Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

SERMON: “The Challenges of Faith” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

It’s easy to believe in something greater than ourselves.  I say this understanding that it is the act of “surrender” to such an idea that marks a believer’s turning point from a “self-centered” life to one focused on God and others.  But with it being the case that: a) it is easy to believe in God, and; b) discovering a belief in God is supposed to change the direction of one’s life, why do we seem to see so little change in human behavior over all?

Now I have just breezed over at least two assertions in one paragraph that need to be addressed, the first being that it is easy to believe in something greater than ourselves (generally — God).  This can hardly be a debatable point, as we are surrounded on all sides by religious belief, whether it be traditional Christianity (in our country) or “spirituality” (a belief in more small-scale personal, invisible attendants — be they angels or our own “higher self” — or even belief in aliens or “energy”).

(The Christian may protest that he or she does not merit inclusion in the same category as those who — for example — think that Martians brought us our technology in the distant past, but I would reply that all belief in anything external to our own consciousness is the exact same phenomenon — at least on a broad scale of classification.  Yes, there are differences in belief, but there are also differences in trees, but all trees (no matter how exotic or rare) are still classified as related species of trees).

“Thou Shalt Not.” Illustration by Bob Diven.

The second assertion is more of a reference to what many “converts” experience when they find God: a shift in their awareness.  Now I suggest that a critical part of any conversion experience is the adoption of a narrative about what one has just experienced.  I like to call this “branding”, as one reason for the success of any religion (in my view) is it’s ability to re-frame any normally-occurring human experience into a confirmatory tale of their particular story.  So to one person, finding the right parking space will mean that God knew they were in a hurry and intervened on their behalf, to another it may mean that an angel led them to the right space at the right time, while another will believe that they found the right spot because their karma was good.

So despite the cosmetic (or even substantive) differences between the many forms of belief, the underlying cognitive “technology” is the same: when it comes to irrational religious belief, trees is trees.

Almost every human has experiences that we can describe as “numinous” — those moments of awareness of  something beyond our usual, day-to-day sense of consciousness — the sensation of something existing (or communicating to us) from the “outside”.

(As an artist, I can tell you that the arrival of a seemingly unbidden “inspiration” or idea can have all the qualities of a small miracle.  But the fact that these experiences have been — and continue to be — common to all artists in all times of all beliefs, makes it tough to make a case for it being anything other than the result of a creative brain’s regular activity).

At some point in our history, then, we clearly started making up stories to explain such numinous moments.  (The fact that such stories “stuck” seems a pretty good indication that the experiences that inspired them were (and are) universal — otherwise no mystic or preacher would have ever found and held an audience).  I think this storytelling is wonderfully creative of us, but it does nothing to make anything that we categorize as spiritual a reality that exists outside of our own consciousness.  One thing is clear, however: some of those stories that “stuck” have become a part of our cultural DNA.

Why and how religion began is not difficult to understand.  But why does it persist in the face of ever-mounting evidence that explains almost everything that religion once claimed to explain?  Somehow this just doesn’t matter to believers.  If religion has lost it’s explanatory power, it has by no means lost its hold on our hearts and minds.  There is a certain comfort to be had in familiarity and history, and in the face of the assault of modern knowledge, many believers abandon ground to science and simply fall back to a more reliable line of defense.  Perhaps because religious belief itself is prehistoric, the major religions — then and now — plant their flag of authenticity in their very ancientness, as if longevity automatically equaled veracity.  Of course it doesn’t (flat earth, anyone?), but the appeal of history to we short-lived humans remains viable, modern science be damned.

Like evolution itself, religions have had a long time to evolve into their present state.  And like all evolved living creatures, religions, too, surely share a common ancestor.  This is not hard to accept if for no other reason than all religions share so many traits in common.  And just like the (false) claim that evolution cannot be observed occurring, the evolution of religion — supposed to be sourced in eternal, unchanging sources — can, it turns out, also be observed.  Think about it: where and when the hell did Scientology show up?  Or Mormonism?  Or Seventh Day Advent-ism?  But note that with each attempt to establish a new “brand name” of religion, connections are almost invariably made to the past (Scientology claims we are ancient, higher beings, Mormonism ties itself to the tribes of Biblical Israel).  The most brand-spanking-new religion (though few would want to call themselves such) will claim to be a revelation of ancient knowledge.  All of this is, to me, rather telling.

