Posts Tagged ‘morality’

SERMON: “A Sense of Meaning” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

While walking on the treadmill at the gym, I watched a morning news feel-good story about an American military neurosurgeon who was haunted by an Iraq War patient he had treated.  The soldier that landed on his operating table was “the most horribly wounded soldier” the surgeon had ever seen.  But they patched up his terrible head wound and shipped him off to Germany.  Years later, the doctor was ready to re-visit his war experience.  He Googled the name of the soldier he was sure had died of his wounds and, to his surprise, the man popped up in a T.V. interview, very much alive.

The news story then showed video from that interview of a man who looked as if someone had scooped out a third of his brain and replaced a portion of his formerly-round skull with a sunken flat plate.  But the soldier could walk and talk, despite having lost a chunk of his frontal lobe.

And though the soldier was “not up to another interview” (for this current report), there were still-pictures of him and his neurosurgeon meeting.  The doctor reported (after) that he had asked his former patient what I thought was a deeply insightful question: was he happy that he had survived?  The soldier answered that, yes, he was.

This was a powerful moment.  About as profound as can be imagined.  But, of course, these kinds of news stories aren’t really about the profound (or disturbing) aspects of these stories: they are meant to be inspirational, aspirational, “feel-good” tales of that type that allows you and I to easily borrow some added confidence (in our own resilience) from hearing of the experiences of someone who’s been through real shit.

But I don’t feel good when I watch a story like this.  I see the lingering, daily struggle (that is the long shadow of the original tragedy) that looms over the “happy ending” that we are all supposed to assent to — and move on from — having snatched up our bit of “borrowed courage”.  (I felt the same way about all of the cheering for the slightest progress of Representative Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head).

As I watched the story of the “recovered” soldier this morning, I reflexively uttered “Goddamn war”, expressing a deep revulsion at the idea that sentient individuals had worked together to create the conditions of war under which a strong, physically able young man was suddenly and irrevocably stripped of a large chunk of his capacities.

But even as I said that, I realized that other humans were very likely watching this story and having equally strong emotional reactions that were going to be the complete opposite of mine.  Some might feel a sweeping sense of admiration for the soldier, or awe at the doctor’s skill, or anger at the bastards that set off the road-side bomb that wounded the soldier.  In short, each of us who react to a story react according to different sets of moral triggers.  As Jonathon Haidt describes so well in “The Righteous Mind” (reviewed this blog), we humans fall into one of several categories on that score (meaning that — when presented with a moral dilemma — though many of us will react in similar ways, we are not safe to assume that all humans will react in the same way we do).

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Despite this natural variation in our moral response, in practice I think that we all pretty much assume that our moral centers are the ones that are properly calibrated, and so we are often surprised when the obvious wrong that outrages us don’t elicit the same outrage in others.  This is abundantly clear in politics and social values, where, as an example, an evangelical conservative might see abortion as the moral equivalent of institutionalized genocide, yet be mystified by a progressive who sees the denial of the right of a gay citizen to marry as the equivalent of denying an African American of his legal rights because of his race.

So it would seem that the thing that we all have in common is not the particular moral issue we react to, but the strength of the reactions we have to events that outrage (or inspire) us.

It is clear to me that we are “feeling” animals.  And I would take this further and suggest today that it these sorts of experiences — when our deep emotions are attached to experiences — that are, to my mind, the source of all that we might possibly define as “meaning”.

Each of us, if pressed, could probably write out a list of the things that make life “meaningful”.  I suspect that these would be the activities (or traits) that we feel the most strongly about.  We might put on that list “a sense of purpose”, or “love”, or “meaningful work” or “kindness”.  These are the kinds of things that make us feel good in a way that we see as different from the simple satisfying of a hunger for food or a lust for sex.  These are the kinds of things that give us a specific kind of feeling — that sense of well-being that comes from a regular experience of the “higher” emotions.

What do I mean when I argue that it is the welding of our “higher” emotions to experience that forms the basis for meaning in our lives?  I realize that we might be hesitant to grant this rather mechanical-sounding point, as one of the things that makes our “higher” emotions, well, “higher” is that we attribute to them a certain transcendent quality.  Part of the reason they have such an elevated influence on us is that they come upon us in ways that are most often rare and wondrous.  They are harder to generate than the simpler pleasures of eating our favorite snack or watching our favorite t.v. show.  Like everything else, their rarity makes them precious and highly valued.  And like everything else of value, it almost follows as axiomatic that we will try to manufacture these most desired feelings (the “feel good” story I relate above is a perfect example of this).

Now to a religious person, all of this may simply sound like me trying to drag the realm of the angels down to earth.  (That’s just silly, of course, because no actual angels will be harmed by this sermon).  But many do seriously believe that a materialistic view of life (meaning that there is nothing about our experience of life that happens outside of natural processes, whether understood or not) leads to a cheapening of human life.  I hardly think this is the case, but it’s worth taking a serious look at this important point.

The fear of a materialistic view is, I think, twofold: The first being that a loss of external (divine) validation will weaken the moral bonds that moderate bad human behavior.  The second fear is that our experience of the transcendent will simply cease (this fear being a reflection of just how much we value these experiences and feelings).  Both of these fears are rooted in the assumption that morality and transcendent experience are purely products of God, of which we are passive recipients and respondents: i.e. we are not the source.

Were this to be an accurate description of reality, these fears would, indeed, be reasonable and completely valid (for then it would be true that if God were to go away, then with Him would go our treasured morality and ecstatic experience! ) But here is the tricky part of this transition from what is, essentially, our habitual practice of dislocating portions of our consciousness from inside the brain to outside of our physical selves: if we can allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that our experience of existence is actually a process occurring within the confines of our body and brain, then this deep fear of this great loss becomes meaningless and moot.  If we can allow ourselves this shift — what I would call a returning of our dislocated self to it’s true location, what actually changes is more akin to moving some colored pins on a map than actually moving any actual nations or landmasses.  Nothing essential actually changes (or goes away).  We are simply thinking about our experiences differently.

