Posts Tagged ‘by the not so reverend bob’

SERMON: “A Sense of Meaning” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

While walking on the treadmill at the gym, I watched a morning news feel-good story about an American military neurosurgeon who was haunted by an Iraq War patient he had treated.  The soldier that landed on his operating table was “the most horribly wounded soldier” the surgeon had ever seen.  But they patched up his terrible head wound and shipped him off to Germany.  Years later, the doctor was ready to re-visit his war experience.  He Googled the name of the soldier he was sure had died of his wounds and, to his surprise, the man popped up in a T.V. interview, very much alive.

The news story then showed video from that interview of a man who looked as if someone had scooped out a third of his brain and replaced a portion of his formerly-round skull with a sunken flat plate.  But the soldier could walk and talk, despite having lost a chunk of his frontal lobe.

And though the soldier was “not up to another interview” (for this current report), there were still-pictures of him and his neurosurgeon meeting.  The doctor reported (after) that he had asked his former patient what I thought was a deeply insightful question: was he happy that he had survived?  The soldier answered that, yes, he was.

This was a powerful moment.  About as profound as can be imagined.  But, of course, these kinds of news stories aren’t really about the profound (or disturbing) aspects of these stories: they are meant to be inspirational, aspirational, “feel-good” tales of that type that allows you and I to easily borrow some added confidence (in our own resilience) from hearing of the experiences of someone who’s been through real shit.

But I don’t feel good when I watch a story like this.  I see the lingering, daily struggle (that is the long shadow of the original tragedy) that looms over the “happy ending” that we are all supposed to assent to — and move on from — having snatched up our bit of “borrowed courage”.  (I felt the same way about all of the cheering for the slightest progress of Representative Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head).

As I watched the story of the “recovered” soldier this morning, I reflexively uttered “Goddamn war”, expressing a deep revulsion at the idea that sentient individuals had worked together to create the conditions of war under which a strong, physically able young man was suddenly and irrevocably stripped of a large chunk of his capacities.

But even as I said that, I realized that other humans were very likely watching this story and having equally strong emotional reactions that were going to be the complete opposite of mine.  Some might feel a sweeping sense of admiration for the soldier, or awe at the doctor’s skill, or anger at the bastards that set off the road-side bomb that wounded the soldier.  In short, each of us who react to a story react according to different sets of moral triggers.  As Jonathon Haidt describes so well in “The Righteous Mind” (reviewed this blog), we humans fall into one of several categories on that score (meaning that — when presented with a moral dilemma — though many of us will react in similar ways, we are not safe to assume that all humans will react in the same way we do).

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Despite this natural variation in our moral response, in practice I think that we all pretty much assume that our moral centers are the ones that are properly calibrated, and so we are often surprised when the obvious wrong that outrages us don’t elicit the same outrage in others.  This is abundantly clear in politics and social values, where, as an example, an evangelical conservative might see abortion as the moral equivalent of institutionalized genocide, yet be mystified by a progressive who sees the denial of the right of a gay citizen to marry as the equivalent of denying an African American of his legal rights because of his race.

So it would seem that the thing that we all have in common is not the particular moral issue we react to, but the strength of the reactions we have to events that outrage (or inspire) us.

It is clear to me that we are “feeling” animals.  And I would take this further and suggest today that it these sorts of experiences — when our deep emotions are attached to experiences — that are, to my mind, the source of all that we might possibly define as “meaning”.

Each of us, if pressed, could probably write out a list of the things that make life “meaningful”.  I suspect that these would be the activities (or traits) that we feel the most strongly about.  We might put on that list “a sense of purpose”, or “love”, or “meaningful work” or “kindness”.  These are the kinds of things that make us feel good in a way that we see as different from the simple satisfying of a hunger for food or a lust for sex.  These are the kinds of things that give us a specific kind of feeling — that sense of well-being that comes from a regular experience of the “higher” emotions.

What do I mean when I argue that it is the welding of our “higher” emotions to experience that forms the basis for meaning in our lives?  I realize that we might be hesitant to grant this rather mechanical-sounding point, as one of the things that makes our “higher” emotions, well, “higher” is that we attribute to them a certain transcendent quality.  Part of the reason they have such an elevated influence on us is that they come upon us in ways that are most often rare and wondrous.  They are harder to generate than the simpler pleasures of eating our favorite snack or watching our favorite t.v. show.  Like everything else, their rarity makes them precious and highly valued.  And like everything else of value, it almost follows as axiomatic that we will try to manufacture these most desired feelings (the “feel good” story I relate above is a perfect example of this).

