Religious Belief, Conspiracy, and Science

It occurred to me recently that religion might be at the root of all conspiracy theories.

The thought first occurred to me as I was reading a novel in which the main characters have a deep faith in some sort of “higher power.” More than several times in the course of the book, one or another of them says something like, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” If you believe that there is a reason for everything, then it follows that it should be possible to discern that reason by closely examining the events leading up to and surrounding “that thing.”

We often obsess over reasons behind natural events – we even call them “acts of God.” How would you explain why a tree fell on your car? You would start looking at why you parked your car in that particular spot…was it your normal spot or did you deviate for some reason (God [or the Devil] made you do it)? Was the tree unhealthy or damaged? When was the last rain and how soaked was the soil? Did the wind gust especially hard or was it steady but unusually strong? What did you do wrong and is God is punishing you for it? Did God total your old car because He wanted you to get a newer, safer car? Do you lean toward attributing events to natural causes or supernatural causes?

While the foregoing doesn’t sound much like a conspiracy theory, it contains the same elements. The Wikipedia entry on “Conspiracy Theory” cites political scientist Michael Barkun, who wrote that conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. The very same descriptors accurately apply to most religions.

Another source defines conspiracy theory as “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.” Drop the words “malevolent” and “nefarious” and you have a fair description of many religious beliefs.

I don’t think that religion, per se, is the cause of conspiracy theories. I think, instead, that both religious beliefs and conspiracy theories are consequences of the way the human brain (and to some degree, perhaps mammalian brains in general) is wired. That the issue of “causation” has occupied thinkers since the beginning of time speaks forcefully for the existence of a strong need to understand the connections between events. Paradoxically, it is that very same need that pushes scientific advance.

Perhaps this explains why science is so often rejected as some sort of conspiracy or as an affront to religion…each view is a conflicting alternative expression of the same desire to understand the universe.

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To Whom (or What) do Atheists Pray?

In order to answer that question it is necessary to establish that atheists DO pray. Of course we do. Everyone prays, at least on certain occasions and under appropriate circumstances. It is said that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” implying that praying obviates one’s theology. It has also been said that “there will be prayer in schools as long as there are tests.” The clear implication of these clichés is that people use prayer in an attempt to improve the odds of a better outcome.

This became strikingly clear to me recently when a niece posted on Facebook that her husband was about to undergo surgery to replace an arthritic knee. Thirty-seven people commented on her post: thirty-two offered prayers, four others expressed wishes or hopes that everything went well. Only one failed to mention hope or prayer, offering instead advice for improving recovery based on having had similar surgery (full disclosure: that comment was from me).

Prayer is seemingly everywhere. While searching recently for a specific passage from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” I stumbled on this eloquent discourse on prayer:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

(“Idylls of the King,” A. Tennyson,
A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895,
Edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman,

 Ancient Romans and Greeks prayed to their Gods. Hindus and Buddhists pray, in their own way, to theirs, as do Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Those who believe that their God answers prayer are convinced that He (I’m following Judeo-Christian stylistic conventions in gender assignment and capitalizations here) hears and responds to each and every prayer: sometimes you get what you ask for, and sometimes God just says “No.” Thus it is impossible to convince such a person that outcomes are explainable without recourse to Divine Intervention.

Gods in many mythologies have been cruel; responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Even the Old Testament God had a cruel streak: He was quick to anger and prone to vengeance, and demanded sacrifice and unwavering devotion. The New Testament God tempered cruelty with love, but promised that unrepentant sinners would suffer eternal damnation in the flames of Hell.  In this context, prayer is often a feeble attempt to mollify an angry or capricious God.

I’m not against people praying. It seems to make them feel better for having prayed or being prayed for. I just don’t think it does anything to change the world. Prayer in itself really doesn’t do much for victims of floods or fires. Providing food or clothing or shelter would be much more helpful.

