Posts Tagged ‘religious belief’

SERMON: “Existential Redecorating” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was one of those moments that could so easily have been missed.

I was describing to a friend the metaphor I use for our existential situation, living as we do in this age of science.  Specifically, that we spend a lot of our time in an “existential living room” that has a rather large hole in the wall that is open to the enormity of the universe.  And so every time we walk by that “hole” our eye is pulled toward the vast, gaping void lurking beyond the security of our (n0-longer solid) four walls and we are immediately gripped with discomfort, even dread.  The upshot being that we live with a constant reminder of our actual size (and, therefore, significance) on a cosmic scale.  It is a very real “Total Perspective Vortex” (for you “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fans out there).  (It can also be a reminder of how remarkable it is that we are even here to have such a reaction in the first place, but this is not, I think, our primary response to reminders of our mortality).

Having described this “hole in the wall” metaphor, I said to my friend: “God is the picture we hang to hide that hole”.

I went on to say, however, that this “picture” of God does not really answer any of the questions that trouble us about the unimaginable distances in both space and time that await to challenge our mammalian brains whenever we look outside of our parochial selves.  God, for instance,  may tell us that He created us only a few thousand years ago (right after he created the Heavens and the Earth) but God Himself is eternal, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  So all that we have done is substitute God’s incomprehensible vastness — which can be no smaller, certainly, than that of all of creation — for the equally incomprehensible vastness of that creation.  What is the difference?

And that’s when my buddy said, quietly: “Because we put a face on it.”

And I was stopped in my tracks by the power of that straightforward statement.

I had to turn it over in my mind.  Was it really that simple?  Could it possibly make that much difference to our response to the incomprehensible to just stick a face on it?  I tried to find a way around the idea, seek out the weaknesses in the argument, but there was none to be found.  So simple, so elegant in its simplicity.  Yes, I realized, we human animals are so finely attuned by our eons of social evolution to reading each others faces that it turns out all we have to do to calm our terrified souls is imagine a face like ours between us and all of that unsettling void.

That is a part of why God — improbable as the idea of God actually is — works.  Because it is not just the idea of God that we are dealing with: it is the image of God.  Through God we are able to put a face between us and all that is unknown.

I have to admit that with each sermon (even as I move ever toward more clarity about how the world seems to actually work) there are often little, nagging corners of doubt in almost every assertion I make.  Not because my assertions have proven to be false, but because it is the nature of exploration that each discovery brings the discoverer to a plateau where new landscapes — previously unseeable — become visible at the edge of one’s newly-acquired field of vision.

And so even as I have substantially answered the “big” existential questions for my own life, there remain other questions to answer.  Perhaps it’s like science in that way.  Let me explain. I take the view that we live in a post-evolution age, meaning that this foundational biological theory is well-established and extremely unlikely to be turned on it’s head by future discoveries.

(I say this recognizing that there are surely dramatic discoveries to come that will make us refine the theory in important ways.  For example, just look at how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed dramatically in recent years: one scientist made the breakthrough discovery that gave a real boost to the idea that some of the dinosaurs did not die out, but evolved into modern birds.  This discovery was joined with a seemingly sudden breakthrough in fossil discoveries that show that many dinosaurs were covered by “protofeathers”.  Many of the signs of this may have been sitting in museum drawers for decades, un-noticed, until the paradigm shift got people looking for what they hadn’t been looking for before.  This is dramatic stuff.  Like the modern understanding that not all of the hominids whose fossils have been found are on the same branch of our modern-family tree, and that our “cousins” the Neanderthals, died out only a few tens of thousands of years ago!)

But none of these recent discoveries have shaken the theory of evolution.  In truth, they only make sense when seen through an evolutionary framework.  But I expect that they — like all such discoveries — have made many scientists sit up and take notice of what other possible traits and clues they may have been missing because they weren’t expected!

And it’s the same with my own existential adventure.  Because it is one thing to answer (for oneself) the question of whether God does, or does not, exist.  But such a personal existential achievement does nothing to alter the reality of the ongoing human experience of God that plays such a huge role in lives of most of my fellow humans (which makes the “question” so “big” in the first place!).  So the questions change as our understanding moves to a finer scale that is (one hopes) better suited to asking the next right question.

