Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Miscellaneous Aside III. Confessions and Revelations I: God is Love…..

“Paul was the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” Thomas Jefferson

I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, the bastion of Protestant fundamentalism prior to the “Charismatic/Full Gospel” schisms of the 1970s. In spite of the lingering vestiges of their historical racism, they were genuinely decent people who in no way intended to delude or indoctrinate, they taught me nothing that they themselves did not hold to be reality; I never had any doubt that they were genuinely concerned for my "eternal soul". And in spite of the pagan leanings of an early life filled with well used opportunities to explore nature, I never seriously question what they taught me, even during my education as a scientist. It was not until I became a father, and understood the unconditional love of a parent for his children, that my indoctrination was shattered. Jesus talked about this unconditional sort of love, he once described God by telling the following story about a father:

A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, “I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, “At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.’” So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But his father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.” So the party began. Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. “Your brother is back,” he was told, “and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.” The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” His father said to him, “Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!”

When I became a father this story, this revelation, awakened me from my dogmatic slumber. The idea that God finds us so loathsome that Jesus must be sacrificed in order that He not have to torture us in hellfire forever is the teaching of Paul, not Jesus. Please don't think less of me for believing that God is Love.

"But the Jews, looking around them, saw always an Oriental despot, and so, looking over the world at-large, thought there must be a despot overall, and the consequence was they conceived one of the most immoral Gods ever imagined." Alfred North Whitehead

Friday, July 15, 2011

Miscellaneous Aside II. The Unintended Consequences of Assuming that a Free People will also have Free Minds

Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote, “Almighty God has created the mind free!” also coined the phrase, “A wall of separation between Church and State." This ‘wall’, established as law in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was a radical departure from the prevailing European tradition of officially endorsed and enforced versions of Christianity. What Jefferson, Franklin, Payne, Madison, and others could not have foreseen were the consequences of essentially creating an “ideological free market” where religious entrepreneurs and various salesmen of the sacred could thrive. In the several centuries that followed our Nation's founding, egoists and charlatans gifted with the power of oratory (and no mean insight into the human condition) have filled that vacuum with a greater diversity of religious innovations, hocus-pocus, denominations, sects, and thought-control than any other nation in human history. In that same period of time, the religions of Western Europe have dimmed and largely faded into insignificance, having lost the power to persuade modern people to believe in things which could never be proven, and can no longer be defended.

An instructive parallel can be found in the failure of the former Soviet economy when compared to the economic boom of American capitalism during the 20th century. As any good capitalists can tell you, a controlled economy suppresses initiative, entrepreneurship, and creativity. Likewise, a controlled religious thought system. Having no competition, the established churches of Europe not only failed to enthuse, but went so far as to actively suppressed new and inspiring ideas, as well as their creators (i.e. heretics), frequently "on pain of death." Conversely, the ideological free market created by the wall of separation between church and state in America selected for orators and thinkers capable of capturing the minds of the simple as well as their pocketbooks. From Mormonism to Scientology, any well formulated nonsense which somehow resonated with the psychic yearnings of the gullible became a movement, to the profit of its creator.

An inevitable outcome of any widely embraced thought system (rational or irrational) is the indoctrination of future generations which inescapably follows. For better or worse, any idea implanted by parents during the early stages of a child’s development will put down roots which can only be modified or extracted with sustained, deliberate effort. When indoctrinated beliefs happen to be attached to the status of an individuals ‘eternal soul’ in the ‘next life’, successful modification (if possible at all) will likely be cathartic.

As religious belief/faith diminished in importance in the European mind, ideas which were antithetical to an emerging scientific understanding of the world had lost their power to sustain indefensible irrational beliefs. Not so in America. The hocus-pocus wrought by generations of charlatans (culminating in the modern Televangelist) have breed an arrogant irrationality which now scoffs at the possibility of climate change while extolling the virtues of trickle-down economics. That this arrogant irrationality has been organized into a political force does not bode well for our collective ability to chart a sustainable course into the future we will have to share.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Miscellaneous Aside I: Thoughts on Sharing (i.e. The Redistribution of Wealth)

Other apes still share, especially our closest relatives, chimps and bonabos. Back when humans still lived as part of nature (i.e., hunter/gatherers) it remained the most viable mode of human survival, the only strategy that made sense; the tribe combed its territory as a group, when someone found a tree full of ripe fruit, there was a party. Recall that the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, is entirely a celebration of the generosity of native people (hunter/gatherers) who shared what they had with the starving white settlers who would later steal their land.

