Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

SERMON: “A Christmas Message” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Living in the Chihuahuan desert of the American Southwest (where the arrival of Winter is not always obvious) one must look for the local signs of the holiday season’s approach.  We do have some trees with actual leaves that transition into Fall colors as the weather gets colder (though this year we were still in the 70’s past Thanksgiving).  Sometimes we get a dash of snow or rain.  Sometimes.  Christmas lights go up, of course, along with a selection of nativity scenes in yards and windows.  Around here the most unique feature may be the modernized electric version of the traditional “luminarias” (or farolitos) that are strung across the rooftops of adobe houses and shopping centers (the more traditional and temporary — and therefore more “authentic” — squat paper bags of sand and a single votive candle are mostly reserved for Christmas Eve itself).  Folks might stock up on the fresh crop of locally-harvested pecans for their holiday baking, and perhaps choose to attend one of the seasonal vocal concerts or theatrical performances that pack the local performance spaces.

This year a buddy of mine worked with a downtown business group, the city, and our local electric utility, to string up lights along the three newly-rennovated blocks of downtown.  The lights are “choreographed” to music played on a special FM station set up by the utility.  So as you drive down Main Street, you can get the full effect of the show.  It’s actually rather charming.  I’ve driven this lighted route several times now.  It has brought me pleasure.  I’ve noticed that a couple of the songs in the (rather limited) rotation have a distinctly evangelical Christian message.  One song in particular — by what sounds like a Christian “boy band” — proclaims (in a rather chastising manner) that it’s not a “Holiday”, but a celebration about Jesus!.

As I’ve listened to the lyrics in a lot of the Christmas music (in concerts and on the radio) I have thought to myself: what a shame.  What a shame that all of this accumulated output of human creativity that marks the music, the theater, the decorations and the tone of this mid-winter holiday had to be built upon this one religious story of a desert-living couple and a miraculous baby in a holy land.

I’ve had thoughts similar to this before.  Once, after reading a good book about the history of Norse mythology (including its eventual replacement by Middle-Eastern monotheism), it occurred to me that the Norse gods were much more interesting (and relatable) personalities than the distant monotheistic Yahweh of the Bible.  But the fact is that our Christmas is Christian because of the vagaries of history.  For whatever reasons, the Bible story was the one that “stuck”, and then it stuck around long enough to become a cultural artifact around which human artistic production naturally attached itself, until we had the accretion that is our modern Christmas.

Of course, there are counter-celebrations: The Winter Solstice and Kwanza, for example (Hanukah I don’t think would qualify in this instance, for obvious reasons).  But that’s about it.  Unless you count the commercial and secular sects of “Christmasianity” (what I’m calling the entirety of this central cultural event).  These more secular facets always stir up a certain segment of Christianity that is annually miffed about these perceived free-riders on THEIR celebration of the God-made-man-in-a-manger celebration.  But, then, the pagans (the few, the hardy that remain) are miffed that THEIR mid-winter celebration was co-opted by the Roman church all those years ago!

A lobe-finned fish -- an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from. A lobe-finned fish — an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

For years I have taken a certain piquant pleasure in the handful of surviving pre-Christian symbols that are embedded in the Jesus birthday party.  I find it a rather bracing testament to the persistence of our most basic human impulses toward celebration and community that even a religion as aggressive as monotheism has had to accommodate the practices of the pagan peoples it absorbed.  In this way, culture is like natural selection in that it (at least under ideal circumstances) retains the best products of evolution even as it continues to select new (and beneficial) innovations.

(I say “under ideal circumstances” because natural selection can only build upon what already exists, which in practical terms means that not all traits that are reserved are optimal.  In short, in evolution “good enough” is the functional equivalent of “perfect”.  And so we upright humans retain the marks of our bacterial past, or the body-plan that helped our ancient lobe-finned great-great-grandfishes locomote, or a hairy primate cling to her branch-y bed).

And so Christianity — having not so much displaced the earlier belief systems as subsumed them — becomes the newly grown tree around which the vines of art then grow.

This does not mean — by any stretch — that this one religion was the best possible one, or even the most inspiring, but by a certain point Christianity (and Islam, it’s paternal twin, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism) had become widespread enough to provide a common narrative vocabulary upon which artists could build.  In this way it’s not unlike the way in which Facebook has become the dominant social media platform.  This doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily — again — the best possible solution to this need for human sociability to find expression in a digital domain (it certainly has its dark and bothersome aspects), but it has become so dominant — in a field that requires dominance to exist — that Facebook has become THE platform around which we gather.  For now.

Art, being a form of communication, relies for its effectiveness on a shared set of reference points (to which the creative human can add novelty and surprise).  And so the familiar story of the baby Jesus is told and retold, abstracted, refracted, secularized, commercialized and even defiled, but the nativity narrative itself — through such use — becomes even more firmly entrenched in the culture.  It becomes “locked” in the same way that the first technological innovation to dominate becomes “locked”, and all subsequent developments must be built upon what came before, warts and all (technology, like nature, is constrained from spontaneously creating completely novel enterprises).  So when it comes to the many overtly religious threads that have been woven into our Christmas tapestry, one question becomes: how would we replace all of the songs and traditions with new (less religious) ones, without have to “un-weave the rug” as it were, and start from scratch?

And so the Christian part of Christmas is, for all practical purposes, a permanent fixture of my society.  But to be clear — this is not because it necessarily deserves to be so.  On that score, Christians could afford a touch of humility, and keep their complaints that “Jesus is the reason for the season” a bit more to themselves.  For what they fail to see is that even the Christian themes of Christmas are built upon earlier myths and celebrations so that we all are part owners of these celebrations in the deep, dark, mid-Winter, be we Pagan or Jew, Evangelical or Humanist.  And I, for one, think it is a good thing that Christmas (as we tend to celebrate it) has so many angles from which it can be viewed and enjoyed!

So there is actually no “missing” Christ to be “put back into Christmas” (he is there to stay).  The “battle for Christmas” is just a silly idea rooted in a hubristic ignorance of the realities of a history that moves on with what it’s got to work with (just like the path of evolution that re-worked the body plan of an ancient fish to give us these upright bodies that we can drape with ugly Christmas sweaters)!

I might just as well start a campaign to put the “Fisch” back in Fischmas.  Hey.  That’s not a bad idea!

