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The Altar Call

I was sure that God had a plan for my life and I was determined to find it.

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“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I can’t count the number of times I heard that when I was growing up. And I believed it. I had doubts about many of the teachings of the fundamentalist denomination in which I was raised, but I was sure that God had a plan for my life and I was determined to find it.

Many skeptics will say that fundamentalists always believe that “god’s voice sounds a lot like their own.” That is to say, what they believe is god’s will for them is what they want for themselves. However, having been raised in fundamentalism and searched for god’s will, I have a somewhat different view. I think that people who have a positive self image do, indeed, believe that what they want for themselves is god’s will for them. However, for those of us who had a very low self image, we believed that what we did NOT want for ourselves, was god’s will for us. After all, we didn’t deserve anything good. And some of us paid dearly for that belief.

As a child, growing up, my family was totally immersed in religion. We went to Sunday school and morning worship service on Sunday mornings, youth group and an evangelical service on Sunday evenings, and prayer meeting on Wednesday nights. Once a year, our local church held a revival and we went to church every night for a week. Once a year, the district had camp meeting, and we went to a church service every night for a week. Altar calls were common at the end of the Sunday evening services and there were always altar calls at the end of the service every night of the revival and camp meeting. Even if the sermon didn’t have much of an effect on you, the music alone could raise emotions. After singing Just As I Am, Almost Persuaded, and Tell Mother I’ll Be There, anyone would feel the need to go to the altar to pray. I recall one night when I felt a strong need to pray. I “knew” I was a “Christian” but I guess I felt that I wasn’t a good enough Christian. So, I went to the altar. Within seconds, my father was kneeling beside me with his arm around me, praying for me. Soon, everyone who had gone to the altar was surrounded by family and friends, all focussing on the one person “in need.” Soon, I, and the others, felt better and we got up and everyone hugged each other. We felt emotionally drained but something about the experience made us feel better. Some people even felt euphoric. We felt strengthened and ready to go face “the world” again.

I went to public schools but was not allowed to go to movies or dances, so my social life was almost entirely with my “church friends.” I attended a Christian college and remained a Christian, and still quite naïve, when I attended a state university for grad school. After grad school, I became a professor at a Christian college. During my first year of teaching, a student of mine asked me if I would write to a very intelligent friend of his who just happened to be in a federal prison. Yes, you can see it coming. I wrote to him and soon, I started visiting him on occasional weekends. He was amazingly intelligent and articulate. He was also quite open about his crimes of bank robbery. He expressed an intense desire to get his life straightened out and demonstrated it by taking college courses in prison. I still believe that he really did want to get his life straightened out. What I didn’t understand at the time, was the psychology of it all. I had a lot to learn.

By the time my “pen pal”  got out of prison, we were engaged. Yes, I knew that the bible said, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with an unbeliever” but I genuinely believed that it was god’s will and, therefore my duty, my obligation, to salvage this poor lost soul, and that eventually, he would become a believer. That, of course, never happened.

We were soon married and my real world education began. The first thing I discovered was that he was an alcoholic. When he was in prison, alcohol was not available so there was no indication of a problem. Having never been exposed to alcoholism, I knew virtually nothing about it. Still being a naïve little Christian, I believed that prayer and love were all that was needed to help him. So I kept loving him and praying for him. Didn’t work. Nevertheless, when his daughter from a previous marriage needed us, I welcomed her with open arms. At the time, she was a ward of the court, and had been placed in a foster home in which there was a teen aged boy and no father in the home. You guessed it. She was fifteen and pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby but in order to do so, she had to live with a parent or guardian, so we took her in. Living together was difficult for all of us so I insisted that we all had to go to counselling, which we did. The therapist concluded that group therapy would be the best approach for us, but that we should go to different groups. I got more help than my (then) husband or his daughter.

When you have a good therapist, group therapy is amazing. I learned a lot about myself and about the real world. A second, very critical thing I learned about my ex-husband was that he was a sociopath. I had never heard the word sociopath and had no idea that people like that existed. Sociopathy is not a mental illness; it is a personality disorder, also called antisocial personality disorder. Most psychologists agree that sociopaths cannot be treated. This bit of information created a conundrum for me. How could god create sociopaths if they could not change? And, if my ex-husband couldn’t change, how could it have been god’s will for me to marry him?  These questions contributed to my growing doubts about my religious teachings, and to my eventual deconversion. Even after I realized that my husband could not be helped, and my faith was slipping away, I continued with my group therapy because I was getting help.

