Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

To Boldly Go

Posted on September 7th, 2016 in Personal, Politics, Religion | No Comments »

 “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of Humanity”
– Jean-Luc Picard, “First Contact”

As I write these words, we are two months and one day from history being made with the 2016 Presidential election. Two candidates who have polarized America in such a way as to lay open deep wounds, which may never heal in my lifetime. Eight years ago, I supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama; now I’m not so sure. Clinton’s position seems to paint her as a moderate Republican rather than a progressive Democrat. Charges of corruption and the influence of deep-pocket Wall Street donors paint a less flattering portrait of her than I saw back in 2008. Her opponent is a puffed-up tycoon who appeals to the populist vote by saying whatever he thinks will work at any given moment. The fact that he’s running neck and neck in this election speaks volumes to the depths in which both parties have lost touch with voters, and how decades of under-funding education, promotion of belief over science and the rise of jingoistic blind patriotism has finally come home to roost, with a vengeance.

 Throughout the United States, I see the fall of empire, the dissolution of a dream. The great experiment of a new nation is beginning to fail. A government exposed as corrupt and totalitarian,  run by career politicians who will say anything to maintain their grip on power in order to keep being fed by wealthy special-interest groups. A populace who pay lip service to the ideas but year by year lose interest in the vigilance required to maintain their liberties, distracted by glitter and sheen and vacuous indulgences. Dumbed down by a faulty education system that is continually challenged by lack of funding and under constant attack from those who wish to impose their ‘faith’ over facts. Graduates who care barely read or write, were told Moses was a historical figure, cannot make change and never taught the basics of reproduction, or how to protect themselves from the consequences of their natural urges.

We live in an Orwellian world of double-speak, where ignorance is wisdom, giving up our freedoms makes us free and to question is to be wrong. Edward Snowden languishes in Moscow instead of being hailed as someone who told us what our government is doing in our name. A football player who refuses to stand for the national anthem is treated as if he somehow offended the military who fight and die in futile wars far away for no good reason. We are not allowed to ask why we sacrifice our troops; just “honor” them. Every day, people are killed on the streets of this once-great nation and no effort is made to overrule the gun industry and limit the weapons that take so many lives and destroy so many families. Not even the slaughter of schoolchildren in their own classrooms can stop it; money can cover anything, even the blood of the innocent. An idea as logical as banning assault weapons and universal background checks is treated as an attack upon the Constitution and the second amendment; but Congress votes to increase secret surveillance of innocent Americans, violating the fourth amendment, and it’s seen as good and proper.

America was once the leader of the free world; that claim is dubious now, to say the least. Other nations have better standards of living; free health care, better education; a happier, safer populace, not dominated by the obsessive need to feed the military whatever it wants, or the need to kowtow to obsolete, nonsensical religious claptrap. Other nations don’t have a crumbling infrastructure, with bridges built nearly a century ago and failing to cope with the increased demands of more and more cars. Other nations recognize the role we play in warming the planet, making every Summer ‘the hottest on record’, year after year after year.

We expect ‘regimes’ to keep innocent people locked away, with no trial; tortured and sometimes killed. To use their armies to attack and murder women, children and babies in their own homes. To spy on their own citizens and deal harshly with anyone who opposes the official party line. With every drop of blood, the United States of America becomes that which we supposedly hate; that which we supposedly stand in contrast to; that which we thought we would never be. We are now.

Next week will mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I have spoken before about how we were a different people then. So much has happened to us since that clear, blue morning. We were shocked to find that some could hate us so much that they would do such a terrible thing. It was terrorism of the worst kind, brought home from distant shores half a world away and deposited on our own doorstep. Now we look around at the hate, the shrug of the shoulders to the constant wash of violence, the nonsense and lies spouted off by our leaders and wanna-be leaders, and it’s difficult to deny that we have become a cruel, deluded people, with perhaps our best days behind us. The journey from innocence to cynicism in breathtaking speed.

I still believe that one day, we will rise up and become the people we think we are capable of being. The statement by the captain in Star Trek could ring true as a motto for us all. It is true for some people now, around the world. But there is a long, long way to go in order for it to apply to the majority, never mind the whole of Humanity. I wish I could see it, but I know I won’t. More importantly, I wish I could see it start to happen. I hold onto the hope that it already has.

The Path to Enlightenment, Maybe

Posted on January 30th, 2014 in Religion | No Comments »

I was ruminating about how many people who believe in god have no qualms about totally dismissing evidence that would seem to contradict their position. I won’t rehash the well-known arguments that go on between believers and nonbelievers, but eventually it comes down to them saying “I don’t believe in your proof”. It’s a bit like dropping something very heavy on your foot, and telling yourself that you don’t believe in gravity.

When you attempt to have a discussion or debate about issues like these, any point you try to make is overruled by appealing to a supernatural deity as the prime mover, or first cause of whatever phenomena is being considered. I recently had such a discussion with two late middle-aged ladies who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and rang my doorbell. It turned into a twenty-minute mini debate in which neither side was able to move the other. They were adamant that god designed the world around us. I tried to explain that instead, natural forces did it all without any apparent help from a creator. My main point was the ‘god of the gaps’ argument – god is used to fill in knowledge that we do not have about any particular physical process. When we have a natural explanation, god is summarily dismissed from the scene. As our knowledge about the world grows, the domain over which god can pull levers behind the curtain diminishes. But they persisted, nonetheless:

Me: What causes the tides?

Them: God!

Me: The Moon!

Them: Ah, but who created the Moon?

It was clear that we were not going to find any common ground. Several weeks later, I was thinking about this discussion, and many others I’ve read or heard about that ran along similar lines. I was struck by the fact that no matter what kind of proof you can offer that does not require a god, it can be summarily dismissed by believers. Of course, if you’re going to have ‘faith’ in something without proof, it’s probably easy to ignore anything that appears contrary to what you want to believe in. Why be swayed by facts if you don’t want to be? Although I find that sort of deceptive and a bit of a cheat.

Turning it over in my mind, I realized that what’s really going on here is not so much refusing to believe in something that can be demonstrated to be true, but denying the idea that ‘chance’ or ‘random’ occurrences can even exist. Many people believe evolution means plants and animals turning into new species or adding new features in a willy-nilly fashion; Biogenesis is often described as inert chemicals thrown together to suddenly become bacteria (both scenarios being grossly oversimplified and described in misleading terms to make the argument more credible to anyone without a scientific background). To people who believe in a created Universe, everything that happens in it, from the radioactive decay of Beta particles, to the outcome of a game of roulette, is the direct and conscious result of god deciding what happens next, according to his divine plan. Complexity, according to them, must arise from a mind, not by ‘blind chance’.

This should sound familiar to most people; it’s Determinism, and the last gasp of Newton’s Clockwork Universe. If we knew the location and movement of every particle in the Universe, we would in theory be able to track where those particles are at a later point in time, in effect knowing the future (or by working backwards, the past). And god of course, would be more than able to do so.  This also has implications for the concept of Free Will, but we’ll leave that can of worms for another time. Let’s stick with why god has to be in charge of this, instead of an unconscious unguided natural Universe.

I think the kind of people who believe in this, and accept faith over evidence, are afraid. They are terrified of existing in a world where nobody is in charge, because then life may not have any true meaning. Atheism is often accused of advocating anarchy because it’s seen as removing any moral weight behind the concepts of social order, justice, even the concepts of good and evil themselves. A random Universe would be one in which hedonism and chaos would dominate. Life would not be sacred, and existence would be meaningless (the fact that many atheists live perfectly moral, meaningful lives is often not noted).  So it’s not really the evidence itself against the existence of god that’s rejected; it’s the idea that the world around us could arise unaided by a creator to direct things. Chance and randomness are concepts that must be avoided at all costs. Thus, it’s not the moon that ‘just happens’ to cause tides; it’s god creating the moon that causes tides. If your worldview is that everything is ultimately traceable back to god, then obviously the entire notion of happenstance occurrences must implicitly be ruled out.

But there’s a problem with this. We know now that ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ are built into our reality at the deepest levels. The Newtonian Universe has been overthrown by the amazing realization that there are aspects of existence that not even an omniscient god would be able to divine. I’m speaking of course of Quantum Mechanics, the most successful scientific theory every devised, and an aspect of it that contains a locked door not even you-know-who can get into: the Uncertainty Principle.

