Monthly Archives: April 2013

Neither Black nor White

What hath Rome to do with Lagos? In the portion of the newspaper where religion is freely discussed—the Sunday edition, of course—Jeff Kunerth published a thoughtful piece entitled “Black atheists might feel lonely, but they’re not alone.” Kunerth reveals a double dilemma for the African-American non-believer: strong emic social pressure to be religious and etic deconstruction of race by many atheists. I know African-American humanists, and I have been informed of the lack of attention given to humanism and race. Both, in many circles, are troubling concepts. We like to think we’d evolved to the point of “race” disappearing from the social spectrum, but we also feel pride concerning cultural achievements, some of which are tied to “race.” Where would our culture be without the influence of African-American music, story, and art? Is belief required to truly belong?

I often wonder why it is that skin tone is used to divide people. Inevitably my thought goes back to the Bible. In the ancient view reflected in the book of Genesis, all creatures, humanity included, were created with inviolable boundaries of “kind.” As mules and ligers demonstrate, however, boundaries are often only as strict as we permit them to be. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Jeremiah rhetorically asks in 13.23 of his eponymous book, “or the leopard his spots?” Not only is race fixed, but gender as well. Each according to his own kind. It’s this easy division that’s troubling me. Humans of all “races” may interbreed, something not possible for the liger or mule. We are free to change our outlook. The leopard spots are in our minds.

None of this is meant to belittle the difficulties faced by black atheists, or any others who are excluded by their own “kind.” It is simply a suggestion that we might enlarge the pie, to borrow from Getting to Yes, before dividing it. Belief has to be a matter of conscience, and acceptance should be a matter of principle. Too often religious beliefs divide rather than unite. Atheists and true believers, of one “race” or many, have a common cause to make a better world for all. The prophet anticipates a negative answer to his rhetorical question. Allow me, Jeremiah, respectfully to disagree. Yes, a leopard may change its spots anywhere except in the prejudiced savannah of the human mind.


Ancient of Days

I’ve never been one to deny my age. I think of myself as a rather young 50 since my brain still reacts like an 18-year old’s much of the time. I try to keep as fit as my job allows, and the only thing I really overindulge in is books. But I am 50, and that means the AARP has had me in their cross-hairs for the last couple of years. The phone rang the other day and I was foolish enough to answer it. The young man on the other end of the line asked me if I could hear him okay. I almost hung up; if someone doesn’t identify him or herself in the first sentence, I know they’re wanting me to contribute to something. Instead, I tried a new tactic: “you’re not coming in very clear,” I fibbed, hoping that he would offer to call back and I wouldn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the volume. It was the AARP calling with a survey. My hearing is still pretty keen—without it, walking across Manhattan in rush hour everyday would be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, my encounter with AARP made me think of a recent conversation I had about death.

I am not afraid of death. As long as I can remember, I have never really feared it. Not that I want to go anytime soon, but perhaps because of my childhood fears of Hell, I believe I might have contributed enough to the treasury of merit (like the AARP, or Social Security) to get me out of a few scrapes. I attended mass nearly every day for twelve years at Nashotah House—that has to count for something! My conversation partner the other day was incredulous; “how can you not be afraid of death?” I’m not sure what comes after, if anything, but I’ve always tried to keep on the good side of the divine. Those questionable things I’ve intentionally done were all executed with good reason, or so it seemed at the time. If they were truly naughty, I’ve asked for forgiveness. And if there’s nothing after life, well, I feel like I could use the good long sleep of annihilation for a while.

Several books I’ve read recently have been advocating reincarnation. I’m not sure that it makes sense, but sometimes I wonder. The idea is a bit more frightening than death itself, in many ways. So many things I don’t want to go through again—sorry Friedrich, but I guess I’m one of those who says no to exact repetition—so much physical pain and mental anguish. I can see why Buddhists want to break the cycle. Although, if I’m reincarnated as a human being, and a literate one, I might be able to get a few more books read next time around. Perhaps that’s the silver lining. Or perhaps that’s why I should just hang up the phone if the caller doesn’t tell me who it is in the first sentence.

"I'm not quite dead yet..."

“I’m not quite dead yet…”

Paging Dr. Asimov

Who remembers Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.

Rockem Sockem

The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.

So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.

God, Particle, Reduce

Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.

I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.

Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.

