Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stood up by Jesus?

Joshua Sullivan at Think Atheist has some complaints about the oft-heard evangelistic slogan "Christianity isn't a religion; it's a relationship". As a former participant in that end of Christianity, I think I can shed a little light on the subject for him.

First, where and when did this meme come from? I became a fundamentalist in 1972 (I'm now fully recovered, thank you), and I encountered the slogan within a year or two after that. So I think it's safe to say it was invented by at least the early 1970s.

Notwithstanding my conversion to goofy religion, I wasn't completely stupid, so I never took it in a completely literal way. The evangelical Christianity I was inducted into was, among other things, about God and the afterlife and other "religious stuff", so obviously it was by any normal definition, a religion. I understood the "relationship" slogan as an attempt at what we now call "re-branding" -- in this case, that Christianity wasn't this stereotype of a tedious ceremony that took place once a week in stuffy old buildings where you had to sit very straight and be very quiet while wearing uncomfortable clothes. It was (according to the sales pitch) a happy, dynamic thing -- a ongoing "relationship with Jesus", a "walk with the Lord" (cue a certain sappy hymn on this theme). Keep in mind the spirit of the times: the counter-cultural churnings of the 60's had not yet petered out; the Jesus Movement (ie. the Christian branch of the hippies) was going strong. So it makes a lot of sense that the times would create a Christianity that, whatever else it might be, certainly wasn't your parents' boring old religion.

In that context, it's not a bad pitch, either: like any good slogan it tries to capture a provocative idea in a way that has some punch, and of necessity leaves out a lot of nuance. Of course, there are more than a few enthusiastic amateur evangelists out there who treat that slogan the way they treat the Bible: it's literally true, and we'll just re-define "religion" so it only refers to other folks' god-talk -- not ours.

But back to this notion of having a "relationship with God". It takes (at least) two to have one of those, doesn't it? And Communication is Very Important (so say all the relationship books, and it turns out that even applies here). So how is that supposed to work, when one of the partners seems a bit....invisible and intangible, so to speak?

As explained to me, our half works when we pray. And we know Jesus is listening, if for no other reason than that it goes with the omniscience thing. Sprinkle with a few appropriate Scripture passages, and we've got the uplink side covered. (I work in wireless telecom. "Uplink" is one of the things I get paid big bucks to spend all day worrying about).

But what about the reverse direction? (Another good chunk of my salary comes from worrying about "downlink").

Well to start with, sometimes God even answers prayer -- the thing you asked for happens! Giving little gifts is always good for a relationship, right? Of course, more often than not, his answer is "No". 'Cuz like, that particular thing wouldn't be right just now -- it's "not in his perfect will for you". But it's way cool when he says "Yes", and that makes up for the other times.

Can you say "confirmation bias", children? Of course you can.

But God is also supposed to speak more directly than that. Some of the more cynical people on my side interpret this to mean that Christians have auditory hallucinations. While that obviously happens to some believers (and in more Pentecostalist circles may even be accepted as a genuine Word from God, instead of a neurological issue that should be treated by a competent doctor), that's not the main way it's understood in the calmer waters of mainstream evangelicalism. It's much subtler. In the groups I hung out with (mostly Navigators), the idea seemed to be that while you were reading your Bible (which you are presumed to do faithfully, every day), a verse might "stand out" in some way, or while praying you might get a little "feeling" that God wanted you to know or do something, and that was God speaking to you. (I don't know what you're supposed to do if the "stand out" verse is, say, one of the more obscure ceremonial laws in Deuteronomy. I suppose that rarely happens, as even the most devout Bible-reader must sleepwalk through those passages. Really, there are whole chapters in there that are simply unreadable.)

It's pretty obvious that this process of listening for God's Little Hints is open to all sorts of free-associative and autosuggestive effects. Feeling a little low-level guilt about some minor thing? There's probably a Bible verse that will bring it to the surface - Yep, God wants you to repent of that! Wondering if you should pursue a particular course of action? Again, there's probably some verse that, if squinted at in just the right way, can be made to apply.