As we know, the Uncertainty Principle means that by selecting an aspect of an elementary particle to measure, we cannot know with precision anything about a related aspect of the same particle. You can measure the exact position, but by doing so, you are unable to determine the exact velocity. Or vice-versa; if you measure the velocity, you cannot know the precise position. The best you can do is to make a statistical guess about the most likely value you can’t measure. But there is no way to know for sure. In a very real and literal sense, the property you cannot measure does not exist (as opposed to having a real value that can’t be determined, which is not the same thing). So you cannot ascertain the precise location and speed of any particle; Newton’s mechanistic Universe cannot be realized. It is slightly chaotic, and eventually unpredictable, even by god.

Position vs. velocity is the most often-cited aspect pair, but also spin axises and other properties fall under the umbrella of uncertainty. This made me try to recall the famous debate against the UP, and then I remembered: the EPR Paradox. A paper published in 1935 by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen argued that particles may have ‘hidden variables’ that Quantum Mechanics failed to account for. This led to many years of intense debate and thought experiments until 1964, when John Stewart Bell came up with a statistical method of measuring whether or not entangled particles did have hidden variables. The details of the method Bell came up with may be too complex to explain within the context of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the original paradox involved a way of trying to ascertain the properties of a particle indirectly, without actually disturbing it. Bell found a way to determine if the properties were built into the particles or not. It was not physically possible to run the experiment until the early 70’s, but eventually, it (and subsequently more sophisticated and detailed experiments) proved that particles do not have hidden variables. The information is not ‘pre-programmed’ into the particle from the beginning. You can approximate the speed, location, spin axis, etc., but the precise attribute is for all intents and purposes not there until you measure it. And once you determine one variable, the corresponding one (location vs. velocity, for example) cannot be known with the same level of precision. Therefore it is impossible (not just unknowable) to ascertain precise details about some aspects of a particle. Uncertainty rules in our Universe, and god cannot know enough to make the Cosmos a giant clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the ladies who come to my door to give me a copy of the Watchtower don’t know any of that, and wouldn’t accept it anyway. They need the idea of a creator, if only to keep anarchy at bay; but the Uncertainty Principle and the EPR Paradox would strongly suggest that we inhabit a Universe where a god could not track the path of even a single elementary particle. And amazingly enough, things seems to be running just fine without anyone in charge. Order from chaos, and not nearly as much hedonism as one might think. Whether that’s a good thing or not I will leave to the reader.

Driving With The Prophet

Posted on May 20th, 2013 in Religion | No Comments »

Today I happened to find myself in a taxi driven by a happy-go-lucky Muslim man. He was enjoying the warm sunshine, and pontificating to me at great length about how as a Muslim, he believes we should all live in peace and happiness. When I pointed out that religion was a great divisive force in the world, he totally agreed. But also rejoined with the fact that (again) as a Muslim, he does not buy into dividing people, as the holy Koran tells us, etc. “We are all human; we all have one brain, one heart, two arms, two legs”, and so on (at least most of us share an equal number of various body parts. But I digress).

I was trying not to get myself drawn into an argument against someone with whom I really didn’t have a beef with. I had to consider beside the fact he’s driving me home, and now knows where I live, I’ll hopefully never see or talk to him again. He was a friendly sort of fellow, so why not live and let live? It’s not my job to have to deal with everyone’s belief systems. Anyway, I didn’t feel up to causing a fuss.

But later, I realized that I missed out on a good opportunity to point out that we don’t need god to be able to treat each other with peace and understanding. We should be able to throw away our bibles and korans and all the rest. Religion is a great divisive force; after all, my driver identified himself (repeatedly) as a ‘Muslim’. His appearance also suggested a link to his faith; I’m sure many of his cultural habits were also in line with Islamic thinking. Why do we need all that excess baggage  to treat each other with respect? I got a strong sense that he was unable to see himself as separate from his religious identity; what is he if he’s not a Muslim? And more importantly, can he contemplate living in peace and harmony with his fellow human beings without using the crutch of religion? Probably not. And therein lies the problem. We all separate ourselves in various ways: white/black, rich/poor, Democrat/Republican, Labour/Conservative, North/South and so on. Whether it’s clans, tribes, football teams, nations or religions, the fences go up. Some are inconsequential, some are trivial and some are serious. Serious enough for a few to die for, or to kill for.

