Sunday, January 18, 2009

Are We a "Judeo-Christian" Country?

Over at Secular Right, they are having a heated discussion about the term "Judeo-Christianty," especially as it pertains to defining Western culture.

Peronally, I've never felt comfortable when politicians describe America as a "Judeo-Christian country" or reaffirm the need to preserve our "Judeo-Christian values." At the risk of sounding cynical, I always believed that phrase was coined to allow social conservatives to sound "Jew-friendly" and preempt any accusations of being "anti-Semetic." But that's not my biggest problem with the term. For me, the problem is that it defines our country, our values, and our heritage through religion alone.

About a year ago, I coined the term "Christian-Enlightenment" because it combines the religion of the West (Christianity) with the ground-breaking Enlightenment ideas (freedom, reason, the Scientific Method, etc.) that enabled the West to dominate the world.

Ethiopia is a "Judeo-Christian" country, but it's one of the worst countries on Earth because it doesn't have the Enlightment heritage of Europe and the United States.

I'm open to the possibility that Christianity was the most likely religion to produce an Enlightment (with its emphasis on 1) the integrity of the individual soul, and 2) the inherent equality of all souls), but it was the Enlightenment itself - not religion - that produced all of the things we love about the modern world (freedom, democracy, prosperity, human rights, long lifespans, etc).


Drive-Through Religion

I liked this blog post by Heather McDonald about the essence of 21st century American Christianity: it's total lack of self-awareness.

"Today’s religion advocates sometimes evince an almost child-like ahistoricism...The differences that separate an American believer and non-believer today are barely perceptible compared to the gulf that yawns between today’s cheerful Religion-lite, which has been defanged, homogenized, and told to mind its manners, and the monopolistic, crusading Christianity of centuries past."

"The religious superstructure of centuries past has been dismantled. Rising in its place is a remake of religion 'in the image of mass-consumer capitalism,' according to a sociologist of American religion at the University of Notre Dame. That remake offers up easily digestible bits like the '5 Minute Theologian' and '7 Minutes With God.'”

Needless to say, I'm quite happy about this transition from pre-modern Christianity (hyper-serious, imperial, and deadly) to contemporary Christianity (which has made peace with commercialism and religious diversity). Clearly, I don't want to be burned at the stake for religious heresy. So what's the point of this essay?...Well, I just wish other Christians understood that their religion has changed substantially over the last two millenia; it's changed so much in fact that, at least in terms of how it's practiced, it's almost unrecognizable.

Consumerism has managed to co-opt Christianity, much to the benefit of both. But in the long-run, can this marriage last? That remains to be seen.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Who Would Jesus Smack Down?

Last week, The New York Times published a piece called Who Would Jesus Smack Down? The article is about Mark Driscoll, the innovative pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Some of the highlights...

"Driscoll represents a movement to revamp the style and substance of evangelicalism. With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture. Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time. Yet a significant number of young people in Seattle — and nationwide — say this is exactly what they want to hear. Calvinism has somehow become cool, and just as startling, this generally bookish creed has fused with a macho ethos. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn’t 'Amazing Grace' or “The Chronicles of Narnia” — it’s 'Fight Club.'"

"The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into 'a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.'

"In little more than a decade, his ministry has grown from a living-room Bible study to a megachurch that draws about 7,600 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday, and his books, blogs and podcasts have made him one of the most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide."

"Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents."

I certainly don't think "New Calvinism" is the wave of the future, but I share Driscoll's observation that many people - especially young men (who are often the vanguard of revolutionary cultural changes) - don't find the peaceful "turn the other cheek Jesus - who Driscoll calls a "wuss" - to be very appealing. Furthermore, most people - again, espeically young men - love to flatter themselves with the idea that they're members of a "special elect group" whereas the traditional Christian idea that all human souls are "equal" is anathema (Of course, that idea is quite lovely for those who come from underprivileged backgrounds).

I've long believed that Christianity could never have become the world's most powerful religion unless its leaders broke Christian principles by converting people by force (which they did. Often). Even now, most Christians have a split-mind between the ideal of non-violence and the real-world benefits of using force (see support for the Iraq War, for example). Needless to say, that's a contradiction which has gone unresolved for almost 2 thousand years, so it might go on forever. Then again, it may not. If Christianity gradually becomes "pure" it might find itself at a serious disadvantage against a younger, more assertive, and less scrupulous version of Islam. Just a thought.

Bottom line: While I find Mark Driscoll repelant, he is groping toward some legitimate critiques of traditional Christianity.


The Implications of a Holographic Universe

Last year, I read a book called The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot. Then yesterday, I discovered a Youtube video called The Holographic Universe: It's All Illusion, which was posted by someone called "Secretkeyactivator."

Overall, while I found the book and video to be quite intriguing, I'm not truly convinced that the universe is a "hologram."

In any case, since the first premise of my philosophy, "Spirtitual Rationalism," is that "Reality is Real," I found the assertion that "the universe is an illusion" to be quite provokative.

With that in mind, I felt compelled to post a few thoughts on the video...

*The video's insistence that “Reality is an illusion,” is extremely, extremely misleading. Even if you 100% bought into the video's premise of a holographic universe, that wouldn't mean that "Reality is an illusion." Even if there was an ultimate "Super-Reality" beyond matter, the “Reality” we live in is still real. Every day, we still interact with conventional matter, and our sensual perception of that matter (while not perfect) reflects an accurate exterior (which, as one of the users pointed out, is essentially proven by the fact that “if you fart, both of us smell it”).

*Furthermore, the idea that Reality can be manipulated by perception alone (a product of misplaced conclusions from quantum physics and popularized by the best-selling book The Secret) is also wrong because as another user pointed out, if a boulder crushes my skull, I’m dead even if I never “perceived” the boulder before it fell on me.

*Even so, as someone who’s on record as believing in the soul (i.e., a consciousness separate from the material body), I like the idea of “Reality” being like a TV program in which our consciousness “tunes in.” We can carry the idea further by saying that our “pure self” (i.e, our soul) originates from what we might call a "Super-Reality," enters this "Reality" upon birth, and then, upon death, returns to the “Super-Reality."

For the purposes of my book, and my evolving philosophy of “Spiritual Rationalism,” this doesn’t mean “Reality is an illusion;” on the contrary, Reality is extremely real; it just means that there’s a reasonable way of looking at how consciousness interacts with “Reality” in a way that doesn’t rely on an atheistic, materialist framework.


The Credit Crunch for Materialism

The Edge recently asked 151 scientists to contribute essays answering the question: "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"

One of the essays, called The Credit Crunch of Materialism, immediately caught my eye. The piece was written by RUPERT SHELDRAKE, a biologist and author of A New Science of Life.

Sheldrake writes...

Credit crunches happen because of too much credit and too many bad debts. Credit is literally belief, from the Latin credo, 'I believe.' Once confidence ebbs, the loss of trust is self-reinforcing. The game changes.

"Something similar is happening with materialism. Since the nineteenth century, its advocates have promised that science will explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry; science will show that there is no God and no purpose in the universe; it will reveal that God is a delusion inside human minds and hence in human brains; and it will prove that brains are nothing but complex machines."

"The problems of development and consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone."

"Confidence in materialism is draining away. Its leaders, like central bankers, keep printing promissory notes, but it has lost its credibility as the central dogma of science. Many scientists no longer want to be 100% invested in it.

"Materialism's credit crunch changes everything. As science is liberated from this nineteenth-century ideology, new perspectives and possibilities will open up, not just for science, but for other areas of our culture that are dominated by materialism. And by giving up the pretense that the ultimate answers are already known, the sciences will be freer—and more fun."

Read the whole thing.

Needless to say, I share Sheldrake's perspective, although, unfortunately I also think a large number of scientists are too "emotionally invested" in materialism to allow its foundation to crumble away without a fight. There will probably be major ideological conflict in the rising generation and it may be up to the next generation (say those born in the 21st century) to truly demolish its pillars. But like Shedlrake, I remain, on the whole, optimistic.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sex with Blondes and Darwin

I recently finished a book called Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains – The Science Behind Sex, Love, and Attraction by Jena Pincott.

As the title implies, the book examines male-female relationships from a scientific perspective – actually, a “sociobiological” perspective. “Sociobiology,” in the words of Wikipedia, is a “neo-Darwinian synthesis of scientific disciplines that attempts to explain social behavior in all species by considering the evolutionary advantages the behaviors may have.”

I’ll let Ms. Pincott explain the impact of “sociobiology” on our understanding of human romantic relationships…

“Everyone has an unconscious preference for certain traits, and much of what we desire is rooted in deep evolutionary biases. We evolved this way. Studying ancestral conditions and the mating behaviors of other animals, evolutionary biologists have an interesting take: whether or not you actually want kids, you have ‘parental investment’ instincts that impact your sex life. It all boils down to the basic biological truth that in one year’s time, a woman could sleep with a googol of men but only have one full-term pregnancy, whereas a man could sleep with a googol of women and have googol of babies. To maximize their reproductive success, men are attracted to cues of fertility – youth and beauty – especially in short-term relationships. For women, it’s more complicated. Women have more at stake in the event of a pregnancy, so we’re choosier about our sex partners. Over the ages we developed biases for guys with good genes (masculinity and social dominance) and signs that they would be good dads (nurturers and providers), although we often make trade-offs depending upon our circumstances (p. xv).”

