Sunday, August 6, 2017

Is God Serious?

"How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?"

We confess we have always found delicious humor in the tall tales that religions tell. If you are a certain kind of Muslim you may believe that the Prophet, may his name be blessed, ascended to his heavenly throne mounted on a centaur.

If you are Christian, you take it as an article of faith that 2000 years ago there was an Arab with a Mexican name (usually portrayed as handsome, white and with a stubbly goatee) who had more powers than Superman (although making time go backwards in Superman-I was pretty cool). The Naz, as Lord Buckley called him, was born from a virgin, could heal the sick, raise the dead (including himself), and turn water into wine (which is way better than having to run down to the package store in the middle of the party).

According to the Book of Mormon, young Joseph Smith used x-ray glasses provided by the Angel Moroni to locate the buried golden plates, inscribed in a heretofore unknown Egyptian dialect, which he translated with the assistance of seer stones. The plates revealed to Smith that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were actually descendants of the lost tribe of Israelites that left Jerusalem at the urging of God c. 600 BC. It was good advice, because the Babylonians showed up 14 years later and laid waste to the city. The escape of the Nephites was sort of like Arthur Dent getting tractor beamed out of the way of the Vogon Destructor Fleet that was clearing the path through Earth's orbit for a hyperspace bypass. 

The Book of Mormon said God cursed the Lamanites by turning their skin dark for disobeying him and rewarded the Nephites by making their skin “white and delightsome.” Presumedly the Native Americans of Smith’s time had drifted a bit from their more obedient ancestors.

Hindus, Buddhists, and Druids share with Jews, Christians, Mormons and Muslims the notion of an eternal soul, although the former believe it reincarnates and the latter think it gets to dwell in a heavenly or hellish afterlife. Mormons are especially cute in how they ritualistically rehearse entry into that afterlife, within the lily white bowels of their tabernacles.

So how is it that otherwise reasonably literate and well-educated people, some of them scientists, scholars or rational professionals, are so willing to believe this claptrap?

One explanation could be the yearning for tribe that we discussed here last month. Chalk it up to the modern world of alienated youth, helicopter parents and cyberamphibian cocooning.

While somewhat satisfying from an evolutionary biology perspective, it still would not explain, for instance, the Middle Ages.
Neurobiological adaptation, on the other hand, might. 

At a chance meeting tapside during a science conference in 2005, Danny Brower, insect geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Ajit Varki, evolutionary glycobiologist. Brower said he believed he could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world’s species.

Brower asked Varki a question the latter couldn’t answer. Given the amount of spare brain capacity, Brower asked, why is there no humanlike elephant, crow or dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone seem to be able understand the minds of others?

Setting aside the anthropocentric hubris and physiological arrogance in that question, Brower and Varki’s book, Denial, proposed that when humans gained not just self-awareness but an understanding that other individuals are also self-aware and have independent minds, they suddenly became aware of their own mortality. Okay, we can accept that.

Muhammad’s ascent into the Heavens, a journey known as the Mi’raj, as depicted in a copy of the Bostan of Saadi.
Brower and Varki put forward the hypothesis that the overwhelming fear that such knowledge produced simultaneously developed a coping mechanism — a neural pathway for denying reality.

According to Denial Theory, this convergence of self-awareness and self-delusion was a highly unlikely event that has happened only once in the evolution of life on our planet. While some other species demonstrate features of self-awareness, the book argues that humans are unique in the mental ability to deny reality, which has led to the development of religiosity, death rituals and theories of an afterlife.

Of course, this is a long way from proven. We don’t know, for instance, that dolphins are not religious or that elephants do not fret about their own mortality, especially when administered 296 mg of LSD in CIA mind-control experiments. What is not easy to explain is why does every religion have a life after death story? And why are humans the only species that appear to need these? Varki explains that belief in life after death originates from a mutation to deny the reality of mortality and this improbable mutation has occurred so far in only one species.

Reality denial actually has profound physical benefits — allowing those near death to have tranquility, endowing healing powers through faith and well-documented “mind over matter” phenomenon. Some of these benefits extend to social cohesion, encouraging altruism and camaraderie, and self-improvement regimens.

There is also a dark side, and it is very, very dark. Suspension of belief in a scientific reality is grist for the mills of demagogues. It permits unethical manipulators of the faithful to get elected by denying climate change and peak everything or claiming that Russia’s leader possesses supernatural powers to control the rest of the world. 

The apostle Paul decreed that the persons who practice adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, “and such like” “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God”(Galatians 5:19–21).

Once you install a bouncer at the Pearly Gates, you can sell indulgences, demand unquestioning obedience to an arcane creed and slaughter apostates. Or simply anyone you don’t like. “Moral hazard” is a ready-made tool for tyrants.

Or, you can simply use your denial gene to ignore moral hazard. How cool is that?

Writes Varki:
As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.
If anxiety about death leads to belief in the afterlife and associated behavioral taboos, it also leads to religions that proclaim themselves exceptional, and not just from the laws of biology and physics.

