Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

SERMON: “Looking at My Own Species” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 18th, 2012
The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

As I continue to explore the implications of a science-based view of existence, I want to consider an issue I might classify as “quietly dramatic” — the way in which a materialistic perspective shapes my view of my own species.

If the survey numbers are to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt them), then it would appear that most of our species believes in the existence of a personal, active, supernatural deity that had either everything (or a great deal) to do with “creating” our planet, the solar system, the universe and, well, us.

This is not news.  Most of the people I know believe in some form of spirituality, whether it be the traditional God or a more diffuse form of cosmic intelligence that is capable of acting on our behalf.

And although some would disagree with me, I take the considered stand that there is nothing in the discoveries of science that would support either of these notions.  Of course you would be correct to point out to me (should you want to) that neither is there anything in the realm of science that can completely disprove those same spiritual notions.  Agreed.  But if we were to make a chart of two columns with one being “Evidence for PURELY NATURAL causes of just about EVERYTHING” and the other for “Evidence for EXTERNAL, SPIRITUAL causes of EVERYTHING (or, well, anything)”, then column 1 would be packed with a lot (if not all) of scientific discovery, and column 2 would be empty (I’m talking about actual evidence here, not our personal subjective experiences that we often interpret as being “divine” in origin).

In response to this evidentiary imbalance, there has arisen the “non-overlapping magisterium” argument that allows for two different “types” of data to be applied to two different “kinds” of reality.  This argument rests on the assumption that spiritual phenomenon exist outside of the natural world and are, therefore, impossible to measure by any of the tools of science.  This is at best a polite fiction, I think, as it allows us to have slices of our scientific and spiritual cake on the same plate, as it were.  But I don’t think this argument holds up to “modern” reality.  And even if the notion of spirituality occupying a realm beyond the reach of science were a tenable position in the past, I think it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain in the face of continuing scientific discovery.

All of which leaves one such as myself in the rather awkward position of dealing with the reality that not just a few, but most of my fellow humans believe (often rather deeply) in completely imaginary things.

How can this be?  Especially taking into account the rather high esteem we have for ourselves in the “great chain of being”?

Consider for a moment the age you and I live in, for we live in a time that is unique in human history.  Not just because we can look up cat videos on YouTube, but because we are the first generation to know so much incredible factual information about where we came from.  Seriously: every week there is an article trumpeting new discoveries about the origins and evolution of life on earth.  I read a steady stream of newly-published books (written for a general audience) that work at explaining the mind-bending wonders of how our planet was formed, or what the latest fossils are suggesting about the meandering course of the natural selection that eventually produced birds from dinosaurs and humans from fish.

But at the same time, there is not simply (an understandable) ignorance in the face of this flood of ever-surprising discovery, but determined resistance to new conceptions about ourselves that is organized, well-funded and determined.  These “push-back” campaigns from religious groups employ the rather frightening tactic of attacking the credibility of the very foundations of the scientific method.  In a sense they attempt to portray scientifically-gleaned evidence as nothing better than one godless human’s perverted opinion.  And it’s working.  Clearly, despite their professed belief that the ways of God are beyond science, science itself must be silenced because of the (actual and perceived) impact it is having on the foundations of religious belief.

Mostly we see this in the “climate change” debate.  This is less a true debate than a bunch of actual scientists on one side, and a bunch of commercial interests and believers in personal liberty and religious fundamentalism on the other whose beliefs determine the reality they are willing to accept.  The religious, at least, see science as the evil opposite of themselves, making the huge mistake of taking faith in religion to be the intellectual equivalent of faith in careful science.  But their arguments find fertile ground in the minds of millions of Americans.  Americans that have some understanding of their religion, but less understanding of science.

In the ancient battle between competing religious mythologies, science — actual science — is regarded as no more than a new myth-on-the-block.

And in this is the disquieting implication that the majority of our fellow humans who are living their lives, making decisions about who they elect to office (and the issues that they subsequently badger their elected officials about) are profoundly ignorant of the actual physical reality of their lives and the world we live in.  And it would appear that in this ignorance irrational belief not only persists, but prospers.

