Larry

I met an interesting man recently, named Larry. We were total strangers when we met, but circumstances threw us together, and we ended up having dinner. In the course of dinner, we shared our views on spiritual matters. This discussion was very fascinating to me.

Larry is a putative Christian at the moment, but I suspect that is in flux. I sensed from Larry a bit of dissatisfaction with his current state, which I generally heard as this:

  • The existence of God is required due to the existence of the physical universe. I have previously talked about the anthropic argument (that is, arguing for the existence of God based upon the evidence of nature). I find this position fairly satisfying, actually. I am continually struck by the wonders of nature, and how they seem to speak loudly about the existence of God. Certainly, a person of faith receives a strong jolt of confidence when he or she considers nature.
  • If God does exist (see above), then He / She would naturally want to communicate with His / Her creations. That is a very common argument, but it does not necessarily hold water in my view. I call this belief the Personal God. That is, the creator of the universe, with all of the trillions of galaxies, etc., wants to have a personal relationship with me, which includes monitoring my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. Several issues:
    • Many philosophers conclude that if God does exist, it would be utterly impossible for Him / Her to communicate with us. This view of God is referred to as the Divine Watchmaker. Deism holds this view, for example. Many founding fathers of the US, including Thomas Jefferson, for example, were famously deists. Thus, the idea that God is personal does not necessarily follow.
    • Even according to early Christian doctrine, it is not actually possible for God to “want” anything, due to His / Her eternal nature. This was the view of Augustine, for example, who famously stated that a special place in Hell was reserved for those who asked silly questions about such things. Augustine believed that God existed outside of the physical universe, and thus was not bound by space or time. Since He (we’ll stick with the masculine for the moment) does not exist within time, He is in the Eternal Now. Thus, He is perfectly wise, perfectly happy, perfectly at peace, etc. In that state, according to Augustine, God has no unmet desires and thus it is not possible for Him to “want” to be in relationship with His creation, or anything else for that matter.
  • And here is the clincher: Assuming God exists and wants to have a relationship with His creatures, then the Bible represents his attempt to do so. Bingo! And therein lies the rub. That simply does not follow logically, period. The collection of ancient documents we refer to as the Bible is simple one of dozens of alternative religious texts that exist on this planet, each of which is regarded as sacred. For example, the Buddhist scriptures represent the accumulated wisdom of the religion we know as Buddhism. Similarly the Hindu religion has several texts including the Gita, the Vedas, etc. And, finally, Islam has the Quran. One thing I did when I lost my faith in Christianity was to read many of these texts, and consider the claims made by each of them. I concluded that:
    • The competing claims of each religion cannot be reconciled.
    • There is no compelling reason to accept the writings of one religion (including the Bible) over any other. All religions have a similar basis for existence. Christianity is not unique in this regard, despite the claims of those within Christianity. Each set of writings of a given religion is a work of human culture, nothing more. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they can be transformational. But that does not make them divine, even if God exists.

The only reason that Larry accepted Christianity was because of his cultural context. If he had been born in Saudi Arabia, he would make a similar argument for Islam. Ditto for Bangalore with Hinduism, Tibet with Buddhism, etc.

Now, assuming that the Bible is not the Word of God, where does this leave me (and Larry)? Figuring it out on our own, I suppose. Based upon recent life experiences, I conclude that I am much better off doing that than trying to adhere to the teachings of an ancient religion based upon the assumptions of a different culture.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice

I have been thinking about the idea that religious people are somehow nicer or more compassionate than non-religious people. This seems to be a prevailing concept in our culture, especially among Christians. But is it true?

This website, which is by a Christian, points out that according to a large variety of measurements of morality, ethics, compassion, etc., Christians fare no better than non-Christians.

