Monthly Archives: March 2009

the communion of transcendence

I’ve just started reading Evolving God by Barbara King.  Dr. King, a biological anthropologist, gave a fascinating lecture at the AAAS annual meeting about her research on emotions in great apes.  Her book is subtitled “a provocative view on the origins of religion”; it is a look through hominid evolution to find the evolutionary origins of the “human religious imagination”, and it stands far apart from every other book I’ve seen on the subject.  Its view is the one that I have been searching for; it’s very Pink Atheist-friendly.

First, a disclaimer.  I’m going to use the terms religion, sacred, spiritual, etc. the way King uses them, which is very different from colloquial definitions.  I so wish we could drop the prejudices that usually accompany these terms.  King uses the words religion, religious impulse, religious imagination, and spirituality fairly interchangeably to mean the general human capacity for and tendency to find transcendent meaning, and the words sacred, sacredness, and transcendence to mean anything that satisfies that religious imagination–experiences that transcend words.  (I’ll use the term “religious system” when I need to reference religion in its colloquial sense.)

In this broadest definition of religion, King includes the transcendent awareness that can be stimulated by art and poetry.  When we commune with works of art in a transcendent, consciousness-raising way, she says, “the visions of these artists give us a sense of community with beliefs and practices in other societies and perhaps in times past”.  To me, that phrase is at the core of what makes this book special.  King’s aim is not to explain away religion, but to weave a thread throughout the human experience of religion, uniting the root impulse of all religious systems.  For atheists, that means when we feel a sense of awe and wonder at the intricacies of science, the breadth of the cosmos, or the beauty of human artistic creation, we are sharing a camaraderie with people before us and alongside us who have found that same feeling of awe and wonder by praying or reading holy books or contemplating the mysteries of Christ.  This is the perspective that I have been missing in the strictly atheist universe.  I am an atheist, but I am nonetheless a spiritual being, a human with a religious imagination who is no less in search of transcendence.  I don’t want to pit myself against or even separate myself from others who share this religious impulse and satisfy it in different ways.  I want to align myself with them.  A “cloud of witnesses”, if you will.

Having experienced spirituality through many different avenues—the religious system of Christianity, through art and music, and through science—the most neglected aspect of my spiritual experience is the ways in which those avenues inform and shape each other.   My Christian life not only preceded but completely transformed my life as an atheist.  (I suspect that it would have been similar if I had been just as devoutly committed to any other religious system.)  Christianity taught me how to exercise my religious imagination.  It not only gave me sources of deep awe, wonder, and sacredness, but taught me how to experience them.  My relationship with God himself taught me volumes as well, although the term “taught” would be deceptively trivializing.  Anthropologically speaking, Barbara King says that such a relationship with an unseen person is the pinnacle of human relational ability, the zenith of the primate drive for belongingness.  Even though I most certainly do not believe in God now, I surmise that my former relationship with God, the immanence of his presence in every aspect of my daily life, most certainly eclipses on a consciousness and symbolic level every relationship I’ve ever had with a human being.

Being a Christian was a vital part of my spiritual evolution.  The things that have been once sacred to me will always be sacred to me, and I will cherish them—with fondness, not longing.  And here is the one and only way in which I might subscribe to the saying, “once a Christian, always a Christian”: I hope I never lose my understanding of the Christian religious sensibility.  No matter where I find sacredness, I align myself with all who have shared the religious imagination, and all their manifestations of transcendence, including my own of the past.

I’ve deliberately avoided any discussion of truth, because Evolving God isn’t about that.  It’s interesting and refreshing for me, as someone who usually extols truth as The Only Thing That Matters, to put that aside and explore the richness of the religious impulse.  King gives a noteworthy disclaimer near the beginning of the first chapter: she does not claim that God, gods, and spirits are made up by humans; nor does she claim that they are real.  “Matters of faith are not amenable to scientific analysis, experimentation, or testing… I remain agnostic on this question.  My focus is on our prehistory, and on how—and why—we evolved God as that prehistory unfolded.”  There’s something to contemplate: saying that we evolved God is not the same as saying that we made God up.

My suspicion is that at the end of the book, I will still not know whether the author is an atheist or agnostic, deist or theist.  And that’s fine by me, because one thing I do know is that she understands religion and sacredness in all its forms.  Anthropologically speaking, I am religious, and I feel a kinship with everyone else who is.

