atheist

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

Compassion for Terrorists?

Hello friends,

There is a problem in all of us. For every in-group, there is an out-group. We are each rejected by many people in some way and we likely reject others whether or not we know it, just by the nature of the identities we adhere to. Neuroscience shows that each of us subconsciously values some groups of people more and others less in some ways. The problem is, when we don’t learn about this and take real and regular action to fight against that tendency, it can lead us to dehumanize others. Unchecked it very often leads many of us to devalue some groups of humans so much that the moral laws we normally follow regarding how we treat other humans no longer apply. One key weapon that exacerbates this is propaganda. In this time of terrorism and racial divide, we all need to be vigilant. We need to examine ourselves every day with every news article, Facebook post, Tweet, comment from a friend or family member, political debate and media report. Each bit of information that comes in has the ability to shift the needle of our heart away from the humanity of a group that isn’t our own. When this goes unchecked long enough, we believe the lie that “they” aren’t as valuable as “us.” Then… death.

I’m going to ask you do something. Please, watch this video. It starts slow, but it is so good and relevant to the recent events that I’m willing to beg you to engage with these ideas. If it helps even one person realize that we’re all capable of dehumanizing and withholding normal morality towards other groups, and you and I are not exempt to this – I’ll gladly beg. Please, watch it.

That was just a clip that wasn’t very explanatory of the video. Please see the full episode called “Why Do I Need You? from David Eagleman’s series on PBS called The Brain.

I’m not writing about this solely because of the deep sorrow we now feel about what happened in Paris. A friend recently posted these links along with the statement, “It is estimated that around 100 people, many being innocent men, women, and children, die in Syria EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. What happened in France is tragic. So is the murder of ANY human.” Here’s the death toll count and a wikipedia article about the casualties. This is about human nature. And I don’t mean to universalize it. It’s about my nature. It’s about your nature. We each need to understand how you and I work and how to combat the things about us humans that lead to suffering – in us and those around us. I’m working on it as well. It’s about raising the bell curve, and we can only do that collectively – as a collective of individuals.

Compassion fatigue. That’s a term my wife used last night and I love it on so many levels. But for some groups, the phrase falls short of the deep bias that we don’t see because so many of our neighbors share it. I’ve heard about the “blue eyes–brown eyes experiment” from the video several times before and found it extremely useful for helping people visualize the injustice and irrationality of prejudice. In today’s racially divided world full of terrorism, I think we all need to consider what it means and find a way to convey that meaning to others.

Identifying with terrorists

I just saw an article saying “Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents.”

I, like many of you, am now seen by some others as a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that, in my case, my “atheism” isn’t a belief that no God exists. I much prefer weak agnostic weak atheist possibilian, with a big focus on the possibilian part. Technically, I’m as much of a theist as an atheist since much of the time I think some causal prior intelligence is as likely as no prior intelligence. Some moments I think it’s even more likely. Just owning the atheist label has marked many of us, as most labels do, with a misrepresentation of our actual views.

The last thing I want to do is write about events of suffering and pain and death. When I experience activation of the pain matrix (see the video for what the means), I’m not drawn to writing about it. I usually suffer in silence. If it’s about the loss or pain of another that I cannot affect, I want to hug my children and my wife. I want to hit the pavement, the trail, or the gym. I want to spend time in quiet contemplation, identifying and grieving with the families, those suffering in the hospital, and the families of those who caused such devastation, and yes I even offer up prayers. Where I’m drawn though, is to the terrorists themselves. Always to them. I don’t know if this is normal and I understand that many will disagree. I did not lose my child to the actions of a terrorist, so I cannot possible imagine how I would feel or judge those who default to hatred. I only know that my heart gravitates to those who are committing or have committed the atrocities. Christians may find themselves unconsciously whispering, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I identify with the notion I’ve repeated many times on this blog.

  1. We should be both humble and allow some uncertainty in our ideas about the universe and God because statistically some of our ideas must be false, especially some closely held ones since those are, on average, the least objectively examined ones.
  2. We cannot know for certain that – if we were born in someone else’s environment with their DNA (neither of which any of us have any control over) and shared their exact experiences – that we would be any different from them.

These are both relevant to everything I write on this blog as they are central to my philosophy and why I respect those who disagree. Part of my goal is to illuminate the first point (1) so that all cultures can exercise some caution and expand their understanding of the flawed reasoning that plagues us all (cognitive biases and logical fallacies).