Now to a religious person, all of this may simply sound like me trying to drag the realm of the angels down to earth.  (That’s just silly, of course, because no actual angels will be harmed by this sermon).  But many do seriously believe that a materialistic view of life (meaning that there is nothing about our experience of life that happens outside of natural processes, whether understood or not) leads to a cheapening of human life.  I hardly think this is the case, but it’s worth taking a serious look at this important point.

The fear of a materialistic view is, I think, twofold: The first being that a loss of external (divine) validation will weaken the moral bonds that moderate bad human behavior.  The second fear is that our experience of the transcendent will simply cease (this fear being a reflection of just how much we value these experiences and feelings).  Both of these fears are rooted in the assumption that morality and transcendent experience are purely products of God, of which we are passive recipients and respondents: i.e. we are not the source.

Were this to be an accurate description of reality, these fears would, indeed, be reasonable and completely valid (for then it would be true that if God were to go away, then with Him would go our treasured morality and ecstatic experience! ) But here is the tricky part of this transition from what is, essentially, our habitual practice of dislocating portions of our consciousness from inside the brain to outside of our physical selves: if we can allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that our experience of existence is actually a process occurring within the confines of our body and brain, then this deep fear of this great loss becomes meaningless and moot.  If we can allow ourselves this shift — what I would call a returning of our dislocated self to it’s true location, what actually changes is more akin to moving some colored pins on a map than actually moving any actual nations or landmasses.  Nothing essential actually changes (or goes away).  We are simply thinking about our experiences differently.

To be honest, it might be worth saying here that even when I locate (or conceptualize) my self within my physical body, I still experience my thoughts and feelings in a sort of imagined space in that body — meaning that I’m not actually sensing where each synapse or nerve is functioning when I think or feel.  So it could be argued that I am quibbling over swapping one conceptually useful inaccuracy for another, more useful one!  So why even bother with it?

As I’ve asserted before, recognizing that you and I only get this one chance at being living, breathing human beings reveals, to my mind, a truer value of life.  There is no hiding our naked vulnerability in “heavenly rewards” or “the next life”.  (Yes, our DNA carries on in our children, and our component elemental parts will be “recycled” once we no longer require them in our living bodies, but we will most likely not go on living forever as the individuals we were in life reborn by God in newly-minted heavenly bodies).

I think that — when it comes to the conscious individual experience of existence — this one life is all we get.  And it reasonably follows that there is nothing intelligent “out there” to either rely on or worry about.  An unexpected result of this word-view is the fact that I now recoil at human tragedy like I never did when I was trying so hard to be a Christian.  (Some of that may be a function of age and experience, but my Darwinian world-view is surely a large part of the equation).

None of this diminishes the value that our emotions place upon the things that are meaningful to us.  To think that would be silly as well.  Sure, what you and I value means nothing to the rest of the vast, cold universe.  So what?  (I mean that: so what?).  That also means that the rest of the vast, cold universe is incapable of passing even the slightest judgement upon us for feeling our feelings as we do (for every loss there is also gain).  We are what we are.  And a great deal of what we are is our capacity to feel deeply about things that matter to us.

All living things want to keep on living.  But we are the only animals that want — no, need — to live meaningful lives as well.  It could be argued, I think, that it is a sense of meaning that fuels our capacity to want to continue living.  And the fact that this matters to us as much as it does is, in the end, all the justification we need.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Speaking in Tongues to Santa” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

I have a memory of the first letter I ever wrote to Santa Claus.  I was probably 5 years old, and had not started school.  I can’t remember all of the details, of course, but I think I asked my mother if I could write Santa, even though I hadn’t yet learned to write.  She assured me that I could, as Santa would understand what I was asking him.

So I put marker to paper, and scribbled lines across the page, filling it with my five-year-old’s in imitation of what writing looked like.

I must have given the note to my mother, as it turned up years later in her collection of things saved from our childhoods (at enough of a remove that I was not angry that she had interfered with the duties of the U.S. Postal Service).

