Monday, January 4, 2016


I was never very good at the child's game in which you look up at clouds and describe them using familiar shapes.  I could see the rabbit or the turtle or the birthday cake, but it just wasn't very interesting to me to imagine these things, and I would quickly become bored.

You might call that a failure of imagination, or it might be something else--maybe just an unwillingness to pretend to see things that weren't there.

One of the most famous commercial failures in history was the Edsel, not a single model of the Ford Motor Company, but its own division, much like Mercury and Lincoln, and four models.  Edsels were fine enough cars--they did suffer from reliability issues mostly stemming from the division's innovative but underthought or underexecuted engineering--but they failed to sell and nearly took Ford straight out of business.  The failure of the Edsel has been the subject of much study.  One leading theory has to do with the vehicles' styling, particularly the front-end grille.  The novel shape of the grille, internally at Ford referred to as the "horse collar" design, reminded folks of a rather different shape:  female genitals.
As the joke went, "Put a little hair around it and you'd have an "Ethel."

Vulgarities aside, we can look at the front of most cars these days and see a "face," of course.  But why?

One of the continually amazing aspects of the human brain is its ability to engage in pattern recognition.  In fact, that might be the single most important aspect of our evolutionary development.

If you show a dog a cartoon drawing of a dog, the dog won't recognize it as a dog.  If you show the same dog a photograph of a dog, there is a fair chance that the dog will recognize the image as being that of a dog.

Show a person a cartoon drawing of a dog--even the most dull-witted of people, and even young children--and that person will recognize it as a dog.  Our human brains are highly capable, almost instinctively, of the sort of analysis that's necessary to analogize a cartoon drawing to a real-life dog, because our brains are conditioned through millions of years of evolutionary development to make judgments about what sort of thing we are perceiving even though we may have only directly perceived a limited amount of information about it.

That ability confers an evolutionary advantage in a dangerous world for a couple of reasons.  Being able to perceive dangers quickly enough to avoid them, even with limited information, means that those with this ability are more likely to survive to reproduce.  Being able to use limited information to identify food sources or to identify members of your own social group does much the same thing.

Some years ago, the U.S. Mint put out a series of commemorative quarters, one per state, and each state was allowed some freedom to present a design for the reverse of the quarter that symbolized the state.  The state quarter for New Hampshire depicts the Old Man of the Mountain, a granite outcropping from Cannon Mountain composed of a series of ledges that, viewed in profile, resemble an old man's face.

The Old Man of the Mountain collapsed in 2003, so it is no longer available to be seen in person.  Unlike Mount Rushmore, which includes manmade carvings of the heads of four presidents, the Old Man of the Mountain was an entirely natural landform.  It takes imagination and pattern-recognition to be able to "see" the face.

Another image made the rounds on social media a few years ago.  A large American flag was erected in the parking lot of a Fry's grocery store in Yuma, Arizona, suspended between two cranes, on September 12, 2001.  Backlit by the rising sun, the flag was partially translucent, and it gave the impression of a Christian cross within the flag's blue field.  This image was said to be symbolic of the U.S. being "one nation under God."

If you'll permit me one more example from social media, I'll get to the point. A photo made the rounds on Facebook about the time that the movie American Sniper was in theaters.  The photo is of a cumulonimbus cloud in the distance, perched over a mountainous horizon, and it is not difficult to see in that cloudform a sniper looking through a scoped rifle.

None of these images are anything more than coincidence and perception, of course.  The cross-flag in particular is simply the product of back-lighting a woven fabric, plus an eager Christian looking for symbols that meet his or her prejudices.  (If the shape of the weave had produced a crescent, do you think this person would have reached a similar conclusion about Islam?)

I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about why it is that people are so eager to conclude that there is a God that intervenes frequently in our lives.  It is relatively easy to see that rock outcroppings and the Moon don't really have human faces, or that a cloudform isn't actually a sniper or a frog or a rabbit.  But what of the folks who claim, in all seriousness, that God is responsible for everything that happens in our lives, from the mundane ("I found a twenty-dollar bill in my coat pocket! Thank God!") to the serious ("My child was in a car hit by a drunk driver and in critical condition. Please pray for her")?  What makes that concept so attractive to people, when there doesn't seem to be anything more than random chance at work?

I have to conclude that this is the result of a craving for patterns.  We crave a deterministic universe, where known stimuli produce known results, where we can push this or that lever, metaphorically speaking, and get this or that predictable result.  We fear the unknown, so we find comfort in the hope that someone--someone powerful, whom we imagine to be on our side--is really in control and working for our benefit.

If something bad happens, we can hope that the consequences will be somehow mitigated.  My mother has cancer. Please pray for her healing.

If something good happens, we can attribute it to this mysterious force that loves us. I got a new job today, so thanks for your prayers--they really worked.

There is no bigger unknown than death.  If you do this thing, then death won't really be the end of you, and you will live in a paradise unlike you've ever known.

This concept dominates most of the religions I have ever learned about.  Judaism is one religion, at least in its modern practice, that doesn't seem to be dominated by it, but it is nonetheless a significant component of that religion.  Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity, is so thoroughly subsumed by this concept that virtually nothing else matters.

Why do these people in particular spend so much time attempting to divine the "will of God" based on what happens?  Is the idea that bad things and good things happen because of the circumstances of their occurrence, and not because someone is behind the scenes pushing and pulling levers, really so frightening?

