Concepts as Absolute Truth

 

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I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.

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My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.

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How Are Values Formed?

Written over the course of two days, and finished in Starbucks in San Jose, CA with electronic dance music pounding in my head, and a grande blonde roast that tastes horrible because I’ve given up sugar. Enjoy the essay!

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Values

When I look back at my belief system while growing up in Dallas, Texas (1976-2001), they are much different than my current belief system that’s been enculturated in liberal Silicon Valley (2013-2019). I remember being taught and believing that inter-racial marriage was wrong, that being gay was immoral, and that any type of governmental distribution of wealth was wrong because hand-outs to those in need simply incentivized laziness. I distinctly remember as a junior in college, cutting and gluing a picture of a grotesque dead fetus to a sign that would later be used at a nearby pro-life rally. When I look back, I can’t believe the contrast in values from then to now. Currently, my more liberal values are a vast contrast to the prior ‘me’.

How did the ‘me’ of 2001 have such contrasting values than the ‘me’ of 2019? Was ‘southern me’ just a red-neck with antiquated values; while the ‘Silicon Valley me’ is enlightened?

When I contemplate my contrasting selves, I can’t help but want to explore the question: how do we form our values? Are values given from the heavens (i.e. God), are the genetic, or are the dynamic and happen as we simply experience life. This begs a follow-up question: are values absolute or cultural?

I truly believe that values are formed based on our life experiences. With that, I do believe they are also bound by culture. I don’t, however, believe that values come from the heavens, rather, I believe that values are imposed on us as children from early on while forming the basis and justification of our morality and ethics. Values such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, and liberty/oppression are ingrained in us from early on, and while they are malleable, they inform our ethics and politics. Moreover, I believe that all values are ingrained with intentions to promote ‘the good’, however, because values are culture bound, what’s good for one culture may be (and often is) deemed an abomination by another. Herein lies the ultimate irresolvable dilemma.

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How are Values Formed?

Value formation is the confluence of our personal experiences and particular culture we are entwined in. Values are imposed from our family in childhood and reinforced through culture and life experiences. The value of, for example, kindness was imposed on me from my parents, and reinforced throughout early childhood. Then I applied that value on the school playground and experienced how it helped me create greater social bonds with my school mates. My personal experiences growing up reinforced the value of kindness as I experienced the adaptive effects of showing kindness and the maladaptive effects when choosing malice over kindness. All through my upbringing, both my personal experiences and cultural surroundings both reinforced the value of kindness.

Having been born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the values of rugged individualism, church, and God was ingrained in my psyche from birth. Each of those three values, as I grew older, eventually formed the foundation of my worldview and politics. In a sense, our values, imposed upon us early in childhood, become the spectacles in which we view and judge the world.

Our culture plays a huge role in our value formation. Culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. Culture gives us prescriptions for appropriate conduct so that we can learn best how to get along with others. All you have to do is travel to another country to see how values ebb and flow with culture. You can travel to China and see how they elevate the group and family over the individual in contrast to most Americans; you can see how South Americans elevate hospitality and care for their elderly unlike most Americans; and how Hawaiians elevate relaxation and balance unlike most urban metropolitan cities in the U.S. (I am obviously speaking in general terms rather than absolutely)

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If you live in the hills of West Virginia and coal mining is your life, and it’s what feeds your family, then you are less likely to support environmental policy that does away with coal mining. If, like I was, you are brought up with the value that every life is sacred, then pro-life values become your spectacles in which you view the the sanctity of a fetus. Likewise, if you lived in Ohio through the 1990’s and you witnessed jobs supplanted overseas, then the Republican platform doesn’t look so bad. But if your personal experiences were lived in, say, San Francisco, California, then it will contrast greatly with West Virginians as liberal values of tolerance, preserving the earth, and multi-culturalism is elevated to supreme importance.

It’s not that West Virginian’s, pro-lifers, and Ohioan’s are dumb or ‘deplorable’, they simply elevate certain values over others. Keep in mind, with the examples I provided, each value is seen as a noble virtue. Sanctity of life, even for an unborn fetus, is based on the pursuit of establishing what is noble and virtuous.  Coal miners and Ohioans value loyalty to one’s country, which involve the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s be honest, I think most of us want our government to be loyal to hard working Americans, rather than betray us in order to profit from setting up jobs abroad.

My greater point is this: whether it’s West Virginia or San Francisco, these are virtuous goals that have their aim at virtuous ends. By and large, children in Red States are raised by parents who impose on them values that seek the good. I should know, I am a product of Texas and a stereotypical Texan ideology. Where things get muddy is when you have competing values that compete for supremacy. I mean, if all values seek the good, can we say that some are wrong?

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Right/Wrong or Better/Worse

When judging values, we should not speak in terms of right or wrong, rather we should look at competing values in terms of better and worse. When talking about values, thinking in terms of right and wrong will result in completely invalidating the other side of the discussion.

Your values are your baby, so to speak. You hold them dear, because they speak to your life experiences and cultural upbringing. When someone says that your values are wrong, the conversation is off to a bad start from the beginning. Invalidating someone’s values shifts the conversation to a defensive mode. Instead, you can validate someone’s values, and then become ‘Socratic’ by asking questions back-and-forth as you hash out which values actually advance progress, human rights, justice, etc. Common ground is good foundation to have, and this begins by understanding that the other side is truly trying to come from a place of virtue.

When talking about values, thinking in terms of better and worse will recognize the virtuous aims of both sides, while also recognizing that some values ought to be elevated over others. Moreover, better or worse dialogue frames the dialogue in a way that doesn’t get personal, rather, you can simply discuss the effects of values in the public sphere.  Given that values are noble and based on virtue, it’s their externalities that need to be discussed. By externalities, I mean the side effects, blow-back, and consequences of the value when it is fully cashed out in everyday life. For example, early missionaries would visit foreign tribes and not only try and convert them, but also provide food and supplies to help them flourish. From this standpoint, the missionaries can be seen as virtuous. But some missionaries also brought over (unintentionally) diseases that devastated the villages. Thus, we can assess the externalities or consequences and conclude that this was probably not the best idea given the negative side effects it brought upon innocent villagers. It’s not that the missionaries immoral, per se, it’s just that there are better ways to advance the value of generosity and compassion.

In addition to a better or worse thinking rather a right or wrong way, there is another clarifying point I’d like to make. There is a common tendency to confuse value judgements with moralistic judgements. Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how best life can be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our values judgments; for example, “Anyone who votes for Trump is off their rocker.” In this example, the claim is trying to classify and judge a huge swath of people on moralistic grounds, with a tacit jab that labels Trumpians crazy. This tactic is similar to the one used by Ronald Reagan when calling the U.S.S.R.  an “evil empire.” The Germans also resorted to this by classifying the Jews with negative connotations like “cockroaches.”. Going back to the Trump claim, a more compassionate and enlightened way to articulate this sentiment would be, “I am worried about many of Trump’s policies; I value policies that unite the country and help the poor economically.” Now, this is a value judgment that doesn’t classify or analyze on moral grounds every single Trump voter, rather, it gives voice to your values and needs.

Final Words

Values reflect what we find important to make life better. The formation of our values is cultivated and refined based on our life experiences and influenced by our cultural surroundings. When I was in Texas preparing myself for a pro-life rally in 2001, my actions were guided by values rooted in virtue. Granted, my values were much different than most people in blue states. However, my values later changed due to personal experiences with liberal thinkers who lived out a value system that spoke to my heart. Moreover, I was able to live in the U.K. where I was exposed to different values and thinking that called into question my worldview. What didn’t change me was an intellectual argument or some liberal calling me a ‘southern redneck’. What didn’t change me was someone telling me I’m wrong, or that I needed to be more educated. Rather, it was through compassionate discussions where we worked through, not right and wrong, but the question: what makes life better?