To be honest, it might be worth saying here that even when I locate (or conceptualize) my self within my physical body, I still experience my thoughts and feelings in a sort of imagined space in that body — meaning that I’m not actually sensing where each synapse or nerve is functioning when I think or feel.  So it could be argued that I am quibbling over swapping one conceptually useful inaccuracy for another, more useful one!  So why even bother with it?

As I’ve asserted before, recognizing that you and I only get this one chance at being living, breathing human beings reveals, to my mind, a truer value of life.  There is no hiding our naked vulnerability in “heavenly rewards” or “the next life”.  (Yes, our DNA carries on in our children, and our component elemental parts will be “recycled” once we no longer require them in our living bodies, but we will most likely not go on living forever as the individuals we were in life reborn by God in newly-minted heavenly bodies).

I think that — when it comes to the conscious individual experience of existence — this one life is all we get.  And it reasonably follows that there is nothing intelligent “out there” to either rely on or worry about.  An unexpected result of this word-view is the fact that I now recoil at human tragedy like I never did when I was trying so hard to be a Christian.  (Some of that may be a function of age and experience, but my Darwinian world-view is surely a large part of the equation).

None of this diminishes the value that our emotions place upon the things that are meaningful to us.  To think that would be silly as well.  Sure, what you and I value means nothing to the rest of the vast, cold universe.  So what?  (I mean that: so what?).  That also means that the rest of the vast, cold universe is incapable of passing even the slightest judgement upon us for feeling our feelings as we do (for every loss there is also gain).  We are what we are.  And a great deal of what we are is our capacity to feel deeply about things that matter to us.

All living things want to keep on living.  But we are the only animals that want — no, need — to live meaningful lives as well.  It could be argued, I think, that it is a sense of meaning that fuels our capacity to want to continue living.  And the fact that this matters to us as much as it does is, in the end, all the justification we need.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was while watching the film “The Matrix” that I first began to realize that watching two undefeatable movie foes doing battle was, well, sort of pointless.  After all, if they are so powerful and, well, immortal (thinking now of demigods or vampires or whatever else Hollywood throws into the mix), any slugfest is going to end in a draw with the status quo unchanged.  Any supposed “victory” can only come when the film director decides the story must move on.

And so it also seems when Republicans and Democrats (conservatives and liberals) start shouting at each other.  None of the blows seem to land — and the result is frustration and impotent rage.  But liberals and conservatives aren’t supermen and women by any stretch — just normal, everyday folk.  The “other side” can’t really be pure evil — otherwise our world would be a much different place than it manages to be.  So why are human beings, similar in every way, so divided along political and ideological lines?

That is the question that “The Righteous Mind” seeks to answer.  And it does, I think, answer the question well.  Beginning with the fact that all of us — liberal or conservative – are born with a “righteous” mind — meaning we are predisposed to think in moral terms.  But the differences show up in the finer detail, in the range of “moral taste buds” that are more or less active in the brains we are born with.

Haidt is a psychologist who has developed (with others) the “Moral Foundations Theory” that has generated some press during the last two election cycles.  I found this theory to be a useful tool for understanding the “whys” of our shared (but differing) moral sensibilities.  The book also presents the broader picture of the “hows” and “whys” of our social interactions, from the most individualistic to the most “hive-like”.

“The Righteous Mind” is yet another example of good popular science writing, written by an author who has been involved in the evolution of the field he reports on, and is able to borrow from a solid background of supporting surveys and science research.  The book is also topical, taking time to apply the theory to our current political climate.  I may quibble with a detail or two of his primary metaphor about the relationship between our “head” and our “gut”, but that is a tiny, tiny thing compared to the value this book has in increasing our understanding of how humans make their moral decisions.

(Having read it I do wonder, however, about how we can convert the knowledge contained in “The Righteous Mind” into practical action.  After all, the Moral Foundations Theory is based on an evolutionary model, which will, I think, keep more than a few conservatives from giving it a fair consideration, which, in a way, seems to put the greater burden on the liberal to make an unequal move toward being more understanding — and appreciative — of conservatives.  But that is a question beyond my reach.  I can tell you that this book helped me better understand not only those I disagree with, but my own morality as well, and that kind of shift-in-consciousness outcome is a noble achievement for any writer!)

I think just about anyone would benefit from reading this book.  It is well written, and clearly organized in a way to make the absorption of the concepts presented as easy as possible.  A worthy, timely book from a knowledgeable source.  I can’t ask for better than that.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Fairness in the Universe” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

What is fair?  Definitions of “fairness” include adherence to rules or codes of conduct, or deciding issues without bias.  Like any other concept, it requires reference to something else for its definition (such as the color blue being described as the color of the daytime sky).  But how would we explain fairness (or “blue”) to a being who had no points of reference in common with us?

We act as if there is a Cosmic Standards Office which maintains an unchangeable set of rules and guidelines for us humans to follow.  We can therefore switch to immediate outrage when societal rules are broken or flaunted, and yet we all rationalize our own infractions, be they small or large.  We shout for justice, and hope that our own actions pass by unpunished.

God, of course, has traditionally been seen as the Chief Guardian of the laws of morality.  And yet there is certainly just as much variance in moral behavior in God’s followers as in the general population. Whatever the power of faith, that power is most certainly limited or, at the least, diffuse in its ability to influence the world at large.

