It Takes a Different Person…

… to be a Christian.

… to be a Christian and then an atheist.

Not different like, “Um… that’s different.” Not a different kind of person — a different person, period – a person who’s been transformed into somebody else.

That was message losers like me got when we became Christians. It came in stentorian tones, right out of the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Romans 12:2 ESV

Transformation is the ultimate makeover — a change to our form – how we’re shaped, constituted, put together. Transformation alters self and life by rewiring our brain and all the biological functions that feed it. It starts in our “mind” – sense of identity, worldview, perspective, biases — what we see and don’t see, the way we habitually experience the world — and extends from there to the entire ecosystem that is who we are and how we live, inside and out. On the inside, transformation is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside, transformation is sociological, communal, societal, institutional.

Formation is growing up and growing into. Transformation is growing out of and into something else. Transformation gets started lots of ways — trauma, financial and job stress, health issues, moves, big decisions, surprises — but belief might be the most powerful.

Belief is transformational by definition. Belief conforms us to its realities — we don’t just believe this or that, we become people who believe this or that. Once we become those people, we carry on life accordingly, alongside other like-minded believers. Belief shapes our minds individually and collectively, which shapes our behavior so that we think, do, see, say, and are the right stuff. Belief results in a constant, moment by moment steeping, soaking, marinating, saturating of the brain and the rest of our neuro-biological architecture with all the requisite doctrines and dictates, rites and rituals needed to generate conforming actions, experiences, thoughts, impressions, responses, and sensibilities, which in turn generate conforming identity and behaviors.

While that’s happening on the inside, everything on the outside goes with it. Life reshapes itself –environment, community, culture, customs – around what we believe, informing what we see, hear, and feel, what we’re surrounded with and immersed in, what we think about, our assumptions and expectations, how we respond emotionally, how we dress and decorate ourselves and our environments, who we hang out with and who we avoid, where we live and don’t live, what we own and don’t own, what we eat and don’t eat, what we wear and won’t be caught dead wearing, what we do for work and fun and… the whole package.

We learn to believe by growing into it physically –belief takes up residence in our cellular structure. The more we practice what we believe, the more our biological selves conform our experience of “reality” to what we believe. Since that belief-based “reality” authenticates what we believe, we believe it more fervently. And around we go in a self-reinforcing loop, becoming stronger and more rooted in our belief, inside and out.

Belief fully formed sinks its roots into the deepest, oldest, most evolutionary and instinctive parts of our brains, where it becomes a survival skill. At this point, our lives depend on what we believe. When our beliefs are threatened, we are at risk.

We believe, we live. We don’t believe, we die.

That’s why we hold our beliefs so fervently, defend them so ferociously — doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on belief keeps us safe. Belief does all that for our own good.

Belief makes sure we are assimilated.

Belief makes sure we stay assimilated.

And yes, resistance is futile.

We transform only when we have to. Transformation is about adapting and reacting, but our brains trend to status quo and predictability. Their default setting is entropy, the current trajectory. Left unchecked, transformation is ongoing, in constant movement. Our brains won’t allow it. So we hunker down, settle in, dig in, calcify, resist, isolate, polarize, fortify.

It takes psychic dynamite to dislodge our beliefs.

I had to become a new person to be a Christian. When I drifted away, I had to become a new person to not believe anymore. It’s not that the Christian person I used to be somehow came up with a different opinion about God. Instead, I became a different person –zapped, scrambled, rearranged, shifted – and God became irrelevant. To my former self, “atheist” was never an option. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a different person in a new place, with no way to get back. That different person was an atheist — a nonbeliever, one of the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I didn’t decide my way into that much change. I had to be transformed to get there.

Transformation is change too big to be measured, described, or understood, — change that rampages, doesn’t respect, isn’t abashed. It had no problem propelling me to where I could never have possibly gone.

“Transformation” sounds so spiritual. We have this idea that it’s going to be cool – we’ll be more aware, enlightened. So we take vacations and patronize spas, head to a monastery for a week of silence. Churches sponsor retreats, corporations lay out five-star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works: put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new feelings. What used to be unthinkable and impossible becomes your new to-do list. The new normal is imminent, yours for the taking — transformation on demand.

Then comes re-entry. Go away and get inspired, then try to take it back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking. The old normal can’t tolerate it.

You forgot something. You can’t just paste all that newness on your old self, your old life. Do that, everything rips apart. You need to become new. The reason you’re not already doing the new thing is because you’re not a person or organization that does the new thing. If you were, you’d already be doing it. Duh. You want to do the new thing, you need to be transformed. You need to be made new so that you can do and be new. Trying to mix old and new just isn’t going to work. That’s in the Bible too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

Books about new wine and new wineskins were making the rounds in my early Christian days. They were books you could use at retreats – fodder for earnest conversations and strategizing — new spurred on by resounding sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. You didn’t have to know who he was or actually read anything he wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own. Apparently transformation could be a major downer. Well, maybe that worked for a 16th Century mystic, but the rest of us had jobs.

On the way out of Christianity I crashed for awhile in the self-help world and thought it would be cool to be one of those speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “this seminar changed my life” reviews. But then I started to think I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine. Transformation is messy, mean, uncaring. I didn’t wish it on anybody, so I started telling attendees that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes – they would find themselves in the throes of transformation. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. I got the impression people thought I was doing a reverse psychology number on them. After awhile I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters. When trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out. Fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence.

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.

You might join the ranks of the nonbelievers and wonder what wormhole you went through to get there.

That’s what happened to me.

You might be next.

It Takes a Different Person to be a Christian and Then an Atheist

Not a different kind of person, but a different person, period.

You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself.

Other people don’t either. There’s something different about you, hard to say what – a different energy maybe, like your wiring got scrambled.

That kind of different is why I’m not a Christian anymore. The old me didn’t change my mind about God; I became a new person, and God didn’t fit anymore. It wasn’t just a tweak here and there, but the whole ecosystem of me — self, life, world, inside and out – got shifted, zapped, scrambled, rearranged to the point that it’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore, it’s that I can’t. I’m repulsed by the idea. I’m stunned, shocked, and amazed by what I used to believe. I wonder how I could have. What was I thinking?

Now here I am — a nonbeliever, among the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I never would have believed it. Atheist wasn’t possible – it was never on the life choices list. It still isn’t. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a new person in a new place, with no way to get back. It wasn’t change, it was transformation.

“Transformation” has grandiose overtones. It sounds spiritual. We talked about transformation when I was a Christian. It’s right there in the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2 ESV

The context and the rest of verse is dressed up with pious isn’t-transformation-going-to-be-wonderful language. No it’s not. It’s going to tear you down, and everything else with it. Transformation is destructive and painful, a depressing grind. Try to make big changes and everything comes unglued. I don’t wish it on anybody.

Transformation is inside and outside – the entire ecosystem that is you and your life. Ecological change on the inside is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside it’s sociological, communal, societal, institutional. When transformation has made a mess of all that it’s just getting warmed up. Now you’ve got to figure out how to carry all that into a new life.

Good luck with that.

Personal ecosystem change is why we take vacations and patronize spas, go to a monastery for a week of silence. It’s why churches sponsor retreats, why corporations lay out five star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works:  put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new things. What was unthinkable and impossible before became your new to do list.

Personal ecosystem change is why re-entry is so hard – go away and get inspired, then try to take what happened out there back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking out there. Meanwhile you’re scheming to turn no-way-I-can-go-back into the new normal. All that inspiration and new thoughts while you’re away vs. all that dread and drudgery when you go back to the grind – it’s evidence of ecological change.

Self-help is fraudulent pseudo-religion for a lot of reasons, but it’s biggest fraud is that it doesn’t tell us about the need for ecosystem change if we want to make big changes in our lives. Self-help makes it sound like we can just paste some new things onto what we already are, have, and do. Nope. Won’t work. The reason we’re not already doing the new thing is because we’re not the kind of person who does the new thing. If we were, we’d already be doing it. Duh. If we want to do the new thing, we need to be transformed.

“Transformed” is change on an ecological/systemic scale. That means nothing left out. Nothing left out means this is going to hurt. A big part of the trouble is that transformation can’t mix old and new — get far enough into the process and the old is out for good. That’s in the Bible, too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

There were a couple popular books about new wine and new wineskins making the rounds in my early Christian years. (The Taste of New Wine and Wineskins.) They were the kind of influential books you could use at ecological change retreats – lots of earnest conversations and strategizing ways to make the new wine flow, like getting people into home Bible study and prayer groups, plus lots of great sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Our understanding of the concept was silly shallow. Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. Nobody actually read what the 16th Century mystic wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own:  transformation could be a major downer — not something you preach about on Tithing Pledge Sunday. If it got mentioned at all, “dark night” transformation got a makeover into something like a bad case of the flu you could get over.

