Posts Tagged ‘understanding’

SERMON: “Wonder Beyond the Veil” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing.  As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system.  And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).

We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us.  We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind.  So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.

But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.

Walking upright is a good start.  That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.

And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs?  It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does.  The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it.  Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .

This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in.  It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid.  The world was not made for us.  The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed.  That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.

One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit.  For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness.  What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life.  And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.

But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people.  And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force.  I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source.  (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense).   But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world.  It is a “software” issue.

Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life.  And old ideas die hard.

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a "voice in the wilderness".

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a “voice in the wilderness”.

I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church.  Right they are.  And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week).  For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking.  It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea.  And so it goes.

Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality.  I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense).  But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology.  Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).

In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question.  But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.

Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America.  Most people believe in God.  And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths.  The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence.  No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough.  They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.

But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.

In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)?  It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe.  No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales.  But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.

And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing.  But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief.  There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”.  What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Reflections of a Fake Minister” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

The n.s.r. bob ponders his ministerial status...

As I look back on two years of perpetuating the benign fraud of my ministerial credentials, I’ve been struck by two things: How close “fake” is to “real” in certain domains, and; how writing about reality can alter reality.

When I call myself “a fake minister of a pretend church” (as I often do) I’m being irreverently playful with language.  But I’m also issuing a sort of disclaimer that I shouldn’t be taken TOO seriously (should you be the kind of person for whom the word “minister” is a sort of linguistic talisman: don’t assume I have any magical powers of a divine origin).  But I wasn’t too far into my work of creating these weekly “sermons” before I saw the lines between “real” ministers and my “fake” pretensions blurring.

Think about it from the larger perspective: if all religion is man-made, and there is, in reality, no divine being or intelligence behind any of our human endeavors, then even a “real” church is “fake” when it comes to any adherence to verifiable reality.  Taken from this view, my “church” is actually more real than a real one.

On the other hand, a gathering of humans under the umbrella of a church is a very real thing whether or not the things they believe are true (individuals exist in space, sit in real chairs in a real building and live real lives, etc.).  So perhaps in that way, the fiction of my “pretend” church remains safely on the “unreal” side of the line.

But this “pretend” church of ours actually exists as well.  We don’t meet in a physical building at a specific time in a specific city, but I am sitting at a real computer as I’m writing these words, and you’re sitting at yours as you read them.  In that sense we’re as real as any on-line newspaper or magazine or shared-interest organization (and we’re certainly not the first — nor only — exclusively on-line church).  So, it turns out, only if we define church as a physical building where people gather to hear a spoken (or read) sermon on a certain day can we speak of the church of bob as only “pretend”.

But then we began this thing in a real building (The Black Box Theater), sitting in real (theater) seats, on two real nights at a certain time, with me speaking (and a choir singing!), so…

The other aspect of this (now) weakening fiction is how much it feels like I am acting very much in the traditional role of a minister (minus the pretense of revealed heavenly knowledge, of course).  As an example, shortly after I began writing the weekly sermons, I had this pang of anxiety as I wondered if there was some specific thing I had said in the original “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution with the not-so-reverend bob” show that I would fail to say in future sermons, or if my own path of learning and exploration would take me in a direction that none would care to follow.  In short, I was like any other church minister wondering if he was going to charge off in pursuit of “truth” and find himself suddenly alone, abandoned by a head-shaking, “tutt-tutt-ing” crowd (and thereby out of a paying job!).

Which brings me to the second observation about how writing about reality can alter it.

The original church of bob idea grew out of “things I was doing anyway”: reading a lot of non-fiction; a deep interest in science and its transformative effect in correcting distortions created by years of religious belief (in my case, Christian and New Age), and a natural instinct as a performer and entertainer.  The blog seemed the perfect solution to what to do with the enthusiasm and response to the original live production (I considered arranging actual monthly local meetings, but the logistical needs seemed to outpace any projected interest).  Fine and dandy.  But that decision has had an effect on the trajectory of my own personal and intellectual growth.

For the first year of the blog I was “religious” about posting a cartoon, sermon and review every week (in the second year I began to allow some Sundays to pass without a review when time constraints or an unusually challenging book made a weekly review impractical).  Still, that’s a lot of reading in a year (or two).  Looking back on it it’s as if I had enrolled in a Masters program in science and faith, writing a review and a paper every week for two years.  Naturally, my perspective was sure to evolve with all of that new input.

But on a personal level, the discipline of gathering thoughts and observations every week leads, I think, to an accelerated distillation of ideas that has made me feel both a sense of pleasure in possessing the understanding of the world that I do as well as a keen awareness of just how different that awareness is from the great mass of believing humans out there.

However, the closer I get to reality, the more I see that objective reality is not the most important thing to many of us humans.

But this has led to a greater sense of empathy than judgement.  For if I am learning about the limitations of the human brain (that make it easy for humans to believe incredible things without evidence, for example), I am also learning about my own believing brain.  As crazy as I think humans are, I am one of that tribe, and a knowledge of science and biology and evolution just serves to bring me back, again and again, to this overriding sense of us all being in this mortal boat together.

So despite the proclamations of the fundamentalist preachers, understanding reality through science has made me more, not less, compassionate.  More compassionate toward others and toward myself.  Understanding that I have a mammalian brain, built of evolved components that were formed in ancient lives as a bacteria, a fish, a quadruped and a primate, actually deepens my appreciation for what the damn thing does every moment of my short life, even as my discernment of its peculiarities becomes ever more precise.

And suddenly — as you may have noticed — I’ve slipped into the language of church: Understanding; Compassion; Discernment (and, if I could add to that list: Love).

So though I continue to consciously leave both my name and the church’s uncapitalized (as part of the aforementioned implicit disclaimer), when it comes down to it, it could be argued that this is as much a real church — and I’m as much a real minister — as any other (a statement that does as much lowering of “real” ministers as elevating my own status).

For I hold that our naturally-evolved humanism is the basis of human decency.  This “church” simply works at stripping away the brand-name labels that religion has attached to that basic humanism, using the findings of science to bolster the intellectual and moral defenses of those who (like me) are moving away from irrational belief.

I have found great comfort in the view that science offers me of my place in this vast universe (very, very small), and my place in the vast parade of biological life on Earth (I share equal right to be here for my “moment in the sun”).  And, like every other preacher, I want to share the “good news” that I’ve been given.

That I do it without God (with a capital “G”), and under the irreligious name of bob (with a lower-case “b”) is about the only difference between me and my ordained colleagues (well, that and that I haven’t been asked to do a funeral yet — though I expect that day will come).

That, then (when it comes down to it) is the only difference between the “real” and my “pretend” church: God (I leave it up to you do decide the magnitude of that particular difference).

I write every week for my own pleasure and betterment, to be sure, but like any other church, I wouldn’t keep the “church” going as the predictable weekly “service” that it is if you weren’t out there to read it.

Thank you for being there, and “bob bless” you all as we enter into the new year.

And if you would, share your own reflections about this “church” with me.

t.n.s.r. bob