Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

SERMON: “The Source of Morality” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I think it’s safe to say that most people — when they ponder the issue of right and wrong — think of morality as having a basis in revealed knowledge.  (Think of the “Ten Commandments” and the way that conservatives repeatedly point to them as the “Judeo-Christian foundation” of all that is good and lawful about the United States of America).

But there are a few of us (in addition to the scientists and evolutionary psychologists who study such things) that hold the view that human morality and ethics are not rooted in revelations divine, but are naturally-evolved expressions of the never-ending search for a balance between our deeply social — and incurably selfish — natures.  The rules we live by are basically the socially-active tools we employ to get as much as we can for ourselves (and our clan) without arousing countering forces from other individuals and groups.  In short, this is what cooperation is all about.  And from cooperation flows the altruism that marks the “above and beyond” behaviors that qualify as “generous” on the scorecards of human behavior.

Those who see morality as “revealed” strongly believe that anything short of a heavenly, eternal, and immutable source for right and wrong would simply prove unequal to the task of maintaining social order.  And so they believe that were the external, revealed (read: Heavenly) authority for our social rules to prove non-existent, morality would instantly lose all meaning (and, therefore, all of it’s power to regulate human behavior).  Little wonder, then, that they hold so fast to the belief that God is behind everything.

But instead of  being the actual state of morality’s affairs, this is much more a case where the belief in a divine moral source itself can, in some ways, create the reality it claims already exists.  In short, the belief precedes the reality that is held up as proof for the belief itself.  For, according to many writers, the codes of religion developed as a way to (among other aims) make people behave better when no-one was physically watching them (as populations grew, and spread beyond direct supervisory control).  I think this makes sense: the invisible, distant God is the perfect spy (the “inescapable tyrant” as Christopher Hitchens called it) that we can never really be sure is not watching our every move (and, even better, hearing our every secret thought).

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

So it could well be that, upon a sudden mass realization that God does not exist (and, therefore, that morality is not sacralized by his imprint) a good many people might decide to run amok.  I think that this would be a short-lived phenomena, as those who behaved in a lawless manner would shortly run into serious legal and interpersonal issues of a very present, human kind (unless, of course, it became a society-wide collapse, which would be a much more serious issue, albeit one that occurs — one should note — with regularity in human societies, and that with God still firmly in his Heaven).

But on the other side of the fence (from the religiously inclined) are those who believe that we can use our reason to create a better system of ethics without God as the source.  I think this is correct, up to a point.  But sometimes those who eschew God as a source can go wrong if what they are really proposing is a belief that there exists in nature a perfect law that we can discover and align ourselves with.  As philosophers have noted, this is not much different from the religious seeking a revealed source to bulk up an authoritative claim for a particular brand of morality, only in this case the revelation is sought in nature.  Both are locked into a quest for an ultimate, unquestionable moral authority.

The fundamental problem we must contend with is that ethics and morality, which are really an evolved (and evolving) social tool for (evolved and evolving) social animals, exist in a natural world that is ever only “balanced” in an ever-shifting-mid-point-between-competing-forces sort of way.  Nothing is fixed in this world.  And that, I’m afraid, applies to morality as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, the truth of the relativity of morality is evident all around (and within) us.  Almost every sin we can conceive of exists on a sliding moral scale, even the most heinous ones (such as murder which can, in certain circumstances, be “justified”).  We cry for justice and plead for mercy with equal vigor.  (This is why we have juries to decide issues that, were they truly black and white, would require no deliberation at all).

The upshot of this reality is that with morality — as with our interactions with our natural environment — the best that we can do is to limit the inputs into the system that are pushing things out of “balance”, and hope that the adjustments we make are wise ones so that the ever-swinging pendulum swings in a more constrained, sustainable arc.

With humans this means combating the obvious abuses that increase human misery, and attempting to encourage the positive actions that provide opportunity for more and more humans to have meaningful lives.  (Now just exactly what makes a human life meaningful is going to have many different definitions to different people.  But this is part of the complexity of life that makes the idea of a sort of revealed universal morality so suspect: it won’t work equally well for all peoples everywhere).

So it seems that the best we can do is, well, the best that we can do.  Abandoning the idea of perfect law (whether given by God or revealed by nature) is a good start.  At least then we are starting off from a semi-solid common-grounding in reality.

So I don’t think humankind needs any new “holy books” or revelations.  And our future does not lie in our past.  Human morality and beliefs have been evolving for fifty-thousand years, and even the great religious world views that have imprinted themselves on our moral minds (and seem to be permanent cultural fixtures) had a beginning, a middle, and may one day have an “end”.  If they do end, they will not leave a world without ethics and morality (just as they did not come to a world without ethics and morality).  They will, like the systems of belief that preceded them, simply be replaced by the next and (one assumes) somewhat superior system.

People get pretty damn spun-up around morality.  We become indignant, outraged, ready to bring down the hammer of heaven upon those who flout our laws.  We could stand to calm down a bit.  Not so that we can coast off into lawlessness, but so that we can be more humane and effective in our legislation and enforcement of law.  And also that we may begin to appreciate just how much we humans have accomplished in creating the complex, cooperative societies that we have.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and when we accept a touch of humility in this area, we are rewarded with an earned sense of pride.  Even if it’s not God given.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Tares Among the Wheat” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:  But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.  But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.  So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn”.  (Matthew 13:24-30, King James Version)

"Wheatfield with Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh

“Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent Van Gogh

The idea for this last sermon of this third year of the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob comes from catching myself in a behavior that almost anyone would recognize as “prayer”: me, alone, speaking out loud in a way that implies a belief that an unseen entity is listening — an entity who, it must be added, is thought to be able to act upon the information I am supplying through my “prayer”.

