Friday, November 11, 2005

Welcome to Reality



"The process of scientific discovery is, in fact, a continual flight from wonder"
   -Albert Einstein


Sometimes the barbs of your political opponents are unfair and hurtful, and sometimes they not only right on target but very well appreciated. An aide in the Bush administration was famously quoted by Ron Suskind in a 2004 New York Times magazine article. Suskind was told that:

" ... guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality-judiciously, as you will-we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."


Well, the reality-based community is where I want to live. I'm sure that truly honest, thoughtful, citizens (Democrats, Republicans and the rest) would admit that decisions are best based on what is, rather than on fantasy. But there is a powerful opposing force that draws us away from reality, causing us to act based on wishful thinking and unverifiable doctrine. This force is religion and its engine is faith.

Sometimes the same concept can be spun positively or negatively by good labeling. Consider the two sides of the abortion debate. One sides calls the teams pro-choice and anti-choice. The other uses the terms pro-life and pro-death for the same two camps. Very different connotations, same reallity.

Similarly, the word "faith" can have two opposing flavors. For most of the world's people, faith is unabashedly positive, suggesting moral, upstanding individuals who battle the forces of Satan and his evil minions here on earth. But what faith literally means is the acceptance of something for which by definition there is no evidence. Religion gets a pass when it comes to the standards of reason, science and logic- standards which are rigorously enforced in bridge construction and cardiac surgery. No one wants to fly in an airplane where the engineers relied on their unwavering faith in God's love to make sure that adequate lift and thrust were on board.

It is true that some very successful scientists have held strong religious beliefs. I feel that the only way one can honestly do this - having "faith" about God while requiring rigorous proof and the scientific method in one's exploration of the physical universe - is to believe in two separate spheres of existence. The physical world is governed by one set of laws, while the spiritual world governed by others. The important caveat here is that the spiritual world must not directly influence the physical world, nor vice versa. This is, of course, not the approach of those who use religion as a blueprint for society. That urge to govern according to religious doctrine has been played out in theocracies throughout the ages - from medieval Europe to modern Islamic states, or in the very common thread of Christian politics in our own democracy.

Several authors have commented on this schism between reality and faith. Richard Dawkins, the well known British biologist and author of The Selfish Gene frequently writes on issues of humanism and atheism. Sam Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason analyzes the terrifying political and apocalyptical implications of suspending reason to make room for faith in the modern world. Comedian and author Bill Maher cites the folly of religion, referring to the September 11th attacks as a "faith based initiative" and deriding the arrogance of people who claim to know unknowables, such as what happens after death. And actress and author Julia Sweeney's one woman show, "Letting Go of God", describes her journey from religious dogma into enlightenment with humor and tenderness.

Yet these are extremely marginalized voices in our religious society, where faith is the default assumption. In much of our world, the lack of faith is seen as bizarre at best, if not out and out heretical sabotage of all that is good. Why does religion persist in this near universal popularity? Why does a species that has over and over for thousands of years been ground down by the bloody march of history - despite a fanatical devotion to God in many forms - cling to the notion that an intelligent, benevolent being is in charge of every aspect of their lives? I believe that has to do with the evolution of our own intelligence.

At some point in history, one of our ancestors had a blinding flash of insight, and realized that he or she was going to die. This epiphany, the awareness of the inevitable end of our own existence, is an awesome burden for any individual consciousness. There are three possible responses to this fact: denial of death, faith in life after death, and enjoyment of the one life that we know that we have.

Denial of death is our initial reaction, a product of immaturity. Children and teenagers notoriously believe in immortality (or at least act as if they do). Cryogenics enthusiasts and believers in near future breakthroughs in longevity research also cling to to this hope. As the old joke goes: "I'm planning on living forever." "Really? How's it going?" "So far, so good."

Faith in life after death is the big seller of the three, and is the cornerstone of most organized religion. This is a brilliant solution that society has developed to kill two birds with one stone. The claim is that there is eternal life, but you only get it if you follow certain rules. Thus, people are inoculated against the terrible truth of personal annihilation. At the same time, an incredibly powerful control infrastructure is established, allowing whoever lays claim to the secrets of faith to hold sway over the population in a way that leaders using simple force can never achieve. The most brutal dictator can be toppled or killed in an instant, but the church's power is for all practical purposes unassailable. People can be talked into risking one life for a cause if they think that paradise awaits the faithful. But very few of those people want to gamble with the big eternal payoff by challenging God.

