Was the Noble Savage noble? Or savage?

There has been a debate in the press recently about whether the state (nation) is fundamentally a source of exploitation and war, or whether it’s a civilizing influence on humans’ natural brutal nature. The debate has echoes of Jean-Jacque Rousseau versus Thomas Hobbes, as well as echos of FDR versus the Koch brothers.

In short, was the Noble Savage noble or savage?

Anarchist and Yale political scientist James Scott has written a series of books critical of the state and nostalgic for the supposed peaceful and cooperative hunter-gatherer past. In a piece published in The Nation, political scientist and legal scholar Samuel Moyn reviews Scott’s work and concludes that Scott both ignores the brutality of pre-state humans and understates the benefits of states and civilization. The very qualities of equality and freedom that Scott bestows are a product of states.

Some other references suggesting that hunter-gatherers were relatively peaceful and egalitarian include:

Human Nature May Not Be So Warlike After All

Warfare was uncommon among hunter-gatherers: study

“Warfare was uncommon among hunter-gatherers, and killings among nomadic groups were often due to competition for women or interpersonal disputes, researchers in Finland said Thursday.” (Is it really war or just an interpersonal feud? Several researchers point out that organized war, with masses of troops probably required states, but feuds and minor killings sill occurred in hunter-gatherer society.)

But there are many scholars who think hunter-gatherers were war-like and treated woman poorly.

Hunter-gatherers were brutal and we have the state to thank for a decrease in violence and an increase in equality

Review of the book Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers, Journal of Anthropological Research. “LeBlanc develops a set of features common to hunter-gatherer warfare cross-culturally and argues that overwhelming ethnographic evidence shows intergroup violence was frequently dangerous but likely tied to resource stress between human populations.” “The reader finishes the book with an understanding that interpersonal violence and warfare occurred at all levels of sociopolitical complexity, predated colonization, and were widely variable in intensity and frequency.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a 2011 book by Steven Pinker.

[Pinker] argues that violence in the world has declined both in the long run and in the short run and suggests explanations as to why this has occurred.The book contains a wealth of data simply documenting violence across time and geography. This paints a picture of massive declines in violence of all forms, from war, to improved treatment of children. He highlights the role of nation-state monopolies on force, of commerce (making “other people become more valuable alive than dead”), of increased literacy and communication (promoting empathy), as well as a rise in a rational problem-solving orientation as possible causes of this decline in violence. He notes that, paradoxically, our impression of violence has not tracked this decline, perhaps because of increased communication,[2] and that further decline is not inevitable, but is contingent on forces harnessing our better motivations such as empathy and increases in reason. (Source)

No, hunter gatherers were not peaceful paragons of gender equality Lots of graphs. Violence is decreasing over time.

10,000-year-old massacre suggests hunter-gatherers went to war

Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers

Finding a hunter-gatherer massacre scene that may change history of human warfare “We have discovered the oldest known case of violence between two groups of hunter gatherers took place there, with ten excavated skeletons showing evidence of having been killed with both sharp and blunt weapons.” “[M]any scholars have argued that warfare must have emerged after farming and more complex political systems arose.” But these findings challenge that view.

Noble or Savage? “The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest.”
 

My concern with this is that many anarchists and bottom-up proponents on the Left are (perhaps unwittingly) aiding libertarians who want to destroy the New Deal and regulatory state crafted by progressive politics of the last 100 years. Yes, the state is often corrupted and used to harm people. Our task is to fix it so that it serves the many.

Seven World Views in brief

The Theist (Western)

There is a compassionate God who cares about you. Happiness comes from love, service, and surrender to God. (But, according to many Christians, God is vengeful and jealous and may torture you if you disobey Him.)

The Theist (Eastern)

Your Higher Self (atman) is identical with God (Brahma). Purify yourself, meditate and surrender so that you become One with God.

The Buddhist

Craving, anger, and delusion cause unnecessary suffering. Let go of your attachment to these defilements and free yourself from the insubstantial ego. Then settle into your original empty nature (which is good, kinda, but not good enough to quality as an essence or soul).

The New Age Mystic

There are benevolent angels and spirits that will guide you, but also malevolent forces you must resist.

The Badass Cynic

The world is a dangerous and cruel place. Kick ass and you can be on top.

