Posts Tagged ‘sermon’

SERMON: “A Final Word” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
Where it all began.  The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009.

Where it all began. The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009.

Here’s what reality seems to be.

We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system.  All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth.  Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth.  Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.

Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature.  This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.

Humans are a product of this process.  We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet.  We are classified as mammals, and as primates.  Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).

We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world.  Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied.  We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.

A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in.  It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.

And yet humans also believe in the existence of God.  We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate.  Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature.  (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s).  It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery.  Yet religion and religious belief persists.

And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god.  And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.

But not all humans believe in God.

Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic.  Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”.  Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population.  This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance.  But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science.  Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”.  And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Why am I here?  And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects.  Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).

I am primarily an artist and performer.  I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science.  But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface).  And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine).  And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life.  And holding the view I do — that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting.  (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!

So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob.  I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one.  Yikes!).  And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed.  But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere.  I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.

I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers.  I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.

Bob Bless!

the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven

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

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Christmas Message” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Living in the Chihuahuan desert of the American Southwest (where the arrival of Winter is not always obvious) one must look for the local signs of the holiday season’s approach.  We do have some trees with actual leaves that transition into Fall colors as the weather gets colder (though this year we were still in the 70’s past Thanksgiving).  Sometimes we get a dash of snow or rain.  Sometimes.  Christmas lights go up, of course, along with a selection of nativity scenes in yards and windows.  Around here the most unique feature may be the modernized electric version of the traditional “luminarias” (or farolitos) that are strung across the rooftops of adobe houses and shopping centers (the more traditional and temporary — and therefore more “authentic” — squat paper bags of sand and a single votive candle are mostly reserved for Christmas Eve itself).  Folks might stock up on the fresh crop of locally-harvested pecans for their holiday baking, and perhaps choose to attend one of the seasonal vocal concerts or theatrical performances that pack the local performance spaces.

This year a buddy of mine worked with a downtown business group, the city, and our local electric utility, to string up lights along the three newly-rennovated blocks of downtown.  The lights are “choreographed” to music played on a special FM station set up by the utility.  So as you drive down Main Street, you can get the full effect of the show.  It’s actually rather charming.  I’ve driven this lighted route several times now.  It has brought me pleasure.  I’ve noticed that a couple of the songs in the (rather limited) rotation have a distinctly evangelical Christian message.  One song in particular — by what sounds like a Christian “boy band” — proclaims (in a rather chastising manner) that it’s not a “Holiday”, but a celebration about Jesus!.

As I’ve listened to the lyrics in a lot of the Christmas music (in concerts and on the radio) I have thought to myself: what a shame.  What a shame that all of this accumulated output of human creativity that marks the music, the theater, the decorations and the tone of this mid-winter holiday had to be built upon this one religious story of a desert-living couple and a miraculous baby in a holy land.

I’ve had thoughts similar to this before.  Once, after reading a good book about the history of Norse mythology (including its eventual replacement by Middle-Eastern monotheism), it occurred to me that the Norse gods were much more interesting (and relatable) personalities than the distant monotheistic Yahweh of the Bible.  But the fact is that our Christmas is Christian because of the vagaries of history.  For whatever reasons, the Bible story was the one that “stuck”, and then it stuck around long enough to become a cultural artifact around which human artistic production naturally attached itself, until we had the accretion that is our modern Christmas.

Of course, there are counter-celebrations: The Winter Solstice and Kwanza, for example (Hanukah I don’t think would qualify in this instance, for obvious reasons).  But that’s about it.  Unless you count the commercial and secular sects of “Christmasianity” (what I’m calling the entirety of this central cultural event).  These more secular facets always stir up a certain segment of Christianity that is annually miffed about these perceived free-riders on THEIR celebration of the God-made-man-in-a-manger celebration.  But, then, the pagans (the few, the hardy that remain) are miffed that THEIR mid-winter celebration was co-opted by the Roman church all those years ago!

A lobe-finned fish -- an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

A lobe-finned fish — an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

For years I have taken a certain piquant pleasure in the handful of surviving pre-Christian symbols that are embedded in the Jesus birthday party.  I find it a rather bracing testament to the persistence of our most basic human impulses toward celebration and community that even a religion as aggressive as monotheism has had to accommodate the practices of the pagan peoples it absorbed.  In this way, culture is like natural selection in that it (at least under ideal circumstances) retains the best products of evolution even as it continues to select new (and beneficial) innovations.

(I say “under ideal circumstances” because natural selection can only build upon what already exists, which in practical terms means that not all traits that are reserved are optimal.  In short, in evolution “good enough” is the functional equivalent of “perfect”.  And so we upright humans retain the marks of our bacterial past, or the body-plan that helped our ancient lobe-finned great-great-grandfishes locomote, or a hairy primate cling to her branch-y bed).

And so Christianity — having not so much displaced the earlier belief systems as subsumed them — becomes the newly grown tree around which the vines of art then grow.

