Richard Dawkins seems like he’s probably a nice guy in person. You can tell quite a bit about somebody from their writing, and even when Dawkins is being abrasive in script, you can almost see a gleam in his eye. When I read The God Delusion, for example, I found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit. Not that I agree with everything he wrote; as an academic I can’t, in principle, agree with everything anyone writes. Nevertheless, Dawkins expresses himself with passion and clarity, if with a bit over overstatement. I was interested to read the interview with him in the 10 Questions section of this week’s Time magazine. When one is building a case, it is easy to pile on rhetoric, and pretty soon the force of an argument takes on its own life and sometimes a few casualties are left bleeding in the wake. Still, it is a good exercise to sharpen the mind.
Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell
The last of Time’s 10 questions deals with how Dawkins can be certain there is no God. Dawkins, in a conciliatory move, declares that there is much of which we can never be certain. Noting that future science will discover realities that we simply don’t foresee, he suggests, “it’s extremely unlikely that it would happen to home in on an idea from a Bronze Age tribe in the desert.” I found this final sentiment a touch off-kilter. We have plenty of scientific developments that have come out of the “Bronze Age tribes,” but God is not one of them. “Desert tribes” gave us metal smelting, bovine and caprid domestication, and, perhaps most importantly of all, writing. God, however, comes from a much earlier evolutionary strata. In fact, by the time that the Sumerians appeared, multiple gods were already in their train.
In fact, evolutionary scientists seem to indicate that our brains have contrived some need for God/gods. That God isn’t a semitic desert mirage, however, is attested by people all over the world developing the idea independently. Not only did the Israelites and their forebears have deities, so did the Vedic cultures that we now call Hinduism. So did the Native Americans, indigenous African religions, and those who developed in isolation on Australia. Gods evolved everywhere. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that this means that we have some need of them. I like what Richard Dawkins writes. I enjoy his candor and passion. We do, however, have to credit the desert tribes with much of the thinking that leads to science, but the gods, they are far more ancient than that.
Posted in Current Events, Deities, Evolution, Mesopotamia, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Bronze Age, Hinduism, Richard Dawkins, Sumer, The God Delusion, Time
A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.
An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.
I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged common sense, death, Evolution, Gilligan's Island, Jeffry Kluger, reductionism, The Mystery of Animal Grief, Time
Even before the Chelyabinsk meteor, Time magazine had committed to the printers with a story on asteroid 2012 DA14. From our terribly parochial viewpoint, such cosmic invaders are in our airspace (or at least in our satellite zone), as if we owned the very heavens above us. They are somehow an affront to our religious sensibilities. Many religions revolve around a celestial orientation. We all know that God is “up there” and the Devil is “down there.” What we’re discovering “up there,” however, is scarier than the Devil for many people. Space rocks are just part of the debris from the messy business of universe creating. Although space may be mostly empty (but dark matter has us reevaluating even that), it is far from tidy. Rocks rain down on us every day, and our user-friendly atmosphere that we’ve polluted so badly still begrudgingly incinerates those that enter at the wrong angle, brightening many a night with spectacular meteors. I’ve even seen some bright ones while driving in traffic in New Jersey. Wondrous indeed.
Back in seventh grade I did a science report on comets. This was a fascination that led me to take astronomy in my Sputnik-era high school—complete with planetarium—and in my older, more conservative college—sans planetarium. Comets were, until fairly recent times, religious harbingers. The Time story even has a detail of Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi from the early fourteenth century, complete with Halley’s Comet hovering overhead as the ersatz Star of Bethlehem. In a pre-Copernican universe signs in the sky had to be divine. There was no other logical way to explain them. Of course, in science class I stuck to the facts. As a religious kid, however, I knew there was something more to it.
