The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Doing the Math

Erich Fromm once defined evil as “attraction to what is dead, decaying, lifeless, and purely mechanical.” Certainly Fromm doesn’t hold the cachet he once did, but this way of thinking about evil has stuck with me. It’s not so much the dead, decaying, or lifeless part—that’s part of nature—but the purely mechanical. I don’t disparage the many machines we have that make life easier, and modern life possible—can you imagine your job without computers? The problem in my mind, as Fromm defines it, lies in the word “purely.” Purely mechanical. By the numbers. You see, we often forget that being human, and thought itself, isn’t about pure logic. Our brains evolved to be half emotive and have rational. Our feelings can be smart. When we reduce all of life to numbers, according to Fromm’s definition, we’ve entered the realm of evil.

Some, in the past as well as present, have posited numbers as the only real truth. No matter where you are in the universe 2 + 2 = 4. It’s about the only certainty we have. I think what Fromm was concerned about was not this kind of certainty, but rather that which sees only numbers as being important. Think of the multibillionaire who’s lost sight of the human misery he (and it’s generally a he) has caused to become so wealthy. It’s not something towards which an enlightened individual would aspire. Purely mechanical it is, by definition, evil. We’ve all known people like that—those who just can’t get beyond the numbers whether they be the bottom line or the instructions for the doomsday device. The human element is missing. Are we truly beyond good and evil?

Does it add up?  Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Does it add up? Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Governments, once upon a time, were put in place in democracies to protect the interests of the people. When people are mere marks—numbers at an inauguration or cheated at the polls—we’ve entered the realm of purely mechanical. Of course, intellectuals are out of favor now. Why be troubled with the news when you can make up your own? 2 + 2 need not equal 4 if you say it loud enough. Behind stage, however, you’ll make sure your accountants know the score. Those who wish to start a New World Order must insist that the classics are outdated. While we’re counting out the days in our prison cell it might be a good opportunity to read. I plan to have Erich Fromm on my list. I’m only human after all.

So Long, Marianne

fullsizeoutput_122f“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen has died. But can you blame him? This seems to be a week for losses. I came to appreciate Cohen’s work long after his best-known songs had been and gone. The interviews with and news stories about him that I’ve read convince me that he was an extraordinary man. Spiritual and sensual, he was a true contemplative. He strove to experience what it means to be human. I sometimes fear we’ve lost that as a goal. I see headlines proclaiming that we can now have chips implanted in our brains—we can become part computer. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix,” he once sang. Who believes in crucifixes anymore? Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from self-interest. From business and bank accounts. And that chip in my head.

My wife taught me the value of music therapy. When the forces of darkness gather, listening to music can help you through. Many artists have covered Leonard Cohen’s songs. So much so that some have forgotten who it was that wrote them. A true artist, I suspect, doesn’t mind. Those of us who delve in creativity know that we are more like receivers than gods. It takes worshipers to make a deity. The songs that Cohen wrote were messages to the world. Poetic and deeply personal, they are reminders that being human is okay. In fact, it’s what we’ve evolved to be. I have a feeling we’re going to be needing more poets in the days to come. Someone has to shine the shoes of those who work in Trump Tower. My mind is singing “Chelsea Hotel.” Everybody knows.

Cohen was a reminder that sacred and secular are not so far apart. In fact, they are often difficult to distinguish. There may be a problem when you discover that in seminary, but if you can put it into a song perhaps people will listen. Eras, it seems to me, ought to have anthems. F.D.R., one of the truly great Presidents of the century past, proposed “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I wonder what songs we’ll be associating with the presidency over the next four long years. Will there be any music at all? Far be it from me to proclaim any man a prophet, but can you listen to “First We Take Manhattan” and come to any other conclusion? Go to iTunes, or that chip in your head, and listen. You might just end up singing “Who by Fire” as well.