This does not mean — by any stretch — that this one religion was the best possible one, or even the most inspiring, but by a certain point Christianity (and Islam, it’s paternal twin, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism) had become widespread enough to provide a common narrative vocabulary upon which artists could build.  In this way it’s not unlike the way in which Facebook has become the dominant social media platform.  This doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily — again — the best possible solution to this need for human sociability to find expression in a digital domain (it certainly has its dark and bothersome aspects), but it has become so dominant — in a field that requires dominance to exist — that Facebook has become THE platform around which we gather.  For now.

Art, being a form of communication, relies for its effectiveness on a shared set of reference points (to which the creative human can add novelty and surprise).  And so the familiar story of the baby Jesus is told and retold, abstracted, refracted, secularized, commercialized and even defiled, but the nativity narrative itself — through such use — becomes even more firmly entrenched in the culture.  It becomes “locked” in the same way that the first technological innovation to dominate becomes “locked”, and all subsequent developments must be built upon what came before, warts and all (technology, like nature, is constrained from spontaneously creating completely novel enterprises).  So when it comes to the many overtly religious threads that have been woven into our Christmas tapestry, one question becomes: how would we replace all of the songs and traditions with new (less religious) ones, without have to “un-weave the rug” as it were, and start from scratch?

And so the Christian part of Christmas is, for all practical purposes, a permanent fixture of my society.  But to be clear — this is not because it necessarily deserves to be so.  On that score, Christians could afford a touch of humility, and keep their complaints that “Jesus is the reason for the season” a bit more to themselves.  For what they fail to see is that even the Christian themes of Christmas are built upon earlier myths and celebrations so that we all are part owners of these celebrations in the deep, dark, mid-Winter, be we Pagan or Jew, Evangelical or Humanist.  And I, for one, think it is a good thing that Christmas (as we tend to celebrate it) has so many angles from which it can be viewed and enjoyed!

So there is actually no “missing” Christ to be “put back into Christmas” (he is there to stay).  The “battle for Christmas” is just a silly idea rooted in a hubristic ignorance of the realities of a history that moves on with what it’s got to work with (just like the path of evolution that re-worked the body plan of an ancient fish to give us these upright bodies that we can drape with ugly Christmas sweaters)!

I might just as well start a campaign to put the “Fisch” back in Fischmas.  Hey.  That’s not a bad idea!

One final thought: as I listened to a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the radio today, I realized that our faculties of inspiration seems to require a belief in something greater — much greater — than our “selves”.  We humans appear to need some things to be sacred, or magical, or hopeful, so much so that we are capable of leaving our old gods behind to embrace the newest ones (or ONE).  If we look at it that way, it turns out to be the gods that change, not the festivals.  So perhaps we can take comfort from the realization that though the sign (or symbol) over the door might change, the “human church” never will.

So I wish you a lovely Solstice. I hope you have wonderful memories of a warm Hanukah, or that you enjoyed a festive Kwanza.  And of course I wish you a Merry Christmas (whether you love the story of the baby Jesus or just enjoy all of the lights and the friends and the food).  This is a festival that belongs to all of us, because, well, evolution has made us all members of the church of the human being.  And whichever denomination of that church you happen to identify with, we are all still bound together in this  great adventure of existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Will The Earth Die Without Us?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

There are times when the obvious slaps you in the face, like that rake you forgot in the yard — concealed in the grass, tines pointed to the sky — that you’ve just rediscovered by stepping on it in that particular way that rather rapidly accelerates the wooden handle’s rise toward your nose.  “Thwack”.

What I’m thinking about today is the end of the world as we most often envision it.

In the Bible, once the human story (that God has created the earth to tell) ends, the earth ends as well, with the promise that God will make a new heaven and new earth, sort of a divine version of that song “If that Earth of mine don’t shine, I’ll burn it up and give you one that’s fine”.

And though coming from a radically different point on the ideological spectrum, the rallying cry of environmentalism has been a similarly dire one: we must change our ways in order to “save the planet!”

What these examples have in common is an underlying notion that our story as humans and that of the planet we live on are the same story.  Like a jilted lover, we seem to find it unbearable to contemplate that our planet might be willing and able to go on without us!

The religious scoff at environmentalists, certain that it is human pride alone that suggests we small creatures could ever harness the power to destroy a planet that God made.  But such a critique is rooted so completely in religious belief that it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific argument.  (Environmentalists, for their part, at least base their predictions regarding the fate of our species on actual science).

But they are both fighting over the hand of the same object of affection: the Earth.

Because our planet is essential to our own existence, we have, perhaps, a natural need to lay claim to its affections.  But the fact is that the Earth was here long before we came along, and it will be here long after we’re gone.  It was no more “attached” to the dinosaurs or the trilobites as it is to us.  If Earth were capable of caring about us at all, it would very likely see us as but one in a long string of short-term lovers.  Yes.  It turns out that Earth is a slut.