So I often ponder why, with the knowledge we now have about our evolutionary origins and the formation of our planet, there seems to have been so little impact on the phenomenon of individual religious belief.  Even many who fully embrace the findings of geologists and paleontologists miss nary a step in maintaining an active belief in divine agency.

I glanced at this rock wall as I drove a mountain road, and immediately saw a face (just left of center, above “.com”) in the stones.

Of course, there are scientific answers for this now as well.  We have evidence from genetic research, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology (among other fields) that have gone a long way toward explaining the peculiarities of human behavior.  This science answers many of the “second-tier” questions that come after the “big” ones are answered, namely, the “why” of our continued religious behavior in an age of science.

The sum of this research tells me that there is no real mystery to our tendency toward belief in agency in the world, even where it is clear that none exists.  Science tells us that we find intention in nature because our brains are wired to find it (our “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device”).  As has been said by others, the evolutionary path favors the animal with more false positives than false negatives.  We’ve survived because we are animals wary of intention in other animals, the weather, and even disease.  And wary animals are rarely punished by natural selection (on a species-wide scale, at least) for erring on the side of caution.

And so here we are, so-called “modern” humans, convinced that we have now beaten nature by somehow completing the process of evolution by evolving to a point where we are — thanks to our technology and overall smarts, well, “done” with all of that.

This is an expression of the companion to our “Agency Detection Device”: our natural human self-centeredness — the solipsism that makes it unbelievably easy to see ourselves as worthy of the attention of a vast and incomprehensible sky god.  The god whose face we hang over that troubling hole in our existential living room wall.  The hole that — as long as we are the mortal animals that we are — we know we can never really make go away.  So we drape it with the framed face of benign divinity.  Or — if we feel we can’t do that bit of cognitive redecorating — we just go ahead and find a way to live with our destined-to-be-incomplete understanding of who and what we really are, and make whatever peace we can with the wonder and vulnerability of our existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

I’m going to walk myself out onto a limb and talk about a theory of mine.  I suppose I could also call it a theory of mind, because it has to do with the way we humans experience spiritual phenomenon.

As I took advantage of the shade of a weeping willow tree for a short recline on a hot Summers-day bench, I looked up through the leaves at the sky above, and felt the warmth of the sun as it dappled its way through the branches.  As I did I mused that when we look at nature, we see mostly abundance and diversity.

Because life is so profligate, we hardly notice (unless we shift our focus) the waste and the decay that is the natural corollary to that abundance.  Instead we see the product of the seed that took root (not the uncountable millions that did not).  We see the offspring of the bird that successfully mated and built a nest, and whose eggs hatched (only rarely do we walk past the egg that was blown from its nest to break on the sidewalk, or the bird who has fallen dead from out of the sky).  The result is that our mental bias toward seeing life over decay is pretty much constantly encouraged.  (This is why it can be such a shock when death comes calling very close to us: at such times we are often stunned into a disconcerting awareness of our own vulnerability to life-ending disease or injury.  This is a state of awareness that we busily work to push back into the shadows of our mind).

This is one aspect of the “why” of the way in which we view our world.  Another is our long cognitive history of attributing intention to non-intentional forces by projecting our natural mind-reading skills onto events that don’t have a mind to read.  We do this almost without thinking — instinctively feeling that a “fierce” wind is somehow opposed to us riding our bike across town, or that an “angry” storm is “threatening” to “keep us” from holding an outdoor wedding.  We have days when we are sure that every traffic light in town is conspiring to frustrate our attempts to make an appointment on time.  We pray (or ask the “universe”) for a parking spot close to the store (and utter a “thank you” when one happens to open up).  All of this is so completely natural to the human mind that the minority of humans who do not respond to the world in this way are considered suspect!

We humans are natural believers and are equipped with brains that have evolved to detect the slightest change in the demeanor of another individual of our own (or other) species.  For any of you who have endured bouts of therapy or counseling, you probably discovered rather early in that process that your brain is quite capable of jumping to all sorts of conclusions that have as their basis nothing more than the trigger of an overly-sensitive misreading of an interpersonal cue.  In short — we are actually probably wrong more often than we are right.  (But in the world of natural selection, where it is not just the strong — but the wary and the agile — that survive, a slew of false positives is not necessarily a disqualifier in the race of life).

