Posts Tagged ‘religion and science’

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

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even dogs have religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Flying High” by the not-so-reverend bob

Monday, July 26th, 2010

As the mid-size commercial airliner lifted me through canyons and cathedrals of billowing clouds, my face was nearly pressed to my small window to the sky.  A moment ago rain was streaking across the glass, and we were accelerating down the runway beneath a low, gray monsoonal sky.  Now we were above the rain, eye level with layer upon layer of rising cumulous in shades of blue grays where they stood like columns supporting a ceiling of even more clouds, above which shone the evening sun.  Shreds of long, thin cirrus clouds raced by in the foreground.  The beauty of it nearly took my breath away.

As we continued to rise up into the clear, smooth air above the cloud level it occurred to me that just moments earlier I had been reading a book about how the discovery of cooking had played the major role in our evolution from apes to humans.  Now I was flying at an incredible speed in a product of very recent human technology witnessing sights that a tiny majority of life on earth would ever see.

Around me were a cabin full of fellow primates who seemed mostly anxious for permission to turn their phones back on.

I’m not going to be a prig and insist that everyone around me should have been equally rapt with the scene unfolding outside our cozy aluminum cabin.  No.  We each take our moments of wonder and awe when (and as) we find them.  That is the wonder of natural beauty: it is there to be enjoyed by anyone that takes the time to look, and no matter how many people look at it, it is neither diminished nor depleted.  Beauty, when it appears, is an unlimited resource for the time it is on display.

Of course our aesthetic sense is something that has evolved right along with our upright gait and ability to talk, and it is a universal trait of us hominids.  The religiously inclined would likely suggest that such a “natural” view of one of our “higher senses” is a slap against god, and a reduction of humans to nothing more than clever animals.  What crap.

Animals we most definitely are.  But the suggestion that this statement of fact is some sort of diminishment of our status makes less and less sense to me.  Perhaps its because I’ve moved so far from the point of accepting the fact that there is nothing that happens on this planet that is not completely natural in origin that I am now free to more truly appreciate the wonder of who and what we are.  For I would suggest that until one accepts the reality of our actual origins and place in the world, one is not qualified to pass judgement on the “evolutionary” view of life, or to portray it as an insult to god’s image.

There is so much real wonder out there to contemplate that I now consider any religious or spiritual explanation of things to be the true diminishment of our species.  They represent the stories of our childhood as a species.  When considered in that light, our first stories are useful in understanding our development as humans, but when applied as actual, grown-up explanations or as guides for adult behavior, they are woefully inadequate and — I would argue — detrimental to our continued progress.

In my own life I feel as if I’ve just reached a point where I have cleared away enough of the cobwebs and inherited stories to begin my discovery of what life really has to offer.  It only took me 51 years (an age which I would never have reached in earlier times).  And thanks (it would seem) to cooking (more on this next week), I was born in a time where I could spend as little time eating as possible, yet take in enough calories to have the energy, the lifespan, and the time to learn as much as I have learned.

That, in itself, is a source of awe and wonder.

I feel, also, a certain urgency to see just how far I can go with this journey of discovery in my one lifetime.

Around us are thousands of people that seem to live more like animals than we would like to admit, moving with the herd.  At times each of us must move with the pack as well.  But in-between those passages, we have the time, energy and opportunity to look around us, to look at ourselves and explore our lives, our bodies, our world.  It is an evolutionary gift that has been given to no other species as richly as to us.  And it is there to enjoy, just like those billowing clouds I flew through.  Just like the sunset.

Life’s riches are there for anyone who takes the time to stop and take them in.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Room for Doubt” by the not-so-reverend-bob

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

It hit me today that the main complication in being anti-theistic is the reality that so many people in my life (and in society at large) believe in God, and draw varying degrees of practical comfort from that belief.  So when I launch into a rant about the unlikely nature of an actual God’s existence, I sometimes feel a “pang” as I imagine the offense I may cause.  (What’s interesting, perhaps, is that my pang is not, generally, related to any fear of actual divine retribution).