The therapist was an amazing man and he ran therapy groups very effectively. One of the rules was that whenever someone in the group needed a hug from another person in the group, they could simply ask for it and they would get it. On one occasion, a woman in my group was dealing with some very difficult issues and she said, “I need a hug from Lois.” (That’s me.) I gave her a hug and it seemed that the emotion began to spread throughout the group. As emotions came to the surface, more people expressed the need for a hug. Several individuals dealt tearfully with some very deep, emotional issues and a lot of healing took place. Although it was emotionally exhausting, it was also exhilarating. In the midst of all of the emotion, I suddenly had an “ah ha” moment. It just hit me, “This is an altar call!”

Afterward, I tried to make sense of this new awareness. What did I experience in the therapy session that was like an altar call? How are therapy sessions and altar calls similar, and how do they differ? I reasoned that humans are social animals and, therefore, we have some basic social needs. We need a sense of belonging, a sense of acceptance, and we need touch from other human beings.

Both group therapy sessions and altar calls meet these needs to some extent. However, altar calls come with a lot of strings attached. First, you have to affirm that you have “accepted Christ as your personal saviour” and that you have given your life to “him.” To retain the acceptance and understanding of the church family, you have to meet some rigid conditions. You must continue to believe the doctrine and dogma, or, at least, mouth the rhetoric. You must follow the rules, both written and unwritten. In some denominations or religions, you must look the right way, talk the right way, and must not be friendly with the “wrong” people. However, as I had discovered, belief is not a choice. It isn’t possible to decide to believe something that you have come to realize simply can’t be true. But as soon as you let people know that you no longer believe in the doctrine, or that you don’t even believe in god any more, you are no longer welcome in the community. You lose everything you had gained by being part of the community.  And pretending that you still believe, that is, living a lie, is a miserable state in which to find yourself. Leaving religion is painful.

What about the therapy group? The needs that are met in a therapy group have no strings attached. People in the groups are dealing with their own issues and therefore, understand and accept you for who you are. It doesn’t matter what you profess to believe or not believe. However, being in a therapy group is temporary. Eventually, you have to move on and leave the group. Then you have to find a way to have your human needs met in another way. My experiences, including group therapy, helped me to begin to understand the human need for a community. We need communities that are welcoming and that do not have any strings attached.

To conclude my personal story, I ended the marriage and, for a time, lived a lie while I looked for a way to support myself so I could leave my job. I loved teaching, but the college would not employ anyone who did not profess to be a Christian. Eventually, I obtained a post doctoral fellowship and quit my job, got out of town, and left the country, literally. I moved to western Canada and started my life over from scratch. Now, many years have passed and I have a wonderful life. I have become part of a secular community and am discovering unconditional acceptance. But I’ll never forget that “ah ha” moment and the realization that everyone has genuine human needs. I’ve made it my goal to reach out to people who are facing situations similar to those I faced when I left my religion, and to introduce them to a secular community.

Human needs are real; answers in religion are not. Human needs can only be met by other humans who care.

Chapter 2: The Big Bang

In the beginning, there was a quantum fluctuation, and time and the universe, as we know it, began.

Humans have been studying the “heavens” – or astronomy – for more than three thousand years. The Babylonians were the first people to record data about the position of the planets and some other phenomena. Between 500 bce and 200 bce, the Greeks made some observations and calculations. For example, Thales used the Babylonian data to predict eclipses. Aristarchus developed a heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the solar system (nearly 2000 years before Copernicus did), and Hipparchus cataloged the known stars. Many centuries later, during the renaissance, the telescope was invented and Galileo used it to discover Sun spots, the phases of Venus, and four of Jupiter’s moons. Over the centuries, astronomers made many important discoveries and accumulated a wealth of information and made many hypotheses about the properties of the stars and planets.

It was in 1929 that Edwin Hubble, in honor of whom the first space telescope was named, made the momentous discovery that provided the first observational support for what is now the Big Bang theory. He discovered that the stars were all rapidly moving away from each other, indicating that the universe is expanding. Since then, many improvements in technologies have allowed astronomers to make more precise measurements about the speed and directions of the motion of many stars. Using this information, astronomers have traced the stars backwards along their paths. By doing so, they were able to, in a sense, go backwards in time and determine where the stars had been at any specific time in the past. The remarkable result is that the backward paths of the stars leads back to one point. Astronomers have calculated­ that the stars left that point 13.798 billion years ago.