Who’s to say what my values will be in 2030? Or what they will be if I move to Mississippi? All I know now is that I am guided by a value system that is surrounded by a plethora of other value systems. My value system is not the “right one,” rather, it simply speaks life into how I live and make my decisions. And when I hear competing values shouted by a person from a different culture than mine, I hope to take a deep breath, realize that he/she is simply expressing a deep need they have, and then perhaps I can share my values and needs without fostering judgement, evaluations of their character, or moralistic analysis. In the end, compassionate dialogue changes lives, not right/wrong judgement.

 

Why Do People Believe in Gods

Written over two days and finished at Starbucks in Palo Alto. Inspired by recent readings of Andy Thomson, Michael Shermer and a lengthy discussion involving a group of friends. Finished with Bassnector (EDM) blasting in my ears, and a double espresso.

kjblLet’s face it, belief in a god will never go away. A Pew study (2014) found that 89% of Americans believe in a “God or a universal spirit.” Islam is the fastest growing religion and if the current demographic trends continue, the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century. Despite the Enlightenment and scientific progress, people keep gravitating to a god or gods. Why is this? Many of us know of very smart individuals – doctors, engineers and scientists – who, despite their quest for empirical truth, nevertheless give their faith to a higher being. But I’m not interested in ‘why do smart people believe?’, rather, ‘why do people believe at all?’

 I consider myself to be a rational person. I value logic and the scientific method. Even though I don’t believe in a higher being, I admit I sometimes feel like there is Something Else. Last week serves as an illustration of several experiences that initiated an urge to cross the line into another realm. First, I voiced to a group of Christians that I had been having difficulty sleeping and they added my insomnia to their prayer requests. Well, wouldn’t you know that the next four nights I had eight hours of sleep each night! Second, last Thursday I had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. At one point, I found myself looking up and feeling that Something Else – up in the sky – was trying to send me a message. The ‘message’ was saying: “Wes, slow down and relax.” The last example occurred this past Friday when I was climbing a five-mile hill on my bike. Around 20 minutes into the ride I began feeling very fatigued and was fading fast. But then I rounded a switchback and came across the most spectacular view of San Jose that gave me this feeling of transcendence. Just then, it felt like a hand (or force) began pushing me up the mountain. I spent the next 17 minutes climbing ferociously with a vigor that I have not felt before.

As I look back, I can’t resist asking myself, “was that God intervening in my life?” I am completely open to the transcendence (or God) in my life, but I want to keep reason at the forefront. I could, perhaps, conclude that prayers were answered and that God cured me of insomnia. But was that an answered prayer or a coincidence? It appears that prayers were answered if one simply connects the dots. But what about the billions of prayers that go unanswered where the dots don’t connect? Theists are masters at connecting the dots, such that, God is always in the dots. To the theist, the word “coincidence” is anathema, given that God is always in the details. However, maybe Satan cured me of my insomnia, or Buddha – no one can tell which god is answering prayers. The same holds true of my visceral feeling that there was a force teaching me a lesson during my day of Hell as well as a force giving me energy to conquer a mountain. It’s easy to misjudge a biochemical boost of adrenaline for a euphoric cosmic force that desires for me to get up the mountain. In essence, natural explanations are just not that appealing. It feels like there is Something More. Maybe Satan or nothingness is controlling the strings of the universe. Either way, no one can know or prove it.

The question is still out there: why do people believe in Gods? Here is my argument for why we connect the dots that lead us to a belief in a Gods.

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

ConclusionPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.

 Going Deeper: Unpacking My Argument

Premises

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

iuhoiAll religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain. And more than just belief, the brain yields the agony, the ecstasy, the confusion, the disappointment, and every other mental state that makes us human. Each brain harbors memories, creativity, and, maybe, some madness. It is the brain that catches the ball, scores the goal, flirts with strangers, or decides to invade Poland (The Illusion of Self, Bruce Hood). We in fact are our brain! Packed in our lump of tissue we call the brain is an estimated 170 billion cells and 86 o 100 billion neurons – the elements of the microcircuitry that create all of our mental life. The solidarity felt in joining Isis or the felt transcendence of praying hail Mary’s involve sensory neurons that respond to information picked from the environment through one’s senses. Motor neurons relay information that controls our movement outputs. And finally, the interneurons make all the clever stuff happen to the point that one says, “I believe!”. But is there a neurotransmitter for belief?

Of all the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, it appears that dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. Dopamine is a neural transmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism “Do that again.” Dopamine produces the sensation of pleasure that accompanies mastering a task or accomplishing a goal, which makes the organism want to repeat the behavior, whether it is pressing a bar, pulling a slot machine lever, or praying to Allah five times a day. You get a hit (a reinforcement) and your brain get a hits of dopamine. Behavior – Reinforcement – Behavior. Repeat sequence (The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer).

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.  – Charles Darwin

My second premise rests on five key arguments. (1) The claim that the cognitive mechanisms that are underlying our behavior are adaptations. (2) The idea that they cannot be studied directly, for example, through observation of the brain or our overt behavior, but have to be discovered by means of a method known as “functional analysis,” where one starts with hypotheses about the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, and then tries to infer the cognitive adaptations that must have evolved to solve them. (3) The claim that these cognitive mechanisms are adaptations not for solving problems prevalent in our modern environment, but for solving recurrent adaptive problems in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors. (4) The idea that our mind is a complex set of such cognitive mechanisms, or domain-specific modules. (5) The claim that these modules define who we are, in the sense that they define our universal human nature and ultimately trump any individual, cultural or societal differences.

Adaptations are traits present today because in the past they helped our ancestors to solve recurrent adaptive problems. The field of evolutionary psychology helps us understand those adaptations that have evolved in response to characteristically human adaptive problems that have shaped our ancestors’ lifestyle as hunter-gatherers during our evolutionary past in the Pleistocene (Ice Age), like choosing and securing a mate, recognizing emotional expressions, acquiring a language, distinguishing kin from non-kin, detecting cheaters or remembering the location of edible plants.

Homo erectus had to overcome a lot in order to go from small bands and tribes of people all the way up to states and empires. Homo erectus left Africa about 1.5-2 million years ago and conquered half the world, process that was essentially finished around 1 million years ago. Because of that, the most challenging part of the environment that drove our own evolution was probably the hominids themselves, and this is the origin of our complex social cognitions (Andy Thomson). This is important because religious ideas are just an extraordinary use of everyday cognitions, such as social cognitions, agency detection and precautionary reasoning. Religious ideas are the by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. There are other such by-products, such as reading and writing. We do not have reading/writing modules in our brain. They are a by-product of fine motor skills, vision, and language. Religious ideas are, thus, an artifact of our ability for imagined social worlds.

Through natural selection, human beings adapted social cognitions that primed man for religious belief. These adaptive social cognitions include, but are not limited to:

Theory of Mind (ToM)

While ‘minds’ are not directly observable things, we tend to think a lot about them, forming theories about beliefs, values, motivations, thought processes and so on. When we are interacting with others or thinking about them, we make guesses at what they are thinking and feeling. This is our ‘theory of mind’ about them (sometimes abbreviated to ‘ToM’). We even do the same to ourselves, stepping back and watching ourselves think and feel as we try to work out who we really are. In particular, we predict the intent of others, which helps us decide whether they are a threat or otherwise we should pre-emptively respond to their likely actions.

gIt is precisely the act of intentionality that moves us closer to understanding religious belief. As a preliminary example, everyone has a separate dedicated system that monitors eye gaze. We can make such complex discriminations concerning emotional states through pictures of solely eyes, and discern 212 complicated emotional states. Just from someone’s eye gaze! Ascribing intentionality comes very natural to humans.