And yes, I’m aware that I’m probably just as guilty of erecting my own fence, between believer and unbeliever. But I don’t feel it’s particularly fair to start preaching your faith to what’s essentially a captive audience. I’d like to think I could have met him halfway and had a nice chat about the weather or something; but when he started going on about “As a Muslim…”, then it becomes the elephant in the room which makes it that much harder to ignore when trying to reach across the divide. Maybe it’s just conceited and big-headed of me to think I could relate to him on an equal basis. And probably just the same to say that now we’ll never know.

In the process of rejecting religion as an outmoded system that should be abandoned to history, I don’t discriminate against any single set of beliefs. Without some real proof that a god exists (a holy book that more or less says, “Because I say so!” is not proof, sorry), then it’s just another impediment to any kind of equality between people. Conflicts about nothing are a waste of time and energy, not to say lives and property. My biggest regret about my journey today was that I was probably a bit too respectful when perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I find that when I have these sorts of encounters, I do learn a little more each time, and consequently enter into the next set of circumstances a bit better prepared. I wonder what my new friend would have said if we had been on a slightly longer journey, and I was a bit more emboldened to ask if his Muslim point of view regarding peace and understanding also extended to women.

I’ve seen many examples of Christians who also espouse this warm and fuzzy idea of “lets all just get along”, and find that they are the kind of people who don’t study their bibles very well. No doubt the same thing happens with Muslims; many parts of religion, especially the Abrahamic ones, are actually very much of a siege mentality. People with strong or rabid faith (including Ministers, Imams, etc.) don’t share this “peace & love” ideology at all. They are strongly opposed to mixing with people of differing faiths, demand that the young are indoctrinated and immersed into the holy ways as soon as possible, and for as long as possible, and generally aren’t too concerned about the fate of unbelievers. Any differing opinions (including scientific points of view that contradict holy writ) are to be suppressed, if not completely stamped out. I find my taxi driver’s remarks hard to reconcile with what I know about religious belief in general. Is he ignorant of the darker aspects of his own professed faith, or putting on a friendly face for the obvious infidel sitting next to him? Stupid or lying? Only he could say for sure.

Either way, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Next time I’ll take the bus.

Moving Closer To The Edge

Posted on October 20th, 2012 in Religion | No Comments »

For many years I have considered myself an agnostic. While I had little or no doubt that religion is a waste of time, I still carried around a nagging ‘possible’ belief in God. But I couldn’t anthropomorphize ‘him’ as an individual. I focused on the idea of ‘All That Is’ from the Seth books by Jane Roberts. Here, God is seen as a gestalt of everything that exists. Energy is God and Energy is Consciousness, no matter how inert something appeared to be. Even rocks had a rudimentary awareness since they possessed energy. As for an afterlife, I grew to embrace the idea that there is either nothing, or something far beyond what most people would conceive of. Here again, the Jane Roberts/Seth material seemed to offer the best potential.

But there were flaws in this  worldview that I was never comfortable with.  The concept of Atlantis for example, and how the natives would use sound waves to move large rocks around. There’s clearly no evidence for any of this, and while I found much to admire, details like this always made me squirm in my seat. But for a long while I was content to stick with it in lieu of anything better. Eventually however, I stumbled upon the British Humanist Association. It was a revelation to find an organization with like-minded individuals who had deep-seated reservations about God. I quickly joined the BHA as a member, and I’m proud to be associated with it. I have since taken part in many letter-writing campaigns, to add my voice to the calls for a more secular society.

Also, I have a child, and living in a country without a separation between church and state, I intensely disliked having my child coming home from school singing about how ‘God is great’.

These experiences led to me buying and reading Richard Dawkin’s bestselling book The God Delusion. I found this to be a polarizing experience, and while there are parts of the book that I think are somewhat obtuse, it began a process of ‘politicizing’ me in regards to religious belief. I turned to YouTube for videos of Dawkins engaging with believers. This led to my introduction to Christopher Hitchens, and his in-your-face method of slamming those who insist of pushing their faith on other people. Some who don’t like this call it new atheism. My feeling is that after all these years of having Christian values pushed on me (and others), it’s time we stood up and starting fighting back (in a peaceful method – religious warfare has an extremely bloody history, and I don’t intend on contributing to the carnage).

