Atheism

The Egg

The great moral leaders throughout time have sought a narrative that could drive humanity one step closer to compassion and connectedness — one step further from the divisiveness and pain that comes from focusing too much on ourselves. What follows is one of the most profound short stories I’ve ever read. It contains parts of a philosophy that I’ve tried to adopt, and one that I hope you will also consider if you haven’t already.

I’m copying this story in full from http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html.

The Egg

By: Andy Weir (author of the book that led to the recent movie blockbuster, “The Martian”)

 *****************

You were on your way home when you died.

It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”

“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.

“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”

“Yup,” I said.

“I… I died?”

“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”

“More or less,” I said.

“Are you god?” You asked.

“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”

“My kids… my wife,” you said.

“What about them?”

“Will they be all right?”

“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”

“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”

“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”

“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”

“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”

“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.

“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”

“Oh lots. Lots and lots. An in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”

“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”

“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”

“Where you come from?” You said.

“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”

“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”

“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”

“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.

I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”

“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”

“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”

“Just me? What about everyone else?”

“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”

“All you. Different incarnations of you.”

“Wait. I’m everyone!?”

“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.

“I’m every human being who ever lived?”

“Or who will ever live, yes.”

“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”

“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.

“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.

“And you’re the millions he killed.”

“I’m Jesus?”

“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.

“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.

“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”

“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”

“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”

“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”

“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

 *****************

That’s where the story ends, but there are several adaptations which you can watch on YouTube. Here’s one…

I may not be able to convince myself enough in the veracity of the Bible to use its lessons as the central foundation for morality, but I can take the good where I find it. While there’s no evidence that Andy Weir’s short story is true (we probably aren’t collectively a budding God and we probably aren’t reincarnations of each other), I find great moral wisdom in its central message. It harmonizes with my belief that there’s no justification for being certain that we would be any different from our enemies if we were born as they were.

If we could believe that our neighbors literally might be, in some real sense, ourselves (and they could because we could have been born as them) — that would help us struggle against those naturally selfish tendencies to forcefully promote our desires and opinions over theirs. It would make the call to “love our neighbors as ourselves” both more obvious to secularists and more attainable for everyone. Collectively, such a fast-track to genuinely caring about our friends and our enemies would change the world.

Every person you can think of is a person, like you are. We share hopes, joys, fears and pains. If you could master the art of seeing your interlocutors as literally yourself (with the exception of a few circumstances outside of your control), would your words change? Mine often would.

Gentleness and respect,
—Russell

Dear Dr. Robert Jeffress,

Dear Russell & Friends,

I’ve cc:ed you on my open letter to Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas.  For point of reference, I’m responding to his sermon here:

Dear Dr. Jeffress,

My name is Pascal and I am a follower of Christ.  I have done so since I was a child, trained by imperfect but godly parents who loved me and taught me to to love scripture.  I had not heard your name or seen your face before you chose to address the world in the guise of addressing your congregation.  My first impression was that you must be a Republican politician.  Red tie.  Dark suit.  Dour expression with forced smiles.  When I searched your name, most posts were from Fox News.  First impressions can be illuminating.  Malcolm Gladwell would call it a blink.  That was type 1 thinking – – a heuristic reflex that recoiled and said – – this man is a Pharisee.  In this open letter, let me return to type 2 and carefully respond to what you carelessly constructed.

“As Christians we follow the Bible.  We follow the New Testament specifically.  You cannot find a verse anywhere in the New Testament that commands us to kill unbelievers.”  Jeffress, above: 1:50-

Your polemic was actually very short on the scripture that I love.  Let’s go to that scripture to evaluate your words.  First:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  James 3:1

Jesus’ brother James is talking to both of us.  We both teach.  You teach the scripture as a vocation and presumably well for you were called to teach at a powerful church in one of America’s largest cities.  By posting on YouTube you are teaching more people than could ever crowd that building and reaching those who would never darken its doors.  What about scripture?  What does scripture say about itself?  Second:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Your assertion that Christians follow the New Testament specifically is constructed in a way that dismisses the Old Testament.  As a debater, I understand why you did it.  The Old Testament is rife with verses that say exactly what you assert the Qu’ran says.  As a believer, I must remind you that our whole story of redemption – – creation, fall, chosen tribe to bless the earth, saviour and much of what we learn about government comes from the Hebrew scriptures – – our Old Testament.  Paul, who wrote the precious verses to his young pastor mentee Timothy above, loved scripture and said that it was useful.  Christians follow all of scripture.  What is scripture useful for?  It is useful for one thing I’ve honestly never used it for before – – rebuking error, even from a pastor-politician.