Another way to understand ToM is our ability not only to ascribe intentionality, but also ascribe beliefs and desires. We can of it in the different order we think, for instance:

First Order: “I think”

Second Order: “I think, that you think”

Third Order: “I think, that you think, that I think”

Fourth Order: “I think, that you think, that I think, that you think”

This is an example of how deep and complicated we can get when processing emotional states. The ability to assign beliefs, intentions and desires primes us for religious beliefs. Here is an example:

First Order: “I believe”

Second Order: “I believe, that God wants”

Third Order: “I believe, that God wants, us to act with righteous intent”

Fourth Order: “I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (social religion)

Another kind of fourth order: “I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (communal)

Religions utilize this cognitive adaptation that is crucial to our social interaction. We are only one cognitive step away from ascribing characteristics to a deity. We do these kinds of mental games with inanimate objects all the time: possessions for deceased loved ones, treasured items, and also ascribing human characteristics to deceased loved ones as we imagine them looking down on us desiring actual outcomes for us.

Patternicity

jjjjjReligious people have mastered patternicity to find causal links leading all the way up to God. Patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Patternicity explains why people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news. A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”). In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe, he argues that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes ‘A’ really is connected to ‘B’; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

According to Shermer, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution. Nevertheless, this helps us understand how the theist can ‘connect the dots to answered prayers, God’s will, and many other examples that have no obvious empirical justification.

(HADD) Hyper-Active Agency Detection Devices

Agenticity is the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. Another term, essentialism, means to infuse essence upon a person or thing. A fascinating study was conducted by Bruce Hood, in which, 24 healthy adults were first asked to rate the faces of 20 people for attractiveness, intelligence, and how willing they would be to receive a heart transplant from each person. After these ratings were recorded, Hood told the subjects that half of the people they had just rated were convicted murderers, then he asked them to re-rate the pictures. Tellingly, although the ratings of the murderers’ attractiveness and intelligence dropped, the biggest drop of all was in the willingness to accept a heart from a murderer, which Hood concluded was due to the fear that some of the essence of evil might be transmitted to the recipient. This study corroborates the study that also reveals that most people would never wear a sweater of a murderer. By contrast, in a form of positive agency, most people would wear the sweater of Mr. Rogers.

It might help if I give some real-world examples of agenticity. Better yet, I’ll combine both patternicity and agenticity to illustrate how they work together. A clear example is when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana. Many Christians and their leaders (e.g. Pat Robertson) drew from both patternicity and agenticity. Here is an example:

Patternicity: There are a lot of homosexuals living in the city where there was just a hurricane; this can’t be a coincidence!
Agenticity: The God that I believe in strongly opposes homosexuality; he may have sent this hurricane to warn us to repent and turn from our wicked ways!

Let’s move on to a much more controversial example; answers to prayer.  Are they real?  Let’s break down the logic again:

Patternicity: I prayed about something that was worrying me last night and my situation improved today (this can’t be a coincidence)!
Agenticity: My God answers prayers, because he loves me!  Prayer works!

First off, the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Christians tend to pray most fervently when they are feeling precisely this way (ie. stressed about something).  This means they’re perfectly primed, ahead of time, to find what they’re already looking for and expecting in faith (plus they count only the hits; ignoring the misses).  And here again there is no way to prove, in any sort of absolute sense, that these two items are not indeed connected (the prayer and the improvement in the situation at hand).

My argument is this: we are natural born supernaturalist, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. One of the leading experts, Stewart Guthrie, argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment that might not actually exist. Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; in other words, people can be said to possess hyperactive agent detection devices (HADD). According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there.

The idea that religious belief is to a large extent the result of mental adaptations for agency detection has been endorsed by several leading evolutionary theorists of religion (Guthrie 1993; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2005). Broadly, these theorists suggest that there are specialized mental mechanisms for the detection of agency behind significant events. These have evolved because the detection of agency – “who did that and why?” – has been a critical task facing human beings throughout their evolution. These mechanisms are “hyperactive,” leading us to attribute natural events to a hidden agent or agents.

Promiscuous Teleology

According to the theory of ‘promiscuous teleology’, statements such as “clouds are for raining” reflect a deep-rooted belief that natural kinds are intentionally designed for a purpose. While such reasoning is appropriate for certain domains (e.g., artifacts), it is considered promiscuous when extended to natural kinds because it implies “agentive and intentional conceptualizations of Nature” where physical-causal mechanistic explanations would be superior (Waxman, S.R.).

Some of these vulnerabilities are seen most clearly in children, who, from a very early age, are ‘Common sense dualists’. This means that when, for example, you present a box to a five-month-old and make it move like a person, the five-month-old will be startled. He will not be startled when a person behaves the same way. Children come into the world with these systems in place; this is not learned behavior. It is natural, from very early on, to think of disembodied minds. Half of four-year-olds have imaginary friends. Children are causal determinists. This means that they will over-read causality and purpose:

“What are birds for? To sing.”

“What are rivers for? For boats to float on.”

“What are rocks for? For animals, to scratch themselves.”

It is very easy for us to imagine intentional agents that are separate from ourselves. Children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. The mechanisms that we are born with make us very vulnerable to religious ideas. Religion is the path of least resistance. It is cognitively harder and it requires more effort to understand concepts such as natural selection.

Filling In The Gaps: Kanizsa Square

An off-shoot of the promiscuous teleology in children, is intuitive reasoning that adults rely on to fill in the spaces where a void appears. Quite honestly, we will ‘make sense’ when ‘no sense’ appears. An interesting study in 1944 conducted by Fritz Heider and Mary Ann Simmel highlights this thought. Featured in the American Journal of Psychology, they put together a simplistic animated film depicting three moving, black-and-white figures: a large triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. Participants watched the figures moving about the screen for a while and then were asked to describe what they had just seen. Most reported using a human social narrative – for example, seeing the large triangle as “bullying” the “timid” smaller triangle, both of “whom” were “seeking” the “affections” of the “female” circle. What was once just moving shapes is now infused with anthropomorphic meaning and purpose.

This type of intuitive reasoning is also found with a kanizsa square. In the Kanizsa Triangle Illusion we readily perceive three black circles and two triangles, even though there are technically no circles or triangles in the image. We see something more. We actually perceive objects that are not really there.

kansza square

When we see gaps, we naturally fill them in; even if it requires the supernatural. In the Kanizsa square, we ignore gaps and we complete contour lines to form familiar figures and shapes. Religious belief does this all the time. Consider the gaps between something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the question “Why did this happen?” The theist quickly fills the gap with some divine intention from up above. Even if one’s prayers continue to go unanswered, we fill in the gap with, “Well, God knows what is best for me.”

Other adaptive mechanisms and a brief explanation(taken from a talk done by Andy Thomson):

The attachment mechanism

The attachment mechanism in humans was laid out by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. This is the fundamental care taking system in mammals. This is what happens in religion: when someone is in distress, he or she turns to a caretaker, an attachment figure.

Transference

This is a concept discovered by Freud, the fact that we base current relationships on previous ones. This is also hijacked by religion, especially parental transferences.

Childhood credulity

A concept strongly advocated by Richard Dawkins. Natural selection designed our brains to soak up the culture around them. A child cannot tell the difference between good advice, such as ‘don’t swim with alligators’ and bad advice, such as ‘sacrifice a pig for the new harvest’.

