Faith Demystified – Our Place in the Universe

Demystifying Faith – Our Place in the Universe

We are born of the cosmos, and this is not some religious illusion. The iron in our blood and the calcium in our teeth were created in ancient stars that exploded as supernovae, spreading their chemical wealth across the galaxy. We are stardust, and to stardust we will return.

The philosophy of Aristotle, was born in the 4th BCE shaped our understanding of the cosmos for about 2,000 years, even though his cosmology was dead wrong. Aristotle taught that the world was and disorderly and corruptible, while the heavens were eternal and unchanging perfection. Human life as a product of earthly imperfection was then also imperfect and unworthy of the divine. I wish I could have had five minutes with Aristotle to point out to him, “Just look at the Moon and you will see scars!” Even the sun has scars. The heavens are not changeless and static. Rather, they are in a state of constant change that is simply too slow for human mortals to notice.

Aristotelian logic infected Christianity causing all sorts of problems. It created the sense of duality between the pure, spiritual world and the corrupt, physical world. Human sex is dirty, messy, and filled with raw emotions. If you want to birth a god you need to do it through virgin birth, wherein a maiden is impregnated through the ear by the Word of God. And of course, such a god born of woman would need to eschew sex in order to remain uncontaminated.

There is a vast chasm between out folklore about Jesus and his actual life. He may have been married to Mary Magdalene. The anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary in John chapter 12 is clearly a sensuous massage. If Jesus was a much of a prude as we envision him he would have rebuked Mary for offer. It is not beyond the realm of possibility once we discard the Aristotelian cosmology introduced to Christianity largely through the Apostle Paul.

The Hebrews had no such qualms about sex. The Promise Land was often described as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” which is to say breast milk and vaginal fluid.

We are not inferior to the Universe; we are the Universe. It has been said that the astrophysicist if the Universe contemplating itself. We participate in all of its majesty. We are born of stardust, carry the genes of trilobites, drink recycled dinosaur piss, and fuel our cities with dead plants and animals fermented deep underground for millions of years. We are a part of everything that we see, everything that we touch, and everything that we eat and drink.

When we die our flesh returns to the ground to fertilize new emerging life. In about five billion years our Earth will be gone, swallowed by the Sun as it evolves into a red giant. The atoms of our body, forged in stars and supernova explosions, will return to the stars. This is not a matter of religious illusion, but of scientific fact.

It is not just life that evolves. Planets must also evolve to support life. Earth began as a fiery hell in the Hadean period. As the Earth slowly cooled and stabilized, primitive life forms emerged, such as blue-green algae. Early life emerged in an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen. These early life forms released oxygen into the atmosphere. About 400 million years ago there was enough oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to sustain life as we know it. We humans are the product not only of the evolution of life, but of a 4.5 billion year old long process to evolve the Earth to sustain life.

Everyone on Earth is more closely related than we can imagine. The Toba extinction event of 75,000 years ago was spawned by a mega-volcano in what is now Indonesia. There were very few humans to survive this bottleneck in our evolution, perhaps no more than 2,000. The result is that all modern humans are descended from the handful of survivors from this event. In our genetic difference, which are mostly cosmetic, we all have a common ancestor from the not-to-distant past. The fact is that we are all cousins. We all belong together.

As Max Ehrmann described in the Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Faith Demystified – How Prayer Works

Demystifying Faith – How Prayer Works

“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
Mother Teresa

The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to manage our internal orientation and focus. Prayer changes things from the inside out. Prayer and meditation can create profound changes in our mental state, level of awareness, focus, and self-control.

Peter Kramer in 1977 wrote a seminal work entitled Listening to Prozac. The theme of the book could be described as the remaking of the self.

Shortly before this book came out I had my own transformative experience linked to the use of Prozac. I had been in therapy for several years trying to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse. The talk therapy was not working because I could not go deep enough to get at the root causes. Prozac for therapy was like Novocain in the dentist chair. The Prozac allowed me to work through the pain and to complete the therapy.

Under Prozac I had a profound and surprising sense of self. There was a “self” there that was different from the painful things I had experienced. Under Prozac my “self” awakened. I could separate my “self” from what had happened to me, and from what I had done in reaction. I found myself saying, “I did that, but that is not who I am,” or “That was done to me, but that is not who I am.”

Peter Kramer went on to explore our mental states. He wrote that everything that we are, our emotions, our mental state, even our personality and character, are all products of our brain chemistry. This sounds like the ultimate reductionism, but it resonated with the experiences that I had undergone.

Kramer writes that controlling our brain chemistry controls everything about us and our inner lives. It controls our actions, our feelings, and even our personalities. He goes on to say that there are two and only two ways to regulate our brain chemistry. We can do that through chemical intervention or through our own mental hygiene.

The effect of chemical intervention is obvious. There are many forms of psychoactive medicines such as Prozac or Valium. There are mood altering substances such as pot, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. There are also many forms of illegal drugs can cause extreme psychological trauma as well as physical damage to our bodies and our brains. There are diseases such as syphilis or streptococcus infections that can radically alter personality and behavior.

The notion of mental hygiene is a little less obvious. The main premise here is that wherever our thoughts dwell, that is who we will become.