One final thought: as I listened to a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the radio today, I realized that our faculties of inspiration seems to require a belief in something greater — much greater — than our “selves”.  We humans appear to need some things to be sacred, or magical, or hopeful, so much so that we are capable of leaving our old gods behind to embrace the newest ones (or ONE).  If we look at it that way, it turns out to be the gods that change, not the festivals.  So perhaps we can take comfort from the realization that though the sign (or symbol) over the door might change, the “human church” never will.

So I wish you a lovely Solstice. I hope you have wonderful memories of a warm Hanukah, or that you enjoyed a festive Kwanza.  And of course I wish you a Merry Christmas (whether you love the story of the baby Jesus or just enjoy all of the lights and the friends and the food).  This is a festival that belongs to all of us, because, well, evolution has made us all members of the church of the human being.  And whichever denomination of that church you happen to identify with, we are all still bound together in this  great adventure of existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Map of the Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case).  No sooner had the episode begun but  there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently.  I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment.  But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from.  I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.

Here is a good place to make something clear:  I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self).  Still, I have a need to “place” things.  That’s only natural.  The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.

So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain.  Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness.  This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical.  Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves.  But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat).  On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain.  So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.

That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears?  Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG  IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”.  (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”.   No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much.  But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention.  Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).

You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion.  This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”.  In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case.  This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness.  They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body.  (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us).  Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the "quirks" of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog). Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the “quirks” of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree –  the chirping birds in the upper branches?  I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is.  And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life).  But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain.  We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals.  Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).

The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score.  I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice.  But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.

I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today.  I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression.  This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”.  But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night.  It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob.  This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact.  But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear.  I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness.  After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction.  Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done).  My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic.  But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine.  I was learning to fight brain with brain.

Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness.  Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer.  The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.

The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response.  Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist.  It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.

Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”).  In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications.  (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul.  What a mess).

Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment.  This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).

And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon.  I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way.  I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand.  That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break.  In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.

As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).

In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in.  Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability.  And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man.  I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Existential Redecorating” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was one of those moments that could so easily have been missed.

I was describing to a friend the metaphor I use for our existential situation, living as we do in this age of science.  Specifically, that we spend a lot of our time in an “existential living room” that has a rather large hole in the wall that is open to the enormity of the universe.  And so every time we walk by that “hole” our eye is pulled toward the vast, gaping void lurking beyond the security of our (n0-longer solid) four walls and we are immediately gripped with discomfort, even dread.  The upshot being that we live with a constant reminder of our actual size (and, therefore, significance) on a cosmic scale.  It is a very real “Total Perspective Vortex” (for you “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fans out there).  (It can also be a reminder of how remarkable it is that we are even here to have such a reaction in the first place, but this is not, I think, our primary response to reminders of our mortality).

Having described this “hole in the wall” metaphor, I said to my friend: “God is the picture we hang to hide that hole”.

I went on to say, however, that this “picture” of God does not really answer any of the questions that trouble us about the unimaginable distances in both space and time that await to challenge our mammalian brains whenever we look outside of our parochial selves.  God, for instance,  may tell us that He created us only a few thousand years ago (right after he created the Heavens and the Earth) but God Himself is eternal, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  So all that we have done is substitute God’s incomprehensible vastness — which can be no smaller, certainly, than that of all of creation — for the equally incomprehensible vastness of that creation.  What is the difference?

And that’s when my buddy said, quietly: “Because we put a face on it.”

And I was stopped in my tracks by the power of that straightforward statement.

I had to turn it over in my mind.  Was it really that simple?  Could it possibly make that much difference to our response to the incomprehensible to just stick a face on it?  I tried to find a way around the idea, seek out the weaknesses in the argument, but there was none to be found.  So simple, so elegant in its simplicity.  Yes, I realized, we human animals are so finely attuned by our eons of social evolution to reading each others faces that it turns out all we have to do to calm our terrified souls is imagine a face like ours between us and all of that unsettling void.

That is a part of why God — improbable as the idea of God actually is — works.  Because it is not just the idea of God that we are dealing with: it is the image of God.  Through God we are able to put a face between us and all that is unknown.

I have to admit that with each sermon (even as I move ever toward more clarity about how the world seems to actually work) there are often little, nagging corners of doubt in almost every assertion I make.  Not because my assertions have proven to be false, but because it is the nature of exploration that each discovery brings the discoverer to a plateau where new landscapes — previously unseeable — become visible at the edge of one’s newly-acquired field of vision.

And so even as I have substantially answered the “big” existential questions for my own life, there remain other questions to answer.  Perhaps it’s like science in that way.  Let me explain. I take the view that we live in a post-evolution age, meaning that this foundational biological theory is well-established and extremely unlikely to be turned on it’s head by future discoveries.

(I say this recognizing that there are surely dramatic discoveries to come that will make us refine the theory in important ways.  For example, just look at how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed dramatically in recent years: one scientist made the breakthrough discovery that gave a real boost to the idea that some of the dinosaurs did not die out, but evolved into modern birds.  This discovery was joined with a seemingly sudden breakthrough in fossil discoveries that show that many dinosaurs were covered by “protofeathers”.  Many of the signs of this may have been sitting in museum drawers for decades, un-noticed, until the paradigm shift got people looking for what they hadn’t been looking for before.  This is dramatic stuff.  Like the modern understanding that not all of the hominids whose fossils have been found are on the same branch of our modern-family tree, and that our “cousins” the Neanderthals, died out only a few tens of thousands of years ago!)

But none of these recent discoveries have shaken the theory of evolution.  In truth, they only make sense when seen through an evolutionary framework.  But I expect that they — like all such discoveries — have made many scientists sit up and take notice of what other possible traits and clues they may have been missing because they weren’t expected!

And it’s the same with my own existential adventure.  Because it is one thing to answer (for oneself) the question of whether God does, or does not, exist.  But such a personal existential achievement does nothing to alter the reality of the ongoing human experience of God that plays such a huge role in lives of most of my fellow humans (which makes the “question” so “big” in the first place!).  So the questions change as our understanding moves to a finer scale that is (one hopes) better suited to asking the next right question.

So I often ponder why, with the knowledge we now have about our evolutionary origins and the formation of our planet, there seems to have been so little impact on the phenomenon of individual religious belief.  Even many who fully embrace the findings of geologists and paleontologists miss nary a step in maintaining an active belief in divine agency.

