Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Doug Versus Doug (Or: My Pantheism And What Became Of It)

At my last blog - which I discontinued and took down because my thoughts about God were evolving and I was slowly moving in a different direction - I posted as recently as 2011 an apology of sorts for my pantheistic belief.

The truth is, that stance was the result of over a quarter century of absorbing free thought and rationalistic writings. I was never able to fully transition to Atheism for one simple reason: I could never shake my deepest impression that the Cosmos needed an explanation beyond being a brute fact.

That impression would never let me go. At the same time, I perceived the atheist worldview as extremely negative and spending much time saying a lot about little. But as much as Atheism has to say, it does not offer a satisfying explanation for existence - why there is something (and at that, an orderly something) rather than nothing.

So in my post Why I Am A Pantheist, I find the statement:

Mine is a reason-driven religious philosophy, not faith driven.

I look back at that now and think, "nice try." But I had put lots of faith in my feeble ability to understand. And I put loads of faith in something else I wrote then:

For me, the scientific method is the true theology or study of God. And with the embracing of the scientific method comes the humbling confession that we don't know everything, and that all our scientific "facts" are provisional facts. The more the universe is studied, the more secrets she yields, and the possibility that certain facts may need to be revised frequently becomes a reality. Still - despite its incompleteness - the scientific method is the best handle on reality we have.

If I could live as long as the fabled Methuselah, what changes I could behold in the advance of scientific knowledge! But as for whether the scientific method is the best handle on reality I have, that could only be so if the physical universe is all there is. That is a presupposition that may or may not be true. It was more a matter of faith than reason that I settled on that proposition. I was in denial about my deeper impressions, and that closed doors for me, philosophically speaking.

At one point I touched on what is called the Hiddenness of God. I touched on the various gods that humanity has worshipped down through the centuries, writing:

That not one of these imagined deities throughout all the millennia of human history has bothered to reside among and directly communicate with all his creatures and forever set the record straight seems to me - if a not a proof, then at least - an indication that we are dealing with non-entitites.

Right I was that isn't proof. But it was a bit bold of me to suggest that because the gods did not come down to make themselves available to our senses, they were non-entities. It doesn't necessarily follow just because I thought it should.

More troubling to me is idea that the God of the monotheists might have made him/her self available to our senses - that is, if we allow for the sensus divinitatis. I do so now allow, but at the time, in keeping with my strict adherence to the scientific method, I ruled that out from the start.

I also made (or rather I should say, parroted) this bold proclamation:

If there is a creator "God" it must the laws of physics that organize the raw elements into this wonderful cosmos. This ability of the elements to self-organize and display apparent design is the divine spark or Logos. It is that from which we came and to which we must eventually return.

No wonder the Atheist spokesperson Richard Dawkins says Pantheism is "sexed-up" Atheism! I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to hold on to "God" and at the same time let go.

Why must it be the case that God is a metaphor for the laws of physics? There I was face-to-face with another alleged brute fact. The Laws of Physics gave us the Cosmos. Period.

But didn't I arrive at that position because I ruled out the supranatural to begin with? Looking back, I think it was an article of faith of sorts that the natural is all there is. My guide wasn't so much reason as faith - faith that a finite mind could grasp the infinite.

I ended my Pantheist statement:

I am a pantheist because, as a part of nature's intelligence, I stand together with my brothers and sisters in awe of the greatest intelligence, which is the well ordered Cosmos as a whole.

Did that answer satisfy me then? I think not. It always made me uncomfortable. It was where I stood at the time, but I didn't stand steadily.

Before I embraced Pantheism I had been a Deist. I was looking for a way to reconcile my feelings about creation with the hard facts of science. A distant and detached God did not do that for me. A metaphorical God, sexed up atheism, did not do it. I am returning to my earliest belief - that there is an ultimate reality, or as C. S. Lewis put it in telling of his turning from Atheism to Theism, "I gave in, and admitted that God was God." I had been in rebellion against my deepest intuitions for many years, but now I'm returning. I'm returning to peace of mind and heart.

Monday, December 29, 2014

As Pearls Before Swine

In the famous "Sermon on the Mount" the following words are ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth:

Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. (Matthew 7:6 - NKJV)

Lately I have been thinking more and more of that saying as I survey the debate between believers and nonbelievers in God. It is very difficult to find civil discussion among the warring factions these days. Both sides metaphorically view their opponents as something like wild dogs and pigs, vicious and unrelenting.

Believers tend to think unbelievers have hearts of stone and, thus, eyes that will not - that absolutely refuse to - see the obvious, preferring darkness to light. Dogs and pigs, all of them!

On the other hand, nonbelievers feel believers lack good sense and the ability to reason well; not only so, they dare place faith above the much-vaunted scientific method. Dogs and pigs, the whole lot!

The gravity of the God issue is one which forces a person to choose sides and embrace their chosen side deeply. Both sides hold certain tenets as sacred or at least of supreme importance, as pearls of wisdom. That seems naturally to lead to vitriol.

Perhaps the time for debate is over. Perhaps the time never was and debates about God have always been pointless. They just stir the pot and get people all worked up. They change nothing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward All?

I just finished putting away my Christmas tree. I had put it up a few days before Christmas and, having a bit of a break from work, was able to enjoy its lights (it's fiber optic) for a while. I've a feeling now I should have put it up much sooner so I could have enjoyed it longer. Contrary to my fears, my cat Toonces didn't pay the tree much attention - no chewing through wires or pulling the tree off the table. Next year I'll know better. As I put it away, however, I thought about my view of the season.

Also, I just finished reading an article about One Jew's Christmas. I really enjoyed reading of the tolerance of this man toward his Christian friends. I agree with his concerns about the "extreme right" in this country, who are "unable to understand that sensitivity to all persons’ religions isn’t some kind of heresy." Click the above link and check it out.

