Archive for August, 2011

Christian Atheist

Yes, I am a Christian atheist. Why a Christian atheist? It’s pretty much the only atheism I’ve had a chance to practice.

I started out as a loose Christian of sorts. Or as loose as you can if you’re born into the Bible belt, a belt that felt any thing but loose from early on.

I want to tell you the story of a boy we’ll call Jim.

Before he ever got to kindergarten, Jimmy found out people could die. It was that prayer he said every night that had the line, ‘if I should die before I wake,’ that gave him the idea.

“Mommy, how would I die?”

“It won’t be for a long time, Jimmy. Not ‘til you’re very old,” his mommy said. She pulled him to her chest, but he pulled his head away to see her face.

Jimmy’s brow wrinkled. “What’s it like if you die?”

“You become very quiet. You don’t breathe or talk anymore.”

Jimmy’s mouth gaped like a fish starving for air at the water’s surface.

“But why would I die?” Jimmy gasped for all the breath he could take in. How would death suffocate him? And no more talking! …how could he communicate with his mother then, with anyone? The chance to talk would be over with for ever.

His mother tried to keep her eyes from tearing. “Everybody dies,” she said.

Jimmy was inconsolable. He cried himself to sleep every night after his prayer. His mother didn’t know what to do. She didn’t think it was right to tell him to stop saying the prayer.

As time wore on, it wasn’t so much that Jimmy worked through his dread of death as he just wore himself out with it. Death remained a great monolith in Jimmy’s mind as the suffocating, stifling End. A school age Jimmy would draw from all this that if he had anything important to say he’d better say it. In order to keep his fear of death at bay, Jimmy vowed to determine what was important and true. This would be the standard he would bear.

Jimmy started his search for ultimate answers that would lead him to study science, philosophy, and even religion. And to try to develop a voice with which to say to those who came after, You’re not alone.

***

August 18, 2011 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

Spiritual truth vs. Literal truth

Our minds often work in, and we typically talk and explain things by way of, analogies. “The 9-11 attack was like the attack on Pearl Harbor.” Some points of both attacks may correspond, some don’t, probably most don’t. It may take the recognition of only a couple of points in common in our minds to declare an analogy valid. All the more likely if it is we who suggest the analogy and less likely if it is someone else. The philosophical quicksand that analogies are built on await, ever ready to disappoint pro- and opponent alike.

In some instances our understanding of the world, and therefore our explanations, are also limited by our senses—we can’t see the infra-red part of the spectrum, if we did, there are a lot of hot things we wouldn’t touch.

And for simplicity, it’s things of an apparent nature. ‘You take a potato, stick it in a hot fire for 20 minutes and it’s done.’ We didn’t need to describe what took place chemically on the molecular scale in the creation of the fire or the cooking of the potato. We can’t see the microscopic and that also brings in the matter of scale. We interact with things at a certain size–on our scale of magnitude. We might agree that that is the factually descriptive level at which the events took place. On our scale, we cooked a potato in a fire.

What if we have poetic license and we choose to express the cooking of the potato in the hyperbolic purple prose of a metaphor, ‘We offered up an apple of the earth to the firegod and in exchange he nourished our souls.’

If we talk in metaphors, they are just high blow analogies. And sometimes the metaphor can capture a feeling, a mood, that mundane speech cannot. If little Suzy’s cat, Felix gets run over by a beer truck, a person might console her by saying he’s gone to a ‘better place.’ Suzy’s thinking, Shoebox buried in the back yard? But we say ‘No, that great cat paradise in the sky.’ He’s gone to his reward, in other words, for being a great cat. Now he’s beyond pain. No one’s carelessness or lack of respect can hurt him now. We reach for appropriate closure. One that ends Felix’s story well. A philosophically satisfying end. A spiritually right end. As we live long enough, you, me, and humanity, we build up a body of these ideas, these consoling old saws. The more spiritual metaphors take on more meaning as they elevate the various passages of life above the mundane. These high concept metaphors that seem to pique something bordering on the spiritual within us take on a significance that we might think of as ‘spiritual truths.’
You can probably see where I’m going with this. ‘Spiritual truths,’ among other things, might be how reality would be structured in a perfect world, or perhaps in a just world. Or one that would be in alignment with the human spirit (real, secular human spirit, reality-side, not supernatural). Or they might be what’s know about this world when revealed by our knowledge of the transcendent, or what was revealed to us via our knowledge of other spiritual truths. (What I’m building here is a case for how humans built or may continue to build a body of sacred thought, writings, eventually beliefs, and even a religion.)

