Tag Archives: science and religion

Act of Balance

They call it the green-eyed monster. Jealousy. Under its weightier name of envy, it becomes a deadly sin. I often wonder if envy isn’t behind the debate that seems to have atheists and believers in religion talking past one another. Each seems to want, it appears to me, what the other has. Atheism has emerged in this new century as the current brand of intellectualism. Those who rely on reason alone don’t require comforting ideas such as God or salvation to get along in a world that has learnable rules and no magic. On the other hand, as an article by Barbara J. King on NPR points out, some religionists (Alister McGrath, while good for illustrative purposes, may not be the most representative choice) insist that atheists miss out on the meaning of life. Goal-oriented behavior, which we all understand, in a traditional monotheistic context is a divine mandate. We want to get to a better place either here on earth or after we die, and God has given a set of rules to follow to enable us to get there. Along the way, nature veritably drips with the dewy beauty with which God has infused the universe. Those Mr. Spocks among us miss it all, for their non-nonsense approach to reality.

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It’s pretty clear, as I’ve traced it out here, that the believers envy the reputation of solid rationality readily claimed by scientists. We all would like to be able to prove we’re right. Pointing to a law of physics and declaring, “this law can never be broken” carries a satisfaction that is rare in the theological world. Still, I wonder if some atheists aren’t just a little jealous of the teleology of having a goal set by someone else. Heaven and Hell may be passé, but you have to admit that having challenging rules laid out is somewhat invigorating. Doing something because you “should” can infuse a sense of meaning into life. Some people, if they could just do what they wanted, would opt for no more than eating, sleeping, and meeting biological necessities. They sometimes claim religion gives them the motivation to do more. It can make a difference if a deity takes the initiative.

You’ll never, however, be able to prove a religious point empirically. Gravity pulls things downward as surely as sparks fly upward. And we can send a person into space to prove it’s true. No astronauts, as far as we can prove, have ever seen God in space (RIP, Edgar). Reason and emotion, religion and science, thought and action—these things need each other in order for a balanced life. Problems arise, it seems to me, if we take an extreme position. Life is complicated, and simple answers just don’t apply. Perhaps if we allowed for a bit more balance, we might all find life just a bit more satisfying.

Not Your Father’s Demon

AmericanPossRegan MacNeil is a name that can still send shudders up and down stout spines. Despite advances in CGI and special effects, The Exorcist is consistently rated among the scariest movies of all time. Demon possession, clearly, is a very troubling thing. American Possessions, by Sean McCloud, is not a place to go to find Catholic priests expelling the forces of darkness. Subtitled Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, the book, one might suspect, is saying more than it seems to be letting on. This is a book about Third Wave evangelicalism and its demon-fighting manuals. Although the term “Third Wave” may be unfamiliar, the next time you go to a Tea Party you’ll know you’re among them. These born again uber-capitalists believe in a literal demonic world. In fact, demons are so common that Jesus would’ve had a hard time keeping up with their exponential economic growth. These demons are more frightening than those that possessed Regan. The are more akin to a different Reagan.

Especially popular among Pentecostals (the fastest growing form of Christianity) this modern day belief in demons sees them in places Jesus didn’t think to look. Family curses (at places ruled out in the Bible, but still, apparently, possible), addiction, depression, sexual urges—these are all demonic. And once these modern demons are cast out, unlike that of Regan, they can come back. And if they don’t possess you they will oppress you. And they can live in your material goods, your house, and even the land it is built upon. They are everywhere, and they have to be fought against constantly. They also, apparently, vote Republican.

This view of the world, strange as it is to many people with a basic education in science, motivates a large sector of the United States population. Expelling these demons requires a specific view of Christianity—a view that absolutely excludes Catholics. And it is a view that promotes free market economics, blaming the victims of poverty for allowing themselves to be oppressed by demons. Many aspects to this belief system will strike the reader as completely unbelievable, all the more for being so seriously believed. At the same time, we are told, we should pay no attention to religion, at least as educated people. The problem with this is that these true believers vote. And the kingdom they would have come on earth is, in a way they would certainly deny, possessed.

