Tuesday, August 29, 2006


No, an agnosticath isn't the fossil fish some fishermen found back in 1938- that was the Coelacanth. But some people have asked me to clarify my religious position, and Agnosticath is the best way I can figure out to describe it.

I have no problem describing myself as Christian, though I don't like calling myself 'a' Christian, though I will in the right context. Using the article implies something that I usually don't mean. I don't lend any special credence to a one-time born again experience that ushered me into the ranks of the 'saved', so I'm sure that even if I were a 100% dues-paid-up Roman Catholic, a lot of my evangelical friends would exclude me from the fold. And that's OK by me.

The person known as "Jesus" (an unfortunate Hellenization of something that probably was more like Yeshua) nevertheless occupies a fair amount of mental real estate for me, and because I move in circles that include both the washed-in-the-blood and the unrepentant heathen, with pretty much every grade in between, I have been quite happy to be both 'Catholic' and 'agnostic', with emphasis placed on who I wanted to argue with. Agnostic to the Catholics and Catholic to the Agnostics.

The question is, for most believers, and by default, for most non-believers is "Who do you say he (or He) is?"

I'll get to that. And to why it isn't really possible for me to just believe or not believe.

I picked the mosaic picture of Christ for a couple of reasons. First, I think that it is important to recognize that the picture that contemporary people have of Christ is, in fact, made up of many different shards. Looked at through mostly closed eyes (eyes closed to the history of Christianity, and of the multitudes of god/man myths) the picture appears continuous. As if it were not constructed, carefully, by many hands very conscious of wanting to control the image.

But that is very much an illusion. The 'Jesus' we are taught about as Sunday School children never existed(yes, I know most Catholics don't go to Sunday School. I was raised in a thoroughly heterodox environment, though). The sort of sleepy, dreamy Jesus who just loves everyone, who won't let anything bad happen, who never had to take a shit and knew from infancy everything that would ever happen just isn't there, now or in history. He is imaginary.

I'm not in the camp of those who think Jesus, the man, didn't have a physical existance, but boy, they are interesting, and worth a look. I'm just saying that whole story of Christianity isn't just what is written in the Gospels, because Christians were Christian before there was a written Gospel, and the writers of the Gospels had agendas, as did the people who decided which of these got to be the official stories.

Likewise it isn't possible to get the full image from Paul's epistles, because Paul might well have been trying to graft Jesus onto the "Sol Invictus" cults that he was familiar with. Retasking the existing myths and holidays was great sport back in the first few centuries of Christianity. (If you think that my contention that Christian tradition is a retooling of mainly sun worship mythos, consider that you go to Church on Sunday. This isn't coincidental. It was deliberate, back when Christianity had competition (until it killed off the competition...)) While this sort of unabashed syncretism is now considered heretical, to be heretical is necessary when founding a religion.

In the same vein, many pew-sitting Christians would be disturbed to realize that the Trinity is not mentioned in the scripture, that a council of human beings decided this (along with the divinity of Christ, which is only obliquely referenced in the Gospels, and only in later Gospels). They would like to believe that it was all handed to the Church as Jesus ascended into Heaven, in the Bible or Catechism or Book of Common Prayer. That it was handed to Man by God, written in the Elizabethan English that Jesus himself spoke.

The fact is that I don't know how much of the story is reliable history, and neither does anyone else, nor do I think that it matters, at least not to the value of the story. The contortions people go through to 'harmonize' the Gospels is a small indication of the pressure that they must feel to relieve the cognitive dissonance that having a set of stories that they feel obliged to believe, yet are demonstrably self-contradictory. It is, in the end, an admission- if they really thought that the Bible were inerrant, they'd just believe the contradiction. That they cannot suggests that they recognize non-contradiction as 'logically prior' to faith in the Bible- that they think that even God is bound by logic and non-contradiction. As one releases the Bible from historical constraints that are inappropriate for such a book, and as one is able to recognize allegory, this is less a problem.

The fear that sits at the heart of a need for biblical inerrancy is unwaranted I think, because it misses the point of religion and the Bible. There are Christians that recognize and celebrate the heterodoxy inherent in a movement as radical as early (pre-Constantine) Christianity, back whe it could still remain connected to the important part of Christianity, which is not belief, nor faith, but experience.

What experience do I mean? I mean this- the Christian understanding of the divine is that it is experienced in others, in other human beings. The making of God into Man is not to exalt humankind, nor to diminish God, but rather, to give the two a common vocabulary. The experience of the Resurrection is the experience of encountering undeserved suffering unto death, and yet, having the story continue. The Savior exits, but tells us that we can know Him by knowing ourselves in community, and in fact suggests that this is the only way we can know Him.

And the sin that pervades is lifted by faith- not belief, which is what is apportioned to the evidence, which as I have said, is scant- but to hope in unseen things, the hope that we can do what I see as the 'Christian Two-Step': see Jesus, be Jesus. We see Christ in others, and seek to serve. We be Christ for others, and relieve suffering and hunger and fear. The faith is that the experience is significant. That it is a sign of something deeper.

So, I have faith. Not in a book. Not, in the conventional sense, in God. Not in a person, but in a Person. One who lived 2000 years ago? How do I know? I encounter this Person in the people I meet, in the service I imperfectly try to render, in the struggle against the injustice I see. Do I believe in Jesus? What possibly could one mean by that? Who do I say He is? The Christ. Everything else, I don't know. Hence, Agnosticath. Irrational? Yeah, well, so's your old man.

