Psychobabel

Evolution, we’re told, has one goal: survival. As an unthinking process of nature, evolution “programs” us all to desire survival for ourselves and our offspring. Even attributing that purpose too it is to suggest it’s more a willful agent than a blind process. People, on the other hand, are meaning-seeking creatures and so there’s bound to be some disappointment involved. I was just discussing with a friend how it seems that people just can’t agree on evolution mostly because of the strident claims on both sides. The New Atheists make claims beyond the evidence that survival to reproduce is the “only” role of evolution and we are “just” animals with too much gray matter, and that consciousness is “merely” electro-chemical activity in our brains. Creationists, for their part, say evolution couldn’t possibly account for structures as complex as we see in nature, and therefore a deity much be involved. The rancor grows until both sides end up despising the other. People who look for the middle ground are not newsworthy and fade into the scenery. I wonder if we’re evolved to ever get along.

My wife mentioned that it’s like the Tower of Babel story. Here is the tale of God making humans inevitably talk past one another. We can’t understand and so we argue and criticize and insult. A more scientific explanation might be that perhaps we’ve tipped the evolutionary balance with our species-specific success. We are by tar the most numerous species of any large animal. (At least that we know of.) Having put ourselves as lords and masters of the food chain our challenges have become mental and we turn ourselves to the question of who’s right instead of simple survival. Sacred books can’t guide the discussion, but reason alone. And reason, as we all know, has its limits.

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The great irony in all of this is that, if we’re evolved to seek meaning, we’re not equipped to find the truth. As neuroscientists have pointed out, the brain’s function is survival, not truth finding. Our desire to know the truth is a human avocation abstracted from consciousness. We’ve not adequately defined consciousness, but since there aren’t many large predators hunting us down anymore, that brain-power has been diverted elsewhere. Despite all this, we don’t see world peace spontaneously breaking out. Even on a smaller scale we find prejudice and hatred and insane mass production of weaponry when our only predators are ourselves. Evolution, we’re told, has only the goal of survival. Being an unthinking principle, even ascribing it this much conscious decision-making is merely a matter of convenience. Does the Tower of Babel mean we must hate those who differ from us, or does it perhaps suggest that the real goal is better understanding?

Material Goods

Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.

Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.

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The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.

Religious Education

The elephant in the room is exposed in a New York Times op-ed piece last week. “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” by Charles M. Blow, puts a finger squarely on the pulse of the ailing science stance of American religious believers. Noting that the Republican party has made no secret of its attempt to capture conservative votes by touting the religious intolerance of the theological right, Blow points out that more Republicans now believe that humans were created separately from animals than accept the scientific fact of evolution. And not just human origins suffer—our future will as well. The same mentality attends denial of global warming and advocating against fair treatment of committed, loving couples (depending solely on the visible sexual equipment). It is all of a piece. Blow points out that white, evangelical Protestants make up only 18 percent of the US population, but 43 percent of the Republicans who are classified as staunchly conservative. This imbalance leads to one of the world’s wealthiest nations being sidetracked from serious global issues while we continue to debate whether the Bible in inerrant or not.

I would add a further note of concern to what Blow says: higher education refuses to take religion seriously. As a life-long sideliner who has never been permitted fully into the halls of academe, I have watched as business schools have grown from the rubble of religion departments that have at best stagnated—when they have not been actively dismantled. In the worst case scenarios, universities have closed such departments down. With the exception of evangelical institutions. Very large departments of confessionally indoctrinated religionists thrive across the country. I am not the only religion scholar to have been kicked out of the academy for an intellectually honest approach. The wider society, with eyes wide shut, has decided that religion is a passing fancy while statistics indicate the exact opposite. We as a society will continue to be manipulated by religions as long as we continue to pretend they don’t pose a real concern.

Religion serves a purpose.

Religion serves a purpose.

Nor does castigating all religion, as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens do/did, solve any problems. Science itself appears to indicate that religion is part of the human condition, as surely a product of evolution as our opposable thumbs. Basic psychology would dictate that such direct challenges to religion will only result in retaliation. In fact, this is something that I recall learning from kindergarten. Until our society learns to go back to school and study the four R’s—yes, religion has to be there among the basics—we will continue to suffer from those who have vested interest in using religion for their own ends while those who could educate us on the subject continue to suffer the cut jobs of those who might be part of the solution. Charles Blow wonders if he is being too cynical. I suggest that he’s not nearly cynical enough.