So, it occurred to me that if we were all put under a giant microscope — all the faithful believers in God in the world and atheist me — any unbiased researcher would say that there is absolutely no difference between what I do and what the most fervent religious believer does, at least in terms of behavior.  And yet there is a difference.  But I can find myself wondering if that difference really means anything.  Have I really journeyed so far to just be like everyone else who found God and stopped there?

This doesn’t seem to fit the narrative I tell of my own “spiritual” journey — a journey marked by a beginning — and landmarks — that long preceded the idea for the “church of bob”.  But the practice of these last years of writing out (weekly) my thoughts and observations has, I think, accelerated and focused my own process and growth.  And yet, after three years in which I’ve read at least a hundred books on science (and who knows how many articles), visited a slew of museums, interviewed scientists and written over 150 sermons, it feels — rather surprisingly — as if I what I’ve really done is a lot of hard work to get back to a place I already knew.  Sort of the spiritual equivalent of a battle where bloodied troops find the reward for their efforts is to re-occupy the trenches they were forced out of in the previous battle.

I’ve written before on my view that one of the most vital tools of religion (of any kind) is the re-branding of human experience into something exclusive to a particular religious practice.  I stand by that idea.  You name any natural impulse or phenomenon of the human mind or body and you will find, in one spiritual guidebook or another, an explanation for it that instantly converts it to confirmatory evidence for whatever deity or tradition is being sold at the moment.  It would seem that just below our primal social and sexual impulses we are natural marketers.  From our early shamanism to the religions that developed as we became agricultural (and had to find ways to live together in ever larger and more complex non-kin-related groups) religion has found fertile soil in the human psyche.  But, then, how would we expect anything else from a system of ideas that evolved under conditions of cognitive natural selection as surely as birds evolved feathers and we evolved from fish?

And so it would seem that a great deal of my journey (in these last few years) has not been to acquire new territory as much as it has been to systematically disentangle the tendrils of religious associations from the behaviors that are natural to a mammal (that has a body and a multi-layered consciousness such as we humans do).  To borrow from the parable quoted above, I had to wait for the harvest to separate the tares from the wheat.

I can now recognize that what a Buddhist or Muslim or Christian or Jew does when they pray is the exact same thing that I do when I talk to myself.  The only difference between us is that they think that they are praying to an external God (or spirit or saint or the universe).  But observed on the level of behavior (and, I should add, outcome) it’s all the same.  That may bother believers, but it no longer bothers me.  I am satisfied that I now finally know who and what it is I am praying to: my own consciousness.  And every part of that conversation (save for the sound waves that travel from my mouth to my ears) takes place within the confines of my physical body.  No more, no less.

One of the major themes of my “preaching” is that this understanding takes nothing away from the wonder and magic of prayer.  Because what prayer actually is is a process of making the thoughts of my waking brain (which is informed by external stimuli, reason, analytical thought, and the emotions and desires of deeper, non-verbal levels of our consciousness) and vocalizing them so that they can be processed by a different level of that same brain.  This is why prayer works: it takes advantage of the various ways in which different parts of our brain process information (it would appear that auditory input is sent to a different processing center than internal, non-vocalized thought).  To ignore this brain trick would be to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face, as it were.

I talk to this brain of mine out loud because I have learned from experience that it will actually “answer” me, help me find my keys, help to make things happen that I want to make happen, etc.  What I have also learned, however, is that — despite the hubristic claims of the worst of the spiritual hucksters — my mind has no power to make anything happen remotely (to effect events in other locations).  It is a purely local, internalized phenomenon.  (Believing we are capable of anything else takes us immediately into the realm of metaphysics or the “super” natural.  Something for which I find no evidence).

So you could fairly say that I talk to God all the time, and God hears me, and God answers my prayers.  Only I understand that the voice I hear is really coming from a location in my own consciousness that exists at a level that is accessible by language.  This can be hard for a believer to accept, because it would mean that their religion is but one brand name of a product sold under many other labels (and it is certainly not welcome news to the marketeers of those brands!).  And — perhaps more importantly — it means that all of the advantages of prayer are not reserved by God for the faithful alone, but are available, as it were, in their “generic” form to all.

But, then, this is where a proper understanding of what we really are as evolved mammals can, I think, make us better humans.  Stripping prayer of the impossible religious promises of mountain moving, for instance, doesn’t take anything away from us (except maybe a bit of hollow boastfulness), and removing a fictional God as the source of our supplication does not, in the end, lessen the effectiveness of our prayers.  For what was there to begin with is still there, right inside our bony skulls: the field where the tares and wheat of our awareness ripen — our own multi-leveled consciousness.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Why Quibble with Religion?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

 

The not-so-reverend bob.

Perhaps I should not quibble with what people choose to believe about life.  After all, isn’t it remarkable enough that we are able to carry on living our busy lives under the shadow of our own imminent deaths, without demanding that we all view our predicament in the same way?  Why say things that might add to that existential burden?

As one possible answer I might turn to a series of experiments documented in the PBS series “The Human Spark”, where it was shown that a trademark of very young human children is their innate and irresistible urge to show other children how to perform a task that they themselves had just been taught.  We are natural “helpers” in this way.  Perhaps that is why we are natural “evangelists” for everything from religion to the brand of toothpaste that we buy.

