Posts Tagged ‘irrational’

SERMON: “The Center of the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

It is in the nature of the individual human consciousness to believe what another human tells it.  There really isn’t much mystery in why this should be so: we are born as completely dependent primates, squalling bundles of plastic neural pathways working like mad to make connections, sense patterns, anticipate behavior and see to it that our most basic needs for food, shelter and companionship are met.  Then (if all of that goes relatively well) we’re grown up and gradually thrust from the nest to find our way in a world much larger and more vast than the domestic one we grew up in.

No wonder we thereafter detect the hand of god (or spirit, or universal consciousness) in the events that befall us.  Of course it helps that we are generally surrounded by hundreds of other primates who are using the very same cognitive tool set to navigate their own way through existence.  “You too?” is a powerful affirmation for each of us as we continue to both coax pattern (and thereby a degree of predictability) from the physical world and cement a wide range of critical social bonds with our fellow mammals.

It is, perhaps, a bit easy to criticize the irrational, juvenile solipsism that is the basis of belief in a vast, intelligent power that has created an entire universe over billions of years  just so that we can “ask” it for a favor in the course of our day.  Though such belief does, I think, deserve criticism, I have come to feel that irrational belief is less worthy of derision (in the same way, perhaps, that we understand it is not fair to criticize an individual for attributes over which they exercise no control).

Today I’m thinking about the sheer shock of the arrival of the kind of (apparently, still) unique consciousness that we humans possess.  Imagine a chimpanzee waking up tomorrow suddenly able to express herself in words, sentences and paragraphs, able to build structures, convert raw elements into chemicals and useful drugs, distill whiskey, compose music, drive cars, make laws and punish lawbreakers with civil justice (no more need to tear intruders to death with their own canines).  Then add to that the moment of realization that she is able to step beyond the immediate concerns of survival and consider the fact of her own existence.

Naturally, we humans didn’t come to such a “moment” in a flash.  Yet there had to some actual moments among one, then two, then hundreds of our ancestors that just about blew their mammal minds.  As in physical evolution, such “moments” probably occurred millions of times and went no further.  And, as in nature, eventually the right “moment” occurred under the right conditions and the humans who “thought” differently we the ones that won the lottery of natural selection and, well, here we are.

(The Neanderthals had it in spades.  Other, earlier branches of our hominid tree surely had it as well, but we are the ones that made it through the gauntlet of life.  That is pretty amazing).

And that is one of the things that I keep coming back to regarding belief in a higher intelligent force active in the universe.  For I’ll confess that my brain continues to seek opportunity to make sense of the universe, and one of the tools it will (perhaps until I die) bring to bear is the question of whether I am “right” about there being no god.

We are stardust. Photo copyright Russell Croman.

In my case there are two characteristics of my mammal brain at work here (I think): the one being the critical, analytical part that is constantly scanning for incorrect, useless or even dangerous knowledge to “delete” from my existential toolkit; the other being my profoundly social primate nature that is ever trying to find connection with my fellow monkeys (which, in our contemporary social structure represents a much wider population then our ancestors had to deal with — hence I also try to find common ground with my entire “nation”, for instance).

When I am confronted with this dual critical/social challenge to my confidence that god isn’t “out there”, I feel a familiar pang of anxiety that is equal parts fear of being “wrong” (which is a primal threat to my social standing), and a fear of annihilation before an implacable and all-powerful deity (if that deity turns out to be as advertised by most monotheists).  But instead of directly attacking this fear (which, it could be argued, only re-enforces the “power” of the idea), I end up sort of waiting for the next thought to come, which is generally a recollection of some fact gleaned from our study of nature or the universe or biology that will, in it’s quiet way, simply dispel the wisp of smoke that is the notion of god (when that notion is properly placed against the vast reality of space, nature and biology).

Others have put this better than I (Hitchens, Dawkins), but when we take in the actual cosmic perspective, we are faced with the notion that an intelligent actor created an inconceivably vast universe some 13.5 billion years ago, and used the nuclear furnaces of stars to create the carbon and oxygen and metals and elements that were then blown back out into the void by the violent death of those stars and then made available to a small planet such as ours which, a couple billion years later, managed to foment its own chemical reactions that, over hundreds of millions of years, evolved a vast array of complex, multicellular creatures, one of which became us.  Then, after millions more years of evolution, life, death and struggle for existence against the forces of natural selection (where 99% of every species that ever lived had already gone extinct), this intelligence chose the deserts of the Middle East, some three thousand years ago, to reveal himself to a bronze-age people as a God that required that humans (alone among the teeming multitudes of living creatures) to be careful about what foods they ate on what days, so as not to enrage this God to the point where he might fling his beloved creatures back into the void he had been overseeing (in every detail, and in order to have just this opportunity) for over thirteen billion years.