Here’s a great interview with Barbara King in which she discusses many of the main ideas of her book.  I have not hit upon any part of her main thesis in this post; these are just my reflections on some of the comments in her first few chapters.

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the single worst thing about Christians

There is one aspect of religion that I am absolutely sick of, and I refuse to tolerate it any longer.  It’s by far the most annoying, most potentially hurtful, most insulting, most absolutely useless aspect of religious culture I have ever encountered.  I’m sure Christianity is not the only religion in which this occurs, but it’s the realm of my experience.

It is the tendency for Christians to accuse each other of not being “real” Christians.

I have heard this accusation a hundred times, both as a target and as a bystander.  You would think that being an atheist, I would be divested of this intra-religion finger-pointing.  I didn’t even really become aware of the extent of this behavior until I became an atheist, and now I can’t escape it.  I hear this crap all the time: I was never a “real” Christian, because if I had been, I’d never have become an atheist.  The Christians who I have known must not have been “real” Christians, because “real” Christians aren’t jerks.  Most people who claim to be Christian are not “real” Christians.

For the record, I don’t care who is a real Christian and who is not.  I don’t care if I have never known a real Christian in my life.  I don’t care whether or not you think I was a “real” Christian.  I don’t care if you think you are the only real Christian in the world.  I don’t want to hear about it.

This name-calling behavior really disgusts me.  Why does this bother me so much?  It’s not because I don’t like being told I’m wrong.  It’s not because I’ve never been smug or self-righteous.  But whenever I see Christians pointing their fingers at each other in such a way, it evokes a very strong reaction in me, even if I am just a bystander.  I find that kind of verbal behavior offensive to my intelligence, my humanity, and the humanity of others.  It serves absolutely no earthly purpose.  It doesn’t even serve a heavenly purpose, if you believe in heaven.

Starting now, I wash my hands of it.  I don’t tolerate name-calling among the primary students that I teach, and I won’t tolerate it in any part of my life.  I remain open and involved in dialogue and discussion about religion and atheism, but I will promptly close my eyes and ears to any mention or suggestion that someone else is not a “real” Christian (or Muslim, or atheist, or Jew, etc.).  Any such comments on my blog will be promptly deleted.  And I have once or twice encountered atheists lobbing the same type of accusation towards each other, which is just as hurtful and offensive and completely pointless, if not more so.  I will not tolerate that either.

different ways of peeling an onion

This is my first reflection on the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, exactly a month late:

After the last meeting session, I felt an inexplicable sadness.  It wasn’t until later that I recognized the feeling as one I used to have often, during my freshman year of college, when I was a music major.  I often felt this sadness of withdrawal after performances, especially after performing with my string quartet, which was my favorite kind of performance.  Coming off of such an euphoric high– performing chamber music is an experience that barely allows itself to be shaped into images, let alone words– I would often sit in the dressing room after a concert, at a loss.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I couldn’t fathom just going on with life as usual.  I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time.

I was so sad that the meeting was over.  I know it might sound silly, but these meetings really are important events for me.  They are largely responsible for the momentum of my career and my love for science, as well as inspiring my general outlook.

Being Valentine’s Day, many of the sessions talked about the evolutionary basis of love, which I think is glorious.  The unraveling of such abstract things as emotion, the mapping of emotions and senses and feelings to neurons and regions of the brain, the ability to talk about things like love and compassion in dispassionate terms, makes them more real to me, not less.  The reducing of nature to its mechanical parts and describing them dispassionately makes everything more beautiful to me.

A lot of people disagree.  For them, to study such sacred things as love by reducing them to their biological mechanisms and evolutionary origins is to ruin the beauty of the intangible.  I can understand where they come from.  As a music major in college, analyzing scores and breaking apart symphonic structure seemed at times to diminish the beauty of what actually occurs between a musician and her instrument or what actually enters a listener’s ears.  But there are different ways of peeling an onion.  Analyzing a musical score and identifying its structure is only one way to understand a piece better.

There was a Mozart concerto that I played in college and worked on for an abominably long time.  Not because it was technically difficult, but because for all the time that I spent on its theory and technique, there was something about it that I just wasn’t grasping.  I practiced this piece for months and months.  I knew its structure and its skeleton inside and out, but I didn’t know what was inside it.