I can’t tell you what I was “asking” for, nor what I actually got from Santa that Christmas.  What I’m remembering is that magical state of mind where I could believe that my secret intentions could be carried by a child’s remote approximation of written language to a special man who would somehow understand what no other could.

By now you may see where I’m going somewhere with this.

The well-known “bridge to life” illustration that sold me on Jesus at the age of thirteen.

When I was thirteen I prayed the prayer shown in the back of a religious “tract” (the well-known “Bridge to Life” tract from The Navigators) and became a Christian.  About a year later I found myself at a Charismatic home prayer meeting, kneeling on the floor, surrounded by fellow believers as I prayed to receive the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”.  (For those who don’t know, the “sure sign” of the “infilling” of the Holy Spirit is taken to be one’s new-found ability to “speak in tongues”.  This “new” language is believed to be a “secret” language with which the believer can speak his or her innermost needs and desires directly to the Holy Spirit, who is able to interpret them.)

I remember the feeling of that moment, and the burble of the unfamiliar sound of “speaking in tongues” falling on my ear as those who surrounded me prayed to the Holy Spirit on my behalf.  There was an intensity to the moment — a certain forcefulness to the voices so near my ears as they worked (I now understand) to will the Holy Spirit into me.  And soon I began to babble as well, tentatively at first, but then with more confidence as my first attempts were greeted with a swelling of the volume of those whose hands rested on my back, head and shoulders.  It all reached an electric crescendo as the act was completed — when my own “prayer language” came — and then quieted into whispered prayers and, finally, a sort of silent afterglow.

The other day — as I looked at some paintings on a coffee shop wall with a gallery director colleague– I mused on the idea that young artists can move through a phase where — lacking the maturity to make more confident marks — they may believe that any mark made on a canvas will somehow magically carry intention, even if the mark (or the collection of marks that make up the whole) lacks any accessible coherence.  As I considered this I remembered my letter to Santa and the acquisition of my prayer language, and these three moments allowed me to triangulate an idea.

In each of these three cases of magical thinking, there is a childlike thrill to uncoupling the critical mind from the seat of pure desire and then (to use the examples I’ve presented) freely splashing paint across a canvas or scribbling lines across a page or babbling nonsense syllables to an invisible spirit.  This is the joy and the appeal of magic — the kind of moments that make the skin tingle or give that widening in the base of the throat (which is where where I feel it) and offer, I think, a welcome departure from the watchful eye of our cool reason.

Little wonder, then, that they appeal to us so much as children and now — perhaps even more so for their rarity — as adults.

But a common thread to the experience of magic is this uncoupling of reason from desire — which is essentially the act of erecting a temporary barrier between two active levels of our consciousness.  What we do, in effect, is put a blindfold on our frontal lobes so that we won’t be embarrassed by whatever irrational thing we’re about to do (or, more precisely: shamed by our reason for doing it).

I think we all do (or have done) this.  And there is no shame in such pleasures (it’s why we love professional “magicians”, and a part of what we grieve for in the passing of childhood).  But the part of it that interests me today is the uncoupling aspect, and the belief-motivated actions that follow.  For when I wrote that letter to Santa (or when I first “prayed in tongues” to The Holy Spirit), I could not actually have told you what I was really asking for, because I had disengaged the part of my brain that can actually articulate anything I am thinking!

Now the teachers of these magical techniques would counter that this was exactly the point: to get my own “worldly” (read: critical, reasoning) mind out of the way and let spirit talk to spirit without interference.

The problem with that idea (and it’s a huge one) is that the “mind” and the “spirit” are not the separate entities we tend to conceptualize them as.  Well, at least no more separate than one part of our brain is from another.  The notion of a discrete trinity of mind/body/soul is a device to describe what are essentially different levels of the consciousness that are the product of the physical processes of our brain.  That we often then externalize these parts of ourselves, assigning them a sort of cosmic autonomy, is much more a testament to our propensity for magical thought than a reflection of any verifiable reality.

But oh, the magical appeal of this idea, despite the fact that there is nothing to back it up!  (Nothing, that is, except our seemingly inexhaustible craving for magic).  And to many (if we’re honest about this) the craving alone is considered sufficient “evidence” for the object we so crave.  Even the Bible offers our desire for God as proof of his existence.  But this is proof only of our desire, and the roots of our desire are not so difficult to discern.  To put it another way: would we think that a child’s belief in Santa Claus is evidence that Santa really exists and lives at the North Pole?  I think not.  And yet many adults use just this kind of “evidence” to support their belief in the divine.

