment in soulful life on our speck of a planet.

Have you blessed Thor today?

But then, our idea of God did not develop in such a mental landscape.  God evolved with us when we were even more tribal and local than we are today.  We grew up together: us and our imaginary friends, so familiar to us that even now some scientists do the mental gymnastics to stretch their idea of God to fit the reality of our existence that science (not religion) continues to reveal to us.

And that is the other rub:  Which predictions, what descriptions of life, or of the universe, or of the earth, contained in ancient religious works have proven to be true in anything other than the most poetic sense?

The reality is that religion resists the enlightening probing of science until it can resist no longer, at which point religion does its best to adapt.  On the grounds of this behavior alone, religion is suspect as a source of any testable truth.  Religion may have something to teach us about our own natures, to be sure, but only in the same as any work of literature or art (for it is closely related to those human endeavors).

For these reasons, I see no reason not to take that extra small step and call myself an atheist.  It seems no different than declaring gravity a reality (even though that, also, is still a “theory”).  In reality, the only reason I can see not to embrace the moniker of “atheist” is the discomfort it causes other human beings (for a good overview of the level of mistrust most Americans feel toward Atheists, check out the surveys cited in this article).  And I am, after all, a social animal, which means the embracing of any minority view carries with it a certain social risk.   I don’t want people I am talking with to feel uncomfortable or challenged (at least not unnecessarily).  And, as I’ve said before, there is no real cosmic harm to believing in something that isn’t true.  Sure, it may hasten the decline of our species by keeping us from confronting approaching climate-based dangers, but that’s a problem for us, not the universe.

But be that as it may, declaring oneself an atheist is not worthy of the gasps that it can generate.  It is to me a small step to take once the idea of belief itself has become (rightfully) suspect.

In emotional terms, however, the final (and most difficult) barrier to unbelief is the catch in the throat that comes when we ask ourselves “But what if God exists?”  I can tell you from experience that this is a tenacious reaction which, to me, speaks of both the long history of belief and our natural inclination toward it.  What it does not speak of, however, is the existence of God (no matter what the clever preacher may make of such a natural human anxiety).  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this question: “But what if Thor actually exists?”  Or “What if Athena is real?”.  You will likely not have anywhere near the same catch in the throat when Thor or Athena are involved.  Why is that?  We don’t take them seriously as contenders for actual divinity.  Why not?  Because we weren’t born in the times or cultures in which such beliefs would have been as much our birthright as monotheism is today.  That should tell us something about belief in God.

The rest of belief is made up of little more than confirmation bias and belief-dependent realism.  I’d bet you a nickel that if you started praying “in faith” today to any of the extinct gods, your reality would soon confirm their existence as it sought out the evidence of answered prayer in the hundreds of random events that fill your days, with your confirmation bias working just as well as it does for all believers, be they Christian, New Age or pagan.

As Richard Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheists.  It’s just that some of us make an exception for the god of our choice — the God of whom we demand so little proof and so little power that it’s actually quite a wonder we need to imagine him as big as he is when a local god serve us just as well.  But that need to be the center of an infinite God’s attention is — as they say — a subject for another sermon.

t.n.s.r. bob