But what if there is no God to keep of the rules?  No-one manning the phones at the Cosmic Standards Office?  What does that mean for our idea of “fairness”?  The believer in God would tell you that it means everything, for without God, there is no morality (and, in fact, according to more fundamentalist believers, no reason to be moral at all)!  This is a rather dramatic view, I think, but I can understand that some would take it rather hard were God to be proven a false idea, and would therefore take everything that they had heretofore associated with that false God to be worthy of scorn.

Fairness, then, would become a meaningless, abandoned notion (to those holding such a view).  But only because we have associated the idea of ethical behavior with God — as its ultimate source — in the first place.  The advantage of an evolutionary view of life is that we can see morality for the evolved social system that it is, independent of the idea of God (except insofar as some of the codification of human morality has become an industry of religion).

If science is correct, and we have, in fact, evolved over millions of years from earlier life forms, then it is highly unlikely that there is a C.S.O. to back up any of our moral claims.  And yet, morality exists, for we humans are most assuredly highly sensitive to behaviors that we see as “unfair”.  The existence of social mores and codes is not mysterious to the scientifically minded.  We are, after all, profoundly social animals, and we can observe versions of “our” moral behavior in other social animals, including our primate cousins.

We (naturally, I think) judge the social behavior of other animals by our own standards, always in reference to their difference from (or similarity to) our own.  We wonder why the cheetah “cheats”, or the chimp “steals”.  (But, then, we wonder why we humans cheat and steal and murder and lie)!  And so we have had to add to “God the Lawgiver” “God the Ultimate Enforcer” who has, for his own reasons, left us to duke it out with each other until he finally steps in (at the “last days”) and invites all the good (moral) humans to move into his eternal gated community where the riffraff will be kept out with pointy barbs and eternal hellfire.

(Clearly, the immoral behavior of others of our own species really troubles us, otherwise, we would never have come up with such severe and lasting divine punishments for our enemies).

As I’ve said before, one of the most remarkable facts of the removal of God from the question of human morality is how little impact it really has on that morality. That’s because the major force keeping you and me in line is the social pressure from other humans, not divine punishment.  Even the power of the police rests partly in the potential shame and public censure that would come from an arrest or conviction.  Professional criminals and psychopathic individuals aren’t bothered by the embarrassments that terrify the rest of us.  But as Giulia Sissa says (in”Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” — reviewed this blog), “Those that cannot blush do not belong to a community”.

And there is the thing: most of us do belong to a community, be it a family, a company, a church, a social organization, you name it.  In fact, most of us belong to a number of such communities at the same time.  And needing each other as much as we do (whether we like to admit it or not), we are constantly measuring our behavior, whether it be our words or actions, according to how much of our personal desire we can express and according to the potential for positive or negative feedback from our social groups (or partner).  We have brains that are finely tuned to the slightest nuance in expression or tone from whoever we are engaging with.  We burn a lot of calories keeping our place in the troop, as it were.

And fairness is one of those things that we appeal to in such situations.  We want to be treated fairly (especially when we aren’t getting what we think is our due), and it’s often hard for us to give up that little bit extra we really wanted to keep for ourselves in order to be seen as being fair to others.  But we all understand that exhibiting fairness is one of the lubricants to our social “rubbing along” together.

But the cold, hard reality that confronts us is that there is no fairness in the universe, except where we (and the other social animals) have put it in place.  There is balance in nature, yes, but only as a result of natural forces tending toward a sort of active equilibrium, but this is far from our notion of fairness as it would exist in the mind of an all-knowing conscious (and heavenly) being.

This is hard for us to consider, having such a long history of assuming that God is behind everything.  And though the idea that morality could even exist without God is unthinkable to many believers in God, the reality is that it does, in fact, exist.  It exists because we exist.

This is not an example of making “man” out to be “God”.  That’s just silly.  For I am not elevating man to the status of the divine, I am simply eliminating the divine from the discussion as being irrelevant to the matter under discussion.  And though humankind is not thereby exhalted to Heaven, we are, I think, lifted up a bit to a more proper place as author and keeper of our morality and ethics.

And let’s be honest: moral codes are a moving target.  They change over time and are loaded with more exemptions than a corporate tax return.  Morality is, in practice, a sort of averaging out of viewpoints that we all loosely ascribe to.  It is constantly tested, affirmed by judges and juries, or altered by courts and shifting public opinion.  (In this, it is similar to the “balances” we see in nature).  All that religion does is mark a line in the sand that is nothing but an agreement to hold fast at some arbitrary date in history when such-and-such was worthy of a public flogging.

Does this make morality (and our sense of fairness) meaningless?  Of course not.  It makes it nothing other than what it has always been: the social codes supported by a particular society at a particular time.

The advantage of Humanism over religion is that Humanism recognizes that morality is our own affair, which then allows us to direct our energies toward using reason and evidence to make the rules as useful and beneficial to as many humans as possible.  It removes the idea of God’s immovable goalposts (which were never really immovable), and replaces them with the recognition of the evolutionary nature of morality.

To be human is to be fair, and to be fair is to be human (or an ape or a whale or an elephant).  We should give ourselves credit for introducing the idea into the universe, even though the universe is annoyingly incapable of appreciating this remarkable fact.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

It’s an old saw about military boot camp: they have to break you down as a civilian before they can rebuild you as a soldier.  But what is it, exactly, that they are “breaking down”?

The stated purpose of military training is to develop in soldiers the capacity to act first and ask questions later.  It’s not unlike the way that a parent might hope to inculcate an immediate response to “no” in a child so that any number of potential dangers can be averted — touching a boiling pot on the stove, running into a busy street, annoying an unfamiliar dog.