The Depressive Loser

The world is a dangerous and cruel place. If you’re not angry, scared and depressed, there’s something seriously wrong with you and you should see a trained professional.

The Mature Atheist

Life is both wonderful and dangerous. Grow up and don’t expect perfection, eternal life, or someone to save you. Study hard, work hard, be nice to people, be careful, and enjoy the ride.

Seven World Views

Can conservatives manage what baboons can do?

Robert Sapolsky — MacArthur fellow and professor of biology, neuroscience, and neurosurgery at Stanford University — pursued decades long research into baboon societies. He found that most baboon troops were dominated by aggressive alpha males who abused other members of the troop, had pick of the females, and enjoyed good health and low levels of stress hormones. The submissive members of the troop endured much abuse, had high stress hormone levels, and had poor indicators of health. Baboon

Sapolsky admitted, “I don’t really like baboons…They’re these scheming Machiavellian backstabbing bastards.”

Then tragedy befell the troop that he was studying: the members started eating garbage from a human settlement. Some of the meat they consumer was contaminated with tuberculosis. Half the males in the troop died. Significantly, the ones who died weren’t the submissive ones. The ones who died were the dominant ones. Thereafter the troop’s social system changed. They became much less aggressive and much more nurturing. They groomed each other and became more laid back.

The takeaway message from this research is that if baboons can learn to cooperate, then so can humans. An aggressive market system that embodies a cutthroat survival-of-the-fittest ethos is not in any way a necessary — or healthy — way to organize human societies. It’s destructive to the well-being of the majority of humans, causing unnecessary stress. Indeed, there is a slew of research recently about how cooperation, and not just competition, contribute to the survival and thriving of groups.

For more details see “No Time for Bullies: Baboons Retool Their Culture” or watch the video below.

Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes — Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes — Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them is a mixture of political philosophy, evolutionary psychology, and ethics. The cool thing is that Greene is a clear thinker and superb writer, so the book is accessible to the educated layperson.

The central question of the book is:  In a modern, pluralistic society, how can diverse groups who disagree on fundamental issues come to agreement on matters of morality and public policy?

Pro-life versus pro-choice.  Small government versus Big Government.  Capitalism versus quasi-socialism.    Individualism versus collectivism. Theism versus secularism.   People have strong sentiments about these and other topics, and it often seems that reasoned argument is of no avail.

Greene uses the analogy of multiple tribes living near each other. Within each tribe there is broad agreement about morality and expectations of behavior. Indeed, our inbred morality was designed to deal with life in a tribe or village.  Humans have evolved to cooperate, to some extent, especially with people from the same family or tribe.  But for outsiders, our gut reactions often say: fight! When tribes interact and need to work together is there any way to resolve differences other than “might makes right”? (I hope democracy isn’t just another form of “might makes right.”)

Greene’s answer to the question “How can we come to agreement?” is:  we should use utilitarian reasoning.  That is we should aim to maximize happiness and reduce suffering for the greatest number of people.  He thinks utilitarianism, properly understood, is a “common currency” that lets us transcend our tribal differences.  He does not believe that utilitarianism is a moral absolute or that it amounts to a foundational principle or axiom for ethics. He just says that, pragmatically, utilitarianism works and it’s something almost everybody understands and uses in our daily lives.

He spends much of the book defending utilitarianism against supposed counter-cases in which it seems that maximizing happiness violates individuals rights.

For example, is it correct to push a person into the path of a train if it can stop the train from killing five other people?  That is, can we sacrifice one life for five by shoving someone? (Experiments show that the answer to such question depends on whether you personally have to touch the person, in contrast to moving a switch, for example.)

Is it correct to torture one person to increase the happiness of 1000 other people?

He argues that such cases never or rarely apply in the real world. I’m not sure he really establishes that.  He also says that although our gut reaction may be that sacrificing one life to save five may be a violation of fundamental rights, Greene thinks that, in fact, it may be the rational, moral thing to do, from the point of view of utilitarianism.   But in the real world, such counter-examples rarely if ever matter. For example, it’s hard to imagine that a utilitarian would support enslaving one person  to increase the happiness of others, since the loss of happiness for the slave would far outweigh the gain in happiness of the others.

A far greater problem for utilitarianism, I think is:  whose happiness matters?    All humans?  Including criminals and the insane?   Fetuses?  Greene says we needn’t be able to calculate firm numbers for such questions in order to use utilitarian arguments. But it seems that one’s opponent could always say “those people’s happiness simply doesn’t matter.”  And how about gorillas, whales and other animals? Does their happiness count but not as much?

