Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

SERMON: “Why I Preach!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Why I preach.

If I criticize religious belief as irrational (which I clearly do), it is for two reasons.  For one, I see little good that can come from believing things that are not true (especially when there is so much that is verifiably true to ponder with awe).  For another, I think that there is a genuine benefit to us both as individuals and as a society in seeing ourselves for the rather surprising (and challenged) evolved animals that we now know ourselves (through science) to be.  One of those benefits includes releasing ourselves from unreasonable expectations that can flow from the notion that we are striving for a God-created “perfection” (which also releases us from the false burden of “Eden’s” legacy of irreparable damage: that we were “perfect” before we screwed things up).  Though it can be a frightening and difficult transition to move from belief to such an “acceptance”, I would not propose such if I had not done it myself, having found, on the other side, a whole new world that is rich, satisfying and, well, real.

But here I have to be honest about that “other world”.  Because it is “real” it can leave one feeling a bit, well, exposed.  To borrow one popular metaphor, it leaves one without a familiar “backstop”.  (Well, at least the sort of “backstop” most of us have been used to).  But in the larger scheme of things what we are talking about is the loss of something that never was in the first place (so we lose, in fact, nothing).  We only thought it was there: a god in the sky — in some form or other — watching over us.  What we hoped for in moments of desperation was that there was someone with more strength and power out there who would nevertheless look kindly upon us and lend us a hand once in a while.  (What can be most unsettling is the realization of just how dependent we social primates are upon each other, and the sense of vulnerability that comes with such a realization.  This was the most unexpected surprise in my journey of discoveries).

I should also make clear the distinction that when I use the term “irrational” I don’t mean that it is crazy or idiotic to believe (or want to believe) in such things.  By irrational I mean any belief that is unsupported by (or denies strong contradictory) evidence.  Personally, I understand the urge to believe.  I think it’s almost impossible to be a conscious human being and not understand this.  When I heard the bone in my foot break last December, I felt an instant and instinctual urge to ask any thing that might be listening to turn back time just a couple of minutes (really, now, is that so much to ask?).  But even in that moment, I recognized that such a plea arose from deep in my animal psyche (that part of my consciousness that recognized that I was suddenly a deeply injured animal that could not run from danger if he had to).  But that deep animal part of our brains speaks in wordless bursts that are thrust up through the cognitive strata of our middle and higher brain that must then turn animal terror into actual thoughts, words and concepts.

It is this ancient animal mind that is, I think, is the deeper wellspring of our religious beliefs.

You and I are no longer the “lizards” for whom we name this deep, survival part of our brain.  But it is good that we have such concepts in our “modern” world to remind us that though we have left our lizard (or fish, or shrew or monkey) lives far in our past, we yet carry a deep and present legacy of the brains we began with.  In a very real (anatomical and cognitive) way, we are fish riding bicycles, lizards driving cars and monkeys at typewriters clacking out Hemingway novels.

So where (and why, and how) did “religion” enter the picture?  Like so many things in our prehistoric past, we can never know when a particular cultural moment occurred.  We can only guess when the first human had the first spiritual thought.  And by spiritual, I mean the first moment that we had an experience of something like ourselves existing, invisibly, outside of our physical selves.  (The “like ourselves” part is a crucial clue to the source of our divine beings, by the way).  But knowing what I do about how our brains work (and having the sense I now have of the continuum of biological life) it is not difficult at all to imagine a moment when our first ancestors began to use their first words to describe their world.  No, this is not where religion began, for an animal does not need to have verbal language to act as if there are mysterious forces at work around them (again, I return to Hannah Holmes’ example dog barking at the vacuum cleaner as an example of an animal version of believing in “god”).  We humans are different only in that we have an added layer of processing brain that has filtered these animal “beliefs” into coherent concepts that can be shared between ourselves.

And that is the key to belief: a story must be made of an experience, as a sort of “vehicle” for the transmission (and maintenance) of any belief.  This is perhaps why Richard Dawkins refers to such universally-transmittable ideas as “memes” that can move through us (and evolve and adapt) in a manner that is very similar to that of a virus.  And as far as that goes, it matters surprisingly little whether the story is true (just as it matters naught if a virus is “good” for us), it only matters that enough of us agree on the plausibility of the story to keep it in circulation.

It is, in fact, this form of human agreement that is the glue that holds us social animals together: we tend to clump together with those who have chosen to believe the same stories we do.  I think this even goes down to the level of couples who create a story of their own relationship.  At this level, who can say what is “true” or not — what matters most is the agreement.  When our stories diverge, so can our connections to others around us.  (Look what happens when an evangelical preacher starts to declare that there is no hell, or a politician stands up for an opponent who is being unfairly accused — suddenly they are ostracized as outsiders by those who only a moment before would have defended them to extreme ends).