Let’s review this paragraph-long summary of the book’s thesis…

There are 3 major points…

First, that in the game of romance, people aspire to attract the best possible mate (and, especially as they grow older, they aspire to attract the best potential parent for their future children). There is nothing inherently controversial or demeaning or “Darwinian” about this fact. I accept it.

The second point is that women and men have slightly different understandings of what it means to “have a good mate,” and that the reason for this distinction is that women and men have different roles in reproduction. Specifically, because women are the ones who get pregnant, give birth, and have shorter periods of fertility, they are the “choosier” sex. Again, there is nothing inherently controversial or demeaning or “Darwinian” about this fact. I accept it.

But then we come to the third point: that a person’s romantic search is guided by “unconscious preferences” and “deep evolutionary biases. We evolved this way.” That is a flawed conclusion. First of all, there is no inherent reason that perfectly logical preferences (such as men who are “good providers” or women who are “good nurturers”) have anything to do with evolution, per se. Darwinists are always eager to link common sense and banal facts with “evolution,” and equate human beings with “other animals,” as Ms. Pincott does, even though it’s totally unnecessary.

Second of all, using evolution to explain human behavior is inherently silly. Why? Because the Darwinists insist that literally every behavior is a victory for evolution. Consider the following:

On P. 6-9, Ms. Pincott addresses the question, “Why do men prefer big pupils?” She answers: “Evolutionarily speaking, men prefer big, gaping pupils because they’re a sign of arousal and receptivity…Your pupils dilate widest around ovulation, the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle.” Ok…so…the blind forces of nature designed women’s pupils to dilate as a “sign of fertility?” Seems plausible.

But then we come to this…on p. 90-92, Ms. Pincott asks, “What does a ‘wiggle’ in your walk reveal?” Answer: “The more wiggle in your walk, the tinier your waist is in proportion to your hips – a telltale sign of youth and fertility.” OK, so “evolutionarily speaking,” we would expect a woman’s “wiggle” to be greatest during ovulation, right? Wrong! “To the contrary, it turns out that’s when a woman’s gait is most restrained.” Does this contradict sociobiology? Of course not. As Pincott says – without any hint of irony – “the reason women walk less provocatively when they’re most fertile is an unconscious attempt to avoid excessive male attention.”

Got that? During ovulation, women’s eyes dilate to gain men’s attention, and during the same period, their hips wiggle less to avoid men’s attention? Of course, that makes absolutely NO sense. But that’s exactly what happens when you use Darwinism to explain every facet of human behavior. For the atheist Darwinists, everything in life is Darwinist. In every debate, they play the same game: “heads I win; tails you lose.”

But you know what? That’s not my main criticism with Ms. Pincott’s book. Rather, it’s the assumption (once again, promoted by the Darwinists) that human beings – like “other animals” – are a product of their “instincts,” and that our behavior is mostly guided by “deep evolutionary biases,” rather than free will.

For example, one study tested “whether ovulating women are more attracted to very masculine men…The researchers recruited more than four hundred undergraduate women to watch video clips of the men and judge them on their personal qualities and their desirability as long- and short-term partners…The results confirmed…women who were in their fertile phase at the time of the study gave higher-than-usual ratings to swaggering, competitive, confrontational, dominant-looking guys…researchers speculated that the reason women are unconsciously drawn to strong-jawed, deep-voiced, domineering, healthy men when they’re most likely to conceive is that a child born of the union inherits the man’s ‘good genes.’”

While this is an interesting study, there are dangers in overinterpreting it. First of all, no woman makes the decision about who to have children with based on “video clips.” This is so basic and uncontroversial I almost feel embarrassed pointing it out (although I have to because the author doesn’t). Second of all, if the only way to measure “desirability” is through video clips, then the crudest physical aspects (such as “strong jaws”) are – by very definition – the only way women can measure “desirability” – and thus, it should be no surprise that men with traditionally “masculine” physical features are chosen as “more desirable” than men who lack them. If the only information you’re giving women is physical data, should it be surprising when the women judge men on…wait for it…physical data!

The author, however, conveniently doesn’t mention the flaws with the study. Instead, the reader is left with the impression that fertile women, like any animal you find in a zoo, are pawns of their ovaries. The idea that women are looking for other qualities in a partner (such as personality and character) and value these qualities for their own sake (and not just for the value it would bring to their children’s “genes”) is never explored.

There’s a reason it’s never explored: because the author is quite eager to push the “truth” of these so-called “evolutionary biases.” For example, Ms. Pincott asks, “Why do some men smell better to you than others?” She answers: “Women prefer the body odors of guys who have major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene variants that are mostly different than their own…if you have children with a man whose MHC variants are mostly unlike your own, your kids may inherit a more diverse MHC and stronger immune systems…a body odor that indicates a genetic mismatch may be a big red flag – your body telling you he’s wrong for you on a base biological level.”