Greene compares human morality to the operation of a camera. Modern cameras have two modes:  an automatic point-and-click mode, plus a manual mode in which we consciously and carefully adjust settings. Similarly, human morality has two modes.

Our auto mode morality is like the operation of a point-and-click camera.  We use it without thinking and it’s largely inborn.  Humans evolved to cooperate with others in a tightly knit group (our “tribe”). Our inborn, natural emotions related to in-group cooperation help us overcome the Tragedy of the Commons: situations where everybody suffers because nobody is willing to sacrifice their selfish needs for the greater good.  Auto mode includes intuitive reactions such as shame, compassion, loyalty, disgust, fear, and vengefulness. Auto mode was made for overcoming selfishness and for getting along with our group/family/tribe.

Manual mode morality involves conscious reasoning about options and outcomes.  Its conclusions about what’s right and just may be different from our gut reactions, which we tend try to rationalize with arguments. That is, we have auto mode moral intuitions which feel right, based on tradition, prejudice, and religion. And we try to justify them and raise them to foundational principles or “rights.” Often such arguments are question-begging and ad hoc. For example, Kant tried to show from first principles that masturbation was inherently evil. When we read his arguments now they seem silly.

Green makes a case that most arguments on both sides of the abortion debate are shallow rationalizations that don’t handle the hard cases (Does life become precious right after an egg becomes fertilized?   Does a woman have the right to abort a nine month old fetus?)

Though Greene thinks that much moral reasoning is rationalizations of prejudices or auto mode feelings, he thinks that manual mode moral reasoning can be a basis for living together in a pluralistic society.

The prototypical example of the Tragedy of the Commons is shared grazing land, which each farmer can use to graze cattle. If everyone grazes the maximum number of cattle, then the grass dies and nobody’s cow gets fed. So there has to be a way to ration use of the shared resource and prevent cheaters from taking more than their fair share.  It’s to each person’s individual benefit to graze as much as possible, and to cheat by violating any rules, but a society (and a species) needs a way to overcome such selfishness. Auto mode morality evolved/developed for that purpose.

Another example of the Tragedy of the Commons is the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which two prisoners are brought separately before interrogators and encouraged to betray each other.  If each prisoner betrays the other, they each spend four years in prison. If both prisoners are loyal to each other, the police have to settle for one year in prison for each, due to lack of evidence. If one prisoner betrays and the other stays loyal to his buddy, then the betrayer is let free and the betrayed prisoner spends six years in prison.  What should you, as a prisoner, do?  If your buddy betrays you, then it seems that you have to betray him; otherwise you’ll spend eight years in prison and he goes free. If your buddy stays loyal, then it seems you should betray him, because then you can go free. But if you can both stay loyal, then you’ll both benefit and get only one year in prison, resulting in a better outcome on average.

Greene proposes the similarly named “Tragedy of commonsense morality” in which different tribes of herders have to live together despite their radically different religions or political beliefs (e.g., socialistic communitarians versus individualistic libertarians).  Greene says that our auto mode morality won’t help much in such situations, because our gut reactions are so emotion-laden. But manual mode utilitarian morality tells us to use whatever system works best, based on evidence and reason.

Greene is a liberal (a progressive) and argues against the theory of morality proposed by fellow Harvard philosopher John Rawls several decades ago in A Theory of Justice. Rawls is not utilitarian. Rather, he believes that humans have fundamental rights that aren’t to be violated. One of those rights is to private property. Rawls believes that progressive taxation is unjust, because it violates the fundamental rights of people to enjoy the fruit of their labor. (His argument is more nuanced.) Even though from a utilitarian point of view progressive taxation may maximize happiness, it is still fundamentally wrong, because it violates basic rights.

From a utilitarian point of view, progressive taxation makes a lot of sense. As Greene says, the suffering among poor people by lack of income far outweighs the slight increase in happiness that a rich person acquires by getting an extra million dollars.  The marginal value of a dollar for a rich person is much less than the value of such a dollar for a poor person. It also better stimulates the economy.

In any case, a liberal can agree that redistribution of wealth is immoral and can point out that over the past several decades wealth has been redistributed unrightfully from the middle class to the rich.  Either way, conservatives lose.