Yet unlike trees (who do not seem to spend any time denying their “tree-ness”), almost every religion is constantly bending over backwards to distance themselves from every other religion.  So let’s ask the obvious question here:  “why?”  If any one of these belief systems were truly THE revelation of TRUTH from a DIVINE SOURCE, wouldn’t it stand out among the rest like a red rose in a manure pile?

Some rather diplomatically detour around this question by taking the (much more humane, I would say) approach of saying that all religions are manifestations of a single set of universal truths.  This is taking a more deistic than theistic path (and the folks that believe this way are ever so much more pleasant humans to be around than their more fanatical brethren).  But such open-minded believers are hardly the problem now, are they?

What I’m working toward here is the more committed believer: the individual who takes it all very seriously and (poor bastard) tries to make life work according the particular faith story he or she has been told.  This, of course, is where things start to break down.

For like I said, believing in something greater than ourselves is easy — in the sense that it comes quite naturally to us humans — but faith, with a capital “F”, turns out to be another kettle of (walking) fish altogether.  If people were to be completely honest about their experience, we would find that few, if any, are able to actually make their “faith” work as they were told or taught it should.

Again, the most obvious (if least-explored) answer to this is that there is nothing (no-thing) out there to believe in, which means there are no actual external, invisible agents working on our behalf.  Which means that the believer who is trying to put his or her faith into practice is, as it were, carrying both ends of the sofa up some very steep and narrow stairs (while the buddy that is believed to be on the other end carrying his half of the load is A.W.O.L).  No wonder living a Christian (or other religious) life as it is supposed to be lived is so challenging.

I have known (and know) people who make a very good go of it, nonetheless.  But those that are “successful” (in my experience) either learn to temper their expectations in order to avoid becoming completely out of sync with the reality of life, or isolate themselves in a community of like-minded believers that have little (if any) tolerance for deviation from the mutually-agreed-upon religious story they are trying to live out.

And those are the “successful” ones.  But, of course, they are not “successful” at all, because the religion they bought into simply cannot supply what it promised.  No.  In a very real way, maintaining religious faith is a ongoing project of managing disappointment.

And yet relatively few believers take the ultimate step of leaving their religion (and its impossible challenges) behind.  It could be, as Christopher Hitchens posits, that the very impossibility of living the perfect religious life is part of its appeal to us humans, as it provides some circular confirmatory evidence of our status as flawed creatures in need of such salvation from above.  I think there is merit in this notion of religion’s appeal to the fervent believer.  But every once in a while even one of those believer says “enough” and breaks ranks.  I was one of those.  (But I can tell you it took a lot of disappointments before I took that step, and even when I did — after 15 years of serious belief, and a lifetime of a casual belief in God — it was more as if God left me than I left Him: I woke up one morning in a universe absent one Supreme Being).

There is an ongoing tension among the religious between those who live their lives in a “simple” (easy) belief in the existence of God and those who are working their asses off to live (impossibly) according to whatever religious text they take as gospel.  You can hear it expressed on Christian radio any day of the week, this railing of the “true” against the “lukewarm” believers (taking here the Evangelical Christian example I know best).  I get this: the fundamentalist feels like he or she is doing all the work (like the TEA Party folks who see themselves as doing all the work while imagined “illegal-imigrant-welfare mothers” just pick up check after check from the government).

No wonder the idea of ultimate judgement in the “next” world is so appealing: all such unfairness will be redressed, and the poor believer’s thankless task of making the impossible workable will at last be rewarded.

But will it?.  There is — when it is all said and done — absolutely no evidence for the existence of anything invisible, intelligent or active outside of our own consciousnesses.  In the end, the only “evidence” we have for our faith is, well, our faith.  And the absence of any active partner in the endeavor is, I think, what makes faith itself so difficult to maintain.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Easter Bunnies and the Plaster Jesus” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Easter Sunday is here.  The most “glorious” event in the Christian calendar.  (Believers say this, I think, to counter the persistent popularity of Christmas among the non-believers).

My teenage memories of Easter are less of glory and more of getting up before dawn to sing in a small choir (or play guitar) at a sunrise service and freezing my ass off.  (This at a time when I could say that I saw about three sunrises a year: Easter, one day during deer-hunting season, and a “floater”).

Easter is, of course, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Three days after his crucifixion and burial, he came back to life (albeit in a new, eternal form) and appeared to his disciples, thus confirming his claim to be the only son of God.