Magic (and magical thinking) are curious and pleasing byproducts of this consciousness that we carry.  This is the only thing we can say with any confidence about magic.  This is the only notion of magic that reality offers us.

I realize that such a suggestion is nothing but a wet blanket to many, but I am not saying that our experience of magic is invalid.  How can any of our cognitive experiences be called “invalid”, at least in the sense of not existing or occurring?  Yet such experiences are always products of the way we perceive reality, and since we are clearly able to perceive things in ways that would never align with any physical reality (we can “see” things that are not there) such an experience alone is confirmatory evidence nothing other than the cognitive experience itself.  This is how I view everything spiritual: I believe in the experience, I differ only in the explanation.  So when someone tells me that God spoke to them, I do not for a second doubt their experience, I simply translate their God language into materialist terms:  I credit their story to its actual source (their own consciousness) and not the supposed source (God).

For I know all too well that we carry in our skulls a brain that runs several (or many) levels of consciousness at one time (though there seem to be primarily three major levels: conscious, unconscious and involuntary).  And I know from my own experience that the “voice” that we experience as god or spirit is an actual phenomenon of that level of our consciousness that talks back when we talk to it.  (In this sense, I would have to say that god does, indeed, exist, insofar as the thing we experience as god exists.  Where I would quibble is in the magical leap of making a natural cognitive event into evidence of an actual God in His Heaven).

I like coherence.  I like to make sense of as much as I can reasonably make sense of in the world.  Yet I expect I will always carry an ear for the siren song of magic as long as I live.  The difference between me and a believer is that I have come to understand that the source of the magical experience is resident inside of me, and through understanding that a large part of the allure of the magical impulse has been removed (namely that it can actually mean something or be predictive or life-changing in some dramatic way).

To give in to magic is to give in to the incoherence of a child’s scribbled letter to Santa, or a mumbled gibberish prayer that is going not to heaven, but right back to its source.  In each case we are playing with ourselves, really.  And though there’s nothing wrong with that, we don’t generally like to be seen doing it in public.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Busy Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

There are a lot of things that rattle around in my brain.  But for each thing that passes before my conscious attention (for its moment to speak up for itself) there are innumerable other ideas, facts and thoughts that could lay claim to my attention but won’t, either because I’ll never be aware of them or because they’ve simply been forgotten.  Each of our individual brains, I presume, is doing pretty much exactly the same thing — picking and choosing what we notice from the constant stream of thoughts and sensory inputs that we wade through every day.  One end result being that we just never know what’s waltzing around inside the skulls of those around us!

It’s not hard to imagine that earlier versions of ourselves were probably not as preoccupied with the amount of information that we moderns are.  After all, they didn’t even know there was another part of the globe, much less what was going on there politically, socially, environmentally or geologically.  We do.  Or, at least, we do as long as a particular bit of data about a particular place is holding our attention.

True, we’re not as taken up with sheer survival these days — running from hungry wolves and such — so it’s easy to think that we’ve got some mental capacity to spare for the rest of humanity.  But do we, really?

We’ve come to a funny place, where we seem to have fetishized the human brain as a wonder, a marvel and the pinnacle of an entire pantheon of creation.  And to be sure the human brain is — relatively speaking — pretty damn wondrous.  But then so are eyelashes, and the fact that we walk upright with nary a thought to the complex and astounding muscular and mental coordination necessary to propel us forward (while not propelling us face first into the sidewalk).  Life itself is pretty improbable, if you think about, so the fact that we have these huge, calorie-consuming brains is just the cherry on top of a very large cake.

I laugh to myself sometimes when I see a news reporter on T.V. speaking so matter of fact (and with obvious detailed knowledge) about a subject you just know he or she only learned about a few hours before.  There is always a tone in their voice as if this is something that any thoughtful person would (or should) know.  Knowing, of course, that tomorrow it will be something else that we ALL SHOULD KNOW.