Deference to authority

All of us are far more deferential to authority than we like to believe. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments showed that we will, under pressure of some authority, do things that we know on some other level we should not do.

Reciprocal altruism

All of us keep in our heads an account of what we owe to some people, and what we are owed. Religions utilize this: make a sacrifice, receive something in return.
Moral feelings system

All of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1. It is very hard for us to know the origins of this, and this is what religions hijack by claiming it comes from them. They recruit these systems to lend plausibility to gods, to link commitment and solidarity mechanisms, and to add a morally competent witness to our actions.

This is a useful way to think about the difference between genuine morality and religious morality:

Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told.

Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right.

Altruistic punishment

We are willing to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves. It is crucial to social interaction. Suicide terrorism is just one step further.

Hard to fake, costly honest signals of commitment

We are shown a few examples of this. All religions utilize this. Suicide terrorism is also a hard to fake signal of commitment. This is also connected to religious rituals.

Religious rituals

Religious rituals tap into our threat response system. They are compelling and rigidly scripted, and have usually to do with cleansing and order. Religious rituals enable and elicit scrutiny of hard to fake signals of commitment. They communicate intentions, and they are used to inculcate doctrines and to forge alliances. Rituals are also used to create hope and solace, to excite and entertain.

Religious rituals are also divorced from the original goal of protection; they delimit sacred spaces and the exploit the Gestalt Law of the Whole. In order to illustrate what this means, Andy Thomson shows us a V-formation of flying birds. We tend not to see the birds in these formations, but rather the V-shape itself. Religions exploit this by creating attention arresting and often intimidating spectacles.

muslims praying

There is also motivated reasoning (we doubt what we don’t like), confirmation bias (we notice data that fits our beliefs), and mere familiarity.

Kin psychology

All of us have mechanisms to identify and favour kin. Religions hijack this. Just look at the Catholic Church: priests are brothers, nuns are sisters, and the pope is the Holy Father.

This is only a modest list, and not a complete list of all the cognitive mechanisms that come together to create religious beliefs and ideas and that make us vulnerable to believing them and passing them on.

Although we experience consciousness as a seamless whole, it is really built from very specific parts.

;kjn;P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

Religion capitalizes on superstition and takes it a bit further. The theist finds psychological comfort in a God who listens during desperate times; a God who provides meaning and purpose, and victory over death through an afterlife that claims eternal peace and goodness. Do you see it? For the existential threats in life, we conjure up magical thinking to dampen the dread of life. For many people, not having control over an outcome is a frightening proposition. The more important these uncontrollable situations are, the more likely you’ll try to dream up ways to control their outcome even though it may be unrealistic.

Have you ever wondered why there has been a continual decline in magical thinking from Biblical days to today? The Bible has people raised form the dead, people coming out of their graves and walking around like zombies, miraculous healings, and multiplying food to feed five-thousand people. Fast forward to medieval times where almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, and black magic. If a noble women died, her servants ran around the house emptying all containers of water so her soul would not drown. Her lord, in response to her death, faced east and formed a cross by lying prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched. If the left eye of a corpse did not close properly, the soul would spend extra time in purgatory (leading to the ritual of closing the eyes upon death). Perhaps magical thinking helps us gain control in cases where we feel helpless.

lllnFor the medieval mind, magical-thinking provided an understanding of how the world worked: It attenuated anxiety and allowed people to shed personal responsibility by blaming events on bad luck, evil spirits, mischievous fairies, or God’s will, and permitted one to cast blame on others through curses and witchcraft. Astrology, the most popular science of the day, invoked the alignment of the stars and plants to explain all manner of human and natural phenomena, the past, the present, and future, and life’s vagaries from daily events to yearly cycles. Only religion could rival astrology as an all-embracing explanation for the vicissitudes of life.

By the end of the seventh-teeth century Newton’s mechanical astronomy had replaced astrology; the mathematical understanding of chance and probability displaced luck and fortune; chemistry succeeded alchemy; banking and insurance decreased human misfortune and its attendant anxiety; city planning and social hygiene greatly attenuated the power of plagues; and medicine began its long road toward a germ theory of disease. Cumulatively, these events pushed us into the Age of Science, reducing the number of thinking errors and attenuating the power of superstition. Nevertheless, magical thinking is still with us, rearing its head wherever uncertainties arise.

Wade Boggs was famous for his superstitions, insisting on running his wind sprints at precisely 7:17pm, ending his grounder drill by stepping on the foul line when taking the field but always stepping on it returning to the dugout, and eating chicken before every game. It is worth noting, however, that such superstitions are not all uncommon among hitters where connecting with the baseball is so difficult and so fraught with uncertainties that the very best in the business fail a full seven out every ten times at bat. Fielders by contrast succeed in excess of nine out every ten times a ball is hit to them (the best success better than 95 percent of the time), and they have correspondingly fewer superstitions associated with fielding. But as soon as these same fielders pick up a bat, magical thinking goes into full swing.

One of the key studies in this area was conducted by Bronislaw Malinowski when studying the Trobriand Islanders located in the archipelago of Papua New Guinea. When studying their fishing practices, what Malinowski discovered was that the farther out to sea the islanders went, the more complex the superstitious rituals became. In the calm waters in the inner lagoon, there were very few rituals. By the time they reached the dangerous waters of deep-sea fishing, the Trobrianders were deep into magic. Malinowski discovered that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.

Conclusion:

meaningPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.

 

Part 2- New Testament: Literal or Metaphorical

The “Biblical literalist” or “believer in the God inspired” text needs to answer several questions. First, what is the literal meaning of a parable? What is the literal meaning of a symbolic narrative?

When I stand in line at the grocery store, I cannot help but notice the sensationalized magazines on the stands. For instance, the National Enquirer and Star Magazine which uses heavy doses of hyperbole to stir the gossip pot. There are good reasons as to why reasonable people do not take the headlines of the National Enquirer as dogma. As children of the Enlightenment, we have cultivated modes of testing and questioning in order to meticulously scrutinize with the goal of determining what conclusion(s) are most probable. So when the headline reads, “Doctors Say Bruce Jenner Has Baboon Genitalia,” we are in a better epistemic position to reason our way through the possibilities of fact/fiction compared to our bronze aged ancestors. In contrast, when a doctor suggests chemotherapy to treat an ailing cancer patient we expect that her suggestion has gone through the rigorous matrix of scientific investigation employed by methods verified by testable data. In modernity, we are in a better position to utilize methods and ask the right [or better] questions in order to employ proper skepticism while glancing through preposterous headlines from articles.

When it comes to the Bible we should proceed with the same calibrated caution as we would while standing in line at the grocery store. There are 3 major reasons:

1. The New Testament was not written by eyewitnesses.

2. We have no authentic original manuscripts from the New Testament.

3. New Testament scholars agree that, we have over 200,000 variations (at minimum) of New Testament writings.

The “authors” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John never identified themselves as the actual authors. The followers of Jesus, as we learn from the New Testament itself, were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine. The gospels, however, were not written by people like that. The actual authors of the gospels were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation. Just to make sure we are on the same page: Jesus spoke Aramaic and the Gospels are written in Greek.

But wait, don’t we have original manuscripts of the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus? Actually, we have no original manuscripts. Also, the very first surviving account of Jesus’ life was written around 35-40 years after his death. Our latest canonical gospel (John) was written 60-65 years after his death. That’s a lot of time for stories to develop and morph. To bring this issue to modernity, John F. Kennedy died 51 years ago and we still have numerous conflicting stories, such that, any written biography of his life would definitely stir conflicting narratives.