And so it becomes tricky to figure out just how to view these, my fellow humans.  Our species has produced (and continues to produce) stunning examples of artistic beauty, technical prowess, sheer courage, generosity of spirit, philosophical insight and scientific discovery.  And yet we are also a species of tribal warfare, ignorant fear, short-sighted selfishness and appalling cruelty.

Though the religious would disagree with me on this, it’s clear to me that, on the spiritual side, there is more heavy lifting to do to explain the mysterious disparity between our species’ highs and lows, especially when humans are held to be the special creation of an all-knowing deity.  On the scientific side, reality is accepted — as it is — as a problem to be studied that will (one hopes) yield more and more answers and explanations over time.   But for all of us, there is only the one reality of our existence on this planet, a reality that carries with it the ever-present potential for great achievement, or the bubbling over of our darker ingredients into human-generated chaos or social upheaval.

For me, a scientific, materialist view of my species gives me the comfort of recognizing and understanding a certain physical reality, and frees me from any added angst of layered-on spiritual mysteries.  But on the other hand, it also lays bare the incredible difficulty of tackling the profound challenge it would be to eliminate evil, say, from the world, especially when most of my fellow humans believe in the existence of an invisible mystery — a belief that actually inhibits the capacity to rationally interpret reality.  In truth, the real challenge, then, is much greater than the imagined spiritual one (which God is going to take care of anyway, once he makes a “new” heaven and earth).  And so I think that the materialist can not, in the end, be in any way accused of taking the “easy” way out.  Believers in God may think that non-believers have taken a lazy short-cut, (and have therefore earned some extra punishment in the afterlife) but, really, I don’t think they know what the hell they’re talking about.

To be honest about it, I’d have to say that eliminating God from the picture (though it has, for me, deeply affirmed my “right” to existence) reveals life on Earth to be a bit, well, tenuous.  And though life itself will likely go on for a long, long time, that doesn’t mean that we humans will.

There is only one reality, and it is a natural one.  So the true difference between spirituality and materialism is perspective, and the way our different sets of perceptions color our view of the one reality that we all share.  It is less and less of a mystery to me why we humans are so damn religious, and why so few choose to go it “alone” without the comforts of irrational belief.  In a way I feel a bit the detached scientist studying a curious and fascinating species, only with the sometimes unsettling awareness that I am one of that same species.  Good and bad, high and low, I have met the humans, and they are us: Noble and petty, rational and cuckoo, the most impressive and maddening life form to have evolved in the last few billion years.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “More Confidence than Sense” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

I was much more anxious than I would have liked to have been as I drove to El Paso.  I did my best to enjoy the drive, listening to the final chapter of a book on tape.  There are days like that, where my ability to remain calm in the moment is over-challenged and succumbs to the tendency of my dog brain to project and fret.  Still, I felt better by the time I checked into my motel room with enough time to sit for a bit before I checked in at the Arts Festival Plaza to start my street painting for the 2011 “Chalk the Block” festival downtown.

Those of us chosen as Arts Festival Plaza artists were to begin our paintings at 6pm on Friday night and work until 10pm (we were to pick up again on Saturday at 7am, and complete our paintings for judging by 2pm).  I was excited and confident as I checked in, got my materials and refused the offer of a spray bottle full of water (I was too much of a street-painting purist for to employ that device that I’d recently seen in use).  I set to work, and had my 5 x 10 foot design sketched out in white chalk in a few minutes.  I began to paint in the colors with my pastels and immediately noticed something was wrong: the surface was not taking the color well at all.

I had assumed that years of painting with pastels and chalk on asphalt and cement had prepared me for anything, and had been excused from the “mandatory” festival training session the Saturday before (my excusal based largely on that experience).  But it now dawned on me that painting on brick was another animal.  That made sense: bricks are fired masonry.  In essence I was trying to make pastel stick to chunky glass.  I had a sinking feeling as I calculated that the detailed, rich painting (of a T-Rex fossil come to life) I had envisioned was instead going to be anemic and sad.  I felt a rueful sense of the excess of my confidence: I had been cocky to think I didn’t need the training session; to think that I was better than the kids around me who were now slopping thick, soupy tempera paint all over their spaces with buckets and brushes.

Damn.  They knew something I didn’t.

