Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Secular Messiah

While the religions of the world squabble over the finer points of gods, morality, and the meaning of life (and by "squabble" I mean "blow each other up"), secularism has continued its slow methodical march from the codes and whispers of antiquity to being the foundation for many governments today. Secularism, though not immune human evils, has been responsible for the advancement of science and technology, and a more globally-conscious and tolerant modern society. But the struggle is just beginning; even in these enlightened times humanity continues to suffer at the hands of religious extremism.

The question I wish to explore in this post is: how do we, in the absence of faith, encourage those around us to value the positive aspects of secular beliefs?

I realize that any secular thinker is looking at the title of this post and declaring it a non-poetic oxymoron, but think of this more as a thought exercise than a call for a savior that will lead the religious sheep to the promised land of science and technology. The fact is that, although we win occasional converts to the side of reason, these always seem to be the people that were already thirsting for rational thought. The religious thinkers far outnumber the secular minded in every society, and we must make some attempt to understand and communicate with the vast majority of people if we are ever to reap the fruits of our own scientific inquiry and innovations. I firmly believe that everyone has the capacity for rational thought, but the religious willfully (though maybe not knowingly) suppress their rational minds. The purpose of exploring the concept of a "secular messiah" is not to await some prophet of reason, but that every secular-minded person learn the tools that will enable them to become a Prometheus for those around them; sharing the light of knowledge and having it gratefully received rather than feared and shunned.

I was listening to an interview on NPR with Martin Palmer, an Anglican lay preacher who founded the interfaith organization, Alliance of Religions and Conservation, with the intent to educate religious leaders, who can then educate the general public about the issue of man-made global warming. His basic premise seemed true enough: that religious leaders are able to reach and motivate the masses in ways that scientists cannot. The logic behind his premise, however, troubled me deeply.

Palmer feels that pastors and rabbis and imams are able to explain complex concepts to people in a way that makes sense, while scientists talk over every one's head so that no one without a higher education bothers to listen. The thing that troubled me about what Palmer was saying was that during my own desperate attempts to make sense of my religious teachings, I never once had a priest satisfy my need to truly understand the complex ideas he was teaching. I never remember a priest explaining something in a way that made it clearer than it was before. As a matter of fact, my persistent questions were quite often met with offense and hostility, though at the time I had no intention nor desire to offend God or the priests, whom I honestly believed understood some magical mystery that I was failing to grasp. I indeed felt like they were talking over my head, but my desire to understand my theology was consistently thwarted by the need for me to simply have faith. The explanations I sought were never forthcoming.

The idea that religious leaders are better able to explain complex issues to simple people is surely false, but the fact that priests reach and motivate the public in a way that scientists do not cannot be denied. So if it's not a priest's gift for clarifying and simplifying complex issues, then what exactly does a priest do that gets through to people? How does a priest earn such trust and inspire such motivation to action?

I believe that the power of religion over people is not illogical, but beyond logic. In his book, “The Sacred and the Profane,” Mircea Eliade maintains that the supernatural world evolved in the human mind as a reference point in a chaotic universe, not because it made sense of the incomprehensible, but because it gave the incomprehensible less power over people's lives. There was a time when we were truly not capable of understanding why lightning struck our village and set our hut on fire and we felt powerless against such forces of nature. It was empowering to believe that there was a being in charge of the lightning who might be persuaded to spare our hut if we made the right offerings and said the right prayers. That power, however, comes with a terrible price; trying to understand forces like lightning in a scientific sense, once such understanding is possible, directly threatens the supernatural power people believe they have.

This need to believe in our ability to have supernatural control over the natural world must not be trivialized. Think about how difficult it was for early man to carry on with his daily life and plan for tomorrow knowing that death could come at any time from any direction (other animals are at least ignorant of their own mortality). As if planning for your own family wouldn't be difficult enough, how do you come together with others to work as a group, which often involves sacrificing your own and your family's immediate self-interests? You have to believe in some kind of long-term order in the world, even though your actual experience may be to the contrary. You have to have faith that the time and energy you invest in group efforts will pay off in the long run. In the absence of any observable evidence that the world around you is structured and predictable, who better to convince people to pool their resources and work together for a greater good than a priest, who has mastered the mystifying complexities of communicating with the supernatural world?
The supernatural world is our trump card over the natural world and this is where the priest gets his power. Who in your tribe could possibly be more important than the person who can talk to the earth, the spirits, the gods, and the ancestors? Who is more fit to control new technologies like fire and writing? Everyone knows that your spear, no matter how expertly crafted, has little chance of hitting its target without the special blessing that can only be performed by the priest.

