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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.
It seems to me that the character(s) who produced the YouTube video that has caused so much religious fulmination in the sandy parts of the world ought to be parachuted into Cairo to answer for their actions. Surely they can give the best explanation of what their movie represents.
Another thing has occured to me. Perhaps we should make a minor adjustment to the Drake Equation which describes the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. The equation can be found at this link. The L factor defines the length of time a civilization releases detectable [radio] signals into space. Given the self destructive behaviours of beings capable of generating radio signals on at least one planet, maybe it is time to define L*.
L* = L(1 – P*/P) where P = average number of intelligent inhabitants of a planet and P* = average number of intelligent inhabitants willing to die/kill for their magical or political beliefs.
Perhaps the reader has a better modification. Here is the Drake equation copied straight from Wikipedia:
- N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
- R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
- fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
- ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
- fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
- fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
- fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
- L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
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.
In private moments, when I’m not thinking about some chemistry-related train of thought, I often wander to the intellectual bog of religion. Especially on Sunday, when friends and family are sitting in church and I’m elsewhere.
I try not to write about it too often. It takes a lot of psychic energy to defend an unpopular point of view in public. I awaken every day with just so many kcals of enthusiasm and am increasingly unwilling to spend it extravagantly in arguments about religion.
One of the surefire ways to rile people into a vein-bursting, mouth-foaming frenzy in this country is to criticize a particular religion or the religious enterprise in general. This sensitivity relates to the nature of the concept of Sacred. There are several variations on the definition of the word sacred, but the concept in common usage seems to include “to set apart for veneration” or “worthy of respect”. A corollary is that sacred concepts are to be treated devotionally and are not to be subjected to scrutiny.
Sacred or not, we are starting to see some open analysis of Christian doctrine and are beginning to ask reasonable questions as to the accuracy or validity of the doctrine guiding the religious right. Consider the following analysis from Terri Murray posted at the Yurica Report-
If liberals are more sympathetic to secular humanism than to Christian doctrine it is because Christian Scripture is ambivalent in its view of human nature, and second, because Christian doctrine has over-emphasized Paul’s pessimistic construction of human nature. The latter makes nonsense of moral responsibility, because it posits a deterministic model of human nature that is inconsistent with human experience, moral exhortation and human reason. Jesus’ system of morality, which most liberals greatly admire, conflicts with the misanthropy expressed in Pauline doctrine. Jesus’ ethical teachings are more consistent with the values of enlightenment humanism than with biblical theocracy, which Jesus spent his rabbinical career assailing.
‘Christianity’ is an abstract concept badly in need of analysis and definition. The authoritarian Christian right have assumed, with little argument, that Pauline doctrine is more essential to ‘Christianity’ than the teachings and traditions about Jesus, where they conflict. And conflict they do.
To outline how and where Pauline doctrine is incompatible with the “American worldview” it is important to clarify my terms first. For the purposes of this essay a ‘Christian worldview’ is defined as the Pauline doctrine of salvation, according to which all of humankind are rendered ‘sinners’ by virtue of the past transgressions of our progenitors Adam and Eve, or by virtue of an intrinsic defect in human nature. This same Pauline doctrine also makes it a matter of Christian orthodoxy that Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf atoned for man’s sin and offered each of us redeeming salvation by means of the profession of the Christian faith and obedience to its rules. ‘Christianity’ in this context does not refer to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth but to the Pauline teachings about the significance of his death and resurrection for the salvation of mankind.
As Murray suggests, the strident orthodoxy of the protestant religious right in America is based in large part on a particular slant of interpretation on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. But rather than anchoring doctrine to his words and deeds, the American evangelical focus is on the special effects of the supernatural transition to the spirit world- part of what Murray calls the Pauline Doctrine.
I have always been quite uneasy with many aspects of the Christian doctrine. While I have been able to extract useful concepts by partitioning the doctrine into a) moral philosophy with historical details, b) crime and punishment, and c) an iron age form of cosmology, I have always been uneasy with the necessity of an anthropomorphic deity. In other words, does the existence of a supernatural being actually solve the problem of how the universe works? Does God use physics, or did he have a backstage pass to do as he pleased?
What makes the universe a workable place is the fact that not everything is possible. There are boundary conditions. Objects and events in the universe exist within constraints. Not everything can happen. God must have known this and in fact, had to have been the installer of this attribute. As Einstein would have asked, did he have any choice in the the way the universe was constructed?
In the Christian tradition, God lets loose with an occasional miracle. We know by inspection that God uses physics in the everyday conduct of things, but when “miracles” happen, are they quantifiable? Is it possible to have one miracle be twice as big as another? If you divide the number of miracles by the volume in which they occur, you come up with a miracle density. What is the average miracle density of the universe? Is God restricted by the rule that you can’t divide a number by zero? Hmmm. Maybe He relies on this fact?
Why do we consent to adherence to an ancient religion that is constructed on iron age notions of social order, justice, and the supernatural when we have a modern understanding of democracy, history, and physics that suggests an altogether different organization to the universe?
Religious adherents will guffaw and correct my comments with an assertion that our human concepts of God are too inadequate to subject the diety to such simple analysis. Well, God holds us to standards relating to faith, love, and sin that are assumed to be within our understanding- our sins certainly get the dieties attention. Our mortal souls hang by a thread, based on our thoughts and actions relating to our knowledge of His divine plan. Why would the rest of it be so incomprehensible? Why the disconnect?
Today, the blowtorch of religious conservatism on the public stage has abated temorarily while adherents re-group. No doubt, they will be organized for the upcoming general election in the fall of 2008. I think this time around they need to be questioned a little more closely as to the basis of their doctrines.
There is serious op-ed talk mulling the return of the insectide DDT, particularly for malaria-infected parts of the world. What is even more interesting is that this idea has caught on in the ultra-conservative media market and has become the liberal-bashing topic du jour of media darlings like Rush Limbaugh. Since I don’t waste perfectly good heartbeats listening to that swaggering gas bag, I have missed this “discussion”. Suddenly, Rush is concerned about the poor and destitute in Africa.
What has escaped discussion is the possibility that modern methods of high throughput experimentation might find permutations of the DDT “pharmacophore” that would afford something with higher activity and shorter environmental half life. Who knows, may be this has already been done? Maybe there is a sample of a DDT analog sitting on a shelf somewhere that has less aptitude for bioconcentration and a greater aptitude for photo or hydrolytic degradation. Then there is the potential for substantial wealth generation for Limbaugh’s wingnut paymasters.
DDT was clearly effective in suppressing mosquito-born illness for quite a long time. Surely there are labile analogs that are effective but less objectionable?
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.
Here along the front range of the Rocky Mountains we have a few alternative newspapers available- you know, the kind not owned by Rupert Murdoch. They tend to be a bit Bohemian and consequently are shunned by righteous Dittoheads. Other parts of the country have them as well- college towns mostly. They cater to those of us who aren’t afraid to be known as liberals. These papers run a syndicated cartoon called This Modern World by a guy known as Tom Tomorrow.
Because of copyright issues, I’ll have to link to the site rather than paste an image.