You said that God does not intend man to live without borders and that securing borders is the God-given priority of government.  Be careful.  Using God’s name in vain does not only mean swearing.  It means speaking for him without sufficient study and respect.  A false prophet uses God’s name in vain.  In support of your argument you quoted this:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  Acts 17:26

Paul was speaking in Athens on Mars Hill to believers in all current faiths, including those who believed in no God.  To read the words in context belies your thesis.  What does scripture say that God intends for the people of the world?

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  Rev 7:9

At the outset of your speech, a version of which I expect to see at the Republican National Convention for which you were auditioning, Christ-following was constrained – – even reduced – – to the New Testament.  False.  Scripture rebukes you.  That allowed you to conclude that Donald Trump was right.  Shame on you. What does scripture say about refugees and immigrants?  Again and again – – it says this:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev 19:33-34

I realize your position.  You are an elder.  I recognize that scripture warns me to take accusations against an elder very seriously and to do so only in the presence of other mature believers.  That is why this letter is as open as the video that you posted.

You are wrong.  You have misrepresented scripture and handled it poorly.  You have used your pulpit for politics.  Change.  Bring back the prophecy of truth telling, not punditry.  Go back to the full counsel of scripture.  Repent (turn around) and pray for God to humble your heart.  He will if you ask.  I’ve been there and he’s forgiven me of my foolish pride too.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Tim 2:15

Deeply grieved,

Pascal – – 1:16

 

The Russian Winter

 

Minard grafficDear Russell & Friends,

A short post on a long book?  The graphic by Minard above is hanging in my study.  I first saw it in consultation with our hospital’s statistician.  He described it as the best information graphic ever.  I purchased the inexpensive print in an Edward Tufte conference on the graphical display of information that my oldest and I attended together 5 years ago.  Hobby Lobby did the rest.

The graphic depicts Napoleon’s march to and retreat from Moscow in the War of 1812.  And that was the extent of my knowledge until reading Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace.  Like a visit to Israel, reading and reflecting on this book takes time.  Tolstoy has fascinated me since I read that his apologetic influenced but did not convince Gandhi.  I took Oprah’s advice to read Anna Karenina and found my favorite opening line ever, an explanation for my upbringing, and a hope for my children and grandchildren:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Like so many of you, my history and future is an amalgam of the clauses of this brilliant sentence.  I found that Anna Karenina was a profound portrait of humanity and I found in Levin a man I could admire and even emulate in his pursuit of authentic faith.  So, when the the itch to read War & Peace arose, I was ready to scratch.  I listened to the story from Audible, just less than 1 hour a day with occasional splurges on the way to the airport.  It took a quarter of a year.

And here I am – – done.  I wrote the topics that Tolstoy approached in my journal and I’d like to share them here soon.  It is astonishing.  Calculus, astronomy, medicine, literature, theology, history, philosophy and so much more.  The characters, at least 20 major, became friends or even worthy opponents.  And here I am – – done.  As the Texas Winter begins I can’t help but feel let down.  Finishing an amazing book leaves me wistful.  Will my life ever be apportioned with the time and knowledge to write like that, even read like that in more than borrowed minutes?

Consider this an introduction if you will.  I missed you in the blog and hoped that writing about reading would help get me off dead center.  May I ask?

  • Do you enjoy long books?
  • Do you feel a let down when they are done?
  • Have you read Tolstoy?
  • What were you surprised to learn in War & Peace?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  Charles Joseph Minard’s work, hanging in my study

Love & Friendship

Pictofigo_Friendship

Dear Russell and Friends,

I’m back a week now and so happy to be so.  The cobwebs of jetlag are clearing.  I’m so appreciative of Russell’s Paean to a Peon in the last post.  I thought I would add my perspective.  When will I speak of the impact of visiting Israel?  Not for some time.  There is so much to digest before I’m ready to synthesize and share.

Last night we drove the 1.5 hours needed to pick up our oldest son at his dorm and take him out to dinner with his brothers.  We met two friends of his from high school out on a dinner date and discreetly enquired as to their social status.  He said they said they were friends.  They looked happy, compatible and able to enjoy each others company.  P1 said it with a twinkle in his eye.  “Yeah – – we’ve tried to tell them there’s more to it.”