It’s always been happening inside our hominid skulls…

The fact that we humans have the most accomplished brains of the animal kingdom tempts us to think of ourselves as having somehow transcended our biology of mere flesh and bone, synapse and stimuli.  But this is, I think, an error of judgement that has some potentially destructive side effects.  An example might be the way we merge our natural tendency toward belief and projection with reason, and come up with the idea that it’s okay for other humans to suffer and die because there is a spiritual life to come where every one will get his or her due (so that anyone who has suffered unjustly, and had this earthly life cut short, will be compensated by the creator in the “better” life to come).  (Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a load of crap that actually diminishes the value of human life, despite the misnomer of  the “pro-life” moniker adapted by those who believe most in the next life, and think the least of this one).

Religious believers are most able to give their projecting mind free reign, limiting their “spiritual” experience only at the interpretation stage, where phenomenon is filtered to make sure it conforms to their belief system’s worldview.  They defend their interpretations of “spiritual” experience against all critics, especially those who would say that they are experiencing nothing at all.

And they are right to do so.  Up to a point.  For they are not experiencing “nothing”.  We all share a certain catalog of cognitive experiences, no matter what we believe or how we interpret the world.  But what I would say is that these things that we experience do not originate in the places we like to locate(or dis-locate) them, but are all a part of the brain’s internal work of assembling sensory input and making sense of the constant flow of data that our sensory organs take in.  In other words — the only intentional agents that exist in the world are those contained inside the skulls of living creatures.  There is no evidence of a spirit realm where intelligence and personality can exist outside of the consciousness of living biological organisms.

Of course — one must admit — there is no known way to disprove the existence of anything “spiritual”.  But then, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, there is also no way of disproving the notion that there is an invisible celestial teapot orbiting the sun (or that we were created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster).  But the retreat to that line of defense is a desperate one, and not, I think, very fruitful.  For the most basic reason that there is so damn much evidence for the handful of ways that we create this sense of external spiritual experience through our own powers of perception.  There are so many ways that our eyes and ears and brains can be fooled that it is foolishness itself to rely on our subjective personal experience alone as solid evidence for god(s), fairies or aliens.

So that when we feel the spirit of a loved one pass through us upon their death, for example, isn’t it more likely that the part of our awareness that we long ago dedicated to that person is relocating itself within the very consciousness that dislocated it in the first place, rather than that the actual “spirit” of another human being has coalesced into a softball-sized sphere of energy that took a short detour from the body of the deceased through our chest on its way to heaven?

Note what I’m saying here:  I am NOT saying that the “spiritual” experience did not (or does not) happen.  But I think the explanation of it is much more simple and direct than we tend to think.

And so it is with nature.  We are confused by the variety and sheer scope of life on earth and therefore cannot bring ourselves to see that — despite the amazing range of the shapes that life assumes — life itself is all of the same basic stuff.  We share eighty percent of our DNA with mice, forty percent with a head of lettuce.  Half of our cellular weight is bacteria.  Most of our own DNA can’t be called completely “human” at all.  And we have ample evidence that we humans are all too willing to trust our mammalian brains even when they make verifiable mistakes in interpreting our experience of living.

Once the first life got started, and found in the recombination of traits (through DNA) a way of reproducing itself, the astoundingly varied living world we see around us today was inevitable.  Not you or me (or dinosaurs or pine cones) necessarily, but something like them.  In a similar way, once brains as big as ours evolved, the idea of the spiritual — the dislocation of parts of our own consciousness — was just as inevitable.  One more example of the multitude of possible outcomes when evolution has time to work on living things.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Right to Life” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The rising visibility of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum — as well as President Obama’s recent executive order (that triggered such a backlash from the evangelical community) — has made the cultural tug-of-war over the unborn a front-and-center topic once more.

Back in my Christian days, I was basically told that “pro life” was the only Godly view, so I stood uncomfortably on the steps of the Colorado capitol building one January day in 1979 to protest the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Christian no longer, I am now “uncomfortably” pro-choice.  Not because I have doubts about a woman’s right to exercise control over her own body, but because I don’t think that the volitional deletion of a potential fellow human is ever going to be a simple thing for anyone to deal with.  But this is not — as I think about it — a notion that flows from any sense of morality (at least any Divine morality), but more from a deep awareness of the apparent fact that we only get this “one life” to lead, and as such, it is a fairly precious thing and not to be taken (or taken away) lightly.