In my own life, I have experienced the “not-niceness” of Christian religion. Being a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian kind of made me an asshole. There were several things about this mindset that did not sit well with my personality at all:

  • As a Christian I was taught that the world was divided into two groups of people: Folks like me who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore going to heaven, and other folks who are lost, and are therefore going to Hell.
  • I was also taught that there is one Revealed Truth of the heart of God: The Holy Bible. Other so-called religious books were works of the devil.
  • Even where the Christian teachings were moral, I always complied with a reluctant heart, out of obligation and fear. Thus, I was not very loving and giving, oddly

Now that I am in what I call a “post-Christian” state, I seem to be nicer. At least that is what the folks around me (notably my wife) tell me. One thing I have noticed, especially with respect to my wife, is that my attitude about her dramatically shifted after I let go of the sin thing. Prior to that point, I loved my wife dearly, and wanted to be married to her. But there was something galling about the religious obligation. It was almost like I was doing something that I should do, according to the religious traditions, and that took some of the joy out of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to be with my wife, and I want her to be with me. But now I basically woo her continuously. I don’t assume that she will stay with me out of religious obligation. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. I actually want her to choose to be with me, continuously. The only way to achieve that is to truly love her, out of my heart, not out of duty. Thus, letting go of the idea of religious duty gave me something more in that very important relationship.

The first two points, though, caused me to have great hubris. When I was a Christian, I was utterly convinced of my own righteousness, and the correctness of my position. I had no doubt at all about that! And that made me completely obnoxious to many people, especially non-Christians. I looked down upon these poor lost souls. I prayed for them, but only in a hope that they would become like me. It never occurred to me that I might have something to learn from them.

Since I let go of religion, I have been having a lot more interesting relationships with random perfect strangers. I seem to be able to relate better. Since I am now equally convinced that I know absolutely nothing, I am more teachable.

Not saying I have arrived here, but I seem to be on the right track.

Lie to Me

You know the show Lie to Me? The main character (played beautifully by Tim Roth) is Dr. Cal Lightman, a famous scientist who has created a foolproof way to tell if someone is lying.

Now, imagine with me, please, that Dr. Lightman is standing in front of you, and he is holding a gun. Also, that gun is pointed at the person who is the most precious to you. If that is yourself, then that gun it pointed at you. Otherwise, it is pointed at your wife, daughter, mother, etc. Got it?

OK, Dr. Lightman speaks. He says: “I will ask you a question, and you must answer me honestly. I mean truly honestly. Remember that I will know if you lie. And if you lie, even just a little, I will pull this trigger.”

And here’s the question:

Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?

Ouch! A classic hobson’s choice: If you say yes (I have written previously that the virgin birth is highly unlikely, although certainly not impossible), then you are probably lying. Even most Christians have a dark corner of their soul where they doubt the virgin birth a bit. And so, the person you love the most is going to die.

On the other hand, if you state truthfully that you doubt the virgin birth, even a teensie bit, you stand a chance of losing your salvation. Salvation is by faith after all, according to many, many verses in the NT. For example, Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew 10:37 – 39

If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.

Suffice it to say, that the standard held up in the Fox’s Book of Martyrs is pretty high: You have to be willing to die for your faith. Thus, the standard of faith is absolute, unwavering, unquestioning belief, even in the face if imminent death to yourself or your loved ones.

After all, the folks who were persecuted by Nero in Fox’s Book of Martyrs were willing to die rather than simply place a pinch of incense at the foot of a pagan idol. The pagans did not even demand that the Christians cease to worship Jesus. No, their beef was that the Christians insisted that their pagan gods were not gods at all, but rather demons and such.

At the time I first read Fox’s Book of Martyrs, I found these folks admirable. Now I simply find them stupid. Don’t get me wrong: I do not endorse or approve of the tactics of the Romans in the persecution of Christianity during the early centuries of our current era. (Neither do I endorse or approve of the actions of the Catholic Church during the period following Constantine.) But the pagans did have a good point, if a poor way of demonstrating it: Christianity is a pretty exclusive club. You are either in or you are out. And near as I can tell, the difference between in and out is in what you believe. Specifically, what you believe in terms of hard, specific historical facts like the virgin birth.

