Posts Tagged ‘hannah holmes’

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

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even dogs have religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

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

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

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

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “One Step Removed” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

As I’m reading Hannah Holmes latest book “Quirk” (which I’ll review here next week) it strikes me:  yet another problem with a religious world view is that it distances us — in one degree or many — from a clear perception of reality “as it is”.

In the case of reading Hannah Holmes (who is a great “confessional” human guide through the latest in brain research as it applies to the range of human personality) it hits me that there are millions of humans struggling (as I too have done) with trying to make “sense” of their anxieties, compulsions, neurosis and “quirks” through means spiritual, metaphysical or moral, when the fact of the matter is that our human brains are formed in the womb with certain biochemical structures that place us on a certain point on the many spectrums of how we will deal with stress, danger, relationships, work, play, what have you.  There is now no denying a certain genetic determinism in human personality.

What the research into “personality” is showing is both how biochemically-based our basic personality is and that the brain we’re born with remains plastic enough to be altered, changed, or improved in ways that can move each of us a bit further up the happiness scale (for example).

The drive behind my evangelistic fervor (as I rail against religion) could be summed up by asking: “Isn’t there misery enough?”  When it comes to the range of mental disorders we humans (and other animals, it should be said) are subject to, do we really need to pile on top of that misery the cruel folly of trying to figure out what we’re being “punished” for and by whom?  I think the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Here’s the thing: opening up our minds to the actual scientific explanations that our ever-accumulating evidence bring us will not make our anxieties go away.  But at the very least it gives us humans a fighting chance to actually work our way to whatever treatments or changes in thought and behavior could lead to a meaningful lessening of symptoms and a general improvement in our quality of life.

When viewed from this perspective, each bit of worry generated by a religious view of behavior is a monumental and terrible waste of time.  (I remain cognizant of the possibility that even religion “works” in its way, but that is pretty much exclusively due to the tendency of humans to find a way to make sense out of something or to move away from negative stimulus toward feeling “better”.  In this way it is similar to the “placebo effect” that boosts the ratings of even the most specious versions of quack medicine.  In short, God gets the credit for our work).

Even taking the advances of science into account, we by no means have everything figured out.  I doubt that we ever will.  But at the very least we are living in a time where the truths discovered by science about nature have reached a level of reliability to be of real comfort to us humans.  In this way even the consoling aspect of religion (which seems to be one of it’s main marketing thrusts in the face of growing atheism and agnosticism, sort of a feel good version of Pascal’s wager) is no longer a good reason (if it ever was) to hold on to religion.

I say this as one who has A) left religion behind, and B) experienced the enormous benefits of rewiring his own brain through practices that have had a cumulative effect of no small impact on my daily happiness and enjoyment of life.  This is why I take the time and trouble to talk about all of this stuff: not to “preach to the choir”, but to speak for those first blinking in the blinding light of day after coming out from under the spell of religious belief.

I will never completely rid myself of the “anxious brain” I was born with.  But if the recent personality test I took is any indication, I have actually shifted my composite cognitive traits over the last twenty years, from (in the parlance of the Myers/Briggs scale) an INFP to a ENFJ.  In the terms of Hannah Holmes book (which focuses a lot of what we’re learning about the human brain from specially-bred mice), I may have managed to harness the benefits of my highly-active anxious brain while learning ways to be calm and happy and centered like a calm mouse (but without the risks associated with being a bit too calm in a dangerous world).

In that regard I feel like the luckiest of humans.  I feel like I get the best of both worlds.  I have known religious experience from the inside, but then had the opportunity to move beyond it and see it from the outside.  Likewise, I have known mental disorder from personal experience, but have worked my brain to a fairly consistent level of happiness that, were it any higher, would be unsustainable.  Yes, it took me some years to do it, but, well, I could have turned out to be a fifty-one year old man who was anxious and unhappy, with none of the benefits that I currently enjoy from my cognitive labors.  (That gives me chills just to contemplate).

So lose the fairy tales and take heart.  We can’t fight our biology, but our biology, it turns out, is susceptible to alteration from the inside of our brains.  And wouldn’t exploring those limits and possibilities be a much more fruitful use of our time than wondering what an imaginary deity might be doing behind the scenes to work out his or her own cosmic ends?

Yeah.  I think so too.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Well Dressed Ape” by Hannah Holmes

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

From the publisher’s website: “Hannah Holmes is the author of The Well-Dressed Ape, Suburban Safari and The Secret Life of Dust. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Discover, Outside, and many other publications. She was a frequent contributor on science and nature subjects for the Discovery Channel Online. She lives with her husband and dog in Portland, Maine”.

Hannah Holmes has done an interesting thing here: she has taken the seemingly simple concept of using the language of an anthropologist to describe herself as an animal and done it to great effect.  It’s the kind of thing you read and think “Surely someone else has done this before?”.  And maybe they have.  But Holmes has achieved something unique, I believe.

By using herself as a very specific reference point for each excursion into our animal and evolutionary aspects, the information (which ends up being a comprehensive survey of everything we currently know about animal behavior, DNA, anthropology, sociology and evolution) which she imparts is instantly relatable and readily absorbed.  She manages to use herself in fairly personal, intimate ways without making the book about her.  Nice trick that.

I would have to say this is a great book for giving people an entertaining and relatively painless (unless the idea that you’re an animal is completely new to you) immersion in the reality of just what kind of animals we humans really are.

I have two criticisms that fizzled.

One:  I noticed a lack of footnotes in the text.  This bothered me a little bit, and I thought “Well, it’s a popular text, not a science book per se, so I’ll have to take the facts she references at face value”.  But the book proved to have a “Selected References” section at the end, so all is well in the world.

Two: Though I felt ever wary of the book foundering in personal narrative, it never went off the rails, and I found myself marking a LOT of passages in this book.  (Which for me means new ideas or new facts that I found worthy of remembering).  That impressed me.  What also impressed me is that this is a book by a journalist who — though her tone may be that of an arm-chair traveler — has clearly been a lot of interesting places and done a lot of interesting things first hand.

A very enjoyable and informative book.  Can’t ask for better than that!

t.n.s.r. bob