Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’

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

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

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

"Wheatfield with Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh

“Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent Van Gogh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON “The Power of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

The promise is as clear and as simple as can be: “God answers prayer”.  All you need to do is ask, and the God of the universe will answer.  So, at some point in your life (with a mixture of fear and anticipation) you try it.

In my case, the first time I did this with adult intention was when I prayed the “sinners prayer”, to “ask Jesus into my heart”.  Did Jesus hear my prayer, and actually enter my heart?  I suppose I did feel different…maybe.  But over time (and with enough encouragement from other believers) I made the decision that that vague “feeling” was, indeed, sufficient evidence of that particular prayer being answered.

And so it began — this awkward un-synchronized ballet of belief and reality.

When we pray (at least as adults) we recognize that we may not know what form the answer will take.  (Frankly, we’re open to any form of answer, as long as it is, indeed, an answer).  But often the answer doesn’t come.  So naturally we ask why.  Usually we ask the person that told us about prayer in the first place.  And this is when the conditions first appear: You have to pray “believing”; You have to make sure you don’t have any unforgiven sin in your life; You have to check your heart to be sure you aren’t holding a grudge against anyone.  If that doesn’t work, you then have to become a sort of prayer analyst: does what I want line up with God’s “perfect” will for me? (I didn’t even know there were categories of God’s will for me, but you soon find out that there are!)

At this stage you might learn that God does, indeed answer prayer, but sometimes the answer is “no”.

What that really means is that sometimes the answer from God is no answer at all, and we are supposed to interpret such silence as “no”, or the cosmic equivalent of the magic eight ball that shows “ask later” when it’s little floating random answer generator shows that phrase in the window.

The "Magic 8 Ball"

(Ask a c.g.i. “Eight Ball” a question HERE).

Bit by bit we learn the complications of prayer, and the once simple process becomes almost baroque in its complexity and yet, despite all of that, the religious will tell you with a straight face that God does, indeed, answer prayer.

The example I have given is based on my experience as a Christian, clearly, but I think it holds for the entire breadth of our human experience of the “spiritual”.  For I’ve come to realize that be it New Age or Old Time Religion, the dilemma is the same: a promise is given from a teacher or sage about how the laws of the spirit world work, and we go off and try them out, then find out they don’t work as promised, and then the explanations begin.

Why do we go along with it?  Why don’t we stone the lying bastards the first time their system doesn’t work?  Good question.

For example, in the Evangelical Charismatic (or “Spirit-filled”) community, individuals regularly stand up during church services babbling in tongues or shouting out what is assumed to be a direct prophecy from God himself (or the Holy Spirit), as the crowd murmurs or shouts “Amens” of approval.  Now most of these “prophetic utterances” are in the same category of vagueness as a horoscope or the insights of a roadside psychic, and are therefore easy to interpret in a way that will very likely line up with some random event.  They are also vague enough (and so much more about the emotion of the moment) as to be easily forgotten.  There is no church agency tasked with tracking the veracity of these prophesies, and for damn good reason: were these citizen prophets to be held accountable based on the veracity of their words, we would be stoning false prophets by the dozens in the streets!

The reality is that we are a believing species, and that believing is such an important part of our social structure that even nonbelievers are loathe to call out all but the most despicable charlatans for their sins against reality.  We want to get along.  No.  More than that, we need to get along (at least within our own community, be it a family, tribe or town).

As I say in one of my films, we are able to find meaning in our stories because we already know the endings.  We tell them front to back, but we know them back to front.  That means that our pattern-seeking brains have had plenty of time to reflect and find all of the seemingly confirmatory details that make a story fit whatever tantalizing bullshit the psychic told us or the amateur prophet shouted at our last prayer meeting.

We are naturally biased toward finding meaning.  This one thing is abundantly clear about our psychology.  We may not recognize this in ourselves because it is so ubiquitous in our species — it is the existential sea we swim in.

Which is why real atheists stick out like very annoying sore thumbs.

The problem with unbelief is that — given the believing nature of our brains — it takes a certain type of vigilance to not give in to that ever-present tendency.  Because the atheist (or non-believer, if you’re more comfortable with that term) understands that the presence of the impulse toward belief does not in itself offer evidence of the existence of any real object of belief (i.e. God), but is much more plausibly an artifact of our highly-evolved social consciousness.

So when it comes to belief, the choice that most people see is between magical thinking and no friggin’ fun at all.  And the atheist feels this — for there is an unsettling sense of vulnerability that comes with recognizing that no-one “up there” is looking out for you after all (and just having that idea can lead you to worry that by not believing, fewer of the good things that used to happen will continue to happen in your life — sort of a “will the sun come up tomorrow if I don’t believe it will?” sort of thing — such is the power of the “believing brain” and our own self-centeredness).

Well, that sucks.  Especially because leaving behind the spell of belief can actually alter your reality in that — because you now view life through lenses a bit less rosy than the ones you left behind — you will see less of the “miraculous” in your life.  (Now it should be noted here that nothing about physical reality has changed, only our perception of it).

And then what do you do as a non-believer when something surprising and unexpectedly positive happens?  At times like that one can feel the residual impulse to thank God or attribute it to “intention”, or “good karma”.  It’s a funny place to be.

For to be an unbeliever is, in a way, to attempt to transcend our animal biology.  I don’t say that lightly, for belief is as strong a biological force as any of our other cognitive functions.

(Maybe non-belief appeals more to certain personality types than others, just like some pilots find flying a single-engine, fixed wing tiny airplane through an unpredictable sky onto a skinny strip of asphalt not challenging enough, and take up flying the uber-complicated and attention-demanding helicopter).

Prayer works as much as anything “magical” works, which is some of the time (which is about what one would expect from randomness, which would be — statistically speaking — about half the time).

So is there nothing to “prayer” at all?  Actually, there is something to it, but it’s not what you’d necessarily expect.

The part of “prayer” that does work is most likely the aspect of speaking things out loud that moves the idea into the part of our brain that processes audible input.  This is probably the part of our consciousness that generates that “still, small voice” in our mind that answers us when we talk to ourselves.  So we do get an “answer”, but that’s hardly a reliable substitute for the promised direct answer to prayer that God was supposed to give.

(And the fact that most humans are ready to attribute that part of their own consciousness to an outside spirit or deity — and that for those with a compromised brain such voices can become truly terrifying and destructive — is another matter).

The truth about the promise that “God answers prayer” is that it just isn’t, well, true.  We would never continue to buy a blender that didn’t blend, or an airplane that didn’t fly, so why do we keep praying to a non-existent God who doesn’t answer us?