Or so the story goes.  Of course, as brilliant wags like Christopher Hitchens point out, even if we grant the resurrection event, it does not automatically prove any of the things Christians claim it proves (that Jesus was the son of God, that God is real, that Christianity is the one true religion, etc.).  The fact of a dead person coming back to life would definitely be an event and a phenomenon, but science would be still be left to determine what it actually “meant”.

The pagan and the sacred, side by side for Easter.

But Christians put a lot of stock in Easter.  It is trotted out as the single most vital piece of confirmatory evidence.  Without it — they will freely proclaim — Christianity would have no more moral claim on you and me than Amway.  But there’s the problem: religion doesn’t have a moral claim on any of us, no matter who may (or may not) have risen from the dead.

Before resorting to the obvious — that there is no evidence of any actual resurrection (of Jesus or anyone else) — let us step back from jumping the narrative gun and make sure that we don’t buy into the game as rigged by the religious.

The world of religious faith (and its “evidential” claims) is a human-created world in which the questions have been carefully shaped to fit the answers religion can provide.  That is how the validity of an entire belief system can be seen to actually hang on whether or not a single unusual event took place (in this case: Jesus rising from the dead).  And the resurrection is, of course, a question of faith.  And it is this faith test that is used to determine whether one is a Christian or not (according to accepted Christian teaching, only the devil will deny the risen Christ, and only a believer can affirm it).

Science (and more specifically evolution) on the other hand, does not have quite the same dramatic “do or die” belief structure.  Science does require that we accept certain things, such as a general trust that there is a reality to observe and that we do, in fact, have some ability to perceive that reality.  But beyond that it is all evidence, evidence, evidence.  Which means that “science” is not denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, it is just waiting for the evidence before coming to any conclusions.  Believers begin with the conclusions, and therefore have little to no tolerance for the endless follow-up questions that scientific rigor generates.

For though science would never claim that it is completely impossible for a dead human to live again (god knows many scientifically-minded people have tried to make that happen), we can’t help but be aware of the vast amounts of research and evidence that tells us why a dead body is, in fact, dead, or describes the rapidity with which a human brain, say, goes to crap once blood flow is stopped.

The believer might ask “What about our fellow humans who have had “near death” experiences?”  I think the answer is already there in the term “near death”.  They may have been near it, even very, very near it, but they weren’t there yet.  If they had been, they would have been, well, dead, and we’d hear nothing more about it.  (It’s like that old saw that we only hear from those whose prayers to be spared from death were answered — the others aren’t around to tell their stories).

What we clearly have here is individuals under physical stress (and perhaps actually near death) who have dramatic cognitive experiences that feel very real.  Well, of course they are real experiences.  Only a fool would deny that.  However, having said that, if nothing else something as common as our nightly dreams should tell us that our experience of reality is assembled inside our brains, so why shouldn’t a purely internal, mechanistic brain event have all the power of physical reality?

What am I saying here?  That these experiences never happened?  Of course not.  Of course they happened, but not generally in the way people think they happened (as in seeing an angel that was an actual, physical angel as opposed to the much more likely error of perception) and are, therefore, not genuine evidence of what the believers would want us to believe (just as Jesus rising from the dead — though a doubtful event — would not necessarily prove his religious claims).

Evolution, on the other hand, is an answer that has had to come from questions we didn’t even know to ask until we began to notice the evidence around us.  The theory of evolution is built completely on the study of reality, and once we had enough evidence to begin to form the theory, subsequent discoveries have only proved to confirm it.  Reality is like that: it does not require bending, shaping or shading to fit with itself (as religion does).  Science is the process of steadily stripping away any vestige of human perceptual error in order to ascertain as clearly as possible the nature of reality.  Religion is the encouragement of perceptual error in a directed way for a specified end.  (This is an example of what Michael Shermer calls “belief-dependent realism”).

In this sense science and religion could not be more different.  Religion conjures up imitations of evidence.  Why?  Because the actual evidence does not lead us to religion.

Maybe I’m just a sourpuss because I always had to work kind of hard to get into the wonder of Easter.  Though, to be honest, I think a lot of us who have tried to make religion work did (as many surely still do).  We all knew how we were supposed to feel (how could we not, we were clearly being told how magnificent the event was) but struggled to feel it ourselves.  But that is the consistent problem of religious belief: there are always a handful who appear to be able to make it work, while the rest of us put on the game face and try to apprehend the wonder that continues to elude us most of the time.