And yet we also have the idea that one shouldn’t “break” a child’s spirit in the pursuit of this kind of obedience.

Clearly we carry a sense of what it means to have a “self”, and that it is a part of us that is both essential and — to some degree — subject to influence.

One of the things researchers look for in other animals is whether they have a “theory of mind” like we humans do (meaning, in short, that they understand on some level that the other animal that they are interacting with has a mind that is having its own equivalent thoughts).

We humans develop this “theory of mind” in spades, and the theory goes that we evolved such large brains in no small part because of the need to be able to read the minds of others.  Almost everything about our cognition (that isn’t geared to basic metabolic survival) can seem to be geared toward figuring out the intentions other people (and animals).  I think that this kind of thinking is so integral to us that we don’t even realize how important it is to our sense of self.

What am I really saying here?  Let me offer this example: There are many who sincerely believe that the basis of human morality is divine law, and that without the knowledge of good and evil that is given us by God, we would be cast adrift in a lawless universe, and that every individual would, in an instant, revert to rape, robbery, murder and mayhem.  Therefore, they rightfully (at least according to their world view) fear any suggestion that a) God may not exist, or; b) that morality is at all relative, or human-based.

As a young man, I joined the Coast Guard, and experienced the reshaping of self that is military boot camp.

Now what does the above example have to do with our highly complex social sense?  I use it as an example of how that social sense has been conceptually displaced from its actual location (in our psyche) and transferred to God as the focus of its activity.  We may, in practice, behave more morally in order to please the all-knowing God of our imagination, but what we are really doing is acting as a profoundly social animal could be expected to act (with or without divine supervision): engaging in only as much selfish behavior as one can get away with without damaging essential, personal relationships.  The only difference here is that we have personified (in an external way) that part of our consciousness that is our “conscience” — meaning the level of our brain with which we carry on a conversation when we “talk to ourselves” or pray out loud.

Let’s talk about the “self” that we converse with in this manner.  The dynamic is essentially the same as if we were interacting with another human being, and that is my point:  We are moral animals because we want — no — we need to get along with our fellow moral animals.  And we have come to understand (at some point in our distant past) that we will all be much better off if we behave ourselves in a civilized manner (meaning that we respect certain group-defined limits on our selfish behavior).

And this is where our sense of our “self” and the self-limiting conscience of the “social self” come together.

For our sense of self is, to a large degree, a collection of ideas about our own personality (and moral sense) that we have gathered to ourselves over the years of our maturation.  And where do most of those ideas come from?  From the way other people have responded to us.  Someone tells us that we’re pretty, or smart, or funny, and we take that to heart (our brains are hard-wired to believe what others in our social circle tell us first, and only question it later — hence the enormous potential power of the abuser that — in order to gain control of another — tells them they are ugly, stupid or unworthy in some way).

Those that are in the business (or hobby) of selling religion are really offering a balm to the wounds that a “self” is almost sure to pick up over time.  They also offer a ready absolution (or, at least, a path to atonement) for that nagging sense of selfishness that is inherent in an animal that — no matter the modern trappings — must still feed itself and see to its basic survival needs in a most primal (selfish?) manner.

(But since we are all in the same existential boat, we humans extend to each other the polite fictions and euphemisms with which we cloak the naked fact that in order to live we have to, for instance, physically consume other life, be it vegetable or animal).

But we humans need to do this for each other, as the other animals seem not to be troubled with self-awareness in the way that we are. ( Which is why — one can assume — ants don’t need religion).

All of this leads, I think, to a certain natural instability in our sense of self.  In order to be as responsive as it is to the nuances of the behavior of others, it must sacrifice a certain degree of solidity — like the narrow-bottomed canoe designed for maneuverability in white water will not be stable in placid lake waters like one designed for such use with a wide, flat bottom.

It’s impossible to know what is in anothers mind, though we know enough to know that there is certainly something going on in there.  I figure that we all live somewhere on a continuum of psychic stability, from those that have a more simple cognitive framework that is resistant to self doubt, to those that have troubled minds that make the maintenance of a stable sense of self rather tricky.  We all have friends or family that are troubled my mental or physical illness, which can also challenge the strongest sense of self.

The journey of discovering my own self has been an interesting one.  Like many, I tried on the self of the Christian believer.  I even took a stab at being one of those re-shaped by military boot camp.  But in my quest to dig down to some existential bedrock upon which to stand as my self, I have, instead, come to an increasing realization that there is no bedrock to us at all.  How can there be when we are these temporal physical beings whose entire experience of the world is mediated through an organ of flesh and electrical impulses?

It’s a troubling thought, that.  And troubling thoughts are kryponite to a coherent sense of self.  For no matter what sins we commit (or what sins are done to us), we humans have a deep, abiding, and survival-level need to maintain a coherent sense of ourselves (just notice how hard we work to restore our preferred sense of ourselves as decent people when we have behaved badly or wronged another person in our social circle).  And this is why it matters so much what the other humans we live around think of us.  They are, in fact, the only mirrors that give us glimpses of how we come across from the outside.

There are those who say they don’t care what other people think of them.  We all nod in agreement and envy them, even if we don’t quite believe them.  The reality is that a certain amount of social power or financial success can seem to insulate the self from the power of the bad opinions of others.  But fortunes can change very quickly, and our dramas are full of stories of the suddenly rich “nice guy” that then becomes an asshole, but then loses everything and has to win back all the friends that he pissed off in his hubris (and who he now needs again).

In my case I’ve come to the conclusion that the inherent sensitivities and instabilities in my own temperament are part of what enables my creativity and artistry to be so delightfully responsive and acute — just as the most aerobatic of aircraft are the most inherently unstable in straight and level flight.  (There is a reason, after all, that artists are naturally seen as living on the social margins).