Well, my feelings of self-correction aside, I needed to change my plans.  I got a spray bottle and started in to teach myself a new way of painting with the stakes as high as they could be (I had come to win this competitive event, after all: the prize money was good).  It took a while, but by the time the sun was setting, I had figured out the right combination of water and pastel rubbed onto the brick that would take on the feel of a sort of slurry, which seemed to have at least some capacity to stick to the masonry.  Good.  But now I knew I would have to obliterate my drawing to cover the space with the right colored slurry for each portion of my painting.  Not so good.  I calculated that I could recover from that.  I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was moving that way.  I would, however, still have to wait and see how the dried slurry surface itself would take pastel, and if I would ever get back to the quality of the painting I had planned.

By the time I had coated all of my surface, and got back to the first dry parts to see how I’d actually have to adapt my painting style to them, it was dark, and the work lights were turned on.  Much to my relief, the prepared surface took pastel well: I was back in business.  But then the glaring work lights started popping breakers, and the next two hours were spent working in various combinations of semi-darkness, and finally an odd sort of slow-motion strobe effect as watchers walked in front of the few remaining people-height lamps that shot a low-angled light across my painting-in-progress.

I kept working until 10pm in awful light, all the while wondering what terrible things I could be doing to my painting that I might not be able to correct in the daylight.  I returned to my motel room and a night of fitful sleep.

Back to the plaza at 7am, things looked okay.  All of my work from the night before held up, and I could now, truly, get to work.  After a couple of hours of painting a feeling of pleasure bubbled up through the layers of my mind.  I suddenly felt happy.  I was going to be okay.  All of the detail and depth I had wanted to include in this work were mine to create, no longer restricted by those damn red bricks underneath.  I was back in the running, back in familiar territory.  I was working in confidence again.

I remembered a line I wrote for my play about the American painter John Singer Sargent: “I’ve always had more confidence than sense.  But in the end, it’s made sense to be confident”.  Was that me, today?

I finished my painting an hour ahead of the 2pm deadline.  I had indeed had time to include all of the detail that I had planned, and was pleased with how well the final painting matched my original “vision”.  I looked at the work of the other artists that surrounded me, and those in other parts of downtown that were all competing for the Best of Show award.  I knew I had the best painting, but then I didn’t.  I began to look for the reasons why it would not be the obvious choice of the judges, and my confidence was diminished (a process, perhaps, aided by my challenged “cockiness” of the night before).

Friends from my home town showed up to be there for the judging and the award, and my social sense was kicked up a notch, navigating the complex preparations for an unpredictable outcome (which in this case, now meant bracing for a public loss witnessed by friends).

The announcement of the awards was late.  We had plenty of time to sit around and wait and chat, as I laid the mental and verbal groundwork for being okay with whatever came (read: not winning).  I had enough experience to understand the Biblical warning that “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV).  I knew that I was subject to “chance” as much as anyone else.

I didn't anticipate the problems of painting on brick.

So when the announcement finally came (in the teasing form of a description of the winning painting), all we had to hear was “T-Rex”.   In the nanosecond of space between those words and the sound of my friends erupting in screaming, I experienced the exhilaration of being chosen.  It rang like a crystal bell inside me: brief but pure.  That moment only had the time it took for my anxious friends to take in enough breath to start shouting.  After that my attention was diverted to them, even as I struggled to listen above the happy din for the sound of my name (to be sure I had actually won).  In the moments that followed, I wondered whether my cognitive and emotional experience was qualitatively any different than that of a nominee awaiting the opening of the envelope on Oscar night.

The rest was twenty minutes of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, a newspaper interview and then home to rest my sore muscles and raw fingertips.

Why tell this long story here?  What does it have to do with the church of bob?  The answer lies in the thing that was absent.

What I’ve described is just the kind of experience into which we humans almost always insert the idea of God or cosmic purpose.  It’s the sort of thing we pray about: asking for God (or spirit or whatever) to guide us or to grant favor.  It’s the kind of situation where ritualistic behavior is natural — a lucky charm or a certain kind of behavior that seemed to make something good happen in the past.

Upon reflection what was noticeable to me was the complete absence of any of that in the events I described above.  Apparently we can, in fact, move beyond belief.