The real thing?

Not so much.

I once thought it would be cool to be one of those self-help speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “you changed my life” reviews. But then I started to worry that I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine when I decided it was time to believe my way into my dreams – just like you’re supposed to. So I started telling audiences that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. Every would changed, and they’d have to deal with it and it would be no fun. I think people thought I was doing some kind of reverse psychology number on them. When it was clear they weren’t believing me, I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters – when trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel like at least we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out, fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence. We enter what science and environment writer April Reese calls The Fog of Grief.[1]

“I was a churning maelstrom of emotions: sadness, confusion, anger, disbelief, fear, regret, guilt. At times in those first hours, days and weeks after his death, it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I forgot things. Fatigue was a constant, no matter how much I slept. I came to understand what Joan Didion meant in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a chronicle of her grief over the loss of her husband, when she wrote: ‘I realised for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.’

“This fog of grief, it turns out, is as common as grief itself. When the neurologist Lisa Shulman lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, ‘there was some serious sadness, but that wasn’t the main problem,’ she recalls. ‘It was the disorientation. I felt like I was waking up in a completely alien world. Because the whole infrastructure of my daily life was fundamentally gone.’

“She found herself becoming lost in time, ending up in familiar places without knowing how she got there, she recalls. ‘It’s not simply a matter of discomfort or anxiety. It’s frightening,’ she says. ‘Because you feel like, as Didion said long ago, you feel like you’re going crazy.’

“Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviours that ensure our survival, takes centre stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the centre of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.

“‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’

“That perception of threat means that our survival response – ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in, and stress hormones flood the body. The work of the psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor at the University of Arizona and others has found heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bereaved.

“While the cortisol is flowing fast, the brain remakes itself – at least temporarily – to help us endure the trauma of grief. In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centres of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. Brain scans of the bereaved show that grief activates parts of the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’. Among the limbic regions impacted are the amygdala, which governs the intensity of emotions and threat perception; the cingulate cortex, involved in the interplay between emotions and memory; and the thalamus, a sort of relay station that conveys sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s information-processing centre.

“So my inability to form coherent sentences or remember what I opened the refrigerator to get is nothing to be worried about, Skritskaya assures me; my brain has simply powered down my thinking to enable me to tolerate the loss. The tradeoff is fuzzy cognition – what I’ve come to describe to friends as ‘grief brain’.

“‘Grief takes up a lot of bandwidth in the brain,’ Shulman writes in her book. ‘Odd behaviour and incoherence are expected consequences of the brain’s protective responses following emotional trauma.’”

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Ecological change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.


[1] The Fog of Grief: The five stages of grief can’t begin to explain it: grief affects the body, brain and sense of self, and patience is the key Aeon Magazine (Aug. 10, 2021).

The Trouble is, We Believe

Belief is something humans do.

Beliefism is belief metastasized — belief unmoored, unhinged, runaway, with no object but its own self-referenced purification.

Every belief carries the seed of beliefism– the potential to grow into something toxic, with no purpose but to propagate more of itself.

Which is why…

Belief is a clear and present danger.

Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and so we don’t — we just go around believing things like it’s no big deal. What we believe is a big deal. We should be more careful.

We’re probably careless because belief makes life feel better. It provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic, fired up to do great things.

Belief is how we get to act like God.

Belief is how we create worlds, build civilizations, found nations. Belief anchors us in collective and individual identity, defines who’s us and who’s them, carves out space for us in the world. Our brains are wired to value those things.

Our brains are wired to believe.

Belief is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care what’s believed, what’s fact or fake. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality. Our brains have a bad case of “whatever.” If we want to believe it, they’re good with it.

Belief isn’t choosy.

Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. It’s amoral, indiscriminate, undiscerning. Belief only makes self-referential judgments — what conforms to the thing believed and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish and ban.

Our brains don’t discriminate.

Our brains readily swap belief in this for belief in that — religion, science, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives… they’re all the same.

Belief is fun.

Beliefism is about getting inspired, believing impossible dreams, going for it, realizing your unique calling, becoming your authentic self – all those things that make Hollywood and self-helpers and entrepreneurial heroes rich and famous.

Sound familiar?

Belief has been king in the New World for 400 years. The New World brought it from the Old World, where it was king for millennia. Belief is America’s root religion. It gave us the Puritans. Now it gives us the self-helpers, alternative healers, life coaches, and evangelizing Christians and atheists. We do belief in the USA. We’re belief experts. We got it down.

But there’s more:  belief morphs into beliefism.

Beliefism is when belief goes public. It’s the Unicorn IPO, the blockbuster premiered. In psychological terms, beliefism is when belief emerges – moves beyond internal subjectivity and takes on form and substance in external human reality, becomes ideology, builds institutions, develops its own mythology and metaphors, becomes law and economics, dictates cultural norms.

Beliefism turns what’s believed into knowledge.

Beliefism is evident in a street evangelist’s pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” he said, “so there must be a God who does.” He could have understood but he didn’t. He took a shortcut – he believed instead of knowing. Then he reversed the order:  his belief became knowledge — he knew what he believed.

Beliefism is unethical.

Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it. Beliefism has no ethics – it runs in a circle; there’s no outside reference, no checks and balances, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it. Belief is unaccountable, therefore unethical.

Beliefism polarizes.

Beliefism separates who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe. It manages entrances and exits, reinforces conformity, and punishes dissent.

Beliefism radicalizes.

Once it’s got a cause, beliefism takes it to an extreme. Belief becomes fundamentalism. If you’re not with us you’re against us. No neutrality. You go to the edge or you suffer and die.

Beliefism trends to fundamentalism

Fundamentalism decrees doctrine, prescribes ritual; banishes and punishes discourse, doubt, and dissent. It builds silos and hunkers down; lobs bombs at them. Fundamentalism can be religious or secular – same dynamics either way.

Beliefism practices mind control.

Beliefism runs on brain conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults are built on mind control. Every belief-fueled cause is a cult in the making. Nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions… they’re all built on mind control. None of them exist if we don’t believe them into existence. The process of entering and sustaining membership is the same no matter what.

Beliefism lives in our blind spots.

Beliefism runs in stealth mode. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality — we just know the reality that emerges from it.

Beliefism promotes delusional thinking.

Beliefism removes belief from examination and critical thinking. Unmoored belief trends to delusion. You become a danger to yourself and others. Your risk/return matrix warps. You drink the Kool-Aid. You storm the Capitol. You flock to super spreader events.

There’s good neuroscience behind beliefism.

Beliefism works because we’re biological beings. We’re powered by hormones, chemicals, electrical charges. We believe from the inside out — our bodies and brains construct our reality from what’s around us, including how other people are constructing reality. We share perspective with each other and a shared reality emerges. We build things together to support and perpetuate that reality — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons. The “higher” portions of our brains dream all this up, the “lower” portions keep it rolling.

That warning label idea is no joke.

Beliefism has hurt a lot a people for a long time. It still does. It hurt me. It might be hurting you.

Maybe we should talk about it.

We Seriously Need to Get Over Our Addiction to Ancient Wisdom

Where did we get the idea that Ancient Wisdom is such hot stuff?

You shrug. You don’t know, you never thought about it. I hadn’t either.

An “ancient wisdom” Google search generated the usual 89 million results in 0.65 seconds. The first couple pages were mostly life coaches trying to out-reverence each other.

Lesson learned:  call what you’re peddling ancient wisdom, and you’ll sell more of it. (Remember the opening of The Secret promo movie?)

Not exactly the answer I had in mind.

Ancient wisdom is an assumption:  of course it’s better than anything we might think of on our own — everybody knows that! It’s better because it’s… well, because it’s… un, because it’s really old… it’s so old it’s… ancient.

Sigh.

We assume ancient wisdom will give us an edge – rocket us from clueless to competitive. I mean, those ancients, they had it going. They’re the Who’s Who of Law, Art, Philosophy, Religion, History, Literature… The ancient texts. The ancient ways. The ancient teachings. The ancient books. The ancient heroes. The ancient incarnations of gods walking the Earth. Miles and piles of traditions and holidays and customs. Wars, wars, and more wars. Greed and evil, corruption and cruelty, with a sprinkle of nobility now and then. On and on and on… Ancient this, ancient that.

Ancient is most potent when it’s sacred ancient, which is as close to God as you can get. God is old – really old, older than old, older even than ancient. That means sacred ancient-ness is next to godliness.

Sigh.

We’re so addicted to ancient wisdom that we’re blind to our addiction, which makes it hard to talk about. It seems obvious, like asking why we breathe.

  • We breathe to live.
  • We revere ancient wisdom because we breathe.

Or something like that.

When’s the last time ancient wisdom made your life better? I mean really better, not just “I believe this old stuff will improve my life” better?

Here’s the problem (one of many):  We think those guys (yes, guys – ancient pronouns are definitely male) were just like us, living the same kinds of lives, dealing with the same kinds of issues, so that what they thought about how life works can help us out.

Not so.

This is the time travel problem:  the idea that if we could zap ourselves forward or backward in time we’d still be us, the same as we are now, only with some adjusting to do — so if we time-travelled Socrates into today, the bedsheet clothes would have to go, and he’d need a shower and probably a trip to the dentist, but otherwise with the help of Google Translate he’d fit right in.

Not a chance.

Humans function in context. We feel, don’t feel, think, don’t think, act, don’t act… see, perceive, conclude, decide, and all their opposites… only in context. We happen in the moment because that’s all we’ve got. We have no experience except here and now, and everything about our experience comes from our brains’ processing what we’re experiencing. We take in all the external stimuli – through our senses, through spatial and subliminal biological connections –and our brains process it all internally. The amalgamation becomes “reality.” A little of that happens consciously; most of it doesn’t. To the extent we’re aware, we are conscious only in context.

Ancient context was different. Ancient people and their ancient reality were different. The ancient human consciousness that created ancient reality was different. We and our reality and consciousness are different from theirs. We are not like those guys. They weren’t like us. If we could ever meet – which we can never do, not even metaphorically or intellectually or otherwise – we would barely recognize them as human. They would return the favor. We’d both notice the naked ape resemblance, but common ground would be hard to find. Maybe after some who-knows-how-long acclimation process we might learn to experience a new, shared context together. Until then, things would definitely be awkward.

We give ancient religion special status in our ancient addiction. We re-energize ancient events and teachings, beliefs and practices, by the application of our fervent belief. By our belief, we invest ancient relics and rituals with living virtue — antiquity reconstituted. We think we brought the ancient back to life, but that’s delusional because our believe is also processed in context – our current context. We’re making up the experience in the here and now. We cannot do otherwise.

Which loops us around back to where we started:  if we didn’t believe ancient wisdom is something special, we wouldn’t believe its relevance to us. And no, calling something “sacred” and “holy” and “eternal” and “immortal” doesn’t help — it still has to be processed through our mortal, temporal biology. We’re not creating ancient meaning and experiencing it in its original form — we’re only creating this moment’s version of it.

The best our believing can do is to treat ancient wisdom as what philosophers call a “first cause.” If you trace everything back through some impossibly tangled mega-gigantic cause and effect chain, you eventually get to the place where you can’t trace back anymore, so you need a “first cause” that gets the whole thing started.( Once you find the first cause, you sound like a parent:  “Because I said so, that’s why.” )

God is the first cause of choice. You can’t go further back than God, can’t prove or disprove God, you either believe in Him (yes, God’s pronouns are also male) or you don’t. Full stop. Ancient is the same way:  you either believe it’s good and true and valuable and worth fighting wars and making converts at gunpoint or sword point or on the rack or in the Inquisition or whatever… or you don’t. Belief is what makes ancient relevant, but when it does, it only gets the current version. Even if sacred holy other ancient could get a pass, there’s no sacred holy other compartment in our brains to process it.

Suppose we could break our ancient addiction habit – what would have to gain?

Ironically, the answer might be what we were after in the first place:  wisdom – the ability to think useful thoughts about what’s going on around us. Consider the following passage from a Pulitzer price-willing journalist, prolific author, and general awesomely intelligent and articulate human being, taken from I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, by Chris Hedges (2008).

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of consciousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others.

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

Nicely said.

We’re not such hot stuff, and neither is ancient wisdom. We’re not so in touch and in control as we’d like to think we are — in fact we bounce around and mutate all over the place – and always in context. We do our best to push back the night, still the churning seas, halt the careening clouds, tame the void to make it less awful. It’s worth the try – the effort, however vain, gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, agency. But we’re not going to banish our limitations by latching onto ancient wisdom, because the latching process ultimately takes place only in us. We are what we are in the context of the moment, just like those old guys were.

A bunch of old guys tried to figure things out. So do we.

Chances are they were about as good at it as we are.

Which isn’t saying much.

The God Syndrome: How the Puritans Destroyed Democracy

Would you buy a used car from this God?

Or share a beer with him?

Or marry him?

Or want him to be your dad?

Or run your company?

Or your country?

Well it depends.… What God are we talking about?

Ask “Do you believe in God?” in the U.S., and most people will say yes they do. (The current percentage ranges from 64% to 87% depending on how you tweak the question. See this Gallup poll.) Back in the postwar 1940’s through the 1960’s, the percentage was steady at around 97%. (See this Time Magazine summation.) But what God were those polls asking about?

  • The God of the Bible?
  • The God of “Christendom” — the loose amalgamation of European/American countries that had roots in The Church with a capital T and C?
  • Or are we talking about the God of this or that denomination, non-denominational parachurch, megachurch, lone-tree independent Bible church, living room Bible study, or men’s warrior weekend retreat?
  • Or can God just be some kind of mystical or transcendent spirit for the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd?
  • Or maybe a neighborly “Look, I’m kind of busy here, but okay, I’m not a religious person but yeah I think there’s a God”?

Baby Boomers like me grew up with a sort of Age of Enlightenment/ socially acceptable God. Miracles and taking the Bible literally had taken a hit back around the time the USA was declaring itself into existence. The Church survived thanks to its centuries-old institutional dominance and because people in the Western world still needed to believe in God to give meaning to their lives and structure to their societies. (Even Nietzsche worried that doing away with God would throw the human race into despair and anarchy.) As a result, God went with the flow, branching out like a river finding different courses that eventually take on prefixes like the “north fork,” “middle fork,” “south fork.”

One fork followed a course set in the late 1900’s by less conventional thinkers, who created a hybrid pseudo-scientific God that carried on the Age of Enlightenment preference for science and rationality while embracing the newly emerging social sciences, particularly psychology. That fork eventually drifted toward a more generalized “universal spirit” that became today’s “the Universe” as a God substitute.

The USA’s Roman Catholic loyalists and “mainline” Christian Protestant denominations hung onto ritualistic form while entertaining new substance. If church-going folk noticed, they were probably too busy to care:  from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the human races’ addiction to periodic savagery kept the citizens busy alternately patriotically supporting wars and cleaning up their messes. While the theologians and academicians reinvented God, the people kept showing up on Sundays and putting cash and weekly “pledge” envelopes in the offering plates.

In time, Christians could be Christians without ever having read the Bible, society could still function, the march of progress could still charge ahead, and the average paycheck-earning, family-raising American could still belong to a religious institution that took care of weddings, babies, and burials without making too many demands on anybody’s personal piety. Christianity became nominal – an American birthright, like citizenship – which is why I could go to college in the 1970’s and ask my new roommate what church he went to – a routine part of making acquaintance. (“I’m Jewish,” he replied. Oh brave new world!)

But for some, all this rational humanistic scientific touchy-feely religion was a serious problem. They were the Remnant – the Bible-believing literalist true believers, the true sons of the Protestant Reformation and worthy descendants of their Puritan New World early adopter forebears. Mostly, they were carrying the torch lit long ago by a New England hellfire and brimstone evangelist named Jonathan Edwards who set off an anti-Age of Enlightenment insurgency known as the “First Great Awakening” in 1741 with his signature sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (The Second Great Awakening came a century later in a storm of tent revivals.)The Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow gave us a steady supply and worldwide legacy of revivals, “church renewal” movements, Baptists and fundamentalists, early 20th Century tongue-speaking Pentecostals and the 60’s and 70’s Gifts of the Spirit “Charismatics,” and a whole host of fervency-generating events and movements that were big enough to be noticed but that mostly stayed around the edges of the mainstream.

And then a miracle happened.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the Remnant their stamped ticket to cultural dominance.

Along with belief in God, most Americans in 1973 believed that humans are “living souls” – each person an immortal divine personality placed in a mortal human body by the specific touch and intent of God. (A lot of Americans still believe that, it seems.) As a result, Roe v. Wade wasn’t about procreative biology, it was about the murder of God-given souls. The Remnant rose up in God-snorting fire-and-brimstone unity — the newly emerging Evangelicals morphed into the Christian Right, and God’s will became a political juggernaut.