But we are all vulnerable creatures.  It is only a question of degree (just as I think that artistic talent is simply our natural problem-solving ability cranked up a few notches, and not some otherworldly ability).

Whether or not we choose to recognize it, everything we do contains an almost automatic, quiet calculation of the social cost or benefit of that particular action.  To admit this seems crass, but it is the reality that underlies the smooth social functioning of a bunch of social animals like ourselves.

And that is why I don’t think that we would stop behaving morally if God were to suddenly pack up his tents and ride off across the cosmic desert.  Sure, there would be a bunch of former uptight believers who might cut loose a bit, but they would instantly discover that it was never really God who was keeping them in line at all, but their own precious sense of self, and the very real humans who would very quickly let it be known that an asshole is an asshole, whether God is in his Heaven or not.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

There are ideas to which we offer safe harbor that we never really think about.  One of the most persistent, to my mind, is the craving for ease.  Specifically I’m thinking about our passed-down notions of what Heaven would be like: there will be no more death, no more sadness, no more hunger, and we will all (well, the pre-qualified all, that is) have everything that we could ever need without having to work, trade or ask for it.

Taking, for a moment, a step back from this cherished chestnut, what are the most obvious implications of this idea?  The first that comes to mind is that anything less than Heaven is somehow iniquitous.  That change (particularly actual physical change) is bad.  It seems to be a common thread in religious belief that there is — underlying all physical reality — a certain unchanging (in fact unchangeable) forged-in-iron, carved-in-stone TRUTH, and that Heaven is the certain logical perfection of a deeply-flawed temporal existence.

Once again I run into something I’ve come to understand about certain religious beliefs: the major problem with the concept of Heaven is not the obvious one (that it is not true), but that is in, in a very fundamental way, a profoundly pernicious denial of reality.  The very idea that the teeming, complex, frenetic activity of life is a condition that Heaven will put right by bringing everything to an eternal stasis is — as has been pointed out by minds greater than my own — not a description of Heaven, but rather of Hell.

One of those truths of life that I resist acknowledging is that the only things that have stopped moving, growing or changing are those that are inert or dead.  (But even then, it’s hard to think of a rock that isn’t undergoing some sort of alteration, be it ever so slowly deep in the earth’s crust or more rapidly, exposed to the erosive effects of wind and weather.  And no life form dies that is not immediately given over to a process of “natural” recycling).

The reality is that our living bodies are a walking, talking, never-ending process of death and renewal as we slough off old skin cells to make way for the new, for example.  Our teeth may be wearing away faster than they can renew, true, and our brains may not be producing loads of new cells but they are, nonetheless, ever creating new pathways and connections that make the mind itself an evolving phenomenon.  Our bodies are constantly repairing damage to our DNA caused by the cosmic rays that pass through us every day, and despite our thoughts to the contrary, we continue to evolve on a species level, as does every other living thing around (and within) us.

We are physical animals in a physical world.  Despite the scorn we heap upon physical exercise, there is absolutely no denying that we require a certain amount of activity to remain mentally and physically fit.  (It could be argued that there is much about our current levels of obesity, depression and anxiety that could be dramatically reduced if we human animals would just use our bodies as more than passive receptacles for technology and industrialized foods).

(As I’ve said before, we are not so different from the bears and tigers in the local zoo pacing off their boredom: we evolved in a physically-challenging environment.  Life in the wild may not be safe or secure, but it certainly is stimulating and tends to keep any and all animals in top form).

We humans are remarkable if for no other reason than we have developed the mental power — and through it the technological skill — to bring about the kind of reality the cold, frightened, hungry animal that we were for millennia could only dream of.

But somewhere in the Middle East, some thousands of years ago, one poor, hungry and tired soul penned an idea of Heaven as having “streets paved with gold” and rivers flowing with “milk and honey”.  We parrot these ideas in countless sermons in countless churches and Bible studies, but how many of us would actually choose gold streets and sweetened milk as our idea of an ultimate reward of comfort and ease?  But this is how we are with ideas of Heaven (be they religious or otherwise): we use them as tools to endure present distress more than as actual templates of a world we might want to inhabit, and, therefore, they need not be, well, practical nor even desirable.

And yet we have created a world with incredible ease for ourselves.  Hell, we weren’t happy with just creating an electronic device that brought the world’s best entertainers into our living room, someone designed a small plastic device that meant we didn’t even have to cross the room to turn the damn thing on.  And now we have our favorite shows on DVD, which allows us to exercise mastery over time and space as we watch them until we’re sated, skip ahead, or repeat a favorite scene.  (I don’t know about you, but too much of that, and I find myself with sudden urges to replay reality when I miss a moment in time!).

And though I am low-income by American standards, I am so loaded with goods and technology compared to the rest of the globe’s population (not to mention the mass of humanity that lived and died owning practically nothing we would consider valuable) that I have little choice but to see myself as “rich” by human standards.

But all wealth and ease is relative, isn’t it?  I heard a joke on the radio today about what is the perfect income for a trader on Wall Street.  The answer?  “A dollar more than anybody else is getting!”.

We know now from studies that we humans are so adaptive that any increase in income or the acquisition of new goods and comforts will only elevate our happiness for a very short time (hours, perhaps days), and we’ll then go on pretty much as we did before.  Some of us answer this challenge with non-stop acquisition (a trait we seem to grudgingly admire in those who can pull it off)!

