Monday, May 19, 2008

Religion and Joe Space Tourist

So what do I believe?

Well, reading what I've written the past few days, it would be easy to believe that I am atheist, or at least agnostic, but that is not the case. However, that doesn't mean that I take any of the organized religions at their word; that is also not entirely the case. My beliefs are a little bit more... confusing than that. Or perhaps just confused. Could be either one.

So let me start with a little history.

When I was growing up, at least until Middle School (Junior High for those of you living in other parts of the US), I attended a fairly open-minded sort of church. As I mentioned before as an example, I learned the Big Bang Theory in Sunday School. However, it was not without its flaws. When I was in Middle School, a cousin of mine (who is much older than me) finished Seminary on the way become a priest. However, my church wouldn't sponsor her for the position because (duh duh duh) she is a woman.

Oh my god! A woman priest! What a travesty! How could we have that? What if she got pregnant?!

Seriously, though, in a church where they teach the Big Bang Theory in Sunday School and they let ministers get married, they won't let a woman become a priest? Well, to cut a long story short, my family abandoned that church in protest, in favor of an even more open-minded church that was closer to where we lived anyway. We even had an openly gay priest for a while. Doesn't get more open-minded than that.

Which reminds me of another little rant that I have to go on while I'm still on the topic of religion. Gay marriage. Seriously, people. You're going to make a big stink about that? Really? Okay, there are two, and exactly two reasons to oppose gay marriage. One is tradition, and the other is religion. I'll take these topics one at a time.
1. Tradition. Traditions change. Get the hell over it. Or stop letting women vote and go buy some slaves and start knitting all your own clothes because guess what? Those were traditions too.
2. Religion There are exactly two places in the Bible where it is stated unambiguously that it is bad to be gay. Those places are called Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. Seriously? Have you even read Leviticus? If not, I highly recommend it; it is very entertaining. Let me give you a few choice examples:
Leviticus 25:44: Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
Leviticus 19:19: ...Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.
Leviticus 11:10: But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to regard as unclean.
Oh, and there are at least six chapters on how and when to ritually sacrifice various animals. Seriously, people, there are maybe five verses in this whole book that are in any way relevant to modern life. So we're going to basically throw out the whole book and say these rules don't matter, except for this particular rule which oh my god if you break this one rule you are the worst kind of person! Yeah, get over yourselves. Let these people find a little happiness.
I had a friend who was kicked out of church for being gay. His priest literally told him in front of his family that he was going to go to hell and he wasn't welcome there anymore. Now he is one of the most critical people against organized religion I know. Yeah, you guys are really helping yourselves there.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, middle school. So I was in this new, even-more-open-minded church. I was a good, churchgoing kid. I even sang in the choir and helped design part of the church grounds. However, the damage was already done. I was observing what I perceived as flaws in the implementation of organized religion. My main problem with it was that it seemed to preclude the notion of independent thought. This partially came from my experience in changing churches. My parents literally had to go hunting for a different church with a mindset like theirs when they couldn't convince the clergy at the previous one to understand and accept their point of view. I was young, but from what I understand, they wouldn't even listen. I've found this to be normal among organized religion; even considering another point of view is extraordinarily rare. However, my line of reasoning went something like this: if God gave us the gift of independent thought, why doesn't he want us to use it? Assuming he put us here on Earth, made us intelligent creatures, then decided to rarely or never interfere directly in our affairs, isn't it logical to believe that he wants us to have free will? Wouldn't that have to be the point of all of this?
The other event that started me down the path of rejecting organized religion is that during church one time while the congregation was reciting some prayer or creed or something, I spontaneously stopped, took a few steps away, and realized that everyone sounded exactly like the Borg. Yeah.... that didn't help.