I glanced at this rock wall as I drove a mountain road, and immediately saw a face (just left of center, above “.com”) in the stones.

Of course, there are scientific answers for this now as well.  We have evidence from genetic research, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology (among other fields) that have gone a long way toward explaining the peculiarities of human behavior.  This science answers many of the “second-tier” questions that come after the “big” ones are answered, namely, the “why” of our continued religious behavior in an age of science.

The sum of this research tells me that there is no real mystery to our tendency toward belief in agency in the world, even where it is clear that none exists.  Science tells us that we find intention in nature because our brains are wired to find it (our “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device”).  As has been said by others, the evolutionary path favors the animal with more false positives than false negatives.  We’ve survived because we are animals wary of intention in other animals, the weather, and even disease.  And wary animals are rarely punished by natural selection (on a species-wide scale, at least) for erring on the side of caution.

And so here we are, so-called “modern” humans, convinced that we have now beaten nature by somehow completing the process of evolution by evolving to a point where we are — thanks to our technology and overall smarts, well, “done” with all of that.

This is an expression of the companion to our “Agency Detection Device”: our natural human self-centeredness — the solipsism that makes it unbelievably easy to see ourselves as worthy of the attention of a vast and incomprehensible sky god.  The god whose face we hang over that troubling hole in our existential living room wall.  The hole that — as long as we are the mortal animals that we are — we know we can never really make go away.  So we drape it with the framed face of benign divinity.  Or — if we feel we can’t do that bit of cognitive redecorating — we just go ahead and find a way to live with our destined-to-be-incomplete understanding of who and what we really are, and make whatever peace we can with the wonder and vulnerability of our existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Holy Science” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

The current “ding” on journalism is a new scrutiny on this policy that for every view expressed by one person, the reporter must find someone with an opposing view to quote in order to “balance out” the reportage.

Like so many things we legislate, there is an apparent logic and reasonableness to this.  But we end up with news that is often not representative of the actual facts under discussion.  A specialist might be interviewed for a science article, for example, but the opposing view might be nothing more than the uninformed opinion of someone who actually knows little about the issue at hand.  The reader or viewer can then be left with the idea that the specialist knows no more than the average man-on-the-street.

Not everyone thinks that this is a bad thing.  Especially when there is motive behind the actions of those who would defend their opinion not by showing that their information is better, but by painting their opposition as being no better that they are.  That way, no matter how foolish (or wrong) the less qualified speaker is proven to be, their opponent is linked to them in a sort of credibility death spiral.  This is a method of dragging the other down to your level so that if you can’t win, they still lose.

That’s what creationists do when they say that science is “only a theory”, promulgating the bad idea that a scientific theory is the same as a religious belief.  And they go further, not by proving that religious belief is valid, per se, but that science is simply a competing anti-god religion that people follow by faith.  They attempt to put everything on the level of faith — as if there is only Faith and anti-Faith.  They further portray scientists not as individuals seeking truth in experiment and evidence but merely other religiously-motivated believers using the apparent respectability of science to advance their escape from a God they wish to deny.

Lots of folks buy this stuff.  And it’s very compelling to many of us.  It is, after all, an appeal to our innate sense of fairness.  And whether we agree with a particular religious sect or not, we don’t like to see smarty-pants snobs with test-tubes beating up on the poor church kids.

For all his accomplishments, Darwin remains a respected scientist, not a saint.

Science — though made up of people as prone to belief as any –  is, however, a system designed to transcend belief with actual evidence that can inform belief to better match reality.  Religions don’t do that.  They work to persuade people with ancient stories that were made up at one time and then believed and than had to be believed as the only stories worth believing.  Science, on the other hand, proposes a hypothesis  (a story — a “guess”) that can be tested and, once “proven” to be correct, can become a theory (a story based on evidence that can be further refined as evidence confirms or dis-confirms it in whole or in part).  So a “theory” is ever on a path that can (at any time) lead to either the junk heap of bad ideas, or a designation of “truth”.  Some theories have been with us long enough (and have accumulated enough confirmatory evidence) that we consider them to be true.  (The theory of gravity, the theory of a heliocentric universe and the theory of evolution, as examples).

We’ve all seen that certain type of religious individual that likes to be regarded in a sort of semi-scientific way (as being supported by evidence in addition to faith).  This is the spiritual authority that assumes the title of Doctor, for example, and preaches the word (as given by God) but sprinkles it with references to scientific knowledge, thus borrowing from that knowledge to bolster his or her assertions (that if the flock obeys they will most assuredly see the promised results of goodness, blessings and happiness).  But this is a shadow system, based not on actual scientific experiment and evidence, but by an entrenched system of hearsay and selective memory.  Such as these want to borrow the shine of actual science without doing the actual work of submitting to the same experimental rigor.  Sorry.  No deal.

And yet the urge is seemingly irresistible — the spiritual are ever quick to pounce on any scientific study that appears to (or can be made to seem to) confirm their particular practice.  (So if you didn’t know better, you’d think the field of quantum mechanics was a kind of New Age spiritual discipline, for example).

The scientific method is not religion.  And religion is certainly not science.  We need science to be what it is.  Otherwise, we abandon all hope of determining our reality.  We will have only religious stories, not testable scientific theories.

One other point.  Darwin is the chief bugaboo of modern fundamentalist religious belief, and his “On The Origin of Species” marked as the evil book that came “from the pits of hell” to support the “anti-faith” of evolutionary science.  And yet you will not see Darwin’s book printed by the millions and broken into chapter and verse like the Gideons Bibles that lurk in the drawers of countless hotel rooms.  And you won’t see scientists treating “Origin” like Holy Scripture, either.  It is seen for what it is: an important historical document that is respected because of how many things Darwin got right, not because scientists believe that he got it all right for all time!  How could he have?  Darwin wrote his book long before the discovery of DNA, so he did not have the tools to determine the biological mechanism of the process of mutation he theorized in species.  He also didn’t have the knowledge of modern geologists who have proven the theory of plate tectonics (that explains how the continents that Darwin recognized must have once been joined could, in fact, have been joined as he imagined).  But neither is Darwin rejected for what he did not (and could not) have known.  Darwin is respected for the fact is that he put a lot of things together in a way that no-one had done before, and so he is revered still today as a remarkable human thinker who had the courage to state his theories based on the evidence he had.

