Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mystery and Awe

If you give me the right man in any field, I can talk to him, I know what the condition is. That he did whatever he did as far as he can go. That he studied every aspect of it as far as he could stretch himself. He is not a dilettante in any way. And so he talked deep, as far as he can go, and therefore he is up against mysteries all the way around the edge, and awe. And we can talk about mystery and awe. That is what we have in common.
That's Richard Feynman, in a Yorkshire Television interview in 1973. It has struck me recently that this is the kind of thing that religion is supposed to have over science, and I just don't believe that for a second. From that same interview:
It is very much more exciting to discover that we are on a ball, half of us sticking upside down and spinning around in space. It is a mysterious force which holds us on. It's going around a great big glob of gas that is fed by a fire that is completely different from any fire that we can make (but now we can make that fire – nuclear fire.)
That is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales that other people used to make up about the universe – that we were living on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. So what's the pleasure in physics for me is that it is revealed that the truth is so remarkable, so amazing, and I have this disease – like many other people who have studied far enough to begin to understand a little of how things work. They are fascinated by it, and this fascination drives them on to such an extent that they have been able to convince governments and so on to keep supporting them in this investigation.
Of course, another of my heroes is Carl Sagan.  The idea of approaching mystery and awe, the balance between the two key elements of skepticism and wonder, were a constant theme in his work.  I of course recommend Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, but he reached perhaps his greatest crescendo on this topic in Pale Blue Dot.  
Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.
It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. 
Indeed, this seems to be a common theme among scientists.  Here's Lawrence Krauss:
The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today. 
I could go on for days, finding expression after expression of just how amazing and wonderful the universe is, how much finding things out brings us right up against the mystery and awe that mark the best in "spirituality".  The Symphony of Science series presents this wonderfully, and the latest video speaks to just the most astounding thing about our origins that I think it's possible to say: We Are Stardust.
I think we can all agree on the importance of mystery and awe. No matter what your religious beliefs, odds are that such things are an inextricable part of them. But why, if it's eminently possible to achieve such things through contemplation of the universe through the methods of science, should we cling to religion so fiercely? I simply don't understand it. The discoveries made in the search for our actual circumstances are readily available to the general public, and I also don't buy the idea that some people "just can't live without religion", that they're somehow not able to "get" science; I have more respect for their intellect than that. Isn't it time we just let go?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What Is Spirituality?

There seems to be a frustrating but unavoidable opinion in our culture that "spirituality" is associated with being good, and "materialism" (in the colloquial sense of "he who dies with the most toys wins") is associated with being wicked. I've encountered it several times recently in discussions here, usually in the context of saying that atheists just don't "get" religion, that we're "missing the point". Presumably, religion is supposed to deal with the "spiritual dimension" of human experience, and never mind all the times it ignores the supposed boundaries of its magisterium. Because atheists don't believe in god or the supernatural, they can't be spiritual, and thus can't really be good. The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey described it thus, when noting that all stories of psychic phenomena have self-righteous, "holy" elements: originates with what is, arguably, one of the most remarkable confidence tricks our culture has played on us. This has been to persuade people that there is a deep connection between believing in the possibility of psychic forces and being a gracious, honest, upright, trustworthy member of society...
The majority of our culture seems to be convinced, across religious views, that humans have a "deep need" for "spirituality." But what does spirituality mean? I guess it's supposed to be obvious, because very rarely does anyone even try to explain it. It's not at all obvious. The typical answer, which I've also received here many times in similar contexts, is "If you have to ask, you'll never know; you have to live it." Which is singularly worthless as an explanation; it is indeed a refusal to explain. Dan Dennett parodies, rather accurately as all good parodies do, the typical explanation. To see how hard it is to explain what spirituality is, he challenges his readers to try to improve on this:
"Spirituality is, you know, like, it's like paying attention to your soul or having deep thoughts that really move you, and not just thinking about who's got nicer clothes and whether to buy a new car and what's for dinner and stuff like that. Spirituality is really caring and not being just, you know, materialistic."
And, of course, it's easy to make the jump from "only thinking about stuff" materialistic to "all phenomena are explicable without an appeal to immaterial things" materialistic. At which point, it's effortless to slide into thinking that atheists don't "really care", are shallow and selfish and overconfident know-it-alls, when they're "missing out" on this vague, poorly defined, and yet oh so important dimension of human experience, the spirit.
Dennett goes on to try to give better words to what spirituality is:
What those people have realized is one of the best secrets to life: let your self go. If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and all your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.
And then he gives the all-important point (emphasis mine):
That, I propose is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.
There is absolutely nothing stopping an atheist from understanding that feeling, having that mindset of awe and wonder and proper scale and connectedness and humility. Indeed, most of the atheists I've talked to understand this quite deeply; how many upvotes are given to We Are Star Dust or The Story of Everything or This Remarkable Thing or A Universe Not Made For Us? If this is what spirituality means, then almost every atheist I know is deeply spiritual. If it's not what spirituality means, then what does it mean? I'd really love for someone to explain to me, clearly and understandably, what I'm "missing out on" by not being religious.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Contemporary Evangelical and Liberal Christianity is Too Easy