And yet our obsession is such that we can’t imagine the Earth continuing without us (at least not in any recognizable, desirable form).  The religious fantasize the earth throwing itself on our funeral pyre, so to speak, having no reason to go on, whereas the environmentalist might see Earth stumbling on as a chronically-toxic dump ruined by our industrial rapaciousness, a cautionary tale to any future suitor.  But to imagine Earth continuing on as a verdant, beautiful shimmering planet, spinning as ever through the cosmos?  It wouldn’t dare!

This is how self-centered we are.  This is how important we think we are to a vast, mindless universe.  On some level, it is almost impossible for us to really accept that humanity was not the (secret) goal of evolution all along, or that God made the Earth so he could delight in our company.  Either way it only stands to reason that when we come to our end so should the Earth!

But what is there in any observable reality that suggests this should be so?  Nothing.  We may want to believe that the universe cares about what we do, but so far all of the evidence strongly suggests that it doesn’t.

But we humans care about what we do (and how we do).  And that is the only point to environmentalism that is worth anything to our self-interest: preserving and prolonging the conditions that support our existence (which naturally extends to the myriad other life forms that are a part of that web of existence).  The religious are right about one thing, even if for the wrong reasons: we will never destroy Earth.  Not — as they believe — because God won’t allow it, but simply because we are not up to such a monumental task.  But they are wrong on the other, for altering the narrow zone of air, water and soil that support life is very much within our power, and we now appear to be well on our way to creating a set of conditions that will alter the earths’ climate in ways that will visit untold misery and destruction of millions of our fellow humans (and other life).

Discussions about the end of the world are lost in a fog of ideas and conceptions of that world.  We are clearly powerless to prevent a new age of volcanism, or the eventual fiery end of Earth as it is swallowed up our Sun.  Such things represent forces of a magnitude that would take no more notice of our presence than a steamroller would of a bacterium.  But it could be that we might be able to use our technology to stave off the next (seemingly inevitable) large asteroid impact, or that we may be able to keep at least one train from leaving the station: the current trend of global warming and sea level rise.

But the argument is further muddied by the unacknowledged self-centeredness of the human psyche, in our insistence that life revolves around us, even to the extent of thinking that an entire planet will just die if we leave it.  On some level this makes sense.  After all, we are the animals that bring meaning to biology.  Not by being the actual purpose of biology, but by dint of having evolved into conscience beings that are able to contemplate such things.  And since we are the only animals in the meaning game, it makes some sense that we would project our conclusions about significance on the blank screen of the meaningless universe.  But just because we can imagine our world in this way, does not make the world of our imagination real.

(I reviewed a book that was the notable exception to the idea of a shared fate between earth and humanity (“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman — reviewed this blog).  This book is one long science-based thought experiment in imagining the ways that the products of human activity will decay over time.  It is a rather unsentimental vision, and only for those who are ready to face the fact that earth may not shed a tear for us when we’re gone).

But by the same token, I don’t support the notion that we humans are a cancer on the planet.  This view, too, smacks of a moralistic self-loathing that is unsupported by reality.  We may be like locusts or any historic species whose population exploded at some time and who ate themselves out of existence.  These and many more species have come and gone and the Earth itself has been no worse for the wear.  The damage that we concern ourselves with has always been that which occurs in the thin veneer of biological life that coats the surface of this rocky planet.  The planet itself chugs along, re-melting and re-forming crust along deep cracks in the surface, minor ecological irritants on it’s surface having no impact on it’s molten metallic heart.

And yet, having said all of that, it remains a tragic and sad picture to imagine the Earth after we are gone.  Not because the Earth will miss us, but because we will no longer be here to enjoy our life upon it — because there may be no other animal evolved to a point to engage in the study a star, or experience a sunset as a beautiful thing.  But that is a grieving for our own eventual departure.  That is me as a social animal feeling the full brunt of being alone in a vast and mindless universe.  That is a reminder that whatever meaning we bring to existence will leave with us when we go.  Like a movie projected onto a blank screen, our impression on the Earth will last only as long as our movie runs.  The blank screen may seem to come to life for the lovely moments we watch the movie play, but it does not become the movie itself.

To be sure, everything that is in us will return to the earth and the water and the sky and carry on as long as matter exists.  But our constituent parts will never again reassemble and bring our eyes and ears and minds back to life.  In this is the recognition of the terrible sadness and excruciating beauty of existence.

Let us stop expecting earth to cast itself upon our funeral pyre out of grief.  Instead, let us cherish the life and love and meaning that are within our reach.  For, as Robert Hazen writes in “The Story of Earth” (reviewed here this week):

“If you seek meaning and purpose in the cosmos, you will not find it in any privileged moment or place tied to human existence.  The scales of space and time are too inconceivably large.  But a cosmos bound by natural laws that lead inevitably, inexorably to a universe that promises the possibility of knowing itself, as scientific study inherently suggests, is a cosmos that abounds with meaning.”

