Are We Heading Toward Environmental Catastrophe?

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg

The fire on the Deepwater Horizon.

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the end of the world. No, not the “Jesus is coming back” end of the world—which is obviously nonsense—but the end of human life brought about human activity. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, “an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” (Wikipedia)

Let me begin with a brief summary of a recent article on this topic. In a Washington Post op-ed, “Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the coming catastrophe,” the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker notes that

A new United Nations report projecting the extinction of one-eighth of all animal and plant species should rattle the cages of any remaining skeptics regarding climate change and the central role humans have played in Earth’s accelerating destruction … 
Finding out that 1 million species face extinction without radical corrective changes in human behavior is akin to finding out you have a fatal disease. One day you have a thousand problems; the next, you have just one. Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the catastrophic potential posed by climate change and the decimating effects of careless consumerism around the globe.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse — generally considered to be conquest, war, famine and death — weren’t far off the mark. Today, we might revise the New Testament version to include plastics, emissions, deforestation and Homo sapiens.

Describing the UN report, which was the result of a three-year study by hundreds of scientists from around the world, Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as chair of the panel, wrote in a statement that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

As Parker highlights 

The report makes the essential connection to human wellness, as opposed to merely caring about the horrors endured by sea creatures dying with their stomachs packed with plastic or Arctic animals starving to death as the ground melts beneath their feet. If something hurts economies and schoolchildren, we eventually get around to paying attention. 

I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post. 

Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

In my last post on outgrowing my childhood religious beliefs, I said this:

Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.

This claim elicited the following slightly edited comment from Professor Darrell Arnold.  

This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. (Professor Arnold is right about this.)

Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. Yet because the evidence is quite straightforward, they generate consensus once someone has learned the methods of research in these areas and how correctly examine the evidence.

Then there are the metaphysical beliefs such as those you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics.) When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence.

But what is apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe in God, the father almighty, that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and (a lot of) rationalization. It’s both frightening and fascinating that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct.

As evidence for such far-fetched beliefs, people often appeal to “inner experience” as evidence. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would be adequate for forming a belief in miracles, the resurrection of the dead or that some god is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Clearly, as Hume pointed out, there is always a more plausible account for a miracle than that the miracle actually happened. And it’s easy to argue that finite beings can’t experience the infinite. 

Yet there is no argument or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify their beliefs. They believe because they want to and the evidence presented for these beliefs is disingenuous—usually, it is based on religious experience. Those who have had such experiences then accept, normally whole cloth, the group of beliefs that their particular religion are supposed to believe. The religious experience, of course, doesn’t justify those beliefs.

One of the most interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee their unquestioning acceptance. Another is the certainty many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence for their views.

Those in religious institutions, of course, have material interests in maintaining those institutions. But much of the rationale behind the dogmatist’s effort to ensure they never doubt is the deep insecurity of the dogmatists themselves. When the reasons for belief are so poor, believers take comfort knowing that others remain convinced of the ideas.

In any case, fear and intimidation are cornerstones of religious education. In standard Christian and Muslim traditions, children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs, and that they should never question tradition and the authority of their religious institutions. So not only must believers engage in difficult mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions must work hard to try to ensure that believer never begin to doubt. 

To reiterate, some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief.

The paradox is that the more difficult religious ideas are often held with the greatest certainty. But believing in them requires continual effort which raises questions about what existential and social functions such ideas play. Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them? And why do institutions work so diligently to try to ensure that believers don’t dare question them?

Outgrowing Religion

The above is a perfect allegory for throwing off religious crutches.

My last post reviewed Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn’s book describes his severe Southern Baptist upbringing, the doubts about religion that subsequently set in, and how his introduction to philosophy helped him find meaning in life without the gods.

Naturally, this led me to recall escaping my own religious indoctrination. For those interested, here briefly is that story.

I was born in 1955 to a very Catholic family. Needless to say, I was baptized, received communion and confirmation, went to confession, was an altar boy, etc. (Talking about this is bizarre. Not only because those actions themselves were bizarre but because ordinarily I never think about any of this.) I went to St. Ann’s Catholic school in Normandy MO, just outside the city limits of St. Louis, from first thru eighth grade. I more or less assumed that everybody was Catholic; I was aware there were some Protestant people in the neighborhood, but I assumed there was something quite different about (or maybe wrong with) them. And I never played with the non-Catholic boys.

In addition to going to Catholic school every day, I accompanied my father to our church every evening. He spent most of his free time on the church grounds. The parish had a large auditorium which was used for weddings and dances and an athletic field with a concession stand. My dad was basically in charge of all activities related to the auditorium and concession stand; he had an unpaid part-time job. There were books to keep, soda, candy, snacks and liquor to be ordered and served (yes, they had a liquor license.) Accompanying him every evening, I spent an inordinate amount of time around the church, so I grew up sort of “extra Catholic.” And my father would be in a Catholic hall of fame if there were one.