While I don’t dispute the conclusion of the study (that body odor can be a helpful signal for MHC “compatibility”) I question how to interpret it. As I stated above, human beings don’t make judgments on who they’re going to marry and have children with based on smell. Let’s use the following example: if a woman has to choose between two guys, will she choose the guy who smells better, or the guy who is nicer, smarter, and a better provider? I think the answer is obvious. And with that answer comes a different conclusion: While these studies are objectively interesting, they don’t tell us a lot about human behavior – because human beings are NOT animals; we don’t just have olfactory cells; we have minds!!!

Or do we?

The author pushes the “truth” of these sexual instincts when she shares the following story: “I once dated a guy whose smell I hated, even though he showered, and it was a major reason why I couldn’t take the relationship further. Later on, I met a man whose smell I love – and I married him.”

I’m not sure how serious we should take her story; it’s likely she’s exaggerating somewhat to increase the effect on her readers. But even so, it’s a very revealing statement. By sharing this story, she is in a sense, validating the “truth” of sexual instincts (such as smell) over the mind. And that is dumb for two reasons. First, as I said above, for most people, physical “facts” are just that – facts – and do not predetermine behavior. But even worse, by presenting these “facts” as behavioral “truths” – the Darwinists are – once again – unnecessarily degrading human dignity. I often wonder: Why do they feel compelled to constantly drag human beings down to the levels of dogs, mice, and insects? I don’t know. But they do it. And it’s wrong.

I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Pincott. I honestly enjoyed her book, and I truly believe she has no agenda beyond sharing interesting information with her readers; but even so, her words and phrases expose an unhealthy ideological framework that she’s transmitting to her audience.

What does this have to do with my book, The Mustard Seed? Well, one of the running questions of the book is: “What does it mean to be human?”

For Troy Dawkins, one of the main characters, being human is equivalent to being an animal. As he says in Chapter 10:

“The newest science is very straightforward – we are, in a very real sense, ‘nothing but mammals.’ Specifically, we’re nothing but highly-evolved monkeys. We think like monkeys and, more often than not, we act like monkeys - just in a more sophisticated way. This is true in virtually every area of life – including sex.”

This so-called “science” reinforces Troy’s atheist philosophy:

“The science is irrefutable: God doesn’t exist, the universe is meaningless, life is a random accident, and morality is an illusion. None of it matters, man. When are you going to understand that? We’re born. We live for a while. We die… That’s all…. And when you come to realize that, my friend, you’re free. You’re liberated. You can do whatever you want.”

Even people who don’t fully embrace Troy’s militant atheism absorb the ideas behind it (specifically, Darwinism). As Chris, the frustrated high school biology student, explains in Chapter 6…

“If anyone thinks the rules of evolution don’t apply to us…well, they’re just living in a fantasy world. I’ve sat in this classroom for years, and I’ve absorbed the truth, even if other kids choose to ignore it.”

I’m not going to write about the pros and cons of Darwinism in this post (although Chapter 9 of The Mustard Seed is a fair introduction), but I would like to highlight 1) the power of the Darwinist idea in our society, and 2) the fact that these ideas are based on faulty conclusions (as seen in Ms. Pincott’s book).

For me, I share the conclusion of Brain Raines, the protagonist of The Mustard Seed, who exclaimed in Chapter 12 that “sex can be, and should be, a human act, and I mean that in a positive way, not as an insult.”

Seeing sex as a “human act” – and not an “animal act” – would require seeing the power of reason and logic to overcome “instincts” and “evolutionary biases.” We see this power even among people who are not…shall we say…“very intellectual.” For starters, unlike our ancestors (or people living in developing countries today), virtually no American in the 21st century is trying to have as many babies as humanly possible. The average American wants 2-3 kids. Furthermore, they want their marriage to be based on love and happiness – not pumping “good genes” into the next generation. This sounds like common sense (and it is!) but our common sense is being weakened by “science” that is nothing of the sort – and the consequence of that “science” weakens morality and the enjoyment of life.

For those – whether they live in America or other countries – who wish to close their mind and live an animal existence – I can only say to them: “that is your prerogative.” But for those of us who aspire to a more spiritually satisfactory existence, we should be aware that our “instincts” are often misleading, and they should be overcome (not embraced!) through the power of reason, and dare I say, love, as well.

This continuous competition between “instinct” and “reason” reinforces an idea that I’ve bandied about: We are souls who entered animal bodies to test the strength of the soul and create testaments to the power of the soul (creative acts such as raising a child or writing a book, etc). I won’t endorse or reject this idea (because there is a lack of evidence either way), but I think it’s a nice thought as we go about our lives (and it’s certainly better than the Darwinian alternative).