All this to say that belief is something that has been with us for a long, long time.  And not just as humans, but even before.  So there is no reason to think that it will go away soon, or ever.  For the biology that created belief is our own biology, and from that we cannot escape.  However — and this is perhaps the most remarkable (and, I might argue, the most interesting) thing — it seems that we can use these brains of ours to escape irrational belief!  It’s worth a try, at least.  For though religion permeates the minds of humans all over the globe, there are entire worlds awaiting discovery that religion has never — and can never — know.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Real Story of Creation” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

There is one, huge, honking reason why we humans have trouble with the idea of evolution, and it is a reason that I think we give scant attention to: it is the fact that we exist.  Because we exist and — more importantly — are conscious of our existence, we can’t help but examine ourselves, find ourselves wonderful, and think that somehow our wonderful existence must — on some level at least — have been the point of everything that has come before us.  We are the reason for, well, life.  “Clearly” we think, “the universe had us in mind from the very start?”

"Why" the reverend asks, "should it make us feel less 'special' to have evolved from earlier life forms?"

This sounds silly and overblown, but is it really?  Don’t we start any consideration of our origins with the premise that we must find a system of “creation” that would clearly lead up to us?  In other words, the process of evolution must be as complicated as we see ourselves to be, which, under the influence of our natural solipsism, means there has to be an intelligence behind it all that is at least as clever as we are (but only more so).  And suddenly, we have replaced the idea of “life” having had us in mind from the start with the idea of The God of the Universe (who, apparently, had nothing better to do with 13.75 billions years of his eternal existence, and decided to run a grand chemical experiment to see if he could turn mass and energy into living hominins who would, occasionally, tell him how great he was).

This is not, I’m afraid, an understatement of the self-centeredness of our species, nor of the absurdity of the proposition of our own divine creation.  The truth is that we can only hold such irrational ideas because we are a natural storytelling (and believing) bunch of hairless apes, and there remains much mutual support for such beliefs among us profoundly-social primates.

But the problem is this: we have built back from the end of the story, assuming that the story began as a tale with us as the ending.  Even more fundamentally, we assume there was a story in the first place.  There wasn’t.  There was (and is, if you want to be absolutely clear about it) only nature.

By nature I mean purely natural forces, and the biological, geologic and meteorological products of those forces.  For there wasn’t even “nature” (at least in the sense that we understand it today) 5 billion years ago.  Only the cosmic beginnings of what would coalesce into our planet.

Seriously.  We now know this.

Our planet formed from dust and debris and matter and gravity and atoms and elements born in other exploding stars (that “made” the stuff our planet is made from).  This is how all of the planets and stars were formed — each of them “local” events (when compared to the vastness of the expanding universe).  And, after untold millions of years of “forming”, the mix of solid crust, liquid water (and the chemical composition of that water), the fact that we had a solid core to produce a magnetic field to hold our atmosphere in place against the forces of solar winds, and time (lots and lots of time — about a billion years after the earth “formed”), something began to stir.  Or maybe not even stir.  In the beginning it was simple photosynthetic bacteria that began to occupy the earth.

And for the next 2 billion years that was it.  That was the only life on the planet.  For 2…billion…years.  What kind of creation story is that?  What kind of intelligence is behind that?  There is the popular (perhaps apocryphal) quote that says “If there is a God, he must be inordinately fond of beetles” (having created hundreds of thousands of species of them).  But perhaps we should change that to God being “Really, really fond of simple photosynthetic bacteria”.

Here’s the rundown of the history of the evolution of life on earth as laid out by Jerry A. Coyne in “Why Evolution is True”:

“If the entire course of evolution were compressed into a single year, the earliest bacteria would appear at the end of March, but we wouldn’t see the first human ancestors until 6 a.m. on December 31.  The golden age of Greece, about 500 BC, would occur just thirty seconds before midnight.”

Most creationists either do not know the evidence for all of this, or are actively resisting it.  I expect more of the latter than the former, for even the ignorance is fed, at some level, by an innate resistance to the notion that we aren’t special in the way we prefer to imagine.

But of course we are special, and by any measurement pretty damn amazing results of a non-random process of selecting random mutations in living, reproducing species.  But we have to be clear that this is what happened.  All it takes, it turns out, for evolution to occur is the presence of DNA that is exchanged and re-combined through (often sexual) reproduction.

Mutations in DNA happen all the time, all over the genome.  But no-one is deciding what mutations will occur.  This is truly a random process — there is no predicting when and where it will happen, nor what the result will be.  Mutations are often the result of biological “copying errors” (take that, perfection of design).  But whatever the cause, those mutations are then expressed in the developing individual, and, once expressed, have entered into the race for survival, living, reproducing, competing and dying on the stage of life where natural selection exerts its unforgiving force on every living thing.