Mormon membership is over 15 million and rapidly growing, yet Mormons consciously and intentionally retain their identity as a “peculiar people,” believing their unique relationship with God helps save them from “worldliness,” despite all the outward trappings of consumerism. 

Ditto Judaism. Ditto Catholicism. The list goes on. 

The division between Pakistan and India is all about religion. Same for Ireland, Rwanda, China and Tibet. Same for most of the conflicts in the Middle East. Choose an historic genocide and you will find religious intolerance at its root. How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?

There are, among all these strange fantasy cults, a few strains of stoical acceptance, non-attachment, magnanimity in the face of mortality. You can find such gnostic sects hidden away in most of the big religions. If there are heroic martyrs in human history, surely they are the Atheists. They don’t deny death. The higher power they clutch is called science.

Sooner than the 99 percent imagine, the exponential curve of human population will flip to its inverse. It must, because the physical world we inhabit has limits and we ignorantly (as in, to ignore) passed them by decades ago. In that cascading Age of Consequences, with out-scaled megacities nine meals from anarchy, will our religions console us or make matters even worse? 

Is coping with the hard realities of existence by supernatural feats of denial really a genetic endowment we should be thankful for?

Superman I



Joe said...

The earth did just fine with religious people doing their thing until the we managed to use fossil fuels to grow our population to unsustainable levels. And I doubt that universal atheism could have countered the temptation of the combination of fossil fuels and the ways to use it that science allowed.

I doubt that atheists would have so much self control of their emotions that unlimited power would be either shunned or controlled wisely. After all, even non-self-aware species have emotions, pecking orders, and behavioral urges that would lead to great damage if they got lots of exo-somatic energy behind them. Give chickens some steam powered machinery and watch out!

Religion and science both depend on a threshold level of awareness that is the core of what we think of as intelligence. As an atheist engineer, I propose that religion is not the problem and science is not the solution. It's intelligence that got us into this mess; we're just too damn smart for our own good.

Don Stewart said...

Core Systems; Religion; Downstream Effects

I suggest reading this obituary:

Clifford Sanford obviously organized his life around religious concepts. AND LOOK AT ALL THE GOOD HE DID. Our recent Presidents in the United States have claimed to organize their lives around religious concepts, and LOOK AT ALL THE HARMS THEY HAVE DONE. Which should prompt us to look more deeply.

From Lisa Feldman's new book How Emotions Are Made, I suggest that our mind is making a decision about what it wants to do, and constructs an emotion to fit the bodily response required. For example, if anger is called for, then the body conjures up some anger and lots of body systems get in gear with the constructed emotion.

Religion suggests certain concepts, which can be abetted by emotions. For example, Sanford obviously had some concepts which most of us would consider 'noble'. We would guess that his emotional apparatus supported his accomplishments. We would also guess that recent Presidents have had some far less than noble concepts and that their emotional apparatus and ability to lie to themselves supported their actions.

Barrett says that 'Affective Realism keeps you believing something even when the evidence puts it highly in doubt. It's not because of ignorance or malevolence--it is simply a matter of how the brain is wired and operates. Everything you believe and everything you see is colored by your brain's budget-balancing act.'

Sanford may well have been guilty of Affective Realism (as are all the rest of us), but surely his religious concepts are not the most pressing lies we have to confront.

Don Stewart

Anonymous said...

intelligence, plus upright walking, (freeing the forelimbs) plus opposable thumbs. Dangerous combination.

Unknown said...

That "reality" excludes the existence of anything beyond the physical sphere is an assumption. And although it is agreed upon by many people, including the scientific/skeptic-minded, but also affiliates of religious creeds that do not seriously give much credence to anything non-material, that does make it actual. It is yours and my existence, the all pervading, infinite and eternal being that is Reality. The real with the small "r" is described, by those who experience it from awakened states of illumination or realization, as a dream, illusion, imagination, a show, VERY IMPRESSIVE INDEED!, but still a dream.

brothermartin said...

"....if we understand by soul atman, which, secretly hiding itself behind all mental activities, direct them after the fashion of an organist striking different notes as he pleases, Buddhists outspokenly deny the existence of such a fabulous being. To postulate an independent atman outside a combination of the five Skandhas of which an individual being is supposed by Buddhists to consist, is to unreservedly welcome egoism with all its pernicious corollaries.

"And what distinguishes Buddhism most characteristically and emphatically from all other religions is the doctrine of non-atman or non-ego, exactly opposite to the postulate of a soul-substance which is cherished by most of religious enthusiasts. In this sense, Buddhism is undoubtedly a religion without the soul."

--D.T. Suzuki, referenced at

While some have turned Buddhism into a "religion," the essence of Buddhism is about clearing one's relative "self" of delusions about the nature of reality in order to be of some assistance to "others" suffering from delusions about reality. Clearing away delusion is a process, not some kind of end-state.

While your work, and that of many others, is not self-declaredly "Buddhist," you definitely serve the function of helping your readers realize what is and is not delusion, as you yourself figure it out. Thanks for all the assistance through the years!




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