Some of you might be thinking, well, what could it hurt?  And I get that. I can't definitively say that there is no God.  I can only say that I have never seen any real evidence of one. If one exists, there are a lot of unresolved contradictions that don't seem to have a solution.  But it turns out that it can hurt.  Wishing that there were a God to save us from misfortune, from pain, from death, doesn't make it so.  Concluding that misfortune, pain, or death is the result of lacking God's favor, when in reality those things are just random occurrences--well, that is harmful, psychologically.  Trusting in God to save you when your own action would be more likely to do so--that's harmful.  Praying instead of doing--that's harmful.

One of my favorite things to say--something I'll expand on a bit, today--is that even though we live in a universe that is capable of crushing us without a second thought, even though our world is fraught with perils, the likes of which we cannot even really begin to perceive, the major cause of our misfortune has nothing to do with these things in most cases.  Sure, we might not know what precisely causes someone to get cancer and someone else not to.  But there are many things that are capable of killing us, that don't, and we live out our merry lives in blissful ignorance.

What often causes us the most pain, the most strife, the most heartache, the most loss, isn't what we don't know.  It's the thing of which we are absolutely sure, that simply isn't so.  That's what kills you, literally or figuratively.*

* - One of my favorite examples of this is the insistence on the part of many evangelical Christians that humans could not possibly be responsible for global warming, because, they conclude, God would not allow us to destroy His creation.  Because they are so absolutely sure of this, they believe it's unnecessary to do anything to counteract the global warming we're actually observing, even though it will almost certainly lead to devastating consequences for millions if not billions of people.

The late Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, famously stated, "Religion poisons everything."  He was right.  There are lots of people who are supposedly inspired by their religion to do good works.  When a Christian does something great or helpful for his fellow human, he and we are quick to attribute it to the powerful force of religion in his life.  But I doubt very seriously that if you subtracted Christianity from the equation, it would make this great or helpful thing less great or less helpful, or that it would be the great or helpful thing disappear entirely--and if it did disappear entirely, what does it say about this supposedly great human being? That he can't be bothered to do right by his fellow human beings except on promise of some reward in the afterlife? 

The truth is that we do the things that we do because we see them as right, on balance; then we fix the reasons around them as needed.  Very few people do knowing wrong.  They may do wrong, knowing that it is abstractly wrong, but justifying it by some greater good that they perceive, even if it's a personal good.   

As most of you know, I enjoy playing pub trivia.  I have been fortunate enough to win with some regularity.  On at least two occasions, I have been credited with more points than I actually earned.  I have polled some of my friends about that situation.  Some of them say they would correct the score, even if it put them in a worse position.  Some of them say they would keep their mouths shut.

When it happens, as it does from time to time, my decision has always been to give back the points.  I have my reasons--take your pick:  I win often enough without help that I don't need "help" when it comes like that; it's not fair to the other teams; if someone else got that sort of advantage over me, I'd want them to give the points back.  But I could just as easily conclude that few people would give back points; that I'm handicapping myself not to take the "help" when it's my "turn," as it randomly would be from time to time; or that I simply like winning.  I can't say that any of these reasons, pro or con, is inherently wrong.  I can't say that pushing or pulling any given lever produces the "right" result.

But what I can say is that you can inject religion into that situation all you like, and it's not going to resolve the question.  We might apply the Golden Rule, that principle common to all religions, but we might also conclude, with equal evidence and force and sincerity, that if God didn't want us to win, He wouldn't have allowed the mistake to be made.

And that's one of the more pernicious ways that religion, or at least this concept of an intermeddling God, this indecipherable pattern-maker, poisons things--by convincing us that everything happens for a reason, according to a pattern or plan, and who are we to question the good fortune we've had?

Taken to the extreme, we can see it in the modern evangelists' fundraising, whether it's Oral Roberts claiming that God commanded him to kill himself if he didn't raise $8 million for a new building, or Creflo Dollar seeking $65 million for a private jet, or Joel Osteen preaching that prosperity is a gift that God bestows upon the righteous.

God didn't want Oral Roberts to have a new building; Oral Roberts wanted a new building, and pretending that God wanted it on pain of Roberts's death was just the mechanism for getting there.

God didn't want Creflo Dollar to have a $65 million plane; Creflo Dollar wanted a $65 million plane; God was just the mechanism for getting it.

God doesn't give prosperity in exchange for righteousness.  Joel Osteen wants a 10,000-square-foot house and a plane and fancy cars, and rich people want to be told that they deserve what they have, so they buy Osteen a big house and a plane and fancy cars.

God doesn't save your grandma from cancer; that's a surgeon or an oncologist, or maybe she won't be saved at all.

God doesn't heal the hole in your baby's heart; that's a cardiologist, or maybe your baby's body heals itself, or maybe she won't be healed.

God didn't put that $20 bill in your winter coat; you did, last spring, when you put it up for the last time, and forgot about it.

And God doesn't help you find your car keys, or put cross symbols in flags, or get you a new job.  These things happen by chance.  Or because you work hard and educate yourself.  Or because you hit on that combination of things that produces the result you want.

And when you die, that's it.  God isn't there to tell you, "OK, just kidding, here's eternal life."

So don't waste the life you have looking for patterns.

There aren't any patterns, not of this type.  And seeing them, or being able to see them, doesn't mean they exist.

* * * * *

CODA:  It's not that I see no use for religion.  We humans are fragile.  We are capable of so much, but we are equally capable of being taken down by our own foibles and follies.  If you need religion to cope with the overwhelming reality of life, then, by all means, have religion.  If you need to make a pattern that includes you not drinking or doing drugs, or otherwise engaging in destructive behavior, and religion helps you do that, I'm not going to stand in your way. But most folks would do just fine without it, and plenty of folks don't do well with it.  So if you can be good without God, go ahead.