Yet despite what every creationist seems to believe, natural selection is not an intelligence (though it creates an outcome that mimics an intelligence).  It is simply describes the process whereby the reality of climate, food supply, competition for resources, competition for mates, and an animal’s innate suitability for a specific niche in the world place that animal under selective pressure.  Those that are better at surviving tend to survive and pass on their particular set of mutations.  Those that aren’t, don’t.  But conditions are always changing, so today’s winner will not always be the winner.  Dinosaurs were winners for 160 million years, but then they lost.  Big time.  Right now, we’re the winners.  Right now.

Once you take the time to understand what evolution is, and what it is not, the arguments against it are shown to be what they actually are: nothing.  I mean it — there are no valid arguments against evolution.  There are only dodges based in fear, ignorance and credulity (because of the things we want to believe about ourselves).

The reality is that there was never any plan or system in place.  Everything that we see around us is the eventual balance of forces that tends to come about over time.  Earth settled into its shape because of the materials it is made of, which set the levels of gravity where they are.  The dominant cosmic lement of carbon became the building block of all biological life.  Our bodies took the shape they did because of the mix of air we evolved in, and the gravity that gives us weight.  Our eyes evolved to work well in the kind of light we experience, our guts to the kind of food we can eat.

We are constantly taking in nutrients, feeding the bacteria that still makes up half of our cellular weight.  We carry in our DNA huge collections of genes that have been switched-off by random mutations (left in the “off” position by the selective pressures of natural selection).  In many ways, our complex and inspiring bodies are nothing more than the result of a survival “arms race” (as Dawkins put it) that began with the first bacteria competing for a place in the sun.

And DNA, it turns out, builds up entire bodies by completely local actions.  There is no blueprint, but each gene and protein does it’s own little thing and, before long, voila, there is a new living being.

How can this be?  It can be because we evolved from the simplest of life forms that gradually grew more complex (even incorporating other organisms, and turning them to our own use).  Every step of our evolution was built upon the life form we were before every mutation.  Nothing about us ever simply came into being out of “nothing” (that is, ironically, the creationist view of what God is supposed to have done).  We did not go to sleep one night as a bacteria and awake the next morning a fish, or dream our fishy dreams to awake as a primitive ape.  Evolution posits no such thing.  However, the inescapable evidence of our DNA shows the “indelible stamp of our origin” (Darwin’s famous words) — it is a record of the many different animals we were.  There is no other plausible explanation for this than that which evolution supplies.

This drives creationists crazy: it simply cannot be — it sounds too improbable and impossible.  There has to be a plan.

Why?  Who says so?  Who can say to reality “You cannot be thus” or “You must be this”?  No one has that kind of power.  Not you, not me, not the scientist (for this is the implication — that scientists are simply making this stuff up to disprove the God they hate so much).  The scientist reports what is true, what is actual, what is declared by the evidence.  And the evidence tells us that we evolved from bacteria — every one of us representing that unbroken chain of life back to the very beginning.

As Jerry Coyne puts it in “Why Evolution is True” (reviewed this week): “The process is remarkably simple.  It requires only that individuals of a species vary genetically in their ability to survive and reproduce in their environment.  Given this, natural selection — and evolution — are inevitable.”

We humans are a rather, um, late arrival on the scene of life.

Inevitable, yes.  Designed?  No.

But how could an entire human body evolve from a single cell?  As has been pointed out by another: you did it yourself in nine months.

No wonder Darwin said “There is grandeur in this view of life”.  For there is.  But in order to find it, we have to first let go of the diminished, narrow, ignorant view of life as having been created by a divine intelligence.  Then, and only then, will we see, face to face, the true story of our creation.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins.

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Actually, I’ve already reviewed this book on this blog.  But I felt it was time to read it again, and I’m glad I did.  I noticed so many things I don’t remember noticing the first time.  Plus, it was a nice reminder of how much I enjoy good old Richard Dawkins.  He gets so much criticism for being imperious, snobby and vicious.  Of course, he’s none of those things.  He simply lacks an empathetic patience for anyone who obstinately ignores actual evidence.  I kind of like that about him.

Regardless, this is a fine book for laying out just why Darwin’s theory of evolution is not simply a competing idea on the level of intelligent design (or Biblical creationism).  Dawkins confronts those folks head-on, and the book is packed with useful and accessible metaphors and descriptions about just how the natural world works, and how we can know what we know.

So pick this one up (I bought the hardcover to have around for re-readings just such as this).  It’s an entertaining, informative and mind-blowing read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Easter Bunnies and the Plaster Jesus” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Easter Sunday is here.  The most “glorious” event in the Christian calendar.  (Believers say this, I think, to counter the persistent popularity of Christmas among the non-believers).

