Morris on my Mind, and Not the Saved by the Bell One…

Once again we are visited by our good friend David Goza who lights our way regularly from the dark pits of YouTube

A weekend of collecting, sorting and cleaning Ordovician-Period marine fossils from the Arbuckle Mountains has got me thinking once again about one of the strangest beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians: that about 4,400 or so years ago, the deity who had created the universe a couple of millennia earlier got all pissed off and wiped out almost everything in a global flood. I suppose that would have been a good enough belief for someone living in the Middle Ages, but its prestige has been completely undercut by the science of geology, beginning with its birth in the late 17th century. By around the middle of the 19th century, the only people who still took the Noahic Flood seriously were circuit-riding evangelists and the crowds of superstitious, snake-handling bumpkins who followed them. In most cases, their backwardness can clearly be attributed to the lack of general education.

 

During the second half of the 19th century, public education began to rectify some of the illiteracy and ignorance that had characterized the frontier population at large; this program went into full swing after the Civil War and the U.S. gradually began to show signs of a more general secular awakening. That awakening looked frightening to many people (not least to the preachers whose incomes were thereby threatened), and it was out of that fear that fundamentalism was born late in that century.

 

Unlike the frontier revivalism that characterized much of the U.S. earlier in the 19th century, fundamentalism was in some respects a self-consciously “modern” movement. It was born out of a psychological conflict: the wish to enjoy the fruits of modernity (making necessary a kind of lip-service to the sciences that made those benisons possible) while swearing allegiance to the literal truth of the Bible – one of the strangest notions that’s ever been hatched by the unquiet mind of man. Since the findings of science were obviously at odds with biblical cosmology and history, fundamentalists were at pains to debunk those findings.
Continue reading “Morris on my Mind, and Not the Saved by the Bell One…”

From the Bones of the Past We Can Find Purpose in the Future

David Goza stops by to lay down the smack.

This one’s for Jonny B., who’s been on my mind.

A visit to the Museum of Osteology can precipitate quite a train of thought, provided one is open to that pleasure. I’m fortunate to live a mere 20 miles away, and pay it a visit now and then. I always spend a good deal of time tracing limbed vertebrate evolution through various ancient and modern skeletons on display, admiring especially the universal template shared by amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals –a template that begins with a shoulder or hip, then includes one long bone, then an elbow or knee, then two bones, then a wrist or ankle, then lots of bones, then digits (which have become fused in quite a few cases, in the wings of birds and the hooves of ruminants).Yesterday I gazed upon skulls and skeletons of our vertebrate kin, remote both in time and in degree of cousinhood, and a sense of continuity, of being embedded in an everlasting flow of events simply took hold of me. It was a transcendent experience that has great staying power. I’m moved to share some of this with you, even while realizing that I can’t possibly capture it in words.

 

It was gazing into the empty eye-sockets of Australopithecus africanus, of Homo habilis, of Homo erectus, of Homo heidelbergensis, of Homo neanderthalensis, that unleashed a flood of reflection on “selfhood.” Was that sense of identity as strong in some of those ancestors and cousins I just named as it is in us? Does an elephant have a sense of self? Does a dolphin?

See the Original Post Here
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When They Stand at the Edge of Non-Belief It’s so Hard Not to Push

Once again we are visited by our good friend David Goza who lights our way regularly from the dark pits of YouTube

The questionnaire that I have my students fill out at the beginning of every semester includes questions designed with a view to getting to know who my students are. I always find the answers interesting and revealing, and occasionally alarming.

 

One of the questions I ask is, “What is the biggest idea you’ve ever had to come to terms with?” As you can no doubt imagine, I see quite a range of answers to this one: everything from “what goes on inside a black hole?” to “I’ll soon have to move out of my parents’ basement,” with a smattering of references to mortality and religion in between. A few students leave that one blank – just don’t care to touch it. (Have they never wrestled with a big idea?) A few semesters ago, one student responded with, “fucking magnets – how do they work?

 

Among last semester’s crop of students was a young woman from a small Oklahoma town who wrote the following in response to my nosy question: “Everyone does not believe what I do from a religious perspective. It’s hard for me to understand why others believe what they do. I am Southern Baptist.”

 

Believe it or not, I understand her predicament and sympathize. I’ve been there.