The rest of my family was and is very Catholic too. My mother was devoted to the church till the end of her life and died in a Catholic retirement home. My oldest brother studied almost 8 years for the priesthood and though he wasn’t ordained he is still a practicing ultra-conservative Catholic. My sister worked primarily for the church and her husband is a deacon. Their son, my nephew, is the chancellor of a diocese. And my other brother finds his only comfort from believing he will be reunited with lost loved ones in heaven. I came from a really Catholic family.

After grade school, I attended and graduated from a private Catholic high school. I really didn’t doubt religion much until right after high school. As I put it in my biography:

… it was the summer before college that marked the true beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I now realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was as if a dam had broken within me, exposing the parochialism of my youthful indoctrination. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

Then during

My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s criticism of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked.

Severing the cord of religious indoctrination was, for me, quick, painless, natural and liberating. It all happened in a few weeks. After that, I was done with Catholicism and have never for a moment reconsidered.

In fact, it’s not even a matter of reconsidering. Some ideas become self-evident and others just aren’t available to you after being sufficiently educated. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun, and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two. Heliocentrism and evolutionary theory just follow from knowing how the world works, whereas the other notions are self-evidently absurd.

From the outside, religious beliefs are so, well, weird. To watch people eat a little wafer at a church—which I’ve done exactly twice in the last 30 years, both times at my one of my parent’s funerals—is like entering the twilight zone. From the outside, you just wonder “what are they doing?” Once you have seen from the outside … you never want to go back inside. After escaping the cult, you don’t want to rejoin. If only believers could see their beliefs from the outside, like they see the religions they don’t belong too.

At this point, I’m so removed from the beliefs of my childhood that they never come to the surface unless I make a conscious effort. It is like trying to remember believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. You can sort of do it, but not really.

However, I would add a caveat. For some, the comfort of the religious drug may be worth it. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it provides that much comfort to some persons, who am I to try to take it away from them. But for those capable of breaking the bonds of their childhood indoctrination, I can say that a lot of things won’t change after you discard religion. You’ll still be able to live, love, work, and care for your children, just without the burden of believing in imaginary gods. And you’ll be less likely to want to impose your views on others—a defining characteristic of most religions.

As for me, I’m so glad I long ago left all that behind. I long for the day when reason and knowledge finally banish ignorance and superstition forever. I want to know not just believe. I do think that religion as we know it will go extinct, especially if humans evolve into posthumans. And if we don’t evolve, we’ll probably go extinct anyway. As for those worried about the meaning of life after losing their religious beliefs, I have addressed the topic in some detail here.

(Disclaimer, I received my Ph.D. from a Catholic Jesuit School. Here’s why. For a number of reasons, I had to attend graduate school in St. Louis. But by the time I was ready to apply to my preferred school, Washington University, their deadline had passed. I then accepted a fellowship to St. Louis University intending to switch schools. However, doing so was problematic mostly because of the difficulty of moving my young family. And, at some point, it was quicker to finish where I had started. But though my choice of schools has haunted me, I did receive an excellent, non-religious education in St. Louis University’s philosophy department for which I am grateful.)

Well, that’s my story. It almost 50 years ago since I lost my childhood crutches. I’m glad I did. I now dwell, not in what Carl Sagan called the demon-haunted world of religion, but in one lit by science and reason. As Heinrich Heine said:

In the Dark Ages people found their surest guide in religion—just as a blind man is the best guide on a pitch-black night. He knows the way better than the seeing. But it is folly to use the blind old man as a guide after day-break.

Review of Lewis Vaughn’s “Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning

Statue of Spinoza, near his house on the Paviljoensgracht in The Hague.

“These [religious ideas] are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fullfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” ~Sigmund Freud

“There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect.” ~Erasmus

I just finished Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn is a widely respected, prolific author of college philosophy textbooks. (I’ve used a few of them myself.)

The first half of Vaughn’s book describes his difficult childhood, particularly his severe Southern Baptist upbringing. He recalls the darkness of his early religious indoctrination—he was a religious fanatic until late adolescence—then he tells us how doubt set in, and, in the books final chapters, he remembers how a single philosophy class from an agnostic priest helped him find meaning in life without the gods.

I must say that it was hard for me to relate to his terrible home life and religious fundamentalism. I had a wonderful childhood and I was raised in the Catholic tradition which, although its main tenets are absurd, at least has an intellectual tradition. I also found reading the description of his religious upbringing painful; it was like following a story about child abuse.