My teenage memories of Easter are less of glory and more of getting up before dawn to sing in a small choir (or play guitar) at a sunrise service and freezing my ass off.  (This at a time when I could say that I saw about three sunrises a year: Easter, one day during deer-hunting season, and a “floater”).

Easter is, of course, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Three days after his crucifixion and burial, he came back to life (albeit in a new, eternal form) and appeared to his disciples, thus confirming his claim to be the only son of God.

Or so the story goes.  Of course, as brilliant wags like Christopher Hitchens point out, even if we grant the resurrection event, it does not automatically prove any of the things Christians claim it proves (that Jesus was the son of God, that God is real, that Christianity is the one true religion, etc.).  The fact of a dead person coming back to life would definitely be an event and a phenomenon, but science would be still be left to determine what it actually “meant”.

The pagan and the sacred, side by side for Easter.

But Christians put a lot of stock in Easter.  It is trotted out as the single most vital piece of confirmatory evidence.  Without it — they will freely proclaim — Christianity would have no more moral claim on you and me than Amway.  But there’s the problem: religion doesn’t have a moral claim on any of us, no matter who may (or may not) have risen from the dead.

Before resorting to the obvious — that there is no evidence of any actual resurrection (of Jesus or anyone else) — let us step back from jumping the narrative gun and make sure that we don’t buy into the game as rigged by the religious.

The world of religious faith (and its “evidential” claims) is a human-created world in which the questions have been carefully shaped to fit the answers religion can provide.  That is how the validity of an entire belief system can be seen to actually hang on whether or not a single unusual event took place (in this case: Jesus rising from the dead).  And the resurrection is, of course, a question of faith.  And it is this faith test that is used to determine whether one is a Christian or not (according to accepted Christian teaching, only the devil will deny the risen Christ, and only a believer can affirm it).

Science (and more specifically evolution) on the other hand, does not have quite the same dramatic “do or die” belief structure.  Science does require that we accept certain things, such as a general trust that there is a reality to observe and that we do, in fact, have some ability to perceive that reality.  But beyond that it is all evidence, evidence, evidence.  Which means that “science” is not denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, it is just waiting for the evidence before coming to any conclusions.  Believers begin with the conclusions, and therefore have little to no tolerance for the endless follow-up questions that scientific rigor generates.

For though science would never claim that it is completely impossible for a dead human to live again (god knows many scientifically-minded people have tried to make that happen), we can’t help but be aware of the vast amounts of research and evidence that tells us why a dead body is, in fact, dead, or describes the rapidity with which a human brain, say, goes to crap once blood flow is stopped.

The believer might ask “What about our fellow humans who have had “near death” experiences?”  I think the answer is already there in the term “near death”.  They may have been near it, even very, very near it, but they weren’t there yet.  If they had been, they would have been, well, dead, and we’d hear nothing more about it.  (It’s like that old saw that we only hear from those whose prayers to be spared from death were answered — the others aren’t around to tell their stories).

What we clearly have here is individuals under physical stress (and perhaps actually near death) who have dramatic cognitive experiences that feel very real.  Well, of course they are real experiences.  Only a fool would deny that.  However, having said that, if nothing else something as common as our nightly dreams should tell us that our experience of reality is assembled inside our brains, so why shouldn’t a purely internal, mechanistic brain event have all the power of physical reality?

What am I saying here?  That these experiences never happened?  Of course not.  Of course they happened, but not generally in the way people think they happened (as in seeing an angel that was an actual, physical angel as opposed to the much more likely error of perception) and are, therefore, not genuine evidence of what the believers would want us to believe (just as Jesus rising from the dead — though a doubtful event — would not necessarily prove his religious claims).

Evolution, on the other hand, is an answer that has had to come from questions we didn’t even know to ask until we began to notice the evidence around us.  The theory of evolution is built completely on the study of reality, and once we had enough evidence to begin to form the theory, subsequent discoveries have only proved to confirm it.  Reality is like that: it does not require bending, shaping or shading to fit with itself (as religion does).  Science is the process of steadily stripping away any vestige of human perceptual error in order to ascertain as clearly as possible the nature of reality.  Religion is the encouragement of perceptual error in a directed way for a specified end.  (This is an example of what Michael Shermer calls “belief-dependent realism”).

In this sense science and religion could not be more different.  Religion conjures up imitations of evidence.  Why?  Because the actual evidence does not lead us to religion.

Maybe I’m just a sourpuss because I always had to work kind of hard to get into the wonder of Easter.  Though, to be honest, I think a lot of us who have tried to make religion work did (as many surely still do).  We all knew how we were supposed to feel (how could we not, we were clearly being told how magnificent the event was) but struggled to feel it ourselves.  But that is the consistent problem of religious belief: there are always a handful who appear to be able to make it work, while the rest of us put on the game face and try to apprehend the wonder that continues to elude us most of the time.