But I think another part of my feeling on the issue comes from the sheer driving force of the life impulse.  I think this “drive” is a most basic expression of any living cell, and that this mindless impulse is so much a part of our makeup that it naturally finds a sort of expression in our consciousness (which is, after all, a product of the living tissue that supports it).

Having said that, I think that many who are so fervently pro-life carry their beliefs in a kind of fact-free vacuum, lacking in much of any perspective about the biological reality of life as it actually exists.  The very natural tendency of us humans to see “the world” in the smallest possible units of our immediate environment, friends and family mitigates against seeing the world, life and ourselves as we really are.  In short, it’s hard for us to move from a personal/local view to a world/global one.

What does this mean?  It means that we think of life in mystical, almost fairy-tale like ways.  We talk about the “miracle of life” like it is a baby-factory of immaculate perfection that certain evil-humans are attempting to subvert with abortion and birth control.  What we ignore (and probably with good cognitive reason) is just how messy life really is.

The fact is that right now every living thing that exists on the planet is maintaining it’s existence by feeding off of something else.  In the case of animals and insects (and humans), that means actively killing another living creature in order to convert it’s energy stores into our own (and plants count on that score).  We don’t like to confront this.  So we have cartoon tuna or funny Holstein cows selling us our fish or chicken sandwiches.

But what about the actual miraculous baby factories that human women possess (and that the religiously-conservative seem to want dominion over)?  Up to half of all fertilized eggs die before the women know they are pregnant.  Known miscarriages occur about 15-20% of the time.  Still births occur approximately 1 in every 115 births (in the U.S. alone, that’s about one every twenty minutes).  The March of Dimes estimates that 3-5% of United States babies are born with birth defects.

I’m not good at math, but it seems to me that “nature” is killing roughly 70% of us humans before we even get out of the gate!

These are sobering numbers.  But when you understand that biology is a natural process (and have some familiarity the fact that genes mutate with regularity) these are not surprising statistics.  If, on the other hand, you think that God has made all things wisely and wonderfully, well, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, Lucy.

Things are not as the religious believer thinks they are.  But they have reason to continue to see things in simpler terms.  Irrational belief is irrational because it must exist in spite of countering facts and information.

The larger issue I see is that the overly-religious hold desperately to a set of “facts” (really just mythical notions) in order to preserve what they see as the “dignity” of life, even if in order to preserve that sense of dignity, thousands of living women and children must suffer for it.  What is gained is, to my view, so little for such a high human cost.  Whereas if the hyper-religious could be willing to accept the grim realities of biological life on this spinning planet of rare beauty they might come to a truer appreciation of the actual value and preciousness of life.

In this as in so many other areas, religious “truth” that is ballyhooed as having the power to “set one free” does nothing of the kind.  By fearing a reality that threatens their world view, believers live in a world even darker than the one they imagine awaits to consume them (should they ever let down their guard).

Proverbs 22:13 says: “The slothful man says, There is a lion outside, I shall be slain in the streets”.  This, I think, perfectly sums up the fundamentalist mindset.  In order to forestall an imagined future evil that is not real, many smaller genuine evils are visited upon the innocent women who are faced with difficult life decisions in the here and now.

There may be good and solid reasons to think twice about abortion, but irrational religious belief is not one of them.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Naked Christmas” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Whenever I write a sermon like I did last week, I have second thoughts.

There is something about attacking belief that feels, in the end, unkind.  As if it’s something I don’t really have a right to do.  After all, the majority of my friends participate actively in belief systems (though most of them would qualify as moderate believers, not fanatics or fundamentalist).  Still, I recognize that I am among a minority that take that extra step from skepticism to a proclamation of non-belief.

So what is the source of my regret?  Is it a sense that I’ve over-stated my case?  No, not really.  When I think about the arguments I’ve made, they continue to make sense to me (or, more to the point, the counter-arguments continue to make less and less sense).  And having been a believer for so many years, I feel that I know of that which I speak.

Then what’s the problem?  Is it that I am a social animal among other social animals whose views might make the other animals uncomfortable which, in turn, could lead to me being shut out of the herd?

This brings up the apparent choice of being true to my own conscious or soft-peddling my ideas to stay within the circle of community.  This seems an obvious case of integrity over submission.  But this is what animals do all the time.  We are constantly weighing whether we are in situations that allow us free reign, or whether we have to moderate — or modulate — our behavior for the maximum success in reaching our ultimate goals (which may or may not be expressed openly).