It is easy to give our minds over to various addictions. For example, a man might become engrossed in pornography. He gets drawn to casual sexual hookups. He hangs out in strip clubs or other sex industry sites. He develops a constant craving for more exciting and dangerous experiences. He starts groping women or even involving children in his perverted fantasies. His needs are insatiable. His addiction usurps all of his money, time, and attention. He loses his job, his home, his family, but still he cannot stop. The changes to this man’s brain chemistry are as real as if he were abusing drugs. This is why addictions are so hard to break. Every time he breaks through another boundary there is an addictive rush. He lives to experience those highs and will sacrifice his whole life in the process.

Real, authentic prayer takes us in the opposite direction. Instead of unmanageable cravings we find inner peace. Prayer is reaching for the transcendent. Prayer is touching something greater than ourselves. Prayer lifts us out of the muck of our daily existence and fills us with something much greater than ourselves. In prayer we connect with the divine transcendence and through that we connect with all people in love.  Prayer connects us with the infinite power of love. This love transforms our inner reality and alters our very brain chemistry.

Real, authentic prayer is available to all regardless of his or her religious affiliation, or lack thereof. There are universal factors shared by all human beings in our DNA. There is a brain chemical called DMT or “the spirit molecule.” Preliminary research has shown that many people, regardless of their spirituality, or total lack thereof, experience what can only be described as a transformative divine encounter when tested with DMT. The research is still in the development stage and I believe it unwise to draw any conclusions about what is happening. But this research does offer some interesting preliminary insights into the human brain and its faith encounters.

It would be hoped that anyone on a spiritual journey would connect with others on the same journey. In this way experiences could be shared, help and support freely given, and a sense of a common direction might emerge. A group united by prayer can then pool their energy and resources to accomplish more than any one person could.

Pope Francis recently made a stunning statement about prayer. “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Prayer does not end with ourselves. It begins with a transformation of brain chemistry but it does not end there. Prayer connects us with an infinite reservoir of love. It gives us power that is beyond anything that we can understand. When working together with other prayerful people we can multiply our powers and achieve the truly miraculous.

Faith Demystified – What Prayer is Not


What Prayer is Not

Prayer is a very powerful tool, but few Christians understand much about it. Churches have not wanted to be honest about prayer. Rather, churches have spent their energy polishing the prayer illusion, often for financial gain. Most churches would no more give up the illusion of prayer than a casino would get out of gaming, or coffee shops stop selling coffee. The prayer illusion keeps churches in business, much to the loss of their members.

Before I can describe what prayer is I must first clear the decks and tell you what it is not. Prayer is not a way to persuade God to give you a better outcome. God is not your fairy godmother, not a genie in a bottle, not the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. Praying for your Aunt Agnes’s gall stones will not heal her. This is not what prayer is about. It is not how God works. I am sure that many people out there will want to dispute this point. They will cite anecdotal “evidence” that God did indeed heal their Aunt Agnes. Many Christians prefer a comforting illusion over hard reality.

People are easily duped because they really want to believe. It is like when you see an advertisement for a new weight loss formula that guarantees you will lose 40 pounds in your first month. And you think, you have been fat your whole life and someone has finally come up with a solution!  It comes with a money back guarantee so what can you lose except for your excess poundage.

But such a naïve and childlike understanding of prayer can also cause much grief and hardship. How do you explain it when prayer fails to get your intended results? In the same way, please do not say that God allowed your loved one to die. God had nothing to do with it. That is not how God works and it is not how prayer works.

There is a story about a man who attended many faith healing services. He noted that he had seen many crutches cast aside, but somehow no one ever cast off an artificial leg. The healer will tell you that if the miracle you are seeking has not happened yet it is because you have too little faith, or have not paid enough into the collection plate. The evangelist will happily give you these reasons as he strives to keep the frenzy going in order to line his own pockets and to advertise his great spiritual “power”.

Only a fool prays for rain when the wind is in the east. (Please adjust as necessary for your own climatological situation.)

This is the reality. Everyone dies. Everyone gets sick. Everyone faces endless tragedies and uncertainties throughout their lives. They lose their loved ones; they lose their jobs, they lose their money; they lose their health. Prayer will not change this, although it may make it easier for the person praying to cope with adversity. Aunt Agnes will not be healed through prayer, and therefore I would never pray for her healing. I do not believe in practicing deception or in polishing the illusion of the genie in the bottle that will come forth to grant three wishes. If you believe in that sort of God all I can say is, “Grow up!”

I will pray with and for Agnes and her family, but not to heal or to preserve her life. I will pray that the family is embraced by God’s love and feel God’s presence in their time of sorrow. Some might tell me that even that is an illusion. But it is a far different order than trying to command the fawning service of God.

There has been a long standing practice in church circles that it was possible to pray someone into heaven. If your uncle of dubious character passed away, one way to insure his place in eternity would be to endow a priest to say mass for your uncle every day. In this way, the priest received a stipend and your uncle just might spend less time in purgatory.

In the world of mega churches and televangelism, prayers can be bought. Some of these charlatans will encourage you to call their prayer line to pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones. When you call they might even say that they will pray for a particular fee. The less transparent “ministries” will simply use your prayer request as an invitation to include you in their fundraising campaigns.