Life is an endless series of such discoveries, whether or not we broadcast our process on the television news.  Not a day goes by when I don’t suddenly see something in a new way (mostly as a by-product of new knowledge from a book, a friend or one of those damn T.V. know-it-alls).  And invariably, the moment I understand something, I think the entire world should know the exact same thing.

I watched a PBS program called “The Human Spark”, in which host Alan Alda attempted to answer the question of just what that “spark” was that made humans so, well, human.  In one experiment, it was shown that a major behavioral difference between human and chimpanzee toddlers, was that the young humans felt a drive to instruct their less experienced kind in a task that they themselves had (only moments before) been shown how to do.  The chimps, it seems, could care less.  Humans, on the other hand, could not care more.

A research psychologist friend of mine studies babies and their response to novel situations.  Her babies exhibit a range of reactions from excited and engaged to uninterested, so it’s clear that not even all of us humans are equally curious about the world.  Some of us just aren’t really all that interested, while others of us wear ourselves out trying to keep a million thoughts going like plates spinning on sticks (to borrow from that famous Ed Sullivan show routine).

Keeping the plates spinning. A metaphor I've employed for years.

I think about these sorts of things whenever I walk through a library.  All of those books, sitting right there, packed with all sorts of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom and poetry and prose.  And I will never read them all.  Even if I did, mine is only one small-city library.  There are millions of others, many much larger.  And now there is the internet, where we humans have been able to store an unprecedented amount of knowledge.  It can make you cry…or want to crawl into a dark hole somewhere and think about absolutely nothing for a while.

I think it’s fair to say that we current humans live in an information environment that is as much a force for natural selection as any natural environment that we have encountered in our history as a species.  Admittedly, it is not sulfurous or voracious in a way that makes it hard for us to breathe or that compels us to scramble up a tree to avoid snapping jaws (except in a metaphorical sense).  But it is an environment that suddenly sets apart those that function well under its mental challenges and those that don’t.  Our survival success, then, is now perhaps measured more in economic terms.  (Meaning that our social challenges today are what to do with a mass of humanity in which a smaller and smaller minority is racing ahead right along with technology, leaving the majority behind).

In so many ways we behave as if we have outlived evolution.  After all, isn’t it clear that we’ve won that race?  We’ve given ourselves the blue ribbon, and hand out honorable mentions to the other mammals that we find the most likable: chimps, whales, dolphins, kittens.  Because our lives have changed (materially) so much from the wild animal tableaus of nature television shows (a tableau that was once our own not all that long ago), we no longer think of ourselves as even part of the natural world.  Because we have harnessed energy and electricity and  technology in ways that most of us cannot even understand (much less explain to each other) we feel that we have somehow transcended our animal past.

Of course, the religious have long felt this separation, and have, in fact, insisted upon it as a precondition for belief.  That tells me that it is a deeply human quirk, and that maybe some of us have been itching for any and all excuses to see ourselves as special all along.

The irony to me is that we are, indeed, special enough already, by sheer dint of our survival as living things — as a species.  To try to add to that is worse than “gilding the lilly”.  It is — in some ways — obscene.

The religious believer attacks science for its reductionism — reducing us to the level of animals, denying our divinity and special status.  What a load of donkey poop.  Science, in fact, tells us just how spectacularly amazing we are, but in a real way — in a way that invokes in me both a deep appreciation for my life and a deep humility born of recognizing just how small I am in the universe as well as in the billions-of-years timeline of life on this planet.  (This, I would argue, is the antithesis of the preening egoism that says that I am of deep concern to the one true God of the entire universe).

I’ve said it before: each of us alive today is a living representative of the very first life that ever took hold on this planet.  We carry in us an unbroken chain of DNA all the way back to the first slime that pulsed in sulfurous waters beneath a red sun.  That is one hell of a family tree.  Seeing the true wonder of that, any bronze-age myth about a Garden of Eden and a stolen rib becomes laughable and, frankly, sad.  (And of course, since my brain sees it that way, ALL human brains should see it that way!)

Our brains developed as they did in order, it would appear, to favor a rather amazing capacity to read the intentions of others.  As a profoundly social species, such skills matter a great deal to us.  Somewhere along the way we mutated in a way that complimented the construction of our voice boxes, and verbal language was born.  After that, it was only a matter of time before we changed the world with our technology and accumulated (and shared) wisdom.  Now we find ourselves overwhelmed on a regular basis by the noisy world we ourselves have created, locked in our brains that are now able to create technology that threatens to become too fast and complex for the brains that created it to keep up with.