Perhaps our young friends are discovering what the older crowd knows.  ‘Just friends’ is a middle school perspective.  Friendship lasts when passion fades.  What then is the difference between love and friendship and how does it relate to my friend Russell and me?

Love is a decision.  For a follower of Christ it is a command.  Love God.  Love others.  It has a description:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  1 Corinthians 13: 4-7

It is hard.  At least for me.  Despite Russell’s insistence, I’m not kind by nature.  I actually enjoy sarcasm and that can be quite rude.  I am irritable and prone to resentment.  I don’t bear all things, don’t hope in all things.  Don’t endure.  Love is hard.  But to love and be loved brooks no description.  It is air and you only notice it when it isn’t there. Loving Russell was a choice.  I loved him because God loved him and I honestly admired him for the way he served his wife and daughters and cared deeply about the effects of his deconversion for them.

So, what is friendship?  I’m not sure that it is as much a decision.  It is actually harder to build than love in my opinion.  Friendship is aided by such things as common interests and disinterests.  Much of what Russell and I enjoy is spawned from the common interest of science.  Do our interests diverge?  Of course. Even in science my competency tends towards psychology & biology and his towards physics, math, engineering, computer science, formal logic … (you get the idea).

Friendship requires – – time.  I used to say that time was the currency of love.  That is true as far as it goes, but it is likely more true of friendship.  I can love someone out of respect for God and his commands or out of respect for a fellow human and her intrinsic worth as a co-member of the race.  I need not know her to treat her with love.  I only need the work of:  patience, kindness, humility, pliability, and selflessness. Only that.  Easy, right?  But friendship takes time.

So what if you start with friendship?  That is what happened with my wife.  We talked, walked, listened, wrote letters and realized that we enjoyed each other’s company.  We were teens and next enjoyed each other’s embrace then married and enjoyed sharing more and more of life.  But we were friends.  Still are. In marital love, friendship is an antibody to despair and divorce.

Russell and I inverted the process – – we started with a brotherly love.  The friendship has been building.

I’m curious as to the advice you might give another – – friendship, love, both?  How does it work for you?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  By Pictofigo (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Challenge for Atheists and Believers – Will You Accept?

Hello friends,

I am inspired by Pascal. While I do not share all his strengths, I do recognize his character is an image that my best self desires to reflect. If that sounds like high-praise, it is. As an oncologist, his compassion is regularly exercised and deepened by his engagement with others in their time of suffering. He fights for them and his hope and solicitude are a bedrock in the face of their own mortality. If you’re on the fence about Pascal, please get down and embrace him. Even in his disagreement, he’s respectful because his understanding of other people and their reasoning is immense. The genetic parts of his personality have been cultivated by years of actively struggling to learn about those who differ from him – and that foresight and sacrifice is what I value so deeply.

A model to follow

A few years ago, Pascal invited my family into his home. When he found that my faith did not match his own, he invited me to breakfast. When I couldn’t afford to go, he paid for my egg and cheese burrito. When I avoided faith conversations, he waited patiently, week after week, growing a friendship over hours spent in the enthusiasm of shared interests. The bond formed quickly because he’d already taken the time to strengthen his knowledge in areas that I enjoy, and he continued to do so over time. It took months, but eventually I opened up to him about my lack of faith and he accepted me. He challenged me, he listened, and we communicated. I read some books he like, and he read some books I liked so we could understand how we each think. Through the investment of time and the effort to understand one another’s point of view – especially where we didn’t share it – we grew from our opposing poles and related to one another in a stronger way. That transition was easier to the degree that we already respected each other. He had that respect from me from the beginning, because he’s a human just like me. This blog is a continuation of some of those discussions in a way that encourages others to join in the respect we already share.

Pascal and I still meet for breakfast, but we rarely spend much time on shallow things. Our topics often meander, but they’re usually quite deep and earnest. This isn’t a recipe that will work in every situation for every set of two individuals with opposing views – but it worked for us. My point is, it wasn’t easy, but he hasn’t given up yet and I’m much better for it. His actions are the inspiration for the challenge to come. I believe that everyone needs at least one person like Pascal in their life, and needs to be a Pascal for others. Ultimate, that will raise the bell curve. So…

The challenge

1) Think of someone who disagrees with you on some world-view issue (especially if they do so strongly) and schedule a time and place to meet with them this week.

