Holy Hypothesis

The angry atheists have been center stage in the God debates over the last few years. Many of them have become household names. Often giving sweeping generalizations about what God is, they tear apart this highly improbable image with aplomb. Not that I like to get in the way of somebody’s innocent fun, but their approach to the question only antagonizes the opposition without converting them. I just finished Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. Like many who argue for atheism, Stenger is a highly regarded scientist. Unlike many, he offers a systematic, even-keeled account of his reasons for rejecting the divine. Indeed, the sub-title is straightforward—prosaic even—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. As befits a physicist, Stenger is careful to define his terms and is cordial enough to state that his book doesn’t cover the non-existence of deities per se, but the interventionist God of yore in particular.

Although I can’t agree on every single point Stenger makes, he does a compelling job of laying out logically how, if God is taken as an hypothesis (theory is a little too strong a category, implying substantial scientific concurrence), there should be some measurable result in the universe that God created. Choosing to differ from many theologians and scientists, Stenger argues that science can say something about God, given that God reputedly acts in a physical world. Outside these parameters something one may choose to call God may exist, but that kind of God does not answer prayers or oversee evolution.

Like many scientists, Stenger feels compelled to undertake this argumentation at least partially because of the weary insistence that evolution is “just a theory.” Creationists have tried to distort science for nearly a century now and have been successful really only in the United States. As Stenger shows, their method is often science, but wrong science. Just because an idea is scientific does not made it valid science. Stenger also points out that the premises of creationism, no matter how measured, are just plain wrong. Throughout, however, there is no belittling of those who believe in God. What is offered in this little volume is a rational, non-hysterical account of why a physicist who follows the law of the kingdom finds there is no God above it. And like a true scientist, Stenger leaves open the possibility that new evidence could overturn his verdict. Nevertheless, if his work is taken seriously, such a turn of events appears highly improbable.

Haunted Pilgrim

No visit to Providence is complete without a tip of the hat to H. P. Lovecraft. As someone who dabbles in the noble art of writing, I have great appreciation for those who somehow made an impact (often only after they’ve died) on the literary world. I discovered Lovecraft only after I left Nashotah House, which was probably a good thing. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate his breadth of vision, populating the earth with ancient gods who emphasize the powerful and heartless side of divinity. His vivid images of Cthulhu pervade popular culture to a level that few of the uninitiated would ever expect. And yet, deep in the depths he lurks. So when I was in Providence over the weekend for my niece’s graduation, I spent an afternoon seeking out some time with H. P.

Place inherently partakes of that we term holiness. Where something happened matters. There is no science to explain it, but it is something people know. It is for this reason that I try to visit the homes and resting places of classic writers. Over the years we’ve visited the haunts of Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edna St Vincent Millay, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and others, as well as H. P. Lovecraft. Simply standing in or near the places they once frequented provides a form of inspiration unavailable in any other way. So it was that I found myself at 598 Angell Street in Providence. It is a house still occupied, with no indication of who once called this building home. Lovecraft lived here from 1904 to 1924. If it weren’t for the Lovecraft walking tour I found on the Internet, I would have never known.

In many ways a provincial man, Lovecraft was born and also died in Providence. Apart from a stint in New York City, he spent his time in his hometown. I walked to 454 Angell Street, the address at which he was born. I knew the building had been razed in the 1960s, but I wanted to see what society deems more important than preserving those places that sequester the holy for haunted pilgrims. Although I couldn’t tell for sure, since house numbers change, I believe his birthplace is now the Starbucks that sits pleasantly in a small commercial district. I wonder how many of the thirsty realize where they’re sitting. Have they read any of Lovecraft’s stories? If so, are they uncomfortable sipping coffee in such a spot? Or perhaps it has become a kind of secular sacrament—a toast to all artists whose pasts have been obliterated.

WaterFire

Providence is not always as assured as the divine aid its name suggests. Rhode Island’s capital, like most cities, hosts significant dualities—people who have more than an abundance and those who struggle to get by. There are also those who don’t. In an effort to revitalize the downtown, artists have created WaterFire—an organic sculpture bringing together the pre-Socratic four elements, but focusing on the two encompassed in its name. Great braziers are dot the middle of Providence’s rivers and WaterFire is a new performance art that suggests a religious underpinning. On Saturday, during Brown University’s commencement exercises, WaterFire was performed. Watching fire erupting in the iron braziers as the fire dancer twirled flaming sphere in intricate and dangerous patterns, I felt a primal sense of awe. Indeed, the fire dancer’s motions would be classified as religious by anthropologists in an unfamiliar context.