All you really need to know about the Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow is the signature title of his sermon. But consider also Edwards’ famous conclusion that “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

I.e., if God is in a mood to feel charitably inclined toward us, we’re good. But if not…. we’re toast.

Burnt toast.

Literally.

The Remnant’s God is the Biblical God, which the “Good Book” describes as…

  • A “man of war.”
  • When he goes to war, the objective is genocide — men, women, children — no survivors. Except for the women kept alive for the soldiers to rape.
  • He’s misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic.
  • He is a most emphatically a “He” – a male — an iron-fisted patriarch.
  • He rules as an obsolete authoritarian. He is answerable and accountable to no laws, no moral or ethical codes – to nothing and no one. What He says goes and if you don’t like it you die – or suffer for a long, long time… forever, actually.
  • He doesn’t just want to be revered and worshiped, he demands it.
  • He has absolutely the lowest opinion of both those who revere and serve him and those who don’t. He teaches them that they’re flawed from birth, that no matter what they do, they can never please him. Each of them is born under a sentence of condemnation. But He expects them to try to make Him happy anyway. Good luck with that.
  • He has planned the total destruction of the Earth and all its people, has the means to do so, and threatens to do so at any moment.
  • After He destroys everything, if you’re on his bad side – which nearly every is – your fate is to be tortured and tormented forever. Of all the billions of people who’ve ever lived, only a few will be exempt from this destiny.
  • And all of that is a good thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the Biblical God is merciful and kind, and that He loves us?

There’s more where all that came from – lots more – all of it from the Bible, the source code for the three “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim). Christianity adds an addendum – the “New Testament” – which describes, among other things, how:

  • God arranged to have his “son” beaten, whipped, and tortured to death, even though he begged for mercy.
  • The purpose of which was to “save” the few “chosen” to “glorify” Him forever.
  • That was an expression of God’s “mere pleasure,” I guess.

The Remnant was created in this God’s image.

And it gets worse.

The Remnant has now become radicalized – turned into an armed cult, a belligerent, raucous, enraged mob ready, willing, eager, and able to do the bidding of the one they believe is God’s “Anointed” leader. Since the final year of the 2020 Presidential campaign through today, the Remnant has been openly at war with the USA’s democracy, intent on replacing it with their own fascist, authoritarian ideology, with the enthusiastic backing of their heroes in Congress and Commerce (the rise of the Christian Right perfectly coincided with the evangelistic overthrow of economics by the Friedman Free Marketers, giving us today’s Social Darwinist version of capitalism).

What we’re seeing is the Revenge of the Puritans.

The Founding Fathers convened in the context of the Jonathan Edwards vs. the Age of Enlightenment fight to the finish. They thought they had forged a new republic with appropriate safeguards to prevent the creation of the kind of God-sponsored theocracy their ancestors had escaped.

They were wrong.

If took nearly 250 years, but the Founders have finally lost. They can’t answer the Liberty Bell any more. It’s not just cracked, it’s been melted into swords along with the plowshares.

The Angry God and the Sinners in His Hands have overrun the gates of reason and science, ethics and the rule of law, all notions of community and “We the People,” and everything else in the Founders’ even-handed attempts at envisioning an enduring republic. They fawn over this God and his Anointed, reveling in his love and pleasure, carrying on as countlessothers have done for thousands of years, making sure that life is never anything other than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This God has been the face of Western Civilization for thousands of years — as long as written history – and still is. This God’s story is Western history — and not just Western history, but World history. And now, this God has entirely hijacked the USA’s history as well.

This God has poisoned the individual and collective minds of our entire species for so long that we can’t imagine life without Him.

This God is why the world’s dismal history keeps repeating itself.

We need to hold this God accountable. The trial would last an eternity. We don’t have time for it. We need to ban Him now, exile Him beyond discovery, beyond reclamation.

It will take time.

We have no time.

We need to get over this God. He has done unimaginable, incomprehensible damage to individual and collective lives for far too long. We need to write him out of our laws, our nations, our lives. We need to cleanse and detox our bodies and brains of Him.

The God Era needs to be over. We need to get over our God Syndrome.

We can’t imagine it.

We need to imagine it.

Because unless we banish this God, we cannot reinvent life to meet the challenges of the 21st Century and beyond. Because if our minds and cultures remain polluted and poisoned by our thoughts of this God and all the institutions and structures and… everything… the human race has created in His name from time immemorial… we will be unable to create anything other than in His image, as we have already done for millennia.

No of course there’s no hope that this could ever happen.

There needs to be hope that this could ever happen.

Because hope that it could ever happen is our only hope.

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 2]: The Supernatural

It’s Youth Group night at church; I’m a high school senior and have been tapped to give the sermon. I start with, “Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life.” Honest, that’s what I said. I remember writing it, I remember standing at the pulpit saying it. At home afterward my dad and my sister’s seminarian boyfriend (his name was Luther – honest) were snacking on roast preacher. “Where did you get that?” Luther asked, ‘Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life’ – where did you get that?” He was impressed. I don’t know, it was just an idea, it seemed obvious — religion is one of the things humans do.

Making Sense of Things

As we saw last time, religion is a “teleological”[1] strategy – it’s one of the ways we invest things, events people, ourselves, our lives, and life in general with purpose and meaning. For many people, religion and the supernatural are the go-to standard for teleological thinking.

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs’ are the best predictors of their ‘perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.’”[2]

The prefix “super” in “supernatural” means above, beyond, over, apart from. When we say supernatural, we mean there’s something or Someone out there that’s not limited to the natural world and flesh and blood, that has it all figured out, sees what we don’t see, knows that we don’t know, explains what we can’t explain, is better at life than we are. The supernatural is personified or objectified in what we call God, who has a better take than we’ll ever have: as author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Religion tries to teach us God’s view but generally accepts there are limits. Besides, if we could share God’s view, we wouldn’t need God anymore, we’d be God. Short of that, we can only believe God has view, and that it’s better, more complete, more perfect than our point of view. Which means that, compared to God, we and our existence are lesser, partial, flawed, while God represents the perfected version of us – what we would be if we could be God. And somehow, knowing that’s a comforting thought — I know it was for me when I first began to believe in God (a couple years after I gave that sermon), because at least God was better than the alternative, which was me having lost my bearings and making a mess of life.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[3]

Believe First, Then Rationalize

Enter the supernatural. Now I felt better. And once I was in, I backfilled the case for believing. Over the next few years I built my case, devouring Christian apologetics and other books that were making the rounds of my collegiate fellowship. That ancillary material became part of my new religious narrative, supporting the primary doctrinal narrative.

These days, neuro-psychological research indicates that we believe first, then rationalize. Rationalizing is not the same as acting rationally. Belief in the supernatural is a story – the story we tell about ourselves and our life that gives us identity and our life purpose and meaning. To the believer, it’s nonfiction – the way things really are, who they really are. If we’re not of similar persuasion, we may think it’s fiction – a fish story, or case of “teleological error”[4]. – but neither of us can prove the other wrong. Belief is ultimately indefensible and unassailable – it’s a “first thought” from which a host of others originate. Still, we like to think our beliefs are rational, chosen in the exercise of our own free will.

Free Will (or not)

Take away free will, and you take away a key sense of personal power. Free will gives us something we can do in the face of the apparent nonsense of life: we can stem the onslaught of meaninglessness by choosing to believe – in this case, in the supernatural. We still don’t understand, we still screw up, but at least we can rely on the supernatural to understand and model what we would be like if we weren’t so… mortal.

These days, neuro-psychology also challenges our usual assumptions about the self and free will, holding that our free will isn’t as free and intentional and rational as we’d like to think. Maybe so, but at least one leading brain scientist thinks that sometimes it might be better just to fool ourselves into believing we can choose what to believe – at least we’ll feel better.

“Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narratives or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going… These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them.

“This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic — an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effect on how we develop socially. … These thoughts and behavior may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. IN a sense, who we are comes down to those around us. We may be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even those emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors.

“We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the illusion.

“Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will — the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control.

“However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion… We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not.

“For example, I believe that the sentence that I just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually wanting it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.

“My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the discussion has been arrived at independently — a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of conscious of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

“Even if the self and our ability to exercise free will is an illusion, not all is lost. In fact, beliefs seem to produce consequences for our behavior.

“Beliefs about self-control, from wherever they may derive, are powerful motivators of human behavior.

“When we believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, we behave differently than those who deny the existence of free will and believe everything is determined.