Based on the accumulated data, astronomers developed the model that describes the progression of events that would have occurred if all of the contents of the universe had been located at that point, and then expanded. Using this model, they were able to make predictions about the conditions at that original point and phenomena that would occur during the expansion. One of the predictions was that a certain type of radio wave should be present throughout the universe. Using radio telescopes, astronomers found the radio waves. In fact, the radio waves had been discovered before the theory had been developed. The astronomers who discovered them had no idea what the source of those radio waves could have been. With continued observations, more predictions were fulfilled and that supported the model, leading a majority of astronomers to accept the hypothesis, which thus became Big Bang Theory.

According to the Big Bang Theory, the incredibly hot, dense contents of the universe located at the original point had an initial temperature of about 1032°C. (You could write that as a 1 with 31 zeros.) The universe began to expand rapidly, but it was still so hot that atoms could not exist because the heat would rip them apart. As the universe continued to expand, it gradually cooled. After about 300,000 years, the universe was cool enough for small atoms, such as hydrogen, helium, and traces of lithium, to form. After about 300 million years, conditions were right for stars to form.

Astronomers know a lot about the formation of stars because new stars are still forming and they can observe the process. Huge clouds of mainly hydrogen gas experience a turbulence which causes the gas in one region to become dense enough for gravity to pull the atoms closer together until they begin to collapse on themselves. As gravity pulls the atoms together, they became hotter, so hot that the hydrogen atoms collide with enough energy to make them fuse together and make helium atoms. These reactions, called fusion reactions, release tremendous amounts of heat which give other hydrogen atoms the energy to collide and continue the process. These fusion reactions are the reactions that occur in our Sun that generate the light and heat that allows living systems on Earth to thrive.

When stars first began to form in the young universe, elements other than hydrogen, helium, and the traces of lithium, did not exist. Thus none of the elements necessary for forming rocky planets, or living organisms, existed. These elements would be formed as the stars continued to carry out fusion reactions. First, hydrogen atoms fused and formed helium. When a star ran out of hydrogen, and if the star was big enough, the helium would fuse and eventually make carbon, oxygen, and other larger elements. In very large stars, these fusion reactions could form the first 26 elements, but larger elements could not form. The reason for this is that the fusion reactions that make the first 26 elements emit energy. To make elements larger than the 26th element requires energy to cause fusion. Larger elements can be formed only when even more energetic (hotter) particles are available than those found in the core of a giant star. Nearly the only place and situation in which this amount of energy is available is in a supernova. A supernova occurs when a star, which is at least eight to ten times larger than the Sun, uses up nearly all of its fusion energy, dies, and explodes. This explosion, called a supernova, generates the larger elements and disperses them, and the other debris, throughout a large region of the universe. All stars will eventually die and disperse much of their mass. Depending on the size of the star, it could take from a few hundred million to several billion years to burn out and die. Our own Sun is expected to die in about five billion years.

After many stars, large and small, have died, the space around them contains all of the elements necessary to create, not only a new star, but also planets. From many observations of star formation, and using advanced space telescopes, astronomers have developed a likely model for the formation of a solar system such as our own. In regions where there are large clouds of dust and gas, called nebulae, motion of the dust and gas can cause a dense area where gravity can make the cloud begin to collapse, as previously described. The collapsing cloud becomes hotter and hotter until fusion reactions occur in the central core. Gravity pulls much of the dust and gas toward it and it all begins to swirl. As the large cloud continues to compress, it swirls faster and flattens. The heat that is generated by the fusion reactions in the center of the swirling disk creates outward pressure that drives the surrounding gas molecules and particles away. The more lightweight gases are driven farther than the heavier particles of dust and debris. These particles become so hot from the heat of the star that they are molten. When they collide, they stick together. The entire mass of the disk is still swirling while more and more particles collide and stick together. If these aggregations of molten particles grow, some become large enough to be called planetesimals. Collisions continue to occur until, after a few hundred million years, some of the planetesimals grow into planets. The planets are still swirling around the central star and they gather up most of the dust and aggregations in their path. These are now orbiting planets. This is the current, best model for the way in which the Earth was formed. As technology improves and more telescopes are placed in orbits around Earth, astronomers are able to observe more solar systems around distant stars. They have found at least 2000 planets around stars other than our Sun.

Chapter 1: The Genesis One Creation Story

In the beginning God……

Many people, and most creationists, are familiar with the Genesis creation story that starts, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth.” Actually there are two, somewhat contradictory, creation stories in Genesis but Christians seem to prefer the one in the first chapter of  Genesis, so we will discuss that one.

