Thanks Science, Thanks Religion

Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans. 

Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand). 

Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.  

But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose. 

Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so. 

Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application. 

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The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots. 

People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy. 

And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?  

These are moral questions, not scientific ones.  

So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs. 

Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace. 

Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.  

Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.

(This post inspired by another blog post: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/04/the-surgeon-on-the-mount-or-science-the-theology-after-god/comment-page-1/)

 

What the *&@# is the matter with people?

Depending on who you ask, tool-making humans may have been around for as long as 60,000 years.[i] Where have we arrived as a species?

The rich oppress the poor and the strong oppress the weak. We have resources enough to care for all, still one person dies every four seconds from hunger or hunger-related causes.

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You would think we would have figured it out by now, this thing about human kindness, about loving your neighbor, but it seems we haven’t. Not by a long shot.

Let’s examine just a little of the more-modern wreckage, shall we?

According to the Iraqi Body Count project, as many as 175,000 non-combatant Iraqis were killed in George W. Bush’s Iraq War.[ii] What a ghastly cost. And for what?

During the Rwandan Genocide 800,000 men, women, and children were butchered—often hacked to death with machetes or beaten with farm implements—all this taking place in 100 days, while Bill Clinton (and the leaders of every other nation) failed to take any meaningful action.[iii] Samantha Powers called it “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century.” What better proof of, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing?” (The “goodness” of any given political leader is a matter of some dispute.)

Fact is, we, as “civilized” homo sapiens, seem to consistently completely suck when it comes to attending to the things that really matter in life. And we seem to excel at finding new ways to exhibit callous inhumanity.

Nor can we look exclusively at governments, corporations, and greedy millionaires to be our evil-doing scapegoats. We have to look at ordinary people too, the ones living next door, the ones living with us—yes, we even have to look at the human being in the mirror. Because regular folks are abusing children; husbands are beating and cheating on wives; we are gorging on food and purchasing luxury products while others starve. We are lying, stealing, coveting, failing to love and forgive, turning a blind eye to a thousand injustices … and on and on. We are the problem. I am the problem.

We want to believe we’re evolving upward as a species … but the statistics are telling another story.

No political party or race or class or creed has a monopoly on deceit or cruelty. Evil is, fundamentally, a human problem not a political problem; though its exercise on a grand scale seems to relate closely to the “power corrupts” notion. Power can poison the formerly humble when the glitter of its promises begins to affect their vision.

Republicans brought us Watergate and Kent State. Democrats got us entangled in Viet Nam. A Republican administration brought us the Iraq War and “enhanced interrogation.” A Democratic administration dropped two weapons of mass destruction on non-combatants with high-end estimations of nearly 200,000 killed (includes long-term aftermath deaths) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (A coherent argument can be made that these bombings ultimately saved lives because they ended World War II, but it’s a slippery moral slope, isn’t it? It’s still the USA using WMDs to murder tens of thousands of civilians.)

So don’t try to tell me it’s those d***ed Republicans or Democrats that are ruining life on planet Earth. It’s people. It’s us.

Of course, individuals and governments are doing good things every day too: aiding the suffering, caring for the destitute and disempowered. People perform simple acts of kindness to help total strangers all the time: they help little old ladies cross the street, push stalled cars off highways, buy lunch for the homeless, etcetera. We are, indeed, capable of “rising to the occasion.” These acts are being done by Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, the religious and the non-religious.

If we all woke up tomorrow and every living human truly “loved his neighbor as him- or-herself” (not as a religious principle, but a philosophical one) we could do away with the military and police. We could close prisons. We’d be living in John Lennon’s utopia. Unfortunately, that’s an idea we’re still “imagining” and not living out. As Metallica said, “Sad but true.” Hey, Metallica might not have been the first ones to say that … but they said it the coolest.

Yes, you and I have to decide what to believe in, what ideas to support and oppose, and this will mean picking a political representative whose espoused values line up most closely with our own (if we haven’t yet become so cynical that we’ve given up entirely on the whole dog and pony show called politics). So go ahead and pick your guys and gals. Wear a pin if it makes you feel good.