Religion is generally a response to that which we cannot control. Conscious beings like to think they have some measure of control over their destinies—indeed, people behave that way constantly. It doesn’t take much, however, to demonstrate that our sphere of control is actually miniscule and tenuous. Religions assure us that some cosmic older sibling (whether deity or force or principle) is on our side, watching our backs. Ceremonies propitiate any angry being and bring us back into the graces of elements beyond our control. Is this not the very meaning of the name Providence?

Watching the blazing bonfires tracing the contours of the river, lit by a dancer in time to moving music, WaterFire felt like more than simple performance. Fire is a powerful element, necessary and dangerous to our existence. Water too is crucial, but threatens to overwhelm us as our planet is mostly covered in it. Earth and air often seem the more comfortable elements, often inert and unconsidered. We never confront fire or water in the natural world without giving pause to consider their significance. Whether it is crossing a river or opening an umbrella, water forces itself onto our consciousness. Fire even more so. WaterFire taps into something vital and may just be the real divine guidance that Providence requires at this time.

Brown Out

Brown University’s commencement ceremonies include a deluge of academic mythology. The curse of my chosen field of academic study is the tendency to see mythology everywhere. Some individuals see dead people, others see myths. I always feel an inordinate sense of pride in the graduates, especially those who are related to me, but the whole arrangement takes part in the mythology of higher education. Who wouldn’t feel awe in the presence of the illustrious recipients of honorary degrees? There on the Jumbotron, Viola Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Diane Sawyer, and John Lewis. In the program book the seemingly arcane symbols of academia are explained. These are the scriptures backing the mythology. I always wondered why some old professor always carried a mace in academic processions.

But the mythology of higher education runs deeper than the symbols and ceremonial. Education itself is under intense fire for participating in the realm of finance that it helped to create. Despite constant affidavits to the opposite effect, there is more to life than money. The cost in educating our young requires a greater input than becomes obvious in the immediate return on the investment. Often I hear concerns expressed over the cost of higher education, and there are certainly excesses that must be addressed. The real profit in this transaction, however, is our future. Who can look at the ocean of mortarboarded potential and not feel, deep down, a sense of optimism, no matter how guarded?

The mace is a symbol of violence. Education, if done right, is violence against ignorance and ossified old ways of prejudice, discrimination, and selfishness. For those of us who have tried—and some of us have not been successful—to shed some light on future generations, commencement is a humbling experience. While at Nashotah House I sat through many of them, and sometimes the mythology mingled with hypocrisy as I saw raw hunger for power and the lust to control the lives of others. It was refreshing to experience the mythology anew in a setting where genuine hope seemed to linger among faces full of optimism and pride of achievement. Perhaps it was the obvious inclusiveness instilled by outgoing president Ruth J. Simmons, but prayers by women clergy, and honorary degrees conferred across the spectrum of humanity are signs of hope. The mythology of academia is one myth worth believing in, if it is truly a commencement.

Gods Will Be Gods

“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” Genesis 6 begins with one of the most unusual stories in the entire Bible. And that’s saying something! The sons of God mating with the daughters of men? A couple verses on we hear about giants roaming the earth in those days, presumably the children of this divine-human miscegenation. What is this stuff straight from pagan mythology doing in the pages of Holy Writ? Over the centuries, translators have tried to tidy up the boldly direct language of the King James here, making the sons of God into angels or some lesser beings. It is too hard to accept that sacred scripture admits of polytheism.

Monotheism, it is clear, came to the Israelites somewhat late in their history. The Bible is full of bold clues that other gods exist, and, worse yet, they are sometimes as powerful as Yahweh. In the light of later theological development, translators often bow to popular pressure and clean up the Bible’s language a bit. Fact is, Israelites, like most ancients, lived in a world populated with mythical creatures. Gods galore, monsters, demons, angels, witches, giants—they all haunt the pages of the western world’s sacred book. But that’s not what we expect the Good Book to say. The Hebrew text here is unequivocal, these are the “sons of God” we are talking about. Either that, or worse, “the sons of the gods.” More and more deities.