According to Genesis 1.3, on the first day, God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” The Genesis 1.6 description of the second day is a bit confusing. “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” I looked at some translations other than the King James version but they have not clarified the meaning. In checking other sources, I found one that explained it as the separation of the water and sky. There does not seem to be any agreement on the meaning of the firmament. Anyway, on the third day, “God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.” On the fourth day “God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.” I have to confess, this one really bothers me. How can anyone read this and not wonder where the light came from on days one, two, and three? And what determined a “day” before the sun existed? Oh well, let’s proceed to day five. “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.” Finally, on day six. “God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” As we know, on the seventh day, God rested. This is the “information” on which young earth creationists base their beliefs. Many books have been written and events debated, all based in these verses. This concludes the first creation story.

Two Creation Stories, One Author: Prologue

Humans are curious beings. Among other things, we have always had a deep desire to understand our origins. As a result, many early societies and cultures developed their own creations stories. Most of these stories are now considered myths and reflections of an ancient culture.  However, the Genesis story is “alive and well” and thriving, especially in America, much to my vexation. I find it alarming when I read that 46% of Americans are “young Earth” creationists. It’s hard to believe that more than 150 years have passed since Darwin published his “On the Origin of Species,” and so many people are still young earth creationist. Some might say, “Who cares? What difference does it make?” It makes a big difference in the way that science is (or is not) taught in the public schools. As well, it affects the attitudes of many lawmakers in the state, or provincial, and federal governments, thus affecting the laws that they do or do not pass. This state of affairs motivated me to write this tome.

As I said above, there are a multitude of creation stories. Actually there are two, somewhat contradictory creation stories in chapters one and two of Genesis. However, most young earth creationists adhere to the story in Genesis one so that is what I’ll consider as one of my two creation stories. The author referred to in the title is, of course, the Christian god. At this point, you might be wondering what the second creation story could be. Because creationists believe that god created the “heavens and the Earth,” they must believe that anything found in the “heavens and the Earth” was placed there by god. Therefore, I contend that creationists should believe that any “story” written in nature, was written by their god. And nature does, indeed, tell an amazing creation story.

The chapters that follow will tell those creations stories. Chapter 1 will be a brief summary of the creation story in Genesis one. The remaining chapters will be glimpses of an extremely small fraction of an enormous amount of evidence in several fields of science that can be woven into a somewhat complete story of “creation.” Finally, in the Epilogue, we will muse on a comparison of the two creation stories.

Before we get started, however, we need to emphasize the definition of the word “theory.” Unfortunately, the word theory means something quite different in common speech than it does in science. To non-scientists, “theory” means a guess or assumption about how something works. In science, a theory starts as an hypothesis,  which is a possible explanation of some observed phenomenon. Scientists often develop the hypothesis into what they call a model. This model can be in the form of an illustration, a point form description, a small structure, it can simply be a mathematical equation. Scientists then test the model exhaustively. If all of the tests and observations support the model, and even help improve the model, and if a vast majority of all scientists in the field accept the model, or hypothesis, it becomes a theory. Thus, a scientific theory is based on an exhaustive amount of evidence, leaving essentially no doubt about its validity. With that definition in tow, we can start our two stories.

Sisters

A Points to Ponder Post

My sister is six years older than me so, growing up, we weren’t really close. In addition, when she was eight years old, she had rheumatic fever and was bedfast for about four months. She wasn’t physically active for several years after that. Meantime, my brother and I were out riding bicycles and playing sports.  My sister stayed at home, reading and studying and getting all As in school. For these, and many more reasons, I always thought of my sister and myself as being extremely different, almost opposite. This is not to say that I didn’t appreciate her. I always admired her. She was extremely intelligent and very quiet and dependable and also, very attractive. She dated a lot in high school and was engaged shortly after she graduated. She married when she turned 20 and was a mother at 22. Conversely, I hardly had a date in high school and I went on to pursue academics. Guys were academic competitors, not subjects of my affection. (I eventually did get married but it didn’t last. That’s another story.)

As the years went by, and we were living our adult lives, I became a college professor while my sister’s activities revolved around her family and church. She taught Sunday School and led bible studies. I was teaching in a Christian college but my interests were strictly academics. We were raised in a very devout family but I always had doubts. While teaching in the college, my doubts grew and finally, as a result of personal experiences, I completely stopped believing in any form of a divine being. Of course, I had to leave the college and find another way to support myself. I moved to a city where I knew no one, and started my life over. Now my sister and I were really totally different. She is a devout believer and I am an atheist.

For several years, I concentrated on making a living and building a new life with new friends and new activities. I even found a wonderful significant other. After many years, I was awakened to the fact that many other people had taken the path that I did. That is, they realized that they could no longer believe the religious teachings that they had once accepted and had to leave their religion. This can cause severe personal trauma. I realized that, because I had experienced the same thing, I should be actively supporting these people. Soon, I became very active in the atheist community. The most gratifying activity I have found is organizing and leading a support group for people who are, or recently have been, dealing with the issues caused by leaving their religion.