There was a story of an elderly couple who attended a mega church run by a well-known televangelist. They were about to lose their house due to extreme financial difficulties. The preacher asked them to bring in their family budget and he would pray with them. When the preacher saw their budget he told them that there was not enough money in it for Jesus. They needed to greatly increase their contributions in order to prove their faith commitment. In this manner the shyster-preacher tried to scam the elderly couple out of their last dollar. And of course that dollar was not going to Jesus, but to the shyster and his own pockets and his “ministry.”

Prayer never changes God’s mind. You cannot bargain with God, and you cannot gain his support and attention by any form of prayer that you can think of. God does not barter.

Clergy prayers have no special powers. Prayer is not about making fancy speeches or magical incantations. Having the whole church pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones will not change the situation, although you and Aunt Agnes may receive support from your fellow worshippers through prayer. Impossible prayer is still impossible, no matter how much you gussy it up.

Prayer is not about the worthiness of the pray-er. It does not help to recite bible verses, use magical incantations, or flowery language. You do not need to “butter-up” God before you begin because God does not have an ego.

Prayer is not about directing God to do the right thing. It is not about calling for help so that God will notice your plight and then help.

God is not your handmaiden. Instead of holding on to this illusion to get you through times of trouble and stress – grow up and adopt a less infantile notion of God.

  • Be as strong as you can.
  • Be as knowledgeable as you can.
  • Learn to help yourself, your family, and others.
  • Learn what real, grown-up prayer is.
  • Learn to accept life with all of its chaos and caprice.
  • Expect turbulence and learn to swim in it.
  • Realize that whatever happens, for good or ill, it is not about you.
  • You are not the center of the Universe. You are thinking of God.

Faith Demystified – Astrology as Religion


Astrology as Religion

Astrology is a system of beliefs that is not normally considered a religion. But in truth astrology really is a religion, and if not that it makes no sense at all.

In ancient times astrology and astronomy were one. Both involved scanning the heavens to look for signs and portents. Ancient astronomy was necessary for several reasons, including time keeping and navigation. If you understand the attributes of the North Star you will know both your directions and your latitude.

Astronomical observations can also serve as a clock and calendar. The movement of the constellations helped to indicate the seasons. When ancient people saw Orion they knew that winter was upon them. The Sun marks the hours of the day and the moon marks the days of the month.

Four of the most crucial observations in astronomy are the dates of the two solstices and two equinoxes. These four days mark the beginning of each of our four seasons. If you can discern one of these dates then your calendar is set for the year.

Knowing the season and time of year was critical for ancient tribes. They needed to know the periods of hot and cold weather, rainy seasons and droughts. They needed to know the time for special events such as river flooding, the ripening of fruit, any animal migrations or fish spawns, and most importantly, they needed to know the time to plant their crops. To find these key dates the ancients needed only to discern the movement of the Sun and stars. The stories of these star cycles were woven into the tribes’ cultural heritage as sacred texts as a way of maintaining this knowledge through generations.

Stories enhance memory. As a young Boy Scout I was taught how to tie a bowline knot by the following mnemonic: The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the tree, and back in the hole. This is something that I have never forgotten. In this manner the ancients would learn that it was time to plant crops when the lion was visible in the sky.

In short there were many good and necessary reasons to watch the sky and to chart its movements. Now to explain how the science of astronomy diverges from the religion of astrology I need to take a side trip to discuss the notion of a superstition.

A superstition can be described as follows. Imagine a scientific experiment in which a pigeon must press a red button in order to obtain food. The pigeon tries a number of moves, and accidentally finds a workable solution. The pigeon first scratches its head and then presses the red button. When the pigeon does this the food appears. There are two discrete actions. The difference between these two actions is that scratching its head is not part of the chain of causality, while pressing the red button is part of the chain of causality. The head scratch can be thought of as a superstition. The pigeon believes that this action is required even though it is irrelevant and has no effect upon the outcome

Superstitions abound. We get a boost of confidence from the comfort of our superstitions. The gambler believes that his luck in poker is enhanced by wearing his favorite hat. The candidate for a job may wear his “lucky tie” to a job interview.  All such actions are superstition because in truth they have no impact on the outcome. They are not part of the chain of causality.

Now back to the night sky. All sorts of things in the night sky can be observed that are not part of any causality. The motion of the planets seem important, but in reality it means nothing. The arrival of comets, eclipses, meteor showers, aurora borealis, and many other visible events actually mean nothing of consequence. The tribes do not know what celestial events are portents of things to come, so they watch everything.

Let us review the basic facts of astrology that all can agree with. The Sun, the Moon, and all of the planets move through one vast racetrack in the sky. In astrology this is called the zodiac, meaning a circle of animals. Astronomers call this same racetrack the ecliptic, because eclipses can occur when the moon crosses that race track.

The sun and all of its planets were formed out of the solar system’s accretion disk. They are all on the same plane and so follow the same racetrack across the sky. The Moon is slightly different. It was formed not from the accretion disk but from a later impact of a Mars sized object called Thea with the Earth. The Moon’s orbit could have been tipped in any direction, but just by coincidence, the orbit of the moon is a mere 5.5 degrees off of the ecliptic. So, for all practical purposes we say that the Moon shares the ecliptic with the Sun and planets.

Here is where astronomy parts company with astrology. The astrologers will tell us that the sun moves through the twelve houses, or constellations, spending approximately 30 days in each house. This makes the illusion feel very predictable and comforting. The problem is that symmetry is a total fabrication.