I probably hit these subjects too hard.  After all, most of my friends are gentle believers who don’t take themselves too seriously.  And things such as today’s sight of pagan Easter decorations of chicks and bunnies on a house that had a four foot statue of Jesus on the porch serve to remind me that most of humanity is pretty omnivorous when it comes to belief (much to the consternation of the fundamentalist minorities).

Maybe I’m kind of that wheedling preacher when it comes to evolution — a bit too much like those I criticize.  Except that I don’t expect others to find it all as interesting and comforting as I do.  And I certainly don’t expect them to meet me before sunrise on a frigid April morning to sing songs and hear a sermon when all any of us really want to do is get to the hot chocolate and find a warm place to sit.

At its heart, perhaps Easter is a sort of calcified human wish for magic and wonder and hope.  Maybe that is what all organized religion is: a too closely-managed, top-heavy edifice built upon innate human impulses toward mystical belief.  As the pagan Easter Bunny sharing the yard with a plaster Jesus attest, that impulse toward belief will always be a part of us.  But as the bunny and the Jesus also attest, those same impulse will never be completely domesticated by any church or temple.  Like the blades of grass that sprout up through pavement and concrete, they will rise again and again and again.

Happy Easter!

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet” by Tim Flannery.

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Despite the reputation that scientists have for being materialistic, atheistic drudges, I find a handful of them showing a strong propensity for reserving for themselves a bit of the spell of belief.  Sam Harris — famous for attacking the dangers of irrational religious belief — waxes metaphysical way about the wonders of Transcendental Meditation.  And now Tim Flannery spends most of Here on Earth (which is subtitled “A Natural History of the Planet”) referring to the collective organism that is life by the name of Gaia — the ancient Greek “mother of all life” — in ways that stray a bit far afield from the scientific.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as bothered by this if the author of “Here on Earth” didn’t spent a good deal of his first chapter upbraiding Richard Dawkins for his rationalist sins (apparently because Dawkin’s views don’t leave enough room for mythologizing or personifying the planet).  Flannery also takes the view that Darwin erred on the non-belief side, and that his co-credited researcher Alfred Russell Wallace was nearer the mark when it came to allowing room for our natural predilection towards belief to have it’s say in the theory of evolution.  (Wallace famously later became a believer in Spiritualism).

But then the book turns out not to be a natural history of the earth at all (save for a few remarkable chapters), but a mishmash of science, natural studies, dire warning and polemic for some scientifically-informed semi-mystical view of earth, life, and our somehow historically ordained role in healing the very ecosystem that we have fouled nearly beyond repair.

But enough about that.  There are at least two chapters in this book that gave me new information, and are worthy of a read (were more of the book like these chapters, I would be dancing in the streets).  One discusses the role that life itself has had in creating landscape (I didn’t know that this was a potentially greater force than natural erosion as it carries chemicals into the earth via plant roots that help dissolve rock and create soils).  Another plus is the cogent description of just how it was possible for us to bring about the climate crisis already overtaking us.  But beyond these, though, the book is a jumble.

If you want a really (REALLY) good book on a natural history of everything, get Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (reviewed this blog) and skip this book.  If you’re of a more “casserole” type of temperament,  you may enjoy this blend of human-centric, new-agey views and hard science.  But even for that, I suspect there are more coherent books available.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

SERMON: “The God Next Thor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

I think that most people who don’t believe in God self-identify as agnostic (or non-believer), even though they may well be “practical” atheists.  (By “practical atheist” I mean one who negotiates his or her life as if there is no God).

I suspect that there are also a number who self-identify as Christian who could be counted as practical atheists.  Otherwise, the preacher and evangelist would not be so troubled by the many church members who seem to be more “social” than true “believing” Christians.

(Consider this recent article in Der Spiegel about the growing number of Americans that self-identify as “non-religious”, even as our politics seem to be rushing in the opposite direction).

Of course agnosticism is the only scientifically defensible stance in the face of the evidence we have.   Scientific in the sense that since the existence of God is a theory that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, it cannot, therefore, be considered a valid scientific theory at all.  By this standard, then, true atheism remains an untenable factual stance.

But let me ask: do you think that there is any chance at all that the Norse god Thor could turn out to actually exist?

Most people would laugh at the question.  But they would not, then, label themselves “Thor-less atheists”.  Nor would they call themselves “Thorian agnostics”.  Why?  Because the terms atheism and agnosticism are reserved (in everyday use) to the question of the existence of the “one true God”.  In our everyday life, then, it seems that we don’t think it worthy to waste the terms on the thousands of extinct god ideas that have existed (and continue to exist) in our myriad human cultures and times.

And yet the vast majority of humans don’t have to think twice when asked if they believe in God.  They will answer with an emphatic “yes”.

