October 25, 2004

Religious Ramblings

I'm not a particularly religious guy. I have a fair, but by no means extensive, understanding of the history behind most of the world's religions. Generally speaking, however, I've never been an active participant in any particular belief.

I was brought up, loosely speaking, as a Unitarian, which is the religious equivalent of a buffet table: you take what you want, but you're not required to eat everything you take. You pretty much are allowed to believe what you want, so long as you acquiesce that, yes, there's probably a powerful being that's larger than ourselves who certainly crafted this reality in which we find ourselves. Whether He or She takes an active role in the day-to-day machinations of His/Her creation? Well, that's kind of up to you to decide. As religions go, Unitarian belief is pretty darned flexible.

My mother was brought up a Catholic, in the strictest sense of the word. As such, she couldn't wait to get out from under the heavy weight of sin, sin, SIN that is one of Catholicisms hallmarks. She decided well before I was an itch in dad's pants that any child of hers' would not be force-fed any religion. She read to me at bedtime, occasionally, from a child-friendly version of the Bible (new and old testament), and she made sure I knew the Lord's prayer, but that was pretty much the extent of her religious training for me. Typically, I wanted her to read Dr. Doolittle and the Pirates instead, so my familiarity with the Bible was flimsy at best.

As for my father, well, he's from the school of thought that, once you're dead. . . you're dead. Light's out. Kaput. You're done. Worm food. No extra points. No endzone dance. No bright tunnel. Just dead.

In other words, I had some conflicting messages coming at me regarding religion as I was growing up. But, there was one thing that I've always believed, and that's that there most assuredly is a God. Whatever that God is, I'm not sure. Whether God's a woman or a man, or a burning bush, or a booming voice on a mountain top handing out stone tablets, or that crazy man on the street yelling that sunbeams are actually miniature robots sent to eat our brains. . . well, it's all possible.

For me, the brilliantly complex simplicity of the universe, with all its secrets and everyday miracles is just too nearly perfect to have happened by accident. Science can tell me that the universe is ruled by the laws of physics, but I have to wonder who put those laws in place in the first place. Science can uncover all the physical laws imaginable, from quantum physics to plain old Newtonian physics, and that would be great, but they still likely couldn't tell me, with any degree of satisfaction, how the heck all those equations and formulas originally came into being.

So, I pray. I'm not particularly good about praying. I'll miss an evening or two, depending on how engrossed I get into a given computer game or softcore program on Cinemax, but I do try to pray when I remember. And, I have a standard issue prayer that I use that has been gradually taking shape since I was about 10 years old. I thank God for everything I have, and I God bless the appropriate litany of people who are important to me, and I ask for the same stuff: long life for me and family and friends and a better understanding of the world and my place in it. Pretty tame stuff, but it makes me feel good, a little bit more secure, and a little bit less lonely.

All of which is a long-winded segue into this little bit of stupidity uttered by one silvery-maned windbag known as Bill Maher:

To me, to me it's a real dividing line between people of intelligence and – not that there haven't been some intelligent people who are religious. I mean, T.S. Elliott was a great poet and he became a very devout Catholic… But I always call religion a neurological disorder. I really do believe that. I mean it's not criticizing. I'm just saying if you took religion out of it and somebody went to a psychiatrist and said you know I believe in you know this crazy, illogical thing, the shrink would say, well you have a neurological disorder. And you need to really get therapy or take a pill.

Did you get that? Maher isn't criticizing, he's JUST SAYING. He's JUST SAYING that myself and the vast majority of the world's population suffer from a collective neurological disorder. Gee, thanks Bill. Apparently, Maher is uniquely enlightened to the point that he's immune to this scourge of this religious neurological disorder. How does he do it? Does he take extra vitamin C?

I also like how he calls religion a "crazy, illogical thing." When I engage people on a theological debate, nine times out of ten they'll throw out the "religion is illogical" riposte, as if they're about to grow pointy ears and utter a Vulcan greeting with their hand extended in the familiar Vulcan "V" salute.

The thing about the "religion is illogical" that gets me is that people can spout off that religious belief is illogical while at the same time totally ignore so much else about human beings that is illogical. Love, for example, is probably one of the most illogical human traits we've been dealt. Someone will tell me that belief in God is illogical and I'll ask "Do you love your child?" or "Do you love your parents?" or "Do you love your friends?" and I'll invariably get a blank stare because "Of COURSE I love them."