I probably hit these subjects too hard.  After all, most of my friends are gentle believers who don’t take themselves too seriously.  And things such as today’s sight of pagan Easter decorations of chicks and bunnies on a house that had a four foot statue of Jesus on the porch serve to remind me that most of humanity is pretty omnivorous when it comes to belief (much to the consternation of the fundamentalist minorities).

Maybe I’m kind of that wheedling preacher when it comes to evolution — a bit too much like those I criticize.  Except that I don’t expect others to find it all as interesting and comforting as I do.  And I certainly don’t expect them to meet me before sunrise on a frigid April morning to sing songs and hear a sermon when all any of us really want to do is get to the hot chocolate and find a warm place to sit.

At its heart, perhaps Easter is a sort of calcified human wish for magic and wonder and hope.  Maybe that is what all organized religion is: a too closely-managed, top-heavy edifice built upon innate human impulses toward mystical belief.  As the pagan Easter Bunny sharing the yard with a plaster Jesus attest, that impulse toward belief will always be a part of us.  But as the bunny and the Jesus also attest, those same impulse will never be completely domesticated by any church or temple.  Like the blades of grass that sprout up through pavement and concrete, they will rise again and again and again.

Happy Easter!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Neurtinos or Nutella?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Why are we here?  What is the meaning of life?  Why is there evil in the world?

Each of those questions is flawed from the start, as they generally presuppose an answer of a certain kind — a response that would be the peanut-butter to the jelly in the spiritual sandwich.  But what if we ask the universe for peanut-butter and get subatomic particles instead?  Neutrinos instead of Nutella?

From the moment that we ask these value-laden questions we are bound to be unhappy with the answers that nature has on offer.

There is no “why” simply because there is no responsible cosmic party from whom we can demand an accounting of their creation.  Or, to be more precise, there is no evidence for an intentional agent (read: creator) in the universe.  This may be the hardest thing for a human to accept (though it’s probably not that easy for a dog to accept either — you’ve seen their eyes when you try to explain that there is no more hot dog after you’ve eaten the last bite).  There is only “why” in the form of explanation, or description.  These are the questions that science answers.  Why are we here? Because we evolved here.  Why did we evolve here?  Because the life that led to us started here.  Why?  Because the conditions were right for life to begin.  The rest is filled in with the rather amazing details of genetics, plate tectonics, chemistry, biology, photosynthesis, natural selection, multicellular life forms, viruses, bacterias, reproduction, mutation, history, culture, language, economics, psychology and everything else we’ve learned to study and observe about ourselves and the world we live in.  In short, we could easily rival the most inquisitive two-year old with an endless list of “why’s”.

Religion has answered the question of “What is the purpose of man” with versions of “To know God and love Him forever”.  But the only reason that God can pass as an answer to any of the most fundamental questions about life is through a flawed understanding of what those questions really are, and the kind of answers we can expect to get to those questions.

God was clearly an early stab at “meaning” (I say “clearly” because we know that ideas of gods and spirits go very far back in our intellectual history).  And since “God” was there first, “He” has thereafter flavored the discussion, and thereby warped the questions we ask of life.  For what is there about life, the universe, and everything that gives us any expectation of the kind of answers that religion implies by the questions it asks?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

The provocative title of Christopher Hitchen’s bestselling book was “God is Not Great”.  But I would go even further and say that God is small.  Because God as an idea is — when all is said and done — reductionist, limiting, unimaginative and  far from up to the challenge of encompassing the “creation” we find ourselves in.  Religion — it turns out — is all of the things the religious project onto science.  For the religious leader will pronounce (without the necessary irony) that a “belief” in science reduces humans to nothing more than protoplasm; a collection of cells; mere apes.  But we really are all of those things!  The believer in a divine creator will further state that evolution makes the incredible claim that something (life) can spring from nothing (inert materials).  The irony again is that this is what religion — not science — claims: that God, by some miraculous act, formed Adam out of dust and heavenly spit.  (Which, if taken metaphorically, isn’t a bad poetic description of how minerals and liquid water might have been energized by solar energy at the beginnings of life).  Because we are intelligent, they argue, we must have been created by an equal or greater intelligence.  Really?

The problem is that the universe is just too big (and too vast, and fast and complicated) to have come out of a mind.  Any mind.

"Thou Shalt Not." Illustration by Bob Diven.

Our idea of mind comes from our own experiences of having one, a trait which seems to lure many of us into trying to imagine what a really, really, really big mind would be like.  But our imaginings are of necessity limited to, well, what we ourselves can imagine (which is limited to our actual knowledge and past experience).  And as colorful, delightful and surprising as the human mind can be, it is a limited, physical organ.  We resist this notion when we tell ourselves that the brain itself is unlimited, if only we could teach ourselves the ways of unleashing it.  But this is pipe-dream stuff — childhood fantasy at work.