But based on the evidence of the sheer size and age of our universe — and our incomprehensibly tiny role in that universe — isn’t the notion of a local, modestly-endowed god much more likely to be a reasonable conclusion for a human believer to adopt?  Isn’t the existence of an earth-based spirit or a demon more likely than an omnipotent God who orchestrated the birth of an entire universe 13.5 billion years ago just so that a recently evolved hominid holy man could reveal God’s plan to his fellow hairless primates two thousand years ago?

But of course these are not the actual terms under which we humans contemplate an eternal maker.  We don’t really think in terms of distances between galaxies, or billions (or even millions) of years.  In our everyday reality, the world we carry with us is almost entirely local.

That’s why I think that the only reason we can actually seriously entertain the notion of an infinite, eternal, omnipotent God is because of the fact that everything about our evolved brain and the reality of our everyday life continues to tell us that we are actually a very large presence in a fairly small world.

It is only with great effort (and pain-inducing difficulty) that we will our brains to open up to the vastness of geologic time, or the true distances between earth and the edge of our still-expanding universe, or the intricacies of our Rosetta Stone of DNA.  And even after we stretch our synapses to the breaking point, they inevitably snap back to the local, immediate level of awareness that we actually need to navigate our complex tribal lives.

This means that the God that we actually believe in, in reality, only has to be able to fill our idea of heaven with his grandeur.  We do not picture the size of the space he should actually fill (which, practically speaking, is pretty much an incomprehensibly vast reach of empty, cold, dead space).  By comparison, we live on a fly speck of a fly speck of geology spinning in a sea of flyspecks so distant from each other as to be like particles of dust in a sandstorm across and endless desert.

If we actually held a true idea of the size of space (and our size in comparison) we would A) never conceive of a God so large, or B) imagine him having the slightest interest in conducting an experiment in soulful life on our speck of a planet.

Have you blessed Thor today?

But then, our idea of God did not develop in such a mental landscape.  God evolved with us when we were even more tribal and local than we are today.  We grew up together: us and our imaginary friends, so familiar to us that even now some scientists do the mental gymnastics to stretch their idea of God to fit the reality of our existence that science (not religion) continues to reveal to us.

And that is the other rub:  Which predictions, what descriptions of life, or of the universe, or of the earth, contained in ancient religious works have proven to be true in anything other than the most poetic sense?

The reality is that religion resists the enlightening probing of science until it can resist no longer, at which point religion does its best to adapt.  On the grounds of this behavior alone, religion is suspect as a source of any testable truth.  Religion may have something to teach us about our own natures, to be sure, but only in the same as any work of literature or art (for it is closely related to those human endeavors).

For these reasons, I see no reason not to take that extra small step and call myself an atheist.  It seems no different than declaring gravity a reality (even though that, also, is still a “theory”).  In reality, the only reason I can see not to embrace the moniker of “atheist” is the discomfort it causes other human beings (for a good overview of the level of mistrust most Americans feel toward Atheists, check out the surveys cited in this article).  And I am, after all, a social animal, which means the embracing of any minority view carries with it a certain social risk.   I don’t want people I am talking with to feel uncomfortable or challenged (at least not unnecessarily).  And, as I’ve said before, there is no real cosmic harm to believing in something that isn’t true.  Sure, it may hasten the decline of our species by keeping us from confronting approaching climate-based dangers, but that’s a problem for us, not the universe.

But be that as it may, declaring oneself an atheist is not worthy of the gasps that it can generate.  It is to me a small step to take once the idea of belief itself has become (rightfully) suspect.

In emotional terms, however, the final (and most difficult) barrier to unbelief is the catch in the throat that comes when we ask ourselves “But what if God exists?”  I can tell you from experience that this is a tenacious reaction which, to me, speaks of both the long history of belief and our natural inclination toward it.  What it does not speak of, however, is the existence of God (no matter what the clever preacher may make of such a natural human anxiety).  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this question: “But what if Thor actually exists?”  Or “What if Athena is real?”.  You will likely not have anywhere near the same catch in the throat when Thor or Athena are involved.  Why is that?  We don’t take them seriously as contenders for actual divinity.  Why not?  Because we weren’t born in the times or cultures in which such beliefs would have been as much our birthright as monotheism is today.  That should tell us something about belief in God.

The rest of belief is made up of little more than confirmation bias and belief-dependent realism.  I’d bet you a nickel that if you started praying “in faith” today to any of the extinct gods, your reality would soon confirm their existence as it sought out the evidence of answered prayer in the hundreds of random events that fill your days, with your confirmation bias working just as well as it does for all believers, be they Christian, New Age or pagan.

As Richard Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheists.  It’s just that some of us make an exception for the god of our choice — the God of whom we demand so little proof and so little power that it’s actually quite a wonder we need to imagine him as big as he is when a local god serve us just as well.  But that need to be the center of an infinite God’s attention is — as they say — a subject for another sermon.