I set out to win this competition, but not through prayer.  I was juried in based on both my past work and my submitted design for the festival.  I was confident, but was immediately challenged by an unforeseen difficulty that my experience and determination helped me overcome (though the event supplied the materials, I had brought along some of my own favored chalks that saved my butt that first night — a “lucky” choice my experience taught me to make).  I knew that I had the capacity to create a painting people would enjoy, and that I would likely enjoy doing it (a good indicator of final quality).  I knew from experience that my social skills were up to the interactions with staff and audience.  I had won a street painting festival in the past.  None of those factors made my winning inevitable.  But, in reality, it made my winning a distinct possibility.  To then add prayer to the reasons for my success would have shifted the 99% of my career-artist reality onto the 1% of the supposed external force I might have prayed to (or, conversely shifted all of the blame back to me had I lost, leaving none of it with the God that let me down).   Seen in that light, prayer would have been, well, silly.

The outcome of this street painting festival was never inevitable.  Though my skill and (thirty years of) experience did give me a certain objective advantage over a number of my competitors, it could not immunize me against another more talented competitor, or a system of judging that was hidden from my knowledge.

I may never know who the judge (or judges) were that made the final decision on the “Best of Show” award, much less what factors they took into consideration.  It may be that I won by a wide margin.  Or it could have been very, very close.  So it is in the complexity of life: we desire to know the hidden factors in order to calibrate our sense of reality, to draw conclusions about cause and effect.  But most of the time, we just don’t know everything that went on.  No wonder we seek a spiritual “edge” to push things our way, or to comfort us when they don’t, switching our biases on or off depending on the situation and whether our not they confirm or confront our beliefs.

I came, I saw, I worked and I won.  This time.  That’s all I know.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Breaking up with God: A Love Story” by Sarah Sentilles.

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

“”People are in cages of their own making,” he said.  “I can stand on the outside of the cage and show them the gate is unlocked, that they are free to go, that they have always been free to go, but they need to decide to leave the cage.”"

“…All we need to recognize is that the qualities we have ascribed to God actually belong to humanity.

In other words, Christianity has turned God into a kind of superhero capable of doing everything human beings can’t do, a move that renders humans helpless, small, in need of rescue.  We enrich God…but we impoverish the world.”  — from “Breaking up with God”

The provocative title of this book made me reach for it. I couldn’t wait to start reading it, even though I knew there was a chance that it was a ruse: a clever ploy to sell a book that appeared to be one thing but was actually another.  (My many years as an evangelical Christian have sensitized me to the reality that deception in the name of spreading the Gospel is not regarded as a crime.)

So I dove into this book.  Chapter by chapter my interest held, even as my wariness built: would this deeply religious young woman — who would eventually graduate from Harvard Divinity School in her quest for (Episcopal) priesthood — really “break up” with God, or would the book take a sudden twist at the end, explaining that what she was really doing was breaking up with an immature idea of God, and embracing the better, truer one?

Indeed, there were some tricky passage, such as the descriptions of a blossoming teenage eating disorder that put my sympathies with the writer on edge, like a train taking a corner too fast.   But I stuck with her tale, and boy, am I glad I did.

By the time I reached the end of this book, I saw that (by either plan or sheer brilliance) the style of the writing had advanced in step with the maturation of the writer on her personal journey.  The awkward, but passionate girl I had sat down with became a troubled teenager, then the spiritual sister to the medieval mystic women she quotes, before at last blossoming into a women of poetic and powerful calm, who did, when it came to it, have the courage to “break up with God”.

“But then Charlie died, and the devil’s third temptation in the desert suddenly made sense to me.  On the pinnacle of a temple he says to Jesus, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  The devil talks about the promise of angels, of protection, of not dashing his foot against a stone, but Jesus says, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

I think Jesus knew that if he jumped, he would fall.  His God couldn’t catch him.  There was just too much suffering in the world — too many people drowning in floods and buried by earthquakes, too many people starving, too many people sick and dying for Jesus to believe in a God who’d catch someone who jumped off a building to prove a point to a bully.

I had believed in a God who loved me, and because he loved me, and because I was good, he would protect me.  My faith was a kind of magic trick.  My prayers were not much different from incantations.  I might as well have been saying abracadabra.  I might as well have been standing on the top of a temple, arms spread wide, leaping into the air.”