But please don’t pretend that everything’s going to be swell “once the nice people get in office.”

‘Cause that hasn’t worked so far. Maybe you noticed. Expecting it to happen this election cycle might be a tad naïve.

So, what are we to do? Give up?

Your job is to be a light where you are. Love your spouse, your kids, your neighbors. Be kind to those with whom you disagree. Disarm them with unconditional love. These are your most critical earthly tasks (and mine). This life-thing is not about winning an argument—that’s for courtrooms (and, c’mon, how just are the decisions coming out of courtrooms these days, really, whichever way they may lean?).

Could there be some human movement that truly makes the world a better place?

Well, it’s already happened, hasn’t it? Abolition. The Civil Rights Movement. Women’s rights. Gay rights. War protests. Occupy protests. These ideas began somewhere and they changed things. Not that those problems are resolutely solved. They aren’t. But there’s been progress. So, there’s hope. Go ahead and join a movement you believe in. Write that check. March that march.

Just keep checking your heart. When you feel yourself harboring ugly feelings toward those whose ideas you oppose, realize that, in all likelihood, you’d be them if you’d been raised by their parents, grown up in their neighborhood, been born in their generation. Try not to just tolerate them. Challenge yourself to love them. That will free you from anything that might morph into hate. Your best chance of changing someone else’s heart is to begin by changing yours.[iv]

Hug people you love. Lift them up with words of encouragement and acts of service.

And don’t forget to lighten up. Life’s too short to be indignant all the time. Have a nice cold beer, or Diet Cherry 7UP, or whatever your beverage pleasure is. Have an M&M (I recommend Peanut). Smile, laugh. Help others to smile and laugh. As often as possible.

That is all.

Oh, yeah: peace.

[i] Start Date for Human Civilization Moved Back 20,000 Years or So

[ii] Iraq Body Count Site

[iii] Samantha Powers: Bystanders to Genocide

[iv] Sally Kohn: Let’s Try Emotional Correctness

Dear Mr. Spong

I have a feeling I’d like you if we met. Perhaps we’d chat over a cold beverage (something imported, let’s say from Holland). We’d talk about life and death and spirituality and science and man’s search for meaning.

Since that’s a very unlikely proposition, I am instead writing this letter that you’ll never read. Because I can.

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You, sir, I will necessarily concede, are a whole lot smarter than I am. Your level of formal education far exceeds mine, as does your extensive life-experience and study. The accomplishments of your career are significant and impressive. I would have no prayer of winning a philosophical argument with you, and I’d probably hesitate to try if I were in your presence. I’m sure a lengthy talk with you would be fascinating, enlightening, and a pleasure for me.

But, since you aren’t here to gently decimate my arguments, I am going to argue with you. In a friendly, respectful way. I hope you don’t mind.

At the beginning of your book, Eternal Life: a New Vision, you go very much out of your way to convince the reader how plainly obvious it is that we (humans) are a product of many accidental events.

I have to propose that this is not plain at all. I have to suggest that there is an entirely different way to view our arrival on planet Earth … as quite dramatically and irrevocably inevitable.

It’s not that complicated an argument, really. It can’t be. Because, like I said, I’m not that smart.

Let’s start with a simple illustration.

Suppose Billy bats a baseball intended to land somewhere in the vicinity of his friend, Tommy (presumably so that Tommy might catch the ball and throw it back). However, when bat and ball meet, the ball’s trajectory sends it flying into and through Billy’s neighbor’s (Mr. Johnson’s) living room window.

As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is a very reasonable fellow and, when he catches up with Billy and Tommy (who have run off out of sheer terror), he assures them he is not mad and only wants them to talk to their parents and get the window fixed. More interestingly, Mr. Johnson excitedly invites them over to his house to take a look at something he tells them is, “Really quite spectacular.” That something is the hole left in his window by the ball. As they stand before it, the boys’ mouths drop in amazement.