Differing faith traditions may have different truths (if they didn’t, they’d be the same religion, right?) but there will almost certainly be similarities as well. I think (and here goes an analogy built of metaphors) that the differences(hundreds of religions) might truly have been the tower of Babel that God chose to confuse the religions of man with, a religion for every tribe. And that confusion is never more pronounced than when the ‘fundamentals’ are adhered to. Notice how the revealed truths are at odds between the Christian, the Jew, and the Muslim and as we say, those deities were all the one god of Abraham. Then if you want to delve into esoteric minutiae, one Christian denomination disputes the beliefs of the next.

I think this is the source of much of the problem we have with religious folk. Don’t you do a mental guffaw when you hear them say they’ve got the truth? And, don’t they seem to indicate it is a truth of a higher order. Then it’s easy to get exasperated when those guardians of the TRUTH support those sacred truths by attacking time tested facts of geology, history, and science and re-writing them to conform to their interpretation of scripture.

It’s kind of pathetic. Maybe we can sympathize. We know what it’s like to be thought to have kooky ideas. I think we can argue that we know more about being denigrated for those ideas. They say our nonbelief is our religion. For some of us it may be. Our thoughts are more along the lines of thinking that if our presidents tell us we’re a Christian nation, we have to bow to God to pledge our allegience to our nation (although I say, “with religious freedom” at that point), and to win over the minds of the youth they are re-writing the history and biology books to conform to their beliefs.

So, though we may have compassion for the individual, in the aggregate they trap us in a bizzaro world of religious zombies. If it’s the 78% of the U.S. population that the Pew Forum cites as Christian and the 4% atheist/agnostic, they are not the put upon faith they’d like to portray themsleves as. I think that comes from the 26% of the U.S. population that are evangelicals finding resistance to their exuberant proselytizing of their beliefs.

I think the evangelicals feel a little outcastish that there’s not public support for public proselytizing. Maybe the other ~73% feel that belief should be something private? There but for the grace of God go I. In other words, why do atheists speak out? For the same reasons that the GLBT community did (there’s an analogy again). Likewise with blacks. If you’re the recipient of prejudice, denigration and other injustices raising the awareness of society’s collective consciousness is the necessary first step. Protest? Well, even our 1.4% atheist population doesn’t agree on that.

More on this in another post, but it appears more and more likely that religion got a boost somewhere in our last 200,000 years of human evolution. When we get all spiritual we get a little dopamine to juice our brain similar to when we fall in love. I think we take that mini-spiritual event as confirmation of our religious thought. In otherwords, in the (relatively) normal operation of the human brain, religious behaviour gets an internal reward. A reward that makes people follow the ‘line of bread crumbs’ to find ever greater rewards (evidently even most believers turn away at this point–the evangelicals go on alone?). Some can follow this to a fullblown ecstatic religious experience. Get there by fasting in the desert and maybe you too can become a prophet.

What’s all this got to do with spiritual truth? A lot. The same neurochemical rewards (dopamine and others), give us that feeling of internal validation for those spiritual thoughts, statements, beliefs. Doesn’t sound like much? Consider every religious epiphany that anyone ever had–there’s probably dopamine, serotonin, and maybe others behind them all. These are the chemicals that help us produce those peak experiences in life. They are definitely there for Eureka moments of the religious kind.