We are, indeed, mysterious creatures.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Injured Animal” by the not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

There are times when I catch myself moving in a way that makes me think I’m very close to a clumsy stumble.  I most often take my bipedalism for granted, but there are times that I wonder at the magic of it — how we manage all of the intricate, spit-second inputs and muscular motions that keeps us moving, standing, dancing, jumping or running.  I’m most certainly made aware of it when my toe catches something and I do one of those embarrassing trip-stumble-recover things (and then attempt to adopt a demeanor somewhat akin to a cat that has just fallen awkwardly from some perch: “What, I didn’t do that!”).  It’s at times like this that I appreciate just how fine we cut things (the truth is that my foot is probably skimming about an eighth of an inch above the ground most of the time).

In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: why waste energy lifting the foot any higher than it needs to?  As I recently heard pointed out, natural selection favors the gazelle that can just barely outrun the cheetah, not the one that leaves it miles behind.  That’s why I can look down and realize that the big bump that generally trips me up is actually a small crack in the pavement, lifted up only a fraction of an inch.  Most of the time, we judge correctly, and those times when we don’t, we’re still pretty close, and can recover our balance.  Once in a while, though, we’re going down.

When I stepped off the concrete pad down to the mostly-dirt lawn beyond (carrying my standard extra load of briefcase and gym bag) I somehow landed on the edge of my foot and kept going in a way that created a singular sharp sound of tearing that shot right into my brain.  I didn’t fall, but I stumbled, and knew I’d done something wrong.  I also knew I had only to wait a few minutes for the confirming pain from swelling in the tight compartment of flesh, bone and muscle that is the foot.

I stumbled into my studio and set down my bags, still not in severe pain, still trying to act as if what had just happened hadn’t just happened.  This was the moment when I was surprised by an urge to pray to God for deliverance, or healing, or whatever.  What I wanted most desperately to do was to roll back time to the moment before I failed to take my mode of forward locomotion seriously enough to avoid seriously injuring my foot.  I wanted to deny reality.  And in response to that desire, my brain offered me God.  Interesting.  But even in that desperate moment, my reasoning brain had to say “Thanks, but, no thanks”.

As I continued into my studio my mind raced as it double-checked all of the sensory inputs: did I really hear a distinctive tearing sound?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just a muscle injury (since the sound was neither a “snap” nor a “pop”).  A muscle tear might mean swelling and some damage, but I can live with that.  At least it won’t mean the expense and recovery time of surgery.  But how could a tearing muscle make a sound that would carry through skin and sock and leather boot?  Surely it’s not a tendon, I thought.  Wishful thinking, clearly, as my thoughts were mostly efforts to undo the undeniable reality of what I had just done.

But the queasy feeling in my abdomen gave confirmation that I had been deeply injured in some way, and I was suddenly like any other wounded animal.  My mind began racing ahead through my afternoon and the days ahead, working out the ramifications of my potential inability to move, work or care for myself.

But unlike an injured animal on the plain, I could go to a hospital.  Despite the pain, I was wrapped in a kind of euphoria as my body pumped adrenaline and endorphins into my veins.  It wasn’t until I was in the emergency room, talking to the nurse, that I felt my animal wariness drop: sensing safety and the care of others, my animal brain allowed the reality of my situation to sink in.  I could have cried.

I've dubbed it "The Velcro Booty of Shame".

An x-ray would later confirm the the broken foot, and a skilled human would advise me on how best to accommodate the healing of sundered bone (that was the sound I heard).  Pills were prescribed  and I was issued an isolating boot and crutches.

But even with all of the modern helps, I am still an animal used to walking, walking, walking.  Now every change of location requires a re-thinking.  Now the mind is looking ahead for where the challenges will be: what plans must be changed, what activities will have to be managed with new methods, or with help from others.

Being a social human, I have help available.  I have friends and family, and I am not an elk with a broken leg who is in danger of being singled out by a fanged predator.  I know from experience that it will take a while to get used to my injury (to feel out the boundaries of it by trial and error).  And, of course, it will most likely gradually improve.  We have all been sick or injured and we know the drill, even if we don’t yet know an unfamiliar injury.

As I write, my brain is trying to work around my broken foot, adjusting to the reality of it.  I still don’t want to believe I can’t just get up and walk.  When I sit for a while, and the foot doesn’t hurt, it’s easy to forget it’s a problem at all.  But then I stand up, or bump it against something, and realize with uncertain clarity that even if I had to, I couldn’t run from anything right now.  That is disturbing to the animal in me, for deep inside my animal brain persists.  (We have left little of it behind us in our evolution: we have only layered a more modern brain on top of it).

I’m still fascinated (and not a little bothered) by the part of my brain that — in the midst of madly scanning for ways out of my injury — pulled out the idea of God.  In a way, it confirms what I’ve come to understand about my human brain: it is, indeed, a believing brain (as Michael Schermer calls it in his book, reviewed this blog).  But it’s worth noting the conditions under which this nonbeliever was given that idea to consider.  We know that our brain files information and experience in a contextual way (see “Kluge” — reviewed this blog) and I’ve noticed that when something happens that demands a response, the brain simply pulls every file that it recognizes as having anything at all to do with the subject at hand.  This doesn’t mean that the brain will always (or even often) pull the “right” file off the shelf of memory.  It just grabs everything it can and throws it at the conscious mind like a badger throwing dirt as it digs after prey.  So, because I have past experience as a believer in God, that file was still on my shelf (and always will be, along with every other experience I’ve ever had).

But there was still an emotional component to the idea.  Though my rational mind dismissed it right away, my emotional brain really really wanted to use it.  Why?  Because I was afraid and desperately trying to construct a bulwark against the reality I was trying very hard to deny.

My mother called family members to pray for me.  And I was deeply relieved when the doctor told me my fracture would heal on it’s own, without surgery.  Were I a believer, I would have stood up in church (on my nevertheless broken foot) and called that a “miracle”, or an “answer to prayer”. (neither of which would have been true, but I would nevertheless have found a tide of intellectual support for the notion).

The reality is that I will always have a “believing brain”, and I will always have those past experiences of belief.  Never mind that there was no actual God to call upon in my moment of animal fear — at least no intelligence with the cosmic power to turn back time and undo the physical damage I had done to my own body.  I know enough now about neuroscience and the human mind to understand what’s going on in my brain during a crisis like this.  But that moment of rapid-fire thinking reminded me of the emotional pull of belief, a pull that so many humans give in to for comfort and hope.  I get it.  But, then, I think I always have.

I’m a physical animal in a physical world, and I took a bad step that overstressed the collection of bones and tendons in my foot, leading the weakest part of that assembly to give way first.  In pain and fear I wanted desperately to alter reality.  But I could not.  Thanks to helpful humans, I am helped in my recovery, which comes down to giving that foot as much rest as I can so that the physical process of healing can proceed all on its own.  We move, we trip, we are injured, we are helped and we heal and move on.

One of the most remarkable finds in ancient human bones (including the Neanderthals) has been the number of serious injuries that healed.  These are the kinds of injuries that would have disabled individuals for a time, a time during which they could only have survived with the help of their fellows.  For all the animals that are out there, it makes me feel very lucky, indeed, to be a human.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “More Confidence than Sense” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

I was much more anxious than I would have liked to have been as I drove to El Paso.  I did my best to enjoy the drive, listening to the final chapter of a book on tape.  There are days like that, where my ability to remain calm in the moment is over-challenged and succumbs to the tendency of my dog brain to project and fret.  Still, I felt better by the time I checked into my motel room with enough time to sit for a bit before I checked in at the Arts Festival Plaza to start my street painting for the 2011 “Chalk the Block” festival downtown.

Those of us chosen as Arts Festival Plaza artists were to begin our paintings at 6pm on Friday night and work until 10pm (we were to pick up again on Saturday at 7am, and complete our paintings for judging by 2pm).  I was excited and confident as I checked in, got my materials and refused the offer of a spray bottle full of water (I was too much of a street-painting purist for to employ that device that I’d recently seen in use).  I set to work, and had my 5 x 10 foot design sketched out in white chalk in a few minutes.  I began to paint in the colors with my pastels and immediately noticed something was wrong: the surface was not taking the color well at all.

I had assumed that years of painting with pastels and chalk on asphalt and cement had prepared me for anything, and had been excused from the “mandatory” festival training session the Saturday before (my excusal based largely on that experience).  But it now dawned on me that painting on brick was another animal.  That made sense: bricks are fired masonry.  In essence I was trying to make pastel stick to chunky glass.  I had a sinking feeling as I calculated that the detailed, rich painting (of a T-Rex fossil come to life) I had envisioned was instead going to be anemic and sad.  I felt a rueful sense of the excess of my confidence: I had been cocky to think I didn’t need the training session; to think that I was better than the kids around me who were now slopping thick, soupy tempera paint all over their spaces with buckets and brushes.

Damn.  They knew something I didn’t.

Well, my feelings of self-correction aside, I needed to change my plans.  I got a spray bottle and started in to teach myself a new way of painting with the stakes as high as they could be (I had come to win this competitive event, after all: the prize money was good).  It took a while, but by the time the sun was setting, I had figured out the right combination of water and pastel rubbed onto the brick that would take on the feel of a sort of slurry, which seemed to have at least some capacity to stick to the masonry.  Good.  But now I knew I would have to obliterate my drawing to cover the space with the right colored slurry for each portion of my painting.  Not so good.  I calculated that I could recover from that.  I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was moving that way.  I would, however, still have to wait and see how the dried slurry surface itself would take pastel, and if I would ever get back to the quality of the painting I had planned.

By the time I had coated all of my surface, and got back to the first dry parts to see how I’d actually have to adapt my painting style to them, it was dark, and the work lights were turned on.  Much to my relief, the prepared surface took pastel well: I was back in business.  But then the glaring work lights started popping breakers, and the next two hours were spent working in various combinations of semi-darkness, and finally an odd sort of slow-motion strobe effect as watchers walked in front of the few remaining people-height lamps that shot a low-angled light across my painting-in-progress.

I kept working until 10pm in awful light, all the while wondering what terrible things I could be doing to my painting that I might not be able to correct in the daylight.  I returned to my motel room and a night of fitful sleep.

Back to the plaza at 7am, things looked okay.  All of my work from the night before held up, and I could now, truly, get to work.  After a couple of hours of painting a feeling of pleasure bubbled up through the layers of my mind.  I suddenly felt happy.  I was going to be okay.  All of the detail and depth I had wanted to include in this work were mine to create, no longer restricted by those damn red bricks underneath.  I was back in the running, back in familiar territory.  I was working in confidence again.

I remembered a line I wrote for my play about the American painter John Singer Sargent: “I’ve always had more confidence than sense.  But in the end, it’s made sense to be confident”.  Was that me, today?

I finished my painting an hour ahead of the 2pm deadline.  I had indeed had time to include all of the detail that I had planned, and was pleased with how well the final painting matched my original “vision”.  I looked at the work of the other artists that surrounded me, and those in other parts of downtown that were all competing for the Best of Show award.  I knew I had the best painting, but then I didn’t.  I began to look for the reasons why it would not be the obvious choice of the judges, and my confidence was diminished (a process, perhaps, aided by my challenged “cockiness” of the night before).

Friends from my home town showed up to be there for the judging and the award, and my social sense was kicked up a notch, navigating the complex preparations for an unpredictable outcome (which in this case, now meant bracing for a public loss witnessed by friends).

The announcement of the awards was late.  We had plenty of time to sit around and wait and chat, as I laid the mental and verbal groundwork for being okay with whatever came (read: not winning).  I had enough experience to understand the Biblical warning that “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV).  I knew that I was subject to “chance” as much as anyone else.

I didn't anticipate the problems of painting on brick.

So when the announcement finally came (in the teasing form of a description of the winning painting), all we had to hear was “T-Rex”.   In the nanosecond of space between those words and the sound of my friends erupting in screaming, I experienced the exhilaration of being chosen.  It rang like a crystal bell inside me: brief but pure.  That moment only had the time it took for my anxious friends to take in enough breath to start shouting.  After that my attention was diverted to them, even as I struggled to listen above the happy din for the sound of my name (to be sure I had actually won).  In the moments that followed, I wondered whether my cognitive and emotional experience was qualitatively any different than that of a nominee awaiting the opening of the envelope on Oscar night.

The rest was twenty minutes of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, a newspaper interview and then home to rest my sore muscles and raw fingertips.

Why tell this long story here?  What does it have to do with the church of bob?  The answer lies in the thing that was absent.

What I’ve described is just the kind of experience into which we humans almost always insert the idea of God or cosmic purpose.  It’s the sort of thing we pray about: asking for God (or spirit or whatever) to guide us or to grant favor.  It’s the kind of situation where ritualistic behavior is natural — a lucky charm or a certain kind of behavior that seemed to make something good happen in the past.

Upon reflection what was noticeable to me was the complete absence of any of that in the events I described above.  Apparently we can, in fact, move beyond belief.

I set out to win this competition, but not through prayer.  I was juried in based on both my past work and my submitted design for the festival.  I was confident, but was immediately challenged by an unforeseen difficulty that my experience and determination helped me overcome (though the event supplied the materials, I had brought along some of my own favored chalks that saved my butt that first night — a “lucky” choice my experience taught me to make).  I knew that I had the capacity to create a painting people would enjoy, and that I would likely enjoy doing it (a good indicator of final quality).  I knew from experience that my social skills were up to the interactions with staff and audience.  I had won a street painting festival in the past.  None of those factors made my winning inevitable.  But, in reality, it made my winning a distinct possibility.  To then add prayer to the reasons for my success would have shifted the 99% of my career-artist reality onto the 1% of the supposed external force I might have prayed to (or, conversely shifted all of the blame back to me had I lost, leaving none of it with the God that let me down).   Seen in that light, prayer would have been, well, silly.

The outcome of this street painting festival was never inevitable.  Though my skill and (thirty years of) experience did give me a certain objective advantage over a number of my competitors, it could not immunize me against another more talented competitor, or a system of judging that was hidden from my knowledge.

I may never know who the judge (or judges) were that made the final decision on the “Best of Show” award, much less what factors they took into consideration.  It may be that I won by a wide margin.  Or it could have been very, very close.  So it is in the complexity of life: we desire to know the hidden factors in order to calibrate our sense of reality, to draw conclusions about cause and effect.  But most of the time, we just don’t know everything that went on.  No wonder we seek a spiritual “edge” to push things our way, or to comfort us when they don’t, switching our biases on or off depending on the situation and whether our not they confirm or confront our beliefs.

I came, I saw, I worked and I won.  This time.  That’s all I know.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “I Feel the Earth Move” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The earth rumbles, and you can bet that a lot of people will start praying.  Among the prayerful will be a number who harbor a belief that the earthquake is a message from God, most likely a call to repentance — a warning to a sinful people to “get right” with God before it’s “too late”.  (That’s what the lady I heard interviewed on the radio today said regarding the most recent “East Coast” earthquake).

Somewhere far down on the list of possible explanations for the tremors, humans will find the real one: the rather well-established fact that we live on a cooling planet.  Earthquakes are natural phenomenon that happen all the time in all sorts of places.  Some places suffer tremendous damage because of their geology, which can amplify the power of shifting chunks of the earth’s crust.  Others shake less destructively, again due to their local geology.  When an earthquake occurs in an economically prosperous region, the damage is sometimes less because the buildings are built with better materials, inspected by fairly trustworthy inspectors, and not overcrowded.  When it hits Haiti or China or Iran, well, the destruction can be terrible.

We live on the floating rocky surface of a cooling planet.

Nowhere in that equation is there any need for involving external mysterious sources for natural phenomenon.  Yet we do.  Consistently.  Incessantly.  Never stopping for a moment to consider that the intelligent being that is supposed to be the source of all existence and knowledge consistently chooses to communicate to sinful individuals with massive natural disasters that, for all of their fury and destructive attention-grabbing force, are mute, unintelligible and dreadfully ambiguous examples of effective God-to-man conversation.  (God is love.  It’s your sin that made the tornado hit your house.  It’s God’s mercy that spared your cat — a miracle of divine selection that ignored a few hundred other people in the tornado’s/hurricane’s path, such as when God’s guiding hand brought that jetliner down safely in the “Miracle on the Hudson”, while a week later another jet went down with all hands).

I hold that our response to natural events reveals a great deal about how we humans make sense of the world, and nothing about the character or reality of God.

This is the heart of what science has long said about the existence of God: He may or may not exist, but his existence is not needed to fill in any missing piece of the natural explanation of natural phenomenon.  (I’m one of those takes the view that if God is no longer necessary, then what is the point of keeping him around?)

Religion is a complex thing, as complex as the organisms that practice it.  I would like to dismiss it as a primitive habit that we would be better off to have never picked up in the first place.  I can point to the colorful tales of Nordic mythology as far better (and more interesting) morality tales then any that came out of the monotheistic Middle East.  But to be fair, the conflict between Christianity and Viking heathenism was less the brutal imposition of monotheism (that I long thought it to be) than it was a classic evolutionary battle between an earlier form of belief and a newer, more highly evolved religion.  Christianity was the exotic new species that shoved out the old one.  (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, ideas evolve too).

The mistake people make is in assuming that one religion beats out another because it is somehow closer to some sort of ultimate truth.  But in many ways, the Viking world (to continue with that example) was probably ready for a change.  The world, after all, was changing.  Societies were evolving, the idea of nationhood was forming in Western Europe.  There were lots of reasons why a new religion could displace a less organized older one.  But, again, that explanation ranks right there with actual geology for making sense of an earthquake when the more “spiritual” rationale is much quicker to seize our attention.

Which brings me to a problem with criticizing any particular religion.  It’s a tricky thing.  Because it’s not a “thing” at all, but a behavior that is shared by many individuals, each in their own particular manner, yet related by a certain category of generally shared tenets and behaviors.  But there is no living organism or corporate headquarters for Christianity or Islam.  There’s no building to picket, no store to boycott.  Religions exist, yes, but as ideas that anyone can participate in.  (Sure there are the evangelists who feed and water irrational belief for their own (mostly commercial) ends, but even they are not the source.  They are freelance master manipulators of the human brain, trying to make a buck the best they can).

This is hardly satisfying.  It would be so much easier to attack irrational belief if there were some central plant that was sending out belief through a grid system like an electric plant.  That way we could shut down the source, and that would be the end of it.  But belief is a human phenomenon, a by-product of consciousness, a capacity latent in most human brains only awaiting an external trigger to come to life.  Belief begins in our own brains.  So irrational belief must be confronted one brain at a time.  But even if there is no actual God, we are still stuck with dealing with the believer who thinks that there is and, therefore, remains many mental miles away from understanding that the source of his or her belief rests very much between his or her own ears.

And so I come to agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says that we will never eliminate religion.  And maybe Christianity did bring some benefits to the heathen Vikings a thousand years ago.  Perhaps it was a step up from their earlier beliefs, even if the religious violence that became the new norm was only slightly less violent than that which preceded it.

The earth rumbles and dissipates the pressure built up from the incessant migration of its crust, shaking itself off to make room for the new rock being formed deep in the oceans.  And so we humans convulse from time to time, shaking off old beliefs and accepting new ones.  Perhaps Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was such an intellectual earthquake, and we are still feeling the aftershocks of its publication.  The unraveling of the human genome, the discovery of the age of the universe and the blossoming field of neuroscience have all been recent shake-ups of old ideas.

Unfortunately, most humans feel the rumble of these earth-shaking discoveries and look skyward for the meaning that rests, in plain sight, right here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Animal Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

What's the human mind really good at doing?

So, here’s the deal:  Having followed my many years of religious experience with a further exploration of the terrain of no god, no higher power, and no higher self to call upon, I’m still left with the reality that the part of my consciousness that always answered when I called upon God, my Higher Power or my Higher Self is, well, still there.

In a very real sense, this is the “god” that really never does go away.  And if it’s always been simply a part of my own consciousness trained (or naturally tended) toward answering the part of my brain that talks out loud to it, why not use it?

Of course, I think the reason I veered so strongly away from relying upon the “answering god” part of my consciousness was: a) to see if there was any noticeable change in the quality of my life (there wasn’t, or if there was, it wasn’t much), and; b) to check my own tendency to ascribe to my own subconscious any magical powers.  Oh, and c) I was trying to outsmart my own confirmation bias as well.

So now the question remains to be answered: just what is this consciousness within a consciousness actually capable of?  Or, perhaps more to the point: is it really “capable” of anything at all?

