Jeff J.

Jeff J.
Cattlearoma, New Mexico, USA
June 08
free and clear
A computer programmer who is no longer geeky enough to be interested in how software is constructed; I care more about what software can do for people; or even more about people, period. Mostly interested in the taboo subjects of religion and politics: religion as an atheist, and politics as a left-leaning Democrat. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any work copied or excerpted under this license should be attributed to Jeffrey G. Johnson, and included with a link to this blog.

MARCH 17, 2012 10:19PM

Seeing the Light: Leaving the First Century Behind

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The hardest cage to escape is the one you don't know that you are in.

recent post here referenced a blog post by Sam Harris, so I feel a bit hesitent doing it again so soon, but I was fascinated by the interview with Tim Prowse, a United Methodist pastor who served for 20 years before finally his reason and doubt overcame his faith.

Prowse describes how, ironically, it was seminary school that sowed the first seeds of doubt for him. He said "it was so much easier to believe when living in an uncritical, unquestioning, naïve state.  Seminary training with its demands for rigorous and intentional study and reflection coupled with its values of reason and critical inquiry began to undermine my naïveté...Once I concluded that the Bible was a thoroughly human product and the God it purports does not exist, other church teachings, such as communion and baptism, unraveled rather quickly.  To quote Nietzsche, I was seeing through a different “perspective” – a perspective based on critical thinking, reason and deduction." 

Prowse also likened religious belief to a "first-century worldview".  Or perhaps it would be more accurate historically to say a fourth-century view, since many aspects of Christian dogma were not fixed until those men, who in their age qualified as learned, gathered to offer their best council at Nicea. And if we are honest, that is in fact what belief in God is: it is the perpetuation of a fourth-century worldview. While many particulars of religious dogma may have drifted or adjusted over time, the core of God the Creator and Father, the Trinity, heaven and hell, the soul, resurrection, faith, and redemption are effectively unchanged.

Here is where science and religion conflict absolutely and irreconcilably: not on whether there are mysteries we still must work to understand, but on what is in fact known today, and whether that can change over time based on new evidence and new understanding.

Religion can not change based on evidence. Individual believers may alter their personal belief based on new knowledge, but then they no longer uphold the purity of doctrine. The institutions charged with the responsibility of keeping the faith must stake their very survival and reason for existence on the claim that the core tenets of faith can not and must not change because they claim to be timeless eternal truths. This vested interest in stasis explains the fundamentally conservative nature of belief, which regards novelty and change as a threat, which pins security and stability to fixed unchanging tradition, and which effectively arrests learning because to accept new evidence and revise its worldview, as science does naturally, is to admit the falsity and failure of that very worldview.  Growth and progress are made impossible by refusing to question dogmatic articles of faith in the light of new knowledge. Religion is designed to be incapable of saying "sorry, we were wrong".

I must correct the last paragraph. While largely true, it perhaps exaggerates the case a little bit: religions have indeed changed over time. But the change in religion is a resistance, a barrier against the perceived dangers of intrepid progress and  the growth of knowledge. The churches have been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, as opposed to being leaders in the discovery of new frontiers of knowledge.

Religion has been forced to acknowledge scientific discoveries such as the heliocentric solar system, and the radical decentralization of our home planet as a mere speck in an inconspicuous corner of a vast cosmos containing over a hundred billion galaxies. Religion has been forced to come to terms with DNA and genetics and evolution, and it has been forced to keep up with modern secular morality which has brought us the progress of abolishing slavery, racial equality, inter-racial marriage, heart transplants, brain surgery, forensic medical sciences, gender equality, and acceptance of homosexual orientation. Failure to update its notions of morality from Biblical standards would have doomed religion to being left behind in the primitive past by the progress of science, reason, and secular humanism. By judiciously updating its doctrine in minimalist fashion religion has bought itself some time and placated public demand. But it's hard to see how it can keep this up forever with the rapidly advancing new discoveries of physics and neurobiology that are steadily eroding the last frontiers of human ignorance, which provide refuge and sanctuary for the endangered ideas of God and the soul.

The metaphor of the empty birdcage, reproduced in the image above, was what set my mind off down the path of thinking about how easy it is for us to live day-by-day without really properly seeing the world around us. In this case the cage is a metaphor for the religious worldview, and how it shapes the way we experience the world, how it structures our sense of what is true or not, and how it guides our decision making. The question is, once we notice that the door to the cage is open: are we better off with the security of the cage, or are we willing to take a risk for the freedom found by leaving it behind?