History and science have proven him right.  Had science shown him to be wrong, we probably wouldn’t think so highly of Darwin today.  But his fame is certainly not the result of a conspiracy of anti-faith scientists making up evidence to support his Godless views: far from it.  Scientists relish the chance, after all, to prove each other wrong.  It is only after overwhelming evidence makes their contrary position untenable that many will assent to, well, evidential reality.

No.  Science is not the same as religion, and so it cannot be viewed as the anti-faith that the devoutly religious make it out to be.  It remains a human endeavor, yes, and will therefore remain subject to the occasional hoax, fraud or error.  But it is always better science that reveals the charlatan in the end.

I don’t think anything of human manufacture should be viewed as holy or sacrosanct.  It’s just too risky.  In our desire for things of permanence that will transcend our own inescapable mortality we are willing to bend truth to a remarkable degree.   Science, alone, stands in defiance of this force of fear and wishful thinking.  And so it should be allowed to stand for what it truly is.

This doesn’t mean that religious believers should be forced to yield to science.  Replacing one oppressive belief with another is not the point.  The point is to keep in our minds that religion and science are, well, religion and science.  And to better understand what that difference really means.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Mind of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  (Matthew 10: 29-31, New International Version)

I had my computer bag slung across my shoulder, and a sketchbook in my hand as I closed the truck door.  But as I stepped toward the coffee shop, I was reminded that I’d left a large plastic tub full of laundry in the open bed of my pickup truck.  So I turned around, and walked back to my truck to wrestle the heavy tub of clothing into the cab.  Pausing at the edge of my truck, I made the decision to set my sketchbook on the edge of the truck bed, but to keep the computer bag hanging from my shoulder as I unlocked the front door, lifted the heavy bin of clothes out of the bed and wrestled it into the front seat.  I locked the door, retrieved my sketch book, and resumed my short walk into the coffee shop.

So simple, so everyday, these actions I just described.  It’s the kind of thing we do “without thinking about it”.  But, of course, we do think about it.

For starters, there was a message to my conscious, working brain that reminded me of the laundry I’d earlier put in my truck.  And though I can surmise that this “reminder” was attached to memories of my practice of putting the laundry in the cab (when I’m somewhere I consider high risk for theft), the fact remains that this thought originated in a part of my brain linked to, but not the same as, my “conscious” mind.

Once that “reminder” entered my conscious mind, I paused while my reasoning brain made the rapid calculation of theft risk (in the present circumstance).  That accomplished, I then decided I would turn around and initiate the action.

Then came the calculation about how to best accomplish the task at hand.  What to do with the sketch book in my hand and the heavy bag hanging on my shoulder?  I paused for another moment as I mentally tried out a scenario of grabbing the large plastic bin with the tips of my fingers while still holding the sketchbook in my left hand, but I dismissed that idea as being unnecessarily risky.  That meant I then had to decide where to put the book before finally choosing the flat edge of the truck bed.

Having done that, I unlocked the driver’s side door (though this happened pretty much “without thought” — or, at least, any thought I was aware of).  As I positioned myself to lift the laundry, I had to sense where the weight of my shoulder bag was so as to keep my balance (this I was aware of — to a degree), and then — using the edge of the truck as a brace for my lower body –  prepare to lift the heavy bin in a way that wouldn’t re-injure my dodgy lower back.

All that done, I began to lift the bin, and I felt muscles along my torso tighten to meet the load and allow the energy of my movement to lift the tub of clothes.  It was in this moment of muscle (familiar) movement, as I was swinging the tub into the front seat, that a more abstract thought came into my mind — an idea completely unrelated to the task at hand (made possible by the bit of free space now available to my conscious mind now that all those decisions had been made).  What popped into my head (from yet another part of my brain) was the idea for this sermon, and it occupied my mind to a degree that I had no short-term memory of the final movements of this entire laundry-moving episode!

But then suddenly, it seemed, I realized I had been oblivious to what my body had just been doing with a rather heavy, awkward object, and was only now conscious of walking back into the coffee shop, thinking, once more, about God.

Remarkable.  All of it, really.

What all of this lead me to was a consideration of the “mind” of God.  I think it’s safe to say that the fundamental understanding of how God works in the world is that He is conscious of every single action or process that is occurring (not only on the Earth, but in the entire universe and, well, into whatever “beyond” there is beyond that).  Which would mean that there would seem to be nothing that God does unconsciously (or reflexively).  To trot out that old chestnut, it’s not unlike our idea of how Santa Claus knows whether every child on earth has been bad or good.  Like God, Santa has helpers, of course (in Santa’s case, elves, in God’s case, angels).  But no-one believes that these helpers are doing the thinking for their respective bosses (they are more like Odin’s twin ravens that swooped over the countryside, bringing that ancient Norse god news of his domain).

A “Sparrow” that fell.

But let us consider how the only minds we have experience of actually work.  As my rather prosaic example illustrates, we rely on a multilevelled brain in everything we do.  We tend to think of ourselves as (primarily) the conscious, analytical part of our mind, with the emotional, “gut” part coming in a close second.  And yet “beneath” these two levels are other highly active “brains”.  There is, of course, what we think of as the most basic level, the part that runs all of our “automatic” systems.  This is the part that keeps us breathing, our heart beating, our cells regenerating, our hair and fingernails growing.  This part of the brain is almost like the car we drive that keeps rolling down the highway even while our mind is off thinking about where we’re going to eat lunch.  It demands our attention from time to time (such as when we are ill or injured), and can also be influenced by our higher levels of thinking (we can hold our breath, for example, or use cognitive techniques to calm a pounding heart).  But mostly, it just runs and runs and runs without our input.  Until, of course, it stops (at death).

But “above” this level, there is an incredible, constant volume of communication going on below the level of consciousness.  Take for example the chatter between the nerve endings in the gut and the brain that regulate the myriad processes of our physical bodies and maintain the homeostasis that allows our conscious mind to be thinking about football scores or what color of shirt to wear.

And this is where I’m going with this notion of the “mind of God”.

If there is a God (and if we are truly “made in His image”) than it would stand to reason that the mind of God might operate in the way that our minds do (and every other animal with a brain of any complexity).  In short, God would have a conscious mind that can focus attention in one place at a time, as well as an unconscious mind that reminds him of this or that, and a deeper level of “mind” that sees to the hairs on your head and the sparrow dropping dead from out of the sky (as the verse from Matthew describes at the top of this sermon).  It seems to me that there is no other way the mind of God could possibly work, if it were to work at all in any meaningful, personal way.