The mind certainly is good at holding and retrieving information (such as when I tell it out loud that I need to remember to get eggs when I’m out, and then, hours later, it pops that thought into my head as I leave the coffee shop and am about to drive home without walking to the grocery store a hundred feet away and getting the damn eggs).  But beyond the storage and recall of data, what’s the brain good at?  Can it effect other people or create phenomenon in the physical world?

The book I read on the history of electricity (Electric Universe — reviewed on this blog) offers a tantalizing rationale for believing that our thoughts can travel some distance, because the radio waves our minds generate actually travel millions of miles (and pass through other minds on their way).  “Aha!”  We want to say: “That is the scientific evidence to support prayer and psychics and mind-reading and getting those vibes when something is happening somewhere far away to someone we know”.  The problem is that we are ever bombarded with these radio waves from every damn neuron-firing brain within radio range.  So realistically, how could we ever sort them out?  Oh well.

Still, there are the seemingly mysterious phenomenon that we all experience.  But who knows what radio waves or burst of body electricity (or pheromones, for goodness sake) or pollen, or biochemical reactions trigger the handful of conscious responses that our brains have become habituated to pay attention to?

I’m beginning to suspect that, in reality, we have a generally sympathetic — but often clumsy — helper in our own mind.

After all, look at our anxieties.  For a long time I took the traditional view that things came into our lives “for a reason”, so if some terrible memory (or just a disturbing one) came up, it must “mean” that it was time for me to “deal with it”.

Instead, I have a new idea:  I think there is something about the way our brains are wired that they respond to stimuli almost like a librarian — aged and be-speckled — that knows where every old memory is stored, and when the “librarian” recognizes a similar constellation of stimuli on the horizon, he or she just starts pulling every bit of related shit it can find off the shelves.

The psychic and emotional result can be overwhelming, just annoying, or actually distressing as old memories come up and instantly trigger familiar anxieties, fears or what have you in a new (seemingly) related experience.

Although this sort of memory storage makes absolute sense as a survival strategy for an animal on the savannah, it seems terribly outdated for modern humans navigating their way through a fairly non- (physically) threatening social milieu that is a jungle only in a metaphorical sense.

That’s what I think.  I wonder what the evolutionary psychologists think about that.  Guess I’ll need to read up on it.

To sum up the insight that my primate brain concocted about itself: our brains are wonderful biological machines that have some real and significant handicaps in processing the reality of a fairly calm modern life.

Oh well.  That’s what happens when you evolve: the old bits come along for the ride (provided they’re not carrying with them traits that will get us flat out killed before we can reproduce)!

Of course I haven’t really answered the question I raised about what other powers the human brain might have.  Hmm.

Well, for all the harping I’ve done these many Sundays on the non-spiritual realities of human consciousness, and my insistence on a mechanical basis for all of our conscious experiences, there is no ignoring or denying the one quite remarkable trait that our minds posses: the ability to step outside itself and use the function of its own consciousness to examine that very consciousness.  We are the animals that can think about what it means to be an animal, and catalog and study our own behavior.  That is something.

But, beyond that, I think we’ve misplaced some of the wonder we attach to the human mind.  Perhaps as modern neuroscience continues to reveal the true biochemical and electrical complexity of the mind our admiration for this most amazing aspect of the brain will increase, allowing us to release even more of our lingering assignment of intention and deep intelligence to the data-retrieval-machine encased in our skulls.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my brain.  I just don’t think it’s as smart as I thought it was.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Who Cares if the Universe Cares?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Here’s the deal: despite what every preacher and psychic has ever told me, I do not have any special powers to influence events.  I cannot bend reality to my will.

Of course that hasn’t stopped me from valiantly (or foolishly, as the case may be) banging my head against that wall for all of my adult life.  I have — at times — paused, rubbed my sore head, and taken a different tack or looked at it from a different angle.  But always — belief rekindled — I’d bang away some more.  And in the end, reality won.  What surprises me (at this point in my life) is just how long it took me to realize that reality always wins.

We do not live in a universe that “cares”.  Our general human response to this notion is abject depression.  Not (at least not completely) because we therefore believe the universe to be against us, or malevolent (though we think that too!), but because, deep down, it’s extremely difficult for us social animals to deal with someone (or some thing) that — literally — takes no notice of us at all.  There is nothing about the way our decidedly social hearts and minds work that would make such utter non-responsiveness tolerable.  And so, despite all the evidence, we will continue to bang our collective heads against that wall.

In our rational minds we know this.  We know how silly it is to believe in a personal God that occupies the heavens (or a spirit that resides in a tree or a stone or directs us through a Tarot card).  If we sit down and cast a dispassionate eye upon all of the religious stories that have come down to us through the ages (both the extinct and the currently active) we can’t help but be struck with the stunning similarity among them all: the telling human details (of the kind of personalities we either wish — or fear most — to encounter in the dark night of the soul); the tinny fantasies of material wish fulfillment (be it streets paved with gold, rivers of milk and honey or a tent-load of willing “virgins”); or the validation of our deepest wish that there is someone out there who is all powerful and wise and righteous that thinks that we are okay (or, more satisfying still: precious).

In short: none of us wants to be alone in a cold, un-feeling universe.

But even the preceding statement testifies to our (my) propensities in this regard:  We think the position of the UNIVERSE towards us might really matter in some way.  We actually direct whispered (or thought) pleas to an infinite God who is then expected to use invisible forces (angels) to find us a parking place at the mall (for instance).

The reality is that we live locally.  Our lives are played against a distant backdrop of our solar system, yes, and we range across our town or even our nation or globe.  But the nitty gritty, day to day events of our lives (especially those that can materially help or harm us) take place within several feet of our physical bodies.  This is the reality of our sphere of concern: not the incomprehensible “universe”; not the “world” (our concerns for the physical health of our planet, I would submit, are really extended concerns for our quite local, personal environment).

To that end, most of our prayers, wishes or intentions are geared toward those very personal (and local) events or outcomes that we would like to see come to pass.  That makes absolute sense (for — as has been pointed out by others — even our altruistic impulse has a direct beneficial effect on our own feelings of well-being, even though — or because — such acts may constitute a material sacrifice for us).

So why do we care what the “universe” thinks of us?

The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” in our brains (not just in us, but in other primates as well) shows that we are hard-wired to respond to each others actions and moods.  (As an example: we watch someone eating a treat, and the same neurons fire in our brains as when we actually eat that same treat).  Even for one such as I (who has been harping on about just how “social” we are) this is a stunning declaration of how very deeply social we really are.  (So deeply that I suddenly feel like we need a new word or amplifier for the word “Social” — maybe we could put it in all caps with an exponent at the end?).

(As an aside, It could even be argued that our impulse toward God is the attempt to satisfy the nearly insatiable hunger in us — the most social of animals — for companionship).