I wonder sometimes where this will lead.  How far can we go with all of this?  So far progress has consistently outpaced any prediction. People raised on horseback learned to drive cars and fly airplanes, after all.  Are we going to be any different when the next technological leap overtakes us?  There’s something to think about.  Well, for a moment, anyway.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The First Church of Magic” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

A friend shared a link to an article that contained the following passage:

“According to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.

Really? Three out of four people are followers of Christ?

Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million. That’s a lot of Christians. I don’t see nearly that many Jesus fish on car bumpers. I don’t know, maybe all the Darwin fish ate them. I’m just saying something about that percentage is off. Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children? If 75 percent of Americans are Christians, then how is it possible that 40 percent of the homeless are under the age of 18? Why are there more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted? I could keep going, and that’s just in the States. The numbers don’t add up. Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love. So 233 million? The evidence just isn’t there.”  (Quote taken from “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan” of Jesus” by Pastor Kyle Idleman, The Huffington Post)

Where are they, indeed?  Our most famous atheist Christopher Hitchens has made a related observation regarding the number of Americans that self-identify as Christians.  He flatly states that the numbers are wrong (making the wry observation that there aren’t enough houses of worship to accommodate anything close to the numbers the surveys claim).

Christianity pervades the very fiber of our culture.  It always has.  Without diving off into the tired battle of whether or not America is a “Christian nation”, there is no denying that that religion has been the dominant one in our history and culture.  (This is why there are groups that must dedicate their time and energy to protect our public spheres from the attempts of the religious to insinuate their beliefs into our ostensibly religion-neutral government).

It is a belief in their sheer numerical superiority that lends Christians (in this country, other religious majorities in others) their sense of historical entitlement: they demand to be honored as members of the true religion of this nation.  But it is those precisely those huge numbers that trouble Pastor Idleman: where are they, and why don’t they exert more of a moral influence in society?  Hitchen’s answer is that the numbers are wrong.  The Pastor’s answer is that there are more “fans” of Jesus than “true followers”.  I think they’re both right, as far as our general consensus of what constitutes a “true” Christian goes.  But I want to take a step back, and look at this in a different light.

To me, arguing about who is a “good” Christian is to look for fruit in a barren orchard.  The reality that underlies religion is not really the issue of whether or not God exists (though I don’t think he does), it is an issue of human consciousness: it is a question of the ways in which the human mind has clearly been hard-wired by millions of year of evolution for an innate susceptibility to belief.  I repeat: it is not a religious question at all.  Religion is a manifestation of consciousness (to borrow author Hannah Holme’s example: even dogs can have religious views — just watch how they attribute intention to that vacuum cleaner they’re barking at!).  In more simple terms: religion seems to be a product of consciousness, and consciousness is a function of the physical brain.  There is nothing else going on in there, or out there.  If the brain dies, consciousness ends (as does everything we associate with consciousness: perception, feeling, memory, a sense of self).  Therefore, if all of the conscious brains on earth were to stop functioning tomorrow, religion (and with it, God) would vanish without a trace.

Even dogs have religion.

Humans are magical thinkers, not unlike the dog imagining that a household appliance has a mind of its own.  We are different from other animals only by degrees and the harder we try to define what separates us from our animal identity, the more we discover that one animal or another shares this or that trait (albeit in a less-advanced way).  Modern neuroscience is showing us more and more about the ways in which our brains are always being fooled by what we see and hear.  We are quick and clever animals with fully-developed survival mechanisms that allow us to make instant determinations about potential threats.  But when we put two and two together, we are much more likely to err on the side of whatever conclusion gets us the hell away from danger — whether or not our math was accurate has never been the most important thing.

And so the reason so many people identify themselves as believers in the Christian god is a function of this basic tendency toward belief and magical thinking in humans, combined with the accident of being born in a country where Christianity has been the dominant religious worldview.  This is probably an equal frustration to the atheist and the committed Christian believer.  To the former, there is this annoying and pervasive sappy support for a man-made fantasy that has real-world impact in politics and society; to the latter there is this horde of humans giving mere lip-service to a life of “true” Christian service to others.