 

What I wish I could have said to her, and of course didn’t and never will on principle, is something like the following:
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Seeing God at the Bottom of a Water Bong

Once again we are visited by our good friend David Goza who lights our way regularly from the dark pits of YouTube

Anatomically modern humans have lived on this planet for at least 200,000 years. During that time, our ancestors – or people whom our ancestors knew – have eaten, drunk, smoked, snorted, or otherwise ingested (use your rich imagination) absolutely everything on the surface of this planet. You know that’s true – hell, they’re still doing it! Now, some of those things caused the ingestees to die horribly. Those particular people were not our ancestors. Our ancestors no doubt learned from their unfortunate example, however, and the observations they passed along have become the received wisdom of later generations: don’t drink that, don’t stick that up your tookus….

 

But some of those things caused our ancestors to see the world in ways they might otherwise never have discovered, and to interact with it in ways that could not have been foreseen. Here’s an example: about 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last of the Pleistocene glaciations, there were modern humans living along the Atlantic seacoast in southern Europe – I’m talking about the Solutrean culture. If there’s ice year-round only a few hundred miles north of you, that means you’re living in a climate that’s similar to what present-day denizens of Wasilla, Alaska enjoy. People could live on the coast during the summer – and we have ample evidence that they did, and that one of their main sources of protein was fish. But it’s too cold to live there during the winter, so you go inland and upland and take advantage of the karst features. In nearby regions in what are now France and Spain, people weathered over in the limestone caves, taking with them whatever they could hoard over the course of the summer: dried fish, fruits, nuts, berries, tubers… and of course they supplemented their diet with whatever grows in the perpetual darkness of caves, in that growth medium so generously provided by roosting bats.

 

We all know what that is, right? Et voilà! – art is born! You know the art I’m talking about: art so extraordinary that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the splendid cave paintings associated with such place names as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira. Do you imagine for a moment that there’s no connection between magic mushrooms and the birth of art? And can you think of any better event to fix as the watershed between being merely anatomically modern and being behaviorally modern, than the birth of art in a particular culture? The birth of art and the birth of truly modern humanity are two names for the same thing. I suspect that Mother Nature’s natural pharmacy has had much to do with the blossoming of human creativity. Please understand that I’m not fixing the birth of modern humanity at the birth of art in any one particular place: it happened at many different times and in many different places, and is in some sense an ongoing process. There’s a reason that the most fantastic symphonies – and I mean that literally – were written during the Nineteenth Century, when virtually every major European artist was coked to the gills on opium (which was perfectly legal and not overly expensive).
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Young Earth Creationism and the Ultimate Question Concerning “Number 2”

In the course of a recent exchange with a Young-Earth Creationist, I was accused of dodging what my interlocutor imagined to be “the hard questions,” all of which were pretty much on the level of Bill O’Reilly’s “OK, smart guy, how’d the moon get there?” His rapid-fire questions basically took the form, “If there’s no God, why do we see something instead of nothing?” They boiled down to the ontological difficulties concerning the origin of the universe and the origin of life, both of which (of course!) he imagined to be inadequately addressed by “evolution.” No surprises there, right?

 

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard those objections raised by some close-minded troglodyte who had no intention of paying any attention whatsoever to any answer that involved more syllables than “God did it,” I’d be a very wealthy man by now. As any honest person recognizes, there’s still a lot to learn about the origin of the universe and of life. There’s still a lot to learn about evolution, for that matter, which is why the relatively new science of EvoDevo is so exciting: it’s starting to furnish some answers to some longstanding puzzles. But it will inevitably raise other questions, a prospect that is troubling only to a person with no native curiosity and a deep-seated need for “the sure thing.”

 

I think maybe it’s time to turn the tables on people who raise what they imagine to be unanswerable questions (and who, in raising them, show no sign of actually being interested in answers, but raise them rhetorically, as a “gotcha” device). My motive in doing this is to try to get Christian fundamentalists to see just how ridiculous their “questions” are. Let me counter with a few nagging theological questions. Let’s see if I can get some straight answers from fundamentalist Christians, who seem to be so damn sure that their “holy book” has all the answers we need to all the questions that are worth asking. Turns out, the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible leaves quite a few things unexplained.

 

Let’s start with the matter of feces. Does God’s Word really tell us all we need to know about that?
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Dreaming of Darwin: Fundamentalist Night Terrors

Some of the great scientific discoveries have been syntheses that emerged more or less organically from the systematic crunching of a compendium of data accumulated over time. Plate tectonics furnishes an illustrative example: the Grand Unified Theory of Geology was made possible by a great many observations made over the course of a couple of centuries, some of them serendipitous (e.g. the discovery of deep-ocean trenches and mid-ocean ranges during the submarine era). Put enough data like that in a room with enough smart people and a really big idea is sooner or later going to take shape, in a manner that kind of resembles abiogenesis.