Speaking of our minds, this might be the time to introduce the concept of “Confirmation bias”.  I encourage you to look that one up, but in short it means that we tend to see what we expect to see.  Which in the present discussion means this: we will interpret reality according to what we want that reality to be.  So, if I am praying for someone to get better (when ill), any improvement in their condition will confirm my belief in the intercessory power of my personal prayer to a personal God.  Or, if my psychic says my life has a specified purpose, I will tend to lend more credence to any events or inputs that support that idea, and minimize those that do not.  It means we are supporting our irrational beliefs on selective data.

I once read that we humans only need a strategy to work about thirty percent of the time in order to believe it’s a good idea, and keep using it.  (So throughout human history if the human sacrifice brought good crops one out of three times, that one time was enough to keep the practice alive).  The implication of this is rather startling: “God” would only need to answer your prayers far below the percentage minimums of statistical chance (of 50 percent) to sustain belief.  Like the well-documented “Placebo effect”, our own “Confirmation bias” ends up doing most of the heavy lifting for our mystical belief systems.

The reality is this: most of what counts for answered prayer can be accounted for by confirmation bias applied to random events.  (Of course in practical human terms no event is completely “random” — whatever its actual outcome it is always the result of directed actions by conscious personalities.  No wonder we think of nature as similarly directed!).  A part of this reality, however, is that it is almost impossible for us to completely move beyond our own biases.  But we can try.

Yes, the way we respond to events can have an effect on our actions and decisions: If you walk into a situation scared, you’ll most likely select from the all the available data that which feeds your fear; walk in confident, and you will equally mis-interpret the data (though you may feel a lot better about yourself!); walk in neutral, and you’ve got the best chance of getting a clearer picture of reality.  But none of that is the same as believing that a prayer or ritualized action will actually temporarily alter the physical laws of the universe or the biochemistry of another human being.  That’s just crazy…and completely human.

When you stop looking for signs, what you end up seeing is the mixture of events, opportunities, closed doors, outcomes, false starts and successes of a life lived in the here and now: where we are in time, and who we are in place.  This, I believe, is the only path open to us for a true valuation of our own lives, and the lives of the others we encounter in our short sojourn through life.

t.n.s.r. bob

NEXT WEEK: “The Burden of Narrative”.

SERMON: “Walking and Talking” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

the not-so-reverend bob

As I walked my morning walk the other day, I knew I was feeling some emotional discomfort.  It turned out to center on feelings about my relationship with my mother.  So I started to talk about it, out loud, to myself, as I walked.

I first made the case against myself, exploring as honestly as I could the parts of my actions (or lack of action) that spoke poorly of me.  Then I searched out the other conditions and circumstances that had an influence on me — societal expectations; cultural definitions of what a mother and son’s relationship would be; the evolutionary perspective of how we and other animals treat family bonds and, finally, the knowledge I had of my mother’s personality and attitudes that both formed my personality as a child and determined (to a degree) what potentialities existed for our adult interactions.

By the time I was done with my walk, I felt better, and could see things with a bit more clarity.  It was then I realized that I exactly duplicated the religious acts of prayer, confession, forgiveness and consolation.  I further understood that the point of such religious practice (as well as my own) was to make myself feel better: to gain insight and to expiate uncomfortable feelings of guilt.  The ONLY things missing in my morning walk and talk were a priest and, well, God.

But were they, truly, missing?

Of course not.

We do what we need to do to feel okay with ourselves, and the argument could be made that we use “prayer and confession) to self-justify much more than to repent.  To the religious believer this might seem a shamefully self-centered act.  To an anthropologist, I would think, it’s hardly surprising.  What interests me more is how much consistently we take this natural internal process for maintaining our emotional and mental equilibrium and externalize it and outsource it to priests, rabbis and gods.

It is believers who attack the secular and humanistic among us as setting ourselves up as God.  In short, we are idolaters, putting self above God.  The thing that hit me the other day is just how laughably false this notion is.  It is actually the believer that sets him or herself up as God by taking a completely self-contained, natural process of our own consciousness and re-branding it as “prayer”, “confession” and (let’s be frank here) “the VOICE of God”.  And we’re the egotistical ones?  Hardly.

Belief is so natural to us humans (varying, of course, in intensity across a wide spectrum) that I am finding less and less evidential support for my incredulity that modern-day humans that believe in some form of creationism actually outnumber those that embrace the facts of evolution that Charles Darwin so eloquently established over 150 years ago (see the review of On The Origin of Species on this blog).

I can hardly improve on Darwin’s own statement addressing the Creationists of his day:

“On the view of each organic being and each separate organ having been specially created, how utterly inexplicable it is that parts, like the teeth in the embryonic calf or like the shriveled wings under the soldered wing-covers of some beetles, should so frequently bear the plain stamp of inutility!  Nature may be said to have taken pains to reveal, by rudimentary organs and by homologous structures, her scheme of modification, which it seems that we willfully will not understand. (emphasis mine)”
— Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species” 1st Edition, p. 480.

Containing — as we humans do — all the impulses, machinations and rewards of religious practice within our own evolved consciousness, I suppose I must conclude that I am arguing only about the terminology we use to describe it.

You say “God”, I say “consciousness”.  Who’s right?  Well, of course I am in the sense that I’m not trying to make more of what I’ve got than is actually there.  The religious (or the spiritual, for that matter) incline toward  making holy mountains out of perfectly good mole hills (I mean, what’s a perfectly happy mole need with a mountain anyway?).  And if it weren’t for the ignorance and excess that this externalizing and dividing of self engenders, what problem could I possibly have with it, I wonder?  (After all, the more I learn, the more the capacity for religion seems a completely natural human phenomenon, so that railing against it seems about as useful as trying to change the blind spot in our eyes or the fact we have lungs and not swim bladders.)

So, the further I go in understanding what is really going on, the further I am removed from any shred of a capacity to see religious explanations as being anything of the sort.  As Darwin put it long ago:

“It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as “plan of creation,” “unity of design,” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.  Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory.”
— Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species” 1st Edition, p. 481-82

Anytime God or a scripture is invoked it is not an explanation, it is a door slammed shut on the intellect and inquiry.  And I like to keep doors open to insight, and windows open for fresh air to circulate.  But as my above-described experience of walking and talking to myself shows, understanding Evolution and our true place in the universe changes everything about how we view ourselves and the world, while at the same time it changes nothing about how we — and that world — work.

bob bless!

t.n.s.r. bob

A PRAYER FOR HEALING by the not-so-reverend bob

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I prayed the “Prayer of salvation” when I was 13.  I found it in the back of a small tract that I picked up in my older brother’s room.  I was the third brother in my family to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Within a year my mother — who had been skeptical of my personal relationship with Christ — was “saved” as well.  It was through her and my brother that I was then introduced to the Thursday night prayer meetings held in a home up our street.  I witnessed someone receiving the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” at the first such meeting I attended, accompanied with much shouting, laughing, speaking in tongues, uplifted hands and, of course, being “slain in the spirit” (where — overcome with the power of God — the recipient of hands-on prayer would collapse into the waiting arms of other believers stationed in place for just that purpose).  After the meeting, someone asked me if I’d received the baptism in the spirit yet.  “No” I answered.  “Next week” she replied.  She was right.