We do in fact live in many different kinds of mental "cages" without even realizing they are there. The religious worldview is only one such cage. The mental cages we live in shape our view of events, nature, and other people. They guide us and limit us in how we navigate and interpret the world. They color our preferences and determine our habits. Their sturdy scaffolding establishes order and structure in our memories and our knowledge. All of our exposure to the world, our opportunities for new learning and new experience, our perceptions of our surroundings are filtered through the grid of our mental cages.

We can learn a lot of we pay attention to the difference between the world as it actually is, and as it appears to us within the safety of our mental cages. Our mental cages help us by structuring our habits, which are shortcuts that enable us to go about the important routines of daily life without having to rethink and reinvent the wheel every step of the way. We can sense this when we stop to think about how we walk through our house, when we speak in our native language, cook a favorite oft prepared meal, drive through a familiar city, play a sport with skill or a musical instrument with accomplishment. We don't even think about how much we are relying on patterns embedded in our brains, patterns which are unconsciously acessible to automatically drive and determine our habitual behaviors.

The security that comes from these habitual mental cages becomes apparent only when we compare the changes that occur because of the passage of time, or translation across space, or when learning a new language, a new recipe, a new game, or a new musical instrument.  Think about how easily and thoughtlessly we move about in our own homes. Even if we get up in the middle of the night we can walk about in the dark; but try walking around in the dark when you are a guest in a strange house. It's quite easy to bruise a shin, twist an ankle, or break a vase. When we drive in our home city we barely have to think about where we are going; we know all the turns, the one-way streets, we go left and right by memory while we think about other things or engage in conversation. But rent a car in a strange city and suddenly we must focus very carefully, we feel disoriented and can easily get lost or make a mistake that nearly causes an accident.

This same kind of change can occur in our moral views. Our moral view of the world is a mental cage as well, and it gives us the same security and ease of thinking about our world as does our memory of local streets or a familiar recipe. We do not have to deliberate painstakingly from scratch every time we make a value judgement. We form views and we operate using them from habit. But think about how our society had to argue over slavery 150 years ago; today that seems inconceivable. Think about the arguments over segregation and Jim Crow laws that took place just 50 years ago. Today it seems unimaginable that any discussion should be required; what was controversial then seems obviously right today. And what about your own views during your life time: how have they changed? Do you view inter-racial marriage, or homosexuality differently today than you did 50, or 40, or 30 years ago? These changes are not a loss of moral standards, a slippery slope of moral decay. They are elevations of human consciousness; these changes involve human beings learning to be more inclusive and more understanding of a broader range of expressions of human identity, human longing, human goals and needs. These expansions of human moral inclusiveness represent growth in the human family we all consider ourselves to equally belong to. And they also represent people abandoning or reshaping the mental cages that in the past led them to make unconscious unthinking negative mental judgements of people that today they see as normal human beings deserving of respect, patience, and tolerance. 

In the case of the religious worldview, for example, we axiomatically assume that human beings (or even pets) contain something immaterial and eternal that survives the death of the body. This immaterial entity retains memories of life, of loved ones, has the ability to see what is happening anywhere on earth, to read people's thoughts, and to be "present" or "looking down" somehow at the social gatherings of those they loved during life.  This happy notion provides much pleasure and comfort to the living. It is a poetic sentiment that enables the living to speak of the deceased as if they had never died, and to speak in terms that emphasize happy memories while sublimating the painful realities of death and loss. This is the shield of security provided by the cage. But at what cost?

This same sense that people survive their death may lead us to be less compassionate and more judgmental of someone sentenced to death. We may reason that if a person is unjustly executed at least they will have a second chance at fair judgment in God's eyes. We may feel that our soldier's deaths are for a good cause and the harm is reduced because it will only allow them to go to a "better place", rather than recognizing them as the ultimate end of lives extinguished irreversibly and finally. And the ultimate horror caused by the belief in life after death is the error committed by those who martyr their lives for the sake of their God, who they apparently imagine is helpless to exercise his own will, and who must rely on the carnage of mindless devotees splattering and tearing and incinerating their flesh and limbs and guts.

So the mental cage of belief in life after death is one that allows us to shield ourselves from the pain of loss when nature's inevitable call comes for one we love. And it allows us to imagine ourselves to be immortal, larger than life, larger and greater than we know we really are. This self-indulgent habit of the mind enables us also to be careless about the lives of others, to disrespect and degrade life because we imagine that, like a character in a video game, it will magically pop back into play in a better place.

Perhaps the world would be a better place if we acknowledged the loss of life as final, and that we had better protect and defend and respect our living and breathing brothers and sisters more carefully, more compassionately, and more attentively than do those who are still bound inside of the mental cage of religion and the belief in life after death, which allows them to so carelessly imagine that death is not final.