But leaving aside the vapid morality of such an approach, that behavior is not simply an expression of being “spoiled” or “out of touch”, but actually returns us to our inner animal that evolved, frankly, in a challenging natural environment that required our rapidly evolving large brains to survive: having evolved with the stimulating challenge of survival, we still crave the stimulation that our natural environment no longer supplies in its most raw form.  What has happened to our species over a very few hundreds of years is that our technology has jumped us forward much faster than our Ice Age bodies and minds can handle.  In a very real sense, we have lost our way by following the technology we have been able to create, and find ourselves using our technology more and more to tickle our bored brains.

Now I’m no Luddite: I think the only way forward for us is, well, forward.  Even were we able to convince ourselves of the attainability of some mythical past “Golden Age”, we couldn’t get there.  (But neither am I fooled by the new technological utopians who have become their own priestly class, accumulating vast wealth from their impoverished parishioners).

Like it or not, history is something that is always happening to us right now, and we have only the option of facing it with the knowledge and tools that we have as it happens.  There is no template, no plan, no ideal other than the ones we ourselves conceive of.  And, that being said, there is also no Heaven in our future.  There is only the Heaven (or the Hell) that we are all part of creating in the (very real) here and now.

All that we humans can do is do our best to negotiate the present in ways that make us feel good about the way we’re going about it.  In general, that means living lives that create a bit more good than bad in the world (not always an easy result to quantify) while acknowledging the actual physical, temporal animals that we are.  We all understand this.  And we all know that there are times when life’s challenges swamp our capacity to face them with good cheer or even hope.  These are the moments we pray for a Heaven of ease (or a Hell to punish those that do bad things to us and to others).

But these are wishes to get us through the rough spots, not realities we should ever really want to see come to pass.  Besides, we are such adaptive animals that a few days of Heaven would soon have us wondering if they weren’t having a bit more fun down in the more challenging Hell.

In reality, every moment spent on “Heaven” is a moment wasted here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Where Have All the Gays Come From?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

I’m recalling one of those random conversations in a lobby after a show.  In this case, I was talking with a Christian friend of my mother’s after a performance of my one-man show (about the American painter John Singer Sargent).  I was talking about one theory put forth by a writer that Sargent was actually a “closeted Victorian homosexual”.  My mother’s friend blurted out “These homosexuals are everywhere these days”.  To which I quickly replied “No.  There’s the same number that there’s always been”.  She looked at me with blank incomprehension.

What I understood her to be saying was that there seemed to her to be a proliferation of homosexuality, as if there were now simply more homosexuals as a percentage of the population.  My point was that the occurrence of homosexuality in the population had not changed as a percentage throughout our history, but was likely a fairly reliable constant.  Of course my point had two hurdles to overcome in this conversation: 1) The woman I was talking to probably held to an anti-evolution viewpoint (seeing it is an “anti-god” view of the origins of life), and so would not be open to a scientific view of human sexuality, and; 2) She was in the thrall of the perception that there were more homosexuals when what was much more likely the case was that she was aware of more homosexuals due to their increasing visibility in our culture.

It's not just homosexuals coming out of the closet these days!

(In that same vein, another current cultural trend is an increase in the number of Americans identifying themselves as “atheists” or “non-believers”.  This fact, too, encourages some of us even as it really bothers others.  But I wonder if these trends reflect any real tectonic shift in humanity or a more pedestrian lessening of the social pressures that mitigate public behavior).

There are two issues (at least) in play here.  One involves a recognition of the natural variability within a species, and the other the purposes and effects of social “norms”.

To the first point, it is clear that homosexuality is a naturally-occuring phenomenon (we see it in other animal species beside our own).  Recent genetic discoveries have only served to confirm the biological basis of this idea.  (Therefore I have no reason to think that a propensity toward “non-belief” is any less a naturally-occuring variant of our species).  And this is where the second point comes in.

We are highly social animals, and in order to live together we have long been at work constantly refining the ways in which we coexist in ever larger and more complex communities.  We have developed what we call “social mores”, which are a sort of collective consensus on what is allowed and not allowed in society.  But these rules are ever evolving along a spectrum between what one might call “oppression” and “liberty”.

When it comes to sex, I am reminded of Reay Tannahill’s fantastic book “Sex in History” (which is a delightful overview of just how different societies have dealt with issues of sex and sexual morality).  It turns out that there is less a steady historical progression from ignorance and fear to tolerance and freedom as there have been pockets of different kinds of understandings of sexual behavior (you can find some very old civilizations with much more “advanced” views of sex than those of us modern Americans or Europeans).

But the main point I take away from this is that the human animal is going to be pretty much what it is when it comes to sex.  What changes is what freedom individuals have to express that variety within society.  And this is where the fearful conservatives get it right: when society loosens it’s control over individual sexual expression, variant behavior does appear to proliferate.  But are we really seeing anything other than an expression of what is naturally occurring, but has only been suppressed or hidden?  I don’t think so.

To get to the fine grain of the deal, I expect there is some difficult-to-quantify influence of a more sexually open society on individual behavior (as in some individuals might “try” things they would not otherwise engage in).  But I doubt very much that even the most homosexual- (or atheist) friendly society is going to actually produce any more homosexuals (or atheists) than a repressive one.  What it will do is make the no-longer-repressed variants more visible.

And I think this is a good thing when it comes to homosexuality (and atheism, for that matter).

Because I believe that we only have this one, short life.  And though I understand and support the need for societal rules, the purpose of those rules is to allow the maximum number of humans to live as well as they possibly can.  The place we draw lines in the sand is when an individuals behavior threatens the life or liberty of another.  This is where ethics and civil law begin.

But religious belief gives many of us the idea that one woman marrying another woman and setting up house, raising some kids and living a normal, open life is a threat to our own chance at happiness.  Sort of a zero-sum societal game.  This is a pernicious trait in us humans that only adds to suffering, based on a notion that this particular variant of human sexuality (or — to belabor the point — non-belief) is inherently dangerous to society, despite the evidence we now have to the contrary.