I am all for sincerely wishing the best for one’s self or others. After all, as a people we need empathy for those who suffer in order to motivate us to truly helpful actions. Perhaps that is how prayer functions best, in expressing a desire for improving conditions in the world in which we live.

So, do atheists pray, and if they do, to whom or what do they pray? Of course, atheists pray: we pray to Hope, the cruelest god of all.

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Troubling Times

I doubt if there is a real conspiracy behind these happenings — they may simply be a fortuitous confluence of events — that could easily lead to a peaceful takeover of our government by less than idealistic people.

  1. As Republicans won control of more State legislatures and Governorships, they have moved to consolidate their control by rearranging voting districts to ensure that Democratic candidates can’t win.
  2. As a parallel effort to maintain political control of their States, Republican lawmakers have steadily advanced measures to make it more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote.
  3. Local and State police forces have become increasingly militarized, replacing “Officer Friendly” with faceless cops hiding behind armored riot gear, shields, masks, water hoses, smoke grenades, tear gas, mace, and deployed via tanks and armored vehicles, thus escalating situations toward violent confrontation rather than peaceful resolution.
  4. Leaders of the “Religious Right,” largely by infiltrating the Republican Party, have succeeded in insinuating many of their own beliefs into laws, thus encroaching on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.
  5. Republican-run States have lowered educational standards by systematically attempting to substitute the teaching of dogma in the place of science in their schools, while simultaneously eliminating funding for art and music education.
  6. The rise of the so-called “Tea Party” Republicans has signaled an end to rational governance, resulting in obstructionism, halting any form of progress toward accomplishing National goals.
  7. By not holding their presidential candidate to any standards of human decency, the Republican Party has given tacit approval to crass hooliganism by members of white-supremacist and other intolerant splinter groups,
  8. By putting Party above People, the Republican vendetta against all things accomplished during the Obama administration, attacking environmental protections, restraints on egregious financial transactions, careful diplomacy, public education, military restraint, (and the list goes on and on), they have placed the future of our Democracy in serious jeopardy.

The Executive Branch is in disarray, and the President has already moved to decrease the counterbalancing influence of both the Legislative and Judicial Branches. It won’t take much to strip any remaining power from them and to declare autocratic rule.

Is this the result of a conspiracy or just a series of random events that got us to this point? I don’t have an answer, but either way, we live in deeply troubling times.

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August 28

August 28, 1988, was hot and humid, and a perfect day to join thousands of sweaty bodies around the reflecting pond in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Our nephew, Mike, was in town, helping us paint the walls in our dining and living rooms, but he and I took a break to join the 25th anniversary celebration of the rally at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech.”

The podium was full of dignitaries — celebrities, politicians, and civil-rights leaders — all of whom seemed to feel compelled to say more than a few words, usually self congratulatory. As the afternoon wore on, a few folks fainted from the heat and were transported to cooling tents by EMT personnel standing by. And after the echoes of the last speaker’s voice faded, the multitudes drifted away, leaving a handful of us loitering by the pond, resting our feet from having been standing for several hours.

Mike and I were reflecting on the event, marveling at the number of people who could stand so close together, not knowing, or caring, whose elbows were rubbing their own, without rancor or impatience. Just then a familiar voice came over the PA system, resonant, perfectly modulated. It was Dr. King’s voice, delivering the “I have a dream” speech, just as he had 25 years earlier. Most of the people who attended the anniversary missed it. For Mike and me, it was the highlight of the afternoon. Here was the voice, the words, the passion, that Dr. King had spoken from this very podium, sounding just like it would have sounded at the original event.

I challenge you to take a few minutes, close your eyes, and picture yourself on a hot August afternoon, standing in the midst of thousands of hopeful people, listening to this speech from start to finish. Put on your headphones, temporarily block out today’s world, and hear the words, feel the hope, and experience the dream that Dr. King expressed in that mighty speech.