But this presents a problem for our usual conception of how our “personal” God engages with His creation.

Think about it like this: imagine, for a moment, if you had to use your frontal lobes to consciously monitor the amount of iron in every single cell in your bloodstream at this moment, as well as the amount of glucose being harvested by your gut from your breakfast, while still keeping your speeding car in the correct lane and planning your work day.  What if, while doing all of this, you also felt it every time a cosmic particle ripped through a strand of your DNA, and you had to then consciously command the correct proteins to repair that damage (about 100 billion solar neutrinos pass through your thumbnail alone every second, according to scientists).  You’d also simultaneously be directing every molecule in your skin as it builds new body hair in every follicle (you have over three million hairs, in case you’re wondering), while also deciding when to command a damaged cell to destroy itself to protect the whole (apoptosis).  You’d also be the “mind” of every bit of bacteria in your body or the flora in your gut as the synapses fired in your brain with each thought (and then had to be re-charged before they could fire again).  And all of this (multiplied by a number that I, frankly, can not even comprehend) while paying attention to all of the things in daily life that already often stretch our capacity to its limits!

Now, imagine the mind of God doing that for every living thing.  For every rock, planet, particle and neutron.  This is what we think God does all of the time for all of eternity, while still having time to hear our prayers at night.

Suddenly I can see God as the old-fashioned hard-working father who feels put upon to have to work like a dog all day at the cosmic office and still be there for his family at night, only much, much, much worse.

Clearly, whoever came up with such a notion of God wasn’t thinking very scientifically.  But, then, when our ideas of God were formed, the workings of our own brains and bodies (and nature and the cosmos, for that matter) were opaque mysteries to us.  The Bible (along with other “ancient” religious texts) is very much a pre-science document.  Sure, we had domesticated crops and animals by then, and were employing primitive medicine, but we were doing all of this in the dark, as it were.  It was all trial and error with no knowledge of the biological processes underlying our occasional lucky outcomes.

And yet this original idea of a personal God persists.  How can that be, especially when each of us can’t help but be aware of just how large and crowded our planet is?  The simplicity of our ideas of God makes sense when we look at the complexity of our own brains, and how they have managed to evolve in a way that does not demand that we think about everything all-of-the-time.  Thanks to the hierarchy of our consciousness, I can be thinking about something else while lifting a bin full of laundry.  So I can rather easily think of the God of the Universe as a close, attentive, personal friend any time I want to, free of the dissonance of the logical barriers to such an idea.  Our minds are very good at filtering out “noise” in order to hear what we want (or need) to hear.  Our survival has depended upon it.

So it would appear that it is because we are so good at filtering that we are also so good at believing in an all-powerful (yet personal) God like we do.  To be honest, we don’t really have the time or mental RAM to try to take in the incredible complexity that not only surrounds us, but that is us.  We are natural “simplifiers”, and so in practice we give little thought to how God might actually do what we so blithely claim that he does.  And there is also good reason to let that be as it is.

Most of us have clear memories of the moment we learned that Santa Claus wasn’t “real” (I apologize deeply to any of my readers who are hearing this news for the first time).  And so, perhaps, having lost Santa, we are doubly loathe to replace the grown-up version (or to even equate the two figures).  We provide diligent support for a child’s belief in Santa (up to the day the truth finally comes out), but then as adults we (just as diligently) extend to each other nearly unending social support for a basic belief in God.  (Religion may come in many flavors and brands, but even the weirder ones still buy into the basic notion of an all-seeing intelligence “up there”).

There is an aspect to this that is actually very human.  If God is, indeed, the more durable adult replacement for childhood belief in the jolly red elf, this points to our need for belief, as well as our creativity in seeing to it that such emotional cognitive needs are met.  (I happen to think that some form of belief is actually quite “natural” to us, having the kind of brains that we do).  People such as I could have little problem with such a state of affairs if it ended there: in the warmth of a pleasurable fantasy.  But as we all know, it often doesn’t, and there are believers who take their belief very seriously in a way that weaponizes faith in a manner that produces more misery than magic.

And this is why I criticize irrational religious belief.  Not to remove the enjoyable experience of magic and wonder, but to ward off  the predatory humans who use our cognitive vulnerability for inhumane ends.  (Those whom — if He were truly paying attention to everything, all of the time — God would be flick off the planet in very short order).

I will never be able to state as absolute fact that God doesn’t exist.  This is a question that science cannot answer.  What I am saying is that our idea of God does not hold up to even a fairly low-level of scrutiny.  Some will argue that this is purely a problem with the limited capacity of humans to comprehend the divine.  But this dodges the question, as the human conception of God is the only product on offer — by their own argument they are admitting that we can know no other God than the one we know.  To me, this is the most profoundly quiet argument against the existence of any spiritual reality of the kind that we humans most often imagine: an omniscient God who’s eye is, nevertheless, truly on the sparrow, and who watches over me and you.

t.n.s.r. bob

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: “Fairness in the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

What is fair?  Definitions of “fairness” include adherence to rules or codes of conduct, or deciding issues without bias.  Like any other concept, it requires reference to something else for its definition (such as the color blue being described as the color of the daytime sky).  But how would we explain fairness (or “blue”) to a being who had no points of reference in common with us?

We act as if there is a Cosmic Standards Office which maintains an unchangeable set of rules and guidelines for us humans to follow.  We can therefore switch to immediate outrage when societal rules are broken or flaunted, and yet we all rationalize our own infractions, be they small or large.  We shout for justice, and hope that our own actions pass by unpunished.

God, of course, has traditionally been seen as the Chief Guardian of the laws of morality.  And yet there is certainly just as much variance in moral behavior in God’s followers as in the general population. Whatever the power of faith, that power is most certainly limited or, at the least, diffuse in its ability to influence the world at large.

But what if there is no God to keep of the rules?  No-one manning the phones at the Cosmic Standards Office?  What does that mean for our idea of “fairness”?  The believer in God would tell you that it means everything, for without God, there is no morality (and, in fact, according to more fundamentalist believers, no reason to be moral at all)!  This is a rather dramatic view, I think, but I can understand that some would take it rather hard were God to be proven a false idea, and would therefore take everything that they had heretofore associated with that false God to be worthy of scorn.