But, then, the reality of our situation may well be this: just as with the number of potential homosexuals or atheists in the population at a given time, there will (also) always be a certain percentage biologically predisposed to be hyper religious, or moralizing, or fearful of those who don’t see the world just as they do.

The question then becomes (as it has always been, in my mind): how do we all manage to live together in harmony?  This seems to be our most pressing and pragmatic goal (well, along with how do we do that while not making our planet unlivable in the near term).

To put it another way: for reasons that evolution makes clear, life varies to such a wide degree that our definitions of “normal” can only be statistical approximations of the mid-point on any bell-curve shaped spectrum of difference.  But since the extremes on any such spectrum occur with “normal” frequency, can they really be viewed as “unnatural”.

Morality and social mores have their place.  But we need to recognize that they are also variable measurements, subject to change (for good or ill).  There are extremes of animal variability that are potentially dangerous to us (psychopathy comes to mind), but we are fortunate to live in an age of science where the identification of such dangers now rests in more pragmatic, evidence-based hands, and not in the fevered mind of the witch hunter or religious zealot.

Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you”.  I think he could have included a whole lot more of humanity in that thought.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Still-Naked Emperor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

I think one of the things that bugs me not just about religion, but also about the spectrum of irrational beliefs that people can hold, is that they mask the true fragility of all of life and culture.

I believe that this insistence on finding often fallacious outside (eternal, rock solid, unchanging) reference points for morality, ethics and human behavior (as well as industrial and political policy) present a sort of foundational challenge to the prospect of our long term survival as a species.

Everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else -- in this example our place in evolution.

It is the most basic truism of measurement: everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else, from the original royal “foot” to our modern “light years”.  But somehow, when it comes to human morality we violently resist the notion that our measurements are at all “relative”.  No.  “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” sort of sums up the absolutist stance.  But even when one claims to have found a true North Star of morality in God, adjustments are always made in the actual application of that morality.

We all know and understand this on a civic level (this is why we have jury trials where context and intention influence the findings of guilt or innocence).  But we also understand it on a personal level: nearly everything we do that affects other people is done with an awareness of the potential social cost or benefit — to us.

We humans know from long centuries of experience that we need rules to keep ourselves and society functioning smoothly, and yet we all bend — or break — the rules in a multitude of different ways.  When done to extremes, these infractions are punished by the civil authorities (our elected tribal leaders).  But in our day-to-day lives there is a truth that many are loathe to recognize:  though we may want to believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong that exists outside of our physical world, we are yet ever thankful that we get away with cutting the moral corners that we do dozens of times a day.

Our religions, then, have as part of their appeal the absolute impossibility of the faithful application of their moral dictates to our lives: no one can live up to the law (be it civic or divine).  And so we find ourselves in constant rebellion against that which we ourselves most desire.  In short, we insist on a God we can never completely obey.

For we all wobble across those lines — even the most righteous (for they, too, pick and choose which precepts of their God-given religion are the most important).  It’s human nature.

Why is this?  We know why we want God to be there: to lend our lives a sense of purpose and transcendent meaning.  So why the impossible-to-obey-rules?  Perhaps this makes God “better” than us in a way that re-enforces his “other” status (but conveniently in a form that is able to “look the other way” when we need him to!)  But what about the rules themselves?

Well, one of the problems with rules and laws is that they can reach a point of diminishing returns, where their capacity to influence behavior starts to weaken.  There are never enough cops (or angels, apparently) to enforce them, so it is left up to us to sort of collectively decide which rules matter the most.  (This is most clearly seen in popular mass media, where public outrage over this crime or that criminal ebbs and flows, even as the attention of the public moves on from one favorite outrage to the next.  If enough people are angry, a law can suddenly be applied with the full vigor of civil force.  If enough people cease to care that much, then laws just as much “on the books” are easily ignored.  It happens all the time).

And yet we persist in supporting the myth of a divine law that is immune to a collective human relativism.  There is no such thing.  We humans are the ones who make — and break — the rules.

We humans seem to be natural utopians.  This can be hard to spot as it can take almost any ideological form.  And so those of us that believe in the social value of a strong central government can easily fall into the trap of passing ever more laws to feel like we’re doing something (altering human behavior) that we’re actually not .  While libertarians and anarchists have their own utopian vision built from the extremely silly view that no laws are better than too many.

There is, lurking in between these views, perhaps some sort of “zone of effectiveness”, or “sweet spot” to aim for.

What most upsets society is unfairness.  Not so much because we care a great deal for others as we don’t want our own societal sacrifice to be greater than anyone else’s.  This is where the reality of the power of perception becomes critical.  (Members of the TEA Party, for example, are convinced that they are paying far higher taxes than they actually are and that their “hard earned money” is going straight into the pockets of lazy minorities).

We are quick to criticize those who govern us for paying too much attention to the polls (or “political” reality) when in truth they are making the same kinds of calculations that you or I make in our own daily actions, albeit on a much larger scale.  Make no mistake: there are things citizens simply won’t stand for.  This is not cynicism — this is reality.  (Adding God to the mix, or putting up the Bible’s ten commandments in every courthouse just sort of muddies up the waters without adding much of use).

For unlike God, we humans have to balance out justice and mercy in the real world of our day to day interactions with each other in a way that maintains some semblance of personal integrity while also seeing to our own personal comfort and safety.  The fact that we (generally) selfish humans care for each other as much as we do is one of the saving graces of our species.