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Speaking in Tongues to Santa” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

I have a memory of the first letter I ever wrote to Santa Claus.  I was probably 5 years old, and had not started school.  I can’t remember all of the details, of course, but I think I asked my mother if I could write Santa, even though I hadn’t yet learned to write.  She assured me that I could, as Santa would understand what I was asking him.

So I put marker to paper, and scribbled lines across the page, filling it with my five-year-old’s in imitation of what writing looked like.

I must have given the note to my mother, as it turned up years later in her collection of things saved from our childhoods (at enough of a remove that I was not angry that she had interfered with the duties of the U.S. Postal Service).

I can’t tell you what I was “asking” for, nor what I actually got from Santa that Christmas.  What I’m remembering is that magical state of mind where I could believe that my secret intentions could be carried by a child’s remote approximation of written language to a special man who would somehow understand what no other could.

By now you may see where I’m going somewhere with this.

The well-known “bridge to life” illustration that sold me on Jesus at the age of thirteen.

When I was thirteen I prayed the prayer shown in the back of a religious “tract” (the well-known “Bridge to Life” tract from The Navigators) and became a Christian.  About a year later I found myself at a Charismatic home prayer meeting, kneeling on the floor, surrounded by fellow believers as I prayed to receive the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”.  (For those who don’t know, the “sure sign” of the “infilling” of the Holy Spirit is taken to be one’s new-found ability to “speak in tongues”.  This “new” language is believed to be a “secret” language with which the believer can speak his or her innermost needs and desires directly to the Holy Spirit, who is able to interpret them.)

I remember the feeling of that moment, and the burble of the unfamiliar sound of “speaking in tongues” falling on my ear as those who surrounded me prayed to the Holy Spirit on my behalf.  There was an intensity to the moment — a certain forcefulness to the voices so near my ears as they worked (I now understand) to will the Holy Spirit into me.  And soon I began to babble as well, tentatively at first, but then with more confidence as my first attempts were greeted with a swelling of the volume of those whose hands rested on my back, head and shoulders.  It all reached an electric crescendo as the act was completed — when my own “prayer language” came — and then quieted into whispered prayers and, finally, a sort of silent afterglow.

The other day — as I looked at some paintings on a coffee shop wall with a gallery director colleague– I mused on the idea that young artists can move through a phase where — lacking the maturity to make more confident marks — they may believe that any mark made on a canvas will somehow magically carry intention, even if the mark (or the collection of marks that make up the whole) lacks any accessible coherence.  As I considered this I remembered my letter to Santa and the acquisition of my prayer language, and these three moments allowed me to triangulate an idea.

In each of these three cases of magical thinking, there is a childlike thrill to uncoupling the critical mind from the seat of pure desire and then (to use the examples I’ve presented) freely splashing paint across a canvas or scribbling lines across a page or babbling nonsense syllables to an invisible spirit.  This is the joy and the appeal of magic — the kind of moments that make the skin tingle or give that widening in the base of the throat (which is where where I feel it) and offer, I think, a welcome departure from the watchful eye of our cool reason.

Little wonder, then, that they appeal to us so much as children and now — perhaps even more so for their rarity — as adults.

But a common thread to the experience of magic is this uncoupling of reason from desire — which is essentially the act of erecting a temporary barrier between two active levels of our consciousness.  What we do, in effect, is put a blindfold on our frontal lobes so that we won’t be embarrassed by whatever irrational thing we’re about to do (or, more precisely: shamed by our reason for doing it).

I think we all do (or have done) this.  And there is no shame in such pleasures (it’s why we love professional “magicians”, and a part of what we grieve for in the passing of childhood).  But the part of it that interests me today is the uncoupling aspect, and the belief-motivated actions that follow.  For when I wrote that letter to Santa (or when I first “prayed in tongues” to The Holy Spirit), I could not actually have told you what I was really asking for, because I had disengaged the part of my brain that can actually articulate anything I am thinking!

Now the teachers of these magical techniques would counter that this was exactly the point: to get my own “worldly” (read: critical, reasoning) mind out of the way and let spirit talk to spirit without interference.

The problem with that idea (and it’s a huge one) is that the “mind” and the “spirit” are not the separate entities we tend to conceptualize them as.  Well, at least no more separate than one part of our brain is from another.  The notion of a discrete trinity of mind/body/soul is a device to describe what are essentially different levels of the consciousness that are the product of the physical processes of our brain.  That we often then externalize these parts of ourselves, assigning them a sort of cosmic autonomy, is much more a testament to our propensity for magical thought than a reflection of any verifiable reality.