That is poetry to my ears, the poetry of an earned wisdom.

I regularly muse that it is probably not reasonable to expect individuals who have invested so much of their identity in their religious beliefs to be willing to give them up, no matter how irrational or indefensible they may be.  Priests and pastors would risk their livelihoods, others would risk the shunning of friends, wives, husbands and parents.  For we don’t believe in a vacuum, but through our beliefs form intimate communities.  So it was especially good for me to read this account of one woman’s journey to the point where the loss of her faith did, indeed, represent a great cost and a reconfiguring of her sense of self.  The good news is that the story has a happy ending.

This is a writer who has my sympathy and intellectual allegiance.  As one who once believed, I found it good to have this look into another’s journey along a similar path.  Of course no two spiritual divorces are the same, but neither are they ever completely different.  I recognized much of my own journey in this book.

I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Selfish Animal, Moral Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

It settled on me this morning: it basically comes down to getting what I want in the time I have to get it.  This is the summation of the force that propels me through life.  That it’s taken me fifty years to come to this embarrassingly simple truth is probably more remarkable than the apparent crassness of the truth itself.  I call it a “simple” truth, but we’re all grown-up enough to  know that “simple” is not always (read: almost never) the same as “easy”.

I believe that this impulse toward self-satisfaction is the logical extension (into conscious form) of the unconscious impulse toward life that exists on a genetic level.  (I pick “genetic level” for lack of a precise biological baseline where this drive toward life could be confidently described as active.  Saying “atomic level” seems to drive the point beyond any sort of identifiable intention at all, as chemical reactions are seemingly mindless, whereas biological life, mindless or no, appears to express intention.  So I settle, for now, on Dawkin’s notion of the “selfish gene”).  Life, it seems, seeks it’s own continuation through reproduction which — for all the sentiment we attach to the fact that it leads to the creation of future lives that will be lived by other individuals — is an act of self-perpetuation (as those future individuals will carry the propagator’s genes forward).

And I think it’s probably a short cognitive walk from self-perpetuation to self-satisfaction.  (Would it really be surprising that conscious brains that have evolved from mindlessly-driven single-celled organisms should mix self-perpetuation and self-satisfaction into a unified whole?)

We clever humans would never think to attribute selfishness to the profligate reproductive habits of a microscopic organism (even though we might be tempted to attribute malice to a rapidly-evolving virus, say, that vexes our own health).  But we do judge our own human kind by the standards of the social animals that we are, and that’s where the simple becomes the complex.

“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

Wow.  When even a writer in the New Testament gets this truth right, it must be pretty damn universal.

The "rev" sitting on a rock, awaiting enlightenment.

As I took a break from busy life and sat and followed the progress of a puffy cloud painted in tones of peach by a monsoon-sunset last night, I took stock of how far I’d come in excavating my own desires in life.  For a shy Midwestern boy I’ve done pretty well.  Now this would seem to be the ideal state for anyone who’s tossed money at a therapist at any point: to discover one’s true self as a means of lessening the expenditure of finite emotional resources on fruitless and unsatisfying neurotic demands, freeing those psychic resources for more satisfying pursuits.  But there remains — even after all of that work to free one’s true desires — a problem: everybody else.

For though there is clearly no objective, external “divine” moral standard to be either pleased or feared, we remain social animals living in a society woven of complex relationships.  And even though every single one of our fellow primates is trying to get what he or she wants, the majority of us is going about it in a way so as not to upset the vital social relationships we need in order to get the things we want.  Why?  Because we most generally need others to get those things or, more specifically, we want things from other people or (when it comes to pair bonding) we actually desire the other person.

I’ve stated before (as one who has experienced a rather dramatic declension from Christian faith) that one of the most remarkable things about reality is how little of it actually changes in the transition from religious faith to faithlessness.  I’ve described before how all of the phenomenon that we experience as the “spiritual” continues on as before, even if we call it by another name (because, to be frank, it is all natural phenomenon that we were calling by the wrong name in the first place!)  And now, as I contemplate the structure of social norms and public and private morality as it actually exists (without any help from God), I can finally see just how complex and daunting it is.  It must be, for how many people are there who are actually aggressively going for what they want out of life without any regard for the potential social cost of such a pursuit?