"Would you run into a burning building to save your child?"

"Yes! Yes I would! Absolutely!"

"But why? It's illogical for you to love someone so deeply that you'd run into a burning building to save them. It flies into the face of all the rules of self-preservation and common sense."

Obviously, I'm playing devil's advocate when I put forth such an argument, because I'd fight off a grizzly bear if it were threatening someone I love. I'd lose the fight, mind you, but I'd be sure to get in a good groin kick.

The point is, there's a lot of illogical human behavior that we ALL dabble in, so to single out religious belief as a neurological disorder because it SEEMS illogical is quite possibly the weakest single argument against religion that you can trot out, yet Maher lobbed it up for all the reading world to see. Excuse me while I whack that one out of the park there, Bill.

The thing that rankles me about squishy-headed wonks like Maher is their inability to even acknowledge their own raging hypocrisy. They'll rail against religion as an illogical crutch of the un-intelligent, and then they'll shuffle on up to pray at their own personal alter of politics. They've simply substituted one brand of worship for another. And really, politics is far less satisfying than any other faith, in my most humble opinion. Think about it; would you rather pray to an all-powerful being for long life for you and your family, or to a Washington bureacrat for tax increases and a balanced budget? Your call, I guess.

And I'm certainly not saying that all religious belief is a good and wise thing. The Falwells and the Pat Robertsons of the world are quite obviously good examples of religious belief taken to unhealthy extremes. And, obviously, there are some certain individuals in the Middle East currently strapped with explosive belts that have been drinking too deeply from an unhealthy religious doctrine.

You can choose to believe in a given faith, or you can choose not to. It's entirely up to you. But, if you choose not to, you're still putting faith in your beliefs, which sounds suspiciously like, you know. . . a religion.

So, anyway you slice it, Bill Maher thinks you're suffering from a illogical neurological disorder.

And doesn't that just piss you right off?

Posted by Ryan at October 25, 2004 01:40 PM

Remember when our good ol' Mr. Ventura made similar comments a few years back? I do. I think he said something about religion simply being a crutch for the weak minded. I was pissed to no end and came to some of the same conclusions you did. Some people, I tell ya.

Posted by: Rick at October 25, 2004 03:34 PM

Oh, yes, I remembered our great lunk-headed governor's statements regarding religion quite well. But, man, he had so many lunk-headed statements over four years, it's sometimes hard to remember them all.

Posted by: Ryan at October 25, 2004 03:42 PM

Ryan, your statement - just too nearly perfect to have happened by accident… - made me think of a book I read awhile back: Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. For what it's worth, I side with your dad. But whatever, I thought it was a good read. The book in it that does its best to debunk the idea that evolution is like a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and assembling a working 747.

Posted by: seed at October 25, 2004 04:52 PM

Question, do you acknowledge the possiblity that there isn't a higher power or a god? That maybe there isn't some being that created the world in which we exist? I think there's a possiblity that there's a god, but I have much doubt. I don't have "faith". Sure, the universe is amazing. But does that mean some being had to have created it simply because it's amazing? I don't think so. Is there a possibility? Of course there is. But just like people used to think the world was flat, it may be that we live in a world that just happened. Can I explain it? Nope, but I'm not trying to try. It took billions of years to get where we are and I, nor any person, is going to be able to explain it. It's the classic argument of Creation versus Evolution.

If people were to accept even the possibility that there isn't a god, then their ability to maintain their belief would be much more difficult if not impossible.

I've had this conversation with my mom about this since I was probably 10, maybe earlier. She's a very devout christian and really knows what she believes. But I've always been curious and questioning, and I've never REALLY believed it. What I've found is that either you have faith that there is a god or you don't. If you have faith, it's just a matter of finding a story you think fits best. Thing is, most people don't bother to actually learn the different religions, they just follow what their parents did, or just follow what everyone else does.

You say that no matter what scientists say they'll never be able to convince you of our origin, or that our origin is not of god. But just like these laws and theories are man-made, so was every religion. All of them were created by man. How do we know which one is right? Well, it's just a matter of faith. For me, I'm not going to look to science or any person to definitively explain where we came from.

And while I do think Maher is an insensitive wanker in general, he's not far off. If you're a devout believer in any religion, of course some guy stating it's crap is going to piss you off. But if you believe that all religion was created by man either to explain the unexplainable or to control people, then you can see why he thinks these folks suffer from some neurosis. With all the information we have today, people still blindly follow the same stories or what could be considered myth. If you come at it from the perspective of story or myth, then you can begin to understand why Maher thinks it's a disorder to believe in it as truth.