The hole in the shattered glass looks precisely like the profile of Abraham Lincoln’s head and torso. Uncanny. Beyond improbable. A freak accident if there ever was one.

Or is it?

Yes, you might make a lengthy, complicated argument stating that any of countless, tiny adjustments in Tommy’s throw, Billy’s swing, the wind, the ball, the bat, the curvature of the Earth (you get the idea) … and that hole would have looked like any other random hole in a glass window. And you would be right.

However.

Your point is moot. All of the circumstances and nuances of nature and that moment were exactly what they were. And, from the beginning of time, that outcome—the one that left an Abe Lincoln-shaped hole in Mr. Johnson’s living room window—was absolutely unalterable and completely certain. Put another way: because that event did happen, it had to happen.

Now, apply this notion to humanity’s rise from amoeba to ascendance.

All those events, those “accidents” you describe so eloquently? That infinitely dense ball of matter (the “cosmic zygote,” if you will), the arrival of one-celled living things, sea-life making its way to land, the fall of the dinosaur, the evolution of a primate to modern man? Because those things did happen, they had to happen.

Again, yes, I know, if the sun were in another position, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out …

But this is conjecture on what might have been, nothing more. It’s like arguing that the team that won the Super Bowl would not have won if only Quincy the Quarterback hadn’t thrown that boneheaded interception in the fourth quarter. (He did. It’s done. Get over it.)

The fact is that, hyper-complex cosmic circumstances being what they were, mankind was most assuredly inevitable. You, dear Mr. Spong, were inevitable. Precisely you. Exactly as you are, with your height and eye color and hair color and temperament and potential for intellect. You had to be born. As did I. And my neighbors, and their ill-tempered wiener dog, Puddin’.

This doesn’t necessitate God in any way. Ours may indeed be a purely material world. Blind matter, and a universe without intention, making absolutely sure that you and I (and all our ancestors) came into existence. Conditions being what they were, we couldn’t not happen.

And yet. No. I don’t buy the random non-intention of that scenario. Not really. Maybe that’s the truth of things. But it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? There’s a cause and effect problem of epic proportion there, in my estimation.

And this is where I invoke God. Not because I can prove God. I can’t. No one can. But I would suggest that the idea of God is (at the very least) no more absurd than mindless matter incrementally building the human mind, leading to consciousness and ultimately self-consciousness. The cosmic zygote came from … where again? Exactly. You don’t know. No one does.

You pick your unlikely conclusion. I’ll pick mine.

Religion is a different matter. I’m not talking about religious ideas of God (that would be a separate and more dubious undertaking, though I certainly have my beliefs); I’m talking about God as the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. The one utterly inexplicable, irrational, incomprehensible thing that explains everything else. Here at least, as crazy as the notion may sound to some, the cause is sufficient to produce the effect. In a purely material creation you have to have a virtually infinite string of inexplicable materials and events where the spinning of spontaneously-appearing inanimate particles leads to living beings who contemplate their mortality, write poetry, compose symphonies, transplant vital organs, and build ships that carry them into outer space; beings who sing and dance, laugh and weep, hope and despair, love and hate, create and destroy. Fascinating accident, indeed.

Or is it?

B.Y.O.G.

It sounds a little crazy, I know: Bring Your Own God to the party.

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But, in fact, we do already.

Even if you go to a church where very specific theology is taught, very specific creeds invoked … I can guarantee you that not every member/attender embraces every word of what comes from on high.

We come into church service with slightly different versions of God informing our faith.

As Rob Bell says, “We shape our God, then our God shapes us.” (Love Wins, p 97)

Exactly right, Mr. Bell.

In my church, the Unitarian Universalist church, that truth is not just acknowledged, it is encouraged and celebrated. The Baptist sits between the Buddhist and the atheist. Each is pleased to let the other believe what they do (or don’t) believe.