As of today, 94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century. That is 800 years (years!) after the so-called originals. What good do these late manuscripts do us? They do us a lot of good if we want to know what text of Mark, Paul, or 1 Peter was being read 800 years after the originals were produced. But they are of much less value for knowing what the authors themselves wrote, eight centuries earlier.

One more reason to raise our suspicion is that even though we have over 5,000 manuscripts from the Bible, scholars since the 16th century have found over 200,000 variations. It might be helpful for us to know the famous passage in John 8 that provides us the catch phrase, “He who is without sin cast the first stone,” is nowhere to be found in the earliest manuscripts. Pentecostals and snake-handlers in rural Kentucky should know that the last 12 verses in the book of Mark is gone as well. Much doctrine has been built off of those 12 verses that were later inserted hundreds of years later. Then there is the infamous I John 5:7-8 where we find the complete trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trouble is that later scribes inserted this in the text to justify their own views- hundreds of years later.

I want to provide a caveat here to address a very common remark that apologist make when confronted with mistakes in Scripture. Their claim goes like this: “Well, there may be small mistakes in the Bible, but the core principles are all there.” First, we don’t know what was really there because we have no original manuscripts. Second, we have enough information in our manuscripts today to show that Jesus did not consider himself to be God (see Bart D. Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”). Third, as I already mentioned: we have over 200,000 variations!

One core doctrine that is in conflict is that of salvation by faith or works. Paul – who never met Jesus – spent his time propagating a high Christology of that salvation coming through faith, not works. Romans is filled with this doctrine. Yet, my favorite passage in all of Scriptures turns Paul’s theology upside down. In Matthew 25:31-46, the author is describing the Son of Man separating his sheep (“Christians”) on his right with the goats (non-Christians) on his left. Take a look.

“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me. 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

As you can see, Jesus excludes faith and shows that the fruits you bear through good works is what makes you a sheep rather than a goat. Contra to Paul, salvation is through good works. This comes as no surprise to me. I spent 3 years in seminary with one of the best Koine Greek scholars, and the amount of linguistic gymnastics used to harmonize the New Testament is simply unbelievable. But when belief-driven indoctrination has metastasized to the heart, it easily distorts judgment. This is why it should not surprise us that millions of Christians, Mormons, and Muslims believe extraordinary things with little evidence. The most prevalent spiritual gift of religion is intellectual gymnastics.

All this to say we should be careful to assert that the Bible is “God-breathed” or “God inspired.” Rather, the Bible is inspired by humans communicating meaningful stories within their own historical matrix. I am not saying that the Bible is irrelevant or should be discarded. To the contrary, the Bible should be affirmed and held in high esteem in a metaphorical way.

The woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is unfairly judged can teach a moral lesson about the dangers of judging other people. And Matthew 7:5 can challenge us to remove the telephone post in our own eye before we try and remove the splinter in someone’s eye. And how does the Bible – and Jesus – empathize with our struggles? Well, just as Jesus had to go through the dangerous and forbidden Samaria, so we too go through our own “Samaria” with the hope of a future peace. Samaria can represent loss, grief and the pain we go through in life. Did Jesus speak of a literal splinter in someone’s eye? Did Jesus ever go through Samaria? I don’t care. I don’t even care if we find proof that Jesus never existed.

The point is the meaning we get from the passage. When we can get to the point of seeing meaningful metaphors, we can stop using Scripture to indoctrinate and use it, rather, for personal flourishing.

Part I- New Testament: Literal or Metaphorical ?

Flourishing Without Indoctrination

Words like “God-breathed” and “God inspired” are inventions of the Enlightenment that were constructed from a defensive posture in order to protect “the faith” from the bourgeoning skepticism of the Renaissance. Despite the growth of humanism in the 16th century, New Testament is nevertheless a precious work of literature that ought to be treasured for two reasons. First, it gives us insight into the quest for meaning, understanding and purpose within a first century Palestinian context. Second, it can help us today, especially if we read it from a metaphorical perspective. Metaphorical meaning can often give us more meaning and insight into our world.

Once upon a time there was a guy on his horse darting through the forest uncontrollably, when he spotted his brother up ahead whom he was quickly approaching. As he got closer, his brother yelled out, “Where are you going!” To which the man on the horse replied, “I don’t know, ask the horse!” So you see, the man lost control of the horse and was dashing through the woods erratically.

This Buddhist tale has a deeper ethical point. Often we become overcome with our emotions [i.e. anger, jealousy, bliss] that we lose our focus on the where we’re going in life. Thus, we must pull the reins on our emotions and gain control of ourselves. This Buddhist parable is always tucked in the back of my mind when I contemplate life balance in this hectic life.

Life lessons can help us understand life more clearly. But what if I became overly inquisitive with other aspects of this parable. Such as, did this literally happen? Was there a literal horse? The answer: who cares! With life lessons, it shouldn’t matter if it was a literal horse or if the serpent in the garden in the Bible was a literal talking snake. Rather, it’s about what the lesson means to the hearer. It’s about finding meaning.

When we look back at the history of religious persecution, it is hard not to see how the idea of literal interpretation of ancient texts has justified brutality, oppression and the marginalization of mass groups of people. Even today, for instance, Christian churches who are considered more “liberal” continue to have multitudes of ardent anti-homosexual protestors based solely on ancient writ from their scriptures. The ridged method of interpreting holy writings spills over to a literal Hell for unbelievers and a literal end times where Jesus comes back on a horse to save his followers. According to a 2013 OmniPoll study, 41% of all people in the United States believe we are living in the end times. Furthermore, 42% continue to believe in the creationist view of human origins according to a Gallup poll. This is fascinating given how far science has brought us as children of the Enlightenment era.

But were these texts meant to be understood literally? Moreover, should be approach the Quran, the Bible and Mormon writ the same way we would as if we were reading todays New York Times? My concern is primarily with one the most read documents known as the New Testament within the bible.    

This begs several questions:

Were ancient texts meant to be taken literally?

Would a metaphorical approach lead to the same brutal results?

Christianity is a development. The key word is “development”; and cultures develop within a historical context. The gospels, for instance, are products of early Christian communities in the last third of the first century. Rather than being divinely inspired, the gospels are written from a thoroughly Jewish apocalyptic perspective while embedded in Roman imperial hegemony that focused on military, economic, political and ideological power – all through conquest. To ignore this historical matrix is to completely miss what was going on. Ignoring the context leaves us with the Cliff Notes version of only a few biased Jewish perspectives.

Part of the 1st century historical matrix is that concepts such as “Son of God,” “Savior” and “Christ” were already woven into the fabric of Roman culture prior to Jesus. Furthermore, miraculous births and resurrections were already in progress, and more importantly, with many eyewitnesses. I want to stress, again, that these titles and wonders all pre-date Jesus. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, carried the title “Son of God” (40 BCE). After the death of Octavian, the historian Suetonius writes that a high ranking official “saw Augustus’s image ascending to the sky.”

During the same time as Jesus roamed ancient Palestine, another miracle working itinerant preacher had already beat him to the scene. Apollonius of Tyana was his name. Allow me to quickly bullet point his divine similarities to Jesus:

  • His mother received a vision from heaven that informed her that her son would be divine.
  • His birth was accompanied by unusual divine signs in the heavens.
  • As an adult, he went from town to town teaching that the spiritual and material should be what humanity lives for.
  • He had a number of followers that were convinced that he was the Son of God.
  • He did miracles: healed the sick, casted demons out, and raised the dead.
  • His followers witnessed his ascension to heaven.
  • Recordings of his life was written down by Philostratus in which he did considerable research for the book using accounts recorded by eyewitnesses and companions of Apollonius.

