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If you knew me personally, you’d know that as a reductionist my profile can be reduced to that of a liberal atheist scientist with marginally good manners. I broke the shackles of magical thinking in high school after reading a few books by Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan. Though I have not been the same since, I have come to sympathize a bit with Quakers and their predilection for peace.
My religious upbringing was quite ordinary for a young Iowegian lad in the 1960’s. Confirmation in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in 8th grade followed by a short stint as a reluctant acolyte. The church seemed firmly footed in bedrock as an institution and adept at indoctrinating the young. In catechism studies I tried to understand the authoritarian system that is outlined by Martin Luther and the strange collection of narratives that make up the King James Bible.
There were abstractions that didn’t make sense then and are still a mystery to me today. The concept of the Holy Trinity always seemed suspiciously anthropomorphic. Then there is the crucifixion as a kind of “ghostly sorting mechanism” for salvation. It stands out against the backdrop of natural phenomena like physics and biology- mechanistic systems which seem to suffice for everything else. Finally, there is God’s seemingly endless requirement for worship and admiration which has always struck me as a vanity unnecessary for a supreme being. The whole scheme reeks of iron-age anthropology.
I remember the day it happened. I was praying for something or other. Trying to have a little spiritual time with the Big Guy. It finally dawned on me that I was talking to myself and in doing so, wishing for some particular outcome to happen. All those years. Praying and wishing were indistinguishable. I’ll admit, I was never one to volunteer a lot of praise to God. Heaping praise on a deity seemed patronizing and wholly unnecessary. Surely if God could elicit wrath, then he’d certainly pick up on being flattered.
Well, in the end, so what? Another tedious atheist commits apostasy. Like most people in US culture, my moral basis was built on what has been described as Judeo-Christian morals or ethics. It’s hard to avoid. But just as the earth does not rest on a foundation, I am not limited to sensibilities derived only by the sons of Abraham in a far earlier age. My culture and my brain tell me that theft, murder, and the other spiritual crimes (sins) are bad for the common good. That respect for others has a pleasurable and sensible aspect that threats of eternal damnation do not improve on.
The reductionist in me can’t resist the following assertion. Deistic religion reduces to cosmology. In the end, a religion offers a theory of the universe. It is a kind of physics that defines relationships between the prime mover and his (?) bipedal subjects imbued with mystical sensitivities. It claims to define the outcome of the disposition of a soul, whatever that may be. I don’t even believe in the existence of the mind, much less a soul. As a form of physics, religion lacks means by which theories can be tested. Quantitation of a spiritual element is an idea that has yet to see practice. It seems to lack predictive capability to estimate an outcome that can be validated. It is definitely not a science. It is not about matter or energy. It is about how to conduct ones life against a backdrop of divine authority and within a box of behaviors.
But our brains seem to be constructed in a manner such that religious/spiritual notions are nearly irresistible. Billions of people have claimed to feel its draw and testify to its merits. The projection of anthropomorphic imagery in myth is common in diverse cultures. The Abrahamic religions congealed from cultures that were apparently unaware of the concept of zero. Where heaven is death with a plus sign, hell is death with a negative sign. To an atheist death is just zero. It has no sign or magnitude. It is unconsciousness and devoid of the awareness of pain or pleasure. Zero sensory processing. It is neither exaltation nor agony. Just zero. Entropy prevails. Such an outlook is hardly appealing enough to gather followers. It is grim and without hope of graduation to eternal bliss. The take home lesson is to live in the moment, not the future.
Who am I to argue with millennia of religious thought? I don’t know. All I can say is that even as a cancer patient, I remain refractory to the pull of religious and mystical thinking. So it was and so it is.
Divinity students! Relax. I’m no threat to your faith. My conclusions on this life of ours offers no ceremony and precious little fellowship. I can say that I’ve had an eye-full of the clockwork of this universe. Adherence to evangelical doctrines could not have provided the amazing insights. And for that I have no regrets.
So it turns out that I am the family atheist and liberal. The social awkwardness and philosophical incompatibility of this condition was evident the other day in a discussion with a family member that diverged into a shouting match. In fact the immiscibilityof my liberal atheist proclivity with my family’s generally Christian conservative foundation has severed ties with a few family members outright and distanced others. My father, deceased nearly a decade ago, never reconciled with his son’s atheism. In his view, it was a choice inevitably resulting in existential tragedy and damnation into the darkest recesses of infinity.