But oh, the magical appeal of this idea, despite the fact that there is nothing to back it up!  (Nothing, that is, except our seemingly inexhaustible craving for magic).  And to many (if we’re honest about this) the craving alone is considered sufficient “evidence” for the object we so crave.  Even the Bible offers our desire for God as proof of his existence.  But this is proof only of our desire, and the roots of our desire are not so difficult to discern.  To put it another way: would we think that a child’s belief in Santa Claus is evidence that Santa really exists and lives at the North Pole?  I think not.  And yet many adults use just this kind of “evidence” to support their belief in the divine.

Magic (and magical thinking) are curious and pleasing byproducts of this consciousness that we carry.  This is the only thing we can say with any confidence about magic.  This is the only notion of magic that reality offers us.

I realize that such a suggestion is nothing but a wet blanket to many, but I am not saying that our experience of magic is invalid.  How can any of our cognitive experiences be called “invalid”, at least in the sense of not existing or occurring?  Yet such experiences are always products of the way we perceive reality, and since we are clearly able to perceive things in ways that would never align with any physical reality (we can “see” things that are not there) such an experience alone is confirmatory evidence nothing other than the cognitive experience itself.  This is how I view everything spiritual: I believe in the experience, I differ only in the explanation.  So when someone tells me that God spoke to them, I do not for a second doubt their experience, I simply translate their God language into materialist terms:  I credit their story to its actual source (their own consciousness) and not the supposed source (God).

For I know all too well that we carry in our skulls a brain that runs several (or many) levels of consciousness at one time (though there seem to be primarily three major levels: conscious, unconscious and involuntary).  And I know from my own experience that the “voice” that we experience as god or spirit is an actual phenomenon of that level of our consciousness that talks back when we talk to it.  (In this sense, I would have to say that god does, indeed, exist, insofar as the thing we experience as god exists.  Where I would quibble is in the magical leap of making a natural cognitive event into evidence of an actual God in His Heaven).

I like coherence.  I like to make sense of as much as I can reasonably make sense of in the world.  Yet I expect I will always carry an ear for the siren song of magic as long as I live.  The difference between me and a believer is that I have come to understand that the source of the magical experience is resident inside of me, and through understanding that a large part of the allure of the magical impulse has been removed (namely that it can actually mean something or be predictive or life-changing in some dramatic way).

To give in to magic is to give in to the incoherence of a child’s scribbled letter to Santa, or a mumbled gibberish prayer that is going not to heaven, but right back to its source.  In each case we are playing with ourselves, really.  And though there’s nothing wrong with that, we don’t generally like to be seen doing it in public.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Denying Evolution” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

It seems that the number of people denying the reality of evolution is growing, and for a hundred reasons that may all be expression of the most basic one: we don’t want to be alone.

So I’ll trot out the evidence that is so obvious we can easily miss it: the particular breed of dog or cat you have in your house (or pet rat for that matter); the banana you had with your breakfast cereal; the wheat that was ground to make your cereal; the breeds of cows from which your hamburger came; the tomato slices on top of that burger; and the ear of corn you had on the side.

Every single one of these items are the products of selective breeding, which is the intelligently determined action of humans (and, as we now know, other animals as well) upon living things with the aim of producing a desired change in the inherited traits of those living things.  This is different from natural selection in that there is an actual person fiddling (either directly or indirectly) with the genes of the plant or animal in question.  But it was the (rather dramatic) results of our meddling in nature that provided the first great clues that something was up with nature that didn’t fit with the idea of God having created each species as it was and as it always would be (immutable).

But corn was a small seed product of a grass like wheat is now, and wheat was a much smaller seed pod before it was altered by human intervention.  Dogs have been bred for particular traits, cats for color, cows for meat and milk production and tomatoes for color, size and thick skins to withstand mechanical harvesting.

All of these changes to naturally-evolved plants and animals can only happen because human farmers and breeders have been able to take advantage of the way that genetics works.  There is something in living organisms that is subject to change over time, and this turns out to be the natural reproductive process that involves the replication and recombination of genes.  Unnatural selection only hastens the natural process (and directs it in a specific direction it might not naturally take) but make no mistake: the exact same process is “directed” by purely natural forces at all times and in all places that life exists, and it always has, from the time that life began.

Although some creationists argue that what we see in such cases is not a fundamental enough change to warrant a belief in the evolution of one species into another (that the modern banana is still, essentially, a banana and not an apple, for instance), the fact of the matter is that a basic and underlying process for mutation and adaptation over time is revealed in these human-driven experiments in unnatural selection: the most basic doctrine of the immutability of creation does not hold up.

And that, my friends, is why evolution is so blatantly “true”.  What the pigeon breeder could accomplish over a handful of years, the evidence shows natural selection and the pressures of environment and competition have produced over several millions of years, turning not only a wolf into an Irish Setter but a fish into a human.  The processes at work are exactly the same, except that one is directed by another mind, the other by natural forces.  The only other differences are the timescales and the intelligence of the forces at work.