At the end of the next week’s prayer meeting I was surrounded by other babbling believers, feeling surges of warmth and excitement coursing through my sullen teenage soul as the voices rose around me, imploring the Spirit to descend and fill me with the confirming proof of my secret prayer language.  I bubbled, then babbled as the blanketing heat of this living-room ecstasy reached it’s climax.  I was now a born-again, spirit-filled Christian, a modern day candidate for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit: my prayer language (speaking in tongues), the gift of discernment (able to tell what spirits were of God and which were of the Devil), prophecy, interpretation, the gift of healing and, of course, the salvation of my immortal soul.

It turns out that confessing my sins and turning my life over to Jesus as my Lord and Savior (as I had earlier done) was good, but not quite as good as taking the next step and entering — as I now had — into “the fullness of the Holy Spirit”.  It all made sense to me.  Or, to be more precise, I could find in me no reason not to believe.  So, I believed.  For the next 15 years I believed.

I remember a Junior High School morning from that time.  I awoke with a sore throat.  I didn’t like school much, so any sign of sickness was welcomed.  My mother came in to make sure I was getting up and ready for school (no easy task in those years), so I mentioned the sore throat.  She immediately sat down on the edge of my bed, placed her hands on each side of my throat, closed her eyes, and — with a certain fierceness in her voice — commanded that sore throat to “LEAVE IN THE NAME OF JESUS!”.  I prayed along, believing — I thought.

The Bible says that wherever two or more are gathered in Jesus name, He is there in the midst of them.  There are also verses that say where two pray in agreement, “it” shall be done.  Faith and the miracles that faith makes possible are major doctrines of the Evangelical wing of Christianity.  Especially among the “Spirit Filled” that include Charismatics and Pentecostals.  For these Christians it is the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that are taken as the template of what a believer can expect from a life of faith:  The dead shall walk, the sick shall be healed, for sickness is of the devil — a consequence of Adam’s original sin.  God’s desire, they say, is that we all be healed.  All that stands in the way is our own lack of faith.

My mother finished her prayer with “in the name of Jesus, AMEN” and opened her eyes, asking me the question that has led to countless lies from the mouths of believers the world over: “Do you feel better?”  “Um.  Yeah, I think so” I mumbled.  There may have been a final admonition to BELIEVE, to CLAIM the healing that was mine, to REBUKE the devil.  I don’ t remember whether I stayed home or donned my torn jeans and army coat and took my long, greasy-haired self to school that day.  What I do remember is that there was absolutely no change in my throat.  I remember the anguish this caused me — the singular frustration at how a prayer that was supposed to make miracles happen failed.  But I was a young Christian.  It would take time to learn that it was my own faith that was to blame — or my lack of it.  It would take many more years before I understood the perfect — and perfectly cruel — circularity of the set-up:  If you believe in Jesus, you can pray to Him, he will answer your prayers.  A simple progression anyone can follow:  A plus B equals C.  But If C doesn’t immediately follow, see appendix D, where you will find the many reasons the deal fell through.  It turns out that we can block God’s healing from reaching us (or wealth, or love, or any other answer to prayer) through doubt, unbelief or the presence of unconfessed sin.  Or the devil can interfere (requiring more specialized prayers, for are we not now given the authority as believers to “cast out evil spirits” and “rebuke the devil”?).  Even religion, it seems — so simple and promising at first blush — becomes like a car ad where the grabby headline contains an asterisk that directs you to a dense paragraph of small print crammed into the bottom of the page:  *No  immediate answer to your prayer?  See the above listed (you-generated) potential blocks to the God of the Universe giving you what you asked for.

Looking back on this experience now, I am struck by the consistency in the way the miraculous continues to be sold based on second and third-hand stories of wonders that no-one (that you actually know) has ever seen.  What ends up passing for proof, then, are the mundane little serendipitous occurrences that pop up in all of our lives: coincidence, good fortune, luck, the experience of the sublime or the numinous.  But no-one raised from the dead (though every missionary seems to tell a story of such in some dark corner of the world).  The problem is so glaringly obvious that I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see it sooner:  the promises are crap — on a par a late-night television infomercial.

I was still in my first year of spirit-filled living when I went to another prayer meeting run by two older men.  The big happening at this meeting was the genuine miracle of “leg lengthening”.  Turns out that each of us are born with one leg shorter than the other (who knew?), but by sitting down and letting one of the men hold your legs out (where you are shown that one leg is, indeed, shorter than the other) this condition can be corrected before your very eyes through prayer.  And, indeed it was.  After the fervent prayer of the men that encircled me (and some judicious tugging, I suspect) my legs were clearly now the same length.  Proof that God answers prayer, amen.

The professional magician James Randi (among others) has apparently debunked this particular “parlor trick” in his book “The Faith Healers”, and it was in reading one of Randi’s other books on such subjects that I was confronted, again, with the numbing sameness of all such shenanigans.  His accounts from around the world re-confirmed a sense that had already begun to creep into me that what we’re willing to take as evidence of the “spiritual” (be it new-age or old-time religion) is so, well, sadly mundane that any self-respecting God or spirit would surely be embarrassed to include it on his or her resume’.

We humans are believers.  We want to believe.  We want to believe so badly that it is clearly an integral part of our minds, our consciousness and — that being the case — I feel a tenderness and sympathy toward it.  I have to, as I am no different from the rest of my species.  I grew up believing in God (though in a distant sense), then believed in a miraculous Jesus, a literal fire-dancing-on-my head Holy Spirit, then psychics, palm and tarot readers, a hypnotherapist, herbalist, massage therapists and countless friends of a New Age tilt of mind.

In order to salvage what I can of my own dignity at having fallen for so much I would like to claim to my credit that I have, at least, been driven by an (apparent) need for an understanding of things built on evidence that I can actually rely on.  And so I have dug my way right on through several belief systems.  (Not that this was ever my original intention, of course).

It was my desire to make sense of all that Holy Spirit stuff that made me read the entire Bible from cover to cover to see how much of what I was hearing preached was actually in there (some was, some wasn’t — but I found some great Bible verses on equine genitalia).  I read Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis (his book “Mere Christianity” spoke the kind of reasoned Christianity I was drawn to) and A.W. Tozer (“The Pursuit of God” was the most challenging call to spirituality I would find).  Near the end of my Christian years, I was a missionary in Europe smuggling Christian literature through the Iron Curtain.  It was there that I decided that the only way to be sure that I was standing on the very bedrock of Christianity was to study only the words of Jesus (all the sentences printed in red in some Bibles).  That, in turn, set me up for the first book on biblical scholarship (recommended by a friend: “Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus” by Norman Perrin) wherein the “form critical method” of textural comparison (used to determine authors of ancient texts) was applied to the New Testament.  To my shock, the author (who was a believer) revealed that the consensus of scholars was that only a few phrases and fragments in the New Testament were attributable to an historic Jesus.  I was dumbfounded.  Why had I never known this?  (It turns out every theology student knows this stuff, they just wisely choose not to share it with their flock).  The edifice of my belief in God was crumbling around me, and I soon found myself in quite a different place than I expected: a world without God.