 

Others have been leaps of pure intuition so striking as to seem truly original. One of them is Darwin’s theory of evolution. I wish I could have seen the look on his face when the idea of speciation driven by natural selection occurred to him. That’s got to have been one of the greatest OMG moments in history. It must damn dear have stopped his heart: imagine having a single insight that explains everything you’re interested in! He must immediately have recognized how revolutionary an idea that was, and how much resistance and rancor it would incur. No wonder he sat on the idea for two decades before going to press with it – and even then, only out of concern of having his thunder stolen.
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Cursed are the Meek, for They Dream of Being Enslaved

I’m going to keep this entry short ‘n’ sweet and get you thinking about something. (If you end up coming to the same conclusions I have under your own steam, the insight will be more truly yours than if I simply serve it up fully-cooked.) I want to spill just a little metaphorical ink over the most important verse in the Bible. I’m not talking about John 3:16. I have in mind a different saying attributed to Jesus, one that can be found in that compendium of aphorisms and apothegms known as “The Sermon on the Mount:”

 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5, NRSV)

 

If I pull up my Microsoft Word thesaurus and search “meek,” here’s the list of synonyms I’m offered: humble, timid, submissive, gentle, docile, modest, compliant, mild, quiet, lowly, weak, cowed, fearful, and tame. That thesaurus suggests “assertive” and “overbearing” as antonyms. (Nominal synonyms for “assertive” and “overbearing” tend to be gender-specific: “leader” for the males, “bitch” for all the rest. Funny how that works, ain’t it? But that’s another essay.)

 

Meek. It’s a telling word, is it not? What message do you suppose “Jesus” was trying to send here? Let’s not forget there’s a good possibility that such a character never actually existed and the only reason we have these sayings of “Jesus” is that a powerful institution collected/concocted them to be promulgated to someone’s advantage. Whose advantage might that be? Isn’t it obvious?

 

There’s a reason that Nietzsche called Christianity a religion of slaves. There it is, in black and white (or red, if you’ve got one of those), straight from the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth, sitting right there like a shiny new dime on one of the gilt-edged pages of the Best Book Ever Written. And as Nietzsche understood full well, Christianity’s not the only religion designed to enslave its devotees. There have been hundreds, and plenty are still on offer.
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A Couple of Hellbound Apostates Visit the Wichita Mountains

If you were expecting or even – God forbid – hoping for another rant, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news: I think I need to give it a rest for a while. I’ll say only this before taking my leave of that somewhat continuous, reiterative and baleful project: because of the way fundamentalist religious dogma with all its patriarchal connotations warped the members of my family for generations, I’m genuinely sorry I was born into that family, and somewhat resentful as well. That’s a pretty heavy thing to say, ain’t it? I have always tried to treat my son in such a way that he won’t feel about his father the way I feel about mine. Some of you who read this know full well what I mean because that’s the way you feel – and chances are, religious dogma played a role in it. Those of you who can’t imagine what it must be like to feel that way, also don’t know how lucky you are to have dodged such a bullet by a fortuitous accident of birth.

 

Now, on to brighter things. On Friday, I met my friend Nicole King (whose beautiful, thought-provoking and touching essays you’ve probably encountered on this blog) for a long-overdue visit to the Wichita Mountains in southwest Oklahoma. The Wichitas are a fascinating igneous province whose history is quite unlike that of any other mountain range known to me. It’s a series of granite outcrops that trend roughly east-west for some sixty miles from near Lawton to a bit beyond the appropriately-named town of Granite. They aren’t large as mountains go: the maximum topographical relief is probably no more than 1700 feet or so. On approaching them, one is immediately struck by the fact that there are no foothills: the massifs simply rise directly out of the surrounding plains. This is, to say the least, unusual, and there is of course a good reason for it, which I’ll get to eventually. (One will not discover that reason by reading the Holy Bible.)

 

After lunch at the celebrated restaurant in Meers – a charming establishment that occupies a ramshackle collage of old mining structures and serves up wonderful food and delicious locally-brewed beer in 22-ounce bottles – we headed up into the mountains to enjoy that great proliferation of wildflowers that has followed in the wake of unprecedented flooding in this geologically-fascinating region. The three hours we spent kicking around up there afforded a golden opportunity to revisit some of the unusual features of one of my favorite places on Earth.