One day, recently, I started thinking about my sister and the fact that, a few years ago, she had taken courses to become a chaplain for hospitals and nursing homes. I wondered if she was still doing that. Just a few days after I was thinking about her, I received a letter from her in which she mentioned she was becoming more active as a chaplain. I mused about the idea that I lead a support group for non-believers while my sister is volunteering as a religious chaplain. Are my sister and I very different or very much alike? What do you think?

What You Don’t See

A Points to Ponder Post

“Be ye in the world, but not of the world,” is a verse that was often quoted in the evangelical denomination in which I was raised. I took it to heart…..a little too much. Now, the “world” was everything except the church. So, I was being taught that I was not a part of my school, my neighborhood, or any organization that was not affiliated with the church. As a result, I developed a sense of not belonging. The trouble was that, when I was at church, I also had the sense of not belonging, but for a different reason. The international headquarters of my denomination was in Kansas City, my hometown. My family attended “First Church” which the church that the leaders of the denomination also attended. I felt like a “nobody.” Everyone else’s father was “doctor” somebody. I developed a feeling that I can only describe as being an observer of the world but not a participant, even at church. No matter where I was, I felt like an observer who really didn’t belong there. But no one ever knew I felt that way.

When I was in graduate school, I really felt like I didn’t belong. I was terrified of failing. I felt like the fear was “written all over me.” At some point, however, I discovered that some of my peers saw me as confident and aloof. I was shocked. How could they not see that I was intimidated and frightened? Was my quiet reserve interpreted as confidence? Was my inner fear interpreted as aloofness? Wow.

These experiences made me very aware that the way we read people is probably totally erroneous. It was partly this awareness that made me want to listen to others and try to understand how they felt, deep inside. I honed this skill when I was teaching at a Christian college. Oh, yes, I did make it through grad school and earned my PhD. Anyway, students began to realize that they could talk to me and I would listen without judging them, or preaching to them, or praying for them. Of course, not preaching or praying became automatic when I became a closeted atheist. More and more, students would come to my office and pour their hearts out to me.

There was the young woman who struggled with feelings of being overweight when she really wasn’t. For hours, we would discuss her feelings and how to deal with them. I later found out that she had gotten professional therapy and was diagnosed with bulimia.

Then there were the two young women who suffered intensely from having been molested by their older brothers when they were very young. One of the girls tried many times, to just tell me that it had happened. She had never told anyone ever before. Finally, she was able to “spit it out.” It was heartbreaking to see the pain that it had caused her. And that wasn’t the only thing she was coping with. Her family, which included ten children, was very dysfunctional. When she was in high school, she overdosed in an attempt to end her life. A coach had taken her under wing and helped her cope, which helped her make it through high school. We spent many hours together, working on ways to heal. When I saw her several years later, she told me that she had finally talked to some of her siblings about what had happened. She had been shocked to discover that several of her siblings had gotten professional help.

The second young woman who had also been molested by her brother, described climbing a tree many times, and sitting in it until dark, when her parents were away and her brother was babysitting. Both of these girls were student athletes and didn’t appear to have any problems. No one would ever have suspected what they had been through.

Then there was the Vietnamese boy who had grown up in Saigon during the war. His father had been killed and his grandparents raised him. When he was in high school, both grandparents died. Soon, as the war was coming to an end, his mother took him out of Viet Nam and took him to a family in Michigan who sponsored him. He had not been raised Christian but the sponsoring family was, so he went to the Christian college. He spent a lot of time in my office because, I believe, he felt safe there, and he could express his feelings without being judged. After graduation, he went to medical school.

I could go on and on. For example, one student even told me about her three abortions. My main point, here, is that, outside of my office, these students didn’t show one hint of what they were coping with. They all seemed like happy, carefree students.

I recall one day looking out of a second floor window at many students walking around campus on a beautiful spring day. Many people would see that scene and think, “Look at these lucky young people. These are some of the best years of their lives.” I looked at them and thought, “What emotional baggage are they carrying around inside, that they are hiding from the rest of the world?” My mind drifted back to a day in high school that I’ll never forget. I can’t remember exactly what we were discussing in Human Science class, but I remember what the teacher asked the class. She said, “Who, in this class, has ever experienced real fear? I don’t mean seeing a spider or a mouse. I mean real fear?” One girl raised her hand. The teacher seemed surprised. I had the impression that she had asked other classes and that no one had raised their hand. The teacher then asked the girl if she would mind telling us about the situation that had caused the fear. The girl said, “We were on a train, trying to escape from the German soldiers during World War II.” The teacher said, “Did you escape?” The girl answered, “No.” We all sat there in stunned silence. Our very sweet, quiet classmate had spent time in a German concentration camp. No one would ever have guessed.

