Tag Archives: Belief

Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism


Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism

Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin provided this photo of Richard Dawkins, author of `The God Delusion.’ (AP Photo/Houghton Mifflin)

Richard Dawkins is a world class evolutionary biologist. Lately he has been seen as one of atheism’s greatest proponents. In his 2006 book The God Delusion he contends that there is no god and that religious faith is a delusion. In the same year he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Dawkins is a radical skeptic, and we need skeptics. Skepticism insures that science is always self-correcting. Without radical skepticism we would be continuously duped by all sorts of falsehoods.

Skepticism is also an antidote to the general puffery of religious doctrines. In religion there is normally no proof of anything. Believers are asked to accept religious teachings on blind faith, or to trust in “divine revelation.” Any doubt, even a healthy skepticism, is often described as a lack of faith. Typically, the faithful are not allowed to asked questions such as, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” Asking a question like this is seen as an attack on biblical fundamentalism and therefore an attack on faith itself.

Dawkins skepticism is a great defense against uncontrolled religious puffery. And for that we should all be grateful. The only way to answer the question about Cain’s wife is to realize that the creation stories are mythological stories, and not the recounting of historical events.

Skepticism can be taken too far. Ultimate skepticism would be to not except anything without absolute proof. I cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I would certainly expect that to happen. Spirituality begins with the concept that our reality is larger than our grasp. By contrast, Dawkins would say that if he cannot see, hear, or touch something it does not exist.

If I could have a chat with Dawkins I would share with him the following story. An astronomer images a galaxy using visible light. The image produced is real and indisputable. To Dawkins the galaxy is what is captured in that image, and nothing more. The part that Dawkins misses is that there is more to the galaxy that we cannot see in visible light. Images taken in infrared, ultraviolet, or radio waves would show a very different image, with more and different features and aspects of the galaxy. So, Dawkins original view of the galaxy in visible light is correct but not complete. There is more to the galaxy than the original image could depict.

What we see depends upon what filters we choose to use. One could say that Dawkins does not see beyond the mundane world because he lacks the necessary observational tools. Dawkins seems to be a reductionist, saying that the universe is this and no more. That reductionism is every bit as much a bias as is a religious conviction.

Modern cosmology describes a universe that is not only more bizarre than we know, but even more bizarre than we can imagine. Quantum mechanics tells us that a particle can be several places at once. M-theory tells us that there are eleven dimensions of space and time. Hawking radiation means that black holes actually evaporate. Dark energy says that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Under these circumstances a limited field of view means that we will miss much of what is happening. There is a lot of stuff going on out there that we do not understand.

There is more than one possibility in any circumstance. Light is both a wave and a particle. An electron can be several places at once. A storm can be both helpful and hurtful depending on whom you ask. The difference between a wildflower and a weed is that one is wanted and the other is not. Propositions can be true and false at the same time. We need to be very careful when setting the bounds of the universe that we do not leave out many things that do not fit into our reductionist preconceptions. The universe could be both created and non-created. The only difference may be in the filters that we choose.

On another topic I would also like to discuss consciousness with Dawkins. This is one of the frontiers between biology and spirituality. What is consciousness? We might also call this the self, spirit or even soul, although Dawkins would resist these words. Is our consciousness simply the electronic emissions of our gray matter, or could it be something more? Is consciousness something that could be captured and stored outside of the body? Could it be transplanted like a kidney? Imagine the possibility that a consciousness could be transferred from one body to another, or from a body to a computer chip. This is a question that needs to be answered in the near future.

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Faith Demystified – Astrology as Religion


FAITH DEMYSTIFIEDZODIAC

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 – Prologue


Ghandi

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.

{This is a prologue to a book I am planning}