Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Endorphins & Delusion

Jerry the Evangelical Neighbor accused me of being anti-religion.

“Its not that I am anti-religion,” I explained, “It’s just that I am pro Humanism.”

I came from a religious background and it played a large role in making me the person I am today. I just prefer rational explanations to supernatural ones. If something exceeds my present understanding or seems unexplainable in the light of reason, I simply take it to mean I am lacking all of the information needed. I don’t abdicate reason and make the assumption that something paranormal, supernatural or even mystical occurred.

I also don’t deny that it didn’t happen (Unless there is an obvious explanation). There is so much that I don’t know. It would be profoundly foolish to close ones mind off to the infinite possibilities of our universe, much of it still largely unknown to us. That is the essence of open mindedness that the credulous and religious minded people accuse people such as me of not having.

Unfortunately, they misunderstand what it means to be open - minded. Like so many people who prefer religious or supernatural explanations they confuse credulity for being open minded. Often, they are offended or upset because you do not share their beliefs or perhaps disagree with their conclusions. An open minded person does not accept subjective or supernatural beliefs or ideas simply on the say so of some book, prophet or well meaning clergy person. They ask for proof.

It’s this demand for proof that stymies Jerry the Evangelical Neighbor. What he believes is subjective. This makes any evidence offered on its behalf suspect, because the proof offered is as subjective. It’s the defining of the word using the word itself that our grade school teachers told us couldn’t be done. Eating means eating. While it is true it is meaningless because it requires that you already understand what it means to eat.

To define it requires that you go outside the word. Proof needs to be supported by something external to the “thing” you are seeking to prove – at least in the case of religious and supernatural claims. The bible tells me so is not proof. I can simply respond with a passage from the Koran or the Vedas or even the Tao Te Ching. Why are these texts any less “proof” than the bible?

What happens is the religious minded person accepts a creed and then looks for evidence to support that creed. From their uniquely subjective viewpoint everything they see is proof. This does not pass any true load test of reason. An open minded person will consider new ideas or beliefs, but only if there is something tangible that can be offered to support it. It is not open - minded to concede a possibility of such a thing in the absence of said evidence. That is credulity. At the very least it’s a form of political correctness offered so as not to offend.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principal helps explain the challenge of objectivity in the pursuit of science. How much more difficult when dealing with the subjective world of the psyche?

Jerry misunderstands the stand I take on issues of separation of church and state. He assumes that I hate religion and want to do away with it. Frankly, in my moments where my ire is piqued I do take that stand. But, when reason and fairness sets in I simply want to protect the rights of all Americans to believe or not to believe as they choose. Because I am against prayer in school doesn’t mean I am against people in school praying. It is that the event needs to be a private individual moment. Specific times set aside for chapel services, bible studies and prayer groups need to be done off campus. That is what homes, churches, mosques and temples are for.

If you want this as part of your educational life then attend a private religious school. If you can’t afford one then your church should help you. The problem with allowing it in schools is that if you allow Christians to pray publically pray then you need to allow Muslims, Jews and Hindus to do so as well. Then we need to consider the Buddhist or the neo pagan. Given how religions tend not to play well with each other it is best to leave it outside where it belongs. Not to mention every attempt by religious conservatives to create a “year of the bible” or “Spiritual Heritage Month” or even bring back prayer in school is nothing more than an attempt to create a place of superiority and dominance for their own peculiar brand of God.

I don’t trust the mindset that seems to need something mystical in life. Mysticism can be dangerously close to delusion. A marathon runner once shared with me that while running he often experienced something mystical or “otherworldly.” He often felt himself floating and rising up to God.

“It couldn’t just be the endorphins?” I asked him.

As a runner I have experienced something similar. I tend to dissociate when brimming to overflowing with pain and endorphins. Mystical or religious experiences often seem dissociative to me. It’s an alternate state of consciousness. But, so is sleep and even an orgasm.

“It isn’t runner’s high,” my friend growled.

I suggested that there is no way I can really know as his experience is not mine. Ultimately, I can’t know because of the individual nature of subjective experience. It may be God or it may be wishful thinking being gratified through brain chemistry. That is why the need exists to demand proof. How do I know you are correct? Why must I take your word for it simply because you have the right to believe as you do?

Coffee

Alcohol

Drugs

Nicotine

Trauma

Are all substances or experiences (as in the case of trauma) that can create alternate states of consciousness and in some cases work with neuro receptors in ways similar to our naturally occurring endorphins The danger of mysticism is that it can lead us into worshiping a mystery. We don’t want to open the door and look inside because we may not like what we see. So the mystery becomes sacrosanct. The questioning of beliefs is treated as blasphemy.

For me life is still pretty breathtaking and amazing. A mystery solved is no less breathtaking when you consider the high degree of improbability that we shouldn’t be here at all. The pursuit of knowledge; the pursuit of understanding is not arrogant. It is the product of an intensely inquisitive mind. What is arrogant is to write proverbs about the foolishness of intellectual pursuit. Ignorance is not wisdom. Ignorance is darkness.

Jerry the Evangelical Neighbor hates natural selection, evolution and Darwin. Life and the universe need an intelligent creator because it’s just so highly unlikely that random events could have set off something that lead to humanity.

I agree.

But, the idea that an eternally existing and intelligent super being created everything that exists out of nothing is equally and, quite possibly, even more highly improbable than the circumstances of chance.

Yet, regardless, here we are.

We exist and it is absurd.

But absurd or not we are here.

Even if by all counts we shouldn’t be.

I have my own supernatural enthusiasms. Enthusiasm comes to us from the Greek en theos or literally God within us. It is just that I don’t assume that these beliefs are true. Religion has offered me insights into my psyche. I especially value the religion of men such as Thomas Merton or the eternally skeptical and searching mind of an Aldous Huxley, whose work, The Perennial Philosophy, has provided more than a small amount of understanding. There are many others.

The problem that I have is that religion is about transcendent answers to a terminally mortal life. It’s more about our fear of death and not existing than anything else. Even though post modern religion boasts of an “inner life” and finding the answers we need within rather than “out there” somewhere it is pathetically transcendent. It fools itself though semantics and theological games.

By seeking for something eternal and subjective we avoid the truth of our anxiety. This may, indeed, be all there is. Mystical experiences seems like escapism from living our life now. The mystic looks for transcendental meaning, which may or may not be real, to avoid creating meaning from where they stand in their life at any given moment. They want transcendence because death is around the corner and they are afraid of not existing.

Humanism is superior to me because it puts the human being and the society he or she lives in first. Humanism has no righteous and tempestuous god to placate. Humans come first vs. God first. The morals we share have human value and do not need threats of hell or the promise of heaven for us to strive to be ethical and good people. Religious history offers enough evidence that religion is not any better at promoting decency, kindness or ethics then the lack of it. In fact when religion fails in these areas it is all the more tragic.

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