 

The granite of the Wichitas has been dated to early in the Cambrian Period, about 524 MYA give or take 1.2 million either direction. That’s a very good date, established and corroborated by a number of radiometric “clocks” – various minerals (especially zircons) contained within the granite that incorporated radioactive isotopes into their structure at the time the magma chamber that produced that granite was slowly cooling under miles of overburden.
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I Might as Well Get This Off My Chest

Anyone up for a good rant?

 

If you are, by all means continue reading, and imagine the following delivered with flecks of spittle and appropriate pulpit-pounding. If you aren’t, by all means find something else to read. I can be diplomatic – even conciliatory – if the occasion demands but I’m not going to be in this case. I cannot un-see what I see, and sometimes I just have to vent. If you find my tone somewhat strident, I can’t say I disagree with you. What you are about to read reflects a very real side of me – one that I have to live with daily. It has largely been shaped by a fundamentalist Christian upbringing that I certainly did not choose to be born into and that I consider a form of child abuse. I hope I’ve been clear. Here goes – let’s see how many metaphors I can mix:

 

The most urgent task of our time is to kill the hydra-headed monster known as religion. Until we manage to drive a stake once and for all through the heart of the vicious Mesopotamian god who still holds sway over and commands the blind obedience of billions of Christians, Muslims and Jews, all our attempts to wake up an extinction-bound humanity and galvanize them to action will avail nothing. No devout Christian – I’m talking here about True Believers™ who seriously think that God has a perfect plan for this planet and every human on it, is in control of everything that happens and is going to intervene just in the nick of time – is ever going to give a rat’s ass about the looming climate change disaster, or the meltdown of nuclear power plants or the drawdown of ancient aquifers, or the collapse of civilization as the peak of hydrocarbon extraction is passed and our worldwide technological faux-perpetual-motion machine begins to sputter and creak: Jesus is waiting in the wings, ready at his father’s command to ride once again into human affairs, this time on a white horse, vanquishing Satan and setting everything to rights.
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About that God-Shaped Hole

This piece is a contribution from our good friend David Goza who can also be watched here.

Throughout most of my life, I’ve regularly heard one version or another of a shopworn claim made by pulpiteers, Sunday school teachers, Christian bloggers and authors, participants in Christian Facebook groups, and so forth. It goes like this: There’s a “God-shaped hole” inside each of us, and unless we fill it with God we’ll never be happy. Since nature abhors a vacuum, we’ll try to fill that void with something (a list usually follows, and will typically include sex, drugs and rock-‘n’-roll). But nothing we try to fill it with will ever really satisfy us since only God can fill it perfectly.

 

One encounters many variations on this theme, including the often-heard claim that atheists make a religion of evolution or a god of Richard Dawkins (or of themselves) and that those who do not embrace the Kingdom of Heaven will almost certainly become political activists of the communist variety, bent on establishing their own substitute heavenly kingdom on Earth.

 

That claim is a gross distortion of a metaphor coined by Jean Paul Sartre, who spent much of his career teasing apart the particulars of our uneasy relationship with the culture in which we find ourselves embroiled without having chosen it. His “God-shaped hole” metaphor points at the essential emptiness at the heart of our industrial civilization, with its pointless routines, infuriating distractions and glut of cheap, toxic crap. It’s a poignant metaphor meant to capture the poignancy of our predicament.

 

The misuse I cited earlier represents a warping almost beyond recognition by those who employ Sartre’s metaphor casually without having read what he had to say about it. I want to try to couch it in terms that make better sense, that are truer to Sartre’s meaning.

 

It’s obvious that most humans feel a deep need for meaning in their lives, and thus pursue it in various ways. Many – surely most to at least some degree – seek meaning outside themselves, in something “larger” (the family, the community, the state, the church, the cosmos), but this isn’t true of everyone. A few seem to locate meaning only in themselves, and this leads to some distressingly predictable behaviors. Those so described almost inevitably end up at the top of whatever ladder it is they’re climbing and thus join the ranks of the most dangerous people alive: the narcissists and sociopaths who wield great power and command vast wealth. Like black holes, they take but do not give. In their case, it may be that “meaning” is the wrong word: perhaps “fulfillment” would be a better choice.
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