Our skies are not our own. The universe isn’t here for us. These scientific revelations are frightening on a religious scale. We haven’t quite gotten to the point where we’re ready to let go of the Heaven above that no telescope can see. We don’t even have any way to spot hunks of rock the size of Chelyabinsk’s unbidden visitor with any kind of accuracy. We don’t even know how many there are. Before the second Russian explosion, Time prophetically noted that about a million stones of a hundred feet or more are near our planet and that one 150-footer could be 180 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Our recent brush with God’s dropped stone was only about 30 times the size of the terrors unleashed on Japan. According to ABC a Father Dimitri of Chelyabinsk said, “This event happened the day of the big Orthodox holiday that means meeting with God and this has to make people think.” I know I’m thinking. I sure hope his aim is good.
Posted in Astronomy, Current Events, Natural Disasters, Posts, Science
Tagged Adoration of the Magi, Asteroid 2012 DA14, Chelyabinsk meteor, comets, Giotto, Halley's Comet, Heaven, Hiroshima, Time
It must be October when a dinosaur with a parrot’s head, porcupine quills, and fangs is announced. Yesterday’s issue of Time online featured a drawing of the creature and a nifty animation of reconstructing the aptly named Heterodontosaurus. Well, that’s actually the genus name. The species goes by the delightful name Pegomastax africanus. Last I checked, however, space on the ark was filling up. Dinosaurs create a unique embarrassment to Creationists. One suspects that if they didn’t have kids they’d dismiss dinosaurs all together, but the troublesome fossils just won’t go away. What’s more, although they’ve been extinct for 65 million years, they keep producing new species for us to recover, describe, and name. When I was growing up (and I have it on good authority that the argument is still used) Creationists told us that no transitional forms had ever been found. Therefore evolution simply could not have occurred. This was generally followed up by a reference to Genesis. Excuse me, a fanged porcupine-parrot? If that doesn’t count as a transition, what does?
Religion loses nothing by admitting to an ancient earth. Nothing but literalness. One of the joys of reading is the exploration of metaphors, similes, and hyperboles—writing delights us with its constant surprises. Even those who claim to read a text literally are engaging in a form of interpretation even earlier than the first wedge mark pushed into clay. Written texts give us something to ponder, to think about, and occasionally, to obey. Just when it looks like the cover has slammed shut on the black book we find a new set of dinosaur tracks running across our clay tablet. The literal-minded might not see these as being a message from God, but surely the endless variety of creatures that have walked this planet more than make up for it.
We used to have a pet parrot. His name was Archie, named after Archaeopteryx, the feathered dinosaur. Although Archie was cut off by disease in the prime of life, he was a curious bird and when I reached into his cage to try to get him on my finger he would dole out what he meant as a painful bite. I always took it as a sign of affection. Had our little friend had the fangs of Pegomastax africanus, I would’ve thought long and hard before risking the finger-perching trick. I like to think it would have reaffirmed my fascination with the amazing adaptability of nature. Evolution, unlike God, has no purpose. An endless tinkerer, it gives us thousands of differing dinosaurs that had been gone many, many millennia before Moses ever even thought of Noah. Pegomastax is safely extinct now, and the only ones who have to worry about this perfect Halloween dinosaur are those who think that one particular view of one particular book is the only way to find truth.
We still miss you, Archie.
Posted in Animals, Bibliolatry, Creationism, Current Events, Evolution, Genesis, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Archaeopteryx, Archie, Creationists, dinosaurs, Evolution, Genesis, Heterodontosaurus, literalism, Pegomastax africanus, Time
Thumbing through last week’s Time, I found a Bible. Actually, stories of religious interest appear frequently in Time, but this was one of those small blurbs of human interest. It appears that Elvis Presley’s Bible just sold for $94,600 in the UK. Of course, Elvis was known for his gospel recordings as well as his formative role in rock-n-roll. A boy from the south in those days would have known his Bible. What struck me as worthy of comment is the reason the artifact was priced so high—not because it is a religious book, or the putatively divine content, but because of who once owned it. The Bible is a common enough item—billions have been printed—and in our world of value based on rarity, it is hardly a specialty item. In fact, they are often given away.