Fairness, then, would become a meaningless, abandoned notion (to those holding such a view).  But only because we have associated the idea of ethical behavior with God — as its ultimate source — in the first place.  The advantage of an evolutionary view of life is that we can see morality for the evolved social system that it is, independent of the idea of God (except insofar as some of the codification of human morality has become an industry of religion).

If science is correct, and we have, in fact, evolved over millions of years from earlier life forms, then it is highly unlikely that there is a C.S.O. to back up any of our moral claims.  And yet, morality exists, for we humans are most assuredly highly sensitive to behaviors that we see as “unfair”.  The existence of social mores and codes is not mysterious to the scientifically minded.  We are, after all, profoundly social animals, and we can observe versions of “our” moral behavior in other social animals, including our primate cousins.

We (naturally, I think) judge the social behavior of other animals by our own standards, always in reference to their difference from (or similarity to) our own.  We wonder why the cheetah “cheats”, or the chimp “steals”.  (But, then, we wonder why we humans cheat and steal and murder and lie)!  And so we have had to add to “God the Lawgiver” “God the Ultimate Enforcer” who has, for his own reasons, left us to duke it out with each other until he finally steps in (at the “last days”) and invites all the good (moral) humans to move into his eternal gated community where the riffraff will be kept out with pointy barbs and eternal hellfire.

(Clearly, the immoral behavior of others of our own species really troubles us, otherwise, we would never have come up with such severe and lasting divine punishments for our enemies).

As I’ve said before, one of the most remarkable facts of the removal of God from the question of human morality is how little impact it really has on that morality. That’s because the major force keeping you and me in line is the social pressure from other humans, not divine punishment.  Even the power of the police rests partly in the potential shame and public censure that would come from an arrest or conviction.  Professional criminals and psychopathic individuals aren’t bothered by the embarrassments that terrify the rest of us.  But as Giulia Sissa says (in”Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” — reviewed this blog), “Those that cannot blush do not belong to a community”.

And there is the thing: most of us do belong to a community, be it a family, a company, a church, a social organization, you name it.  In fact, most of us belong to a number of such communities at the same time.  And needing each other as much as we do (whether we like to admit it or not), we are constantly measuring our behavior, whether it be our words or actions, according to how much of our personal desire we can express and according to the potential for positive or negative feedback from our social groups (or partner).  We have brains that are finely tuned to the slightest nuance in expression or tone from whoever we are engaging with.  We burn a lot of calories keeping our place in the troop, as it were.

And fairness is one of those things that we appeal to in such situations.  We want to be treated fairly (especially when we aren’t getting what we think is our due), and it’s often hard for us to give up that little bit extra we really wanted to keep for ourselves in order to be seen as being fair to others.  But we all understand that exhibiting fairness is one of the lubricants to our social “rubbing along” together.

But the cold, hard reality that confronts us is that there is no fairness in the universe, except where we (and the other social animals) have put it in place.  There is balance in nature, yes, but only as a result of natural forces tending toward a sort of active equilibrium, but this is far from our notion of fairness as it would exist in the mind of an all-knowing conscious (and heavenly) being.

This is hard for us to consider, having such a long history of assuming that God is behind everything.  And though the idea that morality could even exist without God is unthinkable to many believers in God, the reality is that it does, in fact, exist.  It exists because we exist.

This is not an example of making “man” out to be “God”.  That’s just silly.  For I am not elevating man to the status of the divine, I am simply eliminating the divine from the discussion as being irrelevant to the matter under discussion.  And though humankind is not thereby exhalted to Heaven, we are, I think, lifted up a bit to a more proper place as author and keeper of our morality and ethics.

And let’s be honest: moral codes are a moving target.  They change over time and are loaded with more exemptions than a corporate tax return.  Morality is, in practice, a sort of averaging out of viewpoints that we all loosely ascribe to.  It is constantly tested, affirmed by judges and juries, or altered by courts and shifting public opinion.  (In this, it is similar to the “balances” we see in nature).  All that religion does is mark a line in the sand that is nothing but an agreement to hold fast at some arbitrary date in history when such-and-such was worthy of a public flogging.

Does this make morality (and our sense of fairness) meaningless?  Of course not.  It makes it nothing other than what it has always been: the social codes supported by a particular society at a particular time.

The advantage of Humanism over religion is that Humanism recognizes that morality is our own affair, which then allows us to direct our energies toward using reason and evidence to make the rules as useful and beneficial to as many humans as possible.  It removes the idea of God’s immovable goalposts (which were never really immovable), and replaces them with the recognition of the evolutionary nature of morality.

To be human is to be fair, and to be fair is to be human (or an ape or a whale or an elephant).  We should give ourselves credit for introducing the idea into the universe, even though the universe is annoyingly incapable of appreciating this remarkable fact.

t.n.s.r. bob

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 Big Answers” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 28th, 2012
The not-so-reverend bob…pondering.

Today I’m pondering a rather fundamental question: what has the spread of scientific knowledge meant to religious faith?  In some ways, this is the central question I keep returning to with this blog.  To me the answer is rather simple: an increase in scientific knowledge will decrease the space available for irrational religious belief.

Of course there are two basic assumptions underlying this notion, the first being that religious explanations for phenomenon occupy the same mental space that scientific, evidence-based explanations would occupy.  And therefore it becomes a rather straightforward process of replacing old, incorrect information with newer, better knowledge. The second assumption is that all humans are reasonable and rational.   As the proverb says, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8, New International Version, © 1984).  The formulation, then, is simple: a wise man will respond positively to new information (and even thank you for the correction)!

But obviously this is not always the case.  Perhaps all that this process of the spread of scientific knowledge is really doing is separating out the “mockers” from the “wise men”.  But for “mockers” I would substitute those that are anti-science in the face of ever mounting evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and “wise men” would be those who have successfully internalized scientific knowledge.  (In this second group, I would venture that there are many who have been able to remain both religious and reasonable, at least to the degree that their religious beliefs are of a nature as to be able to coexist with an evolutionary view of the biological world.  In these cases, science has, indeed, occupied the ground once held by religiously-inspired explanations of the physical world, but a corner has been reserved for “spirituality”, an area thought to remain off-limits to the scientific method — not because science shouldn’t investigate the spirit realm, but because science is not believed to be equipped to investigate it).