We are also naturally curious and deeply social.  Listen to humans talk and it is most often a series of personal stories told one after the other, back and forth (and though women are marked as the most talkative in this regard, just see what happens when you get a group of men swapping “hunting stories”).  We can’t, it seems, get enough of stories about ourselves and each other.

Is all of this simply a justification for my preaching the “gospel” of reason and science?  Of course.  But it is also an explanation.  And explanation is precisely what science offers us.  But is an “explanation” the same as an “answer” when it comes to our most basic existential questions?

Morality and ethics have long been the domain of religion and philosophy.  Science is a rather unwelcome late-comer to that party, and has proved to be a sometimes awkward and ungainly guest.  But I think that is because it has taken some time to come to understand the difference between the questions that religion poses and science answers.

To some these two fields are qualified to answer two different “kinds” of questions (and one shouldn’t even try to answer the other’s).  Hence the popular notion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (which is basically a gentlemen’s agreement that where religion leaves off, science takes over, or vice versa).  Which is a way for the old guard of religion to tell late-arriving science to “Keep the hell off my lawn with your beakers and such!”.  In this argument, the truths of the spiritual realm are held to be such that they cannot be measured by mechanical (scientific) means.  They are super-natural, and therefore occupy an entirely different realm than that studied by science (they are, in short, granted an exemption from scientific scrutiny).  The hard scientific view would be that anything that cannot be studied either does not exist or must await the invention of the means to measure it.  (In practice, however, many scientists will publicly, at least, leave religion — and religious claims about reality — alone)

In my view such a fictional divide (often a very polite one) is much more about keeping the peace than it is about any actual dividing line.  It is the position we take to not offend the religious powers that be.  And that, I think, is am important hint at why the divide persists: religion is a powerful force, and folks don’t want to upset it so much that it rears its ugly inquisitional head once more (or on a more prosaic level, they don’t want to offend or hurt the ones they love).

But there is also this: when science first came on the scene (and here I include the social sciences), it began to suss out the causal factors of life and physical reality (and human behavior).  But since such discussions had heretofore been in the realm of religion and philosophy (which is a “why” proposition) the “what” answers of science were naturally taken to be mere justifications for a range of human behaviors that ran afoul of commonly-accepted norms.  This was not acceptable to many.  Take the study of mental illness, for example: suddenly there were biological explanations for aberrant human behavior that did not involve questions of individual moral weakness or possession by devils.  From the very beginning science began to encroach on historically religious grounds if for no other reason than religion had previously produced its own explanations of human behavior and natural phenomenon.  Some sort of conflict was inevitable.

And so there was conflict.  And there still is, despite the obvious achievements of science.  The conflict continues because the encroachment into the magesterium of religion continues.  We now know where the earth and the “heavens” came from.  We know where humans came from.  We understand how morality evolved in social animals like ourselves.  And we know about the genetic foundations of certain physical and mental disorders, on the one hand, and the natural variations in human behaviors (such as homosexuality) on the other.  We haven’t figured everything out — not by a long shot — but we have answered a good deal of the most basic questions to a reliable degree of certainty.  And the answers turn out to be — in every case — better than the religious ones in actually explaining phenomenon.  Religion, it turns out, is really really bad at science.

Religion — being based as it is in history — cannot renew itself through new discoveries the way that science can.  Religion can adapt (as it has with quite a lot of success over the years), or re-form itself under new “brand names”.  But it cannot be a source of new discovery like science can: “new” religions are always a recycling of the one basic religious genome, if you will.  One reason this is true is that science is a study of existence that is based on experiment that can be verified.  Religion is a sort of co-evolved parasite of the human consciousness that maintains a roughly symbiotic relationship with its host.  For it to change radically would be to annihilate itself.  Therefore it can only fight for its survival against the intrusions of science and reason.

It would be easy to say that religion is, therefore, fighting a losing battle.  But that hardly seems to be the case today.  Belief in magic is increasing, even as science shows us more and more of what is really going on behind the wizard’s curtain.  But perhaps the last hope of religion — crap as it is at being science — lies in its hope that science is equally bad at being a religion.

It seems clear — in the popular mind at least– that science has not yet answered the “why” of life with its “what” discoveries (at least to the satisfaction of those used to the answers of religion and myth).  But here is the fulcrum upon which this question tips in favor of science: for perhaps the most important discovery of science has been that there turns out to be no “why” in nature beyond the “what”.  The “what” is, in essence, the only meaningful “why” we have available to us.  There is cause and effect, yes, but once you exclude intelligent terrestrial creatures, the vastness of physical reality that remains is mindless, thoughtless and devoid of the kind of intention that is essential to create a “why”.

Why am I here, then?  Well, on the most basic level, because I’m here.  But who made that happen?  No “one” made it happen.  We have now explained all but a few of the physical processes that led to my existence (a stunning mix of chance and inevitability).  Science adds to that the facts that I am a mammal (a primate) that is a species that evolved from earlier life forms, most of which did not physically resemble me (at least in a superficial way — my ancient body plan was present in my fish ancestors even if my blue eyes and soft hair were not).  The chemicals and minerals and elements of which my body is built are those which were present on the planet I evolved on.  The elements were formed, first, in the death furnaces of ancient stars that were themselves birthed in the “big bang” that began our universe, space and time.