My wife is a Methodist and our kid is being raised under that umbrella. I have taken the position that I will not indoctrinate my child in the analytical consequences of atheism. Rather, the adoption of a philosophical position on existence is a self-guided adventure everyone is entitled to. Whether one is lead deep into the doctrines of the Abrahamic religions, eastern philosophy, or the uncertain swamp of agnosticism, it is the right of all people to come to their own conclusion on the matter of ones place in the cosmos.
I claim that this is a right. But many otherwise liberty-loving people disagree. They view indoctrination into the religious fold as a kind of rescue. It is a dash across the finish line that must to happen well before death to ensure that the soul is channeled into the chute leading to paradise. Once in this enviable condition, the ethereal community of souls can eternally heap praise upon the diety directly rather than across that impenetrable supernatural discontinuity that is resistant to all but the force of prayer. Or so goes the core theory of the Abrahamic religions as I understand them.
To many religious followers, the very fact that their religion is ancient seems to validate the accuracy and veracity of their ideas. The mere continuity of these doctines seems to confer some hopeful message about the vital truth of the doctine.
But I would counter that what continues over time is not the cosmic accuracy of the idea, but rather the psychological consequences of brain physiology. Architectural features of the brain and the behavior of neurons therein have produced self-awareness. The self-aware brain enables much possibility for an organism. An effect of our self-awareness is that we come to experience time.
But the very familiarity of self-awareness of the human brain might lead it to assume or calculate that self-awareness is a common condition in the external world. It seems to easily conclude that the apparent organization of the world was conducted by a central organizing influence- a diety. Moreover, it is not unreasonable for the self-aware brain to assume that it’s own self-awareness is part of a continuum of awareness or consciousness. The notion that self-awareness might extinguish would be inconceivable.
I think what the ancient religious texts and doctrines convey is a kind of familiarity. It is a shared experience of mystery, uncertainty, and fear through the common experience of consciousness. The brains of our ancestors communicated through the agency of language their chronicles of hope and fear to our brains which share the the same strengths and weaknesses. It is this commonality that rings the bell of truth in our self-awareness. It reinforces the mystical experience as a physiological experience because it is fundamentally that.
What is inevitable about our self-awareness is extrapolation. Religion soon mutates from a personal mystical experience to a theory of physics and politics. This is what I cannot accept- Religion as a political template or as a ToE (Theory of Everything).
Many people come to value alignment to doctrine as a higher calling than the application of love and charity to their fellows who have lost their way or have experienced bad luck or tragedy. I would offer to the reader that what makes a person liberal is the priority choice of people over the politcal doctrine of social Darwinism.
We in the USA have confused economic theory with reality. Economics and business are a subset of sociology. The alleged congruence of economics to morality or metaphysics is a political theory some people have asserted because it serves their purpose in the allocation of wealth. It’s a part of their ToE. And I’m here to say that some of us can see what they’re doing.
Some matters to which I wish to take exception.
Cray, the supercomputer company, is selling a desktop unit called the CX1. Their product literature uses the term “personal supercomputing” here and there. Also HPC, high performance computing. A bit of scouting with Mr Google turns up a price of $25,000 (and up) for one of these units. If I had a CX1 I could finally get those hydrodynamic simulations finished for my cold fusion reactor.
I’ve never been able to refer to a computer as a machine. It’s a circuit. Somehow the flow of a few coulombs of charge across the bandgap and through the microscopic vias of lithographed and ion implanted junctions never qualified in my internal taxonomy as a machine. Surely there are countless pencil necks and Poindexters out there who will line up to quibble. But, it’s a damned circuit. The cooling fan is a machine. The screws that hold the major components are elementary machines. The Klikkenhooters on the mouse are machine-like I suppose.
My eyes cross every time I hear some silly sod in the IT department solemnly state that they have fixed a problem in some persons “machine”. Oh, is that true skippy? Chances are that young Edison selected a pull down menu and changed the state of some software variable or swapped out an errant disk drive. Machines make you greasy. You skin your knuckles tightening bolts on them. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle is a machine. A Dell laptop is not.