Divinity was embedded into the culture at that time. And storytellers within this non-literary culture were more concerned about what the stories meant to their subjective life rather than fact checking for objective truth. Whether it involved Zeus, Apollonius or Jesus, it was a meaningful reflection of that particular ancient cultural milieu – not something that was meant to transcend all cultures all the way to the 21st century. After all, Jesus thought that the world was going to end within his generation. Mark 13:30 states, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” While this blunder is quite embarrassing for Jesus, his apocalyptic prophecy never had the 21st century reader in mind.

I don’t write this to discount Christianity. I only wish to call a spade a spade. I wish to affirm that even though Christianity developed through human manufacturing, we can still treasure the Bible and glean moral lessons that help us flourish. This is my contention: indoctrination using God inspired texts fosters an “us/them” mentality with non-negotiable bronzed age ethics. In the end, I think this world would be better off if we trade the “absolute truth” of holy writ for absolute compassion for all people.

It is usually at this point when the Christian apologist will unleash his arsenal defending the authors and scribes of the Bible and the validity of the ancient manuscripts. Thus, Part II will address these anticipated questions.

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The Origin of Satan

uiThe word satan has been both an instrumental linguistic weapon used to tear people apart and also a word picture that describes the evil goblin that invites us into his chambers if we did not live a satisfactory life – or if we believed the “wrong” dogma. However, the word “satan,” originally docile in meaning, has morphed and re-morphed in order to describe the beliefs and perceptions of its prevailing time.  

I preface this essay with this one crucial point: Satan is not an evil beast guarding the underworld, rather, he is my cat Muffins who lies in the middle of the hallway causing me to sometimes trip over him. Now I will prove this thesis.

Words and meanings of words often go through an evolutionary process. For instance, the word unique isn’t unique anymore. It used to be an absolute which meant one of a kind. But in the 1800’s its meaning became diluted as people started to use it to mean unusual or uncommon. And to make matters worse, they started adding modifiers such as pretty, somewhat, and kind of. How can something be kind of unique? You can’t kind of be one of a kind. Even when we look inside religious circles, we notice how context and history shift meanings. The word hell is understood entirely differently from 1950s when compared to the current idea of hell. Once a literal place with weeping and gnashing of teeth has slowly morphed into a metaphorical place that represents eternal isolation.

eeAsk any religious person today who is Satan or the devil and they will describe the evil ruler of the underworld that seeks to steal, kill and destroy. He is also the one who sends his demon messengers to possess and oppress people who refuse to accept the correct religious prescriptions. Satan is the Prince of Darkness who holds the keys to the eternal dwelling place of Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and – depending on which era you are in – early martyrs who didn’t believe in the trinity, unorthodox Jews, black people of the 19th and early 20th century and, of course, gays. But is this what Satan has always represented?  

Although sixth century storytellers introduced a supernatural character called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The Hebraic root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.” (The Greek diabolos, later translated “devil” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)

For instance, in the book of Numbers 22:23-33, the satan is sent by God as a protector. Here, the satan, acting as an obstacle, actually protects Balaam from further harm. In Job, the satan is not a malevolent beast, rather, he is among God’s divine court acting as a secret police, roaming the earth. As a play on words in the opening chapter of Job, he plays on “stn” and “st” (to roam). As most people familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures know, a play on words is a common literary device used by (poetic) writers in ancient literature. All this to say that both Numbers and Job, written around 1440-1400 BCE, present the satan in a role as an obstacle. Indeed, that is the moral lesson of Job: perseverance in the face of obstacles. **Side note: Numbers and Job were written well before the deceiving snake found in Genesis (500-600 BCE).

uuSo how did the term satan get weaponized from an obstacle in one’s path to a villain? Just as the harmless term cockroach morphed into a dehumanizing nomenclature of the Third Reich against the Jew, so did the term the satan become for the Jewish heretic. Part of the DNA of ancient Jewish history is pride for the whole of Jewish community. From the Abrahamic blessing, “and through you all nations will be blessed,” to the continued deliverance from oppressive bondage – the covenant relationship with God that designate Jews as God’s people is central. But when some of the Israelites deviate from ‘the plan’ and begin to assimilate with foreign culture, the satan morphs into a Ebola virus that divides us/them and righteous/wicked. The prophet Zechariah sides with the returning exiles in a heated conflict with the defectors of Israel, and Satan takes on a sinister quality, as he did in the story of David’s census (I Chronicles) , and his role begins to change from that of God’s angelic agent to that of an opponent.

“Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you!” (Zechariah 3:1-2)

But the morphology of the satan isn’t over. Things get worse in the Book of Daniel as it reflects upon the zeitgeist of wartime apocalyptic sentiment. So Satan begins to really take shape in part to the Syrian Kink Antiochus Epiphanes. In 168 BCE, he and his Seleucid court outlawed circumcision, along with the study of Torah, and then desecrated the Jerusalem Temple and rededicated it to the Greek god Olympian Zeus. This created factions within Judaism between those who resisted assimilation and the Jews who wanted to integrate into Hellenistic culture. After the Pharisees challenged the rigor of the Hasmoanean dynasty because that had become essentially a secular state who had abandoned Israel’s ancestral ways. Other radical dissident groups broke away from the Pharisees such as the Essenes who were of the monastic community at Kirbet Qumran. As factions broke into more factions, the key question came to be: which of us Jews are on God’s side? These radical dissidents began to increasingly to invoke the satan to characterize their Jewish opponents. Now satan was God’s antagonist, his enemy, and his rival. Now Jewish apostates are said to have been possessed by: Satan, Beelzebub, Semihazah, Azazel, Belial, and Prince of Darkness.

ioThere you have it. Now the stage is set for the Gospel writers to enter the scene and tell the dramatic story of the cosmic battle between good and evil – God vs. Satan. While angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan (capital “S”), along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent. But among certain first-century Jewish groups, prominently including the Essenes (who saw themselves as allied with angels) and the followers of Jesus, the figure variously called Satan, Beelzebub, or Belial also began to take on central importance. It is of upmost importance that we understand the Gospels in their context: the gospels reflect the emergence of a Jesus movement from the postwar factionalism of the late first century.

Mark, the first of the New Testament gospels (70 ACE), seeks out to show how the factions of Pharisees are agents of evil – really, they are simply not as ethical and pure as the rigorous sect of the Essenes. The name calling and dehumanization is an intra-conflict within Judaism – a Jewish nation divided against itself.

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” (Mark 3:23)

Satan is now a potent duplicitous beast that is employed to disintegrate the legitimacy between the righteous and the wicked. In Revelation, he is depicted as a dragon who has been caged for 1,000 years until the day when he is let loose just prior to the grand cosmic battle between himself and God.

So who is the satan? Is he a beast-like dragon that terrorizes immoral people? Nope. The satan is my cat Muffins because when he lays in the middle of the hallway, he is an obstruction and obstacle in my way – just as the original intent of the word “satan” meant originally.

– Wes Fornes

Values: On What Basis is a Value Wrong

“Words like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are empty if we don’t consider what the Good Life is, along with personal well-being. If we want to strengthen our morality and deepen our spirituality, we must strive to improve our personal well-being, and promote the well-being of others.” – Wes Fornes with 2 shots of espresso

In Starbucks last night, I overhead a lady ask rhetorically, “can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality?” After I almost choked on my venti hot chocolate, it got me thinking….

What would the world look like if we ceased to talk in terms of right and wrong, and good and evil and spoke in terms of well-being?