But the final third of the book truly captivated me. I easily related to how thinking leads to doubt, as I recalled my first teenage doubts about my own religious indoctrination. (As Camus so aptly put it, “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”) My escape from religious dogma wasn’t as painful as Vaughn’s, perhaps because my Catholic indoctrination wasn’t as rigid as Vaughn’s fundamentalism. Vaughn’s escape was extraordinarily painful whereas for me severing the chord of religious indoctrination was mostly natural and liberating.

These last chapters were especially moving. An introductory philosophy class finally opened his mind and reminded me of students who have thanked me for doing something similar. His dialogue with his professor about arguments for the Christian god and the problem of evil were reminiscent of many discussions I had with students years ago. And it was the philosophical arguments of an agnostic priest—a believer in Spinoza’s pantheism, (hence the picture above)—that finally broke the dam of resistance that had been so carefully constructed since Vaughn’s childhood.

The final chapter of his book deals with the main topic of my blog—the meaning of life. The priest begins by arguing that religion isn’t the source of morality or the meaning of life. He then distinguished, as do I, between meaning of life and meaning in life. He emphasized the latter while noting that this doesn’t imply that meaning is only subjective. In other words, torturing children (as the USA currently does at its southern border) can’t be the source of a meaningful life. Our lives are meaningful when we commit ourselves to objective intrinsic goods like truth, beauty, goodness, love, and knowledge. (I believe something similar. As a result of his encounter with the priest’s arguments, Vaughn underwent a metamorphosis. Now Vaughn would embark on his own intellectual journey.

In conclusion, let me say that Vaughn’s account is deeply personal and a wonderful guide for all those who fear that leaving behind childish indoctrination will necessarily lead to despair. Quite the contrary Vaughn says. Childish beliefs may comfort us, but only by growing up do we have a chance to find true meaning.

However, I add a caveat. For some, the comfort of the religious drug may be worth it. Maybe they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it really provides that much comfort then who am I to try to take it away from them. (As long as they don’t try to impose it on others.) As for me, I’m so glad I long ago left all that behind years ago. I will never go back.

In my next post, I’ll briefly describe my own escape from religion nearly 50 years ago.

Mr. Daniel Gray, Bachelor of Arts, The University of Washington

Mr. Daniel Gray, B.A. History, 2019, The University of Washington

I taught university philosophy at various institutions for thirty years from 1987 – 2017. In that time I had between 8,000 and 10,000 students. Of all those students I only remember about 25 of them really well.

And of those, there are only two that I still have regular contact with. (This is partly due to the fact that we have moved around the country.) One is my son-in-law who took two of my classes at UT-Austin where he met my daughter. The other is a young man I met while teaching briefly at Shoreline Community College near Seattle. In the ensuing years, we have become good friends and regularly get together. (He is pictured above at his recent graduation from The University of Washington.)

I recently wrote him a congratulatory email which he humbly described as “about the nicest thing anyone has ever written or said to me.” That may be true but it is nearly impossible not to love Daniel. He is a man of intellectual and moral virtue—both a careful and conscientious mind as well as a humble and honorable soul. He is also an epitome of courage. In short, he is one of the “good guys” in this world.

June 14, 2019

Dear Daniel:

Congratulations! The road to your degree was much more difficult for you than for many others—just getting to class is tough for you. You should be proud.

I still remember seeing you wheel through the door of room (about) 1812 at Shoreline CC about eight years ago. You stuck out—being late, as tall sitting as I am standing—and you had a big smile on your face. You cracked some joke shortly thereafter and I thought—I like this guy! A very clear memory. I thought I had a lot to teach Daniel, little did I know he had a lot to teach me.

Daniel, you are a world-class human being, one of the few such people I’ve ever known. Consider how many persons seek nothing but money or fame or power, while you mostly seek wisdom.

And while I’m sure life is tough on you in ways I can’t imagine, you never whine, complain, or bemoan. You have found the Stoics secret to happiness—not getting what you want but wanting what you get. And this in a world where people who have it all are constantly dissatisfied. They are rich but want to be richer, powerful but want more power, famous but not famous enough. They are lucky enough to play golf under blue skies but then complain that the round is too slow.

Let me just say that some of the most memorable times I’ve had in the last few years have been when you motored around your neighborhood and I tried to keep up while listening to your jokes. And thanks too for listening to an old retired philosophy professor pontificate—something he really misses doing! You always let me babble on about something stupid without interruption.

And let me also say that no matter how painful and tragic and meaningless life is, you are a shining star within all this madness. Knowing you has been a great privilege, and one of the things that have made my own life worth living. You are making what Joseph Campbell called, the hero’s journey. You are, like Dicken’s Copperfield, the hero of your own life. And you have enriched mine more than you know.

Finally let me say, Daniel, as Plato did of his beloved friend Socrates, that you are of all those I’ve known one of “the best and wisest and most just.”

with my deepest affection,
with my most fervent wishes for your future health and happiness,
I remain,
as ever,
your friend,

Dr. J