Posts Tagged ‘truth’

SERMON: “Get Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version ©1984)

It occurs to me that if all that mattered was truth (that could be verified by reliable experiment) then religious belief would have died out a long time ago.

Saying something like that reveals several assumptions, however.

The first assumption would be, naturally, that we humans were purely rational creatures.  And despite how often we try appeal to our fellow humans’ rational minds, it seems like even the most hopeful rationalists would have to recognize that this marvelously analytical part of our brain is not the major force of our evolved consciousness.  (For more on this, read “The Righteous Mind”, reviewed this blog).  Any psychologist will tell you that once the fight or flight (fearful) parts of our consciousness are triggered, calm, rational behavior is nowhere to be seen (though it could be argued that fleeing on adrenaline soaked legs is a highly rational act when the danger is life-threatening — but that’s the thing — we generally experience more fear than a given situation truly warrants).

The second assumption would be that the results of scientific experiment (duly tested and confirmed) could be quickly and evenly distributed to every human on the planet.  (Another underlying assumption would be that every human would already have in place a cultural/mental construct that was receptive to scientific evidence — meaning the evidence would be accepted as credible.  But we don’t have to look far in our own circle of friends to see that even in our individual communities there is not a truly homogenous landscape of equally educated and acculturated minds).

Yes, I love science.

Yes, I love science.

One of the realities of the society I see around me is that there exists only a percentage of people who are sufficiently curious about reality to happily “change” their mind when a new scientific experiment proves that an idea they held was now known to be incorrect.

I often get comments along the lines of “people’s minds are made up”, or “you’re preaching to the choir”, which are all ways of recognizing that the part of our minds where beliefs are formed is understandably conservative.  After all, the things we believe most deeply are also most likely to have a direct bearing on our survival in a seemingly capricious natural world.  (This is likely the basis for our sliding scale of trust — where we are most likely to believe someone who is our closest kin, and least likely to believe something a stranger tells us).

And being the profoundly social animals that we are, we are also natural believers.  As we learn more about how our brains operate, it has become clear that we believe first, then analyze and question after.  Meaning that once we take in a statement as “true” (from someone high up on our “trust hierarchy”) the odds of us taking the difficult extra steps that would lead to deleting that item from our “truth” list are pretty low.  (For more on this, see “Blink”, reviewed this blog).

And so we have millions of humans walking around with a mix of internalized beliefs, most of which have been acquired from friends and family, but some of which have come from other sources.  And sometimes that other source is science.

I consider us fortunate that newspapers, magazines and television programs regularly feature interesting science stories.  Every other week there is featured a tale of some new dinosaur discovery, or the latest theory on Neanderthal behavior, or the analysis of new images from a space probe.  This information — even if not taken in directly by the less-curious — can enter the consciousness of individuals by a process of “cultural percolation”.  (When I listen to Christian preachers on the radio, it is revealing just how many times they quote science when it appears to support whatever spiritual point they are making).

The upshot of this is that there are very few living humans who still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, or that diseases are caused by evil spirits.  However…I have to be cautious here.  Because even among those that have some passing acceptance (if not understanding) of gravity, or evolution, or genetic inheritance there often live, side by side with scientific truth, a whole raft of beliefs that are incompatible with physical reality.  Most often these are quasi- and outright religious beliefs that can range from adherence to great grand-mother’s home remedy for this or that ailment, or a mild superstition that makes them not walk under a ladder, to full-blown beliefs in alien (or angelic) visitation and, of course, the grandaddy of all human beliefs: God.

It seems to me that if we were to take on — as our solemn task — the eradication of irrational belief from the human population, it would immediately take on the shape of brutal human oppression (think of the re-education camps of Communist governments, or the Spanish Inquisition).  And this is where the difference between a humanist and a fundamentalist religious believer becomes most apparent: even though, as a humanist, I believe that most people would be better off with more truth to counter our natural (and abundant) fear, I shrink from risking real violence to a human psyche to accomplish such an aim by force.  The deeply religious (even if their religion is a particular political ideology) seem to have far fewer qualms in this area.

Though — it should be noted — that American evangelicals (as well as other conservative religionists) do feel as if they are under attack and experiencing oppression from a secular humanist army of atheistic scientists.  I think they are more than mildly overstating their case.

All of this brings me to the realization that I will not live to see irrational religious belief swept by reason into the dustbin of history.  For even though it is abundantly clear that religion is an evolved human activity (that we humans have always been the active agent in creating), and that it is, therefore, not “true” in any evidential sense, religion remains a sort of cognitive and cultural reality and, as such, must be accepted and understood for the phenomenon (and fixture) that it is.  And understanding this shifts my stance a bit from armored crusader to curious fellow human.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t hold my ground to resist aggressive, religiously-motivated cultural foolishness.  Neither does it meant that I’ll stop writing these sermons for those who are like I once was (questioning, or in transition out of, their religion).  Because each of us is part of the quiet “commission” to spread the best truth we can get our hands on, and point out ignorance when it becomes dangerous.

(After all, those who think God is on their side do not think it unseemly to label unbelievers “fools” condemned to Hell, so I hardly think it abusive for me to call them — when appropriate — “incorrect”).

My natural curiosity (an example of the type of brain I possess), combined with life events and circumstance, have conspired to bring me to a place where I am not simply interested in reality, but crave the truth of it.  And science is the single best tool we humans have come up with for determining what is “true” and what is “false”.  Science does not have all of the answers (though it does have the most reliable ones available), and some of the answers we now have will be modified (or discarded) by future discoveries (and I realize that I will die carrying bits of old or incorrect information in my head).  But what matters to me is that I care enough about reality to discard the old when the new arrives.  And for having that kind of brain, I consider myself deeply fortunate.

t.n.s.r. bob

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