We can’t be sure why the ancient believed in monsters and giants, but it seems likely that such creatures had explanatory value for their world. Lacking science—paleontology was millennia in the future—they had to explain the huge bones found in the earth. We do know that dinosaur bones had been discovered in the Mediterranean basin in antiquity. These big bones often look human to a non-specialist. Heads are frequently missing. It has been suggested that these give rise to our biblical giants. Yet another response has been the recent trend of fundamentalists with Photoshop skills to post photos of archaeologists actually discovering giants on the Internet. Some of these doctored images are very impressive. It is an effort to save the Bible from the truth. A Bible that requires saving, however, should give even the most fervent believer pause for thought. Isn’t it just easier to suggest the sons of God were typical guys and that little has changed since the world was young?

Dark Light

It took a few weeks and five states, but I finally got to see Dark Shadows. Although I’d seen the trailers, there was quite a bit over which I remained in the dark. After all, the television series ran daily for several years and the story of Barnabas Collins was never really resolved, to the best of my knowledge. Trying to fit all of that into a couple hours of cost-intensive Hollywood showmanship would be a tall order. I have come to trust the Burton-Depp collaboration, however, and I had read some time ago that Johnny Depp had wanted to be Barnabas Collins when he was growing up. It is difficult nevertheless to resurrect a vampire after some three-and-a-half decades of slumber. Speaking with some friends after the movie I discovered that I was not the only child discouraged from watching Dark Shadows after school as a child. But watch I did.

Barnabas Collins became a monster as the result of a curse. The series—which I remember principally as a series of impressions and images—and the movie make that clear. The man who has lost control of his own fate is a reluctant monster. An aristocrat who lives by draining the blood of the common folk. Despite the humor and carnality of the movie, social commentary is there. Sometimes buried in an iron coffin, and sometimes in a vintage VW bus from the early ‘70’s. It may not appear full blown on the big screen but it pulses through the veins nevertheless. Barnabas Collins is a reluctant and conflicted vampire, but he does kill others to survive.

Why would a kid raised in a religious setting be so drawn to a creature of evil? Perhaps it was because Barnabas was the ultimate penitent. He had to victimize others, but he always regretted doing so. Like any living (or undead) creature, his nature compels him to survive. He is sad about his lot in the world, but is helpless to change it. Like many children of the monster generation I was nourished by a long series of movies featuring impossible creatures, including vampires. The earliest vampire I knew, however, was Barnabas Collins. Although Bram Stoker had set the type nearly a century earlier, my measure of the vampire was the reluctant denizen of Collinwood. Although I read my Bible dutifully, and never missed church, I still found the plight of this lonely monster compelling. The movie may not live up to the standard of all Dark Shadows aficionados, but if it brings a subtlety of moral ambiguity to a generation of absurdly self-assured modern-day fundamentalist children, the curse of Barnabas Collins may really be a blessing in disguise.

Blazing Forest

Back in 1996 an angel was on the big screen. In a manner of speaking. Michael, starring John Travolta as the archangel Michael, may not have been an instant classic but it did have a memorable line or two. The image of a smoking angel had been contrived by Van Halen over a decade earlier, but the idea of the prince of the army of Yahweh being a guy just like the rest of us was strangely refreshing. No Park Avenue deity this. When the reporters first meet Michael and wonder if he’s the real thing, one suggests tugging on his wings to see if they’re real. Michael responds by asking if he should pull the reporter’s privates to see if they’re really attached. His companion comments, “An angel that says ‘pecker.’” While the very idea of “bad words” is an unusual one, it is well-nigh a universal. In just about every culture there are words or phrases that just aren’t uttered in polite company. Those who can’t control their mouths, suggests the book of James, can’t control their lives. So it is with a kind of perverse wonder that I read about the bullying bravado that issues from the lips of New Jersey’s governor.

Don’t get me wrong. I never fault anyone for speaking like they were taught. I was raised in a blue collar family and at times the talk could get pretty blue as well. I would, however, point out that you’ll not find a student I taught over my two decades in the classroom that every heard me cuss in class. It is a matter of standards. Emotions, those great clawing monsters inside us, rage to escape. The building blocks of society—restraint and control, and dare we even wish? subtlety and refinement—are signs of civilization. Some of us were taught to leave name-calling on the playground. I am profoundly saddened when politicians believe they are the best America has to offer when in reality they reveal themselves coarse, vulgar bullies. Enter Chris Christie.