Right now, give them a phone call, voice mail, text, email, Facebook message, Tweet, or something, and let them know you want to meet over a meal in your home or at a restaurant this week or next (include some dates/times). Confirm the meeting and then leave a comment letting us know your meeting is scheduled and anything you want to discuss with us before you meet with them (don’t forget to use good judgment if it’s someone of your gender-attraction).

2) Meet with them and work on your friendship (don’t try to convert or de-convert or tackle the issue(s) you see as extreme right away).

Try to understand them and see the world through their eyes. Find some shared interests to work on for next time. Feel free to refer them to this blog (or a specific post) or any other blog or information that may lead to mutual respectful conversation. Try to talk about something deep before you leave to set that precedent. Be honest, authentic and humble with them when you do, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that at least some of your closely held beliefs, statistically, must be false in some way. Their position is worthy of respect because they’ve had different experiences than you. If you were born in their circumstances with their parents and environment and DNA you might believe exactly as they do. If you see their view as extreme, they probably see yours the same way, so try to get to understand theirs in the same way that you would want them to try to understand the legitimacy of your own. So try to understand their views that you think are extreme, but don’t force the topic at the first meeting if the timing isn’t right. Schedule another and another until your friendship builds the needed respect. If you’re a believer, pray for them. Also, whether you’re a believer or not, spend time thinking about how you can prioritize friendship and respect with them rather than the issue you want to understand. That will come with time.

Remember that your goal through all this is to genuinely understand your opposition by seeing the world through their eyes. Don’t count what your group says about people who think the way they do as “knowledge” about how they actually think. There are likely more straw men than true representations of your opponents arguments in the impassioned cries of your in-group, because straw men are easier to knock down. Go with an open mind and a heart that seeks to connect with the heart of a friend.

Don’t wait to respect them until what you hear what they have to say. Respect them now, because they are you in a different set of circumstances, and you are them. As they speak, listen to how your life might have been if, outside of your control, you were born in their circumstances instead of yours. Find a way to legitimize them as a person and to help them grow through your shared time and your shared humanity. Love them as yourself. It’s likely that meeting them on this level, with this heart, will bring them closer to you as well. If so, encourage them to use this model as they engage others.

3) After your first meeting, comment back here in a response to your first comment and let us know how it went. Try to set a follow-up meeting if possible and appropriate.

I’m immensely grateful that we have the ability and privilege to unite together in this blog and others to discuss theology and world-views, but if those ideas never turn into action, we’re stopping short of achieving the level of potential improvement we seek in the lives of our friends and perceived enemies. If we rise above differences and focus on humanity, and if we commit together to act in the world, we really can raise the bell curve.

I’ll start the challenge in a comment below. If anyone else joins me I’ll do something unique for them in a future post. 🙂

Have a great week!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Challenge Extremism by Raising the Bell Curve

Hi Pascal and friends!

This post is a set-up for the following one which will be a challenge to atheists, christians and everyone in between.

I often mention my desire to make the bell curve taller. Some may understand that intuitively while others may benefit from a bit of an explanation. I’ll try not to let this get too dry for too long. 🙂

A bell curve is a statistical model that can be representative of most sets of sufficient complexity and size, be it a set of heights in a population, grades on a mid-term in English class, or political ideologies. If you’ve had statistical training you’ll be thinking of standard deviations from the mean, but the specifics of that terminology are more advanced than we need for this illustration. What we’re focusing on is the ends of the curve (at the tails or the poles – “polarization”) which represent the less common entities in the set being modeled – the outliers, the extremes. When we talk about extremism, this is literally what we mean. Here’s an example of a bell curve…

bell_curve

The existence of extremes is a statistical certainty in most types of data of sufficient size. In things like height or grades, there’s little or no harm to the population as a whole due to the presence of the extremes. In things like world-views, political ideologies, or most germane to this topic, religious ideologies where a percentage of the population believes a divine agent wants them to act a certain way towards the general population – extremism can be very bad for humanity. It can quickly lead to impassioned conflict, loss of dignity, injustice, inequality, violence, war, and death. Gone are the days when the most harm a person with extreme views could do is the actions he or she could perform under his or her own power. Today we have unlocked many powers in nature (biological and atomic to name a few) that can greatly augment an extremist’s ability to affect a wide percentage of the population as their views dictate. This is one of the greatest threats to humanity today and in the foreseeable future.