On an altogether different topic, an article entitled the Amoral Manifesto over at Philosophy Now raises some interesting issues regarding the basis of morality. The author is starting to get his arms around the qestion of morality without an absolute cosmic foundation. If you look at the physical universe, one of the first things that sorta jumps out at ya is the fact that everything is floating in space. Maybe we should take that as a kind of metaphor when considering absolutisms. We should learn to get along for its own sake, and not just to please angry, dispeptic spirits. Not that those jabbering snake handling pentecostals would take any notice …
Speaking of dipeptic, Pastor Wingnut in Florida should consider another alternative to book burning. Simply down load copies of the Quran and repeatedly delete them until he feels that warm flush of righteous satisfaction.* But I think we all know this wouldn’t have quite the spectacle of an actual public immolation. A book burning isn’t about individual books. It is a form of ceremony. It is a ritual for all to particpate in and is part of the liturgy of indignation. Producing a show like this is in the skill set of any preacher, actually. They are expected to rouse the emotions of their flock. It’s their job. Some of it is quite interesting to watch in terms of the art of persuasion.
The pastor in Florida makes the case for why a great many of us do not want a government based on theological notions of law. Whose law takes precedence- the Baptists? Whose voice is speaking to you, really? And did you get all of the details? Exactly what kind of authority does an angry but righteous-in-the-Word mob get to have, anyway? How do bronze-age principles help us determine quotas for banana imports, plumbing codes, and the standards governing interstate trucking? Good gravy, we have to figure these things out ourselves people.
The eternal problem of civilization is to find the balance between high principle and pragmatic practice. Civilization should be run by the living, not dictated by those who claim to know the intent of the long dead. The dead had their time in the sun. It is the privilege and responsibility of the those living the eternal now to sow the seeds of their fate. Easy retreat to the demon-haunted, authoritarian world of spiritualism is the realm of ignorance and fear. And fearful people are especially prone to being driven like sheep at the convenience of the vain and ruthless. History books are full of examples. So instead of burning the Quran, let’s read a few of the others. Maybe take some notes.
* Thanks to the Daily Kos.
Carlin was a brilliant social satirist and comic. He had the ability to look at ordinary things from a different angle and see the obvious obsurdity in things most of us accept as simple background noise. This is one of the key attributes of a successful satirist and comedian.
I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.
The very existence of flamethrowers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?” She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
There’s no present. There’s only the immediate future and the recent past.
Not only do I not know what’s going on, I wouldn’t know what to do about it if I did.
Carlin was a serial quipster who pushed the boundaries of social norms. His Seven Dirty Words ended up as the center of a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of the state to bar “indecent” of speech on the public airwaves.
While it is common for contemporary comedians to exploit “indecent” speech for shock value today, few seem to have the facility with language that Carlin had. He was able to reduce to a few short humorous sentences the dark uncertainties that many of us have with common subjects. Carlin’s observations on taboo subjects put him well ahead of his time.
Just when I was getting used to the possibility of an epic Mormon Migration to the District of Columbia, Mitt Romney bails from the flaming cockpit of his campaign. At least for the next cycle, we will not see young missionaries in white shirt and tie parking their bicycles at the State Department or the CIA. That Ambassador-at-Large slot for Marie Osmond will have to wait and purveyors of caffeine and intoxicating liquors can rest at ease tonight. No temple garments hanging on the line back behind the White House either.
Utah is occupied by wholesome folk with a really odd theory of the universe. Eventually their time to decorate the Lincoln bedroom will come, but not in 2009.
Warning!! The following text contains links and declarative statements that may cause chafing or philosophical infarct.
The Richard Dawkins BBC programs “The Root of All Evil, Part 1 and Part 2“, are quite worth the time to view. It will no doubt be uncomfortable for some. Dawkins is very much a promoter of reason and doesn’t restrain his blunt questions at all.
What is interesting to witness is Dawkins’ genuine surprise when a few characters respond with an absolute and even threatening rebuff to his reasoning. I think he truly expected to move these people to see his point of view by the force of reason. In many ways, this program portrays a world very hostile to the analysis of belief.
The whole notion of belief as an inviolable, sacrosanct capsule of “vital essence” seems to be hardwired into our brains. For many, the prospect of another person drilling into your personal theory of the universe (God or physics) is both profane and invasive. Like most people, I am not keen on being “examined” like some analytical sample either. But in the end, a “theory of everything” that can’t survive scrutiny is not worth having.
Perhaps where Dawkins goes astray is at grasping the difference between being analytically correct and just being comfortable with an idea. Few people have the overlap of both curiosity and the opportunity to cover some new ground in the scholarly examination of the Big Questions. In fact, it seems that the methodical pursuit of novelty is not a universal trait in culture. A great many people are perfectly happy to live and believe as the ancestors did.
