Tag Archives: The Atlantic

Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?

Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.

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The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

Two Unrelated Stories

Harvard University’s been in the news. Well, Harvard makes the news, so that not news. The first story that has appeared is that Harvard, like me, is giving it away. Information on religion, that is. Like a fire sale. Or making room for next season’s fashions. According to the Anglican Journal, Harvard is offering a free world religions class online. Some of us who have degrees in various world religions offer similar services but, well, we are not Harvard, are we? This isn’t really sour grapes, but I see my colleagues’ blogs—those who teach anywhere, not necessarily at Harvard—and they get plenty of hits. They have institutional backing. That job offer is a seal of quality, don’t you know. Freelancers, well, who trusts them? I’ll professionally prattle on about religion anyway.

Then a colleague sent me a story by Charlotte Allen entitled “Jesus’ Wife: The Final Debunking,” from The Weekly Standard. For those of you not up on the scholarly gossip of the deity’s latest amorous exploits, some time ago a Harvard professor advocated for a fragment of a lost gospel purporting to mention Jesus’ wife. The media had it’s little frenzy (like father, like son, so it seemed), and scholars argued—which is what they do. Most saw this fragment as an obvious fake, but when someone from Harvard declares otherwise the media listens. Now, in a piece of investigative reporting soon to appear in The Atlantic, the origins of this fake manuscript are pretty much laid out for all to see. It seems that being at the only true university in this country isn’t really the basis for not being taken in by forgers. I’m not picking on the professor—we’ve all been taken in by clever forgers—we want to believe. Deception happens all the time and all over the place: “ancient” documents are faked, someone makes money or notoriety, and we all go home shamefaced at the end of the day. Still, there’s a point to be made.

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Humans are worshipful beings. If you want a job in higher education your best bet is to attend Harvard. It opens doors for you. While in seminary at Boston University School of Theology, I applied for transfer to Harvard Divinity School and was accepted. I decided not to cross that river, however. Edinburgh was my future. In Scotland, I spent my dissertation attempting to show just how thin the evidence was for Yahweh’s wife, if you take the time to look at each piece. Naturally, the dissertation and subsequent book were largely ignored. Edinburgh used to be the Athens of the North, but it’s not Harvard, though. Now scholars are beginning to question the new orthodoxy of a happily married deity. While the academic dispute goes from one bed to another, it begins to sound like Days of Our Lives. Scholarly drama may not be front page news, but it doesn’t fail to entertain.

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.

Scientific Belief

AtlanticThe human brain is a marvelous thing. Neuroscientists find all kinds of surprises as they probe the gray matter in our heads. One of those findings is that we don’t always believe what we say we do. Some time ago I read Matthew Hutson’s Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Scientists didn’t like the book too much since it caught them with their empirical pants down. Really, there’s no shame in that. We are at the mercy of our own minds. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Hutson has a brief piece entitled “The Science of Superstition.” In the space of just over two columns he runs down the evidence that even those who claim materialism is the answer to all life’s mysteries, even those scientists can’t escape superstition. Friday the thirteenth, a couple of weeks back, I walked under a ladder on my way to work. What happened? I had to go to work. Is that bad luck? I suspect it’s a matter of opinion. I’m the first to admit, however, that I did have fleeting reservations.

Study after study, as cited by Hutson, shows that physiological measures indicate anxiety when those who don’t believe in God say bad things about him/her. We all attribute cause to natural events, even those steeped in the hard sciences. Thinking about death reveals subconscious beliefs about God. It’s the way we’re hardwired. Hutson himself, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really attribute much credence to the supernatural. This is all a matter of what our material brains believe. Interestingly, we are evolved to be open to religious ideas. Many choose to believe, despite our brains, that we are evolutionarily deceived. Screwed by natural selection, as it were.

Far more interesting, in my deluded opinion, is that we don’t really choose what to believe. At least not at first blush. Our brains tell us to believe in the invisible causation that just doesn’t fit in a material world. To get beyond that takes some effort. It does give one pause, however, to consider that blind evolution has puckishly kept all this in the mix. Does evolution have a sense of humor? Perhaps we are all taking all of this far too seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we think.