“Maybe that’s why belief in free will predicts not only better job performance but also expected career success. Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues ,and this is recognized and rewarded by their superiors. So, when we believe in free will, we enjoy life more.

“The moral of the tale is that, even if free will doesn’t exist, then maybe it is best to ignore what the neuroscientists or philosophers say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”[5]

It seems we often greet paradigm-shifting scientific findings with a shrug. Maybe somebody in a lab coat figured something out, but there’s no apparent impact on us. Maybe somebody says free will is nothing more than the confluence of multiple neural pathways — okay fine, but we’ll take own misguided, self-deceptive sense of agency any day. It’s how we’re used to feeling, and there’s no apparent downside to contradicting a bunch of intellectual hooey. In fact, the downside is all on the side of science, which wants us to think there’s no point in anything.

Plus, if we believe in the supernatural, we enjoy the safety of numbers– especially if we live in the USA, where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of us believe in God, depending on how the question was asked. (By contrast, also in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 4% of Americans said they were atheists.[6])

For me personally, when I first learned about neuroscience’s case against free will, it didn’t feel devastating or hopeless, didn’t throw me into a pit of despair, didn’t make me want to wallow. It was weird, but no more. I was skeptical, and still assume there’s more to be discovered before we get the whole picture, but in time, I came to like the changes in outlook the absence of God and belief in God offered. Life and my place in it were cleaner and simpler somehow – if for no other reason that I no longer needed to expend the energy belief in the supernatural used to require.

The Religious Brain

Also back when I first got religion, I experienced something else current neuroscience tells us: that religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“Neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”[7]

The mutual reinforcement loop still operates, so that the brain steeped in religion gets better at religion, finds way to reinforce and substantiate its beliefs. As a result, the religious narrative becomes more and more true the more you practice it –experience increasingly conforms to religious dictates on both an individual and community level. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of “neurotheology,” observes that the religious brain promotes social cohesiveness and conformity to social moral norms.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’” says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discussion.’”[8]

As a result, when you stop practicing your religious narrative, as I did, your brain circuits are no longer engaged in actively supporting it, and are now available to process alternatives. As you detach from religious immersion, your prior conviction about its truth – i.e., its ability to explain reality, which was increasingly conforming to it — fades away. At that stage, the brain’s formerly religious wiring is equally adept at promoting other individual and communal beliefs and behaviors, as well as other narratives. Andew Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book[9] indicating that the formerly religious brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning.”[10]

These findings explain a range of religious behaviors: charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and beneficial “fellowship” dynamics at one end of the spectrum; and clergy sexual crimes, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other end. Plus, the entire spectrum is supported not only by religious neural network, but by the brain’s addictive feel-good hormones — right alongside sex, drugs, and rock n roll.

Lost in the Story

Religious narratives draw upon ancient storytelling for their source material, making liberal use of metaphors and allegories in scripture and wisdom literature to create parables, koans, riddles, myths, fables, cautionary tales, and poetry. Religious storytelling illuminates the human condition, illustrates what happens when Earthy existence is aligned or at odds with Heavenly purpose.[11]

Normally, metaphors and allegories are representational: they describe one thing in terms of another – i.e., in the case of religion, worldly, fleshly experience in light of divine, spiritual truth. Sometimes, though, religious practice recasts human experience into literal, explicit religious storytelling, in which the devotee is “in but not of the world”[12] to an extreme. As a result, the zealot dwells in religious metaphor, views themselves and others as religious characters, and interprets circumstances in terms of religious drama. At this extreme, reality becomes a pious fantasyland, in which religious imagery supplants worldly experience. Religious storytelling no longer illustrates and represents, it becomes perceived reality, as the believer remains in a closed, self-reinforcing system. The condition is euphoric, supported by feel-good brain hormones – as close to what it feels like to have God’s view as we’ll ever get.

I know this experience well — I did this a lot in my religious days, and not just with religion, but also with film, theater, books, and other stories – just as I had as a child. I have a lively imagination and have “the ability to become easily engrossed, such as in movies, novels or daydreams” [13] – traits that make it easy for me to generate religious experience and make me a good subject for hypnosis..

The best example of this kind of religious storytelling excess that I can think of are the lyrics of a hymn I remember singing in the church where I grew up:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story,
Because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

 I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story;
More wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies
Of all my golden dreams,
I love to tell the story,
It did so much for me;
And that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story;
Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it,
More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story;
For some have never heard
The message of salvation
From God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story;
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story,
That I have loved so long.

I used to wonder why religious experiences were so easy for me, compared to other people, until I became aware of the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive disposition. Discovering it, and learning to keep it from running away with me, turned about to be a key development in my drift away from religion, and from narrative in general.

More on narratives next time.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Andersen, Kurt, How America Lost Its Mind – The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history, The Atlantic (Dec. 28, 2017). See also Routledge, Supernatural, op. cit.

[3] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[4] See this blog’s Narratives-Of-Self-Purpose-And-Meaning-Part-1-Fish-Stories.

[5] The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

[6] /The Pew Research Center report is intriguingly nuanced, and worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

[7]The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Newberg, Andrew, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009)

[10] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

[11] For more on metaphor, see the classic and definitive text Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

[12] See, for example, this online Bible study on the phrase.

[13] See The Five Traits Of A Good Hypnotic Subject, Your Visual Mind. See also Wikipedia re: “Hypnotic Susceptibility.”

Debunking the Debunkers

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

The Who[1]

Debunkers believe we’ll be better off without all the bunk. If only it were that simple: the basic premise of debunking might not hold up, the “truth that lies on the other side of bunk is elusive, and there are strong social forces that oppose it. Plus, once free of it, we tend to replace old bunk with new.

UVA Professor Emily Ogden defines “bunk”:

“‘Bunk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.”[2]

Sounds great, but can debunking actually deliver?

“Debunk is a story of modernity in one word – but is it a true story? Here’s the way this fable goes. Modernity is when we finally muster the reason and the will to get rid of all the self-interested deceptions that aristocrats and priests had fobbed off on us in the past. Now, the true, healthy condition of human society manifests itself naturally, a state of affairs characterised by democracy, secular values, human rights, a capitalist economy and empowerment for everyone (eventually; soon). All human beings and all human societies are or ought to be headed toward this enviable situation.”

Once somebody calls something a “fable” you know it’s in trouble. Plus, there’s no indisputable “truth” waiting to be found once the bunk is cleared out.

“There is no previously existing or natural secular order that will assert itself when we get the bunk out… There is no neutral, universal goal of progress toward which all peoples are progressing; instead, the claim that such a goal ought to be universal has been a means of exploiting and dispossessing supposedly ‘backward’ peoples.”

The underlying problem with debunking seems to be the assumptions we make — about what’s true and false, what we’ll find when we sort one from the other, and most importantly, who’s qualified to do that. Debunking requires what cultural anthropologist Talal Asad has called “secular agents” – a species that may not actually exist.

“Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true. It’s more an aspiration than a reality. Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion. Along similar lines, they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it… Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies.”

I.e., secular agency is a high standard we mostly fall short of. Instead, we do our best to conform to social conventions even if we don’t personally buy into them. A sports star points to the sky after a home run, a touchdown, a goal, acknowledging the help of somebody or Somebody up there… a eulogy talks about a deceased loved one “looking down on us”… a friend asks us to “think good thoughts” for a family member going into surgery… We don’t buy the Somebody up there helping us, the “looking down,” or the “good thoughts,” but we don’t speak up. Instead, we figure there’s a time and place for honesty and confrontation, and this isn’t one of them.[3]

“Life includes a great many passages in which we place the demands of social bonds above strict truth…. [In] the context of some of the stories we tell collaboratively in our relationships with others, the question of lying or truth does not arise. We set it aside. We apply a different framework, something more like the framework we apply to fiction: we behave as if it were true.”

So what’s left of debunking? Well, it still has its place, especially when it’s used to call the Bunk Lords to account.

“What then is debunking? It can be a necessary way of setting the record straight. I’m by no means opposed to truth-telling. We need fact-checkers. The more highly placed the con artist, the more his or her deceptions matter. In such cases, it makes sense to insist on hewing to the truth.

“[On the other hand,] the social dynamics of debunking should not be overlooked …, especially when the stakes aren’t particularly high – when the alleged lie in question is not doing a whole lot of harm.”

To Play Along or Not to Play Along

When I was a late adolescent and lurching my way toward the Christian faith, a seminary student advised me that, “Sometimes you just need to act as if something is true. You do that long enough, and maybe it will actually become true” – which I took to mean that, even if you’re full of yourself right now, in the long haul you might be happier fitting in.