Do You Mind?

TheScienceDelusionSeems a lot of people are deluded these days. I know I am. Still, every great once in a while I read a book that helps me cope with the morass of everyday life in a way so profound that I feel elated. At least until I get to work. One of those books I cannot commend highly enough. Curtis White’s The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is epiphanic. Not your typical (generally faith-based) objection to the New Atheist phenomenon, White asks more fundamental, and indeed, logical, questions. And he’s incredibly fun to read. Starting with the conundrum that often goes unspoken, White demonstrates that even the scientists among the New Atheists ascribe to immaterial value judgments without thinking through the implications. Having jettisoned religion, philosophy—the whole of the humanities, in general, as pointless, non-empirical window-dressing, even the greatest lights still claim their tenets. As White illustrates, stars cannot be beautiful without a concept of beauty. Beauty cannot be quantified, and is therefore beyond the empirical method. One could say it’s in the eye of the beholder, but science is uncomfortable with metaphors as well.

Materialism, often in league with politics and power-mongers, fails to account for much of human experience. The real danger, as White demonstrates, is when society simply accepts it because it comes from a white lab-coat. White, along with most of non-materialists, is not anti-science. Science clearly describes, in a pretty close approximation, the physical world we know. At least in the New Atheist camp, however, it doesn’t stop there. The take-no-survivors attitude causes problems because it is hoisted on its own petard of logic. The mind that is attempting to puzzle out science is immaterial. Mind does not equal brain. The cause and the result are easily confused. Flush with neuroscience’s success of describing the brain, we assume that science can also explain things as inexplicable as the nature of light, quantum mechanics, black holes, or the Tea Party.

White is not shy of talking about the elephant in the room. Consciousness is not a material phenomenon. If you are reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We are self-aware creatures. So seem to be some other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. If our minds could be quantified a lot of psychologist’s couches would be empty. Chemicals may affect the working of our brains and influence the performance of our minds, but when they wear off, it is still yourself staring back from the mirror the morning after. Those of us who spend our lives pursuing the humanities generally don’t try to take over science. It is very good at what it does. The world as we experience it—even the use of the word “experience” itself—is, however, more than physical. Even the New Atheists dream, and hope, and love. No matter what they may say, there is an inherent beauty in that.

Hemlock and Crucifixion

Rhetoric is dying a slow, painful death. In this world where literalism reigns, the use of words to elicit an illicit truth deeper than the factual is no longer recognized. We see it both in the humorless antics of the New Atheists and in the ravings of the Fundamentalists. Writers have always known—serious writers at least—that truth is so much more than an objective ticking off of what really happened. The post-modernists may seem insufferable at times, but they have taught us that true objectivity is false, a mythic holdover from imperialistic thought processes that believed here, in this single mind, bias does not exist. We all have biases. Except me, of course. Rhetoric again.

I do not get many comments on this blog. Usually it takes someone to disagree with my ramblings to gussy up the energy to dispute what I write. I try not to distort facts, but facts are rare commodities these days. George Orwell is not really dead, I mused as I stood by his gravestone in Sutton Courtenay. Should someone deny that I was there how should I prove it in this day of Photoshop and pixelated truth? And that wasn’t even his real name.

When I regularly taught, students would ask me what I believed. What I believe, I would respond, is not important. I am teaching a subject, a field of study. When is the last time you asked your chemistry professor what she believed? Would it matter? Of course, thoughts, I’m told, are only chemical reactions that lead to electrical charges. Miniature storms inside our skulls. Literally. Rhetoric folds its hands across its metaphorical chest and lays quietly, awaiting the pall.

Socrates had his method. He ended up an enemy of the state. Jesus told parables. He also ended up an enemy of the state. Rhetoric, make no mistake, is a dangerous game to play. The hearer, or the reader, hears or reads what s/he wants to hear or read. And in a literal world, people would rather not have to read too deeply, for truth, it is believed, lies plainly upon the surface. There used to be a word for such a surface reading, but should I write it here I would be guilty of using rhetoric. And rhetoric awaits the delivery of the flowers but few are the black-garbed mourners. It is best not to disturb the dead.