All of these stories taught me a huge lesson about the people around me. You may think that you know someone, or you may think that you can read people that you meet. But you probably have no idea who they really are, or what they have gone through in the past. Their reactions to situations or issues might seem strange or wrong to you. However, everyone evaluates new situations based on their own past background and experiences, even you. We can’t help it. Even when we do a lot of searching and introspection, and turn our lives around, some of the old experiences and beliefs are still there, buried, and they can still affect our evaluations of new situations.

So, when someone reacts to a situation in a way that is totally opposite to the way you react, don’t draw any immediate conclusions or pass any judgments. Keep your mind open to the possibility that the other person’s experiences have been very different from your own. Listen to them. Ask them to explain their reasoning. Accept the idea that you might never be able to really understand their responses or agree with their conclusions. Nevertheless, you can still accept the person. And, who knows, you might learn something.

A Flawed Human Being

A Points to Ponder Post

Larry King was interviewing Michael Ware, the Australian war correspondent who literally lived in Bagdad for more than six years while covering the war for Time Magazine and then for CNN. Ware had witnessed a multitude of unspeakable atrocities over the six years he covered the war and he suffered severe PTSD as a result. After hearing Ware describe the horrors of war, Larry King asked him, “Why, why….. do we kill each other?” Ware’s brief answer spoke volumes. “It’s a part of who we are.” He then went on to explain, “Unless we accept the totality of ourselves, we will never be able to harness our ultimate potential for good.”

When we look at the world around us with all of the wars, brutality, polarization, and hatred, it is easy to feel despair. Yet Michael Ware, who has seen the worst of it, still believes that we humans have an “ultimate potential for good.” If we could understand how members of the species, homo sapiens, can carry out the heinous acts we hear about nearly every day, but still have the potential for good, it might help us find a way to deal with our own inner struggles and possibly make the world a better place.

When I’m trying to understand something about human nature, I often turn to the evolutionary process for insights. One misconception that many people have about evolution is that it is directed toward some ultimate goal. This is not the case. Evolutionary success simply means that the species still exists. For example, cockroaches are as successful, evolutionarily, as humans because they still exist. Considering that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed on the planet, are now extinct, just existing is a real accomplishment.

What contributes to evolutionary success? The phrase, survival of the fittest, often causes confusion. Many people will picture a big, strong person, who can survive any catastrophe. Not so. When it is applied to evolutionary success, to be fit simply means to be able to procreate, that is, to pass one’s genes on to the next generation. To be “fit” according to this definition, an individual would have to live long enough to reach sexual maturity, i.e., survive. Then one would have to be fertile, and, of course, one would have to be able to attract a mate.

A wide variety of characteristics contribute to an individual’s ability and likelihood to survive and procreate. Remember that, when early homo sapiens was evolving, we did not have the conveniences we now have. We were often exposed to hostile environments. Thus the characteristics that determined physiological fitness varied widely, depending on the environment such a desert, the arctic, a tropical jungle, or a temperate grassland. We need, also, to consider psychology. When we look around, we see some people who are quiet, calm, and gentle. Others are assertive, impulsive, and brash. All of these characteristics must have, in some way, contributed to the survival of the species. Thus, the concepts of “good” of “bad” could not be applied to any particular characteristic, when primitive humans were evolving.

Today, we live in a totally different environment than we did when much of human evolution was happening. Those characteristics that supported human survival and procreation in primitive environments and societies might not be appropriate for our current society. They might even be counterproductive.  In fact, some of them could seem evil. So, how do we cope with this paradox? Consider, for example, an extreme case. When we read or hear in the news about an atrocity, the person who committed it is often called a “flawed human being.” If we consider any person who commits an act of violence as a flawed human being, then we, in a way, absolve ourselves of any responsibility. “That person is flawed. We are not. We would never do anything like that!” However, we don’t know anything about their inherited characteristics. As well, we don’t know about their past, the conditions under which they grew up, or what they have experienced. We don’t know what we, ourselves, would be like or what we would do if we had grown up like the person who committed the act. According to Michael Ware, everyone has a dark side. Exposure to horrendous experiences, just might bring out that darkness.