On forgiveness, self-esteem, and auto-immune diseases of the mind

There’s something that’s always perplexed me about forgiveness, and I finally think I’ve figured it out.

Most people who talk about forgiveness say that it requires a change in our attitude towards the offending character.  They also say that by forgiving that person for what they did we can free ourselves from the pain of resentment and victim-hood. Or they say we release the other person from the burden of our anger.

But I think that in order to forgive, the primary thing we need is to stop feeling hurt. We first have to stop doubting ourselves.  Our attitude to the other person is entirely secondary.

It’s not our hatred and anger towards the other person that entraps us. It’s our feeling hurt that traps us: feeling that something is wrong with us or with the world.  We may attach or project the source of our suffering on the other person, and overcoming our suffering will require us to get beyond feeling like a victim. But the important inner move doesn’t involve forgiveness; rather, the important inner move is that we come to stop identifying as the victim who has been hurt and is unworthy.

Nelson Mandela on how bitterness keeps us in prisonForgive

So, the flip side of forgiveness is that we need learn to trust ourselves and to disbelieve the bad things they said about us or “made” us feel about ourselves.

People say that we need to let go and forgive.  That carries the suggestion that our anger is vengeful.   I think what’s usually missing in such discussions is that the reason we can’t forgive is because we partially believe them when they say we’re bad. We believe that we are unworthy.  So forgiveness requires us to trust and love ourselves.

When we’re filled with anger and resentment, we’re often struggling, I think, to maintain our self-esteem. We’re feeling bad about ourselves.

Now, I’m talking here about forgiveness for acts of betrayal and emotional hurt.  When the other person did something truly horrible — such as causing physical harm  or a major betryal by a spouse — then the hurt may require a different sort of forgiveness and I’m not confident my analysis applies.

If a stranger robs us, or kills someone we love, we will feel bad. But I don’t think we will hate ourselves or be filled with the sort of toxic anger that arises when someone we love hurts us, or when someone humiliates us before others.

When someone belittles us, we struggle to defend ourselves. But part of us buys into the attack.  Like a skilled judo master, a skilled belittler enlists their enemy in the attack.   We feel bad, and to some extent so we project the cause of our suffering on something that happened to us.   Yes, they hurt us, but we over-react.

Physical injuries cause us to withdraw from the source of the damage and to avoid it in the future.  Emotional injuries cause us to withdraw and flee mentally in a similar way. When we over-react it’s akin to an auto-immune disease of the mind — a metaphor that occurred to me suddenly the other day. But it’s still a mystery to me why our defenses often attack us so harshly. Many people feel bad about themselves. (I heard the Dalai Lama had trouble comprehending why so many westerners are full of self-loathing; apparently such self-hatred is rarer in the Orient.)  When we feel hurt, we need to stop feeling bad.  Only then can we forgive the other person.

One of my coworkers is from the former Soviet Union. He said he was drafted into the Soviet army.  At training camp some of the tough recruits enjoyed beating up weaker guys.  Some of the bullied recruits killed themselves by jumping out of windows.    I suppose life was so horrible that they wanted to destroy themselves to escape the suffering.  When we are hurt by others we start to attack ourselves. Rarely do we react as strongly as those recruits.

Lewis B. Smedes is a theologian and author of Forgive and Forget (HarperOne, 1984, 1996). He writes:

Recall the pain of being wronged, the hurt of being stung, cheated, demeaned. Doesn’t the memory of it fuel the fire of fury again, reheat the pain again, make it hurt again? Suppose you never forgive, suppose you feel the hurt each time your memory lights on the people who did you wrong. And suppose you have a compulsion to think of them constantly. You have become a prisoner of your past pain; you are locked in a torture chamber of your own making. Time should have left your pain behind; but you keep it alive to let it flay you over and over.

… you become addicted to your remembrance of pain past. You are lashed again each time your memory spins the tape….

That’s a powerful description of feeling hurt and resentment.

Smedes tells stories of people who needed to forgive past cruelty: betrayals by coworkers that cost someone their job,  husbands cheating on their wives, mothers who hated their children, families killed in genocide.  Depending on the details, forgiveness can seem unwarranted and a betrayal of our need for settling scores.

But when Smedes goes on to talk of the solution to such suffering, he misses something.