I did it myself when I was a Christian. I insisted to everyone I knew that the choice they faced was the Dr. Lightman choice. Jesus is the way, and the only way, to God. If you would be saved, you must surrender everything. You must buy it all, hook, line and sinker. You must be willing to die, or even to see your most beloved one die, rather than deny your faith. Otherwise, you are not a Christian at all. You are simply an imposter: A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A tear, waiting to be rooted up on the day of judgement and burned in the fire.

If that’s true (and I will admit that I sincerely hope not), I am royally screwed at this point.

Yeah, no kidding. I will burn in Hell. No doubt about it. If the Christian gospel is true, then I am damned.

Bummer.

The reason I say this is because I have looked at the hard, specific, historical facts that I am required to believe in order to be a Christian. In fact, I have made it one of my life’s tasks to understand the evidence (or lack thereof) for the truth of these facts. I have spent hundreds of hours of study in doing so. Certainly, there is no one that I have met who has studied this stuff as hard as I have, and few who have done nearly as much.

My conclusion? There is no way to know for sure. But the virgin birth is highly doubtful in my mind. Thus, I would be forced to answer Dr. Lightman truthfully: I do not believe that the virgin birth is necessarily true.

Now here is my final question, and the point of this blog: Because I have made a serious study of the culture, history, and language of the ancient world, so that I could better understand all of this, and because I have earnestly, and with all my heart, sought to understand this, and because I have concluded that I do not believe in the absolute truth of the things that religion claims, shall I then be damned by God?

I mean, what about the poor, dumb bastard who drifts through life with a vague idea of what is going on, but never bothers to question what he is told from the pulpit. Shall he go to heaven because of his laziness, while I burn in Hell because of my diligence?

Shall I believe six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland? Is that the price of heaven?

I mean come on! Is that fair? You tell me.

Empathy

Empathy is an interesting thing. It causes me to behave in a way that seems at first glance to be against my own self interest. But it is?

I have been pondering this. Empathy is at the core of what makes us human. We are so social, as social as any creature on the planet. And we are fairly unique in having empathy.

One guy I love to listen to is Jeremy Rifkin, who talks about empathy a lot. As Rifkin points out, empathy is something we are quite selective about. We tend to have more empathy for some folks than others. In the beginning, humans really only had empathy for their own family group, and regarded all other humans as hostile. (Paleolithic humans still live in pretty much this same way today.) These humans had tremendous empathy for their own family members. But for others, not so much.

Enter religion. As Rifkin points out, religion gave humans a way to expand their empathy set: By identifying another creature as being part of my religious group, I get to have more empathy for that person. I have seen this play out in my own life and the life of my family. For example, there was recently a flood in our area, and some folks we knew lost everything. My wife and I know these people because of religious affiliations from the past. As a result, we gave them clothes, food, etc. Another family down the street who was not in our religious group, we did not even care to look in on them.

So, this family is inside our empathy set, which is defined, at least in part, by religion.

Given that empathy causes me to give away things I need and make other sacrifices, the question is: How did empathy arise in human consciousness? I think I have an answer for that one.

Assume a proto-humanoid male is in the rain forest in some ancient time. He has an interesting mutation: He has developed what Rifkin calls “mirror neurons”. That is, when he sees another creature who he identifies as being like him who is having some kind of experience (say intense pain), his neurons light up in exactly the same manner as the creature who is suffering. In this way, this individual experiences (to a certain extent) the suffering of the other creature.

This causes our male humanoid (we will call him Lim) to suffer more than other humans around him. But he is also able to relate to the experiences of other humans better.

One day he comes upon a female. She is badly hurt! Her ankle is seriously twisted and bruised. She cannot walk at all. Worse, she has been stranded here for some time. She is very hungry, thirsty, and tired.