It's a pity that this time of year has to set off such tension. On second thought, the tension is there all year long; perhaps Christmas just conveniently brings it front and center. Throw into the explosive mix our friends who don't believe in anything beyond the physical demanding the respect for their ideas which they truly deserve and you have a really ugly scene.

Religion shouldn't be that way at all. It is with profound shame that those of us who feel the pull of the religious impulse has to acknowledge the force of Mark Twain's words:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

That simply should not be, even in a non-literal sense.

If the non-religious attack us so robustly, may we not share some of the blame for our bad behavior? At the same time, dear non-believing friends, is it too much to ask that you aim your disapproval at the truly bad in religion, and not also at everyone who thinks differently about the matter? Yet again, we believers should be just as ready to call out bad behavior among ourselves.

As I see it, a firm commitment to the Golden Rule of treating others with the same respect and consideration we desire is the only hope for peace on earth. But how difficult that is for us shortsighted, self-centered humans!

Photo Credit:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Ten Commandments For Atheists?

When I read this report about a contest that was the brainchild of Lex Bayer and John Figdor (who wrote the book Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind), I thought to myself, that is probably a bad idea.

It seems to me that the question isn't, Can atheists be moral? It is abundantly obvious they can be and often are. The question I have for atheists is this: Why was Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov wrong to suggest "If God does not exist, everything is permitted"? That seems to encapsulate the common thought of the God-believer. Without a supreme Law Giver, how can there be moral laws to break? Atheism is the denial, or at least lack of belief in, such a Supreme Law Giver.

The atheistic "commandments" in this article are obviously something more. It is really a statement of humanist ethics. Not all atheists are humanists. (But they are my favorite atheists!)

All that being said, I offer my thoughts on these "commandments."

1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

The problem I have here is the word evidence. Evidence needs to be assessed and interpreted - lots of room for disagreement there. I think open-mindedness is a good idea. Perhaps we should begin practicing open-mindedness by recognizing that our way of looking at the evidence might not be the correct one, or only way of interpreting it.

2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

Paraphrase: Religious faith is no damn good.

3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

But does morality, the subject under discussion, have its grounding in physics or metaphysics?

4. Every person has the right to control of their body.


5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

Agreed. But how does one get to ethical imperatives without God? The question I have is, Is morality something humans ought to practice?

6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.


7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

But why should we do this? Those, for example, who go through life with a brutish attitude, oppressing those who are weaker, thinking primarily of themselves, living solely to satisfy their own desires are bad people, why? Are they bad at all or merely "dancing to the beat of a different drummer?"

8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

Why have we that responsibility? Who says so? This is a fantastic thought, in my opinion. But it is obvious that millions take no heed to it. What is wrong about that?

9. There is no one right way to live.

That is the problem I have with atheistic morality. And it seems plain to me that it undermines the very idea of a set of commandments for atheists. If we take this "commandment" seriously, then the egoist is only practicing an alternative lifestyle. If there is no one right way to live, then why doesn't might make right? If there is no one right way to live, then number 7 above is just a quaint little thought instead of the way humans ought to conduct themselves.

10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

But if there be no Divine Purpose and life is an accident without rhyme or reason, this is a mere platitude.

Now I add that I was critiquing the above ideas as atheist ideas. From the Humanist point of view they makes sense and have force for those who are committed to the principles of Humanism. But for those not so committed, they lack any force at all.

There is in this article a thought I found interesting. The author writes:

It's all about compassion: ... one does not need a religion to act ethically, with compassion, in the world. People, in fact, are "hardwired" to be compassionate. That is, people can be good, productive and caring citizens without a higher deity telling them to act in certain ways.

I actually find myself more or less in agreement about the "hardwiring" for being compassionate. That is what religious believers mean when they speak about a Law of God written on the heart. It's simplistic, I suppose, but I agree with Christian Philosopher C.S. Lewis when he wrote "conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver."

Again, I don't think it is a question of whether disbelievers in a Divine Lawgiver can behave morally. At the same time I certainly think it a misrepresentation to suggest God-believers only do good because a "higher deity" tells them to behave certain ways. No, the person who acts out of harmony with their conscience cannot be truly at peace.

I suppose I find myself in the position of being an Agnostic Theist. I'm not committed to number 3 above. I find room in my worldview for intuition, an inner light which guides us. That isn't to disparage the scientific method. It's just to leave room for a transcendent reality. And no, not solely because I wish it to be true (but confessedly, I do), but because I find evidences that to me makes more sense. Yet I am willing to concede I may be wrong. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Best Gift

I dashed off yesterday morning to do the last of my Christmas shopping. Along the way I passed a Baptist church and couldn't help but notice their sign:

Jesus is the best gift of all!

No scripture was quoted but immediately I thought of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

I suppose I've softened towards Christians after my departure from that worldview. I'm no longer bitter. No doubt caring for my aging mother - who is quite the Christian - has had a lot to do with that. Also, the process of aging and looking back to my childhood has had some effect.

The Jesus of the canonical gospels impresses me. I only wish most of the Christians I know (the majority, I must say, only nominal Christians, even here in the U.S. Bible Belt) took their commitment more seriously. Even though they are ever ready to proclaim "Jesus is the reason for the season," it is glaringly obvious in watching their lives that they make no serious effort to emulate their "master."

Theologians down through the ages have made the story of Jesus something mostly repugnant. Some theories of the atonement are shocking and present a solid barrier for some (me included) against acceptance of the Christian religion.

The details of the birth of Jesus as related in the gospels of Luke and Matthew present contradictory details and perhaps historically inaccurate statements. And then there is that miraculous conception and virgin birth that rattle the modern mind.

My Christmas celebration is more secular in nature. I am going to put up my fiber optic Christmas tree tonight. (I haven't done it yet because I'm afraid my cat will destroy it.) I'll be taking some time off from work after Tuesday and will better be able to guard it.