In a public venue on Wednesday New Jersey’s governor called the chief budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services, “idiot,” “jerk,” and “numbnuts.” Here’s where we see Tea Party values incarnate. Belittling others, especially in a public forum, reveals a nature that should make all civilized civilians hang their heads in a surfeit of collective shame. America has come to this? Admiring bullies and slashing and burning services for those who need a little communal support? And he has been posturing for a vice presidential nomination. And angels will be smoking cigarettes in the wings. A President/Vice-President who says “numbnuts?” America deserves far better than this. Where is Michael when we need him?

Take that, you #!@&$!

Scary Monstrances

I can’t help myself. I’ve always found monsters fascinating. Now that I’m mostly grown up and am expected to have a modicum of respectability, I try to read academic books on monsters so that I can legitimate what would otherwise be puerile juvenility. David D. Gilmore’s Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors was my latest foray into the forest. As I have come to expect, just pages into the book the first reference to religion emerged. This connection between monsters and religion is not Gilmore’s central theme, but it does recur at several points in the book. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Spain’s Pentecostal dragon. The Tarasque, named after its host town, is a medieval dragon that is still feted to this day in some locations. Considered to be symbolic of the sins of humankind, it accompanies either the holy day of Pentecost or of Corpus Christi. This connection between the church and monsters took me back to my first experience of Corpus Christi.

Raised as solid a protester as a Protestant can be, I had a difficult transition to some aspects of Anglicanism. The ceremonial was great, but some of the popish blandishments I could never quite accept. When a member of Boston’s famed Church of the Advent, the rector asked me to be a torch bearer on Corpus Christi. This involved processing outdoors onto Beacon Hill in full drag (or cassock and surplice, as I’m sure the parsimonious will correct me) to accompany the holy sacrament, carried as it turns out, in a monstrance. The idea that looking at a piece of wafer-thin bread on public display could somehow mediate a divine blessing, I never understood. It felt as much a fairy tale as the dragons of Spain. Monster or monstrance?

Gilmore concludes that monsters are people’s projections of their deepest unresolved issues. He may be right. One of his observations, however, struck me. He suggests monsters predate even gods in the human imagination. I tend to think they entered that gray space at the same time. Our minds have always told us that there were creatures out there to fear. Some of them, we hope, are good. Others are clearly evil. Monsters are difficult to explain in a world created by a benevolent deity. It is perhaps no mistake that Zoroastrians conceived of Angra Mainyu as monstrous. Divinity and diabolism could be fused into one being. There is a profound lesson here, for those able to read. Monsters are among the earliest projections of human imagination. And they remain forever with us.

Angra Mainyu; god or monster?

Children Shall Lead Them

One of the perks of moving to New Jersey was landing in a town with strong support for the arts. Every time I attend a middle or high school concert, I consider how the old image of painful evenings of parents patiently pretending to enjoy the music has ended. The kids in this town could be professionals. If I close my eyes, I forget they’re all under nineteen. Last night at a school concert one of the pieces was “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” Eric Idle’s chestnut from the Life of Brian (now featured, I hear tell, in Spamalot). I first saw the Life of Brian with some trepidation while in seminary—I had been sounded warned that it was a profane movie, making fun of Jesus. Considering that all the actual references to Jesus in the movie are quite positive, I eventually realized what all the fuss was about. The movie doesn’t make fun of Jesus, it does, however, show the laughable nature of those who follow a religion blindly. This, I gather, was the real root of the problem.

Next to this fun piece, the concert also included several pieces taken from originally sacred contexts such as Mozart’s Dies Irae and settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus and Ave Maria. Spirituals, likewise, are a perennial favorite. Performed along next to these pieces of religious origin were also decidely secular pieces such as “Scarborough Fair” and the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye.” In concert the sacred and profane blend beautifully. Perhaps there is a paradigm hidden in plain sight here. Religions need not be defensive and unbelievers need not attack them. The world is surely big enough for differences of opinion.