Before you react, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying anyone should overlook or accept contemptible behaviour. I believe that our highest priority should be the protection of innocent people and of society, in general. People who commit atrocities must be constrained, in some manner. However, I also believe that understanding human behaviour will give us better tools to deal with unacceptable behaviour. If we look for fundamental causes of appalling behavior, then we can look for ways to prevent it. So, once again, I want to look at this from an evolutionary standpoint. Quite possibly, the cause of the heinous act was an expression of some inherited characteristic that was expressed because of conditions that are extremely different from those that selected for the behaviours. Often, it isn’t a flaw at all; it is just “a part of who we are.” Some “parts of who we are” are not very pleasant. If we realize and accept that, as a species, humans are very fallible, likely to be wrong, likely to make mistakes, then we can start to find ways to “harness our ultimate potential for good.”  Where do we begin?

The one thing that we humans have going for us is our intelligence. We are capable of analyzing events and understanding the concepts of cause and effect. Granted, our emotions get in the way of our analytical thinking processes, but, at least, the potential is there. We need to use our intelligence to understand that, for every heritable trait, both physical and psychological, due to the wide variety of environments that shaped us, there is a wide spectrum in the population. For every individual, their combination of inherited genes places them in a small range within the spectrum. Finally, their family, upbringing, social interactions, and personal experiences, act on the inherited characteristics to place individuals at some point within that range. By understanding these concepts, we should be able to have more compassion for people. We need to look our own fallibilities “in the face” and accept them and to accept the fallibilities of others, realizing that their inheritance and experiences are different from our own. We need to use our intelligence to understand the causes of destructive behavior and find ways to prevent it. We can’t all be psychologists but a knowledge of the basics of psychology and evolution could help.

Every day, I try to accept my own fallibilities, but continue to work hard to reduce the negative effects of those fallibilities, and develop my strengths in order to enhance my life and the lives of those with whom I come in contact. I don’t always succeed, but I keep trying.

Mental Gymnastics

I was a strange child. It wasn’t apparent to those around me because my behavior was normal, for a very shy, quiet child, that is. It was my thoughts that were unusual. I didn’t like fantasy. Even as a very young child, I was quite pragmatic. I never did believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. I knew they were just stories, but they were okay stories, and sometimes a little bit of fun. At Christmas time, when there were Santas in the department stores, I would get in line, sit on their lap, and tell them what I wanted for Christmas. I knew they were just men in Santa suits, but it was a fun game. When I lost a tooth, I would put it under the pillow at night and in the morning, there would be a nickel or a dime there. I knew that my mom or dad put it there, but it was still fun and I could buy a fudgsicle. Even in my day dreams, I had to make things feasible. Times and dates and ages had to fit with reality. I just couldn’t do fantasy. I never had an imaginary friend, well, except the one “up there” whom I was taught to believe in. And herein lies the paradox. How could someone who, even as a child, disliked fantasy and even fairy tales, continue to believe in a god until well into adulthood? The answer? Mental gymnastics.

The first case of mental gymnastics that I can recall, happened when I was about eight or nine years old. In Sunday School, we were told the story of Jonah and the whale. Now, I knew that no one could live in the belly of a whale for three minutes, more or less, three days. I knew that it was ridiculous so I tried to figure out what really must have happened. Here is the scenario that my eight year old mind came up with. So Jonah was thrown overboard in a severe storm. He was obviously frightened and expected to die. Then a whale grabbed him, scaring him even more. Minutes seemed like hours. The whale must have chocked, or something. Maybe the storm caused it to bump into a huge rock near the shore. For some reason, the whale forcefully spit Jonah out and he was close enough to land that he made it onto the shore. It was such a terrifying experience, that it seemed like it must have lasted for at least three days. We all know how fishermen exaggerate. My mental gymnastics had begun.

As a child, some of the bible stories that seemed ridiculous later, did not bother me at the time. The mental gymnastics on stories such as the creation story, and Noah’s ark came a little later. However, some of the practical, contemporary issues did bother me. When I was in my early teens, the entire story of a man, born of a virgin, forgiving our sins, and dying to save our souls, seemed rather bizarre. I didn’t give it a lot of thought until another teen was converted. This teenager’s family did not attend church, so she had not been raised in a religious home. I recall the time when she went to the altar to pray after an evangelical service. All of the typical emotions were stirred during the altar call. After she had prayed, she stood up and proclaimed that she had been “saved” and was now a Christian. I vividly remember the thought that passed through my mind, “How could someone who wasn’t raised to believe the story of Jesus, possibly believe something that seems so absurd?” I suddenly realized the implications of what I was thinking and quickly applied some mental gymnastics by telling myself, “but I’m so glad that I was raised in the church so I can believe in the truth about Jesus.”