In the face of such a perspective, the idea of religion seems not that far above primate level thinking, frankly — as if it were something that a chimp could adopt without that much of an advance in it’s cognitive ability.  But then, to me, that makes absolute sense.  For we are, at our core, thinking monkeys.  And this is one of those ideas can be taken as an insult or a compliment, depending on how you look at it.  I think it provides a balancing to our solipsism and hubris by putting us in our natural context (when we need such a countervailing critical force).  But it also reveals to us just how remarkable our evolution to the pinnacle of consciousness is.  For no matter how you slice it, there is no other animal on the planet that thinks like we do. That “achievement” must rank among the most amazing unintended consequences of evolution that there has ever been.  (Though admittedly not by any completely objective standard — hence our continuous debate about whether we humans and our technical advances have, on the whole, been “good” for the planet — but impressive and worthy of note, nonetheless).

We are remarkable creatures.  Of course we are fascinating only to us, as no other animal in the universe is actually capable of “caring” about what we’re up to.  And perhaps that is another part of why we “need” god: as an extension of our human need to hear a heart-warming “Me too!” affirmation from another consciousness like our own.  For we warm to advice from others with an innate belief (or hope) that their experience is slightly better informed than our own and, therefore, helpful.  In the end that bit of encouragement, alone, is often the most useful part of such human interactions.  And so we quite naturally want to hear the same from the god (or gods) we create.

But maybe we have that already, all around us, even if it’s not in the more personal form we desire.  For we are a part of everything that is.  We are truly built of stardust: of carbon and oxygen and minerals formed in millions of star furnaces; our bodies drawn from the collection of cosmic dust that coalesced into our planet.  We live lives powered by our own nuclear furnace sun.  In a sense, the universe might as well be all about us, for it has bred us, borne and feeds us.  We just can’t expect it to say so any more than it already does.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Which Century are We In?” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’ve jumped in a couple of times on the New York City Muslim “Community Center” debate this week.  Having become so engaged locally in political debate with the TEA Party, my primary impulse was to defend the freedom of religion pronouncements of our Constitution, and, well, use that as a hammer to pound these Conservatives that have portrayed (literally) President Obama as one who is “shredding the Constitution”.

Setting aside the extreme xenophobia that such a debate always brings out (the church in Florida scheduling a “Burn the Koran Day”, for example), I understand the unease that people feel.  The difference is, I think, that I feel an unease about any religious structure, be it Muslim or Christian, Mormon or Scientologist, as they are all monuments (to varying degrees) to irrational belief.

But on another level, churches are expressions of human community, and to the extant that this is what they represent, I am supportive.  Of course, we never get one without the other.

Leaving for now the completely irrational, our more general fear of Muslims is that they will not assimilate — that they will remain a separate society within our own.  Of course, there is truth in this, particularly among immigrants.  But this has always been the case with any immigrant population to one degree or another.  I calm myself from this fear with the fact that it is generally the second generation that become, truly, “American”.  That transformation performed, to a great extent, by the nearly irresistible appeal of our consumer society.

We are now, and have always been, a mix.  The conservative strain in our culture seems to have been forged mostly in the southern states, based on a shared Scots/Irish root system that was traumatized by the disaster of the American Civil War (not to mention earlier dislocations and humiliations in the “old” country).  So that even among these that think of themselves as true and historic Americans, there is a certain communal isolationism that is distrustful of modernity and dismissive of the “elites” of New York City, Washington, D.C. and, well, the rest of the planet.

History has a power that is largely unrecognized in our daily lives, and issues like the (so called) “Ground Zero Mosque” bring all sorts of historic memory to the surface.  Not just the recent memory of 9/11, but even our ancient human tribal nature that distrusts and violently rejects the “other”, the “outsider”.  We like to think that we live, now, in the age of reason, but I am reminded time and time again that our thin veneer of modernity rests upon the impulses and instincts of ice-age humans.  As Chrisopher Hitchens likes to say, our problem is that “Our adrenal glands are too large, and our frontal lobes are too small”.  To put it another way: we shoot first and ask questions later.

I spent a bit of time this week in a running argument on Facebook with a conservative friend (and his friends) because I thought they should stop believing things for which there was no evidence.  Of course they just called me a socialist, changed the subject, or referenced sources that were more factories of make-believe than repositories of evidence.  They felt politically attacked, but my point was the more basic one I keep making: that we can’t have a reasonable discussion of an important issue if one side or the other is ready, willing and eager to say whatever is in their mind that is not supported by evidence.

Of course a great source of the anti-science, anti-intellectual force in our society is the conservative, religious right, rooted in the American South which was not only defeated in the Civil War, but also humiliated and marginalized by the same “East coast elites” that the conservative movement criticizes today.

As I ponder the power of history, I realize that there are consistent parallels between the personal and the cultural: we are comfortable with what we are born into, and it is only through effort (a willingness to abandon the cherished falsehood for the better answer) that we progress as individuals and as a species.

In “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven (reviewed this week), the author offers a quote from 1963 by Daniel Bell:   “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.”

We see this same struggle against “modernity” in the Muslim world.  The major difference between “them” and “us” being that the American religious right is stuck in the 19th century, while Islam appears to be stuck in the 12th.

So the question becomes this: how do we all move together into the 21st century?

t.n.s.r. bob