Compare this answer to that given by the first chapter of Genesis for sheer explanatory power.

The religious believer will almost invariably ask at this point: “Okay.  Say that is all true.  Who made it all happen?”  Who?  Who?  At a certain point you come to realize that the question is a switch-up of apples for oranges (or oranges for orangutans).  What single thing about reality justifies the call for an intelligent designer “making” it all happen?  “Why” turns out to be our question, not the universe’s.

In the end, I believe, science provides us answers to the questions that can be answered.  That may sound like I’m leaving wiggle room for religion to answer the “other” questions.  But that is my point: I don’t think there really are any other questions.  If, that is, that we only accept as valid a question for which an answer can actually exist.  A question with no answer would seem to be something else: a trick, a diversion, a waste of time (like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot”).

And that’s where I’ve come to regarding magical metaphysical answers for natural phenomenon: I don’t buy them as answers because I don’t buy them as questions.

Philosophy retains its place as it is the study of the “how” of human thought — the way in which we take reality to heart and make sense of it in our own hearts and minds.  Philosophy, I think, deals with the anguish caused by the question “why”, but does not attempt to answer it.  It accepts that “why” is a part of the way we think — the way we have to find a story to tell to ourselves about the things that happen in our life.

For me, gradually coming to understand that “why” was the wrong question all along did, indeed, help to answer it.  It told me I was asking an unanswerable and, therefore, un-ask-able question.

And once I understood that, I was then freed to find a much more nutritious diet of existential nourishment from science than I ever could from religion.  How?  Because science gives us more than just data.  Understanding that a genetic mutation has set one up for mental illness or heart failure does not make everything alright, for example.  It does, however, offer some hope of helpful scientific and medical intervention to improve one’s chances at a decent life.  But it also does something else that is important to a sentient being: it removes the self-questioning doubt that religion has always placed upon the sick, the odd, the different: it removes the stain of personal sin or failure as a “why”.  And in that sense modern science takes one more giant step into the hallowed temple of religion by offering comfort to the troubled.

Dumping religious dogma in favor of the more trustworthy data of science is a nearly impossible act for many humans.  It can feel like leaving behind something noble, trustworthy and beloved for something cold, confusing and brash.  Something like trading in your familiar horse and buggy for an loud and unfamiliar automobile.  But we are long past the age of scientific “Model A’s”, and those that hold on to ancient buggies when modern, reliable cars are available seem more and more out of step with reality.

Scientific knowledge, it turns out, can offer the religious and philosophical benefits of genuine consolation and comfort without the awkward cognitive price of irrational belief.  We can finally understand the “what”, and stop worrying about the “why”.  And that, I can tell you, is a good place to be.

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: “The Great Disappointment” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

“Burden of proof lies with the atheist, who must disprove the overwhelming evidence for a Creator who is immensely powerful, eternal, and personal. Simply put, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”

This was a recent post by a friend on a social media site.  I pondered several responses to it, but decided to leave it be.  The problem with the answers I came up with weren’t that they wouldn’t hold up as argument, but that I kept composing them in the same sort of clever manner as the original statement.  I was writing bumper stickers to answer another bumper sticker.  And as we all know, that is a sort of never-ending smarty-pants arms race that is rarely “won”.

That being said, the original statement is worth picking apart, for it is (at its clever heart) emblematic of the truths with a small “t” that religion offers that are, in the end, swallowed up by Truth with a huge, honking capital “T” (like the small fish that is swallowed by the larger fish only to be consumed by an REALLY LARGE great white shark).

So what about the “burden of proof” that opens the statement?  Actual logic is turned upon its head here as it is the theist who is making the larger claim, and, therefore, must provide the greater burden of evidence — evidence which the second part of that sentence claims is self-evident in such a way as to make obvious the “powerful, eternal and personal” nature of God.  The final sentence is a clever turn of the never-out-of-style “I know you are but what am I” argument, which begs the atheist to begin his or her response with a statement of his or her own faith, such as “No, it doesn’t take much faith at all’.

(“Aha!” yodels the theist, “You just admitted that you employ FAITH!  See — atheism IS a religion after all!”).

The fundamental problem here is the underlying fallacy of any argument that determines the truth of a matter by how deeply one believes in a particular answer (as in “I believe in God with all my heart, and you only believe in science with your mind.  I win!”)  Clearly, the question rises from an assumption of belief-as-proof, and therefore the arguer feels completely comfortable dismissing the atheist’s deficit in the “faith” department even as he is not shy about painting that very same non-faith-based idea as a “religion”.  You can have your angel cake and eat it too, apparently.

Of course atheism is not a religion (this does not mean that no humans treat it as such, or that no atheists exhibit religious-like behaviors).  But then again, there is a strain in evangelical Christianity that is fond of denying that its own religion is, well, religion at all.  This usually takes the form (in argument) of a rather meaningless statement like “Christianity’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”.  Which seems to me to be sort of like saying “The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. is not a government, it’s a relationship”.

True enough, I guess, on some level.  But what does that really mean?

The truth (in a lower-case “t” sense) is that we social humans engage in a wide variety of polite fictions that allow us to rub up against each other with a minimum of violence and friction in a crowded, complex society.  One of these fictions is an allowance for the varieties of religious belief (that we may well — privately at least — think of as silly or even dangerous).  Even one such as I finds myself reflexively addressing a priest or nun as “Father” or “Sister”.  It just seems polite, if ludicrous.  (Sort of like a grown-up version of calling a child by whatever super hero name he wants to be called that week).

