Posts Tagged ‘fundamentalism’

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: “Naked Christmas” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Whenever I write a sermon like I did last week, I have second thoughts.

There is something about attacking belief that feels, in the end, unkind.  As if it’s something I don’t really have a right to do.  After all, the majority of my friends participate actively in belief systems (though most of them would qualify as moderate believers, not fanatics or fundamentalist).  Still, I recognize that I am among a minority that take that extra step from skepticism to a proclamation of non-belief.

So what is the source of my regret?  Is it a sense that I’ve over-stated my case?  No, not really.  When I think about the arguments I’ve made, they continue to make sense to me (or, more to the point, the counter-arguments continue to make less and less sense).  And having been a believer for so many years, I feel that I know of that which I speak.

Then what’s the problem?  Is it that I am a social animal among other social animals whose views might make the other animals uncomfortable which, in turn, could lead to me being shut out of the herd?

This brings up the apparent choice of being true to my own conscious or soft-peddling my ideas to stay within the circle of community.  This seems an obvious case of integrity over submission.  But this is what animals do all the time.  We are constantly weighing whether we are in situations that allow us free reign, or whether we have to moderate — or modulate — our behavior for the maximum success in reaching our ultimate goals (which may or may not be expressed openly).

There is a part of my mental process dedicated to weighing the benefits and risks of honest expression.  I recognize that, in some circles, such expression is honored even when (or precisely because) one is expressing an unpopular opinion.  On the other hand, one can risk actual physical harm by blurting out an impulsive comment to the wrong person or group.

As among our primate cousins (and numerous other animals, for that matter) power or status are highly desirable for us in no small part because they offer autonomy and ever higher degrees of freedom of expression.  But there is always a larger fish in the pond.

"Oh Santa!" Arranged kitsch. Photo by Bob Diven.

Once I followed belief to its logical end, there was nothing further to explore.  I had seen the face of God, and He was me (or, more precisely, a part of my own functioning consciousness).  So there was nothing to be done but turn around, come back, and get on with living.  After all, we are not configured to continue wasting energy on empty pursuits.  (That’s why it’s so hard to learn a second language, for example, when it’s one we aren’t called upon to actually use in our day-to-day life, or why we no longer grow tails).

I’ve said before that the most remarkable thing about the loss of belief (not just in God, but the deconstruction of irrational belief in total) is that nothing really changes.  Life goes on.  We still make moral choices pretty much the way we always have, we just recognize the real reasons we make those choices: not for God, but because our decisions affect our relationships with the humans we have to live with.  And this is what unbelief has really changed in my life: it has laid bare just how profoundly social an animal I am.  Suddenly I can see that our entire lives are built around our relationships with those around us.  There is nothing else but the architecture of human connection.  Projections of power onto outside gods and spirits are just a diversion from the unsettling awareness of just how vulnerable we are to the opinions and actions of other actual living, breathing humans.

In this Christmas season, it’s not difficult to take a step back into a wider perspective and wonder why I am being so sensitive about questioning beliefs that so many others don’t think twice about foisting on the rest of us.  Christmas, in fact, seems to serve as a sort of open season for the most religious to wrap up nationalism, fundamentalism and their seeming strength of numbers with the bow of state recognition into a sort of tinselly cudgel to beat non-believers back into the outer darkness (where they must surely belong).

Two things stand out to me in this: one, the insecurity that infuses the bullying nature of religious evangelism, and two; the delightful resilience of pagan symbolism that is embedded within even the most “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” event.  The religious cry “foul” whenever anyone actually expends any effort to push back against their aggression, but they are seemingly unable to see themselves as aggressors with candy canes.

But then, those last two paragraphs above are a perfect example of the personal dilemma:  I clearly don’t mind attacking belief in general, but no matter how strongly I feel about my argument, it is always followed by a tinge of regret.  Why?  Because though I want to throw my wooden shoe into the machinery of oppressive religion, I don’t want to hurt my relationships with believing friends or associates.  Like many things in life, there just may not be a perfect solution to my not-uncommon dilemma.

By criticizing belief, I feel like I pee in a pool that a lot of my friends swim in.  That, it turns out, is the actual issue.  On the one hand I feel free to undermine “belief” in a broader sense (as my “unbelief” is clearly fair game for others to attack), but like all things human, things are different on a personal level.

For most of us Christmas is a rich blend of traditions, old and new, that reflect the deepest social traits of us humans: a recognition of our vulnerability to the ravages of Winter, a thankfulness for plenty in the darkest months, a delight in our innate sense of magic and wonder, and a certain extravagance in finding and creating beauty in the things of nature that carry their living greenness into December.  There is so much that is so achingly and beautifully human about the celebrations of the season that the fundamentalist cries of “put Christ back into Christmas” can feel like a crass, reductionist affront to the celebration, like the gangs of zealots throughout our history that continue to find any frivolity an abomination in the eyes of their pissed-off god.