Thinking about Thought

The history of thought can be compared to a slow-moving pendulum. At other times it can be more like a ping-pong game. Acceptability for ideas can take time, but sometimes the perceptions change rapidly. Having been raised in a small town in a Fundamentalist setting, it is difficult to assess where exactly the “status quo” was when I was growing up, but by the time I had reached college it was pretty clear that the challenge science posed to my particular brand of religion was pretty firmly entrenched. Materialism—in the philosophical sense—had obviously gained several champions. B. F. Skinner and his followers applied this template to human beings, and it became fairly common to hear that we were basically automatons. (Ironically, double predestination in the Calvinism I was learning about taught pretty much the same thing.) Today there are even more vocal heralds proclaiming that all that is, is material. If it can’t be measured empirically, it can’t exist. The pendulum, or ping-pong ball, has come to one side of the table, or arc, awaiting rebuttal.

An article in Scientific American from two years ago (my personal pendulum sometimes moves slowly as well) asks the question “Is Consciousness Universal?” The article by Christof Koch describes panpsychism, the theory that anything beyond a certain level of organization is conscious. Koch begins by discussing dogs. Those of us who’ve spent time with dogs know that they are clearly conscious, although a materialist would say they are just as much dumb matter as we are. But panpsychism goes beyond dogs and horses and other “higher” mammals. Anyone who has taken the time to study any animal in depth, particularly those that are obviously mobile and can seek what they wish to find, knows that animals have will, and intension. The loss of meaning only comes with materialism.

Integrated information is the term Koch uses to describe the baseline of consciousness. Of course, this would need to account for more than the merely biological. Computers may be sufficiently complex, but the information they “possess” is not integrated, thus keeping them from being truly conscious. I’m not enough of a scientist to understand all the technicalities, but I do know that something as simple as common sense suggests that consciousness is part of all animals’ experience of life. As some scientists have long realized, feeling, or emotion, is integral to the thought process. Only when we realize that we share this world with a great variety of conscious creatures will we begin to make any progress toward understanding the difference between mind and mindfulness.

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First Stronghold

FIRST Robotics has a way of getting into your blood. Like many people of my generation, I learned about FIRST Robotics through my daughter. Our local high school has a robotics team and, as we quickly learned, the decision to join FIRST is a four-year family commitment. My wife and I were both involved at some level, despite being the world’s least likely engineers. I even served a term as the president of the foundation (responsible for funding the team). We made lasting friendships and grew in the lingo and odd humor that is FIRST. The founder and chief promoter of FIRST, Dean Kamen, is an unapologetic geek and has helped develop what some journalists are calling “the new cool.” Yesterday was launch. If you are a FIRST follower, I don’t have to explain that. In case you’re not, “launch” is the revelation of this year’s game. Teams now have six weeks to plan, design, and build their robots.

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Launch is a big deal. We haven’t been part of the competition for three years now and we still watch the live web-broadcast. The major players (Kamen, and Woodie Flowers) get in character and meet kids from various teams. They give inspirational talks. Dean Kamen told the kids “Don’t get stuck into today.” Technology changes too fast. What you learn in school are tools, because facts are available instantaneously on the internet. Those of us who retain facts are so yesterday that we’ve become the trivial pursuit generation. Any computer, let alone robot, could beat us. Woodie Flowers told the young audience thinking about careers that they must do what machines cannot do, otherwise their jobs will become obsolete. What could be more human than religion? What’s religion got to do with it? This is science and technology!

This year’s competition is FIRST Stronghold. The entire buildup of yesterday’s launch was a takeoff on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What is this I see before me? History? The Middle Ages were nothing if not religion run wild. This was a world ruled by bishops, popes and nobility. It was a world where no matter who you were, God trumped all. Technology meant that a trebuchet was a pretty sexy device and long distance communication traveled at the speed of a horse or human runner. (Or, I suppose, a trebuchet missile.) Now that the humanities have fallen victim to science, we look back to them for inspiration. It reminds me of John Keating in Dead Poets Society: “And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” This hasn’t changed since 1989. Or even 932 for that matter.