Jefferson understood the need to share, advocating both a progressive tax structure and the redistribution of land. And for a brief period near the end of the Civil War, there was a short-lived experiment in redistribution when human beings who had been treated as property themselves (i.e., former slaves) were given 40 acres and a mule to provide for their families.

Perhaps the greatest recognition of the need for sharing in a civilization was realized by Jewish brilliance; the Jews understood that some people were greedier than others and some of the greedy ones were sharp enough to amass great wealth at the expense of the rest of the community. So every 49 years there was a year of Jubilee, where not only land was redistributed back to families who had lost it over the previous 49 years, but all debts were also forgiven and all slaves freed; everyone started over with a clean slate and on equal footing.

Given that there are now more than 7,000,000,000 humans drawing their existence from 1 fragile planet (which has a finite and limited carrying capacity), the sanctification of greed and the vilification of sharing are a sure recipe for destroying the only life support system which we (and millions of species of fellow earthlings) will ever know. Granted, sharing can be taken too far; there once was a Jewish heretic who, for instance, told his followers: "If a man asks for your shirt, give him your coat also…” but even if we've given up on "WWJD?" surely we could at least behave as generously as those terrible communists suggested: "From each according to ability, to each according to need".

Keep up the Good World........

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Preamble II: What Science Is (and why it matters)

Human consciousness confronts the mysteries of reality with two general sorts of questions: the ‘How?’ questions, and the ‘Why?’ questions. Both ‘How?’ and 'Why?’ questions can and should be debated, but it must be understood that the ‘How?’ questions (e.g., "How does the solar system work? Is the Earth the center of the universe or does it orbit the Sun?” and, “How did our species come to be? Are we related to monkeys?”) can and should be addressed almost exclusively by the scientific method, and when a consensus of investigators arrives at a model (paradigm) which best captures all (or at least the great majority) of the "facts" revealed by experimentation, and is not obviously contradicted by any of the established facts, then the "theory" (the Heliocentric Model of the Solar System, the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection) becomes accepted, and can only be challenged by additional "facts" revealed by scientific investigation.

An accepted paradigm can never, however, be challenged by mythologies, fables, or legends passed down from antiquity, unless these explanations are also rigorously scrutinized by science, and are able to withstand the same level of testing as other facts. Therefore (for example) the creation story contained in the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1) has essentially been rendered obsolete as a "how" explanation of human existence. To admit it as a relevant idea in scientific literacy and education is rationally indefensible, and ultimately dangerous and destructive.

The contemplation of the great mystery, the "Why?" question (Why is there something rather than nothing and why does that something evolve into beings which can think and feel and wonder 'Why?') is properly within the realm of religion. The story of ‘The Fall’ contained in Genesis 2, for example, is a profound myth regarding the emergence of human self-consciousness, and its psychological implications/interpretations continue to be examined and debated by scholars. "Good" religion is a celebration of the experience of the mystery of existence which is resonant with reality as revealed by science, “Bad” (or counterproductive) religion is characterized by dogmas which are contradicted by science but nonetheless embraced as "truth" by the believer. "Faith" defined as “belief without evidence” or even “belief contrary to evidence” becomes a profound stumbling block to rational, discursive attempts to resolve the problems which collectively confront us.

Footnote: It is probably no coincidence that the percentage of Americans who are unconcerned about Climate Change is almost exactly the same percentage as those Americans who do not fully accept the Theory of Evolution (60% in both cases, by far the highest among developed nations). The political ramifications of such a widespread failure of rational thought on our collective ability to deal with planetary crisis of non-sustainability will be explored in future blogs.