  1. In truth there are actually thirteen constellations on the ecliptic. Astrologers never talk about Ophiuchus, and do not even want to think about it. The addition of a thirteenth constellation would mess up their cherished symmetry of design.
  2. Some constellations are much larger than others. It takes the Sun only 7 days to cross Scorpio, but 45 days to cross Virgo. In case you are wondering it takes the Sun 17 days to cross Ophiuchus.
  3. The astrological calendar is seriously broken. It is based upon ancient positions of the stars that are no longer correct. The astrological calendar is off about 25 days. Imagine using a calendar for January 1 when it is really December 7. The star patterns shift over thousands of due to the precession of equinoxes.
  4. Even if items 1-3 could be corrected, what difference does the position of the planets make anyway? Thinking that the position of the planets at the date of your birth can somehow affect your personality or destiny is simply a superstition as defined above. The gravitational effects of the obstetrician during your birth would have millions of times more effect upon you than the position of Jupiter in the night sky.

I have always been vexed by intelligent people espousing nonsense about astrology. I have tried to argue with them, stating items 1-4 above without effect. Their response is that I simple do not “get it”. They seem content to ignore the facts and logic, and to believe in something that I hold to be appalling nonsense.

And then I understood! Astrology is a religion. Religions are full of beliefs in appalling nonsense. If a Catholic can believe that Jesus is contained in a cracker, If a Muslim can believe that women must wear burkas, if a Jew can believe that eating a lobster is forbidden, If a Mormon can believe in ancient Jewish colonies in South America, then perhaps it is no more fantastic to believe that the position of the planets at the time of your birth controls everything from your personality to your destiny.

Astrology gives many the means to feel connected to the Universe. It enables them to feel a part of the cosmos, and to experience the transcendence that is common to all religious motivation.

While President and Mrs. Reagan publicly proclaimed their faith in evangelical Christianity, the real religion of the Reagan household was astrology. When President Reagan was shot Nancy used her astrologers to schedule every key event. In later interviews she explained how important this was to her. With her world falling apart astrology gave her a sense of comfort and control.

Religion must be a deep seated human need. It gives people a sense of security, no matter how illusory. It connects tribes and people with the cosmos and their place and time in it. It is a set of believes that organizes and orders our lives and somehow makes them more manageable.

Faith Demystified – Sacred Texts


Sacred Texts

All religions are human artifacts developed to explain the questions of faith. This is true of all sacred texts. Stories were told around ancient camp fires. After a hard day’s work the community would gather to eat, relax, socialize, and make plans for the morning. There were all sorts of stories told for entertainment. The hunters would boast of their courage and prowess. There were stories of great events of the past, stories of people who had passed on, stories about the cycles of the seasons, and the majesty of nature. There were stories about family life, sexual conquest, childbirth, contact with neighboring tribes, and all manner of human activities. They recount tribal history. There were “blooper” reals remembering when someone really fouled up.

From around the campfires of old there emerged a special collection of sacred stories. These stories centered on existential issues, great yearnings, the deepest questions, and the most profound mysteries.  These sacred stories had a quality of transcendence, lifting the community out of their mundane existence and delving into the greatest mysteries.

  • What is a small tribe of humans compared to the trees and the mountains around them?
  • How can we understand the vast canopy of stars overhead?
  • Where does the sun go at night?
  • Why do the patterns in the sky never change?
  • What happens when we die?
  • Where are those who have passed on before us?
  • Why does new life spring from the earth according to season?
  • Where do we come from?
  • Who are we as a people?
  • What is the meaning or purpose of life?
  • How are we connected to the universe around us?

Stories were created by the community to explain these and other mysteries. They were told and retold for entertainment, to educate the children, and to remind and confirm the tribe of its shared heritage. Communities grow around the stories that they share.

The oldest profession is not prostitute, as many people believe, but shaman. The shamans wove stories to explain the questions of faith. The ideal priest had an inquisitive mind, a fertile imagination, a gift for public speaking, and significant people skills that would draw the tribe towards him or her. She would be a great listener who collected stories and wove them into a magnificent tapestry. He would also be a great entertainer. An oral tradition of sacred campfire stories emerged. Through many generations the stories would become more and more organized and accepted. “Official” versions of the key stories were selected from the many variants. Eventually such stories were written down.

As these stories became ever more normative for the communities of origin, it became desirable to assert divine sanction. Through the use of a created illusion, texts might be ascribed to divine origin. The stories are now seen as transcending the stories of mortals. The authorized sacred texts now are thought to have sacred origins as well as sacred content.

Sacred texts begin from sacred content. Then they are distilled and refined by the community over time. The texts are thrashed like wheat to separate the grain from the chaff. The texts are fermented like wine, carved like an amulet, or purified like a metal in the caldron. In time these texts are truly transformed. They represent not divine revelation, but rather the best distillation of human wisdom by the community. They become the spiritual and intellectual foundation for the community. They reflect the community’s history and chart its future.

Faith Demystified – Prologue



The quest for faith is one of the strongest of all human urges. The oldest archeological sites contain evidence of religious awareness. The Neanderthals buried their dead, suggesting that they were aware of their own mortality. The quest for faith includes of the following categories and more:

  • What happens when we die?
  • The world is so big and we are so small. What is our place in the world around us?
  • How do we gain control over our own existence? How can we protect ourselves from forces of evil? How do we deal with the forces that we cannot control?
  • What is the meaning of life? Are we here just to survive to breed and die?