The second point (2) is an explanation for why I respect all people, even when I do not share their conclusions or opinions. They are me. I am you. I’m not saying that things are completely deterministic. Quantum uncertainty affects some percentage of our decisions in some ways, but we are still bound up in our DNA and experiences. Everyone’s beliefs are rational and justified to them at the time. There’s another level at we each judge another’s beliefs or actions, and we form groups and collectively judge them. That is necessary for societies to function and we all understand it. The point in this post is to explain that I, personally, may disagree with you but I don’t judge your beliefs too harshly, because I can see myself in your actions and in your beliefs. I did not choose to be me and not to be you when I was born. Can you offer me the same courtesy and recognize that you could have been me? Can you do the same for the victims? My father once said that there is a fine line between being willing to die for a belief and being willing to kill for one. Can you see yourself in the beliefs and actions of terrorists, were your birth in accordance with theirs? Can you love them? And not because you feel God commands it, but because you identify with them as a human. Not a sub-human. A person… just like you.

I am certainly not advocating that we justify their actions. Because I understand someone does not mean I lay down my objections to the consequences of the beliefs and actions they impose on others. Nor would I want you do allow me to trample another. But we all already know how to hate, and rage, and seek death, and prosecute, and yearn for revenge. I know of few who will benefit from a post encourage such a response to the perpetrators of violence. That’s built into being human. I do believe we need to fight against the ideology that leads to terrorism, but terrorism is just one example of those on the other side of the bell curve. The best way to do it may not be involve being completely devoid of understanding and compassion for those engaged in the extremist beliefs (potential terrorist are one example). This post isn’t about how to hate jihadists (if you aren’t one) because that’s natural. It’s about the part we don’t often see through the rage – the subtly shifting compass needle of compassion that eventually prevents us from caring about those whose views we see as extreme.

I’ll be picking up Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism to help me understand the culture that creates beliefs that would lead to terrorism. I think if we’re serious about loving others who disagree with us then beginning to identify with the hardest-to-relate-to will move us a long way in that direction. Things like – certainty that God calls you to some beliefs and actions towards other groups, witnessing genocide of your people caused by these “other” groups, belief of a reward in the afterlife for certain faith and actions, continual “anti-other-group” propaganda poured into you from your in-group throughout life – these things and more continually reinforce that belief that the “other” group is sub-human. We could be them. I hope they can look at you and see the same of you. They may hate you, but if they only knew they could be you, and that you have reasons for you beliefs that make sense to you, if only they’d take the time to get to know you.

I disagree with terrorists, but I respect them as people just like I respect you. I don’t want them to dehumanize me, and I want to be careful not to dehumanize them. For the sake of our shared existence, and our shared humanity, I pray for them. If there’s a God listening, perhaps it may help on some level. But ultimately, I pray because it helps me synchronize my heart with theirs. Wars, and the fear of them, will rob us of our humanity as we blow past compassion fatigue and into red hatred. Our only hope is to actively and intellectually carve off the calluses that our nature secretly encases around our heart. Cling to the message of Jesus, or Buddha or the scientific rationality that our similarities outnumber or differences. Let us build on those similarities. Maybe, in time, as we try to understand one another, our similarities will diffuse the power of the ideologies that lead to human-human suffering and death.

Conclusion

As we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves, but we also dehumanize a version of us that we could have easily been (and in some real sense, a version of you that is). We are all biased against other groups in our subconscious. We can only prevent that bias from growing and resulting in dehumanization by consciously fighting against it through attempting to understand those with whom with differ. That’s the point of 1 and 2 above and the recent posts on raising the bell curve. David Eagleman’s video is immensely useful in understanding the complexities we’re talking about.

As a final effort to let this resound, I want to share a story with you that, if it were believe to be true by a society, would lead to the most moral behavior of any society I can imagine. It’s like the Veil of Ignorance but with narrative and a compelling call that echoes for long after the end of the story. It was written by Andy Weir who wrote the very excellent book that just became a blockbuster movie, The Martian…

Please read The Egg and let me know if it moves you. I may put the full contents of that story in a future post.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

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

Live Your Faith, Live Your Atheism, Grow Your Compassion, Teach Your Children, Save A Life

Pascal and I use this blog to partially identify, work though, and record for posterity our individual and evolving ways of approaching life and discovering (and rediscovering) its meaning for each of us. We welcome each of you into this discussion and every thought you contribute joins us together and improves our unified experience. Thank you.

