Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Looking Up to Look Down

In any grocery store, supermarket, or so-called “super-store” the tabloids are some of the last things that one sees on the way out, among the myriad of useless trinkets and “last-minute” buys that most stores hawk. People fall for these things, probably because they are thinking that they might actually need them. Among their needs is evidently the need for journalistic tripe and the idolatry of movie-stars, especially their personal weakness and downfalls.

We all need someone to look up to and in our need we also have the need to somehow know that our idols are no better than ourselves. It is the continuous battle between our need for heroes and heroines and our own fears that we are failures and flops that keep us human. We want to both look up to someone and look down on others.

It is a funny thing that no matter how hard I try, I can very rarely find anyone who will admit to picking up one or another of the worthless rags that line the magazine racks having to do with one star’s addiction or divorce or another musicians failing numbers on the billboard charts. We love movie stars for the same reasons that pre-recorded music and karaoke have become so common: we want the illusion. The movies we see, the music we buy take us away from our own humdrum lives while the gossip rags give us the ego-boost that we all need now and then.

The irony is that in both cases the players are the same: those we love to love and hate. When I do find those that will admit to buying the equivalent of literary diarrhea, the smile and chuckle and explain to me that “it’s all just good fun.” That may be, but I can almost assure anyone who says that, that the lives that such junk-journalism often throws into disarray (take Brittany Spears, talentless and taunted) such things are a bit more than just “good fun”. No matter, they continue to buy the crap, continuing their mindless consumerism without regard for anything else than their own entertainment.People are funny that way: qualifying things that cannot be qualified.

On the market, are innumerable books on every religion imaginable: spokespersons and doomsayers that are telling us what to think, how to think, and defining for us our beliefs. Christianity has one collection of books, the bible, but any section on Christianity in most bookstores is several shelves on several rows. There are followers of certain authors concerning religion just as there is followers of certain literary writers and novelists. We need someone to look up to because we do not trust our selves and are not willing to do the work to know anything with any certainty. Instead, we qualify the reasons that we have for accepting one or another author, councilor etc… on how we feel, but more importantly how they make us feel. We want to feel good, and generally like people and ideas that make us feel good.When a nugget of reality finally hits us, we back away, and authors know this. That’s why they tend to follow up such grains of wisdom with some pep talk (“you can do this; you just have to believe in yourself” or “Give god the reigns and you both will make it through!”) If these little grains of wisdom are too many rather than being few and far between, readers will not feel good and books will not sell. Books such as the “Purpose Driven Life” work this way. First, the assumption is that there is a purpose, and secondly that the purpose involves a singular way of thinking. Thirdly, and this is important, that such a life is possible and only possible with a certain viewpoint. Imagine how a book called “The Purposeless Life” would sell.

The point here is that the rags out the checkout counter make us feel better about ourselves while the movies and music we see and buy (steal?) while taking us away from our own lives, give us something to look forward to. Is it possible that religion is the same? We believe in gods because we need something to look forward to while at the same time religions remind us that those that believe are a part of that “special club” that allows only certain members (those who adhere to their specific flavor of belief). With religion, like junk-journalism, we can look down on others while at the same time, like movies and movie stars, we can have something to look up to. All these, just like movie and rock stars, under one roof: God. God accepts us, but we have to believe in him (just like movie stars), while at the same time God gives us the power to look down upon others (see: Old Testament).

Now most of the time when these sorts of things are mentioned the pat reply becomes “that’s just the fanatics”. But, it is interesting to remember that tabloid newspapers are some of the best selling reads on the market: someone is buying them but not admitting to it. Who are these mysterious “fanatics” if it is not the basic religious believer? What is the difference between a “normal” religious person and the religious fanatic? What differentiates a spiritual person from a religious person? Pathetic answers like “it’s a matter of opinion” are meaningless because they are empty. The answer is: none. If I believe that winged ghosts fly around, that if I bury a statue in the wall of my house I will be safe from less-good winged ghosts, that if I believe that there a grand ghost (the ghost of all ghosts) that is personally interested in my well-being, or that the universe is that ghost, or that certain planets allow for prophecy, or that miracles are scientifically defiant acts of beings capable of changing the known structure of energy and matter, of that somehow I can decipher religious scripts to scrape some truth from them (the cafeteria religionist), then I am a fanatic: a person has lost grasp of reality.

If, then, I am such a person, I need to know that there are others like me, that I am OK, and that those that have called me crazy will be punished while I watch. I need to look up to something while looking down at another thing.Religions are special fan clubs with a special move star to look up to. At the same time, religions are empowering, differentiating those who follow them with the feeling of self-righteousness.

Religion is about love, so many say, but they fail to mention that it must be the right kind of love. One tabloid, evidently, is not the same as any other. Religious writing is the granddaddy of tabloids and God is the granddaddy of all movie and/or rock stars. Imagine, self-degradation and self-righteousness all-in-one!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Science what of it?