Maybe, maybe not. You might also feel that, since the things we believe are always in progress anyway, why not be real about what’s up for you right now.

“At these times, what is debunking? It’s a performed refusal to play along.… It’s the announcement that one rejects the as-if mode in which we do what social bonds require.”

Plus, there seems to be a countervailing urge that sometimes prevails over socially playing nice: when we feel like we finally got it figured out, the scales fell from our eyes and we can see clearly now, we can see life for what it really is,,, get to that beatific place, and you want to tell everybody, even it if steps on their toes – which it does, but being newly enlightened and detoxed, you can’t help yourself.

Thus the “as if” game becomes a choice: playing along preserves social currency, opting out drains it. Which do you want?

Why Bother?

There’s also the “Why bother?” issue. Debunking is often preaching to the choir while the unconverted stay that way – in fact, they never even hear what you have to say; it never shows up in their feed.

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”[4]

In light of all this cognitive self-preservation, not rocking the boat can seem like the more reasonable choice:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”[5]

But even if acting as-if is socially acceptable, sometimes you just can’t help but go after it.

Take “magical thinking” for example — a socially acceptable practice and favorite debunking target.

Magical thinking is based on a claim of cause and effect, and therefore offers a sense of predictability and control, It sounds scientific and reasonable, which makes it socially acceptable, but it’s neither; it’s faux science because you can’t test or verify it, and its not reasonable because there’s no logic to it, you can only believe it or not. The masquerade makes it a prime target for debunking.

Magical thinking [is] the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world. Examples include beliefs that the movement of the Sun, Moon, and wind or the occurrence of rain can be influenced by one’s thoughts or by the manipulation of some type of symbolic representation of these physical phenomena.

“Magical thinking became an important topic with the rise of sociology and anthropology in the 19th century. It was argued that magical thinking is an integral feature of most religious beliefs, such that one’s inner experience, often in participation with a higher power, could influence the course of events in the physical world.

“Prominent early theorists suggested that magical thinking characterized traditional, non-Western cultures, which contrasted with the more developmentally advanced rational-scientific thought found in industrialized Western cultures. Magical thinking, then, was tied to religion and ‘primitive’ cultures and considered developmentally inferior to the scientific reasoning found in more ‘advanced’ Western cultures.” [6]

Recent converts are notorious for their intolerance of whatever they just left behind[7] and therefore the least likely to play along with social convention. So, suppose you’re a recent convert from magical thinking and someone drops one of those refrigerator magnet aphorisms. You’ll weigh a lot of factors in the next instant, but sometimes there are just some things people need to stop believing, so you’ll go ahead and launch, and social peace-keeping be damned. You do that in part because you’re aware of your own susceptibility to temptation. This is from Psychology Today[8]

“How many times a day do you either cross your fingers, knock on wood, or worry that your good luck will turn on you? When two bad things happen to you, do you cringe in fear of an inevitable third unfortunate event? Even those of us who ‘know better’ are readily prone to this type of superstitious thinking.

“Further defying logic, we also readily believe in our own psychic powers: You’re thinking of a friend when all of a sudden your phone beeps to deliver a new text from that very person. It’s proof positive that your thoughts caused your friend to contact you at that very moment! … These are just a few examples of the type of mind tricks to which we so readily fall prey.”

The article provides a list of seven “mind tricks” taken from psychology writer Matthew Hutson’s book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, and invites us to “See how long it takes you to recognize some of your own mental foibles.” Here’s the list, with abbreviated commentary from the article:

  1. “Objects carry essences. We attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire… the objects are just objects, and despite their connection with special people in our lives, they have no inherent ability to transmit those people’s powers to us.
  2. “Symbols have power. Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives.
  3. “Actions have distant consequences. In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our unpredictable lives, we build up a personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts.
  4. “The mind knows no bound We are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us. For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic.
  5. “The soul lives on. [Why] do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death.
  6. “The world is alive. We attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt. If our latest technological toy misbehaves, we yell at it and assume it has some revenge motive it needs to satisfy.
  7. “Everything happens for a reason. The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us… For the same reason, we believe in luck, fate, and chance.”

Magical thinking is one of my personal bugaboos, therefore my personal list would be longer than seven.[9] Those things make me twitch. You?

And speaking of mortality…

Miracles: Magic Gets Personal

We can (and do) make up all kinds of things about what it’s like “up there,” but we can’t really imagine it any more than we can our own death. There’s a lot of research about why that’s so[10], but as a practical matter we have to imagine death while we’re still alive in the here and now, but to do it properly we’d have to be there and then — a problem that explains the popularity of books that some call “heavenly tourism,” about people who go there and come back to tell us about it.[11]

We want our heroes and loved ones looking down on us because we miss them. Losing them makes us feel small, helpless, and powerless — like children. So we draw pictures of clouds and robes and harps and locate them there. Childish? Sure. But preferable to the idea that “they” vanished when their body and brain stopped biologically functioning. Why we like one over the other isn’t clear if we can step back and think about it, but we don’t. Instead we’re so freaked about the trip down the River Styx that we follow convention.

For the same reasons, praying for a miracle that staves off death persists in the face of little to support it.[12]

“Writing Fingerprints of God, my 2009 book about the science of spirituality, gave me an excuse to ask a question that I never openly considered before leaving Christian Science, one that was unusually freighted: Is there any scientific evidence, anything beyond the realm of anecdote, that prayer heals?

“It turns out, the evidence is mixed. Beginning in the 1980s, we’ve seen a rash of prayer studies. Some seemed to show that patients who were prayed for recovered more quickly from heart attacks. Another study found that prayer physically helped people living with AIDS.

“But for every study suggesting that prayer heals a person’s body, there is another one showing that prayer has no effect — or even makes you worse. Does prayer help people with heart problems in a coronary care unit? Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no effect. Does it benefit people who needed to clear their arteries using angioplasty? Not according to researchers at Duke. In another study, prayer did not ease the plight of those on kidney dialysis machines. And don’t even mention skin warts: Researchers found that people who received prayer saw the number of warts actually increase slightly, compared with those who received no prayer.

“The most famous study, and probably the most damaging for advocates of healing prayer, was conducted by Harvard researcher Herbert Benson in 2006. He looked at the recovery rates of patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery. Those patients who knew they were receiving prayer actually did worse than those who did not know they were receiving prayer.

“In the end, there is no conclusive evidence from double-blind, randomized studies that suggests that intercessory prayer works.

“Prayer studies are a ‘wild goose chase that violate everything we know about the universe,’ Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Blind Faith, told me: ‘There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody’s thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person. None.’”

“And yet,” the author continues, “ science has embraced a sliver of my childhood faith, a century after Mary Baker Eddy ‘discovered’ Christian Science in the late 1800s. If scientists don’t buy intercessory prayer, most do agree that there is a mind-body connection.” She also finds some connections in “another new ‘science,’ called ‘neurotheology,’” citing how the stimulation of certain brain areas can deliver the same sensations as meditation, contemplative prayer, spiritual ecstasy, and even out-of-body experiences. As a result, she wonders if the brain might act as a kind of radio: “Is the brain wired to connect with a dimension of reality that our physical senses cannot perceive?”

“Researchers have tried to replicate such out-of-body experiences, which are always after-the-fact anecdotes that cannot be tested. These experiences, they say, suggest that consciousness can exist separate from the brain — in other words, that there may be a transcendent reality that we tap into when brain functioning ceases.

“I am not asking you to believe that consciousness can continue when the brain is not functioning, that there is a God who answers prayer, or that people who pray or meditate connect with another reality. I’m not asking you to believe that all mystical or inexplicable experiences are simply the interaction of chemicals in the brain or firings of the temporal lobe. That’s the point: You don’t have to choose. Because neither side possesses the slam-dunk argument, the dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t.”

I.e., she’s saying that the impermeable curtain of death means we can’t prove or disprove either the brain-as-a-radio theory or the materialist belief that when your body stops so do you. Thus we’re free to choose, and one’s as viable as the other. Obviously, unlike the Psychology Today writer, this ex-Christian Scientist is not a committed debunker. On the other hand, her reference to the lack of “dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t” takes us to straight to the ultimate debunking target.