And I've been working my way through my collection of Christmas specials on DVD, which includes five versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version being my favorite). The classic movie A Christmas Story will find its way into my celebration.

I always go with non-religious gift wrap paper and Christmas cards. It's not that I think I would offend anyone otherwise, I just don't want to present an image that isn't me.

The best gift for me is "the milk of human kindness," which is given in abundance at this time of year.

Yet still the story of Jesus has the power to tug at my heart.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

If Dogs Have A Heaven...

Man, I was watching the evening news yesterday and saw this story. It played all evening. Pope Francis comforts a little child who was grieving the death of its pet with the promise that our pets would be with us in Heaven: "Paradise is open to all creatures." Social media took to the story and suddenly it's everywhere.

One of those cutesy, make-you-feel-warm-and-fuzzy-all-over stories the media loves. Okay, so do a lot of us love them too after a steady diet of sensationalistic bad news. Alas, like a lot of things that sound to good to be true, this is a hoax. David Gibson supplies the details over at Religion News Service.

Gibson points out: "The story had so much going for it: Francis took his papal name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of environmentalism who famously greeted animals as brothers and sisters." Among other things.

Mitzi was the first dog I ever personally owned. She was a tan and chocolate Chihuahua, and I loved her dearly. I was eleven years old, and remember well I when I first got her (she was found by some young adults who couldn't keep her and so gave her to my mom, who promptly gave her to me) how when I cradled her in my arms (which was often), she would hide her face and eyes in the crook of my elbow.

For a year or more she was my constant companion and bestest friend. She died when I was 12, after becoming impregnated by my parent's Chihuahua. We came home one day and found her in great distress. Mom took Mitzi to the emergency animal hospital. Later that evening the veterinarian called to tell us he had cut out thirteen puppies - far more than she could handle. The next day he called to let us know she died overnight. And just like that my best friend was gone. I still have collar in my possessions today, over forty years later. I could never forget Mitzi.

She did leave me a gift, though. Before her tragic pregnancy, she had gifted me with two little female puppies (the third, a male, died soon after birth). Runt and Sweet Thang, I named them. Runt looked quite a bit like her, but was much lighter in color. These little friends stayed with me until I was well into my twenties.

I never owned another dog. Losing my little friends was just too painful. I had second thoughts about getting Toonces, my cat. I had befriend scores of neighborhood cats over the years, who left me one by one. But there was always a bit of distance between us. Toonces sleeps on my bed. Spends time in my lap. When I am home she stays in her little bed, just feet from where I sit at my computer desk. She does keep me company during the long hours I am otherwise alone. To keep me humble, she still hisses, swats, and bites me on occasion. But those occasions are rare now. She has made her way into my heart.

She also reminded me of the first cat I ever personally owned, Mittens. Solid black she was, except for white "mittens" on her paws. She was an affectionate cat who would let me hold her and carry her around endlessly (but never hissed, swatted, or bit me). I had her when I was 8. I had her for a couple of years. And then one sunny summer evening some wild teenagers drove down my street and purposely ran her down. I thought my world would end.

Now frankly, I'm not convinced that people go to Heaven when they die. I hope so, but I just don't know. My pets have been such a treasured part of my life, I can see the comfort that sharing Heaven with them could be. However, the Rainbow Bridge must remain only a comforting thought for now.

If nothing else this faux story took me on a bittersweet journey down memory lane. My life has been greatly enriched by the pets I and my family have owned down through the years.

In fact, as I'm writing this I have my front door open, just letting the sun shine in through the storm door. And there is Toonces, rolling around on her back on the carpet, just sunning herself. I think I'm going to wrap this up and get down there with her.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Need More Churches (Francis Pharcellus Churches, That Is)

A perennial favorite - and certainly a personal favorite of mine - is the short editorial/letter-response answering the question: Is there a Santa Claus?

The year was 1897. It was the age of Ingersoll - the Great Agnostic - who in this country at least was the chief spokesperson for rationalism. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and with it an lust towards materialism. And the move from science to scientism was also threatening to entirely chase magic from the mortal realm.

It was in this American milieu that New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church was given the task of answering a little Virginia O'hanlan's question about Santa Claus. Wikisource has the entire essay here.

I see those same troubling things in full vigor today. A rationalism that is both unkind and belittling towards others. Mammon is the god of this age. And scientism still stifles faith and hope.
An antidote Church wrote (and I would second what he wrote):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Certainly we know more today than we did at the close of the nineteenth century. Yet we are no where near saying we have it all figured out. Mystery still surrounds us, the more we probe into space, the more we delve into the past, the more scientists delve into the wonders of the animal body.

One more paragraph from Church:

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Diminish faith, fancy and poetry and will not love and romance eventually be diminished as well? I worry about the reductionism that makes of humans mere robotic accidents of the "blind forces of nature."

As the poet Keats put it:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnom├Ęd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

We need more Francis Churches, and some more John Keats, too.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Does Human History Need To Be Rewritten?

For some time I've entertained the idea ancient humans were much more knowledgeable than is usually given credit. So it was with great interest that I read about the 430,000 to 540,000-year-old mollusk with an etched-in zigzag pattern which has been getting attention.

Paleoanthropologist Dr. Stephen Munro bluntly suggests "it rewrites human history." Similar markings have been noted on previous artifacts, but those only date back 100,000 years. So it is being suggested that Homo erectus may have been more sophisticated than first thought.

So does the current understanding of history need a rewrite? It takes a lot for major adjustments to popular theory to be made. But I am encouraged by more and more findings that suggest the ancients were in fact very sophisticated.

For me the take away is the need to remain open-minded, and recognize that our knowledge about the distant past is fragmentary at best.

Monday, December 8, 2014

More Than Meets The Eye?