But what galls the non-believers in a society (something most believers just don’t get) is when those to whom we extend these social niceties take things a step further and insist that such deference is not a gift we give each other, but a duty that all citizens must pay to the enlightened (or “chosen”) few (who are almost always convinced that they know what God wants everyone else to do).  These people we refer to as “fundamentalists”, and they come in all flavors of belief, though they are all, essentially, the same.  (Which is why a white, American Christian evangelical fundamentalist has much more in common with an Arab Muslim fundamentalist than she might be willing to admit.  If they should ever get past their hangup on who’s founder was the more divine, they would be a terrible combined force to reckon with!).

To bring together, now, the threads of the original quote with our use of polite social fictions, the bare, naked Truth of it all is this: the ONLY evidence for the existence of a “powerful, eternal and personal” God is our belief that such a God exists.  Absolutely nothing in nature that we humans have ever discovered has given us any support for the notion.  It is only the cognitive power of belief-dependent realism that bends reality into the shape of the divine.

The deeply religious (and here I think mostly of the evangelical or fundamentalist branches of belief) regularly criticize humanists and environmentalists and animal-rights activists as having made themselves (or nature) into their God.  This, to a theist, is idolatry.  And were it not for that pesky New Testament, such sins of misattribution-of-divine-power could be punished in the old-fashioned way: stoning.  But here is just one more of the huge ironies that the fundamentalist carries without complaint:  it is the fundamentalist that has, in fact, turned nature into God, not the humanist (environmentalist, animal rights activist, etc).

Think about it for a moment:  The religious believer looks at the products of billions of years of completely natural (yet nonetheless wondrous) processes of chemistry, geology and biology and personifies them into the actions of a single individual.  This is the small fish gobbling up the smaller fish, and feeling quite satisfied with itself.  But the truth of nature turns out to be the great white shark of reality that consumes all attempts to reduce it to a size and level of complexity sufficient to be contained within the idea of “God”.

Make no mistake.  Nature is a wonder.  The human body (for all of its odd quirks, switched-off DNA, and systems borrowed from our earlier bodily forms) is a wonder as well.  The existence of human consciousness is a mystery that we have begun to understand, but can not yet fully fathom or explain.  There is yet room in this world for awe and bewilderment, even in the age of science.

But unless the God who made it all possesses a peculiar and perverse sense of humor — of the kind that would make him create a universe, earth and life comprehensible only as the product of a messy and ancient constellation of natural processes (like the ultimate “trickster” god) and then demand that one species of primates (us) see past this deep catalog of misdirection and notice him lurking in the background — then there is most likely no God at all.

To many humans this would be a great disappointment, as if the fish they thought was the biggest one in the ocean turned out not to be.  But take heart: I can tell you from experience that there are greater wonders awaiting those who move beyond the spell of belief.

Religion is a world view that reduces nature to the size of God.  Because God — contrary to what most believers think — is not the biggest idea a human can have.  It is, in reality, an idea that exercises our capacities for understanding while remaining yet small enough for us to grasp: a means of compressing the vast incomprehensibility of nature into the form of a person…like us.  If the continuing resistance to the broad acceptance of the (more unsettling) discoveries of science has taught us one thing about our selves, it is that the human mind clearly evolved to deal quite well with its local environment, but is only very modestly capable of grasping things such as the depth of geological time, the vastness of the known universe or our own biological evolution.  But there is no shame in recognizing the limitations of our animal brains.  After all — as far as we can tell — we’re the only living things ever to have existed that have reached a stage of cognitive development to even struggle with such enormous ideas!

So no, it does not take a special amount of faith to not believe in God.  What it does take is a certain amount of courage to face the enormous profundity of nature.  In that there is no disappointment.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The God Who is Always There” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On one level it is impossible to say that God does not exist, even if He exists only as an idea.  For ideas have a certain presence in our world, and when ideas are shared by so many, their presence is multiplied.  But can such an idea be multiplied to the point that it becomes a self-standing reality, independent of its cognitive creators?  No.  I don’t think so.  No more than our personalities — no matter how large — can survive our own physical death.  That is the realm of metaphysics, not measurable reality.

So what are we to say, then, to the innumerable people who have had deep “personal experiences” of God and spirit: who have felt that sense of another presence at a time of crisis, or that familiar voice in our head (that is not often a voice so much as an impression, word or idea)?  And what artist or creator has not known “inspiration”, where an idea seems to arrive fully formed from out of nowhere?

Of course none of these nearly-universal experiences comes from “out of nowhere”.  So far all of the evidence of science tells us that they come from our physical brain.  And our physical brain is certainly a “somewhere”.

Because we have a multilayered brain, it can do more than one thing at a time.  And that is precisely, in fact, what it’s doing all of the time.  We don’t have to think about making our heart beat or telling our muscles to walk or grasp any more than we have to consciously manage our breathing or digestion.  It seems to “just happen”.  But we know these automatic impulses are not “just happening” at all, but are being “directed” (or ordered) by processes in our brain.  And yet that part of our brain that performs the 24/7 management of our body is hardly what we would call “conscious”.  It is the primitive “lizard” brain responding to the input of the senses and the nerves and the chemical signals that are the literal lifeblood of our self-contained organism.  Is this, then, God?