He finds that he feels some of her distress as well. He ponders what he has done when he has been in a similar situation. Suddenly, he has a remarkable idea. He will bring her food! So he goes to a place where he knows there are some ripe berries, and uses a large leaf to carry a bunch of these back to the female. She hungrily devours them with great joy.

Then he goes to the river and after some fumbling finds a hollow gourd that he fills with water. Again, she receives the water gratefully.

Finally, he lies down beside her and cuddles with her for warmth. In this manner, they fall asleep together.

The next day, she is feeling much better. She finds that she likes him, so they have sex. She continues to enjoy his company, so she stays with him, and they have several children, which inherit this odd mutation. Because these young children are able to exercise this new-found ability to form empathetic bonds, they make exceptionally good mates, and they easily find a partner, and in turn reproduce again.

And so on and so forth, until the entire human race runs on empathy.

Remember this, please: Evolution encourages one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Whatever improves the chances of reproduction (including the rearing of competent, viable adult offspring who can in turn reproduce) will be selected by evolution. Thus, although empathy seems to be against my best interests (in the sense of material belongings, time, etc.) it dramatically improves my chances of reproducing. In this way, the development of empathy is fairly obvious.

More later.

Transformational Thinking

The Human Consciousness Programm perhaps could be compared to the personality, but the HCP also includes all of the autonomic stuff, like sensory processing. I was playing with this a bit today while walking. I do a 2 mile loop most days with my dog, Diogee. While we were walking, I was playing with my sensory perception functions. Like switching awareness to the visual: Focus on that for a while, and notice how I can focus on different things, and how other things fade into the background when I do so. Similarly, switch my awareness to my hearing, and notice how I can focus my attention on a bird. Or there! That’s Diogee walking beside me. Or the sounds of my own footsteps. Or the sounds of my own breathing. And now switch to the emotional state. Ahhh! I have some anxiety going on. What is that about? OK, I need to pay some bills.

Again, thinking about thinking, as broadly as possible, and especially if I include things like emotions and sensory awareness in the generic term “thinking”. All while engaging the “Watcher”, or unbiased, nonjudgmental observer, as the yoga crowd likes to call it. The part of me that can observe myself.

I was pondering how similar this approach is to Christianity in many ways. For example, while I utterly reject the idea of sin, listening intently to my own thoughts makes me acutely aware of my own dysfunction. I definitely know that I am far from perfect, which is certainly consistent with the idea of sin. Also, the act of reprogramming is very similar to repentance. After all, the Greek word translated as “repent” in the NT literally means to turn down another path, or to change your mind. Repentance never really worked for me very well, though. I have analyzed why it didn’t, and near as I can tell, due to the cultural issues within Christianity, I was focused on the wrong things. Like sex, once again.

I was immediately told after I got saved about how bad sexual lust is, and how I should never, ever masturbate. This from all of my male Christian single friends. I, like the lemming I am, immediately take a solemn oath with my buddy to never masturbate again, ever. Broke that one within 24 hours, with great condemnation. This thing had me balled up for years, during which I made no real progress spiritually. All this negative energy about masturbation and male heterosexual desire, generally.

Eventually, I figure out that all of my male single Christian friends were masturbating just as much as I was, and were all just as condemned. And the message from the pulpit only made it worse! I was actually invited to seminars where I could be set free from masturbation!

Of course, that’s all bollocks. Masturbation is something I should keep private but certainly not condemn myself for. It is a harmless and healthy release, after all. And sexual desire is a great thing overall. I wouldn’t be here without it! So deciding that a basic autonomic response like sexual desire is somehow “sinful” doesn’t help me at all. Although I have no doubt that my male single Christian friends were well-meaning, they were obviously just as deluded as I was, and the culture was keeping them just as immobilized. This example is one of the most glaring, but there were many others.