I see Christmas for what it is, and enjoy it all the more for its glorious mix of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the pagan.  Heaven and earth, if you will.  It is probably one of the best windows into the human mind and heart.  I don’t believe we ever will (or can) take “Christ” out of Christmas, and I’m not certain we need to.  He is, after all, a part of the history of the holiday.  I just like to recognize that he was a later arrival to a party that we’d been throwing for a long time.  And, after all, we humans like a good party, and no-one likes a party-pooper.

So Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Winter Fest.  May this holiday be a joy to you in the ways that mean the most…to you.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Why Does God Exist?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

I listened to Christian radio on a regular basis, as I drive around town.

Why do I — an apostate — do that?  Am I just picking at an old wound?  Or testing the strength of my hard-won religious antibodies (or anti-God-ies?).  I think I listen more as an anthropologist, taking in the words, the meanings and the impulses behind the beliefs and the need of believers to share them, confirm them, even question them.

Often, listening in this way helps me to better understand the how and why of religious belief.  And so today, as I pulled up to the hardware store, it crystallized in my mind:  God exists to make us feel better.

"Here: this should make you feel better!"

Make us feel better about what, exactly?  Well, just about everything.

Our “sin”, for one, by giving us a useful term that gives definition to and, thereby, control over our less desirable impulses.  Our fear of death is another, by promising a life beyond the grave for ourselves and those we hold dear.  And then there is our life in general — by offering an external, ultimate source of validation that our individual lives have meaning and are part of an eternal “plan”.

Never mind, for now, how self-centered all of this turns out to be (even if the “feeling good” comes about through being made aware of a sin which we are then able to “repent of” and then, you guessed it, feel “better” about it!).  Part of the magic of religion is that it rebrands our emotional need and solipsism as humility as long as we proclaim an adherence to a power “greater than ourselves” (who is, of course, deeply concerned about the same self that we are!)

But believing in God is useful because it helps us feel better about other things as well, such as our tribalism, cruelty and selfishness, all of which can be justified by the act of classifying just who are the sheep and who are the goats, meaning who are the believers (deserving to be blessed) and everyone else (many of whom have obviously brought on their troubles through some unconfessed personal or generational sin).  Religion has been terribly useful in this less-than-pleasant way.  It still is.  Look at the Taliban, the Catholic Church, the Moral Majority.

This second batch of benefits is where religion gets us into trouble, for if belief in God were only about the first group, how could I really have a problem with it?  For in my life I do innumerable things to make myself feel good and happy and content with my life, so how (and why, frankly) would I begrudge another human doing the same (in a slightly different, less rational way)?

The fundamentalists of the major theistic religions naturally oppose a Darwinian, scientific view of the world because it threatens their ancient hegemony — it eats into their market share of the “feel good” market.

Let me take a step sideways into an irresistible snide remark about how many preachers have lambasted the generation growing up in the 1960’s as the “feel good” generation.  Where the “if it feels good, do it” ethos was the mark of the decline of Western civilization, as American turned away from God to follow their hedonistic pursuits.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!  It would be like the board of directors of McDonalds launching an ad campaign against their former customers who were migrating to Burger King by boldly announcing that the deluded sots were only giving in to their base cravings for salt, fat, sugar and empty calories, and needed to return to the golden arches before it was too late!

So, I keep circling around religious belief again and again, revisiting old, familiar places with new eyes.  And so today I see belief in God as a simple act of a human trying to feel better about life (for a great dramatic depiction of where religion begins, see “The Invention of Lying” — an otherwise average movie save for this one, bold concept that it presents).

Polls show that the number of “secular” Americans is growing.  The problem for God is that there is now a better view on reality available for the masses who would seek it.  Science does not replace religion, but it does give us the tools to undo it, to “break the spell” (as philosopher Daniel Dennett says).  And in breaking that spell, we are freed to see the world as it really is, and from that create a new sense of meaning based upon a more accurate understanding of our place in the grand scheme of things.

That more people don’t take this route says more about the unfamiliarity of it than anything else.  We are animals, which means we are not that different from rats that take the safest route from point a to point b, not the most direct.  But recognizing even that detail about ourselves is useful and, well, comforting in its way.

Science does not set out to comfort or console, but it does so anyway, as a sort of by-product, because knowledge helps us to feel more in control (or at least less lost) in the world.