A new science is upon us; one that differs from the tried and trusted science that has taken us so far. Science, as it has been defined by many great minds that have given us the modern “miracles” that we all enjoy today, is in the almost invisible process of being re-configured.
Traditionally, when the knowledge gained piece by piece by following the exact and demanding standards set by the scientific method saves a life, or explains anomalies it is not science but a “miracle”. Or, when the scientific conclusions do not further the power of politicians, it is subject to political editing and censorship. And so it goes that science, doing all the work, gets very little glory and must be politically correct. When the ‘jaws of life’ cut a survivor out of a mangled car, it was the “hand of God” that saved them, not sound engineering and rational understanding. When the NASA scientists come to sound conclusions concerning global warming, politicians take it upon themselves to “interpret” the data to conform to conservative policy. Of course, these “miracles” and political limitations have been understood by most to be simply the fa├žade of authority.
Now, however, from the new creationist’s to latest of Bush’s freshman politicos, the ability for the non-scientific to define and decide what modern science is and how it is best used is becoming the accepted norm.
Science is being redefined to fit everyone’s needs, desires and wishes so its validity must be conferred by authorities other than the scientific method in order to be perceived as sound. The Vatican recently released a new list of “new sins”, for example, that included scientific subject matter. Evidently God got it wrong the first time and so Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, the Vatican's number two man, set things right "(Within bioethics) there are areas where we absolutely must denounce some violations of the fundamental rights of human nature through experiments and genetic manipulation whose outcome is difficult to predict and control," he said. The church moralizes science and in doing so believes that it has the right and the power to curb and curtail scientific progress. Science is “difficult to predict and control” but without the scientific method it is impossible. This is not a new angle. While it is to be applauded that the Catholic church has finally “accepted the truth of scientific research in regard to the environment” (just like it “accepted” that the earth was not the center of the universe), it seems that science is not to be accepted until the church ordains it certain.
According to Reuters, “Pope Benedict has made several strong appeals for the protection of the environment, saying issues such as climate change had become gravely important for the entire human race.” This is a nice feather in the cap of science, validating it evidently! Now that the Pope is onboard, climate change must be an actual reality by God’s law no less.
In the USA, as hard as it may be to believe in other parts of the world, scientists are forced to waste precious time on ridiculous and dangerous advances by religion to redefine science to accept its newest creation theory, intelligent design. While this is bad enough, what is the underlying threat is the same attitude towards biological evolution that intelligent design advocates have is no different than the attitude of the Catholic church towards science: it seems that science is incomplete without religion. George Bush adheres to this kind of new science. This is not more evident than his recent “change of mind” (together with the Pope) concerning global warming. After years of fighting almost any changes in America’s environmental attitude, claiming that global warming is at best a questionable hypothesis, and continually pointing out that the science was incomplete, Bush now is certain that global warming is ‘real’. This comes after at least one count of one of his minions changing scientific data to fit the administration’s politics. This is not only important because of the legal and ethical ramifications, but because it is a sign of this administration’s (and our society’s) attitude towards science. It is highly doubtful that Bush made his decision based on more scientific data etc… given that Bush has little or no scientific knowledge(or any other knowledge for that matter).
In other words, according to many people who adhere to religious or certain political points of view, the new science is something that can be reinterpreted/accepted by people with no or little scientific understanding based on other criteria than good science. This point seems to go unnoticed among religious pundits and their followers. But, the fact remains that like history often is, science is seen as something that can be redefined to fit our wishes and wants. And like history, doing so dilutes the strength and validity of science. As long as people continue to pay homage to religious leaders and give respect to baseless and antiquated ways of thinking, then the redefinition of science to fit society’s desire and traditions rather than following a strict method of justification over time will always be possible.The new science, ironically enough is no different than the science of the middle-ages, when it was forced by the sword to adhere to religious edicts. I have pointed out in earlier essays that while it is true that much science was done in ‘the name of God’ by catholic monks, that those monks were limited to one conclusion: that God existed and creation was a fact. As long as their scientific enquiry adhered to those simple principles, they were free to be as skeptical as they felt need to be until the absurdity of their ideas became too much. Perhaps it was the absurdity of the Catholic Church’s position on climate change and its continued absurd view on the fetuses (abortion etc…) that is the basis for the Pope’s decisions regarding climate change and bio-research? The new science is, by definition, ‘new’ because it is more limited rather than infinitely broader in its scope than the “old” science.
The new science, as recently defined by bodies such as the Bush administration, and traditionally defined by religion, differs from its predecessor by its limitations and its ability to be molded by forces outside of the scientific method. The new science is no longer limited by severe definitions of knowledge, justification, experimentation, and abilities to predict consistently outcomes that are inferred by credible premises no matter what those conclusions may be. Rather science must now be validated by faith and deemed politically acceptable before it is to be accepted as true knowledge.

Monday, May 12, 2008