We could call it that.  But we have yet a higher level of consciousness that operates just below the conscious brain.  This is the source of our emotions and desires and the generator of our “fight or flight” response.  This is the part that hears something, or sees something, and sets off the chain reactions of adrenaline and awareness that gets us ready to run or do battle before our conscious mind even knows what’s going on.  Is this, then, our Guardian Angel?

Given the chance, we almost always go for the God in the sky.

I keep making these comparisons between the natural processes of our brains and our conceptions of spirit and the divine for a reason: because of our long history with religion, our mental/emotional default setting is to maximize any and all possibility of God working in the world, and minimize the possibility that everything that we experience of existence has a physical, earthly and/or biochemical basis.  In short, we have a natural confirmation bias toward spiritual causality.

But here’s the deal: we have so much going on within our brain that it is incredibly easy for us to project a part of ourselves outside of ourselves.  We do it all the time, and we do it quite naturally: we externalize an internal reality.

How can we do this?  Think about it: we are capable of not just our own conscious behavior, but of observing our own behavior, and commenting on it.  We can notice our selves, almost as if we were outside of ourselves watching the things we do.  That’s how we can say “I can’t believe I just said that!”, or some such.  But beyond that, we have several layers of mind always at work below the level of consciousness.  These are also parts of our “self”.  So is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes confuse an aspect of our self for someone (or something) else?  No.  Especially if you add in the mind’s ability to identify with one part of our personality over another (meaning we will often try to make a distinction between our “true” self and an aspect of our personality or behavior that is causing us social harm).  This, I submit, is a very likely source for our ideas of the minor demons and troubling spirits that populate our religious literature and folklore.  (The major ones perhaps inspired by the more extreme manifestations of severe mental illness).

(You’ll notice, I hope, an important thing here: I am not discounting the reality of our experiences of these phenomenon.  I am only quibbling about our attribution of their actual source.)

So why is it that our first impulse is to identify any and all of these phenomenon as God?  Habit and hope.  For whatever reason, it remains much more appealing to most of us to find in everyday phenomenon evidence of an external spiritual presence.  Makes sense, actually, for animals as social as we are to not want to be alone, ever.

(There have always been those few for whom the idea of an outside presence reading their every thought is oppressive.  These are only too willing to dispense with the God idea.  But for the rest of us it’s usually problematic in some way, and it often requires some terrible experience of tragedy or disappointment to trigger a declension from faith.)

The greatest problem for the religious is not that the God that their religion is based upon doesn’t exist, but that the “God” that does exist (as a shared idea) is not the one that they suppose is actually there.  As long as the idea of God exists, however, then God, too, will exist.  But as an idea: a receptacle for our anomalous experiences of consciousness.  And those experiences will continue as long as we do.  And as far as it concerns us humans, that’s as good as eternity.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Faeries Under the Sink” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

I sometimes ponder the words of the critics of evolution.  I mean those that boldly state that belief in science is, in essence, a religious act, based as much on faith as any supposed “evidence”.  There is always a place in me where this sort of critique can lodge.  After all, I have been a believer in many things, from the Holy Spirit to a psychic who told me things I dearly wanted to hear.

And so I look inward and ask: am I, indeed, only seeing the things that I want to see, filtering reality through another man-made prism?  Am I fooling myself by imagining that I am looking through a microscope, when in truth I’m observing my world through a kaleidoscope?

It’s a fair question, and I take it seriously whenever it comes to me.  My response is to not fight the doubt, the hesitation, but to allow it to stand, as it were, on it’s own two feet.  In short, I don’t prop it up with my own defensiveness.  Instead, I give it a moment to make its case.

Its “case”, however, is not really a case at all.  That evolution is simply another human belief system is one of those claims that sounds legitimate, but “sounding” legitimate is as close to actual legitimacy as it will ever get.

Science is, of course, based upon observable evidence.  Any individual scientist can formulate any hypothesis about any thing, but only after that hypothesis is proven by experiment (that can be repeated under similar conditions by other independent researchers) and supported by evidence is a new theory accepted as true (and remains ever subject to disproof or modification should new knowledge arise).  There is belief, yes, when we choose to believe the evidence of science that we have not, ourselves, personally observed.  We place a certain trust in the natural competitiveness that can motivate a scientist’s eagerness to disprove an hypothesis that they don’t believe.  This intellectual energy has been focused into a system of peer review that has proven to be the best method ever devised by humans to ascertain the true nature of reality.  Science takes conjecture and runs it through a series of rigorous tests before conferring on it the title of “Theory”.  Religion, on the other, only asks that a group of people show themselves willing to believe in someone’s conjecture about the reality of things.  There are no true “tests”, as there can be no truly controlled conditions created under which anyone can recreate a single supposed miraculous phenomenon, or prove the existence of a deity that can choose to remain invisible.  (The James Randi Foundation has for years offered a large financial reward for anyone who can perform any “supernatural” feat under controlled observation.  To date, no one has taken that reward home.)

So where does the water come from?

But let’s step back and examine the assumption underlying the statement that all belief is equal.  This would mean that my belief that the water flowing from the tap in my kitchen has come to me through a series of pipes and pumps from an organized municipal water supply, and that water itself is a liquid made up of hydrogen and oxygen is the same as another’s belief that faeries under the kitchen counter make the water by magic whenever they hear the squeak of the faucet opening.  True, on one level these two beliefs share the trait of accepting as truth a process which is not immediately (completely) observable by the person with the glass held under the water tap.  But that is all that they share in common.   Both “believers” claim to base those beliefs on evidence.  But here the two beliefs diverge.  And they diverge in the way they define that which constitutes “evidence”.