So for a long while, I was in a state of limbo, not sure what to think or do. I stuck around at church. After all, for all its flaws, the people were friendly. However, I started to come to the realization that people of other faiths were just as passionate about their beliefs as Christians were about theirs. I began to reject the notion that there might be one "true" faith. I started doing a bit of research in other faiths; I even read parts of some of their sacred texts (well, those that had sacred texts). I found (and this came to me as rather a shock having been a lifelong churchgoer), that some of the others appealed to me and made a lot more sense to me than Christianity. Buddhism, for example, or Wicca, or some of the Native American beliefs. However, none of them really settled completely with me. I suppose my newfound faith in, well, free thought kept me from embracing anything wholeheartedly.

When I was studying up on these various belief systems, I also found myself with a growing interest in astronomy and cosmology. I suppose the combination of the two topics of study brought be to the realization that I couldn't reject religion altogether. I was in college by the time I realized that I had sufficient evidence to convince myself that there definitely is more going on in this world than we can see, taste and feel. In fact, I came to realize that I actually had two pieces of supporting evidence, and they (irony of ironies) are based in part in science.
1. The existence of the universe itself. "Where are we from" is often considered our most basic unanswered question. When you really put thought into it, there is no logical explanation for the existence of the universe. There are two possibilities: it would either have had to originate spontaneously, or it would have had to exist forever. Currently, the most widely accepted scientific theory is that the universe was born in a massive spontaneous explosion, emerging from a sort of multidimensional bubbling cosmic soup. But where did this soup come from? Why does anything exist? But on the other hand, can you imagine a lack of existence? Can you imagine a formless void, yet without the void, because even that is a thing? I can't. But I can come close enough to come up with some weird existential quandaries. I originally had this thought when I was young and reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (highly recommended, by the way), and only later did I realize its full potential as possible supporting evidence of the supernatural. How was the universe born if not through some supernatural means?
2. The existence of human consciousness. Well, I should simply say consciousness since I believe it is highly unlikely that there aren't other intelligent beings out in the universe somewhere, and since I believe that animals are also conscious on some level. I'll talk about those another time, but for now, it suffices to say that consciousness exists at least in us. So what is consciousness exactly? Democritus, one of the first philosophers to suggest the existence of the atom, also suggested that souls were composed of special, spherical atoms that allowed intelligent thought to exist. These days, that doesn't seem like an adequate explanation, but nothing else does either. It is difficult to deny that there is something there experiencing sights and sounds and manipulating our behaviors, that we are more than the sum of our parts. However, that cannot currently be defined by science, and I'm not sure that it will ever be. This, too, seems to be potential evidence of the supernatural.
More recently (as in the past month or so), I've come up with a third potential piece of evidence, and its basis is even more rooted in science than the first two.
3. Quantum Mechanics. In recent years, the field of quantum mechanics has become more and more strange. Today, some widely accepted theories themselves border on the supernatural. Everyone has heard the principal of Schroedinger's Cat, in which a cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison that has a 50% chance of breaking. According to the literal interpretation of quantum mechanics, this cat is both dead and alive simultaneously, until the box is opened and the cat can be observed. I would argue that the cat is observing itself, but again, I'll save that discussion for another time. These days, quantum mechanics gets even stranger. Some physicists have even come up with certain sub-molecular events that subtly differ based on whether or not they are observed. In particular, a story came out recently suggesting that a principal called the "Quantum Zeno Effect" aides in the long-distance navigation of migratory birds (this also serves to lend evidence to one of my other theories, but again, more on that later). This observational aspect of quantum mechanics is undeniably strange, but let me throw a new brick into the mix that I've never seen discussed: all of this suggests that human thought influences the universe on its most basic known level. Think about it; if we can influence quantum, and therefore chemical reactions simply by choosing to observe them, then our thoughts and the choices we then make actually serve to change the outcome of events, albeit subtly. Other supernatural concepts like group consciousness or spirits or even God suddenly aren't that big a leap. Who knows? Perhaps everyone has it all wrong and science will end up proving the existence of God. Now wouldn't that be a bit of irony for the ages.

So, I guess that's where I stand. I firmly believe in the existence of things beyond what we can see or feel, meaning I am not atheist or agnostic. However, I don't deign to say that I know what those things are, meaning that I am not religious. So I suppose that I'm just confusing. Or confused. It could still be that too.

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