ET vs UAC

When I first heard of “unaccompanied alien children,” I hope I might be forgiven for thinking about ET. Or EBEs as they’re sometimes called, “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities.” Instead UACs are serious enough to be assigned their own acronym, and serious politicians are making themselves frantic over the proper response. Should we allow children refugees from Latin America into the “land of opportunity?” This is a matter that calls for immediate debate! But should it? I am an American, but I am also a human being. And a parent. To me few things are more depressing than politics getting in the way of care for children. We fear their Spanish-speaking ways and incipient indigence. At the same time we as taxpayers fund Fundamentalist Mormons in their polygamy, reproducing beyond their ability to pay for themselves. The IRS turns a blind eye to those who claim food stamps and eschew birth control. There are children with nothing in this world standing at the door, and we debate whether to let them in.

I saw a recent opinion survey of major Christian bodies in the United States and their opinions on whether the children should be allowed to enter. White evangelicals came in dead last for the compassionate response of sanctuary. Meanwhile, reading the humanist literature, there is a strong sense that the ethics of this situation demand a, well, humanistic response. These are children, not political chattels. We will not purposefully endanger our own children. In fact, it is a criminal offense to do so. When it comes to somebody else’s children, we fuss and fume and I don’t hear many Fundamentalists saying “What would Jesus do?” in this case. Probably because the answer is clear: let the children come unto me.

Some decisions should be easy to make. Children are not political liabilities. They are often victims of adult complications of a world where a hug would solve many more problem than a gun or a bomb. I’m not sure when compassion became so calculating. I’m old enough to know that there are no easy answers, but I do believe some difficult decisions can be made much easier. Excepting Native Americans, all of our ancestors once entered this continent, largely without permission, as outsiders. Granted, they felt compelled to come—some voluntarily, some not. When their hosts suggested the party was over, they refused to leave. Now their descendants can’t decide whether children are a threat or not. We insist on their right to be born, but we don’t necessarily want to give them a home. When ET went home we all cried. Our tears for our own kind, apparently, are a scarce resource on this planet.

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Disarmament

Maybe it’s just where I cast my attention, but debates over belief or unbelief seem to be everywhere these days. The word “militant” is used to describe belief (or lack of belief) systems with a worrying stridency. We want to prove what we believe, with violence, if necessary. So in anticipation of 9/11 Nick Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “The phantom menace of militant atheism“. He points out, rightly enough, that you seldom hear of militant atheists being suspected of acts of terrorism. When a bomb goes off, we look for the religion behind it. For each pyromanic a religion can boast, it has a larger number of pacifists, in most cases. As Cohen points out, atheists aren’t blameless—Stalin and Mao remind us of that—but in today’s world of free agent religious ordinance missionaries we seldom, if ever, hear that the atheists have been plotting and planting explosives. In that Cohen is surely right. Humanists (to generalize) tend to hold humanity up, not blow it up.

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is, however, a strange disconnect that Cohen, and countless others, point(s) out—atheists (and I would broaden this to humanists) are considered immoral. As if the concept of deity were somehow a mark of moral maturity. Of as if a specific belief system were the default for humanity and the rejection of it somehow a willful attempt at evil. Humanists, however, have been around for a long time. We tend to overlook that fact because they weren’t busy plotting to destroy others. Being raised in a religious environment, I didn’t even realize that long before I was born quiet, ethical, good people had come to think that religion was a delusion. Sure, some humanists have weird peccadilloes, but as the headlines remind us, so do the religious. The problem comes in when militants are the measuring rod. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” a pacifist once said.

At the root of all this blustering is the unrelenting urge to convert. Those who are truly convinced they’ve found the right way—believing or un—want others to see it their way. Problem is, others want the same thing, the other way around. Apart from Cohen’s observations, I would note that we never hear of tolerant believers or unbelievers attacking anyone. Physically or verbally. The mantra of live and let live applies up to the point that a belief system mandates harm and then the old contradictions begin to resurrect themselves. Some belief systems are, by dint of their very premises, immoral. The majority, however, are just fine. If the zeal for conversion can be kept under control. I can envision a world where evangelical atheists could exist side-by-side with those who believe and don’t believe at the same time. And they might even meet together peacefully if only we would leave the militancy at home.