Dawkins is not shy about drilling into the bedrock of belief. I think between Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, there is a growing realization that religion should be studied analytically as a natural phenomenon rather than exclusively as a subject of devotion.
I suppose I have lost more frequently than I have won in my lifelong avocation of taking on sacred cows in the battle of wits. But, truly, sacred cows make the very best hamburgers. Pass the A1 …
Some new blogs have been given a place of honor in the blogroll. Good writing and laser sharp insight are the keys to this ascendency. If the dear reader is conservative and prone to weeping or bed wetting, it is probably best to click along at this point.
And then, what can I say about Jesus’ General? Read General JC’s letter to the Secret Service re Cheryl Crow. If you are keen on some serious in-your-face-atheism, check out Hellbound Allee. Then there is one of the best Christian evangelical lampoons ever, Landover Baptist.
It is easy to be lulled into the notion that the USA has reached a transcendent state of modernism; a place where people have come to adopt pluralism and tolerance. When you drive along the highways and fly the skyways of the USA, when you navigate the streets lined with familiar businesses and institutions there is this comforting though superficial vibe that you are in an advanced culture that is fairly progressive and forward thinking.
American culture has produced some of the most stunning changes in the history of life on earth. Electricity, drug design, advanced materials, aerospace, computers, semiconductors, and on and on. Yet, there is this underlying ache, a subterranean twinge out there that is disturbing in it’s potential.
While I cannot accept the cosmology of supernatural beings or the physics of miracles, I have been known to attend a meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) on a social basis. It is soothing to sit in silence and meditate in a group setting with highly civilized people like the Quakers. I remember some years ago at a Friends Meeting in Boulder, CO, listening to Kenneth Boulding (now deceased) make a comment during the meeting. It was in another context, but the thrust of it is relevant nonetheless. He pointed out that a few miles below the serenity of the nearby mountains there exists magma that, if given the chance, will flow to the surface and erupt. He observed that below the surface people also have raw and violent forces that sometimes escape. His point was more of a lyrical acceptance of this human frailty than one of condemnation. Examples of this condition are too numerous to count.
I was reminded of this comment of Boulding when I encountered some commentary on a recent editorial from the Wall Street Journal. I can’t afford to subscribe to the WJS- I found it in the popular blog Pharyngula. The author of this exceptional blog has added commentary and I won’t spoil it for the reader. It is worth linking over there to read it. Beneath the surface of consciousness of many, many people is the need to strike out at those have a different view of things.
Few points of view will evoke as vigorous a negative response as atheism does from believers in the Big 3 religions that originated in the middle east. To these people, atheism is a kind of poke in the eye. The very presence of atheism seems to be a kind of pestilence or a corrosive influence on society itself. Believers in a supernatural being are convinced that without a diety, there can be no moral frame of reference.
It is much like the number line with its positive numbers, it’s negative numbers, and, importantly, zero. To theists, God is the zero of the moral number line. It represents the demarcation of the positive and the negative realms. As the theists would assert, without a frame of reference anchored from a higher plane, man is hopelessly absent a moral compass.
One thing is certain. I’m not going to solve this matter tonight. I do know that civilization is one millimeter thick and there are plenty of places on earth where it has worn off to reveal the troubled underlayment of our species. This week, in the land of Nebukanezzar and the gardens of Babylon, many good people have died for no good reason.
This link shows the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove. Why are atomic bomb blasts so fascinating to watch? Of course, the movie was a satire.
But when you see the next one, it becomes much more sobering. It is a clip from a BBC documentary with CGI enhancement on Hiroshima. Part of the responsibility of having civilian control over military forces in the USA entails that at least some fraction of the civilian population retain a bit of knowledge of topics like this.
I think that when queried, most people will think of an atomic bomb blast as primarily a nuclear radiation calamity. To be sure, there is a healthy gamma pulse and the dispersal of a large variety of troublesome radionuclides, with long lasting contamination issues. But much of the prompt destructive effect is from the immense heat pulse followed by the blast wave.
Mutual assured destruction (MAD) as a nuclear strategy was arguably successful because parties on both the NATO and Soviet blocks were more desirous of long life than of the need for the delivery of nuclear hellfire at any cost. The cold war was a time of opposing political and economic doctrines. MAD was essentially a secular concept.
In the present era of religious theatre, movements citing supernatural endorsement of earthly doctrines are in ascendancy. The calculus of MAD fails when parties practice nuclear policy under the influence of supernatural euphoria.