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Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s who?

Abbott: Yes.

We all know the famous routine. But have we stopped to think about why it is so funny, and why we can all relate to this kind of humor? Abbott and Costello are talking about two different things. They have different images in their heads, different perceptions of reality. I think that is why the humor is so universal – we have all experienced this when we’ve had arguments that stem from a fundamental miscommunication.

I have been following the Creationism/Intelligent Design/Theory of Evolution issue for some time now, and was interested to learn about Ben Stein’s upcoming documentary titled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” The premise of the film as I understand it is that “Big Science” has been working to suppress any questioning of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and that anyone with a dissenting viewpoint is blacklisted in the scientific community.

The problem that I have with the entire debate is not philosophical, not atheism (Science) vs. creationism (Religion). The problem I have is with the debate itself. The way I see it, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is an explanation for the question of how, and Intelligent Design is an explanation for the question of what. See the Abbott and Costello connection? We think we’re talking about the same thing, but in reality, the two sides are are not talking about the same thing at all. Related things, but not the same things.

We can observe evolution in action. Ask anyone who has bred domestic animals or fiddled with fruit flies in biology class. Evolution explains the process by which the earth went from a primordial soup of emerging proteins to a planet teeming with life forms of amazing biological complexity. It does not attempt to explain the creation or origin of the universe.

Scientists see evolutionary processes at work, and individually they may or may not believe that a creator, or some kind of universal intelligence, set those processes in motion. Creationism/Intelligent Design calls this intelligence God. Since we cannot prove the non-existence of something, there is little value, in my opinion, in debating the existence of God. Atheists see no evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does not exist. Creationists see evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does exist. These opposing views likely will never be reconciled even if empirical evidence one way or another is discovered. People can be stubborn creatures and will believe what feels right to them, what fits into their experience of the world.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that human beings are classified as apes, and share a common ancestry with chimpanzees and gorillas. They often incorrectly distill anthropological information into an indignant sound byte: “those scientists are trying to get me to believe that I evolved from apes.” It has emotional pull. We like to consider ourselves as special and somehow removed from the evolutionary process that drives life on earth. We wear shoes. We eat with forks and knives. We create art. We make love in private. Well, most of us.

Personally, I’m OK with my relationship with chimpanzees and all other creatures on earth. I don’t have an emotional stake in it, other than being continually amazed at the beauty and complexity of life, and feeling privileged to be able to observe and feel such wonder, such communion. On a human level, in terms of how we relate to one another, how we treat each other and how we interact with nature, religion can serve a valuable purpose. Ideally it can help us to understand that we need connections, that we need a moral code in order to live our lives in harmony so that we can sustain ourselves and our place in nature now and in the future.

Creationism is a human concept of what, or perhaps more specifically, who, is responsible for the origin of all things in existence. Who’s on first, so to speak. This is something that science can neither prove nor disprove; at least it can’t yet. This leaves us up to our own imaginations, our religions and our cultures to explain and debate. This is something that is part of the human experience, something that we can discuss in social studies classes, in church and around the table. Evolution is likewise part of the human, or really global, experience, something we can discuss and debate in science classes, in church and around the table. They are related topics, often leading into one another and twisting around each other. But they are also different ideas, answers to two different questions. We need to treat them as such.

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Lend me your ears and I’ll tell you a story…” (opening line of a song written by my father)

Stories are powerful. Stories can shape our entire outlook on life, our belief systems, our sense of identity. Storytelling ’round the fire has been an integral form of human communication from time immemorial. Think of all the stories you have cataloged in your brain – the stories your mother or father told you before bed, Aesop’s fables, fairy tales, war stories, nightmare birth stories, I-knew-a-guy-who stories, stories meant to give us some nugget of wisdom and guidance in how to live our lives.

Growing up I always loved fairy tales, but not just any fairy tales. They had to contain an element of darkness, of danger, of the macabre in order to appeal to me. In fact, I would argue that, by definition, an effective fairy tale must contain this element. Beauty has no purpose unless there is also a beast. According to Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid didn’t get her man in the end; she returned to the ocean, alone and defeated, in the form of sea foam, riding atop the crests of waves for eternity. I liked how the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty retained a sense of darkness and gloom (despite still straying wildly from the Grimm version). The wolf actually ate the duck, and likewise gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Disney, while ever in the business of happy endings, seems now to completely omit the macabre from its source stories. I was fascinated when I learned not too long ago that during times of famine in Medieval Europe parents sometimes sacrificed one or more of their children (often depositing them deep into the woods) so that the rest of the family might survive on their meager rations. Wide-eyed German children listening to the story of little Hansel and Gretel likely had reason to be afraid – very afraid.

Stories can be powerful tools to inspire fear; mothers often employ every child’s natural terror of monsters and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night to elicit good behavior from their children lest the bogeyman come and get them. Campfire stories exploit our natural human fear, as diurnal creatures, of the dark shadows and sounds unseen in the night, to delicious, spine-tingling effect.

Using this exact same concept, people have been led to believe some pretty amazing things. Think of all the ways, according to certain religious faiths, that you can get yourself a one way ticket to an afterlife of eternal misery and suffering. Or, conversely, the things you must do in order to experience eternal bliss. Think of the kind of power people can amass when we believe they hold and distribute the tickets.

Stories are the tools we use to pass on our beliefs, our ways of life, to the next generation, even when we aren’t aware that we’re telling them. We can tell our children stories about bad kinds of people and good kinds of people, and they will believe us. When people are dependent and trusting, we have almost limitless power.

