Saturday, October 08, 2005

In Me Believe (2)

If religious emotions can be elicited by natural reality--and I believe that they can--then the story of Nature has the potential to serve as the cosmos for the global ethos that we need to articulate
Ursula Goodenough, biologist

Carlos Castaneda, a New Age superstar in the 1970's, had revelations while sitting with his mentor Don Juan in the Mexico desert, consuming peyote cactus and other hallucinogenic drugs. Castaneda would talk to the animals and sometimes become a crow--literally. Carlos received a doctorate in anthropology from UCLA in 1972.

Kathryn Lindskoog in her 1993 book Fakes, Frauds, and Other Marlarky said, "The next time you come close to a crow, try calling out 'Hello Carlos!' If you are high enough on peyote, you might hear the bird answer."

Rational thought, critical thinking--and science--have always held on by the slimmest of threads throughout human history. It's nothing new. Thinking, and certainly science, is hard work. Science believes knowledge of the external world can only be determined from objective investigation and, most importantly, is accessible to everyone.

Compared with critical thinking, the prophetic voice and "divine" inspiration is positively enchanting, and easy. Above all, it promises personal salvation or eternal bliss. Science only points out what is: It's ice cream versus spinach.

Some of our religious tales would sound like a lunatic's rant if uttered by a lone person at, for example, my fictitious encounter in the Little Rock airport in the previous article. But collectively we are quite willing to suspend disbelief, no matter how absurd the story might be. One of the silliest yarns, right up there with Jack and the Beanstalk, is the "communion host" during a Catholic mass magically turning into the living body of Jesus Christ.

A collection of old men in the thirteenth century formally established this cock-and-bull belief. At this same meeting these wise Christian clerics agreed on the "rules" of torture and further prohibitions against the evil Jews. While Islam at the present time has a tenuous hold on first place for sheer benightedness, many Christians, especially in the United States, are confident they can once again achieve the top spot they held for so long.

What remains to be said about Islam at this point? One apologia after another appears almost weekly informing us "this doesn't represent Islam." But it really does though; time to stop pretending otherwise. The description of the Islamic paradise conjures up an upper class Victorian brothel, where the rich and wellborn would vanish for a night of "otherworldly" pleasure. But in an Islamic society, where sex is so firmly repressed, all those virgins waiting beside the unpolluted brook in the afterlife sound deliciously compelling.

For a couple of weeks on the nightly news I watched Israeli settlers in the Gaza strip being dragged off by clearly uncomfortable Israeli soldiers. The settlers were being forcibly removed from these illegal communities. Many glass-eyed and enraged settlers screamed into the television cameras that "God" had given them this land. I assume God is the Bronze Age sociopath called Yahweh. The same god that killed Moses' two nephews with lightning bolts. This was also the weapon of choice for Zeus. Apparently some humans didn't mix the incense correctly. All in all I prefer the Greek god; he simply had far more panache.

More than ever, I believe, our traditional religions have outlived their usefulness and have become positively dangerous to our well-being. If we can only get through another century--a big if--we might have a chance. But for the first time in human history we have begun to learn how the human mind functions, how it thinks, and how it creates stories, myths, and religions. We're starting to understand just how our brains are designed to find and hold onto the most "rewarding" view of things.

What we need to do in the meantime is not bemoan the existence of the assorted temple priests or complain about the "gullibility" of their followers, but start articulating alternatives that are equally compelling and that provide the same spiritual ( or mystical, or sacred, or divine, or new consciousness ) comfort. The first step is considering something else. After that we may be able to grasp that we are not separate and apart from all the rest of life.

Ultimately, all religions have to resort to a "magical entity." Even the Dalai Lama, the epitome of the enlightened religious leader, reverts back to gobbledygook when there is no scientific explanation. He explains it in terms of the Buddhist karma. It just is. But this is really no different from the views of the Intelligent Design crowd. Of course--as always--what happens when science comes up with a description that explains what was previously thought to be the work of some god? Religion tweaks the story: Maybe Santa doesn't exist, but your grandfather's ghost really does live in the attic.

Leonardo da Vinci is arguably one of the most extraordinary men in human history. While widely known for his famous painting the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci was also a proficient engineer and technical illustrator. His anatomical drawings, because of their accuracy, are still used today.

But what is of particular interest, I believe, and pointed out in a recent television program, was his astounding powers of observation and critical thinking. He discovered the closing mechanism of the aortic heart valve some 500 years before we in the modern world knew virtually anything about the heart mechanism.

In a recent experiment engineers in England built a "plane" based on a Da Vinci design, using only material that were available in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Not only did this machine fly, but it also stayed in the air longer than the Wright Brothers' original flight in the twentieth century.

Leonardo throughout his life was obsessed by flight. His minute studies of birds and bats as well as the currents of water that fish swam in gave him the theoretical knowledge for his numerous designs and ideas.

The point of this is not that we can all become just like Leonardo da Vinci, but we all have the power to observe and to think and, most importantly, conceive of something else. We need no gods to explain our existence. That we know we exist is miracle enough.

Two books worth reading for anyone interested in some alternatives to the "old" world are How We Believe by Michael Shermer and The End of Faith by Sam Harris.

Graffiti discovered on a wall in Rome dating back to the second century depicts a man with the head of a donkey stretched upon a cross. Standing below and to the side is a stick figure of a man and underneath a caption reads, Alexamenos worships God. Little did the street artist know that in slightly more than 200 years Romans would be subject to punishment for not worshipping God. Time to imagine something else, minus the punishment.

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