Religion is a human artifact designed to deal with those issues and questions. Questions of faith are truly beyond human comprehension, and so we fill those gaps with a comforting illusion. An organized set of these illusions is called a religion. Religion is an illusion designed to hide a very harsh reality. Illusion is not a bad thing as long as we recognize it as an illusion. The tooth fairy is not just some random nonsense. Rather, it is an illusion to soothe our children as they lose their baby teeth. Instead of mourning the loss of baby teeth, we celebrate it as a sign of growth and blessings.

Likewise, when a 12-year-old girl begins to bleed she might feel like she is dying. In response we create celebrations for rites of passage. We celebrate the passing from innocent childhood to sexual maturity and adulthood.  The reality is that the transition from girl to woman is filled with frightful consequences. Women through history (and prehistory) have been victims of:

  • Oppression and slavery.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Unwanted pregnancies.
  • The excruciating pain and risk of childbirth.
  • Reproductive health issues.

The transition from girl to woman is a terrifying, dangerous, and yet a most glorious event. The illusions created in rites of passage hide these harsh realities from view.

There is perhaps no more sophisticated example of religious illusion than that of a military funeral, or a visit to Arlington Cemetery. To see this illusion you must hold two video clips in your mind at the same time. On one screen, picture the Normandy Invasion. There is blood and body parts being thrown about by exploding ordinance. There is barb wire and machine gun nests and bodies exploding on the beach. There are young men being cut down in the prime of their lives. Many of these men will never hold a woman, or have a child. Their whole life is cut short by this hell on earth.

Now, shift your focus to the other screen. You will see soldiers wearing white gloves and fancy uniforms. You will see chrome polished swords and the finest marching that can be found anywhere. The soldiers form up and march with incredible precision. Each turn and heal click is precisely choreographed. Each participating soldier is physically perfect, strong, young, and handsome. You will not see tattoos, or facial hair, or pot bellies. The soldiers must meet strict height and weight standards. And you certainly will not see any one-legged soldiers there, not even those wounded in battle. The illusion of cleanliness, order, perfection, and precision at the Changing of the Guards ceremony is created precisely to deny the reality of the horrors of war.

The illusion of religion can become a problem when we forget that it is an illusion. Violence and hostility between various religious communities is often spawned by the “My religion is better than yours!” conflict. This conflict even occurs within religious communities, with Christians fighting with Christians of a different brand, or Muslims fighting against other Muslims for the same reason.  When we insist that our religion is the only right path then we will have inevitable conflict with everyone else. My personal experience with Buddhists is that they tend to be peaceable precisely because they realize that their own understanding is not undermined by someone else’s views.

Sometimes we can hold on to our illusions too tightly or for too long. When I taught my son to ride a bicycle he began by using training wheels. Training wheels are an extra set of wheels on the back of the bike that allow the bike to stand upright even when it is not moving. At first the training wheels help, but then soon become a hindrance. A bicycle, by its very nature, is designed to lean right and left. When a bike is up to speed it is not steered by the handle bar, but rather by leaning and tipping the bike.

The moving bike is held up by the physics of gyroscopic stability. The addition of training wheels makes it impossible for a bike to actually perform as a bike. Training wheels are for those bike riders who do not believe in gyroscopic stability. As my son would learn to ride the bike from the street, up a driveway, and on to the sidewalk, the training wheels would hit curbs and other obstructions and cause the bike to crash. Without the training wheels such maneuvers would have been easy. With training wheels these maneuvers became impossible. So the very training wheels that were supposed to hold the bike up actually caused it to crash.

There is much in the Christian tradition that is harmful and cause the same problem as training wheels on a bicycle.  It can be very difficult for some people to let go of their security blanket.

As a pastor much of my job was to support the Christian illusion. Many Christians think that the particular words of a ritual are magical incantations that have the power of a Harry Potter curse. At Christmas time no one wants to hear that Matthew’s Christmas story portraying the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi (three kings) is a total fabrication and tacked onto Matthew’s gospel by later editors. Such an acknowledgement would be like the loss of training wheels. The faithful turn to religion for security, certainty, consistency, and comfort.

As a pastor I had to polish the illusion; that was my job. But here I do not have that constraint. Here like the Masked Magician I will take you behind the illusion. I will show you what happens behind the smoke and mirrors. Here, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I will lift the curtain to show you that the wizard is just an ordinary mortal with a mastery of illusions.

I pledge to you my absolute honesty. I will not try to varnish the illusion, but to lift the curtain so that you may better understand its workings. I do not disparage religion, but only want you to understand how it works. My background is in the Christian religion. But the quest for meaning is a universal phenomenon. All religions share the same journey, each one by its own path.

The Anthropocene Mass Extinction


The Earth has had five previous mass extinctions events, and we are now in number six. The current crisis is called the Anthropocene Extinction, meaning that it is caused by human activity.

Much has been published recently about global climate change. But there is a much bigger picture to see if we just “connect the dots.” The planet is in a perfect storm of anthropocentric attacks on the biosphere that taken together will severely reduce the life carrying capacity of the planet.