Ultimately, I'm not going to convince you what I believe, and I'm not going to try to. Each person has to figure out their own beliefs.

Posted by: Jay at October 25, 2004 05:24 PM

See, Jay, that's the thing, though. The "theories" may be manmade, at least until they're proven fact, but the phyiscal "laws" aren't manmade. Man "discovered" them and uses them in scientific pursuit, but man didn't make them. The laws were there already. The question for me is, "How is it they were there already?" Well, you can say it was the Big Bang, and that order simply came about by chance out of the chaos, but that just doesn't quite resonate with me. A of all, the odds are just too fantastic and, B of all, what sparked the Big Bang in the first place? How did all that matter just find itself in that one pinhead in space to reach critical mass? SOMETHING had to have created it. Right? Nothing can come of nothing. I'm not necessarily sure that whatever created this universe stuck around to see how things panned out.

I can entertain the POSSIBILITY all of this came about purely by chance over billions of years. It's POSSIBLE that no God exists or existed, sure. But, if you do believe there is no God, then you have to make an entirely different leap of faith to explain how the universe came to be, and I would argue that that leap of faith, if it's not even a larger leap than a faith in God, then it's certainly about equal.

Posted by: Ryan at October 25, 2004 06:26 PM

When I referred to laws and theories I meant that their definitions were man-made. Their truth or reality wasn't important. I can't come up with an example now, but I'm sure over the lifetime of science there have been laws that have been proven wrong and replaced with a more accurate definition. Unfortunately, religion isn't that flexible. Religion is what it is.

"How is it they were there already?"

What's difficult for me on this subject, is I don't have a nice & neat, respected and accepted body of work to explain my point of view. Nor do I have a united community to support my belief. For one thing, most scientists don't go out to prove or disprove the existence of god. Whereas, that is religion's purpose. And most religions have a book which defines the system and guides the people based on this purpose. Science just wants to tell you that "an opject in motion tends to stay in motion." So if I'm to use science to guide my beliefs with regards to god, I have to develop it for myself, and that's quite hard. Not saying it can't be done, but still.

So when someone asks me what I believe it's quite difficult if not impossible for me to deliver a believeable answer. If I say, "I don't believe a god made the universe." then I'm asked where we came from. Of course, I don't have an answer, so then my belief carries less weight. But if you say, "I believe God created the universe." then you can either recite Genesis, or you can just leave it at that and people nod their head and say "ok". You have what's seen as an answer and so it's looked at more favorable. Which one's right? Who knows.

My point is that in this world it's easier to believe a being created the universe than to say we don't know and we may never know. I say we shouldn't stop looking because I don't think we've found the answer.

One last thing, there has been one body of work that comes close to explaining how I view the world, and that was "What the Bleep Do We Know?" Granted, there is some crap in there which you need to ignore, but for me it was refreshing to know that others share a similar understanding as well as continuing to search for the answers to questions I have.

Posted by: Jay at October 25, 2004 07:20 PM

Whatever about God and His Existence, but you point out somewhere in all that the very thing that I hate even more than air quotes and Tyne Daly: "I'm just saying." This is the stupidest rhetorical deflection device EVAR, worse possibly than "I, ummm, fucking forgot, who wants a beer?"

Either advance an argument, or don't. If I were God, I would Straight Up Lightning anyone who grins and speaks "I'm just saying".

Posted by: Dylan at October 25, 2004 10:38 PM

If you do believe there is no God, then you have to make an entirely different leap of faith to explain how the universe came to be

If you say that God created the universe, I can just come back and ask you who created God. At this point, there are basically two ways you can handle things: Either you repeat the process ad infinitum, which is philosophically unsatisfactory IMHO, and makes you look like a fool because you have to create Meta-Gods, and Meta-Meta-Gods etc. to keep things going. Or you can say at some point that "X just is" to break the cycle, which begs the question why X has to be some (Meta)^n-God (n >= 0) and can't just be the universe itself, the latter being what Occam's Razor would suggest.

So, no, I don't have to make a leap of faith. I can just be honest and say "I don't know" (which is incidently what religion boils down to if you just cook it long enough).

As Jay points out, it more or less comes down to psychology: the vast majority of people feel that "God just is" is a more palatable proposition than "the universe just is", although there is fundamentally no difference between the two.