(The short answer could be “too damn many” as a greedy Wall Street fund manager comes to mind, or a rapist or the constant threat of the socio- and psychopathic among us.  But let’s leave those aside for now.)

I’m struck by the moderating power of our natural sense of morality, all the more impressive when we consider that it is naturally evolved in us and continually enforced by only itself (in each individual consciousness).  We do, indeed, have a conscience.  The problem is, of course, that we also have desires that are incompatible with that conscience.  Isn’t this interesting?  That both the animal desire and the checks on that desire are wired into our own mammalian brain?

That is our reality.  That is the simple truth that lives in the house next door to the other simple truth I began with: our natural impulse to get what we want in the time we have is checked within our own consciousness by the moderating awareness of our vulnerability to isolation by our fellow primates.  We really do have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  (And all of that without having to invent a God to explain it all.)

Understanding evolution — and allowing that understanding to inform the way we live our lives — does not, therefore, lead to the collapse of morality and society that the religious demand that it would.  (I don’t doubt that they sincerely believe one would lead to the other, but they are sincerely wrong).

But does it make sense that we should have come to have this sort of “split personality”?  Sure, at least in evolutionary terms.  There is nothing in what we know of the way that evolution works to suggest that our animal brain and social conscience should end up in complete harmony of purpose.  Survival requires only success, not perfection.  Why shouldn’t our consciousness be a mix of new and old, layered one upon another, just as our evolved bodies are upright walking forms built upon the body plan of an earlier fish (with all of the benefits and structural problems such a transition would suggest)?

Understanding things such as this in evolutionary terms does not necessarily offer us any path out of the limits of our moral state, anymore than realizing that we evolved from fish should free us to fly like birds.  Like most knowledge, this bit does not alter the reality that we live in.  What alters is our perception of that reality and ourselves, which can lead to more of our life’s finite allotment of time, energy and attention being spent on more satisfying pursuits, within the limits of a society made up of naturally moral animals.

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.

SERMON: “What We Don’t Know” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

I think I’ve become a sort of anti-evangelist as I preach a non-spiritual gospel of naturalism, humanism and Darwinism.  (Wow, that’s a lot of “ism’s”).  An interesting aspect of my “church” work has been the realization that my materialistic brand of atheism is not only irksome to my theist acquaintances, but is also a bit of a bitter pill for my “new age” friends to swallow.

This came to mind this morning as I talked with a friend of mine at the Farmers Market.  We both shared a certain disdain for fundamentalism, but when I said that I didn’t think there was really anything else “out there” besides natural phenomena, she averred that she thought there were things out there that we did not understand, and were yet to be discovered.

This, of course, is true.  I’d be a fool not to allow for that.  And as is natural to my social chimp nature, I took her opinion in and rolled it around a bit, checking it against my own feelings and thoughts (it’s my view that we are such profoundly social creatures that it is almost impossible NOT to be swayed, even if only temporarily, by the opinions of someone we have a social relationship with).

Two humerus...or humeri. t.n.s.r. bob's and a brachiosaur's.

Although I do not think that there is anything “out there” to support the confidence of the preacher who claims to know God and His intentions, I have come to a certain awareness of the state of current human knowledge (informed by the stack of books on science I’ve read these last years) the upshot of which comes in two parts:  The first part is general sense of where the current frontiers of science are (which includes both the things we are pretty damn certain about, and the areas where — in the words of Christopher Hitchens — “We know less and less about more and more”).  The second part is a quietly buzzing awareness in my skull telling me that our base of knowledge — so vast compared to our ancestors living only a short time ago — is still a tiny fraction of a fraction of what there is to be known about life, the universe and everything.

If the last fifty years of scientific discovery have shown us anything, it is that the questions we seek to answer seem to multiply exponentially with each new discovery.  This is not to say that we don’t know much, or that what we do know is suspect.  Not at all.  I speak more to a certain humility in the face of what biologist E.O. Wilson calls “The Creation”.