Debunking God (or not)

God is the ultimate debunking target (patriotism is a close second), and the “New Atheists[13]” are the ultimate God debunkers. They’ve also been roundly criticized for being as fundamentalist and evangelical as the fundamentalists and evangelicals they castigate.[14] That’s certainly how I respond to them. I discovered them when I was fresh in my awareness that I’d become an atheist. I put their books on my reading list, read a couple, and deleted the rest. I’d left the fighting fundamentalists behind, and had no desire to rejoin the association. On the other hand, I am grateful to them for making it easier for the rest of us to come out as atheist – something that current social convention makes more difficult than coming out gay.[15]

From what I can tell, there are lots of people like me who didn’t become atheists by being clear-thinking and purposeful[16], it was just something that happened over time, until one day they checked the “none” box beside “religious affiliation.” Atheism wasn’t an intellectual trophy we tried to win, it was a neighborhood we wandered into one day and were surprised to find we had a home there. As one writer said,

“My belief in God didn’t spontaneously combust—it faded.

“I wasn’t the only kid who stopped believing. A record number of young Americans (35 percent) report no religious affiliation, even though 91 percent of us grew up in religiously affiliated households.

“Our disbelief was gradual. Only 1 percent of Americans raised with religion who no longer believe became unaffiliated through a onetime “crisis of faith.” Instead, 36 percent became disenchanted, and another 7 percent said their views evolved.

“It’s like believing in Santa Claus. Psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Jaqueline Woolley have found that children’s disbelief in Santa Claus is progressive, not instantaneous. First kids think that the Santa in the mall or library is real, then they think he’s not real but still magically communicates with the actual Santa, and so on, until they finally realize that Santa is composed of costumed actors. “Kids don’t just turn [belief] off,” Goldstein says.

“Likewise, losing faith happens in pieces.”[17]

It seems fitting we would exit religion that way, since it’s the way many of us got into it in the first place. Yes, some people seem to have those Damascus Road conversions[18], or maybe a less dramatic “come to Jesus meeting,” as a friend of mine says, but more often religion just kind of seeps into us from the surrounding culture.

“I used to love this illustrated children’s Bible my mom gave me. Long-faced Jonah inside a yawning blue whale felt warm and right. My brain made these feelings. When we enjoy religious or associated experiences, like snuggling up with Mom reading the Bible, our brain’s reward circuits activate. Over time, religious ideas become rewarding in and of themselves. This is a powerful, unconscious motivation to keep believing.

“When I began to see my colorful Bible as boring and childish, those same reward circuits likely became less active. Religious experiences produced less pleasure. This happens involuntarily in people with Parkinson’s disease, which compromises the brain’s reward centers. [That is why] people who develop Parkinson’s are much more likely to lose their faith.”[19]

The New Magic – Or, maybe I’m just skeptical about skepticism.

But then, it’s common that having been debunked of religion, we transfer that same commitment to something else – maybe magical thinking or some other unverifiable belief system. Turns out there’s a neurological reason for that: the neural pathways that ran our old belief system are still there, so we just load them with new content:

“For many years I believed in both creationism, with a God whose hand I could shake, and evolution, a cold, scientific world that cared nothing about me. Because when we lose faith, our brain’s preexisting belief networks don’t dissolve. They’re updated, like a wardrobe. ‘Even if someone abandons or converts [religions], it’s not like they’re throwing out all the clothes they own and now buying a whole new set,’ says Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a professor at Northwestern University. ‘You pick and choose what you leave and what you keep.’

“New beliefs join the same neurological framework as old ones. It’s even possible that an existing belief network paves the way for additional beliefs. [Another researcher] has found that kids who believe in fantastical beings are more likely to believe in new ones invented by researchers. “I think it’s because they already have this network that [the new belief] kind of fits into,” she explains. Sometimes the new beliefs resemble the old ones; sometimes they don’t.

“Most non-religious people are ‘passionately committed to some ideology or other,’ explains Patrick McNamara, a neurology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. These passions function neurologically as ‘faux religions.’”[20]

And then, having been newly converted to our new faux religion, we’re set up for another eventual round of debunking.

Meet the new boss.

Same as the old boss.

[1] Here’s the original music video of We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here.

[2] Ogden, Emily, Debunking Debunked, Aeon (Aug. 12, 2019). Ms. Ogden’s Aeon bio says she is “an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, and an author whose work has appeared in Critical Inquiry, The New York Times and American Literature, among others. Her latest book is Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (2018).” All quotes in this section are from this article.

nk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.

[3] This social convention has been around a long time: like the Bible (something else we might like to debunk) says, “There is a time for everything under heaven … a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”   Ecclesiastes 3: 7

[4]This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017):

[5]Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017).

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] See Volck, Brian, The Convert’s Zeal, Image Journal (Aug. 22, 2019). See also this Pew Center report.

[8] 7 Ideas We Really Need to Stop Believing. Psychology Today (May 08, 2012).

[9] Mr. Hutson’s list is based on “a wealth of psychological evidence,” while mine comes from my own anecdotal judgment that magical thinking has led to all kinds of delusional decisions and disasters in my life. The irony of using my own subjective perspective to debunk my own life doesn’t escape me. – it ranks right in there with The Who’s resorting to prayer in the hope they won’t be fooled again.

[10] Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth, The Guardian (Oct. 19, 2019).

[11] Like Heaven is For Real, by Alex Malarkey. Yes, that’s his real name.

[12] The Science of Miracles, Medium (Feb. 7, 2019).

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Wikipedia.

[15] What Atheists Can Learn From The Gay Rights Movement, The Washington Post (Apr. 3, 2013). Coming out as atheist is even trickier if you’re in the public eye: ‘I Prefer Non-Religious’: Why So Few US Politicians Come Out As Atheists, The Guardian (Aug. 3, 2019); The Last Taboo: It’s harder in America to come out as an atheist politician than a gay one. Why? Politico Magazine (Dec. 9, 2013)

[16] Such as Andrew L. Seidel, an “out-of-the-closet atheist” and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (2019).

[17] Beaton, Caroline, What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Believing in God: It’s like going off a drug Vice (Mar. 28 2017).

[18] The Acts of the Apostles 9: 1-9.

[19] Beaton, op. cit..

[20] Ibid.

A Talk at the Rock: How to Instantly Polarize a Crowd and End a Discussion

AreopaguslImage from Wikipedia

The Areopagus is a large rock outcropping in Athens, not far from the Acropolis, where in ancient times various legal, economic, and religious issues got a hearing. A Bible story about something that happened there two thousand years ago provides surprising insight on today’s hyper-polarized world.

Backstory:  A Dualistic Worldview

In the 17th Century, Frenchman René Descartes sorted reality into two categories: (1) the natural, physical world and (2) the unseen world of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. This duality was born of the times:

“Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world.

“In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’.

“On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

“In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.”[1]

Descartes articulated this dualistic framework, but it had been around from prehistoric antiquity. It still persists today, and neurological research suggests the human brain comes pre-wired for it. This is from Psychology Today[2]:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain – the frontal lobe – trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time….

“However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.

“Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.

“Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“One of our popular clichés is ‘Well, there are two sides to every story.’ Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.”

“Less sophisticating and less rational” … the author’s ideological bias is showing, but the “unexamined emotional reflexes” finger points at both ends of the polarized spectrum. And because our brains love status quo and resist change, we hunker down on our assumptions and biases. True, the balance can shift more gradually, over time – the way objectivity ascended during the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, but Romanticism pushed back in the 19th — but usually it takes something drastic like disruptive innovation, tragedy, violence, etc. to knock us off our equilibrium. Absent that, we’re usually not up for the examination required to separate what we objectively know from what we subjectively believe — it’s all just reality, and as long as it’s working, we’re good. If we’re forced to examine and adjust, we’ll most likely take our cues from our cultural context:

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives. We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from our family, friends, and culture, and, once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible.

“There is [a] potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture. Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in the world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of the universe.”[3]

Culture has been sculpting the human brain ever since our earliest ancestors began living complex social lives millions of years ago. It’s only when the cultural balance runs off the rails that our brains scramble to reset, and we’re stressed while they’re at it. We would do well not to wait until then, and learn how to embrace both ends of the dualistic spectrum, argues one computational biologist[4]:

“Neuroscience was part of the dinner conversation in my family, often a prerequisite for truth. Want to talk about art? Not without neuroscience. Interested in justice? You can’t judge someone’s sanity without parsing scans of the brain. But though science helps us refine our thinking, we’re hindered by its limits: outside of mathematics, after all, no view of reality can achieve absolute certainty. Progress creates the illusion that we are moving toward deeper knowledge when, in fact, imperfect theories constantly lead us astray.

“The conflict is relevant in this age of anti-science, with far-Right activists questioning climate change, evolution and other current finds. In his book Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker describes a second assault on science from within mainstream scholarship and the arts. But is that really bad? Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the first movement to take on the Enlightenment – and we still see its effects in such areas as environmentalism, asceticism and the ethical exercise of conscience.