But however you slice it, Maher is still an inconsiderate asshole, which I find far more inexcusable in a person than adherence, or lack thereof, to any body of faith.

Posted by: Gudy at October 26, 2004 04:49 AM

I like your (plural) point that it takes a leap of faith regardless of whether or not you believe God did it or it just happened. I also believe the skies and earth shout that there is a God who created everything.

If you think there is a God, it is important to figure out who that God is and what he/it wants.

Just as there is one reality, this shows there is one answer to 'what happens to us when we die' and 'is there a God' and 'does he require anything of us'. We cannot all be right, some of us are going to be wrong. And you better figure out if you really are right with God or not.

Are you, any of you, good enough to go to heaven? Will God judge us to be innocent? None of us are, that's the reason Catholicism has sin Sin SIN. But what is the answer to the problem of sin? How can anyone go to heaven if all of us aren't good enough? Jesus is my only hope. Why do I believe in him and worship him? He's all I've got.

Posted by: LT at October 26, 2004 08:16 AM

If you say that God created the universe, I can just come back and ask you who created God.

Yeah, that's the stumbling block I always come across, too. Because I believe that nothing can come from nothing, it stands to reason that God, should He/She exist, must have come from SOMEWHERE.

What it comes down to, for me, is that this universe we find ourselves in simply can't be explained away by "chance." It's too meticulously perfect. I could, I suppose, just say "well, I don't know how it came to be," but I just can't shake the feeling that that's a cop out.

Besides, I really think Bill Maher deserves a little time in hell for SOMETHING.

Posted by: Ryan at October 26, 2004 09:22 AM

this is something i've grappled with many times over (see: http://www.amyleblanc.com/thoughts/religion.html ).

some call their ideas of God a faith and follow a path/belief system that fits their lives, despite lack of hard evidence because it works for them, and to me that is fine as long as it works. others shrug and say "i don't know, and i don't actually really care." i'm of the latter more than the former, although i do care. the reason i care is not for my own conscience (i'm quite fine with that) - it's because so many others care and use their faith to affect the world around them. therefore, i think it's important for me to contemplate the subject and determine how i feel about it in order to talk to others about it. does that make sense?

as for me, i am more concerned with the present than the past (although of course they are related), and while twisting my mind around quantum physics and chaos theory and omniscient beings is fun (i do truly enjoy it), i am not about to torment my soul trying to figure out an exact truth to guide my life by. there is no truth; everything is relative; it is important to live the best life you can now, according to current conditions, and not worry about the origin of the universe and your post-death world.

as for Maher: talk about neurosis? please. look in a mirror. we all hold faith in something - some choose to put a label on it in order to help them sort their thoughts. i have absolutely nothing against those of faith, as long as they use their faith for good. religion has helped many people i know through very rough times in their lives, and also caused people to do good acts that might not have otherwise occurred to them. others, like myself, prefer not to label it and keep the ideas nebulous. this does not mean we do not have our ideas of God. they are just not defined.

who or what is God? make your own definition, or use an existing one to help you make your own. there are as many paths to God as there are people.

Posted by: leblanc at October 26, 2004 12:48 PM

"What it comes down to, for me, is that this universe we find ourselves in simply can't be explained away by "chance." It's too meticulously perfect."

Whether or not the universe is perfect, or not, is irrellevant because we have absolutely no basis for comparison. Admittedly, earth is perfect for sustaining life. That's obvious. But it's not perfect for sustaining all life because some life has gone extinct. And not just because humans caused it (Dinosaurs). You can argue that extinction is the work of god, but then we're just going in circles because then no matter what I say, you'll just respond that god did it.

When I was in college my aunt sent me a book (it also came with tapes so I actually listened and didn't read) because she knew I wasn't a person of faith, yet I was curious, questioning, and willing to learn. She hoped the "scientific" approach would help to convince me of my ways.

In a nutshell, Lee Strobel makes the argument that the universe we live in couldn't have happened by chance because it's just too perfect. Things like gravity, blood-clotting, DNA are far too complex and amazing to have "just happened". To back this up he finds non-contentious scientists who follow his logic. For one, he suffers from a bad case of confirmation bias. And two, just because we can't explain how something came about doesn't mean god did it. Humans don't have the capacity nor the time to know everything.