This in turn, led to the Austin, Texas cable show The Atheist Experience:

And the excellent series of videos from AronRa regarding the nonsense of creationism:

What these videos (and others) do is help show and explain the arguments regarding atheism and the claims used by those who espouse God as the creator of the Universe. It’s also a great comfort to know that other people think along similar lines to myself. On a recent trip back to my hometown (and country), I was dismayed to see the strident jingoism and holy fervor on evidence throughout the media, as well as made concrete (literally) by the number of churches lining the boulevards. It was all very depressing. The work of the Atheist Experience and AronRa helps balance the scales back towards reason and logic.

So where am I now? I’m still learning, still absorbing. I feel less inclined to stay silent, and more and more able to state my position if pressed. I am encouraged to stand up for my lack of belief. I don’t have any trouble stating that I am a Humanist. Am I able to say that I am an atheist? My viewpoint certainly is in line with atheism, but I’m still not quite ready to cross that Rubicon, at least in my mind, and declare myself one. At least not yet. I certainly do not believe in religion, and most emphatically not organized religion. I believe there is no convincing proof of God’s existence. Could God exist in a method that we have not been able to ascertain? Obviously I can’t answer that. It’s certainly a possibility, but I concede that the window on that possibility is getting smaller all the time.

I have moved closer to the edge of atheism, but am I caught in a Zeno-like paradox, never quite able to get all the way there? Maybe applying a label to myself isn’t that important. Rejecting a worldview is a big step, and one not to be taken lightly, for whatever reason. In my case it means having to admit that there really is no afterlife; my loved ones are gone forever, and one day I too will simply cease to exist. It’s tough to just give all that up, but if that’s the price for accepting reality over superstition, then it has to be. Perhaps I just need more time to dress myself up in the garb of an atheist, and eventually I’ll feel comfortable in those clothes. I know in my heart that I’m nearly there now. Maybe I’ve been closer than I would have admitted all along. Maybe resolving my paradox means going over that edge instead of just drawing nearer. It’s scary, but also liberating at the same time.

I’m almost an atheist. Almost.

God Is A Concept

Posted on February 22nd, 2011 in Religion | 2 Comments »

I suppose, in the words of Stephen Fry, it’s time I nailed my colours to the mast. I am a card-carrying member of the British Humanist Association (BHA), and I am at a point in my life where I have totally rejected religion. Probably no surprise to anyone (anyone?) who’s read through this online collection of musings. But I never came out and really said it before. Altho I have said that religion is one of the most dangerous evils we face today.

And by that, I mean that religion is a force that has always divided people, and been the cause of a great deal of suffering and death. The rising up of different sects, on through the Crusades, the Reformation, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 9/11, 7/7 and so on. We have killed the Jews, killed the Christians, killed the infidels, the non-believers, the unfaithful, etc., and so on, and so on. Children in many religious schools throughout the world today are taught to hate people who do not believe the same things they are taught; science and evolution are “wrong”, and outmoded religious texts are all they need.

At one time, religion was important; when human understanding of the world was insufficient to explain the workings of nature, religion offered a framework that people of those eras could fathom. Today we use fairy tales to explain concepts like sharing, manners, and basic scientific concepts. However, civilization has grown up in the past few thousand years, and we should no longer rely on fairy tales to explain to adults how the world works. Our technology is sophisticated enough to delve deeply into natural phenomena, and dispense with a god who hides behind supernatural magic and demands constant devotion.

Let’s briefly mention god here. I consider myself more agnostic than atheist. I feel that it comes down to one of two possibilities – either nothing, or something beyond what most people consider god. If nothing, then you die, and that’s it. Your consciousness is gone forever. Brutal, but possibly true. In which case the whole idea of religion is a useless waste of precious time.

If there is a god, then it is totally unlike the standard idea of god, i.e. an old man in the sky. A real god would be the total sum of all things in existence; galaxies to subatomic particles, including you and me. We would all be part of god, no more or less divine than any savior or prophet. Experiences after physical death would be more, much more than just going to Heaven or Valhalla or even Nirvana. The Bible, Koran or Bhagvhad-Gita could no more explain it than you could explain the Star Wars saga on a grain of rice.

So whichever way it is, religion is a remnant of our collective childhood that we cannot bear to dispense with. But now it no longer helps us deal with existence, it hinders our ability to comprehend the true nature of reality. The Universe is a fascinating place, and each of us truly precious and unique. Religion suffocates us, and blinds us to the real wonders of the Cosmos. We do not need the illusion of god to shield us from what’s out there, or divide us from each other in our lonely journey on this planet.