I need to emphasize, here, that I never discussed these thoughts with anyone. In a sense, I lived almost entirely inside my own mind, without talking to anyone about my questioning. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Probably the main reason is that I was very shy and introverted. As well, I was always very independent. I didn’t feel the need to discuss my thoughts. I’ve been called an “independent little cuss” more than once in my life. A second reason that I didn’t talk about my thoughts was that, talking about personal feelings was something that my family simply didn’t do. We would talk about events, what happened at my parent’s work, or what was happening at school. We would tell jokes and laugh. But we never discussed personal thoughts or feelings. But we always knew that we were loved and accepted.

In my late teens, I started analyzing another idea which resulted in a conundrum. I was becoming aware of computers and their potential for the future. I was also learning a little bit about genetics and inheritance. So, I put them together and proposed, that, if it were possible to put everything about a person’s genetic inheritance, and every experience that the person had ever had, as data into a computer, you could then predict that person’s response to any situation that ever occurred. I had no idea at the time that there was a name for that position. Later, I discovered the term, strict determinism. Anyway, one day, as I was mulling over the proposition in my mind, I suddenly realized that I had eliminated free will. Oops. Okay, how could I fit that idea into my religious teachings? I encountered a conundrum that, once again, required some mental gymnastics to resolve. I was a real stretch but I came up with an explanation. The only real choice we ever have in our lifetime, is whether or not to accept Christ as our savior and give our lives to Him. I’d call that ingenious, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe not.

By the end of high school, I had developed a passion for science. So, when I started college, a Christian college, of course, I started to major in chemistry. I eventually changed it to physics and graduated with a degree in physics. I still hadn’t taken any biology. In grad school, however, I majored in biophysics and took many biology courses, including genetics. It was utterly fascinating. Of course, I hit evolution directly in the face. Interestingly, that was easy to resolve. God created man by using the evolutionary process. No problem. This is a position now known as theistic evolution. I never was quite sure how or when God injected a soul into humans, but I didn’t really care. Now, how does one accommodate theistic evolution with Genesis 1? Most theistic evolutionists consider the “days” in Genesis as eras in time, and consider the scripture as analogies. One question I proposed and then answered, with some mental gymnastics was, “Why didn’t God simply dictate to Moses exactly how evolution occurred and assure Moses that, although he didn’t understand what he was writing down, that eventually people would understand it?” My answer was simple. Moses didn’t even have the vocabulary to write it down. The language at the time didn’t have words that would be needed for even the simplest explanation of evolution. Therefore, what Moses did write down, was the best description possible for the time. I was satisfied with that explanation and put it aside and continued to learn the science that I found absolutely fascinating. Of course, we now know that Moses didn’t really write Genesis, but that is another subject.

While in grad school, I met another grad student who was majoring in near eastern languages and literature. He was preparing for both the ministry and for teaching at a Christian college. He could read the original Hebrew old testament and he understood the culture of the time. I “learned” a lot of mental gymnastics from him. We would discuss things like the parting of the Red Sea for Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. He explained that what we call the Red Sea was sometimes referred to as the “Sea of Reeds,” and it was more of a bog, or a wetland, than a sea. Thus, the children of Israel could have walked across it but the horses and chariots of the pharaoh’s army would be stuck in the bog. Another topic of discussion was Noah and the ark. My friend discussed the idea that most people living in Old Testament times never travelled very far and when there was a flood, it appeared to them as though their whole world was flooded. He suggested that this was the case with the writer of the Noah story. Clearly, he did not read any of the scriptures literally and he was fine with that. It became very easy to consider the scriptures as allegory but still believe in God and salvation.

After graduate school, I began teaching at a Christian college. I absolutely loved teaching and I developed a good rapport with my students. Questioning and analyzing beliefs was encouraged at the college and I was in many discussions about a variety of topics. Of course, we always got back to the church doctrine and agreed that it was right. I found a career that was very fulfilling and I built some very solid friendships with other faculty members. I settled in and grew comfortable with the whole situation…….for a while. What could possibly go wrong? I had developed my “skills” at mental gymnastics very well, over a long period of time. Contradictions in the scriptures couldn’t possibly cause doubt. So, what happened?

Life happened. My pragmatism kicked in. Prayer didn’t work. “God’s will” didn’t work. There were no mental gymnastics that could make it work. After twelve years, I packed up and left, no longer able to believe. If you read my first blog, The Altar Call, you know some of the details of my deconversion so I won’t repeat it here.

But don’t ever underestimate the power of mental gymnastics. Nearly everyone that I knew at the college where I taught, and from the college that I had attended, and from the church in which I grew up, continued to believe. I’m glad I didn’t.