Maybe it’s best not to question the myth of morality’s divine origin.  Perhaps we’re better off to let that sleeping dog lie.  But somehow I don’t think society will unravel once we see this divine “Emperor” naked, because he was never the one making us behave in the first place.  And maybe — once we realize that — we will begin to see civil society as the delicate and vulnerable phenomena that it is, and treat it with a good deal more care and kindness than we currently do, and thereby finally take full responsibility for our malleable human morality.

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: “Selfish Animal, Moral Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

It settled on me this morning: it basically comes down to getting what I want in the time I have to get it.  This is the summation of the force that propels me through life.  That it’s taken me fifty years to come to this embarrassingly simple truth is probably more remarkable than the apparent crassness of the truth itself.  I call it a “simple” truth, but we’re all grown-up enough to  know that “simple” is not always (read: almost never) the same as “easy”.

I believe that this impulse toward self-satisfaction is the logical extension (into conscious form) of the unconscious impulse toward life that exists on a genetic level.  (I pick “genetic level” for lack of a precise biological baseline where this drive toward life could be confidently described as active.  Saying “atomic level” seems to drive the point beyond any sort of identifiable intention at all, as chemical reactions are seemingly mindless, whereas biological life, mindless or no, appears to express intention.  So I settle, for now, on Dawkin’s notion of the “selfish gene”).  Life, it seems, seeks it’s own continuation through reproduction which — for all the sentiment we attach to the fact that it leads to the creation of future lives that will be lived by other individuals — is an act of self-perpetuation (as those future individuals will carry the propagator’s genes forward).

And I think it’s probably a short cognitive walk from self-perpetuation to self-satisfaction.  (Would it really be surprising that conscious brains that have evolved from mindlessly-driven single-celled organisms should mix self-perpetuation and self-satisfaction into a unified whole?)

We clever humans would never think to attribute selfishness to the profligate reproductive habits of a microscopic organism (even though we might be tempted to attribute malice to a rapidly-evolving virus, say, that vexes our own health).  But we do judge our own human kind by the standards of the social animals that we are, and that’s where the simple becomes the complex.

“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

Wow.  When even a writer in the New Testament gets this truth right, it must be pretty damn universal.

The "rev" sitting on a rock, awaiting enlightenment.

As I took a break from busy life and sat and followed the progress of a puffy cloud painted in tones of peach by a monsoon-sunset last night, I took stock of how far I’d come in excavating my own desires in life.  For a shy Midwestern boy I’ve done pretty well.  Now this would seem to be the ideal state for anyone who’s tossed money at a therapist at any point: to discover one’s true self as a means of lessening the expenditure of finite emotional resources on fruitless and unsatisfying neurotic demands, freeing those psychic resources for more satisfying pursuits.  But there remains — even after all of that work to free one’s true desires — a problem: everybody else.

For though there is clearly no objective, external “divine” moral standard to be either pleased or feared, we remain social animals living in a society woven of complex relationships.  And even though every single one of our fellow primates is trying to get what he or she wants, the majority of us is going about it in a way so as not to upset the vital social relationships we need in order to get the things we want.  Why?  Because we most generally need others to get those things or, more specifically, we want things from other people or (when it comes to pair bonding) we actually desire the other person.

I’ve stated before (as one who has experienced a rather dramatic declension from Christian faith) that one of the most remarkable things about reality is how little of it actually changes in the transition from religious faith to faithlessness.  I’ve described before how all of the phenomenon that we experience as the “spiritual” continues on as before, even if we call it by another name (because, to be frank, it is all natural phenomenon that we were calling by the wrong name in the first place!)  And now, as I contemplate the structure of social norms and public and private morality as it actually exists (without any help from God), I can finally see just how complex and daunting it is.  It must be, for how many people are there who are actually aggressively going for what they want out of life without any regard for the potential social cost of such a pursuit?

(The short answer could be “too damn many” as a greedy Wall Street fund manager comes to mind, or a rapist or the constant threat of the socio- and psychopathic among us.  But let’s leave those aside for now.)

I’m struck by the moderating power of our natural sense of morality, all the more impressive when we consider that it is naturally evolved in us and continually enforced by only itself (in each individual consciousness).  We do, indeed, have a conscience.  The problem is, of course, that we also have desires that are incompatible with that conscience.  Isn’t this interesting?  That both the animal desire and the checks on that desire are wired into our own mammalian brain?

That is our reality.  That is the simple truth that lives in the house next door to the other simple truth I began with: our natural impulse to get what we want in the time we have is checked within our own consciousness by the moderating awareness of our vulnerability to isolation by our fellow primates.  We really do have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  (And all of that without having to invent a God to explain it all.)

Understanding evolution — and allowing that understanding to inform the way we live our lives — does not, therefore, lead to the collapse of morality and society that the religious demand that it would.  (I don’t doubt that they sincerely believe one would lead to the other, but they are sincerely wrong).

But does it make sense that we should have come to have this sort of “split personality”?  Sure, at least in evolutionary terms.  There is nothing in what we know of the way that evolution works to suggest that our animal brain and social conscience should end up in complete harmony of purpose.  Survival requires only success, not perfection.  Why shouldn’t our consciousness be a mix of new and old, layered one upon another, just as our evolved bodies are upright walking forms built upon the body plan of an earlier fish (with all of the benefits and structural problems such a transition would suggest)?

Understanding things such as this in evolutionary terms does not necessarily offer us any path out of the limits of our moral state, anymore than realizing that we evolved from fish should free us to fly like birds.  Like most knowledge, this bit does not alter the reality that we live in.  What alters is our perception of that reality and ourselves, which can lead to more of our life’s finite allotment of time, energy and attention being spent on more satisfying pursuits, within the limits of a society made up of naturally moral animals.

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