The ‘true believers’ always condemn such talk, and try to find fault with ‘proof’ of solid theories, like evolution. “Where’s the proof we evolved from apes?” is one popular cry. “How can you prove the Earth is as old as you say? is another. It becomes a pointless exercise, since people like this will not admit the proof when it stares them in the face. I was involved in a discussion like this once with a very religious co-worker. “What’s the proof?” he would ask.

“What about the fossils?”, I replied.

“What fossils?”

It’s very clear that we have a good overall record of how humans evolved. There may be quibbles over the details, but the proof is in the fossil record. For other animals, such as horses, the fossils are nearly complete and tell the story very well. But if you don’t believe in the proof when it’s shown to you, what will it take? My co-worker had no knowledge whatsoever about the details of the obvious evolution of Homo left behind in the rocks. If you don’t know how your supermarket shelves are restocked each night, you might as well believe elves do it.

And there’s certainly more proof for things like evolution than a garden of Eden. It strikes me as odd that people who are willing to believe superstition on faith will always demand ‘proof’ of any evidence to the contrary.

They will also try to point out that our moral codes, the rules that govern our societies, were fashioned by god and given to us so that we might lead ‘good’ lives. Anyone who rejects this is ‘bad’, ‘immoral’ or ‘anarchic’. This is of course, utter nonsense. Morality was devised by human beings, not a supreme being. I don’t need god to live a moral life. I’m not worried about divine retribution.

It may be asking too much that people who are raised not to think for themselves suddenly have a blinding flash of insight and reject the beliefs of their family and immediate society. But it does happen, nearly every day. Will religion ever really go away? I don’t know. At various points in the past, concepts like slavery, the oppression of women, the ridicule of homosexuals were all firmly entrenched. While they all still exist today, their standings are decidedly less sure, if not outright wobbly. It is my hope as a Humanist that one day the notion of religion is discarded as an outmoded archaic way of thinking. One that’s no longer relevant in the modern world. Standing up to religion, seeing it for the pack of lies it really is, and raising our children to be good members of society without all the mumbo-jumbo is of the utmost urgency.

Of Palestrina, Cathedrals, and God

Posted on September 26th, 2009 in Religion | No Comments »

Tonight I was listening to some masses by Palestrina, whom I was turned on to recently by a show on sacred music. Palestrina (d. 1594) was in service to the Pope for most of his career, singing in the Sistine Chapel choir, and writing great polyphonic choral music for church services.

Listening to music like this, the mind can’t help but wander back to the great cathedrals these pieces were meant to be heard in. I’ve been to quite a few fantastic cathedrals in my time – Westminster, St. Pauls (both in London), Salisbury, Lincoln, York Minster, Beverly Minster, and one of the greatest of them all, Canterbury, to name a few. I find them fascinating buildings, living reminders of a time and a people long gone to us now. How many generations of pilgrims have I followed in who have stood at the spot of the Martyrdom, or viewed the crooked tower of Lincoln? I gaze in awe at the English coronation throne, used by nearly every British king and queen since the 1300’s. Yes, covered in carved schoolboy graffiti now, but there sat Henry the Eighth; his daughter Elizabeth (at whose tomb I still genuflect); Edward IV, winner of the Wars of the Roses; Henry VI, who lost those wars (and his life); George III, the ‘tyrant’ of the American colonies, and so on. All of them sat in that nasty little chair.

The whole point of these giant churches, with their soaring naves and acres of stained glass, was to worship and glorify God. The music of Palestrina, its effortless grace and stirring complexity, was also created to celebrate a creator who returned to Earth in human form, and will supposedly return at the end of days.

But I venerate these lovely old piles and beautiful voices blended in harmony for a different reason. These are fantastic objects created by the mind and reason of man. The builders, authors, architects and musicians may be worshiping a deity, but I worship the ability of the human beings who left us these monuments in stone and song. The talent and creativity of those people reach across the centuries to us, and on into the future. How simply, utterly wonderful.