When I look back now I can see that the entire story — all of its elements — are contained in that morning prayer for my sore throat:  The hope, the trust in those that possessed a certainty that I did not; the stifled disappointment; the internalized hurt before a God turned mute; the shaken confidence in my faith that had suddenly (and unexpectedly) betrayed me; and the loneliness of that injured faith that must now, somehow, recover and figure out how to do better the next time.  What a cruel idiocy to sell to a kid.  (I’m reminded of an experience from another prayer meeting, this one at a church.  A young man knelt for prayer for the healing of his sore throat, and the minister’s wife prayed for him (as my mother had for me).  When she asked him if he felt better, he rather sheepishly (his eyes averted) said “Yeah”, to which his buddy (who had been watching all of this) sneered “Liar!”.  The minister’s wife wheeled on him in and barked “I rebuke you, Satan, in the name of Jesus!”, her accusing finger pointing straight at his face.  She called “Satan” the most honest person in the room.)

I remember something else from the morning of my own “throat prayer”: the lesson I took from it.  I decided that it was better not to ask then to ask and be shamed.

As an artist, I once observed that it seems that each living artist (in his or her progression to maturity) has to pass through all of the periods of the history of art, from scrawls to an immature sense of design (the foundation of past learning upon which he or she can now build) to a more sophisticated and nuanced eye and style.  I’ve been thinking lately that we go through the same process as we grow as humans — only in this instance we mirror all of the stages of the gradual evolution of our own consciousness as we grow from the screaming laughing baby to the mind of a child to critical adult.

My theory is that the peculiar quality we posses of being able to step outside of ourselves and critique our own behavior — that rational, analytical part of our minds — was the last part to evolve.  And even today, amidst  a world of astounding scientific knowledge (all hard won by the most rational among our species) that higher aspect of our consciousness floats on top of the deeper, ancient layers of our being.  How else can we explain the persistence of so much belief in mysterious mystical forces that get a pass on such thin evidence?

Ignorance is the explanation.  I don’t mean stupidity: I mean a lack of knowledge.  Why else would surveys show that belief in God is much lower among the more highly educated?  Why else do all fundamentalists try to control the education of their children?  Why do most religious conversions occur in the teenage years?  And leaving religion aside, why do we believe in UFO’s or that the condensation trails left in the wake of airliners are actually streams of government-funded chemicals meant to destroy our brains (in the absence of any shred of scientific evidence)?

There is a long-standing million dollar prize out there for anyone who can — under standard scientific conditions — produce a bona-fide miracle or paranormal event.  There have been hundreds of applicants, but to date no one has made it past the preliminary rounds.  If any of this oft-reported phenomenon is true — if there really are forces beyond the natural world we inhabit that we are somehow able to access or harness, it seems as though we ought to be seeing miracles every day.  But no, there’s always an excuse, a reason why not, an asterisk.  A plus B equals C, but should C not occur, see appendix D.

I’ve been a believer.  It’s in our nature to trust, to believe.  I think it is part and parcel of being the social animals that we are.  We are pattern-seekers, and we want to find connections with each other and believe each others stories.  But it does not follow (based on the proofs up for our consideration) that mysterious forces external to us are responsible for, well, anything we experience.  The very essence of “supernatural” or “paranormal” is that they describe events that are beyond the explanations of science and nature.  (And so far, science and natural causes haven’t run up against much that cannot be reliably explained).

Our mind and body and consciousness are truly intriguing and multilevelled things which we are learning more and more about every day.  As Christopher Hitchens says there are now practically no areas that we still need religion to explain.  Yet religion persists.  (I once remarked to a friend that religion should have disappeared with the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, to which my friend remarked: “Or with Galileo”).  There has to be a reason that belief in God can continue in the absence of evidence.  “Appendix D” would say this is to make faith all the more important.  Appendix D always has an answer to assure you that the lie is not, really, a lie, just a misunderstanding — or why the thing you saw in the ad that brought you into the store isn’t the thing you really need and besides we don’t seem to have any of those in stock (actually we never intended to have any in stock, we just put it in the ad ’cause it would bring people in).

I don’t pray.  I do speak my desires out loud.  If I can’t find my keys, for instance, I’ll ask “Where did I put those damn keys?” and the answer will almost always come to me.  I asked a psychologist friend who confirmed my hunch that by speaking out loud my brain was processing the information differently (through hearing) than it did when I only thought the question: speaking my thoughts out loud shifted them to a differently-processing part of my brain (a discovery of science and brain research).  So, such experiences do not represent answers to prayer in the classic sense, but are still pretty damn interesting (and useful) nonetheless.  But then I’m not foolish enough to then make the leap that any words of mine spoken into the ether are being picked up by an external spiritual entity and can — through that intermediary —  affect other people.  That, clearly, is a waste of time.

When my belief in God ended, I felt embarrassed by my years of credulity and belief in all that Holy Spirit stuff.  I felt embarrassed again when I realized — some twenty years later — that I still believed in the power of belief that I had now transferred to my psychic!  (Fortunately, I didn’t feel as bad the second time, and the shock was less traumatic).

Yet I’m glad for those experiences now because they are part of the human experience.  I have exercised my “God Gene” quite a bit, and if nothing else it gives me an understanding and empathy for my fellow humans who pass through the same experiences every damn day.  Plus, it gives me the added perspective of recognizing the consistency of life with this human consciousness of mine — that our experiences are universal whether we believe in God or not.  And if we do believe, that it makes no quantifiable difference in the actual phenomenon we experience whether we call our god this or that or believe in an amorphous spirituality, or that there is nothing at work on this earth that is not completely natural and materialistic in its origin.  (The latter claim represents the mountain of scientific evidence that quietly and calmly tells me there is most likely no God, only our beliefs in God).

That’s what I think, based on my experiences, knowledge and observation.  We are, indeed, (as science has shown) the products of the long, gradual process of evolution that produced everything on this planet and gave us humans a remarkable brain and sociable consciousness that, in turn, personified the forces of nature to such a degree that — even today — we are unwilling to lay such mythologies aside.  As the prophets of the Old Testament said of the heathens: we pray to dumb statues of stone and wood, even as the prophets of today continue to claim that their God is the one true God among all the impostors.  “Prove it”, we might ask:  “Call down fire from the sky”.  “We could if we wanted to”, they answer, but then they don’t…they can’t.  Preferring to refer us, instead, to the disclaimers found in “Appendix D”.