Future of an Illusion

AtlanticHEIf anyone’s premature death has been announced more than Mark Twain’s, it is that of higher education. September’s The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox proclaiming itself the “Education Issue” leading with an article “Is College Doomed?” While I appreciate the headiness of Atlantic articles, they run long and my time runs in the opposite direction. I have to read selectively. Things like paying bills and work vie for my time as well. I flipped it open to the article actually entitled “The Future of College?” by Graeme Wood. Four words in, and I froze. The fourth word is “entrepreneur.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m open-minded. Having seen higher education showing its teeth and claws, I know it isn’t the nice pet that the dean will tell you that it is. Nevertheless, from my viewpoint, the main problem higher education is experiencing right now is entrepreneurial in character. Perhaps it’s old school to say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but it is perhaps the most apt phrase to apply to colleges and universities prior to the twenty-first century. And, in my humble opinion, today, while some vestiges can be salvaged.

Oh, I know I’m a dinosaur. I literally finished my formal higher education last century. Still, the experience worked well enough. I can’t express, even with daily posts on this little blog, how much I learned sitting through bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs. None of the institutions I attended was perfect (although Edinburgh came pretty close), but they were largely faculty led, and they all recognized that their primary function was to educate, not to prep for entrepreneurial enterprises. There were business schools for that. You couldn’t learn dead languages in business schools. Or even great ideas beyond those with an economic twist. What hath Nietzsche to do with supply-chain optimization? Oh yes, the death of God. My mistake.

In my younger years, I had no preconceived notion about higher education. My high school teachers and the clergy in my life encouraged me to go to college, despite the fact that nobody in my family ever had. Even though it was only Grove City College, as soon as I got over the homesickness, I realized I was home. Higher education—my assumptions were challenged. I had to learn to weigh the evidence. By the time I was finished, I had learned to create content as well. And then I started to hear that higher education had one purpose only—to prepare the young for the job market. A place that is too often unthinking and uninspiring. We aren’t educating, we are teaching conformity. And those who don’t have jobs don’t have healthcare coverage. Survival of the fittest. Entrepreneurs by definition. A quarter of a century ago I didn’t even know that higher education was sick, let alone dying. When the future begins with entrepreneurs, however, I’m going to side with Mark Twain, even if he is really dead.

The Computer of Dr. Caligari

TheAtlanticTo be human is to be ethical. Not always in the best way, unfortunately. Nevertheless, our moral sensors are pretty much constantly running as we try our best to make the right moral decisions. This thought occurred to me while reading Jonathan Cohn’s article, “The Robot Will See You Now,” in this month’s The Atlantic. Having been a sideline watcher of FIRST Robotics for about four years now, I have heard countless stories of how robots perform some surgeries more efficiently than clumsy humans can. Cohn’s article starts off with the impressive potential of IBM’s Watson to sort through millions and millions of bits of data—far beyond any human capacity—and make more informed recommendations about medical treatments. After all, Watson won on Jeopardy!, so we know “he”’s smart. But he isn’t really a he at all. Still, in our reductionist world where humans are just “soft machines” computers and robots should be quite capable of helping us heal. To survive longer.

I am a veteran of Saturday afternoon science fiction movies and weekday episodes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (original series, both). The present is starting to feel like that impossible future I watched as a starry-eyed child. But what of Dr. McCoy? I remember literally cheering (something I haven’t done much in recent decades) when DeForest Kelley’s name appeared on the opening credits of Star Trek when season three began. Bones was always one of my favorite characters—the doctor who didn’t trust the machines upon which he relied so heavily. He was a down-to-earth country doctor, who seemed to feel out of touch with the human (and occasional alien) element with machines interposed between them. Medicine is, after all, a very personal thing. Our bodies are our souls. I know; scientists tell us we have no souls. Embodiment studies, however, suggest otherwise. That robot coming at me with needles and scalpels may know how to heal me, but does it have my best interests at heart? Where is its heart? Its soul?

Better health care is certainly much to be desired. But in a country where our lawmakers continually debate whether the poorest should have access to Watson and his ilk, I wonder where ethics has gone. Robot doctors, I’m sure, will not accept patients with no insurance. Does not compute. Having gone without health insurance myself for several years, despite holding advanced degrees, I know that if I’d had a health crisis I’d have been rightly ranked down there with the blue collar folk that I consider kin. You see, to be human is to be ethical. That doesn’t mean we’ll always make the right decisions. It’s a safe bet that Watson can play the odds mighty finely. And the soulless machine may be making the decisions about who lives and who does not. Now that I have insurance again, when I’m on that cold slab I may have a shot at seeing a robot doctor. If that ever happens, I’m going to hope that Dr. McCoy is at least standing in the corner, and that those waiting outside the comfortable walls of affluence will somehow enter Watson’s scientific calculations with me.