Why a scientist talks all this faith/God stuff will not be apparent to some in the scientific camp, who are happy to embrace an unfettered athiesm. I recognize the drive toward intellectual purity that sits at the heart of this, an unwillingness to believe in something for which there is no evidence. That's why I made the distinction between faith and belief above. I have faith, in that my experience fits into a schema provided by Catholicism as I parse it, that leads me to try to love and serve others. I won't defend belief in the irrational. I fit the world into the schema without making demands on belief. I find it to lead me to be something that transcends what I would be in its absence, something that I find that I can live without, but still choose not to forgo.

To the persistant few, especially the "New Atheists", that want to purge the Earth of all religious belief- whence flows something so quixotic and irrational? Why do you demand that the rest of us bow to you, or suffer your denunciation and derision? Irrationality is human to the core, and how is one to look at your attempts to dictate what others think, other than to equate it with flinging feces like many other primates encountering a threat. Science, the intellectual love of my life, is the anomoly, and seeks for itself far more that it will ever have, and more than is warranted. Science as a process does not keep scientists from being irrational as hell. But good luck. It is an interesting and fun project to watch, and I support the confrontation of bigots and prigs and fools. It is a worthwhile endeavor, in parts. Doomed, but fun to watch.

Most of my Christian friends probably think I throw it all away because I won't say I believe in the Bible or Jesus or God or St. Prude the Incontinent or whomever they think is central. So be it. I won't bend to your demands, either.

There is a a bit of self-contradiction inherent in my position, and I recognize it. I It would be grand to just jettison it all. But it would be dishonest, and destructive to me, and I don't intend to back down. So, Agnosticath it is.


One of the most interesting things about the internet is that there are fora for people with just about any interest. I find things like skeptical examination of paranormal, religious and pseudoscience fascinating. Much of the time, I just find myself nodding in agreement with what I find written. Occasionally, I find myself alarmed at what people will believe, or angry at how people prey on the poor critical thinking skills of others. And occasionally, I'll find something both delightful and challenging, like the forum at skepchick.org.

Skepchick is a forum for women about skeptical inquiry. To be blunt, it never occurred to me to think that women would have any particular take on the issues involved. I try to be egalitarian- not rascist or sexist, while not patting myself on the back for my 'enlightenment' and not overly nationalistic, while not adopting some overweening 'trans-nationalism' that I rarely find sincere. Nevertheless, as I read posts at skepchick, I find myself guilty of making assumptions along with male posters there, assumptions which are often exposed for what they are in short order. It is interesting to see this, because the shock of recognition of something in myself that I have tried to avoid reveals something interesting, something hidden from my view. It's a mystery being uncovered, in a way.

I have been married for 14 years, so I have had plenty of time to see how my wife's mind and my own are different, though I wouldn't overgeneralize it as exclusively gender- or sex-related. Both she and I take somewhat unorthodox approaches to things. In my case, it is both cause and effect with regard to my scientific career. Being a scientist makes you think about stuff in a somewhat hyperanalytical, instrospective way. These habits of mind, however, are probably necessesary for a person to want to be a scientist.

My wife fits the traditional female role well, yet she overflows its banks, to be as good a carpenter, or handyperson as most anyone I know. She's petite and pretty, yet (and I say this with no hint of irony) there are few men I would rather have at my back in a throwdown. (You'd have to know her. She can use a gun and a club with skill and without compunction. And we really are not that kind of people, honest. But it's nice to know we could be, in a pinch. Are my Kentucky roots showing?) I think I have seen much that would dissuade me from much sexism. But she always hands me the map when we travel. Even when she won't let me drive.

So, thus prepared, I still find myself going along with suggestions made by posters at Skepchick that women are more susceptible to, as one person put it, 'woo woo' psychic nonsense. Perhaps, it seems that there are cultural/gender dimensions to what kind of "Bullshit" one is inclined toward, but I think that it is pretty clear that everyone has inclinations to believe stupid crap that makes one more comfortable, or feel more powerful. The world is big and bewildering, and it isn't surprising that verbal primates (hey, that's us!) would use verbal means (myths, folktales, lies, you name it) to make sense of it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Science Geek Heaven

There are a lot of really cool resources available on the web. I've been fooling around with a package called Scilab. It's kind of like the commercial package Matlab, in that it will solve all sorts of equations, make graphs, and allow one to create systems to be simulated. It's free, too. I love the interweb.

Embryonic Stem Cells

This is a subject that divides a lot of people. As potential human life, human embryos deserve our respect. They are not, I think, comparable to any other clot of tissue because of their potential.

Should embryonic stem cell research be allowed? I think that it is permissible if the life of the embryo is not compromised. With the consent of the parents involved, I do not see that taking some cells from an embryo in a fashion that would not kill the embryo as problematic.

However, this raises a lot of practical problems. What sort of experimentation would have to be done to prove that this could be done? Would this not require all sorts of potentially damaging things be done to embryonic life?

I think that there is a danger in being too cavalier. I do not consider a freshly fertilized human zygote to be the moral equivalent of my 8 month old. But I think that we need to approach the fertilized human egg with awe and respect; to do less would be to devalue the life that such gave us. There is enough contempt for life in the world without science participating.

One somewhat questionable approach is to say that one should only use embryos that are going to be discarded anyway. On one hand, you are rescuing knowledge that could potentially help desparate people. On the other, you are participating in the destruction of life. There is not a guarantee that anything useful would be gained, some say.

But it is guaranteed that much will be lost by discarding unused embryos. The life that we value, by resisting the use of stem cells from discarded embryos, is certainly harmed by willfully remaining ingnorant. There seems to me to be a very narrow road that one could travel, that would make sense scientifically and ethically.