We must look into the mind of a person trying to survive in a world where chaotic forces beyond their control dictate their very survival; they are looking beyond this world into a plane of order and justice through which human beings can have some sway on this plane of existance. If we look at the world through the eyes of people who existed before science it's easier to see how religion was probably necessary for their survival and their willingness to risk their survival for the sake of their community. Religion gives believers the keys to unlock a magical world that makes sense when the real world doesn't.

The supernatural world is ordered and eternal, so it's not difficult to understand why the supernatural world is believed to be the "real" world and that we are but temporal shadows passing through this physical plane. And because the supernatural world can be swayed to favor humanity while the earthly realm continues to seem indifferent to our existence, it's also easy to understand why more recent Western theologies have come to view the supernatural world as "good" and the natural world as "evil".

People who choose to recognize only the physical world, only what they can see and touch and measure, are choosing to be set adrift in chaos with no life-line, no reference point to the world beyond. And it seems that no matter how much we understand, no matter how much our technology improves lives in ways that ceremonies and offerings never could, it is still almost impossible to get otherwise intelligent people to let go of the fantasy world of religion to join our efforts to improve and prolong our lives here on earth (why hold on to this existence if the next one is better?).

The problem is that people who live their lives grounded in the supernatural world make up the vast majority of the population. It's simply not possible to move society forward without mobilizing a significant number of these people to passionately and wholeheartedly embrace science.
The scientific ideals that need to be embraced by the majority include relentless inquiry into the nature and inner workings of life and the universe, a willingness to expect and endure change and uncertainty, and an acceptance that humanity itself is responsible for its own survival and prosperity.

If we are going to persuade the religious to embrace scientific thinking, we are going to have to find a mode of communicating with them besides logic. I fully understand the gravity of what I am saying, but I truly believe that there is just no other way.

We must understand that for the religious mind, the supernatural world is the "real" world, and the connections they make with the "real" world through prayer and rituals are the reference points with which they navigate through this frightening and chaotic existence. Whether we are exiled in this realm for our transgressions or this existence is some kind of crucible to decide who is fit to exist on the next plane; the fact remains that the "real" world is the only one that truly matters, and I can't think of a single religious organization that believes the road to the world beyond is paved with logic. You simply cannot reason with a religious mind and we must stop trying (of course, we can win the occasional convert).

A secular messiah would be a true savior of mankind. A person who could appeal to the religious on their level. A person who could package the hopes and promises of science and technology in a way that would make them irresistible to the religious people of the world. It seems to me, however, that if we are ever going to inspire the religious-minded with secular ideologies, we must understand how religious leaders inspire fellowship and apply some of their basic principles to secularism.

Contrary to the position of Palmer, that religious leaders have some inherent capacity to inspire and motivate people, I believe that the key to their motivational abilities lies in the people being motivated, not in the leaders themselves. It is the parishioner's willingness and desire to believe in the priest, and her unwillingness to question the priest, that gives a religious leader his power of persuasion.

So if the key to this motivational phenomenon lies in the listener and not the messenger, how can this knowledge be applied to one who preaches the promise of science and secular ideas, particularly because it would involve some sort of faith on the part of the listener.

We must appeal to the faith of the religious mind rather than its logic. If I may revisit my lightning analogy; how can a leader persuade the religious to freely and willingly embrace the terrifying possibility that there is no higher being that can control this force of nature? How can a leader convince people to pursue experimentation and understanding in order to gain some measure of control over such a powerful phenomenon? Is it not a leap of faith that the leader would be proposing; that everyone should leave off praying and trust that with science we will eventually discover the lightning rod?
A secular messiah would be a person who could show the religious how science can deliver on the hope that religion can only promise. Perhaps not a supreme being who is directly concerned with our welfare, but certainly that there is order and predictability in the world, as well as a way for human beings to have some real control over the natural forces that can so profoundly impact our survival. Our desire to view ourselves as special in the universe and ordained to rule over and care for our planet is not at all undermined by science. After all, the mere consideration of the true improbability and brevity of our existence can strike as much awe in the human heart as the creation of a supernatural creator. The challenge for a secular messiah would be to inspire the religious mind with the actual beauty and profoundness of science and to persuade them to release their more familiar and comforting ideas about God and religion.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

White Pride

In response to a question on a political discussion board i frequent called Yabberz, I posted this commentary on "White Pride" that I'm quite fond of, so I decided to use it as a blog post. 