We have all felt the draw of fame now and again. We wonder what the lives of the rich and famous are like. Sotheby’s and Christie’s thrive on people wanting to possess articles from their deceased heroes. Studies have been conducted to demonstrate just how much laundering devalues clothes worn by both the famous (bad) and infamous (good). In the case of a Bible, perhaps one is put in touch with the spiritual residue of the owner. According to Time, Presley scribbled many notes in his Bible. Perhaps there is some eternal message there? A message untainted by years of study. A message from Graceland.
The King (of kings?)
Elvis Presley was not acclaimed for his great intellect. He had a singing voice and swinging hips that changed an entire culture, but his was not the world of the library and study. Naturally it is the more flamboyant that capture the imagination of the largest numbers. I can imagine the (a) Bible of Rudolf Bultmann, Charles Briggs, or William F. Albright on the auction block. There would be a flurry among some scholars, for sure, perhaps to pool their money enough to make a bid some order of magnitude less than Presley’s sequined presence of the auction table demands. Probably it would not even be worth the effort of the auctioneer. After all, no matter what doggerel he might have scribbled in the margins, the King always outranks the mere pawns.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Popular Culture, Posts, Rock-n-Roll
Tagged Charles Briggs, Christie's, Elvis Presley, rock and roll, Rudolf Bultmann, Sotheby's, Time, William F. Albright
Many times I’ve confessed to being a reluctant Luddite. My reluctance arises from a deep ambivalence about technology—not that I don’t like it, but rather that I’m afraid of its all-encompassing nature. This week’s Time magazine ran a story on how smartphones are changing the world. My job, meeting the goals set for me, would be impossible without the instant communication offered by the Internet. Everything is so much faster. Except my processing speed. We all know the joke (which would be funny if it weren’t so true) that if you’re having trouble with technology, ask a child. In my travels I see kids barely old enough to walk toddling around with iPhones, clumsily bumping into things (i.e., human beings) as they stare at the electronic world in the palm of their tiny hands. And once the technocrats have taken over, “progress” is non-negotiable.
I made it through my Master’s degree without ever seriously using a computer. Even now I think of this very expensive lap-warmer before me as a glorified word processor. Over the weekend I succumbed to the constant lure of Mac’s new OS, Mountain Lion. Some features of this blog had stopped working, and, being a Luddite, I assumed that it was outdated software. Of course, to update software, you need an operating system that can handle it. So here I am riding on a mountain lion’s back, forgetting to duck as the beast leaps dramatically into its lair. In this dark cave, nursing my aching head, I realize that I have become a slave to technology. For a student of religion who grew up without computers, I’ve got at least half-a-dozen obsolete ones in my apartment, each with bits and fragments I’m afraid to lose, despite the fact that I’m not even sure where to take them to retrieve the data. When I sat down to write my post this morning I received a message that Microsoft Word is no longer supported by Mountain Lion. Fortunately my daughter had the foresight to purchase Pages, so life goes on.
This blog has an index. It is an archaism. Indexes are not necessary with complete searchability. It is there mostly for me. In my feeble attempts at cleverness, I sometimes forget what a post is about, based on its title. The index helps me. In a truly Stephen King moment, I found this morning that my index had infinitely replicated a link to my post on the movie Carrie, so that any link after that will lead you directly to the protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel. It will take a few days to clean that up. There’s probably an app for it. For those of us brought up before household computers were a reality, however, there is a more religious explanation. Yes, my laptop is clearly haunted. And in the spirit of Stephen King I type these words while awaiting the top to snap down with the force of an alligator byte and break off my fingers. I should be worried about it, but instead, I’m sure there’s an app to take the place of missing digits. Even if there isn’t I’m sure my iPhone will happily survive without the constant interference of a Luddite just trying to call home.
Not a lap-pet.
Posted in Animals, Cats, Just for Fun, Movies, Posts, Science
Tagged Carrie, iPhone, Mountain Lion, Stephen King, technology, Time