As I drove across town — listening for a bit to a Christian radio station preacher going on about the wonder of God’s one-week creative act — my mind dispassionately clicked off the likelihood that anything of the sort was responsible for creating the actual heavens and earth and everything that walks or crawls.  For just before that I’d been listening to a story on NPR about how scientists and engineers are exploring rather amazing light-controlling structures in the wings of certain butterflies, and trying to work out ways in which to exploit — through nanotechnology — these structures that “self assemble” in nature.  That story reminded me of Darwin’s lengthy explanation (in “On the Origin of Species”) of the very natural mechanics of honeycomb assembly by honey bees.

All of the wonders of the world that one can think of are perfectly (and adequately) explained as completely natural processes.  (Consider the many once-mysterious diseases that have been traced to their true causation in mutations in one or several genes).

We understand now, through science, that our bodies build themselves bit by bit through the actions of gene expression, regulating proteins, amino acids and the like (with each new discovery pointing the way to the deeper subtleties of the intricate dance of genes switching on and off at the right times that brought you and me from a single cell to a fully-formed human).

In short, a little reading of the available popular writing about genetics and biology can give one a good conceptual grasp of the real miracle of life on earth that (in my experience) so exceeds any religious explanation for sheer mind-blowing, awe-inspiring wonder by exponential factors.

Yet religious belief persists, even in such “modern” minds as ours.

Of course, we moderns are the tip of the spear, as it were, that extends all the way back into our past, and we still carry with us so much of our history that a definite tendency toward belief — toward the externalizing of inner thoughts and impulses to the extent that we now easily regard them as coming from actual divine or spiritual sources — is a completely natural part of the functioning of our consciousnesses.

As I’ve said before, I am a natural “believer”.  I notice it now when my mind is at rest (as it often is these days, having answered for myself most of the “big” existential questions of life):  I will hear a declaration of belief from someone (in person or on the radio) and my mind immediately writes a memo to my consciousness asking: “Have we really looked at the question of God from every angle?”.  The answer is “Of course I have”.  But for that moment, I doubt.

But when I think about it for more than a moment, the smallest piece of evidence from science, geology or biology is enough to make that memo of doubt disappear.  I could look at a star and think about how long the light from that star has been traveling to get here and know that the world could not have been “created” seven thousand years ago.  Or I can think about the fact that I have a tailbone (where my very own tail used to grow); or my bad back (from our species learning to walk upright); or a hiccup (that links me to my amphibian past).  I can reach down about anywhere and pick up a rock that could be millions of years old, or consider the lessons of the Human Genome Project that has revealed the evidence in our genes of our evolutionary past.

In short, any argument for God or special creation is embarrassingly easy to disprove.

But belief is a personal thing, and we tend to be deeply entwined with our beliefs and will defend them with ferocity, if not rationality.  And so the problem with attacking irrational beliefs is not the beliefs (which are made of nothing), but the feelings of the believers themselves (who are real flesh and blood).

There is no real resolution to this dilemma.  As I explained to a believing friend, I stand up to oppose the irrational beliefs of others at the point where they begin to infringe on my own personal liberties.  On this point he and I agreed.

I think most of us understand that “Freedom of Religion” is a compromise: we allow people to believe crazy things so that we, in turn, are not hindered in our own thoughtful pursuits.  Of course there are many religious believers among us that are mistrustful of the compromise, and assume that their views are so transcendent and universal as to merit priority.  Which brings to mind the Dunning/Kruger effect, which describes how the less informed one actually is, the higher his (or her) certainty of the “rightness” of their views.  Conversely, the more one knows, the more one learns to doubt (or at least be wary of baseless confidence).

And so it makes sense why the religiously confident are so vehement in their denial of science in general, and Evolution if particular: not only is their world-view threatened, but their confidence as well.

Still, such as the above provides the best argument for education I can think of: to decrease the levels of confident ignorance, and increase the levels of intelligent doubt (which is to say a recognition of the complexity of life).