That, then, is one of the reasons that spiritual truth, sacred truth is revered as a special kind of knowledge. Add to that the social reinforcements–I call it rant, chant, dance, and trance–and you have powerful forces at work seemingly from every quarter. What’s the individual to do? Well, it’s a lot easier to conform than it is to sray from the fold, is it not?

August 14, 2011 at 10:33 pm Leave a comment

The Anthropological Origins of Religion

(There is some conjecture in this thesis or groups of theses. I can’t take credit for all these ideas. They’ve been garnered from many sources. I’m stringing them together which has probably been done by others before. I would especially like to cite The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. He is opposed on one point by Richard Dawkins: group level selection. Wade believes that the ubiquity of religion points to group level selection. That is, group, clan, troupe, tribe being “naturally” selected as an evolution adaptation.)

For the sake of argument I’d like to transport you to the Aurignation culture, one of the early European cultures of Cro-Magnon man. The culture of that troupe or tribe was their way of knowing the world and who they were. The need for identity, for the self and the group is very strong. It is inextricably intertwined, this group identity, with the group’s origin and leadership. Natural questions about self and group put to the test the alpha male (leadership), the group, and the self. Such questions as: Is the leader’s authority legitimate? Is the group fair and just? Am I in the right group?”

Cro-Magnon is a term that has been largely dropped. Anatomically modern humans is the more correct term. Consider them synonymous.

Religion was that interlocking puzzle piece that meshed with so many of the unknowns, the unanswerable questions of life, into one little black box. Religion said ‘this is who we are because this is how we answer these questions.’ Another way to put it, religion was a tool of man’s among very few tools because his mind was way ahead of his culture. At the Cro-Magnon point, those individuals had the rough equivalent of our minds… but their culture was just budding, wholly inadequate to their fears and concerns.

Cro-Magnon’s mind demanded answers, but he was the only one around who cared about his questions. So he could only reason from what he could see–with his limited understanding. He saw things that had visible effects in his world, sun, water, weather, animals, and so he reasoned backward via an anthropocentric apotheosis of those effects to some personified cause that must have intended them. ‘The great spirit was angry with us and flooded our camp.”

Religion can go to the root man’s sociopolitical nature because it offers God or his nominee as an overarching ‘alpha male.’ For the human troupe this is the ultimate or extreme legitimate leader. Maybe this is one reason that religion offers so much, as it evidently does, around the world to its followers—it locks into eons old primate evolutionary realities. If you’re unable to visualize the hierarchy in, say, a chimpanzee troupe, consider the feudal system—it shares a variation of the organizational structure of a primate (subsuming human as well) troupe: serfs, their lords, then kings with their divine right—authority validated by God. Just ask them, eh?

Certainly, today every person is a social critic and may be ‘hardwired’ to be one. Every primate troupe has a leader who is potentially subject to continual challenge, in a real way this is an ongoing quest for an authority that is beyond question. In reality, society is typically flawed, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Religion offers something of a utopia, a society perfected. To the extent that societies are less than perfect, religion, typically with a deity, offers the answers to the mysteries of the world by a personal embodiment of those mysteries in a caring entity who’s involved in the world and its being.

Believers may have gone for this package deal. That is, rather than accepting the idea that ‘there is a god’ as a first premise, they simply wanted the entire operational frame work of belief, reverence for the sacred, the favor of the satiated god, avoiding the wrath of unplacated gods, etc. In reality the individual’s culture presupposed a god’s existence before the individual was on the scene. Thus there was a tradition, and as far as the culture was concerned: ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, i.e., if you are going to partake in the culture, you accept it in its entirety, religious beliefs and all. Early on, the culture projected a god or gods; this Great Spirit was the apotheosis of nature. It was the existential equivalent of the question, ‘All right! Who’s in charge here?’ that mankind seems to have the burning need to know. Religion, then, was yet another aspect of how the banding together of the social tribe met the needs of the individual as well as the group: the culture had religious answers for the unfathomable mysteries of the world.