So when that idiot Ray Comfort holds up a modern banana as proof of evolution (because it was “designed” to “fit” the human hand), he is holding up a smoking gun aimed at his own fundamentalist face.  He is holding a product of 8,000 years of selective human breeding that turned a hard and nearly inedible fruit into the tasty yellow one that he is holding.  (I suppose he could argue that ancient, tiny bananas fit perfectly into our ancient monkey fists, but, well, that would be problematic for him as well now wouldn’t it?).

When people talk about “Intelligent design”, they are essentially imagining that a being (conscious in the same way that we are) intervened in nature the way that plant and animal breeders intervene in their domains.  There is a certain reasonableness to this idea, insofar as we humans behold the “end result” of eons of natural selection that can give all life the appearances of “design”.  (In truth, we could easily refer to the evolved eye of the eagle or the fang of the snake as “designed by nature” but for the implication of consciousness such a term brings with it).

We can now reasonably infer that the collection of forces and conditions that we call “nature” does it’s “work” without the need for any consciousness at all.  There is absolutely nothing about nature that requires the addition of an intelligent, thinking force to make it make sense.  So why do we try so hard to imagine nature a being like us?

Well, for the same reason that we have to have a god so much like us.

The hardest cognitive transition for us humans to make, it seems, is the shift in perspective that allows us to see ourselves as the creators of our ideas about the universe, and not the other way around: to see ourselves as the source of the intelligence we project onto the mindless canvas of nature.  Even science (based as it is in testable, verifiable evidence) has to rely on mutually-agreed upon terms that have no meaning outside of that which we assign them.  A gorilla is not really a gorilla, and a gene was not called a gene before we called it that, but we all go along with the nomenclature because we have an overriding desire to be understood when we describe something.

Now it’s easy for folks to trip up on this, and turn such a notion around to make an argument that since scientists coin new terms for their discoveries, that this is somehow the same as having made up the discoveries their terms describe.  This is clearly a defense against the troubling truths that science reveals to us.  But the problem with this sort of reasoning is that it ignores the reality that whether we named them or not, gorillas and genes would still exist (did the animals in the Garden of Eden not exist because Adam pulled their names out of his butt?).  Words are a tool we use to categorize the world in a way so that we can communicate facts and ideas and feelings to each other.  If we all decided to call gorillas “Judys” tomorrow, they would still be the same animal they have always been (only called by another name).

So much about irrational belief (be it religious or other) seems to be an effort to wiggle out of an awareness of just how precarious and passing our presence is.  Even though it will be a couple more billion years before our life-sustaining sun collapses into a white dwarf (obliterating the earth in the process) the very idea of a thing so huge and essential to our lives  (and seemingly unchanging) blasting itself into nothingness is rather troubling.

And so it’s easier to believe that all of this was created just for us than to ponder the fact that untold numbers of “suns” in other galaxies have already lived out the entire life cycle (that ours is still burning its way through).  (It is deeply troubling to contemplate that there could have been other “earths” where life also evolved and thrived, perhaps even leading to intelligent, conscious beings not unlike ourselves, who have had all of their history erased, and returned their elements to the cosmos, as we will do one day.  Despite the likelihood that none of us will live to actually see the earth meet that fate, we understand, on some level, that some living thing that follows us may be there when it does).

I admire humans.  But I admire them in the way that I admire all of life.  We are driven to live by impulses ancient and mindless, as if we, too, must expand like the universe until we can expand no further.  As humans we have the unique opportunity to observe, understand and comment on our own experience of this conscious existence.  And this is both a wonderful and troubling burden to carry.  No wonder we wish to see ourselves as fundamentally different than the ants who rush to rebuild the anthill we stepped on so casually.  But are we, really?  Is there enough difference between us and them to justify the belief in an intervention of divine forces in our creation?

I don’t think so.  Not when you look at things with a clear eye — cleared of the wishes and fears that make so many deny the facts of evolution.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Snake in the Garden” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This week there was a serpent in my evolutionary Garden of Eden.

I caught part of a PBS program that documents a bunch of scientists being let loose to dissect some of the largest animals in nature (a whale, a lion and some rather huge pythons, for example).  It’s a tough program to watch (a high “ick” factor for me), and yet it is a fascinating and unusual opportunity to learn about these animals’ (as well as our own) biology.

At a point in the program I was watching, they showed the way in which the windpipe in the python was configured in such a way as to extend out the front of the mouth while the animal was swallowing another creature (such as a gazelle or an alligator), but then snugged up against the back side of the nostrils on the front of it’s skull when the animal was swallowed and the mouth was closed (imagine that your windpipe could extend all the way out to your lips along the top of your tongue, but when you closed your mouth it would angle up to form a seal against the back opening of your nostrils).  How the hell — I wondered — did that come to be?

In that moment I was seized with a troubling feeling that suddenly made me see evolution the way so many of my fellow humans see it: challenging to comprehend.  Improbable, even.  An uncomfortable feeling lingered with me for days.

