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SERMON: “The Joys of Ambiguity and the Consolations of Science” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

After the initial “scientific revolution” blitzkrieg against the ramparts of religion (where, it should be noted, religion did not fare so well), there have been attempts (by some on both sides of that battle) to raise a flag of truce.  The terms of this proposed cease-fire are drawn along the lines of the idea of non-overlapping magisterium, wherein Religion would accept the truths of science, cede the lost territory of using the Bible to explain the origins of species and the formation of the earth (as well as the causes of diseases and natural disasters) and Science would leave alone questions having to do with the existence of God and the meaning of life, as well as the role of personal confessor and consoler of the human soul.

This has never been an easy truce, nor one to which all signatories have remained within the letter (or the spirit) of the unwritten compromise.

For mainstream religion adapted to the new intellectual landscape by picking bits from the discoveries of science to spice up its sermons and lend them an air of contemporary credibility, while on the fringes the more fundamentalist believers in the Biblical account of creation simply added the word “science” to their “discipline” (while conveniently leaving out much of any true “scientific method” from their “proofs”) and dug in their heels, planting their flag proudly on Mount Irrational.  And on the Science side, many have not restrained themselves from the almost inevitable conclusion that since the evolution of life and the formation of the universe can now be explained within purely natural (if mind-boggling) means (and therefore requires the addition of no supernatural means for its existence) that there is, then, no greater being or intelligence at all.  In sum: since there is no scientific need for god, there is no god.

Obviously I fall into this latter extreme naturalist/atheist camp.

And yet even among those who have a passable understanding of what evolution tells us about our own existence, there remains a majority (if recent surveys are to believed) that nonetheless hold to a belief in God (in some form).

I consider a belief in an actual god an irrational belief, and I say that with some confidence.  However, I am also aware of another reality that has to temper any such pronouncement.  For though I consider a belief in an active, intervening and personal God to be an idea that can only exist in an ignorance of the actual evidence of biology, that “evidence of biology” (at least in terms of what we are now coming to understand of the way our evolved mammalian brains operate) suggests that our propensity toward magical thinking is as natural to our consciousness as is our capacity for empathy or aggression: in short God (both as an idea and as a perceived “presence”) is a natural by-product of consciousness.

And if God is, then, natural, can I really have a “problem” with it?  Sure, I can.  But I don’t feel like i can take it so far as to ridicule any and everyone who believes.  (Though, to be honest, there is no escaping the implied “ridicule” in my pronouncing their beliefs to be ridiculous).

Part of the reason I can’t (or won’t) actually attack a person’s beliefs is the same reason that most people would not leap into unrestrained rapine violence were they to suddenly realize there was no Great Father in the Sky watching their behavior and holding eternal punishment over their heads:  That reason being that I am also a deeply (profoundly) social animal, living among similarly social animals of my own kind, and I strongly desire to continue living among my kind in freedom and security.  (Going on a lawless rampage would quickly cost me my social standing, my career and my liberty — and all of that long before god got is eternal paws on me!)

What if I'd known all of this at 15?

Screw God, I say: the real punishment of misbehaving is (and has always been) the loss of the approbation of my fellow humans.  They have the real power to punish (forgetting, for now, the socio- and psychopathic among us that are genetically immune to such scorn from their fellow sentient beings).

Which brings me back around to an insoluble conundrum: the more science I read; the more corners of my ignorance into which science is able to cast some light, the less room there is for an actual god to hide.  And yet, the more science I read, the better I understand that the range of human personalities also has a genetic and biochemical basis, meaning that there will always be a portion of the population given to a liberal mind or a conservative mind (the conservative minded being the one that cannot comfortably function with a large does of ambiguity and that will, therefore, rely on its natural capacity for magical thinking to find evidence in a purely “natural” life for the divine).  Such as these will never join in fellowship with those of us who find a certain pleasure in the contemplation of the complexities of life that science reveals to us.

And this brings us to where science is now, I think: once more moving the fence posts that mark the ever-shrinking patch of land that the church occupies.  For the kind of knowledge that science can now supply is the kind of knowledge that no longer only informs (and tickles the more “open” mind), it also consoles.  And consolation has been one of the more popular menu-items at the religious buffet for many millennia.

As a personal example, the last two books I have read about brain science have helped me to begin a sort of mental “remediation”, wherein, like an asbestos removal team, I can begin uncovering and removing the last toxic vestiges of magical thinking that I had been culturally inclined to apply to the way my brain works.  In short, I can now recognize the mechanics of how my particular brain has stored information over the years, flavoring each memory with a charge of emotion (positive or negative) based on my personality (read: genes).

This may not sound like much, but in fact it frees me from an enormous burden, a burden that, at various times in my life, has included trying to figure out what the God of the Universe was trying to tell me through each experience, or what my Higher Power was “leading” me to (through this upset or that), or what possible cosmic “meaning” an event might be concealing.

Wow.  That’s a lot of BIG CONCERN for a mammalian brain to handle, especially when it turns out THERE IS NO SUCH THING be be concerned with!

In this sense, the ability to “see the world as it really is” has tremendous powers of consolation, as well as incredible practical utility.  I can now observe the way my brain operates without making that operation more (or less) than it actually is.  Further, it has given me tools to deal with the charged memories already stored in my brain during my more magically-inclined decades (sigh).

In short, I find that my increasing knowledge of science, and the recent reading of two books (that are basically about how mouse brains work) have given me more emotional comfort and useful tools than my 25 years of religious belief and years of therapy.  It almost feels as if the knowledge I’ve gained in the last couple of months — if given to the 15 year-old Bob — could have saved me a lot of trouble.

Oh, and did I mention the joy that such discoveries bring to a mind like mine?  Tremendous!

Sound a bit like a religious “testimony”?  Yeah, only it’s not.  It is a testimony to what lies beyond magical thinking: the joys of ambiguity and the consolations of science.

t.n.s.r. bob