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: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part Two” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PART 2.  “Enough about us…what about me?”

In last week’s PART 1 I concluded with this: “If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.”

I have found in this view some new understandings of my own person.  I think about my journeys through therapy, religion, psychic advisers and all the rest to achieve some sense of stability in my emotions and thoughts, driven toward a goal that we all believe can be achieved: normalcy.  But when it comes to humans, as in nature, normal is at best a mathematical approximation of the midpoint between two extremes (either of which, since they exist, could claim at least to be perfectly natural if not normal).

Often, however, we strive toward a goal based more on a notion of Platonic essentialism than reality (essentialism suggesting that there is a past or future ideal against which we can practically compare ourselves or strive towards (or, in the case of Christians, the sinless human we were created to be).  But, as Dawkins put it, using a bunny as an example: “There is no essential rabitt-ness!”, meaning that there is no perfect example of any species (and certainly no human) that we can compare ourselves to as an absolute standard.  There is only, well, us as we are right now.

You and I share pretty much all of the same DNA.  Yet you and I will have just a few letters in different places in our lines and lines of code which makes us just that tiny bit genetically different from each other.  But then so does everyone else, and not in the same places, so to quote Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “We are all 99.9 percent the same, but equally, in the words of biochemist David Cox, “you could say all humans share nothing, and that would be correct, too.””

Despite my best efforts at self-knowledge, who knows what is really affecting my mood today.  I could be responding to a change in air pressure, a chemical shift…etc.,..etc.  My body turns itself over every day, so that on a cellular level I am completely renewed every so many years.  I am not the man I once was, and certainly not the boy I started out as.  And on a morphological level — were my fossils to be found some million years hence — the man I am today could very truly be called transitional between those animals we once were and those we will eventually become (assuming we survive extinction for that long).

In my personality I confront the tension and occasional frustration of trying to maintain both my idea of “who” I am, and the physical “I am” wherein that idea exists.  But from where do I get the idea that the consciousness I carry should be any more stable or “essential” than the body of processes that support it?  Instead of constant complaining about the greased pig of self identity, maybe I should be amazed that I am as constant as I am.  But then, couldn’t the same case be made regarding teeming life in general — or the rumbling earth we stand on, spinning through a vast universe?

And yet, for all this tectonic movement and biological activity, life feels remarkably calm (no matter how unreal that feeling might seem compared to the actual science of both the planet I live on and the body in which I live).  The fact that such knowledge as I am discussing does not make my head literally explode is due, probably, in no small part to the necessity of maintaining a certain coherence of mind in order to assure the survival of the constellation of organisms that I represent.  In short — and in a quite literal way — my DNA won’t let me go there!

One could argue that our individual experience of living — pleasure, the satisfactions of learning, the euphoria of love, the heart-breaking response to beauty, the intoxication of sex — are the wages we are paid so that we will find living more to our liking than oblivion, and thereby allow our DNA to continue its single-minded drive toward replication.  On a cellular level, we die a thousand deaths even while we’re living, and are constantly renewed, until the day that the organism is damaged beyond repair, at which time we are destined to be broken up into our constituent parts and recycled as we have been for billions of years.

What can be gained in raging against such a fate?  From who (or what) could we seek concessions?

It is so easy to look at a mouse or a fly and wonder “what’s the point of such a life, where all they do is eat, poop, reproduce and then die?”  What’s the point indeed.  If the experience of life were universally miserable, none would participate.  Even our pleasures are by-products.  And so, of course, is meaning!

No matter what we do the chances are that all evidence of our time here will eventually be wiped from the face of the planet.  Ice sheets will return and retreat, and other animals will thrive, repeating the cycle until our sun finally explodes and our universe collapses once more upon itself.  The more one looks at it the more bleak it becomes.  But so what?  It is what it is, and no wish of ours will change it.

Our lives can seem predestined by the ubiquitous regularity of the cycle of life and death.  We feel certain that we are serving some power greater than ourselves which, it turns out, we are.  It just happens to be DNA, not God, and DNA’s irrepressible impulse toward replication that began billions of years ago.

We are teeming life become aware.  And yet it could be argued, I suppose, that we are no more capable of understanding our existence than any of the other animals that share our lives on this planet.  It is unquestionable, however, that we know a whole lot more about life and ourselves than anything else on Earth.

The challenge that remains unique to us humans, then, is how to live with that knowledge.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part One.” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

“One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept is that we are not the culmination of anything.  There is nothing inevitable about our being here.  It is part of our vanity as humans that we think of evolution as a process that, in effect, was programmed to produce us.”  Ian Tattersall (quoted in “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson — Previously reviewed on this blog)

I’m rapidly reaching the point where the more I read, the less I seem to know.  I’ve read something like 15 books (and who knows how many articles) since the first of the year, and what began as a quest to fill in gaps in my knowledge has seemed to multiply them.  For all that learning, I find that I’m not as smart as I once was.