Perhaps you’ve had the same feeling I have as I sit at this marvel of modern technology, my laptop computer.  The machine I’m using is only a year and half old, but the i-pad has come out and already seems to be branching itself off into new sub-species of personal computing devices.  And so, as much fun as this very useful tool has been to use, I can’t help but feel it aging under my fingers, and cannot shake the sense that it, too, may look as antique as a dashboard 8-track player at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The exciting thing about living in our time is the ever-increasing pace of discovery.  The molecular structure of DNA was discovered only seven years before I was born (though the Nobel prize for it was awarded when I was 3, at about the time we launched a man into space).  The first electronic calculator appeared when I was in Junior High School, the personal computer when I was in my mid-twenties.

When I was young, our view of human evolution was one of a single line from ape to man, with Neanderthal’s being our brutish “cave man” predecessors.  Now (thanks in no small part to DNA technology), our understanding of the actual process of evolution has become much more nuanced (and we now get it that most of those early humans were likely among the many dead-ends that make up most of the branches on evolution’s family tree).

Think about how our view of dinosaurs has changed in the last thirty years!  Those creatures seemed so exotic and other-worldly to me as a boy, but now they are like giant chickens and cows of another time, different only in detail than anything living today.  And the Neanderthals?  They, too, have undergone a rehabilitation, and only last year we got the answer to the perennial question of whether our “Cro Magnon”  human ancestors could possibly have interbred with the brutes (the answer is a resounding “yes”!).

Every week there are announcements of new dinosaur species in the popular press.  In 2006 Neil Shubin used the predictive tools of evolution and geology to locate depositional rocks of the right age to find Tiktaalik, a clearly transitional species between our ocean-dwelling and earth-walking ancestors.

(I am not so well-read on the current research in creating “smart” plants, and the ever increasing processing speed of computers, but I do remember my first “floppy” disk, and how amazed I was when I filled it up to capacity, and had to get another one).

Tomorrow a diligent anthropologist could dig up the bones of an early hominid that could rock our world and re-shuffle timelines and theories.  This is exciting stuff.  And it leads me to be ready to have my ideas changed by new discoveries.

The question that a theist (or spiritually-minded) person might put to me (and that I put to myself) is: “What if they discover that God exists?”  Interesting question, that, and one that puts a certain chill in my colon.  Why?  Well, for one, because I think that would be very bad news for us humans, on a par with finding out that there are aliens from other planets, and that they do, indeed, want to suck our brains out.  (Now that is assuming that whatever God they discovered would turn out to be anything like the ones that most humans have been imagining for the last couple thousand years!)

But once my colon calms down I realize that the probability of such a discovery — that life on earth has, indeed been consciously-designed and is kept in motion by a divine will — is pretty damn small.  That’s why there are agnostics (who take the position that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved).

I think I take a position more like that of a scientist who would continue to call “evolution” a theory though it has, in fact, been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.  And even though the ignorant will take this as meaning that the theory of evolution is on a par with their irrational belief that God formed Eve out of a rib stolen from a sleeping Adam, the scientist understands that he or she is merely stating that every truth of science remains subject to revision, modification or rejection based upon new evidence, remote though the possibility might be.

On the other hand, I’m not a scientist, so I can let myself dance crazily off the edge of belief and swim and splash in my pond of natural causes and god-less humanism.

I once believed in God, sincerely.  But I experienced a dramatic declension from faith when the persistent erosive force of life experience and reality caused that particular castle to crumble into the surf.  Having had that experience I now hold lightly to any belief, knowing full well that the thing that will blow my mind is likely to be something that I can not even imagine right now.  But having already spent so many years of my life imagining God, I don’t think that is where the big surprise will come from.

Having said that, who knows what we will soon understand about how the realm of the “spiritual” is created in our mammal brains.  And since this is a very active area of current brain research, be prepared for some news from that front over the next few years.  Whatever comes from this research, I think we can expect it to be another series of blows to the those still clinging to a bronze-age world view of gods, demons and lives guided by external intelligences.

Oh, we’ll be surprised, to be sure.  But so far, the answer found by science has never been God.  No matter how many humans have believed it for however long, the bones, the DNA and the rocks seem to cry out not for God, but for nature in all it’s mindless complexity.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part Two” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PART 2.  “Enough about us…what about me?”

In last week’s PART 1 I concluded with this: “If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.”