Seeing Things

SchwebelWe have to learn to see the world. Traditionally religion and science both had roles to play, but as science grew better at explaining physical causes, many consigned religion to mere superstition. In such a paradigmatic world, Lisa J. Schwebel’s Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas is something of an anomaly. Schwebel begins by noting that the Catholic Church has long accepted the reality of psi. As the branch of Christianity with the strongest commitment to furthering science, this itself might seem unusual. We are taught to see the world in a binary way: either this or that, not both. Books such as this challenge that convention, asking us to look at a world that doesn’t always conform to expectations. Parapsychology has made inroads from superstition to science because of testable hypotheses and statistically significant results. What it might mean is up for grabs.

Some claim that Catholicism is credulous. Actually, as Schwebel adequately demonstrates, criteria for declaring even spectacular events as miracles are amazingly high. Merely paranormal events seem common in comparison. In many ways, this is a disorienting book: the supernatural is assumed to exist, but miracles are treated as less common than the everyday supernatural. Those of us raised in a rationalist scholarly world might find the acceptance of that which we’ve learned is impossible just a bit unexpected. No doubt, visions of Mary are reported. Crowds often visit trees or highway underpasses where pareidolia impresses an image on the faithful. Schwebel, however, is discussing visions of another sort, and finds that they may involve the power of suggestion rather than the miraculous.

Faith healing, on the other hand, is something for which empirical evidence exists. Doctors still disagree about whether prayer speeds healing, but there have been many instances of unexpected healings that have occurred, apparently in relation to a person noted for bringing wellness about. Causality, of course, can’t be proven, but many people find themselves believing in a spiritual world after such an encounter. Perhaps that is what is so intriguing about books like this; they make readers uncomfortable in a world that is purely material. Finding a credentialed author who actually believes and has evidence to back her up is a rarity. Challenging conventions is part of the territory in most religions. Schwebel is simply straightforward about it.

The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.

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Make Believer

SmthgFunnyMy brother is way cooler than I ever hope to be. While I was busy learning all a tween and teen could about the Bible, he was listening to Lou Reed and David Bowie and Black Sabbath. Since the “door” between our rooms was only a curtain, I heard the forbidden sounds and, despite myself, had to admit that I liked what I heard. In fact, I once gave a lecture on Christian influence in secular rock music, and found many students staring at me in surprise for knowing so much about such debased music. In any case, when my brother recommends a book I know it will always be an adventure. Thus I came to read Corey Taylor’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven: (Or, How I Made Peace with the Paranormal and Stigmatized Zealots & Cynics in the Process). I didn’t want to admit to my brother that I’d never heard of Corey Taylor and that I couldn’t identify a Slipknot song even on Spotify, but the book sounded interesting, blending as it does bad-boy attitude with ghost hunting. November seemed a perfect time to read it. It could lead to some street cred on the bus.

It is difficult to distrust people like Taylor who write with absolutely no pretension (I’m a working-class kid, too). You know that what you’re getting is the real deal. It is also clear that like my brother and many rockers, Taylor is of above-average intelligence. Being smart can sometimes feel like a curse, and Taylor lashes out in several ways during the course of his narrative. He finds it odd to be an atheist who believes in, and has personally experienced, ghosts. I’m not sure that he would find it comforting to know that such a position is not at all as rare as he seems to think it is. Science deals with neither gods nor ghosts, and the average person is left to their own devices to decide who might speak with authority on such issues. Where are we supposed to look when scientists refuse to address such things? Personal experience is a powerful influence.

As with most books by opinionated, brash extroverts, it is difficult not to find yourself liking the writer. Trust may be too strong a word, but I do believe that Taylor writes without guile. After all, people have experienced ghosts for as long back as we’re aware. Why should it be any different for a celebrity? Is Taylor’s house haunted? (Or, more accurately are his houses haunted.) That’s a question no one can answer with certainty. Ghosts are beyond our realm of knowledge. Although plumbers can use scientific instruments, until actual scientists try to explain the immaterial we will be left to choose whom to believe. A metal singer can know just as much as a priest. Or even more, depending on the context.