Just saw this one on the news. A Jewish lady out in California was in her local Walgreens to buy gift wrap for Hanukkah when she noticed Nazi symbols contained in the pattern of the wrap.

Cheryl Shapiro said "I really put my foot down because I was appalled by this." And after taking her grievance to the store manager, Walgreens made the decision to pull the offensive wrap.

I'm quite sure if I had seen this paper I would not have noticed the swastika. At least not without studying it for a while.

Was this an unfortunate coincidence? Is it possible someone was "in" on this and purposely tried to sneak this through in order to be offensive?

The swastika (under various names) has been in use for some three millennia. It took on its current infamy after Hitler's Germany made itself the disgrace of modernity. Before that it usually had good connotations. But we can't put the genii of the Nazi usage back into the bottle.

Some, I see, are suggesting this is an example of people looking for something to be offended over. That's way too cynical a view for me to entertain. I want to hope this was an unfortunate accident. I applaud Walgreens for taking the high road.

Symbolism can cut very deep indeed.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Trees Talk To Me

I'm no Druid or anything, but I swear I think the trees spoke to me this morning.

I've debated all day whether to post about this. After all, it's getting to where I'm writing about weird and off-the-wall things most of the time now. This is so strange I'm still in awe. Anyway, here goes...

This morning I awoke before sunrise - as is my custom - and came into my living room to start my day. But for some reason, I had this strange urge to go outside and look at the trees surrounding my home. (My neighborhood is surrounded by woods, was carved out of those woods, and so is still dotted with many trees.)

Now this wasn't something I really wanted to do because for the past week I have been battling the Mother of All Colds (okay, not really; but I've been sicker than I can remember being in many a year) and besides it was quite damp and raw.

While walking around my abode inspecting the trees I had this dread creep over me that my home was in imminent danger. Now that the leaves are all off the trees I can notice in stark detail how certain trees have grown in a slant over the back end my place and seem threatening (the above photo is of the scene). At once I determined to start calling tree services next week to get estimates on removing that danger.

After several more minutes of inspection I decided to go back inside and warm up. Immediately I sat at my desk and began reading my e-mails and watching the local news. Suddenly there was an indistinct noise from outside. I can't describe the way it sounded, but it didn't sound like what I later found it was.

It wasn't until an hour or so later when dawn was breaking that I noticed, upon opening my blinds, that an entire tree had fallen - just broke clean from the ground - about fifteen feet beside my home. The place next to me, where it fell, is empty and for sale. In fact, workers just finished Friday making final repairs on it and hanging out the sign. And won't they be surprised now?

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had just been standing out there. Fortunately it wasn't one of the trees that had made the greatest impression on me, but believe me, I won't procrastinate about getting someone out here to take down those trees!

The tree which fell did no damage other than making for an additional expense for the sellers. It fell two feet short of that house's back wall. It looks to me as if a tree standing just feet from the house broke the tree's fall. And in that pile of debris in front of the fallen tree is the top part of it which would surely have reached the house had that one tree not broken the fall. (That is a picture I took this afternoon.)

So is this a premonition? Was it just another of those oddball coincidences? This much I can say: there had been no storms; the wind was perfectly calm this morning, and I have no way to account for the fact that I woke up this morning with falling trees on my mind. But because I have determined to listen more closely to my instincts and inner voices, I will treat it as a premonition and pass my story along for what it may be worth to others. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Here Come Those Atheist Christmas Billboards

American Atheists is again using the power billboards to hammer home its message, just in time for Christmas. In Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis and Fort Smith, Arkansas - areas chosen because of nearness to churches and schools.

In a post at the American Atheists website it is explained:

“Even children know churches spew absurdity, which is why they don’t want to attend services. Enjoy the time with your family and friends instead,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “Today’s adults have no obligation to pretend to believe the lies their parents believed. It’s OK to admit that your parents were wrong about God, and it’s definitely OK to tell your children the truth.”

Sure it's okay if you feel that way. But don't be surprised if a lot of us find your arrogance off-putting.
It is also okay to agree with your parents about God and to tell your children the truth about that.
The real truth is, many great minds - both down through history as well as today - have differed sharply about the God-hypothesis and are found on either side of the issue.

Sure, some atheists wish the whole matter could be sidestepped by dissing the concept as unworthy of consideration. But how convincing is that?

Isn't it time atheists come up with something better than the "believing in God is like believing in Santa Clause" meme?

It just seems to me that serious subject matter should be treated seriously and with proper respect. I think some on both sides fail miserably at this. You can read the comments on the AA post for proof of that. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

When Mind Is Reduced To Matter

Scientific materialism brings with it some rather troubling implications. For example, that our brains are really "simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output" (Jerry Coyne, professor of biology). Or that humans are "survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" (Richard Dawkins, biologist).

I bring that up because last night I was reading an article by Aldous Huxley on A Case For ESP, PK and PSI, which appeared in the Jan. 11, 1954 issue of Life magazine. It was a rather lengthy piece that stated the positive case as it existed then (in the heyday of J.B Rhine). Much work has been done since then by researchers with respectable credentials, yet the case for PSI still remains outside the mainstream of scientific thought. (But not, I would add, to the average person who can point to their own experiences.)

Anyway, the following paragraph from the article literally leaped from the page at me and I knew I had the subject of my next blog post:

Our philosophy has no place for free will or for anything which might be described as the soul. And yet, with a blessed absence of logic, we go behaving as though we believe in the uniqueness, the paramount value of human personality. Habit and the fact that our fundamental institutions were framed by men who were firmly convinced of the existence of all things that "no behaviorist has ever observed" make it quite easy for us to think one way while acting another, incompatible way. How much longer can we continue to perform this curious feat? One fine day some dangerously logical demagogue may ask us why, if men and women are merely the byproducts of physical and social processes, they should not be treated as such. After which we may expect to see the fiction of George Orwell's 1984 turn into appalling fact.

