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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Thursday, January 31, 2019

On Being Human

Is it irrational to believe in god(s), scriptures, religious rituals or things spiritual/supernatural? Is the complete rejection of such beliefs indicative of the achievement of rational maturity? Is sound scientific thinking incompatible with such beliefs? Is it appropriate to think of atheism as rational and theism as irrational?

If your answer to the above questions was YES, you may want to reconsider your response in light of what it means to be human! I think most of us would agree that it is important to explore why we believe and do the things that we do. In fact, it seems that such considerations would be even more important to someone who sees us (humans) as the product of the process of evolution.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that there are a number of traits which appear to be universal in their applicability to humankind. I'm thinking of things like emotion, music, language, mathematical ability, socialization, ritual, spirituality, etc. Hence, it appears that evolution has hardwired our species to think and behave in certain ways. Moreover, the very nature of evolutionary science informs us that there are good reasons for all of these features of being human.

Forbes published an article a few years back (22 Aug 2017) by Alice Walton titled "The Science Of Spirituality: A Psychologist And A Neuroscientist Explain Being 'In The Flow'" see https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/08/22/the-science-of-spirituality-a-psychologist-and-a-neuroscientist-explain-being-in-the-flow/#688479e34e0b In the article, Walton notes that many humans have experienced the phenomenon of "being in the flow." She describes this as "the idea of getting out of our own way, or giving up control to some higher power/consciousness/energy."

In the article, Psychologist Ben Michaelis looks at the phenomenon from the perspective of humans reacting to stress and not always being in control of situations/events. According to Michaelis, humans are "pattern-seeking creatures" who understand that this need sometimes has to be relinquished. He goes on to point out that "we're an altricial species." In other words, "we're wired to give up control."

In the same article, Neuroscientist Judson Brewer describes the phenomenon as us allowing our brain to function in a more efficient and natural way. He says, “Every religious tradition that I’ve seen has something like this, just with different words. It’s letting go of the small self, so grace of god can flow through us. ‘Advaita vedanta’ [from the Upanishads]; in Catholicism, it’s emptying so god can flow..." According to Brewer, " Our brain has evolved for efficiency. 'Flow' is likely a manifestation of the brain working in optimal conditions.”

Likewise, our human propensity for ritual has been subjected to the same kind of scientific evaluation and explanation. In an article written for Scientific American, Francesca Gino and Michael Norton talk about the science behind our fascination with rituals. They wrote:  "Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors." see "Why Rituals Work" https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/#googDisableSync

In another article for LIVESCIENCE, Meredith Small wrote an article titled "Human Rituals: The Punctuation Marks of Life" see https://www.livescience.com/9687-human-rituals-punctuation-marks-life.html After a discussion of various marriage and death rituals extant in our world, she writes: "It's not just that humans are party animals. We seem to need some clearly defined, traditional activities to move back into regular life after a major change. Ritual not only underscores those life changes, it also adds a punctuation mark (a question mark for birth, a comma for rites of puberty, an exclamation point for marriage, and, of course, a period for death). And then we are able to move on to the next sentence." She continues: "Ritual also forms our identity. We learn about our culture from these rites of passage and we become part of a community."

Hence, when we examine these things from a scientific perspective, it becomes clear to us that the evolution of humankind has been a complex and multi-faceted process. It is also clear that that process has been sequential in nature, and that there are concrete reasons for the way we think and everything we do.

As a consequence of these facts, it seems just a little counterintuitive and irrational to designate ANY of these universal traits of humanity as obsolete relics of a superstitious past. In fact, it seems to this observer that a better understanding of all aspects of the evolution of our species is the only way to arrive at rational answers to the questions we asked at the beginning of this post. After all, if any of these universal traits have become obsolete, won't the process (evolution) eventually eradicate them for us? What do you think?

Sunday, January 6, 2019


Banned by HWA! recently posted a piece about the Philadelphia Church of God's views on depression. According to the PCG,  it's all about breaking God's law and Satan's influence.

As someone who has struggled with depression for years, I can tell you with great confidence that such a view is simplistic and wrongheaded. Some of the greatest men in history have been plagued by depression (e.g. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Churchill, etc.) In fact, their efforts to outrun/suppress/defeat their depression are regarded by most of the folks who have studied their lives as being key to whatever success we attribute to them. In other words, depression is a much more complex phenomenon than the PCG's take on it would suggest.

According to the folks over at WebMD, the major causes of depression are:
"Abuse. Past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can increase the vulnerability to clinical depression later in life.
Certain medications. Some drugs, such as isotretinoin (used to treat acne), the antiviral drug interferon-alpha, and corticosteroids, can increase your risk of depression.
Conflict. Depression in someone who has the biological vulnerability to develop depression may result from personal conflicts or disputes with family members or friends.
Death or a loss. Sadness or grief from the death or loss of a loved one, though natural, may increase the risk of depression.
Genetics. A family history of depression may increase the risk. It's thought that depression is a complex trait, meaning that there are probably many different genes that each exert small effects, rather than a single gene that contributes to disease risk. The genetics of depression, like most psychiatric disorders, are not as simple or straightforward as in purely genetic diseases such as Huntington's chorea or cystic fibrosis.
Major events. Even good events such as starting a new job, graduating, or getting married can lead to depression. So can moving, losing a job or income, getting divorced, or retiring. However, the syndrome of clinical depression is never just a "normal" response to stressful life events.
Other personal problems. Problems such as social isolation due to other mental illnesses or being cast out of a family or social group can contribute to the risk of developing clinical depression.
Serious illnesses. Sometimes depression co-exists with a major illness or may be triggered by another medical condition.
Substance abuse. Nearly 30% of people with substance abuse problems also have major or clinical depression."

In other words, while I'm not going to dispute the assertion that SOME depression may be attributable to law breaking and/or Satan, it is ridiculous to suggest that all of it (or maybe even the biggest part of it) is attributable to those two things. What about a biological predisposition for depression? What about sadness/grief over death/loss? What about mental illness? What about events beyond our control? What about suffering abuse at the hands of someone else? What about being disfellowshipped or shunned by a cult?

I remember reading somewhere that God doesn't despise a broken and contrite heart, and that those who mourn will be comforted. I also seem to remember the Apostle Paul telling us not to mourn in the same fashion as folks who are not Christians (not that we shouldn't mourn/grieve - just not in the same way!). I seem to recall Jesus Christ telling his followers that not everything bad that happens is the consequence of someone sinning - that there is something called time and chance (sometimes towers collapse, tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes arise).

No, depression is a very HUMAN phenomenon, and it is not all attributable to Satan and sinning. And, by the way, how does reducing the phenomenon to those causes help anyone who is suffering from the phenomenon? It doesn't do anything for me!

It seems to me that the more appropriate course of action for anyone claiming to be a Christian is one of empathy, compassion and love. Shouldn't we be strengthening the hands that are weak and comforting the brokenhearted? Why were we instructed to look after the fatherless and the widows?Why were we instructed to provide for those in need and minister to those in prison? What do you think?