Of course our addiction to magic is not limited to Christianity.  Start talking up a materialist view of human consciousness being purely a product of the brain, and all sorts of folk get uncomfortable.  We have psychics, astrologers, card readers and healers of all kinds whose stock and trade is the magic-believing human.  Almost every single one of us is susceptible to the simplest coincidence of bumping into someone we were just thinking about, and drawing a causal connection between the two un-related events.  Why?  Because that is how our animal brain’s work.  “No!” you protest, asking “But how, then, do you explain the two things happening at the same time: my thought and the “chance” meeting?”  Random events, coincidence.  Each of us lives is a fairly small world, really, where the odds of running into the people we are thinking about is always going to be high.  Plus, we know that humans are rich in “confirmation bias”, where we tend to see outcomes that we are already primed to look for (that’s why we will believe that prayers are sometimes answered).  We also have a bias toward NOT remembering the other dozen times this week that we thought of someone we know who DIDN’T show up suddenly.

These brains we have are a mixed bag, and they have very real limits that we should probably know about.  We are lucky in that we live in a time where there is enough information out there to compile a sort of “Consciousness Owners Manual”.  For this we can be grateful that our brains are advanced enough that we can actually develop experiments that allow us to see our own flaws and absorb that awareness into the way we engage our critical faculties.  It’s becoming clear that our conscious mind is only one part of this thing we call our “self”.  And it turns out that it’s not the part of us that is always the first to know what’s going on in our world.  In fact, neuroscience experiments have shown that it’s always anywhere from one to a few seconds behind the parts of our organism that is really reacting to things and making decisions about how we feel or react.  Our conscious mind may turn out to be more like the play-by-play commentator than the athlete making the play on the field.

So I don’t see a nation packed with Christians:  I see a word populated by magic-believing, conscious animals, some of whom choose to identify with the more popular manifestations of that magic.  If we were to observe this phenomenon as aliens who had never been troubled with the limitations of the human brain, that’s how it would look.  We might puzzle over the fact that humans can dedicate so much energy to arguing the differences between their beliefs (the old “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin” thing).  This would look pretty silly to this imaginary alien.  That is, until he tried to talk a human out of his or her magic.  Then things would get real serious real fast!

Why?  Because humans love their magical minds.  To be more precise, they love the feeling that there is magic out there, and are willing to defend that magical realm against all comers, even to the point of defending other religious believers (that they would otherwise consider heretics) against the greatest heretics of all: the scientists that reveal to us who and what we really are, and who pull back the curtain and show us the magician’s hidden secrets.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Wrong Question” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

We are not served well by the question: “What is the meaning of life”?  Not because the question is a difficult one, or too challenging to answer, but because it is a question with no certifiable answer, or , more exactly: there is no “meaning of life” to be discovered.

To continue in that bleak vein, let me suggest that he best we can hope for (in fact the best we can achieve within the bounds of reality) is to come to some sort of understanding of our own mortality, and thereby work to make the best peace we can with an end as horrifying to any conscious living organism as it is inevitable.

The problem with a truly Atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic view of existence is that there really isn’t much in the way of comfort to be had (at least not in any easily digestible form).  Many religious people know this and, in fact, use this truth as an argument for the adoption of religion.  Think about that for a moment: the truth is unsettling; therefore one should seek refuge in untruth.  Writers like Christopher Hitchens acknowledge atheism’s lack in satisfying of our natural human wish-fulfillment.  (Atheism is, by implication, an embracing of the knowledge of our true status in the universe that science offers us).  So instead they point to a certain nobility in facing this troubling reality head-on, and then going on about the business of making the lives we do have as rich and meaningful as we can.

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

But if life has no meaning, how can we make meaningful lives?  That’s simple: life does have meaning to those that are living it: to you and I.  We humans get bent when charge past such earthly meaning in order to confront the possibility that the rest of the universe does not share our fascination with our day-to-day activities.  (Because, apparently, it’s not enough for us to be important to just, well, us.  We want there to be a God who cares, ruling over a Universe that is built for the sole purpose of engendering the relationship between Man and his Maker).