Are we there? Have we reached the day when we are going to be treated merely as "byproducts of physical and social progress"? Perhaps not, but some of us fear we are inching steadily in that direction.

The reason I believe those forecasting the end of religion are mistaken is that humans as a whole will never be able to fully embrace the worldview that philosophers of scientific materialism (such as those cited above) so boldly proclaim. It is too deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we are free and aren't mere robots. The rank and file human will always sense their uniqueness and rebel against reductionism. At least that is my prediction.

As approaching an understanding of PSI phenomena, again the rank and file human has some sense of the transcendent. The sense that our minds are not a byproduct but rather a direct product of the Supreme Mind which ordered the Cosmos is basic. That would allow that there can be connections with each other, our environment, and the Supreme Mind.

For me the acceptance of psychic phenomena serves as a kind of argument for belief in the primacy of mind in the universe. The annals of human history are replete with examples of premonitions, predictive dreams, spontaneous intuitive insight, and other psychic experiences. The Universe is intelligible and our minds are intelligent. Either that is by design or is the result of the most astonishing coincidence (or series of coincidences) of all time.

That I am a meat computer functioning inside a larger meat machine is something I just can't wrap my mind around. I'm sure that is true for the majority of us. And even those who do claim to believe it often act inconsistently. They are too uniquely human not to.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Lucky Star?

Recently I posted about the theology book that stopped a bullet and likely saved a life. The news coverage I examined before writing that post sometimes made references to soldiers and others whose lives were saved by pocket Bibles with metal covers.

I enjoy hearing about these strange - and for many of us - inspiring occurrences. To the extent I consider myself religious, I also consider myself a pluralist. It is known fact that Christians haven't a corner on "miracle" stories. Spiritual sentiments have been a feature of humankind for at least as long as recorded history. The details about the understanding of those sentiments differ from people to people, but they all speak to a shared belief in a vaster reality.

For example, while researching stories of bullets being stopped by Bibles, I happened upon one where a soldier was saved by another religious symbol, a Star of David medal. The full account can be read online here. Or, for those who don't care for link-clicking, I'll offer the following summary.

Los Angeles Times writer Jack Foisie characterized the occurrence as "a close brush with death, a chance intervention of 'the almighty,' if the man is religious, of 'fate' if he is not."

The soldier involved, Lt. Mark J. Meirowitz, was a religious man who wore a Star of David medal around his neck. It was that medal which deflected a bullet, preventing it from decimating his lung and arteries.
In Meirowitz's own words:

I had no idea what hit me. I noticed my left arm was in an awkward position, so I reached over and grabbed it with my other hand. It was like grabbing a block of wood. I felt nothing, I remember saying, oh, my God, I've lost my arm.

But he had not lost his arm. The nickel-sized medal deflected the bullet. It was found later in the armored car he was riding in when shot, the upper part of the medal missing.

Coincidence? Surely. Something more? Ah, that's the rub. Stories like these are perfectly explainable by natural means. However, religious folks tend to see patterns in their lives, patterns in which individual events like this one would tend to stand out. For those who will allow nothing but the natural, patterns are often chalked up to luck - either good or bad. Religious folks tend to count good luck as blessings.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Maybe It Was Synchronicity?

Ouch! Three visits to my last post. What's up with that? Coincidence maybe? I haven't had numbers that low since the other day when I posted about fleeces.

I pretty much just posted Downey's picture because I thought it was pretty. I love symbolism of all kinds and the fact that we humans can look at the same thing and interpret that thing in so many different ways.

Roma Downey is a Catholic Christian, so no wonder she posted on Facebook about her picture:

It certainly energized a tired, hardworking crew for the rest of the day and reminded everyone that we were being watched over as we are working hard to bring the Book of Acts to the screen.

I enjoy studying coincidences. Some of us see cosmic implications in them. As I suggested in that last post, some think of these things as Godwinks. I have seen the word Godincidences used. Also have seen Cosmic Winks employed. Then there is that old concept Carl Jung popularized, known as Synchronicity.

And I am very well aware that many of the hyper-rational folks think some of us are nutcases.

For my part, I can only write that I find life in the cosmos too extraordinary for me to think of it as ordinary. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Sign Of The Cross

Lovely Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett are producing for NBC a miniseries, A.D., which concerns the early Jesus movement after his death. Fittingly enough, it will begin to air on Easter Sunday, 2015.

She and Mark produced the recent Son of God movie. Downey is also well known for her role as an angel in the televisions series Touched By An Angel. Did you know she is also author of several children's books? Busy and gifted lady.

Anyway, while on location in Morocco, production ground to a halt when a cross appeared in the sky, formed by the clouds. The picture above is hers and is all over the internet. Later she showed her picture to a pastor friend who referred her to Acts 2:19 (the Bible book which forms the basis of the miniseries ): "And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the Earth below, blood and fire, and vapor of smoke."

Okay, I'm sure this isn't that, but it is still interesting. Of course it is being seen as a sign of blessing on the A.D. project.

Well, in life you tend to find what you're looking for. Believers clearly see a cross in the clouds; skeptics see just a coincidence. But what a coincidence! Here is a miniseries concerning the mission of the Jesus' disciples after his death, and during production the sky produces the shape of a cross - the method of Jesus' death. It's the kind of thing SQuire Rushnell calls a "Godwink."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Is God A #$%$?

I have been following the story of awful shooting at Florida State University. Admittedly, the student who was either blessed or lucky in being saved from the would-be killer's bullet slowed to a stop by books (especially a theological tome) in his book bag especially caught my attention.