Later in prehistory, as cultures met, the possibility of abandoning one god and accepting another became feasible—though still not easy. If people liked the god-ideas of another culture, they may have imagined a god-message something like this: ‘Since you know there must be a god you should believe in me for I am He.’

The original dialogue between man and god carried over from pre-history into historical times. There had to be some feedback from the divine or else questions would arise: Weren’t the priests any good or was the religion false? And, lo, the word of god was invented. The priests learned to write in order to take divine dictation. After all it was their caste who would receive THE WORD.

Various tools were employed to facilitate communing with the divine. Fasting was cheap. Drugs were somewhat effective. Dreams were a source, and dreams under the influence of fasting or drugs also yielded some results. Really, anything that would produce altered states or hallucinations was viable. Great suffering was a theme in Christianity that nominated the sufferer for worthiness to receive the divine communication.

So the Written Words accumulated in sacred scrolls and texts and this body of work became revered. It was necessary for the viability of a god and his religion that this was a knowledge that subsumed all knowledge, all culture, that was eternal and transcendent. With a religion’s tradition, rituals, and integral place in the culture, it’s a wonder a believer would ever stray. Though I suppose if one’s own god seemed ineffective, as I expect occasionally they must, the believer might well see greener grass in another tribe’s beliefs, ‘Yeah, there must be a god. This guy’s myth from his culture says that God is Their Grand-High Mucky-Muck. He’s got a tradition and a lot of followers. He must know who he is. Therefore, he is GOD.’ ”

I prefaced these thoughts with Richard Dawkin’s opposition to group level natural selection. He has also said that religion is a group activity so natural selection at the individual level would have no effect. In other words, religion isn’t an evolutionary adaptation at the individual level either.

Dawkins is an authority, of course, but in logical arguments, an appeal to authority is a fallacy. Dawkins lock on his position is his statement that groups don’t have genes only individuals do. Meaning tht the natural selection of nonexistent genes mean no natural selection at all.

We all to often consider evolution as a driving force. With all that has been accomplished in the world around us, it certainly seems so. But the mechanism of evolution is as much a deletion of genes that have the less successful “survival strategy.”

Religion confers benefit on individual and the group of which they are a part. Some of those benefits have implication for survival. Sincere caring for each other, ministering to mind and body, a social network, food and other emergency aid, support for the family. The holier thou art, the more likely thou art to find a bride and ‘be fruitful and multiply.’

Group membership vs. group ostracism meant life and death up into the 1900’s. Is there any doubt about how effective being cast our of the group would have been a hundred thousand years ago?

These are first individual benefits, though. Religion’s presence in every human culture speaks for itself. Is there any doubt how much more strength and resolve a human tribe would have when bolstered by religion–bring that identity, that solidarity, that resolve into battle against a tribe that didn’t and, all other things being equal, the outcome can be anticipated.

Victorious in battle leads to increasing population. Tribes split when they get too large. But who will be able to call for help when attacked. Those godless heathens on the attack or all the children of the Grand-High Mucky-Muck?

It is too easy to underestimate religion’s place in a lot of lives. True, that place has eroded some in modern society. The responsive cultures and social safety nets offer alternatives to being a member of a religion. The humanistic caring within a culture and even by one culture for another has been a source that has reached out to those in need.

Where will it go from here? The wish, the aspiration, the caring and the outreach of modern society is in flux. Humanity has made a tremenous upward climb. There have been some horrendous backslides, too. But the social and ethical progress of even that last few hundred years is impressive. Humankind is toying with the ability to direct its own future. The liberal believers and the nearly-believers and the humanists will be seen as a cooperative force for good. We should offer that level of cooperation openly. If we embrace it, it will embrace us. We can help believers keep the best their religions have to offer. We might all find happiness in that quasi-utopia.

August 13, 2011 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

The Pulpit and the Pew

The Pew Research Center can get you hopping around their website like a videophile seeking the energy nuggets of their computer games. They are the folks who come up with the percentages of the religious in America. How many are atheists? That sort of thing. We have hung our worldview on those numbers.