Snakes alive! (From a street painting by Bob Diven)

It’s scary to allow oneself to contemplate such unsettling ideas, but perhaps it is the only way to, well, know anything.  The high school students I worked with last semester had as their “essential question” the following: “Can you know a truth without challenging it first?”.  Though awkwardly worded, I think there is something worthy in that idea.  And so I challenged my own evolutionary “truth”.  (This is sort of recurring practice of mine: I let my mind “go there” — in this case allowing it to drift freely to a world in which some sort of other force — perhaps even intelligent — made that snake thus).

The trigger for my discomfort about that damn snake has as its genesis, I think, the sort of social dualism we have built up around science and religion.  Science states that if something is not yet explained or understood, it is likely that further investigation (or the development of new technologies) will, eventually, allow us to understand it.  Religion says that any thing that science cannot explain fully must (MUST!) be evidence of the mystery that is somehow supposed to prove the existence of God.  As has been pointed out many times, the latter is what is known as an argument from ignorance.  It’s default-style construct is: I don’t know how this happened, therefore God is behind it.

And so I allowed myself to question how the process of evolution and natural selection could have possibly created the “break” between the nostrils and windpipe of that damn snake.  I could not visualize or imagine just how such an anatomical oddity could have come to be (though I’m well aware that the animal world is nothing but a catalog of anatomical absurdities — most of which I can comprehend).  But the further I let myself go toward the idea of an intelligent god designing the snake, the deeper into the quicksand of absurdity I sank.

Truly — why would an all powerful God “design” such kluged-up machinery as that snake’s anatomy?  Almost everything about animal adaptation reflects not efficiency of design, but sheer, brute adaptability (whose practical functionality then mimics a sort of “design”).  Nature does not cry out perfection.  Not in the slightest.  What it screams from every detail is the power of the living impulse that makes every living thing make the most of whatever genetic inheritance it was blessed (or cursed) with.

And we must also consider this: we only see the “experiments” that worked — the results of accumulated advantageous traits.  The others simply do not survive.

And so whatever my doubts (based purely in my own ignorance of a particular process of evolution in the case of the snake), there turns out to be no answer at all in the hollow intellectual shell that is creationism.

What I’ve ended up learning through my week or two of discomfort and doubt is this: we may, indeed, never know the exact how and why of every detail of evolution (it’s pretty certain we will never know the “all” of anything), but no matter how massive our ignorance of nature may be, it can never match the sometimes willful ignorance of those that preach creationism.

The resort to an intelligent designer is often the default knee-jerk response to anything we cannot (yet) explain in nature.  But the introduction of the possibility of such a divine agent is, fundamentally, a non-answer.  Where is the explanation for why this intelligent designer used natural means at all for any of this?  Why an exploding, expanding universe over billions of years so that one tribal shaman could be crucified by an occupying Roman authority and thereby usher in a couple thousand years of human religious enlightenment before God the Father intervenes and — in the final act — makes earth the way He intended it to be in the first place?  Why have animals breath and eat and poop and reproduce at all?  Why give humans earthly bodies when their heavenly bodies are clearly ready to be assigned?  Why put vestigial hip bones in a whale and in the snake whose progenitor — one can assume — troubled Adam and Eve in the Garden?  (A snake that might have been capable of breathing out of a tube in its mouth while swallowing a large animal for supper)!

The notion of God, then, is a tool — an effective trick to spare us from thinking about the unfathomable that surrounds us.  When it comes to explaining the world around us (or the odd anatomy of a python) God is not the answer: it is the decision to not ask the uncomfortable question.

t.n.s.r. bob

(To see the python anatomy I saw, visit PBS on-line.  The breathing apparatus appears at about 31 minutes into the program.  http://www.pbs.org/programs/inside-natures-giants/)

SERMON: “A Fish to Hook?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Though I identify myself as an atheist, when it comes to the heart of my ethics, I’m a humanist.  I tend towards pragmatism when it comes to social issues, and I embrace a humanistic view as it seems to be the best of all possible approaches to making life as good as it can be for as many people as possible.  I recognize the enormous potential we humans have for cooperation and altruistic behavior.  We are capable of being very kind to each other and, on occasion, rising above the raging desire for short-term advantage and choosing, instead, to delay our instant gratification for a reward that we are (sometimes grudgingly) willing to share with others, even strangers.

As you can see by the way I describe the “good” in us humans, I do not shy away from the bad.  How can I?  I am human too, and I know all too well the impulses in my own consciousness that are necessarily modulated by that lately-added lump of brain tissue in my frontal lobes.  My motives for self-understanding are no more or less noble than my own social survival and hope for success in life and love (the two go together for us social primates).

