Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Media is Anathema to Critical Thinking

One of the big stories to gush out of online media today is that of a 1928 film clip depicting what some are suggesting is a woman talking on a cell phone. In numerous news articles, the figure is called a 'time traveler'. This has to be one of the most noteworthy cases of blatant disregard for critical thinking that I've seen from major internet media sources. Viewing the footage, you can see that the individual is holding something up to her head and talking... and that's all. The quality is grainy and dark, like most film shot in the '20s, so there's no telling what's in her hand. And this has led to speculation about time travel?

Has no one thought to ask how a time traveler would get cell phone service back in 1928? People have already suggested that the woman may actually be carrying an ear horn, or early hearing aid device, but you probably won't find that in news headlines. Since the footage is from the premiere of a Charlie Chaplin film, perhaps the woman is pulling a prank. Some have even surmised that the figure is actually a man dressed as a woman. Or maybe she's just covering her ear because it hurts, because it's gotten cold (she is wearing a pretty hefty coat), or she doesn't want the camera on her face.

Whatever the explanation, once again the media has blown an extremely trivial and unimpressive discovery into something paranormal. You might ask, 'it's only the media, why do you care?' I care because while I've noticed how many people tend to distrust the media on natural explanations and government affairs, they seem to exercise far less critical thinking when the reports involve unexplained phenomena. Another recent example is the so-called UFO spotted in New York on October 13th. A couple days after the sighting, the circular floating objects were suggested to be... you guessed it: balloons, which had gotten loose from an engagement party for a teacher at a nearby elementary school.

However, in the Associated Press' video on the incident and explanation, interviews with a few witnesses show that people aren't buying the balloons theory. Why? No one really offers a reason, they only seem to prefer believing the fantastical story to the mundane one. The craziest thing is that close-up footage of the UFOs in the AP video shows what looks startlingly like a cluster of silvery balloons. But if that's "the official story", we can't believe it, and the media went to great lengths to remain impartial on the issue.

I think the media realizes that most of our world still prefers magical thinking to rational thinking, and in that saddening fact they find a way to climb in their ratings.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Our Animal Nature or a Sinful Fallen Nature?

Every now and then I am inspired to reflect on our animal nature. When I read of wars, rape, and discrimination, I can't help but shake my head and question, 'how can anyone deny that we're just another species of animal?' Creationists believe that we are specially created beings, not descended from any primate ancestors, as evolution tells us. Even though I am a former creationist, it doesn't make sense to me how anyone can look at some of our species' brutish, primitive behaviors and miss the connection to the animal kingdom. I often ask myself how I could have been so blind too, but a thought occurred to me tonight that put an interesting perspective onto things.

When many religious believers read of wars, rape, and discrimination, their first reaction is usually to contemplate our sinful or fallen nature. This is readily apparent in the popular argument for evil, i.e. the world around us is in such a hellish state because evil exists, and you can't have evil without good, so therefore good (or God) must exist. For creationists, there is no need to even raise the possibility of animal instincts fueling our misbehavior, because they already believe they have an explanation: we are fallen, sinful creatures.

This thought led me to wonder - are these two views on human nature all that different? Both often claim the same negative behaviors as evidence for their own perspective. Both stress the importance of overcoming our nature, whether it's in order to live in a civilized society or to maintain a religious call to purity. Both also run the gamut as far as what falls under our natures. Our animal nature and the fallen nature view can both drive us into serious offenses like murder and trivial ones like mating. The similarities pretty much end there, however, and there are some major points of conflict between the two views.

First and foremost is the assignment of responsibility. According to religion, our fallen nature is our own fault. Whether sin traveled down via Adam and Eve or we make our own original sin each day, we are to blame. On the other hand, our animal nature is no fault of our own, it's the result of evolution and it's simply who we are because of what we are. Consciousness and free will may impose a sort of moral imperative to resist our primitive instincts, but the point is that we did not give ourselves this animal nature, so we should feel no unnecessary shame or guilt.

Secondly would have to be the resolution proposed for overcoming our nature. With our animal nature, all we need do is make a conscious and concentrated effort to control our instincts. It may require some discipline, and everyone will crack under stress at times, but our ability to make decisions means we are not helplessly bound to our primal urges. Religion teaches just the opposite: we cannot overcome our fallen nature alone. Instead we must reach out to a deity or savior, otherwise we are helplessly bound to our sinful urges.

Last but not least in these differences would be the consequences for giving into our nature. To let sin rule your life will mean eternal separation from God in horrible agony. There is no real second chance - if you indulge your fallen desires, you will pay for it more than a hundredfold. Yet the worst that could happen with indulging our animal nature might be a jail sentence or execution. The punishment does not continue for eternity, and there are chances to shape up. The crux here is that a trivial offense, while met with a trivial punishment (or none at all) in the animal nature view, will receive the full penalty of a serious offense in the fallen nature view, for God judges all sins as equally detestable (Matt. 5:21-28).

Up until this moment, I've been noting the differences between both views with an emphasis on moral concerns. These concerns do not have much bearing on the truth or falsity of either view though, and so I'll turn to the evidence. Both views claim many of the same behaviors for evidence of their validity, as mentioned before, but I think only one side is actually entitled to them. To find the evidence for our animal nature, one need only look at the animal kingdom in contrast to ourselves. Animals frequently go to war with other species and sometimes even with their own. There is also rape and tribalism among countless animals.