And so, though we don’t desire to cause anyone discomfort, we must nevertheless continue to promote scientific knowledge and reason, recognizing it as the best path toward making the most of our time here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

NON-OVERLAPPING MAGISTERIA: Science and Religion. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

It occurs to me that you might wonder why I spend so much time on the question of God.  I’ve asked myself the same question.  If I consider the question of God to be a settled issue in my own life, it yet remains far from settled in the culture I live in.  Since my primary focus is the personal perspective that a knowledge of human history and Darwinian evolution can offer, it would seem best to leave religion alone,  to respect the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” (in which science has nothing to add to religion, and religion has nothing to add to science).  Of course we know this to be — at most and in practice — a “polite fiction”.  My concern with the overlapping influence of religion and science is that religion encourages a determined belief in the metaphysical, the mystical and the supernatural.  That’s reason enough to question it, but religion goes further and actively promotes a distrust of the human intellect (and human intellectuals) that leads to the distrust of even the most widely accepted discoveries of science.

Science is not perfect, nor are it’s practitioners infallible.  It is, however, an honorable and worthy example of humankind’s highest efforts at getting to the truth of things.  It is the closest we can get to understanding reality.  If it is imperfect, it is because it is a human enterprise.  There are cases of ego or prejudice coloring theory or result.  There are also cases of outright fraud.  However, only in science does there exist a human-designed system to expose human-induced error: papers are published and reviewed; experiments must be repeatable by independent means; a consensus must be reached.  Pretty damn admirable for a bunch of hairless primates, I would say.  Consider this fine description of Science by the Naturalist E. O. Wilson:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

“The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson (page 104)

Since religion (according to conventional wisdom) is not testable by scientific means, it has been suggested that Religion is, therefore, its own “magisteria” — something, well, beyond science.  Hence — Science and Religion are separate spheres with little or no overlap.  That’s fine as far as it goes, as most mainstream religion isn’t in the business of miracle cures or claiming to raise the dead to life.  But many believers do accept the veracity (or possibility) of miraculous occurrences (wherein the laws of “nature” are suspended, or overridden by a higher spiritual authority) whether they’ve actually witnessed such an event personally or not.  So we live in a climate that is sympathetic to assigning to the supernatural any number of events or occurrences, large or small, that happen next door or around the world, regardless of their verifiable natural origin (take the earthquake in Haiti as the latest example).  In such a climate — where any such claim is given equal weight — how can we expect to make any progress on real problems that affect us?

I believe one of the major difficulties the average person has with incorporating scientific knowledge into their lives is a sense that the knowledge science brings us is a sort of “moving target” that grows ever more complex with each new reported scientific discovery.  This may be the grain of reason underlying the otherwise irrational view of scientific “truth” as “relative” (as compared to the supposedly “fixed” Truths of most religions) to the end that many don’t see scientific discoveries as fixed points upon which a sure foundation can be built.  I understand that.  For in a sense the terms and systems of classification of science are arbitrary grids that are placed between us (the observer) and the natural processes we seek to understand (just as the word for “cat” is used to identify that particular animal, but the letters “c.a.t.” would not be mistaken for the animal itself).  Scientists must then put a lot of energy into carefully defining the very specific terms that they employ so that they can be clearly understood by other scientists.  For the point of the entire endeavor is to allow a subject, theory or area of investigation to be discussed in a meaningful way.

As a corollary to understanding this idea, consider for a moment your average road atlas:  Though we don’t expect to trip over an actual border line when walking from one state to the next, the lines on maps are nevertheless useful and practical tools for dividing one state from another.  Of course on closer examination we’ll find that the residents of a small border town may well share much more in common (in terms of commerce and culture) with a nearby town in another state than they will with the residents of a larger city in the middle of their own state.  Nevertheless we don’t throw out or ignore these “man made” borders because we recognize the continuity it gives us regarding everything from laws to public services to personal identity.  We naturally understand, however, that life is more complex and varied than our state citizenship alone can describe, and so we break down our sense of community into ever more concise terms:  I’m from this town, I live in this neighborhood, my kids go this school, we attend this church (which is further broken down into which particular branch of your particular religion your church adheres to) and on and on.  So scientific classification is no different: it is a useful tool that gives us shared vocabularies and agreed-upon reference points for comparison and understanding.  The system is designed to expand with the inevitable influx of new and better knowledge — so concepts tend to move from the simple (early understandings) to the more complex (better understanding based on new and more evidence).