For the true believer will accept as evidence the “fact” that he believes in the water faeries, and every time he opens the tap, the water faeries have provided him with water.  He draws a non-existent causal connection.  What about the pipes under the sink?  What about the fact that they sometimes leak, requiring replacement, which further requires that the water be turned off outside the house where the water pipes branch off from the city supply?  The true “believer” will find a way to rationalize such “evidence” as a ruse, perhaps going so far as to state (with utmost confidence and not a shred of evidence) that all of that water-supply infrastructure was set in place by the faeries to winnow out the unworthy.  (Kind of makes you wonder, though, why the faeries would choose to funnel their magic-made water through such clunky mechanical means.  Why shoot it out a non-functional faucet?  Why not simply make the water appear in the cells of your body when you ask for it?  Now  THAT would be some intelligent magic!).

I’ve chosen a fanciful example, to be sure.  But it’s surprising how rapidly it becomes as plausible as any mainstream religious argument.  (Consider this idea put forth by some creationists: God put the fossils in the ground to test our faith (along, one must assume, with all of the geological evidence for the planet’s billions of years of history, not to mention the trail of earlier forms mixed in along our strands of DNA)).

So why does this argument against science as religious belief hold?  To many with temperaments different than mine, it probably does not hold at all.  But for my part, I think it has to do with both our social natures and the structure of our brains.  For it turns out that we are hard-wired by evolution to believe first, and question second.  The way neuroscience describes it, there is a near instantaneous neural response to information given to us by another human.  When someone we have a social relationship with tells us something, our default setting is to accept it as true and move on.  It takes a second, more conscious process to dislodge a bit of incorrect data.  The tricky part is that this second process is more cumbersome.  We could liken it to the ease with which junk mail arrives in our mailbox (be it snail- or e-mail), and the work it takes to get your name off a dozen mailing lists, or the effort you and I have to expend to delete every one of those junk messages.

So which came first, our profoundly social natures or our believing brains?  Impossible to say, for they are, at this stage, so deeply intertwined as to be, for all practical purposes, the same thing.  Uh oh — could  that be an example of the “irreducible complexity” that gives creationists such an intellectual hard-on?  Well, yes, it’s the kind of thing that they would interpret in that way, viewed (as it inevitably is) through the kaleidoscope of faith.  But in reality it’s just one more example of the natural product of evolution and natural selection.  For in reality, there is nothing at all about our believing brain or our profoundly social natures (or our eyes, brains or livers) that gives them any claim to perfection, or sets them out as the logical end of a directed evolutionary process.  In short, the only thing that makes the way we “turned out” appear to be the logical apex of a natural progression is the fact that we humans exist at all.  We see ourselves (and our history) through a bias built upon us seeing ourselves as living at the end of a story (that has not, in reality, ended at all).

But, really, are we any more “perfect” than a beetle, or a swan, or a bedbug?  No.  But, then, we’re no less “perfect” either.

That fact that I can look at my world and see, now, the constant confirmation of the reality of evolution is not a product of my belief system, but more a product of my knowledge of science and nature that has supplied me with enough of a basis in fact to properly deduce the source of the phenomenon I see.  In short, it is the same as knowing that there exists a city water-treatment plant (I’ve seen it), and having far too much home-plumbing experience, so that when I do turn on the tap I can be fairly confident of where my water is coming from.  Such knowledge also gives me the power to diagnose and repair a leaky faucet, or a ruptured water line, whereas were I to be beholden to my belief in invisible water faeries, I would be left with only prayers or acts of supplication when the flow of water was interrupted, alone with my beliefs in a rapidly flooding house.

And that is where one set of beliefs becomes faith, and the other a reasonable, rational embracing of reality.  One is informed by knowledge.  The other thrives best where knowledge is least.

Belief in science is not the same as belief in God.  Science is not a religion.  It has no God, only an agreement to accept as true only that which can be tested, observed or measured.  It is a body of knowledge to which every generation adds — which every generation corrects and makes more accurate.  Religion is a collection of mystical beliefs that have their origin in imagination and are forever limited to living in that realm, where they need only to be believed to be considered true.  They cannot survive in the world of science, where belief is only the starting point in a rigorous process of proof.

That’s why the invisible faeries of this world will always remain invisible, like Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot: impossible to disprove, yes.  But just as impossible to prove.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: I’M A BELIEVER! Confessions of a Person of Faith. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

I am either uniquely qualified by my experience to comment on belief in our culture, or completely disqualified by my own evident credulity.

People believe all sorts of things.  I once complimented a truly clever artist by telling him “You have the most interesting mind”, to which he replied “I don’t know.  There are people out there that believe they’re a toaster”.  I saw a bumper sticker on a truck this morning that declared in bold print: “9/11 Was an Inside Job!”  There are some who might sincerely believe that our moderate Democrat President is a Socialist intent on ruining the economy of our country.  More than half of the country believes that Jesus’ return to earth is a very real possibility in their lifetimes.   I despair.

My qualifications for commenting on belief are that I have spent many years in two prominent cultural camps: the “Born Again” Christians and the “New Agers”.  I’ve ventured into no belief as an explorer or reporter, but as a person looking for an effective way to view the world.

Both Religion (Christianity) and Spirituality (New Age) offer workable world views.  About equally effective, and about equally built on bullshit.  But we have an incredible tolerance for crap (and my accusatory finger is pointing at me as well).