Music has a power that sometimes frightens me. I don’t often address it in my blog because of how much it affects me. Theorists often note that music is part of nearly every religion ever invented—we know that something special is going on when we hear it. And music has the ability to move large groups of people simultaneously. I’ve not attended many professional concerts (the last one was Alice Cooper in Atlantic City back in 2008), but no matter how secular the artist the experience is profoundly spiritual. I’m not sure I can adequately define what that means, but when it is felt there is no mistaking it. So maybe that’s why school concerts have such power. It seems that schools that support the arts also tend to have excellent academic records as well. The truth is hidden in plain sight.

After Before the Dawn

Apropos of reading Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, as a sometime scholar of religion a number of points struck me. According to both material artifacts and DNA, several changes took place among human beings some 50,000 years ago. Having just read P. W. Singer’s Wired for War as well, the early coalescence of war and religion in human history was unavoidable. Wade ties the emergence of both with the development of language. It is only when we can speak that we can begin to express our theological speculations and, as history continues to teach us, despise those who disagree with us. It becomes clear quite early in the tome that Wade has an interest in explaining religion. Like many science writers he struggles with the issue of why religion persists, despite the explanatory value of science. We know how multiple aspects of our world work, yet we still defer to a divine that no one has ever seen or registered in any empirically verifiable way.

Not only does this tendency stretch back to our distant, distant relatives. The Natufians, about whom I generally lectured my students (itself ancient history), are marked as well by the dual achievements of religion and war. Wade is one of the few scholars I’ve discovered who concurs with my assessment that religion was among the earliest of human behaviors. In my mind, it is tied to consciousness and its evolution. Once we begin to realize that we are not in control of our destiny, we start to seek explanations from above, and hope that God loves us. Otherwise the picture isn’t so pretty. Indeed, Wade suggests that religion evolved as a socially cohesive force. Tying the concept to ethics and trust, he suggests early people had to learn to get along with strangers and religion cemented that bond.

I’m not a scientist, so I cannot assess whether this explains religion or not. It does seem clear, however, that if Wade is right religion itself has evolved into a more aggressive beast. Sure, religions still serve to bind people together—but only so far. As populations separated, their various religions evolved and led them to distrust one another. Instead of bonding humans together, religion began to put them into competition for the truth. Here, Wade’s analysis is sadly true—religion and war evolve together. Our small planet is yet too big for everyone to get along, to know and trust the stranger. Religion had helped us at the critical stage when we needed social bonding, and now it has naturally evolved into the opposite—a socially divisive force of orthodoxy and heresy. If Wade is correct, we all need religion to take on its most ancient role and bring people together instead of giving us excuses for war.

Waiting for the dawn

Avengers and Gods

The Marvel Comics Universe is a complex blend of juvenile and adult themes. At the suggestion of one of my readers (thanks, Erika!) and the urging of my family, we went to see The Avengers this weekend. Having grown up in my own complex circumstances (first of all, fundamentalist—therefore not prone to too much secular material, and secondly, of humble means—therefore not prone to too much material material), I was aware of only some of the group. I’d read Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor comics, and I knew who Captain America was, but I never realized they’d teamed up, along with Black Widow and Hawkeye, to form the Avengers. I guess I just missed that part. The amazing integration of gods, performance-enhanced humans, and technocrats, makes for a fascinating consideration of the boundaries of good and evil.

This became clear when Captain America first encounters Thor in the film and is told he is a god. His response, straight from Tea Party rhetoric, is “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.” Clearly a man from the early twentieth century would have expectations of Yahweh’s dress code. It would be a white robe, no doubt, but as the gods Thor and Loki duke it out, Yahweh is nowhere to be seen. The movie also toys with the concept of immortality. Dr. Banner, under the guise of the Hulk, is unkillable. In a poignant moment he admits having attempted suicide, but his alter-ego proved indestructible. The cheer of the audience was palpable when Loki tells the green guy, “I’m a god and I won’t be bullied by—” only to be divinely thrashed by the Hulk who responds with the word, “Demigod.”