When I look back on the evolution of my faith, I can see that I have moved toward a God that continues to become less and less punitive until, finally, “he” (the language of accommodation) isn’t a punisher at all, but full only of compassion and grace, light and love.

Faith is a weird thing. It surely can divide us. The divisions can be lethal, tragically. Or our desire for “higher truth” and “enlightened selves” can lead us to a place of magnificent unity and community. It would be my prayer that this is The Way we choose…

Namaste.

 

The Left and Right Political Divide

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People tend to cling to their little set of closely held beliefs. They want to think they have the superior position, logically, morally.

I’m guilty of this, just as you probably are.

There was a time when my core beliefs and political positions were heavily influenced by thinkers/authors/speakers/entertainers who leaned in a certain political direction.

I can tell you those positions have changed quite a bit for me over the last decade or two. Not from right to left or left to right. But from entrenched to liberated.

Here is something I FIRMLY believe: if you take any issue that is fraught with left-versus-right tension (immigration, education, taxation, abortion, gun control, freedom of religion) and you can see NO MERIT AT ALL in the opposing arguments?

You haven’t thought about it hard enough. You are entrenched, unmovable, and you’ve let your emotions prevent you from independent thinking.

Because, if we’re intellectually honest, BOTH sides make legitimate points on all of these issues. Both sides have a view that should at least be considered thoughtfully, not dismissed out of hand. As soon as we demonize our ideological rivals, everyone has lost. When conservatives are fetus-loving right-wing-nutjobs and liberals are tree-hugging femi-nazis … all hope for meaningful dialogue is lost. All hope for thoughtful compromise … gone.

The further we get to the extreme right or left, the further from reason we get. The folks that are way way out there, to either side, aren’t going to engage in balanced, reasoned dialogue. They’re going to shout slogans and shake fists, they are deaf to any opposition, no matter how nuanced.

But most people don’t fall into these extreme categories; nor do most people embrace every single last idea of the party they identify with. (Those that do, I have to admit, scare me a little.) In most cases, we probably have more in common with “those people” (our political/ideological rivals) than we think.

Yes, at the end of the day you have to come down on a side, make a choice, vote for a person or party that best represents the sort of thinking you believe ought to guide us as a nation. That’s all well and good, as far as it goes.

But if we don’t open our minds up a little and see our neighbor with the opposing viewpoint as a fellow human being of infinite worth, a person whose views should be heard and judged, in their entirety, by their merit … well, we will have what we have. People who don’t hear each other and don’t respect each other; people incapable of working together to accomplish things for the common good. Political gridlock. And that kind of sucks.

My Best Wisdom …

… is useless. Mostly.

Not because I don’t have any (though, like most worthy notions in this world, it is borrowed from elsewhere) … but because I rarely apply it. It exists primarily as “good ideas in my head.”

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But a good idea is good idea. Right?

I have long said that one of the most important things we have to accomplish in life is to “Learn to like living in your head.” If being with yourself sucks you are in trouble because that is where you will be spending your entire corporeal existence.

As French dramatist Jean Anouilh put it, “Our entire life consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are.” Or as Buddha said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

It seems so easy to dwell on what we don’t like about ourselves: imperfections of the body, insufficient accomplishments, inadequate wealth, failed relationships, morally ambiguous choices … the list goes on and on. We don’t focus enough on forgiving and accepting ourselves, which is pretty much always the only place from which we may be ready to implement positive change.

Be your own best friend. Remind yourself that you have frequently loved others to the best of your ability. Remind yourself that you are loved, that you possess talents and positive attributes and, most importantly, the capacity to choose to be your “best self” the next time you face a choice. Which is pretty much every second of every day.

What will you tell yourself about yourself today? Will you point out every bad thing, beat yourself into a bloody useless pulp? Or will you spur yourself onward to a better day than you had yesterday? And on into tomorrow and the rest of your life …

The choice is yours. And mine.

As we look toward 2015, I urge you (and myself) to choose the path of inspiration.