“In our new era of Enlightenment, we need Romanticism again. In his speech ‘Politics and Conscience’ (1984), the Czech dissident Václav Havel, discussing factories and smokestacks on the horizon, explained just why: ‘People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet … they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.’ Havel was not against industry, he was just for labour relations and protection of the environment.

“The issues persist. From use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted though patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’. With winners and losers in the new arena, it only makes sense that some folks are going to push back.

“We are now on the verge of a new revolution in control over life through the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, which has given us the ability to tinker with the colour of butterfly wings and alter the heritable genetic code of humans. In this uncharted territory, where ethical issues are rife, we can get blindsided by sinking too much of our faith into science, and losing our sense of humanity or belief in human rights.

“Science should inform values such as vaccine and climate policy, but it must not determine all values…. With science becoming a brutal game of market forces and patent controls, the skeptics and Romantics among us must weigh in, and we already are.”

That’s probably good advice, but we need to push through a lot of cultural status quo to get there. That’s especially true because the 20th Century brought us change at ever-accelerating rates — objective reality went spinning away and we crashed into the extreme belief end of the spectrum:

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”[5]

When we can agree that our conflict is a matter of my data vs. yours, we can debate rationally. But when it’s my beliefs vs. yours, what used to be discourse dissolves into stonewalling and shouting. Belief seeks its own perfection by eliminating doubt, and therefore devolves into fundamentalism, where discussion is a sign of doubt, punishable as heresy. Fundamentalism can be secular or religious – it’s the dynamic, not the content, that matters

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopian. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”[6]

Fundamentalism is where the open mind goes into lockdown. Objectivity loses its grip and the question “Are you with us, or against us?” gives way to its declarative version, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”[7] Dualistic thinking ceases to be more than a source of “popular clichés,” and becomes instead a rigid disincentive to public discourse, as competing polarized beliefs dig in for a grinding, maddening war of attrition. What used to be public discourse is lost in a no-man’s land of intellectual wreckage created by each side’s incessant lobbing of ideological bombs at the other’s entrenched subjective positions. Each side is convinced it has a God’s-eye view of reality, therefore God is on its side, which motivates securing its position by all necessary means.

A Talk at the Rock

The Christian scriptures illustrate how all this works in a story from one of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

“Now while Paul was… at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’[8]

The Epicureans and Stoics were the materialists of their day – their thinking leaned toward the objective side of the dualism. When Paul came to town advocating ideas (the subjective end of the dualism), their brain patterning couldn’t process Paul’s worldview. They needed time, so they invited Paul to a Talk at the Rock (the Areopagus).

At this point, the author of the story –- widely believed to be the same “Luke the beloved physician”[9] who wrote the Gospel of Luke – inserts a biased editorial comment that signals that nothing’s going to come of this because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[10] I.e., reasonable consideration — public discourse – was going to be a waste of time. But Paul had prepared some culturally sensitive opening remarks:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”

He then offers up the idea of substituting his ‘foreign god’ for the Athenians’ statuary, altars, and temples:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

You can sense the crowd’s restless murmuring and shuffling feet, but then Paul goes back to cultural bridge-building:

“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [referring to a passage from Epimenides of Crete], and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[{From Aratus’s poem Phainomena].”

Nice recovery, Paul. So far so good. This feels like discourse, what the Rock is for. But Paul believes that the Athenians’ practice of blending the unseen world of their gods with their physical craftmanship of statuary, altars, and temples (a practice the church would later perfect) is idolatry, and in his religious culture back home, idolatry had been on the outs since the Golden Calf.[11] At this point, Paul takes off the cultural kit gloves and goes fundamentalist:

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s precisely the point where he loses the crowd — well, most of them, there were some who were willing to give him another shot, and even a couple fresh converts:

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Some men joined him and believed….” That’s all there was left for them to do: believe or not believe. You’re either with us or against us.

Paul had violated the cultural ethics of a Talk at the Rock. It was about reasonable discourse; he made it a matter of belief, saying in effect. “forget your social customs and ethics, my God is going to hurt you if you keep it up.” With that, the conclave became irretrievably polarized, and the session was over.

Paul triggered this cultural dynamic constantly on his journeys – for example a few years later, when the Ephesus idol-building guild figured out the economic implications of Paul’s belief system[12]:

“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.  For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’ When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”

Jesus had previously taken a whip to the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem.[13] Apparently Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen saw the same thing coming to them, and made a preemptive strike. The scene quickly spiraled out of control:

“So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.  But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

A local official finally quelled the riot:

“Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” and when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”[14]

It Still Happens Today

I spent years in the evangelical church – we were fundamentalists, but didn’t want to admit it – where Paul’s Talk at the Rock was held up as the way not to “share your faith.” Forget the public discourse — you can’t just “spend [your] time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” you need to lay the truth on them so they can believe or not believe, and if they don’t, you need to “shake the dust off your feet”[15] and get out of there. These days, we see both secular and religious cultural institutions following that advice.

Will we ever learn?

[1]How The Dualism Of Descartes Ruined Our Mental HealthMedium (May 10, 2019)

[2] Karl Albrecht, “The Tyranny of Two,” Psychology Today (Aug 18, 2010)

[3] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] Jim Kozubek, “The Enlightenment Rationality Is Not Enough: We Need A New Romanticism,” Aeon (Apr. 18, 2018)

[5] Andersen, Kurt, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017)

[6] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

[7] The latter came from Jesus himself – see the Gospels of Matthew 21: 12-13, and John 2: 13-16. Jesus was a belief man through and through. More on that another time.

[8] The Acts of the Apostles 17: 17-20.

[9] Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4: 14.

[10] Acts 17: 21.

[11] Exodus 32.

[12] Acts 19: 23-41

[13] Mathew 21: 12-17; John 2: 13-21

[14] Acts: 23-42

[15] Matthew 10:14.

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).

How Impossible Becomes Possible (2)

While objective, scientific knowledge scrambles to explain consciousness in purely biological terms (“the meat thinks”), subjective belief enjoys cultural and scientific predominance. And no wonder — the allure of subjectivity is freedom and power:  if scientists can control the outcome of their quantum mechanics lab work by what they believe, then surely the rest of us can also believe the results we want into existence. In fact, isn’t it true that we create our own reality, either consciously or not? If so, then consciously is better, because that way we’ll get what we intend instead of something mashed together by our shady, suspect subconscious. And the good news is, we can learn and practice conscious creation. Put that to work, and we can do and have and be whatever we want! Nothing is impossible for us!

I.e, belief in belief is the apex of human consciousness and self-efficacy:  it’s what makes the impossible possible. At least, that’s the self-help gospel, which also has deep roots in the New Testament. We’ll be looking deeper into both.

The Music Man lampooned belief in belief as practiced by con man Harold Hill’s “think method.” The show came out in 1957. Five years before, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, and twenty years before, Napolean Hill published Think and Grow Rich, in which he penned its most-quoted aphorism, “Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

Americans in particular have had an enduring allegiance to belief in belief, ever since we got started 500 years ago. Since then, we’ve taken it to ever-increasing extremes:

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation.

“Why are we like this?

“The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today.

Fantasyland

Belief in belief soared to new heights in mega-bestseller The Secret:

“The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most the pious packaging…. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was number one on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold around twenty million copies.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)

American culture’s embrace of belief in belief was supercharged in its earliest days by the Puritans, about whom Kurt Andersen concludes, “In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.” Maybe that’s why The Secret distanced itself from those Christian moorings:

“The closest antecedent to The Secret was The Power of Positive Thinking in the 1950s, back when a mega-bestselling guide to supernatural success still needed an explicit tether to Christianity.

“In The Secret, on the other hand, Rhonda Byrn mentions Jesus only once, as the founder of the prosperity gospel. All the major biblical heroes, including Christ, she claims, ‘were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of.’”

Fantasyland

The Secret also stakes its claim on the side of subjective science:

“There isn’t a single thing you cannot do with this knowledge,’ the book promises. ‘It doesn’t matter who your are or where you are. The Secret can give you whatever you want. ‘Because it’s a scientific fact.’”

Fantasyland

But The Secret is just one example of the subjective good news. Believe it into existence —  that’s how the impossible is done American, self-help, Christian, subjective science style. Never mind the objective, empirically-verified, scientific “adjacent possibility” approach we looked at last time — that’s just too stuffy, too intellectual. Belief in belief is much more inspiring, more of a joyride.

And that’s a problem.

More next time.