The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. Forgiving stops the reruns of pain. Forgiving heals your memory as you change your memory’s vision.

When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life.

What’s missing is the need to recover one’s self-respect: to stop believing the bad things they said about us or made us feel.

Smedes says that we need to feel forgiven to be free. Maybe that is something that Christians feel they need — forgiveness. It’s not something I can relate to very much. I don’t feel that I have sinned. I often feel that I’ve done stupid things, and I worry that I’m not smart and competent enough. But I don’t feel burdened with guilt and sin.

Another thing that bothers me about talk of forgiveness is that the act of forgiveness seems pompous — as if my forgiving the other person helps the other person in some way or as if my being able to forgive shows God that I’m a good person.   When someone we love or trust harms us badly, we may get beyond hot anger and hurt, but we are unlikely to deeply trust or actively love them again.        Can anyone really love their enemies?  Only perhaps if they love themselves again — or become enlightened and so transcend having a self (ego) to protect and feel bad about.


The Anti-Wisdom of Eckhart Tolle

The Anti-Wisdom of Eckhart Tolle

Many spiritual teachers and pundits say things similar to what Eckhart Tolle said: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but [always] your thoughts about it.”   In other words, suffering comes from yourself, not from your perceived enemies.  While it’s true that much suffering is self-made, it’s a gross and perverse exaggeration to say what Tolle said.

Making Marriage Last – Do Atheists Do It Better?

Conservative Christians think of themselves as the last line of defense for a time honored and holy tradition, marriage. In the conservative Christian view, marriage is a sacred union ordained by God. It binds one man and woman together so that the “two become one flesh” until they are parted by death.Old couple cartoon

This view of marriage is unbiblical, to be sure. See Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like If We Actually Followed The Bible. But hey, who actually reads the Bible? Surely, what God meant to say, is that marriage should take the form that is most familiar and traditional to us: One male plus one female who is given to the male by her father–that part is biblical–for life.

In this worldview, Christian marriage is under assault by an anti-trinity of powerful and dark forces: feminism, homosexuality, and godlessness. Faith, on the other hand, saves both souls and marriages. When I was young, a slogan made its way around my church, The family that prays together stays together. Dr. Tom Ellis, former chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on the Family boldly claimed that “…born-again Christian couples who marry…in the church after having received premarital counseling…and attend church regularly and pray daily together… experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages.”

But then came data. According to Barna research over a decade ago, American divorce rates were highest among Baptists and nondenominational “Bible-believing” Christians and lower among more theologically liberal Christians like Methodists, with atheists at the bottom of the divorce pack. When the findings were made public, George Barna took some heat, and Ellis suggested that maybe he had sampled badly. Perhaps some people who called themselves born again had never really devoted their lives to Christ. But Barna held his ground, saying, “We rarely find substantial differences” [in the moral behavior of Christians and non-Christians].

Fancy that.

In 2008, Barna again sampled Americans about divorce rates. The numbers fluctuated a bit, but once again atheists came out painfully good from a prays-together-stays-together perspective. Thirty percent reported being ever divorced, in contrast to thirty-two percent of born-again Christians. Slicing the U.S. by region, the Bible belt has the highest divorce rate, and this has been the case for over a decade, with the institution of marriage faring better in those dens of blue-state iniquity to the north and west.

What is going on? Even some secularists are puzzled. Churches provide strong communities for families. Many offer marital counseling and parenting classes. Love, they say, is a commitment, not a feeling. God hates divorce. They leverage moral emotions in the service of matrimony: a righteous sense of purity rewards premarital abstinence and post-marital monogamy—replaced by guilt and shame when nonmarital sex is unveiled or a marriage dissolves. Couples who split may find themselves removed from leadership positions or even ostracized. On the face of it, even if there were no God, one might expect this combination to produce lower divorce rates.

The reality, however, appears complex. Churches do honor and support marriage. They also may inadvertently promote divorce, especially—ironically—those churches which most bill themselves as shining lights in a dark world.

To prevent that greatest-of-all-evils, abortion, such communities teach even high school students to embrace surprise pregnancies as gifts from God. They encourage members to marry young so they won’t be tempted to fornicate. But women who give birth or marry young tend to end up less educated and less financially secure, both of which are correlated with higher divorce rates.