In order to understand "White Pride," you have to start with things like "Gay Pride," and "Black Pride."

If you are gay, or black, or any kind of minority in America, you are born with the deck very much stacked against you. You are told that you are less than everyone else, and you are told that the way you were born is wrong. You are also told that everything wrong with you is your fault, and you need to just be like everyone else, (and then everyone pretends that you have the exact same opportunities to be like everyone else, and you simply choose not to do so).

"Pride" movements in minority groups are an effort to stand in opposition to the culture at large and refute the idea that they have less value than everyone else.

I was listening to a KKK record that belonged to my husband's grandpa from the 1940s, and the tinny, gravely serious voice was droning on about the threat that the negro poses to the white man's very existence. I remember thinking, really? 1940s America? The negro a threat to the white man's existence? 

But I suddenly realized what wiser people had known all along: that the root of racism is fear (the root of all hate is fear).

So, fearful white people who secretly understand that their position of power in this country is undeserved are existentially threatened by minority pride because it rejects the white narrative that minorities should be mourning their miserable (though justly deserved) lot in life.

Offended by the notion of minority pride, white racists find themselves in a quandry because American culture has evolved to the point that white racism is now offensive (reinforcing their fear that they themselves are becoming the minority).

Fortunately, playing the role of the victim is already a standard defense mechanism of insecure personalities (and let's not forget that on some level, they really do feel victimized), so they pick up their time honored trophies of racism like the Confederate flag and say, "What? Why can't we be proud of our heritage? It's got nothing to do with racism! It's outrageous that you would call our pride racist! Everyone else can be proud! We are being discriminated against!"

It's projection, manufactured outrage, and self-fulfilling prophesy all rolled into one.

It is the dying gasp of the angry white man as our culture moves into a new Era of diversity and equality (not that we can't slip backward, mind you!).

Sunday, August 16, 2015

We're not the consumers, we're the product.

As an argument and debate enthusiast, I've been complaining for years about the increasingly impenetrable political polarization that has been sweeping across our country and the world. People have become so encapsulated in their ideologies that anything less than hearing their own beliefs echoed back to them is like nails on a chalkboard.

It's not a new phenomenon, this hostility toward having one's beliefs challenged. It's a crime Socrates paid for with his life. Indeed, to enjoy argument requires a certain comfort level with the hostility of others; a comfort level that borders on the antisocial.

Although having an antisocial streak seems like a personality trait that is destructive to social bonds (and it certainly can be), it can also be a powerful tool for encouraging societies to advance, much like the way forest growth depends on forest fires to clear out the dead and dried underbrush and transform it into fresh, fertile soil.

But there has been a recent and drastic shift whereby Liberals and Conservatives have moved so far into their respective camps, so isolated within their own ideologies, that a call to the table is heard as a call to arms.

2014 Pew Research study showed that in the last 10 years, politically active citizens have moved further away from the isle,
and exhibit more animosity for their counterparts on the other side, than ever before. Here is a fun interactive illustration of political polarity in America over the course of the last decade. The article itself is long, and definitely worth reading.

But I have a theory about why this is happening, and you're probably holding it in your hand right now.

*   *   *   *   *   *

The internet connects us to one another in ways that have never before been possible. Finding like-minded folks in spite of vast demographical differences is one of the many blessings of modern technology, and it's tempting to think that connecting with people who are similar to ourselves is the reason that we have become isolated in our own echo chambers, but that's only one small piece of the puzzle.

I would argue that these internet enabled social groups are additive rather than subtractive because there have been so many significant cultural shifts in the last couple of decades, from gay rights to legalizing marijuana. Changes like these, not just in our laws but in our cultural conscience, cannot happen when large groups of people are isolated from other groups. Such fundamental cultural shifts in such a small period of time require exposure to the people we consider "other;" so much exposure that we eventually come to understand that "those people" are not very different from ourselves after all.

In one of the best Ted Talks ever given, Andrew Solomon talks about "vertical identities," which he says are passed from one generation to the next (like religion or nationality), and "horizontal identities," which we find in our peer groups (deaf culture, gay culture). He talks about how the Internet has fostered the ability of disparate individuals to find others like themselves and form communities and cultures, and has allowed the opportunity for those within their vertical identity groups to be more exposed to, and gain a better understanding of, the horizontal identities that used to remain foreign and misunderstood. That understanding leads to acceptance, first within families, then within social groups, and then attitudes ultimately begin to shift within the culture itself.

Still, these forward leaning cultural shifts, accelerated by the Internet, have happened in parallel with the deepening ideological divisions that have polarized our politics. So it does stand to reason that the Internet must somehow be playing a role in our divisions as well as our connections.

I had a eureka moment on this issue while reading a passage in Future Crimes by Mark Goodman. The passage was about all the free apps and services we all use every day. Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calender, Google Maps, this blog! All for free? Free. Seriously?

And we think we have it all figured out, of course. We wade through tons of distracting ads popping up in our faces in exchange for using all these free services, right?

"No," in the immortal words of Ford Prefect, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward."

As Goodman explains, if you're not paying for something, then you're not the consumer; you are the product. Your data is the product, more specifically. Where you live, where you'd like to live, where you work, what stores you shop at, do you have kids? Breast or bottle? And, most importantly, your GPS coordinates.

All of this personalized information shapes every facet of your online experience. So if you and I were to both do a Google search for, let's say, "doors," you might get a list of home furnishing DIY stores, and I might get a list of articles on Rock and Roll and Jim Morrison.

Apps like Angry Birds are quietly collecting data from your phone and selling it to people who want to sell you stuff. Furthermore, internet advertising is so cheap that even a small business, or single individual can buy ad space that only appears on a site when specific keywords are used. It's much more effective than filling the mailboxes of random individuals with coupons to your store, and it's much more targeted than a billboard on the side of a highway.

One example of this sort of advertising that most of us can relate to is when I was recently looking for glider brackets (essential hardware for turning a chair into a glider). I went to a few local hardware stores with no luck, and I was also looking for them online. Immediately, and for about the next week, every site I visited from Facebook to CNN had ads for glider brackets. It's the kind of thing that normally wouldn't have grabbed my attention, except that glider brackets are a very specialized and uncommon bit of hardware; not something that would be randomly advertised to the general consumer reading news articles on CNN.

Since most people in the US get a significant portion of their information online, what are the implications of getting our news and current events presented in a format that is based on algorithms designed to give us the information we already want to see? What are the political implications of ideological commentary and current events that is custom filtered for each individual?

Let's take that same customized advertising phenomenon and apply it to a topical hot-button issue like the Confederate flag. If you post favorable opinions about the Confederate flag online and search for images of the flag, your personal corner of the Internet is going to fill up with ads, news articles, and links to sites that promote "Southern" pride and related material. Now, when a Neo Nazi site uses Google Ad Words, they are going to concentrate their advertisements on sites that are frequented by their target audience: young, underemployed, frustrated people who may already have an attitude of racial resentment and entitlement (an attitude the group can cultivate into full-blown hate and terrorist activities). From the target's perspective, the more these images and ideas populate that individual's search results and Facebook page, the more these ideas will appear to be valid and acceptable.

In their less severe form, these custom filters inhibit the kind of personal growth that comes from argument and debate; growth that comes from having to defend your ideas and learning how to express them in different ways to different individuals; and most importantly, the kind of growth that comes from listening to the ideas of people who disagree with you.

So, whether you've strayed from your comfort zone to read this or not, I would love to hear your opinion, especially if you disagree with me. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

On your mark, get set...

As election season commences, I'm looking forward to getting my blog in gear and having some great conversations and debates with friends and strangers alike.

I thought about kicking it off with a post about the hows and whys of the dangerous political polarity that is becoming more and more entrenched in our modern society, but I will save that topic for another discussion.