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Religion, Generally

Attempting to keep this blog focused on religion, has, of course, relegated it to the hopelessly outmoded pile for many people. I run into this all the time, professional, sophisticated individuals who have moved beyond the need for religion don’t see why we should waste our time with it. It’s about as useful as a room full of year-old newspapers. Like most people who end up studying religion, for me it began as an outgrowth of a religious upbringing. When you get to college they ask what you’re interested in. When your response is “Not going to Hell,” they’re likely to send you over to the Religion Department (if there happens to be one). One of the early lessons you learn as a religion major is (or at least should be) tolerance. Sure, the beliefs of other religions, when encountered for the first time, may seem weird. If you step outside your own tradition, however, chances are a great deal of what you believe could be considered odd as well. In such circumstances tolerance is perhaps the only way to avoid violence.

The few readers who leave comments on my posts give me pause to think. I largely study religion in isolation now, without the give-and-take of academic colleagues. It is not unusual for someone to point out the bizarre, or even unethical behavior of someone else’s religion (New Atheists do this all the time). When trying to understand religion, however, we have to be honest about the fact that all religions, and non-religions share instances of bad behavior. As my grade-school teachers said, “one bad one ruins it for everyone.” Religions are just as subject to human perversions as any other activity. People do bad things occasionally. Sometimes in the name of religion (or non-religion). Rationally it is obvious that we shouldn’t blame the religion for the poor behavior of some adherents. Yet we often do.

Religion-bashing is a popular sport. Those who engage in it, however, frequently fail to take into account just how widespread religion is. By far the vast majority of people in the world, educated or not, believe in a religion. This is complicated by the fact that an agreed definition of religion is still lacking. We don’t know what religion is, but we know it when we see it. Our universities and public intellectuals often ridicule it as unsophisticated and naive. As someone who has spent a lifetime thinking about religion, I suppose I’m obligated to say it, but there is a deep truth here: religions do motivate for good as well as for evil. Both non-religious and very religious people can be bad or good. What we require to get along in such a world is tolerance. And a willingness to listen to others. Otherwise both religion and non may not survive to criticize each other.

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Continental Religion

In the course of my duties as an editor of religious studies, I was pondering the origins of the world’s major religions. Now, agreeing on what the major religions are is an exercise fraught with political incorrectness. What does “major” mean, after all? In any case, when we count in terms of numbers, there are more Christians, at the moment, than any other single religion. They are followed by Muslims and Hindus. So far there is little upon which to disagree, at least according to self-professed affiliations. Buddhists are usually counted as the next largest group, followed by Sikhs. When religionists mention “the big five,” however, they usually mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are likely far more followers of traditional Chinese folk religion, perhaps mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, than most accountings record—such beliefs aren’t neatly categorized. Jains make up a sizable population, and Shinto is often classed in with all those religions of the far east. Many of the more modern religions, such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sprang from Christianity, and so can safely be classed as a form of that faith.

What occurred to me that day was that all the major religions of the present world began in Asia. Judaism and Christianity, with all their numerous progeny, started in Israel or Palestine. Islam, as we all know, began in Arabia. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism all have their origins in India, the big winner for the seed-bed of religions. Traditional Chinese religions and Shinto trace themselves to the far east. Yes, there are indigenous religions throughout the world. Native American and African religions are not to be discounted, yet they never quite attain the level of public awareness to be qualified as “major” religions. In this spiritual accounting, “major” has nothing to do with importance. For the religions with the largest followings we must turn our eyes to the one-stop continent, Asia.

Where major religions begin

Where major religions begin

Considering this, the obvious question is why. Why Asia? Civilization itself began in Asia, and one of the marks of a civilized society, at least until the day of the New Atheists, has been religion. Religion may be abused, as might any human innovation, but it has also been a harbinger of a more civil world. Not only fear of the divine, but also a sense of gratitude toward whatever forces might be greater than humanity, allowing us to survive for another season, or through another storm. Even in the world of science, religion has been a motivator. Gregor Mendel, the scientist who gave us genetics, was a monk experimenting in a monastery. Sir Isaac Newton was an occultist. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian. Religion is at least as old as civilization. Its forms may be morphing, but, I suspect something our Asian forebears knew: religion will never truly go away.