Jason Derfuss, the young man who was spared, took to his Facebook page to say

Earlier tonight there was a shooting at FSU, right as I was leaving Strozier. I didn't know this at the time, but the Shooter targeted me first. The shot I heard behind me I did not feel, nor did it hit me at all. He was about 5 feet from me, but he hit my books. Books one minute earlier I had checked out of the library .... The truth is I was almost killed tonight and God intervened. I know conceptually He can do all things, but to physically witness the impossible and to be surrounded by such grace is indescribable. To God be the glory, forever and ever, Amen.

It seems to me totally understandable that spiritual-minded people like Derfuss would think that way. Unusual or incredible coincidences are usually chalked up to divine providence.

On the other hand, it also seems reasonable to me that those who have no patience with the god-hypotheses would use examples such as Jason Derfuss to press their viewpoint.

The comments section of the Yahoo News coverage of this story provided me not only with the title for this post, but also some perspective for those of us who would take seriously the matter of divine providence.

Let me give a couple of comments from nonbelievers who were provoked by Derfuss' Facebook post.

One critic offered:

This idiot is convinced that god intervened ... If god intervened, then by extension he chose not to intervene when the others were shot. What kind of douche bag god does that??? ...Nice god you got there, idiot.

Then another wrote:

I'm sure it's a pleasant thought to those that escape tragedy by inches to imagine God must have singled them out for special saving. But seriously, there's an incredible insult against those who die or are seriously injured in shootings & other tragedies implicit in such a "God intervened for ME" belief. It implies those who get shot must not be worth saving in God's eyes, & therefore must have "had it coming."

That is sick, & I don't mean in the good way.

Interestingly enough, a man claiming not to be religious or a believer in God at all brought up a counterpoint (which I'm sure he heard or read somewhere along the way) with:

...if God and heaven are real then death really isn't that terrible a thing so deaths wouldn't prove that God is an #$%$. In fact, compared to eternity in heaven any evil that happens in life would be worth almost nothing. Someone could undergo the most horrid evils but it would seem insignificant upon reaching heaven.

Now that isn't the way I personally would respond to critics above - but then, I have a different outlook on things than Derfuss does, even if I am able buy into this possibly being a divine coincidence.

Back in my Christian days I would have signed off on the idea that bad as the suffering in this world is and can be, it can't compare to the final glories of Heaven. And I would have quoted the Apostle Paul:

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).

Alas, I am no longer a Christian and am an agnostic about Heaven. So that defense is not open to me.

However, something I recall from Christian apologist C. S. Lewis' little work on The Problem of Pain has stuck with me and concerns the conception of Divine Goodness:

Nothing so far has been said of this, and no answer attempted to the objection that if the universe must, from the outset, admit the possibility of suffering, then absolute goodness would have left the universe uncreated. And I must warn the reader that I shall not attempt to prove that to create was better than not to create: I am aware of no human scales in which such a portentous question can be weighed...

Well, I kind of accept that suffering is inevitable and certainly neither do I know what scale to use in order to decide whether it was better to create or not to create. Perhaps this approach might serve to temper the idea that suffering makes God a #$%$.

But what about the idea that God plays favorites, which the critics also press?

I confess that I also have a dislike for the idea of "chosen" people. Fatalism and predestination in the divine scheme of things just don't appeal to me at all - which, I know, proves absolutely nothing.

Nevertheless, I don't want people thinking that if I take divine coincidences or providence to be genuine it makes me hardhearted and unsympathetic to the suffering of others. (Nor do I want to be thought an idiot.)

But let me this throw this thought out here. It's something I kick around and find much more satisfying than my former viewpoint. What if there is a divine realm (call it God for simplicity) and a divine sense in each one of us that attracts us to the divine? What if we humans do have the freedom to choose to act or not to act in connecting with this divine realm? And further, what if those who do seek connection explore and concentrate on this connection to varying degrees? (In the instance at hand we have Jason Derfuss needing to work on a theology paper and "for some reason" choosing the thick tome that aided in perhaps saving his life - obviously because he is seeking connection with the divine.)

In this scheme it certainly doesn't necessarily follow that an "intervention" for one is a choice not to intervene for another.

At the same. time In offering the above I'm not suggesting that bad things can always be avoided. (What religious philosophy offers that, anyway?) This is in agreement with Lewis that from the outset the universe entails suffering. Even with the matter of death - which every one of us must eventually face - it remains true that how one lives is more important than how one dies - even if the death turns out to be tragic. Life is still a gift and an opportunity.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Believable Skepticism of James Randi

Recently the New York Times ran a story by Adam Higginbotham on The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi. Interesting read, that, and anyone - believer or unbeliever in the paranormal - does himself a disservice by ignoring it.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Randi. He has done much good by debunking frauds. He doesn't like to be called a "debunker," preferring investigator. Whatever. He seems to me more a flat-out debunker. His book on Faith Healers, which contains among other things his well-known exposing of Peter Popoff is a classic. Unfortunately, one that will probably remain mostly unread by those who would most benefit from it. Praise aside, He comes across to me as closed-minded, overbearing and at time self-righteous. That's my take of the man. Still I would say, ignore what he has to offer at your own peril.

But my purpose in this post is to highlight something I find interesting. James Randi is probably the picture ideal of the modern "scientific skeptic." In fact, the NYT article quotes Randi thusly: “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”

But interestingly, in this same article, there is this tidbit:

In 1975, Randi published “The Magic of Uri Geller,” a sarcastic but exhaustive examination of the psychic’s techniques, in which he argued that any scientist investigating the paranormal should seek the advice of a conjurer before conducting serious research.

He suggests this because scientists supposedly have been flimflammed by those claiming paranormal powers. The degree to which that is so is a matter of debate, but no doubt it has happened. In fact, Randi himself was responsible for flimflamming a group of researchers in the Project Alpha hoax.

Well, of course. Because all education and rational thinking aside, scientists and rationalists are, in the end, humans. Humans have biases and blind spots in their thinking. Personally, I'm skeptical of priests and I'm skeptical of scientific priests.