Funny that it never seemed to happen to me. I think that, even at that young age (ie. late teens), I just didn't trust this sort of subjectivism. I knew that my inner monologue was capable of tossing up all sorts of random stuff, and there was no reason to take any of it as anything more than the usual stream-of-conciousness noise. If Jesus wanted to be heard over that, he'd just have to speak louder. Which as far as I could tell, he never did.

Maybe it would have helped if I had taken up Buddhist mediation techniques, which are supposed to be good for learning to quiet the internal mental noise. But in those days, I think I regarded that sort of thing as Satanic, and thus definitely verboten. Ironic, that.

So as far as I'm concerned, I tried to to have a relationship with Jesus, but he never showed. Nowadays of course, I realize there's a very good reason for that....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reflection on Earth Day

Before the turn of the century, so-called “future-watchers” often predicted the advent of the “paperless office”, and by extension, the “paperless society”. Nine (or perhaps eight) years into the new millennium, it seems that if anything more people now have more paper than ever before. The proliferation of personal printers and photocopiers is, in many ways, even more astonishing than that of personal computers. Because the production of printed matter is now so cheap and accessible, the material we have is becoming more and more banal and ephemeral. Our forests are being denuded, simply for the purpose of informing potential customers of their next unique opportunity to spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need.

Paper pushers defend their right to free speech and conspicuous consumption, saying that all that paper gets recycled anyway. But, looking at my lawn in the spring, I know that there is a lot of it that is simply tossed away. And, the last time I visited my local stationery store (to buy the supplies I needed to feed my own shameful paper habit), I discovered that the cost of recycled paper was actually 10-30% more than standard paper! I steadfastly bought the more expensive recycled pack, and when I got home, I made sure to hug my favourite trees, telling them what I went through on their behalf (they were not very sympathetic).

I do my best to conserve paper, subscribing to paperless billing where possible, re-using the second side of printed paper for drafts, attempting to cancel subscriptions to advertising – I have even put up a no-flyers sign above my mailbox, but apparently, even though there is as much or more paper than ever before, reading comprehension is still sadly lacking for many of the delivery people who still saddle me with their useless notices.

But recently I committed a dreadful transgression, and was taken to task by my own son! I had suggested that maybe it was not strictly necessary for him to extract all the recyclable paper from the large wad of paper and tape that he had retrieved from our recently mounted garage sale signs (technology made it so easy to print all those signs…but I digress). So, here I am, writing my penitential essay. It seemed like such a little thing, but of course everyone knows all the platitudes about how it’s the little things that make a big difference in the long run.

I promise, I won’t ever do it again – and please: Don’t tell the trees!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Three Scientists, Two Great Talks

....and one grandstanding git.

It's been a very biological week here.

The Chimp Lady

On Wednesday night, Jane Goodall spoke to a packed Centrepointe Theatre. I remember stories about Goodall in National Geographic, back in the 1960s, but sort of lost track after that. Her talk was largely autobiographical, covering the period from her childhood to the Gombe years. She told one amusing anecdote about how, at the age of about five, she hid in the hen house so she could see for herself that, yes, that big egg really did come out of the chicken. She also talked about the formation of the Root and Shoots program, which attempts to bring together conservation and development concerns, so that there is not a continual confict between the two.

The Finch Folks

Tonight was Peter and Rosemary Grant at Carleton, giving the final Darwin Week lecture (if it seems this is a little late for Darwin Week, that's because the Grants spend February in the field. I can see how the Galapagos is probably preferable to Ottawa in February). Their talk centred on mechanisms of speciation and adaptation in their study of Darwin's finches on Daphne Major and Genovesa.

The Galapagos finches are famed for their wide variety of beak shapes and sizes, each adapted for exploiting a particular food source in the sparse environment of the islands. Peter Grant talked a little about two genes (bmp4 and CaM, if I recall the names) that control respectively, beak length and thickness. Then he talked about how rainfall variation from year to year affected average beak morphology among two smaller finch species Geospiza fortis and G. scandens, by affecting the abundance of their preferred seeds.