But in so many ways, we humans never get out of our childhood.  And how could we expect to, really?  We are born completely dependent upon seemingly omnipotent others, and that is a habit we never unlearn.  We are profoundly (PROFOUNDLY) social animals: we can literally feel each other’s pain due to the power of our brain’s mirroring capacity.  Our lives are these rich sensory experiences filtered through intricate and fecund inner feelingscapes.  It is, truly, a wonder to be alive.  And far, far too wonderful (and tragic, and heartbreaking and beautiful) to be compressed into the sorry, sad lump of inert platitudes that are religion’s very highest achievements.

Throughout history religion has resisted the expansion of the human consciousness by constantly reducing newly-acquired human knowledge to either the heretic’s prison or the fires of censorship.  The religious leader must be constantly herding the multiple intellects of his flock into as narrow a corral as possible, lest they stray (here their use of the term “flock” reveals its shadier tones).

Religion has always resisted science (as it continues to today).  Proven data which the preacher cannot co-opt is preached against.  And we are expected to believe that this is the path to the eternal, unlimited, bigger-than-anything-that-ever-was-or-ever-will-be-God-of-the-universe?  Can we not see the terrible irony here that a God that great should demand servile minds so small?

As Hitchens likes to point out: for a leader of believers who claim to have their eyes on the next world, preachers sure seem pretty concerned about building their fiefdoms here on earth.  As Scrooge would say “There is much more of gravy than the grave” about this God.

But what of hope?  You are surrounded by millions of your fellow humans (not to mention every other life form on this planet) that are in the exact same boat you are: facing their own mortality.  Why waste precious time on a world that is not awaiting us while ignoring the one world we actually have, here and now?

So if “why” isn’t the question we can — or even should — ask, what is?

It is the central question of Humanism: Knowing what we know, how do we go about living satisfying, meaningful lives?

That is the actual challenge we all face.  It is in the ways that we work out that answer that “meaning” is found.  And meaning, in the end, is personal.  It is, in fact, the only place that meaning can exist.  It is the only place to ask and answer the questions of “why”.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “I Feel the Earth Move” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying.  Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”.  (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).

Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet.  Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places.  Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust.  Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology.  When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded.  When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.

We live on the floating rocky surface of a cooling planet.

Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon.  Yet we do.  Consistently.  Incessantly.  Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation.  (God is love.  It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house.  It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).

I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.

This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon.  (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)

Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it.  I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place.  I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East.  But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion.  Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one.  (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).

The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth.  But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change.  The world, after all, was changing.  Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe.  There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one.  But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.

Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion.  It’s a tricky thing.  Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors.  But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam.  There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott.  Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in.  (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source.  They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).

This is hardly satisfying.  It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant.  That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it.  But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life.  Belief begins in our own brains.  So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time.  But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.

And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion.  And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago.  Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.

The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans.  And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones.  Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication.  The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.

Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.

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: “Polite Fictions” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

When I was five, our family station wagon chugged up the winding roads along the side of Pike’s Peak.  I leaned out a window, like my brothers, as we experienced driving through clouds for the first time — trying to capture a bit of cloud in a jar.  Having driven from the lowlands of Illinois to Colorado, our car was none-too-happy with the altitude, but we kids were looking forward to visiting that day’s destination: the North Pole, the home of Santa’s Workshop.

Yes, Bobby, there is a Santa Claus in Colorado.

I was five, still in the prime of my Santa Claus years, yet I don’t remember much of the fantasy-turned-reality of the actual theme park.  But then, it was Springtime, and we were in the Rocky Mountains.  Still, I know that it was more than a few years later before I learned the sad truth that Santa was a fiction that a lot of people took part in maintaining.  When I did, finally, learn the truth, I took it hard.

I think one of the reasons that there has been such a severe reaction to the likes of Christopher Hitchens (“God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” reviewed this blog) is due to his stripping away the protection of some of our more nefarious “polite fictions” (for example, that we owe a certain social deference to ministers, priests, and “holy folk” of almost any stripe).

Writers like Harris are having none of this, and perform a social function of a kind with the innocent child that proclaimed (loudly) that the Emperor had no clothes.

A “polite fiction” is, to my understanding, a (relatively harmless) lie that we all tacitly agree to participate in.  Now I’m a fan of polite fictions, as they are a strategy we’ve clearly developed to spare all of us some of the discomfort of naked public shame (for shame is also uncomfortable for any social human within range of the individual being shamed).  Perhaps it is because it’s generally thought to be beneficial that we call it both “polite” and a “fiction”, as opposed to a big fat lie.

Most of us know, I think, in our hearts, that putting on a clerical collar or carrying a Bible for a living does not a better human make.  We may want to believe it to be so, so we give the professionally religious mammal a bit of leeway to be imperfect in their role (but mostly in order, I suspect, to support our own wishful thinking).

Of course the amount of slack in this religious “leash” is pretty damn short when you get to fundamentalists.  But then, they set themselves an impossibly anti-human task of spiritual perfection, and the minister to such a tightly-wound flock accepts (as part of the bargain) that he or she will be punished severely for any public failure.  That is the un-spoken bargain struck between the leader and the led:  you support our (shared) fiction, and we will support you (our minister) with income, a car, a house, and a late-night TV program.

Sin in high places is accepted by the laity (on a subterranean level, to be sure) as long as it does not threaten the larger fiction.  (Should it break out into the open, God help the offender, for his flock never will!)

When I think of the deference we give to ministers, I am reminded of a similar social “rubber check” that we give to our men and women of the military.  Somehow, as a society, we have made the decision to offer them entry into a club that has no real benefit other than a lot of mawkish sentiment that is offered up as if it has real value, when, in fact, it costs the giver nothing (or at least very little) to give.

It’s not unlike the cheap boss that overworks their underpaid staff but once in a while tells them how great they are, and how much they mean to them, but no you can’t have a raise or a new broom to do your work (you ungrateful wretch).  Sure, it’s nice to feel “appreciated”, but nothing says true appreciation like the tangible signs of actual respect: the offering up of something of real value.  (I, for example, like a compliment as much as the next guy, but nothing convinces me you love one of my paintings like your signature on the check when you buy it).

Public deference does have a value, I’ll admit, up to a point.  Sort of like the rather amazing power a simple flower can have when presented as a gift (in the right setting, that is ; try to pull that trick when the situation calls for heavier, more costly artillery, and you’ll regret it!).

There is a difference between our polite fictions and reality, and we all know it.  We know we’re sort of playing a social game when we call someone we don’t know “Father”, and let our eyes fall down in an imitation of religious reverence.  Maybe what we’re really saying is: “Wow, you’ve invested a huge chunk of your life in a thankless and, well, make-believe job, but I want you to feel okay about that”.  (Or we’re caught up by our own magical thinking in the presence of a “holy man”).

So it’s not simply a case of the priest bullying the people into treating him like a demigod.  It is also the need of the people to keep their pantheons supplied with objects of aspiration.  That we have to populate our many Mount Olympus’s with fellow humans who do a generally crap job at divinity is just the reason we need to add in the fiction to make it work.  Why do we do it?  Perhaps we have priests because we want them to be there when we need them to support us in times of personal fictional crisis: they are the keepers of the flame of our religious fictions, reliably there while we go out and do whatever we want, trusting that someone is on the payroll keeping themselves holy and on-call (a common complaint of many a minister’s sermon!)

Humans are such interesting animals.  I’ve moved more and more to the opinion that I’m not certain that I would strip away all of our fictions if I could.  But neither would I choose to live under them.  It’s one thing for an adult to keep the idea of Santa Claus (for example) alive.  It would be another thing entirely if an adult actually believed in a literal Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole.  Or, to take it to an extreme, to stand up in front of a room full of people every Sunday in an elf costume, and proclaim the revealed wisdom of Santa as if it were gospel.

Ho Ho Holy smokes!

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

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

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Signs from God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 30th, 2010
A sign from god.

A sign from God?

If you’ve read any Christopher Hitchens at all, you’ll have run across his frequent use of the word “solipsism” to describe humanity’s tendency to think of ourselves as the point around which the universe revolves.  Hitchens uses this tendency as explanation for the nearly universal notion that there is an eternal an omnipotent personal God, creator of heaven and earth, that is deeply interested in each of our prayers, no matter how trivial or ridiculous.

The refreshing slap in the face that wakes us up to the absurdity of such a notion is that religion — which claims to represent the properly humble posture of man before God — is actually more representative of our fully-flowered narcissism and inflated sense of self importance.  God — the thing above which there is no other — cares for ME, little old (humble and meek) me.  There is nothing in such a statement that is either humble or meek.