Haven’t you heard a few statistics being slung around? Perhaps we’ve all slung a few. “95% of Americans believe in God.” “12% of the US population are atheists.”

The Pew even has a website, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

I imagine they catch a lot of criticism–from all sides. If we reflect on how easy it is to misunderstand someone, then extend that through the population of a survey sample, unforseen ambiguity in the questions or the responses can become apparent only too late. I forget the exact number but the results of a survey “determined” that about 20% of the American people were identified as having no affiliation with a religion. The conclusion lept to, however, was that they were all atheists.

On the page, Belief in God, you will find this introduction to another survey:

“Not All Nonbelievers Call Themselves Atheists

According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 5% of American adults say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit, but only about a quarter (24%) of these nonbelievers actually call themselves atheists.”

Now that would seem to shave our numbers to 1.25% of the adult US population–an exceedingly razor thin number indeed.

From frustrating statistics–that we just can’t live without–I’d like to draw your attention to an article circulating “Atheist clergy in Dutch churches” I found it at Christian Concern, August 6, 2011(not the original source).

Paraphrasing, One in six clergy in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) and six other denominations is either an atheist or agnostic. “Klaas Hendrikse, who leads a PKN church wrote a book called Believing in a Non-Existant God which prompted the denomination to consider removing him. However, having found that his views were so widely shared amongst clergy in the denomination they decided not to single him out.” !!! (Exclamation points mine.)

Presumably, they must be pretty certain of their statistics. SO MANY directions to go from here!? Wake up call to the denomination– “OH! So that’s what we believe.” What a position to come out from! Can’t happen here. Although I don’t know a thing about this denomination in the Netherlands. I only know Europe is secularizing faster than we are. These events certainly fit that mold.

Along the denominational divides, I’ve attended a Unitarian Universalist church off and on over the years. The churchgoers there think each other are about all atheists. It’s still in the Bible Belt so one doesn’t shout it out. Still, the figurative question, “Are you one, too?” is above a whisper.

Above a Whisper
Still, religion is alive and well(?), at least in the U.S., and it takes some courage to come out atheist. I beleive the thesis has been afloat for a while that those who emigrated to the U.S. for religious freedom brought with them more than their share of the God gene–or some proclivity toward faith. The upshot is that being immersed in our gene pool is as good as being genetically baptized.

Whatever the realities that brought us and religion together, American Chritianity is imbedded in our culture. You can almost hear its background hum. It’s always there. Atheism, humanism, freethought–all need to start a chorus so that we are part of that culture, our culture, and raise our voices until there is a steady hum. Be here now for each other. This is the instant value of communties we create, even if only cyber communities. This counts! It’s immediate. The internet is immediate. Who would have thought So many middle easterners could have organized, even if impromptu, to challenge theocratic or despotic rule? If it can free them, it can free us.

August 6, 2011 at 10:05 am Leave a comment


Hello

I write for agnostics, freethinkers, atheists and humanists. In my nonfiction, the purpose is the celebration of our noble human spirit. The general pursuit may be Evolutionary Theology, though believers seem to populate that field (so maybe it's evolutionary Humanism). By looking at who we are and where we came from, we can derive much meaning, and perhaps more importantly, understanding, as well as some sense of where we could go.

Religion is God’s Way of Showing Us it’s Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought

This title is an upcoming book at the publisher's now. I'd like feedback on this title. It's meant to make people think and feel something. And to hint at things for both believers and non- on multiple levels. The book is of a wider scope, though, one which is ultimately a way to grasp more meaning for ourselves. Believers are always telling us our lives don't have meaning without a god. We often counter that it's more meaningful to be looking for our own meaning than to be arbitrarily ascribed it by an imaginary supernatural being. Ultimately, and this is what I think is unique about this book, you'll see how we can be just as spiritual in our own way. Since we've inhertited a capacity for religion (some more than others) as an evolutionary adaptation, believers and non- are both potentially spritual in the same way--but it is an earthly, secular spirituality in which we all can share.