The more I understand about what is actually going on in my body at the cellular and atomic level, the more bizarre my own experience of living in this body appears.  Of course if I could be physically aware of all the chemical, electrical and biological processes that make my life possible, I would be completely absorbed in the noise of it all.  The fact that I have a consciousness that achieves a level of serenity and ability to focus upon tasks (and enjoy long moments of contemplation) is a fact that appears anything but inevitable (or even possible, for that matter!).

The more I read from those that understand the teeming bacterial ecosystem that is the human body, the more I grasp that my consciousness (which represents my entire capacity for awareness of my experience of living) is merely a by-product of a myriad other processes that exist purely for the purposes of their own replication and continuation.  In short, I am alive only because I am made of DNA that is completely dedicated to its own continuation.  As Dawkins puts it in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (Previously reviewed on this blog):

“It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.  If a variant of DNA survives through an anaconda swallowing me whole, or a variant of RNA survives by making me sneeze, then that is all we need by way of explanation.  Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’  In the case of a cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly.  A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message.  That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts.  The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first’.  At the same time, antelope DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building an antelope first, complete with long legs and fast muscles, complete with timorous instincts and finely honed sense organs tuned to the danger from tigers.'”

Having been a Christian for many years (I am no longer), I often call upon my previous conceptions of the religious “meanings” of things to compare with newly achieved insights.  Today is no exception.  For the religious mind rebels against the apparent reductionism that an evolutionary understanding forces upon humanity: a perceived demotion from the divinely determined to the randomly animal.  The truth, however, is much more startling that even that.  As it turns out, you and I exist because of the excesses of an evolutionary arms race between bacteria, each competing army upping the ante with this mutation and that one, over billions of years until competing DNA are riding like tiny mindless insects guiding giant robots from little cellular command posts.  These DNA are responsible for building our bodies from a single cell to a large complex organism capable of life outside the womb, and yet they (our DNA) don’t know that we even exist in any way that would make sense to us.  On this level, the idea of a divine purpose for our lives is instantly embarrassed into oblivion.

It is only the bald fact of our existence that allows us the luxury of indulging in a sort of determinism that makes us really think that it was all meant to be — that we were meant to be (the screaming absurdity of which can only be hidden by the fact that the very idea is so completely wedded to our own self-centered biases.  It is only through science (and philosophy) that we humans engage in any useful mental “extra vehicular activity”, as it were).

So what about the world around and outside of us?

Well the earth, it turns out, has been in an historically unprecedented period of relative climatic stability for the last few thousands of years, and we’re not sure “why” (if “why” is even a question we can ask of such things).  All of human history, it appears, has occurred in windows of climatological and geological opportunity that have favored our success.  (As I wrote that last sentence I could feel the impulse to see those windows as having occurred for our benefit, but of course, that’s just silly.  But that is how we see the world: with us at the center of it.  Any moral or value judgements aside, it seems to be our very natural state, this “solipsism” that the writer Christopher Hitchens likes to constantly refer to: we can, in fact, see the world in no other way.  The fact that we have a natural tendency to be the center of our own universe in no way makes it true, but it is understandable).

When I try to wrap my brain around the size of the cosmos, or the billions of years the earth has been forming, or the fact that more than half of my body’s cellular weight is bacteria, I get a peculiar ache in my skull, as if a muscle is being stretched uncomfortably.  Well, that’s because my brain is being stretched to its limits which are — and have been for ages — necessarily self-focused (in terms of natural selection and evolution).  Were I to have a brain that could easily take in the vastness of space and the complexity of the atomic activity that animates my body, I would be instantly run over by a passing bus I hadn’t seen nor heard coming (the modern equivalent of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, I suppose).

So I live in a world of limited thought and awareness which I cannot escape.  I explore at the frontiers as much as I am able (sharing the experience with others of my species and the occasional dog or cat), but my ability is not unlimited.  For even our much-vaunted imagination is a tool of comparison completely limited to drawing up “new” scenarios cobbled together to predict future outcomes from its catalog of past experiences.

There is an enforced humility in all of this knowledge that lends no credit to the human that finds him or herself experiencing it.  I feel a sort of stunned silence as I consider it even now.  It is like standing before God.  In reality, it is God: the infinite, the eternal, the incomprehensible everything that does not need us, and compared to which we are small, weak and terrifyingly less than insignificant.  But this is a God upon whom we cannot project the petty quirks, tenderness and wrath of the Gods we are used to.  This is the altar upon which religion is burned away and revealed to be nothing more than what it has always been: an imagined comfort in the face of an incomprehensible and uncaring universe.

If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.

t.n.s.r. bob