After marriage, some congregations, like those in the “quiver-full movement” encourage couples to leave family planning in God’s hands. Leaders echo the chauvinistic beliefs of Church fathers like St. Augustine and Martin Luther or the Bible writers: Women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2:15). Such teachings grow congregations, literally, from the nursery up, but the very same attitudes that help to fill church pews can erode marital bliss. Ample research shows that for couples under age 30 marital satisfaction declines with the birth of each child. (Parenting tends to make couples happier only after age 40, when kids become more independent, and only in countries with comparatively weak social supports for aging adults.)

Secular couples increasingly see both marriage and divorce as personal choices. Overall, a lower percent get married, which means that those who do may be particularly committed or well-suited to partnership. They are likely to be older if/when they do formally tie the knot. They have fewer babies, and their babies are more likely to be planned. Parenting, like other household responsibilities, is more likely to be egalitarian rather than based on the traditional model of “male headship.” Each of these factors could play a role in the divorce rate.

But a bigger factor may be economics, pure and simple. In the words of some analysts, marriage is becoming a luxury good, with each partner, consciously or subconsciously looking for someone who will pull their weight financially and declining to support one who won’t. “The doctor used to marry the nurse,” says Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “Today the doctor marries the doctor.” Sixty percent of college educated women get married, as compared to fifty percent of women who hold only high school degrees or lower. Couples who stay married also tend to be wealthier than those who divorce. In Barna’s 2008 sample, couples with an income of less than $20,000 a year broke up almost twice as often as those earning $75,000 or more (39 percent vs 22 percent). Advocates who want to promote traditional marriage might do well to foster broad prosperity.

Even if they did, though, they might be swimming upstream. In 1960, almost three quarters of American adults were married; by 2008 that number had fallen to a half. The difference came from a combination of two factors—more divorce and more people who had never married. The concept of family isn’t becoming less important, but Americans are more and more flexible in how we define  the term. Over 80 percent say that a single parent living with a child or an unmarried couple with a child is a family. Over 60 percent say that a gay couple with a child is a family. A growing number say that marriage is obsolete.

In one of those peculiar twists of fate, conservative Christian obsessions with abortion and sexual purity may be accelerating this trend. Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, authors of Red State, Blue State, propose that Bible-belt opposition to abortion has increased the non-marital birthrate and acceptance of single parent families:

The working class had long dealt with the inconvenient fact of an accidental pregnancy through the shotgun marriage. As blue-collar jobs paying a family wage have disappeared, however, so has early marriage. Women are then left with two choices: They can delay childbearing (which might entail getting an abortion at some point) until the right man comes along or get more comfortable with the idea of becoming single mothers. College-educated elites have endorsed the first option, but everyone else is drifting toward the second.

Conservative Christians thought they could have it all by promoting abstinence until marriage. But virginity pledges and abstinence only education have failed. If anything, they have once again accelerated the trend, leaving Christian leaders fumbling for answers. Some hope that more flexible, egalitarian roles for Christian wives and husbands may be the answer. Others think that doubling down on traditional gender roles is where it’s at. Either way, gone is the bravado that once proclaimed marital salvation by faith alone. “Marriages and families within faith communities are no healthier than in the rest of society,” concedes Christian author Jonathan Merritt. “Faith communities must provide support systems to salvage damaged marriages.” Whether the institution of marriage itself can or should be salvaged is, perhaps, a question none of us are prepared to answer.

Do atheists do it better? That is unlikely. Divorce rate differences between theists and nontheists tend to depend on how you slice the demographic pie, and for both groups, the shape of marriage itself is changing. As culture evolves, we’re all in uncharted territory together.   ——————–

Related:
Losing Your Religion – Keeping Your Spouse  (Youtube)
15 Bible Texts Reveal Why “God’s Own Party” is at War with Women
Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like if We Actually Followed the Bible
What Christianity and Kink Have in Common

 

Former Fundamentalist and Father of Eleven Now an Evangelist for Evolutionary Biology

Suominen - Evolving Out of Eden coverAn interview with former fundamentalist, Ed Suominen. Ed Suominen was raised in a small sect of Lutheran Christianity called Laestadianism. Of the 32,000 denominations into which Christianity has fractured, his is one of the more conservative. Members believe in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation story. They eschew sins like drinking, dancing, watching television, wearing earrings, and playing school sports. They marry only within their own sect and believe God alone should decide how many children they have. Suominen followed the rules; he met and married the right kind of girl; and together they have 11 children.