Looking at the world stage, from prehistory to the present and beyond, from times of peace and war, ease and suffering, to everyday acts of personal violence and valor, I’m always asking myself these questions: Which stories are being told? Who is telling them? Who is competing with whom in the storytelling contests, and what are the agendas? How do we decide which stories we will believe? Which ones will we tell our children?

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A reader recently left the following comment on my “about” page. (Sorry, Marjana, I’m going to delete it since I’m addressing your question here in a lengthy post and, well, no offense or anything but I kind of like my about page to just be my personal “about” statement). Anyway, here is the question:

Hello. I was wondering whether or not you ever looked into what Islam has to say about the world…its perspective of reality…? Just curious. I take it you are not one to be fooled by the news media and what it has to say about Islam. I take it that you are one to read with an open mind/heart and not with prejudice/bias.

First of all, I’m happy that I come across as open minded. That’s what I strive to be. Second, I’m not going to go into what the question may or may not imply. Well, I will a little bit. I don’t know if Marjana is Muslim or not, and I think the answer would make a difference in how I read the question. At any rate, here goes:

1) It is commonly understood (meaning I am not going to provide sources) that the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago resulted in people organizing themselves into larger groups such as towns and cities. This seemed to first occur in the “fertile crescent,” the area of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also the Nile delta. When large groups of people come together, there must be some way of keeping order so that people can go about their daily lives in relative comfort and safety.

2) There seems to be a universal human tendency to feel that there must be a force larger than us, a being or intelligence that gave rise to all of the amazing aspects of life on earth. When good things happen to us, we must somehow be in the favor of this being, and when bad things happen, we must have done something to displease this power.

3) Over the course of the next several thousand years, people living in the fertile crescent developed some pretty complex civilizations, with many different religious systems. Often rulers claimed the divine right of kings; that is, they themselves were divine and had the approval of the gods to rule the people. To question the authority of your leader was to question the will of the gods. Religious systems often were nature-based, with animals, agricultural symbols and even insects taking on religious significance in the turning of the agricultural seasons.

4) One group of people, the Jews, were among those who believed in a single, all-powerful deity, rather than a hierarchy of different gods. This monotheistic group believed that God was intimately involved in human affairs – he could bring his wrath upon humans for their wrongdoing, and could likewise smile upon them with grace and love. Monotheism began to spread throughout the Middle East.

5) Religious upheaval and changes mirror human upheaval and change. Jesus, the humble Jewish prophet, arose at a time of great social unrest, at a time of conflict when many changes were afoot. Likewise, 600 years later Mohammad, the Arabian prophet, also arose at a time when things were rapidly changing (mainly due to trade and broader contact with the greater world) on the tribal Arabian peninsula. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, came to prominence during a time of rapid expansion and change in America and gave birth to the first homegrown Christian religion (some would say sect or cult) in this country.

6) For a religion to be successful long term, it has to be flexible in order to reflect the changing needs of the society it serves. For example, the early Christians worked with the Pagans, or nature-based religious adherents, to incorporate their rituals and beliefs into the growing Christian tradition. The winter solstice became Christmas (the birth of the Sun/the birth of the Son). The spring equinox and all of its fertility rituals became the return of the Sun/Son to earth. As people change, so too do religions. Religions that do not adequately reflect or address human needs, desires, fears or joys will eventually be amended or die out in favor of something else.

7) Peoples’ faiths have been used, for many thousands of years, as a means to control and manipulate people. This doesn’t mean that religions are bad. It means that abusers of power are bad. According to Mohammad, the only requirement in order to become a Muslim is to submit to the will of God. Unfortunately, the holders of power were generally the ones who got to decide what the will of God was, depending on their particular agenda. They are still doing this. Those with an agenda are telling young, disenfranchised people with no prospects that the will of God is to martyr themselves (and those within the reach of the explosives they carry on their bodies) in order to further their political goals.

8) Christianity and Judaism, as religious faiths, are flexible in the sense that today they can exist and flourish within secular states. Islamic leaders, on the other hand, tell people that there cannot be a separation between faith and government. Islamic law must also be state law. Again, this is not necessarily an inherent flaw within Islam specifically – it is a flaw of the people who use Islam to further an agenda, in the same way the Spanish Inquisitors used Catholicism to abuse their power, in the way Rome ruled political affairs in Europe.

9) Because of internal problems and external meddling, Middle Eastern societies are in turmoil and appear to be collapsing. One of my favorite sayings is, “there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.” How true this seems to be in regard to acts of terrorism.

10) I studied Islam for a year in college (using the excellent Marshall Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam” as a guide), and have come to no profound conclusions. People are imperfect creatures. People and societies under certain types of stress behave in predictable ways. The Germans under the weight of reparations after WWI were easily seduced by the Nazis, who gave them somebody to blame. Islam itself is not the problem. The political upheaval that has been going on in the Middle East for the last two thousand years is causing pressure cracks, and things are about at the tipping point, especially as world demand for oil increases, while supply decreases. It’s a whole big mess, and if it weren’t nutty terrorists who happen to be Muslim, it would be somebody else. If it weren’t for the Jews and Palestinians, it would be some other toxic combination. The recipe for this particular type of disaster is flexible like that.

Does this answer the question of how I think Islam in particular views the world? No, it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really possible for a non-Muslim to answer this question comprehensively. But I view Islam as a religious path that contains many truths, yet ultimately gets snagged on the particulars of how people should live their lives. I think all dogmatic faiths have this in common. However, as members of the human species, religious or not, we need to ask ourselves: do our actions help make the world a better place? Or do they cause yet more suffering and misery? After all, we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.

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