Over the past several years I’ve noticed that hero movies have begun to declare Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. No longer are supernatural beings the ones who rule humanity. Heroes are now in charge of their own destinies. And yet, that old time religion is still present. As Tony Stark is about to attack one of the wickedly cool flying leviathans he asks Jarvis “Are you familiar with the story of Jonah?” I wondered just how many in the theater got the reference—how many, like Captain America at the comment of flying monkeys, got the joke? When the movie was over, and I was convinced I wouldn’t have to go to work on Monday (I was sure my building was one of those destroyed in the mayhem), I pondered the resolution. The gods took their dispute to Asgard, out of the realm of humans. This was, after all, a dispute between deities. And humans, as so often happens in such scenarios, were simply caught in the middle.

Enoch’s Dilemma

“And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” These two verses from Genesis 5 convey just about all we know of Enoch. That, and he was the father of the oldest man ever, Methuselah. With this intriguing introduction, however, the religious mind insists on a backstory. Over the centuries of antiquity, books grew about this mysterious character as he became the prototype of the person who never died. The Bible doesn’t state that Enoch didn’t die. Nor does it state that he did. Plenty of wiggle room for the mythic imagination. In what appears to be an unrelated story, the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week reported on technology that builds on the strange but natural idea of phantom limbs.

When a person loses a limb, sometimes they report still feeling it. Their brains grew in a body that possessed the limb, and once it is gone the brain still has memory of it. The term used for this is a phantom limb. Knowing that mind does control matter to some extent, robotics experts have figured out ways to wire a robotic limb to the brain of a paralyzed person that responds to brain signals sent to the phantom limb. As much like science fiction as it sounds, this is already happening. The robotic limb responds just like a biological limb. This technology is just developing, of course, and is very expensive. It also implies that cyborgs, once the fodder of futuristic fiction, are becoming reality. Some theorists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, suggest that the brain itself can be converted to electronic signal and transferred into mechanical storage. Once that is achieved, we will have Enoch without any God to take him.

The world that we’ve been engineering bears a strange resemblance to the world of the Bible. For the people of ancient Israel death was the final word, and with rare exception (the only unquestioned case of the undying man was Elijah) people simply accepted the inevitable with no concept of an afterlife. Contact with the Zoroastrians convinced some Jews of the possibility of life beyond death and the quest for immortality was on. It has been a desideratum of human aspirations ever since. We invented machines to help us do what nature has not equipped us to attain. Finer and finer lines have been drawn between the biological and the mechanical. While it make look like immortality to some, to others it seems that we have been kidnapped—taken, if you will—by technology. What really happened to Enoch? The Bible doesn’t say, but it seems that we are getting very close to finding out on our own.

Convergent Evolution

Back when my opinion mattered—in higher education, you must realize, a scholar’s outlook only matters when s/he has a teaching post, no matter how abysmal the school. Once that post is gone you just become another guy with an opinion—I was invited to a conference. This is quite an honor for someone consigned to the bargain basement of academia, and for my paper I read from a burgeoning book that died a sudden death along with my academic career. In that stillborn tome I argued that many aspects of ancient mythology—including some in the Bible—made better sense in the light of science. I suggested that some of the infelicities in ancient texts might be the signs of continuing evolution of the human brain. Ancient people were able to believe what we find troubling. By the end of the conference many respectable scholars were looking askance at me when I stepped into the room. Honestly. I heard the word “Wiggins” uttered as if it were an archaic curse. Shortly after that I found myself working out of some guy’s basement for a salary fit for a knave.

Imagine my delight, then, at finding a reputable scholar who argued that the human brain indeed continues to evolve. In fact, it has speeded up the pace as new challenges have emerged. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade was recommended to me by my brother-in-law. As I was updating myself this week on how we became human, I was surprised to see Wade suggesting what I had suggested in my paper—the patterns of human behavior (we both have an interest in religion, it seems) are tied to the evolutionary state of our brains. Sitting on a bus next to many other drones commuting like ants to New York City, I felt strangely vindicated. I had an idea scorned by my colleagues that is being suggested by science. Not that everyone will accept Wade’s conclusions. Many scholars of ancient religions will never even read them. When I explained my thesis to a colleague after losing my academic status, he said, “I don’t give much credibility to science.”