There is irony in this.  I would suggest that the more a human seeks his or her sense of meaning from external (eternal, divine) sources, the less meaningful (in real terms) their lives actually are.  In other words, the religious have it exactly backwards: they think that it is only through acknowledging God that our lives have meaning (going so far as to believe that a life lived for any other purpose cannot be meaningful at all).  I think the opposite is true: that the less one believes in the eternal and the divine, the more one is forced to come to terms with the here and now which, for us social animals, means making the most of our relationships with each other and the way we choose to spend our short lives.

Now I could be wrong on this — at least as it relates to humans of a different temperament than mine.  Consider the following:

“Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called “death anxiety”…  Apparently the mere idea of death causes some people to feel uncertain and out of control – anxious.  Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn’t enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility.”   — Hannah Holmes: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” (P 218)

In addition, to a more “conservative” mind, the idea of a human set loose upon the world without the restraining influence of God on their behavior is terrifying, and they imagine that such “self-responsive” people would unerringly choose to do the darkest possible things.

And then there are writers such as Ayn Rand: popular in conservative circles for her idea that society is served best by individuals going about their selfish ways attending to their own selfish animal needs.  Conservatives seems overly fond of this idea (which seems odd when such philosophies are so often erroneously labelled as being “Darwinian” in their “survival of the fittest” ethos).

But these ideas are still operating, I would argue, within the framework of a sense of original sin and a need to justify our naturally-selfish behavior within a God-directed universe, and therefore represent an error of logic akin to how the notorious eugenics movement turned the blind work of genetics into a justification for human cruelty on a grand scale.

It is beyond dispute that we are animals, and naturally self-centered animals at that.  Yet we humans carry around comparatively huge brains that set us apart from our animal cousins, be they primate or whale, in the scope of our ability for self-consideration and reflection.  But to elevate our instinctive bent toward self-preservation to a self-serving abdication of personal responsibility is to ignore the comprehensive social nature of our human-to-human relationships.  For it is in those earthly and immediate relationships that we experience whatever hell or heaven we think we are creating, not in an imagined afterlife.

In religious terms, our instinctive behaviors are labelled as sin, or fallen, and a thing against we must strive mightily with the help of an intervening God.  This misses the point as well, and is simply a very common ploy by select humans to profit from their control over other humans hungry for answers to that damnable question: “What’s it all about?”.

This is all we can know about the meaning of life at this point: you and I are alive today, and we are the descendants of an endless series of life forms that evolved on a planet that was born out of a cosmic explosion that created a universe that continues to expand, and will continue to expand to a point at which, we assume, it will then contract again.  Before that happens, however, our own sun will reach the end of its nuclear life and explode, taking us out with it.  But even before then, the species “human” will most likely (if history is any indication) go extinct, or evolve into a new species (that may in it’s turn go extinct).  But before any of that ever happens, you and I will die a natural (one would hope) death, and our chemical components will be disbursed back into the soil, the air, and the tissue of other living organisms until such time as the whole shebang is redistributed by cosmic explosions.  We are primates, social mammals that have a need for each other’s company, and so we have developed societies and technologies to assist us in our instinctive quest for comfort, happiness and security.  Our large brains are both assistant and critic to all that we do, and within a natural spectrum of mutation and disease, each animal is born with a capacity to live life with a variety of levels of success.

That states the reasons you and I are the living consciousnesses we are, but it does not — indeed can not — answer the existential “why” that we keep asking it to.

Any answer we construct to the question of life’s meaning is going to fall short.  Even acknowledgement of that reality will not bring complete relief from the ever-present awareness of our own mortality.  We humans are, after all, pattern-seekers, and problems for which we cannot find solutions cause us real cognitive distress.  This is probably why magical thinking has evolved as a natural part of consciousness (a skill not reserved only for the young!).  Magical thinking (“religion”) enables us to calm our troubled brains by filling in the un-fillable blanks in our knowledge with malleable myth.

But we the living are a generation of humans that — thanks to science —  carry a knowledge of our place in the universe that no other generation of our kind has ever had to contend with.  And this is a knowledge that can easily overwhelm our mammalian brains, challenging even the most powerful mental magic.  And when the magic fails, we are forced, once again, to ask anew the old question: “What, then, is the meaning of life?”

I think we can cut ourselves a little slack if our minds aren’t quite up to the task — if we find that we have been asking the wrong question all of these years.  Perhaps, then, we can stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and turn our attention instead toward making life meaningful.

t.n.s.r. bob