I decided that I would rather spend some time talking about my personal belief system, in order to provide some context for the political discussions to follow.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: Joy shared, is doubled while sorrow shared, is halved. I believe that this is the mathematics of life, by which I mean that life transcends arithmetic; that we are more than the sum of our parts.

My moral code is pretty simple:

It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak.

It is the duty of the learned to teach the ignorant.

It is the duty of the able to care for the feeble.

It is the duty of the haves to provide for the have-nots.

My belief system is not based on "rights" or what any individual "deserves" or "is entitled to," but on the principle that our society thrives when we each work to one another's mutual benefit.

Does that mean it's wrong for people who work harder to have more than everyone else? Absolutely not. I wouldn't even say that it's wrong for people who were born with a lot to have more than others.

My position is simply that our fate is intertwined, and we rise or fall together, whether we like it or not.

In every ghetto, slum and refugee camp, great minds are going to waste for lack of basic nutrition, healthcare, and education. There are Mozarts and Louis Armstrongs who will never pick up an instrument, Toni Morrisons who will never learn to read, Madame Curies who will never touch a microscope, and Malala Yousafzais who will be sold and impregnated before their 12th birthdays.

We are all poorer for those losses, no matter how rich we believe ourselves to be.

And lastly, I believe that any words or actions rooted in love are devine and blessed, and any words or actions rooted in fear are evil and cursed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Whatever works. Until it doesn't. (rinse; repeat)

We have a religious sort of faith in the systems that populate our existence: political systems, economic systems, social, societal, philosophical.

The more powerful and coherent the systems, the more likely we are to believe that they have been deliberately planned and constructed by people who knew exactly what they were doing, be they learned humanitarians or evil geniuses (depending on how much we agree or disagree with the system in question).

To illustrate this point with some examples from actual faith, consider that the religious are prone to saying things like, "See how the banana fits so perfectly in our hands; clearly it was designed by our creator so that we may hold it," or, "humanity exists on the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life; clearly the earth was created to be our home." Whereas the more scientifically minded among us will say that the banana was shaped slowly over time because the handiness of the fruit allowed for the seeds to be propagated better and farther, and the handiest fruit propagated the best, and that is why the banana is here in our hand. Such folks would also maintain that the Earth is our home because it is the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life (and not the other way around).

And just for fun; which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The egg, of course.

We can trace the origin of the egg all the way back to fish.

B O O M !

Ok, now just let that epiphany wash over your brain and clear your mind because we're moving on.

We'll start with conspiracy theories and work backwards.

Conspiracy theories take the incomprehensible and make it bat shit crazy, right?

The JFK assassination, 9/11, the Newtown shooting, the lunar landing, the Ancient Egyptian pyramids, and so on.

If you spend any time looking into these conspiracies, they are elaborately constructed and have an answer for every possible objection. And therein lies the giveaway; because you know what doesn't have an answer for everything?


So many variables, so many conflicting interpretations, so much entropy unaccounted for; reality is messy and confounding and exists whether we recognize it or not.

Or, as our rabbi once said to a congregant who confessed that he did not believe in God, "God does not care whether you believe in him or not."

What conspiracy theories offer is a world that is more comprehensible than reality for the people who subscribe to them. A world that is tightly and expertly orchestrated by shadowy figures behind the scenes who have some master plan.

But lest we judge the reality-impaired too harshly, perhaps we should consider that we are all prone to tying up loose ends with our own assumptions. And we should consider also that the assumptions we make are more out of collective convenience than reasoned thoughts based on evidence.

What assumptions, you ask?

Well, let's look at economics for a moment.

The proponents of Capitalism like to talk about Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the Marketplace as if it is a metaphor for an actual impartial self-regulating system that, if we just trust the process and allow the system to work its magic without our misguided interference, everything would eventually work itself out to everyone's mutual benefit.

Opponents of Capitalism will say that this whole "invisible hand" business is propaganda from our corporate overlords who want us to have faith in a system that is rigged to only benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

I maintain that both these views are true-ish, and if you put them in a jar with every other economic theory and shook it up, you might end up with a belief system that is closer to the truth.