Beliefism

A question never adequately resolved revolves around the status of atheism. What exactly is it? Well, I suppose it is many things, actually. One thing that seems indisputable is that religion has been part of human culture from the beginning. It would seem likely that not all believers carried the same level of conviction, and there may have been “atheists” shortly after theism evolved. The difficulty is that both belief in god/s, and/or the lack thereof, are matters of personal conviction. That somewhat blurred line has been crossed, according to some, by the recent growth of “atheist churches.” In several web stories my friends have pointed out to me, a growing movement of atheist “mega-churches” has been noticed. These are groups of atheists who meet for many of the same reasons religious folk do, sans salvation. It is a social occasion, and a chance to fellowship with like-minded non-believers, and to support their lack of faith. Some atheists bristle at this (as do some religious), claiming that it cheapens the atheistic enterprise (or that religions somehow hold a copyright on belief-based gatherings).

Herein lies the rub. Atheists are no more cut from the same cloth (or lack of cloth) as religious believers are. There are varieties of unbelief. Some obviously see that the weekly gathering has benefits. There’s no question that atheists can be every bit as humanitarian as religious believers are. Besides, who doesn’t like to meet with people who think like them? “Minister” might not be the leader’s title of choice, although it has a long pedigree in politics as a secular title (as, for example, in the Ministry of Defense). The slow decline in mainstream Christian services, however, might suggest that atheist services would be inclined to grow. Weekends were originally created for religious reasons and still generally remain the religious meeting days of choice. Some religious groups do not insist on doctrine to be members—Unitarians are a prime example of this—but the value of meeting together is human, all too human.

Clearly the purpose of an atheist gathering is not primarily worship. I should imagine, however, that wonder is still part of the non-religious vocabulary. God is not necessary for feelings of awe and joy. And sometimes it is fun to get together for some structured activity that isn’t work (for those who have jobs). An Associated Press story, however, points out the irony of the gathering of “people bound by their belief in non-belief.” There is, however, believing going on here. There can be no escaping it. Despite all the problems associated with omnipotence, the idea of a deity where the buck indeed stopped was an ebenezer for grounding belief. Even the most outspoken of atheists share this with the literalist and the moderate—they all believe. And as long as people believe, they will seek groups of those who share similar views. Why not? Even the truth requires belief.

What does it  mean?

What does it mean?

None Too Human

Apropos of nones, CNN’s Belief Blog ran an opinion piece about the nones earlier this week. It seems that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema came out of the closet as a none at her swearing in. Nones are among the fastest growing non-religions in the world. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the internet; those who subscribe to no particular faith have discovered that it is okay to do so. Or not do so. It is so easy to see, online, that lots of others think that way. Many of these people are not atheists, and many describe themselves as spiritual, but the problem seems to be with organized religions. Religions are, of course, human inventions. Our experience of the world doesn’t ever seem to key completely to science or expectations of fairness or justice. Some of it may be due to illusion, or delusion, but we get the sense that something serious may be going on here. Many formal religions have tried to systematize something that can’t be tamed or taught to perform on cue. And since religious leaders are only human, there should be no surprise that they come fully loaded with the cadre of human weaknesses.

Despite claims of epic voyages to Hell in a small, wicker conveyance, things in human terms aren’t as bad as they used to be. Sure, the economy continues to mope, and far too few people are far too rich, but generally we’re living longer, we’re healthier (or at least bearing up better under conditions that would’ve rendered us unhealthy decades ago), and we’ve got lots and lots of toys to play with. Maybe we’ve reached a level of contentment that blocks out that quiet voice begging for attention. It is a still, small, voice. One of the things I notice is that quiet is hard to find anymore. Our gadgets beep and chirp and mutter and belt out rap or soul or rock in just about any venue where people are found. Religions have generally been nurtured in places of silence. We’ve become the nones.

The anti-atheists have done a good job equating non-belief with moral turpitude, but the ethical atheist is not hard to find. Religions have always been concerned with morals. At least since the Enlightenment, however, philosophers have weighed in on ethics, often without a theistic underpinning. The idea, according to humanists, is that we agree to certain moral expectations by our very humanity. Some don’t play by the rules, to be sure, but most of us do. Some with, some without a deity or deities telling them to do so. Once you sidle away from the angry New Atheists, you can see that atheists can be good people. Looking to blame evil on lack of belief is too easy and consequently misguided. Conservative Christians, progressive Muslims, atheists, polytheists, and nones all have their humanity in common. We are, or should be, no matter what our faith commitments or lack thereof, humanists.

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