Rosemary took over to talk about hybridization and genetic diversity. G. fortis and G. scandens differ in beak size, but are otherwise fairly similar. Though hybridization is possible, they are mostly kept separate by mating preference, which is based partly on morphology, but even more on having different songs. Now here's the fun part: the song an individual finch will sing throughout its life is learned as a nestling, from its father (when asked just now whether this constitutes cultural inheritance, our household social anthropologist looked very thoughtful, but refused to commit himself on the question). Female finches mate only with males that sing the right song. However, once in a while a nestling will imprint on the wrong species' song. When it grows up, it will most likely mate with the other species, producing hybrid offspring having an intermediate beak size.

Field surveys show that hybrids are just as fit as either parent species. So what keeps fortis and scandens from merging into one species? Answer: the fact that a hybrid will only backcross to the parent species that sings its father's song. However, even this small amount of gene-flow helps to maintain genetic diversity within each species.

It was a great talk -- straight-up science from the people who did the work. Stuff you had to pay attention to. Unfortunately, just as Rosemary Grant got down to the last few slides, the fire alarm went off, and the Q&A had to be adjourned to the courtyard . Which brings us to.....

....The Grandstanding Git

Before the talk started, we noticed an old acquaintance sitting a few rows back -- Jonathan Cucan, from CORE. After the evacuation we were all just standing around outside (fortunately, it was a pleasant night), he made a bee-line for Peter Grant, so I hung back within earshot. I didn't catch everything that was said (let alone remember even that much), but the exchange went something like this:

Cucan said polite things about the Grants' talk, then asked whether "he agreed with Dr. Einstein and Dr. Hoyle" about the complexity of the cell (or something along those lines -- Johnny's current schtick seems to be about biochemistry). When Dr. Grant worked with these marvelous organisms, didn't he see the hand of God? Grant shook his head, no he didn't, and went into an explanation about molecular biologists having theories which they are testing of how to form DNA and cell membranes etc, and gradually build up complexity. Cucan came back that "Dr. Hoyle" had proved that it was impossible to form a cell spontaneously....at this point, one of the organizers came to Grant's rescue and pointed out that other people probably wanted a turn to talk. Cucan left, no doubt satisfied that he had successfully delivered his payload of weapons-grade sanctimony into the enemy's stronghold.

I must confess I was disappointed: I was sort of hoping Cucan would at least try to argue something relevant to Grant's talk (my Inner Creationist managed to think up a couple). But our boy Johnny has a bit of a one-track mind.

I do like how Cucan specifically used the full titles for Einstein and Hoyle -- like, waving around a doctorate is supposed to impress someone who has one themselves. And a GIGO calculation by an astronomer (several decades ago, IIRC?) is supposed trump actual experts working on that specific problem? Pack it up, folks -- Fred Hoyle has spoken, and Johnny Cucan is his prophet! A lovely case study in creationist's slavish devotion to intellectual authority.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Exile and Outrage

I have just sent the following email to my Member of Parliament Gordon O'Connor, with CC's to Prime Minister Steven Harper and Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon. I urge every Canadian of conscience and decency to take similar action (non-Canadians, too -- it can't hurt to show how this harms our international reputation). Let's bury this government in outrage, until the weight of anger and contempt forces them to do the right thing.
Mr. O'Connor,

I am writing you as a constituent to express my outrage at my government's shameful treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazik, whom as you are no doubt aware, has again been refused travel documents to allow him to return to Canada and to his family.

As a Canadian citizen I am appalled by the capricious behaviour of my government, in the person of Minister Lawrence Cannon, in its setting up of successive barriers to Mr. Abdelrazik's return -- a game Minister Cannon has been playing for some months, now. This latest refusal appears entirely arbitrary, and not only without legal justification, but in clear violation of the Charter right of every Canadian citizen to enter this country. The most recent excuse offered -- an appeal to some unspecified risk to "national security" -- is scarcely credible in light of Mr. Abdelrazik's clearance by both CSIS and the RCMP. This is just one more example of the way that catch-phrase has become a pretext for the restriction of liberty, and for tyrannical behaviour on the part of government. If Mr. Abdelrazik can be denied his legal right of return at the sole discretion of a Minister of the Crown, then any of us can be denied any right, without recourse to due process.

I appeal to you to use your influence within caucus and Cabinet to see to it that this government fulfills its legal and moral duty to one of its citizens, currently being held in effective exile in Sudan.

[my real name here]