Capitalism is the economic system that runs the world, not because it's the right system or the best system, but because right now, it works. And when it stops working, either because of worldwide nuclear annihilation, or simply because it got top-heavy and collapsed when the corporate overlords stole more wealth than they could carry, it will be replaced by whatever economic system works at that time.

Or, let's look at mating practices. Why do we in the Western world strive to be monogamous? Because having one partner is morally right? Well, we in the Western world get most of our morals from the Bible, and that book is full of polygamy. Is it because a two parent system is the most effective way to raise children? Or is even more practical than that? Perhaps we value monogamous partnerships simply because, at this moment and in this place, quality is more important than quantity. We live in a complex and evermore integrated global society; not only do most of our children survive into adulthood, but preparing them to be successful adults in our society takes an incredible amount of resources. Too many children will quickly exhaust the resources of our family units, and society as a whole.

But how did we go from "be fruitful and multiply,"  to "one man, one woman, no sex before marriage, and no marriage before adulthood?" Who decided that this was the best way to mate in our culture, and how did almost everyone come to this consensus?

Ah, see?

We conveniently replaced all those questions with, "this is what we do because it's the right thing to do."

Now, for this post, I'm not concerned with the hows or whys of these cultural developments; there are plenty of competent people trying to unravel those mysteries.

The only point I am trying to make at the moment is that we do what works because that's the only thing we can do. Bananas fit perfectly into our hands because that's what worked for the propagation of the banana tree. We live on the planet Earth because there is no other planet on which we could exist.

My ultimate goal with this train of thought is not to take the meaning and purpose out of the systems that populate our existence, but to try to relieve the fear that accompanies the transition periods when one system ceases to work and is replaced.

If we can loosen our grip on the idea that our current political, economic, or religious system is the universal right answer always and forever, then we can be more willing to let go of old systems that no longer work and embrace new systems that do; because that's what's going to happen anyway.

Why waste energy and resources resisting the inevitable changes that will ensure our continued existence?

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Luck of the Draw (a re-post)

[Note: This is an edited re-post of an earlier topic that I wanted to share again in light of it being election time. Also, my posts used to consist of a lot of carefully placed images, which I stopped doing because they disappear for no apparent reason.]


Are they all liars?

Maybe not, but the majority of the successful ones are.

But that's our fault. We only vote for liars.

Well, not our fault exactly, it's in our programming. I watched this documentary on TLC years ago where they proved that the best leaders are the best liars. They took a class of five-year-olds and gave them something terrible tasting to drink. Then they sent the kids one by one into a room with a couple of interviewers and instructed the kids to tell the interviewers that the drink tasted good.

The kids who could, after nearly choking on that terrible drink, look the interviewers in the eye and say it was great were the outgoing leaders of the classroom.

One girl broke down crying and couldn't lie at all. When they showed a video of free play in the Kindergarten classroom, she was the one hiding under a table.

But the fact that liars are outgoing people who tend to be leaders still doesn't completely explain why we vote for them.

George Bush the First was relentlessly ridiculed for the campaign promise of "Read my lips, no new taxes," because he then proceeded to raise taxes once he was elected.

But how would we react if someone said, "Look, I want to be the President of the United States, not the Wizard of Oz; if you folks want the government to do stuff, you're going to have to cough up some dough!"?

So our natural inclination to elect the people who are the best at telling us what we want to hear (while openly doing the exact opposite) has gotten us into quite a pickle. We're stuck with a president we don't want, in a war we don't want, and we've been stripped of basic rights that have been in place since the Magna Carta.

Well I have a solution, and you're not going to like it, but hear me out.

We need a president with no strings attached (you know, lobbyists, donors, etc.) right? Under our current system, that is absolutely impossible. So I propose that we draw the next president randomly out of a hat!

(Not an actual hat, of course, but you get my point.)

We take every American citizen who meets the requirements for age, health, IQ, and education, and we put their names in a giant swirling drum. Then we have a random, blind-folded six-year-old pull the names of our next President and VP!

Problem solved.

At the end of their four-year term, we could vote to keep them for another four years or draw from the hat again.

The next thing we'd have to do is put term limits on high-level bureaucratic positions. These people can have their jobs for decades and no one even gets to vote on them.