Convergence is the phenomenon of two species evolving an adaptation independently. Often it is difficult for people to believe that a trait shared by two populations is simply nature’s way of trial and error that happened to work twice, in different situations. Nicholas Wade and I experienced convergence on this point. He, of course, is a famous writer and I am nobody. Nevertheless, my unpublished idea was presented at a conference the year his book must have been in production. We had both been reading about evolution and wondering what its effect on religion might have been. I will comment more on Wade’s specific ideas about religion in the book in another post. He, of course, went on to write The Faith Instinct, which was widely acclaimed. At that time I was struggling to find work and it seemed that natural selection hadn’t selected me at all. I am glad, however, that my idea made it into print, even if it was evolved by someone else who is far more fit for survival.

Free Tea

I first became aware of The Town Hall, I have to admit, through the Christopher Guest mockumentary A Mighty Wind. In the movie, three aging folk groups are brought together for a concert in Town Hall to honor the memory of one of their early promoters. When I began to walk past Town Hall on my way to work, I grew curious about its history. This curiosity was piqued by the scriptural quotation engraved on the façade: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” New York City is an architect’s smorgasbord and I am often intrigued by the little gems I spy here and there. I discovered that The Town Hall was originally a political venue built by The League for Political Education, an organization sorely needed now. Built because of the need for a public space to discuss the Nineteenth Amendment (which the League supported), Town Hall was originally a venue to keep the public informed.

The Nineteenth Amendment—which the Tea Party seems to have overlooked, along with much of what we recognize as democracy—was drafted by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It took congress only four decades to ratify it. Women were finally given the right to vote. Stanton was noted for her suffrage activities, including the production of The Woman’s Bible. The idea that an entire half of the human race should share the rights of the other half seems to have required a building erected to educate the public. Of course, there were moments when even The Town Hall couldn’t bear the words spoken on stage, as when Margaret Sanger was arrested for speaking about contraception there in 1921. I suspect there were Tea Partiers in the audience.

The same stage also provided a venue for Edna St. Vincent Millay to have her poetry reading breakthrough. Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff performed there, as did any number of other greats. Truth may take many forms. Certainly human equality is as basic a truth as can be found. Art and poetry are equally as parsimonious, in the formal sense of the word. These things that we value are the very aspects of culture that the Tea Party would like to curtail. Thankfully there have been believers in the truth in the past who have been willing to construct monuments to sanity. And I can’t help but think that there would be even more of them if we still had a League for Political Education to help promote the truth. Without it, as it says in stone, we can never be truly free.

Whose Call?

I think about religion quite a bit. Well, it’s actually a big part of my job. I also spend quite a bit of time sorting out where religion is represented in the spectrum of human learning, specifically in higher education. One can’t help but notice a profound disconnect between reasoned thought on religion and the often brainless way that it is played out in public forums. Often this ineptitude comes through the mental fumbling of politicians, but just as often the culprits are well-heeled preachers who learned their trade at the hand of like-minded individuals who castigate the usual methods of examining evidence. Even as recently as this week I saw disparaging remarks made in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about seminary education—something I understand a little too well. For all their faults, most seminaries try to teach students to interpret their faith intelligently.

Perhaps it is too fine a line to be etched in the sand, but the study of religion and the promotion of religion are entirely different entities. Our society desperately needs more of the former. I quite often lament the short-sighted lack of education about religion in higher education. Given the frequently destructive nature of religious teaching, it would behoove us to understand it a bit better. In my research on the state of education about religion in the United States, it has become clear that many—perhaps most—high-powered institutions of higher education do not offer the opportunity to study religion. Many secular schools, seeming to fear religious cooties, simply avoid the subject like Yersinia pestis. There is nothing particularly alarming about that. Until one starts to count the number of accredited institutions that teach indoctrination as education.

A simple survey of institutions of higher education in the United States will reveal hundreds of doctrinally based colleges that generally teach uncritical attitudes towards religion. Students graduate from such schools with bona fide parchments that claim them to be proficient in the subject. Meanwhile, at the local state university, no one can study religion because it is considered a subject unworthy of academic research. Maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble reconciling this lack of interest with what I see in a society where Tea Parties are steeping and sabers are rattling in the name of religion. Same sex unions are being shouted down. Women are paid lower wages for the same work as men. The ground is being fracked beneath our feet. The impetus for these destructive behaviors takes is fueled by religion, and they only scratch the surface. I would humbly suggest that if we want to see the state of the union clearly it is best done with eyes open rather than hiding behind an amendment and pretending religion is not there.