Posts Tagged ‘unbelief’

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

The Future of Unbelief

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

For a great talk about how the future of unbelief could re-form itself, take a look at this inspiring TED talk by Alain de Botton: http://youtu.be/2Oe6HUgrRlQ

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

SERMON: “Naked Christmas” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Whenever I write a sermon like I did last week, I have second thoughts.

There is something about attacking belief that feels, in the end, unkind.  As if it’s something I don’t really have a right to do.  After all, the majority of my friends participate actively in belief systems (though most of them would qualify as moderate believers, not fanatics or fundamentalist).  Still, I recognize that I am among a minority that take that extra step from skepticism to a proclamation of non-belief.

So what is the source of my regret?  Is it a sense that I’ve over-stated my case?  No, not really.  When I think about the arguments I’ve made, they continue to make sense to me (or, more to the point, the counter-arguments continue to make less and less sense).  And having been a believer for so many years, I feel that I know of that which I speak.

Then what’s the problem?  Is it that I am a social animal among other social animals whose views might make the other animals uncomfortable which, in turn, could lead to me being shut out of the herd?

This brings up the apparent choice of being true to my own conscious or soft-peddling my ideas to stay within the circle of community.  This seems an obvious case of integrity over submission.  But this is what animals do all the time.  We are constantly weighing whether we are in situations that allow us free reign, or whether we have to moderate — or modulate — our behavior for the maximum success in reaching our ultimate goals (which may or may not be expressed openly).

There is a part of my mental process dedicated to weighing the benefits and risks of honest expression.  I recognize that, in some circles, such expression is honored even when (or precisely because) one is expressing an unpopular opinion.  On the other hand, one can risk actual physical harm by blurting out an impulsive comment to the wrong person or group.

As among our primate cousins (and numerous other animals, for that matter) power or status are highly desirable for us in no small part because they offer autonomy and ever higher degrees of freedom of expression.  But there is always a larger fish in the pond.

"Oh Santa!" Arranged kitsch. Photo by Bob Diven.

Once I followed belief to its logical end, there was nothing further to explore.  I had seen the face of God, and He was me (or, more precisely, a part of my own functioning consciousness).  So there was nothing to be done but turn around, come back, and get on with living.  After all, we are not configured to continue wasting energy on empty pursuits.  (That’s why it’s so hard to learn a second language, for example, when it’s one we aren’t called upon to actually use in our day-to-day life, or why we no longer grow tails).

I’ve said before that the most remarkable thing about the loss of belief (not just in God, but the deconstruction of irrational belief in total) is that nothing really changes.  Life goes on.  We still make moral choices pretty much the way we always have, we just recognize the real reasons we make those choices: not for God, but because our decisions affect our relationships with the humans we have to live with.  And this is what unbelief has really changed in my life: it has laid bare just how profoundly social an animal I am.  Suddenly I can see that our entire lives are built around our relationships with those around us.  There is nothing else but the architecture of human connection.  Projections of power onto outside gods and spirits are just a diversion from the unsettling awareness of just how vulnerable we are to the opinions and actions of other actual living, breathing humans.

In this Christmas season, it’s not difficult to take a step back into a wider perspective and wonder why I am being so sensitive about questioning beliefs that so many others don’t think twice about foisting on the rest of us.  Christmas, in fact, seems to serve as a sort of open season for the most religious to wrap up nationalism, fundamentalism and their seeming strength of numbers with the bow of state recognition into a sort of tinselly cudgel to beat non-believers back into the outer darkness (where they must surely belong).

Two things stand out to me in this: one, the insecurity that infuses the bullying nature of religious evangelism, and two; the delightful resilience of pagan symbolism that is embedded within even the most “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” event.  The religious cry “foul” whenever anyone actually expends any effort to push back against their aggression, but they are seemingly unable to see themselves as aggressors with candy canes.

But then, those last two paragraphs above are a perfect example of the personal dilemma:  I clearly don’t mind attacking belief in general, but no matter how strongly I feel about my argument, it is always followed by a tinge of regret.  Why?  Because though I want to throw my wooden shoe into the machinery of oppressive religion, I don’t want to hurt my relationships with believing friends or associates.  Like many things in life, there just may not be a perfect solution to my not-uncommon dilemma.

By criticizing belief, I feel like I pee in a pool that a lot of my friends swim in.  That, it turns out, is the actual issue.  On the one hand I feel free to undermine “belief” in a broader sense (as my “unbelief” is clearly fair game for others to attack), but like all things human, things are different on a personal level.

For most of us Christmas is a rich blend of traditions, old and new, that reflect the deepest social traits of us humans: a recognition of our vulnerability to the ravages of Winter, a thankfulness for plenty in the darkest months, a delight in our innate sense of magic and wonder, and a certain extravagance in finding and creating beauty in the things of nature that carry their living greenness into December.  There is so much that is so achingly and beautifully human about the celebrations of the season that the fundamentalist cries of “put Christ back into Christmas” can feel like a crass, reductionist affront to the celebration, like the gangs of zealots throughout our history that continue to find any frivolity an abomination in the eyes of their pissed-off god.

I see Christmas for what it is, and enjoy it all the more for its glorious mix of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the pagan.  Heaven and earth, if you will.  It is probably one of the best windows into the human mind and heart.  I don’t believe we ever will (or can) take “Christ” out of Christmas, and I’m not certain we need to.  He is, after all, a part of the history of the holiday.  I just like to recognize that he was a later arrival to a party that we’d been throwing for a long time.  And, after all, we humans like a good party, and no-one likes a party-pooper.

So Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Winter Fest.  May this holiday be a joy to you in the ways that mean the most…to you.

t.n.s.r. bob