Values come in all shapes and forms. In Albania, there is a tradition of vendetta called Kanun. If a man commits murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. This means that a son of a murderer will live his life in fear while missing out in the pleasures of a normal life. In parts of the Middle East, women are required to wear a burqa. In parts of Africa, it is traditional practice for girls to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) for the goal of purity.

Can we say that these cultures are morally wrong for structuring their societies this way? Is their tradition a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own? If so, on what basis?

Perhaps it is best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like.

Let’s further unpack well-being. Most people would describe a Good Life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the Bad Life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the Good Life is preferable to The Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being … Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

I believe that these three examples (Kunan, the burqa and FGM) above are morally reprehensible, on the basis of well-being. Simply put, the well-being of these individuals is compromised, as well as their ability to flourish, thus, it is wrong. We do not need a sacred text, Confucian principle passed down or prophet to tell us what is right or wrong. Often when people think in terms of morality, their basis rests on religion or on a simple superficial maxim: that just seems wrong. Many others would look at these cultures and say that their actions are part in parcel to their culture and should be tolerated and respected. But just as the burqa is embedded in Muslim culture along with the Christian teaching of Hell embedded in hundreds of thousands of Sunday School classrooms across America, both are objectively wrong on the basis that is inhibits well-being.

So here is the question: can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality? I can objectively say that human sacrifice for a “noble” cause is immoral on the basis that it does not promote the flourishing of well-being within the tribe. I do the same with Kunan, mandatory burqas, FGM and for adults who teach 7 year olds that Hell awaits them if they don’t choose the right God.

So think about what a flourishing well-being looks like to you and strive for it.

Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos on 1/24/2015 around 9am

In 350 Words: A Warning About Believing in an Afterlife

Drinking a mocha and wanted to share some thoughts in my head. A belief in the afterlife cultivates the idea that this life is temporary and what matters most is the next life. Unlike this life, the afterlife is a man-made narrative that is not found in reality. Let’s face it, no one has ever been to heaven and then reported their findings when they arrived back on earth. Heaven is not like the South Pole. I have never been to the South Pole, but it is a part of my reality because (1) I have seen pictures, (2) many people have been there and reported on agreeing views of the South Pole, and (3) there is consensus among rational people that the South Pole in fact exists. Thus, the South Pole is not on the same plane as a heaven or a reincarnated life.

So what’s the danger? If we are consistently focused on securing eternal bliss in the next world, and the next world is cloudy myth, then that leaves us nowhere. It goes like this:

  • I cannot be fully present on earth because I am focused on my (post-death) eternal destiny.
  • I cannot be fully present in the afterlife because it is unknowable.
  • Therefore, I am not fully present anywhere.

What I am proposing is that we focus on the here and now. That we stay present with what is happening at this minute. May we be encouraged that every breath is a gift and should be used wisely. That every interaction with the people in our lives is precious and should be held in the highest regard. May we create a life in our present existence where greed and hatred are extinguished and empathy and compassion is cultivated. And let us do this because we want to live to the fullest. Let us not pursue virtue with the goal of future mansions in heaven, or future virgins that await us, or because we fear coming back in a 2nd life as a rat. What matters is today, so live it to the fullest.

A common rebuttal is: well if an afterlife doesn’t exist, then where is my hope? Maybe your hope should be in how you live out your life in this world. A hope that says, “I hope to leave the world a better place than when I first arrived.” A hope that says, “My life matters, and I am making the most of it.” As a person who does not believe in an afterlife, I have a tremendous amount of hope. My hope is that I will always be able to say, “I did my best to treasure the people in my life, to cultivate compassion in my life, and to stop and smell the roses.”

Written @ Starbucks in Los Gatos CA on 1/10/2015

 

Finding the Meaning of Life in Albert Camus’ “The Plague”

 

 

I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social.

Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is

gentle: to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane

times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created,

where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy

die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe,

and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.   – (Atheist) Bertrand Russell

Summary: The Plague by Albert Camus

In the small town of Oran, Algeria, dead bodies are multiplying exponentially. A strange virus has penetrated the town walls; it is causing people’s flesh to boil, their inside to curdle with fever and vomit. There seems to be no hope for a cure. Terror has taken over.

One doctor, a darkly handsome man named Rieux, may be the last hope the people of Oran have – or he may simply have lost his mind, He is working tirelessly to treat the victims. He not only puts himself in contact with the deadly contagion, he does so methodically, with tremendous energy and unflinching dedication.

Admirable: but why? Rieux, openly an Atheist, is confident he will receive no reward for selflessness after he dies. Furthermore, he reflects, even if he should succeed in curing the plague against all odds, all his patients and he himself will eventually perish. There will be no resurrection. All is temporary.

The doctor’s beloved wife, meanwhile, is stranded in a sanatorium a hundred miles away. Oran is under strict quarantine. Perhaps his strange dedication to his patients stems from the faint hope that if he cures them all, he can be reunited with her? No – if this were all there were to it, he would not help his friend Rambert the way he does. Rambert, a journalist, had recently come to Oran for a visit when the plague erupted, and its quarantine has trapped him there. With suffering and death all around him, Rambert can think of little but escaping to reunite with his own young bride, in Paris. He is self-righteous in his longing to break free. He is not a citizen of the town, just an accidental victim of fate. He deserves to get out, and he is willing to break the law and put others at risk to achieve it.

Obviously Rambert misses the point. Unless the plague is some purposeful, vengeful work of God – and the thoughtful, skeptical journalist is hardly the kind to believe such fairy tales – the residents of Oran, screaming and dying all around him, are no less accidental victims than a tourist such as he. We are all accidental victims.

Still, the doctor does not resent Rambert’s choice of selfish love over selfless service. The doctor does not attempt to persuade his friend to stay, despite the desperate need for more help in the “sanitary corps” that Rieux is organizing. Rieux encourages Rambert to follow his own heart. If the doctor were working for others only out of raw, calculated self-interest, surely he would calculate the need for Rambert’s participation and be no less understanding. Instead, Rieux simply persists in an endeavor that cannot but inspire us despite describing his own struggle as “a never ending defeat.”

The philosopher Albert Camus’s novel The Plague dramatizes one of the most foundational and challenging questions for umanism. We must explain why we should be good, without God. This is the question we can hear the character Jean Tarrou, a little bit later admiring and a little bit ashamed, asking his friend Rieux: “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God?”

My Thoughts

How are we to live our lives? We allow ourselves into the vacuum of ideals, conventions, and authoritarians who tell us how to think. In doing so, we join a herd and allow the blind to lead us. Rieux states that the spirit of pre-plague Oran is one of empty commercialism. The lives of Oran’s people are entirely circumscribed by their habits. Every day, they follow the same routines not realizing that on the other side lays a plague that will call on them to make sense of the world. So will you make sense of it? Or will you act as if the plague won’t happen to you?

What we learn from the plague is that we are all in the same boat. No one can escape the pain, guilt, suffering, and despair that life brings. The plague doesn’t show special grace to the wealthy, educated, or elite. Dr. Rieux thinks it is unimaginable that a city with harmless people like Grand could be subject to a deadly plague epidemic. However, there is no rational or moral meaning behind a plague epidemic. Its choice of victims is completely impartial – there is no rational or moral reason why people like Grand should or should not die from the plague. During one encounter, Rieux gets rocked when he meets a 9 year old boy stricken by the plague. But even with his whole life ahead filled with such potential and virtue, this young boy cannot escape being a victim. He didn’t ask for it. We are all accidental victims. We don’t determine the country we are born in, our socio-economic class, or the competency level of our parents.