Yet the easily observable reality is that a great many people believe just that: that we are — if not the center of God’s universe — certainly the primary focus of his attentions.

To take a less cynical view, it is completely understandable that we would naturally view everything from a “me” perspective.   As evolutionary psychology might describe it, our self-centeredness is a product of our capacity for survival and adaptation that made us the successful species that we are.

But having evolved the kinds of high-functioning minds we carry with us, we have also developed a remarkable capacity for self-examination.  We can step outside ourselves and observe our own thoughts, behaviors and emotions.  (Of course just because we can doesn’t mean we always do — we are highly evolved animals, yes, but — to paraphrase Darwin — we still  “bear the indelible stamp of our humble origins”).  It is this self-reflective capacity that makes humans capable of philosophy, poetry, art, music and literature.  It is this capacity for perspective that allowed human minds to examine the evidence of geology, biology and cosmology to come to the mind-blowing conclusions that we are elaborate replication systems for DNA, evolved over millennia from earlier life forms on a planet formed by cosmic explosions which we are barely able to comprehend.

None of the evolutionary worldview was obvious (one suspects) to our ancestors that built first a magical view of the world, the forces of nature and the actions of biology.  And even now that we understand the mountains of evidence we have catalogued over the last few hundred years, there is a majority of our global population that persists in believing in the magic, not the science.  (For a fine overview of that “mountain of evidence” for evolution, read Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” — previously reviewed on this site).

This persistent belief in the irrational is a reminder that — despite the innumerable (and remarkable) human achievements in science, art, self-government and industry — we humans are not as rational nor as powerful as we suppose.  For here, again, a mix of human-centric religious thinking mixed with our innate tendency towards a self-focus conspire to create in us an evidence-poor notion of our own mental and analytical capabilities.  We secretly suppose that we are capable of anything we put our mind to.

But the human mind is highly distractible.  It has likely evolved to be that way as part of its survival strategy.  In sleep we dream because this enormous, calorie devouring computer in our big skulls never shuts off.  Just look around and you’ll see the limits of our minds: how many of us have everything in their house put away, have painted the trim that needs painting, fixed that squeak in the car, written that letter, updated that resume.  Or expand this out to all of the issues we are daily made aware of: starving children in Africa, rain forests being razed in South America, keeping up with who’s running for office locally and nationally, or the oil spill in the gulf.

The BP oil spill is a good example, in fact.  We have laws and regulations, legislators and regulators that are paid to pay attention to the application of (and compliance with) the laws.  But is there ever enough time or resources to enforce every regulation (or, from the corporate side, to comply with every regulation)?  The reality of our lives, both personal, corporate and national, is that we are forced to make choices all the time about where to focus our limited resources of time and attention, because there is never enough (of either) to do everything our busy mind calls upon us to do.  Hence a neglected friend or spouse has to put his or her foot down, and demand some “quality time”.  Deadlines are missed; the house repairs are put off.  We do the best we can and hope to do better tomorrow.  And yet the public uproar over any disaster or lapse in government oversight indicates to me a deeper belief in a human capacity approaching that of omniscience and omnipotence.  Every arm-chair critic knows how to easily fix the problem, or imagines the presence of some great conspiracy among the “top minds” that are working the actual problem “on the ground”.  Both views ignore the very real possibility that we are not the complete masters of our world, or even of our individual lives.

This is where I come to the evolutionary point of view as the one that gives us a more realistic understanding of our own capacities.  Religion both diminishes and inflates us in all the wrong ways while claiming to do it in the ONLY right way.  (And it’s not just religion — there are those that actually believe, for example, that an electric car would make their driving “Carbon neutral”, ignoring the vast resources required to both manufacture and maintain the vehicle and produce the electricity to run it.  Though clearly the better choice, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about how much we really consume).

The naturalistic, evolutionary, scientific view is – I would argue – the path to true humility in the face of the complexity of both our own and the earth’s origins.  A scientific understanding of where we came from, and what we really are is what, in the end, puts us in our place.  There is no room for false pride (in Science, not individual scientists of course), and there is none of the false humility of religion.  Instead we are free to develop a true appreciation for both how limited and how remarkable we are in the vast parade of life.