But aren’t differences in opinion inevitable? Yes, but there is a difference between a disagreement and an extreme disagreement. That’s when those standard deviations from the mean are relevant. I’ll skip that and just say that some topics lead to wider bell-curves than others. Consider legalizing marijuana vs abortion rights. Also, in reality the threshold between healthy argument and extreme disagreement is often much more fuzzy when it comes to ideological issues.

So who decides what’s an “extreme view”? We each do. We believe things that, given our experience and way of reasoning, we think are most rational. Therefore, when we evaluate the beliefs of others, we tend to place ourselves in the middle of the bell curve and place their views somewhere in relationship to ours at the middle. What I see as extreme, you may not, and vice versa.

Sometimes this tendency to compare other’s beliefs to our own “right ones” leads us to place theirs at a wrong place on the curve. For example, if you’re an LGBT-equality proponent and you hear that Pascal is a Christian from the south, that may lead you to wrongly assume he’s anti-LGBT rights (thus holding a potentially extreme view in your opinion). Similarly, if you’re a believer, there may be some beliefs you think I hold that, to you, may border on extreme. If I admit that I’m an atheist you may naturally think I believe that God does not exist (I do not think that). That assumption may force you, consciously or subconsciously, to place me into an area of the bell curve concerning “how we got here” or “why we exist” that is “extreme” in your view (given Romans 1:19-21). Such cases are often the result of a misunderstanding based on the frequent reliance upon assumptions when information is lacking. Assumptions are often necessary, but we should remember to recognize assumptions and hold them in low confidence, since they can easily be false – driving a wedge between us unnecessarily.

The further tendency to draw lines around those we see as different from us in some vital way and then to view them as less (less logical, rational, moral, compassionate, educated, etc. – less fully human) is really an “us vs them” survival mechanism to help us justify using means we normally object to (e.g. hatred and/or violence) to dominate what we rationalize as a “lesser being.” Seeing others as sub-human is how we justify wars and every other injustice. There is a tool we can use to fight these tendencies, and Pascal wields it well.

So what can we do? We can follow Pascal’s example of making an effort to understand our opponents. Pascal and I have long realized and embraced the lesson from Ender’s Game that knowing your enemies makes them your enemies no more (knowledge often turns into compassion and love). I tend to think in sweeping mathematical abstractions, so I summarize all this as “making the bell curve taller” or “raising the bell curve.”

Making the bell curve taller (a buffer against extremism and a bridge to understanding and love)

raise_the_bell_curve

What does it mean to make the bell curve taller? It allows actual information directly from another person to supplant the often faulty assumptions we’ve made. It also lets people connect, relate to one another, empathize, de-propagandize, and generally care about another person, which makes them seem less extreme to you and you to them. It humanizes our opponents and breaks down the stereotypes our monkey-brain erects for our protection. It involves individuals investing time and interest into the concerns of other individuals with whom they have a fundamental disagreement, to the point that they can understand that person deeply enough that they respect them, despite their differing opinions.

The more often this happens in the society, the fewer people on average are assumed to belong (and over time, the fewer actually do belong) in the extreme ends, or tails, of the bell curve. As people see their former ideological enemies as fellow humans worthy of respect, the society begins to move in towards the mean (the center, tall part of the curve) but the number of people under the curve doesn’t change. As a results, the curve gets narrower and taller. That’s raising the bell curve (see the image I just made above).

It’s depolarizing humanity (at least the ideological extremes of humanity) to safer levels that are more conducive to peace and shared concern. It’s “bearing one another’s burdens,” “knowing them by their fruits,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and other such commands, but it transcends religious ties.

Question

It’s likely that there are many specific ways to raise the bell curves in our respective cultures. Do you have any suggestions we can try which will unite hearts across spanning ideological distances?

I want to highlight one approach to honor Pascal’s efforts with me which led to the eventual formation of this blog. I’ll do that in the form of a direct challenge to myself and to you in my next post. Stay tuned…

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Agreeing On Nothing

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve missed you and thought often of you as I fire up the Charity Miles app.  Our RussellandPascal team has 6 members now with a total of 169 miles.  If my math is correct, that is over $41 donated to various charities that move us.  If my musing is correct, that is new money that we had perhaps intended to give but had not acted on.  Please join our team if you are able.  We would like to see half the blog followers join in the next one year and our goal for mileage is >10,000 (time to goal uncertain).