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The most difficult cage to leave is the one we build from the belief systems that provide us with the most psychological and emotional comfort. Science and reason very often serve us well, but when some charlatan skews the data, we end up exploring disappointing paths to opps, that's not right... hmmm. I'm one of the most religious non-believers I know of... yet in the pinch with a smashed fingernail it involuntarly comes out, "Godamnit!!!"
All well and good, but you're making some assumptions about religion in general that I don't think apply everywhere very closely. I belong to a religion that certainly doesn't have its concepts of God date from the fourth century. My religion does not emphasize the afterlife much at all, regarding life as sacred and as the main event. My religion views conduct as a greater priority than faith. The movement/sect I belong to within my religion updates morality pretty aggressively, particularly when it comes to issues involving gender and orientation. My religion has a long history of producing activist humanists.

If you're talking about Christianity, say so. If you aren't, make a better case.
I find myself saying "Thank God" fairly often; that doesn't mean anything though. It's a linguistic cultural artifact. It means about the same as "what a relief", or "how lucky is that." I think the words soul and spirit ought to still have use as poetic metaphors, but since their meaning is so deeply associated with supernatural beliefs, I try to avoid them unless I'm talking specifically about their non-existence. I guess I feel the benefit of the metaphorical non-supernatural meanings is less than the harm of perpetuating confusing old myths in my view.

I'll say God damn now and then too. I suppose a believer might want to claim this as a gotcha moment, sort of a corollary to the popular claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. But then Pat Tillman was a counter example to that. The soldier next to him, Bryan O'Neal, a Mormon, started praying in a panic when they were taking fire. Pat shouted at him to stop praying because it wasn't going to help. O'Neal opened his eyes and stopped praying. He credits Pat bringing him back to his senses with saving his life.

Anyway, science can lead us to errors, but it also has the means and the discipline to detect and correct errors when conflicting data arrives.
Am I talking about Christianity? Yes and no. Certainly so in the first several paragraphs because the context that started this off was an article about a Christian minister, and the references to the first/fourth centuries, the council of Nicea, and the doctrines of "God the Creator and Father, the Trinity, heaven and hell, the soul, resurrection, faith, and redemption" are all pretty unambiguously Christian.

But the ideas of deities and the afterlife pre-date Judaism, so a lot of what I write I feel applies to any religion with supernatural beliefs. I think current scholarship holds that the Hebrews originally had multiple gods, and that a superior sky god became ascendant around 1,000 BC. I think they finally arrived at monotheism around the 6th century BC, after the Babylonian captivity.

Religious ritual, magical thinking, animism, and other supernatural beliefs seem to go back around 30,000 years at least. So I'm talking about ways of thinking with an ancient provenance. Whether we talk about the 4th century, or the bronze age, or the stone age, these old habits have been around long enough in my opinion.

The idea of "mental cages" is a pretty general one, religious belief just being one specific instance. Moral beliefs exist independent of religion, so the section specifically about changing morals applies to all humans really.

But then religion tends to fix many different concepts into dogma and doctrine, not just morality but also metaphysical beliefs, such as creation myths and the nature of their deity or deities. I think this was one of the main points, and the after-life and the soul were specific examples of religious metaphysical truth claims that are quite common.

Within any faith, whether Christian, Judaism, Islam, or others there are groups that are more liberal and reforming, and those that are more orthodox or fundamentalist. Many people who identify as Jewish are actually atheists; and in a sense I'm culturally Christian even though I'm an atheist.

What I'm writing here was not meant either to specifically target Judaism or Jews, nor was it meant to exclude them, but I'm sure the ideas apply to some more than others. I guess most important to me in writing this was to convey that religious ideas and morals are more about subjective patterns of thought than they are about absolute truths of the natural world. They are more cultural and contingent than they are natural and absolute. In spite of this organized religions try to claim absolute truth, independent of anything human or physical or contingent; and these claims are often very hard to maintain because knowledge advances and leaves behind any or all claimants of fixed unchanging truth, unless those truths are empirically well established. Even the regular behavior of our sun is contingent, because in a few billion years it will expand, and then collapse into a red giant, 250 times its current size.
Sometimes the cage is a cage; sometimes it is a framework for a transcendent understanding. Your commentary offers an escape from that former circumstance, which is too often the case.
Sensible reply.
The only extent to which what adherents of any given religion thought a couple of millenia plus ago matters (other than historically) is the extent to which those beliefs currently survive. It is their survival that is your main point, though.