I'm not saying that this alone proves our animal nature, but it does significant damage to the fallen nature view. If animals display many of the same behaviors that equate to sin in humans, is the animal kingdom of a fallen nature too? Some believers have argued that the fall in the garden affected the entire world, but this is nonsense when applied to animals. Did Jesus die to save chimps? Jackals? Tapeworms? If the believer claims that these behaviors don't imply anything about a fallen nature in animals, they are guilty of special pleading and their argument falls apart (not to mention that it suggests that God picks some very confusing design standards, apparently to mess with our heads).

What does the fallen nature view have as its support anyway? It may claim things like war, rape, and discrimination as evidence of sin, but this link is only made in holy books and other religious texts. While we may observe animals behaving much like ourselves in the natural world, and vice-versa, faith in the reliability of an ancient book is all that sustains the fallen nature view. In so many ways, the fallen nature view is about regressing, looking back to a primitive text, returning to a state of purity, and so forth. The animal nature view is one of progress, moving beyond instinct with these wonderful brains, looking forward to a brighter future with the aid of reason.

In one view, the world is decaying, we are to blame, and we are powerless to stop it, forced to rely on the assistance of a "higher" being who let it all happen and demands our worship in return. In the other view, the world is evolving and advancing, and although we did not set all of this in motion, we do have the power to change things for the better, one life at a time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lean on God and You'll Only Fall

During the course of my life there have been several moments of insight inadvertently revealed through unintentional words of wisdom. It has taught me to choose my words more carefully, because we never know how sometimes even our casual statements can affect the thinking of others. It's particularly interesting for me to reflect on statements I've heard from friends and family that have greatly impacted me, especially when they end up influencing me in a way that is contrary to their own intentions.

One such statement came from my evangelical Christian father, back when he was still preaching. 'Sometimes you just have to do things yourself,' he said. 'Some people spend a lot of time waiting on God, but life doesn't work that way.' I remember that this comment startled me at the time, because it was perhaps one of my first realizations of how life experience conflicts with the idea of an intervening god. I suspect my dad's point was that God doesn't accommodate slackers (though at least he pestered some of them, like Jonah, enough to show his intervening ways), but I took his remark a bit further.

God may not be in the business of giving handouts to the lazy, but what about the active and faithful? Why doesn't God roll out the red carpet for them? Even beyond matters of assistance, why does it seem like prayers so often fall on deaf ears? I'll admit, I had a pretty magical conception of God at the time. My god was one who worked miracles all the time, helping more than just those in need. My god was one who I could ask for anything with some real hope of getting it. I did not consider this naive or selfish, because scripture was on my side (Luke 11:9, John 14:13).

I never understood why life doesn't work that way if God exists. My Christian view of God was that he is reaching out to all of us in love, to save us and bring us into a relationship with him. This is not unusual among Christians, I've found. Yet if God is trying to get us on his team, why isn't he making more of an effort to impress? Is God not a theatrical deity anymore? Why are there less angel appearances these days? Can't God pop in occasionally to brutally murder a rapist right in the nick of time? Maybe shield poor regions from being hit by hurricanes? Hey, if he could stop the sun in the sky for an entire day (Joshua 10:13), none of this should be outside his toleration.

I used to pray a lot - almost every hour of the day. When my wishes would not be fulfilled, I'd typically chalk it up to selfishness or impurity on my part, or as part of God's 'mysterious plan' that's simply not for me to comprehend. This was all well and good until I started noticing that God's batting average was practically zero for thousands. Not only is that indistinguishable from random chance, but it doesn't seem like smart behavior for a deity that wants to bring everyone to faith in him. It seems like God couldn't give a damn whether or not people notice him... or, more likely to me, he doesn't exist in the first place.

Personally, I think this acceptance makes for a wonderful difference in how life is approached. I no longer believe God is protecting me wherever I go, so I mind my safety more these days. I no longer believe God is guiding me along in his calling for my life, so I take more initiative and work my hardest to get what I want out of life. I no longer believe God has some secret plan behind it all, so I do my best to learn what I can to make sense of things. Some will point out that a lot of Christians live this way too, and I don't doubt it. I might venture to say that the majority of Christians are atheist in practice, when it comes to relying on God in their lives. Life doesn't work that way.

The funny thing about all of this is that, in essence, worry is what I have without reliance on God. I used to think worry was the last thing I needed in my life, feeling comforted and grateful that I could surrender it to God, never able to go wrong with him in control. But worry is healthy. It keeps us from being self-destructive, keeps us from drifting off in thoughtless apathy, and keeps us generally grounded in reality. This also seems at odds with Christianity.

In Matthew 6:34, Jesus encourages his followers: "do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." A few verses prior, Jesus imparts more of his curious wisdom: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (v.26) Don't worry is the message; God is in control. But the irony is that birds starve on a regular basis and many of the young die upon leaving or falling from the nest. Are we any different than they?

I think I would rather worry about tomorrow than wait on the graces of a god who seems largely ignorant and incompetent. Worrying and concerning ourselves with things has led to progress, while sitting back and relying on faith has not. No diligent believer was given the polio vaccine through prayer or revelation, and no one survived polio under the protection of God. It was our worry over the disease that drove us to investigate a cure. Life works when we take the reigns. It comes to a halt when we do, no matter how convinced we may be that invisible otherworldly hands have taken up the reigns for us.