Forty-five percent of all mammal species are endangered or threatened. This includes everything from elephants to polar bears. Elephant populations are declining rapidly due to habitat destruction and poaching. Polar bears are starving as the loss of the arctic ice sheet makes it harder for them to hunt for seals. Recently orcas have replaced polar bears as the apex arctic predators. The large dorsal fins on the orcas have mean that they would not swim or hunt in arctic waters. But now with the substantial loss of arctic ice the orcas have expanded into this new territory.

Ice sheets are diminishing across the globe. The loss of the Greenland ice sheets will increase global sea levels by 30 feet. The loss of the Antarctic ice sheets would raise global sea levels by 300 feet. The Greenland ice sheets are showing increasing signs of collapse. There are lakes of snow melt atop of the glaciers. These lakes drain to the ground below. This lifts and lubricates the remaining ice and speeds its slide into the ocean.

Global climate change is not a future concern; it is already upon us. Hurricane Patricia was the worst hurricane on record, greater even than Katrina or Sandy. California burns while South Carolina is underwater. The weather patterns have already spun out of control. There are droughts, fires, floods, and expanding deserts.

Sea levels are already rising. In Alaska tribal villages are collapsing into the ocean. Island nations like Vanuatu are struggling to survive. In March of 2015 Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone (i.e. hurricane) Pam with wind gusts of 200 mph. It destroyed 90% of the capital city of Port Vila.

Even with all the trappings of civilization, all life on Earth depends upon its biodiversity. Who decided that it was a good idea to grow food using poisons? Consider the case of the humble honey bee. This species is critical to agriculture. It pollinates a wide variety of crops. But bee populations have been devastated by pesticides. To replace the bees in an apple orchard it would take armies of farm laborers pollinating each blossom using ladders and paint brushes.

The combination of global climate change, pollution, and over-harvesting will create a food crisis. We grow foods in arid climates unsuited for agriculture. Irrigation results in an increased salinity in the soils. Any use of irrigated land it a temporary solution to food production which causes a permanent impairment of the ecosystem. As we take ever more extreme measures to feed our growing population, every measure damages the biosphere and reduces our chances of long-term survival. We do slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon basin. But as this land is denuded of its foliage, the ground becomes rock hard within a few years, rendering it unusable. The only current option is to clear-cut new sections of jungle and to repeat the destructive cycle.

Food production will continue to be a major challenge. Clearly we need to create a global economic system that can provide for the needs of all of Earth’s people, and do it is a manner that is sustainable. We also need to understand that we are not the only specie on this planet, and that our survival depends upon biodiversity. We need wilderness areas, pollution free wetlands, fecund oceans, rain forests, and coral reefs. We need bees and other helpful insects, and all manner of flora and fauna to survive.

Famine may be our most urgent concern. Shifting weather patterns may cause our breadbasket regions to dry up. We have seen this before on the American plains in the 1930’s. The Sahara Desert is expanding southward into the savannah, causing civil strife and tribal, sectarian uprising as people struggle to survive. Beijing is endangered by the encroachment of the Gobi Desert.

Much of the western United States are already in severe drought conditions. There is already tension between the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley and the population centers of the coast. The San Joaquin valley is the source of one-half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The San Joaquin Valley is sinking by one foot per year due to the pumping of ground water.

Southern California depends on the Sierra Nevada snow pack for its moisture. The 2014-2015 ski season was severely impacted by a lack of snow. Early indications are that the 2015-2016 season are projected to be seriously worse.

Many civilizations have collapsed due to ecological disasters. Potable water will become as big of an issue as food. Clean, fresh water will become the new oil. One third of the Earth’s population depends on the snow pack of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau for its water. This includes China, the Indian sub-continent, and Southeast Asia. But even the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking.

Monoculture has created ecological problems since the beginnings of agriculture. Monoculture is simply the alteration of the land to support one plant or animal species. Just think about that dandelion in your yard. We kill the dandelion, often with carcinogenic poisons, because it violates our notion of monoculture. We believe that our yard is supposed to be nothing but green grass, and any competing species are swiftly exterminated. How much better it would be if we would allow our yards to be biodiverse, to create habitats, and not putting greens? We need to have a change of expectations

In the beginning humans had little power to transform and destroy nature. Our ever increasing technology has given us greater and greater mastery over the Earth and its resources, and with that power we have the power to render the planet uninhabitable. Early farmers using sticks for plows, or early hunters catching whales from canoes did not have the power to undermine the ecosystem. It is a lot easier to clear a rain forest with a bulldozer than it is to clear it with a machete.

It is hard to be optimistic about the Earth’s future. While we cannot destroy the Earth we can make it uninhabitable. It is likely that the Earth is near its peak in human population. Later in this century we will see a decline in population from droughts and famines caused by shifting weather patterns. We will continue to see a host of species going extinct. The decline is already happening. The best we can hope for is to reduce the future effects.

Life in the Universe: Part 2. The Evolution of Complex Life

The Evolution of Complex Life

Microorganisms, or single celled life forms, are hypothesized to be ubiquitous throughout the galaxy. Our own solar system has perhaps six planets and moons which may harbor living organisms. Life leaps into existence even in the most hostile environments and under the most difficult situations. But complex life is a much different matter. There is a wonderful book entitled, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee. This book discusses the long and arduous journey of life from microorganisms to complex life forms. The book defines complex life as meaning animal life.