If science as a discipline is, as claimed, provisional and open to revision, then scientists who make sweeping pronouncements should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Right?

James Randi isn't a trained scientist and many prominent skeptics aren't. To the degree science reveals facts about nature, these must still be interpreted. How tempting it is to do this with an ax to grind.

In short, and with apologies to Adam Higginbotham, I don't find Randi's skepticism unbelievable at all. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Amazing Voyage Of Colonel Gracie

The great RMS Titanic disaster, even though it occurred over one hundred years ago, has retained a fascination for many of us. Last Sunday I spent a great portion of the afternoon reading The Truth About The Titanic, by survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie IV.
Col. Gracie was one of the last people to exit the sinking vessel after having assisted others into life boats. Then, after being plunged into the icy water, Gracie found his way to a makeshift raft (actually an overturned life boat) occupied by one J. B. Thayer, Jr.

Together they pulled aboard several other "half-dead men." They did that until the small raft was in danger of itself sinking and they were knee-deep in water. Then he and Thayer were forced to keep away other desperate men who would have caused the raft to sink and drown everyone.

In a news story in the 4/19/12 Washington Times Gracie characterized his rescue as "nothing short of miraculous." His book not only expounds on that theme and his adventure, but also provides many details surrounding the entire event.

Sadly, Gracie never recovered from the exposure he suffered that fateful night. He was diabetic and in steadily declining health afterwards, living only seven months more. His last words were reported as, "We must get them into the boats. We must get them all into the boats."

I gleaned the following tidbits from his book, which he had finished and placed into the hands of his publishers right before his final illness.

The morning of the disaster began with Col. Gracie exercising and then taking a swim followed by what he called "a hearty breakfast." Then he followed up with an onboard church service about which he wrote:

I remember how much I was impressed with the "Prayer for those at Sea," also the words of the hymn, which we sang, No. 418 of the Hymnal. About a fortnight later, when I next heard it sung, I was in the little church at Smithtown, Long Island, attending the memorial service in honor of my old friend and fellow member of the Union Club, James Clinch Smith. To his sister, who sat next to me in the pew, I called attention to the fact that it was the last hymn we sang on this Sunday morning on board the Titanic....

What a remarkable coincidence that at the first and last ship's service on board the Titanic, the hymn we sang began with these impressive lines:

O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.

(For what it's worth, Col. Gracie refuted the popular notion that the ship band played Nearer My God To Thee as Titanic sank; he said if they had they would have been stopped, physically if necessary, because it would have created a panic - the opposite of what they were attempting to do.)

Another thing that Col. Gracie found more than "mere coincidence" was the fact he was constrained to get a few hours of restful sleep which enabled him to endure his ordeal.

Of the evening of the disaster he wrote:

My stay in the smoking-room on this particular evening for the first time was short, and I retired early with my cabin steward Cullen's promise to awaken me betimes next morning to get ready for the engagements I had made before breakfast for the game of racquets, work in the gymnasium and the swim that was to follow.

I cannot regard it as a mere coincidence that on this particular Sunday night I was thus prompted to retire early for nearly three hours of invigorating sleep, whereas an accident occurring at midnight of any of the four preceding days would have found me mentally and physically tired. That I was thus strengthened for the terrible ordeal, better even than had I been forewarned of it, I regard on the contrary as the first provision for my safety (answering the constant prayers of those at home), made by the guardian angel to whose care I was entrusted during the series of miraculous escapes presently to be recorded.

The account of the actual moments following his exit of Titanic is very moving and I want to give it here in detail:

My holding on to the iron railing just when I did prevented my being knocked unconscious. I pulled myself over on the roof on my stomach, but before I could get to my feet I was in a whirlpool of water, swirling round and round, as I still tried to cling to the railing as the ship plunged to the depths below. Down, down, I went: it seemed a great distance. There was a very noticeable pressure upon my ears, though there must have been plenty of air that the ship carried down with it. When under water I retained, as it appears, a sense of general direction, and, as soon as I could do so, swam away from the starboard side of the ship, as I knew my life depended upon it.
I swam with all my strength, and I seemed endowed with an extra supply for the occasion. I was incited to desperate effort by the thought of boiling water, or steam, from the expected explosion of the ship's boilers, and that I would be scalded to death, like the sailors of whom I had read in the account of the British battle-ship Victoria sunk in collision with Camperdown in the Mediterranean in 1893. Second Officer Lightoller told me he also had the same idea, and that if the fires had not been drawn the boilers would explode and the water become boiling hot. As a consequence, the plunge in the icy water produced no sense of coldness whatever, and I had no thought of cold until later on when I climbed on the bottom of the upturned boat.
My being drawn down by suction to a greater depth was undoubtedly checked to some degree by the life-preserver which I wore, but it is to the buoyancy of the water, caused by the volume of air rising from the sinking ship, that I attributed the assistance which enabled me to strike out and swim faster and further under water than I ever did before. I held my breath for what seemed an interminable time until I could scarcely stand it any longer, but I congratulated myself then and there that not one drop of sea-water was allowed to enter my mouth.
With renewed determination and set jaws, I swam on. Just at the moment I thought that for lack of breath I would have to give in, I seemed to have been provided with a second wind, and it was just then that the thought that this was my last moment came upon me. I wanted to convey the news of how I died to my loved ones at home. As I swam beneath the surface of the ocean, I prayed that my spirit could go to them and say, "Good-bye, until we meet again in heaven."
In this connection, the thought was in my mind of a well authenticated experience of mental telepathy that occurred to a member of my wife's family. Here in my case was a similar experience of a shipwrecked loved one, and I thought if I prayed hard enough that this, my last wish to communicate with my wife and daughter, might be granted.
Telepathy? Answered prayer? Coincidence? Is there a difference or are these things only open to interpretation by various worldviews? Col. Gracie seemed to be of religious convictions considered what happened next an answer to his prayer:

To what extent my prayer was answered let Mrs. Gracie describe in her own written words, as follows: "I was in my room at my sister's house, where I was visiting, in New York. After retiring, being unable to rest I questioned myself several times over, wondering what it was that prevented the customary long and peaceful slumber, lately enjoyed. 'What is the matter?' I uttered. A voice in reply seemed to say, 'On your knees and pray.' Instantly, I literally obeyed with my prayer book in my hand, which by chance opened at the prayer 'For those at Sea.' The thought then flashed through my mind, 'Archie is praying for me.' I continued wide awake until a little before five o'clock a.m., by the watch that lay beside me. About 7 a. m. I dozed a while and then got up to dress for breakfast. At 8 o'clock my sister, Mrs. Dalliba Dutton, came softly to the door, newspaper in hand, to gently break the tragic news that the Titanic had sunk, and showed me the list of only twenty names saved, headed with 'Colonel Archibald Butt'; but my husband's name was not included. My head sank in her protecting arms as I murmured helplessly, 'He is all I have in the whole world.' I could only pray for strength, and later in the day, believing myself a widow, I wrote to my daughter, who was in the care of our housekeeper and servants in our Washington home, 'Cannot you see your father in his tenderness for women and children, helping them all, and then going down with the ship? If he has gone, I will not live long, but I would not have him take a boat.'"

There it is, the highlights at least of Col. Archibald Gracie's amazing voyage. I would recommend Gracie's book as a very good way to spend a lazy afternoon. I don't pretend to know exactly how one should it interpret all this. It does seem to have something of the miraculous (as in, way out of the ordinary) about it.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Putting Out The Fleece

I want to post a little something about a news story I just read and found interesting. It calls to mind something from my youth, from my childhood in Pentecostal Christianity.

Pentecostals do not believe the age of miracles ended with the age of the Apostles, as do many branches of Christianity.

It was common for us to seek God's guidance in our daily lives, especially when we were uncertain about possible courses of action. We took inspiration from the story of Gideon's fleece in the Old Testament book of Judges.

Gideon was a Judge of Israel and was being called upon to deliver the once again oppressed Israelites, this time from the hands of the Midianites and Amalekites. But he wanted assurance from God. Here I will take up the story directly from the Bible:

And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said,

Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.

And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.

And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew.

And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground. (Judges 6:36-40, KJV)

Whenever someone said they were "putting out a fleece," we understood they were seeking a sign from God.

Here's a link to a story about a mechanic in San Antonio, Texas, a man named John Casey, who "put out a fleece" or asked God for a sign.

He asked God for a sign - "if I'm doing the right thing in my life, give me a sign" - and feels he got it. A mere two days after asking he and his son were working on a car in his garage. A car part laid on a cloth rag formed a Jesus-shaped grease spot.

Mr. Casey says, "The little hair I have left stood on end and just really... I don't know if you've ever got a deep feeling when you know that God is here with you. I got that feeling."

And Father Eddie Bernal of Saint Benedict Catholic Church weighed in:

It's quite possible that this is a very significant event, a very real event, and possible could have been done by him, just to let the person know, I'm with you and you're not alone and do not be afraid.

Such things are easy to make fun of and laugh off. I used to do it during my more skeptical days (not so long ago, I confess). Yet I recall many incidents from my earlier life that - if I am to be honest with myself - seem more than "mere coincidence." Some that almost, as Casey said, made my hair stand on end.

I suppose some people feel "connected to" or "in tune with" the divine, and some don't. Some don't seek such connections because they don't allow that such connection is even possible - that there is no divine and thus nothing to connect to. I'm not criticizing these folks. They may very well be correct and the rest of us a bit too much the dreamer.

But more people seem to find such a connection than not. Is it possible that is because the "connectors" look for it? Are the skeptics just crying "Bah, humbug!" or are they correct? Whatever the truth, I do enjoy seeking connection. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"You Were Dead"

That is the way Ruby Graupera-Cassimiro's husband described her condition. That is, after her heart quit beating and after doctors spent three hours attempting to revive her. Just as doctors were ready to give up and pronounce her dead, suddenly (several minutes after doctors had quit working on her) her pulse returned and she was unmistakably alive. All this after complications following a C-section. Baby is fine.

Hospital spokesperson Thomas Chakurda calls it "divine providence."

While Graupera-Cassimo was apparently dead she had an experience of seeing a "spiritual being" she believers was her father, surrounded by other "spiritual beings," who told her it wasn't her time.

Doctors are calling her case a "double miracle," because not only did she survive after being presumed dead, she has suffered no brain damage such as should be expected after 45 minutes without a pulse.

I love stories like this. So is it a miracle? I think not; not in the sense of being something against all know science. These things happen, even if rarely, and that it does happen demonstrates it can happen.

Having said that, these things can have a profound spiritual impact on those who experience them and their loved ones. The vision of being informed it isn't time, something reported time and again in these near-death experiences has the ring of the uncanny to it.

I am beginning to allow myself again to consider the divine in life. Just because an event isn't an against-physics type of miracle, doesn't mean it isn't miraculous. I accept evolution, yet still feel that an unguided evolution is very hard to grasp in light of the complexity of the cosmos.

For some time I've grappled with the ages-old concept of a Logos back of everything. A guiding, organizing principle behind life doesn't seem so far-fetched to me now. As I recall, even as a child I had a sense of this before I was schooled in the theology of the Abrahamic concept of God.

Even after that indoctrination there was a latent animism deep inside me that often caused intellectual conflict. I remember even as Christian wondering why God couldn't act through means rather than through the traditional concept of miracle. Always it occurred to me look first for more "natural" explanations for Bible miracles.

My journey has been a long one with many twists and turns. It is still underway....