Science is unfairly criticized by the religious as being the product and progenitor (all at the same time) of a relativistic humanism that has as its goal the destruction of belief in God and the imposition of a cruel rational relativism that will wipe away all morality.  So how do we get from curious human beings trying to understand the world to unfeeling monsters devoid of all emotion and compassion?  It’s an interesting leap of logic, to say the very least.  A leap made possible by the framework of the religious mind.  Science is, in short, viewed as a competing proselytizing religion and therefore imbued with religious qualities and intentions it does not posses because the religious worldview can imagine with only great difficulty the unfamiliar human motivations of reason and rationality.

The most extreme accusations come, to be sure, from those most threatened by the encroachment of reason and rationality, namely those who ply their trade in the mysterious oceans of the unprovable: the Evangelist or those who have a financial or temporal power stake in the maintenance of “belief in belief”.  But part of the resistance is also keenly felt by their followers who sense (quite correctly) that their familiar view of the world is going to be challenged, and fear (not so correctly) that the consequences will be horrific.

There is, I believe, a certain healthy skepticism in us (particularly pronounced in us Americans, it seems, though also subject to irrational hijacking on occasion) as regards our government and large corporations.  And yet, while we express that mistrust, we nevertheless do not desist from availing ourselves of the considerable benefits we enjoy thanks to the innovation and manufacturing power of industry and the little appreciated (but extremely rare in human history) safety and stability that a functional government and economy provides.  We have the (rather recently achieved) luxury of calm and plenty in which to complain.

I think we are not much different from the huge Bengal tiger I watched at the San Diego Zoo one afternoon, pacing endlessly back and forth across the length of his “natural” looking enclosure, his huge head swinging from side to side, stopping at each end of his linear track to glance quickly upward to meet the eyes of whichever human was stopped to watch him at the time before returning to his numb routine: deprived of the day-to-day challenges of his natural habitat, the tiger had nothing to do with millions of years of evolved predatory behavior.  I later read that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. conducted experiments in which they discovered that the “pacing behavior” of bears there was reduced dramatically when food was hidden in logs (among other places), thus more closely approximating the bear’s natural activities.  In short: the tiger and bears were bored: They had nothing to do beside quickly eat the meals offered at mealtime and poop and sleep.
I’m convinced that we humans are no different from those bored bears: we seek security and comfort and ease (as we quite sensibly seek to avoid pain, conflict and unease), but we are not so removed from our hunter-gatherer past that we can so easily adapt to the amount of leisure time we have managed to cleverly create for ourselves.  It is a troubling admission to say out loud (after all our effort to find ease) that we have it too easy.  And so we seek stimulation to fill a void for which our long evolutionary past has not properly prepared us.

It seems, in fact, that our projection of intention onto the universe (one end result of which has been our belief in supernatural forces) is a side effect of the enormous processing ability of our large evolved brains: we don’t really have an “off switch” up there!  So now that we no longer have to run from saber-toothed tigers or cave bears, we’re a little bored ourselves and our minds turn to all sorts of fanciful imaginings.

The irony is not lost on me that — in my life as a fairly sedentary artist — I pay money for membership in a gym full of machines designed and manufactured to replicate the physical exertions my more “primitive” ancestors enacted as part and parcel of their everyday lives.  We develop diets and food additives to stave off (or at least slow down) the gradual fattening of our middles (that fattening possible only because of our amazing progress in agriculture, food preparation and safety).  We “work out” and seek recreation and stimulation to fill the years we now live long past the three decades or so most of our ancestors could have expected to see.

Our minds and reflexes evolved over millions of years to secure our survival.  The less quick, the less agile and the less hardy were plucked from our family tree by disease, disaster and toothy beast (i.e. “Natural Selection”).  As Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying of our current status in that contest: “Our pre-frontal lobes are too small, and our adrenal glands too large”.  Meaning we are modern human beings living in an age of relative safety from beast and invading horde, yet we still carry this giant bear-trap of a “fight or flight” mechanism that ends up kicking in while we’re driving in rush hour traffic, triggered by lower-level stimuli than a true threat to our survival.  We are, in essence (and beneath the thin veneer of our modernity) still looking for the attacking tiger lurking behind the next bush.