I’m an actor, and many of my friends are actors too.  I’ve also written for the stage, and watched actors find their way into the characters I’ve created, and I’ve witnessed a wonderful thing in the way they do this.  For an actor can take a few sentences on a page, along with a stray bit of stage direction, and fill in the vast unknown about the character they are playing with an entire world and fully-formed personality created completely in their own mind.  This is an actor trait — no, a need — that playwright’s depend on.  The writer only has to give the actor enough to engage this capacity (and the director need only encourage and guide it), and the actor will write his or her (internal) biographical tome from the supplied bits of raw theatrical material.

This is how belief works.  This is how every believer can search the scriptures and find a new understanding.  This is how the Creationist can make up the answers to how Noah fit two of every 5-50 million species (current estimates) in the Ark: the writers of the Bible need only give the reader’s natural story-telling, story-believing and pattern-making impulse a starting point, and he or she will fill in the rest.

Ever notice how every single minister or evangelist has a seemingly exclusive and secret knowledge of God’s true personality and intention?  That is the stuff that churches are made of (for if there were true unanimity, there would only be different franchises of the one true church, n’est-ce pas?)

And this, my friends, is where science steps in.  Oh I know that I can pick up just about any anthropology book and find colorful descriptions of activities and attitudes of our distant ancestors that cannot be reasonably deduced from the few actual artifacts that have been found.  That our primate ancestors existed is really beyond question at this point, but even the scientist has the same innate human urge to tell the “story” of his or her find.

Science is built upon physical evidence, free (ideally) of our individual projections or wishes.  And the scientific method has developed (over time) to effectively counter this tendency that we (to our credit) recognize in ourselves: that our desire for a good story is ever waiting to creep into our “interpretation” of whatever evidence is before us.  Hence, a double-blind, placebo controlled study stipulates the controls of the medical experiment down to the level that the person administering the “real” or “placebo” drug is not informed as to which they are giving out, so that no hints or suggestions will be transmitted to the patient in a way that might trigger the patient’s innate “placebo” response (which — though helpful to the recovery of the patient — makes a mess of getting to the “evidence based” results we are looking for).

I think belief is a natural state for us.  It is too persistent to be otherwise.  That it has served us in some beneficial way in our evolution must be accepted, even though the expression of our tendency toward belief in a variety of religious systems has often channeled our own destructive, fearful and vindictive tendencies into some truly monstrous atrocities.

The point of writers like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris et. al is that this marshaling of our natural human credulity by the hucksters that inevitably profit from it is a blight and hindrance upon our progression into any sort of livable and humane future.  I concur.  What’s to be done about it is another question entirely.

I think something can be done, because I have moved out from the realm of belief.  First in my declension from Christianity, and then from (to borrow from Dennett) my “belief in belief” itself  (which in its later stages took the form of a belief that allowed me to give weight to the mix of hokum and validating attention my “psychic” gave me for years).  Now I look for evidence and knowledge, not belief.

Belief, it turns out, is not a necessity for life.  And anyone who tells you that it is it trying to sell you something (or selling themselves some more of what they are already invested in).

I look to science.  Which, it turns out, doesn’t know everything.  But at the very least, science is honest about how much we don’t know, even as it continues to acquire knowledge at a stunning pace.  (As Christopher Hitchens puts it: “We now know less and less about more and more.”)  One the one hand it is mind-blowing to consider how much we have learned in the last one hundred and fifty years about biology, genetics, the earth, our own bodies and disease.  On the other we are humbled when we still can’t really explain the exact “why” of how some of our best medicines work.  (The good news is that the rise of evidence-based medicine can at last show us what medicines actually do work and what treatments are kept alive only by our belief in them).

When I was a kid I had a 45 record of The Monkeys song “I’m a Believer” (written by Neil Diamond).  It keeps playing in my head as I write this:

“I thought love was only true in fairy tales,
meant for someone else, but not for me,
Love was out to get me (“nah nah nah nah, nah nah”)
That’s the way it seemed (“nah nah nah nah, nah nah”)
Disappointment haunted all my dreams…

Then I saw her face,
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind
I’m in love (“ooh ooh”)
I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried!”

He saw her face, and constructed an entire love relationship in his own creative mind.  Did he talk to her?  Maybe not.  (A dear friend of mine once asked out a woman he’d been admiring from a distance for months.  “Do you still like her?” I asked, the day after their long-anticipated first date.  “Not as much as before I talked to her” he replied).

Belief moves in to fill the void before facts and evidence can seep in to displace it.  Most of us are believers to one degree or another.  When it comes to belief I was “Chief among sinners” (to borrow from Paul).  Now that I’ve moved beyond belief, I feel a mix of gratitude and embarrassment for the experience.  One the one hand it gives me a valuable insight into my fellow humans who continue to believe in belief in it’s many forms; on the other it gives me a sharp awareness of my own willingness to — over and over again —  “fill in the blanks” for the preacher or the well-intentioned quack.

As an actor and writer, it’s a wonderfully useful trait, this urge to “fill in the blank”, to make up the “rest” of the story.  But as a citizen in a modern democratic society, it is a tendency that must be brought under the influence of fact and evidence in the realms of the overall public good.

We do not have to choose between being coldly rational or imaginatively deluded, we simply need to do the work of modern people and apply our reason to the delusion, and let our imagination dispel the cold.

t.n.s.r. bob