Russell and I had breakfast a week ago and after two hours we agreed upon nothing.  Don’t despair.  The reason I led with the Charity Miles collaboration is to remind you of how much we do agree on.  And, one cup of coffee in, it is quite possible that my insistence we agree upon nothing is a double entendre.  We talked about this book that I lent to Russell over Christmas break – –

the information

I loved the book and further thought that it might help me to understand my friend.  It did.  Here is another book that I’m reading with an extended quote below.

schaeffer

Love is not an easy thing; it is not just an emotional urge, but an attempt to move over and sit in the other person’s place and see how his problems look to him.  Love is a genuine concern for the individual.  As Jesus Christ reminds us, we are to love that individual “as ourselves.”  This is the place to begin.  Therefore, to be engaged in personal “witness” as a duty or because our Christian circle exerts a social pressure on us, is to miss the whole point.  The reason to do it is that the person before us is an image-bearer of God, and he is an individual who is unique in the world.  This kind of communication is not cheap.  To understand and speak to sincere but utterly confused twentieth-century people is costly.  It is tiring; it will open you to temptations and pressures.  Genuine love, in the last analysis, means a willingness to be entirely exposed to the person to whom we are talking.   —  Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

How did these two books relate?  Gleick, in The Information, helped me to love my friend Russell.  I read the book with fascination and took notes in the cover.  I think I took notes – – Russell still has the book.  I read it around the same time that Russell introduced me to Sean Carroll and Howie and began to think – – why don’t I think this way?  It is quite a beautiful way to think.

Information theory then has become an area of interest for me and obsession for Russell (I’ll ask him to correct me if I overstate; I frequently do for effect).  Information theory found its way into our taco breakfast last week and helped us to agree on nothing.  Please accept a brief paraphrase.

R:  Even in the outer boundary of the known universe there is information.

P:  I don’t see it.  Quantum fluctuation maybe . . .

R:  But, that is information.

P:  I’m tracking – – I just didn’t consider that useful information.  So you’ll accept the noise and not just the signal?

R:  Yes.

P:  Remember how we’ve had a hard time agreeing about the definition of nothing?  How I insist that the Universe can’t naturally be made from nothing?

R:  Yes, but that has never bothered me.

P:  You know it bothers me?

R:  I do.

P:  So would you accept the complete lack of information as nothing?

R:  I would.

There are not many readers of this blog who will recognize the milestone that this represents in Russell’s and my communication.  We have gone to great lengths to understand each other, deconstruct straw men and yes – – to love each other.  As Schaeffer says, it has not been easy.  But this agreement, on nothing, meant the world to me.

Where will it lead?  Do I jump directly to an apologetic based on ex nihilo nilo fit?  Absolutely not.  I finish the post and prepare to run a 10K trail with two of my sons, thankful that I’ll log 6.2 more miles for water.  On that run I’ll thank my God for my friend and thank him for the love that lets us to talk to not past each other.

Pascal – – 1:16

Action Required

Our Team

Dear Russell & Friends,

Forgive my absence from the blog.  I completed a difficult assignment at work where I primarily work in the hospital with sicker patients.  I then traveled for committee work and experienced the wonders of perpetual delay in the flight back home.  That said, I read, considered and ultimately liked Russell’s last post very much.  What do I mean like?  Yes – – I hit the like button after reading the post and thinking carefully about it.  Perhaps for another day, but I think that you choose love and don’t necessarily choose like.  I like my bride and that has made all the difference for us.  I would love her from choice and obedience to a standard that is greater than me.  Love can be, often is, painful.  Like is pleasure of the purest form.  Diversion complete.

I liked Russell’s post because it really does reveal who he is – – one of the most moral and compassionate people I have met.

So what?  I downloaded the Charity Miles app.  I’ve begun to use it.  I pray for people who don’t have water as I marvel at how blessed I am to go to any sink or hose bib in my home and know that the water is potable.  I’ve stopped using distilled or filtered water and my tastes and thoughts have changed.

For the people who have joined us in this blog, would you please join our team?  You have many choices besides water – – that’s just the one that moved me on a base level.  The screenshot above is our team.  You can see that my friend Russell is more kinetic than me.  As a believer, do I welcome an atheist challenging me to put action to faith?  Oh yes I do.  I’m so thankful that my friend called me to action.  And will you join our team?  Please do.  I really don’t know why our follower count increases daily.  Perhaps our generation is ready to respectfully reason together.  Could you help our charity miles team grow as well by downloading the app and joining RussellandPascal?  You could.  Will you?

Pascal – – 1:16