While microorganisms may be ubiquitous, complex life is exceedingly rare. Our only example of a world supporting complex life is the Earth. From our sample of one body it appears that it takes some four billion years for the evolution of life from microorganisms to complex life forms. And, for the evolutionary process to work, those four billion years must be remarkably stable to allow life to flourish and develop into complexity. The reason that complex life is so rare is that there are so few venues with stable conditions over billions of years.

In the 1961 Frank Drake wrote his famous Drake Equation, which attempts to quantify the number of advanced civilizations in the galaxy. Advanced civilization was defined as a civilization with radio telescopes making interstellar communication possible. In 1984 SETI began scanning the heavens, looking for those advanced civilizations. People such as Carl Sagan used Drake’s basic model and came up with estimates of perhaps 10,000 advanced civilizations.

Now it is believed that the old estimates were wildly optimistic. Now the hypothesis is that because complex life is so difficult to create, Earth may be the only venue for complex life in the galaxy. This hypothesis, the theme of Rare Earth, has been supported by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The assumption is that the chance of microbial life developing into complex life is so miniscule that the Earth may be the only place where this has happened. If this is true then SETI searches in vain.

Here are some of the requirements for the multi-billion year stability required for life to flourish into complex forms:

  • Complex life cannot exist near the center of the galaxy. A combination of excessive radiation and gravitational perturbations would be too severe for complex live to evolve.
  • Complex life cannot exist anywhere radiation hazards, such as pulsars, which can sterilize planets thousands of light years away.
  • Complex life would be virtually impossible in any binary star system. The gravitational perturbations of a binary star would cause orbital instability, and perhaps cause the planet to crash into another object or to be ejected into the cold darkness of interstellar space.
  • The development of complex life requires a stable solar system with nearly circular planetary orbits. Many of the extra-solar planets that we have discovered have been “hot Jupiters,” formed in the outer reaches of the system and then spiraling inward, smashing lesser planets in the process.
  • The development of complex life requires a planet in the “Goldilocks zone”, at the right distance from its star so as to be neither too hot nor too cold. Moons require similar circumstances that allow for the presence of liquid water.
  • Stars and planets have life cycles. Overtime the Goldilocks zone can move. Originally Venus and Earth were twins, both in the Goldilocks zone, and both most likely had life forms. Over time as the Sun’s radiation increased (10% every billion years), Venus became a hellish world of extreme temperatures and pressures. If there are any life forms now on Venus they would be microorganisms in the upper atmosphere.
  • It is not only the distance from a star that is important, but also the planet’s or moon’s climate. Climate is a complex mixture of atmospheric temperature and pressure, atmospheric composition, transparency, the presence of greenhouse gases, the presence of oceans, carbon cycles which regulate the amount of Co2 in the air, and many more factors as well. As the comparison of Venus and Earth demonstrate, climate is a critical factor in the development of complex life. And this climate must remain essentially stable over billions of years.
  • The development of complex life requires magnetic shielding. Earth is surrounded by a strong magnetic field, caused by a hot, rotating iron core that creates a “force field” surrounding our planet. Mars failed in the development of complex life because it lacked this force field. Mars is smaller than Earth and it cooled more quickly. As the core was solidified the magnetic field collapsed. This allowed the solar winds to strip Mars of most of its atmosphere and water. Also, with the magnetic field removed, there was no protection from intense solar radiation. Earth is protected from radiation not only by our magnetic field bus also by our ozone layer in the atmosphere.
  • Complex life depends upon its home world surviving various extinction events. The Earth has undergone as least five mass extinctions, each of which destroyed at least 75% of life on the planet. Most scientists would say that the Earth is now in the early stages of its sixth extinction event. This time it is caused largely caused by human activity such as agriculture, which destroys eco-systems to create single species dominance, pollution, habitat destruction, and the burning of fossil fuels.

Given all of the impediments to the development of complex life forms, the chance of microorganism evolving into complex life forms is a very small number, and perhaps one in a trillion.

The Rare Earth book stops at complex or animal life. It does not deal at all with the emergence of technological civilizations. There are many intelligent species on Earth such as octopus, pigs, dogs, crows, and dolphins. But none of these species are apt to create civilizations or to build radio telescopes. The leap from complex life to advanced civilization may be as difficult as the leap from microorganisms to complex life.

Life in the Universe. Part 1: The Solar System

Life in the Universe

Part 1: The Solar System

It is a virtual certainty that we will discover extraterrestrial life within the next 20 years. There are many places in our solar system that would seem to make good cradles for life. Some of the best prospects include Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.

Mars has been tantalizing us for decades with its prospects for life. We have recovered a meteor blasted off of the surface of Mars that seems to contain fossilized life forms, although not all scientist agree with this premise. There have been experiments conducted by Mars landers that gave ambiguous results on the presence of life. But perhaps the most tantalizing sign comes from the seasonal methane cycles on Mars. Methane can be produced by either biological or geological processes. But there is no geological explanation of seasonal methane cycles. The prospects are good that these seasonal methane cycles are produced by organisms on Mars undergoing seasonal transformations. Methane, that gas from decaying garbage dumps and bovine flatulence is a necessary byproduct of organic life.

Europa has a vast ocean underneath a planetary ice cap. Ice fissures allow the subsurface ocean to leak through to the surface. When we look at the surface of Europa we see a fractured ice cap covered by reddish-brown crud along the fissures. It may be that this surface crud is some sort of life form resembling an algae bloom.

The extraterrestrial life be find in our solar system will be simple, single celled organism.

Life on Earth is a thousand times more diverse than I was taught in high school biology class. In school we were taught that there are plants and animals. The Sun was the source of all biological energy. Plants converted sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. Herbivores ate the plants and carnivores ate the herbivores. All life was beholden to the Sun.

But now we know much more. There is life everywhere on Earth, and much of it totally cut off from the Sun. There are tube worms and shrimp in the deepest ocean trenches, using chemosynthesis to convert sulfur into energy in extreme high temperatures and pressures. There are organisms living in the boiling, caustic paint pots of Yellowstone Park. There are organism living deep underground, drawing their energy from the rocks. There are organism living in frozen glaciers. When glaciers calve, these life forms create a rich biomass in the ocean, a biomass that is the bottom of the food chain for all life in the polar oceans. There is even life forms living in the cooling ponds of nuclear reactors.

Along with plants and animals, there are fungi such as mushrooms, slime molds, algae, protozoa, and these are just our closest relatives. It has been suggested that there is more biomass below ground than there is above ground.

With life on Earth this diverse and abundant, we can expect that life will be prolific throughout vast sections of the Universe. Our own solar system is full of water and organic compounds, the two essential ingredients for life as we know it. Comets and asteroids have both in abundance. Spectroscopy of the Universe suggest that the same chemistry exists everywhere. Water and organic compounds exist throughout the Universe. On Titan there are lakes of liquid methane. On Europa there is more water than exists on Earth.

We still need to go metric

Our US system of measurements makes no sense, even to Americans. We cannot even call it English measurements because our system is different than the pre-metric English system. For example, how many US tablespoons (tbsp.) are there in a US cup? The answer is 16, but no one knows that; I had to look it up. A harder question is how many cups are in a bushel. The answer here is 148.96848 cups per bushel. How many feet are there in a furlong or a fathom? When the cookbook calls for 6 ounces, is it talking about volume or weight? How many gallons are there in a cubic foot? There are 7.48.

What do you do if your 7/8th inch wrench is just slightly too small? Now you have to mess with fractions and come up with an answer such as 15/16th inch. This same situation is made far easier in the metric system. If the 22 millimeter wrench is too small you simply move up to the 23 millimeter wrench.

By contrast the metric system is simple, elegant and highly intuitive. Everything is in multiples of tens, hundreds, and thousands. A meter is a little over a yard long (39.37 inches). A kilometer is 1,000 meters (0.620 miles). It is 10,000 kilometers from the equator to the North Pole. A centimeter is 1/100 of a meter, or .3927 inches. A millimeter is 1/1000 of a meter or 0.0393 inches.

A cubic centimeter (cc) is a measure of volume. This is where things get interesting. One cc is equal to another metric measure, the milliliter. A milliliter is 1/1000 of a liter. Liters and milliliters are used to measure the volumes of liquids. This is also called displacement. In the cubic centimeter = milliliter equality we have the link between distance and volume. And now it gets even more interesting. One cc (or 1 ml) of water weighs 1 gram. Now we have a direct connect between distance, volume, and weight.

1 cubic Centimeter = 1 Milliliter = 1 Gram of water

A thousand milliliters of water equals 1 liter, which is very nearly a US quart (1.06 quarts). One liter of water weighs 1000 grams or one kilogram. A kilogram (or kilo) is equivalent to 2.205 US pounds. You could give your weight as 90.7 kilograms instead of 200 pounds. A metric ton is 1,000 Kilograms or 2,205 pounds.

The US is the only country in the world that uses our goofy and idiosyncratic system of measurements. The entire planet has gone metric except for the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar (Burma). We lost one Mars probe because the scientists at NASA confused meters with feet in their calculations. We live in a global trade environment with one system of measurement. Using a different system of measurements makes us less able to compete in foreign markets. If a company is making anything for export, the company simply must use the metric system. There are no 7/8th inch wrenches abroad.

Most of our measurements could be converted to the metric system within a few years. We could buy gasoline and ice cream by the liter, bananas and potatoes by the kilogram, rope and fabric by the meter. We could adopt metric clothing sizes with little trouble. We could change our road signs and speed limits to KPH (kilometers per hour) with little fuss. We could report temperatures in Celsius, where water freezes at zero degrees and boils at 100 degrees, instead of Fahrenheit, where water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. Body temperature in Celsius is 37.0 degrees. None of this would be overly difficult.

The hardest part of the conversion will be in the building trades, where everything is in US measurements. We have 4 foot by 8 foot sheets of plywood, 3/4th inch pipes. But 2 x 4’s are not really 2 inches by 4 inches. Some conversions will require adapters, such as a water heater built to metric standards will need pipe adapters to fit legacy pipe dimensions. Some items such as floor tiles will create difficulties. Currently tiles come in sizes such as 18 inches square. These 18 inch tiles will be needed for some time to come as people do remodeling projects. But when new floors are laid the contractors may use comparable metric tiles that are 500 centimeters or 1/2 meter square. Again, the building trades will have the most difficult metric conversions. But other countries have done this and we can do this here as well.

Metric conversions will take some time and effort on our parts, but in the end we will be much better served. We need to adopt the world standard of measurement or be left behind.

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