So, to be clear:  I’m not anti-God.  How can I be, when God exists only in the realm of the human consciousness?  If there were an actual God behaving in the way that people say he does, that would be a problem, and we would all be well advised to organize a missile strike aimed at the throne of heaven.  But God is actually a mental device of man to alter his emotional state.  We don’t get mad at someone who eats an ice cream cone after a rough day at the office, or pours themselves a glass of wine in the evening, or listens to a favorite piece of music.  So to that extent, I would not separate a fellow human from his or her God.

Ah, but if only we could separate the benign aspects of God from the cruel and inhuman ones.  It is worth noting that many believers do manage to do this.  Not many of them are fundamentalists, however, and are therefore in as much danger from the fanatics as the apostate.  It is because of those fundamentalist believers that I openly express my atheism and disdain for irrational thought.

I can appreciate the unwillingness to believe that morality can exist without God enforcing it like a cosmic cop.  But it does, and in the words of a friend of mine: “If we really understood that, I believe we would be more likely to make truly moral decisions”.

Amen to that.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVUES FROM THE REV: “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” by Sam Harris

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

This is among what I call the four essential books in the current discussion of reason in a world seemingly nuts for fundamentalist religious faith.  I’d read Harris “Letter to a Christian Nation” and found it heartfelt, masterfully written and worthy of a read by every American.  Having read Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett I thought I knew what to expect from Harris, but I was immediately surprised.  What begins as a clear and reasoned (and convincing) case that the complete abolition of religious faith would do us humans a world of good, then becomes a treatise on human ethics.  I wasn’t expecting that, but kept on reading, as I have a keen interest in human morality and ethics and how and why we came upon them.  For as Harris briefly states: the one thing that evolutionary psychology has done is show that our ethics are completely our own (meaning NOT from God).  Harris then takes another turn about a third of the way from the end, and launches into a discussion of meditation and the possibility that what we call the human sense of “self” (or “soul”) might transcend our physical death.  I found this odd, and not just for his sales pitch for meditation that is best learned (it seems) from experienced teachers.  I also found it strange that after 2/3rds of a book that boldly reveals the very real and present danger to our species that irrational faith presents Harris is hanging on to the idea that our consciousness can survive the death of the body and brain.  Of course, we don’t know what happens after we die, but I have a difficult time imagining where my soul would possibly go.

That being said, the first (and major) part of the book lives up perfectly to its title.  It is a daunting challenge when one is presented by the sheer scope and force of human “faith”, and the un-imaginable human resources that are tied up in its continuance.  What many of these authors are getting at (and what Harris comes right out and says) is that the so-called “moderates” of any belief system are, in essence, not truly representative of the religions they espouse.  It is the Fundamentalist who is determined to not pick and choose between the uplifting and horrific verses in their chosen holy text.  He also states the (often ignored) obvious:  it is the most fundamental truth about the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that they fundamentally cannot co-exist or make accommodations for each other.  They all three make exclusive and comprehensives claims to being THE truth.  This made my heart sink, because it is absolutely true.  The only reason us Americans do not live in a Christian Theocracy (under an “American Taliban”) is because our fundamentalist fellow citizens are diluted by a marginally secular culture.  And I say “marginally” advisedly, for Harris also points out the degree to which even American institutions and laws are still guided by Biblical tenants.  It’s disheartening to read this and find no fact to blunt its impact.  It’s then simply frightening to realize that — as backwards as we Americans are in terms of Faith — there is an entire region of the world stuck in the 14th century (in terms of Faith) that is in possession of 21st century technology and weapons.  There is really going to be no living with them, as the true followers of Islam cannot rest until every living human either believes as they do, or is forced to live under their religious laws.

It’s been a long time since someone was hanged for heresy in the west, but in Islam, it is still a simple law that to leave the faith is to suffer physical death.  How do we combat that level of irrational belief?

Harris touches on an interesting idea that I’ve not read before, and it refers to the kinds of spiritual practices that developed in “the East”.  In the midst of his pitch for the superiority of Eastern practices such as meditation, he makes the valid point that even meditation techniques are evidence-based (one “observes” one’s own feeling/thinking state), and supply a set of tools that can be employed by anyone and require no belief in an over-arching deity.  But the more interesting point is that these philosophies and practices were able to develop in a part of the world that was not dominated by the three major monotheistic religions!  I’d never thought of that — the East was not held back in their exploration by the rigid troika of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Lucky them!

So there you have it.  I’ve told you my criticisms, but the first big chunk of this book is an important read.  Plus, I’ve never read a book that had so many precisely distilled and quotable statements about us humans and our religions (his succinct summation of ethics as being what comes into play when we hold the power to do another good or harm, for example).  It’s a bold and necessary book for us and our survival.  The only remaining problem we are left with is: what can we do with the knowledge this book gives us?

the not-so-reverend bob