In some cathedrals you can take tours up into hidden parts, to see things that most tourists don’t get to see. Things like the walkway over the roof of the nave in Lincoln; it’s like walking over great piles of rubbish, except those are the arches towering 80ft. or more above the ground. The great chain Wren wound around the inner dome of St. Paul’s, to make sure it would be strong enough to resist the weight of the outer dome it has to bear forever. Towers with their endless tiny spiral staircases lined with rough-hewn rope banisters, or the narrow walkways, with openings cut into the columns, far up above the gentry below, threading through the church walls like stone blood vessels. I’d love to spend the night in Westminster, with a set of keys to all these little doors barring me from the exciting bits.

While the aim of the creators of these hulking emissaries from another time may have been to remind themselves (or us) of God, the message I hear from them loud and clear instead is, “Remember Us”. And so I think not of some supernatural being who may or may not exist at all, but of the flesh and blood stone masons, or woodcarvers, glassblowers, painters, composers, and all the rest.  I know they existed. Sir Christopher Wren, the designer and builder of St. Paul’s, is buried in a very nondescript little corner of the crypt of that great palace of religion. The Latin inscription over his tomb slab would suffice for all the builders of the great cathedrals:  “If you seek his monument, look around”.

The Everyday Miracle of Consciousness

Posted on March 26th, 2008 in Metaphysics, Religion | No Comments »

First, I know it’s been awhile since the last post. A lot has changed, hasn’t it? I still hope Hilary wins; A ‘President Obama’ would be another Jimmy Carter at best. But I digress…

I was watching a show the other night about memory, these leading neurospecialists all admitted that even now, nobody is quite sure how memories are formed or stored in the brain. We know that memories (as well as all mental processes) are carried between neurons as electrochemical exchanges from cell to cell. But how does that translate into remembering an event I experienced thirty or forty years ago? What happens in my brain that makes me relive a time long ago in the past? It is nothing short of a miracle.

As regular readers of this blog (if any!) will no doubt be aware, I’m no fan of organized religion; it’s a sheer drain on the species that we’ve long ago outgrown. However, this does not mean I’m an anti-spiritual person. I don’t think I am. I just object to the layers of dogma and nit-picking that have wound up as seemingly essential baggage on the train of every religious belief. But, I feel neuroscientists are trying to work from a ‘bottom-up’ position. What if instead, consciousness worked as a top-down experience?

Some people might be tempted to call this a ‘soul’, but that word has connections that I’d just as soon reject out of hand. I’ll stick (for now), with a top-down approach. The funny thing about consciousness is that we take it for granted to such a degree, we often fail to appreciate how amazing a thing it is, stuck there in our skulls as we walk around. No other species on the planet has anything like the cognitive skills we use every day without (if you’ll pardon the pun) a moment’s thought. And why have we developed these skills? We seem wildly overdeveloped for survival on the grasslands of Africa. Billions of us exist with scant notice of the fact that we do exist; and when we think about it at all, it strikes many as perfectly obvious that we should exist. But should we? Why? And why as such intelligent creatures that we are capable of progressing beyond our own basic physical needs? We can contemplate the distant past, the far-flung future, the subtle nuances of complex emotional interactions, to say nothing of music or art or even symbolism, language, writing, math and a host of other cerebral gymnastics that leaves our ape cousins and even the dolphins far behind.

Consciousness, our consciousness, is not so ordinary that it should escape our notice. Instead it’s the rarest, most precious commodity in the known universe. We are self-aware, and yet with all our ability, we still can’t even describe our own knowing. It does not seem possible that the jelly between our ears can reproduce the moment of our first kiss, or the loss of a loved one, or eating a really good sandwich. But it does, and all the time. I have to believe that somehow we are generating the chemicals and electrical impulses, but they are the footprints, not the foot, of our thought. It’s as if we study the hammers of a piano and wonder how they can organize themselves into the music of Bach. The point is well and truly missed.

Happily, I can contemplate this without the need for Jesus, the Prophet, Buddha or any other divine messenger. What if we die and discover that we have been our own gods all along? I know, there’s no proof, but nobody can explain how my brain can let me retrace a long-ago summer’s day, when the world seemed perfect and eternal. My own personal miracle.

God Help Us?

Posted on October 2nd, 2007 in Religion | No Comments »

I’m starting to come around to the idea that religion is more of a curse than a blessing, if you’ll pardon the pun. The whole point of religion in the first place was to answer some basic questions of humanity, with “Will I survive death?” being the biggest one. Things like moral codes (“How should I live my life?”) grew out of preparation for an after-death experience. Along the way, dislike of people who had different beliefs made a mockery out of religion in general.