In order to help me spot things that are broken inside me, I basically set up a watcher to keep track of my emotions and to tell me if I am feeling anything negative, like resentment, sadness, sullenness, loneliness, or fear. Once I spot that, I go after what’s driving it. Generally, given enough time and thought, I can figure it out. Almost always, there is some form of selfishness or greed behind it. Like insecurity over Ruth leaving me. That’s really my selfish little greedy desire to keep her with me. Fear over the impact on my life if she were to leave me, etc. Not wanting to have to endure the pain, discomfort and stress of a break-up. And so forth.

Solution: Understand and accept that Ruth can leave me if she likes. She is perfectly free to do so, and there is nothing that I can do to directly prevent it. I do not own her, regardless of what the Marriage contract might say. Would it be painful if she left me? Definitely. Would I survive? Very likely. Would it make the slightest difference in the lifespan of the universe? None at all. And, after all, I don’t even know if I am going to take my next breath. So how does creating a stressful emotion like insecurity help either me or Ruth? Am I not simply detracting from both our joy, peace and happiness by surrendering to a parasite emotion like insecurity?

And it’s all about stressing about the future, anyway. Which, again, does not exist. Worrying about the future is meaningless. (Not to say that I do not need to be responsible and make plans: I do. That’s different from fear, worry or stress, though.)

How then shall I live? First, by loving Ruth as unselfishly and purely as possible, I will be a person she wants to be with. My insecurity and persistent need to be constantly reassured sure as *&^# won’t do that! Instead, I will cultivate an attitude of quiet, humble confidence. I will aspire to be a person who will lend to her joy, peace and happiness. I will enjoy the present moment that I am spending right now in her presence, and cherish the journey that brought this amazing creature to me.

So, by carefully and methodically listening to my own thoughts, I am trying to become a better person. Inherent in that process, though, is a sense of humility. The more I get inside my head, the more aware I become of my own imperfections and need to be more empathic. How broken and selfish I am. And, hopefully, I make some progress in the quest to become more selfless and empathic in the process. Again, a similarity to taking on the mind of Christ from the Christian perspective.

Of course, there is no end state. This process will keep going on for the rest of my life.

More later.

Memes vs. Modules

I have been studying a bit on the area of brain science, much of which explores the idea that human consciousness is best understood as a piece of software. A good example is Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett lays out a theory that religion is a meme, basically a self-replicating idea which propagates in human culture in a manner similar to a gene. Dennett thinks that human consciousness can best be thought of as a collection of memes. This idea was first proposed (at least so far as I know) by Richard Dawkins’s seminal work The Selfish Gene.

I find that I do not agree entirely with Dennett’s analysis, though. Based upon my own experience, I still believe that the cultural phenomenon we refer to as religion has a genetic basis. I call this basis the Faith Module. I refer to the units of design within human consciousness as modules, and some of these modules (the Instinctive Modules) have a genetic basis. One of these, I believe, is the Faith Module.

In my own personal experience, my Faith Module fired, big time, when I was 28 years old. Prior to this point in my life, I had dabbled a bit in religion, largely as a result of influence from my wife at the time. But I regarded religion as a social club. I did not take any of the ideas of religion any more seriously than I took  the science fiction books which I loved to read at the time.

Until my mid-twenties, I had a serious case of what psychology calls infantile omnipotence. This is the idea that I am invincible. Then a series of traumas hit me. The first trauma was my daughter who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 4 (although she had been an undiagnosed autistic for two years). This was followed by the death of my sister who committed suicide at the age of 28 (when I was 26).

And then very quickly, I lost my job by getting fired for being stupid, and had to move to a city where I knew no one in order to find work. As a result of all of this, I was simultaneously emotionally devastated and socially isolated. Also, my entire sense of invincibility had collapsed, and I was at an all time low in terms of self confidence and self esteem. At that time, an older man approached me and showed an interest in my life.

I was desperate. The deal was simple: Believe, truly believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, died on the cross for my sins, and rose from the dead and is at the right hand of God the Father. Then accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. At that point, I will be saved, and Jesus will take over my life. Although I will be aware, my life will now belong to Jesus.