But there are those (such as myself), that see a bit more writing on the wall, as it were, and feel that scientific knowledge does not simply replace some religious knowledge, but, in fact, points out the fallacious basis of all religious knowledge.  This is materialism (which is not a deep love of buying material things, but an understanding that there are no non-physical phenomenon, and that any seemingly non-physical phenomenon is far more likely to appear mysterious only because it is presently misunderstood).  There are a lot of us out there, to be sure (a great proportion of scientists are materialists compared to the general population, but even here the majority is not complete).  But those who come right out and call themselves atheists or materialists remain a small proportion of the general population.

The huge, honking, obvious, maddening question, then, becomes this:  how in the world can that be in this modern world whose very health and economies depend on the products of science?  A world where many of us are alive only because we were administered a vaccine as a child, or were able to be treated with medicine for an infection or disease that (in an earlier time) could easily have cost us a limb or our life?  We obviously believe in science when we refrigerate our food or take an aspirin or antibiotic, or when we drive our car or fly somewhere on a jet.  And yet there is this persistent dependence on religious belief that produces the rather astounding phenomenon of half of our population still disbelieving in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Considering the evidence for evolution, the implications of this state of affairs is enormous.  It means that over half of our population is woefully or willfully ignorant of one of the most basic truths about their own existence: many of these think that they were created as human beings some six or eight or ten thousand years ago.  They don’t know (or simply refuse to accept) that their ancestors were once small, furry mammals about the size of a shrew, or — long eons before — lobe-finned fish.

Think about this for a moment.  Has not one of the primary reason’s for religion’s existence been the story it tells us about our origins?  Isn’t it always the questions of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here that have been considered the most fundamental to our happiness?  Religion is loved, revered, followed, fed and supported (in part) out of sheer gratitude for the answers it has provided to these questions.

But it turns out that the answers from religion to these fundamental questions have been wrong.  Perhaps not intentionally, but wrong none the less.  And not just a little wrong on the details, but off by a magnitude that makes the word “magnitude” seem insufficient as a descriptor!  We were not formed out of mud and spit by an actual, physical God in an actual, physical Garden of Eden.  We evolved from the earliest forms of “life” on an ancient planet formed out of cosmic dust and elements born in dying stars — not on a world created in seven days.  Mental illness is not caused by the possession of individuals by demons, but by genetic defects that occur in the copying of our DNA through sexual reproduction.  Diseases are not caused by the sins of the father or of the son, but by bacteria and viruses that invades our very physical bodies.  More than half the cellular weight of your body is bacteria.  We basically have the iron-rich seawater in which we first evolved running in our veins.  We still have tailbones, for crying out loud.  We now know that we share almost all of our DNA with chimpanzees, who we must regard as our distant cousins.  All of this we know, now.  And there is no telling how much more we will know by the time my short life is over.

And yet…religious belief persists.  Science is denied.  And yet we consider ourselves rational beings.  But if we were truly rational beings, and not so bounded about with wariness and distrust of those outside of our particular tribe (be that a blood family, political party or nation), we would simply weigh the evidence for the question at hand, and accept the good as a ready replacement for the old.  But we don’t always do that.  And even when we do, we do not always do it easily.

Here’s the facts, then.  Science has answered the most basic questions of our existence.  The big existential quest to find out why the hell we are even on this planet has been successful.  You and I live in the first generation of humans ever to know what we know about our natural origins.  Others have suspected it, Darwin theorized it, but we live in the age of proof of their theories.  We know.

We know, and yet…we still believe.

Make what you will of that fact, it remains a most telling trait of we human animals.  We sent scientists to find the answers to life, but we didn’t like the answers they found.  Instead of being the “wise man” thanking the scientist for his or her labor, all too many “mock” them.

My hope is that, over time, the implications of scientific knowledge will continue to penetrate our consciousness in ways that produce clearer thinking about social and political issues, instead of the kind of atavistic denial that marks most religious fundamentalism.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Getting Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version, © 1984)

The “rev” as a young Art Director in his “therapy years”.

I read that Bible verse early in what I call my “therapy years”.  I was 27, working as an Art Director for an industry publishing company, and deeply involved in my church (in fact I would soon be off on my church-supported stint as a “smuggler for Jesus” in Europe).

The immediate impact of that verse was to make me feel better about paying for my ongoing therapy sessions (with a Christian psychologist) after I had used up my annual insurance benefit for outpatient therapy.  I was facing about three months, I think, of paying full-fare for my “wisdom”, and it seemed like an awful lot of money.

I don’t regret paying that money.  I don’t miss it.  I think I made the right choice.  But I have been wondering a bit about how to quantify the effects of the years of self-examination, therapy, counseling, reading, journaling and psychic-visiting that followed.

I find I must seriously consider the possibility that much of the calm and happiness that now mark my life are as much the product of natural processes that influenced my physiology, (in most particular my brain) as they are the earned result of all of my navel-gazing.

It could be argued that the single most remarkable thing about us humans is the capacity we have to use our minds to “step outside of ourselves” and observe our own behavior.  We can act instinctively, react quickly, and yet at the same time (or shortly thereafter) notice what we are doing and analyze it.  It is a rather amazing ability, and one that we point to as a large part of what defines us as “humans”.  But at every level beneath this one (both cognitive and physiological), we are still such animals, really.  I know that we give this idea a nod in many ways, and yet I don’t know how much we really give it its due.

As a young man, it was probably obvious to everyone but me how driven my behavior was by the testosterone pulsing in my system.  I would sometimes find myself in a sexual situation that a part of my mind — had it the courage to speak up — would have asked of the rest of me: “But, do you really want to be here?”.  (The answer would, at times, have been “No”).

(Is this the dilemma that Paul talks about in the Bible as well?  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15, New International Version, © 1984)?  Such questions troubled me as a young, enthusiastic Christian).

We know now — thanks to science — that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 27.  So in that sense it’s not surprising that the late-mid-twenties marked the beginning of my “therapy years”.  I was a young professional out in the world, with enough experience to begin to question whether the way I engaged that world was really optimal.

We read about the “mid life crisis” that hits forty-year-old men, but I was a bit early for that.  And yet, when I hit thirty, I found myself in another period of re-examination.  I did a bit more therapy, and read a lot of self-help literature (which was coming out like a flood in the popular press then).  “New Age” ideas had also become popular enough to be considered “mainstream”, and so I found an easy substitute for my my abandoned Christian belief system (as well as a whole new set of “enlightened” ideas and techniques to try out in order to achieve emotional stability and “happiness”).