It was very slowly that I began to glimpse the soul within it.  For a few weeks I could see just a glimmer of what might be there.  Then one day, after spending several hours working on it, my practice centered around one particular passage, then finally one particular measure.  I circled and circled around that measure, trying to find an opening.  Knocking repeatedly on the door of one particular note.  Finally, that one particular note let me in, and I discovered the world within it.

On LE I wrote about my baptism, its preciousness to me as the one pure beautiful thing I held on to at the core of my Christian identity.  As a musician, that particular note, that particular measure of that particular concerto was the same kind of precious treasure.  The world within that note became for me a landmark, the core of what I knew music to be, the thing that I knew I could always reach back to when I needed to remember.

In science, just like in music, there are different ways of peeling the onion.  You can dissect and over-analyze phenomena to the point of killing them.  Or, after you have uncovered their skeletons, you can discover the world within them.  After you have dissected a cell or a neuron, you can knock on the door of its understanding and hope that it will let you in.  And every layer you uncover is bigger and more magnificent.

Science is my thing of beauty.  My life is scattered with landmarks that are precious to me.  Like my baptism was, and like the world within that one note of Mozart, science has left landmarks and gems.  The things of beauty that I see in science are no less than art and music in their insight and inspiration.  And as a science educator, one of my greatest hopes is that my students will discover these landmarks for themselves and experience what it is like to peel the onion of science for the first time.

the Vatican celebrates Darwin

The Vatican is celebrating the year of Darwin by sponsoring a conference on evolution at Pontifical Gregorian University.  “Biological evolution: facts and theories” is part of a series of conferences commemorating the work of both Darwin and Galileo, and discussing their theological and philosophical implications.

The conference is organized into sections which will first present those facts that are known, then expand on the scientific theories that try to explain evolutionary mechanisms, on humanization, on philosophical questions and finally on the theological issues about Evolution.

The abstracts for all the presentations are available on the conference website.  It seems scientifically sound.  The best part?  According to a news blurb from AAAS,

The conference series has already sparked protests from backers of intelligent design, who claim that they have been barred from the meetings.  Conference organizers have explained the omission of ID proponents by referring to ID as “not a scientific perspective.”

I find it extremely gratifying that the Vatican does not recognize Intelligent Design.  The conference does include presentations of the history and background of creationism and intelligent design, and I applaud their convention of encapsulating “Intelligent Design” in quotation marks.

Overall, I think the Vatican is to be applauded for this timely and admirable forum on science and faith.  However, I just wanted to note that the only thing that strikes me as questionable are the numerous references to Teilhard de Chardin, who I consider to be the father of pseudoscience, and who is ironically often cited by IDists.  (I could be wrong about Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point theory being pseudoscience.  Maybe it’s just philosophy?  But just for fun, everyone should read the “scientific” explanation of the Omega Point in The Physics of Immortality by the pseudoscience genius and IDist Frank Tipler.)

“miracles do not happen by accident”

At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated.  But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions….

But that potential will not reveal itself on its own.  Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident.  They result from painstaking and costly research – from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit – and from a government willing to support that work.

I just read the President’s speech upon signing the executive order to allow stem-cell research funding, and it made me so happy.  He said exactly what I’ve been wanting a president to say on the matter.  Before today, I knew that President Obama would overturn the ban and I was glad, but I couldn’t be overjoyed because I do think that embryonic stem cells can be a grey area and demand caution and respect.  His speech was spot-on, capturing perfectly the balance between respect, caution, and hope, without alienating or over-emotionalizing.  His remarks on the nature of scientific research were also extremely intelligent.  I don’t have a TV, but I bet his delivery was even more impressive.  Nevertheless, if you missed all or part of it, I highly recommend reading the President’s full speech.

wisdom or happiness – a children’s book review

I love children’s books.  I probably read more books that are written for children than books that are written for adults.  I find that there is nothing better than children’s books for exposing the essences of human experience and distilling them to the most basic truths.  Plus, child protagonists are always less annoying than adult protagonists.  I’m always on the lookout for Newbery Award books, historical novels, and books that are kind of old-fashioned that don’t try so hard to cater to the “cool” factor.

Kneeknock Rise by Natalie Babbitt won a Newbery Honor in 1971; I had never heard of it before I saw it in the library last week, so I decided to read it.  Can you guess the book’s message from the summary and review that appears on the back cover?

