Monday, September 19, 2011

Objection! Hearsay!

Human beings are interesting creatures.  I mean, comparatively speaking they have one of the largest brains in all the animal kingdom.  It allows us to do some really remarkable things.  Our imagination has been able to get us to the moon and and we have sent probes to beyond our own solar system.  We have cured many diseases that shortened the lives of our progenitors and have come up with vaccinations against many diseases that would wipe out large numbers of our children even just a hundred years ago.  Truly, we have made and are still making huge leaps in learning and bettering our lives collectively.  

Of course, our imagination also has a downside to it.  We seem to be hard wired with the capacity to believe two completely different ideas at the same time.  People of various religions will believe in the creation story and the idea that the animals of today were created exactly as they are now, but at the same time absolutely believe in dinosaurs and that other animals have been on the Earth for hundreds of millions of years.  For some, these two opposing ideas will eventually cause too much cognitive dissonance and one idea will die an ugly death.  Usually, if an idea is to die, it will be that one which has the less physical evidence supporting it.  I don't know for sure, but I suspect that there are more atheists who were once religious than the other way around.  

It seems to me that our modern society is more cynical than the societies that came before.  You will hear children playing and one child will say, "Oh yeah, prove it!"  From prospectuses in investing to looking into a business or an idea, we constantly want the proof of what it is that we are being told.  We do our research, we talk to those who have done what it is we want to do, we look for reviews online.  Every product I buy now, will have been researched online for a week or more before I make my purchase.  Online websites will have places where people can put their opinion about a product or service.  The web site "Angie's List" is all about rating and reviewing products and service providers so that people can know what to expect before they shell out the cash.  Now, admittedly much of this relies upon listening to others experience and taking their word for it.  However, they are giving their opinion on something that they actually bought or saw occur. It is a first hand experience that meets with our expectations, and so we attempt to learn by their experience, so that if it wasn't a pleasant experience, we won't repeat it.  

Not so with religion.  For whatever reason, when it comes to religion all of our cynicism melts away.  There must be something in our collective make-up that causes us to put aside our desire for proof when it comes to religion.  Please think about the following scenario.  You meet a man at a party.  He is a really nice guy and seems to be very charismatic.  After short time he tells you that he has personally seen God and talked with him.  God told him to start a church and let everybody know that it was the true church.  He tells you that you will have to make sacrifices and people will probably hate you, but if you do what he says and follow him, the true prophet of God, then you will be saved and be happy forever.  What would you do?  Honestly?  In this modern world most people would try their best to stay polite, but would rapidly start looking for an excuse to put something solid like a kitchen table or a bowl of artichoke dip between them and this nut job.  Everybody would think he was completely nutso.  You'd look to your significant other and start doing the secret "Its Time To Go!  Get Your Shit And Meet Me By The Front Door" look.  

Now, take that same example.  Just put 190 some odd years between it and you  and have a young man tell you that this is what happened a long time ago and for some reason we as humans want to believe it.  So much so that in the last two centuries this church has baptized somewhere between 11 and 13 million people. (I say baptized, because the number of actual active members is probably much less like 4-5 million)  Of course the same could be said for any religion.  The Scriptures that the Christians rely on, the New Testament, was written approximately around 70 AD.  That was about 40 years after Jesus was to have lived and been killed.  Now, if you were to tell me to write down word for word what had occurred last month between me and my wife I wouldn't be able to do it.  So what are the chances, that four disciples of Jesus could write their gospels 40 years afterword and have the words be almost word for word?  And more importantly, Christians rely on these writings to the letter to know what it is that God wants them to do.  Muslims aren't any better, as the Quran was written much later and has the same amount of improbable occurrences that the bible does. (All the Jews being turned into apes and pigs, etc.)

That is really the problem with religion.  The entire basis of religion is hearsay.  In courts of law, hearsay is inadmissible because it is unreliable and you are testifying to what someone else said.  The basis for religion is a bunch of really cool stuff that happened a long time ago to someone else who had been dead for centuries.  No, you can't see a really cool miracle, because you must have faith and believe the hearsay that is being told to you.  Besides which, miracles were only done a long time ago before humans had the capacity to measure and study an occurrence which appears to be impossible, and possibly find out its really just a slight of hand. Yes, yes, God once spoke from the clouds so that everybody who heard it would know without a doubt what his intentions were, but that is because the people in the olden days were complete morons and needed that kind of encouragement.  I mean, the Old Testament is chock full of stories about how the people had to know who was in charge and leading them, and they rebelled anyway.  Complete imbeciles.  We of course in modern times should be able to cast our doubts aside and listen to our feelings and come to the conclusion that religion is right.  No voices or pillars of fire for us.  We have feelings.  Of course, that doesn't help when I get teary eyed at some beer commercials.  Does that mean that I should recognize the truthfulness of Budweiser?  Maybe.   