But Suominen is also an engineer, trained at the University of Washington. He has been a patent agent and inventor, and eventually his work with electrical and digital systems led him to notice something his church hadn’t taught him about—the power of natural selection. He was trying to optimize a design, when he came across a useful software tool:

“You set up an artificial chromosome with each digital “gene” determining a parameter for some widget you want to design. Then you created a population of individual widgets by running simulations with different sets of randomly chosen parameters, and had the widgets “mate” with each other. You repeated this process over many successive generations, throwing in some mutations along the way. Those widgets that worked best in your simulation had the best shot at having “children” in the next generation.”

It was the beginning of the end. After discovering the practical value of evolutionary computation, Suominen began reading about evolutionary biology. The Genesis story fell apart and frayed the fabric of his Christian belief.

Outsiders sometimes scratch their heads about the dogged insistence of creationists that Adam and Eve actually existed 6000 years ago in a perfect garden without predators or pain, until they took Satan’s bait and bit into a world changing apple. How is it, 100 years after Darwin, that we are still fighting about what will get taught in biology classes? Why, in their determination to refute evolution, do some Christians seem intent on taking down the whole scientific enterprise?

The answer lies in Suominen’s lived experience. As he puts it, “You don’t have Original Sin without an original sinner. And without Original Sin. . . you don’t need a redeemer.” In other words, the central story of Christianity, the story of a perfect Jesus who becomes a perfect human sacrifice and saves us all relies on the earlier creation story.

After evolutionary computation cracked the walls of Suominen’s information silo, his curiosity and training as an engineer took over. He spent the next year consuming books about Christianity, books by defenders of the faith and by critics. He wrote about his spiritual journey in a series of musings now published under the title, An Examination of the Pearl.

Since evolution is what most compelled his fascination, he began exploring the various ways that Christians try to reconcile biblical teachings and biology. The end result was a second book, Evolving Out of Eden, written with Robert Price, a Bible scholar and former Christian. Suominen launched the project torn between curiosity and a desire to affirm old beliefs. By the end, he confessed: “I was raised a fundamentalist and spent four decades living as one; I’m still not ready to call myself an atheist. But after co-authoring this book, I just can’t see where there’s any room for a god.”

In this interview he discusses his life-changing journey.

Your book is about evolution, both biological and personal. You’ve been through a change in worldview that most people can only imagine. Does it feel disorienting?

Yes, it’s a tremendous change. But I feel much less disoriented than when I was battling cognitive dissonance every day trying to maintain a coherent worldview out of pieces that just wouldn’t fit together. I’d come home from church on Sunday and spend hours or even days trying to recover my intellectual integrity. One part of my brain would continuously play the ominous soundtrack from my childhood indoctrination, repeated in church every Sunday: Believe or be damned. Meanwhile, another part would list off the hundreds of issues that made “belief” impossible and dishonest. And evolution with all of its theological dilemmas headed up that list.

It’s wonderful to be able to stand up and look over that toxic fog of piety and just see, accepting reality for what it so clearly is. I am happier now than I ever was in the church, despite the social loss of leaving it.

Do you ever find yourself wishing that you’d never opened Pandora’s Box?

My old church had its annual nationwide summer services right near our home this July. Here I was, within 20 miles of a gathering of around 2,000 members of “God’s Kingdom,” which considers itself the only true church on earth. There were people I’d grown up with, people I’d been with in the pews and on camping trips for my whole life. They stayed in their place, and I stayed in mine, an outsider now. I certainly felt some pangs of longing. But it was only about the people, not the institution that envelops and controls them.

When I listened online to the sermons preached during those services, I wondered how I’d ever taken any of it seriously. One was all about Noah and the Ark, and how God’s patience had run out when believers started intermarrying with people from “the world.” It’s an ancient myth copied from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and this guy is sitting there doing a gross misreading of the text while taking it all very literally otherwise. The story itself is so ridiculous that many people in the church don’t really buy it. Yet it’s one of those things that you really are expected to believe—the Bible is God’s Word, not to be questioned.

How have your eleven children and wife responded to your changes?