And the unspoken part of the deal: By accepting these historical facts on Faith (i.e., complete, uncritical, uncompromising adherence to the truth of these tenets, with never ever even admitting to a shred of doubt), I would have access to the love and support of my new friend, plus his entire social group. I would obtain all kinds of emotional and physical support as part of the deal.

No problem. I had nothing to lose. I took the deal. Big time. And I did this without reservation. That is, I completely believed these propositions. As I result, I became seriously buzzed by religion, and this buzz lasted for years.

When I say buzzed, I mean high. You know, euphoria, pleasure, whatever you want to call it. Anyone who says that Faith does not make you high has never experienced Faith, in my opinion. In any event, the Faith Module flooded my brain with all kinds of positive emotional sensations continuously until my delusions began to collapse. But it took a good 4 or 5 years for that to begin, during which period I had a very good time, believe me. I did make some terrible decisions during that period, though.

I found the experience of Faith very similar to my experience with believing in Santa Claus. In many respects, I think that Santa Claus can be thought of as a religion with training wheels. Certainly, believing the fiction about Santa Claus comes with very real benefits. And all I had to do was convince my parents that I had been good this year. Not that hard, assuming fairly loving parents.

Have you ever noticed how parents speak to their children when teaching them about Santa Claus, fairy tales, or similar things? There is a special voice I call the Faith Voice. I certainly did this with my own children. This voice for me is a little breathier. It has more variation in tone than normal, kind of sing-songy. And my Faith Voice is always accompanied with a loving smile that’s difficult to resist.

My children bought into a bit of my Faith Voice, but ultimately the Faith Module only really fired in one of them: My daughter. Both of my sons never really had the Faith experience, at least not up to this point in their lives. But they’re young. Who knows what the future holds?

So Faith is a module which enables me to believe something that my senses may disagree with. Certainly, during my normal daily life, I did not see a lot of folks who looked like Santa Claus and did the things he supposedly did. Thus, the story of Santa Claus can be thought of as astronomically improbable. I certainly reached that conclusion very early, much earlier than I let on to my parents. But remember those benefits? Believing in Santa Claus (or pretending to believe) is a really good deal.

But Faith is qualitatively different than believing in Santa Claus as well. In the case of Faith, if it truly fires (and I readily admit that many, many so-called Christians have never truly had a Faith experience), then my entire identity and survival becomes bound up with the idea of Faith. I would truly and sincerely die for my Faith, willingly and without reservation. If I am willing to sacrifice my life and potential to reproduce for something, then there must be a very, very good reason for this.

And I think I understand the reason fairly well. Again, evolution only favors reproduction. And we have established that Faith dramatically enhances one’s chances for reproduction. Enough said on that score.

On the meme vs. modules debate, I think the difference matters. (Again, technically the distinction is that a meme is merely an idea, whereas a module may have a genetic basis.) The difference matters because of the outcome in terms of how I approach life and society. One of the areas where I think Richard Dawkins is completely full of crap is the idea that we should make teaching children about God illegal. Aside from being fascist and ugly, it wouldn’t work: Assuming that Faith has a genetic basis, then trying to stop Faith from spreading would be stupid, evil, wrong-headed, crazy, etc. By assuming that religion is merely an idea, Dawkins goes down a very ugly and negative path.

Having said that, the Faith Module can be trained. As I have experienced in my own life, it is possible to unlearn the lessons of religion. A few years ago, I took the things that I believed on Faith and placed them on a mental shelf. I had figured out that being religious wasn’t working for me. I needed to do something else. So I evaluated and deconstructed the things I believed on Faith. Once I began to examine these beliefs, I found the evidence for them wanting. Eventually, I came to the state I am in now: I could no longer believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, etc., than I could fly to the moon of gossamer wings. Physically impossible.

More later.