And this returns us to my initial plea for science: it is only through an understanding (and appreciation for) what Darwin called our “humble origins” that we can come to a true appreciation of what we really are, and how we really function.

A psychologist once told me of a conference speaker stating that “mankind’s last great evolutionary leap occurred during the last ice age”.  That thought opened my mind to seeing humans as modern descendants of ice age nomads.  Our seemingly intractable tribalism makes sense once you understand how much of our history we spent in small bands of extended family units (cities and nations are very recent arrivals in our experience).  There are countless other useful insights that can flow from such science-based understandings of how we got here.

I do not speak here of a pre-destination or determinism as to how humans will or should progress.  If history shows us anything it is that we are extremely adaptable.  In fact it is often as difficult to appreciate the differences between my “primitive” ancestors and my modern self as it is to accept the similarities.  For instance, our bodies have long ago adapted to cooked food.  The sheer volume of nutrients that cooking allowed us to consume played a large part in our ability to advance technologically.  (We’d have a hard slog going back to living off leaves and berries stripped from the plants of the forest, as the great apes do to this day).  Our advances in technology during the “Neolithic Revolution” may well have been a response to the new amounts of energy and free time we had that up to that point had been taken up with an endless grazing for raw calories!

Far from destroying our morality (or eroding its supposed basis in an eternal absolutes) I believe that understanding the science and history of human evolution gives us a much clearer understanding of how our ethical choices are made, and a deeper appreciation of the codes of social conduct we have discovered, developed and internalized as a species.  Far from destroying any sense of moral authority, it rather affirms the usefulness to social stability of our agreed-to laws and law enforcement (as they continue to protect us from what was once the much more common random violence of other humans).

(Want a picture of what our ancestors lives were like only several hundred years ago?  A great book on the evolution of our modern selves from the middle-ages is “The Civilizing Process” by Norbert Elias.  I recommend it as primer on just how recently the life of the average European was still — in many ways — short and brutish.)

Ignorance of science can be deadly.  I hardly find it noble to deny reality in order to preserve an ideology.  Our endless and (seemingly) harmless affection for unfounded conspiracy theories, UFO’s, “chem trails”, crystal healing, distrusting vaccines or what have you in practice keeps us from directing our creative energies towards things that really can make life better for us and our fellow humans.  While we seek stimulation in the silly (as we pace back and forth across our enclosures) half a million women die each year giving birth from avoidable complications, the globe continues to warm (at the very least in part due to us, it would appear) and almost a half of us Americans sit on our ass waiting for Jesus’ imminent return and the blessed end of this sinful world of ours.  Individual beliefs and mythologies are not unrelated to global events.  Science helps to reveal these connections: religion denies them.

Science is not the enemy.  Science is a tool for understanding, for making sense of discovery and for revealing the true mysteries of life for the benefit of us all.  It deserves attention, respect and support.  It does not deserve derision and demonizing demagoguery.  The one overarching magisteria that spans the realms of science and religion is our human existence and our individual experience of that existence.  Religion was, in essence, our early attempt at science, at understanding.  Religion is our invention.  It is a part of our heritage, our growth, and for a long time was the receptacle for our creative and literary energies.  In that, it deserves its own respect.  But we live in more complex times, in ever larger cities and nations with evolving complicated economies.  It is natural to pine for a mythical point in time when life was “simpler” (whether or not that time ever really existed).  But we live here now, in the age of science and reason, even as we shudder and struggle with shedding our superstitious skins.

Our blessing and our burden is that we are — truly — social animals.  We’re storytellers, afraid of the dark and fearful of death, and the more I ponder those aspects of our character the more I realize just how deep they go.  I could almost say it’s less a wonder that we are so given to superstitions as it is that we are capable of transcending them as much and as often as we do!

Still, here’s a vote for cultivating our reason and rationality, and taking another look at science, anthropology, archeology, genetics and biology for the understanding of our selves that such an investigation will give us.  Let religion have its place in our history, and let it contract of its own accord, leaving the natural world to the scientist that works on our behalf every day to understand it.

the not-so-reverend bob

(Copyright for commercial uses by Bob Diven, 2010)