From the moment young Egan arrives in Instep for the annual fair, he is entranced by the fable surrounding the misty peak of Kneeknock Rise: On stormy nights when the rain drives harsh and cold, an undiscovered creature raises its voice and moans. Nobody knows what it is—nobody has ever dared to try to find out and come back again. Before long, Egan is climbing the Rise to find an answer to the mystery.

“Here’s a wonderfully fluent fable about man’s need to have something to believe in… The fable is simple and its meaning precise enough: Science cannot or will not explain it all.  The strength of this tale is in Natalie Babbitt’s clean, modern, very confident telling.  For children, especially, this is fine writing.” –School Library Journal

It’s basically a fable about reason and belief.  The story is very simple: the Megrimum is a horrible monster that lives at the top of a mountain overlooking the village of Instep.  Most of the time the Megrimum stays on his mountain quietly.  But he hates rainstorms, and on stormy nights he can be heard howling and moaning.  On these nights he might also come down into the village to look for food, but he won’t bother you if you stay indoors with a candle in the window and a wishbone on the hearth.

The protagonist Egan, unfamiliar with the Megrimum, is initiated into the assortment of superstitions surrounding the Megrimum and Kneeknock Rise.  Nobody has ever actually seen the Megrimum, and for everyone else in the neighborhood, it’s enough to hear it and feel the fear that it brings.  But Egan is overcome by curiosity, and decides to climb to the top to see the monster for himself, and maybe even slay it and become a hero.

The thesis of the story is summed up in this poem which the protagonist ponders:

I visited a certain king
Who had a certain fool.
The king was gray with wisdom got
From forty years of school.
The fool was pink with nonsense
And could barely write his name
But he knew a lot of little songs
And sang them just the same.
The fool was gay. The king was not.
Now tell me if you can:
Which was perhaps the greater fool
And which the wiser man?

Who is the wise man, and who is the fool?  “Is it better to be wise if it makes you solemn and practical, or is it better to be foolish so you can go on enjoying yourself?”  Egan isn’t sure, even after he climbs to the top of Kneeknock Rise and finds that, of course, there is no Megrimum.  The howling and screaming is caused when rain floods an ancient volcanic hot spring at the mountaintop.

Of course, nobody believes Egan when he returns to the village and reports what he found.  He was delirious with fever, they say.  Because as terrified as the villagers are of the Megrimum, they also love it.  They live for the delicious fear on stormy nights, and visitors come from all around to brighten up their mundane lives with the terror: “It’s the knowing there’s something different, something special up there waiting.  It’s the knowing you could choose to change your days– climb up there and throw yourself right down the throat of the only and last and greatest terrible secret in the world.  Except you don’t climb up.  A secret like that– well, it’s worth the keeping.”

Remember the review on the back cover?  It made me think the book was about something completely different.  Most of the other featured reviews I’ve seen for this book have been similar, extolling the pervasiveness of belief and the importance of finding something to believe in.  It would be one thing if these comments were made by children, but these reviewers are adults, which makes me wonder if they even read the same book.  But surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, most reviewers seem to have the same reaction to the villagers in the story: it’s important to have something to believe in.

Even Egan’s uncle Ott, the one adult in the story who has climbed Kneeknock Rise and seen the “Megrimum” for himself agrees: “For me it’s always been important to find out the why of things.  To try to be wise.  But I can’t say it’s ever made me happier.  As for those people down below, they’ve had their Megrimum for years and years.  And I don’t know as I want to spoil it all for them.  There’s always the possibility that they’re happier believing.  Kind of a nice idea, this Megrimum.”  Uncle Ott is the poet who himself is caught between the paradox of the wise man and the fool.  He leaves Egan with this final thought:

The cat attacked a bit of string
And dragged it by the head
And tortured it beside the stove
And left it there for dead.

“Excuse me, sir,” I murmured when
He passed me in the hall,
“But that was only string you had
And not a mouse at all!”

He didn’t even thank me when
I told him he was wrong.
It’s possible– just possible–
He knew it all along.

It’s a pretty easy book, probably 2nd to 4th grade reading level.  It would be a great story to read with your kids if you wanted to start a discussion about belief and skepticism.  However, it presents a very black and white picture of knowledge vs faith.  I hardly think I need to say it, but contrariwise to Egan and Uncle Ott, “finding out the why of things” has made me happier.  And I still do love a good ghost story.  For those who dare to go after the Megrimum, life is not so bleak as it’s made out to be.

(PS: If you want to buy a copy, I recommend ordering books from Better World Books.)