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I have met a lot of different kinds of people in my travels. I grew up with Kansas farmers. I helped out in my grandfather’s Mom-and-Pop grocery store in Oklahoma City. I attended public elementary and intermediate schools in the days when my fellow students were all white, making my first black friends in high school. I lived in a hippie commune. I worked in the construction business. I was an electrical engineer for a number of years, working with technicians and other engineers of different backgrounds, races, and ethical persuasions. I taught classes in a junior college, in four-year colleges, and grad schools, each with diverse student bodies. I worked as a stock clerk for a car-loan company. I attended church services regularly for many years and sang in the choirs. I have been a member of a theater group comprising actors, dancers, and singers of many different types of people.

Some of the people I met were unabashed racists, but not many. I ran into a few men that disrespected women, but not many. There were others that hated foreigners, but, again, not many. Some folks had nothing good to say about the government, but they didn’t turn down their subsidies or their Social Security. And there were some people that believed that the world was changing too much or too fast and was going to hell in a hand basket. There were some, though not many, who believed so fervently in their religious tenets that they felt that everyone else should adhere to them, too. I found some form of intolerance to be always present, no matter the situation: whether construction site or university; church or commune; theater or farm community.

Although I was concerned that these displays of intolerance went against the rules of human decency that I had been taught, I was never terribly concerned that they would impact my life in any significant way. Racism was on the decline, I thought. Women were gaining the equality of which they had long been deprived, I thought. Americans were increasingly aware of how immigration strengthened our nation, I thought. Technology was improving everyone’s lives, I thought. Intolerance was on the run, I thought.

I thought wrong.

Individually, these intolerant populations never had much impact on elections, but when a single candidate espoused so many intolerant views, all these groups combined managed to elect as president a man who I believe is totally unfit for that office.

So now I must face my own areas of intolerance: I am intolerant of people who are willfully ignorant, who refuse to accept facts and thrive on rumors. I am intolerant of zealots of all stripes, who won’t or can’t understand the need for compromise. I am intolerant of anyone who claims that ends justify means. I am intolerant of people incapable of empathy with the disadvantaged. I am intolerant of people who exploit the weak, the poor, the uneducated, (or anyone, for that matter) for their personal gain or profit. I am intolerant of those who believe that they are more entitled to privilege than anyone else. I am intolerant of anyone who twists laws to cheat others of their rights.

I can’t help but feel that my own areas of intolerance are more righteous than those I oppose, and I can only hope that others like myself will soon be able to choose leaders who feed our own intolerant views.

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Sheri Tepper, Me, and the Lutheran Sex Tapes

Long before Paris Hilton made the term “sex tape” part of the vernacular – in fact, even before Paris Hilton was born – Sheri Tepper and I created what were without doubt the first explicit sex tapes of their kind. Not, mind you, the grainy, green, night-vision, sweaty, or passionate video kind, but audio tapes providing straightforward, factual information about a variety of topics focusing on human sexuality. Even more remarkable, the tapes were disseminated by Denver’s Lutheran Medical Center via their state-of-the-art Tel-Med system. (Click on this link for information about Tel-Med as implemented at a different medical facility.)

If you don’t know about Sheri Tepper then you have missed out on a great story-teller. She has authored over 40 novels (mostly science fiction/fantasy, but also mystery, and coming-of-age) with a strong feminist and eco-sensitive slant. (Click on these links for an overview and an interview, respectively.)

When I met her, she was Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood (RMPP) in Denver, and I was working for an applied research firm. I had just won a contract with the Centers for Disease Control to develop and deploy a series of audio tapes on human sexuality for a Tel-Med system. Two factors in my proposal contributed significantly to being selected: we were the only bidders not running a Tel-Med system, and we were the only bidders to include Sheri Tepper as a consultant.

Sheri was a fabulous writer. She was responsible for a number of pamphlets for RMPP, written especially for young people. One of my favorites was titled, “So your happily ever after isn’t.” In addition to straight facts, her work was humorous and easy to understand, and beautifully illustrated by Gary Barnard. (Of all her good works at RMPP, I think Sheri was most proud of her ability to keep RMPP fully functional without Federal funds, allowing them to serve constituents’ needs without the impediments of government restrictions).