And I don't think most people think about the fact that the average human's lifespan is insignificant with respect to the history of the universe. Take a step back and we're just a speck on the map, a speck on the timeline. The universe isn't in any hurry, it's got infinity to work with. Scientists will take guesses at how old the universe is, but I'm guessing it's even longer. We have the ability to understand bits and pieces, but never the whole thing.

It's the enormous amount of time that makes Darwin's theory of evolution possible. I know, most creationists call it bullshit, but to me it makes sense. The thing you have to take into consideration is that evolution doesn't happen overnight. We're talking billions of iterations. Those that are successful will continue and those that aren't go away. What's interesting about humans today is we have the ability to influence our own evolution. If it wasn't for medicine, many illnesses wouldn't have continued to be propogated throughout the population. In fact, I'd have been dead at 14 due to my diabetes. Is it amazing that I can sustain myself with insulin? Sure. But humans have evolved to allow for these creative solutions.

Evolution applies to all matter not just life. If you span it over an infinite length of time and space you can begin to understand how anything is possible. It's even possible there was, is, or will be life elsewhere. It may have happened a billion years ago or will a million years in the future. But we may never know simply due to time and the size of the playing field. We don't even fully know about all life in our own oceans, so don't expect to know if there's life out there. The only evidence I have of this possibility is simply that we exist in the first place.

Does the universe care whether we're here or not? No, because the universe doesn't have a concious. We could blow up this entire planet and the universe will just keep ticking along. That's it's nature. And nature adapts. No matter what we do, it's natural. It may have a negative effect on our environment or our neighbor, but we literally cannot do anything that isn't natural because all things are natural.

The problem with this line of thinking is that if people believed it, they'd question what's the point if there's say no heaven to look forward to or god's wrath to fear. If you only have one life to live then why not do whatever the fuck you want. But that's because we haven't grown up to believe that doing good and thinking of the group rather than one's self it key to the success of the group. We all know that it's easier and better to work together than to fight against each other. When people share the responsibility, they share the successes as well as the failures. Unfortunately, this isn't a staple of western culture. Because if it was, we wouldn't need religious proscription to tell us that being good and helpful is better for all.

Posted by: Jay at October 26, 2004 01:24 PM

You can argue that extinction is the work of god, but then we're just going in circles because then no matter what I say, you'll just respond that god did it.

Now wait a minute here. I think you may be overstating what I do and do not attribute to the work of God.

At the core of my belief is that something or someone crafted the physical rules and laws that govern everything from gravity to DNA. Much like a computer programmer creating code that builds a software application. From there, I'm not at all certain that God has a hand in the day to day workings of His/Her creation. I pray occasionally because, really, it can't hurt, and it sometimes helps. But, again, I'm not entirely certain there's someone on the other end of the prayer line taking dictation.

For the record, I'm a firm believer in the theory of evolution. I believe that mankind very probably evolved from monkeys.

But. . .

I also believe that evolution and creationism can fit hand in hand fairly well. The Scopes Monkey Trial went a long ways to showing just how the two can co-exist.

Is God in the machine of everyday existence? I don't know. There's certainly plenty of evidence suggesting that God simply created this reality and then wandered off to watch Survivor. But, like I said, saying a prayer once in awhile in the hopes that God might be listening can't hurt, and often helps, even if it is in just a little way.

Posted by: Ryan at October 26, 2004 02:31 PM

sorry, wasn't trying to state what you believe, but because I used "you", it comes across that way. i meant that any person can say that something happened because of god, and at that point the conversation is pretty much over. Again, it's easier and more palatable to state it's god's handiwork than to say "I don't know, or have an unproven theory."

There are many levels of belief. From no god, to some god, to god being involved in every little detail. I have an easier time believing your point of view where god set things up and just lets it loose, than someone who believes god micro-manages our existence.

I think that's the distinction Maher didn't clearly make. I don't think he meant to include those who believe in just creationism as you do, but I could be wrong.

There's a diffence in simply believing in a creator and believing and following a religion. Believing in a creator alone isn't being religious. Call it spirituality, call it what you want, but you need to follow the tenets of a religion to be religious. Every religion has specific things that followers need to do or at least try to do. If you're not doing or attempting to do those things, then you're not really religious.

Posted by: Jay at October 26, 2004 03:56 PM

the distinction between "spiritual" and "religious" is an important one. i consider myself extremely spiritual. i am not religious at all. i think most others (secular folk) would say the same were they required to pick one word over the other.

Posted by: leblanc at October 26, 2004 07:15 PM
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