All religions recognize the cognitive tensions (the result of mediating conflicting desires) that are our natural inheritance.  To me this tension is a not-surprising product of our natural evolution, while to the religious it is the result of sin entering into the world through our defiance of God.  Leaving aside the God idea for a moment (and looking instead at the actual evidence of our origins) why should it shock us to find powerful animal reactivity in us when we have spent most of our evolutionary history as animals living in the wild like any other?  Have you considered just how recent is our rise to modern human status?  Or the exponential increase in our numbers and multiplication of our technical and cultural achievements that is even now sweeping us forward like a flood toward our future?

Religions base their doctrines and orthodoxies on the ins and outs and ups and downs of human nature.  (They have to if they are going to a) appeal to humans, and; b) be of any practical use whatsoever).  But a mark of religions is their consistent inability to resist the temptation to re-brand whatever problems they aim to fix (or the solutions they offer) as something unique and special unto themselves.  This is not the spreading of truth: this is commercialism and team-building for the sake of building a brand.

I think Humanism is our best shot at doing the best for the most.

Humanism, on the other hand, does not (I think) go about things in that way.  It continually throws people back upon their own naturally-derived (and therefore already-owned) resources, while encouraging those that have a surplus to share with those that (through the vagaries of genetics or place of birth) have a deficit.  Churches often work to help the poor and the needy, but they are always doing it in part to increase the size and power of the church.  As the late Christopher Hitchens liked to point out, they may claim to have their eyes on the rewards in the next life, but they sure seem to spend a lot of time building up kingdoms in this one.

How many times in my Christian years was I told “the fields are white for harvest”, as if people were stalks of wheat to be gathered with sickle and wagon?  Or exhorted to be a “fisher of men”, as if people are fish to be caught with bait, hook or net and gathered into the boat?  Think about what this says about how the unsaved are viewed by the saved.

Do you want to know why American Evangelical preachers lash out so vehemently at “secular humanism”?  Because humanists are out there offering every single benefit that religion offers without the small print, the hidden costs, and the requirement to sign away your reason, your autonomy, and your eternal soul (these same Evangelicals often have as little sympathy for the religious humanists in their own ranks).

As an aside, this all points to one of the basic flaws in this whole “church of bob” concept (at least in terms of a business model): I have nothing at all to hold over anyone who might come here to read, enjoy, learn or laugh.  I have no threat of hell to wield, or any hint of a deity’s displeasure (there are very few, I think, concerned about incurring the decidedly temporal “wrath of bob”).  That’s why this “church” will never work like a real church (and it is why I’ll never be the slick preacher driving his new Escalade up to his mansion with his trophy wife, just counting the days until my evangelistic empire is brought to ruin by a shocking sexual scandal — sigh).

I go back and forth on my feelings for humans.  On the one hand, we sort of deserve whatever we get in terms of fouling our own global nest.  But, then, why should I be any more harsh on the human species of animals than I am on any other?  Did the dinosaurs “deserve” to go extinct?  No.  Yes.  I don’t know.  Anything that is living has earned its moment in the sun through dint of the eons of sheer survival and adaptation that is represented by the surviving DNA in every single living organism (including you and me).  And that is why — being an atheist and a humanist — I mourn and I ache for a life that is cut short by the willful act of another.  What right does one human have to knowingly make life more miserable for others (especially when they use some bullshit religious justification for it like: “Well, if they were innocent, God will make it up for them in Heaven” — nice)?  (I am not addressing, here, the spectrum of discomforts that some humans have with the fact that our very survival requires us to consume other life forms, be they animal or vegetable — one more “tension” we must deal with in life).

So when I attack religion (which I often do, seeing it as but the fat middle of the bell curve of human irrational beliefs of all kinds), I am not attacking my fellow humans, but rather hoping to appeal to (and encourage) our “better natures”.  Some will claim that this is what religion does as well, and I will allow that for some people religious conversion does serve as an entry-level introduction to not acting like a complete and total selfish prick.  But because religion always has (at its heart) a fearful view of the world, an enshrined sense of self-loathing, and a preening need to be the only game in town, the results are ever going to be mixed.

I think humanism, then, is the way to go.  It is not perfect — for it will always be rooted in the reality of actual human behavior — but it is the most reality-based mix of hope and evidence, poisoned the least by denial and absent the religious demand for human debasement before the throne of an imaginary totalitarian in the sky.  No humanist will ever think of a person as a fish to hook, or a sheaf of wheat to chop with a scythe.

But, then, it’s not easy to take full responsibility for consciousness — for existence.  Too little attention is paid to the challenge that simply being alive and aware entails, I think.  Like the button I saw in a store last week that said “Stuck in that awkward phase between birth and death”.  Truer words could not be spoken.

All I’m saying is this: let us each do the bit that we can to make that “awkward phase” a bit less awkward (or miserable or tragic) for both ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If we end up losing a god who doesn’t seem think that highly of us anyway in the process of achieving the fullness of our humanity, is that such a bad thing?

I, for one, don’t think so.

t.n.s.r. bob