There is no better antidote to our natural self-centeredness-parading-as-humility than to look up at the stars twinkling in the night sky and recall that the light we see has travelled many millions of miles and could well be the last beams of light that left a dying star eons ago; that the minerals that build our body were brought to this planet by ancient objects from space that slammed into our boiling planet in it’s nursery years; that each of us is the living result of uncountable generations of lucky and adaptable ancestors that survived the remorseless culling of natural selection; that in a very real way, our bodies are primarily ecosystems for bacteria.  In such understandings as these lie the basis for our true humility, and a healthy pride in our species’ capacity for survival.

This is humankind standing naked before the true creation, open to what the heavens are telling us.  Now what was it I was going to get done today?

t.n.s.r. bob

REVUES FROM THE REV: “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

GodisNotCoverThough God may not be great this book certainly is.

Cheapskate that I am (I blame my Scottish Presbyterian ancestry) I generally borrow books from my fine local library.  So why, then,  did I choose to purchase my own (albeit soft-cover) edition of this book?  Because of all the books I’ve read on this subject (Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”, Harris’ “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”) this was the one I had to own.  Reading it again (with eyes slightly different than the first time last year) I am glad it is mine to scribble upon and turn corners of pages for later reference.

If you’re not already familiar with the boozy and brilliant Christopher Hitchens, you’ve clearly not been paying attention to the so called “new atheism” that has been rising into view in American culture in recent years.  Hitchens is a Brit (now a naturalized proud American citizen), a former Marxist and writer who offended thousands of former liberal fans when he came out in support of the invasion of Iraq (not for any love of President Bush and the “Neo-cons”, but for humanitarian reasons: the removal of a cruel despot).

Hitchens has become the most eloquent spokesperson for a no-holds barred critique of man-made religion (which, in short, covers all known religions).  As such, he has become the target of the apologists of religion (whom he makes a habit of debating in public forums whenever the opportunity presents itself).  Personally, I would not want to go against this man in a debate.  He has a quick and piercing mind with a vocabulary to match it.  In the end, Hitchens is criticized most for his “tone”.  This stands to reason, as there is little to criticize in his logic and argument.

So, what about this book.

“God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” tells you what you’re in for in it’s direct and bold title, for Hitchens intends to give religion the dressing down it deserves.  One by one the author meets the claims that religion makes for itself and, frankly, destroys them (imparting a reasonable doubt into the reader is not what Hitchens is about).  His writing is direct, clever and ferocious.  I found it bracing and funny on the first read (often laughing out loud), and reasonable and humane the second time around.   I don’ t know that I’d run across anything like it before, especially not in writing relating to our very human tendency toward religious belief.

Hitchens takes on the metaphysical claims of religion, the arguments from design, of special revelation and the claims that god and religion are the basis of all human morality (along with a few digressions, such as the chapter on the Pig subtitled “Why Heaven Hates Ham”).

In looking for some good quotes for this review, I found myself feeling like I should have to quote almost the entire book to do it justice.  The first chapter alone is a clear summation of what is to come, and a brilliant description of the position and attitude of the nonbeliever.  What Hitchens manages to do (most of all) is to state the glaringly obvious in a way that made me wonder why it hadn’t always been obvious to all of us before:

“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking”.

Of course HItchens can attack “faith” with evidence because even as religion claims to be based solely upon faith (and therefore beyond the scope of reason), it cannot resist seeking support for itself in all kinds of supposed evidence.  But as Hitchens shows, the evidence thus presented for faith is stunning in it’s consistent mediocrity (such as the “tawdry” acts that pass as miracles).

With all the criticism heaped upon Hitchens for his unsparing attacks, I am struck by the impassioned humanity underlying his quest.  In short, he thinks too highly of us evolved mammals to see so many of his kind bowing their knee to an imagined god (or more to the point, to just another mammal who is profiting from their particular “priesthood”).

The basic thrust of his argument is that we know so much more today than we did in the days when many of our major religions were formed.  And although religion was our earliest attempt to answer questions about our origins, death and natural events, there are now no remaining questions for which we require religion to supply the answers.  Yet despite this, belief in religion persists to the point that new religions are forming all the time (special attention is paid in the book to two recent arrivals on the scene that illustrate the phenomenon: Polynesian “Cargo Cults” and Mormonism).

The upshot of “God is not Great” is that religious belief doesn’t have a leg to stand on and  if we humans were truly rational creatures a book such as this would end religious belief.  It won’t, of course (even the author describes religion as “ineradicable”).  But, at the very least, it strips away the false mantle of respectability that the religious have long borrowed from their innate humanity to whom the true credit for their morality, reason and sense of beauty derive.