I have found in this view some new understandings of my own person.  I think about my journeys through therapy, religion, psychic advisers and all the rest to achieve some sense of stability in my emotions and thoughts, driven toward a goal that we all believe can be achieved: normalcy.  But when it comes to humans, as in nature, normal is at best a mathematical approximation of the midpoint between two extremes (either of which, since they exist, could claim at least to be perfectly natural if not normal).

Often, however, we strive toward a goal based more on a notion of Platonic essentialism than reality (essentialism suggesting that there is a past or future ideal against which we can practically compare ourselves or strive towards (or, in the case of Christians, the sinless human we were created to be).  But, as Dawkins put it, using a bunny as an example: “There is no essential rabitt-ness!”, meaning that there is no perfect example of any species (and certainly no human) that we can compare ourselves to as an absolute standard.  There is only, well, us as we are right now.

You and I share pretty much all of the same DNA.  Yet you and I will have just a few letters in different places in our lines and lines of code which makes us just that tiny bit genetically different from each other.  But then so does everyone else, and not in the same places, so to quote Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “We are all 99.9 percent the same, but equally, in the words of biochemist David Cox, “you could say all humans share nothing, and that would be correct, too.”"

Despite my best efforts at self-knowledge, who knows what is really affecting my mood today.  I could be responding to a change in air pressure, a chemical shift…etc.,..etc.  My body turns itself over every day, so that on a cellular level I am completely renewed every so many years.  I am not the man I once was, and certainly not the boy I started out as.  And on a morphological level — were my fossils to be found some million years hence — the man I am today could very truly be called transitional between those animals we once were and those we will eventually become (assuming we survive extinction for that long).

In my personality I confront the tension and occasional frustration of trying to maintain both my idea of “who” I am, and the physical “I am” wherein that idea exists.  But from where do I get the idea that the consciousness I carry should be any more stable or “essential” than the body of processes that support it?  Instead of constant complaining about the greased pig of self identity, maybe I should be amazed that I am as constant as I am.  But then, couldn’t the same case be made regarding teeming life in general — or the rumbling earth we stand on, spinning through a vast universe?

And yet, for all this tectonic movement and biological activity, life feels remarkably calm (no matter how unreal that feeling might seem compared to the actual science of both the planet I live on and the body in which I live).  The fact that such knowledge as I am discussing does not make my head literally explode is due, probably, in no small part to the necessity of maintaining a certain coherence of mind in order to assure the survival of the constellation of organisms that I represent.  In short — and in a quite literal way — my DNA won’t let me go there!

One could argue that our individual experience of living — pleasure, the satisfactions of learning, the euphoria of love, the heart-breaking response to beauty, the intoxication of sex — are the wages we are paid so that we will find living more to our liking than oblivion, and thereby allow our DNA to continue its single-minded drive toward replication.  On a cellular level, we die a thousand deaths even while we’re living, and are constantly renewed, until the day that the organism is damaged beyond repair, at which time we are destined to be broken up into our constituent parts and recycled as we have been for billions of years.

What can be gained in raging against such a fate?  From who (or what) could we seek concessions?

It is so easy to look at a mouse or a fly and wonder “what’s the point of such a life, where all they do is eat, poop, reproduce and then die?”  What’s the point indeed.  If the experience of life were universally miserable, none would participate.  Even our pleasures are by-products.  And so, of course, is meaning!

No matter what we do the chances are that all evidence of our time here will eventually be wiped from the face of the planet.  Ice sheets will return and retreat, and other animals will thrive, repeating the cycle until our sun finally explodes and our universe collapses once more upon itself.  The more one looks at it the more bleak it becomes.  But so what?  It is what it is, and no wish of ours will change it.

Our lives can seem predestined by the ubiquitous regularity of the cycle of life and death.  We feel certain that we are serving some power greater than ourselves which, it turns out, we are.  It just happens to be DNA, not God, and DNA’s irrepressible impulse toward replication that began billions of years ago.

We are teeming life become aware.  And yet it could be argued, I suppose, that we are no more capable of understanding our existence than any of the other animals that share our lives on this planet.  It is unquestionable, however, that we know a whole lot more about life and ourselves than anything else on Earth.

The challenge that remains unique to us humans, then, is how to live with that knowledge.

t.n.s.r. bob