Friday, September 2, 2011

Sure they're big, but we know they are Devil Rocks.

The thing that I like best about religion and those that practice it (I say practice, because with as messed up as religion tends to be, you can never perfect it) is the fact that it is only possible to do if you have a really unique brain.  Luckily for religion's sake, humans have this type of brain.  The followers of DinoJesus never had to worry about becoming unbelievers, because they didn't have a brain that was sophisticated enough to think their way out of religion.  (If you ask me, this may have been a major design flaw from the creator of this planet.) Anyway, back to my original point.  The human brain can partition (metaphorically speaking) itself into various sections, with each section believing a different, non-compatible thing, and the two shall never mix.  If this were not possible, then humans, as they grew older would come to a time in their life when their different beliefs would meet, and like matter and anti-matter meeting the result wouldn't be good.  Somewhere around 8 to 10 years old the child would question whether Santa Claus was real, and then their head would explode and it would really be hard for the human species to propagate.

So, taking a step back from the thoughts of little kids walking around and their head suddenly blowing up, what am I trying to say?  Just that humans are made for religion.  We always are looking for the explanation.  In our youth as a modern species, it was easy to make up explanations to explain away the unknown.  What is lightening?  It is an angry god hurling bolts from his house on high.  Why does the sun go around the sky?  It is a fiery chariot that makes its daily trip across the sky before another goddess can pull her cloak over the world.  Perfectly reasonable explanations.  As long as you pay no attention to science or what we have discovered since then.

However, have we really traveled that far from our ancestors?  Approximately 50% of people in the United States believe that humans were created in their present form sometime in the last 10,000 years.  If you asked these same people if they believe that dinosaurs existed, many of them would say yes.  The fossil record is conclusive in support of evolution and that life has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and yet, a vast number of people can easily hold two diametrically opposite views in their heads with no problem.  "I believe that the story of Adam and Eve is true and that God created all the creatures of the earth at the same time and they lived in the garden with Adam and Eve."  "I love visiting the dinosaur museum and seeing all the bones and wondering at how the Earth must have been back then when the dinosaurs were roaming the planet for millions of years long before the mammals even came in to existence."  One would think that these two statements would come from two very different individuals.  But in reality, these thoughts can come from the same brain.  One side is the religious side, and the other is the science side, and we keep them compartmentalized and separate for our own sanity.  (This of course does not take in to account those people that explain the dinosaur fossils as "Devil Rocks" that were put there by Satan to confuse us in to believing in that whole "Evil lution" thing.)

Now many people will say "so what?"  As long as we can believe two different things, then who cares?  The problem is that people will often make decisions using one part of their brains that believes one thing, when the other part that believes something else would have been the more appropriate part to use.  Can you imagine the number of problems that could be wiped out if everybody would keep their religion thoughts to themselves and not allow them to make decisions in the real world?  Think about the current problems between the western world and the middle east.  If you were to take religion out of the mix, I would bet that there would be no such problems.

But even closer to home (Utah) you would see a huge change.  The people of Utah and their leaders think of themselves as Conservative and defenders of liberty.  Not so fast.  You see, they often allow the religious brain to get involved and it has a tendency to really mess things up.  Would you like a glass of wine with your dinner?  Let me go behind this curtain and pour you a glass and then bring it out to the table.  I have to have a curtain there, because the law says that people shouldn't see the evil alcohol being poured, because it might cause the youth to want to drink.  Really.  I kid you not.  So, the kid sitting across from me can see the glass of wine.  Knows what is in the glass if he has half a brain (which, since he is probably religious is true), but because he didn't see it poured he is safe from the malicious effects of the temptation to drink.  This is the type of thinking that happens when the religious side of the brain takes over for a second or two.  The leadership of the state claim to believe in freedom, but only the freedom to do those things that are in agreement with their core beliefs.  If you want to do something that they don't feel is "right" then they have no problem legislating their morals on you.  And, even more, see no problem in their doing it.

So, the problem is simple.  The answer complex.  Can we believe two things and use the right belief at the right time to act?  Can I listen to a moral story in the bible, without "not suffering a witch to live?"  Can I understand it's important to live an honest, moral life, without trying to kill with stones a person who cheated on their spouse?  Can I appreciate the simpleness of a Hobbit's life without having to live in the Shire?