While I was still wrestling with all this, my wife turned to me one Sunday morning and said, “I know this is how we were raised, but I’m not buying it anymore.” She had been doing some reading, too, and that was that. I had to study and ponder and write, even for a while after she made her quiet, no-nonsense departure from the church. She is a wonderful, bright woman whom I love and admire very much.

I respect my children’s privacy too much to talk extensively about their beliefs or lack thereof. That’s their business. But I will say that they seem to all be doing just fine with the changes in my wife and me, from the oldest to the youngest. Our home is a place where they can be free to think and believe, or not believe, for themselves.

Would you say you lost your faith gradually—or might you describe it as a series of plateaus, punctuated equilibrium?

Your “series of plateaus” analogy is an excellent one. I recall a few defining moments, starting with the realization that my God of the Gaps was gone. Evolution provided an elegant and tangible answer to the question for which the guided, supernatural process of creation previously had been my only answer: “How could all of these amazing forms of life, myself included, have just happened to arise?”

Then there was the upsetting day when I spoke with a preacher whom I respected (and still do) after sharing with him some of my thoughts about evolution. I asked him if I really had to reject human evolution and believe in Adam and Eve to be a Christian. He was thoughtful about it, but his response made clear where I stood with respect to the faith we both held dear: Yes, the Fall of humankind in Eden is a foundational point of Christian theology. I wandered around in a daze for a while, sad and scared, but realizing that he had only told me what I already suspected.

I enlisted my friend Robert M. Price to see if there was any plausible theological solution. Dr. Price had been serving as a sort of spiritual therapist for me, helping me deal with the issues I’d been finding with my religion once evolution had “cracked the walls of my information silo,” as you adeptly put it. At this point, our work together turned into a full-blown writing project, and together we plowed through books by Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, and others who claimed to make sense of Christianity in view of evolution. But to us, despite trying to approach the theology with an open mind (which Price does even as an atheist), the only thing sensible about their books were their eloquent defenses of evolutionary science.

Most creationists seem pretty adept at deflecting the evidence for evolution. Why did it get you?

I saw it happening right in front of me on my computer screen. As an engineer with lots of software experience, I understood what the computer was doing. Simulated organisms were evolving remarkable abilities to move, swim, etc., and nobody was designing them to do that. Random mutations and genetic crossover between the fittest individuals in the population produced a new, slightly more evolved population. Repeated over hundreds of generations, it worked.

My reading did nothing but confirm this. All of the arguments I saw against evolution were made by believers in defense of their faith. I tried to look at both sides of the story, but it became obvious that there was only one side with any credibility. The other was just wishful thinking and denial.

Out of all of the ways in which believers have tried to reconcile evolutionary biology and the Christian tradition, which seem to you the most robust or credible?

That’s an insightful and difficult question, because the plausibility of these writers in the realm of theology seems to be inversely proportional to their acceptance of the science. You can head in one direction or the other, but you can’t have it both ways, despite their protests that they can. One of the most eloquent and level-headed about the scientific findings and issues for traditional theology is John F. Haught. Yet his tedious appeals to the “drama” and “aesthetic intensity” of evolution are so far off our credibility meter that it would be difficult to summarize our conclusions without sounding uncharitable. Our view of all these sorts of evolutionary apologetics, his included, might be apparent from the title of one of our subheadings, “Shoveling After the Parade.”

The most robust attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable may well be Philip Gosse’s “omphalos” idea that the universe was created recently with the appearance of great age. Of course God created Adam with a navel and trees with rings! They wouldn’t be recognizable without those “retrospective marks,” after all. (Christians are faced with the same issue concerning Jesus and his magic Y chromosome.) It’s ridiculous and reduces God to a cosmic cosplayer, but at least it doesn’t try to dismiss all of the Bible’s clear teachings about a young earth and special creation, or fancifully reinterpret two thousand years of Christian theology.

Your story makes people feel hopeful that change is possible, that individually and collectively we can change and grow. What should people who are invested in science and progress say to creationist friends and family members? Anything?

The stakes are too high to expect much rational deliberation of the evidence, I’m afraid. For me, the evidence of evolution snuck in the back door when I wasn’t looking.

Perhaps the best thing to say to creationist friends and family is that you understand why they believe so strongly, and that you’ll be happy to help them whenever they might wish to look beyond those beliefs. The first and most productive step might be getting them to acknowledge, to themselves at least, that religion is the real motivation for every single argument against evolution.

Originally published at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com