Erwinrossen's image of atoms, the sight eyes can't see

Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see

Campbell’s Swansong

InnerReachesofOuterSpace Joseph Campbell may not be the best reading for the bus. Despite the many signs and placards gently suggesting to passengers both in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and on the buses themselves, that keeping quiet is courteous, we are a people in love with noise. We are used to annoying electronic beeps, squawks, and farts. People find it difficult to sit more than 20 minutes without talking. I’m trying to read. At the Hunterdon County Library Book Sale I picked up Joseph Campbell’s last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. It requires some concentration. Campbell was a brilliant comparative mythologer. I was reared in the scholarly hermeneutics of doubt, however, especially when it comes to comparing myths from different cultures. Campbell has a great appreciation for Jungian concepts, and soon minor details are blurred and the similarities stand out in stark relief. Still, as I always do with Campbell, I came away with plenty of rich concepts over which to mull.

Campbell, the great inspirer of Star Wars, the original series, was that rare breed of scholar who appreciated without participating. He is recorded as stating he was no mystic, and certainly not any kind of conventional religionist, but he couldn’t get enough of mysticism or mythology. Religion, he implies, is just mythology taken literally. He is, I believe, very close to the truth here. What we know of indigenous peoples today is that they don’t have that sharp and hard line between literal reality and story that marks much of western civilization. We tend to think fact and fiction cannot be of a kind. Looking around, we find no gods, so our choices are not to believe, or to believe too literally. And those who believe literally differently, we tend to want to kill. This is the history of religion in the western world, in a Campbellian nutshell.

Apart from the little gems I located scattered throughout The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, the main theme I found applicable was the driving force of chapter two, Metaphor as Myth and Religion. Metaphor is our way of interacting with a reality we just can’t experience directly. As human beings, we experience the physical world through the mediation of our senses, filtered by our brains. If there is something deeper, more profound than nature, we are even further removed. Our experience of meaning is metaphor. Joseph Campbell may have been a little too swift to spot congruities that are probably best left apart, but he clearly recognized the fact that our religions are not so different from our mythologies, and that both are narrated in the form of metaphor. This is not to devalue them, for metaphor is one of the most potent substances in our chemistry set. Now if only I could find the vial that has the stuff to make people want to keep quiet on the bus, we might all be able to get a bit more reading done.

Dog-gone Belief

A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.


An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.

I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.

Fear of Religion

Two online articles have, in my limited reading, linked the bombing of the Boston Marathon by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to religion. Although the boys are/were not part of any radical sect, it was their belief that their Muslim faith, apparently, motivated the bombings. While such revelations will no doubt prompt Islamophobia in some, the true terror belongs to all exclusive religions. People want to be part of exclusive groups. Whether it is the ritziest country club or the most erudite book circle, we all want to be part of that group that is superior. I recall very clearly in my New Testament classes at Boston University how our professor explained that Christianity never grows as fast as when it excludes people. He claimed the writers of the Christian Scriptures knew that. Conversion is fine and good—it gives you a gold star when you save souls—but not too many. If everyone’s invited to the party, it loses its appeal. Here is the dilemma of proselytizing religions. We want to grow, but not too much.

Throughout history people have rejoiced at the troubles of the exclusive few. It does not explain fully or in any way excuse antisemitism, but the fact that Judaism doesn’t seek converts may raise the jealousy factor of those outside. Those religions most anxious to convert others are also the ones with the longest track records of violence. Nothing promotes hateful behavior like insecurity. Insecurity is frequently masked with evangelistic bravado. The fact is, even if one religion won out—especially if one religion won out—the violence would increase dramatically. This sounds rather crass, I know, but it reflects the state of world religions pretty well. Religions, after all, are made up of people.

Plenty of Muslims participate in sporting events like the Boston Marathon. Islam has contributed tremendously to western culture, laying the groundwork for much of our science and philosophy. It corners no market on religious terror. Religions are often outgrowths of human frustrations with our limited possibilities. We know we have to die, and we dream of gods but we can’t emulate their strength or majesty or immortality. We want the best for those we love. The world, however, doesn’t conform to the deep desires of humankind and religion, whatever its origin, helps us cope. Evolutionary psychologists are increasingly of the opinion that religion has utilitarian purposes in human development. Religions, however, also take their premises rather too seriously at times.

In the name of love

In the name of love