For this reason, I do not see our society evolving en mass beyond the need for religion any time soon. It is just too much to ask for the vast majority of people to give up their oxygen, the assurance that life everlasting awaits the true believer. According to Harris, this dooms us to anihillilation at some point - probably at the corner of Faith Street and Nuclear Avenue. But some of us can chose to live free of the bonds of superstition and fantasy, in hopes that everyone else will catch on before we get around to making the rapture real. And this is the third response to our mortality.

The Church of Reality is one of the many philosophies structured along these lines. Certainly, the concept of enjoying the here and now is not original with this organization. Freethinkers, atheists, and others have stressed the importance of making the best of this incredibly wonderful life that we have, rather than spending it trying to game the system so that we get another, better one after we die. The COR takes the concept one step further, casting it as a church, keeping the good qualities of religion while dispensing with those that require "faith" (unquestioning belief in improvable, illogical postulates). In fact, faith by its strict definition could be said to be a sin in the COR - abandoning one's reason and logic. There is no god to worship, or ritual required for salvation. COR members are called Realists, and greet each other by saying "welcome to reality".

What the COR retains of religion is the concept of "sacredness" - something that is extremely desirable and therefore the goal of all its adherents. The COR considers the "tree of knowledge" to be sacred, it is the sum total of all human understanding, acquired through the objective, scientific examination of reality. Interestingly, (and presumably, deliberately) this is in stark contrast to conventional Judeo-Christian myth, in which man was punished by God for the very first sin - tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge. What better characterization of faith can there be than that? The absolute worst thing that you can do as a faith-based person is to learn, to understand reality, to choose what is real over myth and fantasy.

What would Realists say about the concept of the traditional God of organized religion? It certainly can't be ignored - this particular myth has had more impact on our society than almost any other concept in human history. But rather than seeing God as a real actor, with which people must interact, the Realist could see God as a literary or cultural concept. God would be a fictional character just like Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn, that can both entertain and instruct. Literature isn't "real", but it is still an important part of human existence. And through example, it can have positive effects. You don't have to believe that Hamlet really existed to live your life so you don't end up like he did.

Finally, remember that the COR is at it's very base an evolving concept. Whatever is proven to be real becomes a part of the tree of knowledge, and thus, a part of church doctrine. The COR does not teach that there is no afterlife, because the non-existence of an afterlife has not been proven. Therefore, what happens after death isn't part of the tree, so there is no reason to make or believe anyone's claims about that realm. But Realists are continually exploring their environment. If there is life after death, Realists on the other side of the mortal boundary would be simply add this new knowledge to the tree and keep on exploring.

In the Matrix film trilogy, the protagonist Neo wakes to realize that the "normal" world he has been living in is nothing more than an elaborately constructed, computer generated fantasy. The real world is far more dark, dangerous, and challenging, but it's real. He is given the option at one point to choose between a return to fantasy and the acceptance of reality, with the implied possibility of making the real world better. Neo chooses reality. We should do the same.

4 Comments:

At 8:26 PM, Blogger Michael D. said...

Right now I am having trouble finding a pair of brown suede shoes that I like so picking a religion is out of the question. But thanks for setting things up so clearly that I can stop worrying about reincarnation or heaven and hell and just spend time in this life being depressed by your blog.

 
At 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

couple days ago, i found this churchofreality site. i was very happy to find someone put in writing what i felt most of my life. one problem - the site is now (December 20th 2005) gone! anyone knows what happened to it?

 
At 10:10 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Seems to be up and running now! Maybe just a temporary service outage...

 
At 6:10 AM, Anonymous David Bates said...

I am profoundly interested in what you have written here. Being a Science teacher, I am encouraged that you have used the evidence placed before you without embellishment to form a sound hypothesis. However, I'd encourage you to keep it as an hypothesis rather that turning it into a faith. Faith will preclude you from responding to future developments in understanding or the discovery of new facts.

There were stories of a land far to the west - myths - until Christopher Columbus presented the Americas as a reality. We experience the world through our senses, but these are notoriously unreliable and limited in scope. After all, Native Americans lived full and active lives, while European senses were unable to detect them. But for the desire to explore and the courage to set sail, the Atlantic Ocean would still be a barrier against the "New World".

Faith is a response, knowledge can lead to faith, and many people will develop faith in response to your teaching, you may well see evidence of this in yourself. For those who are willing to explore, God will reveal Himself as a fact, as a person, to any individual who asks for personal evidence. The public evidence of this person may be seen in the faith of those who have already met God; it is in the lives they live, and often in what they have written or said.

God is has become reality to those who have met him. But, others remain bound by reliance upon what they sense in the physical world, unwilling to respond to God's call into a whole new world. Unless we are willing to explore – to respond to God who calls each one of us – our own limited senses will be the walls of a prison which has no locks, where the prisoner refuses to leave.

 

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