We convened a panel of health professionals, social workers, educators, teens, and representatives of the hospital to define the specific topics. Sheri and I began to write. She arranged for a former newspaper editor to whip our prose into shape. Scripts went through many drafts, with the Lutherans making sure that we didn’t get racy. By the time we were getting ready to record the audio, Katie and I had moved from Denver to DC and I was sharing an office and staff with The Bicycle Federation of America, of which Katie was the new Executive Director. Her secretary was originally from the Bible Belt and every single time that the script held the word “orgasm” the secretary typed “organism” – every single time! But I digress.

I narrated the topics written for a male voice, and my only staff person, Pam, narrated the female voice tapes, and we delivered them to the Lutheran Medical Center in the summer of 1981. They were great! They were informative! They were easy to access and understand! They were obsolete shortly thereafter because of the Internet!

I was sad when I learned that Sheri had retired from RMPP, fearing that she would never write any more of those wonderful pamphlets. I needn’t have worried – much of her subsequent work was just as educational, just as humorous, just as satisfying to read. I was sad today when I learned that Sheri died on October 22nd, just two months ago. To borrow a phrase from my other favorite author, “So it goes.”

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As Easy as Falling off a Bike

It is often said that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” If you Google that phrase you will get links to at least two article purporting to explain the scientific principles that seem to confirm the veracity of the claim. That the two articles I read offered different explanations doesn’t really matter, because, in the long run, the last time I was on a bike, I fell off…or more literally, I fell over.

I should mention here that I am, or rather, was, an experienced bike rider. I started riding when I was 7 or 8, and cycling has been an important activity for me ever since, until a few years ago. I have ridden in the city and in the country; on the plains and in the mountains; in sunshine and pouring rain; with the wind and against it; for pleasure and for commuting. I rode over 50 miles a day one summer when I didn’t own a motor vehicle and had three jobs in widely separated parts of Denver.  In 1980, Katie and I rode several hundred Kilometers in the first bicycle tour of China.

I loved cycling. It was truly invigorating. In all those years, I only hit the ground once, when I hit a sandy spot during a turn. Fortunately, I was wearing gloves and a helmet, and suffered only minor abrasions.

A few years back, several factors conspired to keep me off my bike: heart surgery, spinal surgery, and moving to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to ride again, so I sold my bike to Liza’s boyfriend. But last year I thought I should give cycling another chance. It would be nice to ride with Katie, get some exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. So Katie and I found a bike shop in Charlottesville and decided to go for a test ride.

The first thing I discovered was that I couldn’t throw my leg over the back of the bike to mount it…mostly due to my inability to balance – a condition caused by peripheral neuropathy that limits proprioceptive feedback from my feet and legs. Two years ago I discovered that I can’t maintain a standing position unless I can see my feet.

[proprioception. (prō’prē-ō-sěp’shən) The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.]

Fortunately, bicycles come in many frame styles and a I found a step-through model that I could get on and off without incident. We took the bike into the parking lot in front of the store and I started my test ride. Boy, did that feel great! I was mobile again, after at least three years without a ride. I felt like I was enough in control to take the bike onto the adjoining street, but just as I was exiting the driveway, a car turned onto the street, coming in my direction.

I turned back toward the parking lot, full of confidence, and promptly found myself lying on the ground on my left side holding onto the bike as though I still had control. As near as I can recall, when I turned, my right foot slipped off of the pedal. While looking down to get it back in position, I twisted the handle bar too far to the left, and went over. Fortunately, neither the bike nor my body was damaged. Katie wheeled the bike back to the shop and I limped to the car, too embarrassed to face the bike salesman.

So I didn’t actually forget how to ride a bike, but clearly it would not be a good idea for me to think about getting back on two wheels again.

Hmmmm. Two wheels bad, but three wheels???? It would be a lot harder to fall off a tricycle.

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