There is a part of my mental process dedicated to weighing the benefits and risks of honest expression.  I recognize that, in some circles, such expression is honored even when (or precisely because) one is expressing an unpopular opinion.  On the other hand, one can risk actual physical harm by blurting out an impulsive comment to the wrong person or group.

As among our primate cousins (and numerous other animals, for that matter) power or status are highly desirable for us in no small part because they offer autonomy and ever higher degrees of freedom of expression.  But there is always a larger fish in the pond.

"Oh Santa!" Arranged kitsch. Photo by Bob Diven.

Once I followed belief to its logical end, there was nothing further to explore.  I had seen the face of God, and He was me (or, more precisely, a part of my own functioning consciousness).  So there was nothing to be done but turn around, come back, and get on with living.  After all, we are not configured to continue wasting energy on empty pursuits.  (That’s why it’s so hard to learn a second language, for example, when it’s one we aren’t called upon to actually use in our day-to-day life, or why we no longer grow tails).

I’ve said before that the most remarkable thing about the loss of belief (not just in God, but the deconstruction of irrational belief in total) is that nothing really changes.  Life goes on.  We still make moral choices pretty much the way we always have, we just recognize the real reasons we make those choices: not for God, but because our decisions affect our relationships with the humans we have to live with.  And this is what unbelief has really changed in my life: it has laid bare just how profoundly social an animal I am.  Suddenly I can see that our entire lives are built around our relationships with those around us.  There is nothing else but the architecture of human connection.  Projections of power onto outside gods and spirits are just a diversion from the unsettling awareness of just how vulnerable we are to the opinions and actions of other actual living, breathing humans.

In this Christmas season, it’s not difficult to take a step back into a wider perspective and wonder why I am being so sensitive about questioning beliefs that so many others don’t think twice about foisting on the rest of us.  Christmas, in fact, seems to serve as a sort of open season for the most religious to wrap up nationalism, fundamentalism and their seeming strength of numbers with the bow of state recognition into a sort of tinselly cudgel to beat non-believers back into the outer darkness (where they must surely belong).

Two things stand out to me in this: one, the insecurity that infuses the bullying nature of religious evangelism, and two; the delightful resilience of pagan symbolism that is embedded within even the most “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” event.  The religious cry “foul” whenever anyone actually expends any effort to push back against their aggression, but they are seemingly unable to see themselves as aggressors with candy canes.

But then, those last two paragraphs above are a perfect example of the personal dilemma:  I clearly don’t mind attacking belief in general, but no matter how strongly I feel about my argument, it is always followed by a tinge of regret.  Why?  Because though I want to throw my wooden shoe into the machinery of oppressive religion, I don’t want to hurt my relationships with believing friends or associates.  Like many things in life, there just may not be a perfect solution to my not-uncommon dilemma.

By criticizing belief, I feel like I pee in a pool that a lot of my friends swim in.  That, it turns out, is the actual issue.  On the one hand I feel free to undermine “belief” in a broader sense (as my “unbelief” is clearly fair game for others to attack), but like all things human, things are different on a personal level.

For most of us Christmas is a rich blend of traditions, old and new, that reflect the deepest social traits of us humans: a recognition of our vulnerability to the ravages of Winter, a thankfulness for plenty in the darkest months, a delight in our innate sense of magic and wonder, and a certain extravagance in finding and creating beauty in the things of nature that carry their living greenness into December.  There is so much that is so achingly and beautifully human about the celebrations of the season that the fundamentalist cries of “put Christ back into Christmas” can feel like a crass, reductionist affront to the celebration, like the gangs of zealots throughout our history that continue to find any frivolity an abomination in the eyes of their pissed-off god.

I see Christmas for what it is, and enjoy it all the more for its glorious mix of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the pagan.  Heaven and earth, if you will.  It is probably one of the best windows into the human mind and heart.  I don’t believe we ever will (or can) take “Christ” out of Christmas, and I’m not certain we need to.  He is, after all, a part of the history of the holiday.  I just like to recognize that he was a later arrival to a party that we’d been throwing for a long time.  And, after all, we humans like a good party, and no-one likes a party-pooper.

So Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy Winter Fest.  May this holiday be a joy to you in the ways that mean the most…to you.

t.n.s.r. bob