The question arises: who takes responsibility – given that we are all victims? We individually should take responsibility. But in Oran, responsibility is passed on. Just as with the rats in Oran, everyone considers it someone else’s responsibility to deal with the mysterious illness. The government officials and Dr. Rieux’s colleagues do not want to break with the status quo, so they waste time discussing whether the disease is definitely contagious and whether it is definitely the bubonic plague. Dr. Rieux’s stance is that they should act as if the disease were the bubonic plague. He does not relish the idea of waiting for new cases to prove his suspicions. His main concern is saving as many lives as possible.

People seem so surprised when they become victims. Dr. Rieux notes that wars and plagues have always existed in human populations, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other. Maybe it’s because we rely on our accomplishments or status in life to safeguard us from harm. Like fools, we put a dash of solipsism and a dollop of wishful thinking into our worldview and assume a position of self-entitlement and say, “I’ll be okay, I’ve got God on my side.” What does that even mean? With or without God, God still stands above humanity watching rape, torture, and genocide – with arms folded. We should not be surprised at evil, rather, we should respond. May our response not be one filled with wishful thinking, but with compassionate action.

As a society, I don’t know if we will ever cease from explaining evil by means of wishful thinking. All too often, people attempt to rationalize evil by using irrational methods. For instance, many intellectuals argue the genesis of the holocaust was due to Eve eating a piece of fruit and that hurricane Katrina was the fault of sexual immorality in New Orleans. We see shadows of this in the plague. Many people do not want to admit that the rats pose a serious health risk to human beings, so they resort to rationalizing the phenomenon. M. Michel states that pranksters planted the dead rats in the building where he works. Dr. Rieux’s asthma patient declares that hunger drove the rats out into the open to die. Both of these “rational” responses are actually completely irrational. Hunger does not explain the blood spurting from the rats’ muzzles. M. Michel’s explanation doesn’t explain why there are hundreds of death rats in buildings all over the city.

What’s the real cost of wishful thinking? The real cost, if not danger, I think, has to do with being out of touch with reality. It has to do with not having the mental discipline to see what’s really going on versus what one would like to happen. Wishful thinking is dangerous because it impairs our ability to properly see and understand reality. There is a reason why our senses generally give us accurate information about the world around us: without accurate information, we couldn’t hope to navigate our world with any expectation of safety or success. Dr. Rieux muses that his situation requires a certain “divorce from reality.” The beds in the emergency hospitals are full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. Pity has become useless, so he no longer indulges in it. We need to know what is going on around us if we are going to avoid danger or take advantage of opportunities.

Perhaps sometimes there are no rational reasons for instances of evil. Can you rest in the absurd?

The plague makes Rambert realize that he values love and happiness over his profession – that is, his means for making money. However, he is still preoccupied with his personal distress. Insisting that he doesn’t belong, he declares that there is a rational reason for his “right” to leave Oran. Nevertheless, he does not realize that there is nothing rational in his situation, just as there is nothing rational in the arrival of a plague epidemic in Oran. Shit happens, we make the most of our life, and then we die. Let us leave fairy tales and angry gods with the illiterate bronzed age peasants from whence they came … and pursue accepting the absurd.

If there is one thing that unites humanity, it is suffering. For Rambert, he desperately wants to escape the suffering in Oran and return to his love in Paris. The authorities state that they cannot set a “precedent” by letting Rambert leave. Dr. Rieux refuses to give him a certificate declaring him free of the plague. Rieux acknowledges that it is an absurd situation, but there is nothing to do but accept it. We must accept our plague. We must accept that babies will be born with disease, psychopaths will walk into school buildings and shoot whatever moves, and nations will engage in genocide. The plague lives on, and we are all participants in it. We touch the pain and admit that hearts will be broken and minds will be fucked. But within the chaos lies a great deal of joy and growth that leads to fulfillment. While we touch the pain, we never-the-less strive for fulfillment.

The slavish herd in Oran is quite pathetic. Only when they are imprisoned do the citizens of Oran realize the relative freedom they once enjoyed. Before, there was nothing restricting them except the force of their own habits. However, just as before the plague, they continue to be selfishly self-absorbed with their personal suffering. Each citizen believes his distress is somehow unique. They do not try to “find the right” words for their suffering because they are horrified to think that their listener pictures a common, mass-traded emotion. Partly, Oran’s people lack the imagination to communicate their suffering to other people; they were consistently “bored” before the epidemic.

Like Rieux, we must plow forward doing as much good and showing as much compassion as humanly possible. We do this by making the most of our time on this planet. In Oran, their narrow, circumscribed routines and their indifference prevent them from making the most of their finite existence – they are wasting their time. Tarrou’s concern about wasting time echoes Rieux’s own frustration with the Oran’s time wasting tactics in response to the swarm of rats and later with the rising epidemic. Tarrou is no different from any other human being. We were hurled onto this planet with no choice of our own, and now the choice is ours: Do you strive toward virtue or do we succumb to the plague? When honey touches your tongue … is it still sweet?

The central message to Rieux staying and fighting the plague was that he did what he had to do in order to be a human being. Being human is not about a celestial dictator in the sky sending down bronze aged commandments; it’s about an ultimate concern. An ultimate concern is humanly ubiquitous. It arises in all of us in the inner chambers of our being, in a moral center that you cannot abandon unless you abandon everything about your existence.

Towards the end The Plague, Camus allows the plague to pass. Perhaps this is Camus’s way of showing that pain and evil are cyclical, but never completely subside. Part of acknowledging the warp and woof of humanity is that we don’t live constantly in crises; we have moments of repose and gratification.

Many have wondered why Dietrich Bonheoffer left his professorship at Princeton to face an evitable death in fighting the resistance in Germany. Why did Jesus choose to go through Jerusalem knowing that it would prove fatal? Why does the Dali Lama turn a peaceful face toward the tyrants in China who subjugate his people? They engage in these brazen acts because it is their ultimate concern. They do what they have to do in order to be human. Bonheoffer pointed himself toward Germany because of his internal North Star. The Dali Lama points himself towards peace because of his moral compass. The plague is all around us, and the danger is when life becomes so routine, banal, and mundane that we become content with living in the kiddie pool. Therefore, the question is: will you take responsibility and pursue your ultimate concern?

Where Do Values Come From?

Do Values Come from Humans or God?

In the dialogue, Socrates reminds his friend Euthyphro that a crucial question is not simply whether we can know if one or another particular action is good, but on what basis we determine whether any action is good. Euthyphro answers: “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” But Socrates responds: “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good.”

If the former is true, then who says the gods are not evil, unfair, or frivolous? The gods could choose to love anything they want, regardless of whether or not human beings consider it just. Is that they type of system we want to live by? Do the gods want us to be blindly, unquestioningly obedient to them, even if they behave like murderous scoundrels? And if the gods love the good simply because it is good, then it could damn well be good on its own. We wouldn’t need god or gods to tell us what morality is – we’d be responsible for figuring it out just as they were.

In either case, Euthyphro drives home the point that mere belief in God can’t make us good, and it can’t point to “timeless values” that we humans aren’t equally capable of arriving at on our own terms. Gods don’t – can’t – create values. Humans can, and so we must do so wisely.

Football players can pray for touchdowns, but not a single amputee, no matter what the unfair circumstances surrounding her injury, has successfully ever prayed to regrow a limb. The fact is, there could be a god who hates amputees. We can neither prove it nor disprove it. Fortunately, we have much better ways of understanding moral and ethical values.

 “Our morality is based on human needs and social contracts, and these things are not perfectly, eternally objective. After all, slavery was once considered morally acceptable by almost all religious people, including Christians. If values were timeless and objective, either the early Christians saints who believed in it were horribly wrong, or values change.” – Greg M. Epstein