As an aside, it should be noted that unlike advances in systems of thought concerning nearly every other sphere of our lives, religion is virtually the only one still untouched for hundreds (or in some cases, thousands) of years. We no longer believe the sun revolves around the earth, or in the four humours of the body, or even Newtonian classical physics; why do we insist on carrying the same ideas about an afterlife that ignorant peasants had a millennia ago?

Anyway, it strikes me that more people today are afraid of other religions than are comforted by their own. Catholics are afraid of Islamic fundamentalists, Christian Orthodox are afraid of Catholics, Islamic fundamentalists are afraid of Jews, Jews are afraid of Muslims, and so on. The 21st century is supposed to be the opening of wisdom and equality for all people; instead it’s an ongoing series of pre-emptive strikes against other faiths. The Buddhists perhaps, are the only ones who don’t give a shit. They must be ripe for taking over.

It’s hard to keep any faith in the goodness of man when teenage boys are blowing themselves up on crowded buses with women and children. Sometimes I wish religion was true; it would be hard not to smirk with self-righteous glee to see Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Krishna and a few others show up one day and turn white with mortification at what’s been done in their collective names.

And let’s get back to the central question – Has religion offered up any hope for life eternal? After all this time, do we have any more proof than before? Of course not. The faithful would say that proof is not required. Of course when dismissing other belief systems, they scream for “proof” the competition is better, wiser, greater, etc., then sneer with triumph when none is produced. My personal opinion is that there is either nothing after you die, and it’s all been a sham perpetuated out of fear for centuries, or there’s something much more wonderful and sacred than the tiny little sand castle scenarios each religion offers up. Either way, it’s not something to be slaughtering the innocent over. If you believe otherwise, then you’re stupider than I’m giving you credit for.

A Few Complaints…

Posted on May 22nd, 2007 in Religion | No Comments »

A dangerous religious fanatic who tried to force America to bend to his will has passed away, in the training center he set up to indoctrinate young recruits to follow his beliefs. Yes, Jerry Falwell, self-appointed voice of the “Moral Majority” has died at his Liberty University at age 73. While I’m not the type to shout “Hooray” when someone shuffles off this mortal coil, I have to admit a certain relief that this loonie won’t be around anymore to inflame situations with his inane ranting. Remember, this is the same Dr. Falwell who blamed 9/11 on Gays, Liberals and other loose-living people. In my opinion, Jer and Osama are two sides of the same coin. One kills and murders in the name of his god, while the other, I suspect would have liked to. Good riddance, I say. Fundamentalism, no matter what religion, is the cancer of the 21st century. It’s very sad we’re saddled with this medieval nonsense after all this time.

I was watching a financial news show on tv the other day, when the presenter said “controversy”. No big deal, you think; but it’s how he pronounced it: ‘con-trovisy’. Say what? It’s ‘con-tro-versey’. How did you read it just now? I hear a lot of this going on lately. News readers just toss off new ways of saying words we’ve all used without trouble for years. When did alternative pronunciations become acceptable? I don’t recall voting for any of it. I’ll have to start compiling a list as I hear them and post them here so you don’t think I’m making any of this up.

Going back to the first paragraph in a way, I had a visit today from two older gentlemen dressed in nice black suits. I was friendly enough until I spotted the leaflet they were trying to press upon me, with the cow-eyed Jesus and the words “Christ the Redeemer”. I said no thank you and shut the door in their faces. I don’t have any time for niceties when it comes to this sort of baloney. It’s my house, and they come to my door unannounced and uninvited to push this stuff in my face? I don’t think so. What do they really expect to happen? Could it be that I’ve never heard of Jesus Christ, and I fall upon my knees in gratitude for being enlightened as to him and his message? Odds are I’m aware of who he is, and am free to choose if I’m interested. If I am, I don’t need them coming to my house waving their leaflets. It’s a case of literally ‘preaching to the choir’. If I’m not interested, I’ll slam the door in their faces. Maybe they were nice grandfatherly fellas, but religion is like cockroaches: you have to use excessive force to eradicate the pests or they’ll take you over. I think going door to door is just a waste of time. You don’t see Rabbis or Mullahs wandering through neighborhoods, ringing bells and shoving pamphlets through mailslots. Makes you wonder how they can keep recruiting if they don’t work the wards.