I worked that New Age angle for about as long as I’d worked my Christianity (roughly 15 years), eventually finding a psychic who had a technique of deeply affirming me as an individual that set me on a quest for my new Holy Grail of total self-acceptance (a quest that eventually led me to abandon the “spell of belief” altogether).

But I can remember many years made up of long, painful days trying to find a way out of depression or anxiety into a brighter world, using any tool, tip or technique that presented itself.

Eventually, the clouds began to lift.  And over a rather long period of time, I found myself feeling more and more like a complete and coherent being, a process that took a long time to get rolling but, once it did, created a sort of momentum that was its own positive feedback loop.  And then, one day, I realized that I was actually happy and getting happier, becoming increasingly content with the way I saw the world and the person I was in that world.  And one night the familiar catalog of past events that I had mulled, autopsied, and replayed in endless mental loops for years and years suddenly lost their psychic punch.  The past, it would seem, had finally slipped into irrelevance.

The story I would have told you then would have been one of pride in all of the “self work” I had done.  I was proud that I had consistently made the choice to “buy wisdom”, to look inward and face my demons and — most importantly — have the courage to be willing to be completely accepting of whoever it was “Bob” turned out to  be.  It was, indeed, a point of pride, and of no small comfort when I compared my humble external accomplishments to my peers who had families and houses and such.  Others may have gained the world, but I had gained my soul!

But now I’m not so sure.  Not about my current persistent happiness or the man I’ve turned out to be, but about just what the major factors in that process really were.

For it turns out that there is science to be considered here: for not long after my young male brain had matured, it began its cognitive decline into the decay of the thirties and forties.  But with a twist: for it seems that the aging brain works to compensate for the “Swiss cheese-like” holes forming in our gray matter by creating new synaptic connections between the hemispheres of the brain.  So what I thought was the product of my deep introspection and analysis — namely my new-found ability to synthesize thought and emotion — was more likely the result of this natural patch-work happening inside my skull.  And then, of course, there is the seemingly inevitable age-related drop in male testosterone levels (that goes a long, long way to mellowing out a man).

After a few years of those lower testosterone levels, I found myself much less the jittery lone-wolf I had been before, and was more like a cat that didn’t mind curling up and purring with people now and again.  People I had known for years almost overnight became beloved friends whom I treasured.  I became a loving man.

Then came the years when I was seeing people I knew in the obituaries every week (most in the year leading up to the death of my father at age 91).  When my dad died, I was just about exactly half his age.  Suddenly I was thrust into another period of reflection, only now I was looking back on a life of learning my professional, artistic skills from the perspective of the master pondering his path to that mastery.  And after a couple rough years of transition into “middle age” that followed, I finally decided that my primary job would no longer be my own self-discovery and growth, but that the remaining years (at least until the next phase hit) would be to get on with doing all that I could with all that I had for as long as I could.

And then finally, after all of that, I hit a time in my life where I began to feel that I had, after all, gained a good bit of wisdom.  I wasn’t ready to be a yogi on a mountaintop – - I had to much yet to do with the remnant of youth still in my physical body and brain — but I did have that sense that if it all ended tomorrow, I had, at least, achieved that much with my life.

But now I wonder just how much of that wisdom came from all of my questing and questioning, anguish and acquiring, and how much was mostly the result of having simply stayed alive long enough for my brain to move through the phases of the first fifty years of my life?  It’s impossible to know.

(In fairness to my introspective self, I think that what I am really looking at here is the issue of emotional equilibrium and emotional intelligence — the sort of self-knowing that allows us to make decisions based on a certain clarity about what we feel, desire and need, not our storehouse of general knowledge or acquired technical skills, though the former helps in the application and appreciation of the latter, perhaps more than the acquisition of the latter inevitably brings about the former).

In short, it is not impossible to believe that a good deal of what I would like to take “credit” for (in terms of my general “happiness” or “contentment”) is pretty much pure biology that I have dressed up in a contemporary “personal growth” narrative.

This viewpoint has the appeal of injecting a bit of humility into the way I view the “wisdom” I have acquired in my lifetime.  And that, to me, is a fairly good indicator of the amount of “truth” in the idea.  It’s something I like about science: it puts us in our place in a particular way.  Meaning that it doesn’t degrade us (as another person might for their own gain), but neither does it give us license to think of ourselves as more clever than we actually are.  Science is, I think, the single best mirror we have in which to behold our true selves.  Everything else is wishing and fear.

Does this mean, then, that all the reading, counseling, praying, thinking and wondering I did in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties was a waste of time, energy and money?  No, I don’t think I can say that.  After all, I had to fill those difficult years with something, and I did, at least, choose to occupy myself some useful actives (I went to art school, for example, and worked a series of professional jobs, continuing to seize opportunities to develop my natural artistic talents into professional abilities).  But when it comes to all of the “self-help” work, I think it will remain an open question whether it was anywhere near as effective as I needed to believe it was at the time!

And so I’m left with this: not knowing, completely, from whence I — as the individual I now am — sprang.

My DNA, of course, was there from the start, and I was lucky enough to have a family that saw to it that I didn’t starve or get eaten by hyenas.  I was educated and socialized by my parents and siblings so that I could make my own way in the world.  I had opportunities for counseling when my melancholic and anxious personality was more than I could handle.  I had time alone to think…and think…and think (perhaps a bit too much of that).  And I had a talent for art and expression that gave me a place to invest time and education that eventually became a deeply satisfying career.  But in so many ways I am simply a male animal that has had the good fortune to live long enough to mature through the sequential phases of childhood into a mature adult who is now able to enjoy his life free from many of the uncomfortable by-products of DNA’s insistent urge to procreate.

After eons of the biological evolution that led to my own human parents, I have navigated the tumbling whitewater of my individual evolutionary path and lived to pop out the other side — onto calmer waters where evolution doesn’t give a rip about what happens to me next.  It is a fluke of history that I am alive in a time where so many of us get to live as long as we do in this post-evolutionary land of (potentially) enjoyable existence.  And though I can’t completely credit my own wisdom for getting me here, maybe I can borrow back just a bit of that satisfaction — suspect though it is — in recognizing that I do have the wisdom to recognize who and what I am.

t.n.s.r. bob