Before I begin, I'd like to note that there's a significant difference between evangelical Christianity andfundamentalist Christianity. There are evangelical fundamentalist Christians, but the two are far from synonymous. Fundamentalism holds to Biblical inerrancy, and as I'll describe, that's hard. Evangelicalism is based in personal conversion, sharing the gospel, and Biblical authority. It does not require, as fundamentalism does, literal interpretations of scripture.
So, evangelical and liberal Christianity are too easy to persist. Religious belief, if it is to be transmitted consistently, relies on several factors. The one that I'm focusing on here is difficulty. The religions that have persisted for long periods of time are very hard to follow. On one hand, they require conspicuous and, critically, impractical behaviors as professions of faith. For example, the following from a Jewish rabbi:
That most of the Kashrut laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 percent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peas at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.
Similarly, Islam requires that its followers stop what they are doing five times a day to pray, never mind how inconvenient or poorly timed or indeed dangerous doing so might be. Catholic ritual also fits the bill; it is very elaborate, very strict in form and slow to change over the years, and very definitely required. In Cardinal Ratzinger's Declaration "Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church", it is stated over and over the things that Catholics must "firmly believe" (and those italics are in the original), but it also switches several times to what "the Catholic faithful are required to profess". And these are merely examples we can find within the Abrahamic religions.
These actions are important precisely because they are hard to do. They allow the believer to feel that they areproving their faith, simply because they are choosing to follow commands that they, frankly, don't understand. There's no reason for it, there's no practical purpose, it is done because it is commanded, and thus demonstrates one's loyalty to the religion from which the commands issue.
On the other hand, they require people to believe in things that are incomprehensible. Again, this is hard to do, because it is a natural human tendency to try to figure things out. Dan Dennett calls this "credal athleticism", the boast that my faith is so strong that I can embrace a bigger paradox than you can. This serves much the same purpose as the conspicuous actions noted above; believing something that is patently ridiculous is hard to do, and getting to the point that you can do it feels like you're accomplishing something difficult in the service of your god. Indeed, it may even become one of those conspicuous actions when those beliefs are professed. When a fundamentalist Christian loudly and unwaveringly proclaims that no matter how much evidence you show him, he will continue to believe that the Bible is literally true, you may throw up your hands in exasperation, but he feels that has accomplished a very difficult and conspicuous task, that of blatantly professing paradoxical ideas, and that's a good feeling for him.
Incomprehensible doctrines have another benefit, as well; they must be passed down verbatim. Paraphrasing won't work, because to paraphrase you have to understand what is being said. For the incomprehensible, the only thing to do is directly quote the doctrine. This expresses itself in devotion to hearing, reading, and memorizing scripture, and in exposing ones self to theological tracts and doctrinal statements that are quite simply opaque and impenetrable ("I don't understand what the Pope meant, but here's what he said"). It even plays into the idea, common in many religions, that god is an ineffable, unknowable, profoundly apophatic entity. God is "the greatest conceivable being", "god is love", god is "the ground of all being", god is "ultimate reality"; trying to dig into what these statements actually mean is often a pointless exercise, and so they are just said because there's no deeper understanding of them to be had.
But liberal and evangelical Christianity is different. It places a focus on what the words of the Bible mean to you. There's an emphasis on personal revelation, personal conversion, personal experience of god. Services include PowerPoint presentations, contemporary music, a dress code of "whatever", and no mandatory attendance. Some churches refuse the word "sanctuary" because it's too religious. Churches spend time not on issuing doctrines, but providing daycare services for their members. We're all familiar with the signs: definitions of "god" that depart radically from classical theism, the "it's not a religion" language, consistently relating stories about personal experience of god, novel interpretations of scripture, cherry-picking, etc. The only thing that is demanded of such believers is that they spread the gospel, but they do so in whatever manner they see fit, often without quoting a single verse of scripture.
This is way too easy. Consistent transmission of religious beliefs depends very strongly on the formulas being passed down intact, or at least almost exactly so, and the limitations on mutation of ideas imposed by strict rules of behavior and incomprehensible doctrines are almost if not entirely lost in contemporary evangelical and liberal Christianity. I've argued before that in some cases, people who call themselves Christians, but who are part of these groups, are no longer following anything that can be reasonably defined as a religion. It has changed so quickly that only a few vestiges of the original forms are left, and the actual beliefs no longer resemble the model on which they were based. Thus, I think that such forms of Christianity cannot persist in the long term. Their only consistent basis is a reliance on the Bible as a source of wisdom, and for many it is rapidly becoming secondary to one's own personal experience of "what god wants". While I, as an atheist, most definitely disagree with the more rigidly structured religions in terms of whether or not they are true, I cannot deny that they have traits which give me more confidence in their "staying power".