Flattery will get you everywhere

So, yesterday, I put on my sari and did my first run through of my slide show/visual walk through religious and Indian history. (We zoomed through the last 9000 years, the birth of all the major religions, the invasions, the empires, tribal life, etc.) I had taken my photos, added maps, artifacts to pass around, and music, and organized them in a way so that the presentation would be educational as well entertaining. It was about 100 minutes long. I thought it was a bit too long, but reports were that people were enrapt and would have stayed longer. In fact, a handful of folks stuck around afterwards to ask questions.

Yesterday and today, I have been flooded with compliments, requests for continued informal discussions, one request for some of my photos, two suggestions that I teach for a living, and a long letter from a woman who is so inspired that she wants to organize a fundraising effort for the women’s shelter I visited.

But, most importantly for me, I felt really energized afterwards. And at the end of the day, I went home and cleaned house. Which is so different from how I feel in the job I have now where I am exhausted at the end of the day and just watering the plants feels like a chore. How did I fall into this field anyway? I’ve been programming since I was 14 years old and have a frickin’ masters degree in computer science, and still when I give presentations on things computer-related, I’m still never totally comfortable with what I know and don’t know. I think it is because of the sharp epistemology involved and my need to feel like I’m seated at the core of what I’m saying. Plus, the levels to which engineers can split a hair can be alternately annoying and intimidating. People–mostly men (sorry, guys, but it’s true)–posturing like prima donnas to show off how much they know. It’s so dull.

Today was just a wonderful affirmation that my path really is towards teaching. And that I can teach religion and love it and be good at it. As I’ve mentioned in other entries here, I’ve been interested and scared of religion and ideas of the ultimate every since I was a kid. Funny how life drops us off at a starting line so far from the finish and, in retrospect, the finish line wasn’t so far off from the start.

I just gotta hang in there for a while, finish that thesis, and get myself going on the Ph.D. Who knows–maybe I really will have a book to publish by the end of next year. I’ve already got an offer from an editor and publisher just based on my idea and him knowing me and how I express myself.

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The Biology of Belief (book review)

A while back, I mentioned I was reading a book that had me all excited about the relationship of science and mythological thinking. The author seemed to be setting himself up (by way of wonderful introductions to brain physiology, DNA, and evolutionary biology) to suggest a most interesting idea: that there is an evolutionary advantage to spiritual beliefs. But he dropped the ball. “The Biology of Belief: How our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions” by Joseph Giovannoli (2001) is full of interesting scientific tidbits and is a wonderful layman’s intro to some hefty topics. But he got trapped in his own left-brained bias.

The author speak of mythologists as social engineers. But, unlike the well-manufactured belief influencing technology we have today (e.g., techniques used in PR and advertising), mythological tales are not written and perpetuated by intention. They endure because they speak to people on some deep level, because they resonate with us in a way that is otherwise not adequately represented in our lives. They speak to a human need, a need for emotional, unconscious resonance, a need for mystery.

The author is just as guilty for lumping mythologists into one category as those he accuses: that of fundamentalists. He seems to think that the sole purpose of mythology is social control: It keeps us moral and helps us manage our fear. But this misses out on a important dimension of human consciousness. Mythology is a way of capturing the unknowable so that we can come into personal relationship with it. Not just to ease our existential angst, but because we have a basic need for mystery and experiencing awe and feeling reverance. Not because we are so mindless and sheeplike that we need someone or something to wield power over us, but because there is something deeply satisfying in doing so.

Power does not have to be “power over”. Power is simply creative potential, the ability to make things happen (for good or for evil). We need that kind of possibility, that sort of potential for change, that optimism. We need the story to not end. We need to strive for the answers with all of our faculties and we need to have something always held in obscurity. It is as much as a basic human, psychological need as is love.

Imagine how devastating it would be if we actually thought we had everything figured out. Those of us who wouldn’t be completely disappointed that all that could possibly ever happen was now in our own incompetent hands would likely have such hubris as to run roughshod over populations and natural resources. Add a dose of charisma and people will follow these narcissists down into their own destruction. One only need to look at history for examples.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” – T.S. Eliot

Even as a mythologist, I love hard facts. When they confirm my biases, I, of course, feel excited by the sense of order and meaning they usher in. When they debunk my biases, I am set back to holding the question again. Joseph Giovannoli has a bone to pick with theologians and anyone who doesn’t rely on empirically observable and verifiable “truth” for basing their actions. My bone to pick is with fundamentalists of any kind, including this author.

Just because something doesn’t fit with the data at hand or isn’t observable by our currently limited modes of perceiving doesn’t mean that it isn’t a force to be reckoned with. Rather than drawing conclusions, let’s all hold the questions a bit longer. If one trusts that there is an answer and we just haven’t found it yet, it’s not that bad to not know, to not understand. But the anxiety that lack of resolution brings takes some getting used to. It takes a strong, healthy ego. Learning tolerance, learning to refrain from attacking perspectives of which one has no substantial, positive experience comes down to raising healthier humans and to instilling the value of the drive to discover and to experience the awe in not knowing just as deeply as the drive to adhere to methods of assessment intended to prevent delusions.

Knowledge of God (epistemological ranting)

It occurs to me that standards for qualifying something as a “religious experience” are way higher than they used to be (say, hundreds of years ago). Like, super stringent. We are so wired nowadays to not count something as real unless it is externally verifiable or just flat out grabs us and shakes us to our core. Even something that leaves us merely dumbfounded is susceptible to skeptical scrutiny. I bet if Modern Day Mo Schmoses happened to see a burning bush on the way to work one day and then “heard” a silent command interrupt his quotidian thoughts, he would probably shrug it off as kids playing with matches and having had too much coffee that morning.

It’s like we dare God to make us believe in It.

Problem is that that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as it being simply self-centered to insist that something isn’t real or personally relevant unless it significantly intervenes in one’s default consciousness. As far as the former goes, epistemologists have already shown how basically unworkable “greedy reductionism” is. If you want to take doubt that far, a thinker can find an infinite number of reasons to declare a proposition baseless. A pure skeptic will never find grounds to believe in supernatural forces, or even in the reality of their own existence for that matter.

But say that science does one day explain everything. Does that mean there is no Big Something Else? Science relies on analysis and analysis means breaking complex propositions down into simpler and simpler ones. At some point, you can’t see the forest for the C55 H72 O5 N4 Mg molecules.

Said another way, dissect a human heart and what you end up with is a dead human.