As I hinted through Pascal’s post called Russell Unplugged, I’m often a little disappointed that my approach consists largely of criticizing the logical soundness and resulting confidence-level in conclusions that some of the faithful maintain despite (what seems to me) less-than-iron-clad reasoning. I don’t like being that guy, and expressing where I differ and why often leaves me feeling like my posts are missing the point of what my process of reasoning is all about. I’m not a cold, calculating robot. I’m a deeply compassionate human, and I believe that you are too. The nature of our discussions – where we spend our time – often leaves the appearance that I’m only interested in the strength of rhetoric, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, I focus on avoiding being “confidently wrong” and holding as many true beliefs and as few false ones as possible, but ultimately I care about living well. That means identifying with my fellow conscious minds out there (that’s you), understanding cognitive psychology, why and how we decide and feel as we do (each equally valid in our different opinions), and how we suffer well despite the differences in where our hope is placed.

Meaning matters. Pursuing it matters. Life matters. Love matters. Justice matters. You matter.

I want to step back from the technical and philosophical tone of many of my posts and give you a glimpse into the real Russell. And I want to invite you to join in a movement that we can all share together, across the theological divide. It’s a movement of compassion and love. If you only read one of my posts, I hope it’s this one, because it’s tangible. It does what none of the reasoning can do on it’s own – it leads to actual changes, now, in the lives of those who suffer.

Join me…

That’s a long intro to two simple apps. Yes, smartphone apps. If you have a smartphone such as an iPhone or Android phone, I really hope you’ll do two things.

1. Download each of these apps and use them at least once.

2. Leave a comment that you did it and what you thought, and tell me if you can think of any other apps or charities we can get involved in.

Please consider doing this. Not for me. For yourself, your children, those who suffer, and for all of us (our societies are made up of individuals).

Here are the apps and how we use them in my family.

The “Charity Miles” app

Charity_miles

Every time you go on a jog, bicycle ride, or even just a walk around the house, to the grocery store, on the treadmill – basically any sustained movement you make under your own power – open the Charity Miles app first. You can pick a charity and corporations will sponsor you, just like they do when people run marathons, and donate money to the charity you picked based on how far you moved! The donations aren’t exorbitant but they add up over time.

Our 5-year-old, Ella, and I both use this app to raise money for a charities – just by moving under our own power. I keep it on while working from my home-made treadmill desk – which I set up this way specifically for this purpose (thanks again for the treadmill, Pascal!). Ella has it on our old WIFI-only iPhone 4S and runs around the house with it or walks on the treadmill to raise money while watching a show on the iPad in front of her. We also turn it on when walking to and from her school. As I write this I’m earning money for a charity called “water” which provides clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Well over 500,000 people die every year due to inadequate drinking water. Many of these and similar deaths are preventable. Every minute a child dies due to a water-related disease (often in their parents’ arms – parents who are often desperately pleading to God for an intervention). You and I, working through such charities, are the only physical intervention people in their situation are likely to receive. According to the charity description, the continual state for some of those the charity supports includes digging in the sand with their children to find water. Others who benefit from their charity would normally have to walk 5 miles to fetch water which they then carry home in yellow fuel cans (80 lbs in total) after waiting in line for 8 hours. Water is only one of many amazing charities available to you. Get this app and improve lives around the world (and definitely involve your children if they’re old enough). 🙂

The “Donate a Photo” app

Donate_a_photo

The second app is Donate a Photo by Johnson & Johnson. Open this app, pick a charity from the list, and then take a photo (or select one from your photo library) and upload it. Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 (each day you donate) to the charity you select that day. That’s up to $365 per year to save and improve lives – from this app alone – and it only takes a few seconds each time. 🙂 I’ve been targeting Nepal earthquake survivors recently.

A joint calling

We can’t all share Christ or Muhammad, peace be upon him, with conviction and honesty, but we can all share love with honesty. Tell your friends about these apps. Get involved and get your children involved. There are few better ways to raise a child to be compassionate and empathetic of the plight of others than to involve them in community service or charity work. There are many ways to donate and many charities to get involved with, many religious, many not. Prayer should lead to action. We are involved in some religious ones as well, but the point is to act. To do something. Apps like these lower the barrier for involvement and action, so please pass them along.

Whether you, like me, are more skeptical of that traditional faiths, or like Pascal, are affirming of a specific higher-power, I hope we can all agree about many lessons from the Christian Bible (encouragement to have compassion and be a good Samaritan, etc.). The following two verses from the New International Version sum it up well:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell